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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rockets Outlast Thunder and Advance to the Second Round

The Houston-Oklahoma City series was like the movie Groundhog Day; everyone knew the plot but no one had the capacity to change it: Russell Westbrook almost single-handedly delivers the lead to his team, his team immediately squanders the lead when Westbrook rests and then an exhausted Westbrook tries valiantly (but inefficiently) to carry his flawed team to victory. The final result: Houston 105, Oklahoma City 99 in game five, meaning that the Rockets won the series four games to one.

Here are the numbers that really tell the story: Oklahoma City 22, Houston 16 in the first quarter before Westbrook takes a breather--and Houston 27, Oklahoma City 27 when Westbrook reenters the game. Houston led 51-44 at halftime and pushed that margin to 61-50 in the third quarter before Westbrook unleashed an incredible scoring barrage. When Westbrook finished, he had scored 20 points in the quarter and the Thunder were up 77-72. Westbrook sat for the first 2:45 of the fourth quarter and when he returned to action Houston led 86-81. The Thunder's best strategy when Westbrook sits is apparently to just accumulate 24 second shot clock violations, because running time off of the clock with neither team scoring would actually be more effective than permitting the opposition to race up and down the court to the tune of 14 points in less than three minutes. That 2:45 stretch of futility, projected over 48 minutes, works out to something on the order of 224-64!

Let's not forget these numbers, either: 47 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists. That was Westbrook's line on the road in an elimination playoff game. As I write these words, numerous "experts" are drafting articles to tell you just how poorly Westbrook supposedly played. I hope that anyone who visits this website is too smart to read that nonsense, let alone believe it.

The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 12 points when Westbrook was on the court and they were outscored by 18 points during the six minutes that Westbrook rested. Before anyone talks about Westbrook's fourth quarter shot selection, please mention that his starting small forward, Andre Roberson--the team's second leading scorer in this series--shot 14% from the free throw line in the series. In the waning moments of game five, Houston's star player James Harden was chasing Roberson to intentionally foul him and Roberson was trying to avoid being touched. It looked like a game of tag had broken out in the middle of the playoffs.

This series was billed as a battle between the two leading MVP candidates. By the end of the series, you could tell that even Houston's fans do not really believe that James Harden is the MVP. Sure, they serenaded him with the almost mandatory home crowd "MVP" chant but I don't think that I have ever heard a quieter or less enthusiastic such chant. It sounded like they were saying, "Yes, James, we love you and in our hearts you are our MVP but we know the real deal."

Harden had a playoff line that is fairly typical for him: 34 points on 8-25 field goal shooting and a -6 plus/minus number. Yes, sports fans, the Rockets were actually outscored while Harden was in the game. "Take that for data," as Coach Fizdale might say. This is not unusual for Harden's Houston career; we saw the same phenomenon during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, which is why then-Coach Kevin McHale benched Harden with the season on the line in the fourth quarter of game six versus the L.A. Clippers. Harden shot 5-20 from the field in that game six and 7-20 from the field in game seven, so his 8-25 bricklaying in game five versus the Thunder should not surprise anyone. Rest assured that this "productivity" will continue in the second round but the outcome of the games will be different.

Harden is very talented--but if you watched this series and still believe that he is in any way a better basketball player than Russell Westbrook then there is something wrong with your understanding of basketball.

Westbrook averaged 37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg in this series. The 6-3 point guard led both teams in those three categories. Harden averaged 33.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 7.0 apg while playing in a system tailor-made for him and while surrounded by an armada of shooters. Harden is bigger and stronger than Westbrook but Westbrook averaged 39 mpg while Harden averaged 37.4 mpg. Neither player shot particularly well from the field. When Westbrook sat, his team was immediately and decisively destroyed. When Harden sat, the Rockets sailed merrily along without missing a beat. Switch those two players and keep everything else the same and Westbrook's team would have won in a sweep with each game decided by double digits; put Westbrook in D'Antoni's system and surround him with shooters and the possibilities are mind-boggling: 35 ppg and 15 apg is not out of the question.

The amazing thing is that even though the Thunder are almost completely inept when Westbrook sits they may actually be just one player away from winning 55-60 games and being a legit contender; based on what we saw in this series, if the Thunder had one player who could either create his own shot or create good shots for role players while Westbrook sits for 12-15 mpg then Westbrook could play 34-36 mpg at optimum efficiency. It is apparent that Westbrook is not prime Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James in terms of stamina but that is understandable considering that those guys are between 6-6 and 6-8, while Westbrook is 6-3. I tend to be skeptical that a 6-3 player can lead a team to a title--and the few guards in that size range who led teams to the Finals did not shoulder the responsibilities ("usage rate," in modern parlance) that Westbrook does.

That being said, Westbrook is unique and it is silly to assert that a player who can average 30-10-10 in 34 mpg cannot lead a team to a title. Westbrook just needs one teammate who can competently run the offense for a few minutes and who can take pressure off of Westbrook when they are on the court together.

Congratulations to the Rockets; you struggled to put away a deeply flawed team that many people did not even expect to make the playoffs in the first year after Kevin Durant's departure. The reward for beating the Thunder will likely be a showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs will not repeatedly foul Harden beyond the three point line, nor will the Spurs go through huge scoring droughts. However, Harden will likely again struggle to shoot better than .400 from the field and for the second consecutive series he will likely be outplayed by an MVP candidate (Kawhi Leonard).

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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Monday, April 24, 2017

LeBron James Excels As Cavaliers Sweep Pacers

The sometimes disinterested Cleveland Cavaliers swept the often disorganized Indiana Pacers in the first 2017 NBA playoff series to finish. The Cavaliers will now have a week off before facing the winner of the Toronto-Milwaukee series, while the Pacers will have all summer to ponder the possibility of a future without Paul George. Addressing the latter situation first, the Pacers are a poorly constructed team with mismatched talent; Larry Bird purportedly wanted to put together an offensive-oriented, high tempo team but he did not acquire enough players who can effectively play that style--and his coach, Nate McMillan, is known for defense, not offense. If George decides to exercise his option after next season and leave as a free agent, it will likely be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship--but if he stays it will also be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship (which tends to suggest that he will either leave or else pressure the Pacers to trade him by threatening to leave).

During the regular season, the Cavaliers displayed little interest in fighting for the number one seed in the East and for long stretches of the series against Indiana they also displayed little interest in competing against the Pacers. This indifference reached its nadir in the first half of game three, when the mediocre Pacers (who backed into the playoffs with a 42-40 record) jumped out to a 72-46 first half lead against the reigning NBA champions.

There is sometimes talk of the "switch" and whether or not a team can turn it on and off. If you ever wondered what it looks like when a team turns the "switch" from off to on, just watch the second half of game three. LeBron James apparently decided that four games versus Indiana would be quite sufficient and that he had no interest in extending this series to five games, so he carried the Cavaliers to a 119-114 victory. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists (including 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the second half), joining Russell Westbrook in the elite playoff 40 point triple double club.

The Pacers looked like the Washington Generals in the second half. If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the series right then and declared Cleveland the winner by knockout. Instead, we were "treated" to one more game of the Cavaliers being interested at times and the Pacers being organized at times. After Paul "I must have the ball" George bricked a last second three pointer with a chance to tie the score, the Cavaliers won 106-102 to put the Pacers out of their misery. During the game, one of the announcers said something about the Pacers believing that they should have been up in the series and I about fell out of my chair; in this series, Cleveland was the cat and the Pacers were the ball of yarn: the Cavaliers played with their toy until they tired of it and then they swatted it away.

George is ultimately going to get a max deal, but his performance and attitude during this series were uneven at best. I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player saying that he must have the ball and I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player missing shots. Either of those things can happen--but when a supposedly great player insists that he must have the ball, presides over one of the worst blown leads in playoff history and then bricks his way to 5-21 shooting while getting swept on his home court then that combination is problematic.

The last three pointer that George took reminded me of the Peja Stojakovic three pointer versus the Lakers during the playoffs that started in one corner, sailed clear over the hoop and landed in the other corner. It's OK if the moment is too big for you. That can happen to anyone--but when you say after game one that you have to have the ball, then it is not OK if the moment is too big for you. Call it the Muhammad Ali/Reggie Jackson/Deion Sanders rule: if you can win the heavyweight title three times or belt three home runs in a World Series game or single-handedly shut down one side of a football field, then you can talk trash and say whatever you want--but if you are bricking three pointers at the end of playoff games after demanding the ball, then you probably should not have been so vocal in the first place.

I don't begrudge anyone his money and I fully understand the economics of pro basketball but--purely on the merits--there are only a handful of guys in the NBA who truly "deserve" max money; those are the guys who clearly could be the best player on a championship team. We all know each of them by one name: Westbrook. LeBron. Durant. Curry. Kawhi. You might be able to convince me that there are one or two more or that there are a few young guys who will reach that status soon. You would have a hard time convincing me that George's name belongs in that group. This is not about numbers and it certainly is not about "advanced" numbers. This is about watching a player try to perform and try to lead under pressure.

I might be wrong about George and I can't "prove" that I am right. If I owned the Pacers, I might pay him the max rather than lose him and start over from scratch, because it is almost as hard to find the 10th or 15th best player in the NBA as it is to find one of the top five players--but the idea of mentioning George as an MVP caliber player just does not sound right, based on what I see. Again, the numbers were good overall and George is clearly an All-Star and perhaps even an All-NBA player. He is just not elite to me. A few years ago it looked like he had the potential to make that breakthrough but it just has not happened.

During the four game sweep, James averaged 32.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 9.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.0 bpg while shooting .543 from the field (including .450 from three point range). He shot .579 from the free throw line and committed 18 turnovers just to reassure us that he is in fact human and not some alien cyborg designed to play perfect basketball. James is a marvelous basketball player. He confounds me at times with things that he says/does and until my dying day I will find it puzzling and inexcusable that he quit during the 2010 playoffs but he is a very special player. In NBA-ABA playoff history, James ranks fifth in ppg (28.1) and during this series James passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA-ABA playoff career scoring list (5703 points, trailing only Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

James is the king of first round dominance and I say that without a hint of sarcasm. I am not sure exactly what it means to dominate the first round the way that James has during his career but it is impressive. Most of the greatest players of all-time had at least one first round stinker during or near their prime but James has not (and if he ever has one it could reasonably be stated that he is now past his prime, even though he is still playing at a very high level).

It may seem petty to say that it would be preferable to own Bill Russell's record (11 titles in 13 years) or to match Michael Jordan's standard (six Finals, six championships, six Finals MVPs) but regardless of what one thinks about the Eastern Conference it is impressive to mow down the competition year after year the way that James has with both the Cavs and the Heat. As a competitive tournament chess player, I know from experience that sometimes the hardest task as a competitor is to get up for games against clearly outmatched opponents; there is a natural human tendency for the mind to wander but James and his teams have avoided this pitfall.

It is easy to look at James' physique and athletic gifts and assume that he was destined for greatness but he often states "I'm not supposed to even be here" and that is the poignant reality: the odds facing a young man from his background are overwhelmingly stacked against achieving the success that he has attained. I respect him greatly for that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:56 PM

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Houston Overcomes Westbrook's Third Straight Triple Double to Take 3-1 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook posted his third straight playoff triple double--a feat matched by only Wilt Chamberlain, who had four consecutive playoff triple doubles in 1967--but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 and take a 3-1 lead in their best of seven first round series. Nene led the Rockets with 28 points on 12-12 field goal shooting. Houston outscored Oklahoma City by 24 points when he was on the court. Nene also had a team-high 10 rebounds in just 25 minutes.

Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points in reserve roles, with Houston outscoring Oklahoma City by 18 when Gordon was in the game and by 10 when Williams played. Trevor Ariza played a game-high 43 minutes and chipped in 14 points plus his usual excellent defense. The Rockets outscored the Thunder by two when he was on the court. James Harden added a quiet 16 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. He led the Rockets with eight assists but he also had seven turnovers and his plus/minus number was 0 in 39 minutes of action.

As has often been the case during Harden's Houston playoff career, when the Rockets made their run he was either on the bench or watching other players do the heavy lifting. Harden attempted seven free throws after living at the free throw line in the first three games of the series. Harden is constantly flopping and flailing but when the referees do not fall for this--and when the Thunder have enough game plan discipline to avoid foolish reach in fouls--Harden is not an elite, efficient playoff scorer. The proper way to defend Harden is play with "high hands"--if the referee sees the defender's hands then he is not likely to blow his whistle.

Harden essentially has two moves: the stepback jumper and the lumbering drive during which he extends his hands low and baits the referee into calling a foul. The Houston/Harden philosophy is to avoid shooting long two point jumpers, so it is baffling that any defender would fall for Harden's shot fakes in that range; just play Harden to either shoot threes or flop while he is in the lane. If Harden is met at the hoop by a big guy with high hands, Harden will throw his body into that player and if he does not get the foul call then the ball will fly harmlessly away; we have seen this happen several times during this series, particularly in the first halves of games when the Rockets routinely get off to slow starts. Can Harden finish at the hoop? Yes, but he is not an explosive finisher at the rim so if he is met by high hands then he has to figure out how to loft a shot over, under or around those arms.

Incidentally, the Rockets are constantly questioning calls but no Rocket should ever complain about fouls considering the calls that Harden typically gets. Harden's flopping has been somewhat obscured in this series by the fact that the Thunder have committed many stupid fouls against him but even in this series it has been clear that when Harden does not receive foul calls he is not the same player; it has also been clear that, at least against the Thunder, Houston is good enough to keep the game close even when Harden is non-factor.

Oklahoma City is awful when Westbrook is not in the game. Westbrook does not enjoy the luxury of winning despite having an off night or even just sitting on the bench for a few minutes while his teammates carry the load. The Thunder outscored the Rockets by 14 points during Westbrook's 39 minutes of action and were outscored by 18 points during his nine minutes off of the court; at that rate, the Thunder would be outscored by 96 points over a 48 minute game!

Westbrook posted 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the first half, becoming the first player in 20 years to log a first half triple double in a playoff game. He shot a respectable 5-11 from the field, yet the Thunder only led 58-54. Harden had scored six points on 2-9 field goal shooting at that point and this looked like a replay of game two, when Westbrook nearly had a first half triple double before finishing with 51 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds: it was obvious that if someone else on the Thunder did not step up then the Rockets would win, as they did in game two.

Westbrook's gaudy numbers do not fully capture his impact; some of his first half plays were just breathtaking, like when he soared in the air to block center Clint Capela's dunk attempt off of a lob pass or when he grabbed a defensive rebound in traffic, burst up court and spoon fed Stephen Adams for a transition layup. How many point guards in pro basketball history could make such plays? 

The Thunder led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter but when Westbrook took a short breather the Thunder leaked more oil than a broken down jalopy. The Thunder struggled so much to score, defend or just do anything productive that it felt like every reasonable basketball play should be celebrated by a standing ovation or a parade.

Oklahoma City was clinging to a 77-73 lead entering the fourth quarter. Houston wiped out that advantage almost instantly as Westbrook took his customary rest early in the period. The Thunder just as quickly regained the advantage after Westbrook reentered the game. Around that point, ABC ran a graphic showing that the Thunder had outscored the Rockets by 20 points during Westbrook's 31 minutes and had been outscored by 18 points during his eight minutes of rest.

Much will likely be made of Westbrook's second half field goal percentage and/or shot selection but any intelligent, objective person understands that those things did not decide the outcome of the game; this was a double digit blowout in the Thunder's favor when Westbrook played and a double digit blowout in the Rockets' favor when Westbrook sat. That is the main story.

One of the great little sideline sound bytes from Phil Jackson when he coached Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was, "Don't leave Michael yet. It's not time." Jackson conveyed so much in just a few words: Jackson was not so subtly challenging Jordan's teammates by essentially saying, "I know that you are going to leave Michael but at least wait until later in the game to do so." This was almost a form of psychological warfare or reverse psychology; by asking them to not leave Michael "yet" he was really urging them to not leave Michael at all.

Jackson's point was that even Jordan could not be superhuman for a full 48 minutes but if his teammates could wait to "leave" him until the closing minutes then he could be superhuman down the stretch. Keep in mind that peak Jordan was about 6-6, 225 and peak Kobe Bryant was about the same size. Westbrook is about 6-3, 195. In terms of speed, jumping ability, explosiveness and competitive heart, Westbrook is cut from the same cloth; recently, Jerry West went so far as to call Westbrook a more athletic version of Jordan. However, in terms of size and strength Westbrook will never be able to match Jordan or Bryant and when Westbrook's teammates repeatedly surrender double digit leads in just a few minutes with more than a quarter left in the game he is not physically equipped to single-handedly save the day; even though he actually did just that in several regular season games, the task is much harder during the playoffs.

That being said, the Thunder squandered some golden opportunities down the stretch. Trailing by four, Stephen Adams conferred briefly with Westbrook before attempting the second of two free throws. Adams intentionally missed, grabbed the rebound and immediately passed to Westbrook, who launched a shot from several feet behind the three point arc. Westbrook's bomb cut Houston's lead to 108-107 and all that the Thunder needed to do was commit a foul in order to have a chance to tie or win on the game's final possession. Instead, the Thunder permitted the Rockets to advance the ball up the court with no resistance, culminating in a three point play by Nene that sealed the victory.

Five-time Super Bowl champion Coach Bill Belichick has repeatedly said that stupid players cost you games and/or that he cannot put stupid players on the field. The Thunder's late game execution in that sequence was atrocious and instead of potentially going to Houston with a chance to take a 3-2 lead the Thunder now face the task of simply avoiding elimination.

Westbrook refuses to even discuss what others call his "supporting cast," nor does he whine about not having help. LeBron James has two All-Star teammates, a great group of role players and a roster that is among the best compensated in NBA history, yet he constantly complains that he does not have enough help. When he was asked a couple years ago during the NBA Finals why he was confident that his team could win he replied "Because I am the best player in the world."

In contrast, Westbrook has defiantly challenged media members who refer to his "supporting cast." Westbrook declares that the Thunder are one team and that he does not have a supporting cast. The postgame press conference had an interesting moment. Some reporter who apparently is seeking a Pulitzer Prize nomination for investigative reporting asked Stephen Adams to talk about the Thunder's drop off in performance whenever Westbrook is not on the court. Before Adams could answer, Westbrook replied that he would not let the media divide the team and that they win and lose as a group. The reporter whined that he had asked a legitimate question and that his microphone should not be taken away until Adams answers. It must really be frustrating for this reporter that he cannot just write the narrative that he wants to write--that Westbrook is a bad teammate--but if he is actually worth his salt as a journalist then he knows that Westbrook's quotes are golden and could be the basis for a wonderful story. If the reporter were not trying to make himself the center of attention, he could have pulled Adams aside privately and repeated his question.

Despite his fiery persona, Westbrook's leadership is similar to Julius Erving's or Scottie Pippen's as opposed to Jordan's or Bryant's. Erving and Pippen always sought out public and private opportunities to praise their teammates. Jordan is perhaps the first NBA superstar who talked publicly about his "supporting cast" and his leadership style was almost always confrontational; Bryant took a similar approach, though he perhaps mellowed a bit with age (that did not happen to Jordan). James repeatedly speaks about his teammates' shortcomings but the media generally frame his comments as reasonable concerns, not petulant complaints.  

Westbrook will probably score 40 points and/or post a triple double in game five but if his teammates "leave" him again then the Rockets will move on to the second round, even if Harden is again the fourth most effective player on his own team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Houson Survives Westbrook's Historic Triple Double to Take 2-0 Series Lead

Russell Westbrook authored the first 50 point triple double in NBA playoff history (51 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds) but the Houston Rockets came from behind to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 115-111 and claim a 2-0 series lead. Westbrook averaged a triple double this season despite playing just under 35 mpg--and the Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double--but in game two Westbrook played 41 minutes and fatigue clearly had an effect down the stretch, notwithstanding Westbrook's admirable refusal to make any excuses: he shot 13-25 from the field in the first three quarters but just 4-18 in the final stanza. Westbrook's critics predictably focus on the number of shot attempts and the low fourth quarter shooting percentage but the most telling statistic is that the Thunder outscored the Rockets by 11 with Westbrook in the game but were outscored by 15 during the seven minutes that he sat.

Westbrook nearly had a triple double at halftime (22 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds) but the Thunder only led 68-62 and the writing was already on the wall: unless someone else stepped up at some point, Westbrook would inevitably wear down under the massive burden he is being expected to carry just to give his team a chance to win.

Was Westbrook's fourth quarter shot selection great? He took some questionable shots but most of the shots that he took are shots that he normally makes and shots that he made in the first three quarters. Eddie Johnson made a great point on Sirius XM NBA Radio today: when a caller suggested that the Thunder's problem was that Westbrook stopped passing in the fourth quarter, Johnson retorted that plenty of guys who are willing and able to shoot in the first three quarters simply do not want the ball in the fourth quarter of a close game. Westbrook knew that his team's best chance to win was for him to shoot the ball; if he were truly "chasing stats" as his critics suggest, then the easiest way to do that would have been to pass the ball every time in the fourth quarter: he already had a triple double with more than 30 points on an excellent shooting percentage, so shooting the ball when he was tired was more likely to hurt his stats than help them. Westbrook was asked about his stat line and he replied that it did not matter because his team lost.

The easy narrative is that James Harden is outplaying Westbrook but that narrative is false. In two games (admittedly a small sample size but that is the nature of comparing two players early in a playoff series), Westbrook has more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots than Harden. Westbrook's free throw percentage is slightly better than Harden's. The only individual categories that Harden is winning are field goal percentage and turnovers.

The true narrative is that Harden's teammates are dominating Westbrook's teammates. Five Rockets not named Harden are averaging at least 10 ppg and three of Harden's teammates are averaging at least 7.5 rpg; Harden is averaging 5.5 rpg, barely half of Westbrook's series-leading 10.5 rpg. Only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 10 ppg and only one Thunder player not named Westbrook is averaging at least 7.5 rpg--Andre Roberson is averaging 15.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg.

Harden's team is outplaying Westbrook's team but that does not mean that Harden is the better player or even that Harden is having a better series; when evaluating players I look at skill set and production, not necessarily the team result.

It is also worth noting that Houston's team success is only loosely correlated with Harden's minutes and productivity, which was also true during Houston's fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Harden was on the bench when the Rockets cut into the Thunder's double digit lead and that is why his plus/minus number for this game was just +2; when he and Westbrook were both on the court, the Thunder outplayed the Rockets. The difference is that Eric Gordon (22 points, +15) and Lou Williams (21 points, +18) annihilated the Thunder's bench players--every single Thunder reserve had a negative plus/minus number!

It is stupefying that after Westbrook accomplishes rare or even unprecedented feats the critics nitpick Westbrook's flaws instead of appreciating his greatness. Prior to last night, there had been just five 40 point triple doubles in NBA playoff history. The players on that list are Oscar Robertson (twice), Jerry West, Charles Barkley and LeBron James. Robertson, West and James are on any sensible list of the top 10-15 players in pro basketball history. Barkley is no worse than a top 30 player. West won the first ever NBA Finals MVP after his triple double, even though his team lost the game and the series.

LeBron James posted the most recent 40 point triple double in a playoff game, with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in a 104-91 game five loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. James shot 15-34 from the field, including 7-19 in the second half and his plus/minus number was -11. Thus, his shooting performance was similar to Westbrook's--including excellent first half shooting followed by poor second half shooting--and James' team was actually losing with him on the court, while Westbrook's team was winning while he was on the court but I do not recall James receiving much if any criticism after his triple double. James was carrying an injury-depleted team but he still had Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova (who started 54 games this year for a Milwaukee team that made the playoffs), which is a better supporting cast than Westbrook currently has.

Game three could be interesting. Oklahoma City is clearly a deeply flawed team that is inferior to Houston but home court matters in the playoffs and Houston has weaknesses that can be exploited; if the Thunder defend their turf in this game and in game four then in game five there would be a lot of pressure on the Rockets. It will probably take 35-10-8 or something like that in each game from Westbrook just for the Thunder to have a chance but Westbrook is up for that challenge; the real question is whether or not his supporting cast can at least tread water long enough to permit him to rest for 10-15 minutes so that he can be fresh down the stretch. Westbrook plays so big and with so much energy that it is easy to forget that Westbrook he is 6-3, 190, not 6-6, 225 like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant; no matter how athletic Westbrook is, his body simply cannot take the pounding or workload that Jordan or Bryant could.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:55 PM

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

First Impressions of the First Round of the Playoffs

Here are some quick takes on each of the NBA's first round playoff series:

Cleveland 2, Indiana 0

1) The Pacers are who I thought they were: not particularly good on defense, only good on offense sporadically and a mismatched collection of talent that looks better on paper than it performs on the court.
2) I am not sure that I want to go into battle with Paul George; he is the Pacers' best player and should be the leader but he spends a lot of time publicly talking about his perceptions of what everyone else on the team is doing wrong. Why does he have to "take the last shot"? Michael Jordan did not always take the last shot. Kobe Bryant did not always take the last shot. If George thinks that he is so great that only he can take the last shot, then beat the double team, create the last shot--and make it. Jordan and Bryant did that on more than a few occasions. George's body language at the end of game one would be a serious problem for me if I were one of his teammates--and particularly if I were C.J. Miles, who took a quality shot and just happened to miss it.
3) It is not clear what this series tells us about the Cavaliers, because the Cavaliers know that they can beat this team without exerting full effort--and the Cavaliers are quite content to do just that. Do the Cavaliers have another gear? Most certainly they do. Will they shift into that gear when they face tougher competition? I have no idea. LeBron James has quit in big playoff series and he has authored historic performances in playoff series.

Chicago 2, Boston 0

1) Boston is one of the weakest number one seeds ever but I did not expect them to lose two home games to the inconsistent Chicago Bulls.
2) The Bulls have a lot of talent and they also have some championship pedigree with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo but there is no way that this team should be up 2-0 versus the Celtics.
3) Rondo can be a difficult player to coach but he has also repeatedly proven that he can produce at a high level during the playoffs. I would take him on my team any day, with the realization that he has to be dealt with and communicated with in a particular way.

Toronto 1, Milwaukee 1

1) The Bucks are a talented enigma, at least for me. I struggle to figure out how they will perform over the course of a season or a playoff series.
2) The Raptors are a very well constructed team and, even if it takes seven games, I expect them to win this series.

Washington 1, Atlanta 0

1) John Wall is a spectacular all-around player. If the Wizards can advance one or two rounds, he may start to get the recognition he deserves.
2) Scott Brooks is an underrated coach. He almost annually led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals and, after a rough start to this season, he may very well have the Wizards on a path to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Golden State 1, Portland 0

1) The Blazers are not scared. They look the Warriors dead in the eye and compete. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they just do not have enough talent to win this series.
2) If Kevin Durant misses games or is seriously limited by injury then the door is open for the Blazers to win a game or two--but not the series.

San Antonio 2, Memphis 0

1) Was Memphis Coach Fizdale taking a not so veiled shot at his franchise's "stat gurus" at the end of his rant after game two? His derisive, concluding comment about data did not have anything to do with his complaints about the officiating.
2) Coach Fizdale has a right to be upset with the front office, as the Grizzlies have once again fielded a team that does not have enough shooting prowess or scoring punch to be a serious playoff threat.

Houston 1, Oklahoma City 0

1) The game one blowout confirmed a simple truth: if Russell Westbrook does not play like a basketball superhero then his Oklahoma City Thunder have no chance.
2) Westbrook did not play like a basketball superhero: he shot poorly and he turned the ball over too much. All that being said and acknowledged, even if he had posted 30-10-10 with a good shooting percentage and a reasonable number of turnovers, the Thunder still would have been blown out.
3) Some have suggested that Enes Kanter should be benched. I would give him more minutes and when he is in the game I would post him up every time, forcing a smaller Rocket to guard him. This series is like the 2006 Suns-Lakers series; at that time, the Lakers' Phil Jackson used an "Inside Man" strategy to push the much more talented and deeper Suns to seven games. The Thunder must punish the Rockets in the paint.
4) My gut feeling is that Westbrook has a monster game two leading to a Thunder win but the Rockets take the series in seven.

L.A. Clippers 1, Utah 1

1) The Jazz are missing their best defensive player and the Clippers had to scramble to avoid a 2-0 deficit. I have never understood the sentiment that Chris Paul is a great leader or that he should be mentioned in the same breath with Isiah Thomas just because they are similarly sized. If Paul were a great leader then he would have actually led this very talented team past the second round at some point.
2) The Clippers will probably find a way to win this series but this team just does not have a championship mindset.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:47 PM

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Friday, April 14, 2017

2016-17 Playoff Predictions

Before I make my annual playoff predictions, here are some of my thoughts about the 2016-17 NBA season.

Several players performed at a very high level but only one player had a historic season--and his numbers were directly connected to his team's success: Russell Westbrook should win the MVP in a landslide but because of The Tortured Logic of the 2017 NBA MVP Race we are supposed to believe that there are other legitimate contenders. Just to be clear: several players performed at a "normal" MVP level in 2016-17 but Westbrook operated at a distinctly higher level:

1) Westbrook became the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season and along the way Westbrook broke Robertson's single season record by posting 42 triple doubles. Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder went 33-9 when he posted a triple double and 14-26 when he did not--in other words, when Westbrook played at a superhuman level he lifted the Thunder to the level of the San Antonio Spurs but when he was "merely" great the Thunder performed comparably to the Philadelphia 76ers. The only other guards who have had that kind of singular impact on the performance of an otherwise bad team are Pistol Pete Maravich with the Jazz in the late 1970s and Kobe Bryant with the mid-2000s Lakers.

2) Westbrook became the first player 6-3 or under to average at least 10 rpg.

3) Westbrook is the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 rpg in the same season since Karl Malone in 1989-90; Malone is a Hall of Fame power forward, yet the 6-3 point guard Westbrook accomplished something that Hall of Fame big men including Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing never did once in their entire careers.

4) Westbrook became the first player to average at least 30 ppg and at least 10 apg in the same season since Nate Archibald in 1972-73.

5) Westbrook averaged 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 10.4 apg, ranking in the top 10 in the league in each category: first in scoring (his second scoring title), third in assists and 10th in rebounding.  

Do you like "advanced basketball statistics"? I don't but all of the "stat gurus" who used such numbers to place Chris Paul or Steve Nash ahead of Kobe Bryant about a decade ago should note that Westbrook ranked first in plus/minus, first in offensive plus/minus, second in defensive plus/minus and first in value over replacement player. Westbrook is derided in some quarters as a bad defensive player but in one of the metrics that the "stat gurus" love--defensive rating--Westbrook ranked 13th, ahead of all of the other MVP candidates except Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, neither of whom had the impact on the boards or on offense that Westbrook had.

The second biggest story of the season was the "rest" epidemic. Commissioner Adam Silver seems to be belatedly figuring out that this is a major issue, though it is still not clear exactly what he will do to remedy the problem. Meanwhile, until he does his job it is fair to say that NBA Primetime Saturday Night is NOT Fantastic. Even worse, the last week of the season turned into a farce, as the Cleveland Cavaliers "rested" their way from first place in the East to second place (thereby sending the message that the regular season does not mean much) while the Brooklyn Nets' tanking for draft picks not only made the Draft Lottery a sham but also affected who received the final Eastern Conference playoff berth as the Nets gladly absorbed a 112-73 beatdown from the Chicago Bulls on the final day of the regular season. Tickets to that game sure were worth the price of admission.

The third biggest story was that Kevin Durant proved to be the best player on an absolutely stacked Golden State team. The Warriors slumped as soon as he was injured and even though they eventually found their way--as they should be able to do considering the amount of talent on the roster--it was very obvious that when the squad was at full strength Durant was the man, not two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry. What ultimately matters is who is the best player on the team when the team is at full strength, not the ability of a team with multiple All-Stars to win some games without Durant.

The fourth biggest story is that the NBA's version of Rasputin, the San Antonio Spurs, won more than 60 games. Every year for about the past decade or so the Spurs are written off and yet in virtually every year they are not only a regular season force but also a legitimate championship contender.

Other storylines of note include the ups and downs of the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the remarkable second half surge of the Miami Heat, who fell just short of securing a playoff berth. We have looked back enough for now, though, so it is time to shift our attention forward to the playoffs.

Here are my first round predictions:

The Cleveland Cavaliers stood atop the Eastern Conference for most of the season but their defense fell apart months ago, enabling the Boston Celtics to nip them at the finish line. Coasting through the regular season only to turn things up in the playoffs worked (sometimes) for Shaquille O'Neal and the L.A. Lakers, though it is worth noting that the Lakers had another MVP caliber player who most assuredly never coasted (Kobe Bryant). The Cavaliers seem to take their cues from James and when he coasts/quits they act like a substitute teacher is running class so anything goes.

The 53-29 Boston Celtics, both on paper and by the eye test, are probably one of the worst NBA teams to earn a number one seed in the past 40 years or so. That is not meant as a knock against what the Celtics have accomplished with a young coach and the 5-9 wunderkind Isaiah Thomas as floor general; it is just a statement of fact. Boston split the four game regular season series with the 41-41 Chicago Bulls but even though the Bulls' veteran backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade has championship pedigree I expect the Celtics to win in six games.

The 2-7 matchup is a battle of underachieving teams--but one is a heavyweight while the other is a lightweight, so the outcome is not in much doubt. The 51-31 Cleveland Cavaliers treated the regular season with indifference at best but the 42-40 Indiana Pacers might be the most disappointing team in the league--at least if you believe what most "experts" predicted before the season began (I correctly pegged the Pacers as a .500 team but mistakenly thought that this would not be good enough to qualify for postseason play). LeBron James may enter "chill mode" during the regular season and he has at times quit during the latter rounds of postseason play but he is even better than Michael Jordan  at mercilessly knocking out weak teams in the first round. The Cavaliers will sweep the Pacers unless they become so bored that they lose a game in Indiana in order to clinch the series in front of the hometown crowd.

The 51-31 Toronto Raptors have fallen out of the Eastern Conference championship conversation but I am not sure why. This is an improved version of the team that pushed the Cavaliers to six games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and if they stay healthy they are fully capable of making another deep playoff run. I did not expect Milwaukee to make the playoffs after Khris Middleton suffered an apparently season-ending injury but he came back in the final third of the season to lead the Bucks to a 19-12 record down the stretch, just enough to earn the sixth seed with a 42-40 record. This series features some intriguing, fun matchups but in the end Toronto will win in six games.

I expected the Washington Wizards to be a strong team. They started the season very slowly but down the stretch they made a run at the number one seed before setting for the fourth seed with a 49-33 record. The mercurial Atlanta Hawks finished 43-39 to grab the fifth seed. Both of these teams are so inconsistent that they are hard to read but I expect the Wizards to prevail in six games. John Wall is the modern Micheal Ray Richardson (without the off court issues) and he is the best player in this series.

In the Western Conference, the 67-15 Golden State Warriors are in the middle of one of the best three year runs in pro basketball history--but if they finish that run with "only" one championship then they cannot seriously be compared with the Russell Celtics, Magic Johnson Lakers, Jordan-Pippen Bulls or Shaq-Kobe Lakers, dynasties that each captured at least one set of back to back titles. Golden State's first round matchup with the Portland Trailblazers may feature one or two close games but in the end the Warriors will sweep the Trailblazers.

The 61-21 San Antonio Spurs are eight games ahead of any team in the Eastern Conference and just six games behind the Warriors. The 43-39 Memphis Grizzlies are almost annually pumped up as the proverbial team that no one wants to face but in the past six years they have lost in the first round three times and they have lost in the second round twice. The Spurs will win this series in five games.

The 55-27 Houston Rockets won about 10 more games than I expected them to win. I knew that James Harden would put up video game numbers in Mike D'Antoni's system but I thought that new additions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon would continue to be injury-prone players; I also thought that any team with Harden as the leader would experience a fair amount of chemistry issues. The Rockets' opponent, the 47-35 Oklahoma City Thunder, finished one seed higher than I predicted (but I ranked Westbrook much higher as a leader and impact player than most "experts" did before the season began). In 2015-16, the Thunder squandered more fourth quarter leads than any team in the league. In the playoffs, they blew a 3-1 lead versus Golden State. At that time, the default late game option was for Westbrook to defer to Durant. This season, the Thunder are clearly a less talented team, so it is no surprise that their overall record is worse--but Westbrook has been a fourth quarter beast. When will the media members who wrongly dogged Westbrook for years at least concede that it is possible that Durant, not Westbrook, is the player who should have been deferring in those fourth quarter debacles?

The Harden-led Rockets are usually a safe bet to lose in the first round but the reality of this matchup is that they have a better and deeper overall roster than Thunder. Westbrook will likely outscore, outrebound and outshoot Harden with Harden enjoying a narrow edge in assists but unless Westbrook's teammates keep the games close enough for him to take over down the stretch the Rockets have to be considered the favorite. I predict that Houston prevails in seven games.

The L.A. Clippers annually are a supposed contender that can never advance past the second round. The Utah Jazz are a tough-minded, defensive squad but it is not clear if they can score enough to beat the Clippers. Both teams won 51 games but the Clippers own homecourt advantage thanks to the tiebreaker and that should be enough for the Clippers to win in seven games.

-----

Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Boston-Washington, Cleveland-Toronto, Golden State-L.A. Clippers and San Antonio-Houston. The battle of the backcourts in the first series will be very fun to watch but in the end I will take Boston. Toronto pushed Cleveland to six games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and the Raptors are capable of at least as much this time around but one suspects that "Playoff LeBron" will show up at least four times, which is enough for Cleveland to advance.

Warriors-Clippers is supposedly a great rivalry with some bad blood but when push comes to shove there will be more Draymond Green technical fouls and flagrant fouls than Clipper wins. The Spurs fell to the Durant-Westbrook duo last season but, as is usually the case, they will not have much trouble sending a Mike D'Antoni team home.

Boston and Cleveland had some great playoff battles during the first part of James' career. Now, as the saying goes, he is the master and they are the student. Cleveland will steal a road game early in the series and then prevail in six games.

The Spurs have the necessary parts to defeat Golden State but something has been off with the Spurs all season. I realize that may seem strange to say about a 61 win team but it is undeniable that at times the Spurs have lacked toughness and focus. Golden State will win in seven games.

If my predictions are right, then we will be treated to the first NBA Finals trilogy enacted over three consecutive seasons. For most of the season, I held firm to my belief that the Cavaliers have a great chance to repeat as champions but I have changed my mind because their defense is just not championship-caliber. Golden State will win in six games and stake a claim as one of the league's top three year dynasties.

********************

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

In my 2016-2017 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2016-2017 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

That adds up to 71/96 in the East and 77/96 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .771.

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

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

Total: 133/180 (.739)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 12 years I have correctly picked 13 of the 24 NBA Finals participants. In four of those 12 years (including 2016) I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 AM

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Westbrook Sets Single Season Triple Double Record in Electrifying Fashion

By today's twisted NBA standards, Sunday's game between Oklahoma City and Denver was "meaningless" for Oklahoma City, as the Thunder were already locked into the sixth seed and a first round playoff matchup with third seeded Houston. Thus, the Thunder "should" rest Westbrook--but the Thunder do not operate that way and Westbrook would not stand for it if they did. He not only played in the game but he scored the Thunder's final 15 points as they roared back from a 14 point fourth quarter deficit. The Thunder trailed 105-98 with just :47 remaining but then Westbrook sank three free throws and scored on a driving layup before capping off the festivities with a 36 foot game-winning three pointer at the buzzer. By the way, this game was most assuredly not meaningless for Denver or Portland, two teams locked in a battle for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth. Westbrook's dagger knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs. Watching Westbrook and the Thunder give their best effort in a "meaningless" game for them that had meaning in the overall standings sure felt much better than watching Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue bench his best players and thus hand a win to his buddy Doc Rivers, whose L.A. Clippers may get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs thanks to Lue's gift.

This is the third recent game in which Westbrook has saved the Thunder after they seemed to be hopelessly behind; we have not seen a player repeatedly and almost single-handedly alter the outcomes of games in this fashion since Kobe Bryant did this--and Bryant typically did it primarily by being an unstoppable scoring machine, while Westbrook not only is an unstoppable scorer (it seems like almost an afterthought to mention that he has clinched his second scoring title) but also a tremendous rebounder and passer.

Westbrook finished with 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists--his third 50 point triple double this season, which is more than any other NBA player has posted in his entire career. This was also Westbrook's 42nd triple double of the season, breaking his tie with Oscar Robertson for most triple doubles in one season. The Thunder are 33-9 in those games. Not surprisingly, they enjoyed a +10 scoring margin with Westbrook on the court versus Denver and were outscored by nine points during the 11 minutes he was not in the game (a pace which adds up to a 39 point loss when projected over 48 minutes).

During Friday night's loss to the Phoenix Suns, Westbrook had already clinched averaging a triple double for the entire season, a feat previously only accomplished by Robertson. It is bizarre to hear anyone speak of the triple double as being an "arbitrary" statistical milestone; no one had said such a thing when players such as Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd racked up triple doubles. The Westbrook haters cannot seem to decide if it is better to minimize the importance of the triple double or to emphasize that James Harden has also had a large number of triple doubles this season; it is funny to hear anti-Westbrook arguments that veer wildly across the landscape like a drunken sailor: "Triple doubles don't matter but Harden has over 20 of them this season and if Harden had just 160 or so more rebounds he would have averaged a triple double as well and almost averaging a triple double is just about as impressive as actually averaging a triple double." Huh?

On Sunday night, a Houston reporter lobbed a softball question to Harden about how much winning should matter in the MVP race and Harden tried to smack it out of the park by saying that winning should matter more than anything. OK, fine--then the MVP this season should be Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry. There is just no way to twist the numbers or the facts to make Harden the MVP this season and it is a relief that the voters seem to finally be understanding that, at least if the most recent unofficial poll is correct in projecting that Westbrook has taken the lead over Harden.

While Harden begged for MVP votes, Westbrook responded to similar softball questions by repeatedly stating that he has been blessed and that he feels blessed to compete at the highest level. He did not ask for anyone's MVP vote because he lets his game do his talking, yet another way that he resembles Kobe Bryant.

I am not a big fan of per-minute projections but it is worth noting that if Westbrook averaged the same mpg as Robertson did during his triple double season in 1961-62 while maintaining his current production then his numbers would be 39.9 ppg, 14.6 rpg and 13.3 apg.Westbrook is putting up astounding individual numbers and his triple doubles are highly correlated with the Thunder's success. If the Thunder win their last two games they will finish with 48 victories, an amazing accomplishment one season after the departure of MVP candidate Durant and defensive anchor Serge Ibaka.

If you are an MVP voter who every year has voted for the best player on the best team and this season you vote for Durant, Curry or Leonard I cannot be mad at you--but no one else has a valid reason or excuse to not select Westbrook, who has set individual records while carrying what would otherwise be a Lottery team to the sixth best record in the Western Conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM

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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Farewell, Coach Mike Haley

Mike Haley, one of the most accomplished high school basketball coaches in Ohio history, passed away last weekend at the age of 73. To say that Coach Haley is underrated is an understatement; even the obituary published in the local Dayton newspaper--the newspaper of record in the city where he was a dominant coaching figure for two decades--shortchanged him one of his championships! To set the record straight, let it be noted that Coach Haley won four Ohio high school basketball titles: his 1976 Roth team went 22-5 en route to capturing the AA title, his 1981 Roth team went 26-1 en route to capturing the AAA title, his 1982 Roth team went 24-4 en route to capturing the AA title and his 1987 Dunbar team went 24-4 en route to capturing the AAA title. Coach Haley also led Dunbar to the 1984 AAA Championship Game before losing to Canton McKinley.

It is outrageous that a four-time state championship coach has not been inducted into the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame or the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. High school coaching statistics are difficult to track down but I doubt that there are many four-time championship coaches who are not in the Ohio High School Basketball Hall of Fame and I suspect that there are many coaches in that Hall who failed to win four titles.

Haley's teams specialized in pressure defense and fast-break offense. Many of the players who he mentored eventually played collegiate ball and at least one of them--Mark Baker--made it to the NBA.

Before he became a top notch coach, Haley was an outstanding high school and collegiate player in his own right. He starred at Portsmouth (Ohio) High School in the late 1950s/early 1960s before becoming a key player for some excellent Ohio University teams. In 1963-64, Ohio University went 21-6 and captured the Mid-American Conference Championship with a 10-2 mark. Haley was the fourth leading scorer (13.0 ppg) and second leading rebounder (8.6 rpg) for the 1964 squad.

In those days, only the conference champion from the MAC made it to the NCAA Tournament. Ohio University became the first MAC team to advance to the Elite Eight after beating Louisville 71-69 in overtime and defeating the fourth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats 85-69. The second-ranked Michigan Wolverines, led by future NBA All-Star Cazzie Russell's game-high 25 points, knocked off Ohio University 69-57. Haley had a team-high 17 points plus five rebounds versus Louisville, 15 points and seven rebounds versus Kentucky and 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds versus Michigan.

Ohio University went 19-7 in 1964-65, winning the MAC title with an 11-1 record. The University of Dayton edged the Bobcats 66-65 in the NCAA Tournament. Haley was the second leading scorer (16.6 ppg) and third leading rebounder (9.0 rpg) for the 1965 team.

The 1963-64 and 1964-65 Ohio University basketball teams were inducted in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. Haley joined several of his teammates in Athens, Ohio in 2014 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Elite Eight run.

Haley's resume as a player and a coach should have easily earned him induction into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame, whose stated mission is to honor "the achievements of both male and female basketball players in high school, college, and professional basketball, successful coaches on all levels, and those who have impacted the game along the way."

Instead of being publicly honored and appreciated for his contributions, Coach Haley spent the last years of his life in obscurity working as an open gym supervisor at a local YMCA in the Dayton, Ohio area. That is where I first met him. He was a revered and respected figure by YMCA members young and old and it was obvious that he enjoyed interacting with a wide range of people.

Coach Haley never bragged about his accomplishments but if you asked him about the old days he was an engaging story teller. I loved talking to him about the players he encountered during his playing/coaching career, as well as about current NBA players. Sometimes I helped him out at the scorer's table during the YMCA basketball league (during the games when I was not playing) and we would talk about various players' tendencies and the complete absence of any strategy in the YMCA league (we both nearly lost our minds when a team that was leading in the final minutes in a league with no shot clock would take a shot as opposed to forcing the other team to foul). We were two basketball lifers, a generation apart, enjoying talking about all aspects of the game: rec league, high school, college, pro.

Coach Haley loved being around basketball games and players, so he was happy working at the YMCA. The only lament that Coach Haley ever expressed was his puzzlement about not being inducted in the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Once, he even asked me if I knew how the process worked or if there was anything that I could do to help; I told him honestly that I mostly covered professional basketball and thus I did not know the inner workings of high school sports but I said that I would see what I could find out. I did some research at that time and the only thing that I could determine was perhaps he was no onger eligible because he was not a current member of the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association--which is ridiculous: (1) He should have been inducted a long time ago when he was a member and (2) a retired coach who has been unjustly overlooked should not be barred from consideration just because of such a minor technicality.

A few years ago, I lost touch with Coach Haley after I moved to the other side of town and stopped going to that YMCA while I pursued my law degree. I miss those nearly nightly conversations with Coach Haley at the YMCA and I regret that I never figured out a way to better publicize his career so that he would receive the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame induction he richly deserves. Maybe he will receive the honor posthumously, so at least his family can know that his accomplishments have been belatedly recognized.

1987 Dunbar Ohio State Championship Team (Coach Haley is the first person on the left in the second row)

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:38 PM

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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Russell Westbrook Ties Oscar Robertson's Single Season Triple Double Record

Russell Westbrook produced 12 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds in just 27 minutes as his Oklahoma City Thunder routed the Milwaukee Bucks 110-79 on Tuesday night. Westbrook has tied Oscar Robertson's single season record with 41 triple doubles and he has five games left to possibly set a new mark. Westbrook got his 10th rebound and 10th assist in a sequence that has become his trademark: he grabbed the defensive rebound, pushed the ball up the court and passed to a teammate (Taj Gibson in this instance) for an easy transition bucket. This is the eighth time in Westbrook's career that he has notched a triple double while playing fewer than 30 minutes (no other player in league history has more than three such triple doubles).

Westbrook has an active streak of seven consecutive triple doubles, tied for second on the all-time list behind Wilt Chamberlain (nine); the only other players who had seven consecutive triple doubles are Robertson, Michael Jordan and Westbrook himself earlier this season. That streak is part of a larger run during which Westbrook has posted a triple double in 11 of his last 13 games; the Thunder are 8-3 in those 11 games and 9-4 overall, solidifying their hold on the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

The Thunder are 32-9 when Westbrook has a triple double and 12-24 in the rest of their games; basically, the Thunder play at the same level as the San Antonio Spurs when Westbrook performs exceptionally but if he is "merely" great then they play at the same level as one of the five worst teams in the league. The direct impact of Westbrook's play on the ability of an otherwise mediocre team to win games is rare in NBA history, particularly for a guard; Pete Maravich with the mid-1970s Jazz and Kobe Bryant with the mid-2000s Lakers are perhaps the only two guards whose dominant play (albeit with a different style than Westbrook's) had a similar effect on the win/loss records of otherwise weak teams.

Westbrook needs just 16 assists in the next five games to average a triple double for the entire season, a feat that has only been accomplished once in pro basketball history; Robertson did it in 1961-62 (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) and he also averaged an aggregate triple double overall during the first five seasons of his career. Like Westbrook, Robertson regularly posted "big" triple doubles, namely triple doubles featuring 30 or more points. This is remarkable and sets Robertson and Westbrook apart from the other players who rank in the top five on the career triple double list. Wilt Chamberlain had voluntarily reduced his scoring from 50-plus ppg to around 24 ppg by the time he started racking up triple doubles. Magic Johnson amassed most of his triple doubles when he was averaging less than 20 ppg and Jason Kidd was never a big-time scorer.

It is fitting that Kidd had a front row seat (as Milwaukee's head coach) for Westbrook's 41st triple double of the season; Kidd was the master of the triple double during his era, racking up 107 of them (third on the all-time list) during his 19 season career. During his prime, Kidd was one of the few players who seemed potentially capable of averaging a triple double for a season but the reality is that he never came close to doing so. Kidd averaged more than 10 apg three times in his 19 year career. His single season rebounding career-high was 8.2 rpg, during a season in which he scored 13.0 ppg and averaged 9.2 apg; Kidd actually came closer to averaging a "triple single" in his best rebounding season than he came to averaging a triple double. During his prime, the closest Kidd came to averaging a triple double was 1999-00 (14.3 ppg, 10.1 apg, 7.2 rpg).

The only player other than Robertson and prior to Westbrook who came reasonably close to averaging a triple double was Magic Johnson, who averaged 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82. The next season, he averaged 16.8 ppg, 10.5 apg and 8.6 rpg but he never again averaged at least 8 rpg for an entire season.

One other player should be mentioned: Lafayette "Fat" Lever. Listed at 6-3, 170, Lever was a remarkable all-around point guard in the 1980s and early 1990s. During a four year run, he averaged 8.9 rpg, 8.1 rpg, 9.3 rpg and 9.3 rpg with scoring averages fluctuating between 18.3 ppg and 19.8 ppg but he only reached the 8.0 apg mark once in his career.

In short, Westbrook's feat is astonishing on many levels: (1) he is averaging a "big" triple double (30-plus ppg, en route to clinching the second scoring title of his career), (2) he is averaging 10-plus rpg as a 6-3 guard (which would be unprecedented and noteworthy even if he was not a big-time scorer and playmaker) and (3) his triple doubles are essential for the Thunder to be able to compete. If anyone else had averaged 30-10-10 that player would have been a landslide MVP winner; some people like to mention that Robertson finished third in the MVP voting during his triple double season but Robertson was competing against the 50 ppg version of Chamberlain and Bill Russell during the middle of his 11 championships in 13 seasons dynasty. Robertson would have won the MVP in just about any other season in NBA history and indeed he won the MVP two years later with a 31.4 ppg/11.0 apg/9.9 rpg stat line.

Sadly, some media members remain stubbornly determined to minimize the significance of Westbrook's accomplishments. During a recent radio segment, Jared Greenberg stated that an MVP case for Westbrook based on him averaging a triple double for the entire season is flawed because James Harden is on track to finish the season "only" 160 rebounds away from averaging a triple double. It should be pointed out that with five games to go in the season roughly half of the players in the NBA do not have 160 rebounds for the entire season! Applying Greenberg's flawed logic, I came within 160 rebounds this season of being a better rebounder than about half of the players in the NBA. Give me a break; if you enjoy interviewing Harden more than you enjoy interviewing Westbrook or if you feel compelled to pump up the Daryl Morey "stat guru" method of team construction then just say so directly--but don't insult everyone's intelligence with statements that just flat out make no sense.

Putting aside the fact that Harden is going to fall a "mere" 20% short of matching Westbrook's rebounding total, Harden's overall statistics must be considered in the context of the fact that Coach Mike D'Antoni's system inflates the numbers of his point guards: he turned an average point guard into "Linsanity" and (with the help of some misguided MVP voters) he turned All-Star Steve Nash into a two-time MVP. You could swap out at least 10 other point guards for Harden and the Rockets would still win at least 50 games but if you take Westbrook off of Oklahoma City's roster--or if Westbrook has an "off" night of, say, 28 points, five rebounds and eight assists, as he did against Chicago in a 28 point loss--then the Thunder would be in the Draft Lottery.

Westbrook's 2016-17 regular season is one of the greatest individual seasons in pro basketball history--period, end of discussion.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM

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Monday, April 03, 2017

A Revealing Glimpse at the Houston Rockets Sans James Harden

Many people who pump up James Harden as the NBA MVP claim that Harden has little help and that his Houston Rockets would be a poor team without him. Harden plays heavy minutes and, until Sunday night, had not missed a game this season, so there have not been many opportunities to observe this team sans Harden.

On Sunday night, though, we saw the Rockets not only without Harden but also without starters Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. If the Rockets are truly a team that lacks talent and depth, then the loss of three starters should be a fatal blow even against a poor team like the Phoenix Suns--but Houston handled Phoenix rather easily, jumping out to a 25-10 lead en route to a 123-116 victory. Eric Gordon moved into the starting lineup in Harden's place and produced 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. Meanwhile, Patrick Beverley shifted to point guard and inherited Harden's role, leading Houston with 26 points and nine assists while adding eight rebounds--a more than passable replication of Harden's regular season averages. Beverley was actually more efficient than Harden, shooting 11-19 from the field while committing just two turnovers. He also had a game high +14 plus/minus number.

This does not mean that Houston is better without Harden or that Beverley is as good as Harden--but it does suggest that (1) point guard is a stat-padding position in Coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and (2) the Rockets are not some sad sack group that is being carried by Harden; any point guard who plays for D'Antoni is going to have elevated statistics and the Rockets would be quite good in this system with this roster even without Harden.

What is interesting about this is that when Harden played in a completely different system under a different coach and with a different roster Houston also showed the ability to thrive without him: the Rockets trailed the L.A. Clippers 3-1 in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals before the Rockets rallied to win three straight games, including a pivotal game six road victory during which Harden shot 5-20 from the field and sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter as his teammates desperately fought to stave off elimination. I cannot think of another occasion when a supposedly MVP caliber player who was healthy and not in foul trouble spent so much time on the bench in the most critical moments of his team's playoff run. Houston Coach Kevin McHale sent a clear message that he believed his team had a better chance to win with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court--a decision that won the series but ultimately cost McHale his job, as Harden came back the next season out of shape, unmotivated and clearly disinterested in listening to anything that McHale said.

Also, it is important to remember that the Rockets barely improved after Harden's arrival; the Rockets' winning percentage during Harden's first season with the team inched up from .515 to .549, which is roughly equivalent to three wins in an 82 game season. The jump to a .659 winning percentage the following season (2013-14) coincided with the acquisition of Dwight Howard; the Rockets enjoyed homecourt advantage in the first round versus Portland but lost in six games. Then came the fluky 2015 run to the Western Conference Finals, followed by the horrible 2016 season that culminated in the firing of two coaches and the overhaul of the roster; the Rockets now have a great regular season coach, Mike D'Antoni, who employs a system that works well against bad teams and against teams that do not have the opportunity to prepare but works much less well against good teams that have time to prepare during a playoff series.

We have seen the Harden-type script fool media members before: Gilbert Arenas was a high-scoring guard who supposedly was an MVP caliber player who was indispensable for the Washington Wizards--until he missed almost an entire season due to injury and the Wizards essentially posted the same winning percentage without him that they posted with him.

Also consider Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets. Anthony was supposedly the driving force behind the Nuggets making the playoffs year after year--at least until the Nuggets traded him for several role players and then posted the best regular season winning percentage in the franchise's NBA history (the franchise's subsequent collapse can be directly linked to the departure of a great General Manager--Masai Ujiri, who promptly turned the Toronto Raptors into a contender--and a very good coach, George Karl).

Again, the sample sizes for the Wizards sans Arenas and the Nuggets sans Anthony were large, while the sample size for the Rockets without Harden is small--but it has been my contention for four years that Harden's impact on team success is overrated and the evidence that we have supports that thesis.

Anthony, Arenas and Harden are elite scorers; in a given season, each of them could properly be considered an All-Star or even an All-NBA Team level performer--but their defensive ineptitude and their ineffectiveness as leaders renders their impact on team success to be much less than is often assumed by casual fans or by media members who frequently do not possess the capability to accurately analyze the sport.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:08 PM

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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Krause, McGinnis, McGrady Among the 11 Newest Basketball Hall of Fame Members

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that it will welcome 11 new members this fall: Zack Clayton, Nikos Galis, Robert Hughes, Mannie Jackson, Tom Jernstedt, Jerry Krause, Rebecca Lobo, George McGinnis, Tracy McGrady, Muffet McGraw and Bill Self. If several of those names are not familiar to you as an NBA fan, keep in mind that this is the Basketball Hall of Fame, not the NBA Hall of Fame (there is no such entity), and the Basketball Hall of Fame honors players, coaches, executives and contributors from around the world/all levels of the game.

This article will focus on the three new Hall of Famers who are most closely associated with pro basketball: Krause, McGinnis and McGrady.

Nearly four years ago, I asserted that Tracy McGrady is Clearly a Hall of Famer and shortly after that I followed up with another article making the Hall of Fame case for McGrady. The Hall of Fame voters agreed with me, selecting McGrady in his first year of eligibility. McGrady, who jumped straight to the NBA from high school, had a 15 year NBA career and he led the NBA in scoring twice (2003, 2004) in the middle of a seven year run during which he averaged at least 24.4 ppg each season while earning seven consecutive All-Star selections. During that period he played in at least 71 games five times but in the five seasons after that he played in just 66, 35, 30, 72 and 52 games (out of 66 in the lockout shortened 2011-12 campaign). By the age of 31 he was no longer a regular starter and by the age of 33 he had retired due to injuries.

During McGrady's brief, absolute peak, it was reasonable to compare him to Kobe Bryant and not be absolutely certain who was the better player--but, while Bryant was blessed with good health and thus able to sustain All-NBA First Team level dominance for an extended period, McGrady had a short run as an elite player and a slightly longer period (but not nearly as long a period as Bryant did) as one of the league's 10 best players. Some would argue that this is not enough to merit Hall of Fame induction but I perceive at least three categories of Hall of Fame players: Pantheon, Top 50, other great players. McGrady is not a Pantheon level player and at best he would be a fringe Top 50 player if objective voting were done today but McGrady is solidly in the top 75 or 80 players of all-time. There are not any particular statistical plateaus for pro basketball players that point to automatic Hall of Fame selection, nor should there be some arbitrary limit on how many players can be selected.

In contrast to McGrady's first ballot selection, Krause and McGinnis waited a long time to be selected. Jerry Colangelo, the Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, promised that under his watch the Hall of Fame will recognize individuals who have "slipped through the cracks" and that has been the case: he spearheaded the creation of a special ABA Committee that finally inducted ABA all-time greats Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Bobby "Slick" Leonard and Louie Dampier. That committee has been disbanded but its spirit remains, as indicated by the 2015 induction of Spencer Haywood and the 2016 induction of Zelmo Beaty.

McGinnis' career and prime were both shorter than McGrady's but McGinnis was the only Hall of Fame eligible NBA or ABA regular season MVP who had not been inducted. McGinnis shared 1975 ABA regular season MVP honors with Julius Erving, who two seasons later joined forces with McGinnis to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals. McGinnis played a key role for two Indiana ABA championship teams (1972, 1973), winning the ABA Playoff MVP in 1973. During the 1975 ABA playoffs, McGinnis averaged 32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg and 8.2 apg while leading the Pacers to the Finals (their third Finals trip in McGinnis' four years with the franchise). McGinnis remains one of just four players who averaged 30 ppg, 7 rpg and 7 apg for an entire playoff season; pro basketball fans are on a first name basis with the other players: Oscar (who did it twice), Michael, LeBron. Interestingly, all of those players won at least one championship but none of them won a title during his 30-7-7 postseason run.

McGinnis made the All-Star team six times--three in the ABA, three in the NBA--and at his peak he was as good as any player in either league. The one blemish on his resume is that he relied too much on his natural talent, so when his physical skills began to erode he did not adjust his game; he did not make the All-Star team after the age of 28 and by age 32 he was out of the league. Nevertheless, a player who is a key contributor for two championship teams (and two other Finalists) while winning a regular season MVP, a playoff MVP and a scoring title deserves Hall of Fame induction--not to mention the fact that he was also a dominant, record setting collegiate player.

It is always poignant and bittersweet when someone whose Hall of Fame induction was long overdue is not honored until after he passes away, a fate that also befell the aforementioned Roger Brown and Zelmo Beaty. Jerry Krause built six Chicago Bulls championship teams in the 1990s, so it is odd that he was not inducted in the Hall of Fame years ago; instead, he received the honor less than two weeks after passing away at the age of 77. I was as baffled and upset as anyone by Krause's haste and glee to break up the Bulls so that he could try to build another championship team from scratch but Krause deserves a lot of credit for hiring Phil Jackson as coach and for acquiring key players Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman. An NBA executive's job is to win games and championships; by that standard, Krause is one of the most accomplished executives in pro basketball history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:24 PM

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Westbrook Saves Thunder With Historic Triple Double

Russell Westbrook just produced the highest scoring triple double in NBA history, pouring in 57 points as he led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 114-106 overtime victory versus the Orlando Magic. The Thunder trailed by 21 points midway through the third quarter before mounting the biggest comeback in Oklahoma City history and thereby clinching a playoff berth in the first season of the team's post-Kevin Durant era.

Westbrook added 13 rebounds and 11 assists in his 38th triple double of the season; with eight games to go, Westbrook needs three triple doubles to tie Oscar Robertson's single season record. Westbrook is also on track to join Robertson as the only players to average a triple double for an entire season. The Thunder are 31-7 this season when Westbrook posts a triple double and 43-31 overall, which is another way of saying that Westbrook's supporting cast is so weak that his team needs him to put up historically great numbers every game just to have a chance to win--but when Westbrook does put up historically great numbers, the Thunder almost always win.

Westbrook scored 26 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including 19 points in the final 7:45 of regulation--capped off when he grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled up court and calmly sank a 31 foot three pointer over two defenders to send the game to overtime.

Such game-saving heroics are nothing new for Westbrook, who scored 13 points in the final three minutes on Monday night to rescue the Thunder versus the Dallas Mavericks. Westbrook is the antithesis of players who pad their numbers without affecting the outcome of the game; his tremendous statistical production actually changes the outcome of the game. Several players are performing at an MVP level in 2016-17 but Westbrook is authoring a historic season that would lead to a landslide MVP victory if anyone else posted such numbers.

By the end of the Thunder's victory over the Magic, the Orlando fans serenaded Westbrook with "MVP" chants. Of course, media members never fail to find ways to attack Westbrook; one game recap noted that Westbrook was "hardly flawless" before opining, "Defeat is inevitable if he goes it alone. The only way the Thunder can change their destiny is to change their approach to the game. That starts with Westbrook. If he's really the NBA MVP, let's see him make his teammates better when the games matter the most."

I predicted the publication of that kind of trash almost three years ago to the day when I wrote, "One player seems poised to fill both of (Kobe) Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook." Keep in mind that when I made that declaration, many "experts" questioned if Westbrook could even play the point guard position, let alone become the best guard in the league. Those same "experts" criticized Westbrook for supposedly not deferring enough to Kevin Durant but it now looks like perhaps the Thunder would have been better served if Durant had deferred to Westbrook in the clutch.

When crime strikes Gotham City, the Bat Signal alerts Batman to spring into action; is there a "Daft Signal" that alerts "stat gurus" and their media acolytes to spring into action when Kobe Bryant (in previous seasons) or Russell Westbrook has a great game? I mean, the nets were still figuratively scorching from Westbrook's 57 points and the first words that come to mind for some fool who is actually paid to cover NBA games is that Westbrook was "hardly flawless"?

If you watch a player drop 57-13-11 while almost single-handedly erasing a 21 point deficit and "hardly flawless" is the best description you can muster then you need to have your eyes checked, your brain examined and your game credentials revoked. Sure, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion but when you are being paid to accurately report/commentate and you are simply unwilling or incapable of performing that task at a minimally acceptable level then it is time to seek out another line of work.

On the other hand, here is an article that every MVP voter should be required to read: Sam Anderson's February 1, 2017 in depth profile titled The Misunderstood Genius of Russell Westbrook.

Here is Anderson's take on Westbrook's playing style:
Rebounding has always been one of Westbrook’s superpowers. He is athletic enough to leap through vast spaces, strong enough to bully people in close combat and, most important, persistent enough to get himself, with unholy urgency, to the places around the rim most likely to yield rebounds. I have seen Westbrook streak in from a distant corner of the floor to tip in a missed 3-pointer off the glass--a hurtling, perfectly timed run that looked almost like a center fielder's sprinting back to leap and steal a home run just as it cleared the wall.
That was the prelude to Anderson's account of Westbrook's 27 point, 17 rebound, 14 assist performance in Madison Square Garden versus the Knicks early in this season. Here are some more nuggets from Anderson about that contest:
Even with his triple-double secured, Westbrook would not stop rebounding. My favorite of the night was his 14th: he drove, drew three defenders, passed to a teammate for a wide-open jump shot and ended up deep out of bounds. Instead of just hanging out there, admiring his handiwork, Westbrook turned, tracked the shot with his eyes, saw that it was falling short and, at precisely the moment the ball hit the front of the rim, exploded into the air with shocking intensity. It did not look like a normal professional basketball player trying to get his hand on a ball to extend a possession late in the third quarter of the 19th game of the season. It looked like a man in the middle of a winner-takes-all dunk contest against the Devil himself to prevent the incineration of planet Earth. It looked as if Westbrook were insulted by the very concept of distance, and so he annihilated it, soaring and spearing the ball out of the air from between two waiting Knicks. Spike Lee, courtside, was standing to celebrate the initial missed shot, but when Westbrook came flying in to seize it, he clutched his head in exasperation and hopelessness and despair.
Westbrook does not possess Bryant's size or finely tuned footwork, nor is Westbrook's defense as good as Bryant's--but Westbrook has a similar competitive spirit, a similar work ethic and a similar ability to lift a limited team to solid playoff status. Westbrook has also demonstrated that he can perform at an All-NBA level for a perennial championship contender, as he did for the past six years when the Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals four times. I will say the same thing about Westbrook now that I did about Bryant circa 2006, when Bryant's critics loudly declared that he would never win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal: if Westbrook is provided with even a reasonably complete supporting cast, he is capable of leading his team to a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:17 AM

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Should We Make of Devin Booker's 70 Point Game?

Wilt Chamberlain. Kobe Bryant. David Thompson. Elgin Baylor. David Robinson.

Devin Booker.

I am sorry but I just cannot do it--I cannot put Booker's name in the same paragraph with Chamberlain, Bryant, Thompson, Baylor and Robinson, even if Booker recently joined those all-time greats as the only players in pro basketball history to score at least 70 points in a game.

Chamberlain, Bryant and Baylor are Pantheon players. Robinson is a Hall of Famer and was selected in 1996 as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. Hall of Famer Thompson was blessed with comparable talent but his career short-circuited due to drug abuse and injuries.

Booker is a second year pro who had never even scored 40 points in an NBA game prior to Friday. He is averaging 21.6 ppg, 3.2 apg and 3.2 rpg this season while shooting .423 from the field (including .364 from three point range) and .838 from the free throw line. Booker's Suns are "battling" with the L.A. Lakers to post the worst record in the Western Conference. TNT's Kenny Smith often calls high scoring players for losing teams "looters in a riot," because it is relatively easy to put up numbers in garbage time for bad squads.

Booker dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last Friday night, shooting 21-40 from the field (including 4-11 from three point range) and 24-26 from the free throw line. Booker's Suns lost 130-120 and the game was not even as close as that score suggests. The Suns repeatedly committed fouls down the stretch in order to create extra possessions for Booker.

Is Booker a future All-Star/All-NBA player or is he just a very good scorer for a very bad team who put up a lot of points in a loss?

Fouling to get the ball back so a player can reach a statistical milestone is not unheard of but it is not usually quite as blatant or sustained as it was in Booker's game. There is no footage of Chamberlain's record-setting 100 point game but reports suggest that only after the opposing Knicks started fouling Chamberlain's teammates to prevent Chamberlain from scoring did Chamberlain's teammates start fouling to get the ball back for Chamberlain. Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors won, 169-147. Chamberlain had already scored at least 70 points in a game twice and he would go on to post three more 70 point games; his point total was well into the 80s before the fouling shenanigans took place.

Bryant is the only player other than Chamberlain to break the 80 point barrier, scoring 81 points to lead his L.A. Lakers back from a 71-53 deficit to a 122-104 win over the Toronto Raptors. There were no fouling shenanigans during Bryant's performance--nor were there any fouling shenanigans when Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 in three quarters before sitting out the fourth quarter or when he hit Memphis with 56 points in three quarters before sitting out the fourth quarter; there is no doubt that Bryant could have scored 70 or 80 points in both of those games, even without fouling shenanigans, if he had elected to play in those fourth quarters.

Robinson and Thompson posted their 70 point games in the last game of the season while chasing the scoring title in 1994 and 1978 respectively; Robinson edged Shaquille O'Neal but Thompson lost out to George Gervin, who played later that same day and scored 63 points, five more than he needed to take the scoring crown from Thompson. I am not aware of any fouling shenanigans in Thompson's 73 point game. Robinson's Spurs were up by a large margin late in the game when his Coach John Lucas instructed his player to intentionally foul to create more possessions for Robinson; those shenanigans added seven points to Robinson's total, enabling him to finish with 71. Brian Hill, who coached O'Neal's Orlando Magic at that time, called Lucas' stunt "a mockery of the game."

Perhaps the most blatant--and least talked about--fouling shenanigans took place in Larry Bird's career-high 60 point game; Bird was determined to break Kevin McHale's franchise single game record of 56 points (set just a few days earlier), so the Celtics repeatedly committed fouls in the waning moments of a blowout win against the Atlanta Hawks to enable Bird to boost his total from low 50s to 60 on the dot.

Booker is without question less heralded at the time of his 70 point game than any other player; the other five 70 point scorers were clearly on their way to Hall of Fame careers when they scored at least 70 points in a game, while it is not clear that Booker will even have another 40 or 50 point game.

In the aftermath of his big outing, Booker has said that Bryant inspired him to set no limits on his game and on what he can achieve. Bryant has praised Booker and has spoken about how last season Booker eagerly soaked up tips from him the way that Bryant once did from Michael Jordan.

I don't know what to make of Booker's performance or how to place it in proper context--and I have never been a fan of fouling shenanigans just to help a player reach a certain point total--but I am glad that Booker appears to be an earnest student of the game who respects and appreciates Bryant's work ethic and skill set.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:18 PM

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