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Saturday, January 28, 2023

ESPN Praises Kyrie Irving While Ignoring Julius Erving and Rick Barry

The Brooklyn Nets defeated the New York Knicks 122-115 to improve to 3-6 since Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury that is expected to keep him out of the lineup for at least another week or two. One might think that a 3-6 record is nothing to write home about, but ESPN's postgame show--featuring "Screamin' A" Smith--portrayed a win against the mediocre Knicks as proof that Kyrie Irving is a superstar who can singlehandedly carry a team. Superstars are not defined by one game. The reality is that every time Irving has been the number one option for an extended period his team has not accomplished anything noteworthy. Irving was a great second option behind LeBron James for the 2016 NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, but there is a big difference between being the second option versus carrying all of the responsibility of being the first option (there have been some great teams that truly had a 1A and 1B, but that was not the case with James and Irving).

The 2022-23 Brooklyn Nets are a contender with Durant leading the way, and they are a Draft Lottery team with Durant out of the lineup. That is not an opinion; that is a fact based on the team's record in both circumstances not just this season but throughout the time that Durant and Irving have been with the Nets.

While hyping up Irving, ESPN ran a graphic that incorrectly gave Irving credit for holding the Nets' franchise record for most consecutive 30 point games. ESPN, other media outlets, and the NBA pretend that the ABA did not exist and that the four NBA teams with ABA roots were founded in 1976--but pretending something is true does not make it true. The Nets were founded in 1967-68 as an ABA team known as the New Jersey Americans. Many of the franchise's records--including the single game scoring record--are held by Julius Erving, who packed a lot into his three years with the team: three regular season MVPs (one shared with future Philadelphia 76ers teammate George McGinnis), two championships, two Playoff MVPs,  and two scoring titles. Yet, the NBA and its media partners ignore ABA history and statistics, pretending that the Nets franchise--and the Nuggets, Pacers, and Spurs franchises--debuted in the 1976-77 season.

As a Net, Erving scored at least 30 points in six straight games (November 24-December 1, 1973), a feat that Irving has yet to surpass. Neither player holds this particular franchise record, though. Rick Barry, in the second of his two seasons with the Nets (1971-72), scored at least 30 points in seven straight games (February 3-February 18, 1972).

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:49 PM

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Embiid Dominates as 76ers Overcome 15 Point Deficit to Beat Nuggets

The Philadelphia 76ers, owners of the second best record in the Eastern Conference, rallied from a 15 point deficit to earn a 126-119 win over the Denver Nuggets, who have the best record in the Western Conference. The matchup featured a showdown between reigning two-time regular season MVP Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, who has finished second in the MVP voting each of the past two years. Jokic may not have taken the one on one duel personally, but Embiid obviously did, authoring just the third 45-15-5 game of his career, finishing with 47 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals, and two blocked shots. Five other Sixers scored between 13 and 17 points, with James Harden leading that group with 17 points plus a game-high 13 assists. The difference in the game--other than Embiid's individual dominance--was that the 76ers recovered from a disastrous defensive first quarter (38 points allowed) to give up 35, 26, and 20 points in the final three quarters. 

Embiid is a big-time talent: he is an elite scorer, rebounder, and defender who also passes well. The questions about Embiid are not about talent but rather (1) "Will he be healthy during the playoffs?" and (2) "Will he be productive enough in the playoffs to lift the 76ers past the second round for the first time in his career?" Today's performance is impressive, but it is not surprising and it does not change Embiid's place in basketball history; what he does--or does not do--in April, May, and June (if he ever plays in June) will define his basketball legacy.

The 76ers are 20-4 in their past 24 games, and they are riding a seven game winning streak. Many people will once again speak of them as championship contenders, but until I see Embiid and Harden consistently play at a high level in the playoffs I will not take the 76ers seriously as a championship contender. 

Harden fled Oklahoma City because he refused to accept being the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Now, a decade later, Harden is the second or third option--depending how you view him and Tyrese Maxey--behind Embiid, the clearly defined number one option. Harden proved correct my assertion that he is not suited to being the best player on a championship team. If he is willing to accept being the second or third option--and if Embiid can stay healthy--then the 76ers can be a contender. This season, Harden is averaging 21.5 ppg and 11.1 apg with shooting splits of .449/.385/.868, while Maxey is averaging 21.3 ppg and 3.9 apg with shooting splits of .460/.400/.814. Maxey is more efficient and more explosive than Harden, so the 76ers would be best served if Harden shot less frequently while Maxey shot more frequently. Coach Doc Rivers understands this, as can be seen by the fact that Maxey is averaging more field goal attempts per game than Harden this season after the reverse was true last season.

When the 76ers outscored the Nuggets 68-46 in the second half, Embiid had 28 points and Harden had three points (though he did accumulate seven assists). In the fourth quarter, Harden shot 0-4 from the field, including a pair of step back three pointers in the final 2:23 with the outcome hanging in the balance. If Harden is your main option--and especially if he is your main crunch time option--then you are in big trouble. Fortunately for the 76ers, Maxey hit four free throws, Embiid drained a three pointer, and P.J. Tucker tipped in one of Harden's misses.  

Jokic did not play badly, finishing with 24 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds--but those numbers are below average for him and they do not match Embiid's exceptional production. Jamal Murray (22 points), Michael Porter Jr. (20 points), and Aaron Gordon (18 points) each had solid games, but collectively the Nuggets fell apart at both ends of the court after building a 73-58 first half lead.

I disagree with the ESPN/ABC hype that this was a "statement game"--the 76ers won one game at home versus a Western Conference team playing the last game of a three game Eastern swing--but it is clear that Embiid wanted to make a point after not being voted as an Eastern Conference All-Star starter. It will be interesting to see which stars and which teams make "statements" during the playoffs.

Hubie Brown provided the color commentary for ABC, which added to the big game feel and was a welcome throwback to when Brown did so many big games for CBS, TNT and ESPN/ABC.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:40 PM

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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Mike Brown's "Evolution"

A media member whose biggest career break has been knowing LeBron James since high school and thus being hired by various outlets to follow James around throughout his career just wrote a piece about Mike Brown's supposed "evolution" as a head coach. Media members (1) often tend to be wrong and (2) rarely admit that they have been wrong, so when something happens that confounds their predictions they feel compelled to contrive elaborate explanations.

For example, Bill Belichick did an excellent coaching job in Cleveland, but media members perceived him to be surly and so they portrayed him not only as surly (which may contain some degree of truth) but also as incompetent (which was completely false). At age 39 in his first NFL head coaching job, Belichick took over a team that had been 3-13, and by year four the Browns went 11-5 and won a playoff game. How impressive is it to do that in Cleveland? The next time the Browns went 11-5 was 2020, which was also the next time that they won a playoff game. The Browns collapsed to 5-11 in 1995, but that had a lot to do with the disruptions caused by Art Modell announcing that he planned to move the team to Baltimore and little to do with Belichick's coaching. 

On the way out of Cleveland, Modell fired Belichick. The next time Belichick was hired to be an NFL head coach, he led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl titles. Belichick's coaching staff in Cleveland included Nick Saban (who became arguably the greatest college football coach ever), Ozzie Newsome (who later won two Super Bowls as Baltimore's General Manager), and several others who became successful coaches in the NFL or college. Objectively, it seems obvious that a coach who assembled a talented staff like that and who led the team to a playoff win not long after a 3-13 season must have known what he was doing--but Belichick being competent in the early 1990s (after he had already won two Super Bowls as a defensive coordinator, by the way) did not fit the media narrative, so instead we are told that Belichick "evolved" in New England.

If you converted what most media members understand about coaching into an explosive device, you would not generate enough power to ignite the smallest firecracker!

It should be obvious that any diligent professional learns and evolves--but the notion that Belichick "evolved" from incompetent bumbler to six-time Super Bowl champion is preposterous, as is the media's obsessive focus on "in-game adjustments." The most important coaching is done in practices. That is when coaches prepare their teams for (1) what is most likely to happen during games and (2) how to react to the various most likely scenarios. If the coach fails at anticipating what is most likely to happen and preparing how to react then he is not going to come up with some magic halftime "adjustment" to save the day; what media members incorrectly call "adjustments" are in reality just the coach implementing the parts of the pre-game plan that are most relevant at that time.

Tom Brown, who played safety for Vince Lombardi's Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers, told me that what changed after Lombardi left the team was the attention to detail in practices. Uninformed media members blabber about "in-game adjustments" and are often overly impressed by sideline histrionics, but--as I noted in that article mentioning Brown--the reality is (as I explained) "The importance of coaching is not revealed by sideline tantrums during games or witty comments in press conferences; the great coaches do their work on the practice field, outside of the public eye."

Much like Cleveland media members did not like Bill Belichick or understand what he was doing, they did not understand what Mike Brown was doing as the Cleveland Cavaliers' coach (though they may have liked Brown on a personal level more than they liked Belichick).

The season before Mike Brown first became the Cleveland Cavaliers' head coach, the Cavaliers ranked 11th in points allowed, 14th in rebounding, and 19th in defensive field goal percentage. Two years later, with the same frontcourt starters--LeBron James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Drew Gooden--the Cavaliers ranked fifth in points allowed, eighth in defensive field goal percentage, and second in rebounding en route to advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. In Brown's final two seasons during his first run in Cleveland, the team went 66-16 (ranking first in points allowed, second in defensive field goal percentage, and seventh in rebounding), and 61-21 (ranking sixth in points allowed, fourth in defensive field goal percentage, and 11th in rebounding). The same guy who is now declaring that Brown has "evolved" was one of many who at that time questioned Brown's ability to make "in-game adjustments." Brown built the Cavaliers into a defensive powerhouse and perennial championship contender, but the media narrative was that LeBron James was singlehandedly carrying a team that lacked talent and was not particularly well-coached--as if James, by himself, could outrebound entire teams and also lock down entire teams defensively. That is not a knock against James--who is one of the greatest players of all-time--but just an objective assessment of what it takes to win over 60 games in back to back seasons, something that no poorly coached team has ever done or ever will do.

