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Friday, December 28, 2012

Avery Johnson is a Victim of Unrealistic Expectations

Avery Johnson won the Coach of the Month Award in November and the Brooklyn Nets fired him in December. Did Johnson suddenly forget how to coach? No, he is simply the latest in a long line of NBA coaches who are victims of unrealistic expectations held by owners and/or executives. It is not clear why so many people believe that the Nets as currently constructed should be a championship contender; I predicted that the Nets would finish seventh in the Eastern Conference and the 14-14 Nets are currently in eighth place in the East, right about where I expected them to be and right about where they probably will finish.

Maybe the Nets will throw a huge pile of money at Phil Jackson and perhaps the Zen Master can push the Nets up to the fifth or sixth seed--but, regardless of who is at the helm, this team lacks depth and is one injury away from possibly not even making the playoffs: the Nets went 2-5 when Brook Lopez sat out due to injury. Lopez is a good, solid big man but hardly a franchise player. What will happen to the Nets if Deron Williams or Joe Johnson miss a few games? Both former All-Stars are performing well below their usual standards but if either player is out of the lineup the Nets will be in serious trouble.

Williams is the person who looks the worst in this scenario; he talked his way out of Utah and convinced the Nets to build their franchise around him but he has regressed as a player, he publicly whined about his role (which may have contributed to Johnson being fired) and he has shown no indication that he is capable of being the best player on a championship contending team. The terms "franchise player" and "elite player" are very overused; at any given point in time, there are only a handful of legitimate franchise players in the NBA. In the past decade or so, franchise players who have led their teams to at least one NBA title include Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James. The 2004 Pistons did not have an All-NBA First Team player but they had an ensemble cast of four All-Star caliber players and the 2008 Celtics similarly split up franchise player responsibilities among Kevin Garnett (who made the All-NBA First Team that season), Paul Pierce (who won the Finals MVP) and Ray Allen. Dwyane Wade went nuts in the 2006 NBA Finals after the Dallas Mavericks focused their defense on Shaquille O'Neal, who made the All-NBA First Team that season (Wade made the Second Team). Wade displayed franchise player qualities during that title run but he also presided over Miami's collapse once injuries and age prevented O'Neal from being consistently dominant. I have never considered Wade, even at his best, to be quite equal to James and Bryant at their respective bests, though I know that other people hold Wade in higher regard than that--but a lot of those people ended up looking silly when they kept insisting that Miami was still Wade's team even after James led the Heat in just about every important statistical category.

Right now, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant are the only full fledged franchise players in the NBA; James is the best player in the league, Durant is right behind him and Bryant--who was the league's best player for several years until James surpassed him late in the 2008-09 season--is still playing at a high enough level to lead a team to a championship (assuming that the Lakers actually put a healthy team around him). A fully healthy Dwight Howard is a franchise player but Howard is not fully healthy. Chris Paul is a great player but there have been very few franchise players who were barely six feet tall (Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald and Isiah Thomas). Russell Westbrook could be a franchise player if he improved his shot selection. It is way too soon to anoint Carmelo Anthony as a franchise player--though that has not stopped many people from doing so, much like many people prematurely praised Gilbert Arenas (I'll take the current version of Anthony over the 2007 version of Arenas but I will not take either of those players over the current versions of James, Durant or Bryant). Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki used to be franchise players but age/injuries have knocked both players off of that pedestal (though Duncan is still very effective and Nowitzki will presumably return to All-Star or even All-NBA form once he is fully healthy again).

Anyone who understands the preceding analysis realizes that it is silly for the Nets to fire Johnson after 28 games; Williams is not a franchise player nor is he surrounded by a championship caliber supporting cast. Johnson's replacement, at least on an interim basis, is P.J. Carlesimo, a good college coach who has a .408 regular season winning percentage as an NBA head coach and has never won a playoff series. Carlesimo inexplicably played Kevin Durant out of position at shooting guard, a mistake that Scott Brooks immediately corrected after he replaced Carlesimo. If the Nets do not replace Carlesimo soon then their best case scenario is probably a first round loss as the eighth seed--and it is possible that they will miss the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:28 AM


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas Day Quintupleheader Recap

I continued my annual tradition of watching every game of the NBA's Christmas Day quintupleheader, availing myself of the opportunity to see a third of the league's teams perform in a marathon 13 hour stretch. The following extensive analysis, presented in a more digestible bullet point form as opposed to paragraph form, is not so much about the particulars of each game but rather addresses larger trends concerning these teams and their key players. One game is far too small of a sample size from which to draw definitive conclusions but one game can provide examples of recurring themes and patterns that foreshadow how the rest of the season will unfold.

Game One: Boston Celtics 93, Brooklyn Nets 76

1) Neither team has been outstanding this season and after Boston's easy win the teams are tied for 7th-8th in the Eastern Conference at 14-13. The Celtics' defense is much less effective than it has been in recent seasons and the Celtics rank last in the league in rebounding, while the Nets--despite the much ballyhooed re-signing of Deron Williams and the acquisition of Joe Johnson--are mediocre offensively and rank near the bottom of the league in defensive field goal percentage.
2) Boston's overall defense is not great even with Kevin Garnett but ESPN ran a graphic noting that when Garnett is not on the court the Celtics' essentially offer no defensive resistance at all (they are outscored by more than 10 ppg when Garnett is on the bench).
3) Doc Rivers is an excellent coach who gets the most out of his team but right now it looks like it will be a tall order for the Celtics to repeat last year's run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
4) Williams and Johnson were supposed to form perhaps the best starting backcourt in the league but both players have performed well below their usual standards: Williams is shooting a career low .397 from the field and most of his other key numbers are the lowest that they have been since his second season (2006-07), while Johnson is posting his lowest scoring average since 2004-05 and his lowest field goal percentage since 2002-03. They combined to score 22 points on 7-21 field goal shooting versus Boston, with eight assists and six turnovers; Boston's Rajon Rondo countered with a game-high 19 points on 8-16 field goals shooting while dishing off five assists and committing just one turnover.
5) The Nets went just 2-5 without Brook Lopez, who leads the team in scoring and blocked shots. Lopez is not an explosive athlete or a great rebounder but he provides much needed size and scoring punch.
6) Except for Gerald "Crash" Wallace, the Nets are a low energy team whose players become easily discouraged when things are not going well.
7) The Nets have no offensive identity; their problem is not merely that their offense is ineffective but rather that it is not even clear what kind of offense they are trying to run. Are they a postup team focused around Lopez, are they an isolation team centered around the one on one skills of Williams and Johnson or are they something else?
8) Williams talked his way out of Utah in order to seek supposedly greener pastures elsewhere and the onus is on him to lead the Nets; he must do so not only statistically but also in terms of taking charge at both ends of the court: the point guard runs the show on offense and is the first line of defense, so he must organize the Nets' offensive attack and he must set a high energy/effort standard defensively.

