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Monday, August 10, 2020

Ten Observations Midway Through the NBA's Restart

The NBA season restart is at or past the midway point for each of the 22 participating teams, and the NBA playoffs will begin on August 17. After the restart concludes, I will post my annual playoff preview, but for now here are 10 observations about what we have seen thus far:

1) The Lakers look lethargic

LeBron James has scored 16, 20, 22, 19, and 31 points in five games during the restart. He had a field goal percentage of .467 or worse in three of those five games (he is shooting .495 from the field overall this season, his lowest field goal percentage since 2014-15). He also has missed one game. Anthony Davis scored 34 points in the first game of the restart, but he followed that up with 14 points on 2-7 field goal shooting. Since then his scoring totals have been 42, 9, 17, and 8. In three of those games--all losses--he did not attempt more than 11 field goals.

The Lakers have already clinched the number one seed in the Western Conference--though the value of that status is less than ever because there is no home court advance with all of the games being played at the same venue--and it may be that they are just coasting until the playoffs begin, but it is risky to develop bad habits in terms of preparation, focus, and execution. To cite an example from a different sport, consider the difference between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts back in the day when both teams were Super Bowl contenders; the Patriots tried to win every single game, while the Colts often rested key players in games that Coach Tony Dungy deemed meaningless. Consequently, the Patriots generally peaked during the postseason, while the Colts often performed below reasonable expectations. The restart NBA is a different sport in a different era, but I believe that the core values of pure competition hold true across sports and eras, so I will always be against resting/load management/tanking and any other situation in which a player and/or a team is not giving maximum effort.

Regarding the Lakers' talent level, it is hilarious to listen to commentators already creating excuses for LeBron James in case the Lakers do not win the title. We are now being told that James' supporting cast is weak. If that is true--and I am not convinced that it is--then player James can blame General Manager James, because General Manager James decided to recruit Anthony Davis and trade away several players to complete the Davis acquisition. During James' career, he has spent roughly half of his seasons with very deep teams that did not have another transcendent star, and the other half of his seasons as part of a Big Three (or, now, a Big Two); when James was blessed with depth, he and his supporters complained about the lack of star power, and when James was blessed with co-stars he and his supporters complained about an alleged lack of depth. Instead of looking for built-in excuses, I prefer the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant mindset, as Bryant defined it during the 2018 NBA Finals:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
If James learns to cultivate that mindset, perhaps he will be able to improve his 3-6 record in the NBA Finals.

2) The Bucks also look lethargic

For most of the 2019-20 season, it looked like the Milwaukee Bucks had a realistic chance to win 70 games. They faltered a bit before the league shut down in March, and the Bucks have not looked right during the restart, posting a 2-3 record so far. Like the Lakers, the Bucks have clinched the top seed in their conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo does not make excuses, and does not strike me as the kind of player who would coast--and he has played well throughout the season, including the restart--but the same thing is true for the Bucks that is true for the Lakers: coasting into the playoffs and then hoping or planning to turn things up is tempting fate. At their best, the Bucks combine an efficient offense with a suffocating defense; if they do not turn things up at both ends of the court, they may be good enough to survive the first two rounds of the playoffs but they could be vulnerable in the Eastern Conference Finals.

3) The Suns are the surprise team

Before the restart began, it would have been reasonable to ask why the Suns were even invited to participate; they were 26-39 and seemed to be going nowhere fast. Now, the Suns are the only restart team with a perfect record (5-0) and they are just one game behind Portland in the race to qualify for the play-in games that will determine which team is the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Phoenix still has to pass the Spurs in addition to the Trail Blazers, but the fact that a team that was dead in the water in March has a legitimate chance to make the playoffs is remarkable. Devin Booker is leading the way as he tries to prove that he is not only a great scorer but also a player who can carry his team to the playoffs. The Suns are also getting timely contributions from other players, including Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio. 

4) Luka Doncic has emerged as an MVP-caliber player

Luka Doncic is averaging 29.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg, and 8.9 apg this season, and he has taken his game to another level during the restart, posting three triple doubles plus a game with 40 points and 11 assists. In one of those triple doubles, he had 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists, and in another one he had 36 points, 14 rebounds and 19 assists. I saw Doncic in person at Madison Square Garden last season and I was impressed, but his development from rookie to second year pro is remarkable. He looks like a player who will be an MVP candidate for the foreseeable future. He deserves all of the praise he receives, though I cannot understand why Doncic's triple doubles are universally lauded but Russell Westbrook is not given the respect that he deserves for his unprecedented three straight seasons of averaging a triple double.

5) The Raptors are better than I expected

I thought that the Raptors' excellent record last season during games that Kawhi Leonard missed was a bit deceptive, but perhaps I was wrong; although I picked Toronto to be a playoff team even after Leonard's departure, I did not expect the Raptors to not only be the second seed but to also pose a credible threat to beat Milwaukee in a playoff series. The Raptors are 4-1 during the restart and--unlike the Lakers and the Bucks--they look very ready for the playoffs. We have been hearing for well over a decade how smart and ahead of the curve Houston's Daryl Morey is, but Morey's Rockets have never won anything; in contrast, Masai Ujiri not only fleeced the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony deal when Ujiri worked for the Denver Nuggets, but in Toronto he discovered Coach Nick Nurse and he built a championship roster that is talented enough and tough enough to remain very competitive even without Leonard. 

6) Lillard versus Beverley and George

After Portland's Damian Lillard choked at the end of a loss that may cost his team a playoff berth, the Clippers' Paul George and Patrick Beverley--each of whom have been eliminated from the playoffs after Lillard hit a game-winning shot---trash-talked Lillard in person and via social media. Lillard, never bashful, returned fire.

It is hilarious to see Damian Lillard trading barbs with Paul George and Patrick Beverley, because this provides an opportunity to listen to three guys who have never won an NBA title debating who knows more about winning, with the correct answer being: None of the above!

I respect Lillard's toughness and shotmaking ability, but a player with his size and skill set is unlikely to ever lead a team to a title. As for the Clippers, the only people in that locker room who should open their mouths on this subject are the people who have too much sense to waste energy doing so: Championship-winning Coach Doc Rivers, championship-winning Coach (and now an assistant coach) Tyronn Lue, and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. 

7) The level of play has been higher than I expected

I feared that the restart would feature some of the abysmal basketball that we saw in the wake of some of the NBA's labor stoppages that resulted in delayed, lockout-shortened seasons. I am pleasantly surprised at the overall level of play that we have seen; I have avoided watching the Wizards and the Kings and I am sure that their level of play has not been great, but most of the rest of the teams look sharper than I would have expected.

8) Russell Westbrook is the key for the high-variance Houston Rockets

Russell Westbrook started the season slowly by his lofty standards as he recovered from off-season knee surgery and as he adjusted to playing for a new team that has a quirky playing style, but he has still had an impressive--and overlooked--season, averaging 27.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, and 7.1 apg. Westbrook averaged a triple double in each of the past three seasons--a feat that had never been accomplished before, and that is unlikely to be matched--but even though he will not average a triple double this season one could argue that this is the best all-around season of his career: he is posting his best field goal percentage (.472), his second highest mpg average, his third highest scoring average, and his fourth highest rebounding average. Westbrook is having an MVP-caliber season, but for some reason his contributions are minimized, if not completely ignored.

Westbrook's speed, ability to get into the paint at will, and his sublime passing are crucial elements for Houston. The Rockets have pushed their proverbial chips to the middle of the table and gone all-in terms of playing small ball: they know that they will likely be outrebounded by a significant margin in every game, and that they likely will be outscored in the paint by a significant margin in every game. They are wagering that they will force enough turnovers and make enough three pointers to more than compensate for their roster's inherent structural weaknesses. The Rockets' reliance on three point shooting is a high-variance approach: they could get hot from long range and beat anyone once, but a high-variance approach is unlikely to work four times in a seven game series against a good team. The best chance for this high-variance approach to succeed is to place the ball in Westbrook's capable hands as much as possible. If the Rockets win the title (which I do not expect to happen, but which is not impossible for a high-variance team playing in an environment with no home court advantage), James Harden will without doubt receive most of the credit, but Westbrook will have provided the driving force--literally.

