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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reexamining Cleveland's Offseason Moves

After winning an NBA-best 66 games last season but falling short in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Orlando Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers fortified their already deep roster by adding Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to replace Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak. Cleveland fans fretted a bit when the Cavs started slowly this season and critics have carped about O'Neal's career-low per game averages but the Cavs are once again on pace to post 60-plus wins and they are right behind the Boston Celtics in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

My newest CavsNews article compares the production of Cleveland's three offseason acquisitions with the production of the players that the Cavs discarded (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

In my previous Cavs News article I suggested that Cleveland’s two game losing streak was not a cause for major concern and that it would be much more significant to see how the Cavs performed during the next nine games, six of which would be played on the road. The Cavs have now won five games in a row; these victories may not have been artistic and the Cavs surely face a tough test with four road games in six days—culminating with a Christmas Day visit to L.A. to play the defending Champion L.A. Lakers—but despite a slow start, some inconsistent performances and the ongoing Delonte West saga the 20-7 Cavs now own the fourth best record in the NBA and they only trail the Boston Celtics by one game for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

There is no denying the fact that the Cavs are still figuring out how to best utilize offseason acquisitions Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon but it is clear that the Cavs upgraded their overall talent level and improved their chances of beating teams like the Celtics and Orlando Magic in a seven game playoff series. Although the agate type listing NBA transactions tells a slightly more complicated tale, essentially the Cavs swapped Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak for O’Neal, Parker and Moon. More than a fourth of the way into the 2009-10 season it is interesting to compare how those players are performing.

Wallace is averaging 4.1 ppg and 9.8 rpg in 26 games for Detroit. He has started every game for the Pistons. Wallace’s per minute productivity this season is very similar to how he performed last year for Cleveland, with two main differences: he is maintaining that effectiveness despite logging nearly seven more mpg and he has been much more active on the offensive boards. Wallace played very solidly for Cleveland when he was healthy but he had trouble staying healthy during his brief tenure as a Cav; this season, so far, he has been healthy.

Pavlovic is averaging 4.7 ppg in 15.5 mpg for Minnesota. He is shooting a career-low .355 from the field, including .286 from three point range. Szczerbiak has yet to play in the NBA this season as he recovers from injuries and mulls a possible retirement. If he decides to play he could possibly end up in Cleveland late in the season.

O’Neal leads the Cavs in blocked shots (1.4 bpg), is second in field goal percentage (.516), is tied for second in rebounding (7.0 rpg) and ranks third on the Cavs in scoring (10.9 ppg). His per game averages are career-lows across the board but he is also averaging a career-low 23.4 mpg. On a per minute basis his rebounding and shotblocking numbers are better than they were last year when he made the All-Star team, was co-All-Star MVP and earned selection to the All-NBA Third Team. The Cavs do not need or expect for O’Neal to play at a superstar level; they need for him to be the “Big Bill Cartwright” and so far he has filled that role very well. The only mildly disappointing number is the field goal percentage but after a slow four game start in October O’Neal shot .531 in November and he has shot .524 so far in December.

Parker is averaging 7.3 ppg and currently leads the NBA in three point field goal percentage (.500). Moon is averaging a career-low 5.5 ppg but he is shooting a career-high tying .485 from the field; his per game averages are down because his minutes have been slashed to 18.6 mpg after he averaged at least 25.9 mpg in each of his first two seasons.

The bottom line so far is that the Cavs gave up an effective but limited and undersized center, a shooting guard who is shooting very poorly and a shooting guard/small forward who is not currently in the league for an All-Star center who is aging but still effective in limited minutes, a shooting guard who spaces the court extremely well because of his three point shooting range and an athletic small forward whose minutes have been limited because he plays behind the league’s best player at that position. Furthermore, the impact of Cleveland’s roster adjustments goes beyond simply adding up and comparing the individual numbers of these players; O’Neal’s presence means that the Cavs have a legitimate low post option on offense and that on defense they do not have to double-team the opposing team’s primary low post option, a factor that proved decisive in the first matchup of the season versus Orlando, the team that derailed Cleveland’s championship plans last season.

It is not surprising that the per game numbers for the Cavs’ three new players are lower than they were when those players had bigger roles on lesser teams; in order to win a championship, players have to be willing to fill defined, appropriate roles and to sacrifice minutes/shot attempts for the greater good of the team. I am puzzled by commentators who suggest that the Cavs lack talent and are too dependent on LeBron James. As noted above, the Cavs own one of the top records in the NBA—and they have accomplished this by relegating two starters from last year’s NBA-best 66-16 team to the bench (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao) and with only sporadic contributions from Delonte West, who not only started for the Cavs last season but led them in playoff minutes played. The 2010 Cavs are obviously much more talented than the 2009 Cavs, let alone the 2007 squad that made it to the NBA Finals; Shannon Brown was the 12th man for the 2007 Cavs and would not likely be receiving much playing time for the Cavs this season yet he is a key member of the eight man rotation for the defending Champion Lakers.

The Cavs are on pace to win 60-plus games and contend for the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. There is every reason to believe that they will play better as the season progresses and their new players become fully integrated into Coach Mike Brown’s system. The biggest wild card for this team—and the factor most likely to potentially be their downfall—is Delonte West’s uncertain status. West is an extremely versatile player who is not exceptional in any one category but who has no skill set weaknesses. If by playoff time the Cavs are able to rely on him to either be a regular starter or at least a consistent force as a 25-plus mpg sixth man then the Cavs will be very formidable.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 PM


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dirk Nowitzki: Model of Consistency

Remember when I asked Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle if he thinks that Dirk Nowitzki is underrated? Instead of suggesting that Nowitzki deserves more acclaim than he receives, Coach Carlisle diplomatically praised the media for voting Nowitzki to the 2009 All-NBA First Team--but Hall of Fame contributor/two-time NBA Coach of the Year/ESPN analyst Hubie Brown completely agrees with my take on Nowitzki. Late in ESPN's Wednesday night broadcast of Dallas' 100-86 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder--during which Nowitzki scored a game-high 35 points on blistering 13-18 field goal shooting while tying for game-high honors with 11 rebounds--play by play announcer Dan Shulman asked Brown, "Is it possible that a guy who has been as good as he is for as long as he has been that good--is it possible Dirk Nowitzki is still a little bit underappreciated?"

Brown immediately replied, "Oh, I think so and I've always felt that way. I feel that for what he has accomplished--and even the year that he won the MVP (2006-07), a lot of guys questioned (why) he won the MVP--and yet when you back up the stats and see everything that he did, it is just one of those freakish things that happen that certain players, no matter what they do, no matter how consistent, no matter how overwhelming their stats are, people still do not want to give them the total recognition."

Nowitzki has averaged at least 21.8 ppg for nine straight seasons and is well on course to make it ten in a row with his career-high tying 26.6 ppg average this season. During that time Nowitzki has averaged at least 8.4 rpg each year (he is slightly behind that pace with an 8.2 rpg average so far this season). As Brown pointed out earlier in the telecast, Nowitzki has consistently been an accurate shooter from the field, three point range and the three point line; during Nowitzki's aforementioned MVP campaign he joined the elite .500 (field goal percentage)--.400 (three point field goal percentage)--.900 (free throw percentage) Club, whose members include sharpshooters Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller and Steve Nash.

For those of you who think you know NBA basketball (but really don't) and say that Nowitzki is not a clutch player, consider that this season he has shot 55-55 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter/overtime--and remember that his playoff scoring and rebounding averages (25.5 and 11.0 respectively) are significantly better than his regular season scoring and rebounding averages (22.5 and 8.4); for comparison purposes, note that renowned playoff assassin Reggie Miller not only averaged fewer points in the postseason than Nowitzki (20.6 ppg) but that Miller's playoff scoring average is 2.4 ppg higher than his regular season scoring average compared to a 3.0 differential for Nowitzki, who advanced past the first round in six of his first 11 seasons while Miller's Indiana Pacers made it out of the first round seven times in 18 seasons.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:43 AM


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Not Exactly the Wonder Five: Pro Basketball's Worst Finalists

This article was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Basketball Digest, though the editor changed the title to "Lacking Lakers"; fortunately, he did not alter the text of the article. Writers do not generally get to choose the titles of their articles, so I suppose I should not complain, but in this case--just like my article about pro basketball's greatest ball hawks--I don't understand why the editor selected a title that is less descriptive than the one that I originally used.

I also wrote about this subject for
NBCSports.com in 2006.

The Wonder Five sounds like a Motown act or a group of superheroes but basketball fans remember that it was the nickname of the 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers, featuring All-Stars Julius Erving, George McGinnis and Doug Collins. This talent-laden team took a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals before Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers reeled off four straight wins to claim the championship.

While the Wonder Five failed to capture the ultimate prize, the 76ers enjoyed a very successful season. Their 50-32 record was the best in the Eastern Conference, their 4.0 ppg differential was more than respectable and they beat the defending champion Boston Celtics in the playoffs. The 76ers were clearly a worthy Finals participant, but for some NBA and ABA Finalists Wonder Five would not be a description but a question, as in, "I wonder how these five players made it here?" Thirteen Finals losers had a regular season winning percentage below .550; three of these teams made it to the championship round despite a sub-.500 record.

The 2001-02 New Jersey Nets are not on this list but some observers have called the Nets one of the worst teams to make it to the NBA Finals, citing the generally acknowledged weakness of the Eastern Conference and the fact that the Lakers easily swept the Nets. The unspoken part of this argument is that the Nets have been so putrid for so long that it is hard to believe that they are really good. Also, while Jason Kidd emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate, no Net averaged more than 15 ppg in the regular season, adding to the "who are these guys?" stigma which stuck to the team.

However, the statistics clearly show that the Nets were the class of the Eastern Conference in 2001-02, owning the best record (52-30) and the best ppg differential (4.2 ppg). The 2002 Nets won two more games than the celebrated Wonder Five and posted a slightly better ppg differential. A skeptic could argue that the Eastern Conference was stronger in 1976-77 than in 2001-02 but it's not like the elite Western teams dominated New Jersey during the regular season. The Nets went 4-4 against the West's top four teams (1-1 versus the Sacramento Kings, 2-0 versus the San Antonio Spurs, 1-1 versus the Lakers and 0-2 versus the Dallas Mavericks). Based on a complete season's body of work the Nets do not look like such a horrible Finals team historically.

As for being swept in the Finals, this alone does not demonstrate that a team is one of the worst in Finals history. The extreme example that proves this point happened in 1988-89. The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers raced through the Western Conference playoffs with an 11-0 record only to be swept by the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals after Laker starting guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott suffered injuries. While the 2001-02 Nets were not stricken with comparable injury setbacks, it is still difficult to compare various Finals losers based solely on their Finals' performances without taking into account the strength of the winning teams from each of those seasons. The 2001-02 Lakers would probably have swept a lot of the teams that made the Finals over the years.

The 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers are the best candidate for the dubious distinction of worst Finals team ever. Their 33-39 record is the worst of any Finalist and their –1.3 ppg differential is easily the poorest of any Finals participant. The Lakers finished 16 games behind the defending champion St. Louis Hawks in the Western Division. Minneapolis had Rookie of the Year Elgin Baylor (who also made the All-NBA First Team) and not much else. Amazingly, the Lakers dispatched the Hawks 4-2 in the Western Division Finals before bowing to Bill Russell's Celtics 4-0 in the NBA Finals.

While too much should not be made of the mere fact of being swept, the Lakers were not only the first team to be swept in the NBA Finals but also the only one to suffer this fate between 1947 and 1971. The team plummeted to 25-50 in 1959-60 and even the arrival of future Hall of Famer Jerry West in 1960-61 only lifted the Lakers to 36-43.

In 1956-57 the St. Louis Hawks became the first team to make it to the Finals despite a sub-.500 record. That season each of the East's four teams had at least a .500 record and all four of the West's teams were below .500; the Ft. Wayne Pistons, the Lakers and the Hawks each went 34-38 but St. Louis emerged from the Western playoffs to face Boston in the Finals. Surprisingly, the Hawks extended the Celtics to seven games before rookie Bill Russell and company claimed the first of 11 championships in 13 years. The Hawks improved to 41-31 in 1957-58 and upset the Celtics in the Finals; Russell was hobbled with a sprained ankle.

The 1980-81 Houston Rockets are the third and last of the sub-.500 Finalists. Led by rebounding champion Moses Malone and aging but still potent guard Calvin Murphy, the Rockets shocked the defending champion Lakers 2-1 in a first round mini-series; Magic Johnson had missed more than half the season with a knee injury and shot only .388 from the field in the three playoff games. After beating a tough San Antonio Spurs team the Rockets caught a break when the upstart Kansas City Kings upset the Phoenix Suns, whose 57-25 record topped the Western Conference. Houston smashed the Kings 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals.

