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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Warriors Sweep Cavaliers and Earn Third Title in Four Years With 108-85 Win

Stephen Curry scored 37 points and Kevin Durant added 20 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and a game-high 10 assists as the Golden State Warriors broke Cleveland's spirit with a 108-85 victory that was not as close as the final score might indicate. Durant started his Finals career by scoring at least 25 points in 13 straight games (the third longest such run in history, trailing only Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal); in game four, he snapped that scoring streak but he notched his first career Finals triple double.

Durant averaged 28.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 7.5 apg versus Cleveland to clinch his second straight Finals MVP, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan in the elite group of players who have won at least four scoring titles and at least two championships. Durant edged Curry 7-4 in the MVP balloting. Durant had a staggering +30 plus/minus number in game four, nine points better than any other player.

Curry shot 12-27 from the field, including 7-15 from three point range. He also had six rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocked shots. Golden State's only other double figure scorers were Andre Iguodala (11 points in 23 minutes off of the bench, +11 plus/minus number) and Klay Thompson (10 points, six rebounds). McGee had a tremendous impact that demonstrates the limits of relying on individual statistics to evaluate players: he had six points, three rebounds and one blocked shot in 16 minutes, yet the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 21 points when he was on the court, two points better than Curry's plus/minus number. No "stat guru" can account for what McGee did; the only way to understand McGee's effectiveness is to apply the "eye test" with understanding and realize the ways that his presence in the paint at both ends of the court provided a huge spark.

Golden State accomplished the first Finals sweep since the San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cavaliers in 2007. James joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson as the only Pantheon-level players who have been swept twice on the sport's biggest stage--but Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4 in the Finals and Johnson went 5-4 in the Finals, while James is 3-6; James is the only regular season MVP winner who has lost six times in the Finals.

James led the Cavaliers with 23 points and eight assists in addition to grabbing seven rebounds but--as is too often the case--his numbers were empty and his impact was far less than the box score might suggest. ABC's Mark Jackson picked up on this during the game, as cameras captured James speaking emphatically to his teammates during a third quarter timeout after the Warriors took a 67-52 lead: Jackson dismissed the significance of James' display and said, "It's about inspiring the guys in between these lines and he has not done it tonight." Moments later, the Warriors extended the margin to 81-63 and Jackson compared the Cavaliers to boxer Roberto Duran, who famously quit against Sugar Ray Leonard by stating "No mas." Jackson said, "It's disappointing. James' effort has been disappointing." Mike Breen made some excuses for James by stating that James carries a huge load and has only seemed tired a few times during the playoffs but Jeff Van Gundy retorted that it is OK to speak the truth about James, citing specific plays that had nothing to do with fatigue but rather showed that James was not competing hard enough.

Later, Jackson and Van Gundy also stated that James deserves credit for taking this team to the Finals in his 15th season. That is the paradox that has been a recurring theme in James' career: he is one of the greatest players ever, he has done some unprecedented things and what he did this season ranks among his greatest achievements--but he has also repeatedly quit in key moments. I have said it before and it bears repeating now: James mystifies me more than any other great NBA player who I have ever seen or researched.

Kevin Love added 13 points and nine rebounds. The only other Cleveland players who scored in double figures were J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood (10 points each). The Cavaliers shot just .345 from the field, which is a testament to Golden State's defense but also an indictment of how lethargically Cleveland played.

Stephen A. Smith is hardly known as a voice of reason but he nailed it when he called the Cavaliers' effort--starting with James and trickling down to the rest of the roster--"deplorable." 

However, James' pre-game lament that he needs to be surrounded by smart, high-IQ players rings hollow. The Cavaliers have spent a record amount of money to sign James' guys, including overpaying Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith (the Cavaliers bid against themselves in both instances because James wanted those players). The Cavaliers replaced a GM and a coach to appease James. Meanwhile, James still will not commit to returning to a franchise that has done everything possible to please him and that has put together a good enough roster to reach the Finals for four straight years.

It takes a unique supporting cast to play with James; James insists on monopolizing the ball, so he can only play with stars who are willing to accept this: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love accepted this to at least some extent, while Kyrie Irving did not. James wants to be surrounded by guys who can make three pointers, play defense and not get in the way of him amassing huge statistics. He is not going to take a pay cut to win a title and any team other than Cleveland that signs him will have to (1) give up a lot of assets in a sign and trade (so that James can get the max deal that he will insist on getting) and (2) be willing to pay out a record amount in salaries/luxury tax with no assurance on a year to year basis of whether or not James is committed to staying with the team. James is a great player and there is no doubt that many teams will line up for the opportunity to sign James--and there is no doubt that along with the benefits of signing James there is also a huge price (literally and figuratively) to pay.

