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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What is Wrong With the Oklahoma City Thunder?

After the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play alongside 2017 NBA regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, it was reasonable to assume that the team would be a legitimate contender--but, thus far, that has not proven to be the case. What is wrong with the Oklahoma City Thunder and why has this talented squad posted an 8-11 record?

Before we look at what is wrong, it is important to realize that some things have gone well. One might expect that adding a defensive sieve like Anthony to the rotation would cause major issues at that end of the court but, in fact, the Thunder have displayed a defensive mindset that ultimately could take them far. This season, the Thunder rank first in the league in steals, third in points allowed and seventh in defensive field goal percentage. This is a marked improvement over last season's rankings of 14th, 16th and 19th respectively in those categories. The one caveat is that the Thunder have plummeted from seventh in defensive rebounding to 26th and those extra possessions that they are allowing this season not only slow down their potential fast break opportunities but also force them to exert more energy on defense that otherwise could be saved for offense.

The Thunder's main problem so far has been on the offensive end of the court, where their numbers have dropped across the board. Last season, Westbrook was essentially a one man show but the Thunder still ranked 11th in points scored and 17th in field goal percentage; this season, the Thunder are 22nd in points scored and 26th in field goal percentage.

What has changed? The most obvious difference is that Westbrook has taken a major step back in deference to the team's two new stars. Westbrook won the scoring title last season while averaging 31.6 ppg and shooting .425 from the field on 24.0 FGA per game but this season he is scoring just 21.6 ppg while shooting .401 from the field on 18.9 FGA per game.

Many media members tend to make Westbrook the scapegoat for any problems that the Thunder experience, asserting that Westbrook is a selfish player. The reality is that Westbrook has never been a problem for the Thunder: he is unselfish, he plays hard and he produces in the clutch. Last season he was not only the team's best player but he was the best player in the league. If anything, the problem is not that he needs to be more deferential but rather that he is deferring too much to lesser talents, much like Julius Erving did initially after joining the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1976-77 season. Billy Cunningham, who replaced Gene Shue as the 76ers' coach early in the 1977-78 season, observed that the 76ers had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians"; Erving was the team's best player but he was the one who was sacrificing the most from his game, as opposed to other players deferring to him. Cunningham changed that situation around and Erving soon regained his individual status while the 76ers emerged as a perennial championship contender.

Phil Jackson understood this concept as well. While he is known for utilizing the Triangle Offense--which, in theory, is an equal opportunity system--he made sure that there was a clear pecking order on his teams. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen (during Jordan's first retirement), Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant did not have to defer to anyone when they were the best players and this resulted in 11 championships. Basketball is a team sport but championship teams are usually focused around the talents of one superstar (who is often ably assisted by a second star).

The Thunder are at their best when Westbrook controls the ball and runs the show at a fast pace. Isolation plays for Anthony and George should only be run when one of those players has a clear mismatch that will likely lead to a score or a double team that will open up a high percentage shot for someone else. Anthony must accept the role that he fills for Team USA, being a spot up shooter as opposed to being a ball-stopping one on one player; similarly, George must accept the role that suits him best, which on this team means being a back door cutter a la Dwyane Wade during Miami's great run from 2011-14 when LeBron James was the team's best player.

It is not too late for the Thunder to turn their season around. It often takes some time for star duos/star trios to learn how to successfully meld their talents together to achieve team success. For instance, Miami's Big Three of LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh did not set the league on fire at first and that trio eventually won two titles while making four straight NBA Finals appearances. The Heat's stars each had to recognize and embrace their roles: James was clearly the best player, Wade was the second best player and Bosh had to accept being the third option; defensively, each player also had to figure out and accept how he fit into the overall game plan, with James playing multiple positions, Wade using his athleticism to guard bigger players at times and Bosh utilizing his combination of size/agility to pick up the slack all over the court.

Oklahoma's Big Three is not nearly as good as Miami's but nevertheless the Thunder are capable of being an elite team if the correct pecking order is established prior to the playoffs. Less than a week ago, we saw a glimpse of the Thunder's potential when they routed the defending champion Golden State Warriors 108-91 as Westbrook posted 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists but now the Thunder must figure out how to play that way on a consistent basis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 PM

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Blake Griffin's Evolution

Blake Griffin made a name for himself as a high-flying dunker, the centerpiece of the Los Angeles Clippers' "Lob City" offense that was more style than substance and that consistently fizzled in the postseason. As Griffin candidly admitted recently, "We were front-runners. When things were going great, the ball was hopping around. But when we felt resistance in games, we splintered."

A big part of the problem was that the Clippers had a divided locker room: Chris Paul--who is often labeled one of the best leaders in the sport, despite his inability to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs--was the loudest voice but he was not the team's best player and perhaps not even the team's most respected player. No wonder the team fell apart any time things became even a little difficult.

Now that Paul plays for Houston, Griffin's game can fully blossom and it is becoming evident that he is a complete player, not just an elite athlete. Griffin is a student of the game who is not only determined to broaden his skill set--witness his improved shooting from both the free throw line and from beyond the three point arc--but to also hone his mental approach to the game. According to a November 13, 2017 Sports Illustrated article by Lee Jenkins, Tim Duncan provided some sage advice to Blake Griffin: "The leader isn't the guy yelling the loudest or talking the most. It's the guy everybody looks at in the end and knows, 'I'm following him.'" Duncan, of course, was that kind of guy, a player who spoke softly but whose actions, demeanor and character established him as the unquestioned leader of San Antonio's five NBA championship teams.

Griffin must still prove that he can remain healthy and that his newly developed skills will not regress under playoff pressure but it will be fascinating to watch the second half of his career as he attempts to evolve from All-Star to elite player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Thoughts About Two High Scoring Performances and Observations About the Start of the 2017-18 NBA Season

The first 10 games or so of the 2017-18 NBA season have featured some great individual performances and some surprising team performances. Here are some of my thoughts and observations about what has transpired thus far:

* LeBron James scored 57 points on 23-34 field goal shooting (including 2-4 from three point range) as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Washington Wizards 130-122 on Friday night. He made all nine of his free throw attempts, while also grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds and dishing a team-high seven assists in 43 minutes. James set single-game career highs in both field goals made and field goals made in the restricted area (14) while establishing a new single game scoring mark for Capitol One Arena, the fourth facility where he owns or shares the single-game scoring record (Air Canada Centre, American Airlines Arena and Vivint Smart Home Arena are the others).

James tied the franchise single-game scoring record set by Kyrie Irving versus the San Antonio Spurs on March 12, 2015 and James became the youngest player in pro basketball history to score 29,000 career points, just two years after becoming the youngest member of the 25,000 Point Club. James also became the only player other than Kobe Bryant to notch a 50 point game in his 15th season or later (Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his 20th--and last--NBA season).

This game reaffirms a few things about James:

1) He is not a "pass-first" player. As I wrote after James scored a single-game career high 61 points three years ago versus Charlotte as a member of the Miami Heat, "Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs."

2) While it is obviously not realistic to expect James to score this many points and/or shoot this well on a consistent basis, he is unguardable when he is committed to attacking the paint as opposed to settling for jump shots.

3) James is developing a deadly turnaround midrange shot that could help him age effectively a la Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, in contrast to some highly athletic players whose games declined as soon as they lost a step.

The Cavaliers' early season struggles--they are currently 12th in the Eastern Conference, an embarrassing start for a talented team featuring James--are largely a result of individual and collective defensive indifference; assuming that the Cavaliers address that issue by playoff time, an offensive attack focused around James attacking the paint--while being supported by several three point shooters--will be very difficult to stop.

* Two days after LeBron James scored 57 points, James Harden poured in 56 points on 19-25 field goal shooting while dishing a game-high 13 assists in Houston's 137-110 thrashing of the Utah Jazz. When Harden is hot from three point range--he nailed seven of his eight attempts from beyond the arc in this contest--he is very difficult to guard and his shooting efficiency in this game is very impressive.

Harden has always been a potent offensive player both as a scorer and as a passer. A major key for success for any offensive player is freedom and Coach Mike D'Antoni has given Harden the opportunity to dominate the ball-handling for this squad. It has been proven that D'Antoni's offenses are difficult to contain during a long, hectic regular season and not nearly as difficult to contain during the postseason. It has also been proven that neither D'Antoni nor Harden place much emphasis on defense.

Both of these 50 point games are outliers but the key difference is that the way that James played--attacking the paint--is both repeatable and a recipe for team playoff success, while it is highly unlikely that Harden will shoot .875 from three point range in a playoff game or that Harden's Rockets will advance very far in the postseason if they are relying on him consistently making seven three pointers per game.

* Led by Harden, the Houston Rockets currently own the Western Conference's best record (8-3). The Rockets have accomplished this largely without the services of Chris Paul, who injured his left knee in the season-opening win against Golden State and has not yet returned to action. Paul was not particularly effective in that game (he shot 2-9 from the field and posted a -13 plus/minus number) and it is not at all clear that he can form a complementary duo with Harden. The Rockets are Harden's show and since they have proven that they can win (in the regular season) with Harden dominating the ball it is difficult to imagine that Harden is going to cede touches/control to Paul, who is also used to dominating the ball. Paul is not a catch and shoot long range marksman, so what is he going to do while Harden monopolizes the ball? There are also the not insignificant issues that (1) Paul plays gritty defense while Harden does not and (2) Paul is not shy about publicly yelling at teammates while Harden has proven to be very sensitive to any form of real or imagined criticism. This does not look like a recipe for postseason success.

The Rockets rank first in three point field goals made and three point field goals attempted but just 23rd in three point field goal percentage after ranking 15th in three point field goal percentage last season. The Rockets rank 15th in defensive field goal percentage after ranking 23rd in that category last season. Some might argue that the Rockets' three point shooting is likely to improve--and that is probably true--but it is at least as likely that their defense will also regress to accustomed levels.

The three point shot is a great weapon but there is a misconception that Golden State's recent dominance is primarily attributable to three point shooting. The Warriors are unquestionably a great three point shooting team but their star players are also willing and able to score in other ways, while D'Antoni's Rockets are fully committed to jacking up three pointers regardless of whether or not those shots are falling on a given night. Even more importantly, the Warriors are individually and collectively focused on consistently playing great defense, which means that they can win even if their shots are not falling on a particular night.

The Rockets may very well have a great regular season--that would not be a first for a D'Antoni-coached team--but a quick postseason exit is still the most logical expectation for any team that is built this way and that functions this way.

* Chris Paul's former team, the L.A. Clippers, started the season 4-0 and they are now 5-4. Many commentators expected the Clippers to suffer mightily after trading Paul but the reality is that Paul--despite his gaudy assist totals and his ability to play at a high level on both ends of the court--has never had as much impact on winning as the "stat gurus" believe. Paul is an undersized point guard and he does not fit either of the historical profiles of players who typically lead teams to championships (usually either dominant big men or else versatile players in the 6-7--6-9 range). The traditional, mainstream narrative about Paul is that he is (1) a great leader and (2) a player who makes his teammates better. I would argue that if he is as great a leader as his supporters suggest then at some point he would have actually led his talented supporting casts past the second round of the playoffs. Regarding the second point, I am more interested in objectively determining if--and how--a player makes his team better than I am in bold, subjective assertions that certain players allegedly make their teammates better. Blake Griffin, for example, is a great player with or without Paul.

The Clippers are not as good as they looked during their fast start nor as bad as they have looked in the past week or so but--barring injury--they should be a solid playoff team in the competitive Western Conference.

* Last season, I expected Coach Frank Vogel to revitalize the Orlando Magic and lift them into playoff contention--but instead they fell from 35-47 to 29-53. This season, I predicted that the Magic would miss the playoffs but the early returns suggest that I underestimated this squad. Evan Fournier (20.3 ppg, .474 3PT FG%), Aaron Gordon (19.1 ppg, .559 3PT FG%) and Nikola Vucevic (17.9 ppg, .405 3PT FG%) are spearheading a surprisingly potent offensive attack and the Magic have been very solid on defense as well, ranking 11th in defensive field goal percentage. They may not be able to maintain their lights-out three point shooting for 82 games but if they continue to play as hard as they are now then they will be a lot better than I (or just about anyone else) expected them to be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM

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Sunday, October 08, 2017

2017-18 Western Conference Preview

It did not take much of an adjustment period for the Golden State Warriors to remain dominant after they acquired Kevin Durant last summer; the Warriors rolled to a league-best 67-15 regular season record and then went 16-1 in the playoffs to capture their second championship in three years. Durant was sensational during the postseason and he outdueled LeBron James to win the Finals MVP. During the Finals, Durant averaged 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field, joining Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the short list of players who shot at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range and at least .900 on free throws in an NBA Finals.

The Warriors' tremendous combination of talent, depth and chemistry has the rest of the league scrambling to keep up. Several teams made huge, potentially risky moves to try to at least come close to matching the Warriors' star power. The Houston Rockets traded a lot of depth to acquire perennial All-Star Chris Paul, while the Oklahoma City Thunder gave up minimal assets to land both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The young Minnesota Timberwolves added veteran savvy and a two-way skill set by bringing Jimmy Butler into the fold. 

The San Antonio Spurs largely stood pat and it has become something of an annual ritual to write them off but somehow every year they manage to win at least 50 games and assert themselves as a legit championship contender.

Russell Westbrook's historic season-long triple double performance earned him his first regular season MVP and propelled the talent-thin Thunder into the Western Conference playoffs. George may still bolt for L.A. after one season and it remains to be seen how much Anthony has left in the tank but if George and Anthony are willing to accept their roles then the Thunder could be a very dangerous team.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has long been something of a point guard whisperer but it will be interesting to see how he tries to keep James Harden and Chris Paul happy, as both players like to monopolize the ball.

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

1) Golden State Warriors: The Warriors looked like a potential dynasty in the making before they acquired Kevin Durant. With Durant in the mix, the Warriors often look unbeatable. They struggled briefly during the regular season when Durant went down with a knee injury but ultimately they went 16-4 when he was out of the lineup. It is rare for a team to have two legit MVP caliber players who are both in their primes--and the Warriors are blessed to have not only Durant and two-time MVP Stephen Curry but also All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green plus a solid cast of role players, including 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (a former All-Star).

Barring significant injuries, there is no legitimate reason to pick against the Warriors to again win the West and to win their third title in four years.

2) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs had the Warriors on the ropes in game one of last season's Western Conference Finals but after Kawhi Leonard went down with an ankle injury the Warriors cruised to a sweep. The Spurs proved that there is a game plan that can be effective versus the Warriors but even if the Spurs had won game one it is far from certain that they would have been able to successfully execute that game plan three more times; beating the Warriors is kind of like destroying the Death Star: it is theoretically possible but it requires a precise, focused plan targeting a very hard to access weakness.

Leonard appears to be completely recovered from the ankle injury but the Spurs are holding him out of preseason play due to a recurring right quadriceps injury. Leonard's health is obviously critical for the Spurs. If everything breaks right for the Spurs and if the Warriors are slightly off of their game then the Spurs could win the West but the most likely scenario is that the Spurs' season will again end in the Western Conference Finals.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook proved that he could be an All-NBA performer for a perennial championship contender. Then, after Kevin Durant fled Oklahoma City to join the Golden State dynasty, Westbrook proved that he could perform at a historically great level while carrying a bad team to a playoff berth. The next question, as his ever vocal critics are quick to point out, is whether Westbrook can successfully function as the number one option while flanked by two All-Stars. Paul George is an excellent two-way player who seems best suited to being the second best player on a contending team. The question is not whether Westbrook can play with George--Westbrook functioned quite well alongside a much better player (Durant)--but rather whether George can accept his role and flourish within it. Similarly, the onus is not on Westbrook to blend in with Carmelo Anthony but rather on Anthony to accept being the third option offensively while putting forth at least some effort defensively.

The Thunder now have enough offensive firepower to battle on even terms with any team. The key questions will revolve around defense and chemistry--and that is why I cannot rank this squad higher than third in the West.

4) Houston Rockets: James Harden is an All-Star whose skill set and leadership style are not well-suited for him to be the best player on a championship contender. Chris Paul has long been lauded as one of the league's best leaders and fiercest competitors. Unlike Harden, Paul plays hard at both ends of the court--but, at some point, the praise for Paul rings hollow when he repeatedly proves that he is unable to lead talented teams past the second round of the playoffs.

Both Harden and Paul are used to dominating the ball on offense, so that dynamic will be very interesting to watch. Paul is known for barking at his teammates and Harden is known for pouting when he is criticized, so that is another dynamic that bears watching.

The Rockets are going to score a ton of points. On some nights, they are going to look unbeatable--but, ultimately, they are basing their hopes on two stars who are just not suited to being the best player on a championship team. The Rockets will not make it past the second round of the playoffs--and could possibly fall in the first round, depending on matchups.

5) Minnesota Timberwolves: Adding veteran two-way All-Star Jimmy Butler is a move that should be worth at least 8-10 wins in the standings. Chalk up at least another 8-10 wins based on the continued improvement of the team's young core players and this is a team that could threaten to obtain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Veteran NBA coach Hank Egan once told me that it takes "deep into your second year" before a team fully absorbs the defensive principles of a new coaching staff. Tom Thibodeau is one of the premier defensive coaches in the league and Minnesota figures to make a significant improvement defensively during his second season at the helm.

6) Denver Nuggets: The acquisition of veteran All-Star Paul Millsap solidifies the rotation and should be enough to push this young team on the rise to a secure spot in the West's top eight. Millsap is a perfect complement for Nikola Jokic, who emerged as a star in his second season. The Nuggets likely do not have enough depth or experience to advance past the first round but the franchise is headed in the right direction.

7) L.A. Clippers: Chris Paul never managed to lead the talent-laden Clippers past the second round of the playoffs, so now the franchise is clearly built around Blake Griffin--who was, in fact, always the team's best player, even though Paul has a stronger and more vocal personality. The Clippers are not a championship contender but they never really were one even with Paul in the fold. Assuming that Griffin avoids injuries--the one factor that has been his biggest downfall--the Clippers still have enough talent to make the playoffs.

8) New Orleans Pelicans: Now that Anthony Davis will have the opportunity to play a full season with DeMarcus Cousins plus new addition Rajon Rondo, it will be interesting to see if he is truly a superstar in the making (as many observers believe) or if he is what TNT's Kenny Smith would call a "looter in a riot" (a player who can put up great individual numbers for a mediocre or bad team but who is not able to lift a team to playoff contention). The Pelicans' roster has some chemistry questions and skill set limitations but there is enough talent here to at least grab the final playoff spot and it should be considered a disappointment if this team again fails to qualify for postseason play.

There are some solid teams in the West that just do not have quite enough to qualify for the playoffs in the league's top conference. The Portland Trail Blazers' dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum managed to sneak into the playoffs last season but this season I think that rising teams such as Minnesota and Denver will push Portland just out of the postseason mix.

Lack of shooting has been a problem for Memphis for several years. They barely made the playoffs the past two seasons, only to lose in the first round both times. The departure of Zach Randolph indicates that the team is shifting from the "grindhouse" style to a more uptempo philosophy but this is a flawed and declining team that is no longer among the West's eight best teams.

Before the departure of Gordon Hayward, the Utah Jazz looked like a team on the rise but now they are a team that will struggle to stay in the playoff race.

The rest of the West is in bad shape. 

Mark Cuban bet nearly $100 million that Harrison Barnes could become a superstar. Barnes had a solid first year in Dallas but he will not be leading this team to the playoffs any time soon.

Kobe Bryant supposedly held back the growth of the Lakers' young players during his farewell tour in 2015-16 but Magic Johnson's moves make it very clear that he understands what should have been apparent all along: the Lakers have yet to acquire a legit star and the players that Bryant supposedly held back are role players at best. Without Bryant in 2016-17, the Lakers were still terrible, so Magic Johnson hit the reset button and got rid of D'Angelo Russell, one of the players whose development Bryant had supposedly been stifling. The Lakers have some decent young players but it does not appear that they have any future All-Stars on the roster, unless rookie Lonzo Ball's play eventually equals all of the hype that has been generated about him--and the answer to that will not be clear until he plays real games, not just summer league and preseason contests. 

Phoenix and Sacramento are two rudderless franchises that need significant changes before they will qualify for the playoffs again.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2017 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2017 Total: 77/96 (.802)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 PM

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2017-18 Eastern Conference Preview

The biggest off-season story in the Eastern Conference--if not the entire NBA--was the dissolution of Cleveland's Big Three as the Cavaliers sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for a package of players and draft picks headlined by All-Star Isaiah Thomas. Irving had teamed up with fellow All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love to lead the Cavaliers to three straight NBA Finals and the 2016 championship but Irving either grew tired of being the second option or else he did not relish the possibility of being the best player on this particular squad in the event that James leaves Cleveland for a second time.

It is very unusual for two teams bidding with each other for conference supremacy to trade star players to each other. Irving is a tremendous clutch scorer who can get buckets from anywhere on the court but he has yet to prove that he can be the main guy on a championship level team; this is not to say that he cannot do it or will not do it but he has yet to prove his capability in that regard and, in fact, Cleveland's record was very poor when Irving was the best player on the court (both before James returned from Miami and in the games that James sat out since he returned). Last season, Thomas was the best player on the first place team in the Eastern Conference but he is undersized, he is a subpar defensive player and he is still recovering from a serious hip injury that sidelined him for the final three games of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.

Thanks to the additions of Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston could very well again post the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics should at least match last season's win total (53), while the Cavaliers may struggle to exceed last season's win total (51); James is known for taking off quarters or even entire games during the season and it is doubtful that at this advanced stage of his career he will exert himself to chase regular season wins just to get the number one seed, particularly while Thomas is out of action.

Of course, the key questions to be answered are "Did this trade help Cleveland possibly defeat Golden State?" and "Did this trade close the gap between the Celtics and the Cavaliers?" We will not get answers to those questions until these teams face off in the Eastern Conference Finals, a showdown that is almost certain to happen for the second year in a row barring injuries to key players or some other significant, unforeseen development.

The Toronto Raptors seem to have peaked two years ago and it is unlikely that young teams like the Washington Wizards or Milwaukee Bucks can gain enough ground in one year to pose a realistic playoff challenge to Cleveland or Boston.

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

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James has led two different franchises to a combined seven straight NBA Finals and three championships in the past seven years. Say what you want about the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference during that period or about James orchestrating moves to construct two "super teams," those are still impressive accomplishments--and accomplishments that seemed unlikely in the wake of how he quit versus Boston in the 2010 NBA playoffs and then came up short in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas. James has learned from his failures and grown as a result. The departure of Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas' questionable health could relegate the Cavaliers to the second seed in the East again but, assuming that Thomas is reasonably healthy by the playoffs, the Cavaliers still must be considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

Do the Cavaliers have enough to beat the presumptive Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors? If the Warriors are fully healthy and completely engaged, the answer to that question is probably "No" but it will be interesting to see how Coach Tyronn Lue integrates Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jae Crowder into Cleveland's rotation. Wade has a strong championship pedigree and Rose is a former regular season MVP who will presumably start at point guard until Thomas fully recovers. Green and Crowder add depth. The Cavaliers appear to have more offensive firepower and more defensive versatility than they did last season but much depends on Thomas' health and on how much Rose and Wade have left in the tank.

2) Boston Celtics: In my 2016-17 Eastern Conference Preview, I ranked Boston third but noted, "The Celtics will likely win more than 50 games this season and if everything breaks right they could even have the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference--but I am not convinced that they have enough experience and enough shooting to beat the Cavaliers in a seven game playoff series." That turned out to be prophetic, as the Celtics did indeed post the conference's best record only to lose decisively to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics almost completely remade their roster in the off-season, which is a bold move for a team that had been just three wins away from reaching the NBA Finals. Irving is younger and healthier than Thomas and Irving already has championship experience, albeit under James' large wings. Hayward is a very good two-way player, so on paper it looks like the Celtics have clearly improved. It remains to be seen if the roster moves will negatively affect the great chemistry and team spirit that the Celtics developed in the past couple years and it also remains to be seen if the Celtics have enough talent/depth to overcome "Playoff LeBron," who has dominated the Eastern Conference for seven straight years.

I think that the Celtics are a year away from winning the East. Their nucleus needs some time to grow together and, of course, if James departs Cleveland next summer then the conference will almost certainly be there for Boston to take starting in 2018-19.

3) Washington Wizards: The Wizards started 6-12 last season and many of Coach Scott Brooks' critics came out of the woodwork. Those critics fell silent as the Wizards went 43-21 down the stretch to claim the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington then beat Atlanta 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs and pushed the number one seeded Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

In last season's Wizards' preview, I noted that Brooks "has a proven track record of developing young players--including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden--and that is his primary task here." I suggested that Brooks' coaching would be "worth at least four or five wins over the course of 82 games" and indeed the Wizards improved their record by eight games.

This season, the Wizards will probably neither start as slowly nor finish quite as strongly as they did last season, so 50 wins or a little more than that is a reasonable goal. The Wizards are a rising team and could possibly beat Boston or Cleveland in a seven game series but it is not likely that they could topple both Eastern Conference favorites to make it to the NBA Finals.

4) Toronto Raptors: Toronto slipped from 56 wins in 2016 to 51 wins last season. One might assume that injuries played a role in this decline, particularly since All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry missed 22 games--but it is worth noting that the Raptors went 36-24 with Lowry in the lineup and 15-7 without him.

After advancing to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, it seems like the Raptors have peaked at a level slightly below Boston and a bit further below Cleveland. Past the midway point of the season, the Raptors acquired Serge Ibaka to fill the void left by Bismack Biyombo, who had departed as a free agent prior to the season. Ibaka posted solid box score numbers but he did not have the impact defensively and on the glass that he did during his peak seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, the Raptors went 16-7 in Ibaka's 23 games with the team, which projects to a 57 win pace over 82 games, so perhaps it is too soon to completely give up on the Raptors.

5) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo had a breakout season last year, making the All-NBA Second Team and finishing seventh in MVP voting after averaging 22.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.9 bpg and 1.6 spg. He led the Bucks in all five of those key categories, joining an elite list of "Five Tool Players" that includes Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady. The Bucks have made the playoffs in two of Jason Kidd's three seasons as head coach and they seem to be a team on the rise, albeit a team that does not yet have quite enough talent, depth or experience to win the East.

6) Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars left a big mess for Stan Van Gundy to fix and that process may be taking a bit longer than Pistons' fans had hoped that it would but--despite a slight setback last season after making the playoffs in 2015-16--the Pistons look poised to be a solid playoff team. The acquisition of two-way guard Avery Bradley should solidify the Pistons at both ends of the court and it is reasonable to expect bounce back performances from Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, both of whom were hampered by injuries last season.

7) Miami Heat: The Heat stunk in the first half of the 2016-17 season and then looked like world-beaters in the second half of the season, finishing tied for eighth in the East only to miss the playoffs by virtue of losing a tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. The Heat are not as bad as they looked in the first half but they are not as good as they looked in the second half, either. Since the breakup of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh "Big Three" that led the Heat to four straight Finals appearances and two titles, Pat Riley has failed to acquire or develop a legitimate big-time star who can lead the franchise back to prominence. Riley has gone all-in with the nucleus that spearheaded the 30-11 run down the stretch last season and it will be interesting to see how that turns out--but, ultimately, this team simply does not have enough star power to be a serious contender.

8) Charlotte Hornets: Coach Steve Clifford almost immediately transformed Charlotte into a strong defensive team after he was hired prior to the 2013-14 season but since that time there has been some slippage. Kemba Walker emerged as an All-Star last season but unless Clifford can improve the team's defense it will be difficult for the Hornets to do much better than fight for the final playoff spot. New acquisition Dwight Howard is no longer a superstar but he has a good history with Clifford dating back to their Orlando days, so perhaps Howard can make an impact defensively and on the glass for 25-30 mpg.

As for the rest of the East, Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago are three teams that barely made the playoffs last season and figure to take major steps backward in 2017-18. There is a lot of hype in some quarters about the Philadelphia 76ers but I think that it will take at least one more season under Bryan Colangelo to reverse the damage done by Sam Hinkie's foolish tanking.

The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic are three franchises that--for different reasons--seem to be adrift and need significant overhauls to be good again.

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

I correctly picked five of the eight 2016-17 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2017 Total: 71/96 (.740)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:01 PM

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Rest in Peace, Connie Hawkins

Connie Hawkins passed away on Friday at the age of 75. Hawkins is part of the lineage of elite basketball high flyers that began with Elgin Baylor and then continued after Hawkins with Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. The NBA blackballed Hawkins for several years after Hawkins was wrongly implicated in a college basketball point shaving scandal, so Hawkins spent his prime first in the American Basketball League and then with the Harlem Globetrotters before winning the 1968 regular season MVP in the ABA's first season. Hawkins led the Pittsburgh Pipers to the 1968 ABA title, averaging 30.7 ppg in seven games versus the New Orleans Buccaneers. Hawkins averaged 29.9 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 4.6 apg during the 1968 playoffs after averaging 26.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 4.6 apg during the regular season. Hawkins was the league's top scorer during the regular season, playoffs and Finals.

In 1969--after years of being wrongly blackballed--Hawkins settled his multi-million lawsuit with the NBA and as a result he was finally able to showcase his talents on the sport's biggest stage. In 1969-70, Hawkins made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in regular season MVP voting after averaging 24.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 4.8 apg for the Phoenix Suns. The Suns were a second year expansion team but Hawkins led them to the Western Division semifinals, where they lost in seven games to the powerful Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor led L.A. Lakers.

Hawkins made the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons but his body was starting to break down and he only showed flashes of the form that he displayed regularly in his younger days. By 1976, his pro career was over.

Two of Hawkins' trademark moves were the soaring slam dunk and the one-handed pass. Before Hawkins' knees went bad his dunking prowess was on par with anyone who has played the game. Hawkins' passing skills were uncanny; he would hold the ball in his hand like a softball, wave it around his head and then whip a pass to a cutter for an easy layup.

Jerry Colangelo, who brought Hawkins to Phoenix after the NBA lifted its ban, has said that if Hawkins had entered the league as a 22 year old and played out his entire career there then he "could have been one of the top 10 or 15 players to ever play the game." Years of barnstorming and of playing in lesser leagues--before the newly formed ABA gave Hawkins a chance--did Hawkins no favors both physically and in terms of challenging him to hone his skill set.

The injustice that robbed Hawkins of the opportunity to showcase his skills in the NBA during his prime years did not affect how his peers viewed him. For example, Hawkins earned a permanent place as the sixth man in Julius Erving's All-Time Starting Five, high praise coming from one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Erving has explained that his list--which includes "Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center"--is not meant to disrespect modern players but rather to pay homage to the players who came before him, who built the sport and who inspired him to become the best player that he could become.

Despite the truncated nature of his professional basketball career, in 1992 Hawkins became the first Phoenix Suns' player to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame; the voters finally looked past Hawkins' relatively modest career totals and recognized his diverse skill set and his enduring impact on the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

How Good Are the New Look Thunder?

After acquiring All-Star Paul George without giving up much, Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti has reportedly traded Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second round pick to the New York Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder now have a "Big Three" consisting of 2017 NBA regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, four-time All-Star/three-time All-NBA Third Team selection Paul George and 10-time All-Star/six-time All-NBA Second Team or Third Team selection Carmelo Anthony. This trio is not going to make anyone forget James-Wade-Bosh, Garnett-Pierce-Allen or other Big Threes that won at least one championship but if each Thunder All-Star understands and embraces his respective role then the Thunder could emerge as the second or third best team in the West, with a puncher's chance to beat the Golden State Warriors if the Warriors suffer injuries and/or complacency.

It is well documented that I do not believe that George or Anthony is equipped to be the best player on a legitimate championship contender. In fact, I recently wrote, "It is very unlikely that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team--and at this stage of his career he probably would not even be the second best player on a championship team."

However, George is an excellent two-way player. He certainly could be the second best player on a championship team, provided that he accepts that role as opposed to believing that he can be or should be running the show.

Similarly, even though Anthony is miscast as the first option or perhaps even as the second option on a championship contender, he is potentially quite well-suited to being the third option on such a team. Anthony was the best player on an NCAA championship team based largely on his superior ability but in the NBA he has generally performed at his best when he has not been required to lead and/or not been required to be the team's best player; Anthony has never displayed the leadership skills or all-around skill set necessary to carry a team to a title but he could be a tremendous third option for a contending team, because this would be similar to the role he has quite successfully filled on more than one occasion for Team USA during FIBA play: score a ton of points while his more talented and versatile teammates draw double teams and cover up for his defensive deficiencies.

Next season, Thunder opponents are going to be primarily focused on containing Westbrook and secondarily focused on dealing with George. Anthony is going to be checked by the third best wing defender or by a slow-footed power forward when the Thunder go small. Anthony will see fewer double teams than he has ever seen outside of FIBA play. If Anthony takes/makes open shots and quickly passes the ball when he is not open then his efficiency should climb, even if his scoring average falls a bit.

Anthony's defense has always been bad but the Thunder can employ lineups that will hide him to some extent. Also, with the pressure to score 25-plus ppg removed from his shoulders, perhaps Anthony will display at least a little more commitment on defense.

Phil Jackson and George Karl--two respected NBA figures who witnessed Anthony up close for years--have both offered scathing indictments of Anthony's work ethic and competitiveness. Playing for the Thunder as the third option is Anthony's best--and, perhaps, last--chance to shut up his critics by playing a key role for a championship-contending team.

I don't expect a miraculous transformation from Anthony but playing for the Knicks was a toxic situation and Anthony should relish the opportunity to distance himself from that and to prove that he can be a key contributor to a winning franchise.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:47 AM

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2017-18 is on Sale Now

You know that pro basketball season is just around the corner when the welcome sight of Lindy's Pro Basketball greets you at your favorite bookstore or newsstand! The 2017-18 edition includes eight feature stories plus 30 team previews. The feature stories are "Scoping the NBA" (Mike Ashley looks at some of the major off-season stories), "Success, Always His Choice" (Michael Bradley examines Kevin Durant's path to an NBA title), "Together Again" (Mark Murphy discusses the reunion of Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward in Boston), "Malcolm in the Middle" (Lindy's editor Roland Lazenby profiles 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon), "NBA Report Card" (Lazenby rates each team's off-season moves), "A Look Ahead" (Jeremy Treatman scouts the 2018 NBA Draft), "Fantasy Basketball" (Ashley provides a handy guide for fantasy basketball enthusiasts) and "A Look Back" (Lazenby recalls Bill Russell's key dual role for Boston's 1968 NBA championship team).

This season, I wrote the team previews and sidebars for the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. My sidebars discuss Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters and Manu Ginobili respectively. Last year I only wrote one team preview (L.A. Lakers) as that summer I had just taken (and passed!) the Ohio Bar Exam but this year I was fortunate enough to have three assignments. It is always a joy to write for Lindy's and then to see the finished product just a couple months later.

Print media has taken a backseat to the internet but it is great that Lindy's is surviving and thriving in this new era. This is the 10th edition for which I have written at least one preview and I hope to continue to contribute for a long time to come.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:50 PM

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Saturday, September 09, 2017

Reflections on the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony

I wrote about the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class in April after the inductees were announced but after watching Friday night's enshrinement ceremony I have a few additional thoughts to share.

It was wonderful to see George McGinnis' Hall of Fame acceptance speech. McGinnis, the only Hall of Fame eligible NBA or ABA regular season MVP who had not been inducted, talked beautifully and poignantly about how Oscar Robertson inspired him by leading the first all-black team (Crispus Attucks) to win an Indiana high school basketball championship. McGinnis described how he dropped 53 points and 30 rebounds in an Indiana-Kentucky high school all-star game just nine days before his father's death. That would be the last time his father saw him play and his father had told him how proud he was, a moment that clearly means a lot to McGinnis more than 40 years later.

McGinnis' Hall of Fame presenters were Artis Gilmore, Spencer Haywood, Rick Barry and Bobby "Slick" Leonard and McGinnis had special words for each of them. Regarding Gilmore, McGinnis spoke fondly of their Indiana-Kentucky ABA Finals battles in 1973 and 1975. McGinnis thanked Haywood for paving the way for underclassmen to jump straight to professional basketball and McGinnis added that he used his $15,000 signing bonus as a down payment on the house where his mother still lives to this day! McGinnis said that ABA players called Barry "the professor" because of all of the lessons that Barry taught them on the court. McGinnis called his former coach Leonard a "father figure" who has provided great advice and counsel over the years.

Mannie Jackson's speech was simply spellbinding. He spoke of his rise from being born in a boxcar to being a member of six boards of directors--but before he said a word about himself, Jackson spent a lot of time making an impassioned and eloquent plea for an end to the basketball historical revisionism that denies the Harlem Globetrotters' importance for the early NBA. Jackson noted that the Globetrotters were an elite level team in the 1940s and 1950s, fully capable of playing on even terms with the best NBA teams. Globetrotters' owner Abe Saperstein scheduled Globetrotters' games to be the first part of doubleheaders before NBA games, providing an attendance boost for the young league.

Jackson said that basketball played a big role in breaking down Jim Crow discrimination by providing an example of diversity, acceptance and inclusion.

Here is Jackson's speech in its entirety:


Tracy McGrady's speech concluded the evening. McGrady is still salty about his first NBA coach, Darrell Walker, telling him that he was lazy and would be out of the league in three years. It seemed for a moment that McGrady was going to go the Michael Jordan route and revisit every past grudge from his career but then McGrady shifted gears and he delivered a heartfelt and profound message to his four children: focus on your character, not your reputation. Character is who you are in private, which means much more than what people think about you because character represents what you actually are.

Every year it is a treat to hear each new Basketball Hall of Famer describe his or her journey to achieving the sport's highest honor.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 PM

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cavaliers Unload Disgruntled Irving, Position Themselves for Another Finals Run

When Kyrie Irving made it clear that he no longer wanted to be LeBron James' sidekick in Cleveland, it seemed that the Cavaliers would be forced to trade Irving for pennies on the dollar. Instead, the Cavaliers struck gold, shipping Irving to the Boston Celtics for All-NBA Second Team point guard Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn's 2018 first round draft pick.

The winner of an NBA trade is typically considered to be the team that received the best individual player. Irving and Thomas have similar skill sets--they are both dynamic scorers who are above average playmakers and below average defenders--but Irving is younger and bigger so it is reasonable to say that he is the better player. However, Cleveland received additional assets in the trade--Crowder is a solid, two-way rotation player, Zizic has good potential and the first round pick could potentially turn into another rotation player--and did not have much apparent leverage since Irving wanted out; weighing all of those factors, the Cavaliers did very well.

Thomas finished fifth in the 2017 NBA regular season MVP voting, trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. He averaged a career-high 28.9 ppg and he set career-highs with his .463 field goal percentage and .909 free throw percentage while logging one of the best offensive seasons in the Celtics' rich history.

Irving has a better postseason resume than Thomas, including a Finals MVP caliber performance in 2016 as the Cavaliers captured their first NBA title. Like Thomas, Irving had a career year in the 2017 regular season, setting career highs in scoring (25.2 ppg), field goal percentage (.473) and free throw percentage (.905). However, while Irving has thrived as James' sidekick it is far from clear that he can be the face of the franchise for a contending team the way that Thomas was last season as Boston posted the best record in the Eastern Conference. Irving has never received a regular season MVP vote, the Cavaliers were lousy when he was the best player on the team and since James returned to Cleveland the Cavaliers have hardly won a game in James' absence even when Irving plays. Granted, the cupboard was rather bare when Irving was the team's best player and the sample size of games that James has missed is relatively small, but even though Irving appears to have a Kobe Bryant/Russell Westbrook killer mentality--exemplified by the series-clinching dagger he nailed in the 2016 NBA Finals--he may lack the size, leadership ability and two-way skill set necessary to carry a franchise to championship contention as the best player.

The bottom line is that head to head I would take Irving over Thomas, so I understand why the Celtics made this trade--but considering that Irving forced the Cavaliers' hand and they could have ended up with much less than they did, the Cavaliers did quite well and still must be ranked as the team most likely to win the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM

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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Paul George Acquisition Lifts Thunder Back to Contender Status

The Oklahoma City Thunder took a major step toward contender status by acquiring Paul George from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis. This means that Russell Westbrook is no longer a one man show; now he has a running mate who can take pressure off of him when they are on the court together and who can hold down the fort when Westbrook rests.

George, a four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA Third Team selection, forced the Pacers' hand by making it clear that he would leave after next season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He has averaged 18.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 3.2 apg during his seven season career; last season, he scored a career-high 23.7 ppg while also posting career-highs in field goal percentage (.461) and free throw percentage (.898, fifth in the NBA).

George does not appear to be the caliber of player or leader who can carry a team to a championship as the number one option, as evidenced by his performance and demeanor during the first round of the 2017 playoffs as the Cavaliers swept his Pacers. That moment and that role as the number one guy were just a little too big for George--and that's OK: not everyone is built for that moment or that role. Westbrook is built for that moment and that role, so if George understands and accepts his place in the pecking order then the Thunder can be a very dangerous team. George has the ability to be a lockdown defender, he is a scorer who also is a shooter (two different skill sets), he is a decent rebounder and he can be the primary playmaker for stretches.

Ideally, George's talents and contributions will enable Westbrook to have better shot selection, to exert more energy on defense and to be able to rest without the entire team falling apart. The Thunder are not yet good enough to beat a fully healthy Warriors team but--if everything breaks right in terms of health and team chemistry--the Thunder could emerge as the second best team in the West. I am not predicting that just yet, mind you, but that is the potential ceiling for this group; I will wait to make my predictions until all of the free agency dominoes fall into place.

The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and acquired free agent power forward Patrick Patterson, which means that their new projected starting lineup is Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Steven Adams. That quintet is a significant upgrade over the Thunder's primary starting five last season: Westbrook, Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Sabonis, Adams. George and Patterson provide better shooting/floor spacing, better rebounding and better defense than Oladipo and Sabonis did.

While the benefits for the Thunder are immediate and obvious, this transaction is obviously a huge setback for the Pacers, who barely made the playoffs last season even with George playing at a high level. Now the Pacers must hope that Myles Turner continues to develop and that Kevin Pritchard--who has replaced Larry Bird as the President of Basketball Operations--is able to rebuild a very flawed and limited roster.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:56 PM

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Friday, July 07, 2017

New York State of Mind, Part VI

The New York Knicks fired team President Phil Jackson on June 28 in the wake of a disastrous three season run that produced an 80-166 regular season record, no playoff appearances and a series of bizarre decisions. Jackson, who won a record 11 NBA titles as the head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, is arguably the greatest basketball coach ever but his dismal failure with the Knicks demonstrates that success in one role in a given field of endeavor is no guarantee of success in another role in that field. Jackson never fully committed to doing what it takes to be a successful NBA executive, which is one reason that I predicted that Phil Jackson's tenure in New York would not end well.

Running a franchise is a full-time job, not something to be dallied with in between trips to Montana and California. The very personality traits and philosophies that contributed to Jackson's coaching triumphs set him up to fail as an executive. Jackson's greatest skill is the ability to motivate and organize a group of players to sacrifice individual glory for team success and to understand--in a famous Kipling line that Jackson often quoted--"The strength of the Pack is the Wolf and the Strength of the Wolf is the Pack." Jackson thrived when he could work with players directly and connect with them as individuals. An executive's role is much different; an executive must be more detached than the coach and must make tough decisions about a player's objective value. An executive also must work tirelessly to assemble information about all available talent pools: free agency, the draft, overseas prospects, etc.

Jackson failed to get rid of Carmelo Anthony and then he compounded the problem by diminishing Anthony's value (and New York's leverage, both with Anthony and with potential Anthony suitors) by publicly criticizing him. Jackson's handling of the Anthony situation--the single most important matter that he dealt with during his tenure with the Knicks--is baffling. Jackson's public comments about Anthony are, for the most part, accurate: Anthony is a ball-stopper, he is not a great leader, he does not have enough commitment to defense. I assumed that, for those very reasons, Jackson would get rid of Anthony as soon as possible but instead Jackson not only re-signed Anthony but he granted him a no-trade clause. It is very unlikely that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team--and at this stage of his career he probably would not even be the second best player on a championship team. It is mystifying that Jackson apparently understood this and yet still tied the fate of his executive career to the heavy anchor of Anthony's inability/unwillingness to lead a team to an elite level.

Perhaps James Dolan insisted that Jackson build around Anthony and so Jackson figured that he would do the best that he could, before realizing that this simply would not work. The Knicks are a dysfunctional franchise under Dolan and they will remain a dysfunctional franchise until Dolan either sells the team or stops trying to micromanage the basketball operations.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM

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Sunday, July 02, 2017

How Will the Chris Paul Trade Impact the Rockets and the Clippers?

The Houston Rockets acquired perennial All-NBA point guard Chris Paul from the L.A. Clippers in exchange for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick next year and cash considerations.

NBA conventional wisdom is that the team that acquires the best player "wins" a trade, so from that perspective Houston is the clear winner in this deal. However, even if you buy the premise that Houston "won," it is not clear that the Rockets significantly improved their chances to win a title.

Chris Paul joins James Harden to form one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA. Both players can shoot, score off of the dribble and create open shots for their teammates. Yet, despite their accomplishments and skill sets, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that Paul and Harden are two very good players who--for different reasons--are much better suited to being the second option on a championship team than to being the first option on a championship team.

Paul has proven to be a feisty and divisive player who feuds with coaches and teammates. He has never taken a team past the second round of the playoffs despite being surrounded by excellent talent for most of his career, so it is puzzling that he is so often praised as a great leader. Paul is generously listed at 6-0 tall; he is powerfully built but ultimately he is a small man in a large man's game and thus he is injury prone and has a tendency to wear down in the playoffs.

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

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

The other side of the court could also be challenging as well. Paul and Harden both want to monopolize the ball and control the pace of the game, with Paul preferring to grind it out in the halfcourt set while Harden likes to push the tempo.

Houston gave up a lot of depth to acquire Paul. The Rockets beat the Thunder in the first round of the 2017 playoffs because of their depth, not because of Harden; the Thunder actually did quite well during the time that Harden was on the court. There is obvious value to adding a star to the roster but adding an aging, small star whose skill set and demeanor may not fully mesh with the other star on the team may not yield enough to offset all of the value provided by the sacrificed depth.

I am not suggesting that acquiring Paul is necessarily a bad move; if anything, it is a positive sign for the Rockets that perhaps Daryl Morey is realizing that his "foundational player" James Harden needs serious star power by his side to go very far in the playoffs. I just am not convinced that this move is enough to enable the Rockets to get past the second round of the playoffs.

As for the Clippers, the Chris Paul experiment had clearly run its course: three first round losses and three second round losses in six years, including blowing a 3-1 second round lead to Harden's Rockets in 2015. There is nothing to suggest that if the Clippers kept their nucleus intact--which probably was not even possible since it appears that Paul wanted out--then they would ever advance past the second round of the playoffs. The next task for the Clippers is to rebuild around franchise player Blake Griffin, who has agreed to a five year, $173 million deal. It is unclear if Griffin is good enough--and can stay healthy enough--to be the best player on a championship team but by dealing Paul and opening up the bank vault for Griffin the Clippers have chosen their path for the next several years. Guaranteeing that much money to Griffin is risky considering his track record but losing him and completely rebooting is an unpalatable option to any sensible general manager.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 AM

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The MVP Voters Got it Right

The NBA regular season MVP voters got it right, honoring Russell Westbrook for his historic season during which he joined Oscar Robertson as the only two players to average a triple double. Westbrook received 69 of 101 first-place votes and 888 total points. James Harden finished a distant second with 22 first place votes and 753 total points. Kawhi Leonard (500 points, nine first place votes) and LeBron James (333 points, one first place vote) are the only other players who received at least one first place vote.

It can legitimately be argued that LeBron James is a better basketball player than Russell Westbrook but--in terms of performance during the 2016-17 regular season--Westbrook was clearly the NBA's best player. Westbrook won his second scoring title (career-high 31.6 ppg), he ranked third in assists (10.4 apg) and he finished 10th in rebounding (10.7 rpg, an unprecedented average for a 6-3 point guard). Westbrook tallied three 50 point triple doubles, setting both the single season and career records in that category.

Westbrook's amazing individual numbers directly correlated with his team's success. He broke Oscar Robertson's single season record by notching 42 triple doubles and the Oklahoma City Thunder went 33-9 in those games, compared to 14-26 in the remaining games; a 33-9 record projects to 64-18 over a full 82 game season, while 14-26 projects to 29-53. Essentially, when Westbrook played at a historically great level he elevated the Thunder to elite status but when he was "merely" good the Thunder were the equivalent of a Draft Lottery team. The Thunder's relative performance when Westbrook was on the court compared to when he was off the court told the same story: with Westbrook on the court, this flawed roster could compete with just about anyone but take Westbrook out of the game and the Thunder morphed into the league's worst team by far.

As the statistics cited above demonstrate, objectively the MVP race was never close but, for those who had any lingering doubts, Westbrook wrapped up the MVP award with a sizzling closing stretch that included a historic triple double.

Westbrook carried the Thunder to the sixth seed in the always competitive Western Conference and he put up mind-boggling numbers in the first round of the playoffs (37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg) but the Thunder collapsed every time he left the court, enabling the Houston Rockets to prevail four games to one. The Thunder's total dependence on Westbrook--and Houston's ability to thrive even when Harden was not on the court--further established that Westbrook is indeed worthy of being recognized as the league's Most Valuable Player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:18 PM

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mission Accomplished: Durant Leads Warriors to Championship-Clinching Game Five Victory

Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City because he thought that joining forces with the Golden State Warriors provided him with his best chance to win an NBA title. Whether or not you agree with Durant's reasoning, the record will forever show that in the first season after Durant made his move he led the Warriors to the NBA championship. Durant's Warriors faced the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's first championship trilogy and the Warriors emerged victorious in five games to claim their second title in three years, capping off a 16-1 postseason run to join the 15-1 2001 L.A. Lakers and the 12-1 1983 Philadelphia 76ers as one-loss NBA champions.

Cleveland's record-setting game four win punctured the Warriors' dream of completing the NBA's only 16-0 playoff run but Durant made sure that the Cavaliers would not add a comeback from a 3-0 deficit to a resume that includes last season's comeback from a 3-1 deficit versus the Warriors. Durant finished game five with 39 points, seven rebounds and five assists while shooting 14-20 from the field; his .700 field goal percentage in a championship-clinching game is the best such mark in NBA Finals history with a minimum of 20 field goal attempts (and tied for fifth best overall regardless of the number of attempts). He earned the 2017 Finals MVP by averaging 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field. Durant joined Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the list of players who shot at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range and at least .900 on free throws in an NBA Finals. He is just the third player (joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan) to win four scoring titles plus at least one NBA championship.

Stephen Curry added 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds; he averaged 26.8 ppg, 9.4 apg and 8.0 rpg in the best of his three Finals performances, one that would be MVP-worthy in most seasons: he scored and passed at a high level while also asserting himself on the boards. Klay Thompson finished with just 11 points but he averaged a solid 16.4 ppg during the series while also playing great defense.

LeBron James scored a game-high 41 points, pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds and dished for eight assists. That pushed his series averages to 33.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg and 10.0 apg as James notched the first aggregate triple double in NBA Finals history. Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, slightly under his series average of 29.4 ppg. The third member of Cleveland's Big Three, Kevin Love, had six points and 10 rebounds, finishing the series with averages of 16.0 ppg and 11.2 rpg--not bad for a third option, though he will be the scapegoat for the media and for many fans.

The 4-1 margin suggests that the Warriors are vastly superior to the Cavaliers but the reality is that for long stretches the Cavaliers matched the Warriors shot for shot: Cleveland should have won game three after leading by six points with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Cleveland dominated game four and Cleveland led for most of the first half of game five, so if the Cavaliers could have sustained focus for two more minutes in game three and about five minutes during the second quarter of game five then the Cavaliers could be up 3-2 and heading home with a chance to win back to back titles. What would the outcome have been if the Cavaliers had played as hard in games one and two as they did for most of games three through five? The problem is that when the best player on the team admittedly enters "chill mode" for stretches of the regular season it is not realistic to expect his teammates to play hard all of the time, either.

Brian Scalabrine of Sirius XM NBA Radio made an interesting point prior to game five: throughout NBA history, star players typically receive the blame or credit for the outcome of a championship series--but when James is involved, the media narrative often places the blame on his supporting cast. Scalabrine noted that James is supposed to be the best player on the planet and with that title comes the responsibility to carry a lot of weight in each game. James had a marvelous, record-breaking series statistically but the reality is that he is now just 3-5 in the NBA Finals and the series MVP award once again went to the player directly matched up against him.

In case the media forgot the prescribed narrative after Durant walked off with the MVP hardware, James repeatedly insisted during his postgame press conference that he had left it all on the court and done everything he could possibly do--which, of course, is a not so veiled way of saying, "We would have won a championship if my teammates had done more." That is not the message that great players typically deliver upon losing in the championship round. James' comments beg the question of whether or not he really did give his all--and anyone who watched the series (or checks the tape) knows that is not the case. Just during the game five telecast alone, Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly admonished James for  "standing, staring, watching" on defense. That theme is one that Van Gundy often repeats during playoff telecasts and I recall him providing the exact same criticism toward Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum years ago when they played for the Lakers; it is not recency bias to suggest that such a criticism could not accurately be applied to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant during their Finals appearances.

Game five was a winnable game for Cleveland and a more introspective James would have acknowledged that those plays when he stood, stared and watched could have made a difference.

Cleveland led 37-33 after the first quarter on the strength of .625 shooting from the field. James and Irving scored 12 points each in the first stanza, as did Curry. The Cavaliers pushed that margin to 41-33 in the second quarter before the Warriors hit the Cavaliers with a 28-4 run. Near the end of that outburst, Irving missed a shot but tied up David West, who swung his elbow toward Irving's face and was immediately whistled for a technical foul. J.R. Smith pushed West, who by that time was jaw to jaw with Tristan Thompson. Smith and Thompson were each called for technical fouls, so the net result of the sequence was a Stephen Curry free throw followed by a jump ball between West and Irving.

James anticipated where West would tip the ball and then fired up a three pointer that cut the margin to 61-48. That was a great play, a championship level play, but James also has some inexcusable mental lapses--including (1) not even running past half court during a Golden State fastbreak when the Warriors missed the initial shot but then scored (Van Gundy called out James and Richard Jefferson on that play) and (2) standing rooted in place as Andre Iguodala drove to the hoop for an uncontested dunk. If James wants to argue that it is not reasonable to expect him to produce more than 41-13-8, then he might have a point--though it should also be noted that for most of the game he was the biggest and strongest player on the court as both teams went small--but his narrative that he left everything on the court and played hard every minute is demonstrably false.

J.R. Smith's late, long three pointer cut the margin to 71-60 just before the halftime buzzer. Durant scored 21 first half points on 7-10 field goal shooting and Curry added 20 points on 5-11 field goal shooting. James led Cleveland with 21 first half points on 9-15 field goal shooting.

Clearly, the game was still within reach for the Cavaliers. Indeed, James' offensive rebound and putback cut Golden State's lead to 79-71 in the third quarter. After that play, Van Gundy noted that in the first half James lacked energy at times, particularly on defense, but that this kind of play represented the energy level that the Cavaliers needed from James in order to win an NBA Finals road game. Early in the fourth quarter, a James layup pulled the Cavaliers to within 98-95 and a Kyle Korver three pointer at the 8:28 mark made the score 108-102 Golden State but down the stretch the Cavaliers committed too many defensive breakdowns and had too many empty possessions.

James scored 10 points in the final 7:18, all of them deep in the paint; as the biggest player on the court and with rules that prohibit defensive players from touching him, James is unstoppable, so the question is why did James wait until the waning moments to attack the paint that way? The Cavaliers sure could have used that kind of offense during Golden State's big second quarter run. James' 41 points are impressive but what would Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Julius Erving score under these rules and with no seven footers on the court? Erving averaged 30.3 ppg in the 1977 NBA Finals with Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas camped in the paint. Jordan averaged over 30 ppg during his Finals career despite having players draped all over him. Bryant averaged 28.6 ppg in the 2010 Finals versus the Boston Celtics, one of the last teams to consistently play physical defense. I don't care how long Durant is or how wily Thompson or Andre Iguodala are; those guys are not stopping Erving, Jordan or Bryant if they cannot touch them and if there is not a seven footer protecting the rim.

I used to always wonder why some people insisted that Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain despite the record-setting numbers that Chamberlain posted but watching LeBron James for over a decade has been eye-opening. While James ended the game by padding his scoring total with layups that would not change the outcome, I thought back to something that Russell once said: he claimed that after the result was decided, he would let Chamberlain score a few buckets to kind of soften Chamberlain up for the next time that they met. All Russell cared about was the final score, not his head to head individual numbers versus Chamberlain.

James is a marvelously gifted player and he had a great series by any quantifiable measure. Is it fair to expect him to produce even more points, rebounds and assists than he did? I guess the answer to that question depends on your perception of the responsibility that is carried by a Pantheon-level player and your perception of what opportunities are available to a great scorer playing under the current rules against lineups that typically do not feature a true big man protecting the paint.

Perhaps we are all guilty of missing the forest for the trees: there is a segment of the media that acts as if James has long since surpassed Bryant and is on the verge of surpassing Jordan, so as a historian of the game I feel duty-bound to refute those two notions--but maybe the real story here is how Durant's game has evolved from one dimensional shooter to multi-dimensional scorer who can also impact the game as a rebounder, passer and defender. While many of us are debating how to rank James within the Pantheon, Durant just "quietly" had one of the best Finals performances ever and that should not be overlooked. Durant is now as close to matching James' championship total as James is to matching Bryant's--and, barring unforeseen circumstances, it is certainly a distinct possibility that Durant will snare at least two more titles and two more Finals MVPs before his career is over.

As a competitive person and a lifelong NBA fan, I would have preferred to see Durant try to dethrone the Warriors instead of joining forces with them but I respect--and am impressed by--the way that Durant played this season, particularly how he outplayed James in the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM

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