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Thursday, April 17, 2014

2013-14 Playoff Predictions

The Miami Heat have flown under the radar about as much as any two-time defending championship team can; mainstream media attention has focused on the upstart Indiana Pacers, the streaking San Antonio Spurs, the surprising Phoenix Suns, the sinking Philadelphia 76ers and many other storylines, while largely ignoring the fact that the Heat have a chance to place themselves in a rare group of teams that have reached the NBA Finals four straight years. That feat has only been accomplished by three legendary dynasties: 1957-66 Boston Celtics, 1982-85 L.A. Lakers, 1984-87 Boston Celtics. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to a pair of three-peats (1991-1993, 1996-98) but Jordan's first two retirements prevented the Bulls from potentially reaching the Finals four consecutive times.

This season, the Heat posted their worst winning percentage of the "Big Three" era but the same thing was true for the Jordan/Pippen teams in the third year of their two three-peats; sustaining a high level of excellence exacts a mental and physical toll but no one should expect that it will be easy to beat the Heat four times in seven games. The 1993 Bulls looked weary during the regular season and they faced a 2-0 deficit against the number one seeded New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals but then the Bulls ripped off four straight wins against the Knicks before defeating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

The San Antonio Spurs are rightfully considered to be the best team in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers are hungry--though flawed and vulnerable--challengers to Miami's Eastern Conference supremacy and the Oklahoma City can beat anyone if Russell Westbrook stays healthy but the Heat are chasing history while being led by a historically great player and it would be foolish to count them out. The Heat made it through the regular season with a good record while staying as healthy as could reasonably be expected and they will elevate their game in the playoffs. I expect them to join the Russell Celtics, Magic Lakers and Bird Celtics by making a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2014 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Indiana (56-26) vs. #8 Atlanta (38-44)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Atlanta can win if...their perimeter players get hot from three point range and if the Pacers fail to exploit their inside strength at the other end of the court; the Hawks ranked second in three point field goals attempted but just 13th in three point field goal percentage, so their best chance for an upset is to hope that enough of their long range bombs hit the target.

Indiana will win because...the Pacers are an elite defensive team, while the Hawks are mediocre at both ends of the court, as demonstrated by their sub-.500 record.

Other things to consider: Much has been made of the Pacers' struggles in the second half of the season but an 82 game marathon inevitably contains some ups and downs; the bottom line is that they maintained the number one record in the Eastern Conference for most of the campaign and, despite some embarrassing recent performances, they achieved their goal of earning homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers have some obvious weaknesses (including half court offensive execution, chemistry issues and Lance Stephenson's volatility) but the Hawks are not a good enough team to exploit those weaknesses.

#2 Miami (54-28) vs. #7 Charlotte (43-39)

Season series: Miami, 4-0

Charlotte can win if...team owner Michael Jordan enters a time machine, emerges two decades younger and signs himself to a pair of ten day contracts.

Miami will win because...this is the kind of series that has always brought out the best in LeBron James; even before he learned how to consistently excel in playoff series against elite teams he always demonstrated the capacity to put up huge numbers against inferior teams in early playoff rounds. All season long, James' critics have accused him of coasting and that storyline will probably cost James the MVP award but he will take out those frustrations in this series; look for him to post at least one 40 point game.

Other things to consider: Charlotte's rise to respectability has been remarkable; rookie Coach Steve Clifford deserves a lot of credit for improving the team's defense and overall mindset, while Al Jefferson provided leadership and great post presence. Dwyane Wade's inexorable physical decline could be a problem for Miami during the postseason but it will not be a major factor in this series.

#3 Toronto (48-34) vs. #6 Brooklyn (44-38)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Toronto can win if...the Raptors' youthful enthusiasm trumps the Nets' veteran savvy.

Brooklyn will win because...this veteran-laden team was put together to peak in the postseason; they are getting healthy and figuring out how to play together at just the right time.

Other things to consider: Many NBA fans have probably never heard of Masai Ujiri but when he ran the Nuggets he fleeced the Knicks out of several good players in exchange for an overrated Carmelo Anthony; it is not a coincidence that after he moved to Canada the Nuggets got worse while the Raptors instantly transformed into one of the top teams in the East. The Raptors posted the best record in franchise history and seem poised to make the playoffs for years to come but this is not a good playoff matchup for them.

#4 Chicago (48-34) vs. #5 Washington (44-38)

Season series: Washington, 2-1

Washington can win if...their young, talented backcourt duo (John Wall/Bradley Beal) suddenly acquires the wisdom of the ages--the kind of wisdom that is generally obtained by losing playoff series against tough-minded, veteran teams.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls' defense will cause fits for the young, impatient Wizards.

Other things to consider: Tom Thibodeau is the coaching equivalent of MacGyver: no Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, no problem: just give Thibodeau some duct tape (and a throat lozenge for his perpetually hoarse voice) and he'll work wonders. The Bulls do not have enough offensive firepower to make a deep playoff run but their defense and Thibodeau's strategic acumen will carry them into the second round.

Western Conference First Round

#1 San Antonio (62-20) vs. #8 Dallas (49-33)

Season series: San Antonio, 4-0

Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has a flashback and starts regularly posting 30 points/15 rebounds, if Monta Ellis goes off for about 25 ppg and if the Mavericks contain Tony Parker's dribble penetration without opening up opportunities for Tim Duncan inside and the Spurs' sharpshooters who camp out behind the three point line.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs are not only the better team overall but they have shown that they match up particularly well with the Mavericks.

Other things to consider: Armchair psychologists said that the Spurs could not recover from their devastating loss in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals--but the Spurs refuted that idea by playing valiantly in game seven. Then the armchair psychologists asserted that it would be too much for the old Spurs to make yet another championship run but the Spurs have been the class of the league for the better part of the season. The Spurs do not match up well with the Oklahoma City Thunder because they have no one who can stay in front of Russell Westbrook but they have no reason to fear any other team in the league.

#2 Oklahoma City (59-23) vs. #7 Memphis (50-32)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1

Memphis can win if...Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominate inside while the Grizzlies' wing players hit enough outside shots to prevent the Thunder's defense from clogging the paint.

Oklahoma City will win because...Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the two best players in this series and two of the five best players in the league. They will spearhead an offensive attack that will overwhelm the Grizzlies.

Other things to consider: Here they are in all of their glory, the team nobody wants to face; the Grizzlies needed a late season flourish to sneak into the playoffs with six fewer wins than they had last year but the top teams are supposedly petrified of them. Here is a different theory: the Thunder know that they would have beaten the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs if Westbrook had been healthy and they are very eager to prove that point on the sport's biggest stage. Look for the Grizzlies to struggle to score 90 points per game and look for a lot of Durant/Westbrook highlights as the Thunder stun the "experts."

