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Friday, December 23, 2016

Great Players Want and Need to be Coached

Kurt Streeter explains that Tyronn Lue got the best out of LeBron James by challenging him, not coddling him: at halftime of game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals, Lue declared to James, "LeBron, you gotta be better! If we're gonna win, you gotta be better!" James led his Cleveland Cavaliers in scoring and assists during the first half but Lue knew that basketball greatness is not defined by numbers but rather by attitude, impact and focus.

Lue hit James with specific critiques that had nothing to do with statistics: "LeBron, what's wrong with your body language? Your body language is terrible. You got to guard Draymond. You got to take the open shot. Quit turning the ball over. Fix your body language. Anything else you want me to tell you?"

Too many people have become so enamored with statistics--particularly "advanced" statistics--that they fail to understand what basketball greatness really is. It is possible to put up big numbers but not be playing great basketball, which is why Lue lit into James. It is possible to score four points on 1-9 field goal shooting and be the best player on the court (Scottie Pippen versus the Indiana Pacers in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals). Bill Russell used to give the equivalent of doctoral dissertations on basketball when he served as a color commentator during CBS' NBA telecasts. One time during an NBA Finals matchup between the 76ers and the Lakers, he and Dick Stockton talked about how Julius Erving's greatness was not just defined by gaudy numbers but also by the timing of Erving's plays. Attitude, impact, focus--those traits define basketball greatness.

Kevin Loughery, who won two ABA titles in a three season span with Erving as his best player, raved about what it was like to coach Erving:

That man was the best. He was the easiest superstar you could possibly coach. He had more talent at that stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one individual have. Beyond that, so easy to coach, total gentleman, great guy. He's the best. He treated everybody the way that a player should treat everybody--his teammates, the media, the other players, the fans. He's the best superstar to be around that I've ever been around.

"Easy to coach" is a key phrase in that quote. Erving was "easy to coach" because great players want and need to be coached. Look at the relationship that Tim Duncan had with Gregg Popovich. No one was going to act a fool on that team during the Duncan era because Duncan accepted Popovich's coaching. The same thing is true in the NFL with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

In his book The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith describes how Doug Collins was reluctant to criticize Michael Jordan when Collins was the Chicago Bulls' coach. Phil Jackson, one of Collins' assistant coaches at that time, took it upon himself to chastise Jordan when Jordan did not play the right way. Before long, Jackson was the Bulls' head coach and the Bulls eventually won six championships. Collins was a very good NBA coach but in that particular situation he did not challenge Jordan the way that Jordan wanted and needed to be challenged.

Jackson later challenged both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, lifting a previously underachieving team to three straight championships. Jackson then left the Lakers before coming back to win two more titles with Bryant and Pau Gasol as the best players. I remember a film clip of a Lakers' practice during which Gasol said "It's hard" after Jackson gave him some instructions about how to execute a particular sequence and Jackson barked back, "It's supposed to be hard!" Jackson would not accept excuses. It is worth noting that great players do not make excuses for themselves or accept excuses from their teammates; Jordan and Bryant exemplify that trait.

We live in an era during which basketball is supposedly being revolutionized by "analytics," but regardless of how you manipulate the numbers the realities of human psychology and athletic competition are immutable. You cannot win with losers, no matter how talented those players might be. You can win some games, you might even win a playoff series here or there, but in the long run a team built around a loser is always going to fall short.

George Karl's autobiography Furious George will be on sale to the public in January 2017 but I just received my review copy. Here is what Karl wrote about Carmelo Anthony: "My ideal--probably every coach's ideal--is when your best player is also your leader. But since Carmelo only played hard on one side of the ball, he made it plain he couldn't lead the Nuggets, even though he said he wanted to. Coaching him meant working around his defense and compensating for his attitude" (pp. 191-192, Furious George).

The Nuggets eventually traded Anthony and Karl concluded, "...getting rid of Carmelo Anthony was a sweet release for the coach and the team, like popping a blister. I don't automatically hate a superstar, but he's got to buy in, he's got to play defense, and he's got to share the ball. And if his teammates don't like him and if he doesn't help you win a championship...what good is he, except as bait?" (pp. 214-215, Furious George)

The Nuggets had the best regular season record in their NBA history after trading Anthony but they have been a sub-.500 team since getting rid of Karl and Masai Ujiri, the general manager who wisely traded Anthony and has now built the Toronto Raptors into a contender.

Anthony is the anti-Kobe Bryant. It is highly unlikely that Anthony could ever be the best player on an NBA championship team, because he does not accept coaching and he does not understand the importance of attitude, impact and focus. Anthony's attitude is "I got my 25 points, so it's not my fault we lost."

James is fascinating, because he is as perplexing and confounding as any truly great player in pro basketball history. There is no question that he has quit during some of the most important games/series of his career, but he has also been the best player on three championship teams while authoring some of the most sensational performances in NBA Finals history. He needs to be coached but does he always want to be coached? James is not wired like Jordan or Bryant but he is a champion in a way that Anthony never will be.

"Stat gurus" often minimize and mock the importance of coaching but Tyronn Lue's direct approach with LeBron James is just the latest example of how much impact a coach can have when he delivers the right message at the right time to a superstar who is receptive to that message.  

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Handicapping the MVP Race Just Past the Quarter Pole of the 2016-17 NBA Season

The NBA All-Star ballots will be officially released on Sunday and the NBA season is nearly one third over, so it is not too early to at least take a preliminary look at the MVP race. Historically, when I write about the MVP race--or the NBA awards in general--I only discuss who I think should win and why. For example, this article describes who I felt should win the various NBA awards for the 2011-12 (it also includes links to several of my articles about the NBA awards from previous seasons). For this article, though, I am taking a different approach: I will list the top five players in my MVP rankings and I will also list who I believe would be the top five finishers if the media voters filled out their ballots today.

My philosophy about the MVP award remains unchanged; the MVP should be the best all-around player in the league, unless there is a player who is so singularly dominant in one or two phases of the game that this dominance makes him more valuable than the league's best all-around player at that time. So, Shaquille O'Neal should have won several MVPs (instead of just one) even though he was never the best all-around player in the league; his dominance in the paint made him more valuable than anyone else during his prime.

Also, in most years my MVP choice will play for team with a winning record but I would not rule out a player from a lesser squad if his individual play is exceptional and his supporting cast is clearly extremely deficient.

My top five MVP choices right now are:

1) Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook's triple double exploits set him apart from every other player in the league today. Oscar Robertson is the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62) but Westbrook is on pace to match that feat--and Westbrook has already averaged a triple double further into a season than any player other than Robertson.

Westbrook is not only having an MVP caliber season; he is having a historically great season. Some of Westbrook's point-rebound-assist lines this season defy description or belief: 36-11-17, 17-13-15, 27-18-14, 35-14-11. He recently posted a 26-11-22 stat line, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson in 1988 to have a triple double that included at least 25 points and at least 20 assists.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Westbrook's season is the way that Westbrook is single-handedly keeping his Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoff picture. When Westbrook is on the court, the Thunder are one of the league's top eight teams in point differential--but when he is out of the game, the Thunder are the worst team in the league! I am not sure if Westbrook's supporting cast is worse than anyone thought or just is not yet fully performing up to par but it is clear that Westbrook has less help than any other elite player in the NBA whose squad is in playoff contention. It is worth noting that Westbrook is also the only such elite player whose roster is not built around his skill set. The Thunder were built around Kevin Durant, who fled to Golden State; a team built around Westbrook would feature more shooters to spread the floor and also more athletes who could run with Westbrook in the transition game.

What Westbrook is doing this season is a heightened version of what Pete Maravich and Tracy McGrady did during their respective primes: he is playing at such a high level that when he is on the court an ordinary roster looks very good but when he is not on the court that same roster looks like an expansion team. Maravich, McGrady and Westbrook have very different physiques and skill sets but they each merited MVP consideration during their primes based on the way that their individual brilliance shined in a team context.

2) Lebron James

The case for James is that he is the best all-around player in the NBA and he is putting up MVP-level numbers across the board, including a career-high 9.0 apg. The case against James is that he sometimes enters "chill mode" (as he once called it) by either physically sitting out a game or by mentally sitting out, so consequently his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers only have the third best record in the league. In most years, I would probably rank James first, anyway--but not during a season when Westbrook is putting up historically great numbers while never sitting out physically or mentally.

3) Kevin Durant

Durant is the best player on the best team in the league. In many years, that is a pretty reliable MVP formula--but I cannot place him ahead of James (who is a better defender and passer) or the incomparable Westbrook.

4) Stephen Curry

The back to back reigning MVP is having another great season but no one could seriously argue that he is playing better than his teammate Durant and it is self-evident that you cannot be the league MVP if you are not the best player on your own team.

5) Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has had perhaps the most bizarre career arc of any serious MVP candidate ever. He owns a Finals MVP, he has won the Defensive Player of the Year award the last two seasons and he finished second in MVP voting in 2015-16 but he has only made the All-Star team once. This season, he is clearly the best player on a San Antonio team that has the second best record in the NBA and his two-way brilliance earns him the fifth spot on my MVP list.

*****

The media voting for MVP has produced some odd results. Shaquille O'Neal--the most dominant player of his era--only received one MVP and the year that he won it one voter did not pick O'Neal just to prove some kind of bizarre point, thus depriving O'Neal of the opportunity to become the first unanimous winner (Curry earned that distinction last season, beating out LeBron James before succumbing to him in the Finals). Kobe Bryant, the best all-around player in the NBA for several years, also won just one MVP. Meanwhile, Steve Nash won two MVPs, Derrick Rose won an MVP and Karl Malone and Charles Barkley each won MVPs before losing to Michael Jordan in the Finals in those respective seasons. The media supposedly gets "tired" of voting for the same player (or else Jordan would have won several more MVPs) and the media also likes to latch on to certain kinds of narratives, such as the underdog or the quirky and/or outrageous guy. LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time, he is in or near his prime and he has not won the regular season MVP since 2012-13. Last season, James finished third in the regular season MVP race before leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise's first title by capping off a Finals MVP performance with a game seven triple double. Unless something changes, James will probably slip to fourth in the media's regular season MVP voting in 2016-17. I doubt that the media will ever vote him as MVP again.

Here is how I think the media MVP voting would go today:

1) Russell Westbrook

This is one season when at least one of the the hyped narratives is actually worth hyping. The media pumped out stories about "angry Russ" as soon as Durant left the Thunder. Westbrook's 2016-17 story was already written before the season even began: if he played well, then that proved that "angry Russ" had properly channeled his feelings but he if played poorly then that proved that he lacked self-control and was not worthy of the status he assumed in Oklahoma City after Durant's departure. There will be no nuances in the coverage of Westbrook this season. He is a hero now but rest assured that the goat stories have already been written as well and those stories will be published if the Thunder lose too many games, regardless of how well Westbrook plays.

2) James Harden

The media loves "the Beard." He has a nickname, he does some kind of stir the pot antic after he scores, he is involved with a Kardashian--bottom line, he makes life easy for media members. So what if he lacks leadership qualities, plays no defense and will run out of town anyone who expects him to play defense. Harden is a very talented offensive player; there is no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that Mike D'Antoni's system inflates a point guard's touches and numbers. If the media evaluated players on a skill set basis, Harden could never rank ahead of the five players on my MVP ballot--but he will almost certainly finish second in the MVP voting this season (unless there is a late push to turn Westbrook into a goat and hand the honor to Harden instead).

3) Kevin Durant

As mentioned above, Durant is the best player on the best team. Many MVP voters use that as their number one criteria, so Durant figures to finish no lower than third.

4) LeBron James

By merit James should finish no lower than second but I expect that the voters will place him fourth, for the faulty reasons I have already discussed.

5) Chris Paul

Paul finished sixth in the MVP voting last season. I think that the voters will move him past Curry this year. There are a lot of stories floating around about how this is shaping up to be the Clippers' year or at least the last chance for this group to win a title together. Many media members tried to give Paul the MVP over Bryant when Bryant was in his absolute prime, so if the Clippers make a run at 60 wins then Paul will receive a lot of support for MVP. I respect Paul's grit, toughness and court vision but we have already seen that he is too small (and perhaps too stubborn in terms of how he plays) to lead a team to a title. By rights he should be no higher than 10th in the MVP race but I think that he has a great chance of cracking the top five. If the Clippers win 60 games and finish second in the West standings to the Warriors then Paul could even move into the top three.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:07 PM

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