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Saturday, July 07, 2018

The Rich Warriors Get Richer, While the Rockets Stand Pat and Hope for the Best

LeBron James' most recent "Decision" to join the L.A. Lakers is and will remain the biggest single NBA free agency move this summer. It shifted the balance of power in both conferences and was the first domino that had to fall before all of the other free agent dominoes could fall. We now know that the Cleveland Cavaliers will not be a championship contender and that the L.A. Lakers will be much improved but will probably not win a championship (at least this season, assuming that the Lakers do not add another star to their roster).

Now, the attention of the NBA world shifts to the teams that are most likely to contend for the 2019 championship. The first team on that list is the Golden State Warriors, winners of back to back titles and three of the last four championships. The Warriors stunned many people--and dismayed more than a few people who long for some semblance of competitive balance--by signing DeMarcus Cousins to a one year, $5.3 million contract. Cousins averaged 25.2 ppg, 12.9 rpg and 5.4 apg for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2017-18, but he played in just 48 games before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture. He is a four-time All-Star who has ranked in the top 10 in scoring four times and the top 10 in rebounding six times in his eight year career--and those totals do not include last season, when he did not play in enough games to qualify for the official statistical leaderboards.

While "stat gurus" assert that Cousins is not as good as his boxscore numbers suggest, there is little doubt that before he suffered the injury he was no worse than one of the 15 or 20 best players in the league, a versatile threat who can score, rebound and pass. Cousins may not be healthy enough to play until January and it will probably take some time for him to get up to speed after missing so many months but by the playoffs the Warriors could conceivably field a starting lineup of five current All-Stars (Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins) with a former All-Star/Finals MVP coming off of the bench (Andre Iguodala). Even if Cousins does not start, he could have a significant impact coming off of the bench, creating a matchup nightmare for the second units of opposing teams.

Cousins signed for a huge discount compared to what his services would have commanded on the open market prior to his injury but this deal has a lot of upside for him: he will likely win a championship as a meaningful contributor while rehabilitating not only his body but also his reputation--and, if those things happen, he can sign a huge free agent contract next summer.

Would the hypothetical five All-Star lineup listed above be the greatest starting lineup in pro basketball history? Reflexive answers to such questions invariably suffer from recency bias, as it is too easy for forget or quickly dismiss the great starting quintets of yesteryear. It is also difficult to meaningfully compare lineups from eras that featured different rules, playing styles and so forth. That being said, there is no doubt that the Warriors' five All-Star lineup could be one of the most talented and versatile in pro basketball history.

The last NBA team that could field a starting lineup of five players who each made the All-Star team in the previous season was the 1975-76 Boston Celtics (Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Paul Silas, Charlie Scott and Jo Jo White), who went on to win their second championship in a three year span. That Celtics team was very good but does not rank among the best championship teams ever, nor do any of those five All-Stars rank among the top 15 players of all-time.

Bill Russell's Boston Celtics won 11 championships between 1957-69 and those teams featured a slew of future Hall of Famers. Perhaps the best starting lineup that Boston fielded during that period was the 1961-62 quintet; in fact, the top seven players on that 60-22 championship team are now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame (Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Tom Sanders, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey) and three of them were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List (Russell, Cousy, Sam Jones). The next year, the Celtics added Hall of Famer and Top 50 player John Havlicek to that rotation as a rookie who came off of the bench.

The 1969-70 L.A. Lakers started Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, arguably the three greatest players at their respective positions up to that point in time in pro basketball history. Happy Hairston (who never made the All-Star team but averaged 14.8 ppg and 10.3 rpg in an 11 season career) and Dick Garrett rounded out the starting lineup. Injuries limited Chamberlain to 12 games, Baylor to 54 games and Hairston to 55 games but all three players returned in time for the playoffs and the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals before losing to the New York Knicks in seven games.

The 1971-72 Lakers started All-Stars Chamberlain, West and Gail Goodrich alongside Hairston and Jim McMillian, who replaced Baylor after Baylor retired nine games into the season. The Lakers set a record (since broken twice) by going 69-13 and they still hold the record with 33 consecutive regular season wins. They beat the Knicks in five games in the NBA Finals.

The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers went 65-17 in the regular season and cruised to the championship with a record-setting 12-1 playoff run. That roster featured four current All-Stars (Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney) in the starting lineup plus a former All-Star coming off the bench (Bobby Jones, who won the Sixth Man Award that season).

The 1985-86 Boston Celtics started five current, former or future All-Stars (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge) with former All-Stars Bill Walton and Scott Wedman coming off of the bench. That squad went 67-15 and won the franchise's second title in three years.

The Showtime Lakers won five championships during the 1980s and during those years their starting lineups were anchored by perennial All-Stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. The 1986-87 squad that won the title after going 65-17 in the regular season had All-Star James Worthy, future All-Star A.C. Green and Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper. Cooper came off of the bench to play small forward or either guard position, while Byron Scott (17.0 ppg in 1986-87) started in the backcourt alongside Johnson.

The 1996-98 Chicago Bulls won three straight championships with a starting lineup consisting of three Hall of Famers (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman) alongside Ron Harper (a once potent scorer who transformed into a defensive specialist) and journeyman center Luc Longley.

The 2003-04 L.A. Lakers did not win the championship but they reached the NBA Finals with a starting lineup that included four future Hall of Famers (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton). The Lakers had previously won three straight titles (2000-02) with O'Neal and Bryant starting alongside solid but not spectacular players.

Just a few years ago, the Miami Heat reached four straight NBA Finals and won two championships while starting three future Hall of Famers (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) alongside two role players.

The Warriors at least belong in the conversation with the teams listed above. Most if not all online bookmakers considered the Warriors as strong favorites prior to the Cousins signing and now it seems like it would take not one but probably two serious injuries to give any team a realistic chance to beat the Warriors in a seven game series.

The Houston Rockets won a league-best 65 regular season games last year but almost everything broke right for them in terms of health, several players on the roster improving and/or exceeding reasonable expectations and setbacks/injuries suffered by other potential contenders. It seems likely that the Rockets will regress to the mean this season. The loss of starting small forward Trevor Ariza, who signed with Phoenix, will hurt the Rockets at both ends of the court. It appears that Clint Capela will either leave this summer or sign a one year deal and try his luck in free agency next summer. It is unlikely that a team with James Harden as the best player will win a championship but it is even more unlikely for that to happen if Harden is not surrounded by players who are tough-minded and defensive-oriented, plus at least one player who can step up big time when Harden inevitably uncorks a low shooting percentage, high turnover game at the most inopportune time during the playoffs.

Daryl Morey has tapped Chris Paul to be the player to step up when Harden disappears. The two problems with that, of course, are (1) Paul also has a postseason resume that features disappearing acts at inopportune times and (2) Paul inevitably wears down and/or gets injured. That being said, the Rockets' success last season all but guaranteed that Morey would ride or die with Paul and that is what happened: the Rockets re-signed Paul for $160 million over four years, which means that Paul will be on the books at $40 million per season until he is 37 years old.

The historical track record for small, injury-prone point guards in their 30s is not good; it is very unlikely that Paul will be both great and healthy four years from now and it is probable that he will be neither by that time. The pairing of Paul with Harden worked very well last season and yet it had a predictable outcome: Paul got hurt when it mattered most and the high-variance playing style of the Rockets caught up with them big-time versus the Warriors in game seven of the Western Conference Finals when they missed 27 consecutive three pointers as they blew a double digit lead for the second game in a row.

An optimistic Rockets' observer would say that the Rockets were a Chris Paul hamstring injury away from beating the Warriors; a pessimistic/realistic Rockets observer would note that Curry was not fully healthy during the series, that Iguodala missed several games and that Paul's injury was not a stroke of bad luck as much as a predictable outcome for a small, injury-prone player.

Unless the Warriors implode and the West's rising teams (including Utah) unexpectedly regress, last season will almost certainly be the peak achievement of the Morey/D'Antoni/Harden/Paul Rockets. This group will not age well and will not push the Warriors that close to the brink again.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:43 AM

4 comments

4 Comments:

At Sunday, July 08, 2018 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

I think the Rockets will miss Ariza more than most prognosticators are indicating. He's consistently been one of their top 2 or 3 On/Off guys the whole time he's been there (even above Harden some seasons), he's the only major rotation player with championship experience, and he's a leader in the locker room and on the defensive end.

I also don't think Chris Paul is going to be any better a year older with one more injury on him.

As for Boogie, it's hard to say yet whether or not he'll be able to meaningfully contribute. Achilles injuries take a long time to come back from, and often big guys take even longer. That said, if he's even 80% by the playoffs he almost single-handedly nukes the preferred Warriors counter of "switch everything" as healthy(ish) Boogie is probably the most dangerous back-to-the-basket player left in the league these days.

I don't think their starting lineup is quite as intimidating as some of the all-time ones, though, mostly because Boogie is a poor defender and KD is a roughly average one. Curry is a good but not great defender as well, leaving only Klay and Draymond as truly elite defensive players. They may be the deadliest offensive starting 5 ever, but a more balanced unit like '83 Philly's closers (w/ Bobby in for Iavaroni) or the early 70s Knicks would likely be able to slow them down just enough while more or less having their way on the other end.

Of course, the 6th best guy on those teams generally wasn't as good as Iggy (though the '86 Celts could make a case, but then of course Ainge would be the worst player in either starting lineup) and the 7th best guy was rarely as good as Livingston. Probably only the 60s Celts are as stacked top-to-bottom, though I'd probably take the Warriors first five over theirs with a gun to my head; Russell's the best player on the court but the next two, and arguably even four, are Warriors.

The Warriors are definitely stacked.

 
At Monday, July 09, 2018 10:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree with you that Ariza is a valuable player for the reasons that you mentioned and I agree that the Rockets will miss him very much. He made important contributions during both of Houston's WCF runs during the Harden era.

I suspect that paying Paul $160 million is going to end up being one of the worst contracts in NBA history relative to games played/objective value produced.

Assuming reasonable health (a not insignificant assumption considering the type of injury suffered and Cousins' size/body type), I think that the worst-case scenario is that Cousins has an impact similar to Bob McAdoo's for the 1982 and 1985 Lakers' championship teams. If Cousins recovers more quickly/completely than expected and the Warriors suffer injuries, he could be a 20-10 guy (or close to it) for a championship team (I don't consider that the most likely scenario but it is not impossible).

I agree that the Warriors' potential All-Star starting five is not "quite as intimidating" as the all-time great starting lineups from the past.

 
At Tuesday, July 10, 2018 1:46:00 PM, Anonymous Qatalyst said...

Isn't an achilles injury too risky to assume Cousins will be as much of a threat as last season?

It seems like a lot of people are mad about it, but I'm not sure how it will work out. I'm guessing that the damage an achilles injury does, doesn't affect big men as much?

 
At Friday, July 13, 2018 9:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Qatalyst:

Cousins will miss significant time this season and with this type of injury it is uncertain how much of his previous form he will ever regain. An Achilles injury can be more damaging to a smaller player's game in the sense that it can rob the player of quickness/explosiveness, but the potential downside for a bigger player is that the bigger player carries more weight, which could strain the affected area and perhaps increase the risk of re-injury.

If Cousins is diligent with his rehab, I expect him to be able to make at least a solid contribution off of the bench in the second half of the season and during the playoffs.

 

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