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Saturday, September 08, 2018

Thoughts and Observations About the 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony

In my article Maurice Cheeks, Charlie Scott and Rod Thorn Are Among the Basketball Hall of Fame's Newest Members, I focused on three of the 13 members of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2018 class. Last night, those men and their classmates were officially enshrined.

Grant Hill was enshrined first. He and 2018 Hall of Fame classmate Jason Kidd will forever be linked not only as co-Rookies of the Year in 1995 but also as unselfish, all-around players who focused first and foremost on team success. Hill alluded to his tendency to be verbose and joked that his wife had urged him to remember the "Five Bs: Be brief, brother, be brief." Turning serious, Hill said that he "fell in love with the game of basketball" by watching Patrick Ewing dominate in both college and the NBA. Hill called Ewing his "basketball hero." Ewing and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski were Hill's two presenters. Hill thanked Coach Krzyzewski for providing the "blueprint" for success. Next, Hill mentioned Isiah Thomas. Hill seemed uncertain whether or not Thomas was in attendance (perhaps that is why he did not choose Thomas as a presenter as well) but as soon as Hill realized that Thomas was in the building he called him up to the stage and embraced Thomas, who he called a "hero, a friend and an advocate for me." Hill thanked Alonzo Mourning for providing the inspiration for how to come back from health problems/injuries. Hill became emotional when he thanked his parents for how they raised him and when he acknowledged his two daughters and his wife. Hill asked his wife if his speech had been short enough and he promised that the other enshrinees' speeches would be shorter.

Rod Thorn spoke next. He was presented by Jerry West. Thorn thanked the Hall of Fame and Jerry Colangelo in particular. Thorn singled out three Hall of Famers who had a special impact on him:  Bob ("Slick") Leonard, Richie Guerin and Lenny Wilkens.

Younger fans may not remember or know that Thorn was a collegiate star at West Virginia who was selected by the Baltimore Bullets with the second overall pick in the 1963 NBA Draft. Thorn played eight seasons in the NBA before becoming a coach, general manager and league executive. After injuries forced him to retire from playing, Thorn considered going to law school before Kevin Loughery offered him a job as an assistant coach with the New York Nets in the ABA. Thorn recalled, "I knew in my heart I wasn't ready to let the game go."

Thorn said that since his career started as a player he wanted to mention three players "who all had a profound impact on my life": Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Jason Kidd. Thorn said of Erving, "In 1974, my first season with the Nets, we won the league championship, sparked by the incomparable Julius Erving, who led the team in nearly every statistical category. Night after night, he would perform such incredible athletic feats that would have Kevin and I looking at each other and exclaiming, 'I cannot believe he just did that.' As great as Doc was as a player, he was equally good as a teammate. Thank you Doc for proving that superheroes can be humans, too."

These comments reinforce what Thorn told me over a decade ago about Erving: "I think that he was the best teammate of all the players I've been involved with in 40-plus years of NBA basketball. He was our leading scorer, our leading rebounder, our leading shot blocker, our leading assist guy--you name it, he led our team in it, plus he was the leader of our team. He guarded the best forward every night, whether it was a small forward or a big forward. He took most of the big shots. Not only was he a great player, but more importantly he was a great teammate. He had great lateral quickness and he was a tremendous jumper. He was a tough guy--that is one thing that is not talked about that much when you talk about Julius, because of his great athleticism, but he was a tough guy. I mean he would physically get after guys and play hard. He took a challenge. He played 43-44 minutes a game for us and guarded the best guy on the other team every night and was our leading scorer, so the energy that he expended during a game was much more than the average player did. It was just phenomenal what he did."

As the Chicago Bulls' general manager, Thorn drafted Michael Jordan. Thorn joked that without Jordan he would not have a Wikipedia page and he would not have people sending him items to autograph asking for his signature and "by the way" asking for Jordan's signature as well.

Thorn won the 2002 NBA Executive of the Year Award after acquiring Kidd and building the Nets into a championship contender. Thorn recalled that when he rejoined the Nets, "The team had challenges defending, rebounding and passing, which as you know are the ingredients of a 26 win season." After trading for Kidd, Thorn's Nets won 52 games, one of the best one season turnarounds in league history.

Maurice Cheeks followed Thorn. In the video tribute before Cheeks spoke, Erving said, "He had a very, very high basketball IQ. He was a champion, he was an All-Star and I loved playing with him." Erving and Billy Cunningham presented Cheeks. Cheeks is known as a quiet man of few words but he gave the most emotionally gripping speech of the evening. He opened by saying, "This is amazing and Grant, you're right, this will be short." Cheeks credited his experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago for teaching him to look out for others as others had looked out for him. He said, "My life has been a string of small moments that led to amazing experiences." Cheeks mentioned his high school teammate William Dise, who was a highly recruited player who signed with West Texas State on condition that the school also sign Cheeks, a skinny and lightly recruited prospect. Cheeks said that his career would have gone much differently if not for Dise.

Cheeks thanked Coach Cunningham and said that he was the kind of coach that you never wanted to let down. Cheeks praised Erving for teaching him how to be a pro and Cheeks also thanked his veteran teammates Andrew Toney, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Caldwell Jones, and Henry Bibby. Cheeks said, "Over the years I have had many reasons to thank the Lord and two of them are my beautiful kids...I'm proud to be your dad and I love you both." Cheeks thanked his three brothers, one of whom was murdered in 1991. Cheeks started to get emotional at that point and mentioned that Charles Barkley told him not to cry but Cheeks broke down when he talked about "my very first coach, Mama Cheeks" and all that she did for him and their family--including calling out Maurice's name and his brothers' names so that they would come inside when it got dark. Mama Cheeks attended the ceremony and she looked very proud. As Cheeks wept, Erving walked over, gently grabbed his shoulders and said softly, "Come on Mo, you can do it," lending a helping hand much like Cheeks had lent a helping hand to National Anthem singer Natalie Gilbert years ago. I felt as a kid that the 76ers were a special team with special people and moments like this just confirm that. I am so blessed to have watched that team and then to have had the opportunity to interview Erving, Cunningham, Jones and Pat Williams. Cheeks concluded by thanking the Hall of Fame for "thinking enough of my contributions to the sport to select me for such an honor. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate my 40 years in the NBA and my 62nd birthday (on Saturday). Thank you and God bless."

Later in the program, Charlie Scott was presented by Jerry Colangelo, Dave Cowens, Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood and Roy Williams. During the video tribute to Scott, Erving noted, "He broke the color barrier very much like Jackie Robinson did (in baseball), except it was getting a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina and integrating the school. Charlie Scott was a monster on the basketball court. He could score inside, he could score outside."

Scott began by explaining how he selected his presenters. He said that they were each friends of his for over 40 years. Scott joked that his wife said if they have known him for 40 years and still speak to him then they all deserve to be on the stage with him. "This is an honor that I always dreamed of but could never imagine happening," Scott declared. He called Dean Smith "My mentor and the person who I admire the most in my life." Scott thanked his North Carolina teammates, including Larry Miller, for standing beside him during the sometimes difficult racial integration process. He individually thanked each of his presenters. Regarding Erving and Cowens, the never hesitant to shoot Scott quipped that he helped each of them become great rebounders.

Scott concluded by thanking his wife and children. He said that he once asked a friend to describe him honestly, good and bad. Scott asked his family to raise their hands if they disagreed with this characterization: "People sometimes might take your aloofness as arrogance. You can become very demanding in getting your way. You don't know when to let things go. You never give compliments. You think you're always right....The shocker was his next sentence: Let me tell you about your bad points!" Scott paused after each point and noted that no one in his family raised their hands. He laughed and said, "This was the individual you had to deal with. Your unconditional love and understanding have been my North Star."

In 2015, I wondered if Julius Erving had been a Hall of Fame presenter more than anyone else. At that time, Erving had been selected as a presenter eight times. Now, including last night, he has been a presenter 12 times:

1995: Presented Cheryl Miller
1996-2000: None
2001: Presented Moses Malone
2002-2003: None
2004: Presented Clyde Drexler
2005: None
2006: Presented Dominique Wilkins
2007-2010: None
2011: Presented Artis Gilmore
2012: Presented Katrina McClain and Ralph Sampson
2013-2014: None
2015: Presented John Calipari
2016: Presented Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal
2017: None
2018: Presented Maurice Cheeks and Charlie Scott

That list of names spans multiple generations and includes teammates, opponents and players who grew up idolizing Erving. What a tribute to Erving's deep and continuing impact on the sport!

There is a lot of depth to Ray Allen beyond his basketball accomplishments. When you read his words or listen to him speak you understand that he is a remarkable person, not just a great basketball player. Allen spoke repeatedly of the dedication, discipline, perfectionism and sacrifice that it takes to become a great individual player and to become a two-time NBA champion. Those words resonate and are true but what resonated the most is when he talked about his children. Allen was the only enshrinee who talked to/about each of his children specifically and described why each child is so special to him. Allen emphatically declared, "All of you kids are my greatest legacy. I learned in life that our kids pay attention to everything we do, everything we say and everything we don't say and everything we don't do. So I have to be an example to these young people at all times and we got to make sure that we are an example to the kids in our lives at all times, because we do set the tone and the example in all of our communities."

Allen also said, "I don't believe in talent. I'm here because I worked hard my whole life. Without that work, no one in this room would know who I am except my family. So to all the kids around the world watching, paying attention and aspiring to be like us or even on this stage, put the work in and watch the magical ride you go on."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:15 PM

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets: Subtraction by Addition

The Houston Rockets have signed Carmelo Anthony to a one year contract, reportedly for the veteran minimum $2.4 million. Anthony received a buyout in excess of $25 million from the Atlanta Hawks en route from Oklahoma City to Houston, so he is not suffering a significant salary decrease after making over $26 million last season while playing for the Thunder--but this is a humbling drop in status for Anthony, a 10-time All-Star who finished third in the 2013 NBA regular season MVP voting. Anthony averaged a career-low 16.2 ppg last season while shooting a career-low .404 from the field. He performed even worse in the playoffs (11.8 ppg on .375 field goal shooting) and yet he was vocally displeased about having his minutes cut and his role diminished.

In his prime, Anthony was an excellent one on one scorer who could be effective both in the post and facing up on the perimeter. Anthony averaged at least 20.8 ppg in each of his first 14 seasons, including three seasons when he scored at least 28 ppg, and he won the 2013 scoring title (28.7 ppg). However, he was never a strong defender, he passed the ball in spurts (as opposed to consistently making timely, accurate passes when the situation dictated it) and he was an average rebounder at best considering his size and the big minutes that he played.

Daryl Morey and the Rockets' brain trust believe that a one-dimensional scorer whose NBA teams never won anything of significance during his prime is the missing piece to Houston's championship puzzle. I disagree with that notion.

Anthony won an NCAA title as a freshman at Syracuse when he was a basketball prodigy who could physically overwhelm less talented players. He won a record three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA, but his contributions to those victories have been somewhat overhyped in the mainstream media. I gave Anthony a C- minus grade in my Team USA report card for the 2008 Olympics, noting, "Team USA outscored the opposition by 86 points overall when Anthony was on the court and they outscored the opposition by just 25 points when Anthony was on the court during medal round play. Among the five players I tracked, Anthony is the only one who had a negative on court rating for an entire game--and this happened twice: Angola outscored Team USA 46-42 when Anthony was on the court and in the gold medal game Spain outscored Team USA 49-38 when Anthony was on the court. It is no coincidence that Anthony was not in the game for the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter of the gold medal game; throughout the Olympics, Anthony was often on the bench when Team USA made its best runs and when he was in games during such runs it was generally James, Wade and/or Bryant who shouldered most of the load." Anthony performed similarly during the 2012 Olympics, after which I graded him B- and commented, "Anthony is a shoot first player--in both NBA and FIBA competition--who can rebound when he is so inclined but is indifferent at best defensively. When he shot well he provided instant offense but it is noteworthy that when the score was close he was often on the bench; he scored just eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting versus Spain in the gold medal game as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul did the heavy lifting." During the 2016 Olympics, Anthony again struggled in the gold medal game, finishing with just seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting.

So, the idea that Anthony is a proven winner based on his championships won at the NCAA and FIBA levels but has just been in bad situations in the NBA is a distortion, to say the least. The NCAA is obviously not nearly as competitive as the NBA, so leading a team to an NCAA title is no guarantee that a player can lead an NBA team to a title. Elite FIBA play is more competitive than NCAA play--but Anthony was a role player for Team USA behind, at various times, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade.

Anthony has never led a team to the NBA Finals--something that he has in common with his new teammates James Harden and Chris Paul--and he seems to be blissfully unaware that his one dimensional skill set has declined rather precipitously.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has tweaked his offensive system from "Seven Seconds or Less" (ball movement leading to open shots) to a very isolation-heavy scheme that relies on Harden or Paul to dribble, dribble, dribble until either the dribbler or a teammate gets open. It is not clear if D'Antoni envisions Anthony as a third dribble, dribble, dribble guy--which would not be wise, as Anthony does not have the passing skills of Harden or Paul--or as a spot up sniper. Unless Anthony has had a major leap in self-understanding this summer, he apparently pictures himself as a starting player who should get a significant number of touches. Anthony is replacing Trevor Ariza (who left Houston to sign with Phoenix as a free agent), a career role player who nevertheless is also a legit two way performer who made a significant contribution to the Lakers' 2009 championship team and who had an impact at both ends of the court during Houston's two Western Conference Finals runs during the Harden era (2015, 2018). The Rockets needed Ariza to play tenacious defense, hit open three pointers and quickly move the ball to a teammate if he was not open. Ariza did very well in all three areas but it would be surprising to see Anthony (1) accept such a role and (2) be successful in such a role.

Team chemistry can be difficult to predict. Prior to last season, I underestimated the positive impact that Chris Paul would have on the Rockets--the Rockets improved defensively in no small part due to Paul's play and the example he set--but I was right to predict that Paul would either not be available or not be effective deep in the playoffs when the team would need him most; that is a consistent pattern in Paul's career and it was true again last season, as an injury kept him out of games six and seven of the Western Conference Finals while the Rockets squandered a 3-2 lead over the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

Anthony's consistent pattern is that he scores a lot but does not have much impact on team success, at least at the championship level--and last season provided indications that Anthony is not quite the potent scorer that he used to be, though he would undoubtedly claim that this was because of the role he played for the Thunder and that he can still be effective if placed in a different role.

Maybe I will be proven wrong about Anthony. Maybe Anthony will accept being a stretch four in D'Antoni's system. Maybe D'Antoni will figure out a way to give Anthony an expanded role without compromising what Harden and Paul do best, and maybe D'Antoni will even manage to effectively hide Anthony's defensive weaknesses.

I will be surprised but not shocked if Anthony has a decent regular season, particularly if Paul persuades Anthony to accept a lesser role--but I will be shocked if Anthony is effective in meaningful minutes during the playoffs, particularly after the first round. That just would not fit Anthony's pattern and it is very unlikely that he will create a new pattern at this stage of his career; it is much more likely that even if Anthony is somewhat effective as a scorer he will give up more on defense  than he provides on offense.

Daryl Morey has gone all-in with D'Antoni, Harden and Paul, which should prove interesting. D'Antoni has never taken a team to the NBA Finals. Harden consistently disappears in the clutch and has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this offseason (instead of adding something new to his game--which he has not done for several years--in recent photos he looks out of shape and he has been accused of being involved in an altercation at an Arizona nightclub, which has become an unfortunate pattern of behavior for Harden). Paul often gets hurt (or disappears) when his team needs him most. Anthony can be a one year rental at a bargain basement price (in terms of NBA dollars) if he does not fit in but the clock is ticking in terms of how long Paul can continue to perform at a high level; the Rockets will be paying Paul $40 million per season when Paul is in his late 30s, which could end up being the worst contract given to a point guard since Gilbert Arenas was collecting NBA checks long after his career had ended.

I predict that Houston will not return to the Western Conference Finals and that Anthony will not be re-signed by the Rockets. Based on his raw career numbers, Anthony will likely be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame eventually but it would be fair to say that he has not maximized his potential, at least in terms of becoming a complete player and someone who could lead a team to an NBA title.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Leonard-DeRozan Trade Raises More Questions Than it Answers

The long, bizarre Kawhi Leonard saga has come to a quick, bizarre end (or new beginning): the San Antonio Spurs have traded the disgruntled 2014 Finals MVP/two-time Defensive Player of the Year/two-time All-NBA First Team member to the Toronto Raptors (along with Danny Green) for four-time All-Star/2018 All-NBA Second Team member DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl and a protected 2019 first round draft pick.

There is often a rush to judgment about trades, when the reality is that it may not be possible to fairly evaluate the outcome of a trade for quite some time. If there is a "winner" in an NBA trade then it is usually the team that acquired the best individual player. Here, though, the won/loss calculation is affected by many variables/questions, including but not limited to (1) Leonard's health, (2) Leonard's attitude, (3) the role that the Spurs expect DeRozan to play and how willingly he accepts that role and (4) how one perceives the options that both teams had compared to the decisions that they made.

Leonard is generally considered to be a top five player and it is rare for such players to be traded during their primes but the Leonard situation is unusual, if not unique; a once beloved player who starred for perhaps the best organization in the NBA has been engaged in an extended feud with the franchise. Neither side has said much to clarify the situation but it appears that the main issues are (1) Leonard does not trust and/or disagrees with how the team's medical staff diagnosed/treated his leg injury and (2) Leonard is upset that the organization as a whole and/or individual players within the organization have publicly suggested that he could have returned from the injury faster than he did.

Neither Leonard individually nor the Spurs collectively are inclined to give lengthy, public statements, so we may never know exactly what happened. All that we know for sure is that Leonard no longer wanted to play for the Spurs. It has been reported that his preferred destination is the L.A. Lakers but the Spurs understandably did not want to trade their best player to their historic rival, particularly after that rival just acquired LeBron James.

Once Leonard made it clear that he did not want to stay in San Antonio, the Spurs did not have much leverage. They could not get equal value for Leonard, as the few players who are on par with him are not available. The Spurs could either have sought to bring back young players and/or several draft picks or they could do what they did: acquire an All-Star and attempt to maintain contender status, hopefully while adding/developing other players along the way.

The Spurs have been perennial contenders for the better part of the past two decades, so rebuilding is not in the franchise's DNA. However, it is far from certain that a team led by DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge can realistically expect to win a championship. That being said, the Spurs are almost certainly better off with DeRozan in the fold for the next three seasons as opposed to keeping Leonard for one year, only to likely have him depart without getting anything in return.

How you feel about this trade as a Toronto fan depends on how you perceive Toronto's recent playoff runs. If you believe that the Raptors would have made it to the NBA Finals multiple times if not for LeBron James, then you probably believe that the Raptors should have stood pat in the wake of James' departure to the Western Conference. If you believe that the Raptors were asking too much of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and/or if you believe that DeRozan and Lowry have already peaked, then you probably believe that bringing Leonard in--even as a one year rental--is worth the risk. It is safe to assume that Masai Ujiri has already decided that the DeRozan-Lowry tandem is not a championship-winning duo, which is why Ujiri is willing to roll the dice with Leonard and then possibly rebuild if that does not work.

Spurs' fans are no doubt disappointed that the franchise could not salvage the relationship with Leonard but DeRozan is not a bad consolation prize. While DeRozan has yet to prove that he can lead a team to a championship, the Spurs are structured differently than most teams; DeRozan will not be expected to carry all or most of the load but rather to--as Bill Belichick would put it to his New England Patriots--do his job. If DeRozan scores 20-25 ppg efficiently and puts forth good effort defensively then he could be a key cog on a 50-55 win San Antonio team that would be in the mix for Western Conference supremacy.

This deal looks like a win-win, at least based on the realistic options both teams faced: the Spurs transformed a disgruntled (and possibly not fully healthy) top five player who was on his way out the door into a perennial All-Star, while the Raptors acquired a top five player who could possibly lead the franchise to its first NBA Finals appearance. 

The two obvious X factors for this deal are (1) Leonard's health and (2) Leonard's attitude. It is far from clear how serious Leonard's injury was and where he is in the rehabilitation process. It is also not clear if/when Leonard will report to Toronto and how committed he will be to leading the Raptors. If Leonard is still injured or if he has a bad attitude about the deal then the Raptors are much worse off in the short run--but that is a risk that Ujiri is willing to take based, presumably, on his belief that the Raptors had already gone as far as they could as previously constructed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 PM

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Saturday, July 07, 2018

The Rich Warriors Get Richer, While the Rockets Stand Pat and Hope for the Best

LeBron James' most recent "Decision" to join the L.A. Lakers is and will remain the biggest single NBA free agency move this summer. It shifted the balance of power in both conferences and was the first domino that had to fall before all of the other free agent dominoes could fall. We now know that the Cleveland Cavaliers will not be a championship contender and that the L.A. Lakers will be much improved but will probably not win a championship (at least this season, assuming that the Lakers do not add another star to their roster).

Now, the attention of the NBA world shifts to the teams that are most likely to contend for the 2019 championship. The first team on that list is the Golden State Warriors, winners of back to back titles and three of the last four championships. The Warriors stunned many people--and dismayed more than a few people who long for some semblance of competitive balance--by signing DeMarcus Cousins to a one year, $5.3 million contract. Cousins averaged 25.2 ppg, 12.9 rpg and 5.4 apg for the New Orleans Pelicans in 2017-18, but he played in just 48 games before suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture. He is a four-time All-Star who has ranked in the top 10 in scoring four times and the top 10 in rebounding six times in his eight year career--and those totals do not include last season, when he did not play in enough games to qualify for the official statistical leaderboards.

While "stat gurus" assert that Cousins is not as good as his boxscore numbers suggest, there is little doubt that before he suffered the injury he was no worse than one of the 15 or 20 best players in the league, a versatile threat who can score, rebound and pass. Cousins may not be healthy enough to play until January and it will probably take some time for him to get up to speed after missing so many months but by the playoffs the Warriors could conceivably field a starting lineup of five current All-Stars (Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins) with a former All-Star/Finals MVP coming off of the bench (Andre Iguodala). Even if Cousins does not start, he could have a significant impact coming off of the bench, creating a matchup nightmare for the second units of opposing teams.

Cousins signed for a huge discount compared to what his services would have commanded on the open market prior to his injury but this deal has a lot of upside for him: he will likely win a championship as a meaningful contributor while rehabilitating not only his body but also his reputation--and, if those things happen, he can sign a huge free agent contract next summer.

Would the hypothetical five All-Star lineup listed above be the greatest starting lineup in pro basketball history? Reflexive answers to such questions invariably suffer from recency bias, as it is too easy for forget or quickly dismiss the great starting quintets of yesteryear. It is also difficult to meaningfully compare lineups from eras that featured different rules, playing styles and so forth. That being said, there is no doubt that the Warriors' five All-Star lineup could be one of the most talented and versatile in pro basketball history.

The last NBA team that could field a starting lineup of five players who each made the All-Star team in the previous season was the 1975-76 Boston Celtics (Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Paul Silas, Charlie Scott and Jo Jo White), who went on to win their second championship in a three year span. That Celtics team was very good but does not rank among the best championship teams ever, nor do any of those five All-Stars rank among the top 15 players of all-time.

Bill Russell's Boston Celtics won 11 championships between 1957-69 and those teams featured a slew of future Hall of Famers. Perhaps the best starting lineup that Boston fielded during that period was the 1961-62 quintet; in fact, the top seven players on that 60-22 championship team are now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame (Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Tom Sanders, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey) and three of them were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List (Russell, Cousy, Sam Jones). The next year, the Celtics added Hall of Famer and Top 50 player John Havlicek to that rotation as a rookie who came off of the bench.

The 1969-70 L.A. Lakers started Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, arguably the three greatest players at their respective positions up to that point in time in pro basketball history. Happy Hairston (who never made the All-Star team but averaged 14.8 ppg and 10.3 rpg in an 11 season career) and Dick Garrett rounded out the starting lineup. Injuries limited Chamberlain to 12 games, Baylor to 54 games and Hairston to 55 games but all three players returned in time for the playoffs and the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals before losing to the New York Knicks in seven games.

The 1971-72 Lakers started All-Stars Chamberlain, West and Gail Goodrich alongside Hairston and Jim McMillian, who replaced Baylor after Baylor retired nine games into the season. The Lakers set a record (since broken twice) by going 69-13 and they still hold the record with 33 consecutive regular season wins. They beat the Knicks in five games in the NBA Finals.

The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers went 65-17 in the regular season and cruised to the championship with a record-setting 12-1 playoff run. That roster featured four current All-Stars (Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney) in the starting lineup plus a former All-Star coming off the bench (Bobby Jones, who won the Sixth Man Award that season).

The 1985-86 Boston Celtics started five current, former or future All-Stars (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge) with former All-Stars Bill Walton and Scott Wedman coming off of the bench. That squad went 67-15 and won the franchise's second title in three years.

The Showtime Lakers won five championships during the 1980s and during those years their starting lineups were anchored by perennial All-Stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. The 1986-87 squad that won the title after going 65-17 in the regular season had All-Star James Worthy, future All-Star A.C. Green and Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper. Cooper came off of the bench to play small forward or either guard position, while Byron Scott (17.0 ppg in 1986-87) started in the backcourt alongside Johnson.

The 1996-98 Chicago Bulls won three straight championships with a starting lineup consisting of three Hall of Famers (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman) alongside Ron Harper (a once potent scorer who transformed into a defensive specialist) and journeyman center Luc Longley.

The 2003-04 L.A. Lakers did not win the championship but they reached the NBA Finals with a starting lineup that included four future Hall of Famers (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton). The Lakers had previously won three straight titles (2000-02) with O'Neal and Bryant starting alongside solid but not spectacular players.

Just a few years ago, the Miami Heat reached four straight NBA Finals and won two championships while starting three future Hall of Famers (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) alongside two role players.

The Warriors at least belong in the conversation with the teams listed above. Most if not all online bookmakers considered the Warriors as strong favorites prior to the Cousins signing and now it seems like it would take not one but probably two serious injuries to give any team a realistic chance to beat the Warriors in a seven game series.

The Houston Rockets won a league-best 65 regular season games last year but almost everything broke right for them in terms of health, several players on the roster improving and/or exceeding reasonable expectations and setbacks/injuries suffered by other potential contenders. It seems likely that the Rockets will regress to the mean this season. The loss of starting small forward Trevor Ariza, who signed with Phoenix, will hurt the Rockets at both ends of the court. It appears that Clint Capela will either leave this summer or sign a one year deal and try his luck in free agency next summer. It is unlikely that a team with James Harden as the best player will win a championship but it is even more unlikely for that to happen if Harden is not surrounded by players who are tough-minded and defensive-oriented, plus at least one player who can step up big time when Harden inevitably uncorks a low shooting percentage, high turnover game at the most inopportune time during the playoffs.

Daryl Morey has tapped Chris Paul to be the player to step up when Harden disappears. The two problems with that, of course, are (1) Paul also has a postseason resume that features disappearing acts at inopportune times and (2) Paul inevitably wears down and/or gets injured. That being said, the Rockets' success last season all but guaranteed that Morey would ride or die with Paul and that is what happened: the Rockets re-signed Paul for $160 million over four years, which means that Paul will be on the books at $40 million per season until he is 37 years old.

The historical track record for small, injury-prone point guards in their 30s is not good; it is very unlikely that Paul will be both great and healthy four years from now and it is probable that he will be neither by that time. The pairing of Paul with Harden worked very well last season and yet it had a predictable outcome: Paul got hurt when it mattered most and the high-variance playing style of the Rockets caught up with them big-time versus the Warriors in game seven of the Western Conference Finals when they missed 27 consecutive three pointers as they blew a double digit lead for the second game in a row.

An optimistic Rockets' observer would say that the Rockets were a Chris Paul hamstring injury away from beating the Warriors; a pessimistic/realistic Rockets observer would note that Curry was not fully healthy during the series, that Iguodala missed several games and that Paul's injury was not a stroke of bad luck as much as a predictable outcome for a small, injury-prone player.

Unless the Warriors implode and the West's rising teams (including Utah) unexpectedly regress, last season will almost certainly be the peak achievement of the Morey/D'Antoni/Harden/Paul Rockets. This group will not age well and will not push the Warriors that close to the brink again.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:43 AM

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Monday, July 02, 2018

LeBron James Spurns Cavaliers to Sign With Lakers

LeBron James may indeed keep his promise to finish his career in Cleveland but if that is the case he will be taking at least a three year detour to the West Coast; James ended months of speculation by signing a three year deal (with a player option for a fourth year) with the L.A. Lakers. The Lakers had long been considered one of James' top prospective destinations--if not the top one--so the move itself is not surprising but what is a bit surprising is that James made a commitment of at least three years, the kind of commitment that he refused to make during his second tenure with the Cavaliers.

By refusing to ever fully commit to the Cavaliers, James limited the franchise's ability to build the best possible roster around him. Despite that, Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert assembled the highest paid team in NBA history, so James can never honestly say that the Cavaliers franchise failed him in any way, nor can James blame the franchise for not surrounding him with enough talent to win championships; Gilbert gave James the coach, the players and the support staff that James wanted.

James kept his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland and he led the Cavaliers to four straight NBA Finals appearances--but the way that James conducted his business hindered the Cavaliers from possibly being even more successful (no star was going to sign with Cleveland unless James fully committed, and indeed Kyrie Irving wanted out in no small part because he sensed that James would leave). James' second run in Cleveland was successful overall but it could have been more successful and it also could have been done in a way that did not relegate the Cavaliers to luxury tax purgatory for an extended time with little roster flexibility.

No reasonable person questions James' right to choose where to work after he became a free agent but it would have been nice to see James commit to his home town, finish his career in Cleveland and truly partner with the franchise to help the Cavaliers be a contender for the next several years as opposed to running to what James presumes to be greener and/or glitzier pastures.

Focusing on the future, are the Lakers contenders now? The Lakers went 35-57 last year. Historically, an MVP caliber player is typically worth at least 20 regular season victories, so it is reasonable to expect the Lakers to win at least 55 games next season. In most seasons, a 55 win team would be considered to be at least a borderline championship contender but that is not necessarily the reality in today's NBA. The Golden State Warriors have just won three titles in four years--each title coming at the expense of James' Cavaliers--and the Lakers are not better than the Warriors, nor is it likely that the Lakers can realistically do anything in the short term to seriously challenge the Warriors. The Lakers are also not better than the Houston Rockets. It is questionable whether the Lakers are better than the Utah Jazz. If the Spurs keep Kawhi Leonard and Leonard is healthy, the Lakers are probably not better than the San Antonio Spurs. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a flawed team that lacks depth but before Andre Roberson went down with an injury last season their starting lineup was one of the most effective in the league and the Thunder would at least be competitive with the Lakers as the Lakers are currently constituted. The Lakers may be better than every team in the Eastern Conference except the Boston Celtics.

The reality is that--despite the current media propensity of first takes and hot takes and all kinds of other "takes" that lack perspective, context or any kind of informed viewpoint--it is not possible to accurately assess the Lakers' chances until (1) we know what the rosters of the other teams will look like on opening day and (2) we know what the Lakers roster will look like. It is an understatement to say that LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas did not mesh well during their brief time together in Cleveland last season, so Thomas--who the Cavaliers dealt to the Lakers just a few months ago--will almost certainly leave L.A. The rest of the Lakers' roster consists mainly of young players who have yet to establish themselves as consistent regular season performers, much less as proven playoff performers. The Lakers ranked second in rebounding, seventh in assists and 11th in scoring last season but they were just 25th in points allowed, though they did finish a solid 10th in defensive field goal percentage.

Right now, assuming that Thomas leaves the Lakers have no other recent All-Stars--or stars of any kind, for that matter--to pair with James. Considering that James went to ready-made teams with at least two All-Stars during both of his previous free agency decisions, it makes sense to speculate that James knows or is reasonably certain that at least one other top level player is about to join him in L.A. Such a move would obviously improve the Lakers' prospects this season.

Even if that scenario does not pan out, James' willingness to commit for three years will enable the Lakers to patiently assemble a complementary roster around him, a luxury that James never provided to the home town team that he supposedly loves so much.

One other factor to consider is Father Time. The cliche states, "Father Time is undefeated" and--even though the 33 year old, 15 season veteran James had arguably his finest individual campaign last year--James will not forever be immune to the effects of Father Time. Even the greatest players tend to slow down--sometimes fairly immediately and drastically--after the age of 33 and/or past their 15th season. James' longer than usual contract give the Lakers time to build a team around him but if that process takes two or three years what kind of player will James be by that time?

The breathless question that will be debated non-stop for not just the next three or four years but for decades is, "How does this affect LeBron James' legacy?" Shaquille O'Neal, repeating something that was said to him during the latter stages of his career, recently noted that James' book is already written for the most part; James can add some pages but it is unlikely that he can rewrite the main story. That story is that James is one of the greatest players ever, a premier scorer who is also a gifted passer and a versatile defender (when so inclined). James has won three championships but he has also lost in the NBA Finals six times and he has demonstrably quit in more than one playoff series. The highs have been tremendous but the lows are significant enough that I could never rank James ahead of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, his two most recent predecessors as the best wing player in the game. If James leads the Lakers to a championship that would be impressive, but it would still leave him one ring behind Bryant and two rings behind Jordan--and those players do not have some of the skill set and mentality drawbacks/deficiencies that James has shown during his career.

One thing that is almost certain is that James' personal streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances will not be extended to nine. If James never leads the Lakers to the NBA Finals, some of his critics may bring up the point that James spent most of his career feasting on a relatively weak Eastern Conference and that he may have had much less team success had he played in the West for most of his career. James can shoot down that theory to some extent by leading the Lakers to the NBA Finals at some point during his tenure in L.A. but even if he does not do so his supporters could argue that he did not arrive out West until he was past his prime.

This next--and likely final--chapter of James' NBA career will no doubt be fascinating to watch. I have often said that James perplexes me in ways that no other great player ever has and that will probably continue to be the case as he adds the final words to his storybook rise from high school phenom to all-time great.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM

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Friday, June 15, 2018

The Sad Saga of The Ringer's Gleeful Takedown of Bryan Colangelo

The website The Ringer is not merely content to bury Bryan Colangelo's career (or at least the Philadelphia portion of it) but is also pouring dirt on the grave.

A few weeks ago, The Ringer broke the story that several anonymous Twitter accounts that could be linked to Colangelo had posted information critical of Sam Hinkie and of various 76er players. The 76ers hired an independent law firm to conduct an investigation and that investigation determined that Colangelo's wife had made the offensive posts. Although Colangelo denied any knowledge of his wife's activity and declared that he did not agree with what she had posted, the two-time NBA Executive of the Year who had rebuilt the 76ers into a contender in the wake of Hinkie's infamous and disastrous tanking "Process" resigned under pressure.

Now The Ringer has posted a second article that essentially states that everything good that happened for the 76ers last season was a result of Hinkie's brilliance, while any questionable decisions came from Colangelo. Specifically, The Ringer accused Colangelo of failing to resolve the "logjam" of big men on the roster and of choosing Markelle Fultz with the first pick in the 2017 draft over the alleged objections of various unnamed 76ers' staffers. The Ringer conveniently failed to note that the 76ers were a losing team every season under Hinkie and only became a contender after Colangelo remade the culture and the roster in the wake of Hinkie's departure. The Ringer also left out that Hinkie whiffed on the opportunity to draft Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner or Devin Booker in 2015 (Hinkie selected Jahlil Okafor) and that Hinkie chose Nerlens Noel in 2013 instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo or C.J. McCollum.

Thus, The Ringer left out the "minor" detail that the aforementioned "logjam" of Okafor and Noel was created by Hinkie's poor drafting and unwillingness to get rid of either big man. Colangelo inherited a mess and rapidly turned it into a playoff team, yet The Ringer proposes that Hinkie should get the credit.

Not only is that a bizarre take, but it is an odd thing to post right after Colangelo resigned.

Sirius XM NBA Radio's Frank Isola made some excellent points regarding Colangelo's situation. First, Isola noted that the burner Twitter accounts in question hardly had any subscribers and he joked that Colangelo's wife could have reached a larger audience by opening up a window and shouting than by posting to a feed that few people follow. Second, Isola pointed out that it is commonplace for NBA executives and other insiders to feed information to media members, who then disseminate that information to a large audience. Third, Isola stated that it is ironic that Colangelo was forced out because his wife leaked team information and now The Ringer is posting an anti-Colangelo story filled with information that could only have been leaked to The Ringer by team sources. "Where is the investigation of that?" Isola asked.

Isola's broadcast partner Brian Scalabrine added this observation: the Boston Celtics require each member of the personnel department to write out their preferences before each draft, so no one can later claim 20/20 hindsight regarding the team's selections. If people within the 76ers organization want to throw Colangelo under the bus, let them step up publicly and prove with written time-stamped notes that they did not support the Fultz selection.

Isola joked that apparently Hinkie is responsible for every good decision that the 76ers have made--even the ones that took place after his departure--and Isola said that The Ringer's piling on with Colangelo is starting to seem personal. Isola could not fathom what The Ringer's motive is but I have an idea. The Ringer is Bill Simmons' brainchild. Simmons (1) loves "stat gurus" like Hinkie and (2) is on the record stating that he could do a better job than most NBA executives. Taking down a respected executive like Colangelo while simultaneously rewriting Hinkie's career in a favorable fashion is right up Simmons' alley.

There is little doubt that Colangelo could have and should have handled the Twitter account situation better, but The Ringer's coverage of Colangelo reeks of personal animus, a hidden agenda and double standards (Isola called the hand-wringing about the tweets while ignoring the more widespread leaking of information "fake outrage"). Isola is right to call out The Ringer for its biased coverage of Colangelo and Hinkie.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:11 AM

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

NBA Finals Notes and Comments: Warriors’ Dominance, LeBron’s Hand/Mind and How Legacies Are Defined

The 2018 NBA Finals featured the league's emerging dynasty team versus a player who is being increasingly touted as the greatest player of all-time. Sometimes the historical storylines and subplots threatened to overtake coverage of what was happening in the moment and--as is too often the case--context, perspective and balance went out the window as various commentators tried too hard to make definitive statements about the greatness (or lack thereof) of a team or of a player.

Now that the series is over and that the Golden State Warriors won their third championship in four years while dropping LeBron James' career Finals record to 3-6, it is worth trying to put both the Warriors and James into proper context.

Let's start with James, since that is where the media tends to start anyway; it often seems like every story about the NBA is spun in some way to reflect how that story affects James or how James could affect that story. "The 76ers are an emerging team--but how good would they be if LeBron James signs with them?" is one constant theme, while "The Houston Rockets won 65 games and pushed the Warriors to seven games--but should they rearrange their roster to sign James?" is another one.

We can stipulate for the record that whether you love James or you hate James, he is without question one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. The abridged version of his extensive basketball resume includes three championships (2012-13, 16), three Finals MVPs (2012-13, 16), four regular season MVPs (2009-10, 2012-13) and 12 (soon to be 13) top-five finishes in regular season MVP voting (2006-17). He is the only player in pro basketball history who has amassed at least 30,000 points, at least 8000 rebounds and at least 8000 assists.

The only relevant question about James' legacy is how high he ranks on the select list of greatest players of all-time: top 15, top 10, top 5, 1?

These kinds of discussions are inherently impaired by a number of factors, including recency bias (the tendency to believe that what we are seeing right now is better than anything we have seen before), the personal biases (and/or ignorance) of whoever is doing the analysis and the very real challenges of trying to weigh the importance of rules changes, stylistic changes and so forth.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about the Pantheon, a group of 10 retired players (plus four players who were active at that time) who each have a credible case to be considered the greatest player of all-time. I did not rank the players within the Pantheon, choosing instead to focus on each player's greatness as opposed to pitting them against each other. Since that time, I have publicly indicated why I would take certain Pantheon players over others but I have still resisted ranking all of them. In September 2015, I wrote an addendum to my Pantheon series in the wake of a lot of discussions about whether or not Julius Erving belongs in the greatest player of all-time conversation and I explained why each Pantheon player at least belongs in that conversation; selecting a single greatest player in a team sport is an objectively impossible task, but I still think that it is reasonable to suggest that there is a finite number of players who are legitimately in that conversation because they have elevated themselves over everyone else based on skill set, accomplishments, peak value and longevity.

It is difficult to compare players who played different positions more than 40 years apart; anyone who really thinks he has figured out definitively whether or not Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain is a greater basketball player than Michael Jordan is fooling himself (or trying to fool others). Russell and Chamberlain played center in a league with much fewer teams than Jordan's NBA, a league that had no three point shot, had just started integrating (and featured few if any players from countries outside the USA) and differed in many other ways in terms of rules, playing style, etc.

It is a little easier to compare Jordan with LeBron James; Jordan is a 6-6 shooting guard who played in the NBA from 1984-85 to 2002-03, while James is a 6-8 small forward who has played in the NBA since 2003-04.

It is even easier to compare Kobe Bryant with LeBron James; Bryant is a 6-6 shooting guard who played in the NBA from 1996-97 to 2015-16. Bryant and James faced each other directly many times, guarded each other on some occasions, played against the same great players/teams (at least during the regular season) and they were teammates on Team USA's gold medal winning teams in 2008 and 2012. They even had some of the same teammates in their supporting casts; Shannon Brown could not crack the rotation on James' deep 2007 and 2008 Cleveland teams but he was part of the rotation for Bryant's 2009 and 2010 NBA championship teams.

Prior to the 2018 Finals, it seemed as if many media members decided to just bypass the logical Bryant-James comparison and jump straight into the cross-generational Jordan-James comparison. The same thing happened during last year's Finals and after Golden State took a 3-0 lead over Cleveland in that series I wrote:
Is it James' fault that the Warriors are poised to sweep his Cavaliers? No, but if James had the mentality to reach the gear that Russell, Jordan, Bryant and other Pantheon members often reached in the Finals then this series would, at the very least, be more competitive than it has been.

The bottom line is that James is not playing badly but he is providing a lot of footage that can be shown to put a stop to the foolish comparisons to Jordan; let's just put a moratorium on such talk and see if James can actually get within striking distance of O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant.

Game three was a winnable game in a must win situation and O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant did not let many of those slip away during the primes of their respective careers. Golden State hit Cleveland with a barrage of 39 points (including a Finals record nine three pointers) in the first quarter but the Warriors only led 67-61 at halftime. The Cavaliers attacked the paint in the first half and James led the way with 27 points. The argument that the Cavaliers are a flawed team because they need James to score a lot of points flies in the face of basketball history. Were the Bulls flawed because Jordan scored over 40 ppg versus the Suns in the 1993 Finals? That Bulls team had one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time (Scottie Pippen), an All-Star caliber power forward (Horace Grant) and several outstanding role players but Jordan still scored at a record-setting clip; that is the responsibility of a Pantheon-level player in such situations. Let's not compare James to Russell Westbrook, either; in the 2017 playoffs, Westbrook's second best teammate was Andre Roberson, who spent significant portions of the series running around playing tag because he did not want to be fouled since he cannot make a free throw. In marked contrast, in game three James had another superstar on his own team matching him point for point: Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 16-29 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the third quarter as James cooled off.

If you are comparing James to Jordan then you are arguing that Jordan would have found a way to lose a Finals game in which his sidekick dropped nearly 40 points and in which his team had a two possession lead with barely two minutes to go. Sorry, I am not buying that for one second.
After game four of the 2018 NBA Finals--when James played very passively in the second half of a winnable contest--Charles Barkley put it succinctly and bluntly in his inimitable fashion, looking into the NBA TV cameras and declaring that the next time any media member states that James is better than Jordan he will punch that person in the face.

While I do not advocate resolving the debate through violence, I agree with Barkley's point. If we are going to make intergenerational comparisons (which are difficult to make for the reasons that I listed above) then we have to go beyond statistics (which do not always translate between eras and which were amassed under different rules against different competition) and consider intangible but relevant factors such as mindset and leadership; James may be at or near the top of the Pantheon in terms of athletic ability but he does not crack the top 10 in mindset or leadership.

Forget the numbers for a moment and leave aside whatever you may think about Golden State's roster compared to Cleveland's roster. Consider the "little" storyline that James dropped in the media's lap after game four: James admitted to injuring his right hand by punching a whiteboard due to an emotional outburst after losing game one of the series in overtime.

Frank Isola put it best during his Monday show on SiriusXM NBA Radio: "LeBron is getting the pass of the century" for a self-inflicted injury incurred at the most important time of the season. Isola noted that James' action immediately demoted J.R. Smith's game one flub from the dumbest mistake of the series to the second dumbest and Isola said that what James did was both dumb and selfish. Isola made an apt analogy to Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera, saying that if Rivera had punched something with his pitching hand and hindered his ability to pitch in the World Series then he would have justifiably been roasted by the media. Of course, the media treated James with kid gloves after James showed up after game four with some kind of brace or soft cast on his previously unbandaged right hand (was James expecting Mark Schwartz to take a shot at his hand while he walked up to the podium?).

Isola also stated that James' hand injury does not explain or justify the way that James lay down in the second half of game four. Finally, Isola noted James' word choices: "Pretty much played with a broken hand." Did James actually break his hand or not? That is a simple question to ask and to answer but not one media member stepped up to ask the question, which is particularly sad considering that a previous post-game press conference in the series featured SiriusXM NBA Radio's Justin Termine--a self-styled historian of the game--wasting time asking Draymond Green about his wardrobe. The next day, Isola justifiably roasted his colleague Termine for asking such an inane question at a press conference when other media members are working on deadline to put out their game stories. Termine, who spends most of his show screaming at co-host Eddie Johnson (who is a knowledgeable and insightful commentator), seems to operate under the delusion that he was hired for his basketball knowledge as opposed to his ability to banter and be an on-air agitator. The NBA would benefit greatly if its broadcast partners hired more people like Isola--and fewer people like Termine--to provide commentary and to ask questions at post-game press conferences

James' injury and the ensuing coverup also raises the not so minor issue of the NBA's "integrity tax" regarding gambling. The NBA is poised to profit from sports gambling becoming legalized on a national basis, yet the best player in the game just got away with not reporting a supposedly serious injury for the last three games of the Finals. Do you think that James having an injured hand might have affected the betting line for those games? Between the rampant tanking and the league's apparently non-existent (or unenforced) injury reporting protocols, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may soon be presiding over a league that resembles professional wrestling more than a legitimately competitive sport. You may recall some media members lauding Silver as a kinder, gentler leader--in contrast to their opinion of his predecessor, David Stern--but Stern's stronger leadership style helped him navigate the league through troubled waters on many occasions.

The bottom line in terms of the greatest player of all-time conversation is that James has not only failed too often on the sport's biggest stage but he has quit too often and made too many excuses to ever pass Bryant, let alone Jordan. Even if James wins three more titles (which is doubtful) to tie Jordan and move one ahead of Bryant, what are we to make of the several series during which James has played below his considerable abilities--if not outright quit--and then made weak excuses?

Maybe James thought that his press conference antics would elicit sympathy but what those antics did is provide further evidence of how James falls short in comparison to the very best of the best.

Bryant has made some interesting comments in the past week or so about comparing James to himself and to other great players (as quoted in a recent article by Howard Beck): "Phil used to say this thing to me a lot, when I was doing a lot on the court. He'd say, 'You have to do less.' And I'd say, 'Well, my teammates got to step up more.' Phil would say, 'Well, it's your responsibility to thrust the game upon them.'"

Bryant added these pertinent thoughts and observations:
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.
There is a lot of wisdom contained in those remarks but three points stand out: (1) This is not about "narrative" but about results. James is too often concerned more about controlling the "narrative" than he is about doing whatever it takes to win; (2) great players historically have been judged largely based on championships won, because every player has possible excuses/contextual factors to mention but the best of the best figure out how to get the job done; (3) leadership is not just about throwing the ball to players (particularly in situations when the great player should be assuming the obligation to score) but about empowering those players to improve on a daily basis.

The media narrative states that James is a great teammate and leader. The reality is that his tenure ended badly the first time in Cleveland (and may end badly this time as well) and his tenure in Miami ended with the great Pat Riley referring to "smiling faces with hidden agendas." 

At some point, a resume contains too many black marks to go to the top of the list, no many how many positives are on the resume as well. I have often said that James confounds me more than any other Pantheon level player and that remains true. I am disappointed that he not only injured himself during the 2018 Finals but that he waited until he got swept to reveal the injury, an announcement that not only comes across as a weak excuse but also takes attention away from what the Warriors accomplished. For me, the enduring image of this series will be the several sequences in game three during which the Warriors set fake screens and James switched off of Durant unnecessarily as opposed to accepting the challenge of guarding the eventual Finals MVP down the stretch.

James is now 1-2 versus Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals, 0-1 versus Dirk Nowitzki, 1-2 versus Kevin Durant and 1-3 versus Stephen Curry. I will not put things as bluntly as Barkley did but he is right that there needs to be a moratorium on the Jordan-James comparisons. Sparky Anderson once said that he would not embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench; that line of thinking applies here.
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The focus at this time should be on the Warriors. Few teams have won at least three titles in a four year span and each team is legendary (most of them won additional titles before and/or after capturing three titles during four years): Mikan's Lakers (1949-50, 52-54), Russell's Celtics (1957, 59-66, 68-69), the Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson Lakers (1980, 82, 85, 87-88), the Jordan-Pippen Bulls (1991-93, 96-98), the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers (2000-02).

Are the Warriors the greatest team of all-time?

That question is as unanswerable as the question about who is the greatest player of all-time.

The Warriors are clearly on the short list, much as James is on the short list of greatest players of all-time. The challenge is that teams can only meaningfully be compared against their contemporaries.

The Warriors are the best team of this era. Would they beat the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers? To answer that, we first need to stipulate the rules and the style of play. It is hard to picture Draymond Green having much success guarding O'Neal under the early 2000s rules. Meanwhile, O'Neal's presence in the paint shuts down the Warriors' lob game while Bryant, Ron Harper and Robert Horry menace the Warriors' perimeter players.

It is even harder to picture the Warriors winning three titles in four years in the 1980s while facing the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and others under the rules of that time. During that era, you had to have a dominant Hall of Fame caliber center to win a championship. Julius Erving takes a back seat to no perimeter player from any era but when he played alongside center Darryl Dawkins several of his championship quests were foiled by teams featuring Hall of Fame centers such as Bill Walton, Wes Unseld/Elvin Hayes (those two argued publicly about who was actually the team's center), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. It would have been difficult for any perimeter player to lead a team to a title in that era--but when Erving teamed up with Moses Malone suddenly the 76ers were not only title contenders (as they had been for the previous six years) but they were now perhaps the most dominant single season team in the sport's history.

In that era, Durant-Parish would have been a much deadlier duo than Durant-Curry. In the 1980s, a team with a lot of perimeter firepower and no post up game had a ceiling of reaching the Conference Finals. Think of squads such as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Denver Nuggets. They were excellent teams with many talented players but in that era under those rules they just could not quite beat the Celtics, 76ers or Lakers. One might argue that the modern Warriors are better defensively than those Milwaukee and Denver teams but it should be noted that the defensive rules in this era are vastly different from the rules in that era--and it is doubtful that the increased physicality of the 1980s would be advantageous for Durant and Curry at either end of the court.

We can speculate about which players/teams are best equipped mentally and physically to adapt to different conditions but there is no objective way to determine this.

I tend to go in the opposite direction of recency bias and operate with a default assumption that players/teams from the past are underrated to some extent.

I suspect that the great teams from previous eras would adjust quite well to the modern game, while some of the modern teams would struggle to adjust to the old school rules and style of play. That supposition is not meant to diminish the value of what the Warriors have accomplished. The Warriors are one of a handful of elite dynasties in pro basketball history. Whether or not they would fare well in head to head matchups against the dynasties listed above does not change the Warriors' well-earned place in pro basketball history.
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Speaking of legacies and dynasties, what are we to make of Kevin Durant? He has now been the Finals MVP for back to back championship teams. He has twice outplayed James on the sport's biggest stage with the biggest prize on the line.

It is no secret that I dislike the way Durant handled his business off of the court. Instead of embracing the challenge of facing the Warriors with Russell Westbrook at his side, Durant ran to the Warriors just one season after he and Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder had taken a 3-1 lead against the Warriors. It would have been better for the sport if we had seen a few more matchups of those two teams.

That being said, (1) Durant had every right to sign with the team of his choice and (2) no championship is cheap or worth less than another. Yes, Durant signed with a team that was already a powerhouse but he has been that team's best player during two championship runs. His on court contributions since joining the Warriors are beyond reproach. At the end of the day, Durant will be remembered as a basketball player for how many championships and MVPs he wins, just like every great player before him. The funny thing is that James is the first modern player who tried to play GM by building a super-team in Miami and then hand-picking his teammates the second time around in Cleveland but Durant has one-upped James as a player-GM; Durant signed with a team full of unselfish players who sacrificed money, glory and statistics to win titles. The Warriors built their roster in a balanced way, as opposed to just signing players who are represented by Durant's management team. In contrast, part of the Faustian bargain the Cavaliers made with James was to sign all of James' "guys," which is yet another reason that James' complaints about his supporting cast ring hollow.

Bryant said it best: Magic, Bird and Michael were judged by rings, not excuses and not context. There can be excuses made or context provided for every season in NBA history but the best of the best rise above those circumstances. Magic, Bird and Michael "could" have won more titles had things gone differently and they also "could" have won fewer titles.

It is interesting how the media is trying to not so subtly shift the narrative to shortchange anyone who is a "threat" to placing James at the top of the list.

Supposedly Jordan did not face tough enough competition, even though he played during the Magic/Bird/Isiah era at the start of his career and the Dream Team era during his prime. Jordan prevented a lot of great players from winning even one ring.

Supposedly, Bryant's five titles in seven Finals don't "count" compared to James' three rings in nine Finals because Bryant played with O'Neal during three Finals runs--but Russell had a fleet of Hall of Famers next to him during his 11 title runs, as did Magic, Bird and most other Pantheon players. James has been handpicking his teammates for nearly a decade and he has played with multiple future Hall of Famers yet he still is stuck on three rings as opposed to challenging the ring total amassed by the sport's premier winners of the past 40 years, including Abdul-Jabbar (six), Jordan (six), Magic (five), Bryant (five) and Duncan (five, with two wins in three tries against James).

Supposedly, Conference Finals wins now are a metric for greatness. We keep hearing about James making eight straight Finals appearances. That is a great accomplishment, no doubt about it--but Magic not only made it to eight Finals in 10 years during the 1980s but he won five of them. Going back further in time, Julius Erving made it to 10 Conference Finals and six Finals in a more competitive era when he had to often face multiple teams with future Hall of Famers as opposed to cruising to the Finals.

When did making the Finals or Conference Finals become more significant than winning championships? The answer is that it became more significant when the media decided to elevate James above all other basketball players but James did not cooperate by winning enough championships to earn that consideration the way that James' predecessors did.

Durant is one ring short of James right now. If Durant keeps winning and keeps outplaying James in the Finals, Durant is going to play his way into Pantheon consideration the old fashioned way: by his accomplishments on the court, not by trying to control the "narrative."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

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Saturday, June 09, 2018

Warriors Sweep Cavaliers and Earn Third Title in Four Years With 108-85 Win

Stephen Curry scored 37 points and Kevin Durant added 20 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and a game-high 10 assists as the Golden State Warriors broke Cleveland's spirit with a 108-85 victory that was not as close as the final score might indicate. Durant started his Finals career by scoring at least 25 points in 13 straight games (the third longest such run in history, trailing only Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal); in game four, he snapped that scoring streak but he notched his first career Finals triple double.

Durant averaged 28.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 7.5 apg versus Cleveland to clinch his second straight Finals MVP, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan in the elite group of players who have won at least four scoring titles and at least two championships. Durant edged Curry 7-4 in the MVP balloting. Durant had a staggering +30 plus/minus number in game four, nine points better than any other player.

Curry shot 12-27 from the field, including 7-15 from three point range. He also had six rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocked shots. Golden State's only other double figure scorers were Andre Iguodala (11 points in 23 minutes off of the bench, +11 plus/minus number) and Klay Thompson (10 points, six rebounds). McGee had a tremendous impact that demonstrates the limits of relying on individual statistics to evaluate players: he had six points, three rebounds and one blocked shot in 16 minutes, yet the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 21 points when he was on the court, two points better than Curry's plus/minus number. No "stat guru" can account for what McGee did; the only way to understand McGee's effectiveness is to apply the "eye test" with understanding and realize the ways that his presence in the paint at both ends of the court provided a huge spark.

Golden State accomplished the first Finals sweep since the San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cavaliers in 2007. James joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson as the only Pantheon-level players who have been swept twice on the sport's biggest stage--but Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4 in the Finals and Johnson went 5-4 in the Finals, while James is 3-6; James is the only regular season MVP winner who has lost six times in the Finals.

James led the Cavaliers with 23 points and eight assists in addition to grabbing seven rebounds but--as is too often the case--his numbers were empty and his impact was far less than the box score might suggest. ABC's Mark Jackson picked up on this during the game, as cameras captured James speaking emphatically to his teammates during a third quarter timeout after the Warriors took a 67-52 lead: Jackson dismissed the significance of James' display and said, "It's about inspiring the guys in between these lines and he has not done it tonight." Moments later, the Warriors extended the margin to 81-63 and Jackson compared the Cavaliers to boxer Roberto Duran, who famously quit against Sugar Ray Leonard by stating "No mas." Jackson said, "It's disappointing. James' effort has been disappointing." Mike Breen made some excuses for James by stating that James carries a huge load and has only seemed tired a few times during the playoffs but Jeff Van Gundy retorted that it is OK to speak the truth about James, citing specific plays that had nothing to do with fatigue but rather showed that James was not competing hard enough.

Later, Jackson and Van Gundy also stated that James deserves credit for taking this team to the Finals in his 15th season. That is the paradox that has been a recurring theme in James' career: he is one of the greatest players ever, he has done some unprecedented things and what he did this season ranks among his greatest achievements--but he has also repeatedly quit in key moments. I have said it before and it bears repeating now: James mystifies me more than any other great NBA player who I have ever seen or researched.

Kevin Love added 13 points and nine rebounds. The only other Cleveland players who scored in double figures were J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood (10 points each). The Cavaliers shot just .345 from the field, which is a testament to Golden State's defense but also an indictment of how lethargically Cleveland played.

Stephen A. Smith is hardly known as a voice of reason but he nailed it when he called the Cavaliers' effort--starting with James and trickling down to the rest of the roster--"deplorable." 

However, James' pre-game lament that he needs to be surrounded by smart, high-IQ players rings hollow. The Cavaliers have spent a record amount of money to sign James' guys, including overpaying Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith (the Cavaliers bid against themselves in both instances because James wanted those players). The Cavaliers replaced a GM and a coach to appease James. Meanwhile, James still will not commit to returning to a franchise that has done everything possible to please him and that has put together a good enough roster to reach the Finals for four straight years.

It takes a unique supporting cast to play with James; James insists on monopolizing the ball, so he can only play with stars who are willing to accept this: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love accepted this to at least some extent, while Kyrie Irving did not. James wants to be surrounded by guys who can make three pointers, play defense and not get in the way of him amassing huge statistics. He is not going to take a pay cut to win a title and any team other than Cleveland that signs him will have to (1) give up a lot of assets in a sign and trade (so that James can get the max deal that he will insist on getting) and (2) be willing to pay out a record amount in salaries/luxury tax with no assurance on a year to year basis of whether or not James is committed to staying with the team. James is a great player and there is no doubt that many teams will line up for the opportunity to sign James--and there is no doubt that along with the benefits of signing James there is also a huge price (literally and figuratively) to pay.

The media narrative that has been drummed into everyone's heads is that James is a superhero who is playing alongside a bunch of stooges--as if James could singlehandedly beat strong Toronto and Boston teams. Kobe Bryant, who knows a lot about what it takes to win championships--not to mention what it takes to win championships with less than stellar supporting casts, as he did in 2009 and 2010--does not buy that narrative at all:

"It seems like he has some good talent (around him) to me. He's got Korver, who's a great shooter, J.R. Smith who has always been a solid player. We focus on his one mistake and that tends to overshadow all the things he' s done to help them win a championship before. You've got Kevin Love, who was an All-Star and an Olympian; Rodney Hood, who was a 17-point scorer in the Western Conference; you've got Tristan who is back to playing like he played a few years ago."

Bryant disagrees with those who seem to think that it is necessary to denigrate James' teammates in order to elevate James' reputation: "He's got some workable pieces there. I don't understand how, in order to talk about how great LeBron is, we need to [crap] on everybody else. That's not OK. Those guys have talent. I don't buy this whole thing that he's playing with a bunch of garbage."

It seems pointless to provide a detailed recap of a game during which James and the Cavaliers clearly gave up. Cleveland fell down 10-3 at the start, rallied to take a 39-38 second quarter lead but trailed 61-52 at halftime. Then, Golden State pushed a little harder in the third quarter and Cleveland capitulated.

It is disappointing but not surprising that immediately after the loss at least one prominent media member tried to make excuses for James, who apparently suffered a right hand injury from punching a blackboard in the wake of Cleveland's game one loss. ESPN's Brian Windhorst mentioned James' injury shortly after game four ended, claiming that the swelling in James' hand is so bad that it is not yet possible to determine if the hand is broken. Windhorst hastened to add that James is not the one who revealed the injury now to get sympathy or makes excuses but rather James had been concealing the injury so as to not give the Warriors any edge. It is not clear how Windhorst suddenly found out about the secret if James is not the one who revealed the injury to him.

In any case, one would hope that James would not expect sympathy for an injury apparently suffered as a result of an immature outburst. James has a responsibility to not engage in reckless conduct that would potentially inhibit his ability to work for his employer (much like a baseball pitcher should not punch a wall with his pitching hand and then miss several starts as a result).

It is interesting that of all of the media members who cover the Finals only Windhorst--who has made a career out of being Boswell to James' Johnson--knew that James is injured (Windhorst also added as an afterthought that James' ankle is injured). I thought that teams and players have a responsibility to the league to fully and accurately report injuries (this will be even more important of an issue as legalized gambling becomes more widespread in the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision about that matter).

James showed up at the game four post-game press conference with a huge brace/cast on his right hand. It would seem logical to assume that if James did not medically need such protection in the first three post-game press conferences, then it is likely that he did not need to wear it in the game four post-game press conference.

Long-time James' watchers no doubt remember that on the previous occasions when James quit he supposedly had mysterious injuries that seemingly only Windhorst knew the details about--injuries that oddly did not seem to require much if any treatment after Cleveland's season ended. I certainly will not forget James shooting half court shots during pre-game warmups when he was supposed to be nursing an elbow injury during the 2010 playoffs.

James has earned the right to sign with any team that he prefers--but, by the same token, it is fair to evaluate his decisions and actions in an objective context, as opposed to filtering them through a particular lens the way that some media members who value access to James do. 

That is more than enough words to devote to the best player on the losing team. James will drag out his free agency process for the next few weeks but the Golden State Warriors deserve the bulk of our attention.

The Warriors are a complete team. They do not play "small ball" or "stat guru" ball; they defend, they share the ball on offense and their stars are selfless. As Pat Riley might put it, there are no "smiling faces with hidden agendas" and there is no "disease of me." The Warriors do not care who gets the credit or the accolades. I hate the way that Durant fled a contending Oklahoma City team to join a powerful team that had already won a title but Durant had the right to do this and he has played brilliantly as a Warrior. Stephen Curry is a wondrous shooter who is also an underrated passer, rebounder and defender--yes, defender: he is smart and quick, even though he can be overpowered at times; teams pick on him at that end not because he is so bad but rather because every other Golden State starter is even better defensively than he is.

Could the Warriors beat Russell's Celtics, the Magic-Kareem Lakers, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers? Tell me the playing conditions and rules and maybe I can provide a sensible answer. As Chauncey Billups said after the Warriors won last night, with three championships in four years the Warriors have earned the right to be in the conversation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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Thursday, June 07, 2018

Kevin Durant Leads the Way as Golden State Takes a Commanding 3-0 Lead Over Cleveland

Kevin Durant scored a playoff career-high 43 points as his Golden State Warriors withstood a fast start by the Cleveland Cavaliers to post a 110-102 win and take a 3-0 NBA Finals lead. It had seemed like Stephen Curry was cruising toward his first Finals MVP--one of the few significant individual honors that Curry has not won--but now Durant has at least entered that discussion after shooting 15-23 from the field while grabbing a game-high tying 13 rebounds and dishing for seven assists. Durant shot 6-9 from three point range, including the 30-plus foot trey with less than 50 seconds remaining that gave the Warriors a 106-100 lead. Durant posted a game-high +15 plus/minus number and he has scored at least 25 points in each of his 13 career Finals games.

Remarkably, no other Warrior scored more than 11 points, though five Warriors reached double figures. Curry had a miserable shooting performance (3-16 from the field, including 1-10 from three point range just one game after setting a Finals single-game record with nine three pointers made), finishing with 11 points, six assists and five rebounds. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell had 10 points each. McGee had a significant impact despite playing just 14 minutes; he shot 5-7 from the field and played a key role in Golden State's early third quarter run that transformed a 58-52 Cleveland halftime lead into a 69-64 Golden State lead. Bell shot 4-5 from the field and had six rebounds in 12 minutes off of the bench, while Green shot 4-8 from the field and snared nine rebounds. Thompson's numbers were pedestrian (4-11 field goal shooting, four rebounds) but he tied Andre Iguodala (eight points, two rebounds in 22 minutes in his 2018 Finals debut after missing the past six playoff games due to injury) with a +14 plus/minus number.

LeBron James had 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in what must be one of the emptiest triple doubles in NBA Finals history. As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said late in the contest, "James has not been great tonight. He needs to be great in the last 4:45..He’s going to have to bring them home by living in the paint." Golden State led 94-93 at that point. During those final minutes as the curtain essentially fell on Cleveland's season, James scored five points but attempted just two shots in the paint. At the 3:21 mark, with Golden State clinging to a 96-95 advantage, James inexplicably fired up an errant three point attempt from well behind the arc, prompting Mark Jackson to state the obvious, "That’s a bad shot."

This is not about nitpicking the details of what superficially was a strong individual performance; the point is that there is a big difference between posting good numbers and having an impact on the outcome of the game. James has long had a paradoxical tendency to put up statistics that look great but--upon examination--did not have much impact. James also did much of his work early (he had nine of his assists and six of his rebounds in the first half) while fading down the stretch. His supporters will say that he became fatigued from the weight of carrying his team (he played 47 minutes), while his critics will say that this is yet another example of him not delivering with a Finals game on the line; the truth may be somewhere in between, but the reality--as I noted last year after Golden State took a 3-0 Finals lead over Cleveland en route to a 4-1 win--is that a player who it has become fashionable to call "the greatest of all-time" has one of the worst Finals winning percentages among the serious contenders for that title: for instance, Bill Russell went 11-1, Michael Jordan went 6-0, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4, Magic Johnson went 5-4, Larry Bird went 3-2 and Julius Erving went 3-3.

At the start, it looked like the Cavaliers might win at home and possibly turn this into a series instead of the coronation of a Warriors dynasty that is now poised to capture a third title in four seasons. The Cavaliers jumped out to a 16-4 lead by playing with great physicality and aggression (though, oddly, they did not attempt a single free throw during the first half). Durant kept the Warriors in touch by scoring 13 first quarter points on 4-4 field goal shooting and Golden State trimmed the margin to 29-28 by the end of the first stanza.

The Cavaliers rebuilt their lead to 45-35 in the second quarter but even at that point I wondered if the Cavaliers were committed to making this a competitive series or if they were just satisfied with not being blown out/not being swept. Cleveland led 58-52 at halftime, but it was apparent that Durant was in the midst of authoring a signature performance as he already had 24 points on 7-8 field goal shooting while the other Golden State starters had combined for just 13 points on 5-20 field goal shooting. For all of the talk about how poor James' supporting cast supposedly is, the Cavaliers led for most of game one and they led for most of game three as well; what the Cavaliers lack is the ability to finish, as demonstrated by their collapses at the conclusion of both of those contests. Those are the moments when a "greatest player of all-time" candidate should shine. The end of game one has been discussed ad infinitum and is not entirely James' fault--but he should have attacked the hoop instead of giving up the ball (which resulted in the fateful George Hill free throws) and he still had a chance to lead Cleveland to victory in overtime instead of succumbing to a double digit loss.

Kevin Love supported James with 20 points and a game-high tying 13 rebounds. He attacked the hoop strongly early in the game (15 points, 10 rebounds, 6-10 field goal shooting in the first half) but--like all of James' teammates over the years--he is dependent on getting the ball from the "pass first" James, who launched a game-high 28 field goal attempts (five more than Durant and 15 more than Love), including 1-6 shooting from three point range. I have always said that the best player should willingly shoulder the burden of taking the most shots, so I cannot criticize James too much for shooting that often--but it should be noted that the media typically lets James off of the hook for doing the same things that result in other great players being labeled as "selfish" gunners who supposedly do not "make their teammates better." Like all great players, James ideally should walk the fine line of leading the way in scoring while also keeping his teammates involved.

Yet, somehow, James is often not the best player on the court or the central figure in the action when the NBA Finals are decided. One could argue that his team is simply outgunned in this series but then how does one explain James losing to Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks in the 2011 Finals when James had two future Hall of Famers in their primes (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) while Nowitzki had Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and the ghost of Jason Kidd (a future Hall of Famer to be sure, but one who was 38 years old at that time)?

If the Cavaliers had held serve at home in games three and four, then they would have just needed one road win in game five to put a lot of pressure on the Warriors. It is evident that Golden State has the better team but by the same token it is also evident that when the Cavaliers slow the game down, play physically and avoid turnovers they can more than hold their own.

Cleveland's halftime lead evaporated early in the third quarter. McGee scored six points in a 9-3 run as the Warriors tied the score. Curry then connected on a pair of free throws to put Golden State up 63-61, the Warriors' first lead of the game.

The margin remained close the rest of the way but Durant made most of the big plays down the stretch. As Van Gundy noted, in the closing moments the Warriors set "fake" screens for Durant and James willingly switched off of Durant, creating unnecessary mismatches. It is not clear why James did not accept the challenge of guarding Durant on those crucial possessions.

The Cavaliers are capable of winning game four to avoid the sweep but--barring significant injuries or some other unlikely occurrence--this series is over and the countdown for James' free agency decision has started; after inducing the Cavaliers to go deep into luxury tax territory without providing any assurance that he would stay (thus making it practically impossible to add another star to the roster), James may leave the team that he created to seek glory by joining forces with stars on another contender. After all, that is the route that Durant took (imitating what James did the first time that he left Cleveland) and Durant is about to win his second ring at James' expense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM

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