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Friday, March 10, 2017

The Tortured Logic of the 2017 NBA MVP Race

Kenny Smith tells the story that he once asked fellow North Carolina alum Rasheed Wallace why he got so many technical fouls. Smith says that Wallace explained that his head would have exploded if he had not spoken up about what he perceived to be unjust calls. Smith completes the story by shrugging and conceding that it is better to get a technical foul than to have your head explode.

I think that my head may possibly explode if the 2017 NBA MVP race finishes the way it seems to be trending.

We know that LeBron James is still the best player in the world when he feels like it, but we also know that he coasts to some extent during the regular season.

Kevin Durant is the best player on the best team--a fact which has become even more evident since an injury took him out of the lineup and the Golden State Warriors became at least somewhat mortal--but he is not putting up superhuman numbers and he will lose some votes due to the backlash resulting from his decision to leave a contending team to join an archrival.

Kawhi Leonard is having a breakout season and is a legit MVP candidate but his soft-spoken style is easily ignored.

James Harden is putting up video game numbers in Mike D'Antoni's system--which should not surprise anyone--and his Houston Rockets started the season on fire but they are just 13-10 in their past 23 games despite having a roster that is built to showcase Harden's talents: Harden is flanked by great three point shooters on offense and by tough-minded stoppers who cover for him on defense.

Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook is having a historically great season while almost singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs, something that almost never happens in the season after the departure of an MVP-level player. Westbrook is cruising toward his second scoring title (31.9 ppg, 2.5 ppg in front of Boston's Isaiah Thomas) in three years but that is just part of the story: he also ranks third in assists (10.1 apg) and 12th in rebounds (10.5 rpg). Not only is Westbrook averaging a triple double (a feat that only Oscar Robertson has accomplished over the course of a full season) but he has amassed 31 triple doubles, tying Wilt Chamberlain for the second highest single season total in NBA history. The Thunder are 25-6 when Westbrook notches a triple double this season (and 43-6 in such games over the past two seasons) but just 11-23 in the rest of their games; basically, when he is on the court and playing at his peak the Thunder are the Golden State Warriors but when Westbrook is on the bench or "merely" puts up, say, 25-6-6 then the Thunder are one of the worst teams in the league.

Westbrook's only problem is his name; the media voters know him and, apparently, don't particularly like him. Westbrook recently scored a career-high 58 points while shooting 21-39 from the field and passing for nine assists--and he had a +7 plus/minus number even though the Thunder lost, meaning that the team was terrible when he was on the bench but winning comfortably while he played. The media reaction to Westbrook's sparkling performance was to wonder if he is shooting too much while noting that the Thunder have a poor record when Westbrook attempts more than 30 shots--as if Westbrook is somehow shooting the Thunder out of contention, as opposed to trying his best to lift the team when it is floundering.

If Westbrook changed his name to Eastbrook or something else then he might win the MVP unanimously. Think about this: Shaquille O'Neal, one of the most dominant centers in NBA history, never averaged 30 ppg and 10 rpg in the same season but in the year that he came closest (29.7 ppg and 13.6 rpg in 1999-00) he missed becoming the first unanimous MVP by one vote. Only 11 players in NBA/ABA history have averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 10 rpg in the same season: Wilt Chamberlain (seven times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times), Bob McAdoo (three times), Elgin Baylor (two times), Oscar Robertson (two times), Bob Pettit (once), Walt Bellamy (once), Dan Issel (once), Julius Erving (once), Moses Malone (once) and Karl Malone (once). Other than small forwards Baylor and Erving and point guard Robertson, the other players on that list rank among the greatest centers or power forwards of all-time. Westbrook is by far the shortest and lightest player in this group. Amazingly, the 28 year old Westbrook is also among the oldest; this feat has been accomplished 23 times but only four times by players who are 28 or older (Chamberlain did it at 28 and 29, while Baylor did it at 28 and Pettit did it at 29).