When the Rockets squared off against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the Finals, an unimpressed Malone declared that he and four guys from his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia could beat Boston. Looking at Houston's 1981 roster, maybe he meant that he and four guys off the street could beat the remainder of the Rockets' squad. In any case, Malone's Rockets lost to the Celtics in six games.

The 1969-70 Los Angeles Stars had the worst record (43-41, .512) and worst ppg differential (-.2 ppg) of any ABA Finalist. Prior to the season the Stars signed veteran center Zelmo Beaty away from the Atlanta Hawks, but—like Rick Barry before him—he had to sit out his option year before jumping leagues. Meanwhile, the immortal Craig Raymond averaged a double-double at center and speedy guard Mack Calvin contributed 23.1 ppg and 5.9 apg during the team's improbable playoff run. Coach Bill Sharman's crew upset superstar rookie Spencer Haywood (36.7 ppg and 19.8 rpg in the playoffs) and the Western Division champion Denver Rockets before succumbing 4-2 to the powerful Indiana Pacers in the ABA Finals.

Like the 1956-57 Hawks, the Stars won a championship the year after their unlikely trip to the Finals. In 1970-71 the Stars moved to Los Angeles and went from Cinderella to powerhouse. With Beaty at center and new additions Ron Boone and Glen Combs in the backcourt the Stars won 57 games. In 1971-72 Coach Sharman enjoyed an even greater season, guiding the Lakers to a record 33 game winning streak en route to a then record 69 regular season victories and an NBA title. Sharman and Alex Hannum are the only coaches to win titles in both leagues; Hannum won his first NBA title with the aforementioned Hawks.

Is it possible for a team to win a championship but still be one of the worst Finals teams? In general this is a difficult proposition to accept—if a team scraps its way to a championship despite a mediocre record it deserves the benefit of the doubt that it would defeat most of the Finalists from other seasons that failed to win a title. In any case, only one NBA or ABA championship team had a winning percentage less than .550—the 1977-78 Washington Bullets posted a 44-38 record (.537) and a + .9 ppg differential. That team had two Hall of Famers (Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld) and made a return trip to the Finals the next year. The Bullets were certainly not one of the greatest championship teams but cannot be seriously considered to be worse than sub-.500 and barely .500 teams that lost in the Finals.

Another championship team with a relatively mediocre record is the 1994-95 Rockets. Houston went 47-35 (.573) but beat the teams with the three best records in the league to make it to the Finals and then swept the Shaquille O'Neal-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic. That type of performance during the claiming of back-to-back championships certainly does not belong on the list of worst Finals teams. Rick Barry's 1974-75 Golden State Warriors are remembered as one of the more surprising NBA champions. Their sweep of a 60-22 Bullets' team was shocking but the Warriors did have the best record in the Western Conference (48-34). The Warriors, like the Bullets, are not among the great championship teams but also do not deserve to be lumped in with the worst Finalists.

Selecting the best of the best will always spark controversy: Wilt or Russell (or Shaq), Bird or Magic (or Jordan), Celtic Dynasty or the Running of the Bulls (or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers if they pull off the "four-peat"). However, it is doubtful that another team with a .458 record (roughly equal to 38 wins in an 82 game season) and –1.3 ppg differential will appear again in the NBA Finals. The 1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers are quite safe in their perch as the worst Finalists ever.

Note: the following list of the NBA/ABA Finalists with the worst regular season winning percentages accompanied the original article and thus was compiled prior to the completion of the 2002-03 NBA season.

Season Team Record/Win % PPG Diff.

1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers 33-39/.458 -1.3 PPG
1956-57 St. Louis Hawks 34-38/.472 -.1 PPG
1980-81 Houston Rockets 40-42/.488 +.4 PPG
1969-70 Los Angeles Stars (ABA) 43-41/.511905 -.2 PPG
1970-71 Baltimore Bullets 42-40/.512195 +.6 PPG
1975-76 Phoenix Suns 42-40/.512195 +.6 PPG
1955-56 Ft. Wayne Pistons 37-35/.514 +.7 PPG
1970-71 Kentucky Colonels (ABA) 44-40/.524 +.1 PPG
1971-72 New York Nets (ABA) 44-40/.524 +.4 PPG
1974-75 Indiana Pacers (ABA) 45-39/.536 +1.1 PPG
1998-99 New York Knicks 27-23/.540 +1.0 PPG
1966-67 San Francisco Warriors 44-37/.543 +2.9 PPG
1950-51 New York Knicks 36-30/.545 +.4 PPG

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM


Monday, December 14, 2009

Classic Confrontations: Walt Frazier vs. Earl Monroe

This article was originally published in the August 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.

What would happen if a great player who had never won a ring teamed up with a championship winning New York superstar who plays the same position? No, not Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter--Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier. Just as the New York Yankees shifted Rodriguez to third base to accommodate the incumbent Jeter at shortstop, Monroe had to change his game to fit in with a New York Knicks team that had previously won an NBA title.

Before Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Earl "the Pearl" Monroe joined forces they had some tremendous duels as Frazier's Knicks and Monroe's Baltimore Bullets battled to reach the NBA Finals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Frazier and Monroe each possessed well-rounded games but their showdowns spotlighted Monroe's one-on-one skills versus Frazier's tenacious defense.

The Bullets selected Monroe with the second pick in the 1967 draft; the New York Knicks took Walt Frazier with the fifth pick that year. Monroe had a more immediate impact, capturing the Rookie of the Year award (24.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 4.3 apg) and helping the Bullets improve from 20 wins to 36. Frazier took a little longer to adjust to the NBA game (9.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.0 apg), although he did join Monroe on the 1968 All-Rookie Team.

In 1968-69 Monroe averaged 25.8 ppg while leading the Bullets to a league-best 57-25 record. Frazier nearly doubled his scoring (17.5 ppg) and assists (7.9 apg) and the Knicks finished right behind the Bullets with 54 wins. Boosted by the mid-season acquisition of forward Dave DeBusschere, New York proved to be the superior team in the playoffs, sweeping the Bullets 4-0 in the Eastern Division Semifinals. Monroe got his points (28.3 ppg), but the effect of Frazier's defense can be seen in his field goal percentage, which dropped from .440 in the regular season to .386.

The next year the Knicks had the league's best record, 60-22, while Baltimore finished 50-32. Monroe erupted for 39 points in game one of the Eastern Division Semifinals, but Frazier made several key steals from him down the stretch to preserve a 120-117 double overtime Knicks' victory. New York won the series in seven games despite Monroe’s 28.0 ppg. Frazier and the Knicks claimed their first championship by beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the seventh game, when Willis Reed famously limped onto the court to provide a huge emotional lift for the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Frazier came up with a performance for the ages--36 points and 19 assists.

In 1970-71 the Bullets slumped to 42-40, but peaked when it counted most, ousting the Knicks by winning the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals in New York, 93-91. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Bullets in the NBA Finals and on November 10, 1971 Baltimore made the momentous decision to trade Monroe to the Knicks for Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth.

Monroe was hampered by a heel injury during his first season playing alongside Frazier. Reed's balky knee limited him to only 11 regular season games and forced him to miss the playoffs but the Knicks persevered, beating the Bullets 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Knicks lost 4-1 in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers won their first championship since the days of George Mikan.

Reed returned to the lineup in 1972-73, although his numbers were significantly lower than they were in his prime. The Frazier-Monroe backcourt found its stride as the Knicks went 57-25, trounced Baltimore in the Eastern Conference Semifinals 4-1 and won the Finals rematch versus the Lakers 4-1.

DeBusschere was impressed with how smoothly Monroe adapted to his new role: "He came into a difficult, difficult position. He was a man with immense pride and intelligence who had to swallow his pride to adjust…One of them had to make the entire adjustment and Earl did it completely."

The aging Knicks lost to the Boston Celtics in the 1974 Eastern Conference Finals and fell from the top fairly quickly after that as injuries and retirements depleted the roster. Monroe actually outlasted Frazier in New York, retiring as a Knick after an injury riddled 1979-80 campaign. Frazier retired that same season, after spending the last three years of his career as a Cleveland Cavalier. The rivals turned teammates are now members of two very elite squads: the Hall of Fame and the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:41 AM