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Saturday, September 14, 2019

We're Number Seven! Gregg Popovich is Defiantly Proud of Team USA's Worst Finish Ever

Team USA defeated Poland 87-74 to clinch seventh place in the FIBA World Cup. This is Team USA's worst result ever in a major FIBA competition, "surpassing" Team USA's train wreck sixth place finish in the 2002 FIBA World Championship.

If you think that this is a cause for concern or disappointment, Team USA Coach Gregg Popovich is quick to scold you: "If you don't win, some people will play the blame game. There's no blame to be placed anywhere. They play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn't win a gold medal? That's a ridiculous attitude. It's immature. It's arrogant. And it shows that whoever thinks that doesn't respect all the other teams in the world and doesn't respect that these guys did the best they could."

This is not about "blame" or "shame." Popovich is throwing out red herrings and straw man arguments to distract from the real issue, which is very simple to articulate: Is a seventh place finish a reasonable result in the FIBA World Cup for a team of 12 NBA players being coached by one of the greatest NBA coaches of all-time?

If the answer to that question is "Yes," then we can move along and there is nothing to see or talk about here.

I believe, and I suspect that many other informed observers believe, that the answer is "No."

I have great respect for the other FIBA teams, and that is why more than a decade ago I advocated that Team USA take a more serious approach to FIBA events, particularly on defense. It took two disasters for Team USA to learn the lesson, but from 2006 until now things had improved. The 2019 FIBA World Cup was a setback for Team USA, and it does not help matters that the coach is in denial about that.

There is a difference between "blame"/"shame" and analysis. Frank Isola of Sirius XM Radio made the same point that I have recently made about Popovich's coaching: Popovich has demonstrated a pattern--in the NBA Finals and in the FIBA World Cup--of favoring small lineups and this preference has resulted in devastating losses (for his Spurs to the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, and for Team USA versus France in the 2019 FIBA World Cup). Brian Scalabrine, Isola's co-host, retorted that we do not know that the outcome would have changed if Popovich had done something different in those situations, but Isola won the argument with simple logic: if what you are doing is not working (France's Rudy Gobert dominated all game long, finishing with 21 points and 16 rebounds) then you need to try something else. I would add that I reject the notion that the big man is or should be extinct and that small ball is the wave of the future. There is a role for the big man in basketball, and smart coaches will develop their big men so that they can be productive.

Anyone who has watched FIBA basketball understands the inherent challenges that Team USA will face in every competition:

1) We will never have a roster that has played together as long and is as cohesive as the rosters for the other top national teams. Team USA's roster is usually thrown together at the last minute and so Team USA does not get much practice time together before heading to an event.

2) FIBA rules and style of play differ from the rules and style of play to which American NBA players are accustomed.

Nevertheless, even Team USA's second, third or fourth string rosters will have more overall talent and depth than any other team in any FIBA event. While this is probably the first time that Team USA did not have the best or second best player in a major FIBA event, Team USA still had 12 NBA players.

The issues relate to organization, preparation and motivation.

Organization

For decades, Team USA could send almost any roster--even a roster filled with college players--to major FIBA events and expect to win a gold medal, usually in dominant fashion. That has not been the case for quite some time.

Therefore, more thought and analysis needs to go into the roster construction process, and the scouting process--both self-scouting, and scouting the opposing teams.

For example, it should have been obvious before the FIBA World Championship that in order to win the gold medal--which, contrary to what Popovich suggests, should always be Team USA's goal and expectation--Team USA would need to have an answer for big men such as Serbia's Nikola Jokic and France's Rudy Gobert. Team USA either needed to have big men on the roster who could at least slow those guys down, or Team USA needed to have an entire roster devoted to the proposition that Team USA would be a small, up tempo team. The first option makes much more sense to me, but perhaps the second option would work if the roster were actually constructed that way, and if the team prepared to play that way. What makes no sense is to devote three of 12 roster spots to big men (Myles Turner, Brook Lopez, Miles Plumlee) and then relegate two of them to the bench while limiting the minutes of the starting big man (Turner).

The bottom line is that, from day one, the roster must be constructed with a clear understanding of how Team USA expects to play, and how Team USA matches up with the medal-contending teams.

Preparation

Media members who covered Team USA in person this year noted with some bafflement that Popovich had a very light practice schedule. Practice was critically important this year even more so than in other years because Team USA consisted of our third or fourth string players. This team needed on-court time together to develop chemistry and to understand the game plans that would need to be executed against top FIBA teams. Defense is all about repetition, focus and execution.

Team USA did not look well-prepared during this event, and that resulted in panicky possessions at both ends of the court.

Motivation

This may be the most challenging factor for Team USA. Players from other teams take enormous pride in representing their countries and in competing for a FIBA World Cup title. Team USA does not seem to have that pride or that focus. After the debacles in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and the 2004 Olympics, Jerry Colangelo did a great job of instilling/reviving that pride in Team USA from the top of the organization down. As players and leaders, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd exemplified this pride, and set an example that they demanded be followed by the other players.

If Team USA's organization, preparation and motivation do not improve before the 2020 Olympics, look for more losses, and for more excuses from a defiant, baffled coach.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 PM

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Serbia Beats the Status out of Team USA

Gregg Popovich needs to spend less time working on his snappy comebacks to the media and more time trying to figure out FIBA basketball strategy. His Team USA squad can finish no higher than seventh place in the FIBA World Cup after losing 94-89 to Serbia. Serbia's coach ran his mouth about this matchup weeks ago, and Team USA made that guy look like a genius.

You know the old cliche about the game not being as close as the final score? Team USA trailed 32-7 at the end of the first quarter. Read that again: 32-7. Popovich took a team of 12 NBA players to China, and after 10 minutes of play the Serbians were beating their brakes off by 25 points. I wrote it yesterday and I will write it again today: when Popovich gave a sarcastic answer to a legitimate question about his fourth quarter strategy versus France, he may have been trying to deflect attention from the fact that he had no strategy.

An important step toward becoming a champion is to make no excuses--and there are no excuses for Team USA's performance in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Yes, Team USA could have assembled a better roster. Yes, Team USA would have benefited from better coaching, more practices and a greater sense of urgency, but the bottom line is that there is no way a roster that would easily qualify for the playoffs in an 82 game NBA season should finish seventh or eighth in this tournament. Team USA lost an exhibition game to Australia, should have lost to Turkey, lost to France, and was getting humiliated by Serbia before rallying to make the score respectable.

When Team USA is reduced to trying to make the score respectable, something is seriously wrong.

Serbia has a decent squad, and Team USA sent its third or fourth stringers--the superstars are at home "load managing" and counting their millions of dollars--but Red Klotz and the Washington Generals would not have trailed Serbia by 25 points after 10 minutes.

The key to success for Team USA in FIBA basketball--as I have pointed out for well over a decade--is not three point shooting or going small or anything pertaining to offense; the key is being able to simultaneously defend the three point line and not give up layups. It is easy to shut down one or the other, but it requires a good game plan--and good execution by the players--to do both. Team USA allowed Serbia to shoot .562 from two point range and .484 from three point range. John McKay once said of his hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers that they did not block, but they made up for that by not tackling. Team USA did not defend the paint, but they made up for it by also not defending the three point line.

Plus/minus numbers in a small sample size can be noisy, but Team USA was +8 versus Serbia with Myles Turner on the court and -13 when he was on the bench. He played 24 minutes in a five point loss, and I predicted a week ago that Team USA risked losing against some of the top contenders if Turner did not play at least 25 effective minutes. Would Team USA have beaten Serbia if Turner had played a few more minutes and if Derrick White--who scored two points in 11 minutes with a -14 plus/minus number--had played fewer minutes? White plays for Popovich's Spurs. I have not seen the postgame press conference, but it could have been interesting if any reporters asked Popovich some direct questions about his game plan and his substitution patterns.

In case you are wondering, Carmelo Anthony would not have helped because he does not defend and he cannot guard Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic or any other true center. If Anthony had been on this team he would have been a distraction, and in the end he would have shouldered the brunt of the blame that--as we can see--should be directed elsewhere. It was much better for Team USA and for Anthony that he was not on the team.

Team USA bounced back from the embarrassing 2002 and 2004 performances not just by adding talent but also by focusing on defensive execution, spearheaded by Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd. If Team USA expects to win the gold medal in the 2020 Olympics merely by recruiting a few superstars but without changing the team's mentality and game plan then things will not end well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:35 PM

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Look for Lindy's Pro Basketball 2019-20 in Stores Now

I am always happy and excited when I see the new Lindy's Pro Basketball in stores, because that means the NBA season is just around the corner. The 2019-20 edition has 30 team previews, plus nine feature stories: "Scopin' the NBA" by Mike Ashley (recapping the major off-season stories), "Giannis the Splendid" (Gery J. Woelfel profiles the 2019 NBA MVP), "Whither the Big Man" (Michael Bradley analyzes the sport's evolution to small ball), "Mighty Zion" (editor Roland Lazenby looks ahead to Zion Williamson's much-anticipated rookie season), "Keeping the Faith" (Gery J. Woelfel explains why the Pacers are so happy to acquire Malcolm Brogdon), "NBA Report Card" (Lazenby grades each team's off-season moves), "A Look Ahead" (Jeremy Treatman scouts the 2020 NBA Draft), "NBA Fantasy Guide" (Ashley provides advice for fantasy basketball enthusiasts) and "A Look Back" (Lazenby recalls Michael Jordan's rookie season).

I wrote six team previews and sidebar articles this year: Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings. My sidebar articles discuss, respectively, Kevin Love, Luka Doncic, Steve Kerr, the Thunder's former "Big Three," Damian Lillard and Vlade Divac/Vivek Ranadive.

This is the 12th year that I have contributed to Lindy's. I am grateful to Roland Lazenby for providing the opportunity and I am proud to be associated with the finished product.

If you cannot find a copy of the magazine in a store, you can order a copy online.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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France Defeats Team USA 89-79 in the FIBA World Cup

At least Team USA qualified for the Olympics--barely. Just one win after ensuring an invitation to the 2020 Olympics, Team USA lost to France 89-79 in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. Team USA will not win a medal, and the highest Team USA can finish is fifth--and that will require a victory against Serbia, whose loud mouth (but possibly prophetic) coach said before the tournament that Team USA would need divine intervention to beat his squad. As it turned out, Serbia lost 97-87 to Argentina to join Team USA in the (no) consolation round. It is not clear if Team USA is interested in and/or capable of making the loud mouth coach eat his words, particularly with no hardware at stake, but one would hope that Team USA will still strive for the best finish possible.

What should we make of Team USA?

This result is not shocking, or even surprising. As I explained a week ago, "This is not a dominant FIBA team. This is a team that, if it plays well and maximizes its potential, is capable of winning the gold medal, but this is a team that also might have to struggle to win a medal at all...In order to win the gold medal, Team USA needs to develop more chemistry/cohesion at both ends of the court, and someone needs to emerge as the go-to option down the stretch in close games. Those two tasks might sound divergent but they are not. Cohesion and chemistry keep things together for most of the game, but in a close contest you need to have a player who is so confident and so deadly that he must be double-teamed; that in turn opens up opportunities for players who are not good enough or not confident enough to create their own shots down the stretch. Against the better teams that also have skilled big men, Team USA will need at least 25 productive minutes from Turner."

While not surprising, this result is nevertheless disappointing. Granted, this was not our A team or even our B team--one could legitimately argue that this is our third string or possibly even fourth string squad--but should the United States be satisfied that a squad comprised entirely of NBA players finished no higher than fifth? It would be nice if our elite players understood the significance of representing their country and of being ambassadors for the sport, but a squad that, on paper, is easily talented enough to qualify for the NBA playoffs should not be bowing out before the medal round.

Gregg Popovich will likely be given a pass for this failure. He is popular with--or at least, respected by--the media, and already there have been articles published saying that Popovich is not to blame and that he did not do a bad job. Perhaps both of those statements are true, but it is evident that he did not do a great job, either--unless you buy the premise that a team with 12 NBA players maximized its potential by finishing no higher than fifth. Consider that France's starting lineup versus Team USA was Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier, Nic Batum, Frank Ntilikina and Amath M'Baye. Team USA started Myles Turner, Harrison Barnes, Joe Harris, Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker. We know that FIBA playing conditions are different, and that most of the other FIBA teams have more experience playing together--but NFL Coach Bum Phillips once said of the legendary Coach Don Shula, "He could take his'n and beat your'n and he could take your'n and beat his'n." If Popovich could not win with the starting lineup that he had, I am less than convinced that he would have won if he switched seats with France's Coach Vincent Collet; it seems more likely that Popovich could have lost with either squad, kind of the FIBA anti-Don Shula. Keep in mind that Popovich was also an assistant coach for Team USA in the 2002 FIBA World Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup) and the 2004 Olympics--and the less said about those squads, the better, but just know that Popovich has now had three chances in FIBA tournament play as a coach and he still does not own a gold medal.

Popovich's snarky routine with the media is getting more than a little old, too. I will be the first to admit that many media members ask stupid questions, but Popovich is often rude even to questioners who make legitimate inquiries. After the loss to France, Tim Reynolds asked Popovich if France's defense took away Donovan Mitchell or if Team USA just went away from Mitchell down the stretch. That is a fair question considering that Mitchell, who scored a game-high 29 points, did not score in the fourth quarter. Popovich replied, "Just write, don't coach. Just write."

I don't pretend to be a better coach than Popovich, but it is fair to say that many media members did their jobs better during this tournament than Popovich did his job, and there is no excuse for Popovich to brush off a legitimate question--unless his sarcasm is meant to mask the reality that he did not in fact have a good answer. If I had asked that question and Popovich had provided that answer, I would have followed up with, "Based on that non-answer, is it fair to say that you and your coaching staff had no counters for the fourth quarter strategies employed by France's coaching staff?" Popovich likes to star in little press conference soundbites, and most reporters are too scared or slow-witted to fire back, but respect is a two-way street and accountability should be expected of a Team USA coach who will return home without a medal.

Popovich is an all-time great NBA coach but he may not be a great FIBA coach and--regardless of how great he is--he should treat other working professionals with the respect that they deserve.

Popovich has a propensity for going with small lineups at questionable times. This possibly cost the Spurs the championship during the 2013 NBA Finals when Tim Duncan watched from the bench in game six as the Heat grabbed an offensive rebound that led to Ray Allen's series-changing three pointer. This almost cost Team USA in FIBA World Cup play against Turkey--and this played a role in Team USA's loss to France that eliminated Team USA from medal contention. Myles Turner played just 10 minutes; as I noted a week ago, Team USA was not going to beat any of the top notch FIBA teams if Turner played less than 25 minutes. Brook Lopez played less than five minutes and Mason Plumlee barely played a minute. Turner's benching while Rudy Gobert dominated Team USA's smaller players (21 points, 16 rebounds, three blocked shots) makes no sense, nor does it make any sense that Popovich used/wasted two roster spots for Lopez and Plumlee if he did not plan to incorporate them into the rotation.

Contrary to recent popular belief, small ball is not the cure for all ills, particularly when the opposing team has a dominant big man. Contrary to another persistent myth, the key to Team USA success in FIBA play is not that Team USA make a ton of three pointers; Team USA's advantage is having the size and athletic ability to play stifling defense.

France outscored Team USA 26-13 in the fourth quarter. FIBA quarters last only 10 minutes, so over the course of a 48 minute NBA game France scored at a 125 points per game pace during the decisive final stanza. Again, maybe this is not Popovich's fault and maybe he did not do a bad job--but he clearly did not do a great job in terms of roster selection/management, and in terms of developing a defensive game plan that this roster could execute under pressure.

Of course, Team USA's fourth quarter offensive output of 13 points is nothing to write home about, either, but Team USA led 74-67 with less than eight minutes to go in regulation. If Team USA had played lock down defense the rest of the way, they could have still won even without having an offensive explosion.

If Team USA's A team or B team shows up in the 2020 Olympics, Team USA will probably win regardless of who coaches, but it would be nice if Team USA--from top to bottom--took this more seriously and had a more professional approach regarding roster construction, player rotations and in-game strategy.

Maybe this was not a bad job--but it was not a great job, and it did not represent the best product that Team USA is capable of putting on the court, even considering the absence of Team USA's superstar players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM

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Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Basketball Hall of Fame Welcomes A Diverse Class of 12 Inductees

The 2019 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class includes the first black player drafted by an NBA team (Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics), an all-black team that became the first squad to win three straight collegiate national championships (Tennessee A&I, 1957-59), the New York Knicks' first superstar (Carl Braun), the pioneering women's team from Wayland Baptist, two of the greatest defensive players in pro basketball history (Bobby Jones and Sidney Moncrief), the face of the Warriors' franchise for six decades (Al Attles), two prominent NBA All-Stars from the 1970s/1980s (Paul Westphal and Jack Sikma), NBA championship-winning coach Bill Fitch, one of the first European players to make a big impact in the NBA (Vlade Divac) and one of the WNBA's first stars (Teresa Weatherspoon).

Divac gave the first speech during Friday night's induction ceremony. I was struck by the fact that when he first arrived in the United States he did not speak a word of English, but now he gave a wonderful Hall of Fame acceptance speech in that language. Think about that for a moment. Could you move to Serbia in your 20s, qualify for the Hall of Fame in some endeavor and then give your acceptance speech in Serbian? Divac declared, "To me, the game of basketball has always been about love." He also said, "You have to give in order to receive...Basketball is the opposite of selfishness. Basketball is solely about giving and sharing and caring for one another."

Jack Sikma is one of the few players who has a move named after him. Sikma patented the inside pivot move that is now referred to by his name. He had tremendous footwork and smarts. Before the ceremony, Bill Walton said, "He was a beautiful player" and a "brilliant analyst as to what to do (and) when (to do it)." In the final three seasons of his career, Sikma--who up to that point had made seven three point field goals in the nine years since the league had added the three point arc to the court--shot 203-618 (.328) on three pointers. His coach, Milwaukee's Del Harris, was two decades ahead of his time in terms of spacing the court and having his center shoot from long distance--and Sikma was both talented enough and smart enough to make that late-career addition to his skill set.

Braun, who received the honor posthumously, was known for his two handed set shot that was unorthodox even during his own era. The highlight reel showed that he had many other shots in his repertoire as well, including a running one hander. Braun set the NBA's single game scoring record of 47 points. His daughter Susan accepted the award on his behalf and stated that her father played for the love of the game, and that she can picture him now in heaven with his old teammates taking a brief break to watch the ceremony before going right back to playing the game he loved.

I grew up rooting for Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. A major contributor to those great teams was
Bobby Jones, who was efficient offensively and tenacious defensively. Jones had asked his Denver Nuggets teammate David Thompson and his former 76ers coach Billy Cunningham to present him but Thompson is ill and Cunningham was unable to attend as a result of Hurricane Dorian. In their places, Jones tapped Erving and Charles Barkley. Jones mentioned that he is happy that the Hall is rewarding defense and he said that he would not have had the career he did without the teachings of his college coach, Dean Smith. Jones thanked all of his teammates and he even thanked the referees, which is likely a first at a Hall of Fame ceremony. I interviewed Jones 14 years ago at the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver and found him to be every bit as gracious, humble and soft-spoken in person as he has always appeared to be.

Fitch was not able to attend the ceremony but he gave his speech via a pre-recorded video. His name may not be familiar to younger fans, but he lifted the Cleveland Cavaliers from first year expansion team to three straight playoff appearances, then he coached the Boston Celtics to a title in his second year with the team and then he led Houston to the NBA Finals in his third year with that team. Later he led the Nets and then the Clippers to the playoffs in an era when both teams were perennial laughingstocks. He ranks 10th in NBA history with 944 regular season wins.

The accomplishments of Tennessee A&I and their coach John McClendon (who the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame honored as a contributor in 1979 and as a coach in 2016) are remarkable: they won three straight national titles--they are the first basketball team to win back to back national titles in any collegiate division--and they did so while overcoming the blatant racism of the day. They also played a style featuring pressure defense and fast-breaking offense that was far ahead of its time. Dick Barnett, the team's star who later became an NBA All-Star and a two-time NBA champion, narrated the video that placed the team's accomplishments in the historical context of an era that included the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the saga of Rosa Parks and the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Barnett began the video by declaring that Coach McClendon "sounded the trumpet that would never call retreat."

Barnett's speech was powerful and gripping on a sweeping historical scale. Teresa Weatherspoon's speech was powerful and captivating in a more personal manner. If you have not seen her speech yet, stop reading for a moment and watch it now: Teresa Weatherspoon's 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame Speech.

Weatherspoon began by noting that there was "nothing rolling for me" (i.e., she was not using the teleprompter). She spoke of the importance of the history of the game and she became overcome by emotion several times, including when she thanked God for knowing her name and for making it such that her name is remembered. She also was deeply moved when she thanked each of her older brothers and sisters for watching over her while she watched and learned from them. Weatherspoon concluded by telling a story about three frogs trapped in a deep barrel of hot water. The frogs jumped and jumped trying to get out, while the critics outside the barrel told them to stop jumping and accept that there was no way out. First one frog gave up and died, and then a second frog gave up and died. The third frog never gave up and he eventually escaped. What was his secret? He was deaf! Weatherspoon said that she has always been "deaf" to the critics and naysayers who tried to put limits on what she could accomplish. What a wonderful message! I can definitely picture showing this speech to my daughter Rachel when she is a little older.

Younger fans who may be dimly aware of Al Attles as a presence around the Golden State Warriors probably have no idea that he was a player, a championship-winning coach and an executive during his six decades (!) with the franchise. Attles was not big even during his playing days but he was known as the "Destroyer" and everyone around the league knew not to mess with him.

When I was a kid, there was a time that Sidney Moncrief was arguably the second best guard in the league behind only Magic Johnson. Moncrief's Milwaukee Bucks could never get past Boston and Philadelphia to reach the NBA Finals but he was a great player who played on some great teams. Injuries curtailed his prime and shortened his career but when he was healthy and at his peak he wreaked havoc at both ends of the court. Moncrief said, "The game taught me how to prepare for opportunities, how to execute strategies, how to compete unconditionally, and how to adjust when you experience setbacks."

Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted by an NBA team, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton was the first black player to sign an NBA contract and Earl Lloyd was the first black player to play in an NBA game. Lloyd was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 and Clifton was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.

Julius Erving joined Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Tommy Heinsohn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Ray Allen and Mannie Jackson as presenters for Chuck Cooper. As noted above, Erving (along with Charles Barkley) also presented Bobby Jones, so this ceremony marked the 14th and 15th times that Erving has been a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter. It was awesome to see such an array of talent from across the generations sharing the stage, but also poignant to look at how the aging process eventually takes its toll even on our sporting heroes.

In addition to Weatherspoon's powerful and inspirational speech, I was most touched by the tributes to Tennessee A&I and Chuck Cooper. I recall the poignant words of Earl Lloyd near the conclusion of the must-see documentary "Black Magic": "Black folks are the most forgiving and nicest people on this Earth. I said, 'What could we have possibly done to deserve the kind of treatment we are getting?' It's a tough question to answer truthfully. One person said to me, 'Well, the Lord will test you.' I said, 'I understand that but 200 years is a long time to be tested. I wish somebody would tell me if I passed or flunked this test.'"

The ceremony closed with a speech by Paul Westphal, who combined a nice mixture of humor with some very plaintive messages about thanking those who have helped you before it is too late to do so. He wondered aloud if the recently deceased John Havlicek and John MacLeod knew how much they had meant to him. Westphal called Havlicek the "best mentor a rookie could ever have." MacLeod was Westphal's coach in Phoenix when Westphal blossomed into a perennial All-Star/All-NBA player.

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The diversity of the 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame class is wonderful but for those of us who tend to focus more on the NBA one wonders why certain players, coaches and teams have been honored while others have not been recognized. Some players wait decades before they are inducted, other players who seem to be deserving have yet to be inducted, and then other players are inducted quickly despite not seeming to be inherently more qualified than those who suffered long waits and those who have not been inducted at all.

There are not easy or obvious answers to these questions. A little over a decade ago, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern described the Hall of Fame selection process as "absolutely unacceptable" and "troublesome." For many years, I loudly and repeatedly chastised the Hall of Fame for ignoring players and coaches who spent the bulk of their careers and/or their best seasons in the ABA.That particular situation did not improve until after Jerry Colangelo became the Hall of Fame Chairman. Suddenly, doors that had been closed to the ABA for decades opened up and in rapid succession the Hall of Fame welcomed ABA stalwarts  Artis Gilmore (2011), Mel Daniels (2012), Roger Brown (2013), Bobby "Slick" Leonard (2014), Louie Dampier (2015), Spencer Haywood (2015), Zelmo Beaty (2016) and George McGinnis (2017).

The ABA problem was perhaps simpler to address because it was obvious that a whole group of worthy candidates was being ignored specifically because of their ABA connections. The most glaring omissions have now been rectified and it is further heartening to see a guy like Bobby Jones--a defensive-minded player who began his career in the ABA--get recognized as well.

It is not so simple to figure out why particular individuals have not been inducted decades after their accomplished careers ended. There is not a set of objective criteria signifying what a Hall of Famer is, and the longer that someone is neglected the easier it is to keep neglecting that person in favor of more recently retired players whose accomplishments are better known.

I enjoyed watching the 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony and I learned some things about various inductees that I did not know, but I also feel bad for players like Bob Dandridge who have seemingly been forgotten. Dandridge was a two-way player who performed a key role for two NBA championship teams (1971 Bucks, 1978 Bullets). Will Dandridge have to wait to be inducted posthumously like Braun was this year and like Roger Brown was in 2013?

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:01 PM

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Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Team USA’s FIBA World Cup Struggles and the Myth of “Olympic Melo”

Team USA has a 2-0 record in first round FIBA World Cup play with one game to go, and has already qualified to advance to the second round regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's game versus Japan. Team USA beat the Czech Republic 88-67 in their first game, but Team USA hardly looked impressive against a team that is not a FIBA powerhouse. In their second game, Team USA narrowly escaped with a 93-92 overtime victory against Turkey, another squad that is not a top contender.

This may be the weakest squad to represent the United States in a major FIBA event since the United States first put professional players on Team USA in the 1992 Olympics. Why is Team USA struggling? Team USA lacks talent, chemistry and size.

Team USA does not have the best player in this event--that would be Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2019 NBA regular season MVP--or the second best player in the event, Serbia's Nikola Jokic, a member of the 2019 All-NBA First Team. One could debate whether or not the United States has the third best player in this event, but first one would have to stipulate who the United States' best player is, because that is not clear. Candidates include Donovan Mitchell, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Mitchell leads the team in mpg (27.1) and ranks second in scoring (12.5 ppg). Walker is second in mpg (25.1) and first in scoring (13.5 ppg). Tatum is third in mpg (24.3), fifth in scoring (10.5 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.5 rpg). Walker is the only current Team USA player who has made the All-NBA team even once (All-NBA Third Team in 2019).

One could argue that from players 1-12 Team USA has the best overall talent, but even that is debatable. In such conversations, it is easy to confuse athletic ability with basketball talent. Team USA's players might be able to run faster and/or jump higher on average than the players from other FIBA teams, but that does not necessarily mean that Team USA has better overall basketball talent.

Chemistry is often an issue for Team USA in FIBA events, because other countries have national teams that have played together in FIBA competition for many years, while Team USA's roster is usually put together at the last moment. Chemistry in this sense has nothing to do with players having a bad attitude, but rather refers to players not being used to playing with each other under FIBA rules and conditions. Here are just a few of the differences between the FIBA game and the NBA game: A FIBA game consists of four 10 minute quarters as opposed to four 12 minute quarters, goaltending/basket interference is allowed in FIBA play once the ball hits the rim, and the FIBA three point line is closer to the hoop. Some of these differences may not seem significant, but we have often seen Team USA struggle to adopt to one or more of these variations. Another difference is the quality and style of the officiating, which affects play at both ends of the court and can affect rotations based on foul trouble. You may recall that in the 2004 Olympics Tim Duncan, an all-time NBA great who is not a foul-prone player, was plagued by foul trouble.

Team USA has three big men: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee. Plumlee played five minutes versus the Czech Republic and did not play at all versus Turkey. Lopez is averaging 3.0 ppg in 9.0 mpg. Turner is fifth on the team in mpg (22.2) and leads Team USA in rebounding (8.0 rpg) but he is scoring just 7.5 ppg while shooting .357 from the field. Turner's rebounding and shot blocking/rim protection are important but he is barely playing half of the time, and the rest of the time Team USA is either going small or else utilizing a big man who is not particularly effective in FIBA play.

Due to the above issues regarding talent, chemistry and size, it will not be shocking if Team USA loses at least one game or even if Team USA fails to win the gold medal. This is not a dominant FIBA team. This is a team that, if it plays well and maximizes its potential, is capable of winning the gold medal, but this is a team that also might have to struggle to win a medal at all.

What about coaching? Gregg Popovich is an all-time great NBA coach but his FIBA resume is a bit thin, and not much to write home about. He was an assistant coach for two of the worst performances in Team USA's FIBA history: the 2002 FIBA World Championship (sixth place) and the 2004 Olympics (bronze medal). At the end of regulation of the Turkey game, Popovich went small, much like when he took out Tim Duncan near the end of game six of the 2013 NBA Finals. Taking out Duncan resulted in the Miami Heat getting an offensive rebound and Ray Allen hitting a three pointer that saved the series for the Heat; Ersan Ilyasova's offensive rebound/tip in with 12 seconds remaining in regulation put Turkey up 81-79 and Team USA would have lost had Tatum not hit two free throws after being fouled just before time expired.

Again, I am not saying that Team USA cannot win the gold medal, but I am saying that it will be difficult to win the gold medal and that they have to play better and smarter than they have played in the first two games.

As Team USA's tryouts were being held, Carmelo Anthony, who has washed out of the NBA, publicly expressed his interest in playing for Team USA, and Team USA publicly expressed their interest in not adding him to the roster. Would Team USA be better off with "Olympic Melo" leading the way?

No! "Olympic Melo" is a mythical creature. I am not sure when, why or how the myth began, but the myth is not supported by statistics, the eye test or any other meaningful player evaluation system. Consider Anthony's performance in the 2008 Olympics: he had the second lowest field goal percentage on the team (.422, including .382 in medal round play) and he was benched for the final eight minutes of the gold medal game. During medal round play, Team USA outscored the opposition by 25 points when Anthony was in the game; Team USA outscored the opposition by 52 points when Kobe Bryant was in the game, and they outscored the opposition by 50 points when LeBron James was in the game.

Anthony performed somewhat better in the 2012 Olympics, though his overall numbers were skewed by his stat-padding 37 point explosion versus Nigeria during pool play. Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting during the gold medal game, and throughout the tournament he was often on the bench when the score was close.

In the 2016 Olympics, Anthony scored seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting in the gold medal game. He also had seven rebounds, one of which came after he was reinserted late in a blowout win so that he could set the Team USA Olympic record for career rebounds; he has not been a dominant Olympic rebounder but he holds the U.S. record for most Olympic appearances (four) and most Olympic games played (31, seven more than anyone else), so it is not surprising that he set some career records.

This recitation of facts is not meant to bash Anthony or to diminish his accomplishments and his dedication to Team USA. Here is what I wrote about Anthony after the 2016 gold medal game: "I am not a huge fan of Anthony's game and I am not surprised that he again came up small in the biggest games but I must say that I was moved by how overcome with emotion he was in the moments right after the game. It is obvious that representing his country is very important to Anthony and I commend him for that, particularly since so many players over the years have turned down that opportunity; Anthony has answered that call four times and the flaws in his game do not diminish the dedication that he has demonstrated in support of America and of USA Basketball. Each player on the team committed himself to sacrifice for the greater good; this may not have been a Dream Team but it was an American team that represented America well and it was a pleasure to watch them play the right way in the gold medal game."

All of that being said, Anthony would not have been the answer for Team USA's 2019 challenges. This version of Team USA needs "Olympic Spencer Haywood." In 1968, the 19 year old Haywood led a depleted U.S. roster to the gold medal by setting numerous Olympic and/or Team USA records. As demonstrated above, Anthony was hardly an impact Olympic player during his prime--he rode the coattails of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd--and it is silly to expect a player who cannot crack the eight man rotation of an NBA playoff team to lead Team USA to a gold medal.

Anthony's former teammate Chauncey Billups recently provided the best explanation for why Anthony is not in the NBA now--and this also explains why Anthony would be a poor fit for Team USA: scoring 30 points in a game means too much to Anthony. Billups recalled that Anthony would be happy even after a loss if he scored 30 points, and he would not be as happy after a win if he did not score 30 points.

When your primary concern is scoring 30 points, and you can no longer score 30 points consistently or efficiently, you are no longer valuable to a basketball team. Vince Carter is playing into his 40s because he long ago accepted a reduced role not only without complaint but with enthusiasm. Anthony is wired differently; he has a right to think about himself, his game and his legacy however he wants, but teams also have a right to decide to not sign an aging, declining player who is in denial about his current capabilities.

What about Team USA? I expect Team USA to produce a mixture of flawed, unimpressive double digit wins against lesser teams and close calls against the upper echelon FIBA teams--and possibly even some close calls against lesser teams, as happened versus Turkey. In order to win the gold medal, Team USA needs to develop more chemistry/cohesion at both ends of the court, and someone needs to emerge as the go-to option down the stretch in close games. Those two tasks might sound divergent but they are not. Cohesion and chemistry keep things together for most of the game, but in a close contest you need to have a player who is so confident and so deadly that he must be double-teamed; that in turn opens up opportunities for players who are not good enough or not confident enough to create their own shots down the stretch. Against the better teams that also have skilled big men, Team USA will need at least 25 productive minutes from Turner.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:20 PM

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Player Comparisons and Analysis Must Be Based on Facts

The sad state of sports journalism is not a new story, nor is it a story whose narrative is likely to improve any time soon. It is striking and disappointing how frequently player comparisons are made that contain inaccurate factual statements--and some of the most prominent, respected commentators have been guilty of this. For example, during Kobe Bryant's prime when there were heated debates about Michael Jordan versus Kobe Bryant, Kobe Bryant versus Steve Nash, and so forth, Mike Wilbon appeared on Dan Patrick's podcast and told Patrick that he had just been researching some numbers--whereupon Wilbon then incorrectly cited Jordan's field goal attempts per game and field goal percentage, while also incorrectly citing Bryant's field goal attempts per game! Not surprisingly, Wilbon's analysis and conclusions were skewed by the inaccurate statistics that he cited.

Charley Rosen has been writing about basketball for decades, and his observations are often insightful. However, a trip through the archives reveals that he has repeatedly made basic factual errors that skewed his analysis. Here are two examples.

In a 2005 FoxSports.com article titled "All-Time Overrated NBA Players," Rosen included Bob McAdoo. Rosen's critique of McAdoo began, "Here's all anyone needs to know about McAdoo's game" and then Rosen based his entire argument on a description of McAdoo's matchups versus Dave Cowens. Rosen claimed that Cowens' physical defense wore McAdoo down to such a great extent that "By the end of the fourth quarter, he'd be looking to receive the ball near the three point line. Anything to avoid contact. In other words, McAdoo was nothing more than a big, quick, soft, jump-shooter deluxe."

The specific details provided by Rosen add superficial credibility to his analysis--but that credibility is shattered by the fact that Cowens and McAdoo faced each other in 38 regular season games, but just four of those games took place after the NBA added the three point shot in the 1979-80 season (none of their 12 head to head playoff games took place during the NBA's three point shot era). McAdoo shot just 1-6 from three point range in those four games--at that time, the three pointer was more of a desperation shot at the end of a quarter than a regular part of the offense--but he also scored 28, 29, 32 and 19 points (27.0 ppg) compared to 10, 15, 4 and 10 points scored (9.8 ppg) by Cowens. BasketballReference.com only has overall field goal percentage data for three of those four games, but the numbers that they have show that McAdoo outshot Cowens .596 (31-52) to .392 (11-28). Rosen's case against McAdoo is destroyed by Rosen's sloppy research. If there is a valid argument to be made against McAdoo, that argument is clearly not that Cowens had great success defending McAdoo by pushing McAdoo out past the three point line; the numbers show that McAdoo gave Cowens--and anyone else who might have been guarding him--the business with a capital "B" during those games. By the way, if you extend the comparison to before 1979-80 you do not save Rosen's argument: McAdoo outscored Cowens 28.6 ppg to 17.9 ppg head to head overall in the regular season, and McAdoo outscored Cowens 29.3 ppg to 21.8 ppg head to head in the playoffs. While it may be true that there was more to those matchups than just scoring, that is not what Rosen argued; Rosen specifically stated that "all you need to know about McAdoo's game" is how well Cowens defended McAdoo.

The second example is even worse. In a companion piece titled "All-Time Underrated NBA Players," Rosen sung Willis Reed's praises: "Reed was a reliable and versatile scorer from the high post, the pivot and along either baseline. Possessed of a soft jumper, and deadly hooks and fadeaways, Reed was the Knicks' fail-safe option on offense...It's not surprising that Reed also played rock-'em-sock-'em defense." So far, so good--but Rosen concluded by asking, "Why isn't he in the Hall of Fame?" Say what? Reed was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982!

Rosen's mistake is not just a random throwaway line, either. Rosen then goes into detail about how a hip injury curtailed Reed's career and prevented him from playing long enough to be a Hall of Fame candidate.

This is not like calling a player a nine time All-Star when that player actually made the All-Star team 10 times. That is sloppy but it does not reframe the entire conversation. Rosen's error is just breathtaking ignorance not only by the writer, but by the editor as well. Rosen wrote a book about the 1972 Lakers, who played Reed's Knicks in the NBA Finals. Did Rosen's research never uncover the basic fact that Reed was inducted in the Hall of Fame just 10 years after that series?

It is important to consider any media coverage or commentary with a critical eye and informed brain--and that is true not just regarding sports media, but the media in general.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 PM

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Daryl Morey Ranks James Harden Ahead of Michael Jordan as a Scorer

Houston Rockets' General Manager Daryl Morey recently declared, "You give James Harden the ball and before you're giving up the ball how many points do you generate, which is how you should measure offense, James Harden is by far number one in NBA history and he was number one even at the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's just he was coming off the bench and he was a little more hidden. So you needed good data to suss that out. So we knew he had that amazing skill to be a scorer." Morey acknowledged that this will not be a popular take: "No, people hate it. The counter-argument is reasonable. If you put Michael Jordan on a team now, he would do more than James Harden. That's possible, but if you're just saying NBA history, if you give this guy the ball, how much does his team score after you give him the ball before the other team gets the ball, it's James Harden. I know that makes people mad. It's just literally a fact." In an interview that lasted well over an hour, the interviewers never asked Morey to explain what statistic/statistics prove Harden's alleged superiority to Jordan--and to every other player in NBA history--to be a "fact," nor did Morey explain. The interviewers took Morey's statement as a "fact" without challenging him in any way.

A player's scoring average is a fact. Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in the 1986-87 season. That is a fact. You can look it up. We can argue about what that fact means in relationship to other facts and other factors but we cannot reasonably argue about a fact.

Saying that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan and than every other player in NBA history is not stating a fact; that is stating an opinion, and Morey's opinion does not seem to be particularly well founded when one considers a few facts about Michael Jordan and James Harden:

1) Michael Jordan won a record 10 NBA scoring titles; after finishing third in scoring during his rookie season, he led the league in scoring in every full season that he played from 1986 through his second retirement in 1998.
2) Michael Jordan is the career ABA/NBA regular season points per game leader (30.1 ppg).
3) Michael Jordan is the career ABA/NBA playoffs points per game leader (33.4 ppg).
4) Michael Jordan won six championships in six Finals appearances and he ranks second in career ABA/NBA Finals points per game (33.6 ppg).
5) James Harden has won two scoring titles during his 10 year NBA career.
6) James Harden ranks 16th in career ABA/NBA regular season points per game (24.4 ppg).
7) James Harden ranks 33rd in career ABA/NBA playoffs points per game (22.9 ppg).
8) James Harden averaged 12.4 ppg in his only Finals appearance (a 4-1 loss), which would rank 95th in ABA/NBA Finals points per game had he played in enough games to qualify for an official ranking.

Those facts indicate that a strong argument could be made that Michael Jordan is the greatest scorer in pro basketball history. Other facts not listed here could support an argument in favor of Wilt Chamberlain and a select group of other players. 

An insightful and analytical person who believes that Harden is a better scorer than Jordan and than every player in NBA history would bring some information to support that statement; when confronted with a statement that seems absurd on its face, a good interviewer who is well versed in the subject matter would challenge the interview subject to defend his statement.

Unfortunately, we can only speculate about what Morey really meant, since neither he nor his interviewers found the subject worth discussing in depth.

Presumably, since Morey favors "advanced basketball statistics" he is disregarding supposedly primitive data points such as scoring averages and scoring titles. What do "advanced basketball statistics" say regarding scoring and scoring efficiency? Keep in mind that Morey did not merely compare Harden to Jordan, and Morey did not merely say that Harden is as good as Jordan or a little better than Jordan. Morey asserted that Harden "is by far number one in NBA history" and that Harden has been the best scorer dating all the way back to when Harden was a third option for the Thunder who scored 12.4 ppg in the 2012 NBA Finals while shooting .375 from the field.

Since Morey did not specify his statistic of choice, let's take a look at two "advanced basketball statistics" that exclusively pertain to scoring efficiency and two that pertain to offense in general.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for True Shooting Percentage:

1) DeAndre Jordan .6367
2) Cedric Maxwell .6294
3) Tyson Chandler .6255
4) Stephen Curry .6236
5) Artis Gilmore .6227
6) Karl-Anthony Towns .6192
7) Dave Twardzik .6184
8) James Donaldson .6177
9) Adrian Dantley .6166
10) Reggie Miller .6139
11) Kevin Durant .6127
12) Charles Barkley .6120
13) Magic Johnson .6095
14) James Harden .6092
15) John Stockton .608

Harden far outranks Jordan in this category--Jordan is 94th on the list (.5686), just ahead of noted scorer Frank Brickowski--but Harden is not even in the top 10 all-time, let alone far and away the best. For those of you who have never looked at "advanced basketball statistics" before, True Shooting Percentage blends together field goals, three point field goals and free throws into one number. If you are familiar with pro basketball history, you can see from the names on the list that this metric favors players who primarily shoot layups and/or three pointers. This statistic has some value if you are just interested in comparing players who fill similar offensive roles (such as DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler) but it is meaningless in terms of comparing great offensive players who have divergent skill sets. "Stat gurus" love to use this statistic to come up with "insights" such as Andrew Bynum (.592, but not enough career attempts to be officially ranked) should shoot more often and Kobe Bryant (.5496, 220th all-time) should shoot less often.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders in Effective Field Goal Percentage:

1) DeAndre Jordan .6697
2) Tyson Chandler .5960
3) Dwight Howard .5830
4) Shaquille O'Neal .5823
5) Artis Gilmore .5820
6) Amir Johnson .5816
7) Stephen Curry .5815
8) Mark West .5804
9) Karl-Anthony Towns .5750
10) Kyle Korver .5735
11) Steve Johnson .5722
12) Darryl Dawkins .5721
13) James Donaldson .5706
14) Brent Barry .5703
15) JaVale McGee .5700

Harden (98th) beats out Jordan (194th) but Harden is not close to being the best of all-time. This statistic provides additional value to a three point field goal made--which is why you see Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver and Brent Barry--but mostly this is a list of players who mainly shot dunks and layups. Like True Shooting Percentage, this statistic does not tell you much unless you restrict the comparisons to players who have similar roles.

Here are the ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for Offensive Rating (this statistic only dates back to 1974 for the ABA and 1978 for the NBA, the seasons when those respective leagues began officially tracking individual turnovers):

1) Chris Paul 122.62
2) Reggie Miller 121.48
3) Magic Johnson 120.79
4) DeAndre Jordan 120.57
5) John Stockton 120.55
6) Kiki Vandeweghe 119.49
7) Karl-Anthony Towns 119.48
8) Sidney Moncrief 119.40
9) Charles Barkley 119.31
10) Adrian Dantley 119.30
11) Jimmy Butler 119.11
12) Kevin McHale 118.48
13) Danilo Gallinari 118.44
14) Tyson Chandler 118.34
15) Steve Nash 118.22

Harden and Jordan are in a virtual tie for 19th-20th (117.97). In case you were wondering, LeBron James is 36th on this list, right behind A.C. Green. This definitely looks like a great way to evaluate a player's overall offensive effectiveness regardless of role. I always knew that A.C. Green was better than LeBron James offensively, and now I have some "advanced basketball statistics" to back up that contention! Kobe Bryant is 169th, right behind Taj Gibson, and frankly I just don't understand why Phil Jackson played Bryant so many minutes and let the guy shoot so much.

Here are the all-time ABA/NBA career regular season leaders for Offensive Box Plus/Minus:

1) LeBron James 7.25
2) Stephen Curry 7.13
3) Michael Jordan 6.93
4) James Harden 6.75
5) Chris Paul 6.62
6) Magic Johnson 5.80
7) Charles Barkley 5.66
8) Damian Lillard 5.44
9) Larry Bird 5.02
10) Kyrie Irving 4.93
11) Russell Westbrook 4.93
12) Julius Erving 4.77
13) Kevin Durant 4.71
14) Reggie Miller 4.59
15) Clyde Drexler 4.51

For the first time in four lists, Jordan beats Harden!

So, at least according to the "advanced basketball statistics" for offense available at BasketballReference.com, Morey's "fact" regarding James Harden being "by far number one in NBA history" as a scorer is not a fact. Perhaps Morey has some secret, proprietary statistic that ranks Harden ahead of Chamberlain, Jordan, Bryant, and the best basketball players from six alien species that NASA has yet to discover. Based on Morey's comments about Harden being a "foundational player" who is a better scorer than Jordan and every other basketball player ever, this statistic must be amazing. I wonder how A.C. Green and Kobe Bryant rank on Morey's secret list?

-----

In The Strengths and Limitations of "Advanced Basketball Statistics" I explained that "advanced basketball statistics" can be "useful as a supplement to traditional box score data and to the observations of trained scouts/coaches" but they have serious limitations that must be recognized and understood:
Phil Birnbaum has worked extensively with baseball statistics but after thoroughly studying "advanced basketball statistics" he concluded that they are not particularly reliable:

You know all those player evaluation statistics in basketball, like "Wins Produced," "Player Evaluation Rating," and so forth? I don't think they work. I've been thinking about it, and I don't think I trust any of them enough put much faith in their results.

That's the opposite of how I feel about baseball. For baseball, if the sportswriter consensus is that player A is an excellent offensive player, but it turns out his OPS is a mediocre .700, I'm going to trust OPS. But, for basketball, if the sportswriters say a guy's good, but his "Wins Produced" is just average, I might be inclined to trust the sportswriters.

I don't think the stats work well enough to be useful.
My job is focused on utilizing legal analytics as efficiently and effectively as possible, and one of the points that I often make to my clients is that relying on inaccurate, incomplete and/or irrelevant analytics can be worse than having no data at all, because now you have a false sense of security that you are making data-driven decisions when you are actually doing nothing of the sort. Combining some numbers together and calling them "advanced basketball statistics" is worse than meaningless unless it can be demonstrated that those so-called advanced numbers are accurate, complete and relevant. I would not put much weight on an offensive statistic that ranks A.C. Green ahead of Kobe Bryant, nor would I try to rank all offensive players on the basis of any one number. What matters is skill set evaluation, and also an understanding of a player's psychological makeup: when things get tough is that player going to perform better or perform worse? Has Morey ever looked at regular season versus playoff splits of any numbers for James Harden? In between spouting unsubstantiated "facts," he might want to look into the cracks in the playoff resume of his "foundational player."

Daryl Morey and his fans would argue that Morey utilizes "advanced basketball statistics" in a way that provides a clear edge over the rest of the teams in the league. Logically, that should result in Morey's team having a clear edge over other teams in a sufficiently large sample size of data. Let's test that hypothesis.

Morey's first full season as Houston's General Manager was 2007-08. During the subsequent 12 seasons, the Rockets have missed the playoffs three times, have lost in the first round four times, have lost in the second round three times and have lost in the Western Conference Finals twice. Thus, more than half of the time Morey's teams have advanced no further than the first round of the playoffs. They have never won a championship or even a conference title. If you ran an organization and Morey showed up in your office offering to sell you his expertise/his proprietary analytics would you buy based on those results?

The fact of the matter is that during a very long run as the chief decision maker in an NBA front office, Morey has failed to demonstrate that his methods generate any meaningful competitive advantage in the postseason. Yes, the Rockets have won a lot of regular season games--though not enough to avoid missing the playoffs during a fourth of Morey's reign--but they have not been an exceptional playoff team. If Morey's use of "advanced basketball statistics" creates a significant advantage, we have yet to see much evidence of that advantage.

What about those two Western Conference Finals appearances? Keep in mind that the NBA is designed to promote parity, which means that in the long run most teams are going to advance to the Conference Finals at some point (James Dolan's New York Knicks are a conspicuous exception to this premise, but that is a story for another day). During Morey's tenure with the Rockets, 10 of the Western Conference's 15 teams have advanced to the Western Conference Finals at least once. Five of those 10 teams have advanced to the NBA Finals at least once and four of those five teams have won at least one NBA title.

It is not surprising that Morey places more emphasis on "advanced basketball statistics" than on more basic statistics such as winning. His teams have yet to win a championship during his 12 years at the helm, but according to Offensive Box Plus/Minus Morey is a genius because he has acquired three of the top 11 offensive players in pro basketball history!

The Rockets are unlikely to ever win a title with Morey running the show. He is convinced that Harden is the greatest scorer ever, which suggests that this season the Rockets will run an offense featuring Harden monopolizing the ball to prove that point while Russell Westbrook's driving skills are not fully utilized. Westbrook is Houston's best player now, and if the Rockets are smart they will put the ball in Westbrook's hands while Harden is used as an off the ball scoring threat.

During the interview, Morey noted that Harden and Westbrook are just the fourth tandem to play together within three years of each player winning a regular season MVP, and Morey pointed out that the three previous such duos--he did not identify them, but presumably he is referring to Bob Cousy-Bill Russell, Julius Erving-Moses Malone and Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry--all won titles. It will be very interesting to see if the Rockets are smart enough to take full advantage of this opportunity.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 AM

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

NBA.com's All-2010s Teams Feature Some Odd Selections

NBA.com recently posted a list of the top 15 players from the decade 2009-10 through 2018-19, divided into three teams of five players each. The First Team is Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, the Second Team is Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony and the Third Team is Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge and Giannis Antetopkounmpo. NBA.com emphasized that this is not an official NBA honor; the players were chosen by an unidentified panel of "NBA.com and NBA TV producers and analysts," with each of the three teams having two backcourt players and three frontcourt players.

One only has to glance at the list to understand why the voters preserved their anonymity. The criteria for the selections are not listed but next to each player are the following data: All-Star selections, All-NBA selections (total, with no distinction made between First, Second and Third Team), PPG, RPG and APG. The article also provides a link to an NBA.com article that lists the decade's top 10 leaders in total points (LeBron James--most assuredly not a "pass-first player"-- is first with 19,550), total rebounds (DeAndre Jordan is first with 8653), total assists (Russell Westbrook--often depicted in the media as a selfish gunner despite the fact that he attempts fewer shots and averages more assists than James--is first with 6462), total steals (Chris Paul is first with 1396), total blocked shots (Serge Ibaka is first with 1626), field goal percentage (DeAndre Jordan is first with .671), three point field goal percentage (Stephen Curry is first with .436), free throw percentage (Stephen Curry is first with .905), total minutes played (LeBron James is first with 27,093), total games played (DeAndre Jordan is first with 766) and total games started (DeMar DeRozan is first with 740). Presumably, the listed statistics and honors factored into the selections to a large extent.

Noticeably absent from the data provided are (1) championships won, (2) MVPs won, (3) All-NBA First Team selections and (4) Finals MVPs won. Regarding championships, for all-decade honors the emphasis should be on championships won as the team's first or second best player and/or as an All-NBA level performer.

For the 2010-19 time frame, the leaders in championships won as a prime-time player, MVPs, All-NBA First Team selections and Finals MVPs are as follows:

Championships, 2010-19

LeBron James, Three
Stephen Curry, Three
Kevin Durant, Two
Kawhi Leonard, Two
Dwyane Wade, Two
Kobe Bryant, One
Tim Duncan, One
Dirk Nowitzki, One

MVPs, 2010-19

LeBron James, Three
Stephen Curry, Two
Giannis Antetokounmpo, One
Kevin Durant, One
James Harden, One
Derrick Rose, One
Russell Westbrook, One

All-NBA First Team Selections, 2010-19 (three or more)

LeBron James, Nine
Kevin Durant, Six
James Harden, Five
Kobe Bryant, Four
Stephen Curry, Three
Anthony Davis, Three
Dwight Howard, Three

Finals MVPs, 2010-19

LeBron James, Three
Kevin Durant, Two
Kawhi Leonard, Two
Kobe Bryant, One
Dirk Nowitzki, One
Andre Iguodala, One

Only three players appear on all four lists: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. James is clearly the best player of the decade, Durant is a solid second and Bryant should be a lock as a First Team selection, unless one makes the bizarre argument that the last four years of the decade matter more than the first four years of the decade. Bryant remained an elite player until he tore his Achilles (hold your breath, Kevin Durant fans), and he was an elite player for a longer stretch during the decade than anyone other than James and Durant.

Leonard comes up a bit short in terms of All-NBA First Team selections and regular season per game statistical averages but two Finals MVPs and his consistent two-way excellence earn him the third frontcourt First Team spot on my All-2010s squad.

The final First Team guard spot is a three man race between Stephen Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Curry wins based on championships and regular season MVPs.

Westbrook and Harden are easy choices for the Second Team guards. Both players have vocal critics--and my take on Harden is well known to anyone who has visited this site in the past several years--but based on sheer production they accomplished more than any guards in the decade other than Curry and Bryant. Choosing the frontcourt involves weighing team success and all-around play versus individual statistics. Anthony Davis has gaudy individual numbers and three All-NBA First Team selections but he is also injury prone and his playoff resume is thin. Other than the drama surrounding his departure from New Orleans and arrival in L.A., you could pretty easily write the story of the league during the past 10 years without mentioning him. On the other hand, no history of the 2010s can be written without detailing the impact of Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. Davis has never at any time had as much impact on the NBA as Nowitzki did during the 2011 playoffs and especially the 2011 NBA Finals; if Davis does something like that in the next 10 years then I will happily place him on my All-2020s squad. Duncan won his MVPs and Finals MVPs prior to the 2010s but he was no worse than the second best player on the 2014 championship team that shredded LeBron James' Heat, and Duncan had two-way impact for an elite team for a significant portion of he decade.

Speaking of impact on an elite team--or lack thereof--there is no way that Carmelo Anthony should have been considered for any of these teams. Last season, he could not beat out Danuel House for a roster spot on the Houston Rockets! Putting Anthony ahead of Duncan and Nowitzki is a joke. Anthony is a one dimensional scorer who never had as much of an impact on winning as he should have, and it has become glaringly apparent as his scoring skills eroded that he is unwilling or unable to contribute in any other way. His former teammate Chauncey Billups recently put it best: it always mattered too much to Anthony to score 30 points, win or lose. Anthony has just one top five MVP finish, no All-NBA First Team selections and no Finals appearances.

My third frontcourt player for the Second Team is Dwight Howard. Howard's career is not necessarily ending well but he made the All-NBA First Team three times during the 2010s--the same amount as Curry, and the same as Davis--and in his prime he was a top notch rebounder and defender who was also a high percentage scorer in the paint.

Giannis Antetokounmpo headlines my Third Team frontcourt. His 2010s resume is short but he has already been a regular season MVP as the best player on the team with the best record in the league. Barring injury, he is a good bet to emerge as the player of the decade for the 2020s, and he already has done enough to earn his way on to my All-2010s team.

By this point, we have run out of frontcourt players who were the first or second best player on a championship team in the 2010s, so individual statistics are the only way to separate the remaining candidates. In that milieu, it is acceptable to now select Davis, who is an impressive player on paper (at least when he is not missing games due to paper cuts).

LaMarcus Aldridge has never won anything, and on the surface his individual numbers may not seem as impressive as Anthony's--but if you look at those decade leader lists you see Aldridge all over the place. Aldridge has been consistent and productive, and you do not get the sense that scoring 30 points matters more to him than winning. He is my third frontcourt player on the Third Team.

Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson and Dwyane Wade are the top candidates for the final two guard slots. For the time period in question, Lillard is the most explosive scorer, Paul is the best passer, Thompson is the best two-way player and Wade was the number two guy on two championship teams before his game fell off of a cliff as injuries and age caught up to him. Could Thompson be the best player on a championship team? I am not sure, but here that does not matter; Lillard and Paul have never been on a championship team period, and the only time Wade was the best player on a championship team was 2006. A team that had any of these guys from 2010-19 would likely need to also have one of the members of the First Team or the Second Team in order to win a title. Therefore, for the specified time period I would take Thompson's health (until the 2019 Finals), consistency, shooting, and two-way game over what the other guys provide. It is a close call among the other three, but I will take Wade's championship pedigree and size over Paul's undersized two-way feistiness.

Thus, my All-2010s Teams are:

First Team: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry

Second Team: Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden

Third Team: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Klay Thompson, Dwyane Wade

In addition to shifting several players around compared to NBA.com's list, I also added Nowitzki, Duncan, Howard and Thompson while subtracting Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.  

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM

3 comments

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

A Business Model Combining Huge Guaranteed Contracts With Nearly Unrestrained Player Movement is Not Smart

NBA players--or, at the very least, NBA stars--enjoy unprecedented power. They can decide that they no longer wish to honor the terms of their contracts, and then strong-arm their current team to not only trade them but to trade them to their preferred destination. The superficial argument in favor of this business model is that everyone should have the right to choose where he lives and works--but in the real world, that freedom comes with risks and responsibilities that NBA players do not face.

It is true that in many circumstances, a person can quit his job, move to his city of choice and get another job--but that person's salary will generally not be paid during the transition period and there is no guarantee that the person will ultimately be paid as much by his new employer as he was paid by his old employer.

The NBA operates under a franchise model, which means that if enough franchises do poorly or fold then the whole enterprise is at risk (think of the ABA and other rival leagues in a variety of sports that could not maintain enough healthy franchises to survive as independent entities). Taken to its logical extreme, the power plays that we have seen recently by players like Anthony Davis and Paul George could result in a situation where most teams will never have a realistic chance to compete for a championship. Some people may think that this has always been the case in the NBA but the difference is that in previous eras talent was concentrated on a handful of teams because those teams made shrewder personnel moves; a team that acquired a talented roster did not have to worry that another team would be able to raid and pillage that roster in collusion with players who decided that they wanted to leave before their contracts expired.

Some form of free agency is necessary and proper, but that has to be coupled with an understanding that a player under contract is going to honor his contract. Otherwise, if players want unfettered movement then they should agree to abolish guaranteed contracts; if players are willing to assume the risk of being injured or waived without having a guaranteed contract to lean on, then they will have earned the right to leave at any time (and teams will have the right to replace them at any time without any financial obligation to the players).

It was not fair to the players back in the day when the teams had most of the power and true free agency did not exist--but it is not a sustainable business model for the NBA if players are going to decide, while under contract, that they want to play for another team right now.

A player who becomes a free agent has the right to sign with any team--but a player who is under contract should not be able to force his way out and receive the full value of his original contract. Anthony Davis and Paul George did not live up to their contracts with the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder respectively. One way to discourage this type of behavior would be to enact a rule stipulating that players who, by their own volition (i.e., not because of injury or because the team decides to waive or trade them), do not fulfill the terms of their contract pay a 10% penalty on their next contract; if such a player is eligible to sign for three years/$90 million, then he can only sign for three years/$81 million. The difference is paid by the team acquiring the player to the team that lost the player, in addition to the agreed upon terms of any transaction between those two teams involving the player who did not fulfill his contract. These funds would not count against either team's salary cap.

Such a provision may not put an end to the breach of contract situations that have become more common, but it would at least give the players pause before attempting brazen power plays, and it would provide meaningful compensation to the team that is losing a star player much sooner than it could have prepared for or expected.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:55 PM

8 comments

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Media, David Griffin and LeBron James: A Case Study

Sports Illustrated recently ran a story containing several quotes attributed to David Griffin, who built the Cleveland Cavaliers' first and only championship team. Griffin explained why he left that franchise immediately after the 2016 title run: "Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable. Literally the moment we won the championship I knew I was gonna leave. There was no way I was gonna stay for any amount of money." Griffin also stated, "We won despite our culture to a huge degree" and "LeBron is getting all the credit and none of the blame. And that's not fun for people. They don't like being part of that world." Griffin questioned how motivated James was to win a title after 2016: "I don't think he's the same animal anymore about winning."

Griffin later backtracked a bit about the last remark, stating that prior to the 2017 season he had this concern but it proved to be unfounded after James led Cleveland to back to back Finals appearances. However, if Griffin was quoted accurately then his statement was in the present tense, as opposed to saying, "I didn't think he would be the same animal about winning." The difference in the plain meaning between those two sentences is obvious. Griffin later amended some of his other comments as well, stating to ESPN that when he talked about LeBron James getting all of the credit and none of the blame that was meant as an indictment of the media, not of James. Griffin's retractions and amendments do not make much sense, because he claims that he was quoted out of context, but unless he was misquoted (which is a different) it is not difficult to understand Griffin's message--and even if Griffin meant to target the media instead of James, there is no denying that James has long used his platform to laud himself (he declared "I am confident because I am the best player in the world" on eve of his Cavaliers to Golden State in the 2015 NBA Finals) while directly and/or indirectly throwing shade on his owner, team executives, coaches and teammates. After the 2016 championship, James said that the triumph proved that he is the greatest player of all-time, which is not only a highly debatable contention but also a public assertion that does not leave much room to give credit to anyone else.

There are at least three possibilities regarding Griffin's statements followed by Griffin's retractions:

1) Sports Illustrated misquoted Griffin and/or published his statements without providing full context.
2) Griffin regretted his comments after they were published and decided to back away from publicly criticizing LeBron James.
3) ESPN, which has a substantial financial commitment involved with promoting LeBron James, decided that it would be best for all parties involved to suggest to Griffin to use their platform to clarify his message.

Regardless of which possibility is true, the coverage of Griffin's comments is yet another example of the extent to which sports journalism has lost its way. Sports Illustrated has a responsibility to accurately quote its interview subjects and to report those quotes in proper context. If ESPN is to be taken seriously as a journalistic enterprise--a ship that has perhaps long since sailed off without ESPN realizing or caring--then it cannot just be a mouthpiece for LeBron James and certain select, favored athletes. In the wake of the comments and retractions, many media members seem to care less about determining what Griffin said or meant than they do about figuring out how to spin the situation to support their preferred narrative; one preferred narrative is that James is a great player who is unfairly criticized, while another preferred narrative is that James is a very difficult individual with whom to work.

We may never know what Griffin actually said and/or what message he meant to convey about James--but we do not need to read Griffin's mind to know that even though James is one of the most athletically gifted and multi-skilled basketball players of all-time he lacks certain psychological qualities, and the qualities that he lacks prevent him from reaching the level that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant reached. We can figure that out by examining James' actions and the way those actions have been characterized by people who have a much more extensive basketball pedigree than Griffin does.

We know that Adrian Wojnarowski reported that James was such a poor leader and teammate that Coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted to leave James off of Team USA, but the powers that be insisted that James must be selected.

We know that LeBron James quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs.

We know that LeBron James quit versus Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals.

We know that the media hyped James as the star of Team USA in 2012, but Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were the team's leaders.

We know that even after James learned how to be a champion he still was a difficult co-worker for his teammates, coaches and team executives; after James left Miami, Pat Riley referred to "No more smiling faces with hidden agendas." You did not need a decoder ring to figure out who Riley was talking about.

We know that by signing a series of one year contracts LeBron James hindered the Cavaliers' efforts to build a sustainable winning culture; he forced the Cavaliers to live year to year, to make stop gap moves, and to overpay players who LeBron James and Rich Paul liked. The reason that the Cavaliers collapsed both times after James left is not just that he is a great player but also that he creates chaos and leaves chaos in his wake. Riley did not let James wreak quite that much havoc in Miami, and the Heat did not become a moribund franchise after James departed.

We know that James and Paul destabilized two franchises last year in their efforts to pry Anthony Davis from New Orleans and send Davis to the Lakers.

We know that most star players who have played alongside James have seen their individual numbers go down, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love being the most prominent examples.

We know that throughout James' career--with the notable exception of his time in Miami--he calls the shots on personnel moves but will not accept responsibility when those moves do not work out.

What we don't know is where the tipping point is when the negative factors about James' personality will outweigh the positive factors about James' on court skills. Up to this point, James has been such an incredibly talented and impactful player that multiple franchises have been willing to deal with the negatives. At some point, that will not be true. 

So, we do not need to parse Griffin's words to understand who LeBron James is: LeBron James is a supremely gifted basketball player who has had a great career but who has also been disruptive to multiple franchises. Have other great players been demanding and difficult at times? Yes, but in most instances not to the extent that James has been and not in ways that make it appear that winning as many championships as possible is not the top priority.

I have often said that James mystifies me more than any other great player who I have covered or researched.

The coverage of Griffin's comments tells us much more about the media than it does about LeBron James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:31 PM

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Friday, July 12, 2019

Rockets Reload, Thunder Hit Reset Button: Houston Acquires Westbrook, Unloads Paul

It did not seem possible that Daryl Morey would find someone who was desperate enough or stupid enough to take on Chris Paul's bloated contract but the Oklahoma City Thunder sent Russell Westbrook to Houston in exchange for Paul and multiple first round picks/pick swaps. It is an axiom in the NBA that the team that receives the best player in a trade wins that trade--no matter what other assets are included--so this trade is a landslide victory for Houston. Paul at his peak was not as good as Westbrook at his peak, and Paul is now a declining, aging, small point guard while Westbrook has accomplished the unprecedented and underappreciated feat of averaging a triple double in each of the past three seasons.

The Houston Rockets are now a legitimate championship contender for the first time since Morey signed Harden, who Morey called a "foundational player" (whatever that means)--but with an important caveat: they will only be a championship contender if they understand that Westbrook is the team's best player and should be the primary ballhandler, with Harden wreaking havoc as a deadly off the ball scorer. If the Rockets are going to run the Harden "dribble, dribble, dribble" offense then they will do no better in the playoffs then they have done since Harden arrived: three first round losses in seven seasons, and annual Harden postseason breakdowns when the Rockets made it past the first round.

Westbrook is not a great shooter; that is his one skill set weakness. Putting him off of the ball takes away his strengths as an explosive athlete/penetrator/scorer and forces him to rely on the weakest part of his game--but if Westbrook is the primary ballhandler then opposing teams face the impossible task of simultaneously packing the paint to deter Westbrook's drives while also extending the defense to contain Houston's armada of three point shooters, including not only Harden but also Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker.

Westbrook and Harden were teammates for three seasons in Oklahoma City. At that time, Westbrook was 1B to Kevin Durant's 1A, while Harden was a bench player. Harden left Oklahoma City because he chafed at being anything less than the number one option. It has been reported that Harden wanted Westbrook to join him in Houston, and that Houston was also Westbrook's top choice after Paul George left Oklahoma City. It is not clear if Harden is more excited about Westbrook arriving or Paul departing, but one would hope that Harden--who is praised for his high basketball IQ and unselfishness, though neither quality is consistently evident when watching him during postseason play--understands that the important thing is not for him to dominate the ball or score the most points but for he and Westbrook to blend their skills together for the benefit of the team.

The psychological dynamics here are fascinating. Mike D'Antoni is not a confrontational coach; he likes to give his players freedom. Russell Westbrook is very unselfish, and has proven that he can be a significant contributor as 1B when he plays alongside another great player, as he did when Kevin Durant played for the Thunder. James Harden ended up in Houston precisely because he could not accept a lesser role behind Durant and Westbrook, even if that would have likely helped the Thunder build a dynasty. So, psychologically, the path of least resistance is for D'Antoni to literally or figuratively say, "You guys figure it out" and then for Westbrook to defer while Harden monopolizes the ball--but that is the worst possible scenario for Houston.

The Rockets need a strong voice on the bench who will put the ball in Westbrook's hands, who will not tolerate Harden pouting on offense or resting on defense and who will define everyone else's roles. There is a reason that a handful of coaches have won most of the championships throughout NBA history; the media can say whatever they want about whose team it is, but the great coaches knew who really was the best player on their teams at any given time. The media may still think that Miami was Dwyane Wade's team and Golden State was Stephen Curry's team, but Erik Spoelstra and Steve Kerr knew better, and when the chips were down they put the ball in the hands of LeBron James and Kevin Durant respectively.

If Harden averages 30-35 ppg next season while Westbrook averages 18-20 ppg then this team will be out of the playoffs no later than the second round. If Westbrook is the primary ballhandler and each star averages around 25-27 ppg, then the Rockets have a chance to make a serious run at a title.

Meanwhile, no one seems to be paying much attention to how the Thunder have collapsed in the past two weeks from being a dark horse Western Conference contender to, essentially, a warehouse for first round draft picks. The NBA office may need to keep an eye on the Thunder, particularly if Oklahoma City buys out Chris Paul so that he can go to a team with elite players and hope to ride the coattails of those players to get the NBA title he never came close to winning as a first or second option. If that happens, the Thunder will essentially be a G-League team in NBA uniforms, blatantly tanking away at least one full season in the hope that all of those draft picks will someday form the basis of a good team.

The NBA is not sustainable as a competitive enterprise if only a few teams are trying to win titles, while many other teams are tanking; the NBA may be able to rebrand itself as "entertainment" a la professional wrestling but it will cease to be a sport. If the Thunder keep Paul, then they can put a serviceable team on the court, at least as long as Paul is healthy--but if this deal was just a smokescreen to get rid of their best player and then get rid of Paul to tank, the NBA is in trouble.

While it may turn out to be fun and exciting to watch Westbrook and Harden on the same team, as a longtime NBA fan and historian I find this outcome to be sad. Westbrook spent the first 11 seasons of his career with the Thunder, and until the past couple weeks it seemed possible that he would become perhaps the last Hall of Fame caliber player to spend his entire career with one team. It is sad that the combination of power plays, tanking and other realities of the modern NBA conspired to destroy that scenario. Maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo will play his entire career with Milwaukee; it would be wonderful if that happens, and if the Bucks are contenders for the next decade or so.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:55 AM

4 comments

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Tanking Does Not Work, and Other Things We Already Knew That NBA Free Agency 2019 Taught Us Again

In a move that surprised very few, and was announced before such things can officially be announced, Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors to team up with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn; in a move that sent shock waves through the league, Kawhi Leonard not only joined the L.A. Clippers--that is not the shocking part--but also orchestrated a deal that resulted in Paul George being traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Clippers.

You may have also heard that LeBron James has a new coach, and several new teammates, including Anthony Davis.

What does it all mean?

The only sensible answer is Chairman Mao's verdict on the French Revolution: It is too soon to tell (never mind that Chairman Mao may have not actually uttered that remark, and that if he did he most likely was referring to France's 1968 unrest, not the 1789 French Revolution).

While that is the best answer, it is not one that results in a very interesting or lengthy article. So, here is an attempt to speculate and extrapolate logically--with no hype--about what the NBA's 2019 Summer of Discontent might mean for next season, and perhaps for many seasons to come.

Make no mistake that this is indeed a Summer of Discontent: never before in NBA history have so many star players in seemingly great situations made their discontent so obvious. Let's start with Kevin Durant. Three years ago, he and Russell Westbrook propelled the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals versus the defending champion, 73 win Golden State Warriors. The Warriors looked very beatable, and in fact they subsequently squandered a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, Durant, Westbrook and company did not finish the deal. Historically, such situations have been stepping stones to future titles: Larry Bird's Celtics had to beat Julius Erving's 76ers, Isiah Thomas' Pistons had to beat Bird's Celtics, Michael Jordan's Bulls had to beat Thomas' Pistons, Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf decided that they had to break up Jordan's Bulls (that is not part of our theme, but read the article for a reminder, once again, that tanking does not work).

Did Durant embrace the challenge of beating the Warriors? No, he was unhappy and he joined the Warriors to form one of the most potent starting lineups in league history. As a Warrior, Durant won two championships, was the Finals MVP both times and emerged as arguably the best player in the league. Was he happy? No. It has been an open secret for more than a year that Durant would seek greener pastures elsewhere. He believes that he has found those greener pastures, metaphorically speaking, in Brooklyn. Will Durant lead the Nets to multiple titles, one title or no titles? Who knows? My prediction, in which I am quite confident, is that within two years Durant will not be happy--and that is sad; as Bill Walton might put it, if you cannot enjoy being arguably the best basketball player on the planet then what can you enjoy?

Durant's new running mate is another unhappy camper. Kyrie Irving hit the biggest shot in the 2016 Finals as the Cavaliers shocked the Warriors but Irving grew tired of being LeBron James' figurative "little brother" and he also did not fancy the notion of being the Cavaliers' best player after James' inevitable departure; so, Irving forced the issue and landed in Boston, where he ended up not being happy being the best player on an underachieving Boston team that had overachieved when Irving was injured and not in the lineup.

Do you want more discontent? LeBron James has made a career of it. He played for deep, balanced Cleveland teams that posted back to back 60-plus win seasons (which did not stop many commentators from constructing a false narrative about how bare the cupboard supposedly was in Cleveland) but instead of embracing the challenge of elevating his game to lead the Cavaliers to a championship he fled to Miami, where James surrounded himself with Hall of Fame talent but did not win a title until he fully embraced the challenge of being the best player on the court in championship moments. After winning two rings in four tries in Miami, James grew weary of doing things Pat Riley's way and James went back to Cleveland, leading Riley to publicly comment about "no more smiling faces with hidden agendas." James made four straight NBA Finals appearance in his second run in Cleveland, winning one championship before bolting to Los Angeles last summer.

Anthony Davis has made his discontent known for at least a year. While the New Orleans Pelicans were hardly a well-run franchise during his tenure there, Davis did not look like a player who would do anything and bear any burden to win a title. Also, the very public way that he made it clear while he was under contract with New Orleans that he would only consider playing for the Lakers was not a good look for the league and cast a pall over both franchises last season.

Would you like more discontent? This story is not complete without the saga of Kawhi Leonard, who rose from little known player to 2014 Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs, widely viewed as the league's model franchise. Just three years later, he was completely discontent with the Spurs and he was dealt to Toronto. Leonard led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title, winning his second Finals MVP. Is he happy and content? No; he is the first Finals MVP to ever go play for a new team right after winning that award.

What does all of this discontent and player movement mean for next season? The 2019 Finalists, Toronto and Golden State, will still likely be playoff teams but they are not championship contenders. Milwaukee, led by 2019 regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, should be the best team in a wide open Eastern Conference as Durant rehabilitates his torn Achilles. Philadelphia will get a lot of hype but I don't trust their best players in key playoff moments. Losing Jimmy Butler will hurt the team's defense and focus.

Speaking of hype, the all-hype, little results Rockets will no doubt be all hyped up again but they are not going to win a playoff series against a Lebron James-led team, never mind a Kawhi Leonard-led team. Much depends on how the supporting casts are constructed--and injuries, as we saw during the 2019 playoffs--but Kawhi Leonard is the modern NBA's dynasty killer, and if he ever stays in one place long enough he could be a dynasty maker. Leonard shut down the "Heatles," he shut down the Spurs (by leaving) and then he shut down the Warriors. He epitomizes the saying, "Real bad boys move in silence." He does not say much but his game screams and yells. We also just found out that you don't have to spout off in the media and dominate the news cycle in order to flex your power; Leonard decided that he wanted to play with Paul George in L.A., and Leonard made it happen without most people having a clue about what was taking place. James' right hand man Rich Paul has admitted that he had no idea the Leonard-George pairing was in the works.

George is an interesting player. He has the size and skill set of a player who could lead a team to a title but something just seems to be missing; he is most comfortable as the second banana, as we saw last season when he flourished alongside Russell Westbrook with Oklahoma City. Never mind that the media--whose disdain for Westbrook is perhaps only exceeded by his disdain for them--considered George a top three player in MVP voting; Westbrook was that team's engine, and he was the focal point of criticism when the Thunder lost. By the way, what sense does it make that the media touted George as an MVP candidate and then spent all season blaming Westbrook for the team's perceived failings? If George is the best player then shouldn't he get the bulk of the praise and the bulk of the criticism?

You can be sure that Westbrook will be blamed for George's departure, much as he was blamed for Durant's departure. Where are the articles blaming Stephen Curry for Durant's departure from Golden State? Is it possible that Durant is just, by nature, not satisfied and someone who constantly seeks change? It is understandable why George hitched his fortunes to a superstar who is bigger and younger than Westbrook--though I would respect George more if she stayed where he is as opposed to tagging along with Leonard--but that does not mean that Westbrook did anything wrong. Westbrook's nature is such that he probably still wants to play with the Thunder, and his mentality is such that he probably thinks that he can win a title playing alongside four G-League players but the reality is that the Thunder will probably trade him and hit the reset button. It will be fascinating to see how Westbrook performs with a different coaching staff and a different supporting cast, if that happens. It would be great if Westbrook spends his entire career with one franchise, like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and a select few all-time greats.

Leonard has chosen a sidekick who likes being Robin and is happy to have someone else be Batman. Leonard just won a title with Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry as his second and third options, so from Leonard's standpoint Paul George is a major upgrade--not to mention the other talent on the Clippers' roster.

Notice that Durant/Irving and Leonard/George maneuvered their way to franchises that did not tank and that shrewdly put together winning programs. It seems that the so-called "Clipper curse" was named Donald Sterling and with the meddlesome, incompetent owner out of the way real basketball minds transformed the team. It is interesting that those minds got rid of the flash and dash of "Lob City" to construct a team built around defense and scrappy play. Similarly, the Nets recovered from Mikhail Prokhorov's blundering and bombast to emerge as a playoff team after he stopped interfering in the day to day management of the franchise. Note to the New York Knicks: the problem lies not in bad fortune but in the ownership suite.

From that standpoint, I am happy that two well-run franchises are reaping rewards, while the Knicks and other tanking teams are left scratching their heads. On the other hand, Toronto and Golden State are two well-run franchises that just lost their best players. It does not seem that the Raptors could have done anything to keep Leonard, and that is sad. It would have been wonderful to watch this scrappy team try to defend a title. The Warriors' story is a bit more complicated. Durant and Draymond Green openly feuded, and the seemingly hyper-sensitive Durant probably grew tired of the media coverage suggesting that the team is better without him (though that coverage is not the team's fault, and no one from the team publicly fed into that preposterous notion). The Golden State medical staff did not have a great 2019 playoff run; they either deliberately downplayed injuries publicly to gain a competitive edge (which is problematic for many reasons, including its impact on legalized sports betting) or they misdiagnosed Durant's injury (and possibly Andre Iguodala's injury, which was publicly reported as a bone bruise but has now been revealed to be a fracture). If Durant left the Warriors over his medical treatment, that is perfectly understandable--but reports of his discontent far predate his injury woes.

What about the Lakers? Remember several years ago when the media made a big deal about (1) Kobe Bryant's big contract supposedly ruining the team and (2) the notion that no stars wanted to play alongside Bryant? James was unable to convince any stars to join him last year, and then he presided over yet another non-playoff season for the Lakers. This summer, Durant, Leonard, George and Irving all went elsewhere without seeming to give the Lakers much consideration. Yes, Davis wants to play with James but does he want to play there because he is represented by James' buddy Rich Paul or is he represented by James' buddy because he wants to play there? Davis hopefully understands that he will be blamed for any real or imagined Lakers' shortcomings, while James will get the credit for any success that the Lakers have.

James had the first semi-serious injury of his career last season and he is at an age where he will be increasingly prone to getting injured and increasingly less able to recover quickly. He has been pacing himself on defense for quite some time as well. Davis is a "stat guru's" dream but has yet to prove that he is durable or that he can be a key player for a championship team. Sure, if all goes well this team could be very, very good--but the bench will be thin, and James' championship window is shrinking rapidly if it is not already closed. I am a Lakers' skeptic for now--meaning, I expect this team to have some very good moments but I do not expect the Lakers to win a championship.

The Clippers look scary on paper, and they will likely back that up on the court as well: Leonard is a beast, George is a very good second option and the role players embrace their roles. Doc Rivers is an elite coach. The Clippers are the big winners this summer: they acquired two star players who are in their primes, they gave up very little to do so and they are in position to be a championship contender for the next several seasons.

As for the Nets, they are obviously not a championship contender this season while Durant recovers. They should certainly be a playoff team, and a playoff team that could at least scare a top four seed, depending on matchups. The real question is 2020-21: what will that squad look like? Assuming that Durant makes a full or nearly full recovery, we know that he can be the best player on a championship team. We also know that Irving can be the second best player on a championship team. However, much like James' health--which was never a question for most of his career--is a valid question now, health is a valid question regarding the Durant-Irving duo. Durant's injury has ended more than a few careers and it has drastically changed other careers. His full return to health is not a given. Just as important, Irving has been an injury-prone player dating all the way back to his college days. No one can blame the Nets for signing these two players but it is entirely possible that we will not see both of them on the court together at full strength for a sustained enough period to win a title. Either life with the Warriors was worse than anyone imagined for Durant, or he has made a very risky choice to leave a dynasty while relying on Irving to be healthy and on unproven players to step up in the playoffs.

Regarding this whole process, I do not begrudge any player the right and opportunity to decide where he wants to live and work; that is a normal part American life and it is a collectively bargained part of the NBA business model. That being said, as a lifelong fan and as an ardent student of the game, it saddens me to see Durant jump from team to team, to see James manipulating the fortunes of multiple teams, players and coaches and to see Leonard leave a country, city and team that fully embraced him. These men have every right to live their lives as they see fit, just as I have every right to wish that Durant still played for the Thunder, that James did not leave Cleveland twice and that Leonard--who appears to have had a legitimate gripe with San Antonio's handling of his quad injury--still played for the Raptors.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to watch these teams fill out their rosters, and I am sure that the 2019-20 season will be exciting, competitive and memorable.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:41 PM

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