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Friday, May 31, 2013

LeBron Leads the Way as Heat Win Pivotal Game Five

LeBron James led the Miami Heat in scoring (30 points), rebounds (eight) and assists (six, tied with Mario Chalmers) as they defeated the Indiana Pacers 90-79 to move within one victory of a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. It is interesting to hear LeBron James being praised for doing precisely the things that Kobe Bryant is often criticized for doing: cussing out teammates and taking over the game by scoring. James gave his teammates an earful on the sidelines prior to the second half and then he poured in 16 points on 7-10 field goal shooting in the decisive third quarter as the Heat outscored the Pacers 30-13 to take control of the game after the Pacers led for most of the first half. James is an excellent passer--he had four assists in the third quarter alone--but the idea that he is a pass first player is not quite correct; James is a very dominant scorer and his teams have always been at their best when he relentlessly attacks the hoop. James has a scoring, attacking mentality that pass first point guards like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd never had; even when Magic Johnson took on added scoring responsibilities he never scored at nearly the same rate that James scores.

It is tempting for some people to compare what James is doing to what he did when he played in Cleveland but the critical difference now is that James' mental game is much, much stronger; he quit when things got tough versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and versus Dallas in the 2011 Finals but now James understands the obligation that comes with being the best player on the court/best player in the league: it is his job to take over by asserting his will and he cannot abdicate that responsibility by casually dribbling the ball up the court, giving it up and watching passively as the game slips away (which is what he did in the aforementioned Boston and Dallas scenarios). Being a great player is not defined entirely by statistics but rather by timely impact; Paul George, James' Indiana counterpart, had a game that is statistically comparable (27 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) but no one who watched game five with understanding would put George in the same category as James, even though George is a very good player.

The Indiana Pacers are big, physical, well-coached and very tough on defense--but they do not have a legit franchise player and that is why they likely will lose this series. The only way that a team that lacks a legit franchise player can win a championship is by executing very efficiently at both ends of the court and consistently receiving significant contributions from several All-Star caliber performers.The 1979 Seattle Supersonics accomplished this, as did the 2004 Detroit Pistons.

There are only a handful of legit franchise players in the NBA: they are the ones who you see regularly leading their teams to the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Franchise player status is not solely defined by scoring average or any other statistic, "advanced" or basic; some 25 ppg scorers are not even close to being franchise players (2013 James Harden, 2010 Monta Ellis and 2006 Gilbert Arenas, to name just three recent examples) while some franchise players never averaged 25 ppg (Bill Russell and Magic Johnson).

Chris Bosh receives the bulk of the criticism when things go bad for Miami--and Bosh has been bashed after each Miami loss in this series--but Bosh is being asked to do an impossible task in this series: play in the pivot against Roy Hibbert, a legit, back to the basket, seven foot All-Star caliber center. Playing small ball with James at power forward and Bosh at center works wonderfully against most teams because the Heat can overwhelm the opposition with speed but the handful of teams that can slow the game down and turn it into trench warfare have a major advantage against Miami in the paint. Bosh plays on the perimeter offensively and he has has hands (and back and legs) full just trying to hold his position defensively so it is unrealistic to expect him to post big rebounding totals against Indiana. The physical pounding is also obviously having an impact on Bosh's energy level offensively and his shooting touch.

It has always been fashionable to say that James had no help in Cleveland but the Cavs had a deep and rugged frontcourt that defended and rebounded very well. In some ways, James almost has to do more with the Heat than he did with the Cavs, at least in terms of playing in the paint and guarding legit big guys. Again, the difference is that now James embraces that challenge, whereas in Cleveland he was reluctant to play power forward and--even though he had some monster playoff games--he at times shrunk from the challenge of taking over.

