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Monday, May 01, 2017

Golden State Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #5 Utah (51-33)

Season series: Golden State, 2-1

Utah can win if…Rudy Gobert controls the paint defensively, Gordon Hayward/George Hill/Joe Johnson provide timely scoring/playmaking and if the Jazz slow down the pace of the game.

The Jazz are a tough-minded, defensive-oriented squad that plays at the slowest pace of any NBA team. They imposed that pace and their will in the first round, winning on the road in game seven to eliminate the L.A. Clippers, 4-3. That seventh game may be the last time we see the current incarnation of the Clippers on the court together, so now is a good time to say a few words about the Clippers before turning our attention fully to Warriors versus Jazz.

Jazz-Clippers is the only first round series that I predicted incorrectly--and I may have gone 8 for 8 if Blake Griffin had stayed healthy, though any pick involving the Clippers should factor in injuries as as part of the equation.

The big question about the Clippers is whether the team will be "blown up," "shaken up" or largely left intact. Some of those choices will be made by management and some of those choices will be made by players who are free agents. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both have player options for the 2017-18 season. Griffin is the team's best player but it is questionable if he has the necessary mental toughness and physical durability to lead a team to a title. Paul has been one of the top point guards in the NBA for about a decade but he is small and because of that in the playoffs he wears down in general and/or is just overpowered by bigger players. He is often praised as a great leader but it is reasonable to question that assertion based on the fact that--despite playing for some very talented teams--he has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Game seven versus Utah was a microcosm of these larger concerns: Paul shot 4-7 from the field in the first quarter and 2-12 from the field the rest of the way. If Paul is going to be lauded as a leader, then let's note that he has "led" the Clippers to blown advantages in five straight playoff years, an all-time NBA record: the Clippers squandered advantages of 2-1 versus Utah (2017), 2-0 versus Portland (2016), 3-1 versus Houston (2015), 1-0 versus Oklahoma City (2014) and 2-0 versus Memphis (2013). The Clippers were the higher seeded team in three of those five series.

Of course, injuries played a role in some of those debacles but that just brings us back to the main question: are Paul and Griffin tough enough mentally and physically to lead a team to a title?

If that question is answered affirmatively, then the Clippers just need a "shake up" to add some more scoring punch at small forward. Otherwise, "blowing it up" may be the best option--but the one problem with that is winning 50-plus games but losing in the playoffs may end up looking like the good old days if the Clippers mess up the rebuilding process and end up once again as annual participants in the Draft Lottery.

The bottom line is that Paul and Griffin are flawed stars who are not elite players but they also will not be so easy to replace.

With Griffin sidelined by injury and Paul apparently worn down by the rigors of a seven game series, Hayward/Hill/Johnson made all of the plays as Utah achieved an NBA rarity by winning on the road in game seven. Hayward is emerging as an All-NBA caliber player, Hill has always been a solid two-way threat and Johnson--who was rightly mentioned by the broadcasters during this series as a credible Hall of Fame candidate--showed why he dislikes his "Iso Joe" nickname: Johnson not only can score from anywhere on the floor but he is also a crafty playmaker who can deliver a variety of passes on time and on target.

Utah has a lot of young talent and is a team on the rise--but, barring injury, it is almost inconceivable that the Jazz will beat the Warriors in a seven game series.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have too much offensive firepower and--unlike many previous offensive juggernauts--they are also very strong defensively.

This season revealed two paradoxical truths: (1) Kevin Durant is the best player on this team and (2) this team is so talented that it can sustain success for an extended period of time even if he is not in the lineup. When Durant has been fully healthy, the offense has run through him--even two-time reigning regular season MVP Stephen Curry clearly deferred to Durant--and Durant has also been a force defensively both on the perimeter and also as a rim protector. When Durant has been sidelined or limited, the Warriors shifted to a Curry-centric attack and hardly missed a beat. If Klay Thompson is perhaps not quite as good as he has been in previous seasons he is still nevertheless one of the league's best two-way players. Draymond Green is a defensive force who is also a triple double threat.

This season, the Warriors ranked first in scoring (115.9 ppg), first in FG% (.495), first in DFG% (.435) and seventh in rebounding. In theory, the Warriors lack rim protection and depth but is any team strong enough across the board to meaningfully exploit those weaknesses? The Spurs possibly could challenge the Warriors but this edition of the Spurs just seems to lack some kind of edge or focus that San Antonio's championship teams had. The Cavaliers have enough talent to beat the Warriors but after mailing in the second half of the season can they regain peak form in time to not only avoid being upset but to also defeat one of the greatest teams of all-time?

Those questions will be answered within the next couple months but it is exceedingly unlikely that the Jazz will get in the way of Golden State's seemingly inevitable march toward San Antonio and Cleveland.

Other things to consider: The Warriors are in the midst of the best three year regular season run in pro basketball history, posting 207 wins--including a record 73 wins last season, bookended by a pair of 67 win seasons. If the Warriors win the 2017 title to claim two championships in three seasons then they will rank among the great dynasties--or mini-dynasties, if you prefer--in pro basketball history. Of course, the thin line between how success and failure are defined means that if the Warriors do not win the 2017 title then they will probably be viewed as flawed underachievers who did not fully maximize their potential.

Before the storyline is set in stone--two-time champs or regular season powerhouse that "only" won one title--it is worth comparing the Warriors to some of the NBA's previous dynasties and great champions. Clearly, the Warriors are not close to matching Bill Russell's Celtics, who claimed eight straight championships and 11 in 13 years. I would still take the '67 76ers and '72 Lakers over any one of the Warriors' past three teams but it is also clear that the Warriors have sustained high level play for multiple seasons in a way that the 76ers and Lakers of that era did not. The '82 Lakers are one of the most underrated championship teams of all-time and I would take the '83 Sixers over any other single season team in pro basketball history. The '84-'86 Celtics and '87-'89 Lakers could match these Warriors star for star and I would take the best player on either of those squads over Durant (or Curry, if you are inclined to believe that he is still the Warriors' best player).

Fans under 35 may scoff but I would absolutely take either Bulls' three-peat squad over the current Warriors' team. I would also take the Shaq-Kobe Lakers--or at least for sure the edition that went 15-1 in the playoffs, a team that could go blow for blow even with the '83 Sixers or Jordan-Pippen Bulls.

What about the Bryant-Gasol Lakers, the various Spurs championship teams and the Big Three Heat? I don't think that the Bryant-Gasol Lakers had quite enough depth or talent to beat these Warriors. The first and last Spurs championship teams could possibly beat the Warriors--with inside power and spread the floor brilliance, respectively--but I am not sure about the three San Antonio title teams in between. The Big Three Heat's fate always depended on which LeBron James showed up. James beat the Warriors last year with Irving and Love, so he would at least have a chance of winning with Wade and Bosh.

The point is that the Warriors are in the midst of an incredible run but I do not necessarily buy the premise that they are the greatest team of all-time, even if they win the title this year. There is a lamentable recency bias that presumes that the best now must be the best of all-time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:38 PM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Monday, May 01, 2017 9:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

"The Spurs possibly could challenge the Warriors but this edition of the Spurs just seems to lack some kind of edge or focus that San Antonio's championship teams had"

That's probably where they miss Tim Duncan the most. Well, that and interior D; Gasol/Aldridge/Lee are all SAWFT, although luckily for SA there are few contending teams these days with interior bruisers. Marc Gasol and Z-Bo had unremarkable statistics against SA, but the Spurs' bigs wanted not part of them one-on-one and they were only able to contain them because Memphis was starting replacement or near replacement level players at both swing spots, freeing SA's excellent defensive wings to help when needed.

I agree with pretty much everything you wrote about the Clippers, though I correctly picked Utah as the winner. I also went 7/8 before the playoffs started (I was wrong about OKC/HOU), though after their game 1 and especially game 3 victories I wrongly thought the Bucks would win that series (and if they'd made a few more free throws... alas, for want of nail).

As for all-time teams vs. the Warriors, I mostly agree with you, though to some extent I think it depends on the ruleset the games are played under. The Bulls were not especially designed to space the floor, so I am not sure how their offense would translate (although man oh man would Jordan love the hand check rule) and modern defensive rules would make it much easier to abandon Rodman or Longley to help against MJ or Pippen. I'd have similar concerns about several of the older teams, though the ones with dominant interior guys like Moses/Wilt could probably demolish the Warriors either way. The '60s Celtics and Lakers had the shooting to play the modern game and lethal defenses, so I'd feel good about them, too.

I'm not sure how the late 80s Lakers would do, as by that point Kareem was not really Kareem anymore (and not fast enough to play at the Warriors' pace) and they had limited perimeter shooting. That said, I'm not sure how GSW would defend Magic (if I were the coach I'd throw Durant on him, and switch Curry to Byron, but that leaves Thompson on either Worthy or Green, neither of which is ideal). I don't think that Lakers team was quite good enough defensively to contain the Warriors, though, especially because Magic and Worthy (and Green) would all be relatively slow for their position in the modern game.

The 80s Celtics would kill them inside, I imagine, and are on of the few teams with a bench that could hold their own.

I think Utah is a fun team, and may be great someday, but they are not ready for GSW. I don't think they'll get swept (Gobert is the type of player that can GSW minor headaches), but wouldn't be shocked if they did. I'll say GSW in 5.

 
At Tuesday, May 02, 2017 11:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding Chris Paul and the Clippers -- I am posting this shortly after Isaiah Thomas scored 53 points to lead the Celtics to an OT win against the Wizards.

This is exactly the kind of performance Chris Paul never delivered. And precisely what he has needed to deliver to show hat he was truly such a phenomenal leader as the popular narrative would have you think.

Also, it should be noted that Isaiah Thomas is even smaller...

 
At Tuesday, May 02, 2017 11:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree.

In an era dominated by pgs, Thomas is near the top of the list, and at this point it could be argued that he is only behind Westbrook and Curry. I am not typically wild about smaller guards who are not great defensively, but Thomas is so dynamic offensively and he is the best player on the team with the best record in his conference--plus he comes up big in the playoffs. All of those things are significant.

 
At Tuesday, May 02, 2017 11:53:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I love these sort of hypothetical matchups between all-time great teams. I even simulate them on NBA2k games, run entire seasons with just the top 30+ historic teams to see who would come out on top.

As Nick F correctly pointed out, the biggest factor in those matchups would be the rules themselves. It would depend on the all-time great team's versatility - how fast would they adapt to the new rules? Who would flourish or suffer under the rule changes?

That said, I think the game was designed for the big man, even though the three point line was devised to lend the shorter but skilled guys an even playing field. If your team has an all-time great big man who can protect the rim, control the boards, and demand a double team on offense, you control the pace of the game.

A team with Wilt Chamberlain and stocked with shooters and role players will beat the 2017 Warriors 3 out of 5 times. The 67 Sixers were the most physically dominant team in league history, with Wilt in his prime, playing to win.

the early 60s Celtics could play fast, they ran a 5 man fast break with Bill Russell, control the boards and shut off the interior, and hit clutch shots. They would be smart enough to put Russell on Durant at key moments of the game, and tempt him to take bad three point shots, negating his size.

I suspect the Warriors would handle the early 70s Knicks because Clyde Frazier would not be able to bully Curry in the backcourt. Their brand of ball would actually play into the Warriors' hands.

Nobody on the Warriors could bully Abdul-Jabbar or get physical with Robertson, so the 71 Bucks would beat them. Same goes for the 72 Lakers, just because of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich neutralizing the Splash Brothers. Rotate Happy and McMillian on Durant, and force the Warriors to double Chamberlain in the high post.

Warriors get most of the teams from the 70s, with the exception of the 76 Blazers.

I agree with Nick on the 80s teams, but I'm not sure about the 83 Sixers.

But I'd love to see a matchup between the 95 Rockets and the Warriors of today. That was pre-Small ball, flexible with a young Horry at the 4 spot, all four three point shooters surrounding the unstoppable Hakeem.

 

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