20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New Ted Green Documentary Tells Bobby "Slick" Leonard's Life Story

Bobby "Slick" Leonard is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2014; he made his mark as an outstanding collegiate player at Indiana University, a solid professional player with the Lakers, a great professional coach who won three championships with the Indiana Pacers and a respected broadcaster. Ted Green, who previously produced the outstanding documentary "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story," is making a documentary about Leonard. Here is a working trailer for the Leonard documentary, which is scheduled to premiere at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on July 29:

Bobby "Slick" Leonard documentary trailer

Green interviewed Larry Bird, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor; Leonard coached against Bird (who now runs the Indiana Pacers) and he played alongside West and Baylor with the Lakers. Leonard once told me that he had played with or against, coached and/or seen every great player who has come down the pike in the past 60 years or so and the high praise that these all-time greats offer to Leonard reaffirms that Leonard's Hall of Fame induction is long overdue. Green should be commended for his tireless efforts to record and preserve the life stories of Brown and Leonard, two very underrated and extremely important figures in basketball history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:26 AM

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

2013-14 Playoff Predictions

The Miami Heat have flown under the radar about as much as any two-time defending championship team can; mainstream media attention has focused on the upstart Indiana Pacers, the streaking San Antonio Spurs, the surprising Phoenix Suns, the sinking Philadelphia 76ers and many other storylines, while largely ignoring the fact that the Heat have a chance to place themselves in a rare group of teams that have reached the NBA Finals four straight years. That feat has only been accomplished by three legendary dynasties: 1957-66 Boston Celtics, 1982-85 L.A. Lakers, 1984-87 Boston Celtics. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to a pair of three-peats (1991-1993, 1996-98) but Jordan's first two retirements prevented the Bulls from potentially reaching the Finals four consecutive times.

This season, the Heat posted their worst winning percentage of the "Big Three" era but the same thing was true for the Jordan/Pippen teams in the third year of their two three-peats; sustaining a high level of excellence exacts a mental and physical toll but no one should expect that it will be easy to beat the Heat four times in seven games. The 1993 Bulls looked weary during the regular season and they faced a 2-0 deficit against the number one seeded New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals but then the Bulls ripped off four straight wins against the Knicks before defeating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

The San Antonio Spurs are rightfully considered to be the best team in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers are hungry--though flawed and vulnerable--challengers to Miami's Eastern Conference supremacy and the Oklahoma City can beat anyone if Russell Westbrook stays healthy but the Heat are chasing history while being led by a historically great player and it would be foolish to count them out. The Heat made it through the regular season with a good record while staying as healthy as could reasonably be expected and they will elevate their game in the playoffs. I expect them to join the Russell Celtics, Magic Lakers and Bird Celtics by making a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2014 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Indiana (56-26) vs. #8 Atlanta (38-44)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Atlanta can win if...their perimeter players get hot from three point range and if the Pacers fail to exploit their inside strength at the other end of the court; the Hawks ranked second in three point field goals attempted but just 13th in three point field goal percentage, so their best chance for an upset is to hope that enough of their long range bombs hit the target.

Indiana will win because...the Pacers are an elite defensive team, while the Hawks are mediocre at both ends of the court, as demonstrated by their sub-.500 record.

Other things to consider: Much has been made of the Pacers' struggles in the second half of the season but an 82 game marathon inevitably contains some ups and downs; the bottom line is that they maintained the number one record in the Eastern Conference for most of the campaign and, despite some embarrassing recent performances, they achieved their goal of earning homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers have some obvious weaknesses (including half court offensive execution, chemistry issues and Lance Stephenson's volatility) but the Hawks are not a good enough team to exploit those weaknesses.

#2 Miami (54-28) vs. #7 Charlotte (43-39)

Season series: Miami, 4-0

Charlotte can win if...team owner Michael Jordan enters a time machine, emerges two decades younger and signs himself to a pair of ten day contracts.

Miami will win because...this is the kind of series that has always brought out the best in LeBron James; even before he learned how to consistently excel in playoff series against elite teams he always demonstrated the capacity to put up huge numbers against inferior teams in early playoff rounds. All season long, James' critics have accused him of coasting and that storyline will probably cost James the MVP award but he will take out those frustrations in this series; look for him to post at least one 40 point game.

Other things to consider: Charlotte's rise to respectability has been remarkable; rookie Coach Steve Clifford deserves a lot of credit for improving the team's defense and overall mindset, while Al Jefferson provided leadership and great post presence. Dwyane Wade's inexorable physical decline could be a problem for Miami during the postseason but it will not be a major factor in this series.

#3 Toronto (48-34) vs. #6 Brooklyn (44-38)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Toronto can win if...the Raptors' youthful enthusiasm trumps the Nets' veteran savvy.

Brooklyn will win because...this veteran-laden team was put together to peak in the postseason; they are getting healthy and figuring out how to play together at just the right time.

Other things to consider: Many NBA fans have probably never heard of Masai Ujiri but when he ran the Nuggets he fleeced the Knicks out of several good players in exchange for an overrated Carmelo Anthony; it is not a coincidence that after he moved to Canada the Nuggets got worse while the Raptors instantly transformed into one of the top teams in the East. The Raptors posted the best record in franchise history and seem poised to make the playoffs for years to come but this is not a good playoff matchup for them.

#4 Chicago (48-34) vs. #5 Washington (44-38)

Season series: Washington, 2-1

Washington can win if...their young, talented backcourt duo (John Wall/Bradley Beal) suddenly acquires the wisdom of the ages--the kind of wisdom that is generally obtained by losing playoff series against tough-minded, veteran teams.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls' defense will cause fits for the young, impatient Wizards.

Other things to consider: Tom Thibodeau is the coaching equivalent of MacGyver: no Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, no problem: just give Thibodeau some duct tape (and a throat lozenge for his perpetually hoarse voice) and he'll work wonders. The Bulls do not have enough offensive firepower to make a deep playoff run but their defense and Thibodeau's strategic acumen will carry them into the second round.

Western Conference First Round

#1 San Antonio (62-20) vs. #8 Dallas (49-33)

Season series: San Antonio, 4-0

Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has a flashback and starts regularly posting 30 points/15 rebounds, if Monta Ellis goes off for about 25 ppg and if the Mavericks contain Tony Parker's dribble penetration without opening up opportunities for Tim Duncan inside and the Spurs' sharpshooters who camp out behind the three point line.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs are not only the better team overall but they have shown that they match up particularly well with the Mavericks.

Other things to consider: Armchair psychologists said that the Spurs could not recover from their devastating loss in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals--but the Spurs refuted that idea by playing valiantly in game seven. Then the armchair psychologists asserted that it would be too much for the old Spurs to make yet another championship run but the Spurs have been the class of the league for the better part of the season. The Spurs do not match up well with the Oklahoma City Thunder because they have no one who can stay in front of Russell Westbrook but they have no reason to fear any other team in the league.

#2 Oklahoma City (59-23) vs. #7 Memphis (50-32)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1

Memphis can win if...Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominate inside while the Grizzlies' wing players hit enough outside shots to prevent the Thunder's defense from clogging the paint.

Oklahoma City will win because...Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the two best players in this series and two of the five best players in the league. They will spearhead an offensive attack that will overwhelm the Grizzlies.

Other things to consider: Here they are in all of their glory, the team nobody wants to face; the Grizzlies needed a late season flourish to sneak into the playoffs with six fewer wins than they had last year but the top teams are supposedly petrified of them. Here is a different theory: the Thunder know that they would have beaten the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs if Westbrook had been healthy and they are very eager to prove that point on the sport's biggest stage. Look for the Grizzlies to struggle to score 90 points per game and look for a lot of Durant/Westbrook highlights as the Thunder stun the "experts."

In other "expert"-related news, objective observers are still searching in vain for a shred of proof that letting James Harden walk in order to keep Serge Ibaka has in any way weakened the Thunder or hurt their chances to win an NBA title.

#3 L.A. Clippers (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Golden State can win if...Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson--aka the "Splash Brothers"--rain jumpers from all angles and if David Lee picks up the slack inside for the injured Andrew Bogut.

L.A. will win because...Doc Rivers has spent the season changing the team's mindset; the Clippers are now more focused on defense and on half court execution as opposed to making the highlight reels as "Lob City." Chris Paul's extended absence due to injury proved that he is not, in fact, the best player on the team; that title belongs to Blake Griffin.

Other things to consider: Vinny Del Negro did a solid job with the Clippers when the team had a lot of players who needed to mature and it is worth noting that in Rivers' first year the Clippers only increased their victory total by one--but the coaching change is still justifiable because it is reasonable to believe that the Clippers have a higher ceiling with Rivers on the bench than they did with Del Negro calling the shots.

#4 Houston (54-28) vs. #5 Portland (54-28)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if...Dwight Howard dominates in the paint at both ends of the court and if James Harden shows that he can be a productive and efficient scorer/playmaker in the postseason as his team's number one option (as opposed to doing so as the third option, which was his role when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder).

Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will outplay Dwight Howard and James Harden.

Other things to consider: This is a "pick 'em" series; the teams have identical records, they are both talented offensively but flawed defensively and I cannot see either one making it past the second round unless their opponent suffers a serious injury to a star player. The deciding factor for me is that I trust Portland's style of play in the playoffs just a little more than I trust Houston's style of play.

The Rockets launch a lot of three pointers--leading the league in makes and attempts--but they only rank 16th in three point field goal percentage. If they get hot, they can put a scare into any team but this is not the NCAA Tournament, which means that they have to get hot for four out of seven games in order to advance.

The Blazers will try to establish Aldridge in the post, while also using Lillard's ballhanding ability and shooting touch to put pressure on Houston's suspect perimeter defenders. Harden will probably go off for 30-plus points in one of Houston's home games and he probably will have a couple 4-17 field goal shooting performances on the road. The series will be entertaining and closely contested but Portland will win in six or seven games.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Indiana-Chicago, Miami-Brooklyn, San Antonio-Portland and Oklahoma City-L.A. The Pacers-Bulls series could make for some brutal TV watching, with both teams struggling to score 80-85 points against suffocating defenses, but in the end the Pacers will prevail. The Nets were built with the primary goal of matching up with the Heat and they did so quite nicely during the regular season, sweeping the series--but the playoffs are a different animal and the Nets' geezers will run out of gas trying to chase around the athletic Heat. The Trailblazers have had a surprisingly good season but they will fall to the Spurs in the second round. The Thunder and the Clippers are developing an intense rivalry; that series will probably go the distance but in game seven at home Durant and Westbrook will not be denied.

Indiana has all of the necessary tools to beat Miami: size, toughness, defensive intensity, homecourt advantage. After a season during which the Pacers vowed to beat the Heat in the playoffs if game seven would be played in Indianapolis, the Eastern Conference Finals will be put up or shut up time for the would-be champions. From a historical standpoint, part of me does not believe that LeBron James and the Heat are quite equipped to reach territory only inhabited by three of the most legendary squads in pro basketball history--but, focusing purely on what we have seen from the Pacers this season, I don't quite trust Indiana in the biggest moments. James will likely add another page to his legacy by authoring a classic game seven performance on the road as the Heat survive what figures to be a grueling series.

The San Antonio-Oklahoma City series will be high level basketball at its finest. Russell Westbrook is the key factor in the series, because the Spurs simply have no answer for him, much like the 1980s Boston Celtics had no answer for the Philadelphia 76ers' Andrew Toney. If Westbrook is healthy, the Thunder will win. Perhaps I should not count on Westbrook's health, considering his recent injury history, but I am picking the Thunder.

A rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals will be fun to watch. LeBron James is now older and wiser but so are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The James-Durant battle will be epic but the series could be decided by the battle between the health of Dwyane Wade's cranky old knees and Westbrook's cranky young right knee. The Thunder were not quite ready two years ago but they have learned their lessons and Westbrook's injuries have also helped them to understand that every trip to the NBA Finals is precious because you never know when--or if--you will return. James is the best player in the NBA but the Thunder will prove to be the best team. If the Thunder win the championship with the much-criticized Westbrook and without the much-praised Harden it will be interesting to hear what the "experts" say.

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Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2013-2014 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I also went six for eight in my 2013-2014 Western Conference Preview, including placing the top four in the correct order. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

That adds up to 56/72 in the East and 57/72 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .785.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 98/135 (.726)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past nine years I have correctly picked nine of the 18 NBA Finals participants. In three of those nine years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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This playoff preview article is, to some extent, a coda for 20 Second Timeout. I am beginning a two year law school journey that will limit the amount of time and energy I can devote to watching pro basketball, much less analyzing it at a high level--and then in late August I will become a first-time father, which obviously will be a life-changing experience in many ways. From my days at Basketball Digest through this website's nine year run, I have enjoyed sharing my knowledge about and passion for pro basketball with a dedicated group of loyal readers; I will miss being able to write extensive treatises about Julius Erving, Roger Brown, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other great pro basketball players past and present but the new chapter in my life promises many new adventures and opportunities for personal growth. I will continue to post here as my schedule permits and I like to think that the archival material in the main page sidebar can serve as a great resource for anyone who is interested in learning about basketball history and basketball analysis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:52 PM

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Backspin Chronicles Pete Strobl's Basketball Odyssey

"They say that you should never stop learning if you want to keep a youthful outlook. They also say that the best way to really master something you love is to teach it to someone else. So, I'm going to go find a gym and teach somebody how to play basketball."--Pete Strobl

Pete Strobl's autobiography Backspin tells the story of his evolution from a Niagara University freshman who received little playing time to a successful pro basketball player in Europe to a highly respected basketball skills development coach. Hubie Brown (the Basketball Hall of Famer equally known for his great coaching career and his great skills as a TV commentator) and Calvin Murphy (who averaged 33.1 ppg during his college career before becoming an NBA All-Star and a Basketball Hall of Famer) are two of Niagara's most famous alumni. Brown came back to Niagara to give a clinic when Strobl was a freshman and Strobl's description of his failed attempt to impress Brown is priceless.

A key moment in Strobl's career happened in his first year at Niagara when he was very disappointed about riding the bench. Assistant coach Tom Parrotta listened to Strobl's complaints and provided a blunt response that sharpened Strobl's focus. Strobl writes (p. 25), "He didn't try to sell me anything; he didn't give me some threadbare speech from a coaching manual on how to deal with immature players who think that they should play more because they were high school studs. He simply listened. He listened to something he's probably heard a hundred times, possibly even from his own mouth when he was a struggling young player hungry for minutes of his own. He hit me right between the eyes with some truth. 'Prove it!' he said. And by not trying to alleviate my pain, he helped to fuel my fire."

Strobl's roommate during his first two years at Niagara was Alvin Young, also known as "Al-Boogie"; Young led the nation in scoring (25.1 ppg) as a senior in 1998-99. Young earned a basketball scholarship to Niagara despite not playing one minute of organized high school basketball. He honed his game on the playgrounds and learned how to get his shot off against any defender. Strobl recalls (p. 31), "The most valuable thing I learned from watching Al was that offensive moves are all about execution and repetition. Time after time, I watched him make the same move, make the same ball fake, hesitate for just exactly the same split-second, and many times against the very same defender. Time after time the result would be the same. He could tell a defensive player exactly what he was going to do and still execute the move flawlessly to get his shot off every time."

Strobl earned his bachelor's degree in just three years and completed his MBA by taking two summer semesters after his senior season. Strobl then began his professional playing career in France, where he initially experienced tremendous culture shock; he quickly adapted to the different language and different way of life and now he looks back with fondness on the time he spent in France. Strobl performed well enough to earn the opportunity to play in high level leagues in Austria and Germany, enabling him to explore his family's roots--and expand his game: Strobl was a late bloomer as a player but in Austria he began to display his full skill set, culminating in a playoff game when he scored 56 points while making 10 of his 15 three point field goal attempts.

While he was in Austria, Strobl began his coaching career by working with his club's Under 12 team. Strobl played a cerebral brand of basketball and he applied that same approach to his life--planning his next move much like "Al-Boogie" set up his next shot--because he realized that a playing career lasts a relatively short amount of time while a coaching career can last for decades.

Strobl subsequently played for teams in Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland, where his playing career came to an abrupt and unexpected end; after the birth of Strobl's second child, Stobl's team declined to provide adequate health insurance for Strobl's family or to release him from his contract so that he could play for a more accommodating club. For his entire life, Strobl had defined himself primarily as a basketball player but now he shifted his focus and made the decision to return to the United States. The lessons Strobl learned during his college career and his European odyssey prepared him for the next phase in his life. In 2009, he founded The Scoring Factory, a Pittsburgh-based basketball skills development academy that trains high school athletes, NBA-bound athletes and athletes who plan to play professionally in Europe.

