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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Selecting a "Franchise Four" for the NBA's Cornerstone Franchises

Taking a cue from Major League Baseball's "Franchise Four" concept, Mitch Lawrence selected a "Franchise Four" for a dozen NBA franchises. Lawrence's choices are pretty much on the money but I disagree with a few of his selections so I compiled my own list; players who both Lawrence and I selected are in bold. Lawrence did not explicitly state his criteria but I picked "Franchise Four" players based on their overall impact on a given franchise and I did not consider anything that they accomplished for other franchises; for instance, Michael Jordan is the greatest player who ever played for the Wizards but--only considering his accomplishments as a Wizard--he is not one of the four best players in franchise history.

1) Boston Celtics

Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy

Russell and Bird are Pantheon level players and Havlicek is not too far behind. Havlicek may be one of the most underrated great players in pro basketball history. He spent the first part of his career as a sixth man who was overshadowed by Russell, Cousy and Sam Jones. Then he had his best statistical seasons when the Celtics were not competitive right after Russell retired. Havlicek was a key member of two championship teams in the mid-1970s. Cousy is one of the few point guards to win an MVP and he was the face of the franchise before Russell arrived. Cousy's playmaking plus his often forgotten scoring (he ranked in the top 10 in scoring eight times) were crucial elements for six championship teams.

I also agree with Lawrence's honorable mention selections: Dave Cowens (who won a regular season MVP and two championships), Sam Jones and Bird's Big Three frontcourt partners Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, plus Paul Pierce. I assume that Lawrence left out Kevin Garnett because Garnett only played for the Celtics briefly and I concur on that score.

2) Chicago Bulls

Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Artis Gilmore, Bob Love

Lawrence picked Derrick Rose and Dennis Rodman over Gilmore and Love. Rodman only played 199 regular season games in three years with the Bulls. Yes, Rodman captured three rebounding titles for three Chicago championship teams but he was also the third best player on those teams. Rose won the 2011 regular season MVP but during his eight injury-plagued seasons he has not had the overall impact on the franchise that Gilmore and Love did.

Gilmore was one of the top centers in the NBA in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He holds the franchise career records for blocked shots (1029) and field goal percentage (.587). He won two field goal percentage titles as a Bull (1981, 1982), made the All-Star team four times (1978-79, 1981-82) and twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting (1977, 1978).

Love was the best player for some strong Chicago teams in the early 1970s, a top notch scorer who was also an excellent defensive player. As a Bull, Love made the All-NBA Second Team twice (1971, 1972) and the All-Defensive Second Team three times (1972, 1974-75). Love holds the franchise single season record for minutes played (3482) and he ranks third on the franchise's career scoring list behind Jordan and Pippen.

Lawrence listed Bob Love, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker and Artis Gilmore as honorable mentions. After moving Gilmore and Love up, I would tap Rodman, Horace Grant and Rose as honorable mentions in addition to Sloan, Van Lier and Walker.

3) Detroit Pistons

Isiah Thomas, Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Joe Dumars

Thomas and Dumars were the starting guards for the "Bad Boys" Detroit teams that advanced to three straight NBA Finals (1988-90) and won back to back championships (1989-90). Thomas is arguably the greatest "little" player (under 6-3) in pro basketball history; in his early seasons he put up big numbers for mediocre Detroit teams but as the Pistons became stronger and deeper he willingly sacrificed his personal statistics so that the team could be more successful. Dumars was an outstanding two-way performer who won the 1989 Finals MVP and made the All-Defensive First Team four times (1989-90, 1992-93).

Bing starred for the Pistons during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a Piston, Bing won the Rookie of the Year award (1967), twice ranked in the top five in MVP voting (1968, 1971) and twice made the All-NBA First Team (1968, 1971).

Lanier made the All-Star team seven times as a Piston (1972-75, 1977-79), twice ranked in the top five in MVP voting (1974, 1977) and is among the franchise's top three leaders in career rebounds (second with 8063), points (third with 15,488) and blocked shots (third with 859; keep in mind that this statistic has only been "official" in the NBA since 1973-74, Lanier's fourth season in the league).

Lawrence's honorable mentions are Bill Laimbeer, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. I would add George Yardley from the Fort Wayne Pistons--the first NBA player to score 2000 points in a season (2001 in 1958)--and Grant Hill, who made the All-Star team five times in his six Detroit seasons (only missing out in the lockout-shortened 1999 season when the All-Star Game was not held).

4) Golden State Warriors

Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond, Stephen Curry

Despite playing less than six full seasons with the Warriors, Chamberlain dominates the franchise's record book, posting the top four single season totals in points and the top five single season totals in minutes and rebounds. He holds the franchise's career scoring record (17,783) and ranks second in career rebounds (10,768) to Thurmond (12,771).

Thurmond spent more than a decade with the team while perennially ranking among the league leaders in minutes and rebounds. He is second on the franchise's career games played list (757) to Chris Mullin (807).

Barry starred for the Warriors in the late 1960s, jumped to the ABA and then made a triumphant return to the Bay Area, leading Golden State to the 1975 NBA title. He won the 1967 NBA scoring title and later established himself as one of pro basketball's best passing forwards.

Curry has taken the league by storm, winning the 2015 regular season MVP, leading the Warriors to the 2015 NBA title and looking better than ever during the early part of the 2015-16 season.

Lawrence chose lefty sharpshooter Mullin as an honorable mention.

5) Houston Rockets

Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy, Elvin Hayes

Olawuwon paired with "Twin Tower" Ralph Sampson to lead the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals--where they lost to a stacked Boston team--and then nearly a decade later he carried Houston to back to back titles (1994-1995). He won the 1994 regular season MVP and a pair of Finals MVPs (1994, 1995).

Malone won two of his three regular season MVPs (1979, 1982) as a Rocket while capturing three rebounding titles (1979, 1981-82) and lifting the 40-42 Rockets to the 1981 NBA Finals.

Murphy is one of the greatest 5-9 and under players in pro basketball history. The Hall of Famer averaged a career-high 25.6 ppg for the Rockets in 1977-78.

Lawrence picked Rudy Tomjanovich as an honorable mention.

6) L.A. Lakers

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West

Abdul-Jabbar has to be mentioned prominently in any greatest basketball player of all-time conversation.
After starting his career excellently in Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar won five championships, three regular season MVPs (1976-77, 1980) and a Finals MVP (1985) as a Laker. He has held the overall NBA regular season career scoring record for more than 30 years (38,387 points) and he ranks third on the Lakers' career scoring list with 24,176 points. Abdul-Jabbar scored, rebounded, passed and defended at a very high level.

Johnson made a huge splash in his rookie season, as the flashy 6-9 point guard substituted at center for an injured Abdul-Jabbar in game six of the 1980 NBA Finals and walked away with the Finals MVP after producing 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the Lakers' 123-107 series-clinching victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Johnson led the Lakers to the Finals nine times and won five championships. He earned three Finals MVPs (1980, 1982, 1987) plus three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90).

Bryant remains a polarizing figure in the 20th season of his amazing career. He deserved several regular season MVPs but only received one (2008). He won two scoring titles (2006, 2007) and set a slew of scoring records. Bryant's 81 point game versus the Toronto Raptors is topped only by Chamberlain's 100 point outburst--and even in an era that favors three point shooting and minimal defensive resistance on the perimeter, it is unlikely that Bryant's total will be approached any time soon. During his prime, Bryant had some remarkable extended scoring sprees, including averaging 43.4 ppg in January 2006, the highest scoring average by an NBA player in a calendar month since Chamberlain averaged 45.8 ppg in March 1963. Bryant was a high level performer during the Lakers' 2000-02 championship run before being the dominant force as the Lakers made it to three straight Finals (2008-10) and won two championships (2009-10) after the franchise parted ways with Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant is one of the few players in pro basketball history who had no skill set weaknesses: he could score inside or outside, he could rebound, he could pass, he could defend, he could handle the ball and he possessed excellent leadership qualities that are reflected by the outstanding results of his teams over the years; Bryant's teams rarely if ever underachieved relative to their overall talent level and they often achieved more than could have been reasonably expected.

No franchise has more legitimate greatest player of all-time candidates than the Lakers. Lawrence chose O'Neal for the fourth spot but I prefer West because West was the face of the franchise for more than a decade as a player in addition to later serving as the team's coach and then helping the Lakers return to prominence during his tenure in the front office by acquiring both O'Neal and Bryant. West's silhouette still serves as the logo for the entire league, so it would be strange to not rank him as one of the four most influential players in the history of the franchise for which he played his entire career. West is one of three players who have won both a scoring title (31.2 ppg in 1969-70) and an assist title (9.7 apg in 1971-72), joining Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Archibald. He made the All-NBA First Team 10 times and the All-Defensive First Team four times even though that squad was not created until near the end of his career. West never won a regular season MVP but he finished second four times while competing with the likes of Chamberlain, Russell and Oscar Robertson for that honor. West remains the only player from the losing team to win a Finals MVP (1969). He won his first and only NBA title in 1972.

It is very tough to leave out Elgin Baylor, who spent his entire magnificent career with the Lakers. He is one of just three players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving are the other two) who averaged at least 24 ppg, 10 rpg and 4 apg overall during their first seven seasons. Knee injuries hampered Baylor during the second half of his career but he still ranks third in pro basketball history in career regular season scoring average (27.4 ppg) and 10th in career regular season rebounding average (13.5 rpg).

Chamberlain, who spent the final five years of his career with the Lakers, is another greatest player of all-time candidate but Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Bryant and West all spent much more time with the Lakers and each of those players spent some--if not all--of their prime years with the Lakers.

George Mikan was voted the greatest basketball player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press. He was the first dominant big man in the sport's history but he thrived in the pre-shot clock era and struggled a bit--albeit as an older, past his prime player--once the shot clock was introduced, so it is often assumed that he would not have been as dominant in subsequent eras. Comparing players from the pre-shot clock, pre-integration era to players from later periods is a very difficult if not impossible task. Mikan deserves full credit for everything that he accomplished and I think that he would fare better in today's game than many other people may think that he would. Lawrence did not even give Mikan an honorable mention, which is a terrible oversight.

Lawrence's honorable mentions went to Chamberlain, Baylor, West and James Worthy, while I would select Mikan, Baylor, Chamberlain and O'Neal and Worthy.

7) Miami Heat

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning

James is the obvious first choice here. He led the Heat to four straight NBA Finals (2011-14) and two championships while winning two Finals MVPs (2012-13) and two regular season MVPs (2012-13).

Wade won the 2006 Finals MVP while guiding the Heat to the franchise's first championship and he was a vital performer for the 2011-14 Finalists as well. He holds most of the franchise's career records, including points, assists, steals, games played and minutes played.

Lawrence chose Tim Hardaway over Shaquille O'Neal but O'Neal was arguably the best player in the NBA during his first season with the Heat (2004-05, when he finished second in the MVP voting to Steve Nash). O'Neal was the All-NBA First Team center in 2005-06 when the Heat won their first championship. Without O'Neal commanding defensive attention in the paint, Wade would not have had the necessary openings to average 34.7 ppg in the Finals. Hardaway had a very good Heat career but O'Neal had a transformative effect on the franchise.

Mourning joined Miami prior to his fourth season in the NBA (1995-96) and he spent the bulk of his career with the franchise. He twice won the Defensive Player of the Year award (1999, 2000) and even though a kidney ailment slowed him down he was still an important reserve player for the 2006 championship team. 

Lawrence's honorable mentions are O'Neal and Chris Bosh. My honorable mentions are Hardaway and Bosh.

8) New York Knicks

Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Patrick Ewing, Bernard King

Reed, also known as "The Captain," was the heart and soul of the Knicks' 1970 and 1973 championship teams, winning the Finals MVP both years. In 1970, Reed won the regular season MVP, the All-Star Game MVP and the Finals MVP, the first player to accomplish this feat in the same year. Reed ranks second in franchise history in rebounds (8414) and third in franchise history in points (12,183).

While Reed won the 1970 Finals MVP, Frazier was undoubtedly the best player on the court in the seventh game of that series. With Reed hobbled by a hip injury and limited to four points, Frazier took over, producing 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds as the Knicks defeated the L.A. Lakers 113-99. Frazier made the All-NBA First Team four times (1970, 1972, 1974-75) and the All-Defensive First Team seven times (1969-75).

The New York Knicks' record book could be renamed "The Patrick Ewing Story." Ewing holds the franchise career records in almost every category, including points (23,665), rebounds (10,759), blocked shots (2758), minutes played (37,586) and games played (1059).

King ranks second in franchise history with a 26.5 ppg career scoring average. He won the 1985 scoring title (32.1 ppg) but his New York career was cut short at the absolute height of his powers by a devastating ACL injury that season. King played just six more games as a Knick (averaging 22.7 ppg in those contests) before joining the Washington Bullets and eventually becoming the first player with a completely reconstructed knee to play in an NBA All-Star Game (1991).

Lawrence listed Dave DeBusschere as an honorable mention who finished "a hair" behind King.

9) Philadelphia 76ers

Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley

Chamberlain put up awesome all-around numbers (24.1 ppg, 24.2 rpg, 7.8 apg) for the 1966-67 championship team, which was voted in 1980 as the greatest single season team in NBA history.

After starring in the ABA--winning three MVPs, three scoring titles and two championships--Erving landed in Philadelphia and led the 76ers to the best aggregate regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83. Erving's 76ers made it to the NBA Finals four times (1977, 1980, 1982, 1983) and his 1983 championship team is on the short list of greatest single season teams in pro basketball history. Erving won the 1981 regular season MVP, becoming the first non-center to earn that honor in the NBA since Oscar Robertson in 1964 and paving the way for non-centers like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to win MVPs in the 1980s and 1990s.

Malone joined Erving in Philadelphia for the 1982-83 season, forming one of the top duos in pro basketball history. Malone won the 1983 regular season and Finals MVPs as the 76ers went a then-record best 12-1 in the postseason, while Erving made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in regular season MVP voting.

By the time Barkley arrived in Philadelphia, Malone and Erving were still good but past their primes. Barkley emerged as an undersized force of nature at power forward, able to score, rebound and pass.
Lawrence chose Barkley plus George McGinnis, Chet Walker, Bobby Jones and Allen Iverson as honorable mentions, while including Hal Greer in the Franchise Four.

Lawrence's picks are fine but Maurice Cheeks should be an honorable mention as well. Doug Collins and Andrew Toney, two All-Stars whose careers were cut short by injury, also merit honorable mentions.

10) Phoenix Suns

Steve Nash, Charles Barkley, Paul Westphal, Walter Davis

Nash captured two regular season MVPs (2005, 2006), while Barkley won the 1993 regular season MVP as he led the Suns to the franchise's second trip to the NBA Finals.

Former Celtic reserve Westphal starred for the 1976 Suns, who lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Before being slowed by injuries, Westphal made the All-NBA Team four straight years (1977-80, including First Team honors in 1977, 1979 and 1980).

Davis won the 1978 Rookie of the Year award while also finishing fifth in MVP voting. He made the All-Star team six times, all as a Sun.

Lawrence put Amare Stoudemire in his Franchise Four and did not mention Westphal in his honorable mention group (Jason Kidd, Alvan Adams, Kevin Johnson). I would slide Stoudemire into the honorable mention category and add Connie Hawkins as well.

11) San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan, David Robinson, George Gervin, Tony Parker

Duncan, the 2002 and 2003 regular season MVP, is probably the greatest power forward of all-time.
The main argument against that premise is that Duncan should be classified as a center, not a power forward. Robinson won the 1995 regular season MVP and teamed up with Duncan to lead the Spurs to the first two championships (1999, 2003) of the Duncan era (Duncan also won titles in 2005, 2007 an 2014).

Gervin starred in the ABA before winning four scoring titles (1978-80, 1982) in the NBA. He finished second in MVP voting in 1978 and 1979 and third in MVP voting in 1980.

Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP and has been the starting point guard for four championship teams (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).

Lawrence tapped these honorable mentions: "From the pre-Duncan Era: James Silas. From the Duncan Era: Sean Elliott and Manu Ginobili."

12) Washington Wizards

Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson

Unseld (1969), Wilt Chamberlain (1960), Spencer Haywood (1970 ABA) and Artis Gilmore (1972 ABA) are the only players who won Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Unseld never again finished in the top five in MVP voting but he won the 1978 Finals MVP as the Bullets captured the first and only championship in franchise history. Hayes is one of the top scorers/rebounders/shot blockers in pro basketball history. He is also the first player to accumulate 50,000 career regular season minutes and he still ranks fourth on the career minutes list. Monroe won the 1968 Rookie of the Year award, electrifying fans with his flashy scoring moves and deft passing before being traded to the Knicks and winning a title with his former arch-rivals.

Lawrence's sole honorable mention is Jeff Malone. I would also include Walt Bellamy, Bobby Dandridge and Phil Chenier. Bellamy is a Hall of Famer who put up big numbers for this franchise, Dandridge was a key member of the 1978 championship team and Chenier was one of the league's top guards in the 1970s.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 PM


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Monday, November 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Shooting Guards

A highly regarded NBA guard is shooting .371 from the field--including .240 from three point range--and leading the league with 49 turnovers in 10 games as his team performs far below expectations. No, this is not about Kobe Bryant, a 20 year veteran coming back from serious injuries to his Achilles, knee and shoulder in addition to a calf bruise that he suffered during the preseason; this is about James Harden, who has been widely hailed as an MVP caliber player for a potential championship contender. Bryant's production is predictable, given his age and his injuries. What is Harden's excuse? It is bizarre that the media focuses so much attention on Bryant's supposed shortcomings as his Hall of Fame career draws to a close but ignores the poor performance of a much-praised player who should be in his prime and who recently declared that he should have won the 2015 NBA regular season MVP.

Harden's Houston Rockets, who supposedly added the final piece to their championship puzzle when they acquired point guard Ty Lawson, are currently 4-6 and would not qualify for the Western Conference playoffs if the season ended today. Among Houston's main rotation players who average at least 30 mpg, Harden's plus/minus number (-4.7) is fourth, trailing Marcus Thornton, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard. This is a small sample size of games but the trend actually extends back to the 2015 playoffs, when Harden's plus/minus was third on the team--the same as Jason Terry, .1 better than Trevor Ariza and worse than Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. Harden puts up gaudy scoring and assist numbers because he monopolizes the ball but there are many other players in the NBA who could put up similar numbers if they handled the ball as much as Harden does. In that regard, Harden is much more like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony than he is like Kobe Bryant in his prime or Stephen Curry now. Guys like Harden do not lead teams to championships; they only win championships if they understand their limitations and accept a smaller role behind a player who is more qualified to handle such a heavy workload. Marbury was unwilling to do that in Minnesota with Kevin Garnett. Arenas was much more interested in being quirky than in winning basketball games. Anthony made one fluky run to the Western Conference Finals (much like Harden did last year) but has spent most of his career jacking up shots, playing inattentive defense and losing in the first round of the playoffs.

Yes, Harden has already had a couple games with 40-plus points this season and he likely will have more such games before the end of the season. Those games do not refute my take on Harden. I have never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a very talented player who is more than capable of putting up big numbers--but he is not an elite player or an efficient player or much of a leader. Leadership is defined by actually leading a group of people to a meaningful accomplishment. Kobe Bryant is a great NBA leader--no matter how much media members bash him for supposedly not being a leader--because he has been an All-NBA performer for five championship teams. Steve Nash and Chris Paul are called great leaders by media members but what concrete results did their supposed leadership actually obtain? Someone did some kind of study showing that Nash high-fived his teammates more than anyone else--but what does that actually have to do with leadership or with winning? Jason Kidd was a great leader because everywhere he went his teams got better and everywhere he left those teams got worse. Results on the court spoke volumes about his leadership.

Harden puts up empty numbers and there is far too much variation between his best games and his worst games. Truly great players have a consistent impact on a game to game basis; when their shot is off, they compensate with their passing, their rebounding and/or their defense. Harden does not do that. Like Marbury, Arenas and Anthony, Harden is a talented player who can score a lot of points but is indifferent--at best--defensively and whose playing style/leadership style is not conducive to building a championship culture. Teams inevitably take on the identity of their best player. A defensive-minded player like Bill Russell can be the best player on a championship team because by sacrificing his own scoring opportunities such a player sets a good example for his teammates to follow. However, an offensive-minded player who does not work hard on defense is unlikely to be the best player on a championship team, because his teammates will follow his lead and also not work hard on defense (plus, such a player will play a lot of minutes and thus be a detriment to the team's defense even if the other four players do work hard at that end of the court).

I predicted that Harden would be a high scoring All-Star but that he would not be able to lead a team to a championship as the best player and nothing that has happened since he arrived in Houston has refuted that prediction. Harden is ideally suited to being the third or, maybe, second option on a championship-caliber team. Since Harden has arrived in Houston, the Rockets have exited the playoffs twice in the first round, with Harden playing poorly in both of those postseasons.

Last year, the Rockets had a record that was better than their point differential would predict and they took advantage of their favorable seeding to advance to the Western Conference Finals as an injury-riddled Thunder team missed the playoffs, as the Spurs rested their way to a bad seed/first round loss and as the ever-underachieving Clippers blew a 3-1 lead against the Rockets despite Harden's bricklaying (.398 FG%) throughout that series. Houston's run to the Western Conference Finals was a fluky result--and the players who did the heavy lifting were Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza. The Rockets actually did better in the playoffs with Harden off of the court than they did with him on the court. In fact, Harden was not even on the court during some of Houston's most critical runs during the 2015 postseason, including their big fourth quarters in game two of the Dallas series and game six of the L.A. series. Then, Harden shot 2-11 from the field and committed 12 turnovers in game five of the Western Conference Finals as the Rockets went down in flames versus the Golden State Warriors, four games to one.

The Rockets openly lobbied for Harden to win the 2014-15 regular season MVP but it would have been a travesty if Harden had won that award. Stephen Curry is clearly better than Harden and Curry was the best player on the league's best team, a team that went on to win the championship. Curry and the Warriors look even more dominant now than they did last season, which further emphasizes the gap between Curry and Harden.

An MVP vote should not just reflect what happens in a given season but it should make sense historically. A Harden MVP would have been as discordant historically as the two MVPs that Steve Nash won. Nash was a good player and his career arc made for a nice story for the media but Nash--despite the plaudits he received as a leader and as supposedly the best player in the league two years in a row--never sniffed a championship. The best players of the 2000s were--in alphabetical order--Bryant, Duncan, James and O'Neal, with Garnett, Nowitzki and Wade also making an impact; each of those players won at least one championship as the best player on his team. Nash was in the next level below those guys and that was obvious at the time that the media gave him two MVPs but the story of a small player from a small school serving as the point guard for a high octane offense seduced the media MVP voters to ignore the fact that Nash was not actually better than the league's truly dominant players.

Nash left Dallas and the Mavericks not only remained a good team but they actually improved, reaching the Finals twice and winning the 2011 championship. When an MVP level player leaves a team that never happens, unless the MVP level player is replaced by another MVP level player. When Wilt Chamberlain left the 76ers, they rapidly declined from arguably the best single season team of all-time (1967) to arguably the worst single season team of all-time (1973). Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons. Boston missed the playoffs the year after he retired and did not win another championship until adding another MVP caliber center (Dave Cowens, who won the 1973 MVP before helping the Celtics win championships in 1974 and 1976). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to two Finals and one championship but since he left Milwaukee the Bucks have never returned to the Finals while his new team--the L.A. Lakers--won five championships with him patrolling the paint. When Moses Malone left the Houston Rockets for the Philadelphia 76ers the Rockets crashed--and did not reemerge until they obtained two dominant big men, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon--while the 76ers enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. It is true that the Chicago Bulls did not fall apart when Michael Jordan retired--thanks largely to the efforts of the vastly underrated Scottie Pippen--but the Bulls did not improve, either. The Lakers missed the playoffs after Shaquille O'Neal left, though Bryant soon led them back to the top after the Lakers acquired one-time All-Star Pau Gasol. Bryant did not need that much additional help because he is one of the greatest players of all-time.

An MVP is an irreplaceable player. Nash was very good but he was not irreplaceable and his name does not belong on the MVP list. Similarly, Harden is very good but he is not irreplaceable; there are many other NBA guards who could do the same things Harden is doing if given the same opportunity and the Rockets would not be any worse off if they swapped Harden for one of those guards. The Oklahoma City Thunder replaced Harden with the likes of Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson and did not miss a beat until their best two players--MVP level performers Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook--missed significant time due to injuries.

Many things broke right for Harden and the Rockets last year and they still got smoked in the Western Conference Finals. Harden is not as bad as he has looked in the early part of his season and I expect the Rockets to be a playoff team--but I also expect them to go out in the first round this year and in most if not all of the next several years. Maybe after Harden has lost in the first round as many times as Anthony people will begin to reassess their inflated views of his ability, much like the shine is coming off of Chris Paul as people are slowly figuring out that not only is he not good enough to lead a team to a championship but he might even not be good enough to be the second best player on a championship team, since for the past few years Paul has been the second best player on a highly touted Clippers team that has yet to reach the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM


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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kobe Bryant, Carl Lewis, Jon Drummond and the Olympic Spirit

Kobe Bryant would like to play for Team USA in the 2016 Olympics. Based on Bryant's recent performance level and injury history, you may think that is selfish or just unrealistic; that will most likely be the mainstream media take on the matter. However, Kevin Ding--a rare NBA commentator who covers the sport insightfully and treats Bryant fairly--explains why Bryant deserves the opportunity to play for Team USA in 2016 and why USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo should honor Bryant's request:

Colangelo has already set the precedent that it's not necessarily about the best players: He promised Paul George a spot for 2016 already after George broke his leg in a U.S. uniform in 2014. He included a 35-year-old Jason Kidd on the 2008 U.S. team for his experience and past contributions.

Team USA is going to win gold in Rio with or without Bryant, with or without George, with or without even LeBron James. The team is absurdly stacked, which is why it becomes thorny to consider what great player would be left off the squad to accommodate Bryant...

But it's Colangelo's call whether to honor something greater here.

And there is indeed a greater good to be had.

Consider the Olympic creed:

The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight;
the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.

No one has answered that call in his athletic career any better than Bryant. He has been triumphant at times, but his fight for personal excellence is what has truly won out.

His fight is why all these fans worldwide see him as their inspiration.

Bryant's proposed candidacy for Team USA's 2016 basketball team reminds me of the controversy surrounding Team USA's 4x100meter relay squad during the 1996 Olympics. Veteran Carl Lewis, participating in the Olympics for the last time, wanted to run anchor for Team USA in the 4x100 meter relay. Lewis previously anchored two Olympic gold-medal winning teams and five teams that set world records. Maybe he was over the hill by 1996 but--based on his past performance and the capabilities he still possessed at that moment--he had earned the right to compete. Prior to the 4x100 meter relay, Lewis won the gold medal in the long jump, his fourth straight Olympic gold in that event; no one else has ever defended an Olympic long jump title even once. He is only the third American to win the same Olympic event four times. Lewis could have capped off his Olympic career by pursuing a then-unprecedented 10th gold medal. Instead, the Team USA coaching staff went in a different direction and Lewis watched Team USA fail to capture gold for the first time ever in the 4x100 meter relay (not including the boycott year of 1980 and three times that Team USA was disqualified for improper baton passes).

