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Saturday, June 06, 2015

LeBron James' Legacy Should not be Defined by the 2015 NBA Finals

There is a tendency now to want instant--but superficial--analysis leading to quick and supposedly definitive conclusions. Nuance, context and patience are foreign words. Many people are trying to build up the 2015 NBA Finals as some kind of definitive referendum on LeBron James' career, either suggesting that a Cleveland victory would be worth two titles on James' resume (according to one ESPN commentator) or suggesting that one missed shot at the end of regulation of game one proves that James is just not a winner (according to another ESPN commentator--and it is not a coincidence that ESPN is the source of a lot of superficial, if not superfluous, commentating).

The 2015 NBA Finals will be one part of LeBron James' legacy but it will not, in and of itself, define LeBron James' legacy. My newest article at The Roar places LeBron James' legacy in historical context:

LeBron's Legacy Shouldn't be Defined by Another Playoff Loss

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 PM

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Friday, June 05, 2015

LeBron James Did a Lot--but not Quite Enough--in Golden State's 108-100 Game One Win Over Cleveland

LeBron James scored an NBA Finals career-high 44 points on 18-38 field goal shooting last night but the Golden State Warriors still prevailed over his Cleveland Cavaliers 108-100 in overtime to take a 1-0 series lead. James also had eight rebounds and six assists. Stephen Curry led Golden State with 26 points on 10-20 field goal shooting, plus a game-high eight assists.

Recent media coverage of James has focused on his poor shooting percentage during the 2015 playoffs and attributed this at least in part to James shifting from being a pass-first player to being more of a scorer because of the injuries that have knocked Kevin Love out of the lineup and limited Kyrie Irving's availability. That description of James' play is false, contrived and does not match reality. James did not suddenly emerge as a great scorer. James has the fourth highest regular season career scoring average (27.3 ppg) in pro basketball history and the highest regular season career scoring average among active players. He also ranks fifth in playoff career scoring average (28.0 ppg). Entering the 2015 NBA Finals, James did not rank in the top ten in NBA Finals career scoring average and that helps explain why James owns four regular season MVPs but only two Finals MVPs while posting a 2-3 record in his previous Finals appearances. James has always been a great scorer and his teams have always been at their best when he scores a lot of points. Sometimes, James has played passively in the Finals after spending the whole regular season and playoffs putting up big point totals and in those situations his teammates understandably could not compensate for James' reduced scoring. It is to James' credit that he is also capable of passing the ball very well but James' greatest asset is his ability to use his size, strength, athletic ability and shooting touch to score.

The first quarter of game one of the 2015 Finals is yet another example of how James' team thrives when he scores a lot. James scored 12 points on 4-9 field goal shooting as Cleveland led by as many as 14 points before settling for a 29-19 advantage after the first 12 minutes. James played all 12 of those minutes and clearly earned his +10 plus/minus rating.

James did not quite maintain that scoring pace the rest of the way and Golden State shot much better from the field in the final three quarters of regulation but with less than 10 seconds remaining James had scored 42 points and he had the ball in his hands with the score tied at 98. One more basket would have given James 44 points (nearly the 48 point pace he had set in the first quarter) and would have given Cleveland an upset win. James had the necessary time and space to attack the paint and take a high percentage shot but instead he let the clock wind down before missing a low percentage fadeaway jump shot. Running the clock down with just seconds remaining in a tied game is good strategy--the offensive team in that situation should either win or go to overtime but should not give the defensive team any time to score--but the fadeaway jump shot only makes sense if Cleveland had inbounded the ball with less than two or three seconds remaining. James should have attacked the paint around the five second mark with the mindset of scoring, getting fouled or dishing to an open teammate (if help defenders engulfed him).

Golden State scored the first 10 point in overtime. James shot 1-4 from the field in overtime--including 0-2 on three pointers--and he committed two turnovers; his scoring during the first four quarters nearly carried Cleveland to victory and his lack of scoring in the overtime doomed Cleveland to defeat. Is that analysis too dramatic or oversimplified? Not really. The great, iconic players have usually carried a heavy burden during championship runs. A few well-balanced teams spread out the scoring and the glory but most championship teams (and almost all championship-winning dynasties) have one player who carries a significantly larger weight than his teammates.

James had a plus/minus number of -3 during game one of the Finals. Does that mean that Cleveland was better off without him? No, because Cleveland was +5 during regulation time when James was in the game; James authored a dominant performance in the game's first 48 minutes and nearly led the Cavaliers to a road victory in the NBA Finals against a team than won 67 regular season games. However, James took a low percentage last second shot to end regulation and he came up empty in overtime save for Cleveland's lone basket of the extra session, a hoop that even James termed "meaningless." Taken in isolation, that plus/minus number of -3 can be misinterpreted but placed in proper context it provides some illumination about the ebbs and flows of game one.

I mention James' plus/minus number--and how to correctly understand what it means--because I have previously noted that James Harden had a negative plus/minus number throughout the entire 2015 playoffs. There are apparently few basketball sins worse than merely suggesting that Harden might not be one of the two best basketball players on the planet, so some diehard Harden fans accused me of selectively using the plus/minus statistic against Harden after allegedly not using it in my analysis of other players and games. The latter accusation is easily refuted; my coverage of Team USA in FIBA play--which can be found in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's home page--includes many references to plus/minus. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic. It must be used judiciously and placed in proper context. With my Team USA coverage, I provided very detailed explanations of why Team USA performed better when certain players were in the game. With my Harden coverage, I noted that during the playoffs the Rockets had extended periods of meaningful time when they did better with Harden on the bench. The "noise" from plus/minus often comes from numbers that are skewed by garbage time but this was not the case with Harden; in fact, on multiple occasions in the playoffs, Houston made important fourth quarter runs with Harden on the bench--and Harden actually padded his individual numbers, if not also his plus/minus numbers, by staying in some blowout losses and getting buckets while his team trailed by more than 20 points. I do not lend much credence to individual statistics that are padded by garbage time points but I do take note when a supposedly MVP caliber player is on the bench while his team makes series-defining runs with home court advantage on the line (versus Dallas in game two) and with elimination on the line (versus the L.A. Clippers in game six).

A player's plus/minus number for a game, a playoff series or even an entire season is "noisy" and, without context, does not mean very much--but a plus/minus number combined with observation and analysis can be helpful in determining what factors led to a team's success or failure.

LeBron James had a great game one. He was not flawless but no great player is flawless. He did a lot to put his team in position to win. With each great game that he plays in the NBA Finals, James is diminishing the weight of his earlier failures in the NBA Finals. After his travails and triumphs in Miami, he finally seems to understand how large of a burden a great player must shoulder to win an NBA championship. This one particular series will not define James' legacy any more than any one particular series defined Kobe Bryant's legacy or Michael Jordan's legacy. James has already earned the title of NBA champion and no one can take that away; only James can determine how far he will climb within pro basketball's Pantheon and that determination will not be based on one game or one series but on his entire body of work.

It could turn out that this series is not about James as much as it is about Curry. Curry did not arrive in Golden State accompanied by all of the hype that preceded James' jump from high school to the NBA but Curry has developed from solid pro to All-Star to All-NBA player to MVP in a very short period of time. Curry is the best player on a 67 win team and he may cap off that season with Finals MVP honors. He has authored one of the greatest years ever by a 6-3 and under player. I about fell out of my chair when I heard Jeff Van Gundy say during a radio interview that Harden is better than Jerry West; that is one of the most absurd player comparisons ever made by an otherwise sensible analyst. However, while Harden is receiving unwarranted praise, Curry may very well be playing his way into the ranks of the greatest guards of all-time; he is a peerless shooter, a deft ballhandler/passer and a more than capable defensive player.

James, by virtue of his physicality, individual numbers and team accomplishments, is a magnet for attention, analysis and criticism but when we may look back on the 2015 NBA Finals we may realize that the main story really was not about him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 PM

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The NBA Coaching Carousel Rotates Quickly

If you believe the rumors, the same David Blatt who led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals almost got fired before the All-Star break. The idea of letting players and coaches develop seems laughably quaint; almost every current NBA coach was hired within the past four years and within the past decade or so it has become a bizarre tradition for a coach to be fired within a few years of winning the Coach of the Year award. Did all of those Coach of the Year honorees suddenly take stupid pills or is it possible that the coach is simply the most convenient scapegoat after teams fail to reach expectations that may not have been realistic in the first place?

At The Roar, I discuss the recent firings of Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau:

The NBA Coaching Carousel Rotates Quickly

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 PM

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Monday, June 01, 2015

NBA Finals Focus: The Coaching Matchup

Unless you remember the Truman administration, you do not remember the last time that two rookie head coaches squared off in the NBA Finals. In 1947, Eddie Gottlieb's Philadelphia Warriors defeated Harold Olsen's Chicago Stags 4-1 in the Basketball Association of America (BAA) Finals. In 1949, four teams from the National Basketball League (NBL) joined the BAA to form the National Basketball Association (NBA). The NBA traces its history back to the 1946-47 season, so the 1947 Philadelphia-Chicago series is considered to be the first official NBA Finals.

This year's NBA Finals features a coaching matchup of rookie David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers and rookie Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors (the same franchise that won the first NBA title).

My newest article for The Roar looks at the Blatt-Kerr chess match that will not receive as much hype as the LeBron James-Stephen Curry duel but that could ultimately decide which team wins the series:

NBA Finals Focus: The Coaching Matchup

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:05 PM

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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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