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Monday, April 25, 2011

First Round "Midterm" Report

The headline stories of the moment in the NBA playoffs are that Chicago's Derrick Rose is using a walking boot for his injured left ankle and that the L.A. Lakers' Kobe Bryant needed crutches to walk out of New Orleans' Arena after injuring his left foot late in the Lakers' 93-88 game four loss. Both players are expected to be able to play in their respective teams' next games but if their injuries significantly limit their productivity this could change the balance of power in the league (and scuttle the Bulls-Lakers NBA Finals matchup that I predicted before the playoffs began).

We have seen enough from each NBA playoff series to offer some "midterm" grades, though this is actually a final report card for the New York Knicks.

Chicago 3, Indiana 1
  1. Chicago's formula for success is very similar to the one employed by the Cleveland Cavaliers to reach the 2007 NBA Finals and the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals plus post the league's best regular season record in 2009 and 2010: defense, rebounding and exceptional all-around play by a star player (LeBron James for Cleveland, Derrick Rose for Chicago).
  2. If Kobe Bryant hit the game-clinching field goal but only shot 4-18 from the field with just two assists in a game, Henry Abbott would say that Bryant shot too often and played selfishly; Kelly Dwyer would dismiss the value of the last second shot by declaring that if Bryant had been more efficient throughout the game then his team would not have needed for him to hit a game-winner. You can bet that Abbott and Dwyer sang a different tune after Rose put up the aforementioned stat line in Chicago's 88-84 game three win; I'd call those two NBA "experts" intellectually dishonest but I hesitate to use any form of the word intellectual in the same sentence with their names. In contrast to the drivel we have come to expect from some of the worst NBA writers, TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith both had the same, cogent take on Rose's performance: you have to be a great player to have the confidence to take (and make) such a pressure shot on a night when you are struggling from the field; Barkley and Smith noted that the last thing on Rose's mind was that he had only made three of his first 17 shots, because a great player is certain that he will make the next one and win the game. Smith added one other excellent observation: Rose made sure that he took a high percentage shot (a layup), while the Pacers' Danny Granger tried to answer with an off balance three pointer when the Bulls were still only up by two points.
  3. The Pacers have competed very hard in this series but their fourth quarter execution has been atrocious in all four games; they had to hang on for dear life in game four despite leading 84-71 with just 2:17 remaining and they squandered a 98-88 lead at the 3:38 mark of the fourth quarter of game one to lose 104-99 as Rose scored seven points and assisted on a Kyle Korver three pointer in the final 1:50.
  4. Rose is shooting just .352 from the field--well below his regular season field goal percentage of .445--but he has still been the best player on the court for three reasons: (1) He has been very productive from the free throw line (.868 FT%, 13.3 FTA/game), (2) he has been very effective in fourth quarter situations with the game on the line and (3) his dribble penetration has broken down the Pacers' defense, leading to shot open shots for his teammates (Rose's 6.3 apg average is actually lower than his 7.7 apg regular season average but--as I have mentioned before regarding Bryant--assists do not tell the entire story regarding shot creation, because a great player does not always make the final pass leading to the open shot).
  5. Rose did not move well down the stretch in game four after he sprained his left ankle and it is no coincidence that the Pacers won that contest, though the Pacers still had to weather yet another meltdown in the waning moments. Rose seemed to lack his regular quickness, did not jump as high as usual when he scored on an uncontested dunk and he even missed a contested breakaway layup that he normally would convert, so his mobility and productivity should be closely watched in game five; with a 3-1 lead the Bulls can survive this series even if Rose is hobbled but they need a fully healthy Rose in order to advance beyond the second round.
Miami 3, Philadelphia 1
  1. In Miami's game one victory, Dwyane Wade ranked third on the Heat in minutes played, third in scoring and third in rebounding--but he hit a couple shots in the final two minutes, so naturally the national media concluded that the Heat made the "correct" adjustment of crowning Wade as the team's leader; all evidence to the contrary will be duly ignored, because the national media decided months ago that Wade is a better player and/or "more clutch" than LeBron James, the player who led the Heat in minutes played, scoring and assists over the course of the entire 82 game season (James ranked first on the Heat in minutes, first in rebounding, tied for first in assists and ranked second in scoring during game one). An objective recounting of the final minutes of the game fails to support the popular narrative that the Heat simply gave the ball to Wade and asked him to take over. With 3:17 left in game one, Miami had the ball and an 88-85 lead; Wade dribbled the ball down court, tried to run a screen/roll action with Chris Bosh but failed to create anything, so Wade then passed to James, who immediately made a strong move down the middle of the lane before missing a shot right in front of the rim. The Sixers then missed a shot and James corralled the defensive rebound. James gave the ball to Wade, who dribbled down court, ran some time off of the clock, made a hand gesture and passed the ball to James, who was isolated at the top of the key against Jrue Holiday. James made a strong move to the hoop, drew a double team and dished to a wide open Bosh, who missed a baseline jumper. Wade crashed the offensive boards, failed to get the ball and was the last defender back, enabling the Sixers to score a layup thanks to a five on four advantage. Wade then brought the ball down court and ran a screen/roll with Bosh that accomplished little because Wade dribbled side to side instead of attacking the hoop. Wade passed to James Jones, who drove from the wing, enticing Bosh's defender out of position; Jones fed Bosh in the post and Bosh drew a foul. Bosh made both free throws and Elton Brand missed a short jumper that James rebounded. Wade ran a screen/roll with Bosh but this time Wade aggressively attacked the hoop before fading away to shoot a one-legged bank shot. Wade kicked out his leg but Thaddeus Young was called for a foul; Wade missed the free throw, keeping the score 92-87 Miami. Young again scored on a layup and the Heat answered with a Wade-Jones screen/roll that resulted in two made free throws for Wade. Andre Iguodala missed a jumper and James snared yet another rebound. A Wade-Jones screen/roll led to a missed three pointer by Jones. James then blocked a Holiday layup attempt and after a timeout Iguodala missed a three pointer. The Sixers now had to foul; the game concluded with the Sixers missing two three pointers, James sinking two out of two free throws and Wade splitting a pair of free throws. Miami's offense in the final three minutes consisted of James attacking the hoop twice, Wade running multiple screen/rolls (sometimes aggressively but other times passively) and James Jones helping to create a postup opportunity for Bosh that resulted in two crucial free throws. From this small sample size we are supposed to conclude that Wade "took over" because he made an off balance jumper that was better highlight material than the other plays; meanwhile, no one even mentions the several times that Wade ran the screen/roll passively or the potentially crucial possession when he failed to get back on defense. This is why I rely on watching games--not "advanced statistics" and certainly not the bleatings of media "experts"--to determine what actually happened and who deserves credit/blame.
  2. Neither James nor Wade play particularly well on offense without the ball, so the problem is that when one of them is handling the ball the other guy is just watching; this differentiates the Heat from the Boston Celtics, who are successful in half court situations because they screen hard, cut hard and get the ball to a player who is in position to utilize a skill set strength, whether that is a catch and shoot three pointer (Ray Allen), a midrange jumper (Kevin Garnett) or an isolation situation at the elbow (Paul Pierce). The Heat shot an NBA-worst 1-19 from the field during the regular season in situations when they were down by three or fewer points with 10 seconds or less remaining--but even the championship-experienced Boston Celtics shot 2-14 in such situations, the fourth worst percentage in the NBA this season. What does that mean? It indicates that last second shots when you are tied or trailing are inherently low percentage situations but also that we should be wary of drawing sweeping conclusions about a small sample size; you cannot determine the essence of a team's ability to produce in the clutch (if such a quality can even be defined at all) just by looking at 14 or 19 possessions out of an 82 game season consisting of literally thousands of possessions: any number of anomalous factors could have affected those various situations--for instance, there is a huge difference between executing a set play in an out of bounds situation with a decent amount of time remaining versus having to heave the ball at the hoop just before time runs out. Despite Boston's dismal regular season performance in "clutch" situations, the Celtics eviscerated the New York Knicks in the playoffs down the stretch in close games, running excellent plays that produced high percentage shots.
  3. In Philadelphia's game four win, James took the last second shot, casting serious doubt on Brian Windhorst's contention that the Heat made some kind of official decision to always give the ball to Wade in such scenarios. James made a good move, attacking the hoop rather than settling for a long jumper, but Elton Brand got a piece of the ball and the Sixers controlled the rebound. James is the team's best player and thus he should be the first option in most cases, but whether the primary option on a given play is James or Wade, Coach Erik Spoelstra must find a way to make the other player a threat on the weak side in order to spread out the defense. It would be easier to make James and Wade into weak side threats if either of them possessed a consistent jump shot.
  4. James is leading the Heat in minutes (42.3 mpg), scoring (26.3 ppg), rebounds (10.8 rpg) and assists (5.8 apg) versus Philadelphia, while Wade is leading the Heat in turnovers and shooting worse from the field than James yet Mike Wilbon, Brian Windhorst and many other "experts" insist that Wade is Miami's best player, that Wade is the most "clutch" player on the team and that Wade should be Miami's primary late game option. I cannot emphasize enough how idiotic it is to suggest that even though James is--by any reasonable statistical and/or "eye test" measure--clearly Miami's best player he should become a screener/off the ball role player in the game's final two minutes. I am not saying that James must always have the ball at the start of every play or that he should never be used as a screener--he certainly can set a solid screen with his huge body--but it makes no sense to primarily relegate the reigning two-time regular season MVP to such duties when the clock hits some arbitrary number. It is worth remembering that the player who Wilbon, Windhorst and others are trying to elevate to "Mr. Clutch" status has not won a playoff series since the 2006 season and he presided over arguably the worst collapse ever by a championship team that did not have its roster disassembled. Yes, Wade is one up on James in terms of winning an NBA championship, but James has had a better and more consistent playoff career, even considering the puzzling way that James quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs.
  5. The Heat are most effective when they can trap defensively, force turnovers and score in the open court; they are least effective when the game slows down and their opponent can zero in on the Heat's weaknesses inside the paint and the Heat's lack of lateral quickness defensively at the point guard position. This is a bad matchup for Philadelphia because the things that the 76ers do well are the same things that the Heat do well but the Heat are even better at those things than the 76ers are. The game four win is a nice present for the Philadelphia fans but will not change the outcome of the series. It will be very interesting to see how the Heat perform against the Celtics under the pressure of playoff competition when the game slows down, a subject that I will examine in greater depth once Miami officially ends this series.
Boston 4, New York 0
  1. The Knicks essentially tanked for several seasons so that they could acquire Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to lead them to a record barely above .500 and a 4-0 first round loss--but the national media spin is that the "glory" has returned to Madison Square Garden. The closing moments of game one looked somewhat less than glorious for New York: the Knicks conceded a wide open lob for a dunk and an uncontested game-winning three pointer by arguably the greatest long range shooter in NBA history (Ray Allen), followed by Anthony firing up a low percentage three pointer when there was plenty of time left on the clock and the Knicks only needed to score two points to tie the game.
  2. Anthony authored an individual performance for the ages in New York's 96-93 game two loss (42 points, 17 rebounds, six assists) but the lasting image of that game is Anthony's brain cramp on the final possession: the Celtics, up by just one point, inbounded with more than four seconds remaining but Anthony failed to foul Delonte West until time had all but expired; even though the Knicks were out of timeouts, a quick foul would have retained some chance of getting off a three pointer to at least force overtime. The enduring soundbite from that game is Anthony repeatedly mentioning that he "made the right play" when he passed to Jared Jeffries after being double-teamed on the Knicks' final offensive possession; Jeffries fumbled the ball at point blank range instead of scoring the potentially game-winning layup. Yes, Carmelo, you made the right play but it is more than a bit unseemly to almost break your arm patting yourself on the back about it--and you get paid the big bucks with the expectation that you will make the right play. In contrast to Anthony's narcissistic approach, it is interesting that Derrick Rose is sometimes glum even after wins, insisting that he should have played better--and when the Bulls lose, Rose is quick to say it is his fault even if he played well and it really was not his fault. Rose is confident in his skills yet quick to praise his teammates for helping him to be successful. Instead of patting himself on the back with one hand and throwing Jeffries under the bus with the other hand, Anthony should have tried to pump up Jeffries' confidence by saying that if the same situation happened again he would pass to Jeffries without hesitation because he is confident that Jeffries will make the shot.
  3. It is amazing how quickly some people make excuses for Miami's slow start and for the Knicks' sub-.500 record (including the four playoff losses) since putting together New York's version of the "Big Three." When the Boston Celtics assembled their "Big Three" in 2007-08 they rolled to a 66-16 record, survived some playoff adversity (winning two seventh games) and won a title; when the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in the middle of the 2007-08 season after Andrew Bynum got hurt the Lakers did not miss a beat, posted the best record in the West and made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to Boston--and then the Lakers won back to back championships. The Heat have struggled at times not because they need to play more games together but because their best players have some flaws--as mentioned above, neither James nor Wade play well without the ball--and because their roster has some holes, while the Knicks have been mediocre for the past 30-plus games because neither their coach nor their two best players have a defensive mindset and because Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are All-NBA Second or Third Team caliber players, not the elite, All-NBA First Team caliber players that some people make them out to be. All-NBA First Team caliber players lead teams to deep playoff runs and championships on a consistent basis, something that neither Stoudemire nor Anthony have done: Stoudemire has played in the playoffs six times, amassing three first round losses and two Conference Finals losses; Anthony has played in the playoffs eight times, amassing seven first round losses and one Conference Finals loss.
  4. Last year, I questioned how much the Knicks had really improved--both in the short term and in the long term--and I made the critical points that (1) it was foolish for the Knicks to apparently put all of their eggs in the LeBron James basket and (2) it was questionable at best to believe that a Mike D'Antoni-coached team would develop into a legit championship contender. As I predicted, James never seriously considered going to New York and the Plan B that the Knicks scrambled to implement resulted in creating a much-hyped but ultimately mediocre team. D'Antoni is a very creative coach offensively and I am not saying that his offensive philosophy cannot be part of a championship mix--after all, the Lakers won five championships in the 1980s with high scoring teams--but I am saying that a championship team must also have a defensive mindset and that it is extremely unlikely that the Knicks will ever develop that mindset with D'Antoni as the head coach; Mike Kurylo mocked my article about the Knicks and Dave Berri never apologized for misquoting me regarding my comparison of the Knicks in Isiah Thomas' first season as head coach versus the Knicks in D'Antoni's first season as head coach but despite all of that nonsense the Knicks are who I said they are: a team that essentially tanked multiple seasons to build a roster that is not anywhere close to contending for a championship. Contrast that with what franchises like Chicago and Oklahoma City have done since 2008: those teams hired defensive-minded head coaches and built rosters with unselfish role players who complement the skills of their humble, young stars. Instead of following a blueprint for achieving sustainable success, the Knicks gambled that they could entice LeBron James to come to New York and then scrambled to obtain any big name player after James rebuffed them.
  5. The first four bullet points focused on the Knicks because there will be no reason to talk about the Knicks at all for the next several months but it is worth noting that the Celtics showed some signs that their championship aspirations should not be completely dismissed. The Celtics certainly weakened their frontcourt by trading Kendrick Perkins--who may turn out to be the modern day Paul Silas if the Celtics do not win another championship and if Perkins helps Oklahoma City to capture a title in the next few years--but their rugged defense, their unselfishness and their halfcourt offensive execution may still be enough to make one more serious championship run; the Heat will have homecourt advantage plus a younger, fresher set of stars if they face the Celtics in the second round but it certainly is possible that the Celtics could win a game in Miami and put a lot of pressure on a team that has shown some psychological instability at times. As I mentioned in my Miami-Philadelphia notes, I will have more to say about a potential Miami-Boston matchup when/if that matchup becomes official.
Atlanta 3, Orlando 1
  1. There is at least one prognosticator who prefers to not offer picks for series that are too close to call and yet brags that his predictions are more accurate than anyone else's (which is easy to do if you only pick certain series) but I always make a prediction about each series. As I mentioned in my playoff preview article, the Magic took a huge step backward with their two midseason trades, while the Hawks have been mercurial for several seasons. If there is one series I would have taken a "pass" on it was this one, because I don't "like" either team--not from a rooting standpoint (I don't care who wins) but rather from the standpoint that both teams are deeply flawed and the survivor of this series is going to be turned into roadkill by the Chicago Bulls (unless Derrick Rose is significantly hindered by his ankle injury). As TNT's Kenny Smith noted at halftime of game four, neither Atlanta or Orlando play like legitimate championship contenders in terms of shot selection; it was comical to watch the highlights of a low percentage, ill-timed shot by one team being answered by a low percentage, ill-timed shot by the other team.
  2. Gilbert Arenas managed a -11 plus/minus rating in just six minutes of "action" in game two. Plus/minus is an extremely noisy stat, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is hard to be worth -11 points in just half a quarter, particularly when five of the other eight Magic players had positive plus/minus ratings and no other Magic player had a plus/minus rating worse than -6. Arenas received a DNP-CD (Did Not Play-Coach's Decision) in Orlando's 88-84 game three loss; Arenas is the eighth highest paid player in the NBA and is under contract with the Magic through the 2013-14 season, when the Magic will pay him $22,346,536. Granted, Rashard Lewis (who the Magic traded to the Washington Wizards for Arenas) was no bargain but Lewis is still more productive than Arenas and Lewis' contract expires a year earlier than Arenas'. Unless Orlando General Manager Otis Smith figures out a way to quickly add some talent to his roster, the untradeable Arenas may very well be with the Magic longer than Smith or than franchise player Dwight Howard, who surely does not relish the possibility of playing several more seasons with Arenas' contract taking up massive amounts of salary cap space while Arenas takes up space on the bench. Jason Richardson's game four suspension opened up a spot in the rotation for Arenas and Arenas responded with 20 points and five assists in 22 minutes as Orlando lost 88-85 to fall behind 3-1 but no one--except perhaps a willfully blind Arenas fan (such as Neil Paine)--believes that one decent playoff performance in any way justifies the huge mistake that Smith made when he acquired Arenas; Smith has transformed the Magic from a legit championship contender to first round fodder for a team that the Magic easily swept last season.
  3. Hedo Turkoglu produced nine points on 3-11 field goal shooting in game three. It was absurd for anyone to think that Turkoglu--whose game has been on hiatus since he scored a big money contract--would be an impact player for a championship contending team at this stage of his career. Turkoglu is averaging 7.8 ppg and shooting .229 from the field versus Atlanta.
  4. The Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson acquisitions were widely praised but I offered a much more sober and prescient evaluation of Orlando's midseason trades: "It looks like the best case scenario is that the Magic turn into Phoenix Suns East--bombing away from three point range in the regular season only to get pushed aside by the Celtics or out 'run and gunned' by the Heat in the playoffs--while the worst case scenario is that Turkoglu's complacency, Arenas' questionable attitude and the team's general lack of defensive focus results in the Magic fading completely from championship contention."
  5. If I am so smart and if I have such a dismal view of Orlando's prospects then why did I pick the Magic to win this series? In my series preview I said that the Hawks could win if they could single cover Dwight Howard and thus shut down the Magic's three point shooters but I reluctantly picked Orlando to win because the Magic have the series' best player and best coach plus homecourt advantage. It turns out that the Magic are even worse than I expected: Atlanta seized homecourt advantage in game one and eliminated Orlando's three point shooters by successfully single covering Howard (with "success" being defined not by Howard's gaudy individual numbers but rather by Orlando's collectively poor offensive efficiency). It may just be my imagination or the view from certain camera angles, but it seems like Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy's hair has become both grayer and more sparse since the Magic dealt away Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Mickael Pietrus.
Memphis 2, San Antonio 1
  1. I predicted that the keys for Memphis would be (1) Zach Randolph outplaying Tim Duncan, (2) containing the Spurs' three point shooters and (3) playing intelligently and unselfishly. Randolph averaged 20.3 ppg and 8.0 rpg in the first three games of the series, scoring 25 points in each of Memphis' wins; Duncan averaged 15.0 ppg and 11.3 rpg in those three games. The Spurs shot just .319 from three point range, well short of their league-leading .397 regular season percentage. The young, playoff-inexperienced Grizzlies have shown a lot of poise thus far, while the Spurs have been uncharacteristically sloppy--culminating in the final seconds of game three when Manu Ginobili dribbled into a corner, got trapped and was unable to even attempt a shot as time ran out with the Spurs trailing 91-88.
  2. A right elbow injury forced Ginobili to miss San Antonio's game one loss; he provided great energy--albeit with poor shooting percentages (.385 from the field, .538 from the free throw line)--in San Antonio's game two win but in game three the Spurs could not overcome the poor first half performances authored by Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker. Ginobili did better in the second half but his last second gaffe cost the Spurs an opportunity to at least try to send the game to overtime.
  3. Now is the time to officially put to rest the idea that the L.A. Lakers "stole" Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies for nothing; Pau's younger brother Marc is a very good player who is still improving and who actually has outperformed Pau in the early stages of the 2011 playoffs: Marc has averaged 17.7 ppg and 11.7 rpg as the Grizzlies posted the first two playoff wins in franchise history, while Pau has averaged just 12.3 ppg and 6.3 rpg as the Lakers split the first four games with underdog New Orleans. The Grizzlies dealt Pau because in six-plus seasons with the team he did not lead them to a single playoff victory; Pau is not a franchise player, so the Grizzlies decided to get rid of his salary and rebuild their team around a new, younger nucleus. Pau has certainly been a very good second option for the Lakers but Memphis has also benefited from the trade, constructing a very talented team.
  4. The Spurs can take back homecourt advantage by winning game four and I still expect the Spurs to eliminate the Grizzlies but I definitely underestimated how tough this series would be for San Antonio; much has been made of how Memphis is causing San Antonio trouble due to the Grizzlies' frontcourt size but the larger story is that the Spurs simply have not been the same since Ginobili, Duncan and Parker suffered various injuries down the stretch: the Spurs had an undersized frontcourt all season long but they were on pace for nearly 70 wins until February and it seemed like they had the overall best record sewn up until injuries--most notably Duncan's--contributed to a six game losing streak.
L.A. Lakers 2, New Orleans 2
  1. Chris Paul has posted some historic numbers in the first four games of this series while Derek Fisher has averaged 9.3 ppg on .429 field goal shooting (which is actually better in both departments than Fisher performed during the regular season); I understand that Fisher's value cannot be summarized by numbers and I have great respect for Fisher's toughness, competitiveness, unselfishness and ability to make clutch shots but he simply cannot stay in front of top level point guards nor can he produce enough offensively to be a major threat over the course of a game. Fisher's deficiencies force the Lakers to either switch Kobe Bryant to point guard on defense--a maneuver that Bryant has done in the past but that certainly does not get any easier for Bryant as the years and mileage add up on his body--or make adjustments that could lead to open opportunities for other players.
  2. Phil Jackson delivered the line of the playoffs after the third quarter of game two when TNT's Cheryl Miller asked a lengthy question about whether or not Pau Gasol was being tough and doing the things he was supposed to do; Jackson simply smiled wryly and replied, "No." Gasol has been breathtakingly soft, tentative and ineffective versus New Orleans. I joked before the series that the only thing that could enable the Hornets to beat the Lakers is if a black hole engulfed Los Angeles and swallowed Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol but in light of Gasol's disappearing act that offhand comment probably does not seem very humorous to Laker fans right now.
  3. Toughness has nothing to do with trash talking or flexing your muscles; toughness means playing through adversity and forcing your opponent to deal with you on your terms: if you are a tough faceup shooter, then you will deal with being bumped and pushed as you move without the ball to get free for your shot; if you are a tough postup player then you will assess your skills and your opponent's skills and act accordingly: when you have a quickness advantage you will face up and drive without fear of contact and when you have a height/length advantage you will fight for position, catch the ball and shoot over your defender. What you will not do is allow yourself to be bullied off of your spot and/or out of your game. Pau Gasol is not soft because of his skin color, because he is European or because he is an intelligent, well-rounded human being off of the court; Pau Gasol is soft because there are too many occasions when he submits to his opponent's will, something that should never happen to a player with his mental and physical gifts. There are only a handful of legitimate franchise players/MVP level players in the NBA; no matter what kind of stats Gasol puts up on his best days, he is NOT one of those players. However, Gasol is a very good second option on a team with a Hall of Fame coach and with a first option player who is not only personally aggressive but who also instills aggressiveness and confidence in his teammates. Unfortunately for Gasol, Phil Jackson is retiring after this season and Kobe Bryant is rapidly heading toward the point where his battered body will no longer be able to fully respond to the demands issued by his strong, willful mind. The day that Gasol is truly the best player on the Lakers is the day that the Lakers cease to be a championship contender.
  4. The term "franchise player" is poorly defined and vastly overused. There are very few true franchise players in the NBA: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant are players who can carry a team based on some combination of physical dominance, one great defining skill and/or tremendous skill set diversity. The next tier of NBA talent consists of great players who are not quite as dominant as the players listed above. Pau Gasol is a wonderfully skilled All-Star but he is not a franchise player: he does not have the mindset to be one nor does he have the ability to consistently dominate elite teams in playoff competition as the focal point of his team's offensive attack. Since joining the Lakers, Gasol has flourished as a second option benefiting from the double and triple team attention drawn by Bryant; the Lakers' best play in recent seasons has been a screen/roll action involving Bryant and Gasol, because Bryant reads the defense excellently, knowing when to drive, when to shoot the midrange jumper and when to pass the ball either to a cutting Gasol or else to an open shooter on the weak side if the defense goes into full rotation to trap Bryant while also checking Gasol.
  5. The Lakers curbed Bryant's regular season minutes in 2010-11 with the idea of preserving his energy; Bryant's minutes have increased from 33.9 mpg in the regular season to 36.8 mpg in the playoffs but Bryant's production has decreased: his scoring, rebounding and assist averages are all down slightly but the most disturbing Bryant statistic for the Lakers is that his field goal percentage has declined from .451 in the regular season to .419 in the playoffs. Bryant is a career .449 playoff shooter and he shot at least .457 from the field in each of the last three postseasons as the Lakers made three straight trips to the NBA Finals and won back to back championships.
  6. Kobe Bryant, not Phil Jackson, made the decision to switch defensive assignments with Derek Fisher at the start of game two (Bryant guarded Chris Paul, while Fisher guarded Marco Belinelli). Though Jackson was unsure about the move at first, after the game he conceded that Bryant's pressure against Paul "made us feisty. There was a real aggression that went into the game." Matt Barnes added, "It cut off the head of their snake." Bryant's deliberate decision to sacrifice his scoring to focus on limiting the opposing team's point guard is reminiscent of the role that Bryant played for Team USA during the 2008 Olympics and also of the way that Scottie Pippen harassed various point guards (including Magic Johnson and Mark Jackson) during the Chicago Bulls' championship runs in the 1990s.
  7. Here is an interesting Kobe Bryant quote from after game three, when Fisher and Bryant switched back to their normal defensive assignments and Bryant scored 30 points as the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead: "The system that we play in doesn't dictate one player to have 30 points (and) 15 assists, like you see a Chris Paul or some of the other players around the league that control the ball the majority of the game. This offense allows other players to make plays, to make decisions, to make passes but the last game I wanted to send a clear message to my teammates that you can have an impact on the game without shooting the ball. Stop worrying about how many shots you get; you still have to impact the game and you can do that in various ways. It's not just how many times you shoot the ball. The message was sent, so (now) it's my responsibility to be me, which is to score first. Once attention comes, once the double comes it's my responsibility to move the ball." That is an excellent message not only for Pau Gasol--who whines too much about not getting the ball but is often not aggressive when he does get the ball and in any case should never let his "touches" affect his rebounding/defense--but also for the "stat gurus" who get mesmerized by the gaudy numbers posted by certain players and fail to understand what those numbers really signify in terms of the correct way to rank the NBA's best players.
  8. It was natural to assume that Bryant would again lead the way with his scoring in game four but Bryant instead had his first scoreless half in playoff competition since 2004, though he did create shots for his teammates (registering seven assists in the first half). Bryant scored more effectively in the second half (17 points) but the game and the series may have turned when Bryant severely twisted his already injured left foot; his left ankle has been listed on the Lakers' injury report even though he has yet to miss a game since spraining it back in March but Bryant looked very hobbled after he stumbled while guarding Willie Green late in the game: Bryant fell into Green--resulting in a two shot foul--and Bryant looked so unsteady on his feet that Jackson brought in Shannon Brown to replace Bryant. The Lakers had to burn a timeout to keep Bryant in the game after he refused to come out. Remarkably, Bryant was able to drive to the hoop and spoonfeed Gasol for what should have been a dunk to cut New Orleans' lead to 86-84 at the 1:13 mark of the fourth quarter but instead Gasol fumbled the ball and then compounded that error by fouling Paul, who canned two free throws to extend the lead to four; the palpable disgust and disdain on Bryant's face at Gasol's lack of toughness and focus will be the enduring image of this series if the Hornets pull off the upset. Note to "stat gurus": the play in which a one-legged Bryant created what should have been an easy dunk for Gasol was logged officially on the play by play sheet as a turnover by Bryant. In other words, there is no substitute for watching the games if you actually want to understand what happened, because what the boxscore calls a turnover by one player may actually have been something quite different.
  9. It would be ludicrous for anyone to suggest that Gasol is not getting enough opportunities to score; the play mentioned in the previous note is just the most glaring and most costly example of the chances that Gasol has squandered in this series: Gasol is not aggressively fighting for post position and when the ball is passed to him he often either fumbles it or simply immediately gives it up without even trying to score.
  10. Jackson said that the Lakers "punked out" in game four, no doubt referring to how the Lakers--despite their vaunted frontcourt--were outrebounded 39-32 by a smaller New Orleans team that is without the services of injured All-Star forward David West. Paul shredded the Lakers with a triple double that included a game-high 13 rebounds, while Gasol had just four boards (Andrew Bynum led the Lakers with nine rebounds, while Bryant ranked second with six).
  11. The Lakers have the most road playoff wins since 2008 (16) and that is why I have said that when the Lakers have homecourt advantage their opponent will likely have to win twice in L.A. to eliminate the Lakers; the Lakers squandered homecourt advantage versus New Orleans with a game one loss but regained it with a game three win, so if the Lakers capture the pivotal game five they will probably advance even if New Orleans pushes the series to seven games. However, Bryant's injury--and the way that he seems a bit worn down in general--plus Gasol's disappearing act are very disturbing signs for Laker fans, because it is possible that Bryant may no longer simply be able to singlehandedly overcome Gasol's shortcomings, the team's lack of depth and Fisher's defensive problems.
Dallas 2, Portland 2
  1. When the Mavericks won the first two games it looked like the Trail Blazers were poised to become yet another "team nobody wants to face" that lost in the first round but then the Blazers earned a close game three victory and made a stirring fourth quarter comeback in game four to knot the series at 2-2; Portland is just the third team in the shot clock era to win a playoff game after trailing by at least 18 points in the fourth quarter.
  2. Some media members may be tempted to cite Portland's comeback and Dallas' recent sketchy playoff results as reasons to believe that the Blazers have seized the momentum but the reality is that--except for injuries that keep players out of the lineup--there generally is not a lot of momentum that carries over from one game to the next in the NBA playoffs; as Kenny Smith correctly noted, each game is its own entity, with a different officiating crew, a different pace and a different story line.
  3. I expect the Mavericks to win game five and to ultimately close out the Blazers.
  4. The Mavericks have not matched up particularly well with the Lakers in recent seasons and it seemed like the Lakers gaining the second seed (which ensured homecourt advantage versus Dallas) dealt a serious blow to the Mavericks' chances to advance past the second round but the Lakers' stumbles versus New Orleans surely give the Mavericks (or the Blazers, if they win this series) reason to feel more confident about facing the two-time defending champions. However, neither Jason Kidd nor Andre Miller present the kind of matchup challenge for the Lakers that quick point guards like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo do, so if Bryant is healthy and if the Lakers advance the second round could actually be relatively easier for the Lakers than the first round has been.
  5. Brandon Roy is a class act and it is sad that injuries have reduced him from All-Star to role player but it was nice that he had a flashback moment in Portland's game four comeback.
Oklahoma City 3, Denver 0
  1. While many pundits selected the Nuggets as yet another "team nobody wants to face," I said that if that description really applies to anyone (other than the obvious choices among the top seeds) it applies to Oklahoma City, a young and talented team that acquired some much needed size thanks to a couple of nice midseason deals.
  2. Kevin Durant struggled during his first postseason experience last season thanks to Ron Artest's bump and run defense but Durant is averaging 30.0 ppg versus Denver while shooting a respectable .458 from the field.
  3. The Nuggets closed the season looking like a focused, mature team but this series has brought some internal issues to the surface--most notably J.R. Smith's perpetual immaturity and selfishness (he seems to be more concerned about his minutes and shot attempts than he is about the team's success).
  4. It hardly seems likely that the Nuggets would have done any better in this series if they still had Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. The New York Knicks have been a .500 team since acquiring that duo from Denver, while the Nuggets moved up in the standings sans their "franchise player" (Anthony) and the player who supposedly "changed the culture" in Denver (Billups).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 AM

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42 Comments:

At Monday, April 25, 2011 12:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the fact that you don't consider Chris Paul a "franchise player" puzzling. He has basically beaten the Lakers twice by himself in this series. And it's nothing new. He finished fifth in the MVP voting not too long ago despite being a third year player in the smallest media market in the NBA. He also nearly carried a pretty crappy team past the Spurs a few years ago in what was a pretty epic performance.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that Chris Paul was by far the best player in this series going in and has justified that. I won't bother will all the stats to back it up.

Meanwhile, for a guy who is basically unguardable and reputedly has no offensive skill set weakness, Kobe sure has had some trouble converting possessions into points. Granted, his fg% makes it look worse than it actually is, but even I expected better than a 52.2% ts% from the Mamba

Owen

 
At Monday, April 25, 2011 5:06:00 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

David,
After seeing what Paul did in Game 1, why do you think Phil Jackson went back to making Fisher the primary defender on Paul in Game 4 when Kobe did such a good job in Games 2 and 3?

 
At Monday, April 25, 2011 6:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

During his six year career, Paul has been an All-NBA First Team player just once (this year's All-NBA team has not been officially announced but it is extremely doubtful that Paul will make the First Team). Paul finished in the top five in MVP voting in 2008 and 2009 and I would agree that he was a franchise player in those seasons but Paul was hurt for a substantial portion of the 2010 season and he did not return to form during the 2011 season. Would you have termed Baron Davis a franchise player based on one playoff series versus Dallas in 2007? We will see if this playoff series amounts to a return to form for Chris Paul over the long haul, in which case he would have to be considered an All-NBA First Team caliber player/franchise player.

The Kobe Bryant quote that I cited in Lakers-Hornets bullet point seven provides a nice explanation of why it is deceptive to compare players based purely on statistics. Kobe Bryant was a better player than Chris Paul this season and Kobe Bryant has a been a better player than Chris Paul over the courses of their respective careers. It is also important to remember that I previously offered evidence that Chris Paul's assist totals are inflated. Statistics are so subjective that it is very difficult to accurately evaluate and/or compare players just by using numbers. Paul has a tremendous matchup advantage in this series versus Derek Fisher, while Bryant is facing a long, athletic defender (Trevor Ariza) who is playing very well.

It is amusing how you take winning and longevity completely out of the equation and simply jump at the opportunity to use a four game sample size to "prove" that Chris Paul is better than Kobe Bryant. Has Paul outperformed Bryant so far in this one playoff series? Yes, and I indicated as much in this article, mentioning that Paul has posted historic numbers while Bryant's numbers have declined in key categories even though Bryant's minutes have increased. However, as Bjorn Borg said about his famous 1980 Wimbledon match with John McEnroe that is remembered for McEnroe winning the fourth set tiebreaker, the fifth set--in which Borg played almost flawlessly to clinch his fifth straight Wimbledon title--was the real story; the fifth game--plus the sixth (and seventh, if necessary)--will be the real story of this playoff series. Bryant's Lakers have been pushed to the brink before in the past three seasons and he has always responded well, so assuming that he is healthy enough to play it will be interesting to see what happens.

You are curiously silent about the awful performance of Pau Gasol, who should be enjoying a matchup advantage comparable to the one that Paul has over Fisher. Even after Bryant injured his foot, Bryant made several winning plays--feeding Gasol for what should have been a dunk and forcing Paul to pass on a late possession only to be bailed out by a Jarrett Jack runner--but there are no stats for those plays because Bryant's teammates failed him (Gasol literally dropped the ball and the Lakers let Jack cut into the lane instead of keeping a body on him); if the Lakers had converted those plays then they very well may have taken a 3-1 lead.

 
At Monday, April 25, 2011 6:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris:

As both Bryant and Jackson mentioned, Bryant's primary role for the Lakers is to score points and his secondary role is to draw the double teams that enable the other Lakers to score. Putting Bryant on a quick point guard like Paul is a weapon that the Lakers can use judiciously but making that switch on a permanent basis could hurt the Lakers offensively more than it helps them defensively. The Lakers need to trap Paul aggressively on screen/roll plays and force him to make a non-assist pass--i.e., a pass to a player who is not in position to take a high percentage shot. After they get the ball out of Paul's hands the Lakers must rotate aggressively and Fisher must try to prevent Paul from easily receiving a return pass.

When Bryant locked down players during the Olympics Bryant was not Team USA's primary scoring option (at least until the closing minutes of the gold medal game); when Scottie Pippen locked down Magic Johnson, Mark Jackson and other point guards Pippen was not the Bulls' primary scoring option. It is a bit much for the Lakers to ask an older Kobe Bryant to perform like some combination of the young Michael Jordan offensively and the young Scottie Pippen defensively. A younger, healthier Bryant may very well have been able to guard Paul for an entire game while still scoring 25-30 points but Bryant is older and more banged up--even before his game four injury--and the Lakers' championship hopes very much rely upon conserving his energy and his health.

 
At Monday, April 25, 2011 6:39:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

David:
I second the commenter who said that Chris Paul should be on the "franchise player" list, but I accept your argument for your position.

In last night's (Game 4) Lakers-Hornets game, I saw several plays where the Hornets successfully used screen actions to end up with a Paul-against-Bynum one-on-one scenario after the switch. Bynum gamely crouched into a defensive stance and tried to deal with Paul, but Paul scorched him for three or four swished jumpers. Finally, in the fourth quarter, I saw Kobe Bryant rescuing Bynum from those situations. Why did the Lakers coaching stuff not rescue Bynum sooner from those plays?

 
At Monday, April 25, 2011 7:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

In 2008, I ranked Chris Paul third in the MVP race behind Kobe and LeBron and I put Paul on my All-NBA First Team. My main point in this article regarding franchise players is that Pau Gasol should not be considered a franchise player; I was not trying to rank the players who should currently be considered members of that elite group. Paul did not perform like a franchise player this season or in the 2010 season but he has obviously played very well in this series.

Defending the screen/roll versus quick point guards is perhaps the Lakers' greatest weakness, though it should also be noted that many teams have struggled with this situation since the NBA changed the rules regarding defensive contact versus perimeter players. Despite what so many media members keep saying, I seriously doubt that Phil Jackson's plan involves having Gasol and/or Bynum trying to guard Paul one on one; clearly, those switches are happening because of defensive breakdowns by the Lakers. The Lakers are either supposed to trap Paul very hard (as I recommended in my previous comment) or else Fisher is supposed to fight through the screen. Even before Kobe got injured I did not think that the Lakers could just put Kobe on Paul for long stretches, though if Kobe is healthy enough I would expect the Lakers to put Kobe on Paul in the last moments of a close game.

If Kobe is reasonably healthy then the Lakers will win the next two games and have some time to figure out how to deal with a different set of problems in round two but if Kobe is hobbled then the Lakers will lose this series; it is strange how quickly people forget just how well Kobe had to play game after game for the Lakers to make it to the Finals the past three years. Consider this quote from my 2010 article
Placing Kobe Bryant's Career in Historical Context:

"Here are Jordan's playoff averages from 1996-98 when the Bulls won three championships:

1996: 30.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, .459 FG%, .403 3FG%, .818 FT%

1997: 31.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, .456 FG%, .194 3FG%, .831 FT%

1998: 32.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, .462 FG%, .302 3FG%, .812 FT%

Here are Bryant's playoff averages from 2008-10 when the Lakers made three straight trips to the Finals and won two championships:

2008: 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, .479 FG%, .302 3FG%, .809 FT%

2009: 30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 3FG%, .883 FT%

2010: 29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .458 FG%, .374 3FG%, .842 FT%"

I have never ranked Kobe as equal to MJ overall, nor do I think that Kobe in his prime was better than MJ in his prime but I do think that "older Kobe" has performed at a similar level to "older MJ."

 
At Monday, April 25, 2011 7:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, its always a treat when I find a new article on your site. I get more worried everyday concerning these Lakers. I have never seen this team be so willing to give away games! Wait, yes I have, it's just the past two years Kobe really has been able to carry this team all on his own. You mentioned Kobe's scoring percentages in the post, stating that he's only shooting .419 from the field but don't you think that's somewhat of an anomaly? He's shot 50% in two games and purposefully did not shoot much in game 2, and while I can honestly find no good reason for him to shoot soo poorly in the first half of game 4, he went 5/10 in the second half even though the Hornets crowded the crap out of him due to the complete non-effectiveness of his team. Also, I've been wondering this since Pau's softness began to be an issue in 2008; WHY does he seem so passive some games? Why would anyone, with the pressure of millions of eyes upon them, his love of the game, and a HOF coach and one of the fiercest, most aggressive competitors as his leader just seemingly choose to disappear in any game, let alone playoff games? I've never had the access to players and coaches that you have, but can you explain why softness is apparent in some players? Also, I believe it's worth noting that the Hornets had a triple double from their point guard, severely and painfully (for me and fellow Lakers fans) outplayed us in the paint and were at home to a rancorous crowd, all while we fans had to endure Kobe's 5/18 shooting night and Pau's I-N-E-X-P-L-I-C-A-B-L-Y pathetic play, only to eek out a 5 point win. This is not the same sort of "eek" that you used in your analysis of game 3 vs. Orlando back in 2009 Finals when the Magic shot a Final's record 62.5% of the game just to win by 4 points (due to the fact that the Lakers also had uncharacteristically juicy shooting from Ron Artest)but its still hopeful to know that the variables involved in the game lend to the hypothesis that if the Lakers play better we surely can win in 6 games rather easily, despite Chris Paul's brilliance. Going to your analysis of Gasol, it's funny because you have been so spot on with your analysis regarding him, statistics and the need to actually watch basketball intelligently instead of just blithely throwing random statistics and saying that "this proves that this person was effective... this person's a ballhog/chucker...etc. It's also strange and quite comical that "experts" who frequently take this route wouldn't take the time to watch basketball intelligently as a means to not only improve their craft but also enjoy themselves; I expect basketball fans to actually like watching basketball and to enjoy improving their analytical skills.

 
At Monday, April 25, 2011 10:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look, Gasol hasn't played that well. I think he has been the best player on the Lakers for a while and he hasn't measured up this series. It happens. There really isn't an argument about that. What we could argue about is where Kobe's reputation would be right now if Gasol hadn't put up 19-18 and a +7 in Game 7 in a game where Kobe shot 6-24. (never mind the Perkins injury.)

As for Paul and Kobe, there are a lot of statistical models that will tell you the same thing. Which is that Paul has already had two seasons that are better than anything Kobe has ever done. He led the league in Win Shares (not wins produced) in 07-08 and was actually better the next year but was trumped by Lebron. Kobe has never led the league in Win Shares. I don't think he has ever cracked the top five. (maybe once actually.)

What separates Kobe and Paul really is circumstance. Kobe landed his rookie year on the same team as the best player of his generation in the second biggest media market in the USA. His franchise is the second most famous in the NBA and basically spends as much as it possibly can. And it's easy to make the argument he was the second best player on his own team for the most accomplished parts of his career.

Chris Paul plays for a team that basically could be contracted at any time and spends as little as it can. The best player he has played with is who? David West? Someone who hasn't cracked the list of the top ten big men in the NBA in his entire career.

My general point, as always, is that I would say you are missing the boat on the statistical revolution in basketball. I think often stats tell you why things are happening a lot better than the mainstream narrative. Obviously the biggest narrative in the NBA is Kobe. But there are others.

For instance, how the heck is Memphis doing so well without Rudy Gay, who apparently is worth 15 million? How did they replace his scoring?

It's going to be interesting to see what story the media weaves about them....

Owen

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 12:19:00 AM, Blogger Nick Hendryx said...

David, I'm glad you're alive and chiming in on the playoffs again. I was starting to get worried.

I agree with many points stated and find your take on the Lakers refreshing and preferable to some of the cliche themes that are tossed around. The reasons for their success (Bryant creating opportunities for the bigs) doesnt get enough attention. As for the how worried we should be about the Lakers - I am not sure. We have seen this story before most notably the tenativeness of the bigs, fisher being a traffic cone on D and their being seemingly in control after game 3 and then laying a stinker - Houston 09 and OKC 10 being the most prominent examples of the last point. Given their ability to look so bad one game and so dominant the next and the fact that Kobe arguably looked worse healthwise heading into the playoffs last year than he does now, I can't press the panic button on them now. Based on history, we would see LA run the Hornets out of the water in game 5 (see game 5 history when LA is tied 2-2 with wins over Utah, Hou, OKC, PHX, DEN in last 3 yrs with only loss to BOS in finals last year).

Some caveats(this may sound negative about Bryant but these are merely the flaws and other things ive noticed. I still consider Bryant a top 5 player in the NBA) :
Kobe is older and has to work harder for everything he gets. He doesn't finish explosively at the rim, is inconsistent with his shot b/c of the finger likely. Guys play up on him tighter and make him drive and finish inside. He isn't as effective in this role as he was. He also isn't (and shouldn't be) drawing doubles teams as often. He isn't 'changing the game' like he did, while he still controls it very well. As with most older players, Kobe has seemed to have 'youthful' days this year where he is relatively quick and has lift on his J and can explode well enough to finish around the basket or draw fouls. Other days, maybe he is just having off shooting nights, but he seems to be playing in slow motion. I still believe he is smart enough as a scorer and has the footwork and ability to make adjustments that he can take over games, but its often requiring tough contested J's falling for him to score efficiently. I know its nitpicking, but I also think Kobe 'wastes the closeout' too often where he will pass on an open three and either holds it (his comfort zone as somewhat of a ball stopper) or blows by the closeout only to encounter a wall of bigs (LA has bad spacing) that is tough to finish over. He needs to be more willing to take a runner here instead of forcing a layup in traffic (which he often misses or it gets blocked).

