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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's First Pro Coach, Passed Away

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's first pro coach with the ABA's Virginia Squires, died of natural causes on Monday at the age of 87. Bianchi scored 5550 points during a 10 year NBA playing career, averaging 8.1 ppg with a career-high 10.3 ppg average in 1961-62. He was Wilt Chamberlain's teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers for a little over a year, and Bianchi retired just one season before Chamberlain led the 76ers to the 1967 NBA title.

Bianchi won 283 games as a head coach in the ABA and the NBA. He also served as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns from 1976-87 and again from 2001-02. Bianchi won the 1971 ABA Coach of the Year award. He was the General Manager of the New York Knicks from 1987-91, during which time he made two key moves that contribute to the team's resurgence in the 1990s: he traded Bill Cartwright for Charles Oakley, and he signed future All-Star guard John Starks. The Cartwright trade also yielded a draft pick that Bianchi used to select Rod Strickland.

I interviewed Bianchi during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix in 2009. Our conversation was not scheduled in advance; I recognized him across the room at the Legends Brunch, approached him and he very graciously spoke with me about his time coaching Julius Erving in the ABA. Here is an excerpt:

Friedman: "Describe the way that Julius Erving played in the ABA that was even above the level of greatness that we saw in the NBA."

Bianchi: "When he went to the NBA, one of the knocks that Red Auerbach and some of the people said was that he was (just) OK--and it was a natural tendency for the NBA to downplay the ABA players a little bit. They said that he could not shoot from the outside."

Friedman: "He developed the outside shot later, though, right?"

Bianchi: "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could put points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate and I used the phrase that we never had so many players (on the bench) pay attention to the game until I got Julius that year that he came in as a rookie. Over a long period of time, when you have players sitting on the bench, they might be wandering around (and not closely watching the game). When we got Julius, every game was a new highlight film. He did something different. He would come underneath and dunk and he had those enormous hands and everybody was paying attention to the game."

Friedman: "I talked to Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones about Julius as a teammate. You had Julius when he was really young, just 21 years old. Talk about the way that he interacted with his teammates and the leadership style that he had even as a young guy coming into the league."

Bianchi: "One of the great things about Julius is that even though he came in as a young man he was very, very mature. He knew the ways of the game and from the first day the players accepted him. It was like he had been there for five years. He just had that kind of personality. They respected--they could see that this guy was on a different level and also he was one of them. He had that maturity."

I am glad that I had that chance encounter with my basketball hero's first pro coach, who I found to be an engaging and pleasant interview subject. Rest in peace, Al Bianchi.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 PM


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Evaluating the NBA's "MV3" Guards Early in the 2019-20 Season

Stephen Curry (2015-16), Russell Westbrook (2017) and James Harden (2018) combined to win four straight NBA regular season MVPs before Giannis Antetokounmpo broke the reign of the "MV3" guards and became the first non-guard to win the award since 2014. Centers won 16 straight NBA regular season MVPs from 1965-1980--a run bookended by guard Oscar Robertson in 1964 and forward Julius Erving (already a three-time ABA regular season MVP) in 1981--but the last center to win the NBA regular season MVP is Shaquille O'Neal, who claimed his first and only such honor in 2000.

The NBA has become a perimeter-oriented game in the past 15 years or so, due to a combination of rules changes, evolving coaching philosophies and the prevalence of "advanced basketball statistics" that place great value on three point shooting while deriding the efficiency of post play.

Each of the "MV3" players has a substantially different situation in 2019-20 than he had in 2018-19: Curry's Warriors lost Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson (at least for most of this season), Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, Westbrook moved from Oklahoma City to Houston, and Harden is now playing alongside Westbrook instead of Chris Paul.

The season is young, the sample sizes are small, and the unfounded hot takes are everywhere, but it is worthwhile to examine what we have seen so far, and try to project what we might reasonably expect to see moving forward.

So much was written and said about Curry's "gravity" last season that I thought he was officially going to join the ranks of our solar system's largest planets alongside Jupiter and Saturn. Various commentators suggested that the Warriors were better without the then-injured Kevin Durant because Curry sans Durant was able to fully exploit his "gravity" to open up shots for himself and his teammates. Supposedly, Durant gummed up the works of Golden State's otherwise smooth offense.

That was a bunch of high-sounding nonsense, and I wrote as much at the time.

Fast forward from the 2019 playoffs to the start of this regular season, and Curry's "gravity" looks markedly less powerful without Durant attracting defensive attention, and without Iguodala, Durant and Klay Thompson providing top notch two-way play so that Curry could be hidden on defense while operating in a wide open court on offense. The Warriors dropped their first two games of the season in ugly fashion, leading many commentators to forget about "gravity" and instead proclaim that the sky is falling upon Golden State. The Warriors bounced back to beat an undermanned New Orleans squad and they are now 1-2, while ranking 20th (out of 30 teams) in scoring, 25th in field goal percentage and 22nd in three point field goal percentage.

