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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Steve Nash’s Place in the Point Guard Pantheon

Steve Nash had a nice run in Dallas and won two MVPs in Phoenix before the sad denouement of his career in Los Angeles. He established himself as a very efficient shooter and deft playmaker but he never took a team to the NBA Finals. In my newest article at The Roar I examine Nash's legacy:

Steve Nash's Place in the Point Guard Pantheon

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 PM

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Enigmatic LeBron James

LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He is also one of the most perplexing members of that elite group. He has tremendous physical talent and he is a student of the game; that combination of athletic ability and mental prowess makes some of his decisions and actions baffling. How can someone who is so great just quit at home in game five of a 2-2 series?

How can someone who is so great be outplayed for extended stretches in the NBA Finals by the likes of Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard? The great multiple-time MVPs and/or multiple-time champions--including Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were never the primary reason that their teams lost and they were never outplayed in their primes by non-Hall of Fame players with a championship on the line.

My newest article for The Roar examines the enigmatic nature of LeBron James' greatness:

The Enigmatic LeBron James

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:32 PM

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why the Memphis Grizzlies Will Not Win the Championship

Many people consider the Memphis Grizzlies to be a team that is well-built for postseason play but in my column at The Roar I identify the fatal flaw that will prevent the Grizzlies from capturing the NBA crown:

Why the Memphis Grizzlies Will Not Win the Championship

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 PM

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Russell Westbrook is Proving that He is the NBA's Best Guard

There have not been many players who, by consensus, reigned as the NBA's best all-around guard. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West fought for the crown in the 1960s and early 1970s. Magic Johnson controlled the top spot for most of the 1980s. Michael Jordan at the very least challenged Johnson in the late 1980s and then Jordan took over in the 1990s. After Jordan retired, several players (including Jason Kidd and Tracy McGrady) vied for the title before Kobe Bryant emerged as the standard bearer. Bryant's career is winding down and during each of the past two seasons injuries have kept him off of the court for substantial periods of time and reduced his dominance when he was healthy enough to play.

Late last season, I suggested that Russell Westbrook is "poised" to inherit Bryant's spot. It is becoming increasingly evident that Westbrook is in fact the new Kobe Bryant, in mind and spirit if not quite in body, and that Westbrook is the proper heir to Bryant as the NBA's best all-around guard. Westbrook will likely never surpass Bryant's peak value because size matters in the NBA but Westbrook's attacking mindset and his ability to overcome both doubters and physical ailments show that he is very much built from the same mold as Bryant.

Westbrook has already earned four All-Star selections and three All-NBA Second Team nods but in the second half of this season he has taken his game to a new, almost unprecedented level. Westbrook averaged 31.2 ppg, 10.3 apg and 9.1 rpg in February, joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average 30 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in a calendar month (minimum 10 games). During a five game span starting February 24, Westbrook ranked in the top five in the league in scoring (38.2 ppg, first), assists (9.8 apg, third) and rebounding (12.4 rpg, ninth).

He also became just the fourth player in NBA history to have at least three straight 40 point--five rebound--five assist games. Elgin Baylor did this for four straight games in 1960-61, while Michael Jordan (1988-89) and Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64) did it for three straight games each. Baylor also did it for three straight games during the 1962-63 season.

Westbrook has performed at a high level throughout the season and he is the only player in the league who ranks in the top five in scoring (27.3 ppg, first), assists (8.3 apg, fourth) and steals (2.1 spg, third).

Westbrook's critics say that he shoots too much, that he is selfish and that he does not play a winning style of basketball but the Thunder's record states otherwise. The Thunder are 30-19 with Westbrook this season (.612 winning percentage), including 12-5 since February 1 as the team began making a late playoff push despite being without the services of 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant for much of that time (the Thunder are 6-4 in the most recent 10 game stretch that Durant has missed). The Thunder are just 5-10 (.333 winning percentage) without Westbrook (that record includes some early season games that both Durant and Westbrook missed).

The reality is that no matter what individual numbers Westbrook puts up or how many championships he wins, he will never satisfy all of the naysayers; after all, Bryant's five championships and numerous individual records/accomplishments have far from silenced his vocal critics. Those who understand basketball, though, appreciate how Bryant prepared for and played the game and that same respect should be extended to Westbrook as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 PM

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Why Tanking Does Not Work

Last season, I cited Derek Thompson's article in The Atlantic about why tanking does not work. Despite the fact that tanking is both unethical and ineffective, it is becoming increasingly popular in the NBA. At The Roar, I reexamined the subject, focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers, who are pathetic in every sense of the word:

Why Tanking Does Not Work

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:05 PM

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

NBA MVP: Best Player in the League or Best Player on the Best Team?

My newest column for The Roar discusses the 2015 NBA MVP race:

NBA MVP: Best Player in the League or Best Player on the Best Team?

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM

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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Louie Dampier Earns Direct Election into the Basketball Hall of Fame

Louie Dampier is the fifth nominee directly elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame by the ABA Committee, joining Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Bobby "Slick" Leonard. I covered the Basketball Hall of Fame press conference five years ago when Jerry Colangelo, the Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Board, pledged that under his leadership the Basketball Hall of Fame would honor players and teams that had "slipped through the cracks." I asked Colangelo specifically about several worthy ABA veterans and Colangelo replied, "I am hopeful that over a period of time these people will be recognized for their contributions." It is delightful that Colangelo has been true to his word and helped the Basketball Hall of Fame uphold the standards that it should have applied many years ago.

Artis Gilmore is a familiar name to NBA fans, "Slick" Leonard still does radio commentary for his beloved Pacers, Roger Brown was recently the subject of a wonderful documentary produced by Ted Green and Mel Daniels won two ABA regular season MVPs (second in league history behind Julius Erving's three MVPs) but Dampier's contributions and skill set may be less familiar to casual and/or younger basketball fans.

The 6-0, 165 pound Dampier holds the ABA career records for regular season points (13,726), games played (728), assists (4044) and three point field goals made (794). Dampier held the career ABA-NBA three point field goals made record until Dale Ellis broke it during the 1992-93 season (the NBA first used the three point shot in the 1979-80 season but the long ball did not immediately become a major weapon). Dampier ranked in the top five in three point field goal percentage for eight straight seasons, leading the ABA with a .387 mark in 1973-74. He twice led the ABA in three point field goals made and his 199 treys in 1968-69 stood as the ABA-NBA single season record until John Starks made 217 three pointers for the New York Knicks in 1994-95, the first of three seasons in which the league experimented with a shorter three point line (Dan Majerle and Mookie Blaylock each made 199 three pointers that season as well). Dampier's record for most three pointers made in a season with the three point line at the normal distance stood until Antoine "I only shoot threes because there are no fours" Walker shimmied his way to 221 three pointers in 2000-01.

Dampier was one of the outstanding players during the ABA's early years, ranked third in the league in scoring in 1968-69 (24.8 ppg) and fourth in the league in scoring in 1969-70 (26.0 ppg). He participated in all nine of the ABA's seasons as a member of the Kentucky Colonels, earning seven All-Star selections and four All-ABA Second Team selections.

Indiana native Dampier played a prominent role in the Kentucky Colonels--Indiana Pacers rivalry. He averaged 16.9 ppg (third on the team) and a team-leading 7.5 apg in the 1975 playoffs as the Colonels defeated the Pacers 4-1 in the ABA Finals to claim the franchise's only championship.

After the Colonels did not participate in the ABA-NBA merger, the San Antonio Spurs (a former ABA team) acquired Dampier. He spent three seasons with the Spurs in a reserve role, retiring the year before the NBA adopted the three point shot.

