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Friday, April 19, 2013

2012-13 Playoff Predictions

The defending champion Miami Heat got off to a relatively slow start before authoring an incredible winning streak--their 27 straight victories rank second only to the 1972 L.A. Lakers' 33 game winning streak--and finishing with a 66-16 record. The Heat are just the 14th professional basketball team to win at least 66 games during the regular season; nine of the previous 13 such squads won the championship:

1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers 68-13 Won Championship
1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks 66-16 Won Championship
1971-72 L.A. Lakers 69-13 Won Championship
1971-72 Kentucky Colonels (ABA) 68-16 Lost in Eastern Division Semifinals
1972-73 Boston Celtics 68-14 Lost in Eastern Conference Finals
1985-86 Boston Celtics 67-15 Won Championship
1991-92 Chicago Bulls 67-15 Won Championship
1995-96 Chicago Bulls 72-10 Won Championship
1996-97 Chicago Bulls 69-13 Won Championship
1999-00 L.A. Lakers 67-15 Won Championship
2006-07 Dallas Mavericks 67-15 Lost in First Round
2007-08 Boston Celtics 66-16 Won Championship
2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers 66-16 Lost in Eastern Conference Finals

The 1972 Colonels fell in six games to the New York Nets in one of the biggest upsets in pro basketball history. John Havlicek's shoulder injury doomed the 1973 Celtics against a powerful New York team that had won the 1970 title and that won the 1973 title after defeating the Celtics. In 2007, Don Nelson outcoached Avery Johnson as Nelson's Golden State Warriors upset Nelson's former team, the Dallas Mavericks. A dominant Dwight Howard surrounded by several great three point shooters took out LeBron James and the 2009 Cavaliers.

What does this little history lesson mean? Unless the Heat suffer a serious injury to a key player or LeBron James reverts to his puzzling 2010/2011 playoff form, the Heat will follow in the footsteps of most other 66 win teams and they will capture the NBA championship.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2013 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Miami (66-16) vs. #8 Milwaukee (38-44)

Season series: Miami, 3-1

Milwaukee can win if...their guards break the Heat down for layups and kickout passes to three point shooters and if Larry Sanders deters LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from attacking the hoop--nah, even if all of that happens it probably will only be enough to prevent a sweep. Milwaukee's only real chance is if LeBron James gets hurt and/or the Heat are completely unfocused.

Miami will win because...the Heat have the vastly superior team. What more needs to be said?

Other things to consider: LeBron James established himself as the best regular season player in the NBA in 2009 but he still had weaknesses in his skill set, problems that were repeatedly exposed during postseason play against elite teams: his shot selection was questionable, his outside shot was erratic, he did not post up as well or as often as he should and he inexplicably quit versus Boston in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals and against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas. Now, James does not have problems--he is a problem, at least for opposing teams. His shot selection has vastly improved, his outside shot is no longer a weakness, he has become a willing and efficient post player and he delivered numerous clutch performances in the 2012 NBA playoffs, culminating with his masterful effort against Oklahoma City in the 2012 NBA Finals.

#2 New York (54-28) vs. #7 Boston (41-40)

Season series: New York, 3-1

Boston can win if...Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry are rejuvenated by the Hot Tub Time Machine. The Celtics must slow the game down, attack the Knicks in the paint both to score and to create foul trouble and then defensively the Celtics must contain the Knicks' three point shooters without permitting Carmelo Anthony to explode for 35-40 points.

New York will win because...the Celtics are neither fearsome enough defensively nor dynamic enough offensively to beat the Knicks in a seven game series.

Other things to consider: New York Coach Mike Woodson has used an interesting formula to lift his squad above every team in the East except Miami: low turnover rate plus prolific three point shooting plus isolation scoring delivered by Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith plus strong defense/heady leadership supplied by Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd. The Celtics must find a way to disrupt several of those elements but that will be a tall task for an aging, injury-depleted team.

#3 Indiana (49-32) vs. #6 Atlanta (44-38)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Atlanta can win if...the Hawks make a concerted effort to intelligently and aggressively attack Indiana's suffocating defense.

Indiana will win because...the Pacers are bigger, stronger, tougher and more focused.

Other things to consider: The Hawks have been stuck in NBA no-man's land for several years; they are good enough to consistently make the playoffs but they lack the talent/focus to be a legit contender.

#4 Brooklyn (49-33) vs. #5 Chicago (45-37)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Brooklyn can win if...Brook Lopez dominates the paint while Deron Williams and Joe Johnson control the perimeter. Unless Derrick Rose comes back and plays at an MVP level, the Nets have more talent than the Bulls.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls' defense will hold Williams and Johnson to low field goal percentages without allowing Lopez to pick up the slack.

Other things to consider: This series features a huge coaching mismatch. TNT's Kenny Smith says that if a team loses by more than five points then blame the players but if it loses by less than five points blame the coach; the games in this series figure to be low scoring and close and I trust Chicago's Tom Thibodeau much more than I trust Brooklyn's P. J. Carlesimo; this is not just about in-game adjustments but also about elements of preparation that give one team an edge over another. 

Western Conference First Round

#1 Oklahoma City (60-22) vs. #8 Houston (45-37)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 2-1

Houston can win if...the Rockets shoot an extremely high three point percentage and are able to generate a large number of fast break points by forcing turnovers.

Oklahoma City will win because...the Thunder have two of the league's top five players, a deep, well-balanced roster and an excellent system implemented by an outstanding coach.

