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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Notes on Klay Thompson's 60 Point Outburst

On Monday night, Klay Thompson erupted for 60 points in just 29 minutes as his Golden State Warriors routed the Indiana Pacers, 142-106. Thompson, who shot 21-33 from the field (including 8-14 from three point range), set an NBA record for most points scored while playing fewer than 30 minutes (previously, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone had each needed 33 minutes to score at least 60 points). Thompson did not play at all in the fourth quarter or else he might have challenged Kobe Bryant's pro basketball record for most points scored by a guard in a single game (81)--but it is worth noting that Bryant once outscored Dallas 62-61 after three quarters before sitting out the entire fourth quarter (that Dallas team finished 60-22 and advanced to the NBA Finals); also, in 2002, Bryant scored a then career-high 56 points in three quarters versus Memphis before sitting out the entire fourth quarter because the Lakers led 95-59. During his career, Bryant scored at least 50 points in the first three quarters of a game no less than five times!

The media coverage of Thompson's superb game is interesting. The New York Times neglected to mention Thompson's assist total (1)--a number that was invariably brought up whenever Bryant had a big scoring night--but did snarkily comment that the most recent 60 point game in the NBA happened last season when Bryant was "abetted by his teammates," which makes it sound like Bryant and/or the Lakers committed some kind of basketball crime. Did Thompson's teammates not "abet" him? The reality is that assists were awarded on 20 of 21 Thompson's made field goals. While field goal attempts might be harder to come by when you have talented teammates like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, the flip side of that is that Thompson is not likely to draw many double teams, either, regardless of how hot he gets. In any case, despite the sniping about Bryant's valedictory effort it will be interesting to see how many years pass before another NBA player with a repaired Achilles tendon drops 60 points in his final NBA game while playing alongside a bunch of young teammates, many of whom are not worthy of single coverage let alone double coverage.

In general, most players who have a 60 point game only do so once, so even though Thompson is an explosive scorer he likely will never match what he just accomplished. Wilt Chamberlain holds the NBA record for most 60 point games in a career (32), while Bryant is second with six, Michael Jordan is third with five (four in the regular season plus one in the playoffs) and Elgin Baylor is fourth with four (three in the regular season plus one in the playoffs). No one else has done it more than once; the other 60 point scorers include David Thompson (73), David Robinson (71), Pete Maravich (68), Rick Barry (64), George Gervin (63), Joe Fulks (63), Carmelo Anthony (62), Tracy McGrady (62), LeBron James (61), Shaquille O'Neal (61), Karl Malone (61) and George Mikan (61), plus several players who scored exactly 60 one time (Gilbert Arenas, Allen Iverson, Tom Chambers, Larry Bird and Bernard King). Julius Erving's ABA single game career-high was 63 points, four short of the ABA record of 67 set by Larry Miller. Other ABA players who scored at least 60 points in a game include Stew Johnson (62) and Zelmo Beaty (63).

Other than Stew Johnson (who briefly held the ABA single game scoring record), Thompson is the only player who was the third option on his team to score at least 60 points in a game--and the second option on Johnson's 1971 Pittsburgh Condors, George Thompson, did not play in Johnson's 62 point game, while Durant and Curry both played during Klay Thompson's big game. It is difficult to think of many other teams in pro basketball history that had three scoring options as potent as former scoring champions Curry and Durant plus Thompson, who holds the NBA record with 37 points in one quarter. It is uncommon for a team to have three legit, healthy 20 ppg scorers and it is rare--if not unprecedented--that the third option would realistically be capable of scoring 50 points, let alone 60. Curry and Durant have each scored 50 points in a game on multiple occasions and are certainly capable of scoring 60 in a game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:46 AM


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Saturday, December 03, 2016

Triple Threat Russell Westbrook Redefines Modern Basketball Versatility

Oscar Robertson has long been the exemplar of basketball versatility. He is the only player to average a triple double over the course of an entire NBA season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62, his second year in the league) and he is also the only player to average an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his NBA career. Robertson averaged at least 28.3 ppg, at least 9.9 rpg and at least 9.5 apg in each of his first four seasons. The only other player in pro basketball history to score in double figures while averaging at least 9 rpg and 9 apg for an entire season is Magic Johnson in 1981-82 (18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 9.5 apg).

Russell Westbrook has emerged as the 21st century Oscar Robertson. Westbrook averaged 31.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg and 11.3 apg in the first 20 games of the 2016-17 season. This is the latest in a season that anyone other than Robertson has maintained a triple double average (Robertson did this for 67 games in 1963-64 in addition to his full season 79 game effort in 1961-62). It is important to emphasize that 20 games is not a small sample size for this statistic, because this list consists of Robertson (79 games in 1961-62), Robertson (first 67 games in 1963-64), Westbrook (first 20 games in 2016-17) and then Magic Johnson (first eight games in 1981-82) and Robertson (first six games in 1960-61). Thus, Westbrook's season-opening sustained triple double level performance is more than twice as long as that of any player in NBA history other than Robertson! Say what you want about pace or anything else but when in the course of more than seven decades of professional basketball only two players have produced at such a high level for a significant amount of games that is special.

Westbrook is on pace to set career highs in scoring, rebounds and assists while also shooting a career-best .336 from three point range but Westbrook is assuredly not the kind of player that TNT's Kenny Smith calls "a looter in a riot," Smith's colorful phrase for someone who puts up big numbers for a bad team. Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder are currently 12-8, tied for fifth place in the Western Conference and on pace to win nearly 50 games despite losing future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant to Golden State last summer in free agency.

There have been eight 30-point triple doubles this season and Westbrook has logged seven of them, including point-rebound-assist lines of 51-13-10 and 41-12-16. Westbrook has racked up nine of the NBA's 20 triple doubles this season. The Thunder posted a 5-2 record in Westbrook's 30-point triple double games and a 7-2 record overall when he had a triple double. In the past 30 years, only LeBron James has more 30-point triple doubles than Westbrook.

From November 13-25, Westbrook scored at least 30 points in eight straight games, the longest such streak of his career. The Thunder only went 3-5 during that stretch--including a pair of losses in back to back games, three of which were played on the road--but Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in five of those eight contests.

The Thunder are riding a four game winning streak after that 3-5 slump and Westbrook's point-rebound-assist lines in those games are eye-popping: 36-11-17, 17-13-15, 27-18-14, 35-14-11. Those four "Ws" mean a lot more to Westbrook than the four triple doubles. Asked about whether he can sustain his personal numbers, Westbrook replied, "Winning is sustainable. My job is to go out and find the best way to win games."

Westbrook has the same competitive mindset as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who both have publicly expressed their respect for him. Jordan recently made a special trip to Oklahoma to present Westbrook for induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. During the ceremony, Jordan declared, "When I watch him play, I see a lot of resemblance in his passion for the game of basketball, the way I played the game of basketball."

The Thunder are not running a gimmicky system that artificially inflates Westbrook's numbers. He scores because he attacks the hoop relentlessly. He rebounds because he pursues the ball relentlessly. He accumulates assists because he relentlessly makes the right basketball play. Westbrook does not hold on to the ball just to make sure that he gets an assist; he breaks down the defense and then either scores or passes to a teammate who is open precisely because Westbrook attracted one or more help defenders.

Because Westbrook is playing, as Larry Brown would put it, the right way, the Thunder are almost unbeatable when Westbrook posts a triple double, posting victories in 25 of the last 27 games during which Westbrook had a triple double. The team needs for him to play at a high level and is almost unbeatable when he does so.

Westbrook and Robertson will likely be forever linked because of their triple double exploits. Most NBA fans and commentators are too young to remember Robertson's career. "Stat gurus" and fans who believe that nothing of significance happened in the NBA before Michael Jordan (or possibly even LeBron James) tend to dismiss Robertson as a player who put up big numbers against supposedly weak competition in an era when the game was played at a fast pace with many more possessions than occur in today's game. This is what William Goldman termed "the battle to the death" in Wait Till Next Year, the classic book that he co-authored with Mike Lupica: Goldman declared that every athlete--with perhaps the exception of Wilt Chamberlain--faces a "battle to the death" in the sense that, no matter how great he was in his era, in subsequent eras people forget or devalue what he accomplished.

During Robertson's era, he was widely considered the best all-around player in the league, while Wilt Chamberlain was labeled the most dominant player and Bill Russell was the greatest champion. On the surface, though, it may seem like Robertson's versatility and impressive individual numbers did not correlate with team success. He played 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals and made it to the Eastern Division Finals twice but never advanced to the NBA Finals until he joined forces with young Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and helped the Milwaukee Bucks win the 1971 NBA title.

If Robertson was truly great then why did his Royals not have more success?

The answer to that question can only be found by placing Robertson's career in proper historical context. The Royals posted back to back 19 win seasons prior to Robertson joining the team. Largely because of Robertson, that number jumped by 14 in his rookie year and 10 more in his second season. In two years, the Royals improved from 19-56 to 43-37 (yes, the NBA season increased in length by five games during that time). In Robertson's third season, the Royals lost 4-3 in the Eastern Division Finals to Russell's Celtics, a perennial championship team that was stacked with Hall of Famers. The next season, the Royals went 55-25--the second best record in a nine team league--but lost 4-1 in the Eastern Division Finals to the 59-21 Celtics, who won their sixth straight championship en route to an unprecedented eight consecutive NBA titles.

The NBA in the 1960s had a small number of teams, so talent was highly concentrated. Rarely if ever did you see a team like the recent editions of the Philadelphia 76ers, who were built to lose and had many players on the roster who did not even belong in the league. When Robertson averaged a triple double in 1961-62, the worst team in a nine team league was the 18-62 first year expansion Chicago Packers, led by future Hall of Famer Walt Bellamy (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg that season). The two next worst teams each went 29-51: the St. Louis Hawks were led by Hall of Famers Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette--a formidable "Big Three"--and the New York Knicks had Hall of Famer Richie Guerin. During that era, a team could have three great players and not even post a .500 record, so Robertson's individual feats--including being the only non-center to win the NBA MVP between 1958 and 1980--are not diminished by the Royals' failure to win an NBA title. During subsequent eras when the talent became more dispersed throughout the league, every Pantheon-level player won at least one championship while playing at an All-NBA First Team level. Elgin Baylor, who also played the bulk of his career in the talent-stacked 1960s NBA, is the only member of my pro basketball Pantheon who did not win an NBA title. Robertson made the All-NBA Second Team as a member of Milwaukee's 1971 championship squad.

The point of this brief history lesson is that we should celebrate Westbrook's historic 2016-17 season while at the same time appreciating the significance of what Robertson accomplished.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:33 PM


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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

DeMar DeRozan and the Art of the Midrange Game

DeMar DeRozan averaged a career-high 23.5 ppg in 2015-16, his seventh NBA season, so no one could have reasonably expected that nine games into the 2016-17 season he would be leading the league with a 34.0 ppg average. What is even more surprising is how DeRozan is scoring so many points. "Stat gurus" insist that two point jump shots are inefficient and should be eliminated from every player's repertoire, but DeRozan is feasting off of the kind of midrange jumpers that used to be a key weapon in the arsenals of almost every great scorer.

DeRozan is a poor three point shooter (.214 3FG% this season, .282 career 3FG%) who wisely rarely shoots from beyond the arc--but he is burying midrange shots at a rate that even midrange masters Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant would envy (career-high .549 2FG% this season). DeRozan has always been good at driving to the hoop to finish strongly and/or draw fouls and that remains the case as he ranks eighth in free throw attempts after finishing third in the NBA in that category last season.

"Stat gurus" are at a loss to explain DeRozan's success (Sports Illustrated's preseason player ratings, which relied heavily on "advanced basketball statistics," did not place DeRozan among the league's top 40 players) and are already insisting that DeRozan cannot maintain his lofty scoring average and two point field goal percentage for an entire season. While the latter point may be correct to some extent--much as it is the case that a premier hitter who posts a .400 batting average in April is unlikely to finish the season with such an average--DeRozan is demonstrating that there is value in mastering the midrange game not only in terms of individual statistics but also in terms of team success. DeRozan's Toronto Raptors, fresh off of the franchise's first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, currently have the second best record in the Eastern Conference.

DeRozan is playing similarly to the way that Richard Hamilton played during his prime, though Hamilton was a better three point shooter and not as good at drawing fouls. Like Hamilton, who averaged 3.1 rpg and 3.4 apg during his career, DeRozan does not have gaudy all-around statistics but DeRozan is posting solid floor numbers this season: a career-high 4.8 rpg, plus 3.2 apg (better than his career average of 2.6 apg, but lower than his averages in each of the past three seasons) and a career-high 1.4 spg.

The midrange shot is far from dead. Mastery of that aspect of the game helped Jordan and Bryant win six and five championships respectively. LeBron James owns a 3-4 career Finals record and a major reason that his winning percentage at the highest level of the sport is below .500 is that his willingness (and ability) to make midrange shots has not been consistent throughout his career; the San Antonio Spurs, who have won two of three Finals matchups against James, dared James to make that shot and this strategy could have led to a 3-0 record versus James were it not for one missed boxout in game six of the 2013 Finals.

I love the three point shot. I love players who can draw fouls without flopping (like DeRozan now and Adrian Dantley back in the day). I understand that mathematically it makes sense to try to shoot a lot of three pointers and free throws--but the midrange shot is a valuable weapon, too, and DeRozan is showing that it still can have an important place in today's NBA game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:58 PM


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Saturday, November 05, 2016

First Impressions of the 2016-17 Season

My first impression of the 2016-17 NBA season is that Russell Westbrook is impressive. He averaged 34.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 10.0 apg while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to a 4-1 record. The Thunder improved to 5-1 tonight as Westbrook produced 28 points, six rebounds and eight assists while playing just 28 minutes in a 112-92 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Westbrook started the season with a bang, erupting for 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in a 103-97 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. That was just a warmup for game two, when Westbrook scorched the Phoenix Suns with 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 113-110 overtime win. Critics harp on the fact that Westbrook had 44 field goal attempts--but the Thunder were +7 when Westbrook was on the court in a game that they won by just three points. The team needed every ounce of energy that Westbrook provided. How rare is a 50 point triple double? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the last player to accomplish this feat--in 1975!

Westbrook had 33 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds in the Thunder's 113-96 rout of the L.A. Lakers, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson in 1982-83 to post two triple doubles in the first three games of a season. Westbrook is the fourth player ever to have two triple-doubles in the first three games, joining Johnson (twice), Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson (twice). Last season Westbrook posted 18 triple-doubles, which tied Johnson (in 1981-82) for the most in a single season in the last 40 years--and unlike many players, Westbrook is not chasing personal glory at the expense of team success: the Thunder have won 21 straight games (regular season and playoffs) when Westbrook posts a triple double. That is the longest streak since the Lakers won 24 straight games when Magic Johnson had a triple double during the 1984-87 time frame.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Westbrook became the first player with at least 100 points, 30 rebounds and 30 assists in the first three games of a season (I suspect that this is a post ABA-NBA merger statistic, as Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson probably accomplished this at least once at some point during their careers). Through three games, Westbrook averaged a triple-double: 38.6 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 11.6 assists. The amazing thing is that it is not unthinkable that Westbrook could maintain production in that neighborhood over the course of the entire season; sure, he will not likely average 38 ppg, but 30 ppg is easily within reach, as is 11 apg--and while 12 rpg from the point guard position is a bit much to expect, 9 rpg is quite doable for Westbrook.

By his standards, Westbrook had a subdued performance in the Thunder's 85-83 victory against the L.A. Clippers: "only" 35 points, six rebounds and five assists. Westbrook is the first player to score at least 150 points in the first four games of the season since Michael Jordan in 1991-92. That Thunder win is notable because the Clippers are viewed by many as a championship contender, while some observers questioned if the Thunder would even be in playoff contention after Kevin Durant's departure. 

Speaking of Durant, one of the early season games that all fans and commentators circled on their schedules was Oklahoma City at Golden State, as Durant faced the teammates that he abandoned. The Warriors are the first team in NBA history to feature two former MVPs who are each less than 28 years old (2014 winner Durant, plus 2015 and 2016 winner Stephen Curry) and they obviously are a much more talented team than the Thunder--but the Thunder enjoyed a 29-19 lead when Westbrook took his customary rest near the end of the first quarter. With Westbrook out of the game, the Thunder collapsed, yielding a 19-3 run as Golden State never trailed the rest of the way en route to a 122-96 win that some view as a vindication of Durant's decision. Other than Kyle Singler, every Thunder bench player had a double digit negative plus/minus number versus the Warriors. With Westbrook on the court, the Thunder can compete with anyone but they will not contend for a championship until they add some depth, either through player development or player acquisition.

The aftermath of Golden State's rout demonstrated that no matter what Westbrook says or does he will be criticized by the mainstream media. One article praised Durant for supposedly overcoming the way that Westbrook had allegedly been cold and dismissive toward him. That is one of the most ridiculous pieces of "analysis" that I have seen in a long time--and (sadly) I have seen a lot of ridiculous NBA analysis. As Kenny Smith would say, let's not just keep it real, let's keep it right. Durant left the Thunder. He supposedly considers Westbrook his blood brother, yet he notified Westbrook of his departure by text message.The mature way to handle that breakup was face to face, man to man. In my book, Durant is the betrayer of Westbrook's trust. As I have said before, Durant has the right to leave the Thunder and join the Warriors--and I have the right to be disappointed in his decision and to point out why it would have been nice if he had possessed the fortitude to continue to battle the Warriors instead of joining forces with them. As for Westbrook's role in this situation, it is not up to him to say anything to Durant. Durant literally snuck out the back door; if he wants to communicate with Westbrook, he knows where to find him.

Westbrook has that Kobe Bryant mentality that is so rare--and so great to see. Westbrook is not trying to make friends on the court. He is trying to win games and (hopefully) championships. Westbrook is not thinking about his personal statistics or about what anyone is going to say about his statistics or his shot selection; he is trying to make plays to help his team win. His game is a lot different than Bryant's--Bryant was bigger, he was a better shooter and he had a more reliable postup game--but the mindset is the same: Bryant once said that he was "not with" the whole idea of if you try your best and lose that is OK and it is obvious that Westbrook feels the same way. Three years ago, I prophetically wrote that Westbrook "is perhaps the NBA's most underrated and overly criticized great player, taking those two dubious honors from Kobe Bryant (who finished fourth in the 2006 MVP voting after dragging the Lakers to the playoffs despite starting alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker)." Westbrook is intense even during the NBA All-Star Game (he is the first back to back All-Star Game MVP winner), which makes him a throwback to the days when the likes of Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas made the All-Star Game a competitive East-West showdown.


Some people acted like the sky was falling after Durant's Warriors got blown out by the San Antonio Spurs in the first game of the season but the reality is that the Warriors have so much talent--plus top notch coaching--that it is inconceivable that they will win less than 60-65 games (barring major injuries, of course). The Warriors will overwhelm most teams with their talent and they also will enjoy the coaching advantage almost every game as well. However, that first game did once again point out that there is a blueprint to beat this team, much like there was a blueprint to destroy the seemingly invincible Death Star. The Warriors are a tenacious defensive team on the perimeter but they are vulnerable in the paint. Attacking them in the paint can lead to layups and free throws; it can also hurt Golden State's offense by fatiguing their stars and/or saddling those stars with foul trouble. These issues will not matter much during the regular season but they could become very significant during the playoffs. Even before the Warriors essentially traded their size and their depth to acquire Durant, they were vulnerable inside, as we saw last year when the Thunder pushed the Warriors to game seven and the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in game seven of the NBA Finals--but now that vulnerability is acute. Does Durant provide enough offensive firepower to compensate? It will be fascinating to find out the answer to that question.


James Harden is going to put up video game-like offensive numbers this season. If his Rockets manage to scrape together 45 wins (far from a sure thing), the "stat gurus" in the mainstream media may very well make enough noise on his behalf that he is given (as opposed to earning) the regular season MVP. Under new coach Mike D'Antoni, Harden is going to score more than ever and--because he will be expected to initiate almost every single offensive action when he is on the court--he will set a career-high in assists. Harden will also play minimal defense and the Rockets will advance no further than the first round of the playoffs, which has been a recurring theme during Harden's tenure in Houston (three first round exits in four years) and will continue to be a recurring theme unless he changes his mindset (which he appears to be unwilling or unable to do). I recently heard a great adage about coaching: if a coach's team continues to do something wrong, at some point it must be said that the coach is either teaching it or allowing it. D'Antoni either teaches or allows that defense is not a priority, a philosophy that meshes very nicely with Harden's approach to the game. D'Antoni may feel like the Warriror's 2015 championship vindicated his coaching style but that is not true; the Warriors (despite their lack of size in their best lineup, which causes the aforementioned weakness in the paint) are an excellent defensive team, while none of D'Antoni's teams have been good defensively.

If D'Antoni is happy and feels vindicated, if Harden is satisfied with padding his personal numbers and never winning a championship and if Houston fans/Harden fans are happy, then who am I to complain about the Rockets?


The Indiana Pacers improved to 3-3 tonight with a 111-94 win over the 3-3 Chicago Bulls. The Pacers are widely touted as a top four team in the East, while I predicted that the Pacers would not even make the playoffs. It is obviously still early in the season and maybe I am missing something, but it sure appears like the Pacers (to borrow a phrase from the late football coach Dennis Green) are who I thought they were: I do not see them as a contender because I expect them to be a bad defensive team and the Pacers are currently sixth in scoring and 30th (last) in points allowed. I am not sure how many last ranked defensive teams have made the playoffs but I suspect that number is very small. The Pacers will probably not finish as the NBA's worst defensive team but--no matter how good their offense is--they likely will have to move up at least to 15th-20th defensively to have a realistic chance of proving me wrong by qualifying for the playoffs.


Another team that I picked to miss the playoffs, the Bulls, started off quickly but has now dropped to .500. Jimmy Butler is an excellent two-way player, Dwyane Wade's resume is familiar even to casual NBA fans and Rajon Rondo is a talented and cerebral--if at times difficult to work with--player. The Bulls obviously have a lot of talent at the 1-2-3 spots but it is questionable if they have enough shooting and a stout enough defense to be a playoff team. Of all the teams that I picked to miss the playoffs, this is the one squad that I freely admitted might prove me wrong; after six games it is way to early to issue a final verdict but let's just say that I still feel comfortable with my original prediction.


It is easy to forget that for the first six years of Michael Jordan's career, the accepted storyline was that he was a great individual talent who lacked the qualities that enabled Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to lead their teams to championships. Then Jordan won three straight titles with the Bulls to place himself no worse than equal to Johnson (who by then had been recognized by most objective people as the player of the 1980s by outperforming/outlasting Bird five championships to three). When Jordan retired in 1993 he was already a sports icon but after he came back in 1995 and promptly led the Bulls to three more championships he reached an almost untouchable level and became the default answer for most people when discussing the question of who is the greatest player of all-time (which is an unfair slight to other members of the pro basketball Pantheon but that is a debate for another day).

LeBron James' defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers are 6-0 and James is indisputably leading the way, even if his individual numbers are subdued by his lofty standards. During the first portion of James' career, he repeatedly failed to perform up to his capabilities in the NBA Finals and he decided to leave a team that had won 60-plus games in back to back seasons in order to surround himself with name brand talent to help him chase his first NBA title. Regardless of what the "stat gurus" might have said, at that time James could not be placed ahead of his contemporary Kobe Bryant, let alone the retired players in the Pantheon. Then James made it to four straight NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, winning back to back titles in 2012-13. James' return to Cleveland has so far resulted in two more Finals appearances plus one NBA championship. James has recently stated that his primary goal has always been to chase the "ghost" in Chicago (i.e., Jordan). Can James catch Jordan, either in popular perception or in tangible accomplishment?

Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals while winning six Finals MVPs. Bill Russell won more championships (11) but even he has one Finals loss on his resume. Russell never won the Finals MVP (the award was first given out during his final year, when his Celtics won the championship but Jerry West of the L.A. Lakers became the first and still only member of the losing team to receive the Finals MVP). James can obviously never match Jordan's 6 for 6 perfection. Jordan also posted two three-peats and his retirement leaves open the legitimate question of whether he could have led the Bulls to eight straight NBA championships. James' supporters would counter that, unlike Jordan, James led two different franchises to a championship; they would also argue that James won with less support than Jordan, who had a Top 50 player in his prime (Scottie Pippen) plus arguably the greatest coach in pro basketball history (Phil Jackson). It is hard to predict which way popular perception will go on this issue, especially if James leads Cleveland to a championship this year either against the highly touted Warriors or against whichever team upsets the Warriors. I sense that the media is looking for a reason to justify ranking James alongside Jordan.

Objectively, what does James have to do to equal Jordan? I would say that first James has to pass Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, the two best players since James entered the NBA. Bryant and Duncan each won five NBA titles. Bryant was the best all-around player in the league for many years, while Duncan was a dominating force in the paint whose teams went 2-1 head to head versus James' teams in the NBA Finals. James needs a couple more championships just to get into the Bryant-Duncan wing of the Pantheon.

Of course, this is not purely about counting rings. I rank Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West very highly even though they "only" won three, one and one championships respectively. To some extent, the number of championships won is affected by the quality of one's teammates, the era that one plays in and other factors beyond one's control--but James has been blessed in those categories: he has spent his entire career in the weaker Eastern Conference (and thus he has had an easier path to the Finals) and he spent his prime years playing alongside two future Hall of Famers, one of whom is arguably among the five best players all-time at his position. Some say that winning one championship in Cleveland should count as multiple rings in this discussion but I don't buy that: if Kyrie Irving stays healthy he is on track to be an elite player for years to come and Kevin Love has perennial All-Star level talent even though he is being asked/required to sacrifice his numbers in favor of James and Irving. It is not like James led the Bad News Bears to a title.

James is likely past the point in his career when he could average 35 ppg or go off on some kind of Jordan/Bryant record setting scoring binge. James' personal statistical resume is already well-established, though he obviously will continue to move up in the career rankings. From my perspective, the only possible way that James could pass Bryant/Duncan in his era and merit comparison to Jordan would be to finish with at least six championships. Even if James does that, he still has some playoff shortcomings on his resume that will never be erased.

Early in James' career, I wrote about his "accelerated growth curve." No one could have predicted the exact path that curve would take in the ensuing years, as James suffered setbacks but also experienced great triumphs. The best thing that I can say about James is that he seems eager to learn from his mistakes and to continue to improve as a player and as a person. Maybe he will catch Jordan's ghost, maybe he won't, but his dedication to personal improvement is well worth emulating. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:53 PM


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Friday, October 21, 2016

Should We Believe LaMarcus Aldridge or Should We Believe the Media?

It has been widely reported that LaMarcus Aldridge is unhappy with his role with the San Antonio Spurs and that he wants to be traded to a team for whom he can be the clear number one offensive option. During Aldridge's first season in San Antonio, the Spurs went 67-15 in 2015-16, tied with six other teams for the seventh best regular season record in NBA history.

Aldridge ranked second on the team in scoring (18.0 ppg) while averaging a team-high 8.5 rpg in 30.6 mpg; in the playoffs, Aldridge averaged 21.9 ppg and a team-high 8.3 rpg. Aldridge set a career-high in regular season field goal percentage (.513) and playoff field goal percentage (.521) but his regular season scoring average was his lowest since 2009-10. Perhaps most significantly, Aldridge advanced to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time in his 10 year career. If he stays in San Antonio, Aldridge will likely contend for the NBA title on an annual basis for the next several years.

Aldridge is a five-time All-Star and a four-time member of the All-NBA Team (once on the Second Team, three times on the Third Team). He is arguably the best power forward in the league, though he would never be an odds-on favorite to win the MVP in today's analytics driven/small-ball climate that has seen Steve Nash and Stephen Curry win two MVPs apiece while Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant combined to win two MVPs during their entire careers.

If it is true that Aldridge prefers putting up big scoring numbers for a non-contending team as opposed to playing a significant role on a championship contender, then he is just another Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden--or, to put it another way, he is the antithesis of Nate Archibald, Bob McAdoo, Mark Aguirre, Manu Ginobili and a few other All-Stars who voluntarily sacrificed personal glory to win NBA championships.

There is a proper protocol when elite players join forces (whether via trades or free agency) to win championships: the newcomer publicly states that this is still the established star's team, whether or not that is actually the case anymore, because what is most important is to put the "Whose team is this?" nonsense to rest before the media runs wild with it. When Moses Malone joined the Philadelphia 76ers prior to the 1982-83 season, Malone was the reigning MVP while Julius Erving had won the 1981 MVP and finished third in the 1982 MVP voting. Malone stated that the 76ers were Erving's team. Any potential problem was squashed before it could start; Malone won the 1983 regular season and playoff MVPs, while Erving joined Malone on the All-NBA First Team as the 76ers rolled to the championship. Both players voluntarily reduced their scoring and could not have cared less about their personal statistics or about whose team it was. Similarly, when LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat in 2010 he spoke of the Heat being Dwyane Wade's team--and the funny thing is that the media actually bought this even though James was clearly the best player on the team; James won regular season and Finals MVPs in both 2012 and 2013, while Wade progressively dropped from All-NBA First Team status (prior to James' arrival) to the All-NBA Second Team and then the All-NBA Third Team before eventually not being selected to the All-NBA Team at all. The point is that, as the old saying goes, it is amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.

Does it really matter if the Spurs are Kawhi Leonard's team or LaMarcus Aldridge's team? Isn't the most important goal to win a championship?

However, there is one rather significant problem with the headline-grabbing story of Aldridge's alleged selfishness: the story may be false.

Aldridge has publicly denied that he is unhappy in San Antonio or that the Spurs are unhappy with him. Media members who regularly cover the Spurs have indicated that the Aldridge rumors are false. If that is true, then what we have is not a story about a selfish athlete but rather yet another example of certain members of the national media either making stuff up or else trusting anonymous "sources" who are not trustworthy. Relying too heavily on an anonymous source is like playing Russian roulette and hoping that you don't blow your brains out: it might work but it also might end very badly.

During the years that I covered NBA games in person with a media credential, I saw firsthand the unsavory tactics employed by many members of the media. For instance, a media member might ask one player a leading question designed to elicit a particular quote and then five minutes later that media member would go up to another player and say, "Player X said ABC about you. What do you think of that?" The media member would not indicate that the first player was merely answering a question that the media member had asked. An even slimier version of this tactic is to paraphrase what the first player said in a way that takes the quote out of context and makes it sound like something different than what the first player really meant.

Then, there is also the problem that many of the people who cover the NBA do not have the requisite knowledge of the sport or its history to do the job properly. Early in my career as an NBA writer, I did a one on one interview with Paul Silas, who was then the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. I asked him about Bob Dandridge, who Silas played against in two NBA Finals. Silas told me that Dandridge was a "talker." If I did not know the history of the sport or if I just wanted to create controversy, I could have left that quote as it stood or even paraphrased it so that it seemed like Silas was calling Dandridge a trash-talker--but I knew that Dandridge did not have that kind of demeanor, so I remarked to Silas that I am surprised that Dandridge was a "talker." Silas immediately clarified that he meant that Dandridge communicated well with his teammates: "He talked the game and understood it and imparted that (to his teammates). He was very, very smart about the game and how he fit within the scheme and how he wanted everybody else to fit." I did not generate any headlines or create any controversies but I provided my readers with some insight about one of the most underrated players from the 1970s. If I had not known about Dandridge before speaking to Silas--or if I had been more interested in sizzle than substance--then my article would have had a completely different tone.

Maybe the person who is spreading the Aldridge rumors has an ax to grind with Aldridge and/or the Spurs. There are any number of possible motives and I will not speculate about all of them.

All I will say is this: if Aldridge really wants to be the kind of player that Kenny Smith calls a "looter in a riot" (i.e., someone amassing big stats for a losing team) then I hope the Spurs grant his wish as quickly as possible and that Aldridge spends the rest of his career scoring 25 ppg without sniffing the playoffs--but if some members of the media are either just making this up or they are too lazy/incompetent to research the facts before publishing the story, then I hope there are some consequences for their reckless behavior (I don't expect such consequences, mind you, as there is a long and shameful tradition of discredited journalists perversely becoming celebrities and thus profiting from actions that should have made them pariahs).

The truth (almost) always comes out in the end and when we know for sure what that truth is regarding Aldridge I will have a lot more to say about this subject, but the most responsible course of action for now is to let this story unfold naturally.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:28 PM


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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In Perpetuity: The Story of the Silna Brothers

When I took the Transactional Drafting class at University of Dayton School of Law in Spring 2015, one of my assignments was to write a brief paper and make a five minute presentation about a real-life transactional drafting issue. I chose to examine the "in perpetuity" clause of the agreement that the Silna brothers signed in exchange for relinquishing the opportunity for their Spirits of St. Louis franchise to participate in the 1976 ABA-NBA merger. Here is the paper as I wrote it, along with some expanded additional notes that I summarized during my oral presentation to the class:

We are going to enter a time machine and go back to before LeBron James, before Kobe Bryant, before Michael Jordan, before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—and before the National Basketball Association enjoyed multi-billion dollar media rights deals.

From 1967-76, the American Basketball Association (the ABA) operated as a rival professional basketball league to the older, established National Basketball Association (the NBA). The ABA featured a red, white and blue basketball, the three point shot and, at the league’s final All-Star Game, a Slam Dunk contest.

The ABA also had a host of future Hall of Fame players with colorful nicknames, including Julius "Dr. J" Erving, George "Iceman" Gervin, Artis "A-Train" Gilmore and David "Skywalker" Thompson. What the ABA did not have was financial stability or a national television contract.

In 1976, the leagues entered talks to merge operations. The leagues needed to come to terms with each other and also resolve several lawsuits that had been filed against one or both leagues by various parties. As a result of the negotiations, it was decided that four ABA teams--the champion New York Nets and the runner-up Denver Nuggets plus the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs--would join the new league, while the remaining two ABA teams--the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis--would be bought out in a settlement.

The owner of the Kentucky Colonels, John Y. Brown, accepted a cash settlement worth a little more than $3 million.

The NBA had previously had a franchise in St. Louis and that team eventually moved to greener pastures in Atlanta, where they still exist today as the Hawks. The NBA did not see a viable future for a franchise in St. Louis but the owners of the Spirits of St. Louis, Dan and Ozzie Silna, rejected the cash settlement offer. They really wanted to own an NBA team but, failing that, they wanted to remain part of the league in some fashion, hoping to eventually buy a team or be awarded an expansion franchise.

The NBA and ABA owners could not proceed with their plans unless they settled with the Silnas, so the Silnas enjoyed some leverage. The Silnas and their lawyer Donald Schupak negotiated to receive a 1/7th share of each of the surviving ABA teams' visual media revenue in perpetuity.

The Silnas received about $2.2 million in compensation for their former players who were signed by NBA teams. Since the Silnas' deal was supposed to be comparable in value to the settlement that Kentucky Colonels' owner John Y. Brown received, that means that the four ABA team owners that signed the deal with the Silnas valued the visual media rights at about $1 million. That may seem absurdly low in light of the multi-billion dollar TV deals that the NBA has now but during that era the NBA sometimes could not even get the networks to agree to show the championship series live. Magic Johnson's great performance in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals was shown on tape delay.

For the four ABA owners whose teams would be joining the merged league, it seemed like a very meaningless and inconsequential concession to offer the Silnas a small percentage of "visual media" (television) revenues to make the Silnas go away. However, as we have learned in Contracts class and in this class, it is very important to negotiate a definite length of time for a contract. Surely the lawyers involved in the NBA-ABA merger negotiations--including David Stern, who just a few years later became the NBA's Commissioner--knew this as well but they thought that the most important thing was to bring the four ABA teams (and their star players, most notably Julius Erving) into the NBA. The Silna brothers and their colorfully named team just seemed to be a small sideshow. Why not just pay off the Silnas with a small piece of a small TV revenue pie and be done with them?

The exact wording of the key clause is, "The right to receive such revenues shall continue for as long as the NBA or its successors continues in its existence." In other words, the clause lasts "in perpetuity," the words that Ozzie Silna later had stitched on a custom-made Spirits of St. Louis retro cap. Schupak owned a 10% stake in the team and thus he has received 10% of the revenue from this deal.

The deal did not pay off immediately. As part of the NBA-ABA merger, the four former ABA teams did not receive any TV revenue for three years. So, from 1976 to 1978, the Silnas did not earn a dime from the NBA. According to published reports, however, in 1979 the Silnas received their first royalty check in the amount of $200,000. For the 1980-81 season, the Silnas earned $521,749.

By this time, the NBA realized that this deal was a lot better for the Silnas than it was for the league. In 1982, the NBA offered the Silna brothers $5 million spread over an eight year period to cancel the deal. The Silnas proposed that the league pay them $8 million over five years and the NBA refused. At that point, the Silnas had made about $1 million total from the deal. Then, the NBA's popularity exploded.

By the 1986-87 season, the annual payout topped $1 million. By the 1999-2000 season, it was more than $10 million. For the 2010-11 season, the Silnas made $17.5 million. That number increased to over $19 million in 2012-13. Overall, the Silnas received more than $300 million as a result of those little words "in perpetuity."

The Silnas had no overhead costs--no arena to maintain, no player salaries to pay--but every time the TV deals grew larger their profits increased.

That is not all. During the original negotiations, Donald Schupak inserted an intentionally broad definition of visual media revenues, a clause that could make the contract applicable to distribution channels unimaginable in 1976. "I was blunt during these discussions," Schupak explained in 2012. "Rather than narrow the definition of TV revenues, I insisted instead that we add a new sentence [to] emphasize that this was a broad definition that could not be evaded or made obsolete."

Since the contractual language covers all "visual media" revenues, in 2009 the Silnas took the NBA to court over money earned from sources beyond the scope of basic U.S. broadcast TV revenue, including international broadcasts, internet rights and the NBA TV cable network. As a result of that suit, early in 2014 the Silna brothers and the NBA reached a confidential settlement agreement. Reportedly, the Silnas received a $500 million payment from the league in exchange for ending the perpetual payments. The Silnas also will receive additional compensation for various revenue streams not imagined in 1976. The Silnas formed a new partnership with the four former ABA teams. That partnership will supply the Silnas with some TV revenue payments as well, though a buyout clause enables the NBA to end that partnership at any time.

It is not clear why the Silnas agreed to this settlement but the Silnas reportedly lost some money during the Madoff scandal and that could have factored into their decision.

The best practices that we can learn from the Silna brothers' story are (1) Do not agree to a contract that lasts "in perpetuity." The mistake in granting the Silna brothers a share of visual media rights was compounded by the fact that the contract lasted "in perpetuity." (2) Do not rush to make a deal. The four ABA teams that were joining the NBA were so anxious to get things over with that they let the Silnas dictate terms. (3) Clearly specify/define which rights you are signing over and which rights you are keeping and never give away future rights to something that has an unknown value. In this case, the term "visual media" can be interpreted very broadly.


1) You may wonder why the Silnas asked for 1/7th of each of the surviving ABA teams' shares. In December 1975, the ABA owners figured a merger was coming soon and thought that six ABA teams would be allowed and one would be left out. The ABA owners held a meeting and Ozzie Silna wanted to be equitable to the owner who would be excluded from the merger. "The seventh team, I said, should be fully compensated for its players, and they also should receive a share of television money in perpetuity," said Silna. "Everybody was in favor of it, and it was written into the league bylaws at the time. I, of course, had no intention of being that seventh team. I told the owners, 'We're all in this together.' I thought that seventh team deserved the same benefit as the other six. That's how we came up with the one-seventh" figure. However, just a few months later, when the negotiations began, the seventh team had folded and it had also become clear that the Spirits of St. Louis would not be joining the NBA. The Silnas and Schupak applied the parameters they'd set up for the seventh team to themselves. "You try to live by the Golden Rule," Ozzie Silna said. "Some people say it's the best deal ever done. I just looked at it as a way of being fair."

2) Thanks to another bit of foresight by the Silnas and Schupak, they actually received more than 1/7 of each of the former ABA teams' shares of the NBA's TV contract starting in 1995 when the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joined the league. The Silnas and Schupak anticipated that expansion would threaten to dilute their revenue and so they capped the split of their share at 28 teams. So the Silnas' share is based on a split among a maximum of 28 teams, not however many teams are actually in the league (which has increased from 22 to 30 since 1976).

3) John Y. Brown later bought the Buffalo Braves (the team now known as the L.A. Clippers) and then swapped teams with the owner of the Boston Celtics. After a brief, unsuccessful run as the Celtics' owner, Brown sold the team and went into politics and was elected as Kentucky's governor.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:15 PM


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Thursday, October 06, 2016

2016-17 Western Conference Preview

No reason to bury the lede: the big story in the Western Conference--and the NBA overall--is that the record-setting 73-9 Golden State Warriors signed 2014 regular season MVP and four-time scoring champion (2010-12, 14) Kevin Durant away from the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that literally came within five minutes of eliminating the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Durant will team up with back to back regular season MVP Stephen Curry, All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green plus 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala to form one of the most deadly and versatile perimeter arsenals in pro basketball history. The Warriors are the first team in NBA history to have two MVPs on the roster who are both 28 years old or younger and just the fifth team to have the three most recent MVPs on the roster, joining the 1987 Celtics (Larry Bird, 1984-86), the 1984 76ers (Moses Malone, 1982-83; Julius Erving, 1981), the 1969 Lakers (Wilt Chamberlain, who won the 1966-68 MVPs as a member of the 76ers) and the 1964 Celtics (Bill Russell, 1961-63). The 1987 Celtics lost in the Finals, the 1984 76ers lost in the first round, the 1969 Lakers lost in the Finals and the 1964 Celtics won the championship.