The media narrative that has been drummed into everyone's heads is that James is a superhero who is playing alongside a bunch of stooges--as if James could singlehandedly beat strong Toronto and Boston teams. Kobe Bryant, who knows a lot about what it takes to win championships--not to mention what it takes to win championships with less than stellar supporting casts, as he did in 2009 and 2010--does not buy that narrative at all:

"It seems like he has some good talent (around him) to me. He's got Korver, who's a great shooter, J.R. Smith who has always been a solid player. We focus on his one mistake and that tends to overshadow all the things he' s done to help them win a championship before. You've got Kevin Love, who was an All-Star and an Olympian; Rodney Hood, who was a 17-point scorer in the Western Conference; you've got Tristan who is back to playing like he played a few years ago."

Bryant disagrees with those who seem to think that it is necessary to denigrate James' teammates in order to elevate James' reputation: "He's got some workable pieces there. I don't understand how, in order to talk about how great LeBron is, we need to [crap] on everybody else. That's not OK. Those guys have talent. I don't buy this whole thing that he's playing with a bunch of garbage."

It seems pointless to provide a detailed recap of a game during which James and the Cavaliers clearly gave up. Cleveland fell down 10-3 at the start, rallied to take a 39-38 second quarter lead but trailed 61-52 at halftime. Then, Golden State pushed a little harder in the third quarter and Cleveland capitulated.

It is disappointing but not surprising that immediately after the loss at least one prominent media member tried to make excuses for James, who apparently suffered a right hand injury from punching a blackboard in the wake of Cleveland's game one loss. ESPN's Brian Windhorst mentioned James' injury shortly after game four ended, claiming that the swelling in James' hand is so bad that it is not yet possible to determine if the hand is broken. Windhorst hastened to add that James is not the one who revealed the injury now to get sympathy or makes excuses but rather James had been concealing the injury so as to not give the Warriors any edge. It is not clear how Windhorst suddenly found out about the secret if James is not the one who revealed the injury to him.

In any case, one would hope that James would not expect sympathy for an injury apparently suffered as a result of an immature outburst. James has a responsibility to not engage in reckless conduct that would potentially inhibit his ability to work for his employer (much like a baseball pitcher should not punch a wall with his pitching hand and then miss several starts as a result).

It is interesting that of all of the media members who cover the Finals only Windhorst--who has made a career out of being Boswell to James' Johnson--knew that James is injured (Windhorst also added as an afterthought that James' ankle is injured). I thought that teams and players have a responsibility to the league to fully and accurately report injuries (this will be even more important of an issue as legalized gambling becomes more widespread in the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision about that matter).

James showed up at the game four post-game press conference with a huge brace/cast on his right hand. It would seem logical to assume that if James did not medically need such protection in the first three post-game press conferences, then it is likely that he did not need to wear it in the game four post-game press conference.

Long-time James' watchers no doubt remember that on the previous occasions when James quit he supposedly had mysterious injuries that seemingly only Windhorst knew the details about--injuries that oddly did not seem to require much if any treatment after Cleveland's season ended. I certainly will not forget James shooting half court shots during pre-game warmups when he was supposed to be nursing an elbow injury during the 2010 playoffs.

James has earned the right to sign with any team that he prefers--but, by the same token, it is fair to evaluate his decisions and actions in an objective context, as opposed to filtering them through a particular lens the way that some media members who value access to James do. 

That is more than enough words to devote to the best player on the losing team. James will drag out his free agency process for the next few weeks but the Golden State Warriors deserve the bulk of our attention.

The Warriors are a complete team. They do not play "small ball" or "stat guru" ball; they defend, they share the ball on offense and their stars are selfless. As Pat Riley might put it, there are no "smiling faces with hidden agendas" and there is no "disease of me." The Warriors do not care who gets the credit or the accolades. I hate the way that Durant fled a contending Oklahoma City team to join a powerful team that had already won a title but Durant had the right to do this and he has played brilliantly as a Warrior. Stephen Curry is a wondrous shooter who is also an underrated passer, rebounder and defender--yes, defender: he is smart and quick, even though he can be overpowered at times; teams pick on him at that end not because he is so bad but rather because every other Golden State starter is even better defensively than he is.

Could the Warriors beat Russell's Celtics, the Magic-Kareem Lakers, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers? Tell me the playing conditions and rules and maybe I can provide a sensible answer. As Chauncey Billups said after the Warriors won last night, with three championships in four years the Warriors have earned the right to be in the conversation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

34 comments

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34 Comments:

At Saturday, June 09, 2018 2:59:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I disagree that Lebron had a good supporting cast this postseason. Kevin Love is good (though he shot just about 40% for the playoffs, which is less good), but Kyle Korver at this point in his career is largely calcified (and went 1-16 in the Finals despite plenty of open looks), George Hill is a ghost of the player he was in Indiana, Tristan Thompson is gifted rebounder and defender but by no means elite at either, and the rest of the team is made up of either one-dimensional volume scorers (Clarkson, Hood) or high-variance players who can't be counted on night to night (Nance/Green). I am not saying that Lebron got the most out of those pieces (he didn't) but I am saying that had he won a title with them it would put him in at least the rarified company of Doc/Duncan/Hakeem/Barry/Kobe in terms of elevating a relatively weak team to a title, and arguably atop that list.