Recognizing connections between seemingly disparate pursuits is an important aspect of coaching, because this enables a coach to teach by using analogies that can vividly resonate with his students in a way that straight, rote instruction may not. Strobl's father worked as a professional musician and Strobl explains some qualities that are shared by basketball and music (pp. 196-197): "Both require a lot of discipline and have structure and rules. A group of musicians has to play in the same key and time signature, just as a basketball team has to run some kind of offensive set and know what the defensive strategy is. There are role players or accompanists in both music and basketball. But for the great soloist, both music and basketball have plenty of opportunity for creative improvisation. Role players sometimes go unnoticed, but are often the difference between a hit record or not."

Backspin is an entertaining and informative book, full of insights not just about basketball but also about coaching/teaching, the benefits of stepping outside of one's comfort zone and the importance of learning from every life experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 PM

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

LeBron James Versus Kevin Durant: One More Chapter in the Eternal Debate About MVP Criteria

Most informed NBA observers agree that LeBron James is the best all-around player in the league, an unofficial title that he seized from Kobe Bryant several years ago. However, it seems unlikely that James will win the 2014 MVP award, because popular sentiment heavily favors Kevin Durant, the four-time scoring champion who has finished second in MVP voting in three of the four seasons that James won the award. Durant is posting career-high averages in scoring and assists while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to the second best record in the NBA; the Thunder are four games ahead of James' Heat with one game remaining on both teams' schedules. Durant has indisputably authored an MVP caliber season and he has been an MVP caliber player for several years but should he win the award over James based primarily on a slight difference in their respective teams' records and some form of voter fatigue regarding James? Or, should the MVP award go to the player who is still the best all-around performer in the league?

The names are different now but the questions are the same ones that have been debated for many years. Michael Jordan was the consensus best all-around player in the league for roughly a decade--though he missed nearly two full seasons while he pursued a pro baseball career--and is widely regarded as the greatest player of all-time but he "only" won five regular season MVP awards. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Jordan annually battled another greatest player of all-time candidate--Magic Johnson--for MVP honors and then Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each received one MVP during Jordan's prime, supposedly because voters were reluctant to give the trophy to Jordan every single year, a form of "logic" that makes no sense: there is no good reason that one player should not/cannot win eight or 10 MVPs. I much prefer the Rucker League precedent; if I recall the story correctly, even though Connie Hawkins missed most of the season he still made the Rucker League All-Star team because a Rucker League All-Star team simply wasn't authentic if it didn't have Connie Hawkins on it--and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that during the Jordan era an NBA MVP award was not authentic if it went to someone other than Jordan. Obviously, in a more formal league like the NBA a player cannot miss most of the season and still deserve All-Star or MVP consideration but Jordan should have won every regular season MVP from 1988 through 1998, except for 1994 (when he missed the entire season) and 1995 (when he only played 17 games); he was the best all-around player in the league and even though Hall of Famers Johnson, Barkley and Malone had some MVP caliber seasons during that era no knowledgeable observer would have picked any of them ahead of Jordan if all four players were available to be drafted or signed.

Kobe Bryant got an even worse deal than Jordan; at least Jordan still racked up the second most MVPs in pro basketball history, falling just one short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record. Bryant was the best all-around player in the NBA for the better part of the 2000s (circa 2003-2009), he proved equally adept at carrying decrepit teams to the playoffs and at leading a solid but not particularly deep Lakers' team to three straight Finals appearances/two straight championships but he only received one regular season MVP (2008). Bryant should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs and he also played at an MVP level in 2003 and 2009, though Tim Duncan and LeBron James were slightly better than Bryant in those respective seasons (injuries knocked Bryant out of serious MVP contention in 2004 and 2005, as he missed 17 and 16 games respectively).

According to the popular, media driven storyline, this is Durant's time: he is supposedly having a career year while James is allegedly just coasting and waiting for the playoffs to begin. The reality is that Durant is essentially playing at the same level he has been playing at for several years, with two notable exceptions: he is attempting about three more field goals a game and he is dishing off about one more assist a game, though assists are so subjective that this change may not even be statistically significant or have much to do with an actual increase in playmaking ability. Durant is shooting and passing more often not because his skill set has changed but rather but because the Thunder's other All-NBA First Team caliber player--Russell Westbrook--missed almost half of the season due to injury, forcing Durant to shoulder a bigger load. Durant's field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding average, steals average and blocked shots average are all lower than they were last season.

What about the "coasting" James? James has been remarkably consistent since he joined the Heat four years ago, averaging between 26.7 and 27.1 ppg, between 6.9 and 8.0 rpg and between 6.2 and 7.3 apg. He has increased his field goal percentage for seven straight years (including 2013-14), his free throw percentage annually hovers around .750 and this season he has posted the second best three point shooting percentage of his career. There is no discernible evidence that James is taking it easy or that he is declining. The "stat gurus" claim that James' defense has fallen off but while it is true that James' shotblocking--always an overrated part of his game (his best seasonal total is 93, five fewer than the best seasonal total posted by that noted high flyer Larry Bird)--has decreased to a ridiculously low level for a player with his athletic gifts (.3 bpg) James is still the multi-positional anchor for a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been the two best players in the NBA for several years and figure to remain the two best players for a few more years. In any given year, either player could deservedly win the MVP award--but James is the more physically imposing player at both ends of the court, a better inside scorer, a better passer and a better/more versatile defender. James used to be the better rebounder but Durant has closed the gap in that department. I doubt that any GM or coach would prefer to have Durant over James but because of the storyline that the media has relentlessly crafted throughout this season Durant will win the 2014 MVP. Honoring Durant will not likely turn out as badly as presenting Dirk Nowitzki the 2007 MVP hardware in a broom closet at an undisclosed location and perhaps Durant will soon have his day in the Finals' sun much like Nowitzki eventually did but I will always say that the MVP award should go to the league's best all-around player (unless there is a big man like Shaquille O'Neal whose physical dominance trumps the best all-around player's versatility) regardless of storylines, "advanced basketball statistics" and any form of voter fatigue directed against multiple MVP winners.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 PM

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Monday, April 14, 2014

"Stat Gurus" Forced to Consider Possibility That the "Hot Hand" Exists

"Stat gurus" puff out their chests and declare that their proprietary methods give them a significant edge over "old school" talent evaluators but research shows that tanking does not work precisely because of just how difficult it is for anyone--even a "stat guru" armed with reams of "advanced basketball statistics"--to predict/project future player performance. Another cherished "stat guru" assumption is that the "hot hand"--also known as being in the "zone"--does not really exist. Many people who have coached, played or even just watched basketball believe that they can recognize when a player gets "hot"--when he is in an unstoppable "zone"--but "stat gurus" dismiss such ideas.

"Stat gurus" have been mocking the "hot hand" for decades, deriding the concept as nothing more than a figment of the imagination that reveals the inherent fallibility of evaluating players by using the "eye test." Old school basketball talent evaluators say things like "Eyeball is number one" but many "stat gurus" believe that the "eye" lies and that it is more effective to read spreadsheets than to watch games. Of course, a wise talent evaluator combines the knowledge he gains from the "eye test" with the information he gleans from pertinent statistics to paint a full picture of a player's strengths and weaknesses. 

"Stat gurus" cheered when a 1985 study conducted by Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky indicated that what may look like a "hot hand" is really just a random occurrence. One major problem with that study, though, is that it did not represent a meaningful sample size. The researchers focused on the shooting statistics of the Philadelphia 76ers because the 76ers were the only NBA team at that time which kept complete shot by shot data. That is kind of like looking for your lost keys in one small area not because that is where you think that you lost them but because that is the only place where there is enough light to conduct your search.

The amount of available statistical data has exploded in recent years and, after examining more than 70,000 NBA shots from the 2012-13 season, three Harvard researchers concluded that a player who has made his previous several shots is at least slightly more likely to make his next shot. Does this study conclusively prove that the "hot hand" exists? Of course not. The scientific method requires that hypotheses be repeatedly tested; Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity is perhaps the best known and most successful theory in scientific history but researchers to this day still test Einstein's hypotheses regarding space, time and gravity. Any "stat guru" who asserts that he has created the definitive player rating system is not practicing science; he is peddling snake oil.

