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Monday, April 29, 2019

Traveling, Flopping, and Whining: Why it is Painful to Watch the Houston Rockets

The good news is that in two weeks or less, we will not have to see the Houston Rockets traveling, flopping and whining again until next fall. The bad news is that we are going to see a lot of the Houston Rockets traveling, flopping and whining for another three to six more games.

This season, James Harden set scoring records made a mockery of the NBA rulebook and all of those foul chickens are coming home to roost in what should be a great series--Golden State versus Houston for the right to advance to the Western Conference Finals--but is instead devolving into bizarre commentary, not to mention incessant complaining, about the officiating.

In game one, Golden State beat Houston 104-100. It was a typical Golden State-Houston playoff game: Kevin Durant was by far the best player on the court, James Harden scored 35 points despite shooting terribly from the field (9-28) and the Rockets fired a large number of three pointers without much success (14-47, .298). Get used to those things, because it is going to be rinse, wash and repeat for the next several games, with perhaps a couple Houston wins thrown into the mix if/when the Rockets get hot from three point range.

We were "treated" to Harden repeatedly traveling, flopping and whining. He also committed several offensive fouls, most of which were not called. His teammate Chris Paul did not travel to the best of my knowledge but he more than made up for that with his flopping, whining and (mostly uncalled) fouling.

Let's start with the fact that Harden's signature move, the step back three point shot, is often a travel according to the rule book. A player who picks up his dribble must shoot or pass before completing a 1, 2 step. In other words, if I pick up my dribble at the three point line, I can take a step back with one foot but I must shoot or pass before my second foot hits the ground. Otherwise, I have taken a two foot hop that is illegal (and impossible to guard, which explains the dramatic increase in Harden's scoring average this season).

Harden typically combines his traveling with flopping; after he shoots his step back three pointer, he falls to the ground a large percentage of the time. I have attempted many three pointers during my basketball career and more than a few (legal) step back three pointers (think of Dell Curry's signature move, not Harden's illegal move). I can count on the fingers of two hands the times that I fell down after those shots, and on each of those occasions I was hit with a certain degree of force, usually by a bigger player. There is no way that Harden is being fouled as often as he pretends to be fouled; he is either flopping or he should undergo immediate neurological testing to determine what kind of vertigo/balance disorder is afflicting a person who otherwise appears to be a healthy 6-5, 220 pound elite athlete.

After Harden travels and flops, he then whines. To get the full picture of the hypocrisy involved, it is important to note that when he drives to the hoop he wraps his off hand/arm around the defender and pulls the defender toward him to make it appear like he is being fouled or if the defender is in front of him he uses his off hand/arm as a battering ram to "create space"--and, on defense, Harden invariably uses one or two hands to the hip or midsection to not so subtly knock his man off balance. Handchecking is illegal for perimeter defenders in the modern NBA but Harden does it all the time and is rarely called for it. In fact, handchecking on the perimeter is practiced by all Houston defenders, with Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker being particularly adept at it. Kevin Durant is the player who rightfully could have complained throughout game one, as he was repeatedly the victim of non-calls on his shot attempts.

Supposedly, the big story from today's game is that Harden and Paul should have been granted many more free throws than they were because of defenders not giving them space to land after they shot (the so-called "Kawhi Leonard rule," enacted after Zaza Pachulia ended Leonard's playoff run in 2017 by stepping under his foot in game one of the Western Conference Finals). There is no question that it is a dirty play for a defender to slide his foot into a jump shooter's landing space--but if you look at the so-called disputed plays, that is not what happened in most of them (one or two were borderline, but it is understandable that the referees are tired of Harden and Paul repeatedly trying to fool them).

A normal shooting motion is to jump straight in the air, release the ball and land approximately in the same area from which you jumped; if you shoot a fadeaway, of course you might land behind where you jumped, and it is possible that if you shoot a running shot you might land in front of where you shot. It is not a normal shooting motion to kick out one or both legs, place your body in a twisted or horizontal position and entangle yourself with the defender's body--but that is what Harden and Paul regularly do. A defender has a right to jump straight up and contest a shot. What Pachulia did that was dirty was he ran toward Leonard, stopped on the ground and then stuck his foot out right where it was obvious that Leonard--who shot with a normal shooting motion--would inevitably land. That most assuredly did not occur on any of the so-called disputed plays in game one. Perhaps in one instance Klay Thompson closed out a little too far and initiated marginal contact but Harden also flopped on the play, making it difficult to see in a split second what exactly had caused Harden to fall.

Paul made several bad plays that potentially cost his team the game; he argued about a foul call while Golden State scored an uncontested fastbreak hoop, he received two technical fouls that cost his team points and he spent more time trying to draw fouls/argue about fouls than he did focusing on playing well. Paul incessantly pushes, grabs and holds on defense but then whines about phantom fouls that he alleges were committed against him on offense. He used to be a scrappy player but now he is a small, older player who has lost a step and has to use his hands on defense to make up for the foot speed he has lost; he is the NBA version of the old guys I could not stand to have guarding me when I was a skinny teenager playing rec league ball/pick up ball: old guys did not want to chase me all over the court, so they would grab, hold and push to get me off balance.

After the game, Harden whined that he just wants things called fairly and then he can "live with the result." Harden's sense of entitlement is breathtaking; he is rarely called for offensive fouls, he gets away with traveling on his signature move, he leads the league in free throw attempts every season (and he had 14 in this game) and he gets away with illegal handchecking on defense but he is convinced that he is the aggrieved party!

Thanks to all of those free throw attempts, Harden had an "efficient" game by "stat guru" standards--but he missed 19 shots and committed four turnovers, which adds up to 23 empty possessions. A team typically has about 100 possessions per game, so Harden wasted nearly a fourth of those. This style of play is gimmicky, is highly unlikely to ever result in a championship and is not fun to watch. As Charles Barkley has described Houston's offense, it is basically Harden doing "dribble, dribble, dribble" and then shooting or passing at the last moment. Harden is a showboat, a ballhog and a serial rules violator but until the NBA cracks down on his rules violations he is not going to change.

Maybe today's game was a step in the right direction but I fear that there is going to be so much criticism of the officiating that the officials will not have the guts to call things correctly the rest of the way. It was disappointing to hear the ABC/ESPN broadcast team buy into all of Houston's nonsense. Harden and Paul have been traveling, flopping and whining all season long. Kudos to the officiating crew for putting an end to this garbage, and I hope that the rest of the series is officiated the same way, if not better (the officials still missed several Harden offensive fouls and defensive handchecks).

Kudos also to Golden State, which did not give in to Houston's foolishness by playing gimmicky defenses against Harden such as defenders putting their hands behind their back or standing behind him to deter the step back shot. Harden spent most of this season making a mockery of the rule book and I hope that this playoff series will set thing right.

Labels: , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 12:47 AM

36 comments

36 Comments:

At Monday, April 29, 2019 1:26:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I'm so sick of the Rockets' crap. And I say that as someone who likes their coach, likes several of their players (Eric Gordon, Nene, to a lesser extent Gerald Green and Clint Capela) but I just loathe their stars and attitude. Here's hoping for a sweep.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 4:39:00 AM, Anonymous CyberGlion said...

I've seen this observation on other sites, but I've wondered if Harden's approach to playing is in part due to his relative lack of NBA level athleticism. I see comments about how he's "too talented" to play like this, but I've also seen comments about how he has to play like this because it's the only way he can really play at the NBA level, like if he didn't he would constantly get blocked or struggle blowing by anyone instead of putting up historically great statlines. This video (starting 8:45 but whole video is worth listening to, NSFW language) does a better job of explaining what I'm talking about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVdoQpeDnso


Have you had similar observations, David? I don't agree with Bruce on everything but when it comes to Harden he's saying everything that I've observed about him and his antics



Here's to hoping GSW take care of this team quickly, the Rockets do not deserve to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy with the way they approach this game

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 12:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Agreed: D'Antoni is a good interview subject and seems to be a nice guy, I respect the players you mentioned--and I share your hope for a sweep, though I do not expect one.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 12:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

CyberGlion:

I think that Harden is more athletic than some people think; he is strong, quick and has decent hops, though he is not always in peak shape.

I do not spend a lot of time speculating about motives--as opposed to reporting on actions--but I suspect that Harden plays the way that he does simply because he knows that he can get away with it.

It is interesting how stubborn he is about playing the same way year after year in the playoffs even though the playoffs are played and officiated differently than the regular season.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 1:32:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

@cyberglion and @David,

My take is Harden is a form of lazy. And, what I mean by lazy is when compared to other NBA superstars, their work habits, and their work ethic. Compared to regular humans, Harden is not lazy. He's an elite NBA athlete.

Harden's off-court antics/habits are no secret (strip club MVP, etc.). As you mentioned David, he often comes into the season out of shape. And, it's easier to hone something you're already the best at (especially if it's an exploit that gives you a clear advantage) more so than it is to work on aspects of yourself/game that are weak.

Unlike Jordan or Kobe or even Lebron, Harden hasn't improved on the weaknesses in his game. Instead, he's doubled/tripled down on his strengths.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 1:47:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

This is such a hard series for me to watch. I already despise Golden State to the umph degree for all the talent they have coupled with their fair share of whining and front running. However, watching Harden play is like listening to metal going through a paper shredder.

I agree with you David that Harden does have the ability to be a good NBA player even without his shenanigans. He plays the way that he does because he can get away with it. I've been watching the NBA since the 60s and I cannot remember a player that I've hated more. I don't even root for the Warriors, but I want the Rockets to lose by 50 points every game.

David, you made the point years ago that Harden is a Manu Ginobili level player. Even if that was underrating him, James Harden is a very good basketball player. That's the sad part. I truly believe that Harden minus the garbage play is still an All-Star.

Here's something even more interesting:

Russell Westbrook 2019 playoffs: 36.0% FG 32.4% 3P 88.5% FT

James Harden 2019 playoffs: 36.4% FG 32.9% 3P 88.2% FT

One is deemed inefficient and selfish, and one isn't. One is being condemned by everyone who's watched one quarter of a basketball game and think they're Red Auerbach. Because Harden spams the 3 point shot and flops his way to the free throw line, he has a higher true shooting percentage. What a joke. It sickens me. Sometimes I forget why I still watch basketball.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 2:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

All of the stuff being written about how one playoff series dropped Westbrook from top five to top 10, top 15, top 20 or even out of the top 20 altogether provides a great litmus test for people whose opinions I no longer have to seriously consider regarding basketball analysis. It has been instructive to sit back and watch/read/listen to all of the commentary.

As you point out, Harden is praised for being "efficient" while Westbrook is criticized for everything under the sun--and then we have people who act like one first round playoff series is the defining moment of an 11 year career. It will be nice for Lillard if he can makes his first Conference Finals appearance this year; Westbrook has done that four times as an All-Star/All-NBA player.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 2:33:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

David-

For me, it's three playoff series (and quite a few questionable crunchtimes even in the Durant era), but I'm disappointed that my opinion isn't worth seriously considering just because I expect a Top 5 player to be able to make the second round once in three years.

Though I will also note that I am at least as hard on Harden (and I'd argue much harder), for both similar reasons and a litany of others.

Say what you like about my analysis, but at least I'm consistent: I don't like guys whose performance dips when it matters, and who don't play consistent defense.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 3:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ABC/ESPN's postgame commentary was very strange and bordered on being pro-Rocket propaganda. Paul Pierce correctly noted that more contact has always been allowed in the postseason and he was aggressively shot down by everyone else at the desk. Harden got away with several blatant offensive fouls that resulted in a basket for him and stuck his foot directly under Curry while defending a three-point attempt but for some reason those plays weren't show in an infinite loop the same way the controversial plays against the Rockets were.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 4:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Unknown:

Michael Jordan went 1-9 in playoff games (and 0-3 in playoff series) without Scottie Pippen. By your reasoning, he was not a Top Five player--and don't make excuses for Jordan or provide context, unless you are willing to give exactly the same (deserved) latitude to Westbrook. Jordan is a greater player than Westbrook and even Jordan needed the right supporting cast to go past the first round of the playoffs.

Harden has been a consistent playoff choker and rules breaker for years. Being right about him does not make you right about Westbrook.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 4:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

The ESPN/ABC commentary--in game and post-game--was ridiculous, other than brief moments of lucidity from Pierce.

Any time someone has the time and energy to do a frame by frame review of a Houston game to see just how much Harden gets away with, have at it. The officials may--MAY--have missed one or two calls against Harden or Paul but the officials missed many more that benefited Harden and Paul.

Harden attempted 14 free throws and is still whining! What does he expect--30 free throw attempts to make up for the fact that he cannot consistently make meaningful shots against playoff competition?

Anyone who thinks that Harden would have been anything more than a middle of the pack All-Star--and not a so-called MVP candidate--in previous eras needs to be drug-tested. Look at the fouls that Jordan and Pippen endured while playing against the Detroit Pistons while paying their dues before winning titles. If Harden is going to cry when Klay Thompson dares to contest his shot he would have run home to Mommy when faced with Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman.

Media commentators can say and do what they want but in this space I will always keep it 100% real.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 7:53:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

David-

Unknown was me, sorry about that. Different computers are weird about Blogger in different directions.

If you'd like context for both, let's provide it.

Jordan's three losses came at the very beginning of his career (he was 23 for the last one). He shot over 45% in all of them against maximum defensive attention (and over 50% in two of them) while playing all-world defense himself. He did not have another All-Star on his team for any of them, and two of the three he lost to the eventual Finalist (one of whom would win the title and go down as one of the greatest teams ever). When he eventually did have another star (Pippen) he won six rings. He made another two Conference Finals which he lost against Detroit (26 in the last of those).

Jordan's opponents had 2, 4, and 3 All-Stars to his 1, 1, and 1.

Short version: Jordan played excellent playoff ball, and lost to mostly great teams.

Westbrook's three losses came at his absolute apex. He shot over 40% in none of them, played terrible defense in all of them (though he rebounded and passed very well). He had Paul George for two of those series (including this year's, George's best), and his losses came to two teams that were quickly dismissed in the semi-finals and possibly a third. When RWB had a (superior) star, he made 4 WCFs, lost three of them, and was beaten in 5 (admittedly mostly close) games in his lone finals appearance, shooting 43/14 in the series. While shooting that 14% from 3, he took about 4.5 per game.

In 2 of his last 3 playoff appearances, RWB's teams posted better margins without him than with him (2017 is of course the exception).

Westbrook's opponents had 1, 2, and 1 All-Stars to his 1, 2, and 2.

Short version: Westbrook played mediocre playoff ball (though again, rebounded and assisted well) and lost to mostly mediocre teams. Unlike MJ, even when he *had* help he often choked.

You are right that Jordan is much better than Westbrook. But I am right (at least so far) that Westbrook has proven basically nothing as a #1 playoff option. If he'd like to come back next year and lead his team to the Conference Finals as the best guy, I'll revise, and happily so; basketball is more fun if he's the guy you keep saying he is. Until and unless he does, he isn't Jordan, or even Pippen. He's Harden: a gaudy regular season performer whose limitations are exposed in the post-season as a #1 option.

None of this means Westbrook is bad. Depending on your definitions, it may not even mean he isn't Top 5 (though in my case it does). It does mean that comparison to Jordan does him no favors, and that whatever gaudy box-scores he may post in the regular season they have yet to translate to meaningful postseason success as a #1 guy.

But then, hey, Oscar Robertson never won a ring as the #1 guy either. It's not a condemnation. Maybe a hypothesis. It's just an observation. There's time left in his career to prove me wrong (albeit not much of it unless he begins to add some less-athletically dependent finesse moves to his game, something most of the greats started doing well before their 11th season).

...but then, Oscar never shot under 40% in the playoffs, either. And he did win a couple series.

At the risk of plagiarizing, just because you're right about Harden does not mean you're right about Westbrook.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 8:11:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

On a topic we're more likely to agree on:

http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/26634745/rockets-audited-18-game-7-say-finals-bid-taken

Could the Rockets be any bigger whiners? This is going from annoying to sad.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 8:55:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Apparently the Rockets have "proof" that the Warriors get more calls then them.

I just...wow. For the two biggest beneficiaries of bogus calls in maybe the history of the game -- James Harden and Chris Paul -- to even broach the subject of "unfair" or uncalled fouls is just...I can't even...

The sheer audacity is Trumpian.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 9:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

My point is that there is more to Jordan's career than "I want my #1 guy to show me something in the playoffs and get out of the first round at least once in a three year period" or whatever--and there is more to Westbrook's career than that phrase as well, but, as I have said at least once in our Westbrook discussion, we just fundamentally disagree and I see no way to bridge the gap. I have stated for five or six years now why I think that Westbrook is the heir to Kobe Bryant as the best (or at least one of the best)--and most polarizing guard in the NBA. I disagree with your assessment of Westbrook's role on his four WCF teams and I disagree with your assessment of how much blame he should receive for OKC's three first round exits. The only piece of data that I would add that I don't think I have explicitly mentioned before is that the Thunder went 55-27 in their final season with Durant and have won 47, 48 and 49 games in the next three seasons. It is difficult to imagine any team (other than, ironically if it ends up happening, Golden State) losing Durant, not receiving a top five player in return and staying consistently within 6-8 wins of their previous status.

I also disagree with the notion that one first round playoff series represents some dramatic change in status for Westbrook or Lillard. They were both All-NBA caliber guards before the series and they both are still All-NBA caliber guards now.

As for the Rockets and their whining, yes it is pathetic--and, as someone who makes his living in a field that involves the proper use of analytical data, the attempt to cherry pick data and draw supposedly "precise" conclusions that are in fact wildly speculative (i.e., that a particular alleged missed call "cost" the Rockets .8 points or whatever) is ridiculous and confirms everything that I have been saying about Morey and his crew for the past dozen years. Remember, the NBA is based on parity and in the past two decades every West team except two has made the WCF at least once. Morey has said from day one that his superior analytical understanding provides a tangible advantage and I call BS, because if that were true then his team would have made the WCF more than twice during his tenure. He has been granted the luxury of the equivalent of a lifetime appointment despite failing to prove that his methods confer any real advantage. Many GMs could have led the Rockets to the WCF twice if they had been given blank checks and more than a dozen years of job security.

 
At Monday, April 29, 2019 9:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

The Rockets are pathetic in a way that is perhaps beyond adequate description. I hope that they are so focused on the wrong things that they get swept but the reality is that they probably will get hot from three point range and win at least one game, prolonging our national nightmare.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 9:33:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

"I also disagree with the notion that one first round playoff series represents some dramatic change in status for Westbrook or Lillard. They were both All-NBA caliber guards before the series and they both are still All-NBA caliber guards now."

It's not the whole story but it is a chapter, and a relevant. It's also only a dramatic change for one of them, because only one of them changed; the other kept repeating the same behavior expecting different results (I think that's the definition of something). I agree that they both are and have been All-NBA guards but in which order I'd rank them against each other has shifted.

For Lillard, it answered the biggest criticism I have of him, at least for five games: he played real, grownup defense. He added an important missing piece to his game, and it helped him win. He also benefitted from his knock-off Curry deep ball, another skill he didn't have two years ago but clearly made a priority over the offseason and in during the regular season (then made 8-12 or whatever of them against OKC).

For Westbrook, it continued a trend of not showing up at all defensively in the playoffs and of being unable to find a way to contribute efficiently on offense, or to deliver in crunch time. It also put the lie to the idea that the only reason RWB doesn't win more is that he has inferior help; his supporting cast outperformed Lillard's (heck George, for those five games, outperformed Westbrook). Westbrook for all his prodigious natural talent (and it IS prodigious) has never really added many new skills or moves to his game (exception: his passing did steadily improve throughout his career before peaking around '15 or so), and so his same weaknesses keep getting exploited year after year. The same things San Antonio and Miami used to target about him in the early 2010s are the things Portland and Utah are taking advantage of in the late 2010s. Perhaps he'll make good on his threats to become a competent shooter or he'll finally figure out how to maintain his defensive give-a-damn past January next season... but he didn't do either this year, and it cost him. Again. It always does.

But we're both sick of this conversation by now so having clarified that I am not ignoring the wider context of their careers-- in fact, it's that context that gives that series meaning-- I'm happy to leave it be for now.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 9:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You are ignoring a boatload of context that I have repeated until I am metaphorically blue in the face, including but not limited to (and in no particular order) (1) the significance of being an All-Star/All-NBA performer for four WCF teams, (2) the unprecedented value of averaging a triple double for three straight regular seasons, (3) the reality that OKC dropped by eight or fewer wins each year since KD departed, (4) Westbrook averaging 46 ppg in his three series closeout games prior to this postseason (this season he "merely" had a 29-14-11 triple double while leading his team in rebounds, assists and steals) and (5) specific to the 2019 postseason, his main outside shooting threat (PG) shooting .319 from three point range while hoisting a team-high 47 three point shots, emphasizing again that OKC has not put the right kind of supporting cast around Westbrook to help him lead the team past the first round of the playoffs.

Regarding plus/minus and on/off numbers, while I use such statistics at times, it is worth noting that they are extremely "noisy" in small sample sizes; I find those numbers interesting as additional evidence to supplement the eye test but without considering context they have limited value, because there are nine other players on the court who are contributing to the differential increasing or decreasing. OKC faring better in some situations with PG on the court and Westbrook not on the court could mean any one or more of many, many things and is certainly not proof of one particular thesis, such as your favorite whipping horse (Westbrook's individual defense).

