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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Paul George Acquisition Lifts Thunder Back to Contender Status

The Oklahoma City Thunder took a major step toward contender status by acquiring Paul George from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis. This means that Russell Westbrook is no longer a one man show; now he has a running mate who can take pressure off of him when they are on the court together and who can hold down the fort when Westbrook rests.

George, a four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA Third Team selection, forced the Pacers' hand by making it clear that he would leave after next season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He has averaged 18.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 3.2 apg during his seven season career; last season, he scored a career-high 23.7 ppg while also posting career-highs in field goal percentage (.461) and free throw percentage (.898, fifth in the NBA).

George does not appear to be the caliber of player or leader who can carry a team to a championship as the number one option, as evidenced by his performance and demeanor during the first round of the 2017 playoffs as the Cavaliers swept his Pacers. That moment and that role as the number one guy were just a little too big for George--and that's OK: not everyone is built for that moment or that role. Westbrook is built for that moment and that role, so if George understands and accepts his place in the pecking order then the Thunder can be a very dangerous team. George has the ability to be a lockdown defender, he is a scorer who also is a shooter (two different skill sets), he is a decent rebounder and he can be the primary playmaker for stretches.

Ideally, George's talents and contributions will enable Westbrook to have better shot selection, to exert more energy on defense and to be able to rest without the entire team falling apart. The Thunder are not yet good enough to beat a fully healthy Warriors team but--if everything breaks right in terms of health and team chemistry--the Thunder could emerge as the second best team in the West. I am not predicting that just yet, mind you, but that is the potential ceiling for this group; I will wait to make my predictions until all of the free agency dominoes fall into place.

The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and acquired free agent power forward Patrick Patterson, which means that their new projected starting lineup is Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Steven Adams. That quintet is a significant upgrade over the Thunder's primary starting five last season: Westbrook, Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Sabonis, Adams. George and Patterson provide better shooting/floor spacing, better rebounding and better defense than Oladipo and Sabonis did.

While the benefits for the Thunder are immediate and obvious, this transaction is obviously a huge setback for the Pacers, who barely made the playoffs last season even with George playing at a high level. Now the Pacers must hope that Myles Turner continues to develop and that Kevin Pritchard--who has replaced Larry Bird as the President of Basketball Operations--is able to rebuild a very flawed and limited roster.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:56 PM

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Friday, July 07, 2017

New York State of Mind, Part VI

The New York Knicks fired team President Phil Jackson on June 28 in the wake of a disastrous three season run that produced an 80-166 regular season record, no playoff appearances and a series of bizarre decisions. Jackson, who won a record 11 NBA titles as the head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, is arguably the greatest basketball coach ever but his dismal failure with the Knicks demonstrates that success in one role in a given field of endeavor is no guarantee of success in another role in that field. Jackson never fully committed to doing what it takes to be a successful NBA executive, which is one reason that I predicted that Phil Jackson's tenure in New York would not end well.

Running a franchise is a full-time job, not something to be dallied with in between trips to Montana and California. The very personality traits and philosophies that contributed to Jackson's coaching triumphs set him up to fail as an executive. Jackson's greatest skill is the ability to motivate and organize a group of players to sacrifice individual glory for team success and to understand--in a famous Kipling line that Jackson often quoted--"The strength of the Pack is the Wolf and the Strength of the Wolf is the Pack." Jackson thrived when he could work with players directly and connect with them as individuals. An executive's role is much different; an executive must be more detached than the coach and must make tough decisions about a player's objective value. An executive also must work tirelessly to assemble information about all available talent pools: free agency, the draft, overseas prospects, etc.

Jackson failed to get rid of Carmelo Anthony and then he compounded the problem by diminishing Anthony's value (and New York's leverage, both with Anthony and with potential Anthony suitors) by publicly criticizing him. Jackson's handling of the Anthony situation--the single most important matter that he dealt with during his tenure with the Knicks--is baffling. Jackson's public comments about Anthony are, for the most part, accurate: Anthony is a ball-stopper, he is not a great leader, he does not have enough commitment to defense. I assumed that, for those very reasons, Jackson would get rid of Anthony as soon as possible but instead Jackson not only re-signed Anthony but he granted him a no-trade clause. It is very unlikely that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team--and at this stage of his career he probably would not even be the second best player on a championship team. It is mystifying that Jackson apparently understood this and yet still tied the fate of his executive career to the heavy anchor of Anthony's inability/unwillingness to lead a team to an elite level.

Perhaps James Dolan insisted that Jackson build around Anthony and so Jackson figured that he would do the best that he could, before realizing that this simply would not work. The Knicks are a dysfunctional franchise under Dolan and they will remain a dysfunctional franchise until Dolan either sells the team or stops trying to micromanage the basketball operations.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM

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Sunday, July 02, 2017

How Will the Chris Paul Trade Impact the Rockets and the Clippers?

The Houston Rockets acquired perennial All-NBA point guard Chris Paul from the L.A. Clippers in exchange for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick next year and cash considerations.

NBA conventional wisdom is that the team that acquires the best player "wins" a trade, so from that perspective Houston is the clear winner in this deal. However, even if you buy the premise that Houston "won," it is not clear that the Rockets significantly improved their chances to win a title.

Chris Paul joins James Harden to form one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA. Both players can shoot, score off of the dribble and create open shots for their teammates. Yet, despite their accomplishments and skill sets, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that Paul and Harden are two very good players who--for different reasons--are much better suited to being the second option on a championship team than to being the first option on a championship team.

Paul has proven to be a feisty and divisive player who feuds with coaches and teammates. He has never taken a team past the second round of the playoffs despite being surrounded by excellent talent for most of his career, so it is puzzling that he is so often praised as a great leader. Paul is generously listed at 6-0 tall; he is powerfully built but ultimately he is a small man in a large man's game and thus he is injury prone and has a tendency to wear down in the playoffs.

Harden gives minimal to no defensive effort and his gimmicky offensive style is not nearly as effective in the playoffs against good teams as it is in the regular season against lesser squads. With Harden at the helm, the Rockets have lost in the first round three times in five years under three coaches.

Another major concern for any savvy Rockets fan is that Paul is a defensive-minded player but Coach Mike D'Antoni and Harden do not share that defensive mindset. Paul will confront anyone at any time, while Harden pouts when he is criticized; the interactions between those players after Harden blows multiple defensive assignments will be very interesting.

The other side of the court could also be challenging as well. Paul and Harden both want to monopolize the ball and control the pace of the game, with Paul preferring to grind it out in the halfcourt set while Harden likes to push the tempo.

Houston gave up a lot of depth to acquire Paul. The Rockets beat the Thunder in the first round of the 2017 playoffs because of their depth, not because of Harden; the Thunder actually did quite well during the time that Harden was on the court. There is obvious value to adding a star to the roster but adding an aging, small star whose skill set and demeanor may not fully mesh with the other star on the team may not yield enough to offset all of the value provided by the sacrificed depth.

I am not suggesting that acquiring Paul is necessarily a bad move; if anything, it is a positive sign for the Rockets that perhaps Daryl Morey is realizing that his "foundational player" James Harden needs serious star power by his side to go very far in the playoffs. I just am not convinced that this move is enough to enable the Rockets to get past the second round of the playoffs.

As for the Clippers, the Chris Paul experiment had clearly run its course: three first round losses and three second round losses in six years, including blowing a 3-1 second round lead to Harden's Rockets in 2015. There is nothing to suggest that if the Clippers kept their nucleus intact--which probably was not even possible since it appears that Paul wanted out--then they would ever advance past the second round of the playoffs. The next task for the Clippers is to rebuild around franchise player Blake Griffin, who has agreed to a five year, $173 million deal. It is unclear if Griffin is good enough--and can stay healthy enough--to be the best player on a championship team but by dealing Paul and opening up the bank vault for Griffin the Clippers have chosen their path for the next several years. Guaranteeing that much money to Griffin is risky considering his track record but losing him and completely rebooting is an unpalatable option to any sensible general manager.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 AM

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