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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Team USA Takes Big Lead, Then Survives Furious Comeback to Edge Serbia, 94-91

Team USA held on for dear life to emerge with a 94-91 victory over Serbia, who dropped to 1-3 in Group A play. Team USA improved to 4-0 in Group A with one game left to play and clinched a spot in the quarterfinal round but the gold medal that was once considered a foregone conclusion now looks anything but certain. Team USA was expected to dominate one of the weaker fields in recent Olympic history but this Team USA squad looks less like a Dream Team than like the nightmare group that stumbled to a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is being forced to shorten his rotation and experiment with different lineups; Harrison Barnes did not play at all versus Serbia, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan played just 10 minutes each and former starter Klay Thompson's minutes were slashed to just nine as he continues to struggle with his shot (1-6 field goal shooting versus Serbia).

Kyrie Irving led Team USA in scoring (15 points) and assists (five, tied with DeMarcus Cousins). DeAndre Jordan added 13 points in 13 minutes on 4-4 field goal shooting. Carmelo Anthony, who scored 31 points and shot 9-15 from three point range in Team USA's 98-88 win over Australia, scored just 12 points on 3-8 field goal shooting (including 1-5 on three pointers). Paul George added 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Kevin Durant had a quiet 12 points in a game-high tying 30 minutes. DeRozan made the most of his limited playing time with 11 points in 10 minutes.

The best player on the court was Serbia's Nikola Jokic, who scored a game-high 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting while also grabbing a team-high six rebounds and dishing for three assists. Jokic made the NBA All-Rookie First Team last season as a member of the Denver Nuggets. Serbia outscored Team USA by two points during his 30 minutes of action. Milos Teodosic scored 18 points and had a game-high six assists. Starting center Miroslav Raduljica scored 18 points in 14 minutes before fouling out.

Team USA's half court offense is stagnant at times--as described below--and that is justifiably a source of concern but offense is not the main problem for Team USA: 94 points on 27-55 (.491) field goal shooting should be good enough to win by a comfortable margin. The biggest issue is that Team USA's so-called "pitbull" defensive unit looked like a bunch of poodles for much of the contest. Serbia shot 31-60 (.517) from the field, including 10-25 (.400) from three point range. Serbia ran their offense patiently and precisely, shredding Team USA's defense. Paul George was disappointed in his team's performance but impressed by Serbia's effort: "Once again, we relied on natural talent. This is why these guys are special in our league. These international guys really know how to move and really know how to cut. It's more about how they're running their offense. It's wearing us down. It's like they don't get tired."
 
Serbia outscored Team USA 76-67 over the final three quarters of the game. In fact, after Team USA opened the game with a 9-0 run in the first three minutes, Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the next 37 minutes. If Team USA is not worried, they should be. This Serbia team is not an elite FIBA squad. They do not have great talent and they are not as physically imposing as a team like Australia--but Serbia is smart, poised and well-coached. Watching this game reminded me of the Pete Carril motto "The smart take from the strong."

I am not trying to bury the lede or create hype out of nothing. I understand that Team USA won the game and that there are no style points awarded for beautiful wins or taken away for ugly ones--but if Team USA keeps playing this way there is a very real chance that they will lose a game and fail to capture the gold medal.

This game featured a reversal of Team USA's previous pattern of slow starts punctuated by good second half play; the starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Kyrie Irving took a 23-5 first quarter lead and it looked like the rout was on but Serbia did not become discouraged or intimidated and they started chipping away.

Team USA's mindset is not right; there are too many technical fouls, too much negative body language and too much complaining. There is a reason that old school players scoff at the idea that today's best NBA players and teams are better than the best players and teams from previous eras. Today's stars are used to be being protected by NBA rules that favor the offense; if DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green think that Australia and Serbia play too rough, how would they have reacted to the Bad Boys or the 1990s Knicks? There is nobody in this tournament who can guard DeMarcus Cousins, yet he repeatedly commits silly fouls or turnovers because he keeps forcing the action instead of patiently using his skill set to good effect. Team USA committed two technical fouls and an unsportsmanlike foul in the first half. Those are mental mistakes indicative of a lack of focus and a lack of emotional control.

Early in the second quarter, before Serbia made their comeback, Doug Collins said, "Serbia is a well coached team. When you watch their offense, it's well spaced. They've got good principles. Guys set good screens and they roll. They really pass the ball well. The United States' pressure is just taking them out of what they want to do. Everything is contested and there is no rhythm to their game right now." Unfortunately for Team USA, Serbia continued to run their offense with precision while Team USA's pressure became less effective. Right after Collins' comment, Serbia made a couple crisp passes culminating in a layup by Nikola Kalinic to cut the margin to 31-20. Teodosic then hit a three to pull Serbia within eight points, 31-23.

Serbia made Team USA look like the Washington Generals on one particular second quarter possession as all five players touched the ball in quick succession before Jokic made a short runner. "That was ball movement at its finest there," Collins noted with respect. Team USA defenders were out of position, making poor gambles and lunging for fakes instead of playing sound, fundamental basketball. Team USA's next possession consisted of one pass and a contested three point attempt by Anthony that bounced off the front of the rim. Jokic then beat everyone down the court for a fast break dunk that cut Team USA's lead to 40-31. Team USA suddenly looked like the New York Knicks.

Serbia outscored Team USA 26-23 in the second quarter to trail 50-41 at halftime.

In the opening moments of the third quarter, Collins succinctly summarized Team USA's offense: "A lot of standing around." In contrast, Serbia executed smoothly and a nice screen/roll action culminated in a Jokic dunk to cut Team USA's lead to 58-53 nearly midway through the third quarter.

It is becoming apparent that any team that avoids committing open court turnovers and forces Team USA to execute in the half court has a good chance to at least keep the score close. Team USA relies on pressure defense to lead to create easy scoring opportunities and does not have a discernible, consistent plan in the half court other than isolating one player and hoping that he can create something.

Team USA narrowly outscored Serbia 22-21 in the third quarter and led 72-62 heading into the final stanza. One would expect Team USA's depth and athleticism to have greater impact as the game goes on but the opposite was the case, at least against Serbia. Serbia opened the fourth quarter with good inside-outside ball movement culminating in a Jokic three pointer. After Jordan split a pair of free throws, Jokic then cut to the basket for a layup and Team USA only led 73-67 with 9:03 remaining. Marko Simonovic cut on the baseline for a layup at the 8:06 mark to make the score 75-70 as Durant did his best James Harden "Where did he go?" impersonation on defense.

Teodosic's off the dribble three pointer over Jimmy Butler at the 7:28 mark lifted Serbia to within four, 77-73. Instead of facing pleasant decisions such as making sure everyone on the roster gets in the game and scores a point, Coach Krzyzewski had to give serious consideration to which five players he trusted to close out a game with the outcome in doubt.

After the foul-plagued Raduljica checked back in, he hit Cousins with a series of post moves and fakes that looked like Kevin McHale circa 1987 before making a layup to keep Serbia within two possessions, 81-75--but Raduljica collected a loose ball foul on Team USA's next possession and fouled out.

Jokic's three pointer with 3:13 left made the score 90-85 Team USA. At that point, Team USA had Irving, George, Durant, Anthony and Cousins on the court. Coach Krzyzewski replaced Cousins with Draymond Green, electing to go small in order to better match up defensively with Serbia's screen/roll game. Jokic scored on an offensive rebound, punishing Team USA's relative lack of size. Anthony bailed out a bad Team USA offensive possession by hitting a long two point jumper with one second left on the shot clock. He was fouled on the play but he missed the free throw, so Team USA led 94-87 with 2:11 to go.

Jokic cut for a layup and drew a foul on Durant--who was again during a Harden impersonation on defense--but Jokic missed the free throw. After no ball movement, Anthony missed a turnaround jumper on the right baseline. Serbia's passing and cutting created an open three pointer for Bogdan Bogdanovic but he missed the shot that could have made it a one possession game with 1:21 left. Irving fouled Teodosic in the ensuing loose ball scramble and Teodosic calmly nailed two free throws. Team USA led 94-91.

With the game on the line, Team USA's next possession consisted of Irving dribbling and dribbling before missing a floater. Team USA did not run a play, did not pass the ball and did not get the ball into the hands of Durant or Anthony, the presumptive closers (Irving is a good closer, too, but instead of just dribbling for 20 seconds or so he would have been better served to pass and cut). Surprisingly, Serbia also went to isolation ball on their next possession, as Jokic went one on one against Green in the post and missed a bank shot. Team USA's next possession was equally stagnant and culminated in a George airball followed by a desperation Durant heave with the shot clock winding down.

Jokic controlled the defensive rebound with :11 remaining and Serbia called a timeout with five seconds to go to set up a potentially tying three point shot. Durant defended the inbounds pass well but after a scramble Bogdanovic ended up with wide open left wing three pointer. Bogdanovic missed and Team USA escaped with a win despite being outplayed for most of the game. Bogdanovic is Serbia's best three point shooter. "They (Team USA) really got lucky on that play," Collins said. "They lost their defensive discipline...If they are going to win the gold, their offense is going to have to be more disciplined. They are going to have to get back to moving the basketball. Right now they are falling back into iso-ball and they made a ton of defensive errors tonight that could have cost them."

Earlier in the telecast, Collins suggested some reasons for Team USA's lack of sharpness, including (1) the team has not held many practices (in part because there is a desire to avoid potential injuries so that NBA owners will not be hesitant for their players to participate in the future) and (2) this squad has 10 first-time Olympians, so the roster continuity that was fostered since Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball does not exist this time around. Marv Albert noted that those reasons, valid as they may be, will not resonate with the general public if Team USA falters: "These are the top players in the world," he observed and even with the notable absences of players such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry, Team USA is still easily the most talented squad in the field.

Team USA may yet win the gold medal but this team very much resembles the squads that came up short in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championship. A loss to France in the fifth and final game of Group A play would be embarrassing but not fatal--but after that Team USA needs three wins in a row to capture the gold medal. A rematch with Australia looms large as a possible obstacle but at this point Team USA cannot afford to take any of the qualifying teams lightly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 PM

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Team USA Rallies From Halftime Deficit to Beat Australia, 98-88

Australia led Team USA for most of the first half and enjoyed a 54-49 halftime advantage before Team USA rallied in the second half to prevail, 98-88. Carmelo Anthony will be featured in most of the headlines thanks to his game-high 31 points but Team USA needed a dominant defensive effort in the concluding 20 minutes to escape with a win that was closer than the final margin might suggest. Anthony shot 11-21 from the field (including 9-15 from three point range) and he tied DeMarcus Cousins with a game-high eight rebounds. Kyrie Irving turned in another strong performance with 19 points and a team-high five assists. Anthony and Irving combined to score Team USA's first 26 points in a very competitive fourth quarter with the game on the line. Kevin Durant was Team USA's only other double figure scorer (14 points) but he shot just 4-16 from the field and did not leave his imprint on the game.

Australia's roster includes four players who have won an NBA championship and it was evident from the start that this team was not the slightest bit intimidated or awed by Team USA. Patty Mills led Australia with 30 points on 11-22 field goal shooting but he had plenty of help from three other players with NBA experience: Andrew Bogut contributed 15 points on 7-9 field goal shooting, David Andersen chipped in 13 points and Matthew Dellavedova got under the skin of multiple Team USA players while scoring 11 points and dishing a game-high 11 assists. The scrappy Dellavedova also led Australia with six rebounds, quite a feat for a small guard playing for a team that starts two quality big men.

Doug Collins aptly noted that Australia is a team that has good talent but is also better than the sum of its parts, while Team USA fielded the 12 best individual players. Team USA would not trade any of its players straight up for one of the Australians, yet Australia kept the game close by playing tough and playing with a cohesion that is wonderful to watch.

Anthony's offensive skill set is well suited to FIBA play, particularly when he plays power forward; most big FIBA forwards are too slow to check him and most smaller FIBA forwards are not strong enough to guard him in the post. Anthony is also at his best when he can just catch and shoot in one on one matchups, as opposed to having to create his own shot when the defense is tilted toward him; that is when Anthony becomes a "ball-stopper" but on Team USA he is surrounded by great talent and he has the luxury of playing one on one in favorable matchups. Anthony also loves the shorter FIBA three point line.

Anthony's 31 points are tied for the second-most by a U.S. Olympian (Anthony holds the record with 37 points in just 14 minutes versus Nigeria in the 2012 Olympics). He also surpassed LeBron James to become the leading scorer in Team USA Olympic history (293 points); that statistic is a little deceptive because Anthony has now played in four Olympics while most Team USA basketball players over the years only played in one Olympics.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski tweaked the Team USA starting lineup by inserting Paul George for Klay Thompson but the move did nothing to reverse the slow starts that have plagued Team USA. George finished with 5 points on 2-6 field goal shooting in 17 minutes, while Thompson had six points on 2-9 field goal shooting in 23 minutes. Oddly, Thompson had Team USA's best plus/minus score (14), followed by Irving (12) and Anthony (10).

Anthony opened the game with two quick three pointers to put Team USA up 6-0 but Australia took a 10-9 lead after Mills hit a three pointer. George was then whistled for a technical foul after pushing Dellavedova and Dellavedova's free throw extended the margin to 11-9. Australia was up 25-17 when  Coach Krzyzewski went to his "pitbull lineup" (as Collins calls Team USA's defensive-minded second unit); by the end of the quarter, the score was tied 29-29. Anthony poured in 14 first quarter points, shooting 5-7 from the field overall and 4-5 from three point range.

A Durant three pointer gave Team USA a 32-29 lead early in the second quarter but Team USA quickly found out that Australia is not Venezuela; instead of wilting in the second quarter like Venezuela did versus Team USA, Australia forged ahead thanks to good second unit play to complement the outstanding efforts of the starters. A Mills three pointer pushed the Australian lead to 41-36. It is important to note that by this point Team USA had shot an outstanding 8-17 (.471) from three point range; contrary to popular belief, it is neither essential for Team USA to shoot well from beyond the arc in order to win in FIBA play nor is good three point shooting a guarantee for victory if Team USA is deficient defensively. Just as fast as Anthony rained in three pointers, Team USA gave up layups and open jumpers at the other end of the court.

After Australia went up 46-39, Collins said that Australia's "screening and back-cutting" looked like a clinic. Australia led 54-49 at halftime. This was the first time that Team USA trailed at halftime during Olympic play since the infamous 89-81 loss to Argentina in the 2004 Olympics. Anthony scored 17 first half points but Mills dropped 15 for Australia while Bogut chipped in 13 points. Team USA shot 10-21 from three point range but allowed Australia to shoot a blistering 19-28 (.679) from the field overall.

During the halftime show, Fran Fraschilla stated several times that Team USA needed to make some adjustments but Dan Patrick never asked the obvious question: What adjustments should Team USA make? I would say that the biggest adjustments had to do more with concentration and effort than any specific strategy tweaks; Australia feasted on easy baskets in the first half because Team USA allowed too many cuts and did not work hard enough to contest Australia's shots.

Team USA's energy level went up a notch at the start of the third quarter, leading to a 9-0 run. Australia made just one of their first seven field goal attempts as Team USA paid better attention to detail on defense. Australia proved to be tough-minded, though, and they were not rattled by Team USA's attack. When Cousins went to the bench with his fourth foul at the 5:09 mark the score was tied 60-60. Draymond Green concluded the stanza with a fadeaway jumper plus the foul and his free throw gave Team USA a tenuous 70-67 lead.

Australia opened the fourth quarter with an Andersen three pointer and a Joe Ingles fast break layup to take a 72-70 lead. The tide turned when Team USA combined tough defense with some fine shotmaking by Anthony. Anthony tied the game at 72 with a strong drive, though he missed a free throw that could have made it a three point play. Anthony then drilled four three pointers to put Team USA on top 88-80. Australia kept battling, though, and after Irving missed a layup a long pass to Mills resulted in a fast break layup that trimmed the margin to 90-86. Irving answered with a huge three pointer from almost exactly the spot on the court where he buried the Golden State Warriors late in game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals. Australia forced a Team USA shot clock violation while down 93-88 with 36.3 seconds left but could not hit a timely shot to make it a one possession game.

Hopefully, this game will put a stop to the nonsensical talk about how boring it is to watch Team USA cruise to the gold medal or how Team USA should only use college players in the future; a Team USA squad consisting entirely of college players would have lost to Australia by at least 10 points. Australia is a wily and physical team with veteran pros who would figure out how to frustrate young college kids. There is no reason or justification for Team USA to impose artificial handicaps on itself and the game of basketball benefits as a whole when the world's best try to measure themselves against Team USA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 AM

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Monday, August 08, 2016

Team USA Blows Out Venezuela After First Quarter Wake-up Call

Venezuela led Team USA 16-15 late in the first quarter of game two of Group A play but Carmelo Anthony scored 10 straight second quarter points as Team USA blew the game open to take a 48-26 halftime lead en route to a 113-69 victory. Paul George led a balanced Team USA attack with a game-high 20 points on 6-7 field goal shooting. Jimmy Butler (17 points), Kevin Durant (16 points on 5-5 field goal shooting), Carmelo Anthony (14 points) and DeAndre Jordan (14 points plus a game-high nine rebounds) were Team USA's other double figure scorers. Kyle Lowry led Team USA with nine assists. John Cox, Kobe Bryant's cousin, paced Venezuela with 19 points but he shot just 6-20 from the field. Starting center Gregory Echenique was Venezuela's best all-around player, tallying 18 points and a team-high seven rebounds.

Team USA used the same starting lineup that they used against China--Durant, Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving--and got off to very sluggish start. Doug Collins noted that Team USA assistant coach Jim Boeheim believes that the starting unit relies very heavily on three point shooting and that when they are missing their outside shots this can lead to slow starts. Whatever the reason, Durant was the only starter who performed well early in the game. He made his first three shots, while the rest of the team started out 1-6 from the field. After an Echenique putback, Venezuela led 11-10.

Venezuela had an excellent game plan: slow the game down, be smart with the ball and be physical. As Marv Albert put it, Venezuela wanted to "muck the game up." During the telecast, we saw highlights of Team USA's 156-73 win over Nigeria in the 2012 Olympics; Nigeria's willingness to run with Team USA was perhaps brave but certainly foolish. Venezuela had the right approach but simply lacks the depth to execute this game plan for 40 minutes against Team USA. During the first quarter, Collins said that the way Venezuela played Team USA is "the blueprint. They are not talented enough to beat the U.S. but other teams will be watching this."

The first quarter of this game reminded me very much of Team USA's 101-95 loss to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, with Echenique reprising the role of Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Cousins picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game, he was mumbling to himself on the way to the bench and he was a non-factor in the rest of the contest, finishing with six points and fouling out after playing only nine minutes. Thompson also got two quick fouls and he finished with 0 points in 15 minutes. At the end of the first quarter the score was tied 18-18. Team USA shot 7-15 from the field and committed six turnovers. Collins said that to beat Team USA you need good guards (to avoid turnovers and control tempo) and toughness.

The momentum shifted dramatically in the second quarter, as Team USA struck with a fresh wave of players and Venezuela could not keep pace. Collins pointed out that the second quarter has been problematic for Venezuela in general. It was a nightmare versus Team USA, as Team USA outscored Venezuela 30-8 to take a 48-26 halftime lead. Durant (11 points) and Anthony (10 points) led the way in the first half. Anthony made a key play early in the quarter, stripping Echenique in the post, getting the steal and then burying a three pointer on the ensuing possession to put Team USA up 31-22.

It is a treat to listen to Collins' color commentary and Marv Albert's play by play. Collins is well versed not only about Team USA but also about every other team in the field and the FIBA game in general (for those too young to remember, Collins starred for Team USA in the 1972 Olympics before becoming the number one overall pick in the NBA draft). Collins called George a "security blanket" for Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski because George can do a variety of things coming off of the bench. George has bounced back nicely from the severe leg injury that he suffered in 2014 while trying out for Team USA.

Team USA will face Australia on Wednesday. Australia is always a physical, tough and well-disciplined team and it will be interesting to see how Team USA responds to that challenge. Collins observed that Team USA can become stagnant offensively when forced to play in the half court. Team USA thrives on open court turnovers that can be converted into transition points. If Australia refrains from turning the ball over and runs half court offense with precision the way that Venezuela did for about 10 minutes, then Wednesday's game could be more competitive than it might look on paper. No team in this tournament could beat Team USA in a seven game series but in the medal round the Olympics is like the NCAA Tournament and one loss in a 40 minute game will cost you the gold medal. Team USA should heed the lessons learned during the first quarter against Venezuela and not just rest on their laurels based on the final margin of victory.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:12 PM

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Implications of the NBA's Summer of Discontent

This has been a very interesting NBA offseason in terms of moves made, moves not made and the ongoing results of moves made in recent years.

It would have been a lot of fun to watch Golden State battle Oklahoma City at least one more time in the Western Conference Finals. Instead, Kevin Durant--whose Thunder had the Warriors on the ropes but failed three times to deliver the knockout blow--joined forces with the players who had just dashed his championship hopes. Kevin Durant has every right to leave Oklahoma City but that does not mean that he was right to do so or that it is wrong to articulate thoughtful disagreement with his choice (a level of discourse that does not include calling his move "wack" or burning his jersey). Durant's departure is the equivalent of Julius Erving joining the Boston Celtics in 1981-82 after his Philadelphia 76ers squandered a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Erving led the 76ers back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1982 and the 76ers decisively won game seven in Boston after allowing the Celtics to win two straight games to tie the series.

Durant's conduct prior to joining the Warriors is disingenuous. Supposedly he had no plans to leave Oklahoma City but just wanted to see what options existed. I don't buy that story. You don't go to the Hamptons to be wined and dined by suitors unless you have a wandering eye. Paul Newman once said that he saw no reason to go out for hamburger when he had steak at home. The whole Hamptons business is even more pathetic when you consider that the Thunder owner and other team personnel crowded into a low budget hotel because all of the other hotels in the region were booked. After spending nearly a decade with the Thunder, Durant could not find room for his colleagues at his sprawling place? Or he could not tell them, "Guys, go back home. I've made my decision"?

Durant has said before that the grass is not always greener on the other side. He was critical of LeBron James' move from Cleveland to Miami, sending out this tweet after the "Decision": "Now everybody wanna play for the Heat and the Lakers? Let's go back to being competitive and going at these people."

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. The odds are that the Warriors will win at least one championship with this newly assembled super team: they are absolutely stacked with talent, they are well coached and they replaced arguably the weakest link in the starting lineup that won the 2015 championship with a four-time scoring champion/one-time former MVP. However, injuries, chemistry issues or some other unforeseen circumstances could intervene. The Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio never won a title. Philadelphia's "Wonder Five" blew a 2-0 lead in the 1977 NBA Finals and the 76ers had almost completely overhauled their roster by the time they made it back to the Finals in 1980. Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton led the Lakers to the 2004 Finals but lost to a younger and more cohesive Detroit team. Each of those super teams had flaws that are clearly evident in retrospect, even if the flaws may have been less obvious in the moment, while the Warriors are young, unselfish and have no obvious flaws other than a lack of size/rim protection--but nothing is promised or guaranteed regarding an 82 game marathon followed by the grueling race to 16 postseason wins.

Whether or not Durant wins a championship in Golden State, the disappointing thing about this is that the budding Warriors-Thunder rivalry could have been one for the ages if they faced each other in the playoffs at least one or two more times. The Thunder with Durant had a better chance of beating the Warriors than any other Western Conference team. It is wrong to suggest that Durant had to leave because the Thunder did not have enough talent to win a title. Oklahoma City has the second best regular season record in the NBA since 2012 (i.e., after the supposedly disastrous James Harden trade). The Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals four times in the past six years. They beat the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in the 2016 playoffs and after that they had the defending champion Golden State Warriors on the brink of elimination. The Thunder's failure to beat the Warriors stems, in no small part, from Durant's woeful play in clutch moments of that series, including 1-7 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter of game six at home.

So this is not about the Thunder front office failing to surround Durant with enough talent.

It would have been nice to see Durant respond to the loss in the 2016 Western Conference Finals by working on his game and his mindset during the summer so that he could start the 2016-17 season with a new sense of purpose. That is what Larry Bird did after his Celtics missed the Finals in 1982 and 1983. He emerged as a three-time MVP and he added two more championships to his 1981 title. That is what Magic Johnson did after his gaffes in the 1984 Finals led some to call him "Tragic" Johnson. Johnson won championships in 1985 and 1987-88, along with three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90). That is what Isiah Thomas did after the Pistons came up short versus the Celtics and then the Lakers in 1987 and 1988. Thomas led the Pistons to back to back championships in 1989-90, winning the Finals MVP in 1990.

Durant has the right to leave. He did not handle the situation optimally but he also did not turn it into a farce and a circus like the one LeBron James created six years ago. As a fan of the sport and of competition in general, I just wish that Durant had tried at least one more time to beat the Warriors.

While the headline story is Durant's departure, the biggest subplot is how this will affect the arc of Russell Westbrook's career. One might have thought that Durant's departure guaranteed that Westbrook would either be traded or else leave Oklahoma City of his own volition but instead Westbrook signed a two year contract extension with the Thunder. Westbrook displayed a very Kobe-esque way of thinking: I am not going to run from this challenge but I am going to go into battle with my teammates and do my best.

Westbrook could put up some historic statistics this season: 30 ppg, 10 apg, 8 rpg is not out of the question. The Thunder are no longer championship contenders but with Westbrook putting up Oscar Robertson numbers they should be a solid playoff team.

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Whatever criticisms can be made of Durant's decision, his primary motivation does appear to be winning. In his opinion, going to Golden State is his best opportunity to win a championship and he does not care what ex-players, media members or fans think about his choice.

In contrast, at every turning point of his career, Carmelo Anthony has chosen money over winning.

While Kobe Bryant has been criticized for the big contracts he received at the end of his career, those deals were lifetime achievement awards from a franchise that can afford such beneficence in no small part because Bryant played a leading role on five championship teams. The Lakers had enough money left over to acquire a big-time free agent even after paying Bryant but no big-time free agents want to play for the Lakers--and since that remains true after Bryant's retirement, we can shut down the idea that Bryant's presence/shot selection scared off stars in their prime who feared that their numbers would dip while playing alongside Bryant and we can lay the blame where it belongs, namely with Jim Buss, who has mismanaged the franchise since his father's death.

In contrast, Anthony's huge New York contract is not a reward for winning and it is an impediment toward acquiring the help that he needs to win--and make no mistake that Anthony would need a lot more help to win a championship than Bryant did or LeBron James does.

Anthony engineered his departure from Denver in such a fashion that the Knicks had to gut their roster to acquire Anthony; as a result, two years after Anthony left Denver the Nuggets posted their best regular season record since the NBA-ABA merger. Meanwhile, the Knicks have been going nowhere fast for years but Anthony's primary concern is staying in the media capital of the world, where he can maximize his earnings on and off of the court. Like Durant, Anthony has the right to make that choice but after Anthony's career ends with no championships he will not be deserving of any sympathy in that regard.

Speaking of Anthony's Knicks, "stat gurus" (and many others) lambasted Isiah Thomas' front office work with the Knicks but the real problem is James Dolan. Thomas was a solid personnel evaluator in Toronto and a solid coach with the Pacers. Larry Brown is a Hall of Fame coach, as is Phil Jackson. Thomas, Brown and Jackson each failed to get the Knicks anywhere close to championship contention. No one has been able to turn the Knicks around under Dolan's ownership and that trend will likely continue.

Phil Jackson's attempt this summer to build Chicago East in New York with the acquisitions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah inspired Rose to make a delusional comment about the Knicks being a "super team" like Golden State. The Knicks are probably not even a top four team in the East. Noah seems to be done physically, Rose is a solid player but does not seem likely to regain MVP status and Anthony is not the right guy to lead a championship quest.

Jackson's tenure in New York thus far has been long on Charley Rosen ghost written aphorisms and short on actual results but the Zen Master is laughing all the way to the bank; neither the Bulls nor the Lakers gave him the Kobe Bryant-lifetime achievement award contract but Dolan has done so. Jackson's ability as a coach to take a group of men and mold them into champions is undeniable but Jackson's ability to construct a championship roster from the ground up is unproven.

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Charles Oakley once said of the post-Jackson/Jordan/Pippen Bulls, "They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."

The Dallas Mavericks never had a dynasty, nor are they a "coffee shop" now but Mark Cuban's decision to break up the 2011 championship team did not turn out very well. Cuban is widely praised as an innovative owner. While he has clearly received a significant financial return on his investment in the Dallas Mavericks, under his direction the team has made some odd personnel decisions. In the wake of Dallas' lone championship, Cuban broke up the team's nucleus and the franchise has never been the same. A lot has been said about the supposed value of breaking up a team one year too early as opposed to one year too late but the great danger in messing with championship chemistry is that you might never find the right ingredients at the right time again.

Would the Mavericks have definitely repeated as champions if he had kept the roster intact? That is the wrong question. The right question is, "Did the Mavericks have a better chance to win a championship by sticking with proven winners or by trying to get younger with an eye toward landing a big-name free agent?" Free agents are not flocking to Dallas. Cuban would have been better served standing pat to make a run at the 2012 title. If the Mavericks fell short, then if Cuban so desired he could have broken up the team after the 2012 season and the Mavericks would not be any worse off than they are now--but at least they would have taken their best shot at capturing a second title.

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The Mavericks have faced the San Antonio Spurs six times in the playoffs, with the Spurs winning four of those series. On two occasions, the Spurs went on to take the NBA championship after eliminating the Mavericks. Tim Duncan played a key role in that rivalry and his retirement merits its own special article.

Many teams fall apart after their superstar retires (or even slightly before he retires, if the superstar has declined significantly and/or is plagued by injuries). The Spurs will no doubt miss Duncan--particularly as a leader and as a defensive anchor in the paint--but they are well positioned to continue to be a championship contender with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and free agent acquisition Pau Gasol leading the way while veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fill lesser but still important roles. The Spurs went 67-15 last season. Gasol is a better offensive player than Duncan was at this stage of Duncan's career but Gasol is not as good defensively; assuming good health and expected performances from the rest of the players in the team's rotation, the Spurs should still be a 60 win team this season. Gasol is at his best when there is not pressure on him to be the number one option; he thrived with the Lakers as a second option behind Kobe Bryant and he is perfectly suited--in both skill set and temperament--to fit in with San Antonio's philosophy of sharing the ball and not relying on any one player to carry the load.

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It has become rare for a superstar to spend his entire career with one franchise the way that Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant did. Although there were some rocky moments in Dwyane Wade's relationship with the Miami Heat, it seemed likely that Wade would be a one-franchise superstar. Instead, Wade's ego clashed with Pat Riley's ego and Wade will now finish his career in his hometown of Chicago. Such late career transitions do not automatically end badly but they rarely end spectacularly well, either.

Wade and Heat President Pat Riley have butted heads for years, though in the past they always mended fences (at least publicly). When Wade refused to sign an extension with the Heat several years ago but asked Riley to add some talent to the roster, Riley very publicly told Wade to either re-sign with the team or keep his mouth shut about how Riley ran the operation. The Cleveland Cavaliers let LeBron James run the ship and that approach has led to one championship (albeit after James learned under Riley for four years in Miami) but Riley has won seven championships as a coach/executive by doing things his way.

Wade took less money to enable the Heat to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh but it is not like the Heat put a gun to Wade's head; Wade knew that the only way he was going to win another championship was to bring in at least one more superstar, so he made the necessary choice to facilitate that process. The end result was that Wade added four Finals appearances and two championships to his resume, which not only raises his status in basketball history but also increases his marketability (hence enabling him to recoup at least some of the salary that he voluntarily gave up).

Wade is still a very good player. He was arguably Miami's best player during the 2015-16 regular season, though the "stat gurus" may disagree with that contention. Wade performed even better during the playoffs, leading the Heat in scoring and assists while ranking third in rebounding. However, Miami was not quite a championship contender even with Wade playing as well as he can reasonably be expected to play at this stage of his career. Therefore, Riley was correct to prioritize the re-signing of Hassan Whiteside (the young big man who could become the franchise's cornerstone player if he continues to develop his game and his maturity) and the pursuit of a free agent star to help Wade carry the load. After signing Whiteside and failing to attract Durant or any other star, Riley turned his focus to Wade. The Heat's final offer to Wade was perfectly reasonable considering Wade's age and performance level but by that point in the process Wade's pride prevented him from returning to Miami. He felt disrespected and shunned, even though Riley was actually doing the best job he could to put the pieces in place for Wade to win a fourth championship. Wade is not going to win a title as a fading star in Chicago. What is the Bulls' track record of building championship teams since the departure of Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? Refer to the Charles Oakley quote above.

These situations are not easy to handle for either side. After the 76ers seriously considered trading Julius Erving to the Clippers near the end of Erving's career, Erving almost signed with the Utah Jazz as a free agent; Erving's pride was stung--just like Wade's is now--but Erving wisely took the longer view of things and he enjoyed a farewell tour as a 76er that became the model for all such farewell tours to come. Erving played for two franchises during the wild and woolly ABA days but he spent his entire 11 year NBA career with one team. Whether or not Wade ever admits it, when his Chicago days are done he will look back and wish that he had stayed with the Heat.

Maybe Riley could have or should have handled the public process more smoothly. Maybe Wade should have a more realistic understanding of how the business of basketball works. I have thought about this situation a lot and I have concluded that both sides had legitimate arguments in their favor; Riley is not a bad guy here, nor is Wade. That said, the best solution would have been to put the egos aside and enable Wade to stay with the Heat for life. Wade's last years in Chicago will probably not evoke the dreary ends of the careers of Johnny Unitas or Willie Mays but they also will not likely add much to his legacy.

The final outcome is not optimal for either party: the Heat are now in danger of missing the playoffs completely without Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson (not to mention the uncertain health status of Chris Bosh), while the Bulls will be lucky to make it past the first round. Instead of Wade taking a victory lap in Miami, he will end his career as no better than the second option on a new team that will not win a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:16 PM

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Sunday, August 07, 2016

Tim Duncan's Legacy is Defined by Consistency, Durability and Grace Under Pressure

Tim Duncan entered the NBA with as little fanfare as is possible for a number one overall draft pick and after a brilliant 19 year NBA career he has departed the NBA with even less fanfare. There will be no farewell tour--just a press release and Duncan will ride off into the sunset.

A few phrases jump to mind when trying to summarize what makes Duncan so special.

Quiet dominance. Even-keeled personality. Grace under pressure. Durability. Unselfishness.

Duncan rarely posted gaudy statistics and he did not set many records but his resume is nonetheless quite full: five NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), two regular season MVPs (2002, 2003), three Finals MVPs (1999, 2003, 2005), 1998 Rookie of the Year, 2000 All-Star Game MVP, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, eight All-Defensive First Team selections. He ranked in the top eight in regular season MVP voting in each of his first 11 seasons, including five times when he finished in the top three. Duncan only averaged more than 25 ppg once but he ranks 14th on the NBA's career scoring list (and 17th on the ABA-NBA list) with 26,496 points. Duncan's 15,091 career rebounds rank sixth in NBA history and seventh on the ABA-NBA leaderboard and his 3020 blocked shots rank fifth on the NBA list (and sixth when ABA numbers are included; blocked shots became an official statistic in 1972-73 in the ABA and in 1973-74 in the NBA). Duncan averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg in each of his first eight seasons and he averaged a double double in each of his first 13 seasons.

As Hubie Brown would say, the numbers are there but then you also have to look at the impact. Duncan's arrival in San Antonio heralded the elevation of the Spurs to championship contender status and they remained championship contenders throughout his career. His minutes were limited in recent seasons, which led to a corresponding decline in his other statistics, but Duncan always had a major effect on the game both as the anchor of the defense and as a key offensive player who could do all of the fundamental things well: shoot, pass, handle the ball and--perhaps most underrated--set good, solid screens to free up his teammates.

As a San Antonio assistant coach, Hank Egan saw Tim Duncan's development first hand. An exchange during my first interview with Coach Egan illuminates many of the subtleties of Duncan's game that a casual fan might ignore. While Duncan rightly earned the nickname "Big Fundamental" from Shaquille O'Neal, Egan recalls that even a player as sound as Duncan still had to make some adjustments after entering the NBA:

Egan: "He had a couple years of a learning curve and then, bam. He's a great player. I think that he is the best player in the NBA right now and he has been for several years. He had the luxury while he was breaking in of having David Robinson right there, cleaning up a lot."

Friedman: "The personality that Robinson has, to accept the transition (to a lesser role)."

Egan: "Grace."

Friedman: "It's hard to think of another player of his status who could do something like that. I think a little bit of Julius Erving with Moses Malone coming in and them winning a championship together with Julius stepping back somewhat. But David Robinson did it year after year."

Egan: "After Tim's first year, someone asked him if it bothered him that we were going more to Tim on offense and he said, 'Tim is better offensively than I am.' That's exactly what he said. He didn't say that he was getting older or anything like that. He just said that Tim was better."

Friedman: "They had different offensive games. Robinson's game, particularly after some of the injuries, was a face-up game."

Egan: "Yeah. He was always better faced up because he was a narrow-based player. He was straight up and down. He couldn't go to the post where other players would hunker down and use their width. So he played straight up and down."

Friedman: "Duncan has a different kind of body to get in the post."

Egan: "Absolutely. Absolutely."

Friedman: "That's another thing that I guess is a natural gift in a sense. Robinson is certainly strong and muscular in his arms but he has that tiny waist."

Egan: "Tiny waist, a little knock kneed. Tim Duncan is built like Olajuwon."

Friedman: "Yeah. Your game gets constructed around your body type in a certain sense."

Egan: "Absolutely. Yeah. People would say, 'You have to get this guy to play down low.' He can't play low; he's a straight up and down guy. You have to figure out how to use what God gave him."

Friedman: "That's a big part of coaching, right? You have to see what you are working with. You can't just say, 'My system is best and in my system the 5 does this.' If you have a 5 who can't do that, then you have to find other ways to use his skills."

Egan: "Absolutely. Absolutely."

Friedman: "Robinson was amazing, particularly before he got hurt—his quickness, the way he could run the floor and steal the ball from guards. He was a very unusual player with what he could do."

Egan: "Yes."

The "grace" that Egan correctly attributes to Robinson has been displayed by Duncan as well during the latter portion of Duncan's career. Very few elite players have so seamlessly adjusted to each phase of their careers; Duncan blended well with elder statesman Robinson, Duncan dominated during his prime years (winning back to back regular season MVPs while leading the Spurs to four titles in nine years), Duncan ceded shot attempts and limelight to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as those players emerged and then Duncan made room for Kawhi Leonard's ascension as well. Last season, Duncan played the reduced elder statesman David Robinson role as LaMarcus Aldridge became the team's primary low post offensive weapon.

The only plausible reason for not labeling Duncan the greatest power forward of all-time is that it could be argued that he was a de facto center during a significant portion of his career. Was Duncan the greatest player of his era? There are only a few legitimate candidates for that title: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal was the most physically dominant of that quartet but his inattention to conditioning affected his durability and left him trailing both Bryant and Duncan in terms of championships. James would be the choice of the "stat gurus" because he fills up every category in the box score. Bryant was the one man wrecking crew, the scoring machine/defensive fiend who could carry a team with Smush and Kwame to the playoffs and who was an integral part of two back to back championship dynasties nearly a decade apart (something that none of the other three players accomplished).

There is no definitive right or wrong answer. My personal feeling is I would be reluctant to take O'Neal unless I have a Phil Jackson or Pat Riley to keep him motivated. James is a wunderkind but I will always be baffled by his disappearing act in several key playoff series, most notably the 2011 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals; I don't trust him the way that I trust Bryant and Duncan. The problem with comparing Bryant and Duncan is that they need two completely different kinds of supporting casts around them to win, because one is a perimeter player and the other is a post player. The general rule in basketball is that size matters, which would favor Duncan. Bryant asserted his dominance in a more obvious fashion, by scoring 40 or 50 points in a game or by averaging 30 ppg in a series; Duncan's dominance was more understated--sliding over to deter an opponent from driving, setting a screen that freed up someone else to score. Picking one will inevitably be viewed as disrespecting the other, so in the year that both Bryant and Duncan retired from the NBA let's just say that Bryant was the best perimeter player of the post-Jordan era and Duncan was the best big man of the post-Jordan era.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 PM

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