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Monday, January 25, 2021

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part IV

In The One Number That Explains the NBA's Three Point Revolution, Ben Cohen arbitrarily asserts that the one magic number is 40%. Until the 2017 NBA season, no team had attempted at least 40% of its field goals from beyond the three point arc. Last season, nine teams exceeded the threshold Cohen deems to be significant, and in the early portion of this season nearly 40% of shot attempts in the NBA are three pointers. It is undisputed and obvious that the number of three pointers attempted by NBA teams has been increasing at a rapid rate for quite some time, but Cohen does not even attempt to explain why 40% is more significant than 35% or any other number. This is not like breaking the sound barrier, or approaching the speed of light, two numbers that have physical significance in terms of the experience of an object moving at those speeds. 

Cohen then jumps from his arbitrarily selected number to a broad conclusion unsupported by evidence: "The result is that it's increasingly difficult to beat a barrage of 3-pointers with anything but three pointers. There's almost no way to keep up otherwise." If that statement were true, then all that a team would have to do to win an NBA title--or at least contend for an NBA title--is to make more three pointers than all of the other teams.

However, the numbers show that three of the teams that advanced to the NBA's version of the Final Four--the Conference Finals round--last season did not finish in the top 10 in three pointers made per game. The L.A. Lakers--who won the 2020 championship and look like they have a good chance of winning the championship this season as well--ranked 24th in three pointers made per game last season. The Miami Heat, who lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, ranked sixth in three pointers made per game last season. The other Eastern Conference Finalist, the Boston Celtics, ranked 12th, and the Western Conference Finalist Denver Nuggets ranked 24th. 

Cohen's statement is thus demonstrably false; the NBA's top four playoff finishers last season figured out how to outscore and outperform teams that shot more three pointers than they did. Moreover, the teams that shot the most three pointers were not a particularly successful group. The Houston Rockets ranked first and they lost in the second round. The Dallas Mavericks, whose chief "stat guru" is quoted by Cohen, ranked second and they lost in the first round. The Milwaukee Bucks ranked third and they lost in the second round despite having the services of the reigning two-time regular season MVP. The Toronto Raptors ranked fourth and they lost in the second round. The New Orleans Pelicans ranked fifth and did not qualify for the playoffs. The Utah Jazz ranked seventh and they lost in the first round. The Minnesota Timberwolves ranked eighth and they had the second worst record in the Western Conference. The Brooklyn Nets ranked ninth and they lost in the first round. The Portland Trail Blazers ranked 10th and they lost in the first round. Thus, the 10 teams that made the most three pointers per game last season included two teams that did not even make the playoffs, four first round losers, three second round losers, and one NBA Finalist.

In the 2020 playoffs, the Heat, Celtics, Nuggets, and Lakers finished 8th-11th respectively in three pointers made per game among the 16 postseason qualifiers. 

The explosion in three point shooting does not correlate with winning, let alone cause winning. A large number of NBA teams have hired "stat gurus" who think similarly and who have similar cognitive biases, and this is one reason why so many teams are shooting so many three pointers. Every team is shooting a lot of three pointers, and many teams are shooting more three pointers than they probably should, but just shooting a lot of three pointers has no demonstrable positive impact on winning. 

It is smart for a team to acquire three point shooters to spread the floor, creating space for drivers and post up players, but it is not smart to abandon whole swaths of the court by deeming any shot taken from those areas to be inefficient. There is no doubt that during the first few years after the NBA added the three point shot teams took a while to figure out how to leverage the rule to their advantage, but the notion that all a team has to do to win is shoot more three pointers is incorrect. 

As is often the case, the very people who claim to be making data driven conclusions are in fact ignoring what the data shows, because the "stat gurus" not only often misinterpret the numbers but they do not understand--or simply disregard--factors that are not easily quantifiable. For example, it takes a lot of energy for three point shooters to fire up a high volume of shots while also having to run up and down the court and guard opposing players, who are often bigger (teams that shoot a lot of three pointers are often playing some version of "small ball"); if I play one on one against a bigger player who I cannot guard in the paint, I may win some games just by making so many three pointers that he cannot make enough two pointers to keep up. However, unless I am in much better condition than that bigger player, the physical demands of guarding that player and fighting that player for rebounds will wear out my legs, which will in turn lower my shooting percentage. If I cannot compensate by getting some easy baskets and/or getting enough defensive stops, my three point efficiency is going to decrease while my larger opponent is still going to be able to make a high percentage of his inside shots. The NBA game is more sophisticated than recreational league basketball, but the fundamental principles remain true: a strategy that is too heavily reliant on three point shooting is a high variance strategy that is unlikely to produce sustained success.

Don't misunderstand: I love the three point shot, as anyone who has played basketball with or against me will readily attest. The three pointer is without question a valuable weapon, because of the simple fact that each three pointer made is worth 50% more than each two pointer made--but that one simple fact is not all you need to know to win a championship--particularly at the highest levels of the game; at lower levels of the game a lesser team that shoots a lot of three pointers may outduel a more talented team that is not as technically efficient defensively as they could or should be, in part because the games do not last 48 minutes and the seasons do not last 82 games plus four rounds of best out of seven playoff series. 

Many commentators keep pushing the narrative that basketball has entered a new golden age of small ball and three pointers, blissfully ignoring that the Lakers won the championship with a classic, old school recipe: (1) a big man who dominates defensively, rebounds well, and can score at will in the post, (2) a versatile "midsize" player who can score, rebound, pass, and defend, and (3) a collection of role players who collectively provide defense, rebounding, and timely scoring. 

Winning teams play consistent defense, they control the paint at both ends of the court, and they outrebound their opponents. A team that does not do those things well is not going to have much success; if a team excels tremendously in one or two categories then it may survive a slight weakness in another category, but just jacking up three pointers with little regard for defense, paint presence, and rebounding is not a championship recipe, as repeatedly demonstrated by the Houston Rockets during the Daryl Morey/James Harden era.

Previous articles in this series:

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part II 

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part III

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM

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Monday, January 18, 2021

Nets Edge Bucks as Durant and Harden Lead the Way

In an exciting game that may prove to be an Eastern Conference Finals preview, the Brooklyn Nets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 125-123. James Harden scored a game-high 34 points, and he also had a game-high 12 assists plus six rebounds. Kevin Durant finished with 30 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has traded verbal barbs with Harden before, led Milwaukee in scoring (34 points), rebounds (12), and assists (seven), but he was stationed beyond the midcourt line at the start of Milwaukee's game-ending out of bounds play, a strange deployment of the reigning two-time MVP with the Bucks only needing two points to tie. Khris Middleton, who missed a jumper as time expired, had 25 points, four rebounds, and four assists. The Nets won the rebounding battle 49-41, and they outshot the Bucks from the field .548 to .438. The Bucks kept the game close by forcing 17 turnovers while only committing five turnovers. 

Much attention is being paid to Harden's numbers in his first two games as a Net: 32 points, 14 assists, and 12 rebounds in his debut, followed by his strong game versus the Bucks. I have yet to see, read, or hear anyone mention the numbers that Julius Erving posted in 1973 in his first two games as a Net: 42 points, 18 rebounds, three assists and four blocked shots in his debut, followed by 38 points and 13 rebounds in the encore. Those games are not less valid or less relevant because they took place nearly 50 years ago in the ABA. The NFL fully recognizes AFL statistics, and the NBA must do likewise with ABA statistics.

It has also been asserted that Durant has set a Nets' franchise record by scoring at least 25 points in 10 consecutive games--but during Erving's first season with the Nets he scored at least 25 points in 13 consecutive games, and he had a 13 game streak of 25 point games during the 1975-76 season. Further, Rick Barry scored at least 25 points in the final 12 games of the 1970-71 season. Barry did not reach the 25 point mark in the first game of the 1971-72 season, but he had an 11 game streak of 25 point games later during that campaign.

During the 1975-76 season, Erving also had an 11 game streak of 25 point games, and a 10 game streak of 25 point games. The 13 game streak ended with a 23 point game that immediately preceded the 11 game streak, so Erving had a run of 25 games during which he scored at least 25 points 24 times. During that 11 game streak, Erving had a game during which he scored 44 points immediately followed by a game during which he scored 40 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, dished for nine assists, accumulated six steals, and blocked four shots. Erving scored at least 20 points in each of the first 27 games of the 1975-76 season.

The NBA and its media partners consistently pretend that ABA games never happened and that ABA records do not exist. This would be like the NFL and its media partners pretending that Joe Namath did not post the first 4000 yard passing season in pro football history.

More significant than how Erving started off the 1973-74 season or how well he played during the  season is how Erving finished that campaign: he won the regular season MVP, and then he won the Finals MVP after leading the Nets to the ABA title. Similarly, in 1975-76 Erving won the regular season MVP, and then he won the Finals MVP after leading the Nets to the ABA title. He also won the scoring title during both seasons, and he was selected for the All-Defensive Team in 1976.

Any student of basketball history or advocate for truthful reporting must cringe after reading or hearing about Durant setting a franchise record that is not really a franchise record.

Maybe Durant and Harden will win a title with the Nets, but even if they do that would not diminish the permanent place that Erving carved out for himself in Nets history, in ABA history, and in pro basketball history. Erving's playoff career in general is underrated--he won three championships and he led his team to the "Final Four" (the Division Finals or Conference Finals) 10 times, including nine times in his first 12 seasons--and his playoff career with the Nets was extraordinary and remains unappreciated.

The Nets are playing very well now with Durant and Harden running the show, but this is the honeymoon period for Harden with a new team. Harden is happy that he succeeded in forcing his way out of Houston to Brooklyn, and he is eager to prove that he can fit it in with the Nets, a process that has perhaps been simplified due to the ongoing unexplained absence of Kyrie Irving, who was originally slotted to be the team's second option behind Durant. It will be interesting to see what this team's chemistry looks like after Irving returns to action--and it will be even more interesting to see what this team looks like in the crucible of playoff competition, where Durant and Irving have earned their championship stripes but Harden has consistently performed poorly. In this small sample size of two games, Harden has often handled the ball down the stretch. Perhaps that will continue to work during the regular season, but I would not trust Harden handling the ball down the stretch in playoff games, particularly in playoff games versus elite teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:36 PM

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Nets Acquire Harden in Four Team Deal

Insulting your teammates, sulking, and not playing hard works--at least if you are James Harden, who sleepwalked through the past several games while publicly proclaiming that his team is just not good enough, which must have made his teammates (including five-time All-Star John Wall) feel wonderful. Harden achieved his goal: he made the situation in Houston so untenable that the Rockets traded Harden to one of his preferred destinations, Brooklyn. Harden is thus able to flee Houston despite having three years left on a contract worth nearly $133 million. Some would call this an example of "player empowerment," while others would--correctly--say that this is an example of an employee getting away with a massive breach of contract: the Rockets agreed to pay Harden more than $100 million to be an elite basketball player for them, but Harden decided that he no longer wanted to fulfill his part of that deal, and as an end result the Rockets are deprived of his services while Harden will receive the full contract value from his new, preferred employer.

Here are the details of the deal:

The Brooklyn Nets acquired James Harden, and a 2022 second round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Houston acquired Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dante Exum, Brooklyn forward Rodions Kurucs, three of Brooklyn's first round picks (2022, 2024, 2026), four first round pick swaps from Brooklyn (2021, 2023, 2025, 2027), and a 2022 first round pick from Cleveland..

Cleveland acquired Brooklyn center Jarrett Allen and Brooklyn forward Taurean Prince.

It has been reported--but not yet officially confirmed by the NBA or the teams--that Indiana will be the fourth team in this deal, sending Victor Oladipo and a second round pick to Houston and receiving Brooklyn guard Caris LeVert plus a 2023 second round pick from Houston in return.

The Cavaliers upgraded their roster immediately. It is far from certain that the draft picks that they gave up would have yielded players who are more productive than Allen and Prince. The Cavaliers were not a contender prior to this trade and they are not a contender now, but this is a good deal for Cleveland. 

Assuming that the Pacers participate in this deal as reported then they will have gotten rid of a disgruntled and injury-prone Oladipo in exchange for LeVert, who has All-Star level talent. This is a good deal for Indiana as well.

The Rockets were never going to win a championship with Harden as their best player, so if the franchise's goal is to win a title then any deal that ships out Harden in exchange for even a modicum of talent plus draft picks is without question a good deal--and the Rockets did much better than that: if Wall and Oladipo can both stay healthy then the Rockets could be a playoff team that also has stockpiled a lot of draft assets that can be used to rebuild, or can be packaged to acquire veteran talent. 

Of course, most of the attention regarding this deal will focus on Brooklyn. Assuming that Kyrie Irving rejoins the team at some point, the Nets now have a "Big Three" consisting of two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, 2016 NBA champion Irving, and three-time scoring champion Harden. It will be interesting to see if Harden or Irving emerges as the second option, but there can be no doubt that Durant is easily the team's best player and first option on offense. It is important to remember that Oklahoma City traded Harden to Houston in 2012 primarily because Harden was unwilling to accept being the third option behind Durant and Russell Westbrook--and it is also important to remember that Harden failed to mesh well with every single All-Star the Rockets subsequently acquired to play alongside him, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook to (briefly this season) John Wall. Now, Harden will have to put his substantial ego in check and accept that Durant is the primary option on offense. 

Harden is talented enough to be the second or third option on a championship team, but the question has always been whether or not he has the mentality to accept such a role. Harden is a proven playoff choker whose high variance game is not conducive to sustained postseason success, and in his final days in Houston he quit despite the fact that the franchise catered to his every whim throughout his tenure with the team. Chokers do not tend to become winners, and quitters tend to quit when the going gets tough. Harden brings a lot of baggage to Brooklyn, and he has a lot to prove if he wants to be remembered as anything other than a talented but selfish high scoring loser.

Irving was a very effective second option behind LeBron James on a championship team, but Irving also chafed at times regarding that role so it will be fascinating watching him wrestle with Harden to be the second option behind Durant. It is difficult to picture the Nets' chemistry being great--unless Harden and Irving change patterns of behavior that they have displayed throughout their careers--and it is easy to picture it being disastrously bad. 

Another potential issue is whether or not the Nets are willing/able to play championship caliber defense. Durant is capable of being a good defender, as he showed while leading Golden State to back to back titles, but both Harden and Irving are subpar defensive players. The Nets' will also miss Allen's paint presence. Even if the Nets' three stars agree regarding the offensive pecking order and produce a highly efficient scoring attack they probably cannot score enough points against an elite team in a seven game playoff series to make up for how many points they will allow. 

First year Brooklyn coach Steve Nash, who won two regular season MVPs but no championships during his playing career, faces the daunting task of figuring out how to make this work. One of his assistant coaches, Mike D'Antoni (Nash's head coach during Nash's MVP seasons in Phoenix), is well acquainted with Harden's shortcomings and quirks--D'Antoni had the full Harden experience as Houston's head coach from 2016-20. D'Antoni also coached the Lakers to a 40-32 record in 2012-13 (he took over from Mike Brown when the team was 5-5), and his brief tenure in L.A. was most notable for (1) benching Pau Gasol (the second best player on the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship teams), (2) playing an aging Kobe Bryant so many minutes that Bryant's Achilles ruptured from the stress of carrying the team to a playoff berth, and (3) getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the fourth largest margin of defeat in NBA postseason history in a performance so awful and inept that Hubie Brown declared during game four, "You can use all the excuses you want but the defensive game plan was zero here tonight--the execution of it, whatever it was." 

The popular, easy pick is to call the Nets the favorites in the East, but it is way too early to say that. All that can be said now is that the Nets have enough talent to win the East; how well that talent will function together to produce team success is far from clear. In 2013, the Nets mortgaged their future to obtain Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; that experiment did not turn out well, and it will be fascinating to see if the Nets receive a greater return on their mortgaged future this time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:11 PM

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Saturday, January 02, 2021

Rest in Peace, Paul Westphal

Paul Westphal, who was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019, passed away today at the age of 70 after battling brain cancer. Westphal was one of the NBA's top guards in the late 1970s/early 1980s, earning five straight All-Star selections (1977-81). He made the All-NBA Team four times, including three First Team nods (1977, 1979-80). In 1977-78 he finished sixth in the NBA in scoring with a career-high 25.2 ppg average, and he tied for sixth in the regular season MVP voting. Injuries ended Westphal's run as an elite player, limiting him to just 18 games during the 1981-82 season, but he bounced back to win the 1982-83 NBA Comeback Player of the Year award before retiring after the next season.

Westphal won an NBA title in 1974 as a reserve player for the Boston Celtics. The Celtics traded him to the Phoenix Suns for Charlie Scott, and Westphal helped Phoenix reach the 1976 NBA Finals (the Suns lost to the Celtics in a memorable six game series). Westphal became an elite player after joining Phoenix, and he is one of the most significant figures in that franchise's history.

Westphal served as an NBA head coach for a total of 10 years with three different teams, compiling a 318-279 record (.533 winning percentage), and leading the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals before losing to the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls in six games. He also served as an assistant coach with three different NBA teams, most recently with Brooklyn from 2014-16. In between Westphal's stints as an NBA coach, he served as Pepperdine's head coach for five seasons, leading the Waves to one West Coast Conference title.

I interviewed Westphal on October 31, 2007 while covering Dallas' 92-74 win over Cleveland in the season opener. Westphal was an assistant coach for Dallas during that season. I profiled Westphal in a November 2007 article

During that period, I interviewed many players and coaches, and it is sad that several of them have passed away in the past year, including Westphal, K.C. JonesEugene "Goo" KennedyTommy HeinsohnMike Gale, and Kobe Bryant. During the past year, the basketball community has also lost some notable figures whom I respected but never had a chance to interview, including William "Bird" Averitt, John ThompsonWes Unseld, Mike Storen, and David Stern

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:56 PM

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Saturday, December 26, 2020

Notes About the 2020 Christmas Day Quintupleheader

The Christmas Day quintupleheader is sometimes referred to as the unofficial start of the NBA season for casual fans, because in a normal year those fans may have been more focused on MLB, the NFL, and college football prior to December 25--but in this most unusual year the Christmas Day quintupleheader happened just three days after the official start of the NBA season. No definitive conclusions can be drawn about a season that is not even close to one week old, but it is always fun to see a third of the league in nationally televised games on the same day--and it would be even more fun if at least one of these games had been decided by less than a double digit margin, but that may be too much to expect for regular season games that are essentially preseason games as the league rushed back into action to salvage the massive revenue generated by playing games on Christmas Day.

Game One: Miami Heat 111, New Orleans Pelicans 98 

1) During his 24 game rookie season, Zion Williamson was a productive and efficient scorer in limited minutes (22.5 ppg on .583 field goal shooting in 27.8 mpg). The next steps in his evolution are to demonstrate that he can stay healthy while also improving his rebounding (he only averaged 6.4 rpg last season) and defense. He had 15 points on 7-9 field goal shooting, 10 rebounds, and six turnovers in New Orleans' season-opening 113-99 win against the Toronto Raptors, and he has scored the most points in the first 25 games of an NBA career since Allen Iverson burst onto the scene in 1996-97. 

Williamson scored 16 points in the first half versus Miami, including 12 in the second quarter. He finished with a game-high 32 points on 11-20 field goal shooting while also grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds, but he also had a -13 plus/minus number, the worst by far of any New Orleans starter. Williamson is a gifted scorer and he has the ability to be a dominant rebounder, but he and his teammates have a long way to go defensively.

2) "Changing the culture" may be an overused phrase, but Jimmy Butler is without question a player who changes a team's culture in a positive way. When he leaves a team that team gets worse, and when he joins a team that team gets better. While an All-Star level player should be expected to have a positive impact just by virtue of his individual statistical contributions, Butler is one of those rare players who also has a positive impact based on his personality and work ethic; he sets a good example and demands that his teammates follow suit. It is an indictment of some of his previous teams and teammates that they did not buy into his professional approach. 

Butler did not play in the second half after aggravating an ankle injury, and he did not have a huge first half statistically (four points on 2-7 field goal shooting, six rebounds, five assists) but his impact on the Heat is unquestionable. This franchise's culture did not necessarily need to be changed--Pat Riley created a culture of accountability and hard work when he joined the team--but Butler fits in perfectly, and it is very important that a team's best player embraces doing things the right way. As an example of the opposite, just consider the culture of entitlement and lack of personal responsibility that exists with James Harden's Houston Rockets.

3) The Heat look like the same team that made a surprise run to the NBA Finals, while the Pelicans look like a young team that is allergic to defense and precision execution. After we have seen a larger sample size of games, we will know if the Heat really are picking up where they left off last season, and if the Pelicans will be able to improve enough defensively to become a playoff team.

Duncan Robinson tied the Christmas Day record for most three pointers in a half, nailing six triples as the Heat took a 66-53 halftime lead. The Heat set a Christmas Day record with 13 three pointers in a half. Robinson finished with seven three pointers, tying the Christmas Day single game record set last year by the Pelicans' Brandon Ingram. The Heat only made three second half three pointers but they shot .507 from the field overall (including .432 from three point range). Robinson led Miami with 23 points, followed by Goran Dragic (18 points) and Bam Adebayo (17 points).

Game Two: Milwaukee Bucks 138, Golden State Warriors 99 

1) It was great to see and hear Hubie Brown calling an NBA game. He did not participate in the "bubble" games, but now he is back. It was also great to see and hear Marv Albert back on TNT earlier this week; Albert, one of the sport's legendary voices, also did not participate in the "bubble" games.

2) Perceptions and descriptions of leadership are interesting. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a great leader, regardless of whether or not media members have figured that out yet.

Charles Barkley so often says that Chris Paul is the best leader in the NBA that this has become a running joke during TNT's telecasts. LeBron James is also often lauded as a great leader. These characterizations are puzzling. Paul has hopped from team to team, and he is often at odds with his teammates and/or coaches. Paul's vaunted leadership has not resulted in a single NBA Finals appearance, let alone a championship. When someone is called a great leader but his teams have not accomplished much it is fair and logical to ask: "Where exactly is this great leader leading his followers?" Paul is a great but undersized point guard. He demands a lot from those around him, which can be a good thing at times, but his leadership has not had the same impact or generated the same results as many other better leaders have achieved during his tenure in the NBA. 

James is on the short list of candidates for the title of greatest basketball player of all-time--but neither his greatness as a player nor his charitable endeavors off of the court prove that he is a great basketball leader. LeBron James' failures as a leader are well-documented, although many media members prefer to downplay these facts.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a better leader than LeBron James or Chris Paul. Antetokounmpo works hard, he encourages his teammates, and he is not looking for shortcuts. Consider his response to questions about why he re-signed with Milwaukee now as oppose to waiting and testing free agency. Antetokounmpo said that if he had delayed his decision then this would have put tremendous pressure and scrutiny on his teammates, who would have had to constantly worry about and talk about whether or not he would stay. Antetokounmpo said that if he had waited then he would have harmed his teammates and squandered a season during the prime of his career when he and his teammates have a chance to reach their ultimate goal: winning an NBA title.

It is impossible to imagine LeBron James or Chris Paul answering that question that way, or conducting themselves in that way. James has won four championships and four Finals MVPs; no one can question his greatness as a player, not can anyone question his ability to raise a team's level--but James has also presided over the implosion of multiple teams, and he wasted prime years during his first stint in Cleveland: just imagine what might have happened if he had fully committed to the Cavaliers franchise and helped to build the program as opposed to always having one foot out the door before eventually fleeing to Miami. 

