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Thursday, May 24, 2012

All-NBA Selections Mostly Make Sense Despite not Quite Adding Up

Three-time MVP LeBron James and three-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant headline the 2012 All-NBA First Team; the only surprise regarding those selections is that neither player was a unanimous selection (James received 118 of 120 First Team votes and two Second Team votes, while Durant received 117 First Team votes and two Second Team votes but was inexplicably--and inexcusably--completely left off of one voter's ballot). Dwight Howard easily earned his fifth straight selection as the All-NBA First Team center and Chris Paul notched the second All-NBA First Team nod of his career. Kobe Bryant made the First Team for the seventh straight time and 10th time overall; he is the active leader in that category and only Karl Malone (11) ranks ahead of him on the all-time list (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Bob Cousy, Micheal Jordan, Bob Pettit and Jerry West also made the First Team 10 times). Bryant's 14 total All-NBA selections are tied with Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal for second all-time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (15), though it should be noted that Abdul-Jabbar accrued his honors during an era when only two All-NBA squads were selected instead of three.

Andrew Bynum, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook comprise the All-NBA Second Team; except for Parker (who just turned 30), these players are all younger than 25. Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo received All-NBA Third Team honors.

The official media selections largely mirror my choices but the three differences are significant:

(1) I placed Westbrook on the First Team and Paul on the Second Team but Westbrook only received five First Team votes from the media (compared to 74 for Paul).

2) I selected Marc Gasol as the Third Team center instead of Chandler, who received four First Team votes from the media (those ridiculous First Team votes elevated him above Gasol by 60 points to 52 because First Team votes are worth five points, Second Team votes are worth three points and Third Team votes are worth one point). Gasol is an all-around player while Chandler is an excellent defender whose offensive game is limited to setting screens and scoring within dunking range of the hoop.

3) I chose LaMarcus Aldridge as a Third Team forward instead of Anthony, who beat out Aldridge 154 points to 55 (Aldridge received more points than any player who did not make the All-NBA Third Team).

Media members have been slow to recognize Westbrook's emergence as a legit top five player, the best point guard in the league and the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant as the best guard in the league. Westbrook is just as quick as the other top point guards but he is bigger and taller; now that he has improved his perimeter shot and defense he has no skill set weaknesses.

It is amazing that the mediocre New York Knicks not only landed two players on the All-NBA Team but that both of those players stole First Team votes from legit franchise players LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard. You cannot build a championship contender around Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler together with Amare Stoudemire so how can those two players be ranked alongside MVP caliber performers? I am not convinced that LaMarcus Aldridge is a franchise player, either, but I would take his consistency, post game and professionalism over the inconsistency of Anthony, who essentially made the All-NBA Team based on playing well for the last month of the season after shooting poorly for the first three months of the season.

The All-NBA First, Second and Third Teams are supposed to be selected by position but even a superficial analysis of the voting totals shows that this is not the case and has not been the case for several years. According to the figures provided in the official NBA press release, the 120 media voters cast 112 First Team votes for centers, 252 for forwards and 229 for guards. The obvious problems with those totals are (1) they do not add up to 600 (120 voters multiplied by five First Team positions should equal 600) and (2) the proper distribution would be 120 votes for centers and 240 votes each for forwards and guards.

The center position has almost become extinct but there is a surplus of great power forwards and point guards. As a result, many of the All-NBA voters clearly disregard the positional designations and simply vote for whoever they consider to be the 15 best players in the league; the media members generally make solid choices overall despite not strictly following the rules and--other than the three complaints listed above--they once again made solid choices this season--but my take on this issue has been consistent; here is what I wrote about the All-NBA Teams in 2010:

If the media is trying to create some kind of "higher justice" by voting for the best players without regard to position then the league should either eliminate positional designations on the All-NBA Team or else insist that the voters stick to the official guidelines and vote for players at the positions that they actually play; unless the NBA officially gets rid of positional designations on the All-NBA Team I think that the squad should include the top three centers, even if this means that some forwards or guards who are "better" players are left off of the team.

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Here are some of my previous articles about All-Defensive Team and All-NBA Team voting:

Interesting Contrasts Between All-Defensive Team Voting and Defensive Player of the Year Voting (2012)

Analysis of the All-NBA Team Voting (2011)

Analyzing the Votes for the All-Defensive Team and the All-NBA Team (2010)

Howard, Bryant Lead All-Defensive Team Voting (2009)

James, Bryant Top All-NBA Voting (2009)

The Best Player is Finally Recognized as the "Most Valuable" (2008)

Choosing This Season's NBA Awards Winners (2008)

Inside the NBA Crew Hands Out Some Hardware (2007)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:41 PM

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interesting Contrasts Between All-Defensive Team Voting and Defensive Player of the Year Voting

Media members vote for the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year Award, while the league's head coaches select the All-Defensive First and Second Teams (coaches are not permitted to choose players from their own squads). There were some interesting differences in the specific choices made by the media and coaches this season.

Tyson Chandler narrowly defeated Serge Ibaka to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award, 311-294; players receive five points for a first place vote, three points for a second place vote and one point for a third place vote. Chandler's name appeared on 81 out of 121 ballots while Ibaka's name appeared on 82 ballots but the difference was that Chandler received 45 first place votes while Ibaka received 41. Dwight Howard, who won the award the previous three seasons, finished a distant third, followed by Kevin Garnett, Tony Allen, Andre Iguodala, Shawn Marion, Luol Deng and Josh Smith; except for Smith, each of those players received at least one first place vote.

Media members can be easily swayed by compelling narratives (hopefully they are not influenced by who speaks with them on a given day or who gives them the best quotes) and the two narratives that apparently influenced the Defensive Player of the Year voting are (1) Tyson Chandler "changed the culture for the New York Knicks" (even though the Knicks were not any better this season than they were last season) and (2) Dwight Howard is annoyingly wishy washy and did not always play hard (even though he ranked third in the league in bpg, led the league in defensive rebounds for the fifth year in a row, tried to play with a ruptured disk in his back that ultimately required surgery and was the defensive linchpin for an Orlando team that does not have any other above average individual defensive players). In my 2012 NBA Awards article I explained why Howard should win the award, with James finishing second and Ibaka placing third.

The All-Defensive Teams are selected by position, so the raw voting totals cannot be directly compared with the Defensive Player of the Year voting totals, but the coaches did not value Chandler quite as highly as the media members did. Dwight Howard earned the First Team nod at center with 16 First Team votes and nine Second Team votes, while Chandler received Second Team honors. LeBron James received the most overall votes and was the only player chosen by every coach (24 First Team votes, five Second Team votes). Ibaka received the second most votes overall and joined James as a First Team forward. Chris Paul and Tony Allen are this year's First Team guards.

Kobe Bryant's streak of six straight All-Defensive First Team selections was snapped but he made the Second Team along with Rajon Rondo, Chandler and forwards Kevin Garnett and Luol Deng. Andre Iguodala actually outpointed Bryant 19-17 (First Team votes are worth two points, while Second Team votes are worth one point) but Iguodala presumably did not make the squad due to positional designation (Iguodala is a forward and he received one fewer point than Deng).

For the fourth time in the past five seasons, the coaches selected eight of the 10 players who I selected for the All-Defensive First and Second Teams (last season the coaches and I agreed on six of the 10 choices). The only difference between my First Team this season and the coaches' First Team is that I chose Grant Hill (who received one First Team vote from the coaches but did not get enough overall points to make the squad) while the coaches picked Chris Paul, who I put on my Second Team. The coaches and I both "demoted" Bryant to the Second Team but I chose Iguodala as a Second Team forward and I did not pick Rondo at all. My reasoning for leaving out Garnett is that he did not excel early in the season at forward and that even though he played very well for the rest of the season as a center he did not have more defensive impact at that position than Howard and Chandler did. While Garnett did perform at an All-Defensive Team level, he did not do so at forward and in this instance the lack of adherence to positional designations cost Iguodala. Hill is nominally a small forward but I put him at guard because he often defended point guards so that Steve Nash could "guard" the weakest perimeter scoring threat on the opposing team.

The "stat gurus" only know what their spreadsheets tell them--and their spreadsheets can only reflect back the biases that went into creating those spreadsheets--so each year around this time there is a torrent of articles declaring that NBA coaches do not have a clue about defense, which is a funny assertion considering that the coaches have to game plan for each team in the league and thus have at least some notion about which defenders cause problems for their teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:05 PM

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San Antonio Versus Oklahoma City Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 San Antonio Spurs (50-16) vs. #2 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

Oklahoma City can win if…the Thunder are able to control the paint defensively (by limiting Tony Parker's dribble penetration and effectively contesting Tim Duncan's post up opportunities) without leaving San Antonio's deadly three point shooters open. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden must not only score but also create scoring opportunities for their teammates.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are operating like a well oiled machine at both ends of the court; defensively they consistently take away their opponent's first and second options, while offensively their talent and discipline enable them to create (and make) good shots.

Other things to consider: Both teams are productive and efficient offensively but they are very different stylistically. The Thunder rely primarily on their Big Three of Durant (26.7 ppg playoff scoring average), Westbrook (24.1 ppg playoff scoring average) and Harden (17.0 ppg scoring average), with Serge Ibaka (9.8 ppg playoff scoring average) contributing putbacks and an occasional jump shot; Derek Fisher (6.0 ppg playoff scoring average) is the team's fifth leading playoff scorer and everyone else on the team is averaging less than 4.0 ppg in the playoffs. The Thunder are a below average three point shooting team, though Durant and Harden can be dangerous behind the arc.

The Spurs' Big Three of Tony Parker (19.1 ppg playoff scoring average), Tim Duncan (17.6 ppg playoff scoring average) and Manu Ginobili (11.3 ppg playoff scoring average) led the Spurs to three championships (2003, 2005, 2007; Duncan also won a title in 1999 before Parker and Ginobili joined the team) but the Spurs' offense is not dominated by one, two or even three players; eight Spurs are averaging at least 6.5 ppg in the playoffs and six of those eight are shooting at least .500 from the field (top scorer Parker is shooting .430, while Ginobili is shooting .400, his worst postseason field goal percentage since his rookie season). The Spurs led the league in three point field goal percentage and ranked fourth in three point field goals made, so they are both efficient and productive from long range.

Parker's dribble penetration and Duncan's post up skills ensure that the Spurs can attack the paint in multiple ways on a nightly basis and the Spurs' deft passing leads to a parade of layups and wide open three pointers; Duncan is no longer a perennial All-Star or member of the All-NBA First Team but his per minute productivity is still very high and he is a much bigger contributor to San Antonio's success than the general public realizes. Parker deservedly receives a lot praise but without Duncan's paint presence at both ends of the court the Spurs would be much weaker both offensively and defensively. Duncan is not interested in padding his statistics or courting media attention but he is hardly just a role player along for the ride; he is literally and figuratively the central force for the Spurs.

The Spurs originally based their championship formula on a Twin Tower system focused on playing suffocating defense but in recent seasons the Spurs have evolved into an offensive minded, uptempo team that plays solid but not stifling defense; in essence, the Spurs have borrowed the best aspects of Mike D'Antoni's offense but without completely abandoning defense. The Spurs ranked second in scoring but just 17th in defensive field goal percentage this season, a combination that would have been unthinkable during the Spurs' last title run in 2007 when San Antonio ranked 14th in scoring and fourth in defensive field goal percentage. The Spurs began changing their identity about two years ago and now they have the personnel in place to be very efficient offensively and competent enough defensively.

The Thunder ranked third in scoring and fourth in defensive field goal percentage this season, so they make their mark at both ends of the court. Since they do not have a post up threat like Duncan or an armada of great three point shooters they rely very much on midrange jump shots and, as TNT's Charles Barkley frequently suggests, that could prove to be the Thunder's downfall.

This should be a great, competitive series. Unlike most commentators, I predicted that San Antonio would be one of the top three teams in the West but I did not foresee that the Spurs would capture the number one seed and then just steamroll to the Western Conference Finals. I originally thought that this would be the year that the Thunder break through and make it to the NBA Finals but by the last month of the season I realized that this is San Antonio's year: the Spurs are just too talented, too deep, too versatile and too disciplined for anyone to beat them four times in a seven game series. The Thunder can certainly challenge the Spurs, though, and I expect this series to go the distance. I would be surprised but not shocked if the Thunder pull off the upset; I definitely expect the Spurs to win this series and then go on to capture the championship but the Thunder have to be respected as a legitimate championship contending team that is capable of beating the Spurs (and any other team) in a seven game series.

In my Spurs-Clippers preview I mentioned that the Spurs remind me of the underrated 1982 Lakers team that peaked at the end of that season and then rolled through the playoffs before notching a 4-2 NBA Finals victory against a strong Philadelphia team led by Julius Erving; if the Spurs make it through the playoffs with just one or two losses they will have completed one of the greatest single seasons in league history--and it will certainly be the least heralded and least publicized great season; the Spurs' 50-16 record prorates to 62 wins in an 82 game season and includes two times when the Spurs lost a game because they rested their stars after building an 11 game winning streak. The Spurs' regular season point differential (7.2) is better than the point differential posted by two of Chicago's six championship teams from the 1990s and better than the point differential posted by two of the three O'Neal-Bryant Lakers championship teams--and the Spurs' point differential would have been even greater if not for the games that Coach Gregg Popovich essentially conceded in order to rest his stars during the grueling post-lockout schedule. The Spurs have now won 18 games in a row--their final 10 regular season games plus two playoff series sweeps--and they have won 29 of their past 31 games; one of those two losses was to the Utah Jazz when the Spurs rested their stars and the other loss--the last loss in a game that the Spurs actually tried to win--came against the L.A. Lakers on April 11, a defeat that the Spurs avenged with not one but two blowout victories against the Lakers (April 17 and April 20). The Spurs' point differential during that 31 game stretch is more than 13 ppg, a staggering number on par with the point differentials posted by some of the most dominant championship teams in NBA history, although those teams maintained such point differentials over the entire season as opposed to a stretch of 30-some games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:05 AM

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thunder Domination Conclusively Proves that Lakers are not Championship Contenders

Anyone who still believed that the L.A. Lakers are a legitimate championship contender received a sobering dose of reality during the Oklahoma City Thunder's 4-1 victory over the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. Do not be deceived by the fact that three of the five games were decided by three points or less; the Thunder won two of those three close games and they also blew the Lakers out twice, once by 29 in the first game of the series to set a tone of domination (game one winners advance more than 80% of the time in the NBA playoffs) and then by 16 in the fifth game to remove any doubt about the huge gap that exists between these two teams. The Thunder are younger, faster, hungrier, deeper and more talented than the Lakers and those qualities became apparent both in the blowout games that bookended the series and also in the close games when the Thunder wore the Lakers down in crunch time; the Lakers had to play perfectly just to be competitive and that inevitably leads to mental and physical fatigue that results in the errors that the Lakers made at the end of games two and four.

The Lakers have experienced a serious decline in the past two years and this is reflected in their 1-8 record in the second round of the playoffs during that period, a stark contrast to the Lakers' success when Kobe Bryant carried the team to the 2009 and 2010 NBA titles--capping off a run during which the Lakers made three straight trips to the NBA Finals while Bryant performed at approximately the same level that Michael Jordan did in 1996-98 during the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat.

Bryant is still playing at a high level--albeit not quite the same level that he attained during the 2008-2010 postseasons--but his supporting cast has declined due to roster turnover, aging and decreasing motivation (reflected by a lack of hustle and inattention to detail at both ends of the court). Bryant is currently the 2012 postseason leader in minutes played (476, an average of nearly 40 per game) and scoring average (30.0 ppg, 1 ppg ahead of LeBron James). Bryant's .439 field goal percentage is his worst since the 2004 playoffs, as is his .283 three point shooting percentage, but most of his other 2012 playoff numbers (4.8 rpg, 4.3 apg, 2.8 turnovers per game) are right around his career playoff averages. Bryant scored more than 30 points in seven of the Lakers' 12 playoff games but the Lakers squandered those performances by winning just three of those games; Mike Wilbon--who has convinced himself that the Lakers are better off when Bryant shoots less frequently--should note that the Lakers went 2-3 when Bryant scored less than 30 points. The Lakers are not guaranteed to win now even if Bryant plays sensationally and they do not have enough talent or depth to prevail if Bryant "merely" plays at an All-Star level; Bryant scored between 17 and 22 points in his five sub-30 performances, while Andrew Bynum--a first time All-Star in 2012 and the likely All-NBA Second Team center this season--scored 20 points or more just three times in 12 playoff games: Bynum's three best playoff scoring totals (27, 20, 20) would have ranked among Bryant's worst playoff scoring totals.