Game Two: L.A. Lakers 100, New York Knicks 94

1) Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 34 points on 14-24 field goal shooting versus New York, the ninth straight game that he has scored at least 30 points; that is the second longest such streak of Bryant's career (he had a 16 game streak in the 2002-03 season) and by far the longest such streak ever accomplished by a player who is at least 34 years old (the previous mark is five, set by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and later matched by Michael Jordan). I would not take young Bryant over young Jordan nor would I take Bryant's overall body of work over Jordan's overall body of work but Bryant is on track to establish himself as perhaps the greatest 34 year old in NBA history. Bryant's consistently high level of play has been somewhat overshadowed by all of the attention being paid to the Lakers' well documented struggles but he is having a remarkable season by any standard--and it is even more remarkable considering his age and the fact that he has logged more than 50,000 career minutes counting regular season and postseason play. Bryant led the NBA in scoring in November (27.0 ppg), the 14th time he has led the league in scoring during a calendar month (LeBron James is second in that category with seven such calendar months). Overall, Bryant is leading the league in scoring (29.9 ppg) while shooting a career-high .475 from the field, .369 from three point range and .857 from the free throw line. He is averaging 5.4 rpg, 4.9 apg and 1.5 spg, right on pace with his career averages in those categories. Jordan is the single-season scoring leader for the 34 and up set, averaging 28.7 ppg in 1997-98 while becoming the oldest scoring champion in NBA history, but his shooting percentages in all three categories were worse than Bryant's (.465, .238, .784). Jordan averaged 5.8 rpg, 3.5 apg and 1.7 spg in 1997-98--slightly ahead of Bryant in two categories, significantly behind Bryant in apg.
2) The Lakers were showing some signs of improvement even before Steve Nash returned to action but there is no doubt that Nash's passing skills, shooting touch and leadership are extremely valuable. Bryant is a hard driving leader a la Jordan, while Nash is more of a nurturing leader a la Scottie Pippen; that "good cop/bad cop" system worked very well for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and it could work very well for the Lakers now. Jeff Van Gundy mentioned an underrated Nash talent: Nash is an excellent screener, much like John Stockton used to be.
3) Although offense has not been the Lakers' major problem this season, the Lakers' offense will become even better with Nash at the helm--and Bryant should be able to maintain his scoring average while increasing his field goal percentage.
4) Nash will not only help Dwight Howard become more involved in the offense but his matador defense on opposing point guards will give Howard a chance to lead the league in blocked shots.
5) Howard returned early in the wake of his offseason back surgery and it is obvious that he still has not fully regained his explosiveness but he showed flashes of his old self versus the Knicks, particularly in terms of his defensive mobility. At his best, Howard is a rare big man who can trap a screen/roll play and then recover into the paint to protect the hoop, something that he did several times against New York after looking a step slow in such situations earlier in the season.
6) The Lakers' bench has been horrific this season but if Nash and Pau Gasol can stay healthy then the bench should improve simply because players who should not have been starting will return to reserve roles and players who should not have been playing at all will once again be out of the rotation. Coach Mike D'Antoni's plan to use Metta World Peace to anchor the bench is a good idea because it strengthens the reserve unit (literally and figuratively) while also enabling the Lakers to go small by shifting Bryant to small forward and inserting another guard into the starting five.
7) Gasol has complained about his minutes and his lack of post touches but his fate literally rests in his own hands; when he is in the game he must post up aggressively and he must convert when he has a mismatch advantage. Early in the second quarter versus New York, Gasol let the much smaller Ronnie Brewer muscle him off of the block.
8) Gasol passed well from the high post (six assists) and he ranked second on the Lakers with eight rebounds but he shot just 5-13 from the field. When he first joined the Lakers, Gasol did a great job of exploiting the open opportunities created when opposing teams trap Kobe Bryant but in the past few seasons Gasol has not been as effective in those situations, as reflected in his declining field goal percentage. However, Gasol had a flashback in a crucial moment and he delivered the game clinching dunk at the 11.6 second mark of the fourth quarter: the Knicks trapped Bryant after the Lakers inbounded the ball and Bryant passed to a wide open Gasol for an uncontested two handed dunk. If Gasol consistently takes advantage of such opportunities he will not have to beg for minutes, post touches or anything else.
9) Now that the Lakers have all four of their star players on the court at the same time, it is clear that they have multiple mismatch advantages that they can exploit against any team in the league as long as they execute properly and play unselfishly. Screen/roll plays featuring Nash and either Howard or Gasol should be nearly impossible for anyone to consistently contain; the Lakers can also run some big to big actions with Gasol in the high post, Howard cutting to the hoop and shooters stationed in both corners to occupy potential help defenders. On top of all that, most teams have to trap Bryant, particularly in late game situations.
10) The importance of Jason Kidd's leadership simply cannot be overstated and he is still a very effective player, albeit one who has modified his game: he has transformed himself from a penetrating playmaker who did not shoot well from the outside to an outstanding three point shooter--and even though he has lost a step he still is a very good rebounder and a crafty defender. He is a major reason that the Knicks look like a much more professional team this season.
11) The Knicks are on pace to set records for fewest turnovers committed and most three pointers made. They are not a great defensive team (they rank 21st in defensive field goal percentage) and they rank just 26th in rebounding but they maximize their possessions by being careful with the ball and by shooting so prolifically from long range. Is that a formula for championship level success? I am skeptical that they can maintain their high three point field goal percentage and low turnover rate in a seven game series against an elite team.

Game Three: Miami Heat 103, Oklahoma City Thunder 97

1) LeBron James authored yet another dominant all-around performance: 29 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, 12-20 field goal shooting. He has scored at least 20 points in each of Miami's 25 games, the third longest such streak to begin a season since the 1976-77 ABA-NBA merger (George Gervin scored at least 20 points in the first 45 games of the 1981-82 season, so James still has some work to do to reach the top spot on that list).
2) The Miami Heat are no longer running what I used to call the "clown car offense" (because it was so disorganized that it resembled clowns piling out of a car at the circus); James is relentlessly attacking the hoop (he leads the league in points in the paint), while his teammates either spot up for open jumpers or cut to the hoop if their defender tries to trap James. Yes, the coaching staff has made some subtle adjustments but the main difference is that James is consistently playing the way that he always should have played instead of settling far too often for jump shots or simply passing the ball without attacking the defense (which is not unselfish at all; the best player must create something for himself or a teammate, not just give up the ball and hope for the best).
3) The Miami Heat have refuted two theories, namely that Wade is the team's leader and that James had to leave Cleveland in order to get more help. It is so obvious now that James is the team's leader that the once popular notion about James being Wade's sidekick is not even worth discussing but it really is intriguing to take a closer look at the second notion. Supposedly the idea behind forming the "Big Three" was to spread the load among three stars instead of having James do everything but look at what actually happened: during last year's playoffs, James played every position while leading his team--by wide margins--in minutes, scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. James did not lighten his load; he instead did exactly what I correctly said he had failed to do during the 2010 and 2011 playoffs: accept the "responsibility to dominate the action." Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant led their teams to championships by shouldering tremendous responsibilities at both ends of the court, not by quitting in key moments against elite opponents. If we had seen the 2012 James in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs then James would likely own three championship rings now instead of just one. James deserved criticism in 2010 and 2011 and he deserved praise in 2012 for becoming a much more mature player.
4) There is a perception that the Heat are not playing very well--or at least not as well as they are capable of playing--but they own the best record in the East and are not too far behind the three top teams in the West. The Heat's actual record is nothing to complain about--but one relevant question/concern is if the small ball/"position-less" style that worked for Miami during the 2012 playoffs can be successful for an entire 82 game grind plus another long postseason run. James is so great that the Heat can probably get away with this against almost every team in the league but a seven game series against a big team like the Memphis Grizzlies or the L.A. Lakers could prove quite challenging. However, it does not look like any team in the East can beat a healthy Miami team in a seven game series (the Knicks have looked good against Miami in the regular season so far but we will see if the Knicks can make all of those three pointers during the playoffs when the Heat have time off between games and can play very frenetic, stifling perimeter defense).
5) Even after this loss, the Thunder are tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the second best record in the West (and the league), half a game behind the L.A. Clippers. The Thunder are the only NBA team that has used the same starting lineup in every game and Kevin Martin has essentially matched last year's production by Sixth Man Award winner James Harden, so any notion that the Harden deal seriously weakened the Thunder does not mesh with reality. In any case, that verdict cannot be definitively rendered at least until the playoffs are over and quite possibly not for another season or two, by which time the career arcs of both players--and the prospects of both teams--will be more clearly defined.
6) Russell Westbrook is productive, versatile and durable (he has never missed a game during his NBA career) but many members of the media like to pick on him; if he has not already done so, he very soon will take two titles from Bryant: best guard in the NBA and most criticized elite player in the NBA. The only way for Westbrook to silence his critics is to win a championship; that worked for James, though Bryant still gets sniped at even after winning five rings.

Game Four: Houston Rockets 120, Chicago Bulls 97

1) TNT's Kenny Smith refuses to analyze halftime highlights of blowouts; it is tempting to take a page out of his book and ignore this aberrational game. There was no way to see this result coming and it is too soon to know how much meaning to ascribe to it: prior to the Christmas Day Massacre, the Chicago Bulls ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage and had only lost by 10 or more points twice in 26 games, while the Houston Rockets were just 3-7 on the road.
2) James Harden is a very good player but I still am not convinced that he is, as Houston General Manager Daryl Morey put it, "a foundational player." Yes, Harden is scoring over 25 ppg while averaging more than five apg but Monta Ellis did the same thing for a 26-56 Golden State team in 2009-10 and then nearly matched those numbers for a 36-46 Golden State team in 2010-11. Harden's Rockets currently rank sixth in the West with a 15-12 record (a 46 win pace) but no one knows if Harden and/or his team will perform at the same level for the next 55 games. Kevin Martin, who has easily replaced Harden as Oklahoma City's sixth man, averaged 24.6 ppg for a 17-65 Sacramento team in 2008-09. If Martin can score roughly 25 ppg as a first option player and adequately fill Harden's shoes as a sixth man then doesn't he also have to be considered a "foundational player" if Harden is one? I can understand the P.R. reasons behind Morey's statement but the reality is (1) it is too soon to know whether or not Harden is a "foundational player" and (2) the available evidence suggests that it is more likely that he is an All-Star level player--perhaps a bigger, healthier version of Manu Ginobili--as opposed to being a true franchise player. Perhaps Harden is a franchise player or perhaps he will develop into one, but scoring 25 ppg in a sample size smaller than 30 games for a team on a 46 win pace does not definitively establish someone as an All-NBA performer.
3) The Bulls obviously lacked energy versus the Rockets but the larger story is that even without the injured Derrick Rose they are right in the mix for the fourth seed in the East. The Bulls are a well-coached, defensive-minded team that could prove to be a serious threat in the playoffs if Rose can make a healthy return early enough to get even close to his old form.
4) When Harden and Jeremy Lin are given open driving lanes they can both be deadly as scorers and playmakers but when proper defensive pressure is applied they can both be very erratic. Harden has shot worse than .400 from the field in 10 out of 26 games this season, while Lin has shot worse than .400 from the field in 14 out of 27 games. In contrast, Kobe Bryant--whose shot selection is constantly criticized--has shot worse than .400 from the field just five times in 28 games. Harden had a very good regular season last year, a solid Western Conference playoff run and a very forgettable NBA Finals; if he can lead Houston to the playoffs it will be interesting to see how well he performs in the postseason as a number one option versus an elite team.

Game Five: L.A. Clippers 112, Denver Nuggets 100

1) I am tempted to employ the Kenny Smith rule to this game as well; the Clippers dominated the Nuggets much more than the final score suggests.
2) The alleged Mayan prediction about the world coming to an end did not come to pass but something that would have seemed just as improbable not too long ago has happened: the L.A. Clippers own the best record in the NBA. They have ascended to the top of the league on the strength of a franchise-record 14 game winning streak.
3) Jeff Van Gundy said that the Clippers are a "championship caliber team" and the relevant numbers support that declaration: the Clippers rank third in field goal percentage, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in point differential (9.7, a number that would measure up with some of the best teams in pro basketball history if the Clippers can maintain it). The Clippers are no longer just an entertaining team with a cool nickname ("Lob City"): they are deep and talented and they are efficient on both offense and defense. Chris Paul is an All-NBA caliber player, Blake Griffin is an All-Star who is still improving (Van Gundy raved about how Griffin is expanding his low post repertoire), Jamal Crawford is a Sixth Man Award candidate and the rest of the roster is loaded with a nice group of solid players who can fill various roles.
4) The Nuggets have gotten off to a slower start than many people might have expected but they have also faced a brutal schedule. Coach George Karl evaluates teams with a formula subtracting home losses from road wins and by that metric the Nuggets are one of the top teams in the league. We are talking about a small sample size of games and I am not convinced that Denver will be an elite team but I predicted (and still believe) that the Nuggets will finish higher than eighth in the West, which is where they stand right now.
5) Contending teams generally have either at least one All-NBA player and/or several All-Stars/All-Star caliber players but Karl's Nuggets are trying to make a different template work: no All-NBA players, one one-time All-Star (Andre Iguodala) but a roster filled with a number of very solid players who Karl (perhaps being a bit overly optimistic) believes rank among the top 10 at their respective positions. Can a well-coached team of good but not great players who play hard and who are unselfish overcome teams that are more talented but that may lack a certain cohesion? Most championship teams are led by at least one first ballot, no doubt about it Hall of Famer, so Denver's approach is intriguing but one that is unlikely to lead to a title.

Analysis of Previous Christmas Day Quintupleheaders:

Comments and Notes About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2011)

Thoughts and Observations About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2010)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:03 AM