The Warriors have tremendous offensive firepower and will still be very strong defensively on the perimeter--but they lack rim protection after the departures of centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli.

I expect this Golden State super team to win at least one championship. They should be considered the favorite this year but a championship is no sure thing because the Cleveland Cavaliers can attack the Warriors in the paint exactly the way that they attacked the Warriors in the last three games of the 2016 Finals. It is also possible that due to chemistry issues or injuries or matchups (as indicated above) the Warriors never win a title with this group. The Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio never won a championship (though Chamberlain and West won a title together after Baylor retired) and the Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton Lakers did not win a championship in their one year together. Of course, the difference between the Warriors and those teams is that the Warriors' key players are all young, while Baylor, Malone and Payton were near the end of the line.

Durant is considered a "villain" in some quarters and he will likely be booed in many arenas this season. He did not bungle his departure the way that LeBron James mishandled the "Decision" but Durant did not exactly cover himself with glory, either. Durant has every right as a free agent to sign with the team of his choice. It is foolish to burn his jersey or act like he has committed a crime against humanity--but just like he has a right to make his choice, fans and commentators have a right to be disappointed by that choice and to explain why it would have been nice if Durant had stayed with Oklahoma City and developed a rivalry with Golden State instead of joining forces with the enemy.

In the wake of Durant's departure, Russell Westbrook will likely cut a one man swath of basketball destruction the likes of which we have not seen since Kobe Bryant circa 2006 after the Lakers parted ways with Shaquille O'Neal. Westbrook has the Bryant mentality but he is smaller than Bryant and it is reasonable to wonder if his body will break down under the weight of trying to carry the Thunder in Durant's absence. Westbrook did not miss a single game during his first five NBA seasons before missing a total of 51 games in the next two seasons. Last season he bounced back to only miss two games. Overall, Westbrook has been a very durable player, particularly considering his aggressive style of play, but it remains to be seen if the leg injuries he suffered a couple years ago will leave him susceptible to further problems.

If Westbrook is healthy, a 30 ppg-10 apg-8 rpg stat line is not out of the question. Westbrook could conceivably lead the NBA in scoring or assists or perhaps he could even become the only player other than Nate Archibald to lead the league in both categories during the same season.

However, one thing that even Westbrook cannot do is elevate the Thunder as currently constructed to contender status. The Western Conference team best suited to potentially challenge the Warriors is the San Antonio Spurs.

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 are the most logical pick to finish with the best record in the NBA and to win the NBA championship. They have the most talented starting five, they have a system of play that has already resulted in two Finals appearances/one championship and they have proven that they can be a high scoring team without sacrificing their commitment to play good defense. The arguments for the Warriors are obvious and hardly need to be explained in much depth.

So, let's look at the counterarguments:

1) The Warriors sacrificed depth in order to sign Durant and that could cost them if they suffer injuries/suspensions/foul trouble

The Warriors lost starters Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, plus reserves Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush and Festus Ezeli. That is almost half of their team. Zaza Paculia will likely replace Bogut as the starting center and David West can be a solid backup power forward but the Warriors have drastically altered a second unit that enabled them to build leads and limit their starters' minutes (no Warrior averaged more than 35 mpg last season). It is true that teams typically shorten their rotations during the playoffs but this is still a major overhaul for a group that enjoyed so much success the past two years. If one of the Warriors' stars gets hurt or suspended or is in foul trouble, suddenly the Warriors do not look invincible.

2) The Warriors have little to no rim protection without Bogut and Ezeli

The Warriors ranked second in the NBA in shotblocking last season but 164 of their 498 blocked shots were provided by Bogut and Ezeli. The 6-7 Green blocked 113 shots. Durant blocked 85 shots for the Thunder. Pachulia is listed at 6-11 but he blocked just 22 shots in 76 games for Dallas last year, less than Klay Thompson amassed as the Warriors' starting shooting guard (49). Less rim protection means that the Warriors will give up more points in the paint and, most likely, commit more fouls.

Let's not get carried away; no matter how you slice it, if the Warriors enjoy even reasonable health then they are a mortal lock to win at least 60 regular season games: they have too much talent and they are too well coached to do anything less than that. However, the only meaningful goal for this team is to win a championship and it is on that basis that the success or failure of this season will be determined.

2) San Antonio Spurs: This is about the 10th year in a row that the Spurs' championship window supposedly has closed, yet the Spurs keep winning at least 50 games a year and in most years they make a deep playoff run. Tim Duncan retired and veteran big men David West and Boris Diaw are no longer with the team. The Spurs added Pau Gasol (an All-Star each of the past two seasons) and David Lee, a former All-Star. Gasol cannot replace Duncan's defensive presence or the intangibles of his leadership but Gasol was the second best player on two Lakers championship teams, so he knows how to perform his role effectively in a winning program.

Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge will be the focal points of San Antonio's offensive attack. Gasol is a better rebounder now than Duncan was last year but Gasol is not as stout of a presence defensively.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are mere shadows of the players that they used to be but they can still be productive in limited minutes in the Spurs' system.

The Spurs will not match last year's win total of 67 but 60 wins is certainly within reach, as is a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

3) L.A. Clippers: This will likely be the last season for the Clippers as we know them. Chris Paul has never led the Clippers past the second round of the playoffs and that will be the case again in 2016-17, after which Blake Griffin will either leave as a free agent and/or the front office will make wholesale changes in recognition of the reality that this team as presently constructed will never win a title.

The Clippers have the NBA's fourth highest payroll, including three players making over $20 million this season (Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan). At various times, Paul has been called the best point guard in the NBA, the best leader in the sport and a perennial MVP candidate. At one time he was the best point guard in the NBA but he is overrated as a leader and his name has been mentioned more often in MVP conversations than it should be. Paul is a 6-0 point guard who monopolizes the ball, who wears down physically as the season/postseason progresses and whose teams consistently fail to meet reasonable expectations. I respect Paul's grit and toughness but I have also been saying for a decade that he will never be the best player on a championship team. Now, at this stage of his career it looks like he cannot even be the second best player on a championship team.

Griffin is clearly the Clippers' best player but injuries and a questionable attitude have stagnated his growth. This is a big year for him establish himself as an elite player, which he was on the fringes of doing a couple of years ago before he regressed.

4) Utah Jazz: Utah barely missed the playoffs last season and also suffered the indignity of being on the wrong end of Kobe Bryant's 60 point coda but their young nucleus of players--supplemented by veteran additions Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw--is poised to make a jump in the Western Conference standings. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are each entering their prime years. Hayward can slash, shoot and handle the ball, Favors scores, rebounds and blocks shots and Gobert nearly averaged a double double (9.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg).

5) Portland Trail Blazers: Portland was the mystery guest in last year's Western Conference playoffs. Few people expected the Trail Blazers to qualify for the postseason but when they got in they made the most of the opportunity, defeating an injury-riddled Clippers team before falling to the powerful Warriors. In the offseason, Portland added Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli to the mix. That is not enough to transform the Trail Blazers into an elite team but it is sufficient to enable them to hold their ground as a top five team in the Western Conference.

6) Minnesota Timberwolves: Minnesota has a ton of young talent, headlined by 2016 Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, who averaged 18.3 ppg and 10.5 rpg while shooting .541 from the field. The Timberwolves also have a defensive-minded coach in Tom Thibodeau. The Timberwolves may have to take their lumps for a year or two in the playoffs but they will be handing out some postseason lumps pretty soon.

7) Oklahoma City Thunder: An MVP caliber player is generally worth 15-20 wins. One would expect that after losing Kevin Durant the Thunder would drop from 55 wins to 35-40--but there have been exceptions to the 15-20 win rule/guideline. One happened in 1993-94, when Michael Jordan retired right before the season began and the Bulls merely dropped from 57 wins to 55 (though they did lose in the second round of the playoffs after winning the championship in 1993). The Bulls held their ground, at least in the regular season, because they had a second MVP caliber player (Scottie Pippen) and he was able to expand his individual game in Jordan's absence.

The Thunder are in a similar position. Russell Westbrook can score, pass, rebound and defend. He is tenacious and relentless. Westbrook plays every game like it is his last and that energy is infectious. The Thunder do not have enough talent top to bottom to contend for a championship right now but with Westbrook leading the charge they should still be able to qualify for the playoffs. The main concern is that if Westbrook gets injured and misses too many games then the Thunder could post a sub-.500 record while he is out of the lineup.

8) Houston Rockets: Everything broke perfectly for the Rockets in 2015 and they made it to the Western Conference Finals. That was an aberration and it will not happen again as long as James Harden is the team's focal point. Harden has been with the Rockets for four seasons and they have lost in the first round of the playoffs three times. During those four playoff appearances, Harden's field goal percentages were .391, .376, .439 and .410. He also averaged at least 4.5 turnovers per game in three of those four postseasons.

During ESPN's October 4, 2016 telecast of Houston's 130-103 preseason win over New York, Jeff Van Gundy expressed puzzlement that James Harden did not make the All-NBA Team last season. Van Gundy asserted that Harden is a top 10 player and that complaints about Harden's defensive shortcomings are overblown, adding that one could splice together video clips of bad defensive plays by any of the league's top offensive threats. Van Gundy noted that last season Harden racked up the most turnovers (374, an average of 4.6 per game) since the NBA began tracking that statistic in 1977-78 but Van Gundy stated that this is acceptable from a superstar who contributes as much scoring and playmaking as Harden does; what is important, Van Gundy concluded, is for the role players who rarely handle the ball to not make turnovers, so that the team turnover total is low.

With all due respect to Van Gundy--whose analysis is usually on target--I completely disagree with most of his comments about Harden. The All-NBA guards last season were Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry. I would be interested to know who Van Gundy would remove from that list in order to add Harden. I would not only rate those six guards ahead of Harden but I would also put Kyrie Irving ahead of him as well. This is not about numbers but about the ability to have a positive impact on a winning program.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant set the bar very high in terms of shooting guards who scored 30 ppg while also playing outstanding defense. No one expects Harden to reach that level but the excuses that are made on his behalf are ridiculous; scoring 25-29 ppg does not completely relieve Harden of the responsibility to exert any effort/attention on the defensive end of the court.

As for the turnover issue, Van Gundy's larger point is correct. Some of the greatest players of all-time--including Magic Johnson--had high turnover totals that can be forgiven because of the extent of their overall contributions to the offense. Van Gundy is right that what matters is not just the turnover total of the best player but also the team's turnover total. However, Van Gundy neglected to point out that the Rockets ranked 27th in turnovers last season with Harden running the offense! Harden was not absorbing turnovers for the benefit of the team but he was just part and parcel of an offensive attack that was sloppy and careless.

With Mike D'Antoni running the show, Harden may very well post career-high numbers across the board. Harden may even fool the media into voting him onto the All-NBA Team. What Harden won't do is advance past the first round of the playoffs. I said it when Harden chose to go to Houston and I will say it again: Harden gave up the chance to be the third best player on a championship team so that he could chase money and personal glory; that is his right and he has accomplished his goals but the end result of his tenure in Houston will be a bunch of first round exits wrapped around one fluky trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Regarding the rest of the Western Conference, Kobe Bryant supposedly held back the growth of the Lakers' young players last season. Well, as the saying goes, they won't have Bryant to kick around (blame) this season, so it will be very interesting to see how the Lakers perform. My prediction: not very well at all.

Under Earl Watson's direction during the second half of the 2016 season, the Phoenix Suns made significant improvements on the glass and defensively but even if they add 20 wins to their 2016 total they still would not make the playoffs in the competitive West.

Mark Cuban is betting $94 million that Harrison Barnes can become a superstar. Although his game is different, Barnes reminds me of guys like Billy Owens and Derrick McKey: you look at their bodies and their skill sets and think that they can/should be superstars but they just don't have that mentality. Maybe I am wrong and maybe Barnes will average 20-plus ppg while leading Dallas to the playoffs but I suspect that Barnes is going to score 25 points one night and six points the next, finishing the season as a 15 ppg third option. 

DeMarcus Cousins tweeted, "Lord give me strength" after watching the Kings' puzzling draft day decisions. Nothing more needs to be said.

Anthony Davis is a great player but he has yet to play 70 games in a season and he does not have much help around him, so the New Orleans Pelicans will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

The Denver Nuggets have a lot of young talent but are not good enough defensively to qualify for the playoffs.

The Memphis Grizzlies finally added some outside shooting by signing Chandler Parsons but Zach Randolph is aging and Marc Gasol is a question mark after suffering a foot injury last season.



I correctly picked six of the eight 2016 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2016 Total: 70/88 (.795)

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:15 PM


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2016-17 Eastern Conference Preview

Watching LeBron James fail to take the Cleveland Cavaliers to the promised land before departing for Miami and winning two titles with the Heat, it was fair to wonder if an all-time great like LeBron James cannot lead the Cavaliers to an NBA championship then maybe the city really is cursed, at least in terms of never winning another professional sports title.

James' return to Cleveland inspired hope that perhaps he would finally lead the Cavaliers to a title but after losing to the Golden State Warriors in six games in the 2015 NBA Finals and then falling behind 3-1 to the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, it seemed like James was authoring yet another chapter in the epic book of Cleveland's sports misery. Instead, James elevated his game and--with more than a little help from Kyrie Irving--lifted the Cavaliers to an improbable comeback and the city's first professional sports championship since Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns won the 1964 NFL title in the pre-Super Bowl era.

Now, James is trying to lead the Cavaliers to back to back championships. No Cleveland professional sports franchise has won consecutive titles since the Browns in 1954-55. James has personally made it to the NBA Finals for six straight years--the first four with Miami and the last two with Cleveland--while winning three championships, including back to back titles with the Heat in 2012-13. He has not had a worthy rival in the East since the decline and fall of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-Rondo Boston Celtics, the last team to defeat James in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Toronto Raptors went 56-26 to finish just one game behind the Cavaliers for first place in the Eastern Conference in the 2015-16 regular season but the Cavaliers raced to a 2-0 lead versus the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto briefly made it a series by taking the next two games at home but then the Cavaliers won by 38 and 26 to advance to the NBA Finals. Behind Toronto was a logjam of eight teams that finished with between 41 and 48 wins, including four teams that won 48 games each. Although both Indiana (45-37) and Miami (48-34) pushed Toronto to seven games, none of those eight teams had a realistic chance to win more than two games against Cleveland in a seven game series.

This season does not figure to be much different in terms of any Eastern Conference team threatening to supplant James' Cavaliers. The Cavaliers, barring injury to James or Irving, will be the best team come playoff time, even if they do not finish with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors will pose the most serious threat to Cleveland's supremacy. Of the four East teams that each won 48 games last year, two have clearly regressed (Charlotte and Miami), one remains a solid playoff team but no more than that (Atlanta) and one is likely to break the 50 win plateau (Boston).

The new-look Boston Celtics--sporting a young nucleus of players plus the addition of free agent All-Star big man Al Horford--are a rising team that could at least challenge the Cavaliers and Raptors for the best record in the East but it is difficult to picture Boston prevailing over Cleveland in a seven game series.

Barring injury, I feel confident that those will be the top three teams in the East. After that, I expect that there will once again be several teams bunched together in the 40-48 win range; a sprained ankle suffered by a key player on one of those teams could be the difference between finishing with the fourth seed and missing the playoffs.

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: The Cavaliers started out 30-11 with David Blatt at the helm before General Manager David Griffin determined that Blatt was not the right man to lead Cleveland to the championship. Griffin replaced Blatt with lead assistant Tyronn Lue, who was almost immediately given a three year contract, thereby sending a strong message that he is not a lame duck coach. The Cavaliers went 27-14 down the stretch to finish 57-25, a four game improvement over the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks dropped from 60 wins to 48, so Cleveland ascended to the top seed in the conference by one game over Toronto.

Lue wanted the Cavaliers to play at a faster pace, which necessitated changes in the rotation as well as in the team's practice sessions and training methods. Some of the benefits of these changes were not immediately apparent during the regular season but bore fruit during the playoffs. It was also evident that James respects Lue in a way that he did not respect Blatt; therefore, James submitted to Lue's authority and it is only natural that when the best player supports the coach then the other players will fall in line as well. Lue held James accountable for his words and actions in a way that Blatt was either unwilling to do or unable to do because James would not listen to him.

The Cavaliers went 12-2 in the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2015 and in 2016 but the Lue effect showed up most in the NBA Finals. In 2015, the Cavaliers took a 2-1 series lead but then Golden State Coach Steve Kerr went to a small lineup and Blatt blundered by also going small as opposed to continuing to pound the Warriors in the paint. In 2016, the Warriors took a 3-1 series lead but the Cavaliers remained poised and in the final three games of the series James did what he needed to do: attack the paint relentlessly instead of settling for jumpers or passing the ball without first attacking. James seems to need to be constantly reminded to be an attacking player against elite teams and it also seems that he only will accept such reminders from people he respects (Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley, Tyronn Lue, to cite three examples).

I concluded my Cavaliers preview last season by asking "Would you bet your life that any Eastern Conference team can beat the Cavs four times in a seven game series if James is physically healthy and mentally engaged?" The correct answer in the 2016 playoffs was "No" and I believe that the same answer will be true in the 2017 playoffs.

2) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors tend to fly under the radar. Perhaps that is because they do not have a bona fide superstar or because they play their home games outside of the United States or because they had only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once in franchise history before making it to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors should not escape anyone's attention this season, because they are the Eastern Conference team with the best chance to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series.

The Raptors will miss Bismack Biyombo's defense, rebounding and energy but if Jonas Valanciunus stays healthy then they will be fine in the paint. General Manager Masai Ujiri has proven to be one of the top talent evaluators and franchise builders in the NBA but the tough task that he faces is to either (1) find a player who can make LeBron James have to work to score and/or have to exert a lot of energy defensively or (2) build a team that is so talented or deep that it can wear down James and the Cavaliers over the course of a long playoff series. The Raptors have made great strides under Ujiri's leadership but unless James declines dramatically (or gets hurt) they just do not have quite enough to beat Cleveland four times in seven games.

If the Raptors are very focused on obtaining the top seed while the Cavaliers decide to strategically rest players, it is possible that Toronto will finish with the best regular season record in the East.

3) Boston Celtics: My default tendency is to not highly value young players or young coaches/coaches who come to the NBA straight from the collegiate ranks; in the NBA you generally need experience in order to win big. That default tendency is why I did not pick the Celtics to make the playoffs in 2015 (they finished 40-42 but captured the seventh seed in the weak East) and why I picked the Celtics to finish eighth in 2016 (they finished in a four way tie for 3rd-6th with a 48-34 record and received the fifth seed based on tiebreaks).

This season, my expectations for Boston are higher and hopefully have caught up with the pace of the team's development. Coach Brad Stevens is entering his fourth year at the helm and he has proven to be an excellent NBA coach. The young nucleus of players has matured nicely and has now been joined by Al Horford, a four-time All Star with the Atlanta Hawks.

The Celtics were a well balanced team even before adding Horford, who is an excellent all-around player; last season they ranked fifth in scoring (105.7 ppg), sixth in rebounding (44.9 rpg) and seventh in defensive field goal percentage (.441). Their main weakness last season was shooting: they ranked 24th in overall field goal percentage (.439) and 28th in three point field goal percentage (.335). The Celtics did not do anything to address that weakness.

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. The formula to beat a LeBron James-led team is (1) have a strong/athletic wing player who is willing and able to hound James defensively, (2) pack the paint with big guys to discourage James from driving, (3) concede long two-point jumpers to James (and hope that he settles for those shots) and (4) utilize an offensive system that spreads the court with quick passes/deft outside shooting, thus minimizing James' ability to impact the game defensively as a roving help defender.

The Celtics look like a team that is going to have a wonderful regular season and be touted as a threat to the Cavaliers only to get defeated decisively if they actually face Cleveland in the playoffs.

4) Detroit Pistons: The Pistons have been on the rise since they replaced the Rodney Stuckey-obsessed Joe Dumars with Stan Van Gundy; few people can capably handle the dual role of executive/coach but Van Gundy has done an excellent job of rebuilding the roster and of developing players after he acquires them. Dumars deserves credit for putting together Detroit's 2004 championship team and for cultivating the sustained excellence that resulted in six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals (2003-08) but the end of his tenure was disastrous: five straight seasons of 30 wins or less.

