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Saturday, November 05, 2016

First Impressions of the 2016-17 Season

My first impression of the 2016-17 NBA season is that Russell Westbrook is impressive. He averaged 34.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 10.0 apg while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to a 4-1 record. The Thunder improved to 5-1 tonight as Westbrook produced 28 points, six rebounds and eight assists while playing just 28 minutes in a 112-92 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Westbrook started the season with a bang, erupting for 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in a 103-97 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. That was just a warmup for game two, when Westbrook scorched the Phoenix Suns with 51 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 113-110 overtime win. Critics harp on the fact that Westbrook had 44 field goal attempts--but the Thunder were +7 when Westbrook was on the court in a game that they won by just three points. The team needed every ounce of energy that Westbrook provided. How rare is a 50 point triple double? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the last player to accomplish this feat--in 1975!

Westbrook had 33 points, 16 assists and 12 rebounds in the Thunder's 113-96 rout of the L.A. Lakers, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson in 1982-83 to post two triple doubles in the first three games of a season. Westbrook is the fourth player ever to have two triple-doubles in the first three games, joining Johnson (twice), Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson (twice). Last season Westbrook posted 18 triple-doubles, which tied Johnson (in 1981-82) for the most in a single season in the last 40 years--and unlike many players, Westbrook is not chasing personal glory at the expense of team success: the Thunder have won 21 straight games (regular season and playoffs) when Westbrook posts a triple double. That is the longest streak since the Lakers won 24 straight games when Magic Johnson had a triple double during the 1984-87 time frame.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Westbrook became the first player with at least 100 points, 30 rebounds and 30 assists in the first three games of a season (I suspect that this is a post ABA-NBA merger statistic, as Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson probably accomplished this at least once at some point during their careers). Through three games, Westbrook averaged a triple-double: 38.6 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 11.6 assists. The amazing thing is that it is not unthinkable that Westbrook could maintain production in that neighborhood over the course of the entire season; sure, he will not likely average 38 ppg, but 30 ppg is easily within reach, as is 11 apg--and while 12 rpg from the point guard position is a bit much to expect, 9 rpg is quite doable for Westbrook.

By his standards, Westbrook had a subdued performance in the Thunder's 85-83 victory against the L.A. Clippers: "only" 35 points, six rebounds and five assists. Westbrook is the first player to score at least 150 points in the first four games of the season since Michael Jordan in 1991-92. That Thunder win is notable because the Clippers are viewed by many as a championship contender, while some observers questioned if the Thunder would even be in playoff contention after Kevin Durant's departure. 

Speaking of Durant, one of the early season games that all fans and commentators circled on their schedules was Oklahoma City at Golden State, as Durant faced the teammates that he abandoned. The Warriors are the first team in NBA history to feature two former MVPs who are each less than 28 years old (2014 winner Durant, plus 2015 and 2016 winner Stephen Curry) and they obviously are a much more talented team than the Thunder--but the Thunder enjoyed a 29-19 lead when Westbrook took his customary rest near the end of the first quarter. With Westbrook out of the game, the Thunder collapsed, yielding a 19-3 run as Golden State never trailed the rest of the way en route to a 122-96 win that some view as a vindication of Durant's decision. Other than Kyle Singler, every Thunder bench player had a double digit negative plus/minus number versus the Warriors. With Westbrook on the court, the Thunder can compete with anyone but they will not contend for a championship until they add some depth, either through player development or player acquisition.

The aftermath of Golden State's rout demonstrated that no matter what Westbrook says or does he will be criticized by the mainstream media. One article praised Durant for supposedly overcoming the way that Westbrook had allegedly been cold and dismissive toward him. That is one of the most ridiculous pieces of "analysis" that I have seen in a long time--and (sadly) I have seen a lot of ridiculous NBA analysis. As Kenny Smith would say, let's not just keep it real, let's keep it right. Durant left the Thunder. He supposedly considers Westbrook his blood brother, yet he notified Westbrook of his departure by text message.The mature way to handle that breakup was face to face, man to man. In my book, Durant is the betrayer of Westbrook's trust. As I have said before, Durant has the right to leave the Thunder and join the Warriors--and I have the right to be disappointed in his decision and to point out why it would have been nice if he had possessed the fortitude to continue to battle the Warriors instead of joining forces with them. As for Westbrook's role in this situation, it is not up to him to say anything to Durant. Durant literally snuck out the back door; if he wants to communicate with Westbrook, he knows where to find him.

Westbrook has that Kobe Bryant mentality that is so rare--and so great to see. Westbrook is not trying to make friends on the court. He is trying to win games and (hopefully) championships. Westbrook is not thinking about his personal statistics or about what anyone is going to say about his statistics or his shot selection; he is trying to make plays to help his team win. His game is a lot different than Bryant's--Bryant was bigger, he was a better shooter and he had a more reliable postup game--but the mindset is the same: Bryant once said that he was "not with" the whole idea of if you try your best and lose that is OK and it is obvious that Westbrook feels the same way. Three years ago, I prophetically wrote that Westbrook "is perhaps the NBA's most underrated and overly criticized great player, taking those two dubious honors from Kobe Bryant (who finished fourth in the 2006 MVP voting after dragging the Lakers to the playoffs despite starting alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker)." Westbrook is intense even during the NBA All-Star Game (he is the first back to back All-Star Game MVP winner), which makes him a throwback to the days when the likes of Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas made the All-Star Game a competitive East-West showdown.

*****

Some people acted like the sky was falling after Durant's Warriors got blown out by the San Antonio Spurs in the first game of the season but the reality is that the Warriors have so much talent--plus top notch coaching--that it is inconceivable that they will win less than 60-65 games (barring major injuries, of course). The Warriors will overwhelm most teams with their talent and they also will enjoy the coaching advantage almost every game as well. However, that first game did once again point out that there is a blueprint to beat this team, much like there was a blueprint to destroy the seemingly invincible Death Star. The Warriors are a tenacious defensive team on the perimeter but they are vulnerable in the paint. Attacking them in the paint can lead to layups and free throws; it can also hurt Golden State's offense by fatiguing their stars and/or saddling those stars with foul trouble. These issues will not matter much during the regular season but they could become very significant during the playoffs. Even before the Warriors essentially traded their size and their depth to acquire Durant, they were vulnerable inside, as we saw last year when the Thunder pushed the Warriors to game seven and the Cavaliers beat the Warriors in game seven of the NBA Finals--but now that vulnerability is acute. Does Durant provide enough offensive firepower to compensate? It will be fascinating to find out the answer to that question.

*****

James Harden is going to put up video game-like offensive numbers this season. If his Rockets manage to scrape together 45 wins (far from a sure thing), the "stat gurus" in the mainstream media may very well make enough noise on his behalf that he is given (as opposed to earning) the regular season MVP. Under new coach Mike D'Antoni, Harden is going to score more than ever and--because he will be expected to initiate almost every single offensive action when he is on the court--he will set a career-high in assists. Harden will also play minimal defense and the Rockets will advance no further than the first round of the playoffs, which has been a recurring theme during Harden's tenure in Houston (three first round exits in four years) and will continue to be a recurring theme unless he changes his mindset (which he appears to be unwilling or unable to do). I recently heard a great adage about coaching: if a coach's team continues to do something wrong, at some point it must be said that the coach is either teaching it or allowing it. D'Antoni either teaches or allows that defense is not a priority, a philosophy that meshes very nicely with Harden's approach to the game. D'Antoni may feel like the Warriror's 2015 championship vindicated his coaching style but that is not true; the Warriors (despite their lack of size in their best lineup, which causes the aforementioned weakness in the paint) are an excellent defensive team, while none of D'Antoni's teams have been good defensively.

If D'Antoni is happy and feels vindicated, if Harden is satisfied with padding his personal numbers and never winning a championship and if Houston fans/Harden fans are happy, then who am I to complain about the Rockets?

*****

The Indiana Pacers improved to 3-3 tonight with a 111-94 win over the 3-3 Chicago Bulls. The Pacers are widely touted as a top four team in the East, while I predicted that the Pacers would not even make the playoffs. It is obviously still early in the season and maybe I am missing something, but it sure appears like the Pacers (to borrow a phrase from the late football coach Dennis Green) are who I thought they were: I do not see them as a contender because I expect them to be a bad defensive team and the Pacers are currently sixth in scoring and 30th (last) in points allowed. I am not sure how many last ranked defensive teams have made the playoffs but I suspect that number is very small. The Pacers will probably not finish as the NBA's worst defensive team but--no matter how good their offense is--they likely will have to move up at least to 15th-20th defensively to have a realistic chance of proving me wrong by qualifying for the playoffs.

*****

Another team that I picked to miss the playoffs, the Bulls, started off quickly but has now dropped to .500. Jimmy Butler is an excellent two-way player, Dwyane Wade's resume is familiar even to casual NBA fans and Rajon Rondo is a talented and cerebral--if at times difficult to work with--player. The Bulls obviously have a lot of talent at the 1-2-3 spots but it is questionable if they have enough shooting and a stout enough defense to be a playoff team. Of all the teams that I picked to miss the playoffs, this is the one squad that I freely admitted might prove me wrong; after six games it is way to early to issue a final verdict but let's just say that I still feel comfortable with my original prediction.

*****

It is easy to forget that for the first six years of Michael Jordan's career, the accepted storyline was that he was a great individual talent who lacked the qualities that enabled Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to lead their teams to championships. Then Jordan won three straight titles with the Bulls to place himself no worse than equal to Johnson (who by then had been recognized by most objective people as the player of the 1980s by outperforming/outlasting Bird five championships to three). When Jordan retired in 1993 he was already a sports icon but after he came back in 1995 and promptly led the Bulls to three more championships he reached an almost untouchable level and became the default answer for most people when discussing the question of who is the greatest player of all-time (which is an unfair slight to other members of the pro basketball Pantheon but that is a debate for another day).

LeBron James' defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers are 6-0 and James is indisputably leading the way, even if his individual numbers are subdued by his lofty standards. During the first portion of James' career, he repeatedly failed to perform up to his capabilities in the NBA Finals and he decided to leave a team that had won 60-plus games in back to back seasons in order to surround himself with name brand talent to help him chase his first NBA title. Regardless of what the "stat gurus" might have said, at that time James could not be placed ahead of his contemporary Kobe Bryant, let alone the retired players in the Pantheon. Then James made it to four straight NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, winning back to back titles in 2012-13. James' return to Cleveland has so far resulted in two more Finals appearances plus one NBA championship. James has recently stated that his primary goal has always been to chase the "ghost" in Chicago (i.e., Jordan). Can James catch Jordan, either in popular perception or in tangible accomplishment?

Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals while winning six Finals MVPs. Bill Russell won more championships (11) but even he has one Finals loss on his resume. Russell never won the Finals MVP (the award was first given out during his final year, when his Celtics won the championship but Jerry West of the L.A. Lakers became the first and still only member of the losing team to receive the Finals MVP). James can obviously never match Jordan's 6 for 6 perfection. Jordan also posted two three-peats and his retirement leaves open the legitimate question of whether he could have led the Bulls to eight straight NBA championships. James' supporters would counter that, unlike Jordan, James led two different franchises to a championship; they would also argue that James won with less support than Jordan, who had a Top 50 player in his prime (Scottie Pippen) plus arguably the greatest coach in pro basketball history (Phil Jackson). It is hard to predict which way popular perception will go on this issue, especially if James leads Cleveland to a championship this year either against the highly touted Warriors or against whichever team upsets the Warriors. I sense that the media is looking for a reason to justify ranking James alongside Jordan.

Objectively, what does James have to do to equal Jordan? I would say that first James has to pass Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, the two best players since James entered the NBA. Bryant and Duncan each won five NBA titles. Bryant was the best all-around player in the league for many years, while Duncan was a dominating force in the paint whose teams went 2-1 head to head versus James' teams in the NBA Finals. James needs a couple more championships just to get into the Bryant-Duncan wing of the Pantheon.

Of course, this is not purely about counting rings. I rank Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West very highly even though they "only" won three, one and one championships respectively. To some extent, the number of championships won is affected by the quality of one's teammates, the era that one plays in and other factors beyond one's control--but James has been blessed in those categories: he has spent his entire career in the weaker Eastern Conference (and thus he has had an easier path to the Finals) and he spent his prime years playing alongside two future Hall of Famers, one of whom is arguably among the five best players all-time at his position. Some say that winning one championship in Cleveland should count as multiple rings in this discussion but I don't buy that: if Kyrie Irving stays healthy he is on track to be an elite player for years to come and Kevin Love has perennial All-Star level talent even though he is being asked/required to sacrifice his numbers in favor of James and Irving. It is not like James led the Bad News Bears to a title.

James is likely past the point in his career when he could average 35 ppg or go off on some kind of Jordan/Bryant record setting scoring binge. James' personal statistical resume is already well-established, though he obviously will continue to move up in the career rankings. From my perspective, the only possible way that James could pass Bryant/Duncan in his era and merit comparison to Jordan would be to finish with at least six championships. Even if James does that, he still has some playoff shortcomings on his resume that will never be erased.

Early in James' career, I wrote about his "accelerated growth curve." No one could have predicted the exact path that curve would take in the ensuing years, as James suffered setbacks but also experienced great triumphs. The best thing that I can say about James is that he seems eager to learn from his mistakes and to continue to improve as a player and as a person. Maybe he will catch Jordan's ghost, maybe he won't, but his dedication to personal improvement is well worth emulating. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:53 PM

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