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Friday, April 13, 2018

2017-18 Playoff Predictions

Before I make my annual playoff predictions, I will offer some comments about the 2017-18 NBA season.

This season's biggest story is the Houston Rockets, who finished with the best record in the league by far--65-17, six games ahead of the Toronto Raptors and seven games ahead of the defending champion Golden State Warriors. To put that in perspective, in each of the last two seasons, the Warriors finished six games ahead of the rest of the league.

The Rockets had a better season than I--or just about anyone else--expected or predicted. Much of the praise and attention is focused on James Harden, the presumptive regular season MVP. Harden had an exceptional season: he won his first scoring title by averaging a career-high 30.4 ppg and he ranked third in assists (8.8 apg). However, Harden has put up big numbers before and that has not led to this much team success.

The big difference for Houston is team defense. The Rockets are mediocre in defensive field goal percentage (.462, 16th in the league) but they force a lot of turnovers and thus they have vastly improved in points allowed: last season the Rockets ranked 26th out of 30 teams in points allowed but this season the Rockets vaulted to sixth in the league in that category. Mike D'Antoni-coached teams are always going to push the ball, score a lot of points and shoot a lot of three pointers but this may be the first D'Antoni team that takes defense seriously.

There is still a misconception in some quarters that Golden State's recent success is somehow a vindication of D'Antoni's "Seven Second or Less" Phoenix Suns teams--but, in fact, the Warriors took a much different approach. D'Antoni's Suns just tried to outscore teams and were largely indifferent to defense, while the Warriors individually and collectively are great defensively.

Chris Paul has always been a feisty, combative and effective defensive player despite his small statute. His mentality has had an impact in Houston, along with the addition of other tough-minded defensive players such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Clint Capela has blossomed into an All-Star caliber center for this era, a mobile big who runs to the rim on offense and who rebounds/plays defense.

The Rockets have shown over 82 games that they have enough talent to win it all. It will be very interesting to see how they do in the playoffs, especially considering the less than stellar postseason resumes of D'Antoni, Harden and Paul.

The second biggest story of the season is the under the radar individual excellence of Russell Westbrook, who won the 2017 regular season MVP after becoming the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season. Westbrook just pulled off an even more impressive accomplishment: he averaged a triple double for the 2018 regular season to become the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double in consecutive seasons (or two seasons at all).

I picked Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder to finish third in the West, so their fourth place finish in a very competitive conference is not terrible or surprising but some people talk like this team is a major disappointment. The reality is that last season Westbrook absolutely carried a talent-bereft team to the sixth seed in the West and this season he carried a more talented but still flawed team to the fourth seed. While the Thunder only added one win to their 2017 total, their relative standing in the conference improved.

Westbrook averaged 25.4 ppg (seventh in the NBA), 10.2 apg (first in the NBA and his fourth straight top four finish--not bad for a player often derided for allegedly not keeping his teammates involved) and 10.1 rpg (tenth in the NBA for the second year in a row, a remarkable feat for a 6-4 point guard). Westbrook improved his FG% from .425 last season to .449 this season, though his three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage both declined (from .343 to .298 and .845 to a career-low .737 respectively).

Westbrook is understandably resentful that he has been accused of artificially chasing certain statistics: "A lot of people make jokes about whatever, stat-padding or going to get rebounds. If people could get 20 rebounds every night, they would. If people could get 15 rebounds, they would. People that's talking or saying whatever they need to say, they should try doing it and see how hard it is. Since everybody wants to be talking, I'm tired of hearing the same old rebound this, stealing rebounds, all this (stuff).  I take pride in what I do. I come out and play, and I get the ball faster than someone else gets to it. That's what it is. If you don't want it, I'm gonna get it. Simple as that."

Westbrook's teams have always performed much better when he gets a triple double than when he does not, so even if it were true that Westbrook is "chasing" numbers that alleged "chase" has helped his team; the Thunder went 20-5 this season when Westbrook posted a triple double and 28-29 when he did not. In other words, when Westbrook is not playing at an Oscar Robertson Pantheon level, the Thunder are just a mediocre team.

The third biggest story is the unexpected rise of the Toronto Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Raptors went 51-31 last season before being swept in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers and it seemed as if Toronto's contending window was closing or closed. Instead, the Raptors posted the best record in franchise history (59-23) and secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. Fringe MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan led the way but he had a lot of help from a deep and versatile supporting cast. There will be justifiable skepticism about this team until it proves that it can maintain this performance level in the playoffs but the front office, coaching staff and players deserve credit for an outstanding season.

The fourth biggest story is the puzzling Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished fourth in the East despite the gaudy statistics posted by the seemingly ageless LeBron James. Ever since James returned to Cleveland, it has been obvious that he has a major say in the composition of the coaching staff and the roster. James always has "his" guys. Yet, the Cavaliers stumbled through this season while playing some of the worst defense ever for a team that fancies itself to be a championship contender. James' individual numbers look great (27.5 ppg, career-high 9.1 apg, 8.7 rpg) but his defensive effort has been subpar for most of the season and the Cavaliers actually went through a lengthy stretch of games during which they performed better when he was on the bench than when he was on the court.

James' extended run of individual greatness and team success is incredible but this has been an odd season in an often paradoxical career; James is so talented that he can consistently put up tremendous numbers regardless of circumstances (including age, injuries to his teammates, etc.) but team success does not always result from his efforts. He has been a dominant player on stacked teams for most of his career, so winning three championships is both an accomplishment but also perhaps something short of what should be expected of him.

Here are my first round predictions:

As noted above, the Toronto Raptors had a great season but in the past four years (since they became a playoff contender after missing the postseason for five straight years) they have only made it past the second round once. The Washington Wizards seemed to be poised to be one of the East's top teams but chemistry issues and an injury that caused All-Star John Wall to miss 41 games pushed them to the bottom of the conference's playoff pack. The Wizards went 2-2 against the Raptors during the season. Wall's late season return could make this series interesting but ultimately the Raptors are a well-balanced and focused team while the Wizards play in fits and spurts. Toronto will win in six games.

After finishing with the best record in the East last season, the Boston Celtics did a major overhaul with the goal of assembling a roster that can beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. Newly acquired Gordon Hayward went down with a season-ending injury in the opening moments of the first game but the Celtics still had the best record in the East for most of the year before being passed by Toronto. Losing All-Star Kyrie Irving for the stretch run and the entire postseason is a devastating blow but Boston is a well-coached, fundamentally sound team that should be able to get past a young Milwaukee team that features rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.8 apg) but ranked last in the league in rebounding and is not stout enough defensively to win a playoff series. The Celtics will win in five games.

Let's get one thing straight. The Philadelphia 76ers have not proved that tanking works; they only started to become good after they fired the tanking guru and put a real GM in charge of the team. That GM--Bryan Colangelo, the NBA's Executive of the Year in 2005 and 2007--changed the franchise's losing culture and assembled a legitimate NBA roster. The 76ers went 52-30 this season and set a franchise record by closing the campaign with a 16 game winning streak, breaking the mark set by the 1983 NBA championship team led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Pump the brakes on the idea that this team is even close to being as good as that team, though; it is sad to say that at least six of those 16 wins came against teams that are tanking at least as much as the 76ers were just a few years ago.

The 76ers' first round opponent, the Miami Heat, remain an inconsistent and hard to figure squad. Last season the Heat started out 11-30 and closed 30-11 to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. This season, the Heat--with a playoff berth at stake--limped to a 12-9 finish but ended up with the sixth seed thanks to even more desultory closing runs by the Wizards and Bucks. The 76ers and Heat split their season series 2-2 but on paper the surging 76ers should make quick work of the Heat; the one caveat is that the 76ers lack any meaningful playoff experience. The 76ers will win in six games.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the worst defensive team in the playoffs. The Indiana Pacers are perhaps the most surprising team in the East and they handled the Cavaliers 3-1 in the regular season. All that is well and good but do you want to pick against LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs? I don't. The Cavaliers will have some embarrassing defensive lapses but they will beat the Pacers in six games.

The final seedings in the Western Conference were not determined until the last day of the regular season. The Rockets had already lapped the field a while ago and the Warriors were safely ahead of the  rest of the pack but teams 3-8 finished two wins apart, with three teams tying at 47-35 and two others going 48-34.

Houston manhandled Minnesota in the regular season, sweeping the series 4-0. I don't trust D'Antoni, Harden and Paul in the playoffs but I am not foolish enough to think that an eighth seed that needed an overtime win on the last day of the season to even make the playoffs is going to threaten them. The playoff history of Houston's main trio is so checkered that I would not be surprised if they stumble out of the gate and lose one of their first two home games but the Rockets are so much better than the Timberwolves that even if that happens it will not change the outcome of the series. Houston will win in four games.

A healthy and focused San Antonio team is a serious threat to the Golden State Warriors, as we saw during last year's playoffs before Golden State's de facto playoff MVP Zaza Pachulia delivered a cheap shot to Kawhi Leonard from which the Spurs still have not recovered. The Warriors took the season series 3-1 and they will beat the Spurs in five games.

During last year's playoffs, Portland was first round 4-0 roadkill for the Golden State Warriors but this season the Trailblazers seized the third seed and homecourt advantage in the first round. New Orleans' Anthony Davis has been on a tear since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles but Davis has exactly zero playoff game wins so far in his career; that run of futility figures to end soon: he will get a win against Portland (and probably two) but not four. Portland will beat New Orleans in six games.

In one game, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a threat to anyone, including the Rockets and Warriors. Unfortunately, the Thunder often play down to their competition and they close games about as smoothly as a jalopy going uphill after a wheel fell off. If Carmelo Anthony or Paul George are isolated at the end of a playoff game with the Thunder trailing, I am turning the TV off; if George and Anthony do what they are supposed to do--carry some weight in the first three quarters so that the Thunder can build and maintain a lead without running Westbrook into the ground--then the Thunder could make some noise. Westbrook will play hard 100% of the time--which should go without saying about all NBA players but sadly does not go without saying--but I just don't trust this squad when the chips are down. However, homecourt advantage and some late heroics by Westbrook should be enough for the Thunder to beat the Jazz in seven games.

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Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Toronto-Cleveland, Boston-Philadelphia, Houston-Oklahoma City and Golden State-Portland. The Cavaliers have eliminated the Raptors in the playoffs the past two years, winning eight of the 10 games, but it is hard to picture a team as bad defensively as Cleveland making it past the second round. The caveat, of course, is that James and the Cavaliers are capable of flipping the switch like no other team. This series is a great opportunity for Toronto, though. James has a long track record of quitting as an underdog when physical and/or psychological pressure is placed on him. If Toronto takes care of business at home in the first two games then the Raptors could advance and that is what I expect will happen.

If the Thunder can get a split in Houston then they can really put pressure on D'Antoni, Harden and Paul--but the Thunder will probably go down 0-2, rally to tie the series and then fall in six games. I never thought that I would pick a D'Antoni-Harden-Paul squad to get past the second round but this seems to be their year.

Boston-Philadelphia is one of the NBA's great historic rivalries. This looks like it will be a seven game war but I like Boston’s defense and veteran toughness making the difference in game seven at home.

Golden State should be at full strength by the second round and that is too much for Portland, who will fight valiantly before falling.

The conference finals--the NBA's version of the Final Four, though no one calls it that--will be fun as always. A full strength Boston team probably would have won the East this year but with both of their All-Stars sidelined the Celtics' playoff run will end in Toronto.

Houston should beat Golden State. The Rockets have homecourt advantage, they have health (barring something unforeseen happening) and they should be more hungry than the two-time champions--but I just cannot pick D'Antoni-Harden-Paul to win a conference finals until I see it happen.

The Warriors are gunning for their third championship in four years but it seems like they have almost been an afterthought this season. They will not be an afterthought after they beat Toronto in six games in the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant will capture his second straight Finals MVP.

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Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2017-2018 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2017-2018 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2017: East 5/8, West 7/8
2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 77/104 in the East and 83/104 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .769.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2017: 14/15
2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 147/195 (.754)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 13 years I have correctly picked 15 of the 26 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 13 years (including 2016 and 2017) I got both teams right and twice I got both teams right and predicted the correct result (2007, 2017). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began three times: 2007, 2013, 2017.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM

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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

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

In 2008, Athlon Sports published a list of the 50 Greatest Pro Basketball Players, ranking each player in order and providing a one sentence summary of each player's accomplishments. Here is Athlon's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

1) Michael Jordan
2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3) Bill Russell
4) Wilt Chamberlain
5) Oscar Robertson
6) Magic Johnson
7) Larry Bird
8) Jerry West
9) Karl Malone
10) Elgin Baylor
11) Bob Pettit
12) John Havlicek
13) Shaquille O'Neal
14) Hakeem Olajuwon
15) Tim Duncan*
16) George Mikan
17) Kobe Bryant*
18) Julius Erving
19) Moses Malone
20) Bob Cousy
21) John Stockton
22) Kevin Garnett*
23) Charles Barkley
24) Dolph Schayes
25) Rick Barry
26) Scottie Pippen
27) Isiah Thomas
28) David Robinson
29) Elvin Hayes
30) Allen Iverson*
31) Bob McAdoo*
32) Nate Archibald
33) Dave Bing
34) Bill Sharman
35) Billy Cunningham
36) Kevin McHale
37) Dave Cowens
38) Walt Frazier
39) Jason Kidd*
40) George Gervin
41) Patrick Ewing
42) Clyde Drexler
43) Willis Reed
44) Pete Maravich
45) Gary Payton*
46) George McGinnis*
47) Connie Hawkins*
48) Paul Arizin
49) Dennis Rodman*
50) Walt Bellamy*

Thus, Athlon's added Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Bob McAdoo, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, George McGinnis, Connie Hawkins, Dennis Rodman and Walt Bellamy to the list and did not include Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, James Worthy and Lenny Wilkens from the NBA's 1996 list.

This article will not reevaluate the entire 50 Greatest Players List but will only compare the 11 players Athlon's added to the 11 players Athlon's did not include. Keep in mind that Athlon's list is from 10 years ago, before LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook had won a single MVP or championship. The Top 50 candidacies of those players--and other players of more recent vintage, including Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade--will be discussed in a future article in this series.

Duncan and Bryant had not entered the NBA when the original list was selected. Garnett had just completed his rookie season and Iverson was just starting his rookie season. This raises an interesting question: Is there some "magic" number of players who should be included on a greatest players list or should the list size continue to grow as the league gets older and more great players complete their careers?

This is a subjective question and my subjective answer is that any greatest players list that is larger than 100 is a bit too large to wrap one's mind around as a fan and probably a bit too large to properly construct as an analyst. My inclination is that 50 is not a "magic number"--it was only chosen originally because the NBA was celebrating its 50th anniversary--but it is a good number and that there is nothing wrong with Pantheon-level players like Duncan and Bryant knocking some players off of the list. However, I also do not have a serious problem with pushing the list to 75 or even 100.

In Part I of this series, I listed four methodologies that should be used in no particular order to compare players from different eras:

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

Using those standards (or just about any other standards, for that matter), the inclusion of Duncan and Bryant is obvious and indisputable.  

Duncan won two regular season MVPs (2002-03; he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting nine times), three Finals MVPs (1999, 2003, 2005), one All-Star Game MVP (2000) and the 1998 Rookie of the Year award. He made the All-NBA Team 15 times (tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant for the most all-time), including 10 First Team selections. Duncan made the All-Defensive Team a record 15 times, including eight First Team selections. He also made the All-Star team 15 times.

Duncan ranks seventh all-time in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (15,091), sixth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season blocked shots (3020), sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff points scored (5172), third all-time in ABA/NBA playoff rebounds (2859) and first all-time in ABA/NBA playoff blocked shots (568). Blocked shots have only been an official statistic for the NBA since 1973-74; the ABA began tracking blocked shots in 1972-73.

Duncan could score in the post or facing the basket within 15-18 feet. He was an excellent screener and a very good passer. Duncan was a top notch defender and rebounder. Perhaps his only skill set weakness was free throw shooting (.696 career free throw percentage, including four seasons below .640).

Duncan did not force rules changes or influence shifts in style of play but he was the centerpiece of one of pro basketball’s most dominant franchises for nearly two decades, playing a major role on five San Antonio championship teams (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).

Bryant won one regular season MVP (2008; he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting 11 times), two Finals MVPs (2009-10) and a record-tying four All-Star Game MVPs (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011). He won two regular season scoring titles (2006-07) and he led the league in playoff scoring average three times (2003, 2007-08). Bryant made the All-NBA Team 15 times (tied for the most all-time), including 11 First Team selections (tied for the most all-time with Karl Malone and LeBron James). Bryant made the All-Defensive Team 12 times, including nine Frist Team selections (tied for the most all-time with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett). He made the All-Star team 18 times, second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19).

Bryant ranks third all-time in ABA/NBA regular season scoring (33,643 points), fourth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff points (5640), ninth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1040) and sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff steals (310). Steals have only been an official statistic for the NBA since 1973-74; the ABA began tracking steals in 1972-73.

Bryant is one of the few players in pro basketball history who had no skill set weaknesses. He could
score in the post, facing the basket or off the dribble. He was an excellent free throw shooter and a great passer who excelled at drawing double teams; even when he did not make the pass that led directly to the basket, his presence often tilted the defense to create the scoring opportunity. Bryant was an elite defender for most of his career and he was an excellent rebounder for his position.

Bryant's combination of high level athleticism grounded in solid fundamentals emulated Michael Jordan. Some people criticized Bryant for copying Jordan but why not copy someone who has a similar body type and is the greatest ever at that position (and arguably the greatest player of all-time)? Bryant was an All-NBA level performer for five championship teams (2000-02, 2009-10), plus two other teams that advanced to the NBA Finals (2004, 2008).

Kevin Garnett did not dominate to the same extent that Duncan or Bryant did but he is a worthy addition to the 50 Greatest Players List. Garnett won the 2004 regular season MVP and he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting five times. He won the 2003 All-Star Game MVP and was selected as the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Garnett made the All-NBA Team nine times, including four First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team 12 times, including a record-tying nine First Team selections. Garnett was a 15-time All-Star. He won four regular season rebounding titles (2004-07).

Garnett ranks 10th all-time in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (14,662).

Garnett's greatest skill set strengths were defense and rebounding. He also had a very high motor and his energy/enthusiasm could be contagious. Garnett had a reliable face up jumper out to 15-18 feet. He could score in the post but he was not a dominant post player and he preferred to face the basket. Garnett was an outstanding screener and a good passer. Garnett needed more help around him to win a championship than Duncan or Bryant did but when Garnett had that help his Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA title and advanced to the 2010 NBA Finals.

Although Garnett was not a three point shooter, his versatility and his preference to play facing the basket from the power forward position presaged to some extent the “stretch four” role that has now become prevalent in the NBA.

Allen Iverson should not be a controversial selection but some people may balk at adding him to the list because of his off-court controversies and/or because his playing style did not translate well in terms of "advanced basketball statistics." Iverson won the 2001 regular season MVP, he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting three times and he won two All-Star Game MVPs (2001, 2005). Iverson won the 1997 Rookie of the Year award. He captured four regular season scoring titles (1999, 2001-02, 05) and he ranks seventh in ABA/NBA regular season scoring average (26.7 ppg). Iverson also led the league in playoff scoring twice (1999, 2005) and he ranks second to Michael Jordan in ABA/NBA playoff scoring average (29.7 ppg). Iverson made the All-NBA Team seven times, including three First Team selections. Iverson was an 11-time All-Star.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Iverson's career is his durability, which is even more incredible considering that he was listed at 6-0, 165 pounds. Iverson ranks fourth in ABA/NBA regular season mpg (41.1) behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. Iverson led the NBA in regular season mpg seven times (1999, 2002-04, 06-08), a mark exceeded only by Chamberlain’s nine. Iverson averaged 45.1 mpg in the playoffs, third behind Chamberlain and Russell, and he led the NBA in playoff mpg three times (1999, 2001, 05).

In addition to his durability, Iverson's greatest skill set strength was his ability to relentlessly attack the basket to score, get fouled or draw so much defensive attention that his missed shots were--as Doug Collins astutely pointed out--essentially assists that enabled his teammates to have easy putbacks. He was not a great three point shooter but he could hit them in the clutch at times. Iverson was an underrated passer who averaged 6.2 apg during his career and who four times ranked in the top 10 in assists. Iverson was not a great one on one defender but he excelled in playing the passing lanes; he ranks 10th all-time in ABA/NBA regular season steals per game (2.2). Iverson was a solid rebounder considering his size and the other responsibilities that he shouldered.

Iverson's personal style and attitude carried significant cultural influence, plus his ability to excel in the NBA at his size inspired many of the players who came after him. He would thrive even more in today's era of drive and kick basketball during which handchecking is not permitted.

Bob McAdoo won the 1975 NBA regular season MVP and he finished in the top five in MVP balloting three times. He was the only player who had won an NBA regular season MVP as of 1996 who was not selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. I would not say that winning a regular season MVP should automatically qualify a player for top 50 status but I would say that a player who was the best player in the league during a given season should probably make the cut provided that he sustained excellence for a reasonable period of time; McAdoo certainly fits that description and he should have been on the original list.

McAdoo was an elite player in the mid-1970s, winning three straight scoring titles (1974-76) and making the All-Star team five consecutive times (1974-78). He won the 1973 Rookie of the Year Award and he earned two All-NBA selections, including a First Team nod in 1975.

He bounced around to a few different teams in the middle of his career before becoming a valuable sixth man for two L.A. Lakers' championship teams (1982, 85). Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers to five championships during the Showtime era, has stated that the Lakers would not have won the 1982 and 1985 titles without McAdoo’s contributions at both ends of the court.

Stylistically, McAdoo was a hybrid big forward/small center who had tremendous shooting range. The NBA did not adopt the three point shot until midway through his career and the trey did not feature as a prominent weapon in the league until after McAdoo retired but his ability to operate facing the basket on offense combined with his mobility and his ability to defend multiple positions mean that he would be a prototype "stretch four" in the modern game.

Jason Kidd shared the 1995 Rookie of the Year award with Grant Hill. He never won a regular season MVP but he placed in the top five twice, including a second place finish to Duncan in 2002. Kidd made the All-NBA Team six times, including five First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team nine times, including four First Team selections. Kidd was a 10-time All-Star.

Kidd led the NBA in assists five times (1999-01, 2003-04) and he ranks eighth in ABA/NBA regular season apg (8.7). He also ranks second in ABA/NBA regular season assists (12,091). Kidd ranks fourth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1263), trailing only Magic Johnson, John Stockton and LeBron James. He is second in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2684) and seventh in ABA/NBA playoff steals (302).

Kidd resurrected a moribund Nets franchise, leading the team to consecutive NBA Finals (2002, 03). He was a key contributor for the 2011 Dallas Mavericks team that upset the favored Miami Heat in the Finals.

Kidd showed remarkable skill set development during his career. The player who was derisively called "Ason" because he had no "J" transformed himself into a very good three point shooter while also elevating his free throw percentage from the high .600s to the high .700s/low .800s. Kidd was always a superb playmaker and top notch defensive player. Above all, Kidd was a winner who consistently helped his teams improve, while teams that he left consistently got worse.

Gary Payton's career largely overlapped Kidd's and for several years they battled for the unofficial title as the league's best point guard. Payton never won a regular season MVP but he placed in the top five once and he finished sixth five times. Payton made the All-NBA Team nine times, including two First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team nine times, each time receiving First Team honors (tied for the most all-time First Team selections). Payton won the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year award, the same season that he led the league in steals for the only time. Payton made the All-Star team nine times.

Payton ranks eighth in ABA/NBA regular season assists (8966) and he finished in the top 10 in apg in seven seasons. He ranks fourth in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2445).

He was a below average free throw shooter and outside shooter. Payton's main strength was his tremendous defense. He was also a good playmaker and a capable scorer who was an outstanding postup player at 6-4. Payton was a solid rebounder who averaged a career-high 6.5 rpg in 1999-00 but never averaged more than 5 rpg in any other season. He helped lead Seattle to the 1996 Finals. He started--but did not play well--for the Lakers team that lost in the 2004 Finals. Payton rode Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to the 2006 title, averaging just 5.8 ppg on .422 field goal shooting during Miami's playoff run that season (though Payton did make a couple big plays).

Payton was a flashier player than Kidd and a more explosive scorer but Kidd was the superior all-around player and he had a bigger impact on winning. A valid case could be made to add Payton to the 50 Greatest Players List but a valid case could also be made to not include him; Athlon's ranked Payton 45th and I would not place him any higher than that.

George McGinnis shared the 1975 ABA regular season MVP with Julius Erving and he finished in the top five in MVP balloting three times. McGinnis won the 1973 ABA Playoff MVP award. He made the All-ABA or All-NBA Team five times, including three First Team selections. McGinnis made the ABA or NBA All-Star team six times and he won the 1975 ABA regular season scoring title (29.8 ppg).

McGinnis played a major role on two Indiana ABA championship teams (1972-73) and on the Philadelphia team that advanced to the 1977 NBA Finals. He was a dominant player in the ABA and a very good player for several NBA seasons but his performance level dropped dramatically at the age of 29. By the age of 31 he was out of the league. In terms of peak value, a credible Top 50 case can be made for McGinnis but his overall body of work is not quite good enough to make the cut.

Connie Hawkins had Top 50 talent without question but he was blackballed from the NBA during a significant portion of his prime. He began his professional career with the Harlem Globetrotters and then he enjoyed a brief but very successful run in the ABA, winning the 1968 regular season and Playoff MVP awards while leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to the league's inaugural championship. Hawkins won the regular season scoring title (26.8 ppg) that year and he also led the league in playoff scoring (29.9 ppg).

An injury limited Hawkins to 47 games in his second ABA season, by which time he had settled a lawsuit that enabled him to jump to the NBA. Hawkins made a sensational NBA debut in 1969-70, earning All-NBA First Team honors and finishing fifth in MVP balloting. The years and the mileage soon caught up with Hawkins. He finished his career with three top five MVP finishes, three All-ABA/All-NBA First Team selections and five All-Star Game appearances.

Hawkins was a flashy player whose huge hands and tremendous leaping ability foreshadowed the brilliant moves made more famous by Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. In terms of peak value and overall impact on the sport Hawkins deserves a spot on the 50 Greatest Players List but in terms of long term sustained excellence he falls short of the mark.

Dennis Rodman was a rebounding machine and a ferocious defender who could guard any position in his prime. He captured seven straight regular season rebounding titles (1992-98) with some rpg averages that had not been seen since Chamberlain and Russell patrolled the paint. Rodman's off court antics seem to have cost him a bit in terms of receiving awards/recognition but he made the All-NBA Team twice and he was a two-time All-Star. Rodman made the All-Defensive Team eight times, including seven First Team selections, and he won back to back Defensive Player of the Year awards (1990-91).

Rodman only averaged 10-plus ppg once during his career but he was a valuable offensive player not only because of his prodigious offensive rebounding but also because he was an excellent screener and an intelligent passer.

Rodman was a key member of two Detroit championship teams (1989-90) and three Chicago championship teams (1996-98). His personal style and his playing style were both unorthodox but his impact on winning is unquestionable.

Walt Bellamy never made the All-NBA Team and never finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. He won the 1962 Rookie of the Year Award and he made the All-Star team four times. Just based on those facts, one might wonder why he is in the Hall of Fame, let alone being potentially considered as one of the 50 greatest players--but Bellamy's career is not so simply summarized. His rookie campaign is one of the most dominant ever: 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, league-best .519 field goal percentage. As I noted in my 2013 obituary for "Big Bells," "Bellamy averaged at least 22.8 ppg and at least 14.6 rpg in each of his first five NBA seasons...Just seven players other than Bellamy have had multiple 22.8 ppg/14.6 rpg seasons and only 18 players in NBA/ABA history accomplished this feat even once." Bellamy ranks eighth in ABA/NBA career regular season rpg average (13.7) and he also averaged 20.1 ppg during his regular season career. No matter how one accounts for pace/style of play/era/level of competition, those numbers are impressive. If Bellamy had not played in the same era as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, he would probably have been a perennial All-NBA Team member.

The players who Athlon's removed from the list have impressive accomplishments worthy of recognition and acknowledgment. Players from earlier eras should not be judged based solely or primarily on numbers, at least not without placing those numbers in the context of the vast differences between eras.

Dave DeBusschere never received serious MVP consideration and he made the All-NBA team just once but he made the All-Star team eight times and he earned six straight All-Defensive First Team selections. DeBusschere was an elite defender, so when looking at his career honors it is important to remember that the All-Defensive Team was first selected in 1969--the seventh season of his 12 year NBA career--and he thus received First Team recognition every season that he could have possibly done so. The Defensive Player of the Year award did not exist during his career and neither steals nor blocked shot became official NBA statistics until his final season.

Field goal percentages were lower and pace was higher during DeBusschere's career, so more rebounds were available than in later eras, but by any standard he was a very good rebounder: he averaged 11.0 rpg during his career and after his first two seasons he never had a season during which he averaged less than 10 rpg.

DeBusschere was a key member of two New York championship teams (1970, 1973). Although he was a rugged defender and rebounder, on offense he often played outside of the paint, spreading the floor by firing long jumpers. The NBA did not have a three point shot during that era but if he played in the current era he would have easily added that weapon to his repertoire.

Hal Greer was the third best guard during an era when two of the best guards in pro basketball history played: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Thus, Greer made the All-NBA Second Team for seven straight seasons but he never received a First Team nod. Greer also earned 10 All-Star selections and he won the 1968 All-Star Game MVP.

Greer was a vital member of the 1967 Philadelphia team that went 68-13 during the regular season--the best record ever at that time--and broke Boston's eight year stranglehold on the NBA championship; Greer averaged 22.1 ppg during that season and he increased his scoring to 27.7 ppg during that year's playoffs, best on a squad that included Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Chet Walker. In 1980, this 76ers team was selected by the NBA as the greatest team in the league's first 35 years.

Greer's career regular season point total (21,586) currently ranks 39th in ABA/NBA history but it must be noted that when he retired he was the fifth leading scorer in pro basketball history behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Greer currently ranks 82nd in career regular season assists (4540) but he ranked seventh in career assists when he retired.

Sam Jones' legacy is defined by winning and by clutch performances. He won 10 championships (1959-66, 68-69), more than any player in pro basketball history other than his Boston teammate Bill Russell (11). Jones posted a 9-0 record in playoff game sevens with the Boston Celtics, averaging 27.1 ppg in those contests.

Jones twice finished in the top five in MVP voting but--like Greer--because he played in the same era as Robertson and West he never made the All-NBA First Team. Jones earned three All-NBA Second Team selections and he made the All-Star team five times.

Jones scored 15,411 career regular season points, which does not look like an eye-popping total now--but he ranked 12th on the NBA’s career scoring list when he retired in 1969. He also ranked third on the NBA's career playoff scoring list when he retired, trailing only Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In the context of his era, Sam Jones was a big-time scorer.

Jerry Lucas was one of the greatest rebounders in pro basketball history. His 15.6 career regular season rpg average ranks fourth in ABA/NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Pettit. Lucas' 12,492 career regular season rebounds ranked fourth all-time when he retired in 1974 (trailing only Chamberlain, Russell and Walt Bellamy) and Lucas still ranks 18th all-time more than 40 years later. Lucas twice averaged at least 20 rpg during a season; the only other players who averaged at least 20 rpg during a season are Chamberlain (10 times), Russell (10 times), Nate Thurmond (two times) and Bob Pettit (one time).

Lucas won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award and the 1965 All-Star Game MVP. He finished fifth in the 1966 regular season MVP voting and he made the All-NBA Team five times, including three First Team selections. He was a seven-time All-Star. Lucas was a member of the 1973 New York Knicks' championship team.

Like his New York teammate DeBusschere, Lucas was a rugged player who also had an excellent outside shooting touch. Lucas shot .499 from the field during his regular season career, the fifth best mark in pro basketball history when he retired, and he led the NBA in that category in the 1963-64 season. Lucas ranked eighth in the NBA in free throw percentage in 1964-65 and he shot .783 from the charity stripe for his career, a very good mark for a big man in that era.

Earl Monroe won the 1968 NBA Rookie of the Year award. The next season, he earned his only All-NBA First Team selection and he made the first of his four All-Star Game appearances. He scored at least 21.9 ppg in each of his first four NBA seasons with the Baltimore Bullets. Monroe was traded to the New York Knicks early in the 1971-72 season and he blended his talents with fellow future Hall of Famer Walt Frazier to form the "Rolls Royce" backcourt that led the Knicks to the 1972 NBA Finals before winning the 1973 championship. Monroe's scoring dipped early in his Knicks tenure but then he averaged 20.9 ppg, 20.7 ppg and 19.9 ppg in the three seasons after he turned 30; this is one example of individual numbers not telling the whole story: Monroe sacrificed personal glory for the greater good of winning a championship and then when the Knicks needed more scoring after some of their other great players retired, Monroe stepped up.

Players should be evaluated on skill set and impact and not just on statistics. Monroe had a tremendous skill set as a scorer and ballhandler and he had an outsized impact on the sport that goes far beyond his numbers. Before becoming an NBA star, Monroe set many records at Winston-Salem State while leading the team to the 1967 NCAA College Division title. Monroe averaged 41.5 ppg and he earned the "Earl the Pearl" nickname after a newspaper published a list of his high scoring games titled "Earl's Pearls." On the playgrounds, Earl was already known as "Black Jesus."

Robert Parish finished in the top five in the regular season MVP voting once and he earned two All-NBA selections but his prime years overlapped with the careers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone so he never made the All-NBA First Team. Parish made the All-Star team nine times, including seven straight selections during the 1980s (1981-87). He never averaged 20 ppg in a season, nor did he ever average more than 12.5 rpg in a season; his career was defined by consistency and durability as opposed to dominance. Parish was a key member of three Boston championship teams (1981, 84, 86) and he formed the "Big Three" with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, a trio that is perhaps the best frontcourt of all-time. Parish lasted in the NBA until he was 43 and he picked up a fourth championship ring as a little-used reserve for the 1997 Chicago Bulls. Parish never led the NBA in rebounding but he accumulated 10 top 10 finishes and he ranks ninth in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (14,715).

Nate Thurmond finished second in the 1967 NBA regular season MVP voting but he never made the All-NBA Team while playing in an era dominated by Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell (the MVP voting was conducted by the players at that time, while the All-NBA Team was selected by the media). The All-Defensive Team was not created until Thurmond's sixth season but he still made the squad five times, including two First Team selections. Thurmond was a seven-time All-Star.

Thurmond specialized in defense and rebounding but he averaged at least 20 ppg in five straight seasons during his prime. He averaged at least 10.4 rpg in each of this first 12 seasons but despite twice averaging over 20 rpg he never won a rebounding title. Thurmond was a great center who was overshadowed by Chamberlain and Russell early in his career and then Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed and Dave Cowens later in his career; each of those centers won at least one regular season MVP.

Unseld won the 1969 NBA Rookie of the Year and the 1969 NBA regular season MVP; that dual feat has only been matched by Chamberlain (1960 NBA) and Spencer Haywood (1970 ABA). He also earned his only All-NBA First Team selection that season. Unseld had a very good career but he never made the All-NBA Team after his rookie season and he never again finished higher than eighth in regular season MVP voting, though he did win the 1978 Finals MVP after leading the Washington Bullets to the title. Unseld made the All-Star team five times.

Unseld averaged at least 10 rpg in 12 of his 13 seasons, falling short only in his injury-riddled 1973-74 campaign--but he bounced back to lead the league with 14.8 rpg in 1974-75 and he also led the NBA in field goal percentage in 1975-76 (.561). Unseld's strengths were rebounding, passing (particularly outlet passing) and screen-setting. He never averaged more than 16.2 ppg and he only averaged more than 10 ppg once in his final eight seasons.

Bill Walton is perhaps the most difficult Top 50 candidate to evaluate. He led the league in rebounding and blocked shots in 1976-77 before capturing the 1977 Finals MVP as his Portland Trailblazers defeated the favored Philadelphia 76ers 4-2. Walton won the 1978 regular season MVP despite being limited to 58 games due to injury; the Trailblazers began the season 50-10 when Walton was healthy before going 8-14 down the stretch without him. Injuries forced Walton to miss three of the next four seasons and he only played 14 games in 1979-80.

Walton played in just 33, 55 and 67 games in the 1983-85 seasons, with his minutes per game averages declining each year. He was a solid player when he was on the court but he was not an All-Star; Walton's only All-Star selections happened in 1977 and 1978 and those were the only years that he earned All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors, making the All-Defensive First Team both seasons and the All-NBA First Team in 1978.

Walton joined the Boston Celtics for the 1985-86 season. Playing less than 20 mpg, he appeared in a career-high 80 games, shot a career-high .562 from the field and earned the Sixth Man of the Year Award as a key contributor to arguably the best of Larry Bird's three championship teams. Injuries limited Walton to 10 games in 1986-87 and he retired at 34 years of age after playing in just 468 regular season games.

Walton is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but of course the Hall of Fame also recognizes a player's collegiate career--and Walton is one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time. Walton played the equivalent of less than six NBA seasons. When he was healthy he was an elite player but he was healthy for a very limited amount of time.

James Worthy made the All-NBA Team just twice (as a Third Team selection in 1990 and 1991) but he made the All-Star team seven times and he won the 1988 Finals MVP. He was a key contributor to three Lakers' championship teams (1985, 87-88). He shot at least .531 from the field in each of his first eight seasons, using a tremendous first step and an outstanding ability to finish above the rim to frustrate even the league's best defensive players. Worthy averaged at least 20 ppg in four different regular seasons but he could have scored more points if he had not been playing alongside fellow future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. He earned the nickname "Big Game James" and he lived up to that by increasing his scoring average from 17.6 ppg in the regular season to 21.1 ppg in the playoffs. He was a below average rebounder considering his 6-9 size and his leaping ability; Worthy never averaged more than 6.4 rpg in a season and he finished his career with a 5.1 rpg average. He was a solid passer and a decent defensive player. 

Lenny Wilkens finished second to Wilt Chamberlain in the 1968 NBA regular season MVP voting and he won the 1971 All-Star Game MVP. He made the All-Star team nine times and he led the league in assists in 1969-70 but he never was selected to the All-NBA team. Wilkens ranked in the top 10 in assists 12 times in his 15 seasons and he finished his career second on the all-time regular season assists list (he currently ranks 14th). Wilkens was primarily a playmaker but he was also a first rate scorer: he averaged at least 20 ppg in three different seasons and he has a higher career regular season scoring average (16.5 ppg) than several guards who are perhaps more renowned for scoring, including Gary Payton, Joe Dumars and Tony Parker. Wilkens, John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn are the only individuals inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach; Wilkens was inducted a third time as a member of the coaching staff of the 1992 United States Olympic "Dream Team."

Before evaluating Athlon's choices, it is clear from the capsule biographies above that the 11 players Athlon's did not include each accomplished a lot and each played at a very high level. There is a lamentable tendency in many quarters to reflexively discount the meaning or significance of anything that happened more than 20 or 30 years ago.

That being said, if the size of the list is being kept at 50 then Duncan, Bryant, Garnett and Iverson--four players who had not achieved prominence as of 1996--clearly deserve inclusion, which means that several players have to be removed to make room. McAdoo should have made the cut the first time. Kidd had such an impact on winning that I cannot leave him off of the list. Payton's longevity as a two-way player is noteworthy.

So, among the 22 players that Athlon's shuffled, I disagree about six of them: I would keep Greer, Lucas and DeBusschere in the Top 50 and I would thus decline to include Hawkins, McGinnis and Rodman. My reasoning is that Greer, Lucas and DeBusschere sustained a high level of play for longer than Hawkins and McGinnis, while Rodman was not quite multi-dimensional enough to move past Lucas or DeBusschere—two championship winning forwards who not only rebounded and defended but who also scored. It is tough to not include MVP winners Hawkins and McGinnis--who would each likely be on a list of the 50 most talented players of all-time--but sustained excellence is important.

Regarding the other players mentioned in this article, none of them quite measure up to their counterparts. Jones was a clutch performer but his individual resume does not stack up against his contemporary Greer and he was never in the running for best guard in the league like Kidd and Payton later were. Monroe had a short peak and was not as versatile as the guards ranked ahead of him. Parish and Thurmond were great centers but they were never the best or even second best in the league at their position during their careers. Unseld had one great year and then many very good ones; if he had not won one MVP then he probably would not be considered at all, so that one outlier season does not outweigh the body of work produced by the players ranked ahead of him. If Walton had been healthy, he might have been a top 10 or top 20 player--but he was not healthy and thus we are forced to evaluate him based on what he actually accomplished, not what might have been. Worthy was never close to being the best forward in the NBA and, while he may have posted gaudier individual numbers as a headliner for a less talented team, he benefited greatly from playing alongside many other great players. Worthy's resume is impressive and it is Hall of Fame caliber but it is just not enough to make this list; he should not have made it over, for instance, McAdoo back in 1996 and Athlon's was correct to leave him off in 2008.

---

Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

Maurice Cheeks, Charlie Scott and Rod Thorn Are Among the Basketball Hall of Fame's Newest Members

In September, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will welcome 13 new members: Ray Allen, Maurice Cheeks, Lefty Driesell, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Dino Radja, Charlie Scott, Katie Smith, Tina Thompson, Rod Thorn, Ora Mae Washington and Rick Welts. Many media reports state that this class is "headlined" by Allen, Hill, Kidd and Nash--but this article will focus on Cheeks, Scott and Thorn, three individuals who have been eligible for induction for many years but have been overlooked by the Hall until now.

Maurice Cheeks was the starting point guard for the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers, who set a record by going 12-1 in the playoff en route to sweeping the defending champion L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals. Cheeks also started for the 1980 and 1982 Philadelphia teams that lost to the powerful Lakers in the NBA Finals. He made the All-Star team four times and earned five All-Defensive Team selections (including four First Team honors).

Cheeks never led the league in a statistical category but he was a consistently excellent performer who ranked first in career regular season steals and fifth in career regular season assists when he retired; he now ranks fifth and 13th respectively in those categories, ahead of many players who were inducted in the Hall of Fame before him. Cheeks posted an outstanding .523 career regular season field goal percentage, a testament not only to his shooting ability but also to his judicious shot selection. Cheeks understood when to shoot and when to deliver the ball to fellow Hall of Fame teammates such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley.

Cheeks had a Hall of Fame moment as a person during his tenure as Portland's head coach. Prior to a 2003 playoff game, 13 year old Natalie Gilbert froze as she was singing the National Anthem. Cheeks walked over, put his arm around her and helped her finish singing. "It was like a guardian angel had come and put his arm around my shoulder and helped me get through one of the most difficult experiences I've ever had," said Gilbert.

Kidd, arguably the greatest point guard of his era, summed it perfectly upon learning that Cheeks will be joining him in the 2018 Hall of Fame class: "Mo Cheeks is who we all wanted to be."

Charlie Scott was the University of North Carolina's first black scholarship athlete. Scott made the All-America Team twice and he twice led the Tar Heels to the Final Four. He won Olympic gold with Team USA in 1968. Scott was drafted by the NBA's Boston Celtics but he signed with the ABA's Virginia Squires, winning the 1971 Rookie of the Year award after averaging 27.1 ppg. Scott also finished third in MVP balloting behind Hall of Famers Mel Daniels and Zelmo Beaty. The next season, rookie Julius Erving joined the Squires and Scott led the ABA in scoring (34.6 ppg) before leaving the Squires to jump to the NBA just before the playoffs. Scott joined the Phoenix Suns and the Suns sent Paul Silas to the Celtics as compensation since the Celtics owned Scott's NBA rights.
Scott spent three seasons with the Suns before being traded to the Boston Celtics for Paul Westphal in 1975. Scott played a key role for Boston's 1976 NBA championship team. His Hall of Fame selection is well deserved based on his outstanding amateur career in college/the Olympics, plus his high performance level as a pro in the ABA and NBA.

Rod Thorn was selected to the Hall of Fame as a Contributor after a long and successful basketball career during which he filled many roles, including player, coach, executive and league administrator. Thorn was an All-America performer at West Virginia before being selected second overall by the Baltimore Bullets in the 1963 NBA draft. He had a solid NBA playing career before becoming an assistant coach on Kevin Loughery's staff with the ABA's New York Nets, who won the 1974 ABA title largely thanks to Erving's spectacular all-around play. Thorn later became the Chicago Bulls' General Manager. He drafted Michael Jordan in 1984. From 1986-2000, Thorn served as the NBA's Executive Vice President of Operations. Thorn rejoined the Nets in 2000 and was selected as the NBA's Executive of the Year in 2002 after building the team into a championship contender.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 PM

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Enes Kanter Rejects the Tanking Mentality

Tanking is wrong because it cheats the fans out of their hard earned money that they pay to attend or watch games and it violates the integrity of competition. It is also worth noting that tanking does not work.

It is most unfortunate that tanking has become a widely accepted practice in the NBA. I have no interest in watching or analyzing the performances of teams that are actively trying to lose games. If I were interested in that kind of farce then I would watch pro wrestling or some other form of pre-scripted "entertainment" that may involve impressive physical feats but does not involve actual competition.

I very much appreciate the comments Enes Kanter recently made about tanking. His New York Knicks are one of at least 10 NBA teams that are tanking to some extent and he is not at all happy about it: "Let me tell you something, man: They can develop guys in the G League. This is not the time to develop young guys, or whatever, because we're trying to win games here. This team is paying us a lot of money, everybody, and all the fans are paying a lot money to watch the games and they're paying a lot of money for tickets, so they're not just coming here watching, 'Oh, this guy's getting better. This guy's developing.' No, we're trying to win games here, man. I think that's how our mindset should be. And if they want to develop somebody, they can send him to the G League and we can see some development. But I think right now, we're trying to win games. We're not trying to develop nobody."

Teams that are not trying to win should not charge full price for tickets, nor should they accept a full share of the league's broadcast and merchandising revenues; if you are intentionally putting a subpar product in the marketplace, you cannot justify charging the public full price for it. I don't know if league-mandated refunds/rebates would cure the tanking epidemic (and such refunds/rebates may not even be permissible under the Collective Bargaining Agreement), but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver needs to do something, because the product that his league is putting on the court on a nightly basis in many cities is embarrassing. The top end teams are exciting and fun to watch but many of the bottom end teams are brutal.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:02 AM

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Evaluating the 2018 NBA MVP Contenders

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:59 PM

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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:07 AM

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

It is Time for Mark Cuban to Sell the Dallas Mavericks

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

Either way, Cuban has got to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM

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Monday, February 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 PM

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Friday, February 09, 2018

Initial Impressions of the New Look Cavaliers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:08 PM

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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

LeBron James is Presiding Over the Implosion of the Cleveland Cavaliers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 PM

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