Other things to consider: The Rockets paid max money to lure James Harden away from the Thunder but the Thunder improved their winning percentage almost as much as the Rockets improved theirs. Harden's modus operandi primarily consists of either jacking up long jumpers or else barreling into the paint and throwing his body into defenders to draw a foul call; when he is hitting his jumper and/or getting a favorable whistle he can put up huge numbers but when his jumper is off and he meets resistance in the paint his scoring plummets and his turnovers soar. Harden does not post up often, nor does he do much from the midrange area, so the correct defensive philosophy against him is to run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint with either shot blockers and/or players who are willing to take charges. Last year, Harden's productivity and efficiency progressively dropped off in each round of the playoffs and that pattern is likely to repeat itself in this series, with Harden failing to match his regular season numbers; Harden may erupt for one big game but overall he is likely to shoot a low percentage and commit a high number of turnovers against the Thunder if they execute the defensive game plan described above.

#2 San Antonio (58-24) vs. #7 L.A. Lakers (45-37)

Season series: San Antonio, 2-1

L.A. can win if...Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol dominate the paint. The Lakers lack depth, perimeter shooting and a wing player who can create shots for himself/other players so they must rely on their Twin Towers to be very productive at both ends of the court.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs are deeper, more consistent and better coached than the Lakers. The Spurs will not beat themselves with silly turnovers or by giving up a parade of uncontested layups.

Other things to consider: I am going to channel Yoda here: "For a long time these Lakers I have watched. Always their minds are on their contracts or their past or their future--never on where they are now, on who they are playing. A true champion does not think of such things. A champion must have the most serious mind and the highest level of dedication. They are careless. They lack focus."

I don't trust the Lakers. I don't trust Coach D'Antoni's no-defense philosophy, I don't trust the bench players, I don't trust Pau Gasol's ability to be the number one offensive option with Kobe Bryant out of the lineup and I don't completely trust Dwight Howard's health, though Howard has looked much better since the All-Star break. I absolutely do not trust the Lakers to play intelligently in the waning moments of a close game.

The Lakers literally ran Kobe Bryant into the ground in order to barely qualify for the playoffs--congratulations, guys, on winning two games in a row without Bryant after he wrecked his body in order to turn around a season nearly derailed by what ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy rightly called the "deplorable" lack of effort displayed by Howard and Gasol in the first 40 games or so.

Yes, the Spurs are a better matchup for the Lakers than the Thunder.

No, the Lakers do not have a realistic chance to win this series.

Unless Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are completely incapacitated by injuries, the Spurs will cruise past the Lakers even without Manu Ginobili.

#3 Denver (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State (47-35)

Season series: Denver, 3-1

Golden State can win if...the Warriors bury the Nuggets under a barrage of three pointers.

Denver will win because...the Nuggets are athletic and deep. Even without Danilo Gallinari (who suffered a season-ending knee injury), the Nuggets still come at their opponents in waves. The Nuggets play an uptempo game just like the Warriors do but the Nuggets run for dunks and layups while the Warriors run for three pointers.

Other things to consider: The Warriors have a puncher's chance because of their great shooting, David Lee's underrated impact and the Nuggets' injuries but ultimately Denver's athleticism and experience will prevail.

#4 L.A. Clippers (56-26) vs. #5 Memphis (56-26)

Season series: L.A. Clippers, 3-1

L.A. can win if...Chris Paul and Blake Griffin dominate in the half court set and the Clippers pay attention to detail defensively.

Memphis will win because...the Grizzlies will slow the game down and turn this series into a grind it out battle.

Other things to consider: The Grizzlies blew a huge lead at home versus the Clippers in game one of last season's playoffs, lost game three by one point and lost game four in overtime but still bounced back to force a seventh game at home; the Grizzlies led that contest by one after three quarters before being outscored by 11 points in the final stanza. The Grizzlies looked like the better team for significant portions of that series but still lost; this time around they are healthier and more experienced and they will beat the Clippers.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Miami-Chicago, New York-Indiana, Oklahoma City-Memphis, and San Antonio-Denver. If the Bulls can get their whole roster on the court to face the Heat then this could be an intriguing series but with Derrick Rose out of action and other players battling nagging injuries Chicago does not have enough firepower to deal with Miami. The Pacers are more physical and more defensive-minded than the Knicks, two factors that are very important in the playoffs. Regardless of what many people have said, the deeper the Grizzlies advance in the playoffs the more they will miss Rudy Gay's scoring ability; the Grizzlies do not have enough scoring punch to beat the Thunder. Recently, the Spurs have had some great regular seasons only to prove vulnerable in the playoffs and if Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy then that will be the case again this year versus Denver--but I expect the Spurs to win in seven games to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

Indiana has the size and toughness to challenge Miami but if the Pacers could not knock out a wounded Heat squad after taking a 2-1 lead last season then why should we believe that the Pacers are going to beat a healthy Heat team that now has championship confidence? The Spurs will be a tough, crafty opponent for the Thunder but the one-two punch of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will once again overwhelm the Spurs.

The Finals rematch will be intriguing. The Thunder are hungry to win their first ring but the Heat are just as hungry to establish themselves as an all-time great team. The Thunder have the necessary parts to beat the Heat but do they have the right mindset? The Heat just seem to have the Thunder's number. The 2013 Finals will be more competitive than the 2012 Finals but LeBron James is on a mission and he will lead Miami to a second consecutive title.

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Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2012-2013 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of this season's playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2012-2013 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 50/64 in the East and 51/64 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .789.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 84/120 (.700)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past eight years I have correctly picked eight of the 16 NBA Finals participants (I missed both teams in 2011 and 2012, I missed Boston in 2010 and Orlando in 2009 and I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those eight years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:46 AM

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Who Should Win the 2013 NBA Awards?