Jon Drummond, one of the members of the 1996 Team USA 4x100 team, publicly declared that Lewis did not belong on the team because Lewis finished "butt-naked last" in the Olympic qualifying trials. Lewis had enough athletic ability left to win the gold medal in the long jump and he had previously anchored gold medal-winning relay teams but Drummond thought that he and Team USA's other young guns deserved their time to shine. Carl Lewis is a legend of the sport. Would you even know Drummond's name if I had not brought it up? Well, maybe you would, because he has been in the news recently: he is currently serving an eight year suspension from track and field for his role, as Tyson Gay's coach, in illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. Drummond has been banned from the sport until December 2022. He was not caught using performance-enhancing drugs during his athletic career but, then again, neither were Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds, two cheaters who often bragged about never failing a drug test.

Drummond was a loud-mouth nobody who played a role in keeping a legend off of Team USA's 1996 4x100 relay team and, quite possibly, cost Team USA a gold medal. After the race, Drummond admitted that he and his young teammates were "tight." Lewis would not have been tight.

It may be true that Team USA can win the 2016 Olympic gold medal in basketball with just about any conceivable roster of current NBA stars. However, if Bryant wants to play and is able to play then he deserves a spot on the team not only based on his legendary status but also because during the 2012 Olympic games Team USA needed Bryant's clutch production to survive the gold medal game versus Spain. If Bryant plays for Team USA in the 2016 Olympics he will not lead the team in minutes played or scoring or any other statistical category but he will set the right tone with his work ethic and focus--and he may very well make a key shot or key defensive play that is the difference between Olympic gold and the silver medal that Drummond got in 1996.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:51 PM


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Monday, November 09, 2015

The Twilight of Kobe Bryant

Unless you are a sadist or a hater, this kind of article is not fun to write or read. It is as poignant as it is inevitable, because Father Time is undefeated and he will always be undefeated; even if you take Father Time to the final moments of the 15th round, Father Time always wins. The seemingly ageless George Blanda eventually retired, the seemingly peerless Michael Jordan played past the point where he was no longer the best (or the 10th best) player in the NBA and former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand won the title in multiple formats against multiple challengers before inevitably succumbing to the youth and talent of Magnus Carlsen.

Now, Kobe Bryant--who has spent his career overcoming obstacles and injuries, including playing left-handed when he had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder and walking off of the court with only a slight limp after tearing his Achillles--is deep into the 15th round versus Father Time. Before we look at Bryant's statistics or the Lakers' record, it is worth remembering that Bryant is a shooting guard playing his 20th season in the NBA. This is uncharted territory. Only three pro basketball players have played 21 seasons and each of them--the retired Robert Parish and Kevin Willis, plus the (barely) active Kevin Garnett--were big men playing very small roles in that 21st campaign: Parish (who had not been a double figure scorer since season 18) averaged 3.7 ppg in 43 games, Willis had retired for a year before coming back for season 21 to score 12 points in five games and Garnett (who has not been a double figure scorer since season 18) has scored 10 points in five games so far this season.

Furthermore, in the past three years, Bryant has ruptured his Achilles--a career-altering if not career-ending injury for many players, including Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins--fractured his kneecap and torn the rotator cuff in his right (shooting) shoulder. During the preseason, he suffered a calf bruise. He is 37 years old but he is an old 37 because he came to the NBA straight out of high school and has made many deep playoff runs, including seven trips to the NBA Finals. It is remarkable that Bryant can still get up and down the court in an NBA game and that he can get off 20 or more field goal attempts in an NBA game. Any negative comments about Bryant's efficiency should be prefaced by wonderment that he is still able to play at all.

No, Kobe Bryant is not the player that he used to be in his prime or even the player that he was three years ago before the Achilles injury when--as a 34 year old in his 17th season--he made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting after ranking third in the league in scoring (27.3 ppg) and second in the league in minutes (38.6 mpg). Bryant is averaging 16.5 ppg (tied for the team lead) while shooting .320 from the field (including .208 from the three point line). He is shooting way too many three pointers (eight attempts per game, easily a career-high) and his usually first-rate floor game has declined (his per minute rebounds, assists and steals are all well below his career norms and he has yet to block a shot in six games). The Lakers are 1-5 and look terrible, with no offensive rhythm and no defensive effort.

Some members of the media are making a big deal about Bryant shooting 6-19 from the field yesterday as the Lakers lost what will probably be Bryant's final appearance in Madison Square Garden. That is not the performance that will define Bryant's MSG career; six years ago, Bryant set the MSG scoring record of 61 points (since broken by Carmelo Anthony) despite playing with a dislocated ring finger on his shooting hand. Bryant shot 19-31 from the field and 20-20 from the free throw line in a 126-117 Lakers win that day. Ali is defined by his bouts with Frazier, not his losses to Holmes and Berbick.

NBA Radio commentator Brian Scalabrine thinks that Bryant should be more like Paul Pierce and accept a role as a bench player. With all due respect to future Hall of Famer Pierce, he is not in the same league as Bryant in terms of playing skill, toughness or leadership. Pierce had a stacked team with two other Hall of Famers plus an elite (at least at the time) point guard and he won one championship; Bryant won five championships in addition to leading some horrible teams to the playoffs. Bryant never flinched or made excuses in the face of injury; Pierce dramatically left a 2008 NBA Finals game in a wheelchair only to come back on the court a few minutes later. Bryant not only led the Lakers to multiple championships and brought out the best in teammates ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker) but he also was the difference maker as Team USA reclaimed its proper gold medal status in the 2008 Olympics.

No, as Frank Isola correctly responded to Scalabrine, Bryant is in a different category than Pierce and has a different mindset.

Bryant does not have to take a Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett playing role in order to be a good mentor for the Lakers' younger players. Bryant has always led by example with his work ethic, his toughness and his high basketball IQ. Bryant does not belong on the Lakers' bench because the Lakers stink and they do not have anyone who can play small forward or shooting guard better than he does. Let's keep this real: Kobe Bryant is not holding back the L.A. Lakers. This team may not reach .500 even if Bryant recaptures some semblance of his old form and right now it is headed for no more than 25 wins without Bryant playing at an All-NBA level. It is not like the Lakers have a surplus of talented players who are being held back based on Bryant taking X amount of minutes and shot attempts.

Bryant recently mentioned that he is held to a higher standard than his peers and that he embraces that challenge. Bryant is right that if any other player in the NBA has a bad shooting game it is just a bad shooting game but that if Bryant has a bad shooting game then it is portrayed as a big deal.

It cannot be emphasized enough that Bryant is a 37 year old shooting guard who is in his 20th NBA season. He is coming back from multiple injuries sustained in the past three years and he suffered a setback during the preseason when he bruised his calf. Everyone, including Bryant, understands that he is not the player that he used to be--but we are just six games into this season. If Bryant's calf heals and if he does not suffer any other injuries, then his shooting percentage will inch back to a respectable level and he will make a positive impact for the Lakers. In a basketball sense, he is not finished; he still has his footwork, he is still in shape. He can still play, albeit not at his former level.

However, it looks increasingly likely that Bryant will never be fully healthy again. He is getting injured more and more frequently and even the minor injuries are exacting a greater toll than they did before.

This is the 15th round of Bryant's bout versus Father Time. He has battled Father Time as hard and as long as anyone but the end of the 15th round is near. This is not about Bryant embracing a different role. Bryant is who he is and he will finish his career, this season, as a starting player occupying a large role. Instead of nitpicking every shot taken during the final playing days of one of the sport's all-time greats, we should applaud the spirit and guts that Bryant is demonstrating in defiance of the Father Time who not only defeats all athletes but who eventually defeats us all. I wonder if the critics who bash Bryant now will face the 15th round of their lives as well as Bryant is facing the 15th round of his playing life.

It is not my place--or anyone else's place--to tell Bryant what he should do as long as there is at least one NBA team willing to pay his salary. Bryant has earned the right to finish his career on his terms. It will not be pretty or fun to watch at times but I hope that he can summon up the health and wherewithal to author a few more classic games before riding off into the sunset. Almost every great player says that he will not stick around past the point of being the best player in the sport--Julius Erving planned to retire in his early 30s but was an All-Star in his final year at 37, Michael Jordan vowed to not stick around until he was "just" an All-Star like Erving but played until he was "just" an All-Star at 39 and Bryant is now on a similar arc. The love of the game is too strong and the internal pride is too great for such players to retire until they reach that 15th round with Father Time. Erving had the most graceful exit of the three. He announced his retirement early in his 16th season, he enjoyed a marvelous and unprecedented "Farewell Tour," he was still a very good player (16.8 ppg, .471 FG%) and he was a key contributor for a playoff team. He became just the third player in pro basketball history to score 30,000 career points and a late two-game flourish (38 points and 24 points in his final two regular season games) enabled him to keep intact his streak of scoring at least 1000 points in every season of his career.

Erving and Jordan played past the point of being the best player in the world but they both had some very good games in their final seasons; it does not seem to be Bryant's style or plan to announce his retirement in advance or have a formal farewell tour but here is hoping that Bryant uncorks some 40 point outings in the next few months before calling it a career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 PM


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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

LeBron James Becomes 25th--and Youngest--Member of the 25,000 Point Club

On Monday night, LeBron James became just the 25th member of pro basketball's 25,000 point club. At 30 years, 307 days, he is easily the youngest player to achieve this milestone, surpassing Kobe Bryant's record (31 years, 351 days). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who broke Wilt Chamberlain's once seemingly untouchable mark of 31,419 points in 1984, ranks number one with 38,387 points but his 30-plus year reign as king of the all-time scorers may be in jeopardy in six or seven years if James stays healthy.

Shamefully, the NBA still ignores ABA statistics and pretends that Julius Erving, Dan Issel, George Gervin and Rick Barry--four Hall of Famers who played in both the ABA and the NBA--did not join the 25,000 point club. As long as the NBA sends that quartet's names down some Orwellian memory hole, I will make a point of mentioning those names every time I write an article about the 25,000 point club.  

James' accomplishment brings to mind the way that he is often called a "pass-first" player. I have never bought into that description because, among other things, Pass First Players Do Not Score 61 Points in a Game. As I have explained many times, James is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer. Why does it matter to make a distinction between being pass-first and being a great scorer who also passes well? It is important to realize that despite all of James' skills, he did not win a championship until he embraced the challenge and responsibility of being a big-time scorer when the stakes are highest; ignoring that truth is a major distortion of basketball history and permits people to create some kind of false dichotomy between James and players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant who are celebrated for their scoring prowess (and often not given proper recognition for their playmaking skills).

During his first stint in Cleveland and during the early part of his run in Miami, James would score a lot of points during the regular season and early playoff rounds only to become bizarrely passive the deeper that he advanced in the playoffs, including no-show efforts versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and versus Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. After the latter debacle, when James was outplayed at critical times by Jason Terry,  Dwyane Wade implored James to accept the responsibility of carrying a heavy scoring load against elite teams. The strange thing about this is that James has the fourth highest regular season scoring average and fifth highest playoff scoring average in pro basketball history; he has spent his whole career being a dominant scorer, so it is mystifying that he mentally checked himself out of the aforementioned Boston and Dallas series. Those playoff failures did not represent James being a pass-first player; they represented him carrying his teams to the playoffs by scoring a lot of points only to let his teammates down by playing passively precisely when his scoring was needed the most. Presumably, after scoring at a high rate in the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals while leading Miami to back to back titles, James put all of that pass-first nonsense to rest forever during last year's NBA Finals, when he very properly jacked up shots at a rate that would make even Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant blush; the short-handed Cavaliers needed for James to shoot early and often and perhaps they could have even stolen the title if James had taken more shots during the pivotal game four when the Cavaliers were trying to seize a 3-1 lead over the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

Correctly labeling James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history does not in any way diminish his other skills, including passing. It does place his career and the careers of other great players in proper perspective, though. Magic Johnson was a pass-first player for the vast majority of his career and he only assumed a score-first role after Abdul-Jabbar was well past his prime. Jason Kidd was always a pass-first player. James, on the other hand, is going to lead his team in scoring and in shot attempts every year until his body breaks down. When James arrived in Miami, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had to accept lesser scoring roles, not the other way around. The same thing has held true for Kevin Love when he joined forces with James in Cleveland. Yes, James passes the ball to his teammates but he also makes sure that he is the team's leading scorer--and there is nothing wrong with that, just like there was nothing wrong with Jordan or Bryant filling a similar role during their respective primes. Other than Magic Johnson, there have not been many pass-first players who were the best player on a championship team. On the other hand, Abdul-Jabbar won six championships, Jordan won six championships and Bryant has won five championships. Erving won two ABA titles plus an NBA title and Barry put on tremendous scoring exhibitions in the 1967 and 1975 NBA Finals, leading the Warriors to the title 40 years ago.

The bottom line is that there are some very good passers in the 25,000 point club but there are no pass-first players in that elite fraternity--and that includes James. Maybe if James sticks around long enough to surpass Abdul-Jabbar as the sport's all-time leading scorer people will finally understand and accept this.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM


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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mel Daniels, Cornerstone of the Pacers' ABA Dynasty Years, Leaves Behind a Rich Legacy

Basketball Hall of Famer, three-time ABA champion and two-time ABA regular season MVP Mel Daniels passed away on Friday at the age of 71. Daniels won the ABA's first Rookie of the Year award in 1968 after averaging 22.2 ppg and a league-leading 15.6 rpg as a member of the Minnesota Muskies but he made his lasting mark during his six All-Star seasons with the Indiana Pacers. Daniels joined the Pacers for the 1968-69 season and he transformed them from a sub.-.500 team to an ABA Finalist. The Pacers then went 59-25 in 1970-71 en route to the first of their league-best three championships. Daniels was a force to be reckoned with in the paint at both ends of the court, providing the mental and physical toughness that all championship teams must have.

Daniels led the ABA in rebounding three times (1968-69, 71). He is the ABA's regular season career rebounding leader (9494) and he ranks sixth in pro basketball history with a regular season rebounding average of 14.9 rpg, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond. Daniels also ranks sixth in pro basketball history in playoff rpg average (14.8 rpg), behind Russell, Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Pettit and Walt Bellamy.

It is considered a big deal nowadays when a player averages 20 ppg and 10 rpg in the same season; Daniels was nearly a 20-16 player during his six Pacer seasons, averaging 19.4 ppg and 16.0 rpg with Indiana from 1969-74. Daniels clearly deserved to be a Hall of Famer years before Jerry Colangelo finally pointed the Basketball Hall of Fame in the right direction regarding the ABA and I was so happy when he received the long overdue Hall of Fame call but Daniels always deflected talk about his own great career so that he could shine some light on his teammates.

Daniels provided one of my favorite quotes about the inimitable Roger Brown, who Daniels played with on each of those Indiana championship teams: "Those who did not see Roger Brown or didn't know him, missed a treat. He was so good one-on-one that I remember defenders actually screaming for help. He actually dislocated or broke eight guys' ankles (with a) crossover dribble move. He would look at you and put the ball down and look at you again and if you made a move, he would react opposite to that move and get to the basket. Sometimes it was so easy for him, he would laugh at people and miss the layup because he was laughing."

As you can tell from reading that vivid description of Brown's playing style, Daniels had a way with words; he wrote over 20,000 poems. Daniels' favorite poet, Edgar Allan Poe, is also my favorite poet. I was very excited when I first had the opportunity to speak with Daniels more than a decade ago and learn about his perspective on basketball. When I initially contacted Daniels to discuss the ABA in general and Roger Brown in particular, I had not been a credentialed sportswriter for very long but he did a lengthy phone interview with me. He also was generous with his time one on one, face to face on multiple occasions. I miss being able to pick his brain about players old and new. I have always admired Daniels' no-nonsense approach. He spoke the truth, whether or not that made anyone uncomfortable. You never had to wonder where you stood with Mel Daniels. He looked you in the eye, gave you the firmest handshake you will ever feel in your life and he told you how things are.

Rest in peace, Big Mel, and thank you for taking the time to share your stories with me when I was just getting started in this business.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 AM


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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Has Anyone Been a Basketball Hall of Fame Presenter More Times Than Julius Erving?

In 2011, I noted that Julius Erving had been a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter five times and I wondered if he held the record. I sought confirmation from both the NBA and the Basketball Hall of Fame. The NBA replied by suggesting that I contact the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Basketball Hall of Fame answered my original inquiry by stating that their records only went back to 2001 (which is strange for an organization that is supposed to preserve and celebrate the history of the sport). The Basketball Hall of Fame informed me that from 2001-2011, Erving, Dr. Jack Ramsay and Lou Carnesecca each served four times as a presenter.

In the past four years, Erving has been a presenter three more times--twice in 2012 (for Katrina McClain and Ralph Sampson) and once in 2015 (John Calipari). During his 16 year professional career, Erving was widely recognized as basketball's "ambassador" and it speaks volumes that nearly three decades after he retired various Basketball Hall of Fame inductees still tap him to be a presenter. Popularity is fleeting but hard-earned respect is timeless and it is clear that Erving has earned respect among the sport's elite.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 AM


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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Basketball Reference Elo Ratings Reveal Extent of Fan Bias Against Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant

Ranking the greatest basketball players of all-time is a challenging and, to some extent, subjective exercise; there are so many factors and variables that it is difficult to make a completely objective evaluation, though it is possible to reasonably classify players into various broad categories such as top 10 or top 20--but even that cannot be done without controversy. My Pantheon series examines the careers of 10 of the greatest retired basketball players of all-time, plus four active players who also deserve consideration for Pantheon status. I do not dispute that the placement of players within the Pantheon can be intelligently debated, nor do I deny that a good case can be made for some players who I did not include.

Physicist Arpad Elo, a chess master who won the Wisconsin State Chess championship eight times, developed a rating system that not only ranks players but can also be used to predict the probability of victory based on the rating differences between players. The Elo rating system is most widely identified with chess, though it can and has been used for a variety of different games.

BasketballReference.com publishes so-called Elo player ratings for all NBA players who reached at least one of the following statistical levels: 10,000 points, 5000 rebounds, 2500 assists or 1000 steals plus blocked shots. BR.com assigned each qualifying player an initial rating of 1500 and then created fictional matchups between various players; visitors to BR.com can vote on who they think would win a given matchup. The matchups are generated randomly, so visitors cannot deliberately vote up (or vote down) any one particular player.

BR.com describes this project as "a community-based project with the goal of rating the best players in NBA history." Presumably, the idea is that by collecting the votes of a large number of people, bias will be smoothed out and a reasonable consensus about pro basketball greatness will be reached.

