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Saturday, August 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 AM

0 comments

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Championships, 2010-19

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

MVPs, 2010-19

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

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

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

Finals MVPs, 2010-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, my All-2010s Teams are:

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM

3 comments

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:55 PM

8 comments

Monday, August 05, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:31 PM

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Friday, July 12, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:55 AM

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Saturday, July 06, 2019

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

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

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

What does it all mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:41 PM

2 comments

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Are the Rockets Imploding?

It has been an interesting offseason for the Houston Rockets, a team that squandered a 3-2 lead versus the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 playoffs, including a game seven loss at home, and then lost game six at home to the Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors in 2019. The Rockets loudly and repeatedly claim that their roster has been built to beat Golden State, but they perform like a team that has been built to lose to Golden State no matter how favorable the circumstances; historically, home teams win game seven nearly 80% of the time in the NBA playoffs, but with James Harden as Houston's best player we have already seen that playoff meltdowns are not only possible but are to be expected. Houston fans sometimes say ridiculous things like "No one has come closer to beating Golden State than Houston," ignoring the facts that (1) Cleveland beat Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals, (2) Toronto beat Golden State in the 2019 NBA Finals and (3) obtaining favorable circumstances against Golden State two years in a row only to choke is not a meaningful indicator that Houston can or will beat Golden State in the playoffs.

Daryl Morey proclaims that all is well in Houston's Potemkin village but several cracks are showing. After the Rockets' latest playoff collapse, the front office fired most of Coach Mike D'Antoni's staff, including his number two man/"defensive coordinator" Jeff Bzdelik. D'Antoni wants a contract extension but not at the below market rate that the Rockets offered to him, so D'Antoni's long-term status with the team is far from certain; as of now, he is only under contract for next season. D'Antoni is a creative coach, and a successful regular season coach--but is he a championship level coach? That is a legitimate question for the Rockets to ask--they might have wanted to ask that question before they hired him in the first place--but publicly embarrassing D'Antoni is not a good business practice, regardless of whether or not the team ultimately keeps him.

The decision to try to build a championship team around James Harden was questionable, and then adding Chris Paul on a long term, max deal as 1B to Harden's 1A was even more questionable. I predicted from the start that Harden and Paul would not be compatible:
Paul has proven to be a feisty and divisive player who feuds with coaches and teammates. He has never taken a team past the second round of the playoffs despite being surrounded by excellent talent for most of his career, so it is puzzling that he is so often praised as a great leader. Paul is generously listed at 6-0 tall; he is powerfully built but ultimately he is a small man in a large man's game and thus he is injury prone and has a tendency to wear down in the playoffs.

Harden gives minimal to no defensive effort and his gimmicky offensive style is not nearly as effective in the playoffs against good teams as it is in the regular season against lesser squads. With Harden at the helm, the Rockets have lost in the first round three times in five years under three coaches.

Another major concern for any savvy Rockets fan is that Paul is a defensive-minded player but Coach Mike D'Antoni and Harden do not share that defensive mindset. Paul will confront anyone at any time, while Harden pouts when he is criticized; the interactions between those players after Harden blows multiple defensive assignments will be very interesting.

The other side of the court could also be challenging as well. Paul and Harden both want to monopolize the ball and control the pace of the game, with Paul preferring to grind it out in the halfcourt set while Harden likes to push the tempo.
It is not at all surprising that Harden and Paul openly feuded on the court as Houston's 2019 playoff run unraveled, and several reports out of Houston suggest that the relationship between the two stars is broken beyond repair. Paul is understandably not happy with Houston's Harden-centric offense and Harden's unwillingness to do anything on offense other than monopolize the ball--Harden does not move well without the ball, and his playing style on both ends of the court makes it clear that Harden is focused on personal glory, not team success; Paul is also upset by Harden's lack of attention to detail on defense.

The Rockets are committed to doing anything necessary to please/appease Harden, and thus would likely trade Paul if they could, but who in their right mind wants an aging, injury-prone, undersized point guard who has a track record of not leading his teams very well--or very far--in the playoffs?

The unfortunate injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson may very well have opened up the competition for the 2020 Western Conference title, but the Rockets are not likely to take advantage of Golden State's misfortune. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:08 AM

2 comments

Friday, June 14, 2019

A Historical Perspective on Great Single Season Playoff Performances

Kawhi Leonard's 2019 NBA Finals MVP award capped off a tremendous playoff run. Leonard averaged 28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg and 1.8 spg with shooting splits of .434/.357.906 while leading Toronto to a 4-2 Finals victory over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Leonard was even more dominant overall during the 2019 postseason, averaging 30.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.7 spg with shooting splits of .490/.379/.884.

During the 2019 playoffs, many media outlets noted Leonard's 30-plus ppg average and also the large number of 30 point games that he posted, comparing his output to players such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. While it is not unusual to compare players' scoring averages, prior to this year I cannot recall so much emphasis being placed on total number of 30 point games during the playoffs; I remember an emphasis being placed in years past on 40 point games and 50 point games, particularly as Jordan and Bryant accomplished feats that had not been matched since the days of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but I do not remember anyone explicitly tracking 30 point games to the extent that it was mentioned with regard to Leonard in 2019. A 30 point playoff game is not particularly rare, and even a non-All-Star caliber player can have one, but it is much less likely for a non-All-Star caliber player to score 40 or more points in a playoff game. However, because Leonard's 30 point games have been mentioned so often it is important to place his numbers in historical context.

We can begin with scoring average. Where does 30.5 ppg rank among single-season playoff performances? The answer is 83rd on the ABA-NBA list. If you insist on denying nine years of important basketball history and only focusing on the NBA, Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring average ranks 73rd. That is very good; the NBA has been around for over 70 years, so on average only about one player per year scores at least 30 ppg during the postseason.

Elite single season playoff scoring begins at the 35 ppg level, a mark that has been reached just 17 times in ABA-NBA playoff history. Michael Jordan leads the way with both the highest single season playoff scoring average (43.7 ppg in 1986) and the most 35 ppg playoff seasons (five). Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain accomplished the feat twice each, while Jerry West, Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook each did it once.

This is the first time that Leonard averaged at least 30 ppg during the playoffs. Jordan holds the record with 12 such playoff runs; the only time he did not average 30 ppg in his 13 playoff appearances is when he scored 29.3 ppg as a rookie. The only other players in ABA-NBA history who have averaged at least 30 ppg in the playoffs more than once are Jerry West (seven times), LeBron James (six times), Kobe Bryant (five times), Elgin Baylor (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (four times), Rick Barry (four times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (four times), Allen Iverson (four times), Tracy McGrady (four times), George Gervin (three times), Shaquille O'Neal (three times), George Mikan (two times), Oscar Robertson (two times), Julius Erving (two times), Bob McAdoo (two times), Hakeem Olajuwon (two times), Reggie Miller (two times), Kevin Durant (two times) and Anthony Davis (two times).

Therefore, it is safe to say that--while Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring is excellent--there are many great players who have matched or exceeded Leonard's numbers on multiple occasions. It is true that some of those 30 ppg performances happened during playoff runs that were much shorter than Leonard's and/or during playoff runs that did not culminate in championships, but of the players listed above Jordan (six times), Mikan (two times), O'Neal (two times), Abdul-Jabbar (one time), Erving (one time), Olajuwon (one time), Bryant (one time) and James (one time) averaged 30 ppg during playoff runs that ended in a championship.

What about total number of 30 point playoff games during one postseason? Leonard scored at least 30 points in 14 of his 24 playoff games in 2019, including two 40 point games (45, 41). Only Jordan (16 out of 22 in 1992, 14 out of 21 in 1998), Olajuwon (16 out of 22 in 1995), Bryant (15 out of 23 in 2009, 14 out of 23 in 2010) and James (14 out of 18 in 2017) have had 14 or more 30 point games in one postseason. Jordan (both times), Bryant (both times) and Olajuwon also won championships and Finals MVPs in those seasons.

The NBA playoffs have expanded over the years both in terms of the number of series and also in terms of the length of series, so players from more recent times tend to play more playoff games per year than players did in earlier times. Is it more impressive to have the stamina to put up 30 points in 14 out of 24 playoff games, or is it more impressive to be dominant enough to put up 30 points in 12 out of 13 playoff games (Elgin Baylor, 1962), or 11 out of 13 playoff games (Julius Erving, 1976 ABA champion and ABA Playoff MVP) or 11 out of 15 playoff games (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1980 NBA champion)? That is a subjective question but I find those performances of Baylor, Erving and Abdul-Jabbar to be more impressive than Leonard's performance; unless one makes the unlikely assumption that those players would not have had any more 30 point games had the postseason been expanded in those years, it is reasonable to project that had they played 24 playoff games they would have had more than 14 games during which they scored at least 30 points.

The repeated emphasis on Leonard's total number of 30 point games without any mention of previous players other than Jordan, Bryant and James strongly suggests that media members are unaware of basketball history and/or choose to ignore anything that happened much before Jordan entered the NBA in 1984.

After I posted my Pantheon series and then supplemented it with an article discussing the Greatest Player of All-Time credentials of each Pantheon member, some people reacted with surprise and skepticism at the notion that players such as Elgin Baylor or Oscar Robertson have legitimate Greatest Player of All-Time resumes (I have never selected one player as the greatest, but I have consistently said that those two players are in a select group of players whose names should be mentioned whenever such a discussion is held). It is apparent that many people who are under the age of 50 and/or have not thoroughly researched basketball history have no idea about the numbers these players put up and, even more significantly, the diverse skill sets they possessed and the impact they had when they took the court.

Playoff impact consists of much more than just stringing together a lot of 30 point games, but looking at the history of the players who have done so most frequently is a good proxy for the larger conversation that should be had about the lack of appreciation for players whose careers ended before 1990 or so. What follows below is not a comprehensive list of every player who had a large number of 30 point playoff games and it does not reference every 30 point playoff game that a particular player had.

The pre-shot clock era was so different even from the era that immediately followed that I am just not sure how to compare George Mikan and the best players from the 1940s and early 1950s to great basketball players from subsequent eras; those pioneer players deserve recognition and respect but I am just not sure how to quantify their greatness. So, although it is noted above that Mikan had a couple dominant playoff runs during which he averaged more than 30 ppg (1949, 1950), our focus in terms of playoff campaigns that featured a large number of 30 point performances begins with Bob Pettit, who was the NBA's career regular season scoring leader for a couple years after he passed Dolph Schayes and before he was passed by Wilt Chamberlain.

Pettit's most famous and significant 30 point playoff game is his 50 point outburst versus Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in game seven of the 1958 NBA Finals. Pettit and his St. Louis Hawks won the NBA title that year, the only time a team other than the Celtics won a championship between 1957 and 1966. Pettit "only" had four 30 point games out of 11 playoff games in 1958 but he had his two highest scoring performances of that postseason (33, then 50) in St. Louis' game six and game seven Finals wins. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 10 playoff games in 1957, six of 12 in 1961 (including two games with at least 40 points) and nine out of 11 in 1963 (including his first five playoff games that year).

Elgin Baylor is on the short list of most dominant playoff scorers in pro basketball history. He was the first player who made 30 point playoff games seem routine and automatic. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 13 playoff games in 1959, six out of nine in 1960 (including three games with at least 40 points), 10 out of 12 in 1961 (including five games with at least 40 points), 12 out of 13 in 1962 (including three games with at least 40 points, topped off by the single game playoff record 61 points that stood until Jordan scored 63 points in a 1986 playoff game), 10 out of 13 in 1963 (including one game with at least 40 points) and five out of 14 in 1966 (including two games with at least 40 points). Baylor started having knee problems in the early to mid 1960s, he suffered a serious knee injury in 1965 and he played the second part of his career at a fraction of his previous physical capabilities, but he still earned three of his 10 All-NBA First Team selections after wrecking his knee. No playoff performer has had a sustained five year run of consistent 30 point performances like the one that Baylor had from 1959-63. Baylor's Lakers made it to eight NBA Finals during his career (he only played in seven Finals, missing the 1965 Finals due to his knee injury) but he never led the Lakers to a championship; he retired after nine games in the 1971-72 season due to his knee problems and that turned out to be the year that the Lakers won their first title as an L.A. based team.

Wilt Chamberlain was not as dominant a scorer in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, but he put up impressive playoff numbers as well. As a rookie in 1960, he scored at least 30 points in four out of nine playoff games (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). He scored at least 30 points in all three of his 1961 playoff games, nine out of 12 in 1962 (including four games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), nine out of 12 in 1964 (including two games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), eight out of 11 in 1965 and four out of 15 in 1967, when he won the first of his two NBA championships.

Jerry West's name is all over the regular season and playoff record books. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 13 playoff games in 1962 (including three games with at least 40 points), five out of 13 in 1963 (including one game with at least 40 points), 12 out of 14 in 1966 (including three games with at least 40 points), nine out of 15 in 1968 (including one game with at least 40 points), eight out of 18 in 1969 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points) and 12 out of 18 in 1970. West's Lakers went 1-8 in the NBA Finals and he did not average 30 ppg during the 1972 playoff run that culminated in his first and only title.

Oscar Robertson scored at least 30 points in six out of 12 playoff games in 1963 (including two games with at least 40 points) and seven out of 10 in 1964. He won his only title in 1971, by which time he was no longer scoring 30 points on a regular basis--but his passes helped his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (see below) have many 30 point outings.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rick Barry put up huge scoring numbers in first the NBA, then the ABA, and then the NBA again, despite being forced to sit out one season before he could jump from the NBA to the ABA. Barry scored at least 30 points in 11 out of 15 playoff games in 1967 (including five games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), seven out of seven in 1970 (including four games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), five out of six in 1971 (including two games with at least 40 points), nine out of 18 in 1972 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), eight out of 17 while leading Golden State to the 1975 NBA title and four out of 10 in 1977 (including two games with at least 40 points).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored at least 30 points in nine out of 10 playoff games in 1970 (including each of the first nine games of that playoff run). He scored at least 30 points in five out of 14 playoff games during Milwaukee's 1971 championship drive, five out of 11 in 1972, 11 out of 16 in 1974, eight out of 11 in 1977 (including five games with at least 40 points), 11 out of 15 in 1980 and six out of 15 in 1983. Abdul-Jabbar was cruising toward the 1980 Finals MVP before he sprained his ankle in the Lakers' game five win. He stayed in L.A. while the team traveled to Philadelphia for what seemed to be a likely game six loss; Abdul-Jabbar hoped to be ready to play in game seven at home--but rookie Magic Johnson had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a game six win, and so--according to some reports--since he was present and Abdul-Jabbar was not, Johnson received the Finals MVP even though Abdul-Jabbar arguably had the more dominant series overall. Abdul-Jabbar played on championship teams in 1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988, winning Finals MVPs in 1971 and 1985.

Julius Erving scored at least 30 points in seven out of his 11 playoff games as a rookie in 1972, including one game with at least 50 points (an ABA single-game playoff record 53 points on 21-28 field goal shooting, tying the mark set by Roger Brown). He led the New York Nets to the 1974 ABA championship and won the Playoff MVP while scoring at least 30 points in four out of his 14 playoff games (including one game with at least 40 points) and then in 1976 he had one of the most dominant playoff runs ever: Erving averaged 34.7 ppg in the playoffs while scoring at least 30 points in 11 out of his 13 playoff games (including three games with at least 40 points). In the NBA, Erving's scoring exploits were more subdued, but he did score at least 30 points in seven out of his 19 playoff games in 1977 (including one game with at least 40 points) and he was a key contributor to Philadelphia's record-setting 12-1 playoff run in 1983 that resulted in his third championship/first NBA title.

Michael Jordan is in a category by himself in terms of consistently scoring 30 points in playoff competition; Baylor had the most dominant five year run, but Jordan started racking up 30 point playoff games as a rookie in 1985 and he was still regularly scoring 30 points in playoff competition in 1998, his last year with the Chicago Bulls. Here are the highlights of Jordan's 30 point playoff games:

1985: At least 30 points in two out of four playoff games

1986: 2/3 (two games with at least 40, one with a playoff single game record 63)

1987: 3/3 (one with at least 40)

1988: 6/10 (three with at least 40, two with at least 50)

1989: 13/17 (seven with at least 40, one with at least 50)

1990: 12/16 (six with at least 40)

1991: 8/17 (one with at least 40)

1992: 16/22 (four with at least 40, one with at least 50)

1993: 13/19 (six with at least 40, two with at least 50)

1995: 5/10 (two with at least 40)

1996: 7/18 (three with at least 40)

1997: 8/19 (one with at least 50)

1998: 14/21 (two with at least 40)

Jordan won six championships and six Finals MVPs. His combination of high level individual scoring with team success may never be matched.

Hakeem Olajuwon scored at least 30 points in nine out of 23 playoff games in 1994 and 16 out of 22 in 1995. He led the Houston Rockets to the championship in both years, winning Finals MVP each time.

Shaquille O'Neal did not have as many playoff runs with a significant number of 30 point games as one might think. He scored at least 30 points in nine out of 13 playoff games in 1998, 13 out of 23 in 2000 (including five games with at least 40 points), seven out of 16 in 2001 (including three games with at least 40 points), eight out of 19 in 2002 (including two games with at least 40 points) and three out of 12 in 2003. He had exactly one 30 point playoff game after leaving the Lakers in 2004. O'Neal won three championships and three Finals MVPs from 2000-02 and he won a fourth title in 2006.

Kobe Bryant scored at least 30 points in six out of 16 playoff games in 2001 (including two games with at least 40 points), seven out of 19 in 2002, nine out of 12 in 2003, 12 out of 21 in 2008 (including one game with at least 40 points), 15 out of 23 in 2009 (including four games with at least 40 points), 14 out of 23 in 2010 (including one game with at least 40 points) and seven out of 12 in 2012 (including two games with at least 40 points). Bryant won three championships alongside O'Neal from 2000-2002 and then won two more titles (plus two Finals MVPs) in 2009 and 2010.

LeBron James is a great passer but he is not a "pass first" player; he is one of the most gifted and prolific scorers in pro basketball history. He scored at least 30 points in eight out of 13 playoff games in 2006 (including two games with at least 40 points), six out of 20 in 2007 (including one game with at least 40 points), seven out of 13 in 2008 (including one game with at least 40 points), nine out of 14 in 2009 (including four games with at least 40 points), five out of 10 in 2010 (including one game with at least 40 points), 13 out of 23 in 2012 (including two games with at least 40 points), 11 out of 20 in 2015 (including three games with at least 40 points), 14 out of 28 in 2017 (including two games with at least 40 points) and 12 out of 22 in 2018 (including eight games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). James led Miami to championships in 2012 and 2013 and he led Cleveland to a championship in 2016. He won the Finals MVP each time his team captured a title.

Kevin Durant scored at least 30 points in seven out of 17 playoff games in 2011 (including three games with at least 40 points), nine out of 20 in 2012, five out of 11 in 2013 (including one game with at least 40 points), 11 out of 19 in 2014 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016 (including two games with at least 40 points), seven out of 21 in 2018 (including one game with at least 40 points) and seven out of 12 in 2019 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). Of course, Durant injured his calf midway through Golden State's 2019 playoff run and then he ruptured his Achilles after scoring 11 points in 12 minutes during his comeback game; otherwise, his 2019 numbers would have been even gaudier than they are. Durant has appeared in four Finals (including his 2019 cameo), winning championships and Finals MVPs in 2017 and 2018.

Russell Westbrook scored at least 30 points in five out of 17 playoff games in 2011 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 19 in 2014 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016, four out of five in 2017 (including two games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points) and two out of six in 2018 (including two 40 point games). He made his only Finals appearance in 2012, alongside Durant.

Stephen Curry scored at least 30 points in nine out of 21 playoff games in 2015 (including two games with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016 (including one game with at least 40 points), seven out of 17 in 2017 (including one game with at least 40 points), three out of 18 in 2018 and 10 out of 22 in 2019 (including one game with at least 40 points). Curry has won two titles (2017, 2018) while appearing in five straight Finals (2015-19).

Where does Kawhi Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring and collection of 30 point performances rank on the all-time list? His scoring average does not enable him to enter that elite group of players who averaged at least 35 ppg during a playoff season. His total number of 30 point games is near the top of the charts, but he benefits in that regard from the opportunity to play in more series and more games. The percentage of his total playoff games in which he scored at least 30 points does not match the best percentages posted by Pettit, Baylor, Chamberlain, West, Robertson, Barry, Abdul-Jabbar, Erving, Jordan, Olajuwon, O'Neal, Bryant, James, Durant, Westbrook or Curry--but many of the players who beat Leonard by percentage did so in seasons during which they did not win a championship and a Finals MVP.