Media members vote for every individual regular season NBA award except for the All-Defensive Team (chosen by the NBA head coaches) and the Executive of the Year (selected by NBA executives). Some media members seem to be swayed by certain narratives--either narratives that they created and thus do not want to contradict or else emerging narratives that they would like to promote--while other media members have been seduced by "advanced basketball statistics." Two years ago, I explained my philosophy about selecting NBA award winners:

I prefer to select award winners based on a logical analysis of all relevant factors, including statistics, observation of games (a heretical act according to at least some "stat gurus") and historical context; using logical analysis does not mean that I am always right or that I have successfully removed any traces of unconscious bias but it does mean that I value being right over being popular and that I have done my best to render unbiased judgments.

Here is my take on the 2012-2013 NBA regular season awards:

MVP

1) LeBron James
2) Kevin Durant
3) Kobe Bryant
4) Russell Westbrook
5) Chris Paul

This race may be the biggest landslide since Ronald Reagan obliterated Walter Mondale in 1984. LeBron James is by far the best player in the NBA; other players had MVP caliber seasons but no one matched James' productivity, versatility and efficiency. James has already won three regular season MVPs, so it is remarkable that he has continued to elevate his game. His skill set improvements--most notably, better shot selection, the development of a consistent outside shot and the refinement of his post up game--are significant but James' most impressive transformation is the way that he changed his mindset; James is much more focused and much calmer.

Kevin Durant is another great player who is improving; his shooting percentages and assist average went up, his rebounding remained steady and his turnovers declined slightly. Durant joined the exclusive 50/40/90 club, shooting .510 from the field, .416 from three point range and a league-best .905 from the free throw line. He failed to become just the third player in NBA history to win at least four straight scoring titles but he is still the most potent and versatile offensive threat in the league; Durant is a more efficient scorer than 2013 scoring champion Carmelo Anthony.

Due to the L.A. Lakers' disappointing season, Kobe Bryant may not finish in the top five in the official balloting but instead of penalizing Bryant for his teammates' shortcomings the voters should acknowledge that, despite his advanced age and his 50,000-plus career minutes played, Bryant had one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Bryant battled a host of injuries even prior to suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon tear but he still had one of his most efficient shooting seasons, he tied his career-high with a 6.0 apg average and he is still an excellent rebounder (5.6 rpg, ranking first among guards and topping most of the league's small forwards as well). Even though Bryant's defense is not as consistently great as it was during his prime, he showed that he can stay in front of younger, quicker point guards and that he can still play the passing lanes very well (1.4 spg). In a "normal" season--i.e., a season without James' superhuman performance and a season in which the Lakers posted their typical 50-plus wins--Bryant would be battling Durant for MVP honors.

Russell Westbrook may be the most underrated player in the NBA--and he is almost certainly the most underrated great player. Westbrook is a deadly scorer (he ranked sixth in the league in scoring with a 23.2 ppg average), an excellent passer (he ranked eighth in the league in assists with a 7.4 apg average), the best point guard rebounder (5.2 rpg) and an outstanding defensive player. He is fast and quick (there is a difference--the former refers to straight line speed, while the latter refers to the ability to deftly maneuver in short bursts in small spaces) and he is strong. Tim Grover thinks that Westbrook's best attribute is that he is "100% fearless." Westbrook is poised to inherit Bryant's unenviable role as the great player most likely to be senselessly criticized by the media; it will be very surprising if the voters are smart enough to place Westbrook in the top five in the MVP race.

Chris Paul might finish as high as second in the MVP voting and he is an absolute lock for a top five slot. The narrative of Paul as a "culture changer" is irresistible for most media members--and the fact that Paul is a normal-sized person going head to head against giants probably also adds to his popularity. There is no doubt that Paul is a great player who had a great season but it is baffling that so many people rank him higher than great players who are significantly bigger. Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA and is not coincidental that Isiah Thomas is the only "small" player who led a team to an NBA championship. Paul is in many ways the 21st century Isiah Thomas but it remains to be seen if he can be the best player on a championship team. If Paul were swapped straight up for the four players listed above none of those teams would be better, while the Clippers would be at least as good--if not better--in such a hypothetical scenario. James and Durant are so much bigger and better than Paul that the comparison does not even make sense. Many people may assume that the Lakers would benefit from Paul's passing but even when Bryant went into full Steve Nash mode as a passer the Lakers still struggled because so many of their players missed wide open shots. Media evaluations of passing ability and unselfishness are laughably subjective; Paul is praised when Blake Griffin plays well but Paul is not criticized when Griffin has bad stretches, while Bryant and Westbrook are not praised when their teammates play well but they are criticized when their teammates play poorly. If Paul is largely responsible for Griffin's good performances then, logically, isn't Paul also largely responsible for Griffin's bad performances? NBA halftime shows are hilarious: if Pau Gasol goes 1-5 from the field in the first half then you can expect to hear a dissertation about Bryant's selfish gunning but if Blake Griffin goes 1-5 from the field in the first half then you can expect to hear that Griffin must be more aggressive and assertive.

Paul has better shot selection than Westbrook but Westbrook is bigger, more explosive and much more durable. I will be surprised if Paul wins more NBA championships than Westbrook--at least during the time frame when both players are performing at an All-NBA caliber level (there is no way to predict how many rings a player might win in the latter stages of his career if he accepts a reduced role).

