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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

NBA Finals Notes and Comments: Warriors’ Dominance, LeBron’s Hand/Mind and How Legacies Are Defined

The 2018 NBA Finals featured the league's emerging dynasty team versus a player who is being increasingly touted as the greatest player of all-time. Sometimes the historical storylines and subplots threatened to overtake coverage of what was happening in the moment and--as is too often the case--context, perspective and balance went out the window as various commentators tried too hard to make definitive statements about the greatness (or lack thereof) of a team or of a player.

Now that the series is over and that the Golden State Warriors won their third championship in four years while dropping LeBron James' career Finals record to 3-6, it is worth trying to put both the Warriors and James into proper context.

Let's start with James, since that is where the media tends to start anyway; it often seems like every story about the NBA is spun in some way to reflect how that story affects James or how James could affect that story. "The 76ers are an emerging team--but how good would they be if LeBron James signs with them?" is one constant theme, while "The Houston Rockets won 65 games and pushed the Warriors to seven games--but should they rearrange their roster to sign James?" is another one.

We can stipulate for the record that whether you love James or you hate James, he is without question one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. The abridged version of his extensive basketball resume includes three championships (2012-13, 16), three Finals MVPs (2012-13, 16), four regular season MVPs (2009-10, 2012-13) and 12 (soon to be 13) top-five finishes in regular season MVP voting (2006-17). He is the only player in pro basketball history who has amassed at least 30,000 points, at least 8000 rebounds and at least 8000 assists.

The only relevant question about James' legacy is how high he ranks on the select list of greatest players of all-time: top 15, top 10, top 5, 1?

These kinds of discussions are inherently impaired by a number of factors, including recency bias (the tendency to believe that what we are seeing right now is better than anything we have seen before), the personal biases (and/or ignorance) of whoever is doing the analysis and the very real challenges of trying to weigh the importance of rules changes, stylistic changes and so forth.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about the Pantheon, a group of 10 retired players (plus four players who were active at that time) who each have a credible case to be considered the greatest player of all-time. I did not rank the players within the Pantheon, choosing instead to focus on each player's greatness as opposed to pitting them against each other. Since that time, I have publicly indicated why I would take certain Pantheon players over others but I have still resisted ranking all of them. In September 2015, I wrote an addendum to my Pantheon series in the wake of a lot of discussions about whether or not Julius Erving belongs in the greatest player of all-time conversation and I explained why each Pantheon player at least belongs in that conversation; selecting a single greatest player in a team sport is an objectively impossible task, but I still think that it is reasonable to suggest that there is a finite number of players who are legitimately in that conversation because they have elevated themselves over everyone else based on skill set, accomplishments, peak value and longevity.

It is difficult to compare players who played different positions more than 40 years apart; anyone who really thinks he has figured out definitively whether or not Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain is a greater basketball player than Michael Jordan is fooling himself (or trying to fool others). Russell and Chamberlain played center in a league with much fewer teams than Jordan's NBA, a league that had no three point shot, had just started integrating (and featured few if any players from countries outside the USA) and differed in many other ways in terms of rules, playing style, etc.

It is a little easier to compare Jordan with LeBron James; Jordan is a 6-6 shooting guard who played in the NBA from 1984-85 to 2002-03, while James is a 6-8 small forward who has played in the NBA since 2003-04.

It is even easier to compare Kobe Bryant with LeBron James; Bryant is a 6-6 shooting guard who played in the NBA from 1996-97 to 2015-16. Bryant and James faced each other directly many times, guarded each other on some occasions, played against the same great players/teams (at least during the regular season) and they were teammates on Team USA's gold medal winning teams in 2008 and 2012. They even had some of the same teammates in their supporting casts; Shannon Brown could not crack the rotation on James' deep 2007 and 2008 Cleveland teams but he was part of the rotation for Bryant's 2009 and 2010 NBA championship teams.

Prior to the 2018 Finals, it seemed as if many media members decided to just bypass the logical Bryant-James comparison and jump straight into the cross-generational Jordan-James comparison. The same thing happened during last year's Finals and after Golden State took a 3-0 lead over Cleveland in that series I wrote:
Is it James' fault that the Warriors are poised to sweep his Cavaliers? No, but if James had the mentality to reach the gear that Russell, Jordan, Bryant and other Pantheon members often reached in the Finals then this series would, at the very least, be more competitive than it has been.

The bottom line is that James is not playing badly but he is providing a lot of footage that can be shown to put a stop to the foolish comparisons to Jordan; let's just put a moratorium on such talk and see if James can actually get within striking distance of O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant.

Game three was a winnable game in a must win situation and O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant did not let many of those slip away during the primes of their respective careers. Golden State hit Cleveland with a barrage of 39 points (including a Finals record nine three pointers) in the first quarter but the Warriors only led 67-61 at halftime. The Cavaliers attacked the paint in the first half and James led the way with 27 points. The argument that the Cavaliers are a flawed team because they need James to score a lot of points flies in the face of basketball history. Were the Bulls flawed because Jordan scored over 40 ppg versus the Suns in the 1993 Finals? That Bulls team had one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time (Scottie Pippen), an All-Star caliber power forward (Horace Grant) and several outstanding role players but Jordan still scored at a record-setting clip; that is the responsibility of a Pantheon-level player in such situations. Let's not compare James to Russell Westbrook, either; in the 2017 playoffs, Westbrook's second best teammate was Andre Roberson, who spent significant portions of the series running around playing tag because he did not want to be fouled since he cannot make a free throw. In marked contrast, in game three James had another superstar on his own team matching him point for point: Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 16-29 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the third quarter as James cooled off.

If you are comparing James to Jordan then you are arguing that Jordan would have found a way to lose a Finals game in which his sidekick dropped nearly 40 points and in which his team had a two possession lead with barely two minutes to go. Sorry, I am not buying that for one second.
After game four of the 2018 NBA Finals--when James played very passively in the second half of a winnable contest--Charles Barkley put it succinctly and bluntly in his inimitable fashion, looking into the NBA TV cameras and declaring that the next time any media member states that James is better than Jordan he will punch that person in the face.

While I do not advocate resolving the debate through violence, I agree with Barkley's point. If we are going to make intergenerational comparisons (which are difficult to make for the reasons that I listed above) then we have to go beyond statistics (which do not always translate between eras and which were amassed under different rules against different competition) and consider intangible but relevant factors such as mindset and leadership; James may be at or near the top of the Pantheon in terms of athletic ability but he does not crack the top 10 in mindset or leadership.

Forget the numbers for a moment and leave aside whatever you may think about Golden State's roster compared to Cleveland's roster. Consider the "little" storyline that James dropped in the media's lap after game four: James admitted to injuring his right hand by punching a whiteboard due to an emotional outburst after losing game one of the series in overtime.

Frank Isola put it best during his Monday show on SiriusXM NBA Radio: "LeBron is getting the pass of the century" for a self-inflicted injury incurred at the most important time of the season. Isola noted that James' action immediately demoted J.R. Smith's game one flub from the dumbest mistake of the series to the second dumbest and Isola said that what James did was both dumb and selfish. Isola made an apt analogy to Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera, saying that if Rivera had punched something with his pitching hand and hindered his ability to pitch in the World Series then he would have justifiably been roasted by the media. Of course, the media treated James with kid gloves after James showed up after game four with some kind of brace or soft cast on his previously unbandaged right hand (was James expecting Mark Schwartz to take a shot at his hand while he walked up to the podium?).

Isola also stated that James' hand injury does not explain or justify the way that James lay down in the second half of game four. Finally, Isola noted James' word choices: "Pretty much played with a broken hand." Did James actually break his hand or not? That is a simple question to ask and to answer but not one media member stepped up to ask the question, which is particularly sad considering that a previous post-game press conference in the series featured SiriusXM NBA Radio's Justin Termine--a self-styled historian of the game--wasting time asking Draymond Green about his wardrobe. The next day, Isola justifiably roasted his colleague Termine for asking such an inane question at a press conference when other media members are working on deadline to put out their game stories. Termine, who spends most of his show screaming at co-host Eddie Johnson (who is a knowledgeable and insightful commentator), seems to operate under the delusion that he was hired for his basketball knowledge as opposed to his ability to banter and be an on-air agitator. The NBA would benefit greatly if its broadcast partners hired more people like Isola--and fewer people like Termine--to provide commentary and to ask questions at post-game press conferences

James' injury and the ensuing coverup also raises the not so minor issue of the NBA's "integrity tax" regarding gambling. The NBA is poised to profit from sports gambling becoming legalized on a national basis, yet the best player in the game just got away with not reporting a supposedly serious injury for the last three games of the Finals. Do you think that James having an injured hand might have affected the betting line for those games? Between the rampant tanking and the league's apparently non-existent (or unenforced) injury reporting protocols, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may soon be presiding over a league that resembles professional wrestling more than a legitimately competitive sport. You may recall some media members lauding Silver as a kinder, gentler leader--in contrast to their opinion of his predecessor, David Stern--but Stern's stronger leadership style helped him navigate the league through troubled waters on many occasions.

The bottom line in terms of the greatest player of all-time conversation is that James has not only failed too often on the sport's biggest stage but he has quit too often and made too many excuses to ever pass Bryant, let alone Jordan. Even if James wins three more titles (which is doubtful) to tie Jordan and move one ahead of Bryant, what are we to make of the several series during which James has played below his considerable abilities--if not outright quit--and then made weak excuses?

Maybe James thought that his press conference antics would elicit sympathy but what those antics did is provide further evidence of how James falls short in comparison to the very best of the best.

Bryant has made some interesting comments in the past week or so about comparing James to himself and to other great players (as quoted in a recent article by Howard Beck): "Phil used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court. He'd say, 'You have to do less.' And I'd say, 'Well, my teammates got to step up more.' Phil would say, 'Well, it's your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'"

Bryant added these pertinent thoughts and observations:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
There is a lot of wisdom contained in those remarks but three points stand out: (1) This is not about "narrative" but about results. James is too often concerned more about controlling the "narrative" than he is about doing whatever it takes to win; (2) great players historically have been judged largely based on championships won, because every player has possible excuses/contextual factors to mention but the best of the best figure out how to get the job done; (3) leadership is not just about throwing the ball to players (particularly in situations when the great player should be assuming the obligation to score) but about empowering those players to improve on a daily basis.

The media narrative states that James is a great teammate and leader. The reality is that his tenure ended badly the first time in Cleveland (and may end badly this time as well) and his tenure in Miami ended with the great Pat Riley referring to "smiling faces with hidden agendas." 

At some point, a resume contains too many black marks to go to the top of the list, no many how many positives are on the resume as well. I have often said that James confounds me more than any other Pantheon level player and that remains true. I am disappointed that he not only injured himself during the 2018 Finals but that he waited until he got swept to reveal the injury, an announcement that not only comes across as a weak excuse but also takes attention away from what the Warriors accomplished. For me, the enduring image of this series will be the several sequences in game three during which the Warriors set fake screens and James switched off of Durant unnecessarily as opposed to accepting the challenge of guarding the eventual Finals MVP down the stretch.

James is now 1-2 versus Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals, 0-1 versus Dirk Nowitzki, 1-2 versus Kevin Durant and 1-3 versus Stephen Curry. I will not put things as bluntly as Barkley did but he is right that there needs to be a moratorium on the Jordan-James comparisons. Sparky Anderson once said that he would not embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench; that line of thinking applies here.
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The focus at this time should be on the Warriors. Few teams have won at least three titles in a four year span and each team is legendary (most of them won additional titles before and/or after capturing three titles during four years): Mikan's Lakers (1949-50, 52-54), Russell's Celtics (1957, 59-66, 68-69), the Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson Lakers (1980, 82, 85, 87-88), the Jordan-Pippen Bulls (1991-93, 96-98), the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers (2000-02).

Are the Warriors the greatest team of all-time?

That question is as unanswerable as the question about who is the greatest player of all-time.

The Warriors are clearly on the short list, much as James is on the short list of greatest players of all-time. The challenge is that teams can only meaningfully be compared against their contemporaries.

The Warriors are the best team of this era. Would they beat the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers? To answer that, we first need to stipulate the rules and the style of play. It is hard to picture Draymond Green having much success guarding O'Neal under the early 2000s rules. Meanwhile, O'Neal's presence in the paint shuts down the Warriors' lob game while Bryant, Ron Harper and Robert Horry menace the Warriors' perimeter players.

It is even harder to picture the Warriors winning three titles in four years in the 1980s while facing the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and others under the rules of that time. During that era, you had to have a dominant Hall of Fame caliber center to win a championship. Julius Erving takes a back seat to no perimeter player from any era but when he played alongside center Darryl Dawkins several of his championship quests were foiled by teams featuring Hall of Fame centers such as Bill Walton, Wes Unseld/Elvin Hayes (those two argued publicly about who was actually the team's center), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. It would have been difficult for any perimeter player to lead a team to a title in that era--but when Erving teamed up with Moses Malone suddenly the 76ers were not only title contenders (as they had been for the previous six years) but they were now perhaps the most dominant single season team in the sport's history.

In that era, Durant-Parish would have been a much deadlier duo than Durant-Curry. In the 1980s, a team with a lot of perimeter firepower and no post up game had a ceiling of reaching the Conference Finals. Think of squads such as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Denver Nuggets. They were excellent teams with many talented players but in that era under those rules they just could not quite beat the Celtics, 76ers or Lakers. One might argue that the modern Warriors are better defensively than those Milwaukee and Denver teams but it should be noted that the defensive rules in this era are vastly different from the rules in that era--and it is doubtful that the increased physicality of the 1980s would be advantageous for Durant and Curry at either end of the court.

We can speculate about which players/teams are best equipped mentally and physically to adapt to different conditions but there is no objective way to determine this.

I tend to go in the opposite direction of recency bias and operate with a default assumption that players/teams from the past are underrated to some extent.

I suspect that the great teams from previous eras would adjust quite well to the modern game, while some of the modern teams would struggle to adjust to the old school rules and style of play. That supposition is not meant to diminish the value of what the Warriors have accomplished. The Warriors are one of a handful of elite dynasties in pro basketball history. Whether or not they would fare well in head to head matchups against the dynasties listed above does not change the Warriors' well-earned place in pro basketball history.
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Speaking of legacies and dynasties, what are we to make of Kevin Durant? He has now been the Finals MVP for back to back championship teams. He has twice outplayed James on the sport's biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line.

It is no secret that I dislike the way Durant handled his business off of the court. Instead of embracing the challenge of facing the Warriors with Russell Westbrook at his side, Durant ran to the Warriors just one season after he and Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder had taken a 3-1 lead against the Warriors. It would have been better for the sport if we had seen a few more matchups of those two teams.

That being said, (1) Durant had every right to sign with the team of his choice and (2) no championship is cheap or worth less than another. Yes, Durant signed with a team that was already a powerhouse but he has been that team's best player during two championship runs. His on court contributions since joining the Warriors are beyond reproach. At the end of the day, Durant will be remembered as a basketball player for how many championships and MVPs he wins, just like every great player before him. The funny thing is that James is the first modern player who tried to play GM by building a super-team in Miami and then hand-picking his teammates the second time around in Cleveland but Durant has one-upped James as a player-GM; Durant signed with a team full of unselfish players who sacrificed money, glory and statistics to win titles. The Warriors built their roster in a balanced way, as opposed to just signing players who are represented by Durant's management team. In contrast, part of the Faustian bargain the Cavaliers made with James was to sign all of James' "guys," which is yet another reason that James' complaints about his supporting cast ring hollow.

Bryant said it best: Magic, Bird and Michael were judged by rings, not excuses and not context. There can be excuses made or context provided for every season in NBA history but the best of the best rise above those circumstances. Magic, Bird and Michael "could" have won more titles had things gone differently and they also "could" have won fewer titles.

It is interesting how the media is trying to not so subtly shift the narrative to shortchange anyone who is a "threat" to placing James at the top of the list.

Supposedly Jordan did not face tough enough competition, even though he played during the Magic/Bird/Isiah era at the start of his career and the Dream Team era during his prime. Jordan prevented a lot of great players from winning even one ring.

Supposedly, Bryant's five titles in seven Finals don't "count" compared to James' three rings in nine Finals because Bryant played with O'Neal during three Finals runs--but Russell had a fleet of Hall of Famers next to him during his 11 title runs, as did Magic, Bird and most other Pantheon players. James has been handpicking his teammates for nearly a decade and he has played with multiple future Hall of Famers yet he still is stuck on three rings as opposed to challenging the ring total amassed by the sport's premier winners of the past 40 years, including Abdul-Jabbar (six), Jordan (six), Magic (five), Bryant (five) and Duncan (five, with two wins in three tries against James).

Supposedly, Conference Finals wins now are a metric for greatness. We keep hearing about James making eight straight Finals appearances. That is a great accomplishment, no doubt about it--but Magic not only made it to eight Finals in 10 years during the 1980s but he won five of them. Going back further in time, Julius Erving made it to 10 Conference Finals and six Finals in a more competitive era when he had to often face multiple teams with future Hall of Famers as opposed to cruising to the Finals.

When did making the Finals or Conference Finals become more significant than winning championships? The answer is that it became more significant when the media decided to elevate James above all other basketball players but James did not cooperate by winning enough championships to earn that consideration the way that James' predecessors did.

Durant is one ring short of James right now. If Durant keeps winning and keeps outplaying James in the Finals, Durant is going to play his way into Pantheon consideration the old fashioned way: by his accomplishments on the court, not by trying to control the "narrative."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

44 comments

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44 Comments:

At Wednesday, June 13, 2018 9:29:00 AM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

Your blog is a safe haven from the toxic mainstream coverage of the NBA. I agree with all of your points regarding LeBron and the Warriors. Greatness should be measured by results, not excuses.

Up until his hand excuse, my appreciation and respect for his greatness was never higher. The numbers and his performances in how he obliterated the Eastern Conference was incredible this year. I really thought going into the Finals that maybe there was something he had attained mentally to possibly take this Warriors team down. If he had taken his sweep defeat with grace and class sans excuse, then I would have had more respect for him as a competitor. He not only stunk it up in Game 4, but also had the audacity to shift the narrative away from the back-to-back champions. I also always thought LeBron was overrated by today's media, and that his 3-6 Finals record should weigh more than his eight straight Finals appearances.

He is just not there mentally and psychologically like Michael or Kobe. I think it's most telling when you hear from former players who had played either with or against both Kobe and LeBron that they would take Kobe over LeBron because they knew Kobe would bring out the best. LeBron doesn't instill that psychological fear and mentality that Kobe has. Leadership can't be quantified by how many assists you give per game (Chris Paul and James Harden also come to light here).

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2018 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

David:

Excellent write-up as usual. I pretty much agree on most of your points.

I've already touched on LeBron's place in history to me. I'm a fan of both Kobe and LeBron so I don't have a dog in this race, though Kobe is probably my favorite player along with Bill Russell. LeBron is the modern day Wilt Chamberlain. It's funny because several sentences from your article can have the words "LeBron" or "James" replaced with "Wilt" or "Chamberlain" and it'd be completely accurate.

I was explaining this to someone the other day - when "Jordan guys" get into debates with "LeBron guys" or "Kobe guys", I've learned that the crowds are arguing different things and are technically right in their own ways. The Kobe vs Jordan thing doesn't need to be revisited, but just for perspective - "Kobe guys" argue that Kobe was a "better" player than Jordan because he was more skilled (i.e. jump-shooting, ball handling, etc..). That's a true statement and if one ranks players based on pure basketball ability with the ball in their hands, then Kobe has a very strong case to be considered the GOAT. The fallacy is that if that's your main criteria and you want to remain consistent in your rankings, then you're going to have a very weird list.

LeBron vs Jordan/Kobe is a little more interesting. In terms of pure statistical dominance, sheer athleticism, efficiency, and any other metric that accounts for natural talent and applying that on the basketball court - LeBron is better than Jordan and Kobe in that regard. Whether the gap is large or small, the answer is clear. LeBron is also going for a longevity argument as well. This is the exact same reason that Wilt can be considered the GOAT. If you put all of these players in a gym, in their prime, Wilt and LeBron stand out - that is if you ignore intangible things like "will to win", leadership, etc... "LeBron guys", a lot of those you refer to as "stat gurus", consider LeBron as arguably #1 because of those traits. Wilt is the only other guy that fits that category and arguably moreso than James. Again, if one chooses to rank players purely off of statistical dominance and sheer natural athleticism, then your list will start getting weird quickly.

Like you, I agree that everything should be taken into account. It is the very reason that I could never rank LeBron over Jordan, or Wilt over Russell. They are more talented players in the most literal sense, but you would not choose them to play for your life or anything meaningful. I'm not so strong in the argument for LeBron vs Kobe, even though I love Kobe. I'd pick Kobe to play for my life easily, but Kobe's career has some poop stains too. Basically, wherever you rank Wilt, LeBron should be right there with him. Both immensely, potent talents (probably the two best ever), but they do not have that killer instinct. Wilt simply gets the benefit of the doubt because his prime was 50 years ago. I was there - the same arguments that LeBron supporters give him are the same ones that Wilt supporters gave to Wilt. In 50 years, when the next Wilt/LeBron like guy is playing, fans will give LeBron the benefit of the doubt and crush this newer guy. I've already seen it happen.

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2018 1:34:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

As for Durant:

If I had to rank small forwards, at this point I do not consider Durant a Pantheon level player, but he isn't far off either. Therefore, he cannot be ranked over Baylor, Erving, Bird or LeBron.

People really need to research John Havlicek. I find that a lot of people think that Hondo was a product of Russell when that couldn't be further from the truth. From the 1966 to 1974, Hondo never averaged less than 23ppg (several times he hit 27ppg) in the postseason and was on 4 different championship teams. Only 3 of them were with Russell and the case can be made that he had surpassed Russell as the Celtic's best player for the last couple of championships. He and Cowens were a 1A, 1B duo. He's a really underrated player these days.

Rick Barry is also a very underrated forward - partly because he played some of his prime in the ABA and partly because he was a major a-hole. I've always believed that he deserved to be on that 35th anniversary team and the only reason that they left him off was because of how despised he was (think Isiah being banned from the Dream Team).

I'm not quite sure if I rank Durant over those two either. It's somewhat debatable, but we'll have to see once Durant's career starts winding down. I generally don't rank current players in their prime over past players until I'm sure that I can't make a reasonable, legitimate argument for said past player. Kind of like how I'm finding it very difficult at this point to not consider Curry as a greater player than Frazier, Stockton, Payton, Kidd, and Nash.

We pretty much agree on the Warriors. Relative to the leagues that they play in, I think that the Warriors are arguably more stacked than those other teams (2 MVP caliber, top 30 players at worst in their primes plus another very talented 20ppg scorer plus a DPOY and very good supporting cast). Those other teams either had one MVP out his prime or didn't have a third scorer like Klay Thompson plus the supporting cast. It's certainly debatable. However, I'm not convinced that these Warriors could beat those other teams. They would certainly be some good series though.

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2018 3:56:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

David,
Very well written article... it looks like you have more time for basketball coverage again in this stage of your life...

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2018 4:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The East is still a joke. I'm not that impressed with James making all of these Finals compared to some other all-time greats, unless he was winning more of them. But, at the same time, he has to win 4 series for the title. Guys like Erving, Russell, and Wilt to name a few only had to win 2 series often, sometimes 3, so not quite the same.

Even though with all of James' failures and mishaps, I have a hard time not ranking him #6-7 at worst. Individually, it's almost all there for him. Team-wise, obviously not quite. But, going 3-6 in Finals is still a lot better than going 3-0. That's an extra 6 Finals, though he's had a much easier road to the Finals playing in the East his entire career.

It'll be interesting if KD ends up with more titles than James. Let's say 4-3, for example, especially if he has a winning record against him, and continues to outplay him in the Finals. I thought it was a weak copout by KD to go to GS, but it's unlikely he'd ever win a title with OKC or maybe 1 if he got lucky. Now his legacy will be viewed much better since he's led GS to 2 titles in 2 years, and took over 'best player' honors from Curry. KD hasn't morphed into something more special since going to GS anymore than when he was with OKC, but winning titles changes views dramatically. I'd still have a hard time ranking KD over James depending on how the rest of their careers turn out, but KD would have a strong case to be ranked ahead of James if he has more titles. At the very least, James' mythical GOAT case would take a huge hit. Really, it already should given KD's performance against James these past 2 Finals.

Duncan holds a 2-1 advantage over James, but their ages are much different, and Duncan had a much better cast in both of his wins. Duncan was still kind of holding onto his prime in 2007, while James was very young. James definitely outplayed Duncan in their 2013/14 matchups, though Duncan was older then with James in his prime. I don't like H2H is particularly important.

The James/KD matchups are more telling, as both have pretty much been in their primes each time.

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2018 10:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle, there's a lot more to it in the Kobe/Jordan debate. Kobe has a very strong case to be considered greater than Jordan, and most NBA people realize how close it really is between these two. Kobe has the skill, longevity, and more elite years argument. Kobe's also the more decorated player other than MVPs individually, which is a farce he only has 1.

I have a hard time seeing Jordan winning 5 titles if he mirrored Kobe's career. Kobe won his first title at 21. Jordan finished his 1st season at 22, and then missed most of his 2nd season, so that's 2 taken away. Probably 2002. Possibly 1 in 2003 or 2004. Kobe was awesome on 2003. Shaq messed that season up big time. By the time LAL reached the Finals in 2004, they got almost nothing outside of Shaq/Kobe, which each weren't their best for various reasons, but hard to win a title even if both were. Then, the only other years Kobe had a legit chance for titles was 2008-10. BOS had a much better cast in 2008 and were playing well in the Finals. It's hard to beat the 6 Jordan won, but could definitely see Kobe at least coming very close to that, and then he'd have another 2 additional years in 1994-95 that Jordan took off.

KD is right up there with the best SFs ever now. Baylor/Erving never led teams to titles in the NBA. KD now has done it 2x. Not that he's necessarily better than either of those 2, but it's really hard to put Baylor ahead of him now for sure. KD is more dominant than Bird, much more athletic, probably more skilled, and definitely much better defensively.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you. This website has been a labor of love for more than a decade and it is nice to receive positive feedback.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I agree with a lot of what you wrote but I am not sure that James is a better athlete than Jordan or Bryant. I believe that Jordan had 4.4 speed in the 40 yard dash and he obviously had a tremendous vertical leap. Bryant had similar physical gifts to Jordan, though I have never heard of a 40 time for Bryant. James is obviously a bit taller and quite a bit larger but I saw (in person) James and Bryant go head to head on key possessions when both players were close to their primes and James could not just overpower Bryant; Bryant is a bigger, stronger dude than one might think from just seeing him on TV.

In any case, Jordan and Bryant are so vastly superior to James in terms of mindset that even if one concedes some physical edge to James that edge ultimately does not mean much.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I agree that Durant is not in the Pantheon just yet but he is knocking on the door.

You are right that Havlicek is somewhat underrated. He did not quite make the cut for my Pantheon but he is not far below that level.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson:

Thank you.

My life is hectic but, as I mentioned above, this website has been a labor of love for me for many years and--no matter what is happening--I will always find a way to keep posting articles about the biggest stories and about matters of historical import, even if I no longer am able to post as many in depth game recaps as I used to post.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Making eight straight Finals is a significant accomplishment but it is not more significant than going 6-0 in the Finals or than winning five or six titles overall.

Over the long haul, I suspect that history will view Durant kindly, focusing less on how he arrived in GS and more on what he accomplishes there. I wish that he had handled things differently but I understand why he did what he did and I acknowledge that he had every right to do so.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 12:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I would be the first to say that Bryant has been underrated in many quarters for quite some time and I also would say that he is the closest player to Jordan since Jordan retired but I would not rank Bryant ahead of Jordan. Jordan gets the edge in efficiency, consistency and in the midrange game. The difference is not as much as some might suggest but I would take Jordan.

Durant is not the rebounder that Baylor and Erving were and he is not quite as good of a passer, either. Durant is taller and he is obviously a better outside shooter. Durant is rapidly moving toward Pantheon status but I would not kick anyone out yet to put him in there (he could perhaps get in if I expanded the Pantheon but I think that 14 is a good size).

Baylor made the All-NBA First Team 10 times, so he essentially was the best small forward in the league for a decade, despite some serious injuries. Erving made the All-ABA and All-NBA First Teams nine times, so he also had about a decade long run as the best small forward. Baylor never beat Russell to win a title but the only stars of his era who beat Russell were Wilt and Pettit (who topped Russell after Russell hurt his ankle prior to game seven). Erving won two ABA titles as his team's best player, plus he led the 76ers to the best regular season record over a six year span prior to the team acquiring Moses Malone. Durant does not yet have quite the longevity at the absolute peak level that Baylor and Erving exhibited. To cite just one more stat, Erving finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting nine times (four wins), Baylor did so seven times (no wins, but one second and two thirds) and Durant has done so six times (one win).

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

A few thoughts on some of the things being discussed here:

*James' weak point is certainly his mentality, but I do not agree with the idea that it automatically places him behind Jordan/Bryant. I do have him behind Jordan and in the same neighborhood as Bryant, but while his mentality lags behind theirs he also has advantages they do not. HIs longevity is superior, and while he is probably not a better positional defender than either, his ability to guard all five positions credibly is a clear advantage he has not only over them, but over nearly every other player in basketball history.

I would also take his passing over theirs, though Jordan and Bryant are both underrated passers.

I think, ultimately, James is a better floor-raiser than they are, but a weaker ceiling-raiser. James' individual brilliance can turn any team into a contender, but he is less able than Bryant/Jordan when it comes to turning a contender into a champion.

* I remain hesitant to place too much value on ring totals, both in the James conversation and the Durant one. I do not believe Kobe or Jordan could have beaten this Warriors team with the supporting cast James had, for instance, and I do not think James would have won terribly fewer titles than they did with their respective supporting casts.

That is not to say that titles don't matter, but I think each title must be evaluated under its own merits. James' 2011 meltdown is probably the biggest black mark on his career, for instance, and I find Kobe's last two titles much more impressive than his first three, given the absence of a certain 300 pound gorilla.

For Durant, on the titles front, I am not 100% sure the Warriors would not have won both of those titles without him (assuming they retained Barnes/Bogut or something of similar value) so it is difficult for me to credit him the same for those titles that I do, say, Barry for '75 or Duncan for '03. He is more in the Magic/Bird category for me where he is clearly a great player but he is playing on such a cartoonishly stacked basketball team that it is difficult for me to assign too much individual credit for his championship wins.

1/2

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

* Regarding Durant and the Pantheon, I don't think he's there yet, and I don't think he'll get there (for me). I have him currently as the seventh best SF ever, behind Erving, James, Barry, Bird, Pippen, Hondo, and nipping at Baylor's heels. Durant is a great isolation scorer and a good passer/rebounder, but he is an extremely overrated defender and in my opinion has not demonstrated the ability to carry anything less than an All-Star team to a championship. I also disagree that he is the Warriors' best player, although he sometimes puts up their best numbers; ultimately, Curry's off-ball value trumps Durant's slightly higher measurables for me, and most stats that attempt to capture impact like that back me up. They had nearly identical playoff +-, but Durant's are inflated slightly by getting to play more games against the easier competition in the first two rounds.

For the regular season, Curry was +9.5 while Durant was +5.1 (though here Durant suffers a little from having played much more without Curry than Curry played without him due to injury). Last season, when both were healthy, Curry was a +12.8 to Durant's +11.5. In the playoffs, Currys was +14.4 while Durant was +11.8.

If you prefer On/Offs, Curry continues to dominate (and in fact the difference widens). Curry had a +13 On/Off for the season while Durant managed a +1.4. Last year, a healthier Curry was +17.5 while Durant was +8.2.

In terms of how they effect each other, Durant shoots 6.5% better and 7% better from 3 when he shares the court with Curry. His assist/turnover falls when Curry sits, and his +- per 100 is +0.5 without Curry and +12.5 with him. In the playoffs, he shoots "only" 4% better with Curry on the floor (still +7% from 3) while his turnovers more than double when Curry sits.

On the other hand, Curry shoots 1% better without Durant on the floor (3% worse from 3), though his Ast/TO ratio likewise declines absent another superstar. His +- is actually better without Durant (+16.6) than with him (+12.5).

These sorts of advanced stats are of course not the be-all, end-all, but they back up what I see via the eye-test and we also already have a two-seasons sample of the Warriors being almost as good without Durant as with him (give or take a few 2016 Finals games).

The media salivates over Durant because he's a sexy iso scorer and they only know one way to look at things, but Curry means more to that team and always has, because Curry is the rare player that actually *does* make everyone around him better, while Durant is "merely" a traditional superstar.

Looping back to the Pantheon, so long as the trend persists of Durant secretly being the second best player on his team, it's difficult for me to raise him above all-timers who did so much more with less. Enough sustained greatness and I suppose there'll be no choice but to put him over Baylor, and potentially eventually Hondo/Bird/Pippen at absolute most, but ultimately he's yet to show that he can carry an under-loaded team the way Erving/Barry could, and in my opinion is still a good ways from topping the higher degree of difficulty achievements of Baylor/Hondo/Bird/Pippen as well.

2/3

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

* Briefly, on Wilt, I think he's slightly overrated in these discussions sometimes. While I do have him as one of my 7 "potential GOAT" guys, he's the one I feel least good about on that list. His numbers were incredible, but even his 50 point season didn't correlate to a terribly potent overall offense, and by the time he became a more complete passer he was so focused on his field-goal percentage that he was no longer an all-world scorer. Wilt was a great scorer and a great creator, but rarely if ever was he great at both at the same time. When talking about him, we tend to give him credit for being great at everything... and he was, but not at the same time.

Backpicks.com did a pretty good write-up on Wilt's strengths and weaknesses that better articulates some of what I'm getting at: http://www.backpicks.com/2017/12/04/backpicks-goat-9-wilt-chamberlain/

Note: I am not interested in defending backpicks wider philosophy (too +- focused for my tastes) or overall rankings, but their film-study, scouting, and analysis, particularly regarding Wilt, scans to me as quite sound.

I give Wilt all the points in the world for being the second best defensive player of the 60s, and obviously he was a potent offensive force, but much like James it feels a bit like his mentality left an awful lot on the table (relative to Russell, Duncan, etc.).

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Forgot to comment on Curry's place in the Pantheon:

For me, assuming passable longevity, it'll be tough for him to end up any lower than 3rd or 4th among PGs (depending on whether you count West as a 1 or a 2). His ceiling is as high as anybody's, his ring totals already trump everyone but Magic's (and he's got a good shot of catching him there), and he's the only PG since the 60s to make 4 straight Finals (and likely more). He makes everyone around him better, he's above average defensively (though not quite elite), and he has an excellent sense of the moment/when to turn it on.

I don't think "Greatest PG of All Time" is completely out of the question for him, depending on how much gas he has left in the tank/how healthy he can stay.

For right now this moment I have him *just* outside of my persona Pantheon, somewhere between 20th-25th all-time, but there's a fair case that's already too low.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 3:34:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Nick,
This will be 1 of the rare times that I will both agree and disagree with you.
Pd, I am a huge curry fan... (also huge magic, hakeem, kobe, westbrook fan)
Agree with your arguments regarding curry's impact on the warriors.
But as I watched the warriors lose to the Cavs in 16 finals, I came away with this conclusion : curry 'underperforming' in the playoffs (vs regular season) has a lot to do with the playoffs' heightened physicality. We could say curry's effectiveness on the court is highly dependent on what the refs will allow the opponents to do to him. When the refs allowed opponents to grab and bump him, he can't overpower them, which is something we cannot say of Durant, LeBron. Just because he is smaller and has a slight physique, and his game is largely built on his shooting (whether on/off the ball) primarily, and skills (quick cuts/off the dribble drives). He just doesn't have the speed/power/length factors that Durant and LeBron can lean on when refs allowed opponents to manhandle him. We just have to nitpick when discussing the real great players. After the series was over, though David did not directly say this re curry, I do recall his assessments on why smaller players will always be at a disadvantage vs bigger players (Kobe vs Chris Paul argument from way back), and I believe this applies here.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 3:37:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

David/Nick,

Appreciate how both of you argue... slightly diff tacks, but both are quite informative...

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 4:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, Kobe has the edge on Jordan in many other areas of the game, too. Jordan might have a very slight edge on Kobe in the midrange game, but Kobe had more versatility overall. Efficiency was higher in Jordan's era than Kobe's era, plus all the extra 3's Kobe made, their efficiency comparison is very negligible.

It's hard to compare rebounding today vs. 50 years ago. Guys back then played more minutes with more possessions usually and many more rebounds to go around. KD would easily be averaging double digit rebounds yearly if he played back then. Erving enjoyed some high rebounding years in the ABA, but that decreased dramatically once he joined the NBA. Baylor/Erving did some impressive things, but so has KD. A lot of talk about James, but he does have a case for the GOAT, and KD has outshined him in the last 2 Finals.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 7:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Mentality is a huge factor in my book, assuming that the physical attributes are relatively equal. James is a great player but quitting in big moments has happened more than once (and more than twice) in his career. I know that some people will cite one MJ game from back in '89 or one half of one Bryant game but James has quit in winnable games in winnable (or at least competitive) situations too many times for me to completely trust him in such moments. That is why I said that even in the unlikely event that James ends up winning six titles I still would not take him ahead of MJ or Bryant. What if I "took" James in some hypothetical draft and I got him at a time that he decided to quit? I don't have to worry about that if I draft Jordan or Bryant.

I think that you and I value longevity differently. From my standpoint, once a player puts up a decade or so of dominant seasons, the rest is gravy in terms of Pantheon eligibility. Nobody is great for a decade as a fluke. If a player is great for five years and then something happens (injuries, new role, whatever), then that is a different matter. If I draft Jordan or Bryant, I am getting 15+ years of greatness and no quitting. If I draft James, maybe I do end up with 20 years of greatness (to be determined) but I will always have to worry about him quitting.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 7:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree with you in general that context matters with rings but I probably incline a bit more to the MJ/Bryant philosophy of five or six is more than three and "You have to find a way to get it done."

I would take Durant over Curry--unless there is a huge gap, I prefer bigger players, much like Phil Jackson always did--but I don't think that taking Curry over Durant is outlandish and you made a reasonable case (though I prefer eye test to "advanced statistics"--and I realize that from your perspective the numbers are matching your eye test vis a vis those two players).

In his own way, Wilt is almost as confounding as LeBron. When I was younger I was probably a bit more of a Wilt guy than I am now but I also would say that as time passes I think that he is starting to get a bit of a short shrift in these conversations (not necessarily in the conversations here but in the larger basketball world).

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 7:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson:

You listed some of the reasons that I prefer Durant over Curry and you are right to note that I have applied those reasons in other comparisons of differently-sized players.

I think that Nick and I have both learned to appreciate each other's perspective more over the years, even when we disagree.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 7:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I think that Bryant came closer to matching Jordan's greatness than any other player of the post-Jordan era but I still would take Jordan. I think that the pro-Bryant arguments are a lot more compelling than the mainstream media wants to admit, though; the mainstream media is trying to leap frog James over Bryant, which I think is ridiculous.

I agree that it is hard to compare rebounding stats compiled 40 or 50 years apart but in their primes Baylor and Erving were top 10 rebounders in the entire league. Durant is not at that level as a rebounder.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 7:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jackson-

You may have a point about the physicality. To my eyes, in that series, it looked like Curry was not all-the-way back from his MCL injury (especially as the series progressed), and the heightened physicality certainly exacerbated that, but given his performance against the Cavs both the year before and the year after, I tend to put most of the blame on his knee not being able to hold up to high-physicality game after high-physicality game so fresh off an injury.

Regardless of whether or not I'm right about that, you are certainly correct that James/Durant are probably a bit more "referee agnostic" than Curry is. That being said, I would still take Curry ahead of Durant for the reasons stated above. I also do not think Curry's game is as dependent on the officiating as guys like Harden/Westbrook whose games are predicated on barreling towards the rim and creating contact; Curry may occasionally get worn down in a physical game, but his offense is viable no matter how the game is being officiated.

His 2016 Finals numbers may not be great, but his overall Finals numbers are still pretty excellent:

25.4 PPG (.421/.397/.899) 5.9 RPG 6.3 APG +122

He's one hot-shooting Finals (or two warm-shooting Finals) away from averaging 25 on 50/40/90 in the Finals, which would definitely be a first for anybody who's been in anywhere near that many of them*.

*Of course, Durant might get there first, if he can tack a couple points on his FT% the next time out. But Durant's played one fewer Finals, so he's working from a smaller sample.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 8:10:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Re: Mentality & Longevity

That's all fair. I do think I value longevity a bit more, and I think I also take a slightly different view on the respective longevity of the three guys we're talking about. The following exercise oversimplifies things a bit, but it's the broad strokes of how I feel.

I would say, for instance, that Lebron's two-way peak was from about 2008-2017 or so. That's ten years where he was probably the best guy at his position on both sides of the ball (though a case could perhaps be made for Bruce Bowen or Kawhi stealing a year here or there on defense). For pure offense, I'd spot him another three years from '05-'07 and a fourth in '18, with probably a few more to come, so let's call it a 15 year+ offensive peak and assume his D isn't ever going to be all-world again given his age.

Kobe didn't really peak as an offensive player until 2001 (he figured out defense a little quicker) and I would say he was the best offensive 2 in the league from 2001-2013 or so (with perhaps Wade or T-Mac stealing a year here or there) and the best defensive wing from about 2000-2007 or so, and a top 5 defensive wing (albeit with dubious first-three-quarters effort) until about 2010. I'm aware you'll disagree with that last bit, and if I was as high on Kobe's post-2007 D as you are I'd certainly feel the gap on longevity was smaller. Let's split the difference and give him a 10 year two-way peak.

MJ was a top-shelf defender from '88-'98, but he basically skipped two years, so let's call it 9 years on defense. His offense was elite pretty much out of the box, but he also barely played in '86, so i'd give him an 11 year (and change) offensive peak.

So, let's assume Lebron's going to bail on three playoff series over his run with questionable mentality.. but let's also assume that one of those comes because he's playing a team he isn't going to beat anyway. We'll knock two years off his peak.

So, for now, what I'd be looking at is:

11 full-power Lebron years, with him quitting either 2 or 3 times depending who we run into. I also get another 4+ years of offensively elite Lebron with iffy ('06-'07) to bad (2018) defense.

I'm gettin 10 full-power Kobe years, with him probably costing me zero to one series due to mentality in that span. I also get another 1 year of elite defensive Kobe with good offense, and another 2 or 3 years of elite offensive Kobe with bad defense. I also get a few "pretty good" years off him at either end of his career where he's not really a star but still a nice player.

Jordan I'm getting an awesome 9 year run , and an extra two or three years of great offense, but that's it.

In terms of two-way peak (from my POV), I'm getting about the same amount of mileage out of Lebron and Kobe (for now, with Lebron likely to win out in the long run), and a better pure peak from Jordan.

I'd still take Jordan given how good that peak is--I don't know if anybody's got a better nine-year run-- but I'm on the fence with Kobe/Lebron. I like Lebron's best day better, but as you mentioned I don't know when he's gonna screw me. They both might chase off a co-star here or there. It will, for me, probably come down to how much longer Lebron stays elite. If he's giving me 18+ years of elite offense and 11 years of elite defense it'll be hard for me to take Kobe's 13 & 10, even given Lebron's foibles.

The other question is how many series does Lebron's higher ceiling (due mostly to size) get me over Kobe? Enough to make up for the ones he costs me? I don't have the answer to that one, it's just something I wonder about when trying to pick between them.

As an aside, it's both a testament to and a condemnation of Lebron that his best is so good that he can effectively punt on three playoff series and still be in these kind of conversations.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2018 8:32:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jackson-

Thank you.


David-

On everything else, briefly:

KD/Curry:

Totally see where you're coming from. I'm just not sold on KD being a guy who can carry a team without another MVP-type guy to any kind of contention. He fails the "do more with less" test for me.

Even with a fairly stacked (if questionably coached) OKC team he won only a single Finals game. His consistent appearances in the WCF are impressive of course, but they're more impressive when comparing him against anybody outside the Pantheon vs. anybody in it. Guys like Reggie Miller and Steve Nash can boast similar feats of consistent semi-contention, while almost everybody* in the Pantheon (both yours and mine) has made at least 3 Finals, and about half of them made at least 3 without needing another MVP-level helper to get them there. Obviously none of them jumped mid-career to an already Finals-dominating team like the Warriors (Wilt-to-LA comes the closest, but LA hadn't won anything).

*I think Oscar is the only exception here.

Sure, Durant technically has 3 Finals and 2 titles himself, but there's a fair question to how essential he really was to those. Put Jimmy Butler/Paul George/any other AS-level SF onto these Warriors and they probably still role the Cavs for their lunch money. On the flip side, throw them on Doc's Nets or Barry's Warriors and they're probably first-round fodder.

Ultimately, I think Durant made an already title-contending team slightly better, but I don't think he's the kind of guy who can make an average-ish team into a title contender by himself (and I think everybody in both our Pantheons is).

Re: Our Perspectives

I agree that we have developed a better understanding/appreciation of each others' viewpoints over the years, and I'm glad we have. I think the only serious points of contention that still remain between us are Westbrook (where we're on different planets), and Baylor/Kobe (where we're maybe only in different cities, but that distinction gets magnified in Pantheon-talk).

We disagree on other stuff, of course (Rick Barry, Goran Dragic, Hakeem Olajuwon) but I think we're basically neighbors on those subjects.

 
At Friday, June 15, 2018 3:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David:

I am not sure if you have watched some of these so called "NBA Analysts" or rather "James Fans" i.e. Nick Wright, Shannon Sharpe and Chris Broussard etc the last few days debating over Bryant's answer in relation to James has to figure out a way to win.

The disrespect for Bryant's greatness is just unreal. Wright and Sharpe basically said who does he think he is how can you give advice to someone who is greater than you. Other media members said Bryant is annoyed at the lack of attention he is getting in the James and Jordan conversation so he is sending reminders to people. Broussard who I think is one of the better analysts out there amongst the "James Fans", had the nerves to say that Bryant isn't in the same conversation as James and Jordan. His reasons were Bryant was not as efficient, he played with Shaq and he missed the playoffs and lost in the first round twice prior to 2008. It's crazy how these people did not take into account the personnel that was on his team from 2005 to 2007 and that the Lakers is in the Western Conference.

I have never seen a player that gets penalised for playing with another great. No one penalises James for playing with Wade, Bosh, Allen, Irving and Love but instead applaud him even more because apparently all of the aforementioned players were either past their prime or did not play well at all during James' championship runs. It is also ridiculous that how people criticises Bryant for not being a great leader because he ran Shaq out of town and being too hard on teammates like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, whereas James is the ultimate leader because he is somehow a "pass-first" player, buys them suits and gets them contracts and it's ok to call out his teammates in the media. I don't know understand why it is so hard for people to realise that a player like Shannon Brown who hardly ever played for the Cavs was a key role player for Bryant's championship teams and each and every player on that 09 and 10 Laker team had career years playing with him.

 
At Friday, June 15, 2018 10:55:00 PM, Blogger wavenstein said...

Thanks for being one of the few analyst that's not a blood drinking Kobe hater. There has to be some kind of balance

 
At Sunday, June 17, 2018 1:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Thank you for explaining your perspective about longevity.

From my standpoint, if I don't think that Player A is intrinsically better than Player B then I will not elevate A over B even if A plays 20 years and B plays 16 years.

 
At Sunday, June 17, 2018 1:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with you and I am not sure what qualifications many of these so-called experts have to be pontificating on these subjects.

If a person has not played/coached at a high level and/or really devoted himself to studying the game then person is just a talking head, not an expert.

 
At Sunday, June 17, 2018 1:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wavenstein:

Thank you!

 
At Monday, June 18, 2018 5:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a lot of problems with James, but it's hard to not put him top 6-7 all-time at worst if you're going to rank players based on everything he's done. Kobe is rarely ranked even top 10 by anyone, unfortunately, and most of these people aren't going to rank Kobe as high top 5-6, to be just ahead of James, so their logic is consistent, even though it's bad logic.

KD's best rebounding year saw him rank #21 in the league. Erving's best NBA year in 1977 saw him rank #27. I guess we'll disagree, but I don't buy Baylor/Erving being better rebounders necessarily than KD. If KD played 42-45mpg with a lot more rebounds available with only 8-10 teams and his athleticism being much more of a commodity, he's going to be one of the premier rebounders in the league.

 
At Monday, June 18, 2018 8:29:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

The rebounding conversation is interesting. TRB% is not the only way to look at rebounding, but if you want to go by that (since it normalizes for both pace/available rebounds), the numbers for the guys in question are as follows;

Erving: 11.9% (peak of 16.4%)
Durant: 10.8% (peak of 13.6%)
Baylor: 10.2% (but only available for the final two seasons of his career).

For the sake of reference, the current league-leader in terms of percentage is Deandre Jordan at 26.5%. The career leader is Rodman at 23.4 (his peak season was 29.7%), but these stats aren't really available pre 1970 or so (so Wilt or Russell may be higher). The all-time peak season was 29.7, also by Rodman, and he holds 6 of the top 7 seasons.

Looking at that, it seems clear Erving was a better rebounder than Durant over the course of their careers even allowing for the difference in available rebounds; this scans with the eye-test, given how aggressive on the O-Boards Erving is relative to Durant. For Baylor, we have to do a little more legwork to figure out his peak/overall average.

His top rebounding season was 19.8 per game in 42.9 minutes in 1961. On average there were 146.9 rebounds available per night that season, or 131.3 during Baylor's minutes (roughly; we don't have opponent rebounding data for this era so I have to base it on league-average data instead of the Lakers' specific data, but the Lakers were a roughly average rebounding team so we're in the right ballpark, at least).

That plots out to a 15% rebounding rate for Baylor in his peak season, putting him better than peak Durant but worse than peak Erving.

1/2

 
At Monday, June 18, 2018 8:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

As for "top 10," if you factor out small-sample size guys (here defined as "less than 30 minutes a night"), Erving's peak percentage would 8th for 2018 (barely ahead of Anthony Davis), Baylor's would be 12th (1 tenth of 1 percent behind RWB and tied with Steven Adams), and Durant's would be 16th (0.3 ahead of Lebron).

So, peak Erving could definitely (by percentage) be a Top 10 rebounder today, Baylor would be close, and Durant is in striking distance but not *quite* there.

Of course, that ranking ignores minutes; Baylor and Erving bother averaged over 41mpg during their peak seasons, while Durant averaged only 33. Factoring those numbers in...

If they could maintain both their minutes and percentages in 2018, Erving and Baylor would average 12.3 and 11.7 boards, respectively. That'd #3 and #5 in the league, as no superior rebounder played anywhere near 40 minutes a game, and in fact nobody in 2018 Top 50 (for percentage) played even 37.

Whether or not they could play those minute/maintain their percentage doing it is an open question, but given how much less rest (and how many more possessions) they had in their eras, it seems likely they'd at least come close.

It is also worth noting that Durant's career numbers are likely somewhat inflated relative to Erving/Baylor as he has not yet played the twilight of his career; Baylor and Erving both saw their numbers crater in their last few years, and it's likely the same will happen to KD (although perhaps not, if he moves to PF full-time as he ages).

It is possible to quibble with this system over things like fatigue (Baylor put up his rate in a lot more minutes than Durant did) or level of rebounding competition, but it is a factual (or in Baylor's case, roughly factual) accounting of what percentage of rebounds each guy got when they were on the court.

FWIW, there's more to rebounding than just getting yourself rebounds . Having seen a lot of Erving and Durant, and some Baylor, I'd say Erving was the one who most often boxed out when he wasn't going for a board himself; Baylor tended to leak in transition (as was the style at the time) while Durant is often inattentive during rebounding situations that don't give him a chance for stats (look at Game 1 for the most memorable example of this trend).

As an aside, Durant's former OKC-bros Kanter, Harden, Ibaka, and RWB are also guys who often only go for boards and rarely box out; their rebounding numbers are good, but they might be less good for their team's rebounding than a player who records a board or two less per game but consistently boxes out to allow his teammates to get more. I think that may be a bad habit instilled by Scotty Brooks, though of course that's merely supposition.

2/2

 
At Monday, June 18, 2018 8:46:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Addendum:

It may be fair to speculate that Erving and Baylor would not play as many minutes today, but that might also lead to an increase in rebound percentage; comparing Lebron (the above-the-rim forward of today) had his top two rebounding percentage seasons on his 8th and 13th ranked minute totals, so there's something to be said for increased performance in reduced minutes. KD, likewise, recorded his single best rebounding percentage and best RPG in his lowest minute season (2017).

That being the case, I'm comfortable with the above as a ball-park estimate, under the assumption that a reduction in minutes would likely lead to a reduce in fatigue and a roughly commensurate uptick in rebounding.

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2018 12:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

James is in the Pantheon but I don't think that he has to be in the top six or seven, though it is reasonable to place him there.

I don't know that Bryant is "rarely" ranked in the top 10. I have seen him in the top 10 on some lists and I have seen him listed ridiculously low on others.

Erving was a top 10 rebounder in each of his first five professional seasons and he was one of the best rebounders from the small forward position for most of his NBA career until he was shifted to shooting guard for his last couple seasons. If Erving played in today's NBA with the small-ball lineups and the different rules/style of play he likely would average at least 9-10 rpg until he hit 34 or 35 years of age.

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2018 7:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am not a huge fan of "advanced basketball statistics" because I think that there are many variables that are not properly accounted for (level of competition, rules changes, styles of play, a player's role on a given team, etc.) but that is an interesting analysis/comparison of the rebounding rates of the three players in question.

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2018 9:34:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

In general, I share your skepticism over advanced stats but that term sometimes paints with perhaps too broad a brush. There are basically two kinds of advanced stats:

The kind I really don't like are stats which involve a "special sauce" type equation: things like PER, VORP, Win Shares, etc. which apply subjective, arbitrary qualitative values to reach overall conclusions. These are almost always stats that over or under value this, that ,or the other element of basketball, and I hate them.

The second kind--and the kind I'm using here-- are "advanced" stats that merely report what happens on the floor (TRB%, On/Offs, etc.), usually while adjusting for pace-of-play. These stats are subject to the variables you mentioned-- level of competition, rules changes, etc.-- but no more or less so than traditional box stats. Yes, TRB% might be influenced by level of competition or a player's role, but then so are their regular rebound or points totals; MJ would likely not score the exact same amount of PPG in a post-handchceck world as he did in the 1990s, for instance.

That being the case, I'm comfortable using allegedly "advanced" stats like TRB%, which is essentially just TRB with pace factored out) in cross-generational comparisons like this. It is not perfect , but it's about the best we've got (especially when combined with as much eye-test/context as possible).

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2018 10:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The distinction you made between the two categories of "advanced basketball statistics" is valid. I understand that and I agree with you that the second category is more relevant/meaningful than the first category, because the first category often just reflects the biases of a particular stat's creator.

I guess that I just have an old school preference for per game/per season (and sometimes per minute) statistics, because the game is played in those increments. I do recognize that there is some value in the rate/percentage stats, provided that they are used in combination with the eye test, research and so forth.

Specifically regarding Erving versus Durant as rebounders, Erving was a 6-6 small forward who was a top notch rebounder even when facing some of the best centers of all-time (he is also one of the greatest rebounders in college basketball history). Durant is a 7-0 small forward playing in an era during which the center position is on the endangered species list, so he is often the tallest player on the court. I can picture Erving being a 9-10 rpg rebounder in this era but it is harder for me to picture Durant rebounding at that level in Erving's era unless Durant changed his body and/or mindset. Erving rebounded in traffic against bigger players.

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2018 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

That is a good point about Erving/Durant; if anything, that only widens the margin. Erving's TRB% would likely go up in the modern era, both due to reduced interior size and a less-crowded paint, while Durant's would likely go down in the 70s.

I think per game/season stats have their place as well but when comparing counting stats of the 2000s vs. the 60s I tend to prefer percentage and/or possession numbers because the pace is so different; Wilt's 50.4/25.7 season remains astonishing, but would likely be impossible under the modern pace (and would probably instead be "only" something in the neighborhood of 37/17 or something). This also makes RWB's triple double seasons arguably more impressive than Oscar's with regards to at least rebounding (the difference in how assists are/were recorded probably cancels out the pace change).

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2018 5:09:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

On the topic of rebounding, I find it odd that James has never had a single 20-10 season especially considering that he is a more athletic version of Karl Malone. The supposedly flat-footed Larry Bird was able to average 24.3/10.0 for his entire career and 6-3 Westbrook did it in consecutive seasons so it just seems odd that LeBron hasn't done it once by now.

 
At Wednesday, June 20, 2018 12:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael:

I don't find it odd, because pound for pound LeBron James is not a great rebounder. He is a decent rebounder. In this era with no centers when he is playing small forward in a power forward's body his rebounding numbers are not particularly impressive. If you watch James rebound, he rarely pursues the ball aggressively. He rebounds in his area and he gets a certain percentage of his rebounds just based on being bigger/more athletic than most of the other players on the court. The great rebounders pursue the ball and have a knack of knowing where the ball is going to go. Bird had those traits (particularly in the first few seasons of his career) and Westbrook has them as well.

 
At Wednesday, June 20, 2018 1:23:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

Yeah, I guess the real question is why James hasn't taken complete advantage of his size and strength throughout his career. He is often praised for his rebounding ability but doesn't compare favorably in that department to other historically great small forwards such as Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving and Larry Bird.

 
At Wednesday, June 20, 2018 7:24:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David/Michael-

In fairness to James, the schemes his teams put him in do not maximize his opportunities for rebounds. Miami's aggressive trapping often kept him away from the hoop, and in both Miami and Cleveland he's been the primary transition defender. Given his other responsibilities, I think his defensive rebounding is pretty solid.

He should probably be a better offensive rebounder, but given the load he already carries on that end of the floor I am not surprised he isn't more engaged.

He is also capable of amping up his rebounding when his team really needs them, particularly if Love is out or if the other team has them vastly outmatched on the glass; in that regard, he reminds me of Doc, Barry, and Kobe, all of whom would uncork the occasional massive rebounding game when their team needed it most, even if their regular rebounding numbers were in the mid single-digits.

 

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