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Saturday, December 04, 2021

How Significant is a Long Regular Season Winning Streak?

Last night, the Golden State Warriors routed the Phoenix Suns 118-96, avenging Tuesday night's 104-96 loss to the Suns while also ending Phoenix' franchise-record 18 game winning streak. Phoenix point guard Chris Paul is the only player in NBA history to play for three different teams that had winning streaks of at least 17 games; that is an interesting statistic, but while some commentators cite it as an example of Paul's impact on winning I look at it differently: Paul has been on several excellent teams but he has only made one NBA Finals appearance and he has not won an NBA title, which undercuts any assertions that Paul has not had enough talent around him to win a championship--particularly if one buys the notion propagated by "stat gurus" that Paul is at least as good as Kobe Bryant and that Paul is a great clutch player. The evidence suggests that whatever impact Paul has on regular season winning does not extend to the postseason, which in turn raises the question of how significant it is for a team to have a long regular season winning streak.

The longest regular season winning streak in NBA history--33 games--was posted by the 1971-72 L.A. Lakers. Led by Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich, the Lakers won the championship. No team came within 10 wins of matching the Lakers' winning streak until the 2012-13 Miami Heat featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh won 27 straight regular season games en route to capturing the second of back to back championships in the midst of making four consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

The Golden State Warriors surpassed the Heat by winning 28 consecutive regular season games, starting with the final four games of the 2014-15 season and then continuing with the first 24 games of their record-setting 73 win 2015-16 campaign. The 2015 Warriors won the NBA title, but the 2016 Warriors lost in the NBA Finals after squandering a 3-1 lead versus the Cleveland Cavaliers

Perhaps the most remarkable long regular season winning streak in NBA history was posted by the 2008 Houston Rockets. The 1972 Lakers, 2015-16 Warriors, and 2013 Heat were each stacked with Hall of Famers/future Hall of Famers, but during the bulk of their 22 game winning streak the 2008 Rockets trotted out a lineup featuring Tracy McGrady surrounded by Shane Battier, streetball legend Rafer Alston, rookie Luis Scola and undersized center Chuck Hayes. All-Star center Yao Ming contributed to the first half of the winning streak before suffering a season-ending injury, but it is important to remember that Houston's record that season (and in general) was much more impacted by McGrady's presence than by Yao's presence; prorated over 82 games, the Rockets' winning percentage with McGrady matched the performance of a championship contender, while the Rockets' winning percentage without McGrady was equivalent to that of a Draft Lottery team.

The regular season success of the 2008 Rockets demonstrates McGrady's impact on winning--which was no less, and probably more, than Paul's impact on winning for teams that had other All-Star caliber players--but also brings to light that long regular season winning streaks do not necessarily lead to championships. The Washington Capitols won 20 straight regular season games over a two season span (1947-49) but did not win a title in either season. The 2009 Boston Celtics and the 2015 Atlanta Hawks each won 19 regular season games in a row without reaching the NBA Finals. The 1982 Celtics and the 2020 Milwaukee Bucks each won 18 straight regular season games without reaching the NBA Finals. Of course, the 1981 Celtics, the 2008 Celtics, and the 2022 Bucks won NBA titles with the same star players who led the way for the long regular season winning streaks in the adjacent seasons.

Here are some notable regular season winning streaks by great players who led their teams to championships after the season in which they posted their longest regular season winning streak:

1) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's longest regular season winning streak was 20 games during the 1970-71 season, when he led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title. Abdul-Jabbar played in 10 NBA Finals and he won six championships. Abdul-Jabbar's Bucks also had a 16 game winning streak in 1970-71 and a 16 game winning streak spanning the final two games of 1972-73 through the first 14 games of 1973-74. The 1974 Bucks lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

2) Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant led the 2000 Lakers to a 19 game winning streak before setting a playoff record with a 15-1 postseason run that included a 4-1 NBA Finals victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. 

3) In addition to leading the way during the 1972 Lakers' 33 game winning streak, Chamberlain also won 18 games in a row with the Philadelphia 76ers spanning the end of the 1966 season and the beginning of the 1967 season. The 1967 76ers went 68-13--setting a regular season wins record broken by his 1972 Lakers--and won the NBA title. 

4) Michael Jordan's longest regular winning streak was 18 games during the 1995-96 season, when his Chicago Bulls set a record with 72 wins (since broken by the 2016 Warriors) en route to capturing the first of three straight championships. 

5) Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships, including a record eight straight titles from 1959-66. His longest regular season winning streak was 17 games during the 1960 championship season. He also had a 16 game regular season winning streak during the 1965 championship season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:28 PM

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Monday, November 22, 2021

MVP Selection Criteria II

In MVP Selection Criteria, I examined some of the historical patterns and trends in NBA MVP voting. The league has never established specific and defined MVP criteria, leaving the voters to their own devices. 

It is way too early in the 2021-22 season to talk about MVP candidates, but that does not stop many people from doing so. In order to not abandon the field to people who do not know what they are talking about, sober-minded commentators are thus drawn into the discussion as well. 

There is no question that Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP-caliber level so far this season. However, it is interesting to contrast the way that he is portrayed by the media compared with the way that other MVP caliber players have been portrayed. We have seen Curry play well as the second option behind Kevin Durant on two championship teams, and we have seen Curry play well while his teammate Andre Iguodala won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, so we know that Curry can win championships as a major part of a strong ensemble cast--but the notion that he is a Pantheon-level player who can carry a subpar supporting cast is, at the very least, unproven.

Last season, Curry played alongside several promising young players plus Draymond Green--who has a solid chance of being honored as a Hall of Famer--and Andrew Wiggins, a former number one overall draft pick who has developed into a very good two-way player, yet Curry was not able to even lead the Warriors into the playoffs; the Warriors lost a home game in the Play-In Tournament as Ja Morant outplayed Curry in the key moments. 

This season, the narrative is that the Golden State Warriors have a great record because Curry is carrying a squad that is without the services of Kevin Durant (who fled for Brooklyn two years ago) and the injured Klay Thompson. Again, there is no doubt that Curry is playing very well, but the point is that the narrative that he is the only weapon for the NBA version of the Little Sisters of the Poor is not accurate.

When a player is playing very well and his team is winning, it may be difficult for some people to discern how much credit that player should receive, but if that player sits out or does not play well and his team still wins then it may become easier to figure out what is happening. 

Curry did not play on Friday night versus the Detroit Pistons, but the Warriors built a big lead and held on to win, 105-102. Curry shot just 2-10 from the field in his return to action on Saturday, but the Warriors again built a big lead and this time they cruised to a 119-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors. Detroit and Toronto are not powerhouses, to put it mildly, and this is just a two game sample size, but the limited evidence that we have from this season does not suggest that the Warriors--even without Durant and Thompson--are completely helpless when Curry is out of action or ineffective.

In contrast, Kobe Bryant--who won one regular season MVP, while Curry has already won two and is being widely touted as the leader in the 2022 MVP race--not only won back to back Finals MVPs to establish beyond doubt his ability to be the first option on a championship team, but he carried the 2005-06 Lakers to a 45-37 record, the sixth seed in the playoffs, and a near upset of the third seeded (and talent-stacked) Phoenix Suns. The 2006 Lakers' second best player was Lamar Odom. Green is superior to Odom as a defender and passer, and is not much worse as a rebounder. Odom was better than Green as a volume scorer but, like Green, he was best suited to being the third or fourth scoring option on a championship team. After Odom, the 2006 Lakers' next best players were Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. Suffice it to say that the Lakers needed Bryant to dominate to have a chance to win. 

Bryant never shot .200 from the field in a game that season, so we cannot compare any of Bryant's 2005-06 games directly with Curry's most recent performance, but Bryant shot .350 or less from the field in 10 games that season, and the Lakers went 3-7 in those contests. The Lakers went 12-4 in the 16 games during which Bryant shot .550 or better from the field, including 8-1 in the games during which Bryant shot at least .580 from the field. Those eight wins included Bryant's 81 point game, his 62 points in three quarters versus 2006 NBA Finalist Dallas (Bryant outscored the Mavericks by himself during those three quarters), and a 50 point game against Portland late in the season to help the Lakers secure their playoff seeding. 

Bottom line: in 2005-06, the Lakers played like a 25-57 team in Bryant's worst shooting games, and they played like a 62-20 team in Bryant's best shooting games--and he had many more great shooting games than poor shooting games. 

When Bryant was the best player on non-championship contenders in 2006 and 2007, the simple media-driven narrative was that a player cannot win the MVP when his team is a non-championship contender. When Bryant was the best player on teams that advanced to the NBA Finals three straight times from 2008-10, he won one regular season MVP (plus the aforementioned two Finals MVPs). In contrast, Curry won two MVPs when he was the best player on a stacked championship contender, and he finished third in last season's MVP voting--one spot ahead of 2021 Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo--when he could not even lift his team into the playoffs. 

This is not about "hating" Curry. This is about exposing the simple media-driven narratives that distort historical truth and are reflected in MVP voting. NBA MVP voting started to go off the rails in the 1990s, when we first heard of the novel concept of "voter fatigue"--media members admitted to looking for reasons to vote for anyone other than Michael Jordan as the MVP. Since that time, various media-driven narratives have incorrectly elevated several players to MVP wins (Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, James Harden are the most obvious examples in the past 20 years or so) while resulting in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant winning only one regular season MVP each.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:39 AM

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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Game 14 of the Regular Season is Not Game Seven of the NBA Finals

I made a big mistake tonight, so I will apologize in advance if that mistake affects the quality of this article.

I watched ESPN's NBA pregame show, and I am afraid that I lost basketball IQ points while listening to "Screamin' A" Smith provide some of the most bizarre opinions since the last time he confused loud volume with deep thinking (which would be whenever was the last time he opened his mouth). "Screamin' A" asserted, among other nonsense, that Kevin Durant is going to be remembered more for the decision to team up with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn than for winning two championships and two NBA Finals MVPs as a Golden State Warrior.

It is difficult to think of a better example of a blurted basketball hot take devoid of any meaningful connection with evidence or reality. Here are just a few reasons this hot take is foolish:

1) Six players have won consecutive NBA Finals MVPs since the award was first given in 1969: Michael Jordan (1991-93; 1996-98); Hakeem Olajuwon (1994-95); Shaquille O'Neal (2000-02); Kobe Bryant (2009-2010); LeBron James (2012-13); Kevin Durant (2017-18). It is possible that Durant will add more Finals MVPs to his resume, but even if he does not win another Finals MVP his decision to play in Brooklyn will never overshadow the rare level of championship greatness that he has already achieved.

2) Before Durant joined the Warriors, Curry and crew had won one title and then lost in the NBA Finals after posting the best regular season record in NBA history. The Warriors did not become a dynasty until they added Durant and until Durant emerged as clearly and without question the team's best player (as signified by, among other things, the two Finals MVPs that he won while outplaying LeBron James on the sport's biggest stage).

3) The Warriors' dynasty was interrupted when Durant got injured, and--until proven otherwise in the playoffs (not in one regular season game in November)--the dynasty ended when Durant left for Brooklyn; since Durant's departure, the Warriors have not even qualified for the playoffs, while Durant bounced back from a ruptured Achilles to lead the Nets to a hard fought game seven second round loss to 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee. 

4) Curry has yet to win even one Finals MVP--let alone matching Durant's two--and during the NBA Finals he has repeatedly been outshined not only by the best player on the opposing team but also by one or more players on his team.

5) The final result of Durant's decision to go to Brooklyn has not yet been determined. The Nets may win multiple titles, they may win one title, or they may win no titles. Until we know how that story ends, it is premature to assert that this chapter of Durant's career will be remembered more than his back to back Finals MVPs--particularly when the implication is that Durant's Brooklyn career will end in failure. Even if Durant does not win a title in Brooklyn, that would not overshadow the titles he won in Golden State--and if he wins a title in Brooklyn then that just adds to his legacy.

I did not like Durant's decision to flee Oklahoma City to join the Golden State team that he had just lost to in the Western Conference Finals, and I did not understand his decision to flee Golden State to play in Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving, but I will never confuse my personal opinion of his business decisions with an objective analysis of his basketball legacy.

So, contrary to what "Screamin' A" appears to believe, Stephen Curry did not win his first Finals MVP last night, the Golden State Warriors did not win the NBA Finals, and Kevin Durant did not permanently damage his legacy. Curry and the Warriors played very well while dismantling the Brooklyn Nets 117-99, but regular season games in November do not become bullet points on anyone's Hall of Fame resume.

It must be emphasized that--as noted above--Curry and the Warriors have not qualified for the playoffs, let alone won a playoff game or playoff series, since Durant left. The closest that the Warriors came to the playoffs was losing a Play-In Tournament game at home to the Memphis Grizzlies. Curry shot 5-14 from the field in the first half of that game as the Warriors fell behind 62-49 by halftime. Curry played better in the second half, but that proved to be too little, too late. 

Curry is a great player, but undersized players like Curry tend to wear down/break down as the playoffs progress, so a big performance in a November regular season game does not prove that Curry is going to play at this level in the NBA Finals--assuming that he can lead his team that far without Durant carrying most of the load.

"Screamin' A" has narratives about Durant and Irving that he is going to keep spouting regardless of what happens, but the biggest story of the season for either team--if not for the entire NBA--is that James Harden's counterfeit numbers are being exposed. It is fascinating to watch the 2018 NBA MVP struggle to score now that defenders are permitted to guard him closely. Harden has had some decent games this season, and he was not terrible last night (24 points on 6-13 field goal shooting, four assists, five turnovers) but even the delusional Daryl Morey is not going to call this version of Harden the greatest scorer in NBA history. Perhaps Harden will adjust to playing basketball instead of "Flop and Flail," or perhaps the NBA will feel sorry for Harden and stop officiating him correctly, but 14 games is a large enough sample size to recognize that Harden is simply not the player that he has been falsely promoted to be. He is an All-Star caliber player, but most certainly not one of the NBA's 76 greatest players of all-time, and if he had been officiated correctly for the past several seasons he would not have posted the counterfeit numbers that fooled too many people into ranking him much higher than he should be ranked. This is just one example of why I evaluate players based on skill set analysis and not just based on statistics.

Golden State's win over Brooklyn may have foreshadowed what will happen in the 2022 NBA playoffs for one or both teams, but it may have just been an outlier for one or both teams during a long regular season. Any rational person understands that we will not know what to make of this game until we see how the whole season unfolds.

By the way, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a mobile seven footer who plays at a high level at both ends of the court. He won back to back regular season MVPs, and he is the reigning NBA Finals MVP. He is playing at his usual elite level this season. For a brief moment after Antetokounmpo's historic 2021 NBA Finals performance, media members seemed to understand that he is the best player in the world--so how is it possible to rationally believe that anything that happens in the first 14 or 15 games of this regular season undermines the status that Antetokounmpo attained after excelling for several regular seasons, culminating in last year's championship run? Curry is great, Durant is great, but nothing has happened to change the correct evaluation from last summer that Antetokounmpo is the NBA's best player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:22 PM

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Friday, November 12, 2021

Scottie Pippen's Life Story Should Be Read, Admired, and Emulated

In an era when some people are often praised for telling "their truth" even if that "truth" diverges from evidence-based reality, why does the autobiography of one of pro basketball's greatest players make so many people not only cringe but feel compelled to publicly rebuke that player?

Scottie Pippen's Unguarded has attracted a lot of media attention, much of it negative. 

Why do people get upset by what Scottie Pippen writes/says, and why does Pippen care so little about what other people think?

On the surface, these are simple questions, but the answers to these questions reveal a lot not only about Pippen but also about the mainstream media and our society in general. Our society enjoys being fed simple narratives, and mainstream media members are paid to create simple narratives. If you stick to the popular narrative, you will remain popular. If you challenge the popular narrative, you will be attacked.

Some professional athletes are masters at creating and/or promoting simple narratives; they tell media members what the media members want to hear, and the media members in turn give the general public a narrative that is favorable for the athlete who provides them with soundbites that they can use.

"Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time" is a simple narrative. There is evidence supporting the validity of that statement, but there is also evidence supporting the notion that Michael Jordan is not the greatest basketball player of all-time--and, more to the point, there is evidence that there is no objective way of determining that one player is better than every other player who ever played basketball.

"Michael Jordan was Batman and Scottie Pippen was Robin" is a simple narrative. The complex reality that Jordan and Pippen formed perhaps the greatest and most versatile duo in basketball history does not fit within the confines of that simple narrative, but--as Pippen said in a recent interview--he brought out the best in Jordan and Jordan brought out the best in him. As a result, Jordan and Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to six championships. Pippen emphasizes that basketball is a team sport, not an individual sport--but that goes against the simple, hero-driven narrative that can be traced back for decades; think of the famous marquee promoting not Lakers versus Knicks but rather George Mikan versus the Knicks: if Mikan's teammates had stayed in the locker room, could Mikan have beaten five Knicks by himself?

Understand how this works and then you understand why Jalen Rose calls Pippen the most underrated great player of all-time; the simple narrative idolizing Jordan leaves no room for Pippen to be anything more than a member of Jordan's supporting cast. Contrast Rose's perspective with the bleatings of "Screamin' A" Smith promoting simple pro-Jordan narratives while blasting Pippen for telling his life story. Rose works for ESPN but he has shown on multiple occasions that he does not feel compelled to stick with simple pre-determined narratives, and "Screamin' A" has repeatedly demonstrated that he is incapable of doing anything other than loudly spewing the same narratives over and over.

Pippen was selected to both the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team, but he is often belittled in a way that other great players are not: his bad moments are magnified, his significant contributions to six championships are minimized, and he is sometimes dismissed as a player who could only thrive as the second option behind Michael Jordan but was not capable of leading a team as the first option. These criticisms of Pippen are asinine and demonstrably false, and it is not surprising nor is it wrong for Pippen to resent these attacks on his basketball legacy.

In Scottie Pippen's Place in Basketball History, I noted that Phil Jackson once declared, "Scottie was our team leader. He was the guy that directed our offense and he was the guy that took on a lot of big challenges defensively...the year that Michael retired, Scottie I think was the most valuable player in the league." Pippen's former teammate Bill Cartwright said that Pippen "was as much a part of winning the championships as MJ. I don't think it would have gotten done without him." I also pointed out that when Pippen was 37 years old The Oregonian selected him as the midseason MVP of the 2002-03 Trail Blazers: "Statistics don't tell the whole story with Pippen, whose ability to guard anyone from Atlanta Hawks power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim to San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker to Boston Celtics small forward Paul Pierce has given the Blazers incredible versatility." Further, Tex Winter--who had a front row seat as a Bulls' assistant coach watching Jordan and Pippen--stated, "Jordan always felt Pippen was something special. Michael realized how easy it was to play with him and how he helped make his teammates better. It's often said Jordan needed Pippen and Pippen needed Jordan. I'm not sure Jordan didn't need Pippen more than Pippen needed Jordan."

Being honest is no guarantee of always being right, but being honest does guarantee that you are going to upset many people, including people who are powerful and who have a vested interest in repressing your honest statements.

Scottie Pippen is honest about what he thinks and how he feels. He has never participated in mass market simple narrative creation. He speaks his mind with no filter, regardless of whether or not his opinion conforms with popular narratives, and regardless of whether or not his opinion may offend other people. As I put it in 2007, Scottie Pippen is No Diplomat, but He Knows Basketball; when Pippen was asked his thoughts about the Chicago Bulls' current players, he offered his candid assessment. For example, Pippen said that Tyrus Thomas "dribbles better with his left hand than his right. He must have broken his arm when he was a kid. He shouldn't be dribbling. He should be a fetcher. Like Ben Wallace, (Joakim) Noah, go get the ball." Pippen declared that Ben Wallace "doesn't know the game like Dennis Rodman did. Dennis knew how and why he got rebounds. So you keep on him (Wallace) or he doesn't play." Thomas was the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft, and the Bulls acquired him from Portland by trading away the rights to LaMarcus Aldridge. It is obvious that Pippen's assessment of Thomas was correct, but what Pippen said is not what the Bulls wanted to hear at that time. Wallace was an impactful player, but anyone who saw both Rodman and Wallace play understands that Rodman had a better overall grasp of the game in terms of setting screens, passing, and contributing in ways beyond rebounding and defense. Neither player was an offensive threat as a scorer, but Rodman was more of an offensive threat than Wallace and demonstrated a higher overall basketball IQ than Wallace, as Pippen correctly noted. 

Scottie Pippen has a genius level basketball IQ, and he is not afraid to express unfiltered opinions about the sport that he understands so well.

Contrary to mainstream media portrayals, Unguarded is not vindictive in tone, nor is it focused on attacking or diminishing Michael Jordan (or anyone else). Unguarded tells the remarkable story of a boy from Hamburg, Arkansas who was one of 12 children, who began his college basketball career without a scholarship, and who worked so hard on his craft that he provided generational wealth to his family while earning official recognition as one of the NBA's greatest players ever. Pippen was an unselfish player who served as the de facto point guard on offense and as the linchpin to team success on defense.

Pippen's life story is inspirational and uplifting.

This is the man and the athlete who should be the focus of so much criticism? Ray Lewis pled guilty to obstruction of justice in an unsolved double murder, and Brett Favre was a selfish player who is also accused of welfare fraud for receiving funds for speeches that he never gave, but Scottie Pippen is the retired Hall of Famer who must be shouted down and demeaned? This is not surprising behavior by the media--I previously questioned why Ray Lewis is lionized and Terrell Owens is demonized--but it is very disappointing.

Pippen begins Unguarded by recalling the bullying incident at school which paralyzed his brother Ronnie from the neck down when Ronnie was just 13 years old. Pippen describes how the school officials did nothing to stop the bullying before the fateful attack, and he discusses the horrible mistreatment that Ronnie endured in the hospital. Eventually, Pippen's parents were able to bring Ronnie home. It took years of hard work for Ronnie to regain some of his mobility. Pippen concludes, "He has inspired me like no one else...I'm not the biggest success story in the Pippen family. He is" (p. 4). 

About 10 years after Ronnie was paralyzed, Pippen's father Preston suffered a debilitating stroke that left him wheelchair bound and rendered him unable to communicate much verbally. The family rallied around Preston to help and support him the same way that the family helped Ronnie. Preston passed away a few years later, during the 1990 playoffs. 

Pippen describes how poor his family was, but he adds, "In spite of everything, I never felt poor. I felt blessed" (p. 7). Pippen says that when he was younger he did not think about how his early experiences influenced his mindset but now that he is in his fifties he reflects back and realizes that how much the challenges experienced by his brother and his father impacted his thinking. Pippen knows that he is portrayed as naive or stupid for signing a long-term contract that soon resulted in him being underpaid relative to his value, but at that time he felt that he could not risk being left with nothing if he got injured and was no longer able to play. A five year, $18 million contract was something that he could not pass up after seeing two examples of how your entire life can change in an instant.

Becoming an NBA player fulfilled Pippen's improbable childhood dream. His favorite basketball player is Julius Erving. Pippen declares, "Talk about charisma. There has been no one in the sport like Dr. J ever since. Sorry, MJ. Sorry, Magic. Sorry, LeBron. Whenever one of Dr. J's games was on TV, I couldn't take my eyes off him" (p. 14). 

However, when Pippen was a young, small point guard, his nickname on the playground was Maurice Cheeks, the heady Hall of Fame point guard who was Erving's teammate for many years and who later coached Pippen in Portland near the end of Pippen's career. 

To say Pippen was not highly recruited is an understatement. He received no college offers except for an opportunity to go to the University of Central Arkansas on a work-study program. Pippen would not be able to play in any of the basketball team's games, but he would be permitted to work out with the team. Pippen received a basketball scholarship only after two players quit the team. Pippen averaged just 4.3 ppg as a freshman, but he was elated to have the opportunity to play in all 20 of the team's games.

While attending college, Pippen grew from a skinny 6-1 point guard to a 6-7 player with point guard skills and a forward's size, and he became a two-time NAIA All-American. Pippen's contentious interactions with Jerry Krause, the Chicago Bulls' longtime general manager, are well-documented, but Pippen gives Krause credit for recognizing his talents from the beginning. Pippen writes about Krause, "There isn't one word I wish I could take back. At the same time, give the man his due. He could spot talent where others couldn't..." (p. 40). That is not a vindictive or vengeful assessment by Pippen; that is honesty: he had his disagreements with Krause and he regrets nothing that he said about Krause, but he also respects Krause's ability to scout players. Krause made a trade with Seattle to swap first round picks and acquire Pippen. 

Regarding his early interactions with Jordan, Pippen does not belabor the point but it is obvious that he was never intimidated by Jordan. Sure, Jordan challenged Pippen on the court--Jordan challenged everyone--but Pippen went right back at Jordan, and Pippen is one of the few players in basketball history who had the physical skills and the mental toughness necessary to compete with Jordan. We have read, seen, and heard many stories about Jordan berating and belittling players, but those stories never involve Pippen. Pippen says that he constantly worked to improve his game, but he never sought Jordan's approval. Pippen's work ethic and determination to be great were formed long before he ever met Jordan, so the simple narrative that Jordan molded Pippen into greatness does not make much sense. Jordan was just entering his fourth season when Pippen was a rookie. Jordan's Bulls had a 1-9 playoff record up to that point, so Jordan was not in a position to give anyone lessons about what it takes to be an NBA champion. After Jordan's first retirement the Bulls--with Pippen as the undisputed best player on the team and, arguably, the best player in the NBA--went 6-4 in the playoffs, with perhaps only one terrible Hue Hollins call preventing them from returning to the NBA Finals. 

Pippen recalls that the first NBA game he saw in person was his first preseason game. Think about that: one of the NBA's 50 greatest players had never even been to an NBA game until he joined the Chicago Bulls. Pippen was used to having hard-driving coaches in high school and college, but he resented the way that Doug Collins publicly berated him and other players, particularly because Collins rarely said anything negative to or about Jordan. Pippen writes that he is not surprised that Collins became a respected TV commentator, and he acknowledges that Collins has a great basketball mind. Pippen says that he learned a lot from Collins, but that he did not appreciate Collins' coaching style. Those words may not go over well in a basketball community in which Collins is a highly regarded figure, but everything that Pippen asserts is true and easily verifiable.

By nature, Pippen finds it difficult to trust people, and his relationship with the Bulls' front office was strained by several situations in which he felt betrayed. During his rookie season, Pippen had serious pain radiating down his legs. The medical staff insisted that he was just having muscle spasms. It is baffling that no trainer or doctor figured out that Pippen was experiencing radiculopathy (the medical term for nerve pain in the legs caused by a herniated disc in the back). Pippen did not receive a correct diagnosis until he was evaluated by a doctor not affiliated with the team, and Pippen eventually needed back surgery, which took place after his rookie season and caused him to miss the start of his second season. Pippen resents not only that the Bulls misdiagnosed him, but that Collins and others in the organization questioned his toughness. 

Pippen describes how Collins marginalized and at times even mocked veteran assistant coach Tex Winter. Meanwhile, the youngest assistant coach on the staff--Phil Jackson--made a name for himself with his thorough scouting reports and engaging communication style. Jackson, who is not quite the contemplative monk he portrays himself to be, also knew how to curry favor within the highest power structures of an organization, a skill that he displayed throughout his coaching career. Even though Collins led the Bulls to the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals, he was fired that offseason and replaced by Jackson. One of the reasons that Jackson was hired to replace Collins is that the team needed a coach who was not afraid to challenge Jordan, and another reason is that Jerry Krause wanted to implement Tex Winter's Triangle Offense, but Collins resisted doing this.

Nothing that Pippen writes about Collins is vindictive, or even surprising. Sam Smith and Roland Lazenby have both written about what happened behind the scenes before Jackson replaced Collins as Chicago's coach, but Pippen lived through the situation so it is valuable to have his firsthand account. Pippen's description of Collins' coaching style is in line with recent comments made by Kwame Brown about what it was like to play for Collins in Washington when Collins catered to elder statesman Jordan the same way that Collins catered to young superstar Jordan.  

In contrast to Collins yelling at players and embarrassing players, Pippen recalls that Jackson "was critical in a constructive way. He didn't embarrass us in front of our fans or teammates. He pulled guys off to the side or asked one of the assistant coaches to explain what we did wrong. I felt respected as a player and, more important, as a man" (p. 86). Pippen describes Jackson's practices as well-organized, and says that the team expended just enough energy to stay sharp while also preserving enough energy to play hard during the games. Jackson implemented Tex Winter's Triangle Offense, but Jackson was smart enough to run isolation plays for Jordan in the fourth quarter if the Triangle Offense was not working. The Triangle Offense provided a structure that kept everyone involved, and it forced the defense to chase Jordan when Jordan did not have the ball--but the Bulls never forgot that they had the sport's greatest closer if/when they needed him.

Pippen describes the challenges the Bulls faced in learning how to run the Triangle Offense. One of the biggest challenges was convincing Jordan to give up the ball and trust his teammates to make the right decisions. Pippen notes that Jordan was used to holding the ball for five or six seconds, but Pippen adds that even at his worst Jordan never monopolized the ball the way that James Harden did during his time in Houston. Pippen recalls watching Harden and thinking to himself, "For God's sake, James, stop dribbling!" 

Pippen is not afraid to shatter simple narratives, but if you are a media member getting paid to promote Jordan as the greatest player ever and to promote James Harden as the greatest scorer ever then expert commentary from Pippen refuting your simple narratives threatens your livelihood and your status. Keep that thought in mind when various media members criticize Pippen's firsthand account of his NBA career.

To Pippen, Jordan is a great player--Pippen admits that he would have wanted the ball in no other player's hands during last second moments such as the famous shot to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1989 playoffs--but the story of the Chicago Bulls is the story of a team coming together, not the heroic one man quest of Michael Jordan triumphing against all odds (including overcoming the teammates he derisively considered to be his supporting cast instead of viewing them as his partners).

To Pippen, Harden is not a basketball superhero but just a player who dribbles the ball too much instead of focusing on team success.

I am baffled by the notion that Pippen's book and the comments that he has made during his book promotion tour indicate that he derives no joy from his time with the Bulls. Pippen makes it quite clear that the joy he derives comes from how a team worked together to win six titles. Ask any of Pippen's teammates and, to a man, they will tell you what a great teammate he was, and how he lifted them up, particularly after Jordan often broke them down with harsh remarks. Pippen views basketball as a team game, and he is offended by the media's attempts to transmogrify the Bulls' team success into a simple narrative focused entirely on deifying Michael Jordan. Pippen's recollections and fondest memories of those six championship seasons revolve around what the team accomplished as a group. 

Pippen is not a person who has many regrets, but in Unguarded he says that he should have made more of an effort to reach out to Jordan after Jordan's father was killed during the summer of 1993. Pippen states that he will regret that for the rest of his life. I wonder why those passages from the book and those heartfelt sentiments are not emphasized in the media coverage of the book.

I wonder if anyone who has blasted Pippen and Unguarded has read the entire book.

Pippen notes that he played in 1386 NBA games (regular season and playoffs combined), yet there is inordinate focus on 1.8 seconds from those games. He also questions why a documentary about "The Last Dance" (which is what Phil Jackson called the Bulls' 1997-98 season) dwells on 1.8 seconds from a 1994 playoff game. Pippen asks, "Why then did Michael find it necessary to bring it up again? Did he consider for a moment how it might affect me and my legacy? Besides, he wasn't on the team in 1994. He was playing baseball" (p. XIX). Pippen says that it is fair to ask him questions about those 1.8 seconds--and he devotes an entire chapter in Unguarded to answering those questions--but he insists that those 1.8 seconds do not belong in "The Last Dance." Pippen adds that it is fair that "The Last Dance" mentions his 1997 delayed surgery and his trade demand, because those things were a part of that season; however, he declares that Jordan should not call him selfish because Jordan displayed selfishness on many occasions, from retiring right before the 1993-94 season (thus providing the Bulls no time to try to replace him on the roster) to the way that Jordan played in game six of the 1992 NBA Finals. Pippen recalls that Phil Jackson, at the urging of assistant coach Tex Winter, took Jordan out of that game six because Jordan was forcing shots and the Bulls were trailing by 15 points. With Pippen and four reserves on the court, the Bulls rallied, and then Jordan returned in the final moments to join Pippen as the Bulls sealed the deal to win their second championship in a row. 

Pippen is right to question why on the one hand the 1.8 seconds scenario was featured so prominently in "The Last Dance" but on the other hand his key role in the game six comeback was minimized. Pippen believes that these editorial choices were made in order to portray Jordan as a one man team. Is that an unreasonable perspective for Pippen to have about how he and his teammates were depicted in a documentary over which Jordan had creative control?

While "The Last Dance" aired, I wrote Remember 25-8-6 About Scottie Pippen, Not 1.8:

An objective examination of the record shows that the Bulls would not have won a single title without Pippen. Michael Jordan won one playoff game--not one playoffs series, but one playoff game--without Pippen. Pippen was an MVP-level player for the 1994 Bulls team that lost in game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and he was the leader of the 2000 Trail Blazers team that lost in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. Pippen's defense against Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals and against Mark Jackson in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals played a major role in Chicago's victories in those series. Pippen was a rare player who could dominate a game without taking a shot.

During Jordan's first retirement, Pippen emerged as an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player, and he remained an All-NBA First Team/MVP-caliber player for several years, until age and back surgery slowed him down in 1999. Pippen is without question one of the top 25 basketball players of all-time--not a Pantheon-level player, but securely in the next category of greatness.

Michael Jordan is an iconic historical figure whose impact transcended the NBA, and he is understandably the focus of "The Last Dance." His viewpoint dominates the narrative not only because he is the central figure, but also because the footage would have never been seen by the public without his approval. All of that being said and acknowledged, it must also be said and acknowledged that Pippen was not some minor character in this epic-length drama; Pippen was Jordan's co-star during those title runs, and the story would not exist--the Bulls would not have been a dynasty--without Pippen.

It is indisputable and inarguable that Scottie Pippen Was One of Just Three Essential Members of the Chicago Bulls' Six Championship Teams:

Only three main cogs participated in all six Chicago championship teams: Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen. Every other participant was replaceable, and was replaced. 

Those who are quick to assert that Jordan could and would have won six titles with any other coach running the team and any other star player alongside him should be reminded of several facts:

1) Prior to teaming up with Jackson and Pippen, Jordan's career playoff record was 1-9, with three first round losses.

2) After teaming up with Jackson and Pippen, Jordan failed to make the playoffs in two seasons with the Washington Wizards.

3) After winning six titles with the Bulls, Jackson won five more titles with the Lakers.

4) After Michael Jordan's first retirement in 1993, the Bulls replaced him in the starting lineup with Pete Myers, and went on to post a 55-27 record, just two wins less their 1992-93 record. The Pippen-led 1993-94 Bulls lost in seven games in the second round to the New York Knicks, who benefited from a game-deciding call by Hue Hollins in game five that Darell Garretson--one of the other officials on the court during that game--later publicly called "terrible."

5) After Jordan returned to the Bulls near the end of the 1994-95 season, the Bulls lost in six games in the second round of the playoffs.

6) Pippen was the heart and soul of Portland's 2000 team that pushed the eventual three-time champion L.A. Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. 

7) Pippen's playoff record without Jordan was 3-6 in series, and 19-21 in games. That may not look great at first glance, but it is much better than Jordan's playoff record without Pippen, and most of Pippen's playoff games without Jordan took place past Pippen's prime and after Pippen had major back surgery. Pippen went 1-1 in playoff series and 6-4 in playoff games in his only playoff run during his prime sans Jordan.

The above seven bullet points contain facts, not opinions or speculation. Those facts can be placed in context in a variety of ways, but the bottom line indisputable fact is that--of the three essential members of the Bulls' six championship teams--Jordan had the least playoff success on his own. That does not mean that Jordan was not great, but it does suggest that efforts to lionize Jordan while marginalizing the contributions of Jackson and Pippen do a disservice to the historical record.

What is your vision of the ideal basketball player? You might say, "My ideal player is unselfish and he focuses more on team goals than his individual accolades. He has no skill set weaknesses: he can score from all levels (in the paint, midrange, three point range), he can rebound, he is a talented and willing passer, he can handle the ball, and he not only can defend his position but he can defend multiple positions while demonstrating a high level understanding of team defensive concepts. He is quick, explosive, and he is big enough to play inside yet nimble enough to play on the perimeter."

Or, if you wanted to be concise, you could just say "Scottie Pippen." Pippen is one of the few players in basketball history who fits the above description of the ideal basketball player.

Read Unguarded, and then ask yourself this question: "Why are so many members of the mainstream media focused on portraying Pippen in a negative light?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:03 PM

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Thursday, November 11, 2021

Five Early Season NBA Notes and Observations

New York Yankees' legend Yogi Berra once said, "It gets late early out there," referring to the sunlight while playing left field in Yankee Stadium. It may be getting late early for some NBA players and teams. New York Knicks' Coach Tom Thibodeau was recently asked how many games it takes for an NBA team to develop cohesion, and he replied, "You know what they say. When it's 10 games, you say we need 20. When it's 20, you say 30. When it's 30, you say it's 40. Before you know it, the season's over." He added a final comment that I won't repeat, expressing his opinion that the notion that a team needs a lot of games to find cohesion is, shall we say, bull manure.

With that in mind--and realizing that, with all due respect to Thibodeau--it is still early in the season--here are five notes and observations about an NBA season that is already more than 10% complete.

  1. One thought came to mind while watching Russell Westbrook score 25 points, pass for 14 assists, grab 12 rebounds, and compile a +10 plus/minus rating in the L.A. Lakers' 120-117 overtime win versus the Miami Heat yesterday: every All-Star who has played alongside LeBron James has submerged his talents and his statistics so that James can shine. That list of All-Stars includes Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. A James supporter could argue that this is the way the pecking order should be because of James' greatness and because this is a path leading to championships, but one could reply that other Pantheon-level players brought out the best in their All-Star teammates while winning championships. It is debatable that suppressing others' greatness is the best path to winning championships; after all, James' teams are just 4-6 in the NBA Finals. Westbrook has posted three triple doubles in his first 12 games as a Laker. LeBron James sat out all of Westbrook's triple double games, and the Lakers won two of those games.
  2. Forced to play under "new" basketball rules (also known as the rules under which basketball was played for several decades until the past few years), James Harden--the greatest scorer in NBA history, according to Daryl Morey--is averaging 18.2 ppg while shooting .409 from the field. Harden's teammate Kevin Durant, who never relied on the gimmicks that Harden used to post counterfeit numbers, is leading the NBA in scoring with a 29.5 ppg average while shooting .585 from the field. It is fascinating to see which players are most negatively impacted when basketball is officiated correctly, including two players--Harden and Damian Lillard--who were recently selected to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team over several players who were both better pure scorers and better all-around players (including Adrian Dantley, Alex English, and Tracy McGrady).
  3.  "Start none and there will be none" are good words to live by, and words that Markieff Morris should take to heart. Morris delivered a cheap shot to Nikola Jokic while Jokic was running at midcourt, and then Morris walked away as if Jokic is too soft or too scared to do anything about it. Rest assured that Morris was testing Jokic and delivering a message; anyone who has played competitive basketball at any level understands that, and anyone who has played competitive basketball at any level understands and respects Jokic's visceral reaction: Jokic went right back at Morris, delivering a forearm that knocked Morris to the ground. The NBA was right to suspend Jokic for a game--vigilante justice can be respected, but it is not tolerated under the letter of the law--but the NBA should tweak the rules so that the instigator receives a more severe punishment than the retaliator. Morris' cheap shot was correctly deemed a Flagrant Two Foul warranting automatic ejection, yet the NBA only fined him $50,000. Morris should have been suspended for at least one game, if not two. If the NBA punished instigators more severely then perhaps fewer players would be inclined to be instigators. Also, I respect Jimmy Butler as a player, but all of his antics after the incident happened and well after many people stood between him and Jokic earned Butler a nomination for the "Hold Me Back" team. The picture of Jokic sitting calmly on the bench while Butler did a whole bunch of yelling and gesturing speaks 1000 words. I have observed that the best response to "Meet me in (the back, the parking lot, etc." is "I am here right now. We don't have to go anywhere." I have yet to see any "Hold Me Back" team members do anything but walk away from such a response. Kobe Bryant's response to Ron Artest's jabbering-- "Oh, you're a standup comedian now"--is also classic. For those of you too young to remember, look up Calvin Murphy, Maurice Lucas, Alvin Robertson, and Charles Oakley to learn about four NBA players who were most assuredly not on the "Hold Me Back" team. Anyone on the "Hold Me Back" team would run--or get stomped--if confronted by the likes of Murphy, Lucas, Robertson, or Oakley in their primes.
  4. Six of the eight teams that I picked to make the Eastern Conference playoffs are currently in the top eight in the Eastern Conference standings. Washington and Cleveland are the two early surprise teams, while Atlanta and Boston have performed below my expectations. I began my season preview analysis of the Hawks by stating, "I am not convinced that the Hawks are for real"--which was not a majority viewpoint about the Hawks prior to the season--but I picked them to finish fourth and exit in the second round of the playoffs. Their run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals was a bit fluky, but it would be surprising if they missed the 2022 playoffs. I rejected the notion that the Celtics are a championship contender, ranking them fifth in the East. It has become apparent that this squad has serious chemistry issues, so the Celtics may have a tougher time righting the ship than the Hawks. Five of the Washington Wizards' eight wins are against the Celtics, Hawks, and Pacers, so it is not quite time to party like it is 1978 for Wizards' fans who dream of reviving the glory days of Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, and Bobby Dandridge. The Wizards appear to be better than I expected, but I will be shocked if they finish the season maintaining their current 60 win pace. The Cavaliers are my "home town" (or, to be more precise, home state) team, and I have fond memories of seeing them in person dating all the way back to the glory days of Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, and Ron Harper. The Cavaliers have played eight of their first 12 games on the road, winning five of those eight games, but the loss of Collin Sexton due to a torn meniscus in his left knee is a huge blow. It will be interesting to see if Cleveland can sustain this good start without Sexton, who leads the team in scoring (16.0 ppg). The Cavaliers feature a balanced scoring attack this season with six double figure scorers (including Sexton) averaging between 12.9 ppg and 16.0 ppg.
  5. Seven of the eight teams that I picked to make the Western Conference playoffs are currently in the top eight in the Western Conference standings. The only mild surprise for me is that Memphis is in eighth place at 6-5, barely ahead of the 5-7 Portland Trail Blazers (who I picked to make the playoffs) and the 5-7 Sacramento Kings (who I did not pick to make the playoffs). In my season preview analysis, I suggested that the Grizzlies may sneak into the playoffs via the NBA Money Grab Play-In Tournament. The 10-1 Golden State Warriors are better than I expected sans Klay Thompson--who is expected to return to action later in the season--and the L.A. Lakers have had a well-documented uneven 7-5 start, but for the most part the Western Conference is shaping up according to my expectations.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:35 PM

