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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

I 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 AM


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At Sunday, May 31, 2015 3:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With players such as Harden and Chris Paul, they never seem to be at fault when their team flames out of the playoffs. The annual excuse of "not enough help" is given and any failure on their part is put on the other members of the team. The mental gymnastics their fanboy apologists go through to avoid even suggesting that they might not be capable of leading a team to a championship are astounding. You know they are out of ammo when they bring up mpg and fatigue. Truly elite players in their prime should have no problem averaging 40 mpg and the heavy burden that comes with that. As you have said, this mainly applies to Chris Paul because his problem has more to do with fatigue/durability as opposed to skill/mindset deficiencies although the "fatigue" excuse is being given by Harden apologists as well.

I remember you once mentioned the "quirkiness" factor that made Gilbert Arenas a fan favorite and thus overrated. I think that Harden's ironically large beard and Chris Paul's diminutive size put them well into "quirky" territory which endears them to fans and makes people reluctant to criticize them.

As for the finals, this year reminds me of 2012 where the Thunder had home court advantage and a deeper team than the Heat. They were the heavy favorites going in but their inexperience and LeBron's greatness were to much to overcome. I realize that the 2015 Cavs aren't nearly as talented as the 2012 Heat and I do think that Golden State will ultimately prevail but I think that people are underrating the Cavs' chances in this series. No player on Golden State has been here before while the Cavs are being led by the best player in the world who is here for the fifth time in a row.

At Sunday, May 31, 2015 4:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I agree with 99% of this, but I'd take peak Ginobili over peak Harden in a heartbeat (at least objectively; personally there may not be a player in the league I hate more than Ginobili). While their scoring prowess is comparable, Ginobili in his prime was a good (if overrated) defender, and he's a more creative passer; that his assist numbers aren't as high as Harden's has more to do with usage rate and system than actual skill.

I do think GS wins, but if Thompson's concussion keeps him out for two or more games it becomes increasingly likely that Cleveland pulls off the upset. Thompson's defense and shooting are very valuable to the Warriors, and for all their lauded depth, Curry simply doesn't have the same room to operate when playing alongside Iguodala or Barbosa as he does when playing beside Thompson. I'm not quite sure what to make of David Blatt as an NBA level coach yet, but I suspect he's at least smart enough to dare Iguodala or Barbosa to beat him if Thompson's benched; it won't work as well as it does with guys like Tony Allen or Rajon Rondo, but it will work well enough for Cleveland to win some basketball games.

At Sunday, May 31, 2015 4:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great analysis of Harden's game, the fact that he is so deficient on defense still boggles my mind. The lack of effort at times is obvious, look at 80% of the defensive plays and often you'll see a breakdown on defense caused by Harden.

At Monday, June 01, 2015 2:31:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

Funny thing about Harden's "improved" defence this year is that the team just lets him guard lesser players and no one seems to take this into account. It reminds me how Suns were hiding Steve Nash, and Houston has overall better defence than those Suns imho.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2015 3:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that the "quirkiness" factor may at least partially explain the popularity of Harden and Paul.

I don't think that Cleveland's chances are being underrated. It is generally understood that Golden State has the more talented and deeper team plus homecourt advantage and therefore should be favored, but that any team with LeBron James that is good enough to reach the Finals has a puncher's chance of winning.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2015 3:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I would also take peak Ginobili over peak Harden but I do not think that peak Ginobili was good enough to be the best player on an NBA championship team. The one scenario that Harden apologists like to bring up is that, in their opinion, teams like 2004 Detroit and 2015 San Antonio did not have an elite player in his prime but still won a title. Even if we accept the premise that those teams did not have an elite player, the point is that those teams had multiple players performing at least at the All-Star level. Harden would not have averaged 27 ppg for any of those teams; he would have been one of several good players. My point is that Harden is being touted as a top five player, an MVP caliber player, a "foundational" player, but that he is just not that good. He is not Kobe or LeBron or Durant. If Harden ever wins a championship he will be the second or third best player behind at least one elite player or he will be one of several good players of approximately equal value.