You say that none of the above matters, or that it just shows that Westbrook is only capable of producing in the regular season but not the playoffs. I say that the evidence shows that Westbrook is a top five player who consistently advanced in the playoffs when he had a legit team in place, which he has not had since KD departed.

We disagree and there is nothing meaningful that can be added at this point.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I'm sorry that you feel I've ignored those points. I feel like we are having two different discussions; I do not disagree that:

1) Westbrook was the second-best player on 4 WCF teams and this is a significant achievement.
2) Westbook's regular season triple double averages are a tremendous feat no one else has or could accomplish.
3) OKC remained a playoff team without KD.

I do disagree that any of those things strongly indicate he could be the best guy on a title team-- or that he is better than Steph Curry and therefore "the best guard in the league-- given his other weaknesses. There is little to no precedent for the second best guy on a consistently contending team ascending to be the best guy on a future title time with the exception of Kobe Bryant, whom we both agree is in a different class from Westbrook.

I disagree with you that (4) is to his credit, as he shot horribly in two of those games (the losses) and in the most recent one badly hurt his team on both offense and defense down the stretch. You complained earlier that I was cherry-picking stats by listing his averages from his career elimination games; I fail to see how looking at just three of them is somehow a better indication of the guy he is in crunch time (although again the stats don't exactly do him any favors even in that smaller sample once you look at how many possessions it took him to average 40).

I agree that (5) Paul George did not shoot well from 3 in the first four games of that series but disagree that this is proof that RWB does not have sufficient support to advance past the fist round; the fact remains that his supporting cast outperformed Portland's, and more importantly that he starts alongside four plus defensive players and is the weak link. It is true his team could have better shooters, but they have roughly average ones, and exactly the sort of defenders he needs to be surrounded by to mitigate his lapses. Better players have gotten a lot further with a lot less (Kobe's title squads, for instance, are not much if any better than RWB's current squad).

Finally, while I use On/Offs and +- to support and contextualize my observations about RWB's defense, the single best test is the eye-test. I have repeatedly enumerated the things he needs to improve on to be a plus defender-- navigating screens, off-ball focus, transition effort, second rotations, recovering after help. These are mistakes he makes literally every game, multiple times each, and they are lapses opponents consistently target and profit from. You can attack the numbers that support these observations as a "noisy" but the observations themselves have been pretty consistent for his entire career, and I'm far from the only person to notice them.

It is true that you and I sometimes evaluate differently but it seems unlikely that Billy Donovan would be trying to hide RWB on Harkless and Aminu if he were a competent defensive option against either Lillard or McCollum (and when he did get switched onto McCollum twice in Game 4, he had his hands on his knees and gave up crucial buckets).

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 11:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

There is an inconsistency in saying that Westbrook's regular season prowess proves nothing about his ability to lead a team in the playoffs and then discounting PG's bad three point shooting in four (out of only five!) playoff games this year. Maybe George is a good three point shooter who wilts in the playoffs.

Again, the larger issue here is that we disagree about the basic parameters of the discussion, as well as how to interpret the data.

For instance, the slew of 40 point closeout games is directed toward your contention that Westbrook cannot handle the lights of the playoffs without Durant by his side. You are right that three years and three closeout games is a small sample size (thank you for finally acknowledging that) but if you want to critique Westbrook purely based on post-Durant that is all we have. I don't think that a three year sample is the best way to evaluate a player, but three 40 point closeout games means something and I don't think that it means Westbrook is wilting. Did he shoot a lot/too much? Was he inefficient? Is the issue more complex than those questions? Again, we don't agree about how to figure this out.

Coaches make defensive assignments for a variety of reasons. Was Donovan hiding Westbrook? Was Donovan trying to preserve the energy of his best rebounder, best passer, primary shot creator? Again, these are not simple questions with obvious answers.

Westbrook had his hands on his knees. Well, that is all I need to know. Now I am convinced that he does not care about defense...or, maybe, a 6-3 guard whose team needs for him to put up 25-10-10 to have a chance to win might be fatigued, might need more help, might have a greater burden than his surgically repaired knee can handle. Who knows?

I think that Westbrook is an elite player and has been for quite some time. You disagree. That's OK.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 2:38:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

"I think that Westbrook is an elite player and has been for quite some time. You disagree. That's OK."

I actually don't, though, which is what I mean about two different conversations. There are three claims you've made that I disagree with:

1) RWB is the best guard in the league (I think it's Steph. I'd have RWB somewhere in the 3-5 range.).

2) RWB is a Top 5 player (Though I'd still have him Top 15). I would probably agree that he is a Top 5 regular season player, however.

3) RWB is good enough to be the best guy on a title team (I don't think he is right now; if he shores up his skillset weaknesses he absolutely has the raw talent required). But I don't think most guys in the league are, even within the ranks of All-NBA types. Curry, Lebron, and Giannis are the only ones I feel sure about. There's another maybe 8 guys I think *might* be. Russ is just outside that group because I don't believe you can count on him in the last four minutes of a close playoff game on either end.

None of that makes him "not elite." It just makes him not *quite* the best.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 4:29:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Nick,

I actually think both you and David are right. I think Westbrook is the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant (though, we all agree he's not as good). And I think that, while he has the ability to be the best guard in the league, and has demonstrated this with his triple double seasons and his success as 1A on a team that went to multiple Conference Finals (and 1 finals), his defense (and to a marginally lesser extent, his shooting) holds him back from ascending to the heights he's capable of.