If your career is based on following James around and being some sort of confidant to him--and if Brown does not even deign to provide you good soundbites--are you going to praise Brown's coaching or are you going to say that James is a one-man team overcoming bad teammates and bad coaching? That question is not difficult to answer, and the proof can be found in various articles and TV appearances.

After being dumped by the Cavaliers, Mike Brown coached the L.A. Lakers for one season, succeeding Phil Jackson and leading the team to a 41-25 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. The Lakers fired Brown after a 1-4 start in 2012-13, limped into the playoffs under Mike D'Antoni, and did not sniff the playoffs again until player/general manager LeBron James joined the team and acquired Anthony Davis.

The Cavaliers brought Brown back for the 2013-14 season, and he guided the team to a 33-49 record after the squad had won 19, 21, and 24 games in the previous three campaigns. The Cavaliers fired Brown at the end of the season, and Brown then served as a Golden State assistant from 2016-2022, winning three championships to go along with the 2003 title he won as a San Antonio assistant. It is amusing that media members question Brown's coaching ability but two of the most successful head coaches of all-time (San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and Golden State's Steve Kerr) both hired Brown.

This season, Mike Brown inherited a Sacramento Kings team that went 30-52 last season while ranking 26th in rebounding, 28th in defensive field goal percentage, and 29th in points allowed. So far this season, the Kings are 27-20 while ranking 25th in rebounding, 28th in defensive field goal percentage, and 22nd in points allowed. Those are not huge improvements, but Brown's first Cleveland team did not make huge defensive improvements in the first season, either; Hank Egan, then an assistant coach in Cleveland, explained to me that when teaching defensive principles to a team it takes until "deep into your second year before you’re getting to the point that it is second nature."

The notion that Brown has "evolved" from a defensive coach into an offensive coach based on a 47 game sample size is as silly as it is premature; Brown inherited a team with a lot of offensive talent and not much of a defensive mindset, so as any smart coach would do he is maximizing their offensive efficiency while also attempting to improve the team's defensive efficiency. I expect the Kings to be better defensively in a year, and possibly even in the second half of this season.

Brown has always been an excellent coach, but in terms of media relations he never found a great niche; you are not going to see soundbite clips of him the way that you do with Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and other popular coaches. Media members resent coaches like Brown because in order to cover him effectively they are forced to either (1) understand the nuances of the game (fat chance!) or (2) come up with catchy narratives. The Mike Brown narrative that has stuck is "Mike Brown is a good defensive coach who does not understand offense and is not good at making in-game adjustments." The Kings' success this season without immediately becoming a defensive powerhouse challenges that narrative, which means that media members either have to admit that the narrative is wrong or else they have to assert that Brown "evolved."

I am not suggesting that Mike Brown is as great at coaching basketball as Bill Belichick is at coaching football--but I am stating that the way that Cleveland media members (and other media members) misunderstood Belichick in the 1990s foreshadowed the way that Mike Brown has been misunderstood and continues to be misunderstood.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:26 PM

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Saturday, January 21, 2023

Wayback Machine, Part XI: The 1985 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

The front cover photo of the 1985 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball featured Larry Bird driving from the left wing against the L.A. Lakers. Bob McAdoo guarded Bird while Magic Johnson guarded Quinn Buckner at the top of the key. Kevin McHale cut to the hoop on the left baseline with his defender obscured from view. It looked as if the obscured defender (perhaps Michael Cooper) had been screened by McHale, and that McAdoo had switched from McHale to Bird. The back cover photo showed Bird battling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for a rebound while Michael Cooper and a partially obscured Magic Johnson watched. Bird's Boston Celtics defeated Johnson's Lakers 4-3 in the 1984 NBA Finals.

The 1985 CHPB contained 335 pages, matching the previous edition. It included 23 team profiles, lists of the 1984 NBA statistical leaders, the complete 1984-85 schedule, a list of all 228 selections in the 1984 NBA Draft, and a "TV/Radio roundup." The 1985 CHPB had four feature stories: Dan Shaughnessy wrote "Bird & McHale: Pride and Power of the Celtics," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Peter Knobler contributed "Giant Steps" (an excerpt from the forthcoming book of the same name), Joe Gergen described how "Bernard King Captures New York," and Fran Blinebury profiled the player now known as Hakeem Olajuwon in "Akeem Olajuwon: The 7-Foot Nigerian Who Jumped to the Pros." 

Fran Blinebury and Filip Bondy co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" article, predicting that the L.A. Lakers would defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals. In the 1984-85 season, the Lakers posted the best record in the Western Conference (62-20) and breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs with an 11-2 record before beating the Boston Celtics 4-1 in the NBA Finals. The Celtics had the best record in the league (63-19) and they stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs with an 11-4 record, including a 4-1 victory over the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals as Julius Erving and Larry Bird faced each other in a playoff series for the fourth and final time. Erving's 76ers defeated Bird's Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982, while Bird's Celtics triumphed in 1981 and 1985.

Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1985 CHPB:

1) Shaughnessy asserted that Larry Bird and Kevin McHale are "the pride and power of the Boston Celtics." The omission of any mention of Robert Parish, the third member of Boston's Hall of Fame frontcourt trio, is more than a little odd. During the Celtics' 1983-84 championship season, Parish led the Celtics in regular season rebounding (10.7 rpg) while also ranking second in scoring (19.0 ppg) and blocked shots (1.5 bpg, a fraction behind McHale). Parish led the team with 79 starts, and he earned his fourth straight All-Star selection, a streak that he would extend to seven (he made the All-Star team nine times overall). During the playoffs, Bird was the clear number one scoring option (27.5 ppg, up from 24.2 ppg during the regular season), but Parish ranked third in scoring (14.9 ppg), second in rebounding (10.8 rpg), and first in blocked shots (1.8 bpg). In 1983-84, Parish consistently outperformed McHale in the regular season, the playoffs, and the NBA Finals.

In 1984, McHale made the All-Star team for the first time and he was the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year, but it could not plausibly be said that he was Boston's second best player: Bird was the clear number one, Parish was number two, and at that time it could still be argued whether McHale or Dennis Johnson was number three. 

This is not meant to take anything away from McHale; he eventually emerged as perhaps the best low post scorer in the league, the "man with 1000 moves" (as Dominique Wilkins memorably put it) whose footwork was admired and emulated--and he was also an elite defensive player who could guard small forwards, power forwards, and even centers, a versatile skill set that proved quite valuable for the Celtics, who generally hid Bird defensively on the opposing team's worst frontcourt scorer (for example, when the Celtics played the Atlanta Hawks, McHale checked small forward Dominique Wilkins while Bird was assigned Tree Rollins, a great shotblocker who was non-factor offensively).

The point is that Shaughnessy ignored and devalued Parish (whose name is just mentioned once, parenthetically, in Shaughnessy's article) while heaping praise on McHale. It is also strange that Shaughnessy mentioned that Bird and McHale are both white. How is that relevant to assessing the "pride and power of the Boston Celtics"? 

Reading that article reminded me of the extent to which many media members went out of their way to promote white players during that era. There is no question that Bird is a Pantheon level player, nor is there any question that McHale is worthy of being selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, but Shaughnessy's hagiography of young, first-time All-Star McHale combined with his complete disregard for Parish--already established as a perennial All-Star--leaves a very strange impression.

2) At a time when the 38 year old LeBron James is on the verge of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career regular season scoring record, it is interesting to hearken back to when Abdul-Jabbar was 37 and had just broken Wilt Chamberlain's career regular season scoring record. The introduction to the excerpt from Abdul-Jabbar's autobiography declared that the 1984-85 season "could be his last hurrah." That assessment turned out to be premature, as Abdul-Jabbar capped off that campaign by winning his fourth NBA title and his second NBA Finals MVP. In 1985-86, Abdul-Jabbar earned the last of his 10 All-NBA First Team selections, tying a record held by Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West (James holds the current record: 13).

Abdul-Jabbar felt that Chamberlain resented him when he was a young player and Chamberlain was one of the league's elder statesmen (though still an elite player). Abdul-Jabbar praised Chamberlain's strength, his tenacity as a rebounder, and his ability to be a prolific scorer, but he also compared Chamberlain unfavorably to Bill Russell in terms of understanding how to help his team win. 

Abdul-Jabbar called Oscar Robertson "the best all-around player in the history of basketball." Abdul-Jabbar marveled at how easy Robertson made the game look.

Abdul-Jabbar resented journeymen players--he mentioned Kent Benson and Dennis Awtrey by name--who hit him with cheap shots because they lacked the necessary talent to compete with him. After Benson hit Abdul-Jabbar with a punch to the midsection that knocked the wind out of him, Abdul-Jabbar decked Benson and suffered a broken hand. Abdul-Jabbar felt that the referees protected white players and did not apply the rules fairly to him, which made him believe that he had no choice but to take matters into his own hands.

Abdul-Jabbar reveled in reaching the top of his profession, but acknowledged that eventually his ability to perform at the highest level would wane even if his competitiveness never wavered. He was not sure what he would do after he retired from the NBA, but he mentioned possibly going to law school. He doubted that he could dominate another field the way that he had dominated basketball, but he was determined to try to be that dominant in another endeavor.

3) Joe Gergen described Bernard King's rise from schoolboy sensation in New York City to college star at the University of Tennessee to the toast of New York, carrying the Knicks to the seventh game of the 1984 Eastern Conference semifinals versus the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. King averaged 29.1 ppg on .545 field goal shooting in that series, including 43 points in a game four win and 46 points in a game six win. 

Gergen noted that prior to the 1984 playoffs, Knicks players had authored just three 40 point playoff performances: one by Cazzie Russell, one by Willis Reed, and one by Bernard King. Gergen left out Bob McAdoo's 41 point playoff game in 1978, but his point was well taken: prior to King, 40 point playoff performances were rare for the Knicks, one of the NBA's original teams dating back to 1946. In the 1984 playoffs, King scored 40 or more points in six of the Knicks' 12 games, spearheading a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Pistons before nearly toppling the Celtics. King shot .600 or better from the field in five of those six 40 point games, and a "mere" .514 in the other one. King led the NBA in playoff scoring (34.8 ppg) in 1984.

Red Holzman, the Hall of Famer who coached the Knicks' championship teams in 1970 and 1973, called King "the greatest scoring machine I've ever seen."

Reading the articles by Shaughnessy and Gergen, it is interesting to note that in 1983-84 media members selected Larry Bird for the first of his three straight official regular season MVP awards, but Bernard King finished first in the player balloting conducted by the Sporting News.

4) Hakeem Olajuwon entered the NBA in 1983 without the "H" in his first name, and without the polished offensive game that would propel him and the Houston Rockets to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. Blinebury noted that Olajuwon's basketball journey started in Lagos, Nigeria in 1979 when the 16 year old Olajuwon had never played basketball and could not even dunk a basketball. Olajuwon was a soccer goalie until Richard Mills--an American who coached the Nigerian national basketball team--spotted Olajuwon on a soccer field and encouraged him to play basketball. The rest is history: Olajuwon played three seasons at the University of Houston (1982-84), increasing his scoring average from 8.3 ppg as a freshman to 16.8 ppg as a junior who earned First Team All-America honors while leading the Cougars to the NCAA Championship Game, where they fell short against Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas. Olajuwon got his revenge 10 years later, defeating Ewing's Knicks in the 1994 NBA Finals.

The Rockets paired Olajuwon with 1984 NBA Rookie of the Year Ralph Sampson to form a "Twin Towers" frontcourt that was expected to dominate the NBA for the next decade. Olajuwon and Sampson led the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals, losing to the Celtics in six games, but then injuries derailed Sampson's career. Olajuwon teamed with power forward Otis Thorpe and a great supporting cast (including Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, and Mario Elie) to lead Houston to the 1994 NBA championship, and then he led the Rockets to a second consecutive title after a midseason trade that shipped out Thorpe but reunited Olajuwon with college teammate Clyde Drexler.

5) Larry Bird's profile gushed: "MVP for season, MVP for playoffs, MVP for universe...His skills and sheer will lifted Celtics to title...Nothing he can't do...Incredible vision of the court...Killed the Lakers with his outside shot in Game 5 of finals, but relied on tireless work off the offensive boards during other games."

6) Danny Ainge's profile is less than complimentary: "Finally meeting lowered expectations...Have to wonder about scouts who once projected him as a top three pick...Was actually drafted 31st in 1981, because he was under contract to the Toronto Blue Jays...It appears he was as good an infielder as he is a guard--and he wasn't much of an infielder."

7) The Chicago Bulls' team profile praised incoming rookie Michael Jordan while also urging patience: "Now that they have the next Julius Erving in Michael Jordan, the Bulls need the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This strikingly young and talented team can score from everywhere except the pivot--which will prove the Bulls' undoing again."

8) Here is Jordan's entire profile in his first CHPB appearance: "Odds-on favorite to be Rookie of the Year...Only sure thing among entire rookie crop...Can do it all, brilliantly and gracefully...A great shooter who hit 55.1 percent of his field goal attempts in senior year at North Carolina...With his quickness and instincts, he should have no problems swinging back and forth between guard and forward...Bulls will find spot for him in starting lineup...Born Feb. 17, 1963...Raised in Wilmington, N.C....Will hit the three-point shot." In hindsight, several things stand out:

1. The 1984 draft featured Olajuwon (first overall pick), Jordan (third overall pick), Charles Barkley (fifth overall pick), and John Stockton (16th overall pick), each of whom was later selected as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, so it is interesting that at least one author considered only Jordan to be a "sure thing" prior to the 1984-85 season. In addition to those all-time greats, several players from the 1984 NBA Draft had long, excellent careers, including Sam Perkins, Alvin Robertson, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, Michael Cage, and Jerome Kersey.

2. "Bulls will find spot for him in starting lineup" may be the biggest understatement of all-time!

3. Perhaps the optimism about Jordan's three point shooting stemmed from Jordan shooting .447 from three point range in his sophomore season when the ACC experimented with using the three point shot (the NCAA did not start using the three point shot nationwide until 1986-87). Of course, the ACC's three point shot was closer than the NBA's three point shot (17 feet 9 inches inches compared to 23 feet 9 inches), and the ACC defenders were not as good as NBA defenders. Jordan posted a career three point shooting percentage of .327 in the NBA.

9) Isiah Thomas may be one of the most underrated great players of all-time, but during his career he was appreciated: "None better, maybe ever...Point guard supreme...Played more than 3000 minutes (3007) for second straight year...Pistons looked to him in every clutch situation and he usually delivered."

10) Before Mike Dunleavy became a long-time NBA head coach who led the Lakers to the 1991 NBA Finals and who won the Coach of the Year award in 1999, he was a 6-3 sharpshooter who carved out a solid journeyman career while playing for two teams that reached the NBA Finals (1977 76ers, 1981 Rockets). His career seemed to be over by 1983, but the CHPB summarized his improbable 1983-84 season with Milwaukee: "What a year...An unwanted free agent in October...A Wall Street broker in January...A Milwaukee Buck in March...A starter by April...Had given up hope of resuming basketball career when he got call March 8...Don Nelson started him ahead of Paul Pressey because he was more dependable and offered the perimeter threat...Maybe the best three-point shooter in the league...Hit 19-of-45 bombs (42.2 percent) last season."

Dunleavy led the NBA in three point field goal percentage in 1982-83 (67-194, .345). In 1983-84, only six NBA players made at least 25 three point field goals, the minimum number required to qualify for the three point field goal percentage title. Darrell Griffith took top honors (91-252, .361), but if Dunleavy had canned just six more while maintaining his percentage he would have taken the crown. Dunleavy played 19 games in 1984-85, retired for three seasons, and then made cameo appearances in 1988-89 and 1989-90 before quitting for good. 

11) The 76ers' scouting report declared, "Barring last-minute trades or injuries, the 76ers bring the most potent team in the history of pro basketball into the 1984-85 season. There is nothing this team can't do with the ball and do better than any other contender. The Sixers can run and the addition of Barkley will greatly improve their attack in the halfcourt set."

While the 76ers looked potent on paper and ended up having a strong season (58-24 regular season record before losing 4-1 to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals), it is difficult to understand how anyone could have considered this squad to potentially be the greatest offensive team ever. Charles Barkley was destined to become an all-time great, but in 1984-85 he was a raw and out of shape rookie who averaged 14.0 ppg. Julius Erving was a Pantheon level player who should be in the greatest player of all-time conversation but in 1984-85 he was a 35 year old who was still very good but no longer consistently great in an era when few players even played past the age of 33. That being said, in 1983-84 Erving ranked 12th in scoring (22.4 ppg), 10th in steals (1.8 spg), and eighth in blocked shots (1.8 bpg)--an impressive trifecta for any player, let alone a 34 year old veteran of 13 pro seasons.

Future Hall of Famer Bobby Jones was also past his prime at 33.

Perhaps Andrew Toney could have picked up some of that slack, but in the spring of 1985 he began suffering the foot injuries that ultimately ended what could have been a Hall of Fame career. Toney made the All-Star team in 1983 and 1984, but he played just 157 regular season games after the 1983-84 season.

The 76ers had some great moments during the 1984-85 season, but the combination of two stars aging, one star being hurt, and a future star being not quite ready for prime time left the 76ers short of being able to match the younger Celtics and Lakers.

12) Erving was an excellent passer, a facet of his game that is not mentioned often enough now but was acknowledged during his career: "In the forecourt, Erving remains an excellent playmaker. He averaged 4.0 assists per game last season and his intuitions are seldom wrong."

13) While the 76ers had a potent offense, their defense was often underrated. The CHPB profile noted that the 76ers led the NBA in blocked shots while ranking fifth in points allowed. Erving, termed a "tremendous" shot blocker, led the team with 1.8 bpg. How great was Erving as a shot blocker? LeBron James, often praised for his defense and his chase down blocks--something that Erving did more often than James--has never averaged more than 1.1 bpg during a season, which would be a career-low for Erving, who played until he was 37.

14) Erving's profile began with a question--"Can he do it one more time?"--and noted "Had another outstanding season, but didn't pick up his game in the playoffs...Nagging injuries may sap his resolve for second NBA ring...Still can soar when healthy, but is mortal when he is hurt or has played too many minutes." It is important to emphasize that during that era few players played past age 33 and no one--other than Abdul-Jabbar and Erving--was playing at an All-Star level past that age in the early to mid 1980s. Players who are accomplishing that now are the beneficiaries of improvements in medical technology and training techniques. 

15) The CHPB included Erving's ABA statistics and thus listed Erving with 26,120 career points (25.3 ppg average), 9477 rebounds, 4504 assists, a .509 career field goal percentage and a .776 career free throw percentage.

16) Here is Barkley's entire profile in his first CHPB appearance: "Rich get richer...Can shoot, rebound, and has great quickness for his size...'Boy Gorge' must keep weight down to reasonable level...Long NBA season has a way of doing that...Sixers hope he'll be the answer at power forward, despite fact he'll give up several inches to opponents...That was never a problem at Auburn, but it might be different in pros...Came out early after junior year...Didn't get big money because he was drafted by Sixers, who couldn't offer much because of salary-cap problems...Born Feb. 20, 1963...Grew up in Leeds, Ala."

17) Alex English thrived in the 1980s, and he would be even greater in today's game with the emphasis on freedom of movement. His profile summarized his scoring prowess: "Poetry in motion...It's a thing of beauty to watch him shoot his unorthodox jumper from the baseline...Hardly looks like he is breaking a sweat...Just seems to pop open at different spots on the floor...Makes his defender pay by scoring right in his face."

18) Johnny Bach was a hoops lifer who may be best known to most fans as an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls' first three championship teams, but in 1983-84 he was the oldest rookie head coach in NBA history, guiding a patchwork Golden State team to a 37-45 record after the team went 30-52 the previous year. The Warriors were not a stable or well-run organization at that time--they missed the playoffs each year from 1978-86--so their lack of success was something beyond Bach's control to correct.

19) Here is Olajuwon's entire profile in his first CHPB appearance: "'Akeem the Dream'...Has been playing the game for only five years, but was the No. 1 overall pick in draft...Already being compared to Bill Russell as a defensive force...Runs the floor as well as anyone in the game today...Will team with Ralph Sampson...Born Jan. 23, 1963, in Lagos, Nigeria...An All-American as a junior, he went to the NCAA Final Four three times with University of Houston...Awesome shot-blocker and strong inside force...Averaged 16.9 ppg and 13.7 rpg, then decided to leave school early."

Olajuwon scored 620 points in 37 games (16.76 ppg) in his final college season, so he did not average 16.9 ppg but 16.8 ppg after rounding.

20) Abdul-Jabbar's profile declared: "The most potent offensive force in the game today, even at his age." In 1983-84, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 21.5 ppg while shooting .578 from the field. He was the leading scorer for the fourth highest scoring team in the league, a squad that had six double figure scorers plus two other players who each averaged at least 9 ppg. Had it been desirable or necessary, Abdul-Jabbar could have scored more, so even though he did not rank among the top 10 scorers that season it was not farfetched to term him "the most potent offensive force." 

21) Magic Johnson's profile noted his value while also mentioning his disappointing performance (by his high standards) in the 1984 NBA Finals: "Changed the entire concept of the point guard position and is unquestionably the finest passer in the game today...Unfortunately, he made several critical blunders against Boston in the finals that probably cost the Lakers their third NBA championship in five years...Had another fine regular season...Can beat you by passing (13.0 assists per game), scoring (17.6 ppg) or rebounding (7.3 rpg)."

Wayback Machine, Part I looked at the 1975 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part II looked at the 1976 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part III looked at the 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part IV looked at the 1978 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part V looked at the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VI looked at the 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VII looked at the 1981 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VIII looked at the 1982 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
 
Wayback Machine, Part IX looked at the 1983 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part X looked at the 1984 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball 

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:28 PM

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Thursday, January 19, 2023

LeBron James is Playing at a Level no other 38 Year Old Has Reached

LeBron James celebrated his 38th birthday on December 30, 2022, and in the past three weeks he has played at a level no other 38 year old NBA player has ever reached, averaging 34.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg, and 8.6 apg in seven games. Overall, this season he is averaging 29.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and 7.0 apg while playing 35 of a possible 45 games. Until the season is over it is too soon to definitively proclaim James the greatest 38 year old NBA player ever, but it is already safe to say that he has placed himself on the short list.

Unless James' play declines significantly down the stretch, the only age 38 player who played at a comparable level was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who holds the career regular season scoring record (38,387 points) that James is on pace to pass in about three weeks.

In Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's age 38 season (1984-85), he averaged 22.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 3.2 apg while playing in 79 of a possible 82 games. He finished fourth in regular season MVP voting, but was relegated to the All-NBA Second Team behind Moses Malone, the All-NBA First Team center that season who was third in MVP voting, trailing only Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar won the 1985 Finals MVP after averaging 25.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, and 5.2 apg as his L.A. Lakers defeated the defending champion Boston Celtics in six games. In his age 39 season (1985-86), Abdul-Jabbar averaged 23.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 3.5 apg to earn an All-NBA First Team selection along with a fifth place finish in the regular season MVP voting.

In Michael Jordan's age 38 season (2001-02), he averaged 22.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 5.2 apg while playing in 60 of a possible 82 games for the Washington Wizards. Jordan had been retired for three years, so it could be argued that his body was well-rested, but it could also be argued that he was rusty after spending an extended period of time away from NBA competition. Jordan made the All-Star team but was not selected for the All-NBA Team. He had five 40 point games—including a season-high 51 point outburst versus the Charlotte Hornets—but he also scored fewer than 10 points in five games. Jordan shot .416 from the field, the worst field goal percentage of his career (not counting the 17 games he played in 1994-95 during his first comeback). During his age 39 season, Jordan's scoring average declined to 20.0 ppg but his field goal percentage improve to .445 (still well below his career average of .497). The two most remarkable facts about Jordan's final season are (1) he played all 82 games despite having chronic knee problems, and (2) he averaged 37.0 mpg, which would rank third in the league this season (in the pre load-management 2002-03 season, Jordan ranked 35th in mpg).

In Karl Malone's age 38 season (2001-02), he averaged 22.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg, and 4.3 apg in 80 games. He was selected to the All-Star team.

In John Stockton's age 38 season (1999-00), he averaged 12.1 ppg and 8.6 apg (sixth in the NBA) in 82 games while earning the last of his 10 All-Star selections. 

A good conditioning program is vital for any NBA player, but it is particularly important for older players. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Ron Harper formed a "Breakfast Club" during which they worked out and trained together so that their bodies would be prepared not only for the regular season but also for deep playoff runs, and that dedication paid off with the Chicago Bulls' second "three-peat" from 1996-98. Jordan played until he was 40, Pippen played until he was 38, and Harper played until he was 37.

Julius Erving was one of the early adopters in terms of doing conditioning work with the express purpose of extending his career by maintaining strength and flexibility to prevent injuries. Howard Cosell profiled Kilbourne's work with Erving and the 1983 NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers. Erving also trained with Pat Croce, who complimented Erving as the hardest working athlete he had ever seen. A 1985 Orlando Sentinel article called Erving Croce's "prize pupil" in an era when NBA players and teams were just beginning to understand the importance of weightlifting and training. Croce is best known for being the Philadelphia 76ers' majority owner during Allen Iverson's prime years. 

Erving played 16 professional seasons, retiring after his age 37 season (1986-87) during which he averaged 16.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, and 3.2 apg while earning his 16th All-Star selection (second all-time behind only Abdul-Jabbar's 17 at that point). In recent years, it has become more common not only for careers to last 16 or more seasons but also for older players to remain productive--but at the time Erving retired making the All-Star team at 37 was very rare, and even playing past age 33 was uncommon: in 1986-87, there were only 20 NBA players 33 or older, and Erving ranked sixth in scoring in that group (the only player older than Erving who posted a higher scoring average that season was Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 17.5 ppg). This season, there are more than 40 players who are 33 or older, three of them are each averaging at least 29 ppg (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry), and four others are each averaging at least 21 ppg.

Today's players have more time, money, and resources than their predecessors did to help preserve their bodies. It has been reported that James spends more than $1 million per year on body maintenance, and it is clear that the effort, money, and time spent are paying tremendous dividends for him. James is setting an incredible standard for players in their late 30s, and it will be interesting to see how long he can play at this level, and if 20 or 30 years from now additional advances make it more common for players to perform so well near the age of 40.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:42 PM

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Monday, January 16, 2023

Ja Morant is Great, but the Memphis Grizzlies are not a One Man Team

I love Ja Morant's game: he is explosive, he is versatile, and he is an unselfish player who revels in his teammates' success. Morant deserves the headlines and the highlights--he is not only a spectacular player, but he is a very effective player who is posting career-high numbers in scoring (27.4 ppg, matching last season's average), assists (7.9 apg), and rebounding (5.8 rpg). The 6-3 point guard who is a fan favorite because of his amazing dunks is leading the Grizzlies in scoring and assists while ranking third in rebounding.

However, it should be noted that the Grizzlies' success is based upon the often underrated factors that generally are the foundation for team success in basketball: they rank first in defensive field goal percentage, first in rebounding, and second in point differential. 

In my 2022-23 Western Conference Preview, I ranked the Grizzlies as the second best team in the West, declaring, "Some teams rise up for one fluky season only to fall back into the pack--Portland, Atlanta, and New York are three recent examples of this--but the Grizzlies look like a team built for sustained high level success."

As I noted last season, the Grizzlies "are an old-school type of team that rejects the notion that you have to take and make a lot of three pointers to be successful." In 2021-22, the Grizzlies finished with the second best record in the Western Conference (56-26) while ranking 17th in three point field goal percentage, 23rd in three point field goals made, and 23rd in three point field goals attempted, and this season they currently have the second best record in the Western Conference--29-13, just half a game behind the 30-13 Denver Nuggets--while ranking 18th in three point field goal percentage, 19th in three point field goals made, and 18th in three point field goals made. 

You could say that the "analytics revolution" emphasizing--among other things--high volume three point shooting has not found its way to Memphis, but the reality is that the Grizzlies took a stab at using "advanced basketball statistics," and rapidly descended from the 2013 Western Conference Finals to missing the playoffs in 2018 as "stat guru" John Hollinger feuded with Coach Lionel Hollins (who the Grizzlies then fired right after the team's 2013 Western Conference Finals appearance) before distinguishing himself from the pack by destroying Memphis' roster.

Despite the media hype touting the value of "advanced basketball statistics," there are limitations to a narrow, mathematical approach to a complex subject that defies simple mathematical modeling/projections. Or, put another way, Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis. I must emphasize that I do not "hate" statistical analysis; I oppose poorly done statistical analysis in general, and I specifically reject the notion that statistical analysis is as applicable to basketball--a free flowing game of near constant motion--as it is to baseball, a game of "discrete, one on one actions: the pitcher throws the ball, the batter swings and, if he makes contact, a fielder attempts to catch the ball."

