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Friday, May 24, 2013

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan Earn Milestone All-NBA Selections

Four-time MVP LeBron James is the only player who earned unanimous selection to the 2013 All-NBA First Team. James has made the First Team seven times, tied with Wilt Chamberlain for 14th on the all-time NBA/ABA list. Kobe Bryant joined James on the First Team and thus tied Karl Malone for first on the all-time NBA/ABA list with 11 First Team selections. Bryant's 15 overall All-NBA Team selections are matched only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Tim Duncan made the All-NBA First Team for the 10th time overall and the first time since 2007. The 37 year old Duncan is the oldest First Team player since Abdul-Jabbar made the squad at 39 in 1986. Duncan's 14 overall All-NBA Team selections are tied for third on the all-time list (Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal) and he is one of seven players who have earned 10 First Team selections, trailing only Bryant and Abdul-Jabbar in that category. Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are the other two members of the All-NBA First Team this year.

Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker made the All-NBA Second Team, while the Third Team consists of David Lee, Paul George, Dwight Howard, James Harden and Dwyane Wade.

My All-NBA Team includes 12 of the 15 players selected by the media; I preferred Brook Lopez, Stephen Curry and Chris Bosh over Marc Gasol, James Harden and Paul George. One discrepancy is that the NBA considered Tim Duncan a center on the All-NBA Team but listed him as a forward on the All-Defensive Team; if the NBA correctly categorized Duncan as a forward on the All-NBA Team then he would have made the Second Team at that spot, bumping Griffin to the Third Team and knocking George off of the squad. Lopez would then have been the Third Team center.

The bottom line is that by listing Duncan under the wrong position the NBA denied Lopez an All-NBA selection, gave an All-NBA selection to George and moved Griffin up from the Third Team to the Second Team.

I put Westbrook on my First Team and Paul on my Second Team; the media consistently underrates Westbrook, though perhaps the impact his absence had on this year's playoffs will help people to further appreciate his value. Duncan and Anthony are my Second Team forwards, while I chose Paul and Wade as my Second Team guards.

I placed Lee, Griffin, Bosh, Parker and Curry on my Third Team.

Overall, the media voters did a solid job this year. My biggest disagreement is the aforementioned positional designation issue that cost Lopez All-NBA honors--and I also disagree with the voters who ranked him behind Gasol and Howard: Howard is the best big man in the NBA when he is healthy but he was not fully healthy in 2012-13 and I think that Lopez had the best all-around performance of any NBA center this season. Bosh received four First Team votes but he finished fifth overall among centers (fourth if Duncan is correctly listed as a power forward); his versatility is an important factor in Miami's success and he deserves All-NBA recognition even though his statistics are not overwhelming.

Harden had a better first half of the season than Curry and thus deservedly made the All-Star team ahead of Curry but Curry outperformed Harden down the stretch and should have made the All-NBA Third Team.

I might very well have picked George as a Third Team forward if I had classified Duncan as a center.

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

All-NBA Selections Mostly Make Sense Despite not Quite Adding Up (2012)

Analysis of the All-NBA Team Voting (2011)

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

James, Bryant Top All-NBA Voting (2009)

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

Choosing This Season's NBA Awards Winners (2008)

Inside the NBA Crew Hands Out Some Hardware (2007)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

P.J. Carlesimo and Jon Barry Agree with Frank Vogel's Roy Hibbert Decision

Indiana Coach Frank Vogel has received widespread condemnation for his decision to twice bench 7-2 shot blocker Roy Hibbert and go with a small lineup against Miami in late game situations. On both occasions, LeBron James scored by driving straight to the hoop, including the game-winning layup as time expired in overtime; after trailing by one point with just 2.2 seconds left, Miami escaped with a 103-102 victory in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. Vogel justified benching Hibbert by saying that if Hibbert had been on the court then Miami could have run a play for Chris Bosh, who is more mobile than Hibbert. Vogel opted to use a small lineup so that his players could switch on all screens without creating any favorable mismatches for Miami. There is some validity to what Vogel said but in order to be successful in the long run a coach must develop a system that enables him to maximize the talents of his best players; Hibbert is one of the best rim protectors in the league, so Indiana's defense should take advantage of his size and length--and if that size and length forces opposing teams to run plays for their centers to shoot jumpers instead of attacking the hoop then that is an advantage for Indiana. If Vogel's regular plan in late game situations is to go small then he should stick with that plan--but Vogel has generally tried to force teams to match up with his squad and not the other way around, so benching Hibbert is not just a questionable move strategically but also psychologically because it could result in the Indiana players feeling that Vogel does not trust his system and/or trust them.

The larger, mostly unmentioned issue is that there was no reason for Paul George to overplay James to such an extent on the final play that he gave James a wide open driving lane; regardless of who was on the court for Indiana, the team defensive strategy when up by a point with 2.2 seconds left has to be (1) defend without fouling and (2) make the opponent shoot a contested jump shot to beat us. Whether or not benching Hibbert was the best choice, the Pacers still could have won if they had forced James--or another Miami player--to shoot a contested jump shot. Did Vogel not remind George to give James a cushion or did George simply forget his assignment under pressure?

The worst possible shot for Indiana to give up was a layup or dunk by James; putting Hibbert in the game and planting him in front of the rim would have made it much less likely that James would have scored on a dunk or layup, so it is difficult to agree with Vogel's decision. Being able to switch all screens is nice and if that is how Vogel's team played throughout the season and throughout most of this game then it would be understandable for him to ride or die with that plan but Hibbert is the anchor for Indiana's stingy defense and Vogel should have stuck with what got Indiana to the Eastern Conference Finals in the first place: size, toughness and the ability to protect the paint.

It is not a good sign for Vogel that two of the people who agreed with his Hibbert decision are P.J. Carlesimo, who has hardly distinguished himself as a top NBA strategist, and Jon Barry, who has a history of saying things that do not make sense. When P.J. Carelismo and Jon Barry are praising your strategic acumen, it is time to rethink your late game defensive plan. It will be very interesting to see what Vogel does if this particular scenario presents itself again; I suspect that Vogel will keep Hibbert in the game and that Vogel will emphasize the importance of forcing a Miami player to shoot a contested jump shot.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:31 PM

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Coach Lionel Hollins Reveals What He Thinks of the Rudy Gay Trade

For the first 36 minutes, game two of the San Antonio-Memphis series looked like an instant replay of game one: the Spurs led 51-37 at halftime of game one and extended that margin to 73-57 by the end of the third quarter; they led 46-31 at halftime of game two and still led 76-64 entering the fourth quarter. In game one, the Spurs pulled away in the fourth quarter to post a 105-83 rout but in game two San Antonio's offense completely fell apart in the fourth quarter, while Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins made a shrewd--and very necessary--lineup switch to give just enough of a boost to his team's anemic offense; those two factors--plus a very questionable flagrant foul call that contributed four points to the Memphis cause--enabled the Grizzlies to grind their way to 85 points and force overtime but that just delayed the inevitable: the Grizzlies only scored four points in the extra session and the Spurs took a 2-0 series lead with a 93-89 victory.

Tony Allen deserves an Oscar--and a flopping fine from the NBA--for his acting job after Manu Ginobili fouled him to prevent a layup in the final minute of regulation; Allen rolled around on the floor cradling his head in both of his arms as if Ginobili had caved in his skull with a brick even though replays showed that Ginobili never even touched Allen's head and that Allen did not hit his head on the floor, either. Allen made both free throws and then Mike Conley took advantage of the extra possession by scoring on a tough floater to tie the score with just :18 remaining in regulation. The game's biggest story, though, is not that sequence but rather the fine coaching job Lionel Hollins did as he attempted to strategically overcome the big mistake his front office made by trading away Rudy Gay, Memphis' leading scorer. Less than two weeks ago, I wrote, "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?" After watching game two, we do not need a lie detector to figure out Hollins' answer to that question; Ed Davis and Austin Daye were the only two Memphis players who did not play at all, while Hollins benched Gay's replacement Tayshaun Prince--who finished with two points on 1-5 field goal shooting in 16 minutes, compiling a -11 plus/minus rating--and Tony Allen for key second half stretches in favor of Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter. Bayless tied Conley for game-high scoring honors with 18 points and even though Bayless shot just 7-18 from the field (.389) that subpar field goal percentage was somewhat better than Memphis' overall field goal percentage (.340) and much better than either Prince's or Allen's (2-11). Bayless played 34 minutes after averaging 22.1 mpg in the regular season and 20.4 mpg in the playoffs. Pondexter added seven points on 3-6 field goal shooting and he grabbed nine rebounds in 37 minutes after averaging 21.1 mpg in the regular season and 22.7 mpg in the playoffs.

It is foolish to suggest that trading an 18 ppg scorer for spare parts did not hurt Memphis' chances to win an NBA championship but many people stubbornly insist on believing foolish things. Hollins is obviously no fool, because during Memphis' biggest game of this season he rejected the spare parts his team's management foisted on him and instead hoped that Bayless and Pondexter could save the day. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy did a great job during the telecast of both pointing out how San Antonio's defense completely disregarded Prince and Allen when they were on the court--thus clogging the lane and making matters difficult for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol--and also noting that San Antonio defenders were reluctant to leave Bayless and Pondexter unattended, which is why Randolph finally got going a little bit after being a non-factor in game one.

The Spurs' Tony Parker shot just 6-20 from the field en route to scoring 15 points but his deft passing (18 assists) dissected Memphis' defense. Tim Duncan was saddled with foul trouble but he dominated the overtime--scoring six of San Antonio's eight points--and he finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots. Ginobili had a quiet game (seven points, four assists in 29 minutes) but the beauty of being the third option is that you are not expected to be great every single game--a luxury that James Harden will learn to appreciate the longer that he is away from the Oklahoma City Thunder.  

Hollins will no doubt insert Bayless and Pondexter in the lineup earlier than usual in game three and he will reduce Prince's and Allen's minutes but the problem is that Bayless and Pondexter are bench players for good reason; they are not equipped to effectively play heavy duty minutes game after game. Bench players generally play better at home than on the road, so Hollins' lineup switch may help the Grizzlies win one or even two games in Memphis but in the long run Bayless and Pondexter cannot undo the damage that the Gay trade did. Memphis will continue to struggle to score enough points to beat San Antonio.

San Antonio squandered a 2-0 lead against Oklahoma City in last year's playoffs and Memphis overcame a 2-0 deficit versus the L.A. Clippers in the first round of this year's playoffs but those were exceptions to the NBA rule: teams that take 2-0 leads win the series nearly 94% of the time. Some people may suggest that the second half comeback in game two will give the Grizzlies momentum as the series moves to Memphis for the next two games but the reality is that, barring an injury or suspension to a key player, this series is already over and all that remains to be decided is how many games it will last.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:41 AM

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Miami Versus Indiana Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Miami (66-16) vs. #3 Indiana (49-32)

Season series: Indiana, 2-1

Indiana can win if...the Pacers can slow the game down and pound the ball inside to David West and Roy Hibbert. All-Star Paul George has an opportunity to elevate his status and be considered an All-NBA caliber player if he can hold MVP LeBron James below his season averages while also making a contribution offensively. James averaged 24.5 ppg on .627 field goal shooting versus Milwaukee in the first round but Chicago's bump and run defense held James to 23.6 ppg on .438 field goal shooting; Indiana defended James as well as any other team during the regular season and that trend must continue for the Pacers to win this series. Point guard George Hill, who missed one game in the New York series because of a concussion, must continue to play at a high level at both ends of the court.

Miami will win because...LeBron James has been playing at an incredible level--even by his lofty standards--since his 40 point, 18 rebound, nine assist performance versus Indiana in game four of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. In order to beat Miami, Indiana has to slow James down without committing so many defenders to him that the Heat's three point shooters get wide open looks. The Heat lack size and can be bullied on the boards but they make up for that weakness with intelligence, energy and speed--and James' ability to play multiple positions.

Other things to consider: The Pacers have the right kind of team to beat the Heat; they have two strong big men, an athletic wing player who can challenge James and a point guard who can both get into the paint and make jumpers. Do they have the mental and physical toughness to execute the correct game plan for six or seven games against the reigning NBA champions? If the Pacers execute to the best of their abilities and the Heat do likewise can Indiana still beat the Heat? Probably not; for the Pacers to win, they must be at their best and the Heat must be off of their game due to injury, frustration and/or foul trouble.

Hibbert must pound Chris Bosh into submission at both ends of the court, putting Bosh in foul trouble and/or wearing him down; if Hibbert does not challenge Bosh physically then Bosh's mobility and shooting touch will make a big difference for Miami.

Dwyane Wade's health could be an X factor not just for this championship run but also for Miami's future; Wade has spent his career crashing recklessly into the paint without developing a backup plan (a consistent jump shot and/or a consistent post up game) or preserving his health and it is inevitable that this will reduce his effectiveness and ultimately shorten his career. Earlier this season, Charles Barkley called Wade a declining player and Wade responded by playing well for a few weeks before getting hurt again. It is not clear if Wade's skills have declined or not because he is rarely healthy enough to show what he can do at full strength--and he may never reach full strength again. If Wade is severely limited and Hibbert cancels out Bosh then the Pacers could not only end this Miami title quest but also cast some doubt on Miami's ability to be more than a one year wonder (at least in terms of ultimate postseason success).

The most likely scenario, though, is that James will dominate, Bosh will make an underrated contribution at both ends of the court, Wade will provide just enough support and the Heat will win the series in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 PM

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Spurs Tame Grizzlies in Game One of the Western Conference Finals

Yes, it's only one game--though game one winners advance roughly 80% of the time in the NBA playoffs--but the first game of the Western Conference Finals went almost exactly as I predicted the series will go based on the skill set strengths and weaknesses of the respective teams. The San Antonio Spurs' 105-83 rout of the Memphis Grizzlies exposed a lot of Memphis' flaws--flaws that went unmentioned in most "expert" analysis of this series:

1) The Memphis Grizzlies were not able to slow the game down; I said that for the Grizzlies to beat the Spurs the final score would have to be in the low 90s but Memphis neither reached that total nor held the Spurs below that total.

2) I wrote that Memphis would struggle to score 40 points in some halves and that it would be interesting to hear what Bill Simmons says at the halftime of the first game when Memphis has scored less than 40 points. Memphis trailed 51-37 at halftime and only surpassed the 40 point barrier in the second half by tacking on eight meaningless garbage time points in the last 1:47. Simmons called the first half the "worst scenario" for Memphis but said that Memphis "still kind of hung in a little bit." No, it was not a "worst scenario"; it was a predictable scenario for anyone who understood the matchups--and since when does trailing by 14 after scoring just 37 points count as hanging in a little bit? The game showed all the signs of the blowout that it eventually turned out to be; I don't expect every game of the series to be a blowout but anyone who watched the first half with understanding would have expected the Spurs to win by at least 20 even after the Grizzlies made a brief third quarter run: the Spurs were completely outexecuting the Grizzlies at both ends of the court and thus Quincy Pondexter's third quarter three point shooting barrage only delayed the inevitable.

3) "Stat gurus" praise the Rudy Gay trade as if it cured world hunger, solved the energy crisis and conclusively proved that anyone who does not swear permanent allegiance to "advanced basketball statistics" is hopelessly ignorant. The Grizzlies dealt Rudy Gay--their leading scorer who is also one of the top rebounders at the small forward position--and received in exchange Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis. If Daye or Davis appear in a game you can be pretty sure that someone is getting blown out and/or the Grizzlies have lost players due to injury/foul trouble. Prince took over Gay's starting small forward position and has become the 6-9 version of the Invisible Man; Prince was a key contributor to Detroit's championship team--in 2004--but he has lost a step (or two or three) laterally and he was never a big-time scorer. As Memphis' offense died on the vine in game one, Prince contributed six points on 2-5 field goal shooting, one rebound and two assists in 29 minutes. The Spurs felt free to sag off of Prince to protect the paint. I don't know what kind of impact Rudy Gay might have had in this series but I'm willing to bet it would have been more than six points in 29 minutes and I suspect that the Spurs would not have sunk his defender into the paint. Daye and Davis shot a combined 3-8 from the field in game one, mainly during what Marv Albert would call "extensive garbage time."

4) The Grizzlies shot .432 from the field as the Spurs fronted Memphis' post players and also collapsed perimeter defenders into the paint, daring Memphis' non-shooters to shoot and not providing any room for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to operate. Randolph made just one of his eight field goal attempts and posted a -28 plus/minus number in his 28 minutes. One third quarter play symbolized Randolph's utter frustration: Randolph committed an offensive foul by pushing Tim Duncan, the officials did not call the foul and Randolph still missed the wide open layup.

5) While Memphis' offense sputtered, San Antonio executed flawlessly and did exactly what I expected: spread the floor and kill the Grizzlies with dribble penetration leading both to layups and wide open three point shots. Tony Parker led both teams in scoring (20 points) and assists (nine), putting on a clinic while he ran circles around Memphis' defense. Neither Tim Duncan (six points, 3-9 field goal shooting) nor Manu Ginobili (eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting) did much offensively but Duncan anchored the Spurs' defense, controlled the glass with a game-high 10 rebounds and distributed the ball well (four assists, second on the team to Parker).

San Antonio may not make 14 three pointers in a game again the rest of the series and Zach Randolph will play better but--barring injuries or serious foul trouble--this series is on course to play out like I expected, much to the surprise of all of the "experts" who considered Memphis to be a heavy favorite.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:58 AM

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