I agree that Lebron's effort tonight was lacking, and that he deserves little to no sympathy for a self-inflected injury. I do not buy the inference that the injury is fabricated, however, and suspect that we did not see the cast at previous post-game pressers for the stated "not letting the Warriors know he's hurt" reason. The injured hand would also partially explain James' more pass-heavy approach after Game 1, and his less reliable jumper (3-11 from 3, as well as several missed bunnies) as the series wore on.

I share your consternation when evaluating Lebron; depending on what I choose to focus on about him, I could see a case for him as a Top 5 all-time player.. but also a case for keeping him outside of the Top 15. He reminds me most, ultimately, of Wilt and Kobe, two other players I struggle to rank whose mentality did not always make sense to me (and two other players who could be both transcendent and disappointing in the Finals).

As for the Warriors, I agree that they've entered that rarified air. Assuming the current ruleset, I like them by a hair over the '96 Bulls (who weren't built with the shooting for this era), but not against the '01 Lakers (Shaq is an unsolvable problem for them) or '83 Sixers (Moses is likewise unsolvable, plus that Sixers team actually had the personnel to credibly defend them). I am unsure how I think they'd fair against the '92 Bulls or '86 Celtics.

I think they'd torch the early 60s Celtics fairly easily given modern rules, but probably struggle against the mid-60s Celtics' incredible depth and defensive prowess (Jones/Sanders/Havlicek/Russell is just unfair).

I think their shooting, and the system the '67 76ers ran, would allow them to eek out a victory over that club, though their threes would need to be falling and they'd have to be very smart about how they dealt with Wilt (if he decided to try and beat them with scoring--not that team's usual plan-- they'd have no choice but to foul).

I like them against the '72 Lakers. I don't like them against the (underrated) '82 Lakers. I like them again against the '87 Lakers, when they could likely run an aging and defensively meh Kareem off the floor and out-shoot the remainder.

I think they get butchered by the '99 Spurs, lose in a squeaker to the '07 Spurs, but probably eke out a win against '05 and '14, and likely mutilate the '03 edition.

I also don't love them against the '73 Knicks, weirdly. Walt Frazier seems like a problem for Curry, Debusschere's the ideal Durant-stopper, and between Debusschere, Lucas, and an admittedly venerable Barnett, that team could play the modern style pretty well, I suspect.

The 90s Rockets are not as good overall as the teams mentioned above, but they may be the perfect matchup for these Warriors; Hakeem would be unguardable for them, but he was mobile enough not to be run off the floor, and the Rockets were full of skilled, switchable defenders like Robert Horry, Mario Elie, and Maxwell/Drexler. They also had the shooting to play the modern game.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 10:24:00 AM, Anonymous Eric said...

David,

A very well written piece as always. I agree with every point you make regarding how frustrating it is to analyze LeBron's career and disposition and with your points of how Golden State has executed their championship formula to win consistently.

The "broken hand" injury is LeBron's way of self-handicapping and earning more sympathy from his fans and casual fans. He clearly would have it treated, iced, etc. It's baffling how this injury has just come into light as soon as his team gets embarrassingly swept in the championship stage.

I also recall in 2010 or 2009 when he had this mysterious elbow injury during the playoffs and he shot the ball left-handed.

I also agree with Stephen A Smith's and Charles Barkley's remarks after last night's game: LeBron quit and his team followed suit. I clearly believe ESPN/ABC's executives have an agenda to make as much excuses as possible for LeBron.

LeBron has a solid supporting cast, and I agree with Kobe's analysis of how it is wrong to bring them down to elevate LeBron's status as some form of mythical figure playing with a cast of scrubs.

Question for you: Who do you think should have won Finals MVP - Curry of Durant? It seems to me this question was far more intriguing and compelling than the actual series itself.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 3:04:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Just saw this video, and while it doesn't prove anything, it is equal parts funny and depressing: https://streamable.com/xlz5u

Counting up the numbers there, Lebron's teammates missed 13 open (or near-open) 3s off feeds from him in Game 1, 8 in Game 2 (including one would-be hockey assist), 9 in Game 3, and 8 in Game 4.

Gotta think if they make even 20% of those, the series goes a little longer. Bad time to go ice-cold from deep (the team, sans Lebron, shot only .288 from 3 (that only goes up by about 1% if you factor Lebron back in) after shooting, as a team, .372 for the season. Making just the looks in that video at even Lebron's 33% clip would likely have won them Games 1 and 3.

You can win the title shooting a ton of three (Warriors), but it helps to be able to do something else when they're not falling (also Warriors).

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 3:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Love is a former All-NBA player who has not experienced any skill set or physical decline as far as I know. His role has been transformed/reduced based on the way that James plays. Love averaged 19/11 in the Finals, though admittedly he did not shoot well from the field. He tended to get off to good starts and then be shut out of the offense the rest of the way.

In general, I agree with Bryant's comments about the rest of the supporting cast, so I will not further elaborate on what he said.

