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Tuesday, June 07, 2016

How Much Blame Does LeBron James Deserve for Cleveland's 0-2 Deficit?

You may have heard the cliche "A series does not start until the home team loses." By that way of thinking, the 2016 NBA Finals have not started even though the defending champion Golden State Warriors enjoy a 2-0 lead. Don't believe the hype, because 31 teams have previously fallen into a 2-0 hole in the NBA Finals and only three of those teams came back to win the series: 1969 Boston Celtics (in the last of Bill Russell's record-setting 11 title runs), 1977 Portland Trail Blazers (in the first title of what may have become a dynasty were it not for Bill Walton's balky feet and knees), 2006 Miami Heat (in the last of Shaquille O'Neal's four title runs, as Dwyane Wade emerged as a superstar).

Cleveland may very well extend this series but it is highly unlikely that the Cavaliers will beat the Warriors four times in five games. Channeling Rick Pitino, it is fair to say that Bill Russell, Bill Walton and Dwyane Wade are not walking through that door.

No, the future Hall of Fame Cavalier who is walking through that door is LeBron James, whose NBA Finals record is about to drop to 2-5.

The excuses for James are adding up even more quickly than his turnovers and missed shots. I was going to wait to recap this series until it was over but (1) as noted above, the overwhelming likelihood is that this series is over (in terms of outcome, if not duration) and (2) so much nonsense is being spewed that I feel compelled to provide some correction.

A Sports Illustrated piece suggested that the Cavaliers' problem is that James is saddled with the weakest supporting cast that he has ever carried to the NBA Finals? Really? We are supposed to believe that the supporting cast that went 12-2 during the Eastern Conference playoffs--the supporting cast that includes two All-Star caliber players in the prime of their careers, plus a host of talented veteran role players--is the problem? In the many years that passed before LeBron James won his first championship, I repeatedly asked the question, "How much help does LeBron James need to win a title?" During James' first stint in Cleveland, he had a 66 win team and a 61 win team--and those teams coasted to the finish line because they had lapped the field or else they could have easily won several more games. The Cavaliers had so much talent at that time that guys like Shannon Brown and Danny Green--who both later played significant roles for championship teams--could not even get on the court. Yet James could not even take those teams to the Finals.

Now, James has even more talent around him than he did back then. He has his hand-picked roster and his hand-picked coach. Until Kevin Love suffered a concussion in game two, the Cavaliers were fully healthy.

No, the "LeBron James does not have enough help" story line belongs squarely in the fiction section, because it is not plausible as non-fiction.

ESPN's Brian Windhorst decided to bury the lead. Instead of focusing on how poorly James is playing, Windhorst started his post-game two analysis with this sentence: "LeBron James once destroyed the promising core of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison by beating the Washington Wizards three years in a row in the playoffs." What exactly does that have to do with the 2016 NBA Finals? Windhorst then went on to wax poetic about how James supposedly dismantled the Pistons and the Celtics, capping off with the bizarre comment that the San Antonio Spurs "had their souls crushed in the 2013 Finals and James performed the coup de grace personally in game seven. He will always have that one and the Spurs will probably never fully get over it."

Sure. The Spurs were so soul-crushed that they routed James and his Miami Heat 4-1 in the 2014 Finals, posting historic margins of victory that looked like they would stand for decades but may be eclipsed by the end of this week as the Warriors obliterate James' Cavaliers. I think that Tim Duncan finds some comfort in his five championship rings and his 2-1 Finals record over the self-proclaimed "best player on the planet." If Duncan's soul has been crushed he is hiding it very well.

As for the Wizards, that overrated collection of unfocused talent dismantled internally, exemplified by Gilbert Arenas challenging a teammate to a gunfight, not realizing that this teammate was a Crip who a few short years later would be sentenced to 23 years in prison for manslaughter. The quirky media darling Arenas is lucky that Javaris Crittenton did not blow Arenas' head off. The Wizards were never going to make it past the second round even if they never faced LeBron James.

No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Wizards.

As for the Pistons, while James had a tremendous series against them in 2007 it is clear that the Pistons were at the end of their run by the time James arrived on the scene; Larry Brown had already departed and key members of the championship core soon followed him out the door as well. Bizarre decisions such as trying to build around Rodney Stuckey had more to do with Detroit's decline than anything that James did.

No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Pistons (and it is odd that Windhorst believes that the Cavaliers' victory against the eighth seeded Pistons this season is somehow an extension of James' alleged dismantling of the Pistons).

What about the Celtics? The Celtics' Big Three (plus Rajon Rondo) was put together to win immediately, not sustain excellence. The Celtics captured the 2008 title and returned to the Finals in 2010. James did not take the Cavaliers to the Finals at all between 2008-10 and he did not win a championship until 2012, after he fled to Miami to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

No, I am not giving James credit for dismantling the Celtics.

Windhorst's paean to James fits in with ESPN's modus operandi for years: praise James no matter what (don't forget which network hosted the ill-considered "Decision"), while also taking shots at any potential or perceived rival to James (hence the ridiculous attacks on Kobe Bryant by Henry Abbott, Michael Wilbon and others over the years).

Forget the Wizards. Forget revisionist history. The stark truth is that LeBron James has already been on the wrong end of two of the most lopsided losses in Finals history: a sweep in 2007 and a loss by a historic ppg margin in five games in 2014. Now, James' Cavaliers have lost by an unprecedented margin in the first two games of the 2016 Finals. This is not just about James' Finals record but also about how poorly he has performed on the sport's biggest and most important stage.

Windhorst's ESPN colleague Dave McMenamin, whose reporting has improved in recent years, found the real story of the 2016 Finals, quoting a source close to the Cavaliers as saying after game two, "No heart, no toughness, no resilience. Those three things are LeBron included."

Yes, that is about right. At times, James has been the biggest and tallest player on the court. There is no one in the series who can guard him one on one in the post. As Shaquille O'Neal would say, it should be "barbecue Bay Area chicken" when James gets the ball. Instead, James has been content to drift outside to (1) watch Kyrie Irving put on a dribbling exhibition, (2) drive to the hoop tentatively only to pass the ball instead of trying to finish at the rim or (3) hold the ball in the post, enabling the Warriors to dig in and smack the ball away.

James needs to either (1) go quickly to the hoop after he catches the ball in the post or (2) when he catches the ball on the perimeter, immediately drive to the hoop with the goal of scoring, not passing.

Although James has made some highlight reel worthy defensive plays, overall his defense has been atrocious. Many of the layups given up by the Cavaliers are the result of James being out of position.

I don't care if James averages a triple double in this series, which he may very well do. The numbers he is posting are meaningless because he is not playing in a way that would give his team a realistic chance to win.

If the Warriors are going to play small, James has to punish them in the paint. The Oklahoma City Thunder proved that the Warriors have no answer at either end of the court when faced with players who have size and athleticism. If the Thunder could have figured out how to stop throwing the ball away at the end of games then they would have dethroned the Warriors.

The Cavaliers absolutely have enough talent to beat the Warriors but they lack the right mindset to even compete at this level--and that starts with James.

One more point must be made. I have tremendous respect for Jerry West as a player, executive and talent evaluator. West, who went 1-8 in the Finals as a player, sympathizes with James, who (as mentioned above) is about to fall to 2-5 in the Finals. West recently said that it is ridiculous to criticize James for his Finals record. It is understandable that West would stick up for James; as a consultant to the Warriors, West probably does not want to give James any added fuel/motivation and on a personal level West is no doubt offended by the idea that a great player should be judged by his Finals record. While West would be right to say that he personally should not be judged by his Finals record, James' Finals record is much different (and much worse) than West's.

Here are West's scoring averages and field goal percentages for each of his Finals appearances, along with the results of those series and some parenthetical notes:

1962: 31.1 ppg .456 3-4 Boston (lost by three points in game seven)
1963: 29.5 ppg .490 2-4 Boston
1965: 33.8 ppg .424 1-4 Boston (no Elgin Baylor)
1966: 33.9 ppg .515 3-4 Boston (lost by two points in game seven)
1968: 31.3 ppg .486 2-4 Boston
1969: 37.9 ppg .490 3-4 Boston (lost by two points in game seven); won NBA's first Finals MVP and is still the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP
1970: 31.3 ppg .450 3-4 NY
1972: 19.8 ppg .425 4-3 LAL (Chamberlain won the Finals MVP)
1973: 21.4 ppg .442 1-4 NY

Keep in mind that West was a 6-3 guard playing in a more physical era when shooting percentages were lower and the three point shot did not exist in the NBA. West elevated his game while facing the greatest dynasty in NBA--if not professional sports--history. Three times, West's L.A. Lakers lost to the Celtics by three points or less in game seven. West's only lopsided Finals losses came in 1965--when Elgin Baylor did not play due to injury--and 1973, West's last full season. A bitter irony for West is that his worst Finals performance took place during his only championship run, as injuries restricted West while the Lakers capped a then-record setting 69 win season with a seven game triumph over the Knicks.

West was a tremendous Finals performer who was at his best when it counted the most. It is not his fault that his teams failed to win more than one title.

Here is a recap of James' Finals career to date:

2007: 22.0 ppg .356 0-4 San Antonio
2011: 17.8 ppg .478 2-4 Dallas (fifth leading scorer in series after winning regular season MVP)
2012: 28.6 ppg .472 4-1 OKC (first championship, first Finals MVP)
2013: 25.3 ppg .447 4-3 San Antonio (second championship, second Finals MVP)
2014: 28.2 ppg .571 1-4 San Antonio
2015: 35.8 ppg .398 2-4 Golden State (squandered 2-1 lead)
2016: 21.0 ppg .421 0-2 Golden State

In the Finals, James' field goal percentage consistently drops (other than in 2014), his turnovers increase and he often refuses to attack the paint even when there is no one on the court who can guard him. He has won two titles and two Finals MVPs, but he has also lost to teams led by Finals MVPs Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala. Overall, James has failed to place his stamp on the NBA Finals. The narrative suggesting that James has carried inferior squads to the Finals and thus should not be blamed for losing in the Finals ignores the reality that when James' teams reach the Finals it is his game that regresses. The above numbers are suggestive and illustrative but they do not tell the complete story. Watch the games with an educated eye and ask yourself some questions:

The Cavaliers have an All-Star point guard and LeBron James is their best post-up threat, so why does James insist on bringing the ball up the court against the Warriors? Consider this: The Chicago Bulls became a championship team when Michael Jordan stopped trying to get triple doubles and ceded the ballhandling duties to Scottie Pippen. Pippen initiated the offense and Jordan went to work in the post.

Why is LeBron James often standing by the Oracle logo when the Cavaliers are on offense? Every possession during which James does this is a wasted possession. If the Cavaliers do score on such a possession it is "offense by accident," because when James is that far away from the paint the Cavaliers are playing four on five. I don't want to hear about how badly James's teammates are supposedly playing when James is a conscientious objector on so many possessions.

Why does LeBron James hold the ball when he catches it in the post? No Warrior can guard James in the post. If he would catch the ball and immediately power to the hoop, he would score or get fouled almost every time. That would take a mental and physical toll on the Warriors. It would slow the game down, put the Warriors in foul trouble and allow the Cavaliers to set up their defense. When James holds the ball, he invites the Warriors to trap and recover, which leads to turnovers and rushed shots.

Why does LeBron James often pass the ball after driving to within two feet of the hoop? During one sequence in game two, James drove to the hoop but instead of finishing strongly, he passed the ball outside. The possession ended with Irving driving to the hoop and getting stripped after reaching the same spot where James had been a few seconds earlier. Such passes by James are not unselfish and they do not make him a pass-first player. The smart play is for the person with the highest percentage shot to shoot the ball. The self-proclaimed best player on the planet should be unstoppable in the paint, particularly when he is the biggest player on the court.

LeBron James is one of the greatest players in pro basketball history. That will not change even if he does not win another NBA Finals game. However, his inability or unwillingness to consistently rise to the occasion on his sport's biggest stage will forever be a baffling blotch on an otherwise sterling Hall of Fame resume.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 AM

31 comments

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31 Comments:

At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 7:56:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

This article should get an award for statistical abuse, and even the data the author managed to wring out of those numbers don't support her conclusion that Lebron hasn't disappointed in Finals play. Bizarrely written piece, most notable for the number of comments down the bottom saying, "I'm not sure that word means what you think it means."

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/lebrons-finals-record-isnt-really-a-disappointment/

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 12:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopefully, people are waking up about how overrated James is. However, I’m not quite sure about all of your criticisms of him. Realistically, James would probably have to play at one of the highest levels ever to beat GS this year, though he’s nowhere near at an MVP level yet in the finals. Green is currently the frontrunner for finals MVP. James is one storyline, but Curry is another. Curry has needed ridiculous help, phenomenal heroics from Thompson, and OKC choking to barely escape OKC. Now, he and Thompson are both playing subpar in the finals, and GS is easily up 2-0. If James was on GS with Curry on CLE, GS would be crushing CLE as well. James does have enough help to beat GS, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking Curry’s cast is certainly better than James’ cast. Curry’s also a media darling, and it’s ridiculous to think he’s an all-time great yet. He has improved a lot these last 2 years, but he did almost nothing until his cast became historically great, and without this great cast, he most likely wouldn’t have any titles.

I thought it was a bit silly and pointless for West to stand up for James. If Kobe/Jordan said the same things, then it may have meant something. While West put up better scoring numbers in the finals, he’s still 1-8 and often only having to win one series to make the finals. And the one year he won, he didn’t played great, and an aging Wilt won finals MVP. He also had Baylor going for 41 and 18 in 1962, and LAL still lost. And let’s not forget total scoring was higher back during West’s day. Russell’s casts was better, but West had enough help to win more than one title if he really was that great. I could see James winning more than 1 title if he replaced West, but I have a hard time seeing West winning more than 2 titles if he replaced James. West was great, but small players almost never lead teams to titles without very special circumstances, and that includes West.

Back to James, his casts have been phenomenal for almost every year of his career. Even back in 2007, if he played like his average self, that series vs SA would’ve been at least close. He should’ve made the finals in 09/10 at worst. He should’ve won at least 3 titles with MIA. I don’t know if he should win any titles with last 2 seasons with CLE, but CLE had a golden opportunity last year, and if he plays like he can play, this year as well. There’s just too many excuses associated with him, and too many role players and low-level AS that have outplayed him throughout his career. We’re also seeing how much weaker the East has been during James’ career. He correctly stayed in the East to have easier paths to the finals.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 3:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

Oh man, there's so much juicy stuff here. I agree with a lot of it, but also really disagree with a few points.

* Windhorst is a moron and a Lebron James sycophant. I don't always buy your media conspiracy theories- a lot of commentators are even harder on James than you are- but Windhorst is a lamprey on James' back.

* I do not agree that OKC had found the magic recipe for defeating GSW. Curry was clearly laboring physically in the middle of the series, whether due to injury or post-injury conditioning, before finding his sea-legs near the end. OKC's size was certainly a problem for GSW, but eventually their offense figured it out (and made some incredible shots). More importantly, though, OKC has much better defensive personnel than Cleveland does; there is no defensive big on the level of Adams or Ibaka on Cleveland, and as you correctly noted Lebron has played poorly on that end in this series as well.

* Which leads me to the bigger issue: Cleveland is atrocious defensively, at least at this level. They just do not have a lineup that can credibly contain GSW, even with the Splash Bros missing bunnies.

* This is not to exonerate Lebron; he is not being aggressive enough on offense (but they'd be losing even if he were), and he is playing the worst defense he's ever played in the Finals.

* Lebron in the post, even when they go to it, isn't really working against GSW well enough to matter. With a defender within 2 feet of him in the post, he's shooting 43%. That's not getting it done. GSW is smartly crowding him and bumping him, and "post him up" is not the magic bullet in this series you're making it out to be.

* That all said, he *doesn't* have the right help to beat the Warriors. I am only here talking about Lebron the player- not Lebron the alleged GM- so how the team was assembled is irrelevant. They are inferior to GSW at four starting spots and throughout the bench. There is a perception that Love and Irving are "stars" but that perception is based around the usual offensive bias that plagues NBA coverage. Neither has ever made the playoffs without him, and both are mostly one-way number generators signifying nothing. I am not sure either is one of the ten best players in the league at their position (though I'm sure Anonymous will blow his top at that claim). Of the entire rest of the cast, there's not a single player who's meaningfully above average on both ends. The corpse of Richard Jefferson has been their second best player; that's pretty damning.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 3:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


* That's just this year, though, and this year is automatically an anomaly since he's playing the winningest team ever. The real question is did he have enough help other years? Let's look individually.

* 2007: No. It was another hodgepodge of one-way players who were no match for a prime Duncan and peak Parker/Ginobili. They similarly would have been torched by Dallas or Phoenix that year as well. Their high win total was a product of a prodigiously weak East and the generally weaker emphasis on defense in the regular season.

* 2011: Yeah, he should have won this one. He had the help, and he played poorly. Dallas deserves a ton of credit for the way they defended him, but as an MVP it is on him to overcome that defense or find another way to contribute.

* 2012-2013: Obviously he had enough.

* 2014: Nope. He played excellently (though there's a prevailing hot-take that Leonard "outplayed" him, there isn't any actual basis for that). Wade was completely out of gas and an ineffective, Bosh wasn't good enough to be his #2 in that case, and their bench had mostly aged out of usefulness. Combine that with a resurgent, vengeful Spurs team featuring a rising Leonard, a still-deadly Duncan, and a deep cast of savvy role players guided by Pop, and I don't think you can put this one on Lebron.

* 2015: I'm shocked they won 2. Once GSW figured out the death lineup, there was no way for that Cleveland team to guard them, and no offense from anyone but Lebron. Not his fault.

So, yeah. There's one year where he has no excuse, but by and large I think it's fair to say he hasn't had the help. If you just look at win totals in the regular season, it looks bad, but that ignores both the weakness of the East and the difference between regular season ball and the playoffs.

Now, if you wanna fold in GM Lebron, sure, both Cleveland years are his fault. But that's a separate conversation, I think. GM Kobe and GM Shaq similarly cost themselves a title or three. Others did, too.

Lebron gets compared to Kobe/Jordan a lot, but personally he reminds me a lot more of Magic Johnson: he's got this manufactured persona as the outgoing gregarious good guy but is, to put it mildly, "involved" behind the scenes. He can thrive on All-Star teams, but doesn't quite have the killer instinct to get it done when his teammates aren't doing their part.

On a peripherally related note, he looks like he's finally losing a step physically. We knew it was coming, but we didn't know when. His window to win as the best guy on his team is probably still open for another four years or so, but he's going to need an increasingly stronger supporting cast (specifically one that can play both ends).

* Final note: Some of his non-Finals years are on him, too, but this comment was long enough without getting into them. Suffice to say he's mostly not had the help he needs, but even when he has he doesn't always capitalize on it.

TL;DR: There's a lot of things Lebron could have/should have done better, but most of the time he really didn't have the help. 2011 is the a notable exception, and that one's all on him.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 3:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous/Nick:

My point is not necessarily to say how many more titles LeBron "should" have won but rather to assert that LeBron consistently (1) performs below his capabilities in the Finals and (2) plays in a suboptimal fashion relative to what his team needs him to do/what the matchups suggest he should do. This is a negative on LeBron's resume and, in my opinion, prevents him from being ranked ahead of several Pantheon players who did not shrink in the Finals.

I have said that a case for greatest of all-time status could be made for every Pantheon member. The case for LeBron would focus on his regular season success, his Eastern Conference playoff dominance, his versatility and his unique physical tools (built like Karl Malone but able to play positions 1-4 at both ends of the court). The case against LeBron is outlined in this article and in similar articles that I have written throughout LeBron's career.

The one thing that I would note in terms of how many titles LeBron "should" have won is that we will never know the impact it would have had on LeBron's teammates and opponents if he had played in a more aggressive and optimal fashion. Would his teammates have been inspired? Would his opponents have been deflated? Would a more aggressive LeBron have created foul trouble and put his team in the bonus? It is easy to say that even if LeBron had played better his team still would have lost but I think that in basketball more than any other team sport one dynamic individual who maximizes his talents can really shift the outcome in ways that are not always easy to predict or define statistically.

From my experience as a rec league player I know that when my team's best player was active and engaged it both inspired us and seemed to deflate the other team (and I have been on the opposite end of that as well, watching an opposing player who seemingly could not be stopped infuse his team with confidence and my team with doubt).

When LeBron stands around the Oracle logo on offense and points fingers on defense after his man scores, that most certainly does not bring out the best in his teammates. So many people criticized MJ and Kobe for screaming at their teammates but I don't think that was such a negative because MJ and Kobe led by example because they played hard and smart. No one is going to listen to a guy who yells but does not do his job but when the best player in the world is dropping 35-40 points and guarding the toughest guy on the other team he has a right to expect his teammates to match his effort even if they cannot match his productivity.

I personally don't respond well to being yelled at but I also have a tendency to work hard and do my job so it is not necessary to yell at me. All that being said, I would much rather play with MJ or Kobe even if they would yell at me sometimes then to play with LeBron and always have to wonder if LeBron is going to enter "chill mode" at the worst possible time.

The flip side of arguing that even if LeBron had played his best that his teams may still have lost is the reality that the best player on the team has a responsibility to play hard and that if he does not try his best then there is zero chance that his team will win even if the other 11 guys do their best. When has a team ever won a championship with 11 guys trying really hard while the best player does not?

If LeBron had played optimally in all of his Finals appearances but still posted a 2-4 record then this would be a different discussion. LeBron has only himself to blame for his low shooting percentages, high turnover rates and baffling decisions to not consistently attack the hoop.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 3:49:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Spot on analysis as usual david. This is what educated post game analysis/reporting should be. You will be a big loss for the basketball world when you become a lawyer.
Please let me share a few thoughts as well.
Before the series started, i never gave the cavs a chance to win this series. Foremost is because i thought the cavs are a frontrunner bunch led by a frontrunning superstar while the warriors had just been through the crucible. I thought i am the only one who is bewildered every time lbj insists on bringing down the ball, especially when the cavs are reeling. Or when after dominating the post on quick hits in first quarters, lbj will drift to the perimeter throughout the rest of the game. I dont understand why the cavs play differently on 1st quarters offensively and the rest of the game. While some quarters keep saying curry is having a subpar series, i dont agree with that assertion. Curry plays hard and plays consistently throughout the game. If the statement were curry is shooting poorly i would have no problem with that. The mvp never stops shooting when open, doesnt hesitate to drive when opportunity presents itself, and his intensity/effort on screening/cutting actions dont change even when his shooting is off or when the cavs are ahead. Curry just keeps playing the way kerr game planned it.
And the warriors had just been thru the crucible and emerged victorious. That required a lot of mental toughness, apart from self belief, discipline and team togetherness. Frontrunners will not emerge from tough situations.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 4:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts all around, and while I haven't quite made up my mind where to start pointing fingers yet, there is one comment I thought was in order.

RE: the absentee Splash Brothers, while they haven't put up gaudy scoring totals in either game, only in game 1 can it really be said that they were sub-par (and from a shooting perspective, very significantly so).

In game 2 they combined for 13/24 from the field and 8/16 from 3. Steph's 7/11 was especially efficient.

They just didn't take that many shots, mostly because everyone else was making shots (and a dash of foul trouble in Curry's case). When Draymond takes 20 of the team's 81 shots, there's only so much left to go around.

As to the blame for Cleveland's 0-2 deficit, my pre-reflective suspicion is that James has a moderate sized chunk of it, his teammates have a somewhat bigger chunk of it, and the Warriors have the lion's share of it (let's say, something like a 20-30-50 allocation if this is Fun With Made-Up Numbers Day).

In a way I think this is similar to the OKC-GS games. Sure, Curry wasn't quite himself, and sure the Warriors as a whole seemed to play worse than usual, but a lot of it was OKC playing out of their skin.

Against teams that are so massively talented on both ends, like OKC and GS, if they play really well by their standards, you're probably just going to lose. If you play even slightly sub-par, you'll do so in embarrassing fashion.

I think Cleveland could definitely put up stiffer resistance than they have, but ultimately we're talking about a 73-win team that can put out multiple lineups of guys who are not just decent shooters, but can legitimately create their own shots, and most are at least serviceable defensively.

It's just too much for this Cleveland roster, methinks. I hope they prove me wrong, though, and at least make a series out of it. I would like to see a few more games before the season ends.







 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 4:13:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I partially agree (particularly in 2011). That said, I think in some cases, where he was playing historically great defensive teams with limited offensive help ('07, '14, and to a lesser extent '15) that his shooting percentages and turnovers are at least partially a product of great defenses being able to zero in on one guy. I do not think his aggressiveness was much lacking against the Spurs in either case, he just simply didn't have enough to beat them on his own (reminds me a little of Doc in '80 vs. Magic/Kareem/Wilkes/Nixon).

I think you may think it is easier for him to attack the hoop than it actually is when an entire defense is predicated on preventing him from doing so. It's why Jordan, Kobe, and plenty of others worked hard to improve their midrange/perimeter games as their careers went on. Lebron has become a deadly midrange shooter (his perimeter game is regressing however), but that is not enough without enough help to keep defenses somewhat honest. Last year GSW pretty much dared everyone else on Cleveland to beat them, and they won that gamble. This year Lebron seems to be- wrongly, I agree- attempting to get everyone else going instead of doing everything he can to score... but I also think he is right so far as the reality that even if he scores 45 a night his team won't win if the other guys don't pull their weight. The GSW defense is already heavily prioritizing him, so I don't know how much increased aggressiveness from him would help his teammates offensively, though I would like to see him try and find out.

There's also likely a physical component; his defense is bad partly because he's expending tons of energy trying to be everywhere (and partly because he's not trusting teammates even when they're doing the right thing) and he is simply not the same physically as he was four years ago. I am not sure he can be as aggressive as you'd like and still exert the same level of (currently misspent) energy on defense.

I hesitate to mention it given the subject, but this is part of why Kobe, in his later title runs, tended to take long stretches of the game off on defense and only rarely guarded the other team's best player (usually only in crunchtime, occasionally for an entire critical game); very few perimeter guys can physically maintain a top-shelf performance on both ends.

To a lesser extent, part of that applies even for Doc and Jordan, who in later years chiefly deferred the most dangerous defensive assignments to Pippen/Jones (though both maintained a much higher defensive performance than current James and a higher effort level than late-career Kobe).

TL;DR: You're mostly right, but I think you're trying to turn a few specific years into a full-career truism, and I don't think it holds up in context; some years Lebron has been indefensibly passive, but others he's just been beaten.

Mind you, for all this, I have him in the mid teens on my "greatest ever" list, so overall I agree with you that he is a second-tier guys as far the Pantheon goes; I just think you're overreaching a little bit in this case in your explanation of why.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 4:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

I actually agree with most of that. I meant that Curry/Thompson aren't killing them with 30 point games, but should/could have been clearer.

I could quibble that OKC is not generally a great defensive team, but they certainly morphed into one from the middle of the Dallas series through most if not all of the GSW series.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 4:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, GS was very fortunate to beat OKC. Don't act like OKC was simply not up to the task. Curry didn't look fatigued vs POR. I don't buy the excuses for his subpar play, which actually turned out to be solid play overall in the end.

The main problem is James' lackluster play, then CLE's offense, then CLE's defense. They have major issues, but they still have time. They've found a way to slow down Curry/Thompson, which is a start, but much more is needed obviously. I don't think James is that great in the post, but he needs to operate there sometimes. He just needs to be more aggressive. I don't care how he's aggressive, just do it.

James is brought this CLE roster/coach upon himself. When we talk about him, James the player and James the GM goes hand-in-hand. He has a solid cast. Maybe they shouldn't beat GS if he's playing great, but he's not, so it doesn't matter. Love/Irving were stars but had garbage casts before joining James. Nobody would've won much with their casts They're not suddenly non-stars now, even though they've had to take a big backseat to James.

James' cast in 07 gave him a chance. But, if he's only the 3rd-4th best player in the series, then that's on him. It's not about just winning/losing, but how he competes. CLE should've been able to win at least a couple of games if he plays remotely well. All 4 games were fairly close. Nobody blames him for 08, but his cast gave him a chance. He played poorly vs BOS too, and Allen was a complete non-factor, so he had a chance there. He should've been able to make both finals in 09/10 and win at least one title if he was really the true MVP. He underachieved in MIA. And despite gaudy stats in the 2015 finals, CLE still might not win, but they had GS on the ropes and he didn't deliver. Iggy also had outplayed him. An argument could be made he hasn't had enough help potentially some years, but only if he didn't shrink from the biggest stage so often, and get outplayed by much inferior players. Draymond Green is an AS, but he has no business outplaying James in this year's finals. Leonard definitely outplayed James over the final 3 games of the 2014 finals. This isn't a misconception. I don't know how many more titles he would've won if he didn't shrink so often, but it's at least one and probably 3-4. While he didn't always the most help, he's still had a ridiculous amount of help for most of career.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 4:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, yes, I see your bigger point now, and mostly agree. There should be no doubt James and his teams would've fared much better if he plays hard and at least somewhat more optimally always. His teams would've at least won more games, possibly not more series, but I still see several more series won. At the same time, it's hard to imagine anyone leading this year's CLE's cast to a title over GS. But, when I look back to James struggling so much vs BOS in 08, and BOS only winning 4-3, all this James doesn't have enough help talk is mostly excuses. He could've swung that series to if he played like his normal self. Lots of missed opportunities for him.

Anonymous, Curry/Thompson were efficient in game 4, though not much more efficient than their average selves, and only 1-1 combined at the line. They also had 8 TOs combined. Curry was committing stupid fouls, sat on the bench a lot, and wasn't a huge factor in the game. They were better than game 1, but still subpar games for them. GS just played hard with solid defense/offense, and Green still stepped up.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 9:37:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

@Anonymous-

I'm fairly confident our disagreements regarding both the importance of defense and the necessity of two-way players render further debate on this point between us irrelevant. Suffice it to say that if you disregard the importance of one or both of those factors, I find your positions much more compelling.

 
At Tuesday, June 07, 2016 10:54:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Nick, wrt my reasoning for Lebron being better for his team in the post I should clarify. There are a few reasons:

1. Only big men can be big men

There has been a trend over the last decade or so for big men to want to do what the little guys do. Most recently this has been exhibited by Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins adding a 3 pointer to their repertoire. With few exceptions I think this trend has hurt the big man's teams because while they are out there shooting threes no-one is crashing the offensive boards. Offensive rebounds for whatever reason are underrated, they are at least as damaging as a 3 point dagger. Why move a guy like Anthony Davis who can absolutely monster the boards, outside when I can name multiple guys on any team who could take that three pointer at least as well as he or Demarcus could? It is such a waste of a big man. You can teach anyone to shoot the three, but big men are born with their height and athleticism. As has been said, you can't teach height.

The way to beat Golden State was written by OKC. I would put Lebron low partly because I don't think you need him outside with Kyrie out there creating shots and no-one else has his size and athleticism. Golden State are vulnerable to people crashing the boards against them, and dumping it into either Lebron or Thompson, with the other crashing from the weak side would be a successful strategy in my opinion. I also agree that Lebron isn't the second coming of Hakeem, but I don't think he needs to be. They just need him closer to the basket.

2. Both his star team mates look better from outside.

Kevin Love looks best when shooting open threes these days, he has not been effective at all in the post. He is being single covered and his shots are telegraphed.

Kyrie needs to develop a rhythm and he needs the ball in his hands. I think Lebron is better than both from outside, but he isn't that much better. He IS that much better in the post than either, so it is best for the team if he gets down there.

3. Foul trouble

Going down low will get Golden State into foul trouble.

4. JR Smith, Shumpert

Putting the ball down low will open up the floor for these guys.

Most important is the first point. Lebron might be the only guy who can go get that ball with his size and athleticism. Unless Mosgov starts playing like it is 2015, or Love remembers he can rebound with the best of them there is no greater impact Lebron can make on the game. It might not show on the score sheet, in fact his stats might suffer since his usage will go down. Let other people bring the ball up and shoot threes. You can't teach 6'8 and 250 pounds.

 
At Wednesday, June 08, 2016 1:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, it's not defense, but individual defense, that we disagree on, which for the millionth time, I do think individual defense is very important. And I'm not exactly sure where this is coming from, since I didn't really talk about it much, if any, in this thread yet. Your debate on individual defense would be rendered irrelevant with David, nba coaches, and pretty much everyone else as well. David thinks Love/Irving are AS-caliber players, and that no GM would take Dragic over Irving/Lillard, which I agree with. What do you say to that? Why are these declarations by him not upsetting to you, but what I say about them(which is basically the same) is? The fact that Iggy and Leonard played such great defense in the 2015 and 2014 finals, respectively, is one big reason why I say they outplayed James.

I actually think I value team defense more than you do. I'd probably rather have an elite team defense than an elite team offense. Every year, nba coaches vote in multiple players who supposedly are liabilities on defense to the AS team. Are they really that clueless about players? If they're valuing offense more than defense, which they seem to be and I agree with, you have to ask yourself why is that? You also have to ask yourself, why can't players like Raja Bell and Bruce Bowen lead teams to the playoffs or why haven't they been even close to the best player on any team they've played on the in pros? Why can great offensive/bad defensive players be the best players on playoff teams?

OKC supposedly had all these one-way players, and look how great they performed in the playoffs. CLE supposedly is similar, and they've had a great run, too. If James got his act together and wasn't so passive, his teammates would likely follow his example more, and these first 2 finals' games would at least be much closer.

Curry's not dominating defensively, but offensively, leading his team to 2 consecutive titles likely. James was very good defensively for a time, which helped, but he's primarily leading his teams to titles with his offensive play. As great as Kobe was defensively, his offensive game is what primarily change outcomes of games in favor of LAL. Dirk's not winning a title based on his defense. On and on and on. Sure, some of these great offensive players that led their teams to titles were great defensively at times, but they're making a much bigger impact offensively. This isn't something new. I'm surprised you can't see it.

 
At Wednesday, June 08, 2016 3:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

* I've disagreed with David many times, at great length, about Dragic vs. Irving/Lillard. I think he likes them less than you do, but I still think he overrates them.

* Regarding the All-Star team, I think part of it is that the coaches know it's an exhibition. I also think that part of it is that a lot of coaches do value offense over defense; I'd go so far as to say most coaches, in fact. That said, the coaches who prioritize defense and the coaches who often go deep in the playoffs have a lot of overlap.

* I also think defense is much more difficult to evaluate than offense, and I think that's part of the league's bias in that direction as well. Look at someone like Westbrook; I've seen respected commentators call him everything from the worst defensive player in the league (not true) to an elite defender (equally not true).

* Regarding OKC, they absolutely played better than I expected, but a lot of that came from guys who are normally one-way players playing well above their ceiling on the other end (Waiters/Kanter playing competent D, Roberson making enough of his shots to matter and suddenly becoming a deadly offensive rebounder, Kanter unlocking his cutting game).

* Comparing Curry to Bell or Bowen isn't quite right. His offensive impact is so extreme that the defensive comp would be more someone like Duncan, Olajuwon, or Russell (though of course Duncan and Olajuwon were also elite offensive players). I've mentioned before at some length that perimeter defenders cannot affect the game to the same extent as paint defenders (with a few specific exceptions).

The better comparison to Bell/Bowen types are guys like Irving and Love. How many times have they led their team deep in the playoffs as the best guy?

* I agree that Dirk makes more of an impact on offense. I think it's telling that the year he won he had an All-Defensive caliber center covering for him on D. If Cleveland had one of those the shortcomings of Irving/Love would matter a lot less (look at Tony Parker in SA: Duncan was so good for most of his run that Parker's shoddy D barely mattered).

I am not sure whether more title teams have had their best player make a bigger impact on offense or on defense. That would be an interesting list to make, but in many cases it's extremely tough to quantify. I do think that at least 90% of title teams' best players are net positives on both ends, including 2011 Dirk, who was by no means an elite defender, was at least a decent one. The only teams I can think of who won the title with a "one way" best player would be the later Showtime teams, and those teams were so ludicrously stacked with talent that Magic's shortcomings on defense didn't especially matter.If you choose to count defensive rebounding as part of defense, then Magic doesn't count, either.

I mentioned the defense thing because you claimed that Cleveland's offense is the bigger problem for them, and I totally disagree. They have played poorly on both ends, but even if they were averaging their usual point total they would still be losing, and I believe that if they were playing grownup defense it would also improve their offense (they're a great transition team) more than improving their offense would help their defense (though cutting down on TOs would help). I also think that it's particularly damning that they've given up 214 points to GSW and only 55 of those have come from the Splash Brothers (who are not being especially well-guarded so much as missing shots they generally make).

 
At Wednesday, June 08, 2016 5:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Irving/Lillard are both AS-caliber players that will make the AS team some years, but not all years. Lillard was a top 24 player this year, but West too deep for him to make it. Carrying a weak cast to the 2nd round was great. Making 3rd team all-nba and finishing 8th in MVP seems right. I don't think I elevate them much higher, if any, than David does.

I don't know what the AS game being an exhibition has anything to do with it. The coaches are picking the best possible remaining players. Of course, they prioritize offense over defense individually. That's how basketball works. And I'm sure the coaches who prioritize 'team' defense more do better overall in the playoffs.

Defense is more difficult to elevate, true. Commentators and others get caught up in the moment often, seeing some spectacularly great or awful play to justify their views often.

OKC's role players fed off of RW/KD. Kanter still played subparly vs SA and we barely saw him vs GS.

It's not just Curry, it's anyone. Let's say Lillard, who you think is terrible defensively. Bowen/Bell are guards, so it makes sense to compare them to other guards, not bigs, right? It's just not leading any team to the playoffs, it's actually being the best player on any team in nba history for that matter. What current team would a prime Bowen or prime Bell be the best player on, if there is such a team? If there is, I guarantee you that team is going to the lottery every year.

Irving/Love were the best players on their former teams(something Bowen/Bell never could've been), and could be the best players on several teams each year, including teams that would make the playoffs. They're never going to be the best player on a title team, but they could certainly lead good teams with competent casts.

Dirk was very good, but he hardly played at an all-world level in 2011, and who was his 2nd best player? Chandler or Terry or Kidd? Not exactly that great. But, he played hard and had a very good cast. But, MIA wins probably handily if James didn't quit.

What about Parker? He won a finals MVP and was the best player overall on 2014 SA. He was rightfully considered one of the top PGs, if not the top, in the league for several years, and you're right, his defense was shoddy.

CLE averaged 104ppg during the regular season. They're averaging 83ppg in the finals. That's a difference of 21. Their defense is giving up 107ppg in the finals compared to 98ppg during the regular season, a difference of 9, though they're playing the top offensive team in the nba. GS is being held below their average by several points as well. I wouldn't say CLE's defense is anything special, but it's not terrible either. They are shutting down GS top 2 offensive threats. Even with amazing defense, they'd have no chance to win either of the first 2 games with their current offensive level. If they played like their usual offensive selves, they would've had at least had a chance in both games, particularly game 1.

 
At Wednesday, June 08, 2016 6:27:00 PM, Blogger Eric Reives said...

As is the case with superstars reaching the finals, they will get most of the blame, if not all. It comes with the territory of being the team's best player and face of the franchise.

As for the Finals, the Warriors are a bad matchup for the Cavs in every way imaginable. Too many skilled players, athleticism, depth, and talent for the Cavs to compete against. As Kobe said last year, you can't win a shootout with butter kife. Lebron should probably let it fly, basically in the same fashion as last year. Love is out with a concussion and Irving is pretty good spotting up somewhere on the floor instead of creating for himself and/or others.

Ah, ESPN has been dubbed BSPN many times on the internet. Lol. Nothing that they do surprises me.

 
At Wednesday, June 08, 2016 7:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

Shoulda stuck to my guns, as we're right back where we started now, so I'll repeat it here: I'm fairly confident our disagreements regarding both the importance of defense and the necessity of two-way players render further debate on this point between us irrelevant.

 
At Wednesday, June 08, 2016 9:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Nick, give me some examples then. As I've asked you several times already, what team could someone like Bell/Bowen, who were elite defenders for a time and have 1st/2nd all-defensive selections to their name, be the best player on? And secondly, what team could make the playoffs with either of them as their best player?

I don't agree about our overall views of defense. I actually probably think it's more important than you do. But, defense is played with a team concept a lot more than offense is in the nba. The old adage remains valid: good offense beats good defense.

 
At Wednesday, June 08, 2016 11:53:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

LBJ is the greatest frontrunner I've ever seen. When his teammates play well, shoot the ball at a consistent clip, and defend the other team well, LBJ's team wins.

In other words, LBJ is the inverted Kobe Bryant. Where Bryant sabotaged games* so he could win it in the clutch, LBJ folds when the pressure gets intense, and passes the ball instead of dominating lesser foes in the post. Like David constantly argues, LBJ plays against his ability by emulating Magic Johnson to spread the wealth - to the detriment of his team. I suspect Oscar Robertson perfected this unlike LBJ by dominating the ball and forcing his teammates to step up their game. But LBJ seems unable to hold others accountable in the same way.

* According to Phil Jackson in his book on the 2004 Lakers season

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 12:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

Jackson never wrote that. He said it in a 2001 interview. Kobe labeled the comment "ridiculous״ and Kobe's high school coach said that Kobe played hard at all times while carrying four average players to the state championship.

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 12:40:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

Your hypothetical is an oversimplification, but in the spirit of humoring you I think that Bell or Bowen would both have been the best player on this year's Blazers team. Of course, this is where our disagreements render the point moot, as I'm sure you believe that Lillard is better than either of them; I do not.

Also, it is difficult to compare primarily defensive players directly with primarily offensive players. Bell is more valuable to a competent offensive team in need of defense, LIllard is more valuable to a great defensive team that can cover for him which needs help initiating offense. Now, I personally think someone who's merely a B+ type player on both ends (say, Jae Crowder or Luol Deng) is better than either for most teams, but that's neither here nor there.

Having a player like LIllard on your team, though, makes you vulnerable defensively. Bell was not a great offensive player, but he could fulfill his role well enough by standing in the corner spacing the floor and running in transition. That's the distinction; Bell helps you a ton on one end while not screwing you on the other; Lillard helps you a ton on one end while helping the other team almost as much on the other (at least against playoff-level competition; this is less the case in the regular season).

"good offense beats good defense."

Historically inaccurate as we've covered before. Not digging up the numbers again, but as I recall title teams are much more likely to be better at defense than offense, All Defensive players are much more likely to win titles than top 5 scorers, etc. etc. The quoted adage is based on subjective opinion, but there's essentially no evidence that supports it that I am aware of.

Tonight's game is an interesting study in this premise; without one-way disaster Kevin Love (starting instead above average but not great defender Thompson), Cleveland held GSW to 90 points, and the 18 turnovers they generated created 34 points of their own (on the other end, they turned the ball over 14 times themselves but played excellent transition defense and coughed up only 8 points off those turnovers). Many have previously suggested that CLE would have won last year had Love/Irving been healthy but I have consistently contended that the loss of defense would mitigate whatever gains they'd contribute on offense. Assuming enough depth to have passable backups when the bench guys are promoted, the ideal CLE team may well be one with Delly and Thompson starting and Irving/Love either on the bench or in the locker room.

Mind you, CLE's probably still losing the series in 5, but I don't think it was a coincidence that their defense improved so much in the game that Love happened to miss.

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 10:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, then why doesn't anyone agree with you? The fact you say POR has mostly to do with how lowly you think of Lillard. You honestly think if Bowen replaced Lillard, POR would make the playoffs? Even on a team lacking much talent like POR this year, I don't see Bowen better than the 3rd-4th best player at best, even without Lillard. Lillard's easily better than Bowen or Bell ever were, that much should be obvious. Now, it depends on what role they'd have on a team. Bowen would help SA more probably than Lillard when Bowen played with SA, but SA already had Parker. If SA didn't have Parker, then no. Bowen became a decent role player for a few years, and his lockdown defense skill was useful, and SA could get away with it because they were stacked and didn't needany offense from him. This is a very rare case, though. But, Bowen was never close to being a star. Or if you think he was, when was that? I don't actually believe you think Bowen could lead POR to the playoffs or even be the best player on that team, other than the fact that Lillard just did and you think so lowly of Lillard, that obviously Bowen then could as well to continue your belief of one-way players not being very good. I mean, what is Irving? 15th best PG in the nba according to you or whatever? So far, he's outplaying the #1 PG in the nba finals.

It's hard to look at Bowen on a regular team since he played with SA so long. But, he was a low rotation guy on 49-win PHI in 2000 for part of the season. Then, the same for MIA later in 2000. Then, he was maybe 5th man during the season for 2001 MIA, which he then ended up 8th man in the playoffs in 46-win CHA's 3-game sweep of his 50-win MIA. These are at ages 28-29, certainly prime years. Hardly a glaring endorsement for him to be able to lead any team, let alone lead a team that could actually make the playoffs ever. Bowen was also 2nd-team all-defense in 2001, too. Why aren't his coaches playing him much then, and MIA got swept? Hmm.

No, it's not historically inaccurate. No matter how well someone plays defense on a possession, good offense can still score. Team defenses might be better overall than team offenses, that's different, which I've already said I'd rather have an elite team defense than team offense probably.

Love or no Love in game 3, CLE wins easily. They also had your one-way player Irving absolutely dominating Curry on both ends of the court. And Thompson has started every game of the finals. He wasn't starting instead of Love. CLE's defense surely improved, but GS surely played absolutely awful. I only saw Barnes, Barbrosa, and maybe Livingston/Iggy play at least reasonably well for GS. That's not going to get it done, regardless of how well/poorly CLE plays. CLE needed to save a lot of their shots from Game 3 for later in the series, though. Let's if they can continue their ridiculous output from Game 3.

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 6:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson:

Thank you.

I miss writing all of the game recaps and doing the other long form pieces that I regularly did here (and elsewhere) but I look forward to practicing law. I will continue to post about pro basketball as much as my schedule permits.

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 7:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

As you noted, Kobe's defense is not the subject of my article--and I don't have the time or inclination for a back and forth on Kobe's defense, either--but Kobe made the All-Defensive First Team during both the 2009 and 2010 championship seasons.

For several years, I posted my All-Defensive Team selections at this site before the official coaches' voting was announced and my selections were certainly not influenced by player popularity or offensive prowess or anything else other than a player's defensive performance--and my All-Defensive Team selections typically foreshadowed the coaches' selections, including moving Bryant to the Second Team in 2012 and leaving him off the team entirely in 2013.

During Bryant's prime, there were a lot of commentators whose full-time jobs seemed to be to bash Bryant no matter what Bryant did and no matter what Bryant accomplished. Those guys kept repeating the notion that Bryant is "overrated" as a defender but the coaches were not at all impressed and neither was I.

Taking an old Phil Jackson quote out of context or showing some isolated GIFs when a Bryant gamble for a steal backfired is not "analysis" (not saying that you are relying on such dubious "evidence" but those were the kinds of "proof" offered by the likes of Abbott and his favorite "stat gurus"). During that time frame when I was regularly going to games with a press credential, I interviewed Bryant, Bynum, Ron Harper, Jim Cleamons, in addition to speaking with various other scouts and league observers who know what they are talking about. Let's just say that Bryant's critics are for the most part very uninformed.

There is no doubt that Bryant started to lose a step in 2012 and of course after his string of serious injuries his diminished physical capabilities were evident even to the most casual observer but all of that happened several years after Bryant led the Lakers to back to back titles.

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 7:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

As for the subject at hand, game three provided a lot of evidence that the Cavs do indeed have more than enough talent to compete with the Warriors if the Cavs play the right way. Whatever happens during the rest of the series, LeBron cannot justifiably blame the coaching staff and supporting cast that he put together.

Kyrie Irving deserves credit for being more focused and aggressive at both ends of the court but it is worth noting that in the first quarter James scored eight of the Cavs' first 19 points on 4-4 field goal shooting. As I wrote in this article, if James aggressively attacked the paint in the first quarter of game one it would set the tone for the series. It is too bad for the Cavs that he waited until game three to do this but it is evident that the Warriors have no answer if James attacks the paint.

As JVG keeps noting, the question now is whether or not James and the Cavs are willing to put forth this kind of effort for 48 minutes for however many games are left in the series.

It is also worth mentioning that the Warriors' defensive strategy against James is to give him perimeter shots. During the first two games, James was reluctant to take those shots and he did not make a good percentage of the ones he took. As I have mentioned many times, no team could or would guard prime Kobe that way during the playoffs. James' limitations on the perimeter--whether in terms of his skill set (i.e., the ability to consistently make perimeter jumpers against elite teams in the playoffs) or in terms of his mentality (his mindset to punish teams for leaving him open and treating him like a non-shooter)--have been a major cause of his teams' 2-4 Finals records.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that James start hoisting up jumpers. I maintain that he should focus on posting up and/or making quick drives to score (not pass, a point that Mark Jackson has made as well). However, if James establishes his driving/post up game to the extent that teams just blatantly concede perimeter shots to James then he must take and make those shots. His high turnover rate during his Finals career is directly related to the fact that when teams give James those shots he often declines them and tries to squeeze passes into tight quarters.

One final point: it has been said that the Cavs went "small" but a lineup with TT at center, James at power forward and Jefferson at small forward is not really "small" in any meaningful sense: TT is a legit center who plays in the paint at both ends of the court, James is roughly the same size as Karl Malone and Jefferson is a good-sized small forward. The Cavs were also +11 during Mozgov's first half cameo, yet another indication that the Warriors are uncomfortable when faced with size.

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 9:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I was suggesting that All Star teams are influenced by player popularity and offensive production, not All D teams. I don't think that system is perfect either, but it's a lot closer.

You and I actually mostly agree about Kobe defensively, I just think Kobe started putting in a much less consistent effort somewhere around 07/08 and generally didn't play All-D level D outside of crunch time from then on. I think that he- and most other guys with boatloads of All-D noms- stayed on the team a few years longer than he should have but certainly deserved most of his noms. It's also worth noting that in '09 and '10, Ariza and Artest generally guarded the other team's best wing, while Kobe generally guarded a spot-up shooter. He was still a very good help defender (albeit probably an over-gambler, leading to big nights from a lot of corner 3 specialists), but it's hard for me to put someone on the All-D team when their job is usually to guard the other team's least threatening perimeter guy. I think it's fair to question Jordan's last two nods for similar reasons, though those Bulls team were so elite and unique defensively that I feel less strongly about it.

FWIW, Kobe was openly referring to himself as a "DH" somewhere around '09 or '10, so it's not like what I'm saying is news. It's also not something I'm interested in discussing further at this time, as Kobe discussion especially on this blog tends to go circular.

I think Cleveland's improvement yesterday had a lot more to do with generating and capitalizing on turnovers than anything else, but obviously Lebron's improved performance helped. I disagree that one win at home proves that his team is good enough to win the series, however.

I think CLE is better overall without both Love and Irving sharing the court, as the combination is untenable defensively. Irving played with at least energy and physicality on defense in game 3, and if he played that way consistently I would feel differently about him than I do. I doubt he will maintain that level of intensity based on existing evidence.

I don't think I agree that size is the answer to Golden State so much as "not Kevin Love's defense" is the answer. If you can play a solid defense against them- as OKC did for long stretches- you can give yourself a chance. I do not believe the Irving/Love Cavs can do that, but I also don't think the Cavs without either have enough offense. Perhaps there is a magical rotation balance that is the best of both worlds and gives them a real shot, but I am not sure one exists, and I am even less sure they can find it if it does.

 
At Thursday, June 09, 2016 10:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, I've read many comments about Kobe's defense from you and David, and you greatly underrate Kobe's defense compared to David's. I will continue to trust my own eyes and the coaches over your skewed opinions about Kobe's defense or anything Kobe related for that matter.

Ariza was hardly an elite defender by 2010, and he actually never really has been, though close. Maybe Artest took some bigger defensive assignments at times, but Kobe still contributed mightily to LAL's defense throughout their title runs. You could question anyone's old-age selections, not just Kobe's. Also, if you think Kobe got 1-2 extra selections late in his career, he probably lost 1-2 early in his career. Kobe's defense did change throughout his career, but he remained an elite defender for most of his career, and much longer than you give him credit for.

Usually, the better players are the more popular players. Likewise with the better offensive players. There's a reason why they make the AS team. The fans maybe vote in 1 player who isn't AS caliber each year at most on average. I seriously doubt the coaches look at popularity polls, and then make their AS selections. Just because you disagree with many of the selections doesn't mean they're bad selections. Just maybe, could you be wrong about this?

CLE absolutely destroyed GS in game 3. Curry/Thompson have had subpar games every game, even with James playing passively in games 1/2. CLE definitely has more than enough help to make the finals very competitive at the very least. GS is going small too often, and it's hurting them. They can do for short stretches at times, but they've looked outmatched vs OKC and CLE when they do this for too long.

 
At Saturday, June 11, 2016 12:02:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Maybe it was especially obvious this game, but Lebron passing from directly in front of the basket to marked players is burnt on the back of my retina.

 
At Saturday, June 11, 2016 12:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Andrew:

Yes. LeBron spent most of the game driving to pass, not score, as noted repeatedly by JVG and Mark Jackson.

LeBron had 18 points when the game was up for grabs and then scored seven meaningless points when GS was happy to trade 2 points for two free throws.

 
At Saturday, June 11, 2016 11:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James was pretty bad in the first half, and CLE was rolling. I'm not so sure one or even two games proves James' cast is good enough to beat GS. But, what we've seen from the entire season/playoffs and if James went out there hard, his cast looks certainly good enough. With GS offense overall and Curry/Thompson struggling for most of the series, this was another golden opportunity for him that seems to be gone. The amount of praise he'd get if he ever wins a title in CLE would be absolutely ridiculous.

James' lacking of an all-around offensive game is really showing now. Except for a streaky perimeter-shooting display in game 3, his perimeter game is non-existent. He does drive hard sometimes, but still not enough. He bails out GS defense too much by passing up point-blank shots. However, why can't he stop and pop from 8-16 ft? How come he still doesn't have this skill? We saw Iggy, Livingston, Irving all do it last game. Curry/Thompson certainly can, too. You can't always get to the hole, no matter how big you are. GS defenders did phenomenal jobs stripping the ball from him, too.

I don't know why Kerr had Livingston on James so often, but it did seem to work overall. James should be embarrassed by this. McAdoo looked lost, why was he out there? Varejao gave a good spark. JVG has a point about flopping, but Love clearly pushed Varejao. If you need to exaggerate a foul to get the call, especially when the officials are struggling, then that's smart. It's too bad the officials were as bad as they were, and game 4 was the first real competitive game. There were bad calls both ways, but it seemed like CLE let it get to them more, too much whining.

Other than game 2, every game was more than winnable for CLE. And maybe game 2 as well if James wasn't so passive, we'll never know. Plus, CLE was up 21-19 after the 1st quarter. Irving's been better than James in games 3/4, and maybe overall for the series. Who would've ever thought that?

 

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