The Pistons went 32-50 in Van Gundy's first season with the team and then jumped to 44-38 last year, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 and posting their best record since 2007-08. They could reach the 50 win mark this season and they will have at least a puncher's chance in the playoffs against any Eastern Conference team other than the Cavaliers.

5) Atlanta Hawks: Is Dwight Howard a declining and/or disinterested player or will his game be revived now that he does not have to deal with James Harden's ball dominant play on offense and Shaqtin' A Fool caliber defense? I don't expect Howard to ever be an MVP caliber player again but it was his forceful play in the paint at both ends of the court that powered Houston's run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, regardless of what Harden's media supporters say. Howard can be an effective offensive player on screen/roll actions and with occasional post up opportunities and he is still a strong presence as a rebounder and defender. The Hawks will not win 60 games like they did two seasons ago, nor will they seriously threaten the Cavaliers in the playoffs, but they are a solid squad that should have no problem making their 10th straight postseason appearance.

6) Washington Wizards: New Coach Scott 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: develop a roster that is filled with talented young players who have yet to reach their individual or collective potential. I am not expecting miracles but the Wizards only missed the playoffs by three games last season and I believe that Brooks' coaching will be worth at least four or five wins over the course of 82 games.

7) Orlando Magic: Frank Vogel led the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs five times in six years, including back to back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. It did not take long for the Magic to hire him after the Pacers made the puzzling decision to let him go. Vogel will instill a defensive mindset and that will be enough to lift the Magic to the 43-45 win range. The Magic beefed up their soft interior defense by adding Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, two athletic big men who will anchor the back line of Vogel's defense.

8) Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets did not have a great offseason and many pundits expect them to drop from the postseason picture but this is a well-coached, defensive-minded squad and I think that those qualities will enable the Hornets to win just enough games to grab the final playoff sport.

As for the rest of the East, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets will remain the two worst teams. It will take a long time for the 76ers to undo the damage done by Sam Hinkie's foolish tanking. Under Hinkie's misguided direction, the 76ers spent years losing on purpose to gain the right to draft players who cannot stay healthy long enough to prove whether or not they will become significant contributors. The only thing that losing breeds is more losing. I expect that Bryan Colangelo will turn the 76ers around eventually but he has a tough task ahead of him because, as Colangelo put it, Hinkie bred "a culture of losing" and that does not change overnight.

The Nets are not trying to tank but they are just run really, really poorly. After purchasing the team in 2010, Mikhail Prokorov talked big about how he was going to turn the Nets into a championship team within five years but he has found out that the business "techniques" that enabled him to build a fortune as a Russian oligarch do not lead to success in the NBA.

The Khris Middleton injury will be too much for Milwaukee, a non-playoff team last season, to overcome.

The Knicks have a good team on paper--but for five years ago, not now; even if veterans Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah combine with second year budding star Kristaps Porzingis to increase New York's win total by 10 (which is far from certain) the Knicks will still likely miss the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that is steadily becoming stronger and deeper.

The Indiana Pacers replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan, who is a solid coach but not necessarily an upgrade; the Pacers' plan is apparently to play fast, shoot a lot of three pointers and hope that the opposition does not notice that the Pacers are too small to protect the paint. They barely qualified for the playoffs last season with 45 wins and I think that they will decline a bit this year, though perhaps Myles Turner will make a big jump after an impressive rookie season and carry this team to one of the final playoff spots.

The Miami Heat lost Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng while adding no one of consequence. Even if Hassan Whiteside lives up to his new, big contract that will not be nearly enough to get this team into the playoffs.

Like the Knicks, the Chicago Bulls have talent on paper but that talent is either old or mismatched; if everything meshes just right and Dwyane Wade drinks from the Fountain of Youth this is the team that I have picked to miss the playoffs that I think has the best chance of proving me wrong by winning 45 games instead of 35--but I feel comfortable predicting 35 wins (or less).

It would not shock me if Chicago, Indiana and New York beat out the teams that I have picked for 6th-8th and I fully expect teams 6-11 to be closely bunched together but as things stand now I have more questions than answers regarding the Bulls, Pacers and Knicks.


I correctly picked five of the eight 2015-16 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2016 Total: 66/88 (.750)

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:41 AM


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Friday, September 30, 2016

Fred Kerber's 12 Man All-Time NBA Team

Veteran New York Post basketball writer Fred Kerber selected his 12 man All-Time Pro Basketball Team in his February 11, 2015 column. Kerber fully recognized the difficulty of this task, noting, "Picking a 12-man, all-time All-Star team is about as easy as picking the best color, the greatest movie, the finest ice-cream flavor." Kerber quoted Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed: "It's all in who's doing the looking. Older guys are partial to the older players, younger guys go with more recent players. Pick a team and you can probably come up with a second team that could beat the first any given night."

Several years ago, I selected a Pro Basketball Pantheon comprising 10 retired players (in chronological order, those players are Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan) plus four (then) active players who I projected to be Pantheon-worthy (Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). I did not rank the players within my Pantheon, nor did I fix the size of the Pantheon at 10 or 12 or 14; I simply considered those 10 retired players, plus the four top contemporary players, to be in a group above the next category of players. That next group would include (but not be limited to), in chronological order, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen--all-time greats but players who did not have quite the peak value, dominance, versatility and/or longevity of the Pantheon members. Of course, as Reed noted, intelligent observers could easily come to different conclusions/rankings.

Kerber divided his 12 players into two groups. His starting five is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Kerber's seven reserves are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving. Kerber tapped Red Auerbach as the coach. He did not formally select an honorable mention group but he did single out Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek and John Stockton as an extraordinary quintet that, in his estimation, just could not make the cut versus the 12 players listed above.

Kerber pointed out that his starting five won a combined 30 NBA titles, led by Russell's 11 and followed by Jordan's six, Johnson's five, Duncan's five and Bird's three. He also wrote a paragraph about each of his 12 players, plus Coach Auerbach. I will quote briefly from each of those capsule summaries and then add some of my own comments:

Jordan: Kerber stated that this might change "in 100 years" but for now "Jordan universally is acknowledged as the greatest ever."

I would not say that Jordan is "universally" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever, because Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain certainly have their supporters as well. A good case could be made for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but he alienated so many members of the media that seemingly no one wants to publicly make that case. Still, it would be more precise to say that Jordan is "widely" considered to be the greatest basketball player ever. I think that it is indisputable that Jordan is the greatest basketball player of the post-ESPN era and the player who many, if not most, of today's superstars admire the most. Jordan is also the only player from the past 40 years who can honestly say that he was the best player on six NBA championship teams--and the fact that Jordan went 6-0 in those Finals while winning six Finals MVPs creates a mystique that will be almost impossible for any player who follows Jordan to overcome.

Johnson: "A five-time NBA champ, three-time Finals MVP, Olympic gold medalist, 12-time All-Star, Johnson forged a rivalry with Larry Bird dating to the NCAA Final that became legendary--and the basis of a Broadway play."

The media elevated Bird over Johnson for most of the 1980s--tapping Bird as the 1980 Rookie of the Year (Johnson had to "settle" for the 1980 Finals MVP) and as the 1984-86 regular season MVP--before Johnson won regular season MVPs in 1987 and 1989-90. During the late 1980s, some pundits were starting to proclaim Johnson to be the greatest basketball player ever. Even Bird joined that chorus, shaking his head in disbelief after Johnson's "junior, junior skyhook" sunk Bird's Celtics in the 1987 Finals; Bird called Johnson "The best I've ever seen." However, Jordan defeated Johnson in the 1991 Finals--with a lot of help from Pippen--and Johnson's HIV positive status forced him to retire, preventing a possible Finals rematch in 1992.

I think that Johnson, more than any player in pro basketball history, could be teamed up with any four decent players and turn that quintet into a very competitive team. That does not necessarily mean that Johnson was the greatest player ever--he was not as good defensively as Jordan or Russell or several other Pantheon members--but it puts him in a special, hard to define category. Young fans may believe that LeBron James has that quality but what I see from James is a mixed bag: he has won three championships but he has also left several championships on the table because of inexplicably passive play. Johnson never left any championships on the table; he lost to all-time great players/teams in their primes (the Malone/Erving Sixers, Bird's Celtics, the Bad Boys Pistons, the Jordan/Pippen Bulls). There is no footage of the 1980s equivalent of Jason Terry outdueling Johnson in the fourth quarter of key NBA Finals games.

Back to the point about Johnson's incredible versatility as a teammate. Russell needed a point guard and someone to be a scoring threat. Jordan needed Pippen (and never advanced past the first round of the playoffs without him). You can go down the line and most of the great players needed a certain kind of accompanying star and/or supporting cast to maximize their greatness--but Johnson legitimately could play all five positions and he exuded a team-first ethos that smoothed over any potential ego conflicts (Abdul-Jabbar was hardly a barrel of laughs to play with for most of his career and it was amazing to see the joy that radiated from him after he had played with Johnson for a little while). Johnson won a championship while paired with point guard Norm Nixon in the backcourt and then he won championships paired with shooting guard Byron Scott. Johnson won championships with Abdul-Jabbar as the main post up scoring threat and then he won championships as a post up scoring threat when Abdul-Jabbar had to accept a lesser role due to his age/declining skills. Johnson made it to the Finals with an aging James Worthy, a young Vlade Divac, journeyman Sam Perkins and not much else in 1991--and it took the combined efforts of Jordan/Pippen in their primes to prevent Johnson from winning a sixth title.

I think that the sudden, shocking end to Johnson's career combined with Jordan's immediate meteoric rise has actually resulted in Johnson being somewhat underrated by today's commentators.

Duncan: "(His) brilliant consistency and superb skill set, especially for a big man, has led to five titles, three Finals MVP honors and two regular season MVP awards."

Although his playing style is different from Abdul-Jabbar's, Duncan is similar in that (1) he is underrated and (2) a main reason that he is underrated is that he never sought out media approval. Abdul-Jabbar was actively hostile to the media for much of his career, while Duncan was indifferent as opposed to hostile, but the result has been the same. Abdul-Jabbar won more championships than anyone from the end of the Russell era until the emergence of Jordan but his name often gets pushed aside in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Duncan is not as great as Abdul-Jabbar but he is similarly underrated. In the post-Jordan era, Duncan has five rings and Kobe Bryant has five rings. It is true that neither player was the best player on all five of those championship teams but both players were vital contributors to all five of their respective championship teams and both players were the best player on multiple occasions.

It will be interesting to watch the Spurs this season. On paper, Duncan's replacement Pau Gasol is a better player now than Duncan was last season (though Gasol is also past his prime) but I suspect that Duncan had an impact (particularly on defense and as a leader) that is not captured statistically--but will be evident in the won/loss column.