Rookie of the Year

1) Damian Lillard
2) Anthony Davis
3) Bradley Beal

All of the Draft Day hype focused on Anthony Davis but once the season started it quickly became apparent that Damian Lillard is by far the league's best rookie. Lillard performed at an All-Star caliber level (19.0 ppg, 6.5 apg, 3.1 rpg) but it is very difficult for a guard to make the Western Conference All-Star team--particularly a first year guard on a non-playoff team. Lillard looks like a player who will become a perennial All-Star as his game matures and his team improves. The only other rookies who averaged at least 19 ppg and at least six apg are Oscar Robertson, Damon Stoudamire and Allen Iverson.

Davis is already a solid big man and perhaps he will develop into a dominant player but right now his statistics and impact resemble Dikembe Mutombo, not Bill Russell; it is not an insult to be compared with Mutombo, who had a long and distinguished career, but many commentators pumped up Davis as a multifaceted franchise player.

Bradley Beal improved throughout his rookie campaign and his numbers will continue to increase if he and backcourt mate John Wall both stay healthy next season.

Defensive Player of the Year

1) Roy Hibbert
2) LeBron James
3) Serge Ibaka

The first time that I saw Roy Hibbert play in person, I wrote, "Hibbert's game is eccentric: he has a big body and a soft shooting touch near the hoop but his moves are so mechanical and stilted that his lumbering gait reminds me of Anakin Skywalker taking his first halting steps after being entombed in the Darth Vader suit." Hibbert's offensive game is still awkward-looking but this season he emerged as a defensive force, ranking fourth in the NBA in blocked shots (2.61 bpg) and helping his Indiana Pacers lead the league in defensive field goal percentage (.420).

LeBron James is nominally a power forward but at this point his game defies conventional positional designations; my comments about LeBron James in last year's awards article are still valid: "LeBron James is the only player in the NBA who can defend all five positions. He excels as both a one on one defender and as a help defender. He has made huge strides since his early days as a subpar defensive player."

Serge Ibaka led the NBA in blocked shots (3.03 bpg) for the second year in a row and he led the league in total blocked shots (242) for the third year in a row. His paint presence is a major reason that the Oklahoma City Thunder ranked second in defensive field goal percentage (.425).

Sixth Man of the Year

1) Kevin Martin
2) J.R. Smith
3) Jamal Crawford

After James Harden won the Sixth Man of the Year award last season he emerged as an All-Star--and likely an All-NBA selection--this season in Houston. Kevin Martin faced a lot of pressure stepping into Harden's shoes but neither he nor the Oklahoma City Thunder missed a beat; Martin more than capably filled Harden's role as a big-time scorer and the Thunder posted the best record in the Western Conference after finishing second in the West in 2011-12. J.R. Smith (18.1 ppg) and Jamal Crawford (16.5 ppg) scored more points than Martin (14.0 ppg) but Martin is a key contributor on a team that seems poised to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. Martin is a very efficient scorer: Martin ranked 10th in the league in three point field goal percentage (.426), he ranked fourth in free throw percentage (.890) and he had a better overall field goal percentage (.450) than Smith (.422) and Crawford (.438). Martin has averaged at least 20 ppg in six different seasons--although several of them were injury-shortened campaigns--so the difference between his scoring average and the scoring averages posted by Smith and Crawford does not really prove that Smith and Crawford are better scorers.

Smith will almost certainly be given this award by the media and a very good case can be made in his favor; he set career-highs in scoring and rebounding (5.3 rpg) and he played a major role in New York's rise in the Eastern Conference standings.

Crawford is the third leading scorer for the Pacific Division champion L.A. Clippers. He does not provide much playmaking or defense but he is very difficult to guard because he is equally adept at driving to the hoop and at firing away from long distance.

Jarrett Jack should receive some consideration; he is Golden State's fourth leading scorer (12.9 ppg) and second leading playmaker (5.5 apg).

Most Improved Player

1) Paul George
2) Jrue Holiday
3) Greivis Vasquez

Paul George elevated himself from solid starter to All-Star, emerging as the best player on a very good Indiana team. The same can be said of Philadelphia's Jrue Holiday but George gets the nod because he is a better two-way player while Holiday's impact is primarily felt on offense. Greivis Vasquez only started 27 games in his first two seasons but he started all 78 games that he played in 2012-13, ranking third in the league in assists (9.0 apg).

Coach of the Year

1) Tom Thibodeau
2) Gregg Popovich
3) Erik Spoelstra

The Chicago Bulls suffered a parade of injuries--2011 MVP Derrick Rose sat out the entire season, while Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich missed significant playing time--and yet they still boasted a top 10 defense (ranking third in points allowed and 10th in defensive field goal percentage) and they still easily qualified for the playoffs. The injuries and the failure to re-sign key bench players like Omer Asik eliminated the team's depth but Tom Thibodeau's excellent coaching kept the Bulls in the mix and made them a dangerous team on any given night.

Gregg Popovich's record speaks for itself; he has won four championships and his Spurs always win at least 50 regular season games (even in the lockout-shortened 2012 campaign).

The Miami Heat are talented and deep but Erik Spoelstra has brought out the best in his players both individually and collectively. It is obvious that his players respect him because they consistently play hard and defend well.

New York's Mike Woodson, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks and Denver's George Karl also deserve mention.

Executive of the Year

1) Pat Riley
2) Masai Ujiri
3) Billy King

First Pat Riley assembled the "Big Three" and then he surrounded those stars with a well-blended array of three point shooters and defensive specialists. He also hired a great young coach and then stuck with that coach even after media critics urged/predicted that Riley fire Erik Spoelstra and take the reins himself.