During the Lakers' two most recent championship runs in 2009 and 2010, the Lakers went 10-5 and 10-4 respectively when Bryant scored at least 30 points in a playoff game. During that time span, Bryant set an NBA record for most consecutive 30 point games during potential series-clinching situations. The Lakers relied heavily on Bryant and he consistently came through; Bryant routinely provided spectacular performances and the Lakers won the vast majority of those games. Bryant can still score prolifically and he can still get to the hoop at times but he has lost some lift, some stamina and some explosiveness and this is reflected in his declining field goal percentage. Bryant draws so many fouls and shoots free throws at such an excellent rate that he is still an efficient scorer overall but he is not quite as efficient as he used to be and he is less able to score at will down the stretch after battling multiple defenders and multiple defensive looks for an entire game. The Thunder used an excellent defensive strategy against Bryant: each game they defended him first with Thabo Sefolosha, then they used James Harden and they closed each game by throwing the long-limbed Kevin Durant at Bryant. The Thunder tried to keep Bryant out of the paint by "loading up" the strong side with a big man and this was the source of Bryant's frustration with Pau Gasol: Bryant was frequently drawing Gasol's man but Gasol rarely took advantage of that situation by cutting aggressively to the open area and then shooting with confidence; Gasol's reluctance to shoot an uncontested shot in precisely that situation late in game four was the decisive play in that contest. In previous seasons, the Lakers would have defeated such a defensive scheme either because Bryant would have had the energy and lift to go off for 40-50 points or because Gasol would have played with more aggression and either knocked down the available shots or forced the Thunder to cover him, leaving Lamar Odom or a three point shooter open on the weak side. Instead, Bryant's teammates abandoned him and Bryant did not have quite enough in the tank to make up the difference.

In the Lakers' 99-96 game three victory, Bryant scored 36 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had six assists. He shot just 9-25 from the field but his scoring performance was still efficient because he made all 18 of his free throws. Bryant scored 14 fourth quarter points, including eight of the Lakers' final 10 points as they rallied from a 92-89 deficit in the final two minutes; Laker optimists can say that the Lakers could have won two of the games that they lost during this series but the Lakers also came within this one great Bryant performance of quite possibly being swept. Considering that the Thunder beat the Lakers six out of eight times in the regular season and playoffs--with one of the two losses coming in double overtime after Metta World Peace knocked James Harden out of the game with a concussion--it is obvious that the aberration in this series was the Lakers' one close win, not the Lakers' two close losses. In general, the Thunder have consistently rallied to win games this season while the Lakers have consistently blown leads and those trends continued in the playoffs.

The bottom line is simple: Bryant can no longer carry the Lakers to the extent that he did as recently as 2010 and the Lakers are less equipped to help him than they have been at any time since the nightmare years when Bryant went into gun battles with butter knives named Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.

Supposedly, the Lakers' great advantage is provided by the size and length of their seven footers, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but this advantage rarely materialized during the playoffs from either a visual or statistical perspective: the Lakers' big men generally did not look dominant and the statistics show that they were not dominant. In the tough first round series versus Denver, the Nuggets' unheralded frontcourt of JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov often played Gasol and Bynum to a standstill. Similarly, the Thunder essentially played the Lakers to a draw in both rebounding (206-204 edge for the Lakers) and points in the paint (214-206 edge for the Lakers); the Lakers' big men did not make their presence felt by aggressively posting up offensively nor did they prevent the Thunder from attacking the paint at the other end of the court. All of this came to a head in game five, when the Thunder outrebounded the Lakers 51-35 and outscored them 50-46 in the paint. Five Thunder players had more rebounds than Bynum, including each member of the Thunder's starting frontcourt, the first Thunder big man off of the bench and the first guard off of the Thunder bench.

Game five provided a microcosm of the Lakers' season in many ways. In the first quarter, Bryant scored 15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting but the rest of the Lakers shot 2-12 from the field (including 1-6 shooting by Gasol) and the Thunder led 26-21. The Lakers later rallied to take a lead but they expended so much energy that they could not withstand the Thunder's closing run. Lakers' Coach Mike Brown tried to rest Bryant at the start of the fourth quarter but the Thunder immediately seized control of the game and by the time Brown reinserted Bryant the game was already over. After the game, Brown lamented, "I've got to be able to rest Kobe for a few minutes here and there." Gasol scored four points on 1-5 shooting in the second half, while Bynum scored three points on 1-6 shooting. Bryant finished with 42 points on 18-33 field goal shooting, his best scoring output and best shooting percentage of the series.

The harsh reality is that without Bryant performing at an All-NBA First Team level the Lakers would struggle to even make the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference. No one perceives things this way, but it actually is an accomplishment for Bryant to lead this particular roster to a first round series win against a young, improving Denver team--a Denver team that actually had a better point differential than the Lakers during the 2012 regular season--and to one playoff victory versus a legitimate championship contender.

There are two ways to look at Andrew Bynum: you can either say that he is a young, upcoming big man who will continue to improve now that he is healthy or you can say that he is a historically injury prone player who displayed inconsistent effort in his first relatively healthy season and who may very well have peaked both in terms of health and in terms of productivity. No one can say for sure what the future holds for Bynum but based on his career it is reasonable to assume that he will be injury prone in the future and that he will never develop the drive and resolve that true franchise players have. If the Lakers can trade him--and Gasol if necessary--for Dwight Howard then they should leap at the opportunity to pair Bryant with a young center who is active defensively and who can be the franchise's cornerstone player after Bryant retires.

Gasol has benefited tremendously from playing alongside Bryant and has transformed himself from a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 playoff record to a possible candidate for Hall of Fame induction thanks to how much he padded his resume (three All-Star selections, three All-NBA selections and two championships) while serving as the Lakers' second option--but Gasol has clearly seen his best days and the Lakers must trade him and his oversized contract in order to add some energy, youth and athleticism to their roster. Gasol followed up his desultory 2011 playoff performance (13.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .420 FG%) with an equally subpar 2012 playoff performance (12.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, .434 FG%). There is a perception that Gasol's role has been reduced but he attempted between 12 and 13 shots a game during the 2008-10 playoffs, only slightly more than he attempted in the 2011 and 2012 playoffs; the difference is that even though Bryant had to constantly prod Gasol to be aggressive from 2008-10 Gasol eventually heeded the call while in 2011 and 2012 Gasol literally shrugged his shoulders when Bryant challenged him. The "stat gurus" have always loved Gasol's game and the Lakers would be well advised to call up a team run by a "stat guru" and rob that team blind by trading Gasol for less acclaimed but younger and tougher players (assuming that the Lakers are unable to package Bynum and Gasol for Howard and perhaps a point guard and/or a wing who can make three pointers).

The Thunder have two of the top five players in the NBA; everyone knows about three-time reigning scoring champion Kevin Durant, while Russell Westbrook should (but likely will not) make the All-NBA First Team. It is not realistic to think that Kobe Bryant by himself can take on two stars who are a generation younger than he is and who are surrounded by a great supporting cast that includes Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and a group of defensive-minded, energetic big men. Former Laker point guard Derek Fisher could only be thinking one thing as he watched from the Thunder bench while Westbrook torched the Lakers: "There but for the grace of God go I." The huge talent and depth gap between the Lakers and the Thunder is graphically illustrated by the Fisher saga. Fisher started each of the 43 games that he played for the Lakers this season, averaging 5.9 ppg and shooting .383 from the field (including .324 from three point range) while regularly watching opposing point guards drive by him like he was a broken down car stalled at the side of the road (which is actually an apt analogy for his relative lateral quickness at this stage of his career). Fisher was a key member of the Lakers' rotation because none of the other point guards on the team could beat him out even though he clearly was the worst starting point guard on any playoff team in the league. After the Lakers acquired Ramon Sessions, they traded Fisher to Houston and Fisher agreed to a contract buyout that enabled him to sign with the Thunder. Fisher played in 20 regular season games as a Thunder reserve, averaging 4.9 ppg while shooting .343 from the field (including .314 from three point range). Through nine playoff games, Fisher is averaging 6.0 ppg on .449 field goal shooting, including 8-15 from three point range (a league-best .533 percentage). Fisher's timely three point shooting in the playoffs helped the Thunder win a couple games in the Dallas series--games that the Thunder likely would have won without Fisher anyway--but the larger point is that Fisher went from being the regular starter for the Lakers to being a reserve spot up shooter for the Thunder. All of the flowery talk about Fisher's leadership is nice--and there may even be some truth to it, though the Thunder already had a veteran, championship-winning leader in Kendrick Perkins and the Thunder receive excellent leadership from MVP-caliber performer Durant--but the appropriate role for Fisher at this stage of his career is reserve specialist, not starting point guard; he started for the Lakers simply because the Lakers had no other options. The spike in Fisher's playoff three point shooting is a number that likely will regress to the mean by the end of the Western Conference Finals and can in any case be explained by the difference between playing against starting players and playing against second unit players.

Sessions is a quality back up player who should not be starting full time for a championship contender; in other words, the Lakers essentially replaced an old, slow, savvy reserve player with a young, quick, untested (in terms of playoff competition) reserve player. If the Lakers can acquire a legitimate starting point guard (not even an All-Star but just a true starter) so that Sessions can come off of the bench and if they can exchange Bynum and Gasol for Dwight Howard and a three point shooting wing then this new nucleus of Bryant-Howard-true starting point guard-Metta World Peace-three point shooting wing plus Ramon Sessions could potentially contend for a championship; otherwise, the Lakers will squander the remaining productive years of Bryant's career and then miss the playoffs the first year after he retires.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:36 PM

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Is LeBron's Historic Performance a Preview of Coming Attractions?

LeBron James became just the second player in NBA playoff history to tally 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists (Elgin Baylor posted exactly the same numbers in each of those categories in a 1961 playoff game) and he led the Miami Heat to a 101-93 road victory over the Indiana Pacers in a must win game four; the Heat tied the series at 2-2, regaining home court advantage. James' tag team partner Dwyane Wade once again struggled early in the game but after James spoonfed Wade for a couple of point blank shots Wade came alive in the second half and finished with 30 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

Even though the Heat are without the services of the injured Chris Bosh and even though their supporting cast is much criticized, it is obvious that since the Heat have the two best players in this series--including the best player in the entire league--they have more than enough talent to win provided that James and Wade both play the right way at the same time: that means that the ball must primarily be in James' hands and that both players must attack the hoop relentlessly on offense and play very energetically on defense. James cannot stand in the corner awaiting future developments and Wade cannot dribble the air out of the ball before jacking up wild long range jumpers. James did not attempt a single three pointer in game four, while Wade took just two (making both); in game three James and Wade combined to shoot 1-6 from three point range and neither player attacked the hoop the way that they both attacked the hoop in game four.

James cannot be expected to put up 40-18-9 on a nightly basis. That had only happened once before in NBA playoff history and it may never happen again--but, as a three-time MVP who is almost universally acknowledged to be the best player in the league, James should absolutely be expected to play with great energy and aggression every time he takes the court. Kobe Bryant is much older than LeBron James and at this stage of Bryant's career he is much less athletic than James but Bryant is still attacking the hoop and drawing fouls (in his past two playoff games, Bryant has attempted 35 free throws while taking just three shots behind the arc).

Even without Bosh, the Heat should be able to win this series now; a best out of three set with two games at home (if necessary) should favor the team that has the two best players. The sad thing about James is that we really have no idea which James we will see in games five and six. In the second round of the 2010 playoffs, James authored a masterful game three performance versus Boston (38 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, one turnover, 14-22 field goal shooting) to lift his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 2-1 series lead but the Cavs then lost three straight games, with the low point coming at home in game five as James quit during a Celtics rout. James shot 2-3 from three point range in the game three win but he shot 2-13 from three point range in the next three games; he drifted passively around the court for large stretches of those games and he looked disinterested during timeouts.

I do not lightly throw around the word "quit"; I know firsthand what it means to compete and I know that a person can try his very best and still fall short of victory--but a masterful performance like the one James just authored paints a vivid, indelible, three dimensional picture of exactly what it looks like when James is really trying. This is not about numbers but rather about giving maximum effort, about doing everything on the court with great conviction and purpose: James and Wade both displayed maximum effort in everything that they did, so even if they had missed shots on offense or given up miracle shots despite playing tenacious defense no one could reasonably question or doubt that they left everything on the court. It is obvious what James looks like when he is really trying, so when he stands passively in the corner it is equally obvious that he is not trying very hard. Forget the nonsensical justifications that center around James being a pass first player; in game four James poured in 40 points without forcing any shots and he still delivered nine assists. Giving up the ball without attacking the hoop and thus putting pressure on a less talented teammate to take a lower quality shot is not being unselfish; it is making a bad basketball play and--in light of what we have seen that James is capable of doing--it must be described as quitting.

It is possible that the scintillating James-Wade game four performance versus Indiana will propel the Heat into the Eastern Conference Finals and perhaps even all the way to winning an NBA title--but it is also possible that James will be passive in games five and six as the Pacers eliminate the Heat just like the underdog Celtics took out James' Cavaliers in 2010 and the underdog Dallas Mavericks defeated James' Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.

I have no idea whether or not James will quit in the next two games. I have no idea why he quit in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, so I consider this quitting phenomenon inexplicable and thus impossible to predict--but the fact that it is even conceivable that he will do so (and every NBA observer who is honest and objective knows that it is at least possible that James will spend the next two games aimlessly drifting around the perimeter) is a very sad commentary about James, something that cannot be wiped out even by his great game four performance. One could argue that even winning a championship will not excuse or justify James' previous quitting episodes but we all know that if James wins a title his previous failures will be largely forgiven and forgotten--if one Super Bowl ring made the media forget that Ray Lewis obstructed justice (at the very least) in a still unsolved double murder then one NBA championship ring will surely make the media forget James' 2010 and 2011 playoff failures.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kevin Ding: Lakers' Biggest Problem is Gasol's Passivity

The Lakers probably have more journalists covering them than any team other than maybe the New York Knicks but the most insightful Lakers' beat writer/commentator is Kevin Ding. While national media members relentlessly focus on Kobe Bryant's shot selection-- a subject that endlessly fascinates them--Ding cuts straight to the heart of the matter: Pau Gasol has disappeared for the second consecutive postseason. Gasol is averaging 12.4 ppg on .442 field goal shooting during this year's playoffs after averaging 13.1 ppg on .420 field goal shooting during the 2011 playoffs. Gasol attempted 12.7 field goals per game during the 2008 playoffs, 12 field goals per game in the 2009 playoffs, 13.3 field goals per game during the 2010 playoffs, 11.2 field goals per game during the 2011 playoffs and 11.7 field goals per game so far during the 2012 playoffs--so Gasol is not receiving substantially fewer scoring opportunities now than he did during the Lakers' recent championship run (and the slight reduction has as much to do with Gasol's passivity as anything else).

The problem is that Gasol seems to be satisfied with two championship rings and thus does not push himself to play aggressively on a nightly basis. After the Lakers' 103-100 game four loss on Saturday night to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bryant offered this blunt assessment: "Pau's got to be more assertive. He's the guy that they're leaving. When he catches the ball, he's looking to pass. He's got to be more aggressive. He's got to shoot the ball, drive the ball to the basket. And he will be next game." Bryant, who has played through numerous injuries because of his tremendous hunger to win at least one more title, has enjoyed playing with Gasol even though he often has to kick Gasol in the butt to get the laid back Gasol to live up to his potential but Bryant is disgusted by Gasol's lack of effort the past two postseasons. Here is Ding's take not just on game four of the Thunder-Lakers series but also the state of the Lakers in general:

Bryant's postgame criticism was meant to make sure Gasol doesn't make those mistakes again as the Lakers try to rally in this series. But even as Bryant attempts to push Gasol forward the rest of this season, it's just as obvious that this season should be the last for this once-great partnership.

Bryant has tired to having to prop Gasol up time and again. Bryant did it often last season in pursuit of a third consecutive title on a bad knee and before Bynum was ready, offering the compelling Natalie Portman-inspired narrative that Gasol is too often the "white swan" instead of the "black swan." Like the movie, it didn't end well.

This season, Bryant has still believed that Gasol can come through when it matters most. Bryant's public request that the Lakers stop dangling Gasol in the trade market was him believing Gasol needed that support to persevere. When I was comparing the very night before the March trade deadline the emerging Bynum and Bryant to the regular one-two punch of Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant, it was Bryant who digressed to say: "We still have Pau."

Ding believes that the Lakers should trade Gasol for a big man who matches Bryant's fire and desire plus some young, energetic perimeter players (Ding suggests a Pau Gasol for Kevin Garnett swap but I doubt that the Celtics would go for that). Ding concludes:  

Championship teams find a way to win because they aren't afraid to lose. 

And in that regard, the sweet-hearted, good-intending Gasol is unfortunately the Lakers' No. 1 problem.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 PM

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