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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Evaluating the NBA's New Voting Procedure for All-Star Starters

NBA All-Star starters used to be chosen entirely by fan vote but this season the NBA decided to include input from both current players and selected media members. The fan vote is now weighted at 50%, while the player vote and media vote count for 25% each. In the event of a tie, the tiebreaker is based on the fan voting.

The NBA announced the final voting results on Thursday January 19. The 2017 Eastern Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounpo and Jimmy Butler, plus guards Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan, while the 2017 Western Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, plus guards Stephen Curry and James Harden.

Under the old system, the East All-Star starters would have been James, Antetokounpo, Joel Embiid, Irving and Dwyane Wade, while the West All-Star starters would have been Durant, Zaza Pachulia, Leonard, Curry and Harden. Including the players and the media in the voting process resulted in Butler and DeRozan starting over Embiid and Wade in the East and Davis starting over Pachulia in the West. Fans are often accused of stuffing the (metaphorical) ballot box for their favorite players even if those players do not deserve to be All-Stars and that would certainly seem to be the case with Wade (popular veteran playing in a big market), Embiid (young player who many have adopted as the poster boy for Sam Hinkie's infamous tanking "process") and Pachulia (who apparently garnered support not only from the Bay Area but perhaps from his entire home country of Georgia).

The value of starting versus coming off of the bench in the All-Star Game is largely ceremonial. While total All-Star selections is a category that merits at least some attention when evaluating a player's career, no one seriously considers how many times a particular player started versus how many times he was chosen as a reserve (or even as an injury replacement, as was the case for Tom Chambers in 1987 when he filled in for Ralph Sampson and won the MVP).

My take on the fan vote prior to this season was that as long as the fans selected five worthy All-Stars in each conference--even if the selected players were not necessarily the very best players at their respective positions in each conference--the coaches who select the reserves would balance things out by taking any players who had been "snubbed." If you look at the All-Star voting over the years, even when the fans made some questionable decisions (such as Dan Issel over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1977) the players who they picked deserved to be All-Stars (A.C. Green, 1990 All-Star starter, is perhaps one exception, though he was a key rebounder/defender for a team that had just made three straight Finals appearances and had won back to back titles in 1987-88). The All-Star Game is for the fans and as long as they are not making a mockery of their voting privileges they should have some voice in the process.

The movement to make Pachulia an All-Star may have resulted in the rule change. Pachulia, who is averaging 5.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg this season, has called the new voting process "Zaza rules." It would have been a travesty if Pachulia--who did not receive a single media member vote and who finished 12th among West frontcourt players in the player vote--had made the All-Star team at all, let alone as a starter. While stronger cases could be made for Wade and Embiid, I would not select either player as an All-Star in 2017. So, the NBA's decision to reduce the importance of fan voting from 100% to 50% looks like a good idea.

However, it is important to note that the players (1) have obvious biases based on loyalty to teammates and/or rivalries with opposing players and (2) did not always take voting very seriously. Matthew Dellavedova and Goran Dragic each received six player votes as an All-Star starter, with all of those votes presumably coming from inside their respective locker rooms. Dion Waiters and Mo Williams each received one vote. While Dragic made the All-NBA Third Team in 2014 and Williams made the All-Star team in 2009, none of those four players is even close to being an All-Star in 2017, let alone being one of the top two guards in the East.

The players have lobbied to have a voice in this process and if they want to continue to have a voice then they are obligated to take voting seriously. I am often justifiably critical of the way that media members evaluate players but the media All-Star voters did an excellent job in 2017--better than the fans or the players. Only five West guards received votes: Russell Westbrook (93), James Harden (91), Stephen Curry (6), Chris Paul (1) and Klay Thompson (1). Nine frontcourt players in the West received votes, led by Durant (94), Leonard (91) and Davis (78). DeMarcus Cousins (11) was a distant fourth, with Marc Gasol, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan each receiving five votes or less. Seven East guards received votes, with Isaiah Thomas (61) and DeRozan (55) outpacing Irving (32), Kyle Lowry (27), John Wall (15), Wade (1) and Kemba Walker (1). James (96), Antetokounpo (93) and Butler (70) led 11 frontcourt players in the East who received votes. Kevin Love (15) was the only other East frontcourt player who received at least 10 votes.

The tiebreaker system came into play twice. Thomas won the media vote and finished second in the player vote but because he was only fourth in fan voting he lost out to DeRozan, who also had a weighted score of 2.75. DeRozan finished third in the fan voting, beating Thomas 796,112 to 755,102. Curry, Harden and Westbrook each had weighted scores of 2.0. Westbrook won both the media vote and the player vote but he finished third in the fan vote and thus will have to depend on the coaches to select him. Since Curry and Harden are more popular among fans than Westbrook, Westbrook had no chance of being a starter either under the new system or under the old system.

Here are my choices for the 2017 All-Star starters, with a brief explanation for each selection:

East Frontcourt

LeBron James: Best all-around player in the league and best player on the Eastern Conference's best team (25.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 8.3 apg).

Jimmy Butler: Outstanding two way player who is posting career-highs in scoring, rebounding and assists after moving to small forward to enable the newly acquired Wade to remain at shooting guard (24.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.8 apg).

Giannis Antetokounpo: Milwaukee Bucks are in playoff contention largely because of his efforts (23.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.6 apg).

East Guards

Kyrie Irving: Most stars who play alongside James are forced to accept vastly reduced roles but Irving has come the closest to being a legitimate 1b (at least offensively) to James (23.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.6 apg).

Isaiah Thomas: Clearly the best player for a Boston team that is fighting for second place in the East and emerging as a possible playoff threat for Cleveland (28.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.0 apg).

West Frontcourt

Kevin Durant: Has established himself as the best player on the team with the best record, an impressive feat considering that one of his teammates is the reigning two-time regular season MVP (26.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.7 apg).

Kawhi Leonard: The Spurs are indisputably his team now and they remain a championship contender even after losing the defense/leadership of Tim Duncan (25.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.1 apg)

Anthony Davis: He is posting awesome numbers for a Pelicans team that started slowly but is now contending for a playoff spot (28.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.3 apg).

West Guards

Russell Westbrook: He is well on his way to averaging a triple double for the entire season and his supporting cast is so weak that his team needs 30-10-10 from him on a nightly basis just to compete (30.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 10.4 apg). 

Stephen Curry: He should not be punished for accepting a 1b role on a team that might win 70 games for the second season in a row (24.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 6.1 apg).