When I criticize the flawed reasoning employed by many "stat gurus" and when I point out the inherent limitations of "advanced basketball statistics," some people misinterpret my analysis to mean that I harbor some reflexive biases against using the best possible statistical tools to better understand basketball.  My main point is that "advanced basketball statistics" should not be worshiped as some infallible bastion of truth; "stat gurus" should habitually create testable hypotheses and then see if the best, most comprehensive data that can be gathered supports or refutes those hypotheses. If Player X supposedly has a "rating" of 33.8 and is supposedly exactly 2.5 rating points better than Player Y, what is the margin of error in that rating system? If a player rating system cannot be tested objectively then it is of limited use; anyone can juggle certain basic boxscore numbers in order to create a rating system that is biased toward particular statistics at the expense of other statistics. For instance, a player who sports a relatively high field goal percentage may be a very limited offensive player while a player who has a relatively low field goal percentage may be a very dangerous and versatile offensive player whose skills force the opposing team to trap him. A "stat guru" who favors "efficiency" (as defined by his own preferred rating system) will be unduly swayed by the gaudy shooting percentages of an offensively challenged big man, while a shrewd talent evaluator will see that big man for who he is: a player who is dependent on other players to create his scoring opportunities.

Ironically, as more data about basketball is collected and analyzed, it is becoming evident that assumptions made by allegedly objective "stat gurus" are not any more trustworthy than assumptions made by supposedly subjective and/or biased observers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 PM

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why Tanking Does Not Work

"Stat gurus" believe that "advanced basketball statistics" enable them to more accurately and efficiently evaluate players and teams than the "old school" traditional scouting methods (watching players/teams in person, studying players/teams on film, considering basic box score numbers such as per game averages and raw shooting percentages). In theory, a "stat guru" could build a better team than an "old school" basketball talent evaluator by making better draft choices and/or by making shrewder decisions in terms of which players to sign, which players to trade and which players to cut. A high first round draft pick and/or a significant amount of salary cap space should be gold for a "stat guru" and one can easily imagine a team executive who believes in "advanced basketball statistics" thinking that it might be a good idea to tank in order to acquire a lottery pick, disregarding the idea that building a winning team requires putting a winning culture in place; there is no "advanced basketball statistic" that quantifies "winning culture," so such a concept is meaningless to a "stat guru."

In the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes that even the most ardent "stat gurus" have been forced to admit how difficult it is to accurately evaluate players--and that the challenges involved in player evaluation are a major reason why tanking does not work:

Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.

Supposedly, the worst thing for an NBA team to do is get stuck on the 40-45 win "treadmill," good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to seriously contend for a championship. Why not gut the roster, plummet to 15-20 wins and rebuild around the talents of a lottery pick? That may seem logical but the reality, as Thompson notes, is "Mediocre teams don’t necessarily stay mediocre. Within two years, they’re three times more likely to become elite (winning at least two-thirds of their games) than the lousy squads that locked up the top picks. Developing and effectively deploying current players, making smart trades and judiciously signing free agents, finding good players later in the draft—these patient, sometimes incremental moves appear to work better than tearing things down to try to land a hyped-up superhero in the draft."

Dallas owner Mark Cuban is a big fan of "advanced basketball statistics." He broke up his 2011 championship team instead of giving that veteran, tough-minded squad a chance to defend their title. The Mavericks' winning percentage dropped from .695 (57-25) to .545 (36-30 in the lockout-shortened season, equivalent to 45-37 in an 82 game season) and they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas went 41-41 last season and failed to qualify for the playoffs, while this season they are currently in a three-team dog fight for the final two playoff spots. Cuban did not literally tank--though Thompson points out that Cuban has publicly stated his support for such a tactic--but the moves that he made are based on the same principle as tanking: instead of trying to win the most possible games right now, he gave up proven players with the hope that he could obtain better and/or younger players. 

Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause thought the same way about the Chicago Bulls during the late 1990s. There are many examples of an owner/general manager combination threatening to break up a team if it did not win a championship but the 1997-98 "Last Dance" Bulls are the first--and, to the best of my knowledge, only--team that the owner and general manager pledged to break up, in advance, even if the team won the championship. Krause could not wait to push Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen out the door so that he could show the world how smart he is and just how quickly he could mold a championship team around his hand-picked coach, Tim Floyd. Since that time, the Bulls have missed the playoffs seven times, lost in the first round five times and made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals just once.

The bottom line is simple and it reflects the truths that pump through the heart of any champion and any person who takes pride in his craft: Tanking does not work, losing on purpose does not build a winning culture and breaking up a championship team is foolish.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:29 PM

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Real Team Nobody Wants to Face

It has been amusing during the past few weeks to hear various commentators suggest that "nobody wants to face" the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. Early last season, the Grizzlies were a team on the rise with Lionel Hollins at the helm and Rudy Gay providing scoring punch from the small forward position to spread the floor for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol but after trading Gay and ditching Hollins the Grizzlies are a much weaker squad; the Grizzlies suffered some injuries this season that some people used as a convenient excuse for Memphis' declining winning percentage and the Grizzlies received a temporary bump when Gasol returned to the lineup but as the regular season concludes they have hardly been setting the world on fire--posting a 6-4 record in their last 10 games--and they are in a three way tie with Dallas and Phoenix for seventh-ninth place in the Western Conference.

In recent seasons, teams that "nobody wanted to face" did not make much noise in the playoffs:
  1. In 2006 nobody wanted to face the Sacramento Kings, who lost 4-2 to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round; the Spurs had a 34 point win and a 22 point win during that series and only lost game three by one point.
  2.  In 2011 nobody wanted to face the Portland Trailblazers, who lost 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
  3.  In 2012 nobody wanted to face the New York Knicks, who lost 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the first round. Miami blasted New York 100-67 in the first game and took a 3-0 lead before dropping game four 89-87.
The Grizzlies have a solid inside offensive attack anchored by Randolph and Gasol and they are a very good defensive team but they just cannot score enough points--particularly from the perimeter--to beat an elite team in a playoff series. Russell Westbrook's injury last season enabled the Grizzlies to sneak into the Western Conference Finals--where they were promptly obliterated by the Spurs--but this year the Grizzlies will most likely exit in the first round, assuming that they even qualify for the postseason.

In contrast, the real team that nobody wants to face--or at least that nobody with any sense would want to face--is the Spurs, who have an NBA-best 58-16 record, a .784 winning percentage that is the best in franchise history. Their leaders have championship pedigrees--Coach Gregg Popovich, two-time regular season MVP Tim Duncan, 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker and 2008 Sixth Man of the Year Manu Ginobili--they made it to the NBA Finals last season and they are currently in the midst of a 18 game winning streak; only 12 other NBA squads have won at least 18 games in a row, including some of the greatest teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers, 1996 Bulls, 2000 Lakers).

The Grizzlies are flawed, mediocre and vulnerable; the Spurs are well-balanced, they have a tradition of excellence and they are accustomed to making long playoff runs. It should be obvious which team "nobody wants to face" and which team would not evoke much fear.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 PM

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Can the Pacers Dethrone the Heat?

The Indiana Pacers pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and they have beaten the Heat in two of their three 2013-14 regular season encounters. The Pacers have openly stated their belief that if they secure homecourt advantage then they will dethrone the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. The reality, though, is that a great team will usually win at least one game on the road during a long playoff series, so homecourt advantage does not guarantee anything other than the comfort of playing game seven in front of a supportive crowd. If these two teams face each other in the postseason, the outcome of the series will be determined less by homecourt advantage and more by two factors: (1) the health of key players and (2) which team imposes its style on the other team.

Indiana's 84-83 home win over Miami on March 26 reinforced and/or revealed several things about these teams:

1) LeBron James is, first and foremost, a big-time scorer; he shredded the NBA's best defense for 38 points on 11-19 field goal shooting despite receiving very little offensive help from Dwyane Wade (15 points on 6-11 field goal shooting before leaving the game with a hamstring injury) and Chris Bosh (eight points on 3-11 field goal shooting). James is the best all-around player in the NBA but his primary skill set advantage, by far, is his ability to score; the Heat would not have won the last two NBA titles if James had not led the league in playoff scoring in 2012 (30.3 ppg) and if he had not ranked fourth in 2013 playoff scoring (25.9 ppg).

2) Greg Oden may be able to clog up the middle as a help defender (two blocked shots in just six minutes) but he does not have the necessary mobility and/or guile to slow down Roy Hibbert in a one on one matchup. The aging and undersized Udonis Haslem did a much better job against Hibbert than Oden did.

3) The Pacers' best chance to beat the Heat is to slow the game down, avoid open court turnovers and pound the ball into Hibbert and David West in the paint--but the Pacers do not have a top notch point guard who can control the tempo of the game and their top two scorers are wing players, so it is not easy or natural for Indiana to do what is necessary to beat Miami. The Pacers have the right personnel to challenge Miami--big men who can score in the paint and mobile, lengthy wing defenders who can challenge James and Wade--and they play the right way in stretches but they can be tempted into taking bad shots and/or committing careless turnovers. In contrast, the Heat can run their offense through either James or Wade and thus they are less apt to stray from what they do best.

4) Lance Stephenson is a versatile and valuable player but he is also a hothead who is prone to making bad decisions that could cost the Pacers; when he foolishly got ejected late in the fourth quarter it almost cost the Pacers the game and they can ill afford for him to exercise such poor judgment in the playoffs.

5) The Pacers are young, talented and hungry. They are clearly a viable threat to the Heat--but playoff series are often decided by the transcendent greatness of an elite player: James has demonstrated that he can fill that role and carry his team to championships, while Paul George--Indiana's best player--has not yet shown that he can take that step from All-Star to elite player.

Many pundits declared that Indiana's win all but clinched the East's top seed but the Heat have won two in a row while the Pacers have lost two in a row since their Wednesday encounter, so Indiana's "big" victory may very well turn out to be just a footnote--and that is why it is not wise to draw broad conclusions on the basis of one game. Winning that "big," nationally televised game does not mean much for the Pacers if they cannot take care of business in the "small" games, because all of the games count the same in the standings.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant cemented their legacies by leading their teams to "three-peat" title runs; Jordan won three championships in a row on two separate occasions, while Bryant captured a "three-peat" early in his career while playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal before leading the L.A. Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and back to back championships near the end of his career. So far, at the championship level James has only matched what Bryant did past his prime and James has not come close to equaling the overall body of work compiled by Jordan and Bryant. No team has made it to the Finals in four consecutive years since the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, so if James carries the Heat to a fourth Finals appearance in a row he will have accomplished something that even Jordan and Bryant failed to do--and if James authors another dominant postseason performance while leading the Heat to a third straight NBA title then it will be valid to compare James with the all-time greats not just on the basis of his individual talents/accomplishments but also on the basis of his ability to elevate a team to the championship level for an extended period of time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Russell Westbrook Inherits Kobe Bryant's Spot--for Better or Worse

Kobe Bryant has been the best guard in the NBA for the better part of the past decade or so but an Achilles injury knocked him out of the 2013 playoffs and caused him to miss most of the 2013-14 regular season before a broken leg sidelined him for the remainder of the current campaign; he made the 2013 All-NBA First Team but his reign as the league's top backcourt performer is likely over, even if he returns to action next season. Bryant has been underrated for most of his career, with critics sniping at his alleged selfishness and foolishly suggesting that the L.A. Lakers were better off when Bryant shot fewer times even when Bryant was at the height of his powers, leading the Lakers to championships while also setting various individual scoring records. There are many reasons that the Lakers have sunk to historic lows this season but the biggest single factor is that Bryant played in just six games.

One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook helped lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference last season (60-22) after playing a major role in the Thunder's run to the 2012 NBA Finals but the Thunder's 2013 championship hopes were dashed when Houston's Patrick Beverly wiped out Westbrook's knee during the first round of the playoffs; sans Westbrook, the Thunder struggled to eliminate the mediocre Rockets before getting blasted 4-1 in the second round by a flawed Memphis team that was promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

The Thunder opened the 2013-14 season with a 23-5 record, including a 21-4 mark with Westbrook in the starting lineup. They once again looked like a bona fide championship contender but then Westbrook reinjured his knee; the Thunder went just 4-4 in their first eight games without him before Kevin Durant put up Kobe Bryant-like scoring numbers in January, almost singlehandedly carrying the Thunder--but even with Durant's MVP-level performance, the Thunder were still not quite as good as they had been to start the season, going 20-7 without Westbrook.

When Westbrook returned to action he was understandably rusty and the Thunder did not immediately take the league by storm. Instead of acknowledging Westbrook's crucial role in the Thunder's recent success, critics loudly suggested that Durant and Westbrook are incompatible and that the Thunder might be better off without Westbrook--ignoring not only that Westbrook had yet to return to form but also that right after Westbrook came back starting center Kendrick Perkins suffered a groin injury that has prevented him from playing. The "stat gurus" hate Perkins but Perkins provides an important physical presence in the paint for the Thunder, who are 43-11 with him this season but just 6-7 without him.

As the calendar shifted to March, Westbrook's game accelerated back into high gear. In seven games this month, Westbrook is averaging 23.6 ppg, 8.7 apg and 6.1 rpg in just 26.9 mpg--those are MVP caliber numbers and he is doing all of that work despite playing restricted minutes. Yes, seven games is a small sample size but we have already seen Westbrook perform at an All-NBA level for multiple seasons so there is no reason to believe that it is a fluke that he is playing at an All-NBA level now. Westbrook has an astonishing +23.9 plus/minus rating in March. Durant has posted a +10.4 plus/minus rating in eight March games; the missing Westbrook game took place last Sunday, when he sat out for precautionary reasons as the Thunder endured their worst loss of the season, a 109-86 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

Kevin Durant is a great player and a strong case could be made that he deserves the 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP; he is worthy of all of the praise that he is receiving. It is just a shame, though, that so many people seem to think that it is necessary to denigrate Westbrook in order to acknowledge Durant's excellence. When healthy, Westbrook is the best guard in the NBA and he is critically important to the Thunder's championship hopes: they seamlessly absorbed the loss of sixth man James Harden as long as Westbrook was healthy but they are just a good team--not an elite squad--when Westbrook does not play or is not at full strength.

Bryant does not have to listen to his critics anymore; he can just cover his ears with his five championship rings. Westbrook does not seem inclined to listen to his critics, either, and that is a good thing for the Thunder, because if he stays healthy he can be the best guard in the NBA for several years and he has a good chance to build his own championship ring collection in partnership with Durant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 AM

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Friday, March 14, 2014

New York State of Mind, Part V: The Phil Jackson Edition

Phil Jackson is about to get paid handsomely to put his money where his mouth is; Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reports that the New York Knicks are prepared to offer Jackson "approximately $15 million annually" to fix a dysfunctional franchise that has, in Jackson's words, a "clumsy roster" filled with mismatched parts and and with players who lack a championship mentality.

Amare Stoudemire, who will make $21,679,893 this season, and Carmelo Anthony, who will make $21,490,000 this season, are by far the two highest paid Knicks; they are the fourth and fifth highest paid players in the NBA, trailing only Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Gilbert Arenas, who was vastly overrated even before a combination of physical injuries and mental foolishness derailed his career (Arenas' contract is so ridiculous--he will be paid until 2016 even though he has not played a game since the 2011-12 season--that Arenas himself admits that it is probably the worst deal in NBA history). Jackson is far from enamored with Anthony or Stoudemire; in a 2012 HBO interview, he told Andrea Kremer, "Well, they don't fit together well. Stoudemire doesn't fit together well with Carmelo. Stoudemire's (a) really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can’t stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together."

Jackson's coaching track record is impeccable. After leading the Albany Patroons to the 1984 CBA championship, he joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach, eventually replacing Doug Collins as head coach in 1989. Michael Jordan, who many people consider to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals once in his first five seasons; Jordan--with a lot of help from Scottie Pippen--led the Bulls to six championships in the seven full seasons that he played for Jackson. Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant big man of his era, made one NBA Finals appearance and got swept out of the playoffs five times in his first six seasons; O'Neal--with a lot of help from Kobe Bryant--led the Lakers to three straight championships in his first three seasons playing for Jackson. Critics often carp that Jackson has had the horses throughout his NBA career but it is indisputable that when he had the horses he won the races--and it does not seem likely that anyone else would have matched Jackson's standard of nine championships in his first 10 seasons of coaching Jordan and O'Neal.

Unfortunately for the Knicks, they are not hiring Jackson for his coaching prowess; they are hiring Jackson to run their personnel operation, an operation that has been a disaster for many years. It would be one thing if the Knicks brought in Jackson as a coach so that he could try to squeeze the most out of Anthony, Stoudemire, talented head case J.R. Smith and the rest of New York's motley crew but there are good reasons to be a little bit skeptical about what Jackson can do for this team at this time strictly in an executive capacity; it is difficult to picture Jackson traveling around the country scouting college games looking for young talent but young talent is exactly what the Knicks need: they will never win a title with Anthony as their best player or with Smith as his sidekick or with the oft-injured Stoudemire eating up salary cap space like termites destroying a house from the inside out. Jackson is a master at maximizing the talent on hand but he has yet to build a team from scratch--and perhaps that is why this New York opportunity has piqued his interest: if Jackson tears down this roster and builds a championship team from scratch he will add an improbable chapter to his already impressive legacy. It is also possible that Jackson will try to run the team from afar, cashing big checks while the Knicks continue to flounder; the key question is if Jackson is highly motivated to prove what he can do as an executive or if he is highly motivated to score one last big payday while also sticking it to the Lakers for jerking him around during their previous coaching search.

Jackson had a long-running, well-documented public feud with Jerry Krause when Krause was Jackson's boss in Chicago and Jackson also battled with Jerry West when West ran the Lakers, so it will be fascinating to see what Jackson is able to do if he takes New York's offer and puts on an executive's suit. Jackson's name as a coach became synonymous not just with winning games but with winning championships in groups of three (three separate three-peats, plus back to back titles in the midst of three straight trips to the NBA Finals near the end of his second run with the Lakers); the Knicks have made the playoffs each of the past three years--and they still have a chance to sneak in as the eighth seed this year--so Jackson's tenure in New York will be judged not on 50 win seasons or playoff appearances but rather on if the Knicks become a viable championship contender. Krause, West and the rest of the NBA universe will be watching this saga with great interest. My expectation is that if Jackson takes the job he will get rid of Anthony, Stoudemire and Smith as soon as possible so that he can construct a championship-caliber roster around a young, unselfish, versatile and tough-minded superstar--but if the Knicks fail to meet expectations then the fans and the media will pressure Jackson to pick up the coaching reins. Logic suggests that this will not end well for Jackson--unless James Dolan gives Jackson full autonomy and Jackson responds by being 100% engaged in the search for young talent--but it will be intriguing to watch what happens next.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 PM

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Sans Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers Sink to Historic Lows

The L.A. Lakers went 2-4 during Kobe Bryant's cameo appearance this season and some commentators wondered aloud if the Lakers were better off without Bryant. The reality is that the Lakers were not particularly good with Bryant but that they are awful without him. I predicted that by the time Bryant returned the Lakers would have the worst record in the Western Conference; it is not clear if Bryant will play again this season but after last night's 142-94 loss to the L.A. Clippers--the biggest win in Clippers' history and the biggest loss in Lakers' history--the Lakers are 21-41, a half game behind Utah for last place in the West. Even if the Lakers were in the comically inept Eastern Conference they would be 12th in the standings, ahead of only Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Lakers have gone 9-28 since Bryant last suited up; their defense is non-existent, their effort level is deplorable and Bryant summed up the entire state of affairs by commenting, "It's like when big brother is not around, he starts doing some crazy (stuff). It's been rough."

Yes, Bryant's "little brothers" have been doing some "crazy (stuff)" now that Bryant is not around to police the locker room and the practice court. Say what you will about Bryant's demeanor--and many people have said a lot of negative things about Bryant's leadership skills--but Bryant made sure that his teammates practiced hard, played hard and did not do "crazy (stuff)." That kind of leader/teammate is only considered "difficult" by people who do not understand how much effort and sacrifice it takes to create and sustain a winning program.

The Lakers' abject collapse without Bryant this season provides some indication of his impact, reaffirming what I have been saying for years: the Lakers' overall talent level has been overrated. Bryant carried weak Lakers' teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 and he led the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 with a sidekick, Pau Gasol, who had not won a single playoff game prior to becoming a Laker and with a group of bench players who, for the most part, hardly distinguished themselves before or after getting championship rings courtesy of Bryant. It could be argued that the Lakers are even more talent-depleted now than they were in 2006 and 2007 and it is undeniable that injuries to several players have taken their toll but it is odd that more is not made of the fact that without Bryant on the court for most of the season the Lakers have devolved from a playoff team to a laughingstock. Losing Dwight Howard clearly has hurt the Lakers but he was not fully healthy last season and if Pau Gasol were as good as so many people say then he would be able to carry a team at least to within shouting distance of a .500 record sans Bryant and Howard.

After LeBron James left Cleveland, media members incorrectly ignored all of the other changes that the Cavs made and attributed all of the team's decline to James' departure, without noting that the franchise had also changed the front office staff, the coaching staff and most of the roster. The Lakers have problems that extend beyond Bryant's absence and it would not be correct to say that the Lakers are terrible only because Bryant is inactive--but in his prime Bryant carried some pretty awful teams to the playoffs without getting much credit from the MVP voters, so the Lakers' collapse this season does provide further context regarding just how well Bryant performed during the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker "era." If Bryant can return to full health next season, it will be interesting to see just what the Lakers look like, particularly if they are not able to add much talent to the roster in the offseason.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 PM

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Pass First Players Do Not Score 61 Points in a Game

LeBron James scored a career-high/Miami Heat franchise single-game record 61 points in the Heat's 124-107 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday. He shot 22-33 from the field--including 8-10 from three point range--and 9-12 from the free throw line while accumulating seven rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers. James is the 23rd player in NBA history to score at least 60 points in a regular season game; Larry Miller (67 points), Zelmo Beaty (63 points), Julius Erving (63 points) and Stew Johnson (62 points) accomplished this feat in the ABA. A journeyman NBA player can get hot and score 40 points and most All-Stars are capable of dropping 50 points under the right conditions but the 60 point plateau is hallowed ground for a scorer: most of the players who scored at least 60 points in a game have either already been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame or else are certain to be inducted as soon as they become eligible; the few exceptions are the aforementioned Miller, Beaty and Johnson, plus Tom Chambers and Gilbert Arenas: Miller was a good player who had an exceptional game, Beaty made the All-Star team five times in two leagues, Johnson earned three ABA All-Star selections, Chambers was a four-time NBA All-Star and Arenas made the NBA All-Star team three times.

Many of the members of the 60 Point Club were/are great playmakers in addition to being great scorers but none of those players could accurately be called a "pass first" player. James often refers to himself (and is frequently described by others) as a "pass first" player, a contention that I have repeatedly disputed: after James ransacked the Boston Celtics for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Miami's 98-79 victory in the sixth game of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, I wrote, "Contrary to what so many people have written/said, James is not a 'pass first' player; he is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer. Magic Johnson was a 'pass first' player and it was major news when he scored more than 40 points, a plateau he only reached six times in his regular season career (three times hitting exactly that number) and four times in his playoff career; James has scored at least 40 points 48 times in the regular season (including nine 50 point games, seventh on the all-time list) and 11 times in the playoffs. It is understandably confusing to James' teammates (and outside observers) when he spends the first three quarters of a game looking like one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and then spends the final 12 minutes standing in the corner; that is not being unselfish or being a 'pass first' player: that is failing to accept the responsibility associated with being an MVP level player and that is worthy of criticism, regardless of what Mike Breen or Jeff Van Gundy say."

James has outgrown his reticence to take over as a scorer in playoff games against elite defensive teams and it is no coincidence that after he accepted that responsbility he led the Heat to back to back championships. James always had the ability to pile up points by bulling his way to the hoop but now he has added a solid post up game and a reliable perimeter shot to augment his athletic ability and size. He has also vastly improved his shot selection. When James is taking good shots and when his perimeter game is flowing he is unguardable; even when he takes bad shots and his jumper is off it is no picnic to check him but at least in those situations he is not getting dunks, layups and free throws.

James has assembled an impressive resume as a scorer:
  1. James ranks third in ABA/NBA regular season history with a 27.5 ppg scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg). 
  2. James ranks third in ABA/NBA playoff history with a 28.1 ppg scoring average, trailing only Jordan (33.5 ppg), Allen Iverson (29.7 ppg), Jerry West (29.1 ppg) and Kevin Durant (28.6 ppg).
  3. James has averaged at least 26.7 ppg for 10 consecutive seasons after scoring 20.9 ppg as a rookie entering the NBA straight out of high school.
  4. James won the 2007-08 scoring title with a 30.0 ppg average and that is not even his single season career-high; he finished third in the NBA with a 31.4 ppg average in 2005-06.
  5. James has ranked no lower than fourth in the league in regular season scoring average in each of the past 10 seasons; in addition to claiming the aforementioned 2008 scoring title, he also finished second three straight years (2009-11).
  6. James has scored at least 50 points in 10 regular season games, ranking seventh on the all-time ABA/NBA list behind only Chamberlain (105), Jordan (30), Kobe Bryant (24), Elgin Baylor (14), Rick Barry (13) and Iverson (11). 
  7. Early this season, James reached double figures in scoring for the 500th consecutive game and his still active streak of 551 games ranks fourth in NBA history, trailing only Jordan (866), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (787) and Karl Malone (575).
  8. James ranks 33rd in ABA/NBA regular season history with 22,614 points. At his current pace, he will vault into the top 10 in less than three years.
  9. James ranks 10th in ABA/NBA playoff history with 3871 points. If he continues to score prolifically while leading the Heat on deep postseason runs then he will move into fifth place in two years.
Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:25 AM

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Basketball Hall of Fame Finally Honors Bobby "Slick" Leonard

I am delighted that the Basketball Hall of Fame's ABA Committee has made another fine selection, tapping Bobby "Slick" Leonard for induction in the fall of 2014. Leonard led the Pacers to three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73) and five ABA Finals appearances. Leonard's Pacers were the Boston Celtics of the ABA and they had the upper hand in their "Interstate 65" rivalry with the Kentucky Colonels, winning three of their five head to head playoff series. Leonard's coaching accomplishments alone merit Hall of Fame induction, but it is worth noting that Leonard also twice earned All-America honors as a player at Indiana University and he starred on their 1953 NCAA championship team. He enjoyed a solid NBA playing career, averaging 9.9 ppg in seven seasons (including a career-high 16.1 ppg in 1961-62), before becoming a coach.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo deserves credit for living up to his pledge to recognize worthy individuals who "slipped through the cracks" and did not get inducted when they should have been. Under Colangelo's watch, the newly formed ABA Committee has finally inducted Artis Gilmore plus Leonard's Indiana Pacers' stars Mel Daniels and Roger Brown.

For the past 29 years, Leonard has been the color commentator for the Pacers' radio broadcasts. His signature "Boom, Baby!" call is one of the most famous catchphrases in pro basketball. Whenever I cover a Pacers' home game it is always a treat to speak with Leonard about pro basketball past and present. The stories he told me about Sam Jones, Gus Johnson, Roger Brown and James Silas enriched the articles that I wrote about those players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 AM

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kobe Bryant: "I'm a Difficult Person to Deal With"

In an All-Star Weekend interview, a reporter asked Kobe Bryant if his reputation for being a "difficult teammate" might hinder the Lakers' rebuilding efforts. Bryant replied:

No, not necessarily.  I'm a difficult person to deal with.  For people who don't have the same kind of competitiveness or commitment to winning, then I become an absolute pain in the neck.  Because I'm
going to drag you into the gym every single day.  If you need to be drug in, that's what I'm going to do.


And for players that have that level of commitment, very, very, easy.  And we can wind up enhancing the entire group and elevating them to that type of level.  But if we don't have that commitment, man, I'll absolutely be very, very tough to get along with.  No question about it. 

Bryant may be a "difficult teammate" but it is also rewarding to be his teammate; his impact on the Lakers goes far beyond what statistics can measure: many players have championship rings only because they were fortunate enough to play alongside Bryant during Bryant's prime--and many players had their best individual seasons while playing alongside Bryant, including Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.

If I had been blessed with the opportunity to play in the NBA, I would not have found it difficult at all to play with an MVP-caliber player whose main goal is to win championships--but I would have found it very difficult to play with Carmelo Anthony or Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury or any other All-Star caliber player who only gives consistent effort at one end of the court and who often seems to have an agenda that is focused on something other than winning (playing in a big city, getting paid, being quirky, etc.). I don't understand a guy like James Harden; he probably could have won multiple championships playing the Manu Ginobili role for the Oklahoma City Thunder but he preferred to force a trade to Houston so that he could get paid and "prove" that he is "the man." If you are "the man," then beat out Russell Westbrook for the number two role on the team--or, better yet, do whatever it takes to win a championship (a la Ginobili with the Spurs) and don't worry about who gets the credit or who gets paid. The Thunder have not missed a beat without Harden and the Rockets had to acquire the best center in the NBA just to move one step up from battling for the eighth seed. 

Harry Truman was renowned for "giving hell" to his opponents but he said, "I never did give them hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell." Bryant, like Michael Jordan before him, tells his teammates the truth: if they are not playing hard or if they are making stupid plays, he lets them hear about it in no uncertain terms. That may seem "difficult" or feel like "hell" but it also creates a no excuses, no slacking allowed environment. When Bryant plays with an avulsion fracture in his finger or other injuries that would force most players out of the lineup, he sets an example that no one should be visiting the trainer's room unless that player is at death's door. 

The Lakers face a challenging rebuilding task not because Bryant is "difficult" but rather because Bryant can no longer carry the Smush Parkers and Kwame Browns of the world into the playoffs; with Bryant injured or absent, all of the Lakers' weaknesses are exposed and there is no relief in sight: that was true during the 2013 playoffs even when the Lakers had a twin towers pairing of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and it is true during this season even though the Lakers have at least as much talent now as they did circa 2006 when Kwame Brown and Smush Parker became two of the most improbable playoff starters in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:32 AM

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

LeBron James Explains How Dwyane Wade Helped Him to Develop a Championship Mentality

LeBron James' All-Star Weekend interview with Steve Smith has received attention regarding James' selections for a hypothetical all-time pro basketball "Mount Rushmore" (Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson)--but what I found most intriguing was James' explanation of how he transformed his game during his second season in Miami (2011-12), particularly in terms of his relationship with Dwyane Wade:

It's easy when you sit around in the summertime and say, "Let's team up." That's the easy part. The hard part is when you actually get on the floor and see how similar both guys are and how both guys are used to having the ball in their hands. Two or three possessions go by where you're like, "I've been playing defense for three straight possessions. I need the rock." It's just two alpha males going at it...

We weren't playing good basketball, we were out of sync and me and D. Wade were looking at each other like, "Did we make the right choice, man? Is this what we really want?" Can two guys who basically held franchises on their shoulders and decided to team up give one shoulder to each other to make this happen? There was a clash for sure.

If we can look back on it, I'm surprised we even got to the (2011) Finals. I'm still surprised we even got there...

D. Wade called me (after Miami lost in the 2011 Finals) and we went to the Bahamas...I felt like, if I don't win this year, I'm going to get buried under every cemetery that they've got. So, we went to the Bahamas and had some great conversations there. D. Wade was like, "In order for us to be great, you have to be the guy." I was looking at him like, "What? What do you mean by that? I am the guy but what do you mean by 'the guy'?" He was like, "In order for us to be great, in order for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish while we are playing together, you have to be the guy that you were in Cleveland and I'll take a step back."

Many commentators asserted that what went wrong with James' Cleveland Cavaliers was that James did not have a good enough supporting cast--an excuse that completely went out the window after he lost in the 2011 NBA Finals while playing alongside perennial All-Stars Wade and Chris Bosh plus a host of solid role players--but the reality is that on several occasions as a Cavalier when James was challenged in the playoffs by elite level opponents he quit and complained; James went to Miami trying to escape the responsibility of posting dominant numbers in the playoffs against elite teams, so it is very ironic that in order to win championships James had to adopt the very mindset that he was reluctant to have in Cleveland: instead of griping about a supposed lack of help, James--and any other MVP level player who aspires to win a championship--must embrace the necessity to dominate the game and to impose his will on his teammates and the opposition. This is what Wade implored James to do and this is what Kobe Bryant consistently did while winning five championships with the L.A. Lakers; until the past couple seasons the difference between Bryant and James was that James was reluctant to accept this responsibility. It is fascinating to hear James now admit that before he had that fateful offseason conversation with Wade he did not fully understand the necessary mentality to be a champion; if James had developed that mentality in Cleveland then he could have led the Cavaliers to a championship but he deserves credit for being introspective enough to accept and learn from Wade's sound advice.

James' explanation echoes what Tim Grover told me: "When he was in Miami, Dwyane Wade--having gone through all the trials and tribulations with the Miami Heat, from the (2006) championship to all the way down to being a Lottery team--learned how to deal with all the different levels of adversity and success. He was able to teach LeBron or when he would see LeBron in certain situations playing or in practice he knew how to put LeBron in position to succeed." Prior to Miami winning back to back titles, I often made the point that the only way for the Heat to be successful is for James to accept the responsibility to be the best player on the court. James should never take a back seat to Wade or anyone else--and the idea that the Heat could win a title with James in a secondary role never made any sense to me.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 PM

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

All-Star Weekend Impressions

NBA All-Star Weekend is by far the best event of its kind--the comparable NFL, MLB and NHL talent showcases are not nearly as entertaining--but it is not as great as it used to be or as great as it could be. The best thing about NBA All-Star Weekend is that it provides a platform to show the world just how fast, strong and explosive NBA athletes are. I am not a big fan of the Rising Stars Challenge--mainly because the event is characterized by a serious lack of defensive intensity/competitiveness--but the game provides national exposure for some talented young players who are members of small market teams. The Shooting Stars competition enables current NBA players to compete with and against NBA legends and WNBA players. The Skills Challenge is fun to watch, though during a real game one does not need to master the "skill" of passing a ball into a barrel or dribbling through cones. The Three Point Contest is a pure demonstration of a fundamental basketball skill being executed at the highest level by some of the sport's top marksmen. The Slam Dunk Contest lets fans live vicariously through the exploits of some of the league's best gravity-defying leapers. Sunday's Legends Brunch pays tribute to the players who built the sport from the ground up and was my favorite event to attend during the six years that I covered All-Star Weekend.

Team Hill defeated Team Webber 142-136 in the Rising Stars Challenge. Detroit's Andre Drummond grabbed MVP honors, leading Team Hill with 30 points and a game-high/Rising Stars record 25 rebounds--but suffice it to say that video of this game will not be used at any basketball camps as an example of fundamentally sound basketball, particularly at the defensive end of the court. Chris Bosh won his second straight Shooting Stars event, leading Team Bosh (including Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash) over Team Westbrook in the championship round. The problem with this event is that each team is required to make a half court shot in each round, which is much more a matter of luck than skill; I'd prefer that either the half court shot is scrapped or else the entire event is morphed into a HORSE contest, maybe pitting a retired player versus an active player (with no dunking allowed). Damian Lillard and Trey Burke won the Skills Challenge; it is the second such title in a row for Lillard, who took top honors last year when the Skills Challenge was a solo event. Journeyman Marco Bellinelli--who has played for five teams in his seven season NBA career--outgunned a host of All-Stars (including Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson, Damian Lillard and Kevin Love)--to win the Three Point Contest.

The Slam Dunk Contest is the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday night but I about fell out of my seat when I saw the TNT graphic touting the Slam Dunk Contest judges. Who is "Julius Irving"? How is it possible that one of the league's primary networks cannot properly spell the name of one of the sport's all-time greatest players? Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins joined Erving as judges. Team East (Paul George, Terrence Ross and John Wall) defeated Team West (Harrison Barnes, Damion Lillard and Ben McLemore) and Wall was selected by the fans (via online voting) as the Dunker of the Night. Wall's clinching dunk, a double pump after grabbing the ball out of the hands of the Wizards' mascot, was impressive but overall the event lacked star power, excitement and suspense. Almost every year, Kenny Smith, Magic Johnson and/or some other prominent figure proclaim that the Slam Dunk Contest is "back" and they once again said that after Wall's victory but I don't buy it. The reality is that there is not likely any way to make the Slam Dunk Contest as great now as it was in the 1980s. Back then, many of the league's brightest stars competed on an annual basis and a missed dunk all but eliminated a player from winning the contest; competing in the Slam Dunk Contest was like doing a trapeze act without a net but that did not deter all-time greats like Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler from participating on multiple occasions. The two biggest problems now are that most of today's biggest stars don't participate and that the format removes suspense/anticipation by permitting players to miss multiple dunks without any penalty. During a recent "Open Court" program, Wilkins cut to the heart of the matter, declaring that today's players do not really want to find out who is the best dunker, because they might risk not earning that title. Erving amplified this excellent point, mentioning that players have agents and marketing advisers who tell them that the downside of not winning the contest outweighs the potential upside of emerging victorious.

Some people suggest that putting a million dollars--or some other similarly extravagant sum--on the line might motivate more stars to participate but that is ridiculous: these are highly paid professionals and if they don't want to test their skills against their peers while also entertaining the fans then that is really a shame. Erving participated in his final two Slam Dunk Contests when he was 34 and 35 years old; he did not win either event but he defied Father Time by proving that he could still take off from the foul line and dunk. There is no way that any 34 or 35 year old all-time great would compete in the Slam Dunk Contest today; even all-time greats who are in their prime--most notably, LeBron James--refuse to put their dunking reputations on the line.

In addition to being a Slam Dunk Contest judge, Erving also participated in a panel discussion honoring Bill Russell during Sunday's Legends Brunch. Erving described how much he looks up to Russell and how Russell has been providing sage advice to him since he was a student athlete at the University of Massachusetts; Russell told young Erving that the most important building on campus was not the gymnasium but rather the library and Russell told the then-50 year old Erving that as one ages one should pare down one's life to essential people and activities, focusing on what is most meaningful and letting go of that which is less meaningful.

Russell was not a great shooter, he did not possess the all-around skill set of Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson and he was not as statistically dominant as Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan--but a strong case could be made that Russell is the greatest individual performer in team sports history; his teams won the championship in almost every season of his basketball career, extending from high school to college to the 1956 Olympics to the NBA, where he led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented 11 titles in 13 seasons, including a record eight straight crowns (1959-66).

The All-Star Game itself was record-setting (most combined points, most points by one team, most combined three point field goals made, etc.) but watching it felt more like gorging on junk food as opposed to feasting on gourmet fare. The East's 163-155 victory over the West lacked competitive spirit. I know that this is an exhibition but I like what Kobe Bryant--who did not play due to injury--said during his in-game interview: "The fans want to see us do what we do best, which is compete hard, and to go up here and run up and down and just play the game in a silly way, I don't think that shows much respect to the basketball gods." All-Star Games are often high-scoring affairs just because both teams have so much offensive firepower but in the past players competed harder at the defensive end of the court. The previous highest scoring All-Star Game (the West's 154-149 overtime win over the East in 1987) featured a combined 63 fouls and 14 blocked shots, two indicators that the players played at least some defense; the 2014 All-Star Game included just 21 fouls and no blocked shots--that's right, in 48 minutes of action the sport's best players did not manage to block even one single shot! In 1987, the teams combined to shoot 6-17 from three point range; in 2014, the teams shot 30-100 from beyond the arc. At times, the 2014 All-Star Game looked like a very high level pickup game with players shooting uncontested three pointers and driving through the lane unimpeded, not a competition pitting the world's greatest athletes against each other.

The 2014 All-Star Game featured several outstanding individual performances, though the gaudy numbers would have meant more had they been posted against greater defensive resistance. Kyrie Irving had a fantastic game (31 points on 14-17 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 14 assists), winning MVP honors after leading the East to a come from behind win. Carmelo Anthony scored 30 points, set the All-Star single game three point field goals made record (eight) and he committed three fouls, including one to stop Blake Griffin from scoring in the open court (Anthony playing defense at any time, let alone an All-Star Game, may be a sign of impending apocalypse). LeBron James made a solid all-around contribution to the East's win (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists). The West's Kevin Durant (38 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) and Blake Griffin (38 points on 19-23 field goal shooting) both made serious runs at Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star single game scoring record (42 points).

NBA All-Star Weekend is a lot of fun, whether one experiences it in person or just watches it on TV. If the league tweaks the Shooting Stars competition and the Slam Dunk Contest and encourages the All-Stars to elevate the competition level of Sunday's game then All-Star weekend will be even better.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 PM

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