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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Series Snapshots After Two Games

The game one winner of an NBA playoff series eventually wins the series nearly 80% of the time and teams that take a 2-0 lead win the series well over 90% of the time—so, for all of the cliched talk about a playoff series not beginning until the road team wins (or the venue shifts, as takes place in games three and four), the reality is that the die has likely been cast already in many of these series.

Let’s take a brief look at what has happened so far:

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee 2, Detroit 0

This series is over. The Pistons are outmatched and the only question is whether or not they can win a home game to avoid being swept.

Toronto 1, Orlando 1

Although the Magic took homecourt advantage by winning game one, this matchup still looks like one in which the Raptors’ superior talent will prevail even if that takes six or seven games. It is interesting, though, to wonder about what possible impact Kawhi Leonard’s “load management” has had on team chemistry/cohesion. The Raptors may still not be completely used to playing with him.

Boston 2, Indiana 0

The Celtics are going to win this series in no small part because they have Kyrie Irving and the Pacers do not. What I am wondering is whether or not the Pacers can successfully execute a late game inbounds play offensively or defensively. The end of game two was ridiculous. The Pacers played hard all game but lost because of inexcusable fundamental breakdowns of execution.

Philadelphia 1, Brooklyn 1

The 76ers will probably win this series based on talent but it must be said that the Nets do not look intimidated, nor are they quite as outmatched as I expected. Regardless of what happens, it is clear that the 76ers in no way resemble a championship team.

Western Conference

Golden State 1, L.A. Clippers 1

It would be shocking if the Clippers win this series but they are a shining example of the value of playing hard, not quitting, and building a winning culture as opposed to tanking to accumulate Lottery picks. The injury to DeMarcus Cousins is a devastating end to his comeback season. The Warriors have proven that they have enough talent to win a title without him but their margin for error has diminished significantly.

Denver 1, San Antonio 1

If the Spurs had held on to their game two lead, this series would be a wrap. Now, it’s a tossup, with Denver having the cushion of game seven at home if the Nuggets can take one in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich has done a tremendous job of preparing his roster throughout the season to be ready for the playoffs.

Portland 2, Oklahoma City 0

It seems like the Thunder do not have enough talent to win unless Russell Westbrook has a 25 or 30 point triple double. The Thunder need to run an offense that consistently generates shots they are able to make. There is not much value to drive and kick without having legit, deadeye shooters receiving those passes. It would also be helpful if the Thunder find an answer for their former backup center, Enes Kanter, who has been the X factor thus far.

Houston 2, Utah 0

The Rockets have dominated and deserve a lot of credit but the Jazz have been soft mentally and physically. The Jazz had been a strong defensive team but in this series they are using an anti-James Harden plan that makes no sense: you do not give an All-Star a “runway” to drive to the hoop. It is challenging to guard Harden the way that he is officiated but escorting him to the hoop is not the answer. Play him straight up, concede the 28 foot stepbacks and contest everything else without fouling. If the Jazz do that, this could still be a competitive series. Otherwise, it’s lights out.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:28 AM

62 comments

62 Comments:

At Thursday, April 18, 2019 8:58:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I disagree that OKC's primary problem is a talent debt; they have three of the best five players in the series and on paper/by conventional wisdom, they have the best two.

The problem is that Portland's two best players are shooting over 45% from the field (and over 40% from 3), scoring basically at will, while OKC's two best players are shooting 43% (PG) and 35% (RWB) from the field and even worse, 27% (PG) and 10% (RWB) from 3 on significant attempts.

Overall, OKC's stars have scored 91 points on 81 shots (with 21 FTAs) while Portland's have scored 116 on 88 shots (with 26 FTAs). Incidentally those 25 points are exactly the current margin in the series; the supporting casts have played thus far to a standstill. If you factor in possessions used, OKC's supporting cast is actually mildly outplaying Portland's, scoring the same number of points on fewer opportunities.

While obviously a 30 point triple double from RWB would be helpful, what would be more helpful would be for their stars to score at a league average efficiency or for their defense (RWB particularly has been awful but the team as a whole all have room for improvement) to have any impact whatsoever on slowing down Portland's guards.

It would also help if anyone on their team could make a three, but that has been a problem for them all season, so if I were Billy Donovan I would spend little energy hoping that changes and lots of energy trying to figure out how I can get my stars going and slow theirs down.

Homecourt will help, and I still expect OKC to rally and win the series given their talent advantage, but if things keep going the way they have RWB may live to regret telling Lillard he's been "bustin' that ass for years" earlier this season.

 
At Thursday, April 18, 2019 9:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

It’s not as simple as looking at the numbers you cite. A weak supporting cast requires less defensive attention than a strong one, which impacts how Westbrook and George are being defended. They don’t have much space to operate.

 
At Thursday, April 18, 2019 10:47:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

David:

I disagree that OKC has a weak supporting cast relative to Portland. Adams is a top 10 center. Dennis Schroeder is better than several starting PGs. Nerlens Noel and Markieff Morris are both valuable role players who have value on the offensive end (Morris as an iso scorer, both as a roll man). Jerami Grant's shot has abandoned him in this series but in the regular season he shot 50% overall and 39% from 3.

Meanwhile, the only above average offensive players on Portland's roster outside of Lillard and McCollum are Maurice Harkless (who doesn't space the floor), Kanter, and Seth Curry.

The story of this series is that the two stars in Portland are outperforming the two stars in OKC. OKC's supporting cast is scoring more efficiently than Portland's so I think it is dubious at best to suggest that they are attracting less defensive attention, and doubly so given that for most of the season OKC was the much better defensive team (and that Portland is currently missing its third-leading scorer and best defensive big).

This is especially the case when it comes to spacing; Portland's three non-star starters shoot 34%, 28%, and 25% from 3 (Grant and Ferguson were at 39% and 36% for the season, by contrast). Seth Curry is a deadly shooter off the bench but his presence usually means either Lillard or McCollum is sitting and he is the only non-Dame/CJ Blazer playing meaningful minutes who shot over 35% from deep for the season.

It comes down primarily to Lillard and McCollum so far badly outperforming George and Westbrook, which I suspect may change, and Portland having a more complex and effective offensive system, which I suspect will not, but it is not a question of superior offensive personnel.

 
At Thursday, April 18, 2019 12:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OKC definitely has more talent. It's not like Lillard has that many weapons around him. RW is playing terrible by his standards, and not even at an AS level so far. Lillard has been much better.

Obviously, OKC needs RW to play well, but the same can be said for every team's best or 2nd best player. You're likely not going to do well against another decent playoff opp if your #1 or #2 guy isn't performing well. Let's wait to see how the playoffs unfold, but RW clearly doesn't look like he can be a #1 guy who can carry a team.

LAC is not that good, but what an amazing comeback. And nice to see Beverley getting in KD's head. I'm sure GS will still win in 5, but it's nice to see them sweat. Cousins was only an insurance policy. Their margin of error is less now, but still much greater than any other team, and their talent level still dwarfs the next best team in the league.

 
At Thursday, April 18, 2019 3:07:00 PM, Anonymous OKC vs Blazers said...

David,

In this case, I would have to agree with Nick.

If OKC fail to defeat the Blazers, it will not be because of a lack of talent. Paul George and Russell Westbrook are arguably the best one-two punch in the NBA. Dennis Schroeder is a solid guard and was averaging 15 points per game throughout the season off the bench. Not to mention, Steven Adams who is an underrated center - if i'm not mistaken, you have made a similar claim yourself previously.

As Nick has pointed out, Blazers' two best players are outplaying OKC's two best players. Westbrook himself has come out and criticized his own performance during the first two games. I still expect OKC to win games 3 and 4, and to push the Blazers to seven games, but the point is that while it would be convenient to use the "lack of talent" claim, that narrative doesn't hold true this time.

 
At Thursday, April 18, 2019 11:46:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Maybe "lack of talent" is the wrong phrase in this case but I agree with David that OKC is deficient in the sort of shooters that can spread the floor or make open shots on the fly when passed the ball. It would be one thing if Westbrook is singularly shooting his team out of the game but not Paul George nor Schroeder nor anyone else on the roster has been able to knock down an open shot from three or much of anywhere else. Adams is a solid center and has been reliable through the sries so far but most of his offensive production comes from Westbrook passes or lobs in the paint.

Westbrook played well in Game 1 and he shot the best in that game out of any of the starters besides Steven Adams. He did not play well in Game 2 but distributed the ball well. If his teammates had managed to hit their open shots, he would have had around 16 or 17 assists and the game would have been closer. Westbrook has declined this season in terms of physicality and his jumpshot from even last year, so I am not sure if he can summon himself to produce the sort of numbers his team needs to win. But he does a carry a much larger load of responsibility than Lillard and or any other individual player on the Trail Blazers.

 
At Friday, April 19, 2019 2:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Keith-

Not a be-all, end-all stat by any means but for the record both Lillard and McCollum have higher usage rates so far this series than RWB.

I would agree that RWB has a somewhat higher playmaking load and a much higher rebounding load (though OKC's rebounding approach is worthy of a longer breakdown than I'm awake enough to make here). But fundamentally they have the same primary role: make their team's offense work, and try not to get killed on the other end.

Lillard is doing a better job on both fronts through two games, and by a wide margin. Lillard is not one of the best 15 defensive point guards in the league, heck he may not even be one of the best 25, and he has no significantly skilled rim protectors backing him up while he is single-covering RWB; if ever there was a time for Westbrook to plant his "I'm unstoppable" flag, it'd be this series. Instead, he's getting 19 points on 28.5 possessions per game. Credit to Lillard, he's playing the best D of his life, but he also didn't suddenly turn into Michael Cooper when the calendar rolled over to April. RWB isn't doing his part so far and he'd be the first to tell you so.

If RWB is indeed the best guard in the league as David sometimes claims, he should probably be able to dominate Damian Lillard on offense or at least put up some kind of fight against him on defense, and thus far he's been unable to do either.

Regarding shooting, only Portland's three guards are making anything at all from deep (rest of team: 4-17). This is hardly a 5-out system. It's rarely even a 3-out system. But Portland is getting off the shots they want basically at will, partly because RWB has turned back into RWB on defense (and partly because Lillard and McCollum are very good at getting open and creating havoc).

 
At Friday, April 19, 2019 10:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a good point that RW isn't going up against a strong defender usually in this series, and he's still struggling mightily. He really should be shredding POR. If he's OKC's star player and he can't make a shot, hard to expect anyone else on his team to. George isn't playing his best, but he's injured. However, he's still managing 27 and 9 on .432 shooting while playing solid defense. He's still at all-nba status. Unless you're GS, your best player(if we say that's RW) can't have a TS% of .454 and expect to win. At some point, the excuses for RW need to stop.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 12:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Westbrook had 24-10-10 on 8-17 field goal shooting in game one. He had a poor game by his standards in game two, readily admitted it (something that one of his former teammates who plays in Texas has trouble ever doing) and then bounced back to dominate game three.

Saying after two games that Westbrook was not playing at an AS level was (1) false and (2) premature in a seven game series.

Westbrook's averages in this series after three games are 23.7 ppg, 10.7 apg and 7.9 rpg. He is shooting .407 from the field but he was .487 in games one and three, with game two weighing down the overall number. Give Westbrook credit for not hesitating to shoot in game two. Many players preserve their FG% when their teams are relying on them to shoot (cough, LeBron).

I am far from convinced that OKC has better overall talent. In the first two games, OKC set postseason records for three point shooting futility, which puts a lot of pressure on Westbrook to be superhuman.

Westbrook was an All-NBA performer for four WCF teams and he has carried the Thunder to the playoffs even after Durant's departure so the evidence does not support your assertion that he could not lead a team to a title. Westbrook does not have a title contender-level supporting cast around him right now, nor has he had one for several years.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 12:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

OKC vs. Blazers:

You must be joking that Westbrook and George are the best duo in the NBA. Ever heard of Durant and Curry?

OKC set records for three point shooting futility in the first two games of the series. The defensive problems containing Lillard and McCollum are not the fault of one player and certainly not Westbrook's fault. NBA defense is a collective effort, not a one on one duel.

My contention about lack of talent, though, to be clear, pertains more to the last three years overall (when Westbrook averaged a triple double to carry his team to the playoffs each season) than to this series. These teams have comparable talent, but Portland owns homecourt advantage due to being more consistent during the regular season.

The lack of OKC talent during the past three years is illustrated by the huge disparity between OKC's record when Westbrook posts a triple double and when he does not. They perform like an elite level team when he is superhuman but they look like a lottery team when he is "merely" an All-Star. That argues heavily against the assertion that he is surrounded by great talent--and three regular seasons is a much larger sample size than just Westbrook's playoff games.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 12:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

You nailed it.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 12:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Westbrook has had two excellent games and one poor game. The series is still in progress. I refuse to use an incomplete series to issue a referendum on a player's overall greatness, so if the discussion is about that then we need to use all of the evidence, not just two games.

You suggested/implied that Westbrook's triple doubles tend to come against poor teams and that he does not do that against good teams. While traveling and not having access to my computer, I pulled up several games from this year on my phone that refuted that. Then, you shifted the discussion to field goal percentage, who played in those games, etc. Then, you threw in OKC's record in Westbrook's triple double playoff games--but none of those things pertain to our initial exchange, and my point is being lost in the mix.

My point is that we can see over a three year period that Westbrook has a subpar supporting cast because his team only looks great when he produces a triple double. When he does not do that, their record is very poor. A well-built, well-balanced team would not need 25-10-10 from him to win in the regular season. OKC is 110-28 in Westbrook's triple doubles (all-time regular season, not just the past three years).

That is a large enough sample size to draw conclusions about Westbrook's play (high level, arguably better than any other guard during that span) and his supporting cast (not so high level).

In the playoffs, even if Westbrook gets a triple double that may not be enough to win if PG disappears or the supporting cast cannot hit the broad side of a barn with a bass fiddle. That explains OKC's 5-4 record during his playoff triple doubles.

Do I agree with your previous contentions that Westbrook should shoot fewer three pointers and be more consistent on defense? Yes. I would add that he should cut down on his technical fouls and some of his histrionics. Nevertheless, he is as good an all-around player as any guard in the NBA. Curry shoots better but cannot touch Westbrook as a rebounder or playmaker. Neither is a great defender but Westbrook is better and his athleticism gives him a higher defensive ceiling than Curry has.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 12:54:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

"Westbrook does not have a title contender-level supporting cast around him right now, nor has he had one for several years."

What constitutes a contender-level cast? He has an All-NBA forward (likely to finish as a Top 5 MVP vote getter this year), a fringe AS caliber Center, two solid 3-and-D starters, arguably the best bench PG in the league, and several other good rotation players. OKC has the third highest payroll in the league, and are easily 8 men deep (9 when Roberson is healthy). Felton's not totally worthless, either.

Is his supporting cast any worse than Giannis'? Worse than Harden's? Sure, GSW has a better cast (plus at least two players who are better than RWB himself is), as does probably Toronto (though George is certainly better than Toronto's second best player, the Raptors are very deep), but against anyone else it's at worst a conversation.

"three regular seasons is a much larger sample size than just Westbrook's playoff games"

Speaking only for myself here, but I do not need to be convinced that Westbrook (or Harden) can elevate his team in the regular season. It's the playoffs where I'd like to see him earn his reputation.

Game 3 was an excellent start, and probably his best playoff game post-Durant, at least offensively (he's now being hidden on D the way the Suns used to hide Steve Nash, but since Portland only has two perimeter scorers, it's working). However, if I'm OKC, four things about it concern me:

1) I cannot expect to regularly shoot 15 more free throws than my opposition.

2) Nor can I expect to regularly outshoot them by 13% from deep.

3) It is not a good sign that I have had to completely abandon asking my star guard to guard either of the opposing team's starting guards.

4) It is an even worse sign that my other star player cannot make a jump shot to save his life, though it is encouraging to see him get to the line so much (but see #1).

I'm not sure what OKC can hope for other than "play better defense, keep hitting threes at an unsustainable rate, hope the whistles go our way," particularly once they get back to Portland. Prior to Game 3 I still expected OKC to win the series but given the way Game 3 went I am now actually less confident; I expected them to win more by shutting Portland down, less by dramatically outperforming their own 3pt and FTA norms, both of which strike me as likely to regress.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 1:06:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

"Nevertheless, he is as good an all-around player as any guard in the NBA."

He's not even the best guard in this series so far and has never won a playoff series as his team's best guy, so I'll respectfully disagree there.

"Curry shoots better but cannot touch Westbrook as a rebounder or playmaker."

I agree that RWB is a better rebounder. Who is the better playmaker depends on how narrow your definition of playmaking is. RWB generates more assists, but Curry generates more opportunities for his teammates, often drawing two defenders as an off-ball threat or extending the help beyond its breaking point by cutting 30 feet from the hoop. It is not coincidence that even when RWB had KD with him, Curry's last few teams were better offensively.

Also, saying Curry "shoots better" than Westbrook is as much of an understatement as saying something like "Embiid is taller than Isiah Thomas." Curry is the best volume three point shooter in history. Westbrook is the worst. The margin quite literally could not be any wider.

"Neither is a great defender but Westbrook is better"

I don't think I've ever disagreed with you more. Curry is a mildly above average defender. Westbrook is among the worst defensive point guards in the league to the extent that his coach is now treating him like Steve Nash and hiding him on non-shooting forwards. The commentators on this game were even discussing his complete ineffectiveness against Lillard, the fact that his coach had recognized it and stopped trying it, and how Schroder was doing a much better job.

The only "defensive" skill RWB is good at is rebounding but I consider that to be more of a loose-ball skill. Even allowing for his rebounding as "defense" I would much rather give up those four rebounds (2-3 of which other members of my team would likely get, as OKC pointedly tries to funnel boards to RWB to fuel their transition attack) rather than play 4-on-5 in transition all night and get cooked every time a play involves a screen or requires a second rotation.

"...and his athleticism gives him a higher defensive ceiling than Curry has."

This, I agree with, but he does not reach that ceiling (or at least reaches it super rarely) so it's a lot like pointing out how good Ben Simmons could be if he learned how to shoot three pointers.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 1:20:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Carrying over a point from the other thread (which you've also mentioned here):

"Westbrook has been a key member of four WCF teams (and one NBA Finalist). So, throughout his career he has often come up big against top teams. He has also had several triple doubles in wins against good teams in recent years. He may not have always shot well in those games, but he did enough as a scorer/rebounder/passer to lead his team to victory--and his team has a Lottery level record against the entire league in games during which he does not have a triple double."

At what point does he get to stop cashing chips on being the second best guy on a team that played well for five out of six years (they missed the playoffs the year he had to carry them)? I have never disputed that he is good enough to be the second best guy on a contending team; it's claims like "best guard in the league," "top five player," "should always be in the MVP race" that make me raise an eyebrow.

I am also not disputing that his teams play better in the regular season when he has a triple double; I'm disputing whether or not that matters any more than the fact that Harden's teams do better in the regular season when he scores 35 or whatever. Does it actually matter if it doesn't translate to the post season?

Four conference Finals in six years is impressive for sure. Rip Hamilton can make the same claim, but I don't think anyone would argue he was a Top 5 guy (he did get a ring, though). Or Tony Parker (he got a bunch of rings, even.).

There is a world of difference between "coming up big against top teams" as the second banana to a Top 5 player and doing it as that Top 5 player. I would like to see RWB accomplish something in the playoffs outside of Durant's shadow before anointing him as the best guard in a league where Steph Curry still plays.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 3:13:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Nick,

Up until Game 3 tonight, Portland having three reliable shooters from three-point range was still three more than OKC had but I agree Lillard has played Westbrook as well as he conceivably can in this series so far.

I would say however, Westbrook's main issue in the first two games was if his teammates can't hit their open shots, the whole Blazers team can just pack the paint defensively and take away Westbrook's operating area in the post and midrange. When his teammates' shots are falling and they spread the defense, he literally walked Lillard backwards into the post like a doll at one point and simply shot over him in the 4th quarter tonight. Westbrook is bigger and stronger than Lillard and though Lillard has been doing an excellent job harassing Westbrook's shot out on the perimeter, there is not much he can actually do defensively one-on-one against Westbrook if Westbrook has the room to post him up.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 10:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Keith-

I don't materially disagree with most of that, but I would add the following notes.

* If RWB needs to be able to play one-on-one to be effective as a scorer, that does not say anything all that good about him. Last night in the third quarter, fo instance, Lillard routinely attacked set defenses with 2-3 defenders and either got to the rim to finish or created space for (mostly successful) jumpers. Curry, Kyrie, and Harden are all likewise able to score against set/packed defenses. Westbrook has always done his best work in transition/semi-transition, but if he had a reliable half-court offensive weapon it would certainly make him more dangerous.

* I know exactly the post-up play you're referring to and I agree it was effective. However, RWB cannot--or at least has yet to-- reliably make that move or shot, even against smaller defenders; for the season, he shot 38.6% on post-up touches; last season, he shot 41%. Despite being a great passer generally, he is not a very good passer out of post-up situations (6% assist rate vs. 5% TO rate), so running those sets is in some ways very limiting for OKC. That being the case, I don't anticipate OKC going frequently to that well (or it continuing to pay off very efficiently if they do).

If he had a reliable post-up move or shot, he would be a much more efficient offensive player. He doesn't, though, and usually prefers to try to bulldoze his opponents from a face-up with his speed and size, something Portland has so far largely done a good job of denying him.

* I do not think RWB can reasonably expect the paint to stay that open; if the Warriors don't generally shoot over 50% from three, I certainly don't expect OKC to remain that efficient, particularly with their best 3pt shooter (George) struggling to hit his shots.

* As well as RWB played last night, part of that was him hitting his threes at a 66% rate (as opposed to his playoff career 30% rate). In general, he was hitting his jumpers at a high rate; when he does that, he's a much more dangerous player, but one of the knocks on him is that he can't ever seem to do it consistently.

All of the above is makes me skeptical both of OKC's chances to continue to succeed in this series and of RWB's claim as a bonafide A#1 best-in-the-world type guy.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 11:15:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I have a bit more time today, so let's see if we can dig up RWB's win-rate with Triple Doubles against good teams over the last three years. Good teams here will be defined as teams that finished with at least 50 wins that season and had their best 2 players available for the game.

RWB's overall regular season record with a triple double, last three years: 76-25 (.752, a 62-win pace)

2017:

BOS: 1-0
CLE: 1-1
HOU: 0-2
GSW: 0-1
SAS: 1-1

Total: 3-5 (.375, 31-win pace)

2018:

BOS: 0-2
CLE: 1-1 (worth noting Kevin Love got injured 3 minutes into the win but still technically counts by the rules above)
GSW: 2-2
HOU: 1-1
PHI: 2-0
TOR: 2-0

Total: 8-6 (.571, 47 win pace)

2019:

DEN: 0-4
HOU: 1-0 (he lost a triple double game to them with Paul out, but technically that doesn't count)
GSW: 0-1
MIL: 1-0
PHI: 1-1
POR: 4-0
TOR: 0-1
UTA: 4-0

Total: 11-7 (.611, 50 Win rate).

Add them all up, we get... 22-18 (.550, a 45-win pace) against 50+ win teams.

Against 55+ win teams: 7-11 (.389, 32-win pace).

Meanwhile, against everyone else: 54-7 (.885, 73-win pace).

So, while obviously his teams benefit from his triple doubles, as I hypothesized the win rate is much lower in those games than against the rest of the league. This gets particularly dramatic against the true cream of the crop teams, where it falls well below .500.

However, when he gets triple doubles against non-elite teams, his teams win at a 2016 GSW pace. Overall his triple double win percentage against sub-50 win teams is .335 higher than his win-rate against 50+ win teams, or 38 more wins over the course of a season.

I'd say my hypothesis held up. His win-rate with a triple double declines dramatically against top competition.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

*28 more wins over the course of a season. Bad typo, that.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 11:37:00 AM, Anonymous OKC vs Blazers said...

David,

You have to make things a bit more clear for the reader. First you say, in the original post, that OKC "lack the talent" to defeat the Blazers in this series, which I disagree with - let's not forget that the Blazers are without their big man Nurkic.

Then in your response to my comment, you wrote the following:

"My contention about lack of talent, though, to be clear, pertains more to the last three years overall (when Westbrook averaged a triple double to carry his team to the playoffs each season) than to this series. These teams have comparable talent, but Portland owns homecourt advantage due to being more consistent during the regular season."

I'm sure you can understand how your original comment of "lack of talent" pertaining to OKC's chances of defeating the Blazers is misleading when contrasted with what you have written above.

Let me know if that makes sense.


 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 2:50:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Nick,

I would disagree in heavily regards Harden being strong against set or packed defenses and somewhat disagree also in the case of Curry. Curry moves well without the ball and is good at back cutting but teams defending the Warriors always have to hedge between guarding the basket and keeping the three point line covered and Curry often has wide open paths to lay ups and often only meets defenders making desperation switches at the last moment.

Curry has struggled in the past when either his teammates go cold or a team successfully defends the Warriors on the three line and in the paint and that is part of why before Durant joined the Warriors, they had difficulties against teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder, and most famously the Cavaliers.

I would say separately though that I think that Irving is the best at scoring near the basket within packed defenses out of all the players mentioned.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 3:00:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

David,

Moving this discussion slightly away from a referendum on Westbrook, I've noticed in the Warriors - Clippers series that the Warriors have had a very hard time dealing with Montrezl Harrell in the paint. Even when Cousins was still available, Harrell has been eating them alive near the basket and he is not even 6'9. It would be interesting to see how the Warriors dynasty would have handled a player like Shaq or Olajuwon, let alone Kareem.

 
At Saturday, April 20, 2019 4:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Keith-

I agree with most of your analysis re; Curry, but I would argue that being surrounded by shooters has more to do with opportunity than aptitude. The only time I've seen him "struggle" (though his overall numbers were still great) against packed defense was in the 2016 playoffs when he was coming off of an injury and did not seem 100%. Otherwise the combination of his handles, his range, and his finishing ability usually empowers him to attack the rim even against a set defense with a pretty high conversion rate.

I do not like the way Harden plays but his stepback is packed-defense agnostic and his flopping is actually more effective the more opponents are near the rim.

I agree that Kyrie is very good against set defenses.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 1:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

We are talking about several different things in multiple threads.

This is what I wrote about the OKC-Portland series after two games, pertaining to Wesetbrook and his supporting cast:

"It seems like the Thunder do not have enough talent to win unless Russell Westbrook has a 25 or 30 point triple double."

That statement is a reflection of (1) OKC's phenomenal regular season record when Westbrook has a triple double and (2) OKC's 0-2 deficit after Westbrook had one very good game and one poor game. During the regular season, OKC looks like an elite team when Westbrook channels Oscar Robertson but looks like a Lottery team otherwise. That trend has continued in this series. Regardless of what one thinks of these two rosters on paper, the reality is that during the first two games OKC set playoff records for three point shooting futility and Paul George hardly looked like an All-NBA player. Westbrook's triple double regular season games account for a substantial number of OKC's wins, and it certainly seems like OKC is not capable of winning very much if he is not superhuman.

Contrast this with Houston. During game three versus Utah, Harden set playoff records for shooting futility and yet Utah--a better team than Portland--simply could not pull away because Harden's supporting cast is so good. The Rockets do not need for Harden to be great in order to be competitive in the playoffs. If Westbrook shoots the way that Harden did, the likelihood of OKC winning a playoff game--let alone a road playoff game versus a team like Utah--is very low.

Westbrook most assuredly does not have a championship level supporting cast around him. You can describe George, Adams and others with whatever adjectives you want but in the playoffs they do not comprise a championship level supporting cast.

Michael Jordan never won a playoff series as the number one guy until Pippen emerged as a HoF sidekick, Horace Grant emerged as an All-Star caliber power forward and other players emerged as well. Nevertheless, Jordan was already the best player in the league and was certainly capable of leading a team to a title prior to having the right supporting cast around him. Westbrook is not as good as Jordan (or Bryant, his predecessor as the best guard in the NBA) but he is the best all-around guard in the NBA and he is capable of leading a championship caliber team to a championship.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 2:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

The 2014-15 season really has nothing meaningful to do with this conversation but your indirect reference to it nicely illustrates the cherry picked examples and biased reasoning you are applying to Westbrook. You asserted above that OKC's failure to make the playoffs that season somehow proves that Westbrook cannot be the primary guy on an NBA championship team. That season, OKC tied for eighth in the West but missed the playoffs because of the tiebreaker. They went 40-27 with Westbrook and 5-10 without him. He led the league in scoring (28.1 ppg) while also averaging 8.6 apg, 7.3 rpg and 2.0 spg. Had Westbrook been fully healthy--or even just healthy enough to play one or two more games--the Thunder would almost certainly have made the playoffs despite Durant missing 55 games. That is rather impressive considering that the roster was built around Durant, not Westbrook.

Being the 1b to 1a on four WCF teams is a very significant accomplishment and it does suggest that such a player is capable of being 1a. Westbrook was not just along for the ride during those long playoff runs; he was quite often the best player on the court.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 2:09:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

David-

How would you define a "championship caliber supporting cast?"

Because I'm pretty sure Kobe, since you brought him up, won two titles with a significantly weaker supporting cast than RWB has right now.

I'll address some of your other comments in the morning when I'm a bit more lucid, but that seems the kinda crucial one: you think OKC doesn't have enough help around RWB, I think RWB has a lot of help and just flat out isn't good enough (at least not yet) to lead a team to contention as their best dude.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 2:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I am not sure exactly what "theory" you are trying to prove with the triple double statistics. You initially expressed skepticism that Westbrook has posted triple doubles in wins against quality teams, so I cited several examples that shot down that theory. Then you shifted your "theory" to include who played in the games, who was hurt, FG%, averaging a triple double for a season versus a team, etc.