I generally prefer bigger guards to smaller guards, so why did I not take DeRozan in the East and Harden in the West? Both players clearly deserve to be All-Stars. None of the top guards in the East are great defenders (other that perhaps John Wall but his Wizards have underachieved until recently), so the All-Star selections by necessity are based mainly on offense. Irving's ballhandling, shooting range and playmaking skills elevate him over DeRozan, even though DeRozan is stronger and has a great midrange game. I typically cast a jaundiced eye toward undersized guards like Thomas but Thomas is a tremendous clutch player and leader. I don't have a big problem (no pun intended) with taking DeRozan over Thomas but Thomas would be my choice.

Westbrook is without question the best player in the NBA this season, so he should have been one of the starting guards in the West. Harden's statistics have predictably increased in Mike D'Antoni's point guard-friendly system but I would still rather have Curry, a proven leader and proven clutch scorer whose statistics reliably translate into sustained team success. Offensively, Curry is at least as good as Harden even though Harden plays in a system that enables him to put up gaudier numbers. Defensively, while it is true that Curry can be overpowered by bigger players it is also true that his sound fundamentals and quick hands help him to be at least adequate at that end of the court. Opposing teams attack him not so much because he is a bad defender but rather because (1) his backcourt mate Klay Thompson is a first rate defender and (2) it is good strategy to try to wear down a dynamic offensive player by forcing him to defend. The All-Star team should not be selected just by looking at the leaders in various statistical categories (whether those categories are basic box score or "advanced") but rather by considering each player's skill set and his role for his team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:49 PM

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Russell Westbrook Versus James Harden: Should the MVP be Selected Based on Analysis or Narrative?

It has become apparent that, barring injury or some unlikely and unforeseen circumstance, either Russell Westbrook or James Harden will win the 2016-17 NBA regular season MVP award. My default position regarding the NBA regular season MVP award is that the recipient should be the league's best all-around player, unless there is a player who is so dominant in one or two categories that his dominance outweighs all other considerations; Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are prototypical examples of the former type of player, while Shaquille O'Neal is a prototypical example of the latter type of player.

It is obvious that the media members who annually vote for this award do not share my criteria. Bryant and O'Neal only won one regular season MVP each despite being, respectively, the best all-around player and most dominant player in the NBA for several years. James has fared somewhat better in MVP voting than Bryant and O'Neal but James--who inherited best all-around regular season player in the league status from Bryant circa 2009 or 2010--arguably deserved even more than the four MVPs he has received. Three years ago, many voters became tired of voting for James and looked for narratives (excuses) each season to elevate at least one player above him. James has finished second, third and third in the MVP race the past three years, even though he has led his team to six straight NBA Finals and three championships while clearly establishing himself as the best all-around player in the league.

James' Cleveland Cavaliers once again sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference but there is virtually no chance that James will win the MVP award this season. The media voters prefer to create and then validate a narrative. Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry each won at least one MVP because the media determined that in a particular season or seasons those players represented the league's most compelling narrative.

This season is providing narrative overdrive but two narratives have gathered the most attention; you could call those narratives "Angry Russ" and "Revenge of the Beard."

I have already explained why I would select Russell Westbrook as the 2016-17 NBA MVP. I rank James second this season but not because I have been seduced by a narrative or because I am tired of picking the same player (which is a stupid reason to not vote for a worthy candidate); I acknowledge that James is a better all-around player than Westbrook but that gap has closed, Westbrook is having a historic season and Westbrook plays hard every game while James often enters self-described "chill mode." I would take James in "chill mode" as the MVP in most seasons but not when Westbrook is making triple doubles look effortless.

The "Angry Russ" MVP narrative received a lot of play early in the season. That narrative stipulates that Westbrook is angry at the world because Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. "Angry Russ" will therefore exact revenge on the entire league.

Westbrook cannot be a media darling for the long haul, though. He is too intense, too competitive and too dismissive of stupid questions asked by media members. Westbrook is singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder--a team so bereft of talent and depth that they literally need for Westbrook to put up 30-10-10 every night just to have a chance to win--but instead of acknowledging that reality, the media nitpick Westbrook's shot selection and decision making.

Thus, a new narrative is gaining popularity: "Revenge of the Beard." We all saw James Harden spend last season not playing defense, getting two coaches fired and running his most talented teammate out of town. No one made up any of that. It all happened--but because the Rockets are enjoying early season success in 2016-17, we have a narrative emerging that Harden was somehow disrespected and is now exacting revenge on the league and anyone who dared to question his greatness.

Narratives are inevitably simple and simple-minded, so expect much to be made of the fact that Harden's Houston Rockets won the head to head regular season series versus Westbrook's Thunder two games to one. Never mind that it took Daryl Morey several years to put together a supporting cast that fits with Harden's quirky skill set, while Westbrook's supporting cast contains some mismatched parts and was definitely not built around his skills (Westbrook should be surrounded by shooters and/or by athletic players who can run the floor with him). Never mind that Westbrook is responding to adversity by elevating his game, which is exactly the opposite of the approach that Harden took last year.

Above all, don't expect anyone to point out that Harden actually had a negative plus/minus number in those three head to head games that many media members will likely weigh heavily when casting their MVP votes. The Rockets were outscored by the Thunder when Harden was in the game; they beat the Thunder based on overall talent and depth, not based on what Harden did (this is reminiscent of the Rockets' fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, when Harden rode the bench during many of the most critical possessions and moments of key games). Harden averaged 20.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 12.3 apg in the three games versus the Thunder this season, while shooting .291 from the field, .217 from three point range and .793 from the free throw line.

What about the way that Harden recently led the Rockets to 19 wins in a 21 game stretch? Did you know that during those games the Rockets performed better with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court? I have to admit that Morey has put together a better team top to bottom than I thought--at least in terms of regular season play. I expected Harden to put up astronomical individual numbers in Coach Mike D'Antoni's system but I did not expect the Rockets to win as many games as they have thus far. D'Antoni has the Rockets running and gunning from all angles, which is the last thing that an opposing team wants to deal with while playing a fourth game in five nights, but we all know what happens when a good team with at least one day of rest between games and a chance to prepare for "seven seconds or less" faces D'Antoni's squads in the playoffs.

