20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Objectively Assessing Talent Versus Issuing "Hot Takes"

If you evaluate basketball players based on their skill sets and their overall resumes, one series and/or a handful of games is not often going to substantially change your player rankings; if you like "hot takes" and small sample sizes, or if you have a bias for/against certain players, then it is easy to fall into the trap of radically altering your rankings based on insufficient evidence.

Damian Lillard is a seven year NBA veteran. This is just the third playoffs during which he advanced past the first round, and the first time that he reached the Conference Finals. He performed well in the first round versus Oklahoma City, eliminating the Thunder by draining a low percentage shot that some media members tried to argue was not a low percentage shot: when you get the ball with enough time to create any shot you want, and you elect to shoot from nearly 40 feet away, that is a bad shot. Consider how Lillard's playoff run just ended: Portland trailed by two at the end of the overtime of game four versus Golden State--albeit with less time remaining than there was during the end of game scenario versus Oklahoma City--and Lillard shot a fadeaway three pointer that did not come close to connecting. That was a bad shot, too. It is called regression to the mean, folks, which is a fancy way of saying that in the long run your performance is going to match who you are and if you take a steady diet of bad shots you are going to miss more of them than you make.

Lillard's final 2019 playoff numbers are 26.9 ppg, 6.6 apg and 4.8 rpg with shooting splits of .418/.373/.833. Lillard's 2019 Western Conference Finals numbers are 22.3 ppg, 8.5 apg and 4.8 apg with shooting splits of .371/.368/.885. Prior to 2019, his career playoff averages were 23.9 ppg, 5.6 apg and 4.5 apg with shooting splits of .400/.341/.890. Lillard had a very good playoff run and, armed with the best supporting cast that he has ever enjoyed, led Portland to its deepest postseason run in nearly two decades. Lillard was an All-NBA caliber player prior to this postseason, and we did not see anything during the playoffs that should change that assessment; his dramatic drop off during the Western Conference Finals is a bit disconcerting, but that is a small sample and his overall 2019 playoff numbers look very much like his previous playoff numbers.

However, the "hot take" after round one was that Lillard had surpassed Russell Westbrook--a former league MVP who has played in four Conference Finals and one NBA Finals--based on five games and one low percentage series-ending shot; if you applied that "hot take" at the start of the playoffs, then if you are consistent your "hot take" after the Western Conference Finals is that Lillard was exposed as not being anywhere near the caliber of Curry or any other MVP level guard. Somehow, I doubt that the talking heads and pundits are going to spend Tuesday morning badmouthing Lillard the way that they badmouthed Westbrook a month or so ago.

It did not take long after Lillard started missing shots for the media to look for excuses for him, and they found an excuse after Lillard suffered a separated rib (which occurred several games after Lillard's shooting dropped off). Lillard's rib has been talked about more often in the past few days than any rib since Adam's. Similarly, when Stephen Curry dislocated a finger on his non-shooting hand the media regularly raised this as an excuse whenever Curry had a bad shooting night, even though he had some bad shooting nights before he got hurt and even though he had a mixture of good and bad shooting nights after the injury. Did it only affect his shooting every other game?

At this time of the year, no NBA players are 100% healthy. If people are going to give free passes for every injury, then be consistent. You probably do not know this, but after the playoffs, Russell Westbrook had surgery to repair a ligament in his left hand and he had surgery on his right knee. Unless you looked really hard for that news, though, it was easy to miss; Westbrook did not use his injuries as an excuse, and the media reported those surgeries as afterthoughts. Somehow, the "hot take" about Lillard's first round left out the information that Westbrook had two injuries that required surgery.

Before the Western Conference Finals, I knew that Stephen Curry was better than Damian Lillard and that Golden State was better than Portland. If Lillard were the transcendent player that some people made him out to be, he would have figured out how to not get swept by the injury-depleted Warriors, but Lillard is an undersized guard and undersized guards tend to wear down as the playoff progress. So, this series did not reveal much that an informed NBA observer did not already know.

As for the "hot take" folks, I will not hold my breath waiting for a "reassessment" of Lillard along the lines of the "reassessment" of Westbrook that happened after the first round.


It was interesting to see Stephen Curry (correctly) whistled for a traveling violation as he attempted to move behind the three point line without dribbling near the end of regulation of game four versus Portland; Curry's travel in that circumstance is James Harden's signature so-called "step back" move, which is both rarely whistled as a violation and bears no resemblance to the step back move as mastered by basketball artists Adrian Dantley, Larry Bird and Dell Curry. It would be great if next season the NBA decides to enforce the traveling rule against James Harden, which would provide a 10 ppg or so correction to his inflated scoring average.

It is worth noting that Curry did not complain about the correct traveling call, though he did mention to the officials that he was fouled on his previous drive to the hoop (which replays showed that he clearly was).

Curry's game is not gimmicky, unlike Harden's game that is based on traveling and flopping. Curry would not have been a two-time MVP in previous eras that allowed handchecking and emphasized post play but he would have been a perennial All-NBA performer based on his shooting, passing, ballhandling and relentless movement without the ball. Curry is depicted as a revolutionary player because of how many three pointers he shoots but in many ways he is the modern day Pete Maravich; Maravich did all of the stuff--and more--that Curry does but he never had a great supporting cast and he played in an era during which you needed a dominant center to contend for a championship. At one time, Maravich owned the third highest scoring average for a guard in NBA history and the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball described him as "the best all-around guard in creation...One of the all-time great passers and ball-handlers."

Maravich suffered the slings and arrows fired by media members who did not understand how far ahead of his time he was, while Curry has been embraced by media members and fans alike--but Maravich was far more revolutionary than Curry, which is not to diminish in any way the extent of Curry's accomplishments.


Another "hot take" making the rounds is that the Warriors are better without the injured Kevin Durant than they were with him. Accepting this "hot take" as valid requires using the Men in Black neuralyzer to pretend that Durant did not win the previous two Finals MVPs and did not establish himself as the dominant scorer in this year's playoffs before he got hurt; it also requires using that neuralyzer to forget that during Curry's first two Finals appearances he was (1) often the third or fourth best player on the court as his Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers sans Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in 2015 and (2) he presided over a collapse from a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals, punctuated by a desultory game seven performance (17 points on 6-19 field goal shooting).

The Golden State Warriors are a championship contender without Durant; there is no question about that. The Golden State Warriors are a historically great dynasty with Durant; there is no question about that. What would have happened if Durant had been there first and then Curry joined the team? What would have happened if Durant had never joined the Warriors? Who knows? In the context of evaluating these players individually, who cares? Unless you have been neuralyzed, you know the answer about Durant versus Curry and it is an answer that fits in with what we have seen throughout NBA history; it is not surprising that a seven foot player who impacts the game at both ends of the court is better than a 6-3 player who is a marvelous offensive player but a consistent target of opposing teams on defense.

All of that being said, Curry had a great performance in the 2019 Western Conference Finals, perhaps his finest all-around playoff series ever. Curry may be the greatest shooter ever and his movement without the ball puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses--but let's not exaggerate the impact of that movement: if anything, the Trail Blazers were more guilty of leaving Curry wide open than they were of supposedly being sucked in by his "gravity" and leaving other players wide open. As great as Curry was, the Warriors would not have won this series without the all-around contributions of Draymond Green, who arguably was at least as valuable as Curry. Green anchored the defense, controlled the boards, picked Portland apart with his passing and made timely shots. You may have also noticed that the Warriors' depth is actually a lot better than the media suggested before the series; or, as I put it in my Golden State-Portland preview:

"Golden State's success is not like Curry leading Davidson to the NCAA Tournament, though you might not realize that based on some of what is written and said about Curry; Klay Thompson would be a great, two-way All-Star on any team, Draymond Green is a playmaking wizard who also rebounds and defends, Andre Iguodala is a former Finals MVP and All-Star who has the luxury of being a role player on this talented squad and Shaun Livingston was considered the number one point guard in the nation when he jumped straight from high school to the NBA. Injuries curtailed Livingston's ability to perhaps become an All-Star but he is a talented and savvy player.

Curry is a great player who has accomplished a lot but let's not pretend that it requires heroic contributions from him for Golden State to survive. The Warriors are well-built and well-coached."

The Warriors are a fun team to watch, Curry is a great player and Lillard is an All-NBA caliber player who is perhaps better appreciated by casual fans now than he was two months ago. The playoffs would be much more enjoyable if we were not subjected to endless "hot takes" and to biased commentary that does not apply the same standards to all players.

Labels: , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM