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Friday, January 20, 2012

Kobe Bryant Versus LeBron James: The Non-Rivalry Rivalry

The Kobe Bryant-LeBron James head to head rivalry is unlikely to be remembered as one of the great battles in NBA history; the only thing that could turn this around is if they face each other at least once in the NBA Finals but after James blew two opportunities to advance to the NBA Finals when his Cleveland Cavaliers had the best record in the NBA (and would have faced Bryant's L.A. Lakers) in 2009 and 2010 it does not seem likely that such a matchup will ever take place. Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell was a great head to head rivalry because they faced each other in 142 games (regular season and playoffs combined) and their teams clashed in the playoffs in eight of the 10 seasons that they were both in the league. Magic Johnson-Larry Bird was not much of a regular season rivalry but their teams squared off in three memorable NBA Finals (Johnson secured a 2-1 head to head advantage in those series when his Lakers defeated Bird's Boston Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals) while battling for overall supremacy during the 1980s (Johnson also won that battle, claiming five championships to Bird's three). Julius Erving-Larry Bird was an an extremely underrated rivalry; they squared off in 44 regular season games and four playoff series from 1980-87 and either Erving's Philadelphia 76ers or Bird's Celtics won the Eastern Conference championship in each of those seasons.

Bryant and James have not battled each other for championships directly or indirectly; Bryant has won five titles--including two during James' career--while James has only made it to the NBA Finals twice, winning a grand total of two games. They only face each other twice per season and, except for hype and bragging rights, there never has really been much at stake during those games (in terms of playoff positioning). James' teams have dominated Bryant's teams 11-5 and James has posted better individual statistics than Bryant in those games but that is a small sample size (Bird and Erving faced each other nearly three times as often in the regular season and also squared off four times in the Eastern Conference Finals) that is skewed by two factors that generally are not mentioned when mainstream media outlets discuss the head to head encounters between Bryant and James:

1) Bryant's Lakers have advanced to the NBA Finals four times and won two championships since James entered the league in 2003-04 so one might assume that Bryant generally had the better team around him but because Bryant and James have only squared off in the regular season it is important to distinguish between the regular season and the playoffs; Bryant has enjoyed much more individual and collective postseason success than James but from 2004-2011 James' teams had better regular season records than Bryant's teams six out of eight times. James' teams have usually been better in the regular season than Bryant's teams, so in that sense it should not be surprising that they have also beaten Bryant's teams in the regular season.

2) Bryant's individual numbers versus James' teams are distorted because injuries limited him to 17 minutes in one game and just six minutes in another. How much do two games matter? Since we are talking about a sample of just 16 games, two games actually matter a lot; if we assume that a healthy Bryant would have played at least 65 more minutes in those games and scored 40 points in those extra minutes (two reasonable estimates based on his normal playing time and productivity) then Bryant's scoring average in those 16 games would be 2.5 ppg higher.

There is no denying that in head to head regular season encounters James has outplayed Bryant and James' teams have gotten the better of Bryant's teams--but in the larger scheme of things those two facts really do not mean much. The Bryant-James rivalry--which, unless the players face each other in the NBA Finals, will be fought not so much on the court but rather in the history books--ultimately will be evaluated based on which player forges a greater legacy in terms of overall accomplishments. The one similarity between Bryant-James and the great historical rivalries mentioned above is that James is several years younger than Bryant, much like Bird is several years younger than Erving; Erving won one regular season MVP early in Bird's career but eventually Bird picked up three straight MVPs, much like Bryant won an MVP early in James' career but James has recently proven to be the more consistent regular season performer, picking up two MVPs (and James should have received his third MVP last season).

The 16th encounter between Bryant and James--played on Thursday night in Miami--went according to form: James posted the better individual statistics (31 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocked shots compared to 24 points, five rebounds, seven assists, three steals and no blocked shots for Bryant) and James' Miami Heat defeated Bryant's L.A. Lakers 98-87. James started off shooting very well but cooled off to finish 12-27 from the field (.444), while Bryant got of to a terrible start but hit some fourth quarter shots and finished with an 8-21 mark from the field (.381). Here are some observations about the game and about both teams in general:

1) The Heat improved to 5-0 without Dwyane Wade this season and 9-1 in their last 10 games sans Wade dating back to last season. The Lakers dropped to 1-5 on the road. Again, much will be made of the Bryant-James angle but the result of this game was very predictable based on how both teams have performed so far.

2) Despite a much celebrated bout with the flu, James performed with great energy--and that is why it is so mystifying and bizarre that he has developed a track record for listlessly drifting through some of the most important games of his career (2011 NBA Finals, 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals).

3) The 2011-12 L.A. Lakers bear a stunning resemblance to the 2006 and 2007 Lakers' squads. Bryant topped the 40 point barrier 27 times in the 2006 season and the Lakers went 18-9 in those games en route to a 45-37 record; he topped the 40 point barrier 18 times in the 2007 season and the Lakers went 13-5 in those games en route to a 42-40 record. Thus, Bryant scored at least 40 points in 31 of the Lakers' 87 wins during those seasons: those teams depended on Bryant to produce big numbers on a nightly basis just to be competitive. This season is young, so the sample size is small, but right now the Lakers are 5-1 when Bryant scores 37 or more points (including 3-1 in his 40 point games) and 5-5 when Bryant scores 30 points or less. I said last summer that unless the Lakers upgraded their roster they would need for Bryant to revert to his 2006 and 2007 style just to have a chance to make the playoffs. There are still 50 games left in the season so a lot could happen but it certainly seems like the Lakers are who I thought they were: a mediocre team that is very dependent on heavy production from a 33 year old guard who has over 48,000 regular season and playoff minutes on his odometer. Bryant set some age related records with his recent streak of four straight 40 point games but he shot just 15-43 from the field in the next two games, a narrow escape versus Dallas (the Lakers won after Bryant drew two defenders and then passed to Derek Fisher for the wide open game-winning three pointer) and Thursday's loss to Miami. Unless Bryant summons the energy to pour in 30-plus points it does not seem likely that the Lakers will win in Orlando on Friday night. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that, even with his recent two game slump, Bryant still has the second most points in the first 16 games of the season in the last 25 years by a player who is at least 33 years old (486; Michael Jordan had 511 in 1996-97). Jordan teamed up with Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman to lead the Bulls to a title in 1996-97; if the Lakers are hoping to achieve a similar result this season then they better figure out how to pair Bryant with another Hall of Famer (i.e., Dwight Howard).

4) Pau Gasol put up good numbers versus Miami (26 points on 11-19 field goal shooting, eight rebounds) but, as TNT's Steve Kerr noted during the telecast, Gasol has not had much impact overall this season even though Gasol's statistics are solid. Gasol seems determined to redefine himself as a jump shooter (four of his 19 shots came from behind the three point arc and many others were launched from outside the paint). His Miami counterpart Chris Bosh tallied 15 points on 6-11 shooting and also grabbed eight rebounds. It has almost become a reflexively uttered cliche to call Gasol the "most skilled big man in the game" but if you actually watch Gasol and Bosh objectively it is difficult to understand why Gasol would be considered any more skilled than Bosh; they are both finesse-oriented big men who can post up but prefer to face the basket, they are both capable rebounders and they are both good passers. Gasol is a bit taller but Bosh is more athletic. The big difference between the two players is that Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding--two statistics that do not generally improve with age--markedly increased after he teamed up with Bryant several years ago, while Bosh's numbers sagged after joining the Heat last year.

5) The "stat gurus" were ready to put Andrew Bynum in the Basketball Hall of Fame after Bynum authored the first 20-20 game of his career but so far this season he has topped the 20 point mark just three times in 12 games. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because he is not getting opportunities; he has shot .462 or worse from the field in five of those 12 games--a terrible shooting percentage for a big man who rarely takes shots outside of the paint--and he has done a poor job in several crucial aspects of post play: establishing position early enough in the shot clock, protecting the ball and reading double teams. Bynum is a good, solid big man when he is healthy but he lacks explosiveness and sometimes loses his balance (which is perhaps a residual effect of all of the leg injuries he has suffered). A telling encounter took place during the Miami game; Bynum had the ball right under the hoop with only James in front of him, both players jumped at the same time and James cleanly snuffed out Bynum's field goal attempt. A small forward--even one as athletically gifted as James--should not be able to block a seven foot center in a straight up duel.

6) Gasol's reluctance to go into the paint and Bynum's sporadic effectiveness make the Lakers an easy team to defend: the simple recipe is to double team Bryant, single cover Gasol and Bynum to deny them easy catches and dare anyone else on the team to make an open shot. Shane Battier did a credible job of staying in front of Bryant--but that was not a hard task considering that Battier always had at least one other partner in crime shadowing Bryant's every move.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:03 AM

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Some Interesting Nuggets from the Annual NBA GM Survey

Much like the 2011-12 NBA season, the annual survey of NBA General Managers arrived late--but the results have now been posted at NBA.com and it is interesting to see how the league's 30 top executives answered some of the 57 questions posed to them (the NBA.com report mentioned that not every GM answered every question, so the percentages listed below are based on the responses received).

The Miami Heat are the landslide choice (74.1%) to win the 2012 championship--but the L.A. Lakers (who finished a distant third at 7.4%) were the landslide choice last season (63.0%) and got swept in the second round. The Oklahoma City Thunder received 14.8% of the vote to win the 2012 championship but are the overwhelming pick (67.9%) to win the West, followed by the Lakers (17.9%).

Kevin Durant is once again the preseason choice to win the regular season MVP (55.6% this time, a decline from the 66.7% of the vote he received last year), with LeBron James garnering the rest of the votes.

The GMs split on who they would choose to start a franchise today, with Durant and James each receiving 37.0% of the votes. However, Dwight Howard finished first (29.6%) as the player who forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments, topping Durant, James, Dirk Nowitzki and Derrick Rose. Kobe Bryant dropped from first (35.7%) in this category to "also receiving votes," an indication of how much Bryant's injuries last season lowered his perceived value (if that poll had been taken after Bryant's recent string of four straight 40-point games I suspect Bryant would easily make the top five again).

Bryant still tops the GM vote for best shooting guard in the NBA (55.6%), outdistancing Dwyane Wade (40.7%) and Ray Allen (3.7%). Bryant retained the title as the player who is best at creating his own shot but his vote total dropped from 70.4% to 35.7%; Durant finished second (21.4%), while James and Wade tied for third (14.3% each). Bryant unseated Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace) as the GMs' choice for toughest player in the league (32.1%), beating out Rajon Rondo (10.7%).

The vote that is sure to provoke the most grumbling from "stat gurus" is the one that once again selected Bryant as the best player to take a shot with the game on the line; Bryant received 48.1% of the vote, down from 78.6% last year, but still enough to easily outdistance Durant (30.8%). Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade fell into the "also receiving votes" category. In a much publicized recent GQ magazine interview, Chris Bosh unhesitatingly selected Wade over James in this category. I have made my position about this entire discussion very clear: Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots. "Clutch shots" can be defined by a variety of different parameters but regardless of the criteria used the discussion boils down to a small sample size of plays that lump together shots hit in transition when the defense is not set, tip ins, half court heaves and open jump shots for role players created after a great player forced a double team (like the three pointer that Derek Fisher hit to beat Dallas the other night after Kobe Bryant drew two defenders). There is not much analytical value in comparing a transition jumper in a three on two fast break, a wide open Derek Fisher jump shot, a tip in and a desperation heave launched just before the final buzzer goes off. The best thing for a team to do is to play well enough down the stretch that a last second shot is not necessary; failing that, the logical thing to do is to put the ball in the hands of the team's best player and hope for the best while understanding that even great players are not going to have a great success rate in a compressed time frame while facing a set defense.

The GMs tapped Derrick Rose (59.3%) as the top point guard over Chris Paul (37.0%) and Russell Westbrook (3.7%). Strangely, even though Durant received the most MVP consideration the GMs selected James (77.8%) as the best small forward ahead of Durant (18.5%) and Carmelo Anthony (3.7%). This is a classic example of the kind of flawed reasoning described by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow; it does not make much sense for the same group of voters to tap Durant as the MVP but choose James as the best small forward--unless the GMs are saying that they expect the media to choose Durant as the MVP even though they (the GMs) still think that James is the better player.

Dirk Nowitzki (41.1%) topped the power forward voting, ahead of Blake Griffin (17.9%), Kevin Love (14.3%), LaMarcus Aldridge (10.7%) and, oddly, small forward Durant (7.1%). Last year, Pau Gasol and Nowitzki tied for first (28.6%) but this year Gasol dropped into the "also receiving votes category."

Dwight Howard received 96.3% of the votes for best center, while 3.7% chose Pau Gasol; frankly, Marc Gasol would be a better choice at center than Pau Gasol, who seems to have developed an allergy to the paint dating back to last season. Howard also easily won the vote for best defender in the NBA.

Tony Allen received the nod as the best perimeter defender (26.9%), outdistancing a crowded field that included second place finisher Rajon Rondo (15.4%) and a tie for third (11.5%) among Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Bryant won this category with 35.7% of the vote last year.

The GMs selected Gregg Popovich (42.3%) as the best coach, ahead of Doc Rivers (23.1%), Rick Carlisle (11.5%) and Mike Brown (7.7%). Phil Jackson, now retired, won this category last year (39.3%).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:04 AM

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Does Any Sensible Person Still Think That Miami is "Dwyane Wade's Team"?

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Dwyane Wade to form a power trio in Miami some commentators reflexively said that the Heat were "Dwyane Wade's team" and criticized James for supposedly being so eager to give up alpha dog status to be Robin to Wade's Batman. Some fans heckled James by calling him "LePippen," a jeer that simply makes no sense on any level. I explained last season that James has yet to match Pippen's most significant accomplishments: "LeBron James is a more explosive scorer than Scottie Pippen but he still has a long way to go to match Pippen as a champion, a leader and a player who will do whatever it takes--including play an NBA Finals game with two ruptured disks in his back--to help his team win an NBA title." Beyond the fact that it is disrespectful to Hall of Famer Pippen to supposedly denigrate James by using Pippen's name, there is no logical reason to assert that Miami is "Wade's team." It does not matter that Wade was in Miami first or even that he is the only member of Miami's power trio who has won a championship; the reality is that there is no skill set area in which Wade is better than James and James is significantly bigger and stronger than Wade. Last season, James led the Heat in scoring, assists and steals. James topped Wade in every meaningful statistical category except for blocked shots and turnovers. In the playoffs the Heat eliminated number one seed Chicago--despite a subpar performance from Wade--because James dominated at both ends of the court but the Heat faltered in the NBA Finals precisely when James mysteriously disappeared.

James' level of play is the number one factor determining Miami's success and that has become even more strikingly obvious this season; James is once again leading the Heat in scoring, assists and steals and, if anything, the Heat look even better without Wade than they do with him. I am skeptical of small sample sizes of data that can be skewed for a variety of reasons but the Heat are not just 4-0 this season sans Wade--they are 8-1 in their last nine games without Wade dating back to the early portion of last season (James has missed just four games during that period and the Heat went 2-2 in those contests). This goes beyond the win-loss record, though; both James and Bosh individually perform much better without Wade and not just in terms of raw numbers at the expense of efficiency.

Last season I criticized what I called Miami's "clown car" offense: their half court offense is so disorganized at times that it is reminiscent of clowns piling out of a car at a circus. A major problem for the Heat is that their two best players--James and Wade--do not have complementary skill sets: neither player is particularly good without the ball in a half court offense, so when one guy "takes his turn" the other guy ends up standing around doing nothing. Meanwhile, regardless of whether James or Wade is at the helm, the "clown car" offense transforms--or, to be precise, demotes--Bosh from one of the top 15 players in the NBA to a glorified Horace Grant (no disrespect intended toward Grant, who was a fine player in his own right, but Bosh is a perennial All-Star who should not be relegated primarily to shooting jumpers on the weak side while James or Wade drain the shot clock with aimless dribbling).

I recently offered a satirical take regarding what might happen if Henry Abbott ever became as biased against LeBron James as he is against Kobe Bryant but the grain of truth in that satire is that the way the Heat plays negatively impacts Bosh's game. This is particularly evident when both James and Wade are on the court. When one or the other is out of the game, Bosh performs much better.

After Tuesday's NBA TV Fan Night game--Miami beat San Antonio 120-98 with James scoring 33 points and Bosh scoring 30 points while Wade sat out because of an ankle injury--Greg Anthony said that even though this might sound crazy to some people he thinks that Miami would benefit from getting the ball to Bosh more frequently. Anthony is not Henry Abbott; Anthony is not proposing that Bosh is Miami's best player (which would be as silly as Abbott or the "stat gurus" making a similar claim regarding Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum as long as Kobe Bryant is doing his thing) or that Bosh should get the most shot attempts but Anthony is correct that something is wrong with the way that the Heat run their half court offense.

The Heat are so talented that they may very well win a championship--either this season or within the next few years--in spite of their deficiencies but it is also possible that LeBron James will never surpass in Miami what he accomplished in Cleveland (posting the best record in the NBA in back to back seasons while reaching the Conference Finals twice and the NBA Finals once). The Cavaliers' much-maligned coaching staff and roster were more complementary of James' skill set than this current Miami Heat team is.