In other "expert"-related news, objective observers are still searching in vain for a shred of proof that letting James Harden walk in order to keep Serge Ibaka has in any way weakened the Thunder or hurt their chances to win an NBA title.

#3 L.A. Clippers (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Golden State can win if...Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson--aka the "Splash Brothers"--rain jumpers from all angles and if David Lee picks up the slack inside for the injured Andrew Bogut.

L.A. will win because...Doc Rivers has spent the season changing the team's mindset; the Clippers are now more focused on defense and on half court execution as opposed to making the highlight reels as "Lob City." Chris Paul's extended absence due to injury proved that he is not, in fact, the best player on the team; that title belongs to Blake Griffin.

Other things to consider: Vinny Del Negro did a solid job with the Clippers when the team had a lot of players who needed to mature and it is worth noting that in Rivers' first year the Clippers only increased their victory total by one--but the coaching change is still justifiable because it is reasonable to believe that the Clippers have a higher ceiling with Rivers on the bench than they did with Del Negro calling the shots.

#4 Houston (54-28) vs. #5 Portland (54-28)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if...Dwight Howard dominates in the paint at both ends of the court and if James Harden shows that he can be a productive and efficient scorer/playmaker in the postseason as his team's number one option (as opposed to doing so as the third option, which was his role when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder).

Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will outplay Dwight Howard and James Harden.

Other things to consider: This is a "pick 'em" series; the teams have identical records, they are both talented offensively but flawed defensively and I cannot see either one making it past the second round unless their opponent suffers a serious injury to a star player. The deciding factor for me is that I trust Portland's style of play in the playoffs just a little more than I trust Houston's style of play.

The Rockets launch a lot of three pointers--leading the league in makes and attempts--but they only rank 16th in three point field goal percentage. If they get hot, they can put a scare into any team but this is not the NCAA Tournament, which means that they have to get hot for four out of seven games in order to advance.

The Blazers will try to establish Aldridge in the post, while also using Lillard's ballhanding ability and shooting touch to put pressure on Houston's suspect perimeter defenders. Harden will probably go off for 30-plus points in one of Houston's home games and he probably will have a couple 4-17 field goal shooting performances on the road. The series will be entertaining and closely contested but Portland will win in six or seven games.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Indiana-Chicago, Miami-Brooklyn, San Antonio-Portland and Oklahoma City-L.A. The Pacers-Bulls series could make for some brutal TV watching, with both teams struggling to score 80-85 points against suffocating defenses, but in the end the Pacers will prevail. The Nets were built with the primary goal of matching up with the Heat and they did so quite nicely during the regular season, sweeping the series--but the playoffs are a different animal and the Nets' geezers will run out of gas trying to chase around the athletic Heat. The Trailblazers have had a surprisingly good season but they will fall to the Spurs in the second round. The Thunder and the Clippers are developing an intense rivalry; that series will probably go the distance but in game seven at home Durant and Westbrook will not be denied.

Indiana has all of the necessary tools to beat Miami: size, toughness, defensive intensity, homecourt advantage. After a season during which the Pacers vowed to beat the Heat in the playoffs if game seven would be played in Indianapolis, the Eastern Conference Finals will be put up or shut up time for the would-be champions. From a historical standpoint, part of me does not believe that LeBron James and the Heat are quite equipped to reach territory only inhabited by three of the most legendary squads in pro basketball history--but, focusing purely on what we have seen from the Pacers this season, I don't quite trust Indiana in the biggest moments. James will likely add another page to his legacy by authoring a classic game seven performance on the road as the Heat survive what figures to be a grueling series.

The San Antonio-Oklahoma City series will be high level basketball at its finest. Russell Westbrook is the key factor in the series, because the Spurs simply have no answer for him, much like the 1980s Boston Celtics had no answer for the Philadelphia 76ers' Andrew Toney. If Westbrook is healthy, the Thunder will win. Perhaps I should not count on Westbrook's health, considering his recent injury history, but I am picking the Thunder.

A rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals will be fun to watch. LeBron James is now older and wiser but so are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The James-Durant battle will be epic but the series could be decided by the battle between the health of Dwyane Wade's cranky old knees and Westbrook's cranky young right knee. The Thunder were not quite ready two years ago but they have learned their lessons and Westbrook's injuries have also helped them to understand that every trip to the NBA Finals is precious because you never know when--or if--you will return. James is the best player in the NBA but the Thunder will prove to be the best team. If the Thunder win the championship with the much-criticized Westbrook and without the much-praised Harden it will be interesting to hear what the "experts" say.

********************

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

In my 2013-2014 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I also went six for eight in my 2013-2014 Western Conference Preview, including placing the top four in the correct order. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
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 56/72 in the East and 57/72 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .785.

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

2013: 14/15
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: 98/135 (.726)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past nine years I have correctly picked nine of the 18 NBA Finals participants. In three of those nine years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

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.

********************

This playoff preview article is, to some extent, a coda for 20 Second Timeout. I am beginning a two year law school journey that will limit the amount of time and energy I can devote to watching pro basketball, much less analyzing it at a high level--and then in late August I will become a first-time father, which obviously will be a life-changing experience in many ways. From my days at Basketball Digest through this website's nine year run, I have enjoyed sharing my knowledge about and passion for pro basketball with a dedicated group of loyal readers; I will miss being able to write extensive treatises about Julius Erving, Roger Brown, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other great pro basketball players past and present but the new chapter in my life promises many new adventures and opportunities for personal growth. I will continue to post here as my schedule permits and I like to think that the archival material in the main page sidebar can serve as a great resource for anyone who is interested in learning about basketball history and basketball analysis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:52 PM

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40 Comments:

At Thursday, April 17, 2014 6:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always really enjoy your playoff previews and this year is no different. Detailed and insightful as usual.

Congrats and good luck on your loss of time due to law school and fatherhood, and thanks for sharing your passion and thoughts on basketball with us.

Anyway, enough of that. I certainly agree with most of your assessments, particularly on the Eastern side. The West I believed to be a bit more murky, although factors like Bogut's very ill-timed injury clears the water quite a bit for that series.

I actually think the Grizzlies are the only team with a chance to beat OKC in the WC this year. They're a tough, defensive minded team with a lot of size that tries to limit mistakes on offense. The Thunder thrive in up-tempo games, but the Grizzlies will muck up the series as best they can. If Memphis somehow upsets OKC, I'd say the Spurs are in the NBA championship round; otherwise it's Heat vs Thunder 2 for the championship.

Thanks again for all the terrific articles.

Happydaze

 
At Thursday, April 17, 2014 8:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Happydaze:

Thank you for your good wishes. Responding to intelligent commenters has been one of the highlights of running this website.

