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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Blazers Shoot Down Rockets Despite Westbrook's Triple Double

Portland defeated Houston 117-107 on Wednesday night despite Russell Westbrook erupting for 31 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds and just one turnover while shooting 11-22 from the field. Westbrook had a +1 plus/minus number in 42 minutes, which means that the Rockets were outscored by 11 points during the six minutes that he rested. Damian Lillard led Portland with 25 points on 8-20 field goal shooting while contributing seven rebounds and seven assists; he had a +4 plus/minus number in 38 minutes. Lillard is having an All-Star caliber season but his Blazers are a sub.-500 team and if it was not obvious before then it should be obvious now that Lillard is not an MVP level player who can just carry a team without a lot of help. C.J. McCollum, Lillard's excellent backcourt mate, scored 24 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, and had a +11 plus/minus number (second best on his team behind only Kent Bazemore's +14 in 32 minutes) in 38 minutes.
 
Carmelo Anthony scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, exacting a measure of revenge against the team that released him after just 10 games played last season. He shot 7-10 from the field, and he had a +4 plus/minus number in 34 minutes, which means that the Blazers were +6 in the 14 minutes that he did not play, but there is no doubt that Anthony played aggressively and effectively. Anthony hurt Houston in the post, though it is odd that the Rockets did not double team Anthony, a reluctant passer who had just one assist. Perhaps this is a reflection of Houston's general philosophy that post up plays are not efficient; that may be true in a broad sense, but Carmelo Anthony posting up one on one against a smaller player is an efficient play even at this advanced stage of Anthony's career.

Anthony is averaging 16.3 ppg (third on the team) on .441 field goal shooting in 27 games with the Blazers after sitting out most of last season. He may have a little bit more left in the tank as a scorer than it seemed like he did last year, but the reality is that Portland was awful before he arrived (5-9) and still subpar after he arrived (12-15 when he has played, 1-0 in the one game that he missed). Anthony can score in the post against smaller, physically overmatched players, and he can sporadically hit spot up jumpers, but those skills do not make up for his deficits in other areas. If Anthony wanted to prove that he is still an NBA caliber player then he has done so, but he has also shown that he is no better than a third wheel on a non-playoff team, as opposed to being an All-Star. It would be interesting to see if Anthony would be willing to accept a bench role on a playoff team, because it is difficult to picture him being a starter for a playoff team--certainly not for a playoff team that has any plans of advancing past the first round.

As for Houston, Westbrook has scored at least 20 points in each of his last 15 games, and even after this loss the Rockets are 11-4 in those contests, a .733 winning percentage that is equivalent to a 60-22 record over 82 games. The Rockets are just 3-3 without Westbrook this season, and they are 23-11 with him, a 56 win pace over 82 games. Westbrook has seven triple doubles this season, and the Rockets are 5-2 in those games. This was his 41st career 30 point triple double, second all-time, and his teams are 29-12 in those games, equivalent to a 58-24 record over 82 games; Oscar Robertson holds the record for 30 point triple doubles with 116, and his teams went 82-34 in those games, also equivalent to a 58-24 record over 82 games.

Westbrook has had a significant positive impact on the Rockets in his first season with the team. Westbrook's rebounding has helped Houston improve vastly in that department. Last season, the Rockets' rebounding differential of -3.4 ranked 27th in the league, but this season the Rockets rank 10th with a 1.1 rebounding differential. Westbrook is the team's second leading rebounder (7.7 rpg). The Rockets are significantly more productive offensively (119.0 ppg, second in the league) than they were last season (113.9 ppg, 11th in the league), and thus even with their perpetually leaky defense they still have a slightly better point differential this season than last season (5.1 compared to 4.8). Jeff Van Gundy pointed out during the ESPN telecast that Westbrook has added an open court dynamic that the Rockets did not have before.

James Harden scored a season-low 13 points, shooting 3-12 from the field and posting a -11 plus/minus number, tied for game-worst "honors" with teammate Eric Gordon. As is often the case, teams that are not whistled for an excessive amount of fouls against Harden--he shot 6-8 from the free throw line--are able to contain him. The main reasons that Harden is often tough to guard are that he is allowed to travel/commit offensive fouls, and then opposing players are whistled for phantom fouls if they even breathe on him.

Harden may very well set the "non-Wilt Chamberlain" single season scoring average record this season, but his gaudy individual numbers do not have as much impact on winning as is widely assumed, a truth that is painfully revealed to Houston fans on an annual basis in the playoffs. The Rockets could actually be a title contender if they used Westbrook appropriately on a consistent basis, but halfway through the season it appears that they will only fully utilize Westbrook sporadically, and thus they are likely heading toward a first round or second round playoff exit.

As for Lillard and the Blazers, the media darlings of last year's playoffs may not even qualify for postseason play in 2020. I suppose that being the third leading scorer on a non-playoff team is a better way for Anthony to end his career than being cut and not being picked up by any other team, but the fact that Anthony is willing and able to play this role for this team in 2020 does not prove that Oklahoma City and Houston were wrong to conclude that he could not help their squads when they let him go.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM

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Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Rockets Overcome 33 Empty James Harden Possessions to Beat Woeful Hawks, 122-115

Most headlines about Houston's 122-155 win versus Atlanta tonight will be some variation of "Harden Posts 40 Point Triple Double as Houston Wins Without Westbrook." Such a headline is factually accurate--Harden finished with 41 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists while his backcourt mate Russell Westbrook did not play--but it does not convey the full truth about the game.

Harden shot 9-34 from the field--including 4-20 from three point range--and he committed a game-high eight turnovers. Do the math: Harden accounted for 33 empty possessions (and I am giving him a deserved pass for his four missed free throws, because he shot 19-23 from the free throw line overall).

From an analytics standpoint, Harden had an "efficient" shooting performance: 41 points on 34 field goal attempts. However, this is not efficient from any rational evaluation of basketball as a team sport. Atlanta is a lousy team that is very poor defensively. Houston is not going to win many playoff games during which Harden's bricklaying and reckless ballhandling squander more than a fourth of the team's possessions; good teams will make him work harder to get open shots, and good teams will not waste so many of the extra possessions that Harden coughs up.

Plus/minus numbers can be noisy, and this is particularly true in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that in a game that Harden's squad won by seven against a poor team he posted a -3 plus/minus number, third-worst among the eight Rockets who played versus the Hawks.

Of course, the popular narrative--which is now receiving more fuel from Oklahoma City's temporary, relative success with former Rocket Chris Paul (let's see Paul make it through a full healthy season before he is again anointed as the "point god")--is that Westbrook allegedly does not contribute much to winning, while Harden supposedly rivals Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain among the league's greatest scorers of all-time. Therefore, the headlines and game stories must conform to the narrative.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:35 PM

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Thursday, January 02, 2020

David Stern Played a Pivotal Role in Creating the Modern NBA--and Modern Sports

David Stern, who just passed away at the age of 77, served as NBA Commissioner from 1984 until 2014. When Stern first took office, the NBA was a 23 team league that was struggling to convince broadcast TV networks to televise its showcase event--the NBA Finals--live as opposed to on tape delay. Cable TV was in its infancy, and global marketing of the NBA was just a pipe dream. Women's professional basketball did not exist in any meaningful, stable way, American professional basketball players were not permitted to participate in the Olympics, and the notion that a significant number of foreign-born players would become NBA All-Stars would have been deemed absurd had anyone dared to utter such a thought.

Stern is not the only reason that the NBA expanded to 30 teams, that the NBA Finals became a global spectacle, that TV revenues enriched the league, owners, and players beyond their wildest dreams, that the NBA became a global sport rivaling soccer, that women's professional basketball achieved some measure of stability, that the 1992 Dream Team inspired basketball players around the world, and that many foreign-born players became NBA icons--but Stern played a major role in each of those radical changes.

Stern is without question the greatest and most influential commissioner in NBA history. A strong case could be made that he is the greatest and most influential commissioner in sports history.

One of the best aspects of Stern's leadership of the NBA was his consistent willingness to take a strong stand on an issue, and deal with any criticism that followed. After the so-called Malice in the Palace, Stern did not wait to see which way the public relations winds would blow; he suspended Ron Artest for the remainder of the 2004-05 season, and he suspended several other NBA players for their roles in the melee. Asked if he had taken a vote before issuing these decisions, Stern tersely replied, "It was unanimous, one to none."

There are many other examples of Stern's decisiveness; here are three articles that I wrote about such situations:

Stern Justice: Carmelo Anthony Suspended for 15 Games (2006): In the wake of a Madison Square Garden brawl between the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, Stern fined each team $500,000 and suspended seven players for a total of 47 games, with Carmelo Anthony "leading" the way with a 15 game suspension. After reading a prepared statement about the suspensions to the media, Stern added these comments: "We're going to go after the players who aren't able to stop. We have set up the goal of eliminating fighting from our game. Clearly, we're not getting through, or players in certain circumstances just don't want to be restrained. I would suggest that those players will not have long careers in the NBA. What happened Saturday night will stop because that is not what we're about."

Pundits React to Crawford Suspension (2007): When respected referees Jake O'Donnell and Joey Crawford damaged the NBA by acting like they were bigger than the game, Stern stepped in and swiftly reminded them--and anyone thinking of following in their footsteps--that they were not bigger than the game, and that no one would get away with such conduct under Stern's watch.
 
David Stern Swiftly and Decisively Responds to Gilbert Arenas' Foolishness (2010): I never understood how/why Gilbert Arenas became a media darling, but after Arenas brought guns into the locker room Stern suspended Arenas indefinitely and declared that Arenas "is not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game."

In contrast, as I noted almost three years ago in an article titled The NBA Shamefully Devalues Its Product, the oft-praised Adam Silver has a long way to go to match the bold leadership displayed by David Stern on a wide range of issues, including but not limited to the "load management" plague that is growing in popularity; Stern at least stemmed the tide in that regard, but Silver has always vocally supported "load management," and Silver has done little to stop this odious practice.

It should also be noted that Stern presided over four lockouts (1995, 1996, 1998-99, 2011), two of which (1998-99, 2011) resulted in the first work stoppages in NBA history. Stern has often been criticized for not preventing those work stoppages, but I was one of the few commentators who praised Stern's handing of those labor disputes. History has proven Stern right: both the owners and the players have benefited enormously from the various collective bargaining agreements that were signed after the lockouts. Stern brilliantly balanced his fiduciary duty to the team owners (his employers) with his goal of helping the league generate more revenue overall. 

Stern's record is not perfect, but no one's record is perfect. As I wrote after Stern announced his retirement as NBA Commissioner, Stern's NBA "should have acted much more swiftly and much more generously to take care of retired players in general and and the "Pre-1965ers" in particular. Stern's NBA also should have clearly and unequivocally included ABA statistics in the pro basketball record book." Those failures are not insignificant, and it would be wonderful if Adam Silver would take the lead regarding both issues; it also would be wonderful if any media members had sufficient knowledge and courage to challenge Silver to take action, as opposed to continuously writing public love letters to Silver while trying to diminish Stern's accomplishments.

The great baseball manager Sparky Anderson once said that he would not embarrass any catcher by comparing him to the incomparable Johnny Bench. Something similar could be said about comparing Stern to other sports commissioners.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Notes About the 2019 Christmas Day Quintupleheader

The Christmas Day quintupleheader enables hoops junkies to see a third of the league in action during a span of 12 hours or so. Both of last year's Finalists competed, though of course the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors look a lot different than they did just a few months ago. We also observed a young and hungry Boston squad, a deep Philadelphia team, the reigning (and future) MVP, a preview of the James Harden Playoff Show, Part II of the Battle of L.A., and a flat performance by the Denver Nuggets, who still have the second best record in the Western Conference even after losing to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Game One: Boston Celtics 118, Toronto Raptors 102

1) Before the season began, I picked Boston to be the third best team in the Eastern Conference, and Toronto to be the sixth best team in the Eastern Conference. Entering this game, Boston had the second best record in the Eastern Conference (20-7), and Toronto had the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference (21-9), but teams two through six were only separated by 1.5 games. After this game, the 21-7 Celtics are three games better than they were last season after 28 games (18-10), while the 21-10 Raptors are two games worse than they were last season after 31 games (23-8).

Milwaukee is the class of the East--five games ahead of the pack before the Christmas Day games--while the seventh seeded Brooklyn Nets began Christmas Day four games behind the sixth seed. So, with almost two thirds of the season to go it is too soon to say how the Boston-Toronto-Miami-Philadelphia-Indiana jumble will sort out for seeds two through six.

The Celtics lack size, but their chemistry and overall health is better than it was last season. The Raptors miss Kawhi Leonard, but the team is well-run, well-coached, and still has most of the players who made key contributions en route to winning the 2018 championship. The Heat play hard, and they are benefiting from the addition of Jimmy Butler. The 76ers may have the most talented starting lineup in the league, but they lack mental toughness, as can be seen when they repeatedly fold down the stretch; they miss Jimmy Butler, because neither Joel Embiid nor Ben Simmons have demonstrated the ability to consistently perform well in the fourth quarters of close games. The Pacers have hung tough without the injured Victor Oladipo, and it will be interesting to see just how good they can be after he returns.

2) Toronto jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter lead versus Boston, but that success was not sustainable for the short-handed Raptors, who did not have the services of the injured Pascal Siakam, who won the Most Improved Player award last season, and is a serious contender to win the award this season. Siakam is averaging 25.1 ppg this season after averaging 4.2 ppg, 7.3 ppg and 16.9 ppg in the first three seasons of his career. Starting center Marc Gasol and Norman Powell (who has started 16 of his 27 games played this season) also sat out due to injury.

Game Two: Philadelphia 76ers 121, Milwaukee Bucks 109

1) Milwaukee has been the best team in the league thus far, but they started very slowly in this game and they never recovered, trailing 38-30 after the first quarter, and falling behind by 21 points, 69-48, by halftime. Joel Embiid had a tremendous first half (23 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, plus seven rebounds and three assists). Ben Simmons had six points and eight assists in the first half. The 76ers shot 11-22 from three point range in the first half, and that is an anomaly--the most three pointers that they have made in a half this season. The 76ers finished with 21 three pointers made, tying the franchise's single game record. This season the 76ers rank just 24th in the league in three pointers made, though they are ninth in three point field goal percentage. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo produced 10 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the first half, but he shot just 4-14 from the field.

2) The 76ers led 100-73 by the end of the third quarter. The Bucks did not seriously threaten for most of the second half, although they made a late burst that resulted in a deceptively close final score. Embiid finished with 31 points on 11-21 field goal shooting, plus 11 rebounds and three assists. Simmons added 15 points, 14 assists, and seven rebounds. All five Philadelphia starters scored in double figures, and Furkan Korkmaz added 16 points off of the bench. Antetokoumpo had a subpar game by his standards: 18 points on 8-27 field goal shooting, 14 rebounds, seven assists. Khris Middleton led Milwaukee with 31 points, tying Embiid for game-high scoring honors.

3) The Bucks still own the league's best record, and they are on pace to go 69-13, which would rank among the best single season marks in NBA history, tying the 1972 Lakers and the 1997 Bulls, while trailing only the 2016 Warriors (73-10) and the 1996 Bulls (72-10). Was this a one game aberration for one or both of these teams, or is it a sign of things to come? It should be obvious that such a question can only be answered definitively during the playoffs, not now.

Here are some things that we know, or can at least be reasonably certain about: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league, but Joel Embiid and Al Horford can pose problems for him defensively. The Bucks are a more consistent team than the 76ers, but the 76ers have more overall talent. The 76ers are a very good team at home, but they have not proven that they can win close games down the stretch, or that they can win tough playoff games on the road.

Here are some things that we do not know: Is Antetokounmpo capable of imposing his will during an entire championship run? Is Embiid capable of staying healthy enough to lead a team to a title?

I believe that Antetokounmpo is a Pantheon-level talent, and that he is both more talented and more durable than Embiid. The 76ers are better than the Bucks on paper looking at players 2-12, but in the playoffs the superstars generally rule the day (unless they have absolutely no help), so I stand by my preseason prediction that Milwaukee will win the Eastern Conference.

Game Three: Golden State Warriors 116, Houston Rockets 104

1) Russell Westbrook played very aggressively from the start of the game, scoring a season-high 12 first quarter points on 3-10 field goal shooting while also grabbing four rebounds. His activity and energy are vital for Houston to be successful. The Rockets led 29-28 after the first quarter.

2) The Rockets led 68-64 at halftime. Westbrook had 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the first half, but he shot just 6-17 from the field. James Harden led both teams with 19 points on 7-12 field goal shooting, and he also had three rebounds and six assists. Damion Lee paced the Warriors with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

3) The Rockets lost their lead in the third quarter after suffering a scoring drought that lasted more than five minutes. Westbrook ended that run with a couple of field goals late in the quarter, but the Warriors still led 92-87 heading into the final stanza. The two-fold problem with the Rockets--and this has been true throughout the Daryl Morey/Mike D'Antoni/James Harden era--is that (1) the Rockets play a high variance offense that is prone to droughts and (2) the Rockets do not have the ability to string stops together when their offense falls off of the rails.

4) The Warriors used a 10-0 fourth quarter run to take a 106-97 lead; again, the Rockets' high variance offense is prone to droughts, and they do not have the necessary defensive mindset to overcome those droughts, even against a sub-.500 team like the Warriors. A Harden layup trimmed the margin to 106-99 at the 4:24 mark of the fourth quarter, but the Warriors sealed the deal with a 9-0 run. The Rockets lost this game during the three second half scoring droughts mentioned above.

Lee led the Warriors with 22 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. Draymond Green added 20 points and 11 rebounds, while D'Angelo Russell had 20 points.

5) The Rockets' issues predated Russell Westbrook's arrival in Houston, but, without question, the media narrative about this game will focus on Westbrook's 11-32 field goal shooting, including 0-8 from three point range. When considered in a vacuum, Westbrook should probably shoot fewer three pointers, but Houston's offense is designed to generate open three pointers, and seven of the nine Rockets who played attempted at least three pointers each. Only centers Clint Capela and Tyson Chandler did not attempt a three point shot.

Westbrook scored a game-high 30 points, and he had a team-high 12 rebounds, plus five assists. Harden posted efficient individual numbers--24 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 11 assists--yet the Rockets were outscored by 18 points during Harden's 38 minutes while they were outscored by nine points during Westbrook's 40 minutes. Westbrook had the best plus/minus number of any Rockets' starter.

The Warriors often defended the Rockets by trapping Harden just before or just after he advanced past the midcourt line. Too often, the Rockets did not efficiently exploit the resulting four on three advantage. The Rockets should be able to generate a parade of layups against such a defense, but they prefer to shoot the first open three pointer, and the Warriors tried to ensure that Westbrook was the first open three point shooter.

Harden did not attempt a free throw until the 7:59 mark of the fourth quarter. When the referees do not fall for Harden's flopping act, and the Rockets shoot poorly from three point range--16-51 in this game--the Rockets do not have an answer. Unless the Rockets change their approach--and they appear to be far too stubborn to consider doing that--look for the Rockets' last game of the playoffs to very much resemble this loss to the Warriors.

Game Four: L.A. Clippers 111, L.A. Lakers 106
 
1) The Clippers--without the injured Paul George--defeated the Lakers 112-102 on opening night, the first of four regular season meetings between these teams this season. Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in 32 minutes in that game.

George played in this game, so it was natural to expect the Clippers to win again. Leonard guarded LeBron James at the start of the game, while James conserved energy by guarding Patrick Patterson (the Clippers threw several different defenders at James during the course of the first half). Leonard scored 14 points on 6-8 field goal shooting in the first quarter, while James had two points on 0-4 field goal shooting, but Kyle Kuzma scored 15 first quarter points and the Lakers led 33-31.

2) James missed his first seven field goal attempts, one short of his personal worst 0-8 start to a 2005 game (per a statistic provided by Mike Breen during the telecast). However, James made three of his next four field goal attempts, and he finished the first half with eight points, seven rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers extended their lead to 63-51. Kuzma scored 19 first half points, and Anthony Davis added 14 points. Leonard, with 18 points, was the only Clipper with more than seven first half points.

3) The Clippers methodically chipped away at the Lakers' lead during the third quarter, and the score was tied 86-86 entering the fourth quarter. After outscoring the Lakers 35-23 in the third quarter, the Clippers outscored the Lakers 25-20 in the fourth quarter--including 10-3 in the final five minutes--to outlast the Lakers. That 60-43 second half advantage with both teams at full strength is a powerful testament to just how good the Clippers are. I hate the load management trend that Leonard has popularized, and I would not trust George as the best player on a contending team, but with Leonard leading the way bolstered by George as the second option, and a supporting cast of players who are both scrappy and talented, the Clippers look like the best team in the league.

The Clippers took the lead for good when Lou Williams stole the ball from Anthony Davis and then converted two free throws after Davis fouled Williams on a breakaway layup attempt. Those free throws put the Clippers up 105-103. Leonard scored the Clippers' next four points by making all of his free throws after drawing fouls on his former teammate Danny Green on consecutive possessions. In between Leonard's two sets of free throws, Davis hit a jump shot.

James made one out of two free throws to trim the Clippers' lead to 109-106 with 41.9 seconds left. After Williams missed a jump shot, Patrick Beverley stripped the ball away from LeBron James with before James could attempt a tying three point shot with 3.6 seconds remaining.

After the game, Lisa Salters asked Leonard what this game means for the L.A. rivalry, and Leonard replied that neither team is going to win the "L.A. championship" and that both teams have a bigger goal in mind.

Leonard can minimize the intracity rivalry as much as he wants, but it is significant that he outplayed James overall and down the stretch, leading both teams in scoring (35 points on 11-19 field goal shooting) and rebounds (12) while posting a +13 plus/minus number. Montrezl Harrell added 18 points and six rebounds. George contributed 17 points, five rebounds and three assists while playing good defense, but he shot just 5-18 from the field and he had a -8 plus/minus number in a game that his team won by five points.

Davis led the Lakers with 24 points, but he only shot 8-17 from the field--which is not good enough considering the size advantage he enjoyed over the players who guarded him--and the 6-10 Davis had just six rebounds, three fewer than the 6-1 Beverley had. James scored 23 points on 9-24 field goal shooting, but he had 10 assists and nine rebounds, and his plus/minus number was +3. Of course, down the stretch when the game was up for grabs James did not grab it, but the media narrative about the game will likely be that James does not have enough help.

Game Five: New Orleans Pelicans 112, Denver Nuggets 100
 
1) One of the main reasons that this game made it to the Christmas Day schedule is all of the hype about 2019 number one overall selection Zion Williamson, who has yet to play a regular season game for the Pelicans due to a knee injury that initially was only expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks. Now, it is not certain when or if Williamson will play this season.

It is way too soon to speculate how good Williamson might become--we do not even know if he can stay healthy enough to have a productive NBA career. Many players have shown flashes of greatness at the collegiate level that they were not able to match at the professional level.

2) The general popular perception seems to be that Denver is having a disappointing season, but even after this loss the Nuggets have the second best record in the Western Conference and are on pace to win 57 games, three more than they won last season. Did anyone realistically expect the Nuggets to be doing better than they have done thus far? Before the season, I ranked the Nuggets as the third best team in the Western Conference.

3) The Pelicans led 29-26 at the end of the first quarter, 58-55 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter. I thought that the Nuggets--riding a seven game winning streak--would wake up at some point and find a way to win, but the Pelicans finished the game in style with timely three point shots and defensive stops. The Pelicans are not a very good basketball team, but they usually play hard and they have been somewhat competitive in their recent games: the Pelicans won two of their three games prior to playing Denver, with the victories sandwiched around a four point loss to Golden State. The Denver game was their fourth straight road contest.

Analysis of Previous Christmas Day Quintupleheaders:

Several Stars Shine During Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2018)

Christmas Day Quintupleheader Recap (2012)

Comments and Notes About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2011)

Thoughts and Observations About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2010)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:18 AM

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Friday, December 20, 2019

Antetokounmpo's Bucks Make A Statement Versus the L.A. Lakers

Not all regular season games are created equal. A game that could be a Conference Finals preview or an NBA Finals preview carries a little bit more weight than other games do. Everyone knows this, even if some people try to minimize it or deny it. The Milwaukee Bucks defeated the L.A. Lakers 111-104 on Thursday night to maintain the best record in the league, 25-4. Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks in scoring (34 points on 11-19 field goal shooting), rebounds (11) and assists (seven). Anthony Davis scored a game-high 36 points (on 11-25 field goal shooting) for the Lakers, while LeBron James posted a triple double (21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) but had a -14 plus/minus number--and one cannot escape the impression that James often plays with at least one eye on his individual box score numbers, as opposed to figuring out whatever his team needs for him to do to win a particular game.

LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the two best players in the NBA right now, but they are a study in contrasts in many ways. James has been hyped--and hyped himself--as the "Chosen One"--since he was in high school, and he was the number one pick in the 2003 NBA Draft; most NBA fans had probably never heard of Antetokounmpo before the Bucks drafted him 15th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. James is a 17 year veteran who has won three championships, but he has changed teams three times to chase those rings while functioning as a de facto general manager; Antetokounmpo is a seven year veteran who has yet to play in the NBA Finals (James made it to the Finals once in his first seven seasons and his team was swept) but, so far, Antetokounmpo has shown no interest in jumping ship or in trying to build a so-called super team: instead, he has focused on improving his own game, and on bringing out the best in the teammates he has.

Many people believe that James built an unstoppable one-two punch by enticing Davis to force his way out of New Orleans, and the Lakers have looked powerful so far this season--but Antetokoumpo, with no superstar teammate, outdueled James and James' handpicked teammate.

I saw Antetokounmpo play in person for the first time earlier this year as Milwaukee beat Cleveland, and I must say that he is even more impressive in person than he is on TV (which is usually the case with great players, because there are nuances to their games that TV often does not capture). Antetokounmpo's combination of length, speed and deceptive strength make him a matchup nightmare at both ends of the court. He fully deserved to win the MVP last season, and he is even better this season. Antetokounmpo plays hard, he does not throw his coach under the bus, he lifts up his teammates, and he maintains a nice balance of playing with intensity without losing control of his emotions. He has been a very good playoff performer, but the next step for him is to elevate both his game and his team's level of play during the postseason crucible; I believe that he can and will do both of those things, but those are the next challenges for Antetokounmpo.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:47 AM

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Monday, December 16, 2019

Three-Time ABA Executive of the Year Carl Scheer Leaves Behind a Lasting Legacy in Two Leagues

Carl Scheer, a three-time ABA Executive of the Year (1973, 1975-76), passed away on Friday December 13 at the age of 82. In ABA/NBA history, only Jerry Colangelo has won more Executive of the Year awards (four) than Scheer did. Scheer hired future Hall of Famer Larry Brown for Brown's first professional head coaching job with the Carolina Cougars in 1972. In 1980, when Scheer was with the Denver Nuggets after the ABA/NBA merger, he traded for future Hall of Fame player Alex English.

Perhaps best known for his leading role in adding the Slam Dunk Contest to the ABA's 1976 All-Star Game festivities--which became the precursor for the All-Star Weekend extravaganza that now includes the Three Point Contest, the Legends Brunch, and more--Scheer had a diverse, five decade career as a sports executive during which he also was involved with minor league hockey and the construction of a sports arena in Greenville, S.C.

Scheer was not only the most decorated executive in ABA history, but he also played a major role in the inaugural season of the Charlotte Hornets in 1988-89 as the franchise's first president and general manager. Scheer selected Dell Curry for Charlotte in the expansion draft. Curry became the franchise's all-time leading scorer (a record since broken by Kemba Walker).

Scheer was a lawyer by training, and he was widely respected and admired. Harold Kaufman, the Hornets' public relations director during the expansion years, said, "Anyone talking to Carl thought they were the most important person in the world. He made you feel good about yourself. He motivated through positive reinforcement. You just didn't want to let him down."

Scheer made an immediate and lasting impact on the ABA. He won the first of his three ABA Executive of the Year awards after his Carolina Cougars posted the ABA's best regular season record (57-27) in 1972-73 before losing in the Eastern Division Finals. During the previous season as the General Manager of the Cougars, Scheer presented the game ball to Larry Miller after Miller set the ABA's single game scoring record. Scheer won back to back Executive of the Year awards in 1975-76 as his Denver Nuggets posted the second best regular season record in ABA history in 1975 (65-19) and then had a second consecutive 60 win season (60-24) before losing to Julius Erving's New York Nets in the league's last Finals.

In 1976, the ABA All-Star Game was played in Denver, and Scheer's Nuggets beat a team comprised of the best players from the rest of the league's franchises. This would prove to be the ABA's final season, and Scheer made sure that the season would never be forgotten by spicing up the All-Star festivities with the first official Slam Dunk Contest, featuring eventual winner Julius Erving facing off against David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and Larry Kenon. The footage of Erving soaring from the free throw line on his final dunk will live forever as one of the most iconic images in basketball history. The NBA tried to destroy the ABA and tear apart the league's legacy--over 40 years after the merger, the NBA still stubbornly refuses to provide official recognition to ABA statistics, in marked contrast to the NFL's official recognition of AFL statistics--but the seed that Scheer planted during the 1976 ABA All-Star Game blossomed into what has now become NBA All-Star Weekend; the NBA did not immediately embrace the concept, but when Denver hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 1984 Scheer--who was still the Nuggets' general manager--helped convince the league to hold a Slam Dunk Contest for the first time, and in the ensuing years the All-Star Weekend's side events became an essential part of the overall event. I had the privilege of covering the NBA All-Star Weekend six times (2005-2010) and I witnessed firsthand how it is a celebration of basketball's past, present and future.

Scheer was an enthusiastic innovator whose ideas and teams brought joy to many fans for several decades.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:10 PM

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Friday, December 13, 2019

Are Rebounds Fungible?

One of the misguided criticisms fired at Russell Westbrook and his many triple double records is that rebounds are fungible: in other words, Westbrook "steals" rebounds from his teammates (or his teammates willingly concede these rebounds to Westbrook) that Westbrook's team would have obtained whether or not Westbrook was on the court. If this is true, then Westbrook's individual numbers are not as significant as they would appear to be.

Last season, Westrbook led the Oklahoma City Thunder in rebounding (11.1 rpg, 10th in the league) and the team ranked second with 48.1 rpg. The Thunder ranked sixth in rebounding differential (+2.4), which means that their high rebounding totals are not just related to pace; they outrebounded their opponents on a consistent basis.

This season, Westbrook plays for the Houston Rockets. If Westbrook were "stealing" rebounds from his teammates, then one could reasonably expect that his former team's rebounding prowess would not decline much in his absence, and that the next best rebounder on his former team (Steven Adams) would increase his rebounding average. Instead, through 24 games (30% of the season) the Thunder rank 25th in rebounding (43.0 rpg) and 23rd in rebounding differential (-2.4). Adams is averaging 9.4 rpg, essentially the same as his 9.5 rpg average last season.

Meanwhile, last season the Rockets without Westbrook ranked 28th in rebounding (42.1 rpg) and 27th in rebounding differential (-3.4). This season, the Rockets with Westbrook rank third in rebounding (48.0 rpg) and ninth in rebounding differential (+1.8).

The numbers show that after losing Westbrook the Thunder went from being an elite rebounding team to being a poor rebounding team, while after adding Westbrook the Rockets went from being a poor rebounding team to being an elite rebounding team. Yes, there have been other personnel changes for both teams--particularly the Thunder, who also lost Paul George--but if rebounds were fungible and if Westbrook were really just "stealing" rebounds it is unlikely that his old team and his new team would have swapped places in terms of their rebounding rankings. Westbrook's individual rebounding numbers are down a bit (8.0 rpg), but he is still not only an exceptional rebounder from the point guard position but he is averaging more rpg than LeBron James did in 14 of his 16 full seasons. Meanwhile, Westbrook's new teammate Clint Capela is averaging a career-high 14.7 rpg. Could it be that Westbrook's energy, grit and hustle actually create more rebounding opportunities because the opposing team has to account for Westbrook's rebounding in a way that is very unusual for a point guard?

Do not expect to see these numbers or hear about these numbers in mainstream media NBA coverage, because these numbers go against the prevailing narratives about Westbrook, the Thunder, and the Rockets. Rebounding is a key factor in team success, and if it is true that Russell Westbrook has a major impact on team rebounding--as opposed to just being a supposedly selfish player who "steals" rebounds that his team would have obtained anyway--then Westbrook is much more valuable than the "stat gurus" and the media members who do not like Westbrook want you to believe. That is one of many truths that will go down basketball's Orwellian memory hole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 AM

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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Is James Harden the Greatest NBA Scorer of This Era?

It is fitting that the night after Kirk Goldsberry asserted that James Harden "is the greatest scorer of this NBA era" Harden scored 50 points on 11-38 field goal shooting in Houston's 135-133 double overtime loss to San Antonio. Harden set an NBA regular season single game record for most free throws made without a miss (24), but he missed 16 of his 20 three point field goal attempts, and no matter how you crunch/twist/torture the points per shot/points per possession numbers, this is not efficient basketball, it is not winning basketball, and it is not entertaining basketball. Based on the data available at BasketballReference.com, Harden's .289 field goal percentage is by far the worst ever posted by a player who scored at least 50 points in an NBA game, and--by a smaller margin--it is also the worst ever posted by a player who scored at least 40 points in an NBA game. Harden capped his bricklaying by committing an offensive foul on Houston's last possession of double overtime with the Rockets trailing by two points.

Goldsberry's ESPN.com article declared that Harden is "regularly inventing new fundamentals," that he has brought back "hero ball," and that he is "reforming the conventional wisdom of the modern NBA in real time." Goldsberry praises Harden's record-setting foul drawing, but it is disingenuous to do so without acknowledging the plentiful video evidence that Harden often benefits from calls that are flat out wrong: Harden travels, he initiates contact in an illegal manner but fools the referees into thinking that the defender has fouled him, and Harden has convinced referees to carve out a "landing space" for him that essentially makes it impossible to challenge Harden's shot without being whistled for a foul (which is why some frustrated defenders have resorted to guarding Harden with their hands behind their backs so that there is no way that a foul will be called against them, but of course that also enables Harden to shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make).

Goldsberry is not the first observer to make outlandish claims about Harden's greatness, and I have expressed skepticism about Harden's impact on winning and incredulity at the notion that Harden is as good of a scorer as Michael Jordan was.

Before examining yet again the flaws in Harden's game that giddy commentators ignore or do not understand, it is worth reviewing why Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were not only better scorers than Harden but also far superior all-around players. Both Jordan and Bryant had fundamentally sound and complete offensive repertoires: they could score in the post, they could finish at the hoop with either hand, they had impeccable footwork, they could score from midrange, they were excellent free throw shooters, and they could draw fouls without resorting to gimmicks and/or tricking the referees. They were both adequate three point shooters in eras during which the three point shot was not a primary offensive weapon for most teams and most players. They were also both elite defenders, and they both consistently demonstrated the ability to elevate their play--and the play of their teams--against elite competition during the playoffs. Jordan's teams went 6-0 in the NBA Finals, while Bryant's teams went 5-2 in the NBA Finals. Put Jordan or Bryant in any era, under any set of rules and/or playing conditions, and they both would have excelled; put Jordan or Bryant in this era--with no perimeter hand checking, small lineups bereft of rim protection, and an emphasis on offense over defense--and both would easily average 35-40 ppg for several years in a row.

Harden is a good three point shooter, and an excellent free throw shooter. He finishes well at the hoop. The rest of his scoring repertoire is limited. His footwork is not fundamentally sound, he is unwilling or unable to post up, and he does not have much of a midrange game. As a result of these deficiencies, Harden has to--as Charles Barkley puts it--"dribble, dribble, dribble" in order to score. While Harden is dribbling, his teammates are frozen out and the shot clock is winding down. A truly great perimeter scorer can generate a good shot by taking one or two dribbles and then either elevating directly into his shot, or else using footwork and shot fakes to get open. Harden is praised for his ability to create space, and his ability to draw fouls, but--as noted above--it is not correct to state or imply that Harden is better at drawing legitimate fouls than legends such as Jerry West, Adrian Dantley, Nate Archibald and other players who attempted a large number of free throws: Harden creates space by traveling, and a large percentage of the fouls he draws involve him pushing off, or hooking the defender's arm and then acting like the defender hooked him, or using an exaggerated follow through on his three point shots to make it appear that the defender has violated his landing space (one great meme that I saw a while back depicted Harden's landing space as being the same size as the area used by an Olympic long jumper, because Harden will jump forward, backward or sideways depending on the situation--no one can seriously argue that Harden's follow through is a legitimate or normal basketball move, or that the landing space that referees protect for him makes sense within the letter or spirit of the rule).

From a statistical and analytical/strategic standpoint, what Harden is doing is eliminating virtually any shot from his repertoire other than point blank field goal attempts (layups/dunks), free throw attempts, and three point attempts. By playing this way, Harden's numbers are "efficient" even when he shoots a horrible field goal percentage, because his points per possession average will always be boosted by his free throws and three pointers. The downsides of Harden's "efficiency" are not so easy to quantify or prove, but they include (1) shutting his teammates out of the offense for extended stretches (rendering the team easier to guard, and those players less ready to produce when called upon to do so), (2) generating a lot of empty possessions when Harden misses from the field or turns the ball over, and (3) overly relying on one player to the extent that if he slumps or gets hurt the team may be unable to adapt. Those downsides have not caused too many problems during the past few regular seasons, but they have been major issues during the playoffs. It is fair to question whether this supposedly revolutionary style of play is ever likely to result in Houston winning a championship. Championship teams are usually very good defensively, and they usually feature a player who can be relied upon not only to carry a heavy scoring load but also to score crucial points down the stretch in the playoffs against elite defenses.

When Harden forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he wanted to be the number one option and not the number three option, I compared him to Manu Ginobili and suggested that if Harden valued winning over individual glory then he would have accepted a Ginobili role as opposed to trying to lead a team. I did not think that Harden had the skill set or durability to score more than 25-28 ppg, and I did not think that he could be the best player on a championship team. I would never have imagined that Harden would score as prolifically as he has for the past few seasons, but I also would never have imagined that the league would let anyone get away with the traveling and offensive fouls that Harden is permitted to commit. I give Harden credit for being physically stronger and more durable than I anticipated, but he has yet to refute my contention that he is not well suited to being the best player on a championship team; Harden's playoff meltdowns are as legendary and dramatic as his regular season scoring extravaganzas.

The big problem with Harden's game is that many of his tactics that work, or seem to work, or are permitted by lax officiating to work, during the regular season do not work during the playoffs. In the playoffs, the officiating is better and stricter, so Harden cannot camouflage his poor shooting nights by generating a parade to the free throw line. Also, the value of each playoff game is much higher than the value of each regular season game; six months from now, no one is going to remember or care that Harden's charge cost the Rockets a chance to tie the game versus the Spurs, but a gaffe like that during a seven game playoff series could be the difference between advancing and being eliminated.

By the way, it is worth noting that it is not a coincidence that Harden's video game numbers have surged this season while playing alongside Russell Westbrook. Last season, Westbrook's teammate Paul George had the best season of his career and finished third in MVP voting after only receiving  MVP votes once before (2013-14, when he finished ninth in the balloting). Kevin Durant won his only regular season MVP playing alongside Westbrook. Westbrook has demonstrated throughout his career that he is willing to be the second option on offense, and that he can adapt his game to enable his teammates to shine. The Rockets would be unstoppable offensively if they properly leveraged Westbrook's ability to attack the hoop in transition with Harden's half court game, but the Rockets seem determined to sink or swim with Harden as the focal point.

This season, Harden may very well average more points per game than any player other that Wilt Chamberlain ever has. Harden may put up numbers that will be deemed "efficient." Harden may be praised as the greatest drawer of fouls ever, despite of reels of video evidence that Harden is cheating the game with his extra steps, his push offs, his arm hooks, and his exaggerated landing space.

However, if Harden continues to play this way--and there is no reason to believe that he is willing or able to change at this point--his team will once again go down in flames during the playoffs, and Harden will once again be the primary culprit.

The analytics that Houston loves do not account for all aspects of the game of basketball; they do not account for the fact that Harden's style of play freezes out his teammates, so that his teammates do not know when/if they will be expected to shoot. As Barkley and Kenny Smith discussed during the most recent Inside the NBA episode on TNT, it is a lot of pressure for a role player to go long stretches without touching the ball and then be expected to nail a shot with the shot clock about to expire. Smith said that the ability to do this is what made Robert Horry special and great as a role player who thrived in clutch situations, but that Houston's style of play forces Harden's teammates to have an Horry mentality every game, which is a large burden to carry.

There is a myth floating around that Harden's Rockets did better against the dynasty Golden State Warriors than any other team, but of course that contention is false because (1) Cleveland beat the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals and (2) Toronto beat the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. Maybe no one could have predicted that Houston would miss 27 straight three pointers in an elimination game, but I have often pointed out that shooting a large number of three pointers is a high risk/high variance choice, and that even if the overall percentage turns out well the percentage in a key game could be atrocious, with a disastrous result on the game's outcome; prior to Houston's 2018 playoff matchup with Golden State, I predicted that Houston could very well beat Golden State by more than 20 points in one game and still end up losing the series. Houston won by 22 points on the road in game two, took a 3-2 series lead--and then fell apart when it mattered most in game seven with 7-44 three point shooting, including the aforementioned 27 straight misses. Harden shot 12-29 from the field in game seven, including 2-13 from three point range. The supposedly consummate drawer of fouls shot 6-8 from the free throw line. When it mattered most, Harden could not buy a three point basket, could not draw many fouls, and was unwilling/unable to utilize any other offensive skill. Jordan and Bryant had some playoff games during which they did not shoot well, but they had the ability to impact the game in other ways, and they did not monopolize the ball by dribbling to the extent that they froze out their teammates.

Harden is a talented and durable player, and he would be a prolific--but not record-setting--scorer without the gimmicks, but he is not as great as his fans suggest that he is, and, more importantly, his playing style does not maximize his team's opportunity to win a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM

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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Carmelo Anthony Wins Western Conference Player of the Week Honors

Carmelo Anthony just earned the Western Conference Player of the Week award after averaging 22.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 2.7 apg as his Portland Trail Blazers went 3-0 last week. This is Anthony's 19th Player of the Week award, but his first since March 10, 2014.

Anthony had a shaky season debut after being out of the league for over a year, and in his first three games with the team he averaged just 13.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 1.7 apg while shooting .441 from the field (including .313 from three point range) and .667 from the free throw line as Portland went 0-3. Anthony's improved performance in the next three games pushed his overall six game averages to 17.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 2.2 apg in 30.7 mpg.

Each of Anthony's first three games took place on the road, while Portland played two of the next three games at home as Anthony found his stride and the team won three games in a row for the first time since April 2019, when the Trail Blazers won the final three games of the regular season and then captured the first two games of their first round playoff series versus Oklahoma City.

It will be interesting to see if Anthony and the Trail Blazers can maintain anything close to the level of play from the last three games for the rest of the season. The three wins accompanied by gaudy statistics came at the expense of Oklahoma City and Chicago (twice). Portland faces a big challenge tonight on the road versus the L.A. Clippers, but then the Trail Blazers have a four game homestand during which they play Sacramento, the L.A. Lakers, Oklahoma City, and the New York Knicks; the L.A. teams will be tough to beat, but the other games should be very winnable, particularly at home.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:11 PM

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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Carmelo Anthony's Inefficient Season Debut is Not Surprising

It is not easy to return to the NBA after an extended absence, regardless of the reason for that absence. Michael Jordan shot just 7-28 from the field in a loss to the Indiana Pacers in his first game back after he retired (the first time) from the NBA to play minor league baseball. The main thing that he showed during that game is that he still had the necessary stamina and skills to take a high volume of shots against NBA competition. Jordan soon regained his efficiency, reasserted his dominance, and teamed up with Scottie Pippen to lead the Chicago Bulls to three straight championships during the next three full seasons.

So, it would be premature and unfair to offer a definitive assessment of Carmelo Anthony's current capabilities after just one game back. Nevertheless, it must be said that his season debut with Portland on Tuesday night should not surprise anyone who has followed his career closely. New Orleans beat Portland 115-104 as Anthony scored 10 points on 4-14 field goal shooting in 24 minutes. Anthony had a -20 plus/minus rating, by far the worst in the game (next was C.J. McCollum's -9). Anthony had four rebounds, no assists and a game-high tying five turnovers. He did not attempt a free throw.

This has been the Anthony story for quite some time, and even more so in recent years: he provides little contribution other than scoring, but he no longer scores efficiently, and his team not only loses but his team performs significantly worse with him on the court than it does when he is on the bench. Anthony has never been a good defensive player, and he was never exceptional as a rebounder or passer, but those limitations mattered less when Anthony could consistently score 25-30 ppg at a reasonably efficient clip. Now, Anthony is not a volume scorer, and he is less efficient than ever, which makes it difficult to justify putting him on the court for extended minutes when he is also not going to contribute much as a defender, rebounder or passer.

Apparently, Portland plans to keep Anthony in the starting lineup, which is not only baffling but also a sign of just how desperate things have become for a team that made the Western Conference Finals last year. Unless Anthony discovers a Fountain of Youth that enables him to regain his form from several years ago, it is difficult to picture Anthony as a rotation player for a playoff team, let alone as a starter playing significant minutes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:40 AM

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Carmelo Anthony Receives Another Chance to End his Career on a Positive Note

The struggling, disappointing 4-8 Portland Trail Blazers--figuring that they have nothing to lose--have signed Carmelo Anthony to a one-year non-guaranteed contract that will become official assuming that he passes a physical. Portland made the Western Conference Finals last season but injuries to multiple frontcourt players have contributed to the team's slow start.

Anthony is a 10-time All-Star, six-time member of the All-NBA Team and the 2013 scoring champion. However, he has not averaged at least 20 ppg since 2016-17, and he has not shot at least .440 from the field since 2014-15. Anthony has not played in an NBA game since November 8, 2018, when he completed a 10 game stint in Houston during which he averaged 13.4 ppg on .405 field goal shooting while getting lit up like a Christmas tree on defense. During Anthony's last two seasons--78 games in 2017-18 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then his 2018 cameo with the Rockets before being cut--his never great defense became progressively worse, and he showed that he cannot provide enough at the other end of the court to make up for his defensive deficiencies. He also chafed at times at no longer being the focal point of the offense.

Many commentators have acted like it is a big mystery why Anthony has been out of the league for a year, but there is not a huge market for a high volume, low efficiency, past his prime scorer who wants to be the focal point of the offense when it is hard to put him on the court for extended periods of time without negatively impacting the team at both ends of the court.

By all accounts, Anthony is a nice person who treats his teammates, the fans, and the media members with respect. Many people are rooting for him.

However, it is unlikely that Anthony has regained the step that he had already lost by last year, or that he can be even minimally effective on defense. Perhaps a year out of the game, and only being able to return with a non-guaranteed deal, has humbled Anthony to the extent that he is fully committed to being a role player. If so, maybe he can provide a scoring spark off of the bench for 15-20 minutes a game while being carefully hidden on defense.

That would not be the career conclusion that Anthony envisioned a few years ago, but it would be much better than ending his career by being cut after just 10 games.

I don't believe that Anthony will be much more effective or productive for Portland than he was for Oklahoma City or Houston, but I hope that I am wrong, and that Anthony can finish his career on a relatively positive note.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:25 AM

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Saturday, November 09, 2019

Analyzing Pro Basketball's Triple Double Standouts

Harvey Pollack invented the "triple double" phrase/concept to coincide with Magic Johnson's rookie season in 1979-80. Pollack's famous statistical guide included records for all regular season triple doubles compiled since 1979. For quite some time, Magic Johnson was the leader by a wide margin in post-1979 triple doubles, finishing his career with 138, but recently Russell Westbrook passed Johnson. Westbrook has 140 career triple doubles. Oscar Robertson is the career leader with 181 triple doubles. The only other players who have at least 50 career triple doubles are Jason Kidd (107), LeBron James (84), Wilt Chamberlain (78) and Larry Bird (59).

Robertson was the first player who averaged a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62, his second NBA season), and he remains the only player who averaged an aggregate triple double over a five season span (30.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 10.6 apg from 1961-65). Early in his career, Magic Johnson was touted as a player who could possibly average a triple double for a season, but he only came close to doing it once, averaging 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82, his third season; the season prior to that, he averaged 21.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 8.6 apg in just 37 games, and in 1982-83 he averaged 16.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 10.5 apg. Johnson averaged at least 10 apg in each of the remaining seasons of his career (other than his short comeback in 1995-96), but he never again averaged at least 8 rpg.

Kidd averaged double figures in assists three times, but he never averaged more than 7.5 rpg in those seasons. His peak rebounding season was 2006-07 (8.2 rpg), when he averaged 13.0 ppg and 9.2 apg.

Kidd had over 40 games in which he missed a triple double by just one point, rebound or assist, but he never chased individual numbers. "That's disrespecting the game," he declared in 2008 when he was on the verge of passing Chamberlain on the career triple double list. "That's how I see it. If it happens, it happens. If you disrespect the game, though, sooner or later it will come back to get you." That being said, Kidd also felt that the triple double is significant because it indicates a player's overall effect on the game: "The league has promoted scoring, but I think that any time you have a line where you can be involved in three categories--maybe four--it shows you've had a real impact. It tells me that I was involved--really involved--in the game."

Kidd's coach with the New Jersey Nets at that time, Lawrence Frank, said that the triple double "is the empirical evidence of how good he is. The thing about Jason that you try to describe to people is that without him ever having to say a word, you feel him as a coach, a teammate, an adversary, a fan--you feel him in the game."

Kidd is one of just three players to average a triple double in a Conference Finals or Division Finals series (17.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 10.2 apg in 2002), joining Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson. Kidd is also one of just three players to average a triple double for an entire playoff run (2007), along with Oscar Robertson (1962) and Russell Westbrook (2017).|

Wilt Chamberlain averaged 24.3 ppg, 23.8 rpg and 8.6 apg in 1967-68, leading the league in both total rebounds and total assists (league leaders were not determined by average until 1969-70). On February 2, 1968, Chamberlain posted the first 20-20-20 game (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists), a feat that has since been duplicated only once, by Russell Westbrook (20 points, 20 rebounds, 21 assists). Robertson holds the record with 14 games with at least 15 points, at least 15 rebounds and at least 15 assists, followed by Chamberlain (nine such games) and Westbrook (eight).

Larry Bird accumulated a large number of triple doubles, but he never came close to averaging a triple double for an entire season. He averaged at least 10 rpg in each of his first six seasons, but he averaged between 4.5 apg and 6.6 apg during those seasons; later in his career, he had three seasons during which he averaged at least 7 apg, but he averaged between 8.5 rpg and 9.5 rpg during those seasons.

LeBron James has a combination of size, athletic ability, durability and passing vision that would seem to make him a candidate to average a triple double for a season, but he has never averaged more than 8.6 rpg and he has averaged more than 9 apg just once.

In a December 30, 2001 Sacramento Bee article about the history of the triple double, Antonio R. Harvey declared, "It is arguably the greatest individual achievement in professional sports. It is also among the least appreciated and least discussed, perhaps because Oscar Robertson set the bar so high no one has come close to duplicating what he did 40 years ago. A triple double for a season. Today, it's news if a player has a triple double in a single game." Robertson expressed the opinion that no one would ever duplicate the feat.

Speaking a few years after Harvey wrote that article, Kidd felt that Robertson's triple double season did not receive enough appreciation: "It belongs with DiMaggio's hitting streak, with any record that's ever been set. Unless there's somebody close to doing it again, I think that would be the only way people could really appreciate it. That's the only opportunity we'd have to quite understand what Oscar did. I don't think he gets enough recognition for what he did achieve."

If Magic Johnson and LeBron James could not match Robertson's triple double season, it seemed unlikely that anyone else could do it, either. No one could have predicted or imagined that a 6-3 athletic dynamo who some critics charged to be miscast as a point guard would rewrite the triple double records.

Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double for the 2016-17 season (31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg), and he also broke Robertson's single-season triple double record (41) by posting 42 triple doubles. Westbrook averaged a triple double in each of the next two seasons as well. Over the past five seasons, Westbrook has averaged 26.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg and 10.1 apg; if he averages around 12.5 rpg this season (he averaged a career-high 11.1 rpg last season) and maintains double figure averages in the other two categories then he could match Robertson's feat of posting a triple double average over five seasons (2016-20). Nate Archibald remains the only player to win a scoring title and an assist title in the same season (1972-73), but Westbrook is now the only player who has won multiple scoring titles (2015, 2017) and multiple assist titles (2018-19). Westbrook had at least 800 rebounds and at least 800 assists in back to back seasons (2017-18). Robertson, during his triple double season, is the only other player to have even one such season.

The cover of the April 6, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated summarized what makes Westbrook a unique force: "The Athleticism of LeBron + The Drive of Kobe." In Lee Jenkins' accompanying cover story, Westbrook explained his approach to his craft: "There are many times throughout a season that you may not feel like playing. You may not want to play on this night, or against this team. But I don't feel that way. This is one of the best jobs in the world, and you never know how long you'll be able to do it--how long you'll be able to run like this and jump like this. So I go for it. I go for it every time. It may look angry, but it's the only way I know."

That is beautiful and admirable. The NBA--the world--would be so much better if everyone thought that way and, more to the point, lived that way. The relatively short duration of an NBA career is a metaphor for the short duration of life itself. You don't know how long you are going to be here, so why not have the most positive impact that you can during every minute of your life?

Of course, most people are not wired that way, cannot be that focused and that committed.

Westbrook's dynamic, multi-faceted play had a significant impact on team success during his 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder made the playoffs nine times during that span, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs' 11 appearances. The Thunder made it to one NBA Finals (2012) and four Western Conference Finals (2011-12, 2014, 2016) while posting the third best regular season record in the NBA from October 29, 2008 (the franchise's first game after moving from Seattle to Oklahoma City) through the final game of the 2018-19 season--and the Thunder had the league's second best regular season record from December 31, 2008 through the final game of the 2018-19 season, trailing only the Spurs. The Thunder became the second team to increase their winning percentage for five straight seasons while posting a winning percentage of at least .700 in at least two of those seasons (the first team to do this was the 1955-60 Boston Celtics, who were boosted by the 1957 addition of Bill Russell).

As noted above, Westbrook is one of only three players who averaged a triple double for an entire playoff run. He is also one of six players in pro basketball history who have averaged at least 17 ppg, at least 7 rpg and at least 5 rpg during a playoff career consisting of at least 30 games: Walt Frazier, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. The first four were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, while James is a Pantheon-level player.

Westbrook is the only player among the top seven all-time triple double leaders who has not won a championship, but his statistical profile and all-out playing style matches the profiles of players who have led teams to titles (or, in Kidd's case, being a significant contributor to a title run in 2011 with Dallas after twice leading New Jersey to the NBA Finals during his prime).

Robertson was regarded during his era as the greatest all-around player in the sport, and nearly 50 years after he retired he still is on the short list for that title. Chamberlain, Johnson, Bird and James all must be ranked among the 10-15 greatest players of all-time. Kidd was widely respected as a great all-around player long before he capped off his career as a contributor--but not the best player--on a championship team. However, their triple double heir, Westbrook, is held to a different standard than other players. Take a recent example. Plus/minus numbers for one player for one game--or even a larger but still small sample size--can be very noisy. Much was made of Westbrook compiling a career-worst -46 plus/minus number in Houston's embarrassing 129-100 loss to the Miami Heat, but not much was made of Westbrook's +40 plus/minus number in Houston's subsequent 129-112 win over the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook's teammate James Harden outscored Westbrook 36-18 in the latter game but Harden's plus/minus number was +20, much lower than Westbrook's plus/minus number.

This season, the Rockets are 2-0 when Westbrook has a triple double, 3-1 when he has at least 10 rebounds and 2-0 when he has at least 10 assists. They are 0-2 in games that he played but did not reach double figures in either category (they beat the hapless Memphis Grizzlies during a game that Westbrook sat out).

All of pro basketball's triple double standouts had and/or are having a tremendous impact on winning. It will be interesting to see if the Rockets are savvy enough to maximize Westbrook's multi-faceted impact, or if they will sacrifice winning on the altar of the James Harden experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 PM

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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's First Pro Coach, Passed Away

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's first pro coach with the ABA's Virginia Squires, died of natural causes on Monday at the age of 87. Bianchi scored 5550 points during a 10 year NBA playing career, averaging 8.1 ppg with a career-high 10.3 ppg average in 1961-62. He was Wilt Chamberlain's teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers for a little over a year, and Bianchi retired just one season before Chamberlain led the 76ers to the 1967 NBA title.

Bianchi won 283 games as a head coach in the ABA and the NBA. He also served as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns from 1976-87 and again from 2001-02. Bianchi won the 1971 ABA Coach of the Year award. He was the General Manager of the New York Knicks from 1987-91, during which time he made two key moves that contribute to the team's resurgence in the 1990s: he traded Bill Cartwright for Charles Oakley, and he signed future All-Star guard John Starks. The Cartwright trade also yielded a draft pick that Bianchi used to select Rod Strickland.

I interviewed Bianchi during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix in 2009. Our conversation was not scheduled in advance; I recognized him across the room at the Legends Brunch, approached him and he very graciously spoke with me about his time coaching Julius Erving in the ABA. Here is an excerpt:

Friedman: "Describe the way that Julius Erving played in the ABA that was even above the level of greatness that we saw in the NBA."

Bianchi: "When he went to the NBA, one of the knocks that Red Auerbach and some of the people said was that he was (just) OK--and it was a natural tendency for the NBA to downplay the ABA players a little bit. They said that he could not shoot from the outside."

Friedman: "He developed the outside shot later, though, right?"

Bianchi: "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could put points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate and I used the phrase that we never had so many players (on the bench) pay attention to the game until I got Julius that year that he came in as a rookie. Over a long period of time, when you have players sitting on the bench, they might be wandering around (and not closely watching the game). When we got Julius, every game was a new highlight film. He did something different. He would come underneath and dunk and he had those enormous hands and everybody was paying attention to the game."

Friedman: "I talked to Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones about Julius as a teammate. You had Julius when he was really young, just 21 years old. Talk about the way that he interacted with his teammates and the leadership style that he had even as a young guy coming into the league."

Bianchi: "One of the great things about Julius is that even though he came in as a young man he was very, very mature. He knew the ways of the game and from the first day the players accepted him. It was like he had been there for five years. He just had that kind of personality. They respected--they could see that this guy was on a different level and also he was one of them. He had that maturity."

I am glad that I had that chance encounter with my basketball hero's first pro coach, who I found to be an engaging and pleasant interview subject. Rest in peace, Al Bianchi.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 PM

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Evaluating the NBA's "MV3" Guards Early in the 2019-20 Season

Stephen Curry (2015-16), Russell Westbrook (2017) and James Harden (2018) combined to win four straight NBA regular season MVPs before Giannis Antetokounmpo broke the reign of the "MV3" guards and became the first non-guard to win the award since 2014. Centers won 16 straight NBA regular season MVPs from 1965-1980--a run bookended by guard Oscar Robertson in 1964 and forward Julius Erving (already a three-time ABA regular season MVP) in 1981--but the last center to win the NBA regular season MVP is Shaquille O'Neal, who claimed his first and only such honor in 2000.

The NBA has become a perimeter-oriented game in the past 15 years or so, due to a combination of rules changes, evolving coaching philosophies and the prevalence of "advanced basketball statistics" that place great value on three point shooting while deriding the efficiency of post play.

Each of the "MV3" players has a substantially different situation in 2019-20 than he had in 2018-19: Curry's Warriors lost Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson (at least for most of this season), Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, Westbrook moved from Oklahoma City to Houston, and Harden is now playing alongside Westbrook instead of Chris Paul.

The season is young, the sample sizes are small, and the unfounded hot takes are everywhere, but it is worthwhile to examine what we have seen so far, and try to project what we might reasonably expect to see moving forward.

So much was written and said about Curry's "gravity" last season that I thought he was officially going to join the ranks of our solar system's largest planets alongside Jupiter and Saturn. Various commentators suggested that the Warriors were better without the then-injured Kevin Durant because Curry sans Durant was able to fully exploit his "gravity" to open up shots for himself and his teammates. Supposedly, Durant gummed up the works of Golden State's otherwise smooth offense.

That was a bunch of high-sounding nonsense, and I wrote as much at the time.

Fast forward from the 2019 playoffs to the start of this regular season, and Curry's "gravity" looks markedly less powerful without Durant attracting defensive attention, and without Iguodala, Durant and Klay Thompson providing top notch two-way play so that Curry could be hidden on defense while operating in a wide open court on offense. The Warriors dropped their first two games of the season in ugly fashion, leading many commentators to forget about "gravity" and instead proclaim that the sky is falling upon Golden State. The Warriors bounced back to beat an undermanned New Orleans squad and they are now 1-2, while ranking 20th (out of 30 teams) in scoring, 25th in field goal percentage and 22nd in three point field goal percentage.

Curry is averaging 24.0 ppg, 6.7 apg and 5.0 rpg with shooting splits of .436/.267/1.000. His field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage are career-lows, his scoring average is around his career-norm--but his lowest since 2014-15--and his rebounds and assists are in line with his career norms. Again, this is a small sample size, and it is reasonable to expect Curry and the Warriors to perform better as the season progresses; I picked the Warriors to make the 2020 playoffs and I see no reason to change that prediction. They should make the playoffs: Curry is a two-time MVP/six-time All-Star, Draymond Green is a former Defensive Player of the Year/three-time All-Star and D'Angelo Russell made the 2019 All-Star team; there is no excuse for a team with a former multiple MVP winner and a total of three All-Stars to not make the playoffs, even in the tough Western Conference.

It is interesting to look at how the media evaluates Curry; last season, it was widely asserted that Curry was a more important player to the Warriors than Durant, but after the Warriors did not defend their title no one blamed Curry. Before this season, many media members predicted that without Durant on the scene we would see Curry return to his MVP form, but in the wake of the Warriors' slow start and Curry's bricklaying the narrative is not that we should expect more from Curry and the Warriors but rather that the whole roster has been remade and it is not reasonable to expect the Warriors to make the playoffs. Note the common theme throughout these narratives: Curry is great and no matter what happens it is not his fault, nor does it detract from his greatness.

The media never showed such leniency toward Kobe Bryant, either during his five championship runs or during the 2006 and 2007 seasons when he pushed, pulled and carried the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker hooptie into the playoffs. It would be refreshing--actually, it would be shocking--if the media just covered situations as they occur without trying to shape every narrative to fit their preconceived notions, their biases, and their lack of high level understanding of the NBA game, but I know better than to expect that to happen.

Stephen Curry is a great player. I love watching him play, just like a generation ago I loved watching his father Dell, who is one of my favorite role players/sixth men of all-time. Stephen Curry probably should not have been a two-time MVP, but he is a better player than his forerunner Steve Nash, who also should not have won two MVPs. There are 15 multiple regular season MVP winners in pro basketball history (13 in the NBA, plus Mel Daniels in the ABA and Julius Erving, the only player who won at least one MVP in both leagues). Steve Nash and Karl Malone are the only names on that list who did not win a championship. Of the 12 multiple MVPs who won championships, nine won at least one Finals MVP; Bob Pettit retired before that award was given out, Bill Russell retired in the first year that the award was given out and Curry has watched four different players pick up Finals MVPs in his five Finals appearances (LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant twice and Kawhi Leonard). The multiple MVP winners did not win the Finals MVP every time they reached the Finals--other than Michael Jordan, who went six for six--but it is an odd look for a multiple MVP winner to play in five Finals during his prime and never be the best player on the court.

Stephen Curry is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James--those four players are Pantheon level players. There has been more than enough talk about "gravity," and more than enough excuses offered after Golden State's shaky three game start. Let's see if two-time MVP Stephen Curry can go as far with two All-Stars as Kobe Bryant did with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, before we elevate Curry above his great predecessors--or even some of his contemporaries.

In 2014, I wrote, "One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook." Westbrook validated both parts of that prediction, winning a well-deserved regular season MVP in 2017, and then having his game picked apart by critics in subsequent seasons during a run in which the 6-3 point guard averaged a triple double for three consecutive seasons. Westbrook has made the unprecedented and spectacular seem so ordinary that no one even pays attention any more. For most of pro basketball history it seemed extremely unlikely that anyone would match Oscar Robertson's triple double season, let alone Robertson's feat of averaging an aggregate triple double over a five season span (which Westbrook has a shot of matching); Magic Johnson, Lafayette Lever, Jason Kidd and maybe a couple other players were touted as possibly being capable of this, but none of them came particularly close to doing it.

What Westbrook has accomplished in the past three seasons may be the most underrated significant accomplishment in pro basketball history.

If LeBron James had averaged a triple double for a season, ESPN and the internet would have spontaneously combusted. Media members would be building a monument for James that would surpass the Taj Mahal and the pyramids of Egypt.

The first time Westbrook did this, he won the MVP--as he should have--but with each subsequent season the appreciation for his game has dimmed. I recall reading a quote attributed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar early in his career when he regularly averaged 30-plus ppg and he said that he would never try to average 40 or 50 ppg like Wilt Chamberlain because then people would expect him to do it every year. Paradoxically, it seems as if Westbrook would receive more appreciation if he had not repeated his triple double feat.

Westbrook can be effective in any system and with any set of teammates. His rebounding numbers are sometimes belittled but he does not "steal" rebounds; he plays hard all of the time, which makes him an anomaly in today's game. Westbrook does not know the meaning of "chill mode" or "load management."

Is Westbrook a Pantheon player? No, at least not yet. Like Curry, Westbrook is a little small for the Pantheon; Jerry West is the only Pantheon player shorter than 6-5, and West had no skill set weaknesses at either end of the court. Westbrook is an incredibly dynamic player but it is well-documented that he is not a great shooter, and it is also true that his shot selection could be better (though it is not as bad as many people suggest that it is, given the overall context of his teammates' strengths/weaknesses, game situation, etc.). Could Westbrook be a Pantheon player? If he is demonstrably the best player on a championship team in addition to everything else he has accomplished in the regular season and the playoffs then he would at least enter the conversation.

The pairing of Westbrook with Harden is fascinating. Westbrook plays hard and does not care much about his individual numbers (if he cared, he would shoot less so that his statistical profile would be more "efficient"). Harden plays hard when he has the ball, and he is often a vaguely disinterested observer during the rest of the game. Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has tried to solve this problem by letting Harden dribble the ball for a substantial portion of the game, because if Harden is dribbling (or shooting) he is engaged.

Westbrook is the first teammate that Harden has had in Houston who is clearly a better player than Harden (Dwight Howard was arguably better--and certainly had more of an impact on winning--but Howard was already declining and injury-prone while Harden's star was rising, at least in popular perception). The logical strategy for Houston is to let Westbrook attack the defense, cause a breakdown and then shoot or pass depending on what the defense does; playing that way, Westbrook could easily shoot a career-high percentage, as could Harden, and as could many other players on the team. Few teams have the necessary personnel or discipline to both stay in front of Westbrook and not leave Harden or other shooters open on the perimeter.

Having Harden dribble the ball until the ball becomes flat or Harden decide to shoot is, frankly, stupid--regardless of what the "analytics" might suggest. If Harden is dribbling, then Westbrook is spotting up, and he is not a spot up shooter. The whole offense is backwards at that point. Harden can be a deadly spot up shooter, if he is so inclined, but if he were so inclined then he would not have left Oklahoma City--where he was the third option behind Durant and Westbrook--to become the first option in Houston. Harden's ego may force him to remain the first option in Houston until his body breaks down or until a different coach imposes order, but Houston will not likely win a title with Harden as the first option.

Harden is not efficient, at least in terms of winning basketball games at the team level, and particularly in terms of winning basketball games at the team level during the playoffs. He is an advanced version of Gilbert Arenas, of whom I once wrote, "...if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next then the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up eight or nine three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success." Houston fans have watched the Harden horror show annually in the playoffs, as Harden perennially melts down at the key moments with errant shooting and/or huge turnover numbers.

Harden is a talented player, but it almost seems like he, D'Antoni and Daryl Morey are more interested in flouting conventional wisdom than in winning a title. Everyone understands that three pointers are worth more than two pointers. The problem is that basketball is not a station to station game like baseball; in baseball, if you uncover an analytical insight you have a better opportunity to isolate that insight and apply it because of the discrete nature of action in that sport. Basketball is different and in basketball three is not always more than two, because of floor balance, because of the higher degree of variance with three point shooting compared to shooting from closer to the hoop and because of many other factors. Unless the Rockets change their ways, it is much more likely that when Morey is an old man he will be reminiscing about how the Rockets "could have" won a title or "should have" won a title based on analytics than it is that he will be reminiscing about the Rockets actually winning a title anywhere other than his spreadsheets.

Consider Houston's recent 116-112 win over Oklahoma City. Harden shot 8-21 from the field--including 3-14 from three point range--but he was "efficient" according to "advanced basketball statistics" because he ended up with 40 points after shooting 21-22 from the free throw line. The scoring total and "efficiency" look gaudy, but it is interesting that Harden's plus/minus number was -3 in 37 minutes. Meanwhile, Westbrook finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists while shooting 9-16 from the field. Westbrook's plus/minus number was +19 in 36 minutes. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic that is only meaningful (1) if you watch a whole game and break down what happened/why or (2) over a large enough sample size of games to smooth out randomness due to garbage time, schedule strength, etc. Harden has demonstrated that over the course of a whole season he can pad his numbers enough against bad teams and/or in garbage time to amass a deceptively good plus/minus number--but in the playoffs, he cannot hide, and the truth about his deficiencies is consistently exposed. Near the end of this particular game, Harden bricked a three pointer, but Westbrook hustled to get the offensive rebound, brought the ball out to reset the offense and then drove to the hoop, forced the defense to collapse and swung the ball to P.J. Tucker in the right corner for a wide open three pointer that put Houston up 111-105 with 54 seconds remaining.

If the Rockets want to win a championship as presently constructed, then they need to understand that Westbrook is the team's best player and Harden is a great second option. On some nights, Harden--like any great second option--may be the first option, but Westbrook's energy and all-around play must be this team's centerpiece. The Rockets do not need for Harden to jack up 14 or 15 three pointers--particularly on a night when his shooting touch is off--because they can always spread the floor and get a good shot by giving the ball to Westbrook at the top of the key, or by letting Westbrook work his magic in transition.

By the end of the season, the Warriors will not be terrible, the Rockets will have one of the better records in the league, and the media--regardless of the truth--will perpetuate the narratives about Curry's "gravity," Westbrook's supposed selfishness and Harden's "efficiency."

Then, the playoffs will roll around, and the truth will be laid bare for all to see.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:34 PM

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Thursday, October 24, 2019

In 2019 Season Opener, Kawhi Picks Up Where He Left Off

The last time we saw Kawhi Leonard on a basketball court in a game that counted, he destroyed Golden State's dynasty and won the Finals MVP after leading the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title. As I wrote in my 2019-20 Western Conference Preview, Leonard is a "dynasty killer." He ended the Heat's dynasty in 2014, winning his first Finals MVP as his San Antonio Spurs beat the brakes off of Miami, four games to one--with each San Antonio victory boasting a margin of at least 15 points. Then, Leonard ended San Antonio's dynasty: the Spurs won 61 games and made it to the 2017 Western Conference Finals in his final full season with the team--but he sprained his ankle in game one of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs blew a huge lead and then were swept by the Golden State Warriors after Leonard was not able to return to action. Leonard played just nine games for the Spurs in 2017-18 before landing in Toronto last season. The Spurs won 47 games in 2018 and they won 48 games last season, losing in the first round both times.

On opening night, Leonard put a dent in the "dynasty" of the 2020 paper champions, the darlings of the "stat gurus," the L.A. Lakers. Many commentators warned that Leonard's L.A. Clippers would get off to a slow start because Paul George is sidelined as he recovers from shoulder injuries. Meanwhile, the Lakers--who have not made the playoffs since 2013, the last time that Kobe Bryant played a full, healthy season--have what has been breathlessly described in some quarters as potentially the greatest duo of all-time, featuring the aging LeBron James and Anthony "I won one playoff series in my first seven seasons" Davis. Apparently, we are all now living in a universe in which Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Magic Johnson, Moses Malone/Julius Erving, Larry Bird/Kevin McHale and Bill Russell/pick a Celtic do not exist.

What could Leonard do when facing the greatest duo ever?

Nothing much--just 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in 32 minutes without doing a fancy dance, or trash talking or even changing his facial expression very much. Meanwhile, investigators have been dispatched to find out who kidnapped Davis and James at halftime; they put up decent numbers in the first half and then disappeared when the game was up for grabs as the Clippers cruised to a 112-102 win.

The "LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time" articles are really cute, but before we compare James to Jordan and the other elite players who preceded James are we really, really sure that James is better than his contemporaries such as five-time champion Kobe Bryant and five-time champion Tim Duncan? Are we sure that James is better than peak Kevin Durant? Are we even sure that James is better than peak Leonard? Have we even seen peak Leonard yet?

TNT's Charles Barkley--who once said that the next person who compares James to Jordan should be punched in the face--noted that Leonard is like Oscar Robertson in that both players always play at their own pace and do not let the defense dictate to them. That is a very apt and perceptive observation. Doc Rivers, Leonard's current coach, once wrote a wonderful little book titled Those Who Love the Game.  That book has more insight on any given page that you can find in a whole book by Bill Simmons, who has been a vocal critic of Rivers. In Those Who Love the Game, Rivers described Chris Mullin as the "King of Tempo," emphasizing that what matters in basketball is not being fast so much as being able to change speeds to keep the opposition off balance. Leonard is a level above Mullin--who, as a Hall of Famer and original Dream Team member, is no slouch--and Leonard can control tempo to an even greater and more powerful extent than Mullin could.

It would have been great to see Leonard stay in Toronto and try to carry the Raptors to back to back titles, but this Clippers team has a chance to be special. Last season, they were tough, scrappy, defensive-minded and well coached, but they lacked star power. Now, they have added Leonard's transcendent talent and George's ability to be a complementary star (the notion that he is or should be an MVP candidate is silly, but he is perfectly suited to being the second option), without losing their toughness, their scrappy nature and their defensive mindset.

After James the general manager builds a team, it generally takes a while for James the player/coach to figure out how to get the team to function well together; we saw that in Miami, and in Cleveland during James' second stint in Ohio. So, it is entirely possible that the Lakers will be a force to reckon with, and not a fourth quarter farce, by the time the 2020 playoffs begin--but the Clippers are a force now, and even if James builds a dynasty caliber team he will not win the championship unless he figures out how to beat the "dynasty killer" four times in seven games. Maybe James the general manager will sign Zaza Pachulia, whose dirty footwork took Leonard out in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. Pachulia is the only player who has slowed Leonard down during the playoffs in recent years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM

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