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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Blaming A Referee for Losing After Posting a "Triple Single" is Not Great Leadership

Scott Foster consistently grades out as one of the NBA's top referees. He is widely respected among both current and former players; for example, retired player Richard Jefferson recently said that when he was a player for the road team Foster was a referee that he loved to see because Foster would not be swayed by the home crowd, while Kendrick Perkins noted that Foster does not let star players--like Chris Paul--get away with things that some referees overlook. Speaking of Paul, after Paul's Phoenix Suns lost 109-95 to the Lakers in game three of their first round series Paul did not take personal responsibility for his poor play. Instead, he repeatedly mentioned 11 games in a row, a not very subtle reference to Scott Foster; Paul's teams have lost the last 11 playoff games that Foster refereed. Paul is an undersized point guard whose body often gets hurt and/or wears down under the mental and physical duress of postseason play. This is predictable--I factor this into my playoff previews--and it is yet another example of why Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA.

Anyone who watches the NBA regularly knows that Chris Paul bullies referees, and that he often gets away with both illegal handchecking and flopping. Paul has been fined by the league for his derogatory comments about referees. It will be interesting to see if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fines Paul. If Silver fails to do so, then he is tacitly granting validity to Paul's narrative that the NBA is negligently--if not willfully--assigning a biased referee to Paul's games to make sure that Paul's team loses. 

Paul is often called the best leader in the NBA, and he is the current President of the NBA Players Association. Paul is attacking the credibility of an employer who pays him millions of dollars per year as part of a multi-billion dollar business that is based in no small part on the credibility of the competition between teams; without that credibility, the NBA is not in the sports business but rather in show business (maybe that business model would still work--it has worked for pro wrestling for decades--but that has never been the NBA's business model, and fans of pure basketball would be repulsed if the outcomes of games were proved to be predetermined). 

It must also be mentioned that Paul's comments are not only an attack on the NBA's credibility but a deflection of personal responsibility for his second seeded Suns trailing 2-1 against the seventh seeded Lakers.

Here are Paul's numbers in the first three games:

Game 1: Seven points, eight assists, four rebounds, 3-8 field goal shooting, +6 plus/minus in 36 minutes in a nine point win.

Game 2: Six points, five assists, three rebounds, 2-5 field goal shooting, -2 plus/minus in 23 minutes in a seven point loss.

Game 3: seven points, six assists, five rebounds, 3-8 field goal shooting, -20 plus/minus in 27 minutes in a 14 point loss.

"But Chris Paul is bravely playing hurt!" you may exclaim. First, LeBron James and Anthony Davis--among other players on both teams--are also playing hurt. Many, if not most, NBA players are playing hurt by the time the playoffs begin. Second, if Paul is so hurt that he cannot shoot, cannot make plays at his normal rate, and is consistently a member of underperforming lineups (i.e., the Suns are playing better this series when he is not in the game) then either the coach should bench him or Paul, who is described as a great leader who cares about team success, should take the burden off of the coach by admitting, "Hey coach, I am just not healthy enough to play at a level that will help the team."

Great leaders do not attack the credibility of the business that feeds their families. Great leaders do not insist on playing if their level of play is harming the team.

The media narratives about players such as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and others are fascinating to observe. Chris Paul is supposedly a great leader even after he posts a "triple single" with an awful plus/minus number while "leading" his favored team to a blowout loss. 

Russell Westbrook is supposedly a terrible leader even though he helped turn around the season of a not particularly talented team that was devastated by COVID-19 and various injuries. Yesterday, after Westbrook--who was a game-time decision due to an ankle injury--posted 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists (team-high numbers in all three categories) in Washington's 132-103 game three loss to Philadelphia at least one commentator called this an "empty" triple double. You can be sure that if Westbrook put up Chris Paul-like numbers of seven points, six assists, and five rebounds then that same commentator would have attacked Westbrook for quitting. Westbrook had as many rebounds in that game as Paul has in three games versus the Lakers! Westbrook's plus/minus number (-15) was better than the plus/minus number of every Washington starter except for Alex Len, whose plus/minus number was -14 in just 11 minutes. The Wizards are the eighth seeded team playing the number one seeded team, but Westbrook had a great game while playing hurt against a superior team. Paul is on course to lead his second seeded team to defeat while playing terribly. Who is the better player and better leader? This is not just about one season or three playoff games; the numbers and the true narrative (not the media's fictional narrative) are consistent throughout both players' careers. Westbrook was an All-NBA Team level performer for four teams that reached the Western Conference Finals, including one team that made it to the NBA Finals. He is currently tied for third on the all-time playoff list with 11 triple doubles (matching Jason Kidd, and trailing only Magic Johnson's 30 and LeBron James' 28). It would be fascinating to look up the media coverage of other playoff triple doubles to see how many have been described as "empty." Granted, the same commentator who called Westbrook's triple double "empty" also called Jimmy Butler's triple double "empty"--but Butler posted 12 points on 4-15 field goal shooting with 10 rebounds, 10 assists, and a -18 plus/minus number in a 17 point loss as his sixth seeded Heat were swept by the third seeded Bucks to become one of the few Conference champions ever swept in the next year's playoffs. There is no comparison between how Butler played and how Westbrook played; lumping those two performances together is intellectually lazy, at best.

Stephen Curry is lauded as a top three MVP candidate for leading his team to "play out" (instead of "play in") to the playoffs despite having two opportunities to win one game to qualify for the playoffs. Damian Lillard has recently pointed out that last season his own MVP candidacy was dismissed because of his team's low playoff seeding, and Lillard said that to be consistent the media should not tout Curry as this season's MVP. My consistent take is that Lillard was not a legit MVP candidate last season, nor is Curry a legit MVP candidate this season. I agree with Lillard that the media's MVP narratives are not consistent or fair.

There is no doubt that Curry is one of the top 50 players of all-time, nor is there any doubt that for most of his career Paul has been one of the NBA's top point guards. I do not deny their greatness, or the value of anything that either player has accomplished. The operative question is to figure out why so many media members display blatant favoritism toward some players and blatant antagonism toward others when the facts do not support the aggressively repeated narratives. 

I will not speculate about what the agenda or agendas of media coverage may be, but to deny that media coverage is agenda-driven is to be blind, deaf, and dumb.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:51 AM



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