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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Thoughts About Two High Scoring Performances and Observations About the Start of the 2017-18 NBA Season

The first 10 games or so of the 2017-18 NBA season have featured some great individual performances and some surprising team performances. Here are some of my thoughts and observations about what has transpired thus far:

* LeBron James scored 57 points on 23-34 field goal shooting (including 2-4 from three point range) as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Washington Wizards 130-122 on Friday night. He made all nine of his free throw attempts, while also grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds and dishing a team-high seven assists in 43 minutes. James set single-game career highs in both field goals made and field goals made in the restricted area (14) while establishing a new single game scoring mark for Capitol One Arena, the fourth facility where he owns or shares the single-game scoring record (Air Canada Centre, American Airlines Arena and Vivint Smart Home Arena are the others).

James tied the franchise single-game scoring record set by Kyrie Irving versus the San Antonio Spurs on March 12, 2015 and James became the youngest player in pro basketball history to score 29,000 career points, just two years after becoming the youngest member of the 25,000 Point Club. James also became the only player other than Kobe Bryant to notch a 50 point game in his 15th season or later (Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his 20th--and last--NBA season).

This game reaffirms a few things about James:

1) He is not a "pass-first" player. As I wrote after James scored a single-game career high 61 points three years ago versus Charlotte as a member of the Miami Heat, "Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs."

2) While it is obviously not realistic to expect James to score this many points and/or shoot this well on a consistent basis, he is unguardable when he is committed to attacking the paint as opposed to settling for jump shots.

3) James is developing a deadly turnaround midrange shot that could help him age effectively a la Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, in contrast to some highly athletic players whose games declined as soon as they lost a step.

The Cavaliers' early season struggles--they are currently 12th in the Eastern Conference, an embarrassing start for a talented team featuring James--are largely a result of individual and collective defensive indifference; assuming that the Cavaliers address that issue by playoff time, an offensive attack focused around James attacking the paint--while being supported by several three point shooters--will be very difficult to stop.

* Two days after LeBron James scored 57 points, James Harden poured in 56 points on 19-25 field goal shooting while dishing a game-high 13 assists in Houston's 137-110 thrashing of the Utah Jazz. When Harden is hot from three point range--he nailed seven of his eight attempts from beyond the arc in this contest--he is very difficult to guard and his shooting efficiency in this game is very impressive.

Harden has always been a potent offensive player both as a scorer and as a passer. A major key for success for any offensive player is freedom and Coach Mike D'Antoni has given Harden the opportunity to dominate the ball-handling for this squad. It has been proven that D'Antoni's offenses are difficult to contain during a long, hectic regular season and not nearly as difficult to contain during the postseason. It has also been proven that neither D'Antoni nor Harden place much emphasis on defense.

Both of these 50 point games are outliers but the key difference is that the way that James played--attacking the paint--is both repeatable and a recipe for team playoff success, while it is highly unlikely that Harden will shoot .875 from three point range in a playoff game or that Harden's Rockets will advance very far in the postseason if they are relying on him consistently making seven three pointers per game.

* Led by Harden, the Houston Rockets currently own the Western Conference's best record (8-3). The Rockets have accomplished this largely without the services of Chris Paul, who injured his left knee in the season-opening win against Golden State and has not yet returned to action. Paul was not particularly effective in that game (he shot 2-9 from the field and posted a -13 plus/minus number) and it is not at all clear that he can form a complementary duo with Harden. The Rockets are Harden's show and since they have proven that they can win (in the regular season) with Harden dominating the ball it is difficult to imagine that Harden is going to cede touches/control to Paul, who is also used to dominating the ball. Paul is not a catch and shoot long range marksman, so what is he going to do while Harden monopolizes the ball? There are also the not insignificant issues that (1) Paul plays gritty defense while Harden does not and (2) Paul is not shy about publicly yelling at teammates while Harden has proven to be very sensitive to any form of real or imagined criticism. This does not look like a recipe for postseason success.

The Rockets rank first in three point field goals made and three point field goals attempted but just 23rd in three point field goal percentage after ranking 15th in three point field goal percentage last season. The Rockets rank 15th in defensive field goal percentage after ranking 23rd in that category last season. Some might argue that the Rockets' three point shooting is likely to improve--and that is probably true--but it is at least as likely that their defense will also regress to accustomed levels.

The three point shot is a great weapon but there is a misconception that Golden State's recent dominance is primarily attributable to three point shooting. The Warriors are unquestionably a great three point shooting team but their star players are also willing and able to score in other ways, while D'Antoni's Rockets are fully committed to jacking up three pointers regardless of whether or not those shots are falling on a given night. Even more importantly, the Warriors are individually and collectively focused on consistently playing great defense, which means that they can win even if their shots are not falling on a particular night.

The Rockets may very well have a great regular season--that would not be a first for a D'Antoni-coached team--but a quick postseason exit is still the most logical expectation for any team that is built this way and that functions this way.

* Chris Paul's former team, the L.A. Clippers, started the season 4-0 and they are now 5-4. Many commentators expected the Clippers to suffer mightily after trading Paul but the reality is that Paul--despite his gaudy assist totals and his ability to play at a high level on both ends of the court--has never had as much impact on winning as the "stat gurus" believe. Paul is an undersized point guard and he does not fit either of the historical profiles of players who typically lead teams to championships (usually either dominant big men or else versatile players in the 6-7--6-9 range). The traditional, mainstream narrative about Paul is that he is (1) a great leader and (2) a player who makes his teammates better. I would argue that if he is as great a leader as his supporters suggest then at some point he would have actually led his talented supporting casts past the second round of the playoffs. Regarding the second point, I am more interested in objectively determining if--and how--a player makes his team better than I am in bold, subjective assertions that certain players allegedly make their teammates better. Blake Griffin, for example, is a great player with or without Paul.

The Clippers are not as good as they looked during their fast start nor as bad as they have looked in the past week or so but--barring injury--they should be a solid playoff team in the competitive Western Conference.

* Last season, I expected Coach Frank Vogel to revitalize the Orlando Magic and lift them into playoff contention--but instead they fell from 35-47 to 29-53. This season, I predicted that the Magic would miss the playoffs but the early returns suggest that I underestimated this squad. Evan Fournier (20.3 ppg, .474 3PT FG%), Aaron Gordon (19.1 ppg, .559 3PT FG%) and Nikola Vucevic (17.9 ppg, .405 3PT FG%) are spearheading a surprisingly potent offensive attack and the Magic have been very solid on defense as well, ranking 11th in defensive field goal percentage. They may not be able to maintain their lights-out three point shooting for 82 games but if they continue to play as hard as they are now then they will be a lot better than I (or just about anyone else) expected them to be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM