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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mission Accomplished: Durant Leads Warriors to Championship-Clinching Game Five Victory

Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City because he thought that joining forces with the Golden State Warriors provided him with his best chance to win an NBA title. Whether or not you agree with Durant's reasoning, the record will forever show that in the first season after Durant made his move he led the Warriors to the NBA championship. Durant's Warriors faced the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's first championship trilogy and the Warriors emerged victorious in five games to claim their second title in three years, capping off a 16-1 postseason run to join the 15-1 2001 L.A. Lakers and the 12-1 1983 Philadelphia 76ers as one-loss NBA champions.

Cleveland's record-setting game four win punctured the Warriors' dream of completing the NBA's only 16-0 playoff run but Durant made sure that the Cavaliers would not add a comeback from a 3-0 deficit to a resume that includes last season's comeback from a 3-1 deficit versus the Warriors. Durant finished game five with 39 points, seven rebounds and five assists while shooting 14-20 from the field; his .700 field goal percentage in a championship-clinching game is the best such mark in NBA Finals history with a minimum of 20 field goal attempts (and tied for fifth best overall regardless of the number of attempts). He earned the 2017 Finals MVP by averaging 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field. Durant joined Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the list of players who shot at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range and at least .900 on free throws in an NBA Finals. He is just the third player (joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan) to win four scoring titles plus at least one NBA championship.

Stephen Curry added 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds; he averaged 26.8 ppg, 9.4 apg and 8.0 rpg in the best of his three Finals performances, one that would be MVP-worthy in most seasons: he scored and passed at a high level while also asserting himself on the boards. Klay Thompson finished with just 11 points but he averaged a solid 16.4 ppg during the series while also playing great defense.

LeBron James scored a game-high 41 points, pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds and dished for eight assists. That pushed his series averages to 33.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg and 10.0 apg as James notched the first aggregate triple double in NBA Finals history. Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, slightly under his series average of 29.4 ppg. The third member of Cleveland's Big Three, Kevin Love, had six points and 10 rebounds, finishing the series with averages of 16.0 ppg and 11.2 rpg--not bad for a third option, though he will be the scapegoat for the media and for many fans.

The 4-1 margin suggests that the Warriors are vastly superior to the Cavaliers but the reality is that for long stretches the Cavaliers matched the Warriors shot for shot: Cleveland should have won game three after leading by six points with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Cleveland dominated game four and Cleveland led for most of the first half of game five, so if the Cavaliers could have sustained focus for two more minutes in game three and about five minutes during the second quarter of game five then the Cavaliers could be up 3-2 and heading home with a chance to win back to back titles. What would the outcome have been if the Cavaliers had played as hard in games one and two as they did for most of games three through five? The problem is that when the best player on the team admittedly enters "chill mode" for stretches of the regular season it is not realistic to expect his teammates to play hard all of the time, either.

Brian Scalabrine of Sirius XM NBA Radio made an interesting point prior to game five: throughout NBA history, star players typically receive the blame or credit for the outcome of a championship series--but when James is involved, the media narrative often places the blame on his supporting cast. Scalabrine noted that James is supposed to be the best player on the planet and with that title comes the responsibility to carry a lot of weight in each game. James had a marvelous, record-breaking series statistically but the reality is that he is now just 3-5 in the NBA Finals and the series MVP award once again went to the player directly matched up against him.

In case the media forgot the prescribed narrative after Durant walked off with the MVP hardware, James repeatedly insisted during his postgame press conference that he had left it all on the court and done everything he could possibly do--which, of course, is a not so veiled way of saying, "We would have won a championship if my teammates had done more." That is not the message that great players typically deliver upon losing in the championship round. James' comments beg the question of whether or not he really did give his all--and anyone who watched the series (or checks the tape) knows that is not the case. Just during the game five telecast alone, Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly admonished James for  "standing, staring, watching" on defense. That theme is one that Van Gundy often repeats during playoff telecasts and I recall him providing the exact same criticism toward Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum years ago when they played for the Lakers; it is not recency bias to suggest that such a criticism could not accurately be applied to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant during their Finals appearances.

Game five was a winnable game for Cleveland and a more introspective James would have acknowledged that those plays when he stood, stared and watched could have made a difference.

Cleveland led 37-33 after the first quarter on the strength of .625 shooting from the field. James and Irving scored 12 points each in the first stanza, as did Curry. The Cavaliers pushed that margin to 41-33 in the second quarter before the Warriors hit the Cavaliers with a 28-4 run. Near the end of that outburst, Irving missed a shot but tied up David West, who swung his elbow toward Irving's face and was immediately whistled for a technical foul. J.R. Smith pushed West, who by that time was jaw to jaw with Tristan Thompson. Smith and Thompson were each called for technical fouls, so the net result of the sequence was a Stephen Curry free throw followed by a jump ball between West and Irving.

James anticipated where West would tip the ball and then fired up a three pointer that cut the margin to 61-48. That was a great play, a championship level play, but James also has some inexcusable mental lapses--including (1) not even running past half court during a Golden State fastbreak when the Warriors missed the initial shot but then scored (Van Gundy called out James and Richard Jefferson on that play) and (2) standing rooted in place as Andre Iguodala drove to the hoop for an uncontested dunk. If James wants to argue that it is not reasonable to expect him to produce more than 41-13-8, then he might have a point--though it should also be noted that for most of the game he was the biggest and strongest player on the court as both teams went small--but his narrative that he left everything on the court and played hard every minute is demonstrably false.

J.R. Smith's late, long three pointer cut the margin to 71-60 just before the halftime buzzer. Durant scored 21 first half points on 7-10 field goal shooting and Curry added 20 points on 5-11 field goal shooting. James led Cleveland with 21 first half points on 9-15 field goal shooting.

Clearly, the game was still within reach for the Cavaliers. Indeed, James' offensive rebound and putback cut Golden State's lead to 79-71 in the third quarter. After that play, Van Gundy noted that in the first half James lacked energy at times, particularly on defense, but that this kind of play represented the energy level that the Cavaliers needed from James in order to win an NBA Finals road game. Early in the fourth quarter, a James layup pulled the Cavaliers to within 98-95 and a Kyle Korver three pointer at the 8:28 mark made the score 108-102 Golden State but down the stretch the Cavaliers committed too many defensive breakdowns and had too many empty possessions.

James scored 10 points in the final 7:18, all of them deep in the paint; as the biggest player on the court and with rules that prohibit defensive players from touching him, James is unstoppable, so the question is why did James wait until the waning moments to attack the paint that way? The Cavaliers sure could have used that kind of offense during Golden State's big second quarter run. James' 41 points are impressive but what would Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Julius Erving score under these rules and with no seven footers on the court? Erving averaged 30.3 ppg in the 1977 NBA Finals with Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas camped in the paint. Jordan averaged over 30 ppg during his Finals career despite having players draped all over him. Bryant averaged 28.6 ppg in the 2010 Finals versus the Boston Celtics, one of the last teams to consistently play physical defense. I don't care how long Durant is or how wily Thompson or Andre Iguodala are; those guys are not stopping Erving, Jordan or Bryant if they cannot touch them and if there is not a seven footer protecting the rim.

I used to always wonder why some people insisted that Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain despite the record-setting numbers that Chamberlain posted but watching LeBron James for over a decade has been eye-opening. While James ended the game by padding his scoring total with layups that would not change the outcome, I thought back to something that Russell once said: he claimed that after the result was decided, he would let Chamberlain score a few buckets to kind of soften Chamberlain up for the next time that they met. All Russell cared about was the final score, not his head to head individual numbers versus Chamberlain.

James is a marvelously gifted player and he had a great series by any quantifiable measure. Is it fair to expect him to produce even more points, rebounds and assists than he did? I guess the answer to that question depends on your perception of the responsibility that is carried by a Pantheon-level player and your perception of what opportunities are available to a great scorer playing under the current rules against lineups that typically do not feature a true big man protecting the paint.

Perhaps we are all guilty of missing the forest for the trees: there is a segment of the media that acts as if James has long since surpassed Bryant and is on the verge of surpassing Jordan, so as a historian of the game I feel duty-bound to refute those two notions--but maybe the real story here is how Durant's game has evolved from one dimensional shooter to multi-dimensional scorer who can also impact the game as a rebounder, passer and defender. While many of us are debating how to rank James within the Pantheon, Durant just "quietly" had one of the best Finals performances ever and that should not be overlooked. Durant is now as close to matching James' championship total as James is to matching Bryant's--and, barring unforeseen circumstances, it is certainly a distinct possibility that Durant will snare at least two more titles and two more Finals MVPs before his career is over.

As a competitive person and a lifelong NBA fan, I would have preferred to see Durant try to dethrone the Warriors instead of joining forces with them but I respect--and am impressed by--the way that Durant played this season, particularly how he outplayed James in the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM

33 comments

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33 Comments:

At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 6:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David:

What are your thoughts on James' comments about how he has never played for a "super team"?

I personally think his comment is an attempt to make him look greater than he already is while at the same time a knock against Durant. I don't understand how he has never played for a super team. He was the blueprint for having these super teams. His intention was the same as Durant in the sense that they wanted to have a better team in order to compete for a championship. The only difference is the way that was done. Durant "joined" a super team while he "formed" a super team. When you call yourself the best player in the world, in which he is, and you play with two other current all-stars and a great supporting casts formed by former all-stars, solid hustle defensive minded players and great 3 point shooters, how can you you not acknowledge that it's not a super team? I cannot recall the last time that the best player in the world played with 2 other all-stars other than the 80's with Bird & Magic.

Again, James put up amazing numbers and on paper it looked like one of the greatest finals ever by a player. James' supporters and media would probably argue that it's the greatest performance ever because he had no help and the opponent was the "super team" Warriors. However, if any of those supporters actually watched all 5 games of the finals from start to finish one can easily point out that James was no where to be seen in the second half of each game and especially in the 4th quarters. It could be due to fatigue or a lack of killer mentality. But every game with the exception of maybe Game 5, it looked as if he pads his numbers in the first half and chills in the second. His defense has been average all series but offensively he is too ball dominant and cannot play off the ball at all and his game is predicated too much on fast breaks and finding the open lane to go in for a layup/dunk. You see no post up game, footwork, mid-range pull up, coming off ball screens to catch and shoot etc. Irving on the other hand despite being much smaller is a much better offensive player technically and is also Cavs' closer. James is no doubt an all-time great but his performances in the finals, the way the throws his teammates under the bus and the excuses he has to justify his level of play, we should not be talking about him being greater than Johnson, Bird, Duncan, Bryant and other pantheon players and we need to stop mentioning him in the same sentence as Jordan. The only thing they have in common is their number 23.

 
At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 7:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

James' comment is ridiculous. It is very telling that no one in the press conference called him out, either. The next logical question--the one that had to be asked--is "If James-Wade-Bosh and James-Irving-Love are not super-teams, then what is a super team?"

 
At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 11:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

It could just be me but from reading this post it made it sound like the Warriors playoff record finished at 15-1 but is actually 16-1 after their game 5 win.

Durant has said that he left OKC because he needed to grow as a player. It makes me wonder if he felt the coaching was not good enough or was lacking in some way that made moving to Golden State, which obviously has a great coaching staff, so desirable. I believe he has said that he learned more in training camp this year than his all his previous years in the NBA. If that is true, and there is no way to really know beyond taking his word for it, then even though there is a loss of competitive balance with him leaving OKC it means he has greater chance of maximizing his potential and we'll get to see it.

Just found your site a month or two ago and love reading it!

 
At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 11:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont get how Lebron had curry in the post twice and didnt even take a couple dribbles and instead just passed it...no triple threat position. There were multiple times when he drove deep into the lane and could have drawn a foul or layed it up, but ended up whipping the ball for a contested 3 or when the shot clock was down. Its these kind of possessions that make it seem like hes hunting to average 10 assists a game. Then once he got his 8 assists, he took it to the basket at the end to inflate the point total.
The series really showed his lack of footwork and ability to take advantage of matchups.
Statistically, he had an amazing game. But impact and results weren't there. KD was amazing and he was on a mission. He could not be stopped.

 
At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 12:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Thank you for your kind words.

We may never know exactly why Durant left but it is reasonable to assume that he preferred the coaching/playing style of Golden State.

I have reworded the last sentence of the first paragraph.

 
At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 12:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree that LeBron still has not developed his post game to the extent that MJ and Kobe did.

I also agree that it often appears as if LeBron is hunting stats (or seeking talking points for the postgame press conference) as opposed to primarily focusing on winning the game.

 
At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 3:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spurs just called. Wanted to remind everyone that lebron's comical denial of never playing on a super team also had ray allen for a while. He made a shot that the spurs can't forget. So that would make, to twist moses malones' famous qoute, fo fo fo hall of famers on the same squad.

 
At Tuesday, June 13, 2017 4:03:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Now that the playoffs are history...
Earlier today, I asked a couple of friends where did this edition of the Warriors rank with the all-time greatest teams in league history:
1964-65 Celtics
1966-67 Sixers
1970-71 Bucks
1971-72 Lakers
1982-83 Sixers
1985-86 Celtics
1986-87 Lakers
1995-96 Bulls
2000-01 Lakers
2012-13 Heat

The 2016-17 Warriors' average scoring margin was 13.5, second highest of all-time after the 71 Bucks. However, I'm afraid each team was era-specific, which means their dominance was not transcendent. Therefore, any comparison between these great teams would be a matter of judging their in-season dominance, rather than how they would match-up against one another. :-(

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 2:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think that the refs in the NBA stretch series and in this case particularly exerted their influence on this finals series? Also, can you expand on how Durant outplayed Lebron? I expect you mean as a dimension of the warriors' successful team play versus Lebron's individual statistical greatness during losing a series handedly. What do you make of the warriors being presented now in many circles as the best team of all time?

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 4:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

James certainly played great, but again gets outplayed in the Finals, and he wasn't particularly close to outplaying KD either. RW was the top player during the regular season, but I seriously doubt he could've even approached KD's level of play in the Finals. Though KD has a much easier time succeeding playing on an AS team.

Irving put up another MVP-level Finals performance. GS is a great team, but the amount of help James needs or claims to need is very striking. CLE had chances in every game. James put up great stats, but clearly didn't play that hard at times and doesn't own up to his mistakes/failures.

