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Friday, March 24, 2017

Jerry Krause Built (and broke up) the Bulls' Dynasty

"Few GMs have enjoyed the success that Jerry Krause did. 6 rings says it all. To me, his track record is absolutely Hoophall worthy."--Scottie Pippen, after learning of Jerry Krause's death

"He's been around a long time and won championships. They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."--Charles Oakley, speaking of Krause in 2002, when the post-dynasty Chicago Bulls went a league-worst 21-61

Two quotes by two players who knew firsthand what it felt like to be signed--and shipped off--by Jerry Krause serve as fitting epigraphs for Krause's life and career. Krause, who passed away at the age of 77 on Tuesday, deserves more credit than he often receives for building the Chicago Bulls' 1990s dynasty; he assembled all of the pieces around Michael Jordan for the first three-peat (including a marvelous coaching staff) and then when Jordan came back from his baseball hiatus Krause built an entirely new supporting cast (other than Pippen) for the second three-peat.

Sadly, Krause also deserves the blame (along with owner Jerry Reinsdorf) for breaking up the Bulls' dynasty. I have heard of coaches being told "Win (x amount of games) this year or you are fired" but, until Krause, I had never heard of an executive telling his coach that even if the team went 82-0 and won the championship he was gone--but that is exactly the message that Krause delivered to Phil Jackson prior to the Bulls' "Last Dance" championship in 1998.

Krause relished the challenge of proving that he could win without Jordan but that was foolish pride; the Bulls deserved the opportunity to, as the saying goes, come back "with their shields or on them" in 1999, as opposed to Jordan, Pippen and Jackson being exiled from the city that they had placed on the basketball map. Jackson would go on to win five more championships as a coach, Jordan came out of retirement to be an All-Star during the season that he turned 40 and Pippen recovered sufficiently from back surgery to be a key member of a Portland team that came within one bad fourth quarter in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals of perhaps derailing Jackson's budding Lakers' dynasty before the Lakers won three titles in a row.

Championships are a precious commodity in sports and the idea that it is better to break up a championship caliber team one year too early as opposed to one year too late is foolish. It has been said that the Celtics suffered because they held on to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for too long but that assertion ignores the tragic reality that the Celtics' future leaders--Len Bias and Reggie Lewis--died in or before their primes. If those two players had lived, then perhaps the Celtics would have been the Spurs before the Spurs, with one championship generation passing the torch to the next.

The Philadelphia 76ers recently tanked for years and still have little to show for it, even with Bryan Colangelo now at the helm to restore sanity to the decision making process.

There are many other examples but the point is that instead of trying to prove that he was THE reason for the Bulls' championships, Krause should have partnered with Jackson and the rest to keep the band together as long as possible. It is hard to build a championship team from scratch (as Jackson and Jordan have discovered now that they are team executives) and Krause should have put off trying to do so as long as possible.

Krause had a different vision, though. He often said that his most gratifying and enjoyable season was not one of the six championship campaigns but rather 1993-94, when Jordan retired for the first time and--according to Krause--the Bulls ran the Triangle Offense better than they ever did or ever would. I agree that the 1993-94 season was special and that the Bulls--led by the underrated Pippen, who helped Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong blossom into All-Stars--ran the Triangle very efficiently but without Jordan they lacked that nuclear weapon in the fourth quarter, that guy who could score 15 or 20 points in 12 minutes no matter what the opposing defense did. Pippen, for all of the wonderful things he did, was just not that kind of player, by temperament or skill set.

Fast forward to 1999; instead of Krause relishing the opportunity to recreate the "glory" of 1993-94, he should have done everything possible to keep the team together.

My memories of my early adulthood will always be inextricably linked to the joys and thrills of watching the Jordan-Pippen Bulls. Jordan is a wondrous player, as everyone knows. Pippen is an acquired taste for some but he is my second favorite player of all-time behind the incomparable Julius Erving. I think that Jordan-Pippen is the best duo in pro basketball history; their skill sets meshed perfectly at both ends of the court, they never feuded over who is "The Man" and they brought out the best in each other both individually and collectively. Watching them play basketball together was like watching poetry in motion.

In 1998, I was furious at Krause for destroying something so beautifully artistic and so competitively fierce.

Nearly 20 years later, I am still puzzled and saddened by what Krause did but I also appreciate what he accomplished--not just with the Bulls but over the span of his life. Those who knew him well say that he was a loyal friend with a good heart. Ultimately, that is how he should be remembered--and, despite his gruff demeanor at times and despite his mistake in breaking up the Bulls, there is no doubt that Krause belongs in the Basketball Hall of Fame. It is a shame that if he ever is inducted he will not be around to enjoy that most deserved honor.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:22 AM

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

NBA Primetime Saturday Night is NOT Fantastic

This is the first time that I have ever written a game recap while the game in question was still in progress--but I am so furious with the NBA in general and the Cleveland Cavaliers in particular that I do not need to see the outcome of the disgrace otherwise known as L.A. Clippers versus Cleveland Cavaliers (junior varsity edition) to provide analysis of the most pertinent aspect of this game: simply put, this game is a mockery of everything that used to be great about the NBA, including the concepts that there is value in competing hard and that it is important to care about the fans whose money and interest are the league's backbone.

The Cavaliers' Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are healthy but they are sitting out tonight's game to "rest." They are all expected to play tomorrow night against the L.A. Lakers. Tonight's game has major significance in the standings for multiple teams: the Cavaliers are fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder are battling for the fifth seed in the Western Conference and the playoff fates of several other franchises could be affected by this game as well.

By sitting out his best players, Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue is essentially providing a gift win to the Clippers, who are coached by Doc Rivers--one of Lue's mentors. If one didn't know better, one could assume that the Cavaliers (and possibly the league office) are manipulating the standings/playoff matchups. Some people have accused the NBA of this for years but I always defended the league, in part because Commissioner David Stern always took action when any team or player stepped out of line--but that has not been the case since Adam Silver has become the Commissioner.

The problem goes even deeper than manipulating the standings at the top of the pecking order. ABC's Jalen Rose brought up a great point during the halftime show: not only are contending teams "resting" players but teams that are jockeying for position in the NBA Draft Lottery are "shutting down" high paid veterans.

By "resting" healthy players, various teams (and possibly the league, which is doing nothing to police this activity) are manipulating the playoff seedings and they are manipulating which teams will have the best odds to obtain the top pick in the draft.

How is this any different than a fake sport like professional wrestling, where the outcomes of each match are scripted?

Meanwhile, Commissioner Silver is doing his best Bud Selig impersonation.

If I am Russell Westbrook, I am furious tonight. He is putting up triple doubles at a record-setting pace and almost singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to a playoff berth but now former Doc Rivers assistant coach Lue is just giving a win to the Clippers, a win that could cost the Thunder the opportunity to avoid playing one of the top three seeds in the first round of the playoffs.

If I am Thunder fan who buys season tickets, I am furious tonight that my team could be negatively impacted by this nonsense.

If I am a Clippers fan who saved my money to go to one game to see LeBron James, I am furious tonight.

If I am a Clippers fan who had to buy other game tickets as part of a package to get a ticket to this game, I am furious tonight (ABC's Jeff Van Gundy rightly called this tactic "bait and switch" and said that any other business engaging in such a practice could be found liable for fraud).

I am a devoted follower of the NBA for well over 30 years and I am furious tonight. If the NBA does not take seriously its regular season, its playoff seeding or its Draft Lottery then why should anyone else?

I will reiterate what I wrote last week when the Warriors and Spurs perpetrated a similar sham on the paying public:

1) All ticket buyers for this Clippers-Cavaliers game should receive a full refund from the league, with the cost split evenly among the the two teams; these teams are franchises representing the larger organization (the NBA) and as business partners they are equally culpable: the Cavaliers are culpable for resting healthy players and the Clippers are culpable as the home team for selling tickets to and profiting from this fiasco. If the Clippers don't like having to pay half of the cost, then they should take legal action against their business partners for devaluing the product.

2) The NBA should refund whatever portion of TV money it received for selling the rights to the game to ABC, with that cost again split among the Clippers and Cavaliers.

3) None of the healthy players who sat out should receive a game check; if they want to rest on company time, then they can do it on their own dime--and if they object to being unemployed for a day, then their union should file a grievance against the teams and/or the league for artificially manipulating the sport's competitive balance. The forfeited game checks should be pooled together and donated to help out people who are truly involuntarily unemployed.

4) Both teams should be fined at least $250,000 each, with the specter of larger fines looming if this offense is repeated.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:17 PM

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The NBA Shamefully Devalues Its Product

The San Antonio-Golden State game last Saturday night should have created memories to last for decades but instead it was a travesty and a disgrace. It is unfortunate but understandable that legitimate health issues prevented Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant from playing but the decisions by San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich and Golden State Coach Steve Kerr to sit out the rest of their healthy starters with the number one seed in the Western Conference on the line is one of the most disappointing things that I have had the misfortune to witness in the decades that I have religiously followed the NBA. I was looking forward to that game all week--and, indeed, for the whole season, as were many other diehard NBA fans. When I was a kid, Philadelphia-Boston, Philadelphia-L.A. and Boston-L.A. were matchups to be anticipated and savored; those games foreshadowed the Eastern Conference Finals and/or the NBA Finals for every year from 1980-85. The big-time stars rarely missed those games and when they did sit out they had real injuries; no one was "resting."

Why should anyone take the NBA regular season seriously anymore? Clearly, the two best teams in the league do not think that the regular season matters, nor do they believe that homecourt advantage in the Western Conference Finals matters.

The NBA is walking on treacherous ground here. A game between bench players to potentially decide who will have the best chance to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals is even more damaging to the league than the farce known as the NBA All-Star Game.

Some people are just throwing their hands up and acting like there is no solution to this but that is the Bud Selig approach, made most famous when he shrugged his shoulders as the 2002 MLB All-Star Game ended in a tie. If David Stern were still the NBA Commissioner, Saturday's nonsense would have never happened--or it only would have happened once. When Popovich tried a similar stunt on Stern's watch in November 2012 (sitting out four of his top players during the Spurs' only visit to Miami), Stern immediately announced, "I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming." Stern was not bluffing. He hit the Spurs with a $250,000 fine and this verbal broadside: "The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case. The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team's only regular-season visit to Miami. The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans."

Worth noting is that Adam Silver--then Stern's right hand man--had publicly stated in April 2012, "The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams. And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess."

Stern was a strong-willed Commissioner and he could be condescending to the media at times, so it is not surprising that when Stern retired many media members piped up about how Silver would supposedly be a breath of fresh air. Silver is not the type to challenge a media member's question or a media member's command of the facts. I am not going to say that Silver has been a bad Commissioner but it is ridiculous to even put him in the same conversation with Stern, who is on the short list of greatest sports commissioners ever.

Commissioner Silver needs to step in immediately and decisively to make sure that Saturday night's fiasco never happens again on his watch:

1) All ticket buyers for Saturday's game should receive a full refund from the league, with the cost split evenly among the Warriors and the Spurs.

2) The NBA should refund whatever portion of TV money it received for selling the rights to the game to ABC, with that cost again split among the Warriors and the Spurs.

3) None of the healthy players who sat out should receive a game check; if they want to rest on company time, then they can do it on their own dime--and if they object to being unemployed for a day, then their union should file a grievance against the teams and/or the league for artificially manipulating the sport's competitive balance. The forfeited game checks should be pooled together and donated to help out people who are truly involuntarily unemployed.

4) Both teams should be fined at least $250,000 each, with the specter of larger fines looming if this offense is repeated.

Some will say that the Warriors and Spurs are acting intelligently to preserve the health of their players. If that is really the case, then the owners and players must immediately agree to shorten the season to however many games they deem to be safe and they must construct a schedule that eliminates "unhealthy" back to back or four game in five night scenarios. If health is truly at stake, then the schedule must be changed. Of course, that would mean less revenue for the owners and players but that is a small price to pay for the sake of players' health.

I think that health is just an excuse being used by these coaches to justify tweaking the league for its scheduling and/or to avoid having a showdown between the top teams until absolutely necessary. Players used to thrive on competition but, as we saw during the All-Star Game, that is clearly not the case now. It almost seems like these teams were afraid to put their best foot forward and possibly lose, so instead they made the game so farcical that no one can derive any meaning from the outcome.

Durability used to be a mark of pride for the sport's greatest players. Wilt Chamberlain once averaged more than 48 mpg for an entire season, meaning that he played every minute of regulation plus every minute of overtime (I think that he actually was ejected from one game and thus missed a few random minutes but he played enough overtime sessions to keep his average above 48 mpg). Michael Jordan played in all 82 games nine times, including in his final season as a 39 year old Wizard with at least one decrepit knee. He played more than 3000 minutes in 12 different seasons; the only times he missed that mark were when he broke his foot during his second season, when he played 17 games during his first comeback in 1994-95 and when he played 60 games as a 38 year old during the first season of his second comeback. My basketball hero Julius Erving played in all 84 games in four of his five ABA seasons and in his 11 year NBA career he played 82 games twice, 81 games once and at least 77 games four other times. Until his final season as a 37 year old (when he played a career-low 60 games), Erving's lowest total was 71 games in his second season, when he missed a few games due to a contract dispute that eventually wound its way through the court system--and he proceeded to average a career-high 41.2 mpg the rest of the way in that campaign.

There are many other examples of great players from bygone eras playing almost every game and averaging a high number of minutes while doing so. How is it possible that modern players who have the best possible diets, chartered flights and state of the art treatment/recovery options cannot play most if not all 82 games?

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 AM

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Friday, March 10, 2017

The Tortured Logic of the 2017 NBA MVP Race

Kenny Smith tells the story that he once asked fellow North Carolina alum Rasheed Wallace why he got so many technical fouls. Smith says that Wallace explained that his head would have exploded if he had not spoken up about what he perceived to be unjust calls. Smith completes the story by shrugging and conceding that it is better to get a technical foul than to have your head explode.

I think that my head may possibly explode if the 2017 NBA MVP race finishes the way it seems to be trending.

We know that LeBron James is still the best player in the world when he feels like it, but we also know that he coasts to some extent during the regular season.

Kevin Durant is the best player on the best team--a fact which has become even more evident since an injury took him out of the lineup and the Golden State Warriors became at least somewhat mortal--but he is not putting up superhuman numbers and he will lose some votes due to the backlash resulting from his decision to leave a contending team to join an archrival.

Kawhi Leonard is having a breakout season and is a legit MVP candidate but his soft-spoken style is easily ignored.

James Harden is putting up video game numbers in Mike D'Antoni's system--which should not surprise anyone--and his Houston Rockets started the season on fire but they are just 13-10 in their past 23 games despite having a roster that is built to showcase Harden's talents: Harden is flanked by great three point shooters on offense and by tough-minded stoppers who cover for him on defense.

Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook is having a historically great season while almost singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs, something that almost never happens in the season after the departure of an MVP-level player. Westbrook is cruising toward his second scoring title (31.9 ppg, 2.5 ppg in front of Boston's Isaiah Thomas) in three years but that is just part of the story: he also ranks third in assists (10.1 apg) and 12th in rebounds (10.5 rpg). Not only is Westbrook averaging a triple double (a feat that only Oscar Robertson has accomplished over the course of a full season) but he has amassed 31 triple doubles, tying Wilt Chamberlain for the second highest single season total in NBA history. The Thunder are 25-6 when Westbrook notches a triple double this season (and 43-6 in such games over the past two seasons) but just 11-23 in the rest of their games; basically, when he is on the court and playing at his peak the Thunder are the Golden State Warriors but when Westbrook is on the bench or "merely" puts up, say, 25-6-6 then the Thunder are one of the worst teams in the league.

Westbrook's only problem is his name; the media voters know him and, apparently, don't particularly like him. Westbrook recently scored a career-high 58 points while shooting 21-39 from the field and passing for nine assists--and he had a +7 plus/minus number even though the Thunder lost, meaning that the team was terrible when he was on the bench but winning comfortably while he played. The media reaction to Westbrook's sparkling performance was to wonder if he is shooting too much while noting that the Thunder have a poor record when Westbrook attempts more than 30 shots--as if Westbrook is somehow shooting the Thunder out of contention, as opposed to trying his best to lift the team when it is floundering.

If Westbrook changed his name to Eastbrook or something else then he might win the MVP unanimously. Think about this: Shaquille O'Neal, one of the most dominant centers in NBA history, never averaged 30 ppg and 10 rpg in the same season but in the year that he came closest (29.7 ppg and 13.6 rpg in 1999-00) he missed becoming the first unanimous MVP by one vote. Only 11 players in NBA/ABA history have averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 10 rpg in the same season: Wilt Chamberlain (seven times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times), Bob McAdoo (three times), Elgin Baylor (two times), Oscar Robertson (two times), Bob Pettit (once), Walt Bellamy (once), Dan Issel (once), Julius Erving (once), Moses Malone (once) and Karl Malone (once). Other than small forwards Baylor and Erving and point guard Robertson, the other players on that list rank among the greatest centers or power forwards of all-time. Westbrook is by far the shortest and lightest player in this group. Amazingly, the 28 year old Westbrook is also among the oldest; this feat has been accomplished 23 times but only four times by players who are 28 or older (Chamberlain did it at 28 and 29, while Baylor did it at 28 and Pettit did it at 29).

This season, Westbrook--a 6-3 point guard--is not only averaging more than 30 ppg and 10 rpg but he is also averaging more than 10 apg! This is unheard of for anyone other than Robertson (who is arguably the greatest all-around player in the sport's history) and yet the talking heads are acting like there should actually be a debate about who the MVP is. Robertson averaged 11.4 apg and 9.7 apg in his two 30 ppg-10 rpg seasons but no one else averaged more than 5.2 apg and most of these players averaged 4 apg or less in their 30 ppg-10 rpg seasons.

Westbrook has the lowest FG% but highest FT% in this group and his TS% is right in the middle. Westbrook is averaging 34.8 mpg, nearly 4 mpg less than any other 30 ppg-10 rpg player.

I understand that several players are having great seasons--but (and pardon me for figuratively shouting) Westbrook is having a historically great season and he is doing this in a way that maximizes the performance of an otherwise not very good team.

Let's look at this a different way. I am not a big believer in "advanced basketball statistics" but many members of the media have been pushing these numbers down our throats for years. Supposedly, those numbers proved that Chris Paul was better than Kobe Bryant during Bryant's 2008 MVP season. This season, Westbrook ranks first in PER, first in Box Plus/Minus and first in Value Over Replacement Player. He is criticized in some quarters for his defense but he even ranks ninth in Defensive Win Shares.

I don't know what Westbrook has to do to convince the voters but I hope he finds a way to mollify the haters among them, because otherwise my head might explode in about two months if he does not win the award despite authoring one of the greatest seasons in pro basketball history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Underrated Dirk Nowitzki Joins Elite 30,000 Point Club

Dirk Nowitzki joined the 30,000 point club on Wednesday night, scoring 25 points in Dallas' 122-111 win over the L.A. Lakers. Pro basketball fans are on a first name (or nickname) basis with the other six members of that club: Kareem, Mailman, Kobe, Jordan, Wilt, Dr. J.

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. Kareem, Wilt and Dirk are/were at least 7-feet tall, while Mailman was a 6-9 power player, a description also befitting LeBron James (who is on track to be the next player to join the club).

While Erving is the club's most overlooked player and is a highly underrated player as well, Nowitzki may be the most underrated 30,000 point scorer. He is perceived by many as "just" a jump shooter but Nowitzki in his prime could score from anywhere on the court. Nowitzki was also a very good rebounder, particularly early in his career when he tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record by posting at least 30 points and at least 15 rebounds in four straight playoff games--something that Wilt and Shaq and Moses never accomplished. Think about that for a moment and then also consider that Nowitzki is one of just four players who have averaged at least 25 ppg and 10 rpg in the postseason, joining Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon; he performed even better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, which is a rare trait. Nowitzki notched 29 playoff games with at least 30 points and at least 10 rebounds, four more than Larry Bird; the career leader is Baylor (56) and the only other players ahead of Nowitzki are Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Pettit and Tim Duncan. Nowitzki was never a great defender but as he got older, wiser and stronger he learned how to use his length and his foot speed to be at least adequate at that end of the court.

Nowitzki has to be included on the short list of greatest power forwards of all-time. In the post Michael Jordan era, I would rank him behind only Tim Duncan. Kevin Garnett fans may go ballistic after reading that sentence, but Nowitzki did more with less over a longer period of time than Garnett did; Garnett spent most of his career struggling to get out of the first round of the playoffs and when he won a championship he was one cog in the Big Three. Nowitzki was without question a better clutch player than Garnett, who only enjoyed any playoff success when he was paired with someone else who was willing and able to make big shots down the stretch (Sam Cassell in Minnesota, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston).

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:10 AM

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Monday, February 20, 2017

The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce

The Western Conference's 192-182 victory over the Eastern Conference is without question the worst NBA All-Star Game that I have ever watched. Other than the MLB All-Star Game that ended in a tie (and many NFL Pro Bowls of recent vintage) it may be the worst major professional league All-Star Game ever. When the reigning two-time regular season MVP literally lies down on the court instead of attempting to play defense, you know that the event has jumped the shark.

The outcome seemed scripted. The West led almost the entire way and it became obvious very early that Anthony Davis--who plays for the host city's New Orleans Pelicans--was going to be the MVP. Russell Westbrook, the only player on the court who ever seemed to even remotely take competition seriously (though his intensity was ratcheted down about 50%), had a shot at not only winning the MVP for an unprecedented third straight year but also breaking Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star record of 42 points. Instead, with the East still within striking distance, West Coach Steve Kerr benched Westbrook for the last several minutes. Wedtbrook finished with 41 points. Davis ended up with 52 points and the MVP trophy. I cannot recall a coach freezing out his best player with the outcome up for grabs. It looked like maybe everyone but Westbrook had agreed that Davis would be the MVP, so Westbrook had to be taken out before he took over the game.

Last year, I wrote that it would be a shame if Chamberlain's record fell to someone who made a bunch of uncontested shots. Sadly, that is exactly what Davis did. The NBA All Star Game has been heading downhill for years but yesterday's farce was a new low. It is difficult to take seriously any statistics or records from a game in which no one played hard. No one reasonably expects the All-Star Game to have the same intensity level of the playoffs but players used to at least take the outcome seriously.

In the 1980s, the games were fun and included fancy plays but no one literally lay down on the court; shots were contested and it was considered a badge of honor to try to block a dunk, as opposed to cowering in fear or treating competition like a joke.

I am not sure how to solve this problem but I wish that the best players loved to compete more than they worried about protecting their brand.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 PM

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Imagining the Young Julius Erving Playing in Today's NBA

"You had to see the man and hear the music." John Papanek, attempting to explain Julius Erving's greatness

I respect greatness from any era, so this article should not be interpreted as a shot at today's top players--but can you imagine a young Julius Erving playing under today's no hand-checking rules, let alone in an era that emphasizes the value of three point shots, layups and free throws above all other kinds of shots? Erving was a capable three point shooter (his career three point shooting percentage is artificially deflated by half court heaves, because during most of his era the three point shot was not used as a regular weapon). Everyone knows that Erving could attack the hoop for layups and to draw fouls. In today's game, Erving could be a prototype point forward, driving to the hoop and either finishing or kicking the ball to open shooters; he possessed the necessary ballhandling and passing skills to fill that role but the teams for which he played and the era during which he played placed him in a different role most of the time, though he provided glimpses of those aforementioned skills.

The sad reality is that even most so-called basketball experts have no clue about Erving's complete skill set; there is precious little footage of his three years with the New York Nets (during which he won three regular season MVPs, two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles and two championships) and even less footage of his two seasons with the Virginia Squires, when he put up some incredible numbers--especially in the playoffs, including a 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg stat line as a rookie in the 1972 ABA playoffs. How extraordinary is that trifecta? Forgive me for quoting myself to answer my own question: "The only other player in ABA/NBA history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 20 rpg in the same postseason is Wilt Chamberlain (1960-62, 64); the only other players who led the NBA or ABA in playoff scoring average and playoff rebounding average during the same postseason are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA), Hakeem Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of those four players came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average."

Triple doubles are the talk of the NBA this season. Erving was more of a double-double threat than a triple double threat but as a rookie he had a playoff game with 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists. My research uncovered no other game in pro basketball history during which a player matched Erving's production in all three of those categories.

Erving never played for stats or for glory; in his 16 year career, the only milestone that he openly pursued was trying to reach the 30,000 point club during the final games of his last season. At the time (and for some time afterward), only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain had scored at least 30,000 points, so Erving was the only "mid-size" player to cross that threshold.

Check out this video snippet from the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game, played shortly after the conclusion of Erving's rookie campaign; he looks like a modern player teleported five decades into the past, almost like the old Scottie Pippen commercial depicting Pippen dunking against 1950s era players--except Erving was not taking on chumps or patsies here: the NBA roster was stacked with nine future Hall of Famers, including Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. In the video, Erving puts his entire skill set on display: devastating defense (watch him fly out of nowhere to block a shot, catch the ball and then fire a great outlet pass), rebounding in traffic, post up moves and some dazzling dribbling sequences (including a right to left between the legs crossover dribble that is under control, deceptively quick and did not require palming/carrying the ball):



Notice that Erving did not find it necessary to draw attention to himself with any antics after he made a great move; he let his game do his talking for him. Also notice that Erving was not showing off; he did a crossover move or a reverse pivot because those moves were necessary to beat the defense and because he knew that even though those moves might look flashy they were not high risk maneuvers for him because he had worked on his craft.

Sadly, no known footage exists of Erving's most spectacular move from that game; in the fourth quarter, he stole the ball from Paul Silas, dribbled downcourt, took off from the free throw line (you read that correctly) and dunked over Oscar Robertson AND Archie Clark (who, by the way, was regularly executing a devastating crossover dribble move in the NBA before Tim Hardaway or Allen Iverson were even born). I read about this dunk when I was a kid and I always dreamed about (1) seeing it and/or (2) learning the full story. Seeing it may never happen but I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Erving, Silas and several other players from that game. I told their stories in my oral history of the two ABA-NBA All-Star Games.

That was one of the first pieces that I wrote as a credentialed NBA writer (as opposed to a freelancer who did not cover games). I formulated my questions very carefully; when I asked about Erving's dunk I just said something to the effect of, "I understand that Erving made a great play in the fourth quarter. What do you remember about it?" The thing that struck me is that everyone who I interviewed essentially told the same basic story, even though the interviews were conducted separately. It sounds like an urban legend to say that Erving jumped from the free throw line and dunked under game conditions but that is what was reported at the time and that is how the participants still remember the play.

There is a lot of talk about LeBron James perhaps being the greatest athlete in pro basketball history. James is a tremendous athlete and a wonderful basketball player; I have covered and praised his exploits since he entered the league--but I wish that the commentators who are granted the most air time and bandwidth cared enough about their craft to do some research and understand that Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were Olympic-caliber track and field athletes in addition to being dominant basketball players and that Erving could match any comparably sized modern player in terms of speed and jumping ability, while also possessing solid basketball fundamentals (Erving played three years of college ball and was praised by his coaches at all levels for his high basketball IQ).

I enjoy watching today's great players. I predicted and documented Russell Westbrook's ascension nearly three years ago, at a time when many "experts" questioned his ability and/or willingness to play the point guard position properly; Westbrook is having a historic 2016-17 season and is making a case to be considered a Pantheon-level player, but he probably will not win the MVP because the media voters will hold his team's record against him even though it is obvious how much he has elevated a weak supporting cast. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard are four other great players who are having wonderful seasons--but in our collective rush to praise those players and with the natural human tendency to think that whatever is happening right now must be the greatest thing ever, we should not forget that some athletes and competitors have skill sets that transcend any particular era. Julius Erving is one of those players.