Bird: "He did it with scoring, passing, rebounding and an ability to bring out his best in the clutch." The statistics may not bear this out but there has never been a player I rooted against who I feared more in the clutch than Bird in his prime (I rooted against him because I was--and am--a diehard Erving fan). It just felt like if the game was close and Bird got the ball then he was going to make the shot.

What people forget is that during Bird's first few seasons he rebounded like a center and he was not a particularly productive three point shooter. As the game changed and the players around him developed, Bird's role changed; he became more of a scorer and more of a perimeter player. People also forget that for the first four years of Bird's career he and Erving had the best rivalry in the sport. Erving started slowing down at age 34, just as Bird hit his peak, but before that they were very evenly matched--and it is a safe bet that the ABA version of Erving would have run circles around Bird; a lot of people may scoff at that idea but that does not make it untrue.

By 1986, the mainstream media had pretty much decided that Bird was the greatest basketball player of all-time (look at magazine cover stories from that time if you doubt this)--but then Johnson led the Lakers to back to back titles (a feat not accomplished since Russell's Celtics did it in 1968-69), with one of those championships coming at the expense of Bird's Celtics, and Johnson's 5-3 championship lead over Bird (including 2-1 in their head to head matchups) made it difficult to take seriously the idea that Bird was greater than Johnson. Both players had great supporting casts but after a decade of battling for supremacy Johnson led in the category that mattered most--rings--and thus people stopped declaring Bird to be the greatest player of all-time.

Russell: "The guy won 11 championships with the Celtics, OK? Joe DiMaggio won nine, Babe Ruth won seven." The modern commentator has all the answers about Russell: Too small to play center against Shaquille O'Neal, not a good enough scorer to win without great teammates, benefited from playing in an era with (supposedly) watered down talent compared to the NBA today which has players from all corners of the globe. Regarding the size issue, Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace proved that undersized players can be dominant rebounders in the modern NBA. O'Neal lost playoff series to Olajuwon (who was not much bigger than Russell, despite being listed at 7 feet) and to a Chicago team that guarded him with (at different times) Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and even the 6-6 Rodman. Russell won championships in virtually every season that he played organized basketball from high school through the NBA: 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, two NCAA titles in three seasons, two high school state championships; that works out to 15 championships in an 18 year period, plus an Olympic gold medal, so to suggest that such a dominant winner could not adopt his game/skill set to the modern era is an insult to Russell's greatness. He thought the game through as well as anyone who has ever played and he had a mean streak (in the best sense of the term, as an extremely competitive person) that takes a back seat to no one, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

When I first started studying basketball, I was sure that Wilt Chamberlain was greater than Russell and that if they had switched teams then Chamberlain would have accomplished at least as much as Russell did--but now I am not so sure. I still think that Chamberlain got a raw deal from the media and I certainly think that in more ideal circumstances Chamberlain would have won a lot more than two championships but Russell's mindset was just so much different than Chamberlain's that I am not sure Chamberlain could have ever sustained the team success that Russell did, no matter the circumstances. It is kind of like comparing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James; James has the more impressive physique and perhaps the more impressive statistics (depending on how you evaluate the numbers) but Bryant just figured out how to win on a more consistent basis.

My favorite Bill Russell story is about his final game, the seventh game of the 1969 NBA Finals. The L.A. Lakers had planned to release balloons from the ceiling of the arena and have a band play "Happy Days Are Here Again" after they beat Russell's Celtics to win the title. Russell got a copy of the plans and took it to the locker room, where he addressed his team (he was the player-coach) and told them that a lot of things could happen in this game but what could not happen is for the Celtics to lose--and they would have a lot of fun watching the Lakers take those balloons down one by one. The Celtics won 108-106.

Abdul-Jabbar: "None matched Abdul-Jabbar for excellence over the length of a career." The young Abdul-Jabbar gave Chamberlain--who was still a force to be reckoned with--all that he could handle in the early 1970s and in the mid to late 1980s Abdul-Jabbar was still making the All-NBA Team ahead of a crop of younger stars including Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Patrick Ewing. Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook was the single greatest weapon in the history of the sport; it was unstoppable and he could deliver it with either hand out to a range of 15 feet. Abdul-Jabbar was an excellent rebounder for the first half of his career (i.e., a solid decade, which is a full career for many players), he was a great passer and he was an intimidating defensive presence in the paint. He was listed at 7-2 but I have stood next to him and am not the only person who thinks that he is even taller than that; the first thought that I had when I met a then nearly 60 year old Abdul-Jabbar was "What would it have been like to drive the lane 20 years ago and try to score over this guy?" Erving has consistently said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever faced. Abdul-Jabbar blew me off for an interview--twice--like he blew off many other people (and it's a shame, because I was actually going to ask him intelligent questions that would have led to a great dialogue) but I don't have to like the guy to give him his proper respect. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most underrated great player in pro basketball history.

Chamberlain: "'Nobody roots for Goliath,' Chamberlain said numerous times." Chamberlain is without question the most statistically dominant player in pro basketball history. He holds the record for having the most records! Some of his records--like career scoring--have been broken but many others (including 50.4 ppg average for a season, 22.9 rpg average for a career) will never even be approached. He is wrongly tagged as a loser despite winning two championships with arguably the two greatest single season teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers). Did Chamberlain focus too much on his own stats and not enough on winning? Maybe, but it could be argued that he did what his teams needed him to do and what his coaches asked him to do. He is criticized for his poor free throw shooting but no one mentions that Russell's free throw shooting was almost as bad. Purely based on his productivity in three fundamental basketball skills--scoring, rebounding and passing (he is the only center to lead the league in assists)--it is difficult to argue against the proposition that he was the greatest basketball player of all-time. Yet, there is this guy named Russell (see above) whose teams routinely outperformed Chamberlain's. The Chamberlain-Russell debate is one of the great ones in all of sports. I have talked with a lot of players who played with and/or against both men and the firsthand opinions are very divided. As I mentioned before, I used to lean toward Chamberlain but the more I study and learn about the sport the more I start to lean toward Russell. When I watch LeBron James, I feel like I am watching the modern day Wilt Chamberlain; he has the most impressive physical tools and he sets amazing statistical records and he wins a lot--but yet it feels like something is missing. "He" in that sentence could apply to Chamberlain or James.

James: "There are hype and expectations. And then there was whatever you want to call it that physical specimen James faced jumping to the NBA out of high school." Maybe I seem overly critical of James at times but I feel like to whom much has been given much should be expected. James cannot be evaluated based on the standards applied to normal people or normal NBA players, because he is not normal. Kerber is right that James faced enormous hype and that James has delivered a lot despite all of the pressure and expectations. James became one of the greatest players of all-time and things could have easily gone the other way: he could have gotten injured or become complacent or just crumbled underneath all of the scrutiny. James has had a remarkable career--but I believe that he left some championships on the table and I don't think that he is wired quite the same way as Russell, Jordan or Bryant. If I could have any one of those four guys (each in their respective primes) for a game seven, James would be my fourth pick; mind you, I would take James over all but a handful of players in the history of the sport but I would never trust him in that situation more than I would trust any one of the other three. Maybe that is not fair, maybe I am wrong, but that is my take.

Bryant: "No human could do it. Only health--three serious injuries in three years--has been able to slow down the Lakers great." Bryant never really lost his skills--they were just taken away from him, in a cruel moment, when he ruptured his Achilles while trying to carry an undermanned Lakers squad to the playoffs. Bryant was never the same after that injury, an injury that has completely ended many careers; Bryant fought hard to come back and he ended his remarkable career with a stunning 60 point outburst but he never regained the MVP form that he displayed up to the second when his Achilles popped. The "stat gurus" never much liked Bryant's game and the mainstream media always preferred the gregarious O'Neal to killer Kobe but all Bryant cared about was winning rings and he collected more of them than anyone in the post-Jordan era except for Duncan (and Robert Horry, who bagged seven as a key contributor alongside Olajuwon with the Rockets, O'Neal/Bryant with the Lakers and Duncan with the Spurs). Bryant was the first of the presumed heirs apparent to Jordan who actually made a credible run at matching Jordan's greatness; he did not quite make it, mind you, but a case could be made that Bryant is the best player of the post-Jordan era. Many would take James and some would take Duncan but Bryant at least has to be in that conversation.

West: "His bite-you-to-death defensive style supplemented his 'Mr. Clutch' shooting skill that produced a .474 career mark." West is supposedly too small to be great in the modern era? Really? He's just as big as Stephen Curry and a much better athlete who was an elite performer at both ends of the court. West would be unstoppable today with the no hand checking rule and he would also be the best defensive guard in the NBA as well.

Robertson: "Robertson AVERAGED a triple-double in 1961-62: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists." The "stat gurus" will minimize Robertson's numbers by citing pace and the small number of teams in the league and who knows what else. All I know is that pro basketball has been around for almost 70 years and Robertson is the only player not only to average a triple double for an entire season but to average an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his career, which is even more remarkable. Robertson will tell you to this day that he was every bit as good as Jordan and a lot of Robertson's contemporaries feel the same way

Erving: "Erving was as universally admired and respected for his class and dignity as for his skills." Erving is renowned for his leaping prowess--he won the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest at 26 and came in second in the inaugural NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1984 at 34--and he is praised for being an ambassador for the sport but what too often gets lost in the mix is just how great of an all-around player he was. Erving absolutely belongs in the greatest player of all-time discussion, both based on peak value (a credible case can be made that no one has ever played basketball better than Erving did in the 1976 ABA Finals, when he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots) and on sustained excellence over a long period of time (as detailed in my four part series about his extremely underrated playoff career).

A player who retired almost 30 years ago and who spent nearly the first third of his career in a forgotten league that did not have a national television contract is not going to win a battle for recognition against global icons Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I get that--but anyone who objectively looks at what Erving accomplished and how he accomplished it has to give Erving much respect.

Auerbach: "Auerbach won 938 games, nine NBA championships (in 10 years) with eight consecutively. He also oversaw seven more titles as Boston's president and general manager." Auerbach bristled at being compared to Phil Jackson, who eventually broke Auerbach's record by winning 11 titles as an NBA coach; Auerbach growled that he both built and coached his championship teams, while Jackson inherited ready made teams that he then coached. Auerbach is no doubt smiling down now as he watches Jackson struggle to put together a winning squad in New York; maybe Auerbach was right all along when he compared himself to Jackson.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM


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