All of this does little but obscure my primary point: the best illustration that Westbrook's supporting cast is not championship caliber can be found by looking at the team's record in his triple double games versus non-triple double games. The Thunder are highly dependent on him getting a triple double in order to win games.

It is obvious that he is going to have fewer triple doubles against 50 win teams, because there aren't that many 50 win teams. It is also obvious that OKC's winning percentage against those teams under any circumstance is going to be worse than their winning percentage against weaker teams.

The bottom line is that OKC struggles to beat anybody, good or bad, unless Westbrook channels Oscar Robertson. That has been true for several regular seasons and that weak supporting cast is why it is so hard for OKC to win in the playoffs as currently constructed. The Thunder do not have consistent outside shooting and their calling card defense is inconsistent as well.

None of this excuses Westbrook's poor game two performance but that one bad game does not change the fundamental truths about Westbrook and about his supporting cast.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 2:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

OKC vs. Blazers:

There are multiple threads going on here that are discussing multiple issues: Westbrook's ability to be the best player on a championship contender, OKC's dependence on Westbrook to win regular season games, what happened in the first two games (and then game three) of this series. Hopefully these bullet points will clarify my position about OKC's "talent":

1) Based on the first two games, OKC certainly looked like the less talented team. They struggled to make a shot outside of the paint and they struggled to play consistently good defense. Regardless of past accolades, regular season performance or anything else, Portland looked like the more talented team.

2) On paper, I would say that the teams have similar overall talent (at least with Nurkic out)--but OKC's talent is not performing up to par. It remains to be seen if game three is an outlier or not.

3) Over the past three regular seasons, OKC needed Westbrook to be superhuman in order to win games. That strongly suggests that his supporting cast is not very good.

For the past three years, Westbrook has averaged a triple double and carried suspect teams to the playoffs. It is not fair or accurate to assert that OKC's failure to advance against superior opponents is some kind of legitimate referendum on Westbrook's ability to lead a championship caliber team to a championship.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 2:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

The Warriors would have been in serious trouble if they had to face prime Shaq, Olajuwon or Kareem, assuming that in those series those guys would have had sufficient supporting casts. A team with a very good post up player can deter the Warriors' drives, stay home on three point shooters, control the tempo, draw fouls and force the Warriors to play more halfcourt and less full court. Maybe under current rules/rule enforcement the Warriors could stay competitive (but I have my doubts) but if you send the Warriors back to 2000 to face Shaq's Lakers, 1994-95 to face Olajuwon's Rockets or 1980-82-85 to face Kareem's Lakers the Warriors would lose more of those series than they would win.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 2:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Kobe was a greater player than Westbrook, so I would say that in general Kobe could probably win with a little bit less help. Kobe won his last two titles with some of the weaker supporting casts in recent championship history.

A championship supporting cast for a particular superstar depends on that superstar's skill set and also on which teams he has to face. In the 1970s and 1980s, a championship caliber team had to have an All-NBA center or a reasonable facsimile. That is not necessarily true now.

After the departures of Durant, Ibaka and Harden, the Thunder have not yet put the right pieces around Westbrook. The team needs more shooting, more consistent defense and probably more secondary playmaking so that everything does not fall apart when Westbrook is not in the game. This season's team is certainly better than last season's, which was better than the season before, but other teams in the West have also improved.

Paul George has a big reputation but if he is not hitting three pointers how much is he contributing? He is a very good defensive player but not good enough to impact the game beyond whoever he is guarding. He is not a great passer, nor does he dribble penetrate in a way that creates good shots off of the next pass after he passes. I like Adams' game a lot but he is OKC's third best player and that is not a good sign, particularly since OKC's bench is not great even with Schroder.

LeBron had championship supporting casts in his first run in Cleveland even without a secondary All-Star because those teams had 8-10 or more guys who could legitimately play. Shannon Brown could not even get on the court for those squads and he became a rotation player on Kobe's championship teams. Danny Green could not get on the court for the 2010 Cavs and he later became a rotation player for the Spurs. I know that those supporting casts were good, regardless of how much the pro-LeBron media trashes those teams that won 60-plus games in multiple seasons.

There is not one single recipe for a championship contending supporting cast but I am sure that OKC does not have one by any meaningful definition of such.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 3:49:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Couldn't sleep.

Regarding Utah, Houston, etc.

I do not agree that Utah is better than Portland. They split their season series, but Portland won the last two, as well as more games overall. Utah possesses only one competent scorer, and is not well-equipped to deal with playoff caliber defense (witness them putting up 101 points at home against the league's 17th ranked defense despite shooting 38 FTAs). So I reject that premise right out.

Also, while I hate the way Harden plays, he had a passable overall game. He got to the line enough to mitigate his bad shooting somewhat (ending up with 22 points on 20 shots, albeit with 16FTAs) and an uncharacteristic 6 steals.

Regarding "1Bs" and "1As":

I disagree pretty strongly that RWB was 1B rather 2 (there is a reason he was usually All-Second Team while Durant was usually All-First), and given that the team in question didn't actually win a title I don't see being the second best guy on it as a particularly wining argument that someone is qualified to be the best guy on a team that does.

It is probably true that for stretches RWB was the bestplayer on the court. That is how teams generally work. Sometimes Harden was the best guy on those teams. Sometimes Klay Thompson is the star of the Warriors. Etc. and so-forth.

During their time together, Durant scored 4 more playoff PPG on 46/33 shooting while RWB shot 42/30. Durant also outrebounded him and was the far better defender (though even Durant was more average than good at that point in his career).


Regarding Houston/OKC supporting casts:

Let's run it down, shall we?

2nd best: Paul George vs. CP3: at this point in their careers, George is clearly better. George is a 28ppg fringe MVP candidate who can guard four positions, Paul won't make the 3rd team and shot worse from everywhere despite a way lighter offensive load. Biggest gap on the list.

3rd: Capela vs. Adams: Capela's got a clear edge here, but it's a lot smaller than the George/Paul gap.

4th: Gordon vs. Grant: Gordon scores slightly more and can create his own shot but Grant shoots more efficiently, rebounds more, and is a dramatically better defender. I'd take Grant, but this one is close enough to call either way pending what you care about/what your team needs.

5th: Tucker vs. Ferguson: Similar players, but Tucker's a better defender and rebounds much better (though Ferguson shoots a bit better and isn't insane). Advantage Houston.

6th: Shroder vs. Rivers: Shroder nearly doubles all his stats on superior efficiency but equivalent minutes. Huge edge OKC.

7th: House vs. Morris: Apples and oranges, but Morris *should be better*... but he hasn't been able to figure it out in OKC. Call this one for Houston.

8th: Faried vs. Noel: Noel is Faried if he played better defense but didn't shoot that 1 3 per game. I'd take Noel but it's close enough to go either way.

9th: Gerald Green vs. Raymond Felton: Streaky one dimensional heater vs. caretaker point guard. Pretty standard 9th men. Nobody cares.

Not really seeing Houston's big advantage here. The two biggest gaps are George vs. Paul and Shroder vs. Rivers, both in OKC's favor. HOU wins Adams/Capela by a nose, and Tucker/Ferguson pretty cleanly, but everything else is a pretty close.

Now, you could argue that Harden's supporting cast fits their system better than some of OKC's guys fit theirs, but that's not the same thing. In terms of talent, OKC is at least competitive, and I'd argue has a clear edge.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 3:59:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Re this comment: "You initially expressed skepticism that Westbrook has posted triple doubles in wins against quality teams, so I cited several examples that shot down that theory. Then you shifted your "theory" to include who played in the games, who was hurt, FG%, averaging a triple double for a season versus a team, etc.

What I actually said was this: "my suspicion is that a significant percentage of RWB's triple doubles, particularly his wins, have come against bad teams as well." This was in response to you dismissing OKC's wins without him as coming against bad teams.

I was right. Of his Triple Double wins, less than 1/3 have come against good teams, while over 3/4s of his triple double losses come against good teams. You can try to pivot the argument to accusing me of bias (a classic) or nitpicking my methodology (feel free to offer an alternative) all you like, but my initial statement was correct and the evidence suggests that Russell Westbrook racks up most of his triple double wins against weaker teams (this should not be shocking), while his triple doubles both in the playoffs and against elite teams tend to be more smoke than fire.

Re: "Paul George has a big reputation but if he is not hitting three pointers how much is he contributing?"

Well, he's still leading the team in scoring while rebounding just as much as Westbrook, so that's a decent start. He's also leading the team in steals and racking up fouls on Portland's defenders (9FTAs per game so far), while playing solid defense and generally doing everything he can except make jumpers (which, admittedly, is a problem). Team is also getting murdered whenever he sits (+33.3 per 100 On/Offs so far) while the team has actually been winning their non-RWB minutes and losing with him (-15.4 per 100). The difference there in both cases is mostly defense; when RWB plays Portland scores at will (+26.9 per 100) while they score much worse when George is on the court than off it (-13, by far the best number among their starters). Given how much those two play together, that's especially dramatic, even with the small sample size caveat duly factored in. Both guys positively effect the offense so far, but it's better for George (+20) than RWB (+11).

As ever, defense matters, box scores aren't everything, and while I know you don't trust advanced stats, they sure think George is contributing.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 3:59:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Re: Championship supporting casts

"he team needs more shooting, more consistent defense and probably more secondary playmaking so that everything does not fall apart when Westbrook is not in the game."

RWB's team features four above average defenders in the starting lineup and two on the bench. He and Morris are the only sub-par defenders in the main 8-man rotation. His team ranked 4th in the league in defense this season. If he wants more than a Top 5 defense, he should start playing some.

His team's shooting has been bad in this series, but for the season his teammates shot .363 from deep (which would be 8th in the league). His chuckery from deep drags them down to 22nd, but that's hardly his teammates' fault. They were also 13th in makes.

As for secondary playmaking, they have Paul George (who's led multiple teams to the ECFs as their primary playmaker) and Dennis Shroeder (who ranks 4th among all bench players in the league in assists and 5th in points).

So, basically, his supporting cast is elite in two of the three things you claim it needs to be better at, and above average at the other one.

Things also did not "fall apart" when RWB was not in the game this season; they were -1 per 100 possessions without him. They suffered far worse without Adams (-3.6) or George (-8.3).

And again, specifically in these playoffs, things have not only been not "falling apart whenever Westbrook is not in the game," they've been winning those minutes handily (he has the second worst +- on the team at -7.3). He was +15 in Game 3 (yay), -27 in Game 2 (they lost by 20), and -10 in Game 1 (they lost by 5).

So... yeah. Supporting cast is doing fine. Non-RWB OKC players have outscored Non-Lillard Portland players by 7 points on one more attempt. They're also winning the assist and turnover battles. If RWB was winning his matchup, he'd be winning the series.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 4:27:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Further exploring the "OKC sucks without RWB" myth, let's look at how every team with a superior record did without their best guy:

West:
GSW: -2.9 per 100 without Curry (+13.2 with, net +16.1)
DEN: +1.9 per 100 without Jokic (+4.8 with, net +2.9)
POR: -6.6 per 100 without Lillard (+8 with, net +14.4)
HOU: +1.6 per 100 without Harden (+6.4 with, net +4.8)
UTA : +2.5 per 100 without Gobert (+7 with, net +4.5)
OKC: -1 per 100 without RWB (+5.1 with, net +6.1)

East:
MIL: +2.8 per 100 without Giannis (+12.5 with, net +9.7)
TOR: +3.2 per 100 without Kawhi (+8.6 with, net +5.4)
PHI: -2.4 per 100 without Embiid (+7.5 with, net +9.9)
BOS: +3.1 per 100 without Kyrie (+5.9 with, net +2.8)

So, OKC without RWB narrowly lost their minutes, but they played better than GSW without Curry, Portland without Lillard, or Philly without Embiid.

In terms of net difference between playing and not, RWB grades out not only third on his own team, but way less impactful than Lillard, Giannis, Embiid, or Curry (though to your point, slightly more impactful than Harden or Kawhi).

For fun, here's George's numbers: -8.3 per 100 without, +7.6 with, +15.9 net.

It wasn't that OKC fell apart without Westbrook. It's that they fell apart without George.

Let's see how interrelated that is.

OKC, both guys playing: 113.9 O-RTG, 104.8 D-RTG, +9.1 NET
OKC, RWB no George: 99.6 O-RTG, 106.6 D-RTG, -7 NET
OKC, George no RWB: 103 O-RTG, 97.1 D-RTG, +5.9 NET

So, unsurprisingly, they're better when both play. Equally unsurprisingly, the defense sucks when RWB plays without George and gets really good when George plays without RWB. Somewhat surprisingly, the offense is better with just George than with just RWB. OKC with just George is 12.9 points per 100 possessions better than OKC with just RWB for the season.

At any rate, there's no evidence that RWB has a sub-par supporting cast or that his team "falls apart without him" this season. In point of fact, the evidence suggests he has a very good one.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 10:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

We disagree substantially about which data is relevant and how to interpret the data.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Thinking more this morning on this comment: "Being the 1b to 1a on four WCF teams is a very significant accomplishment and it does suggest that such a player is capable of being 1a."

I don't think basketball history is on your side here. The only title-winning 1b I can think of who then became a title-winning 1a is Kobe, but as you noted, he's better than RWB. It is also worth noting that he was the 1b on a team what won 3 tiles (in mostly dominant fashion), made 4 Finals, and 5 consecutive WCFs, not merely a team that made 4 WCFs.

Beyond him, though, you're looking at who? John Havlicek maybe? It's not easy to argue that he was the clear 1A on those 70s teams, though he'd be my pick with a gun to my head. But Cowens won the MVP the year before they won the title. I guess he's the next best case but it's worth noting he needed another MVP and three other All-Stars (Cowens, White, Silas) to get his post-Russell rings. And again, here you're looking at a guy that was coming from a team that won 6 titles (with him), not a team that made a single Finals.

After that you're looking at guys who won the title while 1A was still around, mostly on stacked teams (Magic Johnson, Walt Frazier) featuring 3-4 other HoFers.

Maybe whoever you think is the best guy on the '79 Sonics or the '04 Pistons qualifies? But I think we'd both agree that's a different thing and RWB could probably win a title on a team where he was one of three or four guys with a legitimate claim to 1A.

I can't think of a single example of a guy who was the 2nd best guy on a contending team that never got over the hump, then became the best guy on a team that did without #1 still being around. Can you?

Putting aside even titles, can you name one who made it back to the Conference Finals after 1A left besides Kobe, Hondo, and Magic? Kawhi's the only one I can think of, but even that's a stacked team with 3-4 other HoF players on it and the greatest coach of all-time behind the wheel (though he could likely make an ECF this year), which seems a bit much to hope for.

There just isn't much precedent for that claim.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 12:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

"We disagree substantially about which data is relevant and how to interpret the data."

Ok, is there data we can agree is relevant, and work from that? There are really only two datapoints I don't find particularly compelling that you're presenting:

1) OKC wins at a high rate in the regular season when RWB has a triple double.

I don't find this super relevant because it does not translate either in the playoffs or in regular season matchups against elite teams. Beating up on bad teams is what you're supposed to do, and the ability to rack up numbers against them does not translate to playoff competence.

You like to point to them as evidence that his teammates are bad and they need him to be superhuman to win, but in his non-triple double games this season OKC still won at a 43 win pace (still a playoff pace). I suspect if you subtract most player's best 34 games from their teams performance, the team would be sub-.500 .

For instance, the Rockets are 26-8 this season when Harden has 25+ points on 40% or better 3pt shooting. Without that, they're at a 46-win pace and wouldn't make the playoffs. Is his supporting cast not good enough, either?

2) RWB was the second best guy on 4 WCFs in 6 years, so it stands to reason he can win at the highest level.

As indicated by my last post, I don't see much evidence or precedence for that in NBA history. The two guys it was true for (and one of them is arguable) were not only great offensive players but perennial All-Defensive selections who both won a lot of titles as #2 before becoming a #1, something RWB did not do.

The main data I have presented so far:

* RWB's poor playoff win-rate as the #1 guy, with or without a triple double.
* How RWB's regular season triple doubles do against top teams.
* OKC's ranking, according to their statistical performance, as a defense and as shooters.
* The On/Off performances of not just RWB and Paul George, but of other #1 type players.
* +/- data for the playoff series so far, suggesting the OKC is not being undone when RWB sits.
* On/Off data from the regular season proving that '19 OKC does fine when RWB sits.
* Comparisons between OKC and Portland's supporting cast in this series, showing that OKC's non-stars are performing about as well as Portland's, if not slightly better.

Most of that is not a question of interpretation, but reporting. I have tried to draw reasonable conclusions from that reporting, but it's not like I can change the numbers themselves.

We've both also made skillset-based comments about specific players (You saying RWB is a better defender than Curry, me saying Paul George is presently better than Chris Paul, etc.) but those are less about data and more about analysis.

I am not even saying definitely that RWB cannot be the best guy on a title team (though I'd certainly lean that way given available evidence). I am just saying that there is little evidence that he can (at least without shoring up his defense and/or shooting), and that it makes little sense to anoint him as the league's best guard until he proves himself relevant in the playoffs.

I am also entertaining the idea that his raw PTS/AST/TRB numbers overstate his value given his bad defense and poor efficiency.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 12:34:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

*still a playoff pace in the East, that should have read. I've been bad about typos/proofing in this thread. Apologies.

 
At Sunday, April 21, 2019 8:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm kinda baffled by the all excuses RW is afforded in here. He might finally win a series without KD(though down 1-2 currently), but this is his 4th year trying, and his casts haven't been that bad, especially these last 2 years. For the all criticisms George gets, he did lead multiple IND teams to the ECF and 1 win away from the Finals against stacked MIA teams. RW is getting outplayed by a rookie(Mitchell) last year and now Lillard this year so far, though series not over yet.

RW is a great player, but I don't see much evidence to suggest he can even remotely carry a team to a title. Not every #2 guy can, just the way it is. I still don't think his performance through 2 games was AS caliber. And it wasn't premature, because I was only commmenting on 2 games, even if it is a small sample size. However, 4 years(2015, 2017, 2018, 2019) as the #1 guy isn't a small sample size, and a 4-10 playoff record is awful. I guess we'll disagree on how good his casts are. I find them at worst, very comparable with Kobe's casts during his final 3 Finals appearances. Obviously, RW is nowhere near Kobe's level, but if you're claiming he's a legit perennial MVP candidate and can be the #1 guy on a title team, then his performances these past few years don't add up to those claims.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 12:18:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Weirdly terrible 48 hours for the last 3 MVPs:

Harden: 3-20 (2-6 from deep), 22/4/10, 6 steals, 1 block, 4 TOs, +4 (3 point win)
Curry: 3-14 (1-9 from deep), 12/10/7, 3 steals, 3 TOs, -2 (8 point win)
RWB: 5-21 (2-7 from deep) 14/9/7, 3 TOs, -17 (13 point loss)

Is that the worst game of the season for all three of them? What're the odds of THAT?!

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 12:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Fortunately for OKC, though, Westbrook has such a great supporting cast that even if he has a bad game the Thunder can still win, unlike Curry and Harden, who are basketball warriors who are singlehandedly taking on the world despite having vastly inferior supporting casts.

Yes, those were three bad games by the three most recent MVPs and that can happen (even Jordan had a bad playoff game now and then--like once every eight to 10 years), though Harden's bad games can be anticipated like clockwork (typically at least one per round), while Curry's are pretty rare and Westbrook's are perhaps more common than Curry's but less common (and less severe) than Harden's. The problem for OKC is that if Westbrook is not great, they are losing--period. If Westbrook is great, they might still lose versus good teams.

GS can survive bad Curry and Houston can survive bad Harden--Houston can even flat out bench Harden and make the WCF, though that coach then becomes a dead man walking.

Westbrook has hardly distinguished himself thus far during this series versus Portland but the overall story of his career is a lot more nuanced than just stating that he cannot be the best player on a championship team. That is not a point that I care to debate beyond what I have already stated; I may be wrong, but I am not persuaded by the evidence presented thus far, nor do I think that there is anything that I can say that will persuade those who disagree with me about Westbrook. I have taken strong positions about various players and teams over the years; usually, I have been vindicated ultimately, sometimes I have been partially right and I am sure that on occasion I have been wrong.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 12:54:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

David-

"Westbrook has hardly distinguished himself thus far during this series versus Portland but the overall story of his career is a lot more nuanced than just stating that he cannot be the best player on a championship team"

A few posts ago I said this: "I am not even saying definitely that RWB cannot be the best guy on a title team (though I'd certainly lean that way given available evidence). I am just saying that there is little evidence that he can (at least without shoring up his defense and/or shooting), and that it makes little sense to anoint him as the league's best guard until he proves himself relevant in the playoffs. "

I am not certain that he cannot be the best player on a title team, but I am doubtful he can until I see some evidence for it. There is not much of a precedent for an inefficient one-way guard being the best player on a title team; it has literally never happened (though of course RWB's rebounding is so rare for a guard that there are few if any straight apples to apples comparisons), and so far his results as a #1 option have been less than encouraging.

"Fortunately for OKC, though, Westbrook has such a great supporting cast that even if he has a bad game the Thunder can still win"

Eh, you joke, but his supporting cast once again won the minutes he sat. Any given case of that can be perhaps explained away but in this series it's becoming a bit of a trend (and the season-long numbers posit that it was not far from the case all year). It was true in last season's playoffs as well (though of course not the year before), so there may be a little fire under the smoke. Whether those numbers are because RWB is in some way hurting his team or because he's simply playing against teams with weaker bench lineups (or a combination of both) is difficult to say, but at any rate his most recent playoff losses have not been a product of the other team torching OKC when he sits.

If he had put up even Harden's numbers tonight (an extra 8 points, 3 assists, 6 steals, and 1 block with 5 fewer rebounds) his team would likely have won, although I think we both agree Harden had a very poor game as well.

I will also say that it would still not astonish me for OKC to come back and win the series though at this point I think Portland is clearly in the driver's seat; it is not hard to conceive of RWB/George having a few games where they outperform Lillard/McCollum and the story of the series so far is that whichever of those duos plays best, wins (with the rest OKC's supporting cast having a slight edge on Portland's). Outside of this series I believe RWB has been a better player than Lillard and George has been a much better player than McCollum.

George and Westbrook have yet to have concurrent good games, though, so it does seem unlikely they'll have three in a row.

Also, as an aside, I'm beginning to think the biggest difference in this series may be coaching. Billy Donovan's offensive play calling has been... less than inspiring, and his defensive adjustments have yielded little to not return.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 10:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's possible in a perfect scenario in an oddball year RW could be the best player on a title team, but so far he's 4-11 in the 1st round of the playoffs as a #1(though George has been better this year, which hurts RW's case even more). The only possible evidence that supports this claim is going back to him being #2 to KD, and that only resulted in 1 Finals appearance, which they both needed another future MVP to get them there, which isn't much evidence at all.

Harden/Curry/RW all had bad games by their standards, though Harden had the best bad game and came up clutch. LAC is a terrible playoff team. GS would beat them without KD/Curry.

If RW wins his matchup vs Lillard, OKC wins series, simple as that. Still time, but that doesn't look likely now. It's funny, we should be talking about Lillard here a lot more than RW in this series. RW is trying to trash talk Lillard and get in his head, and Lillard just ignores it all going about his business destroying RW on the court. It seems like RW is going to desperation, non-basketball methods to try to win now. I don't like it. He needs to focus on basketball.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 11:06:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Anonymous-

I was not on the George is better than RWB train prior to this series. I thought, and still somewhat think, that a lot of what George is able to do offensively is a product of the way defenses try to counter RWB but looking at the On/Offs and how they played without each other over the course of the season gives me pause, as does RWB's complete inability to contribute defensively in this series.

I would still probably take RWB with a gun to my head*, but I am much more on the fence about it than I was even a week ago after watching this series/diving into the numbers.

*Unless I already had a better player than either of them; I think George's ability to space the floor, get his numbers somewhat efficiently, and contribute defensively makes him more useful as a second banana than RWB's creation and rebounding makes him.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

My working theory is this:

Paul George *does* need a primary creator who can empower him to work off-ball in order to be his best self. He never had that in Indiana.

He does not necessarily need that creator to be Westbrook caliber guy.

This is pretty interesting: Paul George scores exactly 34.5 points per 100 with or without Westbrook... but he gets those points a lot more efficiently with him, shooting 45.4/40 as opposed to 40.4/35.5.

His numbers with Shroder are predictable in the upper-middle of that range: 34.7 on 43.4/38.8.

NBA Stats won't give me a way to see how he shoots without either, but I think it's safe to assume given the above the answer is poorly (his numbers with Felton, which likely represent the majority of those minutes, are dire).

So, I was right, initially, that RWB does empower George to be his best self. But he's still elite so long as he has somebody vaguely competent (Shroder) probing the defense and freeing him up to cut around the perimeter/attack rotations/etc.

This doesn't do much to answer the question of who's better*, but it does tell us that George is probably a little more reliant on supporting context to be his best self than Westbrook is. RWB is pretty much going to play the way he plays regardless of who else is on his team (not making a judgment here, merely an observation) while George is a much more effective player when paired with another creator.

*Realistically the answer to that probably comes down to how important perimeter defense and efficiency are to the person making the call; Geoge kills RWB on both those fronts, but RWB is an objectively superior rebounder and passer, and is less reliant on supporting context to perform offensively.

PS: I will add that there may be an equivalent type of player that would boos RWB, and he just hasn't played with them yet. But I do wonder how he'd perform alongside a truly dominant PnR scoring big ala Karl Malone or Amare Stoudemire, or even a dominant PnP big like Dirk or Aldridge. He's never been paired with that sort of player so we can't say for sure, but my suspicion is that it would goose his assist numbers and potentially help his efficiency some by giving him an easier path to the rim. Those player-types are rare (and Adams is, to be fair, an excellent pick-setter and good roll man in his own right... and RWB averages 2 more assists per 100 when Adams is on the court than off it, so I may be onto something here), but if I'm Sam Presti that's the kind of piece I'm probably most looking to add.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 4:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, a lot of what you said might be true but could also be detrimental to RW's case as OKC's #1 guy. If he can't play better with better players, I don't see that as helping his case much. Even if what you say is true that George is playing better with RW than without him, that still doesn't mean George hasn't been better this season between the 2 overall. Maybe in a different situation for the 2, RW performs better, but I don't think you can say that for this season.

I don't know if I buy into on/offs or +/- stuff much, and you never know what it exactly means, but George leads the NBA in real +/- this season. And everyone remotely in the MVP convo is in the top 11, except Leonard(#31) and RW(#39). Which isn't really surprising, as TOR has been better when Leonard doesn't play, and OKC has underachieved with RW running the show these past few years.

I still think you highly underrate RW's defense abilities, but he's certainly not an elite defender. George is much better defensively. And I have a hard time rating who's better offensively. I think they're fairly equal. OKC has performed much better when George plays though. George also led IND to within one win of the Finals in IND, which is much better than what RW is doing in OKC, despite having a pretty good recipe for a contender: another all-nba player(George), a solid #3 guy(Adams), and 5-6 decent role players. RW has not stepped up in the playoffs these past 2 seasons, and OKC is losing to inferior teams. I'm looking at this POR/OKC series, and RW might be only the 4th best player in the series so far.

George is shooting a decent amount worse in his 2 seasons in OKC compared to 2017 in IND. His overall numbers in 2018 were worse than in 2017. His scoring/rebounding has increased a decent amount in 2019. RW probably helps, but I'm not quite sure he really helps George to be his best self as much as you seem to imply. Regardless, both these guys look like top 10 players to me overall, and while their raw numbers are pretty good through 4 games, there's something missing with both. More needs to be done, OKC should be winning this series. POR is a decent team, but hardly a true contender.

 
At Monday, April 22, 2019 10:46:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...

The Thunder got to within 4 points, early in the 3rd, when instead of attacking the hoop, posting up, or attempting more inside shots, they continuously went for the home run with 3-pointers that kept bricking, and thus threw away their chance to win. Running a small-ball, pressure lineup out there with a few minutes left, to come back from 13 or 15 points down, was pointless, especially when OKC could have shot and played better just after halftime.

Over-reliance on the 3-ball, even in this day and age, is fool's gold. Defense, team rebounding / crashing the glass, consistent low-post and mid-range scoring, and aggressive drives are still winning strategies. OKC needs to get away from that 3-point home-run mentality (especially since they're not a great 3-point shooting team), and just focus on chipping away at the lead if they're down, and play fundamentally sound basketball.

Anonymous is right that Thunder wins if Westbrook just wins his matchup w/ Lillard, and that Westbrook needs to focus on basketball, not the extracurricular stuff. I'm amused that fans / pundits are now relying on the proverbial eye test to emphatically state that Lillard is better than Westbrook. To digress, Kobe Bryant passed the eye test a long time ago, in terms of his complete skill level and capacity to play through or do what was required in various game scenarios, yet the talking heads aka "haters" still dismissed Bryant to prop up Lebron James because of James's supposedly prolific stat-line. What's more important, winning / competing hard even if your shot doesn't always fall, or using your stats / being "efficient" to "control the narrative"?

Back to the current matchup, Lillard is a legit superstar guard, and definitely outplaying Westbrook so far. Based on OKC's general success when Westbrook goes triple-double mode, Westbrook is still the better all-around player, but he needs to match or outduel Lillard to get back in this series.

Parting note, no way that James Harden should have been rewarded 15 or however many free throws that he got, to compensate for him not making a single shot throughout most of the game.

 
At Tuesday, April 23, 2019 10:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tristan, RW is better all-around than Lillard, but better all-around doesn't mean actually 'better.' Lillard has a strong case for being better than RW during just this season, especially since POR outperformed OKC with a weaker cast perceivably to me. And now during their 1st round series, Lillard has clearly been better. This should be pretty obvious. Let's give Lillard his credit so far.

Agree about Kobe.

You're probably right about how OKC should play. But, I like to simplify things usually, which is why I said if RW wins his matchup with Lillard, OKC wins. And I still believe that. Everything else is just background.

It's not Harden's fault UTA kept fouling him. Most of the greats know how to the FT line. And Mitchell was 9-27, but had 17 FT attempts. Would you say a similar thing about him? UTA had 4 more FTs, and were called for 3 less fouls in game 3 than HOU. If you're implying HOU got the benefit of the whistle, you'd be wrong.

On a side note, what a great cast Harden had last night, scoring 61 points on 20-60 shooting. That might win you 2-3 games during an 82-game season. At times they're good, even great, but that swings from game to game, and they can look like the worst cast in the league at times, too.

 
At Tuesday, April 23, 2019 4:27:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I don't wanna get to into the weeds on this, but there is an interesting chicken/egg conversation to be had about who's actually better if the better guy is only better because of the other guy.

I tend to give a lot of credit to guys who bring the best out of their teammates, so maybe that's why I mostly fall on the RWB side of the fence. If you take George away, RWB is still pretty much the same guy. If you take RWB away, George gets worse.

That has some kind of value, at least.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 1:40:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Westbrook's supporting cast did fine. His teammates shot .655 in an elimination game (50% from three). They also won the three minutes he sat (albeit only by one point). Russ meanwhile shot .355, cementing his third straight season shooting under .400 in the playoffs (.360 this time, a career low). Can't blame this one on his teammates not making shots; they were nuclear hot.

In the fourth quarter, Westbrook shot 2-7 with two turnovers, and also couldn't stop CJ McCollum in crunch time when Portland couldn't get the ball to Lillard on two key very late possessions (he also got understandably taken by Kanter earlier in the quarter, but he did get a block on Collins as well). Overall, guys shot 3-4 against him in the fourth by my tally.

He also jogged back in transition on at least one crunch time possession, though that one ended in a Curry (I think) whiff for Portland so his team didn't pay for it. That time. There was others earlier in the game, naturally.

His floor game was excellent. It always is. He's the best rebounding guard in the league and one of the five or six best passers (with a possible case for #1). But his defense, poor shooting, and complete lack of self-control in crunch time doomed his team almost as much as Lillard's Jordan impression did (more on that in a second).

I've always killed Harden for not showing up when it counts the most, and it'd be disingenuous for me to not hold RWB to the same standard, even if I don't hate him the way I hate Harden.

RWB has four playoffs under 40%. He's only had one above .435 (his first, a six game loss in which he was guarded primarily by whatever was left of Derek Fisher at that point). He plays so poorly--and predictably-- in crunch time of these kind of games that it almost doesn't matter how great the other stuff he does is.

It's not just post-Durant either. He lost a pile of close games to Miami. Gave up a 3-1 lead to GSW. The lights get to bright for him. Here are his shooting performances in elimination games for his career:

2010: 7-20 (1-6) vs. LA
2011: 4-12 (0-0) vs. Memphis, 11-28 (0-3) vs. Dallas
2012: 4-20 (0-5) vs. Miami
2014: 9-21 (1-2) vs. Memphis, 10-16 (2-2) vs. Memphis, 8-23 (1-6) vs. San Antonio
2016: 7-21 (2-6) vs. Golden State
2017: 15-34 (5-18) vs. Houston
2018: 17-39 (5-9) vs. Utah, 18-43 (7-19) vs. Utah
2019: 11-31 (4-11) vs. Portland

Overall he's 4-7 in elimination games (1-3 post-Durant). He's 121-310 (.390) and 28-87 (.322) from deep.

In losses, 81-220 (.368) and 20-74 (.270) from three.

Until he proves he isn't, he's got to be considered a choker. Even Karl Malone was better than that (and Karl played defense).

I just don't think the best guard in the league can be a guy you can't count on when it matter. That's why it's not Harden. But it's also why it's not Westbrook.

1/2

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 2:00:00 AM, Anonymous CyberGlion said...

I think, historically, Westbrook does get more criticism than he merits but I've always had my doubts around building around him. He's getting more and more difficult to defend with his decision making.

I love the motor, the energy, and I think he's a pretty good leader, but the decision making just isn't there; I do not trust him at the end of games, I think he's better suited being a complimentary piece and letting someone else make those shots. Maybe I'm overreacting but I've seen this happen too many times throughout his career and at 31 next season with a game heavily reliant on athleticism it's hard to be optimistic about him.

This Lillard/Westbrook matchup (and subsequent ether) was on some Hakeem/Robinson level of ownage, I have to give Lillard the nod this year over Westbrook and that's something I've never really believed until now. He has his own issues but he arguably played better throughout the season and completely outplayed him in their match-up

Just my 2 cents

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 2:08:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum..

HOLY CRAP DAMIAN LILLARD!

That's what you want from a superstar. His team's only other creator gets three quick fouls in the first half, and he just casually uncorks 34 points to keep them afloat in the meantime. Sits for 3 minutes in the fourth and the other team turns a 2 point lead into an 8 point lead. Drills big shots when they count the most (and takes the crucial charge on Westbrook), then drills the mother of all hero shots over Paul George from basically half-court.

His teammates, meanwhile, go 28-63 (.444) and 3-17 from deep (.176) while also going just 60% from the line, but it still doesn't matter because he was just that freaking good (if you want to pick nits he did have as many TOs as Assists, but... come on).

That was some sports-movie stuff.

More big picture, he really showed me something on defense in this series (an area he's previously been... less than special at), taking on Westbrook for most of the series (though they tried to spell him there in the second half tonight) and even rising to the challenge against George on a few switches. Not the biggest guy, or the strongest, he just played the hardest and dove for every loose ball.

33 per game on .461 (.481 from deep). He won his matchup (scoring-wise) by 51 points; the series margin for Portland was +19. Put another way, he was +55 for the series; his team lost by 34 over the 41 minutes he sat (RWB was -43, so his team actually won his bench minutes by 22 over the course of the series). The rest of OKC outscored the rest of Portland by 32 points over the course of the series, and out shot them .467 to .442.

Curry's still the best guard in the league for my money, but damn did Damian Lillard just make a case for second.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 2:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Yeah, the lights are so "too bright" for Westbrook in elimination games that he had averaged 46 ppg on .431 field goal shooting (including 17-46, .370, from three point range) in his previous three elimination games prior to last night. The Thunder went 1-2 in those offensive explosions, because Westbrook does not have enough help.

He did not have a great series by his lofty standards versus Portland--and he still posted two triple doubles.

The Blazers pack the paint and dare Westbrook to shoot, which is a smart strategy considering the lack of help that he has and the fact that he is not a great jump shooter. Yes, his teammates can make shots here and there but not consistently when it counts. Westbrook is great enough to carry this roster to some success in the regular season but this is not a contending roster and that is the primary reason that the Thunder keep losing in the playoffs.

One can say that Westbrook should shoot less but who is then realistically going to shoot more? Guys who normally attempt a handful of shots per game are not suddenly going to shoot 15-20 times in a playoff game and if they do then the results will not be pretty.

I thought that OKC would win this series based on Nurkic being out and based on OKC dominating Portland in the regular season. The Blazers actually tried to lose to avoid this matchup because they did not want any part of the Thunder--but, as it happened, Lillard got extraordinarily hot and sustained that for five games.

As the best player, of course Westbrook shoulders a lot of responsibility for the outcome and he is always the first to admit when he does not play up to his standards. He plays hard and does not make excuses. As Barkley said, I'd take that guy on my team any day.

That is not the narrative that most people are going to run with, though, and that is fine. You can keep cherry picking stats to "prove" whatever you want to prove about Westbrook but I'm done with this particular conversation and I am moving on to the second round.

As for Lillard, I agree that Lillard had a very good series but up to this point he has not done much in his playoff career and all he has done so far this year is advance to the second round.

The final shot was clutch, to be sure, but--as Paul George noted after the game--it was also a bad shot. This is a make or miss league, as the cliche goes, but I agree with something that Jeff Van Gundy has said before: you don't judge a shot as good or bad based on whether or not it goes in, but on the inherent quality of the shot. That was a terrible shot, running the clock all the way down to shoot from more than 10 feet behind the three point line, but Lillard drained it and he's the hero. I am more impressed by his overall play in game five than by the last shot. If Westbrook took a shot like that, the internet would break under the weight of the tweets and comments blasting him for playing hero ball. Let's just be honest and admit that Lillard played hero ball. It worked but that does not make it smart basketball.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 3:05:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

David-

I don't disagree that it was a hero shot, but it's kinda hard to criticize those when they go in (as a Kobe fan, I'm sure you get that). I agree that it was not great shot selection-- though the announcers mentioned earlier in the game that it is a shot he practices and hits at a high rate in practice--although with momentum on Portland's side and both George and RWB with 5 fouls, my suspicion is that he was fine with risking OT rather than risking a turnover. Still, you're not wrong: if that doesn't go in, and they lose, he's the goat.

It did go in, though.

"Guys who normally attempt a handful of shots per game are not suddenly going to shoot 15-20 times in a playoff game and if they do then the results will not be pretty."

This argument had more water in previous seasons (well, two previous seasons; prior to that, the answer was "How about Kevin Durant?"), but given that Paul George was almost as hot as Lillard and shot 11 fewer shots than RWB, I'd probably go with him. He had a mixed bag of a fourth quarter in that he shot 2-3 and played solid defense, but he also had two TOs and bricked some free throws... but he'd been the guy for them all night.

George has 36 points on 16-20 shots in that game (one fewer than his regular season average). Westbrook took 31, and made 11. Even an even split of 25/26 there likely swings the game (especially considering how bad many of RWB's shots were, often early in the clock), even if George's efficiency suffers a little for it.

I also disagree that reporting all of his shooting numbers from his elimination games is "Cherry picking" when the point I'm making is specifically that he shoots poorly in elimination games.