My all-time favorite player Julius Erving accomplished far more during his career than what LeBron James has accomplished thus far and, unlike James, Erving raised his level of play when the stakes were highest, consistently acing the Finals test (scoring at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 ABA and NBA Finals games en route to winning three titles); in the 1976 ABA Finals Erving authored one of the greatest single series performances in pro basketball history. However, the arc of Erving's career provides some interesting parallels to James' situation vis a vis Wade. When Erving joined the Philadelphia 76ers prior to the 1976-77 season one could have argued that the 76ers were George McGinnis' team; McGinnis was a championship-winning player (albeit with the Indiana Pacers, not the 76ers) and McGinnis clearly had been the 76ers' best player the previous season when they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1970-71--but Erving (who, like McGinnis, was already a two-time ABA champion) was simply a better player than McGinnis and Erving emerged as the 76ers' leading scorer. Erving and McGinnis--helped by Doug Collins, a third All-Star--carried the 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals but the 76ers blew a 2-0 lead and lost to Portland in six games. The 76ers were considered to be the most talented team in the NBA but within two seasons the coach had been fired and McGinnis had been traded for Bobby Jones, a very good player who was not as talented or dominant as McGinnis but whose skill set better complemented Erving's. It will be very interesting to see if the Heat ever make it back to the NBA Finals with this nucleus or if they will be as bold as the 76ers were and trade their second best player in the interest of forming a more complementary talent blend.

Erving's 76ers made it back to the Finals in 1980 and 1982 but did not win the championship until 1983. The arrival of Moses Malone put the 76ers over the top. Malone won the 1979 and 1982 MVPs prior to joining the 76ers, while Erving captured the 1981 MVP (becoming the first non-center to receive the NBA MVP since Oscar Robertson in 1964). Publicly, Malone said that the 76ers were Erving's team and that he (Malone) just wanted to help Erving to get an NBA championship ring--but the on court reality proved that Malone was the team's best player. Erving (who finished fifth in the 1983 MVP voting and earned his fourth straight All-NBA First Team selection) was hardly a slouch--and the 76ers clearly could not have won the 1983 championship without his significant contributions--but Malone won the regular season MVP in a landslide and he won the Finals MVP as the 76ers swept the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

What does this history lesson mean? The 76ers were not McGinnis' team just because he had been there first nor were they Erving's team after Malone arrived. Basketball is a team sport, so perhaps it does not even make sense to say that a given team "belongs" to one player but if we are going to employ this common trope then it must be used logically: the 1977-82 76ers were "Julius Erving's team" because he was the best player on the team during that time but the arrival of a younger, more physically dominant Moses Malone changed that dynamic. The Heat were "Dwyane Wade's team" for several years but the arrival of a younger, more physically dominant LeBron James changed that dynamic.

Erving came close to leading the 76ers to a championship--and it cannot be reasonably said that it was his fault that they fell just short several times--but during that era it was essential to have a dominant big man to go all the way and, except for the 1979 San Antonio Spurs, every team that defeated Erving's 76ers in the playoffs from 1977-82 had a Hall of Fame center (Bill Walton, Wes Unseld/Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish) who was in his prime and/or performing at a very high level. Can LeBron James be the centerpiece of a championship team a la Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan (and Erving and McGinnis in their ABA primes)? Or will James only win a title later in his career after being paired with a dominant big man, as was the case with several Hall of Fame perimeter players, including Erving, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Clyde Drexler?

I don't know what will happen but I will make a few predictions:

1) The Heat will not win a championship with a "clown car" half court offense.
2) The Heat as presently constituted will not win a championship if LeBron James fails to be the best player on the court in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals.
3) Even though Wade is one of the five or six best players in the NBA he is not necessarily the best complement to James; James would be better served to be paired with either a dominant big man or an All-Star who can consistently connect from midrange and long distance. James and Wade can use their athletic talent to overwhelm most teams in the regular season but in playoff competition there will likely always be at least one or two teams that are able to seal off the paint and force James and Wade to consistently do the two things that they both are not very good at doing: making jump shots and playing without the ball in a half court set.

I am not saying that the Heat should or even could trade Wade the way that the 76ers swapped George McGinnis for Bobby Jones--the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement likely would make it difficult for the Heat to trade Wade for a player who better complements James--but I am saying that complementary skill sets are more important than raw talent when building a championship roster ("stat gurus" around the world are cringing in unison because they think that productivity--as determined solely by "advanced basketball statistics"--is by far the most important factor in building a roster and that is why the "stat gurus" predicted a Miami Heat dominance that has yet to fully materialize outside of their spreadsheets). The Heat are clearly the most talented team in the league--no other squad has three All-Stars who are each in their primes--and it could be argued that they have more raw talent than several teams that have won championships but it is far from clear that they will actually win a title.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:49 AM

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