Leonard's combination of sustained high level scoring with excellent two-way play culminating in a team championship and recognition as the Finals MVP puts him in elite company as a single season playoff performer. Leonard, Abdul-Jabbar and James are the only players who have won a Finals MVP with two different teams. Leonard has not sustained a high level of playoff excellence as long as most of the players listed above but if he stays healthy he can match or surpass many of his great predecessors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM

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Raptors Overcome Valiant Warriors, Win First NBA Title

By the time a playoff series reaches game six, the outcome is determined at least as much by will as by any other factor. The Golden State Warriors displayed tremendous will and grit on many occasions as they reached the NBA Finals five straight times and won three titles--and, in game six of the 2019 NBA Finals, the Toronto Raptors proved that they also have tremendous will and grit. Toronto beat Golden State 114-110 to eliminate the Warriors, close down Oracle Arena and claim the first title in franchise history. Kawhi Leonard was an easy and obvious choice for Finals MVP after averaging  28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg and 2.0 spg against the two-time defending champions. During the 2019 playoffs, Leonard averaged 30.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.6 spg with shooting splits of .490/.379/.884.

By the end of the Finals, the Warriors were playing an "anyone but Kawhi" defense, and Leonard found a way to not only still be productive individually but also to open up opportunities for his teammates, who stepped up big time. You might say that Leonard exercised a certain "gravity" over this series; that would be a good way to explain his impact on Golden State's defense, and his ability to create space for his teammates. Leonard's shooting splits in the Finals were .434/.357.906, but greatness is not only about numbers; it is about impact, and Leonard impacted the Finals like the true superstar that he is. As Paul Pierce noted, Leonard is the dynasty killer: he shut down the Miami Heat after the Heat won back to back titles, and now he shut down the Warriors after they won back to back titles. You could crack a joke that no one in San Antonio will laugh at, and say that Leonard shut down the Spurs' dynasty, too; badmouthing Leonard and making Leonard feel unappreciated has not turned out to be the greatest decision of the Popovich era.

One hot take after the Raptors blew a six point lead with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter was that the Raptors would not be able to overcome such a wound to their collective psyches--but the only people who think that way are people who do not understand that each NBA playoff game is a distinct entity; emotion rarely carries over from one game to the next, but matchup advantages do carry over. With Kevin Durant sidelined for all but 12 minutes of this series, the Raptors demonstrated throughout this series that they had several matchup advantages that they could exploit, and, not surprisingly, that proved to be the case in game six as well. The Raptors quickly dismissed the notion that there would be any game five hangover in game six. Kyle Lowry scored 15 first quarter points as Toronto opened the game with an 11-2 run and still led 33-32 at the end of the first stanza.

The only way that the Warriors sans Durant could even slow down Leonard a little was to send two defenders at him very aggressively and take their chances that another Raptor would not make them pay--but the Raptors have an All-Star point guard in Lowry, a tough and clutch backup point guard in Fred VanVleet, a former All-Star center in Marc Gasol, a young player who looks like a rising star in Pascal Siakam and other players who are more than capable of making contributions. The "anyone but Kawhi" defense is not going to work against a team that is this talented and this well-coached. In game six, Lowry finished with 26 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds while shooting 9-16 from the field. Siakam added 26 points and 10 rebounds while playing a game-high 46 minutes. VanVleet scored 22 points on 6-14 field goal shooting, including 5-11 from three point range. Gasol missed all five of his field goal attempts and scored just three points but he played good defense while also adding nine rebounds and four assists.

The game was close throughout, and the Warriors led 85-80 when Klay Thompson injured his knee and was not able to return to action the rest of the way. The Warriors were still up 88-86 at the end of the third quarter and they still were ahead with less than five minutes to go in regulation. Stephen Curry, the Warriors' two-time regular season MVP who has yet to win a Finals MVP, scored just four points in the decisive fourth quarter. He missed an open three pointer with eight seconds to go that could have extended the series to a seventh game; Curry is now 0-8 during his playoff career on go-ahead field goal attempts in the final 20 seconds of a playoff game. I am not sure that a statistic like that is particularly meaningful but--for someone who is touted not just as a great player but as potentially a top 10 or top 15 player of all-time--it is significant that he has played in five NBA Finals and never clearly been the best player on the court in any of those series. I cannot think of an all-time great who made that many Finals and always took a back seat to one or more players.

In game six, it could be plausibly argued that Curry was the third most effective point guard: he finished with 21 points on 6-17 field goal shooting while passing for seven assists and committing three turnovers, which does not compare favorably with the numbers posted by Lowry or VanVleet. When a series starts with commentators floating the (ludicrous) notion that the Warriors might be better off without Durant because they have Curry and that series ends with Curry struggling to outplay Lowry and VanVleet, that is not a good line on the "I am a top 15 player of all-time" resume. Curry, like most players of his size, can be worn down over the course of a game, a season or a series. He is a great player, but he is not Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Kevin Durant--or Kawhi Leonard.

Thompson was Golden State's best player during game six. He finished with 30 points while shooting 8-12 from the field (including 4-6 from three point range) and 10-10 from the free throw line. Former All-Star/former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala added 22 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, and Draymond Green had 11 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists, though he also committed eight turnovers and engaged in multiple outbursts that could have--and should have--resulted in a technical foul that would have triggered an automatic suspension for game seven (if there had been a game seven). One got the sense that these referees were not going to call a technical foul on Green no matter what he did unless he reverted to his former ways of hitting or kicking opponents below the belt. Green knew that he had a license to be a whining, complaining jerk and he took full advantage of it--but at a cost to his team, as several of his extended rants took place at the expense of getting back on defense, which is a problem in an elimination game decided by just four points.

There has been a lot of talk about the injuries that the Warriors suffered during the 2019 playoffs but let's remember that the Warriors' dynasty was built more than a little bit on the bodies of All-Stars who were stricken with injuries and not able to play against Golden State--including Leonard himself in the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The injuries also exposed the reality that the Warriors have an embarrassment of riches. After Kevin Durant went down, the Warriors still had a two-time regular season MVP, four current or former All-Stars (one of whom has won a Finals MVP), a former Lottery pick who comes off of the bench and other talented, if not yet decorated, players. The Warriors' ability to remain competitive is not mysterious or magical or the result of "gravity"; this team is a legitimate championship contender even without its best player, which is why the Warriors were a dynasty during the two playoff runs that their best player dominated.

On a personal level, I feel great sympathy and empathy for Durant (who may miss all of next season after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon) and for Thompson (who reportedly suffered a torn ACL). I also respect the way that DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala and Kevon Looney played through injuries--but, on a team level, I don't feel any more or less sympathy for the Warriors than I did for all of the injury-depleted teams that they beat in the playoffs during the past five years. Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game.

It is also a bit odd that so much is said about the Warriors' injuries but little is made of the obvious fact that Leonard has been hobbled for quite some time and that VanVleet played the last two games of this series minus at least one tooth after an inadvertent Shaun Livingston elbow performed involuntary reconstruction (or deconstruction) of Van Vleet's face. I am sure that other Raptors are banged up as well. Granted, no Raptor suffered an injury as serious as Durant's injury (or Thompson's injury if the early reports about his ACL are accurate), but the Raptors did not talk about injuries, did not make excuses and rarely complained about foul calls. They just hooped, and kept hooping, until the knocked off the champs. Golden State suffered a lot of injuries, and some very serious injuries, but the media coverage would make you think that every other team is blessed with perfect health.

The Raptors are a refreshing champion in an odd time in NBA history. The Raptors have no Lottery picks and they did not tank. Can you imagine if one of the executives who the media often praises to the sky had been running Toronto? The Raptors would most likely not be champions now with a different President/GM. Masai Ujiri cannot be praised enough for how boldly and how shrewdly he put this team together. He figured out that the Raptors were good but not good enough; in the new NBA that often means tearing everything down and tanking but instead Ujiri just added the right pieces, including a big, physical center (Marc Gasol) in an era when small ball supposedly is king. Yes, Ujiri was fortunate that Leonard became available but don't forget how down everyone was on Leonard a year ago; Ujiri ignored the noise coming out of San Antonio about Leonard, and he did not concern himself with whether or not Leonard may re-sign with the team this summer. Ujiri also hired a coach, Nick Nurse, who many people had never heard of but whose career Ujiri had been following for years.

The Raptors are a worthy champion, and I hope that they receive the praise and acclaim that they deserve before the media turns its focus to free agency, the draft, the implications of the Durant and Thompson injuries and whatever other topics media members think are more important than acknowledging greatness.

I don't know what is going to happen in free agency this summer and, frankly, on the night that the NBA title is decided I really don't care. There will be more than enough time to think about that, and to discuss whatever happens. What matters tonight is that Kawhi Leonard led a tough-minded Toronto team to a championship, thereby elevating his place in basketball history and also making sure that this Raptors squad will always be remembered.

Let's hope that all of the injured players make speedy and complete recoveries, and that the 2019-20 NBA season turns out to be a great one.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM

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