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Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Examining James Harden's Counterfeit Numbers

The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Atlanta Hawks 117-108 on Wednesday night primarily because of another outstanding performance by Kevin Durant (32 points on 13-20 field goal shooting, seven rebounds, five assists, +15 plus/minus number)--and despite James Harden shooting just 5-14 from the field while posting a -9 plus/minus number. Harden led the Nets with 11 assists (four of them to Durant, who does not need Harden's help to score), but he scored just 16 points because the NBA no longer gives him 10-plus free throw attempts per game to provide cover for the many games in which Harden shoots poorly. Before the NBA belatedly decided to return to officiating games the way that they are supposed to be officiated, Harden posted counterfeit numbers while flopping and flailing his way to three scoring titles, the 2018 regular season MVP, and six All-NBA First Team selections. 

Yes, I called Harden's numbers from the past several seasons counterfeit. 

If you have a million dollars in a bank account, but $200,000 of those dollars are counterfeit bills that escaped detection then you are not really a millionaire--and if you average over 30 ppg but you are given several free throws per game that you did not deserve then you are not really a 30 ppg scorer. Harden's numbers are even more tainted than that analogy suggests, because the problem is deeper than just the undeserved free throws: the incorrect foul calls in Harden's favor put opposing players in foul trouble, put the opposing team in the penalty, and created a situation so absurd that great coaches determined that the only way to avoid fouling Harden was to instruct their players to play defense with their hands behind their backs. 

Shame on every media member who participated in and endorsed this sham instead of calling it out as an embarrassment to basketball.

I am not "Screaming A" Smith. I have not and never will call James Harden a "scrub" or demean him personally the way that loudmouth Smith verbally assaults players who he does not like. Harden is not a scrub. He is an All-Star caliber player--but he is not an MVP-level player or an All-NBA First Team-level player. 

Why do I often write about James Harden? Media members not only gave Harden an undeserved MVP, but they recently voted him onto the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team. In 20 or 30 years, people who never saw Harden play may actually believe that Harden was an elite scorer and an all-time great player. Someone has to speak out and at least attempt to fix the historical record before fiction becomes permanently canonized as fact.

Harden's 16 points and 11 assists on 5-14 field goal shooting and 1-1 free throw shooting accurately reflects his typical level of play--but in previous seasons, he could have played at exactly the same level and finished with 30 points on 5-14 field goal shooting plus 15-16 free throw shooting. He would be the same caliber of player in either scenario, but those years of counterfeit free throws have distorted the historical record.

Consider Harden's 2017-18 MVP season. He played in 72 games, and he made less than 10 field goals in 47 of those games. Harden had at least 10 free throw attempts in 20 of the 47 games in which he made less than 10 field goals. Harden attempted at least 10 free throws in 37 of his 72 games in 2017-18, including 20 games in which he attempted at least 14 free throws. In one Houston loss to Boston, Harden shot 7-27 from the field but still scored 34 points due to his 15-15 free throw shooting--and remember that the problem is not just the unearned free throws, but also the way that the (lack of) enforcement of the rules compelled defenders to tiptoe tentatively around Harden instead of guarding him normally. Perhaps the most amazing thing about that 7-27 shooting performance is that a player could shoot that badly on that high volume of shots when he knew that the rules did not permit opponents to contest his shots.

Am I saying that Harden did not earn any of his free throw attempts? Obviously, no. Do I blame Harden for taking advantage of the situation? Yes, I do. If a security guard helps you to pass counterfeit bills, does that make it right to do so? No, and if referees let you get away with traveling, flailing, and flopping that is not right, either. The game should be played the right way. If you are a Top 76 player, then prove it with your basketball skills, not your flop and flail skills.

Note that Durant is not having the slightest problem scoring under the "new" rules (which is just a return to enforcing traditional basketball rules). Also note that the same media members who rewarded Harden for his counterfeit numbers now offer up numerous excuses for his poor play: he is supposedly injured, or he is rehabbing his injury, or he is out of shape. Why didn't Harden get in shape and stay in shape during the offseason? Alonzo Mourning once said, "My body is my business," meaning that keeping his body in shape was his responsibility so that he could perform at a high level. Harden's body is his business, and his body is the vehicle that has delivered fame and fortune to him. There is no excuse for him to be out of shape at the start of the season (or at any time, for that matter), and this is at least the second season in a row that he has started the season out of shape.

If you are younger than 40 and/or not familiar with basketball history, find some video of Adrian Dantley, who averaged at least 30 ppg for four straight seasons in the early 1980s while winning two scoring titles. Dantley was a master at drawing real fouls. Compare his arsenal of pump fakes and post moves with Harden's chicanery to learn the difference between fundamentally sound basketball and sideshow theatrics. Then, compare Dantley's step back move--accomplished without hopping, skipping, or jumping--with Harden's counterfeit step back move.

After completing that research, shake your head in despair that Harden has been immortalized as a Top 76 player while Dantley was left off of the list. If you have the time and are not sick to your stomach by that point, compare Harden to Bernard King, Alex English, and a host of other great players who were denied the Top 76 recognition that Harden received. 

I do not enjoy watching Harden play, but there is a feeling of schadenfreude when watching Harden play so far this season. Basketball purists have to hope and pray that the rules will continue to be enforced correctly, even if that means that the counterfeit nature of Harden's statistics from the past several seasons will be revealed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:49 PM

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Playing Basketball is Much Harder for James Harden Than Playing "Flop and Flail"

Did you ever wonder what would happen to James Harden's statistics if he were forced to play basketball without getting the benefit of phantom foul calls? This season, the NBA is no longer rewarding offensive players for pushing, pulling, and crashing into defensive players. Here are Harden's statistics in the first four games of the 2021-22 season: 17.3 ppg, 8.3 apg, 7.0 rpg, 4.8 tpg, .364 FG%, .323 3FG%, .917 FT%. Yes, this is a small sample size. Harden will probably eventually figure out how to play basketball again--something that he has not been required to do for several years--but right now he is posting his worst scoring average since he fled Oklahoma City in 2012, plus career-lows in field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, and free throw attempts, along with his third worst turnovers average. Harden's minutes, field goal attempts, and three point field goal attempts are almost identical with his 2020-21 numbers, but his scoring average has plummeted more than seven ppg from his 24.6 ppg average last season. Harden scored 20 points in each of the first two games of this season, followed by 15 points in the third game, and 14 points in the fourth game. He shot 4-8 from three point range in the first game, and then 6-23 from beyond the arc in the next three games. 

James Harden is the greatest "Flop and Flail" player of all-time. No one matches his ability to hurl his body into another player's body and then convince a referee to reward this action with two (or even three) free throws. Harden parlayed his unparalleled "Flop and Flail" skills into an MVP award, seven All-NBA selections, and huge contracts. He also convinced himself and others that being the greatest "Flop and Flail" player of all-time means that he is a great basketball player. Harden once said--in a not so veiled reference to Giannis Antetokounmpo--"I wish I could be 7 feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I'll take that any day."

That comment was ridiculous when Harden made it, and it has not aged well. The reality, as I explained shortly after he uttered that nonsense, is that the Antetokounmpo-Harden Comparison is No Comparison:

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

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

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

As Harden's Rockets Went Down in Flames During the 2020 Playoffs, I analyzed the flaws in Harden's game:

Russell Westbrook led the Rockets with 25 points on 8-16 field goal shooting (including 3-8 from three point range), but that was not enough to overcome James Harden's predictable playoff choking. Harden shot 2-11 from the field (including 1-6 from three point range) en route to perhaps the least least impactful 21 point game in NBA playoff history; through a combination of his gimmicks and some careless fouls by the Lakers, Harden was given 20 free throw attempts, and he converted 16 of them.

Usually, Harden saves his 2-11 field goal shooting performances for elimination games. Harden shot 2-11 from the field and scored 14 points when the Rockets lost 104-90 to the Golden State Warriors in game five of the 2015 Western Conference Finals; Harden also set the all-time NBA single game playoff record with 12 turnovers in that contest. Then, he shot 2-11 from the field and scored 10 points when the Rockets lost 114-75 to the San Antonio Spurs in game six of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals.

There are people who can keep a straight face while saying that 21 points on 11 field goal attempts is efficient, but anyone who understands basketball realizes how ridiculous it is to term this choke job by Harden as "efficient." Harden shot 1-7 from the field (including 0-3 from three point range) in the first half as the Lakers built a huge lead that they never relinquished. Casual fans think that the NBA is a fourth quarter league, and they focus a lot of attention on fourth quarter statistics, but those who understand the NBA realize that the NBA is often a first quarter league; big comebacks are rare but often remembered, while most games are decided by the team that sets the tone from the start.

Harden is not capable of consistently being efficient and productive when it matters most. Every year in the playoffs, he has enough talent around him to advance--if he were really as great as he is supposed to be--and every year he fails to step up. If Harden had authored an MVP-level performance then this series would have been tied 2-2. Harden has had a few big playoff games in his career, but most of the time when there is a chance to make a positive difference in the outcome of the series he disappears.

Unless they are ignorant or willfully delusional, even the most ardent Harden advocates must admit that Harden is not an elite player, no matter how many regular season records he sets, and no matter how many awards he receives. The Daryl Morey analytics-centric offense that the Rockets have built around Harden is not a championship caliber offense. There is no denying or excusing the yawning gap between the gimmicky way that Harden piles up regular season points and his consistent inability to produce when it matters most against elite competition in the playoffs.

Morey has been preaching the same nonsense since 2007, he has had Harden as his "foundational player" since 2012, and he has nothing tangible to show for all of his arrogant bleating about how he knows more about basketball than the rest of us. Rarely, if ever, has a general manager or executive promised so much, delivered so little, and kept his job for so long. Morey says foolish things--such as stating that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan--and the media gives him a pass instead of calling him out.

Officiating the game correctly affects Harden in several ways. The first and most obvious is that during the games when he cannot hit the broadside of a barn with a bazooka--which happens a lot with him--he does not get to inflate his statistics by "efficiently" making 10 or more free throws. The second is that without having to worry about being called for phantom fouls defenders can guard Harden straight up. Harden does not have blazing speed and he is not a great ballhandler, so if defenders are permitted to guard him straight up then he is forced to either pass the ball or shoot a lot of contested shots; this is reflected in his poor field goal percentage and high turnover rate. Harden can make open shots at a high rate, but when he is guarded closely he is--to put it mildly--not even in the same conversation with Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and the other truly elite scorers in pro basketball history. The third is that Harden now has to expend more energy to score, which is another factor that is impacting his field goal percentage and turnover rate.

Right now, Harden's frustration is obvious, and he is no doubt trying to figure out if correct officiating is the new norm or if he will soon be able to get away with his old tricks. If the league holds fast, then Harden will eventually change his mindset, and go back to playing basketball. He was a good, but not great, player in Oklahoma City. 

It will be fascinating to see how long it takes Harden to adjust to playing basketball by the rules without being bailed out by his "Flop and Flail" antics. Basketball purists have to hope and pray that the league does not revert to letting Harden get away with the stuff that he got away with for so many years. Without "Flop and Flail," Harden is--at best--a 25 ppg scorer. However, he has rarely been motivated enough to start a season in peak condition, and that is going to have a negative effect on his game as he gets older. 

Baseball uses the terms "dead ball era" and "steroids era" to provide context for statistics posted during anomalous periods in the sport's history. I propose that the inflated statistics posted by Harden (and a few others who feasted during the past few years by relying on non-basketball tactics) be labeled as products of the "Flop and Flail" era.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:49 PM

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Saturday, October 23, 2021

The NBA's 75th Anniversary Team

The NBA's 75th Anniversary Team was selected from scratch, meaning that players included on the 1996 NBA 50 Greatest Players List were not automatically guaranteed a spot on the new, expanded roster. The 75th Anniversary Team was initially promoted as having 75 members, but because of a tie during the voting process 76 players made the cut. The NBA made three separate announcements, releasing 25 names on Tuesday, 25 names on Wednesday, and 26 names on Thursday.

Here is the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team (players are listed in alphabetical order):

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  2. Ray Allen
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  4. Carmelo Anthony
  5. Nate Archibald
  6. Paul Arizin
  7. Charles Barkley
  8. Rick Barry
  9. Elgin Baylor
  10. Dave Bing
  11. Larry Bird
  12. Kobe Bryant
  13. Wilt Chamberlain
  14. Bob Cousy
  15. Dave Cowens
  16. Billy Cunningham
  17. Stephen Curry
  18. Anthony Davis
  19. Dave DeBusschere
  20. Clyde Drexler
  21. Tim Duncan
  22. Kevin Durant
  23. Julius Erving
  24. Patrick Ewing
  25. Walt Frazier
  26. Kevin Garnett
  27. George Gervin
  28. Hal Greer
  29. James Harden
  30. John Havlicek
  31. Elvin Hayes
  32. Allen Iverson
  33. LeBron James
  34. Magic Johnson
  35. Sam Jones
  36. Michael Jordan 
  37. Jason Kidd
  38. Kawhi Leonard
  39. Damian Lillard 
  40. Jerry Lucas 
  41. Karl Malone 
  42. Moses Malone 
  43. Pete Maravich 
  44. Bob McAdoo 
  45. Kevin McHale 
  46. George Mikan 
  47. Reggie Miller 
  48. Earl Monroe 
  49. Steve Nash 
  50. Dirk Nowitzki 
  51. Hakeem Olajuwon 
  52. Shaquille O'Neal 
  53. Robert Parish 
  54. Chris Paul 
  55. Gary Payton 
  56. Bob Pettit 
  57. Paul Pierce 
  58. Scottie Pippen 
  59. Willis Reed 
  60. Oscar Robertson 
  61. David Robinson 
  62. Dennis Rodman 
  63. Bill Russell 
  64. Dolph Schayes 
  65. Bill Sharman 
  66. John Stockton 
  67. Isiah Thomas 
  68. Nate Thurmond 
  69. Wes Unseld 
  70. Dwyane Wade 
  71. Bill Walton 
  72. Jerry West 
  73. Russell Westbrook 
  74. Lenny Wilkens 
  75. Dominique Wilkins 
  76. James Worthy

The 75th Anniversary Team includes each player from the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, plus 19 players whose entire careers took place after the 50 Greatest Players List was announced in 1996. Of the remaining seven players, four established their Hall of Fame credentials prior to 1996, while three began their careers prior to 1996 but did not enter their primes until later. The overall composition of the team is reasonable, and does not reflect a bias for or against a particular era. 

I posted my NBA 50 Greatest Players List in March 2021, so there is no need to update or change those rankings (players are listed in alphabetical order, with an asterisk denoting each player who was not selected in 1996):

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo*
  3. Charles Barkley
  4. Rick Barry
  5. Elgin Baylor
  6. Larry Bird
  7. Kobe Bryant*
  8. Wilt Chamberlain
  9. Bob Cousy 
  10. Dave Cowens
  11. Billy Cunningham
  12. Stephen Curry*
  13. Clyde Drexler
  14. Tim Duncan*
  15. Kevin Durant*
  16. Julius Erving
  17. Patrick Ewing
  18. Walt Frazier
  19. Kevin Garnett*
  20. George Gervin
  21. John Havlicek
  22. Elvin Hayes
  23. Dwight Howard*
  24. Allen Iverson*
  25. LeBron James*
  26. Magic Johnson
  27. Michael Jordan
  28. Jason Kidd*
  29. Kawhi Leonard*
  30. Karl Malone
  31. Moses Malone
  32. Pete Maravich
  33. Bob McAdoo*
  34. Kevin McHale
  35. George Mikan
  36. Dirk Nowitzki*
  37. Hakeem Olajuwon
  38. Shaquille O’Neal
  39. Bob Pettit
  40. Scottie Pippen
  41. Willis Reed
  42. Oscar Robertson
  43. David Robinson
  44. Bill Russell
  45. Dolph Schayes
  46. John Stockton
  47. Isiah Thomas
  48. Dwyane Wade*
  49. Jerry West
  50. Russell Westbrook*

My NBA 50 Greatest Players List added 15 players who were not on the official 1996 list (listed in alphabetical order): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Kawhi Leonard, Bob McAdoo, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, and Russell Westbrook. McAdoo is the only player who was retired prior to the selection of the 1996 list but did not make the cut at that time who I retroactively added; the other 14 players competed after the 1996 list was compiled (Kidd began his career in 1994, but established himself as a Hall of Famer after 1996). Here are the 15 players from the official 1996 list who I did not include on my 2021 list (listed in alphabetical order): Nate Archibald, Paul Arizin, Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Bill Sharman, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Lenny Wilkens, and James Worthy.

Expanding the list from 50 players to 76 should not just involve adding 26 players who played after 1996; some of the players from prior eras who are no longer in the top 50 still deserve consideration for the top 76.

Here are the 26 players who I would add to my 50 Greatest Players List (in alphabetical order), followed by some comments and analysis about the differences between my 75th Anniversary Team and the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team (an asterisk indicates that the player was on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, but was not included on my 50 Greatest Players List):

  1. Nate Archibald*
  2. Paul Arizin*
  3. Dave Bing*
  4. Chris Bosh
  5. Adrian Dantley
  6. Dave DeBusschere*
  7. Alex English
  8. Artis Gilmore
  9. Hal Greer*
  10. Sam Jones*
  11. Bernard King
  12. Jerry Lucas*
  13. Tracy McGrady
  14. Earl Monroe*
  15. Steve Nash
  16. Robert Parish*
  17. Chris Paul
  18. Gary Payton
  19. Paul Pierce
  20. Bill Sharman*
  21. Nate Thurmond*
  22. Wes Unseld*
  23. Bill Walton*
  24. Lenny Wilkens*
  25. Dominique Wilkins
  26. James Worthy*

Thus, my list of players ranked 51-76 all-time includes all 15 players who made the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List but did not make the 50 Greatest Players List that I published a few months ago. My list of players 51-76 includes six players who were eligible in 1996 but not selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List (Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Artis Gilmore, Bernard King, Gary Payton, and Dominique Wilkins); that does not mean that I think that those players were "snubbed" in 1996, but rather that I think that they rank among the 76 greatest NBA players of all-time as of 2021. My list of players 51-76 includes five post-1996 players: Chris Bosh, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and Paul Pierce. As noted above, my current 50 Greatest Players List includes 14 post-1996 players, which means that my 75 Greatest Players List includes 19 post-1996 players--matching the number of such players on the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team, though the 19 post-1996 players who I selected are not the same 19 who appear on the NBA's list.

Before analyzing and comparing my list with the NBA's list, it must be emphasized that every player who is discussed in this article is a highly accomplished athlete and basketball player. Only 437 players have made the NBA All-Star team at least once, and there are 71 additional players who made the ABA All-Star team at least once but were never selected as an NBA All-Star. There have been fewer than 4400 players who played in at least one NBA game (I have yet to find a list of the exact number of ABA players), so ranking among the top 450-500 pro basketball players of all-time is a significant accomplishment: an All-Star is a player who is among the top 10% of players all-time, and the players who merit serious top 75 consideration are players who earned multiple All-Star selections (plus other honors).

Therefore, when I explain why a player should not be listed in the top 76, that is not meant in any way to diminish what that player accomplished. 

Further, player rankings are more subjective than most people are willing to admit, particularly after "stat gurus" keep insisting that they can rank every player with absolute accuracy to the tenth of a rating point (notice that when a "stat guru" posts player rankings you never see a standard deviation or a margin for error; we are supposed to assume that these human-created fantasy numbers are every bit as real, accurate, and precise as the score of a real game). Informed observers may generally agree about who the top 15-20 players are, even if they may rank those players differently within that group. The differences between many of the players in the next group of 60-70 are not huge, and are difficult to quantify: how can one definitively compare a shooting guard whose prime was in the late 1950s with a small forward whose prime was in the early 2000s? Ultimately, there is a lot of subjectivity involved in terms of how much weight is ascribed to various factors including but not limited to dominating one's era, longevity, rules changes, and championships won.

As I said about my 50 Greatest Players List, I put a lot of thought into this project and I was as objective as I could be, but I understand that someone else could thoughtfully and objectively disagree with my selections. There are not objectively correct answers to some of these questions, although there are some objectively wrong answers!

The NBA's 75th Anniversary Team includes seven players who I did not include on my 75th Anniversary Team: Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Reggie Miller, and Dennis Rodman

My list included the following players who are not included on the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team: Chris Bosh, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Bernard King, and Tracy McGrady.

I cannot say that the official list is terrible when I agree with 69 out of the 76 selections, but I will say that a few of the official selections that I disagree with were not even on my short list for consideration while one of the omitted players--Dwight Howard--is not only in my top 76 but he is in my top 50.  

First I will discuss the seven players who are on the official list who I did not select, then I will discuss the seven players who I selected who did not make the cut, and I will conclude by mentioning several players who deserve consideration but are not on the official list or my list.

Ray Allen is a high character person. I have tremendous respect for him. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have the opportunity to see him play in person on many occasions. His discipline and work ethic set a great example. His conditioning was fantastic: anyone who saw him up close in person knows that Allen has calves that look like they were sculpted out of marble. Allen is on the short list of greatest shooters of all-time, and during his early seasons he was also an explosive dunker. He was an essential member of Boston's 2008 championship team, and he hit arguably the biggest shot in NBA Finals history to help Miami survive game six of the 2013 Finals en route to winning that series in seven games.

However, Allen was never an MVP candidate, he never made the All-NBA First Team, and he only made the All-NBA Second Team once. He was a perennial All-Star, he was the third best player on a dominant championship team, and he was a key role player on another championship team. That is a great Hall of Fame resume, but it is not the resume of a top 76 player. It is not practical to compare Allen with every player on my list, but consider, for example, Tracy McGrady, an underrated player who played the same position during the same era. McGrady is bigger, more athletic, a better passer, a better rebounder, a better defender, and a more versatile scorer. McGrady finished in the top four in MVP voting twice, and he finished in the top eight six times overall. He made the All-NBA First Team twice, and he won two scoring titles.

The only category in which Allen beats McGrady is shooting. It appears that the official voters placed a higher value on outside shooting than I do, and this probably explains why they chose Allen, Harden, Lillard, and Miller over some of the better and more impactful all-around players who I chose.

I understand why Carmelo Anthony was selected. He ranks 12th on the ABA/NBA career scoring list, he made the All-NBA Team six times (but never on the First Team), and he finished third in MVP voting after winning his only scoring title in 2013. A complete and accurate assessment of Anthony's legacy looks beyond those numbers and accolades. Here is what I wrote about Anthony three years ago after the Rockets parted ways with him

Carmelo Anthony has demonstrated throughout his NBA career that he is a poor leader--he has enjoyed his best individual and team success when paired with one or more stronger personalities who ran the locker room--and that he has a limited skill set: at his best, he was a very potent one on one scorer from certain areas of the court, but he has always been a poor defender, a reluctant passer and an inconsistent rebounder who is more interested in offensive rebounding than defensive rebounding. None of the above factors suggests that Anthony in his prime could be the best player on an NBA championship team, and those issues have been compounded in recent seasons by the undeniable fact that Anthony retains unrealistic beliefs about his current capabilities even as his one dimensional skill set displays continuous, significant decline.

The above paragraph is what an "old school" scouting report summary of Anthony's game would look like. In my 2018-19 Western Conference Preview, I wrote, "Anthony has a career-long pattern of rarely advancing very far in the playoffs; he is a shoot-first (and second and third) player whose efficiency is declining and whose willingness/ability to contribute in other areas decreases each year. Even if they had stood pat, the Rockets would probably not have won 65 games again; that was an aberration and they are due to regress to the mean. Adding Anthony, though, will probably subtract about 10 wins, while also making this team a less potent playoff force."

What about Anthony supposedly reviving his career in Portland? Indeed, what about that? Here is my take on Anthony's second act:

Many commentators have expressed confusion--if not outrage--that Anthony was out of the NBA for over a year. There is nothing confusing or outrageous about what happened. At this stage of his career, Anthony is an inefficient, one dimensional player who does not draw double teams and does not provide much value other than scoring. He cannot be a starter or top scoring option on any team hoping to make a deep playoff run--but, Anthony initially scoffed at the notion that he should now be a bench player with a reduced role. In contrast, Vince Carter accepted such a role reduction gracefully, and he left the NBA on his terms after playing a record 22 seasons.

Anthony's absence from the NBA and his subsequent return are easily understood by anyone who objectively examines his declining skills, the role best suited to those skills, and his initial reluctance to accept that role.

Many media members who have had direct interactions with Anthony say positive things about him. That may explain why so many media members spoke up on Anthony's behalf when he was not in the league, and why they continue to speak up on his behalf now--but personal sentiment (whether positive or negative) should not play a role in player evaluation.

The media's adoration for Carmelo Anthony is the main reason that I am not surprised that he is on the 75th Anniversary Team. Anthony will be selected as a Hall of Famer based not only on his NBA productivity but also based on leading Syracuse to the 2003 NCAA title and winning three Olympic gold medals (his Hall of Fame highlight reel will omit his role for Team USA's bronze medal winning squad in 2004). I considered him for top 76 honors but his limited all-around skill set, his poor leadership, and his inability--despite his considerable talent--to establish himself as an elite player during his prime made it easy for me to leave him off of my list.

Anthony Davis' selection surprised me. He was not one of my final cuts for the top 76 (though he does rank somewhere in the top 100), nor did I think that he had cultivated the level of media adulation that Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, and Damian Lillard have. Honestly, after his name popped up on the list, I had to pause for a moment to figure out why Davis made the cut. For most of his career, he has justifiably been known as a highly talented player who is injury prone, who seems reluctant to play through the kinds of nagging injuries that do not sideline all-time greats, and whose numbers do not seem to have much impact on winning. Davis played very well as the second best player for the Lakers' 2020 championship team, but he regressed last season and, frankly, he has seem disinterested in playing hard ever since the Lakers won the title. Is Davis the 2020s version of Pau Gasol? Davis is more talented and accomplished than Gasol, but the similarity is that Gasol was not on a Hall of Fame trajectory prior to joining the Lakers and he lacked the ability to lead a team to a title--but being the second option behind Kobe Bryant as Bryant pushed and prodded him to be aggressive helped elevate Gasol to Hall of Fame status. James has had a similar impact on Davis' career--but should winning one title alongside James be enough to lift Davis into the top 76 all-time? 

Davis' career numbers are gaudy: 23.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, six straight seasons averaging at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg. However, most of that productivity took place while playing in New Orleans for teams that were not championship contenders, and those statistics have a "looter in a riot" feel to them: TNT's Kenny Smith often says that players who put up big numbers for mediocre teams are like looters in a riot, obtaining things that they could not obtain under normal circumstances (to be clear, he has not applied this tag to Davis). 

I cannot say that it is crazy to put Davis on the 75th Anniversary Team, but I am comfortable with my decision to leave him out. 

When the 50 Greatest Players List was selected in 1996, it was reasonable to suggest that every player who had won a regular season MVP should make the cut. Bob McAdoo was the only MVP who was not chosen, and he should have been selected. However, MVP voting started to go off the rails around the time that the media voters determined that it was supposedly boring to keep giving the honor to Michael Jordan, and the voting completely went off of the rails in the 2000s when Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant--two members of my pro basketball Pantheon--won just one regular season MVP each. The general quality of journalism has significantly declined during the past several decades, so it is not surprising that people who struggle to write well also struggle to make good decisions regarding MVP voting: if you cannot think clearly then you will not be able to write clearly.

That is a perfect segue to James Harden, who has been so overrated for so long that to objectively evaluate his career you have to throw out MVP voting/All-NBA voting and just focus on skill set, mindset and team results. His statistics are skewed to a greater extent than any other multiple-time All-Star. How does one objectively evaluate a player who scores more than 30 ppg by flopping, shooting almost no midrange shots, and relying heavily on a three point stroke that consistently fails him (and his team) during the playoffs? If you just rank Harden based on MVP votes, All-NBA votes, and per game numbers then he would rank ahead of many players who are not just better than he is but are vastly superior. It is surprising that even commentators who should know better have succumbed to the Harden hype. Harden is an All-Star level player. He is more durable and physically stronger than I realized/projected early in his career--but his impact on team success, and the value of his skill set compared to the value of the skill set of legit MVP candidates, are vastly different from how they are commonly portrayed.

