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Saturday, July 07, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:43 AM


Monday, July 02, 2018

LeBron James Spurns Cavaliers to Sign With Lakers

LeBron James may indeed keep his promise to finish his career in Cleveland but if that is the case he will be taking at least a three year detour to the West Coast; James ended months of speculation by signing a three year deal (with a player option for a fourth year) with the L.A. Lakers. The Lakers had long been considered one of James' top prospective destinations--if not the top one--so the move itself is not surprising but what is a bit surprising is that James made a commitment of at least three years, the kind of commitment that he refused to make during his second tenure with the Cavaliers.

By refusing to ever fully commit to the Cavaliers, James limited the franchise's ability to build the best possible roster around him. Despite that, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert assembled the highest paid team in NBA history, so James can never honestly say that the Cavaliers franchise failed him in any way, nor can James blame the franchise for not surrounding him with enough talent to win championships; Gilbert gave James the coach, the players and the support staff that James wanted.

James kept his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland and he led the Cavaliers to four straight NBA Finals appearances--but the way that James conducted his business hindered the Cavaliers from possibly being even more successful (no star was going to sign with Cleveland unless James fully committed, and indeed Kyrie Irving wanted out in no small part because he sensed that James would leave). James' second run in Cleveland was successful overall but it could have been more successful and it also could have been done in a way that did not relegate the Cavaliers to luxury tax purgatory for an extended time with little roster flexibility.

No reasonable person questions James' right to choose where to work after he became a free agent but it would have been nice to see James commit to his home town, finish his career in Cleveland and truly partner with the franchise to help the Cavaliers be a contender for the next several years as opposed to running to what James presumes to be greener and/or glitzier pastures.

Focusing on the future, are the Lakers contenders now? The Lakers went 35-57 last year. Historically, an MVP caliber player is typically worth at least 20 regular season victories, so it is reasonable to expect the Lakers to win at least 55 games next season. In most seasons, a 55 win team would be considered to be at least a borderline championship contender but that is not necessarily the reality in today's NBA. The Golden State Warriors have just won three titles in four years--each title coming at the expense of James' Cavaliers--and the Lakers are not better than the Warriors, nor is it likely that the Lakers can realistically do anything in the short term to seriously challenge the Warriors. The Lakers are also not better than the Houston Rockets. It is questionable whether the Lakers are better than the Utah Jazz. If the Spurs keep Kawhi Leonard and Leonard is healthy, the Lakers are probably not better than the San Antonio Spurs. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a flawed team that lacks depth but before Andre Roberson went down with an injury last season their starting lineup was one of the most effective in the league and the Thunder would at least be competitive with the Lakers as the Lakers are currently constituted. The Lakers may be better than every team in the Eastern Conference except the Boston Celtics.

The reality is that--despite the current media propensity of first takes and hot takes and all kinds of other "takes" that lack perspective, context or any kind of informed viewpoint--it is not possible to accurately assess the Lakers' chances until (1) we know what the rosters of the other teams will look like on opening day and (2) we know what the Lakers roster will look like. It is an understatement to say that LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas did not mesh well during their brief time together in Cleveland last season, so Thomas--who the Cavaliers dealt to the Lakers just a few months ago--will almost certainly leave L.A. The rest of the Lakers' roster consists mainly of young players who have yet to establish themselves as consistent regular season performers, much less as proven playoff performers. The Lakers ranked second in rebounding, seventh in assists and 11th in scoring last season but they were just 25th in points allowed, though they did finish a solid 10th in defensive field goal percentage.

Right now, assuming that Thomas leaves the Lakers have no other recent All-Stars--or stars of any kind, for that matter--to pair with James. Considering that James went to ready-made teams with at least two All-Stars during both of his previous free agency decisions, it makes sense to speculate that James knows or is reasonably certain that at least one other top level player is about to join him in L.A. Such a move would obviously improve the Lakers' prospects this season.

Even if that scenario does not pan out, James' willingness to commit for three years will enable the Lakers to patiently assemble a complementary roster around him, a luxury that James never provided to the home town team that he supposedly loves so much.

One other factor to consider is Father Time. The cliche states, "Father Time is undefeated" and--even though the 33 year old, 15 season veteran James had arguably his finest individual campaign last year--James will not forever be immune to the effects of Father Time. Even the greatest players tend to slow down--sometimes fairly immediately and drastically--after the age of 33 and/or past their 15th season. James' longer than usual contract give the Lakers time to build a team around him but if that process takes two or three years what kind of player will James be by that time?

The breathless question that will be debated non-stop for not just the next three or four years but for decades is, "How does this affect LeBron James' legacy?" Shaquille O'Neal, repeating something that was said to him during the latter stages of his career, recently noted that James' book is already written for the most part; James can add some pages but it is unlikely that he can rewrite the main story. That story is that James is one of the greatest players ever, a premier scorer who is also a gifted passer and a versatile defender (when so inclined). James has won three championships but he has also lost in the NBA Finals six times and he has demonstrably quit in more than one playoff series. The highs have been tremendous but the lows are significant enough that I could never rank James ahead of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, his two most recent predecessors as the best wing player in the game. If James leads the Lakers to a championship that would be impressive, but it would still leave him one ring behind Bryant and two rings behind Jordan--and those players do not have some of the skill set and mentality drawbacks/deficiencies that James has shown during his career.

One thing that is almost certain is that James' personal streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances will not be extended to nine. If James never leads the Lakers to the NBA Finals, some of his critics may bring up the point that James spent most of his career feasting on a relatively weak Eastern Conference and that he may have had much less team success had he played in the West for most of his career. James can shoot down that theory to some extent by leading the Lakers to the NBA Finals at some point during his tenure in L.A. but even if he does not do so his supporters could argue that he did not arrive out West until he was past his prime.

This next--and likely final--chapter of James' NBA career will no doubt be fascinating to watch. I have often said that James perplexes me in ways that no other great player ever has and that will probably continue to be the case as he adds the final words to his storybook rise from high school phenom to all-time great.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM