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Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Antetokounmpo-Harden Comparison is No Comparison

"I wish I could be 7 feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I'll take that any day.--James Harden, making a not so veiled reference to Giannis Antetokounmpo

The notion that there is a "feud" between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden is nonsense created by ESPN, and then hyped up by ESPN and other media outlets to boost ratings and internet clicks. There is not a Giannis Antetokounmpo-James Harden "feud" because Antetokounmpo is too mature to get involved in such foolishness. Antetokounmpo is focused on leading his Milwaukee Bucks to this year's NBA championship, not on arguing about who should have won last year's regular season MVP or who should win this year's regular season MVP.

There are two stories here: one is about objectively comparing the two players on a skill set basis, and the other is about the insights we can gain into the mentality of the two players.

Scottie Pippen, who has never been afraid to speak his mind, cut to the chase in response to Harden's comment to Rachel Nichols that he is unstoppable: Pippen noted that Houston is not in the top three in the West, so clearly someone is able to stop him! Harden thinks that if he scores 35 points then he is "unstoppable" even if his team loses, but six-time NBA champion/two-time Olympic gold medalist Pippen understand that in a team sport the goal is team victory, not individual glory.

Harden has been the show in Houston for seven full seasons (this is his eighth), and the result has been three first round losses, two second round losses, and two Western Conference Finals losses. Harden's field goal percentages during those playoff runs are ugly: .391, .376, .439, .410, .413, .410, .413--and he was not on fire from three point range, either: .341, .296, .383, .310, .278, .299, .350. Harden is awful when it matters most. The gimmicks that he relies on to pile up regular season points do not work in the playoffs. Harden's notion that he "learn(ed) how to play basketball" is a joke; Harden is a 25-27 ppg scorer (which is nothing to sneeze at, but also far from being the best scorer--let alone best player--in the league) who became a 30-plus ppg scorer only after he was permitted to travel, and to commit offensive fouls, with impunity. Also, like almost every ball dominant guard who has played for Coach Mike D'Antoni, Harden's regular season numbers are inflated by the system/style of play. Harden lacks the all-around offensive skill set not just of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but also of many other great scorers of the past and present who could score from all areas of the floor without traveling and committing offensive fouls. For instance, Larry Bird, Adrian Dantley and Dell Curry each had a great step back move that did not involve traveling and/or committing a foul.

I refuted the absurd notion that Harden is the best offensive player of all-time, and I demonstrated that Harden should not be ranked ahead of Michael Jordan as a scorer, so I refer the interested reader to those two articles as an introduction to rebutting the Harden mythology that has taken hold in many quarters--including, apparently, in Harden's mind (assuming that he believes his public statements about himself).

Strip away the hype that has piled up over the past several years, and it is evident that Harden is a perennial All-Star caliber player, but also that he is not an elite player on the level of (in no particular order) Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant (when healthy) and Stephen Curry (when healthy). One funny aspect of the Antetokounmpo-Harden comparison is that, while Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league, it is not even clear that Harden is the best player on his own team. The Rockets pulled a Jedi-mind trick on Harden by going all-in with the small ball lineup: playing small forces Harden to be attentive on defense (he will be easily exposed if he is not, because the other four small players play hard) while also shifting him more often to the post at that end of the court (Harden is much better at post defense than at perimeter defense); further, while many people may have wrongly assumed that small ball is meant to unleash Harden, the truth is that after Houston committed to small ball Harden's numbers have been dropping while Westbrook's numbers are surging, and it is not coincidental that this shift in emphasis has corresponded with the Rockets being more successful as a team. The only way that Houston has a chance to win a championship is with Westbrook leading the way on offense by relentlessly attacking the hoop while all five small players hustle and scrap on defense and on the boards, a point that I made in my 2019-20 Western Conference Preview: "If the Rockets let Westbrook run the offense, attack the hoop and pass to open shooters when he is trapped then they will have a virtually unstoppable offense--and if the Rockets also commit to consistently playing hard and smart on defense then they will be serious championship contenders."

