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Friday, April 13, 2018

2017-18 Playoff Predictions

Before I make my annual playoff predictions, I will offer some comments about the 2017-18 NBA season.

This season's biggest story is the Houston Rockets, who finished with the best record in the league by far--65-17, six games ahead of the Toronto Raptors and seven games ahead of the defending champion Golden State Warriors. To put that in perspective, in each of the last two seasons, the Warriors finished six games ahead of the rest of the league.

The Rockets had a better season than I--or just about anyone else--expected or predicted. Much of the praise and attention is focused on James Harden, the presumptive regular season MVP. Harden had an exceptional season: he won his first scoring title by averaging a career-high 30.4 ppg and he ranked third in assists (8.8 apg). However, Harden has put up big numbers before and that has not led to this much team success.

The big difference for Houston is team defense. The Rockets are mediocre in defensive field goal percentage (.462, 16th in the league) but they force a lot of turnovers and thus they have vastly improved in points allowed: last season the Rockets ranked 26th out of 30 teams in points allowed but this season the Rockets vaulted to sixth in the league in that category. Mike D'Antoni-coached teams are always going to push the ball, score a lot of points and shoot a lot of three pointers but this may be the first D'Antoni team that takes defense seriously.

There is still a misconception in some quarters that Golden State's recent success is somehow a vindication of D'Antoni's "Seven Second or Less" Phoenix Suns teams--but, in fact, the Warriors took a much different approach. D'Antoni's Suns just tried to outscore teams and were largely indifferent to defense, while the Warriors individually and collectively are great defensively.

Chris Paul has always been a feisty, combative and effective defensive player despite his small statute. His mentality has had an impact in Houston, along with the addition of other tough-minded defensive players such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Clint Capela has blossomed into an All-Star caliber center for this era, a mobile big who runs to the rim on offense and who rebounds/plays defense.

The Rockets have shown over 82 games that they have enough talent to win it all. It will be very interesting to see how they do in the playoffs, especially considering the less than stellar postseason resumes of D'Antoni, Harden and Paul.

The second biggest story of the season is the under the radar individual excellence of Russell Westbrook, who won the 2017 regular season MVP after becoming the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season. Westbrook just pulled off an even more impressive accomplishment: he averaged a triple double for the 2018 regular season to become the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double in consecutive seasons (or two seasons at all).

I picked Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder to finish third in the West, so their fourth place finish in a very competitive conference is not terrible or surprising but some people talk like this team is a major disappointment. The reality is that last season Westbrook absolutely carried a talent-bereft team to the sixth seed in the West and this season he carried a more talented but still flawed team to the fourth seed. While the Thunder only added one win to their 2017 total, their relative standing in the conference improved.

Westbrook averaged 25.4 ppg (seventh in the NBA), 10.2 apg (first in the NBA and his fourth straight top four finish--not bad for a player often derided for allegedly not keeping his teammates involved) and 10.1 rpg (tenth in the NBA for the second year in a row, a remarkable feat for a 6-4 point guard). Westbrook improved his FG% from .425 last season to .449 this season, though his three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage both declined (from .343 to .298 and .845 to a career-low .737 respectively).

Westbrook is understandably resentful that he has been accused of artificially chasing certain statistics: "A lot of people make jokes about whatever, stat-padding or going to get rebounds. If people could get 20 rebounds every night, they would. If people could get 15 rebounds, they would. People that's talking or saying whatever they need to say, they should try doing it and see how hard it is. Since everybody wants to be talking, I'm tired of hearing the same old rebound this, stealing rebounds, all this (stuff).  I take pride in what I do. I come out and play, and I get the ball faster than someone else gets to it. That's what it is. If you don't want it, I'm gonna get it. Simple as that."

Westbrook's teams have always performed much better when he gets a triple double than when he does not, so even if it were true that Westbrook is "chasing" numbers that alleged "chase" has helped his team; the Thunder went 20-5 this season when Westbrook posted a triple double and 28-29 when he did not. In other words, when Westbrook is not playing at an Oscar Robertson Pantheon level, the Thunder are just a mediocre team.

The third biggest story is the unexpected rise of the Toronto Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Raptors went 51-31 last season before being swept in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers and it seemed as if Toronto's contending window was closing or closed. Instead, the Raptors posted the best record in franchise history (59-23) and secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. Fringe MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan led the way but he had a lot of help from a deep and versatile supporting cast. There will be justifiable skepticism about this team until it proves that it can maintain this performance level in the playoffs but the front office, coaching staff and players deserve credit for an outstanding season.

The fourth biggest story is the puzzling Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished fourth in the East despite the gaudy statistics posted by the seemingly ageless LeBron James. Ever since James returned to Cleveland, it has been obvious that he has a major say in the composition of the coaching staff and the roster. James always has "his" guys. Yet, the Cavaliers stumbled through this season while playing some of the worst defense ever for a team that fancies itself to be a championship contender. James' individual numbers look great (27.5 ppg, career-high 9.1 apg, 8.7 rpg) but his defensive effort has been subpar for most of the season and the Cavaliers actually went through a lengthy stretch of games during which they performed better when he was on the bench than when he was on the court.

James' extended run of individual greatness and team success is incredible but this has been an odd season in an often paradoxical career; James is so talented that he can consistently put up tremendous numbers regardless of circumstances (including age, injuries to his teammates, etc.) but team success does not always result from his efforts. He has been a dominant player on stacked teams for most of his career, so winning three championships is both an accomplishment but also perhaps something short of what should be expected of him.

Here are my first round predictions:

As noted above, the Toronto Raptors had a great season but in the past four years (since they became a playoff contender after missing the postseason for five straight years) they have only made it past the second round once. The Washington Wizards seemed to be poised to be one of the East's top teams but chemistry issues and an injury that caused All-Star John Wall to miss 41 games pushed them to the bottom of the conference's playoff pack. The Wizards went 2-2 against the Raptors during the season. Wall's late season return could make this series interesting but ultimately the Raptors are a well-balanced and focused team while the Wizards play in fits and spurts. Toronto will win in six games.

After finishing with the best record in the East last season, the Boston Celtics did a major overhaul with the goal of assembling a roster that can beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. Newly acquired Gordon Hayward went down with a season-ending injury in the opening moments of the first game but the Celtics still had the best record in the East for most of the year before being passed by Toronto. Losing All-Star Kyrie Irving for the stretch run and the entire postseason is a devastating blow but Boston is a well-coached, fundamentally sound team that should be able to get past a young Milwaukee team that features rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.8 apg) but ranked last in the league in rebounding and is not stout enough defensively to win a playoff series. The Celtics will win in five games.

Let's get one thing straight. The Philadelphia 76ers have not proved that tanking works; they only started to become good after they fired the tanking guru and put a real GM in charge of the team. That GM--Bryan Colangelo, the NBA's Executive of the Year in 2005 and 2007--changed the franchise's losing culture and assembled a legitimate NBA roster. The 76ers went 52-30 this season and set a franchise record by closing the campaign with a 16 game winning streak, breaking the mark set by the 1983 NBA championship team led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Pump the brakes on the idea that this team is even close to being as good as that team, though; it is sad to say that at least six of those 16 wins came against teams that are tanking at least as much as the 76ers were just a few years ago.

The 76ers' first round opponent, the Miami Heat, remain an inconsistent and hard to figure squad. Last season the Heat started out 11-30 and closed 30-11 to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. This season, the Heat--with a playoff berth at stake--limped to a 12-9 finish but ended up with the sixth seed thanks to even more desultory closing runs by the Wizards and Bucks. The 76ers and Heat split their season series 2-2 but on paper the surging 76ers should make quick work of the Heat; the one caveat is that the 76ers lack any meaningful playoff experience. The 76ers will win in six games.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the worst defensive team in the playoffs. The Indiana Pacers are perhaps the most surprising team in the East and they handled the Cavaliers 3-1 in the regular season. All that is well and good but do you want to pick against LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs? I don't. The Cavaliers will have some embarrassing defensive lapses but they will beat the Pacers in six games.

The final seedings in the Western Conference were not determined until the last day of the regular season. The Rockets had already lapped the field a while ago and the Warriors were safely ahead of the  rest of the pack but teams 3-8 finished two wins apart, with three teams tying at 47-35 and two others going 48-34.

Houston manhandled Minnesota in the regular season, sweeping the series 4-0. I don't trust D'Antoni, Harden and Paul in the playoffs but I am not foolish enough to think that an eighth seed that needed an overtime win on the last day of the season to even make the playoffs is going to threaten them. The playoff history of Houston's main trio is so checkered that I would not be surprised if they stumble out of the gate and lose one of their first two home games but the Rockets are so much better than the Timberwolves that even if that happens it will not change the outcome of the series. Houston will win in four games.

A healthy and focused San Antonio team is a serious threat to the Golden State Warriors, as we saw during last year's playoffs before Golden State's de facto playoff MVP Zaza Pachulia delivered a cheap shot to Kawhi Leonard from which the Spurs still have not recovered. The Warriors took the season series 3-1 and they will beat the Spurs in five games.

During last year's playoffs, Portland was first round 4-0 roadkill for the Golden State Warriors but this season the Trailblazers seized the third seed and homecourt advantage in the first round. New Orleans' Anthony Davis has been on a tear since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles but Davis has exactly zero playoff game wins so far in his career; that run of futility figures to end soon: he will get a win against Portland (and probably two) but not four. Portland will beat New Orleans in six games.

In one game, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a threat to anyone, including the Rockets and Warriors. Unfortunately, the Thunder often play down to their competition and they close games about as smoothly as a jalopy going uphill after a wheel fell off. If Carmelo Anthony or Paul George are isolated at the end of a playoff game with the Thunder trailing, I am turning the TV off; if George and Anthony do what they are supposed to do--carry some weight in the first three quarters so that the Thunder can build and maintain a lead without running Westbrook into the ground--then the Thunder could make some noise. Westbrook will play hard 100% of the time--which should go without saying about all NBA players but sadly does not go without saying--but I just don't trust this squad when the chips are down. However, homecourt advantage and some late heroics by Westbrook should be enough for the Thunder to beat the Jazz in seven games.

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Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Toronto-Cleveland, Boston-Philadelphia, Houston-Oklahoma City and Golden State-Portland. The Cavaliers have eliminated the Raptors in the playoffs the past two years, winning eight of the 10 games, but it is hard to picture a team as bad defensively as Cleveland making it past the second round. The caveat, of course, is that James and the Cavaliers are capable of flipping the switch like no other team. This series is a great opportunity for Toronto, though. James has a long track record of quitting as an underdog when physical and/or psychological pressure is placed on him. If Toronto takes care of business at home in the first two games then the Raptors could advance and that is what I expect will happen.

If the Thunder can get a split in Houston then they can really put pressure on D'Antoni, Harden and Paul--but the Thunder will probably go down 0-2, rally to tie the series and then fall in six games. I never thought that I would pick a D'Antoni-Harden-Paul squad to get past the second round but this seems to be their year.

Boston-Philadelphia is one of the NBA's great historic rivalries. This looks like it will be a seven game war but I like Boston’s defense and veteran toughness making the difference in game seven at home.

Golden State should be at full strength by the second round and that is too much for Portland, who will fight valiantly before falling.

The conference finals--the NBA's version of the Final Four, though no one calls it that--will be fun as always. A full strength Boston team probably would have won the East this year but with both of their All-Stars sidelined the Celtics' playoff run will end in Toronto.

Houston should beat Golden State. The Rockets have homecourt advantage, they have health (barring something unforeseen happening) and they should be more hungry than the two-time champions--but I just cannot pick D'Antoni-Harden-Paul to win a conference finals until I see it happen.

The Warriors are gunning for their third championship in four years but it seems like they have almost been an afterthought this season. They will not be an afterthought after they beat Toronto in six games in the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant will capture his second straight Finals MVP.

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Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2017-2018 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2017-2018 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2017: East 5/8, West 7/8
2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 77/104 in the East and 83/104 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .769.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2017: 14/15
2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 147/195 (.754)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 13 years I have correctly picked 15 of the 26 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 13 years (including 2016 and 2017) I got both teams right and twice I got both teams right and predicted the correct result (2007, 2017). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began three times: 2007, 2013, 2017.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM

158 comments

158 Comments:

At Saturday, April 14, 2018 12:42:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

A few thoughts on the season and some of the remarks above, specifically about Harden, Westbrook, and James.

* At this point, Harden's doing more good for his team than Westbrook. The system he's in minimizes his defensive shortcomings to the point where he might actually be more defensively valuable than RWB (though both still suck), particularly when they hide him on PFs where his large frame and quick hands make him almost a defensive asset, and his offensive production is straight up superior. Kills me to say it, as I hate Harden's attitude/the way he plays the game, but it is what it is. He's the MVP this year (though if James had played hard all season I'd take him, and there's still probably ten guys in the league I think are "better" than Harden in a vacuum).

*Related story, while it's true Lebron was a lazy defender this year, he wasn't any lazier than RWB, who played hard on that end for about two weeks to start the season then quit, as usual.

*I've said before that RWB raises a team's floor while lowering its ceiling; I think this season was pretty good evidence of that. His team added Paul George (a top 5 small forward), Carmelo Anthony (a one-dimensional 10x All-Star), and Patrick Patterson (a starting-caliber PF last season) and won... one more game than they did last season. Meanwhile, former RWB teammates continue to thrive all over the league, and for all his alleged lack of help last season, his old running mate Victor Oladipo may knock him off the All-NBA Second Team.

RWB is a physical marvel with an incredible skillset, but there's little evidence he makes his teammates better, and his defensive apathy, inefficient shooting, and crunchtime predictability put a cap on exactly how good his team can be. Last season he had the excuse of having "no help" but this year he's gote help and yet his true shooting percentage is actually down 3%.

He's starting to look a lot more like Stefon Marbury than Kobe Bryant, to my eyes. Which is a bummer, because he has the physical gifts and the raw talent to be basically faster, shorter Kobe.

 
At Saturday, April 14, 2018 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Onto the actual playoff matchups...

Worth noting is that this is the first first round ever where I don't want to gamble; I could see every single matchup in the opening round go either way, which hopefully will make for some good basketball.

*Raptors should be able to beat the Wizards... but they're the Raptors. I figure this series will be more competitive than it should be, but Toronto probably wins out in the end.

* I think Milwaukee might upset Boston. Stevens is an incredible coach and the Bucks have a lot of problems, but I don't think Boston is well set up to defend Giannis, and without Irving or Hayward to run the offense they're likewise poorly suited to take advantage of Milwaukee's slipshod defense.

* Philly/MIami should be a blast. Miami's had a second straight snake-bitten season, but seem to be getting healthy (minus Waiters). Dragic has had serious consistency issues all season, whether due to age, injury, or fatigue, so their fortunes here probably depend on whether or not the lighter playoff schedule allows him to be the best version of himself every night. If Embiid were healthy I'd take Philly, but I think his absence opens the door just enough for Miami to steal home court and the series, given their edge in playoff experience and coaching. That said, if it goes 7, Philly's winning. That crowd will be rabid.

* Indiana probably can't beat Cleveland, but it'll be fun to watch them try.

* Houston should beat Minny in the battle of the two coaches in the league who most overwork their stars, but never bet against Harden's ability to poop the bed in the playoffs. Mbah a Moute being out matters, too. I think Minny actually steals this if Jimmy Butler is fully healthy, but I don't think Jimmy Butler is fully healthy yet.

* Warriors without Curry are very mortal. Very, very mortal. Especially against Pop. I'm very on the fence on this one, but I think there's probably just enough pride left in Golden State that they'll get it together and win a close series... but I think if SA can get to 3 wins, they'll also get to 4. I don't trust GSW's mental toughness without Curry's big clutch momentum swings.

* Blazers should be able to beat the Pelicans, but there's at least a chance AD goes full Hakeem on them and wins the series by himself.

* Utah has a good enough defense to beat OKC, but I don't know about their offense. If Rubio keeps shooting well and Mitchell doesn't have any rookie jitters, I like Utah to win, but failing that I see OKC prevailing in a bowling shoe ugly brickfight before getting embarrassed by Houston or Minny in the next round while RWB shoots sub-40% and leads the team in attempts.

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 7:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) Harden has had an outstanding season, playing at a higher level than either of us previously believed that he could. I am not convinced that he is doing more than Westbrook or that he is more valuable than Westbrook. As you noted, Harden is in an ideal system to maximize his strengths and hide his weaknesses. I also think that Houston has a better roster than OKC, even though OKC may have more star power on paper; Melo has always been overrated and PG is a bit overrated as well, while Chris Paul is a first ballot HoFer, Eric Gordon is a perennial Sixth Man Award candidate and Capela is an All-Star caliber center in today's game.

2) We seemingly will always disagree about defense in general and the defensive capabilities of certain players in particular (Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook, to name just two), so I don't have much to add here because I don't want to go around in circles.

3) Westbrook is not remotely like Marbury in any way. Westbrook is a vastly superior player on an individual skill set basis and Westbrook has enjoyed far more team success. Westbrook was an All-Star/All-NBA caliber performer for multiple teams that reached the WCF.

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 10:14:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

1) I would probably still take RWB over Harden in a vacuum (though I am much less certain about that than I was a year ago), but in their current systems I think it's fair to say that Harden is having more of an impact. As for rosters, I don't think Capela is better than Adams (and in fact plays very similarly), and at this point in their careers I think Paul George is better than CP3 (and unlike CP3 has been the best player on a Conference Finalist). You are right that Melo is overrated, but he is still probably a better player than Ryan Anderson. I would agree that Houston has a better bench, but I think OKC has a much stronger starting lineup (particularly when Roberson is healthy). OKC's bench is unremarkable, but not awful, either.

2) Fair enough. I do find it odd that you are able to recognize and critique much of the exact same bad defensive behavior from Lebron that annoys me about Westbrook, however.

3) I do not mean he is literally only as talented as Marbury, but he reminds me of Marbury in that, at least post Durant, he posts statistically impressive stat lines but does not seem to make his teammates better, or impact winning the way you would expect numbers like those to impact winning. Also like Marbury, he does not put in the same amount of effort on defense or when he is off-ball on offense as he does when he has the ball.

He is stronger, faster, and more technically sound than Marbury. But we have seen him average triple double for two seasons now without cracking 50 wins. Last year is perhaps understandable (if we assume that Oladipo and Sabonis both got orders of magnitude better over the offseason and their shortcomings last year have nothing to do with RWB's style of play), but this year he had a top 10 center, a top 4 SF (top 5 when Leonard is healthy), and an admittedly overrated 10x All-Star and yet did not meaningfully improve on that performance.

Until he commits to defense and/or finds himself in a custom-made perfect system for hiding his warts like Harden did, I don't think he'll be making any more WCFs. I also think Marbury probably could have made an WCF himself on a team with Durant/Ibaka/Adams, so I hesitate to laud RWB too much for WCF appearances as a second banana.

I am not yet convinced you can win anything with RWB as your best player, now matter how many statistical records he sets. Perhaps "best player" is the wrong term here (there's at least a devil's advocate case that Paul George is a better overall player), but I am not convinced you can win anything RWB as your centerpiece. He renders your crunchtime offense predictable, leaves your defense exploitable, and seems to be able to depress the enthusiasm/effectiveness of talented teammates as often as he elevates weaker ones.

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 4:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When did Capela become an AS-caliber center?

Is Capela better than any of these centers: Drummond, Jordan, Cousins, Howard, KAT, Davis, Embiid, Jokic, Love, Vucevis, Adams, Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Horford, Gobert?

That's 15 guys. I could see a case for him when added to this mix, to be around #10-12 range at best, but probably is in the #12-14 range. When there's only 4-6 centers in the AS game, and I don't think he's particularly close to making it currently, that's not exactly AS caliber. I like his game and he's getting better, but just a glue guy and always will be. He plays the fewest minutes out of all these guys, and that's with a team that's pretty thin at the center position after him.

 
At Monday, April 16, 2018 4:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RW is an amazing player, but have to mostly agree with Nick about him, other than the defense part some. I'm not seeing him making his teammates much better, if any, rather pretty much the opposite. He had a lot more help last year than we realized. And did 1 win better this year with his new, improved cast. Oladipo led IND to 48 wins this year, same as RW, and just outplayed James in game 1. Who's his 2nd best player: Young or Bogdanovic? Solid players, but hardly anywhere close to AS caliber.

The results haven't been there for RW as the #1 guy team-wise, but maybe he'll do something in the playoffs this year that will surprise us. For all the talk in here about Harden not doing this and that, Harden has a much better track record as his team's #1 guy so far, and seems to make his teammates much better than RW does. RW deserves credit for making 4 WCF, but almost any player of starting PG ability could've done that at least 1-2x with KD and the cast OKC had for several years, plus with Harden picking up his slack in the 2012 WCF to make his lone Finals. HOU does have a better roster than OKC, but 17 games better? And OKC's starting lineup looks better, which means a lot more in the playoffs when rotations are shortened.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 7:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

My main answer to all of your negative points about Westbrook is that when he reaches a triple double the Thunder win at an elite rate and when he does not log a triple double the Thunder win at a Draft Lottery team rate. That strongly suggests that his supporting cast is really not all that good--regardless of how it may look on paper--and that his team needs for him to perform at a Pantheon level in order to win. Now, some of this may be the result/fault of the coaching staff not using the correct rotations or maximizing the talents of all of the players, but Westbrook--unlike Marbury--is clearly not just chasing numbers at the expense of wins. For instance, Marbury was renowned for getting upset if a player who he passed to did not shoot--even if the next pass resulted in a team score--because Marbury's primary reason for passing was to accumulate assists.

I am not convinced that Durant, Harden or Ibaka are necessarily better without Westbrook but their opportunities have changed after they were placed in different situations and/or roles. Regarding Oladipo, he did not look like a star before he arrived in OKC, either; he may just be a late bloomer and there is no evidence that Westbrook was somehow holding him back. I am quite sure that Westbrook (and Donovan) would have been thrilled if 2018 Oladipo had shown up during last year's playoffs, particularly when Westbrook was on the bench and OKC was outscored approximately 100-2 (those are not official numbers but that is what it felt/seemed like).

It is funny sometimes what is said about players unless/until they win a title. Go back and read the Jordan Rules by Sam Smith. Bill Cartwright lamented about Jordan that Jordan was perhaps the greatest athlete he had ever seen but that Jordan simply did not know how to win. That was all of about two years before Jordan led the Bulls to six titles in an eight season span. Jordan sure must have learned/changed a whole lot in those next two years! Or, maybe, Jordan's teammates improved and the new coaching staff had a better idea how to maximize everyone's talents.

I once wrote an article about the laughable way that every year some writer would assert that Kobe used to be selfish but now he has changed (which was at least an improvement over True Hoop's drivel...). Kobe did not suddenly learn how to win in 2009; while it is true that Kobe added to his game every year, he was an All-NBA/All-Defensive performer during the first championship run and then his team success suffered a bit until the Lakers put at least minimally competent teammates around him.

When Westbrook had a good team around him, he was an integral part of multiple WCF runs. He took last year's Thunder as far as anyone else (other than maybe LeBron) in today's game could have taken them. We will see how far he takes this year's Thunder.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 7:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I said that considering the way today's game is played Capela is essentially an All-Star caliber center because he shoots a high percentage, he rebounds, he defends and he is excellent at setting screens/diving to the hoop.

Regarding the specific players who you mentioned, in today's game and considering their respective roles on their teams, Capela is better than Drummond, Howard, Vucevic and Adams for sure. He is clearly not better than (not listed in any particular order) Davis, KAT, Cousins, Love, Jokic or a healthy Embiid (but Embiid is often hurt and sometimes the most important "ability" is durability).

A lot of this is context specific; Capela is not better than prime Howard, nor is Capela suited to being the best player on a championship team--but as the main big on a run and gun "modern" team he plays his role to near perfection.

My larger point is that I disagree with a narrative that would suggest that Harden is taking a bunch of stiffs and magically transforming them into a title contender. Houston is deep and talented, with a playing style that is suited to the roster's strengths and weaknesses. I am not sure that this is a championship recipe but it worked a lot better in the regular season than I expected and it worked well enough to convince me that Houston has enough talent to win a title (though I don't expect the Rockets to win one); the Rockets are not some charming underdog being carried by "The Beard" but rather a 65 win team whose season would be disappointing if it does not result in a deep playoff run.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 11:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Capela is definitely not better than Drummond. Drummond's a 2x AS, and I seriously doubt Capela is getting or would get much serious consideration for the AS team, even in the East. Plus, HOU is probably the perfect situation for Capela to maximize his skills. He's still 1 of the 3-4 worst centers offensively that I've listed. His defense is solid, but solid enough to overtake many, or any, of these guys? It'd be hard. Not sure about Howard/Adams either.

Love would be 1 of the guys I'd say Capela might be better though, but it's close.

The other guys you didn't mention: Cousins(clearly better), Aldridge(clearly better), Gobert(comparable offensively, way better defensively), Jordan(very comparable-probably a little better), Marc Gasol(looks better, but possibly not).

Minutes played is still a key stat, and Capela ranks last amongst all these guys. Capela is in the perfect situation, and still #10 at best. I understand what you're saying about him and mostly agree about his skills, but bottomline is that he's still several guys away from being a fringe AS-caliber center.

HOU has a nice squad, but it's still a bunch of career role players, Paul(who's never done much in the playoffs even as a #2 guy behind Griffin), D'antoni(whose had a lot of shortcomings as a coach-but somehow is getting his team to play great defense this year), and then Harden. Obviously, this team should be doubted for now. However, HOU shouldn't beat be expected to beat GS, even at full strength, even if Curry doesn't play. And Anderson/Mbah a Moute(2 key guys) are currently hurt, too. GS will have better coaching, more talent(KD/Thompson/Green trio is still way better than Harden/Paul/Capela trio), and comparable with team depth. HOU will only have homecourt advantage, if these 2 teams meet. GS has a much easier path to the WCF, too. MIN would've been the #3 seed if Butler was healthier during the regular season. Then, OKC/UTA will be tough 2nd round opps for HOU. Kawhi-less SA, then POR or NOP doesn't scare me much. OKC is one of the few teams in the league that more-or-less has the recipe for a title: a top 5ish player with 1-2 other AS-caliber players plus some decent role players after that. Another underwhelming regular season for RW in the alpha dog role, but OKC could beat anyone.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I do not disagree with you at all about Harden and Houston.

I do disagree that Capela is "for sure" better than Adams. Capela is a little faster and more agile but Adams is stronger and more seasoned. Both are deadly on the roll (Capela can jump a little higher to finish lobs but Adams has better touch around the rim and is probably a slightly better screener). I don't think either is an All-Star but I think in a league that more properly valued defense (beyond blocks and rebounds in the box score) they'd both be candidates.

Regarding RWB's former teammates, I think it's pretty clear that Harden is better now but it's fair to argue that would have happened no matter where he played (at least his refining of his three point shot/iso game, if not his monster numbers). I do think Durant is a little better but would attribute that to a coaching staff that's forced him to diversify his game some, particularly on D. Ibaka I think is about as good now as he was in OKC.

On the other hand, I think Kanter is playing much better in NY, despite being on a much worse team (and getting more defensive attention without RWB and KD around). I think Oladipo is obviously much better but I do not think that is 100% only about RWB (more on coaching in a second, plus he's in better shape). Sabonis however is obviously much improved and it's mostly a product of him being allowed to do literally anything besides "stand behind the three point line and wait for RWB to kick out to you" which was his role in OKC and a waste of his talents.

Melo is demonstrably worse in an off-ball role. Paul George is still very good but it's perplexing to me that his FG% has actually gone down since joining RWB and becoming every defense's second priority rather their first.

Coaching is a factor in most if not all of those cases, but so is usage; players like to get the ball. In the RWB-centric OKC ecosystem, guys mostly only get the ball at the end of an RWB set, but they rarely get to play "their" game. Very rarely did OKC run sets to get them involved/maximize their talents. Having said that, Houston's system is similarly Harden-centric but seems to bring the best out of his supporting cast.

Ultimately, I would stop shy of saying RWB makes his teammates worse. But there isn't much of a case that he makes them better, either, and that's confusing for a player with such high passing numbers (and I don't just mean assists; on a per-pass level, his targets convert at an above league-average rate).

I do think that his defensive apathy is somewhat infectious. Oladipo, Sabonis, Durant, and even Kanter (to a lesser extent) have improved their effort on that end since leaving his side. That may be a culture issue as well but RWB is certainly not helping.

I do not need RWB to win a title for me to hold him in the same kind of esteem you do. I do need him to play consistent defense and/or trim some of the fat from his offensive game (dumb early-clock 3s and no-prayer out of control layups against multiple defenders, mainly). As-is, while he's obviously an upper-tier star, he brings enough negatives with him that I think any team with him as their best player has a built-in ceiling. I don't think any team, with RWB in his current form as their best player, could win a title (or at least not without a lot of help from the injury gods).

I feel the same way about Harden, incidentally, although I think his offensive game is pretty complete (pending whether or not it crumbles against playoff D again) and his defense probably has further to go (though Houston's staff has done a great job of minimizing that weakness).