By the way, Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in those three head to head matchups with Harden. Westbrook averaged 35.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg versus Houston, while shooting .418 from the field, .385 from three point range and .882 from the free throw line. When Westbrook and Harden were on the court, Westbrook put up better numbers than Harden and Westbrook's team had the advantage--but those games will cost Westbrook in the MVP race because Houston's second unit is better than Oklahoma City's and the simple/simple-minded narrative is "Harden trusted his teammates and won; Westbrook played 'hero ball' and lost." Splice that narrative together with a video of a couple highlights cherry-picked to "prove" that Westbrook committed some basketball sins and you have what it takes to be an esteemed member of the basketball media.

So how should these players be compared? The same way that any players should be compared--objectively evaluate their skill sets:

Scoring: Harden is a better three point shooter than Westbrook but Westbrook is quicker, more athletic and more dangerous from more areas of the court. Every year in the playoffs, we see the defensive game plan that works against Harden: force him right, deny him wide open three point shots and when he gets into the lane meet him with high hands while sidestepping his flopping/flailing attempts to draw fouls. The game plan against Westbrook is concede the three point shot, pray that he settles for it and pray really hard that he does not make it, because when Westbrook is making that shot he is completely unguardable.

Rebounding: They are both excellent rebounders for their position but Westbrook has the edge in this department. Harden's rebounding numbers this season are a little inflated based on Houston's pace of play (his offensive rebound rate has nearly doubled, because Houston shoots so many long shots and long shots typically result in long rebounds that can be snared by guards). Westbrook attacks the boards like a shark smelling blood and he would be a terrific rebounder in any system and any era.

Passing: Harden averages more assists than Westbrook but Harden plays in a system that breeds assists for the primary ballhandler and he plays alongside better shooters. Westbrook can make any pass that Harden can make. If Westbrook and Harden traded places then Westbrook would easily match or exceed Harden's assist numbers but Harden's assist numbers would drop.

Ballhandling: Westbrook is explosive, while Harden is crafty (and a bit quicker than he looks at first glance). Both players have high turnover rates: Westbrook tries to do too much at times, while Harden is often shockingly careless with the ball.

Defense: Harden's defensive shortcomings are obvious and notorious. Westbrook is not an All-Defensive Team caliber defender but he plays with much more passion and energy at that end of the court than Harden does. You could put Westbrook on the opposing team's best perimeter player for a few key possessions and expect good results; no one would dream of doing likewise with Harden.

Attitude/Leadership: Harden talked his way out of one city, he ran two coaches out of Houston and in four full seasons as the top player in Houston he has exited the playoffs in the first round three times. His supporters will say that he has emerged as a leader this season; I say let's wait and see until Houston faces some adversity, because that is when we will find out if Harden is a leader or a front runner. Westbrook plays hard and he inspires his teammates to play hard as well. Westbrook has been a top level performer for a team that advanced to at least the Western Conference Finals four times in six years (and likely would have made it even more often were it not for injuries that he and Kevin Durant suffered during that time). Poor leaders do not take their teams to the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four on a nearly annual basis.

Some might say that playoff success--whether past, present or projected in the future--has nothing to do with being the regular season MVP but I disagree; if a player has a pattern of putting up gaudy regular season numbers that are rarely if ever validated by postseason performance (individually and/or collectively) then the MVP voters should take that into account. Not every 25-30 ppg season is created equally; Michael Adams was a very good NBA player but his 26.5 ppg in 1990-91 while playing for Paul Westhead is not equivalent in impact to the 24.7 ppg that Stephen Curry is averaging this season.

Overall: Harden is an unorthodox but effective scorer and playmaker. He is bigger than Westbrook and he rebounds like a small forward. He has little to no interest in playing defense. Westbrook is perhaps the most explosive athlete in the NBA and one of the most explosive, powerful athletes to ever play point guard. Westbrook has demonstrated that he can thrive as the first or second option for a playoff bound team, while Harden chafed at being the Thunder's third option but has yet to prove that he is capable of consistently leading a team very far as the first option. If Harden leads the Rockets to 55-60 wins and homecourt advantage in the first round this season then he will have no excuses if he suffers his typical early postseason exit.

Harden is having a career year in a system designed to inflate the statistics of the team's primary ballhandler but Westbrook is having a historic season while surrounded by a supporting cast that is almost helpless when he is not in the game. Even if one would say that Harden and Westbrook are equal as scorers/playmakers--and I would dispute that notion--Westbrook has a clear edge as a rebounder, defender and leader.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:34 AM

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Basketball Hype Versus Basketball Reality

The 2016-17 NBA season is approaching the halfway mark, so this is a good time to separate basketball hype from basketball reality. The premise of this article is not meant to suggest or imply that my predictions are always correct; Minnesota is much worse than I expected, while Houston is better than I expected. Every season has its surprise teams, both good and bad--but some teams are hyped up by consensus for no objectively correct reason.

Basketball Hype: The Indiana Pacers will be a top four team in the East.

Basketball Reality: The Pacers are struggling to stay above .500 in a weak conference.

I predicted that the Pacers would "decline a bit" from last season's 45 wins and thus not make the playoffs. The Pacers' current .500 winning percentage is what I expected, though the Pacers might sneak into the playoffs because the bottom has dropped out of the Eastern Conference. 

I was baffled that so many people thought that the Pacers would not only be a playoff team but might even challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers fired a good, defensive-minded coach (Frank Vogel) and they sacrificed defense/rim protection to put together a small ball roster that does not suit the natural inclinations of new coach Nate McMillan. The roster construction does not make much sense; there is not enough firepower to just outscore the opposition nor do the Pacers have a lineup that is willing and able to play elite level defense. All of this just screams "mediocrity"--and that is exactly what has transpired.

Basketball Hype: Kobe Bryant held back the progress of the Lakers' young players but with Bryant now retired the Lakers will be a much better team.

Basketball Reality: The Lakers' young players were not ready for prime time last season and they still are not ready for prime time this season.

The media bashed Kobe Bryant when he was averaging 35 ppg and carrying the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to the playoffs, so it was obvious and inevitable that the media would kill Bryant when his skills declined. He was blamed for his big contract, as if he forced the Lakers to sign him. He was blamed for shooting too much, for supposedly not playing defense, blah, blah, blah. Well, Bryant is enjoying retirement now and those Lakers that he was supposedly holding back rank last in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, last in points allowed, last in steals, last in turnovers committed and 19th in field goal percentage. Their defense is horrible and their offense is not much better, though the latter deficiency is superficially disguised by playing at a fast pace and chasing down a lot of their missed shots (the Lakers are second in the league in offensive rebounding).

The way that Bryant prepared mentally and physically for each game--despite the challenges of age and multiple injuries--provided a great example for his young teammates to emulate. It is too bad that they did not pay more attention.

Basketball Hype: Kristaps Porzingis is the next Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony is an elite player, so the additions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah combined with upgraded coaching from Jeff Hornacek will revitalize the Knicks.

Basketball Reality: Jeff Van Gundy picked this team to win 45-50 games and said that a win total in the "low 50s" is not out of the question. I respect Van Gundy but I don't always agree with him. His prediction for the Knicks was, to be charitable, very optimistic. If everything breaks just right--which almost never happens--the Knicks could win 45 games but 50 or "low 50s" is a pipe dream. Porzingis is a very talented young player but he is not ready to carry a team yet. Anthony was overrated in his prime and he is certainly not an elite player now. Rose is playing well but he is not even close to his pre-injury MVP caliber form. Noah's individual numbers are nothing to write home about, though the team performs much better when he is on the court than it does when he sits.

The Knicks have been overly hyped for years; the fans and the media blamed Isiah Thomas for every problem under the sun and then became oddly silent when the team remained bad to mediocre (with the exception of a brief glimmer of hope when Mike Woodson was the coach) for years after Thomas' departure. Owner James Dolan is the real problem and until he either sells the team or changes his management style the results are not going to change.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 PM

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Great Players Want and Need to be Coached

Kurt Streeter explains that Tyronn Lue got the best out of LeBron James by challenging him, not coddling him: at halftime of game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals, Lue declared to James, "LeBron, you gotta be better! If we're gonna win, you gotta be better!" James led his Cleveland Cavaliers in scoring and assists during the first half but Lue knew that basketball greatness is not defined by numbers but rather by attitude, impact and focus.

Lue hit James with specific critiques that had nothing to do with statistics: "LeBron, what's wrong with your body language? Your body language is terrible. You got to guard Draymond. You got to take the open shot. Quit turning the ball over. Fix your body language. Anything else you want me to tell you?"

Too many people have become so enamored with statistics--particularly "advanced" statistics--that they fail to understand what basketball greatness really is. It is possible to put up big numbers but not be playing great basketball, which is why Lue lit into James. It is possible to score four points on 1-9 field goal shooting and be the best player on the court (Scottie Pippen versus the Indiana Pacers in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals). Bill Russell used to give the equivalent of doctoral dissertations on basketball when he served as a color commentator during CBS' NBA telecasts. One time during an NBA Finals matchup between the 76ers and the Lakers, he and Dick Stockton talked about how Julius Erving's greatness was not just defined by gaudy numbers but also by the timing of Erving's plays. Attitude, impact, focus--those traits define basketball greatness.

Kevin Loughery, who won two ABA titles in a three season span with Erving as his best player, raved about what it was like to coach Erving:

That man was the best. He was the easiest superstar you could possibly coach. He had more talent at that stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one individual have. Beyond that, so easy to coach, total gentleman, great guy. He's the best. He treated everybody the way that a player should treat everybody--his teammates, the media, the other players, the fans. He's the best superstar to be around that I've ever been around.

"Easy to coach" is a key phrase in that quote. Erving was "easy to coach" because great players want and need to be coached. Look at the relationship that Tim Duncan had with Gregg Popovich. No one was going to act a fool on that team during the Duncan era because Duncan accepted Popovich's coaching. The same thing is true in the NFL with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

In his book The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith describes how Doug Collins was reluctant to criticize Michael Jordan when Collins was the Chicago Bulls' coach. Phil Jackson, one of Collins' assistant coaches at that time, took it upon himself to chastise Jordan when Jordan did not play the right way. Before long, Jackson was the Bulls' head coach and the Bulls eventually won six championships. Collins was a very good NBA coach but in that particular situation he did not challenge Jordan the way that Jordan wanted and needed to be challenged.

Jackson later challenged both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, lifting a previously underachieving team to three straight championships. Jackson then left the Lakers before coming back to win two more titles with Bryant and Pau Gasol as the best players. I remember a film clip of a Lakers' practice during which Gasol said "It's hard" after Jackson gave him some instructions about how to execute a particular sequence and Jackson barked back, "It's supposed to be hard!" Jackson would not accept excuses. It is worth noting that great players do not make excuses for themselves or accept excuses from their teammates; Jordan and Bryant exemplify that trait.

We live in an era during which basketball is supposedly being revolutionized by "analytics," but regardless of how you manipulate the numbers the realities of human psychology and athletic competition are immutable. You cannot win with losers, no matter how talented those players might be. You can win some games, you might even win a playoff series here or there, but in the long run a team built around a loser is always going to fall short.

George Karl's autobiography Furious George will be on sale to the public in January 2017 but I just received my review copy. Here is what Karl wrote about Carmelo Anthony: "My ideal--probably every coach's ideal--is when your best player is also your leader. But since Carmelo only played hard on one side of the ball, he made it plain he couldn't lead the Nuggets, even though he said he wanted to. Coaching him meant working around his defense and compensating for his attitude" (pp. 191-192, Furious George).

The Nuggets eventually traded Anthony and Karl concluded, "...getting rid of Carmelo Anthony was a sweet release for the coach and the team, like popping a blister. I don't automatically hate a superstar, but he's got to buy in, he's got to play defense, and he's got to share the ball. And if his teammates don't like him and if he doesn't help you win a championship...what good is he, except as bait?" (pp. 214-215, Furious George)

The Nuggets had the best regular season record in their NBA history after trading Anthony but they have been a sub-.500 team since getting rid of Karl and Masai Ujiri, the general manager who wisely traded Anthony and has now built the Toronto Raptors into a contender.

Anthony is the anti-Kobe Bryant. It is highly unlikely that Anthony could ever be the best player on an NBA championship team, because he does not accept coaching and he does not understand the importance of attitude, impact and focus. Anthony's attitude is "I got my 25 points, so it's not my fault we lost."

James is fascinating, because he is as perplexing and confounding as any truly great player in pro basketball history. There is no question that he has quit during some of the most important games/series of his career, but he has also been the best player on three championship teams while authoring some of the most sensational performances in NBA Finals history. He needs to be coached but does he always want to be coached? James is not wired like Jordan or Bryant but he is a champion in a way that Anthony never will be.

"Stat gurus" often minimize and mock the importance of coaching but Tyronn Lue's direct approach with LeBron James is just the latest example of how much impact a coach can have when he delivers the right message at the right time to a superstar who is receptive to that message.  

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Handicapping the MVP Race Just Past the Quarter Pole of the 2016-17 NBA Season

The NBA All-Star ballots will be officially released on Sunday and the NBA season is nearly one third over, so it is not too early to at least take a preliminary look at the MVP race. Historically, when I write about the MVP race--or the NBA awards in general--I only discuss who I think should win and why. For example, this article describes who I felt should win the various NBA awards for the 2011-12 (it also includes links to several of my articles about the NBA awards from previous seasons). For this article, though, I am taking a different approach: I will list the top five players in my MVP rankings and I will also list who I believe would be the top five finishers if the media voters filled out their ballots today.

My philosophy about the MVP award remains unchanged; the MVP should be the best all-around player in the league, unless there is a player who is so singularly dominant in one or two phases of the game that this dominance makes him more valuable than the league's best all-around player at that time. So, Shaquille O'Neal should have won several MVPs (instead of just one) even though he was never the best all-around player in the league; his dominance in the paint made him more valuable than anyone else during his prime.

Also, in most years my MVP choice will play for team with a winning record but I would not rule out a player from a lesser squad if his individual play is exceptional and his supporting cast is clearly extremely deficient.

My top five MVP choices right now are:

1) Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook's triple double exploits set him apart from every other player in the league today. Oscar Robertson is the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62) but Westbrook is on pace to match that feat--and Westbrook has already averaged a triple double further into a season than any player other than Robertson.

Westbrook is not only having an MVP caliber season; he is having a historically great season. Some of Westbrook's point-rebound-assist lines this season defy description or belief: 36-11-17, 17-13-15, 27-18-14, 35-14-11. He recently posted a 26-11-22 stat line, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson in 1988 to have a triple double that included at least 25 points and at least 20 assists.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Westbrook's season is the way that Westbrook is single-handedly keeping his Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoff picture. When Westbrook is on the court, the Thunder are one of the league's top eight teams in point differential--but when he is out of the game, the Thunder are the worst team in the league! I am not sure if Westbrook's supporting cast is worse than anyone thought or just is not yet fully performing up to par but it is clear that Westbrook has less help than any other elite player in the NBA whose squad is in playoff contention. It is worth noting that Westbrook is also the only such elite player whose roster is not built around his skill set. The Thunder were built around Kevin Durant, who fled to Golden State; a team built around Westbrook would feature more shooters to spread the floor and also more athletes who could run with Westbrook in the transition game.

What Westbrook is doing this season is a heightened version of what Pete Maravich and Tracy McGrady did during their respective primes: he is playing at such a high level that when he is on the court an ordinary roster looks very good but when he is not on the court that same roster looks like an expansion team. Maravich, McGrady and Westbrook have very different physiques and skill sets but they each merited MVP consideration during their primes based on the way that their individual brilliance shined in a team context.

2) Lebron James

The case for James is that he is the best all-around player in the NBA and he is putting up MVP-level numbers across the board, including a career-high 9.0 apg. The case against James is that he sometimes enters "chill mode" (as he once called it) by either physically sitting out a game or by mentally sitting out, so consequently his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers only have the third best record in the league. In most years, I would probably rank James first, anyway--but not during a season when Westbrook is putting up historically great numbers while never sitting out physically or mentally.

3) Kevin Durant

Durant is the best player on the best team in the league. In many years, that is a pretty reliable MVP formula--but I cannot place him ahead of James (who is a better defender and passer) or the incomparable Westbrook.

4) Stephen Curry

The back to back reigning MVP is having another great season but no one could seriously argue that he is playing better than his teammate Durant and it is self-evident that you cannot be the league MVP if you are not the best player on your own team.

5) Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has had perhaps the most bizarre career arc of any serious MVP candidate ever. He owns a Finals MVP, he has won the Defensive Player of the Year award the last two seasons and he finished second in MVP voting in 2015-16 but he has only made the All-Star team once. This season, he is clearly the best player on a San Antonio team that has the second best record in the NBA and his two-way brilliance earns him the fifth spot on my MVP list.

*****

The media voting for MVP has produced some odd results. Shaquille O'Neal--the most dominant player of his era--only received one MVP and the year that he won it one voter did not pick O'Neal just to prove some kind of bizarre point, thus depriving O'Neal of the opportunity to become the first unanimous winner (Curry earned that distinction last season, beating out LeBron James before succumbing to him in the Finals). Kobe Bryant, the best all-around player in the NBA for several years, also won just one MVP. Meanwhile, Steve Nash won two MVPs, Derrick Rose won an MVP and Karl Malone and Charles Barkley each won MVPs before losing to Michael Jordan in the Finals in those respective seasons. The media supposedly gets "tired" of voting for the same player (or else Jordan would have won several more MVPs) and the media also likes to latch on to certain kinds of narratives, such as the underdog or the quirky and/or outrageous guy. LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time, he is in or near his prime and he has not won the regular season MVP since 2012-13. Last season, James finished third in the regular season MVP race before leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise's first title by capping off a Finals MVP performance with a game seven triple double. Unless something changes, James will probably slip to fourth in the media's regular season MVP voting in 2016-17. I doubt that the media will ever vote him as MVP again.

Here is how I think the media MVP voting would go today:

1) Russell Westbrook

This is one season when at least one of the the hyped narratives is actually worth hyping. The media pumped out stories about "angry Russ" as soon as Durant left the Thunder. Westbrook's 2016-17 story was already written before the season even began: if he played well, then that proved that "angry Russ" had properly channeled his feelings but he if played poorly then that proved that he lacked self-control and was not worthy of the status he assumed in Oklahoma City after Durant's departure. There will be no nuances in the coverage of Westbrook this season. He is a hero now but rest assured that the goat stories have already been written as well and those stories will be published if the Thunder lose too many games, regardless of how well Westbrook plays.

2) James Harden

The media loves "the Beard." He has a nickname, he does some kind of stir the pot antic after he scores, he is involved with a Kardashian--bottom line, he makes life easy for media members. So what if he lacks leadership qualities, plays no defense and will run out of town anyone who expects him to play defense. Harden is a very talented offensive player; there is no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that Mike D'Antoni's system inflates a point guard's touches and numbers. If the media evaluated players on a skill set basis, Harden could never rank ahead of the five players on my MVP ballot--but he will almost certainly finish second in the MVP voting this season (unless there is a late push to turn Westbrook into a goat and hand the honor to Harden instead).

3) Kevin Durant

As mentioned above, Durant is the best player on the best team. Many MVP voters use that as their number one criteria, so Durant figures to finish no lower than third.

4) LeBron James

By merit James should finish no lower than second but I expect that the voters will place him fourth, for the faulty reasons I have already discussed.

5) Chris Paul

Paul finished sixth in the MVP voting last season. I think that the voters will move him past Curry this year. There are a lot of stories floating around about how this is shaping up to be the Clippers' year or at least the last chance for this group to win a title together. Many media members tried to give Paul the MVP over Bryant when Bryant was in his absolute prime, so if the Clippers make a run at 60 wins then Paul will receive a lot of support for MVP. I respect Paul's grit, toughness and court vision but we have already seen that he is too small (and perhaps too stubborn in terms of how he plays) to lead a team to a title. By rights he should be no higher than 10th in the MVP race but I think that he has a great chance of cracking the top five. If the Clippers win 60 games and finish second in the West standings to the Warriors then Paul could even move into the top three.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:07 PM

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part II

Charles Barkley recently made some very derogatory comments about the Golden State Warriors and he reiterated his contention that jump-shooting teams are not built to win championships. As the father of a wonderful young daughter, I echo Rachel Nichols' eloquent statement that "girlie" or "girl" should never be used as a synonym for, as she put it, something that is "weak" or "lame."

Moving past Barkley's ill-advised method of delivering his message, is there any truth to Barkley's assertion about jump-shooting teams purely from the standpoint of strategically analyzing basketball? I have discussed this subject a number of times in a variety of contexts. For instance, I wrote The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot for NBCSports.com nearly 10 years ago and then a few months after publication (during which time NBCSports.com was torn down and then rebuilt without maintaining links to prior content) I updated the article and posted it at 20 Second Timeout.

To best understand my take on the strengths and limitations of the three point shot as a basketball weapon, it would be helpful to provide some historical background, both in terms of the sport of basketball in general and also in terms of how my involvement in the sport as a recreational player informed my perspective about the three point shot.

Let's start with "advanced basketball statistics." Newer visitors to 20 Second Timeout--and perhaps even some of my veteran readers--may wonder why I refer to high profile advocates of "advanced basketball statistics" as "stat gurus." I borrowed that phrase from a line that Mike Lupica delivered a few times many years ago on the "Sports Reporters"; he would refer to someone who is supposed to be an expert at something as a "guru" and then he would say, "It is time for the guru to start 'guruing.'" I no longer recall who specifically Lupica was talking about but that wry sense of "OK, smart guy, it's about time that you actually prove that you know what you are doing" perfectly captures how I feel about many of the pompous analytics acolytes who act like they know more about basketball than people who have been playing and/or coaching the sport at the highest level for decades. Is there some value in trying to analyze the sport objectively? Of course there is but there should be a sense of humility and an understanding that the numbers don't capture everything about a sport that is played (and coached and officiated) by human beings, not robots.

Dean Oliver and Dan Rosenbaum are two of a handful of people whose basketball statistical work I respect--but far too many "stat gurus" are less concerned with objective truth than they are with making a name for themselves by proving that their pet theories are some kind of basketball gospel. Those self-serving, self-interested and self-satisfied "stat gurus" have had a pernicious effect on the way that the game is played, analyzed and discussed. Those "stat gurus" act like no one effectively utilized basketball statistics until they came along. I've got news for them: Dean Smith was using plus/minus back in the 1970s, if not earlier; Hubie Brown was hired by the Kentucky Colonels--who he led to the 1975 ABA title--because he impressed team management with his intricate understanding of basketball statistics and how those statistics can be used as tools to build a winning team.

"Advanced basketball statistics" are only as meaningful and relevant as (1) the box score numbers upon which they are based and (2) the accuracy of the formulas that are used to slice and dice those box score numbers. I have already demonstrated that assist statistics cannot be fully trusted, which means that any "advanced" formula that places a high value on assists will artificially inflate the value of players who accumulate many assists. There is good reason to question the accuracy/reliability of other box score numbers as well: subjectivity impacts the scoring of rebounds, steals, blocked shots and turnovers.

Hall of Famer/Top 50 player Rick Barry once told me that the only statistic he completely trusted was free throw percentage. Perhaps that seems self-serving of Barry because he owns one of the best career free throw percentages in pro basketball history but his point is that a player can inflate his field goal percentage by only shooting easy shots, rebounds can be padded by tips/taps that are not consistently recorded the same way and so forth. Then there is the reality--acknowledged by Rosenbaum but glossed over by many "stat gurus"--that "advanced basketball statistics" do not accurately measure individual defense. It should be obvious that subjective--but critically important--factors such as leadership, attitude and willingness/ability to play through injuries cannot be measured analytically at all. This is why I roll my eyes when a "stat guru" confidently declares that he can accurately rank every player in the NBA to the second decimal point of his proprietary "advance basketball statistic."

Many "stat gurus" assert that post play and the midrange game are inefficient, while the most efficient basketball shots are three pointers and free throws. The three point shot has evolved from a late game situational shot to a supplementary weapon to the mainstay of many teams' offenses. It should be remembered that even before "advanced basketball statistics" gained widespread influence, teams like the 1990s Houston Rockets and 1990s Orlando Magic utilized a "1 in, 4 out" offense featuring a dominant center surrounded by three point marksmen who punished opponents for double teaming the post. At that time, the three point shot was used to open up the game for the dominant post player but that dominant post player was still the focal point.

Teams that are run by--or at least influenced by--"stat gurus" deemphasize the value of the traditional big man in favor of deploying small lineups, shooting a lot of three pointers and (ideally) drawing a lot of fouls (typically via dribble penetration).

As for my personal involvement in the sport as a player, I have played rec league basketball since I was a kid in the 1970s. The strong suit of my game was always my jump shot (which really is not a traditional jump shot but some hybrid of Michael Cooper's set shot and Larry Bird's two hands behind his head delivery) but I spent my formative years playing without the three point shot. In 1987-88, the 19-9 three point shot was introduced into high school and college basketball. That wonderful arc soon appeared on the courts where I played both pickup ball and rec league ball. In the pickup games, we played to 12 by ones and twos. Under that scoring system, a good three point shooter is more valuable than a good post player; if I made even just 3 of 10 three pointers I scored six points, which is half the amount needed to win the game and a total that a post player could only match by shooting 60% from the field.

I really enjoyed playing 1 on 1 to 12 under that scoring system; I could hit six threes and take out a bigger, stronger opponent who was trying to wear me down one point at a time.

Of course, in league play when threes were not worth twice as much as twos, the math was not quite as favorable for a three point shooter but I did often mention to skeptical teammates that if I could make just one third of my three pointers I was as efficient as a post player who was making half of his shots in the paint. I was often the youngest participant in these games and the older guys who disdained long jumpers (and did not bother to do the simple math) got on my case for shooting so many three pointers. I told them rather bluntly that unless they were shooting 50% in the paint, then my three pointer was a higher percentage shot if I was connecting 33% of the time (and I probably was shooting closer to 40%), without even taking into account that the offensive team was more likely to rebound a long jumper than a missed shot in the paint. In addition, team defense is poorly organized in most rec leagues, so a smart and patient team can easily obtain wide open three point shots, particularly if the league does not use a shot clock.

So, from a young age I understood that in short games scored by ones and twos and in rec league games where post play was erratic and team defense was disorganized the three point shot was a very potent weapon.

Similarly, in the 40 minute college game featuring a short season followed by a one and done playoff system, it is possible to have a lot of success by constructing a good three point shooting team with well conditioned athletes who could beat the defense up and down the floor. Such teams generally play at a fast pace and thrive on shooting three pointers in transition. Rick Pitino has had success with this approach at multiple NCAA Division I schools and Paul Westhead enjoyed success both in NCAA Division I basketball and in the WNBA, where he led the Phoenix Mercury to the 2007 title. Westhead is the only coach to win a championship in both the WNBA and the NBA (1980 L.A. Lakers), though ironically Magic Johnson ran Westhead out of L.A. because Johnson felt that Westhead's offense at that time was too slow and methodical. However, NBA basketball consists of an 82 game regular season followed by four rounds of best of seven playoff series. Each regulation game lasts 48 minutes, not 40. Strategies that work in the college game are not necessarily applicable to the NBA game.

What does all of this have to do with Charles Barkley's comment about jump shooting teams? The NBA does not keep score by ones and twos and NBA defense is infinitely better than rec league defense. The notion that you can win big in the NBA just by shooting a large number of three pointers may make mathematical sense but it does not make real world sense. In that regard, there is some truth to what Barkley said. Take, for example, the Houston Rockets, who are now coached by Mike D'Antoni, whose Phoenix teams led the NBA in three point field goals made for three consecutive seasons (2005-07). The Rockets have a potent offense and are on pace to shatter many three point shooting records but they rank 22nd in defensive field goal percentage after finishing 19th in that category (under Kevin McHale and J.B. Bickerstaff) last season. That is a recipe for elimination early in the playoffs.

The nuance that Barkley is missing when he singles out the Warriors is that the Warriors differentiated themselves from other three-point happy teams (such as D'Antoni's Suns and Rockets) by playing organized, intense and effective defense. In their 2015 championship season, the Warriors led the league in defensive field goal percentage; they ranked third in that category last season and they currently rank second this season despite the loss of Andrew Bogut's rim protection.

Championship teams typically rank in the top five or 10 in defensive field goal percentage. The 2000-02 Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers are an interesting example. The Lakers led the league in defensive field goal percentage in 2000 and in 2002. In 2001 they slipped to 11th but still won the title. What happened? Unlike Bryant, O'Neal did not always fully exert himself during the regular season--but O'Neal was capable of playing championship level defense when he felt like it and after coasting through the 2001 regular season he ramped up his effort during the 2001 playoffs, when the Lakers ranked second in defensive field goal percentage. O'Neal decided to "heal on company time" during the 2002-03 season as the Lakers plummeted to 21st in defensive field goal percentage and this time O'Neal was not willing or able to turn it up in the playoffs: the Lakers ranked 15th out of 16 playoff teams in defensive field goal percentage and they lost in the second round to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, who ranked second in defensive field goal percentage during the 2003 playoffs and during the 2003 regular season.

In other words, instead of continually bashing the Warriors, Barkley should focus his attention on the Rockets: that is the jump shooting team that will never win a championship (as opposed to the Warriors, a jump shooting team that plays defense and has already won a championship).

There is an important point implied but not explicitly mentioned in Barkley's statement: the three point shot is a high variance shot, as I discussed in The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: A New 20 Second Timeout Feature, noting that three point field goal percentage can be a misleading statistic: if a player shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 from three point range in the next playoff game that works out to a very good .389 3FG% but his team will likely lose the second game (and may not win the first game, either, if the team is deficient defensively and/or on the boards). In that article, I argued that Gilbert Arenas' three point field goal percentage did not justify his style of play and that a team was not likely to have much playoff success when led by a point guard who is indifferent defensively and who has poor shot selection--even if his overall shooting percentage is not bad, the high variance inherent in shooting a lot of shots from three point range (many of which were bad shots, even if they sometimes connected) is a recipe for disaster for that point guard and his team.

James Harden is similar to Arenas in many ways, though Harden is a better and more consistent player than Arenas was. My prediction for a Harden-led team is the same as my accurate prediction regarding an Arenas-led team: I would be surprised if such a team advances past the second round of the playoffs.

The Rockets' organization has been led for nearly a decade by Daryl Morey, who has been widely praised in the mainstream media as a visionary despite the fact that during his first eight years in Houston the Rockets missed the playoffs three times and only won three playoff series. Last season, the Rockets barely qualified for the playoffs but instead of revising their offense happy/defense optional approach Morey doubled down by hiring D'Antoni. The Rockets might win 50 games this season, as some of D'Antoni's Phoenix teams did. Harden might win the MVP over more deserving players, as D'Antoni's Phoenix point guard Steve Nash did twice. However, it will be surprising if the Rockets advance very far in the playoffs, barring a defensive turnaround similar to the 2001 Lakers (which is highly improbable, to say the least).

Successful NBA teams have judiciously incorporated "advanced basketball statistics" into their programs but teams (like Houston) that have gone all in have not reached the highest level. This is a valid point that Barkley could (and should) make during TNT telecasts.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the poster children for a "stat guru" run amuck or, as I put it a couple years ago, The 76ers Are the Waterloo for "Stat Gurus." Sam Hinkie, a protege of Morey's, instituted an infamous "process" in Philadelphia that came close to ruining a once storied franchise. Hinkie's media buddies still try to paint him as some kind of visionary but he actually is the 21st century Ted Stepien with a much better sense of public relations. In the early 1980s, Ted Stepien tore down the Cleveland Cavaliers to the point that the league had to essentially wrest control of the franchise from him, which is what happened (in a more subtle way) to Hinkie as well. It took Wayne Embry years to undo the damage that Stepien did and by the time Embry turned the Cavaliers into contenders there were no traces left of Stepien's handiwork; it will similarly take years for Bryan Colangelo to salvage the 76ers and by the time they become good again Hinkie's "process" will be a distant, dark memory.

Since the "process" began, the 76ers have never had a winning percentage above .250 and, despite some recent misguided media hype about Hinkie being vindicated, they are currently 5-18 (.217 winning percentage).

One of the many aspects of pro sports that Hinkie fails to understand is that a loser's mentality is contagious and must be purged from an organization if that organization is going to enjoy any success. You cannot turn your franchise into a perennial loser, stockpile some talent and then suddenly become a championship team; the Cleveland Browns' front office has been infiltrated with Hinkie-like thinking and they have turned the Browns into a de facto expansion team on par with the ultimate NFL laughingstock, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

When Mike Ditka was hired as the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 1982, he told his players that he had good news and bad news: the good news was that the Bears would win the Super Bowl within three years but the bad news was that many of them would no longer be on the team by that time. Both predictions came true. No "advanced basketball statistic" blueprint takes the place of a basic understanding of how to build a team that has a championship mindset and championship habits, two traits that are missing in both Houston and Philadelphia.

So, there is some truth to what Barkley said but--because he failed to articulate his message clearly and because he used some unfortunate language that overshadowed his larger point--it is easy to dismiss him as an old school curmudgeon. It is true that teams that rely on jump shooting and do not play excellent defense will not win a championship--but it is not correct to lump the Warriors into a category that should be headlined by the Rockets.

Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

Most Three Pointers Made

Year/League...Team...3 FGM...Player..(team)...3 FGM

1967-68/ABA..Pittsburgh..243..Les Selvage (Anaheim)..147
1968-69/ABA..Kentucky..335..Louie Dampier (Kentucky)..199
1969-70/ABA..Kentucky..330..Louie Dampier (Kentucky)..198
1970-71/ABA..Indiana..306..George Lehmann (Carolina)..154
1971-72/ABA..Indiana..220..Glen Combs (Utah)..103
1972-73/ABA..Indiana..172..Bill Keller (Indiana)..71
1973-74/ABA..San Diego..216..Bo Lamar (San Diego)..69
1974-75/ABA..Indiana..224..Bill Keller (Indiana)..80
1975-76/ABA..Indiana..250..Bill Keller (Indiana)..123

1979-80/NBA..San Diego..177..Brian Taylor (San Diego)..90
1980-81/NBA..San Diego..132..Mike Bratz (Cleveland)..57
1981-82/NBA..Indiana..103..Don Buse (Indiana)..73
1982-83/NBA..San Antonio..94..Mike Dunleavy (San Antonio)..67
1983-84/NBA..Utah..101..Darrell Griffith (Utah)..91
1984-85/NBA..Dallas..152..Darrell Griffith (Utah)..92
1985-86/NBA..Dallas..141..Larry Bird (Boston)..82
1986-87/NBA..Dallas..231..Larry Bird (Boston)..90
1987-88/NBA..Boston..271..Danny Ainge (Boston)..148
1988-89/NBA..New York..386..Michael Adams (Denver)..166
1989-90/NBA..Cleveland...346..Michael Adams (Denver)..158
1990-91/NBA..Portland..341..Vernon Maxwell (Houston)..172
1991-92/NBA..Milwaukee..371..Vernon Maxwell (Houston)..162
1992-93/NBA..Phoenix..398..Dan Majerle (Phoenix)/Reggie Miller (Indiana)..167
1993-94/NBA..Houston..429..Dan Majerle (Phoenix)..192
1994-95/NBA*..Houston..646..John Starks (New York)..217
1995-96/NBA*..Dallas..735..Dennis Scott (Orlando)..267
1996-97/NBA*..Miami..678..Reggie Miller (Indiana)..229
1997-98/NBA..Seattle..621..Wesley Person (Cleveland)..192
1998-99/NBA^..Houston..336..Dee Brown (Toronto)..135
1999-00/NBA..Indiana..583..Gary Payton (Seattle)..177
2000-01/NBA..Boston..592..Antoine Walker (Boston)..221
2001-02/NBA..Boston..699..Ray Allen (Milwaukee)..229
2002-03/NBA..Boston..719..Ray Allen (Milwaukee-Seattle)..201
2003-04/NBA..Seattle..723..Peja Stojakovic (Sacramento)..240
2004-05/NBA..Phoenix..796..Kyle Korver (Philadelphia)/Jason Richardson (Phoenix)..226
2005-06/NBA..Phoenix..837..Ray Allen (Seattle)..269
2006-07/NBA..Phoenix..785...Arenas (Washington)/Bell (Phoenix)..205
2007-08/NBA..Orlando..801...Jason Richardson (Charlotte)...243
2008-09/NBA...New York..823...Rashard Lewis (Orlando)...220
2009-10/NBA...Orlando..841...Aaron Brooks (Houston)...209
2010-11/NBA...Orlando...770...Dorell Wright (Golden State)...194
2011-12/NBA...Orlando...670...Ryan Anderson (Orlando)...166
2012-13/NBA...New York...891...Stephen Curry (Golden State)...272
2013-14/NBA...Houston...779...Stephen Curry (Golden State)...261
2014-15/NBA...Houston...933...Stephen Curry (Golden State)...286
2015-16/NBA...Golden State...1077...Stephen Curry (Golden State)...402

* The NBA shortened the three point arc to a uniform 22 feet (prior to and subsequent to these three seasons the three point arc was 22 feet in the corners and 23 feet nine inches elsewhere).

^ Season shortened to 50 games by a lockout.

Bold indicates an ABA/NBA record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Notes on Klay Thompson's 60 Point Outburst

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:46 AM

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Saturday, December 03, 2016

Triple Threat Russell Westbrook Redefines Modern Basketball Versatility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:33 PM

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

DeMar DeRozan and the Art of the Midrange Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:58 PM

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Saturday, November 05, 2016

First Impressions of the 2016-17 Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:53 PM

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