Many NBA fans have probably never even heard of Denver's Masai Ujiri but he parlayed the disgruntled Carmelo Anthony into several very good players who have formed the nucleus for the squad that posted the best record (57-25) in the Nuggets' NBA history (the 1974-75 Nuggets went 65-19 in the ABA).

Brooklyn's Billy King re-signed Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and then added Joe Johnson to the mix, resulting in an improvement from 22-44 (.333) to 49-33 (.598), the franchise's best record since the 2005-06 team went 49-33.

Houston's Daryl Morey will receive a lot of votes and maybe he will even win the award. His Rockets went 34-32 in the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, which is equivalent to a 42-40 record in an 82 game season. In 2012-13, after the much celebrated signing of James Harden plus the acquisitions of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Rockets went 45-37. The Rockets are sporadic at best defensively and, because of the way the roster is constructed, they have to play an uptempo style that is unlikely to be effective in the playoffs. Morey's Rockets missed the playoffs each of the last three seasons but they squeaked in this season not so much because they have dramatically improved but rather because the Western Conference is not quite as strong as it has been recently; the Rockets' 2012-13 winning percentage would not have been good enough to qualify for the 2010 or 2011 playoffs and would have resulted in a dead heat for the eighth seed in 2012.

All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Russell Westbrook
C Brook Lopez
F LeBron James
F Kevin Durant

All-NBA Second Team
G Chris Paul
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F Tim Duncan
F Carmelo Anthony

All-NBA Third Team
G Tony Parker
G Stephen Curry
C Chris Bosh
F Blake Griffin
F David Lee

The NBA eliminated the center position from the All-Star ballot but, as far as I know, the All-NBA squad will still contain three centers. Brook Lopez is not a great rebounder but he is an excellent scorer and he has become a very strong defensive presence. Dwight Howard seemed to be operating at about 80% of his normal capacity for most of the season but he still finished first in rebounding (12.4 rpg), second in field goal percentage (.578) and fifth in blocked shots (2.45 bpg) while also averaging 17.1 ppg. It is tempting to place him on the First Team because there are no other dominant centers in the league but even though Howard's overall numbers are very good he had some clunker games and his lack of energy--ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that Howard and his teammate Pau Gasol played with a "deplorable" lack of effort early in the season--contributed to the Lakers' disappointing record. Chris Bosh's versatility at both ends of the court enables the Heat to employ the small lineup that causes fits for so many NBA teams. Marc Gasol had a solid season for a very good Memphis team but he simply is just not quite as productive as the three centers that I selected ahead of him. Here are the key numbers for the NBA's top four centers:

Brook Lopez: 19.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg, .521 FG%, 2.08 bpg

Dwight Howard: 17.1 ppg, 12.4 rpg, .578 FG%, 2.45 bpg

Chris Bosh: 16.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, .535 FG%, 1.36 bpg

Marc Gasol: 14.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .494 FG%, 1.74 bpg

James Harden had a very good season and he is going to be selected by the voters, probably to the Second Team--but even though the media is intrigued by his story and even though the "stat gurus" love Harden, his skill set is clearly not better than the skill sets possessed by Bryant, Westbrook, Paul and Wade. Add Tony Parker--a key player on the West's second best team--to the mix and there is only one guard spot left on my squad; I gave serious consideration to Harden--who I ranked ahead of Curry on my All-Star ballot--but Curry performed much better than Harden down the stretch so that became my tiebreaker in a close race.

All-Defensive First Team

G Tony Allen
G Thabo Sefolosha
C Roy Hibbert
F LeBron James
F Serge Ibaka

All-Defensive Second Team

G Chris Paul
G Russell Westbrook
C Larry Sanders
F Tim Duncan
F Paul George

This is the only award that is selected by the league's head coaches. "Stat gurus" and media members often criticize the coaches' choices but it is reasonable to assume that the coaches know which players wreak the most havoc defensively (and the coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players).

My selections tend to foreshadow the coaches' picks; in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 I chose eight of the 10 players selected by the coaches, while in 2011 I "only" matched six of the coaches' 10 honorees.

Positional designations are supposed to apply but many players play multiple positions.

Avery Bradley is widely touted as a lock for the All-Defensive Team but he only played in 50 games this season and I hesitate to select anyone for a postseason award if he participated in fewer than 65 games. It will be interesting to see how the coaches handle this situation.

Marc Gasol is a very good defensive player who has been mentioned as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate but he is not quite the shotblocking presence in the paint that Hibbert and Sanders are, so Gasol just misses the cut here, much like he narrowly missed the cut for my All-NBA squad.

All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position)

Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Bradley Beal
Dion Waiters
Harrison Barnes

All-Rookie Second Team

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Andre Drummond
Jonas Valanciunas
Tyler Zeller
Kyle Singler

"Early entry" has hurt both the college game and the NBA game; the University of Kentucky could have become a great dynasty but instead the Wildcats won just one championship before sending several players to the NBA; those players excelled in college but, until they mature physically and become fully accustomed to the NBA, they are not yet impact performers at the pro level. 

Damian Lillard, who stayed in college for four seasons (he was a red shirt junior in 2011-12 after playing just 10 games in 2010-11), was the only exceptional rookie in 2012-13. Anthony Davis showed flashes of his potential but he is not yet a dominant player; it would have been much more fun to watch him lead a great Kentucky team than to watch him toil for a non-playoff team in New Orleans.

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Previous NBA Award Articles

Selecting the 2012 Award Winners (2012)

Selecting NBA Award Winners: The Battle of Stats Versus Storylines Versus Logical Analysis (2011)

NBA Awards Season is Almost Here (2010)

An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP Race (2009)

Handing Out the Hardware for the 2008-09 Season (2009)

Choosing This Season's NBA Awards Winners (2008)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:49 AM

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Tim Grover's Relentless Training Approach and the Dark Side of Greatness

Tim Grover has trained several of the greatest basketball players of the past three decades, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Grover's new book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable (co-written with Shari Lesser Wenk) reveals not only his methods but also his cogent observations about the personalities of elite athletes and the traits that enable them to consistently outperform their peers.

Grover says that an athlete--or anyone striving to be the best--can become "unstoppable" by "placing no limits" on himself, a philosophy that Grover employed to get the biggest break of his career; Grover was a young, unknown personal trainer when he saw a small newspaper article describing how Michael Jordan was determined to no longer be pushed around by the two-time NBA champion Detroit Pistons. Grover contacted the Chicago Bulls and said that he had the right recipe to transform Jordan's physique. Jordan was skeptical because he had injured his back the last time he worked with a personal trainer but after hearing Grover's detailed pitch he agreed to give Grover a 30 day trial. Grover remained Jordan's trainer for the next 15 years (until Jordan retired for good) and the publicity that Grover received from training Jordan became the foundation for building his Attack Athletics business. Grover did not listen to those who told him that he would never get a chance to work with Jordan; by placing "no limits" on himself Grover achieved far more than anyone could have reasonably predicted or expected.

Grover's message to his clients is simple: "Show up, work hard and listen." That is reminiscent of John Madden's motto when he coached the Oakland Raiders: "Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to." Grover expresses himself very confidently and Relentless has a strident, blunt tone that may make some readers uncomfortable--but Grover would not have it any other way: "Comfortable makes you good. We're going for unstoppable, and there's a price to pay for that." Grover divides competitors into three categories: "Coolers, Closers, and Cleaners," which Grover defines respectively as "Good, Great, and Unstoppable."

Grover describes a Cleaner as "the most intense and driven competitor imaginable...You understand the insatiable addiction to success; it defines your entire life." Grover admits that he is not a psychologist and that he has not conducted an academic research study of greatness; he learned what he knows about the subject by working with elite athletes and his message to readers is "not science. It's raw animal instinct." Grover came up with the term Cleaner because "They just clean up the mess and move on," like a custodian who "calls no attention to himself, no one sees him work, no one knows what he does, but the job always gets done." A Cleaner has a simple mantra: "I own this." A Cleaner takes responsibility but does not seek credit or glory: "A true Cleaner never tells you what he's doing or what he's planning. You find out after the job is complete. And by the time you realize what he's accomplished, he's already moved on to the next challenge." Real bad boys move in silence, while posers just talk about what they are going to do.

There is an unintentionally ironic line in Grover's book. He declares, "Those who talk don't know, and those who know don't talk. I don't talk." He says that his clients have to completely trust his discretion and for that reason he has never revealed his training methods--yet the very point of Relentless is to not only describe his methods but to convince the reader that those methods are more effective than the methods of other trainers! Grover is right that, as Tevin Campbell once sang, "Nothing comes from talkers but sound," but it still strikes a discordant note for him to criticize talking about one's methods in a book written for the general public, because as an author Grover is in fact "talking." Despite this one ironic statement, Grover's larger point is correct; it is much more meaningful to be about it than to talk about it and Grover and his clients have a long track record of successfully getting the job done.

Cleaners share 13 traits. Grover deliberately settled on the number 13 because he does not believe in luck, only "circumstances and outcomes, and you can control both if you desire." Grover believes that if you give someone a numbered list then that person will assume that some things on the list are more important than others. Grover insists that everything he says--as a trainer and as an author--is important or he would not say it, so whenever he makes a list every point is numbered "1."

A Cleaner thrives in pressure situations but Grover notes, "There is no such thing as the 'clutch gene'" and he adds, "I'd be insulted if someone said I had a clutch gene. It's not a compliment when people say you step up for the big games. Where were you all the other games? Why weren't you that solid and aggressive and effective all the time?" Grover concludes, "Clutch is about the last minute. Relentless is about every minute." Grover agrees that Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots; a clutch player--a Cleaner--puts pressure on himself to excel all of the time, not just in some arbitrarily defined clutch situation. 

Grover says that a Cleaner controls his emotions and saves his energy for his performance: "Before a game, I don't want to see guys dancing and screaming and shaking each other into a frenzy. It looks good for the fans and the cameras, but all that emotion pulls your focus toward manufactured pregame hype and away from your mission...Watch the true leaders. At game time, Kobe comes onto the court the way a CEO walks into a shareholders' meeting. Shakes a few hands, says hello to the players and the refs, and gets down to business. Michael wanted no physical contact before a game--no hugs or handshakes. He'd give his teammates a fist bump or a subtle high five--hands never too high, always low and contained--and he never made eye contact. At the end of the player introductions, he'd go around to his teammates and settle everyone down, like a father covering the kids, a quick moment to remind them, Don't worry, I got you."