Dampier was not a franchise center like Daniels and Gilmore, nor was he an all-around superstar like Brown, but he was a tremendous shooter and playmaker who made a significant contribution to some very successful Kentucky teams. Dampier's Hall of Fame selection is well deserved and overdue.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nobody Wants to Face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Playoffs

My second piece for The Roar focuses on the surging Oklahoma City Thunder:

Nobody Wants to Face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Playoffs

In case you missed it, my first column for The Roar compared the Atlanta Hawks to two teams that won NBA championships without having one of the league's 10 best players (the 1979 Supersonics and the 2004 Pistons):

Atlanta Hawks Seek to Win Championship Without a Superstar

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 PM

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Atlanta Hawks Seek to Win Championship Without a Superstar

Most NBA championship teams--and all NBA dynasties that have won at least three titles--are led by one or two of the 10 best players in the league. The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks are built on a different model; they do not have one true superstar but they have several very good players. In my first piece for The Roar, where I am now a weekly columnist, I compare the Hawks to the 1979 Supersonics and the 2004 Pistons, two teams that won titles without having a superstar player.

Here is the link to that article:

Atlanta Hawks Seek to Win Championship Without a Superstar

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 AM

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Westbrook Leads West to 163-158 All-Star Game Victory

Russell Westbrook came out firing, pouring in 27 first half points in just 11 minutes, en route to scoring 41 points in 25 minutes as his Western Conference All-Stars defeated the Eastern Conference All-Stars 163-158. He shot 16-28 from the field, including 11-15 in his blazing hot first half. Westbrook set the All-Star Game record for points and field goals in a half and he fell just one point shy of tying Wilt Chamberlain's 1962 single game All-Star scoring mark. Westbrook also had five rebounds and a team-high three steals in an impressive, energetic and explosive display of his all-around basketball skill set.

Yes, this is just an exhibition game but it is also an exhibition game featuring the league's greatest players and in the 64 year history of the contest the list of players who previously cracked the 40 point barrier is short and includes, arguably, the two most dominant scoring machines that pro basketball has ever seen: Chamberlain scored 42 points as his East squad lost 150-130 in 1962 (the West's Bob Pettit won the MVP with 25 points and 27 rebounds) and Michael Jordan earned the MVP after scoring 40 points in front of his home Chicago fans while leading the East to a 138-133 victory in 1988.

LeBron James battled Westbrook for the MVP, leading the East in scoring with 30 points while adding seven assists and five rebounds. The East outscored the West by one point when James was on the court; Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague was the only other East player with a positive plus/minus number (three), but Teague only played 13:27 while James logged nearly 32 minutes. James has now scored 278 points in NBA All-Star competition, moving past Jordan (262) and now ranking second only to Kobe Bryant (280), though it should be noted that Julius Erving holds the ABA/NBA All-Star record with 321 points.

Reigning regular season MVP Kevin Durant scored just three points in 10 minutes, but James Harden picked up the slack for the West with 29 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. LaMarcus Aldridge added 18 points in 18 minutes, connecting on all four of his three point attempts. Stephen Curry contributed 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while DeMarcus Cousins scored 14 points on 6-7 field goal shooting.

Kyle Korver ranked second in scoring for the East with 21 points, doing all of his damage from beyond the arc. John Wall added 19 points and seven assists. East starting forward Carmelo Anthony made a bid for MVP honors for the West, bricking his way to 14 points on 6-20 field goal shooting.

The 2015 NBA All-Star Game was a shootout from start to finish as the teams tied the All-Star Game record for point in a half (165 in the first half) and set a new record with 321 total points. Korver and Harden each shot 7-12 from three point range as the teams combined to make 48 three pointers, obliterating the record of 30 set last year.

Anyone who suggests that defense is not emphasized during the NBA regular season and playoffs should look no further than this game to refute that oft-repeated but tired and inaccurate notion; the high level of defense typically played in the NBA is best demonstrated by looking at what happens when most of the players are operating on cruise control at that end of the court: if teams did not focus on defense then the game scores would regularly reach 140, 150 and even 160 points, because NBA players are just that talented.

Although some enjoyment can be derived from watching great players score with amazing dunks and heat check three pointers, I agree with Julius Erving that the All-Star Games were better when the defensive intensity was more consistent. It is possible to have fun, entertain the fans and not get hurt while still competing at both ends of the court. Other than three overtime contests (1980, 1984, 1987), only one team scored at least 140 points during Erving's 11 NBA All-Star appearances (West, 1985). The winning team topped 140 points three times in Erving's five All-Star appearances in the ABA, which featured a more wide-open style of play.

Like many people, most of my favorite All-Star Game memories will probably always date back to my youth, but I also enjoyed the six All-Star Games that I covered in person (my recaps of the 2005-2010 All-Star Weekends can be found in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's home page) and I still consider the All-Star Game must-see TV because of the sheer talent that the event showcases.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Kobe Bryant the Realist Faces His Basketball Mortality

Kobe Bryant had successful--but season-ending--surgery yesterday to repair the torn right rotator cuff that he suffered during the L.A. Lakers' 96-80 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Wednesday. Although Bryant will undoubtedly do his best to return to action as soon as possible (nine months is the expected recovery time for this procedure), the injury could possibly signal the end of Bryant's career; he still has not quite completely recovered from the Achilles and knee injuries that limited him to just six games last season and now he faces yet another grueling rehabilitation regime.

Bryant hurt his shoulder while converting a driving, two-handed dunk. He stayed in the game, attempting to play left-handed and even nailing a left-handed turnaround jumper before Coach Byron Scott removed Bryant from the contest. After the game, Bryant insisted that the injury was no big deal but last Friday an MRI revealed the extent of the damage. Reports indicate that Bryant may have been playing with a shoulder injury of some sort throughout this season, which could possibly at least partially explain his career-low .373 field goal percentage.

Prior to tearing his rotator cuff, Bryant seemed to be making some necessary adjustments/concessions to his age and physical limitations. During the L.A. Lakers' 109-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 15, Kobe Bryant posted 19 points, seven rebounds and a career-high 17 assists. The 36 year old Bryant became the oldest player in Lakers' history to have at least 15 assists in a game. Bryant returned to the NBA this season after a ruptured Achilles forced him to miss the 2013 playoffs and his recovery from that injury plus a lateral tibial fracture in his left knee caused him to miss all but six games of the 2013-14 season. In his 19th season, Bryant has been forced to accept that he can no longer single-handedly carry his team--and that he cannot play 36-plus minutes a night and that he probably cannot handle back to back games on a regular basis. This state of affairs has also been an adjustment for Coach Scott, who was Bryant's teammate when Bryant was a rookie and Scott was in his final season; the young Kobe Bryant would refuse to leave the game and occasionally might just check himself back into a contest if he felt that things were getting out of hand while he was on the bench. Prior to this season, Bryant realistically suggested to Scott that his minutes should be restricted but Scott--perhaps fooled by how fit Bryant is--thought that Bryant could handle a heavier workload. Recently, Scott trimmed Bryant's minutes and deactivated Bryant for entire games when necessary.

For most of his career, Bryant could take over games at will. Bryant understands that he can no longer do that: "Well, the Kobe from five years ago could physically pick up this whole team by myself. I've always been a realist, though. Always. I'm not afraid to self-assess and be honest about that and be brutally honest with myself. I can look myself in the mirror and say, physically, I can't do that, so I'm not going to do that. I'll do something else. I'll figure out how to do something else. You can't achieve that level of anything if you're not brutally honest with yourself, man. You've got to be. I am that. That's why you're not seeing that."

Bryant's harsh and vocal critics this season overlook that he can still impact the game in many positive ways. Bryant explains, "It's just different. It's more putting the pieces in the right place. It's more quarterbacking. It's more positioning. It's more strategic. It's less foot on the throttle. I'll be at a high level. I can get 15 [points], 10 assists, eight rebounds in 30 minutes in my sleep."

The most deceptive aspect of the aging process regarding elite athletes who work hard to stay in shape is that, superficially, they often appear to have not lost anything. For instance, Jerry Rice and Hakeem Olajuwon kept themselves in marvelous physical condition. They looked young and fit even at the very end of their careers but, unfortunately, their bodies could no longer perform at an elite level. Jerry Rice standing on the football field in his uniform in 2004 looked just as fit as Jerry Rice looked in 1985 or 1995--but in 2004 his explosiveness was gone. Hakeem Olajuwon as a Toronto Raptor in 2002 looked like a marvelously conditioned human being--but he could not play like Hakeem Olajuwon did as a Houston Rocket in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kobe Bryant version 2014-15 has more left in the tank than Rice and Olajuwon did in their final seasons--but Bryant and the Lakers have been forced to adjust to changing circumstances. It is not wise or fair to compare this Kobe Bryant to the Kobe Bryant who won five championships or the Kobe Bryant who twice carried Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the playoffs.