This season, Westbrook--a 6-3 point guard--is not only averaging more than 30 ppg and 10 rpg but he is also averaging more than 10 apg! This is unheard of for anyone other than Robertson (who is arguably the greatest all-around player in the sport's history) and yet the talking heads are acting like there should actually be a debate about who the MVP is. Robertson averaged 11.4 apg and 9.7 apg in his two 30 ppg-10 rpg seasons but no one else averaged more than 5.2 apg and most of these players averaged 4 apg or less in their 30 ppg-10 rpg seasons.

Westbrook has the lowest FG% but highest FT% in this group and his TS% is right in the middle. Westbrook is averaging 34.8 mpg, nearly 4 mpg less than any other 30 ppg-10 rpg player.

I understand that several players are having great seasons--but (and pardon me for figuratively shouting) Westbrook is having a historically great season and he is doing this in a way that maximizes the performance of an otherwise not very good team.

Let's look at this a different way. I am not a big believer in "advanced basketball statistics" but many members of the media have been pushing these numbers down our throats for years. Supposedly, those numbers proved that Chris Paul was better than Kobe Bryant during Bryant's 2008 MVP season. This season, Westbrook ranks first in PER, first in Box Plus/Minus and first in Value Over Replacement Player. He is criticized in some quarters for his defense but he even ranks ninth in Defensive Win Shares.

I don't know what Westbrook has to do to convince the voters but I hope he finds a way to mollify the haters among them, because otherwise my head might explode in about two months if he does not win the award despite authoring one of the greatest seasons in pro basketball history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Underrated Dirk Nowitzki Joins Elite 30,000 Point Club

Dirk Nowitzki joined the 30,000 point club on Wednesday night, scoring 25 points in Dallas' 122-111 win over the L.A. Lakers. Pro basketball fans are on a first name (or nickname) basis with the other six members of that club: Kareem, Mailman, Kobe, Jordan, Wilt, Dr. J.

Julius "Dr. J" Erving is the most overlooked member of the club, because many media outlets inexplicably fail to account for his ABA points--but Erving deserves recognition as the first "mid-size" player to break the 30,000 point barrier, a feat only accomplished by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain at the time that Erving joined the club in 1987; indeed, it would be 14 years after Erving retired before Jordan (in his second comeback, this time as a Wizard) became the club's fourth member and just second "mid-size" player, a feat matched about a decade later by the club's third and final "mid-size" member, Kobe Bryant. Kareem, Wilt and Dirk are/were at least 7-feet tall, while Mailman was a 6-9 power player, a description also befitting LeBron James (who is on track to be the next player to join the club).

While Erving is the club's most overlooked player and is a highly underrated player as well, Nowitzki may be the most underrated 30,000 point scorer. He is perceived by many as "just" a jump shooter but Nowitzki in his prime could score from anywhere on the court. Nowitzki was also a very good rebounder, particularly early in his career when he tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record by posting at least 30 points and at least 15 rebounds in four straight playoff games--something that Wilt and Shaq and Moses never accomplished. Think about that for a moment and then also consider that Nowitzki is one of just four players who have averaged at least 25 ppg and 10 rpg in the postseason, joining Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor and Hakeem Olajuwon; he performed even better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, which is a rare trait. Nowitzki notched 29 playoff games with at least 30 points and at least 10 rebounds, four more than Larry Bird; the career leader is Baylor (56) and the only other players ahead of Nowitzki are Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Pettit and Tim Duncan. Nowitzki was never a great defender but as he got older, wiser and stronger he learned how to use his length and his foot speed to be at least adequate at that end of the court.

Nowitzki has to be included on the short list of greatest power forwards of all-time. In the post Michael Jordan era, I would rank him behind only Tim Duncan. Kevin Garnett fans may go ballistic after reading that sentence, but Nowitzki did more with less over a longer period of time than Garnett did; Garnett spent most of his career struggling to get out of the first round of the playoffs and when he won a championship he was one cog in the Big Three. Nowitzki was without question a better clutch player than Garnett, who only enjoyed any playoff success when he was paired with someone else who was willing and able to make big shots down the stretch (Sam Cassell in Minnesota, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston).

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:10 AM

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