NBA TruthsThe foundation of wisdom is to ask intelligent questions and earnestly seek honest answers to those questions, even if those answers go against what you are inclined to believe. Most of what you read and hear about the NBA is devoid of wisdom because most writers/talking heads are too ignorant, biased and/or indifferent to pursue wisdom.
Here are some NBA questions and answers worth pondering:
1a) What criteria are properly used to evaluate the so-called "supporting casts" of great players? Some people still insist that Michael Jordan single-handedly carried the Chicago Bulls to six championships, despite the fact that Jordan had one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players by his side during each of those title runs--and despite the fact that Jordan's career playoff record sans Scottie Pippen is 1-9. That is not a misprint--the player who is often called the greatest of all time won exactly one playoff game without having Pippen as a teammate. Pippen's brilliance offensively as a point forward and defensively as both a lock down defender and a devastating help defender enabled Jordan to sprint down court and obtain good post position offensively while also relieving him of some defensive burdens (to a lesser degree, Cleveland's acquisition of Mo Williams last season similarly freed up LeBron James to work off of the ball offensively, a luxury that James does not enjoy at the moment now that his playmaking load has been increased due to injuries suffered by Williams and Delonte West).
During his first three title runs, Jordan had a former All-Star at center (Bill Cartwright) and one of the best defensive power forwards in the league (Horace Grant), a mobile big man who could jump out to trap guards and then race back into the paint to defend his own man--think Anderson Varejao with a deadly 15 foot jump shot. The 1991-93 Bulls had three sharpshooting guards (John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Craig Hodges), one of whom emerged as an All-Star (Armstrong) when he got more playing time after Jordan's first retirement as the Bulls shocked many observers by winning 55 games in 1993-94 without his Airness. The 1996-98 Bulls championship teams essentially swapped Grant for a player who was the best pound for pound rebounder in history and who also was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year (Dennis Rodman). Those Bulls replaced Cartwright with a three headed monster of solid if unspectacular centers but they had a lot of talent on the perimeter alongside Jordan and Pippen: versatile Sixth Man of the Year Toni Kukoc, wily Ron Harper--a former 20 ppg scorer who reinvented himself as an excellent defensive player--and Steve Kerr, the NBA's career leader in three point field goal percentage.
There is no doubt that Michael Jordan belongs on the short list of players who could legitimately be given the somewhat mythical title of "greatest basketball player of all-time" (I say "somewhat mythical" because there is no realistic, objective way to compare a shooting guard who played under 1990s rules and conditions with, say, a center who played under 1960s rules and conditions--such comparisons can be fun and occasionally even enlightening but they can never be conclusive). Is it really necessary to try to artificially enhance Jordan's "case" for all-time greatness by falsely demeaning the skill sets, talents and contributions of his teammates?
1b) LeBron James is the Most Valuable Player in the NBA right now; I said as much in my April 17, 2009 post titled An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP Race, though contrary to last season's MVP voters who selected James in a landslide decision I felt that in the 2009 regular season James only slightly outperformed Kobe Bryant. During last year's playoffs, James had a magnificent playoff run for the ages but I noted that in leading the Lakers to the championship Bryant made a case that he is still the game's best player:
James certainly had a tremendous postseason but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide open shots.
During the opening stages of this season, Bryant picked up where he left off in the playoffs and then elevated his game further, adding some Hakeem Olajuwon post moves to his repertoire and leading the NBA in points in the paint as the Lakers stayed atop the standings even without the services of the injured Pau Gasol. Circa mid to late December Bryant was on course to win this season's MVP--but then a broken finger followed by back spasms sent his field goal percentage plummeting and his Lakers not only lost two games to James' Cavs but fell behind the Cavs in the race for the NBA's best record. Meanwhile, James' numbers continued to improve while Bryant's declined, so James has to be considered this season's MVP so far. A healthy Bryant still has a more complete skill set than James but that fact is being rendered irrelevant for two reasons: James is rapidly eliminating his few remaining weaknesses (thereby making his physical advantages over Bryant that much more significant) and Bryant's age/health are making it increasingly difficult for him to maintain peak level performance over the course of an 82 game season. Bryant may yet outperform James during the 2010 playoffs--buoyed by the off days between playoff games--but the spring/summer of 2010 could very well be Bryant's last opportunity to enjoy individual superiority over James; when James posted up on the right block versus Miami on Thursday night and then hit a one handed jumper in the paint TNT's Mike Fratello exclaimed that he had never seen James take such a shot and that this move is essentially unguardable--but I have seen this move before; James practiced this exact shot prior to the Cavs' second victory over the Lakers, as I mentioned in the second paragraph of my Courtside Notes from that game: I called that shot (and the other new moves that James worked on during that practice session) "the scariest sight for the rest of the NBA." I truly believe that I saw the future in those pregame moments: James working on honing his ability to dominate not purely on the basis of power/athleticism but because of positioning, footwork and shooting touch. James is learning how to master those elements at the same time that Bryant's physical skills and durability are waning, so James' edge over Bryant will only grow with time (something that Bryant would have staved off for another couple of years if James had not worked so diligently on defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting and--now--his post up game).
Note that it is possible to make an objective, skill set based comparison of Bryant and James without saying much--positive or negative--regarding their teammates. So why do some people insist on making asinine statements to the effect that if James were a Laker the Lakers would win more than 70 games or that if Bryant were a Cav the Cavs would not be as good as they are now? It is fascinating to observe how so many commentators rush to denigrate James' "supporting cast" in much the same fashion that Jordan's "supporting cast" has been belittled over the years.
If we must compare "supporting casts" let's at least do so objectively based on skill set evaluations and an understanding of each team's offensive and defensive philosophies. The Cavs under Coach Mike Brown are a defensive-minded team focused on holding the opposition to a low field goal percentage while also dominating the boards. That is why it is so silly to hear fans--and even "experts" who should know better--lament that the Cavs are weak offensively. Not only is that a stupid criticism to make of a team that owns the best record in the league precisely because of its focus on defense but statistics do not even support the contention that the Cavs are deficient offensively: the Cavs score over 101 points per game, lead the league in point differential (+7.3) and rank fourth in field goal percentage (.485), numbers that prove that the Cavs not only have no trouble scoring points but that they do so quite efficiently. There is nothing wrong with Cleveland's offense and there is no reason for the Cavs to make any offensive adjustments that could adversely affect the floor balance that enables them to be so effective defensively (they rank first in defensive field goal percentage and are tied for first in fewest points allowed).
LeBron James has vastly improved defensively since he entered the league and he appears to be on track to deservedly become a fixture on the All Defensive First Team--but one defender, no matter how great, cannot single-handedly make a team a defensive powerhouse: the Cavs have other players who are excellent individual defenders (most notably Anderson Varejao and Delonte West), plus the entire roster has bought into Coach Brown's system and found ways to maximize their defensive strengths while limiting their defensive liabilities.
The reality is that the Cavs' roster is both talented and deep (I explained the difference between "talent" and "depth" here): just consider for a moment that at full strength the Cavs are currently bringing off of the bench three players (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Delonte West) who started for the team that had the best record in the NBA in 2008-09! Those players have been replaced in the starting lineup by Shaquille O'Neal (a former MVP who made the All-NBA Third Team last season), Anthony Parker (a starter for two playoff teams in Toronto who is one of the top three point shooters in the league) and young forward J.J. Hickson (an athletic dynamo who nicely complements James and O'Neal offensively and who is rapidly improving as a defender/rebounder). The Cavs can play a huge lineup with O'Neal, Ilgauskas, James, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker--two seven footers plus three perimeter players who are each at least 6-6--or they can go "small" with Varejao at center, James at power forward and numerous different combinations manning the other three positions. Coach Brown has done an outstanding job of developing an effective rotation, rationing out minutes while dealing with a host of issues/concerns: O'Neal's age, West's off court problems, various injuries, the need to test out different five man units to see which players function together best in various kinds of matchups. Casual fans and so-called experts alike have so far displayed little if any appreciation for just how good of a coaching job Brown has done this year.
The Cavs may not have many "name" players other than James and O'Neal but don't let that fool you: their roster is legitimately 10 players deep, a claim that few if any other NBA teams can honestly make.
That statement segues perfectly into an examination of the Lakers' roster. You have no doubt heard countless people declare that the Lakers are the most talented and deepest team in the league. The Lakers receive a lot of media coverage and as a result some of their players who are completely ineffective due to injury or other reasons (including Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic) are better known names to casual fans than the starters for some of the league's non-marquee teams--but that should not deceive anyone into believing that the Lakers are a deep team. The Lakers' depth is more mythical than the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch: the Lakers have an eight man rotation, with their seventh man (in minutes played) being Shannon Brown, who was the Cavs' 12th man in 2007 when the Cavs made it to the NBA Finals. Where do you suppose Brown would fit into the Cavs' rotation this year? Brown was expendable three years ago when the Cavs were not nearly as deep as they are now; on this year's Cleveland team he would not beat out Mo Williams, Delonte West or Anthony Parker and I doubt that he would get much run ahead of Daniel Gibson--who has been starting in the injured Williams' place recently with the Cavs hardly missing a beat--so it is safe to assume that Brown would be the 12th man on the Cavs this year. Yet Brown is an important rotation player for this year's Lakers. Has Brown dramatically improved since he left Cleveland? He certainly has become more famous while playing for the Lakers (as seen by the popular "let Shannon dunk" movement that helped him earn a berth in the upcoming Slam Dunk Contest) but his per minute averages are essentially the same that they have always been; the difference is that the Lakers, unlike the Cavs, do not have better players that would move Brown out of the rotation.
The Lakers' starting point guard Derek Fisher certainly supplies many intangibles--such as leadership, toughness and the demonstrated ability to make clutch shots--but purely in terms of skill set and production he has to be considered the worst starting point guard for any of the teams currently slated to make the Western Conference playoffs. Here are the other seven point guards for your consideration: Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Andre Miller, Russell Westbrook.
Pau Gasol is certainly a top flight big man but he is not better than Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki, which is why Gasol annually ranks behind them in All-Star and All-NBA voting (see below for a more detailed discussion about Gasol).
Andrew Bynum is a five year veteran who has been healthy for a complete season just once, has never been selected as an All-Star, has never made an All-NBA Team and is frequently blasted by his own coach for his tendency to sprint toward the offensive end of the court but jog back on defense when the team needs him to have precisely the opposite attitude. Bynum has shown flashes of great potential but he has yet to prove that he has the durability or mindset to be a top level center; he was a 17.4 mpg afterthought during the Lakers' playoff run last year. Do those people who praise the Lakers' depth believe that Bynum is a better player than Amare Stoudemire or even Nene, to name just two other starting centers for Western Conference playoff teams?
Last summer, the Lakers essentially swapped journeyman Trevor Ariza for former All-Star Ron Artest. In Houston, Ariza--who some people wrongly dubbed a star in the making after the 2009 playoffs when he feasted on the open shots resulting from Bryant being double-teamed--has been a horribly inefficient swingman who is shooting well below .400 from the field, while Artest has battled through injuries (concussion, foot problems) to post marginally better numbers than Ariza did for last year's champions. It is debatable whether Artest's defense this year is better than Ariza's defense last year: Artest is more physically capable of guarding "big" small forwards like LeBron James and Paul Pierce but Artest now appears to be a bit less mobile and quick handed than Ariza and thus less able to get steals/deflections.
Lamar Odom has been so frequently referred to as "underrated" that I submit that he is now overrated. Odom has never been selected to an All-NBA Team or an All-Star team, meaning that fans, coaches and the media apparently have "conspired" to "underrate" him for more than a decade. This year, Odom is averaging a career-low 9.7 ppg while shooting .444 from the field, a very subpar figure for a power forward. Odom is often praised for his versatility but he is shooting just .299 from three point range and .683 from the free throw line so his "versatility" seems to consist of the ability to shoot a below average percentage from anywhere on the court. Odom's best asset by far is his ability to rebound (9.7 rpg) but if you evaluate his overall game objectively from a skill set standpoint as a scorer/defender/rebounder then you realize that he is hardly the All-Star level performer he is often touted to be. Anderson Varejao is more productive and more efficient, though many fans would likely laugh out loud at such a contention.