In contrast, Antetokounmpo has a finely honed sense of urgency and sense of the moment; every game is precious, every season is precious, and you cannot afford to waste games or seasons because you think that you are heading toward greener pastures. Antetokounmpo gets it. James has been successful despite lacking those qualities at times, not because he consistently displays those qualities. In other words, James is so talented that he and his teams are sometimes able to overcome his flawed leadership style.

Isiah Thomas joined an awful team and helped to build a two-time champion. Michael Jordan joined an awful team and helped to build a dynasty. Antetokounmpo is a throwback to that kind of wonderful old school mentality.

3) Golden State's first round pick James Wiseman is raw, as most rookies are, but his talent is obvious and bountiful. It will be fun to watch him develop, and he is fortunate that he was drafted by a team that has great leadership from both the coaching staff and also the veteran players, several of whom have won multiple championships. He finished with 18 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes.

4) However, despite having a two-time MVP playing alongside many talented young players, to say that the Warriors are off to a rough start is putting it mildly. It is obvious that they miss Kevin Durant (who left to play for the Nets), Klay Thompson (who is out with a season-ending injury), and Draymond Green (who has missed the first two games of the season due to injury). Many media members salivate over certain players who they believe excel at making their teammates better but that phrase brings to mind Michael Jordan's quip during the early stages of his career that you cannot make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep). Jordan did not much fancy being negatively compared to Magic Johnson in terms of elevating teammates when Johnson was playing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while Jordan was playing with Dave Corzine. 

Stephen Curry is a great player but he won three titles with a stacked team, and he has yet to win a Finals MVP. Curry and Steve Nash did not make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep) during their MVP seasons--they had talented teammates during those campaigns--and when they are surrounded by suboptimal talent they cannot singlehandedly lift a team. The closest a player has come to making chicken salad--or at least something relatively edible--out of chicken (bleep) is Kobe Bryant pushing, pulling, and dragging the immortal center-point guard duo of Kwame Brown-Smush Parker to consecutive Western Conference playoff appearances. During the 2006-07 season, Bryant averaged 48.9 ppg (that is not a typographical error) on .514 field goal shooting during his first 16 40 point games, and the Lakers went 12-4 during those contests (after I wrote the article containing those statistics, Bryant had two more 40 point games that season--a pair of 50 point gems--with the Lakers winning one and losing one, to finish the season 13-5 during Bryant's 40 point games).

That is why those of us who are very familiar with basketball history take such a jaundiced view of what is presented to the public as basketball analysis concerning Nash, Curry, Damian Lillard in the "bubble" and other performances that deserve recognition, but do not deserve fawning adulation, or placement above the exploits of Bryant and the select group of players (including Jordan) who actually can carry a subpar team farther than anyone else could.

Curry finished with 19 points on 6-17 field goal shooting. He had a -24 plus/minus number. I am not calling his teammates chicken (bleep)--Curry has more talent around him now, even with Green and Thompson out of action, than Bryant did during the Brown-Parker dark ages--but I will say that Curry is not making anything resembling chicken salad at the moment: the Warriors lost their first two games of the season by 65 points, the second worst point differential in the first two games of the season in NBA history behind only the 71 point differential suffered by the 1987-88 Clippers. The Clippers went 17-65 that season, and their leading scorer was Mike Woodson (18.0 ppg). A Stephen Curry-led team should not be in the same statistical milieu as one of the worst NBA teams of the past 45 years.

5) Khris Middleton led Milwaukee with a game-high 31 points on 10-15 field goal shooting in just 26 minutes. He is not an all-time great, but he is a solid All-Star who will likely never get the credit he deserves unless/until Milwaukee wins a championship. Antetokounmpo did not shoot well (15 points on 4-14 field goal shooting) but he had a game-high 13 rebounds as Milwaukee dominated the boards 60-43, and he had a +26 plus/minus number.

Game Three: Brooklyn Nets 112, Boston Celtics 100

1) Celtics fans are mourning the loss of legends Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones. Heinsohn passed away on November 10, 2020 while Jones passed away today. John Thompson, a role player for two of Boston's championship teams before he became a Hall of Fame coach, passed away on August 30, 2020. Those three were each members of Boston's 1965 championship team, during Heinsohn's final season and Thompson's first season.

2) No one should be surprised that a healthy Kevin Durant paired with a healthy Kyrie Irving is a lethal scoring tandem. Irving poured in a game-high 37 points on 13-21 field goal shooting, while Durant added 29 points on 9-16 field goal shooting. Irving can score in just about any situation at any time, but his scoring is most often connected with winning when he plays alongside a more dominant player who attracts a lot of defensive attention. It is possible that Irving will be the Nets' leading scorer this season--he has led them in scoring in each of their first two games--but it is more likely that Durant will be the Nets' leading scorer. However, even if Irving is the leading scorer that does not mean he is the team's best player; Durant is a matchup nightmare who is the opposing team's first concern.

3) The Celtics miss the scoring and playmaking provided by Kemba Walker, who is out of action due to injury, but they also need for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to score more efficiently. Brown had a team-high 27 points but he shot 11-25 from the field, while Tatum finished with 20 points on 9-22 field goal shooting. It is not fair to evaluate the Celtics' roster until Walker returns, but at first glance the Celtics appear to be who they have been for the past several years: a really good team that is just not quite good enough to win the Eastern Conference.

Game Four: L.A. Lakers 138, Dallas Mavericks 115 

1) I have already mentioned that I am not a fan of how LeBron James leaves teams for greener pastures, but it must be said that--after a rocky first season--everything has gone according to plan for James in L.A. He acquired Anthony Davis, the player who not only is 1B to his 1A but is capable of being 1A now and for many years to come. Last season the Lakers had a better supporting cast than many media members were willing to admit--downgrading the value of James' supporting cast has been elevated to an art form--but this season's supporting cast looks much better than last season's, at least on paper. The Lakers' championship window will remain open as long as James is healthy and motivated. 

Davis had 28 points on 10-16 field goal shooting, James finished with 22 points on 8-18 field goal shooting plus a game-high 10 assists, Montrezl Harrell also scored 22 points, and Dennis Schroder contributed 18 points plus six assists.

2) The Dallas Mavericks are trying to stay afloat until Kristaps Porzingis returns from injury next month, but they should be able to accomplish at least that much with MVP candidate Luka Doncic leading the way. A 23 point loss, even to a stacked defending champion, does not speak well of Dallas' attention to game plan detail, particularly on defense. Doncic had a solid game (team-high 27 points on 9-19 field goal shooting, team-high seven assists, four rebounds) but the Mavericks probably need even more production than that from him. Doncic also must improve defensively.

3) The Lakers do not have a bona fide third All-Star like James' other championship teams did, but this squad may be the most talented and deep one of James' career. Davis is a top five player, which arguably was not true of any of James' previous teammates at the time he played alongside them (it can be debated whether or not Dwyane Wade was still a top five player when he and James joined forces, but Wade clearly declined during each season of that partnership). Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder are borderline All-Star caliber players and either could win the Sixth Man Award (unless Schroder remains a starter, of course). Kyle Kuzma has All-Star level talent. Marc Gasol is a former All-Star who can be very efficient and productive in a limited role for the Lakers. Several other Lakers are, at the very least, above average rotation players. This is probably James' best performance as a General Manager (many of his current teammates are represented by Klutch Sports, which is affiliated with James even though--wink, wink--by rule James cannot have ownership interest in an agency that represents players).

Game Five: L.A. Clippers 121, Denver Nuggets 108
 
1) Hopefully, Kawhi Leonard will be OK after that nasty, inadvertent shot to the face that he took from teammate Serge Ibaka as both players pursued a loose ball with 6:07 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Clippers leading 108-97. Leonard collapsed to the floor in a heap, and he bled profusely from his face, but he walked off of the court under his own power. The Clippers immediately issued a statement that he would not return to the game, but as of this writing there have been no further updates.

2) Turning from the disturbing image of Leonard's injury to the broader view and outlook for this team,  Leonard is the Clippers' best player and one of the top five players in the NBA, so he must shoulder some of the responsibility/blame for the team's unexpected and disappointing early exit from the 2020 playoffs after blowing a 3-1 lead versus the Denver Nuggets. However, any shrewd observer of this team understands that Leonard did not receive enough help from his supporting cast--most notably Paul George, whose resume is littered with disappointing postseason play--and that his teammates did not display a championship mentality. 

Some people assert that Leonard must be more of a publicly vocal leader, but that is nonsense. Was Tim Duncan a publicly vocal leader? There are different types of leadership and different types of leaders. Leonard leads by example: he works hard and he plays the right way. The one legitimate question about Leonard involves the odious practice of "load management." If a player has a chronic injury that requires a certain amount of rest/recovery that is one thing, but just selecting certain games for a healthy player to rest is bad for the league and bad for the teams that do this. The Clippers' obvious lack of chemistry and cohesion was likely caused at least partially by Leonard's "load management," so to the extent that Leonard either demanded this or at least accepted this he should be held accountable. 

Why is load management bad for the league? Think about it this way. If you go to a five-star restaurant, pay full price for a meal and then receive fast food instead because the chef is resting that night, that approximates the value a paying customer receives when purchasing a full price ticket to go see the Clippers play sans a healthy Leonard. Yes, injuries are part of the game, and thus there is an inherent risk when you buy a ticket in advance that a star player may get hurt and not be able to play, but that understood risk is completely different from a player just deciding to take games off. 

Why is load management bad for teams and players? Just go back and watch the tape of the Clippers blowing three straight double digit second half leads versus the Nuggets during last year's playoffs. How well did saving Leonard for the playoffs work out?

What about the research that supposedly shows that the NBA's 82 game regular season is too long, and that playing all 82 games places players at a greater risk for injury? Assuming that this research is valid, there is a simple solution: cut down the length of the season to whatever level the experts deem to be medically acceptable. Of course, that also means slashing revenue for the owners and slashing salaries for the players, so it will never happen (except for the COVID-19 induced shortened seasons last season and this season). No, the NBA wants to sell fans fast food at five-star restaurant prices and then laugh all the way to the bank; that same kind of greedy thinking also explains the NBA's warm embrace of totalitarian China: China's big money talks, and nothing else matters. 

Whenever I hear "NBA Cares" or someone rhapsodizing about how progressive the NBA is I wonder what the Uighur Muslims who are languishing in Chinese detention camps think about the NBA's politics.

3) Ty Lue showed that he could manage the LeBron James drama in Cleveland and win a championship, and it is difficult to imagine that his Clippers have more behind the scenes drama than those Cavaliers did--but, of course, it remains to be seen if the Clippers are going to see the version of playoff Kawhi Leonard that can go toe to toe with LeBron James as opposed to the one who lost to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and it remains to be seen if Paul George can approximate playoff Kevin Love, let alone playoff Kyrie Irving.

4) Yes, the Clippers defeated the Nuggets by double digits in a regular season game. To paraphrase the immortal Derrick Coleman, "Whoop de doo." The Clippers have a championship caliber roster, and every season with this roster is championship or bust. Regular season wins are important for playoff seeding, but they will ultimately be forgotten if this team collapses again in the playoffs. 

Paul George scored a team-high 23 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. Leonard had 21 points on 8-14 field goal shooting. Nikola Jokic led Denver in scoring (24 points), rebounds (nine), and assists (10). Jamal Murray overcame a slow start to finish with 23 points on 9-20 field goal shooting. The Nuggets' defense was poor and their offensive execution was erratic. They did not look like a team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals after eliminating the Clippers during last year's playoffs, but we have seen Denver go through bad stretches before only to bounce back with a vengeance.

5) Paul George is being paid more this season--by far--than Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West made in their entire careers. You can decide if that is a triumph of player empowerment, or perhaps a sign that something is out of whack. 

Analysis of Previous Christmas Day Quintupleheaders:

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 @ 2:18 AM

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Friday, December 25, 2020

K.C. Jones: Consummate Champion

Players and teams talk so much about the thrill of winning just one championship that it is worth remembering and emphasizing that K.C. Jones, who passed away earlier today at the age of 88, won two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal, and eight NBA titles as a player before winning two NBA titles as an assistant coach (1972 Lakers, 1981 Celtics) and two more NBA titles as a head coach. Only two players have won more NBA titles than Jones: his Boston teammates Bill Russell (11) and Sam Jones (10).

K.C. Jones may be the most underrated head coach in NBA history. He not only coached the best Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s--one of which, the 1986 Celtics, will forever be on the short list of greatest single season teams ever--but his regular season winning percentage of .674 ranks sixth in NBA history (minimum of 200 regular season games coached), trailing only Steve Kerr, Phil Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Larry Bird, and Gregg Popovich (Jones is only .001 percentage points behind Popovich, so Jones may move past Popovich on that list this season unless the San Antonio Spurs perform much better than expected). Jones' playoff winning percentage of .587 ranks 13th in NBA history (minimum of 60 playoff games coached). Jones is one of eight coaches who have won two NBA titles; only six coaches have won more than two NBA titles (Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, and Steve Kerr).

As a player, Jones was not a great shooter but he was cerebral, tough, and athletic. Jones was drafted by the NFL's L.A. Rams, and he might have made the final cut had he not injured his knee; despite only spending a brief time with the Rams, Jones is credited with being the first defensive back to utilize "bump and run" coverage technique.

Jones' partnership with Russell dates back to their days at the University of San Francisco, where they captured NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956 while putting together a 55 game winning streak. Russell was such a dominant defender that he would tell Jones to run to a particular spot so that Russell could block a shot directly to Jones to start the fast break! The combination of elite athletic ability and supreme basketball IQ/mental toughness is impossible to beat. It is not an accident that Russell and Jones won at every level (college, Olympics, NBA), and anyone who assumes that they would not be very successful as players in this era fails to understand the essence of championship competition. 

Jones' NBA statistics are not eye-popping, but he ranked third in the league in assists for three straight seasons (1964-66), each time trailing only Oscar Robertson and Guy Rodgers. The Celtics won the championship during each of those seasons, and it speaks volumes that Jones was not only a stout defensive player for those squads but that he was also the team's quarterback after Bob Cousy retired.

Jones' Boston teammate Tommy Heinsohn passed away a few weeks ago. I interviewed Heinsohn on June 10, 2004. A few days later, I interviewed K.C. Jones. At the time, I was working on an article about their Boston teammate Sam Jones (the article appeared in the December 2004 issue of Basketball Digest), but our wide ranging conversation covered not only Sam Jones but also Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Bill Fitch, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and more. 

My K.C. Jones interview has never been published in full anywhere, though some quotes and insights from that interview have appeared in various articles that I wrote. Here, in tribute to Jones, is that June 20, 2004 interview:

Friedman: "The idea for this article came out of an interview that I did with Slick Leonard, the Pacers’ broadcaster. He mentioned that he felt that Sam Jones is the most underrated guard in the history of the NBA. From your perspective as a teammate of Sam's, what made him a special, unique player?"

Jones: "What made him unique? That's kind of hard to explain. He had such supreme confidence in his shot. One example that I recall is when he went for a nine foot jumper and Wilt came over to block it and while Sam was in the air he said, 'You can't get this one baby' and it went off the backboard and in."

Friedman: "Was that the game that Wilt went after Sam? I read about a game in which Sam so infuriated Wilt—telling him that he couldn't block his shot—that Wilt went after him."

Jones: "I'm not sure if it was that game. I don't think that Wilt would go after somebody for trash talking. I think that something physical happened and Wilt went over to shake Sam's hand to say, 'Let's put it behind us' and Sam thought that he was coming after him so he picked up a stool from behind the basket."

Friedman: "Oh, so it was kind of a misunderstanding."

Jones: "Yeah."

Friedman: "I noticed in researching this article that Sam Jones averaged 27 points per game in game seven situations and that the Celtics were 9-0 in those games. Obviously, that was above his regular season scoring average. What enabled him to be so successful in clutch situations?"

Jones: "He very seldom went to the basket for the layup. He would drive and then pull up for the jumper. We did all kinds of things to get him open or to get Havlicek open. That's the way we played. That's similar to what Detroit is trying to do now, work for your teammate. Sam could go one-on-one. He had a stutter step that would kind of halt your defense and then all of a sudden he just glides by you. He did that to me in a scrimmage and it just totally blew my mind that he was so smooth with that. He was driving on the right side from around the top of the key extended. It looked like he was going to pull up. He just hesitated, I stopped and then he just went by me. In our offense we always tried to get him open for shots. When Russell would get the ball for his play he could just take the ball and shoot it because it was the '6' play but he would not shoot the ball unless Sam and Havlicek were not open. That's the way we played. So we liked to get out shooters open because that's the high percentage play."

Friedman: "Would that be a play where Russell would be getting the ball on the block looking for cutters and Sam would cut off of him?"

Jones: "He'd mainly look for our shooters. He wouldn't look for me or Satch (Tom Sanders), even if I was open. One time he got an offensive rebound and I was five feet away from him saying, 'Bill, Bill, Bill' and he looked me in the eye, reached around and threw the ball in the corner to Sam, which I thought was the right play. Some other player in my position would have been (ticked) off and then you have a problem but that's not the way we did it."

Friedman: "Right, because your role was not as a shooter on the team."

Jones: "Yeah, but other teams have guys who are not shooters but if they are not passed the ball they are ready to fight. My point is, I considered that the best play because we want the ball in the hands of the guy with the highest shooting percentage."

Friedman: "You mentioned guarding Sam in a scrimmage. Did you usually guard him or were you usually on the same team with you playing point and him playing shooting guard?"

Jones: "I didn't usually guard him. I don't know what happened in that practice, but that was the first time I guarded him, I believe. I guarded Bill Sharman most times in practice. I either guarded Sharman or Bob Cousy."

Friedman: "You mentioned the Detroit Pistons. For my readers who did not have a chance to see Sam play, what current or recent guard would you say is most similar to him either in shooting ability or performance in the clutch?"

Jones: "I guess Jerry West would be one. Maybe Hamilton. He would be another."

Friedman: "Hamilton from Detroit?"

Jones: "Yeah."

Friedman: "That's interesting. Tommy Heinsohn also mentioned him. Heinsohn mentioned Hamilton because he has a variety of shots—the long distance game, the mid-range game and the driving game. So you would see a similarity from that standpoint?"

Jones: "Oh, yeah. More times than not when Hamilton is driving he pulls up for the jumper. If he has the defense beaten he goes straight to the basket. More times than not he's running without the ball and he spends a lot of energy running around to get open and then he has to go to the other end and play aggressive defense. That man is in awesome shape. What's like Sam is that he moves without the ball and when he gets the ball he's going right up for the shot."

Friedman: "What's interesting is that when I brought that comparison up to Bob Cousy, who I later interviewed, he didn't like that particular comparison because he didn't think that there was anyone in the modern game who could really be compared with Sam. It's interesting to me to talk to his teammates and hear their different perspectives. You are the second one who brought up Rip Hamilton, which is interesting to me."

Jones: "What did Cousy say as far as comparisons go?"

Friedman: "Well, he was looking strictly on the basis of skill level and when I brought up that Tom Heinsohn had mentioned Rip Hamilton, Cousy replied that, for one thing, he didn't see Hamilton as a Hall of Famer and to him that was disrespectful of Sam Jones' talent. He felt that Rip Hamilton has not proven that he is a Hall of Famer. I made the point that what Heinsohn had said to me was not that Hamilton is as good as Sam Jones, but that their styles are similar in terms of having a variety of shots. There are very few modern guards who really have a complete game in terms of being able to shoot from deep, from mid-range and being able to drive. Most guards today only have one of the three."

Jones: "Yes."

Friedman: "So there is a comparison there from the standpoint of style. No one is saying that Rip Hamilton is an all-time great—"

Jones: "It's a little early for that."

Friedman: "Right, of course."

Jones: "He's only been in the league a few years."

Friedman: "Right, he's only been around for a few years and this is his first championship."

Jones: "Yeah. You take Kobe, you take Hamilton, you take Sam, you take Jerry West—in crunch time you are looking for these people, you want these people to have the ball."

Friedman: "So from the standpoint of producing in the clutch you would put Kobe in there as well because he hits last second shots. He and Sam had different playing styles, but they both produced in the clutch."

Jones: "The style is different, but what I'm saying is that in crunch time you want the ball to go to your best shooters. That's what I'm saying. I'm not talking about style—whether they use a spin move or all that—I'm saying in crunch time the ball goes to your best shooters. They approach it in different ways."

Friedman: "Sure. Another thing I want to ask you about—and I know that a similar question was once asked of Bill Russell about a hypothetical matchup with Kareem and his response was, 'Young man, you have the question backwards'—I'm interested from your perspective how you would picture a matchup of Sam Jones in his prime playing against Kobe or McGrady, what would that matchup be like, what strengths would Sam Jones use to counteract Kobe or McGrady, who are both a little taller than Sam?"

Jones: "Kobe would have a very difficult time staying with Sam defensively."

Friedman: "From a speed standpoint?"

Jones: "Yes, from speed or quickness, whatever you want to call it. Could Kobe stay with Hamilton? I don't think so. Kobe couldn't stay with Sam and maybe Sam couldn't stay with Kobe. Thinking in terms of guarding each other, I don't see it in that mode. There are changes and moves that can be made; they can guard other people so that they don't wear themselves out and wear their minds out guarding the best player on the other team."

Friedman: "So if they played against each other it would be a real shootout because they both would be scoring a lot."

Jones: "Well, yeah. They are masters of the offensive end, they don't master the defensive end. So you have to be someone who is defensive oriented to guard the Kobes and the Same Jones and the Hamiltons. That's what happened in Chicago when Drexler from Portland was guarding Jordan (in the 1992 Finals). I thought that was not a good move, putting Drexler on Jordan."

Friedman: "You're wearing out your best player."

Jones: "Yes, plus you experience a defeatist attitude, a sense of fear, guarding Jordan. Why would I put one of my best shooters out there to guard Jordan? It doesn’t make any sense to me."

Friedman: "So from your standpoint, if Sam Jones was playing at the same time as Kobe they might not even be guarding each other. You might cross-match or do something so that they wouldn't be facing each other."

Jones: "I think that would be the best move. If you saw Drexler in the game, it just took his mind away."

Friedman: "You're talking about the game in the Finals when Jordan hit all those three pointers."

Jones: "Yeah, whichever game that was. I know that Drexler is an offensive player and great at being an offensive player. How many great shooters do you see who are great on the defensive end?"

Friedman: "Very few."

Jones: "Very few."

Friedman: "Actually, Jordan would probably be one of the exceptions since he was Defensive Player of the Year in addition to winning all of the scoring titles. But your point is well taken. If you have a minute, I'd like to switch gears. I'd be interested to ask you some questions specifically about your career for use in a future article. I see some parallels between your coaching career and Phil Jackson's coaching career in terms of reluctance in some quarters to give you credit for your teams' success. With Phil Jackson, he has won nine championships but people say, 'He always had the best player. He had Jordan or he had Shaq' and I think that kind of echoes from your career in Boston when you won championships but people said that you had a Hall of Fame frontline. Do you see a parallel in that sense?"