In one sense it will be a shame if the last images of Bryant's career consist of Bryant shooting left-handed and trying to use his one good arm to single-handedly carry a bad team--but, in another sense, it would be quite fitting: Bryant never quits, never makes excuses, never gives in to pain or injury and always finds a way to be productive when he is on the court. Watching Bryant sink that left-handed turnaround jumper with textbook form, I thought of LeBron James--immensely talented, in the prime of his career, the most dominant player in the sport when he wants to be--talking earlier in the season about being in "chill mode." Like Michael Jordan, like most great champions, Bryant does not have "chill mode." LeBron James is bigger and stronger than Kobe Bryant and James may run faster and jump higher than Bryant did even in Bryant's prime (though it is easy to forget just how athletic the young Bryant was)--but even after belatedly learning just how hard he has to play to become a champion, James still seems to have not completely internalized just how much focus it takes to reach the highest level in Pro Basketball's Pantheon.

I try to avoid ranking players within the Pantheon but--much like I have felt for years that Bryant will never quite match up with Michael Jordan, though the gap is not as wide as some people like to believe--it just seems like James' mental game and his championship ring total will never quite match up with Kobe Bryant's. There are little things that maybe aren't so little at all that tip the balance toward Bryant. When Bryant played with All-Star big men (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol), those players had the best seasons of their careers; when James played with All-Star big men (Chris Bosh, Kevin Love), those players had to sacrifice their games and accept lesser roles. It is so ironic that James is cast as a pass-first, unselfish player and yet Bryant has done so much more to bring out the best in his teammates. When you watch James you get the feeling that he knows exactly how many points and assists he has and what his field goal percentage is but when you watch Bryant you get the feeling that he is just trying to make sure that his team kills the opposing team and statistics be damned. If I had one playoff game to win and could take either guy in his prime the choice would be very easy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Changing of the Guard--or Diminishing of the Guards?

Subjectively, it seems like there is a changing of the guard--literally and figuratively--in the NBA. Young players like Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis are moving to the forefront, while older players who have dominated the NBA for the past several years are declining and/or hampered by injuries. The shooting guard position is taking on a new look. Kobe Bryant, the best shooting guard--and often the best player overall--in the NBA for the better part of the past decade and a half, has just suffered another season-ending injury; surgery on his right rotator cuff is expected to keep him out of action for nine months. Dwayne Wade, probably the second best shooting guard in the NBA for most of the time frame that Bryant dominated, has been battling injuries and declining athleticism for several years.

In FanDuel leagues the best fantasy basketball player options at shooting guard are guys like James Harden and Klay Thompson. Harden and Thompson--who set the all-time NBA record by pouring in 37 points in a quarter en route to scoring 52 points during Golden State's 126-101 rout of Sacramento last Friday--are also the scoring leaders among shooting guards so far this season, at 27.6 ppg and 23.0 ppg respectively (Harden is the NBA's overall scoring leader as well). Surprisingly, Bryant (22.3 ppg) and Wade (21.4 ppg) are next in line, though of course Bryant will not play enough games this season to be a qualifier. Monta Ellis is fifth (20.3 ppg) and Jimmy Butler is the only other shooting guard averaging at least 20 ppg (20.1 ppg).

My initial assumption was that if I looked back five years the list would be much different but in 2009-10 the scoring leaders among shooting guards were Kobe Bryant (27.0 ppg), Dwyane Wade (26.6 ppg), Monta Ellis (25.5 ppg), Tyreke Evans (20.1 ppg) and Jamal Crawford (18.1 ppg). Evans is seventh this season (17.0 ppg) and Crawford is 11th (15.7 ppg).

However, 10 year ago the shooting guard landscape included greater quality and quantity. Allen Iverson led the scoring parade (30.7 ppg, capturing the last of his four scoring titles) but seven other shooting guards also averaged at least 20 ppg: Kobe Bryant (27.6 ppg), Tracy McGrady (25.7 ppg), Vince Carter (24.5 ppg), Dwyane Wade (24.1 ppg), Ray Allen (23.9 ppg), Michael Redd (23.0 ppg) and Jason Richardson (21.7 ppg). The first six players on that list are future Hall of Famers in their primes, while the 2005 versions of Redd and Richardson would almost certainly be All-Stars in 2015 (Redd made the All-Star team once in an injury-riddled career and Richardson never made the All-Star team).

Obviously, even though the position is called "shooting guard" a lot more goes into being a great shooting guard than just shooting/scoring. However, I doubt that many objective talent evaluators would take the top shooting guards of 2015--using any relevant statistic or standard--as a group over the top shooting guards of 2005. Maybe we are not seeing a changing of the guard as much as we are seeing some talent depletion at the shooting guard position. Such things are cyclical and it could be argued that the point guard position is now enjoying a renaissance but thinking about this does put All-NBA selections and All-Star selections in perspective; when considering such honors from a historical standpoint, it is important not to just look at how many times a player was tapped but also what kind of depth existed at his position during his prime.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:51 PM

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Sunday, January 04, 2015

NBA Potpourri: James Harden, David Blatt, and The New York Knicks' Mess

The start of a new year is as good a time as any to revisit some recurring NBA themes, specifically how James Harden's game should be evaluated, how good of an NBA coach David Blatt is and what it will take to turn around the New York Knicks.

How Good Is James Harden?

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to Houston in 2012 after Harden refused to sign anything less than a max contract, I declared that Harden is best-suited to being a third option on a championship-contending team and I rejected the notion that he is an All-NBA First Team or Second Team caliber player. In contrast, Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, one of the most highly regarded "stat gurus," proclaimed that Harden is a "foundational player." I had never heard that phrase before but the only relevant or sensible interpretation is that Morey believes that Harden is great enough to be the best player on a championship-caliber team and/or that Harden is great enough to lift a mediocre or worse team well above its otherwise expected performance level. Harden is more than a third of the way through his third season in Houston, so one can draw at least preliminary conclusions about his game. Three issues should be examined: How Harden's departure affected the Thunder, how Harden's arrival affected the Rockets and how Harden has performed in terms of his individual productivity.

The Thunder posted a .712 winning percentage in Harden's final season with the team (2011-12) and they advanced to the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat in no small part because Harden performed awfully on the sport's biggest stage; during the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden averaged 12.4 ppg--4.4 ppg worse than his regular season average--while shooting just .375 from the field and committing 12 turnovers in 164 minutes (Harden's teammate Russell Westbrook posted 11 turnovers in 211 minutes despite playing most of his minutes against the Heat's best players while Harden had the opportunity to play against reserves and/or tired starters).

Without Harden in 2012-13, the Thunder improved their winning percentage to .732 and eliminated Harden's Rockets 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs--but Westbrook suffered a playoff-ending injury versus the Rockets, crushing the Thunder's hopes of returning to the NBA Finals. In 2013-14, the Thunder posted a .720 winning percentage even though Westbrook missed 36 games while recovering from his knee injury. The Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. This season, both Westbrook and 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP Kevin Durant have missed a significant number of games due to injury but the Thunder are 17-17, including six wins in their past 10 games as Durant and Westbrook have returned to action.

There is no evidence that Harden's departure has negatively impacted the Thunder; their regular season record improved without him--no small accomplishment considering how good their record was in 2011-12--and their failure to make it back to the NBA Finals is related to injuries, not Harden's absence. If the Thunder had kept Harden then they likely would have lost Serge Ibaka and they would have been worse off.

What about Harden's impact on his new team? The Rockets' winning percentage improved from .515 to .549 in Harden's first season in Houston. That is equivalent to about three wins in an 82 game season. After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Rockets sneaked in as the eighth seed and promptly lost in the first round to, as mentioned above, Harden's old team.

In 2013-14, the Rockets added Dwight Howard--a five-time All-NBA First Team center who had almost completely recovered from the back surgery that slowed him down in 2012-13 when he played for the L.A. Lakers--and improved their winning percentage to .659. The Rockets tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the fourth best record in the Western Conference, received homecourt advantage versus Portland based on a tiebreaker and still did not manage to even push the series to seven games, losing 4-2. 

This season, the Rockets got off to a fast start but their current winning percentage is .697 and they would not even have homecourt advantage in the first round if the playoffs began today. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games and it seems much more likely that they will fall behind the L.A. Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder as opposed to passing the teams that are already ahead of them in the standings.

The Rockets have improved a bit since Harden's arrival but they are still not a legitimate contender and the improvement that they have made has at least as much to do with Dwight Howard as it does with Harden. Harden is neither carrying a bad roster to unexpected heights nor is he lifting a good roster into legitimate championship contention. The Rockets have been first round playoff fodder the past two seasons and there is no reason to believe that they will advance past the first round this season.

Individually, Harden has put up some gaudy scoring numbers. He ranked fifth in the league in scoring in both 2012-13 and 2013-14 and he currently leads the league in scoring. However, Harden's field goal percentage plummeted as his role changed from being the third option to being the first option. For such a big-time scorer, Harden has a very limited offensive game; he either shoots three pointers or he drives to the hoop, throws himself into opposing players and begs for foul calls (which he often gets, at least in the regular season). Harden has no postup game and no midrange game; he plays the way that "stat gurus" prefer, because he racks up most of his points from either three pointers or free throws. It does not require an advanced mathematics degree to figure out that long two point shots (i.e., shots taken from just inside three point range) are not good shots; a player who has the ball just inside the three point arc should either step back and take advantage of the potential extra point or else drive closer to the hoop for a higher percentage two point shot. However, the idea held by many "stat gurus" that the midrange game is completely inefficient and/or unnecessary is extreme. Teams that cannot score in the midrange game are not going to advance very far in the playoffs unless they perform exceptionally well in other areas on a consistent basis.

Harden puts up decent assist totals but those numbers are a deceptive product of Houston's drive and kick offense; Harden is not individually creating offensive opportunities for his teammates a la great playmakers such as Magic Johnson or Isiah Thomas.

A player like Harden is not so hard to defend in the playoffs when the competition is tougher and the teams are well rested; you put one mobile defender on Harden, you deny Harden open three point shots and when Harden drives you avoid body contact while making sure to contest his shot. It is not necessary to double team Harden; Harden does not "tilt the floor" the way that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do. It is no accident that Harden has shot worse than .400 from the field in three of his five postseasons, including both of his Houston playoff appearances.

Despite his high scoring average, I still think that Harden is an overrated offensive player. When Durant and Westbrook created opportunities for Harden, Harden was a much more efficient player. Now, Harden has a license to shoot at any time but he is not efficient and he has not elevated his team beyond the middle of the playoff pack.

Then, there is the notorious matter of Harden's defense. Harden may be the worst defender among All-Star players in quite some time. Often, he does not even pretend to try at that end of the court. Supposedly his defense has improved this season but he set the bar so low that the only way he could have gotten worse is if he actually put the ball in the hoop for the other team.

So, if my description of Harden is correct then why did he make the All-Star team the past two years and why did he earn an All-NBA Third Team selection in 2013 before making the All-NBA First Team in 2014? I never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a good player; he just is not an elite or "foundational" player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets.

In 2013, I gave Harden serious All-NBA consideration before tapping Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry as my choices for the league's six best guards. Last season, injuries decimated the ranks of the league's elite guards (including Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo), paving the way for Harden to ascend to All-NBA First Team status.

Maybe Harden will prove me wrong. Maybe he will become more efficient offensively. Maybe he will start to play defense. Maybe he will shoot better than .400 in the playoffs and lead Houston past the first round. Until he does those things, though, I will not consider him an elite or "foundational" player.

Is David Blatt an NBA Championship-caliber Coach?

The simple answer is "No." How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players. Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to an NBA title.

Let us not misunderstand what happened several years ago when Team USA went through a stretch of failing to win gold medals in FIBA play. Those Team USA rosters did not include Kobe Bryant--the best player in the world at the time--and neither the players nor the coaching staff took the task seriously enough. If Team USA had been better coached and if the rosters had been better constructed then Team USA would have won every time. The fact that some FIBA teams could win one 40 minute game under FIBA rules against NBA players did not at all prove that the FIBA players and/or teams are superior to NBA players and NBA teams playing under NBA rules. If the best FIBA team played an 82 game NBA schedule that team would struggle to win 41 games--but if Team USA players trained year round under FIBA rules they could show up in any FIBA league or competition and win the championship.

The NBA game is faster, tougher, more physical and more complicated than the FIBA game with which Blatt is familiar. Blatt's supposedly sophisticated FIBA offensive sets are not getting the job done in the NBA even though Blatt's Cleveland squad is blessed with the best player in the NBA, two other All-Stars and a host of good NBA role players--and Blatt has yet to prove that he can teach and/or motivate NBA players to play good defense on a consistent basis.

The real questions are (1) Can David Blatt become an NBA championship-caliber coach? and (2) Will he become such a coach fast enough to keep his job in Cleveland? Blatt is not entirely to blame for Cleveland performing below expectations; LeBron James has admittedly coasted at times, various players have been injured and now Anderson Varejao is out for the season. However, even when LeBron James played hard and the Cavaliers were at full strength they did not consistently look like a championship team. It is interesting to recall how much criticism Mike Brown received during his first stint as Cleveland's coach. The current Cleveland team has more name-brand talent than Brown ever coached in Cleveland--though I think that talent on Brown's teams has been underrated a bit--but Blatt's squad lacks the attention to detail on defense that Brown's teams consistently displayed.

What Will it Take to Turn Around the Knicks?

The Knicks must get rid of Carmelo Anthony and rebuild their roster from the bottom up. When Mike Ditka first became coach of the Chicago Bears, he told the players that the good news was that he was going to lead the team to a championship but the bad news was that most of them would not be on the team by the time that happened. I expected that after Phil Jackson took over New York's basketball operations he would not re-sign Anthony; if someone other than Jackson did that he would probably be ridiculed for letting an allegedly elite player go but I thought that Jackson has enough championship credibility to defend such a move in the media--and cutting ties with Anthony is clearly the route that the Knicks should have taken.

Jackson publicly identified the Knicks' problems before he joined the team's front office: the Knicks have, as Jackson put it, a "clumsy roster." Anthony will probably be able to put the ball in the bucket until he is 40 years old but his overall game has not improved much since he entered the league: he likes to play one-on-one isolation basketball, he passes only as a last resort, he plays defense when he feels like doing so (not often enough to lead a team to a championship) and he is a capable, though not exceptional, rebounder considering his overall athletic gifts. He is not a good leader; he and his teams perform best when he is being guided/mentored by players with a championship mentality (Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd in the NBA, Kobe Bryant with Team USA). 

The Knicks are currently 5-30, barely ahead of a Philadelphia team that has been accused of tanking. How can anyone possibly believe that Anthony is even close to being an elite player? Take Anthony off of that New York roster and add any elite player from the past 30 years; can you imagine the Knicks only winning five out of 35 games? A few years ago, Kobe Bryant made it to the playoffs in the Western Conference with Smush Parker at point guard and Kwame Brown at center. At some point, people have to stop looking at statistics, stop being blinded by reputation and just look at what is actually happening on the court. Carmelo Anthony is a physically gifted athlete and an All-Star caliber performer but he is never, ever going to lead a team to an NBA championship. He could possibly be the second best player on a championship team if the best player is a great leader, if the team is extremely well coached and if the right supporting cast is on hand.

I wonder if Jackson thought that Anthony would play his way out of New York in such a fashion that Jackson would not be blamed and meanwhile Jackson could take his time retooling the rest of the roster. In other words, if the Knicks had posted a respectable 45-37 record this season and Anthony had turned in his typical playoff disappearing act in a first round loss then Anthony might have considered waiving his no-trade clause and Jackson could have dealt Anthony without being viewed as the villain.

Jackson must have known that the Knicks would not be a contender this season but he could not have possibly imagined things going as disastrously as they have. Media members are rightly criticizing Jackson for giving up Tyson Chandler but Jackson's biggest mistake thus far has been committing so much guaranteed money to someone who is just not a franchise player. Jackson should have done what Masai Ujiri did in Denver: send Anthony to a team dumb enough to take him in exchange for a package of good, solid players. If Anthony would not have agreed to such a sign and trade, then the Knicks should have let him walk and used the salary cap space to rebuild their roster. Normally, I would not advocate possibly letting an All-Star leave without getting anything in return but in this case the reality is that Anthony is not going to lead New York to a championship and thus it makes no sense for the Knicks to pay him as if he is an elite performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kobe Bryant is not as Good as Michael Jordan--So What?

Kobe Bryant scored 26 points during the Lakers' 100-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday December 14 to move past Michael Jordan into third place on pro basketball's career scoring list. One might think that this accomplishment would be an occasion to reflect upon Bryant's consistency and longevity but while some observers have taken that approach many commentators go to great lengths--either via anecdotes or via statistics--to "prove" that Jordan is not just better than Bryant but that Jordan is much better. The very fact that the comparison is often made--even if it is just done to belittle Bryant--says a lot. No one is comparing scrub players to Michael Jordan. For that matter, no one is comparing LeBron James or Tim Duncan or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Garnett to Jordan. Bryant has won five championships and he has been a dominant two-way player since the early 2000s. There is no one else since Jordan retired who can be compared with Jordan. Yes, everyone in the post-Jordan era falls short in that matchup, but at least a case can be made for Bryant in terms of Bryant being a fundamentally sound, freakishly competitive multiple championship winner with a high pain tolerance and a low tolerance for teammates who lack willpower and desire.

The way that some people compare Jordan and Bryant is interesting. The best case for Jordan versus Bryant would focus on Jordan's efficiency and Jordan's performances during his 6-0 run in NBA Finals (Bryant has one more Finals appearance than Jordan but also two more Finals losses). Of course, field goal percentages in general were higher during Jordan's era, the rules and style of play were much different and Jordan's overall numbers benefited from him playing college ball before immediately becoming an NBA starter while Bryant jumped straight to the NBA from high school and thus needed some on the job training as a bench player.

The similarities between the players--in skill set, physique and demeanor--are striking and not just superficial. If Jordan had publicly called his teammates soft and then the next night his undermanned squad defeated the reigning NBA champions, the media would have exploded with paeans to Jordan's competitive greatness and how Jordan brings out the best in his teammates--but when Bryant does this he is mocked, media members predict that Bryant is going to shoot 50 times against the Spurs and then when the Lakers win the whole story disappears.

While some media members and fans may not understand or appreciate the rough edges of Bryant's personality, Kevin Durant, the 2014 NBA MVP, respects Bryant's approach and refutes the idea that good players do not want to play with Bryant:

Excuse my language, but that's (expletive). I want to play with a winner every single night, especially somebody who wants to win that bad, who works that hard, who demands a lot, who raises up your level. I'd want to play with a guy like that every day...(His style) may make people uncomfortable, how he acts and just how he approaches the game, but I love that type of stuff. I think (the accusation) is BS.

Durant admires the way that Bryant pushes his teammates to be better, a trait that Durant observed firsthand as Bryant's teammate while winning the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics:

Just his work ethic, just his demeanor man. He doesn't mind being an (expletive), and he comes to work man. He's intense. He demands a lot out of his teammates, and I've seen that just playing alongside him in the Olympics (in 2012). He demands a lot out of everybody. He makes them better. Everybody out on the court. You've got to respect that. As a player, I study guys like that. We might not have the same personality, but I think we approach the game the same way and I've learned a lot from just watching him.

Once one moves past comparing Bryant to Jordan and once one understands that any player with the right mindset would welcome the challenge and opportunity of playing with Bryant, one can focus on just how remarkable Bryant's current season is. Forget for a moment his career-low field goal percentage and consider the fact that Bryant is a highly productive player in his 19th NBA season. Only three players in NBA history have even made it past their 19th season: Robert Parish (21 seasons), Kevin Willis (21 seasons) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20 seasons). All three of those players are big men who could camp out in the post and did not have the responsibility of handling the ball full-court. Parish did not average more than 5 ppg after his 18th season. Willis was not a full-time starter or double figure scorer after his 14th season. Abdul-Jabbar, one of the most dominant centers in pro basketball history, did not average more than 25 ppg or more than 9 rpg after his 13th season; he made the All-Star team in his 19th, 20th and 21st seasons but he did not average more than 18 ppg or 7 rpg in any of those campaigns.

In contrast, during the 2014-15 season Bryant is logging heavy minutes (35.4 mpg), his floor game is still excellent (5.1 rpg, 4.9 apg and 1.4 spg, numbers that are comparable to his career averages of 5.3 rpg, 4.8 apg and 1.4 spg) and he is scoring 24.6 ppg. Bryant's field goal percentage (.372) is not good but he is remarkably productive and durable for a 19 year veteran who is coming off of two serious leg injuries. Bryant is in excellent shape and if his body holds up his field goal percentage will probably improve during the course of this season as he regains his game legs after being out of action for such an extended period.

No, Kobe Bryant is not quite as good as Michael Jordan and, no, Kobe Bryant is no longer as efficient or dominant as he was during his prime--or even during his last healthy full season, when he was a legitimate MVP-caliber player averaging 25.5 ppg on .463 field goal shooting (including a career-high .510 from two point range) as a 17 year NBA veteran--but Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan that we have seen or are likely to see anytime soon. Bryant's former dominance and his remarkable, ongoing longevity should be celebrated.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:02 AM

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Friday, December 12, 2014

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" Makes its ESPN Classic Debut Tonight!

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" will air on ESPN Classic tonight starting at 10:30 p.m. Producer Ted Green's labor of love--a film about a great basketball player who triumphed despite being deprived of the opportunity to play pro ball during a significant portion of his prime years--is gripping, heartwarming and heartbreaking. It should be appointment viewing for any serious basketball fan.

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" made its Dayton, Ohio debut in August, 2013. Dayton, my hometown, is where Roger Brown played freshman ball for the University of Dayton and where he excelled for several years on the AAU circuit before signing with the ABA's Indiana Pacers. Brown's spectacular clutch shooting helped the Pacers win three ABA titles and earned him the respect of several of the greatest players of all-time: Julius Erving, George Gervin and Rick Barry spoke very highly of Brown when I interviewed them more than a decade ago and asked if they thought that Brown deserved to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Brown's long overdue Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement took place in 2013.  Brown did not live long enough to enjoy that honor but his name and his accomplishments are inextricably interwoven with the history of the Pacers, the ABA and pro basketball as a whole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:28 AM

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Assessing Kobe Bryant as a Lion in Winter

Kobe Bryant's 31 point, 12 assist, 11 rebound stat line in the L.A. Lakers' 129-122 overtime victory over the East-leading Toronto Raptors on Sunday night would be special for any player at any time--but those numbers have added meaning for Bryant; he not only notched his 20th career triple double but he became the oldest player in NBA history to drop 30-10-10 in a game and he became the first player in pro basketball history to accumulate at least 30,000 career points and at least 6000 career assists. Earlier this season, Bryant became just the fifth different player in the past 30 years who posted at least 39 points and at least nine rebounds in a game at the age of 36 or older (Michael Jordan accomplished this three times, Karl Malone did it twice and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal did it once each).

Bryant is on pace to become the oldest scoring champion in pro basketball history--and he is doing this while some of the most prolific scorers in the league are in their prime years, including LeBron James (27.5 ppg career scoring average, third in pro basketball history) and Carmelo Anthony (25.2 ppg career scoring average, 11th in pro basketball history). Bryant is also tenth in minutes per game (35.9 mpg) this season and he is averaging more steals per game than top notch defenders LeBron James and Luol Deng.

Bryant is attempting a career-high nine free throws a game and on a per minute basis his rebounds, assists and turnovers are all right around his career norms. He is still a very skilled player and he is remarkably effective considering his age, his mileage and his recent injury history. Despite all the positive things that Bryant is doing, the statistics that are attracting the most media attention are his career-low shooting percentages from the field (.392) and the free throw line (.783), plus his 23.1 field goal attempts per game. Bryant is being criticized for shooting so frequently and so poorly. Those are valid concerns but it is important to remember that he is less than 20 games into what--presumably and hopefully--will be his first full season since the 2012-13 campaign after suffering a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture. Bryant is a 36 year old, 19 veteran who has essentially been out of action for nearly two years after overcoming potentially career-ending injuries but instead of being praised for his work ethic and his all-around skill set, much of the commentary around Bryant focuses on the size of his contract and how he is supposedly destroying the franchise that he helped lead to five championships since 2000. There are plenty of franchises that would like to be "destroyed" the way that Bryant has "destroyed" the Lakers--and the Lakers did not exactly tear up the league during Bryant's absence last season.

Like most older player who have dealt with injuries, Bryant will struggle to match the field goal percentage that he posted during his prime years--but the same media members who are killing Bryant just a few games into his comeback put James Harden on the All-NBA First Team last season despite Harden's .405 field goal percentage and abysmal defense. If Harden is supposedly a top five player in the league while shooting poorly and playing defense like a turnstile then how can it be true that Bryant--aging, coming off of two major injuries and surrounded by a conspicuous lack of talent--is as bad as his very vocal critics suggest?

We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant that carried Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to consecutive postseason  appearances and nearly beat the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the 2006 playoffs. We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant who led the Lakers to back to back championships after the first time that he supposedly destroyed the Lakers by allegedly chasing away Shaquille O'Neal. Those Kobe Bryants had younger, healthier legs and could carry a team not just for a game but for a month, a playoff series, an entire season. However, this Kobe Bryant is capping off a great career by showing that even an older player whose wheels have been damaged can still use guile, skills and toughness to compete with the best players in the world's best basketball league. He is not shortchanging the Lakers, himself or the fans and he should be praised for the approach that he is taking and the determination that he is demonstrating.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:01 AM

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Friday, November 14, 2014

LeBron James' Rescinded Phony Triple Double is a Symptom of a Larger Problem

Intelligent NBA observers know that there are serious problems with the accuracy/meaningfulness of box score numbers, which by definition means that the so-called "advanced basketball statistics" that are cherished by "stat gurus" are also deeply flawed. Box score numbers are not only devoid of context--points scored by a bench player during garbage time of a blowout game count the same as points scored in the fourth quarter of a close game that will decide which team wins a division title--but they often are just flat out wrong. Faulty scorekeeping is a serious NBA problem; when I have charted Chris Paul's assists I have consistently found that he is credited with more assists than he deserves--and it is perhaps most telling that I have never found an instance when a player was not credited with an assist that should have been recorded. The scorekeeping errors only happen in one direction (i.e., padding totals as opposed to depriving players of assists that they rightfully earned) and I am not convinced that this is primarily "home cooking," though that may play a part. NBA scorekeeping is either inherently sloppy or else there is a bias toward artificially inflating the numbers of certain players, perhaps with the intention of comparing today's stars favorably with stars from previous eras by making it seem as if today's stars are setting records that they are not really setting.

The latest publicly acknowledged example of NBA scorekeeping gone bad took place on Monday, when LeBron James supposedly posted 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 118-111 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Upon further review, the NBA removed one rebound and one assist from James' totals. Both scorekeeping errors occurred during one continuous sequence: the incorrectly tallied rebound happened when a missed shot bounced off of James' hands into the hands of his teammate Tristan Thompson, who controlled the ball and should have been credited with the rebound. Thompson then made an outlet pass that resulted--after many dribbles--in a Kyrie Irving fastbreak layup. No assist should have been awarded on that play but instead the scorekeeper gave James an assist, which makes about as much sense as giving Mark Price an assist on the play.

One can dismiss this as "home cooking" or say that Cleveland's official scorekeeper just had a bad night but the reality is that egregious errors regarding LeBron James' box score numbers do not only happen in Cleveland. This is the second phony LeBron James triple double that the NBA has corrected, with the first one happening in Madison Square Garden on February 4, 2009. Scorekeepers would not be making such obvious mistakes unless this kind of box score padding is an accepted practice. The NBA claims that it regularly checks game film to make sure that the box score statistics are accurate but--in light of the numerous uncorrected box score mistakes that I have found in just a handful of Chris Paul's games--it seems more likely that the only reason LeBron James' phony triple doubles were rescinded is that observers outside of the NBA publicly called attention to these outlandish mistakes. Meanwhile, routine errors that are not publicized become part of the sport's historical and statistical record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 PM

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

2014-15 Western Conference Preview

The opening sentence of my 2013-14 Western Conference Preview could not have been more prophetic: "The San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's 21st century version of Rasputin: just when you think that they are dead and gone, they prove that they still have a lot of life left." The Spurs bounced back from their devastating loss in the 2013 NBA Finals to beat the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals and earn the fifth championship of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014). Duncan now enjoys a 2-1 head to head advantage versus LeBron James in the NBA Finals and Duncan owns three more championship rings than James does. Duncan has never been as statistically dominant individually as James is and Duncan has not been the Finals MVP during the Spurs' most recent two title runs but numbers do not fully capture Duncan's impact as a defensive stopper in the paint, a low post offensive hub (who can also step outside and hit midrange jumpers) and a true champion who has been an outstanding leader from day one. Duncan long ago made a strong case to be considered the greatest power forward of all-time and I tapped him as a Pantheon level player six years ago but because of his soft spoken demeanor and the fact that he has never posted gaudy statistics it seems like his greatness may never be fully appreciated.

The Spurs stood pat this offseason and they have every reason to believe that their core nucleus of Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is good enough to make yet another title run. Their chief rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder, will have to survive for a significant period of time without Kevin Durant, who has won four of the past five scoring titles. This could be an opportunity for Russell Westbrook to shine a la Scottie Pippen in 1994 and Kobe Bryant in 2003; Pippen and Bryant were wrongly considered to be mere sidekicks until retirement (Michael Jordan) and injury (Shaquille O'Neal) respectively enabled them to demonstrate that they were in fact legitimate MVP caliber players in their own right. Bryant went on a scoring binge in O'Neal's absence and some people may expect Westbrook to try to do the same thing but I think that--while Westbrook will likely bump up his scoring a bit--he will focus on showcasing his all-around game and prove that he can be the best player on an elite team, much like Pippen did when he led the Jordan-less Bulls to a 55-27 record in 1993-94.

This preview has the same format as the Eastern Conference Preview that I posted yesterday; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).

1) San Antonio Spurs: The Duncan/Popovich Spurs have put together a unique dynasty spanning a decade and a half: they always win 50-plus games, they almost always seriously contend for the championship, they have won five titles--but they have never won back to back titles and they have never fielded a particular squad that would rank among the 10 best single season teams in pro basketball history. Other basketball dynasties have been shorter-lived and captured fewer championships but many of those dynasties either won back to back titles or else notched one season of exceptional dominance. The Spurs' dynasty has been interrupted by--and ultimately outlasted--two distinct Lakers' dynasties that claimed three straight championships and two straight championships respectively. It would be foolish to expect anything less than 50-plus regular season wins and another deep playoff run from the Spurs.

2) Oklahoma City Thunder: "Stat gurus" will insist that James Harden's departure has held back the Thunder and possibly even cost them at least one championship but the truth is that during their first two seasons sans Harden the Thunder have posted the franchise's two best winning percentages since 1998. The Thunder's problem has been that they have not been able to keep their core trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka healthy during the postseason. The Thunder were right to jettison Harden and keep Ibaka but they will never win a championship if they do not have those three players operating at a peak level in May/June. This season is already off to an ominous start even before opening night, as Durant is expected to miss extensive time due to a foot injury. Westbrook will more than hold down the fort in Durant's absence during the regular season and Thunder fans can only hope that come playoff time Durant is in peak form.

3) L.A. Clippers: I have long maintained that Chris Paul will never be the best player on a championship team; Isiah Thomas is the only 6-foot and under player (don't believe the listed heights for Paul or Thomas) who was the best player on an NBA championship team and even though Paul's mindset is very similar to Thomas' there is just some element (besides the obvious element of durability) that Paul is missing. The loophole here, of course, is that Paul could still win a title with the Clippers. After all, during Paul's absence last season we saw that Blake Griffin is hardly dependent on Paul to be a great player and that Griffin is in fact the Clippers' best player. The Clippers do not have quite enough to beat San Antonio or Oklahoma City at full strength but if those teams suffer some key injuries the Clippers could very well win the West.

4) Golden State Warriors: Coach Mark Jackson did an outstanding job building a winning culture in Golden State but he lost favor with management and was shown the door. New Coach Steve Kerr will try to keep Jackson's defense intact while adding some offensive creativity. The Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson backcourt is dynamic and if the Warriors get productivity from Andrew Bogut and David Lee upfront then they will be a very scary team during the playoffs.

5) Portland Trail Blazers: Portland was a pleasant surprise last season, finishing tied for the fourth best record in the tough Western Conference. I don't like the word "overachieve" but let's just say I do not expect Portland to exceed what they accomplished in 2014. This is a good, solid playoff team but not a championship contender.

6) Dallas Mavericks: I am not sure why the New York Knicks were so eager to run Tyson Chandler out of town but the defensive anchor for Dallas' 2011 championship team still has at least a little left in the tank. Chandler Parsons will provide a major offensive boost. If Dirk Nowitzki were a couple years younger, I would rank Dallas as a top three team in the West but Nowitzki is not quite the player he used to be.

7) Houston Rockets: Daryl Morey became Houston's General Manager in 2007. In the past seven seasons, they have missed the playoffs three times while advancing past the first round just once. "Stat gurus" love to criticize traditional-minded NBA GMs and make fun of their roster moves and mock them for failing to take advantage of "advanced basketball statistics." How long, exactly, is it supposed to take for the allegedly immense advantages supplied by the use of those statistics to have an impact on the bottom line win/loss statistic? If a traditional-minded NBA GM had taken over in Houston seven years ago and posted the exact same record that Morey's teams have posted, you can bet that the "stat gurus" in the media would be firing potshots at him. I don't think that Morey is necessarily a bad GM but the idea that he deserves credit for swinging for the fences is a bit tiresome. The Rockets have swung, repeatedly, but all of their roster moves have yet to result in creating a team that is likely to advance past the first round.

8) Memphis Grizzlies: Meet the next Houston Rockets. The Grizzlies were on the verge of championship contention less than two years ago. Then they decided to go all-in with "advanced basketball statistics." That led to a first round exit last season and will likely lead to a first round exit this season. Be prepared to read many stories this season about just how forward-thinking the team's front office is, despite the fact that the team figures to be backward-moving in the standings.

There has been a lot of noise about Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers recently. I wish that I had the time to delve into that subject in depth but I will have to settle for just making a few quick observations:

1) No one should put much stock in an article written by someone with no credibility who can only support his weak thesis with anonymous quotes.

2) Whether or not Bryant's teammates have enjoyed every minute that they spent with him, a large number of those teammates enjoyed career years playing alongside him. That group ranges from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol) to the somewhat less than sublime (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker).

3) Do you think that it is terrible for a player to publicly call his teammates "sissies" during the NBA Finals and for that same player to announce during a regular season game huddle that if his teammates don't want to play hard then they should just stand on the weak side while he shoots the ball every time? If so, then you don't think much of Larry Bird's leadership techniques. What about punching a teammate in the face during practice and riding other teammates so hard to test their toughness that he basically ran some guys off of the squad, if not out of the league entirely? If those leadership techniques don't strike your fancy then you must not like Michael Jordan very much.

Let's be real. Julius Erving and David Robinson won pro basketball championships while being genuinely nice guys on and off of the court--but many of pro basketball's greatest players were not always nice to be around on a day in, day out basis. The difference is that media members liked Larry Bird and Michael Jordan--and, in an earlier era, they liked Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle enough to cover up their off-field excesses. We live in a different era now. Media members are not awestruck by pro athletes, nor do they get to ride on the same planes, trains and automobiles with them. Many media members are jealous or incompetent or just like to write/say provocative things. In 2006, Team USA had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony and laid an egg. Then, in 2008 Team USA added Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd and reestablished Team USA's FIBA dominance. Now, media members take potshots at Bryant and Kidd night and day. Bryant and Kidd are not close to being perfect human beings but it is strange to question their basketball leadership abilities and I take anything that the media says about them (and any other subject) with a huge grain of salt.

4) The 2014-15 Lakers essentially have traded Mike D'Antoni and Pau Gasol for Byron Scott, Kobe Bryant and Carlos Boozer. The Lakers are not a great team or even a very good one but they won 27 games last season and if Bryant stays healthy it is not absurd to think that they could win 30-plus games this season.

5) Bryant is getting old and he is coming off of two serious injuries. I don't think that his skills have declined dramatically but they have declined and the reality is that he probably will not play more than 60-65 games this season. Pencil him in for 25 ppg, expect the Lakers to be at least somewhat competitive when he plays and expect the Lakers to look pretty bad when he does not play.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2014 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2014 Total: 57/72 (.792)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 PM

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Monday, October 20, 2014

2014-15 Eastern Conference Preview

The biggest story entering the 2014-15 NBA season is LeBron James' return to Cleveland. James' arrival transforms the Cavaliers into a legitimate championship contender and relegates the Miami Heat to, at best, second tier playoff status. When James fled Cleveland for the sunny shores of Miami, he had not yet fully developed a championship mentality nor had his jump shot or postup game completely evolved. In Miami, James learned what it takes to be a champion and he led the Heat to two titles and four NBA Finals appearances in four seasons. Barring a serious, career-threatening or career-ending injury, the 29 year old 11 season NBA veteran likely has at least three or four elite years left in the tank and perhaps another three or four high level campaigns after that. If James is surrounded by the right talent and guided by the right coaching, he can keep the Cavaliers at or near the top of the league until past 2020.

Perhaps the two next biggest Eastern Conference stories revolve around one returning superstar and one departing star: Injuries have limited Chicago's Derrick Rose, the 2011 regular season MVP, to just 49 regular season games in the past three years. If Rose can regain elite status and maintain his health, Chicago should be the best team in the East. Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers, who posted the Eastern Conference's best regular season record in 2013-14 before falling to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, lost All-Star Paul George to a season-ending leg injury and lost valuable--but volatile--swingman Lance Stephenson to free agency. After making back to back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers will be fighting just to make the playoffs as opposed to having realistic hopes of winning a championship.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs; as usual, I have ranked the teams based on the likelihood that they will make it to the NBA Finals (as opposed to how they will be seeded in the playoffs, which is affected by which teams win division titles).

1) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls finished with the third best record in the East last season and have now added a healthy Derrick Rose plus free agent signee Pau Gasol to the roster. They released Carlos Boozer. The obvious key to the Bulls' championship aspirations is Rose's health. As long as Coach Tom Thibodeau is around, the Bulls will be an outstanding defensive team that annually qualifies for the playoffs but Rose gives the Bulls the necessary offensive spark and superstar dynamic that can put them over the top. Gasol has never been a rugged player but he is a legit seven footer who will add offensive punch and rebounding plus valuable size as a rim protector alongside Joakim Noah. Gasol has yet to win a single playoff game in his career without playing alongside Kobe Bryant but he is ideally suited to being the third best Chicago player behind Rose and Noah. If Rose plays at least 70 games at a high level, the Bulls will win 55-60 games and be a very tough out in the playoffs.

2) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cleveland Cavaliers have been terrible for the past few years not just because LeBron James left but also because the franchise gutted the front office, the coaching staff and the rest of the roster that helped James lead the team to the 2007 NBA Finals and to the best regular season record in the NBA in 2009 and 2010. James picked a good time to return home, because the Cavaliers have finally rebuilt a legitimate NBA roster. Kevin Love is a scoring and rebounding machine who is also a good passer, though his defense is questionable. Kyrie Irving, the 2014 All-Star MVP, looks like he will be a perennial All-Star. Anderson Varejao has been hobbled by injuries since James left town but he is a high energy player who is an excellent screen/roll partner for James. James is the best player in the league, while Irving and Love could easily both be top 10 players if they are healthy and motivated. James is wise to publicly dampen expectations as opposed to promising to win "Not one, not two..." championships but the Cavaliers have both talent and depth. The two question marks for this team are coaching and defense. Rookie Coach Dave Blatt has had a brilliant FIBA coaching career but now he is in the big leagues and he will face a steep learning curve while undergoing tremendous media scrutiny. Can he devise a championship level defensive scheme for the Cavaliers and can he get Love, Irving and the rest of James' teammates to buy into that scheme? James is an elite defender, though he has slipped just a bit at that end of the court, but NBA defense requires five players to react as one and it requires a good game plan that is well executed.

3) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors surprised me and many other people last season. I fully expected that General Manager Masai Ujiri would turn the team around but I did not expect the Raptors to make the playoffs last year. Toronto lost a tough seven game first round series to Brooklyn but the Raptors have a young nucleus led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and they figure to make a deeper postseason run in 2015.

4) Washington Wizards: Like the Raptors, the Wizards are a young squad that went further than many people expected in 2014. I predicted that Washington would sneak into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference but I was surprised that they made it past the first round. The John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt is very dynamic and Washington's frontcourt size causes a lot of matchup problems.

5) Miami Heat: Without LeBron James, the Heat will not make a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. That is obvious--but what may not be obvious to casual fans is that the cupboard is not completely bare. Chris Bosh sacrificed a lot of his individual game in order to help the Heat be successful but he is a top notch postup threat who can score from anywhere on the floor while also being a major factor as a rebounder and defender. If the Heat coaching staff uses Bosh the right way and Bosh accepts the challenge, Bosh can once again be a 20-10 player and the Heat can win at least 45 games. What about Dwyane Wade? The most that can reasonably be expected from him at this stage of his career is 50-60 games played, decent offense, bad defense and random cheap shots delivered to opposing players. Wade is an undersized shooting guard who has always relied on his formidable athletic ability, so the back end of his career will not be kind to him; he is not going to suddenly become 6-6, nor is he going to suddenly become a consistent postup threat or a consistent jump shooter.

6) Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are an aging, overhyped team. Last year, while many people touted them as a serious threat to dethrone the Heat, I picked them to finish fourth in the weak Eastern Conference. The Nets ended up fifth, though they did have some transitory glory by winning a game seven on the road versus Toronto in the first round before being smashed 4-1 by the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Paul Pierce is gone, Kevin Garnett is running on fumes, Deron Williams apparently left his game in Utah and Joe Johnson is a solid All-Star caliber player but not a superstar who can carry a team to a title. Jason Kidd did the best that he could in his rookie season as a head coach--enduring some unfair and uninformed media criticism along the way--but he lost a power play with management and was replaced by Lionel Hollins, who was foolishly chased away by Memphis two years ago. Hollins will maximize this team's potential but all that amounts to is a first round exit.

7) Charlotte Hornets: Michael Jordan has hardly covered himself in glory as an NBA executive/NBA owner but the Hornets made serious strides last season. Al Jefferson is a low post beast, Steve Clifford turned out to be a surprisingly good coach in his first season and the Hornets made the playoffs just two years after posting the worst record in NBA history. The ceiling for this current roster is well short of legitimate championship contention but there is no reason to think that they cannot once again win 40-plus games and qualify for the playoffs.

8) Indiana Pacers: Yes, the Pacers lost arguably their two best players. Yes, the Pacers face planted down the stretch in the regular season before regaining their bearings and advancing through the weak Eastern Conference playoffs to what once had seemed to be an inevitable showdown with the Heat. Yes, many people criticize Coach Frank Vogel's decisions and Larry Bird's player moves. So why do I still think that the Pacers will qualify for the playoffs? You may have noticed a recurring theme in this article: the Eastern Conference is weak (even though Chicago and Cleveland are legit title contenders). Who am I supposed to select over the Pacers? The dysfunctional Knicks? The dysfunctional Hawks? Some other dysfunctional team? Maybe Phil Jackson will turn around the Knicks but right now the Knicks have a rookie head coach, an overrated best player and a motley cast of knuckleheads, has-beens and never weres. The Pacers have a proven defensive system, quality big men and a recent track record of playoff success. That should be enough for 42 or 43 wins, at least--and that should be just enough to edge out the four or five Eastern teams that will finish with between 30 and 40 wins.

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Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2013-14 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2014 Total: 56/72 (.778)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:12 PM

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Julius Erving on Being a Role Model

"I projected in my story about always having the carrot out in front of me, that tomorrow is going to be the best day of my life, and hopefully I can make a difference tomorrow that I haven't been able to make today."--Julius Erving

In December 2013, Tavis Smiley spoke with Julius Erving about Erving's autobiography Dr. J. The wide-ranging conversation reflected Erving's typical depth of thought and abiding grace. Erving explained to Smiley how some mentors pointed him in the right direction at key moments, enabling him to in turn set a great example as a role model after he became an internationally famous athlete.

Here is that exchange, taken directly from the official interview transcript:

Tavis: So I’m watching you, and the one thing I noticed about you, even as a child, was your humility on the court. There is so much--speaking of football, there’s a lot of this in football, and even a lot of it in basketball, but people, athletes, will do something spectacular on the court or on the field, and it’s almost hard to resist doing a dance (laughter) or getting in somebody’s face.

With all the moves that you ever did, you would go to the hole, jump this way, jump this way, turn this way, flip back this way, left hand, right hand, back to the left hand, behind the backboard, put it in.

Whatever it is that you did, you would do it and just run right back down the court. I’ve never one time seen you get in somebody’s face, with all the gift and talent you had. So tell me about that humility. That’s more than just a word, it seems.

Erving: Yeah, the influences on your life, if I’ve been an influence on your life, then there might be a moment in which you get into a situation and you might say, “What would Julius do” or “What would Julius think,” “What would Mom think,” “What would Dad think.”

I had really good influences in my mom, first and foremost. The guy I was talking about from last night, Don Ryan, who was my first coach. The big three over in high school, Ray Wilson, Earl Mosley, Chuck Mcawane (sp), they always said, “Look, win without boasting and lose without crying.”

If you play sports, you’re going to lose sometimes, and I have cried, but I didn’t have control over the tears. But I’ve always had control over boasting, always, because boasting is something that emotions don’t make you do that.

You program your brain to do it, and sometimes when I see it, I crack up, because guys are just following other guys, saying, well, I’m going to make my dance funkier than his dance. (Laughter)

Or whatever, and I’m like, “Really?” So I don’t get too mad at it because I got kids and I got grandkids, and they’re part of that generation that celebrates the moment.

I had some coaches, like “We’re not celebrating unless we win the game.” The game is certainly not over in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, or through the fourth quarter. It’s not over till it’s over, and if it’s over and we win, we get on our bus and we can celebrate. But prior to that, I don’t want to see it.

Doing things the right way has always been of paramount importance to Erving. Erving's Philadelphia 76ers posted the best regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83 but he never scored more than 45 points in a single game for the 76ers; when his team had the game well in hand, Erving went to the bench instead of artificially inflating his individual statistics: Erving told me that it is "crass" for a player to pad his numbers if the outcome of the game has been decided. When I was a kid, I wished that Erving would play until the last minute and put up 50 points or more but upon further reflection I have gained appreciation for his approach; people who understand basketball know how great Erving was no matter how many 50 point games Erving rang up and the opinions of people who don't understand basketball just don't matter: greatness encompasses so much more than just compiling certain statistics or impressing particular influential commentators. When the Virginia Squires and New York Nets needed a young Erving to post dominant statistics, Erving did just that and when the 76ers asked Erving to blend into a team concept he sacrificed personal glory for group success--and when Coach Billy Cunningham realized that it was a mistake to ask the best player to tone his game down too much, Erving proved that his late 1970s critics had no idea what they were talking about!

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 PM

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