The Lakers' starting lineup of Gasol, Bynum, Artest, Bryant and Fisher is a veteran quintet that possesses size (other than Fisher, though he makes up in stoutness what he lacks in height) and plays well together but if you take Bryant out of the equation that group lacks the firepower (and tenacity) of the starting lineups in Cleveland, Boston, Denver, Orlando, Dallas and Utah, to name just a few (each of those teams has multiple players who are either current All-Stars or have made the All-Star team recently); without Bryant, opposing teams would double-team Gasol, bang him around and take the chance that none of the other guys could either score enough on his own or create enough scoring opportunities for others. Former Lakers General Manager Jerry West just said that if he were coaching against the Lakers with the game on the line he would send every defender at Bryant and dare anyone else to beat him, which is high praise for Bryant but hardly a ringing endorsement of what is supposedly the league's deepest and most talented team. Someone recently asked Bynum about how much more he might score if he were not playing with Bryant but Bynum candidly noted that the way that Bryant draws double teams actually makes it easier for Bynum to score, because all Bynum has to do is run the floor, seal his man in the paint and go to work one on one (an observation that I have made in several posts in the past few years).
Regardless of name recognition or hype, James has a deeper and more effective "supporting cast" than Bryant: the Cavs not only have 10 legitimate players but they have depth at each position and their various roster combinations are productive both offensively and defensively; in contrast, the Lakers are only eight players deep and their reserves have frequently squandered leads. The Cavs play tough, physical, defensive-minded basketball on a nightly basis, whereas the Lakers are much more erratic; that is a big reason why Bryant is so reluctant to miss any games even when his various physical ailments have limited him to the extent that his efficiency has been greatly compromised: Bryant trusts his ability to somehow will his team to victory more than he trusts his team's ability to consistently play tough, focused basketball in his absence (Bryant may be overly optimistic about what he can do in a physically compromised state but his doubts about his team's toughness are certainly well founded).
I rank James ahead of Bryant now not because of some spurious comparison of their "supporting casts" or wild speculation about what might happen if they magically switched teams but rather because James has attacked his skill set weaknesses while age/injuries have limited Bryant's ability to be a dynamic and efficient performer as consistently as he used to be. I'd still slightly prefer a healthy Bryant to a healthy James but that is a purely hypothetical statement: the reality is that James is just entering his prime, while Bryant is fighting a furious (and ultimately futile) battle against Father Time. The bottom line is that James was slightly better than Bryant last season, Bryant enjoyed a revival during the playoffs/first two months or so of this season and now James has moved ahead of Bryant by a larger margin than he enjoyed last season.
It is not necessary to falsely evaluate the "supporting casts" in order to correctly make a skill set comparison between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, just like it is not necessary to denigrate Michael Jordan's teammates in order to appreciate Jordan's greatness.
2) In Pau Gasol's first six full NBA seasons, coaches, fans and media members did not consider him to be an "elite" player. How can that statement be proven to be true? Gasol made the All-Star team once and he never made the All-NBA First, Second or Third Teams, honors that are bestowed by fans (All-Star starters), coaches (All-Star reserves) and media members (All-NBA Teams). Since joining the Lakers in the middle of the 2007-08 season, Gasol has posted career-highs in field goal percentage (.567 in 2008-09) and rebounding (10.7 rpg in 2009-10), earned an All-NBA Third Team selection (2009) and was voted by the coaches to the 2009 and 2010 All-Star Games.
Gasol is clearly a skilled big man but he is not any more skilled now than he was two years ago. What changed is that Gasol no longer carries the burden of being his team's best player; Kobe Bryant has that responsibility for the Lakers, meaning that Gasol can post up without being double-teamed as frequently and Gasol can get an open face up or slashing opportunity almost any time he wants simply by setting a screen for Bryant and waiting for his man to trap Bryant. That is why Gasol's shooting percentage has soared and that is why Gasol's offensive rebounding is at career-high levels: Bryant attracts so much defensive attention that Gasol (and other Laker bigs) often have a free run to the offensive boards. Here is a challenge for all of you "stat gurus" out there: find out how many NBA bigs increased their offensive rebounding productivity in their ninth and tenth NBA seasons. Gasol did not suddenly learn new rebounding tricks; he simply has an easier path to the offensive boards now.
3) Do the same people who insisted that Kobe Bryant had to "validate" his greatness by leading a team to a championship without Shaquille O'Neal plan at any time to say the same thing about Dwyane Wade? If Shaquille O'Neal is an important inside force for the Cavs in the 2010 playoffs--as he has been in Cleveland's regular season victories over the Lakers and Magic, last year's NBA Finalists--and LeBron James wins his first NBA title will those critics say that James must win a championship without a dominant big man in order to "validate" any comparisons with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and other great perimeter players?
posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 AM