Harden is a good shooter (at least in the regular season) who is physically strong and durable. He is a capable, if not creative, passer; Houston's system places shooters in designated spots, and when Harden elects to stop dribbling and not shoot he is competent at making passes to those shooters; these could be called "Mike D'Antoni assists," and there are many point guards in the NBA who could rack up assists playing Harden's role. Harden is also effective at delivering lob passes to cutters. Harden rebounds well for his size, and he is a sturdy low post defender when he decides to engage mentally at that end of the court; he is often inattentive and ineffective as a perimeter defender, and he is generally awful at making the transition from offense to defense, particularly when the opposing team is running a fast break. Harden has repeatedly choked in the playoffs, and his inability to be at his best when it matters most puts into question just how meaningful his gaudy regular season numbers are.

Antetokounmpo is taller, bigger, stronger and faster than Harden. Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA, so even if I thought that Antetokounmpo and Harden were approximately equal from a skill set standpoint I would give Antetokounmpo the edge based on his significant size advantage. Antetokounmpo is a better overall scorer than Harden even though Harden is a better three point shooter and a better free throw shooter; Antetokounmpo is a better scorer in the paint, he is a better scorer per minute, and--despite Harden's prolific three point shooting that, at least on paper, compensates for his poor field goal percentage--he is a more efficient shooter. Moreover, Antetokounmpo can dominate consistently in different game situations, while Harden's impact is high variance: when Harden is not making three point shots he generates a lot of empty possessions, something that regularly kills Houston in the playoffs. It is obvious that Antetokounmpo is a vastly superior rebounder, but even adjusting for the positional difference he is still a better rebounder than Harden. Defensively, there is no comparison; Antetokounmpo is arguably the best defensive player in the NBA, while Harden struggles to not be a liability at that end of the court. Antetokounmpo passes the ball to generate points for his team, while Harden passes the ball to generate assists for himself, and there is a big difference; this is like comparing two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas to Stephon Marbury: if you only look at assists or "advanced basketball statistics" but you do not watch the game with understanding then you miss the big picture. Regarding ballhandling, I prefer Antetokounmpo's relentless drives to the paint over Harden's overdribbling, traveling, and ceaseless efforts to trick officials into calling fouls in his favor.

It is difficult to see how an objective and knowledgeable basketball talent evaluator would take Harden over Antetokounmpo, or even think that the comparison is particularly close.

Switching from a skill set comparison to a mentality comparison, the regular season MVP is an obsession for James Harden, and for the Houston Rockets as well. Harden won the 2018 MVP, and he finished second in 2015, 2017 and 2019. He has been very outspoken in his belief that he should have won the award each of the times that he placed second, and the Rockets have not been shy about publicizing (slanted) statistics to try to support Harden's contentions. It is evident that the regular season MVP means more to Harden than winning a championship; if this were not true, then Harden would be focused on adapting his game to postseason play to optimize his team's winning chances as opposed to talking so much about why he should be voted as the best regular season player. Harden forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he craved individual glory, and could not stomach the notion of being the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, even though that was Harden's best chance to win a title; he could have been the Manu Ginobili of this era, winning multiple rings, but it was more important to him to chase the scoring title and the MVP award.

In contrast, Antetokounmpo has not lobbied for the MVP award, and prior to this season he said that he should not be referred to as the reigning MVP because last season is over, and therefore he has to prove himself all over again. Antetokounmpo has worked on his outside shooting and his decision making; now, when opposing teams pack the paint against him he is making the correct passes, or he is punishing them by hitting open jumpers. He is upgrading his skill set to be ready for the postseason. He plays hard all the time, and you can tell that his focus is winning, not individual statistics.

Antetokounmpo's growth curve, skill set and mentality suggest that he could be a Pantheon level player. To accomplish that, he must prove to be consistent and durable, and he must elevate his team to perennial championship contention.

Harden is in a different, lesser category. Every time Harden opens his mouth, and every time Harden bricks a three pointer during the playoffs, he tells us a lot about his mentality and his game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 PM

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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Are the Milwaukee Bucks a Historically Great Team?

This season, NBA media coverage has focused a spotlight on--in no particular order--the new-look Lakers, the new-look Clippers, the emergence of Luka Doncic as an MVP candidate, Joel Embiid's every utterance (no matter how silly or inconsequential), rookie Zion Williamson (who will miss more than half of the season even if he plays in every game the rest of the way), the return of Carmelo Anthony, Houston going all-in on small ball, and every single real and imagined source of drama with the two New York teams.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks are on pace to become just the third team in NBA history to win at least 70 regular season games. The first team to win a least 70 regular season games, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10), is arguably the greatest team of all-time; the Bulls won the title that season, and then won the next two titles as well. The second team to win at least 70 regular season games, the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9), had already won the 2015 title and then, after losing in the 2016 Finals, won the next two championships after acquiring Kevin Durant.

In other words, although the sample size of 70 win teams is small, each of the two teams that  accomplished this feat proved to be a dynasty that won multiple championships.

No one seems to think about or talk about the Bucks in those terms, even though the Bucks went an NBA-best 60-22 last season. Perhaps some of the skepticism about the Bucks stems from the fact that the Bucks squandered a 2-0 lead versus the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, but consider that if the Bucks had won game three of that series (a contest that went to overtime) they likely would swept the Raptors and then beaten Golden State to win the title.

The Bucks were a championship-caliber club last season, and rather than making any excuses about falling short they have come back this season with renewed focus and energy. You have to look long and hard to find any weaknesses with this team: the Bucks lead the league in scoring (120.8 ppg), point differential (12.2 ppg), defensive field goal percentage (.412), and rebounding differential (5.9 rpg). They also rank second in field goal percentage (.483), third in blocked shots (6.8 bpg), and fifth in assists (26.2 apg). Perhaps the only slight blemishes are that the Bucks are in the middle of the pack in three point field goal percentage (.362, 15th), and they are near the bottom of the league in free throw percentage (.738, 27th).

The Bucks also have the 2019 regular season MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who sets a mature tone for this team: he refuses to be called the reigning MVP--stating that he must prove himself all over again this season--and he refuses to work out with players from opposing teams during the offseason. Antetokounmpo is confident but humble, and he has worked very hard to become a complete player: he scores, he rebounds, he passes, he defends, and he leads. He is not a pure shooter, but he is an improving shooter, and the many things that he does at the highest level more than make up for the one skill that he does not do at the highest level (which is not to say that he should be--or is--satisfied with his shooting). 

The Bucks are 50-8 after winning 108-97 in Toronto in the second game of a back to back set, and the Bucks had already clinched a playoff berth earlier in the season than any other team in NBA history. The defending NBA champion Raptors built a double digit first half lead, but the Bucks trimmed that margin to 52-50 by halftime, and then the Bucks dominated the third quarter 34-19.

The Raptors had a good game plan against the Bucks (keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint, make him play in a crowd, and then fire up a ton of three pointers on offense), and the Raptors executed reasonably well--but they still lost by double digits. Antetokoumpo had an off game by his high standards--but he finished with 19 points, 19 rebounds, and eight assists, though he shot just 5-14 from the field. Khris Middleton led the Bucks in scoring with 22 points on 7-14 field goal shooting. Middleton is on pace to average more than 20 ppg while shooting at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range, and at least .900 from the free throw line. The only members of the 20 ppg .500/.400/.900 club are Stephen Curry, Larry Bird (twice), Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant. Anteotokounmpo is the best player in the NBA, but it takes nothing away from his greatness to acknowledge that Middleton is an exceptional player in his own right.

Pascal Siakam topped the Raptors with 22 points, but he had a -20 plus/minus number, tied for the worst in this game. The Raptors know that they will struggle on the boards against the Bucks (Milwaukee won the rebounding battle 53-43), and they tried to compensate with long-range bombing, making 18 of their 52 three point attempts.

The 2007 Dallas Mavericks went 67-15 during the regular season before losing to Golden State 4-2 in the first round in the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. At that time, the only other NBA team to win at least 65 regular season games and not capture the championship was the 1973 Boston Celtics, who lost 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion New York Knicks after Hall of Famer John Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury; the Celtics won two of the next three championships.

Since 2007, the 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16, lost in the Eastern Conference Finals), the 2016 San Antonio Spurs (67-15, lost in the Western Conference semifinals), the 2016 Golden State Warriors (73-9, lost in the NBA Finals), and the 2018 Houston Rockets (65-17, lost in the Western Conference Finals) each failed to claim the title after winning at least 65 regular season games. Perhaps the failures of these recent 65-plus win teams create skepticism about the Bucks. I wonder if tanking plus decline in the overall depth of talent in the NBA has made it relatively easier for a team to win 65-plus games; other than the 2016 Warriors (who, as noted above, were in the midst of winning three titles in four seasons), none of these 65-plus win teams that failed to win a title will be much remembered or talked about 10 or 20 years from now. There is no reason to believe that any of those teams would win a seven game series against 65-plus win teams from the 1980s such as the 1983 76ers, 1986 Celtics, or 1987 Lakers.

However, there are good reasons to think that the Bucks are cut from a different cloth than the 65 win teams that fell short. Start with Antetokounmpo. He is playing at a higher overall level than the best player on any of those teams did. I saw 2009 LeBron James in person, and I have seen 2020 Antetokounmpo in person, though not as many times as I saw James, and there is no doubt in my mind that this Antetokounmpo is a better, more complete player than that James; Antetokounmpo does not quit, does not enter "chill mode," and he has been an elite defender for a while. Then, consider that the Bucks have surrounded Antemkounmpo with a well-balanced supporting cast, led by a legitimate All-Star/All-NBA caliber player in Middleton.

The main challenge for the Bucks will be to overcome defenses that load up against Antetokounmpo while packing the paint. Contrary to the oversimplified story lines provided by many media members, this is not a challenge for Antetokounmpo alone, nor is it entirely the responsibility of Coach Mike Budenholzer to make the proverbial (and overrated) "in game adjustment." There is not one magic answer to such defenses. At times, Antetokounmpo needs to shoot the face up jumper with confidence, to punish defenders who concede such shots to him. At times, Anteotkounmpo needs to quickly and decisively pass the ball to the open man--but it is that player's responsibility to position himself in a spot where he can immediately shoot, drive, or make the next pass. Poise and proper spacing are critical, because defenses that play two or three on one versus Antetokounmpo inevitably are conceding open shots elsewhere on the court. The Bucks must dictate who is taking those shots, and from where those shots are being taken.

Against Toronto last night--particularly in the second half--the Bucks deftly exploited the holes in Toronto's defense. Sometimes, Middleton cut through the paint and Antetokounmpo hit him with a pinpoint pass. Other times, Antetokounmpo gave up the ball, and his teammates responded with poised aggression.

Injuries can derail any team at any time; we saw that last season with the Warriors. It is also possible that the Lakers, Clippers, or maybe even the Celtics will prove to be better than the Bucks over the course of a seven game series.

However, the Bucks have shown and proved enough during the past year and a half that it is not ridiculous to compare them to the 65-win teams of the past. I did not expect Milwaukee to be quite this good this season--no one did--but I did pick Milwaukee to be clearly the best team in the East this season. Where are all the "experts" who said that deciding not to re-sign Malcolm Brogdon proved that the Bucks were not serious about trying to win a title? Declining to overpay Brogdon was a smart choice, and the Bucks were also smart to retain the rest of their core players.

If you have not already seen the Bucks play, make sure that you do so. Also, take note of how often media members try to goad Antetokounmpo into saying something stupid (recent attempts have related to Embiid calling himself the best player in the world, and Drake showing up at last night's game with some wrestling championship belts)--and how Antetokounmpo does not insult the media members, but also does not take the bait. Anteokounmpo is focused on improving his individual skills to help his team win games, and he does not get distracted by anything else.

So, are the Milwaukee Bucks a historically great team? That question can only be answered in the playoffs--but the Bucks are doing all of the right things to distinguish themselves from the rest of the league.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:41 AM

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