Even if Thompson misses some games I would still pick Golden State but obviously Cleveland's prospects are enhanced in that scenario.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2015 3:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, Harden is still bad on defense--despite rumors to the contrary--and this was on full display during the playoffs. That is part of the reason that the Rockets did worse with Harden in the game than on the bench; for all of Harden's offensive stats, he gives up at least as much at the other end of the court.

At Tuesday, June 02, 2015 3:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, Houston tries to hide Harden but even when he guards lesser players his mistakes still result in team breakdowns that lead to easy baskets for the opposing team.

At Wednesday, June 03, 2015 4:52:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I agree that Ginobili couldn't be the best guy on a title team unless it was a incredibly well-balanced team and the next three or four guys were 99% as good as he was... I also think the gap between peak Ginobili and present Harden is decently wide, so I definitely don't think there's any team you can put Harden on where he's the best guy and they still win the title, even if the next four guys are all roughly at his level. He's a one-way player, and even the greatest one-way players of all time- guys like Steve Nash, Pistol Pete, Dikembe Mutombo, Mark Eaton, Dennis Rodman, etc.- were never the best guy on a title team. You generally don't win a title if your best guy can't play both sides of the ball; closest it's come to happening in my memory is the '09-'10 Lakers teams, where Kobe only played D when he felt like it- but he still played it, and often enough to make it count. Maybe you could make a case for Magic on those last two 80s Lakers teams (Kareem was probably still better than Magic for the first three), but Magic at least put in an effort on D; he was a little slow against certain matchups, but he was still working his butt off. Harden's a bum defensively who takes plays off, and makes too many mistakes even on the plays where he's trying.

It boggles my mind that Harden gets the love he does from relatively savvy hoops fans. He's a stunt show, and a he's a lethal offensive player in a lot of ways, but there's nobody remotely like that who ever led his team to a title. Guy's best destiny is the third or fourth best guy on a really great team (which OKC perhaps could have been had he stayed), not the franchise star on a team that never makes it. If he wants to be the (very) poor man's George Gervin he's on the right track, I guess... but he'd be better off as the rich man's Vinnie Johnson.

At Wednesday, June 03, 2015 9:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Most of what you wrote is right on target and it is refreshing to see you acknowledge that poor defense is a major reason why Steve Nash never won an NBA title. It is worth noting, though, that Maravich never had a championship-quality team around him during his prime.

However, your gratuitous shot at Kobe Bryant's defense has nothing to do with this thread and is inaccurate. Kobe Bryant made the All-Defensive First Team in 2010. He was a top notch defender and he played top notch defense in the Finals. I do not think that I can change your mind about Kobe's defense at this point but for the benefit of readers who stumble upon this thread out of context it is important to note that there is absolutely no basis for what you wrote. None. Doc Rivers, Boston's Coach, called Kobe the best help defender since Scottie Pippen. Against Boston, Kobe sometimes guarded top threats like Allen and Pierce, while other times he was very disruptive while being assigned to Rondo so that he could roam around. After game three, Derek Fisher said of Kobe's defense on Rondo, "(It's) intelligence, you know, being smart about how to use his length and his size to bother him (Rondo). I think it changes (Rondo's) passing angles, which I think was another little subtlety in some of Ray Allen's struggles shooting last night...When Kobe is guarding the ball handler, Rondo, (Russell) Westbrook, whoever, his length changes their ability to make tighter, crisper passes... for shooters (to catch in) rhythm..."

The worst defender among the best players on recent championship teams is Dirk Nowitzki but Nowitzki stood seven feet tall (so his size was a factor even if he did not slide his feet very well), he rebounded (series-high 56 defensive rebounds in the 2011 Finals) and he at least attempted to impede whoever he was assigned to guard.

