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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn Left an Indelible Legacy as a Player, Coach, and Broadcaster

Tommy Heinsohn, who lived a remarkable and highly decorated basketball life, passed away today at the age of 86. He joined John Wooden, Bill Sharman, and Lenny Wilkens as the only people inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (1986) and a coach (2015). Heinsohn won the 1957 NBA Rookie of the Year award, made the All-Star team six times in nine seasons, and earned the 1973 NBA Coach of the Year award. 

How you remember or think about Heinsohn is very much a generational consideration, which is a testament to his longevity and versatility. If you are at least 70 years old, you may remember Tommy Heinsohn most as a great player who played a key role for eight of Boston's NBA championship teams. If you are at least 60 years old, you may remember Tommy Heinsohn most as a great coach who led the Boston Celtics to NBA championships in 1974 and 1976. If you are younger than 60 years old, you probably remember Tommy Heinsohn most as a colorful broadcaster who did not hide that he bled Celtic green but who also had great insight about the game from both a playing and coaching perspective.  

My earliest memories of Heinsohn date back to his days as a color commentator for CBS' national NBA coverage in the 1980s. I did not think that he was an overt Celtic partisan during those broadcasts, but some observers did. Heinsohn spent nearly 40 years working as a color commentator for the Celtics' local coverage, and during those broadcasts his rooting preferences were quite evident--and there is nothing wrong with that.

I did a phone interview with Heinsohn on June 10, 2004, and we spoke about many basketball topics, ranging from his playing career to the modern game. I quoted Heinsohn in my December 2004 Basketball Digest article about Sam Jones. I also interviewed Bob Cousy and K.C. Jones during that period, and I later interviewed John Havlicek, Satch Sanders, and Dave Cowens. All of those legendary Celtics were a joy to interview. I believe that I first met Heinsohn when Indiana played Boston during the 2005 NBA playoffs. I recall that he was very approachable and friendly; he did not put on any airs, or act like he was a legend who should get special consideration.

Bill Russell was the defensive anchor for the dynasty Celtics, Cousy was the playmaker who could also score, Bill Sharman was the sharpshooter who was also a scrappy defender, and Heinsohn was known as "Ack-Ack" and "Tommy Gun" because he loved to shoot. In each of Heinsohn's first six seasons he averaged at least 16.2 ppg and at least 9.5 rpg for Boston's balanced attack. In his first couple seasons he was the third option behind Cousy and Sharman but in 1959-60 he led Boston in scoring (21.7 ppg). Heinsohn led the team in scoring for three straight seasons before Sam Jones and Havlicek emerged as the team's top scorers. Heinsohn was Boston's leading playoff scorer during four championship seasons (22.9 ppg in 1957; 21.8 ppg in 1960; 19.7 ppg in 1961; 24.7 ppg in 1963). He was Boston's second leading playoff scorer in 1962 (20.7 ppg) when Russell put up this incredible playoff stat line: 22.4 ppg, 26.4 rpg, 5.0 apg, 48.0 mpg. 

Heinsohn retired in 1965 before returning to coach the Celtics four years later, succeeding Russell, who retired as player-coach after leading the team to the 1969 title. Heinsohn compiled a 427-263 regular season record (.619 winning percentage) as Boston's head coach from 1969-78. The Celtics missed the playoffs in the first two years of the post-Russell era before winning at least 54 games in each of the next five seasons. Heinsohn's best team went 68-14 in 1973 but did not win the title after Havlicek injured his shoulder versus the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston won two of the next three titles before declining in the late 1970s.

After Heinsohn was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2015, I wrote about Heinsohn's perspective on the enduring greatness of the Boston Celtics teams that he played for and coached. Coach Red Auerbach set the tone:

Heinsohn declares, "Red’s style of play: the philosophy was to destroy the will of the other team to beat you and his strategy was to put you to the supreme mental and physical test. We had this uptempo game called the fast break. This put you, including the big guys, to the ultimate physical test of sprinting on every possession. He also implemented an aggressive defense and we had the ultimate stopper in Bill Russell." 

So much is made now of "analytics" and the value of pushing the pace and spreading the court but Auerbach figured all of this out decades ago without using a spreadsheet. Heinsohn states simply, "The secret weapon of the Boston Celtics for over 30 years" was "the pace of the game." This made the other team pay a physical price by forcing the other team to play faster than they were comfortable playing and making them "think fast while running backwards." Heinsohn compares this to racing against the world's best marathoner by using a relay team.

Heinsohn has worked as a broadcaster for decades now and he says that when he meets with coaches before games they will often say that they want to push the pace but Heinsohn believes that most coaches do not understand what that means. Heinsohn is appalled when he sees a big guy retrieve the ball after a made basket and walk out of bounds to pass the ball into play; he trained all of his players--even his big guys--to be able to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. The point was to get the ball in play and up the court as fast as possible before the defense can get set.

Heinsohn admits that when he became a coach he did not see a reason to deviate much from Auerbach's approach. The Boston teams that Heinsohn coached were small but they were tough, they rebounded ferociously and they ran the court relentlessly. His 1972-73 team went 68-14 in the regular season featuring a lineup of 6-9 center Dave Cowens, 6-7 power forward Paul Silas, 6-5 small forward John Havlicek, 6-5 shooting guard Don Chaney and 6-3 point guard Jo Jo White. The undersized Celtics led the league in rebounding and might have won the championship if Havlicek had not injured his shoulder during the playoffs. In 1973-74, that same group posted a 56-26 record (second best in the NBA), led the league in rebounding and beat the 59-23 Milwaukee Bucks in seven games to win the Celtics' first championship of the post-Bill Russell era. The 1974-75 Celtics tied with the Washington Bullets for the best record in the NBA (60-22), finished second in the league in rebounding and lost to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1975-76, the Celtics replaced Chaney with Charlie Scott, a 6-5 shooting guard who won the 1972 ABA scoring championship (34.6 ppg) before making the All-Star team three years in a row as a Phoenix Sun. The Celtics went 54-28--the second best record in the NBA behind only the defending champion Golden State Warriors--and led the league in rebounding en route to claiming their second title in three years.

The sound, fundamental principles of winning basketball have not changed in the past 60 years, and they likely will not change in the next 60 years: be mentally and physically strong, push the pace to wear down the other team, and attack on offense before the defense has time to get set. Heinsohn learned and applied those principles well, so it is not an accident that he won eight championships in nine seasons as a player before winning two championships in nine seasons as Boston's head coach.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:54 PM

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Friday, October 16, 2020

Objectively Assessing Daryl Morey's Legacy

Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets' General Manager since the 2007-08 season, has resigned, citing what he termed "personal reasons."* Paeans extolling his excellence are appearing in all of the usual sources one would be advised not to read if one wishes to understand basketball strategy. When objectively assessing Daryl Morey's legacy, it is important to focus on two factors: what he was hired to accomplish, and what he accomplished.

Daryl Morey was hired because he claimed that the way he utilized advanced basketball statistics provided a significant advantage for acquiring the best basketball talent, and that this significant advantage could be leveraged to build a championship team. He was not hired to build a team that could annually win at least 50 games, or that could win a playoff series or two; accomplishing those things was considered to be a given: Morey was hired as a "stat guru" with the goal of winning an NBA championship. 

Daryl Morey served 13 years as Houston's General Manager and the Rockets never reached the NBA Finals during his tenure.

Daryl Morey failed to accomplish what he was hired to do.

One can take a wider view and see that Morey's Rockets had some notable accomplishments--but any assessment of Morey's tenure that does not first and foremost acknowledge that he failed is not an honest assessment. This is the same standard applied to athletes; the goal is to win a championship, and not winning a championship is failing to accomplish the goal. It is possible to have a great career and yet fail to win a championship--Elgin Baylor, Pete Maravich, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Allen Iverson are Hall of Fame players who each failed to win an NBA championship--but it would be odd to suggest that not winning a championship is not a failure.

Is Daryl Morey a great general manager despite his failure to win a championship?

Daryl Morey proved that he could build teams that regularly reached the playoffs, that he could do so without tanking, and that he had a good eye for filling out his bench with solid players who had team-friendly contracts. He was above average in each of those three areas, but I am not convinced that means he was a great general manager.

The Rockets had the second best regular season record in the league during Morey's tenure, but did not come close to matching that success level during the postseason. Morey's Rockets reached the Conference Finals twice, missed the playoffs three times, and lost in the first round four times; thus, most of his teams were not championship contenders, and seven of his 13 teams did not advance past the first round.

How significant is it to reach the Conference Finals? Two teams advance that far each year in each conference, so if those appearances were evenly distributed over a 13 year period with 15 teams in each conference then each team would average 1.7 Conference Finals appearances. In the past 13 years, 10 Eastern Conference teams and 10 Western Conference teams made at least one Conference Finals appearance and six teams in each conference made at least two Conference Finals appearances.

Reaching the Conference Finals two times in a 13 year period is not particularly impressive, it is not elite, and it does not signify greatness. 

How significant is it to miss the playoffs just three times in 13 years? Seven teams miss the playoffs each year in each conference, so if those missed playoff appearances were distributed evenly over a 13 year period with 15 teams in each conference then each team would average 6.1 years in which they missed the playoffs. 

Missing the playoffs just three times in 13 years is definitely better than average.

How significant is it to lose in the first round four times in 13 years? Four teams lose in the first round each year in each conference, so if those losses were evenly distributed over a 13 year period with 15 teams in each conference then each team would average 3.5 first round losses. 

Having four first round losses in 13 years is an average performance.

There have been some awful teams during the past 13 years. The Sacramento Kings missed the playoffs every year, the Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs 11 times, the New York Knicks missed the playoffs 10 times, and the Charlotte Hornets missed the playoffs 10 times. 

There have been some great teams during the past 13 years. Four teams in each conference won at least one championship, while three teams (Golden State, L.A. Lakers, Miami Heat) won at least two championships.