I am not saying that the injury is completely fabricated but it will be interesting to see if the hand is in fact "broken." I would be surprised if he played three games with a broken hand.

I definitely do not take the Warriors over the '96 Bulls. Rodman and Green would probably both be ejected. I like Harper's ability to harass Curry, with MJ or Pip possibly also taking a crack at Curry. Pippen could guard Durant as well as anyone and probably better than James has done the past two years. The Bulls would slow the game down and they had enough shooting with Kerr and Kukoc plus MJ/Pip hitting threes as needed.

It is hard to compare the Warriors to pre-three point shot era teams because the game is just so different now.

I agree that the '82 Lakers are underrated. For some reason, that team seems to get forgotten, perhaps because the NBA's big TV deals had not yet been signed.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 3:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

Thank you for your kind words.

I would choose Durant for Finals MVP this year, from the standpoint that he can affect the game in more ways than Curry and also because he was more often directly matched up (at both ends of the court) with the other team's best player.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 3:42:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I suppose I am skeptical that Kerr and Kukoc could stay on the floor defensively against this Warriors team. I like Ron Harper a lot (and I think he's historically underrated in a big bad way) but I am not sure he had the footspeed at that point to chase Curry around screens (basically no one does, when he's healthy). I think MJ or Pippen switching onto Curry could work but I also think it helps the Warriors wear down Chicago's only really dangerous offensive creators while GSW can just shift their offense to KD and Klay.

Meanwhile, GSW has several warm bodies to throw at MJ and Pip on the other end, making them earn their points against a steady diet of Iggy, Klay, KD, and possibly Draymond or Livingston.

I do agree that Draymond and Rodman would likely be ejected, but I think that's a net win for the Warriors, who have more star power and a slightly deeper bench.

MJ probably averages 40 and Pippen somewhere around 20, but the Warriors big 3 likely puts up close to 75 or 80. From there, it's asking a lot of Kukoc/Kerr/Harper to make up the difference against Livingston/Iggy/etc.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to shooting and defense, and which team can have both at once. The Warriors can field a viable offensive juggernaut of a lineup without really sacrificing on D, while the Bulls have to trade shooting for defense on swaps like Harper/Kerr and Kukoc/Pippen or Rodman.

It's close, but I do feel like it's the Warriors.

That all said, under '96 rules, I would take the Bulls by a decent margin. The acceptable physicality of that era would wear down Curry more quickly, and KD has always struggled against physical defenders, so I can't imagine how little he'd like getting manhandled by Pippen and Rodman in a ruleset that lets them do it.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 3:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I realize that the Cavs missed a lot of open shots but there is also the matter of the obvious indifference with which James played for extended stretches after the debacle at the end of regulation in game one. Further, James set the tone throughout the regular season of being indifferent on defense and those bad habits caught up with the Cavs during the Finals. James has done more than enough to be in the Pantheon but his advocates who are stumping to rank him at the top of the Pantheon are reaching a bit too far.

Getting back to an earlier statement of yours that I did not address, I disagree that Kobe's mindset was hard to understand or somehow inferior to James' mindset. Kobe's teams went 5-2 in the Finals and they tended to maximize their opportunities in general. I do not understand how anyone ranks James ahead of Bryant, let alone MJ. James amassed more rebounds and assists but he also played a different position and a different role. With the chips down against elite competition, I would take Bryant all day every day over James. Arguing otherwise is valuing stats over the eye test. It was very revealing to observe Bryant and James on the 2008 Olympic team. James was already perhaps the superior athlete/physical talent, but when everything was on the line in the gold medal game Bryant saved the day. I realize that FIBA play does not directly correspond with NBA play but their roles on that team speak to their respective mentalities.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 4:58:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I suppose I am skeptical that Kerr and Kukoc could stay on the floor defensively against this Warriors team. I like Ron Harper a lot (and I think he's historically underrated in a big bad way) but I am not sure he had the footspeed at that point to chase Curry around screens (basically no one does, when he's healthy). I think MJ or Pippen switching onto Curry could work but I also think it helps the Warriors wear down Chicago's only really dangerous offensive creators while GSW can just shift their offense to KD and Klay.

Meanwhile, GSW has several warm bodies to throw at MJ and Pip on the other end, making them earn their points against a steady diet of Iggy, Klay, KD, and possibly Draymond or Livingston.

I do agree that Draymond and Rodman would likely be ejected, but I think that's a net win for the Warriors, who have more star power and a slightly deeper bench.

MJ probably averages 40 and Pippen somewhere around 20, but the Warriors big 3 likely puts up close to 75 or 80. From there, it's asking a lot of Kukoc/Kerr/Harper to make up the difference against Livingston/Iggy/etc.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to shooting and defense, and which team can have both at once. The Warriors can field a viable offensive juggernaut of a lineup without really sacrificing on D, while the Bulls have to trade shooting for defense on swaps like Harper/Kerr and Kukoc/Pippen or Rodman.

It's close, but I do feel like it's the Warriors.

That all said, under '96 rules, I would take the Bulls by a decent margin. The acceptable physicality of that era would wear down Curry more quickly, and KD has always struggled against physical defenders, so I can't imagine how little he'd like getting manhandled by Pippen and Rodman in a ruleset that lets them do it.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 5:10:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Regarding Kobe I mentioned that his mindset was difficult for *me* to understand; I know the same does not apply for you. You and I have different recollections and understandings of the '04 Finals, the '06 series against Phoenix, and the general level of defensive effort Kobe put in after Shaq left and especially as he started to lose his athleticism. If you feel compelled to rehash these disagreements I suppose we can, but at this point I'm doubtful we'll find common ground on those specific points.

I agree with you that James did not play with sufficient urgency, especially during Game 4. I also agree that he did not play great defense but I am unsure how much of that is a function of apathy and how much merely a function of energy; it is possible that a more significant defensive effort would have necessitated a reduction in either creation or minutes.

I do not think even a fully engaged James would have had much of a shot against this Warriors team, though he might have been able to steal a game or two.

Regarding James and the Pantheon I agree with you that it makes no sense to rank him at the top. I have him in the 8-13 range, personally, and suspect that if you did rank your pantheon he'd likely end up somewhere in that range for you as well.

As for James vs. Kobe, I think it's clear that Kobe was more consistent but I think it is likewise clear that James has a higher ceiling, and it is becoming clear that he has superior longevity as well (although of course one injury next season could curtail that). I would also posit that James is probably a somewhat better floor-raiser than Kobe; I don't see Kobe dragging this team to the Finals, though of course I could be wrong. On the flip side of that, Kobe is probably a better ceiling-raiser; guys like Pau and Shaq thrived beside him while guys like Wade and Love had to reorient their play-styles to accommodate Lebron.

As for which is *better* I'm on the fence. It depends which of the above element we've both mentioned you value most. I would certainly take Kobe for a single game to save my life, given Lebron's consistency issues, but I would also probably take Lebron for a career (and I think that argument will likely become one-sided as he continues to rack up elite offensive seasons, even if his defense continues to atrophy).

I do not like the Finals record comparison as a metric given the different levels of support and competition each enjoyed; Lebron made more Finals, owing partly to playing in a softer conference. On the other hand, Kobe won more titles in part because he played beside another Pantheon-level great for three of them, had a top-4 all-time coach for all of them, and played his Finals against (mostly) weaker competition than the teams that put down Lebron.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 5:12:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David/Eric-

Regarding the MVP, I would have given it to Curry on the basis of having been the Warrior's most important player in three out of four games, but have no real problem with giving it to Durant; his Game 3 was the best non-Lebron game anyone played in the series (and the second best overall) and his overall statistics outshine Curry's (although that is almost entirely due to their respective performances in that third game.)

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 6:22:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

In his three Finals appearances Durant has gone 2-1 while averaging 31.5/8.3/5.0 on .543/.425/.909 shooting and accumulating 1.63 bpg. He is one of the greatest Finals performers of all-time and it seems that he is not getting proper recognition for this. He has a great chance at three championships/Finals MVPs in a row and it will be interesting to compare the legacies of Durant and James three to five years from now. I don't think Durant will actually surpass LeBron's legacy but he can certainly make it an interesting debate.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2018 6:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea, that's an odd comment about grouping Kobe's mentality(perhaps the strongest ever) with Wilt(hard to know exactly but probably not the strongest at times), but especially with James. Whenever Kobe had the team, they made it deep in the playoffs. Not that I necessarily do, but if you want to nitpick someone, Duncan would be an excellent choice, given how many times he missed the Finals when his teams were #1 seeds, sometimes losing in the 1st round with stacked teams.

GS doesn't play small ball or stat guru ball because they can go 12-13 deep and are easily the most-talented team in the league. Even teams #2-5 in the league just aren't very close to GS in these regards. GS has size, speed, quickness, etc. to matchup well with any lineup any other team throws out there. They're fortunate when they do go to their 'small ball' lineup which really isn't small, to have KD play PF, who's anywhere from 6-9 to 7-0 and 6-7 Green as C, who's very physical and can guard every position, plus they'd have good size at the 1-3 positions. KD is a top 5 player, Curry is a top 5ish player, Thompson is a top 3-4 SG, Green is maybe the most versatile player in the league, and then all their quality role players that they have.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2018 12:06:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

As great as James is, he is also mentally weak, which is really sad. He could have achieved so much more and actually be one of the greatest. But.... there is always this feel to his game like he doesn't give a damn when he plays at the biggest stage (finals).

James is at least as gifted as other greatest, but his poor demeanour is putting him a tier below for me. I mean I would take any other pantheon player over him for finals.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2018 10:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I think that the '96 Bulls were one of the smartest and most mentally tough teams of all-time. I think that there is little questions that they would beat the Warriors under '96 rules and I believe that if they were playing under '18 rules for a full season then by the time the Finals rolled around they would beat the Warriors under those rules as well. Jackson knew how to deploy Kukoc and Kerr for 20-30 mpg in ways to maximize their offensive impact and minimize their defensive liabilities. Harper was long enough and smart enough to compensate for any foot speed disadvantage versus Curry. I also think that the Bulls would be smarter than most '18 teams were about using a guy like Longley to slow the game down, draw fouls and establish control over pace.

Regarding Kobe it is an understatement to say that we remember/perceive certain aspects of his career differently and I agree with you that there is no point in revisiting any of that now.

I would not have a huge problem with Curry being chosen as the 2018 Finals MVP but I think that Durant is the best selection.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2018 10:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael:

There is no question that Durant is in the process of assembling a great Finals resume and he is doing it head to head against LeBron James. The challenge that Durant will face in terms of historical perception is that he only attained this level of success after joining a team that had already posted a 73 win season and a championship without him. Is Durant necessary to Golden State's success or does he just add firepower to an already dominant team?

I place great value on how he is performing head to head against LeBron James but I think that other historians of the game may not rank Durant quite so highly as they otherwise would--unless Durant leads the Warriors to four or five titles in a row, in which case their historical dominance could only be compared to Russell's Celtics and then Durant would be in a category by himself among modern players. I don't expect that to happen, though.

If Durant ends up with, say, four titles playing with a stacked team, then how do we compare him to Kobe (5), Duncan (5), Shaq (4) and LeBron (3) among post-Jordan players? Also, assuming that players do not change teams, Curry will always have one more ring than Durant and could also end up with more regular season MVPs.

Durant is carving out a great legacy for himself, though, and I agree with you that this is probably being overlooked as the media focuses so much attention on how every event impacts LeBron James' legacy.

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

Beep:

James is near the top of the Pantheon in terms of physical ability and, as you suggest, perhaps at the bottom of the Pantheon in terms of his mentality/competitiveness. He baffles me in a way that no other truly great player ever has.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2018 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think I must rate the Warriors more highly than you do. I do not think Ron Harper could stop Steph Curry- he was a very good defender, but there's not a guard in the league who meaningfully slows down healthy!Steph and I don't think Ron Harper was so good that he's better than every defensive guard we've got today- and I am extremely dubious that Longley could even stay on the floor, let alone effectively slow down the game.

If we accept your theorem that Draymond and Rodman will be mutually ejected, then Chicago suddenly loses the rebounding battle (or at best, plays for a tie) which opens up GSW's transition attack.

You are right that Phil Jackson was good at finding minutes for Kukoc and Kerr but he did not have to contend with teams that always had 2 All-Stars (and at least 1 MVP) on the court at all times. Even if he deploys Kerr solely during Curry's rests, it's not like Kerr is well-equipped to guard Livingston, Iguodala, or Thompson, either.

By the same token, even if Kukoc is only unleashed on lineups with no Durant and no Draymond, that means he's facing lineups starring Curry which will PnR him to death.

Ultimately, it is much easier to find spot minutes for those guys against, say, the 90s Jazz (who featured only two real perimeter scoring threats) than against a Warriors team that basically always has three dangerous offensive perimeter players on the floor.

Furthermore, without Rodman, I am not sure how Chicago even attempts to cover GSW's various PnRs and G&Gs; it's asking an awful lot of Longley and Wennington to chase Curry and Thompson off screens and cuts.

I think, in the historical sense, that Chicago is a better team (especially for their era), but I think the Warriors are a fairly bad matchup for them under the modern ruleset and I'm not sure how they survive, given that it's difficult for them to put out consistent lineups that can thrive on both ends of the ball against this specific team.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2018 8:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And let's not forget that Kerr is coaching GS. He'd know how to defend his old self/team.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 6:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yes, I think that you rate the Warriors more highly than I do and I also think that you rate the '96 Bulls lower than I do. That Bulls team had the capability of playing many different styles and they were smart enough to adapt to different rules/situations.

The Warriors are a modern juggernaut but teams that slow the game down and attack the paint can threaten them. The Rockets pushed them to seven games and the Rockets are not nearly as talented, smart or disciplined as the '96 Bulls. This Cavs team that you don't think is very talented should have at least won game one of the Finals.

The Warriors are great but they are not unbeatable. The Bulls would have done some things that teams in the current era are unwilling or unable to consistently do. To cite just one example, Van Gundy kept pointing out that when the Warriors have Iguodala, Green and/or West on the court that you simply cannot give up any open shots to the Warriors' shooters. With that type of lineup on the court, Kerr or Kukoc could have "guarded" Iguodala but actually trapped a real threat and forced Iguodala to make open threes. If Igudodala had tried to post up, then Pippen is probably the best ever at stunting to the post to force a pass and then recovering to his man.

My comment about Green and Rodman was half-serious. With a championship on the line, I think that Green is far more likely to lose his cool and get ejected than Rodman. Rodman loved to mess with the heads of weaker-minded opponents; he camped out in Alonzo Mourning's head all the time and I think that he would have gotten Green off kilter.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 6:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Right. That is where the hypothetical gets strange, kind of like the "grandfather paradox" in time travel: if you travel back in time and do something that results in your grandfather's death then would you never be born in the first place?

