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Saturday, April 01, 2017

Krause, McGinnis, McGrady Among the 11 Newest Basketball Hall of Fame Members

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that it will welcome 11 new members this fall: Zack Clayton, Nikos Galis, Robert Hughes, Mannie Jackson, Tom Jernstedt, Jerry Krause, Rebecca Lobo, George McGinnis, Tracy McGrady, Muffet McGraw and Bill Self. If several of those names are not familiar to you as an NBA fan, keep in mind that this is the Basketball Hall of Fame, not the NBA Hall of Fame (there is no such entity), and the Basketball Hall of Fame honors players, coaches, executives and contributors from around the world/all levels of the game.

This article will focus on the three new Hall of Famers who are most closely associated with pro basketball: Krause, McGinnis and McGrady.

Nearly four years ago, I asserted that Tracy McGrady is Clearly a Hall of Famer and shortly after that I followed up with another article making the Hall of Fame case for McGrady. The Hall of Fame voters agreed with me, selecting McGrady in his first year of eligibility. McGrady, who jumped straight to the NBA from high school, had a 15 year NBA career and he led the NBA in scoring twice (2003, 2004) in the middle of a seven year run during which he averaged at least 24.4 ppg each season while earning seven consecutive All-Star selections. During that period he played in at least 71 games five times but in the five seasons after that he played in just 66, 35, 30, 72 and 52 games (out of 66 in the lockout shortened 2011-12 campaign). By the age of 31 he was no longer a regular starter and by the age of 33 he had retired due to injuries.

During McGrady's brief, absolute peak, it was reasonable to compare him to Kobe Bryant and not be absolutely certain who was the better player--but, while Bryant was blessed with good health and thus able to sustain All-NBA First Team level dominance for an extended period, McGrady had a short run as an elite player and a slightly longer period (but not nearly as long a period as Bryant did) as one of the league's 10 best players. Some would argue that this is not enough to merit Hall of Fame induction but I perceive at least three categories of Hall of Fame players: Pantheon, Top 50, other great players. McGrady is not a Pantheon level player and at best he would be a fringe Top 50 player if objective voting were done today but McGrady is solidly in the top 75 or 80 players of all-time. There are not any particular statistical plateaus for pro basketball players that point to automatic Hall of Fame selection, nor should there be some arbitrary limit on how many players can be selected.

In contrast to McGrady's first ballot selection, Krause and McGinnis waited a long time to be selected. Jerry Colangelo, the Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, promised that under his watch the Hall of Fame will recognize individuals who have "slipped through the cracks" and that has been the case: he spearheaded the creation of a special ABA Committee that finally inducted ABA all-time greats Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Bobby "Slick" Leonard and Louie Dampier. That committee has been disbanded but its spirit remains, as indicated by the 2015 induction of Spencer Haywood and the 2016 induction of Zelmo Beaty.

McGinnis' career and prime were both shorter than McGrady's but McGinnis was the only Hall of Fame eligible NBA or ABA regular season MVP who had not been inducted. McGinnis shared 1975 ABA regular season MVP honors with Julius Erving, who two seasons later joined forces with McGinnis to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals. McGinnis played a key role for two Indiana ABA championship teams (1972, 1973), winning the ABA Playoff MVP in 1973. During the 1975 ABA playoffs, McGinnis averaged 32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg and 8.2 apg while leading the Pacers to the Finals (their third Finals trip in McGinnis' four years with the franchise). McGinnis remains one of just four players who averaged 30 ppg, 7 rpg and 7 apg for an entire playoff season; pro basketball fans are on a first name basis with the other players: Oscar (who did it twice), Michael, LeBron. Interestingly, all of those players won at least one championship but none of them won a title during his 30-7-7 postseason run.

McGinnis made the All-Star team six times--three in the ABA, three in the NBA--and at his peak he was as good as any player in either league. The one blemish on his resume is that he relied too much on his natural talent, so when his physical skills began to erode he did not adjust his game; he did not make the All-Star team after the age of 28 and by age 32 he was out of the league. Nevertheless, a player who is a key contributor for two championship teams (and two other Finalists) while winning a regular season MVP, a playoff MVP and a scoring title deserves Hall of Fame induction--not to mention the fact that he was also a dominant, record setting collegiate player.

It is always poignant and bittersweet when someone whose Hall of Fame induction was long overdue is not honored until after he passes away, a fate that also befell the aforementioned Roger Brown and Zelmo Beaty. Jerry Krause built six Chicago Bulls championship teams in the 1990s, so it is odd that he was not inducted in the Hall of Fame years ago; instead, he received the honor less than two weeks after passing away at the age of 77. I was as baffled and upset as anyone by Krause's haste and glee to break up the Bulls so that he could try to build another championship team from scratch but Krause deserves a lot of credit for hiring Phil Jackson as coach and for acquiring key players Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman. An NBA executive's job is to win games and championships; by that standard, Krause is one of the most accomplished executives in pro basketball history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:24 PM

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Westbrook Saves Thunder With Historic Triple Double

Russell Westbrook just produced the highest scoring triple double in NBA history, pouring in 57 points as he led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 114-106 overtime victory versus the Orlando Magic. The Thunder trailed by 21 points midway through the third quarter before mounting the biggest comeback in Oklahoma City history and thereby clinching a playoff berth in the first season of the team's post-Kevin Durant era.

Westbrook added 13 rebounds and 11 assists in his 38th triple double of the season; with eight games to go, Westbrook needs three triple doubles to tie Oscar Robertson's single season record. Westbrook is also on track to join Robertson as the only players to average a triple double for an entire season. The Thunder are 31-7 this season when Westbrook posts a triple double and 43-31 overall, which is another way of saying that Westbrook's supporting cast is so weak that his team needs him to put up historically great numbers every game just to have a chance to win--but when Westbrook does put up historically great numbers, the Thunder almost always win.

Westbrook scored 26 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including 19 points in the final 7:45 of regulation--capped off when he grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled up court and calmly sank a 31 foot three pointer over two defenders to send the game to overtime.

Such game-saving heroics are nothing new for Westbrook, who scored 13 points in the final three minutes on Monday night to rescue the Thunder versus the Dallas Mavericks. Westbrook is the antithesis of players who pad their numbers without affecting the outcome of the game; his tremendous statistical production actually changes the outcome of the game. Several players are performing at an MVP level in 2016-17 but Westbrook is authoring a historic season that would lead to a landslide MVP victory if anyone else posted such numbers.

By the end of the Thunder's victory over the Magic, the Orlando fans serenaded Westbrook with "MVP" chants. Of course, media members never fail to find ways to attack Westbrook; one game recap noted that Westbrook was "hardly flawless" before opining, "Defeat is inevitable if he goes it alone. The only way the Thunder can change their destiny is to change their approach to the game. That starts with Westbrook. If he's really the NBA MVP, let's see him make his teammates better when the games matter the most."

I predicted the publication of that kind of trash almost three years ago to the day when I wrote, "One player seems poised to fill both of (Kobe) Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook." Keep in mind that when I made that declaration, many "experts" questioned if Westbrook could even play the point guard position, let alone become the best guard in the league. Those same "experts" criticized Westbrook for supposedly not deferring enough to Kevin Durant but it now looks like perhaps the Thunder would have been better served if Durant had deferred to Westbrook in the clutch.

When crime strikes Gotham City, the Bat Signal alerts Batman to spring into action; is there a "Daft Signal" that alerts "stat gurus" and their media acolytes to spring into action when Kobe Bryant (in previous seasons) or Russell Westbrook has a great game? I mean, the nets were still figuratively scorching from Westbrook's 57 points and the first words that come to mind for some fool who is actually paid to cover NBA games is that Westbrook was "hardly flawless"?

If you watch a player drop 57-13-11 while almost single-handedly erasing a 21 point deficit and "hardly flawless" is the best description you can muster then you need to have your eyes checked, your brain examined and your game credentials revoked. Sure, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion but when you are being paid to accurately report/commentate and you are simply unwilling or incapable of performing that task at a minimally acceptable level then it is time to seek out another line of work.

On the other hand, here is an article that every MVP voter should be required to read: Sam Anderson's February 1, 2017 in depth profile titled The Misunderstood Genius of Russell Westbrook.

Here is Anderson's take on Westbrook's playing style:
Rebounding has always been one of Westbrook’s superpowers. He is athletic enough to leap through vast spaces, strong enough to bully people in close combat and, most important, persistent enough to get himself, with unholy urgency, to the places around the rim most likely to yield rebounds. I have seen Westbrook streak in from a distant corner of the floor to tip in a missed 3-pointer off the glass--a hurtling, perfectly timed run that looked almost like a center fielder's sprinting back to leap and steal a home run just as it cleared the wall.
That was the prelude to Anderson's account of Westbrook's 27 point, 17 rebound, 14 assist performance in Madison Square Garden versus the Knicks early in this season. Here are some more nuggets from Anderson about that contest:
Even with his triple-double secured, Westbrook would not stop rebounding. My favorite of the night was his 14th: he drove, drew three defenders, passed to a teammate for a wide-open jump shot and ended up deep out of bounds. Instead of just hanging out there, admiring his handiwork, Westbrook turned, tracked the shot with his eyes, saw that it was falling short and, at precisely the moment the ball hit the front of the rim, exploded into the air with shocking intensity. It did not look like a normal professional basketball player trying to get his hand on a ball to extend a possession late in the third quarter of the 19th game of the season. It looked like a man in the middle of a winner-takes-all dunk contest against the Devil himself to prevent the incineration of planet Earth. It looked as if Westbrook were insulted by the very concept of distance, and so he annihilated it, soaring and spearing the ball out of the air from between two waiting Knicks. Spike Lee, courtside, was standing to celebrate the initial missed shot, but when Westbrook came flying in to seize it, he clutched his head in exasperation and hopelessness and despair.
Westbrook does not possess Bryant's size or finely tuned footwork, nor is Westbrook's defense as good as Bryant's--but Westbrook has a similar competitive spirit, a similar work ethic and a similar ability to lift a limited team to solid playoff status. Westbrook has also demonstrated that he can perform at an All-NBA level for a perennial championship contender, as he did for the past six years when the Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals four times. I will say the same thing about Westbrook now that I did about Bryant circa 2006, when Bryant's critics loudly declared that he would never win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal: if Westbrook is provided with even a reasonably complete supporting cast, he is capable of leading his team to a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:17 AM

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Should We Make of Devin Booker's 70 Point Game?

Wilt Chamberlain. Kobe Bryant. David Thompson. Elgin Baylor. David Robinson.

Devin Booker.

I am sorry but I just cannot do it--I cannot put Booker's name in the same paragraph with Chamberlain, Bryant, Thompson, Baylor and Robinson, even if Booker recently joined those all-time greats as the only players in pro basketball history to score at least 70 points in a game.

Chamberlain, Bryant and Baylor are Pantheon players. Robinson is a Hall of Famer and was selected in 1996 as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players. Hall of Famer Thompson was blessed with comparable talent but his career short-circuited due to drug abuse and injuries.

Booker is a second year pro who had never even scored 40 points in an NBA game prior to Friday. He is averaging 21.6 ppg, 3.2 apg and 3.2 rpg this season while shooting .423 from the field (including .364 from three point range) and .838 from the free throw line. Booker's Suns are "battling" with the L.A. Lakers to post the worst record in the Western Conference. TNT's Kenny Smith often calls high scoring players for losing teams "looters in a riot," because it is relatively easy to put up numbers in garbage time for bad squads.

Booker dropped 70 points on the Boston Celtics last Friday night, shooting 21-40 from the field (including 4-11 from three point range) and 24-26 from the free throw line. Booker's Suns lost 130-120 and the game was not even as close as that score suggests. The Suns repeatedly committed fouls down the stretch in order to create extra possessions for Booker.

Is Booker a future All-Star/All-NBA player or is he just a very good scorer for a very bad team who put up a lot of points in a loss?

Fouling to get the ball back so a player can reach a statistical milestone is not unheard of but it is not usually quite as blatant or sustained as it was in Booker's game. There is no footage of Chamberlain's record-setting 100 point game but reports suggest that only after the opposing Knicks started fouling Chamberlain's teammates to prevent Chamberlain from scoring did Chamberlain's teammates start fouling to get the ball back for Chamberlain. Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors won, 169-147. Chamberlain had already scored at least 70 points in a game twice and he would go on to post three more 70 point games; his point total was well into the 80s before the fouling shenanigans took place.

Bryant is the only player other than Chamberlain to break the 80 point barrier, scoring 81 points to lead his L.A. Lakers back from a 71-53 deficit to a 122-104 win over the Toronto Raptors. There were no fouling shenanigans during Bryant's performance--nor were there any fouling shenanigans when Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 in three quarters before sitting out the fourth quarter or when he hit Memphis with 56 points in three quarters before sitting out the fourth quarter; there is no doubt that Bryant could have scored 70 or 80 points in both of those games, even without fouling shenanigans, if he had elected to play in those fourth quarters.

Robinson and Thompson posted their 70 point games in the last game of the season while chasing the scoring title in 1994 and 1978 respectively; Robinson edged Shaquille O'Neal but Thompson lost out to George Gervin, who played later that same day and scored 63 points, five more than he needed to take the scoring crown from Thompson. I am not aware of any fouling shenanigans in Thompson's 73 point game. Robinson's Spurs were up by a large margin late in the game when his Coach John Lucas instructed his player to intentionally foul to create more possessions for Robinson; those shenanigans added seven points to Robinson's total, enabling him to finish with 71. Brian Hill, who coached O'Neal's Orlando Magic at that time, called Lucas' stunt "a mockery of the game."

Perhaps the most blatant--and least talked about--fouling shenanigans took place in Larry Bird's career-high 60 point game; Bird was determined to break Kevin McHale's franchise single game record of 56 points (set just a few days earlier), so the Celtics repeatedly committed fouls in the waning moments of a blowout win against the Atlanta Hawks to enable Bird to boost his total from low 50s to 60 on the dot.

Booker is without question less heralded at the time of his 70 point game than any other player; the other five 70 point scorers were clearly on their way to Hall of Fame careers when they scored at least 70 points in a game, while it is not clear that Booker will even have another 40 or 50 point game.

In the aftermath of his big outing, Booker has said that Bryant inspired him to set no limits on his game and on what he can achieve. Bryant has praised Booker and has spoken about how last season Booker eagerly soaked up tips from him the way that Bryant once did from Michael Jordan.

I don't know what to make of Booker's performance or how to place it in proper context--and I have never been a fan of fouling shenanigans just to help a player reach a certain point total--but I am glad that Booker appears to be an earnest student of the game who respects and appreciates Bryant's work ethic and skill set.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:18 PM

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