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Friday, September 30, 2016

Fred Kerber's 12 Man All-Time NBA Team

Veteran New York Post basketball writer Fred Kerber selected his 12 man All-Time Pro Basketball Team in his February 11, 2015 column. Kerber fully recognized the difficulty of this task, noting, "Picking a 12-man, all-time All-Star team is about as easy as picking the best color, the greatest movie, the finest ice-cream flavor." Kerber quoted Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed: "It's all in who's doing the looking. Older guys are partial to the older players, younger guys go with more recent players. Pick a team and you can probably come up with a second team that could beat the first any given night."

Several years ago, I selected a Pro Basketball Pantheon comprising 10 retired players (in chronological order, those players are Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan) plus four (then) active players who I projected to be Pantheon-worthy (Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). I did not rank the players within my Pantheon, nor did I fix the size of the Pantheon at 10 or 12 or 14; I simply considered those 10 retired players, plus the four top contemporary players, to be in a group above the next category of players. That next group would include (but not be limited to), in chronological order, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen--all-time greats but players who did not have quite the peak value, dominance, versatility and/or longevity of the Pantheon members. Of course, as Reed noted, intelligent observers could easily come to different conclusions/rankings.

Kerber divided his 12 players into two groups. His starting five is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Kerber's seven reserves are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving. Kerber tapped Red Auerbach as the coach. He did not formally select an honorable mention group but he did single out Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek and John Stockton as an extraordinary quintet that, in his estimation, just could not make the cut versus the 12 players listed above.

Kerber pointed out that his starting five won a combined 30 NBA titles, led by Russell's 11 and followed by Jordan's six, Johnson's five, Duncan's five and Bird's three. He also wrote a paragraph about each of his 12 players, plus Coach Auerbach. I will quote briefly from each of those capsule summaries and then add some of my own comments:

Jordan: Kerber stated that this might change "in 100 years" but for now "Jordan universally is acknowledged as the greatest ever."

I would not say that Jordan is "universally" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever, because Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain certainly have their supporters as well. A good case could be made for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but he alienated so many members of the media that seemingly no one wants to publicly make that case. Still, it would be more precise to say that Jordan is "widely" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever. I think that it is indisputable that Jordan is the greatest basketball player of the post-ESPN era and the player who many, if not most, of today's superstars admire the most. Jordan is also the only player from the past 40 years who can honestly say that he was the best player on six NBA championship teams--and the fact that Jordan went 6-0 in those Finals while winning six Finals MVPs creates a mystique that will be almost impossible for any player who follows Jordan to overcome.

Johnson: "A five-time NBA champ, three-time Finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist, 12-time All-Star, Johnson forged a rivalry with Larry Bird dating to the NCAA Final that became legendary--and the basis of a Broadway play."

The media elevated Bird over Johnson for most of the 1980s--tapping Bird as the 1980 Rookie of the Year (Johnson had to "settle" for the 1980 Finals MVP) and as the 1984-86 regular season MVP--before Johnson won regular season MVPs in 1987 and 1989-90. During the late 1980s, some pundits were starting to proclaim Johnson to be the greatest basketball player ever. Even Bird joined that chorus, shaking his head in disbelief after Johnson's "junior, junior skyhook" sunk Bird's Celtics in the 1987 Finals; Bird called Johnson "The best I've ever seen." However, Jordan defeated Johnson in the 1991 Finals--with a lot of help from Pippen--and Johnson's HIV positive status forced him to retire, preventing a possible Finals rematch in 1992.

I think that Johnson, more than any player in pro basketball history, could be teamed up with any four decent players and turn that quintet into a very competitive team. That does not necessarily mean that Johnson was the greatest player ever--he was not as good defensively as Jordan or Russell or several other Pantheon members--but it puts him in a special, hard to define category. Young fans may believe that LeBron James has that quality but what I see from James is a mixed bag: he has won three championships but he has also left several championships on the table because of inexplicably passive play. Johnson never left any championships on the table; he lost to all-time great players/teams in their primes (the Malone/Erving Sixers, Bird's Celtics, the Bad Boys Pistons, the Jordan/Pippen Bulls). There is no footage of the 1980s equivalent of Jason Terry outdueling Johnson in the fourth quarter of key NBA Finals games.

Back to the point about Johnson's incredible versatility as a teammate. Russell needed a point guard and someone to be a scoring threat. Jordan needed Pippen (and never advanced past the first round of the playoffs without him). You can go down the line and most of the great players needed a certain kind of accompanying star and/or supporting cast to maximize their greatness--but Johnson legitimately could play all five positions and he exuded a team-first ethos that smoothed over any potential ego conflicts (Abdul-Jabbar was hardly a barrel of laughs to play with for most of his career and it was amazing to see the joy that radiated from him after he had played with Johnson for a little while). Johnson won a championship while paired with point guard Norm Nixon in the backcourt and then he won championships paired with shooting guard Byron Scott. Johnson won championships with Abdul-Jabbar as the main post up scoring threat and then he won championships as a post up scoring threat when Abdul-Jabbar had to accept a lesser role due to his age/declining skills. Johnson made it to the Finals with an aging James Worthy, a young Vlade Divac, journeyman Sam Perkins and not much else in 1991--and it took the combined efforts of Jordan/Pippen in their primes to prevent Johnson from winning a sixth title.

I think that the sudden, shocking end to Johnson's career combined with Jordan's immediate meteoric rise has actually resulted in Johnson being somewhat underrated by today's commentators.

Duncan: "(His) brilliant consistency and superb skill set, especially for a big man, has led to five titles, three Finals MVP honors and two regular season MVP awards."

Although his playing style is different from Abdul-Jabbar's, Duncan is similar in that (1) he is underrated and (2) a main reason that he is underrated is that he never sought out media approval. Abdul-Jabbar was actively hostile to the media for much of his career, while Duncan was indifferent as opposed to hostile, but the result has been the same. Abdul-Jabbar won more championships than anyone from the end of the Russell era until the emergence of Jordan but his name often gets pushed aside in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Duncan is not as great as Abdul-Jabbar but he is similarly underrated. In the post-Jordan era, Duncan has five rings and Kobe Bryant has five rings. It is true that neither player was the best player on all five of those championship teams but both players were vital contributors to all five of their respective championship teams and both players were the best player on multiple occasions.

It will be interesting to watch the Spurs this season. On paper, Duncan's replacement Pau Gasol is a better player now than Duncan was last season (though Gasol is also past his prime) but I suspect that Duncan had an impact (particularly on defense and as a leader) that is not captured statistically--but will be evident in the won/loss column.

Bird: "He did it with scoring, passing, rebounding and an ability to bring out his best in the clutch." The statistics may not bear this out but there has never been a player I rooted against who I feared more in the clutch than Bird in his prime (I rooted against him because I was--and am--a diehard Erving fan). It just felt like if the game was close and Bird got the ball then he was going to make the shot.

What people forget is that during Bird's first few seasons he rebounded like a center and he was not a particularly productive three point shooter. As the game changed and the players around him developed, Bird's role changed; he became more of a scorer and more of a perimeter player. People also forget that for the first four years of Bird's career he and Erving had the best rivalry in the sport. Erving started slowing down at age 34, just as Bird hit his peak, but before that they were very evenly matched--and it is a safe bet that the ABA version of Erving would have run circles around Bird; a lot of people may scoff at that idea but that does not make it untrue.

By 1986, the mainstream media had pretty much decided that Bird was the greatest basketball player of all-time (look at magazine cover stories from that time if you doubt this)--but then Johnson led the Lakers to back to back titles (a feat not accomplished since Russell's Celtics did it in 1968-69), with one of those championships coming at the expense of Bird's Celtics, and Johnson's 5-3 championship lead over Bird (including 2-1 in their head to head matchups) made it difficult to take seriously the idea that Bird was greater than Johnson. Both players had great supporting casts but after a decade of battling for supremacy Johnson led in the category that mattered most--rings--and thus people stopped declaring Bird to be the greatest player of all-time.

Russell: "The guy won 11 championships with the Celtics, OK? Joe DiMaggio won nine, Babe Ruth won seven." The modern commentator has all the answers about Russell: Too small to play center against Shaquille O'Neal, not a good enough scorer to win without great teammates, benefited from playing in an era with (supposedly) watered down talent compared to the NBA today which has players from all corners of the globe. Regarding the size issue, Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace proved that undersized players can be dominant rebounders in the modern NBA. O'Neal lost playoff series to Olajuwon (who was not much bigger than Russell, despite being listed at 7 feet) and to a Chicago team that guarded him with (at different times) Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and even the 6-6 Rodman. Russell won championships in virtually every season that he played organized basketball from high school through the NBA: 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, two NCAA titles in three seasons, two high school state championships; that works out to 15 championships in an 18 year period, plus an Olympic gold medal, so to suggest that such a dominant winner could not adopt his game/skill set to the modern era is an insult to Russell's greatness. He thought the game through as well as anyone who has ever played and he had a mean streak (in the best sense of the term, as an extremely competitive person) that takes a back seat to no one, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

When I first started studying basketball, I was sure that Wilt Chamberlain was greater than Russell and that if they had switched teams then Chamberlain would have accomplished at least as much as Russell did--but now I am not so sure. I still think that Chamberlain got a raw deal from the media and I certainly think that in more ideal circumstances Chamberlain would have won a lot more than two championships but Russell's mindset was just so much different than Chamberlain's that I am not sure Chamberlain could have ever sustained the team success that Russell did, no matter the circumstances. It is kind of like comparing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James; James has the more impressive physique and perhaps the more impressive statistics (depending on how you evaluate the numbers) but Bryant just figured out how to win on a more consistent basis.

My favorite Bill Russell story is about his final game, the seventh game of the 1969 NBA Finals. The L.A. Lakers had planned to release balloons from the ceiling of the arena and have a band play "Happy Days Are Here Again" after they beat Russell's Celtics to win the title. Russell got a copy of the plans and took it to the locker room, where he addressed his team (he was the player-coach) and told them that a lot of things could happen in this game but what could not happen is for the Celtics to lose--and they would have a lot of fun watching the Lakers take those balloons down one by one. The Celtics won 108-106.

Abdul-Jabbar: "None matched Abdul-Jabbar for excellence over the length of a career." The young Abdul-Jabbar gave Chamberlain--who was still a force to be reckoned with--all that he could handle in the early 1970s and in the mid to late 1980s Abdul-Jabbar was still making the All-NBA Team ahead of a crop of younger stars including Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Patrick Ewing. Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was the single greatest weapon in the history of the sport; it was unstoppable and he could deliver it with either hand out to a range of 15 feet. Abdul-Jabbar was an excellent rebounder for the first half of his career (i.e., a solid decade, which is a full career for many players), he was a great passer and he was an intimidating defensive presence in the paint. He was listed at 7-2 but I have stood next to him and am not the only person who thinks that he is even taller than that; the first thought that I had when I met a then nearly 60 year old Abdul-Jabbar was "What would it have been like to drive the lane 20 years ago and try to score over this guy?" Erving has consistently said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever faced. Abdul-Jabbar blew me off for an interview--twice--like he blew off many other people (and it's a shame, because I was actually going to ask him intelligent questions that would have led to a great dialogue) but I don't have to like the guy to give him his proper respect. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most underrated great player in pro basketball history.

Chamberlain: "'Nobody roots for Goliath,' Chamberlain said numerous times." Chamberlain is without question the most statistically dominant player in pro basketball history. He holds the record for having the most records! Some of his records--like career scoring--have been broken but many others (including 50.4 ppg average for a season, 22.9 rpg average for a career) will never even be approached. He is wrongly tagged as a loser despite winning two championships with arguably the two greatest single season teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers). Did Chamberlain focus too much on his own stats and not enough on winning? Maybe, but it could be argued that he did what his teams needed him to do and what his coaches asked him to do. He is criticized for his poor free throw shooting but no one mentions that Russell's free throw shooting was almost as bad. Purely based on his productivity in three fundamental basketball skills--scoring, rebounding and passing (he is the only center to lead the league in assists)--it is difficult to argue against the proposition that he was the greatest basketball player of all-time. Yet, there is this guy named Russell (see above) whose teams routinely outperformed Chamberlain's. The Chamberlain-Russell debate is one of the great ones in all of sports. I have talked with a lot of players who played with and/or against both men and the firsthand opinions are very divided. As I mentioned before, I used to lean toward Chamberlain but the more I study and learn about the sport the more I start to lean toward Russell. When I watch LeBron James, I feel like I am watching the modern day Wilt Chamberlain; he has the most impressive physical tools and he sets amazing statistical records and he wins a lot--but yet it feels like something is missing. "He" in that sentence could apply to Chamberlain or James.

James: "There are hype and expectations. And then there was whatever you want to call it that physical specimen James faced jumping to the NBA out of high school." Maybe I seem overly critical of James at times but I feel like to whom much has been given much should be expected. James cannot be evaluated based on the standards applied to normal people or normal NBA players, because he is not normal. Kerber is right that James faced enormous hype and that James has delivered a lot despite all of the pressure and expectations. James became one of the greatest players of all-time and things could have easily gone the other way: he could have gotten injured or become complacent or just crumbled underneath all of the scrutiny. James has had a remarkable career--but I believe that he left some championships on the table and I don't think that he is wired quite the same way as Russell, Jordan or Bryant. If I could have any one of those four guys (each in their respective primes) for a game seven, James would be my fourth pick; mind you, I would take James over all but a handful of players in the history of the sport but I would never trust him in that situation more than I would trust any one of the other three. Maybe that is not fair, maybe I am wrong, but that is my take.

Bryant: "No human could do it. Only health--three serious injuries in three years--has been able to slow down the Lakers great." Bryant never really lost his skills--they were just taken away from him, in a cruel moment, when he ruptured his Achilles while trying to carry an undermanned Lakers squad to the playoffs. Bryant was never the same after that injury, an injury that has completely ended many careers; Bryant fought hard to come back and he ended his remarkable career with a stunning 60 point outburst but he never regained the MVP form that he displayed up to the second when his Achilles popped. The "stat gurus" never much liked Bryant's game and the mainstream media always preferred the gregarious O'Neal to killer Kobe but all Bryant cared about was winning rings and he collected more of them than anyone in the post-Jordan era except for Duncan (and Robert Horry, who bagged seven as a key contributor alongside Olajuwon with the Rockets, O'Neal/Bryant with the Lakers and Duncan with the Spurs). Bryant was the first of the presumed heirs apparent to Jordan who actually made a credible run at matching Jordan's greatness; he did not quite make it, mind you, but a case could be made that Bryant is the best player of the post-Jordan era. Many would take James and some would take Duncan but Bryant at least has to be in that conversation.

West: "His bite-you-to-death defensive style supplemented his 'Mr. Clutch' shooting skill that produced a .474 career mark." West is supposedly too small to be great in the modern era? Really? He's just as big as Stephen Curry and a much better athlete who was an elite performer at both ends of the court. West would be unstoppable today with the no hand checking rule and he would also be the best defensive guard in the NBA as well.

Robertson: "Robertson AVERAGED a triple-double in 1961-62: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists." The "stat gurus" will minimize Robertson's numbers by citing pace and the small number of teams in the league and who knows what else. All I know is that pro basketball has been around for almost 70 years and Robertson is the only player not only to average a triple double for an entire season but to average an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his career, which is even more remarkable. Robertson will tell you to this day that he was every bit as good as Jordan and a lot of Robertson's contemporaries feel the same way

Erving: "Erving was as universally admired and respected for his class and dignity as for his skills." Erving is renowned for his leaping prowess--he won the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest at 26 and came in second in the inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1984 at 34--and he is praised for being an ambassador for the sport but what too often gets lost in the mix is just how great of an all-around player he was. Erving absolutely belongs in the greatest player of all-time discussion, both based on peak value (a credible case can be made that no one has ever played basketball better than Erving did in the 1976 ABA Finals, when he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots) and on sustained excellence over a long period of time (as detailed in my four part series about his extremely underrated playoff career).

A player who retired almost 30 years ago and who spent nearly the first third of his career in a forgotten league that did not have a national television contract is not going to win a battle for recognition against global icons Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I get that--but anyone who objectively looks at what Erving accomplished and how he accomplished it has to give Erving much respect.

Auerbach: "Auerbach won 938 games, nine NBA championships (in 10 years) with eight consecutively. He also oversaw seven more titles as Boston's president and general manager." Auerbach bristled at being compared to Phil Jackson, who eventually broke Auerbach's record by winning 11 titles as an NBA coach; Auerbach growled that he both built and coached his championship teams, while Jackson inherited ready made teams that he then coached. Auerbach is no doubt smiling down now as he watches Jackson struggle to put together a winning squad in New York; maybe Auerbach was right all along when he compared himself to Jackson.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Placing Kevin Garnett's Career in Proper Context is Complicated

Kevin Garnett recently announced his retirement, ending a 21 season career that was highlighted by one NBA championship (Boston, 2008), one regular season MVP award (2004), one Defensive Player of the Year award (2008), four rebounding titles (2004-07) and nine All-Defensive First Team selections. Garnett will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, albeit one who will be overshadowed by two other first ballot Hall of Famers in his class (Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan).

Garnett's impact extended beyond the court, because he directly or indirectly influenced changes in how the business of basketball operates. He entered the NBA in 1995 as a 19 year old known as "The Kid" and "The Big Ticket." He was the first basketball player to make the preps to pros jump since Darryl Dawkins in 1975 and the first to become an All-Star after doing so since Moses Malone, who jumped from high school straight to the ABA in 1974 and eventually became a three-time NBA MVP. In contrast, Dawkins enjoyed a 14 year NBA career but he never made the All-Star team.

Garnett's successful NBA debut paved the way for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and several other future Hall of Famers to jump straight to the NBA from high school--but the failures of many other high school players who attempted the same feat (and shall remain nameless here) ultimately led to the NBA instituting a rule preventing teams from drafting or signing players who had just finished high school. After Garnett emerged as an All-Star in 1998, he signed a then-mind boggling six year, $126 million contract extension that precipitated the 1999 lockout as owners scrambled to change the rules regarding rookie contracts and maximum contract size. Garnett's huge deal was grandfathered in, though, and is a major reason that Garnett has the highest career earnings of any player in NBA history.

Despite Garnett's fat bank account, no credible analyst would propose that he is one of the top 10 players of all-time or even one of the top 20 players of all-time; even his staunchest supporters would hesitate to rank him higher than somewhere between 21-30 among the best of the best.

However, the "stat gurus" always loved Garnett and one of the major themes repeated by many of the "stat gurus" when "advanced basketball statistics" were first gaining attention was that Garnett's value was not fully appreciated by old school talent evaluators but was only captured by proper numbers crunching. I found the whole spectacle ridiculous for a variety of reasons: (1) Garnett achieved fame, wealth and awards long before most people had any idea that "advanced basketball statistics" existed, so he was hardly underrated or ignored by conventional player evaluation methods; (2) many of the statistical systems that supposedly proved Garnett's efficiency had serious flaws; (3) the underlying premise that Garnett was the best player in the league ("stat guru" Dave Berri tapped Garnett for that honor not once, not twice but four years in a row!) is demonstrably false. In fact, the insistence by so many "stat gurus" that Garnett was underrated when he clearly was not underrated was one of the first warning signs to me that many "stat gurus" were not pursuing truth but rather creating story lines that would justify them being hired by ESPN or by NBA front offices (and this plan worked out very well for the "stat gurus," even if it made ESPN's NBA coverage--in both TV and print formats--unbearable at times and even if it made teams like the Philadelphia 76ers deplorable and unwatchable).

Addressing the first point, no one needed to crunch numbers on a fancy spreadsheet to figure out that Garnett was a very good player; the eye test showed that he was a mobile seven footer who scored, rebounded, passed, blocked shots and accumulated steals. He set solid (and, arguably, illegal) screens, he could guard multiple positions and he was durable. Those reasons explain why Garnett was able to go straight from high school to the NBA and quickly become the highest paid player ever while receiving All-Star selections and other honors. It is absurd to suggest that no one understood Garnett's worth until Dave Berri and other "stat gurus" showed up.

Regarding the second point, I have always insisted that if we are going to buy the premise that a given player is the best in the league because statistical system "X" says so then we also have to buy the premise that the other conclusions of statistical system "X" are valid, because the same methodology informs those conclusions. For example, let's take Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). According to that metric, in the past 20 years LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA eight times. Maybe you buy that premise, maybe you don't, but let's dig deeper. The other multiple leaders since 1996-97 are Kevin Garnett (three times) and Stephen Curry (twice). VORP tapped Shaquille O'Neal as the best player once and it never placed Kobe Bryant higher than third (VORP only placed Bryant in the top five in the NBA three times during his entire career). Tim Duncan also was only listed as the best player once. Maybe you are still on board with VORP, so try this on for size: VORP ranked Steve Francis as the best player in the NBA in 2000-01. If you still take VORP seriously, I don't think that I can help you understand basketball (or anything else). According to VORP, Tim Duncan was the best player in the NBA in 2001-02 and Kevin Garnett was the second best player. I disagree with that but maybe you don't think those particular rankings are outlandish, so please note that  in 2001-02 VORP ranked Brent Barry as the fourth best player in the NBA (O'Neal was eighth and Bryant 12th as they somehow defied "advanced basketball statistics" to lead the L.A. Lakers to a third straight championship).

So, if you are using VORP (or Berri's statistical gibberish, which produced similarly bizarre results) to support the idea that Garnett should have won three MVPs, then you are also co-signing on Francis winning one MVP and Brent Barry being an All-NBA First Team caliber player in 2001-02. This kind of nonsense explains why I spent so much time decrying "stat gurus" and "advanced basketball statistics" during the early years of 20 Second Timeout (with age I have come to realize that it is difficult to turn fools away from foolishness, particularly if the fools can make money by propounding said foolishness).

As for the third point, I don't believe that Garnett was ever the best player in the NBA; Berri and VORP are way off base by suggesting that he should have won multiple MVPs and even the official MVP voters lost the thread a bit in 2004 when they were so excited about the possibility of Garnett finally winning a playoff series that they gave him the MVP. The best thing that Garnett did in the 2003-04 season is stay healthy; he played in all 82 games, while Bryant, Duncan and O'Neal each missed at least 13 games. If the MVP voters used durability as the tiebreaker when choosing Garnett I can accept that but I am not buying that Garnett deserved the MVP because VORP and Berri said so.

Garnett was certainly a viable MVP candidate in 2004 but Duncan--already a two-time NBA champion--essentially posted the same numbers in 2004 that he did in 2003 when he won the second of his back to back MVPs. The San Antonio Spurs went 51-18 when Duncan played but just 6-7 in the games that he missed, which kind of suggests that Duncan was rather valuable. Similarly, the Lakers went 48-17 with Bryant and just 8-9 without him. The Lakers posted a 15-4 record when Bryant scored at least 30 points.

Garnett paid a lot of attention to his individual numbers, particularly during the first half of his career. During his prime, Garnett bragged that he produced "20-10-5" (averages of at least 20 ppg, 10 rpg and 5 apg) on a yearly basis. While that was true from 2000-2005, it is also true that his Minnesota Timberwolves went 5-13 in the playoffs during the first four of those seasons, never making it out of the first round. After adding two-time NBA champion Sam Cassell and 1999 NBA Finalist Latrell Sprewell to the roster, Minnesota advanced to the 2004 Western Conference Finals before losing in six games to the Lakers, who somehow overcame the non-MVP caliber VORP numbers of Bryant and O'Neal. Garnett's Timberwolves then missed the playoffs each of the next three seasons.

After the first of Garnett's six straight 20-10-5 seasons, Minnesota lost 3-1 to Portland in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. Scottie Pippen, in the twilight of his career at 34 years old, averaged 18.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.3 apg for Portland in the series. He shot just .419 from the field but he shot .421 from three point range and nearly a third of his field goal attempts were from beyond the arc, so his shooting was actually rather efficient overall. Pippen led Portland in scoring and rebounding during the series, while ranking second in assists. Garnett averaged 18.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 8.8 apg but he shot just .385 from the field, without the benefit of a lot of made three pointers to offset all of his errant attempts. He led Minnesota in rebounding and assists while ranking second in scoring to Terrell Brandon, who averaged 19.5 ppg on .508 field goal shooting.

A few years later, Pippen--never one to mince words--made some pointed comments about Garnett: "He really set the tone for self-destruction. He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on [winning] the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley had both previously criticized Garnett for not having a go-to scoring move in the post and for not carrying enough of the scoring burden down the stretch in close games.

Here is my June 2007 take on Garnett just before he was traded to Boston:
Garnett has put up gaudy numbers during his career--20.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.5 apg--but it could be argued that he has less impact on winning and losing then perhaps any other player who has ever won an MVP. Go through the list of MVP winners and try to find another one whose teams missed the playoffs for three straight years while he was healthy and in his prime. Garnett once boasted in a TV ad about how he puts up "20, 10 and 5" (referring to ppg, rpg and apg) year in and year out but one wonders if achieving those stats means more to him than putting up 50 (regular season wins) and 16 (the number of playoff wins it takes to win a championship). Tim Duncan seems utterly unconcerned with attaining certain specific individual statistical totals; he does whatever his team needs him to do to win on a given night.
The arrival of Julius Erving in Philadelphia turned the 76ers into instant, perennial championship contenders and he stuck it out with the franchise until they finally won a title. Isiah Thomas joined a 16 win Detroit team and transformed them into back to back champions a few years later during an era when the NBA was dominated by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Jordan joined a bad Chicago team and eventually led the Bulls to the top of the heap. Garnett strung together a bunch of first round losses, made it to the Conference Finals once and then wanted to flee Minnesota after missing the playoffs for three years in a row.

The trade to Boston was perfect for Garnett, for it teamed him up with two future Hall of Famers (Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) who were more than happy to do the clutch scoring down the stretch of close games. The Celtics also had a deep roster surrounding their All-Star trio, including a young point guard in Rajon Rondo who was the best player on the court at crucial times during the 2008 championship run.

The Celtics rolled to a 66-16 regular season record in 2007-08 and Garnett finished third in the regular season MVP voting. I would argue that this was perhaps the best season of his career even though he did not come close to 20-10-5, because Garnett was entirely focused on winning a championship, as opposed to putting up gaudy individual numbers to convince critics that it was not his fault that his team was losing. It is worth remembering, though, that Pierce--not Garnett--won the Finals MVP as the Celtics defeated Bryant's Lakers in six games.

Boston made it back to the Finals in 2009 but Bryant won the Finals MVP as his Lakers triumphed in seven games. Garnett battled injuries and declining skills during the rest of his career, making stops in Brooklyn and then Minnesota again before finally deciding to retire.

Duncan was without question the best power forward of this (or any) era. He averaged 19.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.0 apg and 2.2 bpg during his regular season career, increasing those numbers to 20.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 3.0 apg and 2.3 bpg during the playoffs. Garnett averaged 17.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.7 apg and 1.4 bpg during the regular season and 18.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.3 apg and 1.3 bpg during the playoffs. The numbers look comparable, though Duncan enjoys at least a slight edge across the board except for assists. However, Duncan had a much greater impact; he anchored the Spurs in the paint at both ends of the court, while Garnett far too often drifted away from the paint. Garnett had much more jumping ability than Duncan, yet Duncan blocked more shots. It is not a coincidence that Duncan won five championships and contended for titles throughout his career while Garnett won one championship and went through long stretches during which he did not contend for titles.

Garnett made the All-NBA First Team four times. Bryant and Karl Malone hold the record with 11 All-NBA First Team selections each. Duncan made the All-NBA First Team 10 times, matching Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Players with nine All-NBA First Team selections include Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (Julius Erving made the All-ABA First Team four times and the All-NBA First Team five times for a total of nine First Team selections).

Garnett's nine All-Defensive First Team selections are tied for first all-time with Jordan, Bryant and Gary Payton. Garnett's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 was well deserved, as his work at that end of the court played a major role in turning Boston into a dominant defensive team.

Much is made about Garnett's trash talking and toughness but I was never much impressed by either quality with Garnett. While I prefer athletes with a quiet demeanor like Erving, Duncan and Bjorn Borg, I have also rooted for and appreciated flamboyant performers such as Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson and Deion Sanders; I don't mind if you talk and strut if you back up the words and swagger by winning championships. Garnett spent more than 20 years running his mouth and he has exactly one championship to show for all of that noise--and he was not the best player on the court during that championship series. Ali, Jackson and Sanders were at their best when they faced the best. Regarding toughness, I don't remember Garnett confronting Charles Oakley or other real tough guys; when I picture Garnett yapping I picture him screaming at guys half his size and/or half his ability. OK, he tapped Duncan on the head once--and Duncan looked at Garnett like Garnett was crazy. Garnett did not intimidate Duncan and Garnett seemed far from enthusiastic about tapping anyone on the head who might have remotely considered responding in kind.