Maintaining inner calm is the key for an athlete to stay in the much talked about but little understood Zone. Grover observes that Michael Jordan is the only athlete he has ever seen "who was completely in the Zone every time he played, always a Cleaner." At first that may sound like an exaggeration but consider that Jordan led the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls to a 72-10 record; that whole team was in a Zone almost every night and it would be fair to say that their few losses stemmed more from physical exhaustion than any loss of mental focus. Grover mentions a particular game from that season that casual fans may not know about but that serious Bulls fans will never forget: the Vancouver game when the Bulls seemed to be heading toward a loss and Darrick Martin decided to start trash talking Michael Jordan. Jordan may have been out of the Zone at the start of the game but after Martin foolishly woke him up Jordan put on an incredible performance in an otherwise meaningless game--and the only way a team goes 72-10 is if that team does not believe that any game is meaningless. That pursuit of greatness--of perfection--is so much more viscerally appealing than the nonsense we see far too often when teams "rest" players because certain games are considered meaningless.

Jordan's leadership of the 72-10 Bulls represents all that is positive about being a Cleaner but in Perfection Versus Perspective I wrote about how challenging it can be to balance being a perfectionist with achieving serenity and peace:

The flip side of this kind of ferocious, single-minded drive and determination is that, as Kobe Bryant candidly admitted recently, "Winning takes precedence over all. There's no gray area. No almosts. It's a very unbalanced way to live and I know that. It's not healthy. And I can't justify it, but someone has to win and why not me and the Lakers organization."

I then asked the key question:

How can one simultaneously have perfection as a goal and yet deal with the reality that nothing in this world--particularly one's ability to perform under pressure--is perfect?

Grover does not directly answer this question in Relentless but he acknowledges that there is a price to pay for the "dark side" that propels a Cleaner to success:  "Cleaners have a dark side, and a zone you can't enter. They get what they want, but they pay for it in solitude. Excellence is lonely...Most people are afraid to climb that high, because if they fail, the fall will kill them. Cleaners are willing to die trying. They don't worry about hitting the ceiling or the floor. There is no ceiling. There's no floor either."

Grover's take on the Tiger Woods scandal will offend many people, particularly those who think that faithfulness in marriage is more important than becoming the greatest golfer ever: "With everyone watching and judging and analyzing every detail of his private life, that dark side evaporated; that kind of energy simply can't survive in the light. It completely loses its power, unless you're willing to stand up and say, 'Yeah, so what?' and go right on doing whatever you were doing."

In case you missed the message, Grover states his point explicitly in Relentless: "As someone who has known and liked Tiger for a long time, I didn't want to see that apology. I wanted to see him say nothing in public and show up ready to fight another day...No apologies. I wanted to see Tiger handle his situation with that kind of confidence. He built this intimidating reputation of being a killer on the golf course; I didn't want to see him hanging his head. He didn't murder anyone. He stepped out on his wife, it's between him and his family. Worried about losing endorsements? Go win something, they all come running back." That may sound cynical but it is true: one Super Bowl title made most people forget that, at the very least, Ray Lewis obstructed justice in a double murder case and then a second Super Bowl title seemingly elevated Lewis to some kind of secular saint status in the NFL universe.

Grover believes that the same dark side that inspires elite athletes to set records and win championships also explains their risk taking away from the field of play and that in fact it is not possible to reach the highest level without having a dark side that inevitably spills over into other aspects of the competitor's life. Is it possible to become the best of the best without in some way giving in to the "dark side"? It would be nice to think that it is possible to be great without succumbing to darkness but the parade of elite politicians, athletes, writers and other highly successful people who have become embroiled in sordid scandals is not encouraging. Yes, of course one can find examples of seemingly well-balanced, happy people who are very successful but are those examples refutations of Grover's idea or just the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule? Without getting into graphic details and just limiting the discussion to basketball it is well known that many of the greatest players of all-time had/have tremendous appetites for gambling, drugs, lavish spending, extramarital sex and/or other activities that often result in misery for themselves and/or their spouses, children or other relatives. Grover's direct take on this subject is disturbing and uncomfortable not because he is off target but because he may very well be correct; how many times has someone been elevated to role model status only to eventually become disgraced when his transgressions are revealed?

Grover knows how to train champions and he understands what makes champions tick. His description of the mindset of Cleaners like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is compelling and it rings true--but any thoughtful person will inevitably wonder about the price of greatness. Being Relentless has worked for many elite athletes but is it the only approach or is it possible to reach the pinnacle with a mindset like the one described in Garret Kramer's Stillpower?

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 PM

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Dirk Nowitzki Becomes Just the Third Active Member of the Exclusive 25,000 Point Club

Dirk Nowitzki scored 19 points on Sunday in the Dallas Mavericks' 107-89 win against the New Orleans Hornets and he joined Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett as the only active members of the 25,000 point club.

Most if not all mainstream media accounts of this accomplishment will state that only 17 players have scored at least 25,000 points, neglecting to mention that Julius Erving, Dan Issel, George Gervin and Rick Barry surpassed that total if their ABA statistics are included-- and it is an inexplicable travesty that the NBA and its media partners stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that ABA Numbers Should Also Count.

Nowitzki already had accumulated more than 9000 career rebounds--an impressive total for anyone but a particularly impressive total for a jump shooter who seemed averse to physical contact when he first entered the league--and now he is one of just 11 players who racked up at least 25,000 points and at least 9000 rebounds; Erving and Issel are not officially acknowledged by the NBA as members of that club.

Congratulations to Dirk Nowitzki and shame on the NBA for throwing ABA statistics down an Orwellian memory hole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kobe Bryant's Achilles Ruptures Under the Weight of the Lakers' Ineptitude

"Go down as you live."--"Super" John Williamson's motto, imploring his teammates to not let pressure-packed situations alter their mindset or their approach; Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson, who was a teammate of Williamson's, adopted that phrase as a mantra that he often shared with his players

The L.A. Lakers 2012-2013 season went sideways from the beginning--a winless preseason, the premature firing of an excellent, defensive-minded coach, an incredible wave of injuries to key players--and it never got straightened out: the team lacked cohesion and only sporadically played hard. Kobe Bryant tried to singlehandedly cover up every weakness and shortcoming: some nights he exploded for huge point totals and other nights he masterfully dished off assists, all the while alternating between being a roving help defender patrolling passing lanes and being assigned the task of checking the speedy point guards who no other Laker can corral.