The John Papanek quote that serves as the epigraph for this article may be my favorite quote about Erving. Before writing that line, Papanek recited a litany of Erving's numbers and concluded that the numbers don't fully tell the story. The numbers can always be manipulated based on the alleged overall competitiveness of a particular era or based on "pace" or based on a host of supposedly objective factors but Papanek understood the deeper truth: to appreciate Erving's greatness you "had to see the man and hear the music."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Brent Musburger's Fitting Farewell

Brent Musburger's final game as a play by play announcer was a fitting finale to his distinguished broadcasting career; in an SEC basketball showdown at Rupp Arena, underdog Georgia raced out to a big lead versus Kentucky, Kentucky stormed back to force overtime and then the favored--but shorthanded--Wildcats held on to beat the Bulldogs 90-81. One of Musburger's most famous broadcasts is the legendary triple overtime game five of the 1976 NBA Finals, so it was only right that his last game went into overtime. Some may lament that Musburger's last game was not a big-time championship event worthy of his status but I prefer to focus on how entertaining this particular game was, how much joy Musburger derived from doing this game and the outpouring of appreciation directed toward Musburger from fans and from his peers. Musburger's career has had some sensational ups and a few downs but he always kept the focus on the games themselves, so that is a worthy approach to take regarding his final game.

Color commentator Jay Bilas, Musburger's partner in his final game, provided an eloquent tribute about how much he enjoyed not only doing games with Musburger but also watching Musburger as a young sports fan. My earliest memories of Musburger extend back to the late 1970s, when he hosted the NFL Today, the forerunner of the pregame shows that are now featured on every network that covers the league. I watched Musburger, Irv Cross and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder every Sunday as a kid, even though CBS had the NFC package and my favorite team (the Cleveland Browns) played in the AFC.

Musburger was a central figure in CBS' NBA coverage in the 1970s and 1980s. Those were my formative years as an NBA fan (and as a sports fan in general), so Musburger will always be inextricably linked in my mind with the beginning of my lifelong journey as a sports fan/sports writer. The best era of NBA basketball (at least in my living memory) was the 1980s and when I reflect back on the great rivalries, series and games of that era I hear Musburger's voice narrating the compelling stories that defined that era. Musburger's style never involved burying you under a mountain of facts or statistics but you could always tell that he had done his homework and knew what he was talking about; his broadcasting style was breezy and fun but along the way you could learn something if you paid attention. Musburger also did a great job of seamlessly setting up his color commentator partners, enabling former athletes/coaches to feel comfortable while presenting insider insights about the game. Musburger never acted like he was bigger than the game.

Musburger also worked college basketball, college football, horse racing and many other sports; when Musburger declared at the start of a broadcast "You are looking live" at a particular venue, as a fan you knew that this was a big game.

During his final game, Musburger noted that he was not a broadcaster by training, so he took a conversational approach to his job, as if he were sitting next to you and enjoying a cold one while watching the game. Musburger's enthusiasm for sports never seemed fake or contrived; he was having the time of his life, right along with you.

Fans often asked Musburger which game was his favorite and Musburger's default answer always was, "I hope it's the next game." Tonight, he told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt that he is out of next games and can now reflect back on his career. Musburger also had a message for young broadcasters and athletes: time passes by quickly, so enjoy every moment. Those are wise words from a famous man who never lost the common touch and who obviously savored every moment of his career. Thank you for the memories, Brent Musburger.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:52 AM

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Chicago Bulls Discipline Wade, Butler for Making Derogatory Comments About Teammates

After leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to Cleveland's first professional sports championship in over 50 years, LeBron James will probably be granted a lifetime pass by that city and that franchise to say/do whatever he wants; he recently made it clear that he believes that all of his teammates except Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are scrubs and that Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert is a cheapskate despite Gilbert spending over $150 million on salaries/luxury tax. James has received little to no backlash from the team in response to his intemperate remarks.

Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler just found out that they do not enjoy similar privileges with the Chicago Bulls.

Wade--who was a key member of three Miami championship teams before leaving the Heat to join the Bulls last summer--and three-time All-Star Butler--who is one of the top all-around players in the NBA--each blasted their teammates on Wednesday night after the Bulls fell apart down the stretch en route to a 119-114 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Wade declared, "I'm 35 years old, man. I've got three championships. It shouldn't hurt me more than it hurts these young guys. They have to want it...It has to change. It has to hurt inside to lose games like this." Butler fumed, "(Expletive teammates) just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the T. Be a star in your role, man."

The Bulls fined both Wade and Butler and removed both players from the starting lineup in Friday's 100-88 loss to the Miami Heat. Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo--who started alongside Boston's fabled Big Three as the Celtics won the 2008 NBA title--was not disciplined for his public comments that unfavorably compared the leadership of Wade and Butler to the leadership of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two best players on Boston's championship team. Rondo posted this on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of Garnett and Pierce: "My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn't pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn't take days off. My vets didn't care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn't blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work." Rondo emphasized that the only reason he went public with his thoughts is that he felt it was important that someone stick up for the team's young players.

Rondo's message is right on point. TNT's Kenny Smith had a great take on the situation as well, noting that it is cowardly for Wade and Butler to blast their teammates in the media as opposed to approaching them privately one on one. 

Wade has a mixed track record as a leader. After winning the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, Wade presided over one of the worst collapses ever experienced by a defending NBA champion, as the Bulls trampled the Heat by a record-setting margin during the Heat's championship ring night, serving as a prelude to the Heat's first round playoff loss in 2007 and 15-67 record in 2008. Later, Wade helped Pat Riley recruit LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join him in Miami to form a power trio that eventually won two titles while advancing to the NBA Finals for four straight years. Wade understood that James was the team's best player by far and Wade not only willingly ceded center stage to James but he implored James to live up to the responsibilities inherent in being the team's best player.

Perhaps Wade believes that his championship pedigree gives him the right to speak out against his teammates--but Rondo and Smith are right: Wade's words and actions in this case are not the words and actions of a true leader.

Butler has no track record as a leader. He clashed with the since-departed Derrick Rose--the 2011 NBA regular season MVP who once seemed to be a great player and a great leader but recently has not met the standard in either department--last season. Butler's emergence as an individual star during the past few seasons has not correlated with increased team success; this is not to suggest that the Bulls' struggles are Butler's fault but Butler has not yet proven that he has the skill set and temperament necessary to be the best player on a championship team. 

The Bulls are paying Wade and Butler a lot of money without receiving much in return, as the team is struggling to just hold on to the eighth playoff spot. The organization has to seriously reconsider how this roster has been constructed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:54 PM

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

LeBron James Blames Everyone but Himself for the Cavaliers' Recent Skid

LeBron James has an interesting take on personal responsibility: instead of looking within himself, he looks around to find the person(s) responsible for whatever he believes is not going right. On the rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Coach Bill Belichick invariably says that he did not coach well enough. Belichick understands that, in order to achieve maximum success, responsibility inevitably begins at the top. That is true leadership and that is one reason why Belichick's players are so loyal to him and play so hard for him--a facet of Belichick's coaching success that most media members have never understood simply because they are too focused on being offended that Belichick rolls his eyes at their stupid questions. Belichick is not trying to be popular in the media; he is trying to lead his team to championships.

James thinks about things quite differently. "We're top heavy as s---," James declared of his Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost two in a row and five of their last seven but still sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. In case anyone missed the point, James explained that the "top heavy" portion of the roster consists of himself, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, while the other players are--in James' view--not particularly good. James urged General Manager David Griffin to not be complacent. James publicly told Griffin that he is not doing a very good job and he offered very specific instructions about what kinds of players Griffin needs to sign as soon as possible.

To his credit, instead of meekly accepting James' ungracious public attacks, Griffin fired back, noting that the Cavaliers' front office is not complacent but that he has observed some complacency on the court--a not so thinly veiled shot at James' admitted tendency to shift into "chill mode" during the regular season. Don't be surprised if James decides to sit out a few games in the very near future as a power play to suggest to the Cavaliers that they are nothing without him.

Keep in mind that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the highest payroll in the league over the past three seasons. It is not like owner Dan Gilbert is pinching pennies and assembling the roster as cheaply as possible. Not only that, we all know that James put this team together. The Cavaliers kept the players he wanted and shipped out the players he did not want. The Cavaliers fired a head coach who had led them to the NBA Finals the year before in order to promote a coach who better related to James. This is not meant to suggest that James has been a bad behind the scenes general manager--but it is meant to suggest that James has no right to act like he had nothing to do with putting this team together just because the Cavaliers have hit a rough patch three months before James feels like playing hard on a nightly basis.

Let's look at Cleveland's current roster. Irving was the Rookie of the Year (2012) and an All-Star before James returned to Cleveland. Love made the All-NBA Second Team in 2012 and finished sixth in the MVP voting that season. When you have three max or near max players, there is not a lot of money left for other players--but the Cavaliers did open up the vault for Tristan Thompson (who is represented by LeBron James' friend) to the tune of more than $15 million per year. The Cavaliers were bidding against themselves, as it is doubtful that any other team would have paid Thompson that much. If General Manager James thought that the Cavaliers were too "top heavy," perhaps he should have suggested to Thompson that he accept a little less so the Cavaliers could have more money to spend on other players. Or maybe James could have accepted less than the max (that idea apparently only occurs to the media with regard to Kobe Bryant's contract).

Griffin recently acquired Kyle Korver, who made the All-Star team in 2015 and who has led the league in three point field goal percentage three times. The team's eighth man in minutes played, Richard Jefferson, twice averaged more than 22 ppg in a season and he was a starter for two NBA Finalists. Yes, Jefferson is 36 years old but he is only playing 19 mpg; he is a wily veteran who has shown that he still has some bounce in his legs.

The Cavaliers have spent a ton of money to surround James with two All-Stars in their primes, a (recent) former All-Star, a role player who is represented by James' friend and several other specialists who have been hand-picked by James. Does James think that a $127 million payroll is a sign of complacency? How much talent does James need around him so that he feels like he can contend for a championship?

One fascinating aspect of this is how the media either supports James' criticisms or, at worst, simply deems these outbursts as the inevitable price the Cavaliers must pay for signing James--a price that most say is well worth it. That take is only acceptable if it comes from people who apply the same reasoning toward other superstars--for instance, Kobe Bryant.

Center and point guard are historically the two most important positions in basketball. During Bryant's prime, his L.A. Lakers surrounded him with Kwame Brown at center and Smush Parker at point guard. During the 2006-07 season, Brown split time at center with Andrew Bynum, a second year injury prone player whose conditioning, work ethic and maturity left much to be desired at that time. Bryant carried the Lakers to back to back playoff berths in the tough Western Conference but he was understandably frustrated by how horrible his supporting cast was. Some fans encountered Bryant in a parking lot and Bryant, unaware that he was being recorded, accurately described how poorly Andrew Bynum was playing. Bryant's comments became a huge national story and were cited as proof that he is a bad teammate and a bad leader. The reality, as Bynum told me years later, is that Bryant was a tremendous mentor for Bynum. Bryant helped mold Bynum into an All-Star. How many players have developed in that fashion while playing alongside James? James likes to team up with already formed stars such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

It is also worth noting that Bryant did not publicly blast his general manager and his teammate to the national media but rather he let his guard down while talking to some fans. The Lakers later added one one-time All-Star to the mix, shuffled around some of their role players, and--behind Bryant's extraordinary play--advanced to three straight NBA Finals, winning back to back titles in 2009 and 2010.

James thinks that his current team is "top heavy"? Do you remember who was the eighth man in mpg for Bryant's 2009 championship team? Luke Walton, an injury-prone career journeyman. The seventh man was Jordan Farmar, a young player who was not even in the league three years later. Heck, the third man was starting point guard Derek Fisher, who would not have started for any other championship contender in recent memory. When the Lakers won the 2010 title, their eighth man was Farmar and their seventh man was Shannon Brown, who just two years earlier had been the 15th man for James' Cavaliers (who are still mocked as a team that was supposedly bereft of talent and depth).

Yes, Bryant had a private moment of frustration (that was then publicized because the fans recorded his off the cuff comments) after two years of playing alongside subpar teammates during his prime but he also took it upon himself to mold the Lakers into a mini-dynasty in the next three seasons. Years later, Bryant joked that the Lakers started Parker at point guard because they were too cheap to sign a true NBA caliber starting point guard--but when Bryant was going to battle with Parker he was not berating him in the press the way that James has indicated that everyone on his team not named Irving and Love is essentially worthless.

Speaking of Bryant and the Lakers, boy it sure is a good thing that the Lakers no longer have that Bryant albatross around their necks. Now all of their young players can show the world just how great they are and just how much Bryant's selfish gunning held them back. I mean, at the very least they can roll over a bottom-feeding team like Dallas, right? Dallas owner Mark Cuban loves "analytics" and has expressed theoretical support for tanking, so it is reasonable to assume that his Mavericks are at least considering heading into the tank pretty soon. The rising Lakers should have no problem with the Mavericks, right? Hey, wait--that must be a typo: Did Dallas really beat the Lakers 122-73? I know what happened; the Lakers are still so traumatized by the way that Bryant selfishly outscored Dallas 62-61 after three quarters of play several years ago that the mere sight of Dallas uniforms induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Yeah, that's the ticket, because no matter what happens the key narratives much stay intact: LeBron James is a great teammate who is a pass-first player (even though he publicly belittles his teammates and ranks fifth in pro basketball history in career points per game), while Kobe Bryant is a bad teammate whose selfish gunning cost his team (even though Bryant won five championships and was annually his team's best playmaker despite playing in a system that does not produce high individual assist averages).

It really is OK to acknowledge that James is a great scorer who likes to shoot the ball. Those indisputable facts do not in any way diminish the equally indisputable fact that James is a great passer. It really is OK to acknowledge that Bryant's strong-willed ways might not be everyone's cup of tea but he was a great leader and champion.

Regarding James' recent public comments, maybe James is a master motivator who has the pulse of his team. Maybe James will lead the Cavaliers to another championship; that certainly would not surprise me. My point in comparing the media coverage of James' career to the media coverage of Bryant's career is that the media members who killed Bryant for his alleged basketball sins are hypocritical for twisting themselves into knots to try to justify words from James that they would declare to be unacceptable had Bryant uttered them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Evaluating the NBA's New Voting Procedure for All-Star Starters

NBA All-Star starters used to be chosen entirely by fan vote but this season the NBA decided to include input from both current players and selected media members. The fan vote is now weighted at 50%, while the player vote and media vote count for 25% each. In the event of a tie, the tiebreaker is based on the fan voting.

The NBA announced the final voting results on Thursday January 19. The 2017 Eastern Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounpo and Jimmy Butler, plus guards Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan, while the 2017 Western Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, plus guards Stephen Curry and James Harden.

Under the old system, the East All-Star starters would have been James, Antetokounpo, Joel Embiid, Irving and Dwyane Wade, while the West All-Star starters would have been Durant, Zaza Pachulia, Leonard, Curry and Harden. Including the players and the media in the voting process resulted in Butler and DeRozan starting over Embiid and Wade in the East and Davis starting over Pachulia in the West. Fans are often accused of stuffing the (metaphorical) ballot box for their favorite players even if those players do not deserve to be All-Stars and that would certainly seem to be the case with Wade (popular veteran playing in a big market), Embiid (young player who many have adopted as the poster boy for Sam Hinkie's infamous tanking "process") and Pachulia (who apparently garnered support not only from the Bay Area but perhaps from his entire home country of Georgia).

The value of starting versus coming off of the bench in the All-Star Game is largely ceremonial. While total All-Star selections is a category that merits at least some attention when evaluating a player's career, no one seriously considers how many times a particular player started versus how many times he was chosen as a reserve (or even as an injury replacement, as was the case for Tom Chambers in 1987 when he filled in for Ralph Sampson and won the MVP).

My take on the fan vote prior to this season was that as long as the fans selected five worthy All-Stars in each conference--even if the selected players were not necessarily the very best players at their respective positions in each conference--the coaches who select the reserves would balance things out by taking any players who had been "snubbed." If you look at the All-Star voting over the years, even when the fans made some questionable decisions (such as Dan Issel over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1977) the players who they picked deserved to be All-Stars (A.C. Green, 1990 All-Star starter, is perhaps one exception, though he was a key rebounder/defender for a team that had just made three straight Finals appearances and had won back to back titles in 1987-88). The All-Star Game is for the fans and as long as they are not making a mockery of their voting privileges they should have some voice in the process.

The movement to make Pachulia an All-Star may have resulted in the rule change. Pachulia, who is averaging 5.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg this season, has called the new voting process "Zaza rules." It would have been a travesty if Pachulia--who did not receive a single media member vote and who finished 12th among West frontcourt players in the player vote--had made the All-Star team at all, let alone as a starter. While stronger cases could be made for Wade and Embiid, I would not select either player as an All-Star in 2017. So, the NBA's decision to reduce the importance of fan voting from 100% to 50% looks like a good idea.

However, it is important to note that the players (1) have obvious biases based on loyalty to teammates and/or rivalries with opposing players and (2) did not always take voting very seriously. Matthew Dellavedova and Goran Dragic each received six player votes as an All-Star starter, with all of those votes presumably coming from inside their respective locker rooms. Dion Waiters and Mo Williams each received one vote. While Dragic made the All-NBA Third Team in 2014 and Williams made the All-Star team in 2009, none of those four players is even close to being an All-Star in 2017, let alone being one of the top two guards in the East.

The players have lobbied to have a voice in this process and if they want to continue to have a voice then they are obligated to take voting seriously. I am often justifiably critical of the way that media members evaluate players but the media All-Star voters did an excellent job in 2017--better than the fans or the players. Only five West guards received votes: Russell Westbrook (93), James Harden (91), Stephen Curry (6), Chris Paul (1) and Klay Thompson (1). Nine frontcourt players in the West received votes, led by Durant (94), Leonard (91) and Davis (78). DeMarcus Cousins (11) was a distant fourth, with Marc Gasol, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan each receiving five votes or less. Seven East guards received votes, with Isaiah Thomas (61) and DeRozan (55) outpacing Irving (32), Kyle Lowry (27), John Wall (15), Wade (1) and Kemba Walker (1). James (96), Antetokounpo (93) and Butler (70) led 11 frontcourt players in the East who received votes. Kevin Love (15) was the only other East frontcourt player who received at least 10 votes.

The tiebreaker system came into play twice. Thomas won the media vote and finished second in the player vote but because he was only fourth in fan voting he lost out to DeRozan, who also had a weighted score of 2.75. DeRozan finished third in the fan voting, beating Thomas 796,112 to 755,102. Curry, Harden and Westbrook each had weighted scores of 2.0. Westbrook won both the media vote and the player vote but he finished third in the fan vote and thus will have to depend on the coaches to select him. Since Curry and Harden are more popular among fans than Westbrook, Westbrook had no chance of being a starter either under the new system or under the old system.

Here are my choices for the 2017 All-Star starters, with a brief explanation for each selection:

East Frontcourt

LeBron James: Best all-around player in the league and best player on the Eastern Conference's best team (25.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 8.3 apg).

Jimmy Butler: Outstanding two way player who is posting career-highs in scoring, rebounding and assists after moving to small forward to enable the newly acquired Wade to remain at shooting guard (24.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.8 apg).

Giannis Antetokounpo: Milwaukee Bucks are in playoff contention largely because of his efforts (23.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.6 apg).

East Guards

Kyrie Irving: Most stars who play alongside James are forced to accept vastly reduced roles but Irving has come the closest to being a legitimate 1b (at least offensively) to James (23.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.6 apg).

Isaiah Thomas: Clearly the best player for a Boston team that is fighting for second place in the East and emerging as a possible playoff threat for Cleveland (28.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.0 apg).

West Frontcourt

Kevin Durant: Has established himself as the best player on the team with the best record, an impressive feat considering that one of his teammates is the reigning two-time regular season MVP (26.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.7 apg).

Kawhi Leonard: The Spurs are indisputably his team now and they remain a championship contender even after losing the defense/leadership of Tim Duncan (25.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.1 apg)

Anthony Davis: He is posting awesome numbers for a Pelicans team that started slowly but is now contending for a playoff spot (28.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.3 apg).

West Guards

Russell Westbrook: He is well on his way to averaging a triple double for the entire season and his supporting cast is so weak that his team needs 30-10-10 from him on a nightly basis just to compete (30.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 10.4 apg). 

Stephen Curry: He should not be punished for accepting a 1b role on a team that might win 70 games for the second season in a row (24.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 6.1 apg).

I generally prefer bigger guards to smaller guards, so why did I not take DeRozan in the East and Harden in the West? Both players clearly deserve to be All-Stars. None of the top guards in the East are great defenders (other that perhaps John Wall but his Wizards have underachieved until recently), so the All-Star selections by necessity are based mainly on offense. Irving's ballhandling, shooting range and playmaking skills elevate him over DeRozan, even though DeRozan is stronger and has a great midrange game. I typically cast a jaundiced eye toward undersized guards like Thomas but Thomas is a tremendous clutch player and leader. I don't have a big problem (no pun intended) with taking DeRozan over Thomas but Thomas would be my choice.

Westbrook is without question the best player in the NBA this season, so he should have been one of the starting guards in the West. Harden's statistics have predictably increased in Mike D'Antoni's point guard-friendly system but I would still rather have Curry, a proven leader and proven clutch scorer whose statistics reliably translate into sustained team success. Offensively, Curry is at least as good as Harden even though Harden plays in a system that enables him to put up gaudier numbers. Defensively, while it is true that Curry can be overpowered by bigger players it is also true that his sound fundamentals and quick hands help him to be at least adequate at that end of the court. Opposing teams attack him not so much because he is a bad defender but rather because (1) his backcourt mate Klay Thompson is a first rate defender and (2) it is good strategy to try to wear down a dynamic offensive player by forcing him to defend. The All-Star team should not be selected just by looking at the leaders in various statistical categories (whether those categories are basic box score or "advanced") but rather by considering each player's skill set and his role for his team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:49 PM

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Russell Westbrook Versus James Harden: Should the MVP be Selected Based on Analysis or Narrative?

It has become apparent that, barring injury or some unlikely and unforeseen circumstance, either Russell Westbrook or James Harden will win the 2016-17 NBA regular season MVP award. My default position regarding the NBA regular season MVP award is that the recipient should be the league's best all-around player, unless there is a player who is so dominant in one or two categories that his dominance outweighs all other considerations; Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are prototypical examples of the former type of player, while Shaquille O'Neal is a prototypical example of the latter type of player.

It is obvious that the media members who annually vote for this award do not share my criteria. Bryant and O'Neal only won one regular season MVP each despite being, respectively, the best all-around player and most dominant player in the NBA for several years. James has fared somewhat better in MVP voting than Bryant and O'Neal but James--who inherited best all-around regular season player in the league status from Bryant circa 2009 or 2010--arguably deserved even more than the four MVPs he has received. Three years ago, many voters became tired of voting for James and looked for narratives (excuses) each season to elevate at least one player above him. James has finished second, third and third in the MVP race the past three years, even though he has led his team to six straight NBA Finals and three championships while clearly establishing himself as the best all-around player in the league.

James' Cleveland Cavaliers once again sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference but there is virtually no chance that James will win the MVP award this season. The media voters prefer to create and then validate a narrative. Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry each won at least one MVP because the media determined that in a particular season or seasons those players represented the league's most compelling narrative.

This season is providing narrative overdrive but two narratives have gathered the most attention; you could call those narratives "Angry Russ" and "Revenge of the Beard."

I have already explained why I would select Russell Westbrook as the 2016-17 NBA MVP. I rank James second this season but not because I have been seduced by a narrative or because I am tired of picking the same player (which is a stupid reason to not vote for a worthy candidate); I acknowledge that James is a better all-around player than Westbrook but that gap has closed, Westbrook is having a historic season and Westbrook plays hard every game while James often enters self-described "chill mode." I would take James in "chill mode" as the MVP in most seasons but not when Westbrook is making triple doubles look effortless.

The "Angry Russ" MVP narrative received a lot of play early in the season. That narrative stipulates that Westbrook is angry at the world because Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. "Angry Russ" will therefore exact revenge on the entire league.

Westbrook cannot be a media darling for the long haul, though. He is too intense, too competitive and too dismissive of stupid questions asked by media members. Westbrook is singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder--a team so bereft of talent and depth that they literally need for Westbrook to put up 30-10-10 every night just to have a chance to win--but instead of acknowledging that reality, the media nitpick Westbrook's shot selection and decision making.

Thus, a new narrative is gaining popularity: "Revenge of the Beard." We all saw James Harden spend last season not playing defense, getting two coaches fired and running his most talented teammate out of town. No one made up any of that. It all happened--but because the Rockets are enjoying early season success in 2016-17, we have a narrative emerging that Harden was somehow disrespected and is now exacting revenge on the league and anyone who dared to question his greatness.

Narratives are inevitably simple and simple-minded, so expect much to be made of the fact that Harden's Houston Rockets won the head to head regular season series versus Westbrook's Thunder two games to one. Never mind that it took Daryl Morey several years to put together a supporting cast that fits with Harden's quirky skill set, while Westbrook's supporting cast contains some mismatched parts and was definitely not built around his skills (Westbrook should be surrounded by shooters and/or by athletic players who can run the floor with him). Never mind that Westbrook is responding to adversity by elevating his game, which is exactly the opposite of the approach that Harden took last year.

Above all, don't expect anyone to point out that Harden actually had a negative plus/minus number in those three head to head games that many media members will likely weigh heavily when casting their MVP votes. The Rockets were outscored by the Thunder when Harden was in the game; they beat the Thunder based on overall talent and depth, not based on what Harden did (this is reminiscent of the Rockets' fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, when Harden rode the bench during many of the most critical possessions and moments of key games). Harden averaged 20.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 12.3 apg in the three games versus the Thunder this season, while shooting .291 from the field, .217 from three point range and .793 from the free throw line.

What about the way that Harden recently led the Rockets to 19 wins in a 21 game stretch? Did you know that during those games the Rockets performed better with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court? I have to admit that Morey has put together a better team top to bottom than I thought--at least in terms of regular season play. I expected Harden to put up astronomical individual numbers in Coach Mike D'Antoni's system but I did not expect the Rockets to win as many games as they have thus far. D'Antoni has the Rockets running and gunning from all angles, which is the last thing that an opposing team wants to deal with while playing a fourth game in five nights, but we all know what happens when a good team with at least one day of rest between games and a chance to prepare for "seven seconds or less" faces D'Antoni's squads in the playoffs.

By the way, Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in those three head to head matchups with Harden. Westbrook averaged 35.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg versus Houston, while shooting .418 from the field, .385 from three point range and .882 from the free throw line. When Westbrook and Harden were on the court, Westbrook put up better numbers than Harden and Westbrook's team had the advantage--but those games will cost Westbrook in the MVP race because Houston's second unit is better than Oklahoma City's and the simple/simple-minded narrative is "Harden trusted his teammates and won; Westbrook played 'hero ball' and lost." Splice that narrative together with a video of a couple highlights cherry-picked to "prove" that Westbrook committed some basketball sins and you have what it takes to be an esteemed member of the basketball media.

So how should these players be compared? The same way that any players should be compared--objectively evaluate their skill sets:

Scoring: Harden is a better three point shooter than Westbrook but Westbrook is quicker, more athletic and more dangerous from more areas of the court. Every year in the playoffs, we see the defensive game plan that works against Harden: force him right, deny him wide open three point shots and when he gets into the lane meet him with high hands while sidestepping his flopping/flailing attempts to draw fouls. The game plan against Westbrook is concede the three point shot, pray that he settles for it and pray really hard that he does not make it, because when Westbrook is making that shot he is completely unguardable.

Rebounding: They are both excellent rebounders for their position but Westbrook has the edge in this department. Harden's rebounding numbers this season are a little inflated based on Houston's pace of play (his offensive rebound rate has nearly doubled, because Houston shoots so many long shots and long shots typically result in long rebounds that can be snared by guards). Westbrook attacks the boards like a shark smelling blood and he would be a terrific rebounder in any system and any era.

Passing: Harden averages more assists than Westbrook but Harden plays in a system that breeds assists for the primary ballhandler and he plays alongside better shooters. Westbrook can make any pass that Harden can make. If Westbrook and Harden traded places then Westbrook would easily match or exceed Harden's assist numbers but Harden's assist numbers would drop.

Ballhandling: Westbrook is explosive, while Harden is crafty (and a bit quicker than he looks at first glance). Both players have high turnover rates: Westbrook tries to do too much at times, while Harden is often shockingly careless with the ball.

Defense: Harden's defensive shortcomings are obvious and notorious. Westbrook is not an All-Defensive Team caliber defender but he plays with much more passion and energy at that end of the court than Harden does. You could put Westbrook on the opposing team's best perimeter player for a few key possessions and expect good results; no one would dream of doing likewise with Harden.

Attitude/Leadership: Harden talked his way out of one city, he ran two coaches out of Houston and in four full seasons as the top player in Houston he has exited the playoffs in the first round three times. His supporters will say that he has emerged as a leader this season; I say let's wait and see until Houston faces some adversity, because that is when we will find out if Harden is a leader or a front runner. Westbrook plays hard and he inspires his teammates to play hard as well. Westbrook has been a top level performer for a team that advanced to at least the Western Conference Finals four times in six years (and likely would have made it even more often were it not for injuries that he and Kevin Durant suffered during that time). Poor leaders do not take their teams to the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four on a nearly annual basis.

Some might say that playoff success--whether past, present or projected in the future--has nothing to do with being the regular season MVP but I disagree; if a player has a pattern of putting up gaudy regular season numbers that are rarely if ever validated by postseason performance (individually and/or collectively) then the MVP voters should take that into account. Not every 25-30 ppg season is created equally; Michael Adams was a very good NBA player but his 26.5 ppg in 1990-91 while playing for Paul Westhead is not equivalent in impact to the 24.7 ppg that Stephen Curry is averaging this season.

Overall: Harden is an unorthodox but effective scorer and playmaker. He is bigger than Westbrook and he rebounds like a small forward. He has little to no interest in playing defense. Westbrook is perhaps the most explosive athlete in the NBA and one of the most explosive, powerful athletes to ever play point guard. Westbrook has demonstrated that he can thrive as the first or second option for a playoff bound team, while Harden chafed at being the Thunder's third option but has yet to prove that he is capable of consistently leading a team very far as the first option. If Harden leads the Rockets to 55-60 wins and homecourt advantage in the first round this season then he will have no excuses if he suffers his typical early postseason exit.

Harden is having a career year in a system designed to inflate the statistics of the team's primary ballhandler but Westbrook is having a historic season while surrounded by a supporting cast that is almost helpless when he is not in the game. Even if one would say that Harden and Westbrook are equal as scorers/playmakers--and I would dispute that notion--Westbrook has a clear edge as a rebounder, defender and leader.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:34 AM

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Basketball Hype Versus Basketball Reality

The 2016-17 NBA season is approaching the halfway mark, so this is a good time to separate basketball hype from basketball reality. The premise of this article is not meant to suggest or imply that my predictions are always correct; Minnesota is much worse than I expected, while Houston is better than I expected. Every season has its surprise teams, both good and bad--but some teams are hyped up by consensus for no objectively correct reason.

Basketball Hype: The Indiana Pacers will be a top four team in the East.

Basketball Reality: The Pacers are struggling to stay above .500 in a weak conference.

I predicted that the Pacers would "decline a bit" from last season's 45 wins and thus not make the playoffs. The Pacers' current .500 winning percentage is what I expected, though the Pacers might sneak into the playoffs because the bottom has dropped out of the Eastern Conference. 

I was baffled that so many people thought that the Pacers would not only be a playoff team but might even challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers fired a good, defensive-minded coach (Frank Vogel) and they sacrificed defense/rim protection to put together a small ball roster that does not suit the natural inclinations of new coach Nate McMillan. The roster construction does not make much sense; there is not enough firepower to just outscore the opposition nor do the Pacers have a lineup that is willing and able to play elite level defense. All of this just screams "mediocrity"--and that is exactly what has transpired.

Basketball Hype: Kobe Bryant held back the progress of the Lakers' young players but with Bryant now retired the Lakers will be a much better team.

Basketball Reality: The Lakers' young players were not ready for prime time last season and they still are not ready for prime time this season.

The media bashed Kobe Bryant when he was averaging 35 ppg and carrying the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to the playoffs, so it was obvious and inevitable that the media would kill Bryant when his skills declined. He was blamed for his big contract, as if he forced the Lakers to sign him. He was blamed for shooting too much, for supposedly not playing defense, blah, blah, blah. Well, Bryant is enjoying retirement now and those Lakers that he was supposedly holding back rank last in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, last in points allowed, last in steals, last in turnovers committed and 19th in field goal percentage. Their defense is horrible and their offense is not much better, though the latter deficiency is superficially disguised by playing at a fast pace and chasing down a lot of their missed shots (the Lakers are second in the league in offensive rebounding).

The way that Bryant prepared mentally and physically for each game--despite the challenges of age and multiple injuries--provided a great example for his young teammates to emulate. It is too bad that they did not pay more attention.

Basketball Hype: Kristaps Porzingis is the next Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony is an elite player, so the additions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah combined with upgraded coaching from Jeff Hornacek will revitalize the Knicks.

Basketball Reality: Jeff Van Gundy picked this team to win 45-50 games and said that a win total in the "low 50s" is not out of the question. I respect Van Gundy but I don't always agree with him. His prediction for the Knicks was, to be charitable, very optimistic. If everything breaks just right--which almost never happens--the Knicks could win 45 games but 50 or "low 50s" is a pipe dream. Porzingis is a very talented young player but he is not ready to carry a team yet. Anthony was overrated in his prime and he is certainly not an elite player now. Rose is playing well but he is not even close to his pre-injury MVP caliber form. Noah's individual numbers are nothing to write home about, though the team performs much better when he is on the court than it does when he sits.

The Knicks have been overly hyped for years; the fans and the media blamed Isiah Thomas for every problem under the sun and then became oddly silent when the team remained bad to mediocre (with the exception of a brief glimmer of hope when Mike Woodson was the coach) for years after Thomas' departure. Owner James Dolan is the real problem and until he either sells the team or changes his management style the results are not going to change.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 PM

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Great Players Want and Need to be Coached

Kurt Streeter explains that Tyronn Lue got the best out of LeBron James by challenging him, not coddling him: at halftime of game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals, Lue declared to James, "LeBron, you gotta be better! If we're gonna win, you gotta be better!" James led his Cleveland Cavaliers in scoring and assists during the first half but Lue knew that basketball greatness is not defined by numbers but rather by attitude, impact and focus.

Lue hit James with specific critiques that had nothing to do with statistics: "LeBron, what's wrong with your body language? Your body language is terrible. You got to guard Draymond. You got to take the open shot. Quit turning the ball over. Fix your body language. Anything else you want me to tell you?"

Too many people have become so enamored with statistics--particularly "advanced" statistics--that they fail to understand what basketball greatness really is. It is possible to put up big numbers but not be playing great basketball, which is why Lue lit into James. It is possible to score four points on 1-9 field goal shooting and be the best player on the court (Scottie Pippen versus the Indiana Pacers in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals). Bill Russell used to give the equivalent of doctoral dissertations on basketball when he served as a color commentator during CBS' NBA telecasts. One time during an NBA Finals matchup between the 76ers and the Lakers, he and Dick Stockton talked about how Julius Erving's greatness was not just defined by gaudy numbers but also by the timing of Erving's plays. Attitude, impact, focus--those traits define basketball greatness.

Kevin Loughery, who won two ABA titles in a three season span with Erving as his best player, raved about what it was like to coach Erving:

That man was the best. He was the easiest superstar you could possibly coach. He had more talent at that stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one individual have. Beyond that, so easy to coach, total gentleman, great guy. He's the best. He treated everybody the way that a player should treat everybody--his teammates, the media, the other players, the fans. He's the best superstar to be around that I've ever been around.

"Easy to coach" is a key phrase in that quote. Erving was "easy to coach" because great players want and need to be coached. Look at the relationship that Tim Duncan had with Gregg Popovich. No one was going to act a fool on that team during the Duncan era because Duncan accepted Popovich's coaching. The same thing is true in the NFL with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

In his book The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith describes how Doug Collins was reluctant to criticize Michael Jordan when Collins was the Chicago Bulls' coach. Phil Jackson, one of Collins' assistant coaches at that time, took it upon himself to chastise Jordan when Jordan did not play the right way. Before long, Jackson was the Bulls' head coach and the Bulls eventually won six championships. Collins was a very good NBA coach but in that particular situation he did not challenge Jordan the way that Jordan wanted and needed to be challenged.

Jackson later challenged both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, lifting a previously underachieving team to three straight championships. Jackson then left the Lakers before coming back to win two more titles with Bryant and Pau Gasol as the best players. I remember a film clip of a Lakers' practice during which Gasol said "It's hard" after Jackson gave him some instructions about how to execute a particular sequence and Jackson barked back, "It's supposed to be hard!" Jackson would not accept excuses. It is worth noting that great players do not make excuses for themselves or accept excuses from their teammates; Jordan and Bryant exemplify that trait.

We live in an era during which basketball is supposedly being revolutionized by "analytics," but regardless of how you manipulate the numbers the realities of human psychology and athletic competition are immutable. You cannot win with losers, no matter how talented those players might be. You can win some games, you might even win a playoff series here or there, but in the long run a team built around a loser is always going to fall short.

George Karl's autobiography Furious George will be on sale to the public in January 2017 but I just received my review copy. Here is what Karl wrote about Carmelo Anthony: "My ideal--probably every coach's ideal--is when your best player is also your leader. But since Carmelo only played hard on one side of the ball, he made it plain he couldn't lead the Nuggets, even though he said he wanted to. Coaching him meant working around his defense and compensating for his attitude" (pp. 191-192, Furious George).

The Nuggets eventually traded Anthony and Karl concluded, "...getting rid of Carmelo Anthony was a sweet release for the coach and the team, like popping a blister. I don't automatically hate a superstar, but he's got to buy in, he's got to play defense, and he's got to share the ball. And if his teammates don't like him and if he doesn't help you win a championship...what good is he, except as bait?" (pp. 214-215, Furious George)

The Nuggets had the best regular season record in their NBA history after trading Anthony but they have been a sub-.500 team since getting rid of Karl and Masai Ujiri, the general manager who wisely traded Anthony and has now built the Toronto Raptors into a contender.

Anthony is the anti-Kobe Bryant. It is highly unlikely that Anthony could ever be the best player on an NBA championship team, because he does not accept coaching and he does not understand the importance of attitude, impact and focus. Anthony's attitude is "I got my 25 points, so it's not my fault we lost."

James is fascinating, because he is as perplexing and confounding as any truly great player in pro basketball history. There is no question that he has quit during some of the most important games/series of his career, but he has also been the best player on three championship teams while authoring some of the most sensational performances in NBA Finals history. He needs to be coached but does he always want to be coached? James is not wired like Jordan or Bryant but he is a champion in a way that Anthony never will be.

"Stat gurus" often minimize and mock the importance of coaching but Tyronn Lue's direct approach with LeBron James is just the latest example of how much impact a coach can have when he delivers the right message at the right time to a superstar who is receptive to that message.  

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Handicapping the MVP Race Just Past the Quarter Pole of the 2016-17 NBA Season

The NBA All-Star ballots will be officially released on Sunday and the NBA season is nearly one third over, so it is not too early to at least take a preliminary look at the MVP race. Historically, when I write about the MVP race--or the NBA awards in general--I only discuss who I think should win and why. For example, this article describes who I felt should win the various NBA awards for the 2011-12 (it also includes links to several of my articles about the NBA awards from previous seasons). For this article, though, I am taking a different approach: I will list the top five players in my MVP rankings and I will also list who I believe would be the top five finishers if the media voters filled out their ballots today.

My philosophy about the MVP award remains unchanged; the MVP should be the best all-around player in the league, unless there is a player who is so singularly dominant in one or two phases of the game that this dominance makes him more valuable than the league's best all-around player at that time. So, Shaquille O'Neal should have won several MVPs (instead of just one) even though he was never the best all-around player in the league; his dominance in the paint made him more valuable than anyone else during his prime.

Also, in most years my MVP choice will play for team with a winning record but I would not rule out a player from a lesser squad if his individual play is exceptional and his supporting cast is clearly extremely deficient.

My top five MVP choices right now are:

1) Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook's triple double exploits set him apart from every other player in the league today. Oscar Robertson is the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62) but Westbrook is on pace to match that feat--and Westbrook has already averaged a triple double further into a season than any player other than Robertson.

Westbrook is not only having an MVP caliber season; he is having a historically great season. Some of Westbrook's point-rebound-assist lines this season defy description or belief: 36-11-17, 17-13-15, 27-18-14, 35-14-11. He recently posted a 26-11-22 stat line, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson in 1988 to have a triple double that included at least 25 points and at least 20 assists.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Westbrook's season is the way that Westbrook is single-handedly keeping his Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoff picture. When Westbrook is on the court, the Thunder are one of the league's top eight teams in point differential--but when he is out of the game, the Thunder are the worst team in the league! I am not sure if Westbrook's supporting cast is worse than anyone thought or just is not yet fully performing up to par but it is clear that Westbrook has less help than any other elite player in the NBA whose squad is in playoff contention. It is worth noting that Westbrook is also the only such elite player whose roster is not built around his skill set. The Thunder were built around Kevin Durant, who fled to Golden State; a team built around Westbrook would feature more shooters to spread the floor and also more athletes who could run with Westbrook in the transition game.

What Westbrook is doing this season is a heightened version of what Pete Maravich and Tracy McGrady did during their respective primes: he is playing at such a high level that when he is on the court an ordinary roster looks very good but when he is not on the court that same roster looks like an expansion team. Maravich, McGrady and Westbrook have very different physiques and skill sets but they each merited MVP consideration during their primes based on the way that their individual brilliance shined in a team context.

2) Lebron James

The case for James is that he is the best all-around player in the NBA and he is putting up MVP-level numbers across the board, including a career-high 9.0 apg. The case against James is that he sometimes enters "chill mode" (as he once called it) by either physically sitting out a game or by mentally sitting out, so consequently his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers only have the third best record in the league. In most years, I would probably rank James first, anyway--but not during a season when Westbrook is putting up historically great numbers while never sitting out physically or mentally.

3) Kevin Durant

Durant is the best player on the best team in the league. In many years, that is a pretty reliable MVP formula--but I cannot place him ahead of James (who is a better defender and passer) or the incomparable Westbrook.

4) Stephen Curry

The back to back reigning MVP is having another great season but no one could seriously argue that he is playing better than his teammate Durant and it is self-evident that you cannot be the league MVP if you are not the best player on your own team.

5) Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has had perhaps the most bizarre career arc of any serious MVP candidate ever. He owns a Finals MVP, he has won the Defensive Player of the Year award the last two seasons and he finished second in MVP voting in 2015-16 but he has only made the All-Star team once. This season, he is clearly the best player on a San Antonio team that has the second best record in the NBA and his two-way brilliance earns him the fifth spot on my MVP list.

*****

The media voting for MVP has produced some odd results. Shaquille O'Neal--the most dominant player of his era--only received one MVP and the year that he won it one voter did not pick O'Neal just to prove some kind of bizarre point, thus depriving O'Neal of the opportunity to become the first unanimous winner (Curry earned that distinction last season, beating out LeBron James before succumbing to him in the Finals). Kobe Bryant, the best all-around player in the NBA for several years, also won just one MVP. Meanwhile, Steve Nash won two MVPs, Derrick Rose won an MVP and Karl Malone and Charles Barkley each won MVPs before losing to Michael Jordan in the Finals in those respective seasons. The media supposedly gets "tired" of voting for the same player (or else Jordan would have won several more MVPs) and the media also likes to latch on to certain kinds of narratives, such as the underdog or the quirky and/or outrageous guy. LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time, he is in or near his prime and he has not won the regular season MVP since 2012-13. Last season, James finished third in the regular season MVP race before leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise's first title by capping off a Finals MVP performance with a game seven triple double. Unless something changes, James will probably slip to fourth in the media's regular season MVP voting in 2016-17. I doubt that the media will ever vote him as MVP again.

Here is how I think the media MVP voting would go today:

1) Russell Westbrook

This is one season when at least one of the the hyped narratives is actually worth hyping. The media pumped out stories about "angry Russ" as soon as Durant left the Thunder. Westbrook's 2016-17 story was already written before the season even began: if he played well, then that proved that "angry Russ" had properly channeled his feelings but he if played poorly then that proved that he lacked self-control and was not worthy of the status he assumed in Oklahoma City after Durant's departure. There will be no nuances in the coverage of Westbrook this season. He is a hero now but rest assured that the goat stories have already been written as well and those stories will be published if the Thunder lose too many games, regardless of how well Westbrook plays.

2) James Harden

The media loves "the Beard." He has a nickname, he does some kind of stir the pot antic after he scores, he is involved with a Kardashian--bottom line, he makes life easy for media members. So what if he lacks leadership qualities, plays no defense and will run out of town anyone who expects him to play defense. Harden is a very talented offensive player; there is no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that Mike D'Antoni's system inflates a point guard's touches and numbers. If the media evaluated players on a skill set basis, Harden could never rank ahead of the five players on my MVP ballot--but he will almost certainly finish second in the MVP voting this season (unless there is a late push to turn Westbrook into a goat and hand the honor to Harden instead).

3) Kevin Durant

As mentioned above, Durant is the best player on the best team. Many MVP voters use that as their number one criteria, so Durant figures to finish no lower than third.

4) LeBron James

By merit James should finish no lower than second but I expect that the voters will place him fourth, for the faulty reasons I have already discussed.

5) Chris Paul

Paul finished sixth in the MVP voting last season. I think that the voters will move him past Curry this year. There are a lot of stories floating around about how this is shaping up to be the Clippers' year or at least the last chance for this group to win a title together. Many media members tried to give Paul the MVP over Bryant when Bryant was in his absolute prime, so if the Clippers make a run at 60 wins then Paul will receive a lot of support for MVP. I respect Paul's grit, toughness and court vision but we have already seen that he is too small (and perhaps too stubborn in terms of how he plays) to lead a team to a title. By rights he should be no higher than 10th in the MVP race but I think that he has a great chance of cracking the top five. If the Clippers win 60 games and finish second in the West standings to the Warriors then Paul could even move into the top three.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:07 PM

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