In his prime, Garnett was a first rate rebounder and defender. He scored and passed well, though not well enough to carry a team very far without substantial help. Garnett was a great player but he was never the NBA's best player. I think that the criticisms that Pippen, Magic and Barkley made about Garnett during Garnett's Minnesota days were valid and I don't think that the Boston championship refuted those criticisms; that championship proved that Garnett was willing and able to reduce his role to fit in on a title team (and he deserves credit for doing that) but it did not prove that Garnett was at the same level as his contemporaries O'Neal, Duncan, Bryant and James, players who performed at an individually dominant level during multiple championship runs.

Perhaps this article may come across as more negative than it is intended to be but I am simply trying to place Garnett's career in proper context, which is not easy to do after years of media rhapsodizing and reams of "analysis" that supposedly proved that Garnett was perennially the NBA's best player when O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant were all in the primes of their careers. It is not necessarily Garnett's fault that his value was overstated at times but as an analyst/commentator I feel duty bound to correct the record as the books close on a great--but not Pantheon level--career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:25 AM

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Justin Termine's All-1970s and All-1980s Teams

Justine Termine's website declares that he is "an entertainer, not a journalist," which is an admission that his player rankings are designed more to promote conversation/controversy than to actually evaluate greatness. Nevertheless, the All-Decade Teams that he announced on Sirius NBA radio last year* at least provide a foundation to discuss the subject of how one might best select an All-Decade team.

Termine chose Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Rick Barry, Elvin Hayes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his All-1970s Team. Termine's All-1980s Team includes Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It is important to establish two ground rules when selecting an All-Decade Team: (1) The minimum number of games played to qualify and (2) Determining what position a player played.

Generally, in order to qualify to be listed among career regular season statistical leaders in the NBA record book, a player must have competed in at least 400 games. Essentially, that constitutes a five year career. Since most great NBA careers begin in one decade and conclude in another, the 400 game standard is a bit too high for inclusion on an All-Decade Team, so I propose that the minimum number of games be 320. A player can significantly impact a decade by participating in at least four seasons.

Positional designations can be tricky. The modern NBA is almost position-less, comprising "bigs" who mainly play in the paint (a dying breed) and "smalls" (who often are 6-9 or taller) who play all over the court. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, positional designations were more meaningful and most teams had a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a power forward and a center. The point guard handled the ball and ran the offense, the shooting guard was generally a scorer who had some ballhandling responsibilities, the small forward mainly played on the wing (though he could also contribute on the boards and perhaps occasionally post up on offense), the power forward rebounded and defended the hoop (and sometimes was a prime scoring option as well) and the center typically played with his back to the basket at both ends of the court. Obviously, these descriptions do not apply to all players from those eras, but an examination of the All-NBA Teams selected during those decades demonstrates that those squads almost always consisted of two guards, two forwards and one center. Sometimes, two small forwards were chosen instead of a small forward and a power forward but at the very least the broad designations of guard/forward/center were followed pretty consistently.

An All-Decade Team should comprise two guards, two forwards and one center who each played at least 320 regular season games during that decade. How should the players be selected/ranked? The answer to that question is inherently subjective to some extent; even people who claim to be using purely "objective" statistical tools are actually being subjective, because the statistical tools they choose reflect their subjective preferences/biases. I do not have a set formula but I place high importance (in no particular order) on (1) peak value, (2) versatility, (3) lack of a defined skill set weakness, (4) longevity/durability and (5) winning. Regarding the last factor, I do not "punish" a player for not winning if he never had a supporting cast that would have enabled him to win but I do "reward" players who win because, after all, that is why we keep score in the first place. Even when these factors are not explicitly mentioned below, they formed the basis for my selections.

Each member of Termine's All-1970s Team far exceeded the 320 games guideline suggested above but the designation of Havlicek as a guard is questionable at best. While it is true that Havlicek often played shooting guard (particularly early in his career) and he is renowned for his ability to swing between the frontcout and the backcourt, Havlicek made the All-NBA First or Second Team seven times during the 1970s and on each occasion he was listed as a forward. Havlicek ranked second in the decade in total assists (4185) but that does not justify listing him as a guard; Barry was right behind Havlicek in third place with 4093 assists and there is no question that Barry was a forward.

Termine's other selection at guard is right on target. Frazier averaged 20.2 ppg (26th in the 1970s), 6.1 apg (fifth in the 1970s) and 6.0 rpg (first in the 1970s among point guards) during the 1970s. He was the premier defensive guard of that era and a key member of two championship teams. A strong case could be made that Frazier was the best all-around guard of the 1970s.

Other top guards of the 1970s include Jerry West, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, Nate "Tiny" Archibald and Gail Goodrich. West played 320 games in the 1970s, so he just meets my games played requirement. He won one championship and participated in three NBA Finals during the 1970s. West ranks fourth in the decade in scoring average (26.1 ppg) and first in assists (8.7 apg) by nearly a full assist per game over Lenny Wilkens (7.9 apg). West made the All-Defensive First Team each year from 1970-73.

Maravich played 615 games in the 1970s, ranking sixth in scoring average (25.0 ppg), seventh in total points (15,359) and eighth in apg (5.7). Maravich made the All-NBA First Team in 1976 and 1977, when he won the scoring title (31.1 ppg) and finished third in the MVP voting. He was leading the league in scoring in 1978 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury--and he still made the All-NBA Second Team despite appearing in only 50 games. Two drawbacks for Maravich are that he was not a great defender and his teams had minimal playoff success (which is not necessarily his fault, but has to be weighed at least a little bit when comparing him to Frazier and West).

Gervin was a scoring machine in both the ABA and NBA, averaging 24.1 ppg overall (eighth in the 1970s) during the decade and winning two NBA scoring titles (1978, 1979). Gervin began his career as a forward but spent most of the 1970s playing shooting guard. Gervin finished second behind Bill Walton in the 1978 NBA MVP voting and he finished second behind Moses Malone in the 1979 NBA MVP voting.

Archibald remains the only player in NBA/ABA history to win a scoring title and an assists title in the same season, averaging 34.0 ppg and 11.4 apg in 1972-73. He averaged 23.0 ppg (12th in the 1970s) and 7.6 apg (third in the 1970s) during the decade. Archibald only made the playoffs once in the 1970s before winning a championship with Boston in 1981.

Goodrich ranked 10th in both total points (14,692) and total assists (3769) during the 1970s, while finishing 27th in ppg (20.2) and 13th in apg (5.2). He was the leading scorer in the regular season (career-high 25.9 ppg) and playoffs (23.8 ppg) for the 1972 Lakers team that posted a then-record 69 wins en route to capturing the NBA title.

My All-1970s Team includes West at guard alongside Frazier. West led the decade's guards in scoring and assists and he was right behind Frazier as a defender even though West was at the tail end of his career while Frazier was in his prime. West performed at a high level at both ends of the court for teams that perennially contended for championships, so I give him the edge over Maravich even though Maravich put up gaudy numbers in nearly twice as many games. Frazier and West were the two best guards in the early 1970s, Maravich was the best guard in the mid-1970s and Gervin was the best guard in the late 1970s.

Termine's most glaring omission is not including Julius Erving at forward. Erving was clearly the best forward of the 1970s and a strong case could be made that he was the best player, period (the only other serious contender for that honor is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Erving ranked third in the decade in scoring average (26.2), 19th in rebounding average (10.4, second only to Billy Cunningham's 11.4 among small forwards), tied for 22nd-24th in apg (4.5, fourth among small forwards behind John Havlicek, Rick Barry and Billy Cunningham), tied for third-seventh in steals per game (2.1, tied with Rick Barry for best among small forwards) and ninth in blocked shots per game (1.7; steals and blocked shots became official statistics in 1972-73 in the ABA and in 1973-74 in the NBA). Erving won three ABA scoring titles, three ABA regular season MVPs (sharing one with George McGinnis), two ABA Playoff MVPs and two ABA titles. He also led the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals in the first season after the NBA-ABA merger.

The forward position was stacked during the 1970s (and the 1980s). A compelling case could be made for many players to join Erving on the All-1970s Team but when you look at versatility, durability and impact three forwards separate themselves from the pack: Rick Barry, John Havlicek and Elvin Hayes.

Barry played like Superman in 1974-75 when he led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship, the first and only title of Barry's career. He ranked third in the 1970s in total points (18,389) and assists (4093). He was seventh in scoring average (24.4 ppg) and tied for 10th-11th in apg (5.4, second only to Havlicek among forwards). Barry won five of his seven free throw percentage titles during the 1970s and he was the decade's leader in that department (.899). He was a solid rebounder (6.3 rpg in the 1970s, ranking 45th). Barry covered the passing lanes very well (like Erving, he averaged 2.1 spg during the 1970s) but he rarely blocked shots and overall he was an average defender at best.

I already mentioned Havlicek's status as a perennial All-NBA Team forward and his prowess as a passer. He also was a fixture on the All-Defensive Team (First Team member 1972-76, Second Team member in 1970 and 1971). Havlicek ranked sixth in total points (15,747) and 18th in scoring average (21.9 ppg) during the 1970s. Like Barry, he was a solid rebounder (6.4 rpg in the 1970s, ranking 44th). In the 1960s he was a great sixth man on the storied Boston championship teams led by Bill Russell but in the 1970s Havlicek took on a leading role as Boston won titles in 1974 and 1976. Havlicek earned the 1974 Finals MVP.

Hayes was a great college center at the University of Houston who had a tremendous rivalry with Abdul-Jabbar (who was known as Lew Alcindor when he played for UCLA). Hayes played center early in his NBA career but he spent most of the 1970s playing power forward for the Bullets alongside Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld. Hayes led the 1970s in total rebounds (11,565) and he ranked second in total points (18,922). Hayes averaged 23.2 ppg in the 1970s (11th) and his 14.2 rpg average ranked sixth. He was also an exceptional shot blocker (2.5 bpg, third in the 1970s). Hayes helped the Bullets reach the NBA Finals three times (1975, 1978, 1979) and he was a key contributor to their 1978 championship team. He did not have a great relationship with the media, which probably contributed to him getting stuck with a reputation as a malcontent who did not perform well in clutch situations, but Hayes was a dominant scorer-rebounder-shot blocker throughout the decade.

Hayes was the best power forward of the decade and Havlicek may well have been the best two-way forward but Barry had an extra gear as a dominant scorer, enabling him to win a championship with less help than either Havlicek or Hayes had. I cannot fault anyone for taking Havlicek or Hayes but Barry gets my nod as the other All-1970s Team forward alongside the spectacular Erving.

I agree with Termine's choice of Abdul-Jabbar at center but it is still worth looking at Abdul-Jabbar's resume, as he may be the most underrated great basketball player of all-time. He led the 1970s in total points (22,141, more than 3000 ahead of Hayes), ppg (28.6, 1.2 ppg ahead of Bob McAdoo) and bpg (3.5) while ranking second in total rebounds (11,460) and rpg (14.8). Abdul-Jabbar shot .551 from the field in the 1970s, third behind Bobby Jones and Artis Gilmore, two players who attempted significantly fewer shots per game than he did. Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Finals twice (1971, 1974), earning the Finals MVP after a 4-0 sweep of the Bullets in 1971. He won five of his record six regular season MVPs in the 1970s. The only other player who won multiple MVPs in the 1970s is Erving, who picked up three straight (1974-76) in the ABA.

Other top centers during the 1970s include Bob McAdoo, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Dave Cowens. Moses Malone came on strong at the end of the decade, winning the first of his three regular season MVPs in 1979, but he did not accumulate a significant enough body of work in the 1970s to measure up with Abdul-Jabbar; similarly, Bill Walton played the position about as well as anyone has for a season and a half spanning 1976-78--leading Portland to the 1977 NBA title, winning the 1977 Finals MVP and then earning the 1978 regular season MVP--but he did not sustain his greatness nearly long enough to supplant Abdul-Jabbar from the number one spot on the All-1970s Team.

McAdoo spent a lot of time at forward--particularly later in his career--but in the 1970s he made his mark at center, earning a pair of All-NBA selections at that position in 1974 and 1975. McAdoo also won the 1975 regular season MVP. During the 1970s he ranked second in ppg (27.4), he tied for sixth-seventh in bpg (2.0) and he tied for eighth-tenth in rpg (12.2). McAdoo also ranked 11th in field goal percentage (.509) even though he shot a lot of long range jumpers. When Bill Russell was asked how McAdoo ranked among big men as a shooter, Russell responded that McAdoo was one of the great shooters of all-time regardless of size or position.

Gilmore was one of the few centers who had enough size and strength to cause problems for Abdul-Jabbar. These two titans had some great battles in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the NBA-ABA merger. Gilmore ranked ninth in total points (14,708) and fourth in total rebounds (10,353) in the 1970s. He won the 1975 ABA Playoff MVP after leading the Kentucky Colonels to their first and only championship. Gilmore had the 16th highest scoring average in the 1970s (22.1 ppg), the best rebounding average (15.5 rpg) and the second best blocked shots per game average (3.0 bpg).

Daniels was the man in the middle for the Indiana Pacers as they won three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73). He is the ABA's all-time leading rebounder and he earned one of his two regular season MVPs during the 1970s (1971). Daniels was not a huge scorer (17.0 ppg, 58th in the 1970s) but he tied for third-fourth in rebounding (14.6 rpg) and 10th-11th in blocked shots (1.5 bpg).

Cowens ranked fifth in total rebounds (9636) in the 1970s and he tied Daniels for third-fourth with a 14.6 rpg average. He tied for 35th-36th in the 1970s with an 18.6 ppg average. The undersized Cowens did not block many shots for a center (1.0 bpg) but he was a feisty defensive player who earned three All-Defensive Team selections. Cowens won the 1973 NBA regular season MVP and he finished fourth, second and third respectively in the 1974, 1975 and 1976 MVP voting. Cowens played a major role for Boston's 1974 and 1976 championship teams.

McAdoo, Gilmore, Daniels and Cowens are each Hall of Famers who hit their primes in the 1970s but none of them accomplished enough to warrant being ranked ahead of Abdul-Jabbar.

Thus, my All-1970s Team is Walt Frazier, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Termine did a better job with his All-1980s Team than he did with his All-1970s Team but at least three of the five picks are absolute no-brainers: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have to be the guards and Larry Bird has to be one of the forwards. Abdul-Jabbar is the best choice at center, though he had some competition from Moses Malone early in the decade and Hakeem Olajuwon as the decade closed. However, Termine's pro-Celtic (and perhaps anti-Julius Erving) bias shows a bit with his selection of Kevin McHale as the other forward. While McHale was a great player, he was not a better or more dominant performer in the 1980s than Erving.

Magic Johnson was the player of the decade. In the 1980s he won two of his three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989), he won three Finals MVPs (1980 as a rookie, 1982, 1987) and he led the Lakers to five championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988) in eight Finals appearances. Johnson's Lakers defeated Bird's Celtics in two of their three Finals matchups, Johnson won two more championships than Bird and Johnson led the Lakers to the first back to back titles since Russell's Celtics accomplished the feat in 1968-69.

Johnson ranked first in apg by a country mile (11.2, 1.4 apg more than Isiah Thomas) during the 1980s and he led the league in that category four times. Johnson was not a great one on one defender but he used his size to good effect on the defensive boards and he played the passing lanes very well, ranking eighth in spg (2.0) during the 1980s while leading the league in that department twice. Although not known as a huge scorer for most of his career, he still ranked 26th in scoring average (19.2 ppg). Johnson was an exceptional rebounder for a guard, averaging 7.4 rpg in the 1980s to rank 28th, right behind Abdul-Jabbar and McHale. He was not a great outside shooter but he improved in that area as his career progressed and he also became an excellent free throw shooter (.834, 17th best in the 1980s) who won the free throw shooting crown in 1989. His basketball IQ was off the charts and don't let the megawatt smile fool you: he was a killer on the court.

Jordan took the league by storm with his individual talents but in each of his first three seasons the Chicago Bulls were a sub-.500 team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. He won one of his five regular season MVPs in the 1980s (1988) and he won the Defensive Player of the Year award the same year, the first player to accomplish that feat (Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1994, while David Robinson eventually won both awards but not in the same season). Jordan won three of his record 10 scoring titles in the 1980s and his 37.1 ppg average in 1986-87 is the record for players not named Wilt Chamberlain (Chamberlain exceeded that mark four times). Jordan averaged 32.6 ppg in the 1980s, 6.1 ppg more than second place finisher Adrian Dantley. Though Jordan was criticized for supposedly being selfish in his early years, he averaged 5.9 apg in the 1980s (12th best and just .2 apg behind Bird, who was lauded for his passing skills). Jordan ranked ninth in free throw shooting percentage (.848). Other than three point shooting, Jordan had no skill set weaknesses.

Bird won three straight regular season MVPs (1984-86), a feat only accomplished by Russell (1961-63), Chamberlain (1966-68) and Erving (1974-76 in the ABA). He led the Celtics to three championships (1981, 1984, 1986), winning two Finals MVPs (1984, 1986). As mentioned above, he was renowned for his passing skills--but he was also a top notch scorer, ranking sixth in the decade with a 25.0 ppg average topped only by scoring champions Jordan, Dantley, Gervin and Alex English. Bird was described as a pass-first player but he attempted 19.6 field goals per game during the 1980s, the fifth highest average behind only Jordan, Wilkins, English and Gervin. Bird ranked ninth in rpg (10.2) and tied for 13th-14th in steals (1.8 spg). Bird was a notoriously poor one on one defender who was routinely assigned to guard the weakest offensive threat on the opposing team's frontcourt but he inexplicably received a pair of All-Defensive Second Team selections early in his career. Bird was the best free throw shooter in the 1980s (.880).

Bird's teammate McHale was a great low post scorer who twice led the NBA in field goal percentage and who could guard all three frontcourt positions during his prime but he only made the All-NBA Team once (1987, when he finished fourth in MVP voting--the only time he placed in the top 12). He never averaged 10 rpg during a season, as Bird and Robert Parish annually ranked 1-2 on the team in that category. I am not bashing McHale at all, just stating the facts: he was a great player but even when one limits the comparison to 1980s statistics and accomplishments he must be ranked behind Erving.

It is unfortunate that even many so-called basketball historians have forgotten that the sport's marquee matchup for the first four years of the 1980s was the Erving-Bird rivalry. Erving and Bird made the All-NBA First Team each season from 1980-83 (in 1984, the 34 year old Erving slipped to Second Team status while Bird remained on the First Team). Erving and Bird faced each other in three Eastern Conference Finals during that period, with Erving's 76ers winning in 1980 and 1982, while Bird's Celtics overcame a 3-1 deficit to triumph in 1981 (a past his prime Erving lost to Bird 4-1 in the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals). Erving's "prize" for twice besting Bird was to face the L.A. Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the NBA Finals, while Bird won an NBA title against a sub-.500 Houston team in 1981. Moses Malone joined forces with Erving in 1982-83 and that tandem proved unstoppable, rolling to a 65-17 regular season record before going 12-1 in the playoffs, capping things off in style by sweeping the Lakers 4-0. Only the 2001 L.A. Lakers posted a better playoff record (15-1 in an expanded format) than the 1983 76ers.

Erving was not quite the same player in the 1980s as he had been in the 1970s but in 1981 at the age of 31 he won the regular season MVP, becoming the first non-center to win the NBA MVP since Oscar Robertson in 1964. Erving was the forerunner of a host of non-centers who subsequently won the award. The only 1980s forward who topped Erving's four All-NBA First Team selections is Bird (nine); the next players on the list are Bernard King and Charles Barkley (two each). Erving spent some time at guard in his final two seasons--when he was still an All-Star but no longer an elite player--but he still ranked 15th in the 1980s in scoring (22.0 ppg), 38th in rebounding (6.4 rpg, better than the similarly sized and much younger Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and James Worthy), 28th in assists (3.8 apg, fifth best among small forwards), 13th-14th in steals (1.8 spg) and 10th in blocked shots (1.6 bpg, the best mark among small forwards). From 1980-84 at the ages of 30-34, Erving finished second, first, third, fifth and sixth in the regular season MVP voting. It is also worth noting that he captured All-Star MVP honors in 1983 and he finished second in the Slam Dunk Contest in 1984, demonstrating that he could match (and exceed) the aerial acrobatics of players significantly younger than he was. The All-Star Game MVP and the Slam Dunk Contest do not factor into All-Decade Team consideration but the point is that well into his 30s Erving was perceived as and performed like an elite player who was still a torch bearer for the league even with the emergence of Bird and Magic.

The 1980s was perhaps the NBA's golden age of small forwards, as Dantley (26.5 ppg, third in the 1980s), Wilkins (26.0 ppg, fourth in the 1980s) and English (25.9 ppg, fifth in the 1980s) each outscored Bird and Erving. King (22.6 ppg, 12th in the 1980s) gave Bird a run for his money for 1984 regular season MVP honors and then clinched the 1985 scoring title with an eye-popping 32.9 ppg average before a devastating knee injury almost ended his career. Other high scoring 1980s small forwards include Mark Aguirre (24.1 ppg, eighth in the 1980s) and Kiki Vandeweghe (22.8 ppg, eighth in the 1980s). However, none of those forwards won championships except for Aguirre and none of those forwards could impact a game in as many ways or as profoundly as Erving and Bird.

Two other forwards worth mentioning are Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, who began their ascents toward stardom in the 1980s but did not emerge as MVPs until the 1990s. 

Like Erving, Abdul-Jabbar was not as dominant in the 1980s as he was in the 1970s--and, like Erving, Abdul-Jabbar did more in the 1980s alone than most players do in their entire careers. Abdul-Jabbar was already 33 years old by the conclusion of the 1980 regular season but the arrival of rookie Magic Johnson seemed to lift his spirits. Abdul-Jabbar won five championships with Johnson and it is not like he was riding Johnson's coattails; Abdul-Jabbar won the 1980 regular season MVP (and probably would have won the 1980 Finals MVP if a sprained ankle had not forced him out of game six, setting the stage for Johnson's legendary 42 point, 15 rebound, seven assist performance) and at 38 years old he captured the 1985 Finals MVP. He made the All-NBA First Team four times during the 1980s, more than any other center (Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon each earned three First Team selections during the decade). He ranked 18th in scoring (20.6 ppg), 26th in rebounding (7.6 rpg) and third in blocked shots per game (2.6). Abdul-Jabbar was the focal point of the Lakers' offense until 1986-87 and even though he was no longer a dominant rebounder he was still a formidable rim protector.

Abdul-Jabbar's only serious challengers for pivot supremacy in the 1980s were Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon. Malone won a pair of regular season MVPs (1982, 1983) and he outplayed Abdul-Jabbar in the 1983 Finals. In the 1980s, Malone ranked seventh in scoring (24.5 ppg), first in rebounding (13.2 rpg) and 12th in blocked shots per game (1.4). His individual numbers were better than Abdul-Jabbar's and for a two year stretch (1982-83) he outplayed Abdul-Jabbar but Malone did not sustain that level, enabling Abdul-Jabbar to regain All-NBA First Team status. As first Malone and then Abdul-Jabbar faded, Olajuwon stepped to the forefront. In the 1980s Olajuwon relied more on pure athleticism than the nimble footwork which he perfected in the 1990s but even in his raw, early days he was a force to be reckoned with, ranking 10th in scoring (23.0 ppg), second in rebounding (12.1 rpg) and first in blocked shots (3.1 bpg) during the 1980s. Olajuwon was without question the best center in the NBA during the final three years of the 1980s. He actually finished fourth in the 1986 MVP voting, one spot ahead of Abdul-Jabbar, who was selected over Olajuwon as the All-NBA First Team center. Olajuwon captured All-NBA First Team honors in 1987-89, ranking seventh, seventh and fifth in the regular season MVP voting during those seasons. In the 1980s, Malone was more physical and relentless than Abdul-Jabbar, while Olajuwon was more athletic, but no center had a longer run at the top--both individually and from a team standpoint--than Abdul-Jabbar.

Thus, my All-1980s Team is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

____________________

* One could argue that this is old news since Termine selected his All-Decade teams last year but this is the first opportunity that I have had to respond in depth and since the subject matter is historical the timeliness of the response does not matter; it is more important to address this subject thoroughly than it is to immediately fire something off in response.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Julius Erving's Legend Resonates Nearly 30 Years After He Retired

I have previously noted that Julius Erving has served as a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter nine times, which is very possibly a record (I have yet to find a complete and official list of presenters but based on the available data I do not know of anyone who has been a presenter more often than Erving). Erving retired before most of today's NBA players were even born. The first five years of Erving's career took place in the relative obscurity of the ABA and most of his career happened before ESPN became massively popular. Yet, Erving's legend endures. Why is that?

John Roach of The Times-Picayune offers his take in a thoughtful and personal piece:

Why Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson wanted Dr. J as a presenter

Roach lists some of Erving's numerous on-court accomplishments and feats but concludes that those things alone are not what separates Erving: "Julius Erving at heart was an Everyman who wouldn't let his extraordinary physical talents and unrelenting desire on the court define him. He was an entrepreneur, a mentor, a leader in the Philadelphia community and beyond."

When I was a kid watching Erving play and following his career, I knew that I would never feel the way about another athlete that I do about him. Erving has experienced public and private trials and tribulations during the ensuing decades but my childhood instinct has proven correct: there have been some great athletes who followed Erving and there have been some classy athletes who followed Erving but none of them have ever moved me or impacted my life the way that Erving did. Maybe part of that is because Erving was at the height of his fame during the formative years of my life but, as Roach suggests, I think that there is more to it than that. There is just something captivating, engaging and unique about Erving.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:03 AM

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2016-17 is Available Now!

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2016-17 is in stores now. This season's edition includes the standard lineup of eight feature articles plus previews for each of the 30 NBA teams. The features are "Scoping the NBA" (Jorge Ribeiro and Roland Lazenby examine some of the key off-season stories), "Stopping the Unstoppable" (Michael Bradley ponders whether anyone can stop the Warriors after the addition of Kevin Durant), "It's Legacy, Dudes" (Lazenby discusses the Cavaliers' chances of winning back to back titles), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Simmons" (Lazenby provides a scouting report on the number one overall pick in the draft), "NBA Report Card" (Lazenby grades each team's off-season moves), "A Look Ahead" (Jeremy Treatman previews the 2017 NBA Draft), "Fantasy Basketball" (Mike Ashley provides advice to fantasy basketball aficionados) and "A Look Back" (Lazenby reminisces about how Michael Jordan took over the NBA 30 years ago, averaging a non-Wilt Chamberlain record 37.1 ppg). 

I wrote the L.A. Lakers team preview and sidebar this year. I enjoyed quickly shifting gears from Bar Exam preparation to analyzing the prospects of one of pro basketball's most storied franchises. This is the ninth edition of Lindy's Pro Basketball for which I have contributed at least one team preview or feature article, a run that started in 2005 and continued through 2013, after which I took a couple years off as I earned my J.D. degree. Respected author/editor Roland Lazenby has ably handled the editorial duties for Lindy's Pro Basketball seemingly forever; I first met Lazenby during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend in Denver after admiring his work from afar for many years and it has always been a pleasure to work with him.

When I was a kid/young adult, one of the highlights of this time of year was going to Waldenbooks and looking for the various NBA preview magazines, plus the new NBA Guide and NBA Register. The NBA Guide and NBA Register are now digital only products and many of the preview magazines of yesteryear have ceased publication but it still remains a thrill to go to a bookstore and see Lindy's Pro Basketball in the magazine section--and the thrill is heightened because I have been blessed with the opportunity to contribute to Lindy's!

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:04 PM

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2016

This year's Basketball Hall of Fame class is headlined by two players who are polar opposites in size and playing style: the huge, powerful Shaquille O'Neal and the diminutive, quick Allen Iverson. However, it is important to not overlook the accomplishments of several of the other enshrinees, including Cumberland Posey, John McClendon and Zelmo Beaty.

Posey was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, 60 years after he passed away. He spent 35 years in that sport as a player, manager and owner. His teams won nine consecutive Negro League pennants. He was also considered to be the best African-American basketball player of the early 20th century, before he retired from basketball to pursue his baseball career. Posey played basketball at Duquesne University and was later inducted into that school's sports Hall of Fame. Posey subsequently led the Loendi Big Five to four straight Colored Basketball World Championships in the early 1920s (the term "Colored Basketball World Champion" was used and accepted by African-American sportswriters in that era and is still used today by scholars who research the segregated basketball leagues of that era).

McClendon was previously honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 as a contributor but this year he finally was enshrined as a coach, nearly 20 years after he passed away. The term innovator is thrown around far too loosely but it fits McClendon, who learned the sport of basketball from James Naismith himself. McClendon's teams pushed the pace during an era when slowing the game down was the most common and accepted way to play. McClendon is the first coach to win three straight college basketball titles, leading Tennessee State to the NAIA championship from 1957-59. McClendon also coached the Cleveland Pipers in the American Basketball League, becoming the first African-American head coach in any American professional sport and thus paving the way for championship coaches like Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens, K.C. Jones, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin and others. The movie "Black Magic" masterfully tells the story of McClendon and other African-American basketball pioneers.

Zelmo Beaty passed away three years ago, yet another great player whose belated Hall of Fame enshrinement arrived posthumously. Beaty led Prairie View A&M to the 1962 NAIA championship before earning two All-Star selections in the NBA. He then jumped to the upstart ABA, where he earned three more All-Star selections and was twice named to the All-ABA Team. Beaty won the 1971 ABA Playoff MVP award as he led the Utah Stars to the championship. He averaged 23.2 ppg and 14.6 rpg while shooting .536 from the field during the 1971 postseason. Beaty averaged 17.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg during his 12 year professional career.

O'Neal is the biggest figure in this year's class, literally and figuratively. I discussed his legacy extensively right after he retired. He should be commended for the wonderful way that he acknowledged both his history and the history of the sport by tapping Alonzo Mourning, Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving and Bill Russell to be his presenters. O'Neal identified Mourning as a rival turned friend, he cited Thomas as a mentor in sport and business, he termed Russell the "greatest big man ever" and he is one of many who grew up idolizing Erving.

O'Neal is obviously one of the greatest and most dominant basketball players of all-time and I certainly don't want to rain on his parade as he receives his sport's ultimate honor but a few things are worth mentioning in light of some of O'Neal's repeated public comments about his career:

1) No one should buy the idea that the O'Neal-Kobe Bryant feud was just for show or was some kind of ingenious method by O'Neal to motivate Bryant. If anyone needed motivation and focus, it was O'Neal, not Bryant. The main source of their feud was that Bryant was a relentless, obsessive worker in training, in practice and in games, while O'Neal preferred to conserve his energy for games (and sometimes only for playoff games). Yes, they had other issues as well and both could have been a little bit more mature about how they handled things but the ultimate issue was that they had a fundamentally different approach to the game--and history has vindicated Bryant's approach, because he had a much longer individual peak than O'Neal and because Bryant won more championships with less help despite not being nearly as physically imposing as O'Neal. O'Neal played with prime versions of Penny Hardaway, Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash and LeBron James, plus slightly past their prime versions of Boston's Big Three. O'Neal won three titles with Bryant and a combined one title with everyone else. I well remember that in the early 2000s many of Bryant's critics stated that any of a number of perimeter players could have won titles playing alongside O'Neal in Bryant's place; these critics likely never imagined that O'Neal would go on tour around the league playing alongside so many elite perimeter players but that happened and we found out that in terms of winning championships it is much better to play alongside Bryant than it is to play alongside the other guys. Meanwhile, my oft-stated contention during that era was that prime Bryant could contend for--if not win--a championship provided he had a solid big man and a halfway decent supporting cast. Bryant subsequently made the playoffs twice with Kwame Brown and then he transformed the Lakers into a mini-dynasty when paired with Pau Gasol, who no one thought of as being even remotely close to an elite player before he arrived in L.A.

2) O'Neal has a tendency to twist history around in general, not just in terms of his relationship with Bryant. O'Neal has admitted that he made up the story about David Robinson refusing to sign an autograph for him when O'Neal was a youngster in San Antonio. O'Neal plays this off as a harmless self-motivational tactic and he claims that Robinson has forgiven him but this is different than Michael Jordan trash talking LaBradford Smith or the Vancouver Grizzlies during a game to motivate himself; O'Neal portrayed Robinson--one of the sport's class acts--in a negative light publicly because he could not figure out any other way to motivate himself to perform. Why is this deemed acceptable but Bryant's self-motivation--which was never about lying or putting down other people--is viewed so negatively?

3) O'Neal has said that when he arrived in Miami he knew that he was on the downside of his career and thus he told Dwyane Wade that the Heat were Wade's team. If O'Neal had been willing to have a similar conversation with Bryant then O'Neal could have stayed in L.A. and he almost certainly would have won multiple additional championships with Bryant as opposed to just one title with Wade.

One last point: O'Neal is often described as the most dominant player ever but that is not true either by the eye test or by the numbers. The eye test showed that a skilled and savvy big man like Hakeem Olajuwon could outduel O'Neal in the Finals during O'Neal's prime. The numbers show that when O'Neal retired he ranked 21st in regular season career scoring average (23.69 ppg) and 32nd in regular season career rebounding average (10.85 rpg). Those are great per game averages and they would have been even greater had he not extended his career well past his prime but there are just too many players ahead of O'Neal on both lists for him to be considered the most dominant player ever. O'Neal's back to back to back Finals MVP performances are among the most dominant ever but O'Neal did not sustain that kind of dominance game in, game out during his career.

All that being said, O'Neal is in my Pro Basketball Pantheon and I can say without hesitation that he was robbed by the media of several regular season MVPs that he deserved: he won the 2000 MVP (nearly becoming the first ever unanimous selection, a distinction that Stephen Curry achieved last season) while finishing second in 1995 and 2005 but he probably should have received the honor in 2001, 2002 and 2005 at the very least (the 1995 MVP rightfully should have gone neither to O'Neal nor to the actual winner David Robinson but rather to Olajuwon).

Iverson is the most amazing athlete I have ever watched perform in person. He is not necessarily the greatest athlete I have ever seen in person and he is certainly not the greatest basketball player I have seen in person but he amazes me the most because I stood next to him off of the court and I seriously doubt that he was even his listed 6-0, 165 pounds when he won four scoring titles plus one regular season MVP. If you saw him warming up from afar and did not recognize his trademark tattoos and corn rows you would have sworn that a ball boy had sneaked on to the court. Then the game began and Iverson spent 40-plus minutes (he averaged at least 40 mpg in 11 of his 14 NBA seasons, which is one of the most remarkable statistics in pro basketball history considering his size and playing style) being pushed, shoved, grabbed and bounced around like a billiard ball. Somehow, by the end of the game he would have about 27 points, six assists, two steals and a bunch of floor burns. Maybe his team won, maybe his team lost but night after night Iverson kept his team in contention and left his heart on the floor. Stat gurus will carp that he was not efficient and there is no doubt that Iverson would have benefited from taking a more disciplined approach to the sport (and life, for that matter). I did not agree with everything Iverson said or did but I would go into a (basketball) foxhole with him any day of the week. Iverson played every game as if it was his last and he gave every ounce of energy he had. Iverson played hurt and he hated to miss a minute, let alone sit out a game.

Both O'Neal and Iverson tapped Julius Erving to be one of their presenters. Erving has now served as a Hall of Fame presenter nine different times and according to my research he may hold the record for most times serving as a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter. Previously, Erving presented Cheryl Miller (1995), Moses Malone (2001), Clyde Drexler (2004), Dominique Wilkins (2006), Artis Gilmore (2011), Katrina McClain (2012), Ralph Sampson (2012). Erving has often stated that he values respect more than popularity and the fact that so many Hall of Famers from so many diverse backgrounds have selected him as a presenter is a testament to how highly respected Erving is across the board.

The other members of the 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame class not discussed in this article are referee Darell Garretson, college coach Tom Izzo, Chicago Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes and Chinese/NBA star Yao Ming. Their careers and accomplishments are of course noteworthy as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kevin Durant Dominates as Team USA Routs Serbia 96-66 in Gold Medal Game

Serbia kept the game competitive for a little over 10 minutes but Team USA mounted a huge second quarter run en route to a 96-66 victory to win Olympic gold for the third straight time. Team USA slipped by Serbia 94-91 in Group A play and it seemed reasonable to expect a close game again but this time Team USA reached a level that Serbia could not come close to matching, outscoring Serbia 60-28 in the second and third quarters; during those 20 minutes, Team USA played tenacious defense and featured the ball/player movement that had been largely absent earlier in the tournament. Was Team USA on cruise control for the first seven games or did Team USA build on each game to peak at just the right moment? We may never know for sure but all that matters is that Team USA came through when it mattered most and delivered the kind of emphatic victory that Team USA fans have been wanting and expecting since the Olympics began.

Kevin Durant was magnificent, scoring a game-high 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in a game-high 30 minutes and posting a +38 plus/minus number. Durant also scored 30 points in Team USA's 107-100 win over Spain in the gold medal game at the 2012 Olympics. DeMarcus Cousins came off the bench to produce 13 points and 15 rebounds in just 17 minutes. Klay Thompson was the only other Team USA player to reach double figures, scoring 12 points while also playing solid defense. Paul George's stat line is forgettable (9 points on 2-9 field goal shooting, two rebounds, two assists, three steals) but his gaudy +37 plus/minus number hints at his hidden impact; his suffocating defense played a major role in Team USA's huge second quarter run that determined the outcome of the game. Carmelo Anthony struggled in the gold medal game, which has been the case throughout his Olympic career; he finished with seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting, plus seven rebounds (one of which he grabbed late in the game after being reinserted so that he could set the USA record for career Olympic rebounds). Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting in the 2012 Olympics gold medal game and after performing poorly early in the contest he was on the bench for the final 8:13 of Team USA's 118-107 win in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain .

Nikola Jokic was the best player on the court during the aforementioned Group A matchup between Team USA and Serbia, pouring in a game-high 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting, but Team USA made a concerted effort to shut him down this time: he finished with just six points on 3-5 field goal shooting. No Serbian player stood out today; Nemanja Nedovic scored a game-high 14 points, most of which he accumulated in garbage time.

After experimenting with his starting lineup early in the Olympics, Coach Mike Krzyzewski settled on this group: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Doug Collins noted that Jordan compensates for Irving's defensive shortcomings (particularly in screen/roll actions) for the first unit, while Kyle Lowry's ball pressure compensates for DeMarcus Cousins' defensive shortcomings (particularly in screen/roll actions) for the second unit. Serbia started Milan Macvan, Nikola Kalinic, Miroslav Raduljica, Stefan Markovic and Milos Teodesic, a quintet that routed Australia in the previous game, denying Australia a chance to win a medal. Serbia has a tough and well-disciplined team but they just had no answers for Team USA's depth and athleticism once Team USA decided to lock in defensively while playing unselfishly on offense. As Collins put it, a team as talented as Team USA is should never take "degree of difficulty shots" but rather should move the ball and move players until a high percentage shot is created. In the gold medal game, Team USA largely eschewed one on one play and instead probed Serbia's defense with precision passing or timely drives until Serbia just could not withstand the onslaught.

However, it was far from apparent in the early going that this would be a rout--or even that Team USA was assured a victory. Team USA turned the ball over on its first two possessions as Serbia took a 7-4 lead. Serbia was still up 14-12 at the 1:40 mark before George sank a pair of free throws. Cousins then converted a layup to make the score 16-14 in favor of Team USA. He missed the ensuing free throw for the three point play opportunity but Team USA never trailed again. Durant's three pointer with :29 remaining in the opening stanza extended the Team USA lead to 19-15, which was the score entering the second quarter.

Serbia had kept the pace slow and the score low, holding Team USA to 7-20 field goal shooting (.350) and six turnovers in the first quarter. It looked like Team USA would have to grind this one out but instead Team USA ratcheted up the defensive pressure and Serbia succumbed, perhaps satisfied to receive the silver medal. George opened the quarter with a steal and a fastbreak dunk. Cousins sank four straight free throws. Durant dropped in a pair of three pointers and then matched George with a steal/coast to coast dunk. Suddenly, Team USA was up 33-20 and smelling blood in the water. Collins noted that Coach Krzyzewski wants to force the opposition to "make plays instead of running plays." By taking Serbia out of their sets, Team USA created turnovers and bad shots that fueled their transition game. Collins also mentioned that another Coach Kryzezewski goal is for his teams to make more free throws than the opposition attempts. In this game, Team USA shot 18-23 from the free throw line while Serbia shot 10-14.

Durant scored 18 of Team USA's 33 second quarter points as Team USA took a 52-29 halftime lead and he had 24 first half points on 9-13 field goal shooting. Cousins added 11 points and 12 rebounds in the first half as Team USA's inside-outside 1-2 punch stretched Serbia's defense to the breaking point.

Team USA did not let up at all in the third quarter, outscoring Serbia 27-14 to extend the margin to 79-43. The only questions in the fourth quarter were if Team USA would break the record for point differential in an Olympic gold medal game (44) and whether every Team USA player would score at least one point. Team USA led 88-47 midway through the quarter before calling off the dogs somewhat, enabling Serbia to outscore Team USA 23-17 in the final stanza to cut the margin to an even 30 points. Harrison Barnes, who did not even see action in four of Team USA's games, received nearly six minutes of fourth quarter playing time and became the final Team USA player to score when he converted a driving layup in the last minute of play.

Team USA was rightly criticized for some shaky performances during the Olympics but at the end of the day they won every game that they played and they performed their best when the games mattered most, holding each of their final three opponents to 78 points or less and field goal percentages below .400. I am not a huge fan of Anthony's game and I am not surprised that he again came up small in the biggest games but I must say that I was moved by how overcome with emotion he was in the moments right after the game. It is obvious that representing his country is very important to Anthony and I commend him for that, particularly since so many players over the years have turned down that opportunity; Anthony has answered that call four times and the flaws in his game do not diminish the dedication that he has demonstrated in support of America and of USA Basketball. Each player on the team committed himself to sacrifice for the greater good; this may not have been a Dream Team but it was an American team that represented America well and it was a pleasure to watch them play the right way in the gold medal game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:23 PM

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Team USA Outlasts Spain to Advance to the Gold Medal Game Versus Serbia

Team USA defeated Spain 82-76 to advance to the gold medal game on Sunday versus Serbia, who routed Australia 87-61 in the other semifinal matchup. Team USA never trailed and led by as many as 15 points but Spain stayed in contact throughout the game and had a chance to cut the lead to six with :44 remaining in the fourth quarter when Nikola Mirotic missed a layup after rebounding his own missed free throw. It is not surprising that Spain made this game competitive, because Spain proved to be a challenging foe for Team USA in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal games even when Team USA featured LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski stuck with the starting lineup that helped lead Team USA to a 105-78 quaterfinal victory over Argentina: DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Thompson has not shot well during this tournament but he scored a team-high 22 points on 8-16 field goal shooting, including 4-8 from three point range. Durant scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds but he performed erratically and Team USA was outscored by two points during his nearly 31 minutes of action. In contrast, Jordan led Team USA with a +11 plus/minus number. He scored nine points, tied the Team USA Olympic single game record with 16 rebounds and he blocked four shots. Irving's statistics do not jump off of the page (13 points, five rebounds, two assists) but he had Team USA's second best plus/minus number (+7). Anthony struggled mightily (seven points on 2-11 field goal shooting) but because he shared a lot of minutes with Thompson and Jordan he had a plus/minus number of +6.

Pau Gasol overcame a calf injury to lead Spain in scoring (23 points) and rebounds (eight). Sergio Rodriguez (11 points, team-high five assists) was Spain's only other double figure scorer as Team USA held Spain to 28-72 (.389) field goal shooting.

Durant started the game with a careless pass that led to a turnover and that play foreshadowed how the entire contest went for Team USA's leading scorer in the Rio Olympics; Durant made several questionable plays, he never found a great shooting rhythm and he also battled foul trouble. Team USA scored their first points on a Jordan putback and then Gasol countered with a putback as Spain tied the score for the first and last time. Gasol almost singlehandedly kept the game close in the first quarter, scoring nine of Spain's first 13 points and finishing the quarter with 12 points on 4-6 field goal shooting. Kyle Lowry hit a three pointer with five seconds left to push Team USA's lead to 26-17. Team USA shot 11-21 (.524) from the field and grabbed six offensive rebounds in the first quarter.

With Anthony struggling--one of his shots hit the side of the backboard--Coach Krzyzewski tapped him to shoot two technical free throws at the 9:10 mark of the second quarter but the attempt to boost Anthony's confidence backfired when Anthony missed both shots. The officiating was odd--not biased for one team, but just odd: five technical fouls were called in the first half, three on Spain and two on Team USA but the action was not chippy and the complaining that led to technical fouls did not seem excessive (at least based on the camera angles for the TV viewers). Durant received one of the technical fouls at the 3:40 mark right after he shot an airball. In FIBA play a technical foul also counts as a personal foul and five personal fouls lead to disqualification, so Durant sat out the rest of the half as he had accumulated three personal fouls. Juan Carlos Navarro made the ensuing free throw to cut Team USA's advantage to 33-30. Nikola Mirotic received a technical foul--his fourth foul of the first half--with 3:02 remaining and that was a major blow to Spain as he is a key member of their squad.

Team USA's offense was stuck in mud or quicksand during most of the second quarter. With more than eight minutes elapsed, Team USA had scored just 10 points--eight of them by Thompson. Team USA closed the quarter with nine points in the final 1:52 to hold on to a 45-39 lead. Team USA's biggest first half run was 5-0. As Doug Collins put it, the first half was disjointed" for both teams. Spain did an excellent job of slowing the game down and minimizing Team USA's transition opportunities (Team USA scored just three points off of turnovers in the first half).

Play continued to be choppy and sloppy in the third quarter. Anthony's three point play at the 6:20 mark put Team USA up 53-43 but Spain countered with a Gasol tip in and a Sergio Llull three pointer to cut the margin to five points. Jordan dunked an alley oop pass from Thompson just before the buzzer to extend Team USA's advantage to 66-57 but with 10 minutes to go it was still anyone's game.

Two layups by Kyle Lowry sandwiched around a George layup put Team USA up 72-57 with 7:28 to go but Navarro and Mirotic each hit a three pointer in an 8-3 run as Spain refused to go quietly. The score remained 75-65 for over a minute until Irving connected on a three pointer from the right wing to create some separation. A Rodriguez three pointer followed by a Mirotic dunk cut the difference to single digits again but neither team scored for over a minute and a half until Durant's layup put Team USA up 80-69 with 1:43 to go. That shot, followed by a George dunk, should have clinched the game but Victor Claver made a three pointer and then George fouled Mirotic on a three point shot. Mirotic made the first two free throws to trim the deficit to 82-74 with :44 remaining and then Mirotic snared the rebound after he missed the third free throw. Mirotic missed a point blank shot to make it a two possession game. Team USA had control at that point and a meaningless Rodriguez layup at the buzzer closed out the scoring.

Spain outscored Team USA 19-16 in the fourth quarter and Team USA's halfcourt execution throughout the game was painful to watch at times. Team USA would come out of a timeout and you could not tell what--if any--play had been called on the sideline. Spain deserves credit for being an excellent, well-coached defensive team but Team USA also bailed Spain out with careless passes, too much one on one play and some questionable shot selection. After the hot shooting first quarter, Team USA cooled off to finish 33-79 (.418) from the field, including 22-58 (.379) in the final 30 minutes. If Team USA had not chased down 21 offensive rebounds then Spain could very well have won.

Ugly wins count just as much as beautiful ones, so Team USA got the job done and is one victory away from capturing the third straight Olympic gold medal of the Jerry Colangelo-Mike Krzyzewski era. Those two men were charged with the responsibility of resurrecting the wayward Team USA program in the wake of embarrassing performances in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and 2004 Olympics and they have more than accomplished that task, a fact which should not be ignored even as we basketball purists wish that this version of Team USA would hold itself to a higher standard than just doing enough to get by.

On paper, Spain was the biggest threat to Team USA in the Olympics. Spain is second in the world (behind only Team USA) in the FIBA rankings and prior to the semifinal game Spain led the Olympics in points allowed (70 ppg) and defensive field goal percentage (40%) while ranking second in rebounding (39.2 rpg). However, Serbia only lost to Team USA by three points in Group A play and Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the final 37 minutes of that contest. One would hope that the first game against Serbia served as a wakeup call for Team USA, because Serbia demonstrated that they are absolutely capable of competing with and possibly beating Team USA. I expect another close game and I have a hunch that Irving will hit the shot that clinches the gold medal for Team USA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 AM

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