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Friday, June 15, 2018

The Sad Saga of The Ringer's Gleeful Takedown of Bryan Colangelo

The website The Ringer is not merely content to bury Bryan Colangelo's career (or at least the Philadelphia portion of it) but is also pouring dirt on the grave.

A few weeks ago, The Ringer broke the story that several anonymous Twitter accounts that could be linked to Colangelo had posted information critical of Sam Hinkie and of various 76er players. The 76ers hired an independent law firm to conduct an investigation and that investigation determined that Colangelo's wife had made the offensive posts. Although Colangelo denied any knowledge of his wife's activity and declared that he did not agree with what she had posted, the two-time NBA Executive of the Year who had rebuilt the 76ers into a contender in the wake of Hinkie's infamous and disastrous tanking "Process" resigned under pressure.

Now The Ringer has posted a second article that essentially states that everything good that happened for the 76ers last season was a result of Hinkie's brilliance, while any questionable decisions came from Colangelo. Specifically, The Ringer accused Colangelo of failing to resolve the "logjam" of big men on the roster and of choosing Markelle Fultz with the first pick in the 2017 draft over the alleged objections of various unnamed 76ers' staffers. The Ringer conveniently failed to note that the 76ers were a losing team every season under Hinkie and only became a contender after Colangelo remade the culture and the roster in the wake of Hinkie's departure. The Ringer also left out that Hinkie whiffed on the opportunity to draft Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner or Devin Booker in 2015 (Hinkie selected Jahlil Okafor) and that Hinkie chose Nerlens Noel in 2013 instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo or C.J. McCollum.

Thus, The Ringer left out the "minor" detail that the aforementioned "logjam" of Okafor and Noel was created by Hinkie's poor drafting and unwillingness to get rid of either big man. Colangelo inherited a mess and rapidly turned it into a playoff team, yet The Ringer proposes that Hinkie should get the credit.

Not only is that a bizarre take, but it is an odd thing to post right after Colangelo resigned.

Sirius XM NBA Radio's Frank Isola made some excellent points regarding Colangelo's situation. First, Isola noted that the burner Twitter accounts in question hardly had any subscribers and he joked that Colangelo's wife could have reached a larger audience by opening up a window and shouting than by posting to a feed that few people follow. Second, Isola pointed out that it is commonplace for NBA executives and other insiders to feed information to media members, who then disseminate that information to a large audience. Third, Isola stated that it is ironic that Colangelo was forced out because his wife leaked team information and now The Ringer is posting an anti-Colangelo story filled with information that could only have been leaked to The Ringer by team sources. "Where is the investigation of that?" Isola asked.

Isola's broadcast partner Brian Scalabrine added this observation: the Boston Celtics require each member of the personnel department to write out their preferences before each draft, so no one can later claim 20/20 hindsight regarding the team's selections. If people within the 76ers organization want to throw Colangelo under the bus, let them step up publicly and prove with written time-stamped notes that they did not support the Fultz selection.

Isola joked that apparently Hinkie is responsible for every good decision that the 76ers have made--even the ones that took place after his departure--and Isola said that The Ringer's piling on with Colangelo is starting to seem personal. Isola could not fathom what The Ringer's motive is but I have an idea. The Ringer is Bill Simmons' brainchild. Simmons (1) loves "stat gurus" like Hinkie and (2) is on the record stating that he could do a better job than most NBA executives. Taking down a respected executive like Colangelo while simultaneously rewriting Hinkie's career in a favorable fashion is right up Simmons' alley.

There is little doubt that Colangelo could have and should have handled the Twitter account situation better, but The Ringer's coverage of Colangelo reeks of personal animus, a hidden agenda and double standards (Isola called the hand-wringing about the tweets while ignoring the more widespread leaking of information "fake outrage"). Isola is right to call out The Ringer for its biased coverage of Colangelo and Hinkie.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:11 AM


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James is now 1-2 versus Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals, 0-1 versus Dirk Nowitzki, 1-2 versus Kevin Durant and 1-3 versus Stephen Curry. I will not put things as bluntly as Barkley did but he is right that there needs to be a moratorium on the Jordan-James comparisons. Sparky Anderson once said that he would not embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench; that line of thinking applies here.

The focus at this time should be on the Warriors. Few teams have won at least three titles in a four year span and each team is legendary (most of them won additional titles before and/or after capturing three titles during four years): Mikan's Lakers (1949-50, 52-54), Russell's Celtics (1957, 59-66, 68-69), the Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson Lakers (1980, 82, 85, 87-88), the Jordan-Pippen Bulls (1991-93, 96-98), the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers (2000-02).

Are the Warriors the greatest team of all-time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suspect that the great teams from previous eras would adjust quite well to the modern game, while some of the modern teams would struggle to adjust to the old school rules and style of play. That supposition is not meant to diminish the value of what the Warriors have accomplished. The Warriors are one of a handful of elite dynasties in pro basketball history. Whether or not they would fare well in head to head matchups against the dynasties listed above does not change the Warriors' well-earned place in pro basketball history.

Speaking of legacies and dynasties, what are we to make of Kevin Durant? He has now been the Finals MVP for back to back championship teams. He has twice outplayed James on the sport's biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM