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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Is LeBron James the Modern Wilt Chamberlain?

No team has ever surrendered a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals, so for the Cleveland Cavaliers game four at home was as important--at least in a practical sense--as a game seven. Cleveland led the defending champion Golden State Warriors 55-50 at halftime and still led 83-81 with just over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. During the next nine minutes of play, LeBron James shot 0-4 from the field (two attempts were three pointers from well behind the arc) with a turnover. James split a pair of free throws with 1:12 remaining to cut the margin to 96-89. James scored six points in the final minute--on three uncontested drives--to pad his final scoring total to 25 points but at no time during the final 1:12 did Golden State lead by fewer than seven points, a comfortable three possessions cushion.

Thus, Golden State won 108-97, closing out the game (and likely the series) with a 27-14 run down the stretch, while James was largely invisible, save for three late, inconsequential buckets.

James, a four-time NBA regular season MVP and the self-proclaimed "best player on the planet," disappeared from sight during a pivotal fourth quarter that likely decided the outcome of the NBA Finals. Some people have suggested that James was tired, but the reality is that previous greats of the game shouldered equally heavy burdens in terms of minutes played and overall responsibilities. That decisive nine minute fourth quarter stretch was an opportunity for James to grab this series by the throat and force his will upon the proceedings. In such a situation, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant would have gone down shooting--or they would have attracted so much defensive attention with their aggressiveness that their teammates had wide open shots. 

James did not do that at all. He shrank from the moment, in the biggest moment of all. Maybe he will have a monster game five on the road, maybe not--but game four was an opportunity to extend the series to at least six games and to plant at least some doubt in the Warriors' minds.

James' final box score numbers look tremendous: 25 points on 11-21 field goal shooting, 13 rebounds, nine assists. Seemingly the only blemish would be his seven turnovers, but there are good reasons that I  do not rely on statistics--whether basic or "advanced"--to evaluate players.

I remember an NBA Finals telecast from decades ago during which Bill Russell noted that what matters is not so much how many points a player scores but when the player scores them. Russell was speaking specifically about the impact that Julius Erving had not only because Erving was a high scoring player but also because Erving scored at crucial moments when the outcome was up for grabs.

Watching James play for more than a decade has given me at least some insight about why some of Wilt Chamberlain's contemporaries rank him below Bill Russell even though Chamberlain's individual numbers dwarf Russell's. James has repeatedly demonstrated that context and timing matter more than raw statistics. The Cavaliers built their game four halftime lead even though James was quiet during the first 24 minutes (seven points); this demonstrates that the Cavaliers are not solely dependent on James to be productive and competitive but it also represents a wasted opportunity: if James had been aggressive in the first half, the Cavaliers may have opened up a double digit lead that would have given them a bigger cushion and also possibly affected how the Warriors played in the second half--but, instead, the Warriors were understandably quite comfortable at halftime, as Golden State Coach Steve Kerr noted after the game.

Russell once said that after the outcome of a game was decided, he would sometimes let Chamberlain score. It was all psychological warfare to Russell, who wanted to placate Chamberlain and let Chamberlain feel satisfied about winning the personal duel as long as Russell's team won the overall war. In a recent ESPN the Magazine article, Jackie MacMullan wrote that Kobe Bryant--inspired by this Russell tactic--used to pull a similar "rope a dope" on Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. Bryant laughingly told her that he would "neither confirm nor deny" this, but MacMullan claims to have verified this with several of Bryant's former teammates and coaches.

James has an almost unhealthy awareness of his personal statistics. When his teams lose, he is quick to blame injuries or his teammates' lack of production or any factor other than his own effort. The most infamous example of this is the final playoff series of his first stint in Cleveland, when he churlishly responded to questions about his indifferent game five performance by stating that he had "spoiled" the fans with his excellence over the years. I cannot recall Russell or Erving or Jordan or Bryant blaming the fans for a playoff loss or calling the fans "spoiled" by their own greatness.

Chamberlain, like James, was the best player on two championship teams while also falling short in several other trips to the NBA Finals. Chamberlain was much more dominant than James and for the most part Chamberlain fell short against another greatest player of all-time candidate (Bill Russell) who was surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates led by a Hall of Fame coach, while James has lost to some teams/players that cannot be compared to Russell and his Celtics.

Ultimately, based on the available footage I have seen, the people from that era who I have interviewed and the research that I have done, I give more credence to those who state that Chamberlain was more dominant than Russell and a better all-around player than I do to those who claim that Chamberlain was overrated--but James has provided vivid proof that gaudy individual numbers in a losing cause do not necessarily prove that a superstar is blameless and has been saddled with an insurmountably inferior supporting cast.

Not surprisingly, the media coverage of game four spun in many directions--but without question the most bizarre take was offered by Mike Wilbon. Wilbon is a respected and accomplished sportswriter but I have never understood why ESPN touts him as some kind of basketball expert. Wilbon often gets his facts wrong and his analysis is typically way off-base.

When SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt asked Wilbon for his perspective on game four, Wilbon ignored James' disappearing act and then blasted Kyrie Irving (who scored a team-high 34 points on 14-28 field goal shooting while committing only one turnover in 43 minutes) in a way that Wilbon probably has not blasted anyone since he used to blame Kobe Bryant for supposedly shooting too much. Wilbon declared that he had never seen anyone play as selfishly as Irving did in the fourth quarter and that under no circumstances should Irving take more shots than James. Then, mercifully, Wilbon's microphone went out and Van Pelt turned to Brendan Haywood in studio. Haywood, who was a teammate of James and Irving last year after winning a ring versus James in the 2011 Finals, tried to be diplomatic but he completely disagreed with Wilbon, noting that Irving had a great game and that someone "has to have that Michael Jordan moment" when James "is not being aggressive."

Haywood concluded, "I like the way he (Irving) played," adding, "If LeBron was asking for the ball on the block or getting into the lane and being aggressive then I would say 'Hey Kyrie you have to defer.'"

Haywood then rightfully put Van Pelt on the spot and asked Van Pelt what he thought of Wilbon's commentary. Van Pelt wanted no part of directly attacking his more famous and influential colleague but at least Van Pelt had the guts to say, "I don't understand why LeBron doesn't take it to the hoop every time he has someone smaller on him."

That is the issue in a nutshell. This series' impact on James' legacy is not based on how many points James averages or how good his supporting cast is compared to Golden State's supporting cast; James, as his team's best player, has an obligation to relentlessly attack the paint to score and his failure to consistently do this tarnishes his legacy, particularly since James has fallen short in similar fashion on this stage several other times. If James relentlessly attacked the paint, he would (1) score, (2) put Golden State in foul trouble and (3) force Golden State to double team him, which would in turn enable Cleveland's role players to shine.

James built this roster and hired this coach. James cannot blame his teammates when he spends most of the game--including the decisive nine minutes of the fourth quarter--standing passively outside the three point line or else driving with the primary intention of passing even if his teammates are not open. Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson both said it repeatedly during the telecast: James must drive or post up with the intention of scoring and then only pass if the pass creates an advantage.

There is so much talk about how this series could impact James' legacy that it is easy to forget that the "other" team in the series is not only on the verge of capping off a record-setting 73 win season by winning back to back titles but that squad features a great player who is building his own legacy. Prior to scoring a game-high 38 points in game four, Stephen Curry had not covered himself in glory in the 2016 Finals and it is fair to ask why his play was not as scrutinized and criticized as James' play or as Kobe Bryant's play had been in years past. Typically, an MVP is expected to perform at a high level in the Finals--and Curry is not "merely" an MVP but he is a two-time reigning MVP who is just the fourth point guard (Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Steve Nash are the others) to win a regular season MVP. Curry's pedestrian performances in games one and two could perhaps be excused by the fact that his team won so easily that greatness was not required but in game three Curry played poorly when his team had an opportunity to deliver a knockout punch.

The interesting thing about Curry is that he has been the best, most consistent regular season performer in the league the past two years but his postseason play has not quite matched that level and he clearly does not have the size, strength and two-way maximum potential possessed by James. Put another way, James' best game would clearly be better than Curry's best game. We expect less from Curry despite the accolades he has received and thus we are more apt to give Curry a pass. That does not mean that it is wrong to criticize James for the shortcomings that I detailed above, but it does mean that two-time MVP Curry should be expected to perform at an elite level and he should be criticized when he fails to do so.

The main thing that can be said in Curry's defense--and this is far from insignificant--is that Curry does things to help his team win that do not show up in the boxscore; Curry moves without the ball, he sets screens and he is always active. Curry will make the pass to initiate an action even if it is likely that someone else down the line will get the assist. James orchestrates things such that his passes lead directly to shot attempts, increasing the chance that he will get an assist. That is not necessarily a bad thing but his team would be better served in many instances if he posted up, drew a double team and then passed to a teammate who then made a skip pass for an assist. Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant opened things up for their teammates during championship runs by consistently making those kinds of plays and they were both deadly passers even though their assist totals were not always gaudy.

I have watched LeBron James intently for his entire NBA career. I have seen many of his games in person and during his first stint in Cleveland I had the opportunity to speak to him before and/or after some of those games. There is no question that he is smart, driven and supremely talented. He is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, without question or hesitation.

Yet, he is also the most puzzling and frustrating of the truly great players who I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand. The only historical analogy that I know of for the way that James' individual numbers give an inflated reckoning of the true quality of his performances would be Wilt Chamberlain. Perhaps that comparison is not at all fair to Chamberlain; many of Chamberlain's contemporaries swear that Chamberlain was much better than Russell and that if their situations had been reversed Chamberlain would have won just as much as Russell did. There will never be a definitive answer to that question and I mean no disrespect to Chamberlain, a childhood hero of mine who is perhaps my favorite basketball player whose prime took place before I was born.

All I can say is that my impression of James matches up with the critiques that some people provided of Chamberlain; the Chamberlain critiques may not be fair but from firsthand knowledge I know that it is fair to say that James has not maximized his individual talent or his championship potential, based on his inexplicable reluctance to attack mismatches in these Finals and in previous playoff series. The bottom line is this: if LeBron James is unwilling or unable to catch the ball on the block, drop step to the baseline (or quickly spin to the middle for a jump hook) and score/get fouled until the Warriors are forced to double team him then he is not as great as his supporters say he is, no matter what individual numbers he posts. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes cannot stop an aggressive, engaged James in the post, nor can any of them can stop James from catching the ball at the elbow, taking two power dribbles to the hoop and scoring. Jordan and Bryant were not as physically imposing as James but they both controlled games and series by aggressively and relentlessly attacking from the post and/or the midrange area. James' inconsistent midrange game and his default tendency to passivity when facing elite teams in playoff series are two major reasons that he must be ranked below Jordan and Bryant in pro basketball's Pantheon.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 PM


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 .325 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