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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Evaluating the 2018 NBA MVP Contenders

James Harden will almost certainly win the 2018 NBA regular season MVP award. The media members who vote for the MVP have often shown a preference/bias toward the "best player on the best team" and Harden is the best player on a Houston team that has had the NBA's best record for a large portion of this season. Harden is having an MVP caliber season, averaging a career-high 31.1 ppg (first in the league), 8.8 apg (third in the league) and 5.1 rpg while exceeding his career averages in field goal percentage (.453 compared to .444), three point field goal percentage (.380 compared to .366) and free throw percentage (.865 compared to .855). 
Point guards in Coach Mike D'Antoni's system tend to put up career-best numbers in the regular season but do not match that productivity--individually or in terms of team success--in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to watch Harden in this year's playoffs; Harden has no excuses in terms of team depth, nor can he reasonably assert that the system is not completely focused on accentuating his strengths while hiding his weaknesses.

Regardless of how well Harden is playing, it is odd that very little attention is being paid to the exceptional numbers being posted by the 2017 regular season MVP, Russell Westbrook. While Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder have not been quite as good as many expected that they would be after adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Westbrook has been phenomenal, averaging 25.3 ppg (eighth in the league), 10.1 apg (first in the league) and 9.6 rpg (12th in the league and one of the best marks ever by a point guard). After being teamed with two All-Star level talents, Westbrook's scoring is understandably down a bit from last season's career-high, league leading 31.6 ppg but he has an outside shot at averaging a triple double for the second consecutive season, which would be unprecedented. Westbrook's statistics would be amazing for anyone but they are even more impressive considering that he is a 6-3 point guard.
Last night, Westbrook authored his 19th triple double of the season (21 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs 104-94. During the ABC telecast, Jeff Van Gundy noted some team statistics that support the idea that Westbrook should be mentioned as an MVP candidate. First, the Thunder have outscored their opponents by 284 points with Westbrook on the court but have been outscored by 86 points when he is off the court. Second, the Thunder have arguably the worst bench in the league (their reserves average a league-low 25.6 ppg). This means that Westbrook has to carry a heavy load for the Thunder to be competitive--and he has more than lived up to that challenge.

While Harden has the inside track for MVP honors and Westbrook deserves more recognition than he is receiving, there are some other MVP caliber players who also should be mentioned. Anthony Davis has emerged as a top five MVP candidate this season, carrying the New Orleans Pelicans after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles tear. Davis ranks second in the league in scoring (28.1 ppg), second in blocked shots (2.3 bpg) and sixth in rebounding (11.1 rpg). Unlike Harden, Davis makes a significant impact at both ends of the court. Davis has also added a reliable three point shot (career-high .362 3FG% this season) to his repertoire.
LeBron James is always an MVP candidate and this season is no exception. When James is motivated and not in self-described "chill mode," he is the best all-around player in the league, a physical freak of nature who can score, rebound, pass and defend. This season, James is averaging 26.9 ppg (fourth in the league), 8.4 rpg (.2 rpg short of his career-high) and a career-high 9.0 apg (second in the league).
The Golden State Warriors are 51-15, just a half game behind Harden's Rockets in the race for the league's best record. The Warriors have two former MVPs who are playing at an MVP level this season. Stephen Curry (the 2015 and 2016 regular season MVP) is averaging 26.3 ppg (seventh in the league), 6.2 apg and 5.1 apg while continuing to be an elite shooter: .494 field goal percentage, .424 three point field goal percentage and .919 free throw percentage (fifth in the league). Curry's teammate Kevin Durant, the 2014 regular season MVP--and 2017 Finals MVP--is averaging 26.4 ppg (sixth in the league), 1.9 bpg (fourth in the league), 6.7 rpg and 5.4 apg.
DeMar DeRozan, an All-NBA Third Team selection last year, is the best player for the East-leading Toronto Raptors. DeRozan is averaging 24.0 ppg (fifth in the league), a career-high 5.2 apg and 4.0 rpg. Like Davis, DeRozan has added the three point shot to an already formidable offensive arsenal; DeRozan is posting career-highs in three point field goals made, three point field goals attempted and three point field goal percentage.
While most observers may believe that Harden is an easy choice, if I had a vote I would feel torn: James is the best player but he coasts too much; Westbrook is having the best all-around season but it does seems like the Thunder should have a few more wins; Harden is putting up video game offensive numbers but he is doing so in a system that always augments the statistics of point guards; Davis is a tremendous two-way talent but until he wins a playoff series he looks somewhat like what TNT's Kenny Smith calls a "looter in a riot" (a good player who boosts his statistics by playing for mediocre teams that are rarely participating in meaningful games); Curry and Durant are both MVP caliber players but it is hard to determine which one is really more valuable to the Warriors; DeRozan is doing work for the surprising Raptors but his numbers are not quite on the level as those posted by the other players mentioned above. 
I will freely admit that I never thought that Harden would be the best player on a team that is on pace to win 60-plus games. It is difficult to argue against Harden as the 2018 MVP but I do think that there are other players who at least deserve more consideration than they appear to be getting.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:59 PM


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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Shaq and Kobe Talk About Their Championships, Their Feud and Their Reconciliation

NBA TV's Players Only Monthly Isiah and Magic episode was compelling television about two off court friends/on court rivals. The recent NBA TV's Players Only Monthly episode featuring Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant provided tremendous insight about one of the greatest duos in pro basketball history--two on court partners who, to their own detriment, became off court rivals.

O'Neal and Bryant won three straight championships together (2000-02) with the L.A. Lakers before the Lakers shipped O'Neal to the Miami Heat after the 2003-04 season. O'Neal won another ring in Miami (2006), while the Lakers formed a mini-dynasty built around Bryant, advancing to the NBA Finals three consecutive times (2008-10) and capturing back to back titles (2009-10).

O'Neal and Bryant traded verbal blows (and nearly traded physical blows) during their time together, feuding over a variety of matters great and small. Their relationship began to improve a few years after O'Neal left the Lakers and they have been on good terms with each other for several years now.

O'Neal began the show by reminiscing about the first time he spoke with Bryant after Bryant joined the Lakers. O'Neal said that Bryant told him that he (Bryant) would be the greatest player ever, that he would surpass even Michael Jordan and that he would be the Will Smith of the NBA. Bryant said that he did not remember making those comments but that they all sounded like things he would have declared at that time.

O'Neal and Bryant have markedly different personalities. O'Neal is a playful extrovert, while Bryant is a driven and focused introvert. The two reached a wary mutual understanding that, despite their different exterior ways, they shared a common goal: winning the NBA championship.

For a while, no one could stop the Lakers as O'Neal established himself as the most dominant big man in the league while Bryant emerged as a great two-way player. O'Neal called them the "most dominant one-two punch little/big ever created in the game," in part because they overcame more off court issues than the league's other great duos (which is somewhat circular reasoning, since most of the off court issues were self-created).

While O'Neal focuses on hyperbole, Bryant focuses on tactics first. Bryant is particularly intrigued by matching up against Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in addition to the top teams of the current era. Bryant wondered aloud about how Phil Jackson and his defensive guru Johnny Bach of the 1991 Chicago Bulls--which Bryant stated is when Michael Jordan believes he was at the peak of his powers--would have countered the Lakers, especially the matchup of O'Neal versus Bill Cartwright. O'Neal chuckled that Cartwright would be "barbecue chicken." Bryant did not reach a definitive conclusion about how the 2001 Lakers would have fared against various foes from other eras but he stated that all great duos rightfully believe that they are the best. Bryant noted that the Lakers were masters of controlling "pace and tempo," which is why he likes their chances in a hypothetical matchup against today's run and gun teams. Those teams would have to slow down and guard O'Neal in the post, which means that there would be no long rebounds and no run outs.

No dynasty lasts forever and the Lakers' dynasty began crumbling after 2002, though the team did advance to the 2004 NBA Finals. During the team's decline, O'Neal once infamously justified delaying needed medical treatment by declaring, "I got hurt on company time, so I'll heal on company time." O'Neal told Bryant that he felt like he could coast in that way without hurting the team too much because he knew that Bryant could get 40 points in a game at any given time. There often seems to be more than a little bit of revisionist history contained within O'Neal's version of events, while Bryant is more direct and honest.

Of course, once Bryant proved that he was more than capable of being the number one option, he was not enthusiastic about reverting back to a second option role. Bryant recalled that after O'Neal returned to the lineup, Coach Phil Jackson wanted Bryant to dial it back and Bryant's incredulous response was "Why?"

In the end, though, Bryant understood the optimal game plan for the Lakers. Bryant revealed that Jackson's trusted assistant coach--Tex Winter--explained to Bryant that the program went a lot deeper than just feeding O'Neal the ball for three quarters before unleashing Bryant as a fourth quarter closer; it was important to feed O'Neal in certain ways in order to get the defense off balance and set up options for Bryant to later exploit.

Throughout the episode, Bryant's tactical acumen was on high display. For instance, Bryant mentioned that during one offseason he played some one on one games versus Reggie Miller. For Bryant, these were not casual encounters but rather an opportunity to scout Miller's tendencies at both ends of the court, information that Bryant exploited in the 2000 Finals when his Lakers defeated Miller's Indiana Pacers.

Bryant stated that he feels that the Lakers' loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals was his fault because he did not teach Malone and Payton how to run "our automatics." Bryant broke down Detroit's strategy during that series: the Pistons pressured the ball full court, forced O'Neal up the lane/off of the low post and disrupted the timing of the Lakers' offense, forcing the Lakers to work against the clock. Some would argue that Detroit's Larry Brown outcoached the Lakers' Phil Jackson during that series. Years ago, in an exclusive interview, Joe Caldwell--who played for Coach Larry Brown in the ABA--had told me much the same things that Bryant said about Detroit's game plan during that series.

In the summer after that Finals loss, O'Neal loudly and publicly demanded during a preseason game that Lakers' owner Jerry Buss "Pay me." Buss responded by dealing O'Neal to the Miami Heat, wisely betting that short-term suffering during the rebuilding process would be rewarded by championships won with Bryant at the helm.
O'Neal and Bryant talked about their championship ring totals and how Bryant ultimately finished with one more than O'Neal. Bryant stated that he knew that O'Neal would win at least one ring in Miami and Bryant said that he even hoped for that, because he could use it as motivation to win two or three more of his own so that he would end up on top in their personal rivalry. Bryant noted that he never felt like a sidekick during the Lakers' "three-peat" and that such a label is unfair in any case: Michael Jordan never even won a playoff series without Scottie Pippen, nor did Magic Johnson win a single NBA title without having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a teammate.

Thus, the 2010 title that vaulted Bryant ahead of O'Neal was perhaps the most meaningful one for Bryant, particularly since at came at the hand of the hated (and stacked) Boston Celtics while Bryant was battling an assortment of injuries (including a broken finger on his shooting hand and ankle bone spurs that required multiple injections) that would have sidelined a lesser player/competitor.

O'Neal admitted, "I tore my house up" after Bryant won his fifth championship ring.

By that time, though, the two former teammates had already begun their rapprochement, a process hastened by the 2009 NBA All-Star Game. Bryant and O'Neal were teammates for the first time in five years and they shared All-Star Game MVP honors while leading the West to victory. Bryant told O'Neal to take the MVP trophy home and give it to his son, a gesture that touched O'Neal deeply. O'Neal told Bryant during the episode, "I realized, ‘I think I may have messed something up׳...when you did that and you didn't have to do that...I said to myself, 'Luckily, I won three out of four with this guy but I was an a—hole to this guy.' So, I owe you an apology and I am going to give you an apology but we ain't going to be doing all that crying like Magic and Isiah."
The O'Neal-Bryant feud had featured a lot of nonsense--most of it emanating from O'Neal (as his apology tacitly concedes) and fueled by media members who liked the gregarious O'Neal more than they liked Bryant. The feud probably reached the height--or depth--of foolishness with O'Neal's anti-Bryant diss rap. O'Neal called that whole situation the beginning of the "snitcher-net" and said that he was being silly in an "underground comedy club," with no idea that his comments would receive national attention. Bryant laughed off the incident at the time and he laughed it off again during this reunion, though he admitted that in the moment he used it as further motivation. 

O'Neal and Bryant did not grow up together prior to joining the NBA like Isiah and Magic did, nor did they ever have the kind of off court bond that Isiah and Magic share. Nevertheless, they coexisted together well enough and long enough to establish a legacy that few duos in league history can match--and they both have matured enough to facilitate personal reconciliation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:07 AM


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Sunday, February 25, 2018

It is Time for Mark Cuban to Sell the Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has often bragged about how he has hands on, intimate knowledge of every aspect of his team--and that is why he needs to sell the team now, before he further damages not only his team but the NBA as a whole. Any business owner who claims to be obsessed with details and then pleads ignorance of a rampant culture of sexual misconduct in that business is either a liar or an incompetent fool.

Either way, Cuban has got to go.

Sports Illustrated's months-long investigation into Cuban's team revealed, among other things, that Cuban's hand-picked right hand man for nearly two decades--Terdema Ussery--was a sexual predator. Cuban either tolerated Ussery's misconduct or was oblivious to it, which stands in marked contrast to how quickly Under Armour dumped Ussery after realizing the depths of Ussery's depravity not long after hiring him away from the Mavericks in 2015 (officially, Ussery resigned from his Under Armour position). The SI report also noted that the Mavericks' official team writer, Earl K. Sneed, kept his job with the team despite being convicted of domestic violence and then subsequently assaulting a female co-worker who he was dating; Sneed's violent criminal record not only demonstrated that he was a potential threat to his co-workers but it also interfered with his ability to do his job since it resulted in him not being able to travel to Canada to cover Dallas' games in Toronto. Cuban did not fire Sneed until the SI report was published; instead, Sneed had a bizarre clause in his contract that restricted his ability to be alone with female co-workers, special dispensation that sends an awful message of tolerance for abhorrent conduct. Basically, Cuban's workplace sexual harassment policy was that you could work for him even after twice violently assaulting females.

Cuban's ignorance or toleration of sexual abuse and domestic violence is more than sufficient cause for the NBA to pressure him to sell the team but there is also the matter of Cuban publicly admitting that NBA games--at least the ones involving his team--are not in fact true competition but are fixed; specifically, Cuban stated that he has instructed his players that it is in the franchise's best interest to intentionally lose as many games as possible this year in order to try to obtain a better draft pick. The NBA fined Cuban $600,000 for those comments but that sanction is not nearly sufficient. NBA ticket sales and television revenue are based on the sport being authentically competitive; if the outcomes of games are scripted--if one team is intentionally losing--then this has significant implications, particularly for a league that seems bound and determined to arrange for widespread legalized betting on its contests. If I were a Dallas ticket holder and/or someone who bet on Dallas to win games I would consider joining up with other similarly situated plaintiffs to file a class action lawsuit against Cuban and the team for committing fraud, because those tickets and gambling slips were purchased based on the reasonable belief that the team is actually trying to win.

Cuban has long boasted about his supposedly avant garde use of so-called "advanced basketball statistics." Cuban claims that he did not know about the sexual misconduct plaguing the team's business operations because he was so busy crunching numbers to help the team win (or, perhaps, help the team "strategically" lose). The Mavericks won one title during the Cuban era (2011) but since that brief shining moment there has been precious little return on Cuban's investment in "advanced basketball statistics": four first round losses, plus three non-playoff seasons (including this year, as it is safe to assume that the 18-41 Dallas Tankers are not going to participate in postseason play). Cuban foolishly paid Harrison Barnes like a franchise player, despite the fact that anyone who understands the sport (as opposed to someone who just looks at numbers on a spreadsheet) knows that Barnes does not have the skill set or mentality of an elite player.

Cuban does not know how to build a team but instead of admitting his ignorance he thinks that it is clever to intentionally lose, despite research that shows that tanking does not work.

Cuban's Dallas Mavericks are committing fraud on the court, while fostering a climate of sexual misconduct in the front office. It is well past time for the NBA to cut ties with Cuban.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM


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Monday, February 19, 2018

LeBron James Earns Third All-Star Game MVP as Team LeBron Outlasts Team Stephen, 148-145

LeBron James scored a game-high 29 points on 12-17 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high tying 10 rebounds and dished eight assists as Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 in the first year of the NBA's new All-Star selection format; instead of the traditional matchup featuring the Eastern Conference facing the Western Conference, a team of All-Stars picked by LeBron James faced a team of All-Stars picked by Stephen Curry. The NBA tweaked the All-Star Game in the wake of several subpar All-Star Games, culminating in last year's farce.

Before the 2018 All-Star Game, James already held the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (314 points) and yesterday he surpassed Julius Erving (321 points) to set the record for most points scored in ABA and NBA All-Star Games combined. Bob Pettit (1956, 58, 59, 62) and Kobe Bryant (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011) share the record with four All-Star Game MVPs each, while James joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as three-time winners; James previously earned the All-Star Game MVP in 2006 and 2008.

The 2018 All-Star Game was not exactly a defensive slugfest, nor did its playing spirit completely hearken back to the event's golden age (1980s and earlier) when both teams competed hard on a more consistent basis, but this was a major improvement for an event that was rapidly sinking into irrelevance. The All-Star Game is never going to be played at playoff intensity with final scores in the high 90s or low 100s--nor should it be--but the All-Star Game is supposed to be about the sport's best players showcasing the full range of their talents; since half of the sport involves playing defense, it is nice to see players demonstrating their abilities at that end of the court as well.

I have cited this quote from my 2006 All-Star weekend interview with Julius Erving several times but it is worth citing it again: 
Today's game, some of these All-Star Games, players have figured out a way to allow guys to dunk the ball and not have it perceived as the guy dunking on somebody. When I was coming up, you rarely could dunk on people and people did not want to get dunked on, it was almost like being 'posterized' if somebody dunked on you. Guys tried their best not to let anybody dunk on them. Sometimes they would just grab you rather than let you dunk. That seems to be lost somewhere in what I see with a lot of the high wire act performances. It is almost like, 'I'm going to let the guy dunk. And I'm going to get far enough out of the picture so nobody is perceiving this as me being dunked on or being posterized.' I don't understand the mentality of just letting a guy go in there and throw it down and applauding it, if he's wearing a different colored uniform. It's just playing to the crowd but I think that the crowd would respect and appreciate a play being made when somebody is trying to contest it. I think it makes for a great photo-op and a great poster if somebody is there. I remember being in Madison Square Garden and going up for a dunk and Lonnie Shelton was there and my knees were up on his shoulders. He was trying to draw a charge, I guess. Looking at that shot, when somebody is there, it is poetry in motion. Just throwing the ball up and going through the motions, I guess guys don't want to get hurt. I like watching the dunk contests--but I don't like a game to turn into a dunk contest with no defense. That does nothing for me.  
One of the few modern players who embodies the competitive ethos that Erving eloquently described is Russell Westbrook. The two-time All-Star Game MVP had a quiet game by his lofty standards (11 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) but he scored eight points in the last 3:03 of the fourth quarter to lead Team LeBron's final push, including the basket that put Team LeBron up by three points. Westbrook's plus/minus number of +12 was the second best on Team LeBron, trailing only the team's other starting guard, Kyrie Irving (13 points, nine assists, seven rebounds). When Westbrook is on the court, he always plays with a high intensity level and that is contagious.

Other top performers for Team LeBron included Kevin Durant (19 points, six rebounds, five assists) and Westbrook's Oklahoma City teammate Paul George (16 points, five rebounds, four assists, +11 plus/minus number).

Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan led Team Stephen with 21 points each. Joel Embiid contributed 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots (including a sensational rejection of a Westbrook attempt in the first half) and Embiid would have likely been the MVP had his team won the game. Team Stephen looked best when Lillard was in the game (+18) and looked worst when James Harden (-21) was missing three pointers from all angles (12 points on 5-19 field goal shooting, including a dreadful 2-13 from three point range, though he had eight assists and seven rebounds). Stephen Curry also did not distinguish himself (11 points on 4-14 field goal shooting).

The All-Star Game still featured too many wild three point shots (19-58 three point shooting by Team LeBron, 17-65 three point shooting by Team Stephen) and too much defensive indifference at times but the contest ended in a relatively intense flourish over the last few minutes, culminating with Team LeBron smothering Curry so that Curry could not even launch a potential game-tying trey before time expired. The competitive level exhibited in the final stanza is what true fans want and deserve in the NBA All-Star Game: the best athletes in the world displaying the full range of their skills at both ends of the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 PM


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Friday, February 09, 2018

Initial Impressions of the New Look Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers just traded away half of their active roster and the final verdict on such a massive makeover cannot be rendered until after the 2018 playoffs--and, perhaps not until LeBron James decides to stay or go.

After the dust cleared, the Cavaliers acquired George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, and their own 2018 first-round pick.

Here are some bullet point, quick-hitting impressions regarding the Cavaliers' moves:

1) Turning the clock back just a bit, essentially the Cavaliers gave up Kyrie Irving--an All-NBA First Team level player who is a dark horse MVP candidate this season--for Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Brooklyn's 2018 unprotected first round draft pick. To recap, last summer the Cavaliers sent Irving to Boston and the primary assets they received back were Isaiah Thomas and the Brooklyn pick. This week, the Cavaliers dealt Thomas (and other considerations) to the L.A. Lakers for Clarkson and Nance, so the Cavaliers' net gain from all of this is the pick, Clarkson and Nance.

Looked at purely from that perspective, the Cavaliers seriously decreased their chances to win a championship in the near future compared to their chances when Irving was on the roster--and the near future is all that matters if James leaves, because a Cleveland team without James will have to rebuild (as all teams that lose James would have to do, because James designs the roster to be completely dependent on him). Perhaps the Cavaliers sans James can build something with that draft pick plus Clarkson, Nance and a few other pieces--but whatever that something is, it most assuredly is not a championship team.

2) Clearly, the Thomas gamble backfired. He appears to be laboring physically and it is obvious that he decided he did not want to stay in Cleveland; publicly questioning the coach's ability to make adjustments is about the surest way possible to obtain a one way ticket out of town.

3) Cleveland's chemistry was terrible so far this season. By implication if not by explicit statement, some or all of the departed players are being blamed for that bad chemistry. Will the newly arrived players be excited to play alongside James or will they be focused primarily on what their fates will be if James decides to leave? In other words, is this group committed as a whole to doing everything necessary to win a championship or is everyone trying to find a way off of a potentially sinking ship that has the shadow of a fleeing James hanging over it?

4) The player who can contribute the most toward making these moves successful is none other than LeBron James. If James is happy with the new roster and thus decides to play hard on a consistent basis then the Cavaliers have enough talent, depth and versatility to win the Eastern Conference and have a puncher's chance in the NBA Finals against the Western Conference champion. If James is not happy with the new roster, then his track record demonstrates that he will quit, his teammates will follow suit and then he will leave for what he perceives to be greener pastures. Just to be clear, this team is not better than last year's team that had Kyrie Irving but this team does have the potential to win a championship if James plays hard and other factors fall into place.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:08 PM


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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

LeBron James is Presiding Over the Implosion of the Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James is, without question, one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He can score, pass, rebound and defend. His basketball IQ is genius level. He has led his team to the NBA Finals for seven straight years, a feat not accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics won eight straight championships from 1959-66.

LeBron James also deserves most of the blame for the stunning implosion of the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers.

James' supporters will point to his numbers this season--26.3 ppg, 8.6 apg, 8.0 rpg, .543 field goal percentage--and smugly smirk while declaring, "He is doing everything possible. The owner, general manager, coach and his teammates are letting him down."

The answer to that is simple: Numbers lie. Or, to be more specific: Numbers devoid of context do not speak truth to power.

James' individual numbers do not accurately reflect his on-court impact this season, nor do they tell the story of the off-court drama that he is creating and that is tearing apart the team.

Pat Riley spoke truth to power about James after James fled Miami: Riley said that the Heat would no longer have to deal with "smiling faces with hidden agendas"--and everyone understood that this was a direct shot fired at James.

James' legacy includes three championships and numerous individual records/accomplishments--but it also includes the truth that--on repeated occasions, with the stakes as high as they could be--he quit. To cite just two examples, he quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and he quit as Dirk Nowitzki outplayed James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to lead Dallas to an improbable championship.

James' primary goal should be to lead his team to a championship--but James always seems to have another "agenda," to use Riley's word. James cannot pass the buck for Cleveland's lousy play to anyone other than himself. Owner Dan Gilbert has consented to vastly exceed the salary cap to sign or re-sign every player that James and his team of advisers hand picked/represent. Gilbert also fired Coach David Blatt and replaced him with James' choice, Tyronn Lue. James refuses to commit to staying in Cleveland--and will likely leave the franchise high and dry this summer--yet he seems to expect everyone else to play hard and commit to the Cavaliers' success. Kyrie Irving, a star in his own right, balked at James' power plays and drama and managed to escape from the Cavaliers before James blows the whole team up.

James cannot complain about anyone's defense when his defensive effort this season has been abysmal.

James cannot complain about players not being focused or playing hard when he is sending social media messages to himself to congratulate himself on scoring 30,000 career points before he even reached the milestone. James' narcissism is breathtaking and that is just one example.

James cannot complain about the owner's spending habits, the coaching staff or his teammates when (1) the owner has spent money exactly the way James wanted, (2) the coaching staff was picked by James and (3) James has picked the roster.

LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time--but his conduct this season is simply game five of the 2010 Boston series writ large and it is a stark statement of why James cannot be compared to championship-first greats such as Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. James'  talent is immense and his accomplishments are prodigious but he is missing some essential internal element that those other players had.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 PM


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Saturday, February 03, 2018

Revising the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, Part I

On October 29, 1996, the NBA commemorated its 50th anniversary by unveiling its 50 Greatest Players. The NBA had previously selected official all-time teams to commemorate its 25th and 35th anniversaries. Those first two all-time teams included 10 and 11 players respectively but the 1996 edition constituted a bolder, broader attempt to sharply delineate a larger group of players who should be separated from all of the other players in NBA history. The 50 Greatest Players List seemed to generate more controversy than the first two lists. This is partially because by 1996 the NBA was a global league receiving a lot more media attention than it ever had before but also partially because it is probably more difficult to select a large list of great players as opposed to a smaller list of the very greatest players.

In 2005, I first described my pro basketball Pantheon, comprising the 10 retired players who each could potentially be considered the greatest player of all-time (listed here in chronological order): Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. My Pantheon was constructed in the spirit of the first two NBA All-Time Teams and was not an attempt to list the "merely" great. I subsequently expanded my two part Pantheon series into a five part series that also discussed The Modern Era's Finest, referring to four active players who had already performed at a Pantheon-caliber level: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. I later wrote a supplementary article analyzing the case for each Pantheon player to be considered the greatest player of all-time.

Until now, I have never systematically critiqued the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, nor have I attempted to create my own such list (though I have written about specific players who I thought should have made the Top 50, most notably Bob McAdoo). However, I have watched with keen interest as many others have attempted to revise, expand or completely redo the 50 Greatest Players List; this article is the first part of a series of articles that will (1) describe methodologies that can be most effectively used to select such a list and (2) analyze several Greatest Players lists that have been compiled since 1996.

It is not always easy to compare players who played in the same era, as there could be a number of contextual factors that are difficult to measure--including quality of teammates and differences in playing styles between each player's teams. It is even more difficult to compare players who never faced each other; in those instances, there are at least four methodologies that should be considered (not necessarily in this order):

1) How great was a particular player in his own era?
2) How highly does a player rank overall in key statistical categories?
3) Based on a skill set evaluation, how well would a player have performed in a different era when facing different rules and circumstances?
4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?

The greatness of a player in his own era can be determined in several ways: (1) Statistical rankings in key categories, (2) MVP/All-NBA/All-Star/All-Defensive selections, (3) Championships won during which that player performed a key role. Quotes and stories from reliable sources--including but not limited to teammates, opponents, scouts, informed media members--also can provide meaningful evidence about how great a player was in his own era.

A player's overall ranking in key statistical categories is easy to look up but, of course, context matters; for instance, assists are awarded more liberally now than they were in previous eras or than they should be based on the rule book definition, so the career rankings in assists and assists per game are somewhat skewed.

Skill set evaluations are subjective to some extent but an informed talent evaluator should be applying the same standards to all players (or, at least, to all players who play the same position/perform the same or similar roles).

Determining a player's historical impact is subjective but it is a significant factor worth considering. The Associated Press named George Mikan the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century. Mikan was such a dominant force in the paint that the NBA widened the three second lane from six feet to 12 feet and instituted a 24 second shot clock to prevent teams from stalling to reduce the number of possessions in which he would receive the ball.

Similarly, Wilt Chamberlain was so dominant that rules changes were enacted to contain him by preventing offensive basket interference and by further widening the lane. While no rules changes can be directly attributed to Julius Erving, Magic Johnson once neatly summarized Erving's impact on the sport by declaring that Erving "made the playground official!"

Players like Mikan, Chamberlain and Erving had an impact that transcends numbers and that kind of impact should be considered when compiling a greatest players list.

The remaining articles in this series will apply the above four standards to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and to several greatest players lists that have been published subsequently.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 PM


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Monday, January 29, 2018

Carmelo Anthony is the 25th Member of the 25,000 Point Club

The 25,000 point club welcomed its 25th member on Friday night, as Carmelo Anthony scored 21 points during Oklahoma City's 121-108 win against Detroit to lift his career total to 25,004. Inexplicably, the NBA only officially recognizes 21 members of the club, as the ABA statistics of Julius Erving (30,026 points; eighth all-time), Moses Malone (29,580 points; ninth all-time), Dan Issel (27,482 points, 11th all-time) and Rick Barry (25,279; tied for 22nd all-time) are not counted.

Scoring 25,000 points is a significant milestone; every player who reached that total prior to Anthony is either already a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame or is a lock to be inducted upon becoming eligible. Think about that number: it takes elite scoring ability to average 25 points per game and it requires durability to play in 80 or more games--but even if you meet both of those standards for 12 straight seasons you still will be 1000 points short of 25,000!

Anthony's career scoring average is 24.4 ppg, which ranks 13th among the 25,000 point club members. Anthony will likely finish his playing days with a lower scoring average than that, as he has accepted the role of third option with the Thunder after being the number one option during his entire career. Anthony has well-documented limitations in terms of his all-around game and in terms of being a leader but there is no questioning his ability to put the ball in the basket--and if he continues to be willing to sacrifice individual glory to make the Thunder a better team then perhaps he can add the final piece to his resume: a championship ring.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 AM


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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

LeBron James Becomes Eighth--and Youngest--Member of the Elite 30,000 Point Club

LeBron James scored 28 points in Cleveland's 114-102 loss to the San Antonio Spurs last night, becoming the eighth member of pro basketball's elite 30,000 point club. James, at 33 years and 24 days old, nipped Kobe Bryant (34 years and 104 days), as the youngest player to join the club. You may have read or heard media reports stating that James is the club's seventh member; it is an ongoing shame/scandal that the NBA and most media members who cover the league refuse to recognize ABA statistics in general and Julius Erving's statistics in particular.

As I wrote last year after Dirk Nowitzki joined the club, "Julius "Dr. J" Erving is the most overlooked member of the club, because many media outlets inexplicably fail to account for his ABA points--but Erving deserves recognition as the first 'mid-size' player to break the 30,000 point barrier, a feat only accomplished by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain at the time that Erving joined the club in 1987; indeed, it would be 14 years after Erving retired before Jordan (in his second comeback, this time as a Wizard) became the club's fourth member and just second 'mid-size' player, a feat matched about a decade later by the club's third and final "mid-size" member, Kobe Bryant."

The complete list of 30,000 point club members consists entirely of players who are recognized by one name: Kareem, Mailman, Kobe, Jordan, Wilt, Dirk, Dr. J, LeBron.

Scoring 30,000 points requires tremendous skill and durability. It is unfortunate that the media consistently fails to recognize Erving's accomplishment but perhaps James reaching this milestone will be the first (or, hopefully, final) step in the process of shattering the myth that James is a "pass first" player. James has a legitimate chance to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record (38,387) to become the sport's all-time leading scorer; barring an injury that causes him to miss a significant number of games, James--who currently sports a 26.8 ppg scoring average and ranks fifth all-time at 27.1 ppg--needs to average about 25 ppg over the next four seasons to supplant Abdul-Jabbar. James has averaged at least 25 ppg every season since his rookie campaign and he is showing no signs of slowing down, at least as a scorer.

James is without question a great passer but it is equally without question that he is a great scorer. Many of his fellow 30,000 point club members were great passers (and all of them were at least good passers) but none of them were ever considered "pass first" players. James deserves hearty congratulations for this great accomplishment but the media members who cover pro basketball need to cover the sport's history accurately and completely, without randomly disregarding some statistics and without creating false narratives that do not match a player's resume/skill set.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 AM


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Monday, January 22, 2018

Examining the 2018 NBA All-Star Game Voting Process

The NBA All-Star Game has steadily declined in quality for many years, as I have noted in my game recaps from 2016 (Westbrook's Intensity Stood Out in Otherwise Desultory All-Star Game) and 2017 (The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce). Last season, the NBA attempted to shake things up by tinkering with the voting process; beginning in 1975, fan voting determined the Eastern and Western Conference starting fives but the 2017 voting process included participation from all active NBA players and selected media members. The fan voting was weighted at 50%, while the player and media voting was weighted at 25% each. Adding input from the players and from media members was supposed to make the process more serious.

The NBA used the same voting process this season but added a new wrinkle: the two players who receive the most overall weighted votes will be deemed team captains and will choose the lineups for their respective teams by selecting among the eight remaining voting leaders (based on positions--frontcourt or guard--and conference), plus the seven reserves from each conference that will be selected by the coaches (and announced on TNT on Tuesday night). LeBron James, who led the overall voting for the fifth time in his career (2007, 2010, 2014, 2017-18), and Stephen Curry will be the team captains. The other eight 2018 All-Star starters are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and James Harden.

My take on the fan voting is that even though the fans don't always select the five best players in each conference to be starters the fans rarely vote in a player who does not deserve to be an All-Star. Starting in the All-Star Game is a ceremonial honor and the most important thing is that the 12 best players in each conference make the team. The coaches select the reserves, so if a deserving player is not voted as a starter he will still most likely receive All-Star recognition.

Fan voters are supposedly either biased or uninformed but after two years of having the media and the players vote as well we can plainly see that many of the players are either biased or view the process as a joke. I do not want to single out specific players as not being All-Star worthy but I feel comfortable saying that there are not 73 legitimate All-Star frontcourt candidates in the East--but 73 Eastern frontcourt players received at least one vote from their fellow NBA players. Only seven Eastern frontcourt players received at least one media vote: James, Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Al Horford, Andre Drummond and Kevin Love. The fans gave at least one vote to 139 different Eastern Conference frontcourt players. As much as I have often been critical of the analysis provided by many media members, as a whole the media seems to be more reliable, informed and unbiased than fans or players regarding All-Star selections.

The combined voting process produced a reasonable list of 10 All-Star starters. One could argue that Embiid is not in the lineup regularly enough to merit selection (he has already missed nine of Philadelphia's 42 games) but he has been very productive during his limited time on the court. Embiid was third in both fan and media voting but the players ranked him fourth (with Kristaps Porzingis third).

James narrowly finished behind Antetokounmpo in the player voting (226-220) and TNT's Charles Barkley had an interesting take on this: he said that James is a "drama queen" and that many of James' fellow players are tired of this. Barkley did not elaborate on this point but I think that one of the annoying aspects of James' personality is that despite being the best player in the game he always seems to be complaining that he does not have enough help to win. James has played on stacked teams for most of his career and he has spent at least the past seven or eight years playing a major role in his team's personnel decisions, so at some point he needs to be more accountable for the results and less apt to blame others.

Irving and DeRozan were consensus choices among fans, players and media as the top two guards in the East and it is difficult to argue with that.

In the West, the players and the media chose Durant and Davis 1-2 by a wide margin in the frontcourt. The players chose Cousins third by a wide margin over LaMarcus Aldridge, while the fans picked Draymond Green second (he was seventh among the players and sixth among the media), Davis third and Cousins fourth (Aldridge finished eighth in fan voting). The media tapped Aldridge third and Cousins fourth. Cousins edged Green by weighted score in the overall balloting.

Durant should be number one by any reasonable metric: individual statistics, team success, skill set. Davis and Cousins are both tremendous individual talents but even playing on the same team they do not seem to have much impact in the win column. Aldridge and Green do not post the gaudy individual numbers that Davis and Cousins do but Aldridge is the best player on the West's third best team while Green is a major contributor to the best team in the league.

The headline news in the West is that the reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook, finished third in the overall guard voting. Westbrook ranked third among the players and the media but just fourth among the fans. Curry won the player and fan voting while finishing second in the media voting. Harden won the media vote while finishing second in the player voting and third in the fan voting. I believe that by the end of the season it will once again be clear that Westbrook is the best guard in the league but Westbrook got off to a slow start (by his lofty standards) as he deferred too much to his new teammates Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Meanwhile, Curry and Harden are putting up great numbers. The irony is that Westbrook is one of the few current players who takes the All-Star Game seriously, while Curry has lied down on the court in an All-Star Game instead of playing defense and Harden rarely plays defense even in the games that count.

The oddity in the West guard voting was Manu Ginobili, who ranked second (!) in the fan voting and a distant eighth in the player voting but did not receive a single media vote. Ginobili is averaging 9.1 ppg and 2.7 apg, which is a good quarter for Curry, Harden or Westbrook. It is baffling that Ginobili, a fine player in his day, received a single vote from anyone.

Each of the 10 starters deserves to be an All-Star, while worthy candidates such as Westbrook and Porzingis will surely be selected as reserves by the coaches. It will be interesting to observe the drama and politics associated with the James-Curry drafting process but I am not convinced that this will result in a more serious or competitive All-Star Game; unless/until most of the players take this event seriously, it will not regain its former luster.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 PM


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Rockets' Fake Toughness

The L.A. Clippers just defeated the Houston Rockets 113-102. Instead of taking their loss and going home, several Rockets players--specifically, James Harden (who did not even play, due to injury), Chris Paul, Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza--tried to get into the Clippers' locker room, apparently to confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin. You may recall that several Houston players, "led" by Harden and Ariza, engaged in similar postgame conduct last season after beating the Dallas Mavericks in a chippy contest. When Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni coached the Phoenix Suns, he watched two of his players get suspended for a crucial playoff game after leaving the bench area in a display of fake toughness, so he already knows the consequences of such foolishness and he should  talk to his team about this, if he has not already done so; it is difficult to picture a championship coach such as Phil Jackson or Bill Belichick letting his players get away with such selfish and stupid conduct. Championship level players and coaches put the team first and do not let their in the moment emotions get in the way of their big picture collective goals.

Real toughness in the NBA is displayed by playing defense, focusing on the game plan and executing in the playoffs (Ariza was a solid role player for the Lakers' 2009 championship team, so he at least knows something about those things). Fake toughness in the NBA is displayed by acting like you want to get in a fistfight, knowing full well that there is an armada of security guards and police officers at every NBA arena. Years back, Tim Thomas--speaking about Kenyon Martin--had the perfect term for these kind of antics: "fugazi," meaning "fake."

Of course, arena security intervened before the Rockets players could get very far into the Clippers' locker room. Subsequent reports stated that the L.A. Police Department sent additional officers to the arena. TNT's Inside the NBA crew--most notably Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal--found the story to be hilarious and I laughed so hard at their comments that I almost had tears in my eyes. Barkley mocked the Rockets for sending several guys to go after one guy who is wearing a walking cast (the injured Austin Rivers). Barkley imitated Blake Griffin--"6-10, 225, one of the strongest guys in the league" in Barkley's words--calling the police, supposedly terrified that the "5-10" Chris Paul was going to beat him up. Barkley also wryly noted that none of the reports indicated that the Rockets players were looking for Patrick Beverly, because "he's for real." Barkley joked that the Houston players are guys he would have wanted to see coming into the locker room during his playing days so that he could improve his (boxing) record.

Just before TNT ran a clip of Griffin's post-game comments, Kenny Smith joked, "They don't have to look for him. He's right there." Of course, the last thing the Rockets really wanted to do was actually find Griffin and Griffin was less than concerned about the Rockets' postgame foolishness: "We were where we were supposed to be. We were in our locker room. So whatever happens over there--I mean, we can't control what anybody else does. We control what we did. Everybody was in our seats. That's it. You should ask them." Griffin was asked what Ariza said to him during the game before both players were ejected and Griffin replied, "He asked me if I was still coming to his birthday party. And I said I was going to try."

In the immortal words of L.L. Cool J, Houston's fake tough guys "couldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight/Wouldn't throw a rock in a ghost town." People who confuse fake toughness with real toughness will inevitably fold in clutch situations more often than not, because they do not have a championship mentality. Remember when Matt Barnes faked like he was going to throw a ball at Kobe Bryant's face in a game several years ago and Bryant did not even blink? He knew that Barnes was not going to do anything, so Bryant just stood his ground and smiled. Bryant was a real NBA tough guy, someone who played through numerous injuries and won five championships.

I would love to see guys like Harden, Paul, Green or Ariza (and Golden State's Draymond Green, the serial groin puncher who knows that no one is going to swing on him at the risk of being suspended) play in the 1980s NBA (never mind the 1960s NBA) and try to pull off their fake tough guy act; in today's NBA, if you breathe on a perimeter player it is a foul but in the old days if you drove into the lane you could expect to be knocked down. Harden's incessant flopping and Paul's Napoleon complex posturing would have led to different results during that era--and let Harden, Paul, Green and Ariza show up in Detroit's locker room after a game circa 1989 and see what would have happened. Or let Draymond Green punch someone below the belt during that era, when players often administered their own justice: Robert Parish once cold-cocked Bill Laimbeer after Laimbeer got out of hand and Parish was not even called for a foul, let alone ejected (Parish subsequently received a $7500 fine and a one game suspension but in today's NBA he likely would have received a much larger fine and a multiple game suspension). Near the end of Parish's career, he played for the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan told Parish during practice that he was going to kick his butt. The seven footer calmly looked at Jordan and told him to come get some. Jordan reconsidered his position on the matter and never challenged Parish in that way again. Harden, Paul and the other Rockets have never faced anyone like Parish or other 1980s era players, so the Rockets feel free to act a fool.

The NBA had to institute flagrant fouls and other rules to cut back on fighting; no one wants to ever see another gruesome incident like Kermit Washington nearly killing Rudy Tomjanovich. However, the rules that have cleaned up the sport have also enabled guys who in previous eras would have kept their mouths shut act like they are tough. The only good thing about all of that fake toughness is that those of us who know the real deal can get a good belly laugh out of it. Thank you, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, for treating this story exactly the way it deserved to be treated and for providing some great late night entertainment.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:34 AM


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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Houston Sans Harden

James Harden has put up some very impressive statistics in the first portion of the 2017-18 season (league-leading 32.3 ppg, plus 9.1 apg and 5.0 rpg) and he has been touted as a legitimate MVP candidate. One would therefore logically expect that (1) any player other than a superstar who replaces him in the starting lineup would be much less effective and (2) the team would also be much less effective sans such an essential player. Harden is expected to miss at least two weeks of action after suffering a hamstring injury. The early results during his absence are mixed.

The following data is from a small sample size but it at least provides a glimpse at the impact that coaching/playing style can have on individual player statistics. Eric Gordon has taken Harden's place in the starting lineup. Gordon is a good player who won the 2017 Sixth Man Award but he has never been an All-Star, let alone an MVP candidate. In the four games that Harden has missed thus far, Gordon scored 21.5 ppg while shooting .437 from the field, exceeding his season averages in both of those categories. Gordon is averaging just 2.6 apg overall this season and he has never averaged more than 4.4 apg during a season but in the past four games he has averaged 7.3 apg even while playing alongside perennial All-Star Chris Paul, who is a high usage/high apg player. Gordon has not matched Harden's production but Gordon's numbers suggest that any reasonably good player thrust into that role in Houston's offense can score a lot of points while also accumulating a lot of assists.

The Rockets went 2-2 in those games, beating non-playoff teams Orlando and Chicago while losing to defending champion Golden State and a solid Detroit team. The Rockets averaged about 115 ppg with Harden in the lineup and they have averaged just under 112 ppg since he has been out of action. Again, this is obviously a small sample size, so it will be interesting to see how the Rockets and Gordon perform during the rest of the games that Harden misses. It should also be noted that the Rockets were slumping with Harden even before Harden got hurt; they lost five games in a row before needing two overtimes to beat the weak L.A. Lakers (that is the game during which Harden got hurt).

There is no question that Houston is worse without Harden; he is an All-Star caliber player, so the Rockets not only miss the talent that he brings to the table but they also have less depth when he is out of the lineup. The significant points are (1) Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system tends to inflate the numbers posted by his guards and (2) Houston's high-powered offensive attack is not solely dependent on Harden.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM


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Thursday, December 28, 2017

The "Process" is Overhyped

The Philadelphia 76ers have received a lot of publicity/hype so far this season and there has been much talk that Sam Hinkie's infamous "Process"--which involved many seasons of intentionally losing, with the hope of building a contender by obtaining high draft picks--has paid off. The reality is that the 76ers are currently 15-18, ranking 10th out of 15 Eastern Conference teams. If still being a sub-.500 team after years of losing on purpose is classified as a success then I would hate to see what failure looks like.

It is true that the 76ers have improved. Hinkie took over a 34-48 team that subsequently went 9-63, 18-64 and 1-21 under his command. Since Hinkie's departure, the team has gone 52-123. That .297 winning percentage is nothing to write home about but it is a vast improvement over the .159 winning percentage that the 76ers posted during his reign of error. Now that Bryan Colangelo has been in charge for two and a half seasons, the 76ers have gone from being historically awful to close to mediocre.

However, Hinkie's "Process" had very little to do with the 76ers' improvement. Hinkie "accomplished" two things: (1) he institutionalized a losing culture (which Colangelo is in the process--to borrow a word--of changing) and (2) he built a roster that contained few legitimate NBA players (because Hinkie's goal was to lose). On the final day of the 2015-16 season, the 76ers' active roster consisted of Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Ish Smith, Kendall Marshall, Nerlens Noel, Hollis Thompson, T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes, Isaiah Cannon, Elton Brand, Christian Wood and Carl Landry. The 76ers' current roster--the one that is not awful and has posted a close to mediocre record--consists of Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, Justin Anderson, Richaun Holmes, Ben Simmons, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Trevor Booker, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, T.J. McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz, Amir Johnson, J.J. Redick and Markelle Fultz (plus two-way players Jacob Pullen and James Michael McAdoo). So, only three players remain from Hinkie's last season; of those three players, Covington is a starter, McConnell is the seventh player in the rotation and Holmes ranks 11th in minutes played per game. Of course, Embiid--who has been an injury-plagued player during his brief career--was selected by Hinkie in the 2014 NBA Draft but he has only played in 56 games in three and a half seasons; he currently leads the team in scoring (23.8 ppg) and rebounding (11.1 rpg) but he operates under a minutes restriction and it is not clear if he will ever be a full-time, healthy player.

So, the sum product of Hinkie's "Process" is the injury-prone Embiid, one other starter, a rotation player and a guy who rarely sees action. If Hinkie had not been relieved of his duties, the 76ers would have an almost completely different looking roster, they still would have a losing attitude and they would not have even ascended to mediocre status.

What about Ben Simmons? Indeed, what about him? He was the consensus best player in the draft, Colangelo took him and it looks like he will be the Rookie of the Year. Intentionally losing games for years at a time--with no relief in sight until Hinkie was fired--just to obtain a 25% chance of getting the number one draft pick with the hope that Simmons or a player of his caliber would be available is not a sound franchise-building strategy. If Simmons becomes a great player, then Colangelo deserves credit for drafting him and--most importantly--for placing him in a culture that breeds success instead of failure. It is far from certain that, even if Hinkie had drafted Simmons, the 76ers under Hinkie would have placed Simmons in the best possible environment to succeed.

Well-run franchises are not built by tanking and they are able to stay at or near the top of the standings year after year without having top picks in the Draft. Look at the San Antonio Spurs or, broadening our view to other sports, look at the New England Patriots. It is not necessary to tear down a roster and/or lose intentionally in order to build a winner.

The 76ers are not even a playoff team as of today, so they are not worthy of much discussion--but if they are going to be discussed and if any credit is going to be given for the team's improvement, then the discussion should focus on the fine job that Colangelo has done of fixing the mess that Hinkie created.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:41 AM


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Monday, December 25, 2017

Magic and Isiah Reminisce and Reconcile

NBA TV's recent Players Only Monthly "Isiah and Magic" episode featured a heartfelt conversation between two of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Unless you are at least 40 years old and/or a student of basketball history, you probably do not understand either the impact that both Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas had as players or the full nature of their deep friendship that suffered a very public feud.

Johnson won five championships while capturing three Finals MVPs and three regular season MVPs before retiring as pro basketball's all-time assists leader (he now ranks fifth on that list); Thomas won two championships and one Finals MVP and he ranked third all-time in assists when he retired (he is now seventh on that list). Johnson mentored Thomas and Thomas' childhood friend Mark Aguirre. Thomas and Aguirre, as young NBA players, went to the NBA Finals and observed Johnson win titles and the three of them also worked basketball camps together.

Johnson may be better known to younger NBA fans than Thomas is but--as Johnson noted in his words and as highlight footage shown during the episode confirms--long before Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving or even Tim Hardaway were breaking ankles Isiah Thomas was a magician who had the basketball on a string and who could finish in traffic during an era when driving to the basket inevitably meant encountering heavy physical contact.

The Johnson-Thomas friendship initially became a bit strained during the 1988 NBA Finals, the first time that the two players faced each other with a championship directly on the line. Johnson's L.A. Lakers won that title--Johnson's last championship--and then Thomas' Detroit Pistons won the next two titles, beating Johnson's Lakers in the 1989 Finals and then defeating a strong Portland team in the 1990 Finals. Aguirre played a key role for both Detroit championship teams.

The rift widened in the early 1990s, after Johnson announced that he had contracted HIV. Johnson later publicly stated that he believed that Thomas had spread rumors that Johnson is homosexual or bisexual. Thomas has always denied that assertion and Johnson never offered any proof that Thomas had done this. The final blow came when Thomas was left off of the 1992 Dream Team and Johnson later rubbed salt in that wound by stating that Thomas had alienated so many people that no one wanted him on the squad. Thomas' on-court accomplishments should have made him a lock for the team and Thomas was hurt by his omission and further wounded by Johnson's harsh words.

Johnson and Thomas never publicly talked about these matters with each other until the filming of the NBA TV show, during which Thomas (an NBA TV commentator) ostensibly interviewed Johnson but--as the two joked--they in fact interviewed each other. The show charted the arc of their friendship and their Hall of Fame careers, focusing on how Johnson mentored Thomas (and Aguirre) and on how battling for championships forced Johnson to choose between the Lakers and that friendship. Johnson now freely admits that he chose the Lakers, something that Thomas says that he understands but that he found very hurtful at the time.

Johnson and Thomas studied winning--both as basketball players and as businessmen--in a way that should be a model for the NBA stars who came after them. Johnson recalled that the 1984 Finals--when he made several key mistakes as the Lakers lost to their hated rivals the Boston Celtics--was the first time that he failed as an athlete in the sense that he was a major reason that his team lost. "Self evaluation is the hardest thing," Johnson told Thomas.

Johnson realized he was not as good as he had thought he was and thus during the 1984 offseason he devoted himself to improving his game. Thomas and Aguirre were right alongside Johnson both as consoling friends and as sparring partners. Johnson and Thomas recalled a time that Johnson and Aguirre almost came to blows during a pickup game, with Thomas noting that Johnson acted like that was game seven in the Boston Garden.

Johnson's Lakers won the 1985 championship and thus exorcised not only the demons from the 1984 Finals but also decades of frustration that the Lakers had faced versus the Boston Celtics.

By 1987, Thomas' Pistons had emerged as legitimate championship contenders and they likely would have faced Johnson's Lakers in the Finals if not for Thomas' costly turnover versus Boston in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. Just as Thomas had been there for Johnson after Johnson's 1984 miscues, Johnson was there for Thomas three years later.

In 1988, the Pistons toppled the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and Boston's Hall of Fame power forward Kevin McHale--as he left the court near the end of the last game of the series--exhorted Thomas to not be happy just reaching the Finals but to do everything necessary to win the title.

Thomas admitted to Johnson during the NBA TV show that he heard McHale's message but in the moment he did not really understand it. Johnson certainly understood; he told Thomas that at the time he realized that the Pistons posed a different challenge to the Lakers than the Celtics because of the Pistons' youth/athleticism, their deep bench and their physicality. It became apparent to Johnson that he had to choose between his friendship with Thomas and his loyalty to the Lakers. Thomas noted that he was still learning "the formula" to win a championship while Johnson already knew that formula. The 1988 Finals started with a pre-game kiss between Johnson and Thomas but in game three Johnson delivered a forearm shiver to a driving Thomas, who came up swinging. The Pistons built a 3-2 series lead and looked poised to win the championship as Thomas scored a Finals record 25 points in the third quarter of game six--despite playing on a badly sprained ankle--but the Lakers won 103-102 and then won game seven 108-105.

Much like the 1984 failure fueled Johnson, Thomas was motivated by the painful losses to Boston in 1987 and L.A. in 1988. He led the Pistons to the league's best record in 1989 (63-19) and Detroit won the championship by sweeping the Lakers. Johnson went to the winners' locker room to congratulate Thomas. During the NBA TV show, Johnson stated that he was happy that Thomas had won a title because Thomas and the Pistons had earned it.

No NBA team had won three championships in a row since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics won eight straight (1959-66). Johnson's Lakers were the first NBA team to win back to back titles since Russell's Celtics, so in 1990-91 Thomas and the Pistons were on a mission to distinguish themselves from Johnson's Lakers and from Larry Bird's Celtics, who had won three championships in the 1980s but had never won two in a row, let alone three.

Thomas told Johnson that he became "possessed" with the goal of winning "three-peat" titles and, consequently, practiced so hard during the 1990 offseason that he suffered a wrist injury that required surgery. Thomas missed 34 games during the 1990-91 regular season and he was not the same player when he returned for the postseason, scoring just 13.5 ppg on .403 field goal shooting (both playoff career-lows at that time). Thomas' Pistons were swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Chicago Bulls, who went on to win three straight titles with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading the way.

Johnson said to Thomas, "You learn from other teams to win," meaning that the Bulls learned from the Pistons much like the Pistons had learned from the Lakers and Celtics.

After reminiscing about the "joy and pain" of competing for championships while also making their marks individually as basketball players, businessmen and philanthropists, Johnson and Thomas focused on how their friendship had frayed and why this is important not just to them but also on a larger scale. As Thomas put it, "Our relationship is important to our community." Johnson added, "We helped change the All-Star Weekend. We helped change a lot of different things within the league." 

While All-Star Weekend is far from the most important subject touched upon during the show, I cannot let this moment pass without noting how different the NBA All-Star Game was in its golden years (the 1980s) compared to now, a subject that I spoke with Johnson about during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend. In 2005, when the All-Star Game had deteriorated but not yet become the farce that it is now, Johnson told me that the current players "have to understand that there is a fine line. We wanted to put on a show for the fans--let Dr. J be Dr. J, let Dominique be Dominique, Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan, so there were some pretty dunks and pretty moves that they created. But I'm going to tell you something: at the end of the day, both teams were serious about winning. That's what we're all about, especially when that second half started--we were at each other's throats. Shots were being blocked and both teams were trying to win the game."

Johnson reiterated that point to Thomas, recalling how as point guards they set the tone in the All-Star Game by bringing the fans out of their seats with great passes while also maintaining a standard for competing to win the game.

Other than the tensions that occurred on the court during the NBA Finals, Johnson and Thomas did not directly address the controversies from the past; not one word was said about Johnson's HIV status/rumors about his sexuality or about Johnson's comments regarding Thomas' omission from the 1992 Dream Team. Both men seem to understand that the importance and enduring nature of their friendship transcends an analysis of who said what and who was right/who was wrong.

The show concluded with some heartfelt words from Johnson to Thomas: "You are my brother. Let my apologize to you if I hurt you, that we haven't been together. And God is good to bring us back together." The two men then embraced and cried, their friendship publicly renewed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 AM


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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Evaluating Kobe Bryant's "Two Careers"

Kobe Bryant has said that if he had the ability to go back in time he would not do so because if you can go back in time and change things then the initial experience had no meaning; the finality of each life event fills those events with meaning. Bryant focuses on what is next and does not dwell on what has already happened.

However, even an existentialist-minded person like Bryant must inevitably think about the past at least a little bit on a night when he has not one but rather an unprecedented two jersey numbers retired by the same franchise. On Monday night, the L.A. Lakers--the most storied franchise in the NBA, along with the Boston Celtics--retired both Bryant's number 8 and Bryant's number 24. Bryant wore 8 during his first 10 seasons before switching to 24 for his final 10 seasons. The Lakers raised both numbers to the rafters to join the likes of legends such as Chamberlain, West, Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar and Magic (full names not required for this list).

The easy narrative--the narrative adapted by most mainstream media accounts of Bryant's NBA career--is that the young Bryant who wore number 8 was fierce, athletic and untamed, while the older Bryant who wore number 24 had a more mature and refined game. These stereotypes fail to acknowledge the depth of Bryant's basketball genius and his capacity to evolve as a player (and as a person, for that matter).

Bryant had two numbers but--contrary to apparently popular belief--he did not have two careers. Of course, Bryant evolved as a player and he constantly pushed himself to hone his skills but the idea that he changed his number and instantly launched a new career is, to put it mildly, absurd.

This attempt to apply a pat narrative to Bryant's career is not new or original. Talk of Bryant becoming a completely different player persisted throughout his career and was usually generated by those who wanted to dismiss or diminish the value of Bryant's earlier accomplishments. In When Did Kobe Bryant Really Become a Team Player?, I addressed in detail the notion that Bryant's game fundamentally changed at or after some arbitrary point in time. Then, in the wake of Bryant's fifth NBA championship, I placed his career in historical context by comparing him with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. After Bryant announced that 2015-16 would be his final campaign, I looked back at what he had accomplished up to that point.

Again, just to make sure that the point is clear, it is true that Bryant evolved throughout his career but it is misleading to state or imply that winning was not always Bryant's primary focus. Bryant made essential contributions to the Lakers’ 2000-2002 "three-peat"; in addition to his Finals’ performances, during that period he was often the best player on the court during the Western Conference Finals, which was the de facto championship series before the Lakers toppled an Eastern Conference representative that likely would not have made it to the Conference Finals in the West.

Bryant authored scintillating individual performances in both numbers. Wearing number 8, he dropped 81 points on Toronto in 2006. Prior to that, he outscored a strong Dallas team 62-61 over the first three quarters before sitting out the entire fourth quarter with the outcome well in hand.

In one of his earliest games wearing 24, Bryant produced a perfect third quarter en route to scoring 52 points in a 132-102 blowout of the Utah Jazz. A few years later, Bryant had a virtuoso scoring performance in Madison Square Garden, setting an arena single game scoring mark that stood for several years.

The "stat gurus" have never been particularly fond of Bryant but Bryant impacted the game in ways that "advanced basketball statistics" do not fully capture. The eye test suggests that Bryant was a great clutch player, while "stat gurus" arbitrarily define what a clutch shot is; I still contend that what matters most is the ability to control a game down the stretch, as opposed to a player's field goal percentage or scoring rate during on last second or last minute shots, and I further contend that Bryant's ability to control a game down the stretch has been matched by very few players. Along those lines, LeBron James developed his game a lot in Miami and since he came back to Cleveland but I stand by my contention that Bryant possessed some essential qualities that James lacks in terms of consistently playing the game with a champion's mentality.

Bryant won five championships but he has said that he drew the most satisfaction from the way that he played in 2012-13 as he carried the Lakers to the franchise's most recent playoff berth, rupturing his Achilles tendon along the way.
The road back to the NBA after such a devastating injury was not easy even for a tough-minded fitness fiend like Bryant but he made it back and he ended his career on a fitting, unprecedented note, scoring 60 points to push, pull and drag a depleted Lakers team to victory. Bryant was supposedly holding back the young talent on that team but the Lakers have not sniffed the playoffs since the last season when Bryant was fully healthy for most of the campaign (2012-13) and they do not seem likely to make the playoffs any time soon barring a major free agent acquisition and/or significant internal roster improvement.
Bryant did not have two distinct careers but it is true that he accomplished enough in both his first 10 years and in his second 10 years to merit two jersey retirements, much like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished more after his prime than many players achieved during their entire careers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM


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Thunder Surging as Westbrook Regains MVP Form

"What is wrong with the Thunder?" is a question being posed by many NBA commentators but the answer to that question may actually be "Nothing." Three weeks ago, I answered that question by suggesting that the Thunder need for Russell Westbrook to play his normal game as opposed to sublimating his game in deference to Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; the team's best player should not be the one who is sacrificing the most.

Last season, Westbrook won the regular season MVP award after averaging 31.6 ppg (capturing his second scoring title along the way), 10.7 rpg (10th in the league) and 10.4 apg (3rd in the league). Westbrook became the only ABA-NBA player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season.

Despite a subdued--by his high standards--start to the 2017-18 campaign, Westbrook is averaging 23.3 ppg, 9.8 apg and 9.6 rpg through 30 games, numbers which would put him closer to averaging a triple double for a season than anyone other than Robertson. During the Thunder's first 10 games in December he elevated his production to 25.2 ppg, 10.5 apg and 10.4 rpg as the Thunder went 7-3. Westbrook notched four triple doubles during those 10 games and the Thunder won each of those four contests.

Westbrook's shooting percentages during this 10 game run are not good but in his most recent game--Oklahoma City's 95-94 win over Denver on Monday night--he scored a season-high 38 points on 16-28 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder outscored the Nuggets by seven in the final stanza. The Thunder won despite George scoring just eight points on 3-13 field goal shooting and despite Anthony scoring just four points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

No one would suggest that the Thunder's formula for long-term success involves George and Anthony shooting so horribly but the larger point--from that one game in particular and the most recent 10 game stretch in general--is that this team is at its best when Westbrook is dominant, as opposed to Westbrook deferring to lesser talents. When Westbrook pushes the ball and looks for his shot, the opposing defense is compromised in a way that opens up opportunities for his teammates, either off of a direct pass (Westbrook had a team-high six assists versus Denver despite the bricklaying by George and Anthony) or off of ball movement initiated by Westbrook's first pass.

If Westbrook continues to play this way, two things will likely happen: (1) Westbrook will regain his shooting rhythm and his shooting percentages will bounce back to his career norms and (2) the Thunder will reel off an 8-10 game winning streak at some point to catapult them into the top four in the Western Conference.

Westbrook is a polarizing figure--much like Kobe Bryant was in the previous era--so no matter what he does he will either be blamed for his team's failures (real or imagined) or else he will not be given the full credit he deserves for his team's success but the suggestion that the reigning MVP needs to change his game to accommodate George and Anthony is just bizarre. Westbrook has already proven that he can be an All-NBA performer for a championship level team while playing alongside Kevin Durant and Westbrook has proven that he can carry a weak supporting cast to a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference, which is more than George or Anthony have accomplished in their careers.

George's job on this team is to be a lockdown defender, a secondary playmaker and a weakside cutter who feasts off of the defensive attention Westbrook draws. In other words, he should be Dwyane Wade to Westbrook's LeBron James, if one wants to compare the Thunder to the Miami Heat team from several years ago. Anthony's job on this team is to post up smaller defenders, drive by bigger defenders and knock down open shots in transition; he will never be a lockdown defender but he must at least give effort at that end of the court. In other words, Anthony should play like he did for Team USA (which is much easier to do against inferior competition while surrounded by the likes of Bryant, James and Durant than it is on a nightly basis in the NBA).

This recent 10 game stretch does not prove that the Thunder have turned the corner. They may very well regress back to being a sub-.500 team and they may never reach their potential. However, this 10 game stretch has provided a glimpse of the way that the Thunder should play and a hint of what they are capable of accomplishing if they build upon this small sample size of relative success.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM


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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What is Wrong With the Oklahoma City Thunder?

After the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play alongside 2017 NBA regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, it was reasonable to assume that the team would be a legitimate contender--but, thus far, that has not proven to be the case. What is wrong with the Oklahoma City Thunder and why has this talented squad posted an 8-11 record?

Before we look at what is wrong, it is important to realize that some things have gone well. One might expect that adding a defensive sieve like Anthony to the rotation would cause major issues at that end of the court but, in fact, the Thunder have displayed a defensive mindset that ultimately could take them far. This season, the Thunder rank first in the league in steals, third in points allowed and seventh in defensive field goal percentage. This is a marked improvement over last season's rankings of 14th, 16th and 19th respectively in those categories. The one caveat is that the Thunder have plummeted from seventh in defensive rebounding to 26th and those extra possessions that they are allowing this season not only slow down their potential fast break opportunities but also force them to exert more energy on defense that otherwise could be saved for offense.

The Thunder's main problem so far has been on the offensive end of the court, where their numbers have dropped across the board. Last season, Westbrook was essentially a one man show but the Thunder still ranked 11th in points scored and 17th in field goal percentage; this season, the Thunder are 22nd in points scored and 26th in field goal percentage.

What has changed? The most obvious difference is that Westbrook has taken a major step back in deference to the team's two new stars. Westbrook won the scoring title last season while averaging 31.6 ppg and shooting .425 from the field on 24.0 FGA per game but this season he is scoring just 21.6 ppg while shooting .401 from the field on 18.9 FGA per game.

Many media members tend to make Westbrook the scapegoat for any problems that the Thunder experience, asserting that Westbrook is a selfish player. The reality is that Westbrook has never been a problem for the Thunder: he is unselfish, he plays hard and he produces in the clutch. Last season he was not only the team's best player but he was the best player in the league. If anything, the problem is not that he needs to be more deferential but rather that he is deferring too much to lesser talents, much like Julius Erving did initially after joining the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1976-77 season. Billy Cunningham, who replaced Gene Shue as the 76ers' coach early in the 1977-78 season, observed that the 76ers had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians"; Erving was the team's best player but he was the one who was sacrificing the most from his game, as opposed to other players deferring to him. Cunningham changed that situation around and Erving soon regained his individual status while the 76ers emerged as a perennial championship contender.

Phil Jackson understood this concept as well. While he is known for utilizing the Triangle Offense--which, in theory, is an equal opportunity system--he made sure that there was a clear pecking order on his teams. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen (during Jordan's first retirement), Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant did not have to defer to anyone when they were the best players and this resulted in 11 championships. Basketball is a team sport but championship teams are usually focused around the talents of one superstar (who is often ably assisted by a second star).

The Thunder are at their best when Westbrook controls the ball and runs the show at a fast pace. Isolation plays for Anthony and George should only be run when one of those players has a clear mismatch that will likely lead to a score or a double team that will open up a high percentage shot for someone else. Anthony must accept the role that he fills for Team USA, being a spot up shooter as opposed to being a ball-stopping one on one player; similarly, George must accept the role that suits him best, which on this team means being a back door cutter a la Dwyane Wade during Miami's great run from 2011-14 when LeBron James was the team's best player.

It is not too late for the Thunder to turn their season around. It often takes some time for star duos/star trios to learn how to successfully meld their talents together to achieve team success. For instance, Miami's Big Three of LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh did not set the league on fire at first and that trio eventually won two titles while making four straight NBA Finals appearances. The Heat's stars each had to recognize and embrace their roles: James was clearly the best player, Wade was the second best player and Bosh had to accept being the third option; defensively, each player also had to figure out and accept how he fit into the overall game plan, with James playing multiple positions, Wade using his athleticism to guard bigger players at times and Bosh utilizing his combination of size/agility to pick up the slack all over the court.

Oklahoma's Big Three is not nearly as good as Miami's but nevertheless the Thunder are capable of being an elite team if the correct pecking order is established prior to the playoffs. Less than a week ago, we saw a glimpse of the Thunder's potential when they routed the defending champion Golden State Warriors 108-91 as Westbrook posted 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists but now the Thunder must figure out how to play that way on a consistent basis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 PM


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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Blake Griffin's Evolution

Blake Griffin made a name for himself as a high-flying dunker, the centerpiece of the Los Angeles Clippers' "Lob City" offense that was more style than substance and that consistently fizzled in the postseason. As Griffin candidly admitted recently, "We were front-runners. When things were going great, the ball was hopping around. But when we felt resistance in games, we splintered."

A big part of the problem was that the Clippers had a divided locker room: Chris Paul--who is often labeled one of the best leaders in the sport, despite his inability to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs--was the loudest voice but he was not the team's best player and perhaps not even the team's most respected player. No wonder the team fell apart any time things became even a little difficult.

Now that Paul plays for Houston, Griffin's game can fully blossom and it is becoming evident that he is a complete player, not just an elite athlete. Griffin is a student of the game who is not only determined to broaden his skill set--witness his improved shooting from both the free throw line and from beyond the three point arc--but to also hone his mental approach to the game. According to a November 13, 2017 Sports Illustrated article by Lee Jenkins, Tim Duncan provided some sage advice to Blake Griffin: "The leader isn't the guy yelling the loudest or talking the most. It's the guy everybody looks at in the end and knows, 'I'm following him.'" Duncan, of course, was that kind of guy, a player who spoke softly but whose actions, demeanor and character established him as the unquestioned leader of San Antonio's five NBA championship teams.

Griffin must still prove that he can remain healthy and that his newly developed skills will not regress under playoff pressure but it will be fascinating to watch the second half of his career as he attempts to evolve from All-Star to elite player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM


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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Thoughts About Two High Scoring Performances and Observations About the Start of the 2017-18 NBA Season

The first 10 games or so of the 2017-18 NBA season have featured some great individual performances and some surprising team performances. Here are some of my thoughts and observations about what has transpired thus far:

* LeBron James scored 57 points on 23-34 field goal shooting (including 2-4 from three point range) as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Washington Wizards 130-122 on Friday night. He made all nine of his free throw attempts, while also grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds and dishing a team-high seven assists in 43 minutes. James set single-game career highs in both field goals made and field goals made in the restricted area (14) while establishing a new single game scoring mark for Capitol One Arena, the fourth facility where he owns or shares the single-game scoring record (Air Canada Centre, American Airlines Arena and Vivint Smart Home Arena are the others).

James tied the franchise single-game scoring record set by Kyrie Irving versus the San Antonio Spurs on March 12, 2015 and James became the youngest player in pro basketball history to score 29,000 career points, just two years after becoming the youngest member of the 25,000 Point Club. James also became the only player other than Kobe Bryant to notch a 50 point game in his 15th season or later (Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his 20th--and last--NBA season).

This game reaffirms a few things about James:

1) He is not a "pass-first" player. As I wrote after James scored a single-game career high 61 points three years ago versus Charlotte as a member of the Miami Heat, "Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs."

2) While it is obviously not realistic to expect James to score this many points and/or shoot this well on a consistent basis, he is unguardable when he is committed to attacking the paint as opposed to settling for jump shots.

3) James is developing a deadly turnaround midrange shot that could help him age effectively a la Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, in contrast to some highly athletic players whose games declined as soon as they lost a step.

The Cavaliers' early season struggles--they are currently 12th in the Eastern Conference, an embarrassing start for a talented team featuring James--are largely a result of individual and collective defensive indifference; assuming that the Cavaliers address that issue by playoff time, an offensive attack focused around James attacking the paint--while being supported by several three point shooters--will be very difficult to stop.

* Two days after LeBron James scored 57 points, James Harden poured in 56 points on 19-25 field goal shooting while dishing a game-high 13 assists in Houston's 137-110 thrashing of the Utah Jazz. When Harden is hot from three point range--he nailed seven of his eight attempts from beyond the arc in this contest--he is very difficult to guard and his shooting efficiency in this game is very impressive.

Harden has always been a potent offensive player both as a scorer and as a passer. A major key for success for any offensive player is freedom and Coach Mike D'Antoni has given Harden the opportunity to dominate the ball-handling for this squad. It has been proven that D'Antoni's offenses are difficult to contain during a long, hectic regular season and not nearly as difficult to contain during the postseason. It has also been proven that neither D'Antoni nor Harden place much emphasis on defense.

Both of these 50 point games are outliers but the key difference is that the way that James played--attacking the paint--is both repeatable and a recipe for team playoff success, while it is highly unlikely that Harden will shoot .875 from three point range in a playoff game or that Harden's Rockets will advance very far in the postseason if they are relying on him consistently making seven three pointers per game.

* Led by Harden, the Houston Rockets currently own the Western Conference's best record (8-3). The Rockets have accomplished this largely without the services of Chris Paul, who injured his left knee in the season-opening win against Golden State and has not yet returned to action. Paul was not particularly effective in that game (he shot 2-9 from the field and posted a -13 plus/minus number) and it is not at all clear that he can form a complementary duo with Harden. The Rockets are Harden's show and since they have proven that they can win (in the regular season) with Harden dominating the ball it is difficult to imagine that Harden is going to cede touches/control to Paul, who is also used to dominating the ball. Paul is not a catch and shoot long range marksman, so what is he going to do while Harden monopolizes the ball? There are also the not insignificant issues that (1) Paul plays gritty defense while Harden does not and (2) Paul is not shy about publicly yelling at teammates while Harden has proven to be very sensitive to any form of real or imagined criticism. This does not look like a recipe for postseason success.

The Rockets rank first in three point field goals made and three point field goals attempted but just 23rd in three point field goal percentage after ranking 15th in three point field goal percentage last season. The Rockets rank 15th in defensive field goal percentage after ranking 23rd in that category last season. Some might argue that the Rockets' three point shooting is likely to improve--and that is probably true--but it is at least as likely that their defense will also regress to accustomed levels.

The three point shot is a great weapon but there is a misconception that Golden State's recent dominance is primarily attributable to three point shooting. The Warriors are unquestionably a great three point shooting team but their star players are also willing and able to score in other ways, while D'Antoni's Rockets are fully committed to jacking up three pointers regardless of whether or not those shots are falling on a given night. Even more importantly, the Warriors are individually and collectively focused on consistently playing great defense, which means that they can win even if their shots are not falling on a particular night.

The Rockets may very well have a great regular season--that would not be a first for a D'Antoni-coached team--but a quick postseason exit is still the most logical expectation for any team that is built this way and that functions this way.

* Chris Paul's former team, the L.A. Clippers, started the season 4-0 and they are now 5-4. Many commentators expected the Clippers to suffer mightily after trading Paul but the reality is that Paul--despite his gaudy assist totals and his ability to play at a high level on both ends of the court--has never had as much impact on winning as the "stat gurus" believe. Paul is an undersized point guard and he does not fit either of the historical profiles of players who typically lead teams to championships (usually either dominant big men or else versatile players in the 6-7--6-9 range). The traditional, mainstream narrative about Paul is that he is (1) a great leader and (2) a player who makes his teammates better. I would argue that if he is as great a leader as his supporters suggest then at some point he would have actually led his talented supporting casts past the second round of the playoffs. Regarding the second point, I am more interested in objectively determining if--and how--a player makes his team better than I am in bold, subjective assertions that certain players allegedly make their teammates better. Blake Griffin, for example, is a great player with or without Paul.

The Clippers are not as good as they looked during their fast start nor as bad as they have looked in the past week or so but--barring injury--they should be a solid playoff team in the competitive Western Conference.

* Last season, I expected Coach Frank Vogel to revitalize the Orlando Magic and lift them into playoff contention--but instead they fell from 35-47 to 29-53. This season, I predicted that the Magic would miss the playoffs but the early returns suggest that I underestimated this squad. Evan Fournier (20.3 ppg, .474 3PT FG%), Aaron Gordon (19.1 ppg, .559 3PT FG%) and Nikola Vucevic (17.9 ppg, .405 3PT FG%) are spearheading a surprisingly potent offensive attack and the Magic have been very solid on defense as well, ranking 11th in defensive field goal percentage. They may not be able to maintain their lights-out three point shooting for 82 games but if they continue to play as hard as they are now then they will be a lot better than I (or just about anyone else) expected them to be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM


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