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Monday, May 13, 2013

The Difference Between Being the Third Option and Being the First Option

The San Antonio-Golden State series has been very entertaining and has provided some great drama, including two overtime games. Each team has won once at home and once on the road, resulting in a 2-2 tie and a best of three denouement with the Spurs regaining homecourt advantage. Many storylines have emerged: Stephen Curry has played at an All-NBA level, Tim Duncan seems to have turned back the hands of time and Andrew Bogut (who only played in 32 of 82 regular season games) has played in all 10 of Golden State's playoff games, grabbing at least 11 rebounds in each of the Warriors' last five contests.

Perhaps the most intriguing storyline, though, concerns Manu Ginobili. Ginobili only participated in 60 regular season games this season and he is, at best, the Spurs' third offensive option. When Manu Ginobili scores 14 points in a half--as he did during the San Antonio's 97-87 overtime loss to Golden State on Sunday--he is a hero and a spark plug; when he is not making his shots the Spurs look elsewhere for scoring punch. As an injury prone third option, Ginobili is not expected to put up big scoring totals on a nightly basis; he can be the hero--like when he hit the game-winning shot in the series opener--but, no matter how poorly he plays, he will not be the goat unless he makes a serious mental error during a crucial possession down the stretch: in contrast, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are expected to be highly productive every game and a team's first option (Parker and Duncan are options 1A and 1B for the Spurs) cannot have an off half, much less an off game. The first option is the focal point of his team's offense and the main concern for the opposing team's defense.

During his prime, Ginobili could have been the first option scorer for many teams--but not for a legit championship contender; the Spurs prefer to split the scoring load almost equally among their top three players but even when Ginobili led the team in scoring average (barely) in 2007-08 he attempted fewer shots and had a much lower field goal percentage than both Duncan and Parker. Ginobili could have left the Spurs to chase after more money, a full-time starting position, more field goal attempts and a higher scoring average but he chose to stay with the Spurs.

James Harden made a different choice last offseason, opting for more money and--he presumes--more glory; he refused to accept less than a max deal from the Oklahoma City Thunder, thus forcing the Thunder to trade him to Houston, where Harden discovered--especially in the playoffs--that there is a big difference between scoring 15-16 points against reserve players and/or tired starters and scoring well over 20 points game after game when the opposing team's defense is designed to stop you. Harden's scoring average soared in Houston but his efficiency plummeted, his arrival in Houston had little effect in the standings and he laid enough bricks in Houston's first round loss to build a new arena.

Ginobili has won three NBA championships so far and he has earned two All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections and the 2008 Sixth Man Award; combined with his stellar FIBA career, those honors and accomplishments may be enough for Ginobili to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Harden won the Sixth Man Award in 2012 and if he had stayed in Oklahoma City he likely would have earned at least one All-Star nod. Even if he and the Thunder would not have beaten Miami this season or next season, time would have been on their side; the young Thunder would have peaked just as the Heat's core players entered their 30s and started to decline.

Is getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs every year as "The Man" better than being the third option on a perennial championship contender? Ginobili has no reason to regret his answer to that question; five years from now it will be interesting to reevaluate Harden's answer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM

15 comments

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15 Comments:

At Monday, May 13, 2013 11:08:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

That's the scary thing about the OKC situation. Durant, Westbrook and Harden would have been a force in the western conference for the next decade avoiding injury.

The things you are saying about Harden is the same you have been saying about Pau Gasol.
Gasol was hyped up as a franchise guy when he came to the Lakers and helpedd them win two titles. I found out not long ago that Pau was never selected on a all nba team when he was with the Grizzlies. He was only selected as an all star just once Memphis which is a shocker.So it's true that he didn't all of a sudden become better.

You have some good points about Harden. But I think a little more time before I can say if Harden can be the.man on a title team.

Do you think Stephan Curry can be the best player on a title team?

 
At Monday, May 13, 2013 4:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

Yes, the Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio could have been very formidable for several years--but Durant and Westbrook plus that supporting cast will still be formidable once Westbrook returns.

Yes, Pau Gasol and James Harden are similar because they are both better suited to being second or third options. I just wrote an article about that subject.

Harden is young enough that perhaps he could develop into a franchise player but (1) I am skeptical that this will happen and (2) the Rockets paid him as if he is a franchise player right now and they have built their team as if he is such a player.

I love Curry's game and I put him on my All-NBA Third Team after picking Harden over Curry for the All-Star team; Harden had a better first half of the season but Curry really came on down the stretch and had a better season overall.

That said, Curry's size and lack of durability argue against him being the best player on a championship team. How many 6-3 guards with bad ankles have led teams to championships? For that matter, how many 6-3 guards with good ankles have led teams to championships? Size matters in the NBA, as I have mentioned many times. That is why even though I think very highly of Chris Paul I don't think that he can be the best player on a championship team; that is why even though I think highly of Steve Nash I never thought that he was the best player in the NBA or worthy of winning MVPs over the likes of legit franchise players such as Shaq and Kobe.

 
At Tuesday, May 14, 2013 2:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE Curry winning a title as The Man
Isiah Thomas comes to mind. Definitely the best player on the Pistons during his time. I have not watched much footage of the Pistons during the late 80s/early 90s but they were a very good defensive team right?
Does having Bogut on the inside protecting the paint along with rangy perimeter defenders like Klay (6'6 I believe or at least looks like it) at the shooting guard position ( and Jack plays serviceable D and is built) and Barnes (good length, athleticism) at the forward constitute enough defensive parts to contain quick wing players such as those on the Heat and Thunder (when healthy)?
Size that is fast on the perimeter seems to be a rare commodity.
As a Laker fan it is brutal to watch Steve Nash/Steve Blake be abused in the post due to their skinny frames while also being blown by. At least with Fisher guard at his position could post him up.
JS

 
At Tuesday, May 14, 2013 5:03:00 AM, Anonymous Jamie said...

The one thing you don't mention was the exact dollar figure difference between the OKC offer and what he got with Houston.

How many millions was it?

It's all very easy for us to say "well, he's already got X million in the bank/guaranteed, he should ignore an offer of Y more million".

It's very easy for us to scoff at the millionaire wanting more millions but put in the same situation a large percentage of people would do exactly the same.

 
At Tuesday, May 14, 2013 1:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My understanding (maybe wrong) is that Harden's agent asked OKC to insert a no-trade clause into their offer, and they wouldn't. Only at that point did Harden choose to go to Houston.

I think it's asking a lot of any young player to expect him to take a long-term, below-market deal with no assurance that he won't simply be traded to (and stuck in), say, Sacramento should a trade line up advantageously for OKC in the future.

I also don't see why it's a bad thing to try to stretch yourself and be the leader of a team. In other professions, we praise people for trying to make more of themselves, to push their limits, to find the full extent of their potential. Maybe it will work out and maybe it won't. And there's merit, too, to staying on a championship caliber team and making a smaller contribution. But there seems to be a weird tone of reproach in your writing about Harden which I'm at pains to understand.

 
At Tuesday, May 14, 2013 6:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Yes, Isiah Thomas--one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players--led his team to two championships. He is the one and only exception to the rule that championship teams are either anchored by a dominant big man or a highly skilled, versatile 6-6 or bigger all-around player (MJ, Kobe, LeBron). The other two outlier cases are the 1979 Sonics and the 2004 Pistons, teams that won with a deep cast of All-Star caliber performers but did not have a dominant post player or an MVP caliber 6-6 all-around player.

 
At Tuesday, May 14, 2013 6:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jamie:

Manu Ginobili turned down the chance to leave San Antonio for more money/more glory and that has worked out well for him.

 
At Tuesday, May 14, 2013 6:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I had not heard about the supposed dispute regarding a no-trade clause. My understanding is that the main issue was purely financial.

OKC was not offering a below market deal; Houston overpaid Harden to lure him away, much like other teams have overpaid players either to keep them or to lure them away from their original teams. I know that you could argue that the market value is whatever at least one team will pay but I believe that over the course of the contract it will become evident that Houston overpaid. We have already seen some evidence this season; Houston's record hardly improved despite adding a so-called "foundational player," OKC did not miss Harden at all during the regular season and Harden struggled mightily in the playoffs as the first option. All of those trends will continue unless the Rockets are able to pair Harden with a legit franchise player--but if they spend the money to do that then there may not be enough money left to build the rest of the roster.

 
At Wednesday, May 15, 2013 5:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

As for my "weird tone of reproach," it would be more accurate to say that I am using cool logic to defy "stat guru" bleating that has been blindly accepted by far too many people. The Rockets' performance during the Morey era does not at all suggest that Morey has decoded some secret, superior method of basketball analysis--and I am much less impressed by the Harden signing than many other people apparently are. I have never seen such a fuss made about a very good--but not great--player who led his team to the eighth seed and a first round loss in the playoffs.

In previous years, I defied the prevailing winds about Gilbert Arenas and the Shaq trade and the Gasol-Gasol trade--and, in each case, my take ultimately proved to be correct.

 
At Thursday, May 16, 2013 10:57:00 PM, Blogger ChowNoir said...

Harden had the second highest FG% of his career in his first year as a 1st option.

And although he put up a lot of bricks in the OKC series, as a shot creator he forced the D to account for him a lot and give his teammates better looks. The D had to account for him.

I think Harden has a lot to prove but your criticism is off base.

 
At Thursday, May 16, 2013 11:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ChowNoir:

Your comment is very deceptive. Harden has only played four NBA seasons. He shot .403 from the field as a rookie, .436 in his second year, .491 in his third year and then .438 last season. Yes, .438 is his second highest FG% but it is also a steep decline from his 2012 performance as OKC's third option. It is obvious that he is much better suited to being a third option than to being a first option; Harden is likely better mentally and physically now than he was in 2012 but his efficiency went down because he just is not fully equipped to be a franchise player.

Harden's FG% dipped to .391 in the playoffs. He does not attract defenders the way that LeBron and Kobe do because Harden's game is not nearly as complete; Harden either shoots threes or tries to bull his way into the lane but he rarely posts up or shoots midrange jumpers. The Thunder very effectively guarded him by running him off of the three point line and then either blocking his shots in the paint or else drawing charges. The Thunder committed some silly fouls on Harden but even after giving him some free points that way they still contained him overall.

If Harden were as effective creating shots for his teammates as you suggest then Houston's won-loss record would have improved much more dramatically. The Rockets added Harden, Asik and Lin plus Parsons improved and yet the Rockets' won-loss record was not that much better than it was in 2012.

 
At Sunday, May 19, 2013 3:01:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Harden was never the first option before this season and Westbrook has never been the first option in his entire career. Curry is a first option now but the team is not a championship contender.

I'm also sure Harden, Westbrook and Curry would be great third options on a stacked team.

I would consider Harden, Westbrook, and Curry to be among the top ~25 players in the NBA who are miles away from being as good as Lebron. Not sure why there is so much argument over who's a "Top 5 player". The gap between #1 (Lebron) and #5 is much bigger than the gap between #5 and #25, as far as I can tell.

 
At Monday, May 20, 2013 4:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Westbrook has been an All-NBA caliber performer for the best team in the West. Harden, in his first year as a starter, put up numbers a la Gilbert Arenas/Monta Ellis but he had little discernible impact on Houston's record and he was very inefficient in the playoffs.

Westbrook has already been a great 1b option on an elite team and he is clearly better--at both ends of the court--than Curry and Harden.

If we say that Westbrook is number five and whoever is the "worst" All-Star is number 25 then I cannot agree with you that LeBron James is further ahead of Westbrook than Westbrook is ahead of number 25. Westbrook is a franchise player and he performs at an MVP level; yes, James performs at an all-time great level but there is a big difference between Westbrook and whoever you care to nominate as the "worst" All-Star.

 
At Monday, May 20, 2013 5:55:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

The name I hear most often as being "about #25" or the "worst All-Star" is Carmelo Anthony.

I'd have to say that the gap between Lebron and between these two players is a chasm compared to the gap between Westbrook and Anthony.

 
At Monday, May 20, 2013 11:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Many people considered Anthony to be a top five MVP candidate this year, though I am sure you realize that I am not one of those people.

Whoever we nominate as the "worst All-Star," I disagree with your premise that LeBron James is further ahead of Westbrook than Westbrook is ahead of that player.

The top five or six players--the true franchise players--are a cut above the other All-Stars. LeBron James is the best of the elite, taking over that mantle from Kobe Bryant in 2009, but any of those other elite players could also lead a team to a title; the "worst All-Star" could not lead a team to a title.

 

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