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 1:17:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I forgot to address your point about RWB's win rate when he records a triple double. It is impressive, but I think does little to prove anything beyond that his teams do better when he plays better; the same is true of almost any star. I imagine Stephon Marbury's teams likely won at a better rate on nights when he had 25-10 than not, too. I suspect (though this is harder to measure with box scores) that OKC wins at an even HIGHER rate when RWB plays hard/smart on defense for an entire game, or in games when he shoots fewer stupid early clock 3 pointers that almost never go in.

That RWB's teams have thus far been unable to crack 50 wins or the 2nd round of the playoffs (though the latter is likely to change this year) with him as the #1 guy suggests that no matter how good they are when he's at his best, he is not at his best often enough for them to be a true contender.

My case has never been that RWB should stop getting triple doubles; it's that the mere fact that he gets triple doubles does not immediately make him a perfect player beyond reproach, and that for his teams to win at the highest level he will either need to improve his game or add a teammate who's better than he is. Even in a Harden-like perfect situation, smart upper-tier playoff teams would still target his weaknesses and likely come out on top.

Triple doubles are an interesting statistical milestone but a player getting 20/10/10 is not necessarily any better than a player getting 20/11/9 or a player getting 30/15/4. They are not the be all, end all that some media personalities like to pretend they are. Fat Lever and Rajon Rondo have more career triple doubles than Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant, but nobody in their right mind would take them over any of those guys.

Back on RWB, he has, at the moment, a reasonably strong team around him. It could be stronger, but a (supposed) top 5 player should be able to make some hay with an All-NBA-ish level SF, a well above average center, a decent but unremarkable two-way wing (Brewer), and a declining 10x All-Star who, while overrated, is not completely without value. Patterson

I don't buy the Jordan comparison because Jordan's teams were generally knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual Eastern Conference champs, stacked All-Star teams that were each dynasties in their own right. Before winning the title, his teams made it to the ECF twice and the and the semis twice (losing to Boston or Detroit each time), suggesting both improvement and the ability to at least compete with the very best.

I believe if OKC is to win anything of note with RWB as their best guy, he will need to become a stronger defensive player (Jordan was elite on that end) and/or improve his offensive efficiency (Jordan was elite at that, too) and/or get the best out of his supporting cast (Jordan was pretty great at that, as well). If he starts doing those three things and still can't win 50 games or make a Finals appearance, then the issue will clearly be coaching/not enough support. But for now, at least part of the problem is that RWB, for all his value, does too many things that hurt his team on both ends, and that's at least part of why they're not winning as much as they probably should be.

I'll also note that in spite of all of that, I think there's a non-zero chance they make the WCF this year. Utah can't score and most of my criticisms of RWB similarly apply to Harden, at least in the playoffs.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 5:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Looks like my sentence about the supporting cast got cut off, but should have read "Patterson, Felton, and Grant are not world-beaters they are perfectly respectable bench players."

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 6:33:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

You are right. Jordan and Westbrook are not equal. And, yes, Jordan was a much more efficient player than Westbrook. The arguer in me wants to talk about competition level, athletic ability, team-specific roles, etc. during Jordan’s time, but I’m perfectly content in settling on our common ground and moving on with our lives. Or, at least onto other fun topics. My segue into...

I think the Shaq thought experiment is a fun one. And, for the record, I don’t know if he could do it, but I’d love to see Embiid give it a go against Shaq. Embiid is like a taller, stronger, better Rasheed Wallace. In fact, there’s several centers that I think would at least make it interesting, before probably failing. I’d be curious to see how the Stifle Tower would respond or an antelope/gazelle like De’Andre Jordan or a stretch, semi-bulky, uber smart Marc Gasol. But, yeah, not too many guys in today’s NBA that could even pretend to guard Shaq. Oh, I may be interested in seeing Draymond “kinda today’s Rodman (as a defender)” Green give it a go too. He’s got the wingspan, the quick hands, and the low center of gravity that would at least give him a fighting chance. He’d be a problem for Shaq to guard too.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 8:49:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Nick, where do you pull Westbrook's supposed defensive apathy being infectious from? The Thunder have been a top 10 defensive team this year and last year as well.

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 10:08:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Keith-

Totally fair question. My opinion comes from chiefly a few things:

1) How much worse they got defensively once Roberson went down this year; they were elite when they had Roberson/George/Adams, allowing them to hid RWB/Anthony on the other teams' two weakest players. They were much worse defensively once Roberson went down (roughly league average). IIRC they were 1st or 2nd when Roberson went down (and their D-RTG with him on the court would have led the league by over 4 points if a team put it up all season).

2) D-RTG and related stats factor in defensive rebounding as part of defense, which is fair, but not really what I mean when I refer to an individual player's defense or lack thereof (I think of rebounding more as a neutral third category, like special teams in football). OKC has been a great rebounding team (in large part thanks to RWB) which factors heavily into those considerations, but doesn't factor into my criticism of lazy transition or rotational defense.

3) Oladipo was a better defender both before and after playing with RWB than he was with him. Sabonis has improved significantly without him as well, though that may just be a second year player making normal strides.

4) Eye test, mostly. RWB doesn't consistently bust his ass to get back in transition and neither do his teammates (except usually but not always for Paul George). Teams tend to follow the lead of their best players, and I worry that RWB treating defensive effort as a luxury rather than a necessity enables his teammates to approach it the same way. Some of them have the motor to bust anyway (Adams, Roberson) but others don't/didn't (Oladipo, Melo, etc.)

I should note that it isn't totally fair to put this all--or even mostly-- on RWB; it's not literally his job to force his teammates to play defense, but when we're comparing him to guys like Jordan (who would chew out a teammate who didn't get back in transition and almost always got back himself) it becomes relevant.

FWIW, Harden doesn't do any of those things either, but Houston has surrounded him with high-motor defenders (plus Chris Paul, who brings some of that Jordanesque "motivation").

 
At Wednesday, April 18, 2018 10:15:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Addendum to the above: OKC's D-RTG without Roberson on the court this season is 110.7, which would be about 23rd in the league over a full season.

Their rebounding has stayed strong, so the dropoff is almost entirely due to shoddier pre-shot defense. A lot of that is on RWB (and the bench, which has few strong defensive players).

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 12:04:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

James Harden, 2018 MVP, somehow just went 2-18 with a +1 in a playoff game his team is winning by 24 w/ 2 minutes to go.

Minnesota held the Rockets to 37% shooting, completely neutralized Harden, and still found a way to get blown out.

Thibs needs to learn how to install a coherent offense soon or his head coaching days are likely numbered.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 1:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree that Houston is a perfect situation for Capela.

Regarding Drummond, in my estimation he is what Kenny Smith sometimes calls "a looter in riot," meaning a player for a poor team who puts up individual numbers that are not particularly meaningful.

Capela exceeded 13 ppg, 10 rpg and 1.8 bpg this season. That may not look that impressive but since 2007 there have been just 22 such seasons (including his). Howard did it seven times in that time span, Anthony Davis five, Tim Duncan twice, Pau Gasol twice, Whiteside twice, Drummond once, Bynum once, Gobert once. That is pretty good company for Capela, who is still young and improving.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 1:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is what you have to worry about for HOU and Harden, and their philosophy offensively. They're very volatile since they rely heavily on 3's; however, it's a great sign for them struggling so much offensively and able to win by 20.

MIN's defense is showing up, but I think it was mostly show Harden missing shots he normally makes. Harden had the best game one in the league, but then couldn't find his shot in game two, but he still had a huge impact on the game. He continues to setup teammates well, could've easily had 12-15 assists. However, he actually played great defense in game 2. Only one game, but he's contributing in several other areas when his shot isn't following. Harden actually grades out very well in most areas on defense. The problem is that he often doesn't try much in transition defense, and his lowlight reel looks really bad which clouds people's memories.

I wouldn't read into +/- too much. Joe Ingles had the best +/- in game 2 in the UTA/OKC series, and he had a terrible game. RW is -6 for the series, as is James in his series.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 1:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I pretty much agree with you about Capela, except about rating him as an AS-caliber center, even in supposedly down years in nba history for centers.

For all the talk about 'Harden being in the perfect situation", I don't really understand, or don't quite understand the implications at least comparedly to other stars. Harden was putting up huge numbers before D'antoni, and has played for several different coaches in HOU. I agree he's a good situation in HOU, but most star players are on their respective teams. The main difference when D'antoni arrived is that Harden switched more to the PG role on offense. Naturally, he'll get more assists then. But, that's no different than RW(who is a PG, plays PG, and dominates the ball) or James(who's essentially his team's PG and most offensive plays are run through him). The rest of Harden's stats have remained very steady compared to pre-D'antoni.

You can't honestly tell me guys like KD or Curry aren't in perfect situations either. While they might have to sacrifice a little from their individual stats, that's a dream as a player. And James has had stacked teams for about a decade now, until kind of this year, which is primarily his fault, since he likes to meddle in everything. And while Harden may have fumbled about playing with another star at one point, maybe with Howard(who was a bad fit in HOU and has been a headcase at most of his stops in the nba btw), he's now welcomed Paul and seems to love playing with him, even though they're both ball-dominant, very similar players.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 2:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Part of the edge that I give to Capela over Adams is age/athleticism. Capela is bouncier and still improving, while Adams has likely peaked.

I agree that triple doubles--or any other one stat/combo stat, for that matter--are not the b all, end all in terms of player evaluation. However, Westbrook is getting "big" triple doubles--he is an elite scorer, not a 10-15 ppg guy, in addition to being an elite rebounder from the pg position (very rare, really something that only Oscar and Magic have done consistently). If Westbrook were really selfishly chasing numbers as some of his critics suggest, then his team's effectiveness would plummet in those games when he gets his biggest numbers; since the opposite is the case, I conclude that his big numbers have at least some correlation with winning.

Harden's ability to lead Houston to 65 wins this season has surprised me and I won't completely know what to make of this until after the playoffs are over. It is fair to say that he is better than I thought/expected but I also think that he has a very good supporting cast and I still believe that the D'Antoni system/Harden style of play is not conducive to deep playoff runs.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 2:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am pretty sure that OKC would have zero or near zero percent chance of winning any game--let alone a playoff game--if Westbrook played as poorly as Harden did.

Harden's supporting cast is outstanding, but that does not fit the media (or "stat-guru") narrative about Harden and Morey.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 2:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Plus/minus can be noisy but if one actually watches a particular game and knows what happened/why it happened then plus/minus can be useful.

Capela is an All-Star caliber center in this era but he is not an All-NBA caliber center (yet) nor is he an All-Star lock; as you noted, there are several players who can perform above or at/near his level in a given season.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 2:41:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wright said...

I caught some of game 1 -- it looks like Harden is still the one-trick pony he always was: a glorified one-on-one player who can't really dominate or control a game even on his hot-shooting nights. Also a complete non-factor on defense. They don't make MVPs like they used to.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 3:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree with most of your last few comments.

I disagree that OKC couldn't win a game like that one against a team like the Timberwolves, assuming Paul George had a good night. OKC has enough strong defenders (and Minny's offensive philosophy is wonky enough) that a decent PG game should be plenty for them to beat the T-Wolves on a night like last night.

Let's not forget, Paul George is not far removed from being the best guy on teams capable of winning 50+ games. He is plenty capable of stealing a game more-or-less by himself against an underperforming opponent.

I do not disagree that a game in which any star player shoots 2-18 is very difficult for his team to win, particularly in the playoffs.

I agree that Harden has a very strong supporting cast, particularly in terms of depth/complimentary roles. I don't think OKC's cast stinks, either, though. George is excellent (if inconsistent), Adams is a top-10 center, and Brewer is a useful two-way wing. Anthony is a mess this season, but still capable of big numbers or plays on the right night. Patterson, Felton, and Grant are all perfectly cromulent rotation players, though I do think OKC is somewhat missing a classic change-of-pace 6th man like Houston has in Gordon.

I would take OKC's starting lineup (especially with Roberson healthy) over Houston's, but I would take Houston's bench over OKC's.

I don't think the talent gap is especially wide between the two teams, but I do think Houston does a better job of putting its guys in the best position to succeed; OKC continues to struggle to figure out how to get much value out of anyone besides RWB who needs the ball (Oladipo last season, Melo this season).

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 3:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Perhaps if "Playoff P" (or whatever George is calling himself) shows up, OKC could win with Westbrook shooting 2-18 from the field but considering that OKC struggles to win half of their games in which Westbrook does not post at least 10-10-10 they don't figure to win many games in which Westbrook contributes so little.

I like Houston's depth much more than OKC's and I think that Houston has better togetherness/camaraderie. I am surprised that Harden and Paul get along as well as they seem to do. Paul has seemed to alienate or at least agitate a lot of his teammates, as has Harden. Maybe they both know that their best chance to ever win something is to do it together.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 4:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, Capela is at the very best, the 10th best center in the league, and that's in the perfect situation for him currently. Harden spoon-feeds him 8-10 points almost every game. Maybe you rank him a little better overall, not sure. You mentioned 6 guys better, but then didn't mention Aldridge/Horford/Gobert/Gasol and a few others at all, so I suspect you feel similarly. Given that about 5-6 centers make each AS game more-or-less, this doesn't add up to Capela being an AS-caliber center. Even on the best team in the nba, he didn't make the AS team, which is often slightly easier to make on elite teams. I like Capela's game, and he's a solid role player, but it's going to be hard for him to ever make the AS team.

When your team and star player play elite defense and hold the opposition to 82 points, it's pretty hard to lose regardless of how poorly your star player shoots. I've seen similar games with Kobe and others before, too. Probably won't happen on a regular basis, but does once in awhile. RW's has had plenty of very subpar shooting games that have resulted in team wins, too.

RW's cast isn't that bad, and is very comparable to Kobe's casts when he led LAL to titles in 09 and 10. For argument's sake, let's say 2010 Kobe and 2018 RW are equal. George is probably better than Pau as a #2. I'm taking Adams/Melo/Brewer over Odom/MWP/Fisher. Then it's an injured Bynum/Farmar/Brown/Vujacic vs Felton/Patterson/Abrines/Grant, which is very comparable, not sure who has the better bench. Regardless, both casts very close. RW has a good enough cast to win or at least make some serious playoff noise. He's kind of in the same boat as James these past few seasons. Very gaudy stats, but they don't lead to as much regular season success as they suggest. James has figured it out more in the playoffs than RW has though. RW has plenty enough help to win more than 48 games, and whatever the talent gap between HOU and OKC is, it's certainly not a 17-win difference if we say RW was better or even equal to Harden during the regular season.

Nathan, that's a pretty awesome one-trick pony, basically single-handedly winning a playoff game when basically only one of his teammates(Capela) shows up, though Green/Nene did ok in limited roles.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 4:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I don't think Houston can win a ton of games where Harden is 2-18 either, to be fair. Most nights they probably can't count on 24 from Gerald Green or a complete non-effort from the opposing offense to bail them out.

I agree with you for the most part re: depth and chemistry... but Paul/Harden probably deserve some of the credit for that camaraderie, as the leaders of the team.

I was not as surprised as you that they got along *this* season... it usually takes a season or two for Paul to wear out his welcome, and for Harden to turn on his sidekick/coach/whomever. It will be interesting to see if they remain such good friends in the seasons to come, especially if they don't have a successful postseason run this year.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 5:19:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

The eye test from last night's game against the Utah Jazz seemed to tell me that the Thunder generally have a hard time creating their own shots when Westbrook is not on the floor. Somewhere in late 3rd quarter/early 4th, Westbrook had helped the Thunder rack up a 10 point lead. He went to the bench and after a while it wilted down to a 1 point lead.

Defensively, I watched Westbrook a bit and a concession to Nick's corner: there was at least once he seemed caught out of position and had to rush to close out on someone's 3 point attempt and he made maybe two ill-advised shots from deep. Besides that, he seemed defensively solid with overall good effort, a couple of steals, a defensive play that would have been recorded as a block if the targeted player had not been fouled beforehand, and good defensive rebounding that allows him to ignite fast breaks or find open players further up the floor.

I would say I find his hyperactivity/energy level to be very infectious, so I imagine his teammates do too. Melo disappointingly completely bricked the last few shots at the end of the game though.

 
At Thursday, April 19, 2018 11:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of talk in here about +/-. But, OKC actually did ok when RW was on the bench in game 2. RW was -5 in game 2, while OKC was -2 in the 11 minutes he sat, which really isn't that bad with most teams who have star players, and can definitely be overcome. OKC really fell apart when Melo sat. +4 with him in 38 minutes, but -11 in the 10 minutes he sat.

RW didn't have a good game in game 2. And rookie Mitchell is arguably outplaying him so far through 2 games, which shouldn't happen. Melo missed some late-game shots, but so did RW. The game was definitely within his reach to win. One problem with RW that still continues is that he can't play enough minutes, if needed. He's only 4th in the series in mpg. 37mpg isn't going to cut it, he needs to be at 40mpg+.

 
At Friday, April 20, 2018 3:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to RW, and I mostly agree what Nick was saying about RW's triple doubles. It's not about the actual feat of the triple-double, it's about playing very well. Whenever a star player plays extremely well, their team will almost always have an excellent record, RW is certainly not alone in this area. The same goes for James, Harden, KD, etc.

It's no secret RW does chase stats, but again, a lot of star players do. Whether you like it or not, is your opinion. He was clearly hunting rebounds in OKC's 82nd game. It's a fantastic milestone to average a triple double for a season. But whether he got 16 rebounds or not in the 82nd game, I don't think it had much to do with the outcome of the game. He sacrificed scoring to hunt for rebounds, which arguably was more of a detriment to his team. Luckily for him, his team picked up his scoring slack and did great. Jumping over teammates at times to secure a rebound doesn't additionally benefit his team any. The lineup MEM put out there was shameful.

RW shouldn't be too resentful. The media voted him MVP last year on a team, in hindsight, looks like it underachieved quite a bit. The 3 main guys who left OKC in last offseason(Kanter, Sabonis, Oladipo) are all playing much better than they did last year with RW. I still think RW could do something special as 'the guy', even though it's looking more and more bleak. There's no reason why he can't easily make the 2nd round this year, and at least come close to the WCF.

One note on D'antoni. When he was with PHO, his 2 best players(Nash/Stoudemire) had little interest in playing defense. Even if the other 3 starters are solid defenders, it's hard to be a great defensive team if that's the case. Maybe he didn't worry about defense that much, but even if he did, it's hard to see PHO being much better defensively than they were. PHO actually ranked from #13-#17 from 05-08, so they were an averageish team defensively during that time period, but not terrible. They fell off defensively in 09-10 though. GS, in recent years, does have more rounded star players than those PHO teams, but they're also deeper and more talented. Curry and KD are both much better than Nash or Stoudemire ever were, too. Plus, the top teams that PHO had to go up against(SA, DAL, and LAL) in the 2000s are definitely better than the teams GS has had to go up against in the WC playoffs since 2015. 2017 SA might've been the one exception if Kawhi was healthy, but he wasn't. And maybe 2018 HOU will be a formidable foe, but hard to say that about them yet.

 
At Monday, April 23, 2018 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

It'll be interesting to see if Harden and/or Westbrook can rise to the occasion today. Despite their reputations as the engines of their teams, both OKC and Houston have been MUCH better per 100 possessions so far when their stars sit:

Houston w/ Harden: +7.4 per 100
Houston w/o Harden: +30.5 per 100
Difference: -23.1

OKC w/ RWB: -5 per 100
OKC w/o RWB: +17.5 per 100
Difference: -22.5

Small sample size, granted, but the playoffs are by nature a small sample size. The biggest surprise in those numbers is that OKC's offense has been much, much better (an unsustainable 132.5 points per 100 possessions) when Westbrook is on the bench (they're currently at 97.5 with him) as Utah has been able to pretty accurately predict/prevent the core RWB-centric OKC offense but hasn't yet figured out an answer for the more haphazard bench lineups. In RWB's defense, OKC's rebounding and assist percentages crater when he sits (and their defense gets even worse), but so far that's been massively overshadowed by a way higher effective shooting percentage (67% when he's on the bench, 47% when he's on the court).

For Harden, the offensive dropoff isn't quite as severe (though it's still a 9% eFG shift and 10 points per 100), but their defense unsurprisingly gets much stouter when he hits the pine (holding opponents to 13% lower eFG and 13 fewer points per 100).

If we want a simpler (and less nuanced) stat, let's look at +/-:

RWB is dying there, at -10.3 per game, third worst among all players who've played at least two playoff games, ahead of only Damian Lillard and Aminu. Given that those guys are both now out of the playoffs, that's not what you want to see if you're pulling for OKC.

Harden, meanwhile, has a respectable if unspectacular +1, but it's my opinion that has more to do with him playing against a crappier team than it does with him playing any meaningfully better than RWB. He's shooting better (and therefore scoring more) but still only shooting 40% overall and 37% from 3 (Russ is at an abysmal 36% and, true to form, shooting almost 4 threes a game despite making just 27% of them), and his passing/rebounding/defense have all been worse than RWB's so far.

TL; DR: Our reigning and future MVPs are sure not playing like it so far, and if they don't turn it on tonight, they could be in some real trouble. OKC obviously doesn't want to go down 3-1, but given Houston's history and reputation for playoff collapse, it might be nearly as bad for them to end up at 2-2 against a maybe-finally-figuring-it-out T-Wolves team.

 
At Monday, April 23, 2018 12:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RW is definitely struggling, but still averaging a triple double. He's getting enough help, but defense is OKC's main problem. But, he's only been the 3rd or 4th best player in the series so far at best, that needs to change quickly.

Harden's shooting overall is subpar, but that was mainly do to one game of abysmal shooting. In his other 2 games, one was outstanding where he basically single-handedly led HOU to a win, and then he had a great game in the other. In his one bad-shooting game, he stepped up big time on defense and was still facilitating well.

MIN is looking pretty tough though, especially defensively. They have advantages in their starting lineup at all frontcourt positions. HOU only holds advantages in the backcourt for starters. Paul is playing fairly well, but still not much better than Teague overall. These +/- stats are interesting, but hard to know what they're really saying most of the time. I wouldn't be surprised about any of HOU's starters being to close to MIN's starters, especially those playing higher minutes. The difference is that HOU's bench is usually much better than their opps; however, this hasn't been the case in the series with most of their role players struggling a lot so far(Gordon, Tucker, Ariza, Johnson), Anderson has played just one game, and Mbah a Moute hasn't played at all.

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 1:46:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Whelp. Harden showed up, at least.

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 7:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) I agree that neither Harden nor Westbrook has consistently played at an MVP level through the first four games of the playoffs, though both have had MVP level moments or stretches.

2) Regarding last night's game fours specifically, Harden did not "show up" until 18 minutes into the game when he finally made a shot. Despite Harden not "showing up" for the first third of the game, his Rockets played the Timberwolves to a standstill up to that point. Then Harden and everyone else got hot in the third quarter and it was over. Meanwhile, Westbrook "showed up" from the first possession. He did what you always are begging him to do, which is play with as much energy on defense as he does on offense. He took the challenge of disrupting Rubio, who had been the key to Utah's game three success. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Westbrook got into foul trouble, most of the rest of the team did not accept the defensive challenge and Westbrook had another poor shooting night.

3) I don't put much stock into "advanced basketball statistics"; my "eye test" tells me that OKC is far more dependent on Westbrook than Houston is on Harden (which could be Westbrook's "fault" or Donovan's "fault" or the "fault" of Westbrook's supporting cast). Not counting the seldom-used Terrance Ferguson (six minutes played in the series), Basketball Reference's BPM (Box Score Plus/Minus) rates Brewer first in this series for the Thunder (not surprising considering his gritty defense and solid offense) and Westbrook second. Then George is .3 and everyone else is in the negative. No one is really playing that well for the Thunder. Maybe you feel like that is Westbrook's "fault" or Donovan's "fault" but what I see is Westbrook trying to carry a group that is just not performing well. I would prefer that Westbrook shoot a better percentage and turn the ball over less frequently but, as Westbrook puts it, his job description is "do everything" and a player who has to carry that much of a burden is not going to have a perfect stat line.

Harden leads the Rockets in playoff BPM (not counting the seldom-used Chinanu Onuaku) but the difference is that he has five other teammates in positive territory, including two (Paul and Capela) with better numbers than anyone on the Thunder.

Any plus/minus numbers are sensitive to small sample sizes and not always valid to compare across different playoff series but these "advanced numbers" seem to support what my "eye test" observes: Harden has a deep team around him that is well-built to accentuate his strengths and hide his weaknesses, while Westbrook's supporting cast is not as well-built.

4) Westbrook could and should play better but I would contend that even if he were shooting .450 from the field with 20% fewer turnovers the Thunder would still be down 3-1 because they can't consistently stop the Jazz and Westbrook does not have enough help from his teammates offensively. The Thunder have been outscored by 37 points in the past three games; an increase in Westbrook's FG% and a decrease in his turnovers might be worth 18-20 points in that span but the Thunder would still be in negative territory without better performances from other players.

Meanwhile, Houston wins despite Harden having a 2-18 outing in one game and despite Harden essentially being a non-factor for the first quarter and a half in game four. Harden is actually performing in this year's playoffs much like he has throughout his career: he is a high variance player who can be spectacular and then awful. If that trend continues, Houston will be eliminated by the first locked-in team that they face, which has happened in each of Harden's playoff runs with the Rockets.

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 9:16:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think you and I are more or less on the same page about Harden, though I'd posit that his supporting cast playing so much better than OKC's has to do with more than them just being "better":

Minnesota is not very good, but Utah is.

Harden still provides some offensive value when he is off-ball because he is a dangerous shooter from range and a willing screener. He is therefore more able to help-or at least not hurt- his team offensively when his shot is not falling.

As for RWB, I am not sure I trust your math on the idea that if he were shooting way better and turning the ball over less his team would still be losing. His bad shooting and turnovers not only cost his team points but also create more high-percentage transition opportunities for Utah. Putting aside the raw numbers, if he were shooting at a respectable rate it is also likely Utah would have to pay more defensive attention to him and that would likely open up better shots for his teammates; part of the problem right now is that Utah is basically content to single-cover him until/unless he gets into the paint, where Gobert is a master at quickly rotating to stop him.

Of course, his shooting and turnovers are only a small part of the problem for OKC.

Let's start with his alleged defense. Putting aside for the moment that this was the first time in months he bothered to try on that end (and his difference in effort was notable from the jump), let's look at what happened when he did.

In setting out to "lock down" an average athlete with no jumper or finishing ability who shoots about 38% for his career, RWB rapidly amassed four fouls (three of them on defense). At this point, OKC was forced to switch him to another relatively unathletic white guy in Joe Ingles, who repeatedly lost him in the half-court and sprung open for three point attempts (most of which he made). Ingles had 20 points for the game, 11 of those coming after RWB switched onto him. He also shot 50%.

It is worth noting that despite RWB's "defense" on Rubio, Utah still shot 46% and scored 56 points in the first half. He succeeded in keeping Rubio from scoring (which Rubio is pretty capable of doing to himself) but did nothing to short-circuit Utah's overall offense, which begins with Rubio's penetration. Rubio got into the paint at will, where he either drew a foul from RWB or kicked out for a secondary action.

Rubio finished with his season average in points, to go with 8 assists and 4 turnovers. He did shoot worse than usual (only 33%, but then he's usually only at around 41%) but was extremely effective at drawing fouls and getting his teammates good looks.

1/3

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 9:17:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

It is nice that RWB put in a defensive effort for an entire half, but it was not an effective one, and the reduction in Rubio's FG% was largely mitigated by sending him to the line so much (5 FTAs in the first half, 8 overall). Rubio normally averages about 3 FTAs per game. With RWB on him, Rubio scored 6 points against 5 FGAs, which is right around his usual RoI (he averages 13 points on 11 attempts).

Meanwhile, on offense, not only was RWB once again ineffective with the ball in his hands, he was likewise ineffective without it. While we know from the KD era he is a great cutter when he wants to be, on this iteration of OKC he does not seem to want to be, generally just standing at the top of the key and waiting for the ball when he doesn't have it. On the rare occasion he sets a screen, good things generally happen, but he does not do that often, either. Maybe this is because he is too tired from his large offensive load otherwise, but if that's the case than the solution is probably to let Paul George carry a little more of the ballhandling responsibilities (this, as you pointed out, is at least partially on Donovan).

Speaking of George, for the series he's averaging 27 points per game on 45% shooting (42% from three), putting him above your old 25 ppg/.450 fg% measuring stick for a top-level playoff performer, so I don't think it's fair to say RWB isn't getting help. The problem is that outside of George, the OKC offense is a dumpster fire. Again, part of that is on Donovan not being either able to get value out of Melo or ballsy enough to bench him, but I also think it's fair to ask an alleged top 10 player or "best guard in the league" as you sometimes call him (or 2nd best behind Curry as you other times call him) to at least not throw gasoline on aforementioned dumpster fire, and it is likewise fair to ask a guy who's supposedly one of the best passers in the league to find a way to get his teammates involved.

Back to RWB, beyond being a defensive nothing and an offensive catastrophe so far in this series (after four games his team is shooting 12 percent better with him on the bench and scoring 35 more points per 100 possessions, and they're assisting on more buckets) has been a poor leader, petulant and pouty both on and off the court. He is not even contributing well as a passer, with his team at one point last night going 22 minutes without an assist (and with the two assists on either end of that stretch coming with RWB on the bench). He is also not having any kind of an impact in the fourth quarter, where he is currently averaging 3 points on 33% shooting.

I glossed over it in that paragraph, but it's worth noting that OKC's non-RWB lineups are outscoring Utah by 4 points per game in 11 non-RWB minutes per night. His supporting cast is playing fine so long as he's not playing with them. Paul George specifically is shooting 20% better when RWB sits. Melo (in a smaller sample size that may be meaningless) is shooting 23% better. OKC as whole is shooting 14% better; that sample size covers 44 minutes.

Last year I begrudgingly picked RWB as the regular season MVP in spite of his crappy defense because his numbers were incredible and his supporting cast seemed to be weak. A year later, and I now feel more strongly than ever that you can't win anything if he's your best guy, and his massive statistical accomplishments are more smoke than fire.



2/3

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 9:28:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Whether or not Houston has a better cast, it's certainly fair to say OKC has a good one, with Paul George putting up MVP-ish scoring numbers in this series (though he's been unable to shut down Donovan Mitchell on the other end). RWB no longer has an easy excuse for his over-dribbling, his terrible shooting, his poor shot-selection, or his extreme turnover rate. The fact of the matter is, since Durant left town, RWB has played extremely poorly in the playoffs (at least defensively and offensively; it is fair and right to give him some credit for his rebounding). He does not seem to be much of a leader, more interested in boasting about what he's going to do to Utah's third best guy or slapping Rudy Gobert after the whistle than finding ways to get his teammates or himself going.

Perhaps a lightbulb will go on for him in the next game, and his team will come back to win the series and I'll need to re-evaluate again. More likely, his season will be done in a game or two and this offseason he will watch yet another All-NBA caliber teammate leave and flourish in greener pastures, making it three in as many seasons.

If he doesn't make his teammates better, doesn't score efficiently, doesn't impact the game on defense, can't make good players want to play with him, and can't win in the playoffs... what exactly is his appeal at that point? Big numbers meaning nothing? The occasional breathtaking dunk? Bad Mountain Dew commercials?


Moving on from RWB, you're right that Donovan deserves some blame. He is over-reliant on the "everybody stand around and space the floor while RWB does something" plan and runs relatively little action to get any of his ballhandlers the ball while already in motion (RWB would likewise benefit from plays where he could catch the ball with a full head of steam or a defender plastered to a screen).

He is likewise seemingly unable to conjure a cogent defense against a largely unremarkable Utah offense that features only one guy who shoots above 35% from three.

He has been unable to extract anything of value from Melo (exempting the aforementioned too-small sample size of Russ-less minutes, at least) and unwilling to bench him. It is a near mortal lock that OKC at this point would be better off starting Grant (who at least plays defense) or Patterson (who at least can shoot from deep) at the 4 over Melo. Perhaps Melo could contribute if he were brought in fresh to beat up bench units while RWB/PG rest, as well.

Donovan has likewise been unable to keep his team's emotions in check, and will be lucky if nobody is fined or suspended after last night's game (RWB violated the Amare Stoudemire rule about leaving the bench during a fracas, and would absolutely be suspended if David Stern were still in charge; luckily for OKC (and basketball generally), Silver tends to be more reasonable on that front). Losing Adams for a game particularly would be catastrophic.

If OKC loses in 5, and especially if George leaves, I would be surprised to see Billy keep his job.

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 10:47:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

"The Thunder have been outscored by 37 points in the past three games; an increase in Westbrook's FG% and a decrease in his turnovers might be worth 18-20 points in that span but the Thunder would still be in negative territory without better performances from other players."

I want to comment on this a little more specifically.

OKC has three no-question plus defenders in their starting lineup (Adams/George/Brewer). Their bench is not great defensively but has been kicking Utah's ass in limited minutes*, so we can't blame them, either. George is doing his job on offense. Steven Adams is scoring efficiently and playing good defense but not rebounding as well as he might like, but that's to be expected against Rudy Gobert.

*Abrines and Grant have by far the team's best On/Offs, and Felton's and Patterson's, while negative, are still better than all the starters'.

OKC's failure comes down to two players and a coach. Westbrook and Melo blow up the OKC defense, and neither is scoring at a rate (or doing anything else on offense) that makes up for it. You may be right that simply upping RWB's shooting and lowering his turnovers by 20% would not be enough to swing the series, but getting him and/or Melo to play even league-average (let alone good) defense might.

Utah is scoring 109.5 points per game. That's over 5 PPG over their regular season average. OKC is scoring 102.5. That's 5 PPG below their season average.

The problem is not just that OKC isn't getting enough from Melo/RWB. It's that they're also getting torched on D by a team that isn't all that intimidating offensively, but the same two guys are still the primary culprits.

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 12:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting way of spinning it. Harden has one bad-shooting quarter, but then completely dominates after that, and you make it seem like he didn't play well. And you make it seem like it's a crime for Harden to have good teammates. Why do most of the other stars get this luxury but not him? He's had 3 A to A+ games, and found other ways to contribute in the other game where his shot wasn't following. He's easily been the best player in his series. In contrast, RW continues to struggle a lot. His team is actually doing better without him on the floor, which goes against the storyline in here. Sure looks like George has been OKC's best player so far, while guys like Mitchell/Gobert seem to be outplaying RW, too. Rubio is not a great player and has never been close to being an AS. RW should be absolutely destroying him on a nightly basis. RW's cast is very similar, possibly better, than Kobe's casts in the late 2000s, who dragged his teams to 3 Finals, winning 2. It's hard to buy what you're saying that RW doesn't have enough help to at least beat UTA, especially when he hasn't been the best player in the series so far.

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 2:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Apparently the NBA is seriously considering suspending RWB. I really hope they don't (it was bullshit when they did it to Amare and it would be only very slightly less bullshit now).

If they do, though, it'll be interesting to see whether OKC gets stomped in Game 5 (likely) or if they pull out a win (unlikely, but less unlikely than some might think). There's at least a little potential there for 1980 Lakers/76ers game 6 scenario, where Utah has built a defense designed to neutralize RWB (and an offense that targets him on the other end) and isn't prepared for whatever OKC throws out there in its place. That... would not help Russ' rep, to put it mildly, but would ultimately have more to do with the coaching on both sides than his presence or absence.

 
At Tuesday, April 24, 2018 2:56:00 PM, Blogger the unnatural said...

I don't know how anyone can watch the display put on by Westbrook last night and extract anything positive. Westbrook didn't disrupt Rubio at all, he played right into Rubio's hands. Westbrook spent the first half picking up a player full court and guarded him closely at the three when that guy isn't a threat from distance who prefers to move the ball anyway. The only thing Westbrook succeeded in disrupting is any chance of cohesion because Russ placed his personal vendetta against Rubio above playing the game in a way that benefits his team. As a result, all Westbrook disrupted was his own team by picking up silly fouls (and he should have fouled out) and exhibiting petulance throughout the game, which rubbed off on his teammates. And I'm not even sure how anyone can say Westbrook isn't getting help. If anything, it's Paul George that needs help and is performing how you generally contend stars should perform in the playoffs unless that player's name is Westbrook. In that case, it's all excuses.

Like Anonymous said above, Westbrook's current cast is not substantially worse than Kobe's late-2000s cast. There is literally no excuse for the Thunder to be down 3-1 to a team led by a rookie. Particularly when they are lead by the purported "best guard in the league" but somehow unable to manufacture anything resembling an efficient offense. Donovan shoulders some of the blame to be sure, but Westbrook is still the one on the court dominating the ball, taking bad shots, and concerned more with a personal vendetta than the game at hand.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 9:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) Melo appears to be washed up. As Brian Scalabrine recently noted, Melo has to take about five mini-steps to come to a jump stop. His explosiveness is gone. Of course, even in his prime Melo was not a great leader or playoff performer.

2) George’s overall playoff numbers are solid in this series but he has been inconsistent from game to game and even from quarter to quarter.

3) Westbrook has been a high level performer on multiple WCF teams. I reject the notion that he cannot be the best player on a championship comtender.

I agree that he has not been in peak form this series. What we are seeing confirms what I have said: this team needs 30-10-10 Pantheon Oscar Robertson performances from Westbrook to be anything better than mediocre. If he reaches that level in game five and sustains it, OKC can still win this series.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 9:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

My comment about Harden was specifically responding to Nick’s contention that Harden “showed up.” Harden did not “show up” for the first 18 minutes and his team held down the fort. After he showed up, Houston blew out Minnesota.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

1) I mostly agree. As I said, he should be benched. I am not yet convinced he has no value as a bench scorer, however. Jamal Crawford lost his explosiveness years ago but this is the first season where he looks truly washed thanks to mostly just beating up on bench lineups, and Melo as recently as last season was better than peak Crawford.

2) I agree, but George is still ultimately putting up the kind of numbers you want to see from the best player on a contending team. Kobe went 6-24 in the last game of his last playoff run, but he played well enough in other games (and other ways) to balance that out. Very few players will literally score 25+ on 45% every game; it's to be expected that they'll have some nights where they get 30+ on 55% and others where they maybe only get 14 on 38%. Likewise, few players play 4 great offensive quarters every game, even on their good nights.

George is scoring efficiently and at a high volume. He is perhaps not doing it in crunchtime, which is a problem, but then neither is anybody on the Thunder.

George has had 2 great games, 1 good game, and 1 bad game. RWB has had 1 good game and 3 bad games. We can nitpick George's consistency if we like, but at least there's consistency to nitpick.

3) I think he was pretty cleanly the second best player on those teams. Durant was a better scorer, a comparable rebounder, and a better defender. I think you can probably contend with Westbrook so long as you have one of the top players in the league for him to sidekick for (although of course you will still need to implement a system that allows them to co-exist offensively and cover for RWB on defense).

Re: The Oscar comment

First, RWB put up those raw numbers last year and lost in five games because he shot like crap and played no defense. At the time you blamed his poor supporting cast, but it now looks less like he had no help, and more like OKC and/or RWB simply failed to put talented players in a position to succeed. Second, Oscar Robertson played more defense and shot way more efficiently (46% playoff career FG% with three seasons over 50%), and even he never reached the Finals as the best player on his team; give RWB apex Kareem, and yeah, he can probably do some damage. Of course, you could give Brandon Knight or Ty Lawson '71 Kareem and probably make the Finals, too.

The point is, Oscar is a dubious point of comparison as his triple doubles were very different than RWB's, and there's little evidence even he could be the best player on a title team, either (sure, that's largely because he played in an era with Russell's Celtics, but then RWB plays in an era with Curry's Warriors). Another difference is that Oscar generally played well in defeat even when he didn't have Kareem; RWB's post-KD playoff averages are 38% shooting and 5.7 turnovers, both of which would likely be career playoff worsts for Oscar in a series (turnover numbers are not available from that era), never mind a two-year run. In contrast, Oscar shot 46% in the playoffs before he ever met Kareem. He was also the best player on a Conference Finals team twice pre-Kareem, though to be fair in that era you only had to win one playoff series to get there. To be fair in the other direction, it'd be nice to see RWB win one playoff series period before we start calling his playoff performances Oscar-esque.

Finally "If he reaches that level in game five and sustains it, OKC can still win this series." Not sure about that. By the numbers, they wouldn't. He only needs 8.3 more PPG to get there, but they're losing their losses by 13 PPG. Perhaps if those extra 8.3 points come with significantly improved shot selection (or at least shot-making) and impactful, consistent defense, sure. But at that point he'd be a different player than the guy we've seen for the last two years, so I'm not holding my breath.

1/2

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 10:44:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Ultimately, you seem to value RWB's success as Kevin Durant's sidekick much more highly than his failures as the #1 option. I feel the opposite, as:

1) It's a lot easier to look good when the defense is primarily focused on someone else, and even then RWB was only shooting 42% and jacking 4 dumb threes per game at a sub 30% clip.

2) His failures are a lot more recent and relevant than his successes. It's nice that he shot better (though still not well) and won more (though still no titles) when he was playing with 1-2 other future MVPs and the league's leading shot-blocker, but it does little to convince me he can carry a team to contention as their best guy.

That "he did well w/ Durant" defense also seems like a double standard in light of your previous criticisms of Harden, who never made compelling playoff runs without Durant, either. I agreed (and still agree) with that criticism, but it certainly feels like it should be applied evenly.

I also agree that Harden (post Durant) is generally a playoff choke artist who plays no defense, shoots poorly, and turns over the ball too much. But so is Westbrook.

Harden's post-KD playoff numbers:
41% shooting (33% on 3s), 4.5 turnovers, 22-26 record (45% win rate)

RWB's post-KD playoff numbers:
38% shooting (25% on 3s), 5.7 turnovers, 2-7 record (29% win rate)

If you want to limit that to Harden's first two no-KD years (when the Rockets were weakest):
38% shooting (32% on 3s), 4 turnovers, 4-8 record (33% win rate)

It really seems like you're making excuses for RWB that you wouldn't (and shouldn't) make for Harden. Even if we allow that the current OKC is poorly constructed (with an elite two-way wing, a defensive minded center who doesn't need the ball and sets great picks, another solid two-way wing, the corpse of Melo, and a bench that's been performing well this series), it's no more poorly constructed than those first two Harden teams where they surrounded him with other no-defense perimeter guys who needed the ball (Lin, Parsons) and famously moody centers (Asik, Howard). Would you rather have any of those dudes than George and Adams?

Tl;DR: Westbrook having made WCFs back when he was Durant's 2nd banana doesn't do much to prove he's good enough to do anything without him, and all of your favorite (and accurate) Harden post-seasons criticisms should likewise apply to RWB.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 11:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

My point about Westbrook is that over the past two years when he has averaged a triple double during both regular seasons the Thunder have been winning at an elite clip during the games when he posted a triple double (and his triple doubles tend to be of the 30-10-10 variety, not the 12-10-10 variety) and they have been a mediocre team at best when he fails to reach double figures in all three categories.

Westbrook's supporting cast last season was terrible. No amount of revisionist history (or subsequent improvement by those players in different circumstances) changes that fact. To cite just two examples, Oladipo getting in shape this season and young Sabonis improving/doing better in a different role on a different team do not change the fact that Westbrook's supporting cast last season was indeed terrible.

I was not comparing Westbrook to Robertson directly in terms of asserting that one player is better than the other or one player accomplished more than the other. My point is that for the past two seasons Westbrook has put up Robertson-like ppg/rpg/apg numbers and Westbrook's team only does well in those games when Westbrook puts up such numbers. I never made any assertions about how well Westbrook would have done with Robertson's supporting casts/Kareem or how well Robertson would have done with Westbrook's supporting casts/Durant.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 11:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Regarding Westbrook compared to Harden and Westbrook as "second banana," here is my take:

1) Westbrook was an All-Star/All-NBA level performer on multiple WCF teams/one NBA Finalist. For significant stretches during those seasons and playoff runs, he was the best player. That success is meaningful and happened over a sustained period of time. I do not believe that Westbrook has regressed since that time and thus I believe that he can be the best player on a championship team.

2) Harden came off of the bench for the Thunder. He could not beat out Westbrook for a starting spot. Harden came up empty in his only Finals appearance, despite mainly playing against reserves. Harden's lone WCF appearance as his team's best player came during a fluky playoff run during which he was benched by his coach during the most crucial stretch of the series versus LAC. Harden consistently does worse in the playoffs than he does in the regular season.

Harden has been a better and more durable regular season performer in Houston than I expected him to be--but his high variance game still has not translated into playoff success; that part of my prediction about him as Houston's "foundational player" has proven to be correct, thus far.

This is Westbrook's second playoff run since Durant left. Westbrook performed valiantly last season and his team collapsed whenever he was not on the court. Through four playoff games this season, Westbrook has not played as well as he did in last year's playoffs. Those four games (and whatever may happen in game five and possibly game six/game seven) will not decisively alter my overall evaluation of Westbrook based on his entire career track record.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 12:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Ok. We are clearly not going to agree on some of this-- I don't think RWB was ever meaningfully OKC's best playoff player during the Durant era, I thought--and said last season-- that Oladipo was a good player that was simply being misused, and I think it's clear that Sabonis' "improvement" has less to do with age/maturity and more to do with being allowed to touch the ball in the paint and actually play his game instead of spotting up from the perimeter in case Russ needs more assists to get his 10 that night*. I likewise disagree that Russ played especially well in the playoffs last year; he scored 37 points per game but used about 48 possessions per game to do it; 0.77 points per possession is abominable. Just about any starting player in the NBA could probably get close to 37 points if they were allowed to use up very nearly half of their team's total possessions and ignoring the defensive end. Most are just smart enough not to try.

*To say nothing of Waiters, Kanter, etc. who all likewise improved once they got free of OKC. We can nitpick individual examples but at a certain point a trend is a trend.

For that matter, even in his Durant era he shot above 45% exactly once (a first round exit) and never came particularly close to your 45% w/ 25 PPG yardstick for a title-caliber best player. Heck, as poorly as Harden played in their lone Finals appearance, Russ wasn't much better, shooting near-identical Efg% (.446 vs. .448) and a lower TS% while having similarly minimal defensive impact; RWB just took 70 more shots (because of course he did). I'm exaggerating slightly; RWB was a more effective passer in that series by a fair margin and played against starters; but they shot and rebounded at near-identical percentages and didn't guard anybody.

I'm also skeptical that he was ever all that essential to OKC's success; I remember the season he went down with an injury, they won at almost the exact same rate with Reggie Jackson--not exactly a hall of famer-- in his place. You may point out that that was only the regular season and doesn't mean anything... but if the regular season doesn't count, then what exactly does Russ have going for him the last two seasons?

For the sake of argument, how many seasons of sub-400 shooting and first round exits* will it take to change your valuation of RWB? At what point does the fact that he consistently craps the bed--assuming that trend continues; there's every possibility he could work on his game and improve as a defender/shooter/decision maker and as a basketball fan I hope he does-- as the #1 option on a playoff team start to outweigh the fact that he was once upon a time on good playoff teams where he was the second banana (and, even in that role, was pretty inconsistent) behind KD (and surrounded by quality supporting players like Ibaka, Harden, etc.)? Three years? Four?

*Assuming he continues to make the playoffs, which may not be the case if George leaves this offseason and Melo opts in, as the Thunder are pretty severely capped out for the next two years.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

PS: I hate that I'm being put in the position of defending Harden, but it is not fair or accurate to say he "couldn't beat RWB for a starting spot"; at the time, Harden was an SG and they were attempting to use him in a Ginobili-esque role off the bench. He was at no point in competition with RWB for a starting spot. He was clearly the team's third best player and came off the bench because there was no need for three ball-dominant players in the starting lineup, and they already had a passable shooting guard who complimented the other stars in Thabo; they did not have a similarly adequate/complimentary option at PG, so the question of "Who should start: Harden or Westbrook" was likely never an issue.

We can quibble on that if you really want to, but for my money Ginobili was definitely better than Parker, and John Havlicek was definitely better than *literally any other 60s Boston SF goes here* so simply being the bench guy does not immediately make you a lesser player.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 1:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You are correct that we are unlikely to agree about some of this.

1) Did LeBron also fail to make Waiters better or are you putting all of the “blame” on Westbrook for supposedly holding him back?
2) Kanter played well with OKC, though I recall you arguing otherwise at the time.
3) Durant and Westbrook were 1a and 1b with little separation in the 2016 playoffs, the year that OKC took a 3-1 lead on GSW.
4) You are of course correct that some sixth men are better than many starters but the reality is that Harden forced his way out because he knew he would always be the third option with that group.
5) Harden forced his way out several years ago and mostly just has first round losses on his resume since. I am not going to give equal weight to two playoff seasons for Westbrook to several WCF runs during which he was an essential, top level performer.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 2:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

1) Yes. The system in Cleveland likewise took Waiters away from what he does well and relegated him to chiefly spot-up duty, similar to what OKC did to Oladipo and Sabonis. Obviously Waiters also improved his game over the years (and especially his finishing) but Cleveland and OKC both tried to use him as a spot-up guy, which is not (in my opinion) the best use of his talents. It is also interesting that he did not play hard on defense in OKC or Cleveland, but did in Miami. Westbrook and Irving are both notoriously lazy defenders, and as you have observed Lebron often takes plays or even games off on that end as well. Much of that is probably a culture issue but it is hard not to wonder if guys like Waiters (or Oladipo, who was a better defender in both Orlando and Indy than he was in OKC) would play harder on that end if their "leaders" set more of an example.

2) I don't think Kanter has played especially well anywhere (defense counts) but he has statistically been *better* in New York, and certainly isn't any worse defensively there, and I would argue is even a little better.

3) I disagree completely. Westbrook shot under .400 in that series, failed to slow even a one-legged version of Curry*, and turned the ball over 4.5 times per game. Durant, meanwhile, scored more efficiently (though his 3pt shot was off) and played probably the best defense of his OKC tenure. I'm frankly shocked you feel that way.

*I am exaggerating, but Curry was not at full strength.

In the series before that, RWB shot around 38%, took 19 more shots than KD to score 20 fewer points, and allowed a washed up Tony Parker to shoot 47% from the field. He also spent part of that series "guarding" Danny Green, who shot over 50% from 3, many of which came after cheerfully losing Westbrook on a screen or cut.

Durant, meanwhile, managed to shoot 50% and lead the series in scoring despite being guarded by reigning DPOY Kawhi Leonard.

For the playoffs as a whole, RWB shot .405 (that's bad) and 32% from 3 on 6 attempts (that's bad, too). He stunk on D, rebounded and passed well, and cost them a few close games with his down-the-stretch predictability and poor shooting.

KD, meanwhile, was their best player on both ends. Not only do I not think they were "1-A and 1-B," I don't even think it was close. To believe that, you almost have to completely ignore the entire defensive side of the ball, as well as RWB's chuckery and turnovers.

KD was not perfect, either (especially from 3) but I don't think I know anybody who'd claim that RWB was better in the playoffs that year.

4) That was probably part of it, but another part of it was that he wanted a max contract. He has claimed that he would have stayed had they paid him what he felt he was worth. I am doubtful he would have stayed for less, even if they had "promoted" him to starting.

5) I understand that. I'm asking how many seasons it will take before they start to outweigh his days as KD's henchman (for you).

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 6:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) Waiters not only improved his game but when he went to Miami there was not an MVP caliber player like LeBron or Westbrook who rightfully should be controlling the ball, so Waiters had more freedom to play his game. No coach in his right mind is going to take possessions away from LeBron or Westbrook to hand the offense over to Waiters but with Miami's roster it made sense to at times run things through Waiters. I think that Waiters' journey also humbled him a bit and improved his attitude.

In any case, the main point that is relevant to this thread is that I disagree with the notion that Westbrook somehow held Waiters back.

2) The main difference this season for Kanter is his career-high defensive rebounds per game average. I don't believe that Westbrook held back Kanter as a defensive rebounder.

3) I said that Durant and Westbrook were 1a and 1b for the 2016 playoffs, not just (or only) the WCF, but--either way--it is hardly a ludicrous contention. You say that you don't know "anybody" who would agree with me about Westbrook. Here are just three sample articles from that playoff year:

https://www.cheatsheet.com/sports/russell-westbrook-mvp-2016-nba-playoffs.html/?a=viewall "How Russell Westbrook Has Become the MVP of the 2016 NBA Playoffs"

"OKC played championship-level basketball. And it begins and ends with point guard Russell Westbrook. After compiling 18 triple-doubles during the 2015–16 season, Westbrook picked the perfect time to secure his first of this postseason, finishing the contest with a game-high 36 points to go along with 11 rebounds and 11 assists. His unrivaled athleticism was on full display and the rest of his Thunder teammates fed off his energy; something he’s been doing for most of the postseason.

And while the Golden State Warriors may have the regular-season MVP in Stephen Curry, Oklahoma City currently finds itself with a leg up thanks to something that’s even more vital this time of year: the postseason’s most valuable player."

(To be continued)

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 6:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Here are the other links/rest of my response:

https://www.sbnation.com/2016/5/25/11765876/2016-nba-playoff-scores-thunder-warriors-game-4-russell-westbrook-dominance-curry-durant "Russell Westbrook is leading the Thunder by doing what he's always done"

"Russell Westbrook has never changed. Not when he was Kevin Durant's co-star while leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to the 2012 NBA Finals. Not when he had to carry the team on his own when injury sidelined Durant last season. And certainly not when the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs blitzed through the regular season. No, Westbrook continues to be relentless.

Now, after dropping 36 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists on the Warriors to lead the Thunder to a dominant, 118-94 Game 4 win and a 3-1 series lead, his unrelenting play has the Thunder on the brink of another trip to the finals -- and it's the reason the Thunder may be ready to deliver Oklahoma City's first title.

Game 4 was a snapshot of Westbrook's unreal abilities. He attacked the Warriors every chance he got, he defended Stephen Curry extremely well -- Curry was only 6-of-20 for 19 points -- and he continually put the pedal to the metal, never letting the Warriors relax."

Also ESPN Stats and Information provided these tidbits during the 2016 playoffs: "The Westbrook-to-Durant connection created 498 shots during the regular season -- 575 including the postseason -- and was the most frequent pass-to-shot combination in the league, topping the second-most effective duo, Rajon Rondo to DeMarcus Cousins, which registered 481 attempts.

For Durant, 35 percent of his shots begin with a pass from Westbrook, and he has an effective field goal percentage on those shots of 58.5 percent. His effective field goal percentage on all other shots is 54.1 percent.

Of course, the partnership goes deeper than just Westbrook setting up Durant. When Durant is the screener on pick-and-rolls, Westbrook is the ball handler on 73 percent of those chances, and the duo score 0.94 points per chance -- which on a team level would make them the seventh-best pick-and-roll offense in the league.

Westbrook has also been Durant's partner on 55 percent of Durant's transition possessions this season, and when they work together in transition, they score 1.4 points per chance, which would make them second best in the league.

So if Durant were to leave the Thunder in the offseason, he would be leaving a teammate that has been a huge part of his offensive excellence."

We know how that series ended--but the point for this thread is that it is not absurd to suggest that Durant and Westbrook were 1a/1b during the 2016 playoffs. They also both share the blame for the collapse from the 3-1 lead but the difference is that Westbrook accepts the challenge of building something in OKC while Durant ran to a team that can win 73 games without him and can win a title without him.

4) Harden has proven that he can make tons of money and have a lot of regular season success. If he had stayed in OKC, he probably would have already won a title. At least Durant understood that if he was going to give up on beating the Warriors then his best option was to join the Warriors.

5) I can't answer that. Being an All-NBA level performer on multiple WCF teams carries a lot of weight in my book. Losing in the first round with subpar supporting casts is not as significant. OKC lost to a superior Houston team last season and is struggling against a rising 5th seed as the 4th seed. These are not catastrophic personal failures for Westbrook. He's not Kobe Bryant or Oscar Robertson--he's not in the Pantheon--but he is not some garbage player/team destroyer who cannot lead a team to a title.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 6:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Briefly:

1) There is a middle ground between "giving too many possessions to a role player" and "monopolizing the ball."

2) First, given RWB's reputation for stealing rebounds from his teammates, I think he definitely held back Kanter as a rebounder (although that does not necessarily hurt the team). Second, Kanter is shooting a career high from the field and has stopped shooting threes he can't make. Pretty sure he was mostly shooting those to try and create extra space for RWB's drives.

3) If you're going to ignore a historic playoff collapse in which RWB shot 39%, 37%, and 33% in consecutive games while amassing 15 turnovers and a cumulative -34 for the three most important games of his season, then yes, he seems better (although I'd still contend not better than Durant). But I'm not going to be swayed by a bunch of heat-of-the-moment articles that ignore his defensive shortcomings and were pretty much immediately undercut by the next three games. How many of the writers of those articles do you think still felt he was OKC's best player even three games later? How many feel that way now?

4) I don't disagree with any of that. I disagree that he refused to come off the bench.

5) Calling this year's supporting cast sub-par strikes me as a stretch, but let's leave that aside for now. I am not claiming he is garbage, and in fact earlier in this thread said I think he's probably good enough to be the second best guy on a title team. I am, however, claiming he cannot lead a team to a title with his current skillset and playstyle; we've seen no evidence that he can. Even on stacked teams with Durant/Harden/Ibaka he came up short, and without an elite supporting cast he puts up historically poor shooting numbers and historically high turnover rates.

I know you hate +/-, but for what it's worth RWB's currently ranked 199 out of 201 players who've played in this year's playoffs with -11.3 per game. The only two players "ahead" of him are Deandre Liggins and Jordan Crawford, who combined to play a whopping 13 minutes total in a single game.

Not exactly the mark of a transcendent player being held back by poor support. It's the mark of a guy who's hurting his team with his style of play, no matter how high his talent ceiling might be.