One could also say, tongue-in-cheek, that Phil Jackson taught Steve Kerr everything that Kerr knows about coaching but not everything that Jackson knows (and, yes, I realize that Kerr also learned from Popovich and others).

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 10:57:00 AM, Anonymous Qatalyst said...

I agree with Bryant on Lebron's cast. I don't think they are scrubs either. It's a good squad, if used properly. When you force Greene and Hood to become spot up shooters, you can't complain about how the support is.

Game 4 was miserable to watch, and so is all the drama that accompanies Lebron.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

At various points during the second Bulls three-peat, Ron Harper guarded Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, and John Stockton pretty successfully. Steph Curry is great but he has been demonstrably harassed into bad shooting nights by guards like J.R. Smith in the current era and J.R. Smith is solid but not the defender Harper was. The Warriors are a top loaded team but Chicago would be going into battle with the best player on the floor, and possibly the second best as well, depending on how well you think Pippen and Durant stack up against each other. So I think that gives them more than enough of a chance in any era, under any rule set, and I honestly think playing under modern rules would benefit the Bulls just as much as the current Warriors.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 12:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I don't find the Houston series terribly relevant to this discussion; I think if Iggy's healthy, that series is probably about five games. I also can't think of a team much more different than the '96 Bulls than the '18 Rockets, a team literally constructed with the sole purpose of challenging the Warriors' specific personnel and system.

Iguodala makes threes the way Shaq claimed he made free-throws: he makes them when they count. While he couldn't hit the broadside of a barn in the regular season, he was shooting them at a 38% clip during the playoffs (and 44% on "wide open" 3s). Even when he's not making them, his preference is to drive and attack a scrambling defense, not post up; neither Kerr nor Kukoc is the type of player to recover against an in-motion opponent and stop them from finishing. That leaves it to Longley to either rotate (and give up that lob Iggy likes to throw) or just let him finish. I think the Warriors would live with that. I suppose the Bulls could counter by having Pippen take the recovery responsibilities from the weaker defender, but then you're leaving them on one of the Warriors more dangerous players and just hoping Iggy can't make the read/pass.

If we spot the Bulls Rodman and take away Draymond I would take the Bulls, but I don't see that as the most likely scenario; I think it's much more likely that both of them get ejected, or neither does. Additionally, modern defensive rules make Rodman much more of a liability on offense, as without the illegal D rules teams can freely leave him to double/troll passing lanes/deny MJ the ball. That means the Bulls either need to park him close enough to the rim to finish to keep him threatening (in which case they're crowding the lane for Jordan/Pippen's driving games) or effectively play 4-on-5 against the Warriors D.

Having said all that, I do agree with you that the Bulls are an extremely smart and adaptive team. I do not think the Warriors would win easily, or every time, but if they played 100 games, I think the Warriors would take around 55 of them.

I also agree that the Warriors are not unbeatable; in an earlier comment I mentioned half a dozen teams or so I think would beat them; I do think, though, that under the modern ruleset they have a fairly meaningful matchup advantage over the '96 Bulls (albeit one that largely evaporates if they play under '96 rules). I don't really think there's any one team that can beat every other great team consistently*; basketball is, and has always been, a game of matchups, and it's basically impossible to construct a team that's well-suited to every possible opponent/ruleset.

*Forced to choose I'd take the '83 76ers, but they don't have a ton of outside shooting and their 6th-10th best guys are nothing to write home about.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 4:55:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

I understand the backlash that Durant received for joining a 73-9 team after they just embarrassed his team in the WCF but I'm surprised by how long people are holding on to this. There was talk of LeBron's legacy being tarnished after humiliating Cleveland on national television and joining the Miami Heat superteam but that narrative evaporated into thin air immediately after his first championship. As you mentioned, the preferred narrative surrounding Durant's situation is that he joined a stacked, historically great team and his value to the team is highly debatable. There is definitely some validity to this but another way of looking at it is that he joined a team of historically great players and outshined all of them on the biggest stage, outplaying the best player in the game in the process.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 8:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Just noticed this: "James is the only Pantheon-level player who has been swept twice"

Weren't Kareem and Magic both swept twice in the Finals, in '83 and again in '89?

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 10:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Qatalyst:

You nailed it: the responsibility to use the supporting cast properly lies with the best player. If the supporting cast is truly garbage (think Kwame and Smush, who Kobe dragged to the playoffs twice) then there is only so much you can do, but LeBron's cast this season is far from garbage.

I also find the LeBron-created drama to be quite tiresome--and unbecoming of such a great player.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 10:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

I agree with you are about Harper, who made a transition from being a great offensive player who was solid on defense to a role player on offense who was outstanding on defense.

Jordan would obviously be the best player on the court in this hypothetical matchup and I think that Pippen would do just fine against Durant, though Durant would probably score more than Pippen because of the way that each team is constructed. I could see Durant scoring 24 ppg but having to work for his points while Pip averaged 19-20 ppg while leading both teams in assists and being one of the top rebounders in the series (probably only trailing Rodman and Green).

After watching virtually every game that team played that season, I never imagined that the 72-10 champions would someday be somewhat underrated but I think that after more than two decades it is starting to happen. Mike Lupica and William Goldman once termed it the fight "to the death" that all great athletes face as time passes and I suppose that this forgetfulness is inevitable even for Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls. I can only imagine how the people who are old enough to really remember Russell's Celtics must feel.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 10:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I get the point that you are making: the Warriors are not necessarily historically greater than the '96 Bulls but you think that the Warriors match up well against the Bulls under today's rules.

I agree with you that the '83 76ers could "time travel" better than just about any other champion.

I will have more to say about some of these comparisons in a Finals wrap up article that I will be posting soon.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 10:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Michael:

From my standpoint, I am not engaging in "backlash" against Durant but I am just expressing my personal disappointment in his choice while also trying to figure out how to objectively compare him to other all-time greats.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 10:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yes, are you right about the Pantheon-level players who have been swept. Not sure what I was originally trying to say but I botched it and I appreciate the correction. I have fixed that passage by providing some clarification. Unlike other writers I have seen, I am not going to pretend that I never make mistakes; I try to never make mistakes but mistakes do happen.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2018 10:42:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

That's pretty much exactly what I was trying to get at; I might even go a step further and strike the "necessarily" from that comment; the Bulls are greater historically (more dominant in both the regular season and the playoffs, best two players of the bunch IMO, and a better defensive team within their own era), but being a team constructed to play 1990s ball they would naturally have some disadvantages against the ultimate 2010s team given that ruleset.

Looking forward to your further thoughts!

 
At Friday, June 15, 2018 1:46:00 AM, Blogger JF said...

Re LeBron's teammates and judging him by team performance: going into the series, if you had to draft the players of both teams, it would have been:

1. LeBron
2. Durant (or, in some people's view, Curry)
3. Curry (or, in some people's view, Durant)
4. Klay/Draymond
5. Draymond/Klay

So the Cavs would've only had one player on the starting 5. Has a player EVER won the Finals in this scenario? Magic, Jordan, Bird, Russell, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, etc. obviously never faced this scenario or anything close to it. Maybe LeBron is arguably to blame for weakness in his "GM" role -- but, as far as his playing level, no one has ever faced tougher odds and won a Finals.

 
At Friday, June 15, 2018 6:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

JF-

I agree with your general point-- it wasn't realistic to expect Lebron to beat this team-- but I do think there have been a few finalists (and a few winners) who'd pass the "next four best guys on the other team" test.

'75 Finals:

1) Rick Barry
2) Elvin Hayes
3) Wes Unseld
4) Phil Chenier
5) Kevin Porter*

*Jamaal Wilkes was probably the better player, but he was an unproven rook at this point and Chenier had just led the league in assists.

'76 ABA Finals

1) Doc
2) Issel
3) Thompson
4) Simpson
5) Jones*

*Fair case for Brian Taylor of the Nets there, but I'd personally take Jones, especially if I'm going up against Doc.

'81 Finals:

1) Moses
2) Bird
3) Archibald
4) Parish
5) Maxwell

'94 Finals

1) Hakeem
2) Ewing
3) Starks
4) Oakley
5) Derek Harper

(Thorpe's easily sixth, but he's probably no higher)

You could also make a devil's advocate argument for Hakeem again in '95, but I personally think most people would (rightly) still take even an aging Clyde Drexler over Nick Anderson/Horace Grant/D-Scott.

'03 Finals

1) Duncan
2) Kidd
3) K-Mart
4) Richard Jefferson
5) Kerry Kittles (though you could probably make a case for Old!David Robinson here)

'05 Finals

1) Duncan
2) Billups
3) Ben Wallace
4) Rasheed Wallace
5) Rip Hamilton*

*Maybe a case for Manu here, but it's at least close.

'07 Finals

1) Lebron
2) Duncan
3) Parker
4) Ginobili
5) Michael Finley

(this one may be even worse; you could make a case that Bowen would go sixth ahead of Ilgauskas, too).


None of this changes your larger point, especially because none of those teams' second-best guy was Durant/Curry level, but we have seen guys face, and even overcome, a stacked deck before. This one was just *too* stacked.

 
At Saturday, June 16, 2018 12:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JF:

LeBron James built this team/caused this team to be built this way for several reasons, including: (1) he wanted to reward players who signed with his agency, (2) he does not want to share the ball with a co-star (hence Irving had to go), (3) he refused to commit to staying in Cleveland beyond this season (which made it impossible to recruit another star).

This is the team he wanted and this team was good enough to almost take game one on the road. In fact, if James had not pouted/quit in overtime they probably would have won.

So, James and his defenders have to accept that he did it his way and he lost. He is not some martyr who was let down by the front office; he told the front office to dole out a record payroll and that is exactly what the front office did.

 

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