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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Series Snapshots After Two Games

The game one winner of an NBA playoff series eventually wins the series nearly 80% of the time and teams that take a 2-0 lead win the series well over 90% of the time—so, for all of the cliched talk about a playoff series not beginning until the road team wins (or the venue shifts, as takes place in games three and four), the reality is that the die has likely been cast already in many of these series.

Let’s take a brief look at what has happened so far:

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee 2, Detroit 0

This series is over. The Pistons are outmatched and the only question is whether or not they can win a home game to avoid being swept.

Toronto 1, Orlando 1

Although the Magic took homecourt advantage by winning game one, this matchup still looks like one in which the Raptors’ superior talent will prevail even if that takes six or seven games. It is interesting, though, to wonder about what possible impact Kawhi Leonard’s “load management” has had on team chemistry/cohesion. The Raptors may still not be completely used to playing with him.

Boston 2, Indiana 0

The Celtics are going to win this series in no small part because they have Kyrie Irving and the Pacers do not. What I am wondering is whether or not the Pacers can successfully execute a late game inbounds play offensively or defensively. The end of game two was ridiculous. The Pacers played hard all game but lost because of inexcusable fundamental breakdowns of execution.

Philadelphia 1, Brooklyn 1

The 76ers will probably win this series based on talent but it must be said that the Nets do not look intimidated, nor are they quite as outmatched as I expected. Regardless of what happens, it is clear that the 76ers in no way resemble a championship team.

Western Conference

Golden State 1, L.A. Clippers 1

It would be shocking if the Clippers win this series but they are a shining example of the value of playing hard, not quitting, and building a winning culture as opposed to tanking to accumulate Lottery picks. The injury to DeMarcus Cousins is a devastating end to his comeback season. The Warriors have proven that they have enough talent to win a title without him but their margin for error has diminished significantly.

Denver 1, San Antonio 1

If the Spurs had held on to their game two lead, this series would be a wrap. Now, it’s a tossup, with Denver having the cushion of game seven at home if the Nuggets can take one in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich has done a tremendous job of preparing his roster throughout the season to be ready for the playoffs.

Portland 2, Oklahoma City 0

It seems like the Thunder do not have enough talent to win unless Russell Westbrook has a 25 or 30 point triple double. The Thunder need to run an offense that consistently generates shots they are able to make. There is not much value to drive and kick without having legit, deadeye shooters receiving those passes. It would also be helpful if the Thunder find an answer for their former backup center, Enes Kanter, who has been the X factor thus far.

Houston 2, Utah 0

The Rockets have dominated and deserve a lot of credit but the Jazz have been soft mentally and physically. The Jazz had been a strong defensive team but in this series they are using an anti-James Harden plan that makes no sense: you do not give an All-Star a “runway” to drive to the hoop. It is challenging to guard Harden the way that he is officiated but escorting him to the hoop is not the answer. Play him straight up, concede the 28 foot stepbacks and contest everything else without fouling. If the Jazz do that, this could still be a competitive series. Otherwise, it’s lights out.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:28 AM

42 comments

Monday, April 15, 2019

All Four Favorites Win in Day Two of the NBA Playoffs

The first day of the 2019 NBA playoffs featured three upsets but day two went strictly according to form. Here are brief recaps of the NBA's second quadrupleheader this weekend:

Boston 84, Indiana 74

Neither team shot well during a game that was either a throwback or--from the NBA's perspective of featuring offense at all costs--a setback. Kyrie Irving posted game-highs in points (20, tied with his teammate Marcus Morris) and assists (seven). As expected, the Pacers play hard and they play tough defense; as also expected, without the injured Victor Oladipo they struggle to score at times and they just do not have enough offensive firepower to take out the Celtics.

Portland 104, Oklahoma City 99

Portland looked injured and vulnerable coming into this series but after the opening tip the Trail Blazers quickly shot down those notions. Damian Lillard dominated with a game-high 30 points--including several three pointers from well behind the arc--and he added four assists and four rebounds. Former Thunder center Enes Kanter more than filled in for the injured Jusuf Nurkic, scoring 20 points and grabbing a game-high 18 rebounds. Critics are too quick to focus on Kanter's defense and they do not give him enough credit for the dual impact he has as a scorer and as a rebounder. He posted a game-high +15 plus/minus number and he was the difference in the game; Lillard's performance was expected, and was balanced out by Russell Westbrook's triple double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists while shooting 8-17 from the field and 8-8 from the free throw line), but Kanter's paint presence tilted the outcome in Portland's favor. C.J. McCollum also played well, finishing with 24 points.

This was Westbrook's ninth career playoff triple double, tying him for sixth place on the all-time list with Wilt Chamberlain. The Thunder dropped to 5-4 in Westbrook's triple double playoff games but during the telecast Mike Breen noted that the Thunder have a 110-28 record during Westbrook's regular season triple doubles. That is equivalent to a 65-17 record during an 82 game season and this highlights that Westbrook is most assuredly not chasing or putting up empty numbers but he is asserting statistical dominance in a way that directly causes, and correlates with, team success.

Paul George, who is laboring with injuries to both of his shoulders, shot like he had the weight of the world on those fragile joints: 8-24 from the field, including 4-15 from three point range. George finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds but he must shoot more efficiently for the Thunder to have a chance.

The good news for the Thunder is that this game was there for the taking in the final moments despite some of the worst outside shooting ever seen in the NBA playoffs (5-33 from three point range, a .152 percentage). The bad news is that the Thunder are an erratic three point shooting team, so if they do not improve quickly in that area and/or find a way to win the possession battle (boxing out Kanter more effectively would be a good start) then they will lose this series.

Milwaukee 121, Detroit 86

This was a classic beatdown and, short of Blake Griffin returning to health (and dominance) very quickly, there is nothing that Detroit can do to narrow the huge talent gap between these squads. Giannis Antetokounmpo posted game-highs in points (24) and rebounds (17) while also dishing four assists. All five Milwaukee starters plus two Milwaukee reserves scored in double figures.

Houston 122, Utah 90

Utah either had one of the worst defensive game plans ever seen in the NBA playoffs, or their players executed very poorly and did not follow the game plan. Either way, the "strategy" (and I use that word very loosely here) of escorting James Harden to the right side of the lane to shoot layups or make lob passes for dunks/kick out passes for open three pointers is ridiculous. As Kenny Smith put it, this is a third grade game plan for facing a kid who cannot use his off hand, not a game plan to be used against the reigning MVP. Harden should probably be shaded to the right, but he still must be guarded and his shots must be contested. Although Harden did not post great numbers by his standard this season (29 points on 11-26 field goal shooting, 10 assists, eight rebounds), Houston matched Milwaukee as all five starters plus two reserves scored in double figures.

One should hesitate to use the "s" word to describe professional athletes but I will go there with this game: Utah looked soft. The Jazz were soft with the ball (fumbling away passes, letting the ball be stripped way too easily), they let the Rockets push them around physically and they did not look mentally focused or prepared.

The difference between Utah and Detroit is that the Jazz have the necessary components to compete with, and beat, Houston. Detroit may not get beat down quite so badly in game two, but the Pistons will almost certainly be swept. On the other hand, if the Jazz enter game two with the right frame of mind and a coherent, logical defensive game plan then they could very well beat the Rockets to seize homecourt advantage. It would not be the first time that a team lost game one badly on the road only to quickly bounce back.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM

27 comments

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Upsets Dominate Day One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs

As the cliche goes, "That's why they play the games." Playoff neophytes Brooklyn and Orlando are underdogs in their first round series versus Philadelphia and Toronto respectively but the Nets and Magic each now own 1-0 leads after beating the 76ers and Raptors. Another playoff newcomer, the second seeded Denver Nuggets, lost to the wily seventh seeded San Antonio Spurs.

Brooklyn was in control for most of the game, while Orlando hung around, rallied late and emerged victorious after D.J. Augustin nailed the game-winning three pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining. San Antonio led most of the way and then withstood Denver's late rally. Here are brief recaps of those three games, along with the only game that went according to form (Golden State beating the L.A. Clippers):

Brooklyn 111, Philadelphia 102

The 76ers shot horribly from three point range (3-25, .120) and had no answers for D'Angelo Russell (26 points, four assists), Caris Levert (23 points) and Spencer Dinwiddie (18 points). Russell, a first-time All-Star this season, deserves a lot of credit for maturing as a player and as a person after the disastrous start to his career with the L.A. Lakers.

Coach Brett Brown needs to take his pick and roll coverages back to the lab and come up with some improvements.

Joel Embiid is a very talented player but in terms of Philadelphia's championship potential his talent does not matter as much as his fragility; he is too often out of the lineup, on a minutes restriction or rusty because he is not on the court consistently enough.

In my playoff preview, I picked Philadelphia in six games because of the talent disparity between these teams but I also noted "I don't trust any Sixer other than Jimmy Butler in the last two minutes of a close game." Butler scored 36 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had a plus/minus rating of +11 but the rest of his big name teammates disappeared. During the game, Coach Brown referred to Butler as the only grownup in the room. I wonder how his other All-Stars/All-Star caliber players will feel about that when they hear about his remarks, but Brown is telling the truth. The "Process" is much ballyhooed but the 76ers do not resemble a legit contender and they may not be willing/able to keep this roster intact, particularly if they do not make it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals.
 
I still don't understand the hype about Ben Simmons, because--even when he puts up good numbers, which he did not do in this game (nine points, seven rebounds, three assists)--he does not seem to have much impact on team success. Simmons does not control the game the way that Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd did, to cite two versatile players who were not great shooters early in their careers but still had a significant impact on winning.

Historically, game one winners prevail in an NBA playoff series nearly 80% of the time, so Brooklyn's victory should not be blithely dismissed. However, at this point I still believe that Philadelphia's superior overall talent will be enough to carry the 76ers into round two--but if Embiid continues to be hobbled and the 76ers do not improve their pick and roll defense then the Nets could pull off the upset.

Orlando 104, Toronto 101

D.J. Augustin outscored Kyle Lowry 25-0. That is not a misprint and that is the story of this game, culminating in Augustin's game-winning three pointer. I think that it was ESPN's Paul Pierce who coldly--but accurately--said that we just saw "Playoff Lowry," a play on words from either "Playoff Rondo" (who historically is very good) or perhaps from last season when Paul George called his playoff alter ago "Playoff P" (and "Playoff P," while not as awful as "Playoff Lowry," was nothing much to write home about).

Lowry needs to stop complaining about Toronto trading DeMar DeRozan and start trying to figure out why he becomes James Harden in the playoffs (and that is not a compliment).

Kawhi Leonard is a great player who has proven that he can carry a team to a title but he cannot literally carry Lowry if the point guard is not going to score a single point!

The other disturbing thing about this game from Toronto's perspective is that Orlando shot 14-29 (.483) from three point range.

The Magic, who squeaked into the playoffs with a barely above-.500 record (42-40), are playing with house money, while the Raptors are (1) dealing with high expectations after acquiring Leonard and no longer having to deal with perennial nemesis LeBron James and (2) trying to do well enough to convince Leonard to not leave for greener pastures.

The Raptors are a historically bad team in game ones and, while they surely hoped that Leonard would reverse that trend, they have shown that they can win a series after starting out 0-1--at least in early rounds when they are not facing James.

Golden State 121, L.A. Clippers 104

Would you trade Patrick Beverley for Kevin Durant? Doc Rivers pulled off that deal late in game one, and he would surely agree to it every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Beverley is a cheap shot artist--I mean, defensive specialist--and professional irritant whose primary job in this series is to disrupt Durant by any means necessary. Durant is nearly a foot taller and vastly more skilled than Beverly, so Beverly can only affect Durant if Durant lets him do so. If I were two-time Finals MVP/future Hall of Famer Durant, I would channel Kevin McHale, who said of another professional irritant (Durant's teammate Draymond Green), "That guy could not grow enough to guard me." Durant should not pay attention to Beverly's shoves, smirks and trash talk; just keep putting the ball in the basket and keep moving into the second round.

Unfortunately for Golden State, Durant is notoriously sensitive and often "gets in his feelings," as the saying goes. Late in the fourth quarter, Durant shoved Beverley, Beverley jumped up and flapped his gums and before you knew it both players were ejected. Beverley is expendable but Durant is crucial--and while the Clippers only have a few games left in their season, the Warriors expect to be playing another 16-20 playoff games and cannot afford to have Durant ejected or, even worse, suspended if he accumulates a total of seven technical fouls during the playoffs.

Golden State fans high fived Durant as he walked off of the court. I agree with a comment that Jeff Van Gundy made years ago, namely that it is puzzling that fans cheer for a player doing something that is stupid, selfish and not in the team's best interest.

The Warriors had matters well in hand when Durant was ejected but you can be sure that the Clippers will double their efforts to get Durant in his feelings during the rest of the series.

Stephen Curry provided the correct response to the Clippers' physical play, exploding for 38 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. He set the career playoff record for most three pointers made. Montrezl Harrell (26 points) and Lou Williams (25 points) led the Clippers in scoring.

This series will be chippy but short, and the main danger for the Warriors is that one of their stars gets hurt or suspended.

San Antonio 101, Denver 96

The young Denver Nuggets fought all season to have home court advantage and then they threw it away in 48 minutes. The Spurs featured balanced scoring (five players in double figures but none with more than 18 or less than 14 points) and stifling defense (holding the Nuggets to .420 field goal shooting, including 6-28/.214 from three point range) to take out a Denver team that had six players in double figures but trailed for most of the game.

Jamal Murray shot 8-24 from the field and did not have an assist, so he should consider shooting less often and/or more effectively while also distributing the ball to his teammates more often. Nikola Jokic had a triple double in his first career playoff game (10 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists) but the Nuggets need for him to be more aggressive as a scorer.

I did not pick the underdog in any of these series and, despite the game one statistics cited above, I expect that the favorites will eventually prevail. The Raptors have done this before and the Nuggets have a good enough culture in place to overcome this setback. I am a little concerned about the 76ers, just because Embiid seems hobbled and I do not fully trust that team's culture or most of their stars.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM

3 comments

Thursday, April 11, 2019

2018-19 Playoff Predictions

"In basketball, the adjustments that you get to make in a series are a lot of fun. You don't find that in college sports. You don't find that anywhere but here in the NBA where basketball is played as a game of chess. As a coach, it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of effort. For the players, there is much more intensity involved. They're much more alive; they're much more active. What you can get from the players, energywise, is a lot more fun for a coach, because they're not thinking about an 82 game schedule any more. Now, it's do-or-die, basically. That's why it steps up to a different level, and that's why it's a lot of fun to be coaching." Phil Jackson, during the 2002 playoffs, as his L.A. Lakers were en route to winning their third straight NBA championship.

The playoffs are here! This is the best time of the year to be a basketball fan. There will be many interesting and competitive matchups, including some in the first round.

The 2018-19 NBA regular season included some spectacular individual and team performances, plus some surprising individual and team performances--some good, some not so good. Before turning our full attention to the NBA playoffs, let's take a look back at how we got here.

The Golden State Warriors, winners of three of the last four NBA titles (including two in a row), added All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to their roster without giving up anything. Cousins sat out the first portion of the season to complete his rehabilitation from the ruptured Achilles tendon that he suffered last year and the Warriors were not as dominant as they have been in recent seasons, but they still posted the best record in the Western Conference. For significant stretches of the season, it looked like the Warriors were coasting and/or bored but when they were focused they showed flashes of just how powerful they can still be.

Some nonsense has been written and said about Cousins holding the Warriors back and not fitting in but the reality is that he will play a major role in the team's drive to the 2019 title. He provides a post-up threat that the Warriors never had before, he is a very good passer and he can even stretch the defense by making three pointers. No, he is not a great defender, but he has quick hands and he has provided solid effort at that end of the court. In 30 regular season games, Cousins averaged 16.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.5 bpg and 1.3 spg in just 25.7 mpg. He did not play enough games to qualify for official leaderboards but he posted the team's top averages in rebounding and blocked shots.

The Warriors' Big Three came through as well: Stephen Curry averaged 27.3 ppg (fifth in the league), Kevin Durant averaged 26.0 ppg (eighth in the league) and Klay Thompson averaged 21.5 ppg (18th in the league).

Russell Westbrook has now averaged a triple double for three straight seasons. Meanwhile, in other news...Yeah, that is about the level of enthusiasm far too many media members have regarding this unprecedented accomplishment, which included just the second 20-20-20 game in pro basketball history. It is difficult to understand why Westbrook is not more appreciated, and it seems likely that if anyone else had averaged a triple double for three straight seasons that player would receive much more love than Westbrook gets. Westbrook led the league in assists for the second time, and he is the only player in pro basketball history who has won multiple scoring titles and multiple assist titles.

It would be unfortunate and unfair if Westbrook slips out of the top five in MVP voting (he finished fifth last season after winning the award in 2017) and if he does not make the All-NBA First Team (he made the Second Team last year after earning back to back First Team nods in 2016 and 2017). Westbrook's numbers are integrally connected with winning, and always have been: historically, the Thunder have an elite winning percentage in his triple double games but they have a much worse winning percentage when he does not have a triple double.

It must also be emphasized that Paul George not only chose Russell Westbrook over LeBron James but George then posted the best season of his career, refuting the misguided notion that Westbrook is a bad teammate or a teammate whose style of play does not bring out the best in others.

Speaking of James, "Days of Our Lives, Lakers Style" could be a prime time soap opera and/or a very long article unto itself. We will just touch on some of the issues here, and then explore them in more depth after the playoffs, as a playoff predictions article is not the place to extensively discuss a non-playoff team.

The L.A. Lakers' four year, be patient LeBron James plan soon turned into a one year train wreck, with no relief in sight: James suffered the first significant injury of his career, when he was on the court he often seemed indifferent, when he was off the court he threw his teammates under the bus (both directly and also in his trademark, indirect passive/aggressive style) and by the end of the season the Lakers had missed the playoffs. James' attempt, through his subordinates, to force New Orleans to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers turned out disastrously for all parties involved. New Orleans fired General Manager Dell Demps in the wake of the Davis fiasco and earlier this week the Lakers' Magic Johnson abruptly publicly resigned as team President before even letting the Lakers know that he was leaving.

Say what you want about Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they put enough talent around James in his two stints with the franchise to advance to the NBA Finals five times and win one championship, which is more than most organizations have accomplished during the past 10-15 years. The Lakers supposedly pulled off a coup by convincing James to commit to multiple seasons as opposed to signing a series of one year deals (which James did in Cleveland, hurting the team's ability to recruit free agents who were uncertain about James' long-term plans), but it may very well turn out that the Lakers are now saddled with an aging, disinterested and cranky former superstar who is more interested in building his post-NBA brand than in winning an NBA title. James' physical health and his state of mind are the two biggest questions looming over this franchise and the answers to those questions will in turn play a major role in determining who will be the next team President, whether or not Luke Walton remains the coach, and whether or not any free agent who has viable alternative options will choose to play with James.

Switching to the Eastern Conference, the story of the season is the Milwaukee Bucks. Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo--who should win the regular season MVP--the Bucks posted the league's best record, 60-22. The Bucks are elite both offensively and defensively, thanks to the best player on the planet, a very smart coaching staff and an underrated (or, at least, not well publicized) supporting cast. Anteokounmpo is a 21st century combination of Shaquille O'Neal and Scottie Pippen; he has the height, paint scoring dominance and rebounding skills of peak O'Neal, but he also has the ball-handling skills, passing flair and defensive versatility that Pippen showcased during his prime. It would be unusual for a team to leap from no playoff success to a championship without having intermediate steps/failures but the Bucks have the blueprint in place to be a contender for many years, and they could pose a serious threat to the Warriors in this year's NBA Finals.

The Toronto Raptors replaced DeMar DeRozan with Kawhi Leonard and had a very good, if somewhat odd and under the radar, season. The Raptors finished second in the East with a 58-24 record, and they have to like their chances to make noise in the playoffs now that they don't have to deal with LeBron James, their primary postseason nemesis. Leonard missed 22 games, mostly because of "load management," but the Raptors did quite well without him (17-5, for a .773 winning percentage that exceeded their .683 winning percentage with him).

Boston is the Eastern Conference's mystery guest in the playoffs. It would not be surprising to see Boston in the NBA Finals but it also would not be surprising--disappointing, but not surprising--to see Boston lose in the first round. I expected Boston to be the East's best team this season but that did not pan out, at least during the regular season. A heavy funk seems to hang over this team, relating to controversies/issues such as playing time, shot attempts and whether Kyrie Irving will stay or go. Anyone without inside access to the team who boldly declares with certainty how Boston will do in the playoffs is just blowing smoke. I have some thoughts (see below) but I will not even pretend to be certain.

The 2018-19 NBA season will always be remembered as the last campaign for two all-time greats, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade. Nowitzki has been a shell of his former self physically for the past few years, but he can still shoot, as I witnessed in person during Nowitzki's Madison Square Garden farewell; he is not only one of the greatest players who I have ever seen in person, but he is easily one of the top 50 players of all-time. Casual fans may primarily think of Nowitzki as a shooter but he was also a very good rebounder--particularly in the playoffs during his prime--and he was a clutch scorer who could produce points in a variety of ways. Nowitzki is one of just four players in pro basketball history to have career playoff averages of at least 25 ppg and at least 10 rpg (Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon are the other three). Some of Nowitzki's other playoff rebounding feats include:
Wade--who also must be considered a top 50 player--first separated himself from the pack when he won the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, taking advantage of Dallas double-teaming Shaquille O'Neal to put up huge scoring number as Miami overcame a 2-0 deficit to win the title in six games. Wade won two more championships (2012, 2013) by teaming up with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Perhaps the greatest thing that Wade did was to realize, a la David Robinson playing with Tim Duncan, that James was the team's best player; Wade not only deferred to James but he encouraged James--who does not have the killer mentality of a Bill Russell, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant--to accept and embrace the responsibility of being the best player on the court.

Wade bounced around the league a bit as his career wound down (from Miami to Chicago to Cleveland before going back to Miami after being willing to accept a reduced role), he never developed a consistent three point shot, and his defense dropped off as he aged, but he will always be remembered for relentlessly attacking the hoop despite barely standing 6-4, and for often coming up with big shots in clutch situations. It would have been interesting--and frightening for the rest of the league--to see a player who combined LeBron James' size and physical tools with Wade's warrior mentality.

Here are my first round predictions:

The Milwaukee Bucks have the best player in the NBA and they are an elite team at both ends of the court. Some media members may try to drum up interest in this series versus Detrot by pointing to the Bucks' relative lack of playoff experience, but the Bucks are clearly the superior team and I expect them to demonstrate that in convincing fashion. Detroit's Blake Griffin is hobbled and Milwaukee won the regular season series 4-0. Milwaukee will win in five games at the most, and possibly four games if Griffin's effectiveness is significantly limited due to injury.

The Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard to get them over the hump in the East and then they treated him like a delicate flower, sitting him out for nearly a fourth of the regular season--but the Raptors actually posted an even better record without him than they did with him! Presumably, "load management" will be two words that we mercifully will not have to hear again until next fall. The Orlando Magic split the season series with Toronto (2-2) but the Raptors are clearly the superior team and they will beat the Magic in five games.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a high-powered offense featuring five players who averaged at least 16.9 ppg (Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons) but their defense is mediocre and they have been shaky down the stretch, going 3-6 in the final nine games of the season. The Brooklyn Nets are one of the most pleasantly surprising teams this season, ending a long playoff drought by grabbing the sixth seed. These teams split the season series 2-2. The Nets have enough tenacity to extend the series and make things interesting, but they do not have enough talent to prevail. The 76ers will beat the Nets in six games.

The Boston Celtics made it to game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals last year without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Can they really be a worse playoff team after adding both of those guys to the rotation? The Marcus Smart injury (he may not be available until the Eastern Conference Finals, assuming that Boston survives that long) hurts the Celtics in terms of defense and toughness but could possibly help in terms of opening up some minutes for the young guys who pout about not having enough playing time. The Indiana Pacers looked like they were cruising to the third seed before Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending injury. The Pacers will play hard and compete until the end but, like the Nets, they just don't have enough talent. Boston won the season series 3-1 and the Celtics will beat the Pacers in six games.

Just like last year, the final seedings in the Western Conference were not settled until the final moments of the final games on the last day of the regular season. Certain teams made, shall we say, interesting choices in terms of who they played and who they sat, as it appeared that some teams were trying to arrange to play specific opponents in the playoffs. There is a saying that if you mess with the game then the game will mess with you. Portland really seemed to not want to play Oklahoma City but that matchup happened anyway.

It is not clear if the Houston Rockets had a preferred opponent but they had a disastrous final two days, dropping from potentially being the second seed (and thus avoiding Golden State until the Western Conference Finals) to being the fourth seed facing a Utah team that has proven that it can win on the road in the playoffs. If the Rockets survive that series, then they will likely see the Warriors and--despite the hype--that series will not last seven games before the Warriors advance. Houston's demise was quite fitting, as in the waning moments of their final regular season game versus Oklahoma City James Harden drew a foul by putting Dennis Shroder in a headlock and then Harden got away with a blatant offensive foul before launching the potential game-winning jumper; despite those shenanigans, Harden missed that jumper (after also missing a key free throw) and the Rockets ultimately dropped three spots in the standings after all the dust settled.

The Golden State Warriors coasted during the regular season but there is little doubt that they will be focused and ready during the playoffs. The condition of Stephen Curry's sprained ankle could be cause for concern, but not in the first round. The L.A. Clippers had a remarkable season, making the playoffs despite not having one current or former All-Star on the roster. Doc Rivers has now led the "heart and hustle" Orlando Magic to the playoffs, won a championship with the Boston Celtics in dominating fashion and then guided the Clippers to the playoffs despite the perception/belief that the Clippers were tanking. I wonder if Bill Simmons will ever retract the nonsense that he repeatedly wrote about Doc Rivers not being a good coach? The Clippers are a nice story and they will play hard until the end but they do not have the talent to hang with the Warriors, who won the season series 3-1 and will win this series in four games.

It has become popular to suggest that Gregg Popovich's coaching wisdom and San Antonio's experience will pose problems for the upstart Denver Nuggets, who did not even make the playoffs last year. Perhaps that will turn out to be true, but the Spurs have been an inconsistent and unpredictable team all season; they could easily get a split in the first two games in Denver and then lose two games at home. The teams split the regular season series 2-2. This playoff series could be a little funky considering San Antonio's inconsistency and Denver's lack of playoff experience but ultimately Denver will win in six or seven games.

Oklahoma City has not looked very good or consistent since the All-Star break but the Thunder rallied in the last week or so to drag themselves up from eighth to sixth, a very significant move. Instead of facing Golden State in the first round or the second round, the Thunder can now avoid the Warriors until the Western Conference Finals. Portland is a very good matchup for Oklahoma City; the Thunder won the season series 4-0 and Portland has serious injury problems: center Jusuf Nurkic is out with a broken leg, guard C.J. McCollum is hobbling and guard Damian Lillard has a right hand injury. Portland also suffered an embarrassing and unexpected first round sweep last year despite having homecourt advantage versus New Orleans. On the other hand, the Thunder's Paul George is nursing two shoulder injuries and is a less than reliable playoff performer even at full strength. A couple weeks ago, I was prepared to pick against Oklahoma City in just about any conceivable playoff matchup but, while I may regret this in a couple weeks, I am picking Oklahoma City in six games. 

The best first round series may very well be Utah versus Houston. The Jazz have proven that they can win on the road in the playoffs and last year they gave the Rockets everything they could handle before being stricken with too many injuries. The teams split the season series 2-2. Houston's James Harden pushed and traveled his way to a record-setting scoring season but he is a known and proven playoff choker. He will have at least one 40 point playoff game but he will also have his share of games in which he shoots something like 6-20 from the field and/or commits 8-10 turnovers. Chris Paul's playoff career has consisted largely of disappointing losses and/or injuries. Coach Mike D'Antoni, who hopefully will be fully recovered from his recent stay in the hospital, has helmed several very talented teams but has yet to advance to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, Utah is a very strong defensive team. Whether or not the Jazz can generate enough offense is a valid question but I think that the Jazz can steal a game in Houston and hold serve the rest of the way to beat the Rockets in six games.

-----

Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Milwaukee-Boston, Toronto-Philadelphia, Golden State-Utah and Denver-Oklahoma City. 


We all know that Boston has enough talent to advance to the NBA Finals but all season long their group has not been as cohesive, tough and focused as the Bucks have been. Milwaukee will avenge last year's first round loss to Boston. 

The 76ers will probably be happy about avoiding the Celtics--who always seem to have their number--but dealing with Leonard and the Raptors will hardly be a stroll in the park. I don't trust any Sixer other than Jimmy Butler in the last two minutes of a close game. At least some of these games could be close but if they are close the Raptors will win. Toronto will advance in less than seven games.

Utah can be gritty and pesky but it takes more than gritty and pesky to beat the Warriors, who will eliminate the Jazz in five or six games.

Oklahoma City fell into a good first round matchup but the second round matchup with Denver is bad news for the Thunder, who went 0-4 versus the Nuggets this season. The Thunder are a hard team to read sometimes; maybe they will pull it all together and really challenge the Nuggets but I suspect that this series will result in a Denver victory in five games.

The conference finals will be exciting and competitive. Milwaukee-Toronto is a "pick'em" but I will go with Milwaukee based on having the best individual player plus home court advantage in game seven if the series goes the distance. Denver is not afraid of Golden State and could possibly even win a couple games against the Warriors but the Warriors will ultimately prevail.

We have never had a Warriors-Bucks NBA Finals, though both teams won titles just four years apart in the 1970s. The Antetokounmpo-Durant matchup will be epic. The coaching chess match will be great. The Bucks have a puncher's chance but the Warriors have just a bit too much talent and experience to be denied and they will become the first franchise since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics to win four titles in five years.

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

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

In my 2018-2019 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2018-2019 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2018: East 6/8, West 6/8
2017: East 5/8, West 7/8
2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 83/112 in the East and 90/112 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .772.

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


2018: 11/15
2017: 14/15
2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 158/210 (.752)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 14 years I have correctly picked 16 of the 28 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 14 years (including 2016 and 2017) I got both teams right and twice I got both teams right and predicted the correct result (2007, 2017). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began four times: 2007, 2013, 2017, 2018.

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 @ 3:11 AM

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Monday, April 08, 2019

Reflections on Final Four Weekend

This was an action packed basketball weekend, with the 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame inductees being announced, the NCAA Men's Final Four in full swing, Baylor claiming the 2019 NCAA Women's Championship, and several NBA teams jockeying for playoff position as the season winds down. I will address the NBA playoffs in my annual Playoff Predictions article within the next week, so this article will focus on the Hall of Fame and men's college basketball.

The Hall of Fame's North American Committee chose Bill Fitch (coach), Bobby Jones (player), Sidney Moncrief (player), Jack Sikma (player), Paul Westphal (player) and the Tennesee A&I teams of 1957-59 (the first collegiate team in any division to win consecutive titles). The Women's Committee selected Teresa Weatherspoon (player). Al Attles was selected as a contributor and Chuck Cooper (player) was chosen by the Early African American Pioneers Committee. The International Committee tapped Vlade Divac (player), the Veterans Committee chose Carl Braun (player) and the Women's Veterans Committee selected the Wayland Baptist University Teams of 1948-82.

NBA commentators and fans often get upset about the Hall of Fame induction process, and wonder why non-NBA players/teams that they have never heard of get selected while some prominent NBA All-Stars are left out. The Hall of Fame voting is far from perfect, and I have lobbied successfully (along with others) for the long-overdue inclusion of neglected ABA players and coaches such as  Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Slick Leonard.

It also must be remembered that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is not an NBA Hall of Fame or even a pro basketball Hall of Fame; it is designed and intended to honor people and teams from all levels of the game, as one can see from looking at the various committee names listed above. So, for example, Bobby Dandridge and Chris Webber were not beaten out by Vlade Divac, and no one is necessarily saying that Divac was a better player than those guys; Divac was the one international player selected this year, and he was being compared with other international players. Dandridge and Webber must pass muster with the North American Committee or, failing that, at some point with the Veterans Committee (I am not sure what time frame the Veterans Committee looks at; Webber surely would not yet be eligible but I don't know where Dandridge fits in that regard).

As indicated by the links above, I interviewed and then wrote articles about Jones, Sikma and Westphal. Jones was the ultimate glue guy, a selfless two-way player who was the premier defensive forward of his era plus an efficient scorer. He did not post dominant scoring numbers but he was a key member of winning teams in Denver and Philadelphia, including the 1983 Philadelphia squad that is on the short list for consideration as the greatest single season team of all-time. The inside pivot move is often called the Sikma move because Sikma was such a master at it. He was a very durable and dependable two-way player who helped Seattle advance to three straight Western Conference Finals while capturing a championship during the middle year of that run (1979). Westphal was a dynamic scorer who was one of the top two or three guards in the NBA in the mid to late 1970s.

I have not yet interviewed Sidney Moncrief, but I included him in my 2007 article about 10 NBA All-Stars who made comebacks after retiring, describing him as follows: "Few people seem to remember how great Moncrief was during his 10-year career with the Milwaukee Bucks, when he won consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards (1983 and 1984) and made the All-NBA First or Second Team five times. Chronic injuries dogged him during his final three seasons and he retired in 1989. After a year off, he felt well enough to return to the court. Moncrief's 72 games played in 1990-91 were his most since he appeared in 73 contests in 1985-86 but he put up career-lows across the board and called it quits for good."

Regarding Chuck Cooper, he helped to break the NBA's color line and he should have been inducted a long time ago, although one could argue that he should be inducted as a contributor more so than as a player; Cooper made a great, historic contribution to the league but he was not necessarily a great player, even if one accepts the premise that his career might have been longer and more distinguished in a less prejudiced era.

As for the Final Four, the Virginia-Auburn and Texas Tech-Michigan State games were long on drama but short on good basketball, as has increasingly become the case in college basketball; the sport has been hopelessly watered down by the parade of elite players to the NBA after just one or two collegiate seasons. Few colleges are able to develop and nurture players/teams, and they are instead annually throwing squads together on the fly, which is readily apparent to even a casual viewer.

Imagine the outcry that would take place if NBA teams struggled to shoot .400 from the field and scored less than two points per minute during the playoffs. I have compared the NBA game to the NCAA game in several articles--including March Madness, Part III--so I will not belabor points that I have made before, but consider some of the numbers from the two Final Four games. In Virginia's 63-62 win over Auburn, the Cavaliers needed a missed double dribble call and three late free throws to sneak by a team that shot just .382 from the field. During one extended stretch, both teams not only failed to score but they failed to fire a shot that even hit the rim! You cannot make a convincing argument that this is the result of great defense; while both teams are good defensive squads, both teams are also apparently incapable of running an offense that generates open shots that their players are capable of consistently making. Saturday night's second game was even worse, as Texas Tech and Michigan State each struggled to score more than 20 points in the first half. Texas Tech pulled away in the second half to capture a 61-51 victory but, again, this looked much more like mediocre offense than great defense. What happened to moving without the ball, crisp passing, and forcing the defense to react/concede? If the best college-age players were not already in the NBA, none of these schools would have made it to the Final Four, or at least they would not have made it there with these rosters.

The biggest college basketball story of the year was the emergence of Zion Williamson but, as we have seen so often in recent seasons, teams that rely heavily on freshmen are far from locks to win the championship. Williamson will likely take his talents to the NBA next season, but it will probably be at least a couple years until we see his game fully blossom on that level; instead of watching his game mature in college, the NCAA loses its most high profile talent, while the NBA gets a player who probably is not quite ready to be a superstar. I am not sure what the answer is, but the current system is less than ideal for both the NCAA and the NBA, at least in terms of putting the best basketball product on the floor (both leagues are making money hand over fist, so they may disagree with my assessment that the current system is less than ideal).

I will be watching the Virginia-Texas Tech NCAA Championship Game on Monday night--I have watched every NCAA Championship Game for the better part of the past three decades--and I hope to see a contest that is not only dramatic but that is also played at a high level at both ends of the court. I am hopeful but not optimistic (and since I have a 50% chance of being right, I will go on the record to pick Texas Tech to win).

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM

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Friday, April 05, 2019

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

In late 2015, the Boston Globe published a list of the Top 50 NBA Players of All-Time, ranking the players in order and providing a brief bio of each player written by Gary Washburn. Here is the Boston Globe's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

1) Michael Jordan
2) Bill Russell
3) Wilt Chamberlain
4) Magic Johnson
5) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
6) Jerry West
7) LeBron James*
8) Oscar Robertson
9) Larry Bird
10) Kobe Bryant*
11) Shaquille O'Neal
12) Elgin Baylor
13) Julius Erving
14) Bob Pettit
15) Karl Malone
16) Tim Duncan*
17) John Havlicek
18) Hakeem Olajuwon
19) Rick Barry
20) John Stockton
21) Bob Cousy
22) Kevin Garnett*
23) Elvin Hayes
24) Moses Malone
25) Charles Barkley
26) Isiah Thomas
27) Jerry Lucas
28) George Gervin
29) George Mikan
30) Dirk Nowitzki*
31) Patrick Ewing
32) Kevin McHale
33) Kevin Durant*
34) Scottie Pippen
35) Nate Archibald
36) David Robinson
37) Robert Parish
38) Allen Iverson*
39) Walt Frazier
40) Dwyane Wade*
41) Hal Greer
42) Dennis Rodman*
43) Paul Arizin
44) Clyde Drexler
45) Steve Nash*
46) Lenny Wilkens
47) Reggie Miller*
48) Gary Payton*
49) Paul Pierce*
50) Dolph Schayes

Thus, the Boston Globe added LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade, Dennis Rodman, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton and Paul Pierce to the list and did not include Dave Bing, Dave Cowens, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Sam Jones, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Bill Sharman, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton and James Worthy.

Similar to Part II in this series--which examined the 50 Greatest Players List compiled by Athlon Sports in 2008--this article will not reconsider the entire 1996 NBA list but instead will focus on comparing the 13 players added by the Boston Globe to the 13 players that the Boston Globe did not include. Thus, a player who made the cut in my estimation when examining Athlon's choices may not make the cut when examining the selections made by the Boston Globe.

In Part II, I called the inclusion of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan "obvious and indisputable." Similarly, Kevin Garnett is a worthy choice and Allen Iverson's selection should not be controversial, though some may disagree. By 2015, it was also obvious and indisputable that LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade had earned their way on to the list.

Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and Iverson.

James is still adding to his long list of accomplishments but at this writing he has won four regular season MVPs (2009-10, 2012-13; he has ranked in the top five in MVP balloting 13 times), three Finals MVPs (2012-13, 2016), three All-Star Game MVPs (2006, 2008, 2018) and the 2004 Rookie of the Year award. James won the 2008 regular season scoring title and he has led the league in playoff scoring average three times (2009, 2012, 2018). He has made the All-NBA Team 14 times, including 12 First Team selections to break the record of 11 held until last season by Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone. He has made the All-Defensive Team six times, including five First Team selections. He has made the All-Star team 15 times, tied for fourth on the all-time list with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19), Kobe Bryant (18) and Julius Erving (16, including 11 NBA and five ABA) have made the All-Star more than 15 times.

James ranks fourth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season scoring (32,543 points), first all-time in ABA/NBA playoff scoring (6911 points) and third all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1687).

Early in his career, James had a few skill set weaknesses--free throw shooting, midrange shooting, three point shooting, post up game--but he has worked hard to minimize, if not eliminate, those weaknesses. James has a power forward's body (he is approximately the same height and weight as Karl Malone) but the scoring skill set of a small forward and the passing/ballhandling skill set of a point guard. No other player in pro basketball history has the combination of size, speed, jumping ability and diverse skill set that James has. Magic Johnson had the height, the passing and the ballhandling but not the same scoring ability and jumping prowess; the (few) others who could compete with James as a scorer and jumper lacked James' passing and ballhandling skills. James has the necessary physical attributes and basketball skills to be on the short list in the greatest player of all-time discussion. James has been the best player on three championship teams (2012-13, 2016) but his teams are just 3-6 overall in the NBA Finals. James falls short of being the greatest player of all-time for reasons that are outside the scope of this article, but there is no question that he has earned a place not only among the top 50 players but among the top 10.

Dirk Nowitzki won the 2007 regular season MVP and he has ranked in the top five in MVP balloting three times. He won the 2011 Finals MVP and he has made the All-NBA Team 12 times, including four First Team selections. Nowitzki has made the All-Star team 14 times, including 2019 when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tapped him and Dwyane Wade as "special team roster additions." He ranks third all-time in ABA/NBA regular season minutes played, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (57,446) and Karl Malone (54,852), neither of whom Nowitzki will catch as this is almost certainly his last season. Nowitzki ranks fourth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season games played, trailing only Robert Parish (1611), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1560) and John Stockton (1504). Nowitzki needs to play 34 games this season to pass Stockton. Nowitzki is one of just eight players in ABA/NBA history to score at least 30,000 career regular season points.

Nowitzki entered the NBA as a 20 year old with no U.S. playing experience, though he had played professionally in Germany. During his rookie season he had a rough adjustment to the speed and physicality of the NBA game, but by his second season he was already a solid player (17.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, .379 3FG%) and by his third season he was a member of the All-NBA Third Team (oddly, he did not make the All-Star team until his fourth season).

Nowitzki is perhaps best known for his shooting prowess, both from three point range and with his unstoppable turnaround in the post/midpost area, but during his prime he was an elite rebounder--especially during the postseason; he averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg for seven different playoff years and he is one of just four players in pro basketball history to have career playoff averages of at least 25 ppg and at least 10 rpg (Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon are the other three). Nowitzki had four straight playoff games with at least 30 points and at least 15 rebounds, a feat that had not been accomplished since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had done it three decades earlier. Nowitzki ranks ninth all-time with 29 playoff games during which he scored at least 30 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds; that is four more such games than Larry Bird had and Nowitzki only trails Elgin Baylor (the all-time leader with 56), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Pettit and Tim Duncan in this category. That combination of scoring and rebounding prowess in a playoff setting probably is a surprise to casual fans and maybe even to some NBA commentators.

Nowitzki was never a great individual defender but he used his length to contest shots and he made an important contribution as a defensive rebounder. Nowitzki was never a playmaker but he developed into a reasonably effective passer; he was never a ball-stopper or a player who interfered with the effective operation of the team's offense.

He led the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals and the Mavericks went up 2-0 on the Miami Heat before losing four straight games. Next season, the Mavericks won an NBA-best 67 games and Nowitzki was given the regular season MVP but his reputation took a hit after the Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors. Nowitkzi and the Mavericks avenged the Finals collapse and the first round upset by upsetting the star-studded Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. Outdueling LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in that series eliminated any doubt--real or imagined--that Nowitzki is an all-time great. During the fourth quarters in that Finals, Nowitzki duplicated the scoring output of James and Wade combined. The Mavericks became just the fourth team in NBA history led by one current All-Star to win the Finals against a team that had three current All-Stars.

While Nowitzki is rapidly approaching the end of the road, Kevin Durant is in his prime and has already put together an impressive resume. Durant won the 2014 regular season MVP and he has ranked in the top five in MVP balloting six times, including three second place finishes. Durant won the Finals MVP in 2017 and 2018, plus the 2012 and 2019 All-Star Game MVPs and the 2008 Rookie of the Year award. Durant has led the league in regular season scoring four times (2010-12, 2014) and he has led the league in playoff scoring average four times (2011, 2013-14, 2016). He has made the All-NBA Team eight times, including six First Team selections. He is a 10-time All-Star.

Durant's NBA career had a bumpy start largely because Coach P.J. Carlesimo played him out of position at guard but after Carlesimo was fired his replacement Scott Brooks moved Durant back to his natural forward position and the rest is history. Durant is not a great post up player but other than that he has a complete repertoire as a scorer, from the three point shot to the midrange shot to the ability to drive/finish in traffic to the ability to draw fouls and then convert free throws at a high percentage. Durant has led three teams to the NBA Finals (Oklahoma City in 2012, Golden State in 2017 and 2018) and won two championships (2017-18).

Dwyane Wade ranked in the top five in regular season MVP voting twice. He won the 2006 Finals MVP and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP. Wade won the 2009 NBA scoring title and he led the league in playoff scoring in 2010. He made the All-NBA Team eight times, including two First Team selections, and he was chosen for the All-Defensive Team three times. Wade made the All-Star team 13 times, including when he joined Nowitzki in 2019 as a "special team roster addition" selected by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Wade has played in the NBA Finals five times, winning titles in 2006, 2012 and 2013.

Wade never developed a reliable three point shot; he never shot better than .320 from three point range for a full season, and in 10 of his 15 full seasons he shot worse than .300 from three point range. Wade is a solid free throw shooter whose seasonal free throw percentages range from .714 to .807. His main offensive weapons are (1) driving to the hoop, (2) drawing fouls (he averaged at least 9 FTA/g for six straight seasons) and (3) his midrange jump shot. He played exceptionally well during Miami's run to the 2006 title--culminating in a Finals performance during which he earned MVP honors--and he was very solid during Miami's 2012 title run but he averaged just 15.9 ppg during the 2013 playoffs as the Heat secured back to back championships and he has averaged less than 20 ppg in five of his 13 playoff appearances. Wade is an excellent shotblocking guard, and he has amassed the second most career regular season blocked shots for any guard since that statistic has been officially recorded (1972-73 for the ABA, 1973-74 for the NBA).

Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Rodman and Payton.

Steve Nash won two regular season MVPs (2005-06) and he ranked in the top five in MVP voting three times. He led the league in regular season assists five times (2005-07, 2010-11) and he led the league in playoff assists four times (2004-07). He won two regular season free throw percentage titles (2006, 2010). Nash made the All-NBA Team seven times, including three First Team selections. He made the All-Star team eight times.

Nash had four 50/40/90 seasons (FG% of at least 50, 3FG% of at least 40 and FT% of at least 90), ranking first on the all-time list. Larry Bird did it twice and only five other players have accomplished the feat one time each since the NBA started using the three point shot in the 1979-80 season. Nash's career regular season shooting percentages are .490, .428 and .904 respectively, meaning that he was nearly a 50/40/90 player for his entire career.

Nash ranks third all-time in ABA/NBA regular season assists (10,335), second all-time in ABA/NBA regular season free throw percentage (.904) and ninth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season assists average (8.5 apg). He also ranks seventh all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1061), is tied for sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff free throw percentage (.900) and ranks eighth in ABA/NBA playoff assists average (8.8 apg).

Nash is one of the greatest shooters of all-time and also one of the greatest passers. He was a below average defensive player and the regular season numbers that he put up in 2005-06 would not historically have been sufficient to win MVP honors. Nash's MVP awards are very anomalous when examined in the wider context of pro basketball history, both in terms of his individual productivity and also in terms of his lack of team success compared to other multiple MVP winners.  Nash's numbers through his first 12 seasons are very similar to Mark Price's numbers for his 12 year career (15.2 ppg, 6.7 apg, .472 FG%, .402 3Pt FG%, .904 FT% for Price, 14.3 ppg, 7.9 apg, .485 FG%, .431 3Pt FG%, .897 FT% for Nash) and Nash did not do anything in his last six seasons to materially add to his legacy (Nash's career numbers are 14.3 ppg, 8.5 apg, .490 FG%, .428 3Pt FG%, .904 FT%). Mark Price was a very good player, an underrated player and a player who perhaps could have been a Hall of Famer had his career not been shortened by injury--but, even at his best, he was never a serious MVP candidate, nor a player who would be considered among the 50 greatest players of all-time.

Nash's teams advanced to the Conference Finals four times in his 18 seasons and he never made it to the NBA Finals; his former team, the Dallas Mavericks, made it to two NBA Finals after he left, winning the 2011 title. While it is true that the Mavericks made many roster changes after Nash's departure, it is unusual for a team to lose a future multiple MVP winner and still be a serious contender. For instance, the Boston Celtics won 11 championships in Bill Russell's 13 seasons but then missed the playoffs two years in a row after he retired and did not reemerge as a contender until adding Dave Cowens--a future MVP and Top 50 player in his own right--to the roster. The Philadelphia 76ers posted the worst record in NBA history shortly after Wilt Chamberlain's departure. The Nets were awful after losing Julius Erving, as were the Chicago Bulls after Michael Jordan's final retirement. The struggles of LeBron James' ex-teams in recent years have been well documented. This was not the case with Nash in Dallas. In Phoenix, the Suns were declining from contender status as Nash aged--they went 40-42 in Nash's last full Phoenix season, then they went 33-33 the next year with Nash in the lockout shortened campaign--and they dropped to 25-57 in their first full season without him (albeit with other roster changes as well).

Nash is one of 15 players in ABA/NBA history to win at least two regular season MVPs. Other than Karl Malone, each of those players won at least one championship. Of those 13 championship winners, 11 of them won at least two championships and 10 of those 11 won at least one of their MVPs during a season in which their team won a championship.

Reggie Miller never finished in the top 12 in regular season MVP voting and he never made the All-NBA First Team or the All-NBA Second Team, though he did make the All-NBA Third Team (which did not exist prior to 1989) three times. Miller made the All-Star team five times in 18 seasons. He is one of just 26 members of the exclusive ABA/NBA 25,000 point club.

He led the NBA in regular season free throw percentage five times and he ranks 11th in ABA/NBA regular season free throw percentage (.888). Miller is most famous for being a three point shooter but, while he did at one time hold the regular season career record for most three pointers made (2560, now second to Ray Allen and soon to be third behind Stephen Curry), he ranks just 58th in ABA/NBA regular season career three point field goal percentage (.395). Miller ranks even lower in ABA/NBA playoff three point field goal percentage (67th, .390). Miller averaged at least 20 ppg in just six of his 18 regular seasons, but he averaged at least 20 ppg in 11 of his 15 playoff runs (seven of those 11 postseason appearances lasted six games or less). Miller played in the NBA Finals one time (2000), as his Indiana Pacers lost to the L.A. Lakers.

Miller's primary skill set strength was shooting. He was not much better than average at any other aspect of the game such as rebounding, passing, ballhandling and defense. Early in his career, he ranked in the top 10 in free throw attempts in three different seasons, an indication of his ability to draw fouls, but later in his career he did not excel at that, though he did flop to the extent that the league made a rule against players who kick out their legs unnaturally while attempting a shot in an attempt to draw a foul; such a play was not only against the spirit of the rules--before it was formally outlawed--but it was dangerous as well.

In a 1998 interview, Miller told Dan Patrick that there were only a few great players in the NBA, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill and Shaquille O'Neal on that list. Miller included himself among some "very good" players who are in a separate category underneath the great players. Patrick asked Miller why he was not great and Miller replied that he did not have the same athletic gifts and that he worked very hard just to establish himself as a very good player. That is a more objective assessment of Miller's ranking than one generally sees in the media. Miller was a great shooter, he was very durable--remarkably so, considering his slight frame--and he had some memorable playoff moments but there is no way he should be seriously considered for listing among the top 50 players of all-time.

Paul Pierce never ranked in the top five in regular season MVP voting and he only finished in the top 10 once (seventh place, 2009), He won the 2008 Finals MVP. Pierce never made the All-NBA First Team but he earned Second Team honors once and made the Third Team three times. He made the All-Star team 10 times. He averaged at least 20 ppg in eight of his 19 regular seasons and, like Miller, he is a member of the ABA/NBA 25,000 point club.

Pierce's greatest skill set strength was his ability to create his own shot in a variety of different ways; he could drive, he could post up and he was a deadly shooter out to three point range. He was a solid rebounder, playmaker and defender. Pierce was the leading regular season scorer for Boston's 2008 championship team and for the 2010 Boston team that lost in the NBA Finals. 

The players from the original 50 Greatest Players List who the Boston Globe did not include have impressive accomplishments worthy of recognition and acknowledgment. As I wrote in Part II, "Players from earlier eras should not be judged based solely or primarily on numbers, at least not without placing those numbers in the context of the vast differences between eras." Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for DeBusschere, Jones, Monroe, Thurmond, Unseld, Walton and Worthy.

Dave Bing ranked in the top five in MVP voting twice, he won the 1976 All-Star Game MVP and he was selected as the 1967 Rookie of the Year. Bing led the league in scoring in 1968 when the scoring title was determined by total points and not by scoring average; he ranked second in scoring average that season. Bing averaged at least 20 ppg in each of his first seven seasons. He ranked in the top five in assists five times, including the year that he won the scoring title. He made the All-NBA First Team twice and the All-NBA Second Team once. Bing was a seven-time All-Star.

Bing was a top notch scorer and playmaker for a decade and he was still a solid player in his final two seasons. He also rebounded well from the point guard position and he was a decent defensive player, who improved at that end of the court as his career progressed.

Dave Cowens won the 1973 regular season MVP, the first of four straight years that he finished in the top five in MVP voting, including second place in 1975. He also won the 1973 All-Star Game MVP and he was the 1971 NBA Rookie of the Year. Cowens made the All-NBA Team three times. He made the All-Defensive Team three times, including a First Team selection in 1976. He was an eight-time All-Star.

Although Cowens never led the league in rebounding, he averaged at least 13.9 rpg in each of his first eight seasons, finishing second for three straight years (1974-76) and never ranking below seventh. He ranks ninth all-time in ABA/NBA career regular season rebounding average (13.6 rpg). Cowens led the NBA in playoff rebounding in 1975 (16.5 rpg) and 1976 (16.4 rpg). He ranks seventh in ABA/NBA playoff rebounding average (14.4 rpg).

Cowens was an undersized center but he was fast and agile. He had a good shooting touch and he also could drive to the hoop. He was a first rate rebounder and passer. Cowens was a key member of Boston teams that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for five straight years (1972-76). Boston's 1973 team went 68-14, which was the third best winning percentage at that time and which still ranks as the sixth best winning percentage. The 1973 Celtics lost to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury. Boston won the 1974 championship, tied for the best record in the NBA (60-22) before losing to the 60-22 Washington Bullets in the 1975 Eastern Conference Finals and then bounced back to capture the 1976 title.

Billy Cunningham won the 1973 ABA regular season MVP and he ranked in the top five in MVP voting three times, including third in 1969 in the NBA and fifth in 1970 in the NBA. Cunningham was an All-League selection five times, including three straight All-NBA First Team selections (1969-71) and one All-ABA First Team selection (1973). Cunningham made the All-Star team five times--four times in the NBA and once in the ABA. He led the ABA in steals in 1972-73 (the first season that either league officially recorded that statistic).

Cunningham began his career as the sixth man for a Philadelphia 76ers team that featured fellow future Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Chet Walker, plus other talented players such as Luke Jackson and Wali Jones. Cunningham was the fourth leading scorer (18.5 ppg) for the 1967 76ers, who set the record--since broken--for best regular season winning percentage (68-13, .840). The 76ers routed Boston 4-1 in the Eastern Division Finals (ending the Celtics' run of eight straight NBA titles) and then beat the San Francisco Warriors to win the NBA title.

Cunningham jumped to the ABA's Carolina Cougars in 1972 and won his only MVP award after leading the team to the best record in the league, 57-27. The Cougars lost to the 56-28 Kentucky Colonels in game seven of the Eastern Division Finals, denying Cunningham the opportunity to win a championship in both leagues. Cunningham was just 29 years old and seemed poised to be an elite player for years to come, but injuries and health problems limited him to just 132 more games before he retired at age 32.

Cunningham was a left-handed player known for his jumping ability, stamina and quickness. He was a top level scorer, rebounder and playmaker; Cunningham averaged at least 23 ppg for five straight seasons, at least 10 rpg for five straight seasons and at least 4.9 apg for three straight seasons. Each of those streaks ended in 1973-74, when kidney problems (which ultimately required two surgeries) limited Cunningham to just 32 games.

Pete Maravich finished in the top five in MVP voting once (third in 1977 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton). He made the All-NBA Team four times, including First Team selections in 1976 and 1977. Maravich led the league in scoring in 1976-77 and was leading the league in scoring more than halfway through the 1977-78 season before suffering a season-ending knee injury from which he never fully recovered. He averaged at least 21.5 ppg in eight of his first nine regular seasons (though he missed at least 30 games in two of those eight seasons) and he ranked in the top five in scoring four times. Maravich ranked in the top 10 in assists twice and he finished in the top 10 in free throws made five times, including first one time and second two times. He was a five-time All-Star. He averaged 25.5 ppg during the playoffs while leading the Hawks to the postseason in each of his first three campaigns but Maravich's career playoff scoring average took a hit after his final season, when he scored 6.0 ppg in just 11.6 mpg for the Boston Celtics during their run to the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals.

In Part I of this series, I mentioned a set of criteria (in no particular order) for comparing great players from different eras:

1) How great was a particular player in his own era?

2) How highly does a player rank overall in key statistical categories?

3) Based on a skill set evaluation, how well would a player have performed in a different era when facing different rules and circumstances?

4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?

Maravich was not blessed with great longevity, which negatively impacted his ability to post high rankings in key statistical categories. However, Maravich does very well by the other three criteria. He made the All-NBA Team four times despite having just five seasons during which he played at least 70 games.When healthy, he was an elite guard for a significant portion of his career, a player who could score in a variety of ways, draw fouls, create shots for his teammates and rebound well for his position. Maravich's skill set would fit in perfectly with today's game; the rules changes and the rules interpretations heavily favor offense, particularly for perimeter players, and it is reasonable to suggest that a healthy Maravich would easily average more than 30 ppg and at least 8-10 apg under today's conditions. Regarding historical impact, Maravich's legacy is indisputable; many of the great players who followed him, including Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, have credited Maravich as a primary influence.

Willis Reed is the first player to win the All-Star Game MVP, regular season MVP and Finals MVP in the same season (1970). Michael Jordan (1996 and 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000) are the only other players who accomplished this feat. Reed also finished second in the 1969 regular season MVP voting and fourth in the 1971 regular season MVP voting. His trophy case includes the 1973 Finals MVP and the 1965 Rookie of the Year award. Reed made the All-NBA Team five times, including one First Team selection (1970, the year he earned his only All-Defensive Team selection, also to the First Team). His New York teams advanced to the NBA Finals three times (1970, 1972-73) and won two titles (1970, 1973).

Reed never led the league in a major statistical category but he averaged at least 11.6 rpg in each of his first seven seasons and his career average of 12.9 rpg ranks 13th in ABA/NBA history. While Reed could post up and he had a good hook shot, his New York Knicks often ran an inverted offense featuring guards Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe attacking the hoop while Reed and forwards Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas bombed away from outside. Reed did not display three point range--which, of course, was not necessary or desirable at a time that the NBA had not adopted the three point shot from the ABA--but he had a reliable shot in the 15-18 foot range. Reed was an excellent defensive player and he had great physical presence. He was not a great passer but he contributed offensively not only as a scorer but also as a screen setter.

While Reed put up impressive statistics during his prime, he is most famous for a game during which he scored just four points: in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals versus the L.A. Lakers, a hobbled Reed limped on to the court after missing game six due to a hip injury and he made his first two shots from the field, providing inspiration as the Knicks rolled to a 113-99 victory. Walt Frazier had 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds in game seven but Reed received the Finals MVP after averaging a team-high 23.0 ppg plus 10.5 rpg during the series (Reed averaged 26.8 ppg during the first five games of the series before suffering the injury).

Bill Sharman ranked in the top five in MVP voting once (fifth in 1956; he also finished seventh in 1958) and he won the 1955 All-Star Game MVP. He made the All-NBA Team seven times, including four straight First Team selections (1956-59), and he was a seven-time All-Star. The All-Defensive Team had not been created at that time, but Sharman was a physical player despite being just 6-1, 190 pounds, and he was considered a tenacious and pugnacious defensive player. Jerry West once said that Sharman had more fights than Mike Tyson!

Sharman's .426 career field goal percentage may not look impressive at first glance but that is deceptive. Field goal percentages during his era were lower than in subsequent eras for a variety of reasons. Sharman was one of the greatest shooters of all-time. He not only ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage five times during his 11 seasons but he also led the NBA in free throw percentage for five straight seasons (1953-57) and seven times overall; the only other player who led the league in free throw percentage seven times is Rick Barry (six times in the NBA, once in the ABA). Sharman's .883 career free throw percentage ranked first all-time when he retired and is still 14th in ABA/NBA history.

Sharman played on four championship teams (1957, 1959-61) as a member of the Boston Celtics, for whom he played 10 of his 11 NBA seasons.

Although not relevant to his worthiness for inclusion on the 50 Greatest Players List, it should be noted that Sharman is the first North American professional sports figure to win a championship as a player, as a coach and as an executive. He coached a championship team in the ABL, the ABA and the NBA. Sharman personified championship level success throughout his career and he is on the short list of people who have been inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens and Tommy Heinsohn are the others).

Before providing my take on the Boston Globe's list, I must emphasize that all of the players discussed above had great careers and made a significant impact on the sport. There is not one definitive top 50 list or only one correct way to construct such a list. All of these players deserve tremendous respect and appreciation.

I agree with nine of the additions made by the Boston Globe: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton. However, instead of adding Dennis Rodman, Steve Nash, Reggie Miller and Paul Pierce, I would keep Dave Cowens, Willis Reed, Billy Cunningham and Pete Maravich. Cowens and Reed were dominant MVP centers who were strong contributors to multiple championship teams. Cunningham and Maravich both had careers cut short by injury/illness but here I am looking at peak value and, particularly in Maravich's case, historical impact on the game. Nash was a great passer and shooter but he was a reluctant scorer who had significant defensive liabilities. Pierce was an excellent player who had a long career but he was never an elite player like Cunningham and Maravich were in their primes. Rodman, as discussed in Part II, was a great rebounder and defender but I cannot place him on the list ahead of power forwards who not only rebounded and defended but also were top notch scorers.

In Part II, I discussed my reasons for not including Sam Jones, Earl Monroe, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkens and James Worthy.

As for Dave Bing and Bill Sharman, it is particularly difficult to leave out Sharman. He was a great two-way player on four championship teams and he is one of the best shooters of all-time. However, I just cannot quite rank him ahead of the players who the Boston Globe added whose careers took place subsequent to the creation of the original list; if the list remains limited to 50 players then this becomes a numbers game and it is inevitable that some great players will not make the cut. Bing did not have quite the two-way impact that Sharman did but he was a worthy member of the initial list who, like Sharman, is just not as good as some of the all-time great players who have come along in the past two decades or so.

---

Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

Part II of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 PM

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Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Russell Westbrook Joins Wilt Chamberlain in the 20-20-20 Club

Russell Westbrook is on the verge of clinching his third straight season of averaging a triple double--an unprecedented feat that is, inexplicably, largely being ignored--and he is doing so with style: during Oklahoma City's 119-103 win over the L.A. Lakers on Tuesday night, Westbrook posted 20 points, 20 rebounds and 21 assists, just the second 20-20-20 game in pro basketball history. As you probably would guess if you did not know, Wilt Chamberlain was the first player to accomplish this, with 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists in Philadelphia's 131-121 win over Detroit on February 2, 1968.

After Westbrook's jaw-dropping performance, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas--serving as a TNT commentator during the "Players Only" telecast--said that in an era of great point guards Westbrook is not mentioned enough. Thomas also declared that Westbrook is the "most dominant" point guard of this era. That is true. No other point guard is equally dominant as a scorer, rebounder and passer the way that Westbrook is. Westbrook can match anyone in the league bucket for bucket as a scorer, he rebounds better than most centers and he has become the league's best playmaker, defying the critics who used to say that Westbrook was a shooting guard masquerading as a point guard.

The best thing about Westbrook, though, is the thing that we should be able to take for granted about pro athletes but is in fact an increasingly rare quality: Westbrook plays hard, all the time. He would agree with Jeff Van Gundy's oft-repeated statement that the idea of "load management" is a load of something else.

Westbrook does not always shoot well (he shot 8-23 from the field versus the Lakers) and he gets too many technical fouls but no matter the circumstance he competes hard. Some of the perimeter players who are putting up gaudy numbers now would not fare so well in earlier eras, but Westbrook is a throwback; he would have fared well in Chamberlain's prime during the 1960s, and during the 1970s, and during the 1980s, and during the 1990s.

This is Westbrook's eighth 15-15-15 game, tying him with Chamberlain for second on the all-time career list; Oscar Robertson--who, before Westbrook made the triple double season an annual occurrence, was for decades the only player to ever average a triple double for a season--holds the career record with 14 such games.

Speaking of 15-15-15 games and underrated/unappreciated players, Westbrook's feat brings to mind one of the most remarkable--and probably least known--playoff stat lines: Rookie Julius Erving tallied 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists as his Virginia Squires defeated the New York Nets 138-91 in game one of the 1972 ABA Eastern Division Finals. Let that marinate for a moment: Erving was a rookie when he posted those numbers in the Eastern Division Finals, while playing for the opportunity to advance to the ABA Finals (Erving's Squires lost that series but he later led the Nets to championships in 1974 and 1976). If a player put up those numbers in the Conference Finals today, the internet might implode--unless Westbrook does it, in which case it will be either dismissed or just ignored.

I understand--but don't accept--that media coverage of basketball is largely driven now by hype and memes and highlights and tweets, but how many NBA players are actually better at playing basketball--at scoring, rebounding and passing--than Russell Westbrook?

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 AM

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Thunder Not Storming Into the Playoffs

The Oklahoma City Thunder went 37-20 before All-Star Weekend, including a 10-2 mark in the final 12 games before the midseason (or two thirds season, to be precise) break. They boasted a strong offense (115.4 ppg) and an elite defense (110.2 ppg allowed) resulting in a +5.2 ppg point differential that suggested that they were legit contenders to at least reach the Western Conference Finals. Paul George had emerged as a top five MVP candidate, while Russell Westbrook was on pace to "quietly" average a triple double for the third straight season.

The Thunder faced a tough schedule down the stretch, so it was reasonable to expect that they might slip just a bit in the standings--but their 5-10 record since All-Star Weekend is a puzzling collapse of epic proportions. While the Thunder face little risk of missing the playoffs entirely, they have plummeted to the eighth seed, which means nearly certain first round elimination at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.

Usually, when a team falls apart it is possible to pinpoint the root cause or causes of the team's demise but the Thunder's implosion does not lend itself to a simple explanation. Their scoring has declined by nearly 5 ppg and their points allowed has increased by over 4 ppg. Their spg average has dropped from 10.2 to 7.1 and, not surprisingly, they are also forcing 2.5 less turnovers per game. Combine that with a decline in both rebounding and field goal percentage and the result is that the Thunder are losing the "possession" game in terms of both totals and efficiency.

While it is not clear what the problem is, one can expect one person to receive a large portion of the blame after what seems to be an almost inevitable first round loss: Westbrook.

In the abstract, it may make some sense to "blame" a team's best player when that team does not do well, but it is worth remembering that when the Thunder were playing well the media narrative was that George, not Westbrook, was Oklahoma City's best player.

Westbrook has averaged 28.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 7.6 apg since All-Star Weekend, compared to 21.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg and 11.2 apg prior to All-Star Weekend. He is still on pace to average a triple double for the third straight season. Westbrook's field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage have increased significantly since All-Star Weekend, while his free throw percentage has only declined slightly (Westbrook's poor free throw shooting throughout the season is puzzling considering that he is a better than .800 free throw shooter during his career). Critics may argue that Westbrook is shooting too much and not passing enough but that argument does not carry much objective weight considering that Westbrook's shooting percentages have risen as his usage has surged. Do his declining assist numbers "prove" that he is unwilling or unable to pass, or do they suggest that his supporting cast has been less than supportive? My main criticism of Westbrook over the past 15 games is that he foolishly collected his 16th technical foul of the season, which resulted in an automatic suspension, likely costing Oklahoma City a win against Miami.

If George is going to get the credit for the time frame when the Thunder were a third seed pressing to possibly be the second seed, then he cannot be held blameless for the Thunder's free fall. George averaged 28.7 ppg on .453/.406/.837 FG%/3FG%/FT% shooting splits prior to All-Star Weekend but in the past 15 games he has scored 25.3 ppg on .381/.314/.827 shooting splits. He has missed three games due to injury during that stretch (the Thunder went 1-2 while he sat out) and he is reportedly battling injuries to both shoulders.

Steven Adams, the team's fourth leading scorer and third best player, has also seen his scoring average and field goal percentage decline in the past 15 games, and the same is true of the Thunder's third leading scorer, Dennis Schroder, who for most of the season has been a great spark plug off of the bench.

Of course, it is not surprising that several individual players have declining numbers on a team that has dramatically transformed from an elite squad to a team that, statistically, resembles a lottery team; those individual numbers define but do not explain why the Thunder have fallen apart despite not suffering an obvious problem in terms of serious injuries/bad chemistry/strategic changes.

My eye test suggests that Westbrook looks bouncier and physically more capable than he did earlier in the season, when it seemed as if his knee surgery had affected his explosiveness and/or confidence--but while Westbrook is regaining his old swagger, the rest of the team has lost its way. What makes this even more odd is that for the past several years the Thunder's success has been directly connected to Westbrook's explosiveness and dominance: the better he played, the better the Thunder did.

It is only a matter of time before some "genius" trots out the tired "Westbrook's ball dominance is killing the Thunder" narrative but the reality is that the Thunder's problems do not seem to be connected in any meaningful way with Westbrook; he is doing his part but, unlike in seasons past, that has not been enough to lift the team. It will be interesting to see if Westbrook elects to shoulder an even larger load as the season winds down; that could potentially be a recipe to lift the Thunder out of eighth place but a one man show is not going to advance very far in the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM

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