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Monday, March 09, 2020

Focused and Forceful LeBron James Leads the Lakers to Back to Back Wins over Bucks, Clippers

The L.A. Lakers defeated the L.A. Clippers 112-103 on Sunday night to push their Western Conference-leading record to 49-13. The Lakers had lost both of their previous games against the Clippers this season, with LeBron James being held well below his season scoring average and field goal percentage. This time, James finished with 28 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds while shooting 7-17 from the field, but those numbers do not tell the story of James' dominance; sometimes, James will put up gaudy statistics without impacting the flow of the game, but this is an instance where the box score understates his impact: James attacked the hoop to score, he took the challenge of guarding Kawhi Leonard for extended stretches, and he set a mental and physical tone that his teammates followed. With the result up for grabs in the fourth quarter, James scored 12 points in the final stanza to put the game away. He only shot 3-8 from the field to compile those 12 points, but his aggressive drives took over the game. Being the best player on the court, and helping your team win games, is about a lot more than just putting some pretty numbers in the box score.

One sequence told the story of the game: LeBron James attacked Kawhi Leonard from the left block, drove to the middle of the lane, elevated for a shot, and overpowered Leonard, who fell to the floor while fouling James as James scored. A "stat guru" will tell you that a post up shot is worth two points, and is not as efficient as a three point shot--but that ignores the reality of competition. Prior to the game, ESPN showed a revealing film clip from one of the James-Leonard NBA Finals showdowns; James was at the free throw line, and as Leonard checked back into the game James said "Aw, shucks" (or words to that effect): it was obvious that James wanted no part of dealing with Leonard, and that has been one of the most puzzling things about James throughout his career, because most great players love to compete against other great players. If you have ever played basketball at any level, you know what it means for your team's confidence when the best player on your team can take the best player on the other team; if you have ever played an individual sport such as chess, or tennis, or boxing, you know what it feels like when your opponent is afraid of you.

I am not saying that Leonard is afraid of James--but the point is that, at least in this game, James was not afraid of Leonard, and that had an impact on the Lakers that no statistic can directly measure.

This version of LeBron James is much more valuable than the version of LeBron James who drifts around the perimeter, collects a triple double, and does not control the game.

The Lakers were ahead 85-81 after three quarters, and they are now 42-0 this season in games that they led at the end of three quarters. That ability to maintain/extend leads is important, and should serve the Lakers well during the playoffs; they are demonstrating the ability to play to their strengths and be consistent, in contrast to a team like the Houston Rockets that relies on gimmicks and three point shooting, resulting in tremendous variance from game to game, and even from quarter to quarter.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 30 points, and he also grabbed eight rebounds. The Clippers often left Avery Bradley open while they tried to cope with James and Davis; Bradley punished the Clippers by scoring 24 points on 9-17 field goal shooting, including 6-12 from three point range.

Paul George scored a game-high 31 points on 9-16 field goal shooting, but he did most of his damage in the first half (19 points, 7-12 field goal shooting), and he disappeared in the fourth quarter with the outcome of the game in doubt. This kind of performance should concern Clippers' fans: the numbers look great, but an elite player should impact the game in some fashion down the stretch. Kawhi Leonard did not play poorly, but he also did not have the impact that one would expect based on his previous success head to head against LeBron James and against LeBron James' teams. Leonard scored 27 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, but he shot just 2-9 from three point range, and he only had two rebounds and no assists. Montrezl Harrell had a strong game in every sense of the word, muscling his way to 20 points, eight rebounds, and two blocked shots. Lou Williams scored just seven points on 3-11 field goal shooting; he also was targeted on defense by the Lakers on several late possessions, as the Lakers set screens to force switches so that Williams ended up as the defender on the ballhandler.

The Lakers' win over their biggest Western Conference rival comes just two days after the Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 113-103 to tie the head to head season series at 1-1. The Bucks have separated themselves from the rest of the NBA with a 53-11 record, but they may be falling back to the pack: not only have they lost three of their past four games, but Sunday's loss to Phoenix marks the first time this season that the Bucks lost consecutive games. Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out the Phoenix game due to a knee injury, and that injury is expected to cause him to miss at least one more game.

LeBron James played at an MVP level versus the Bucks (37 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, 12-21 field goal shooting), attacking the hoop to score on offense, while also taking the challenge of guarding Antetokounmpo late in the game; it should be noted that Antetokounmpo also played at an MVP level (32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, 10-21 field goal shooting), and that the difference in this particular game was that James' supporting cast--led by another MVP candidate, Anthony Davis (30 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots)--outplayed Antetokounmpo's supporting cast.

James' statistics on Sunday versus the Clippers were not as impressive as his statistics versus the Bucks, but in both games he played with the focus, intensity, and physicality that the Lakers will need from him if they are going to win the championship.

Recency bias and the addiction to "hot takes" could provoke some people to treat the Lakers' wins over the Bucks and Clippers as definitive statements about team supremacy, and about the 2020 MVP race, but it is worth taking a look at the bigger picture before drawing conclusions.

Here is the Lakers' record this season versus the league's other top teams:

Milwaukee: 1-1
L.A. Clippers: 1-2 (one game remaining)
Denver: 2-1 (one game remaining)
Toronto: 0-1 (one game remaining)
Boston: 1-1

Total: 5-6 (plus three games remaining)

Here is the Bucks' record against the elite teams:

L.A. Lakers: 1-1
L.A. Clippers: 2-0
Denver: 0-1 (one game remaining)
Toronto: 2-0 (two games remaining)
Boston: 1-1 (two games remaining)

Total: 6-3 (five games remaining)

The Bucks have been more consistent than the Lakers over the course of the season, but perhaps the Lakers are peaking at the right time. If James plays throughout the playoffs the way that he played on Friday and Sunday, the Lakers will be very difficult to beat.

James has had an excellent season by any standard, and a remarkable season for a 35 year old in his 17th season. James is leading the league in assists (10.7 apg) while also ranking 11th in scoring (25.6 ppg) and maintaining averages close to his career norms in rebounding (7.8 rpg; 7.4 rpg for his career), steals (1.3 spg; 1.6 spg for his career), field goal percentage (.499; .504 for his career), and three point field goal percentage (.347; .344 for his career). Leading the league in assists is nice, but in order to win the championship the Lakers need for James to attack the paint as a scorer like he did versus the Bucks and versus the Clippers, and not just be a big John Stockton, so it is significant that James is on pace to set the all-time single season scoring record for a player who is at least 35 years old while playing in his 15th season or later.

According to BasketballReference.com, there have been 19 players in NBA/ABA history who have compiled a total of 29 seasons during which they averaged at least 15 ppg in their 15th season or later while being at least 35 years old on February 1 during the season, and while playing enough games to qualify for the league's statistical leaderboards (this list does not include the current campaigns of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who are each on pace to join this group). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone are the all-time leaders with four such seasons each. From 1984-87, Abdul-Jabbar won two championships, captured the 1985 Finals MVP, made the All-NBA Team three times (including two First Team selections), and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting three times (fourth in 1984, fourth in 1985, fifth in 1986). His peak scoring average during that time frame was 23.4 ppg (1986), and he averaged at least 21.5 ppg in three of those four seasons. Abdul-Jabbar accomplished more as an "old" player than some Hall of Famers did during their entire careers!

From 2000-03, Malone made the All-NBA Team twice and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting once (fourth in 2000). His peak scoring average during that time frame was 25.5 ppg, and he averaged at least 20.6 ppg in each of those four seasons.

James is on pace to break Malone's single season ppg record for a player who is 35 or older in at least his 15th season; in the past 35 years or so there has been a significant increase in the number of such players who are still big-time scorers: when Julius Erving averaged 18.1 ppg as a 36 year old in his 15th season (1985-86), that was the fourth highest scoring average ever for a player 35 or older in at least his 15th season--trailing only three Abdul-Jabbar campaigns--but now Erving's scoring average ranks 14th on the list (and will be 15th barring a collapse down the stretch by James). Erving turned 35 toward the end of the 1984-85 season, when he averaged 20.0 ppg as the second best player on a Philadelphia team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics.

Of course, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, and James are much taller and bigger than Erving; since Erving retired, the only "mid-size" older players who have exceeded Erving's 18.1 ppg mark are Michael Jordan (20.0 ppg as a 40 year old in 2003), Paul Pierce (18.6 ppg as a 35 year old in 2013), and Clyde Drexler (18.4 ppg as a 35 year old in 1998). Erving had 82 blocked shots in 74 games as a 36 year old guard/forward (and he had 94 blocked shots in 60 games as a 37 year old in his final season); in the seasons listed above, Drexler had 42 blocked shots in 70 games, Jordan had 39 in 82 games, and Pierce had 30 in 77 games. James has 30 blocked shots in 59 games this season. Erving also had 169 offensive rebounds, tied with Karl Malone for fourth best among the 35-plus year olds in their 15th season or later who averaged at least 15 ppg, trailing only Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neal. James has 57 offensive rebounds so far this season.

James may be having the best regular season ever by a player who is at least 35 years old who has played at least 15 seasons, but the above numbers show that when people talk about great players who maintained their elite athletic ability at an advanced age Erving's name should be mentioned--and Abdul-Jabbar set a four year standard that even James may find hard to match.

Some people assumed that after NBA salaries exploded we would see fewer long careers, but the opposite has happened: why would anyone walk away from making millions of dollars per year?

James is on the short list of 2020 regular season MVP candidates, but 2019 regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has been even better this season in several key statistical categories than he was last season:

2019: 27.7 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.5 bpg, .578 FG%, .256 3FG%, .729 FT%
2020: 29.6 ppg, 13.7 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.0 bpg, .547 FG%, .306 3FG%, .633 FT%

Furthermore, Antetokounmpo's Bucks have been so dominant that he has only had to play 30.9 mpg (he averaged 32.8 mpg last season, and 36.7 mpg two years ago), and he often plays sparingly, if at all, in the fourth quarter. Despite playing fewer minutes than James, Antetokounmpo is scoring more points and grabbing more rebounds than James while shooting better from the field. While it may be true that the Bucks benefit from playing in a weaker conference than the Lakers, it is indisputably true (as noted above) that the Bucks have performed better against the elite teams than the Lakers have.

James is an MVP candidate, which is a rare and remarkable accomplishment for a 35 year old, and his past two games may be his best, most impactful games of this season--but it would be odd to determine the MVP winner based on one or two games out of an 82 game season. Antetokounmpo has been the best player in the league over the entire course of the season, and he deserves to win the MVP again, barring something significant and unforeseen happening during the season's final weeks.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM



At Monday, March 09, 2020 12:28:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


Ive been saying this a long time on this site. Lebron james is unreal to be in his 17th season and close to as good as 2 players in they prime like giannis and kawhi saying alot.

The lakers are peaking at right time and i think they have a great shot at winning the title.

I just dont think people understand there has never been a athlete in any sport in they 17th season at age 35 as good as lebron james is. Only player any where near the area code is tom brady.

Should be epic playoff series coming up this playoff

At Monday, March 09, 2020 11:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Really? I think that MJ at 35 is "near the area code": regular season MVP, scoring champion, Finals MVP, third championship in a row.

Kareem at 35 is at least in the conversation with LeBron at 35.

No one is questioning LeBron's greatness, though, and if you go through the archives here you will see that I have said "for a long time" that LeBron earned more regular season MVPs than he won (as did Kobe, and as did Shaq--the voters lost their way several times).

All I am saying regarding this season is that the MVP is a season-long award, not an award for a great weekend. Giannis has had a better, more consistent season than LeBron. There are still almost 20 games to go, so that may change, but right now Giannis is the MVP, and LeBron is second.

I agree that this year's playoffs should be great.


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