At Wednesday, June 03, 2015 11:59:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

My point was more that Kobe, by his own admission, picked his spots on D by that point in his career. I actually forgot about Dirk, and you're right that he was the weakest defender of recent best players on title teams, but in 2011 he definitely did put in a solid and consistent effort on that end, even if he wasn't especially skilled. And, in point of fact, our conversations have changed my understanding of Kobe's defense; I read/talk to you because I respect your opinion (though I may not always agree with it), and I'm more than willing to learn when I'm mistaken. That said, I'll take Kobe at his word that he picked his spots on D in those seasons. Forgetting Dirk, Kobe's not-always-on effort struck me as less impactful than Lebron, Duncan, Jordan, etc's constant pressure D, but my point was chiefly was that even a spot-picking Kobe was still doing much more than Harden does.

I love Pistol Pete like the scrawny UFO-truther son I never had, but he wasn't much good as a defender. While it's true he never had a truly elite supporting cast, you could do a lot worst in the somewhat weakened 70s NBA than lacing up alongside Walt Bellamy and Lou Hudson. I think my opinion on Nash is well-documented by now, that he was a transcendent NBA player who arguably should have won in 2007, but in general needed to be surrounded by elite defensive talent to cover his shortcomings and never was. You could probably put Maravich in that same category, honestly; those two guys are likely the two best-ever shooting/passing double threats ever (though it's starting to look like Steph Curry's eclipsing both as a shooter), and if anyone could have won a title without playing both sides of the ball, it would have been one of them... but they'd have needed a team perfectly tailored to letting them do it, with lots of D and rebounding. They never got it, though Nash's '07 Suns were so dominant on offense- and just competent enough on D with the Raja Bell/Marion combo- that it's conceivable they could have done it without a few unusually bad breaks. Harden is not one of the two greatest shooter/passers of all-time, so even though he's teamed with a top-tier defensive roster that rebounds well, I don't believe there's any scenario in which he could be the best guy on a title team until and unless he improves his defense to at least league-average level. It is perhaps an interesting thought experiment to wonder how Nash or Maravich might have done with this Houston roster, though; it's a better supporting cast (at least on D/the boards) than either ever got.

At Wednesday, June 03, 2015 7:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If Kobe was only "picking his spots" in 2009-10, then he must have picked those spots very well indeed.

Your point about Harden's defense is right on target; I just think that you chose a poor example to emphasize that point. Kobe's defense was a major part of the Lakers' championship run. He actually called the signals for the Lakers' defense, which is unusual for a guard because a guard cannot see what is happening behind him on defense. Kobe pushed and prodded the Lakers' bigs to play better on defense. Andrew Bynum told me how much Kobe had helped him by telling him the tendencies of opposing players and how to exploit those tendencies. This stuff does not show up in box scores and many so-called experts do not know or care to know about it but it does not mean it is not true.

At Thursday, June 04, 2015 4:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Careful David. If you're using Kobe's 1st team all-defense selections as an argument for his defensive prowess, then Harden's consecutive 1st team all-nba selections have to be used for his overall great play. Plus, there's endless comments from past/present players, past/present coaches, etc. how about great Harden currently is. Can't have it both ways.

At Thursday, June 04, 2015 6:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


All-NBA Team selections and All-Defensive Team selections are pieces of evidence. They are not conclusive proof. Regarding Kobe's defense, I cited the All-Defensive Team selection but also comments from a player and coach involved in the NBA Finals, plus concrete examples of why/how Kobe's defense is good.

Regarding Harden, yes he has been selected to the All-NBA Team. He is a good player. I have never disputed that. I just do not think that he is quite as good as some people think. I have articulated very specific reasons why I think that. I also have made very specific predictions about the team he left and the team he joined. Those teams do not exist frozen in a vacuum, so there have been personnel changes and injuries--but, overall, we have seen that a healthy OKC did not miss Harden (best record in West, WCF appearance without Harden) and we have seen Houston have two first round losses plus a blowout loss in the WCF (with Harden setting the all-time single game playoff record for turnovers) with Harden as the team's leading scorer. Events have proceeded in line with my predictions and analysis. By the same token, Kobe and his teams performed like I predicted/analyzed.

At Friday, June 05, 2015 3:36:00 AM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Plus all nba is media selected while all defensive team is coach selected...

At Friday, June 05, 2015 12:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That used to be true (and was true for Kobe's 2010 All-Defensive Team selection referred to in my comment) but now the All-Defensive Team is also selected by the media.


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