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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Farewell, Coach Mike Haley

Mike Haley, one of the most accomplished high school basketball coaches in Ohio history, passed away last weekend at the age of 73. To say that Coach Haley is underrated is an understatement; even the obituary published in the local Dayton newspaper--the newspaper of record in the city where he was a dominant coaching figure for two decades--shortchanged him one of his championships! To set the record straight, let it be noted that Coach Haley won four Ohio high school basketball titles: his 1976 Roth team went 22-5 en route to capturing the AA title, his 1981 Roth team went 26-1 en route to capturing the AAA title, his 1982 Roth team went 24-4 en route to capturing the AA title and his 1987 Dunbar team went 24-4 en route to capturing the AAA title. Coach Haley also led Dunbar to the 1984 AAA Championship Game before losing to Canton McKinley.

It is outrageous that a four-time state championship coach has not been inducted into the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame or the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. High school coaching statistics are difficult to track down but I doubt that there are many four-time championship coaches who are not in the Ohio High School Basketball Hall of Fame and I suspect that there are many coaches in that Hall who failed to win four titles.

Haley's teams specialized in pressure defense and fast-break offense. Many of the players who he mentored eventually played collegiate ball and at least one of them--Mark Baker--made it to the NBA.

Before he became a top notch coach, Haley was an outstanding high school and collegiate player in his own right. He starred at Portsmouth (Ohio) High School in the late 1950s/early 1960s before becoming a key player for some excellent Ohio University teams. In 1963-64, Ohio University went 21-6 and captured the Mid-American Conference Championship with a 10-2 mark. Haley was the fourth leading scorer (13.0 ppg) and second leading rebounder (8.6 rpg) for the 1964 squad.

In those days, only the conference champion from the MAC made it to the NCAA Tournament. Ohio University became the first MAC team to advance to the Elite Eight after beating Louisville 71-69 in overtime and defeating the fourth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats 85-69. The second-ranked Michigan Wolverines, led by future NBA All-Star Cazzie Russell's game-high 25 points, knocked off Ohio University 69-57. Haley had a team-high 17 points plus five rebounds versus Louisville, 15 points and seven rebounds versus Kentucky and 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds versus Michigan.

Ohio University went 19-7 in 1964-65, winning the MAC title with an 11-1 record. The University of Dayton edged the Bobcats 66-65 in the NCAA Tournament. Haley was the second leading scorer (16.6 ppg) and third leading rebounder (9.0 rpg) for the 1965 team.

The 1963-64 and 1964-65 Ohio University basketball teams were inducted in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017. Haley joined several of his teammates in Athens, Ohio in 2014 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Elite Eight run.

Haley's resume as a player and a coach should have easily earned him induction into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame, whose stated mission is to honor "the achievements of both male and female basketball players in high school, college, and professional basketball, successful coaches on all levels, and those who have impacted the game along the way."

Instead of being publicly honored and appreciated for his contributions, Coach Haley spent the last years of his life in obscurity working as an open gym supervisor at a local YMCA in the Dayton, Ohio area. That is where I first met him. He was a revered and respected figure by YMCA members young and old and it was obvious that he enjoyed interacting with a wide range of people.

Coach Haley never bragged about his accomplishments but if you asked him about the old days he was an engaging story teller. I loved talking to him about the players he encountered during his playing/coaching career, as well as about current NBA players. Sometimes I helped him out at the scorer's table during the YMCA basketball league (during the games when I was not playing) and we would talk about various players' tendencies and the complete absence of any strategy in the YMCA league (we both nearly lost our minds when a team that was leading in the final minutes in a league with no shot clock would take a shot as opposed to forcing the other team to foul). We were two basketball lifers, a generation apart, enjoying talking about all aspects of the game: rec league, high school, college, pro.

Coach Haley loved being around basketball games and players, so he was happy working at the YMCA. The only lament that Coach Haley ever expressed was his puzzlement about not being inducted in the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Once, he even asked me if I knew how the process worked or if there was anything that I could do to help; I told him honestly that I mostly covered professional basketball and thus I did not know the inner workings of high school sports but I said that I would see what I could find out. I did some research at that time and the only thing that I could determine was perhaps he was no onger eligible because he was not a current member of the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association--which is ridiculous: (1) He should have been inducted a long time ago when he was a member and (2) a retired coach who has been unjustly overlooked should not be barred from consideration just because of such a minor technicality.

A few years ago, I lost touch with Coach Haley after I moved to the other side of town and stopped going to that YMCA while I pursued my law degree. I miss those nearly nightly conversations with Coach Haley at the YMCA and I regret that I never figured out a way to better publicize his career so that he would receive the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame induction he richly deserves. Maybe he will receive the honor posthumously, so at least his family can know that his accomplishments have been belatedly recognized.

1987 Dunbar Ohio State Championship Team (Coach Haley is the first person on the left in the second row)

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:38 PM


Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Russell Westbrook Ties Oscar Robertson's Single Season Triple Double Record

Russell Westbrook produced 12 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds in just 27 minutes as his Oklahoma City Thunder routed the Milwaukee Bucks 110-79 on Tuesday night. Westbrook has tied Oscar Robertson's single season record with 41 triple doubles and he has five games left to possibly set a new mark. Westbrook got his 10th rebound and 10th assist in a sequence that has become his trademark: he grabbed the defensive rebound, pushed the ball up the court and passed to a teammate (Taj Gibson in this instance) for an easy transition bucket. This is the eighth time in Westbrook's career that he has notched a triple double while playing fewer than 30 minutes (no other player in league history has more than three such triple doubles).

Westbrook has an active streak of seven consecutive triple doubles, tied for second on the all-time list behind Wilt Chamberlain (nine); the only other players who had seven consecutive triple doubles are Robertson, Michael Jordan and Westbrook himself earlier this season. That streak is part of a larger run during which Westbrook has posted a triple double in 11 of his last 13 games; the Thunder are 8-3 in those 11 games and 9-4 overall, solidifying their hold on the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

The Thunder are 32-9 when Westbrook has a triple double and 12-24 in the rest of their games; basically, the Thunder play at the same level as the San Antonio Spurs when Westbrook performs exceptionally but if he is "merely" great then they play at the same level as one of the five worst teams in the league. The direct impact of Westbrook's play on the ability of an otherwise mediocre team to win games is rare in NBA history, particularly for a guard; Pete Maravich with the mid-1970s Jazz and Kobe Bryant with the mid-2000s Lakers are perhaps the only two guards whose dominant play (albeit with a different style than Westbrook's) had a similar effect on the win/loss records of otherwise weak teams.

Westbrook needs just 16 assists in the next five games to average a triple double for the entire season, a feat that has only been accomplished once in pro basketball history; Robertson did it in 1961-62 (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) and he also averaged an aggregate triple double overall during the first five seasons of his career. Like Westbrook, Robertson regularly posted "big" triple doubles, namely triple doubles featuring 30 or more points. This is remarkable and sets Robertson and Westbrook apart from the other players who rank in the top five on the career triple double list. Wilt Chamberlain had voluntarily reduced his scoring from 50-plus ppg to around 24 ppg by the time he started racking up triple doubles. Magic Johnson amassed most of his triple doubles when he was averaging less than 20 ppg and Jason Kidd was never a big-time scorer.

It is fitting that Kidd had a front row seat (as Milwaukee's head coach) for Westbrook's 41st triple double of the season; Kidd was the master of the triple double during his era, racking up 107 of them (third on the all-time list) during his 19 season career. During his prime, Kidd was one of the few players who seemed potentially capable of averaging a triple double for a season but the reality is that he never came close to doing so. Kidd averaged more than 10 apg three times in his 19 year career. His single season rebounding career-high was 8.2 rpg, during a season in which he scored 13.0 ppg and averaged 9.2 apg; Kidd actually came closer to averaging a "triple single" in his best rebounding season than he came to averaging a triple double. During his prime, the closest Kidd came to averaging a triple double was 1999-00 (14.3 ppg, 10.1 apg, 7.2 rpg).

The only player other than Robertson and prior to Westbrook who came reasonably close to averaging a triple double was Magic Johnson, who averaged 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82. The next season, he averaged 16.8 ppg, 10.5 apg and 8.6 rpg but he never again averaged at least 8 rpg for an entire season.

One other player should be mentioned: Lafayette "Fat" Lever. Listed at 6-3, 170, Lever was a remarkable all-around point guard in the 1980s and early 1990s. During a four year run, he averaged 8.9 rpg, 8.1 rpg, 9.3 rpg and 9.3 rpg with scoring averages fluctuating between 18.3 ppg and 19.8 ppg but he only reached the 8.0 apg mark once in his career.

In short, Westbrook's feat is astonishing on many levels: (1) he is averaging a "big" triple double (30-plus ppg, en route to clinching the second scoring title of his career), (2) he is averaging 10-plus rpg as a 6-3 guard (which would be unprecedented and noteworthy even if he was not a big-time scorer and playmaker) and (3) his triple doubles are essential for the Thunder to be able to compete. If anyone else had averaged 30-10-10 that player would have been a landslide MVP winner; some people like to mention that Robertson finished third in the MVP voting during his triple double season but Robertson was competing against the 50 ppg version of Chamberlain and Bill Russell during the middle of his 11 championships in 13 seasons dynasty. Robertson would have won the MVP in just about any other season in NBA history and indeed he won the MVP two years later with a 31.4 ppg/11.0 apg/9.9 rpg stat line.

Sadly, some media members remain stubbornly determined to minimize the significance of Westbrook's accomplishments. During a recent radio segment, Jared Greenberg stated that an MVP case for Westbrook based on him averaging a triple double for the entire season is flawed because James Harden is on track to finish the season "only" 160 rebounds away from averaging a triple double. It should be pointed out that with five games to go in the season roughly half of the players in the NBA do not have 160 rebounds for the entire season! Applying Greenberg's flawed logic, I came within 160 rebounds this season of being a better rebounder than about half of the players in the NBA. Give me a break; if you enjoy interviewing Harden more than you enjoy interviewing Westbrook or if you feel compelled to pump up the Daryl Morey "stat guru" method of team construction then just say so directly--but don't insult everyone's intelligence with statements that just flat out make no sense.

Putting aside the fact that Harden is going to fall a "mere" 20% short of matching Westbrook's rebounding total, Harden's overall statistics must be considered in the context of the fact that Coach Mike D'Antoni's system inflates the numbers of his point guards: he turned an average point guard into "Linsanity" and (with the help of some misguided MVP voters) he turned All-Star Steve Nash into a two-time MVP. You could swap out at least 10 other point guards for Harden and the Rockets would still win at least 50 games but if you take Westbrook off of Oklahoma City's roster--or if Westbrook has an "off" night of, say, 28 points, five rebounds and eight assists, as he did against Chicago in a 28 point loss--then the Thunder would be in the Draft Lottery.

Westbrook's 2016-17 regular season is one of the greatest individual seasons in pro basketball history--period, end of discussion.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM


Monday, April 03, 2017

A Revealing Glimpse at the Houston Rockets Sans James Harden

Many people who pump up James Harden as the NBA MVP claim that Harden has little help and that his Houston Rockets would be a poor team without him. Harden plays heavy minutes and, until Sunday night, had not missed a game this season, so there have not been many opportunities to observe this team sans Harden.

On Sunday night, though, we saw the Rockets not only without Harden but also without starters Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson. If the Rockets are truly a team that lacks talent and depth, then the loss of three starters should be a fatal blow even against a poor team like the Phoenix Suns--but Houston handled Phoenix rather easily, jumping out to a 25-10 lead en route to a 123-116 victory. Eric Gordon moved into the starting lineup in Harden's place and produced 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. Meanwhile, Patrick Beverley shifted to point guard and inherited Harden's role, leading Houston with 26 points and nine assists while adding eight rebounds--a more than passable replication of Harden's regular season averages. Beverley was actually more efficient than Harden, shooting 11-19 from the field while committing just two turnovers. He also had a game high +14 plus/minus number.

This does not mean that Houston is better without Harden or that Beverley is as good as Harden--but it does suggest that (1) point guard is a stat-padding position in Coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and (2) the Rockets are not some sad sack group that is being carried by Harden; any point guard who plays for D'Antoni is going to have elevated statistics and the Rockets would be quite good in this system with this roster even without Harden.

What is interesting about this is that when Harden played in a completely different system under a different coach and with a different roster Houston also showed the ability to thrive without him: the Rockets trailed the L.A. Clippers 3-1 in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals before the Rockets rallied to win three straight games, including a pivotal game six road victory during which Harden shot 5-20 from the field and sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter as his teammates desperately fought to stave off elimination. I cannot think of another occasion when a supposedly MVP caliber player who was healthy and not in foul trouble spent so much time on the bench in the most critical moments of his team's playoff run. Houston Coach Kevin McHale sent a clear message that he believed his team had a better chance to win with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court--a decision that won the series but ultimately cost McHale his job, as Harden came back the next season out of shape, unmotivated and clearly disinterested in listening to anything that McHale said.

Also, it is important to remember that the Rockets barely improved after Harden's arrival; the Rockets' winning percentage during Harden's first season with the team inched up from .515 to .549, which is roughly equivalent to three wins in an 82 game season. The jump to a .659 winning percentage the following season (2013-14) coincided with the acquisition of Dwight Howard; the Rockets enjoyed homecourt advantage in the first round versus Portland but lost in six games. Then came the fluky 2015 run to the Western Conference Finals, followed by the horrible 2016 season that culminated in the firing of two coaches and the overhaul of the roster; the Rockets now have a great regular season coach, Mike D'Antoni, who employs a system that works well against bad teams and against teams that do not have the opportunity to prepare but works much less well against good teams that have time to prepare during a playoff series.

We have seen the Harden-type script fool media members before: Gilbert Arenas was a high-scoring guard who supposedly was an MVP caliber player who was indispensable for the Washington Wizards--until he missed almost an entire season due to injury and the Wizards essentially posted the same winning percentage without him that they posted with him.

Also consider Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets. Anthony was supposedly the driving force behind the Nuggets making the playoffs year after year--at least until the Nuggets traded him for several role players and then posted the best regular season winning percentage in the franchise's NBA history (the franchise's subsequent collapse can be directly linked to the departure of a great General Manager--Masai Ujiri, who promptly turned the Toronto Raptors into a contender--and a very good coach, George Karl).

Again, the sample sizes for the Wizards sans Arenas and the Nuggets sans Anthony were large, while the sample size for the Rockets without Harden is small--but it has been my contention for four years that Harden's impact on team success is overrated and the evidence that we have supports that thesis.

Anthony, Arenas and Harden are elite scorers; in a given season, each of them could properly be considered an All-Star or even an All-NBA Team level performer--but their defensive ineptitude and their ineffectiveness as leaders renders their impact on team success to be much less than is often assumed by casual fans or by media members who frequently do not possess the capability to accurately analyze the sport.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:08 PM