I think that the Grizzlies will have to make a lot of perimeter shots to beat the Thunder, because the Thunder are not going to just let Randolph and Gasol operate one on one in the paint. The Thunder will also try to run off of every missed shot and turnover. Without Westbrook, they did not have the firepower to do that during last year's playoffs but things will be much different this time around, as long as Westbrook's knee holds up.

 
At Friday, April 18, 2014 1:47:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Congratulations on law school and fatherhood, as well!

I agree on most of your picks, but wonder about your assertion that Lillard and Aldridge will outscore Howard and Harden.

After all, the Beard averaged 30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds & 5.3 assists against the Blazers, and Howard dropped 25.5 points & 13.5 rebounds against them.

 
At Friday, April 18, 2014 2:34:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

Congratulations. Fatherhood is life changing experience indeed.

I will miss your analysis in this barren world of so called experts.

As of playoffs, I think coaching is underestimated, while it gives the edge most of the time, so I wouldn't pick Rockets or Wizards or Grizzlies or Warriors in those 'flip coin' series.
I think Miami is kind of sleeper this time around and will get its three-peat.

 
At Friday, April 18, 2014 2:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

Thank you.

I wrote that Aldridge and Lillard will "outplay" Howard and Harden, not that they will necessarily "outscore" them. Aldridge will probably outscore Howard and Harden may outscore Lillard but I expect the Portland duo to be more effective and efficient overall.

Harden averaged 29.3 ppg on .442 field goal shooting versus OKC during the 2012-13 regular season but in the 2013 playoffs he averaged 26.3 ppg on .391 field goal shooting as his Rockets lost to OKC in six games. I expect Harden's playoff performance this season to follow a similar trajectory. The best way to defend Harden is to blitz him on screen/roll plays so that he does not have open three point shots; he will then either pass the ball or else force a contested three. When Harden drives, it is important to avoid physical contact--he loves to flop and flail--and thus force him to either shoot a midrange J or else finish over a big man at the rim. Not every team is willing or able to defend Harden like this possession after possession during the regular season but in the playoffs it will be a different story. That is why Harden is better suited to being a third option than a first option.

 
At Friday, April 18, 2014 3:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

I agree with you that the importance of coaching is often underestimated--and I think that the so-called experts have even more trouble evaluating coaches than they have evaluating players.

 
At Friday, April 18, 2014 3:50:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David, as a voracious eater of all things NBA, this site has been a truly valuable resource for me over the years—a well-written, thorough, intelligent, and consistent site where I have learned something every time I’ve visited. From the history lessons regarding great but largely overlooked players to the unbiased breakdown of teams/coaches/basketball ideas to the illuminating dialogue regarding the limitations (but importance) of the statistical revolution, I have become a better watcher, reader, and enjoyer of NBA basketball thanks greatly to your insight.

As a practicing “Friedman disciple” for half a decade now, I’ll admit I’ve caught flak around the interwebs for quoting you and linking to your posts. But more often than not, history (i.e. intelligent, level-headed observation) has sided with you and therefore me by association. The proof is in the pudding as your 76% accuracy on playoff predictions remains Phil Jackson-esque .

The NBA community, whether it knows it or not, is losing a significant voice.

Best of luck with the new addition to your family as well as your journey into law school (hopefully that one-two combination won’t be too Durant/Westbrook or Shaq/Kobe on your sleep schedule!)

Your adherence to objectivity will be key for the former, and your ability to argue away popular opinion will serve you well in the latter. Thanks for everything!

 
At Friday, April 18, 2014 4:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Thank you very much for your long-term support of this site and for your kind words.

I appreciate the sentiment that history has vindicated many of the allegedly controversial positions that I took about certain players, teams and coaches; finding and speaking the truth has always been my primary motivation.

The new sleep schedule will be an adjustment, because for many years I have been accustomed to watching games and writing about them at all hours of the day and night but now I have other responsibilities that take precedence.

 
At Saturday, April 19, 2014 7:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you David! I´ve always been a regular reader of your blog, in my opinion the best no-nonsense basketball blog I´ve come across. The way you look at this sport is the right way, and all these years being right in your predictions or your assessments on players and teams make a great case for you.
Good luck in your endeavours, and I hope to read you again!
Olivdub

 
At Sunday, April 20, 2014 5:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James Harden Defense Highlights

 
At Sunday, April 20, 2014 9:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Olivdub:

Thank you for your support!

 
At Sunday, April 20, 2014 9:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Those highlights are hilarious! The clueless look on Harden's face as he is repeatedly out of position is absolutely priceless.

 
At Tuesday, April 22, 2014 11:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always enjoyed reading your articles. Good luck with being a father and the law school. I hope you can find time to continue to write.

Salih Çevikarslan

 
At Tuesday, April 22, 2014 12:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Salih:

Thank you!

I plan to write at least a little bit but I know that I will not be able to write as frequently as I previously did.

 
At Tuesday, April 22, 2014 6:10:00 PM, Anonymous Charles said...

David,

I am a regular reader (not always a regular commenter!) and I wanted to chime in and add my thanks for your writing as well as my well wishes for the new journeys ahead.

I have not always agreed with you on everything but I have always appreciated the depth of your analyses and you never fail to add food for thought. In addition I have always found your articles a welcome relief from oft-wrong "conventional wisdom".

I'll still check back frequently in hopes that you will jot down a few notes on the playoffs ;) I agree that Miami is still the Eastern favorite and the West will be down to San Antonio and OKC, with the Clippers as a dark horse.

 
At Tuesday, April 22, 2014 7:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Charles:

Thank you!

I will still provide some playoff coverage/analysis but not to the extent that I did for the past several years.

 
At Tuesday, April 22, 2014 11:26:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Funny story on Grantland that talks about Chris Paul. Thought you might get a kick out of it as you've always contended that while he is really good, he's not good enough to carry a team to the Finals.

http://grantland.com/the-triangle/the-clippers-and-the-chris-paul-paradox/

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2014 11:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I just saw that article last night. CP3 is a great player but he is no Isiah Thomas, despite how the "stat gurus" massage the "advanced basketball statistics" to supposedly prove that CP3 is as good as Kobe Bryant used to be or as LeBron James and Kevin Durant currently are.

It is very revealing that the Clippers looked their best this season when CP3 was not playing, because his absence enabled Blake Griffin's game to blossom. The popular narrative is that CP3 "makes his teammates better" but Griffin showed that he can play at an All-NBA First Team level without CP3.

I would take an in his prime McGrady or Nowitzki over CP3 without hesitation. Iverson is a tougher call because he carries some off-court baggage--but Iverson also lifted a team of role players to the NBA Finals, while CP3 has been surrounded by better talent than Iverson and has not even reached the Conference Finals. If I were a GM, I'd take Iverson over CP3 if I had a Larry Brown or Phil Jackson as a coach who could extract the maximum from Iverson.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 3:22:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Well, I've always found you interesting, even if I've sometimes disagreed with you. Been reading for a few years.

I found your site because of your excellent coverage of the ABA and of Doc. I agree with basically everything you ever wrote about either, and it's refreshing to find a basketball journalist that understands just how incredible Doc was and doesn't just sweep his achievements under the rug in order to build up the (also great) resumes of Magic (stunk on D) or Jordan (incredibly blessed with health/coach/teammates/not having to beat the 80s versions of Bird's Celtics or Magic's Lakers).

I appreciate that you're always level-headed and yet still manage to be funny. The biggest thing I probably disagreed with you on over the years is the value of volume shooter/lazy defense guys like Kobe and Westbrook, who I've always felt you overvalue by about one "tier"; I think they're great (but flawed), you think they're transcendent... but that's an argument for another day and one I imagine we've had before.

Also, you're probably a little harder than Simmons than he deserves, as you two seem to agree about 80% of the time.

All that said, though, I've always found you to be one of the most knowledgeable, entertaining, and prolific basketball writers out there, and certainly one that's unmatched in scope and coverage (don't know anybody else who's covered everyone from Warren Jabali to James Harden). I'll miss reading you on a semi-regular basis, but I'm glad to see you'll still be a presence, however reduced.

One last historic question for you before you semi-leave, out of nostalgia as much as anything.. how do you rate Rick Barry? I feel like he's got a half-decent pantheon case, but everything I know about him I've learned from old footage and reading, and much of his career (visually) has been lost to the ages.

Congrats on all the big life-changey stuff.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 4:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Thank you for your good wishes.

Covering the ABA in general and Doc in particular has been one of the highlights of my writing career.

Kobe Bryant has been selected to the All-Defensive Team by the league's coaches 12 times, more than any player other than Tim Duncan. "Stat gurus" who cannot quantify Bryant's career-long defensive excellence make snide comments about the voting process but the other players who have earned at least nine All-Defensive Team selections are Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Jones, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Johnson, Michael Jordan, Jason Kidd, Hakeem Olajuwon and Gary Payton--and nobody disputes the defensive greatness of those players, so are we really supposed to believe that there is some great conspiracy to wrongly place Bryant in such elite defensive company? Another thing that Bryant's critics like to do is take out of context one comment from one Phil Jackson book and extrapolate that to mean that Jackson said that Bryant is not a great defender. Bryant's defensive greatness during his prime is acknowledged by unbiased observers who understand the NBA game. Westbrook is not as good as Bryant at either end of the court but his game is unjustly criticized in ways that are very similar to the ways that Bryant's game has been unjustly criticized. When Westbrook is healthy, he is the best guard in the league now.

It may be true that my published opinions agree with Simmons' on some issues but I vehemently disagree with his takes on Dr. J and his pro-Boston bias and his fondness for the "stat gurus." I also vehemently disagree with the way that he criticizes certain NBA coaches (particularly Doc Rivers) while displaying little knowledge of what it actually takes to be a top notch NBA coach. When I criticize an NBA coach or GM, I state specific, verifiable mistakes that those people have made--and I do so with the full knowledge that the worst coaches and GMs in the NBA still know a lot more about basketball than just about anyone on the planet. Simmons lacks such perspective or at least he chooses not to express it because he can achieve higher ratings for ESPN by being antagonistic. One coach I have criticized is P.J. Carlesimo, but I listed specific reasons and I also made specific predictions, such as saying that his Nets would lose most of the close games to Chicago in last year's playoffs. Simmons blasted Rivers without making valid criticisms or specific, verifiable predictions.

Barry's career is very interesting. I would rank him just below Pantheon level; his career largely overlapped with Erving's and Erving won four regular season MVPs, two Finals MVPs and three championships while Barry won no regular season MVPs, one Finals MVP and one championship. There is not room here in the comments section to go into an in depth analysis but the aforementioned facts suggest that Erving was a more dominant and consistent performer over the course of his career.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 4:32:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I watched Kobe his whole career (grew up in a Lakers house), he just rarely ever really tried on defense until the last four minutes of a game, even in the playoffs; he was generally more interested in gambling for steals or setting himself up for transition dunks. It's why guys like Raja Bell and Bruce Bowen tended to have their best offensive nights against him despite basically being spot-up shooters; Kobe's priorities were different than the priorities of anyone I think of as a great defender.

I don't have a good explanation for his making the All Defensive teams. My best speculation is that because he could lock in when he wanted to, and when he wanted to was frequently at the end of close games (that, granted, probably wouldn't have been close if he'd been playing D the entire game), there may have been some recency bias or dramatic moments bias in the voting, because it's a lot easier to remember the game-winning steal than the thirty minutes of solid ball denial.

I was the one arguing with you about Westbrook vs. Dragic pretty recently, and I think that the biggest thing for me is just that Westbrook is a flat-out bad defender (this has been very clear in the first two games against Memphis, which isn't a particularly sophisticated offensive team, particularly on the perimeter); often out of position, prefers to go under even weak screens, rarely makes a second or third rotation with any urgency… and if I'm going to call somebody the best guard in the league, I'd like him to play at a high level on both sides of the ball. When healthy, that's probably Derrick Rose (who's offensive game is similar to Westbrook's, but who is a MUCH better defender; some of that should probably be credited to Thibs, but I can only comment on what I see on the court). Since Rose is not now and may never again be healthy, I'd say the best "when healthy" guard in the league right now is likely Dwayne Wade, although he's also developed some defensive bad habits late in his career. The best guard this season was either Dragic (who put up 20/50%/40% with 5.9 assists this season, numbers that only Bird & Lebron have ever matched, while also playing excellent, committed team and individual defense for a team with little defensive firepower) or Chris Paul (who missed a significant chunk of time and is a little undersized, but is perhaps the best player in the league at recognizing other teams' offensive sets and communicating appropriate counter-strategy to his team).

Sorry, couldn't help myself. One last argument for the road.

I believe Dr. J to be the greatest player ever, so I agree that he was better than Barry. However, in Barry's era the MVP was chosen by the players, and Barry was notoriously unliked by opposing (and sometimes even not opposing) players, so I don't' believe that a lack of MVPs is a particularly fair criticism against him. He was an extraordinarily consisted player during his prime (though of course Doc's was longer, somebody like Shaq or Magic's wasn't), and an absolute playoff assassin. Based on the 40-60 hours or so I've seen him play, he also seemed to be a pretty excellent passer and defender. The relative lack of titles is a stronger criticism, but even a transcendent player needs a tremendous amount of help to reach that plateau (see Doc's teams from 77-82). Barry's NBA championship is a very impressive one, though, with his record-setting scoring average and relatively weak (by Finals standards) supporting cast.

All fair points on Simmons, but I still feel that on balance he has a much better feel for the league than 99% of "mainstream" journalists, and is refreshingly willing to admit when he's wrong, something that very few major journalists do. Also, while he does have respect for advanced stats, on his podcasts, at least, he's a very vocal proponent of the eye test over advanced statistics, whatever that's worth.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 10:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

During Kobe's prime, Doc Rivers called him the greatest help defender since Scottie Pippen. Hubie Brown also praised Kobe's defense on many occasions. Kobe was the defensive stopper for Team USA in 2008, a fact noted by Coach K and many other informed observers. The NBA head coaches consistently voted Kobe to the All-Defensive First Team because they recognized how disruptive he was both as a lockdown defender and as a help defender. Kobe was the quarterback for the Lakers' defense, which is very unusual--the big man is usually the quarterback, because he can see the whole offensive set while a guard cannot easily see what is going on behind him. Kobe also often had to defend quick point guards after Fisher became too old and slow to do so.

We already both made out points about Westbrook versus Dragic in a previous thread. Westbrook has consistently established himself as an All-NBA caliber performer, while this was a breakout season for Dragic. I cannot rank Dragic over a healthy Westbrook based on one season and I am also leery to do so because Westbrook is far superior as an athlete; Westbrook can dominate in a way that Dragic never will.

You are right that Barry's lack of popularity among his peers hurt him in MVP balloting and I already said that he is just below Pantheon level but I think that in every category except passing and free throw shooting I would take Doc: better one on one scorer, better rebounder, better defender, more explosive athlete, better leader/teammate. Barry's 1975 season/postseason was extraordinary, though one could argue that Erving's 1976 campaign was even more impressive. Today on Sirius NBA Radio, Kevin Loughery (Erving's New York coach, who also coached Jordan and Nique), said that Erving's 1976 ABA Finals performance was the best single series performance in pro basketball history.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I love Doc Rivers, but come on. You've been covering the NBA long enough to know that he's as prone to hyperbole as Simmons or Walton, if not moreso. Just this season he compared Deandre Jordan favorably to Bill Russell. Doc's a brilliant coach, but he's not super credible as a soundbite.

Kobe was absolutely the defensive stopper on that 2008 team… which made the decade of half-assed defense he played in LA all the more infuriating. I never said that Kobe couldn't play good defense, only that he generally didn't. Perhaps it was his alleged greatness as a help defender that so often left his man open for those corner threes? Regardless, there's a reason the Lakers didn't start winning titles again until they got actual perimeter defenders like Ariza and Artest/World Peace to guard the other team's best guy, and that reason is that Kobe just didn't care for forty-four minutes.

I have some respect for Hubie Brown, but without the context of his compliments its hard for me to comment on them; I already agree that Kobe, for the ten percent or so of a game where he felt like it, was a very good defender; if Hubie's comments came during those moment they don't have much to do with my argument that Kobe generally loafed and gambled for the first forty minutes or so.

In the interests of having my own sources, both Phil Jackson and former teammate Robert Horry have ripped Kobe as a defender. Both of those people would know Kobe's game better than either Rivers or Brown.

Ultimately for me, though, it's as simple as watching the games; minus a few aberrations (Brandon Jennings in 2013, for whatever reason, earned an entire game of Kobe's defensive focus) Kobe's been a half-assed defender of the overwhelming majority of his court time. He leaves his man often to gamble for steals or over help, he's not very physical, and he (like Westbrook) is a pretty big wuss about going through screens. He's just not in the league of pantheon level defenders like Jordan, Erving, West, or Lebron (all of whom were as good or better on offense). Or non-Pantheon level great defenders like Pippen, Havlicek, Bobby Jones, Michael Cooper, or Raja Bell.

Another point that, for me, keeps Kobe out of the Pantheon level is that he's the only elite player I can think of who demonstrably cost his team a Finals. In 2004, Kobe was shooting 38% from the floor against Detroit, Shaq was shooting 63%, and Kobe still took way, way more shots than Shaq in some kind of misguided attempt to "prove" he was the man. He took 29 more shots than Shaq, including 23 threes in five games, of which he made…four of them. He may as well have been wearing a Detroit jersey. Yes, he won two titles later, and yes, he's a great player, but Detroit had no answer to Shaq and that was an eminently winnable series; Kobe cost LA a championship that year, and watching the games he frequently chose to take dumb shots when there was an easy entry pass to Shaq or an open teammate on the perimeter. I can't remember Doc or Jordan or Kareem bullheadedly chucking up endless contested misses while their teammates were quietly putting up elite numbers on way fewer attempts, can you?

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Split for length (if this continues I'll probably just stick to one topic)…

On Dragic and Westbrook, I think we mostly agree that Westbrook's had the better career, but Dragic's had the better year. Time will tell if Dragic can change the latter point; if Westbrook becomes a smarter player (particularly on defense), that's going to be very hard for Dragic to do as he's never going to be the athlete that Westbrook is, even if at this point in their careers his performance is better than Westbrook's in everything but rebounding.

Again, on Barry I agree that he's not better than Erving. I just wonder if he's not better than, say, Magic (who is also in the Pantheon). I'll pre-empt the title argument by pointing out that Magic generally had 3-5 other elite players on his team, including potential GOAT Kareem, a luxury that Barry did not have.

Doc's 1976 Finals performance is, in my opinion, absolutely the best basketball anyone's ever played. That said, I'd put Rick Barry's 1975 performance second or third.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 1:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I watched the games, too, and I saw something much different than what you apparently saw, so we will have to agree to disagree regarding Kobe's defensive effectiveness.

The story of the 2004 Finals is Karl Malone's injury. With a healthy Malone, the Lakers likely would have prevailed. The second most important story of the 2004 Finals is that Gary Payton could not guard Billups or Hamilton and whoever he was assigned to went off. Kobe had to exert a lot of energy trying to cover up for Payton's defense. Payton was also not a good point guard in the Triangle, at least at that stage of his career. Kobe did not cost the Lakers that series and, in fact, he carried them to the only victory that they scored.

In a long career, it is possible to cherry pick individual games, shots or moments and slam even the greatest players. Magic Johnson made some terrible plays in the 1984 Finals but no one talks about that anymore because of his overall body of work. Larry Bird could not hit the broad side of a barn during the 1981 Finals and the Finals MVP that series was Cedric Maxwell but no one thinks less of Bird now because of that. Kobe won three titles as an All-NBA level player alongside Shaq and then he was indisputably the best player on back to back championship teams in 2009 and 2010. Did Kobe play flawlessly in every season, series and game? Of course not, but--as I have repeatedly written--he is subjected to more intense play by play criticism of what he does or does not do than any other great player in recent memory. When Kobe came back this season, all I heard was that he was hurting the team, his defense was bad, etc. Really? He was really interfering with Mike (No D) Antoni's ace defensive schemes? When Kobe was healthy, he carried Kwame, Smush and a cartoon-character filled team to the Western Conference playoffs and if he had been healthy this season he would probably have at least come close to matching that feat if (No D) Antoni did not run him into the ground and blow out Kobe's other Achilles. The criticism that Kobe takes is just unbelievable, in every sense of that word.

Westbrook has now inherited that burden of unfair criticism--if Durant goes cold from the field, you can bet that the media will find a way to blame Westbrook, and if Durant has a great shooting game you can bet that the media will say that this proves that Westbrook shoots too much. Whatever happens is used as proof that Westbrook did something wrong or could have done something better.

Dragic is a nice player and a deserving winner of the Most Improved Player award but it is silly to compare him to a perennial All-NBA level player. Saying that he is better than an injured Westbrook is like saying that he is better than an injured Bryant--even if that is true, what does it prove? If Westbrook stays healthy, he and the Thunder will likely make a deep playoff run, while Dragic did not even get his team into the playoffs--and the Suns were in perfect position with a week to go, so if Dragic were the player you say he is then he would have led the Suns to the head to head victories they needed in their mini round robin with Dallas and Memphis. His 27 points on 12-30 shooting from the field in those games does not detract from the season that he had overall but it also did not make me jump to think of him as the franchise player you portray him to be.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 1:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...



Nick:

Barry's 1975 Finals performance is one for the ages, no doubt about it. Jordan's 1993 Finals was not too shabby, though, and Jerry West once averaged 46.3 ppg in a series. What Doc did stands apart because he led both teams in every major statistical category and his team won the championship against a squad that had previously won a game against the All-Stars from the rest of the league! Even though that All-Star Game was an exhibition, it still demonstrated the talent level of the Nuggets (two HoF players, HoF coach, arguably the best defensive forward in either league at the time, plus some solid role players).

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 1:41:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

On Chris Paul I believe he is being undervalued here. The Clippers did survive when Paul was out for that stretch. And yes Blake Griffin performed well in Paul's absence and has become a better player with time. But all of this doesn't mean that the Clippers are better off without him. The Thunder continued to win games and maintain an elite record without Westbrook. But that doesn't mean they're better off without Westbrook.

Paul has proven that he is an all NBA first team and all NBA first team defense calibur player. A legit MVP level player. He put the Clippers on the map when he arrived.

As for Paul never leading his teams past the second round, Paul hasn't had great talent around him his whole career, He's made the most of what he had around him. He's only in his third season with the Clippers.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 1:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

You can't defend Westbrook by citing his injury than ignore that Dragic played those last two games of the season on a badly sprained ankle that was taped all the way up to his knee and with an elbow that was visibly turning purple. And, in our previous conversations, I compared Dragic to Westbrook's best numbers, and the statistics still favored Dragic. The argument against Dragic is that he's only done it for one season, but on both sides of the ball this season (which is all I'm talking about, really) he's put in performances that either compete with Westbrook's best (offensively) or destroy it (defensively).

For a little perspective on how good Dragic was this year, his PPG/FG%/3pFG% place him as one of exactly four players to reach those numbers in the last twenty years; the others are Lebron (a multiple time MVP), Durant (about to be MVP), and Dirk (MVP). That's a pretty nice club to be in. If you reach back further, it only adds three players to the list, for a total of seven. If you add in Dragic's assist numbers (5.9), then no guard has ever matched those numbers in NBA history, and only Lebron and Bird have topped them. Pretty good company; Westbrook has not ever had a season with anywhere near that level of offensive efficiency, and has also never been a particularly heady defensive player.

One last statistical point; lineups featuring Dragic scored at a rate of about 112 points per 100 possessions, which would have easily led the league. All non-Dragic PHX lineups that played any meaningful minutes scored at a near league-worst rate. The offensive/defensive numbers for Westbrook's team were largely static regardless of whether or not he played, because, you know Durant. My point isn't so much to diminish Wesbtrook's contributions as to point out that if you put a player like Durant next Dragic, it's safe to say they'd probably make the playoffs.

It's also pretty unfair to decry Dragic for missing the playoffs when he's quite literally the only member of his team who was even a starter a season ago, and his best teammate (Bledsoe) missed nearly half the season. Even despite that, it's likely that a healthy Dragic would have swung at least one of the three extremely close games against SA/DAL/MEM down the stretch that killed PHX's playoff hopes.

One last coda on Kobe: It's true that Malone's injury was a major factor, but its ridiculous to suggest that it's a bigger deal than Kobe's feckless chucking. It's ridiculous for a player shooting 38% percent to take six more shots per game than the player shooting 63%, particularly when the player shooting 63% is also getting the other team's thin front court in foul trouble. It's clear to anyone who watched that Kobe was trying to make a point, and it's equally clear that it cost them the series. Kobe also managed to sport the 2nd worst Defensive and 4th worst Offensive ratings for the Lakers' top 9 guys in that series. He was actively hurting the team, and it's not really arguable.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 4:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

The issue regarding CP3 is not just what should reasonably be expected of him but also how the media portrays him compared to how the media portrays McGrady, Nowitzki prior to 2011, etc. The "stat gurus" and media elevate CP3 to equal status with James, Durant and Bryant, yet they do not critique him the same way that they critiqued McGrady and Nowitzki, who they never rated as highly as CP3 in the first place. McGrady and Nowitzki have always been dominant postseason performers, with McGrady setting scoring records and Nowitzki putting up a run of 30/15 games that had not been seen since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; in contrast, CP3 often looks fatigued, run down and overwhelmed in the playoffs.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 4:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

We have been back and forth about Westbrook and Dragic. Yes, Dragic was better than Westbrook this season--and better than Bryant, Rose, Wade, etc. So what? Westbrook, Bryant, Rose and Wade are all much better than Dragic when healthy and they all have accomplished much more than Dragic during their careers. Dragic has had one good season. That does not make him better than the other guys overall. I disagree that this season Dragic has been better than Westbrook ever has. You are relying way too much on "advanced basketball statistics."

As for the conventional numbers that you cited, does the fact that Dragic is in that group of four mean that he had the fourth best season ever? Does it mean that he is the fourth best player of all-time? No, it just means that he shoots the ball really well as measured by three different percentages. Is he a better shooter than players who did not amass those particular numbers in a single season? Not necessarily.

The business about points per possession with different lineups is just too noisy to tell us anything meaningful. Who were Dragic and his teammates playing against in that sample size? Which teams were coming off of back to backs or long road trips? The five man data is interesting but it is a very poor way to determine individual player rankings.

Regarding injuries, Westbrook is playing on a knee that has been operated on three times in a very short time frame, a more serious concern than the routine injuries Dragic faced in the final two games of the season. Bryant led the Lakers to a championship with an avulsion fracture in one finger on his shooting hand, a bum knee and a few other injuries.

I watched the 2004 Finals quite closely and it is obvious that we saw the series quite differently. You cannot just look at FG% and determine who should be shooting the ball. By that measure, Tyson Chandler is a dominant player. Granted, Shaq in 2004 was much better than Chandler will ever be but your description of what happened in the 2004 Finals is off the mark--and outside the scope of this comments section, though I will add a few closing thoughts.

If you are a fan of five man lineups, go look up how the Lakers did when Malone played during that season and postseason. If you want to compare Shaq and Kobe at that stage of their careers, consider that Shaq partnered up with Wade and won exactly one more ring, while Kobe carried Kwame and Smush to the playoffs before winning two rings with Pau Gasol. I know that "stat gurus" love Wade and Gasol and dislike Bryant but it is tough to rationally argue that Bryant had a better sidekick and/or a better team around him in post-Shaq L.A. than Shaq did in Miami. If Shaq had been willing to defer to Kobe from 2003 onward the Lakers would have won several more titles, because even a declining Shaq would have been more dominant than Gasol ever was.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2014 5:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I don't think "Field goal percentage" is a particularly "advanced" statistic, but we can agree to mostly agree but kinda disagree on Dragic vs. Westbrook.

On five man noise, though, it's a lot less noisy when it's the starters and they've (in PHX's case) have played over 400 minutes. They were mostly playing against other teams' starters or crunch time units at the start of the 1st and 3rd and end of the 4th quarters. My point with that data though was more that Dragic's team performs extremely well when he's on the floor, despite everyone else on the team being somewhere between "ok" and "bad" whenever he sits. Most if not all of his new teammates also put up career numbers playing with him, thanks both to his passing and the defensive attention he draws (and at least some credit to coach Hornacek). That sort of leadership is valuable, and there's no data that suggests Westbrook has that kind of impact on his own teammates, who performed roughly at the same level with or without him this season and last.

Anyways, I'm sure you're busy so I'll make one final comment on the 2004 Finals before wishing you a fond farewell.

It's not about field goal percentage so much as common sense. But in their time together, the Lakers won 3 titles throwing the ball down low to Shaq, and in that series he was making mincemeat out of the game but undersized Ben Wallace. Kobe, by contrast, was jacking up 3s at a rate which would have benched any other player in the league, frequently over outstretched defenders, and making less than 20% of them. Everyone else on his team was shooting a higher percentage than he was; after two or three games of that any reasonable player would try to find another way to contribute and help his team win (see Kobe himself in the 2010 Finals Game 7 realizing his shot wasn't going and hitting the boards like a madman). But Kobe kept shooting, kept ignoring Shaq (and Kobe is certainly a good enough passer to enter the ball to Shaq in deep position, as we'd seen for the seven years prior), and ultimately couldn't bring himself to prioritize winning. That Kobe had more success later is a function of age, health, motivation, and teammates, but has nothing to do with who was the better player at that time in their respective careers; it was clearly Shaq.

I also think you maybe underestimate how high my opinion of Kobe is; I think he's one of the two or three best players ever below the Pantheon level, putting him squarely in the top 15 total. But I don't remember Bird, Jordan, or Doc costing their team a title the way Kobe did by refusing to go to what had been working for five years out of whatever motive possessed him to put on that JR Smithian performance. While it's true that most of them had series where they shot poorly, they didn't have series where they shot poorly while also shooting 29 more shots than their closest teammate (who was shooting brilliantly). As to the Chandler comparison, it's wholly irrelevant; Shaq was shooting 60+% for a team that had built its offense around him doing roughly that for years. Detroit had no answer for him and you know it.

Anyways. Congrats on the baby, congrats on law school, and I hope you still find time to come back here and bicker with us every now and again.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2014 12:34:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

Regarding the Piston's victory in the 2004 NBA Finals, they deserved that victory 100 percent.

Kobe Bryant was the hero in game two for the Lakers, But overall he did not have a very good series. He had a bad series just like any other great player can. He got criticized just like any other all time great player if they don't come up big in a series. You can criticize Kobe for his not so good performance, but I can't say he was really trying to sabotage the Lakers chances of winning, by trying to prove a point, some people feel that way. It was his low point during his prime.

Karl Malone was valuable for the Lakers. But I don't believe it's fair to say he was the difference maker for the Lakers winning had he been healthier. The Lakers didn't lose in what some people label a "five game sweep" because Malone wasn't healthy, They lost because the Pistons dominated them. They played great defense. The Lakers struggled as a whole.

If Shaq and Kobe both played a lot better as well as the other Laker players to make the series more competive and they lose in six games instead of being beaten down in five, you could then make a case Malone being healthier could have lead to a Laker victory.
Kobe played his worse series during his prime and all of the Lakers role players were non existant. So I don't believe a Fourty year old Malone shift the series in favor of A Laker title. unless he could probably turn back time and turn into a 30ppg scorer.

You're right about Shaq not deferring to Kobe. It's funny the minute Shaq lands in Miami from the trade he immediately takes a back seat to Wade by saying Miami was Wade's team. He definitely could have done done the same thing with Kobe had the Lakers stayed together after 2004. I'm not sure how many more titles they could have won together. Because that would have depended on how motivated Shaq was. In a sense after the 2002 title I believe he wasn't that hungry for another title. So maybe the move to Miami sort of reenergized him.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2014 4:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

When I referred to "advanced basketball statistics" I meant the points per possession five man data, not FG%. The data is very noisy even at the 400 minute level, because that is just a small fraction of the season (less than 10 games).

Bledsoe put up career numbers in half a season because this was his first chance to be a full-time starter. P.J. Tucker's FG% cratered this season but his scoring average increased because his MPG increased. Gerald Green is a talented underachiever who had a very good season. Channing Frye's numbers this season are comparable to his numbers from the past several seasons. I just don't see the evidence for the Dragic effect that you are describing. Compare Phoenix' roster to the 2006 and 2007 Lakers; Kobe dragged a team to the playoffs that had a starting PG who did not even belong in the league (Smush) and a starting center who is a career-long journeymen (Kwame), plus a supporting cast of below average players. Look at what those players did before and after they played with Kobe. Dragic had a very good season but you get carried away when you try to elevate him past the status of a first-time All-Star.

Regarding the 2004 Finals, Kobe did not have a great series but he did not sabotage the team and he is not why the Lakers lost. Phil Jackson pinpointed Shaq's terrible defense, Payton's disappearing act and Malone's injury. Jackson also noted that Kobe had carried the Lakers for the entire season (Shaq missed a lot of time due to injury and did not round into shape until late in the campaign) and seemed to run out of gas in the Finals--which is much different from your take, that Kobe stubbornly played in a way that prevented the Lakers from winning, a contention that is not supported by any evidence. I don't have the time now to do an in depth analysis of the 2004 Finals--but I did write about that series in my 2009 article about Kobe's Finals resume:

Kobe Bryant's NBA Finals Resume

For now, that will be my final word about that series. Thank you for your well wishes and I also hope to find the time to engage in further back and forth at some point.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2014 4:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

The Pistons played well and are worthy champions but when one breaks down the matchup objectively it is clear that the Lakers were not at full strength.

Look up the Lakers' record that season when Malone played. The drop off from Malone to Medvedenko was severe and was felt particularly hard against a team like Detroit that featured Rasheed Wallace at power forward. If Malone could have provided even just 12 ppg and 8 rpg that would have changed the dynamic of the series. Instead, Malone hobbled around for four games and missed one game entirely. That was a huge loss for the Lakers. Don't forget that an injury that Derek Fisher suffered in the previous round limited him, too.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2014 8:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

No need to post or reply to this (I get that you're getting tired of going round on it, and I apologize), and I'll leave the Kobe thing alone for the time being, but your analysis of the Suns is flawed.

While it's true that Tucker's overall FG% is down, both his 3PFG% and his TS% are way up (and career highs); 3 pointers are the shot most dependent on being set up by teammates. His 2PFG% is largely down because many of his two-point shots are either attempted tip ins off of offensive rebounds or late in the shot clock prayers thrown up while Dragic sits and the offense stagnates. You will note, however, that his 3pFG% has jumped by over 6%, changing him from a bad 3 shooter into a pretty good one; if you've watched much PHX this year, you already know that most of those attempts are corner shots created by Dragic bending the defense with his penetration.

Frye's #s are indeed comparable to his last few years… during which he played with a prime or near-prime Steve Nash, the best passer of the last ten years. Most Nash teammates do not maintain production when they/he leaves (except for Amare in NY for those first few months), but Frye's numbers have stayed solid with Dragic running the offense.

Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, and both Morris Twins all saw their shooting percentages and scoring rise immensely this season. Its true that the Morris twins were in PHX with Dragic last year, but Dragic was not yet what he's become this season, and/or Lindsey Hunter's system was much less equipped to make use of his talents than Jeff Hornacek's.


If you would like to give Bledsoe credit for his own breakout year you're welcome to, but note that his winning percentage when he plays without Dragic (or even with an injured Dragic) is abysmal, and his shooting numbers decline in those games as well.

We can agree to disagree on the value of a 400 minute sample size; sure, it only comes out to less than 10 full games (no lineup, obviously, plays a full 48 minute game at any point in any season) of those five players, but it's also such a high number that only twenty to twenty-five lineups per year play that amount; in terms of evaluating a given lineup, it's a decent bar.

All in all, you seem to think I'm claiming Dragic is the heir apparent to the Point God throne, but that's not what I'm claiming. He may regress next year, he may improve next year; that's not really what I'm interested in talking about yet. This year, he turned in an absolutely elite Point Guard season (his shooting/scoring combo alone haven't been done since Petrovic, and if you throw in assists haven't ever been done by a guard), and this year he was (arguably, with due nods to Chris Paul and maybe John Wall or Steph Curry) the best guard in the league. He's not going to make First Team All NBA, and he might not make 2nd Team All NBA, but absolutely deserves to; he put up one of the ten best seasons in the NBA this year, and it's disappointing to see it waved off in favor of Westbrook (who's really struggling against a 7-seeded team despite being, according to him, totally healthy), Paul (who missed a big chunk of the season and who's team played fine without him), and Harden (who, let's face it, probably isn't one of the best twenty players in the league, let alone best ten).

Anyways, bottom line, I felt (and still feel) like Dragic's been shortchanged a little here and elsewhere, but I also think that a lot of that is because a lot of people just didn't watch him play that much, so I thought I'd try and bring his All NBA level play to your attention, as I know how much you appreciate players that excel on both sides of the ball, play hard, and do all the little things it takes to win. He might be worth a few of your limited ball-watching hours next season.

 
At Sunday, April 27, 2014 12:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I understand the general point that you are making and I appreciate underrated players as much as anyone but I still think that you are overstating Dragic's case. He is the most improved player in the league and he had his first All-Star caliber season--but calling him an elite player and/or comparing him to players who have established themselves as perennial All-NBA level performers is premature.

This was a down--or at least transitional--season for guards, with Bryant, Wade, Westbrook, Rose, Paul and others missing extended playing time and/or being hindered by injuries but even in a relatively depleted group I am still not convinced that Dragic was the best guard in the NBA this season. I would definitely take Curry over Dragic. Paul is a better player than Dragic but Paul missed 20 games. Wade is better than Dragic but he missed 28 games. Westbrook is better than Dragic but he missed 36 games. A healthy Bryant is better than any of them but he only played in six games and he may never be fully healthy again.

So, by the process of attrition, perhaps Dragic, for one season, was by default the second best guard in the NBA behind Curry. If that is all you were trying to say, I can see your point, but I tend to take a more global view of player evaluation unless I am doing something specific like selecting an All-NBA Team for a particular season.

 
At Tuesday, April 29, 2014 1:37:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Fair enough. I am certainly only talking about this season (how much Dragic improves next year will tell us a lot about his psychology and whether or not he can become truly elite), and I was largely doing it in the spirit of arguing that Dragic deserves first or second team consideration, though I could/should have made that clearer.

We can agree to differ on Dragic/Curry as I doubt either of us feels up for another 20 posts. Curry's a transcendent shooter (though Dragic is not that far behind statistically, statistics don't' account for Curry's fast release), but I feel that Dragic's a much stronger defender. That said, there's a strong case to be made that I overvalue defense, so I won't contest the point beyond that one statement.

Thanks again for everything. I'll be curious to hear your take on what's been an absolutely insane first round so far once the dust settles (with Indy, OKC, and SA all looking a bit more mortal than I think either of us expected, plus everything Clippers related), but I understand if you won't have time to do a post mortem.

 
At Tuesday, April 29, 2014 3:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I will not be able to provide the kind of comprehensive coverage that I used to provide but I may make a brief post or two about the first round.

 
At Sunday, May 04, 2014 7:18:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

David,
Will you be making any more predictions for each round? Thanks.

 
At Sunday, May 04, 2014 9:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

I am working on an abbreviated second round playoff preview. I am not certain what, if anything, I will write about subsequent rounds.

 

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