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Monday, November 26, 2018

Separating the Grownups From the Kids in Basketball

Whenever a professional sports team starts a season in a particularly atrocious fashion, someone inevitably half-seriously says that (insert name of best college team that season in that sport) could beat the struggling professional team. While that may be a good punchline for a joke, it is not serious analysis.

For a hot minute, we heard speculation that Duke's basketball team could beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Duke looks like a serious NCAA championship contender and the Cavaliers do not look very good at all--although they have played a lot better in their past two games, beating Philadelphia and Houston--the idea that a college team is better than an NBA team is not well thought out, as we could all see on Wednesday as Gonzaga defeated Duke 89-87 in the Maui Invitational Championship game. Are we now supposed to think that at least two college teams could beat the Cavaliers?

The notion that even the best college team is better than the worst NBA team is not logical. The worst NBA team has multiple players who starred in college and/or internationally; the NBA players are, in general, much more mature physically, mentally and emotionally than college players. Even if the best college team on its best day could beat the worst NBA team on its worst day one time (which is possible, though not likely if the NBA team is taking the game seriously), that college team would not win 10 games over the course of an NBA season, while that worst NBA team would be a heavy favorite to win the NCAA title.

The reality is that Early Entry Players Have Diluted Both College and Pro Basketball, as I noted over a decade ago: "March Madness is always exciting...but it is obvious that the overall level of play in college basketball is not as high as it used to be--and that is hardly a surprise considering how many of the very best players are 'one and done' guys who go to the NBA after their freshman seasons, not to mention the number of players who went straight to the NBA from high school in the past decade before the NBA forbade that from happening. For better or worse, most of the best basketball players in the world who are 19 or older are all in the NBA."

The college game was undoubtedly better and deeper in the past than it is now, which is not to say that the great college teams from previous eras could have beaten the worst NBA teams. Think about it this way: it has been three decades since the best college players in the U.S.--not the best team, but the best players taken from all of the top teams--could win an Olympic gold medal. The pro game, whether overseas or in the NBA, is simply a level above the college game. Both sports should be appreciated on their own merits but no matter how good a college team looks against other college teams and/or how bad a pro team looks against other pro teams there is a clear separation between the pro ranks and the amateur ranks.

Charley Rosen put it well over a decade ago in response to a reader's question about the pro game versus the college game: "The NBA game has a huge advantage in player talent, offensive and defensive prowess, coaching, officiating and the overall quality of performance in every aspect but one. The only advantage the college game enjoys is the consistent enthusiasm of its players. And this is true only because some veteran NBA players on basement-dwelling teams will take an occasional game off late in the season. The worst NBA team would trounce the NCAA champs by upwards of 30 points." 

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 AM

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Vince Carter Joins the 25,000 Point Club

On Wednesday night, Vince Carter scored on a slam dunk as the game ended. That used to be a routine play for Carter but this particular dunk was anything but routine, as those two points enabled Carter to become the 26th player in ABA/NBA history to amass at least 25,000 career points. The club "officially" only has 22 members, as the NBA still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the ABA statistics of Julius Erving (30,026 points; eighth all-time), Moses Malone (29,580 points; ninth all-time), Dan Issel (27,482 points, 11th all-time) and Rick Barry (25,279; tied for 23rd all-time). Carter scored 14 points as his Atlanta Hawks lost 124-108 to Carter's first NBA team, the Toronto Raptors.

Carter has evolved from a high flying eight-time All-Star who averaged at least 20 ppg for 10 straight seasons (2000-09), including six seasons during which he scored at least 24 ppg, into a veteran leader who serves as a role model of professionalism for his younger teammates. The soon to be 42 year old has the enthusiasm of a player half his age, as he noted right after attaining the milestone: "I still love it. I still love playing. I was willing to do whatever it took to stick around. All of the things I have to do to play a game, to be prepared, to get prepared for the season, I'm willing to do. I'm asked constantly, 'What's the secret? What are you doing?' Well, the secret is I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

As I noted when Carmelo Anthony joined the 25,000 point club earlier this year, this is a significant accomplishment for a scorer; every player who has scored at least 25,000 points is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or is a lock to be inducted as soon as he becomes eligible. Simple math shows why this is the case: a player could score 25 ppg while playing 80 games per season for a dozen years and still be 1000 points short of qualifying!

Younger fans may not realize that the 25,000 point club used to be even more exclusive. The "charter" members, so to speak, are Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and John Havlicek, who founded the club from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, the club added six members: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who is still the all-time scoring leader), Julius Erving, Dan Issel, Elvin Hayes, George Gervin, Moses Malone and Rick Barry. The club has since more than doubled in size. This is similar to the dramatic increase in the number of chess players who have at least a 2600 FIDE (International Chess Federation) rating; there were just 15 such players on the first official rating list in 1971 but by 1991 there were 33 and by 2004 a 2600 rating was not enough to earn a top 100 spot in the world rankings. Chess ratings are affected by the composition of the entire pool of players (it is easier to gain points when there are more players who have high ratings), while pro basketball point totals are affected not just by skill but also by rules changes, style of play changes, training advances that have extended careers and other factors. None of this is meant to denigrate Carter’s accomplishment but rather just to place it in context. Being one out of four or five is different than being one out of 25 or 26, regardless of what is being measured or how it is being measured.

That being said, Carter deserves congratulations for his longevity, his skill level, his dedication and his willingness to accept a lesser role as his skills declined, something that has proven to be difficult for some of his contemporaries (including fellow 25,000 point club member Carmelo Anthony).
 

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Houston Rockets Abort Ill-Conceived Carmelo Anthony Experiment

Who could have imagined that Carmelo Anthony would not be a good fit for the Houston Rockets? Only anyone who understands basketball via skill set analysis and informed observation, as opposed to relying on "advanced basketball statistics" or reputation or hype or the endorsements of some of Anthony's NBA buddies (including Chris Paul, who has recently said that Anthony is not just a teammate but rather he is "family").

Carmelo Anthony has demonstrated throughout his NBA career that he is a poor leader--he has enjoyed his best individual and team success when paired with one or more stronger personalities who ran the locker room--and that he has a limited skill set: at his best, he was a very potent one on one scorer from certain areas of the court, but he has always been a poor defender, a reluctant passer and an inconsistent rebounder who is more interested in offensive rebounding than defensive rebounding. None of the above factors suggests that Anthony in his prime could be the best player on  an NBA championship team, and those issues have been compounded in recent seasons by the undeniable fact that Anthony retains unrealistic beliefs about his current capabilities even as his one dimensional skill set displays continuous, significant decline.

The above paragraph is what an "old school" scouting report summary of Anthony's game would look like. In my 2018-19 Western Conference Preview, I wrote, "Anthony has a career-long pattern of rarely advancing very far in the playoffs; he is a shoot-first (and second and third) player whose efficiency is declining and whose willingness/ability to contribute in other areas decreases each year. Even if they had stood pat, the Rockets would probably not have won 65 games again; that was an aberration and they are due to regress to the mean. Adding Anthony, though, will probably subtract about 10 wins, while also making this team a less potent playoff force."

The Rockets started the season 4-6 as Anthony averaged career-lows in scoring (13.4 ppg), free throw percentage (.682), assists (.5 apg) and steals (.4 spg) while shooting just a bit above his career low field goal percentage of .404 from last season (.405 this season). The supposed immense challenge of playing alongside Russell Westbrook was the excuse widely provided for the failure of the Carmelo Anthony experiment in Oklahoma City last season, even though last season just continued the steady downward statistical progression that Anthony has suffered for several seasons. This season in Houston would be different, we were sagely informed, because James Harden and Chris Paul would be willing and able to get the ball to Anthony where he can be most effective. Left out of that "analysis," however, was an answer to the obvious question: Where, exactly, is an over the hill, step slow, one dimensional gunner "most effective"?

This is just one illustration of the difference between Real Basketball Analytics and what often is portrayed as basketball analytics. If you have watched Anthony play throughout his career and if you understand basketball then you can see that even Anthony in his prime probably would not have been a great fit for Mike D'Antoni's offense that is predicated on the point guard monopolizing the ball and everyone else being ready to shoot when/if the point guard passes the ball; prime Anthony was at his best when he could go one on one but that is not an option for forwards in D'Antoni's offense.

What the Rockets need alongside Harden and Paul are rugged individual defenders who can make spot up three pointers and who are satisfied with Harden and Paul getting most of the shots, money and glory (Harden and Paul also need a big man who will set screens, rebound and be content to score 10-15 ppg on lob passes, a role more than ably filled by Clint Capela).

The Rockets have parted ways with Anthony but have not cut or traded him. Anthony is in some kind of humiliating basketball limbo as he and the Rockets try to find a way out of this mess that salvages his dignity and marketability. This reminds me of the story that Kenny Smith tells about his rookie year with the Sacramento Kings. Smith recalls that Coach Bill Russell said to sit next to him on the bus and not alongside some of the team's veterans because the veterans are losers. Smith asked Russell why he did not trade those players and Russell stated--loudly enough for the players to hear--that he had tried to trade them but no one wanted them. The Rockets would surely trade Anthony for a bag of potato chips and a copy of an "advanced basketball statistics" book by some "stat guru" but no one wants to give up anything for Anthony. It is not clear what, if any, market exists for Anthony as a free agent if the Rockets just waive him, which they probably will have to do at some point when they need that roster spot.

Anthony's minutes are now going to Gary Clark, a rookie free agent who is on a two-way contract. Yes, Anthony has been replaced by a minor league player--and the Rockets have gone 3-1 with Clark/sans Anthony, with double-digit wins against Indiana, Denver and Golden State. Anthony was not the only problem for Houston during the first 10 games--Chris Paul got suspended, James Harden missed three games due to injury and the Rockets' defense suffered as a result of the loss of free agents Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute--but he was, predictably, a major problem and it was equally predictable that subtracting him from the lineup would add wins to the team's record.

In the NBA, skill set analysis matters, chemistry matters and coaching matters. Championship teams understand those factors and make decisions accordingly. Teams that do not take those factors into account may have some regular season success but will not advance to the NBA Finals, let alone win a championship.

Getting rid of Anthony was a necessary move for the Rockets but their organizational mindset and decision making process is not conducive to building a championship team. What was the point of the Rockets signing Anthony despite his flaws and limitations, then denying that they were going to cut him after just 10 games only to then issue a press release stating that they were going to "part ways" with Anthony and that the two sides are "working toward a resolution"? The Rockets do not look or act like a franchise poised to contend for a title.

It is also telling that the Rockets act as if the only reason that they did not win it all last year was Chris Paul's injury. The problems with that way of thinking are (1) it is predictable that Paul will get injured during the playoffs, (2) injuries are part of the game for all teams and (3) even without Paul the Rockets had halftime leads against Golden State in games six and seven only to fall apart and lose both times--which was also predictable given Houston's high variance style of play. On the rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Coach Bill Belichick does not offer excuses. He says that the team must do better in every area, starting with coaching. That kind of realistic self-assessment is never heard from the Rockets.

To cite just one more example of Houston's organizational miscues, Chris Paul is overpaid now relative to his size, frequent injuries and skill set but his contract is going to be an absolute disaster for the Rockets as he ages, gets injured more frequently and loses skills (particularly speed and quickness) for which he is not going to be able to compensate in other areas.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:11 AM

12 comments

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Durant's Choices Will Reveal His Real Priorities

The recent verbal confrontation between Golden State teammates Kevin Durant and Draymond Green--which resulted in a team-issued one game suspension of Green--brought some apparently long-simmering tensions to light. Tempers flared after Durant reacted harshly to a late-game turnover by Green, who was doing--as Shaquille O'Neal might call it on Shaqtin' a Fool--a "Tragic Bronson" imitation instead of passing the ball to Durant for a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation in a tied game. Golden State lost in overtime to the L.A. Clippers, 121-116.

After Green's turnover, Durant angrily clapped his hands and barked at Green. According to multiple reports, Green told Durant to leave at the end of the season (Durant will be a free agent) because the team does not need him and can win without him. When the players returned to the court after a timeout, lip readers could discern Durant apparently saying that this (presumably referring to Green's behavior) is why he is going to leave. The war of words did not end on the court but spilled over into the locker room after the game, when Green allegedly called Durant a derogatory name multiple times.

It has been widely speculated that Durant is planning to leave Golden State after this season. The Warriors' front office and players have tried to act like this is not a major issue/distraction, but it obviously is a major issue/distraction. Green is surely not the only player on the team who is upset with Durant, even if Green is the only player who has been so publicly vocal about the situation.

If the reports of what Green said are accurate, it is ironic that the player who recruited Durant to Golden State after the Warriors' 2016 NBA Finals loss to Cleveland precisely because he told Durant that the team needed him is now asserting that the Warriors do not need Durant. The evidence on that score is mixed. The Warriors won the 2015 NBA title without Durant and then they won a record 73 regular season games in 2016 before being upset by the Cavaliers in the Finals. Clearly, the Warriors are a championship caliber team without Durant--but Durant's arrival took the team to another level, as they captured back to back titles while Durant won the Finals MVP in 2017 and 2018.

Durant's decision after this season will reveal a lot about his priorities. The narrative up to this point is that he left Oklahoma City either because he thought that he could not win a title with the Thunder or because he thought that he had a much better chance of winning a title with the Warriors. If winning is Durant's top priority, then it would be hard to justify leaving a historically great team that has advanced to the Finals for four straight years and has won three championships. Unless the Warriors completely fall apart this season, it would be hard to say with a straight face that leaving Golden State improves Durant's chances of adding to his ring collection.

Perhaps Durant is planning to help form a super team in L.A. with LeBron James. While it could be argued that a James-Durant duo surrounded by a competent supporting cast is at least as good of a team as the Warriors sans Durant, how would it add to Durant's legacy to jump from one super team to another? That would just reinforce the valid argument that Durant is a frontrunner who takes the easy way out as opposed to embracing competition.

The Durant-Green feud is not something that should just be brushed over. There are issues/problems with the Warriors internally and that could not only affect the Warriors this season but it could impact Durant's decision. That being said, at this point there is every reason to believe--based on the Warriors' body of work--that they will overcome these issues, win another championship and re-sign Durant. It would be an odd look if Durant sabotages this season to in some way justify leaving the Warriors, though some might suggest that LeBron James did just that--at least when he quit during the 2010 playoffs prior to the infamous "Decision."

The Warriors at their best play a beautiful brand of team basketball that is a joy to watch--but I would have much rather watched the Warriors battling the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder for several years than have watched Durant jump to a great team to make that team even greater. Similarly, I would much rather watch Durant face James as opposed to joining forces with him. The All-Star Game and Team USA provide us with opportunities to see rival superstars on the same team but during the regular season and the playoffs I would prefer to see them battle each other as opposed to all being on the same squad. I suspect that many if not most NBA fans feel the same way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:56 PM

5 comments

Thursday, November 15, 2018

"Pass First" LeBron James Passes Wilt Chamberlain on the Regular Season Career Scoring List

LeBron James scored 44 points in the L.A. Lakers' 126-117 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night and he moved past Wilt Chamberlain into fifth place on the pro basketball regular season career scoring list with 31,425 points. James now trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), Kobe Bryant (33,643) and Michael Jordan (32,292).

ESPN's Chauncey Billups commented about James being the only "pass first" player on the above list. What is remarkable is that the "pass first" myth persists even as James seems to be on course to become the sport's all-time leading scorer. We have covered this ground before but it is worth mentioning again: "Pass first" players do not score 61 points in a game, nor do they score over 30,000 points in a career.

LeBron James is a great scorer who also possesses high level passing skills--which is true, at least to some extent, of each of the other five players listed above. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the best passing centers of all-time and he averaged at least 5 apg three times. Karl Malone was purely an athlete who could dunk and rebound at the start of his career but he developed into a solid shooter and good passer. Kobe Bryant was the primary ballhandler/playmaker on five championship teams. Michael Jordan averaged 8.0 apg and rang up a string of triple doubles in 1988-89 when Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan from shooting guard to point guard. Jordan remained a good playmaker the rest of his career, though Scottie Pippen was the primary playmaker as the Jordan-Pippen duo led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s. Chamberlain, who retired as the all-time leading scorer, led the league in assists in 1968, at a time when the leader was determined by total assists and not apg average.

Chamberlain, Jerry West, Nate Archibald, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the only players who have won at least one scoring title and at least one assist title. Only Archibald won both titles in the same season. None of those players is considered a "pass first" player, though Archibald became one in the latter part of his career after suffering an Achilles injury and then landing on a talented Boston team featuring Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

James won the 2008 scoring title and he has ranked in the top five in scoring 14 times, including four second place finishes and six third place finishes. James spent more than a decade as one of the league's top three scorers, yet he is still called a pass first player! James finished second in apg last season, the first time he ranked in the top five in that category; yes, James is a very good passer but his first option--rightfully so, considering his skill set--is to score.

It interesting to contrast James' statistics and reputation with Westbrook's statistics and reputation.Westbrook won the 2015 and 2017 scoring titles. He led the league in assists in 2018 and has ranked in the top four in that category in each of the past four seasons. Westbrook ranked 10th in rebounding in 2017 and 2018 while averaging a triple double in consecutive seasons, an unprecedented accomplishment. Westbrook led the league in playoff apg in 2016 and 2017 and he also ranked first in playoff ppg in 2017. Westbrook is clearly a great all-around player and, at least statistically, on par with James as a passer--yet Westbrook is routinely derided as a selfish gunner.

I am the first to state that assists are not the only way to rate playmaking ability and assists are not necessarily the most accurate statistic. I would also say that Westbrook's shot selection and offensive efficiency are inferior to James' shot selection and offensive efficiency.

However, after granting those stipulations and considering all other factors in their totality, it does not make sense to say that a player whose career averages are 27.2 ppg, 19.6 fga/g, 7.2 apg and 7.4 rpg is an all-around player who has a "pass first" mindset but a player whose career averages are 23.0 ppg, 18.4 fga/g, 8.2 apg and 6.6 rpg is a one-dimensional gunner. The James-Westbrook comparison is especially relevant because they have played in the same era under the same rules.

That said, some historical comparisons shed further light on this "pass first" business. James ranks 11th in pro basketball history in fga/g, just ahead of Kobe Bryant and trailing only Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Pete Maravich, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Jerry West, Dominique Wilkins and George Mikan.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a shoot first player, as James is. The best player on a team generally has an obligation and responsibility to score prolifically, because this helps his team not only by the points he directly creates but also by forcing the defense to trap him and therefore open up opportunities for players who cannot create their own shots.

James is a tremendous scorer who is also a skillful and winning passer. That is a great combination and there is no need to create false labels; praising James for his scoring takes nothing away from his passing or from any of his other skills--but artificially applying one ill-fitting label to James while also applying other ill-fitting labels to other players does not increase our understanding or appreciation of greatness but rather diminishes both while also being an affront to truth.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:09 PM

2 comments

Monday, November 12, 2018

Jimmy Butler's Minnesota Saga Ends and He is Granted a New Beginning in Philadelphia

The Minnesota Timberwolves have traded disgruntled four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and a 2022 second round pick. The general rule of thumb when evaluating an NBA trade is that the team that received the best individual player "won" the deal. That is probably true of this transaction but, as is often the case, the matter is not as simple as just comparing the talents of the players.

The reality is that Butler's very public demand to be traded as soon as possible put the Timberwolves in a very awkward position and robbed them of the leverage/options usually enjoyed by a team that is trying to trade an All-Star. Much has been said and written about Butler's conduct but we do not know what happened behind the scenes. It is easy to suggest that Butler could have handled this situation better and/or more privately but perhaps he attempted those techniques without achieving any results.

It is obvious that Butler concluded that Minnesota's two young centerpiece players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are (1) overpaid and (2) lack championship mettle. Maybe Butler is right, maybe he is wrong, maybe it is too soon to tell--but Butler drew his conclusions and decided that he did not want to spend the rest of his career trying to win a championship with guys who he considers to be overrated and soft. The story/myth/legend that Butler, after being away from the team for a while, just showed up at practice, picked up four reserve players and led them to a scrimmage victory over Towns, Wiggins and the other non-Butler starters tells you all you need to know. While it should be mentioned that in a short practice game it is not necessarily unheard of for a group of lesser NBA players to beat a group of superior NBA players, the larger point is that everyone on the court must have understood that Butler's return was orchestrated to make a point. We learned from this that Butler does not respect Towns and Wiggins and--just as significantly--Towns and Wiggins do not particularly care. Someone in the Minnesota camp leaked the story about that scrimmage and no one in that camp has denied the basic story, which amounts to (1) Butler is a tough, alpha dog, (2) he dominates the other players on the team mentally and physically and (3) those players are unwilling/unable to be challenged to become better. Honestly, if I were Butler I would want out, too.

Now, for Minnesota that spotlight is squarely on Towns and Wiggins. They got all the money, they basically ran Butler out of town by being soft/disinterested and now it is put up or shut up time. Are you going to be a 50 win team moving forward and a threat in the Western Conference or are you going to rest on your (slim) laurels, count your money and validate Butler's lack of respect?

There is pressure on Butler as well. He has repeatedly said that he is all about winning. He has not gone any further in the playoffs during his career than youngsters Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons did last season when they led Philadelphia to the second round. Butler's true vindication is not so much about what Minnesota does or does not accomplish--it is possible that he is right about Towns and Wiggins now but that they develop later on the qualities that they lack now--but rather about whether or not Butler lifts Philadelphia to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. If the 76ers do not win at least 50 games and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, then Butler does not impact winning to the extent that he thinks he does.

I am not sure that we are going to witness a clear-cut verdict. Now that the drama surrounding Butler is over, Minnesota's locker room will be healthier and the team will improve upon its current record, but the Timberwolves will be hard-pressed to win as many games this season as they did last season with Butler in the fold. 

The 76ers were not as good last season as their record suggested, and their weaknesses were exposed by Boston during the playoffs. Butler adds shooting and defense but it will be interesting to see how his personality/attitude/intensity mesh with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, neither of whom seems to have Butler's motor. I think that Boston and Toronto are the two best teams in the East, even though Boston has been inconsistent thus far. On paper, Butler makes the 76ers a lot better than they were before but in practice I expect Boston and Toronto to still have the advantage. This deal may help the 76ers surpass the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, though.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 PM

7 comments

Friday, November 09, 2018

Real Basketball Analytics

Analyze (verb): Examine methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of something, especially information, typically for purposes of explanation and interpretation.

For quite some time, "stat gurus" have propagated the myth that the most accurate way to analyze basketball on both the team level and the individual level is to utilize so-called "advanced basketball statistics"--which, in a given circumstance, usually refers to the particular proprietary formula that an individual is promoting (you rarely have to scratch too far beneath the surface to discover that a "stat guru" is not on a quest for basketball truth but rather on a quest to promote a book/website and/or trying to get hired as an NBA executive).

Only a fool would deny that statistical analysis is an important aspect of player and team evaluation, but statistical analysis hardly began with the current wave of self-promoting "stat gurus"; the Kentucky Colonels hired Hubie Brown (who promptly led the team to the 1975 ABA title) based in no small part on his detailed analysis of the key statistics that most influence winning, Dean Smith relied on plus/minus numbers at least as far back as the 1970s and there are many other examples. The key difference is that Hall of Famers like Brown and Smith understood the game at a deep level and knew that numbers were just one part of a larger picture. Nowadays, guys who never played the game, never coached the game and do not understand the rhythms of the game believe that they can decipher the sport's intricacies based on massaging the numbers on a spreadsheet.

During the most recent TNT "Inside the NBA" post-game show, Kenny Smith made an important point, stating that "analytics" have been "misread" to discount the value of high percentage shots in the paint. "Stat gurus" who adhere to "advanced basketball statistics" as if it were an infallible religion insist that teams should primarily shoot three pointers and free throws, but Smith notes that if your team has players who can shoot a high percentage on two pointers then it is a valid strategy to attack the paint. Case in point: Milwaukee's 134-111 victory last night over Golden State, during which the Bucks scored 84 points in the paint. Also, Cleveland took a 2-1 lead over Golden State in the 2015 NBA Finals by relentlessly attacking the paint but did not sustain that attack during the remainder of the series; next season, the Cavaliers fired Coach David Blatt and then the Cavaliers--under new Coach Tyronn Lue--pounded the Warriors in the paint en route to an epic seven game NBA Finals triumph. After game seven of that series, I explained why attacking the paint was one of the main reasons for Cleveland's victory:
It is also worth noting that the Cavaliers outrebounded Golden State 48-39 in game seven. Coach Lue resisted the temptation to go small when the Warriors went small during this series and as a result the Cavaliers pounded the Warriors in the paint at both ends of the court, which more than nullified Golden State's record-setting three point assault. The "stat gurus" blithely insist that "3 is more than 2," ignoring the reality that a team that can pound the paint can (1) generate extra possessions with great rebounding, (2) wear down the legs of three point shooters by making them work on defense and (3) erode the confidence of jump shooters by placing them under physical and mental pressure that they are not used to facing. Curry and Thompson are considered by many to be the greatest shooting backcourt in history but they combined to shoot 6-24 from three point range in what may turn out to be the biggest game of their careers. The Warriors succeeded last year where previous jump shooting teams failed because they complemented their offensive fireworks with defensive dominance and because the teams they faced lacked either the mindset or the personnel to effectively utilize size against the Warriors in the paint; this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder used size/paint dominance to push the Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals and then the Cavaliers used size/paint dominance to wear down the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The Warriors are a historically great team but we need to pump the brakes on (1) asserting that teams from prior eras with big lineups would be run off of the court by the Warriors and (2) that the Warriors' three championships in the past four years somehow represent a triumph of "analytics" and/or the style of play deployed by Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns and by his current Houston Rockets. The Warriors have won titles because they defend well and because they feature a versatile offensive attack; when they have lost in the playoffs or been pushed to the brink it has not been by teams trying to go small but rather by teams that can punish them in the paint, as Milwaukee did last night, as Cleveland did in the 2016 NBA Finals and as the Oklahoma City Thunder did in the 2016 Western Conference Finals and the San Antonio Spurs did in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard got hurt. 

D'Antoni ball is a high variance strategy. It can lead to a lot of regular season wins and some degree of playoff success but it is not going to work against elite teams in the playoffs; we have seen this for over a decade now. Houston supporters whine that the Rockets were just a Chris Paul injury away from beating Golden State last season, ignoring the reality that (1) Chris Paul getting worn down and/or injured during the playoffs is predictable/expected, not random and (2) the Rockets enjoyed halftime leads in both games six and seven only to lose, predictably, as their high variance strategy of overly relying on three point shooting failed when everything was on the line.

Both of the times that the Rockets advanced to the Western Conference Finals with James Harden leading the team in scoring the Rockets benefited from underrated defensive performances from a variety of other players (and Harden was often either bricking shots or on the bench during key moments in Houston's wins). "Stat gurus" scoffed at the idea that losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Mboute would hurt the Rockets at all this season. We are still looking at a small sample size (10 games) but to this point the Rockets have been awful defensively and offensively. If you understand basketball at a deep level--not by just looking at a spreadsheet--then you understand that adding Carmelo Anthony while subtracting Ariza and Mbah a Moute is a classic example of subtraction by addition: the team added "name brand" value but lost actual, tangible basketball value.

The Rockets' helter skelter style can be tough to deal with during the regular season, and the watered down NBA has a lot of teams that are bad and/or tanking. I would be surprised if the Rockets do not win at least 50 games despite their slow start--but I would be even more surprised if the Rockets advance past the second round of the playoffs.

Teams that win championships can defend the paint and can attack the paint by post up and/or off of the dribble. Styles may change but unless the rules are changed to the point of making the sport completely unrecognizable, the importance of having a paint presence is going to be a constant. Kenny Smith, who won two NBA championships as a player, understands that truth better than any "stat guru."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:23 PM

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Cavaliers Put the "Diss" in Dysfunction

Only in the bizarre world of Cleveland sports would Tyronn Lue get fired while Hue Jackson keeps his job (though Jackson was then fired the next day). Lue is the only coach who has led the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title and he is the first coach to lead a major professional sports team from Cleveland to a championship since Blanton Collier coached the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL title. The Cavaliers advanced to the NBA Finals for three straight years under Lue's direction. Yes, Lue's Cavaliers had LeBron James on the roster but Lue demonstrated that he had the ability to push James while also getting maximum production and effort from the rest of the players.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fired Lue on the heels of unprecedented success much like Gilbert fired Mike Brown, who was a contributor to San Antonio's championship culture and has now found a home as a contributor to Golden State's championship culture.

Cleveland is in many ways the national capital of sports dysfunction. The Cleveland Browns have been a national joke--though no Cleveland resident or fan finds the punchline the least bit amusing--for the better part of the past 20 years but the franchise succumbed to new depths under the (mis)direction of Hue Jackson, who set the bar so low you would have to dig a subterranean tunnel for weeks to find it. The Cleveland sports media has often sunk as low as the city's sports franchises--remember, these are the "geniuses" who helped run Bill Belichick out of town not long after he led the Browns to the last playoff victory they would experience for nearly a quarter century (and counting)--but Doug Lesmerises hit the nail on the head when describing Jackson's reign of error:
In the long, dysfunctional history of the Browns, what Jackson perpetrated on this city for 40 games, 36 losses and 33 months was an abomination.

A few months ago I sat in Jackson's office and he vowed the Browns would win. I told him I'd write it when it happened. He promised I'd be writing it.

Instead, we're here.

Hue Jackson has been fired. No coach has ever deserved it more...

Jackson didn't have a winning roster for his first two seasons. But he didn't have a 1-31 team. As I said before, he took a losing team and made it historically awful. He took a difficult job and made it impossible.

Now, with a competitive team, he was doing the same--underachieving again.

There are problems in Cleveland. Ownership is a problem. The receivers are a problem. The offensive tackles are a problem. The game plan from the coordinators are problems.

Every single problem Jackson faced for 2 1/2 seasons, he took and made it worse...

Every news conference was a chance for Jackson to stake an unnecessary claim or pledge an unneeded promise. He chose bold words, and never backed them with actions.

It's why the man wound up in a lake.

That will be a lasting memory from this dark time in Cleveland football history.

But Jackson's greatest legacy will be his everyday failings, the time after time he sat before a microphone and spouted platitudes no one bought.

Browns fans had to watch their team lose on Sunday. And then they had to watch Jackson explain it and excuse himself on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
You might think that Jackson is the worst coach in NFL history but--technically--he is only the second worst of all-time: Jackson ranks 218th in winning percentage out of the 219 NFL coaches who coached at least 40 games. The only coach worse than Jackson was the Eagles' Bert Bell, who enjoyed tremendous job security since he also owned the team. However, I am willing to put an asterisk by Bell and award the "honor" to Jackson, as I don't think I have ever had the misfortune of watching a more poorly coached professional sports team than the Browns have been under Jackson--and that is saying a lot considering the past few coaches who preceded Jackson.

Jackson should have never been hired and he should not have survived a 1-15 season so that he could personally orchestrate an 0-16 disaster of historical proportions of coaching ineptitude.

Lue may not be Red Auerbach or Pat Riley or Phil Jackson but he sure is not Hue Jackson. ESPN's Jalen Rose described Lue's termination as "rude." That is a good word for it and another good word to describe the Cavaliers' ownership/front office is clueless. The Cavaliers did not learn anything about Lue or the roster during the team's 0-6 start that they did not know during the summer. Lue did not suddenly forget how to coach and he did not suddenly pick a fight with the front office or the owner. If issues existed, then a functional sports franchise would have addressed and corrected those issues in the offseason. That is what the Browns should have done with Jackson and, if the Cavaliers did not believe that Lue is the man to run the show in the post-James era, that is what the Cavaliers should have done with Lue. Firing Lue now just creates even more chaos for a team that needs stability--unless this is Gilbert's way of tanking while creating a facade that he is trying to win.

Kevin Love, the best player on the team after LeBron James' departure in free agency, has missed two games due to injury, may be out for a month and was clearly hobbled/limited when he did play. If everything broke right, this could be a .500 team but early in this season of transition with Love injured the Cavaliers are rightfully one of the worst teams in the league. Phil Jackson and the ghost of Red Auerbach could not turn this team into a winner right now. First, Love must get healthy and then the rotation players must learn in time how to function together effectively without James.

Lue was James' handpicked successor to David Blatt, who should never have been hired in the first place but whose firing was oddly timed (see a pattern here?). That makes James' public comments supporting Lue all the more intriguing, as James noted that Lue knows where to find him. The person who probably feels worst about Lue's firing is not Lue--who will now get paid to not have to deal with Dan Gilbert--but rather L.A. Lakers' Coach Luke Walton. When so inclined, James axes coaches like he is George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. You can be certain that if the Lakers do not start performing up to James' standards/expectations then (1) James will not shoulder any blame and (2) Walton's head will be moving toward the chopping block. The rule of life with James is he is responsible for everything good that happens and blameless for everything bad that happens. If you disagree, just ask Mike Brown, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love and David Blatt.

It is interesting to observe players and coaches after losses.

Some are very consistent about accepting blame. On those rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Belichick invariably says that the team needs to do everything better and that this starts with him as the coach, that he needs to coach better. When the Oklahoma City Thunder lose, Russell Westbrook declares that it is his fault and he becomes angry if any media members even suggest that he needs a better supporting cast, even though that was clearly the case two years ago when the Thunder disintegrated within seconds of Westbrook taking even the shortest breather.

Others are very consistent about not accepting any responsibility at all. I would never want to go into battle with someone who lacks personal accountability. That failing was a major flaw for Hue Jackson and I wonder if it is the reason that a long list of star players--including Kyrie Irving and Paul George--have made it clear that they do not want to play with LeBron James. James is indisputably a champion and an all-time great but those facts will be small comfort for Walton if things do not improve quickly in L.A. Do not buy for one minute the notion that James will be patient, because nothing in his track record suggests that he operates that way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 PM

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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Shaky Starts for Lakers and Rockets Punctuated by Saturday Night Fight

The Houston Rockets and L.A. Lakers have both started the 2019 season in less than impressive fashion. The Rockets are 1-2 and their only win is against the 0-3 Lakers. The Rockets have a mediocre offense so far, ranking 17th out of 30 teams in scoring, 15th in field goal percentage and 18th in assists. They are awful defensively, ranking 27th in defensive field goal percentage and 24th in rebounding. James Harden will always put up gaudy individual regular season numbers playing for a team that is built around him monopolizing the ball--28.3 ppg, 9.7 apg, 6.7 rpg so far--but the Rockets have been outscored by 7 ppg during his time on the court while outscoring their opponents by 3 ppg when Harden is on the bench.

The Lakers are giving up 131.7 ppg (!), which amazingly is not the worst figure in the league; the Lakers rank 23rd in points allowed. The Lakers are shooting .287 from three point range (28th), which means that LeBron James is often operating in a crowd because opposing defenses can afford to sag into the paint. The reflexive response would be to blame James' "supporting cast" for the Lakers' perfectly imperfect record but the Lakers are being outscored by more than 7 ppg while James is on the court and the Lakers are holding their own when James is on the bench.

When the two teams met on Saturday night, it very much looked like the resistible force meeting the movable object. It was not clear which team would fold in the end when, with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter and the Rockets clinging to a 109-108 lead, the train went completely off the rails. Brandon Ingram was called for a foul after Harden pushed off during a drive (unless you believe that extending your arms horizontally--as opposed to upward--is a natural shooting motion for a layup). Harden whined for a continuation call, Chris Paul chimed in as well and Ingram shoved Harden out of the way while complaining to the referee about the call. At that point, it looked like Harden would be living at the free throw line because of the shooting foul plus the technical foul on Ingram. While everything was being sorted out, Paul and Rajon Rondo got involved in a heated conversation. Suddenly, Paul stuck his finger in Rondo's face (leaving a scratch underneath Rondo's eye) and Rondo responded by throwing punches. Paul threw punches as well before his good buddy James pulled him away to safety. Meanwhile, Ingram rushed into the fray and threw a punch as well.

Paul ran to the broadcast table to get his story out first, claiming that Rondo had spit on him. While James walked alongside Paul with his arm draped over Paul's shoulder, the other Lakers tried to calm Ingram down. Ingram, Rondo and Paul were each ejected. The NBA subsequently suspended Ingram for four games, Rondo for three games and Paul for two games. Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni immediately complained because the suspensions (and resulting forfeited game checks) will cost Paul far more money than the other guys will lose (due to Paul's bloated contract). Here is a thought: maybe the President of the Players Association who makes $40 million per year should have considered what he stood to lose before he stuck his finger in Rondo's face.

It is well established that the Rockets are fake tough guys, something that I addressed last season in an article titled The Rockets' Fake Toughness:
Real toughness in the NBA is displayed by playing defense, focusing on the game plan and executing in the playoffs...Fake toughness in the NBA is displayed by acting like you want to get in a fistfight, knowing full well that there is an armada of security guards and police officers at every NBA arena. Years back, Tim Thomas--speaking about Kenyon Martin--had the perfect term for these kind of antics: "fugazi," meaning "fake."
I am pretty sure that Paul assumed that he could get his finger poke in for free before he and Rondo would be quickly separated. Paul did not count on Rondo unloading a two piece on his dome.

Paul's new teammate Carmelo Anthony, a member of the NBA's All-Fake Tough Guy First Team, called Rondo's conduct "unacceptable." Anthony is well versed in "unacceptable" conduct; in  2006, then-Denver Nugget Anthony was one of the principals in an ugly melee in Madison Square Garden. Anthony sucker-punched the Knicks' Mardy Collins and then back-pedaled like he was on ice skates--managing to lose credibility both as a professional ball player who should know better than to throw a punch during a game and as a self-respecting man, for no self-respecting man would throw a sucker punch and then run away from the target of his anger. Fighting has no place in the NBA but if you are going to start a fight then be a man and stand your ground instead of running away like a scared little kid!

NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended seven players for a total of 47 games, with Anthony leading the way with a 15 game suspension (at the time this was the sixth longest suspension in NBA history). While Commissioner Adam Silver let Saturday night's instigators off relatively easily, Commissioner Stern imposed significant punishments and it is not a coincidence that the 2006 brawl was the last such on court melee until Paul, Rondo and Ingram lost their cool. It will be interesting to see if Silver's punishments will have the same kind of deterrent effect.

After the fight, ESPN showed clips of some of the previous interactions between Rondo and Paul. ESPN was making the point that there is a long history of animosity between these players but one thing that stood out immediately and dramatically is how much muscle mass Paul has added. The image of Paul flexing his biceps earlier in the game looks like a short version of the Incredible Hulk, while the young Paul looks like a scrawny kid. Throughout his career, Paul has been listed as 6-0, 175 pounds, but he is probably shorter than 6-0 and at this point he is clearly significantly heavier than 175 pounds. That kind of dramatic transformation brings to mind--among others--Evander Holyfield, who also went from about 175 pounds to well over 200 pounds of chiseled muscle during a period of time when illegal performance enhancing drugs were delivered to his residence. It is worth noting that as the President of the NBA Players Association, Paul has been a staunch opponent of testing for Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is an odd position to take if one cares at all about (1) the long term health and safety of the players and (2) the integrity of the sport.

Another thing that struck me is that Paul does a whole lot of jawing for someone has not even made it to the NBA Finals, let alone won a championship. I vaguely recall a verbal exchange between two NHL players years ago and, if I am correct, I believe that the one player told the other that he could not even hear the nonsense that the other player was spouting because he had put all of his championship rings over his ears. Rondo could have saved himself a lot of money and had the ultimate "scoreboard" last word by saying something similar to Paul instead of punching Paul.

