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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Second Round Recap/Conference Finals Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of all four second round series, improving my record to 11-1 for the 2014 playoffs. The highlight of the second round was the dominant performance authored by Russell Westbrook; during Oklahoma City's 4-2 win over the L.A. Clippers, Westbrook was often the best player on the court, outshining both his teammate/2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant (who also had an excellent overall series) and Chris Paul, who many people have touted for years to be the NBA's top point guard. Westbrook averaged 27.8 ppg, 8.8 apg and 6.0 rpg in the series. In the pivotal fifth game, with the series tied 2-2, Westbrook exploded for a game-high 38 points plus five rebounds, a team-high six assists and a team-high three steals as the Thunder won 105-104.

Westbrook is averaging 26.6 ppg (fourth in the league), 8.4 apg (third in the league) and 8.0 rpg during this postseason. If Paul were putting up similar numbers for a team that made it at least as far as the Western Conference Finals, the "stat gurus" and Paul's supporters in the mainstream media would not be able to contain their praise--but because Westbrook is not as popular in those quarters as Paul, his contributions are minimized. Oscar Robertson is the only player in NBA playoff history to average at least 27 ppg, at least eight apg and at least eight rpg in a single postseason, a feat that he accomplished three different times--and even if Westbrook matches that accomplishment there still will be many people who will assert (1) that the Thunder were foolish to trade James Harden, (2) that the Thunder should trade Westbrook because he is supposedly incompatible with Durant and (3) that Westbrook is not the best all-around guard in the NBA. Westbrook is having a historically great playoff run for a team that may win the NBA title.

I see no reason to change my original predictions that Miami will beat Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals and that Oklahoma City will beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. LeBron James is having another great postseason for Miami, ranking second in playoff scoring (30.0 ppg) behind Durant (31.4 ppg), shooting a playoff-career high .564 from the field and once again demonstrating the absurdity of describing him as a "pass-first" player (James is averaging a playoff career-low 4.7 apg and neither his statistics nor his game even vaguely resemble the statistics/games of truly "pass-first" players like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd, neither of whom could dream of scoring at the rate that James has for his entire career).

The so-called experts have struggled to figure out the Pacers--vacillating between anointing them as the Heat's successors and blasting them for their poor performance in the second half of the regular season--but the reality is that the Pacers are a very good young team that is not quite mentally strong enough to take out the Heat. Serge Ibaka's injury is a major blow for the Thunder and may ultimately cost the Thunder the championship but the Spurs--who have injury concerns of their own (Tony Parker's balky left hamstring)--cannot contain Russell Westbrook and Westbrook's excellence will be the difference as the Thunder advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM

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15 Comments:

At Sunday, May 18, 2014 1:53:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Thanks for writing this. I posted my picks last night:

East Conference Finals
Miami @ Indiana

If Indiana uses their homecourt advantage to the maximum, and Roy Hibbert resurrects his "verticality" to deter LBJ from the rim, and West and George keep the offense humming with jumpers, and Wade acts older than his age, and Bosh remains invisible, they can steal the series.

Because LBJ has been unstoppable so far, because Indiana has lost all semblance of confidence when adversity strikes, or trust in each other, and because Miami barely broke a sweat in the last two rounds, Miami will advance with a gentleman's sweep, at minimum.
Heat in 5



West Conference Finals
Oklahoma City @ San Antonio

Because OKC has the two top players of the series in Westbrook and Durant, and that they've cracked the code to the Spurs' offense, and because Kevin Durant is almost as unstoppable as LBJ, they can win the series.

Since the Men in Black are better adjusted than they were in 2012, more balanced on offense and stronger on defense, much more savvy (see Kawhi Leonard slowly taking over), and last but not least -- since Ibaka, the top interior defender of the Thunder, is out, San Antonio should win.

Spurs in 6

 
At Sunday, June 01, 2014 10:40:00 AM, Anonymous Spurs vs OKC said...

David, i'm surprised you picked the OKC Thunder to win it against the Spurs. Spurs have a better system, and have great individual players as well. OKC might have had the two best players in the series, but when they weren't shooting well, they struggled to score as a team.

i believe the next step for coach brooks is to make sure the "others" are more involved in the offense. it seemed like they ran too many isolation plays for their two star players. granted they are two of the best around, but it's not a reliable strategy against elite defenses. i also believe Durant needs to develop a post-up game, much like Lebron did recently.

what are your thoughts?

 
At Sunday, June 01, 2014 1:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I gotta say, I usually mostly agree with you, or disagree by degree (Kobe, Dragic, Paul, Curry, etc. I think we're within about ten percent of each other on), but Westbrook is the one player where you and I are just miles apart opinion-wise.

Yes, he puts up good raw stats. But he also turned the ball over 4.5 times a game during the post-season, shot a miserable 42% in the playoffs, and a lot of the shots he *did* make was at the line, frequently after some fairly iffy calls (he's adopted the Iverson/Dwayne Wade "fall over every time you miss in the paint and see what happens" approach).

Moreover, while he gets good steal numbers by gambling, the three plays a game where that benefits his team are really outweighed by the ten or fifteen where it gets him out of position and the other team creates something off it. He's not even a mediocre defender, he's actively a bad one; Conley had some of his best offensive numbers ever against him, and Conley's not even an especially dangerous scorer.

Hell, he gave up 49% shooting to Tony Parker (less than percentage point off his regular season FG%), who was injured half the series. Sure, Parker's a great offensive player, but he shot better against Westbrook than he did against Damian Lillard and Jose Calderon in the previous two rounds, neither of whom is exactly a defensive stalwart.

Westbrook's approach to defense appears to be "I'm gonna leap for this steal, and just trust Ibaka to clean it up when this guy blows by me or I miss a rotation". Granted, it works sometimes, but against a team like SA it was death.

Look, Westbrook is a hyper-athletic player who changes the game whenever he hits the court, but he's largely a one-way player and even on offense he makes more bad decisions than any top twenty player except maybe Harden (who's even more overrated, but you already know that). I get that you feel like the media is too hard on him, and they probably are, but that doesn't mean you need to elevate him so far above his station.

TL:DR: Westbrook does about as much good for as his team as any other top flight player, but the difference is the other top flight players don't do nearly as much bad. I think you're seriously overrating him when you call him the top guard in the league or a top 5 player. Just an opinion, sure, but a pretty well supported one if you look at anything beyond the raw PTS/AST/REB numbers, and especially at his near-constant buffoonery on defense; intelligent basketball analysis exposes Westbrook's flaws.

Sorry if that came off cranky, Westbrook annoys me because he has all the tools to become the player you keep saying he is, and watching him thoughtlessly piss away some of that talent by not using his head is frustrating to me as a basketball fan.

 
At Sunday, June 01, 2014 2:45:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Now that the Western Conference finals is over, I'm curious whether you were driven by a commitment to your anti-Harden narrative to pick the OKC Thunder over the Spurs, despite the fact that Ibaka was declared out of the playoffs.

I mean, coming in, I knew they were already too thin on the bench. They didn't have anyone reliable like Harden or Martin for consistent production. Once they benched Thabo Sefolosha for Reggie Jackson, the series was doomed, despite the lift the return of Ibaka provided in game 3.

In hindsight, the Thunder did not upgrade their shooting guard position, and refused to give Lamb enough playing time in the regular season, at least in the second half. That meant getting 33 minutes from the corpse of Derek Fisher in the biggest game of the year. The entire 4th quarter and OT.

Where do you see OKC Thunder going forward from here? Start Adams in Perkins' place? Acquire Jordan Hill? Move Russell Westbrook to the 2 guard spot? Sign Jodie Meeks?

 
At Monday, June 02, 2014 4:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, you didn't really watch the OKC/SA series very closely. Westbrook absolutely dominated the series, other than game 2. He was better than Durant throughout that series and the playoffs. Obviously, you're too involved with only faw FG%. Westbrook destroyed Parker in this series, which should tell you there's a lot more to look at than just FG%. Take Kobe for example as well. He absolutely dominated the 2010 Finals and still only shot 40%.

How many times did Westbrook drive to the hoop, miss the shot, which then allowed his teammates great off. rebounding position. One of the things scouts look at to evaluate players is their 'motor.' Westbrook stands alone in this regard. He's the most aggressive player in the nba. He's always attacking, always putting the pressure on the defense. He's a scorer first, but he's also a bigtime playmaker, high assist man even for a PG. He's the best rebounding PG in the league, if not best rebounding guard period.

His defense is also stellar. No idea how you can think his defense is bad. Sure, he could be more engaged sometimes, but you could say that about every single player ever. He's an absolute pest to offensive players. And you have to gamble on defense sometimes. If you don't and just let the offense run their stuff, most offenses are going to kill you. How many times did Westbrook have late-game steal/breakaways to save his team? He's the most athletic guard in the league.

The problem with the Thunder is their ridiculous 3 PG lineups. Fisher is absolutely useless for the most part on both ends. He should be used only in special situations and to give opps a different look, but that's it. No matter how good your defensive 5 are, if they're small, you will struggle defensively, at least against the Spurs offense. A defensive lineup of ibaka, durant, jackson, fisher, and westbrook will struggle against any team. Fisher adds almost nothing offensively. I can't figure out why Adams wasn't in for Fisher.

But, this is where we see the Thunder missing Harden. They haven't made it to the finals without him yet. Harden could help being a playmaker when/if Westbrook was injured or on the bench, and be a great 3rd scorer. Martin could only shoot well, and do nothing else. And the Thunder didn't think too highly of him, by letting him go for basically nothing, but he still would've helped a little offensively, but wouldn't have helped enough against the spurs. Harden's a very efficient scorer and a great player, and probably will be 1st-team all nba, but he's clearly not as good as Westbrook only because Westbrook missed half the season, even though the stats are in his favor.

 
At Tuesday, June 03, 2014 4:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Spurs vs. OKC:

The Thunder swept the Spurs 4-0 during the regular season and won their previous four playoff games versus the Spurs--mainly because the Spurs have no answer for Westbrook and that is why I picked the Thunder to win the series. I thought that the Thunder could overcome Ibaka's injury but the Thunder went 2-2 versus the Spurs with Ibaka after going down 0-2 without Ibaka so Ibaka's injury played a significant role in the final outcome. Perhaps I should have just stuck with my preseason prediction that Westbrook's injury would cost the Thunder the top seed and give the Spurs the edge in the WCF because of homecourt advantage. The Spurs protected their homecourt, exploited Ibaka's early absence and won the series.

The Thunder lost the series primarily at the defensive end of the court, although it obviously would have helped if they had received more offensive production from someone other than Durant and Westbrook. I still think that the Thunder are a championship caliber squad as presently constructed if they can keep Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka healthy.

 
At Tuesday, June 03, 2014 4:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

I don't know what more to say about Westbrook. I think that your analysis is way off base, for reasons that I have listed in several previous articles/comment sections.

If Chris Paul had put together the kind of regular season and postseason that Westbrook just did after having three knee surgeries, many commentators would be lobbying for Paul to be directly inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Every other game it seemed like Westbrook was doing something that had not been done since Jordan or putting up averages that had not been seen in a playoff series since Robertson. If I had the time to do the extensive game recaps that I used to post here, I could break down in depth why your critiques are flawed but I unfortunately just cannot do that right now. One quick observation that I will make is that Westbrook's FG% is very deceptive, much like Kobe's, because Westbrook gets stuck with a lot of "hand grenades": the ball arrives in his hands with the shot clock about to "explode" and he takes a shot rather than letting the Thunder suffer a shot clock violation. His overall shot selection is not nearly as bad as his critics suggest.

It would be interesting to hear Westbrook's critics focus some of their attention on why Chris Paul has never made it past the second round of the playoffs. Paul currently has an MVP caliber teammate, a championship-proven coach and a deep supporting cast, yet he has accomplished less in the postseason than Westbrook has.

 
At Tuesday, June 03, 2014 4:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

As I mentioned in a previous comment, I had well-founded reasons to pick the Thunder. I was wrong but my selection was not biased.

The Thunder need to assess what went wrong defensively versus the Spurs. The Thunder are a legit championship contender as currently constructed but they must correct some of their defensive shortcomings.

 
At Tuesday, June 03, 2014 5:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Your comments about Westbrook are right on point but I disagree with your take on Harden. Before examining the impact of Harden's departure on OKC, it is important to note that Harden's Rockets have yet to win a playoff series--and most of Houston's 2013-14 regular season improvement can be attributed to the acquisition of Dwight Howard.

The Thunder's regular season winning percentage has increased sans Harden. The Thunder likely would have advanced to the 2013 NBA Finals if Westbrook had not been injured--and Ibaka's injury during the 2014 WCF was a major blow. Westbrook's regular season injuries likely cost the Thunder homecourt advantage versus the Spurs. Also, if the Thunder had kept Harden then they would have lost Ibaka, which would not be a good "trade."

Harden is not an efficient offensive player. He is too loose with his dribble, he has no midrange game and he relies too much on flailing wildly on his drives as opposed to finishing strongly at the rim. Also, he is an absolute sieve defensively. If Harden makes the All-NBA First Team that will have much more to do with media voter ignorance (and the injuries suffered by Kobe, Rose, CP3 and Westbrook) than anything else.

 
At Tuesday, June 03, 2014 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

You don't me know me personally, so I'll forgive you for assuming I'm an idiot and don't take things like "grenade" shots into account; the parts of Westbrook's shot selection are the early-in-the-clock impulse shots he makes about 1 out of 7 times and doesn't need to take.

Also, comparing him to Oscar is a little disengenuous; assists were much harder to get in Oscar's day. On the other hand, rebounds were easier, so maybe it evens out.

That said, 70% of my beef with Westbrook is on D. Everything I've seen, and looked up tells us that Westbrook is a net negative on D (the 5 man data with him + starters vs. Jackson + starters, with a 40ish game sample size each this year, is telling). Almost every PG he plays lights him up, from Parker, to Paul (who put on a historically elite shooting night against him in Game 1 of round 2, but more on Paul in a minute), to Conley etc. etc. He's far from an elite defensive player, and as part of a starting lineup that has three solid defensive players (Ibaka, Sefalosha, and to a lesser extent Durant), OKC's starting D numbers really ought to be better. Perhaps some of those other three deserve some of the blame there, I won't argue that, but the only data I've been able to find that indicates Westbrook is a positive on the defensive end is the steals stat... which even in the best case influences two or three plays a game.

Now, THAT said I still think I may be coming off as harder on Westbrook than I mean to be. I by no means think he's a bad player; I just find it hard to christen him elite when he can't guard anybody for more than a few plays a game and makes 5-15 bad offensive decisions per night; he averaged 4.5 turnovers in the playoffs, and shot terribly, despite playing alongside both an elite scorer (Durant, attracting at least some defensive attention) and a decent secondary ball-handler (Jackson).

However, I'm also not especially high on Paul, so comparing the two of them doesn't quite impress me. Paul's size leaves him vulnerable to bigger guards (like Westbrook, in fact), and his leadership is questionable at best. The league, right now, has many very very good point guards (Paul, Westbrook, Curry, Dragic, Wall, etc.), but no truly elite ones, in my opinion. There is no Oscar Robertson/Magic Johnson/Isaiah Thomas (well, you know what I mean).

I think Westbrook is fine. I think calling him a top five player is overdoing it a bit, considering he's (by both eye-test and most metrics) a defensive liability and tends to make his offensive mistakes at the worst possible time.

Personally, I don't have a top five off-hand, but I'd take all of the following over Westbrook (this season; I expect Westbrook to eventually grow up and become who you think he is) Lebron, Durant, Lamarcus Aldridge (though his D hardly blows my mind either), Marc Gasol (Grizzlies were dominant with him healthy, despite not having another player anywhere above "very good"; his offensive numbers are good, but his defensive impact is immense, effecting nearly every possession when he's on the court, and he almost never makes bad choices), Joakim Noah (everything I just said about Gasol applies here), Tim Duncan (aged but still dominant and brilliant when he needs to be), possibly even Dwight Howard (who I loathe, but put up strong performances on both sides of the ball for a terribly coached team with a mostly mismashed roster), and Blake Griffin (the actual best player on the Clippers, though he seemed to fall apart a bit after the Sterling news broke). Oh, and yes, don't let me forget, for this year, Goran Dragic :p.

TL;DR: You and I evaluate defense differently, and I think that's mostly where our disconnect comes from. Hope you're well.

 
At Tuesday, June 03, 2014 11:12:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Upon reflection, a simplified explanation of my position.

Simmons, who you hate, and I often similarly disagree with, has a theory that I do like: the table theory. Essentially, imagine every game is a huge dinner party, and whoever puts the most good stuff on the table wins.

Somebody like, say, Kawhi Leonard puts only let's say 4 good things on the table, but he doesn't really take much off. Durant puts about 10 good things on the table, every now and then he'll take one off, but not most nights. Lebron shows up and makes everyone else feel guilty when he brings Turducken and a few bottles of Shipwreck Champagne ($250,000 retail) almost every time. Somebody like Westbrook usually puts like seven or eight great things on the table, and takes one or two off; you're still happy to have him at dinner, and a lot of times he might even bring the best single course, but it's still frustrating that he just chucked the burgers out the window; burgers are really good. And every fifth or sixth time you invite him to dinner, he accidentally kicks the leg out from under the table and ruins the whole night. You'd still invite him back (he's a really good guest overall), but you wish he'd stop taking things off the table.

 
At Wednesday, June 04, 2014 8:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

Westbrook attempted about 17 shots a game during the regular season. If just one shot a game was a "hand grenade" and he missed most of those shots then that would have a dramatic effect on his FG%. That is why I insist that players cannot just be evaluated on statistics; it is important to watch a player in the context of how his play affects his teammates and the other team.

I don't know which stats you are using or how many games you have watched but I disagree with your assessment of Westbrook's defense. I don't know where else the conversation can go, because I don't have the time to do the exhaustive game recaps that I did when I first started this site and I don't put much stock in the relevance of the numbers that you are citing to "prove" that Westbrook is a subpar defender. Westbrook barely played half of the season and still received several votes for the All-Defensive Team (including one First Team vote) so I think that it is fair to say that your view of Westbrook is not widely held among knowledgeable NBA observers.

I would rank a healthy Westbrook ahead of just about everyone you mentioned except for, obviously, James and Durant. A focused Dwight Howard could be more valuable than Westbrook but Howard seems to have lost something both physically and psychologically compared to the level he played at a few years ago.

 
At Wednesday, June 04, 2014 8:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

I don't "hate" Simmons; I just don't understand why he is touted as a basketball expert: he comes across as a biased Boston fan who occasionally will make an interesting observation, not as an objective observer who understands how to deeply analyze the sport.

I agree that Westbrook could improve his shot selection but I don't think that FG% is always the best measure of shot selection or even efficiency. Dennis Johnson had a terrible three point shooting percentage but he also took a lot of long distance heaves at the end of quarters/halves. Shane Battier actually stopped taking such shots specifically because "stat gurus" place such an emphasis on numbers but shooting the ball from 60 feet with the clock about to expire does not hurt one's team even though it hurts a player's FG%, eFG%, etc.

Harden is a much less effective offensive player than Westbrook, regardless of how some people interpret statistics. I wish that I had the time to say more about this subject but all I can do at this point is refer readers to my previous articles about "advanced basketball statistics"; a lot of the points that I have made about Kobe Bryant also apply to Westbrook, though Westbrook is not as good as Bryant was at his peak.

 
At Wednesday, June 04, 2014 5:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I'll keep this (relatively) short this time, as we're going in circles now (again?).

Totally agree that Westbrook is a better offensive player than Harden; he's a better passer and more athletic. I'd take Westbrook over Harden every day of every week; the only thing Harden might be better at is 3 point shooting, and if he is it isn't by much.

I'd argue Westbrook took less than one "hand-grenade" per game on average, but looking it up would be exhausting. Between playoffs and regular season I probably watched about 50-60 OKC games this season, all but maybe 10-15 featuring Westbrook. Watching them, I think Durant takes probably at least double the number of "hand grenades" Westbrook does, yet his shooting percentage is much better. My main criticism of Westbrook's shot selection is his early-in-the-clock contested pull-ups off a near-sprint, which he makes at an astonishingly low rate, yet keeps shooting.

I wish there were better defensive statistics available; steals is one of the worst. I default to comparable 5-man lineups, especially because they at least provide a "control" group (the other four players), but they're far from perfect. My beef with Westbrook is mostly eye-test (watching him lunge out of position going for steals/slam into screens (most recently on that Ginobili 3)/blow rotations) and the high efficiency numbers opposing guards tend to put up against him despite his obscene athleticism and safety-net in the form of Ibaka at the rim; if he were a significantly above average defender, you'd think it would be reflected at least somewhat in his opponent's numbers; it isn't.

When evaluating greatness, I put about a 50% emphasis on both offense and defense; the flaw here is that it's harder for perimeter players to individually influence the game as often on defense than for big men; perhaps that skews my evaluation of Westbrook (and to a lesser extent Harden), but I'd rather have somebody like Noah or Gasol who's an A+ at one side of the court (D) and a B (O) at the other than Westbrook who's more like an A (O) and C+ or so (D). It's not a huge gap, but it's a gap. For the sake of reference, I'd put Harden at something like a B+ (O) and an F(D), and Dragic in the neighborhood of A- or A (O) and B+ or A- (D).

For the sake of both our sanity, that's the last I'll say on the subject till next season. Are you planning to make a Finals pick post? Just for posterity, my pick is Heat in 6 (I don't think the Spurs role-players will get on quite the roll they did last year), but I'm not remotely confident, and the history of teams playing back-to-back Finals against each other in the post Russell era overwhelming favors the team the lost the last one.

 
At Wednesday, June 04, 2014 5:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

Durant is a better shooter than Westbrook and has a more polished offensive skill set but Westbrook's athleticism and toughness make him a nightmare matchup. They are both great free throw shooters who can draw fouls while also finishing (Harden flails and either gets bailed out or gets nothing).

You are right that Durant also gets saddled with "hand grenades" but that does not change the possibility/likelihood that Westbrook would have a better FG% than he does now were it not for those shots; it just means that Durant's FG% might become off the charts if he did not have so many "hand grenades."

Some teams/coaches value steals/deflections/disruption, while others value a more conservative approach. Bobby Jones is one of the greatest defensive forwards of all-time and I once asked him if it hurt the team's defense when a player went for a steal and missed; Jones said that it did not, because going for steals was part of the 76ers' scheme and that the other players were supposed to cover for failed gambles. Unless you interview Scott Brooks and/or look at his defensive game plan for each game, you can't just say that Westbrook's gambles are hurting the team, even if you can cite plays where he gambled and the other team scored, because those plays still might not be his fault in their scheme. Stats also don't quantify passes that aren't attempted because players are worried that Westbrook will jump into the passing lane.

I doubt that what I just said will sway you very much but defense is much more complicated to evaluate than "stat gurus" think and very few people are good at evaluating basketball defense. I don't pretend to have all of the answers but I do feel like I at least know where to look (and what to ask) to shed some light on the subject.

My Finals preview will be posted tonight or early tomorrow, depending on when I finish Contracts, Civ. Pro., etc. Interestingly, the Donald Sterling situation did come up in Torts class, though more in a theoretical sense than in terms of actually figuring out what might/should happen in the real world.

 

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