People that say LA should 'post Pau and Andrew' more, but as Im sure you know they get pushed off their spot too easily and often pass out before gaining an offensive advantage.
LA's best offense is still either 1)Playing through the post with Kobe cutting off of it to create hedges and overplays or 2) Kobe posting and getting to his midrange (his best shooting area)where he is most dangerous and can see the floor and make quick passes off of high post flashes to Pau/Odom who can then shoot or play 'volleybal'l with Bynum/ Pau or skip passes to the opposite corner or wing for open 3's. This is obviously still contingent on Bryant's ability to score effectively enough to command doubles, something that I am not sure he demands on some nights. Kobe playing from the post hurts spacing if he's playing with Pau + Bynum which is why Odom is so valuable in that he allows Kobe to use his best skill (post play). These post touches do allow him to play in a way where he is 'fully immersed in the game' - neither facilitating too passively or isolating for long 2's and ruining flow but rather reacting dynamically to the defense and being the primary decision maker - whatever that may mean.

see continuation comment

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 12:21:00 AM, Blogger Nick Hendryx said...

continuation of 1st comment:

Another tangent: While it was their go to play in 08 and sometimes in 09, the Kobe-Gasol screen roll play has been largely absent the last two years. If Pau isnt screening well enough or if the Lakers shaky 3 point shooting allows the other 3 defenders help on the play Kobe often doesnt use the screen (turning it down and going opposite or just backing it out and isolating) and teams havent had too much trouble with trapping Kobe and quickly helping on Gasol while the hedging big recovers to Pau. I haven't seen LA have the same success as other teams with the ballscreens recently.

Other things:
1) CP3 is a franchise player and I believe only injuries kept him from playing at that level recently. Size has been one of your knocks on him, but I haven't seen that as an inhibitant to being the best player in this series so far.

2)"Stat gurus" think Melo is overrated too, so they aren't all useless and quite often scout-types and stat-types can hold the same opinion.

3) Ive seen Wade and LeBron play better off the ball recently, cutting decisively and not just standing idly on the weakside. I expect them to score more easily on Boston than they did during the regular season. Despite their incompatability at time on offense, the fact that they are tall wings who excel defensively should allow them to alternate the 'stopper' role on D against Rondo/Pierce- whoever is hurting them- and still have the energy to create offense.

4) I enjoyed your perspective on Arenas and Roy's performances - neither are the player they were and aren't likely to have a large impact again (atleast this year for Roy... in the future who knows).

5) If KG hadn't gotten injured in 2009, we likely would have had 3 straight LA-Boston finals. Both have been written off too easily at times the past two years. When does the new guard (Chicago, Miami, OKC) acutally take over? Is putting blind faith in Boston and LA wise given they both look shockingly similar to the last few years? Either way, OKC looks damn good and I think you're dismissing their impressive outing vs. Denver too easily. I think Denver could easily be winning vs. another team.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 5:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Kobe's FG% is anomalous when considered in the context of his entire career but all that matters for him and the Lakers now is how well he plays in games five and six. If he is physically capable of using all of his talents then I am confident he will shoot better than he has so far.

Regarding Pau, Kobe made the comment earlier in this series that some people are naturally aggressive by nature and thus are aggressive all of the time, even if they are tired or injured or frustrated; Kobe is that kind of person but Pau is the kind of person who constantly has to be prodded to be aggressive: his default mode is to be passive and to kind of accept things as they come.

If Kobe is reasonably healthy I expect the Lakers to win the next two games but it is apparent--and has been apparent for some time--that winning a third straight championship will be very difficult. That is not surprising. There is a reason that very few teams win three straight titles or make four straight Finals appearances. I hope that regardless of what happens--whether the Lakers three-peat, lose in the Conference Finals or are eliminated by the Hornets--people fully appreciate just how much Kobe has accomplished by leading this group of players to that kind of success but when you have morons like Henry Abbott and Kelly Dwyer making grand pronouncements from platforms provided to them by huge media conglomerates it is easy to predict that this will not be the case.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 5:19:00 AM, Anonymous Gil Meriken said...

@Owen "I think often stats tell you why things are happening a lot better than the mainstream narrative."

Better? More like different. Reading some of the stat blogs can be like reading a horoscope. If a conclusion they make turns out to be horribly wrong, it was "random chance". If it's right, then it's "the power of advanced stats".

What have the advanced stats brought to the table that a well seasoned scout could not tell you? Do they have a track record that is better or similar than them? I would wager to say it's no better, no worse, which doesn't say much for the models.

I have nothing against statistics, they've paved the way for progress. But basketball statistics, as currently constituted, is a misnomer, because they aren't science.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 5:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You really need some counseling to get over your pathological hatred for Kobe Bryant. Just accept the fact that you live in a world in which Kobe Bryant was the best all-around player in the NBA for several years and you will be a lot happier; trying to anoint Chris Paul, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol to a status that those players don't deserve just makes you look like an idiot. Do you enjoy looking like an idiot?

Paul was one of the top five players in the NBA...three years ago. He has not been great for the past year and a half due to injury but he has looked very good in the past few games when Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have guarded him; this small sample against those defenders has not convinced me that Paul has suddenly once again become a top five NBA player. Why are you so impressed by four playoff games that have not even yet decided the outcome of a series but you totally ignore the indisputable fact that from 2008-2010 Kobe's playoff stats are indistinguishable from MJ's 1996-98 playoff stats?

You have endlessly repeated that Manu Ginobili is better than Kobe. OK, then how come Ginobili is apparently about to "lead" the number one seed in the West to a first round defeat at the hands of an eighth seed, something that has only happened three times before in the 28 years that the NBA has used this playoff format? Don't you dare even mention Ginobili being hurt if you are going to compare him to Kobe, because last year Kobe led the Lakers to a title with a knee that needed to be surgically repaired, an ankle that would have sidelined most NBA players and some of the most jacked up fingers this side of Ronnie Lott, Chuck Bednarik and Anthony Munoz.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 6:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You claim to base your judgments entirely on objective stats and yet you overlook the most important and most meaningful numbers. With Kobe at the helm, the Lakers have won 16 road playoff games since 2008, more than any other team in the league. Kobe has scored at least 30 points in eight straight potential series clinching games on the road, an NBA record. I already documented above that Kobe's late career playoff numbers are similar to MJ's late career playoff numbers--and Kobe's playoff production directly led to winning championships (just like MJ's), so Kobe was at his best when the stakes were highest. Yet you, Berri, Abbott and other idiots want to obsesively focus on some random regular season game in 2005 when Kobe supposedly should have passed to Luke Walton instead of taking a last second shot: that "failure" (and others like it) supposedly proves that Kobe is not "clutch." I've always wondered if morons realize just how stupid they sound or if they really believe the stuff that they say. Maybe you can enlighten us about that in lieu of providing further comic relief.

What is your next stat-fueled revelation? Was Cliff Levingston's rebounding really the key to the first Bulls' three-peat?

You need to give up your love affair with Pau Gasol and recognize the reality that playing with Kobe has literally changed Gasol's entire career and life; Gasol was a one-time All-Star who had never won anything and was not likely going to win anything before Andrew Bynum hurt his knee and the Lakers realized that adding any semi-competent big man to the roster would enable the team to remain competitive.

Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding immediately increased when he joined the Lakers, as Gasol thrived as a second option while Bryant dealt with double and triple teams.

Now, though, Gasol is struggling and he isn't even performing like the best player in his family, let alone his team. He is being pushed around by D.J. Mbenga, Aaron Gray and Carl Landry!

Pau has never been the best player on the Lakers. We went over this repeatedly in another thread years ago.

Game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals is the last refuge for a cherry picking, stat loving fool like you. That was a defensive struggle in which no one shot particularly well but Bryant had 10 points and four rebounds in the decisive fourth quarter; I'll help you with the math: that projects to 40 points and 16 rebounds for an entire game, which is very impressive production in a do or die contest with the championship up for grabs. You need to read my 2010 Finals recap. That will help you better understand what actually took place not just in game seven but the entire series.

By the way, Michael Jordan shot 9-25 in game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Did that prove that someone else was the best player on his team?

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 6:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Your arguments are old and tired. You pull random, meaningless numbers out of context and act like those numbers definitively prove something. You diminish the supporting casts of other great players while acting like Bryant has played with a bunch of superheroes. Bryant carried Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to 45 wins in 2005-06. All you "stat gurus" insisted that the combination of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would run over the NBA to the tune of 70-plus wins due to their awesome combined "advanced stats." Supposedly, James and Wade would be unstoppable together because the only thing holding them back in previous years was that neither one had ever played with a single good player. Give me a break.

You love to say that being in L.A. and playing with Shaq made Kobe's career. After talking his way out of L.A., Shaq latched on with Wade, then Nash and then LeBron and managed to win one title, while Kobe made it to three Finals and won two more rings with a big man who is so soft that he never made the All-NBA Team before joining the Lakers and who was run out of Memphis because the Grizzlies realized that he is not a franchise player.

The day that Pau Gasol is truly the Lakers' best player is the day that the Lakers become a Lottery team in the tough West; you just don't understand just how much Kobe has had to do to push, pull and drag this team to the top of the West so many years in a row. When Gasol is the centerpiece and is constantly double-teamed the Lakers will be in big trouble.

The best two things about your comments are (1) they provide comic relief and (2) they provide an opportunity for people who are not familiar with "advanced basketball statistics" to see firsthand just how tendentious and illogical many advocates of such "analysis" really are. Thank you for providing this public service, because I really could not make this stuff up--if I said that there is a group of people who practice strange numerical voodoo and who believe that Chris Paul, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol are each much better than Kobe Bryant it would seem too ridiculous to be true to anyone who has common sense but you helpfully demonstrate that such kind of "thinking" really exists and really does need to be refuted by the kind of analysis I have been delivering for years.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 6:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yes, based on the Lakers' recent playoff history it is natural to expect the Lakers to win the next two playoff games but, as they say in the financial sector, past performance does not guarantee future results. Tiger Woods won a major championship on one leg and yet he has not won another major since that event; Kobe led the Lakers to the 2010 championship despite knee, ankle and finger injuries but that does not ensure that he will lead the Lakers to the 2011 title. His supporting cast has been less effective this season, Gasol is currently in an inexplicable funk and even when Kobe was at full strength this season he did not seem to be as capable of taking over for long stretches as he was in previous years.

I agree with many of your observations about how Bryant's game has subtly changed and I have made similar comments in various articles over the past year or so. Bryant's body is banged up and has a lot of mileage on it; he clearly is not as explosive as he used to be and I think that he also lacks the energy/stamina that he used to have: a young Kobe could play 40-plus mpg night after night and seemingly not get tired but now Kobe seems to need some rest during games or else his performance level drops a bit. This is just a natural progression that happens to every athlete; we saw it with MJ and football fans saw it with Jerry Rice.

You made some good suggestions about what the Lakers could/should to offensively. Phil Jackson obviously likes the Triangle and he has never been a huge fan of screen/roll plays. I think that the Lakers' best option depends on the matchup; the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action can still be very effective if Gasol rolls aggressively and if Odom (or another player) either cuts to the hoop from the weak side or else goes to the free throw line for an open jumper.

Even with the rules changes that favor smaller, quicker players it is difficult for a small player (6-3 or under) to truly be a franchise player. How many such players have been the best player on a championship team? That list pretty much begins and ends with Isiah Thomas. Chauncey Billups won a Finals MVP but he was part of an ensemble cast of multiple All-Stars. Tony Parker won a Finals MVP that could easily have gone to Tim Duncan and Parker was also part of an ensemble All-Star cast.

I'll believe that a small player will clearly be the best player on a championship team when I see it happen; if Chris Paul ever wins an NBA title I'll bet he play alongside at least two other All-Stars or else one much larger All-NBA player who wins the Finals MVP.

Some "stat gurus" say that Melo is overrated while others insist that he is a better "clutch" player than Kobe, a strange way to describe someone whose middle name should be "first round playoff loss."

I predicted that Chicago will "take over" the East this season. I think that Oklahoma City will "take over" the West next season after the Lakers decline in the wake of Jackson's retirement and Kobe's ongoing aging process; I am not sure what makes you say that I am in any way slighting the Thunder.

I do not discount the possibility of Miami winning the title but I foresee the torch being passed not to the Heat but rather to Chicago and Oklahoma City. Of course, a potential lockout could affect the above scenarios in many different ways.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 6:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Gil:

Owen is not only hopelessly devoted to the "advanced basketball statistics" cult but he is a member of the WoW chapter, which means that he believes that Dennis Rodman was better than Michael Jordan, that Pau Gasol is better than Kobe Bryant and that many guards are in fact better than Kobe, including the shooting guard in San Antonio who is about to lead the number one seed to a rare loss to a number eight seed. Owen has commented here for years, he has rarely made any sense and he is not the slightest bit interested in considering that he might be wrong.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 11:08:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

While Roy hasn't brought a gun into the locker room or had a messy breakup with a pregnant girlfriend, it's interesting to see the parallels between his career and Arenas'. Both were considered to be all-stars and on the cusp of being elite players in their prime. Both have been struck by injuries. And now both are a shell of themselves and their respective teams are stuck with an albatross of a contract.

Arenas' story in this year's playoffs is well-documented; a virtual no-show in game 2 followed by an actual no-show in game 3, and flashes of his past in game 4. Likewise, Roy was a virtual no-show in games 1 and 2 before coming alive in games 3 and 4, only to have a dreadful game 5 where he managed to be -18 in 26 minutes.

While Roy is probably a much bigger class act than Arenas, on the court it seems he has been just as damaging to the Portland franchise as Arenas has been to Orlando.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 11:45:00 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

"You can bet that Abbott and Dwyer sang a different tune after Rose put up the aforementioned stat line in Chicago's 88-84 game three win."

This is exactly what happened. I heard Abbott interviewed on an ESPN podcast yesterday and he was asked about Rose's low FG %. And he basically made the "hand grenade" argument about many of Rose's shots probably being desperation shots at the end of the 24 second clock, therefore excusing his low FG %. Funny how I've never once heard him make the same defense of one of Kobe's low % shooting games.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 12:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, perhaps my attitude towards Kobe and yours are opposite sides of a very biased coin.

To me, I just don't get how you and many others talk about Kobe. You seem to be busy peddling a narrative which just is out of tune with reality.

People call Kobe the closer. The guy you want to take that shot in the clutch. The guy with no skill set weaknees. But in the biggest game of his life, a Game 7 as the undisputed leader of his team at home against the Celtics, he laid a 6-24 stinkbomb.

You can spill all the ink you want about how Pau Gasol isn't aggressive enough, but in that game, the most important game to Kobe's reputation in his entire career, who was the best player on the court?

I don't say that to bring Kobe down. But it's an undisputed fact. And I like facts and narratives that incorporate them.

As much as you disparage Gasol, name me one player that Lebron, Chris Paul, or Dwight Howard have played with in their careers before this year who are anywhere near as good as him. Name me one player that Kevin Garnett played with before moving to Boston?

As "mediocre" as Gasol is with all his flaws, can't we agree he is a million times better than Anderson Varejao, Mo Williams, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Terrell Brandon, Stephon Marbury, Latrell Sprewell, and David West?

My view of Kobe basically is that he is like a starting pitcher whose win total far outstrips his peripherals. It's not that he wasn't very good because he was. But without question he received more run support throughout his career than any player of his era other than Tim Duncan. Yet no one seems to recognize that.

Owen

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 3:55:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Owen, I would like to answer some of your questions on behalf of David.

"You can spill all the ink you want about how Pau Gasol isn't aggressive enough, but in that game, the most important game to Kobe's reputation in his entire career, who was the best player on the court?"

That would be Ron Artest, who was undoubtedly the X-factor in that game by chipping in 20 points, including a dagger three with 1 minute remaining in the game. Gasol also seemingly shed his "soft" reputation with a huge game while Kobe found a way to lead the Lakers back in the 4th quarter after a dreadful first three quarters.

"As much as you disparage Gasol, name me one player that Lebron, Chris Paul, or Dwight Howard have played with in their careers before this year who are anywhere near as good as him. Name me one player that Kevin Garnett played with before moving to Boston?"

Let's not compare Gasol with Lebron, Paul, Howard, or Garnett. The latter four are in a different area code when it comes to basketball ability.

"As "mediocre" as Gasol is with all his flaws, can't we agree he is a million times better than Anderson Varejao, Mo Williams, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Terrell Brandon, Stephon Marbury, Latrell Sprewell, and David West?"

Gasol is a good player. Williams was good during the regular season but failed to produce in the playoffs. Turkoglu played very well in '09 and emerged as Orlando's go-to guy, but is clearly no longer the player he once was. As for Sprewell - his credentials are much better than Gasol's! He was a perennial all-star and 1st-team All-NBA at Golden St., led an under-strength Knicks to the Finals in '99, and was a leading player for the '04 Timberwolves team that made the Western Conference Finals.

"My view of Kobe basically is that he is like a starting pitcher whose win total far outstrips his peripherals. It's not that he wasn't very good because he was. But without question he received more run support throughout his career than any player of his era other than Tim Duncan. Yet no one seems to recognize that."

EVERY player that won a ton of championships received more run support throughout his career than any player of his era. That's why they won the championships - basketball is a team game, after all. Let's not forget that the Bulls won 55 games the season Jordan was gone, and the Showtime Lakers had Magic, Kareem, and Worthy, among others.

If Lebron ever gets the kind of support that Kobe, Shaq, and Duncan had, he too will win many championships before it's all said and done.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 3:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DanielSong39:

I did not intend at all to suggest any kind of parallel between Arenas and Roy. Arenas was an overrated gunner even before he suffered his knee injuries, while Roy was budding into a legit perennial All-Star. A healthy Roy was much more equipped to potentially become a franchise player than Arenas ever was.

It is not fair to say that Roy damaged Portland as much as Arenas damaged Washington; Arenas basically destroyed the Wizards first with his selfish play and then with his selfish, immature off court actions. As for this season, Roy was not even expected to be back after having double knee surgery, so whatever he is providing is a bonus; Arenas insists that he is healthy and that if he were getting heavy minutes then he would be a major contributor and Orlando acquired him with the idea that he could replace Vince Carter, a foolish notion.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 4:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris:

It is absurd that ESPN elevated Abbott to some kind of basketball blog emperor; his writing is pedestrian, his many biases (for LeBron, for Portland, against Kobe to name just three) are blatantly obvious and his THN is overpopulated with blogs that are filled with nonsense (Krolik, Kurylo, etc.).

Rose is shooting 35 percent from the field versus Indiana and you can rest assured that if Kobe shot a similar percentage then Abbott and his gang of idiots would devote thousands of words to explaining why Kobe is overrated and "not clutch" (I think that Rose is playing well even though his shooting has been erratic, so my point is not that Rose should be criticized but rather that Abbott et. al. are biased fools who regularly apply double standards when they write about the NBA).

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 4:11:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

From a character standpoint Roy is probably miles ahead of Arenas; alas it is likely that his days as an all-star level player are gone and his contract likely has put Portland in salary cap jail.

I suppose it's not fair that the same fate can befall an apparent class act (Roy) and much less classy player (Arenas) but that's exactly what we're seeing.

The Portland franchise seems to be cursed - starting with the Bowie pick, heartbreaking playoff losses in the early 90's, the Oden pick and now Roy. They've had more than their share of bad luck, but hopefully they will learn not to pick inconsistent, injury-prone big men with the first pick or sign good-but-not-great players to max contracts.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 4:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You are inching closer to the truth by acknowledging that "perhaps" your take is "biased." Your take is in fact very biased or at the very least severely misguided because you rely so heavily on "advanced statistics" as opposed to understanding how to correctly evaluate NBA players and teams.

The idea that one game will define a player's reputation--particularly when that player had already won multiple championships--is so absurd that only you and John Krolik could believe it. Is Magic Johnson's career defined by the multiple gaffes he committed in the 1984 NBA Finals, gaffes that led to Kevin McHale calling Magic "Tragic"? Of course not--so why would anyone think that Kobe's career would be defined by one single game, win or lose? A great player's career is defined by a body of work.

I never called Kobe "the closer." I have said that Kobe has the most complete skill set in the NBA and that he should have won the 2006-2008 NBA MVPs but I have also said that LeBron was the best regular season player from 2009-2011. It is strange that you are so obsessed with bashing Kobe that you are trying to pick an argument with me even though it is three years since I last said that Kobe is currently the best regular season player in the NBA.

As I indicated above, it is stupid to try to definitively rate a player based on one game but if you insist on looking at game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals then at least look at it in context. The seventh game of a playoff series between two defensive minded teams that have spent weeks preparing for and playing against each other is almost inevitably going to be a physical war. The Lakers shot .325 from the field, while the Celtics shot .408. Familiarity breeds contempt--and highly contested shots. Kobe certainly took some bad shots in the first quarter but he settled down and finished with a game-high 23 points plus 15 rebounds, including 10 points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter with the game up for grabs; he drew the defense before making the pass to Ron Artest for the huge three pointer late in the game. That game was very reminiscent of the Bulls' triumph over the Pacers in game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. If you knew basketball history and understood the nature of competition at the highest level (in any endeavor) then you would realize that winning a championship is often more about determination, grit and will than efficiency or numbers on a spreadsheet. No one had a great, efficient game statistically in game seven but Kobe made big plays and by attracting extra defensive attention he also made it possible for his teammates to make big plays. Did you read the article I linked to in my previous response to you? Boston Coach Doc Rivers said that he does not like to trap because it opens up things for other players but that Kobe forces you to trap. In other words, a championship-winning coach is saying about Kobe exactly what I have been saying here for years but you--in the height of your arrogance and folly, much like Berri--believe that you know more about championship basketball than people who have won championships.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 4:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

You don't evaluate one player's skills based on who his teammates have been but it is worth noting that LeBron's Cleveland teams were much deeper than Kobe's teams. The Cavs had a legit 10-12 man rotation with multiple players who had been All-Stars and who had started for other playoff teams. Shannon Brown could not even get off the bench in Cleveland before becoming a key reserve for the Lakers. Anyway, your concerns about LeBron's second in command have been allayed now that LeBron is playing with Wade--who is indisputably better than Gasol--and Bosh, whose pre-Miami career was more productive than Gasol's pre-Laker career. Now that LeBron has two sidekicks who are better than Gasol we should expect LeBron to win not one, not two, not three--well, you know how that quote goes. According to your "narrative," LeBron and the Heat should be unstoppable because they have cornered the market in terms of having players with great "advanced stats," numbers that suggested the Heat should win 90 out of 82 games--yet the Heat ended up with around 60 wins, as I predicted. Where is the great predictive or analytic power of your beloved "advanced stats"? Yet you will never concede even the possibility that you might be wrong.

Your baseball analogy is hopelessly flawed. Baseball is a station to station game of discrete actions that can be broken down statistically, while basketball is a dynamic game with 10 simultaneously moving parts (players).

Science is based on testing a hypothesis and then revising the hypothesis in light of new information. How many championships would Kobe have to win to convince you that you just might be wrong? How many times would LeBron have to fail in the playoffs to convince you that maybe something about LeBron's skill set and/or mentality is not quite at the same level as Kobe's in terms of competing against the best of the best? The truth is that you will never be convinced, because you can always twist the numbers to support your preconceived beliefs.

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 5:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Roy's contract is not nearly as onerous as Arenas', plus we don't know for sure how limited Roy will be next season; Roy just had double knee surgery a few months ago and he already has regained his form in spurts, while Arenas was overrated even when he was healthy and he has now descended to the point that he probably is not better than J.J. Redick (!).

I am sure that Orlando would take Roy right now straight up for Arenas and that Portland would have no interest in making such a trade.

I am not sure if the Blazers are "cursed" or if they just have a history of making questionable moves. Bowie had already been injured in college, as had Oden, and in both instances the Blazers had some pretty good alternative choices on the board (Jordan, Durant).

 
At Tuesday, April 26, 2011 8:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DanielSong - I wasn't comparing Gasol to those guys. I was saying that KG, Howard, Lebron, and Paul haven't had anyone nearly as talented as Gasol as a "sidekick." And that's true.

Sprewell sucked. I am a knicks fan. I should love him. The guy was an impact defensive player but an offensive catastrophe as his numbers attest. He has a career offensive rating of 103 which tells you something. Few players benefited more from running up gaudy stats in a high pace environment.

Mo Williams also sucks. It's a joke to compare him to Gasol. Incredibly overrated score first point guard who lucked into being the other scorer during a couple of year's where Lebron was as close to Jordan as anyone is going to get.

Re the Cleveland bench. Does it really matter how deep it was? Would you'd really rather have 11 viable replacement level players rather than a 2-6 that includes Gasol, Odom, Bynum, Artest, and Fisher (who at least can hit ft's and threes.)

It's too much to respond to everything but I will respond to this, because it's the crux of the matter.

"in the height of your arrogance and folly, much like Berri--believe that you know more about championship basketball than people who have won championships."

I am a Knicks fan. So I know of what I speak. Great basketball players are often complete idiots when it comes to managing a basketball team. I would say it's generally true having spent a huge amount of time in my life listening to former NBA players that a lot of them can't even get their heads around even very simple team level concepts like pace. It's true in baseball too. Joe Morgan was a great baseball player. Do you really think he provides expert analysis or understands what actually wins baseball games? Do you really think the situation is different in basketball?

I grew up watching a team succeed on the backs of Ewing, Oakley, and Mason and saw Starks get a lot of the credit. Which was a joke. I have watched my franchise slowly implode by making the same mistake for roughly 15 years now, hiring overrated scorers. It started with Larry Johnson and Allan Houston and has continued all the way through to Amare and Melo. These guys are not as good as people think they are. It's clear in the stats. It's clear on the court.

I mean honestly, Carmelo has been All-NBA four times and is spoken about universally as if he was one of the top ten players in the league. 50% of NBA coverage in the last year was about where he was going to end up. And every stathead will tell you he is tremendously overrated and overpaid, the quintessential unproductive gunner. Every one.

Do you really think I should accept the common NBA player view that Melo is one of the best player's in the game? Because he isn't. He isn't anything close.

Anyway, got to go...

Owen

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 2:35:00 AM, Blogger Efueshe said...

I know I may be beating a dead horse, but Owen (and David, although you've already addressed this is many, many previous posts) I think it's worth it to notice that even though Kobe's ankle was at least sprained (although he described it as a foot injury), the Hornets still doubled, tripled and at least once quintupled Kobe; the "quintupling" play was quite hilarious because when Kobe found himself in the paint, literally all of the Hornets either crowded him or had a foot towards him and was facing him. I know Monty Williams is not a HOF coach at this point of his career, but I think that if Pau was the best player on the Lakers (even when Kobe is healthy, mind you)he-who has lead this team to at least a 6 game series with the champs sans their leading scorer-would have surely paid much,much more attention to Gasol than to a hobbled Bryant. Just a thought;)

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 5:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Addressing your last point first, I have consistently said that Melo is overrated and that the Knicks made a mistake by essentially tanking multiple seasons merely to acquire Stoudemire and Melo--in fact, I made those precise points in this very article. However, you are wrong if you think that "stat gurus" universally pan Melo's game. Melo is often mentioned by "stat gurus" as one of the most "clutch" players in the NBA and Hollinger rated Melo the third best SF (and 16th best player overall) in the NBA in 2010-11. Last season (2009-10) when I said that the Knicks were making a mistake by putting all of their eggs in the LeBron basket because LeBron would never go there and thus the Knicks would end up with Amare one of your "stat guru" buddies attacked me with one of the most ridiculous articles I have ever seen; Kurylo babbled that I wrote out a term like "fourth" instead of writing "4th" because I was somehow trying to psychologically mislead readers, apparently not knowing that "fourth" is standard journalistic practice.

Somehow you managed to spin the discussion away from how Ginobili's team is flopping in the playoffs and how Kobe has led the Lakers to multiple titles plus a great road playoff record to a rant about Latrell Sprewell, Mo Williams and the 1990s Knicks; Sprewell, Williams and the 1990s Knicks have nothing to do with anything that we are discussing here, so I will let that rant pass without further comment.

I am still waiting to hear your explanation for why the Ginobili-led Spurs are bellyflopping against the eighth seed. Maybe someday you will figure out that it is not so easy to do what Kobe has done, to lead the Lakers to the top of the league year after year, to dominate at home in the playoffs but also to win nearly half of his team's road games.

The question of whether one would prefer to have two great players or one great player plus 10 or 11 pretty good players does not have a cut and dried answer--it depends on who exactly the various players are in those scenarios. For the past several years, most "stat gurus" and most members of the media consistently picked the Cavs to do worse than the Cavs did because of the fallacious perception that the Cavs consisted of LeBron James and a bunch of scrubs. The fact is that if LeBron had not quit versus Boston during last year's playoff the Cavs would likely have won the NBA title; they were the dominant team in the league for a two year period spanning 164 regular season games but in one postseason they messed up their coverages of Dwight Howard/Orlando's three point shooters and in the second postseason LeBron quit when the Cavs had a chance to take command of the series (the team that wins game five wins the series more than 80% of the time). There is no way to prove what I am about to say, so it is pure speculation and not really a legit hypothesis, but I firmly believe that the 2009 or 2010 Cavs would beat the 2011 Heat in a seven game playoff series.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 5:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

The Cavs' frontcourt players who you mock did not have any particular problem pushing around Bynum, Gasol and Odom nearly every time they played them, so collectively the Cavs' frontcourt was more effective even if Gasol is the best individual power forward/center from either of those rosters.

So, in the particular instance that we are discussing, I believe that if Kobe replaced LeBron on the 2009 and 2010 Cavs then those teams would have won titles; they were deep, defensive minded teams and Kobe would have averaged 25-30 ppg plus drawn extra defensive attention that would have helped his teammates get easy baskets. I do not believe that LeBron (in place of Kobe) would have led those Lakers' teams out of the West because some of the tougher West teams would have sagged off of LeBron in the playoffs and he would not have been able to hit the midrange jumpers that Kobe hit during the Lakers' playoff runs (to cite just one example, Kobe murdered the 2008 Spurs from midrange in the WCF--as I documented here).

The one part of the "great player versus depth" hypothesis that can and will be tested is the "stat guru" fueled belief that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are the two best players in the NBA, supposedly much better than Kobe. If that assessment is true, then the Heat should win multiple titles; I have said since last summer that I do not expect the Heat to even win the East this season. The Heat have performed much closer to my predictions/expectations than to the predictions/expectations of the "stat gurus" that James and Wade would be an unstoppable duo that would run roughshod over everyone. James and Wade lost three of four to the Celtics and they lost all three versus Chicago, a team that "only" has one superstar plus a bunch of very good players. I'd rather have Derrick Rose plus a deep, defensive-minded team than James, Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Heat, much like I'd rather have the supporting cast LeBron had in Cleveland than the one that Kobe has been carrying in L.A.

You just look at numbers on a spreadsheet but you don't consider matchups nor do you consider skill set strengths/weaknesses. You can babble all you want about Kobe's supposed inefficiency but somehow his teams manage to score enough points to win a lot of playoff series and they do so with a big man (Gasol) who had never won a single playoff game prior to joining forces with Kobe.

The first quarter of game five of the Lakers-Hornets series provided a nice preview of what the Lakers will look like without Kobe; before Kobe could get his ankle loose, the Lakers fell behind by nine and their vaunted big guys could not get anything done on either end of the court. Then Kobe dunked all over Okafor, scored 19 points in the final three quarters and set a tone of aggression that permeated his team. I am sure that your spreadsheet tells you otherwise, but when a 6-6 shooting guard with a bad wheel dunks on the other team's center it sends the opposite message from the one Gasol sends when he keeps letting little guys strip the ball out of his hands.

As Efueshe correctly noted, the Hornets repeatedly doubled and tripled Kobe even though Kobe is aging and hobbled; opposing teams understand what you don't, namely that Kobe is the Lakers' best player and thus he must be aggressively trapped: I have been saying this for years and we see evidence of it in every playoff series. Kobe "only" had four assists in game five but he made some brilliant passes to shred those double teams; some of those feeds resulted in free throw attempts instead of made field goals but that does not change the fact that Kobe's presence distorts the other team's defense nor does it change the fact that Kobe is a great passer even if he does not amass gaudy assist totals.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 8:27:00 AM, Blogger The Dude Abides said...

One other thing that should be said regarding Kobe: in the Gasol era, the Lakers are 11-1 in series close-out games when they were ahead in the series. Their only loss was Game 6 in Houston in 2009. Since that loss, the team has won seven consecutive close-outs, including five on the road (2009 WCF Game 6 in Denver, 2009 Finals Game 5 in Orlando, 2010 1st Round Game 6 in OKC, 2010 2nd Round Game 4 in Utah, and 2010 WCF Game 6 in Phoenix). The two home close-outs were both Game Sevens (Houston in 2009 and Boston in 2010). The team smells blood in the water in these situations, and Kobe is the alpha shark.

I fully expect them to take Game 6 in NOLA and then take Dallas in four or five. There's a lot more to winning championships than pounding the ball all game and racking up points and assists. Chris Paul in this series has returned to being CHRIS F-ING PAUL, but it appears that Gasol has his mojo back and that every Laker realizes that they need to contribute on the boards too, and not just wait for Bynum to rebound everything.

My biggest frustration with Game 4 was epitomized by one play late in the fourth quarter. Kobe beat his man and penetrated down the right side of the lane, drawing the attention of three Hornets before pulling up for a ten-foot floater, leaving the left side of the lane wide open for Gasol or Odom to go to the rim for the offensive board. Neither of them did. There was no Laker in the paint despite Kobe drawing three defenders. I would imagine that this particular play was replayed over and over on game film for the team to watch between Games 4 and 5.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 9:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point of that "rant" is that Knicks fans with an analytical bent understand that what wins basketball games isn't what players and gm's consider important, what they talk about all the time, what they pay for, which is scoring without regard to efficiency. It's a major cognitive bias that's right there in the data. Take two players with the same raw scoring totals and they get paid the same, regardless of what their efficiency is.

How about the hot hand? Players talk about it constantly. They act as if it exists out on the court It's an article of faith. But of course, it doesn't exist. It's a figment of their imagination. An understandable figment given how human beings are built, but still a figment.

Re Kobe moving to the Cavs and scoring 25-30. Lebron averaged 25-30 didn't he? Which team scored more points per 100 possessions from 2008-10? It's the Cavs not the Lakers. They were the better offensive team in Lebron's MVP years.

Re the Heat, the problem with predictions is that the future is frustratingly hard to predict. I think most stat based analysts would have changed their predictions if they had known Udonis Haslem, their second best frontcourt player, was going to miss the season, or that Mike Miller would be hobbled by injury for a significant part of the season.

Nevertheless, the Heat still finished with the best SRS in basketball, narrowly edging the Bulls. So, our predictions turned out correct in the end.

And it's worth noting that during the Heat's slow start, while every generic NBA analyst was concocting narratives about how the Heat didn't work and coudn't gel, stat analysts were pointing out the that the efficiency differential underlying their 9-9 record (or whatever it was) suggested the Heat were the best team in basketball. And that's exactly what they turned out to be, although they really had just a tiny edge on the Bulls.

Till the end of time, efficiency differential is going to be a better predictor of future outcomes than wins and losses. Can I expect in the future that NBA analysts will realize that?

Owen

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 3:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Are you referring to "Knicks fans with an analytical bent" like Kurylo who can neither understand coherent writing nor produce coherent writing?

Who cares about the Knicks? They may be fascinating to New Yorkers but real basketball fans are not that interested in your team because the Knicks have not been relevant--in terms of championship contention, the only thing that ultimately matters in a competitive endeavor--in more than a decade.

The NBA, like any business, has some decision makers who are better than others. The decision makers for the teams that have been winning most of the championships recently--the Lakers and the Spurs--don't use your beloved "advanced basketball stats" and obviously don't need to use them.

You have no understanding either of how to build a winning basketball team or of how the NBA's economic model works. The Cavs' "offensive efficiency" compared to the Lakers' "offensive efficiency" is not the most relevant factor to consider. LeBron's Cavs beat up on weaker teams in the regular season much like LeBron's Heat did this season but in the playoffs LeBron is not quite as effective against elite defenses; if the Cavs had been led by Kobe then the Cavs would have fared better in the postseason because Kobe's midrange game poses additional problems for defenses. Kobe also has a better understanding of how to elevate both his game and his teammates' games in crucial playoff situations, something that we have seen many times (most recently in game five versus New Orleans). LeBron is a great player and he has been the best regular season player in the league the past three seasons but despite his at times gaudy individual playoff stats he has yet to master postseason basketball the way that Kobe has--specifically, how to lead a team to victory four times against an elite opponent. I am not saying that LeBron will never do this, merely that he has yet to do it.

Yes, the Hawks overpaid Joe Johnson and the Grizzlies overpaid Rudy Gay but if those teams had not done so then other teams would likely have swooped in to sign those guys; losing marketable players could affect ticket sales and merchandise sales. As I explained to you back when the Magic overpaid Rashard Lewis, teams often face the unenviable choice of either overpaying a good player or letting him go while getting nothing in return. By the way, we have yet to see a team run by a "stat guru" win anything of significance in the NBA, so even though it is easy to say that the NBA free agent marketplace is inefficient it is not so easy to actually take advantage of this.

"Stat gurus" hardly are the only ones criticizing teams for overpaying players; I cannot think of any sportswriter--even the idiots who I regularly criticize--trying to defend the JJ or Gay signings.

Of course the future is hard to predict. It is even harder to predict when you base your predictions on a flawed model. I never believed that the Heat would threaten the 70 win plateau, nor did their early struggles cause me to deviate from my prediction that they would win around 60 games but not be the best team in the East.

The Heat have hardly proved that they are "the best team in basketball." SRS and other such stats are irrelevant; playoff seedings are determined by wins and championships are captured by teams that win 16 playoff games. Nothing else matters. Miami did not win enough games to capture the number one seed and thus the Heat will have to beat both Boston and Chicago just to get to the NBA Finals.

Why do you keep bringing up irrelevant issues like the "hot hand"? Have I ever expressed a belief in such a thing? You are beating the crap out of straw men while ignoring every refutation I provided regarding your earlier points.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 3:40:00 PM, Anonymous Jesse said...

I do believe that you are incorrect about the offensive officiencys of the Lakers + cavs from 2008 -2010. I do believe that in one of those years the Lakers hovered around 10th but the other two were in the top 3, where as the Cavs were middling on offense but excellent on defense. Anyone care to look this up?

Also, anyone saying Pau is the Lakers best player I have to say does not watch the games and the insane amount of shots Kobe creates for him. Even game 7 of the finals (Where Pau shot a miserable percentage also for the record) much of Pau's offense was a direct result of Kobe attracting attention.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 4:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

to me owen is mad kobe hater and some of yale mad kobe lovers. i fall in the middle. he great one of the greatest. top 7 players ever. def a diffrence maker. but im not fina say everytime the lakers score it was cause of kobe. like some of yale on here. he has a presence. but gasol artest was good players befo kobe. odom always been inconsistent until this year. granted kobe creates easy shots for them but they also create shots for them selves its more fifty fifty 60-40.

chris paul not better than kobe point blank period. but baron davis chris paul comparison is asinine. davis has never played near chris paul level chris played like this for two years. davis did one playoff series chris paul could be a franchise player.

chris paul not a better scorer. not as big. not better defender. than kobe bryant nor has won and has resume even through first six years kobe had. so no paul isnt kobe but wen healthy is best and most dynamic point in league.

wat is wit all true shooting percentage metric garbadge. i look at wins losses, rings, hardware mvp etc. all this per 82 games.com got to go.

i was never a fan of the cavs supporting cast. nor do i think kobe could win two titles wit that same team. he had better overall team than lebron. even tho cavs was a deep team. lebron avg 38 8 8 in 2009 vs orl they lost in six. lebron played well other than game 5 vs boston they lost in six. and lost by 30 in game 5. sop boston was better why he in miami rite now.

ultimately kobe has been great and will go down wit all time greats thats undisputed all this how much he made by his teammates by kobe haters or he makes his teammates better than anyone ever by lovers is nonsense.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 5:31:00 PM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

David, in your latest post you say that Lebron has not yet learned "how to lead a team to victory four times against an elite opponent". Well, certainly he lost to elite opponents in '08, '09, and '10, and these failures cannot be ignored. But the 2007 ECF series against Detroit, with mediocre teammates like Larry Hughes and Damon Jones, was quite impressive, you must admit.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SRS is adjusted for the strength of opponents.

"SRS and other such stats are irrelevant" They are not relevant to determining seedings. But they are a much better indicator of team quality than wins. That's just how it is.

Re ignoring, i do have to pick and choose.

Re the hot hand. I was responding to your contention that players and ex players understand things that we non-players don't. I can cite as many examples as you want. Go to Fire Joe Morgan, it's a monument to the fact that even the greatest players know embarrassingly little about the games they played work.

re "losing marketable players could affect ticket sales and merchandise sales."

This isn't true. It's something that GM's in every sport say all the time. But it's a myth, both in baseball and basketball. There is literally an avalanche of data showing that that wins are by far the most important revenue driver in both sports. The subjective entertainment value of a guy like Cermelo doesn't matter at the box office if he doesn't create wins, as the Knicks are going to find out. (now if they do creat wins that's another story.)

Re stat gurus not winning anything. Portland, Oklahoma City, and the Rockets all have done pretty well, don't you think? As did the Nuggets post trade. The Celtics don't seem to The Rockets won more games than the Knicks this year with exactly one active player getting paid more than 10 million per. If that isn't a testament to the value of advanced statistics I don't know what is

Alright, that's all i got...

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jesse:

The numbers that Owen cited are irrelevant so I did not even bother to check if they are actually accurate, though it would not surprise me a bit if Owen cited incorrect numbers on top of missing the larger points of the discussion.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

I am a Kobe respecter, not a "Kobe-lover"; I am sure that "Kobe-lovers" still think that he should win the regular season MVP but I don't think that he has deserved that honor since 2008 (he should have won it in 2006 and 2007, though). What I love is to watch great basketball players/teams and to write about them objectively. I don't like how LeBron handled his free agency process but I have not let that cloud my judgment about his value and anyone who reads my work with an open mind can see that my analysis of Kobe, LeBron and all NBA players is very objective and fair (that does not mean that I am always right but I don't have any axes to grind).

Owen clearly has an issue with Kobe but he is not just a Kobe-hater; he is part of an "advanced basketball statistics" cult that believes a host of asinine things, including that Dennis Rodman was actually a more productive player for the Bulls than Michael Jordan. Owen does provide nice comic relief, though.

Pau Gasol was a one-time All-Star before joining the Lakers. Artest was also a one-time All-Star, plus the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year. I agree with you that both of them were "good players" before they joined the Lakers--but they became champions only after playing alongside Kobe. Gasol jumped from being a one-time All-Star to being a perennial All-Star in large part because Gasol's field goal percentage increased as a result of Kobe drawing so much defensive attention. I never said that Gasol or Artest cannot score without Kobe's help but I have said--and demonstrated (in my game recaps)--that the other Lakers get easier scoring opportunities because of Kobe's presence. This really should not even be that controversial but so many people hate Kobe that they look for any reason to deny the obvious (namely that Kobe is regularly double and triple teamed).

You are of course correct that Baron Davis was never as good as Chris Paul. My point is that a handful of good (or even great) playoff games do not mean that we should completely revise our evaluation of a player. Paul has feasted on Derek Fisher's lead-footed defense but that does not prove that Paul is currently a franchise player, particularly after the kind of regular season that Paul had (not bad overall, but mediocre by his standards).

No one can prove what Kobe or LeBron would have/could have done with other supporting casts but in the real world Kobe has won five championships while LeBron has failed to win any despite twice playing for the league's best regular season team and despite making it to the NBA Finals in another season. LeBron now has two perennial All-Star teammates--one of whom is considered the best player in the entire league by some folks--so LeBron is rapidly running out of supporting cast excuses. Just how much talent and/or depth does LeBron need around him to win a ring? LeBron failed to win a ring with the deepest team in the league, so we will see if he can win one with the most star laden team.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bhel Atlantic:

I justifiably praised LeBron's performance in the 2007 playoffs and I wrote with admiration about what I called his "accelerated growth curve." However, the 2007 Pistons were not truly an elite team--I identified their weaknesses before the playoffs and correctly predicted that the Cavs would beat them, just like I correctly predicted that LeBron's lack of a midrange game would prove fatal versus the Spurs.

There is something that is still missing in LeBron's game in terms of competing at the very highest level (besides his still erratic jumper). This has nothing to do with stats but rather with the ability to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments. We have seen Kobe do this so many times in the playoffs on the road against elite competition when the stakes are highest. LeBron seems to be capable of such heroics but yet he and his teams have thus far always fallen short in those moments. I am not saying that LeBron will never win a title--though that is certainly possible considering the golden opportunities he squandered in 2009 and especially in 2010--but this is a hurdle that he must overcome.

 
At Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen (I presume):

I'll stick with wins and championships for determining "team quality."

You are welcome to your belief that as an amateur armchair "stat guru" you know more about NBA basketball than the league's executives and coaches but that is about as foolish as an amateur astronomer saying that he knows more about black holes than Stephen Hawking. I usually refrain from calling people idiots no matter how stupid their comments are but you just ask for it because you spew total nonsense with utter conviction. It's not even about whether I agree or disagree with you on some points--we actually agree about Carmelo Anthony--but rather that you base your entire way of looking at the NBA on faulty reasoning and you refuse to even consider the possibility that you might be wrong: I cannot think of a better definition of idiotic than that--it would be like losing 100 chess games in a row and yet insisting that your strategic understanding of chess is flawless.

Joe Morgan, Fire Joe Morgan and baseball statistical analysis have nothing to do with analyzing the NBA. Instead of ranting about Sprewell, Mo Williams, the hot hand and Joe Morgan it would be fascinating to hear you even attempt to explain how the number one seed in the West--with your choice for top shooting guard, Manu Ginobili--is about to get bounced by the eighth seeded Grizzlies.

If the Memphis GM does not re-sign Rudy Gay then he probably would get fired regardless of what your data tells you. You and Berri live in a fantasy world--the same world of spreadsheets that helped to collapse our banking system and our economy--but business decisions are made in the real world. You are right that, objectively, Rudy Gay is overpaid but putting together an NBA team is not as easy as you think.

Define "pretty well" in terms of NBA success: the Lakers and Spurs have won multiple championships, so everyone else is behind them. I don't see anything that Portland, Houston or OKC did that required "advanced stats." Despite a lot of free publicity from a New York Times article, Houston's "stat gurus" hardly slowed down Kobe and now Morey has helped the Grizzlies by trading alleged Kobe-stopper Shane Battier to them.

The Nuggets habitually lose in the first round of the playoffs. Your boy Berri insisted that Billups "changed the culture" in Denver back in 2009 but that turned out to be a one year fluke, as I predicted; the Nuggets benefited from a perfect storm when several of their competitors suffered various injury problems but in 2010 the Nuggets regressed right back to their usual mean and they were going to be first round fodder this year with or without Melo/Billups.

 

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