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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lukewarm Heat on Pace for 47 Wins

"Just do your job, be reliable, let go of your ego. You are going to need each other in the second half."--Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra speaking to his team during halftime of the Heat's 112-107 loss to the Boston Celtics

"We're the best 5-4 team in the league."--Dwyane Wade, after the Miami Heat's 112-107 loss to the Boston Celtics

"For myself, 44 minutes is too much. I think Coach Spo(elstra) knows that. Forty minutes for D-Wade is too much. We have to have as much energy as we can to finish games out."--LeBron James, after Miami's 112-107 loss to the Boston Celtics

"He (Coach Erik Spoelstra) wants to work, we want to chill."--Chris Bosh, after the Miami Heat defeated the Phoenix Suns 123-96

"The young players and new players come to a team and see what players dictate the culture. They say, 'I want to be like that guy.' So you need the right culture...If your highest-paid players don't work out, don't pay attention in the film room--that sends a message to the rest of the team. It means all that matters is talent, not character. But if your best players do the extra work in the summer, stay around after practice--then it carries over to the rest of the team."--Clay Matthews, four-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Cleveland Browns

A picture may be worth 1000 words but sometimes a few quotations--not taken out of context, but rather placed into appropriate context--literally speak volumes. The above quotations tell us several things:

1) It is not a good sign that the season has barely started and Coach Spoelstra already has to implore the Heat players to keep their egos in check. Wouldn't you love to hook Coach Spoelstra up to a lie detector and find out whose egos he was talking about? During the summer, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh portrayed themselves as Three Musketeers who are willing to sacrifice in order to win not just one title but to capture multiple championships; if big egos are already emerging as a problem now then what will happen when the team faces real adversity in a playoff series?

2) LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do not seem to understand just how much they helped fuel high expectations (and much resentment) by prancing around on stage while pledging to turn the Heat into the league's next dynasty.

3) I cannot recall ever hearing an MVP level player complaining about playing too many minutes; usually the opposite happens: MVP level players generally lobby for more playing time while their coaches have to force them to get some rest; Allen Iverson hated to ever come out of a game and last season Kobe Bryant said that he did not worry when the Lakers' bench sputtered because if things got too out of hand he would just get up and check himself back in the game.

4) Charles Barkley never played on a championship team but he made a very insightful comment when he said that the Heat players do not understand just how hard players have to work to build a championship team. Can you imagine Kobe Bryant saying that he just wants to "chill"?

5) Matthews' statement referred to his early experiences with the Cleveland Browns when some veteran mentors taught him how to be a professional on and off the field but the sentiments that he expressed apply not just to football but also to basketball and other sports: the best players set the tone for how a team practices and plays.

*****

ESPN.com reporter Brian Windhorst--the former Cavs beat writer who, like James, has taken his talents to South Beach--recently said that he felt "mildly ashamed" for voting for James as the 2010 regular season MVP. Windhorst contends that James did not quit but that James "choked" (Windhorst's exact word) versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and that James' inability to rise to the occasion in the postseason when the Cavs were favored speaks very poorly of James. What exactly is Windhorst trying to say/prove? Even if James "choked" (as opposed to quitting, which is what James actually did) how does that change the reality that James was the league's best player during the 2010 regular season? Furthermore, if Windhorst truly based (or intends to base) his MVP ballot on a player's postseason resume then he should have never voted for James over Bryant in the first place, because James has never had a better postseason resume than Bryant.

Windhorst is trying to convince readers that he is independent from ESPN censorship and that he is willing to criticize James--but don't be shocked if by the end of the season Windhorst changes his tune again and suddenly declares that James should once again be the MVP. Windhorst is actually one of the better beat writers currently covering the NBA but that says more about the status of that profession than the inherent merits of his work (if the standards were set where they should be then he would be considered a solid beat writer instead of being one of the top beat writers).

Unless LeBron James and/or someone with inside knowledge of last year's Cavs tells the truth we will never know exactly why the league's best regular season player and the league's best regular season team completely melted down versus the Celtics, collapsing at home in game five and then not even bothering to play the "foul game" (intentionally fouling to stop the clock, hoping that the opponent misses at least one free throw) at the end of game six; I saw preseason games this year in which teams played the "foul game" down the stretch, so it is incomprehensible that the Cavs just laid down and died when facing elimination by Boston. However, I do not buy Windhorst's take that James "choked"; that implies that James tried--tried too hard, in fact--when the reality is that James looked disinterested: it seemed like James could not wait for the series to be over so he could take off his Cleveland jersey for the last time, which he did while walking off of the court after game six, not even waiting until he got to the locker room--an action that turned out to foreshadow his eventual "Decision."

In the absence of conflicting evidence/testimony, I feel quite comfortable saying that LeBron James dedicated himself last season not to leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title but rather to creating as much suspense and drama as he possibly could around his impending "Decision." When his Cavaliers had an opportunity to seize control of their playoff series versus Boston with a home win in game five, James quit and the Cavaliers suffered their worst home playoff loss in franchise history. James played at an MVP level during the past two regular seasons and for much of his postseason career but he performed disgracefully on and off the court during the Boston series and then during the drawn out "Decision" process. I once wrote admiringly about LeBron James' accelerated growth curve; last spring and summer that growth curve trended downward more dramatically than the U.S. economy--but, unlike some people, I have no intention of engaging in revisionist history: James' growth curve during his first several seasons was indeed quite remarkable, I thought that he performed slightly better than Kobe Bryant during the 2009 regular season and I thought that James outperformed Bryant by a wider margin in the 2010 regular season. James was a very worthy winner of the 2009 and 2010 regular season MVPs (Bryant deserved that honor in 2006 and 2007, while Shaquille O'Neal should have gotten the trophy in 2005 but I addressed those injustices in previous articles that can easily be found in this site's archives).

For many years, Cleveland writers fell over themselves declaring that James was a better, more unselfish player than Bryant; I told a much more nuanced and honest story, namely that Bryant has the most complete skill set of any NBA player, while James is bigger and more athletic but has certain skill set weaknesses: an objective comparison of the two players must weigh Bryant's complete skill set versus James' combination of athletic gifts/skill set limitations. As James improved his defense, free throw shooting and perimeter shooting I correspondingly adjusted my relative rankings of the league's top two players and by the end of the 2009 regular season I felt like James had moved ahead of Bryant slightly, at least in terms of being consistently productive over an 82 game season. Bryant reasserted his dominance during the 2009 playoffs and during the first month and a half of the 2010 regular season but over the course of the entire 2010 regular season James was the league's best and most consistent player.

My writing has never been tainted by a bias toward a player or a team, so I can look back with pride at everything that I have said regarding Bryant, James and the league's other great players; my articles will stand the test of time a lot better than articles written by people who change their rankings based on what team they cover, who they write for or other factors that have nothing to do with on court performance.

*****

The "best 5-4 team in the league" is now 8-6, tied with Atlanta for 4th-5th in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of 8th seeded Cleveland; the Heat are tied for the 10th best record in the NBA, a half game behind the Chicago Bulls and a half game ahead of the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors. The Heat are on pace for 47 victories--two more wins than the 2006 Lakers accomplished with the famous power trio of Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker; yes, Odom and Parker ranked second and third on the Lakers in minutes played that season, with Kwame Brown finishing fourth--and the media "experts" placed Bryant fourth in MVP voting!

The Heat are 6-3 at home but just 2-3 on the road and only one of their wins is against a team that currently has a better than .500 record (the Orlando Magic, who played the Heat very competitively until Vince Carter suffered an injury that caused him to miss the entire second half of the game). Yes, it is early in the season, Dwyane Wade only played three minutes in the preseason and the Heat have suffered injuries to Wade, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller but several patterns have emerged so far: the Heat lack mental and physical toughness, they are regularly abused by opposing point guards and centers, they have no post up game to speak of and they have difficulty defending opposing post players. None of those traits scream "championship." It was ridiculous for anyone to suggest that the Miami Heat, as currently constructed, could win 70 games in a season, let alone break the all-time record of 72-10 set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls; I have tremendous respect for Jeff Van Gundy but if he really believed what he said about the Heat prior to the season (as opposed to simply ramping up pressure on the Heat to help out his brother Stan down in Orlando) then he was suffering from temporary insanity. The 1996 Bulls won 72 games because Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen thought that every game was worth winning; that type of competitiveness and professional pride is the antithesis of everything that we have seen and heard from James, Wade and Bosh. It is not too late for Jeff Van Gundy to apologize to Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls for comparing them to the Heat.

James seemed to be a self motivated player who was methodically eliminating his skill set weaknesses but the picture that is emerging now is that he is a high maintenance player who is more about style than substance. Adrian Wojnarowski's report--which to the best of my knowledge has never been contradicted or refuted--that James conducted himself so boorishly and immaturely that Team USA officials seriously considered not putting him on the 2008 Olympic Team is a devastating indictment levied at the league's most physically gifted player. James' public assertion--which he later clumsily tried to downplay--that Coach Spoelstra should not have played James for 44 minutes versus Boston is just another indicator that James does not understand what it takes to be a champion and that he is also quick to blame others for his failures (somewhere former Cleveland Coach Mike Brown must have been smiling knowingly when James threw Spoelstra under the bus).

*****

During the offseason we heard a whole bunch of nonsense, including predictions that James would average a triple double this season and assertions that Wade is the team's best player and would lead the Heat in scoring while James reduced his scoring and played like Magic Johnson.

Averaging a triple double for an entire season is almost impossible considering the pace of the current NBA game; there just are not enough possessions for one player to consistently post double figure scoring, rebounding and assist totals. Moreover, averaging a triple double is not a good goal for a player to set; some people say that this is an unselfish goal but I disagree: if a player is focused on that then in each game he is going to concentrate on piling up certain statistics even if his team needs him to fill a different role--you don't want your best player giving up easy shot opportunities so that he can pass the ball just for the sake of trying to accumulate assists.

Regardless of how fans feel about James or the idiotic methods that some media members use to determine who a team's leader supposedly is, James is in fact the Heat's best player. As I explained last year, "Wade is a mini-James: they have similar skill set strengths (explosiveness, court vision, finishing in the paint) and share the same major weakness (outside shooting). However, I'd take Bryant or James over Wade unless or until Wade's skill set is markedly better than theirs, because Wade's height is a disadvantage."

James is certainly not Magic Johnson! Jason Kidd is the closest thing to a modern Magic Johnson, but just like Wade cannot be as good as James because Wade is five inches shorter (at least), Kidd can never be as dominant as Johnson was simply because Kidd is so much smaller. Johnson was a pass first player who put his teammates in the best possible positions to succeed; Johnson was also a cutthroat competitor with a genius level basketball IQ. During his NBA career James has always been a shoot first player who is reluctant to make passes that do not pad his assist totals. James and Wade accumulate large assist totals because they completely monopolize the ball; they are both used to dominating the ball and are comically unable to be effective when they are relegated to playing off of the ball. I am not saying that James and Wade are bad passers; clearly, they both possess good passing skills--but they are not pass first players, they are not heirs to Magic Johnson and they are not point guards.

The Miami offense largely consists of James "getting his," followed by Wade "getting his." The other players pick up the table scraps. It is hilarious to recall how much criticism Mike Brown received for Cleveland's offense the past few seasons. Last year, the Cavs ranked second in scoring differential, ninth in points scored and third in field goal percentage. Brown figured out how to make the Cavs a very efficient offensive team even though James cannot play without the ball and generally refuses to post up despite having a pronounced physical advantage over everyone who guards him.

Here is Charley Rosen's take on James' performance down the stretch in Miami's second loss to Boston:

From the left baseline, LeBron’s shot hit the side of the backboard. Not an easy accomplishment, but surely an embarrassing one that emphasized James’ extremely erratic stroke.

Despite his spectacular failures in the clutch, LBJ scanned the postgame stat sheet and remarked that his 44 minutes of daylight were "too much."

So, this 26-year-old strongman, who needed to dig a little deeper into his considerable bag of skills in order for his team to win a critical game, essentially was putting the onus on Erik Spoelstra and shunning any personal responsibility.

Call me a LeBron hater if that makes you feel better.


*****

It is interesting to observe how blatantly certain writers and commentators reveal their agendas. One recent example of this is a certain yahoo's prediction that the Cavs would only win 12 games this year, an assertion based not on logic but rather on the ludicrous premise that LeBron James is worth more than 40 wins (the same yahoo joined the chorus that predicted that the Heat would win 70 games).

Many "stat gurus" have insisted that LeBron James is not just the league's best player but that he is far superior to Kobe Bryant and those same "stat gurus" generally suggest that Dwyane Wade is also superior to Bryant. It is only natural for those "stat gurus" to assume that pairing up James and Wade would produce a dominant NBA team--but what we have seen so far is that the Heat are frontrunners: they win at home and against teams that they can overwhelm physically/intimidate psychologically but they crumble on the road and against teams that are mentally/physically tough.

Some readers scoffed when I said last summer that James may never play for a better team than last year's Cavs. The Cavs were a deep, well balanced team; they beat the defending (and future) champion Lakers in both meetings last year, pounding the Lakers so badly in L.A. that the Staples Center fans were booing and throwing objects on to the court. This year's Heat team has a more talented trio than last year's Cavs but the Heat lack size, depth and balance (the Cavs not only went 10-plus deep but they had depth at every position).

I have made this point many times but it simply cannot be overstated (particularly since the mainstream media largely refuses to acknowledge it): Pau Gasol was not considered an elite player prior to joining the Lakers but teaming up with Kobe Bryant has transformed him into a likely future Hall of Famer. Gasol's skill set has not changed much (he added some strength after the 2008 NBA Finals so that he could better hold his ground in the post) and his statistics are essentially the same except for increases in field goal percentage and offensive rebounding (thanks primarily to Bryant drawing double teams and creating easy opportunities for Gasol) but Gasol is perceived differently now because he is more comfortable playing one on one as the second option as opposed to carrying the burden of attacking double teams as Memphis' top option. If you believed the narrative that the "stat gurus" have constructed about James and Wade then you had to think that James and Wade would have an even more dramatically positive effect on Bosh, whose pre-Miami career was more effective and much more decorated (five All-Star selections, one All-NBA selection, seventh in 2007 MVP voting) than Gasol's pre-L.A. career (one All-Star selection, no All-NBA selections, not a single MVP vote)--but this has not been the case at all. Gasol arrived in L.A. in a midseason trade and instantly bonded with Bryant but James, Wade and Bosh play like strangers despite having a complete offseason to figure out their roles; even with Wade missing the preseason it still should not be that difficult for the supposedly two best players in the NBA to figure out how to effectively utilize a player as talented and versatile as Bosh. Gasol is a better passer than Bosh but otherwise their skill set strengths and weaknesses are quite similar: they are both lithe, lanky, agile big men who like to face the basket on offense, who gather rebounds based on their length/mobility more so than their strength/size and who can be pushed around by physical defenders.

Isn't it interesting that the "experts" are already criticizing Bosh more than they are criticizing James and Wade? What is Bosh supposed to do when James and Wade pound the ball so much that it looks like they are trying to drill holes in the hardwood? How is Bosh supposed to get into any kind of rhythm? Bryant and Gasol formed an immediate screen/roll chemistry because they are both high IQ players who understand how to play without the ball and how to read defenses. Gasol also picked up the Triangle Offense very quickly.

Other than the glaringly obvious deficiencies at point guard and center, the biggest question about the Heat is whether or not James and Wade are willing/able to learn how to play in an offensive system that maximizes the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses of all of the Heat's players. Phil Jackson has used the Triangle Offense to good effect in Chicago and L.A.; the point of the Triangle is not to create shots for Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol but rather to establish a framework in which players who cannot create their own shots can still be effective. Jordan and Bryant both chafed at the Triangle initially but they eventually accepted the idea of playing off of the ball at times so that all of their teammates could be involved offensively.

Before anyone pipes up about the Heat's superficially impressive point differential and offensive efficiency, keep in mind that they have padded those numbers at home against weak opposition. How efficient did Miami look against Boston, Utah or New Orleans? Pat Riley did not bring James and Bosh to Miami merely to rack up blowouts versus weak teams during the regular season. If the Heat do not figure out how to beat good teams and how to win on the road then their playoff run will be much shorter than a lot of people expected.

*****

Just as I correctly objected to the absurd notion that Kobe Bryant's career should be defined by one game, I disagree that LeBron James' legacy will be automatically defined by the "Decision" or even by the results of this NBA season; however, although it is too early to say that James permanently damaged his legacy it is not too early to say that he has taken some steps in that direction with the combination of his quitting versus Boston followed by the tone deaf way that he handled the free agency process. If James leads the Heat to one NBA title he will regain a lot of the status that he lost and if he leads the Heat to multiple championships then his bad spring/summer of 2010 will likely become just a footnote to his career. Keep in mind what I wrote in the above article about Bryant:

Shortly before Jordan led the Bulls to six championships in eight seasons, there were plenty of people who thought that Jordan should never be compared to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith tells of a game in which Jordan did not pass to Bill Cartwright nine times when the former All-Star center was wide open. "At least he was under double figures," then Bulls Coach Phil Jackson joked. Cartwright had a less humorous take on Jordan at that time: "He’s the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He’s just not a basketball player."

I don't think that the Miami Heat will win the 2011 NBA championship but since they have three of the league's top 15 players they clearly have to be considered a contender. It is possible that they will either improve at point guard and center or else make some personnel moves to shore up those positions. History provides several examples of teams that overcame similar challenges. Despite Cartwright's lament that Jordan was "not a basketball player" (which is akin to my above analysis of how James and Wade struggle to play without the ball), Jordan and the Bulls came together during the 1990-91 season, winning the first of three straight titles. Then Jordan retired for nearly two years before coming back and winning three more titles with an almost entirely different supporting cast (except for fellow Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, the only other player to play for all six Bulls' championship teams).

During Phil Jackson's first season with the L.A. Lakers, the team faced a lot of adversity, culminating in game seven of the Western Conference Finals when the Portland Trail Blazers led by 15 points before the Lakers rallied for an 89-84 victory. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers in points (25), rebounds (11), assists (seven) and blocked shots (four) in that game. It is interesting to speculate about what might have happened to the Lakers if they had lost to Portland; tensions eventually emerged between O'Neal and Bryant even after they won three titles together, so a loss in the 2000 playoffs may have torn apart the Lakers' delicate chemistry before they had a chance to become a dynasty.

Much like the current Heat, the 2008 Boston Celtics brought in two All-Stars (Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett) to play with an All-Star who had spent his entire career with their team (Paul Pierce). Unlike the Heat, the Celtics were solid at center and point guard (even if we did not realize this until Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins proved their worth) and the Celtics immediately committed to being a defensive-minded team. Still, the Celtics were pushed to the brink--winning seventh games in the first and second rounds of the playoffs--en route to capturing the NBA title; they could have easily lost either of those series and, much like such a loss could have been disastrous for the 2000 Lakers, failing to win the 2008 championship may have negatively affected Boston's team chemistry.

*****

LeBron James' failure during the 2010 playoffs and his poor handling of his free agency process did not make me retroactively change my accurate evaluation of his career; it simply raised two questions:

1) How much help does James need to win an NBA championship?

2) Is winning an NBA championship really James' primary goal?

Labels: , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 AM

38 comments

links to this post

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cavaliers Surprise "Experts"

Why would someone predict that the Cleveland Cavaliers will only win 12 games this season? The simple (and correct) answer is that the yahoo who said that is an idiot but there are some deeper issues worth exploring.

The Cavaliers posted the best record in the NBA in 2008-09 (66-16) and 2009-10 (61-21). LeBron James won the regular season MVP in both of those seasons and he clearly had a lot to do with Cleveland's success but an MVP level player is worth between 15 and 25 wins, not 50 wins. If the Cavs had lost James but made no other changes then it would have been reasonable to predict that the Cavs would win 45-50 games in 2010-11. Keep in mind that in both of the previous seasons the Cavs coasted to the finish line because they had already clinched the top playoff seed; otherwise, the Cavs could easily have added to their 2009 and 2010 win totals.

Saying that the Cavs will plummet from the league's elite to flirting with the all-time record for single-season losses is simply not rational--and yet it makes perfect sense from a certain perspective: namely, if you are biased enough to believe (based on "advanced statistics" and/or personal preference) that LeBron James is not just an MVP level player but that he is far superior to Kobe Bryant then it is only natural to suggest that James' departure from Cleveland to team up with Dwyane Wade (another player who the "stat gurus" consistently rate ahead of Bryant) will not only turn the Miami Heat into an unbeatable juggernaut but also instantly transform the Cavs into the equivalent of an expansion team. This is the same kind of "logic" that led some people to declare that if Bryant and James had switched teams the past two seasons James would have carried the Lakers to 70-plus wins while Bryant's Cavs would not have matched the records that they posted with James leading the way; that is just nonsense but I will focus on James and the Heat in an upcoming article.

Many people apparently anticipated using this season as some kind of referendum on James' greatness and on how much the Cavs depended on James but those people have chosen poorly for two reasons. One, anyone who really understands basketball knows that the Cavs' success was not linked solely to James: the Cavs had a deep and well balanced roster that Coach Mike Brown honed into one of the top defensive and rebounding units in the league. Two, in addition to losing James the Cavs also lost their top two centers (Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas), the player who led the team in minutes played during the 2009 playoffs (Delonte West) and Coach Brown. The Cavs are a much different team this season, so whether they win 50 games or 15 does not really "prove" how much or how little the 2009 and 2010 Cavs depended on James to post the league's best regular season record; however, if the main holdovers from last year's team (Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, J.J. Hickson and Daniel Gibson) lead the team to the playoffs sans James that will certainly lend credence to what I have consistently said regarding the quality of the Cavs' depth last season.

Despite the fact that former All-Stars Williams and Jamison have missed multiple games due to injuries, the Cavs currently rank eighth in the Eastern Conference, exactly where I predicted that they would finish. Obviously, the season is young and there is no guarantee that the Cavs will maintain that position but it is extremely unlikely that they will finish with anything close to 12 wins; I expect that they will be better in the second half of the season than they are now because their key players will presumably get healthier and the entire roster will become more familiar with Coach Byron Scott's system.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 12:57 AM

8 comments

links to this post