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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Rockets Return to Earth After Fairy Tale 2017-18 Regular Season

I thought that we would have to wait until the spring of 2019 to see the Houston Rockets fizzle. The Rockets play a high-variance style that is not conducive to championship-level success but Coach Mike D'Antoni's teams have won at least 54 games in six different seasons--though it should be noted that D'Antoni is a boom or bust coach, as he also has had five seasons when his teams missed the playoffs, plus a sixth season during which he resigned when his 18-24 New York Knicks were clearly not playoff bound with him at the helm (the Knicks improved after he departed and finished seventh in the East in 2011-12, quite a turnaround in a lockout-shortened 66 game season).

Last season, D'Antoni's Rockets topped the league with a 65-17 record and took a 3-2 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before squandering halftime leads in games six and seven. Rockets supporters will swear up and down that their team was a Chris Paul injury away from at least advancing to the NBA Finals, if not winning the championship, while objective observers understand that the Rockets' playoff dry spells and late game collapses are very predictable. It is difficult to picture a scenario in which the Rockets as currently (or recently) constructed and coached would beat a reasonably healthy championship contender four times in a seven game playoff series.

James Harden won his long-sought regular season MVP last year. One gets the sense that Harden is  satisfied with the MVP trophy and the hundreds of millions of dollars that he will pocket from his salary plus endorsements. He came into camp this season in less than optimal condition--not the first time this has happened during his career--and he seems content to put up empty individual offensive statistics while averaging a career-high, league worst 5.8 tpg and playing defense with his now-infamous lack of enthusiasm/attention to detail. Whatever happens the rest of his career, he already has won the same number of regular season MVPs as Kobe Bryant (2008) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000), which is a sad commentary on the biases and/or ignorance of the MVP voters over the past two decades--but from Harden's perspective, he undoubtedly feels that he has validated and maximized his individual talents. Instead of being the next Manu Ginobili on an Oklahoma City team that could have annually contended for titles, he has become the 21st century Stephon Marbury, putting up gaudy individual scoring/assist numbers that have little connection with winning basketball games. When it really counts, count on Harden disappearing: with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line, he shot 6-25 (.240) from three point range in games six and seven versus Golden State. Harden shot 19-78 (.244)  from three point range during the Western Conference Finals and 52-174 (.299) on three pointers during the 2018 NBA playoffs.

It was obvious that sooner or later the Rockets would regret the mega-millions they will be paying to Chris Paul as he rapidly approaches basketball senility but I did not expect that he would grow old (or complacent) in the first year of his new deal. Paul is averaging 16.7 ppg and 7.9 apg while shooting .431 from the field for the 11-14 Rockets. That is the third lowest scoring average, second lowest assists average and second worst field goal percentage of his career. Injury-prone small point guards are unlikely to age well but don't tell that to Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, the man who believes that as a "stat guru" he enjoys a distinct analytical advantage over everyone else in the NBA. Years ago, Morey signed Shane Battier as a "stat guru"-approved Kobe Bryant-stopper. You may remember how that turned out but, in case you forgot, Bryant consistently posted great numbers against Battier as the Lakers swept Houston 4-0 in the 2009 regular season, which was a prelude to their matchup in the 2009 playoffs. Bryant dropped 32 points in game one and then blistered Battier with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting in game two while saying  "He Can't Guard Me" until he received a technical foul for taunting. Bryant led both teams in scoring in five of the seven games as the Lakers prevailed en route to the first of back to back titles. Battier was a smart, hard-working player but Morey's narrative about him--eagerly trumpeted by the ill-informed media corps--was ridiculous.

Morey's latest "coup" was signing Carmelo Anthony while not re-signing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah Moute. "Stat gurus" have never put much stock in chemistry or defense. If you cannot put a number on it, then it does not exist to them--never mind that Houston's current won-loss record is a convincing sign that something has gone drastically wrong with a team that Morey's media acolytes proclaimed would be a real threat to the Warriors. Anyone who understands basketball could see that signing Carmelo Anthony was a bad idea and getting rid of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute to do so was an even worse idea. Ariza may not be worth what the Phoenix Suns are paying him but if  Morey wanted to overpay to have a chance to contend it would have been much smarter to overpay Ariza than to sign an over the hill, one dimensional player whose impact on winning even during his prime was questionable and who clearly has a negative impact whenever he is on the court now.

Last season, the Rockets filled a void created when San Antonio dropped from contender status due to Kawhi Leonard's absence and Oklahoma City was hamstrung by their ill-considered addition of Carmelo Anthony (see a pattern here with Anthony?). This season, the Spurs are even worse but the Thunder look like they are for real, while several other Western teams have improved. Meanwhile, Harden is doing his thing (scoring a lot, defending very little and not having much impact on winning), Paul looks like he is 110 years old and the Rockets are a poor shooting team (ranking 23rd out of 30 teams in field goal percentage) that also defends poorly (ranking 26th in defensive field goal percentage).

Paul is supposed to be a great leader. I don't see that, and I never have. He has never won anything of significance and his teams often have chemistry problems. It is hilarious that Paul and Steve Nash--two guys who never won anything--are regularly praised as great leaders and teammates, while Kobe Bryant is criticized for not being a great leader and teammate. Pau Gasol went from being a one-time All-Star who had never won a playoff game to a future Hall of Famer with two championship rings after joining forces with Bryant. Paul and Nash never had that kind of impact on a teammate, or a team. LeBron James is another player who the media promote as a great leader and teammate, despite the mounting evidence that talented players simply do not want to be on his team (Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, to name just three recent examples). The difference between James on one hand, and Paul/Nash on the other, is that James is so sublimely talented that he can dominate games/win championships despite some deficiencies in his mentality/leadership (he quits at times, and pouts at times, but when he is focused no one can stop him).

Paul recently said that it will be tough for a team to beat the Rockets four times in a seven game series, which is hilariously delusional considering that the Rockets have just lost seven of their previous nine regular season games. Imagine for a moment if a Kobe Bryant-led team were this dysfunctional and delusional. What would the media narrative be? Bryant won five championships and he still spent the last years of his career hearing nonsense about how he was holding the Lakers back. Has anyone noticed that the Lakers had to sign LeBron James to even come close to approaching how good they had been before Bryant got old and blew out his Achilles? Bryant had a garbage team around him at the end--much like he did circa 2005-07, with the difference being that when he was young he could turn chicken you-know-what into chicken salad but he could not work that kind of magic after his body betrayed him and Father Time caught up with him.

Will the Rockets--with two supposedly elite guards and a coach who is lauded as a visionary--really finish with a sub.-500 record? Probably not, but the Rockets have a lot of work to do just to be an average team, let alone the elite team that they delusionally believed themselves to be a few months ago.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:52 AM

66 comments

66 Comments:

At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 12:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David-

"Ariza may not be worth what the Phoenix Suns are paying him but if Morey wanted to overpay to have a chance to contend it would have been much smarter to overpay Ariza than to sign an over the hill, one dimensional player whose impact on winning even during his prime was questionable and who clearly has a negative impact whenever he is on the court now."

Sure, but it's hardly apples to apples. Ariza cost something like 7 or 8 times what Anthony did. It would have been better to sign Lebron, too, while we're at it.

Beyond that, you're right, if somewhat redundant. Your analysis about Harden, Paul, etc. is accurate but after years of frequent repetition is starting to feel more like vendetta than anything else. Lately you seem to go back to that well-- and a few other favorites (Kobe got a short shrift! Westbrook rules! Lebron isn't a true leader!)-- so often that it almost feels like we're reading the same article again and again. It's one thing when those teams are in the playoffs or dominating the news, but the Rockets at this point in the season are totally irrelevant.

It's a shame because I, at least, really value your analysis and would love to hear your take on fresher topics (or at least on topics where we don't already know what you think).


What do you think of the Bucks? The Nuggets? The Raptors? The underperforming Celtics? Did the Warriors' slump without Curry change your estimation of Durant's value to them at all?

I of course can't tell you what to write, but for whatever it's worth as one of your longtime readers, I'm good on hearing about the Rockets for a while.


PS: It also seems silly to me lump Nash in with Paul. It's true that Nash didn't win a ring but he did conjure career years from virtually everyone who played with him in his prime and make consistent deep playoff runs (despite flawed rosters generally short on rim protection and rebounding), usually being knocked out by Pantheon-level competition like Duncan or Kobe. Paul doesn't seem to make anybody better and has made it out of the first round only five times in fourteen years (seems likely to go down to 5/15 soon enough) and to the conference finals only once.

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 1:10:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

pt 1 of 2.

Agree 97.5% with you David. Though, I think how you talk about Morey comes across (especially to anyone who is a fan of him) as a bit salty, dare I say, a tad biased. I am not a fan of his, or the bravado he portrays to the media. I too thought he oversold Harden as a foundational player. That said, Houston is built upon Harden and Harden has carried them to the playoffs the last half dozen seasons. So, as a franchise cornerstone, he's done more than McGrady or Yao ever did for Houston. Morey deserves credit for putting together a Conference Finals team. But, yeah, Harden doesn't have the grit or mental edge (or defensive consistency/intensity) to be the best player on a championship team.

I believe context is always important, so it's relevant to add I don't think it was necessarily Morey's decision to not resign Ariza and Mbah amoute. GMs always want to keep players. But, the luxury tax is a heavy burden, even for billionaires. Letting their two best overall defenders go feels more like an ownership decision. If anything, I put that blame squarely on the president of the Player's Association. Other, team-first guys (and even guys who aren't necessarily considered that), have taken less than the max in order for their teams to resign important pieces. I noted here in another post how Paul got his, and didn't care about the rest of the team -- including their young, improving by leaps and bounds, ideal fit center. KD took less. Duncan and Nowitzki before him took less. Everyone lambasted Bryant for taken that money in his twilight years despite the fact the team was horrible. Paul took the money and basically broke up a "championship" contending team. I'll say it again, I have no idea why Paul gets off scot free every damn time.

Going into the season, I thought there was a very good/very real chance the Rockets wouldn't make the playoffs. It's early still, they are only a handful of games out of the playoff picture, and D'Antoni teams have historically been streaky. But, this Rockets team just feels like hot streaks aren't a thing they can do anymore. Paul's contract...yeesh. I wonder if State Farm will still want him as their mascot especially as his DNPs stack up next to all them dollar bills he'll be making?

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 1:10:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

pt 2 of 2

Looking forward to hearing from Nick regarding your Nash comment on a subject you and him have debated over for what seems like close to a decade. :) My two cents on the matter, I truly believe that Nash did make his teammates better -- Amare, Marion, Diaw, Bell, Q Richardson, etc. None of those guys, while all good to near great, were ever as good without Nash. That said, your larger point about Nash being unable to be the best player on a championship team remains on point in my opinion. I just think he proved himself to be a far better teammate and leader than Paul ever has or you give him credit for. While Nash never made the Finals and was typically abused as a defender, he worked his ass off to fight over screens, take charges, and general close out. That dirty work, while wholly unsuccessful, is still crucial as leadership by example. (Harden's best dirty work is all the time he spends in (strip) clubs).

He also didn't hog/dominate control of the ball. Sure, he had the ball a lot and created a lot, but he also moved the ball quickly when necessary. For current fans who never saw him play, I'd say a blend of Curry and Lonzo Ball is how Nash's control of an offense could be best described. Nash also rarely hung his teammates out to dry like Harden and Paul do. They'll give up the ball with the shot clock winding down so that their teammates can take the tough shot (can't mess up those percentages...it did net Paul $30+ mill per season). Russ, to his credit and also critique, will take that tough shot the majority of the time, yet he's viewed as a bad teammate. Even me, who was nowhere near even college level ball, but who played for 25 years, hated when a guy would dump the ball to me with the clock winding down expecting me to take the shot. That is not a good teammate.


Speaking of teammates. Paul's ex teammates? Deandre Jordan is thriving next to a rookie (with an outside shot at making the all-star team) and Blake is once again a fringe MVP candidate. And the Clips are 5.5 wins better than the Rockets.

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 1:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The best regular season team in the league from last season, led by the reigning MVP and Coach of the Year (not to mention supposedly one of the best leaders and teammates in the league) is a sub-.500 team more than a fourth of the way into the season. It is hard to think of a bigger story in the NBA right now. Yes, in the course of writing about this I reiterate some points that I made before but the bottom line is that I have been and contunue to be right about Harden, Morey and Paul. ESPN tells the same stories over and over but those stories are nonsense (Kobe the ballhog! Angry Russ! Pass-first LeBron!). I have spent over a decade not only telling the stories others have been unable or unwilling to tell (Roger Brown, Artis Gilmore, ABA in general, the pre-65ers and many more) but also relentlessly hammering away at false media narratives. I do have thoughts about the subjects you mentioned and will address them in due time.

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 1:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

LeBron was not available, obviously.

Melo is a bad fit just about anywhere, even at a discount.

Once you commit $40 million per year to an aging, small point guard it makes no sense to pinch pennies. Harden and Paul need a lot of help to win in the playoffs. Ariza is not a great player but he was a necessary player for Houston and he was important in both of Houston’s CF runs, while Harden was often a bystander (or ineffective) in key moments.

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 1:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I state the facts about Morey, his team’s record and his decisions. Bias can be found in “No Stats All Star,” just about any Henry Abbott article and many other places.

Yao and McGrady both were injured a lot but when they played they were better players, leaders and teammates than Harden. Harden has been more physically durable to this point, no question about it.

I probably would take Nash over Paul, but neither could be the best player on a championship team and Nash should not have won two MVPs, though he was a top five player for a time. My point is that the media builds certain guys up and tears other guys down for biased reasons. Nash and D’Antoni are two of the nicest people I ever interviewed. They are very likeable. I just don’t think Nash was as great a player as he was portrayed to be, and I think that D’Antoni is a very good but also flawed coach. Auerbach and Riley, to cite two examples, coached to the strengths of the personnel that they had at a given time. D’Antoni stubbornly tries the same approach regardless of personnel or matchups. His approach is not always bad and sometimes it works but this is not an optimal method overall because (1) flexibility is important and (2) his approach is unlikely to ever produce an NBA champion (the Warriors are not using D'Antoni's approach but rather Kerr is channeling what he learned from Jackson and Popovich combined with being flexible enough to incorporate the diverse skill sets of the very talented roster he has).

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 2:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David & Jordan-

I continue to disagree that Nash "could not be the best player on a championship team." I do think that in order for him to do so, he would need to be surrounded with quality defensive talent (particularly on the interior) and strong rebounders, something Phoenix never managed to do for him. It would be harder to build a championship caliber team around Steve Nash than it would be with, say, Tim Duncan, but I do not think it was impossible.

I would take Nash over any one player on the 2004 Pistons, for instance, and probably over whoever you want to call the best player on the '78 Bullets (at that specific point in their career, anyway, although maybe not over their apex seasons). A case could be made that Nash would have been the best player on the '79 Sonics as well, although I think the way that particular team was constructed they were probably better off with Dennis Johnson (especially given that playing in a pre-three point line league would mitigate some of Nash's value and his preferred style of play).

I do not think Nash is as good as Isiah Thomas but I do think he probably could have gotten at least one ring with Thomas' supporting cast in the late 80s.

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 4:18:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

Under very specific circumstances, yeah. Nash could win it as...maybe the best player on his team. We can go round and round with this again, but I really really don't like arguing against Nash. I know I've defended (and mostly maintain) the position that Nash wasn't necessarily the most important player on the SSO7 teams (I think he and Marion were like the SSO7 role versions of Kobe/Shaq in terms of importance to that specific team). But again, I really hate arguing anything against him because everything he represented -- from play style, to personality, to his leadership -- are all things that I truly loved and appreciated about him. He is a top 3 all time favorite player for me. Where we can 100% agree, is that little princess Paul, the pint God, NBA Napoleon, should never occupy the same airspace as Nash in terms of leadership, personality, or how they managed the teams they ran.

It's nearly Christmas and I, like you, want to discuss other topics. How about them Clippers? Oh where oh where does Blake Griffin rate? He's suddenly become the "new" unicorn (in My Little Pony speak...he's an...alacorn?). I want Damian Lillard to succeed. What's my strategy to see that through? Why don't the Spurs trade for Jeremy Lin? Are the Kings for real? What in tarnation is up with the Jazz?

And, I'm dying to know David's 2 cents on Durant after his solo show. While it's not 100% fair, as he didn't have Dray OR Curry, he did reinforce my thinking about him.

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 4:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jordan-

Fair enough. In order-

I'm curious to see if the Clippers can keep it up; I always love a team of scrappy "nobody believed in us" types, and I'm especially a fan of Patrick Beverly. That said... they're a middling defense playing in the Western Conference and I have my doubts about whether or not their offense can keep producing wins at this pace.

Blake is putting up gaudy numbers on a mediocre team. I feel like we've seen this movie before, but it's early yet so I guess we'll have to wait and see. It's cute that he's shooting threes and all but he's making them at a just barely above average clip and if he drops much below 35% he starts hurting the team instead of helping it. He's still not the defensive presence or rebounder he should be, in my opinion, but I will admit I haven't watched a ton of Detroit yet.

I've never believed in this version of the Blazers and I'm not going to start now. If Lillard wants to win at the highest level he needs to be on a team a lot like the one I hypothesized for Nash-- one that can cripple the other team's offense and win the possession battle. I don't see it happening in Portland. Failing that, he needs to start playing defense or at least nudge his 3pt fg% closer to 40%; if he wants to play like Steph (or at least like last year's Kemba) he needs to shoot like it.I

I think there's gotta be more to the Jeremy Lin story than the general public knows. The guy's ceiling is clearly higher than his market, and that usually means there's more to the story. Maybe he doesn't practice hard, maybe he wants too many touches, who knows. But it's weird that the teams who do sign him seem to keep trying to fit him into what they're already trying as opposed to angling to recapture what made him special once upon a time. Having said that, I'm not sure he's a natural fit next to Aldridge/Gasol/Derozan; Lin's usually played his best way up-tempo and those guys... aren't.

The Kings are never for real. But they are less not for real than usual. And Bogdan Bogdanovic is better than his minutes.

I don't have a good answer with the Jazz, mostly because I haven't watched them much this year. Weight of expectations? Rubio and Crowder turning back into offensive pumpkins? Your guess is as good as mine.

I can't speak for David, but I'm with you on Durant. He's got all the talent in the world but he's not now (nor, in my estimation, has he ever been) the Warrior's best player. There's a reasonable argument to be had whether that's a question of system or skill, but at least as long as they're on the Warriors, Curry is the more important player.

Also, Durant remains the league's most overrated defender since post-prime Kobe.



 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 5:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Could Nash have been marginally the best player on a stacked and/or very well-balanced championship team? Perhaps. Could Nash have been the best player on a championship team in the same dominant fashion that Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Barry, Dr. J., Walton, Magic, Malone, Bird, Jordan, Olajuwon, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, Wade, Nowitzki, LeBron, Durant were? No. Nash is not in the Pantheon tier or even in the tier below that, yet the media crowned him a two-time MVP. Nash was a durable Mark Price in a more offensive-friendly era with a team built around his talents. That is not meant as an insult to Nash or Price. At his peak, Price may have been the second best guard in the East behind only Jordan--but he was not Jordan, just like Nash was not Kobe. Price was a fantastic player and I have written about him a fair amount over the years. Nash was also a fantastic player but he was rated much more highly than Price. Again, durability is definitely a factor in Nash's favor but I also think that the media wanted to prop someone up above Kobe, while during Price's time no one was going to be elevated above Jordan, at least not after Jordan started winning titles.

The Nash-Isiah comparison is tough to make because the eras were so different. Speaking of durability, I wonder how durable Nash would have been in the more physical 80s and 90s. I am not going to definitively say that the Pistons could not have won a title with Nash instead of Isiah but I doubt it and I certainly doubt that the Pistons would have had the same extended run of Conference Finals and Finals appearances. On the other hand, Isiah would be unguardable under today's rules. He would score 30 ppg, average 14 apg and be the best player on one of the league's top teams. So much is made of Nash's teammates performing better with him, but don't forget that Isiah went to a Detroit team that had been horrible and within a few short years the Pistons were neck and neck with the dynasty Celtics and Lakers. The Pistons made good personnel moves and hired a great coach but Isiah's competitive spirit, talent and drive played huge roles in the franchise's emergence as a perennial contender.

 
At Tuesday, December 11, 2018 6:13:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Trying to reframe the argument as "Nash wasn't a Pantheon guy" doesn't actually have anything to do with my point.

For the record, I wouldn't say that Durant or Magic was ever "the best player on a championship team in dominant fashion," either. In any given Magic year you can make a case for either Kareem or Worthy, and Curry is in my estimation much more important to those GSW teams than Durant. Both of those guys also had the luxury of winning their titles on teams that consistently had at least three other All-Star level running mates (and mostly upper tier All-Stars at that), which, you know, is a bit of a luxury. Not exactly the same as winning the way Doc/Duncan/Kobe/Hakeem/etc. did, and certainly apples to the oranges that Nash played with.

Nash is not a top 15 all-time player but he is pretty cleanly a top 30 or perhaps even top 25 player, and that's plenty good enough to win a title, with the right help. That was my point, and no amount of complaining that he won MVPs you feel should have gone to Kobe or trying to reframe the argument as being about something else is going to do much to persuade me differently.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 1:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am not reframing the argument and I think that the point about undeserved MVPs is significant, whether one thinks that the MVPs should have gone to Kobe, Shaq or LeBron.

My point in mentioning the Pantheon and near-Pantheon players is that most NBA champions--and virtually all of the repeat champions or dynasty teams--were led by that caliber of player. Can one construct a scenario with the right supporting cast in the right era versus the right competition in which Nash, in theory, could be the best player on a championship team? Perhaps, but the point is that one does not have to do those kinds of mental gymnastics to picture Russell, Wilt, etc. being the best player on a championship team--and that goes back to my larger point about Nash, which is that the media elevated him to an undeserved status of two-time MVP, which muddies the waters when trying to rank him all-time. Typically, one would expect a two-time MVP to be in the top 25 or 30 but I don't consider Nash's MVPs to be deserved and I do not have Nash in my top 30. Honestly, and without giving away too much of the contents of future articles in my continuing series about the Top 50 players, it is not clear that Nash is a Top 50 player. The biggest argument for him relative to the other guys in the 40-50 range is that he won two MVPs. Every MVP winner up to the time that the original Top 50 list was selected made the Top 50 list except for McAdoo (and he should have made it). The problem is that the MVP voting has gone sideways many years in the past couple decades. Derrick Rose won an MVP but is clearly not a Top 50 player. I used to believe that every MVP should be on the Top 50 list (barring an injury-shortened career or other extenuating circumstances) but, for example, I am not putting Nash ahead of Kidd just because MVP voters gave Nash two MVPs and Kidd did not win any. Kidd is superior to Nash in every way other than shooting--and Kidd became a respectable three point shooter later in his career, while Nash remained a subpar defensive player.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 1:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Regarding Durant, he went head to head against the best player on the planet in back to back NBA Finals, leading his team to victory both times and winning Finals MVP both times while outdueling LeBron James. Here are Durant's numbers in those Finals:

2017: 35.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.6 bpg, 1.0 spg, .556 FG%, .474 3FG%, .927 FT% and just 11 turnovers (barely more than two per game, which is outstanding considering how often the ball was in his hands).

2018: 28.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 7.5 apg, 2.3 bpg, .8 spg, .526 FG%, .409 3FG%, .963 FT% and just nine turnovers (again barely more than two per game).

Those are dominant performances. The Warriors were 1-1 in NBA Finals prior to acquiring Durant and they are 2-0 in NBA Finals with him, while Durant was the best player on the court in both of those Finals.

Guys like Bill Simmons speak in hushed, reverent tones about the 1986 Boston Celtics and about how Larry Bird was at his absolute peak then. Bird was great, no doubt about it, but Durant was better in both the 2017 and 2018 Finals than Bird ever was in the NBA Finals. Here are Bird's 1986 Finals numbers: 24.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 9.5 apg, 2.7 spg, .3 bpg, .482 FG%, .368 3FG%, .939 FT% and 16 turnovers in six games. Bird was second on the team in Finals scoring and fourth in FG% among the rotation players.

Golden State's record in a small sample size of early season games without Curry and Green and with some kind of internal tension taking place does not change my opinion of Durant versus Curry. Curry is a great player and an MVP caliber player (better than Nash ever was) but Durant is bigger, more versatile and more difficult to deal with at both ends of the court.

I don't like the way Durant ran to GSW as opposed to competing against them and I don't agree with all of his comments/attitude but none of that clouds my thinking about his value. His arrival transformed GSW from a very good team to a dynasty that can be compared to some of the great teams from previous eras.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 10:21:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

Regarding Nash: His MVPs are nowhere near his main argument for Top 50/30/what have you status. His primary argument is that for about ten years, putting him on your team guaranteed you a top 5, and usually top 1, offense, regardless of supporting cast (he even swapped teams about a third of the way through that run). The only other players who can match that stretch either played when there were way fewer teams (fairly easy to be a top 5 offense in an 8 team league) or were Magic Johnson--who, unlike Nash, had a Pantheon-level center running with him for most of his run as well as multiple other All-Stars.

The *second* best argument for Nash is that almost everyone who played with him during his prime became not only a better player than they were before playing with him, but a significantly better one. Of everyone he played with only Dirk really got better after he left, and Dirk was gonna be great with or without him. But Amare, Marion, Bell, Diaw, Barbosa, Channing Frye, etc. all elevated their games with Nash setting them up. He is probably the one player with the greatest statistical "made his teammates better" case of anyone, and over a large sample size*.

The *third* best argument for Nash is that he's statistically the second greatest shooter of all time, behind Curry.

The *fourth* best argument for Nash is his longevity. Then you can start talking about MVPs and whether or not they "count."

Jason Kidd is a great player and I have him and Nash pretty much neck-and-neck in my personal rankings but while Kidd was a much better defender and rebounder than Nash, he did not have the same rising tide effect on his teams/teammates by any stretch of the imagination. Nash is somewhat tricky for me to evaluate as his poor defense is definitely a knock-- but his offensive value is so high that there's almost no point of comparison for it. There is a statistical case to be made that he is the most valuable offensive player of all time, though I hesitate to go quite that far myself, and regardless of where he ultimately ranks in that rarified air, his ten year run of offensive team dominance (including some unremarkable rosters in '06 the later Phoenix years) is a unique and impressive accomplishment that speaks to his value.

*Curry has pretty strong case himself, though for different reasons, and it's still relatively early with him.

But again, my argument was with the idea that Nash wasn't "good enough" to be the best player on a title team, not whether he was better than Jason Kidd or whether he was Top 30.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Regarding Durant:

I am not contesting that he elevated the Warriors from great to even greater, I am contesting the idea that he is more valuable than Curry to that team.

Much like Nash above, Curry's value goes well beyond his individual box score, as his spacing and leadership create opportunities for his teammates every second he's on the floor.

Durant's value, meanwhile, is primarily as a scorer-- a role in which he is not meaningfully better than Curry, although he is perhaps more versatile. I do not disagree that his Finals numbers were great but then there's a fair question of how much of those numbers he owes to Curry. His playoff FG% is 6% higher in GSW than it ever was in OKC- and OKC had a pretty ok point guard of their own, as well as Harden for a good chunk of that run, so it's not like he was bereft of weapons there0- and he has more room to work in that offense than he ever has elsewhere.

You can dismiss 9 games as a small sample size if you like but I think it's pretty significant when a team that's been to 4 straight Finals (winning 3) loses 6 out of 9 games despite the presence of someone whom the media like to build up as the heir apparent to Lebron. The Warriors last lost 6 out of 9 in 2013- the year before Curry made his first All-Star team.

Yes, Green was absent as well for 8 of those games, but it's not exactly like they were at the tough stretch in their schedule, either. They lost to San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and Detroit during that stretch. Not exactly a murderer's row.

There are a few reasons the team sucks when Curry isn't there:

1) The offense is built around Curry, and has always suffered without him, even with Durant on the floor.

2) Durant does not meaningfully make his teammates better; Curry does.

3) Without Green the Warriors have no meaningful frontcourt defense as Durant remains an extremely overrated defender who rarely engages for more than a few minutes at a time.

Ultimately, all of Durant's big Finals "achievements" came after he joined a 72 win team that already had a 2x MVP on it. It's likely any star SF would have won those titles (perhaps not with Durant's numbers), so listing him alongside guys like Doc and Kareem who won titles "as the best player on their team in dominant fashion" is at best wrong, and at worst basketball blasphemy. Do you really think Kawhi/Giannis/Jimmy Butler/whomever would have fared meaningfully worse? There's a better than 50% chance that team wins the title if they'd just kept Harrison Barnes, for crying out loud. It's not like they got destroyed in '16; they barely lost a tight series in which several fo their starters missed time, and both Iggy and Curry were playing banged up. Sure, Durant put them "over the top" but at that point a missed free throw could have put them over the top.

Durant is a frontrunner, and while he's a very good player, the nonsense arguments about him being as good as Lebron some pundits like to throw around are nonsense.

The argument that he's better than Curry is about one class better than that, but not really supported by much in the way of evidence.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 11:29:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

If Nash had been as good as you suggest, then this would have held true for his teams in the playoffs as well. I know that there is an excuse/explanation for every year that the Suns "could" have won but for some calamity that is not Nash's fault but, to paraphrase your original comment about this post, we have examined that territory many times before and I don't want to do that again.

I will reiterate that the Top 50/Top 30 issue is relevant to my answer to your question because my opinion is that it is difficult for a player outside of that realm to lead a team to a title. You may disagree and/or you may cite the once every 15-20 year exception to that rule but from my perspective it would be very unlikely for a player of Nash's level to be the best player on a championship team.

I agree that Durant is a frontrunner. I am not sure if he is "overrated" defensively, as I have not paid that much attention to how he is being "rated" or who is rating him; I cannot avoid reading/hearing about how great Harden is--which is why I often address that subject--but I do not feel similarly bombarded by false narratives about Durant's defense.

I lost respect for Durant as a competitor when he left OKC for GSW but I respect how well he has played for GSW, particularly in the 2017 and 2018 Finals. No, he is not as good as LeBron or better than LeBron but he caused LeBron problems and he outplayed LeBron often enough for GSW to win. Durant was the most effective player in both of those Finals.

It is not relevant to this discussion if GSW could have or would have won without Durant. Durant arrived, and he was dominant in both Finals. If GSW had won with Barnes, Barnes certainly would not have put up numbers remotely resembling Durant's.

It is true that GSW is built around Curry and that probably partially explains why they struggle a bit in the regular season when he is out even when Durant is available. In a vacuum, though, if I had to choose between Durant and Curry I would take Durant without much hesitation. Durant is bigger, more versatile and if he is not as good a shooter as Curry he is close enough for that difference to not outweigh Durant's advantages. A great 7 foot player is going to be more valuable than a great 6-3 player unless that 6-3 player enjoys significant skill set advantages over the bigger player and, in my estimation, that is not the case here.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 11:50:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I start to get a feeling you're beating dead horse David. I would love to see a piece about something different e.g. surprise teams (SAC, DET, BOS, SAS), how changes on teams were good/bad moves or were miscalculated etc.
I'm a little tired of reading about HOU and GSW with some OKC in the mix over and over again. I know these are some top stories, which are ignored/misshapen by mainstream media, but fresh air would be most welcome.

That said putting Steve Nash in the same line with Chris Paul is not fair imho. There are similarities in their games, but their personalities are totaly different, which has/had big impact on their team performances, both on and off court.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 12:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

1) Is there a more surprising team than Houston this season?

2) Golden State is in the midst of a historic run, so of course many of my posts are going to be about the Warriors.

3) I have not written that much about OKC this season but the Thunder currently have the best record in the West. Those narratives about Westbrook being a bad teammate and leader look silly, don’t they? Isn’t it nice that at least one outlet covers Westbrook accurately? How about the narrative that Paul George is going to leave bad teammate Russ for great teammate LeBron. Oh, wait—that never happened. My readers are probably less surprised about that than other people who have not closely followed LeBron, Westbrook and George.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 1:33:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think we have two primary points of disagreement around Curry/Durant:

1) I think the gap in their shooting-- and the effect that it has in terms of opening up space for teammates/controlling the momentum of a game-- is wider than you do.

2) I think that there is more to the issue than just skillset; Curry is by all accounts a fantastic teammate and leader who brings the best out of his compatriots. Durant is moody, withdrawn, and does not seem to possess those same intangibles. Even if Durant may put up better individual numbers in a vacuum (and that is debatable) I believe Curry has a much greater value beyond his individual box score than Durant does.


I do not disagree that Durant played well in the Finals, I disagreed that his performance in those Finals was "the best player on a title team in dominant fashion" as Curry was similarly awesome, and-as indicated above- arguably had more to do with winning those titles than Durant did if you look beyond individual statistics.


Regarding OKC, they're certainly playing great, but that is partially because they've reduced their dependance on RWB, and because his shot selection has improved. He has significantly reduced his bad "long 2" attempts and he's given up about 10 touches per game vs. last season. Meanwhile and moreover, the other four players in their starting lineup are elite defenders who can cover for him and the team is actually outscoring opponents even when. he hits the bench. He is still a very good player but he is no longer the lone engine of the team, and the contributions (particularly defensively) of Paul George and Steven Adams are extremely significant.


Beep-

Right there with you. Regardless of what stories are "relevant" or "timely" it's safe to say that regular readers of this blog have a pretty good handle on how David feels about OKC/HOU by now. Would love to see more coverage of less weathered territory as well, but then it's David's blog and he can write about whatever he wants.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 2:20:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

A little more on Nash:

"If Nash had been as good as you suggest, then this would have held true for his teams in the playoffs as well. I know that there is an excuse/explanation for every year that the Suns "could" have won"

It is interesting to me that the "excuses" do not hold water for Nash but they do hold water for a member of your Pantheon in Elgin Baylor. Like Nash, Baylor likely would have won a title if not for badly timed injuries and having to go against dynastic, Pantheon level competition. During his 10 year peak, Nash had to contend not only with the apex of the Duncan/Pop Spurs, but also both the Kobe/Shaq/Phil Lakers and later the Kobe/Pau/Phil Lakers. It is fair to say that Nash's teams were usually (though not always) at a talent disadvantage in those matchups, and were ALWAYS at a significant coaching disadvantage. Throw in bad injuries/suspensions, and it is difficult for me to see how it is not a knock on Baylor that he didn't get a ring but it *is* a knock on Nash... especially given that Baylor's team eventually won a ring without him, whereas the Suns have yet to make the playoffs post-Nash.


A little more on Durant:

Reasonable men can differ, but for me personally I get annoyed when people hold up Durant as being at or near the level of Doc/Lebron/Bird; for me, he reminds me a lot more of Bernard King or Adrian Dantley. Unstoppable HoF level scorer with a few decent supporting skills, but not nearly the multi-faceted force of nature that the tippy top 3s are/were.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 5:39:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree in general with your description of what we disagree about, and I doubt that we will ever agree about those issues.

Baylor was a vastly more impactful player than Nash, a player who led his team to multiple NBA Finals and then set numerous Finals records. Baylor in his prime ranked in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists. He may not have been a great defender but he certainly was not a defensive liability as Nash was.

I do not rank Durant ahead of Doc or LeBron or Bird but Durant is an elite level, MVP caliber player who has proven that he can be the best player on a championship team. I like Curry's game very much as well and if you look through the archives you will see that I ranked him much higher than most so-called "experts" did when Curry first joined the NBA, though I did not foresee how great he ultimately would become (no one saw that coming, but some questioned if Curry could even be an All-Star).

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 6:43:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

"Baylor was a vastly more impactful player than Nash, a player who led his team to multiple NBA Finals and then set numerous Finals records. Baylor in his prime ranked in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists. He may not have been a great defender but he certainly was not a defensive liability as Nash was."

1) Baylor was fortunate enough to be in the. opposite conference from his Pantheon-level competition (Russell and Wilt) while Nash had to get by Duncan and Kobe if he wanted to make a Finals. Not exactly apples to apples there, though it's worth noting that Nash did manage to get past Kobe twice and Duncan once... he just couldn't ever manage to do both in the same year. Like Baylor, he also had some near misses ('06, '07, '10, arguably '05) where luck didn't go his way, but then those are the breaks.

2) Baylor made most of his Finals alongside Jerry West, a better, Pantheon-level player. Give Nash an equivalent running mate (since Nash/West are guards and Baylor a forward, let's say Lebron or Duncan) and move him over to the East and I think it's safe to say he makes plenty of Finals, and probably sets some FG%/assist records of his own.

Baylor did make 1 Finals without a Pantheon-level running mate*, at which point he was summarily swept by the Celtics. Pointing out how he made so many Finals without acknowledging the difference between playing with Jerry West and playing with Shawn Marion is so willfully devoid of context as to basically be a straw man. At that point you may as well point out that Robert Horry has 7x as many rings as Oscar Robertson, while you're at it.

*He did, however, have three other All-Stars plus a guy who would make the All-Star team the next year.

In fact, not only did Baylor go 0-6 against Pantheon-level competition in the playoffs (all Russell), he also did pretty poorly against the next tier down, going 0-1 against Barry, 0-1 against Frasier/Reed, and 2-3 against Pettit. Baylor made so many Finals mostly because nobody that good was in his way; he had zero Pantheon guys between him and the Finals, and only six series against guys on that next level down (he won 33% of those). Nash, meanwhile, had to get by 2 Pantheon guys and another Top 30-type and went 1-5 against Duncan (or 1-7 if you wanna count baby-Nash and ancient-Nash), 2-1 against Kobe, and 1-1 against Dirk.

Like I said: apples to oranges.

3) It's somewhat easier to rank Top 10 in an 8 team league than a 30 team one, but I agree that Baylor was a very good offensive player and not a very good defensive player.

I am not saying that Nash is better than Baylor but I am saying that your quoted defense of the difference in the way you evaluate them ignores basically every relevant bit of context. It seems odd to cut Baylor a break for not winning a ring despite a superior supporting cast in a weaker conference while torching Nash for failing to beat more than one Pantheon player per year with supporting cast that lacked anyone even in the same ballpark as peak Jerry West (or Wilt Chamberlain).

West is one of the five greatest guards to ever play the game. Nash's best teammate* was probably Amare Stoudemire or Shawn Marion, neither of whom is one of the thirty best forwards to play the game, and probably not one of the best 50.

*Unless you want to count the calcified versions of Shaq or Grant Hill, but let's be adults here and admit that those weren't exactly "Shaq and Grant Hill."

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 6:49:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Regarding Durant-

I think he is a fringe-level MVP, but then I would not have been too upset if, say, Bernard King had won an MVP during one of his peak seasons, either.

Meanwhile, I think Curry is on pace to be pretty easily one of the five best point guards of all time, and has an outside shot at being number one depending on how the rest of his career goes. His first title is already more impressive to me than any single Magic, Oscar, or West ring, if only by dint of the absence of another MVP-level guy on his team. If he racks up, say, three more championships (with or without Durant) while continuing to obliterate all the shooting/efficiency record books, it will be hard to take any other PG over him (although on raw skillset West will likely always get the nod from me thanks to his defensive acumen).

On the other hand, I have a hard time conceiving of a scenario where Durant cracks the upper-crust of small forwards, unless, I suppose he goes somewhere else without another MVP-level player (Washington? The Clippers?) and manages to bring home at least a ring or two there. I don't see that happening; so far in Durant's career he needs not only another MVP, but a few more stars beside, to win a ring. He also lacks what I believe to be the leadership abilities necessary to elevate a team, though as Lebron has demonstrated if you are talented enough you can win rings while still being a bit of a head case.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 7:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I did not make a straw man argument. I summarized my take on matters that I have analyzed in depth here on multiple occasions. I have no interest in relitigating Baylor or Nash, at least not until I post the rest of my Top 50 series.

The “context” you seek is in the site’s archives.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 7:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Curry has not been the best player in any of his four NBA Finals nor has he won a Finals MVP so I am baffled by how you are ranking him, and I was a Curry promoter before just about anyone.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 7:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I think Curry was the best player in both the 2015 and 2018 Finals, MVP voters be damned. The narratives of "Iggy stopped Lebron" and "Durant out dueled Lebron" may be more sexy but I don't believe either of those players had a greater impact on winning in those respective years.

For 2017 I think Durant probably deserved the *Finals* MVP but that Curry was the most valuable player for the team over the course of the entire season.

 
At Wednesday, December 12, 2018 8:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Edit: I had the 2018 and 2017 conflated. Stupid faulty brain.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 10:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, there could be a small case for Curry as the best player in the 2018 Finals, though I have him a distant 3rd best player in that series. But, are you really trying to say he was in the 2015 Finals? Do you actually remember how much trouble Delly was giving him at times? Iggy was outdueling James for large portions of games, while Curry was often stuck getting punked by Delly.

I've never seen Curry better than the 3rd best player in any of his Finals, even though he has played very well at times. James, KD, Irving, Iggy, and Green have all been better in at least one series. The simple fact is that Curry is a small player who wears down at the ends of seasons, which was evident in his first 2 Finals. Once KD joined GS, GS could afford to rest Curry more whether on the court or bench, as KD could take more of the primary role.

Curry may have deserved 1, maybe 2 MVPs for the regular season, though I'm still not sold on either. But, he has yet to convince me he can lead a team to even just one title, aka be the best player on a championship team. And this even on his GS teams, which have been ridiculously stacked. His best chance to do was in the 2016 Finals. When his team was up 3-1, he had 3 golden chances, including 3 games at home. But, he was only the 4th best player in game 5, probably 2nd best player in game 6, and again only the 4th best player at best in game 7.

KD is clearly much better than Curry. I can't believe we're discussing this. KD led GS in scoring, rebounding, assists, and minutes in the 2018 Finals while shooting .526 to Curry's abysmal .402. Regardless of how overrated or not KD's defense is, it's still much better than Curry's, even if just for the sole fact that he's anywhere from 6-9 inches taller than Curry. While James had a statistically great offensive Finals, KD played solid defense against him when matched up against James, which wasn't all the time. KD outdueled James, who was also much better than Curry in these Finals. I don't believe GS would've beaten CLE in 2018 without KD, but would've beaten CLE without Curry. Though, GS unlikely makes the Finals unless they had both players. The amount of help each needs is still a ridiculous amount, same goes for James.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 11:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I also am baffled by the notion that Durant and Curry are of similar value. This is similar to the false narrative that the Heat were Wade’s team instead of James’ team because Wade was there first. James was bigger and better than Wade, much as Durant is bigger and better than Curry.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 12:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, kinda and it was James joining Wade, not vice versa. Wade had been there awhile, and had won one title, so it's pretty much the same scenario with KD/Curry. So, I get it if people thought it was Wade's team just like if people thought it was Curry's team at the beginning of the KD era in GS, at least initially. Wade was still an elite player in 2011, too, though James was clearly the better player, except for the fact that he'd continue to mentally check out in the playoffs up until 2011, and he did again in the 2011 Finals.

Wade was great in the 2011 ECF, and was clearly MIA's best player in the 2011 Finals as James was often outplayed by Steve Nash replacement, Jason Terry. So for the 2011 season at least, one could make a strong argument that MIA was Wade's team, though not really after that. This is much different with KD/Curry and GS. KD didn't need Curry to help him mentally to able to carry a team to a title. And Curry wasn't outplaying KD either. I'm still not convinced Curry can actually be the best player on a title team from start to finish, no matter how stacked his team is. Sure, he was the best player on GS in 2015 overall, but then look at what we saw in the Finals that season.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 12:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David-

That's another apples to oranges comparison. Wade did not have a one-of-a-kind skillset that totally reinvented the offensive geometry of a basketball court and created several extra feet of room for all of his teammates while simultaneously functioning as perhaps the most efficient volume scorer in basketball history. Wade had also not just led a team without Lebron to a 73 win season.


You are right that Durant is bigger than Curry. Given the differences in their mentality, skillset, and role, I do not agree that makes him better. This is not an open-and-shut issue, of course, but there is much more to it than simply "the tall guy is better because he's tall."

As with the Nash discussion earlier in this thread, you seem to be skeptical of the cause-and-effect relationship between a player and anything that doesn't show up in his individual box score; that is a defensible position to take, even if not one I share. However, it is not unreasonable to watch the Warriors and conclude that players like Thompson, Green, Iguodala, Barnes, and even Durant himself are operating with a great deal more space with Curry than they are without him; there is value in that and Durant does not have that same sort of impact.

Again, fair to be skeptical... but we do have *some* data. Let's look at Klay (all numbers per 100 possessions):

2018 Klay (Curry On vs. Off): +8.8 FG%, +9.9 3pt FG%
2018 Klay (Durant On vs. Off): +0.7 FG%, -1.8 3pt FG%

2017 Klay (Curry): +5 FG%, +7.9 3pt FG%
2017 Klay (Durant): +0.8 FG%, +1 3pt FG%

Now I haven't run the numbers of the whole team and it's possible (even likely) there's an exception or two (Draymond, for instance, with Durant drawing more attention inside, probably bucks the trend), but Klay's their most important non-Curry/KD offensive player and obviously benefits a lot more from Curry than KD. I'm pretty confident that's the general rule.

Plus, you know... how they effect each other kinda says a lot, too.

Steph w/ KD:
'17: +3.2 G%, +1.2 3pt FG%
'18: -1.3 FG%, -2.6 3pt FG%

KD w/ Steph:
'17: +3.9 FG%, +9 3pt FG%
'18: +6.5 FG%, +7.3 3pt FG%

So, across two full years together Curry makes Durant shoot about 5.2% better overall and about 8.2% better from 3. Durant makes Curry about 1% better overall, and actually slightly worse from 3.


As always, there's more to the story than just raw box scores (or height).

PS: For comparison, over four years Wade was about +2.5 FG%, -1.6 3pt FG% with Lebron. Lebron was about +2.5% FG%, -2.9% 3pt FG% with Wade. Those oranges don't look like apples.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 1:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to Nash a bit. I'm not convinced even in the most perfect of situations in the most perfect year, he'd ever be considered the best player on any title team, even on 2004 DET, but perhaps. Billups brought it on both ends of the court that year. Sure, maybe DET could've hid Nash on the opposing team's worst player, but I have a feeling the better teams in the league would've found a way to exploit that matchup in some way. That series was a defensive struggle, and Billups still put up very good offensive numbers. Though DET was basically playing 5 on 2, so maybe.

But, let's recap what happened in 2004, Billups was 27, and Nash was 29; certainly both in their primes. Nash was a distant 2nd best player on his Mavs team and they lost badly 1-4 to SAC in 1st round that year. Nash was great at shooting(not scoring necessarily) and passing. Most top PGs can do both extremely well, amongst other things. Most are stronger and better defenders(hard to find a worse defender than Nash).

I often hear that Nash makes his teammates better, whatever that means. He played on multiple teams with multiple AS for most of his career, and still couldn't make even 1 Finals. And it wasn't just Kobe/Duncan getting in his way either. He lost to DAL/SAC, too. And all of the AS he played with didn't need him to help them become AS. They were playing at AS levels without him at times during their careers. If he was making Smush Parker into an AS, then that'd be much different, but he wasn't. He was surrounded by immense talent, but in almost every(maybe every) series he was lost, he was never the best player, and often not the best player on his team.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 1:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

James was the best player on the Heat the instant he joined the team. He choked in their first Finals but he was still the team’s best player.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 1:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

1) Wade won a Finals MVP with a more dominant series than Curry has ever had in any round of the playoffs.

2) Re: the long table of numbers, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. That kind of thinking leads to problems.

The most relevant numbers are 1-1 in the Finals pre-KD, 2-0 post-KD, with KD winning two Finals MVPs to Curry’s none. KD has made the team collectively better, regardless of what the individual numbers of certain players are.

By the way, in this context it is worth noting that the Mavs replaced Nash with Jason Terry and won a title. That means more than Barbosa’s on/off numbers or whatever.

Durant is better than Curry not merely because he is bigger but because Durant is not only bigger but—at worst—equally skilled. I would argue that Durant has more skills but if we stipulate arguendo that they are equally skilled then Durant is still more valuable.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 1:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And there's a lot more than just a few numbers, Nick. Plus, there's lots more variables to consider.

Also, even if what you say is 100% correct, this still hardly supports your 'Curry is better than KD' theory. KD should shoot better while playing with more AS, as should Curry. I think your KD/Curry #'s actually hurt your stance even more. Why isn't Curry shooting better than this? Opposing defenses are obviously concerned KD.

What we've seen in the last 4 Finals should be pretty good proof alone for dumping your theory. KD had always been much better than Curry before joining GS. I'm not sure how that changed once he joined them and took over #1 honors immediately from Curry.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 1:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, when we include the Finals, which is the biggest stage of the season, I don't think it's that simple to say James was MIA's best player overall on 2011. I can see arguments for both of them for this distinction. If James plays merely like an AS in the 2011 Finals, MIA certainly could've and probably would've won with Wade taking home Finals MVP honors. James/Wade's #'s in 2011 are eerily similar. I know more than that, but there wasn't much difference in the regular season. And Wade was better in the playoffs, especially in the Finals.

Agree with the Terry comparison. DAL got better immediately by essentially just replacing Nash with Terry, but Nash was obviously better than Terry. Nash supporters cannot ignore that fact.

I also think KD's over skillset is superior to Curry's, and easily at that.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 1:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I see what you are getting at regarding the 2011 Heat but I still disagree. Even the media that promoted the false narrative ultimately elected James All-NBA First Team and third in MVP voting, while Wade was Second Team and seventh in MVP voting. James was clearly the better player but the mystery with him is why has he so often shrunk in the biggest moments?

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 1:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with your Nash analysis and the Billups comparison is on point.

I also agree that KD’s skills are superior to Curry’s but my point is even if we call their skills equal Durant wins based on his significant size advantage.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 2:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David-

"KD has made the team collectively better, regardless of what the individual numbers of certain players are."

I do not disagree with that. My contention is that he does not make them as much better as Curry does.

"By the way, in this context it is worth noting that the Mavs replaced Nash with Jason Terry and won a title. That means more than Barbosa’s on/off numbers or whatever."

This is, frankly, disengenuous bullshit. The Mavs title team and the last Mavs Nash team share exactly one player (Dirk). They replaced an iffy coach with a great one, and also added Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, and, yes, Jason Terry. It also took them seven years. There was also a pretty major rule change in the intervening years that benefited not only Nash, but also Dirk/Terry/Kidd/Barea.


"Durant is better than Curry not merely because he is bigger but because Durant is not only bigger but—at worst—equally skilled. I would argue that Durant has more skills but if we stipulate arguendo that they are equally skilled then Durant is still more valuable."

The premise I disagree with there is not that Durant would be more valuable if they were equally skilled due to his size, but that they are equally skilled at all. Durant may have a (slightly) wider diversity of skills but the impact of Curry's skills (I believe) is much greater.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 2:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I don’t appreciate your tone and the next comment like that goes in the trash.

Mavs won 52 games and lost in first round in Nash’s last season with the team. Next three years they won 58, 60 and 67 with a Finals appearance in year two. Bottom line, if Nash is as good as you say then his departure would have had more impact.

I have never been disingenuous in my articles or comments. If that is what you think, you are welcome to go elsewhere.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 2:32:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

Out of similarily skilled players the bigger one is better simply because size matters in basketball... do we really need to argue about that?

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 3:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The season after Terry replaced Nash the Mavs were better, not worse. You are correct that by 2011 the team was substantially different but the Mavs did not add a two-time MVP/top 30 all-time player. The fact that an old, limited Kidd could replace Nash speaks volumes.

Kareem by 1989 was in his 40s and looked so old halfway through the season that it was openly suggested he should retire on the spot. The ‘91 Divac was a better player than ‘89 Kareem.

Here, we are comparing Jason Terry and old Jason Kidd to Nash in his prime.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 4:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

My abbreviated skill set comparison of Durant/Curry would be (not necessarily listed in order of importance):

Scoring: Edge to Durant, who can post, shoot pullup Js, drive, finish with either hand in traffic; Curry is a great shooter but he cannot post up (not that he should be expected to as a pg but Durant has a weapon that Curry does not) and because of the size difference he cannot finish as well in traffic.

Shooting: Edge to Curry as a three point shooter, but roughly equal in terms of two point shooting and free throw shooting.

Rebounding: Clear edge to Durant, both overall and also relative to players at his position.

Defense: Clear edge to Durant, both overall (able to guard multiple positions, shot blocker) and also relative to players at his position.

Passing: Edge to Curry but edge to Durant relative to his position. Curry is a pg who has only ranked in the top 10 in assists three times and never higher than fifth. He is a very, very good passer but not an elite playmaker among pgs. Durant is actually averaging more assists than Curry overall this year and Durant is an elite passer among forwards.

Ballhandling: Slight edge to Curry but both are great for their positions.

Other: Durant is bigger and is better able to log heavy minutes. There is no real way to guard him if he is making his shot, because of his size and ballhandling skill. Curry is a 6-3 guard who can be overpowered physically and who can be trapped/made to give up the ball.

Bottom line: Without giving an extremely high weight to three point shooting, there is no way to rank Curry ahead of Durant. I do not buy your contention that Curry is creating more space for others than Durant is.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 4:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David-

My last reply didn't post, but you did reply to it. Hopefully that's merely a process error, and not a sign that I've been thrown down the memory hole for dissent, but I'll hold on replying to further points until it's clear I'm not just writing to the void.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 4:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I thought that your comment did post. That is why I answered it. I am not sure what happened.

You apologized for the tone but not substance of your previous comment and you suggested that comparing Terry/Kidd to Nash vis a vis team success is akin to comparing '91 Divac to '89 Kareem.

I disagree, for the reasons stated above.

I approve 99% of the comments that are submitted. I prefer no profanity and no ad hominem attacks. Comments that don't make the cut tend to have one or both of those. Your previous comment did not have either. Feel free to resubmit if my summary above is not correct from your standpoint.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 4:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David-

No worries, I figured that was the more likely explanation.

"The season after Terry replaced Nash the Mavs were better, not worse"

Again, they also replaced two other starters, changed their coach, and benefited from a significant rule change (which Nash also benefited from). It is true that their record was better without Nash but... well, correlation does not equal causation, right?

The Kareem comparison is apt not because Kareem was all that good at that point, but because it, like that comment, ignores the wider and more important context involved... including the fact that, much as '89 Kareem is not as impactful as peak Kareem, neither is '04 Nash nearly as impactful as peak, post-handcheck Nash. Using the '05 Mavs' record as some sort of proof that Nash isn't impactful ignores not only the context around the Mavs, but the context around Nash's career, as well.

As a result of that rule change, Nash in '05 is a much more valuable player than Nash in '04; by your own estimation, if I recall, a top-5 player. The ability to get to the rim more easily mitigated his greatest offensive weakness (footspeed) and created a lot of extra opportunities for him. Dirk, Terry, Josh Howard, and other Mavericks likewise benefited from that change.

I will compare Curry/Durant in a separate post.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 4:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Under just about any rule set or circumstance, it should not be possible to replace a Top 30 all-time player (as you rank Nash) with a very good player and end up with a better record.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 5:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yes, I had Nash as a top five player in some seasons but never as the MVP, let alone a two-time MVP. I also do not have him in my top 30 all-time.

The Kareem analogy is flawed because ‘91 Divac was just better than ‘89 Kareem but I assume you are not arguing that ‘05 Terry was better than ‘04 Nash regardless of rules or context.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 5:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Using the same rubric:

Scoring: Curry is the more efficient scorer, Durant the more versatile scorer. Both are capable of dropping 30 at will. Who is "better" largely depends on whether the opposing team has better guard or forward defenders.

Shooting: I believe David badly understates Curry's edge here, as he is not only a more accurate shooter, but his superior range forces NBA defenses to stretch several feet further than they are designed to cover, opening up more opportunities for his teammates. Additionally, his release is much faster than Durant's, and he is a better shooter off screens/in motion (though of course Durant is taller).

Rebounding: I agree with David that Durant has a clear edge here.

Defense: They are comparable positional defenders--good, not great--but Durant gets the edge as he can guard more positions and is therefore less vulnerable to switches. His rim-protection is overrated, but it is still a nice tool to have, and one that Curry does not possess.

Passing: Edge to Curry. Durant may get assists but as David has covered many times that is a poor way to evaluate passing talent. Durant is not a particularly skilled passer, and the vast majority of his assists come out of simple passes against a closing double-team. He does not have noteworthy vision or creativity and often misses the open man.

Curry is a good-not-great passer, but he has a better sense of the floor than Durant does, and makes more different types of passes, despite Durant's height advantage.

Ballhandling: I disagree with David on the slightness of Curry's edge. Curry, along with Kyrie Irving, is on the short list for "best ballhandler in the game." Durant is a skilled ballhandler but is not in Curry's league, and good defenders can often stay in front of him... although when they do Durant usually just shoots over them, which isn't the worst thing in the world. Still, if we're grading simply ballhandling skills, it's Curry by a fair margin.

Other: I agree with David that Durant is bigger, and that he is difficult to guard when his shot is falling. I do not agree that trapping Curry really stops him, thanks to his passing chops and quick release. I do agree that Curry has in the past worn down physically (at least in '16) but I do not think it is as big of an issue as David makes it out to be.

I would add that Curry is a better leader, and has a better sense of the flow of the game, whereas Durant will sometimes tank the entire offensive gameplan either because he is "feeling it" (which works sometimes, but sometimes chills the rest of the offense) or because he is trying to shoot himself out of a slump (which would be more defensible on a team with fewer other weapons).

1/2

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 5:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bottom line: "Without giving an extremely high weight to three point shooting..."

David is right that you need to give a lot of weight to Curry's shooting to take him over Durant, but my contention is that you absolutely should. It opens up the floor for everyone else, forces defenses to either concede shots he makes at a ludicrously high rate (at least 43% from over 24ft each of the last five seasons, and 46% over the same span from 30-40 ft on 94 attempts).

Without factoring in fouls, he scores at a rate of 139 points per 100 attempts in that 30-40 foot range, and he's very willing to take them. Teams have to guard him all the way out there, and with his handles, footspeed, and quick release they have to cheat a second defender his way when they do so he can't just burn the first guy and pull up uncontested from 24 or whatever. That, in turn, forces another defender or two to cheat a step off their man, and just generally taxes these defenses beyond their breaking point before Curry even *does* anything.

If you prefer the larger sample size of the 24-30 range, all the above still applies, help
defenders just have to cheat further off their man because Curry has even less distance to the line/rim.

None of this factors in the effect those shots have on the momentum/energy level of the team when he drains them, especially at home. But those shots tend to start Warrior runs.

And that's just when he has the ball. He can also pull a defender 30 feet from the hoop off-ball, allowing Durant/Klay/Dray to go against a four-man defensive unit in a space usually populated by five. God help you when he's running around off off-ball screens and whatnot, often taking two defenders out of the play at once.

That's why the Warriors have been so dominant for the last five years, and that's why Curry is-- in my opinion-- more dangerous than Durant. By simply stepping on the court, he forces defenses away from their principles and into playing the Warriors' game, or he nukes them until they give in and adjust. Either way, it makes everything easier for everybody else, including Durant.

 
At Friday, December 14, 2018 5:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Under just about any rule set or circumstance, it should not be possible to replace a Top 30 all-time player (as you rank Nash) with a very good player and end up with a better record"

I disagree with this premise. If you upgrade several other positions, benefit from internal growth from a future MVP, change your coach, and also get a rule change that benefits your offensive-leaning style of play and makes your entire team more dangerous, then it's very possible.

The Lakers replaced "good" Kareem with "bad" Kareem over a three year stretch where he went from All-NBA First Team member to bad/about to retire and their records were 62, 67, and 62. At some point he was replaced, whether by his crummy older self or by Mychal Thomas or Vlade Divac, and the team kept winning, partly because they had Magic peaking (ala Dirk) and partly because they added other good pieces (AC Green here playing the role of Josh Howard on the Mavs), and partly because other circumstances beyond their control panned out (Ralph Sampson imploding, and similar).

Kareem is obviously much better than Nash (Top 3 vs. Top 30, in my estimation) but you get my point.

 
At Saturday, December 15, 2018 2:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Addendum on the "Top 30" bit:

I threw that number out without mentally doing a list. I generally prefer to rank in tiers rather than a straight rank, and I felt comfortable assuming Nash was in the Top 30 without manually listing them out. Looking at my old tiers spreadsheet (which I last updated in June, though I don't think anything has meaningfully changed on it), I have him in Tier 5. There are a total of 19 players in the four tiers above him, but there are 20 guys in that tier, so technically I *could* have Nash anywhere from 20 to 39 on my own system.

However, while I don't like ranking the whole list, I do generally try to rank within each position, at least loosely (it's a lot easier to compare Nash to, say, Jason Kidd than it is to compare him to Willis Reed). Currently, I have him 7th among PGs, though I'll tell you straight up that he's only ahead of the guy in eighth because of a significant difference in longevity. There are three "Tier 5" PGs ahead of him (Zeke, Stockton, and Steph-- though by the time all is said and done I suspect Steph will be Tier 4 barring injury).

Anyway, by my own spreadsheet that means even if the top four guys in that tier were all point guards, I actually can't have Nash any higher than 22nd (and just looking at some of the other names in that tier, he's closer to the bottom of it than the top) or, if PGs are clumped at the bottom, any lower than 38th.

Without digging into some really nitty gritty cross-era 1v1 analysis that I don't have the time or the inclination to do right now, it'd be tough for me to see him as any higher than 28th or any lower than 36th.

Basically, I checked my own math and while I wouldn't say Nash *isn't* Top 30, I wouldn't say he definitely is, either. I would pretty comfortably say he's top 36, however. Gun to my head I'd probably say something like 32 or 33. That may seem a trivial distinction, but it matters to me, and I'd rather not die on a hill if it's not something I actually believe (and it turns out "definitely Top 30" is a hill I don't believe in quite as much as I thought).

I don't think this meaningfully changes anything David and I are arguing about, but I try to deal as accurately as I can.

 
At Tuesday, December 18, 2018 5:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, yes, James was slightly better than Wade during the 2011 regular season. However, once everything was played out through the Finals, James was no longer clearly better than Wade for that season or better at all. When you get outplayed by Steve Nash replacement, Jason Terry, and choke miserably in the Finals, you no longer have the right to claim best player status.

As for Nash from 04 to 05, a player isn't suddenly going to get that much better at age 30, which I don't think Nash really did. He benefited from a perfect system for himself and possible from the rule change a little. Even with D'antoni's system and being able to dominate the ball much more, his numbers marginally increased in 05, including TO's. PHO did much better than in 04 which is pretty much the only reason why he garnered so much MVP consideration, but PHO's improvement had a lot more to it than just Nash. He didn't suddenly become better than Dirk, KG, Kobe, Duncan, or Shaq.

And for Curry, he might very well be the best best shooter ever, at least pure shooter. But, KD is still very close. A lot more to it than just percentages, but KD isn't very close overall when you factor in everything. Defenses obviously need to focus on Curry, but they aren't focusing on him more than KD.

 
At Tuesday, December 18, 2018 7:50:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Interesting discussion going on here. I agree with both sides to some degree. As a player, KD is better. Bigger, younger, more athletic, (most importantly) more durable, able to accomplish more on a basketball court than Curry, who is smaller, not nearly as long, can't defend multiple positions like Durant, and who wears down. But Curry is more important to the team, and I posit would be more important on all teams. This is both a function of his unique skillset, rule changes, and the stylistic culture shift throughout the NBA.

There isn't any other player like Curry. Damian Lillard is kinda like Curry, but he's a lot streakier. Nobody brings the range, consistency, and sheer magnetic pull that Curry brings. You can replace Durant with a player half as good (Barnes) and the team is still the best team in the league. But, you replace Curry with a player half as good and the team is basically what OKC was. An elite team, a contender, but not a clear cut favorite. Put Curry on any single team in the NBA, and that team instantly gets a lot better. Pair him with Lebron -- he's an ideal fit. Put him on Memphis, he opens everything up. Put him on Sacto, and watch them average 120 ppg. His very existence -- as Nick points out -- makes everyone else on the team better because of how much extra space he provides.

And while Durant is one of the best scorers and best shooters in NBA history, the same can't be said about him. Durant said as much himself. Pair him with Lebron...and Durant won't be Durant. Put him on Memphis, and he doesn't instantly solve their spacing issues. Put him on Sacto...ok, well, they still would probably average 120.

Point is...importance to a team concept, and being the better overall player can be mutually exclusive. Steve Kerr pointed this out last year. Curry is the most indispensable player, while Durant is the better overall player.

It all depends on what one's definition of "value" is then, to determine "Most Valuable".

 
At Wednesday, December 19, 2018 12:05:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

We might quibble over the definition of words like "best" or "better," but I think we agree on the wider point:

Durant has a larger diversity of skills, and perhaps even fewer weaknesses.

In spite of that, Curry makes his team more likely to win, largely because the skills he does have are so uniquely impactful.

To me, taking Durant over Curry would be like taking David Robinson over Shaq, or Nate Thurmond over Russell. Yes, Robinson and Thurmond were excellent, Top 50 type players with wider skillsets than Shaq/Russell, but because the sheer dominance of Shaq's post-presence or Russell's defense, no one in their right mind would take the "more complete" player over them. .

 
At Wednesday, December 19, 2018 2:53:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@Nick,

Adjectives are always up for interpretation :)

Interesting you brought up Shaq as I was thinking about him too as a comparison. He couldn't shoot freethrows (or outside of 6 feet for that matter), his defense was often lazy (though he could ramp it up when motivated...like 01), he never really improved on his weaknesses aside from that one season he shot 60% at the line, and his effectiveness while dominant in any era, was omnipotent during the era in which he did play.

I truly believe Shaq wouldn't be as awesome today as he was back in the 90s/aughts. In some ways, he'd be like the Big man version of James Harden. Teams would constantly attack him on defense and while he'd put up huge numbers, those numbers wouldn't necessarily equate to winning. And while Shaq wouldn't be as transcendent in the pace and space era, Curry wouldn't have been as good in the WWE-style brutality of the late 80s and early 90s or, obviously, the pre-3 era. Whereas Robinson/Russell and Durant would've been just as good in any era as their overall skills were more transferable.

I don't want to go down that rabbit hole argument, but just thought it interesting we both instantly thought of Shaq.

One thing you continue to touch upon and I didn't blatantly spell out is this concept of value/best. If the object of basketball is to win games, then it makes sense to equate value with winning. I know there are some janky advanced stats that try to do that. But, just from an observation standpoint, there's no question that Durant is the better individual player/athlete/specimen what have you. But, Curry elevates the entire team.

 
At Wednesday, December 19, 2018 3:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I think we fundamentally agree on Curry/Durant and are just quibbling over terminology at this point.

But come on man, don't bring up one of my favorite things to argue about (cross-era stuff) and then say you don't wanna argue! That's just mean.

For what it's worth, my take on Shaq specifically in the cross-era thing is that his peak would be both higher and shorter; the version of Shaq from his rookie year through about 2001 or so (give or take a year) had the footspeed and motor to still be defensively a net positive, even in today's league (especially given his rim protection/rebounding; with the league so much smaller up front now than it was in his day, I think his RPG would likely be a full 2 or 3 boards higher in his prime). On the other end, though, he'd be so far beyond unstoppable and so efficient that even if he was defensively neutral, your team is still printing a ticket to 65 wins if he's got even reasonable help.

The extra space and reduced defensive physicality in the modern league would already make Shaq more dangerous than. he already was (and we're talking about a guy who was shooting close to 60% in his prime), but what would *really* turn him loose is the absence of big bodies to defend him; in his day, Shaq had to play a quarter or so of his season against Hakeem/Robinson/Ewing/Dikembe/Mourning/Duncan/etc., and there just aren't those kind of guys in the league anymore. Even the taller guys like Gobert just don't have the muscle or size to slow him down at all. Combine that with the increased risk of doubling him in a 4-out league (it's a lot riskier to cheat off of, say, Kevin Love than Horace Grant or AC Green), and 40 PPG on 70% shooting is not only in play, it's downright probable.

That said, once he lost that motor/speed around '02 or so, he'd have hard time contributing defensively and would be more of the (extremely) rich man's Enes Kanter; he'd make you extremely hard to defend, but you could get a lot of it back on the other end by exploiting him in the PnR.


1/2

 
At Wednesday, December 19, 2018 3:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

In general, of the 6 greatest centers ever (Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Moses, Hakeem, Shaq) I think five of them would have higher peaks today than in their era, with the lone exception being (barely) Russell. He'd benefit less (but still some) from the league's new climate on offense, and the increased reliance on perimeter shooting would mean he'd have less drives/post-ups to dismantle most nights. He'd be just as "good" skillset wise, teams just wouldn't be forced to challenge him as often, so his per-possession impact would be reduced (in my opinion). Mind you, he'd still be an every-year DPOY/All NBA guy and a massive asset, I'm just not sure he'd be quite as dominant as he was in his day with fewer opposing attempts taken in his area of influence and higher offensive efficiency reducing the opportunities for offensive rebounding (his own value as a FG% lowerer on D, I think, would cover for the increased efficacy of modern offenses in terms of rebounding opportunities).

On the flip side, for Curry, it's tougher for me to prognosticate. His driving game would suffer because of the increased physicality, but I'm not sure how much his driving game ultimately matters if he can still create those 30-footers. Assuming he had a coach that recognized what he could do (and didn't try to force him to play 80s-style ball), he could theoretically still create the same space on offense in a league even less prepared to deal with it. He also might be, paradoxically, a better defender in that era than he is today, with the ability to hand-check allowing him to make up somewhat for athletic disadvantages in some matchups.

I think Durant would be very *slightly* worse in earlier eras, as hand-checking would slow down a driving game built more on length-of-stride than fancy footwork, and with a more packed paint generally teams could probably more safely play up on him on the perimeter. He'd still be an All-NBA threat every season*, though.

*Though he might have to settle for 2nd team during the period of overlap between Bird's prime and Doc's.

 
At Wednesday, December 19, 2018 4:56:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

Should have mentioned in my last comment that I agree that Curry would be diminished pre-3. At best, he'd be a less flashy/more efficient Pistol Pete who tried a little harder on defense, but even in that rosiest of hypotheticals (I tend to think he'd be a little worse than that) he certainly wouldn't be a tippy top guy the way he is now.

 
At Friday, December 21, 2018 4:10:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Pt 1 of 2

Hook line and sinker Nick. :)

I think you make some fair points about young Shaq and his ability to be a force in today's NBA. I don’t disagree that Shaq would still be elite. I just don’t think he’d be as good. My 2 cents…I think you are falling victim to the same line of thinking you've been arguing about with David in this very thread. Sure, Shaq's sheer size would be an asset in any era. But, just because there aren't massive humans to guard him today (I’ll actually talk about this a little further down), doesn't automatically make him more dominant.

Let’s start with that list you made and provide a bit of context. Ewing was a shell of himself when Shaq ramped up into MVP mode. Same with Robinson. Mutumbo did get brutalized by Shaq in the finals and Mourning was simply too short and not long enough. But, I mean, there are plenty of guys in the Mourning/Mutumbo level in today’s NBA (not style or exact impact, just talent level/effectiveness).

You are correct about Duncan and Hakeem (and to a lesser extent Robinson). Both of them were huge problems for Shaq.

Today's centers are much more in line with Duncan and Hakeem than any of the behemoths of Shaq's heyday. Tall, highly skilled and disciplined, with few skillset weaknesses. Besides, it’s not like there were large humans that were successful at guarding Shaq (Sabonis was effective, but too old at that point in his career, and Ben Wallace had a lot of help). I mean, we went through nearly a decade of teams drafting giant 7-footers with very little of them having usable skills outside of being tall. All of them are on some Shaq poster somewhere if they ever saw the floor in an actual NBA game.

Today's 7-footers are a lot different. MVP-candidate Jokic, fringe MVP-candidates Embiid and AD, reigning Defensive Player of the year Gobert, former Defensive player of the year Gasol -- all are 7-feet tall and highly skilled. Gobert can Euro step. AD, when healthy, is at worst a top-3 player and at best the best player. Gasol is a 3 and D center that passes like a point guard. The Joker is a pure point Center that runs fast breaks for the West-leading Nuggets. Guys like Vucevic and Towns and even McGee and Valanciunas have transformed themselves. And there’s the OGs like Horford and Boogie. Also, while the league has trended “smaller” ideologically, there’s still plenty of big bodies across the league to give Shaq some resistance: Adams, Whiteside, Drummond, Boogie, Nurkic, Deandre Jordan, Capela, Sabonis, etc.

And then there’s whatever the good lawd almighty Giannis is.

 
At Friday, December 21, 2018 4:11:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Pt 2 of 2

Add to that how much more athletic the league is today (I know this is something David and I have argued about, but no one can convince me otherwise) and the ability to scheme with zone defenses – and it wouldn’t be the wide open, easy peasy free-for-all you’re projecting here.

Shaq was Shaq was Shaq across 18 seasons. We can say he could've done this or that, but Shaq was never interested/motivated to improve his skillset. He learned that hook shot with the Lakers, and he was still using that on the Celtics to diminishing returns. Drop step baseline. Spin back to the middle. Rinse and repeat. It was unstoppable because he was enormous. But, wouldn’t be as effective to team winning today. I will say that Shaq's passing would be highlighted in today's game in ways that he rarely got to show. But, while a plus for him, he was no Vucevic, let alone a Gasol/Jokic level passer.

I really disagree about him being uber efficient. First, the rebounding thing. Despite being the self-proclaimed MDE, Shaq never led the league in rebounding. Not once. Instead, he was beat out multiple years by a guy who was effectively 6-7 (Ben Wallace). Rebounding is all about effort and/or consistent and precise positioning. Effort takes energy. Which goes into the rest of my disagreement with you.

Yah, he’d shoot 65-70%, he may even average 35+ points per game. But that would be 20-25+ shots going to a post up player that pounded the ball (not like, Charles Barkley level pounding, but he wasn’t a DeAndre Jordan type scorer either). Shaq’s preferred style of play would grind possessions to a halt while the rest of the league has already bumped up the league average of possession per game by a dozen or more.

Young Shaq was uber athletic, nimble, skilled, and agile, but his lateral agility…was still that of a 7-1, 280 pound man. Today, he’d struggle to defend most centers, let alone stretch forwards masquerading as centers. Still, at his maximum effort level under the leadership of maybe 2-3 specific current coaches, young Shaq could be a C+ or B level defender in today’s NBA. MVP Shaq, maybe a C+ at best. But, if he’s putting max effort (not just showing on the pick and roll – something he never did as a Laker -- but either constantly switching, or running shooters off the 3-point line), no way Shaq has the stamina to average 35 a game. This is the guy who “healed” on company time and made it an annual pastime for Lakers fans to guess his actual weight coming into any new season.

And your assertion that 40 would be probable? I mean, possible yes, but then we’re back to my Harden comparison.

Again. Not saying he wouldn’t be a top 20 player in today’s game. But, to me, he’d be Harden as a Center. Put up insane numbers, but not actually have a huge correlation with actual winning, even if his team won 55 - 60 games.

 
At Friday, December 21, 2018 4:21:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick,

Just to clarify about my offhanded comment "you are falling into the same line of thinking as David." David is looking at KD as a basketball player and saying size + athleticism + skill = better player. That is true. But you and I believe Curry is "better" because he produces winning despite being smaller and less athletic.

Shaq would be bigger and more athletic than everyone else, but Shaq as Shaq wouldn't correlate to winning as much as it would to putting up insanely huge numbers.

 
At Friday, December 21, 2018 6:24:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I think our main points of disagreement here have to do with how easily he'd score, and whether or not his grinding the game to a halt would hurt his team. I think he'd be a mildly better defender than you do (motivated Shaq as deceptively quick in his prime, and there were a few seasons of motivated Shaq, if not as many as there should have been), but there I think we're disagreeing on the difference between a C+ and a B, or a B- and a B+.

I disagree that the crop of guys you listed could meaningfully defend him, and I think he'd have an easier time scoring on them than he did Robinson/Mourning/etc. Not because he didn't score on those guys (he did, as you pointed out) but because they could at least challenge him a bit physically/beat him a little in the process. Today's centers by and larger are faster and lighter, which is helpful in the modern NBA, but death against a Shaq-sized foe. Gobert may be the same height as Robinson but he's maybe half as physically strong, and Shaq could move him aside with almost no effort at all. Couple that with the more sensitive refereeing of today, and it's basically a choice between allowing a dunk or committing a foul. Out of everyone, Gasol might have the combination of size and skill to slow him ever so slightly, but there's nobody like Hakeem or Duncan* in the league today (which is not a knock; there's nobody like Hakeem who isn't Hakeem, and there's nobody like Duncan who isn't Duncan; both guys were unicorns in their own right), and I just don't think anyone has enough size and skill to challenge him the way they did.

*Duncan also generally needed quite a bit of help to contain Shaq in his prime, too.

He'd murder unskilled guys who rely entirely on athleticism like Whiteside alive, too. He'd have him fouled out by the eighteen minute mark.

You're right that he'd slow down his team's offense, but I think in his case (I feel the same about Wilt and Moses, too) that's actually a virtue. If every time down you're either getting a 70% shot attempt, an open three point look, or a free throws, I think your offensive efficiency will be fine. Meanwhile, it gives you time to set your defense/helps keep Shaq from getting gassed going up and down the court. Mind you, I still think second-half-of-his-career Shaq is sucking wind by halftime, but '93-'01 Shaq was a workhorse.

As for the rebounding, I just feel like most teams rebound by committee now and there's nobody left to really box out a Shaq-sized dude. I do agree that he underperformed as a rebounder, though, given his gifts.

I don't think anything you said is off-base or indefensible, I just disagree on the severity of most of it. Perhaps I'm being snowed by the sheer size of Shaq, but I think if smaller, thinner guys could stop him we would have seen it. Even Hakeem didn't so much stop him as "slow him down just enough to outperform him on the other end" and there's definitely nobody left that can cash that two-way check.

 
At Friday, December 21, 2018 6:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

More specifically addressing your final comment:

You might be right. I personally think playing Shaq-ball would be a big zig while the rest of the league was zagging, and would take most opponents out of what they want to do (and strongly correlate to winning as a result). I think, weirdly, that Shaq's size is more analogous to Curry's shooting than it is to Durant's size; it's a one-of-a-kind element that defies the basic rules and tenants of basketball, and forces opponents to abandon the stuff they spend all season honing/preaching/practicing.

I just don't see how a modern team can credibly defend him without giving up wide-open 3s. Assuming competency of supporting shooters (don't build a team around him that's full of Ben Simmons or MKG types), I think Shaq turns almost any modern team into a near-Warriors level efficiency machine, and I don't think whatever he gives up on defense even comes close to outweighing that (especially in the playoffs, when his give-a-damn is at its peak).

 
At Friday, December 21, 2018 8:02:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

I see what you mean about slowing the game down and forcing pace -- much the same way Memphis does (and has been successful with). It's a very good point. Though, Memphis and Gasol are grounded in defense as opposed to offense.

I'm not saying the crop of guys I listed could meaningfully guard him. Like you pointed out, even Duncan/Hakeem couldn't meaningfully guard him. I too think Gasol might have the best shot, but I'd take my chances with Adams and definitely Embiid (who is a giant of a man in his own right, and would give young Shaq a run for his money in terms of a physical specimen). You're right, Whiteside would get destroyed. Gobert would get physically manhandled. But Shaq did struggle (for Shaq) with length (Yao didn't stop him, but Shaq didn't completely dominate Yao when Yao reached his all-star level). Gobert's as long as they get. Also, Utah isn't just about Gobert. Coaching and other personnel make their defense work. Defenses are a lot more sophisticated, and with all the athletes on the floor at every position, there's a lot more happening then sticking Todd MacCullough on him and watching him go off for 35.

What I meant by Hakeem/Duncan isn't so much the centers -- but moreso Giannis, AD, Embiid, and Jokic. The first three are in that category, though certainly nowhere near as accomplished, and Jokic is just...a completely different beast entirely. GA, AD and JE are all two-way players that can't be stopped. Shaq himself crowned GA as the new superman.

I agree that Shaq's size is akin to Curry's shooting. A game-altering attribute each possess. Where they differ is that Curry's skill can translate to any team, while Shaq's skill would need a team tailor made for him. He'd need shooters that play defense all around, and a guy who could close out games. His freethrow shooting would make him nearly unplayable at the end of games, especially if he's only bringing C level defense.

In the end, I watched a lot of Shaq in my day as a Lakers fan. Perhaps I'm being too hard on him, as there were things he did that were hair-pulling frustrating. He also wasn't the best teammate and I always believed that he could have accomplished more. A lot more.

While he wasn't cheap like Harden (though, he did "throw them bows" which is cheap in a violently dangerous way), his attitude and approach to the game were things I viewed negatively. Even as he was hanging banners for us in Staples. But, as you've shown with salient points, Shaq would've been better than Harden as a center. How much better, well, let's just say he's the KD to Curry in my book. :P

 
At Friday, December 21, 2018 8:31:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Jordan-

I totally agree that Giannis et. al are special players, I just don't see them being able to slow Shaq down. Impact-wise, only Giannis of that bunch strikes me as a guy who could threaten the Pantheon, but it's early yet and I've been wrong before.

I will quibble slightly with your Yao example, as I think by the time Yao was peaking Shaq was on the decline.

I think your complaints about Shaq-the-Laker are all 100% fair and valid, but I think it's easy to forget how motivated he was in the first half of that era. At one point, he made Phil play him 48 minutes a night to try and match Wilt (though he begged off after a couple of weeks). The lazy D, the inconsistent work ethic, that stuff was all maddening... but it also was stuff that didn't really start to manifest until the tail end of his physical peak (2001-2002ish).

As for him needing a more tailored team than Curry, that may be fair... but I think the team you need to tailor around him is kinda the default team in the modern NBA: competent shooters and ideally guys who are switchy on D. I disagree that he'd need to be covered for on D to the extent that someone like Harden or Westbrook is, and I think if we're taking peak Shaq he'd be one of the five best defensive centers in the league, even in the modern era (though likely not #1 or #2). I also think his impact on the pace of the game would benefit his team's defense in much the way Curry's shooting benefits the offense, with the combination of his high efficiency, high foul-rate, and short range/offensive rebounding potential limiting opposing teams' ability to get out in transition, forcing them to either take the ball out from under the basket, or outfight Shaq for his own short rebound (part of today's transition boom is due to the extended range of 3-point rebounds, which would theoretically be less common on a Shaq-centric team).

I guess the difference for me is that even in the modern era I'm positive you could win a title with Shaq or Curry as your best guy without another MVP type dude on the roster. I am not yet convinced the same is true of Durant, though I'd stop shy of full-on ruling it out.

 

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