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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Brief Thoughts About the Start of the Second Round

The second round of the playoffs is off to a rousing start, with three of the four underdogs winning on the road in game one. Only the Golden State Warriors held serve, routing the Memphis Grizzlies 101-86 as 2015 MVP Stephen Curry scored a game-high 22 points. The Warriors likely would have made short work of the Grizzlies in this series even if Memphis' starting point guard Mike Conley were not injured but without Conley the Grizzlies have little chance of winning. The Grizzlies lack outside shooting, which means that the good and smart teams will pack the paint against them in the playoffs and Memphis will struggle to score 90 points.

In my second round preview, I said that the Washington Wizards might steal home court advantage but that the Atlanta Hawks would ultimately win the series. Washington indeed won game one in Atlanta. I still think that the Hawks are the better team and expect that they will figure out the Wizards over the course of six or seven games.

LeBron James had one of his classic good/bad playoff games, authoring the type of performance that has long baffled me. The good part is that he nearly had a triple double (19 points, game-high 15 rebounds, game-high nine assists)--but the bad part is that he shot just 9-22 from the field, that he committed a game-high six turnovers and that he disappeared in the fourth quarter with the game on the line when his team needed him most. James is one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history, ranking third in the league this season (25.3 ppg) and fourth all-time (27.4 ppg). With Kevin Love sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury, the Cavs needed for James not only to produce at his normal 25-27 ppg level but to increase that production to 30 points or more. Indeed, if James had scored 27 points--all other things being equal--the Cavs would have won by one point instead of losing 99-92 to the Chicago Bulls.

James has the necessary physical abilities, basketball skill set and understanding of the game to be the greatest player of all-time--but he is not the greatest player of all-time. He has won two championships and done some great things but far too often in the biggest moments he seems to hesitate or shrink. How many times did he drive to the hoop against Chicago only to pass the ball outside to lesser players who had to take more difficult shots? In one of his late game turnovers, James drove into the lane, jumped into the air, spun away from the basket and threw the ball away. Why not go all the way to the hoop or at least take a confident midrange jump shot? Passing the ball in such situations is not unselfish and does not make him a pass-first player; his team needed him to be a big-time scorer and he shrunk from the moment. It is sometimes very frustrating to watch James play, because he just lacks something that Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and the other greatest of the greats had. I write all of this fully realizing that James can and possibly will drop 50 points in the next game--and if he does that in the effortless way that he has in the past, it proves my point: James is the best player in the world but sometimes he does not want to be the best player and carry that load.

The L.A. Clippers' 117-101 win over the Houston Rockets was very entertaining on many levels. All we heard before the game was that the Clippers have no chance without Chris Paul because the Clippers cannot even create a shot without him. That is what the "advanced basketball statistics" apparently say. The reality is that Paul is a very good player but he is also overrated. The Clippers' best player is Blake Griffin, who dominated the San Antonio Spurs in the first round as the Clippers beat the defending champions. Without Paul, the supposedly inept Clippers put six players in double figures, including three who scored at least 20 points each. Griffin produced his second straight triple double (26 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists). He put his stamp on this game the way that an MVP caliber player should. Griffin joined Wilt Chamberlain and John Havlicek as the third non-guard to post back to back triple doubles in the playoffs (Chamberlain accomplished this twice). Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Baron Davis and Griffin are the only players who notched back to back 20 point triple doubles in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Houston's James Harden--who finished second to Curry in the MVP voting--fumbled the ball all over the court (a game-high nine turnovers). Harden shot 3-9 from the field and had eight turnovers in half court sets. Lo and behold, if you do not foul Harden and do not let him shoot open three pointers he is not particularly efficient! Harden's plus/minus number (-22) was the second worst of any player on either team, trailing only his backcourt mate Jason Terry (-23).

Broad conclusions should not be drawn from one game; we know that the Clippers are better with Paul than without him--but we also know that, for all of Paul's accolades, he has never led a team past the second round. Similarly, we know that Harden is not as terrible as he looked--but we also know that he has a pattern of performing poorly in the playoffs and that in his first two years in Houston he could not get the Rockets launched past the first round. This year, Dwight Howard reasserted himself as a dominant player and guided the Rockets to uncharted second round territory but the Clippers countered his inside dominance by bombing away from outside (13-31 three point shooting) and exploiting Houston's turnovers to score in transition before he could get back on defense to protect the paint.

I realize that I may be fighting a losing battle in terms of trying to convince people of the truth about Paul and Harden, just like many people did not appreciate my takes on Carmelo Anthony and Gilbert Arenas a few years back--but the reality is that Anthony and Arenas never were players who could lead a team to a title and neither are Paul and Harden. With Paul, the problem is less skill set/desire and more just a function of barely being six feet tall, but it is an inescapable reality that very few players possess the necessary physical and mental traits to lead a team to a championship. I am not overreacting to one game; I am using what happened in one game to illustrate and explain the basis for analyses that I have made about various players for many years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM


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At Tuesday, May 05, 2015 5:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least with Carmelo Anthony most reasonable people would admit that he was overrated. It is almost blasphemous to suggest that Harden might be overrated and many respectable NBA analysts appear to be unwilling/incapable of pointing out the flaws in his game. No matter how poorly he plays, they will magnify one particular stat (usually FT makes or his assist total) to "prove" that he in fact had a great game. If the Rockets end up losing this series the blame will be put on Kevin McHale, Dwight Howard's missed time due to injury, and the supposedly horrible supporting cast that is made up of wily, underrated veterans.

At Tuesday, May 05, 2015 5:54:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Agreed on most/all counts, though I'm not certain that Paul and Griffin aren't of virtually equal value to the Clippers; Paul is much better defensively than Griffin, and that's extremely valuable against teams with strong PGs; Houston is a matchup where it matters a bit less, but against GS LAC will live and die largely by whether or not Paul can slow down Curry.

I though I already posted my picks for round 2 here, but I must be mistaken, so just for posterity here they are (I went 6-2 in round 1, losing out on Spurs and Mavs; traditionally, I always lose on Texas teams (went 11-4 in 2011 but picked against the Mavs all four rounds) so this is no surprise.

Washington over Atlanta
Cleveland over Chicago (already sweating)
GS over Memphis (though with a healthy Conley it may have been close)
LAC over Houston

At Wednesday, May 06, 2015 10:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harden was clearly an elite player in the regular season, that was easy to see. He has struggled in a few playoff games so far, but so has Curry and James. And his numbers overall are still very impressive. HOU's problem isn't their offense, but their defense.

Not really sure how a healthy Conley won't have any affect against GS. MEM just won game 2 in GS leading the whole way, and Conley played lower minutes than usual. If he's out, D-league player Calathes has to start. Conley's a top 20-25 player in the league, that's a huge difference. GS can't only go 10-11 deep, but 10-11 strong. I thought the officiating in game 2 was very suspect, much in favor of GS, and they still never got within 7 at the end. And Gasol was pathetic, especially against the small-ball lineup of GS. He's very skilled, but you can't just hand him in the ball and expect him to score, even against Green in man coverage. The center position continues to be a disappointment in today's nba.

You're right Nick, Paul and Griffin aren't of virtually equal value to the Clips; Griffin is much better, as we're seeing throughout the playoffs. Paul is better defensively per position, but there's only so much a 6-0 PG can do, and he's probably going to be guarding HOU's worst players most of the time(Prigioni/Terry).

At Thursday, May 07, 2015 12:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Perhaps people understand now what Anthony is all about but it took at least a little while just to get some people to understand that there really is no LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony rivalry just because they entered the NBA at the same time; James has always been much better than Anthony.

You are right that it seems like no matter what happens it is not politically correct to point out any flaws in Harden's game (even his terrible defense is allegedly much improved).

At Thursday, May 07, 2015 3:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Paul may be better defensively but due to Griffin's size, versatility and impact in the paint he can affect the game to a greater extent and with greater consistency than Paul does.

At Thursday, May 07, 2015 3:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Harden was the third wheel in OKC. Since he has been the first option in Houston, the Rockets lost twice in the first round and they likely would have lost again this year were it not for Howard's reemergence as a dominant player.

There is much more to evaluating a player than just looking at numbers. There are some players whose team-wide impact is not as great as their individual numbers might suggest. Carmelo Anthony, Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Monta Ellis are a few such players; I believe that Harden is such a player as well.

Of course, Memphis is better with Conley than without him but over the course of a whole playoff series I think that the Grizzlies' poor shooting will doom them. Golden State had a very subpar game, scoring only 90 points, and Memphis still barely won because it is so difficult for Memphis to crack the 90 point barrier in the playoffs against good, well-prepared teams. Over the course of a seven game series, that will become evident, as it has in the past few years when the Grizzlies' inability to shoot from outside/consistently score more than 90 points has doomed them to lose even when the pundits described Memphis as a "team nobody wants to face." The West is tough and there are not many easy outs but given a choice among the top West teams, I would rather face Houston or Memphis because those teams have weaknesses that can be exploited in a straightforward fashion. Just because a team is not swept that does not mean that the matchup was not significantly favorable to the team that eventually won the series. This is a good matchup for Golden State and the Warriors should win the series.


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