Nick (backhandedly) mentions Bryant's first team defense selections towards the latter half of Bryant's career. And while there is truth to the fact that Kobe didn't play hard every possession, what separates him from Westbrook defensively, is that Kobe knew how to play it. Lol. He often worked as the team's defensive vocal leader on the floor. The free safety. Bryant never had to be "hidden" on defense. And, when he took defensive assignments, he typically won those matchups. Yes, today's NBA is much different, so not sure Bryant would be as effective seeing as how defense now extends out to 25 feet, but he was a very cerebral player. Westbrook is an emotional player. Not saying he's not smart, just saying he doesn't think the game like Bryant did.

I think you gives Curry a bit more credit then I'm comfortable giving. Curry hasn't proven himself durable enough or physical enough to shoulder the burden that Westbrook has proven able to do. So while his gravity creates space unlike any other player in NBA history, if he was surrounded by players that couldn't capitalize on that space, I don't think he'd be able to power his way to 40 shots for even a game, let alone a playoff series.

Perhaps that's where the conversation gets derailed between you two? Curry has all of the advantages (some, inherently because of his unique skillset) that Westbrook does not enjoy. He has an elite coach, an elite GM, elite/proven bench guys, and all-star and MVP-level teammates. And all of those things are in place to maximize his potential. Sure, he could really use an ideal pick and pop and roll big man, but then so could Westbrook.

Westbrook has a decent coach, a GM that has made lemonade out of lemons, but has constructed a roster without any consistent shooting, and an all-star teammate that for the first time in his entire career, elevated his game to MVP-level.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 6:24:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...



Marcel


David ur a good writer and I been a commentator on here for years.


Ur 100 percent right about harden.

He a great regular Season player but not a great post season player.

ESPN was also showing how he kicks into the defender to try to draw the foul.

James has played at a mvp level in reg season multiple times,I'm not sure why it doesn't translate to post season.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 6:31:00 PM, Blogger Al Fahridi said...

Long time since I'have last poste here. Thanks David for your great analysis. I only have one comment regarding the Westbrook/Bryant conversation: I agree with Jordan: the way Bryant thought the game - extremely celebral - is very different from Westbrook's. If we leave perception aside for a moment, Westbrook's game and attitude is much closer to Wade's.

 
At Tuesday, April 30, 2019 9:17:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Jordan-

Thanks for joining in. Always appreciate your POV.

I agree with your comments about Kobe and Westbrook, for the most part.

I disagree about some of the Curry/Westbrook comparisons.

"Curry hasn't proven himself durable enough or physical enough to shoulder the burden that Westbrook has proven able to do. So while his gravity creates space unlike any other player in NBA history, if he was surrounded by players that couldn't capitalize on that space, I don't think he'd be able to power his way to 40 shots for even a game, let alone a playoff series. "

Curry probably isn't physically durable enough to literally do what Westbrook does. However, I would argue that thanks to his efficiency and the space he provides, he doesn't need to be. What team on the league do you think you could add Curry to and still not make the second round? Because I don't think there is one.

Curry probably couldn't take 40 shots a game. But he wouldn't need to. He provides value off-the-ball (Westbrook generally doesn't, as he's a historically reluctant screener and cutter, though he's very good at both when he does them).He can help his team without *needing* to have the ball in his hands all the time.

"He has an elite coach, an elite GM, elite/proven bench guys, and all-star and MVP-level teammates. And all of those things are in place to maximize his potential. Sure, he could really use an ideal pick and pop and roll big man, but then so could Westbrook.

Westbrook has a decent coach, a GM that has made lemonade out of lemons, but has constructed a roster without any consistent shooting, and an all-star teammate that for the first time in his entire career, elevated his game to MVP-level."

I will point out that Curry won one title and came within a great Kyrie shot of winning another without any other MVPs around. His bench has always generally been pretty thin, particularly in the frontcourt.

I will also point out that back when Curry made it to the second round (and won as the 6 seed to get there) with a mediocre coach in 2013 (the team's only All-Star at that point was David Lee, who... isn't Paul George. Klay was there, but not yet Klay.). In 2014 Steph was the team's only All-Star (though Klay was rounding into shape) and they went 7 against the Clippers (on the road). I would argue that the talent on those two teams, which won 47 and 51 games respectively and featured no MVP candidates (let alone two) was pretty comparable to what RWB has had the last two years.

Perhaps less-so the 2014 team, which had Iggy and an emerging Klay (and the beginning of Draymond, though at that point he was only playing 22 mpg mostly as a swing and had not yet been unlocked as a playmaker or defender), but all the same: even if you want to say coaching and talent are the distinction, Curry was making more noise in the playoffs before he had those advantages.

Moreover, he was remaining effective in the playoffs; he shot 44/39/90 over that stretch with 23/8 per game. He was just learning to be a plus defender, but he was at least trying (and that's more excusable for a year 4 player than a year 11 one).

And yes, both years his team was much better with him on the court than off it, at least by the numbers.

Anyhow, Curry has definitely proved he can be the best player on a title team. Westbrook hasn't.

Heck, you talk about how lucky Curry is to have Durant; he's gotten two titles in two years with him so far. RWB had him for eight years and didn't get any.

 
At Wednesday, May 01, 2019 2:54:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

@Nick,

Love when you post. You typically get good discussions going.

My last post was uber rushed (typos and incomplete thoughts and all). I didn't quite explain myself the way I wanted to. I agree that Curry has proven more. There isn't really any question. A pair of MVPs, 3 rings and counting, 73 wins, etc. I also agree that Curry is more valuable than Westbrook because his skillset is universal. He's plug and play to the nth degree (which is why he and KD just blended so seamlessly). I believe we've had similar discussions in posts of yesteryear.

What I meant by the 40 shots, not being able to shoulder as large of a burden, etc., is when talking about the "best guard". I believe our previous discussions revolved around best player vs. most valuable, which is pretty much what we're discussing here just slightly more specific to best guard.

The example of KD vs. Curry is one that Steve Kerr used himself. KD is a better basketball player. More athletic, longer, he's freaking 7-feet tall, etc. But, he's not as valuable as Curry. Westbrook is bigger, an athletic marvel (even in his diminished state), shoulders an immense load, etc. Which, from all I've been reading, is David's foundation for his view on the Westbrook/Curry debate.

Without putting words in his mouth, David believes based on physical attributes, production, mentality, etc. that Westbrook is the best guard. You posit that Curry is the best because his value trumps every other player in the league, especially with the way the game is played today (though, his skillset would translate and carry similar value in every era post the introduction of the 3-point line).

I know. Semantics...

My post was simply to lay out objectively, that you both aren't necessarily wrong. Lol. I like to bring peeps together. :)

 
At Wednesday, May 01, 2019 3:29:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Jordan-

I suppose it all comes down to semantics. For me, the "best" player is the guy who gives his team the highest chance to win. I consider Curry to be the top of that class right now, followed by KD, then RWB.

If you're looking at widest array of tools, KD is probably above-average in more categories than anyone else (but I'd contest that Curry's gaps in the skills where he's ahead of KD are much wider).

I would agree that RWB is more physically impressive than Curry. I don't think he has the same impact on winning basketball games, and I don't think that's determined by their respective team contexts (although that inflates the gap).

I've said before that I think having RWB as your best guy raises your floor and lowers your ceiling; I still think that's true, at least until he shores up either his defense, his shooting, or his late-game strategy (or, ideally, all three). Jason Kidd is a good blueprint for proof that at least one of those things is still in play, and I do hope RWB follows in his footsteps there; the league is better if he's better.

But I still don't think RWB-as-currently-constructed makes basically any team more likely to win a ring than Curry or Durant would.

 
At Monday, May 06, 2019 3:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Curry even a top 5 player in this series through 3 games? His value is on the offensive end, and he's not doing much offense. He's never been able to lead his team from beginning to the very end of any season that resulted in a title, and that's with ridiculously stacked teams these past 5 seasons. He can also thank his lucky stars he has KD this series, or else HOU would be 3-0.

 
At Monday, May 06, 2019 5:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Curry played well in Game 1, but since hurting his finger he's only been the fifth best guy on his own team, let alone in the series. He is still providing value as an off-ball shot-creator/spacer because Houston is still guarding him like he's, well, him, but if he keeps bricking away at the rate he has been that will likely change and they'll start doubling KD until and unless Curry proves he's still Curry.

Defensively he's been mostly good, though he seemed to completely lose his cool in Q3 of G3 and made a bunch of dumb mistakes he usually doesn't make. He's also fouling too much, though a lot of the ones he's gotten called for are iffy (but he's also gotten away with some).

 
At Tuesday, May 07, 2019 10:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

18 points on 5-12 isn't playing well for Curry in game 1. He's only shot marginally worse since hurting his finger, soI don't buy that excuse. He had a good game 4 vs HOU, but only 3rd best player at best on the court. Until last night, his previous 7 playoff games were subpar or very subpar games. This is the problem with Curry or other small guards. They're more fragile than bigger players. Curry wears down every year. He's yet to show he can carry a team to the title for the entire season/playoffs, even with much superior casts.

 
At Tuesday, May 07, 2019 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Anonymous-

I disagree that Curry has yet to show he can lead a team. I'm not interested in having a protracted argument about it but I think he was the best player on the team in 2015 and at least one if not both of the last two title runs (though I would agree Durant has the better Finals in 2017).

That said, I would agree that fragility is becoming a recurring issue for him, and is probably the greatest knock on him. He may ultimately end up more of a Bill Walton than a Magic Johnson, in terms of place in history, which is a shame.

There's still time, though. If comes out healthy the next two games and they go on to win the title, no one will remember this little blip even two months from now.

Also, "marginally worse?" He shot 50% from 3 again the Clippers and he's at 25% since the finger injury. If your margin is "double," I guess that's marginally worse.

 
At Tuesday, May 07, 2019 5:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curry was the best player on GS in 2015 overall. That is obvious. But, he also had by far the best cast in each of GS' 4 playoff series. He also needed a bench/role player to outplay James in the Finals, and was a distant 3rd best player in the Finals. Take Iggy off of GS, and CLE wins. That is an absurd amount of help he needed. Several players in the NBA that year could've been the best player on GS with GS winning a title. 'Curry leading GS to a title in 2015' is much different than when Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, or James led teams to titles for a few examples.

KD was clearly and is clearly GS' best player since joining GS in 2017. There isn't much debate on that, regardless of what you think. I would take KD's skillset over Curry's though close. However, KD is much more athletic and much bigger than Curry, plus doesn't seem to wear down much in the playoffs. KD's defense is also much better than Curry's, though still not elite. And he outplayed James on both ends of the court in the marquee matchup of each of the last 2 Finals. While Curry was very good in the past 2 Finals, he was also a distant 3rd best player in each, too.

Look what happened in the 2016 Finals. Curry wore down a lot and played very subpar for his standards, probably wasn't even the best player on his team that series(I'd go with Green), and only 4th best player in the series. Yet GS should've won fairly comfortably, though they didn't. James needed a lot of help, but Curry still had the much better cast. Iggy couldn't repeat his 2015 Finals performance. If Curry doesn't have someone win the battle vs James, GS doesn't win.

Curry was 5-12, .417 FG % in game 1 vs HOU. He's 25-64, .391 FG pct. in games 2-4. That indeed is marginally worse. Only 2 more makes overall over games 2-4, and he's above .417. He hasn't been playing that well overall and nowhere near MVP caliber in the playoffs, even though his shooting % was good vs LAC. His injured finger is on his non-shooting hand, which isn't ideal, but if you've played basketball before you'd know this isn't that major as your off hand is only a guide for the ball. Talk to me when he breaks one or more fingers on his shooting hand and/or has to learn to shoot a different way like what happened to Kobe several times. Tape his non-shooting fingers together, and he's fine.

 
At Tuesday, May 07, 2019 7:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Anonymous-

The fact that you're analyzing STEPH CURRY's shooting based on his FG% vs. his 3pt% is the sort of deliberately straw-manning that explains why I don't usually respond to you.

Thank you for the reminder.

 
At Wednesday, May 08, 2019 10:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gimme a break, Nick, and your entitled attitude. It's getting old. I pointed out your mistake, and I'm not surprised you're ignoring it now, or the fact that his injured finger shouldn't affect him much. News flash, there's more shooting in basketball than just 3-pointers. The only straw man here is from you.

As far as 3's go: Curry was 3-10, 30% in game 1; 9-36, 25% in games 2-4. So guess what, marginally worse when only looking at 3's, too. I generally don't try to look at one little aspect of the game and try to make big conclusions. You gotta look at the bigger picture.

 
At Thursday, May 09, 2019 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

@Nick and @Anonymous,

I think it's very possible you are both right and this series with Houston proves both of your points. As is usually the case, the ultimate truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Nick, Anonymous' points about Curry being small and injury-prone and unable to shoulder the burden of being the alpha on a team have been on full display. Whether it's the hand or the grind of a full season plus 5 years with a full slate in the playoffs, Curry is struggling. That said, so are the Dubs. They just haven't looked right, which, Anonymous, goes to Nick's point about Curry being the most important player on the Dubs. When he's not playing well, even when KD is (and KD has been an absolute monster), the Dubs look very very beatable.

Like you've noted Anonymous, Curry has been the 4th or 5th best player in this series, which is why the series is 3-2 and not 4-0.

My take, Curry is the most important player. When he plays well, put him on nearly any team in the league, and that team becomes the favorite to win it all. More so than KD, more so than Lebron, more so than Giannis or Harden. All of those guys need very specific teams built around them for them to be successful. Curry is a system unto himself. He's plug and play to the extreme.

That said, Curry is small and injury prone. He can't overpower guys like Harden (and Harden can't overpower guys like Kawhi, who can't overpower guys like Lebron, who can't overpower guys like Giannis, etc.). So, nominating him as the best player, or even a "better" player than Harden or Kawhi or KD, is really tough for me to do, despite the fact that he is, 80% of the time, more valuable overall.

Regardless, if KD misses any time, we'll all get to see who is more right. LoL.

These playoffs have been exciting. And, I love the fact the Celtics just got smashed. :) Kyrie gone fishing. (That said, if Kyrie comes west to join up with Lebron, I have absolutely watched my last Lakers game for a long while... :(

 
At Thursday, May 09, 2019 12:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Jordan-

I agree that Curry is small and injury prone and that he has not been up to his usual standards in this series. I don't think the injury-prone issue is much of an argument in Durant's favor at this point, though. KD missed most of the 2015 season with an injury and is now out for at least a week himself; he's hardly an iron man.

KD has only played four more regular season games than Curry in the last 4 years, and played 49 fewer in the last 5.

I do also think it speaks to Curry's tremendous value that in spite of his shooting woes he's had superior +/- to Durant in every game of the series, owing to the tremendous "rising tide' effect his mere presence has. His ability to pull two-defenders off-ball, or to engineer a switch to get a rim protector and/or rebounder onto him then drag them out to 35 feet to give Durant or Draymond an open runway to the hoop (as he did repeatedly to Capela in the first three quarters last night) is so valuable as to be difficult to quantify.

As great as KD has looked, that's been pretty much exclusively with Curry on the floor. When Curry's out there hobbling the defense, KD has a TS% of 63.1 and a Net-RTG of +4.6. In the 43 minutes without Curry, however, KD's TS% is an abysmal 47.6 (that's worse than injured Curry's current TS%, even) and his Net-RTG is -15.3. The Warriors were getting killed in his minutes without Curry.


Durant's TS% is 15.5% higher with Curry on the court and his Net-RTG is 19.9 points better. That's pretty much the difference between an MVP and a benchwarmer.

Having KD gone and Curry hurt is very bad for the Warriors... but even a hurt Curry can still open things up for the other guys, at least. Depth is a real issue (who's their fifth best guy now? Looney? Jerebko?) but I suspect the offense, during Curry's minutes, will still be good enough to win. The question marks come on defense and in the 4-6 minutes a night Curry sits.

Ultimately, when it comes down to the question of "best" I guess it depends what you mean. Durant has a wider skillset... but Curry's skillset gives his team a better chance to win. For me, that's an easy pick.

 

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