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Thursday, December 20, 2018

Oklahoma City Thunder: Refuting False Narratives

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the second best record in the Western Conference (20-10, one game behind the 21-9 Denver Nuggets). There are over 50 games left to be played and many twists/turns that could happen but it seems like the Thunder are well on their way to refuting three false narratives:

1) Russell Westbrook is a bad teammate and is not capable of leading a team to a title.

2) Paul George would prefer to play with LeBron James than to play with Russell Westbrook (which is part of the larger false narrative that LeBron James is a great teammate, as George is merely the latest name on a growing list of prominent NBA players who do not want to play with James).

3) High percentage three point shooting is essential to being successful in the "modern analytically-driven" NBA.

Westbrook's statistical productivity is unprecedented, validating a prediction that I made four years ago when I compared Westbrook to Kobe Bryant: "One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook." Bryant won five championships while setting individual records that may never be broken, but his numerous critics always found some way to denigrate his accomplishments.

Westbrook has followed a similar journey, though he has yet to win a title. Westbrook became the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double in a season (league-leading 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg in 2016-17)--and then Westbrook surpassed Robertson by becoming the first player to post back to back triple double seasons (25.4 ppg, league-leading 10.3 apg, 10.1 rpg in 2017-18). Rule changes and style of play changes have made the game easier for perimeter players, but Westbrook is still the only player to accomplish these triple double feats and no one other than Robertson has come close to matching Westbrook's across the board three-way productivity. Yet, Westbrook is derided as an allegedly inefficient player who (1) players supposedly do not want to play with and (2) supposedly cannot lead a team to a title.

Until Westbrook set triple double standards that may never be matched, it was inconceivable (1) that someone would equal Robertson as a triple double performer and (2) that if someone equaled Robertson then that player would be considered as anything less than the game's best all-around player, as Robertson was viewed during most of his career. Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd did not match Robertson's prowess as a triple double specialist but they came close enough that during their respective primes they each were often described as the game's best all-around player.

However, once Westbrook began amassing a record number of triple doubles this feat suddenly became unimportant, which is among the most mystifying developments that I have seen during a lifetime of following the NBA and becoming educated about the sport's history.

Westbrook is averaging a triple double this season as well, scoring 20.6 ppg while leading the league in assists (10.4 apg) and averaging 10.7 rpg. He is also leading the league in steals with a career-high 2.7 spg. Westbrook has notched a triple double in eight of his 22 games this season and he recently passed Jason Kidd to move into third place on the NBA's career triple doubles list (112, trailing only Oscar Robertson's 181 and Magic Johnson's 138).

Westbrook had knee surgery just before the season began and the Thunder went 0-2 as he missed the first two games of the season. The Thunder then lost the first two games after Westbrook came back before winning five in a row. Westbrook missed the next six games and the Thunder feasted on weak competition, going 5-1 with wins against Cleveland, Phoenix (twice), New York and the underachieving Houston Rockets. The Thunder are 10-5 since Westbrook returned to action.

Westbrook's numbers are hard to criticize--which does not stop some people from trying--but Westbrook has been tagged with a variety of negative labels in terms of his mindset, personality and playing style, centering around the idea that he is a bad teammate who cannot lead a team to a title.

Paul George provided the best, loudest refutation to the contention that Westbrook is a bad teammate, while also shooting down the idea that everyone wants to play with LeBron James. George is from Los Angeles and it was widely presumed that when he became a free agent last summer he would return home to play with LeBron James. Instead, George did not even take a phone call from the Lakers before he committed to re-signing with the Thunder. George publicly stated that his connection with Westbrook played a major role in his decision.

The developing narrative that most media members tiptoe around--because they are deathly afraid of losing access to James--is that many NBA players, particularly stars, do not want to play with James. In other words, the very accusation that the media lobbed at Kobe Bryant--and now Russell Westbrook--without any basis is in fact true of James!

Meanwhile, George is arguably playing better than he ever has and is emerging as a fringe MVP candidate (I would not vote him MVP but if he continues to be the leading scorer on the first or second seed in the West then he will receive at least some consideration from the media voters). George is averaging career highs in scoring (25.5 ppg), rebounding (7.9 rpg) and assists (4.4 apg). When Victor Oladipo emerged as an All-Star in Indiana after struggling in Oklahoma City this was widely trumpeted as an indictment of Westbrook as a leader, but the reality is that Oladipo was an immature and out of shape young player who finally committed himself to excellence only after landing on his third team in five years. Some guys just take longer to mature. George, on the other hand, is an established All-Star whose game is reaching new heights while playing alongside Westbrook. That is a much more difficult and unusual accomplishment, yet the most that is said about Westbrook in this regard are backhanded compliments suggesting that George is thriving only because Westbrook is doing less, which is an odd thing to say about a player who is averaging a triple double for the third straight season. If any other player were accomplishing what Westbrook is doing while playing for one of the top teams in the West that player would be a landslide choice for MVP.

As for whether or not Westbrook can lead a team to a title, he has already been an All-NBA level performer on four Western Conference Finalists (2011-12, 2014, 2016) and one NBA Finalist (2012), which is a strong indicator that he could be the best player on a championship team; many teams make the Conference Finals once or twice, but few teams go there four times with a Finals appearance to boot. A star player's ability to lead a team to a title will almost inevitably be questioned unless/until he actually wins a title; even Michael Jordan could not avoid that criticism, as many commentators asserted that as long as Jordan was determined to win scoring titles his teams would not capture a championship. Kobe Bryant was an essential member of three championship teams and yet he still was doubted as a leader until he was the unquestioned best player on back to back championship teams (well, some "stat gurus" asserted that Pau Gasol was the best player on those teams but some statements are so foolish that they do not even deserve a reply).

Regarding the third false narrative listed above, Golden State's four straight NBA Finals appearances and three NBA titles have been misinterpreted in some quarters to mean that in order to win a championship a team must shoot a lot of three pointers while connecting on a high percentage of those long range shots. The reality is that efficient three point shooting is helpful but not essential in a title run. It is more important to be able to shut down opposing three point shooters than to be a great three point shooting team. This has been repeatedly proven by Team USA in FIBA play and it applies in the "modern NBA" (which increasingly resembles the FIBA game in many ways) as well. The Houston Rockets' record-setting three point shooting did not matter in game seven of the 2018 Western Conference Finals when they set a record by missing 27 straight three pointers. To win a championship, you have to be able to defend. The Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen led Chicago Bulls typically had a high-powered offense but during key moments of their six championship runs those teams were able to lock down and defend even when they were not shooting well. The classic example of that is game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals when the Bulls beat the Indiana Pacers 88-83 despite shooting just .382 from the field (Jordan shot 9-25 in that game, while Pippen shot 6-18); the Bulls played good defense and they did a great job of retrieving their misses, grabbing 22 offensive rebounds (Pippen led the way with six, while Jordan had five and Dennis Rodman had three).

The Thunder are a very poor three point shooting team but they nevertheless have the statistical profile of a team that can be a championship contender. The Thunder rank 30th in three point field goal percentage but they are fifth in defensive three point field goal percentage. The Thunder also rank first in offensive rebounding, steals and turnovers created, which means that they generate a lot of "extra" possessions. The Thunder rank just 18th in scoring but they are fifth in points allowed and they have a robust point differential of 6.8 ppg, fourth best in the league.

Point differential is one of the best indicators of future championship success; between 1990 and 2007, the average ranking of the NBA championship teams in point differential was 3.1, with eight of them ranking first, 15 of them ranking in the top five and 17 of them ranking in the top ten. Updating that research to include data from 2008-18, we find that the average ranking of NBA championship teams in point differential was 3.0, with four of those 11 champions ranking first, nine of them ranking in the top five and all 11 ranking eighth or better (the lowest ranked champion of the past 11 years is the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who upset the top-ranked Miami Heat).

Westbrook's supporting cast is much better than it has been for several years. In addition to George, Steven Adams is playing at an All-Star level, averaging 16.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 1.6 bpg while shooting .591 from the field. It is worth remembering that the Thunder acquired the draft pick that became Adams in the deal that shipped James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder's current Big Three of Westbrook, George and Adams have complementary skill sets, unlike the failed attempt to create a Big Three with Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony.

It will be an uphill struggle for any team to beat a healthy version of the Golden State Warriors in a seven game playoff series but the Thunder have assembled a nucleus that could make a run to the Western Conference Finals and at least compete with the Warriors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 PM


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Defining Impact on Winning and Evaluating Great One on One Scorers

Here are some recent NBA headlines: "Harden's 47 points lead Rockets over Jazz 102-97," "Harden has 2nd straight triple-double, Rockets top Grizzlies," "Harden's 50-point triple-double leads Rockets over Lakers," and "Harden scores 29 to lead Rockets past Blazers 111-104." Those headlines would lead one to believe that James Harden is the primary, if not only, reason that the Houston Rockets are enjoying a four game winning streak. There is no doubt that Harden has posted impressive individual numbers during these four games--but does that mean there is a connection between his numbers and the team's success?