I also want to clarify that I am not arguing that Harden, specifically, is better than RWB is (though he's having a better playoffs). I don't think he's good enough to be the best guy on a title team, either, for a lot of the same reasons (he's a better shooter but worse rebounder). I just think it seems that you're unwilling to apply the same standards to RWB that you apply to Harden on the fairly specious grounds that he's previously been on WCF teams. RWB has made exactly one more WCF than Harden, and has had less success as his team's #1 guy. I do not disagree that Harden is in a more beneficial overall situation, but I do think it's odd that nothing is ever RWB's fault, but everything is apparently Harden's.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 7:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

My point in citing those three articles (and they are not the only ones) was to refute the notion that it is somehow ludicrous or inconceivable to suggest that Durant and Westbrook were 1a/1b during the 2016 playoffs. Also, the fact that OKC lost the 3-1 lead when Westbrook did not maintain an elite level of play does not discredit my notion that OKC often needs for him to play at that level to be successful. Durant also fell off during the last three games, by the way, and they both collapsed down the stretch in game seven.

Kanter shooting threes or not shooting threes is more likely a coaching decision than his own personal decision/Westbrook's influence.

I am applying the same standards to Westbrook, Harden and every other player I evaluate. You just disagree with my conclusions and that is OK. I was an almost lone voice in the wilderness for many years arguing that the Lakers made the right choice with Kobe versus Shaq and I am fine being a lone/lonely voice not dumping all over Westbrook.

If Westbrook loses in the first round with supporting casts that are not good enough to go further then that does not invalidate his contributions to multiple teams that advanced to the WCF.

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 8:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Re: Durant

I also think Durant is (slightly) overrated himself, but while you're correct that he played poorly in some of those games he put up 40 in Game 5 (though he shot poorly, he compensated somewhat with 13/13 free throws), and shot 52% in Game 7. He also remained a factor, if not a dominant one, on defense.

I think most of the articles from the middle of that series were click-baity hot take pieces that ignored RWB's warts for the sake of a catchy narrative and therefore don't put a ton of stock in them. I wonder how many of their writers still think he was as good as Durant that year?

Re: Kanter

Westbrook's influence informs coaching decisions; because of his limitations as a shooter/off-ball presence, as well as the threat of his driving game, Donovan and Brooks both tended to pull big men outside of the paint. Ibaka, Kanter, and Sabonis would all likely have rebounded and scored better if they were allowed to more often play closer to the hoop, but that might have meant fewer RWB possessions (and worse, fewer RWB rebounds!) so they were all relegated to spot-up duty.

You are right that none of those guys (or Waiters or OKC-era Oladipo) were anywhere near as good as RWB, but there's something to be said for having a little variety in your offense. Smart teams always know exactly what OKC is going to do (this is even more true in a post-KD world) and that's part of the reason they can never get it done in the playoffs. Running a little action for Sabonis in the post, or letting Oladipo or Waiters create more off dribble handoffs or what have you, would empower OKC to attack weaker defenders and possibly force the defense to make different choices. Kobe was better than Pau (and Pau is better than Kanter) but Pau was allowed to do his thing, and it benefitted the team. Later coaches would try to hide him in the corners as a floor spacer to create more space, but it didn't work very well.

But, because of RWB's ball-dominance (possibly his coaches' fault though I doubt it) and partly because he's not able to space the floor off ball (that one is definitely his fault), OKC's never really been able to take advantage of its role players' skillsets like that, and defenses have it relatively easy guarding the same predictable RWB PnR or Iso almost every time down.

Re: Shaq and Kobe

I remember plenty of people--including me, despite my preference for Shaq as a person-- pointing out that if they had to choose, they made the right choice; Kobe was so much younger and Shaq was already slipping defensively. I'm not sure you were as alone as you seem to think; I remember it being pretty close to 50/50, probably even more pro-Kobe before Shaq won that title in Miami.

1/2

 
At Wednesday, April 25, 2018 8:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Re: Standards

Fair enough. I can't prove anything here, but this is the second time your standards w/r/t RWB have seemed to clash (to me) with your standards regarding another player (Harden/Lebron). For whatever it's worth, that hasn't really happened with any other player*.

*Well, any other current player. Without getting back into it, you do seem to apply a different standard to Elgin Baylor than the rest of the pantheon with regards to the importance of titles, but we've been there and don't need to go back.

Re: Supporting cast

This is where you really lose me. He has an All-Defensive caliber forward that's currently scoring like Kobe (and has previously led teams to the Conference Finals himself), a center that was put on this Earth to set hard screens, roll to the rim, and play gritty defense, a solid 3-and-D guy, and a bench that's winning their minutes. Yes, Melo is a bum, but how perfect of a team does Russ need to get out of the first round or shoot over 40%? How is this cast "not good enough" when his play has arguably been the worst on the team?

Re: Invalidating His Contributions

I guess we just disagree about exactly how much he contributed. You see him as Kobe to Durant's Shaq, a franchise-guy-in-waiting. I see him more as Parker to Durant's Duncan, a gifted but flawed force who can be the best player in a given series when he's feeling it, but ultimately lacks the consistency and all-around skillset to carry a team to a tile as their leading man (though of course Duncan/Shaq/Kobe are all better than either he or Durant). Tony Parker was a great second banana, but I don't think for a second you can build a title team around him as your best guy and I feel the same way about RWB (in his current form; he may still improve).

You also just seem very unwilling to criticize him; whatever you think of his supporting cast, he's obviously playing like crap so far, and his antics w/ Rubio and Gobert are the kind of petulant nonsense you usually (and rightly) excoriate guys for.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 12:18:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Westbrook's performance tonight was incredible. I've never seen anything like that before. I figured it was over when the Jazz lead blossomed up to 25 points. Gobert is obviously pretty central to why Westbrook and company have struggled so mightily this series because once he picked up foul trouble Westbrook had a blank check to go nuts.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 7:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You suggested that no one could seriously believe that Durant and Westbrook were a close 1a/1b during the 2016 playoffs, so I provided three articles to counter that statement. I am not going to get into an endless back and forth about whether the articles are "click baity," nor am I going to analyze the performances of each player in each game in those playoffs, as I already said my piece about that at the time. We can just agree to disagree on this.

Kanter is a player who you have repeatedly dogged over the years and if I recall correctly you even stated rather strongly that no team could win a title with him as a rotational player because his defense is so bad. So, resurrecting him as a functional player who supposedly was held back by Westbrook is a pretty strong indicator of some anti-Westbrook bias on your part. I would suggest that you stop focusing on my supposed biases and consider some of the biases that you have displayed.

Regarding Shaq and Kobe, I do not recall what if anything you posted here during that time, but I know that my articles on that subject got a lot of pushback both in terms of comments here and in terms of articles on other sites. So, if a lot of people believed in Kobe during the early going I think that they were in hiding. I recall people trashing Kobe as selfish and blaming him for "breaking up" the Lakers. Certainly, the mainstream media take (ESPN, TNT, NBA TV, SI, etc.) was against Kobe very strongly for quite some time.

I disagree that George is scoring like Kobe in this series--or, more precisely, I would contest the notion that he is having a Kobe-like impact, if that is what you are suggesting. Maybe he is on paper but not in terms of his overall effect on defensive schemes. Kobe tilted the floor in a way that George does not.

Regarding Oladipo, as the Cleveland-Indiana series has progressed how much has he looked like a leading man and how much has he looked like an overwhelmed player when thrust into that role?

I agree that OKC's offense could have benefited from "some variety" over the years but I disagree with the notion that Westbrook is holding players back.

My point about Westbrook's current supporting cast is simple: no matter how you look at their stats and/or accolades, the win/loss numbers show that when Westbrook has triple doubles OKC tends to win and when he doesn't (unless he goes off for 45 points and a near triple double) they tend to lose. OKC needs for Westbrook to play at a Pantheon level to win. That is a fact, based on the team's win/loss record for the past two seasons.

Yesterday's game was a perfect example. The Thunder were dead in the water and then Westbrook took over. George also contributed, of course--the point is that if this had been last year's team, the Thunder would have still lost despite Westbrook (and it would not have been his fault) but now that Westbrook has at least one other weapon the Thunder have a chance to win IF Westbrook goes nuts and IF that one guy also plays very well.

If Westbrook goes nuts in Utah then the series will go seven and, if that happens, OKC will probably take the series in seven, which was my original prediction.

OKC is a flawed team being carried by Westbrook and, assuming that OKC survives this tough series, OKC is likely in trouble next round (though Harden and Paul are not exactly proven playoff commodities).

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 7:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

Yes, that was incredible. Westbrook is a special player who never quits and who has the ability to carry a team for extended stretches. You are right that Gobert's absence was a factor. If Gobert stays out of foul trouble in game six then the Thunder will have to adjust their attack to account for his presence, something that the Thunder have struggled with for most of this series.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 9:40:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Re: Kanter

You are conflating "better" with "good." I still don't think a team could rely on him as one of their five best guys to win a title, but I do think he's better than he was in OKC. Both things can be true.

Re: Oladipo

The moment sure seems a little too big for him right now, yes. However, unlike many stars (Harden and Westbrook particularly) even when he is a zero offensively his defensive skill and intensity allow him to still contribute when his shot isn't falling.

Re: last night

Obviously a great third quarter for OKC, but as noted it had as much to do with Gobert being on the bench as it did with RWB or OKC "figuring it out." It also relied on RWB getting uncharacteristically hot from 3; if he misses three more of those threes (which is historically more likely than him making them), his team probably *still* loses, even with Gobert spending most of the second half on the pine.

On the other hand, if he keeps shooting 50% from 3, he'll be a much better player and I'll have one fewer criticism of him.

Re: George

I meant that he was scoring at a Kobe-like rate (which he is), not that he was doing all the other things Kobe did (which he isn't). That, however, should still certainly be good enough for a second banana. It rings hollow to complain about a guy's supporting cast when his best teammate is scoring at an MVP-like rate.

OKC's biggest problems have been:

1) Bad defense empowering a middling Utah offense. This is mostly on Melo and RWB blowing seemingly endless rotations or losing their men leading to open corner 3s.

2) Bad offensive officiency from RWB and Melo on high usage.

Even after last night, RWB is shooting just 39%. Overall, he's using around 31 possessions per game to generate 26 points. That's... not great, Bob. By comparison, the average team during these playoffs is generating about 34 points per 31 possessions. The worst offensive team- Miami- was generating about 32. The rest of OKC, as a whole, is generating another 77 points on 68 possessions (or, to pro-rate, about 35 points per 31 possessions) . RWB's passing of course contributes to some of that, but the On/Off number suggest that they're scoring just fine even when he's on the bench.

Heck, even Melo is doing better at a per-possession level, scoring about 13 points per 15 possessions (or 26 per 30), albeit very very fractionally.

So, if we fold Russ and Melo in together, they're eating up 46 of OKC's 99 possessions per game, and contributing 39 points. The other 43 possessions, on the other hand, are generating 64 points.

So, yeah, there's your problem on offense. Two guys eating up half of it are producing less than 40% of the points.

Re: OKC's cast and triple doubles

I don't dispute that they win more when RWB puts up triple doubles or scores 40. I may even agree that they "need" him to do so, but I think where we differ is that the reason they "need" him to do so is because when he doesn't he has such an adverse effect on both their offense (churning through low-efficiency possessions) and defense that they're effectively playing with a handicap.

OKC won 48 games this year. I suspect that if you replaced RWB with somebody like Jrue Holiday, or Kyle Lowry, or *second-tier two way PG of your choice goes here*, they'd have won pretty close to that many, even if that guy didn't manage a single triple double all season. You can claim they "need" him to use so much offense if you like, and that may have held water last year, but we know for a fact that a team relying on Paul George as it's primary offensive weapon can flirt with 60 wins, so that dog don't hunt.

RWB gives more to his team than almost anyone. But he also takes more away.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 10:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Addendum:

I don't want to hear that Paul George is only scoring so well because of the defensive attention RWB draws, either. He's shooting 60% with RWB on the bench and 40% with him off it. The stagnant, predictable OKC-RWB offense makes George easier to guard, not harder. His 3pt shooting is also 17% higher with Russ on the pine.

It's not a small sample, either. George is getting over a third of his points in the 8 minutes per game he plays without RWB. Utah can't really guard him.

In fact, OKC as a team is still shooting at a much higher rate (54% vs. 41%) and from 3 (48% vs. 35%) with him on the bench, so I don't really buy that running everything through him is what's best for the team in this series. Russ-less lineups are a net +13 this series in 43.5 minutes.

Utah took one look at OKC's offense and realized they could get Russ to beat the Thunder for them, and built a scheme to that effect (they're not the first, either). As long as Gobert's been able to stay on the court, it's worked.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 10:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I understand the difference between “better” and “good.” I also think you are reaching for reasons to downgrade a player who has put up unprecedented statistics for consecutive seasons.

We agree about Melo’s negative impact. He was on the bench during the comeback.

I disagree with the notion that a lesser pg would have somehow led OKC to more success in the competitive Western Conference.

I just think we are going to have to agree to disagree about some of these issues.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 10:40:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I don't disagree that RWB's statistics are unprecedented. I don't even disagree that he should have been the regular season MVP last year. I do disagree that his game is remotely conducive in its current form to manage a deep playoff run, and I strongly disagree with the narrative that he makes his teammates better, as basically everyone who leaves his side goes on to greater individual and/or team success.

I would stop just shy of saying he necessarily makes them worse--it's likely that the lion's share of the fault lies with OKC and their inability to figure out how to use good players beside him--but I think it's basically impossible to credibly argue he makes them better.

I disagree that a PG who plays smart, engaged defense, spaces the floor when he's off the ball, takes only shots he can make, and helps get his other teammates the ball in the spots they like it best is automatically "lesser," at least once the playoffs start and opponents start zeroing in on a player's weak spots. I would be super curious to see one of those guys take a swing with this OKC squad, though that is unlikely to happen.

I should note, however, that I would rather have Russ (even given his many warts) in the playoffs than at least Lowry, who is notoriously choke-prone.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 11:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

If you are contending that Westbrook has not been in peak form for most of the series versus Utah then I agree.

This series actually proves my point: when Westbrook is not putting up Pantheon-like numbers, his team tends to lose, even if his supporting cast (which has typically failed him the past two years) plays reasonably well in short bursts, which is what we have seen versus Utah.

I disagree with looking at games from an ongoing playoff series and then extrapolating conclusions about Westbrook’s value during previous WCF runs and/or about his ability to be the best player on a championship team.

We disagree about the effect that Westbrook has had on his various teammates, including Kanter and Waiters as previously discussed, and I am not sure that either of us can say anything that will persuade the other at this point in the conversation.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think this is the crux of where we differ:

"This series actually proves my point: when Westbrook is not putting up Pantheon-like numbers, his team tends to lose, even if his supporying cast (which has typically failed him the past two years) plays reasonably well in short bursts, which is what we have seen versus Utah."

I think it's a problem that a talented team can only win when he plays like a superhuman. I think it's telling that they do fine (at least in this series) without him. I think it's damning that even with a strong supporting cast of proven veterans (all of whom have fairly extensive playoff experience), OKC cannot play well with RWB on the floor unless he plays well above his career playoff averages (even with last night's explosion he is -35 for the playoffs, second worst among players left in the playoffs behind only Melo). I think it is likewise damning that a team with Paul George, Steven Adams, and Cory Brewer is struggling to defend Utah, the league's 16th ranked offense.

I don't think it's a great look that his one half of legitimately great play happened to come with the other team's best player off the court, either.

You see his occasional Pantheon-level outbursts as vindication. I see the other 80% of playoff games he plays as proof that it's really hard to win with him as your best guy because he tanks your offense when his shot isn't falling (usually) and opens up the floodgates on defense.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 12:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) We agree that Gobert is having a huge impact on this series—but that does not mean that Westbrook’s tremendous game five should just be dismissed.

2) For the past two years, OKC has typically been awful when Westbrook sat, pretty good when he played and elite (in terms of winning percentage) when he posted a triple double.

You are very focused on a few playoff games that are anomalous: Westbrook is playing worse than usual and his teammates are playing better than usual.

I disagree with making broad conclusions on that basis. That is the crux of our disagreement.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 12:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's a tad different when RW has KD and a great cast compared to Harden in HOU as the #1 option for most of his HOU career. Harden has done much better as the #1 than RW so far. To say Harden has these 1st round losses compared to what RW did with KD isn't even a pertinent comparision, especially when we're seeing RW's teams perform so poorly with him at the helm. Harden was still certainly pre-prime Harden during OKC's 2012 final run, and did outplay RW in the 2012 WCF.

You wouldn't be giving Harden the benefit of the doubt if he was 3-7 in 10 playoff games in 3 years as the #1 option, so why should we give RW the benefit of the doubt? Harden has led a team to the WCF already and without another all-nba performer, and looks likely that he will again this year. I'm confused why you think losing to juggernaut teams like GS(2x) and SA with much better casts than his over the past 3 seasons is evidence Harden isn't that great.

I'm also confused why you think a future MVP and perennial 1st all-nba performer should be satisfied taking role player money and coming off the bench. Would RW, KD, James, Davis, etc. be satisfied with this? And why would we expect them to? And I disagree Harden doesn't want to play with other star players which I've heard several times, look at Paul this year. Howard was a bad fit, no longer an all-nba performer, and been a problem at pretty much every stop he's been at in the NBA. Not a surprise it didn't work with him in HOU. It didn't work with Kobe either.

If losing in the 1st round with subpar supporting casts isn't that significant and/or against a great team, then why keep implying Harden stinks because of losing in the 1st round? You might have a slight point for 2014, but not for 2013 against OKC nor 2016 against GS.

RW is a tremendous talent, but it is hard to see his real value. Losing to HOU last year shouldn't be a huge disappointment, but it's how they lost and 4-1. RW played great overall, but didn't play that smart overall, and wasn't very clutch. That series was within his grasp. Being down 3-1, now 3-2 to UTA this season, is a huge disappointment though. UTA doesn't even resemble a contender, and RW is getting outplayed for large portions of this series by multiple players. It's tough to defend him as having a perceived lack of help when this is happening.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 1:00:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Well, no. We primarily disagree about exactly how good he was on previous teams. We're looking at the same sample size, we've just reached different conclusions about it. I've been dogging him for his poor playoff shooting and bad defense since long before Durant left town, just as you've been ignoring and/or defending those flaws.

If my argument was exclusive to this series you would be right in questioning the sample size. But he played poorly in last season's playoffs as well (at least in terms of shooting and defense; his raw numbers were obviously very high). And he frequently played poorly in the playoffs prior to that, and OKC has lost many games, playoff and otherwise, when their crunchtime offense devolves into RWB vs. the world. A career 41% playoff shooting percentage is not exactly a selling point.

Given all that, I don't think you can build a tittle contender around his current style of play unless:

1) He isn't the best player on that team.

or

2) He changes his style somewhat by impacting the game defensively on at least an above-average level, he improves or curtails his long-range shooting, and/or he diversifies his offensive approach, particularly in crunchtime.

I think we agree that he has the raw physical gifts and talent to be even better than he is. We disagree on whether or not he's already "good enough" for title contention purposes.

On a personal note, the thing that drives me nuts about him is that, while we agree he is not a Pantheon level guy, he probably SHOULD be. If he- like Durant/Kobe/Curry/Lebron- spent offseasons adding new weapons to his game (wether that be a three point shot, a Parker-esque floater, a slow-it-down post up game, etc.), or like Duncan/Kobe/Heat-era Lebron devoted himself to becoming a defensive menace (even if he picked his spots some like later-career Kobe did), there's almost no limit to how good he could be. But instead he seems content to put up monster numbers on poor efficiency and lose in the playoffs. It almost feels like he already *thinks* he's the best player in the world, and that the way he plays is therefore unimpeachable.

Peripherally related, almost the best and worst thing you can say about him is that he led the league in scoring with what is essentially a two-shot arsenal: hard drive to the rim for a dunk or layup, and pull up jumper from the elbow. On the one hand, wow, how good are that drive/pull-up to pull that off? On the other, imagine what he could do if he added a hook shot, a turnaround, and/or a stepback?

We disagree, it seems, on how good Paul George is, or at least on how much that matters, but that's a sidebar.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 1:28:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Anonymous,

In one of those series against GSW, Curry was injured and Houston had a prime opportunity to pull of an upset if they were going to make one. The 2016 GSW were still a great team even without Curry but, as the WCF and Finals demonstrated that year, they were not unbeatable and Harden had a prime opportunity to push them to the limit.

Last year, the Spurs were missing Tony Parker and Harden had the opportunity to push the series to the limit and spectacularly no showed in Game 6 on his home court. Like clearly did not even want to be playing. Leonard didn't even play that game, so once again, Harden had a prime opportunity and squandered it.

Harden is an unreal shooter and a good cutter with passing talent, who is capable of pouring in points when he is hot, but his deficiencies have been analyzed here enough that they should be familiar to everyone. The most glaring negative aspect of his game is his mentality and I absolutely cannot picture him having the courage to keep shooting or playing like Westbrook did last night, down by 25 points in the 3rd quarter when everyone has written you off.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 6:29:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@anonymous,

If the general consensus is that Utah doesn't "resemble a contender", I disagree with that assessment. Rudy Gobert is the reigning defensive player of the year. They have zero weak links in their starting five, even if certain members of their starting five don't ideally fit the mold of their current position peers (Rubio can't shoot; Favors can't space the floor; Ingles isn't a traditional defensive stopper, etc.)

That said, the Jazz destroyed the field once Gobert came back from his second injury. They went 29-6 over the last 2 months of the season. That is dominant. Their ability to score the ball consistently is a bit of a worry, but at the same time, they aren't beholden to one player needing to go off every game. And, regardless, they are a top 5 defense at worst. To me, that's a contender.

All five of their starters are all very good basketball players, and outside of Mitchell (who waxes and wanes), the starting five are all excellent defenders. The bench is solid as well. Quin is excellent in that he truly understands the skillsets of his players, puts them in positions to maximize those skillsets, and pushed them to move outside of those skillsets throughout the season which aided in whittling away their skillset weaknesses.

I liked Utah's chances before the season began -- thinking Hood or Burks (or both) would fill the Hayward void that Mitchell stepped up into (who has been way, way better than I thought either of those guys would be).

Mitchell, a go to scorer, certainly tilts the entire team into contender status imo. It'll be interesting to see how Houston responds to a team that is actually playing well in the Pelicans.

I don't think Utah will have enough fire power to defeat a fully healthy GS or Houston (if they get past a hobbled GS). But, comparing them to the Wolves, there is zero comparison. The Wolves look like they were content to get into the playoffs. Without a fully healthy Butler, the results have been pretty expected.

I think the fact the Jazz are a significantly better team than the Wolves should also be factored in as we debate about the effectiveness of Westbrook vs. Harden in these playoffs. Keith also brings up some valid points of reference regarding Harden's last few playoffs.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 7:39:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I had the teams mixed up. Utah (if they win) will face Houston (if they win). Houston is a bad matchup for the Jazz. But, such contrasting styles could be extremely interesting. My point still stands. Let's see how Houston fares against, presumably, the Jazz. It'll be a really good potential comparison too, as we can see what Westbrook and Harden do against the same team.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 9:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You keep referencing the plus/minus stats from the first four games of this series every time I mention Westbrook's key role for four WCF teams, so that is why I concluded that you are putting too much emphasis on a small sample size (and a sample size from a series that is not even over yet).

I agree that Westbrook could improve his shot selection and I agree that Westbrook is not an All-Defensive Team caliber defender but I disagree with you about how much those two factors detract from his elite rebounding, his elite playmaking and his ability (as you readily acknowledge) to be a big-time scorer despite not having the full offensive repertoire of, say, Kobe Bryant.

I consider Paul George to be an All-Star/fringe All-NBA talent who is ideally suited to being the second best player on a championship team. I would say that, more or less, he has done his job well this season. I think that the rest of the OKC supporting cast (other than Adams) has often been suboptimal, plus/minus stats from a few games in this series notwithstanding.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 9:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I agree with all of your points, particularly the one about not being able to picture Harden leading a comeback like the one that Westbrook orchestrated last night.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 9:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I agree with you that Utah, as presently constituted (with Gobert healthy and Mitchell seemingly improving every game) has indeed played like a legit contender over the last 40 games or so. That is why I only picked OKC in seven in this series, assuming that home court would play a decisive role if the series goes the distance. OKC faces a big challenge to get one on the road against a tough team but if the Thunder pull that off I still believe that they will prevail in a seventh game at home.

Even though you initially had the second round potential matchups backward, I agree with your larger point that this round will be a more realistic test of Harden than playing against a flawed eighth seeded Minnesota team that did not qualify for the playoffs until the last game of the regular season.

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 10:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Regarding RWB's supporting cast I agree that they at times underperformed in the second half of the regular season, especially before they added Cory Brewer.

However, outside of the context of this series, I think George and Adams are ideal starting-caliber players at their positions (and in George's case, All-Star/All-Defensive level), I think Cory Brewer is a good-not-great D and 3 guy who knows his role, and I think Patrick Patterson, Raymond Felton, and Jerami Grant are all about as good as you'd like your 7th-9th best guys to be.

I do think that Melo stinks in his current role, and Alex Abrines is iffy. I think the big gaps in OKC's roster are a starting Power Forward (though a healthy Patrick Patterson would probably be a passable option if the organization had the balls to bench Melo) and 6th man (though I think Melo could potentially fill that role if the organization had the balls to bench Melo).

I do not think they are "not enough help" for a tippy top-level player to contend, which is something I know we disagree on. Put Steph Curry or Lebron James on this team in RWB's place and I suspect Utah is already meat.

I do think it is difficult to win with lineups featuring only two strong shooters, which is where OKC finds themselves both when Roberson is healthy (though his defense is DPOY-contention worthy) and/or when Melo's shot is not falling (i.e., usually), but RWB shares in the blame there as he is one of the worst 3pt shooting players in NBA history*, when looking at his combination of volume & (in)efficiency.

*Only 1 other guard who has played at least 82 games in the NBA has shot as many threes per game at as low of a clip (Marcus Smart). Only one non-guard has done so (PJ Hairston). Smart is a fourth year player and Hairston played only two seasons, so their sample sizes (and totals) are much lower. In the playoffs, among all players with more than one game, only Oladipo has been as bad (though again Oladipo's sample size is so much smaller that if he makes a few threes next game he will be off that list).

He, like most PGs, would certainly benefit from having 4 40% shooters around him, but that is a hard cast to assemble without sacrificing defense, which OKC can not afford to do with RWB on the court even if they found the guys to do it, and is probably not a fair expectation for any team's construction.

I do think Adams was basically grown in a lab to play with RWB as he sets monster screens, boxes out but doesn't seem to care about his own rebounding numbers, and plays just under All-NBA level defense.

I think Paul George is about as qualified a second option as it is reasonable to expect.

All that is to say, the biggest problem in OKC is not that RWB does not have enough help. Their biggest problem is likely that their offense is too predictable, which is at least partially the coaches' fault but has been true under two different coaches. RWB's somewhat limited moveset exacerbates that issue. Other problems include an inability to space the floor when RWB is off-ball, difficulty covering PnRs involving RWB or Melo, and struggles to rotate on secondary actions.

By no means is all of that RWB's "fault" but as the best player on the team he ought to bare the responsibilities for the bits of is that is. An improved jumper and defensive consistency would go a very, very long way to fixing what ails OKC, as would a diversified offensive plan beyond "drive, pull up, or kick to the corner."

 
At Thursday, April 26, 2018 10:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

A hypothetical: If the current OKC team is not enough help--or is, at least, not adequately constructed help-- what would be a reasonable team-construction to expect a title from Russell Westbrook?

2 constraints:

1) He must be at least credibly (if not definitely) the best player on his team. So, Paul George is fine, Steph Curry or Lebron are not.

2) The team must be quasi-realistic by roster construction standards (You can't have Adams, George, and two other guys making 20 million+ in the starting lineup plus a 40 million dollar bench). There is not a specific number that's the rule here, but please try to construct a feasible team within the spirit of the exercise (i.e., don't just pick the best seven guys still on their rookie contracts; it'd be nigh-impossible to trade for that many of those kind of guys).

I think part of where our disagreement comes from is I can't really get there within those limitations; every team I could see RWB winning on either has someone I think is better than him (say, Rudy Gobert) or is a completely unrealistic team to assemble (say, a starting lineup of Khris Middleton, Paul George, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams) and an improbably strong bench (Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Gordon, Josh Richardson, OG Anunoby, Thon Maker).

 
At Friday, April 27, 2018 6:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Westbrook's supporting cast last season was awful collectively. That is beyond dispute and we saw this not only during the regular season but also during the playoffs, when Westbrook would carry the team to early leads that disappeared as soon as he took a breather.

This season, his supporting cast is obviously better than it was last year, both on paper on and on the court. You are correct that George is a legit quality second option and that Adams is perhaps an ideal center to play with Westbrook.

However, Melo is an All-Star in name only: even in his prime he was somewhat overrated and now he is often unable to do the one thing that he ever was really good at, which is scoring. His huge salary and lack of productivity are major issues for this team both in this series and moving forward.

Regarding how I would construct a roster around Westbrook, there is not an easy answer to that question in the context of this discussion because you and I often disagree about how to evaluate players. For instance, you said that I cannot choose Gobert because Gobert is better than Westbrook. I rank Westbrook as no worse than a top five player in the NBA. Gobert is great but he is not in my top five. So, as I have said for my past few comments, I think we are just going to need to agree to disagree here, because whatever specific hypothetical roster I construct around Westbrook is either going to have a player who you think is better than Westbrook or else is not going to have--in your opinion--enough talent to get the job done.

It is interesting to note, though, that GSW went 17-14 this season without Curry, including a 7-10 mark to close the season. At one time, Durant had Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and more but Durant still could not win a title. You have indicated that Durant is much better than Westbrook. So, how much talent does Durant need by his side to win a title? It seems like Durant has to run to a team that won 73 regular season games and a title before he arrived.

Another thing to note about supporting casts is the LeBron James saga. Many people insist that James had a bad supporting cast during his first stint in Cleveland but I say that the roster was well-constructed to mesh with his skill set. He had several tough bigs who defended, rebounded and did not care about their scoring averages. He had shooting around him. He had a roster than went at least 10 deep (Shannon Brown barely played for the Cavs and then became a rotation player for Kobe's championship Lakers).

I look at supporting casts in terms of what they actually produce overall, not just their name recognition or their individual stats. Westbrook's current supporting cast has not consistently gotten the job done this season and I disagree with you that this failure is Westbrook's fault.

 
At Friday, April 27, 2018 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Re: Durant

That's a fair point and one I totally agree with. While I do think Durant is better than RWB, I am actually on the fence about whether or not I think Durant is good enough to be the best player on a title team, either. I personally think Curry is actually GSW's best player but even if you prefer Durant I think his one title so far has more in common with, say, the '04 Pistons or ''79 Sonics (though of course KD is better than Dennis Johnson or Billups, but then Curry/Klay/Draymond are also better than the 2-4s on those teams as well) and is not exactly proof positive that Durant can carry a title team.

I think RWB could probably win a title, too, on a team with a guy whom he's only arguably better than and two other All-NBA First Team players. When I say I don't think he could be the best guy on a title team I'm kind of implicitly leaving off the massive outlier that is a team like post-KD GSW that's so ludicrously stacked as to likely be able to win a title without any one of its best four guys assuming no other injuries/suspensions/chicanery.

Re: Hypothetical Roster.

That's fair. Instead of relying on my preferences, let's simplify and just say you can have anyone (within cap-bounds) who isn't either a recent MVP or the best player on a still playing 2018 playoff team. That takes only a handful of guys off the table for you:

Curry, Durant, Harden, Gobert, Davis, James, DeRozan, Horford, Giannis, Embiid, Oladipo (not that you'd take him anyways given last season), or John Wall.

Let's also take Kawhi off the menu as when healthy he's probably a top 5-10ish guy and I think you'd agree that there is at least a credible argument someone could make (even if you differ with it) that he's better than RWB.

As an aside, the only ones of those I think are definitely, no-question better than RWB are Curry/Durant/James/Leonard/Embiid/Giannis/Davis. Five of those seven are A+ defenders (Lebron only when he wants to be, but the capacity is there), and the two that aren't (Durant and Curry, who are both still good defenders) are extremely efficient scoring machines.

I'd lean towards Gobert but don't think it's a no-brainer (he needs help on offense much like RWB needs it on D). I could go either way with Wall, who's probably better on his good days but can be really inconsistent and shares several of RWB's warts. Harden's a coin flip for me at this point. Oladipo's tricky, because I don't know if he can play well when it counts yet, but assuming he can get his playoff FG% back to respectability I'd probably take him by a nose thanks to his defense. DeRozan is definitely not better than RWB. Horford probably can't be the best guy on a title team unless it's an '04 Detroit type thing, but he does everything you want a basketball player to do except score in bunches and is pretty clearly the best Celtic with Irving/Hayward out.

As an aside to the aside, I do think their are a few guys not in the playoffs who are also better than RWB (Porzingis, maybe 2-3 others) but for the sake of convenience let's leave them in play as none of them are obviously, incontrovertibly better.

I'm not trying to be a jerk or win an argument here, I'm legitimately curious to see what you come up with (f you humor me; you're obviously under no obligation). Part of why I don't see RWB as a title-type guy is because I can't solve this puzzle, but sometimes your basketball acumen is sharper than mine, and I'd be excited to see what you think the ideal ecosystem for him is, even if I might quibble with the hypothetical results.

PS: With the above constraints, I'd probably start with Klay-and-Dray, but it sorta feels like cheating to just cannibalize the Warriors (and it eats up most of your cap). Up to you if you want to try and get a bit more creative.

 
At Friday, April 27, 2018 12:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Re: Supporting casts generally

I think the thing that killed those early Lebron Cleveland teams wasn't a lack of depth so much as lack of a strong second star. His best teammates in that era were Mo Williams/Anderson Varejao/Zydurna Ilgauskas. All good players, but not really at the level of the second best guys on title teams of that era; I think you'd rather have Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Garnett, etc., even if their teams maybe didn't go as deep into their benches.

There just wasn't really anyone who carry the team when Lebron was tired/having an off night, or create interesting defensive problems for the opposition (Williams was the closest there, but I don't think a ton of coaches were losing sleep over how to stop Mo Williams).

There's a fair knock on Lebron (if only relative to Kobe and Duncan, who were winning around the same time he did) that he always needed two other stars to win a title (Wade/Bosh, then later Irving/Love). Kobe's '09-'10 teams certainly didn't have that good of third bananas, nor did most if not all of Duncan's title teams. Kobe's '00-'02 teams didn't either, but it's a little bit of a different case when both your best guys are top 20 All-Time type players.

These days (as well as in both the 60s and the 80s) it's pretty standard to need at least 3 stars to win a title, but it's interesting to think about the exceptions to that rule (namely Olajuwon's Rockets and Dirk's Mavs).

Re: RWB's supporting cast

Again, I wouldn't characterize it as all RWB's fault. I would say that, sans Melo, he's got a pretty ideal roster around him, and it's fair to ask why a guy who allegedly makes his teammates better hasn't gotten more out of that roster relative to what he did last year with a (seemingly) garbage one.

As I've said previously, I think he raises a team's floor but lowers its ceiling, and these last two years of OKC might be a decent case study for that.

If I were to "rank" blame, I'd start with the coaching staff/front office, then RWB, then everybody who isn't Paul George and Steven Adams, then Paul George and Steven Adams.

It's difficult to assign too much blame to Melo, even though he's been awful, because really the coaching staff should have benched his ass months ago. He's not being put in a position to succeed (though whether or not he could thrive even on the bench is for now an open question).

 
At Friday, April 27, 2018 7:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I don't have a problem with ranking Durant ahead of Westbrook. I only challenged the notion that the two players were not a close 1a/1b during their time together, at least by 2016.

Without naming specific players and getting into endless debates about each one, broadly speaking I could see Westbrook being the best player on a championship team with George as the second best player provided that the rest of the roster had, in no particular order:

1) Multiple bigs who can defend the paint/rebound without getting into foul trouble.

OKC is pretty thin here, other than Adams of course. OKC ranked 26th in defensive rebounding this season, even with Westbrook going nuts on the defensive glass.

2) Consistent bench production. No one who comes off of OKC's bench now probably even appears on the opposing team's game plan/scouting report. If Melo would accept a 6th man role, that could help--provided he actually has anything left in the tank, which I am beginning to doubt.

3) Better three point shooting. OKC ranked 23rd in 3FG% this season.

4) Better playmaking or a better offensive system. Westbrook led the league in assists, yet the Thunder ranked 28th in team assists and 18th in FG%. That tells me that the roster does not have enough players who can either create a shot for themselves or else create a shot for others--or, it means that the offensive system is not properly utilizing the players' individual talents.

OKC won 48 regular season games this season. Legit contenders are typically in the 55-plus range. The four improvements listed above would probably be worth at least 10 wins and would make OKC a credible threat against any team in a seven game series.

You are of course correct that if Westbrook either shot fewer threes or else shot a better three point percentage that would help--but I think that OKC could win a title with Westbrook playing exactly as he does now if he had the team described above. Beating a healthy GSW will be a challenge for any team for the foreseeable future but teams with a superstar, an All-Star and the roster-type outlined above (i.e., Cleveland and San Antonio in the recent past) have at least competed against GSW.

 
At Friday, April 27, 2018 7:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

1) When I evaluate a player, I look at his skill set and his entire resume, not just one aspect of the game or one portion of his career.

I assign great value to playing at a high level (All-Star/All-NBA) for a team that is a consistently legit contender (i.e., Conference Finalist or better). OKC made the WCF four times (2011-12, 14, 16) in a six year span. Do you understand how rare that is? In the past 20 years, the other teams that have accomplished this are the 2012-17 Spurs (2012-14, 17), the 2003-08 Spurs (2003, 05, 07, 08), the 1998-02 Lakers (1998, 2000-02--they actually made four WCFs in five years, not six) and then in the East you have just Miami (2011-14) and Detroit (2003-08). Westbrook was an All-Star/All-NBA level player throughout that six year run, displaying great competitiveness and consistency.

2) In contrast, James Harden has had some very good playoff moments but also many bad ones. He is a high variance player because his game relies so much on three point shooting and drawing fouls. Harden has made just two WCFs and one of those came as the third option behind Durant and Westbrook. I count championships/CF appearances for stars, not role players. When we talk about who won the most titles, we talk about Russell, Kareem, MJ--not Frank Ramsey or Michael Cooper or Toni Kukoc.

Yes, Harden made one run to the WCF as his team's first option. During that run, he was benched for the fourth quarter of an elimination game six versus the Clippers because he was playing so poorly--and his team came back to win without him. In game seven of that series, Harden shot 7-20 with seven turnovers. Then, in the WCF, Harden shot 2-11 in game five (the clinching game) with a playoff record 13 turnovers. He is a supposedly great three point shooter with an "unstoppable step back move" (according to the salivating media), yet in his five playoff years with Houston he has shot .341, .296, .383, .310 and .278 (so far in 2018) from three point range. Harden shot .491 from the field and .390 from three point range in his last season as an OKC role player. Since then, his best numbers are .456 (in 2014) and .375 (in 2015) in those respective categories.

Houston has given him a license to shoot to kill but in the playoffs the main thing that he kills is the backboard with his bricks.

I will freely admit that I never thought he would lead a team to 65 regular season wins (though Chris Paul adding defense and toughness has played a major role in that success). However, let's see all of Harden's numbers translate into a little more postseason success individually and collectively before we elevate him higher than he deserves to be ranked.

Westbrook has shown that he can be a major player year after year for a legit contender. He has also shown that he can put a flawed team on his back and at least carry it to the playoffs.

Harden is now at the helm of a healthy 65 win team. Let's see what he does with that favorable situation.

 
At Friday, April 27, 2018 9:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree that if OKC had multiple strong defensive/rebounding bigs, a strong scoring bench, more high percentage 3pt shooters, and a better offensive system they would potentially be a contender, even with Westbrook's issues. But I don't think expecting all those things is super realistic in the modern NBA. You've essentially outlined a team with no holes, and those don't really exist (even the Warriors are iffy rebounders).

OKC is already capped out (and then some). Let's say for the sake of argument they traded Melo (their worst contract) for Nikola Mirotic and Eric Gordon in some kind of weird mutant three team deal. They would still be capped out, but their three point shooting, defense, and bench scoring would all be improved. They still wouldn't be a great rebounding team, but they'd be a little better. They'd still be thin on bench bigs (basically just Pat-Pat) and they'd have to make a choice about whether they start Roberson or Brewer.

Putting aside that no team on Earth would agree to a trade like that, even if they did is that team a threat to the Sixers or the Pelicans, never mind the Warriors? Smart teams will still just target Russ' man on D, and play off him and dare him to shoot long jumpers on offense. Melo is bad but teams still guard him on the perimeter (due more to reputation than anything else) so I don't even know how much Miro would open up the floor.

The offensive system argument is a more interesting one and I agree that it's part of the problem... but so far two different coaching staffs have been unable to implement an offense beyond "let Russ be Russ" so I'm not sure how fixable that problem is. Even with a more cogent strategy, taking the ball out of Russ' hands forces you to largely play 4-on-5 offensively unless he starts cutting aggressively again (and even then you can't play that style with Roberson also on the floor) which he hasn't seemed interested in doing since Durant left.

You mentioned Lebron's Cavs teams. They had some shooting, some defense, and a lot of rebounding, but they weren't really elite at any of the above; the '16 edition were 9th in rebounding, 27th in blocked shots, 7th in 3pt %, and 20th in bench scoring. Current OKC is worse at all of those except shot-blocking (where they rank 11th) so perhaps you are only arguing that they need to be better, not necessarily good. They actually grade out as a higher ranked defensive team (9th) than that Cavs team (10th) though of course they're worse than that when Roberson is injured (but likewise better than their ranking from 3).

I don't think Russ could win with those teams, even if you put a Kyrie-equivalent SF* on them to replace Lebron, I don't see that team winning a title. They barely won the one they got (needing 7 games, a suspension, and a few opposing injuries), and that was with Lebron instead of Russ; an all-world defender when he wants to be and one of the most efficient scorers in NBA history. By contrast, Russ is an apathetic defender, a generally inefficient scorer, and sort of the worst three point shooter in basketball history.

*I don't know who this would be. Everyone I can think of is either too good defensively (Hayward, Butler) or not good enough overall (Wiggins). Ironically, Melo from a year or two ago would probably be the right answer.

I asked you to build a specific team just because I don't see the road there (though I wasn't planning to nitpick your individual choices; I'm legitimately just curious what you think the answer is). Even the roster I outlined above is fanciful and unrealistic, and still doesn't feel strong enough to me.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 4:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I think in game six we both probably saw things that we believe reinforce our own arguments and that emphasize why it is or is not realistically possible to build a supporting cast that would enable Westbrook to be the best player on a championship team.

1) In game six, I saw Westbrook play at a high energy level for 44 minutes, leading his team in scoring (43 points) while also adding 10 rebounds and five assists. He carried the offense for extended periods of time when no one else could score and, though he took a large number of three pointers (19), he shot an acceptable three point percentage (.368); shooting well from three point range is somewhat of an aberration for him but if he is going to do that there is no better time than a win or go home game. Westbrook made some careless passes and a few of his 43(!) field goal attempts were ill-advised but the Thunder would have probably lost by 20 without his contributions.

Meanwhile, Melo was a disaster at both ends of the court. He managed to post a -19 plus/minus number in 26 minutes of (in)action during which time he scored seven points, stumbled into three rebounds, did not record an assist and was a major defensive liability.

Paul George had a good series overall but--as he is wont to do--he disappeared with the season on the line, looking like Edward Scissorhands as he committed six turnovers and shot 2-16 from the field. After halftime, he looked like he did not want to shoot the ball and possibly like he did not even want the ball in his hands at all.

Steven Adams was great at what he does: he set terrific screens, he rebounded, he scored from close range and he did not do anything stupid.

As for the rest of the team, the fifth starter (Corey Brewer) made one shot in 15 minutes. Five bench players combined to log 71 minutes, scoring 12 points on 4-14 shooting.

It is all well and good to say that Westbrook should shoot less often or "make his teammates better" but what I saw were Adams and Jerami Grant doing the best that they could do while the other players were too scared and/or limited to contribute much. I felt like I was watching Kobe Bryant playing with Kwame and Smush circa 2006. I know that Westbrook's supporting cast is better than that but with the season on the line Westbrook played his heart out and got very little help.

2) I suspect that what you saw is that Westbrook shot too much, did not involve his teammates enough and--in your estimation--did not play defense well enough. With Rubio out, you believe that OKC had superior talent and would have won if Westbrook had contained his darker impulses and played "correctly."

Assuming that I have reasonably characterized what you saw, I am not sure how to reconcile those world views. I recall that you did not think that OKC could beat GSW in 2016 with Kanter playing a major role and Westbrook being himself but OKC built a 3-1 lead and should have won that series. It was clearly possible for OKC to beat GSW as constructed at that time, even though it didn't happen. Similarly, I believe that it is realistically possible to win a championship with Westbrook as the best player, though that may very well never happen.

Westbrook is a very talented and accomplished player who is fiercely competitive, who is not media-friendly and who does not seem to care what other people think. Like Kobe Bryant, Westbrook is going to be judged very harshly unless/until he wins a championship as his team's best player.

I would take him over Harden any day of the week, because I love the way that Westbrook always plays hard. I cannot stand Harden's attitude and his gimmicky/high variance game, but Harden may very well lead the Rockets to the championship this year. I doubt it but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 5:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I do not think RWB was OKC's biggest problem in Game 6. I can pick nits with his play--and it's worth noting that he didn't really get going until the guy who was guarding him checked out of the game with an injury-- but given how poorly his supporting cast was playing his shooting totals were defensible if not ideal, and while his defense was nothing special I generally believe that if the opposing team scores less than 100 points you've done your job on that end (though again Rubio's absence may have depressed Utah's final total).

I agree with you that his three-point shooting was both timely and aberrant.

I think the "Westbrook makes his teammates better" argument is probably dead and buried for now; as you pointed out, his entire team pretty much laid an egg in the most important game of their season. Again I am not saying that he makes them worse but he does not have the tendency that some other point guards or other great players have to summon career best shooting and/or scoring seasons from his teammates, nor does he seem to inspire them to play harder than they might elsewhere on either end; everyone who leaves seems to increase their defensive effort level despite (or perhaps because of) carrying a larger percentage of the offense. That may be OKC's fault, but in the context of whether or not RWB "makes his teammates better" it does not help his case.

I think that if you are only looking at Game 6, then you would be right to conclude that OKC's biggest problem is a lack of help. I think if you look at the rest of the series and season, however, that comes in around 4th or 5th on their list. RWB probably comes in second or third (behind their coaching and possibly behind Melo, whose minutes are a product of poor coaching.)

I did not see anything from him that convinced me you can build a title-winning team around him. He remains an inefficient shooter and poor defender who uses up a massive percentage of his team's possessions. While it is possible to win with a 32+ USG%, the few guys who've done it are extremely efficient scorers (Jordan, James, etc.) and All-Defensive caliber talents. Westbrook is neither.

Given that we know you can build a title-contending team with Paul George as your best guy on offense, I think it is difficult to justify OKC's offensive philosophy and/or Westbrook's ball-dominance.

I struggle to envision a realistic roster that both allows Westbrook to be Westbrook on offense and covers for him sufficiently on defense that would be a meaningful threat to Philadelphia or a healthy San Antonio or Boston, never mind Golden State, unless RWB is the second best player on that roster.

I agree with your assertion that if he played on a team that had not only Paul George (or equivalent) as a second banana, but also multiple strong rim protectors and rebounders, loads of knockdown 3pt shooters who also play good defense, and a dangerous bench that such a team could hypothetically contend for a title, but a team with that embarrassment of riches could also probably contend for a title with half the point guards in the league.

Such teams generally don't exist; even the Warriors--the most stacked team in recent memory-- are a mediocre rebounding team. Great players win titles in spite of their teams' weaknesses more often than they win without them. Unfortunately, it is my belief that the current iteration of Russell Westbrook has too many weaknesses of his own to do so at a championship level.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 5:26:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

We are pretty much on the same page about Harden. I do not see him winning a title even in this most ideal of circumstances without significant help from the injury and/or suspension gods.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 8:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keith, yes, Curry hurt some during HOU/GS 2016 series, but Thompson/Green(whoever you choose as GS #1 guy for that series) still had a lot more help than Harden did. Even if Harden averaged 40ppg in that series, HOU still loses.

Harden did stink in game 6 vs SA last season, no denying that, but even if he goes for 50, SA still wins.

Jordan, UTA didn't even reach 50 wins, and what they have done recent years? They have nobody even resembling a superstar. I do like their team, and they seem solid, but they have no business doing much damage in the playoffs. This was a golden opportunity for RW. RW's cast, at worst, is very comparable to Kobe's late 2000s cast. If it was Kobe instead of RW leading OKC, do you have much doubt OKC would win? RW finally woke up late in the series, but it was too late then. He can't be getting outplayed for most of the series by a rookie and expect his team to win.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 8:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

1) Yes, I do. But, I also understand that pretty much any PG of starting ability would've made at least 2-3 WCF with Durant and company. It's not just RW either, it's KD as well, for OKC's failures. They each had a ton of help yearly, and definitely seems like they underachieved overall.

2) Harden has actually made 3 WCF(2011, 2012, 2015), not 2. Harden was still a young player in 2011/2012, too, though not exactly a role player as you imply, he was a budding superstar. He played very well in both of those WCF(RW didn't in either), and actually outplayed RW in the 2012 WCF. And I'm pretty sure if Harden had a teammate of KD's caliber like RW has had the luxury of, Harden would likely have 5-6 WCF by now.

It's the standard that you apply to each, which Nick has also alluded to, that is my main beef. When RW posts negative +/-, you almost never mention, for one example of many. RW has absolutely failed as the undisputed #1 guy on his teams, while Harden has done much better. That's great if RW can be a quality #2 guy, I'm sure many guys including Harden, could've been as well, if they had KD. Maybe RW can win a title as the #1 guy, but that seems highly unlikely to what we've seen so far.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2018 10:01:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Though Jordan was quite easily a better player than Westbrook, I'm extremely interested to know how Westbrook critics would feel about Jordan pre-Phil Jackson and dare I say, Jordan had he never played for Jackson. Any credible basketball analyst from the 80s remembers the criticism for Michael Jordan and it's quite similar to what people say (and still say) about Kobe and Westbrook.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 7:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You are correct that Harden has played on three WCF teams, not two, but my larger point is that he has made just one as an All-Star/All-NBA caliber player. Westbrook has made it to four WCFs as an All-Star/All-NBA caliber player.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 7:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

How do you know that Houston would have lost that game even if Harden had scored 50 points? That kind of performance would have had an impact on both Harden's teammates and on the opposing team.

It is interesting that you not only give Harden credit for the 50 point games that he has but also give him allowance for the 50 point games that he did not have. Westbrook actually nearly had 50 points in OKC's game six loss. Can you give him the same credit and say that even if he had scored 50 OKC still would have lost?

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 12:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I get that what you're saying about RW. But, here's my 3 main points:

1) There'd be quite a few PGs(several not really AS-caliber or even near AS-caliber) from 2011-2016 that could've made 2-3 WCF with Durant and those good of casts. So, I'm not getting too excited about RW as a great #2 guy/bad #1 guy compared to Harden being a much better #1 guy so far. And George was outplaying RW for most of the series, and Mitchell was outplaying RW for the most of the series, too. You can only criticize RW's cast so much, especially when that stuff is happening. I'm not saying RW didn't do very good/maybe great with KD(though looks like an overall failure to me given how good they supposedly were and only made 1 Finals and that was with another future MVP, but the comparison with Harden that you make is a much different comparison comparing a #2 guy to a #1 guy.

2) We've already seen Harden lead his team to 1 WCF, and without a player even close to KD's ability. Once Harden became all-nba caliber in 2013(maybe could've been sooner if he was able to start and play more), if he was able to play someone like KD, I'm confident those teams would be making the WCF more than not.

3) RW has only led his teams to 1st round exits at best. As the leaders of each of their teams, Harden has done much better. It's much easier to be that #2 guy. Until we see RW do something of substance in the playoffs as the #1 guy, we won't know if he truly was a legit #1 guy back when he played KD. Kobe had to go through the same thing after Shaq left. Maybe RW will eventually do something, but he's had some pretty decent players to play with recently, and his teams haven't performed well.

You might be right about Harden scoring 50, but then you might not be either. We're both speculating. My point about saying that is that SA absolutely destroyed HOU beating them by 39. Harden didn't do much in that game, but even if he had an extremely special game, it would've most likely resulted in a SA win still. You try minimalize Harden often by stating how great his cast is, not just this year but for several years now. At times they do great, like most contenders' casts, but I see them really struggling a lot, too. Overall for the the playoffs, HOU's role players have performed subparly. Luckily for them, their big 3 continue to show up.

OKC could've won if RW scores 50, I agree. But then again, Mitchell scored 38 to RW's 46, but on a much higher percentage. You want to make all these excuses for RW when he has another teammate performing extremely well overall, and UTA has a rookie outplaying him for most of the series. It's hard for me to buy into RW being quite as great as you claim when that type of stuff is happening. You're so much pro-RW and so much anti-Harden, I'm balancing it out some.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 6:37:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Interesting stat that someone just brought to my attention:

Russell Westbrook scored 1.3 points per possession as a cutter this season on 68% shooting. His turnover rate on cuts was only 7%. This was pretty easily his most efficient play type.

On the downside, he cut just 27 times all season per NBA stats.

By contrast, Lebron James (who does not have Paul George caliber ballhandler on his team) cut 118 times.

Durant cut 92. Even Curry cut 60. Among MVP-level guys, only Harden cut less (20 times). That's also probably too low, but in Harden's case at least he spaces the floor.

So yeah. It's not that Westbrook can't cut--he's actually pretty good at it!-- it's that he doesn't want to. When he doesn't have the ball, he prefers to stand idly behind the arc, where opposing defenses mostly don't guard him because (as mentioned elsewhere) he's one the worst three point shooters in NBA history.

This backed up my eye-test, so I did a little more digging on the NBA stats site to see what else RWB did or didn't do off-ball:

He recorded 11 "screen assists" this season. That's two less than Raymond Felton, and good for 92nd among all guards.

On catch-and-shoot attempts, he went 46 for 124, good for an abysmal 37% rate. On the bright side, on catch-and-shoot threes he actually hit at about a league average clip (36%). Still, his catch-and-shoot efg% was only 10th on his team. He trailed Melo, Pat Pat, and everybody you'd expect by that metric, but did beat out Grant, Huestis, and Roberson.

Ultimately, the problem may not be that RWB doesn't want to give up the ball, but that he's basically Tony Allen when he doesn't have it. This may have something to do with the reason guys like Waiters/Oladipo/Sabonis don't flourish with him on offense; when the ball's in their hands, they're essentially playing 4-on-5 (or 3-on-5 if Roberson is out there too). Even Durant has seen his efficiency goosed since leaving town, though that probably has more to do with where he went than where he came from.

Flipping over to defense:

Despite leading his team in minutes, he was tenth on his team in shots contested per game at 3.5. On the upside, he led his team in loose balls recovered and was second in deflections.

On the rare occasion that he did contest a shot, he did a pretty good job, holding opponents to 1.1% lower fg% than their usual (good for fifth on the team among players with at least 20 games). They did still shoot 44.8% on him, but that's definitely better than 45.9.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 6:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

1) Reaching four CFs in a six year span is a rare feat, as I documented above. I don't believe that Durant could have accomplished that if Westbrook had been replaced by any one of "quite a few pgs" in the league at that time.

2) We have seen Harden reach one CF as his team's best player--and during that playoff run, Harden was on the bench during key moments and during other key moments he was ineffective. I am going to count that one CF run as a fluke and not as an example of his ability to consistently lead a team to a CF. If you look at CF history, there have been some relatively ordinary "stars" who led their teams to one CF due to circumstances breaking just right. Let's see Harden become a Durant/Westbrook type who can take his team to that level on a consistent basis. Harden certainly has no excuses this year (barring injury, of course).

3) Since Durant left, Westbrook has had two opportunities to lead a team as the clear number one option. During both seasons he has averaged a triple double, a feat over consecutive seasons that had never been accomplished in pro basketball history. OKC wins at an elite clip when Westbrook posts a triple double but they are mediocre at best when he doesn't. I am going to stick with the logical theory that Westbrook needs more help and is not the problem in OKC, as opposed to the somewhat bizarre theory that the team's best player who is performing at a historic level of greatness is in fact the main problem.

You keep mentioning that Mitchell is a rookie. What does that have to do with anything? Mitchell had a very good season and he steadily improved. He is playing at an All-Star if not All-NBA level and his team went 29-6 down the stretch before the playoffs. Utah had the same record as OKC but the Jazz have been rising while the Thunder were up and down all year. I picked OKC, but I did that mainly because I thought that the series would go seven and that OKC would win that game at home. I knew that this would be a tough series for OKC and it is not like this is some kind of huge blemish on Westbrook's resume. Could Westbrook have played better or at least shot better? Sure, but without him OKC would have been swept.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 6:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I meant to respond directly to you earlier. I agree with what your wrote.

As I mentioned in one of my comments, Westbrook is not media-friendly and he is ultracompetitive--like Jordan and Bryant--so until he wins a championship as the undisputed first option he is always going to receive a lot of criticism from the media and from fans, much like Jordan and Bryant did.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 7:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David/Kyle-

I think there's a distinction worth pointing out that RWB's two biggest warts--defense and efficiency-- did not apply to Jordan at all, and applied to Kobe much less than they do RWB. Criticisms of their respective games required a bit more subjectivity.

I disagree that he is not media friendly, as his constant putting his foot in his mouth and/or stirring the pot is exactly what the lowest common denominator media types love. Media seems split pretty evenly on him--half deify him, half crucify him. Neither side is right, IMO.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 6:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The statistics you cited are interesting but I am not sure what conclusions to draw from them. For instance, Westbrook's role is not to be a catch and shoot player, so I am not surprised that he does not shoot a great percentage on those shots. I would be interested to know how much of Adams' high shooting percentage and efficiency is directly attributable to the attention Westbrook draws and the deft passes Westbrook makes. It seems like the statistics you cited are cherry-picked to make a 25-10-10 player look bad.

