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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Durant's Choices Will Reveal His Real Priorities

The recent verbal confrontation between Golden State teammates Kevin Durant and Draymond Green--which resulted in a team-issued one game suspension of Green--brought some apparently long-simmering tensions to light. Tempers flared after Durant reacted harshly to a late-game turnover by Green, who was doing--as Shaquille O'Neal might call it on Shaqtin' a Fool--a "Tragic Bronson" imitation instead of passing the ball to Durant for a potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation in a tied game. Golden State lost in overtime to the L.A. Clippers, 121-116.

After Green's turnover, Durant angrily clapped his hands and barked at Green. According to multiple reports, Green told Durant to leave at the end of the season (Durant will be a free agent) because the team does not need him and can win without him. When the players returned to the court after a timeout, lip readers could discern Durant apparently saying that this (presumably referring to Green's behavior) is why he is going to leave. The war of words did not end on the court but spilled over into the locker room after the game, when Green allegedly called Durant a derogatory name multiple times.

It has been widely speculated that Durant is planning to leave Golden State after this season. The Warriors' front office and players have tried to act like this is not a major issue/distraction, but it obviously is a major issue/distraction. Green is surely not the only player on the team who is upset with Durant, even if Green is the only player who has been so publicly vocal about the situation.

If the reports of what Green said are accurate, it is ironic that the player who recruited Durant to Golden State after the Warriors' 2016 NBA Finals loss to Cleveland precisely because he told Durant that the team needed him is now asserting that the Warriors do not need Durant. The evidence on that score is mixed. The Warriors won the 2015 NBA title without Durant and then they won a record 73 regular season games in 2016 before being upset by the Cavaliers in the Finals. Clearly, the Warriors are a championship caliber team without Durant--but Durant's arrival took the team to another level, as they captured back to back titles while Durant won the Finals MVP in 2017 and 2018.

Durant's decision after this season will reveal a lot about his priorities. The narrative up to this point is that he left Oklahoma City either because he thought that he could not win a title with the Thunder or because he thought that he had a much better chance of winning a title with the Warriors. If winning is Durant's top priority, then it would be hard to justify leaving a historically great team that has advanced to the Finals for four straight years and has won three championships. Unless the Warriors completely fall apart this season, it would be hard to say with a straight face that leaving Golden State improves Durant's chances of adding to his ring collection.

Perhaps Durant is planning to help form a super team in L.A. with LeBron James. While it could be argued that a James-Durant duo surrounded by a competent supporting cast is at least as good of a team as the Warriors sans Durant, how would it add to Durant's legacy to jump from one super team to another? That would just reinforce the valid argument that Durant is a frontrunner who takes the easy way out as opposed to embracing competition.

The Durant-Green feud is not something that should just be brushed over. There are issues/problems with the Warriors internally and that could not only affect the Warriors this season but it could impact Durant's decision. That being said, at this point there is every reason to believe--based on the Warriors' body of work--that they will overcome these issues, win another championship and re-sign Durant. It would be an odd look if Durant sabotages this season to in some way justify leaving the Warriors, though some might suggest that LeBron James did just that--at least when he quit during the 2010 playoffs prior to the infamous "Decision."

The Warriors at their best play a beautiful brand of team basketball that is a joy to watch--but I would have much rather watched the Warriors battling the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder for several years than have watched Durant jump to a great team to make that team even greater. Similarly, I would much rather watch Durant face James as opposed to joining forces with him. The All-Star Game and Team USA provide us with opportunities to see rival superstars on the same team but during the regular season and the playoffs I would prefer to see them battle each other as opposed to all being on the same squad. I suspect that many if not most NBA fans feel the same way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:56 PM

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Thursday, November 15, 2018

"Pass First" LeBron James Passes Wilt Chamberlain on the Regular Season Career Scoring List

LeBron James scored 44 points in the L.A. Lakers' 126-117 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night and he moved past Wilt Chamberlain into fifth place on the pro basketball regular season career scoring list with 31,425 points. James now trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), Kobe Bryant (33,643) and Michael Jordan (32,292).

ESPN's Chauncey Billups commented about James being the only "pass first" player on the above list. What is remarkable is that the "pass first" myth persists even as James seems to be on course to become the sport's all-time leading scorer. We have covered this ground before but it is worth mentioning again: "Pass first" players do not score 61 points in a game, nor do they score over 30,000 points in a career.

LeBron James is a great scorer who also possesses high level passing skills--which is true, at least to some extent, of each of the other five players listed above. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the best passing centers of all-time and he averaged at least 5 apg three times. Karl Malone was purely an athlete who could dunk and rebound at the start of his career but he developed into a solid shooter and good passer. Kobe Bryant was the primary ballhandler/playmaker on five championship teams. Michael Jordan averaged 8.0 apg and rang up a string of triple doubles in 1988-89 when Coach Doug Collins shifted Jordan from shooting guard to point guard. Jordan remained a good playmaker the rest of his career, though Scottie Pippen was the primary playmaker as the Jordan-Pippen duo led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s. Chamberlain, who retired as the all-time leading scorer, led the league in assists in 1968, at a time when the leader was determined by total assists and not apg average.

Chamberlain, Jerry West, Nate Archibald, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the only players who have won at least one scoring title and at least one assist title. Only Archibald won both titles in the same season. None of those players is considered a "pass first" player, though Archibald became one in the latter part of his career after suffering an Achilles injury and then landing on a talented Boston team featuring Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

James won the 2008 scoring title and he has ranked in the top five in scoring 14 times, including four second place finishes and six third place finishes. James spent more than a decade as one of the league's top three scorers, yet he is still called a pass first player! James finished second in apg last season, the first time he ranked in the top five in that category; yes, James is a very good passer but his first option--rightfully so, considering his skill set--is to score.

It interesting to contrast James' statistics and reputation with Westbrook's statistics and reputation.Westbrook won the 2015 and 2017 scoring titles. He led the league in assists in 2018 and has ranked in the top four in that category in each of the past four seasons. Westbrook ranked 10th in rebounding in 2017 and 2018 while averaging a triple double in consecutive seasons, an unprecedented accomplishment. Westbrook led the league in playoff apg in 2016 and 2017 and he also ranked first in playoff ppg in 2017. Westbrook is clearly a great all-around player and, at least statistically, on par with James as a passer--yet Westbrook is routinely derided as a selfish gunner.

I am the first to state that assists are not the only way to rate playmaking ability and assists are not necessarily the most accurate statistic. I would also say that Westbrook's shot selection and offensive efficiency are inferior to James' shot selection and offensive efficiency.

However, after granting those stipulations and considering all other factors in their totality, it does not make sense to say that a player whose career averages are 27.2 ppg, 19.6 fga/g, 7.2 apg and 7.4 rpg is an all-around player who has a "pass first" mindset but a player whose career averages are 23.0 ppg, 18.4 fga/g, 8.2 apg and 6.6 rpg is a one-dimensional gunner. The James-Westbrook comparison is especially relevant because they have played in the same era under the same rules.

That said, some historical comparisons shed further light on this "pass first" business. James ranks 11th in pro basketball history in fga/g, just ahead of Kobe Bryant and trailing only Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Pete Maravich, Bob Pettit, Rick Barry, Jerry West, Dominique Wilkins and George Mikan.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a shoot first player, as James is. The best player on a team generally has an obligation and responsibility to score prolifically, because this helps his team not only by the points he directly creates but also by forcing the defense to trap him and therefore open up opportunities for players who cannot create their own shots.

James is a tremendous scorer who is also a skillful and winning passer. That is a great combination and there is no need to create false labels; praising James for his scoring takes nothing away from his passing or from any of his other skills--but artificially applying one ill-fitting label to James while also applying other ill-fitting labels to other players does not increase our understanding or appreciation of greatness but rather diminishes both while also being an affront to truth.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:09 PM

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Jimmy Butler's Minnesota Saga Ends and He is Granted a New Beginning in Philadelphia

The Minnesota Timberwolves have traded disgruntled four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and a 2022 second round pick. The general rule of thumb when evaluating an NBA trade is that the team that received the best individual player "won" the deal. That is probably true of this transaction but, as is often the case, the matter is not as simple as just comparing the talents of the players.

The reality is that Butler's very public demand to be traded as soon as possible put the Timberwolves in a very awkward position and robbed them of the leverage/options usually enjoyed by a team that is trying to trade an All-Star. Much has been said and written about Butler's conduct but we do not know what happened behind the scenes. It is easy to suggest that Butler could have handled this situation better and/or more privately but perhaps he attempted those techniques without achieving any results.

It is obvious that Butler concluded that Minnesota's two young centerpiece players Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are (1) overpaid and (2) lack championship mettle. Maybe Butler is right, maybe he is wrong, maybe it is too soon to tell--but Butler drew his conclusions and decided that he did not want to spend the rest of his career trying to win a championship with guys who he considers to be overrated and soft. The story/myth/legend that Butler, after being away from the team for a while, just showed up at practice, picked up four reserve players and led them to a scrimmage victory over Towns, Wiggins and the other non-Butler starters tells you all you need to know. While it should be mentioned that in a short practice game it is not necessarily unheard of for a group of lesser NBA players to beat a group of superior NBA players, the larger point is that everyone on the court must have understood that Butler's return was orchestrated to make a point. We learned from this that Butler does not respect Towns and Wiggins and--just as significantly--Towns and Wiggins do not particularly care. Someone in the Minnesota camp leaked the story about that scrimmage and no one in that camp has denied the basic story, which amounts to (1) Butler is a tough, alpha dog, (2) he dominates the other players on the team mentally and physically and (3) those players are unwilling/unable to be challenged to become better. Honestly, if I were Butler I would want out, too.

Now, for Minnesota that spotlight is squarely on Towns and Wiggins. They got all the money, they basically ran Butler out of town by being soft/disinterested and now it is put up or shut up time. Are you going to be a 50 win team moving forward and a threat in the Western Conference or are you going to rest on your (slim) laurels, count your money and validate Butler's lack of respect?

There is pressure on Butler as well. He has repeatedly said that he is all about winning. He has not gone any further in the playoffs during his career than youngsters Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons did last season when they led Philadelphia to the second round. Butler's true vindication is not so much about what Minnesota does or does not accomplish--it is possible that he is right about Towns and Wiggins now but that they develop later on the qualities that they lack now--but rather about whether or not Butler lifts Philadelphia to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. If the 76ers do not win at least 50 games and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, then Butler does not impact winning to the extent that he thinks he does.

I am not sure that we are going to witness a clear-cut verdict. Now that the drama surrounding Butler is over, Minnesota's locker room will be healthier and the team will improve upon its current record, but the Timberwolves will be hard-pressed to win as many games this season as they did last season with Butler in the fold. 

The 76ers were not as good last season as their record suggested, and their weaknesses were exposed by Boston during the playoffs. Butler adds shooting and defense but it will be interesting to see how his personality/attitude/intensity mesh with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, neither of whom seems to have Butler's motor. I think that Boston and Toronto are the two best teams in the East, even though Boston has been inconsistent thus far. On paper, Butler makes the 76ers a lot better than they were before but in practice I expect Boston and Toronto to still have the advantage. This deal may help the 76ers surpass the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, though.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 PM

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