After the fight, Rondo kept his mouth shut publicly until the suspensions were handed down and then he offered his take: "Of course, the NBA went with his side because I got three games and he got two. Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy. They don't know he's a horrible teammate. They don't know how he treats people. Look at what he did last year when he was in LA, trying to get to the Clippers locker room. They don't want to believe he's capable of taunting and igniting an incident. He comes out and says I spit and the media sides with that." Rondo added that he "had a mouthpiece in my mouth and I was exasperated because I was about to tell him to 'get the [expletive] out of here.' One, if I spit on you, bottom line, there is not going to be no finger-pointing. If you felt that I just spit on you, then all bets are off. Two, look at my body language. If I spit on you on purpose, I'm going to be ready for a man to swing on me. You ain't going to have my hands on my hip and my head look away at someone if I spit on them. After the [expletive] goes down, within 30 seconds, you run and tell the sideline reporters that I spit on you? If I spit on you, you are trying to get to me. You not trying to make up a story so you can look like a good guy. It makes no sense to me. I was going to let it rest. I wasn't going to say much. But now I have kids and I teach my kids to speak up for themselves and don't let the world tell their story."

The tape of the incident has been slowed down, placed into close up and replayed more often than the Zapruder film. If you freeze-frame it, squint and look from a certain angle, then maybe some spittle came out of Rondo's mouth, but if/when it did, Rondo was not even looking directly at Paul. Rondo should start a second career as a ventriloquist if he can intentionally spit on someone through a mouthpiece without even looking at the person! My take is that Paul did not like Rondo telling him to "Get the [expletive] out of here," Paul poked Rondo in the face while assuming that they would be separated and Paul did not realize that Rondo actually knows how to throw punches in combinations.

No one is covered in glory here. Ingram, a normally mild-mannered person by all accounts, lost his mind. I thought that he deserved to be suspended for at least five games; running into the fight and throwing a punch was a dangerous, bush league move. Paul and Rondo should have received the same punishment; two or three games makes sense, but I consider them equally culpable because they both threw punches. I suspect that Paul was the actual instigator but once they both threw punches they both needed to miss multiple games.

As for James, there is nothing wrong with him pulling Paul out of the fracas. You are always supposed to grab the guy from the other team, so your guy does not get punched in the face while he is being held. The problem is that after Paul was separated from the pack James should have gone over to his team and been with his guys. If I am a Laker, those pictures of James leisurely walking with his arm around Paul are not cool at all. In the old days, this would be resolved by James delivering a hard foul--not a cheap shot and not intended to injure--to Paul the next time these teams play, to demonstrate that his on court loyalties are not divided. The mainstream media narrative is that James and Paul are great leaders/teammates but the real world narrative is that coveted free agents are hardly clamoring to play with either guy.

The Rockets are not going to finish with a losing record and the Lakers will eventually win a game but both teams have some issues to address. The Carmelo Anthony experiment is turning out so far the only way that any sensible person would have expected: he is sixth on the team in scoring (8.3 ppg) while shooting .321 from the field and .200 from three point range. As usual, his defense is awful and apathetic. The Rockets are being outscored by 5 ppg while Anthony is on the court. "Olympic Melo" was always a myth for the most part and now, at best, it is a distant memory. Anthony is a ball-dominant isolation scorer who has lost his shooting touch and he is playing alongside two other ball-dominant players. Why in the world would anyone expect this to work?

James signed a long-term deal with the Lakers, which is supposedly a sign that he will be patient after he only signed short-term deals with Cleveland. Patience has never been James' strong suit, though, and another way to view his contract is that James is an aging player who is now locked in for big money until he will be a lot closer to 40 years old than 30. That was a financially smart move on his part and he has always been smart about using the substantial leverage he enjoys. If the Lakers keep losing, James will need a scapegoat, which means Coach Luke Walton will be on the hot seat and/or some players may be headed out the door. We all saw on Saturday night that James cares a lot more about how his good buddy Paul feels than about how Rondo, Ingram or his teammates feel. Just file that away for future reference if the Lakers do not show signs of progress by game 20 or so.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:12 PM

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Boston Dominates Philadelphia 105-87 as the 2018-19 NBA Season Begins

We are supposedly witnessing the revival of one of the NBA's great, historic rivalries--Boston versus Philadelphia--but objectively speaking it must be said that these teams are not in the same class. The Celtics defeated the 76ers 4-1 in last season's playoffs and they continued that domination with a 105-87 win on opening night. Boston did not trail for the final 43 minutes, demonstrating advantages in team defense, depth and coaching. It is hard to see any advantages that Philadelphia enjoys in this matchup. Perhaps it could be argued that Ben Simmons (19 points, game-high 15 rebounds, eight assists) is the most individually talented player on either team but--even if that is true--that does not have much effect on the outcome when these teams play.

Keep in mind that Boston pushed aside Philadelphia last postseason despite being without the services of two injured All-Stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Irving and Hayward both played on opening night and the fact that neither one performed exceptionally well during Boston's rout only underscores the reality that while Boston will likely be markedly better by the end of the season it would seem that Philadelphia's growth potential as currently constructed is more limited. Hayward, playing under the constraints of a minutes restriction--though, due to the team's depth, none of Boston's players figure to log heavy minutes this season--finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four steals. Irving struggled with his shot, scoring just seven points on 2-14 field goal shooting, but he led Boston with seven assists.

Jayson Tatum was Boston's star of this game, with a game-high tying 23 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes. Only one Celtic played 30 minutes (Al Horford) but nine Celtics logged at least 19 minutes. Marcus Morris contributed 16 points and a team-high 10 rebounds in just 21 minutes.Thirteen different Boston players saw action (including three who just played the final minute) and every single one of them had a positive plus/minus number. Reserve Terry Rozier, who scored 11 points in 27 minutes, had a game-best +22 plus/minus number. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic in small sample sizes but the point here is that Boston has no weak links; Coach Brad Stevens can go to the far end of his bench and still summon quality players into action.

Al Horford's box score numbers do not always look impressive and last night was no exception (nine points, four rebounds, two assists--though he did have a game-high five blocked shots) but he is a major force at both ends of the court, anchoring the defense in the paint while facilitating offensive flow with his smart screens, deft passing and timely shots.

Joel Embiid led Philadelphia with 23 points but he shot just 9-21 from the field. He had 10 rebounds but also a game-high five turnovers. He is a talented player but Boston is able to guard him one on one without too much difficulty; Embiid did not post huge individual numbers and he did not attract enough defensive attention to open up opportunities for his teammates.

Simmons has everything in his tool kit but a reliable outside shot, as has been well-documented. He is often compared to Magic Johnson but the major difference is that Magic won a college championship and then won Finals MVP in his rookie season while leading the L.A. Lakers to the NBA title, while Simmons has yet to show in college or the NBA that he can have a remotely similar impact on winning. I am not saying that he is not capable of having such an impact or that he never will have such an impact but the fact is that he has yet to do so. Many of the all-time greats led teams to titles within their first three seasons in pro basketball, including Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan. Being young did not hold those players back and they did not necessarily all arrive to ready-made championship teams: Abdul-Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks were a recently formed expansion team, Erving's New York Nets had the youngest starting lineup in pro basketball and Bird's Celtics went 29-53 the season before he arrived.

One should not read too much into the first game of an 82 game regular season, but when one widens the perspective to include last season plus a skill set evaluation of each roster's players it remains to be proven that this is a rivalry in any sense other than name recognition and nostalgia.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Reflections on the Passing of Tex Winter

Legendary basketball coach Tex Winter passed away yesterday at the age of 96. Winter played basketball at USC, where his Coach Sam Barry first developed what is now known as the Triangle Offense--but Winter refined and expanded that concept when he became a coach. Winter enjoyed an outstanding career as a collegiate head coach--most notably at Kansas State, a program that he twice led to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament--and he was inducted in the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Winter's NBA coaching career began with a brief stint as Houston's head coach in the early 1970s but Elvin Hayes and company did not respond well to the Triangle. However, earlier in his career Winter had caught the eye of Jerry Krause, who vowed to hire Winter if he ever got the chance to do so.

That chance happened after Krause became the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Krause hired Winter to be an assistant coach under Doug Collins and the rest is history: Phil Jackson ascended to the head coaching position in 1989 and he promptly implemented the Triangle Offense under Winter's watchful eye. The Triangle Offense played a major role in Chicago's subsequent run of six championships during an eight year span in the 1990s and all of the key figures--including Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--have said that they would not have won without Winter. Jackson brought Winter back to the bench when Jackson joined the L.A. Lakers and Winter was an assistant coach for four of the Lakers' next five championship teams (poor health forced Winter to retire prior to the Lakers winning the 2010 title).

Here is part of what I wrote about Winter after he was finally selected for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame :
"Every star that I've ever had on a team--except Scottie Pippen, basically--he had trouble with parts of their game," (Phil) Jackson said. Pippen embraced Winter's intricate Triangle and mastered all of its subtleties; when Michael Jordan took a hiatus from the NBA to play minor league baseball, many people wrongly assumed that Pippen would try to average 30 ppg and that the Bulls would be a mediocre team sans Jordan--but Pippen knew his strengths and limitations, so instead of trying to become a scoring champion he used his playmaking skills to enhance his teammates' performances, helping B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant to each earn their first (and only) All-Star appearances as the Bulls surprised observers by going 55-27 and pushing the New York Knicks to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Winter's Triangle provided a structure and framework not so much for Jordan, Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant but rather for their less talented teammates...
Roland Lazenby was the Boswell to Winter's Johnson and Lazenby provided much insight for the general public regarding Winter's thought process. In 2007, Lazenby wrote an article that contained Winter's comparison of Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan and I quoted from that article in a 20 Second Timeout article:
Roland Lazenby, the fine editor of Lindy's Pro Basketball--for which I have written several articles during the past two years--recently posted an interview with Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter on the subject of the similarities between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. You can read the complete interview here. Winter concludes, "I tend to think how very much they're alike. They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don't know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best." He also dismisses the idea that Bryant took bad shots during his recent scoring binge: "We study the tapes. Actually, for the most part, he's not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he’s taken go in. He'll take shots that not many other players are going to be able to hit, and he hits them." These statements come from the person who invented the Triangle Offense and helped Phil Jackson implement it as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to six titles; then, Jackson utilized the same Triangle Offense to win three more titles in L.A. with Shaq and Kobe--and Winter says that Jordan and Bryant are "very much alike." The one caveat that Winter offers is that Jordan held his ground on the post better, while Bryant sometimes allows himself to get pushed off of the block and toward the three point line on offense.
Winter later told Lazenby that he doubted that Jordan would have fit in well with Shaquille O'Neal, who of course won three championships with the Lakers while playing alongside Bryant. As noted above, Winter's analysis of Bryant's shot selection differed from the superficial and biased mainstream media portrayals of Bryant.

O'Neal often clashed with Winter--though O'Neal was among the many who praised Winter in the wake of the news of Winter's passing--but Bryant and Winter bonded from the start. During the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend, Bryant told me, "I love Tex. If it weren't for Tex, I wouldn't look at the game or interpret the game the way that I do. The way that he teaches the game is different than any other coach that I've ever been around. He looks at the game in a different way. He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums. He looks at the total concept of the game and then plays it like chess. It's amazing to sit there and learn. When he teaches you something, you go out on the court and you apply that knowledge and it actually works. You start looking at him like he's Yoda. I'm telling you, it's just incredible."

After word of Winter's death was announced, Scottie Pippen tweeted, "Tex Winter was my biggest critic. He was also my biggest fan. A few words about the legendary coach who lived his 96 years as well as anyone could have..." Pippen later added, "Tex was tough on me early in my career. But he believed in me and gave me the confidence I needed to make the triangle work. He'd say, 'I'm not criticizing, I'm coaching'" and Pippen concluded, "Student of the game. Hall of Famer. 9 NBA championships as a coach. He taught me how to become a better offensive player. How to be patient on the floor. How to take criticism. How to win. Thank you, Tex. Rest In Peace."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

House Call With Dr. J Podcast Featuring Isiah Thomas

Since February 2018, Julius Erving has been doing a podcast titled "House Call with Dr. J." Erving is a genial, well organized and engaging host. The podcasts sound much more like conversations than interviews. His guests have included many prominent people--including more than a few who are not basketball players--but in this article I will focus on Isiah Thomas.

Yesterday during my lunch break I listened to Erving's podcast with Thomas and the interaction between my favorite player of all-time and one of my favorite players from the 1980s brought back a lot of positive memories and great feelings. I remember seeing footage of Thomas and Magic Johnson talking at the 1987 NBA All-Star Weekend--Erving's last All-Star Weekend as an active player--about one of the times that Erving came to Michigan and appeared at a youth basketball camp. They took turns describing how Erving marched to one end of the court, ran to the free throw line, took off and hung in the air long enough to talk to the campers before he dunked the ball! The sheer joy on their faces as they gave their (perhaps slightly exaggerated) description of Erving made a lasting impression on me. I remember feeling jealous that Erving went to their camp and wishing that he had made an appearance at my basketball camp (one of my counselors wrote at the end of the summer that I was preparing daily to go one on one with Dr. J).

Erving was a tremendous player, a vastly underrated player, but he also has a touch of grace and class that enables him to influence generations of not only basketball players but people in general.

Thomas' respect for Erving shone through during the podcast and it was equally apparent that Erving respects Thomas. This was not some vapid mutual admiration society but rather two men who beat the odds in so many ways talking about what specifically they each did to be successful and how they are paying forward the good fortune that they have experienced.

Erving brought up how Thomas overcame a severely sprained ankle to score an NBA Finals record 25 points in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 103-102 game six loss to the L.A. Lakers in 1988. Erving was modest enough to not mention that in game one of the 1976 ABA Finals he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter and 37 points in the second half. Erving asked Thomas what he was thinking as he was scoring those points. I remember that a similar question from ESPN's Dan Patrick years ago elicited passionate tears from Thomas as he talked about how hard he and his teammates had fought to have this opportunity to win a title. Thomas did not cry this time and he provided some interesting insights. Thomas said that players of his generation, like players from Erving's generation, played for the moment and were focused on winning the title right at that time. In contrast, Thomas believes that today's players focus on their legacy or on a business plan to play for 15 years and make X amount of dollars. Erving and Thomas agreed that it is unlikely that a modern player would or could do what Thomas did in that game. Erving said, "I watched what you did in that game and it did not go unnoticed."

Erving and Thomas also talked about their interactions with legendary Hall of Fame basketball coach John McClendon. Thomas correctly noted that the up tempo style often credited to Mike D'Antoni can be traced back to McClendon. Thomas said that when predominantly black teams used that style it was not called "Seven Seconds or Less" but rather "alley ball." Thomas said that when he was young he attended a basketball camp where McClendon spoke and that McClendon opened his remarks by holding up a basketball and saying that this could be their ticket to travel the world and to meet kings and queens. Thomas recalled being mesmerized and inspired. Erving shared some nice memories of working with McClendon on a committee with the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Thomas described his childhood in Chicago, a time marked by nationwide unrest that hit very close to home. Thomas said that after the riots that took place in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, there was a time when it felt like his neighborhood was under military occupation. Thomas said that his father likely suffered from what would now be diagnosed as depression, though nothing was diagnosed or treated at the time. It fell to Thomas' mother to run the household and set a good example for all of her children. Thomas also recalled the positive influence of several coaches, of the Harlem Globetrotters (who did camps in the city) and of Erving, a dignified and respected figure who was universally admired.

Without prompting from Erving (who is typically reluctant to speak about his accomplishments and his place in history), Thomas noted that the mainstream narrative has become that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the NBA. Thomas said, "I don't remember it that way." Thomas said that when he was growing up in the 1970s there was Dr. J, Kareem and then everyone else. Thomas acknowledged that there were other talented players but he insisted that Doc and Kareem set themselves apart not only on the court but also off of the court. Thomas remembered that whenever Doc or Kareem spoke, his parents and siblings told him to listen and to use them as role models.

One of Thomas' current business ventures is champagne distribution and Thomas said that he donates some of the profits to help the retired NBA players. Erving responded that some people talk but their actions don't back up their words and he was happy that Thomas is not just paying empty lip service to the pioneers who built pro basketball.

Early on, when both men talked about the influences in their life they mentioned their mothers. Thomas asked Erving why he has always been so gracious and helpful to so many people, including the generation of players that came into the NBA after Erving. Erving said that his mother taught him to treat everyone the way that you want to be treated--with respect. Erving said that he learned that even if you are poor you can share what you have and that when you share you ultimately find that everything you give is returned to you, while if you don't share that also is returned to you. As Erving's mother told him, "God don't like ugly."

The conversation lasts 42 minutes and I recommend that you subscribe to Erving's podcast (it's free!) so that you can listen to all of the previous episodes as well as keep up as new ones are posted. I am working my way through the archives--usually listening to one or two per day at lunch--and enjoying every minute. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM

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Friday, October 05, 2018

2018-19 Western Conference Preview

Walt Frazier recently declared that Kevin Durant's Golden State championships should always have an "asterisk" attached because Durant joined the Warriors instead of trying to beat them. Frazier made an excellent point; Durant deserves full credit for how well he has played as a Warrior but the reality is that he joined a team that had already won 73 regular season games and a championship (in different seasons) and such a squad obviously did not need Durant.

I understand that under the current free agency rules Durant had the right to sign with whatever team he wanted to sign with and I understand that he felt like his individual resume/legacy would be bolstered by winning multiple titles as a Warrior--but I miss the days when a star player and his team would embark on a journey toward a title that would take several years and involve overcoming a variety of challenges. I think of Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons, and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Championships forged in the crucible of years of battle just seem more meaningful than championships won by signing up with the best team. Durant and Warriors' fans may feel differently and they are entitled to feel that way--but old school fans are equally entitled to their feelings about the matter.

The rich got even richer this summer, acquiring All-Star DeMarcus Cousins as an inexpensive (by NBA standards) one year rental. Cousins is recovering from an Achilles tear and the Warriors obviously do not have to rush to bring him back, but when Cousins returns to action the Warriors will have a rotation consisting of five All-Stars, with a former All-Star and Finals MVP coming off of the bench. You could take Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry plus any one other All-Star out of the lineup and the Warriors would still be a serious championship contender, if not the outright favorite. This team is simply not going to lose a playoff series unless/until the players get bored, get injured, get old or leave via free agency.

I have always enjoyed watching greatness and I enjoy watching the Warriors' basketball mastery but I would have enjoyed this era more if we were watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook versus the Warriors as opposed to the Warriors just dominating. Golden State versus Oklahoma City should have been a rivalry for several years in the Western Conference Finals. Basketball fans have been robbed. If you are too young to remember, find some footage from the Eastern Conference Finals from 1980-82--Julius Erving's 76ers versus Larry Bird's Celtics--to get an idea of what is missing from today's game.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers battled the Warriors in four straight NBA Finals, winning one title in 2016, but only one of those series went to seven games. Watching those series felt more like watching a coronation than watching a championship bout. James' departure from Cleveland to play for a rebuilding L.A. Lakers team means that the Warriors may not even have to deal with the best player in the game en route to their next title, and if they do face him then he will not have the experienced supporting cast that he had in Cleveland.

The Utah Jazz finished fifth in the Western Conference last year but they closed the regular season by winning 29 of their last 35 games and then they performed very well in the playoffs. They don't have a realistic chance to beat the Warriors but they could beat any other Western Conference team in a playoff series.

The Houston Rockets finished with the league's best record last season but this summer they did some subtraction by addition, acquiring the aging and one dimensional Carmelo Anthony after Anthony's less than stellar one year run in Oklahoma City.

Many self-proclaimed experts considered it a foregone conclusion that Paul George would join LeBron James with the Lakers but George did not even meet with the Lakers before re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder. George actually prefers playing with Russell Westbrook to playing with LeBron James! That development has shocked the media into silence; I cannot recall watching, hearing or reading a single report that directly stated that George chose Westbrook over James as a teammate, but there have been plenty of reports that accuse Westbrook of not being a good teammate, or at least suggesting that it would be difficult to play alongside him.

For quite some time, the mainstream media narrative about the Lakers has been out of whack and out of touch with reality. Supposedly, no great players wanted to play alongside Kobe Bryant--never mind the fact that both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard arranged to be traded to the Lakers to play with Bryant. Imagine if a player of Paul George's caliber had been a free agent at that time and had not signed with the Lakers. The mainstream media outlets would have endlessly speculated that George did not want to play with Bryant--but when George spurns James' Lakers, that hardly registers as news.

Another narrative that made no sense was the idea that in his final years Bryant was "holding back" the supposedly talented young nucleus that the Lakers had put together. After Bryant retired, we all saw the full capabilities of that nucleus, and those players are either gone or will be filling secondary roles to James. What the Lakers have done after years of wandering in the wilderness is acquire a great player who they hope can fill Bryant's shoes not just in terms of individual production but in terms of delivering championships.

Year two of Westbrook playing with George should be very good for the Thunder, particularly with Anthony out of the picture. Westbrook is going to miss the start of the season as he recovers from knee surgery but assuming that there are no lingering effects from that procedure the Thunder should again be a top four team in the Western Conference.

This preview has the same format as my Eastern Conference Preview; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:

1) Golden State Warriors: What is left to say about this team? The Warriors are now competing against history, not against their contemporaries: how many titles will this team capture and how should the Warriors be ranked among the greatest teams of previous eras? Those questions are more intriguing--and relevant--than trying to figure out who the Warriors will beat in the Western Conference Finals and how many games that series will last.

Durant is a great player and he is a better player than Curry; the fact that the Warriors could win a title without Durant does not mean that Curry is better; the Warriors could also win a title without Curry. Durant has been the best player in the past two NBA Finals, outdueling James and outperforming Curry. The safety net of talent that exists around Durant makes it a little difficult to compare him to players from other eras who did not enjoy such a luxury but there is no doubting Durant's greatness.

There is speculation that Durant might leave the Warriors at some point to "validate" his greatness by winning a championship with a lesser team. Only Durant knows if he thinks in such terms but I would say that ship has already sailed. If Durant wanted to beat the Warriors, then he should have stayed with the Thunder. Durant indicated that obtaining the easiest path to the championship was his top priority, so it would be hypocritical and vain for him to go to another team now. He might as well ride out this wave and stack up as many championships as he can. The main person who doubted that Durant could lead a non-super team to a title was Durant; going to another team would just prove that Durant is so sensitive to public opinion that he would sacrifice his own beliefs to try to prove people wrong. If Durant believes in his heart that abandoning the Thunder was the right thing to do, then there is no reason to seek greener pastures now.

2) Utah Jazz: The Houston Rockets may win more regular season games but the Jazz--when healthy--are better constructed to make a deep playoff run. The Jazz beat the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs and then took home court advantage away from the Rockets before Houston rallied to win three straight. Utah's nucleus is young and improving, led by rising star Donovan Mitchell and 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Utah ranked first in points allowed and sixth in defensive field goal percentage. The Jazz may have scoring droughts from time to time, but their opponents will not score very much during those droughts.

3) Houston Rockets: Rockets fans may believe that the team was one Chris Paul injury away from reaching the NBA Finals but Daryl Morey clearly felt that the roster needed some tinkering. He replaced defensive-minded forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute with Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has a career-long pattern of rarely advancing very far in the playoffs; he is a shoot-first (and second and third) player whose efficiency is declining and whose willingness/ability to contribute in other areas decreases each year. Even if they had stood pat, the Rockets would probably not have won 65 games again; that was an aberration and they are due to regress to the mean. Adding Anthony, though, will probably subtract about 10 wins, while also making this team a less potent playoff force.

James Harden and Chris Paul will once again put up gaudy regular season numbers in Mike D'Antoni's system. The Rockets will win around 55 games, and then they will lose a hard fought second round series. Let's take any Chris Paul excuses off of the table right now. The Rockets re-signed him to a four year deal averaging $40 million per season knowing full well that he is (1) undersized, (2) aging, (3) injury-prone and (4) tends to wear down in the playoffs even if he is healthy. If any combination of those four factors contributes to Houston's playoff demise, that is not bad fortune but rather a predictable outcome, as is Harden having some terrible playoff games mixed in with his boxscore stuffing games.

4) Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder will probably be better this season than last season, as Westbrook and George will be even more in tune and the overall chemistry sans Anthony will be much better. However, even if the Thunder win 52 or 53 games they still will probably not pass the three teams listed above: I expect the Warriors to win around 60 games, the Jazz around 57 and the Rockets around 55. Coming off of knee surgery, Westbrook may get off to a slow start by his standards and he probably will not average a triple double; look for his rebounding to drop perhaps to the 7-9 rpg range, while his other numbers stay about the same. The Thunder do not have quite the talent or depth of the teams ranked ahead of them but if everything comes together just right it is not out of the question that the Thunder could make it to the Western Conference Finals (assuming, of course, that they avoid playing the Warriors in the first two rounds of the playoffs).

5) L.A. Lakers: The Lakers won 35 games without LeBron James last season and an MVP caliber player should be worth at least 10-15 wins. After failing to acquire Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers have assembled an eclectic supporting cast around James. This team is not a championship contender, but any squad with James and at least a few competent players is going to make the playoffs and possibly put a scare into a first round opponent. At some point, James is going to age and decline like every great player before him but there are no signs that this is going to happen in 2018-19.

6) Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets missed the playoffs by one game, losing to Minnesota in overtime in a de facto one game playoff on the last day of the season. The Nuggets will not cut things so close this time around. Nikola Jokic (18.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 6.1 apg in 2017-18) has superstar potential and just needs to keep developing his already impressive skills. Jokic joined Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett and Russell Westbrook in the select group of NBA players who have averaged at least 18 ppg-10 rpg-6 apg in a season. It should be noted that George McGinnis also accomplished this in the ABA in 1974-75 when he shared regular season MVP honors with Julius Erving. Denver has a solid nucleus of players around Jokic--including four-time All-Star Paul Millsap--and a good coach in Mike Malone.

7) Portland Trail Blazers: Portland surpassed several more heralded teams to finish third in the tightly-contested Western Conference last season but the shine of that great season was quickly tarnished after New Orleans swept Portland in the first round of the playoffs. One should not make too much out of a four game sample size compared to an 82 game sample size but it is reasonable to wonder if maybe the Trail Blazers were not quite as good as their seeding suggested, a notion that gains further credence when considering that Portland only finished one game ahead of the sixth seeded Pelicans. I am not necessarily suggesting that Portland's record will decline significantly, just that Portland will probably win 45-46 games and slip a few spots in the standings.  

8) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs are in uncharted territory. For two decades, the torch has been passed smoothly--from David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard--but now the franchise has experienced unprecedented upheaval and turmoil. The relationship between Leonard and the organization completely collapsed, resulting in Leonard being shipped to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is a very good player but he is not as good as peak Leonard and DeRozan's playoff resume lacks Leonard's championship pedigree and Finals MVP award. It is difficult to believe that a Gregg Popovich-coached team featuring DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge would miss the playoffs, but it is also difficult to see this team as an elite squad. The Spurs are not going to win 50 games or contend for a title but they will keep alive their incredible streak of playoff appearances dating back to Duncan's rookie season in 1997-98.

The rest of the Western Conference is a mixed bag, with some teams that could be dark horse playoff threats and some teams that are just awful.

As noted above, I expect the Lakers and Nuggets to emerge as playoff teams this season, which means that two of last year's playoff teams would miss the cut.

The New Orleans Pelicans upset the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round last year but lost DeMarcus Cousins (who did not play in the postseason due to injury) and Rajon Rondo, who played a key role in the team's late season surge and postseason run. The Pelicans finished just two games ahead of eighth seeded Minnesota last season and I think that the Pelicans will miss the playoffs by a small margin this time around.

The unresolved Jimmy Butler saga could tilt the balance of power in many ways. After the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired him last year, I wrote in my Western Conference Preview that Butler "should be worth at least 8-10 wins in the standings." The Timberwolves jumped from 31 wins to 47 wins  and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Butler has made it clear that he does not intend to play for Minnesota but the Timberwolves have yet to trade him. It will be difficult for the Timberwolves to get fair market value for him under these circumstances, so I feel confident predicting that this team will not make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. However, if Minnesota manages to get some meaningful assets in return for Butler then the Timberwolves could possibly battle for the eighth seed--particularly if the team finally takes to heart Coach Tom Thibodeau's emphasis on defense, which has largely fallen on deaf ears during his tenure, even last season when the team improved in the standings.

The team that acquires Butler should move up in the standings.

The Dallas Mavericks did a lot of tanking to have the opportunity to draft Luka Doncic. Doncic has looked good during the preseason and the Mavericks--with Rick Carlisle's excellent coaching--are not a bad sleeper pick for the eighth seed but I predict that they will fall short this season.

All of the main cogs of "Lob City"--Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan--are gone now and so are the chances of the L.A. Clippers making the playoffs in 2019.

The Memphis Grizzlies got rid of Coach Lionel Hollins after Hollins led the team to the 2013 Western Conference Finals. Hollins disagreed with management's basketball philosophy; Hollins is an old school basketball lifer who was the point guard and third leading scorer on Portland's 1977 NBA championship team, while the front office is populated with "stat gurus" who value "advanced basketball statistics" over any other decision-making tool. Five years later, it is not too soon to conclude that it would be an understatement to say that Memphis management's overall philosophy and specific decisions have not turned out well: Hollins' 2013 squad set a franchise record with 56 wins, while last year's team went 22-60. After Hollins' departure, Memphis lost in the first round three times and the second round once before cratering in 2017-18. Somewhere, Hollins must be laughing about the time that a certain Memphis front office executive came onto the practice court to give instructions to a player, an encroachment to which Hollins responded by rather emphatically stating that the executive should leave the court immediately. Memphis' emphasis on analytics was described at the time as "forward-thinking," which is comical since it resulted in a decisively backward movement in the standings. The Grizzlies and their "forward thinking" brain trust will again be watching the playoffs, not participating in them.

Phoenix and Sacramento will once again assume their now-customary positions at or near the bottom of the standings.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2018 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2018 Total: 83/104 (.798)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:40 AM

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2018-19 Eastern Conference Preview

The balance of power in the Eastern Conference shifted seismically when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the L.A. Lakers. James' run of eight straight NBA Finals appearances (Miami 2011-2014; Cleveland 2015-18) will almost certainly end as a result of that move. Regardless of the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference during this era, James' accomplishment is still noteworthy. The only other player in NBA history to lead his team to at least eight straight NBA Finals is Bill Russell, whose Celtics reached the NBA Finals from 1957-66.

Michael Jordan is often depicted as the ultimate basketball champion but his six titles are barely half of the total that Russell accumulated: 11 championships (and 12 Finals appearances) in 13 seasons. The Celtics' roster completely changed around Russell during that era, with Tommy Heinsohn being the only other Celtic player who joined Russell on each of those 10 NBA Finalists from 1957-66.

As a winner/champion, James (whose teams have gone 3-5 in the NBA Finals) is not even in the same conversation with Jordan, let alone Russell. James was justly criticized for taking the easy way out in 2010 when he left a Cleveland team that had just won 61 regular season games (after winning 66 games the year before) to create a super-team in Miami. This time, James is leaving a perennial contender to seek his fortune with a traditional NBA power that has been awful since the decline and retirement of Kobe Bryant. James is not taking the easy way from a basketball standpoint but it also is not clear that winning a championship is his top priority; he may very well have gone Hollywood both literally and figuratively.

The Boston Celtics are well-positioned to be contenders for the next several years. They are essentially adding two All-Stars to a rotation that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals last season; due to injuries, neither Kyrie Irving nor Gordon Hayward played a single minute in the 2018 postseason but both are expected to be fully healthy for the start of the 2018-19 campaign.

The Toronto Raptors added MVP-level player Kawhi Leonard to a roster that finished with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference last season but they gave up perennial All-Star DeMar Derozan to get Leonard. The Raptors also fired 2018 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey. The potential upside for the Raptors is very high but those big moves could also backfire.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:

1) Boston Celtics: Prior to last season, I wrote, "I think that the Celtics are a year away from winning the East. Their nucleus needs some time to grow together and, of course, if James departs Cleveland next summer then the conference will almost certainly be there for Boston to take starting in 2018-19." James left, Boston's young nucleus blended nicely last season and this season the team is hoping/expecting to see the fully healthy return to action of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, so there is every reason to consider the Celtics the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals. The two main potential obstacles for Boston are (1) injuries to key players (always a concern regarding Irving) and (2) Kawhi Leonard's reemergence as an MVP-caliber two-way player. If Leonard regains his old form, then the Toronto Raptors will have a great opportunity to challenge the Celtics. The rest of the Eastern teams lack the talent, depth and/or coaching to beat the Celtics in a seven game series.

2) Toronto Raptors: Other than James going to Los Angeles, the biggest offseason story in the NBA was the complete breakdown of the relationship between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has been considered the model franchise in the league--if not all of professional sports--for the better part of the past 20 years. We may never find out what happened behind the scenes but we know the end result: Leonard is now a Raptor and DeMar DeRozan is now a Spur. How healthy and motivated is Leonard? How committed is Leonard to staying in Toronto as opposed to angling to land somewhere that he may consider to be more desirable? No one knows the answers to those questions except for Leonard, and he may not even know until he plays out this season.

The Raptors finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season but suffered a humiliating 4-0 sweep at the hands of Cleveland in the second round. That loss looks even worse when considered in the context of Cleveland sleepwalking through the regular season and then needing seven games to put away the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Dwane Casey won the Coach of the Year award and still got fired. The Raptors promoted assistant Nick Nurse--who has no NBA head coaching experience--and that is an odd-looking move; if you are going to fire the Coach of the Year because of being swept in the playoffs, one might assume that you would go in a completely different direction as opposed to turning to a less-experienced person who presumably shares Casey's basic coaching philosophies. Leonard's physical health and state of mind, plus Nurse's inexperience, are the biggest questions about the Raptors. The ceiling for this team is to win the East and possibly even test the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals (the last time we saw a fully healthy Leonard, he was dominating the Warriors in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals); however, if Leonard struggles and Nurse is not who team President Masai Ujiri thinks he is, then the Raptors could fall from contender status to first round fodder.

3) Indiana Pacers: The Pacers were one of the most surprising stories of last season. The Pacers did not look like a playoff team on paper after dealing franchise player Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis but Oladipo won the 2018 Most Improved Player Award while averaging a career-high 23.1 ppg and leading the Pacers to a 48-34 record.

The Pacers pushed the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs and even though the Pacers' rise was unexpected it does not appear to be a fluke. I expect the Pacers to crack the 50 win barrier this season.

4) Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers finished third in the Eastern Conference with a 52-30 record and then beat Miami 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs before losing 4-1 to Boston in the second round. The 76ers started the season 36-30 before finishing with a 16 game winning streak--but that streak was deceptive because at least six of those victories came against teams that were actively tanking. In the playoffs, Boston exposed Philadelphia's weaknesses and I expect the 76ers to regress to the mean, finishing with between 48-50 wins to place them just behind the Pacers. The injury-prone Joel Embiid operated under playing time restrictions last season, limiting him to 30.3 mpg in 63 games. I am skeptical that he will ever be able to handle the workload that is customary for an All-Star caliber player and those limitations are part of the reason that I do not believe that the 76ers will do any better this season than they did last season.

5) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo made the All-NBA Second Team for the second year in a row after setting career-highs in scoring (26.9 ppg), rebounding (10.0 rpg) and field goal percentage (.529) while also averaging 4.8 apg. He was exceptional in the playoffs (25.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 6.3 apg, .570 FG%) as the Bucks extended the Celtics to seven games before falling 112-96 in the clinching contest. The organization has experienced a lot of instability and has made some puzzling personnel decisions but Antetokounmpo's all-around greatness masks many of the team's flaws and issues. In order to become a top four team in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks must improve their rebounding (they ranked 30th out of 30 teams in the league in that department) and their defense (the Bucks ranked 20th in defensive field goal percentage). Defense and rebounding are like tackling and blocking in football: they may not seem glamorous or grab headlines but it is very difficult to be a great team without at least being competent in those areas.

6) Washington Wizards: In the past five seasons, the Wizards have won between 41 and 49 games, advancing to the second round three times and missing the playoffs only once. All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal form one of the league's best backcourts and the rest of the rotation is solid but for whatever reason this team has not been able to take the next step in terms of winning 50-plus games and contending for conference supremacy.

The Wizards acquired Dwight Howard to anchor the frontcourt. Howard's game and reputation have declined in recent years but he is still a productive player (16.6 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 1.6 bpg, .555 FG% in 81 games for Charlotte last season).

The upside for this team is very high: if Wall stays healthy, if Howard remains productive and if the overall chemistry works then the Wizards could be a 55 win team and a serious postseason threat. On the other hand, it seems more likely that injuries and/or chemistry issues will relegate this team to roughly 45 wins and a first round exit.

7) Detroit Pistons: The Pistons have made the playoffs just once in the past nine seasons but that should change with the hiring of 2018 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey plus a full season of Blake Griffin in the fold. The Pistons won four in a row after Griffin first appeared in the lineup but then reverted to their losing ways down the stretch. Supposedly the pairing of Griffin with Andre Drummond cannot work in the "modern," analytics-driven "pace and space" NBA. No one is suggesting that this team is a serious contender but Griffin and DeAndre Jordan coexisted well with the L.A. Clippers and Coach Casey will find a way for his two big men to be effective. Drummond averaged 15.0 ppg and captured his second rebounding title in three years; his 16.0 rpg mark is the NBA's best rebounding average since Dennis Rodman's 16.1 rpg in 1996-97.

The health of point guard Reggie Jackson is critical; the Pistons looked like a playoff team early in the season when Jackson was rolling and posted a 27-18 record with him in the lineup but Detroit limped to a 12-25 record in the games that Jackson missed.

8) Miami Heat: The Heat went 11-30 in the first half of the 2016-17 season before going 30-11 in the second half. Last season, the Heat followed a less volatile path to a 44-38 record, going 24-17 in the first half of the season and then 20-21 down the stretch. It is becoming evident that both 41 game snapshots of the Heat from two years ago were aberrations. This is not an awful team, nor is it a contending team--but the Heat do have the highest payroll in the NBA in 2018-19, so it does not seem that Pat Riley has spent wisely. Goran Dragic is a solid player but he is not elite and he does not figure to improve as he moves deeper into his 30s. Hassan Whiteside is the team's most talented and physically gifted player but he took a step back last season, partially due to injuries and partially due to mindset. If Whiteside can head back in the direction of becoming an elite big man then maybe the Heat can move past the eighth seed but whether or not that happens this team looks like first round fodder for one of the conference's top dogs.

As for the rest of the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely be better than many people expect; unlike the last time that LeBron James left, it does not appear that the Cavaliers are going into tank mode, and a team that has Kevin Love as its centerpiece surrounded by a decent supporting cast should be able to muster up 35-40 wins. I even give Cleveland an outside chance to grab the eighth seed if everything breaks right and if one of the teams listed above suffers chemistry issues and/or injuries.

The Brooklyn Nets showed signs of improvement but not enough signs to jump to playoff contention.

The Charlotte Hornets seem to have peaked after making the playoffs in two of the first three years that Steve Clifford coached the team. After missing the playoffs two seasons in a row the franchise hired James Borrego to replace Clifford. The much-maligned Dwight Howard played well for the Hornets last season and they will miss his presence in the paint.

The Chicago Bulls hope that the addition of Jabari Parker will be enough to lift the team into playoff contention but that is asking a lot of an injury prone player who is allergic to defense and is not as great of an offensive player as he seems to think that he is.

Kristaps Porzingis is still recovering from his ACL tear and the New York Knicks did not add any talent to the roster that went 29-53 last season, so the team will probably finish with a similar record this season.

The Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic both figure to be terrible again.

**********
Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2017-18 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2018 Total: 77/104 (.740)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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