I believe that in the two post-Durant seasons, Westbrook has done about as much with this roster as could be reasonably expected. He needs a better supporting cast and I agree with you that the team as a whole needs a better offensive system. However, the reality is that the team is really good when Westbrook plays great and not so good if he is even just average.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 7:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree that Westbrook is not as good as Jordan or Bryant. I have never suggested otherwise. I mainly have been comparing Westbrook to his contemporaries. I think that Westbrook gets a raw deal from the media at times a la Bryant and I predicted Westbrook's emergence as the league's best player prior to him winning the MVP and at a time when many stated that he would never be a "true" point guard who could lead the league in assists--but I never said that he is as good as Jordan or Bryant.

I disagree with you about what the mainstream media likes. Players like Shaq who are goofy and who always provide colorful quotes are loved by the media because they make it easy to write stories/put together clips for TV. Players like Westbrook and Bryant--who often have an edge and who have little tolerance for stupid questions--are not as popular with members of the media.

Gregg Popovich is one of the few people who has become beloved by the media despite being condescending--and, at times, rude and even unprofessional--to media members. Popovich is rightly frustrated at times by idiotic questions but he also will cut short legitimate lines of inquiry and he will use his status in a bullying way, which is not cool (FYI, I never had a bad experience with him personally, but am just stating what I have observed in his interactions with other media members).

I would rather interview a guy like Bryant than a guy like Shaq because Bryant is much more cerebral about the game but most media members who are working on a deadline care less about cerebral (and about actually preparing good questions) than they do about getting a sound bite.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

By bringing up the Jordan comparisons, I was in no way inferring that Westbrook is in Jordan's or Kobe's league - it's not close. On the contrary, I was pointing out how many critics of the 80's labeled Jordan as "selfish", called him a stat-padder, said he was too ball dominant, didn't make his teammates better, and said he would never win like Bird or Magic. Jordan's obsession with his triple doubles in the 1989 season and his "there's a me in team" response to Phil Jackson can testify to some of the claims of those critics. Many felt the same way about Kobe even AFTER he won his 2 titles without Shaq. The difference between Jordan and Kobe/Westbrook is that he did not display his inner a-hole to the public as much as they did (and he was protected my mass marketing of Nike in the 90's and less social media). However, if Jordan were playing today, many would not think so highly of their idol.

Westbrook is more like those two in mentality and will to win than anyone else in the league. I find it laughable that anyone would call him a media darling. Russell Westbrook is quite clearly the mosted hated player in the league today and it's not close. He's been hated since KD was proclaimed the golden boy of the NBA in the early 2010s. LeBron gets criticized for his passiveness and his 2010 decision - he's not genuinely disliked by the media. Most fans dislike him because he's not on their team. People hate Kevin Durant's decision to join Golden State and his overall attitude change since then, but he was one of the most beloved players in the league before then. In fact, Westbrook received virtually all of the blame for OKC's failures and Durant received little to none. Curry is the very definition of a media darling. Harden receives some criticism and rightfully so, but even then people don't genuinely dislike him (however his style of play deserves to be condemned). People literally loath at the thought of Westbrook accomplishing anything. They go at great lengths to discredit anything that he does.

David hit the nail right on the head with the Kobe vs Shaq comparisons in terms of reception by the media. The media loves fake humble guys and goofy "fun loving" guys. I could go into how there are still racial undertones in how intellectual and/or not-scarred-to-speak-their-minds-in-any-way black men still scares white america, but I won't get into that.

I think Popovich (and Bill Belichick) gets an exception because he's part of the Spurs organization. The Spurs, because of players like Tim Duncan, are seen as quiet, humble, and non-threatening. If you pay very close attention, Tim Duncan is very rarely, if ever, criticized to the degree of a Kobe even though they are on the same level of player. Kawhi (until this year) never received close to the criticism that his contemporaries do.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 11:00:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

"I believe that in the two post-Durant seasons, Westbrook has done about as much with this roster as could be reasonably expected. He needs a better supporting cast and I agree with you that the team as a whole needs a better offensive system. However, the reality is that the team is really good when Westbrook plays great and not so good if he is even just average."

I disagree that he did as much as could reasonably expected; most people prognosticated that team as a WCF contender before the season and they certainly have a strong enough on-paper roster to be in that conversation. That the team underachieved is not entirely but certainly substantially on the back of its focal point.

Also, the team in the regular season is really good when RWB plays great. In the playoffs? They're 1-4 when he scores over 40 points. They're 1-4 when he scores at least 35 post-KD, meaning that they actually have a better playoff record (2-4) when he doesn't.

They're 4-12 when he shoots at least 27 times, down to 1-4 post-KD.

Their best performance in the playoffs come when he focuses more on distributing and less on individual scoring, though of course that was easier to do when KD was around.

His teams are 5-3 when he gets a playoff triple double, though only 1-2 since Durant left. They are also 19-8 when he gets at least 10 assists, though again that number falls precipitously to 1-3 post-Durant.

Overall his "win in the playoffs" numbers are not a ton better than his "lose in the playoffs" numbers post-KD:

Lose: 10.1- 27.3 FGA (37%), 2.9-9.5 3PT (30%), 11.3 RPG, 9.1 APG, 32.5 PTS, 5.8 TO
WIn: 12.7-30.7 FGA (41%), 1.7-4.7 3PT (35%), 12.3 RPG, 8.7 APG, 35.3 PPG, 5 TO

Basically he shoots better-still-not-well, gets an extra rebound, and puts up 1.6 fewer assists while also turning the ball over 0.8 fewer times. The "they win when he plays amazing" thesis doesn't really hold up in the playoffs. He generates about the same total amount of offense (factoring in points and assists) on roughly the same number number of possessions. The difference nets out to the two extra possessions he creates by rebound and reduced turnovers which is nice, but hardly the difference between "just ok" and "amazing."

The other difference of course is that he takes about half as many threes. He should really stop shooting those.

Re: Steven Adams

Adams does indeed benefit from RWB and I don't believe I've ever said otherwise. It's that he's basically the only guy on the team who does that's the problem.

Re: Off-ball stats

We were talking about Russ' ball-dominance, so I looked up the stats that might justify it. That they don't make him look good isn't my fault (and for the record, his cutting efficiency does make him look good; he just doesn't do it as often as he should).

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I did bad math. He generates (factoring in assists) about 2ish more ppg in wins.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 4:01:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

David/Nick,

Maybe some common ground can be had here. When evaluating great players, we really have to nitpick, as only very small weaknesses (skillset/performance wise) exist when comparing the really great ones. Among the current superstars, i would say i loved watching curry and westbrook, for different reasons. Both of you are definitely right in your assertions.
What nick sees as westbrook's shortcomings on defense, i definitely agree. Especially re close out challenges on shooters. Very often westbrook just stands between shooter and the paint, esp those short corner shots (his mind is probably thinking rebounding position and quick hit offense). I dont know how much of that is a function of okc defensive philosophy (coaching), since getting that defensive rebound is also part of defense.
I would partly agree with nick on the his criticisms of westbrook on offense. On the number of 3 pointers russ takes. If that is what the opposing defense is giving him, he has to take that, or defense will only always go under the screen, and the pnr will not be effective. I agree with nick on the cutting part. That is what i also see everytime paul george is handling the ball (westbrook stands crouched on the 3 point line very often). I would often think westbrook should be cutting also. And the numbers cited by nick did prove westbrook doesnt cut often. Maybe it is a function of coaching philosophy (defense), so that he is tasked to be the first one down the court in case of oposing fastbreak (floor balance).
David is right to assert that okc wins more when westbrook has a great game (or a triple double).

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 4:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jackson-

I think that's totally fair. My contention has never been that RWB is bad-- just that he's probably not good enough to carry a team to a title without either substantially changing his game or being helped by a superior player. I don't consider that a burn or defamation; there's only maybe seven or eight guys in the league I think *are* good enough to carry a team to a title without substantially changing their game or being helped by a superior player.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I picked OKC to finish third in the West. The realistic expectation for them was probably to win in the first round and then lose to the number two seed in the second round. Instead, the Thunder finished fourth (one game behind the third seed) and lost in the first round to a team that went 29-6 down the stretch in the regular season. I am not saying that this season was a rousing success, nor do I think that Westbrook was in peak form throughout the first round, but I do not consider the Thunder's season to be a big disappointment objectively speaking. That team was not good enough to go much further than it did (barring injuries to key players on other teams, of course).

The key number about Westbrook and the Thunder over the past two seasons for me is the vast disparity between the Thunder's record when Westbrook has a triple double and the Thunder's record when he does not have a triple double; this team would not have even sniffed a playoff berth in either year without Westbrook putting up Pantheon-caliber statistics in a large number of games. You can nitpick how many times he shoots or how many times he puts his hand up when someone takes a lefthanded jumper from the right wing on a Tuesday but the reality is that Westbrook has carried a flawed team to the postseason two years in a row.

Whether or not he can be the best player on a championship team has not yet been definitively proven but I submit that he has proven that he is consistently one of the five best players in the NBA and a top five player certainly can lead a team to a championship.

GSW is 18-14 this season without Curry. Does that mean that Durant cannot win a title without having an all-time great team around him? Apparently, Durant thought so, because he fled a team that had a 3-1 lead against GSW to join forces with the Warriors.

Michael Jordan is on the short list for consideration as the greatest player of all-time but he never got out of the first round until Scottie Pippen emerged as an All-Star caliber player.

Every great player needs a certain amount of help to win in the postseason. The amount of help and the specific kind of help varies depending on the skill set of that great player, as well as the teams that the great player is facing.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson:

I also agree that in general Westbrook should not shoot as many three pointers and that he is not an elite defensive player. I disagree with Nick that Westbrook is a bad defensive player and I disagree with Nick that Westbrook is not good enough to be the best player on a championship team.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I agree with much of what you wrote. Westbrook is hardly a media darling. Every time his team loses, you can set your watch to when the next "analytically-based" article is going to pop up to "prove" how everything is Westbrook's fault. For the most part, these are the same people--or, at least, they think about the game the same way--who repeatedly trashed Kobe Bryant as well. They are the guys that always have the cherry-picked stats about the Lakers' record when Bryant attempted X amount of shots, without considering that the shots that put Bryant over their self-defined threshold may have been desperation heaves in the final minute that had nothing to do with why the Lakers were trailing in the first place. I suppose I can't knock those guys' hustle, because they have apparently figured out how to make a good living--or, at least, get a lot of publicity for themselves--by selling basketball snake oil.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Re: Durant

As I said before I am not sure whether or not Durant is good enough to be the best guy on a title team, either, and in fact I suspect GSW would have won last year even without him (assuming they retained Harrison Barnes or signed some reasonable facsimile). I do think he is closer than RWB because unlike RWB, Durant does not have easily exploitable vulnerabilities on both ends of the ball; you cannot count on him to blow rotations/get eaten alive on screens/bite of every fake/slack in transition* the way you can with RWB, nor can you simply take away a driving lane and know that he will cheerfully brick away on offense.

*Though it is worth noting that his defensive reputation is overblown and he is more a "pretty good defender" than the "DPOY contender" the media sometimes pretends he is.

Re: Jordan

Much of what I just said about Durant applies here too. While it is true that all great players need help, it was clear long before Pippen matured that Jordan was a massive offensive and defensive force. RWB is at most an offensive force, and even there one that struggles to live up to your own usual standard of what a top-level star should do in the playoffs (score 25+ on 45% or better shooting).

Re: Top 5

I disagree that he is top 5. I would easily take Curry, Lebron, Durant, Giannis, and Davis above him without question. Allowing that they are healthy (though it is fair to point out that RWB is uncommonly healthy) I would likewise take Leonard, Embiid, and Porzingis above him without blinking. You are fond of speculating about what GMs would or would not do in these cases... do you think most GMs would prefer RWB to any of those guys (besides perhaps Embiid until he proves he can stay healthy)? So at best I think RWB is the 9th best guy in the league, and in general I do not think the 9th best guy in the league is good enough to carry a team to a title (at least barring an '04 Pistons anomaly where you've got four or five very very good players but no truly great ones).

After that, there are a few guys I would probably take over RWB (guys who I also don't think are good enough to lead a team to a title), but would at least think twice/consider who else was on the roster first. Gobert tops that list, as he guarantees you a strong defense but, though he's solid in his role offensively, needs other players to be effective on that end (he's sort of a poor man's Bill Russell in that regard; everything he does on offense is good, but he cannot be the focal point of it). I would also take Oladipo, who puts up similar-but-lower offensive numbers to RWB (though his efficiency is a bit better), but then plays at an All-Defensive level on the other end. As I've said before I think Harden vs. RWB at this point is roughly a coin flip and would be surprised if either guy led his team to a title without considerable help from the injury gods, but I suppose this is the tier he belongs in too.

So, for me, if I had to rank guys, I'd have RWB somewhere in the 11-13 range, or the 9-11 range if we're disqualifying the currently injured.

Finally, there are guys I'd not take over RWB but would not be shocked to see someone else go the other way: Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons, or Damian Lillard.


1/2

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Re: Records with and without triple doubles

I get what you're saying but given that those trends do not carry over to the playoffs (yet) and that even with him averaging a triple double (and with George/Adams as his 2 and 3 guys) his team this year finished with the same record as, say, the '14 Suns (best player: Goran Dragic, 2nd best: Eric Bledsoe) or '08 Warriors (Best: Baron Davis, 2nd: Stephen Jackson), teams with much less overall talent playing in similarly competitive Western Conferences, it is difficult for me to seem his team as anything but underachieving, or him as an A+ guy.

Ultimately we agree that it is a problem that he needs to be exemplary for his team to win, but we disagree about how much of the blame for that he should shoulder. You think he needs to put up nightly triple doubles for his team to win because he's saddled with a poor supporting cast, I think he needs to put up nightly triple doubles for his team to win because of the way he plays basketball.

2/2

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

While 25 ppg/.450 FG% is a good baseline for elite players, I never relied solely or precisely on those numbers. I have always indicated that I am not impressed by the players Kenny Smith rightly labels "looters in a riot" (players who pad their numbers for losing teams). Also, if a player is scoring much more than 25 ppg and/or if a player is contributing heavily in other areas then he may still be elite even if he falls short in the FG% department. Kobe Bryant was a better, more versatile scorer than Westbrook and a better defender as well, but Westbrook averages much more rpg and apg than Bryant did. Bryant is clearly the better overall player but I don't think that Westbrook's FG% knocks him out of consideration for elite/MVP level status because he contributes so much in other areas.

I would take fully-engaged LeBron James over any current player. I am never quite sure how much to dock James for not always being fully engaged. I would probably take Durant over Westbrook but probably not by the margin that you would. I am not convinced that Curry is better but I would call him comparable to Westbrook. I would not take Davis or Giannis at this point; they both still have more to prove in terms of sustaining their levels and in terms of team success.

Kawhi Leonard is out of the discussion until he makes a healthy return. I am not taking brittle Embiid or young Porzingis over Westbrook.

Westbrook is securely in my top 3-5 among active players.

I don't think that the comparisons to the previous Suns or Warriors teams are fair, for a variety of reasons. There are a lot of ways to get to 45-48 wins and just because two teams have the same or similar records does not mean that the best players on those teams are comparable.

I don't think that most GMs would rank Westbrook outside of the top 5-10 players but I would say that he may not be an ideal fit for every team/system, so some GMs may prefer other players over him for their particular team or system. Westbrook is not MJ or Kobe. A famous story about MJ is that Portland asked Bobby Knight (after the '84 Olympics) about MJ and Knight said to take him. The Blazers countered that they already had Drexler and Paxson, so Knight said to play MJ at forward or center but you have to take the guy because he is that good. MJ or Kobe would fit just about any team or system. Westbrook is a great player but I could see some teams feeling like they would be better off with an All-NBA Second Team player who meshes better with their style/personnel (to me, Westbrook is an All-NBA First Team player, though I realize he may not be voted to the First Team this year, depending on how the voters feel about the number of games that Curry missed).

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:41:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I'm astonished that you think RWB is about as good as Curry. I was not aware you felt that way. I'm not interested in having a protracted debate on it--this is one of those times where we're so far apart I can't imagine there's much middle ground--but in brief: wow.

For what it's worth, both Giannis and Davis have now won more playoff games as their team's best player than RWB has. It is fair to make a longevity or consistency-based case for RWB over a long enough timeline (although I'd likely disagree with it), but I think it would be very difficult to credibly argue that RWB was better than either Giannis or Davis this season. Both scored more points on fewer shots than he did, and did so while playing All-Defensive level defense. Neither had a sidekick as good as Paul George*, either, and both were--like Westbrook-- basically their team's entire offensive identity. Both also raised their game in the playoffs against higher-seeded competition.

*You could perhaps make a case for Boogie, but he missed a large chunk of the season.

I am curious to see where RWB ends up on the All-NBA front. I would not be surprised to see him on the 3rd team, or perhaps even miss the cut entirely, depending on how heavily voters penalize Curry/Irving for missed games. Harden is a lock for the first team, and will be joined there I assume by either Curry, Derozan, Lillard or Oladipo (or perhaps RWB). I suspect two of those five will then be on the second team. If RWB is pushed to the third team, I wouldn't be astonished to see him miss the cut, especially if the sexy narrative of "Kyrie saves the Celtics" gets him onto the list.

FWIW, I'd probably go with Curry and (sigh) Harden on the first team, then Dipo and either RWB or Derozan on the second. I think RWB is better in a vacuum than Derozan, but I think there's a cogent wins-based argument for Derozan to take that spot.

Third team *should* be either Derozan or RWB (whichever doesn't make 2nd) + Lillard, I think, but again would not rule out a Kyrie appearance. Lowry's also probably got a puncher's chance, as do Klay Thompson, Ben Simmons, and maybe even Bradley Beal.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 11:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Curry is obviously a much better shooter. Westbrook is a much better rebounder and a better passer. Neither is a defensive stopper. I can't see Curry doing much more than Westbrook did with OKC's roster the past two seasons. I could see Westbrook winning titles with GSW's stacked roster. I'd take Westbrook--as the more physical and more durable player--but I can understand why someone would take Curry. I've always liked Curry a lot and I predicted a better NBA future for him than most people did at the time he was drafted.

Westbrook has been an All-Star/All-NBA level player on four WCF teams during a six year span. That is a lot more sustained high level accomplishment than Davis or Giannis have attained.

I don't know how the All-NBA voting will go and sometimes I disagree with the voters. I would choose Harden and Westbrook as the First Team guards this season but I realize that the media may not put Westbrook on the First (or even Second) Team this season, in part because of the false narrative that OKC underachieved. OKC did about what I expected. The Thunder had an unfortunate first round matchup against a team that is playing at an elite level now; otherwise, the Thunder would have lost in the second round, which is what I expected. Westbrook deferred too much to his new teammates at the start of the season but once he started racking up triple doubles the Thunder went from being a sub-.500 team to being a top four team in the West.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

As I said I don't want to get into it, but suffice to say I disagree with most of your comments on RWB/Curry. I agree that RWB is a better rebounder, and that Curry is a better shooter. RWB records more assists but by the eye-test I don't think he's a meaningfully better passer than Curry. I would take Curry's shooting, scoring, defense, and ballhandling all over RWB's, as well as his impact off-the-ball (which is perhaps the greatest in NBA history) and his attitude. I do not agree that RWB would be as successful with Golden State nor do I think that Curry would have had any less success with OKC. I imagine you disagree on most if not all of that, but we're spilling enough ink on other topics that I'd just as soon take a pass on this one.

It is true that RWB made 4 conference Finals (alongside an MVP-level teammate) from 2011-2016. If that is the metric we're using to evaluate who the best five players in the NBA are in 2018 then Dwyane Wade makes the list as well. As long as we're talking current performance and/or success as a leading man, though, I'll take Giannis and AD cheerfully and be right to do it.

I disagree that OKC didn't underachieve; it was perfectly reasonable to expect a team that added Paul George to outperform a team that last year had no current or former All-Stars besides RWB. They won one only one more regular season game and one more playoff game. At that rate of improvement, once they replace Melo with Paul Millsap and Roberson with Bradley Beal they'll win 50 games and make it to the 2nd round.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 12:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

If Westbrook were passing to Klay Thompson and company then he probably would average 15 apg instead of 10 apg. I have said for years that assist numbers overall are inflated but I am always baffled by this idea that Westbrook is the one top assist guy in recent memory whose passes are somehow not "meaningful" or "creative" or whatever. The NBA is a drive and kick/pick and roll league now. Westbrook runs both of those actions as well--if not better--than any other pg. His main screener is Adams and he is not kicking to Klay Thompson, which makes it even more remarkable that Westbrook puts up 10 apg.

Westbrook is even better now than he was when he was a top performer for four WCF teams, so the Wade analogy makes no sense. We have seen Westbrook be a main guy for a team that consistently contends. We have not seen that from Davis or Giannis. I don't care which guy has more first round playoff game wins in the past two years.

All I can say is that OKC did almost exactly what I expected this season. The first round matchup was perhaps a bit unlucky/unfortunate but adding one All-Star and an over the hill former All-Star while subtracting Oladipo and Sabonis is hardly enough to make OKC a championship team.

At the end of the day, OKC still needs Westbrook to put up 25-10-10 to win. When he deferred early in the season, OKC was a sub-.500 team. OKC started winning when Westbrook took over (as I predicted early in the season, when others were asking what was wrong with the team; I knew what was wrong and I correctly predicted that after Westbrook became more aggressive the Thunder would march up the standings).

The loss of Roberson right when OKC started to click was a significant blow. If Roberson had been in the rotation and if Donovan would have had the guts in that circumstance to reduce Melo's minutes then OKC may very well have beaten Utah in the first round.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 12:49:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I should have been clearer; I feel that Curry is an underrated passer more than RWB is an overrated one. I do think, however, that Curry is a more creative and versatile passer, whereas RWB makes the same 3 or 4 passes every time at a near-perfect level (similar to his scoring actually; he's only got a few moves, but they're so hard to stop he doesn't really need more).

I think in a system like OKC's, where the kickout is usually followed immediately by a shot (unlike in GSW where there's often two or three passes following the initial penetration to find the most open man), Curry could probably average 10 apg.

I disagree that RWB is meaningfully better now than he was when he played with Durant, or at least than he was in 2016*. He gets the ball more often, but plays basically the exact same way. He's getting about two more rebounds, but that's incidentally pretty much the difference between KD's rebounding in OKC and George/Dipo's.

*In fact, this is one of my biggest knocks on him; he rarely adds anything new to his game. He seems oddly content to be the exact same player season after season.

I can see an argument that OKC did not add enough to contend for a title (and so long as RWB is their best guy, I agree with it) but I think you can probably likewise see that adding Paul George ought to be worth more than a single win.

I agree that losing Roberson was a bad break for OKC, but I am not sure he would have swung the Utah series; with Roberson on the floor a smart defensive team like Utah would likely have been able to pack the paint even more and further neutralize OKC's limited offensive repertoire. I am sad we didn't get to see Roberson guarding Mitchell, though, which would probably have been an awesome battle.

I think injuries suck but OKC was luckier than most playoff teams when it came to total time lost by a major cog, so I hesitate to count it as an excuse for them, especially because Cory Brewer was a decent replacement who likely improved them on offense, even if he was not as good on defense (though Brewer's still a decent defender). Teams like San Antonio, Boston, and Miami had it quite a bit worse, and even GSW and Houston lost big chunks of the season from their best (GSW) or 2nd best (HOU) players. Heck, Utah lost its starting point guard and primary RWB defender in Game 6 and still found a way to win.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 7:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am not convinced that Curry is a more creative or versatile passer than Westbrook. I am also not convinced that this even matters. A playmaker's job is to create shots for his teammates, particularly for his teammates who cannot create shots for themselves. There is no one in the NBA who does that better than Westbrook--a select few may be comparable but no one is better. Recall that when Durant played with Westbrook a large percentage of his shots were off of Westbrook passes and he shot a higher percentage on those attempts than on his other attempts.

I agree that OKC had better health than many other playoff teams. My point regarding Roberson is that OKC does not have as much talent/depth as the top teams, so losing one key guy affected them more than it might affect another team. The Warriors can lose a two-time MVP for a whole series and still advance but that is obviously not OKC's current circumstance.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 8:49:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

If Westbrook were the passer you are describing then he would never need to shoot 40 times in a game. I also think a passer like you described would not see every teammate who leaves his side immediately increase their efficiency, as Durant/Ibaka/Kanter/Waiters/Sabonis have all done in the last two seasons alone. That Paul George and Carmelo Anthony both saw their FG% plummet when joining up with him likewise suggests that he is doing an iffy job of creating quality shots for his teammates, though of course some fo that is the coaches' fault.

Of course, some of everything is the coaches' fault, good and bad, and if we go too far down that road then nothing means anything.

"A playmaker's job is to create shots for his teammates, particularly for his teammates who cannot create shots for themselves."

Westbrook creates about 3 or 4 total shots: Kickout corner 3, lop for alley oop, dump off pass for dunk, occasional pinpoint pass to a cutter (usually Roberson). He is very good at those passes, but smart defenses take a couple of them away, and his team's offense craters. His kickout corner 3s do not produce at the rate one would hope, either, as defenses know they're coming and they are more frequently contested than not; most teams would swing the ball in this case, but OKC usually will just let if fly (whether this a strategic choice or merely to feed RWB's assist numbers is anybody's guess, but it is not terribly smart basketball either way).

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Westbrook is quite clearly a top 5 player. I have a really hard time taking any ranking seriously that doesn't have him firmly in there. LeBron is a GOAT candidate and rightfully still considered the best player in the league. He's in a tier of his own. From there I have a cluster of Durant, Curry, and Westbrook. You can put those in any order. Durant is probably the best of the 3 in a vacuum, however it's clear that Curry is more valuable to Golden State's success. It is arguable that Westbrook was, at minimum, equal to Durant in terms of OKC's success. I have no problem with Westbrook being considered the worst of the 3 mainly because he's the only one without the claim to being the best player on a championship team.

Harden has played well this year, but I'm not convinced at all that he's truly as good as Curry and Westbrook. Nothing short of him not underperforming in the playoffs will change that for me. With his sustained regular season success, I would probably reluctantly placed him 5th right now.

Davis and Giannis simply don't have the success to be ranked over Westbrook. Giannis is probably closer to the field, while Davis is closer to the top tier. No other player is worthy of being considered a top 8 player at this point. It's not really a discussion.

Kawhi is a really hard case for me. I have an unpopular opinion that he's overrated because of his supposed humbleness and the history of the Spurs organization. He has one season averaging more points than Westbrook's and Curry's career averages of 23ppg. That includes the first two seasons for each of them averaging less than 19ppg. Last year he had his first game with 8 assists. His individual defense is not as good as either of them offensively. I don't think he's overrated in the sense of not being a top player in the league, but I fail to understand how he's considered a top 3 player with only 1 MVP caliber year when you have other guys with multiple years of excellence - some being historic.

When it's all said and done, I think that Curry and Westbrook will go down as top 4 point guards of all time. Cousy, Frazier, Isiah, Stockton, Payton Kidd, and Nash were never as good as either of the two. I think that Durant will join the Pantheon of small forwards (Baylor, Doc, Bird, LeBron) as well. Kawhi has a ways to go be considered over the likes of Barry, Hondo, and Pippen. I think Harden (for as much as I dislike him) has a chance to go down as a top 5 shooting guard over Gervin, Drexler, and Iverson. It's too early to talk about Davis and Giannis. What are your thoughts David?

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Nick,

Ibaka had his highest efficiency seasons with the Thunder. His efficiency since being traded has actually gone down. Kanter had what was until this season, his top two most efficient seasons with Westbrook. They are still two out of his top 3 highest percentage seasons.

Dion Waiters shot about average for his career with Westbrook, though his 3 point percentage was pretty nice for his full year with OKC in 2016, and his percentages went up immediately after being traded by Cleveland in 2015.

Sabonis is the one where he left OKC and has immediately produced better but he was also a rookie during his year with OKC. Durant has shot better since leaving OKC but not by an astronomical amount. He has effective field goal jumped up a bit from around the .560 and .570 range to near .600 last year, but that should be expected considering how stacked GSW is. Clearly playing with Westbrook did not exactly hurt Durant in the efficiency area.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 2:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Kyle-

I disagree that RWB will ultimately outrank guys like Zeke and Stockton. Nash is a more interesting comparison-- both are offensive dynamos (in different ways) and defensive weak links, and there's a very real chance that neither will ever be able to say they were the best player on a Finals team. I don't especially want to get into the 1v1s of this, though, as this thread is already long enough, so I will summarize my overall reasoning for not having RWB anywhere near that tier this way:

Nobody on that last had an easily exploitable weakness on both sides of the ball, and several of them didn't have one, period. It was much more difficult to render Thomas/Stockton/Frazier/etc. ineffective in the playoffs than it is with RWB, and aside from Nash, none of them were a giant green light to opposing offenses, either.

Allow me to pre-empt the "RWB has no help" argument by pointing out that Nash once dragged a team starting Tim Thomas and Boris Diaw as their "big men" to within two games of the Finals.

Regarding the guys who left, Ibaka and the rest all saw their FG% go up, either slightly or significantly, in their first season post-RWB. For the umpteenth time I am not saying that RWB made his teammates worse, but I think that given that trend it's pretty specious to contend he made them meaningfully better. Given that most of them also increased their defensive effort and efficacy when they left, it's also fair to question both OKC's culture and RWB's leadership on that front.

Oladipo and Waiters both added about 3% to their FG% immediately post-RWB, despite increased offensive roles (going from 4th option to 2nd for Waiter, and from 2nd to 1st for Oladipo). That is not the mark of a Nash or Stockton type passer.

You and David mostly seem to be taking RWB over Giannis and Davis on the basis of past achievement; if the argument is "who's had a better career up till now" I would be with you in taking RWB. If the conversation is "who are the best five guys right now" I think it's ludicrous to pick a one-way player who scores at similar volume but lower efficiency over two guys with similar offensive impact who also happen to be top 10-15 level defenders.

Having said all that, early reports seem to suggest RWB is actually going to try and add a 3-pt shot this offseason. If he becomes a competent deep shooter, he will be much less of a liability on offense, at least. If he does that and dedicates himself to becoming a plus defender, then we can start arguing about how he ranks relative to Stockton/Thomas/etc. If he does all that and also adds a post game and some off-ball cutting, OKC will be a true perennial contender.

I am not holding my breath.

On the other hand, if he refuses to add anything to his game, he is in for a rude awakening in a couple years when his athleticism begins to diminish, because most of what makes him dangerous offensively (and as a rebounder) has more to do with speed and strength than it does with finesse.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 2:17:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Kyle/Keith-

Apologies, my last post was addressing both of you as if you were one guy. I didn't read the names closely enough. Mea culpa.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 2:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Kyle-

Expanding on the Pantheon point, because I love those conversations, I agree with you that Curry seems (if he stays healthy) poised for contention with Oscar and Magic (and Jerry, if you count him as a 1) atop that list. He is the best player on perhaps the most dominant post-Jordan team we've seen, and has both the individual statistics and hardware to back his case. Curry is not an elite defender but then neither was Magic; Curry seems to have a different-but-similar offensive impact and "rising tide" effect on his teammates.

I think it will be difficult for Kawhi to surpass a guy like Barry (who I think is a pantheon contender himself) or Pippen but he is young enough that I can't say that for sure. I am not sure he is good enough to be the best guy on a title team unless it is an extremely deep and balanced one*.

*I do not think he was as important to the '14 Spurs as Duncan was, but can certainly see the argument. Regardless, that team had an excellent starting lineup and an uncommonly deep bench.

I don't see Durant reaching the Lebron/Doc/Bird tier. That the Warriors were already winning titles and setting win records without him make it hard to see him as especially essential to their success, no matter how good he is. He reminds more of a rich man's Bernard King or Dominique Wilkins, which is still very good, but not quite Pantheon level. I would still take Pippen/Barry/Hondo over him, personally.

I think Harden's ultimate reputation will depend on whether or not he ever wins anything. If he can't lead his team to a title, it'll be difficult to argue he's better than Pistol Pete or Gervin, never mind upper-crust guys like Wade or Ray Allen. I'm rooting against him.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 8:31:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Kyle,

I’m a huge Russell Westbrook fan, as I love his ferocity. He’s electric. And I see a little bit of Kobe in him. But, I can completely see Nick’s point. He doesn’t play defense. He can, and he could probably be pretty good at it considering his athletic gifts. But…he doesn’t. He’s also wildly inefficient. And, while I do think he needs more help, I agree with Nick’s view that he’s like an inefficient Lebron (minus the defense, the size, the 3-point shot, the postgame, and the occasional IDGAF moments). He’s like Lebron in that he needs to be the system. He’s just not as good. (For the record, I’ve never thought Lebron makes players around him better in either the Nash way or the Kobe way…exhibits: Wade, Bosh, Love, etc.).

I also can’t agree with you about putting Russ over any of those other past great point guards. Historically, Russ has put up back-to-back triple double seasons, so he’ll ultimately be remembered for that historic feat. But, unless he starts winning in the postseason…how are we going to rank him ahead of any of those guys listed?

Payton was the best player on a team that went to the finals and went toe-to-toe with MJ’s Bulls. He is also arguably the best two-way point guard in league history (Frazier, the other person you so casually rank Russ above is right there as well) and the only point guard to ever win the DPY. Newer NBA fans only remember a busted Payton being blamed for everything that went wrong with the “Fab Four” Lakers and (barely) hanging on with the Wade/Shaq Heat. But, he absolutely earned his nickname (The Glove) for a reason. Payton’s only weakness was an average 3-point shot. Otherwise, dude could pass, score, post, had a midrange game, and locked up opposing point guards. That Sonics team won 64 games had a top-5 defense, and gave MJ’s Bulls the biggest scare out of any of his Finals opponents.

Stockton – while never having the peak of Westbrook in terms of sheer season-by-season output – has the sheer output in terms of overall career numbers and year-over-year consistency. Before his injury, Russ was an iron man. But, Stockton is THE iron man. Out of his 19 seasons, he played 82 games 16 times! He also played all 50 games of the shortened 1999 season. So, let’s see how Russ ages as he enters into his 30s before we start talking about how he’s better than Stockton.

Isiah was a beast in the postseason and has two chips as the best player on both teams. He wasn’t durable, and ultimately his career was short. But, his peak matches or surpasses anything Westbrook has done. Plus, those 2 chips – and his knack for stepping up in the playoffs. Not getting worse.

And before the flop-tastic Houston Rockets came along, Nash captained 6 or 7 of the top offenses of all time, has like half of the 50/40/90 seasons throughout League history, and basically ushered in this new era of basketball. Curry is like the next evolution of Nash, with a huge helping of Iverson mixed in. So, your comment may apply to Curry, who as Nick pointed out has already been the best player on a championship team. He’ll have to stay healthy (no sure thing).

But Russ?

David once accused me of recency bias. I’d say that aptly applies to your comment Kyle.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 11:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

A little statistical support for you on Nash:

He doesn't quite have half the 50/40/90 seasons, thought depending on where you cut the sample size (gotta filter out the David Stocktons and Meyers Leonards of the world) he has a third or more, with 4 total.

Nobody else has more than 2, and only Larry Bird has 2. Put another way, Nash has as many 50/40/90 seasons as any three other NBA players you can name combined, or as many as any four non-Larry Bird players combined.

On top of that, he has the only 50/40/90 10APG seasons ever, and he has three of them.

He was more or less the best shooter and passer in the league for about a six year run. How many other guys can say that? Maybe Pistol Pete on a technical level, but the actual numbers weren't there. Jerry West, maybe? But there's a strong case Oscar or Cousy was the better passer for some or most of their overlapping primes. No, it's pretty much just Nash in that club.

At any rate, you're dead on the money about how crazy good Nash was, at least on offense. He's arguably the only guy ever who pretty much guarantees you a top 3 offense just by showing up, even on a roster that was basically just Shawn Marion, Raja Bell, and a bunch of also-rans.

I personally find that resume more impressive than any of RWB's achievements, but I suspect you and I may be on an island there 'round these parts.

As an aside, I do wonder how he'd be perceived if they'd ever thought to put a stronger defensive/rebounding frontcourt around him. Having a Gobert, Adams, or Capela type behind him to help clean up his defensive mistakes would have gone a long way. Obviously they'd miss Amare's scoring, but they made due without in '06 because Nash gonna Nash, so... well, suffice to say I think he'd probably have made a few deeper playoff runs.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 12:49:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Jordan & Nick:

Calling Westbrook an inefficient LeBron is fair. There is no harm in being an inferior version of a Pantheon player. We will have to agree to disagree on the details of why our views of Westbrook differ. To be clear: I'm not ranking Curry and Westbrook over those point guards today because they are still in their primes. I'm not a believer in 1-X definitive rankings, but some players are clearly better than others.

I'm not going to go one-by-one in detail why I would consider Curry or Westbrook better than them. Stockton, Cousy, Kidd, and Nash simply could not take over a game like those two. While Frazier and Payton were better two-way players, neither of them were the playmakers or scorers that Westbrook is. It's really not recency bias. Those point guards never dominated the game like Curry and Westbrook do. Isiah is the only guy that I have to second guess.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 1:04:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Nick:

I don't think Curry has any shot of contending with Magic and Oscar for anything. He's 30 years old and we've seen the best of him. He's not as good as either. His very best shot is going down as a top 20 player of all-time (a stretch) and the 3rd best point guard of all time.

I agree with your assessment of Kawhi. Duncan was more important to the 2014 championship and Kawhi has a ways to go to be considered as a top 5-8 small forward of all time. I don't think Barry is a Pantheon forward, but he's certainly on the cusp. I guess it depends heavily on the how lenient the criteria is. Many old timers consider Hondo to be the better player.

I think you're insane to still take Pippen over the likes of Kevin Durant. I understand your assessment of him being a rich man's Benard King, but Pippen nor Hondo were ever year in-and-out MVP candidates.

For as much as I dislike Harden, he's already over guys like Maravich and Ray Allen. Ray Allen is upper-crust? He's barely a top 10 shooting guard.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 6:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I disagree that every player who departed OKC got better because of being apart from Westbrook. Durant went to a stacked team with an all-time great offense. Oladipo lost weight and got into shape, so credit him for doing that now and criticize him as a professional for being out of shape in the first place. Sabonis made a normal rookie to second year jump (OKC had to give up something of value to get George).

I don't believe in judging a player's passing ability based on how many times he shoots per game or how many times he shot in a particular game. There were select games that Nash shot a lot because the defense preferred for him to score rather than distribute and the same thing has been true for LeBron James in some matchups. I am not saying that is what happened in game six versus Utah, but shot attempts is not how I evaluate passing. I evaluate passing by examining passing.

I disagree with the notion that OKC's offense "craters" because Westbrook has a limited repertoire of passes. OKC's offense "craters" because he does not have enough help. OKC's non-shooters would not magically become shooters if Nash or Curry were passing them the ball. Marion was an All-Star before Nash arrived. Healthy Stoudemire would have been an All-Star anywhere and he was a fringe MVP candidate in New York before his body failed him.

Nash had such an impact on his teams that after he left Dallas the Mavericks replaced him with Jason Terry and had a Finals appearance plus a 67 win season. A few years after that, the Mavs won a title with Terry as their second leading regular season scorer and 37 year old Jason Kidd as their starting point guard.

If I were a Nash supporter, I'd be careful throwing around comments about who could replace Westbrook and take OKC anywhere, because we already saw Nash be replaced by a much lower level player (and then by an all-time great who was several years past his prime) and the team improve without him--which is even more disconcerting for Nash fans since Nash never won anything after leaving Dallas.

I am pretty sure that OKC is not improving with 2006-era Jason Terry replacing Westbrook or with 2011-era Jason Kidd teaming up with 2011-era Jason Terry replacing Westbrook.

Hypotheticals can be dangerous when we have actually seen them happen. We know what happens when lesser players replace Nash, at least in terms of team success. We have also seen what OKC looks like for two years with Westbrook on the bench and please don't hang your next response on the small sample size of a couple games in the Utah series to "prove" that Westbrook's supporting cast is so good now.

Also, when comparing Nash to Westbrook I really don't care about how many highly ranked regular season offenses Nash ran. Westbrook was an All-Star/All-NBA performer for a team that made nearly annual trips to the WCF. That is much more significant. Westbrook has also carried two teams to the playoffs by averaging a triple double for an entire regular season, a feat that no player in pro basketball history has accomplished.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I agree with most of what you wrote, other than not being sure that Harden is going to rank as a top five shooting guard all-time.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I agree with the way that you pointed out that asserting that Westbrook's teammates get better when they leave relies on cherry-picked examples and does not stand up to closer scrutiny.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I don't think that it is "recency bias" for Kyle to make the case that Westbrook already deserves a high ranking on the all-time point guard list. That is a subject that I will delve into in greater depth as I continue to work on my series of articles about the 50 Greatest Players List but Kyle made some valid points.

Nash is a great player, essentially the modern-day Mark Price (only more durable and the beneficiary of a friendlier set of rules). I love Nash's game--but his size and defensive liabilities placed a cap on the maximum potential of any of his teams. We saw that play out and I know all of the excuses that are offered on behalf of Nash and the Suns but the reality is that Nash had an extended run at the top of his game and could not even make it to the Finals once despite having a lot of talent around him. He is just not a top five all-time pg in my book.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I agree with your follow up comment that it is fair to call Westbrook an inefficient, smaller version of LeBron James. I would add that Westbrook's mindset is more like Kobe Bryant's than LeBron James' mindset. I don't foresee Westbrook surpassing either player but he is in impressive company.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Just to clarify, I am not taking Westbrook over Davis, Giannis or anyone else based purely on "past performance." My point is that Westbrook has sustained greatness for several seasons, including the current one. Even if I believed that Davis and Giannis were a little better than Westbrook now (and I don't believe that), sustained greatness would be a tiebreaker for me.

So, for comparison purposes, Melo was an All-Star for several years but he is nowhere close to that now so his "past performance" would not be relevant. If Melo were still an All-Star caliber player then "past performance" could be a tiebreaker when comparing him to a roughly equivalent player who has not yet experienced sustained success.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 11:03:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think suggesting that Dallas simply "replaced" Nash with Terry and got better is pretty specious for a lot of reasons, the biggest of which is that they fired a coach who didn't believe in defense (Don Nelson) and replaced him with one that did (Avery Johnson, later Rick Carlisle). It's also pretty obvious that Nash post-handcheck was a much more dangerous player than Nash pre-handcheck; one version was an All-NBA 3rd teamer, the other a 2x MVP.

How have the Suns done since losing him? Don't answer that, you'll make me sad.

Given that Dallas' title was a full five years, two coaches, and four starters later, I likewise think it's pretty silly to say "they lost Nash and then won a title." A lot happened in between, including Dirk learning to play defense. That'd be like saying the Celtics "lost Bill Russell, then won a title." Sure, Hondo was still there, but everything had changed.

Also, don't bash on Jason Kidd; he may have been 37 but he was still a very good two-way player.

I agree that Amare would have been an All-Star without Nash. I also know that he had his five most efficient seasons as a starter with Nash, and made 4 of his 5 All-Star teams with Nash, as well. Amare would be the first to tell you playing with Nash made him better.

"Westbrook was an All-Star/All-NBA performer for a team that made nearly annual trips to the WCF. That is much more significany"

You are right that Westbrook was an All-Star performer on 4 WCF teams over six years. Nash was not; he was "only" an All-Star performer for 4 WCF over eight years, that slacker. Of course, unlike RWB, Nash was clearly the best player on three of his four WCF teams, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, I hardly see it as "much more significant," especially given how much better Durant is than anyone on Nash's Suns teams.

It is also of course worth noting that it would likely have been 5 WCFs (or 4 in 5 years, if we're hard-coded to keep it under 6 seasons) if not for a certain series involving a poorly timed nosebleed, a crooked referee, and dubious suspensions in 2007.

While we're noting things, let's also point out that one of those two-of-six years RWB didn't make the WCFs, it was because without Durant the team sucked, going 27-28 when he didn't play and ultimately missing the playoffs. He also has yet to get out of the first round as his team's best guy; Nash did that four times in six years.

On the point of "no help" RWB just won 48 games with Paul George and Steven Adams as his best two sidekicks. Nash once won 54 with Shawn Marion and Raja Bell. We can quibble if we like about which of those two casts is poorer, but the real difference is that Nash dragged his to the WCF (and may have gone even further had Raja not hurt his leg) and RWB's got whipped in the first round.

I personally think good passing is infectious; Nash and Stockton's teams tended to lead the league (or come close) in assists. RWB's have finished 28th and 25th in that metric since Durant left. They have been better than 20th only twice in his career (13th and 10th).

I think the eye-test* makes it pretty obvious that RWB is better at creating potential assists for himself than he is at creating the best possible shot for his teammates. How often have we seen him yell at teammates for not shooting, even early in the clock?

*Of course, the efficiency stats of his departed teammates also back up this eye-test.

Reasonable men can differ but I think passing like Curry's or Nash's-- in which the pass just as often leads to the pass that leads to a great shot as it does lead straight to a shot itself--is much better for a team's offense than RWB's "You better make this or I won't get an assist" approach to passing.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 11:26:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Re: Other Odds and Ends

Curry-as-Pantheon-level:

I agree that he is not there yet, but I disagree that he cannot get there. So far his "prime' has been about five or six seasons; if he makes it another five or so at an elite level, that'll put him the same zipcode as Magic and Oscar. I am by no means guaranteeing that but given that his game is heavily finesse based he has a better chance than most to age gracefully (compare Nash, who was still elite around age 37 or so, though Curry relies a little more on athleticism than Nash did). Let's say he maintains his peak for another four seasons and wins three more rings... that'd put him at a ten year peak with 5 rings; that's pretty comparable with Magic's resume, isn't it?

I am not predicting that but I certainly don't see it as impossible. If Curry retired today I'd have him as the 5th or 6th* best PG of all-time, right behind Zeke and Stockton, and only trailing those two due to longevity; his peak is clearly higher than either of theirs.

*Depending on what position you consider Jerry West.

"Top 5":

If you think RWB was legitimately "tied" with Giannis and Davis this season then you either value defense a lot less than I thought you did or see major flaws in Giannis/Davis' games that I do not. Both outscored RWB on fewer shots while serving as their team's offensive and defensive hubs. To take RWB over either basically means valuing his extra 6-7 assists (and associated turnovers) over their rim protection, switchability, and all-around elite level defensive play. That seems... iffy... to me.

Kyle-

I would take Barry very slightly over Hondo but Hondo over Durant.

I think Ray Allen has a pretty strong longevity/team success case for being a top 5-ish SG, but can certainly see the case against him, as well.

I disagree that Harden is already ahead of Maravich. Their career scoring and shooting numbers are very similar but Maravich's are hampered by the absence of a three point line during his career. Factoring that in, he is clearly a much better scorer than Harden, who relies largely on the 3 both for points and for creating space to get to the rim. Harden has slightly better career assist numbers, but I'd argue those are largely a function of era, and I think at the eye-test level Maravich is a stronger passer, as well.

Neither is/was a great or even good defender, but Pistol Pete was probably a little better than Harden on that end.

Pete's playoff resume looks bad until you look at who he lost to: the dominant Knicks and Celtics of the early 70s. It might be fair to question Pete's inability to make the playoffs in the mid-late 70s, but those Jazz teams had little talent besides Maravich.

All that said, Harden has a pretty good chance to eventually pass Maravich by dint of longevity. I doubt his peak value will ever be as high, though.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 4:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Dang it, my Nash nostalgia has been reawakened. More for fun than for argument purposes, let's revisit Nash's Suns prime.

Fair warning, there's a good-to-great chance that only Jordan and I will get much out of the following, but it's either this or actually work, and it feels like procrastination time to me.

I obviously can't prove that Nash was good enough to be the best player on a title team (after all, he never was) but I believe he was. Phoenix did a poor job of building teams with two of the most crucial playoff skills-- rim protection and rebounding-- and liked to surround Nash with players and coaches who shared his defensive shortcomings (oops), but even allowing for that, the Suns still got pretty close a few times.

Any series between two good teams could often be swung by a What If here or there. Nash was especially prone to this. To wit:

2005:

What happened: Nash's Suns lost to Duncans Spurs in the WCF in 5 games.

What went wrong: Nash and Amare played out of their minds, but so did Duncan and Ginobili. The Suns' 3rd and 4th best players (Marion and Joe Johnson) were hobbled by injury, and being a D'Antoni team, PHX really only went six deep. The only good defender on the team was Marion. Meanwhile, the Spurs were about ten deep, and featured several quality defenders.

What Ifs: What if Marion/Johnson were at full strength?

Nick's verdict: Eh... I think they're still screwed. This was a team built to score a ton of points but more-or-less incapable of stopping anyone. A lot of the "they played no D" criticisms of the D'antoni Suns are overblown--they were generally more average than bad--but this is the one team where it was probably just as bad as the reputation.

That said, most of the games were close, so maybe PHX could have pulled it out with a little more firepower. Still, in my heart of hearts, I don't think Phoenix would have won this series. Defense matters.

What happens if they win: Phoenix probably stomps the '05 Pistons, who were a lot like the Spurs, but not as deep and lacking as reliable a scoring option as Tim Duncan. The presence of Ben Wallace might have slowed down Amare (though if Duncan didn't I doubt it), but it also would have allowed Phoenix to play 5-on-4 defensively and that likely would have covered up a lot of their holes.

1/hopefully just 3

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 4:57:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

2006:

What happened: Amare played only three games all season, the Suns lost the WCF to Dirk's Dallas team in 6 games.

What went wrong: The Suns were already thin without Amare, and Raja Bell (their third best player and best defender) injured his calf in their Game 1 win. His missed the next two games (both losses) and was a ghost of himself the rest of the way. Also, nobody could stop Dirk.

What Ifs: What if Raja and/or Amare were healthy? I think they win this series with either guy healthy (they had home court and we know from history that this Dallas team was not mentally resilient or especially defensively potent), but there's an interesting butterfly effect if Amare had been healthy all year that probably screws them: if Amare were healthy, they're like the 1 seed instead of the 2, and instead have to contend with San Antonio in Round 2, who might have beaten them. If just Raja were healthy, I think they probably get by Dallas, as Raja's defense on Josh Howard and extra shooting/depth likely swings the series.

What happens if they win: They run into a mostly old Heat team they were perfectly set up to beat. Miami couldn't run with them, and Raja's the perfect defender to toss on Wade. Shaq would likely have had a monster offensive series against them, but I don't think Miami could guard the Suns even a little.

2007:

What Happened: The Suns lost an extremely controversial six game series to the Spurs.

What Went Wrong: Where to start? A bloody nose kept Nash out of crunchtime in a Game 1 loss, Tim Donaghy may or may not have fixed Game 3 (Bill Simmons at the time called the game tape "The NBA's Zapruder Film" due to the extremely suspect officiating) and Phoenix somehow still had homecourt after four games. However, after a massive comeback that felt like a momentum shift in the series, Robert Horry body-slammed Steve Nash through the scorer's table. Amare Stoudemire and his backup, Boris Diaw, got up to check on Nash. Horry, Diaw, and Amare were all suspended. In Game 5, Mike D'Antoni D'antonid all over the place, going only six deep (Pat Burke played 3 minutes, technically) and running Nash, Marion, and Raja into the ground with 46-47 minutes apiece and no real size to contend with Duncan. The Suns still almost won, but they ran out of gas in the fourth, losing the quarter by nine points. In Game 6, the Spurs pretty tidily beat a mostly-gassed Suns team, though Amare (the only fresh starter) and Nash (just generally tough) both had strong individual games. The Suns already suspect defense had no energy, and they just couldn't get it done.

What Ifs: What if Nash's nose stops bleeding in Game 1? What if Tim Donaghy doesn't ref Game 3? What if Horry doesn't assault Nash, and/or Amare isn't suspended*? What if Mike D'Antoni trusted his bench a little?

I know David disagrees with me, but I'll go to my grave thinking the Suns win this series if any one of those breaks goes the other way, let alone all of them.

*The NBA appears to have learned their lesson here, as Westbrook recently did the same (and more, slapping Rudy Gobert) during a fracas in Utah but was merely fined instead of suspended.

What happens next if they win: The Suns breeze past an overachieving Utah team with only one plus defender (Kirilenko) and weaker stars (Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer), then summarily thump Lebron's one man show Cleveland team in the Finals.

2/probably actually 4

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 4:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

2008:

What happened: The Suns lose in 5 to San Antonio in the first round.

What went wrong: The Suns traded Marion for Shaq at the trade deadline, despite being 34-14 at the time. They went 21-13 the rest of the way, as while Shaq played well for them on offense, losing their only competent frontcourt defender for a Shaq who hadn't played defense since 2006 and wasn't about to start ultimately made the team weaker. They lost a heartbreaker OT Game 1 on the road to SA (who had passed them in the standings since the trade) and never got back into the series. Nash struggled to have much playoff impact as Shaq's presence made it difficult to push the tempo against a Spurs team determined to stop them from doing so.

What Ifs: What if the Suns hadn't traded for Shaq? Basically impossible to say, although it's fair to suggest they would not have seen SA till at least round 2 and likely would have had homecourt advantage. If they didn't see the Spurs, or if they beat them, they'd still have to beat Kobe's Lakers. Difficult to say how that series would have gone; by the time they actually faced each other, two years had passed and the Suns' two best options for guarding Kobe (Marion and Bell) were long gone. More on that when we get there. I don't love them agains the Celtics that year even if they get by LA/SA, given Boston's depth at the time and the emotional momentum of that first year Big 3 team (but more on them in a minute, too).

What happens if they win: Covered above. My answer here is basically "insufficient data." They certainly would have had a better shot than they had, though.

2009:

What happened: They missed the playoffs.

What went wrong: Terry Porter was an awful coach, tried to build the offense around Shaq instead of Nash, and made the team worse on offense without improving them on defense (he hasn't had a head coaching job since). Once he was fired partway through the season, the Suns were pretty good, but their record was already too bad to recover.

What ifs: What if they didn't hire Terry Porter?

What happens if they win: Well, "win" isn't really the right term here. It's hard to predict, given we have no idea who they would have hired instead. Still, my general rule of thumb is that you can't win a title with three starters who don't play defense*, and this Suns team (having also shipped out Raja) had four. Only Grant Hill was a plus defender. They weren't real contenders no matter what.

*I used to think you couldn't do it with two, but then Cleveland proved me wrong in '16.

3/yeah, turned into 4

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 4:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

2010:

What happened: Lost in 6 to Kobe's Lakers

What went wrong: Well, Amare's mom was arrested the night before the series started. He never looked quite right (though he scored well) and his turnovers were way out of control. More importantly, though, Phoenix blew a chance to take control of the series in a down-to-the-wire Game 5 when Jason Richardson failed to box out Ron Artest on a Bryant air-ball.

What ifs: What if Amare's mom doesn't get arrested? What if J-Rich boxes out and/or Kobe's shot hits the rim and that game goes to OT with momentum on PHX's side? Ultimately I don' think the first swings the series (though it certainly didn't help). The second might--heck, probably would, given how much LA was struggling with PHX's intermittent zone defense and how thin that year's LA team was-- but that's speculative; this wasn't like the '07 Spurs series where it felt like the Suns had control and got screwed, this felt more like two evenly matched teams and the Lakers just made more plays. Phoenix came out emotionally flat in Game 6 (except for Nash and Dragic) and lost.

What if they win: If they win--not a given-- they'd likely beat the Celtics in the Finals. The Celtics' bench had gone to crap, while Phoenix was ten deep-in fact, free from D'Antoni, Phoenix had built perhaps the best bench in the league-- and they generally whipped the Celtics during this era. Amare had a knack for getting in KG's head, Rondo couldn't punish Nash offensively, and Perk/OldSheed were too slow to play PHX's pace.

I don't know what all that ultimately means-- every team gets some bad breaks, even the ones who win-- but it does feel like Nash had worst luck than most. It starts with his front office--who never really tried to compliment his game with the kind of guys he probably needed--but in spite of that, four out of those six seasons his team was right there anyway, only to be derailed by injuries or, in the case of 2010, a really unfortunate moment of uncharacteristic brilliance from Metta World Peace. The best iteration of the Suns-- the Nash/Bell/Marion/Stoudemire core-- only got one crack at the playoffs and pretty much fell victim to consecutive acts of god, and ti's a shame we never got to see them string a few consecutive seasons together.

Nash shoulders some of the blame, too-- there's no denying he was a poor individual defender (although he was a passable team defender who generally stood in the right place), but you can win titles with a point guard who's a poor defender- look no further than Kyrie Irving, Tony Parker, or late-period Derek Fisher. None of those guys were the best players on their teams, granted, but Magic Johnson was, and he was an iffy defender himself; the difference is that he had Kareem (an all-time defensive force) behind him, Michael Cooper (the rich man's Raja Bell) beside him, and other All-D level guys like Jamal Wilkes and AC Green filling in the blanks. Phoenix never managed to give Nash the same kind of support; Raja Bell was his only All-Defensive teammate and he had him for only two seasons (not coincidentally, the two where he came closest to the Finals).

TL;DR: Nash not winning a title probably has more to do with Phoenix being run by a bunch of clowns than it does with Nash not being good enough. In spite of that, he repeatedly got close enough that it took injuries or fluky bad luck to keep him out of the Finals.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

PS: Nash's playoff numbers during those six years are silly. 20 ppg w/ 10.7 assists on 50/39/90 shooting as the defense's primary priority every time out. +3.7 per game.

His elimination game stats are even sillier, but I don't have time to calculate them right now. I reserve the right to come back later and bore you with those, though.

4/4

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 6:51:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

Thanks. What I needed on a Friday after a long, tough week. To relive all that heartbreak. Let me add a bit more. I am compelled to remind just how “Bozo” the Suns front office was. During Nash’s run, they traded away or simply gave away a bunch of players that…you know, played defense and would have helped boost up their bench, all cuz MFing Sarver was a cheapo.

There was the Luol Deng trade for Jackson Vroman and the 21st pick in the 2005 draft. Q Rich filled the small forward role. And, being a fan of all LA teams (and of course the Suns), I love me some Q Rich. That team was uber uber fun. Still…that’s a huge mistake. The next season, they drafted Nate Rob, and immediately traded him AND Q Rich for, drum roll please, Kurt Thomas and Dijon Thompson! They also traded Marcin Gortat for cash. Gortat could’ve much better filled the Kurt Thomas roll. And, they could’ve at least kept Q.

But wait…there’s more! The next season, they traded the draft rights to Rajon Rondo for cash. Rajon Rondo for cash.

The next year, they traded Rudy Fernandez (who, never got the run he needed to thrive in Portland, but would have…I believe…flourished next to Nash) for…cash.

It keeps getting better though. The following season, the Suns got out of Kurt Thomas’ contract by trading him and 2 first round picks to the Sonics. Who, used those picks to draft Quincy Pondexter (a 3 and D wing that would’ve fit nicely next to Nash…honestly, who wouldn’t fit nicely next to Nash…oh yeah Dwight Howard :P)…and Serge Ibaka.

So…if we’re keeping track…the Suns front office traded away outright or the rights to:

1. Luol Deng
2. Nate Robinson
3. Marcin Gortat
4. Rajon Rondo
5. Rudy Fernandez
6. Quincy Pondexter
7. Serge Ibaka

So…yeah. Eff Sarver. Clown doesn’t quite capture his…cheapness.

Ok. Thanks again Nick for pulling me back down a painful memory lane. It also reminded me about the Tim Thomas rebound in game 6…which…broke my heart as a Lakers fan. It was fun rooting for that undermanned Suns team after I got over the game 7 loss…where Kobe…played an interesting game in the second half.

One note to your what ifs. If Amare wasn’t hurt, I don’t think Diaw breaks out, and the Suns definitely don’t acquire Tim Thomas late in the year. Still, I do agree with most of what you wrote. Though, in my mind, that 2005 team had enough fire power that if Marion and Joe Joe were healthy, I believe they could’ve outgunned any team.

I’m going to go sulk now.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 6:55:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Found the time:

PHX Nash in elimination games: 7.4- 12.5 (59%), 1.4-3.6 (39%), 4.1 RPG, 9.1APG, 19.8PPG, +7.9 +/-

It's actually not quite as strong as I remembered (though it's chiefly dragged down by an uncharacteristic turd of a Game 5 in the '08 series (4-16, 1-6 3s, 11 pts, 3 assists)), but it's still some pretty bananas efficiency with his season on the line, particularly given the five elimination games in '06 with little offensive support on the roster.

Fair case to be made he should have shot more in those situations given that efficiency clip and his teammates' tendency to fold a little in those games (see the lower assist total), but I see it more as a dance-with-the-girl-that-brung-ya scenario; Nash got as far as he did trusting his teammates, and if he was going to go down, that was gonna be the way.

Nash could go for 30 any time he wanted, but his teammates rarely performed well when he took over 15 shots, and won a lot less when he did (84-71), particularly in the playoffs (14-20), while they won over 2/3s of their playoff games when he shot less than that (26-12). He understood that the best thing he could do for his team was try to get everyone else going, (and take over down the stretch when he had to), so that's what he did. His team went 17-9 in the playoffs when had at least 12 assists, as opposed to just 8-7 when he had 8 or less.

For funsies, the more extreme versions of those stats: 20+ FGA (3-8) and 15+ assists (8-2).

At the risk of turning this back into an argument, here are RWB's playoff results for the same numbers: 15+ FGA (44-38), 12+ assists (11-7) and 20+ FGA (25-30) or 15+ assists (4-0). Less than 8 assists (27-31). You'd think given his usual scoring that his team would suck when he shoots less, but they're actually 14-6 when he shoots less than 15 FGA in the playoffs (he has not tried this since Durant left, though).

Like Nash, RWB's team does better (at least in the playoffs) when he shoots less and passes more, but unlike Nash he's never really let that inform which of the two he feels like doing. He's played 93 playoff games so far in his career and shot 20+ times in over half of them and 25+ in over a quarter (9-14). He's shot over 30 FGA 9 times (2-7) and over 40 twice (0-2).

Back on Nash, regardless of whether or not he should have shot more, his plus minus shows that his teams generally outplayed the competition in elimination games with him on the court to the tune of about 8 points per game, but he was often undone by crappy D'antoni-era benches (or lack thereof).

Anyway, I think Nash had enough of what you need in a best-guy-on-title-team, he just never had the defense (partially his fault), rebounding (not really his fault), or good luck (definitely not his fault) to get over the hump. In spite of that, or at least, in spite of the lack of defense and rebounding, it's easy to imagine a world where Phoenix wins just two or three of those coin-flips and ends up remembered as a mini-dynasty in the vein of the 70s Knicks or Bad Boys Pistons, but unfortunately for Nash (and us Suns fans) it just didn't shake out that way.


 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:41:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

Well, while we're self flagellating, let's not forget...

* Turning Raja Bell and Boris Diaw into J-Rich and Dudley. Nothing against those guys, but Raja was better than J-Rich and Boris was better than Dudley.

* Don't forget that giving Thomas away also came back to bite them in those '08 playoffs, where he drew a game-saving charge on Amare in OT for the goddamn Spurs.

* Following the surprise 2010 run to the WCFs, Sarver refuses GM Steve Kerr's (I wonder what happened to that guy...?) modest request of a small playoff bonus for the secretaries/ball boys/other support staff, leading to Kerr ultimately leaving the team and being replaced by Lance Blanks and Lon Babby. This leads to...

* Turning Amare's (generous) trade exception into overpays for Hedo Turkoglu (washed up), Hakim Warrick (never good), and Josh Childress (never good), all on long-term deals (and all former Babby clients). Nash was still pretty good at this point, and putting, you know, actual basketball players around him probably could have kept them in contention.

* Dumb Dragic Choices Part 1: Trading Goran for Aaron Brooks, who at the time was not only older and more injury prone, but also averaging fewer points, assists, and basically everything else on lower percent shooting while also playing worse defense. Also he was making more money.

* Dumb Dragic Choices Part 2: Followed up resigning Dragic by signing Eric Bledsoe--their second best point guard/injury prone diva-- to a massively overpriced deal.

* Dumb Dragic Choices Part 3: After Mr. Magooing their way into a successful team built around Dragic + shooting and defense (but one that badly needed a frontcourt player of above replacement value), they used their cap space to sign a third point guard in Isiah Thomas, forcing Dragic- a 6'3 PG- to split his time between the 2 and 3 spots. This also led to Gerald Green- a 2 guard- often playing at the 4. It... did not work.

* Dumb Dragic Choices Part 4: Dragic demands a trade, so they ship him out for a crappy 1st round pick and a maybe good first round pick (potentially defensible) while also shipping out the Lakers pick (likely a top 5 pick this year) and Thomas in an idiotic deal for yet another point guard in Brandon Knight. They kept Bledsoe. Thomas and Dragic have both since made All-Star teams and multiple playoff appearances. Bledsoe has since made the Suns and later Milwaukee Bucks worse at basketball. The Suns have since won about 26 games per season.

* Brandon Knight signed to a ridiculous extension, of course. He's started five game in the last two seasons and has another two years and thirty million left on that contract.

* Signed Tyson Chandler--already washed up-- to a 4 year, 60 million dollar deal on a rebuilding team because they thought they were getting Lamarcus Aldridge.

* Traded away Marcus Morris (thereby alienating his brother Markieff to the point they had to trade him, too) because they thought they were getting Lamarcus Aldridge. Both Kief and Marcus have played big minutes for multiple playoff teams since.

* Botched, badly, an attempt to get Lamarcus Aldridge.

*Held onto the draft rights for Bogdan Bodganovic for three years before trading him for Marquese Chriss the year before he finally came out. Bogdan looks like he's going to end up being somewhere between "reliable 3-and-D guy" and "the next Manu Ginobili, but better at shooting" while Chriss looks like he wandered onto a basketball court by mistake and doesn't understand why people keep throwing this orange ball at him.

* This isn't another entry, but for the record: Bogdan is the perfect guy to play beside Devin Booker. Devin Booker is the poor man's Steph, Bogdan looks like he might be the poor man's Klay... that's something you can build around!

All that is to say... in what world is it ok that Robert Sarver has a team and Seattle doesn't?!



 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 9:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Thank you for the passionate and in-depth look back at the Nash era. I am happy that this site provides a forum for such comments.

Regarding Terry replacing Nash, in the first season after Nash went from Dallas to Phoenix the Mavs had the same head coach for most of the season (they did go 16-2 down the stretch under Avery Johnson) and the same top two scorers (Nowitzki and Finley, though they flip-flopped who was number one and who was number two). The Mavs won six more regular season games with Terry starting than they did in the previous season. The Mavs lost in the first round of the playoffs in '04 with Nash. In '05, they advance to the second round where (ironically) they lost to Nash's Suns, who had three past, present or future All-Stars (four counting Nash), plus other above average players such as Jim Jackson, Quentin Richardson and Leandro Barbosa.

It is unusual for a team to replace an elite player with a good player and not only stay the same but actually do better both in the regular season and the playoffs. That is all that I am saying.

I enjoyed Nash's game a lot. He reminded me of Mark Price, who I think is one of the most underrated players of the late 1980s/early 1990s. I thought that Nash was underrated early in his career but then a bit overrated when he started winning MVPs over Pantheon guys like Shaq, Kobe and LeBron.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 10:23:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

You're welcome. I love digging deep on guys like that, especially when it's someone I enjoyed as much as Nash.

I agree that it is unusual, but I do not think that particular case has a ton to do with Nash. The same rule-change that empowered Nash also opened things up for Terry, Finley, and to a lesser extent Dirk, for one (and I also think it's likely their record would have improved considerably more if they'd kept Nash). For another, as mentioned, Avery Johnson pushed that team to a higher level.

We may see another of those rare cases this season if the Cavs make the Finals again.

I really liked Mark Price, too, and agree that he's underrated. Like Pistol--though to a lesser extent--he'd have thrived more in the current era, I think. I also think it was a bummer for him that he peaked when he did... which happened to be at the same time and in the same division as MJ. I think Price was born to be the second best guy on a really strong title team, but unfortunately for him he never linked up with anyone who was significantly better than he was. No disrespect meant to Daugherty and Nance, but they weren't exactly Tim Duncan.

I think Nash's MVPs are certainly contestable but accept/understand the thinking behind each; the first was one of those "best player on the best team" awards like Harden is going to get this season, while the second was a "does the most with the least" award like Westbrook got last season (though of course Kobe had a good case by that metric that season as well).

That said, I think the year he deserved it most was probably actually 2007. Not that Dirk wasn't a deserving MVP, but I felt like the degree of difficulty on keeping that Suns team--which was basically only six deep-- rolling was extremely impressive, especially given that he handled the ball basically every play when he was on the court. He also put up probably his best individual numbers- 18.6/11.6 on 53/46/90 shooting.

Dirk had a great year, too, but at that point still wasn't that much more of a defensive presence than Nash (a fact GSW exploited in the playoffs, which I suspect is what motivated him to finally figure it out on that end), and his team's offense worked just fine when they ran it through Terry, Howard, or Harris for a few possessions here or there.

It wasn't a big travesty or anything-- Dirk had an MVP-caliber year-- but if I'd had a vote, it would have gone to Nash that year. Not quite as sure I can say the same for '05 or '06.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 8:38:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

@ Nick

You make some good points about Nash. His teams did have some bad luck. If he had won a title, he'd probably be perceived differently today.

If D'Antoni would have won a title as a coach he would have definitely be perceived differently over the years.

In response to what others say about Westbrook.
My opinion of Westbrook is that he's a top ten player, not five like some believe.
People bring up Harden's shooting bricks in the playoffs and not showing up.Westbrook shooting bricks costed his team to lose against Utah. I know his teammates at times didn't show up. But he was too inefficient. I think at one point the Thunder were like at the seventh or eighth seed. If they made it to the playoffs with that seeding and lost to either Houston or Golden State thats understandable. But they made it as the fourth seed and lost to Utah. Not dissing Utah but OKC had no business losing to them. Westbrook should have at the very least been able to lead his team past Utah.

OKC only winning one more playoff game and like two more regular season games with the addition of George and Anthony stands out also.

 
At Wednesday, May 09, 2018 3:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've heard all the sob stories about Nash before. A 'career' of bad luck, and his former team getting a lot better immediately without him, doesn't add up for me. We can look at all of the 'bad' breaks from any player/team and spin it how we want. The greats make their own luck often. Maybe a couple of instances, but not his whole career, and it was a long career, too.

I don't think 2010 PHO is an apt example though for this 'bad luck'. PHO's bench that year outplayed LAL's starters at times in the WCF. Nash had more than enough help. PHO was fortunate even to tie at 101 in game 5. And even if MWP doesn't hit the GW, the game goes to OT. Lots of different ways to look at it.

LAL was better than PHO in 2010, and barely BOS in the Finals. Would've been pretty hard for PHO to win, but maybe.

AW, totally agree about RW. I was really high on RW until the past 2 years, but not as much now. He's still a great player, but with most players seemingly playing better without him after leaving OKC, and his teams performing so poorly in the playoffs, it's hard to give him top 5 status anymore, barely top 10 at that. RW didn't show up that much in the 1st round either, and George was overall great. UTA was good, but hardly a great team. OKC is underachieving if we're going to say RW is clearly a top 5 player and playing like an MVP near MVP.

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2018 10:08:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

Anonymous,

I was just stating that Nash's teams did deal with bad luck. Who knows shat could've happened if those injuries/suspensions didn't occur.I'm not using those bad luck situations as the only reason for him retiring ringless.

Westbrook always got criticized a lot. This playoffs series vs the Jazz; the criticism is warranted. It seems like he just shoots his team out of a shot at winning.OKC at the very least should've beaten Utah.

If people want to criticize Harden when he doesn't show up or shoot poorly in the playoffs, then they should do the same with Westbrook. It was probably debateable if he deserved criticism in the past for the Thunder's failures. But now it's magnified.

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2018 11:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AW, I was mostly referring back to all of Nick's excuses for Nash's failures, sorry if that wasn't clear. I understand that he may have had some bad luck, but who doesn't, and a 'career' of bad luck. It's just hard for me to believe and accept, especially with all of the talent he was able to play with during his career. We could go back and detail each season of almost any player, and find all sorts of examples of 'bad luck,' too.

A lot of RW's criticisms were unwarranted in the past, and it annoyed me. Though, as Nick often points out and I agree with mostly, RW has been shooting way too many dumb 3's and out-of-control layups for awhile now. KD shares the blame, but KD/RW didn't learn how to feed off of each other the best overall, and they had a lot of time to figure it out. 2 top 5 talents with a solid cast around them for years and only 1 Finals appearance doesn't do it for me, and they needed another future MVP on that 2012 team just to make the Finals. How many other teams in NBA history in this type of situation for 5-6+ years have only made 1 Finals appearance? Probably not many, if any. Either it's a big coincidence or KD and/or RW aren't as good as we think they are.

I understand what you're saying about RW vs UTA, and we can go back to last year vs HOU, too. If Harden was shooting this poorly and only 3-8 in the playoffs over 2 seasons, he'd be getting bashed non-stop in here. RW had a very subpar series through games vs UTA, then one great half in game 5 when Gobert was out for much of OKC's run. Harden's had one very subpar game in each of his series, and while his shooting % is down, his overall play has been pretty good and he's contributing in other areas of the game now. He's actually leading the league in steals for the playoffs, too.

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2018 2:49:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

Anonymous

Actually OKC is 3-11 in the past two years in the playoffs. I agree that if Harden's team was 3-11 the past two years in the playoffs with him shooting poorly.

I think you stated that guys become better once they leave OKC. Well I dont know if that's a result of no longer playing with Westbrook or players just becoming better on their own. You never know what player you didn't expect to all of a sudden become better.

Yeah Westbrook shot poorly vs Houston last year. But I don't really criticize him that much because OKC wasn't expected to beat them anyway. Unless you believe his team was good enough to beat Houston and good enough to finish with a higher seed in the conference.Then you may have a point.

Like some have stated, Westbrook has tobwin a title as the best player of a team foebhim to no longer get criticized. Until then the criticism is warranted.

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2018 9:23:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

Finishing up the first paragraph, if Harden's team was 3-11 the past two years in the playoffs with him shooting poorly I Also agree he'd bget bashed.

 
At Thursday, May 10, 2018 11:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AW, OKC's record is 3-8 in the playoffs combined for the last 2 years. Maybe you were thinking '3 for 11' or won 3 games out of 11?

There's been lots of talk in here about RW's teammates with him and after him. I'm not directly saying guys play better without him necessarily, but it sure seems like a lot of his teammates don't do too well with him. And we've seen Oladipo, Sabonis, Waiters, KD, and Kanter all excelling after OKC. There's various reason for this, but it doesn't look too good for RW when they all are. I'm sure part of it is on OKC's coaches, too.

There's been plenty of comparisons of Kobe's teammates with him and after leaving LAL in the past, this is no different with RW. As I've said before, RW's cast is very comparable to Kobe's cast from 08-10. RW continues to put up video-game numbers, but it's not translating to enough wins on the court. I remember Harden getting very little credit for losing 1st round with a pretty average-at-best cast in his first year as 'the guy' to a stacked OKC team. RW at least has a few very good teammates, and he's in his prime, too, these last few years.

I don't blame RW much for losing to HOU last year, though I'm pretty sure David would continue 'the 1st round loss stuff' with Harden if RW was on HOU and Harden was on OKC with HOU winning, so why should RW get off easy? But, it's the way OKC lost with RW just not playing very smart late in games. OKC had their chances, too. I thought their starting unit was better than HOU's last year.

I'm not sure if RW has to win a title or not. I think we're getting hung up on that terminology too much. Who's some of the best players in the NBA now? James, Curry, KD, RW, Harden, Davis, Kawhi. RW can't win a title with his cast, but we should expect him to perform better in the playoffs lately if he's truly a top 5ish talent.

James has needed ridiculously awesome teams in a weak conference yearly, and has only 3 titles. Only? I know, 3 is a lot, but for all the help he's had and a supposed top 2-3 player all-time, it doesn't add up.

Curry has easily the best cast the past 4 years, and is actually now only the #2 guy on his team for the past 2 years. He needed a bench player, Iggy, to be Finals MVP and outshine James, just to have 1 title as 'the guy.' Then, choked a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals.

KD has also had lots of help for most of his career in OKC, and made only 1 Finals until GS.

RW, similar to KD. Now, his teams aren't even close to making it out of the 1st round.

Davis is still pretty young, but doesn't even make the playoffs yearly, but hard to blame him much for losing to GS, hasn't had a great cast yet.

Kawhi won Finals MVP in 2014 as a role player and pre-AS. Then, didn't do much in the playoffs the next 2 seasons with stacked teams. Then, got hurt in 2017 2nd round, and watched his team dispatch HOU easily. Now, it doesn't seem like he wants to play anymore.

Harden had some decent casts, not great, from 2014-2017 with some mixed results, but now has made the WCF 2x in the past 4 years. Before this season, at least SA and GS had much better casts than he did, and OKC did as well from 2013-2016. Now, he has his first real chance, though it's really hard to see HOU or any team beating a full-strength GS squad. You could've replaced Harden with James or anyone from 2013-2017, and I highly doubt HOU would've made any Finals appearances. GS is clicking and have all their guys now. Harden's been a little up and down, and most of his role players have struggled quite a bit. HOU just isn't gelling well currently. It'd be hard enough to beat GS if they were, but looking less and less bleak now.

 
At Friday, May 11, 2018 8:37:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

Anonymous

You're correct. OKC is 3-8 the past two years in the playoffs. I was thinking winning 3 out of 11.

Well in a sense Westbrook may have to win a title for the criticism to stop. Otherwise I believe he should take blame for his team's failures with his inefficient play. Either he wins a title as the man or his teams should at least do better than they do in the playoffs.
He is a superstar. I believe he's one of the 10 best players in the league, not top 5.

I hear some say George is a top 10 player. Along with bringing in Anthony, his cast is good, maybe not great because of the depth. They shouldn't have lost to Utah. The focus is on Anthony struggling and some other teammates being silent. But I believe if Westbrook performed better OKC takes this series.

About Houston not making any finals appearances if they had LeBron instead of Harden, this is interesting you said that. As you know many people always day LeBron has a cakewalk to the finals every year in the weak east. But on some occasions we heard about how good some of those east teams are and how they can do this or that when theyre healthy. Then when they lose to LeBron's team, it's "he had an easy road." If the Cavs beat Boston people will say he had an easy road to the finals because they didnt have Irving or Hayward. But Boston just beat the team that some thought would beat the Caves in the conference finals, the Sixer's.

If the Cavs have this same exact cast next year and they make it to the finals defeating this Celtics team with a healthy Kyrie and Hayward back, people will still say LeBron had an easy road to the finals.Maybe its how you look these teams. If he had an easy road then why hype those teams up as title contenders during the season then when LeBrons team defeats them it's "he had a cakewalk.

I think its possible LeBron could've made a finals appearance with those Houston squads that Harden had. Maybe not in 2017. But prior to that.
I think LeBron is just that good.
He would have better competition out west, but still.

 
At Friday, May 11, 2018 12:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AW, you might be right RW has to win a title, but the same would be said for anyone, not just him. While I believe his casts are a lot better than many think, he's not going to beat a team like GS, but you're right, he needs to do a lot more in the playoffs if he's truly a top 2-3 player, which he probably isn't other than probably during 2017. For 2017 regular season, he was a top 1-2 player. For 2018 regular season, he was probably in the #6-7 spot, and worse than that during the playoffs.

George is still a great player, but not 10 anymore, but he's one of the most complete players in the league. He's led his teams 2x to the ECF without another teammate even close to superstar status.

If you look at the top teams James has had to beat en route to the Finals since 2011, none of these other teams are that great, and all of them would've lost in the Finals. It's hard to think of title teams worse than them except in a very rare situation. Even in 2013 at the height of MIA, MIA only beat a 49-win IND team 4-3 in the ECF. And SA should've beaten them in the 2013 Finals. In 2012, MIA barely beat a 39-win BOS team(equivalent to just 48 wins for an 82-game season) 4-3 in the ECF. CHI was decent in 2011, but another overachieving regular season East team like TOR this season. They weren't that great of a team, and 2011 DAL was a weaker title team, too.

The 76ers are new to the playoffs this year, but come on, they aren't that great, as we saw vs an undermanned BOS team. They have some talent, but hardly a true contender. BOS will put up a fight, but theyre still a very weak CF opponent. With the way James coasts during the regular season and if his team played in the West, he'd sometimes not even have homecourt advantage in the 1st round, that'd be pretty hard to win a title having to win 4 series without homecourt advantage. He'd be fortunate to make the 2nd round some years. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm not hyping up any team in the East. Even if BOS was full strength, I'd have a hard time seeing them winning 60 games. It'd be a bit different if BOS had Irving/Hayward possibly, but James should certainly be able to lead CLE over BOS this season.

I don't think James is anywhere near as good as most think he is. Maybe if he had 6-7 titles by now, but with what he's had to work with and the way most speak of him, 3 seems like a huge disappointment to me. 2015 would be the only possibility James could've led HOU to the Finals, but that's still pretty hard to see, against GS. Plus, if Iggy is outplaying James in that year's Finals or WCF in this hypothetical, even harder to see.

 
At Friday, May 11, 2018 9:27:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

Well Westbrook at the very least has to be better in the playoffs for the criticism of him to stop.
In the past it was questionable, now its obviousbhe deserves it.
I agree his cast is better than what some believe.

As for James, his career isn't over. He may add two more titles to his resume as the best player on the team while also being the best player in The league or at least elite. S The past eight years he has went to the conference finals eight times and the finals seven times, with his team winning three. That's not bad at all. He showed up in all but one of those finals. Not like he no showed in all of the ones his teams lost.Maybe the teams he beat weren't great, but weren't weak neither.
people say those Atlanta teams weren't contenders, because they didn't have a superstar player. Heck they didn't even have a perennial all star player.But in 2015 I think they were a top five offensive and top five defensive team. That's pretty good.
Those 2015 and 2016 Atlanta teams were like the 2004 pistons.
I guess had the pistons not won the title in 2004, right now it'd be forgotten that they made six straight conference appearances. Because they had no superstar and they were not seen as good enough to win prior to making the finals in 2004.

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2018 9:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

In your first comment about Westbrook, you stated that if OKC had lost in the first round as the seventh or eighth seed then that would have been acceptable to you but because they finished as the fourth seed Westbrook is somehow to blame for the team not getting out of the first round.

This means that you are punishing Westbrook for almost singlehandedly lifting OKC to a higher seed. The Thunder went 4-1 in the last five games of the regular season to secure the fourth seed, including wins at New Orleans and Houston. During those five games, Westbrook averaged 24.6 ppg, 15.2 rpg and 12.2 apg while amassing a total plus/minus of +50. He had a positive plus/minus in all five games.

By your "logic," if Westbrook had not played at an Oscar Robertson Pantheon level to lift the team, then paradoxically you would find Westbrook's overall performance to be "acceptable."

I have never understood what I would call the "pretzel logic" that I have seen applied over the years to polarizing players such as Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook.

I just look at skill sets and relevant numbers to draw my conclusions.

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2018 9:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Regarding Nash, I do not think that he had to overcome an unusual amount of "bad luck." To cite just two examples of a player overcoming greater adversity than Nash ever faced to win a title, Kobe Bryant overcame a severe ankle sprain to make key plays during LAL's Finals victory over the Pacers and he overcame an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his shooting hand (among other injuries) to lead the Lakers to the 2010 championship. Every great player faces adversity, either individually or in terms of the team.

Willis Reed and the Knicks also come to mind, not to mention LeBron James leading the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit versus a dominant Golden State team.

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2018 10:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I just do not understand the excessive and overwrought critiques of Westbrook, either from some media "experts" or from some of the commenters here.

Westbrook has demonstrated over an extended period of time that he can perform at a very high level for a perennial contender. As I have documented repeatedly, few teams/few duos have sustained the success that Durant and Westbrook did in OKC.

After Durant abandoned Westbrook to join what was already a super team, Westbrook has been OKC's best player by far for the past two seasons. The front office is still trying to figure out how to build the best possible roster around Westbrook. It took the Rockets several years to eventually put the current cast around Harden. Westbrook's past two regular season performances have been historic and unprecedented. While his shooting percentages have fallen in the playoffs--no doubt due to the tremendous burden that he carries to score, rebound and pass as a 6-3 point guard--he has still been a top notch scorer, rebounder and playmaker during the playoffs. His supporting cast was awful two years ago (Adams, out of shape Oladipo and not much else) and only marginally better this year, despite perhaps looking better on paper; George is a very good player but the Thunder gave up depth to get him, while Anthony is a declining former All-Star with delusions of grandeur and a proven record of not doing much to lift a team.

Regarding me supposedly applying different standards to various players, the next time a player or duo reaches four CFs in a six years span I will no doubt say the same or similar things about them that I have said about Durant/Westbrook and OKC. Also, the next time a player averages a triple double for two consecutive seasons, I will say the same or similar things about that player that I have said about Westbrook. Just don't expect either of those circumstances to happen again any time soon (other than James possibly extending his current CF streak and the Warriors extending their streaks of Finals appearances, two accomplishments that I have often noted and praised here).

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2018 3:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I am not comparing Nash to Kobe (Kobe's better). Kobe is a Pantheon level (or, by my definition "Tier 3") player, while Nash is "merely" a Top 50 (or "Tier 6") type player. As such, Kobe was better equipped to overcome a bad break than Nash was. That said, I disagree that Nash did not have disproportionately bad luck during his Phoenix run, and maintain that with slightly better fortune he could have comfortably been the best guy on a title team.

If we are going to add overcoming personal injury to the bad luck list, though, then Nash's back spasms that plagued him throughout his Phoenix career are probably at least comparable to Kobe's sprained ankle and busted finger.

The 2000 example is doubly irrelevant, as Kobe was not even that team's best player; had Nash had a Pantheon level teammate alongside him, he likely could have gotten past some of his own misfortunes as well.

I still believe Nash's Phoenix years--and especially the 2005-2007 run-- were extremely unlucky, and that he was only one or two fewer bad breaks away from a likely title. For all Kobe's misfortunes I don't recall him losing a playoff game reffed by a convicted game fixer or having his best teammate (and best teammate's backup) suspended, and I certainly don't recall him suffering both fates in one series.

But again- it was not my intent to paint Nash as a Pantheon level guy; comparing him to them isn't really fair--or at least not especially relevant--for the point I was trying to make.

It would be fair, though, to compare Nash to, say, Chauncey Billups; Billups has a ring and Nash does not, but Billups benefitted from a more intelligently constructed team that stayed healthy, and a fortuitously hobbled opponent in both the ECFs and Finals. If one of Nash's PHX teams had benefitted from similar health and run into injured and imploding opposition in the later rounds of the playoffs, I think it's pretty safe to say he'd have a ring, too.

 
At Sunday, May 13, 2018 4:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Thank you for clarifying. I have a better understanding of the point that you are making and of why it would make more sense to compare Nash to a player from the same or similar "tiers," as opposed to a player like Bryant from a higher "tier."

 

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