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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

The Conference Finals round featured two much anticipated matchups but neither series went the distance. The Indiana Pacers took a 1-0 lead over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat but then the Heat won four of the next five games, exposing the Pacers as a good team that does not have quite enough talent or mental toughness to take the next step. Lance Stephenson had a solid series statistically (14.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.0 apg) but he embarrassed himself and his team with his foolish and at times reckless behavior. The Pacers did not look, act or play like a championship team. LeBron James had a subdued series by his lofty standards (22.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .559 FG%) but he controlled the action and asserted himself as the best player when it mattered most. Dwyane Wade has settled very comfortably into a secondary role, conserving his energy during the regular season and providing just enough postseason production to supplement James' all-around greatness. Chris Bosh's contributions will always be underrated by people who do not understand basketball; he is overmatched physically as a center but his agility and outside shooting touch make him the perfect center at both ends of the court for a speed-based team like the Heat. The Heat have two future Hall of Famers who are in or near their physical primes (James and Bosh), plus a declining future Hall of Famer who is still a potent threat (Wade) and a future Hall of Famer who is a key asset as a sharpshooting role player (Ray Allen).

Bill Russell (1957-66 Boston Celtics), Magic Johnson (1982-85 L.A. Lakers) and Larry Bird (1984-87 Boston Celtics) are the only players prior to LeBron James to lead their teams to at least four straight NBA Finals appearances; Russell's Celtics won nine titles in those 10 years (and 11 out of 13 years overall during his career), Johnson's Lakers captured two titles in those four years en route to becoming the team of the 1980s with five championships and Bird's Celtics won two titles in those four years (and three overall during his career). Some critics belittle the Heat's accomplishments by noting the relative lack of strength of the Eastern Conference in recent years but the fact that only four teams in NBA history have made it to four straight Finals proves that the Heat are, at the very least, a special team in the context of their own era--and a third title, which would represent two straight Finals' wins over a franchise that has claimed four championships during the Tim Duncan era, would solidify Miami's place as one of the NBA's top dynasties.
 
The Oklahoma City Thunder won all four regular season games versus the San Antonio Spurs and defeated the Spurs four straight times in the 2012 Western Conference Finals after dropping the first two games of that series but in the 2014 Western Conference Finals the Thunder never quite recovered after falling into a 2-0 hole. Serge Ibaka missed the first two games due to injury and his return in game three provided a big spark for the Thunder but the Spurs ultimately rode home court advantage into the NBA Finals, winning all three of their home games before closing out the series with a 112-107 overtime victory at Oklahoma City. If Ibaka had been healthy in the first two games--or if Russell Westbrook's regular season injuries had not cost the Thunder home court advantage--then the series may have had a different outcome. As Hall of Fame Coach Tex Winter says, "Everything turns on a trifle."

The much-criticized Westbrook shined during the Western Conference Finals, leading both teams in scoring (26.8 ppg), assists (7.3 apg) and steals (3.2 spg), and 2014 regular season MVP Kevin Durant averaged 25.8 ppg but the Thunder lost the series defensively; without Ibaka for the first two games, they could not contain the Spurs and it was not realistic to expect to come back from a 2-0 deficit two times in three years against a great team. San Antonio's Tim Duncan no longer posts gaudy individual numbers but he has gone from being recognized as perhaps the greatest power forward of all-time to being one of the most underrated players in the league; he controls the paint defensively and his post presence anchors the Spurs' half court offense. That said, Tony Parker's ankle injury could prove to be the biggest story of the NBA Finals; in order to beat the Heat, it is essential to attack the paint both in the post (which Duncan can do) and with dribble penetration (which is Parker's forte). The Spurs must both score in the paint and also utilize their paint attacks to collapse Miami's defense and create open three point shots.

Manu Ginobili is a perfect third option for the Spurs; he can score, he can create scoring opportunities for his teammates and he is a crafty defender but because the Spurs have Duncan and Parker plus a solid bench they do not need Ginobili to play at an All-Star level in every game. The role he has filled for the Spurs is the role that James Harden should have accepted for the Thunder, as opposed to making contract demands that resulted in him being traded to Houston.

The Spurs showed during last year's NBA Finals that they have the necessary personnel, playing style and toughness to defeat the Heat; they can pose matchup problems for Miami at both ends of the court--attacking the paint offensively and containing the Heat's speed game defensively--and in game six they came about as close as any team in NBA history has come to winning a championship without sealing the deal. Ginobili is healthy this time, unlike last year, though that may be mitigated by Parker's injury. The Heat have been very good this season but they seem to lack that extra gear that they found during their previous two playoff runs; maybe that is because no team has pushed them to the limit (something that both Indiana and San Antonio did during the 2013 playoffs) but I wonder if after four grueling campaigns the Heat still have that gear if/when they need to use it. At the start of the playoffs, I picked the Thunder to dethrone the Heat, so there is a certain logic to predicting that the team that ousted the Thunder will beat Miami. I think that Tim Duncan will win the 2014 Finals MVP and ride off into the sunset, finishing his career with five championships overall plus a 2-1 Finals record against James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:39 AM

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30 Comments:

At Thursday, June 05, 2014 1:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great accomplishment making 4 finals in row. But, putting it into context is more important. Russell only had to play 3 rounds of playoffs for many years, and his team had a monopoly on the nba at the team. Celtics/Lakers were both absolutely stacked teams. The 90s Bulls most likely would've made at least 4 in a row at one point if Jordan didn't retire for the first time.

James has had the best team around him for the past 6 years, and playing in the east makes it much easier. Of the past 4 years especially, almost no contenders at all in the east. 2011 Bulls were good, but they were new to the scene and a 1-star team. These last 3 years, no real contenders, and they barely made it a few times. It's much easier having 2 cupcake opps each year, as compared to the west. Spurs/thunder barely made it out of the first round this year.

If the heat were in the west this year, they wouldn't have homecourt advantage in any round, and with a harder schedule, they might not have even made the playoffs at all. They certainly don't make 4 finals in a row if they played in the west, much harder competition.

 
At Thursday, June 05, 2014 1:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait, so you're saying the Thunder need Harden now, after you've been telling all readers for a few years now how much of a non-factor he really is?

Ginobili has never been a big-time player. He made 2 AS teams, but really shouldn't have. His numbers are very unimpressing for an AS.

Why should Harden accept less money? He's a young, big-time player, it's not like he's on his last contract. 5th MVP voting and 1st-team all-nba this year. That deserves max money for sure. He's first-option on a contender, and they were top 5-6 teams in nba this past year. Sure, accepting less money would help the thunder's chances, well, I guess you don't believe that. But, while Bosh is still good, Harden is now better than him, and bosh still got max money with the heat.

I just don't understand why you think the thunder were smart letting Harden walk, but the Grizz were dumb letting Gay walk. Gay has never made an AS team, and never will. And he was making 16mil/year as the 3rd/4th best player on his team. And his teams always get better once he leaves or if he's injured. Toronto sucked with him, and then get 3 seed after he left, and that wasn't even a full season without him.

 
At Thursday, June 05, 2014 5:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

During Russell's era there were fewer playoff rounds but there were also more great players concentrated on fewer teams.

It is hard to meaningfully compare different eras. What the Heat have accomplished is great but it is difficult to say for sure how great it is compared to what teams did several decades ago under vastly different rules/conditions.

 
At Thursday, June 05, 2014 5:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I challenge you to cite one article in which I referred to Harden as a "non-factor" or referred to him in analogous terms. I have consistently said that he is a great third option who is not suited to being a first option on a legit championship contender. He is Manu Ginobili or Monta Ellis, not Kobe Bryant.

Nor did I say that the Thunder "need" Harden--and their record sans Harden shows that they have not missed him very much; I said that he would be ideally suited for a tertiary role, as opposed to going to Houston and losing in the first round. Harden's career is going to suffer because of his decision, if one assumes that his primary goal is to win a title; he had a much better chance to do so as a third option in OKC than as a first option anywhere and that is how he resembles Ginobili, who could similarly have opted to be a big-time scorer instead of taking less money to stay with the Spurs and win multiple titles.

The Rockets have lost in the first round two years in a row. They are a contender for a playoff berth, not a contender for a championship.

Rudy Gay was the Grizzlies' leading scorer and the Grizzlies' main problem now is that they lack offensive punch. The Thunder have two of the five best players in the NBA and both of those players are dynamic scorers; they chose to allocate resources to keep Ibaka--their defensive anchor--as opposed to overspending to keep Harden.

The Grizzlies did not get better after Gay left. He played 51 games with Toronto, which is hardly a meaningful sample size, and then he played 55 games with Sacramento (the Kings went 28-54 overall but 18-24 with their three most frequently used starting lineups, each of which featured Gay). Gay is not a franchise player but the Grizzlies got rid of him for nothing primarily because of relying on "advanced basketball statistics," not to keep their team well-balanced like OKC did in the Harden situation.

 
At Thursday, June 05, 2014 5:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There were fewer teams/players in Russell's era, but not necessarily that many great players in his era. The NBA was new, and mostly whites playing still. He had it as easy as anyone that's supposedly a great.

Nothing against Russell, he was surely great for his era, but that's all that I can say about him. Given the history of the nba, Russell is the only supposed player most people proclaim as an elite player who was never at any stage of his career a great offensive player, and not even close at that.

The playoffs are a lot about matchups and how tough your competition is. The Spurs have to win 4 tough series. The Heat maybe 2. Even if the Heat win, much like last year, the spurs will have had a more impressive playoffs. The Mavs looked tougher than the Pacers. Also, the outdated 2-3-2 final format, which is now gone, greatly favored the team with homecourt advantage.

 
At Thursday, June 05, 2014 8:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

For whatever it's worth, OKC could have kept both Harden and Ibaka with relative ease, and likely only would have spent one season over the cap because of it.

That said, I think even less of Harden than you do (DEFENSE, James! YOU MAKE 8 FIGURES DON'T JUST STAND THERE, DAMMIT!), and I don't really think he would have helped them against San Antonio; OKC's allegedly high-tier defense, even backed (well, for four games) by annual DPoY contender Ibaka and "If he can't stop the other team's best perimeter player why the Hell is he on the court?" Thabo Sefalosha was pretty much helpless against SA; adding Harden's complete inattention to defense likely would have offset whatever offensive benefit he generated.

But even if Harden was a net positive thanks to his offense, we've seen enough Suns/Spurs and Mavs/Spurs series over the last ten years to know that "more offense" is not the way to beat San Antonio; Phoenix and Dallas each beat them only once, and they did it in seasons where they upgraded their defensive coaching (Avery Johnson over Don Nelson in Dallas, Gentry over D'Antoni in PHX) and personnel (adding Desgna Diop and internal improvement from almost everyone in Dallas, the additions/improvements of Goran Dragic (who was drafted specifically for his ability slow Parker down), Robin Lopez, and Lou Amundson + an unusually good defensive season for Amare in PHX). For that matter, their loss to Memphis in a 1-8 matchup came despite Memphis lacking, at the time, a single truly dangerous offensive perimeter player… but they had Conley/Allen/Battier/Gasol, all of whom were top 5-7ish level defenders at their respective positions that season.

Granted, the 2012 OKC team beat SA mostly with athleticism (on both ends), but their were health issues on SA, Kawhi Leonard (SA's most athletic player) was not yet a serious factor, and Kendrick Perkins was still at least slightly spry, and could somewhat annoy Duncan; in the 2 years since Perkins has become possibly the worst starter in the NBA.

Harden wouldn't have helped much against SA in 2014 I'd wager, but holding out for a better trade and turning him into, say, Jimmy Butler and some loose change from Chicago or something could have been huge for OKC. If that deal seems implausible, replace Butler with Iman Shumpert, or Eric Bledsoe (not yet nearly as valuable as he was a year later), Paul George (ditto), Aaron Afflalo, Goran Dragic (also ditto), or any other athletic, rangy perimeter defender with something of a jump shot.

The real mistake wasn't in letting Harden go; he isn't worth the money he's being paid. The problem was in letting him go relatively cheap, and for the wrong sort of assets (1 year of Kevin Martin + 2 draft picks that are ok, but not yet significant playoff-level contributors; even if the young OKC players evolve, the may miss their window if Durant or (more likely depending on how much stock you put in the opinion of Jalen Rose) Westbrook leaves).

Or at least, that's my opinion.

As for this series, I made my pick in a previous thread, but it largely comes down to three factors in my estimation: Parker's health, Wade's ability to punish San Antonio when they overload on Lebron or the perimeter, and which team's army of 3 point snipers gets hotter this time around. Obviously Lebron and Duncan are the two most important players in the series, but I am at this point comfortable assuming greatness from both.

 
At Thursday, June 05, 2014 9:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

I am not a salary cap expert but my understanding is that you are mistaken about how easy it would have been for OKC to keep both Harden and Ibaka.

The more I watch Harden, the less that I believe he has a championship mentality. He wants to shoot the ball and get paid; he does not want to take a lesser role for a championship caliber team or even pretend that he is interested in playing defense. If he really believes that he is as good as Westbrook then in the long run he would have been a disruptive influence in the locker room and on the court.

In any case, we agree that letting Harden go rather than overpaying him made sense.

I am not overly impressed thus far with the assets that OKC received for Harden (though those draft picks/players could yet prove to be valuable assets) but OKC has not dropped off at all as a regular season team and, were it not for injuries to Westbrook and Ibaka, they could easily be making their third straight Finals appearance.

 
At Friday, June 06, 2014 1:41:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick F, you bring up some great points, but I disagree with two things. It wouldn't have been easy to bring both Harden and Ibaka back. Everyone talks about amnestying Kendrick Perkins, but that is a HUGE hole at center that's going to be filled by who? Chris Kaman?

For all his warts (and they are ugly), Perkins is great at a few things which make him very useful. First, he's intimidating. That sounds weird, but some guys you just don't like playing against. He's one of them. Perkins is a big dude and he along with Westbrook bring an edge to this team. An edge KD really honed this season (but not all the way there yet).

Perkins is awesome at setting clear out picks that often give his perimeter players all kinds of space to operate. And he is an immovable object defensively against post players. In the west, those three things are absolutely necessary on many nights.

Perkins is a lot more valuable now that Ibaka can hit from 3-point range.

What would Chris Kaman bring you? A volume, mostly-jump shooting big man, that pads his rebounding numbers with misses, and is not good defensively.

Also, I disagree that the Thunder didn't get much back. To me, they got everything they wanted.

They got one more immediate and legitimate shot at a championship as Martin actually improved the already potent offense.

Unfortunately, Westbrook got hurt and that was the end of that.

They also got back Steven Adams. Already Adams has proved himself a valuable asset to the team in only his seventh total year of playing basketball at any level. He needs to improve at the line, but everything else about him screams future starter. I think of him as a more athletic, less basketball smart Andrew Bogut. He blew up in the playoffs, shooting 70% with 4 ppg, 4 rpg, 1 bpg in 18 pesky, bruising minutes. He is exactly the kind of center the Thunder need to tandem with Perkins and Ibaka.

Jeremy Lamb is going to be a good NBA player. Just because he struggled during February, which prompted the team to get Caron Butler, let’s not forget what Lamb did from November through January where he averaged: 10 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, on 46/38/84. He needs to prove he can do that for 82 games, but he just turned 22 years old. And while he’s not there yet mentally, he’s got all of the tools to be a good defensive player (athleticism, length, lateral mobility) and spent an entire season going up against Thabo Sefolosha.

The trade also allowed Reggie Jackson a lot more playing time that he grew into in a big way this season (especially with Westbrook missing so many games).

So, in reality, the Thunder traded Harden for three rotation players that have already shown improvement every year they’ve been in the league. They’ll make a combined total of $6.5 million next season, they are all under 24 (Lamb and Adams can barely legally drink and are locked up until 2016 and 2017 respectively) and will continue to get better. If Adams and Lamb realize only 2/3rds their potential, the deal will still have been worth it as they are on rookie salaries through 2016 and Jackson has already shown himself to be starter-esque quality. The Thunder also have cap space now to re-sign him next offseason, or try to trade him for future assets or a key veteran.

People will be surprised how good the Thunder will be next season (especially if Brooks implements some sort of smart offensive scheme).

 
At Friday, June 06, 2014 11:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I agree completely with your analysis. Your point about Martin is worth repeating; acquiring Martin gave the Thunder a chance to contend for the title that season--a chance that was thwarted by Westbrook's injury--and subsequently the Thunder have done a good job of parlaying the assets that they received in exchange for Harden into players who show potential to become very solid members of the rotation. In my previous comment, I spoke a bit too harshly and imprecisely about the assets that the Thunder received in exchange for Harden.

 
At Friday, June 06, 2014 1:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Two quick ones, then the big one:

1) Somebody on Grantland (might have been Lowe) broke down the math; they could have kept Harden and gone over the cap for only one season (and not very far over). With all the stuff coming out from Forbes and such about how even the crappiest NBA teams make buckets of money every season, I have no sympathy for OKC's "small market" whining. That said, they shouldn't have kept Harden, but I think they could have gotten a lot more for him. See my third point.

2) I don't agree that they could have meaningfully contended that year, even with a healthy Westbrook. They were not significantly better than they were the year before when they got beaten by Miami in 5 games, and Miami had added Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, and had a healthier Mike Miller, and Lebron had arguably his greatest season (Bosh also had by far his best defensive season). Miami was significantly improved (27 game win streak!) from the year before when they'd already made pretty short work of OKC.

3) The problem isn't that what they got for Harden wasn't as good as Harden, it was that it wasn't as good as what they could have gotten for Harden. Harden's value was at an all-time high that offseason (and he got a max deal out of it). In a previous post, I listed a bunch of players they likely (or definitely, in the case of guys like Shumpert, Dragic, and Brewer) could have gotten while still getting picks/cap flexibility, all of whom were much better two-way players than Martin. Regardless of if you think one or two of those players might not have been available (maybe they wouldn't), most of them were/would have. And sure, several of them were not yet the stars they are now (Paul George, Goran Dragic, among others), but everyone I listed was already better then Martin, and could play meaningful minutes on both sides of the ball. Martin may be better than Harden defensively, but that's similar to being a better three point shooter than Perkins*.

*Speaking of Perkins, while he has value in the locker room and against a select few opposing centers, he's death against any team that runs a dangerous pick-and-roll… like, say, Miami or San Antonio.

I agree that Lamb and Adams have potential, but they're unlikely to reach it before Durant and Westbrook reach free agency; if Durant and Westbrook stay, then it matters less, but if one of them leaves, OKC's in some real trouble.

As for our other imaginary trades they could have made, all of them would have included picks coming to OKC, as Harden was overvalued and the players listed were undervalued (and many of them, and others like them were snapped up on sweetheart deals). Even in a Houston deal, they could have at least held out for Chandler Parsons (who was a good player on a super-cheap contract).

Basically, they could have gotten better players who could contribute sooner, and still built towards the future. I understand the thinking in moving Harden quickly in order to avoid a Melodrama/Dwightmare scenario, but in doing so OKC missed out on a massive opportunity to upgrade their team. Even just dealing with Houston, would you really prefer the deal they got to, say, Chandler Parsons, sign-and-trade Dragic (Houston had his bird rights; let's say he goes for, like, 8.5 million a year; more than he makes in Phoenix, but still way less than Harden's deal), and the Adams pick? Because that was almost certainly an option; if there's anything we know about Morey, especially then, it's that he'll do anything to get a so-called "Foundational Player", which he considers Harden to be.

If that trade doesn't do it for you, how about Harden for Shumpert, the rights to Hardaway Jr, and a future pick? NY was openly trying to get rid of Shumpert (who'd fit perfectly for OKC, as a defensive pest and transition scorer)? And NY would have been happy to overpay Harden.

(cut for length, part 2 incoming, sorry this got away from me a little)

 
At Friday, June 06, 2014 1:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

(part 2, sorry this went so long. Got a little carried away with all the plausible trade options that were out there; it's crazy to think how overvalued Harden was back then)

How about Chicago, who'd just lost Rose for the season? You don't think they'd give you Butler and the rights to Mirotic for Harden to ensure they have some offense?

The list goes on, and on, and on. There's no way one year of Kevin Martin and two (decent but not great) picks was the best available offer for a guy who the league, for some reason, thought was a superstar?

You don't think Portland would give up Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and a pick?

You don't think the Clippers, in full over-spend mode at the time, wouldn't have cheerfully given up Eric Bledsoe and whatever else it took to stick him next to Paul and Griffin?

You don't think whoever had Aaron Afflalo at the time wouldn't have done that deal straight-up?

What Golden State, you don't think they'd give you young Klay Thompson and whatever else you wanted to put Harden next to Curry?

OKC is a mostly very well run team, and they make the right call more often than not, but in that particular offseason, there were a lot of better deals out there. Almost every team in the league would have traded for him, and a lot of them would have offered better immediate value and similar to better longterm value. OKC made a rare hasty move, and they missed out on a chance to materially improve their team and contend more meaningfully for a championship in the immediate future is my point, not that they should have kept Harden.

 
At Friday, June 06, 2014 2:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick F:

Your speculations are interesting but they require many assumptions, including (to list just three) which deals were actually available, how difficult it would have been for the teams involved in these scenarios to retain the services of the players in question and how difficult it might have been for those teams to incorporate those players into their offensive and defensive systems.

Such speculations are interesting but I don't have anything to add about them at this time.

 
At Friday, June 06, 2014 5:15:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick F,

Yes, Lowe wrote a piece about how Harden could have fit along with Ibaka, even if he took the max. The math was razor thin, and it only works now in hindsight thanks to the unforeseen rapid escalation of the salary cap. Still, the problem with that quartet is that they overlap too much and do not have a legitimate center. Hasheem Thabeet?

Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Jackson all need the ball and of the three guards, none of them could cover the SF for long stretches.

You could try and play Ibaka and Durant as your bigs—but that’s going to be physically draining on both of them throughout the course of an 82-game season, followed up with 20+ playoff games. Durant trying to cover either Splitter or Duncan? Probably ends badly for him.

With Martin, the Thunder became the best offense in the league (in terms of Offensive rating) and they improved to the league’s fourth stingiest defense (defensive rating). With Harden, they were 2nd and 10th respectively. The Thunder team shooting improved, especially from distance (35.8 compared to 37.7). And they had a better winning percentage (.732 to .714) which is more impressive when you consider they played 16 more games.

Not sure how or why you feel the Thunder weren’t a better team from the year before. But even if they were about the same, they still had the same chance of making it back to the Finals with Martin as they did with Harden. So, the trade worked in that sense that it gave them just as good of a shot to make it back (probably better since they didn't lose Perkins to amnesty), while also providing them assets for the future.

As to getting something “better” back. I don’t think Harden’s stock was at an all-time high. Most pundits questioned whether he could handle the grind of an 82-game season playing 37-40 minutes a night as the number one option. Remember, he absolutely choked against the Heat and he’d never played more than 32 minutes a game. I’d say, if anything, his value was low. The offers from around the league reflected that.

Paul George? Even before his breakout season, I find it hard to believe (even as pure speculation) that the Pacers would consider trading him. They are the same age, but George is in another tax bracket in terms of athleticism, size and length. And while Harden put up better offensive numbers, George was without question the better defender.

Perhaps Goran Dragic could be had, but the numbers don’t work out (even with Parsons and Adams’ pick) as he is signed to one of the best deals in the league (if he can continue his play from this season). And, I’m fairly certain that Chandler Parsons was untouchable as he is (until he signs an extension or a new deal) the best value in the entire NBA.

And Jimmy Butler and Mirotic may be better than Adams/Lamb right now, but Mirotic might not even come next season (let alone the fact that he wouldn’t have been there for the past two) and Butler struggled big time this year.

Bledsoe is a terrific piece, but he is very much repetitive with Jackson and Westbrook already on the roster. The Thunder filled two positions of need with super young, highly talented players with as much upside as most any other player under 22 in the league.

Iman Shumpert and to a smaller extent Tim Hardaway Jr. are New York media hype jobs. They can play, but neither is as good as they have both been made out to be. Also, Shumpert can’t shoot and plays the same combo-guard that Westbrook/Jackson play. Finally, what future pick? 2017?

As for the Blazers, they didn’t have Lopez to trade. And Matthews was coming off the worst season of his career.

Without knowing specifically what actual trades were out there, I feel the Thunder made a good to solid one. If Adams becomes a quasi-allstar (a la Bogut w/o the passing) and Lamb becomes a solid starter, and Jackson continues his improvement, the deal will have been a great one in favor of OKC.

 
At Friday, June 06, 2014 5:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Thank you for crunching the relevant salary cap numbers and providing some excellent context regarding the Harden situation.

 
At Saturday, June 07, 2014 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Jordan-

My point about the cap was only that they could have kept Harden without serious cap ramifications, not that they should have. It was meant more as a stray observation than an argument; it should be clear by everything else I've said in this thread that I agree they should have traded him, I just question what they chose to trade him for.


And yes, those are all speculative deals, and maybe some of them weren't workable; but look at the number of them! My point is that there were a lot of players that would have benefitted OKC more in the short term (I.e.; before Kevin reaches free agency) than one-year rental of Martin, and answer an important ongoing need (speedy perimeter defense).

Two of them were absolutely, provably, confirmably available; Shumpert (NY always trying to get rid of him) and Dragic. Most of the others with the exception of Paul George were at least probably available. So were probably half a dozen other guys.

Shumper is not a great offensive player, but he's athletic and explosive in transition, and he's a bulldog on defense. OKC has never had someone to deal with crafty/speedy point-guards (Without getting into a whole thing about Westbrook's D again, he tends to have trouble with the fastest and slickest PGs, and his athleticism and size empower him to guard 2s anyways; which, when he does, allows him to be a passing-lane terror off the ball). The loss of Reggie Jackson's growth, if it happens (probably Shump just takes Sef's minutes and Jackson does as he's done) is slightly sad, but the benefit of not getting torn up my the Conleys, Pauls, and Parkers of the world is worth it.

Another player we know was available is Dragic, and the numbers are easy to make work; even saying Dragic gets more in that scenario (say, 8.5 mil), Harden's contract that season was just a hair under 6. Stick an unused Brewer or whoever the equivalent was that season in the deal and you're fine. Compare who they actually got for Harden (12 mil of Kevin Martin) and they spent more money on a shittier player for less time; we already know Houston wanted Harden, and we know they didn't care about keeping Dragic, you really think they wouldn't have done the exact same deal they did with Dragic and Martin switched out? Heck, Morey probably would have loved keeping Martin's expiring around as fodder to try and swing for another "foundational player". Now, yes, Dragic wasn't a star yet, & you probably can't say for sure he would have become one without Jeff Hornacek, but he'd already proven himself an above average starter, and finished, IIRC, second in the league in clutch FG% behind Chris Paul; that sounds to me like an upgrade for a team that just saw their third option choke in the Finals.

Look, the specific deals aren't important; what's important is that they didn't address any of the reasons they lost to Miami with that trade; they didn't get immediately deeper, they didn't get somebody who could both play perimeter defense and at least still warrant a defender on offense (smart teams ignore Sef), and they didn't get a viable secondary ball handler for when Westbrook sat (though two years later Reggie Jackson is that player, he wasn't in 2013, and it cost them against Memphis).

It's common knowledge that they made the deal as quickly as they could, and I'm arguing (with pretty good evidence) that in doing so they missed out on better deals. The 2-guard position is woefully shallow in the NBA right now, and teams were/are willing to overpay for even a flawed "star" at that position.

 
At Saturday, June 07, 2014 11:25:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Oh, and bigger point out of the way.. can we please stop pretending Perkins is irreplaceable? He produces less at an on-court level than replacement level big men, he's one of the most vulnerable PnR bigs in the league (and newsflash: it's a PnR league!) and there are plenty of crappy bottom-salary bigs who play post defense and set screens available every seasons on minimum deals.

Guys like Kurt Thomas, Jason Collins, Lou Amundson, Joel Pryzbilla, Nazr Mohammed, etc. etc. etc. If you want to argue that Perkins is irreplaceable for leadership or chemistry reasons, that's a discussion, but what he does on-court is neither very good nor especially hard to replace.

 
At Saturday, June 07, 2014 10:29:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

I know we agree that Harden should have been traded. I agree with most everything you said but the points I’m arguing.

Where we still seem to be in disagreement is on what the Thunder could have gotten for him.

While Shumpert and Dragic were gettable, neither of them would have—at that time—given the Thunder the ability to get back to the Finals. Dragic needed that extra year as the main option on Phoenix to blossom into what he became this past season. Playing behind Westbrook (and a times alongside him) would not have allowed him that opportunity. In fact, we kind of saw that this season as Dragic didn’t truly break out until Bledsoe went down.

Please, please, please get off the Shumpert deal. First and foremost, smart teams know to avoid the Knicks personnel, period. You are incredibly overrating Shumpert. I’d rather have Steven Adams straight up than Shumpert. Shumpert can’t space the floor (at all, something vitally necessary playing with a Thunder team light on outside shooting) and was recovering from a torn ACL. Perhaps the worst deal the Thunder could hope to make for Harden as the Knicks picks wouldn't have been until 2017 or later.

Furthermore, I disagree about his ability to “not get torn up by the Parkers, Pauls, and Conleys of the world.” Besides, the Thunder beat the Pauls and Conleys of this world without a “lockdown” perimeter defender. They lost to Memphis last year because Westbrook got hurt. The reason they lost to the Spurs this year is because the Spurs are the best team in the League, have one of the best coaches, and have playmakers at every position—and Ibaka missed the first two games which basically gave the Spurs a 2-0 cushion and an opportunity to get comfortably into their shooting rhythm as a team. Try beating a locked in Spurs four times out of five games—too tough for any team.

I know you believe the Thunder needed to make some major acquisitions in order to match up better with the Heat. I disagree. Kevin Durant and Westbrook were both 23 years old when they made the finals. It was inevitable that they would both improve which in turn would automatically improve the Thunder. This, indeed did occur. Both Durant and Westbrook came back better the following season. With the addition of a pro’s pro that could shoot the lights out and do it efficiently without the ball in his hands, the Thunder improved offensively and defensively (as mentioned in my previous post).

History would have judged the Harden trade in an even better light for OKC had Westbrook not gotten injured in the first round.

They had all the tools to beat any team in the West and had the offensive firepower to once again challenge the Heat. Adding Martin, not Shumpert or a not-yet-ready Dragic would have given the Thunde that ability—to speak nothing of the fact in both of those scenarios, the Thunder do not get Steven Adams or Jeremy Lamb and at least with Dragic would have also lost Perkins.

 
At Saturday, June 07, 2014 10:29:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

As for Perkins, leadership is part of his package. Watch Durant’s MVP speech and tell me he would have said the same thing about Nazr Mohammed. Kurt Thomas was 39 years old in the summer of 2012. Przybilla was a shell of his former self, almost unplayable thanks to multiple knee injuries and surgeries. Jason Collins does not set great picks, is an even worse offensive liability than Perkins, and has zero intimidation factor. Lou Amundsen is a borderline NBA player at best.
Look at this list and tell me who would have been able to fill Perkins role on the team. There was absolutely nobody available.

http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/page/FreeAgents-12-13/nba-free-agents-2012-2013

I am not in love with Perkins. In fact, as a Lakers fan, I came to truly dislike him. That said, the Thunder have improved their record and gotten better both offensively and defensively every year since they got him. While that must take into account a lot of various factors—it still remains that he was part of the team’s success. He is not good at a lot of things. Truly horrible at a couple, and is definitely overpaid. But he is not easily replaceable. Especially with the kind of money the Thunder would have had available if they either kept Harden or gotten Dragic.

 
At Monday, June 09, 2014 4:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

First, a disclaimer: Apologies if I ever come off as mean, rude, or condescending. I never intend to, and I wouldn't be posting here if I didn't thoroughly enjoy and value the opinions of both David and 90% of the posters here. I just have a slightly combative tone in text sometimes, but I promise it's all in good nature.

Second, point of clarification: In the proposed Dragic deal, they would not have lost Perkins; it would have been exactly the same as the trade they did make, only with Dragic instead of Martin and still taking on the same pieces, only maybe they don't ship out one of the Aldritch/Hayward/Cook group. Remember, even now Dragic makes about 4 mil less per year than Martin made that season; OKC would have had *more* cap flexibility that season, but a little less moving forward (though still a lot more than they'd have with Harden). Still, a core of Durant/Westbrook/Dragic/Ibaka/Adams/Jackson-pending-his-next-contract-demands is likely good for another 6-10 years, with whatever vets plugged in around.

Also, you're only part right about Dragic; his shooting numbers were already great with Bledsoe, it's just his number of shot attempts that really went up when he went down; he started making slightly more threes, but that I think had more to with where he was getting the ball on passes (Bledsoe and Dragic weirdly almost never passed to each other the first half of the season, though they did once Bled came back).

Still, you can make a reasonable argument he wouldn't have broken out without Hornacek; but even 2012 Dragic is better than Kevin Martin or anyone on the current roster except Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka. He's a star now, but he was still an above-average starter then. And it's unlikely that his crazy work-ethic would have diminished by hanging out with the hyper-competitive Durant; it's likely Dragic would have blossomed anyways, though arguably not as much.

Shumpert isn't a hill I'm willing to die on specifically, but a strong perimeter guy is. Yes, they beat Memphis this year, but it took 7 games and a fortuitous suspension to do it (they may have won anyways, but still worth mentioning) and Conley looked unstoppable for stretches. It took 6 games to beat LAC, who were also dealing with the Sterling mess and not psychologically 100% (in no way OKC's fault, but again worth noting). Beat those guys faster, maybe Ibaka doesn't go down, maybe Durant's fresher, etc. etc.

Parker absolutely lit them up as well, and while its true the Spurs are great top to bottom, he's their most important offensive piece. Dragic, specifically, has a reputation (though honestly the numbers only sometimes back it up; Parker's and a few big games against him) as being one of the better Parker-stoppers in the world, which was the reason he got drafted into the NBA in the first place. At the very least, Dragic is one of the hardest guards (sans Tony Allen) in the league to screen (he's agile, stringy, and stubborn), and SA gets a lot of its best stuff running opposing guards off screens (see Westbrook getting plastered against one on that Ginobili game-winner a few games back).

TL;DR They had a valuable asset and three main needs (secondary ball handler, third scorer, perimeter defender), and they only filled one of them, and only for a season. They did get some decent long-term assets, but there's no guarantee those assets will mature before it's too late. Players who filled 2-3 of those needs were available at the time, and OKC didn't shop around as much as they could have for fear of a Dwightmare/Melodrama situation. I contend they'd be better if they had. Rare impulse misfire from a normally very smart organization.

 
At Monday, June 09, 2014 7:56:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

Love smart people that write out well-thought arguments. Intelligent discussion is why I continue to come back to 20 Second Timeout. Never once thought you were coming off as mean or rude. I get plenty of that from Reddit or ESPN or Yahoo, etc.

I do in fact love your Dragic deal for the Thunder. Hate it for the Suns. (Side note: The Suns have been one of my favorite teams since back in the Dan Majerle days. I got to watch Dragic work out a year or two after he was drafted when everyone was calling him a huge bust. He’s signed to BDA Management, and he worked out in El Segundo with a Japanese player I was writing about who was trying to make the NBA (never did) and a few other players. Ever since then, I’ve followed Dragic’s career and have cheered for him.)

Finally we can agree! Now that I’m a bit cleared up on the format of the trade, I agree that it would have been a more ideal option for the Thunder as Dragic is younger, a much better defender, and has proven to be a more dynamic player than Kevin Martin—while still having a young Martin/Harden type offensive game.

That said, I still feel like we should wait a couple more years to see how the actual trade turns out. I loved what I saw from Adams this season and came away believing in Lamb. With one more year of development, Adams should be ready to move into that starting center role, which would free up $9.5 million in cap space and allow the Thunder to pursue a wing defender—which is much cheaper than going after a starting center. They could even pursue Shumpert who will be a restricted free agent in 2015.

I think the knee-jerk reaction for most people (including myself) is to pass judgment on trades in the first season or two after they occur. But NBA GMing is more chess than checkers. It took the Grizzlies four seasons before they fully utilized the assets and cap space they received in the Pau Gasol trade to put the finishing touches on a squad that would make it to the Western Conference Finals (under ideal circumstances, I know). The Jason Kidd deal took a few years as well. Everyone killed both of those trades, especially the Gasol deal which I thought was decent as it gave them Marc Gasol (at the time the reigning ACB MVP), a large amount of cap space, and several picks.

Perhaps the Thunder didn’t make the absolute best possible deal they could have. But under the circumstances, and seeing how other GMs have messed up their franchises trading away burgeoning stars, I feel like the Thunder did very well for themselves.

I am mainly upset at big time pundits like Bill Simmons who have a large audience and continue to perpetuate this idea that the Thunder made the worst trade of all time. Simmons previously thought the Grizzlies made the worst trade of all time.

Like the Grizzlies trade, I feel like the Thunder will be justified as early as next season.

You and I can revisit this discussion a year from now if you’d like! =)

 
At Tuesday, June 10, 2014 12:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

Not only did Simmons pan both the Gasol deal and the Harden deal but he also wrote a lengthy, ridiculous article about why Doc Rivers is a terrible coach. The problem with Simmons is not just that he is often wrong but that he rarely admits his mistakes. He has written some pieces that are humorous but I have never been impressed with his attempts to analyze basketball players, coaches and/or games.

 
At Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:02:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

In point of fact, Simmons has admitted on multiple occasions that he was wrong about both Rivers and the Gasol trade; he actually kind of loves mocking himself for dumb stuff he said years ago.

He does, however, still hate the Harden trade, so he's wrong there.

What I do like about him as an analyst is he pays attention to a lot of the stuff "stat gurus" and other analysts ignore; body language, chemistry, psychology, on-court interplayer dynamics etc. It's on stuff like that where I find him an interesting resource, though I almost often disagree with his overall player/team evaluation (Harden being a notable example).

Jordan-

I'm also a Suns fan, and started following Dragic in Eurobasket just before they drafted him. I'm thrilled to see him thrive, and naturally am glad OKC didn't snap him up. Since I live in Seattle, while I admire OKC, I root pretty energetically against them whenever they play anybody but the Spurs (Suns fan, remember), as it's Clay Bennet's fault I don't get to watch live basketball games anymore.

Quick subject change (Kinda), how do you feel about the rumor that the Suns have leapt to the front of the pack for a Kevin Love trade by dangling Dragic or Bledsoe?

While I think Love is certainly an elite Power Forward both offensively and in terms of rebounding, I'm not sure he helps the Suns with their biggest problem (defense), and while he's likely more valuable than Dragic or (especially) Bledsoe on many other teams, the Suns were top five on both sides of the ball this season when their weird two PG lineup was on the court; as great as Love is, I'd personally rather see them retain both and keep trying this weird experiment and banking on their growth, and use their cap room and picks to go get somebody who's a little more defensively oriented, if not as offensively dominant (maybe Al Horford?), or possibly another perimeter defender (their bench is defensively awful). How about you?

David, obviously, feel free to chip in as well if you have a dog in that fight.

 
At Wednesday, June 11, 2014 2:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Simmons has said and written so many stupid things that I have, for the most part, stopped paying attention to what he says/writes, so I admit that I may not be up to date on whatever retractions he has provided. My impression is that he holds fast to ridiculous opinions until it becomes impossible for him to do so (i.e., Rivers is so universally respected now that Simmons has no choice but to mock what he once wrote about him, though I thought that Simmons believes that Rivers improved and not that Simmons was totally wrong initially).

Regarding Dragic and the Suns, I still don't have as high of an opinion of Dragic as you do and I am also skeptical of the long term viability of a small guard lineup. Kevin Love is, to some degree, what Kenny Smith calls a "looter in a riot" (a player putting up big numbers for a bad team) and I don't think that he is elite but I'd take him over anyone the Suns currently have. It is not easy to find 20-10 players and I think that Love could put up such numbers even in a "non-looting" situation, though he is probably best suited to being the second best player on a legit contender.

 
At Wednesday, June 11, 2014 4:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

My skepticism with bringing in Love at the cost of either Dragic or Bledsoe has less to do with either of the guards individually, and more to do with the overlap between what the Suns already do well (offense), and what Kevin Love does well (offense), as well as what the Suns need to get better at (defense, particularly at the 4 position), and what Love needs to get better at (also defense).

Bledsoe is a bit of a headcase, and if Dragic's ankle issues persist this season may well have been his peak, but both are strong two-way players in the back-court who outplayed every other backcourt in the league by the numbers this year (I'm not saying they're better than every other backcourt; they aren't. I'm just saying there's good evidence that they're very, very good); I'd rather spend PHX's other assets to search out a 20-30% (or ideally more) improvement on defense, where they really need it, than sacrifice one of their three best defenders (and two best players overall) to improve by 10-20% on offense.

For most teams, Love would be a more useful player than Dragic or Bledsoe (he'd be a godsend in Chicago, for example)... but I don't think the Suns are one of those teams.

Certainly not in the hypothetical case where they give up Dragic, as the offense cratered whenever Bledsoe was out there alone, and no matter how good Love is on that end, he isn't a primary ballhandler.

Tl;DR Love makes the Suns better at they're good at, and worse at what they're bad at. You shouldn't give up one of your two best players to do that.

 
At Wednesday, June 11, 2014 4:58:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

Loved Seattle back in the day too (damn Michael Jordan) and am very sad that the NBA allowed the city to be robbed of its franchise. The Glove lobs to Reignman remain to this day unmatched in terms of sheer spectacle and difficulty.

Regarding Simmons, you are right that he often retracts/admits and even mocks his predictions. That said, because he now has such a HUGE audience and is no longer just the “Sports Guy” but a halftime/postgame “analyst” and head editor of Grantland, it is important for him to not pop off at the mouth just because he gets emotional. People only remember the initial idea/point and rarely waste time analyzing and then revisiting that idea/point at a later date to see if it was valid or not. That’s how you get millions of people out there who think that not only was Scottie Pippen nothing more than MJ’s sidekick, but that he’s also nowhere near being a top-50 player of all time, etc. Simmons should be trying to educate viewers/readers—not simply entertain. (Yes, I know he is hugely successful because he entertains, but…journalistic integrity amirite?)

As for the proposed Love trade, I feel like it would be a huge waste of the Suns resources. As you pointed out, the Suns could definitely use Kevin Love. But, like you, I feel he is not the right fit. Watching him at UCLA, I never thought he’d be as good as he is now so in that regard he has impressed me. That said, I feel he is vastly overrated—like all offense-only, “efficient” players are in today’s stats-driven world (Harden, Melo, even Durant to a small degree).

I also think the Suns two-guard combo is special—mainly because both are good to elite defensive players that also can break down defenses on the other side. Giving one of them up takes away what makes the Suns special. Sure, Love is an elite version of Channing Frye, but Frye is a more nimble and active defender. That’s the other thing that made the Suns special this past season—athleticism at nearly every position. Love brings too many opposite qualities to the Suns, not to forget the fact it’ll take giving up multiple players (one of the Morris twins, Frye) and a pick to get him.

That’s not worth it.

I love Horford, but doubt the Hawks would trade him. Plus, he’s proven to be a bit injury-prone the past two seasons. Perhaps Milsap would cost the Suns less (a twin and a couple of picks?). With his improving three-point shot, his ability to move the ball, his defensive chops, and his in-between game, he’d be a terrific power forward for the Suns.
What I think the Suns should do is go hard after Chris Bosh. He’d have to dust off the nice post game he routinely utilized with the Raptors, and he’d have to give up South Beach—but I believe his elite combination of defense and offense would make the Suns one of the best 3-4 teams in the West. They won’t have to give up anything to get him either as he can opt out. For Bosh, he’ll get to live in something close to Texas (where he’s from), he’ll get a fan base that will embrace him, and he’ll get to be a star on a contender. Wade is very near the end (the starters are almost better with Allen in the game nowadays), the Heat are facing cap hell, and will barely be able to tread water with their overall talent, let alone upgrade.

I think Bosh is a better overall player than Love. (I am in the minority on this)

 
At Wednesday, June 11, 2014 5:05:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

David,

Simmons is a very entertaining writer. But you are correct that his ability to analyze players, coaches, and games is severely lacking.

But his on-air commentary? That makes his columns look like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.

 
At Wednesday, June 11, 2014 6:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Jordan-

We agree on Love, though I'd love to have if we could get him without giving up one of our guards. The one thing he would bring we could really stand to improve on would be rebounding, and the idea of his outlet passes fueling Dragic/Bledsoe fast breaks is a fun one.

But he's not the best fit out there. Horford is indeed injury prone, but as near as I can tell the Phoenix medical staff includes an Aborigine shaman, an immortal warlock, a time-traveling doctor from the 78th century, and at least three of the X-Men. They kept Amare and Nash on the court, and they somehow de-aged Shaq and Grant Hill, so I'm optimistic they could mitigate Horford's issues.

I was clamoring for us to go after Bosh all season right up until that interview a month or so ago when he claimed he doesn't ever want to post up again because it's too physical; if there's one kind of scoring the Suns need, it's interior, late in the clock post scoring. That said, he's perfect for everything else they do (though it'd be nice if he rebounded a little more), so obviously getting him (on a reasonable deal) would be a coup.

Millsap I honestly haven't seen enough of to have an intelligent opinion on; in the 8-12ish games I've seen him play over the last few years, he's struck me as just ok. But like I said, I just haven't seen enough, and most of what I have seen was in Utah. I didn't watch much of the East the last two or three years outside of a few teams.

Not sure which other elite-ish bigs are available in FA or by trade, but the Suns would definitely benefit from an elite two-way big. But then who wouldn't?

I am intrigued to see how Plumlee, Morris, and Len evolve (if at all) this season, and wouldn't feel too terrible about using our resources for another strong two-way wing (or if not a true two-way player, someone like '07 Raja Bell who can play elite D and make 3s, even if he can't do anything else offensively).

Gun to my head, I think they probably end up trading Bledsoe (who doesn't especially seem to want to stay), some picks, Frye, and either Plumlee or the Morris Bros for Love and assorted loose change. If they can fill the rest of the roster with strong defensive players afterwards, they might be able to contend a little in the West over the next 5 years pending good health for Dragic/Love and some development from their remaining youngsters.

Hope I'm wrong, though.

 
At Wednesday, June 11, 2014 6:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David & Jordan-

As for Simmons, I don't pay too much attention to what he says on-air. He's certainly a slave to the moment.

I stand by valuing his analysis of things like chemistry, body language, etc. His observations on those fronts tend to be pretty astute, in my experience.

I did agree with much of his basketball book, and I think he's a much stronger analyst with the benefit of hindsight than he is in the moment (though for my money he criminally undervalued both Julius Erving and Rick Barry in his book (and really ABAers in general), and probably put Kobe 5 or so spots higher than he deserved in my semi-humble estimation).

 
At Thursday, June 12, 2014 1:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I have not seen much "strong" analysis produced by Simmons; his articles are humorous at times (when he makes various pop culture references) but not particularly insightful--and I agree with you that Simmons severely underrated Erving, Barry and ABA players in general.

 
At Tuesday, June 17, 2014 2:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave, I think even if Ibaka was healthy, the Spurs would have won the series. Their ISO ball was never going to work come playoff time. The Spurs have figured OKC out.

 

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