I don't buy into Russell's comment on Wilt. It's easy for him to say whatever he wants when he has vastly superior teammates/coaches. Plus, that makes no sense to let someone, especially your rival, score a bunch easily. I hear commentators/coaches, etc. say all the time to not let anyone get going when they're struggling, even if the current game is out of reach. Also, there's no way Russell could come close to Wilt's stats even in his wildest dreams, so it's an empty comment by him. When BOS has HOFers coming off the bench sometimes, I'm not sure what Wilt could've done most of the time. I'm not seeing Wilt getting outplayed even by Russell let alone by guys like Iggy, Leonard, Terry, Rondo plus other multiple superstars like James has been during his career.

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 6:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

A couple thoughts, most of which I've mentioned to some extent before-

1) It is totally fair and correct to slam Lebron for his inconsistent D and especially his crappy free throw shooting, and it's probably also fair to question his leadership in the aftermath of the loss. Claiming that he didn't do enough, however, strikes me as a bit unfair, given that as crappy as his defensive effort was, it was still the best by far of anyone on the Cavaliers, and that he put up absolutely insane offensive production/efficiency and generated just over half of the Cavs total points via points (168 on 117 shots) and assists (126 points on 89 potential assists). Ultimately, that's 294 points on 206 shots. On points that didn't come from Lebron, the Cavs got 280 points on 245 shots.

It is possible that Lebron is capable of more than that, but it's pretty silly to expect it.

2) For all the talk about how great Lebron's supporting cast is... it isn't. They're a bad defensive team, worse than any team that's ever won a title. No matter how good one guy is, you don't win a title with a shitty defense*. Period. Never happens. And even with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and Jr Smith and Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, the Cavs were still offensively average at best on any possession that didn't involve Lebron James either shooting or assisting.

A lot of those guys used to be good, and aren't anymore. A lot of them are still decent offensive players who need somebody else to create for them. A couple of them- Love and Irving specifically- are one or two trick ponies who've had their stock inflated by playing beside Lebron. Both are better than Mo Williams, but both are benefitting from the same halo effect he did.

*The one exception is the 2001 Lakers, who coasted in the regular season then played champion type D in the playoffs.

3) Compounding the above, the Warriors are cosmically, legendarily, incredibly good. I'm not going to call them the best team ever but it's probably fair to suggest that they're in the top 10. I don't think any one star is good enough to beat a top 10 team without a competent defense or at least another top 50 type player. The Cavs have neither. As far as Pantheon guys go, there's probably a devil's advocate argument for some of the dominating bigs (Shaq, Wilt, Duncan, Kareem, Russell, and non-Pantheoners Hakeem and Moses) being able to make lemonade against the undersized Warriors, but that argument includes the assumption that those guys could single-handedly turn the Cavs into a defensive adult. Perimeter guys can't do that*.

*Or at least, very very few can. Leonard's the only one in the league right now with a case to make. Historically, you could maybe toss in Pippen, Bobby Jones, Havlicek, and mayyyyyybe Doc (as he could actually protect the rim somewhat like a big), all of whom played way bigger than they were and could switch onto front court guys. Lebron shares that capacity, but not the overall defensive skill set they had.


1/2

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 6:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

4) David, I respect the hell out of you but blasting Lebron's crappy transition D just weeks after treating Westbrook's like it didn't matter at all (and his was way, way worse) is a bit of a double-standard. Both guys put on offensive spectacles, but neither pulled their weight adequately on D.

5) Kevin Durant is obviously one of the best three forwards in the league, but it is hard for me to fairly evaluate just how good he is given the luxury of playing with the Warriors. I have the same problems with Magic and Russell historically; when surrounded by HoFers, guys can take plays off, not try to do the things they can't do, etc. It's just very difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between Durant and Lebron or Leonard, who don't have the luxury of playing beside three other All-NBAers in their prime. It is perhaps telling that Durant was nowhere near this kind of a defender in OKC, where he had to carry a heavier load offensively (and work harder for his points). Whether he has simply grown as a player or is benefitting from his new surroundings, I can't say, but either is plausible.

6) Speaking of how good the Warriors are, they didn't even play *that* well. Thompson had one big night, but was otherwise a one way player (though his defense was mostly awesome), Green had an awful series, and neither Curry nor Durant had to work very hard on either end. This team is ludicrous.

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 6:33:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Ultimately, for all that, I agree that Lebron is not in the conversation with Jordan/Doc/whomever for GOAT. For me, he's somewhere in that 8-15 range. He's great, but he's a headcase, and he's incredibly consistent overall while being maddeningly inconsistent in the Finals. But...

I don't think series is remotely his fault, and I think using it to make any kind of a wider case about him is silly. He didn't have the horses to go up against that Warriors team, no matter how well he played. And he played pretty damn well.

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 9:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

1) I don't want to believe that the refs deliberately "stretch" series but I understand why some people assert this to be true.

2) Durant did what his team needed for him to do, at both ends of the court, to win to a greater extent than LeBron did. LeBron often seems more concerned with narrative than outcome.

3) I do not believe that the Warriors are the best team of all-time but statistically they have at least earned the right to be in the conversation.

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 9:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I disagree that Westbrook's defense in the 2017 playoffs was "way worse" than James' defense in the Finals.

James is a better player than Westbrook and had a better playoff run but Westbrook had a better regular season and thus deserves the 2017 regular season MVP.

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 9:41:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I also had RWB for my regular-season MVP, by an inch.

I suppose we will have to agree to differ on how each guy played D, but I still find it a bit disappointing that your James coverage almost always slanted negative while your RWB coverage almost always slanted positive, despite similar production (though Lebron was much more efficient) and flaws. You are normally excellent at maintaining objectivity but it feels a little like your frustration with the media's adoration of James and criticism may have led you to overcorrect in this particular instance, unless there is some nuance I'm missing (which is possible).

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 10:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick,

1. Yes, there were several things James stunk on, including leadership. But no, he obviously didn't do enough, especially KD clearly outplayed him on both ends. If he's supposed to be the best player in the world, and can't be the best player in the Finals, then he obviously didn't do enough. And no, his defense was definitely the best defense on CLE by far, and probably not even the best on the team. He lollygagged quite a bit at times and was outplayed by virtually every player who played in the Finals. Some other CLE players played worse defense than James, but at least they much more consistently played hard. There's no excuse for that, unless of course he's worried about cramping up again in the Finals.

2. James' cast is in fact amazing, and certainly a super team. KD's cast better, but James and CLE had chances to win every game, specifically the major meltdown in game 3. Love is clearly a worse player since joining CLE, too. Irving roughly the same, but Irving's played like an MVP the past 2 Finals, and is doing most of his work with James just standing on the perimeter. Most players play worse or have to take large backseats when they play with James. James' toughness leaves much to be desired, as well as his basketball IQ and mental toughness. He should be camped out in the paint and why wouldn't he attack relentlessly every time when smaller players like Curry/Thompson are on him?

5) Easy to evaluate SFs matched up vs James, since they guard each other. When other SFs matched up vs James like Leonard in 2014(SA was a great team that year but no players close to elite status), Iggy in 2015(role player well past his best days), and KD this year(definitely putting the hurt on James) then it's quite telling. James has 2 other AS-caliber players in their prime who have been for years, plus several other quality role players, many who have been AS in the past. Just because you don't particularly like these players overall doesn't mean James isn't surrounded by a lot of talent/depth.

I do somewhat agree with you concerning how RW/James are written about in here, though highly disagree with your RW defense analysis. There were certainly things that were easily fixable for RW in the playoffs that he should've done better.

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 10:48:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Nick I think there is a chicken and egg problem in the same vein as Phil Jackson and MJ/Shaq/Kobe when you mention Russel/Magic/etc playing with better players than Lebron. Did they really play with better players or did they in some way allow them to be better?

I don't know the answer to this question. What I do think is that many players had their best years with some of these other legends, and it could be argued would not be IN the Hall of Fame without those years playing next to Magic/Russell/etc. This doesn't exist in the same way with Lebron in my opinion. You say it is because he hasn't played with the same calibre of players but is that true? Kevin Love is very talented, it seems like they haven't been able to use him well. Why is that?

Your idea of a "Lebron" halo effect is weird to me because I don't think Love for example has played better next to Lebron, he looks a much worse player and he isn't the only one.

As an example, at some point around 2009 I remember a lot of chatter about Pau Gasol being the best power forward in the league he was playing so well. Pau is lock HOF. I think it is difficult to judge because of this chicken and egg issue, but is he an NBA HOF lock without Kobe? I'm not sure (he would make it in as an international for the Olympics though).

 
At Wednesday, June 14, 2017 11:05:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

With regards to David's coverage in general, I think David is talking from the perspective of Lebron being the "GOAT." Westbrook skews more positive I think because David is arguing for his MVP season. Lebron is more heavily criticised because his bar is higher.

Just above you can see he says Lebron is the better player, that brings with it loftier expectations. Apples and oranges.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 12:10:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Andrew-

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Abdul-Jabbar and Havlicek- who were both the best players on title teams without Magic/Russell- are probably a few leagues ahead of Kevin Love. Kareem had five MVPs and a ring before he even met Magic, so I feel pretty good about his HoF case, and Hondo was arguably (though I'd take Barry and David would take Baylor) the greatest forward ever until Doc showed up. Cousy was likewise a big star before Russell got there, and Jamal Wilkes already had a ring and an AS appearance (along with two more AS-ish seasons) on his resume before Magic showed up. So, I'm not really buying that. Magic and Russell had multiple teammates who achieved at the highest level without them. Love and Irving made a combined zero playoff appearances without Lebron.

I feel like the coverage of Love has been much more "he's a super-duper star" since he's been in Cleveland than it was when he was in Minny, even though his numbers in Minny were much better (though he didn't play D there, either). Winning will do that.

Kyrie is a more extreme example. His teams stunk before Lebron, so he didn't get much attention. Couple AS games, but nobody was claiming he was an MVP type player (which is buzz he's gotten in this very thread).

People were acting like those guys were equivalent to Curry/Thompson in value before the series, which strikes me as straight-up nonsense. Perhaps you disagree, but that's how I feel.

Both guys are limited stars who do a few things well, but neither is a complete player and I feel pretty strongly that Cleveland would have done much better if both were replaced with "lesser" stars like Mike Conley and Paul Millsap who put up fewer raw points but actually contribute on both ends. But the popular narrative is that Irving is a tippy-top PG and Love is a near tippy-top PF, and that's a byproduct of playing alongside the best player in the world more than it's an accurate reflection of their value.

Much was made all year about how great Lebron's supporting cast was but... if that's the case, why was their defense so bad? Why was their record so ordinary? Why'd they have to break a sweat to win games against a one-star Pacers team in the first round, or cough up a game to a Thomas-less Boston team in the third?

I do however agree with your Pau example as a guy that got way more love once he started hanging out on a better team (even though statistically he wasn't much better in LAL than he was in Memphis or later Chicago).

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 12:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I have never understood the concept that if my take on a player is different than someone else's take that "proves" that I have some kind of bias or agenda. The standards that I use to evaluate players are explicitly stated and applied as objectively as possible.

Perhaps readers sometimes misunderstand the point of a particular article.

For instance, most of my articles about Westbrook this season revolved around establishing that (1) he had a historically great season, (2) he clearly was the best player in the league during the regular season (notwithstanding the fact that LeBron James has a better overall resume or the fact that James and Durant both played better in the playoffs than Westbrook did) and (3) the media coverage of him has been horribly biased for years. Several years ago, I predicted that Westbrook would inherit Kobe's status as both the best guard in the NBA and the player who receives the most slanted coverage against him--and I think that it is fair to say that I have been proven right on both counts.

Regarding James, I have repeatedly made it clear that (1) he is a Pantheon-level player, (2) he is the best player in the NBA and (3) he performed at a high level in the 2017 NBA Finals. The main points of my Finals analysis of his play are (1) LeBron does not impact winning the same way that Kobe did, let alone Jordan, so the favorable comparisons of LeBron to those players make no sense to me and (2) no matter how good LeBron's numbers look on paper he did not consistently play in a way that maximized his team's chances to beat Golden State. The Cavaliers were clearly underdogs but if James had won his individual matchup and if he had performed better in the second halves of these games then the series would have been much more competitive.

I guess the bottom line regarding James versus Westbrook in the 2017 playoffs is that I rank James higher as a player and thus I see things that he could have done that would have made a Cleveland victory more likely. Westbrook is a physically smaller player with a much weaker supporting cast that was not even built around him and I do not see what he could have done differently to lead OKC past Houston. You could say "Make more shots in the fourth quarter" but I would rather have Westbrook trying his hardest to win than James hiding on the perimeter after he thinks that he has collected enough numbers to refute his critics. NBA Radio's Brian Scalabrine made an interesting point: he said that a great player has an obligation to take tough shots to try to push his team over the top but that LeBron is so conscious of his "efficiency" that he passes up those shots and then claims to be unselfish. That is basically another way of saying what I have always felt: with the game on the line, I would rather go to battle with an "inefficient" killer like Kobe or Westbrook than I would with LeBron. I want my best player to go down shooting, not passing for a corner three pointer and then reciting that shooter's stats in the postgame press conference. I don't care about Kyle Korver's corner three point shooting percentage; LeBron needed to shoot an eight foot shot in the paint, which is what MJ, Kobe or Westbrook would have done in that situation. When Jordan or Kobe passed to role players in clutch situations those were set plays in which the role players were wide open because MJ and Kobe attracted multiple defenders, not situations in which the great player preserved his field goal percentage after getting deep into the paint. The other thing that I wonder about LeBron is if he passes so much in those situations because he is afraid of being fouled and having to shoot clutch free throws.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 12:27:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I don't want to relitigate either series here, but I guess my confusion was this:

Your take on the OKC series seemed to me to be that RWB did all he could, played incredibly, and whatever warts he had didn't really matter because his supporting cast was not up to challenging the other team regardless. I agree- but I also think the same is true of Lebron.

Your take on the GSW series seems to me to be that if Lebron had busted his ass on D and produced even more incredibly offensively than he did, Cleveland would have had a better chance of winning. I agree there as well- but I also think the same is true of Westbrook.

What disappointed me was that the bulk of your James articles were spent critiquing him for not single-handedly beating a team while the bulk of your RWB articles seemed to be devoted to slamming his supporting cast (and Harden, which I also agree with). If the distinction is simply that you expect more from James than you do from RWB than I suppose that's fair (but it not is certainly not evaluating both players by the same standard), but for whatever it's worth, as a longtime reader of yours it was the first time I came away from your writing feeling that your objectivity had gotten away from you a bit. Take that as constructive criticism if you like, or disregard it as me missing the point, but that's the impression (again for the first time) your writing during these playoffs left me with. Just my two cents.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I did not say that Westbrook's "warts" don't matter. My contention is that he played at a very high level but that his supporting cast was so deficient that he would have had to play perfectly to win. I would rather have my best player on an undermanned team shoot 20 times in the fourth quarter than pass to Kyle Korver (or Andre Roberson) and then spend the post-game press conference justifying that decision.

I have always placed a lot of value on intangibles, on qualities that "stat gurus" disregard or openly mock. LeBron and Chris Paul are two players who "stat gurus" love and who media members laud as great leaders--but LeBron regularly throws his teammates under the bus ("I feel at peace because I did everything I could do" is essentially LeBron's take, which is another way of saying "I am great but my teammates suck and that is why we lost"), while Paul has never figured out how to get his talented teams past the second round, which hardly seems like great leadership from my perspective. Westbrook repeatedly has said that he did not give a "bleep" about his individual numbers when his team loses and his play backs that up: he is trying his hardest to win, not to preserve his field goal percentage or appease his critics. When media members tried to goad Westbrook into blaming his supporting cast, Westbrook angrily declared that they win and lose as a team. I have never heard LeBron say anything like that. LeBron declares that he is the best player in the world and he constantly whines that he needs more help. OKC has lost Durant, Ibaka and Harden, yet Westbrook re-signed with the team and never complained about his teammates. That is real leadership.

So, I think that in the OKC-Houston series, Westbrook maximized his potential. His potential is not the same as LeBron's, but Westbrook did everything that he could reasonably be expected to do. No one on his team wants the ball in the fourth quarter, so those shots are his. Westbrook was also clearly the best player on the court in that series and he won his superstar matchup with Harden, though of course neither of them guarded the other as much as LeBron and Durant guarded each other.

In contrast, even though LeBron put up great numbers (and played at a high level), I do not think that he maximized his potential in the Finals and he lost his individual matchup with Durant. It could also be argued that Curry had a better series. There is something wrong if the best player in the world was arguably the third best player in the series, particularly when this was being billed as an opportunity for LeBron to pass MJ. Paul Pierce, Jalen Rose and Brian Scalabrine all said variations of what I have been saying about LeBron during this series: he has not passed Kobe (let alone MJ), he was outplayed by Durant and his team needed him to do more/do different things than he was doing. LeBron had a very good series; this was not the 2011 Finals or the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals--but LeBron fell well short of the hype and that was the point I emphasized in my analysis of his play during the series.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 3:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David:

What is your take on the analogy that the Warriors are a superteam?

I think people are too caught up with last year's 73-9 record and look at them as a superteam in the sense that multiple all-stars joined together. But in reality the Warriors were built through draft and the reason that they are the best team in the league is because of the players buying into the system and play an unselfish brand of basketball. Sure they have talent but in my opinion, if you take away Durant, James-Irving-Love individually has a lot more talent than Curry-Thompson-Green. In terms of sheer reputation and career resume Cavs' bench is probably more talented than Warriors too. It's just that the Warriors know how to maximise their talents and execute it better. And I believe that without KD Cavs would probably win the series in a dog fight Game 7.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 6:57:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Nick, I take your points and don't disagree with your assessments. I tried to get across that this wasn't a bridge I would die on, and that I wasn't sure myself. You get my point though? There are certainly players who owe a pantheon level player for their inclusion in the Hall. Do these players exist for Lebron?

I really think you undersell the talent of Love and Kyrie but we can disagree. Those guys are both talented enough to shine offensively and defensively with the right leadership. Put them on the same team as Russell/Kobe/MJ/Magic/Bird and I just feel like they'd be playing better on both sides of the ball.

I can't prove that, it is just a feeling.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 11:17:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Andrew-

Oh, I don't disagree that Lebron will probably get some people into the Hall that wouldn't be there otherwise, possibly including Love and Irving. I like Chris Bosh, but I doubt he'd have made the Hall given his shortened career if not for Lebron, but I'd say he's a near lock now. The distinction I was drawing is that Magic/Russell had a bunch of super duper stars that were incredible with or without them, and I don't think anyone Lebron has on the Cavs is comparable to Kareem/Havlicek type support (or Bosh type support, for that matter), or, bringing it back to the present, Curry.

I am not willing to say that Irving or Love could or couldn't play defense for a better leader, but both guys have now played for at least three different coaches that couldn't get them to give a crap on that end, so I am dubious.

As an aside, I think Kyrie's overrated not only overall, but even as an offensive player. So much of what he does relies on Lebron. Just one example, in the series against the Warriors, he shot 53% (24-45) on shots off passes from Lebron, but just 44% (34-78) on everything else. His three point shooting especially seems to rely on Lebron drawing attention and finding him at just the right time, as he went 5-7 off feeds from Lebron and 8-24 otherwise.

Don't get me wrong, 44% isn't *bad* by any means, but it's not the All-NBA destroyer of worlds people like to paint him as, either. And even that is inflated somewhat, I'm sure, as a function of being opposing defenses' second priority.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 12:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The eye test tells me that Kyrie creates most of his shots--particularly in the paint--off of the dribble. LeBron may have passed the ball to Kyrie (and perhaps LeBron is tilting the defense, but I think that effect is minimal on the many plays during which he passes and then stands behind the three point line) but Kyrie did the work.

So, while I don't doubt that LeBron has created some open threes for Kyrie, I question the validity of a stat that suggests that Kyrie is not capable of consistently creating his own shot.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:12:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I'm not suggesting he's incapable; he's obviously a talented scorer. But I am suggesting that his numbers are inflated by playing with Lebron, particularly his efficiency numbers. For every incredible drive where he made an impossible layup over Klay Thompson (and there were several), there were two or three more plays where he tried something similar and whiffed/turned it over/ took a questionable contested stepback that barely touched the rim. Those made circus shots are a lot more memorable, which is part of what leads people to overrate him/say dumb things like "he's the best finisher in the league" but the missed ones matter just as much in their way.

It kinda reminds me of Chauncey Billups having the "Mr. Big Shot" tagline, even though he was a mediocre crunch time scorer... because the times when he DID score in crunch time happened to be super memorable.

Kyrie's basically Gilbert Arenas or Jamal Crawford, but with less of a three point shot. Nothing wrong with that- Arenas was a star, if not a title-caliber one- but he gets covered like he's in the same league as guys like Curry/Paul/Westbrook, which is idiotic. He's a one dimensional scorer who benefits from playing beside the greatest forward of his generation.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I would take Kyrie over Arenas or Crawford but for the most part I agree with your larger point. However, I don't think that the specific stat that you cited is particularly meaningful or that it is the best evidence to support your larger point.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 4:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, CLE was hardly a one-man show. Irving played amazing for a 2nd straight Finals. CLE averaged 115ppg. GS was obviously better overall, but CLE had its chances. And if James can't even win his own matchup, then obviously CLE is going to lose.

Andrew, good points. Irving/Love are much better than Nick gives them credit. And while winning is helping their HOF chances, Love looks like a much worse player in CLE, and I'm only seeing a noticeable improvement in Irving in the playoffs, and I don't see James having much to do with that improvement.

Let's look at Irving's career. He played 3 seasons ages 19-21 without James on crappy teams. I'm not sure what Nick is expecting from him on these teams at those ages. Jordan was 23 his 3rd season, and CHI was still a sub .500 team. Everyone's start to their prime years is a little different, but generally speaking around 23 is when prime years often start to happen. Irving is obviously going to much better after age 21. What we actually see is that his efficiency has improved, which it should regardless of who he plays with, but not very noticeably. His production has also barely improved, except for his scoring this year, which noticeably improved to 25ppg. Irving also didn't need James to make 2 AS teams at ages 20-21 only.

I think too much is made about James actually helping his teammates. Usually, that's the case with stars, but not always. Irving does just fine without James. Replace James with a top 15-20 player in the league who's either a SF or PF, and I have a hard time seeing CLE fail to make the Finals. I also think all too often we neglect the reverse of that. Stars' teammates, in this case, certainly can help that star's production/efficiency, too. I definitely see that with James when he started playing with better offensive players overall.

Curry won the matchup with Irving, but it was close. The Green/Love matchup was close, too. Obviously, GS also has Thompson. Thompson was very inconsistent offensively-only had 2 good offensive games. His defense was solid, but a lot of that was James letting him off the hook, and it wasn't series-altering defense either. When we saw James being aggressive, especially with GS having no centers in the game which was the case for most of the series, nobody could guard him. For whatever reason, James decided not to continue being ultra-aggressive for entire games, even though his stats might indicate otherwise.

 
At Thursday, June 15, 2017 11:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I think that a "super team" can be built in many ways. The Warriors have multiple All-Stars plus a deep bench, so I consider them a "super team."

 
At Friday, June 16, 2017 4:56:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

It's simple for me. Were Warriors better team? Yes. Did James do everything he possibly could? Did he go down fighting? No and no. He did just enough to have good stats and justifiable excuses. And his teammates felt it deep inside, whether they realized it or not, so their effort suffered too. These are intangibles and they matter a lot in any team game, despite any statistics. You can always see body language even in front of tv. I watch more soccer than basketball, and it's the same deal. Leadership matters.

 
At Saturday, June 17, 2017 4:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

I completely agree.

 

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