Commentators Lose the Thread When Analyzing the Memphis-Oklahoma City SeriesBill Simmons thinks that the Memphis-Oklahoma City series validates the Rudy Gay trade and Jon Barry thinks that P.J. Carlesimo deserves credit for Kevin Durant's ballhanding skills because Carlesimo played Durant at shooting guard during Durant's rookie season. Paraphrasing Casey Stengel, "Can't anybody here analyze this game?"
The Memphis Grizzlies finished fifth in the Western Conference, defeated an overrated/flawed L.A. Clippers team in the first round and currently hold a 2-1 lead over the number one seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals--but the Grizzlies are poised to advance to the Western Conference Finals not because they traded their leading scorer for spare parts but because one of the top five players in the NBA suffered a season-ending knee injury. The most valuable player for the Grizzlies so far has been Houston's Patrick Beverley, the rookie guard who clipped Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and shredded Westbrook's knee. Westbrook played in all 82 games and ranked sixth in the league in scoring, seventh in the league in assists and ninth in the league in steals as the Thunder went 60-22 in the regular season. Oklahoma City ranked third in the NBA in scoring (105.7 ppg) and second in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (.425). The Thunder routed Houston 120-91 in the first game of the playoffs and they beat Houston 105-102 in the second game, with a hobbled Westbrook playing in the second half despite suffering the knee injury that would end his season. Since Westbrook exited the lineup, the Thunder have posted a 3-4 record, splitting four games with the eighth seeded Rockets before falling behind 2-1 to the Grizzlies; the Thunder averaged 96.7 ppg in those seven games. The Thunder miss Westbrook's scoring, playmaking, defense and energy. Kevin Durant is putting up monster numbers sans Westbrook but the team is playing worse overall--and Durant is showing signs of wearing down: in Oklahoma City's 87-81 loss on Sunday, Durant shot just 3-11 from the field in the second half, he only scored two fourth quarter points and he missed two free throws when the Thunder trailed 85-81 with :39 remaining. Perhaps next season we will hear less about Westbrook supposedly shooting too often; it should be obvious that the Thunder need Westbrook to create scoring opportunities for himself and for his teammates. Meanwhile, as Durant runs himself ragged just to keep the games close, Memphis point guard Mike Conley is wearing out Oklahoma City's point guards--something that would not have happened if Conley had to check Westbrook at one end of the court and then deal with Westbrook checking him at the other end of the court.
Westbrook's injury is the number one story of this series. Secondary stories include whatever astronomical numbers Durant ends up with in defeat and the effectiveness of Memphis' Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph duo. What about the Gay trade? Fortunately for Memphis, the absence of Westbrook is so important that it negates the fact that the Grizzlies are getting almost no production in this series from the players who they acquired in that deal: starting small forward Tayshaun Prince (who has taken Gay's spot in the rotation) is averaging 5.0 ppg on .292 field goal shooting and he is getting torched by Durant, Austin Daye has scored three points in 4:52 and Ed Davis has scored two points in 3:08--but, despite these facts, Bill Simmons tells a national television audience that he has to restrain himself from taking a "victory lap" around the ESPN set for supposedly being vindicated about the Gay trade. Simmons apparently thinks that ESPN viewers are stupid enough to believe that trading a 26 year old 18.2 ppg scorer who can create his own shot for a 33 year old player averaging 5.0 ppg and two young guys who are not even in the rotation qualifies as some kind of brilliant move. I hope and expect that the readers of this article are not that dumb. Maybe the Grizzlies will find good use for the money that they saved by getting rid of Gay's contract, maybe Davis and/or Daye will develop into rotation players--but does anyone in his right mind believe that if Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins were given a lie detector test he would say that this trade improved Memphis' chances to win a championship this season? Simmons loves the "stat gurus" and the "stat gurus" hate Gay's game but trying to pretend that the Grizzlies are beating the Thunder because of this bad trade hardly lends credence to the "stat guru" point of view; it just shows that "stat gurus" can be every bit as biased/tendentious as anyone else who is blindly loyal to a particular point of view regardless of contradictory facts.
The Gay trade did not make basketball sense and even if the Westbrook injury lets the Grizzlies off the hook in this round--which it probably will--the Grizzlies will miss Gay in the next round. The Grizziles ranked 27th in the league in scoring (93.4 ppg) and 21st in field goal percentage (.444)--and they are struggling to match those numbers against the Thunder but the Thunder are so offensively challenged sans Westbrook that the Grizzlies are able to keep the upper hand.
Not only is Simmons wrong about the Gay trade--something that will become even more clear next round and in the years to come--but he was also wrong about the deal that actually turned the Grizzlies into a contender; when the Grizzlies wisely traded Pau Gasol to the L.A. Lakers for Marc Gasol, Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie and two first round draft picks, Simmons scoffed, "How was the Gasol trade legal? If I kill my mailman and no one ever finds out, does that make it legal? Jerry West's old team (Memphis) gift-wrapped its best player for the team that once employed West for 40 years, taking back a pupu platter (Kwame Brown, a third-string guard and two crappy picks)." Even if all the Grizzlies had received was Marc Gasol, the deal still would have been good--Marc Gasol is an All-Star and he won the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award--but one of those first round picks became Greivis Vasquez, who the Grizzlies traded for Quincy Pondexter; Pondexter is averaging 9.0 ppg versus the Thunder while leading Memphis in three point field goals made, which means that he literally is almost twice as productive as anyone who the Grizzlies received in the Gay trade! The larger point is that the Grizzlies figured out that a Pau Gasol-led team would never win a championship, so they started over and put together a deep, flexible roster; shedding Pau Gasol's contract provided the necessary financial flexibility to acquire Zach Randolph and make other moves as well. I was one of the few commentators who did not blast Memphis for trading Pau Gasol; I wrote, "Obviously, the Grizzlies have hit the reset button and are rebuilding from the ground up. To do that in the NBA, you need draft picks, salary cap room and young players. This deal provides all of those things to the Grizzlies. That does not mean that it will work, though; there are too many uncertainties: to name just a few, (1) has Brown peaked or can he still improve, (2) how good will Crittenton become, (3) how good will Marc Gasol be when he comes to the NBA, (4) who will Memphis choose with the newly acquired draft picks? All that can be said at the moment is that this is the right kind of move for Memphis to make, because there was no future for the team the way it was composed prior to this deal. In an odd way, there is a slight similarity between what Memphis is doing now and what the Lakers did with Shaq several years ago; the Grizzlies are getting rid of their best player and taking a short term step backwards with the hope of being better off long term, while the Lakers are shedding some youth in order to make a championship run now." I did not know if Memphis' plan would work--no one has that kind of crystal ball--but I knew that Memphis had made the best possible choice after realizing that Pau Gasol is not a franchise player. The critical difference between the Gasol trade and the Gay trade is that the former broke up a non-contending team with the long term plan of building a contender while the latter weakened the roster of a team that could realistically contend for the Western Conference crown right now.
"Stat gurus" love Pau Gasol's game and they hate Rudy Gay's game, so Simmons will mock the Pau Gasol trade until the end of time and he will tout the brilliance of the Gay trade even when Memphis is struggling to score 80-85 points next round versus San Antonio (I realize that I worked a few assumptions into that sentence but if the Grizzlies eliminate the Thunder then they will struggle to score against whoever they face in the Western Conference Finals). Real science is based on stating a testable hypothesis and then experimentally testing that hypothesis. We have seen Pau Gasol-led Memphis teams go 0-12 in the playoffs. We have seen Pau Gasol be a solid second option on two Laker championship teams. We have seen Marc Gasol become a better, more physical player than his younger brother. We have seen Memphis become a better team than the Lakers in no small part because of the Gasol-Gasol trade. We have seen Memphis get virtually no production from the small forward position since the Gay trade and yet survive so far in the playoffs due to favorable matchups (overrated Clippers in the first round, injury-depleted Thunder in the second round). Any scientifically-inclined "stat guru" or "stat guru" acolyte should concede that Pau Gasol is not as valuable as the "stat gurus" thought he was in 2008 and that--at the very least--it is too soon to say that Memphis benefited from trading Gay; only if the Grizzlies can win a playoff series against a full strength championship contender can it be said that the Gay trade worked (and if that happens--without extenuating circumstances such as injuries or suspensions--then I will revise my hypothesis, because I actually adhere to scientific reasoning, unlike the "stat gurus" who are blindly married to their personal biases).
Barry's comment is ridiculous, too. Kevin Durant's game blossomed right after the Thunder fired Carlesimo and replaced him with Scott Brooks; the first thing that Brooks did is move Durant back to his comfort zone at small forward. Yes, Durant is now a multifaceted veteran who can operate from all over the court but the last thing that Durant needed as a rookie and as a second year player was to learn a new position when he was just trying to become adjusted to playing in the NBA. Brooks, a former player, understood that even though Carlesimo did not; I had good reason to predict prior to the 2013 playoffs that Carlesimo would be outcoached by Tom Thibodeau and that Carlesimo's Nets would lose most of the close games in their series versus the Bulls (the Bulls went 4-1 in games decided by eight points or less and the Nets fired Carlesimo after the injury-depleted Bulls won the seventh game in Brooklyn).
Most former players--including Jon's brother Brent--provide interesting insights based on their experiences in the league but this is not the first time that Jon has said something that made no sense: last year he ranked Paul Millsap and Ryan Anderson as top five power forwards and a few years ago he teamed up with Mike Wilbon to declare that the Lakers are better off when Kobe Bryant shoots less frequently. There are many refutations of that nonsensical assertion, including footage from the Lakers' 4-0 loss to the Spurs in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. Bryant did not shoot at all during that series--he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury after carrying the Lakers into the playoffs--and the Lakers endured their worst playoff defeat in franchise history.
One of the best things about the competitive chess world is that, as former U.S. Champion Stuart Rachels put it, "...there is no issue about determining who the experts are. In chess, the experts are the ones who win. In other artistic areas, experts are harder to discern, and so claims about perception and beauty are harder to verify." Sadly, this is not the case in the writing business or the television business; anyone who knows the "right" people can get hired and be presented to the world as an "expert," even if what he writes/says makes no sense. Dr. Emanuel Lasker, the World Chess Champion from 1894-1921, stated this truth even more directly: "On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."
posted by David Friedman @ 4:16 AM