I have often said that Harden is an updated version of Stephon Marbury, meaning that he puts up numbers that are not really impacting winning. I have been asked/challenged at times to explain or justify that assertion.

So, let's look at some other numbers from that winning streak, during which Houston beat Utah 102-97, Memphis 105-97, the L.A. Lakers 126-111 and the Portland Trail Blazers 111-104. Harden's plus/minus numbers from those games are -1, +3, +14 and -15 respectively. Thus, the Rockets outscored their opponents by 35 points but they only outscored them by one point while Harden was in the game.

Plus/minus numbers can be noisy for a variety of reasons but they are not completely meaningless, particularly when they are used in conjunction with the eye test. The eye test tells us that Harden is flashy, that Harden scores a lot, and that Harden holds onto the ball for most of the shot clock such that it is highly likely that if Houston scores while he is in the game he will either be making the shot or delivering the assist. The eye test also tells us that he is, at best, a lazy and indifferent defender, though his attention seems to pick up at least momentarily if someone posts him up.

Take away the offensive sizzle and the defensive fizzle and what do you have? Sound and fury signifying, if not nothing, then very little in regards to winning basketball.

Why are the Rockets winning now? Collectively, they are defending better. Their bench is playing much better and is killing the other team's bench on many nights. Also, at the end of the Lakers' game, Harden did take over by hitting several clutch shots. Not surprisingly, that is the one game out of this four game sample size during which his plus/minus numbers were significantly positive.

If you believe in basketball karma (or just karma in general), you also have to think that the way Harden is allowed to repeatedly commit fouls and violations on offense is going to come back to haunt him, as it has throughout his postseason career when he is awarded bogus calls much less frequently. His step back, step back move last night versus Utah--which in old school terminology is known more simply as a traveling violation--is just the latest, most egregious example of how Harden is permitted to blatantly break the rules. The media narrative is that he is a foul-drawing genius. Some people call him the greatest one on one player in the game today, if not all-time. I get sick to my stomach when I hear that.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had fundamentally complete skill sets in all areas of the court, plus supreme athleticism. Julius Erving did not have as great or consistent of a jump shot as those guys, but during his prime it was impossible to guard him one on one. George Gervin, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Bernard King and Mark Aguirre did not have the all-around games that Erving, Jordan and Bryant did, but as pure one on one scorers they take a back seat to no one. Don't forget Jerry West and Pete Maravich as well. George Gervin was smooth and efficient. Adrian Dantley was an undersized post up technician with deceptive quickness and power. Alex English was a poet and he was poetry in motion. Bernard King was a scientific and explosive scorer who repeatedly practiced certain shots from various areas of the floor and then made sure that those were the shots he took during games. Mark Aguirre could teach a master class on post up play and he could also beat you off the dribble. Jerry West and Pete Maravich could shoot (and connect) from anywhere on the court at any time.

To put Harden in that group is an insult to the way that those players developed their craft so that they could score within the rules. Harden's points count in the record books, much like the home runs hit by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and the other PED cheaters, but just like Bonds, McGwire and the others did not truly surpass Hank Aaron, Harden has not truly surpassed his great predecessors. James Harden is regularly permitted to (1) travel, (2) lock his arms into the defender's, flail and be awarded two free throws, (3) jump into a stationary defender while shooting a three pointer and be awarded free throws, and (4) bulldoze into the lane, commit an offensive foul but instead be awarded free throws. These things do not happen once in a while; they are a regular part of Harden's repertoire. I am not convinced that he could score much more than 20 ppg if he were officiated correctly.

Most conspiracy theories regarding the NBA are nonsense but one has to wonder if the NBA is for some reason invested in Harden's success and/or invested in promoting offense in general to the point that defense becomes an afterthought (at least until the playoffs, when some semblance of sanity returns). During the Lakers' game, the Lakers resorted to keeping their hands down or completely away from Harden so that they could not possibly be called for a foul. Of course, that just lets Harden shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich figured out several years ago that Harden must be defended with "high hands" (which makes a lot more sense than no hands, which the Lakers tried), because if a defender moves his hands anywhere near Harden then Harden is going to be awarded free throws.

If you are too young to remember Adrian Dantley, then find some old footage and watch how he drew fouls. He used impeccable footwork, fakes and body positioning. He made basketball moves to score and if he got fouled he earned it. He did not bulldoze opponents, he did not travel and he did not flail.

The way that James Harden plays is not great one on one offense and the way that the NBA officials let him get away with blatant fouls/violations makes Harden almost unwatchable for any basketball purist.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:21 PM