Morey's Rockets were not awful, but they were not great. He was not an awful general manager, but it is difficult to make an objective, fact based argument that he was a great general manager. Of all people, he should appreciate that approach, because he believes in what the numbers say, not what the eye test or a narrative might suggest. 

It is impossible to close the book on the Morey era without discussing James Harden. Morey's most significant and memorable transaction was acquiring Harden, who Morey immediately termed a "foundational player" and who Morey later proclaimed to be a better scorer than Michael Jordan

Before Harden played a game for Houston, I evaluated him as an All-Star caliber player (Harden had yet to make the All-Star team) who was best suited to being the second or third option on a championship team, a la Manu Ginobili. I termed Harden the kind of player who "stat gurus" overrate, because "stat gurus" assume that an efficient bench player will be equally efficient if given extended minutes, even while facing more defensive attention as the first option. I called Harden "a very good player" but I concluded, "Harden is not an All-NBA First or Second Team caliber player. He is not someone who can draw double teams over the course of an 82 game season and then carry a team deep into the playoffs as the number one option. He is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James."

James Harden became a perennial All-Star, a perennial All-NBA selection, and a perennial MVP candidate. I did not expect that and I did not expect that Harden could be successful as the number one option for an 82 game season year after year. He has been more durable and productive during the regular season than I expected, though in terms of the honors he has received I would argue that he has been overrated by the media voters to some extent; he did not deserve as many first place MVP votes and All-NBA First Team selections as he received--but part of the issue here is that the NBA has made it very difficult to legally guard Harden, at least during the regular season. Harden is permitted to travel, and to push off with his off hand, and he is rewarded with free throws when he flops and flails after he attempts a field goal. Many perimeter players benefit from changes in how the game is officiated, but Harden has benefited the most. His fans would argue that he is crafty enough to obtain advantages within the rules; there may be something to that, but for the most part he is being given benefits that were not previously provided to players, and that are not provided to most of his peers. The NBA gives him fewer such benefits in the playoffs, and Harden's numerous playoff choke jobs speak for themselves as testimony both to his mentality when placed under pressure, and to the limits of his game when he is not given such benefits.

Harden turned out to be a more productive and decorated regular season player than I expected him to be, but Harden did not prove that he is a "foundational player" if that phrase is understood to mean someone who is capable of being the best player on a championship team. That was my main scouting report critique when Morey obtained him--that Harden is best suited to be Manu Ginobili, not Kobe Bryant--and that critique has proven prophetic.

Morey's fans in the media would like for you to believe that Chris Paul's injury during game five of the 2018 Western Conference Finals is the key moment during Morey's tenure, but the notion that Houston would have won the 2018 title with a healthy Paul is both false and irrelevant. This notion is false because it assumes not only that Houston would have beaten Golden State had Paul stayed healthy--which ignores Houston's consistent record of playoff self-immolation during the Morey/Harden era--but also that Houston would have won in the Finals as well; this notion is irrelevant because injuries are part of the game, and there are few seasons in NBA history that would not have gone differently but for a key injury.

Morey had 13 years to build a championship team--far longer than most general managers are granted--and he failed. 

If there is one defining moment from the Morey era--and I am not convinced that focusing on one moment makes more sense than evaluating Morey's entire body of work--then the best choice would not be Paul's injury, but rather what happened afterward: Houston blew a second half lead by missing 27 straight three pointers en route to losing 101-92 to Golden State in the seventh game of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. That is the ultimate example of following Morey's basketball philosophy to its inexorably logical conclusion: Morey's championship recipe involved Harden monopolizing the ball until Harden or one of Harden's teammates shot a three pointer. Harden shot 19-78 (.244) from three point range overall during the series and 52-174 (.299) from three point range during the 2018 NBA playoffs. Morey acquired his "foundational player," built a team around Harden, and that team collapsed in game seven while playing what Morey would consider to be analytically correct basketball. In contrast to Morey's beliefs, I consider the Morey/Harden style high variance and I expect that during the course of a playoff series Harden and the Rockets will have at least one awful performance. 

Morey had 13 years to test his basketball hypothesis, and he failed to build a championship team.

The Morey/Harden media fanboys write nonsense such as "There is no clearer path to 50 wins in the NBA than to give (Harden) the ball and get out of his way." That is not true: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry (to name just a few players who are better than Harden) each provide at least as clear of a path to 50 wins as Harden does, though it would be fair to say that Antetokounmpo has yet to fully prove his playoff bona fides (but Antetokounmpo is younger, bigger, and more versatile than Harden, so Antetokounmpo's playoff upside potential is greater than Harden's). It is also not relevant how clear a path Harden provides to 50 wins. Morey was hired to deliver a championship, and he termed Harden to be a "foundational player" for that quest.

Team chemistry is not valued by "stat gurus" because it cannot be directly measured, though it can of course be observed. Harden has a track record of driving away coaches and co-stars who will not do things his way, and Morey tolerated this because Morey viewed Harden to be a "foundational player": Dwight Howard, Coach Kevin McHale, and Chris Paul (to name just the three most prominent examples) were expendable because they did not defer sufficiently to Harden's whims. It is evident that star players did not want to come to Houston and be spectators for the Harden "dribble, dribble, dribble" show (as Charles Barkley termed it). It will be interesting to see how long the James Harden/Russell Westbrook partnership lasts with a new front office and new coaching staff running the team, but Harden's unwillingness or inability to work well with star players is a factor whose importance Morey underestimated (if he even considered it at all).

Morey picked a good time to leave Houston; the Rockets owe a ton of money to James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon, so the Rockets neither have the right roster nor the necessary roster flexibility to be a serious title contender. Morey and his fans in the media can selectively cite regular season win totals to paint his Houston tenure as a success, and he will likely land another NBA front office job in the near future if he wants one.

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*Even though Morey is publicly presenting his departure as a voluntary choice, it would be naive to ignore the fact that Morey's October 2019 tweet about Hong Kong--and the NBA's ensuing loss of millions of dollars in Chinese revenue--likely played at least some role in hastening the end of his career in Houston. That is most unfortunate. I have already addressed the China issue at length but it is worth mentioning again that the NBA is driven primarily by profits, not social justice; the NBA promoted certain slogans and causes in the "bubble" because without doing so the players may not have played, and that would have cost the NBA at least several hundred million dollars--but promoting those slogans no doubt hurt the NBA's ratings and popularity, so next season you can expect that the overt presentation of those slogans will be much more muted, if not completely silenced.

China is a totalitarian regime running concentration camps, but you will never see an officially licensed NBA product stating "Chinese Lives Matter" because that would be bad for business. I would never tell anyone to "shut up and dribble," but I would suggest that there is a lot more to being educated than briefly skimming a small, biased sampling of source material, and there is a lot more to being truly "woke" than just supporting the popular cause of the moment while disregarding human rights abuses committed by people whose sponsorships are putting millions of dollars in your pockets. Dr. Martin Luther King preached, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That would have looked great on an NBA court or jersey, but it would have been a hypocritical message from the league because the NBA's policies do not reflect an understanding of that wisdom.

If you are foolish enough to draw some kind of moral equivalency between the problems in the United States--which are real and which definitely need to be addressed--and the brutal, totalitarian policies of China then please remember that democracies build walls to keep people out while dictatorships build walls to prevent people from leaving. If you are in the United States and don't understand the differences between the United States and China, then by all means avail yourself of the freedom to leave, and spend enough time in China to learn exactly what the differences are. If you speak the wrong slogan while you are in China, you may not be able to leave--but that would be part of your education.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:23 PM

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Monday, October 12, 2020

Lakers Dominate Paint, Rout Heat to Capture NBA Championship

The classic game five showdown created hope that we might see a competitive game six and possibly be treated to a seventh game as well, but in retrospect it appears that the Miami Heat had nothing left in the tank. The L.A. Lakers proved to be too big, too deep, and too talented, building a 28 point halftime lead, extending the margin to as much as 36 late in the third quarter, and then coasting the rest of the way to a 106-93 win to clinch a 4-2 series victory. The Lakers now own 17 NBA titles, tying the Boston Celtics for the most ever. LeBron James captured his fourth NBA championship and his fourth Finals MVP after leading both teams in scoring (28 points on 13-20 field goal shooting) and assists (10) while grabbing 14 rebounds. Only Michael Jordan has more Finals MVPs (six) than James, who broke a tie with Willis Reed, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O'Neal to move into sole possession of second place on that list. James is the first player to win at least one Finals MVP with three different teams.

Anthony Davis showed no sign of ill effects from the foot injury that hobbled him last game, and his stat line of 19 points, a game-high 15 rebounds, and two blocked shots understates his impact. He started at center after Coach Frank Vogel benched Dwight Howard in favor of Alex Caruso to improve the Lakers' perimeter defense. Vogel's move paid immediate and decisive dividends as Davis demonstrated his mobility and agility by showing on pick and roll plays before sagging into the paint to discourage drives and lob passes. This version of the Lakers' "small" lineup is a bit smaller than the lineup that the Lakers utilized versus Houston earlier in the playoffs, but it is not really small: Davis is 6-10, James is 6-9, Danny Green is 6-6, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is 6-5, and Caruso is 6-5. The Lakers have a big team, and even their biggest players are very mobile. At halftime, the Lakers not only led 64-36, but they had scored almost as many points in the paint (34) as the Heat had scored overall. 

Rajon Rondo scored 19 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, doing most of his damage in the paint. He added four rebounds and four assists. The criticisms of the Lakers' depth are puzzling. How many teams have the luxury of bringing off of the bench a player who was the starting point guard for a championship team and who has a credible case for being inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame? The last time the Lakers won the championship, their starting point guard was Derek Fisher, who would not have started at point guard for any of this year's Western Conference playoff teams. 

Caldwell-Pope contributed 17 points on 6-13 field goal shooting. The Lakers have two MVP-level players performing at peak efficiency, and that is hard to beat when multiple role players are scoring in the high teens while all five players on the court at any given time are connected on a string defensively. The Lakers were favored in every playoff series and every playoff game for good reason, and it is not like LeBron James had to work miracles for the Lakers to win the title.

Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 25 points and 10 rebounds. He shot 10-15 from the field and passed for five assists while looking healthier, more confident, and more aggressive than he had since injuring his neck in game one of this series. Jimmy Butler, who played so splendidly in the first five games of the series, looked like he needed more time to recover from playing almost every second in game five; he played 45 minutes, but produced just 12 points on 5-10 field goal shooting, plus eight assists and seven rebounds. Butler's pedestrian game six performance is a reminder of just how great and consistent LeBron James is while also highlighting the difference between an All-Star/fringe All-NBA player and a perennial MVP candidate: James first appeared in the NBA Finals 13 years ago, and he is still able to string together one great game after another, while the younger Butler was not quite able to produce six great games in his first NBA Finals.

Jae Crowder (12 points) and Duncan Robinson (10 points) were the only other Heat players to score in double figures. Goran Dragic returned to action for Miami for the first time after tearing the plantar fascia in his left foot in game one of this series, coming off of the bench to score five points on 2-8 field goal shooting in 19 minutes. Bringing back a rusty, limited Dragic was a risky move after the Heat had already won two games in the Finals without him, but Dragic's return ending up not making a difference; the other Heat players (with perhaps Adebayo being the lone exception) were gassed, and Dragic did not perform appreciably better or worse than his teammates did as the Lakers took command.

The plus/minus numbers for this game were misleading for both teams, because the Lakers raced out to a huge lead and then just cruised in the second half. Kelly Olynyk did not see action until the outcome was decided, but he led Miami with a +19 plus/minus number after scoring nine points in 15 minutes. Olynyk's plus/minus was better than the plus/minus of every Laker except Caruso (+20), which is why plus/minus is not meaningful in small sample sizes unless you watch the whole game and can provide some context for the numbers.

The Heat kept the game close for about the first 10 minutes, but the Lakers finished the first quarter on an 11-4 run to lead 28-20 before blowing the game open in the second quarter. The Lakers decimated the Heat's interior defense by relentlessly driving to the hoop, and the Lakers played suffocating defense that turned each Miami possession into a tedious, disorganized mission to generate an open shot.

After the game, James accepted the Finals MVP by asking/begging to receive "respect," but it is odd--if not unseemly--for a player who owns four regular season MVPs and four Finals MVPs to complain about not being respected. James finished second in the 2020 regular season MVP voting this season behind a player who had a historically great season while leading his team to the NBA's best record for the second season in a row. James is widely recognized as one of the greatest players of all-time, and only someone who is biased and/or foolish would deny that he deserves to be mentioned in any such discussion.

Does winning this championship elevate James above every player who ever played the game? It is human nature to be most aware of and most impressed by whatever we have seen most recently, never mind the fact that many of the people watching the NBA today are too young to remember or know much about the accomplishments of Michael Jordan--not to mention the accomplishments of his great predecessors such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. I bring up those three players specifically because of a statistic that ESPN kept emphasizing: James just joined Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, and Jordan as the only players who have won at least four championships and at least four regular season MVPs. What ESPN did not emphasize--although the accompanying graphic showed the numbers--is that James has both fewer titles and fewer MVPs than each of the other three players.

Bill Russell won 11 championships and five regular season MVPs. Also, the Finals MVP was first awarded during his last season, when his Celtics won the championship but the Lakers' Jerry West became the first (and still the only) player from the losing team to receive the Finals MVP. How many Finals MVPs would Russell have won had that award been presented throughout his career?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six championships and a record six regular season MVPs. He also won two Finals MVPs. 

Michael Jordan won six championships and five regular season MVPs. As noted above, he holds the record with six Finals MVPs.  

When trying to use facts and logic to prove a point, it is useful to have an analysis rubric. Lawyers are taught many different rubrics, but one widely used rubric is known as IRAC (Issue/Rule of Law/Analysis/Conclusion). Here, the issue is "Who is the greatest basketball player of all-time?" and ESPN's proposed rule of law is that such a player must win at least four championships and at least four regular season MVPs. If our analysis focuses on applying that rule to that issue, how does one reach the conclusion that the greatest player of all-time is the player from that list who won the fewest championships and the fewest MVPs? If ESPN is proposing that list as designating the "rule of law" for this issue, then James ranks fourth, not first, unless there is some convincing analysis explaining why the championships and regular season MVPs won by the other three players should be worth less than the championships and regular season MVPs won by James. Of course, this hypothetical IRAC exercise is ignoring the not insignificant question of whether ESPN's "rule of law" is even the correct one, because this rule excludes from consideration players such as Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant, each of whom won more titles than James while also posting a better Finals winning percentage. 

ESPN's post-game set is not a law school classroom, nor is it designed to be a forum for calm, logical and in depth discussion; the point of live TV is to get in and get out with quick, provocative hot takes. That is not to discount the value or relevance of anything that is said in such a setting, but if there is a definitive answer to this "issue" (and I am not convinced that there is) it will not be found in such a setting.

Keep in mind that the TV networks and media outlets that cover the NBA have a vested interest in promoting James as the greatest player ever. It does not help their bottom line to have a nuanced conversation about this topic, let alone to say that the greatest player played in the 1990s or--even worse--in the 1960s or 1970s. If you are trying to get people to watch the games and follow the league now then it is not desirable to say that the best player retired decades ago. 

James belongs in the greatest player of all-time conversation--and he belonged there before last night. Instead of spending this moment providing a hot take that lifts James above everyone else, or providing a take down that ranks James below a few other players, let's spend this moment by simply saying that LeBron James and the Lakers deserve congratulations and credit for capping off this most unusual and difficult season with an impressive championship run.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM

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Sunday, October 11, 2020

To Shoot or to Pass: Is That Really the Question?

Game five of the 2020 NBA Finals was an instant classic. Miami's Jimmy Butler (35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) and L.A.'s LeBron James (40 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) staged a duel for the ages, and the outcome hung in the balance after James passed to Danny Green for a wide open top of the key three pointer--but Green missed, the Heat won, and now the inevitable question is being asked: should James have passed the ball to Green or should James have shot the ball with the game (and the series) on the line?

This is not a simple yes or no question. There are multiple layers of basketball strategy and sports psychology worth examining. James' shot/pass decision making has been questioned before. His critics argue that he is too passive and/or that he is afraid to take a potential game-winning shot, so he literally passes that responsibility to someone else. James' supporters point to "clutch" metrics that suggest that James is a highly efficient scorer in close, late game situations, and that he is more efficient in those situations than many of the players who his critics believe should be ranked ahead of James.

It is undeniable that James is an elite scorer, although he is often depicted as a "pass first" player. James is a great passer, but he is foremost a scorer who shoots the ball a lot. James ranks fourth in ABA/NBA history with 24,781 career regular season field goal attempts, and in 15 of his 17 seasons he ranked in the top 10 in field goal attempts, including 10 times in the top five, and five times as the second ranked player. James has averaged 19.6 field goal attempts per game during his regular season career, and 20.7 field goal attempts per game during his playoff career.

How do those per game numbers compare to the numbers posted by other great scorers? Consider a few examples.

Kobe Bryant averaged 19.5 FGA/game during the regular season and 20.5 FGA/game during the playoffs. George Gervin, who won four scoring titles and would never be described as a pass first player, averaged 19.4 FGA/game during the regular season and 20.4 FGA/game during the playoffs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who ranks first on the regular season career scoring list, averaged 18.1 FGA/game during the regular season and 18.7 FGA/game during the playoffs.

The fact that James shoots the ball so often is one reason that his end of the game shot/pass decision making is and should be scrutinized. If you are shooting the ball a lot during most of the game then why are you passing the ball with the game on the line? That is a fair question to ask.

The difference that I observe between James compared to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant is that when James drives--particularly late in the game--James seems to be trying to draw a double team so that he can pass. In contrast, Jordan and Bryant drove the ball to score and they only passed the ball if they failed to create a clear advantage for themselves. That subtle distinction is significant. Jordan and Bryant did not necessarily pass the ball just because a teammate was open; in some situations, they felt that they had more of an advantage elevating from certain spots on the floor over two defenders than a teammate had even if that teammate was open (a coach might say that the teammate was open for a reason; ESPN's Jay Williams terms this "He with us," meaning that the opposing team is so happy to see that player shoot because the opposing team feels that player is "with us" in the sense that he is likely to miss). 

The "right basketball play" on paper may not be the optimal play. That is a difference between James' mentality compared to the mentality of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

From the standpoint of a basketball purist, you can argue that James' mindset is not wrong. He draws double teams, he passes on time and on target to his teammate, and his teammate is a professional basketball player who should be able to make a wide open shot. That all sounds good and looks good on paper. The deeper reality here is that an open top of the key shot for Danny Green may be a good shot but it may also not be the optimal shot for that player in that situation. If James' philosophy is to drive and pass, then the coaching staff should be considering who they would prefer to be taking the shot, and from what position on the court. Trailing by one point at that time, is the shot that the Lakers wanted a Danny Green three pointer from the top of the key? The corner three pointer is closer to the hoop, and most three point specialists now prefer that shot. Why not place Green in one corner, place another three point shooter in the other corner, place Anthony Davis on the baseline, and place another player on a wing, with James in the middle of the court? In that alignment, if the Heat double off of Green then James has an easy pass for a short corner three pointer.

James is not Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. His first thought at the end of the game is usually not going to be to drive to score. Therefore, the coaching staff should take this into account, and position the other players accordingly. Maybe they did that, and maybe the Danny Green top of the key three pointer is the shot that they wanted--but, given the time, the score, and the other possibilities, that does not seem like the optimal shot.

Of course, the Lakers' hopes did not end after Green missed. Markieff Morris gathered the offensive rebound and then turned the ball over trying to throw a lob pass to Davis in the post. Morris is not a post feeder; the Lakers run no plays involving Morris getting the ball at the free throw line area and then throwing a lob pass into the post. This is why it is so important for each player to know his role, his skill set, his limitations, and score/time/game situation. The Lakers did not have a timeout, but Morris had three better options than the one he chose: (1) Shoot the ball and expect Davis (who had good position under the hoop) to get the rebound if the shot misses, (2) drive to the hoop for a potential game-winning layup (or free throws), or (3) do a quick handoff to a guard or to LeBron James curling off of Morris. Perhaps there was not enough time left for the third option unless Morris and a guard (or James) read the situation the same way instantly, but the first two options are higher percentage plays than what Morris did.

This analysis is not just about the outcome--James passing, Green missing, Morris committing a turnover--but rather about the thought process that should take place in crucial situations of a basketball game. No one makes the optimal decision every time, but if you repeatedly think about and practice crucial situations then when those situations arise you are more likely to make the optimal decision.

It is easy to say that the Bill Russell/Red Auerbach player/coach tandem was lucky to win 11 titles, or that the Michael Jordan/Phil Jackson player/coach tandem was lucky to win six titles, but luck had less to do with those two examples of sustained success than the ability to consistently make optimal decisions under pressure.

The 2020 NBA Finals--like every NBA Finals involving LeBron James--is being treated as a referendum on who is the greatest basketball player of all-time. ABC's pregame show before game five spent a segment talking about how James was about to join the elite group of players with four championships and four Finals MVPs. It is not crazy to include James in the conversation about who is the greatest basketball player of all-time, but it would be nice--if not realistic to expect--if such a conversation delved into the nuances that distinguish the candidates from each other. Bill Russell's teams won the championship almost every year of his career for over 20 years, from high school to college to the Olympics to 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. He was the leader on every one of those teams, and he displayed a genius-level basketball mind that was finely tuned to making optimal decisions in crucial situations (which is not to say that he never made a mistake). Wilt Chamberlain remains the most dominant force in pro basketball history. His teams had trouble beating Russell's teams, but Chamberlain was the best player on two of the greatest single season teams ever (one of which beat Russell's Celtics to end the Celtics' championship streak at eight consecutive seasons). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sustained excellence--both as an individual player and as the key performer on championship teams--is remarkable, and he owned the single greatest shot in pro basketball history: the sky hook. Michael Jordan's Bulls learned difficult lessons in playoff battles versus the Celtics and Pistons, but once Jordan got a taste of the NBA Finals he dominated, winning six titles and six Finals MVPs in six appearances. Kobe Bryant was a dominant two way midsize player in Jordan's mold. Bryant was an All-NBA level performer for three consecutive championship teams before he even reached his prime years, and then he won back to back titles (plus back to back Finals MVPs) with a team whose second best player had been a one-time All-Star prior to joining forces with Bryant. 

There are other players who could be mentioned in this conversation as well but the point of this brief history lesson is that each of these players faced different challenges, had different skill sets, and displayed a different mentality. If it is even possible to select one player as the greatest then the answer is not going to be found by citing one statistic or by being caught up in the moment of what we just saw on TV; the 2020 championship does not mean more than the 1969 championship because it is happening right now in front of our eyes on HD TV while the 1969 championship survives only in grainy footage. 

Coach Bob Knight often said that in basketball the mental is to the physical as four is to one. How each great player thought the game and mentally executed under extreme duress is a timeless standard by which to measure--or attempt to measure--elite level basketball.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 PM

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Saturday, October 10, 2020

Butler and James Play Masterfully as Heat Outlast Lakers, 111-108

Game five of the 2020 NBA Finals will long be remembered, whether as the start of Miami's comeback from a 3-1 deficit, or one of the challenges L.A. overcame en route to the championship. The Heat and Lakers engaged in an epic duel that was not decided until the final seconds, with the Heat prevailing 111-108 to extend their season for at least one more game. 

Jimmy Butler once again led the Heat in scoring (35 points), rebounds (12) and assists (11), amassing his second 30 point triple double of the Finals. He is just the sixth player to have more than one triple double in the same Finals, joining Magic Johnson (who had at least two triple doubles in three different Finals), LeBron James (who also had at least two triple doubles in three different Finals), Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Draymond Green. Butler shot 11-19 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line, including the two free throws that put Miami up for good, 109-108, with 16.8 seconds remaining. 

Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra shortened his rotation to just seven players, taking reserve big man Kelly Olynyk out of the lineup. Goran Dragic did not play due to injury, and All-Star center Bam Adebayo had a subpar game (13 points, four rebounds, four assists, 5-12 field goal shooting), perhaps due to lingering effects from his neck injury; Adebayo repeatedly fumbled the ball, he seemed tentative, and he even missed a two-handed dunk. Duncan Robinson provided clutch scoring/shooting, finishing with 26 points on 8-15 field goal shooting (including 7-13 from three point range). Robinson is by no means a defensive stopper, but he held his own at that end of the court and even drew a charge against LeBron James that led to the Lakers using (and losing) their only challenge--and a timeout that could have potentially been quite valuable in the final seconds of the game, as Tim Legler mentioned during his SportsCenter segment. Every Heat player who played scored in double figures except for Andre Iguodala, who did not make a shot in 20 minutes but did grab six rebounds.

LeBron James had one of his best Finals games ever, which is saying something considering his extensive Finals resume: 40 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, 15-21 field goal shooting (including 6-9 from long distance). He played almost flawlessly: he attacked the paint to score from start to finish, he passed only when his driving lanes were cut off, and he converted at a tremendous clip from three point range when he was left open in transition or on switches. He and Butler both played at the highest possible level.

Anthony Davis was hobbled with less than a minute to go in the first quarter when he reinjured his right heel, and he limped noticeably at various times the rest of the way, but he still contributed 28 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, and three steals while shooting 9-15 from the field. Nine Lakers played but only one other Laker scored in double figures: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who had 16 points. 

The game had a back and forth flow from the start, and that remained true until the end, even though the Heat briefly built double digit leads a few times. One key sequence that may be overlooked happened during the third quarter. Dwight Howard committed a flagrant foul against Butler as Butler completed a putback. Butler drained the free throw, snared an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession, and promptly dished to Robinson for a three pointer. That rare six point play put the Heat up 76-70 in a game when every point proved to be very significant. The Heat never trailed from the first quarter until Caldwell-Pope's three pointer at the 6:18 mark of the fourth quarter put the Lakers up 97-96. That shot capped off a run that erased Miami's last double digit lead of the night. A lesser team than Miami might have collapsed at that point, but the Heat kept battling on every possession, even though Butler seemed to be drawing his last breath while standing on his last legs. 

ABC's Mark Jackson compared the fourth quarter to the final round of the classic third Ali-Frazier fight; that was hyperbole, but not by much. Butler scored eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting in the final stanza while also passing for one assist and grabbing three rebounds; James scored 12 points on 4-7 field goal shooting while also crashing the boards for seven rebounds and passing for two assists. You could see Butler wearing down, but he perked up when the Heat needed him the most. Butler's jumper put the Heat up 103-101, but James immediately countered with a three point play to give the Lakers a 104-103 lead. Butler answered with a turnaround jumper to make the score 105-104, Heat. James' putback gave the Lakers a 106-105 edge but then Butler drove, drew a foul, and drained two free throws for a 107-106 Heat lead. Davis' putback made the score 108-107 Lakers but Butler drew another foul and again made both free throws to give the Heat the lead for good, 109-108. The Heat made a final defensive stand, and then Tyler Herro sealed the win with two free throws. During that crucial defensive stand, the Heat played the "anyone beat us but LeBron defense." After the Heat prevented James from driving, he dished to Danny Green, who missed a wide open three pointer from the top of the key with 7.1 seconds left. That shot could have clinched the title for the Lakers, and earned Green a place in Lakers' history alongside such non-star clutch championship shot makers as Robert Horry and Derek Fisher.

In a normal season, this game would have been played in L.A., with game six in Miami and game seven (if necessary) in L.A.--but now all of the games are played in the Orlando "bubble," meaning that home court advantage does not exist. Denver twice came back from 3-1 deficits during the "bubble" playoffs, and the Lakers were the only first or second seeded team from either conference to advance to the Conference Finals. Miami has proven to be a team that plays hard every night and will not quit. There is every reason to believe that game six will not be decided until the final minutes, if not the final seconds--and thus there is a decent chance that this series will go the distance. Anthony Davis' health could turn out to be critical; the Heat have survived with a hobbled Adebayo and without Goran Dragic but the Lakers may not be able to get one more win if Davis is not 100%.

The Lakers wore their Kobe Bryant/Black Mamba uniforms during game five, and this is the first time they lost while wearing the tribute gear. Kobe Bryant's spirit is never far from the thoughts of basketball fans this season, and this is particularly true for Lakers' fans, so it is fitting to recall the words of Tex Winter that Bryant often quoted: "Everything turns on a trifle." If Green made that three pointer--or if any one of a dozen plays turned out differently--then James would be a four-time champion and likely a four-time Finals MVP. Instead, by Tuesday night we may be talking about how James' heavily favored Lakers blew a 3-1 lead and how James was outplayed by Finals MVP Butler. James' greatness will not increase or decrease in the next few days, but how he is perceived will be significantly affected by how this series concludes. To some extent that is fair--James is the best player, and he has the opportunity to have a big impact on the result--but to some extent that is not fair, because James could play at a high level (as he did in game five) only to still fall short.

It is one thing to realize that we are watching what will later be viewed as a historic series, but it is another thing to try to shape the narrative before we even know how the story ends; it makes more sense to just enjoy what we are watching: LeBron James is still a magnificent player after all these years, and Jimmy Butler is showing the world what he can do when playing for an organization that has a competitive mindset and fire like he does. Anthony Davis is a marvelously skilled big man. The Heat's roster is full of scrappy players, ranging from a veteran who is a former Finals MVP (Andre Iguodala) to young guys on the rise (Adebayo, Robinson, Herro). The Lakers also feature a mixture of past stars (Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo) and promising young players (Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso).

People can make bold proclamations or predictions, but the reality is that we do not know what will happen next--and that unscripted drama is the NBA at its best. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 AM

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Wednesday, October 07, 2020

LeBron Dominates in Second Half as Lakers Take 3-1 Lead

When LeBron James is focused and attacks the hoop, he is still the best player in the NBA. He showed that again in the second half of game four of the NBA Finals, powering the L.A. Lakers to a 102-96 victory over the Miami Heat and a 3-1 series lead. James had 20 points and nine rebounds in the second half, including 11 points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter. With James setting the tone, the Lakers pounded the smaller Heat in the fourth quarter, shooting 5-6 on two pointers and 11-12 on free throws. James led both teams in scoring (28 points) and rebounds (12) while shooting 8-16 from the field and dishing for a team-high eight assists. James had a -2 plus/minus number, but this game is an example of why plus/minus can be deceptive in a small sample size; James was without question the best player on the court when it mattered most, and he took over as the Lakers built a 100-91 lead after a Jimmy Butler drive tied the score at 83.

James had five turnovers in the first half, but just one turnover in the second half. James was out of sync during the first half. Anyone could see it, and ABC's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned it during the telecast. If James had not lifted his game, this series would likely be 2-2 now--but James played up to his potential, and the Lakers are one win away from capturing the NBA title. 

Anthony Davis also had a subpar first half by his standards (eight points, though he did have six rebounds and three assists) but he scored 14 second half points, including the three pointer that put the Lakers up 100-91 with :39.5 remaining, a shot that most likely not only clinched this game but the series as well; only one team has won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1, and that team featured James (the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, who defeated the Golden State Warriors). Davis finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and four blocked shots. He shot 8-16 from the field, and had a game-high +17 plus/minus number. 

The Lakers received key contributions from their role players. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope paced the Lakers in scoring during the first half (10 points) as they led 49-47 at halftime. He ended up with 15 points on 6-12 field goal shooting, plus five assists. He hit a three pointer and a driving layup on consecutive fourth quarter possessions to push the Lakers' lead to 95-88. Danny Green added 10 points on 4-8 field goal shooting. Rajon Rondo only scored two points on 1-7 field goal shooting but he was third on the team in rebounds (seven) and tied with Caldwell-Pope for second in assists (five). 

Jimmy Butler played well, but the Heat needed for him to be great. Butler led the Heat in scoring (22 points), rebounds (10), and assists (nine), but he has an odd tendency to turn down open shots in the paint and pass to his teammates. Unselfishness is fine to a point, but sometimes the best player has an obligation to force the action, which can not only lead to scores but also induce the defense to "tilt" in a way that creates easier shots for that player's teammates.  

The Heat received a lift from the return of injured starting center Bam Adebayo. He scored 15 points and had seven rebounds. Adebayo played with high energy and posted a +3 plus/minus number but he did not have the overall impact that he did during the Eastern Conference Finals. Early in the game, the Heat played very actively, forcing turnovers and making it hard for the Lakers to feed the ball to Davis in the post.

Tyler Herro (21 points) and Duncan Robinson (17 points) were the Heat's only other double figure scorers, but they probably gave up at least as many points on defense as they scored on offense; the Lakers were openly "hunting" to create switches involving either guard down the stretch. Even though the injured Goran Dragic was the Heat's leading playoff scorer heading into this series, the team may miss his defense even more than his offense. 

Neither team led by more than seven points until Davis hit the clinching three pointer, but once James decided to attack the hoop it was a wrap. James scored on a drive, was fouled, and made the free throw to put the Lakers up 86-83 with 6:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. James scored the Lakers' next four points on free throws, and when the defense crowded him on a drive he dished to Caldwell-Pope for a right corner three pointer at the 2:58 mark that extended the Lakers' lead to 93-88. The Lakers' half court set that involves James wandering around aimlessly without the ball behind the three point line is puzzling to watch, but when James drives to score (and passes only if a second defender blocks his path) he becomes almost impossible to stop.

Is James held to an unreasonably high standard, or is it appropriate to expect him to drive to the hoop more often because he is an unstoppable force in the paint? I think that all players should maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Driving to the hoop requires physical, mental, and emotional stamina, but there is no shortcut to achieving and sustaining greatness. Every jump shot that James shoots--particularly jump shots from further than 15-18 feet--is a victory for the defense, even if James connects; every James drive bends, distorts, and ultimately destroys the defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM

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Monday, October 05, 2020

Butler Did It: Heat Cool Off Lakers, 115-104

"You're in trouble." That seems like an odd thing to say when you are trailing 2-1 in the NBA Finals, but Jimmy Butler can say whatever he wants after scoring 40 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, passing for 13 assists, swiping two steals, blocking two shots and outdueling LeBron James at both ends of the court to lead the Miami Heat to a 115-104 victory over the L.A. Lakers in game three. Butler shot 14-20 from the field, and had a +20 plus/minus number while playing 45 minutes. It should be noted that Butler clarified after the game that his choice words were not idle trash talk, but rather a response to those same words being spoken to him by James during the first quarter.

Butler led both teams in scoring, rebounding, and assists, and no player exceeded his numbers for steals or blocked shots. It is not an exaggeration to call this one of the most dominant all-around single-game performances in NBA Finals history; players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Moses Malone, and Shaquille O'Neal had games in which they were more dominant in terms of scoring and/or rebounding, but few players have been as dominant across the board.

The Heat were once again without the services of injured All-Star center Bam Adebayo and injured former All-Star guard Goran Dragic, but the Heat made no excuses and looked like a team trying to win a championship, not a team just trying to avoid being swept. 

Tyler Herro struggled with his shot (6-18 field goal shooting) but he finished with 17 points, and Kelly Olynyk contributed 17 points plus seven rebounds in 31 minutes off of the bench as the de facto replacement for Adebayo--Meyers Leonard started at center for the second game in a row, but once again he played minimal minutes (13 in game three, nine in game two). Duncan Robinson (13 points) and Jae Crowder (12 points) also scored in double figures, but Butler was the story: he scored or assisted on 73 points, tied with two Jerry West performances for the second highest such single game total ever in the NBA Finals, trailing only Walt Frazier's 74 points (36 points scored plus 19 assists for another 38 points) in his legendary performance in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals. Of course Butler--and every other post-1979 player--has the advantage of being able to assist on three point shots, an option not available to West, Frazier, and other great players from the NBA's pre-three point shot era.

LeBron James led the Lakers in scoring (25 points), rebounds (10), assists (eight), and turnovers (eight). He shot 9-16 from the field. Other than the turnovers, his stat line looks great--but the turnovers matter, and most of them were, in tennis parlance, unforced errors. With rare exceptions, James always has great stat lines, and that is a tribute to his greatness and consistency--but it also shows how misleading individual stat lines can be. His career Finals statistics are incredible, and yet he is not only just 3-6 in the Finals but a host of players have been the best player on the court during various Finals games in which James appeared, including Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Kawhi Leonard. Add Jimmy Butler to that list. James has won three Finals MVPs, but he has also watched Parker, Nowitzki, Leonard, Andre Iguodala, and Durant (twice) win Finals MVPs at his expense. 

Anthony Davis had a forgettable game: 15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, five rebounds, three assists, two steals, five turnovers, and a -26 plus/minus number. Davis picked up three first half fouls, and at halftime he had just five points and one rebound along with five turnovers. He played better in the second half, but not nearly well enough for a player with his skill set who enjoys a significant matchup advantage against the Heat sans Adebayo.

Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma each scored 19 points on 6-13 field goal shooting. Rajon Rondo's individual stat line was underwhelming (four points on 2-8 field goal shooting, eight rebounds, five assists), but his +6 plus/minus number reflects how well the Lakers performed during his 28 minutes. The Lakers' bench did their jobs, and no bench player had a negative plus/minus rating. 

The Heat's starters dominated the Lakers' starters, outscoring them 89-51. James lost his individual matchup versus Butler, and Davis barely outscored Duncan Robinson while being outscored by rookie Tyler Herro. If the Lakers win this series in five, six or even seven games, game three will be forgiven if not totally forgotten--but if this performance is the turning point in the series then that does not reflect well on James or Davis.

While media members spent the pregame show preparing James' coronation and talking about where he should be placed on basketball's proverbial Mt. Rushmore, the Heat demonstrated that they will not submit meekly. The Heat jumped out to a 16-8 lead as the Lakers committed five early turnovers. The Lakers trimmed the deficit to three, 26-23, by the end of the first stanza. The Heat hit seven of their first eight field goal attempts, but then made just four of their next 20 shots, and the Lakers took the lead, 32-30, on Davis' three pointer, his first made field goal of the game. 

Butler had 19 points in the first half--including 11 in the second quarter--plus six rebounds and six assists to lift Miami to a 58-54 halftime lead. He scored 11 points on 3-3 field goal shooting in the third quarter, and the Heat were up 85-80 with 12 minutes to go. James asserted himself early in the fourth quarter, scoring or assisting on the Lakers' first 11 points. Rondo's driving layup capped an 8-0 run, and put the Lakers ahead, 91-89. Butler reasserted control, dribbling the ball up the court for nearly every Heat possession, and making sure that he either scored or created a quality shot for a teammate. Butler also accepted the challenge of guarding James. The Heat outscored the Lakers 26-13 down the stretch.

The game ended in fitting and symbolic fashion, with James leading the Lakers off of the court before the final buzzer; the referees had to summon five Lakers back on to the court for the final inbounds play. 

The Miami Heat culture is refreshing: no tanking, no quitting, no excuses, no complaining. Just play ball, and play hard for 48 minutes. 

The analytics and the smart money say that the Lakers will win this series. I have never overreacted to one game, and I will not overreact now--but it is great to see a team and a leader embrace challenges instead of whining about them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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Saturday, October 03, 2020

Davis and James Dominate as Lakers Take 2-0 Lead

Game two of the NBA Finals looked like a five on five version of an older, bigger brother dominating his younger, smaller brother in a backyard or a driveway. Anthony Davis and LeBron James combined for 65 points and 23 rebounds as the L.A. Lakers won 124-114 over the Miami Heat to take a 2-0 lead. The Lakers outrebounded the Heat 44-37, and the Lakers grabbed 16 offensive rebounds. The Lakers shot .505 from the field overall, including .660 on two point field goals--and most of those two point field goals were attempted in the paint as the Lakers shredded the Heat's zone defense. The Lakers scored nearly every time that they attacked the middle of the zone or crept in on the baseline, causing the Heat to collapse their defense in the paint and resulting in the Lakers setting a Finals single game record by attempting 47 three pointers. Unlike the Houston Rockets, the Lakers set up their three pointers by attacking the paint, as opposed to just jacking up long range shots regardless of what the defense is doing.

Davis finished with 32 points and 14 rebounds while shooting 15-20 from the field; he had eight offensive rebounds, and he made 14 of his first 16 field goal attempts. Davis is the fifth player to score at least 30 points in each of his first two NBA Finals games, joining Hal Greer (1967), Rick Barry (1967), Michael Jordan (1991), and Kevin Durant (2012). James had 32 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, and no turnovers; he shot 14-25 from the field.

While Davis and James led the way, the contributions of the Lakers' other two likely future Hall of Famers should not be overlooked. Rajon Rondo scored 16 points on 5-9 field goal shooting, and he led the Lakers with 10 assists. Dwight Howard started at center, and he set the tone early with six quick points in the paint on 3-3 field goal shooting.

The Heat were without the services of two starters: All-Star center Bam Adebayo, and former All-Star guard Goran Dragic. ABC commentators Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson correctly pointed out moments and situations when the Heat could have played harder or hustled more--and Udonis Haslem delivered that message with great emphasis during a third quarter timeout--but the brutal reality is that size combined with talent/athleticism can wear a team down not only physically but also mentally. ESPN's Richard Jefferson suggested that the Heat played hard enough and well enough that they likely would have won if Adebayo had been available; the Heat just did not have enough size or enough depth to contend with the Lakers.

Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 25 points and 13 assists. He also had eight rebounds while playing 45 minutes. He matched James play for play, and the only criticism that one could make is that perhaps Butler should have looked for his shot more often as opposed to driving with the intent to pass--but Butler has never been a 30 ppg scorer or a player who regularly explodes for 40 or 50 points, so it is not in his nature to play that way. Butler's ability to lift his teammates to another level is very evident, and explains why his previous teams improved when he arrived only to regress after he left. We are learning a lot not only about Butler, but also about his previous teammates who he criticized and/or who criticized him: I would take Butler all day any day over any of those guys, even though several of them are bigger and/or more athletically gifted. As Mike Singletary once said, "I want winners."

Prior to the game, ESPN's Rachel Nichols asked Butler how his ankle--which he injured in game one--feels, and he replied, "Nobody cares." Butler refused to make excuses or change his expectations for team success. After the game, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra delivered a similar message, stating that in life if you want something badly enough then you figure out what you have to do to get it. There are players who will say that they do not make excuses, but then those same players will tell you in detail about their injuries; LeBron James has done that throughout his career, dating all the way back to his mysterious elbow injury that did not stop him from shooting half court shots during pre-game warmups in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals.

Kelly Olynyk filled in admirably for Adebayo, coming off the bench to score 24 points and snare nine rebounds in 37 minutes. Tyler Herro bounced back from a subpar game one to score 17 points and grab seven rebounds. The Heat dusted off rookie Kendrick Nunn--a major contributor during the regular season who fell out of the playoff rotation prior to Dragic's injury--and he added 13 points. However, the Heat just do not have enough talent or depth to beat the Lakers without Adebayo and Dragic.

The Lakers attacked the paint from the start of the game, and the Heat had no answers. The Lakers led by as much as 17 points in the first half, and they were up 68-54 at halftime. The Lakers shot .565 from the field in the first half, including 17-20 (.850) on two point shots. Those shooting percentages look like Bill Walton's in the 1973 NCAA Championship Game or Villanova's in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game, not like anything one would expect to see in the NBA Finals. In the first half the Lakers also set the Finals record for most three pointers attempted in a half (27). Most Lakers' possessions ended with Davis or James playing bully ball in the paint, or someone attempting a wide open three pointer.

The Lakers maintained a double digit lead for most of the second half, though the Heat cut the margin to 100-91 late in the third quarter after Herro sank a pair of free throws. This game was more competitive than game one but at no time did the outcome of the game appear to be in doubt. 

If Adebayo can return for game three and supply paint presence at both ends of the court, then perhaps the Heat still have a chance to make this a series. Otherwise, the Lakers will cruise to a sweep and the only question will be whether the media select Davis or James as the Finals MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:37 AM

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Thursday, October 01, 2020

Lakers Overcome Slow Start, Rout Heat in Game One

The Miami Heat raced to a 23-10 lead over the L.A.Lakers in game one of the NBA Finals, but the Lakers tied the score at 28 just before the end of the first quarter, led 65-48 at halftime and were never threatened the rest of the way en route to a 116-98 win. Anthony Davis dominated at both ends of the court, finishing with a game-high 34 points on 11-21 field goal shooting plus nine rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. He led both teams with a +23 plus/minus number. Davis matched Elgin Baylor for the third most points scored by a Laker in his Finals debut, trailing only Shaquille O'Neal (43 points) and George Mikan (42 points). 

LeBron James started the game slowly--he scored just nine points on 2-6 field goal shooting in the first half--but he padded his numbers in the second half during what Marv Albert would call "extensive garbage time," finishing with 25 points on 9-17 field goal shooting, a game-high 13 rebounds, and nine assists. He had a +10 plus/minus number, but plus/minus numbers can be skewed by garbage time and it is worth noting that James' first half plus/minus number was +4 despite his team leading by 17; for all practical purposes, the outcome was decided in the first half, when Davis had a +19 plus/minus number, and four other Lakers had plus/minus numbers of at least +18: Alex Caruso (+20), Rajon Rondo (+20), and Kyle Kuzma (+18). The main stories in the first half were (1) the Heat could not match up with Davis and (2) the Lakers' bench destroyed the Heat's bench. In the first half, Miami reserves had stunningly bad plus/minus numbers, including Tyler Herro (-30) and Andre Iguodala (-27). The Lakers took over the game after James sat out for his normal first quarter rest, they extended the margin after James returned, and they never looked back.

The Lakers started one of their bigger lineups with Davis (6-10), Dwight Howard (6-10), and James (6-9) in the frontcourt, so it is not surprising that the Lakers outrebounded the Heat 54-36--but the Lakers also set a franchise record for most three pointers made in an NBA Finals game (15). Other than the first few minutes--and not counting anything that happened in garbage time--it is difficult to think of anything that the Heat did well on a consistent basis.

Jimmy Butler was the only player from the Heat's regular rotation who played well, contributing a team-high 23 points on 8-13 field goal shooting plus five assists. Butler was hobbled by a left ankle injury but he still played 33 minutes. Bam Adebayo struggled (eight points on 2-8 field goal shooting, four rebounds in 21 minutes) before leaving the game due to a shoulder injury. Goran Dragic scored six points on 3-8 field goal shooting in 15 minutes before suffering a foot injury that caused him to miss the second half. Kendrick Nunn--who may not have played at all had the game been close and had Dragic not been injured--piled up 18 points in garbage time, and Herro finished with 14 points on 6-18 field goal shooting along with a -35 plus/minus number.

NBA Finals history contains many examples of teams losing game one but winning the series; this has happened at least once in each of the past five decades, with some prominent examples including Portland (1977), L.A. Lakers (1985), Chicago (1991), Miami (2006), and Dallas (2011). However, in this series the Heat face an uphill battle for several reasons: (1) the Lakers have not only the two best players but also the deeper bench, (2) the Heat seemed to have no answers even at full strength during the first half, and (3) it is not clear when/if Adebayo and/or Dragic will return to action.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:52 AM

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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

L.A. Lakers Versus Miami Preview

NBA Finals

L.A. Lakers (52-19) vs. Miami (33-29)

Season series: L.A., 2-0

Miami can win if…Jimmy Butler is the best player on the court down the stretch, Bam Adebayo controls the paint, and some combination of Goran Dragic/Tyler Herro/Duncan Robinson stretches the Lakers' defense with effective three point shooting.

Butler has developed a propensity for starting games slowly only to take over down the stretch. He claims that this is by design--he gets his teammates involved early before serving as the late game closer--but it would be surprising if this proves to be a recipe for championship success. While it is true that some great players prefer to ease into the flow of the game, Butler often takes this to the extreme, resulting in Miami falling behind by double digits. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were two of the deadliest closers in pro basketball history, but they did not make a habit of being virtually invisible on offense during the first three quarters. Butler is second on the team in playoff scoring (20.7 ppg), tied for second in playoff rebounding (5.7 rpg), third in playoff assists (4.5 apg) and first in playoff steals (1.9 spg). He averaged 19.0 ppg (fourth on the team), 6.0 rpg (third on the team), 5.0 apg (second on the team), and 1.7 spg (first on the team) during Miami's six game win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. He must be a consistent and productive scorer--that means stringing together 20 point games, as opposed to scoring 30 followed by 10--while also making an impact defensively, particularly when he is matched up with LeBron James.

Adebayo has been a tremendous all-around force during the playoffs, ranking third on the team in playoff scoring (18.5 ppg), first in playoff rebounding (11.4 rpg), first in playoff assists (4.9 apg), second in playoff steals (1.2 spg), and first in playoff blocked shots (.9 bpg). He was at his best in the Eastern Conference Finals, leading the team in scoring (21.8 ppg), rebounding (11.0 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), and steals (1.7 spg) while ranking second in blocked shots (1.0 bpg). He will be matched up with Anthony Davis, and he has the necessary skill set plus the correct mentality to challenge Davis at both ends of the court. Adebayo's playmaking ability forces the defense to protect not only against his drives and his rolls to the hoop, but also against his passing.

Dragic is leading the Heat in playoff scoring (20.9 ppg) while shooting .452 from the field (including .363 from beyond the arc) and .814 from the free throw line. He ranks second on the team in playoff assists (4.7 apg). He has thrived as the third best player, taking advantage of the attention opposing teams must pay to All-Stars Butler and Adebayo. 

Herro ranks fourth on the team in playoff scoring (16.5 ppg), including a 37 point explosion in a game four Eastern Conference Finals win, setting the record for most points by a rookie in a Conference Finals game. Thanks in part to Miami's 3-2 defense that lifts the wings and positions the guards closer to the basket, he ranks fourth on the team in playoff rebounding (5.5 rpg), including second on the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg) versus the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Robinson led Miami with 20 three point field goals made versus Boston while shooting .408 from long range. He is not the consistent scorer or all-around impact player that Butler, Adebayo, Dragic, and Herro are, but his outside shooting could prove to be critical versus L.A.

Another key for Miami will be Andre Iguodala's defense versus LeBron James. Iguodala has already won a Finals MVP (2015) based largely on his ability to at least slow down James, and he has consistently shown that he guards James at least as well as any other player in recent memory.

L.A. will win because…the Lakers have the more talented, deeper roster, starting with two of the top five players in the league. LeBron James had yet another MVP caliber regular season, while Anthony Davis also played at an MVP level and was a contender for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

James ranks second on the Lakers in playoff scoring (26.7 ppg) while shooting .547 from the field (including .349 from beyond the arc) and .741 from the free throw line. James leads the Lakers in playoff rebounding (10.3 rpg) and playoff assists (8.9 apg) while also averaging 1.3 spg and 1.0 bpg. James averaged 27.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg, and 9.0 apg versus Denver, ranking second, first, and first on the team in those categories. It is remarkable that James continues to play at such a high level as a 35 year old in his 17th NBA season.

Davis is leading the Lakers in playoff scoring (28.8 ppg) while shooting .571 from the field (including .366 from beyond the arc) and .810 from the free throw line. Davis is also averaging 9.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.2 bpg, and 1.2 spg. Davis led the Lakers in scoring (31.2 ppg) in a five game win over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, but he posted subpar rebounding (6.2 rpg) and shot blocking (.6 bpg) numbers during that series; there is no excuse for a player with his size and athletic ability to average less than at least 9-10 rpg and at least 1.5-2.0 bpg. Nevertheless, Davis--when properly focused--has no skill set weaknesses: he can score from inside, outside, and the free throw line, he is capable of being a dominant rebounder, he is an above average passer, and he is an elite defender.

As is often the case, many media members are pretending that James' supporting cast is not very strong. Don't buy that nonsense. First, the Lakers clearly have the two best players in this series, and that is typically the decisive factor in a playoff series. Second, their supporting cast includes one certain Hall of Famer (Dwight Howard) and one serious Hall of Fame candidate (Rajon Rondo)--and, unlike some Hall of Famers on previous championship contenders (I won't name names here), they are not just along for the ride hoping to pick up a championship ring while others do the heavy lifting: Howard has been a force in the paint, while Rondo's leadership, playmaking, and defense have been vital. The Lakers also have a potential future All-Star (Kyle Kuzma), a "3 and D" player with championship experience (Danny Green), and other solid role players.

Other things to consider: This is LeBron James' 10th NBA Finals appearance but the first time that he has faced one of his former teams on the sport's biggest stage. After James left Miami to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pat Riley declared that the Heat would no longer have to deal with  "smiling faces with hidden agendas." Riley had one particular smiling face in mind, and it is not a mystery that James was that smiling face. This matchup is deeply personal for both men, regardless of what either may say publicly now.

After failing to win a championship during his first stint in Cleveland, James learned how to win as a member of Riley's Heat. James led the Heat to two titles, and then picked up a third title after going back to Cleveland. During his long Finals career, James has lost as a favorite (2011) and won as an underdog (2016) but he long ago stated the standard by which he should be measured: he never considers his team to be an underdog because he ranks himself as the best player on the planet. By the standard that James has set for himself, a 3-6 NBA Finals record is disappointing, to say the least. Further, there is no rational excuse for James' Lakers to not win this series. James is healthy and at the top of his game. Davis is an elite player entering his prime. The Heat do not have a top 10 player--let alone a top five player--while the Lakers have two top five players. It could be argued that James' legacy is already written, but that would only be true if he had retired; he kept playing, and he kept playing at a high level, so if he fails to win the title and drops to 3-7 in the NBA Finals that reinforces the notion that James is lacking something that Bill Russell (11-1 in the NBA Finals), Michael Jordan (6-0), Kobe Bryant (5-2), and other Pantheon players possessed. That is the standard that James set for himself, and it is the standard to which players of his caliber should be held.

This is also a "legacy" series for Davis. Perhaps he will advance to the NBA Finals many more times, but nothing is promised. This is is first opportunity to show what he can do in the NBA Finals, and such opportunities should be cherished and embraced.

No Heat player has put together a Hall of Fame caliber resume yet, but the player who has the most to gain is Butler. Many media members painted him as a malcontent after his stints in Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia, but Butler is making a strong case that he was not the problem in those situations; those teams have suffered in his absence, while he and the Heat have been a perfect match. If Butler can lead the Heat to a title versus the James-Davis duo then that will permanently elevate his status. Butler is not as big or talented as James or Davis, but James has a losing Finals record against several All-Stars who are not as big or talented, so the possibility of an upset cannot be discounted.

Regardless of the outcome, the Heat should be commended for the mentality that they embrace: under Riley's leadership, the Heat have never tanked and they have never made excuses. Daryl Morey, Sam Hinkie, and other "stat gurus" who have been lauded in the media despite never winning anything of consequence should carefully study how Riley runs an organization.

The Heat have enough talent and the right mentality to challenge the Lakers. If the Heat provide that challenge, then it will be interesting to see how the Lakers respond.

I predict that the Lakers will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM

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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The L.A. Lakers' "Small Ball" Lineup

Much has been made of the L.A. Lakers supposedly playing a "small ball" lineup in the final three games of the second round as the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets 4-1. The Lakers moved Markieff Morris to the starting lineup in place of JaVale McGee. The new lineup was no doubt smaller (McGee is 7-0; Morris is 6-8), but was it really a "small ball" lineup? Anthony Davis is 6-10, LeBron James is 6-9, Morris is 6-8, Danny Green is 6-6, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is 6-5; the "small ball" lineup averages 6-9 in the frontcourt, and averages nearly 6-8 overall, while the original starting lineup averages 6-9.5 in the frontcourt and a little over 6-8 overall. By comparison, the 1986 Boston Celtics--who went 67-15 and won the NBA title with the legendary Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish frontcourt--averaged 6-10.5 in the frontcourt and 6-8 overall. No one would argue that those Celtics were a "small ball" team, yet the supposedly "small ball" Lakers are just as big as the 1986 Celtics.

The Rockets' starting lineup after going to "small ball" was Robert Covington (6-7), P.J. Tucker (6-5), Eric Gordon (6-3), James Harden (6-5), and Russell Westbrook (6-3). That lineup averages 6-5 in the frontcourt and 6-4.5 overall. The Rockets' tallest starter is one inch taller than the tallest Lakers' starting guard, and one inch shorter than the smallest frontcourt player in the Lakers' "small ball" lineup.

When media members assert that the Lakers went to "small ball" to beat the Rockets, that falsely suggests that the Lakers had to fundamentally change in order to prevail against the Rockets' gimmicky approach. The reality is that the Lakers can play very big, big, or small, and the Lakers chose to play big versus the Rockets. The Lakers dominated the Rockets in the paint while also shutting down the Rockets' three point shooting. Despite all of the hype and rhetoric about the value of "small ball," it remains true that size--specifically height--matters in the NBA.

Through the first three games of the Western Conference Finals versus the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers reinserted JaVale McGee into the starting lineup in place of Markieff Morris, though Morris has logged five more minutes than McGee. Despite the large number of three pointers launched by most NBA teams in recent years, to win an NBA championship it is still essential to have a paint presence at both ends of the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:07 PM

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Thursday, September 17, 2020

L.A. Lakers Versus Denver Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 L.A. Lakers (52-19) vs. #3 Denver Nuggets (46-27)

Season series: L.A., 3-1

Denver can win if…Nikola Jokic is the best player in this series to the same extent that he was the best player as the Nuggets defeated the Clippers in seven games in the second round. In that series, Jokic led both teams in scoring (24.4 ppg), rebounding (13.4 rpg), and assists (6.6 apg) with shooting splits of .515/.395/.815. Jokic outplayed 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (24.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.9 apg, .442/.359/.872) overall, and particularly when it mattered most in game seven (16 points, 22 rebounds, 14 assists for Jokic; 14 points, six rebounds, six assists for Leonard). Jokic is a gifted scorer who is one of the best passing big men ever. He is not a great defender but he is solid enough--both in his individual matchup and in switches--that he is not a liability, plus he is a tremendous defensive rebounder. 

Jamal Murray was great versus Utah in the first round (31.6 ppg) but he struggled initially versus the Clippers before finding his way as the Nuggets recovered from a 3-1 deficit. The Lakers' strength is upfront with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, so it is very important for Denver that Murray decisively win his matchup.

L.A. will win because…LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be the two best players on the court. James' resume speaks for itself, but what is perhaps most remarkable about the four-time regular season MVP/three-time NBA champion/three-time Finals MVP is how dominant and durable he still is despite his age (35) and years of service (17). Perhaps only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and Karl Malone have played at an equivalent level this deep into their respective careers. Davis is a potent scorer, excellent rebounder, solid passer, and elite-level defender; when he is focused and when he is attacking the paint at both ends of the court he is as good as any player in the league.

It is fashionable to ridicule the Lakers' supporting cast; that is standard operating procedure for the James-adoring media: if James wins then he can be portrayed as a basketball superhero--and if he loses, he can still be portrayed as a basketball superhero who carried a supposedly ragtag group farther than any other mortal could have. The Lakers have a first ballot Hall of Famer coming off of the bench (Dwight Howard), a Hall of Fame caliber guard coming off of the bench (Rajon Rondo), a championship-tested "3 and D" swingman in Danny Green, a potential future All-Star in Kyle Kuzma, and several other solid role players. Compare that group to the 2002 Lakers; Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant won their third straight title despite their third leading playoff scorer (Derek Fisher) shooting .357 from the field. Compare that group to the 2009 Lakers; Kobe Bryant's supporting cast consisted of a player who had been a one-time All-Star prior to joining the Lakers (Pau Gasol), with the third option being career underachiever Lamar Odom, the fourth option being career journeyman Trevor Ariza, and the fifth option being Fisher, who shot .394 from the field during that playoff run. Bryant molded that group into championship form; Gasol is a future Hall of Famer in large part because of the time he spent playing with Bryant, and most of the other Lakers' starters would not have started for the other elite playoff teams of that era. In contrast, Anthony Davis proved to be an elite player before joining forces with James, and the rest of the roster includes several established veterans and several young, upcoming players. It does not in any way diminish James' individual greatness to tell the truth and state that James has more than enough help to win a championship, and he has more help than many other stars have had during their championship runs.

Other things to consider: There is no excuse for the Lakers to not win the 2020 championship. The other three top contenders--the Milwaukee Bucks, the L.A. Clippers, and the Toronto Raptors--have already been eliminated. This means that the Lakers will not have to face either of the top two teams from the Eastern Conference, nor will they have to face the second seeded team in the Western Conference. James and Davis should be the two best players on the court the rest of the way during the playoffs and, as noted above, their supporting cast is more than adequate. The delayed postseason with no home court advantage has been filled with oddities--including the nominal "road" team winning all seven games in the Boston-Toronto series, and both of the top seeded teams in the Eastern Conference failing to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the current playoff system began in 1984--but the chaos has worked out perfectly for the Lakers, who have been relatively drama-free as their rivals have dropped off one by one.

James has proven more than once that he has what it takes to lead a team to a title, but he has also proven more than once that he can shrink under the pressure on the biggest stage. Although he played a pivotal role in Cleveland's 2016 NBA Finals comeback from a 3-1 deficit, he has a tendency to be a frontrunner, and it will be interesting to see how he responds if the Lakers face real adversity at any time during the 2020 playoffs (a 1-0 deficit versus a vastly inferior team such as Portland or Houston does not count as real adversity).

During the 2020 playoffs, the Nuggets have twice looked lethargic while falling into 3-1 holes only to rally to win the series. At one point, Coach Michael Malone resorted to publicly pleading with his team to play hard. The Clippers have been roasted for turning it on and turning it off, but the Nuggets have displayed inconsistent effort and efficiency throughout the 2020 playoffs. However, the Nuggets are also a talented team that has ranked among the Western Conference elite for the past two years, and they have proven that they can stay calm under the most dire circumstances and conditions. If their effort and energy level is consistently high then they could make this series very interesting. I predict that the Lakers will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:57 AM

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Resilient Nuggets Stun Clippers in Game Seven

Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a problem. The Denver Nuggets proved to be an insurmountable and unsolvable problem for the L.A. Clippers after the Clippers took a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game five to stave off elimination, but at that time it still seemed likely that the Clippers would close out the series. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game six to stave off elimination, and suddenly the Clippers faced the pressure of a game seven without the usual benefits of home court advantage. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game seven--and win convincingly, 104-89. You can argue about which team has more talent, but there is no argument about which team is mentally tougher and which team is more disciplined about following the game plan regardless of whether the point differential is +10 or -10.

Nikola Jokic was the best player on the court in game seven and he was also the best player in this series. In game seven, Jokic had 16 points, a game-high 22 rebounds, and a game-high 13 assists. He only shot 5-13 from the field, but he put his stamp on the game with his rebounding dominance and his pinpoint passing. As ESPN's Tim Legler masterfully showed when he broke down the game seven footage, the Clippers had no answer for the Nuggets' two man game with Jokic and Jamal Murray, mainly because of Jokic's tremendous decision making and peerless passing skills. Jokic gave the Clippers a simple, brutal choice on most possessions: Which way do you want to die? Do you want to die by a pass to the baseline cutter, a pass to the wing three point shooter, or a one legged runner by Jokic? Jokic kept asking the Clippers how they wanted it, and he kept giving it to them. By the fourth quarter of game seven, the Clippers looked like a mentally broken team, collapsing under the weight of defensive breakdowns, shots fired off of the side of the backboard, and careless turnovers.

Jamal Murray made headlines with his record setting scoring as Denver came back from a 3-1 deficit versus Utah in the first round, but you could argue that Jokic was the best player in that series as well, particularly after Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists in game seven while Murray was limited to 17 points on 7-21 field goal shooting. Murray was outstanding in game seven versus the Clippers, pouring in 40 points on 15-26 field goal shooting. He is not only a gifted one on one scorer but also a key part of the two man game with Jokic. Jokic-Murray is the not the duo promoted the most by the NBA, but it is the duo playing the best in the 2020 playoffs.

While Denver deserves a full measure of praise for winning this series, this result is not the equivalent to a 16th seed in the NCAA Tournament pulling off an upset against improbable odds. The Nuggets posted the second best record in the Western Conference in 2019, and they finished with the third best regular season record in the Western Conference in 2020. This team has consistently ranked near the top of the league for the past couple years. Yet, there is no doubt that this is an upset considering the championship or bust expectations rightly placed on the Clippers after they acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Also, the Nuggets were an uninspiring 3-5 in the seeding games, while the Clippers went 5-3 to preserve the second seed in the Western Conference. Prior to the start of the playoffs, few if any people outside of Denver's locker room expected this team to beat the Clippers in a seven game series.

The Nuggets deserve a lot of credit. They won this series, even though the mainstream media take will likely insist that the Clippers lost the series because the Clippers not only had a 3-1 lead but also had double digit second half leads in each of the final three games. Who cares which team had what kind of advantage before the final buzzer? The goal is to be the first team to win four games, not the first team to build big leads. It has been said that if the Indianapolis 500 were the Indianapolis 400 then Mario Andretti might have won more of them than anyone; I am as big of a Mario Andretti fan as anyone, but I am sure that he would be the first to say that the point of that race is to lead the 200th (final) lap, not to lead the most laps or to to be the leader at lap 100 or lap 150. The Clippers' big leads do not prove that they were the superior team; the Nuggets' four wins prove that they were the superior team. The Nuggets may be the 2020 version of the mid-1990s Rockets, a two-time champion whose Coach Rudy Tomjanovich declared, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!" Denver is the first team to recover from two 3-1 deficits in one postseason, and the first team to win six straight elimination games. 

What went wrong for the Clippers? It is fair to wonder how much the load management philosophy hindered the Clippers from establishing the rhythm and the espirt de corps needed to win a tough seven games series. Teams are built when playing tough back to back games, or when finishing out the fourth game in five days. Often--if not always--Kawhi Leonard sat out those games, and thus the Clippers never built the foundation of their team. They assumed that with all of their talented players on the court during the playoffs everything would just work out, but they never put in the work as a unit to make that into a reality.

The Raptors got away with load management last season, but in general load management is not a recipe for success. A championship team is a finely tuned machine that can withstand tough times; the Clippers often looked unfocused, and they lacked poise when the Nuggets came back in the second half of three straight games. It seemed like the Clippers expected the Nuggets to just succumb, and that the Clippers had no idea what to do when the Nuggets kept resisting. Load management is based on the idea that some games and some possessions are more important than others; once you start down that slippery slope, it can become difficult to convince a team to play hard all of the time. The expectation used to be that great players strive to play all 82 games; I am not sure when exactly that changed, but the San Antonio Spurs are often given credit/blame for load management, so it is worth noting that the Spurs have won just one title in the past 13 years after claiming four titles in nine years prior to embracing load management. Tim Duncan played in at least 80 games in six of his first 10 seasons (and he played all 50 games in the lockout shortened 1999 season), but he never played in 80 games in a season after 2007. 

Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be the best player in this series, but Jokic outplayed him, and you could even argue that Murray's impact matched Leonard's impact. In game seven, Leonard had 14 points on 6-22 field goal shooting, six rebounds, and six assists, looking nothing like the two-time NBA Finals MVP who dominated the 2019 NBA playoffs while leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise's first championship. In the second half of game seven, Leonard shot 1-11 from the field on contested shots. Leonard usually not only gets to his spots at his speed, but he usually converts a high percentage of those shots; against the Nuggets--particularly in the final three games of the series--he did not always get to his spots, and he was much less efficient than usual. Once the other Clippers realized that Leonard was not going to just save the day by himself, they looked tentative, shaken and scared in the second half of each of the last three games. In particular, Paul George--always a bit of an overhyped player (he should not have finished third in MVP voting last season)--fell apart, scoring 10 points in game seven on 4-16 field goal shooting, with several of his misses caroming wildly and threatening the safety of the unwary.

Toronto's second round loss to Boston indicated that the Raptors needed Leonard's star power to get over the hump--but the Clippers' second round loss to Denver indicated that perhaps Leonard needed a supporting cast based on grittiness and toughness as opposed to raw talent. The Clippers sans Leonard are more talented than the Raptors sans Leonard, but who would you take now in a seven game series?

It would have been so much better for the NBA if LeBron James had stayed in Cleveland the first time, if Kevin Durant had stayed in Oklahoma City, and if Kawhi Leonard had stayed in Toronto. Instead of great players pursuing the fantasy of finding the perfect sidekick or the perfect supporting cast, it would be wonderful to see great players following the examples set by Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki.

Perhaps Jokic and Murray will spend their whole careers chasing championships together instead of pursuing personal glory. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM

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