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Saturday, May 23, 2015

LeBron James is Not a Pass First Player but He is a Great Passer

LeBron James is at his best when he is in attack mode. He is a tremendous scorer and it is his great scoring ability that enables his passing skills to fully flourish. I don't understand why so many people describe James as a pass first player when he is actually one of the most dominant scorers in pro basketball history. He won his two championships because he accepted the burden of being a big-time scorer against elite teams during the postseason, after failing to win in his previous Finals trips precisely because he was too passive.

My newest article for The Roar explains why it is important for a great player to attack the defense and describes the difference between just passing the ball and actually threatening the defense with a pass:

LeBron James is Not a Pass First Player but He is a Great Passer

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 PM

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How Valuable is James Harden?

According to WinShares, James Harden was the best player in the NBA during the 2014-15 regular season--and LeBron James barely cracked the top ten and Rudy Gobert checked in at 15th, meaning he supposedly deserves to make the All-NBA Third Team.  If you buy what "advanced basketball statistics" sell about Harden, then you also must buy what those numbers say about James and Gobert.

I don't buy any of it. James Harden is a very good player but he is in the mold of Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury, not LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

In my newest article for The Roar, I look at the case for and against the idea that Harden is an elite player:

How Valuable is James Harden?

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:13 PM

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Second Round Recap/Conference Finals Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of three of the four second round series. It looked like I would go 4-0 before the L.A. Clippers collapsed against the Houston Rockets in one of the most stunning non-injury related come from ahead losses in NBA history. That series made my brain hurt, because the prediction that I really wanted to make is that neither team would win, even though that is obviously impossible. The funny thing is, it kind of seems like neither team won; the Rockets did not show up for more than half of the series and then the Clippers disappeared in the final three games. The team that stumbled the least backed into the Western Conference Finals, a series that should be quite an eye-opener, but more about that later.

The reason my brain hurt during the Rockets-Clippers series is that I have good reasons to believe that neither team is a legitimate championship contender. Over the years, I have stated that J.J. Redick is not good enough to be a starting shooting guard for a playoff team (let alone a championship contender), I have opined that Chris Paul is too small to be the best player on a championship team and I rejected the notion that James Harden is good enough to be the best player on a championship caliber team. Obviously, when these teams face each other one set of those narratives will be "disproved"--at least until the next round.

After Dwight Howard came to Houston, I wrote, "When healthy, Howard is the best big man in the NBA and a top five player overall. He can turn a mediocre team into a playoff team and a playoff team into a championship contender." In a battle between two teams that I find equally ill-equipped to win a championship, maybe I should have picked Houston based not only on home court advantage--which carried the day to a great extent in game seven after some raggedness in the first six games--but also based on Howard's reemergence. No one seems to be noticing or commenting much about Howard's recent dominance, which is odd considering that for several years prior to his injury issues Howard was widely recognized as an elite player. Howard appears to be healthy now and he has had a major impact for Houston in the playoffs. Everyone understands that Bill Russell was Boston's best player even though he was not the team's leading scorer--which is not for one moment to suggest that Howard is as good as Russell or Houston is as good as Russell's Celtics--but that understanding is lacking regarding Howard and the Rockets.

Howard is the 2015 NBA playoff leader in rebounds (13.8 rpg) and he ranks second in blocked shots (2.5 bpg), trailing only Anthony Davis, whose New Orleans Pelicans made a cameo playoff appearance before being swept. Howard is shooting .588 from the field and even though his free throw percentage is lousy he draws a ton of fouls and thus helps Houston get into the bonus early, which pads James Harden's scoring totals by giving Harden extra free throws every time he flops even in non-shooting situations.

I disagree with the idea that Harden has somehow validated himself based on the Rockets beating the Clippers. Here is a capsule review of what happened in that series. In game one, Harden had nine turnovers as the Rockets squandered home court advantage despite Chris Paul sitting out due to injury. In game two, Harden played well as the Rockets evened the series. In game three, the Clippers blew out the Rockets 124-99 as Harden padded his box score totals (he scored nine of his 25 points in the fourth quarter when Houston never cut the deficit to less than 20 points). In game three, the Clippers routed the Rockets 128-95. This time, Harden padded his numbers in the third quarter, scoring 10 points while the Clippers expanded their lead from 60-54 to 103-79. Harden played very well in game five (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Rockets staved off elimination with a 124-103 win.

Game six was the turning point of the series, as the Clippers returned home with a 3-2 advantage. The Clippers stormed out to a 19 point lead. Harden sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter as the Rockets made one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history. How often has a supposedly MVP level player been benched for the fourth quarter of an elimination game as his team comes from behind to win? I heard someone compare this to game six of the 1992 NBA Finals, when Scottie Pippen and four reserves led a huge Chicago comeback with Michael Jordan on the bench. Give me a break! Jordan returned to the game to finish matters off alongside Pippen (the Bulls won 97-93 to clinch their second consecutive title) and Jordan led both teams with 33 points on 13-24 field goal shooting. Jordan played 43 minutes in that game. In contrast, Harden shot 5-20 from the field and finished with a -21 plus/minus number (every other Houston starter was +10 or better) while playing 30 minutes.

In game seven, Harden scored a game-high 31 points on 7-20 field goal shooting--but three other players (including Howard) had better +/- numbers. I am not a big believer in +/-, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is very telling that Harden's plus/minus numbers in the playoffs consistently indicate that the Rockets are winning despite him and not because of him, regardless of his individual statistics. Harden's plus/minus number through 12 playoff games is -.3. For the entire playoffs, the Rockets have actually been outscored slightly when Harden is in the game. Howard's plus/minus number is 1.3. For comparison purposes, consider the 2015 playoff plus/minus numbers of the leading regular season MVP candidates: Stephen Curry (9.6), LeBron James (6.4), Chris Paul (3.1). Former MVP Derrick Rose had a 6.2 plus/minus number. Anthony Davis posted a -5.0 plus/minus number but that is skewed because his team was severely outmatched and got swept by Curry's Warriors. Plus/minus is not the be all, end all statistic; Draymond Green (12.7) is the 2015 playoff leader and no one thinks that he is the best player in the NBA. However, all of the people who scream and shout that Harden is the best player in the NBA must explain why Houston's playoff run thus far has largely been accomplished despite and not because of Harden.

Why did I say that the Golden State-Houston series will be an eye-opener? Harden ran his mouth weeks ago, declaring that Golden State is not that good and that he deserved the MVP over Curry. Now is put up or shut up time. If Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should demand the opportunity to guard Curry. When Cleveland Coach David Blatt drew up an end of game play that did not involve LeBron James shooting the ball, James nixed that idea in a hurry before taking (and making) the game-winner. It is one thing to flap your gums during the regular season and talk about how good you are; now is Harden's chance to put his money where his mouth is. Also, if Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should be in the game when the outcome is decided and he should be the primary player deciding that outcome.
 
Golden State swept Houston 4-0 during the regular season and Curry outperformed Harden individually in those games. As ABC's Doug Collins pointed out, regular season head to head records do not always foreshadow playoff results; teams have more rest and can make more adjustments during the playoffs. It also must be noted that Howard missed two of those games. Maybe an energized Howard will make a big difference, but I think that Curry will turn this series into a personal showcase and the Warriors will advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1975. I am tempted to say Warriors in five but I will go with Warriors in six.

Meanwhile, LeBron James reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth straight season, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA's Final Four after taking Miami there each of the past four years. Even with Kevin Love sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving hobbling, James received a lot of help from his teammates. James had a an epic performance in game five versus Chicago (38 points on 14-24 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocked shots and no turnovers in 41 minutes) but he is shooting just .424 from the field during the playoffs.

James is the best all-around player in the NBA but he has only been at his best sporadically during this postseason. That will not be enough against a deep, balanced Atlanta team that sent four players to the All-Star Game and won a franchise-record 60 games. The Cavaliers need for James to be a big-time scorer while also accepting the challenge on defense. James cannot hide behind the "I am a pass-first player" mythology in this series. Yes, James is an excellent passer and his passing opens up opportunities for his teammates but James' teams have always been built around his scoring prowess; it is not fair to his teammates for him to suddenly decide not to shoot or to settle for outside shots instead of driving into the paint. If James becomes passive then he throws his own team out of rhythm; we have seen James do this on the biggest stage several times (2007 NBA Finals, 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, 2011 NBA Finals, 2014 NBA Finals) and if he does it versus Atlanta then the Cavaliers have no chance.

James' erratic shooting and questionable shot selection during the 2015 playoffs are cause for concern but I think that James very much wants to win a championship in his first year back in Cleveland. James left unfinished business behind when he went to Miami and he is eight wins away from ending Cleveland's long championship drought. If he cannot focus and bring his best game now, he may never finish that business; a crop of new, young stars is emerging and James is already showing signs of physical decline even though he can still perform at a very high level.

The Hawks peaked early during the regular season and seem to have been coasting ever since. They have not been overly impressive during the playoffs but the disrespect card will undoubtedly motivate them in this series. They feel like they have been overlooked and they know that many people are picking Cleveland. The Hawks own home court advantage and that could matter if the series goes seven games (just ask the Clippers).

Throughout NBA history, we have often seen matchups of the best player surrounded by a good supporting cast facing an ensemble of really good players. On the surface, it would seem like a group of really good players should be able to nullify the best player but most of the time the team with the best player wins, though James has been on the wrong end of that a few times. I expect that James will have his best series of 2015 and the Cavaliers will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 PM

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

LeBron James Gets by With More Than a Little Help From his Friends

It turns out this was not Derrick Rose's moment. After Rose's Chicago Bulls took a 2-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Cavaliers ripped off three straight wins to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. James had an epic performance in Game Five (38 points on 14-24 field goal shooting while also contributing 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocked shots in Cleveland's 106-101 victory) but he shot just .399 from the field during the series.

My newest article for The Roar looks at James' overall performance so far in the 2015 playoffs:

LeBron James Gets by With More Than a Little Help From his Friends

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:30 PM

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Rockets-Clippers Series Providing Insight Regarding James Harden's Value

After falling into a 3-1 hole, the favored Houston Rockets are one home win away from eliminating the L.A. Clippers and advancing to the Western Conference Finals. I picked the Clippers to win this series and I will stick with that prediction even though the home team has won the vast majority of game sevens in the NBA.

Even if Houston wins game seven, though, I will state for the record now that I will be very surprised if James Harden is the primary factor. If Houston wins it will be because Dwight Howard dominates and Houston's deep supporting cast steps up.

I have been justifiably critical of Houston General Manager Daryl Morey in recent seasons because the Rockets--despite the supposedly huge advantage of utilizing "advanced basketball statistics"--have as many playoff series victories since 2010 as the moribund New York Knicks (one). However, Morey has done a good job of putting together a nice roster to surround Dwight Howard, even if many people are still convinced that James Harden is Houston's best player.

Yes, Harden is leading the Rockets in scoring versus the Clippers (24.5 ppg) but he is shooting just .408 from the field and he has committed a series-high 28 turnovers. The Rockets have been outscored by 16 points when he is on the court. During Houston's do or die game six road win, the Rockets fell behind by 19 points with Harden in the game. Then, Coach Kevin McHale benched Harden for the fourth quarter and the Rockets made a highly improbable comeback to post a 119-107 victory. Harden scored 23 points on 5-20 field goal shooting and had a plus/minus number of -21, while every other Houston starter had a plus/minus number of +11 or better.

Plus/minus is a noisy statistic of limited utility in small sample sizes but in this case it confirms what the eye test proclaims: Harden accumulates individual numbers but he is not well-suited to being the best player/first option on a championship-contending team.

The best player in the series so far has been Blake Griffin. He is averaging 26.8 ppg on .553 field goal shooting while also contributing 12.5 rpg and 4.7 apg. Griffin disappeared in the fourth quarter of game six and the Clippers need for him to be strong for all four quarters in order to prevail in Houston today.

Chris Paul is supposedly the Clippers' best player but the Clippers stole home court advantage with him out of the lineup and very nearly took a 2-0 lead with him on the shelf. As always, his box score numbers during this series look good (20.0 ppg, 10.0 apg) but where was he when all the Clippers had to do was preserve a huge lead at home in order to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals? The diminutive Paul tends to wear down over the course of long playoff series and Clippers' fans have to hope that the fourth quarter of game six is not a preview of all four quarters of game seven.

It was pretty funny to see Harden on the bench and Paul largely silent while the outcome of the series hung in the balance during the final stanza of game six. 

Media members will keep talking about Harden and Paul but the series will be decided by Griffin and Howard (who is averaging 17.8 ppg on .574 field goal shooting plus 13.7 rpg and 2.5 bpg). Harden might shoot the Rockets out of contention but if he is the cause of Houston winning--or even on the court during a decisive Houston run--that will be unexpected given the way this series has gone so far.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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Poor Shooting Predictably Dooms Grizzlies

Earlier this season, I caught some flack for writing that not only would the Memphis Grizzlies make an early playoff exit due to their lack of outside shooting but that--contrary to popular belief--they did not fit the mold of the proverbial "team nobody wanted to face."

I never said that Memphis is not a good team or even that it would be easy to beat the Grizzlies in a playoff series; I just said that Memphis has a glaring flaw and that because of this flaw if I were an NBA coach I would rather face Memphis in a seven game series than most of the other Western Conference playoff teams.

Given a choice of battling Golden State, Houston, L.A., San Antonio or Memphis, I would prefer Memphis every time. The Warriors perform at an elite level at both ends of the court, the Rockets have a good roster even though James Harden is overrated, the Clippers have a legit MVP-caliber player in Blake Griffin and the Spurs have a championship pedigree. In contrast, Memphis has a plodding, predictable style of play that can be broken down over the course of a seven game series. It might take six or even seven games to do so but it can be done.

Memphis Coach Dave Joerger knows his team's fatal flaw and he mentioned it after Golden State eliminated the Grizzlies in six games to advance to the Western Conference Finals: "We won 55 games, and we have something that other people have to really scheme against. We found in Game four that they made a nice adjustment. Basically, they just jammed it up and dared us to shoot it from the perimeter."

The Grizzlies play hard, they are a good defensive team and they can extend a playoff series against a superior opponent--but they cannot make outside shots and therefore their inside advantage can be neutralized in a seven game series. 

Memphis took a 2-1 lead before Golden State rattled off three straight wins but if you understand basketball you never doubted that Golden State would eventually prevail. Memphis relies on slowing the game down and pounding the opponent into submission. A team that pushes the pace, sags off of Memphis' perimeter players and crowds Memphis' big man duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will beat Memphis every time over the course of seven games because Memphis shoots so poorly. Memphis might wear down an opponent early in a series but in the long run Memphis' big guys wear down because the defense focuses on them and ignores their teammates.

In game four, Memphis shot .375 from the field and .222 from three point range. Randolph and Gasol shot 12-29 (.414). Golden State won 101-84.

In game five, Memphis shot .398 from the field and .267 from three point range. Randolph and Gasol shot 14-34 (.412). Golden State won 98-78.

In game six, Memphis shot .374 from the field and .250 from three point range. Randolph and Gasol shot 12-37 (.324). Golden State won 108-95.

Some people will look back at this series and insist that it was a tough fight because Memphis took two of the first three games but the reality is that this series was not close at all. Golden State dismantled Memphis three straight times. 

In the first half of game five, 2015 NBA MVP Stephen Curry shot 5-8 from three point range, while the Grizzlies combined to shoot 1-7 from behind the arc. Curry averaged 24.5 ppg in the series, 5.3 ppg more than any Memphis player. He shot .406 from three point range and he made more three pointers (26) than the entire Memphis team (25). Anyone who thinks that this Memphis team as currently constructed is likely to win a championship is misguided.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM

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