Jones: "There was a great coach before I got to the Celtics, Bill Fitch. He was a great coach. He did a super job of winning the championship in 1981. I had the same players and went to the Finals four times in five years and won two championships."

Friedman: "Right. That’s a very similar run to what Jackson just had with the Lakers, winning three titles in five years."

Jones: "What you mentioned was that because I had these high profile players, that's how I was able to have a championship team and go to the Finals that often. That's what you're saying, right?"

Friedman: "I'm not saying that. I'm saying that's a criticism that others have said. I don't think that it is valid. I think that it is a challenge—and I wanted you to speak about this—when you have that many talented players to get them to accept roles and to understand what has to be done to win."

Jones: "I was speaking to the criticism. Of course, I'm not an entertainer, which all coaches should be, because the media lives off of that. I was just the opposite. I guess you are saying that (people say) that Jackson was a quiet guy sitting on the sidelines and only reason he won was because he had Jordan and Pippen. That really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me."

Friedman: "I agree."

Jones: "Here's what you've got. In college, the best coaches are the ones who do the best scouting. They come up with the Okafors and the Bill Russells and the Kareems. Without these great players, these great individuals, how are you going to get there? Shaq and Kobe, they won for three years. Then Jackson is criticized for having Jordan and Pippen. I don't understand that."

Friedman: "I don't understand it either. I think that it is a great challenge. The team that you had in Boston, which had Bird, McHale and Parish—any one of those guys could demand 25 shots a game. You were able to get them to work together to understand how to share the ball and—"

Jones: "It's the same thing with Bill Fitch. He had the same players and he did a great job with them to win a championship. But there wasn't any question that he had Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge. He is not mentioned in the same way as Jackson and I am."

Friedman: "When you first took over in Boston what was the biggest challenge that you faced?"

Jones: "The biggest obstacle is always the communication factor. If you don't have good communication between you and your top players, then you are really alone. What Jackson did in Chicago was he had Jordan and Pippen as his protectors. Jerry Sloan did that in Chicago and he also did it with Malone and Stockton in Utah. I'm sure Jackson did that with Shaq."

Friedman: "So the key thing is to first make sure that the big star buys into your program and accepts what you are doing and then everyone else falls into line?"

Jones: "Those players have to be included. Your top two players, like Russell and Cousy. It's even better if you have three players. Your major guys are the ones who have to be included in your strategy planning. They have thoughts. Red Auerbach did that with Cousy and Russell. If you don't do that there is a fence there. You are alone. A wall is up."

Friedman: "You mentioned something about demeanor, that you were not a media darling or doing things that the media would pick up on and that is similar to Phil Jackson, because sometimes people will criticize him by saying, 'Look what is going on on the court and he is sitting there looking at his fingernails.' When you were on the sidelines you were not very demonstrative. Your teams were very effective. People would turn that into a criticism. I think that that is another way that you were similar to Phil Jackson. You had a very calm demeanor on the courtside, you weren’t running around or getting technicals."

Jones: "That's the entertainment factor. John Wooden seldom got off the bench, but that's what the media looks for and some coaches have a way of giving them what they want. Rick Pitino is great on the sidelines with the press and his demeanor on the court. That's awesome stuff. You have others who do the same thing and that's their coaching style."

Friedman: "From your standpoint, coaching—"

Jones: "Larry Brown in Detroit, what does he do?"

Friedman: "To me, he is a little bit of a mixture. A lot of times he is getting up and getting excited but sometimes—I think that he is a hybrid. I think he is in the middle. He is not as demonstrative as some, but he is not always just sitting there quietly—"

Jones: "Not in the playoffs (laughs). Maybe in the regular season. In the regular season there is a tomorrow."

Friedman: "Right. Your coaching philosophy, as I understand it, is your coaching was done in practice. You prepared the team for what they had to do and you didn't need to do a lot of histrionics on the sidelines—"

Jones: "It wasn't me to be that demonstrative and it's not Jackson to do that. Brown, same thing there. Then you have others—Bill Fitch was great, he was up on the sidelines. He could have been a comedian on the stage because he was great with the media and he was a super bright person."

Friedman: "One other thing that I wanted to ask you about is something that I recall and then I see it all the time on ESPN Classic. I noticed something about where Larry Bird would receive the ball. Usually when you have a great player who is predominantly right handed, when they catch the ball on the block—whether is it Shaq or Hakeem or Duncan—you can go down the line—they usually like that left block. What I noticed a lot of times—"

Jones: "The left block facing the basket?"

Friedman: "Right. Exactly. The left block facing the basket. If you picture Hakeem posting up or Shaq, they usually run to that left block. That seems to be where the great players who are right handed tend to go."

Jones: "Except for Kareem."

Friedman: "Right."

Jones: "Kareem liked the right block."

Friedman: "Yeah. But I noticed with Larry Bird a lot of times when he ran that exchange with Parish or if he was posting up and Ainge or Dennis Johnson were feeding him, a lot of times Bird would go to the right block or even the right side midway between the foul line and the block. I wondered if there was a particular reason why he received the ball there. I don't remember a lot of great players who were right handed getting the ball there. I've always been curious about that."

Jones: "Well, hey, that’s something new to me. I never thought about that. Of course, guys have special places they like to be. Right handed guys like to be on the right block, is that what you’re saying?"

Friedman: "Well, my observation—maybe I’m wrong and you can correct me. It seems to me that right hand dominant players tend to go to the left block—I'm thinking of Shaq, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon. I know that you mentioned Kareem. I think that he would go to either block."

Jones: "Yeah."

Friedman: "I noticed a lot of times with Larry Bird—I remember watching it during the 1980s and then I see it again on ESPN Classic—a lot of times he was getting the ball on the right wing, midway between the foul line and the post. I didn't know if this was by design or if that was where he liked to get the ball or if it had anything to do with the spacing of the other players. I didn't know if there was a grand reason behind it or it just happened that way."

Jones: "Well I never saw a grand reason behind Larry doing that. Of course, shooters follow the ball, and if you are a Reggie Miller or a Larry Bird or whoever, it's wherever you get the ball and deal with it. But then there are plays that put you in position to do that. Then it's, 'What side do you want it on?' or 'What block do you want it on?' Then you know that’s the way it goes and that’s how it’s dealt with."

Friedman: "Oh, OK. It seemed like he would get the ball a lot of times in that area. I even noticed it when they replayed the old 1979 NCAA Championship against Magic Johnson. I didn't know if it was something that developed early in his career for some reason. I know that he was effective anywhere on the court, but I didn't know if there was a particular reason he liked that spot, kind of midway between the foul line and the post. If he had a smaller guy it seemed like he would back him in—"

Jones: "Yeah."

Friedman: "If he had a bigger guy he would drive. In the (1988 playoff) game against Dominique, it seemed like he was getting the ball a lot of times in that spot and then he would wheel around and drive into the lane, like in that fourth quarter when he had 20 points."

Jones: "Yeah. Of course, players have spots that they like or positions that they like to be in to make their favorite move down there. You’re saying left block and right block and some of them could do both, but I was never really that aware of that except coming off certain plays if he wanted to post up he would come to either block, the block that he liked best. More times than not, Larry was on the right side of the court as a forward. Kevin was always on the block—him or Robert."

Friedman: "Right. Bird would be kind of in a mid-post position, between the foul line and the block or even outside the three point line."

Jones: "Yeah, Larry would come from the right side or the left side or coming off a screen set by Robert or Kevin. A lot of times he was on the right post."

Friedman: "Yeah, that’s what I'm saying. I noticed that on tape. I found that interesting. I didn't know if there was a specific reason. I guess some of that just comes out of the flow of the game."

Jones: "Yeah. It comes out of the flow of the game. What about other players? Hamilton, he does that circle thing, he comes around to the right side a lot of times and all of a sudden he’s up in the air for the shot."

Friedman: "He's perpetual motion."

Jones: "Yeah, but all he is doing is trying to get open. It's like a 1-4 setup, two guys on the right block, one guy on the left block and the point guard's up top. Hamilton’s down under the basket trying to find which way he can go to get the defense knocked off. So he'll fake this way and go that way. Or fake this way and go the other way. He's coming around and that's how he gets open."

Friedman: "He kind of bounces around like a pinball. He reads, he goes by one of his big men and reads which way his defender is going and he pops out the other way."

Jones: "Yeah. He's doing a mile run to get open to get his shot on a court that is what, 50 by 90?"

Friedman: "Right. Exactly."

Jones: "But that's him. There are different ways of doing it. Oscar Robertson would dribble you this way or that way for 15 seconds, let you make a mistake with one of his subtle fakes and he's by you. Different strokes."

Friedman: "Oscar's philosophy, as I understand it, was always that he was never satisfied. If he had a 15 foot shot, he would try to back you in or fake so that he could get a 12 foot shot. If he had a 12 foot shot, he was always trying to get closer to the basket, and of course he had great size, so he was always trying to get the closer shot. He was never satisfied."

Jones: "Well, why not?" (laughs)

Friedman: "Sure, it makes sense. Well, the current players don't always necessarily think that way. If the shot is open then they think it is a good shot. They are not trying to get closer. It’s not the same type of approach. Of course, Oscar's approach makes sense."

Jones: "That's what you work for. If you can get it, you get it, but you have to work for it."

Friedman: "One more thing that I want to ask you—"

Jones: "There is one thing that I want to say. You were talking about that I had Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and all those people and that's how I was able to win. Then, I mentioned Bill Fitch. But I was not mentioning Bill Fitch in a negative way."

Friedman: "No, I understand."

Jones: "I was talking about the critics and what they were saying. If I had these people here and that is the reason that I got to the Finals and won championships—he was coaching the same guys."

Friedman: "No, I understand your point exactly."

Jones: "I wanted to be clear on that."

Friedman: "OK, no problem there. I understand what you are saying. Just to make it clear from my standpoint, I don't believe that that is a valid criticism. I am bringing up something that other people have said to get your reaction to it."

Jones: "That's what I was reacting to, not something that you said, but what you were asking."

Friedman: "When I thought about it and realized that I would have the opportunity to speak with you about Sam Jones, I was also thinking about a future article that I could write about you in a similar vein. The article that I am writing about Sam Jones is called 'Reconsidered,' when I look at somebody's career and take a different perspective—look at someone who has been underrated or neglected. I was thinking that in a future article I could do something very similar about your coaching career, because I see a lot of parallels between your coaching career and Phil Jackson's in terms of not receiving what I would consider to be adequate credit. Like you say, they don't look at Bill Fitch that way for whatever reason, but, sometimes, critics will say, well someone had the players—and someone else may have had the same players and they don’t make that criticism—it doesn't always seem fair."

Jones: "Look, that's being—what do you call it—not biased, but that's going straight at the coaches, K.C. or Jackson, because they had the talent. Those critics are saying that they really don't think much of these two coaches."

Friedman: "Right and some of it also gets back to what you were talking about in terms of how the coach may relate to the media or how the media perceives them."

Jones: "That's it right there. Bill Fitch had a great ability in controlling the media through his humor. He'd jump up every now and then and scream. They'd feel the spirit he put into it—a great communicator and that's what the media wants. That's what they accept. With a guy like me, they're not going to get much, because I'm the guy who sits quietly on the bench."

Friedman: "Right. In that sense also, although he hasn't won a championship as a coach, there is a little similarity between you and Maurice Cheeks from a demeanor standpoint. Maurice Cheeks is not real demonstrative, he is kind of quiet and that doesn't mean that the person is not coaching, that's just his personality—"

Jones: "If he had been in there and won a couple championships then he would have the same problem I have." (laughs)

Friedman: "Right. Exactly."

Jones: "And Dr. Jack Ramsay."

Friedman: "Right. One other thing that I want to ask you about is not the happiest memory from your coaching career, but I want to have your perspective on it. History is generally told from the standpoint of who won—also, in light of what happened this year in the Finals when we had an upset, of course. You coached the Washington Bullets in the Finals against Golden State (in 1975) and that was a team that was considered to be the favorite but you did not win. We always read the story from the perspective of what Rick Barry did or Golden State or whatever, but from your standpoint what do you feel like happened in that series? From your standpoint why did that series go the way it did?"

Jones: "Well, the scenario was that there was a circus that was going on during the Finals in San Francisco. So that changed the whole format from the usual 2-2-1-1-1. The change was we had the choice of playing game one in San Francisco and the next two in Washington or the other way around. I made the mistake of taking the first game at home and being on the road for the next two. You make a boo-boo like that, it makes it very difficult to win the championship as the favorite."

Friedman: "What you're saying is that when you lost the first game it put you behind the eight ball because you didn't have the home court advantage that you expected to have."

Jones: "Yeah, that was what the format was. By them winning the first game—and they won it narrowly, because we missed a layup that would've won the game—Golden State now felt confident as all get out, rather than being intimidated by the 2-2-1-1-1."

Friedman: "That's something that I know about because I've researched that series a little bit and read about what happened, but that's something that is not mentioned a lot when people talk about the upset or what Rick Barry did, but that was a big disadvantage—"

Jones: "What you're saying is that they just come out with their thoughts about how I did a terrible job because I was favored, but without mentioning how the series was set up. Nothing is mentioned about the circus, nothing is mentioned about the 1-2 format."

Friedman: "That also says something about where the NBA ranked in the sports universe or the entertainment universe at that time. I don't think that kind of scheduling could happen in today's NBA. I don't think that there could be some type of scheduling snafu where you end up playing 1-2—"

Jones: "Golden State, they had that schedule set (with the circus) because they felt that Golden State would not (still) be in the playoffs. So they used that playoff time to have the circus but all of a sudden Golden State beat Chicago and then it was like, 'Oh, (shoot).'"

Friedman: "Right, 'What are we going to do?'"

Jones: "'We have a circus here, da-da-da,' and the commissioner said, 'OK, 1-2.'"

Friedman: "But nowadays the NBA is such a huge business I don't think that anyone—even the Orlando Magic with the horrible record that they had last year—would have scheduled a circus to be in there during playoff time until they were mathematically eliminated. I don't think that anyone would say before the season starts, 'I don't think that we're going to be in the playoffs, let's have the circus here in May.' Well, I won't take up any more of your time. Thank you so much for your help with the Sam Jones article. As I mentioned, at some point I would like to do a 'K.C. Jones Reconsidered' dealing with your coaching career." 

A few minutes after the conclusion of the interview, K.C. Jones called back to state that he wanted it on the record that "Bill Fitch was a better coach than I was." K.C. Jones made it very clear that his comments about both of them having the same players but Fitch's coaching skills not being critiqued in the media the same way that his were did not mean that he did not respect Fitch as a coach. I reassured K.C. Jones that I understood what he had meant during the interview and that I have no intention of trying to create some type of rift with Coach Fitch. The operative comparison is between the laid back bench demeanors of both Jones and Jackson.

It speaks volumes about Jones' character (1) that he spent so much time doing an in depth interview with a writer who he did not know and who is not famous and (2) that he put so much thought into his answers, to the point of calling me back to clarify that he meant no disrespect to Coach Fitch. Longtime 20 Second Timeout readers know that Julius Erving is my favorite player of all-time. It goes without saying that I was not rooting for Jones' teams during the 1980s--but I hope that it is also evident how much I respect him, and how much research and preparation I did (for a basketball lifetime, not just for one interview) before I spoke with him. 

I am happy that I shared that time with K.C. Jones, and I hope that this interview helps basketball fans cultivate a greater appreciation for his accomplishments. I never wrote the "K.C. Jones Reconsidered" article, but in a sense that is what this article is. K.C. Jones deserves to be reconsidered, and to always be remembered as a championship player and a championship coach.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:09 PM

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