Is there value in looking at the performance of various five player lineups, at a player's shooting percentages from various spots on the court, and at other statistics not found in a traditional box score? Of course there is--but those data points are only meaningful when considered in a larger context of other data points, combined with the "eye test" observations of competent coaches and scouts. The notion that you can understand basketball without even watching the game--or the even more radical notion that the "eye test" is so biased that you are better off not watching the game and relying entirely on "objective" numbers, as some "stat gurus" insist--is foolish.

After their detour into "stat guru" purgatory, the Grizzlies have emerged as a team that is intelligently run, with a well-balanced roster that plays smart, hard-nosed basketball. There is nothing wrong with enjoying Morant's dunks and sensational moves--he is one of my favorite players to watch--but basketball purists can also enjoy Memphis' emphasis on defense and rebounding, which have been the cornerstones for team success throughout basketball history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:44 AM

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Friday, January 06, 2023

Nets Beat Undermanned Pelicans

In a matchup of the third seeded teams in each conference, the Brooklyn Nets defeated the New Orleans Pelicans, 108-102. The Pelicans led by as many as 15 points in the first half, but were doomed by cold second half shooting (16-44, including 2-12 from three point range). Kevin Durant scored a game-high 33 points but shot just 9-26 from the field. He also had a game-high 10 rebounds, plus two blocked shots. Kyrie Irving struggled for most of the game before scoring 10 of the Nets' 20 fourth quarter points to finish with 19 points on 7-22 field goal shooting. Irving provided 10 of the Nets' 20 fourth quarter points. T.J. Warren scored 15 points off of the bench in just 24 minutes.

C.J. McCollum led the Pelicans with 28 points on 9-24 field goal shooting and Naji Marshall added a career-high 23 points on 6-11 field goal shooting. Jonas Valanciunas had 12 points and a game-high 10 rebounds as the Pelicans outrebounded the Nets 51-43, but even with those extra possessions the Pelicans could not make up for the absences of injured stars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

The Nets have won 17 of their last 19 games, and the Pelicans have been a pleasant surprise despite key players missing a large number of games. Should either of these teams be considered championship contenders based not just on this game but on their overall body of work and their potential?

The Nets have had a tumultuous season. Coach Steve Nash departed after the team started 2-5, at the same time that the Nets suspended Kyrie Irving for unrepentant antisemitism. Ben Simmons did not look sharp in the early going, and he missed four of the team's first 10 games. On November 25, the Nets were 9-11 before embarking on their current surge. However, the Nets' recent success includes wins versus many non-contending teams, including Atlanta (twice), Charlotte (twice), Toronto (twice), Washington (twice), Detroit, Orlando, and San Antonio. The Nets beat Golden State sans Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. 

Are the Nets legitimate contenders? Kevin Durant owns two NBA title and two NBA Finals MVPs, while Kyrie Irving has already been the second option on a championship team. Ben Simmons is capable of being an elite playmaker and an elite defensive player who can guard multiple positions. If those three stars are healthy, the Nets can be very good--but, for a variety of reasons, each of those players has missed substantial playing time in recent seasons. 

The Nets lack size, and consequently rank 29th in the league in rebounding. Their defensive numbers look good, but--as noted above--they have recently feasted on weak competition. The Nets have not proven that they can rebound and defend at a high level against elite teams. Since Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined the team in 2019, the Nets have only won one playoff series. 

The Nets are capable of being a legitimate contender, but until they prove otherwise in the crucible of postseason play they should not be ranked ahead of the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks, regardless of regular season records and regular season winning streaks.

Entering play tonight, the New Orleans Pelicans had the third best record in the Western Conference, just a game behind the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies. The Pelicans accomplished this despite Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram missing substantial playing time. C.J. McCollum (20.2 ppg, 6.0 apg) has played well, and the Pelicans are a rugged, scrappy team that ranks second in steals, fourth in scoring, and sixth in rebounding; their depth has helped mitigate the absences of Williamson and Ingram, but this team is unlikely to advance past the first round of the playoffs without Williamson and Ingram. 

The Pelicans' potential is tantalizing, but Williamson and Ingram being out of the lineup is not surprising; Ingram has not played more than 62 games in a season since his rookie campaign (2016-17), while Williamson missed the entire 2021-22 season due to injury after playing just 85 games combined in his first two seasons. Williamson and Ingram are also players who primarily impact the game offensively, so even if they are healthy at playoff time they have not proven that they are willing or able to do enough defensively to lead a team to a playoff series win.

Are the Pelicans a contender? Until their two best players (1) stay healthy and (2) prove that they are committed to playing defense the Pelicans will not be a contender.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:27 PM

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Thursday, January 05, 2023

Winning Players Versus Stat-Padding Players

What is the best way to determine if a player is primarily focused on team success as opposed to being primarily focused on stat-padding? There is not one statistic or one observation to definitively prove this, but there are several methods that can at least bring us close to the truth.

I consume a lot of NBA content via TV, radio, and print. It is fascinating how often various "experts" assert that (1) the Dallas Mavericks cannot win a championship with Luka Doncic playing the way that he currently plays, and that (2) LeBron James makes the L.A. Lakers a dangerous team that no one wants to face in the playoffs.

Luka Doncic is in good company as a superstar whose ability to win a championship is doubted. Many "experts" declared that Michael Jordan would never win a championship because Jordan was supposedly too selfish and too focused on winning scoring titles--and then Jordan won six NBA titles and six NBA Finals MVPs along with a record 10 scoring titles. Many "experts" declared that Shaquille O'Neal would never win a championship because he was a poor free throw shooter--and then O'Neal won four NBA titles and three NBA Finals MVPs. Many "experts" declared that Kobe Bryant would never win a championship because Bryant was supposedly too selfish and too focused on individual glory--and then Bryant won three NBA titles alongside O'Neal. After the Lakers traded O'Neal, many "experts" declared that Bryant would never win a championship without O'Neal--and then Bryant won two more NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVPs.

That is not to suggest that Doncic is as great or will become as great as Jordan, O'Neal, or Bryant; the point is that for several decades the "experts" have not provided much insight about the future championship prospects of great players.

Last season, Doncic led the Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki carried the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title. Prior to tonight's game versus the Boston Celtics, the Mavericks are 22-13 this season with Doncic and 0-3 without him. The Mavericks are enjoying a seven game winning streak, their longest winning streak since their 2010-11 championship campaign. Doncic is leading the NBA in scoring (career-high 34.3 ppg) while posting career-highs in FG% (.507), assists (8.9 apg), and steals (1.7 spg). Doncic is not a great defensive player, but he ranks seventh in the league in defensive rebounds and sixth in the league in steals, so there are ways that he impacts the game positively on defense. The eye test shows that he is in better shape and has better stamina than he had early in his career. 

A great player needs help to win a championship, and it remains to be seen if Doncic has or will get enough help, but there is no evidence supporting the contention that the Mavericks cannot win a championship with Doncic playing the way he is playing. Doncic is playing a better, more well-rounded game than other players who have led teams to championships.

LeBron James has already won four NBA titles and four NBA Finals MVPs, so there is no question about his ability to lead a team to a title. He is more productive than any 38 year old or 20 year veteran has ever been. However, the above facts do not prove that he is currently playing like a championship level player, nor do they prove that he makes the Lakers a dangerous team that no one wants to face in the playoffs. In his four full seasons as a Laker, the Lakers have won one title but they have also missed the playoffs twice and lost once in the first round. The Lakers are currently in 12th place in the Western Conference, and thus would not even qualify for the Play-In Tournament if the season ended today. The Lakers are 13-16 this season with James and 4-5 without him. 

Throughout his career, James' strongest offensive weapon has been driving to the basket, but this season he is attempting 6.8 three pointers per game (the second highest number of his career) while attempting just 5.7 free throws per game (tied for the lowest number of his career). Overall, James is attempting 22.1 field goals per game (the second highest number of his career). 

The eye test reveals that James does not have the same defensive impact that he used to have, which is not surprising considering his age and years of service. The numbers support the eye test, as his steals and blocked shots are below his career averages (though he is still an excellent defensive rebounder).

It is no secret that James is less than 500 points away from breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career regular season scoring record--and it is obvious that James' primary goal right now is breaking that record, not winning games or championships. As the team's de facto General Manager, James traded away young players who may or may not have become championship level players in order to acquire Anthony Davis, which resulted in winning one title but will also probably result in the Lakers being a non-contender for the foreseeable future.

Unless or until James plays differently and unless or until Anthony Davis demonstrates that he can remain healthy and focused, no team fears playing the Lakers in the playoffs--assuming that the Lakers can even make the playoffs, which is far from certain.

This does not mean that Doncic will have a greater career than James, or that James is having a bad season. James is having a very productive season, but the eye test and the numbers both show that he is primarily focused on breaking the scoring record, because he is not playing the way that he played when he led teams to championships.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:09 PM

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Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Antetokounmpo Scores Career-High 55 Points, Logs Third Straight 40-10-5 Game

Giannis Antetokounmpo's 55 point performance last night while leading Milwaukee to a 123-113 win over Washington not only established a new single game career-high but is also his third straight game with at least 40 points, at least 10 rebounds, and at least five assists. Antetokounmpo shot 20-33 from the field and 15-16 from the free throw line while also grabbing 10 rebounds and passing for a game-high seven assists. Antekounmpo is just the third Milwaukee Buck to have three straight 40 point games, joining Flynn Robinson (February 1969), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (February 1972). Abdul-Jabbar averaged 39.3 ppg, 15.6 rpg, and 5.8 apg in February 1972 en route to winning his second consecutive scoring title with a career-high 34.8 ppg average.

Only three players other than Antetokounmpo have had three straight 40-10-5 games: Elgin Baylor (1961 and 1963), Wilt Chamberlain (1963), and Russell Westbrook (2016). We should not just glide past those names. Here are Baylor's numbers during his 1961 streak:

1) 50 points (17-34 FG, 16-22 FT), 20 rebounds, seven assists as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Syracuse Nationals 131-120 on December 4, 1961.

2) 45 points (15-39 FG, 15-18 FT), 25 rebounds, eight assists as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Syracuse Nationals 125-120 on December 5, 1961.

3) 47 points (17-43 FG, 13-22 FT), 23 rebounds, eight assists as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Syracuse Nationals 123-121 on December 6, 1961.

4) 63 points (23-55 FG, 17-24 FT), 31 rebounds, seven assists as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Philadelphia Warriors 151-147 on December 8, 1961.

During that four game stretch, Baylor averaged 51.3 ppg, 24.8 rpg, and 7.5 apg while shooting .421 from the field and .709 from the free throw line. "Stat gurus" may grumble about Baylor's shooting percentages, but his productivity was off the charts and his team won all four games. He did not "merely" post 40-10-5, but he posted at least 45-20-7 in each of those four games!

It is also worth emphasizing that Baylor's Lakers played games on three straight days and they played four games in a five day period. No load management back then! The fourth game is notable because Wilt Chamberlain scored 78 points and grabbed 43 rebounds in a losing effort, one of a record six times that Chamberlain scored at least 70 points in a game.

Antetokounmpo is on pace to average more than 30 ppg, more than 10 rpg, and more than 5 apg while also shooting better than .500 from the field; the only other players to post such statistics are Wilt Chamberlain (twice), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Bucks have struggled recently, losing four of their previous five games and six of their previous 10 games prior to beating the Wizards. The main problem has been injuries/illnesses: Antetokounmpo did not play in Sunday's loss to the Wizards because of left knee soreness, Khris Middleton has not played since December 15 because of a right knee injury, and Jrue Holiday missed three games because of a non-COVID illness before logging just 19 minutes last night versus the Wizards.

If the Bucks can get healthy (and stay healthy), then they will be very difficult to beat in a seven game playoff series, particularly if Antetokounmpo keeps playing at a historically great level.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 PM

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Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Donovan Mitchell Joins the Elite 70 Point Game Club

Last night, Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Chicago Bulls 145-134 in overtime. Mitchell shot 22-34 from the field, including 7-15 from three point range, and he shot 20-25 from the free throw line. He also had 11 assists, becoming the first player to post double digit assists in a 70 point game. Mitchell scored 13 of Cleveland's 15 overtime points. Gilbert Arenas holds the regular season overtime period scoring record (16 points), while Stephen Curry holds the playoff overtime period scoring record (17 points).

Mitchell's career-high and franchise best performance is just the second 70 point game that required at least one overtime period; on December 6, 1961, Chamberlain scored 78 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in a 151-147 triple overtime loss to the L.A. Lakers. The only players who scored more than 78 points in an NBA game are Chamberlain--whose record 100 point game will probably never be matched--and Kobe Bryant, who scored 81 points as his L.A. Lakers beat the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006.

Mitchell is just the seventh player in pro basketball history to score at least 70 points in a game. Chamberlain, who had six 70 point games, is the only player with multiple 70 point games. Elgin Baylor scored a then-record 71 points on November 15, 1960 as his L.A. Lakers defeated the New York Knicks 123-108. Chamberlain's 78 point game broke Baylor's record, and then a few months later Chamberlain had his legendary 100 point game. 

The third player to have a 70 point game is David Thompson, who scored 73 points in the final game of the 1977-78 season but still lost the closest scoring title race ever after George Gervin answered with a 63 point outburst. The next 70 point game took place 16 years later, when David Robinson poured in 71 points to win the scoring title over Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant joined the 70 Point Club 12 years later, and then 11 years passed before Devin Booker scored 70 points in a 10 point loss after his Phoenix Suns repeatedly committed fouls at the end of the game so that Booker could get more shot attempts.

Mitchell's performance was sensational, and much more legitimate than Booker's not just because Mitchell's team won but also because Mitchell's scoring was essential for the win. That being said, Booker and Mitchell are without question the least accomplished members of the 70 Point Club, as Baylor, Chamberlain, and Bryant are Pantheon members while Robinson is one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players and Thompson is a Hall of Famer who was an MVP caliber player in the mid to late 1970s before drug abuse derailed his career. 

Not counting Chamberlain--whose name dominates the NBA record book--the NBA has seen less than one 70 point game per decade, so even in this era when it is easier to score than ever it may take 10 years before anyone matches what Mitchell did last night.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:26 PM

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Monday, December 26, 2022

Notes About the 2022 Christmas Day Quintupleheader

As usual, the NBA's annual Christmas Day quintupleheader featured the league's highest profile teams, including the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the reigning Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics, the 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, and the 2020 NBA champion L.A. Lakers. We also saw reigning two-time regular season MVP Nikola Jokic and his Denver Nuggets, plus likely future MVP Luka Doncic and his Dallas Mavericks, who reached the Western Conference Finals last year for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki led the team to the 2011 NBA title. 

Game One: Philadelphia 76ers 119, New York Knicks 112 

1) The Knicks led most of the way, but faded badly in the fourth quarter. The Knicks opened the game with a 12-4 run, and they pushed that margin to 37-25 by the end of the first quarter as Julius Randle (13 points on 4-7 field goal shooting in 12 minutes) and Jalen Brunson (10 points on 4-9 field goal shooting) set the pace. 

The Knicks maintained a solid working margin for most of the second quarter, but the 76ers pulled within three points just before halftime after Shake Milton hit a half court buzzer beater. Randle scored 25 points on 9-15 field goal shooting, tying the most points scored in a first half on Christmas Day in the last 25 years. R.J. Barrett had 11 points despite shooting just 3-11 from the field, and Brunson contributed 10 points plus six assists. Joel Embiid led the 76ers with 16 first half points, doing most of his damage in the paint and at the free throw line. De'Anthony Melton added 12 points on 4-4 field goal shooting, while James Harden had 11 points on 2-5 field goal shooting, plus seven assists and no turnovers. 

Early in the fourth quarter, the 76ers took their first lead of the game (101-98) on a Georges Niang three pointer. Niang soon hit two more treys to push the margin to eight (108-100), and the 76ers did not look back after that. Even with Niang getting loose, the Knicks' overall fourth quarter defense was not bad--they gave up fewer points in the final stanza (24) than in any of the three previous quarters--but their offense disappeared, as they scored just 16 points after producing at least 26 points in each of the first three quarters. 

Embiid finished with 35 points on 12-22 field goal shooting. He shot just 10-15 from the free throw line, and he only had eight rebounds plus one assist. Embiid's plus/minus number was -6. Only four of the 10 76ers who played had a positive plus/minus number, and three of those four were bench players (Georges Niang, Montrezl Harrell, and Shake Milton). Harden (29 points, 13 assists, four rebounds, four steals) was the only Philadelphia starter with a positive plus/minus number (+10). Niang contributed 16 points on 6-11 field goal shooting in just 23 minutes, and he had a game-high +17 plus/minus number. Niang drilled four three pointers in the fourth quarter.

Randle led the Knicks with 35 points on 12-24 field goal shooting. Brunson added 23 points and 11 assists, but he suffered some kind of leg injury that limited him to three ineffective fourth quarter minutes (he had a -10 plus/minus number during those three minutes, a marked contrast to his +3 plus/minus number in his other 32 minutes).

2) The Knicks had won eight games in a row to improve to 18-13 before losing two games in a row prior to Christmas Day. Free agent acquisition Brunson (20.1 ppg, 6.4 apg) has provided a spark offensively, and is part of a potent scoring trio with Randle (22.7 ppg) and Barrett (20.4 ppg). The Knicks rank third in rebounding, and they rank third in defensive field goal percentage, so if their version of a "Big Three" continues to be productive offensively then they may return to the playoffs for just the second time since 2013 (which would also be the second time in three years since Tom Thibodeau became their head coach).

3) Embiid is without question an MVP caliber player, and he is playing at an MVP level this season, including averaging career-highs in scoring (33.0 ppg) and field goal percentage (.528)--but he has already missed eight out of 32 games this season, he has never played more than 68 games in the regular season, and he has never led the 76ers past the second round of the playoffs. Until he proves otherwise, there is no reason to believe that he has the necessary durability and mentality to be the best player on a championship team--and that is not "hate": that is a statement of fact that will remain true unless/until he disproves it.

4) The 76ers have won eight games in a row. This season, the 76ers are 12-6 with James Harden (which projects to 55-27 for an 82 game season), and they are 8-6 without James Harden (which projects to 47-35 for an 82 game season). It is worth noting that the 8-6 record sans Harden has been accomplished without the injured Tyrese Maxey, who is arguably the 76ers' second best player now behind Joel Embiid. 

Harden has been with three different teams since 2018 (Houston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia), and during that time span none of those teams advanced past the second round of the playoffs. During his eight full seasons in Houston, Harden demonstrated that I was correct to assert that Harden "is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James" and that he was not equipped to be the best player on a championship team (even if I did not anticipate the extent that, aided by rules changes/officiating changes, Harden would post gaudy scoring and assist numbers as a Rocket). It remains to be seen if Harden can be the second or third best player on a championship team.

Game Two: Dallas Mavericks 124, L.A. Lakers 115

1) It is always a treat to watch Hubie Brown provide color commentary. Unless I missed something, this is the first ESPN/ABC game Brown did this season. I always enjoy hearing Brown's words of wisdom. Brown is still the best at concisely pointing out the specific reasons that a player is effective, and at diagnosing a team's strengths and weaknesses. After the Mavericks missed several three point shots in the first quarter, Brown calmly noted that this is how the Mavericks play: they rank third in three point field goal attempts but just 14th in three point field goal percentage, so when they are hot they are dangerous and when they are cold "you get what you are seeing here." Brown not only diagnosed what happened in the first quarter, but he foreshadowed what would happen in the third quarter.