In the last few games, Bryant played almost every second of every contest while trying to carry his desultory squad to the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs; his team was helpless and/or clueless without him on the court, so he did not rest despite battling a host of nagging injuries and, while it cannot be proven that the extra work load caused his Achilles tendon to rupture, it is logical to assume that it is not optimal for an aging, banged up athlete to push himself to that extent. Yet Bryant would have had it no other way and he surely preferred to go down swinging as opposed to resting on the bench while his teammates fumbled and bumbled the season away. Bryant is frustrated about suffering the most serious injury of his career but he understands that there is no time in life for rumination about the past or for worrying about what might happen in the future; it is vitally important to live in the moment and "Make each day your masterpiece" because the opportunity that you have right now may be the only opportunity that you get. Bryant has made it clear that his top priority is to win one more championship ring, matching Michael Jordan's six and topping Magic Johnson's five--and Bryant elevated his game to new heights in a desperate attempt to lift the team on his shoulders but just two days after Bryant authored a stat line never before seen in NBA history (47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots, three steals) he suffered the now much replayed and much discussed season-ending Achilles tendon injury. One moment Bryant was at the top of his game and the next moment he was embarking on what will be a grueling rehabilitation regimen. Come back with your shield or on your shield is the old warrior's creed and Bryant lives up to that as much as any other modern athletic gladiator.

Was it foolish to play to exhaustion just to try to get the last playoff spot and then likely lose in the first round of the playoffs? Should Coach Mike D'Antoni have limited Bryant's minutes if Bryant was unwilling to voluntarily do so? Would Phil Jackson--who often put four bench players on the court with just one starter even in the NBA Finals if Michael Jordan needed a rest--have encouraged or even permitted Bryant to shoulder so much weight that his leg literally collapsed under the heavy burden?

It is easy for an outsider to conclude that the Lakers' frenetic pursuit of the opportunity to get blown out in the first round is much ado about nothing and it is reasonable to wonder if Bryant's minutes could/should have been managed differently--but that is not how a Cleaner like Bryant thinks. A Cleaner does not see problems, he sees challenges.

I tuned in late to Friday night's Lakers-Warriors game and I only saw the final moments--but as soon as I realized that Bryant was not on the court with the result up for grabs I figured that he either had been ejected or he had suffered a season-ending injury. When I eventually watched what happened--how Bryant suffered a knee injury and a foot injury but did not miss a second of action until his Achilles exploded--I was impressed but not surprised: Bryant's high pain threshold and his reluctance to leave the court under any circumstances distinguish him even from other tough NBA players; Paul Pierce left game one of the 2008 NBA Finals in a wheelchair only to triumphantly run back onto the court a few minutes later and Dwyane Wade left the court in a wheelchair after he dislocated his shoulder. In contrast, Bryant walked off of the court unassisted, walked back onto the court unassisted and made two free throws with a completely ruptured Achilles tendon!

Bryant epitomizes "Go down as you live." Pro Bowl linebacker Chris Spielman once said that if he ever got injured seriously enough to need help to get off of the field then he would retire--and when that happened he did retire. You were never going to see Spielman rolling around in a wheelchair and then running back on to the field like he had experienced a miracle at Lourdes; if he was not badly hurt then he was going to keep playing or he was going to leave the field under his own power to get treatment but if he was seriously injured then he was going to find another line of work. Bryant is the first person I have ever seen who tried to walk with a completely ruptured Achilles tendon in order to see if he could "get the feeling back" in his foot.

This is not a requiem for Bryant's career; the time for that has not yet come, because a man who walks off of the court with a ruptured Achilles tendon is surely going to run on to the court at least one more time after that Achilles tendon heals. Yes, the reality of the situation is that it will be difficult for Bryant to come back from this injury and it will be even more difficult for him to come back as an above the rim, explosive player. I expect Bryant to return to action in record-setting time but there are limits to what even his mind and body can accomplish; he will likely have to adjust his playing style to accommodate his rebuilt tendon and his soon to be 35 year old body that has logged more than 50,000 NBA minutes. Think of how Air Jordan became Ground Jordan, setting up shop in the midpost area; Bryant already has a deft midpost game but he will probably have to rely on it more than ever. He may have to accept reducing his minutes to the 30 mpg range, along with a consequent reduction of his scoring average to around 20 ppg. Both for Bryant's health and with an eye toward the future, the Lakers need to push Dwight Howard to the forefront; Howard must dominate at both ends of the court or there is no reason for Bryant to return because the Lakers will not contend for a championship unless Howard maximizes his potential.

Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have complained that they do not get enough touches; now they have the final two regular season games--plus a playoff run, if they can earn it--to show exactly what they can do without Kobe Bryant carrying them, bailing them out and spoon feeding them for easy baskets. If Bryant cannot return to action by the start of the 2013-14 season--though he apparently has every intention of being ready to play by that time--then Howard and Gasol will have a more extended opportunity to showcase their skills and justify their whining but, however long they end up playing sans Bryant, they are going to discover that it is not so easy to score when opposing guards are sitting in their laps in the post because the defense does not have to trap Bryant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

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