You're done with this conversation, and that's fair enough. I feel I've made my case pretty cleanly here, so I'm happy to leave as-is for now (though I'll probably bring it up again the next time you proclaim RWB the best guard in the league, as I vehemently disagree).

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 9:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Again, we disagree about which data is important and also how to interpret the data. I think that 46 ppg in the previous three elimination games (plus a triple double in yesterday's elimination game) is hardly evidence of shrinking under the big lights, but you disagree.

I think that a player who has made seven All-NBA teams, plus averaged a triple double for three straight regular seasons, plus played a key role on four WCF teams, has to be ranked among the elite guards in the NBA during that time span, and I made a good case for that.

You disagree.

That's OK.

Nothing meaningful or new is likely to be added on that topic now, so the discussion shifts to the second round and subsequent rounds. I have posted one preview already, with more to come soon.

As for Lillard, I think that I have always ranked him higher than you have, though perhaps not as high as you are ranking him now. He is a potent, undersized scorer who also has some playmaking ability. I tend to be skeptical of ranking undersized guards (which I would defined as 6-1 and under) too highly because, historically, such players are rarely MVP level. Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas, Allen Iverson and Chris Paul are notable exceptions (apologies if I am missing someone who should be obvious but the above is not meant as a definitive list and is purely chronological off the top of my head). In this era where offense has been emphasized and defense de-emphasized, perhaps a player like Lillard can truly be an MVP level player.

In general, I prefer bigger guards who can impact the game in more ways than just scoring. Such guards tend to be more durable and more likely to be able to lead a team to higher levels.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 10:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Regarding Lillard I should clarify that I said he "made a case" for being the second-best guard in the league, not that he necessarily is.

I feel comfortable taking him over Harden or Westbrook as he's generated mostly comparable regular-season results with comparable or inferior help over the last few seasons, and now seems to have added a missing ingredient (defense) the other two still haven't figured out. At the very least I know he can be the best guy in a playoff series and carry his team when nobody else's shot is falling; that puts him in contention.

That said, It's Curry, then three or four guys all fighting for second. Lillard is one of those guys now, in my mind, but so too are Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and maybe Oladipo though we'll see if he's the same guy post-injury.

There's an also an interesting sub-category of guys who have the *skills* to be in that conversation, but so far haven't generated the results. Jrue Holiday for instance, is one of the best defensive guards in the league and 21/7 on 47% shooting this season; I'd want to take that skillset over Kyrie's normally, but ultimately Jrue's always floundered as the #1 guy and even as a #2 he's never made it past the second round. Probably not his fault given the circus around Davis this year, but it's also not a good look for a potential "second best guard in the league" applicant to miss the playoffs entirely when he's got another All-NBA talent on his team.

Kemba Walker and Mike Conley are in similar buckets where their skillsets speak to elite play, but their records don't.

So while at pure skillset level I might prefer some of those guys to RWB or Harden--both of whom I'll reiterate I think are superior regular season performers with higher theoretical ceilings--I think if I were to break it into tiers...

Tier 1: Curry
Tier 2: Irving, Thompson, Oladipo (pending health), Lillard
Tier 3: Westbrook, Harden (though they are better than the Tier 2 guys in the regular season and have higher postseason ceilings, I just don't trust them when it counts)
Tier 4: Holiday, Paul, Conley, Walker, Mitchell
Tier 5: Lowry, Simmons, DeRozan, Beal, etc.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Regarding the bad-ness of LIllard's shot, I saw some interesting data this morning that made me reconsider.

Last night, he was 4-6 from 30+ feet according to a tweet citing ESPN Stats and Info (three of those shots were 29 feet according to stats.nba.com).

For the series, he was 13-19 from 27+ feet (.684). 9-13 from 29+ (.692), and either 5-5 (1.000) or 6-8 (.750) from 30+ feet depending on if you trust the tweet or the NBA Stats site on whether three of those shots were from 29 feet or 30.

Maybe he was just hot, but to his credit he knew he was hot and it wasn't just one game; he'd made 66% of his deep bombs for five games running at that point.

I imagine his regular season numbers were probably a bit lower (stats.nba.com makes distance numbers a pain to look up, as you have to go to individual box scores to get them) but it looks like at least in the playoffs he's hit that Curry level where those are not bad shots for *him*, even if they might be for everyone else.

Kind of an interesting secret weapon if he can keep shooting even, like, 60% of that rate on them, and it'll really open up the floor for his teammates some if teams have to start guarding him out there like they do Curry.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 11:45:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

ESPN just weighed in. Apparently he was hitting those shots at 39% in the regular season, which is better than Paul George hit his regular three point attempts, so, to paraphrase Richard Pryor, PG might wanna have a coke and a smile and shut the bleep up.

http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/26593473/nope-damian-lillard-series-winner-bad-shot

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 12:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, your player rankings are still mind boggling overall. Who in the world is taking any of your tier 2 guys over Harden? I guarantee you no GM is. For all the denigration Harden gets in here, the players voted him MVP in 2015 and 2018, which isn't the real MVP. What motivation do they have for doing that if it's not what they actually believe? And who's taking them over RW, except maybe Lillard? Harden is better in the regular season than the playoffs, just like most guys are, but his playoff numbers have still been huge this past few years. Up 3-2 in the 2018 WCF vs juggernaut GS. HOU had no business winning that, and for him to lead them to that close of the Finals, and a likely Finals win. 1 game away from a likely title, but wasn't meant to be. He did more with what he had to work with that Curry did. Curry's great, but the only season he was the best player on his team that won a title was 2015, and he was a distant 3rd best player in the Finals that year, needing a bench player to outplay James in order for his team to win. That's quite a lot of help he needs, especially since his cast was by far the best cast that season and the past 5 seasons overall. The only guys on his guard tier list to lead their teams to a CF are Curry and Harden, and each have done it multiple times.

As far for RW, I'm in the middle somewhere between you/David. You bring up good points, but RW has had some big numbers at times. He's neither as good or as bad you both imply. He's clearly an elite guard. What I disagree with is anointing him the 'best' guard and saying he can lead a team to a title, especially after his team's record is only 4-12 in 3 1st round playoff losses despite some decent casts. He clearly shouldn't have those distinctions, and gotta look beyond the triple double stuff. He's had a better career than Lillard for sure, but I can't find a good argument to put him over Lillard for this season. He looks no better than the 4th best guard this season, which is still elite. Harden was clearly the best guard in the regular season, though I can see Curry having a case for better overall depending how the playoffs unfold. Curry probably 2nd, but RW/Lillard have good cases for 2nd best. Lillard definitely has leapfrogged RW after they dueled in the playoffs. Lillard could be #1 still.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 12:59:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Anonymous-

Harden is a great regular season player. He has a knack for crumbling in the playoffs.

Against GSW, he shot 41/24 and had almost as many turnovers as assists. He completely choked in Game 7 and was -13 in a 9 point loss. He was mediocre in Game 6 and awful in Game 5.

In the last three games of the biggest series of his career*, he shot 27-74 (.365) and 6-36 from 3 (.167). He also had 20 turnovers vs. 19 assists. He had a net +- of -24... exactly the margin his team lost those games by. That makes what Russ just did look pretty great by comparison.

It's not just that he lost. Everybody loses to Golden State, that's fine. It's that he played like crap in the three biggest games of the series (though Houston won Game 5 in spite of him).

*Or at least, biggest series as a starter, though he also choked against Miami in '12, where he shot .375 and .318 as the the third option and had 12 TOs vs. 18 assists.

His ceiling is as high as anybody's. But he can't get there when he needs to. Or at least he hasn't yet. If he knocks off Golden State this year--particularly if he plays well doing it and it isn't some weird thing where he's -15 and they win anyway-- he'll knock that monkey at least partially off his back, but for now he's just as much in the "you're not that good till you prove it in the playoffs" camp as RWB.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 1:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Let's do Harden the same courtesy we did RWB, and see how he's shot in elimination games for his career:

2010: 1-3 (0-1) vs. LAL
2011: 6-10 (4-8) vs. MEM, 7-11 (1-5) vs. DAL
2012: 5-11 (3-8) vs. MIA
2013: 4-12 (0-4), 10-16 (7-9), & 7-22 (4-10) vs. OKC
2014: 5-15 (1-7) & 9-15 (4-6) vs. POR
2015: 9-20 (1-8), 5-20 (2-6), & 7-20 (2-7) vs. LAC, 13-22 (7-11) & 2-11 (0-3) vs. GSW
2016: 12-23 (3-7) vs. GSW
2017: 2-11 (2-9) vs. SAS
2018: 12-29 (2-13) vs. GSW

Total, that's 116-271 (.428) and 43-121(.355). Not actually as bad as I was expecting, but not good either (below league average from 2 and exactly league average from 3, making it still sub-replacement level overall), and well below what you want from your "hyper-efficient" league MVP. Still, while bad, they're not terrible especially with the FTs he gets by flopping his way to the line. Let's check his Assists and Turnovers, though...

2010: 2A 0T vs. LAL
2011: 3A 1T vs. MEM, 6A 2T vs. DAL
2012: 5A 3T vs. MIA
2013: 3A 10T, 3A 1T, & 7A 4T vs. OKC
2014: 6A 4T vs. POR
2015: 10A 5T, 3A 1T, & 8A 7T vs. LAC, 5A 3T & 5A 12T vs. GSW
2016: 6A 7T vs. GSW
2017: 7A 6T vs. SAS
2018: 9A 9T & 6A 5T

Oh... Oh my.

Total: 98A vs. 80TO. 5.8 APG, 4.7 TO. That's not what you want at all.

So, while his elimination game stats aren't as bad as RWB's... they're also not what you'd expect from a "best guard in the league" candidate. They're more in line with an underperforming second star.

Which is what Harden basically is, once the playoffs roll around.

 
At Wednesday, April 24, 2019 5:40:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Paul George had one of his best career playoff games I've ever seen in Game 5, outside of some silly fouls and turnovers. That seems like the level he should consistently be able to play at considering his size and shooting stroke. Westbrook and George played well intermittently during the series but they didn't seem to be able to do so at the same time and deliver a body blow to the Blazers.

 

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