2) The Lakers led 28-21 at the end of the first quarter. LeBron James scored 10 points on 5-8 field goal shooting, and he had a +15 plus/minus number in nine minutes. The Mavericks shot just .353 from the field in the first quarter. Luka Doncic had seven points on 2-4 field goal shooting.   

At halftime, the Lakers were up 54-43, with James pouring in 18 points on 9-15 field goal shooting. His +25 plus/minus number indicated his tremendous impact during the 19 minutes he played. Russell Westbrook (12 points on 5-12 field goal shooting, four rebounds, two assists) was the only other Laker who scored in double figures. He had a plus/minus number of 0 during 12 minutes. Christian Wood topped the Mavericks with 15 points on 6-8 field goal shooting, but he also had a team-worst -18 plus/minus number. Doncic (10 points on 3-6 field goal shooting, -7 plus/minus number) was the only other Dallas player who scored in double figures.

Early in the third quarter, the Lakers extended their lead to 58-46, but then the Mavericks countered with three three pointers to trim the margin to 58-55, and soon after that Tim Hardaway Jr. drilled a trey to put Dallas up, 65-63. As Hubie Brown mentioned during the first quarter, the Mavericks are a team that runs hot and cold from beyond the three point arc, but they will keep launching from long range. The Mavericks outscored the Lakers 51-21 in the third quarter, draining nine three pointers while tying the franchise record for most points in a quarter. Brown noted that the Mavericks were successful not merely because they took a lot of three pointers but also because they played very patiently and unselfishly. Doncic attacked the paint to draw double teams, and then the Mavericks kept passing the ball until they obtained wide open shots. 

James tried to singlehandedly bring the Lakers back in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points in a little over three minutes, but that proved to be too little too late for the Lakers, whose defense has been leaky throughout the season.

Doncic paced both teams with a +24 plus/minus number as he scored 32 points on 9-16 field goal shooting while also contributing nine rebounds and nine assists. Wood added 30 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, four steals, and two blocked shots along with a +16 plus/minus number. Hardaway Jr. scored 26 points on 10-19 field goal shooting, including 6-14 from beyond the arc as the Mavericks finished 18-44 (.409) from three point range despite their slow start.

James poured in a game-high 38 points on 13-23 field goal shooting while also grabbing six rebounds and dishing for five assists. He finished with a +2 plus/minus number. Westbrook added 17 points on 7-16 field goal shooting, plus five rebounds, four assists, and no turnovers in 24 minutes. His -30 plus/minus number reflects the reality that he was on the court when the Mavericks went on their third quarter three point barrage. Plus/minus can be useful, particularly in large sample sizes, but sometimes it can be deceptive, and this is an example of a player's plus/minus number not accurately reflecting his individual performance. Austin Reaves scored 16 points with a -15 plus/minus number. No other Laker scored in double figures.

Casual fans and careless commentators will focus on the Lakers' 9-28 (.321) three point shooting while not mentioning that (1) the Lakers scored 115 points on .488 field goal shooting, and (2) the Lakers gave up 124 points on .524 field goal shooting. The simple truth is that any NBA team that gives up 124 points on .524 field goal shooting is not going to win very many games; the Lakers' main problem is their porous defense, not their three point shooting. Contrary to what many people insist, it is not necessary to make a lot of three pointers to win, but it is necessary to defend well at all levels: in the paint, in the midrange, beyond the three point arc, and at the free throw line (in terms of defending without fouling).

3) The Mavericks finished with the fourth best record in the Western Conference last season before advancing to the Western Conference Finals after stunning the Phoenix Suns in the seventh game of the second round. Entering Christmas Day, the Mavericks were tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for eighth place in the Western Conference. Doncic is having an MVP caliber season (32.8 ppg, 8.7 apg, 8.3 rpg, career-high .497 FG%) but the Mavericks rank 30th (out of 30 teams) in rebounding, and they rank 23rd in defensive field goal percentage. Much has been said about how much the Mavericks miss Jalen Brunson, but the reality is that for the Mavericks to be a consistent contender--and not just a team that makes one Conference Finals run before falling back to the pack--they must improve their defense and rebounding, two categories in which Brunson did not make major contributions.

4) Westbrook leads NBA reserves in assists, and he ranks third in scoring among bench players. The 2017 regular season MVP and future Hall of Famer has made a great transition to the sixth man role. Brown mentioned Westbrook's excellent play during the telecast, and last season Brown was one of the few commentators who did not jump on the anti-Westbrook bandwagon.

The silence of Westbrook's critics is deafening, particularly considering how much unwarranted blame Westbrook received last season. Westbrook was not the Lakers' main problem last season, and he has been one of the few bright spots for the Lakers this season. It is worth contrasting the way that Westbrook has accepted a reserve role with the way that many big name players have resisted coming off of the bench, including but not limited to Carmelo Anthony (late in his career) and James Harden (early in his career with Oklahoma City).

5) Last year, Anthony Davis missed the Christmas Day game as part of a 17 game absence (December 19, 2021-January 23, 2022) due to injury. Davis missed this year's Christmas Day game due to injury, and he is expected to be out of the lineup for at least another week. Davis is an 11 year veteran who has played more than 68 games in a season just twice; the Lakers have an 11-14 record this season with Davis, and are now 2-6 without Davis. The Lakers are not particularly good even with Davis, but they are awful without him. He is their best defensive player, so the Lakers' defense goes from mediocre to terrible when Davis does not play.

6) James played in his 17th Christmas Day game, breaking the record previously held by Kobe Bryant. It is an understatement to say that James has had a remarkable career; he is less than 700 points away from breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time career regular season scoring record, and he is on pace to shatter Abdul-Jabbar's record for best single season scoring average by a player in his age 38 season (Abdul-Jabbar averaged 23.4 ppg in 1985-86, while James is averaging 27.4 ppg this season).

7) Prior to the game, the Mavericks unveiled a statue honoring Dirk Nowitzki, the only player in NBA history to spend an entire 21 season career with one team. Nowitzki and Doncic were teammates during Nowitzki's last season/Doncic's rookie season, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see them in person when the Mavericks visited Madison Square Garden early in 2019.

Game Three: Boston Celtics 139, Milwaukee Bucks 118

1) The Celtics shot 7-9 from the field to start the game--including 5-6 from three point range--to storm to a 19-12 lead at the 7:56 mark. The Celtics led 36-28 at the end of the first quarter thanks to a running three pointer at the buzzer by Sam Hauser. Jaylen Brown scored 13 points on 5-8 field goal shooting, including 3-3 from three point range. No other player from either team had more than seven points in the first quarter.

The Celtics cooled off a bit in the second quarter, and the Bucks outscored them 33-26 to cut the margin to 62-61 by halftime. Jayson Tatum led both teams with 19 first half points on 6-11 field goal shooting, while his teammate Brown chipped in 15 points on 6-10 field goal shooting. The Bucks featured balanced scoring with three players in double figures: Jrue Holiday (13), Brook Lopez (12), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (11).

Tatum erupted for 20 third quarter points on 7-10 field goal shooting as the Celtics extended their lead to 100-86. The Bucks never seriously threatened during the fourth quarter, and Coach Mike Budenholzer waved the white flag at the 3:41 mark when he sent Antetokounmpo and Holiday to the bench while trailing 127-108.

Tatum finished with a game-high 41 points on 14-22 field goal shooting and 10-10 free throw shooting. He had seven rebounds, five assists, and just one turnover along with a +18 plus/minus number. Tatum was without question the best player on the court. Brown also had an excellent game: 29 points on 11-19 field goal shooting, five rebounds, four assists, +11 plus/minus number. 

Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 27 points and a game-high nine rebounds but he shot just 9-22 from the field as the Celtics did a very good job of limiting his touches in the paint. He had a game-worst -27 plus/minus number. Much like Westbrook's plus/minus number, this should not be interpreted to mean that he was the worst player in the game, but it does indicate that he was on the court when the Celtics made some big scoring runs. Holiday had a good all-around game (23 points on 8-14 field goal shooting, seven assists, six rebounds).

2) It is fair to say--not just based on this game, but based on nearly half a season's worth of games played--that the Celtics are the best team so far this season. That being said, the Bucks are currently without the services of All-Star swingman Khris Middleton, who makes a significant impact at both ends of the court, and who has played just seven games this season. Even though the Bucks are just 4-3 with Middleton this season, that record does not reflect his value: he only played six minutes in one of the losses, and he was clearly hampered by a knee injury in his last game before missing the next five games (including this one) to rest his knee.

In contrast, the Celtics are at full strength with the exception of Robert Williams III being on a minutes restriction as he comes back from knee surgery.

3) Antetokounmpo is on pace to average at least 30 ppg, at least 10 rpg, and at least 5 apg. The only other players who have accomplished that trifecta in the same season are Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Russell Westbrook.

4) Barring injuries or other unforeseen developments, the Bucks and Celtics are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference--if not the entire NBA--and they are headed toward what should be an epic showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals. Perhaps the streaking Brooklyn Nets will work their way into that conversation, but the onus is on the Nets to prove that they can stay healthy and avoid internal turmoil, the two issues that have been their downfall since Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving teamed up in 2019.

Game Four: Golden State Warriors 123, Memphis Grizzlies 109

1) The undermanned Golden State Warriors--without the services of 2022 Finals MVP Stephen Curry and 2022 All-Star Andrew Wiggins--led 33-29 at the end of the first quarter after shooting 6-11 from three point range, led by Jordan Poole's 17 points on 5-9 field goal shooting (including 3-5 on three pointers). The Warriors pushed that margin to as many as 15 points, but the Grizzlies pulled to within 59-54 by halftime. Poole cooled off in the second quarter, but still finished with 20 first half points on 6-13 field goal shooting (including 3-7 from three point range). Donte DiVincenzo was the only other Warrior who scored in double figures (13 points on 5-8 field goal shooting, including 3-6 from three point range). Ja Morant had 22 points on 10-16 field goal shooting, but his teammates shot just 11-31 (.355) from the field. 

The most surprising first half statistic was that the undersized Warriors outrebounded the Grizzlies, 31-19. The Grizzlies entered the game ranked first in the league in rebounding. Their best rebounder, Steven Adams, did his part with six first half rebounds, but Morant was the only other Memphis player who had more than one first half rebound. The Warriors played with great energy and effort, while the Grizzlies were uncharacteristically passive and lackadaisical--and nothing changed in the third quarter, as the Warriors outscored the Grizzlies, 40-30.

At the 9:20 mark of the fourth quarter, Poole received his second technical foul and thus was automatically ejected. The Warriors led 106-90 after Desmond Bane made the resulting free throw. Poole's early departure changed nothing, as the Grizzlies were not able to gain any ground the rest of the way.

Poole finished with a team-high 32 points on 11-25 field goal shooting, including 3-10 from three point range. He cooled down significantly after his big first quarter, but other Warriors picked up the slack, most notably Klay Thompson (24 points despite shooting just 8-25 from the field), DiVincenzo (19 points on 7-12 field goal shooting), Ty Jerome (14 points on 6-9 field goal shooting), and Anthony Lamb (11 points on 4-5 field goal shooting). Draymond Green added three points, 13 rebounds, and 13 assists. 

The Grizzlies outrebounded the Warriors in the second half, but the Warriors still won the overall rebounding battle, 51-44. Morant poured in a game-high 36 points on 15-29 field goal shooting, but his teammates combined to shoot 24-65 (.369) from the field. Adams had a game-high 14 rebounds, and Morant and Brandon Clarke had seven rebounds apiece, but no other Memphis player had more than three rebounds.

The Grizzlies talked like this would be a statement game, but the Warriors' actions spoke louder than the Grizzlies' words.

2) Morant raised some eyebrows recently when he declared that the only team he focuses on as a potential threat is the Boston Celtics, and when questioned about that statement he emphasized that no team in the Western Conference concerns him. The sub-.500 Warriors may not have seemed to be in position to dispute Morant's opinion, but that is why they play the games. Further, there are two other teams currently vying with Memphis for the best record in the West (Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans), plus four other teams within three games of the leaders. Morant's confidence in himself and his team is understandable, but at least until the Grizzlies win a title less talk and more action may be the more prudent course.

3) There is no doubt that Morant is a special player. Though slight of build, he attacks the paint ferociously not only to score but also to grab rebounds. He is averaging 26.5 ppg, a career-high 7.9 apg, and a career-high 6.4 rpg. However, his field goal percentage (.449) and free throw percentage (.735) have both dipped, and--even though he is renowned for some spectacular defensive plays that he has made--he has yet to establish himself as even a good defensive player, let alone a great defensive player. At 6-3, 174, his durability and his ability to impact the game defensively will be valid question marks until proven otherwise. Very few 6-3 or under players have clearly been the best player on an NBA championship team. 

4) The Warriors have had a disjointed season so far. First, the always combustible Draymond Green punched out Jordan Poole during a practice session. Later, the Warriors sent James Wiseman--the second overall selection in the 2020 NBA Draft--to the G League (he is back with the Warriors after a 10 game stint in the minor league). Then, Curry suffered the shoulder injury that has kept him out of the lineup since December 14, and will likely sideline him for at least another two weeks. The Warriors were not playing great even with Curry (14-12), and they have been awful without him (2-6 including this surprising win versus the Grizzlies). If everything breaks right, the Warriors could be a serious contender by playoff time, but if a few things go wrong the Warriors could miss the playoffs.

Game Five: Denver Nuggets 128, Phoenix Suns 125 (OT)

1) The NBA saved the best for last--at least in terms of providing a game that was competitive from beginning to end.

Devin Booker returned to Phoenix' lineup after missing three games due to injury, but the Nuggets were already up 16-7 just 4:20 into the game before Booker left the game and went to the locker room to be reevaluated. Booker was soon ruled out for at least the rest of this game. Denver led 28-24 at the end of the first quarter, paced by Nikola Jokic's 15 points on 6-8 field goal shooting. Mikal Bridges (10 points on 4-6 field goal shooting) led Phoenix, with no other Sun scoring more than four points.

The Suns took the lead early in the second quarter after Damion Lee hit a three pointer to make the score 29-28. The Suns remained on top for most of the rest of the quarter, only briefly relinquishing the advantage after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's three pointer put Denver ahead, 38-36. At halftime, the Suns led 57-51. Landry Shamet scored 15 points in 17 minutes for the Suns, while Bridges and Lee each added 10 points. Jokic did not score in the second quarter but still led the Nuggets with 15 first half points. Aaron Gordon (11 points) was Denver's only other double figure scorer. The Nuggets hurt themselves with poor shooting, with Jamal Murray (nine points on 2-8 field goal shooting) and Michael Porter Jr. (scoreless on 0-5 field goal shooting) being the two primary culprits.

Early in the third quarter, the Nuggets continued to be sloppy on offense and sluggish on defense. Chris Paul opened the second half scoring by dribbling into a midrange pullup jumper as the Suns used a 12-6 run to extend their lead to 69-57 before Denver called a timeout at the 7:52 mark. Denver cut the margin to 84-79 after Jokic drained a three pointer with 34 seconds remaining, and the Nuggets trailed 84-81 heading into the fourth quarter after Murray hit a pair of free throws. Five Suns had reached double figures in scoring through three quarters, while Jokic (31 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) needed just one assist for a triple double.

Jokic notched his 83rd career triple double with an assist to a cutting Porter Jr. at the 7:53 mark of the fourth quarter, trimming Phoenix' lead to 96-93, but the Suns quickly rebuilt their lead to 106-98. The Nuggets chipped away for the next several minutes before going ahead, 108-107, on a Murray three pointer. Paul countered with a midrange jumper, but then Porter Jr. split a pair of free throws to tie the score at 109. Shamet rescued an off target Paul pass before drilling a three pointer to put Phoenix up 112-109, and then the teams traded empty possessions before Jokic's tip in cut the lead to 112-111 with 1:17 left in regulation. After the teams traded misses, Denver ran the two man game with Jokic and Murray. Deandre Ayton switched on to Murray, who missed a long jumper. The Nuggets fouled Ayton, who made one out of two free throws with 15.1 seconds remaining, leaving the door open for Denver to tie with a two pointer or go ahead with a three pointer.

The Nuggets burned their last timeout, and then Murray scored on an emphatic dunk after running the two man game again with Jokic. The Suns called timeout with 10.7 seconds remaining. Bridges was called for an offensive foul for setting an illegal screen, giving Denver a chance to go for the win, but Bridges blocked Murray's three point attempt as time ran out.

Ayton opened the overtime scoring with a jumper to put Phoenix ahead 115-113, but the Nuggets countered with six straight points. Paul missed two free throws, and then Jokic's runner put the Nuggets up 121-115. Shamet hit back to back three pointers sandwiched around a Caldwell-Pope trey, and then Ayton's layup cut Denver's lead to 124-123. Shamet took a charge to nullify a sensational Gordon dunk, but upon review the call was reversed to a block, and Denver led 126-123 with 24 seconds remaining after Gordon missed the ensuing free throw. Gordon rebounded his miss and was immediately fouled. He made the second of two free throws to put Denver up 127-123 with 22.1 seconds remaining. Paul hit a jumper, and Murray countered by splitting a pair of free throws.

The game ended with Shamet missing a three pointer, and Bruce Brown stealing Bridges' pass just after the Suns grabbed the offensive rebound. Brown dribbled down court and ran out the clock before the Susn could foul him.

Jokic logged the highest scoring triple double in Christmas Day history (41 points, 15 rebounds, 15 assists). Gordon had 28 points, including seven dunks, and he added 13 rebounds. Murray bounced back from his slow start to finish with 26 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Caldwell-Pope had 15 points.

Shamet led Phoenix with 31 points on 10-20 field goal shooting, including 7-17 from three point range. Ayton contributed 22 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Lee scored 18 points on 5-8 field goal shooting, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. Paul had 17 points and a game-high 16 assists, but he shot just 6-17 from the field.

2) The Suns put forth a valiant effort in this game, but it is no secret that something is wrong with the Suns. Not only did they fold meekly in game seven at home versus Dallas to bow out of the 2022 playoffs, but the relationship between starting center Deandre Ayton and head coach Monty Williams has been publicly contentious on multiple occasions. Chris Paul is showing serious signs of age--and he has never been the leader that so many proclaim him to be. Last season, the Suns posted the NBA's best record (64-18) while ranking 10th in rebounding and third in defensive field goal percentage; as is usually the case, offense gets headlines, but defense gets wins. This season, the Suns rank 15th in rebounding, and they rank 15th in defensive field goal percentage, so it is not surprising that their winning percentage has declined.

The Suns led the Bucks 2-0 in the 2021 NBA Finals before losing four straight games as yet another Paul-led team suffered a postseason collapse. That will probably turn out to be the closest this iteration of the Suns gets to winning a championship; Paul is nearing the end of the line, and it seems likely that sooner rather than later the Suns will have to choose between Ayton and Williams.

3) Jokic does not soar through the air before "posterizing" opponents with dunks, nor is he an elite three point shooter, but he is a fantastic all-around player who is a dominant scorer, rebounder, and passer. Basketball greatness is not about how you look or about style, but about how much you impact the game--and Jokic has a significant impact on the game.

Analysis of Previous Christmas Day Quintupleheaders:

Notes About the 2021 Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2021)

Notes About the 2020 Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2020)

Notes About the 2019 Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2019)

Several Stars Shine During Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2018)

Christmas Day Quintupleheader Recap (2012)

Comments and Notes About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2011)

Thoughts and Observations About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2010)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 AM

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