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Friday, May 27, 2011

Miami Versus Dallas Preview

NBA Finals

Miami (58-24) vs. Dallas (57-25)

Season series: Dallas, 2-0

Dallas can win if…the Mavericks minimize their turnovers--particularly live ball turnovers that can be converted into transition scores by the Heat--take quality shots and shoot a very high percentage. Dirk Nowitzki must continue to play at an MVP level but he must also receive timely scoring help from Jason Terry and the other Dallas long range snipers who shot down Dallas' first three postseason foes. The Mavericks must build the proverbial wall defensively in the half court set, forcing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shoot contested two point jump shots.

Miami will win because…LeBron James is showing no signs that he plans to quit during this year's playoffs. It really is just that simple; James has been the best regular season player in the NBA since 2009 and he has been a very good playoff performer overall but during last year's playoffs he quit in the biggest game of the postseason as his Cleveland Cavaliers were poised to take a 3-2 lead versus the Boston Celtics. I don't know why James quit but I know what I witnessed firsthand--and I know that there is absolutely no indication that James has any intention of quitting now. James is leading the Heat in minutes, scoring and assists during the 2011 playoffs and he is second on the team in rebounding (trailing Chris Bosh by just one total rebound in 15 postseason games). James has repeatedly hit big shots to close out tight games and his suffocating defense made 2011 regular season MVP Derrick Rose completely disappear down the stretch in games four and five of the Eastern Conference Finals, an effort that James punctuated by blocking Rose's three pointer to snuff out Chicago's last attempt to tie the score at the end of game five.

James left Cleveland because he supposedly carried an impossible burden for the Cavs but the reality is that MVP level stars who lead their teams to championships must perform at a high level even when their teams are talented (like this year's Heat) and/or deep (like the 2009 and 2010 Cavs teams that each posted the best regular season record in the league); think about the statistics posted by legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant as those all-time greats led their teams to at least three championships apiece in the past four decades. James averaged 44.0 mpg, 26.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 5.5 apg in the first three rounds of the 2011 playoffs, so "taking his talents to South Beach" has hardly entailed going on vacation and riding the coattails of Wade or anyone else; James is carrying a heavy load for the Heat, just like Kobe Bryant carried a heavy load in the 2008-2010 playoffs when Bryant led the Lakers to three straight Finals appearances and back to back titles. The difference between James in Miami and James in Cleveland is that now James is embracing the idea of doing whatever he has to to do for his team to win as opposed to pouting about supposedly not receiving enough help.

Dwyane Wade has been up and down during the playoffs but even when he has a bad overall game he is still quite capable of making some key plays at either end of the court. Wade is not the best player on the Heat nor is he the team's closer but he is easily better than the second option on any other NBA team--and third option Chris Bosh would be a great second option (and a good first option) for most NBA teams. During much of the regular season, the Heat ran what I colorfully described as a "clown car" offense that consisted of either James or Wade dribbling the ball in isolation while the other Heat players wandered around aimlessly like clowns piling out of a car at the circus; this relegated James or Wade to a spot shooting role for which neither player is well suited and it reduced Bosh from a versatile perennial All-Star to a glorified Horace Grant clone living off of weak side scraps. The Heat's half court offense is still very much a work in progress but the Heat are lethal in the transition game because no team can match their athletic ability, enabling James and Wade to eschew their erratic midrange games in favor of thunderous finishes at the hoop (and/or trips to the free throw line).

Other things to consider: Dirk Nowitzki has supposedly reached a new level and/or reshaped his legacy during this year's playoffs but that is a bunch of media hype. It is certainly true that Nowitzki has played brilliantly during the 2011 playoffs but that is nothing new; Nowitzki long ago established himself as one of the great postseason performers in NBA/ABA history--he is one of just four players with career playoff averages of more than 25 ppg and more than 10 rpg, joining an elite club with Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit and Hakeem Olajuwon. During last year's playoffs, Nowitzki shot higher from the field, three point range and the free throw line than he has so far in the 2011 postseason but his teammates did not perform as well as they have this year and the Mavs were bounced in the first round. Nowitzki has always been great but during this year's playoffs he has received more help than usual from his supporting cast. Nowitzki was clearly the best player in the Western Conference playoffs but he is not better than LeBron James; James can do more things well than Nowitzki can, not the least of which being that James could potentially guard Nowitzki in the final minutes of a close game while there is no way that Nowitzki could guard James.

The Heat were supposed to win 70-plus games this season and then cruise to multiple championships. I said that they would win around 60 games and be a viable contender that would ultimately fall to Boston or Orlando; I was right about the Heat's regular season status but I did not foresee that the Celtics and Magic would effectively self destruct (via trades that backfired) nor did I think that Chicago would emerge as "Boston light" (the Bulls are a tough, defensive minded team in the Boston mold, but a squad that lacks the offensive punch provided by the Celtics' multiple All-Stars). Even when I criticized the Heat--including the article that referred to the "clown car" offense--I also acknowledged the very real possibility that the Heat could figure things out, make it to the Finals and possibly win the whole thing. That seems to be exactly what is happening: the Heat's defense is stifling, they are finally utilizing Bosh offensively and they have yet to run into a team that is disciplined enough to force the Heat to score consistently in the half court set.

After the Heat eliminated the Bulls in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago center Joakim Noah offered this very apt description of the Heat: "They're Hollywood as hell but they are still very good, so you have to give credit where credit is due." The Heat prance and preen and strut too much for my taste but they also play ferocious defense and they relentlessly attack the hoop in the transition game--and those latter two characteristics are why they will emerge as the 2011 NBA champions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Difference Between LeBron James and Derrick Rose

Five inches and 50-70 pounds--that is the short answer to the question, "What is the difference between LeBron James and Derrick Rose?" Their skill sets are very similar: they are both explosively quick, they are both great leapers, they are both great finishers, they are both great passers, they are both good rebounders for their positions, they are both players who opposing defenses would much prefer to see shooting jumpers than driving into the lane. James is a better defender than Rose but Rose is improving at that end of the court, much like James made strides defensively during the early stages of his career. However, if one does a "scouting report" regarding each player there is no way around the fact that, as one of my article titles declared two years ago, Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA. James is at least five inches taller than Rose (they are officially listed at 6-8 and 6-3 respectively) and James is significantly heavier than Rose (they are officially listed at 250 pounds and 190 pounds respectively but I suspect that James weighs at least 260 pounds while Rose weighs at least 200 pounds).

Rose's Chicago Bulls have been a gritty opponent for the James' Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals but the series likely swung decisively in Miami's favor during the fourth quarter and overtime of game four, which the Heat won 101-93 to take a 3-1 series lead. James finished with 35 points, six rebounds, six assists, three blocked shots and two steals but those numbers do not tell the real story (though his 11-26 field goal shooting certainly suggests that the narrative about James' supposedly improved jumper is yet another fairy tale created by the media); the real story is that down the stretch of a closely contested and vitally important game James completely dominated the action at both ends of the court: James had 13 of his points in the game's final 17 minutes (perhaps closing the case that Dwyane Wade is/should be the Heat's "closer") but, just as significantly, James smothered Derrick Rose on defense and thus essentially shut down Chicago's entire offensive flow. It is possible to debate the skill set merits of James versus Rose but James' extra inches and pounds makes that debate irrelevant: watching Rose try to evade James' defense was like watching someone's little brother get his shot swatted by his big brother: Rose cannot get around James nor can he shoot over him. In less than 20 minutes, we witnessed a savage and brutal refutation of the idea that Rose is a better and/or more valuable player than James. I do not believe in overemphasizing what happens in a small sample size--but unless Rose figures out how to grow significantly (or how to shrink James) he is not going to be a better player than James any time soon. People can say all they want about a supposedly new wave NBA that is a point guard dominated league but the last small (i.e., 6-3 or under) point guard who was clearly the best player on a championship team was Isiah Thomas in 1989 and 1990 (Tony Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP, but Tim Duncan was the best player on that San Antonio team, while Chauncey Billups won the 2004 Finals MVP as "first among equals" for a Detroit team that had several solid All-Stars but not one truly elite player); NBA championship teams are almost always led by dominant big men and/or elite, all-around wing players who are at least 6-6.

James should have won the 2010-11 regular season MVP but the media members who vote for that award chose Derrick Rose, placed Dwight Howard second and bumped James down to third. Perhaps the voters did not want to give the MVP to the same player again (the "Michael Jordan Effect," also known as the reason that Charles Barkley won the 1993 MVP and the reason that Karl Malone won the 1997 MVP), perhaps James' infamous "Decision" rubbed them the wrong way or perhaps they underestimated the Bulls so severely prior to the season that they assumed that Rose must be the best player in the league if he could lead Chicago to the best record (which is how Steve Nash won his two MVPs).

I have been very critical James for quitting versus Boston during the 2010 playoffs and for turning his free agency process into such a narcissistic extravaganza but I have never wavered in my stance that he remains the best regular season player in the NBA--and I only questioned his status as a playoff performer because of how indifferently he played against Boston and because his erratic jump shot is a weakness that elite defensive teams can exploit. This year, James has been very energized and active throughout the playoffs and he has yet to run into a team that has successfully exploited his erratic outside shooting; one by one, the potential challengers to the Heat have fallen by the wayside: the Magic took themselves out of contention in December with two ill-advised trades, the Spurs dropped out in the first round, the Lakers departed in the second round and the Heat vanquished the aging Celtics in the second round. The Bulls have a solid defensive game plan but they have killed themselves with their offensive ineptitude--bad shots and turnovers have fueled Miami's transition game and thus made it less important for James or Wade to consistently hit midrange jumpers in a half court set.

If Miami plays Dallas in the NBA Finals, the media is going to focus on the rematch of the 2006 Dwyane Wade-Dirk Nowitzki showdown but the series will almost certainly be decided by the performance of the league's best player--LeBron James. I say this not as a fan of James, but as an objective observer; as a fan--not of a particular team but rather of the sport in general--I much prefer Rose's basketball values and character to James': after James quit during last season's playoffs, he brushed aside questions about his obvious lack of effort by saying that his greatness had "spoiled" Cleveland fans and then this season he offered a halfhearted apology for the "Decision" but insisted that he had to leave Cleveland because he could not win a championship "by himself"--as if he had been playing one on five and as if we are all supposed to forget that he is the one who quit when the Boston series was up for grabs. In contrast, when the Bulls lose Rose always says that it is his fault and that he must play better; Jeff Van Gundy recently observed that Rose and Kevin Durant seem to be focused on winning, not on "building their brands." Van Gundy did not mention James by name but it seems obvious that he was thinking of James (back in December, a veteran NBA scout told me that the difference between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is that James is focused on "his brand" while Bryant is focused on winning championships). As a true fan of the sport, I can identify with competitors like Bryant, Rose and Durant much more than with a "brand-builder" like James--but as an objective analyst I realize that James is a great player at the height of his powers and that if James continues to be focused at both ends of the court then his team will be very difficult to beat.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Miami's Big Three Are Two Wins Away From the NBA Finals

The Miami Heat started the season slowly but they hit their stride after the All-Star break and that improvement--combined with the self-inflicted implosions (via ill-advised trades) of their two presumed main Eastern Conference rivals, Boston and Orlando--has carried them to a 2-1 lead over the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat are a long way from winning "not one, not two, not three..." championships but they are just two victories away from creating a rematch of the 2006 Finals (assuming that the Dallas Mavericks win two more games against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals); of course, this would be a rematch in name only, because just two current Dallas players were on the 2006 Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry) and because Dwyane Wade won the 2006 Finals MVP for Miami but has now clearly settled into his role as the Heat's second best player behind free agent acquisition LeBron James. The Heat have three perennial All-Stars who are in their primes--James, Wade and the underrated Chris Bosh--a luxury that few teams have ever enjoyed and it is even rarer when two of those All-Stars are among the top five or six players in the league; the mid-2000s Pistons had multiple All-Stars in their primes but none of those guys were All-NBA First Team caliber performers. Each of the Heat's All-Stars is capable of carrying the team for a quarter or even an entire game but it is very clear who is the leader of the pack.

The media is obsessed with trying to define who is the man on a given team--from championship winners (Shaq versus Kobe during the "three-peat" years) to young upstarts (Durant versus Westbrook)--and yet the media often chooses the wrong guy while focusing on the wrong things. Prior to this season, two manufactured storylines asserted that Dwyane Wade is the man for the Heat: storyline one claimed that because James joined the Heat (as opposed to Wade joining the Cavaliers or both players teaming up on a different squad like the Bulls) he had accepted a secondary role to Wade; storyline two asserted that Wade's 2006 Finals MVP (and James' corresponding lack of championship hardware) proves that Wade is a better "closer" than James. A corollary to the second storyline is the persistent fiction that James is a better passer than scorer and/or James prefers passing to scoring, assertions that may help to create popular books but blatantly defy the reality that James ranks third in regular season career scoring average and fourth in playoff career scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain in the former and only Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Jerry West in the latter (West "passed" James during this postseason); Jordan, Chamberlain, Iverson and West were all excellent passers but none of them would correctly be termed "pass-first" players, a classification that also should not be applied to James because it fails to credit him with being one of the greatest scorers in basketball history.

When Moses Malone joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982 the 76ers may still have symbolically and spiritually been Julius Erving's team--that squad was very devoted to helping the good Doctor win his first NBA title--but Malone established himself as the team's leading scorer and best player, winning regular season and Finals MVP honors as the 76ers cruised to the championship; Malone was the reigning MVP prior to joining the 76ers and at that stage of their careers he was a more dominant player than Erving, even though Erving had won more individual and team hardware (including ABA MVPs in 1974-76, an NBA MVP in 1981 and ABA Finals MVPs in 1974 and 1976). Most analysts would consider Erving to be both more historically significant than Malone and a greater player than Malone overall, but Malone was clearly the man for the 1983 76ers.

Similarly, James joined the Heat as a two-time reigning regular season MVP and his best player in the game status trumps Wade's impressive individual and team accomplishments. James should have won the MVP this season as well but the backlash he incurred for quitting against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and then turning his "Decision" into a farcical spectacle induced the media voters to search long and hard for another candidate. While Erving stands above Malone overall historically, it would be difficult to argue that Wade stands above James historically, so the fact that James and Wade teamed up in Miami instead of Cleveland, Chicago or somewhere else has nothing to do with who is the man for the Heat.

While Wade deserves a lot of credit for authoring an historically great performance in the 2006 Finals, those six games have somehow blinded many people to the reality that Wade not only went four straight years without winning a single playoff series but he also presided over perhaps the worst collapse ever by a championship team. Wade is a great player--one of the five or six best players in the NBA--but a handful of great games versus Dallas in the 2006 NBA Finals do not prove that Wade is a better player than James or even that Wade is a better "closer" than James.

Some writers have tried to cherry pick certain statistics and/or craft biased narratives to "prove" that Miami's rise in the latter portion of this season somehow corresponded with a conscious decision to take the "closing" role from James and give it to Wade but--as I noted in my First Round "Midterm" Report--that is nonsense. James led the Heat in scoring, minutes, assists and steals during the regular season while ranking second in rebounding and his contributions in those categories did not magically cease at some arbitrarily designated time in the fourth quarter so that Wade could become the "closer." The same thing has held true in the playoffs as well: James leads the Heat in scoring, minutes and assists while ranking second in rebounding and steals. The writers who hyped Wade as the "closer" have had to pump their brakes and come up with a different narrative in the wake of James' great late game performances in playoff victories versus Boston and Chicago. The truth never changed--James was Miami's best player the moment he signed with the team--but now that it is glaringly obvious that James is dominating games and is the focal point of opposing defenses, the writers (who never, ever will admit to being wrong) are scrambling to come up with explanations for how James has supposedly blossomed into being a great "closer." This is very similar to how the media spent years wrongly bashing Bill Belichick until he won three Super Bowls and then the media declared that Belichick had changed, refusing to admit that their original take on him had been dead wrong; Belichick revitalized a moribund Cleveland franchise and led the Browns to a playoff win in 1994, while the New England franchise provided the requisite stability for him to build a perennial contender.

James could have and should have won a championship in Cleveland, where he had the
league's deepest roster and an excellent, defensive minded head coach. I will never understand why he quit against Boston or why he handled his free agency decision so shabbily (I don't fault him for leaving Cleveland per se--he had the right to do so--but rather for the way he conducted himself and the way that he immediately recruited players to come to Miami after refusing for years to do so for the Cavs); however, those things do not change the reality that James has been the best regular season player in the NBA for the past three seasons (Kobe Bryant has dominated the playoffs during that period of time) and that James is the driving force behind the Heat's emergence as a legitimate championship contender.

The way that James ended his Cleveland career made me skeptical about whether he has the right mindset to be a champion but I never doubted that he possesses the necessary talent and skill set to lead a team to championship if he is focused on that goal. The Bulls still have one more chance to get back in the Eastern Conference Finals--game four is obviously a must win situation for them--and even if the Heat get past the Bulls they will face a tough challenge in the NBA Finals but James is now just six wins away from inducing lot of media members to engage in significant historical revisionism; a Heat championship would supposedly justify the "Decision" and define who is the man on the Heat, even though the truth is that the "Decision" was wrong even if James wins 10 championships and even though James has clearly been the man on the Heat all along.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 PM

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