Charles Barkley has been saying for a while that Dwyane Wade is a declining player--and I predicted this decline some time ago because Wade has spent years throwing his body recklessly into the paint without ever developing a consistent outside game as a backup plan and/or a way to limit the physical pounding he is taking. During the game five telecast, Steve Kerr pointed out that Wade is easy to guard now because he cannot get to the hoop consistently and because no one is scared of Wade's outside game; it will likely be more difficult for defenders to check a post-Achilles tendon surgery Kobe Bryant than it is to check Wade because even if the Achilles injury takes away some of Bryant's explosiveness he will still be able to hit jump shots and post up.

It is funny how we no longer hear anyone talking about Miami being Wade's team; Wade had a very good regular season but even then he was clearly the second option and it is becoming increasingly clear that at this stage of his career his body can not hold up for a full 82 game season plus an extended playoff run. Wade has had bad knees for two playoffs in a row and at some point this has to be recognized as not a temporary condition but rather a permanent reduction in his capabilities. That is one reason I questioned the idea that the James-Wade-Bosh trio would automatically win "not one, not two, not three," etc. titles. Yes, they have already captured one championship and the second one may only be a few weeks away but each one gets progressively harder to obtain, as we saw in both of the Chicago Bulls' three-peat seasons--and it is still more than a stretch to compare James and Wade to Jordan and Pippen: even if the Heat beat the Pacers and the Spurs in the next few weeks they will still have to win four more titles for James and Wade to collectively match what Jordan and Pippen accomplished. I will be shocked if James and Wade even get close to that total.

If the Pacers cut down on their turnovers, keep James out of the paint as much as possible and pound the ball inside to Hibbert and David West--both of whom missed easy layups early in game five that proved to be costly in the long run--then they certainly can win game six in Indiana. The home team has the advantage in game seven but the home team also faces added pressure as well--and a one game scenario is much more random than a seven game series: a sprained ankle, foul trouble and/or an ejection could swing the balance in one game.

One thing that I like about the way that Indiana Coach Frank Vogel and his players talk about this series is that they are respectful of the Miami Heat but not fearful; that is the difference between being foolish--i.e., Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings guaranteeing that his team would beat Miami in six games--and being a serious, confident and intelligent competitor. Some people wonder what Jennings was supposed to say when he was asked about the Miami-Milwaukee series; the answer to that question is listen to how Vogel, Hibbert and West talk: those guys are not backing down or conceding anything but they also are not making stupid predictions/guarantees/declarations. Vogel praises the Heat as a great team but then says that he believes that his Pacers can compete with the Heat; Vogel has been proven right in that regard but it will obviously be very difficult for the Pacers to beat the Heat two games in a row to win this series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:33 AM

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Elgin Baylor Auction Contains Unique Memorabilia, Including All-Time Team Certificate

I get a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever an athlete auctions off his personal memorabilia, trophies, rings and awards; I felt particularly uncomfortable when my all-time favorite player, Julius Erving, sold a huge collection that included his three championship rings. Erving denied that he was experiencing financial problems and I hope that it is true that he was not forced by circumstance to part with those items. I understand the Zen way of thinking that attachment--to people, to property, even to certain thoughts--only leads to suffering but I know that if I had won an NBA championship ring I would never, ever sell it.

Elgin Baylor is selling 358 items from his personal collection. He denies that he is having financial problems, telling the L.A. Times, "I'm constantly getting calls from people interested in my stuff, and I finally thought, it's time. I've had some of these things for 60 years. It's time to share some of them with the fans who have been so wonderful to me."

Lot #53 caught my eye:


Baylor received this certificate in 1964 at the NBA All-Star Game. On March 5, 1963, the sports editors of the 100 largest daily U.S. newspapers announced the results of their balloting for an "All-Time NBA Team." I knew about the three official All-Time teams selected by the NBA for the league's 25th, 35th and 50th anniversaries but I had never heard of this particular All-Time team.

It is interesting that Bob Cousy finished first with 69% of the vote, ahead of his teammate Bill Russell. Cousy never won a championship ring without Russell and in 1963 he was completing the last full season of his career (he made a brief comeback as a player coach in 1969-70), while Russell was on the verge of leading the Boston Celtics to their sixth title in his seven season career. Little more than a decade earlier, George Mikan had been voted as the greatest player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press but he finished third in the 1963 voting. Baylor edged out Wilt Chamberlain for fourth place, while Oscar Robertson, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Paul Arizin and Jim Pollard rounded out the top 10. The most notable missing name is Jerry West, who entered the league the same season as Robertson (1960-61); most experts considered West and Robertson to be interchangeable in the All-Time backcourt from at least the late 1960s until the emergence of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan in the 1980s but in 1963 West had not yet established himself as a member of the All-Time elite.

Several years ago, I selected an All-Time team of retired players; my top 10 list included four of the players selected in 1963 (Russell, Baylor, Chamberlain, Robertson) plus West and five players who started their careers well after 1963: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. The recently retired Shaquille O'Neal and the still active Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tim Duncan will no doubt be mentioned when future All-Time teams are selected.

The Pantheon:

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part I
The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part II
The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part III
The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part IV
The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part V

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 PM

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Pacers Pound the Paint, Beat the Heat

The Indiana Pacers outscored the Miami Heat 50-32 in the paint, outrebounded them 49-30 and translated that interior dominance into a 99-92 win to tie the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2. Roy Hibbert (23 points, 12 rebounds) and David West (14 points, 12 rebounds) led Indiana's inside attack, while Lance Stephenson--who has morphed into some hybrid version of Ruben Patterson, Vernon Maxwell and Bonzi Wells--scored 20 points, grabbed five rebounds and took turns harassing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on defense. James scored a game-high 24 points and had a solid floor game (six rebounds, five assists) but he never quite took over the game before fouling out with :56 remaining. James did not receive much help; Mario Chalmers played well (20 points on 6-14 field goal shooting) but Dwyane Wade (16 points, six assists, 5-15 field goal shooting) and Chris Bosh (seven points, three rebounds, 1-6 field goal shooting) were invisible for most of the game.

Indiana scored the first 11 points of the game but Miami countered with a quick run to take a 17-16 lead. The game was closely contested the rest of the way. Both teams made big plays and blunders--and the same could be said of the officiating--but the main story was that James did not have nearly the same success in the post that he did in Miami's game three victory. TNT's Steve Kerr observed that even though James has become an effective post player he still seems to prefer facing the hoop; if James is defended physically he will often settle for turnaround jumpers instead of attacking the hoop.

In my series preview I picked Miami to win the series--and I stand by that choice--but I also wrote, "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?" When you are facing a great team in the playoffs, you cannot give away possessions, let alone give away games; the Pacers blew a great opportunity at the end of game one and they inexplicably lacked energy in game three. It seems unlikely that Indiana can get away with squandering two golden opportunities--but another way of looking at this series is that the Pacers have beaten the Heat twice in the last three games after the Heat had only lost three times in their previous 49 games.

TNT's Kenny Smith believes that unless LeBron James has four superhuman performances the Pacers will win this series because they have the more well balanced team; he feels that James is Miami's only matchup advantage and that James has to dominate in order to make up for Indiana's strength inside and overall depth. Julius Erving, who made a wonderful guest appearance on TNT's Inside the NBA set, disagrees: "The NBA has been and always will be a star driven league, so you can have all the balanced attack that you want but at crunch time in these next three games if the stars become superstars and play like superstars--and Miami has three and a possible fourth and Indiana has one, possibly two--the stars are going to be the key to the balance of this series, not a balanced attack. It's not equal opportunity basketball; you just can't dribble it and move it around and let anybody take the shot at strategic times. You've got to have direction and a purpose for a guy having the ball in his hands." Erving's larger point is correct--and has been time tested throughout NBA history--but if the Pacers maintain an intense possession by possession focus on playing the right way at both ends of the court they can, at the very least, seriously challenge the Heat and find out if James is willing/able to play at the superhuman level he reached in the 2012 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:32 AM

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Julius Erving Visits the Inside the NBA Set

"It was like ballet, the way he flew through the air, the way he moved."--Dominique Wilkins

"He was more than a basketball player. He was an artist."--Marc Iavaroni

"When greatness meets class, that's what God created in Dr. J."--Magic Johnson

"Someone reached out to take--they called me Junior Erving then--Junior Erving off the corner and extended their hand to me. I accepted it. With the acceptance of that came a tremendous, tremendous responsibility to complete the cycle. When someone gives something to you...you don't just take it and run with it. You take it and you digest it. You take it as a gift."--Julius Erving

There have been many great pro basketball players but few of them are true icons and they are all known by an instantly recognized name, whether that name is a first name, a last name or a nickname: Wilt, Russell, Bird, Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron. Julius Erving--also known as Dr. J, the Doctor or simply Doc--is my all-time favorite basketball player and he always will be; I cannot say definitively that he is the greatest player of all-time--though he deserves more consideration for that title than he often gets--but he has a unique combination of gifts: Doc combines style, flair and cool with a deep understanding of the right way to play the game. He is not a flawless man but he is a gentleman.

Erving visited TNT's Inside the NBA set prior to, during and after game four of the Eastern Conference Finals (my analysis of Indiana's 99-92 win over Miami will appear in a subsequent article). He is the subject of an NBA TV documentary titled "The Doctor," premiering on June 10:



I love the George Gervin quote: "Life is tough sometimes and life is about recovery." That reminds me of the old cliche--and something only becomes a cliche if it contains an element of truth--that tough times don't last but tough people do. Erving lost his biological father at a young age, his beloved younger brother Marvin died of lupus when Erving was 19 and in recent years Erving has had to bury a son in additional to dealing with various personal and financial problems. Life is brutal, no one is perfect and none of us is getting out of here alive, so the best thing to do--the only thing to do--is make the most of the time that you have, make each day your masterpiece.

Also, if you think that LeBron James invented the so-called chase down block then check out the footage around the 2:27 mark; Erving not only made that particular play many times but he blocked shots at a much higher rate than James: Erving's career low 82 blocks at the age of 36 in his second to last season would rank as the second highest total of James' 10 year career (James tallied his career high of 93 at the age of 24). 

After TNT showed some Erving highlights, Kenny Smith said that Erving is the only player he can recall seeing who could pick up the ball off of the dribble with one hand to make a play, but Erving gently corrected Smith by pointing out that Connie Hawkins also did this. That is so typical of Erving: he both deflected praise directed toward himself and he had the knowledge--and grace--in that moment to recognize/acknowledge the history of the game. Erving also said with a laugh that the reason most players cannot--and should not--try to make such plays is that unless you have a large enough hand you will not be able to pull back a one handed pass if someone jumps in the passing lane; Erving and Hawkins had large enough hands to control a basketball as if it were a softball.

Ernie Johnson asked Erving what he thinks of LeBron James' evolution. Erving made a very interesting comparison, likening James' prodigious abilities to those of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, two athletes who Erving said possibly had the necessary skills to turn pro while they were still in high school. Erving noted that James has "had that man child aspect for a long time."

Johnson wondered how Erving would rank James' development on a scale of one to 10 and Erving responded that compared to other players James is a 10 but that compared to his potential James is a seven or eight, probably closer to eight. Erving believes that the next step in James' development involves learning how to manage his energy in games and in practices, because even a star player needs some rest so that he can go all out when necessary.

Erving does not answer in 10 second soundbites, which probably explains why he no longer has a job as a TV analyst; he is too intelligent and too thoughtful to give superficial replies or to say something bombastic just to boost ratings/create controversy. There are some intelligent basketball analysts on television, including Hubie Brown, Jeff Van Gundy and Kenny Smith, but Hubie Brown is probably the only one who has been permitted to stay on air without creating some kind of shtick--and Brown is no longer the top ESPN/ABC analyst, a role that now belongs to Van Gundy. Craig Carton thinks that straight sports commentary is boring and will not generate high ratings--and he may be right about the ratings--but I prefer intelligence/insight to mindless banter; Inside the NBA has a pretty good balance between the two--and some of their shtick is laugh out loud hilarious, particularly Shaqtin' a Fool--but the ESPN studio show tries too hard to generate laughs and is far too often neither funny nor insightful.

Erving suggested that the Indiana Pacers should put someone other than Paul George on LeBron James so that George could have enough energy to break out offensively. Historical minded basketball fans will recall that Erving had a similar thought process during the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals when his Coach Billy Cunningham wanted Erving to check the bigger Larry Bird while also serving as the main offensive weapon; Erving felt that chasing Bird around for most of the game took away from his own offense and Erving averaged fewer than 20 ppg in a series for the first time in his career as his Philadelphia 76ers built a 3-1 lead only to wear down and lose 4-3 to Bird's Boston Celtics.

Erving also said that the Pacers should force James to go to the middle when he posts up on the left block even though that would let James use his right hand; the middle is where the traffic is, so James would be forced to do something other than just make a left hand layup.

Kenny Smith joked that Erving had traveled in one of the highlight dunks shown on TNT, before realizing (after the camera panned further back in the shot) that this particular highlight came from a slam dunk contest; Erving said, "It's a dunk contest, not a dribbling contest" and he added that some of the current players mess up their timing when they try to dribble during dunk contests.

During the postgame show, Erving said that the San Antonio Spurs are his favorite team other than the Philadelphia 76ers (for whom Erving played 11 seasons); Erving has always expressed fondness for the four surviving ABA teams, though it is surprising that he did not mention the Nets, who he led to two ABA titles. Erving is a big Tim Duncan fan, which makes sense because Duncan's serious demeanor is very similar to Erving's: "Tim Duncan has been my favorite player since George Gervin retired--just the way he takes care of his business night in and night out."

In response to a question from Johnson, Erving reminisced about playing one on one after practice with Pistol Pete Maravich, a story that I heard firsthand from Erving and wrote about in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest

Smith eloquently described how Erving positively influenced so many people: "You taught us as basketball players how to act as people, without knowing it, because of the way you carried yourself on the court and off of the court. That is difficult to do in any era...We would always say, 'He's a distinguished gentleman' and that's what we always tried to be."

Shaquille O'Neal mentioned that many players look up to Erving and he wondered who Erving looked up to in terms of playing style and "swag." Erving said that he did not pay attention to "swagger" but, in terms of playing style, "For me, Elgin Baylor was the guy." Erving loved the way that Baylor would grab a rebound and go coast to coast, either scoring or dishing to a teammate for a score. Erving also grew up admiring Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. Erving borrowed the finger roll and some other moves from Chamberlain but he knew that he was not going to be seven feet tall so he could not model his whole game based on Chamberlain's game.

The subject of personal influences is very important to Erving--and not just in the basketball sense. Erving explained that a major reason he participated in the NBA TV documentary is to "pay homage" to his family history because his parents, his siblings, his aunts, his uncles and his cousins shaped the man he became. He feels indebted to them and he wants to publicly recognize them. Erving said that his mother was one of 14 siblings and that only one of those siblings--his 90 year old Aunt Chloe--is still living.

I remember watching the 1987 Julius Erving retirement tribute on the "George Michael Sports Machine"; Michael asked Erving what he would say to his grandson in 30 years about his career and Erving replied, "I hope the story holds up for 30 years, because it's taken a long time to make it happen. I don't know, I would enjoy hearing that from a grandson, needless to say. I would tell him that I played for the fun of it, I played a style that flowed from me, allowed me to be creative and every now and then brought a few fans out of their seats."

It is almost 30 years since that show aired and Erving's story is inextricably linked with basketball history: he has impacted many, many lives and I know that this website would not exist in its current form--nor would I have the passion for basketball that I have--were it not for Erving's style, grace and class.

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Selected Julius Erving Articles:

Great Julius Erving Stories

Julius Erving's 40 Point Games

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part I: Yes, Virginia, There is a Man Who Can Fly

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part II: Two Championships in Three Years with the Nets

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Spurs Sweep Offensively Challenged Grizzlies

The San Antonio Spurs will be well rested when they face the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers in the 2013 NBA Finals; the Spurs earned a nine day vacation with their 4-0 sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals. Tony Parker had a magnificent series, averaging 24.5 ppg on .532 field goal shooting while also leading both teams in assists (9.5 apg). Tim Duncan played outstanding defense (3.0 bpg) while also ranking second on the Spurs in scoring (15.5 ppg); he dominated the overtime period in game three and he dominated the overtime period in game four, playing his best basketball in perhaps the two most important five minute stretches of the series. San Antonio's third option, Manu Ginobili, averaged just 10.0 ppg while shooting a wretched .407 from the field; Ginobili only ranked fourth on the team in scoring behind Parker, Duncan and Kawhi Leonard (11.3 ppg) but he hit some timely shots and his dribble penetration opened up opportunities for San Antonio's three point shooters. Ginobili ranked second on the Spurs in assists (4.5 apg).

As I predicted, the Grizzlies struggled to score 90 points versus the Spurs; the Grizzlies averaged 87.8 ppg, with their two highest scoring efforts coming in the two overtime games (89 points in game two, 93 points in game three). The Grizzlies are a well-coached team that plays excellent defense; if they had not traded Rudy Gay for spare parts (Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis) then they might have had enough offensive firepower to defeat the Spurs. Prince averaged 5.8 ppg versus the Spurs while shooting .360 from the field; although Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins kept Prince in the starting lineup, Hollins slashed Prince's minutes because of Prince's ineffectiveness. Daye and Davis rarely played during the regular season and, not surprisingly, they rarely played in the Western Conference Finals, logging a combined 25 minutes. Gay's absence--and the uselessness of the players brought in to replace him--meant that the Spurs could pack the paint, making it difficult for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to even catch the ball, let alone score. Gasol averaged 14.3 ppg on .397 field goal shooting and Randolph averaged 11.0 ppg on .302 field goal shooting. Call this the anti-Kobe Bryant effect. Kobe Bryant's presence and impact boosted Pau Gasol's field goal percentage after Gasol joined the Lakers even though Bryant's field goal percentage is not extraordinarily high; the absence of Gay had a correspondingly negative effect on the field goal percentages of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the Western Conference Finals. This is something that "stat gurus" do not understand: a player who can create shots for himself and others distorts the opposing defense and thus his value cannot be measured just by looking at his individual field goal percentage (or by looking at his "advanced basketball statistics"). Gay is not nearly as good as Bryant but Gay performed a similarly key function for Memphis--and that role inevitably becomes more important as a team advances deeper in the playoffs, because the game slows down and defenses focus on a team's top offensive options. The Grizzlies advanced to the Western Conference Finals despite the Gay trade, not because of it; the Grizzlies survived their first round matchup because the L.A. Clippers are not a championship caliber team and the Grizzlies eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder mainly because of Russell Westbrook's season-ending injury.

ESPN's halftime shows during the Western Conference Finals provided great comic relief as baffled "stat guru" apologist Bill Simmons struggled to explain what was happening; it was hilarious to hear Simmons criticizing Hollins for not benching Prince earlier in the series; not too long ago, Simmons predicted a Memphis win, he did a symbolic victory lap because he had praised the Gay trade for improving the Grizzlies and he said that Prince was a better fit for Memphis than Gay.

It will be very interesting to see if the Grizzlies retain the services of Hollins, an excellent coach who publicly criticized the money-saving but strategically unsound Gay trade by saying, "When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget." Hollins has played a major role in Memphis' steady rise in the standings but his playoff rotation demonstrated that he has no use for the players who the Memphis "stat gurus" acquired in the Gay deal so his vision of how to compete for a championship may be incompatible with the front office's plans.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:56 PM

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Recurring Themes: San Antonio's Game Three Win Over Memphis Featured Familiar Storylines

No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best of seven playoff series--and it does not seem likely that the Memphis Grizzlies will accomplish that feat against the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs took a 3-0 lead over the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals with a 104-93 overtime victory on Saturday night. Many of the themes discussed here during the playoffs recurred during this contest:

1) Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins made it clear that he does not agree with the Rudy Gay trade

Tayshaun Prince, who replaced Rudy Gay in the starting lineup, scored seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting and had one rebound in 21 minutes. When Prince and Tony Allen are on the court, San Antonio packs the paint on defense and makes it difficult for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to even catch the ball near the hoop, let alone score. Prince sprained his ankle during the game but he was available for action; Hollins chose instead to often use reserve players Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter in place of Prince and Allen because Bayless and Pondexter provided a spark in game two with their shooting ability. This time, though, the results were mixed, as I predicted when I wrote, "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." Pondexter scored 15 points on 6-13 field goal shooting in 28 minutes but he had a -9 plus/minus rating, while Bayless scored seven points on 3-11 field goal shooting in 31 minutes and had a -18 plus/minus rating. If the Grizzlies still had Rudy Gay then Hollins could keep Allen on the court because Gay's presence/abilities would open things up enough offensively to compensate for Allen's lack of shooting range--but this series has shown that when Prince and Allen are on the court together it is very difficult for Memphis to score enough points to win.

2) Memphis missed Gay's ability to create his own shot/spread the floor

Right after Memphis traded Gay, I wrote, "Gay's field goal percentage has been hovering in career-low territory all season but his presence still created space for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and he ranked third on the team in rebounds, steals and blocked shots; Gay provided a lot of value that is not captured by 'advanced basketball statistics.'" During the game three telecast, Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly pointed out that the Spurs' defensive strategy is to smother Randolph and Gasol because the Spurs can just ignore the Grizzlies' perimeter players. Here is Van Gundy's comment after Mike Conley missed a tough runner on the last play of regulation with the score tied: "That's where you need someone with size and skill to go get you a shot. To ask Mike Conley to drive it on the dribble handoff into all that size--it's their best opportunity with the personnel that they have on the perimeter--but it's also a very difficult way to play." In other words, Van Gundy agrees with my analysis: it does not make sense for a contending team to trade a 6-9 player who was their leading scorer for spare parts.

The scientific method involves creating a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis experimentally and then modifying the hypothesis if the experiment proves that such modification is necessary; if "advanced basketball statistics" were the objective science that its supporters purport it to be, then those supporters would modify their hypotheses in light of experimental evidence: in other words, when a contending team trades its leading scorer because "advanced basketball statistics" assert that said player is not valuable/necessary and then the subsequent evidence shows that the team desperately misses said player's ability to create open shots for himself/others the "advanced basketball statistics" should be modified to reflect what the experimental evidence shows. Instead, we can expect to continue to hear "stat gurus" praise the Gay trade for supposedly propelling the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals--when, in fact, the Grizzlies advanced this far despite the trade, not because of it--while ignoring the obvious fact that the Grizzlies sorely miss Gay in this matchup with the Spurs.

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

Less than two weeks ago, I wrote, "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." Ginobili is not having a great series versus Memphis--or a great playoff run overall--but he played a key role in game three, scoring 19 points on 5-9 field goal shooting in 30 minutes while grabbing seven rebounds and passing for five assists. Being the third option is perfect for a player with Ginobili's skill set; he is talented and fearless but he is too erratic to be the number one option for a championship team. What Ginobili is doing for the Spurs is exactly what James Harden would be doing for the Oklahoma City Thunder if he had not rejected their contract offer in order to get a max deal with Houston; Harden is perfectly suited to be the third option on a championship team but he is a bit overmatched as the first option.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:50 PM

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