The ratings fluctuate but certain trends are consistent. Michael Jordan is usually ranked first by a fairly sizable margin and he is the only player currently rated above 2400. Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Karl Malone, John Stockton and David Robinson fill the next spots in various orders and players in that group have ratings clustered between 2300-2360. One could quibble with some of those choices--I would not put Malone or Robinson in the top 10--but Stockton is the only player who never came close to winning an MVP and who does not even belong in the top 30, let alone the top seven.

The BR.com ratings look objective superficially--each player has a four digit rating, just like chess players do!--but of course the ratings are not a product of actual competition; they are a product of fan voting, which is little more than a popularity contest. It is revealing to look at the list as a whole and see which players are so hated by the fans that the fans are unwilling or incapable of separating hate from reality.

For instance, an excellent case could be made that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest basketball player of all-time. He holds the career regular scoring record (38,387 points), he holds the record for most regular season MVPs (six), he won six championships and he was a dominant player for most of his 20 year career (winning the Finals MVP as a 23 year old and as a 37 year old). It would be very difficult to rationally argue that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not at least a top 10 player of all-time. However, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not very popular and thus in the BR.com rankings he barely cracks the top 50, trailing Ray Allen, Chris Mullin, Dikembe Mutombo and Reggie Miller, players who had a fraction of the impact that Abdul-Jabbar did.

However, by far the most ludicrous rating for an all-time great player belongs to Kobe Bryant. The last time I checked (ratings change continuously), Kobe Bryant ranked 326th out of 560 qualifying players, just behind Darrell Armstrong, David Wesley, Joe Smith and Caron Butler and just ahead of Michael Adams, Johnny Green, Kurt Thomas and Mo Williams. One can have an intelligent conversation about Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James or Kobe Bryant versus Michael Jordan; one cannot have an intelligent conversation that begins with the premise that Bryant is not just outside of the 50 Greatest Players list but that he misses the cut for the top 300! If you hate Bryant that much, then why vote? How does that vote contribute to the conversation or add value to BR.com's Elo ratings? Placing Bryant in the midst of players who were fringe All-Stars at best makes BR.com's Elo ratings look amateurish and silly.

Then there is Bill Russell; the greatest winner in the history of North American professional team sports barely makes BR.com's top 40. I don't think that fans hate Russell the way that they apparently hate Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant but I do think that fans fail to understand the nature and extent of Russell's greatness. I am baffled that Russell's accomplishments are not more widely appreciated and that so many fans denigrate his skill set, particularly as an offensive player; he scored at least 16 ppg for six straight seasons en route to posting a solid 15.1 ppg career average, he ranked in the top 10 in assists four times and he ranked in the top four in field goal percentage four times. No, Russell was not an offensive powerhouse but he was hardly a liability at that end of the court and the things that he did well offensively--run the floor, pass and rebound--would translate very well to the modern era. Furthermore, the idea that a player of Russell's size could not play post defense in today's game is belied by the success of players like Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace.

In theory, having fans vote about thousands of player simulations in order to rank the greatest players of all-time sounds like a fun idea that should produce a fair list, but in practice BR.com's Elo ratings simply reveal widespread ignorance and bias even among the subset of fans who are interested enough in analytics to visit BR.com.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM


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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Tristan Thompson Should Have Hired a Real Agent

Many media members laud LeBron James for being a shrewd businessman but it is fair to wonder how much of James' business success is the result of shrewdness and how much is just the result of possessing overwhelming leverage as the best player in the NBA. James got his way with just about everything during his first tour of duty in Cleveland not because he is so smart but because the Cavaliers were terrified that he might leave town when he became a free agent. Of course, even though the Cavaliers built a roster around him that was good enough to post the best record in the NBA in 2009 and 2010, James left anyway--and did so in a way that damaged his reputation as a player and his brand, though both his reputation and his brand largely recovered after James led the Miami Heat to championships in 2012 and 2013.

Billy Martin once said that George Steinbrenner was born on third base and thought that he had hit a triple. James was not born on third base; he came from a tough background and worked very hard to develop his basketball skills. However, James has been nationally famous since he was a teenager and he signed endorsement deals worth millions of dollars before he played one minute of NBA basketball. If he had been a total bust as a player he still would have been set for life (provided he used that money wisely) not as a result of great business acumen but simply because he cashed in on the leverage he possessed as a prized commodity.

James has used his money and influence to set up great business opportunities for his childhood friends. This shows commendable loyalty but is not necessarily a sign that James or his friends are great businessmen. One member of James' entourage, Rich Paul, is now an agent. Paul represents James' teammate Tristan Thompson, who is currently a restricted free agent. Not long ago, Paul was being praised for shrewdly advising Thompson to decline to sign a contract extension so that Thompson could cash in during free agency. Thompson played well during the 2015 NBA playoffs and increased his market value, though it must be noted that a major part of Thompson's market value is that he is represented by one of James' friends; the assumption is that the Cavaliers want to do everything possible to please James, who has made it clear that he will only commit to staying in Cleveland on a year to year basis (which maximizes James' personal leverage but is of questionable value in terms of attracting players to Cleveland long term to play with James, who may not be in Cleveland long term). The Cavaliers offered Thompson a five year, $80 million deal--an incredible contract for a bench player who has had one good (partial) season. At that point, a shrewd businessman would realize that he had maximized what he could realistically get and sign the contract. Instead, Thompson not only did not sign the deal but he threatened to sign a much smaller one year contract and test free agency next summer. The Cavaliers essentially responded, "Good luck to you" and withdrew the $80 million offer, whereupon Thompson and Paul made the apparently shocking (to them) discovery that there is not a huge market outside of Cleveland for an overpriced, offensively limited power forward who will bring with him the baggage of being de facto represented by James without the benefit of playing alongside James.

Thompson, presumably based on advice from Paul/James, has overplayed his hand and now has no leverage. Maybe everything will still work out for Thompson. Kevin Love could get hurt or James could (privately, so as not to damage his newly rebuilt brand) threaten to leave Cleveland if Thompson is not signed to a huge contract. Right now, though, it looks like being represented by Paul (James) is going to cost Thompson millions of dollars.

Supposedly, James, Chris Paul and a new wave of players will go on the warpath versus the NBA owners regarding the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. I suspect that if this happens it will turn out the way it did the last time, with the players being locked out and losing money they'll never get back until they agree to the NBA's terms. As I wrote in one of my lockout-themed articles in 2011 after Dwyane Wade supposedly bolstered his "street cred" by yelling at then-NBA Commissioner David Stern during a meeting, "On the court, I'll take Wade over Stern every day of the week but in a boardroom the matchup is just as lopsided in the other direction, something that Wade will have plenty of time to ponder as Stern and the owners refrain from paying Wade and the other players for an extended period of time."

James is more polished than Wade and has much more leverage than Wade but he will find that even his power has limits; Pat Riley and the Heat did not bow to James' every wish when James played for Miami and, at least on paper, the Heat have put together a pretty good team just one year after his departure. If James and the NBA Players Association overplay their hands versus Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA owners, James and the NBAPA may be praised by some media members but they will cost themselves and their constituents a lot of money.

James is such a global icon now that he will likely always have at least some leverage in any business deal involving him but it will be interesting to see if 20 years from now he will have parlayed that recognizability into as broad and diverse a portfolio as Magic Johnson, let alone enjoy the post-basketball business success of someone like Junior Bridgeman, who has been extraordinarily successful without having a fraction of the worldwide fame that James enjoys.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 PM


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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kobe Bryant Quotes Provide Insight Into His Basketball Philosophy

When Kobe Bryant turned 37 a couple months ago, ESPN posted a list of 37 quotes from Bryant over the years. A few of those quotes are worth examining in greater depth.

Bryant is often accused of shooting too much but he is unfazed by that criticism: 

I've shot too much from the time I was 8 years old. But 'too much' is a matter of perspective. Some people thought Mozart had too many notes in his compositions. Let me put it this way: I entertain people who say I shoot too much. I find it very interesting. Going back to Mozart, he responded to critics by saying there were neither too many notes or too few. There were as many as necessary.

Here is another quote from Bryant about supposedly shooting too much:

I would go 0-for-30 [from the floor] before I would go 0-for-9. 0-for-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game...The only reason is because you've just now lost confidence in yourself.

ESPN is well acquainted with the critique that Bryant shoots too much, since ESPN's Mike Wilbon frequently attacks Bryant on this basis--and Wilbon's facts are usually as off-base as his feeble attempts at basketball analysis. Regarding great players, I agree with Bryant's philosophy that such players should never go 0-9 from the field; a great player must have the confidence that if he misses nine shots in a row he is about to make nine shots in a row. Michael Jordan is lauded for having that high degree of self-confidence and it is odd that Bryant is bashed for having a similar belief in his abilities.


Speaking of ESPN, Bryant was unfazed before last season when the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader" ranked him as the 40th best player in the NBA:

I've known for a long time they're a bunch of idiots...I tend to use things as motivation that tend to be in the realm of reality.

ESPN's basketball rankings are pretty predictable: Bryant will always be ranked lower than he should be, while players who never have won anything of substance and probably never will win anything of substance will be praised for their unselfishness and how much their teammates supposedly love them. The reality is that, prior to the 2014-15 season, Bryant should not have been listed as the 40th best player in the NBA; during his last full season (2012-13), he was a legit top five player/MVP candidate, so upon coming back from injury he should have either been still considered a top five player until proven otherwise or else he should have not been ranked at all due to his prolonged absence from the court. It made no sense to arbitrarily rank him 40th--except for the fact that by doing so ESPN generated a lot of clicks for their website and a lot of bantering opportunities for their talking/screaming heads, like Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith.


Bryant learned from an early age to not be intimidated:

The last time I was intimidated was when I was 6 years old in karate class. I was an orange belt and the instructor ordered me to fight a black belt who was a couple years older and a lot bigger. I was scared s---less. I mean, I was terrified and he kicked my [butt]. But then I realized he didn't kick my [butt] as bad as I thought he was going to and that there was nothing really to be afraid of. That was around the time I realized that intimidation didn't really exist if you're in the right frame of mind...

That is a good life lesson in general. One of the best things my Dad ever taught me was that no matter how scary a bully might seem the bully is actually more scared than the kids he bullies and that if you stand up to him he will respect you and leave you alone. Once you learn to not be intimidated mentally, emotionally or physically (the latter was the toughest one for me but my Dad helped me figure it out) you open up a whole vista of possibilities--including the reality that many people are easily intimidated, a piece of knowledge that is very useful during any kind of competition and something that Bryant applies to good effect.


Not everyone learns the lesson about being strong in the face of intimidation. If you are scared and/or soft, Bryant does not want to play with you:

There's certain players that I've made cry. If I can make you cry by being sarcastic, then I really don't want to play with you in the playoffs.

Jordan is commended for being this way, while Bryant is criticized for being this way. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith quotes Horace Grant saying that if you were scared during practice Jordan would put a saddle on you and ride you right out of town. Jordan attacked his teammates during practice--both verbally and, at times, physically (ask Steve Kerr)--to see how they would respond under duress because he did not want to battle the "Bad Boys" Pistons at playoff time with a bunch of soft dudes who were scared or soft. That is not "nice" and it is not the only way to be a leader (Julius Erving and Tim Duncan are two championship-winning superstars who led/lead in a completely different way) but if the sports media world is going to canonize Jordan for such traits then Bryant deserves the same treatment; if we are in a kinder, gentler era in which such conduct is no longer cool then Jordan's reputation should be reevaluated as well.


Some players thought that they could get Bryant off of his game by talking smack to him. That did not work out very well for those players:

Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out.

This quote refers to J.R. Smith, who then played for the Denver Nuggets, yapping at Bryant during a 2008 playoff game. Here is my recap of what happened: Unstoppable: Kobe Drops 49 as Lakers Smash Nuggets, 122-107. Bryant's raw numbers that game were 49 points, 10 assists, 18-27 field goal shooting. The "leopard" reappeared in the 2009 playoffs after Ron Artest, who then played for the Houston Rockets, verbally and physically confronted Bryant; that time, Bryant dropped 31 points on 14-23 field goal shooting in a 102-96 Lakers win.

Although my default preference is for athletes--like Julius Erving and Bjorn Borg--who let their performances speak for themselves, I have also enjoyed the exploits of athletes like Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson who talked big but fully backed up what they said. However, I believe it was Chris Mullin who said that if you talk a lot but cannot play then you are just a chump. I love it when a player like Bryant shuts up a chump like J.R. Smith. Smith is a good player--anyone who makes it to the NBA is a good player--but he has no business talking smack to a great player like Bryant. 


After Bryant poured in 44 points on 34 field goal attempts in just 31 minutes as his overmatched L.A. Lakers lost 136-115 to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors he was unapologetic about shooting so much:

I'd rather not have to do that, but you can't sit back and watch crime happen in front of you.

I love this quote because it captures so many truths about Bryant, about basketball and about the bizarre double standard applied against Bryant.

One, most of the media coverage of that game stated directly or at least implied that Bryant played inefficiently and/or selfishly, so it is worth noting that 44 points on 34 shots is very efficient. For years, Doug Collins has mentioned that the standard for good defense against a great player is to hold him to a point per shot; in this case, Bryant well exceeded that mark despite playing alongside no credible offensive threats and despite facing a dominant team that won 67 regular season games en route to capturing the championship.

Two, some people may scoff at the idea that Bryant does not want to shoot 34 times but he was the primary playmaker on five championship teams so he is a willing and capable passer when he has teammates who can do something with the ball.

Three, instead of just quitting and accepting inevitable defeat, Bryant fought the basketball "crime" being committed in front of him by doing everything he could to compete against a clearly superior team. As Phil Jackson used to say (borrowing a line from his teammate "Super" John Williamson), "Go down as you live." I would much rather be in a foxhole with someone who fights to the end as opposed to someone who whines or makes excuses or just quits.


During his third season with the Miami Heat, LeBron James declared that the Lakers would never receive the scrutiny that the Heat did. Bryant was unimpressed by James' complaint:

What does it matter? What does he want, a cookie for that?

This quote reveals so much about the difference between Bryant and James. Bryant focuses on results, on what he and his teammates need to do to win games and championships. Bryant does not care about hype and he does not care what people think of him as long as he is doing his job. James craves the spotlight but only if it is shining on him positively. In Miami, James belatedly learned that he needed to accept and embrace the challenge of being the best player on the court and this self-awareness resulted in winning two championships--but Bryant figured this out from the start.


For a time during the early 2000s, a legitimate debate could be held about Kobe Bryant versus Tracy McGrady, but Bryant did not think that the debate was particularly legitimate:

I played T-Mac. I cooked him. Roasted him. Wasn't even close. Ask him, he'll tell you. When I was about 20, we were in Germany doing some promotional stuff for that other sneaker company and we played basketball every day. We were in the gym all the time. We played three games of 1-on-1 to 11. I won all three games. One game I won 11-2. After the third game he said he had back spasms and couldn't play anymore.

Of course, a few one on one games played during the players' formative years do not prove who was the better player in a five on five context but it is interesting that Bryant took the challenge so seriously and remembered the outcome so vividly. This is reminiscent of how Jordan viewed the 1992 NBA Finals not just as Chicago versus Portland but also a one on one showdown to determine who was the best shooting guard in the NBA.


This quote sums up Bryant's focus, determination and work ethic:

I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena.

Nothing more needs to be said.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:39 PM


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Friday, October 09, 2015

2015-16 Western Conference Preview

Perennial Western Conference contenders San Antonio and Oklahoma City both fell short of expectations last season. For most of the 2014-15 campaign, the Spurs seemed on track to mount a strong title defense but Coach Gregg Popovich's strategic resting of key players backfired as San Antonio ended up with the fifth seed despite finishing just one game out of second place in the conference. Instead of hosting a first round series against the vulnerable Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs lost a tough seven game heavyweight clash with the L.A. Clippers. I will never buy into the idea that regular season games do not matter; Phil Jackson never bought into that theory--leading the Bulls to 72 and 69 wins in back to back seasons and winning at least 65 games on three other occasions en route to capturing a record 11 NBA championships as a coach--and neither does Bill Belichick of the four-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Thunder did not voluntarily surrender any games but significant injuries to several key players resulted in Oklahoma City missing the postseason on the basis of losing a tiebreak to the New Orleans Pelicans. Both teams have reloaded and figure to once again be serious championship contenders.

With San Antonio and Oklahoma City out of the way and the L.A. Lakers punching a Draft Lottery ticket early in the season, it was inevitable that new blood would represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals for just the third time since 1998. The Golden State Warriors, owners of a league-best 67-15 record, filled that void very adroitly. Contrary to popular belief, the Warriors did not vindicate small-ball or analytics or Mike D'Antoni's philosophy as much as they reaffirmed the truth that NBA championship teams are almost always very good defensively in addition to having some kind of offensive system that fits their personnel. The Warriors do not have a dominant scorer in the paint but they use dribble penetration and ball movement to collapse the defense and they have an armada of three point shooters who punish slow or non-existent defensive rotations. D'Antoni's formula has never included defense, which is why his teams never won a title and why other run and gun outfits that ignored defense also fell short of the ultimate prize.

If all three of those teams stay healthy throughout the 2015-16 season we could see one of the most intriguing battles for conference supremacy ever, as a defending league champion battles against the previous league champion and a team with the league's best 1-2 punch. This could be a real treat!

Of course, several other teams expect or at least hope to be in the mix, including the Clippers, Rockets and Grizzlies.

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

1) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs' dynastic run that started in the late 1990s and continues until the present day began with the pairing of an aging former MVP big man (David Robinson) with a young, upcoming big man (Tim Duncan). Robinson displayed a lot of grace and class with the way that he accepted a lesser role for the betterment of the team as the Spurs won two championships (1999, 2003) with a Twin Towers system. Duncan then led the Spurs to three more championships sans Robinson (2005, 2007, 2014) while surrounded by two future Hall of Famers (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) plus a variety of solid role players. Kawhi Leonard emerged as the Finals MVP for the 2014 championship team and he has established himself as the third member of the Spurs' Big Three (along with Duncan and Parker) as Ginobili has transitioned from All-Star to role player in the past few years.

Now the Big Three is a Big Four, as the Spurs made their most significant free agent move of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, signing Portland's four-time All-Star/three-time All-NBA selection LaMarcus Aldridge to a four year contract. The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge brings Duncan's career full circle and Duncan will surely embrace the role of second big man to Aldridge the same way that Robinson did with Duncan. Aldridge is not the defender that Robinson was or Duncan is but Aldridge provides the Spurs with their best, most consistent and most versatile scoring option since Duncan was in his MVP-caliber prime more than a decade ago.

If the Spurs stay healthy and do not sabotage their playoff seeding by taking too many games off, they will be the best team in the NBA.

2) Golden State Warriors: The Warriors will not likely approach their 2014-15 regular season win total but they will once again be serious championship contenders. Coach Steve Kerr's back issues are a legitimate cause for concern to some extent but even if he has to miss the whole season (which is not expected to be the case) there is some precedent for a contending team to replace a coach and keep right on rolling. Remember how Pat Riley originally got the Lakers' job? Jack McKinney almost died in a bicycle accident, his assistant coach Paul Westhead won one championship before clashing with Magic Johnson and suddenly Riley--a broadcaster turned assistant coach--was at the helm of one of the sport's great dynasties.

Many people will focus on Golden State's small lineups and large number of three pointers attempted but what interests me is watching the Warriors play defense this season. Will they continue to work hard at that end of the court or will they rest on their laurels? Defense is what separated the 2014-15 Warriors from previous teams that ran, gunned--and failed to win a title.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: When healthy, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are clearly the best 1-2 punch in the NBA. If Westbrook had been healthy enough to play in just a few more games last season then he would have pushed, pulled and dragged an injury-depleted Thunder into the playoffs in the tough Western Conference and quite possibly added an MVP award to his scoring title. If Durant returns to form and Westbrook remains healthy, the Thunder will give opponents the business and exact some revenge against teams that enjoyed beating the depleted Thunder last year.

I am skeptical about Billy Donovan as an NBA coach, for the same reason that I am skeptical of most coaches who try to jump from the NCAA to the NBA: the NBA game is much more sophisticated than the college game. Donovan would be wise to lean heavily on his staff (including former NBA head coaches Maurice Cheeks and Monty Williams), much like NBA rookie David Blatt did last season (most memorably when assistant Tyronn Lue prevented Blatt from calling a timeout that his team did not have at a crucial moment in a playoff game).

Nevertheless, much like the Cavs made it to the NBA Finals while Blatt learned on the job, I do not think that Donovan's inexperience will prevent the Thunder from advancing in the playoffs if their core players are healthy.

4) L.A. Clippers: It would be tempting to give up on the Clippers as viable championship contenders after they blew a 3-1 lead against a not ready for prime time Houston team that promptly got waxed by Golden State but there is precedent for teams enduring painful setbacks before taking the next step. In 1981, the 76ers blew a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals only to beat Boston in seven games in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The mid-80s Pistons suffered repeatedly against Boston before breaking through to win two titles. Similarly, the late-80s Bulls had to go through the Pistons before starting their dynasty.

Mind you, I do not think that the Clippers are as talented and tough as any of those teams--but it is possible for a team to overcome a tough loss to reach greater heights.

The Clippers' problem, though, is not so much forgetting about last year as dealing with some harsh present realities. Chris Paul is a great player but he is also overrated and declining; there is just so much that a barely 6-0 point guard can do and the idea that he is a legit MVP candidate stretches credulity. He is not the best player on his team and he will never be the best player on a championship team. Paul monopolizes the ball; it is supposedly harmful when one player shoots a lot but not harmful when one player dribbles a lot but the reality is that if one player shoots a lot AND scores a lot then he will tilt the defense in a way that opens up opportunities for his teammates even if he is not racking up assists. What Paul does is hold on to the ball until he wants to get rid of it, making everyone dependent on him. An even bigger problem, pardon the pun, is that the diminutive Paul annually gets worn down during the playoffs as teams punish him physically. How many times do so-called experts have to see this happen before they realize it is not a fluke?

Blake Griffin is the Clippers' best player. The Clippers need him to not just put up numbers but to control the flow of the game and the flow of a series.

Newly acquired Paul Pierce is well past his time but he fit in well as a role player for Washington last season and, if the Clippers are going to make it to the NBA Finals then they will need for him to play a Bob McAdoo/Mark Aguirre kind of role.

I greatly respect Doc Rivers' coaching ability but it should be noted that his Clippers have more talent and experience than the Clippers had under his predecessor Vinny Del Negro but they have yet to advance further in the playoffs than Del Negro 2012 team did.

5) Houston Rockets: I do not believe in luck regarding games of skill but the Rockets were lucky last season. The Rockets were fifth in the West in point differential and seventh overall--a reliable predictor of success--yet they finished second in the West during the regular season and improbably overcame a 3-1 deficit versus the L.A. Clippers to earn the right to get waxed by Golden State in the Western Conference Finals.

During Daryl Morey's eight years as Houston's General Manager, the team has missed the playoffs three times and advanced past the first round just twice. If his use of "advanced basketball statistics" is going to translate into some kind of tangible, real world advantage we may not see any evidence of this until he is well into his second decade at the helm.

As I have indicated before, I do not think that Morey is a bad executive but I think that he blew into town with too much hype and too many expectations that have yet to be fulfilled. James Harden has become the poster child for "Morey ball" but what Harden actually represents is what happens when a very good player is given the opportunity to monopolize the ball; each NBA team probably has two players who could average 20-plus ppg if given the requisite minutes/shot attempts/freedom. The ability to average 20-plus ppg means something and I do not think that anyone can do it but I also reject the notion that a player's value can be determined based purely on numbers.

There are some tangible and intangible factors that prevent Harden from being as valuable as some people claim that he is. One tangible missing factor is defense: Harden is still bad at it, despite all of the hype about his improvement. Morey wisely surrounded Harden with good to excellent defenders and that is why Houston's overall defense does not suffer even though Harden's defense is poor. The intangible missing factors showed up in Oklahoma City when he disappeared in the 2012 Finals despite only being the third option on offense and they showed up again during key moments of the 2015 postseason, as I documented.

How far the Rockets go will largely be determined by Dwight Howard's health and effectiveness; it is no coincidence that the Rockets' playoff run coincided with his late season return to action.

6) Memphis Grizzlies: One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. The Grizzlies lack consistent outside shooting, which means that even though they can physically pound some teams during the regular season their big men will have no room to operate during the playoffs. Memphis may finish higher than sixth in the standings but in four of the past five seasons the Grizzlies have exited the playoffs no later than the second round and that trend figures to continue.

7) New Orleans Pelicans: The "advanced basketball statistics" say that Anthony Davis is already a historically great player. The box score numbers and the eye test also speak highly of Davis. I did not expect Davis' offensive game to blossom to the extent that it has but his ceiling is higher than I anticipated and I think it is reasonable to believe/predict that he will not only put up gaudy individual numbers but that he will figure out how to translate statistical dominance into greater team success.

8) Utah Jazz: Utah started slowly in 2014-15 but went 19-10 after the All-Star break. Sometimes such numbers can be deceptive because teams are tanking or resting players for the playoffs but the Jazz' run was based on improved defense and that formula should be sustainable. The Jazz are far from being a championship contender but seizing the final playoff berth is a very attainable goal.

The Dallas Mavericks have reached the playoffs in 14 of the past 15 seasons but the Deandre Jordan fiasco will probably be too much to overcome. I am not at all convinced that Deron Williams will rejuvenate his career and I think that Tyson Chandler's defensive presence will be hard to replace.

The Sacramento Kings have an intriguing talent mixture and Coach George Karl is known for getting the most out of teams with disparate personalities but there is a little too much volatility in the organization for this team to earn a playoff berth.

If Kobe Bryant were five years younger, he could lead this ragtag Lakers team to the playoffs. When Bryant was healthy and his legs were a bit springier he did not need much help to at least qualify for the postseason, as he demonstrated in 2006 and 2007 (the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker era).

Even now, Bryant could possibly push, pull and carry the Lakers to close to a .500 record in the first portion of the season but his body will not likely withstand that kind of workload over 82 games. If the Lakers can generate enough production from the rest of the roster without demanding more than 30 mpg from Bryant then the Lakers could be a dark horse playoff contender.

As for all of the commentary about how no one wants to play with Bryant and how the Lakers would be better off without him, let's be real. Most, if not all, of the only people who have complained on the record about playing with Bryant are lazy and/or soft; Bryant would not want them as teammates, anyway, and they did not do much before or after playing with Bryant.

The issue is not who Bryant is/what Bryant represents but rather that he is old and his body is breaking down. How happy were the Wizards to play alongside an old Michael Jordan who still barked at them like he barked at his teammates during his prime but who could not play at an MVP level for four quarters on a nightly basis?

Regarding the assertion that the Lakers would be better without Bryant, the Lakers stink without Bryant, point blank. Injuries have limited Bryant to 41 games in the past two seasons and the Lakers have been horrible. The last season that Bryant was healthy (2012-13), the team went through three head coaches, Pau Gasol missed 33 games, Steve Nash missed 32 games, Dwight Howard was hobbled by injuries and Bryant carried the Lakers to the playoffs while averaging 27.3 ppg and finishing fifth in the MVP race. Yes, even at that time Bryant had lost some bounce physically but he more than made up for it mentally--and if he can keep his body together there is little doubt that he can play at an MVP level, albeit probably only for 30 mpg and with some days off for recovery.



I correctly picked seven of the eight 2015 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2015 Total: 64/80 (.800)

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:07 AM


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