Curry is averaging 24.0 ppg, 6.7 apg and 5.0 rpg with shooting splits of .436/.267/1.000. His field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage are career-lows, his scoring average is around his career-norm--but his lowest since 2014-15--and his rebounds and assists are in line with his career norms. Again, this is a small sample size, and it is reasonable to expect Curry and the Warriors to perform better as the season progresses; I picked the Warriors to make the 2020 playoffs and I see no reason to change that prediction. They should make the playoffs: Curry is a two-time MVP/six-time All-Star, Draymond Green is a former Defensive Player of the Year/three-time All-Star and D'Angelo Russell made the 2019 All-Star team; there is no excuse for a team with a former multiple MVP winner and a total of three All-Stars to not make the playoffs, even in the tough Western Conference.

It is interesting to look at how the media evaluates Curry; last season, it was widely asserted that Curry was a more important player to the Warriors than Durant, but after the Warriors did not defend their title no one blamed Curry. Before this season, many media members predicted that without Durant on the scene we would see Curry return to his MVP form, but in the wake of the Warriors' slow start and Curry's bricklaying the narrative is not that we should expect more from Curry and the Warriors but rather that the whole roster has been remade and it is not reasonable to expect the Warriors to make the playoffs. Note the common theme throughout these narratives: Curry is great and no matter what happens it is not his fault, nor does it detract from his greatness.

The media never showed such leniency toward Kobe Bryant, either during his five championship runs or during the 2006 and 2007 seasons when he pushed, pulled and carried the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker hooptie into the playoffs. It would be refreshing--actually, it would be shocking--if the media just covered situations as they occur without trying to shape every narrative to fit their preconceived notions, their biases, and their lack of high level understanding of the NBA game, but I know better than to expect that to happen.

Stephen Curry is a great player. I love watching him play, just like a generation ago I loved watching his father Dell, who is one of my favorite role players/sixth men of all-time. Stephen Curry probably should not have been a two-time MVP, but he is a better player than his forerunner Steve Nash, who also should not have won two MVPs. There are 15 multiple regular season MVP winners in pro basketball history (13 in the NBA, plus Mel Daniels in the ABA and Julius Erving, the only player who won at least one MVP in both leagues). Steve Nash and Karl Malone are the only names on that list who did not win a championship. Of the 12 multiple MVPs who won championships, nine won at least one Finals MVP; Bob Pettit retired before that award was given out, Bill Russell retired in the first year that the award was given out and Curry has watched four different players pick up Finals MVPs in his five Finals appearances (LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant twice and Kawhi Leonard). The multiple MVP winners did not win the Finals MVP every time they reached the Finals--other than Michael Jordan, who went six for six--but it is an odd look for a multiple MVP winner to play in five Finals during his prime and never be the best player on the court.

Stephen Curry is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James--those four players are Pantheon level players. There has been more than enough talk about "gravity," and more than enough excuses offered after Golden State's shaky three game start. Let's see if two-time MVP Stephen Curry can go as far with two All-Stars as Kobe Bryant did with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, before we elevate Curry above his great predecessors--or even some of his contemporaries.

In 2014, I wrote, "One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook." Westbrook validated both parts of that prediction, winning a well-deserved regular season MVP in 2017, and then having his game picked apart by critics in subsequent seasons during a run in which the 6-3 point guard averaged a triple double for three consecutive seasons. Westbrook has made the unprecedented and spectacular seem so ordinary that no one even pays attention any more. For most of pro basketball history it seemed extremely unlikely that anyone would match Oscar Robertson's triple double season, let alone Robertson's feat of averaging an aggregate triple double over a five season span (which Westbrook has a shot of matching); Magic Johnson, Lafayette Lever, Jason Kidd and maybe a couple other players were touted as possibly being capable of this, but none of them came particularly close to doing it.

What Westbrook has accomplished in the past three seasons may be the most underrated significant accomplishment in pro basketball history.

If LeBron James had averaged a triple double for a season, ESPN and the internet would have spontaneously combusted. Media members would be building a monument for James that would surpass the Taj Mahal and the pyramids of Egypt.

The first time Westbrook did this, he won the MVP--as he should have--but with each subsequent season the appreciation for his game has dimmed. I recall reading a quote attributed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar early in his career when he regularly averaged 30-plus ppg and he said that he would never try to average 40 or 50 ppg like Wilt Chamberlain because then people would expect him to do it every year. Paradoxically, it seems as if Westbrook would receive more appreciation if he had not repeated his triple double feat.

Westbrook can be effective in any system and with any set of teammates. His rebounding numbers are sometimes belittled but he does not "steal" rebounds; he plays hard all of the time, which makes him an anomaly in today's game. Westbrook does not know the meaning of "chill mode" or "load management."

Is Westbrook a Pantheon player? No, at least not yet. Like Curry, Westbrook is a little small for the Pantheon; Jerry West is the only Pantheon player shorter than 6-5, and West had no skill set weaknesses at either end of the court. Westbrook is an incredibly dynamic player but it is well-documented that he is not a great shooter, and it is also true that his shot selection could be better (though it is not as bad as many people suggest that it is, given the overall context of his teammates' strengths/weaknesses, game situation, etc.). Could Westbrook be a Pantheon player? If he is demonstrably the best player on a championship team in addition to everything else he has accomplished in the regular season and the playoffs then he would at least enter the conversation.

The pairing of Westbrook with Harden is fascinating. Westbrook plays hard and does not care much about his individual numbers (if he cared, he would shoot less so that his statistical profile would be more "efficient"). Harden plays hard when he has the ball, and he is often a vaguely disinterested observer during the rest of the game. Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has tried to solve this problem by letting Harden dribble the ball for a substantial portion of the game, because if Harden is dribbling (or shooting) he is engaged.

Westbrook is the first teammate that Harden has had in Houston who is clearly a better player than Harden (Dwight Howard was arguably better--and certainly had more of an impact on winning--but Howard was already declining and injury-prone while Harden's star was rising, at least in popular perception). The logical strategy for Houston is to let Westbrook attack the defense, cause a breakdown and then shoot or pass depending on what the defense does; playing that way, Westbrook could easily shoot a career-high percentage, as could Harden, and as could many other players on the team. Few teams have the necessary personnel or discipline to both stay in front of Westbrook and not leave Harden or other shooters open on the perimeter.

Having Harden dribble the ball until the ball becomes flat or Harden decide to shoot is, frankly, stupid--regardless of what the "analytics" might suggest. If Harden is dribbling, then Westbrook is spotting up, and he is not a spot up shooter. The whole offense is backwards at that point. Harden can be a deadly spot up shooter, if he is so inclined, but if he were so inclined then he would not have left Oklahoma City--where he was the third option behind Durant and Westbrook--to become the first option in Houston. Harden's ego may force him to remain the first option in Houston until his body breaks down or until a different coach imposes order, but Houston will not likely win a title with Harden as the first option.

Harden is not efficient, at least in terms of winning basketball games at the team level, and particularly in terms of winning basketball games at the team level during the playoffs. He is an advanced version of Gilbert Arenas, of whom I once wrote, "...if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next then the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up eight or nine three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success." Houston fans have watched the Harden horror show annually in the playoffs, as Harden perennially melts down at the key moments with errant shooting and/or huge turnover numbers.

Harden is a talented player, but it almost seems like he, D'Antoni and Daryl Morey are more interested in flouting conventional wisdom than in winning a title. Everyone understands that three pointers are worth more than two pointers. The problem is that basketball is not a station to station game like baseball; in baseball, if you uncover an analytical insight you have a better opportunity to isolate that insight and apply it because of the discrete nature of action in that sport. Basketball is different and in basketball three is not always more than two, because of floor balance, because of the higher degree of variance with three point shooting compared to shooting from closer to the hoop and because of many other factors. Unless the Rockets change their ways, it is much more likely that when Morey is an old man he will be reminiscing about how the Rockets "could have" won a title or "should have" won a title based on analytics than it is that he will be reminiscing about the Rockets actually winning a title anywhere other than his spreadsheets.

Consider Houston's recent 116-112 win over Oklahoma City. Harden shot 8-21 from the field--including 3-14 from three point range--but he was "efficient" according to "advanced basketball statistics" because he ended up with 40 points after shooting 21-22 from the free throw line. The scoring total and "efficiency" look gaudy, but it is interesting that Harden's plus/minus number was -3 in 37 minutes. Meanwhile, Westbrook finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists while shooting 9-16 from the field. Westbrook's plus/minus number was +19 in 36 minutes. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic that is only meaningful (1) if you watch a whole game and break down what happened/why or (2) over a large enough sample size of games to smooth out randomness due to garbage time, schedule strength, etc. Harden has demonstrated that over the course of a whole season he can pad his numbers enough against bad teams and/or in garbage time to amass a deceptively good plus/minus number--but in the playoffs, he cannot hide, and the truth about his deficiencies is consistently exposed. Near the end of this particular game, Harden bricked a three pointer, but Westbrook hustled to get the offensive rebound, brought the ball out to reset the offense and then drove to the hoop, forced the defense to collapse and swung the ball to P.J. Tucker in the right corner for a wide open three pointer that put Houston up 111-105 with 54 seconds remaining.

If the Rockets want to win a championship as presently constructed, then they need to understand that Westbrook is the team's best player and Harden is a great second option. On some nights, Harden--like any great second option--may be the first option, but Westbrook's energy and all-around play must be this team's centerpiece. The Rockets do not need for Harden to jack up 14 or 15 three pointers--particularly on a night when his shooting touch is off--because they can always spread the floor and get a good shot by giving the ball to Westbrook at the top of the key, or by letting Westbrook work his magic in transition.

By the end of the season, the Warriors will not be terrible, the Rockets will have one of the better records in the league, and the media--regardless of the truth--will perpetuate the narratives about Curry's "gravity," Westbrook's supposed selfishness and Harden's "efficiency."

Then, the playoffs will roll around, and the truth will be laid bare for all to see.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:34 PM