9) T.J. Warren is the breakout star of the restart

T.J. Warren had proven that he was a reliable high double figure scorer prior to the restart, but his scoring numbers during the restart are ridiculous: 53, 34, 32, 16, 39. That adds up to 34.8 ppg. These scoring outbursts have lifted his scoring average to a career-high 19.9 ppg, and have helped Warren's Indiana Pacers to post a 4-1 record so far during the restart. The six year veteran was infamously traded from Phoenix to Indiana for cash considerations, and he seems focused on making all of his opponents pay for what he considers to be disrespect.

10) Injuries are taking a toll

One of the concerns about bringing the players back to game action relatively quickly after several months of no games and no practices is a heightened risk of injury. Injuries are part of any sport, and there is no way to prove that the players who have gotten injured during the restart would not have gotten injured otherwise, but Ben Simmons is out indefinitely and many other players have suffered injuries that have caused them to miss at least one game. The wear and tear of the NBA game is cumulative, and the impact of even a slight dip in fitness/conditioning/stamina will continue to make its presence felt. After the restart has concluded, it would be interesting to see some analytics regarding the relative frequency and severity of injuries during this time frame compared to what happened previously under normal conditions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 AM



At Monday, August 10, 2020 4:38:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...


I agree that the media is already building in excuses in case the Lakers don't make the finals. I've seen media members call LeBron the MVP because he doesn't have the help that Giannis has, but in the same segment call Anthony Davis underrated. I'm not sure what the Lakers's problem is. We'll find out soon enough if the Lakers are in "chill mode" or not. Last week I told a relative the Lakers will regret not taking these 8 games seriously.

The Bucks have me worried as well, but I don't think there is a team in the East strong enough to beat them 4 times in a series. Even the Raptors.

The jury is still out on Luka for me. I can admit that it bothers me how he gets praise for things that Westbrook (and even Harden) have already done. I'd like to see how he performs in the playoffs. If you watch a lot of his games, he tends to whine a lot. I can't help, but get that "great white hope" feeling when it comes to his praise. He's an amazing player regardless. Also, because I've been watching basketball for so long, I often unfairly question how some of today's players would fare in the eras when the perimeter offensive players couldn't do whatever they wanted.

I read a comment from someone the other day that said, "Lillard is one of the most talk-the-talk, but not walk-the-walk guys in the league today". I couldn't have said it better myself.

We've beaten the Westbrook thing dead. He'll likely never get his due. I still hate rooting for Harden and the Rockets, but it is what it is. I think they have a big shot, but again, I'm biased.

Like you, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of level of play, but I've been extremely impressed. I think the atmosphere of no fans is actually helping guys like TJ Warren. Performing in front of tens of thousands of people is different from just having your coaches and peers around. We've heard stories of how notoriously bad free throw shooters shoot 90% in practice. While these games aren't exactly the same as off-camera scrimmages, I truly wonder how the careers of past players would have played out had they played in these type of games.

At Monday, August 10, 2020 5:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


While the media often looks to create and/or promote any potential "great white hope," I don't think that is happening with Doncic. I also don't think that he whines excessively. My only critique about his game is that he needs to work on his defense; his defense has improved, but he needs to keep working on it.

You may be right that the bubble atmosphere is helping many players who struggle to deal with the pressure of playing in front of large crowds.

At Tuesday, August 11, 2020 11:52:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

@Kyle and @David,

I understand casting doubt towards Paul George regarding winnning. He didn't win with the Pacers and then chose to chase a team-up (forced 1 trade, then asked for another). He's also come up short in big moments (embarrassingly at times...like the 2017 playoffs). So, in general, dude should keep his mouth closed as he tends to put his foot in it.

To be clear, Lillard didn't talk about anything other than his failure to hit the freethrows. That is until the media brought up George and Beverely waiving goodbye to him. And even then, he phrased his answer in a way that Bev and George were showing him respect with their actions because they're motivated to beat him. After that, George and Bev tweeted at him pure pettiness.

I get it that Lillard hasn't won a championship. But, his response tweet to George that George has been "running from the grind" certainly rings true. Lillard has improved every year he's been in the league. He's also elevated his team who finally got over their 2nd round hump by making it to the West Finals last year. And this year, the Blazers were decimated by injuries early on -- all three of their rotation big men. Yet he carried the Blazers with incredible play instead of taking the year off like other "star" point guards (cough cough Kyrie Irving). He's now put them in a position to make the playoffs and has made some voters' MVP ballots. He's also revitalized Melo's career!

I believe hard work produces winners. Which is why I loved Kobe. RIP.

Lillard hasn't won a chip (yet), and David you may be right that his size could hold him back from ever being "the man" on a championship team...but he's fully embraced the grind and continues to push beyond everyone else's expectations.

I think he's earned the right to speak when spoken to.

At Wednesday, August 12, 2020 12:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You make some valid points. George and Beverley definitely acted more pettily than Lillard in this situation. I respect Lillard more than I respect them, for the reasons that you provided.

My larger point is that none of these guys can speak from experience about what it takes to win a championship. From that perspective, a valid answer from Lillard could have been something along the lines of, "I don't pay any attention to foolishness from the other team. My only focus is on doing what I have to do to help my team win a championship." Bragging about putting out dudes from the first round of the playoffs prior to someone else putting you out later in the playoffs is silly, in my opinion. At the end of the day, Lillard, George, and Beverley each watch the Finals on TV every year.

Of course, Lillard has a "right" to speak. My point is that what he said, in the context of a career during which he has not won a title, strikes me as silly, and it will look even sillier if Portland fails to qualify for the playoffs. Lillard's team has a below .500 record. It is amazing how much praise and attention he receives from the media, compared to the criticism that Kobe Bryant received during the two years that he pushed, pulled and dragged the Lakers to the playoffs with Kwame Brown at center and Smush Parker at point guard. Lillard's supporting cast this year--even with the injuries--is way better than what Bryant had during that era. What record would Lillard have with that supporting cast? On the other hand, I am pretty sure that prime Bryant could have led this Portland team to the playoffs without having to struggle to qualify for a play-in game.

So, Lillard's talk does not signify much, in the larger context of winning a title.

On a related note, I have always thought it would be great if any commercial featuring an NBA player (or any pro athlete) would not be run after that player's team is eliminated from the playoffs. We don't need to see Chris Paul or James Harden or Damian Lillard in commercials during the NBA Finals if their teams are not in the NBA Finals. I know that this will never happen for a variety of reasons, but it would be cool if it did; maybe in that scenario more endorsement money would flow to players who actually are winners/champions.

At Wednesday, August 12, 2020 2:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

new topic re restart: what suspension, if any, does Giannis deserve for the headbutt?

At Wednesday, August 12, 2020 3:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Unless I am mistaken, a one game suspension is automatic. The NBA can examine a player's previous conduct/suspensions (if applicable) and impose a longer suspension, but I would not expect that to happen here.

At Friday, August 14, 2020 1:45:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Bryant was, no question a better player. Bigger, elite defensively (at least in his prime), without a glaring skillset weakness. I wholeheartedly agree that Bryant could do more with less than any of the 3 we're discussing. No question. Though, as a Kobe stan, I'm admittedly a bit biased.

As for your related comment. Totally agree there as well. I remember there was like a sprite or gatorade commercial with Paul George that kept running all the way through the Finals after he'd been eliminated in the first or second round. lol. CP3 commercials run all the time thanks to his tight fisted grip on all state.

At Friday, August 14, 2020 3:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Bryant was not "bigger" than Paul George (or at least not taller), but Bryant was probably physically stronger and Bryant certainly played "bigger." Bryant is in the all-time Pantheon. None of the other guys is even close to the Pantheon, to put it mildly.


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