Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals PreviewI predicted that the Western Conference Finals would be "quite an eye-opener." What I meant by that is the impending showdown between Stephen Curry and James Harden would reveal a lot about those two players. Curry was a lightly-recruited player heading into college and even after he shined at Davidson many analysts questioned how good of an NBA player he would be but I predicted that he would be a very good NBA player and I noted that he was a lot more than just a high scoring jump shooter a la J.J. Redick. Curry earned a starting spot as a rookie and played very well. He battled some injuries early in his career but he persevered through that while also improving his skill set, most notably on defense. In his fifth season (2013-14), Curry emerged as an All-NBA player and this season he won the MVP award after leading the Golden State Warriors to the best record in the league (67-15). Curry deflects praise and focuses on what he can do to increase his team's success.
Harden is very focused on personal glory. After he flamed out in the 2012 NBA Finals, Oklahoma City still offered him a contract that would have paid him a lot of money to be the third best player on a perennial championship contender. Harden wanted the accolades and cash that come with being the number one option on offense, even if that reduced the likelihood that he would win a championship. He could have been Manu Ginobili, who has been an All-Star and All-NBA player while winning four championships with the Spurs. Instead, Harden chose to be Stephon Marbury (when Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders told Marbury that Marbury and Kevin Garnett could be the next Karl Malone/John Stockton duo, Marbury dismissively stated that he did not want to be John Stockton).
Weeks ago, Harden declared that Golden State is not that good and that he should have won the MVP instead of Curry. It is true that the media has been on the wrong side of the MVP vote many times. In 1995, David Robinson received the honor over Hakeem Olajuwon, who had taken his game to another level in 1994 while leading the Houston Rockets to the NBA title. However, unlike Harden, Olajuwon did not run his mouth. Olajuwon let his game do the talking, destroying Robinson in their one on one playoff matchup and leading the Rockets to a second title. That is what franchise players do.
Harden did not go the Olajuwon route. He went the route taken by guys who have been given a little bit more responsibility than they can handle and in so doing he confirmed that even though the media got it wrong by voting Harden second in the MVP race at least the media got it right to the extent that they did not give the award to Harden. In game five versus the Warriors, Harden shot 2-11 from the field with a playoff single-game record 13 turnovers. Overall during the series, Harden had two good games, one great game (albeit when his team was already down 3-0) and two awful games. That is not the consistency that a franchise player displays. Also, Harden did not accept the challenge defensively by insisting on covering Curry. In 1995, Olajuwon relished the chance to prove his superiority over Robinson. In the 1992 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan took it as a personal challenge to outduel Clyde Drexler.
Harden's supporters may feel vindicated by Harden's gaudy regular season numbers and his occasional great playoff games but they are missing the point. I never said that Harden could not put up gaudy regular season numbers or make the All-Star team, nor did I ever say that he could not have a good or even a great playoff game. I said that he is not good enough on a consistent basis to be the best player on a championship team. His offensive game is gimmicky, his defense is poor and his maturity is questionable (consider not only his comments about Curry/Golden State but also his childish feud with a Houston writer during last year's playoffs and his pouting in Oklahoma City when he did not get the minutes/shot attempts that he wanted).
The past two years, Harden could not get the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs. This year, the Rockets faced a more favorable draw and they also benefited greatly from Dwight Howard's reemergence in the playoffs as a dominant, elite level player. With homecourt advantage on the line in game two versus Dallas in round one, Howard converted six second half lobs from Josh Smith while Harden struggled through a 5-17 shooting performance after shooting 4-11 from the field in game one. Harden was great in game three versus Dallas (42 points on 15-24 field goal shooting) and the Rockets eventually prevailed in five games.
The Rockets fell down 3-1 to the L.A. Clippers before rallying to win the series in seven games. Harden shot .412 or worse from the field in four of the seven games. Houston trailed by 19 points with 14 minutes to go in game six. Facing elimination, the Rockets benched Harden (who shot 5-20 from the field in that game) and stormed back to win. Harden shot just 7-20 from the field in game seven and he committed seven turnovers but he got to the free throw line 18 times and managed to score 31 points in Houston's 113-100 win. Dwight Howard dominated inside with 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Harden played well in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals but Houston still fell into an 0-2 hole. At the end of game two, with six seconds left and a chance to go for the win, Harden instead passed the ball to Howard at the top of the key. By the time Harden got the ball back, it was too late to shoot. That is just one play and Harden performed well otherwise but it is yet another example of Harden not being quite suitable for the number one role on a championship caliber team. If you want the glory and the money, then you shoot the ball in that situation and you live with the result. Harden is supposed to be the master at drawing fouls, so he should have put his head down and either taken the shot or drawn a foul. That is the responsibility that comes with being the best player. Sure, if a legitimate shooter had been wide open and there was time to get him the ball then it would have been OK to pass but you do not pass the ball to Howard at the top of the key in that situation.
The Rockets needed to win game three at home. Win that game and then win game four at home and all of a sudden it is a three game series and maybe Golden State feels some pressure. Instead, Harden shot 3-16 from the field as Golden State won, 115-80. That performance was not unusual; Harden shot .417 from the field or worse in eight of Houston's 17 playoff games.
Most teams that are down 3-0 win game four, because no one wants to be swept and because the team with the advantage usually gets a bit complacent. Harden scored 45 points on 13-22 field goal shooting as Houston extended the series with a 128-115 win but that just set up a fitting finale for Harden. As mentioned above, in game five Harden provided some nice video evidence of why he is not quite suited to being the best player on a championship contender.
Harden's advocates will always take refuge in regular season wins, "advanced basketball statistics" and criticisms of Houston's supporting cast but if you watch Harden dispassionately you can see the skill set weaknesses: he is an inconsistent shooter, he has no post game, he is sloppy with the ball and he is disinterested in defense. He is talented enough to put up big numbers on any given night but he does not have the skill set, mentality or consistency to lead a team to a title. Harden had at least one awful game in each round of the playoffs.
Harden is a good player but he is not a franchise player. He is Manu Ginobili let loose and given the freedom to shoot whenever he wants. If Ginobili had wanted that opportunity, he could have left San Antonio, averaged 25-plus ppg and lost in the first round of the playoffs more often than not. If everything broke right one year, he might have even made it to the Conference Finals. That would not have changed Ginobili's fundamental value as a player.
What difference does it make if Harden is overrated? If one player is overrated then that means that someone else is underrated and not receiving the acclaim he deserves. It also means that games and series are not being analyzed correctly in terms of why teams win and lose. At some point, the people who put Harden on the All-NBA First Team and give him MVP votes are going to have to explain the dichotomy between Harden's regular season numbers/honors and his playoff inconsistency.
While the Warriors outclassed the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, LeBron James powered the Cleveland Cavaliers to a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Hawks led the East with 60 wins, they won 19 games in a row (and 24 out of 25 during one stretch) and they sent four players to the All-Star Game but they proved to be no match for a Cleveland team that was without the services of three-time All-Star Kevin Love and that only had the services of three-time All-Star Kyrie Irving for one game.
Bill Russell (1957-66 Boston Celtics), Magic Johnson (1982-85 L.A. Lakers) and Larry Bird (1984-87 Boston Celtics) set a high standard by leading their teams to four straight NBA Finals. LeBron James has set a new standard by leading his team to five straight NBA Finals and he accomplished this as a member of two different franchises. James led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals but his lack of a consistent jump shot, his puzzling passivity at crucial times and his inability/unwillingness to post up made it very easy for the San Antonio Spurs to hold him to 22.0 ppg on .356 field goal shooting and 5.8 turnovers per game en route to a 4-0 victory.
James later fled to what he considered greener pastures in Miami but his skill set weaknesses followed him there and showed up again during the 2011 NBA Finals as Dallas upset Miami. James averaged just 17.8 ppg versus Dallas, nearly 9 ppg below his average during the 2011 regular season. In the next two seasons, though, James' aggressiveness proved to be the difference as he led the Heat to back to back championships.
After the Heat lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Finals, James returned to Cleveland to take care of unfinished hometown business. James has a better supporting cast with the Cavaliers than some people will admit but he has also played at an amazing level during the playoffs. James' shooting percentages have plummeted--a result of fatigue and questionable shot selection--but the most important thing is that he has been relentlessly aggressive. Perhaps his biggest weakness prior to becoming an NBA champion is that James would become oddly passive at key moments; he would spend the whole season and most of the playoffs scoring 28-30 ppg or more and then all of a sudden he would drift into the corner, give up the ball and seem befuddled that his team lost.
James has learned that in the playoffs he must stay in attack mode. If the stays in attack mode and Irving is reasonably healthy, the Cavaliers could push the Warriors. The more likely scenario, though, is that the Warriors have too much depth and too much defense for James and the Cavaliers to overcome. Before the playoffs began, I picked the San Antonio Spurs to repeat as NBA champions by once again defeating a LeBron James-led team. Perhaps I should have realized that San Antonio's precipitous fall from second seed to sixth seed in the final week of the regular season foreshadowed that the Spurs were not at the top of their game when it mattered most. In any case, the L.A. Clippers beat the Spurs in seven games, the Rockets beat the Clippers in seven games and the Warriors destroyed the Rockets in five games. The Cavaliers have had a very impressive playoff run but the Warriors just look like the class of the league right now. The Warriors shoot well, they pass well and they defend well. The Warriors are a little careless with the ball at times but that is their only weakness and that is not a big enough chink in their armor for the Cavaliers to prevail.
Golden State will end a 40 year drought and LeBron James' career NBA Finals record will drop to 2-4.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 AM