I would take Damian Lillard over Carmelo Anthony and James Harden just because Lillard has a much better mindset. Lillard displays great leadership qualities and--at least up to this point in his career--he has not demanded a trade so that he can create or be a part of a so-called "Super Team." Here is what I wrote about Lillard after his Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2021 playoffs:

I respect Lillard's work ethic, his skill set, and his mentality of trying to win in Portland as opposed to going somewhere else to form a "super team." It is not disrespectful to Lillard to state the truth: an undersized player is not going to lead a team to an NBA title, especially when that undersized player relies on long jumpers for a team that is subpar defensively and cannot survive high variance shooting. Even if Lillard can make 40% of his "logo shots"--and he clearly cannot do that late in a series when he is worn down--that would still mean that 60% of the possessions during which he shoots those shots are empty possessions (not including a few offensive rebounds or defensive fouls). A poor defensive team cannot survive that many empty possessions.

The reason that I do not rank Lillard among the 76 greatest players of all-time is simple: TDS (too darn small). My top 76 list includes six players who are 6-1 or under: Nate Archibald, Bob Cousy, Allen Iverson, Chris Paul, John Stockton, and Isiah Thomas. 

Archibald is the only player to lead the NBA in scoring and assists in the same season, and he was the starting point guard for Boston's 1981 championship team. 

Bob Cousy won six championships, led the league in assists eight straight times, and won the 1957 regular season MVP after ranking first in assists and eighth in scoring. Cousy led the NBA in triple doubles four straight seasons (and five times overall) during an era when that statistic was not even tracked or thought about, and he still ranks 12th in NBA history with 33 career triple doubles (one more than Rajon Rondo, two more than John Havlicek, three more than Draymond Green, and five more than Michael Jordan, to name just a few familiar names who are behind Cousy on that list). Cousy was very much ahead of his time: he was an elite passer and ballhandler who was also a big time scorer who finished in the top three in scoring for four straight seasons. 

Allen Iverson won the 2001 regular season MVP (Shaquille O'Neal should have won the award that season, but Iverson did play at an MVP level) and he led the 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals. Iverson was an explosive scorer whose stamina and durability are underrated; he led the NBA in mpg seven times (second all-time behind only Wilt Chamberlain's nine times as the mpg leader), and he ranks fourth on the career mpg list behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson. Pound for pound, Iverson is the greatest athlete I have ever watched in person (not the greatest basketball player, but the greatest athlete: what he could do in terms of speed, agility, toughness, jumping ability, and strength at his size is unparalleled). 

Chris Paul had an extended run as the best point guard in the NBA, and he played a major role in Phoenix reaching the 2021 NBA Finals. 

John Stockton set a career assists record that likely will never be broken, he was incredibly durable, he was elite at both ends of the court, and he was the starting point guard for two Utah teams that reached the NBA Finals (1997, 1998).  

Isiah Thomas led the Detroit Pistons to two NBA titles, he won the 1990 Finals MVP, and for most of the 1980s he was the second best point guard in the NBA behind 6-9 Pantheon member Magic Johnson.

Damian Lillard is a wonderful player, but his skill set and accomplishments place him below those six players, and outside of the top 76 players of all-time.

While we are talking about small point guards, it must be said that the people who suggest that Cousy could not play in today's game are--and there is no polite way to put this--speaking foolishly (I am trying to avoid labeling people, and instead just labeling their behavior). I think that there is more than a little reverse racism that rears its ugly head when assessing Cousy, and I also think that far too many people who speak about him have little to no knowledge of NBA history. Amin Elhassan--who does a solid job of analyzing current NBA players--has made it a running gag during his Sirius XM NBA Radio appearances to mock Cousy's career field goal percentage (.375) and suggest that Cousy is vastly overrated. Cousy's career free throw percentage is .803, so we can dismiss the notion that he was a bad shooter. By the way, the league's free throw shooting percentage during Cousy's career was .734, and in the middle to latter portion of his career it was right around .750, which is comparable to the league's free throw shooting percentage now. Put young Cousy in a shooting contest with today's NBA players and I think that the results would surprise many people. Back to Cousy's field goal percentage: Did Cousy have horrible shot selection and/or was he incapable of scoring when closely guarded? 

The NBA's average field goal percentage during Cousy's career was .391, so a .375 field goal percentage was not terrible at that time. Why were field goal percentages so low during that era? Keep in mind that during basketball's early days players were called "cagers" because the courts were surrounded by wire cages to keep the players inside and the fans outside. Yes, the cages were gone by the time Cousy played in the NBA, but that rough and wild mentality still pervaded the league. The game was much more physical than today's game. Yes, the players were smaller, but not by as much as you may think, and if a 6-4, 220 dude elbows you in the face it is going to hurt a lot and it may dissuade you from driving to the hoop (and may affect your field goal percentage not only after you have been hit but also prior to that because you are keeping your head on a swivel to avoid being hit). The early NBA arenas had worse lighting, worse playing surfaces, worse temperature control, and just worse conditions in general than NBA arenas today. Also, it is my understanding--but I cannot find the archival articles to confirm this--that during some of the NBA's earliest seasons a missed field goal attempt when a player was fouled was counted in the statistics, which would obviously have a negative effect on a player's field goal percentage, and that effect would be more pronounced for a player like Cousy who drew a lot of fouls (now, when a player is fouled while shooting the attempt only counts if the player makes the field goal attempt). Also, NBA half court sets and strategies had to evolve after the 24 second shot clock was introduced. 

During Cousy's era, players traveled by train, not private airplanes, and the scheduling was brutal. Cousy's physical attributes--6-1, 180, wiry strong, exceptional peripheral vision/ballhandling--are no worse than John Stockton's or Chris Paul's. Put Cousy in today's game, and he would have a field day playing under modern conditions with defensive players not being allowed to touch him. Put Stockton or Paul in the 1950s, and their numbers would not have been any better than Cousy's. 

Another difference between the 1950s and subsequent eras is that as time passed a greater focus developed on individual statistics and efficiency. Modern players hesitate to shoot long shots at the end of the shot clock or end of the quarter because such shots hurt their field goal percentages. Shane Battier talked about this in the highly publicized interview that he did about so-called "advanced basketball statistics" many years ago. He was dubbed the ultimate team player because he did not care about his individual numbers, but even he admitted that he declined to take shots at the end of the shot clock or end of the quarter that could only help the team but might hurt his individual field goal percentage. 

Red Auerbach is rightly considered one of the greatest coaches of all-time, if not the greatest, and he led the Celtics to nine NBA titles. If he thought that Cousy's shot selection was hurting the team you can be sure that Auerbach would have done something about it.

Comparisons between eras are fraught with peril and should be done with great care and thoroughness. The ignorant way that Elhassan (and his co-host Zach Harper, whose qualifications to be on the show remain a mystery to me) mocks Cousy is disgraceful. Based on listening to other segments of the show, I realize that Elhassan understands how to analyze basketball players that he has seen, so I wish that he would restrict his commentary/analysis to what he understands, and leave the historical comparisons to those who are better informed.

Regarding Lillard, he has not had the impact on his team, the league, or the sport of basketball that Archibald, Cousy, Iverson, Paul, Stockton, and Thomas did. Put it a different way: line up Lillard in his prime next to Chris Bosh, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Bernard King, and Tracy McGrady (the seven players who I selected in my top 76 but who the voters left off) in their primes. Would any informed and unbiased basketball talent evaluator take the 6-0 Lillard over any of those guys?

Reggie Miller hit some of the most iconic and oft-replayed shots of the past 30 years or so--and those replays are a big part of why he was selected. Miller is one of the best shooters in NBA history, but he was not exceptional in any other major skill set areas such as ballhandling, passing, rebounding, and defense. I saw Miller play in person many times, and I often arrived early to watch his pregame shooting routine. He always started close to the hoop and then worked his way back. He shot from every key area of the court. Miller was disciplined, focused, and meticulous. He squeezed every ounce out of his talent. I respect that. However, there is a reason that Miller looked so surprised during his TNT appearance last week when the studio crew told him that he had been selected to the 75th Anniversary Team: he knows that he does not belong on the list, as I discussed in my series of articles about the NBA's 50 Greatest Players:

In a 1998 interview, Miller told Dan Patrick that there were only a few great players in the NBA, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill and Shaquille O'Neal on that list. Miller included himself among some "very good" players who are in a separate category underneath the great players. Patrick asked Miller why he was not great and Miller replied that he did not have the same athletic gifts and that he worked very hard just to establish himself as a very good player. That is a more objective assessment of Miller's ranking than one generally sees in the media. Miller was a great shooter, he was very durable--remarkably so, considering his slight frame--and he had some memorable playoff moments but there is no way he should be seriously considered for listing among the top 50 players of all-time.

The interesting but seldom noted thing about Miller's famous clutch shots is that many of them happened in playoff series that his team eventually lost. Miller's career record in playoff series is 14-15, and that includes a 3-2 mark in his final two seasons when he was a role player and no longer the best player on the team. We so often see the image of Miller flashing the choke sign to Spike Lee, but Miller's Pacers went 3-3 in playoff series versus the New York Knicks, including 1-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Miller's Pacers went 1-5 overall in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Miller extracted the most from his talent and he is a Hall of Fame player, but he is not a top 76 player of all-time.

Dennis Rodman was a tremendous rebounder and defensive player. He was not a prolific scorer or shooter, but he understood how to set screens, pass to the open man, and function effectively on offense (and his incredible offensive rebounding provided great value and prevented teams from ignoring him completely at that end of the court). However, Rodman was not an MVP level player and he is not one of the 75 greatest players of all-time.

Think about it this way: remove Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen from the roster of Chicago's 1996-98 championship teams, and replace them with an average shooting guard and an average small forward. How good would those teams be with Rodman as the best player? I would argue that under those circumstances the Bulls would struggle to make the playoffs. Now do the reverse thought experiment: remove Rodman from those teams, and replace him with an average power forward. I would argue that under those circumstances the Bulls would still be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and would be a threat to any team in the league in a seven game playoff series. Rodman was no doubt a very important member of those championship teams, but he was the third best player on those teams. Similarly, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were the two best players on Detroit's back to back championship teams. It would be a stretch to say that Rodman was even the third best player on those Detroit teams; at that stage of his career, he was often platooning with former All-Star Mark Aguirre, with Coach Chuck Daly inserting Aguirre for offense and then inserting Rodman for defense/rebounding.

Turning our attention to the seven players who I selected who are not on the 75th Anniversary Team, Chris Bosh is an underrated player who is often mocked by ignorant fans and even some media members. Intelligent players who are not flashy and not self-promoters are too often not appreciated or understood. Bosh had a complete skill set: he could score inside or outside, he rebounded well, he could defend his matchup while also being an effective team defender, he was a good passer, and he was a good ballhandler. For several years, he was the best player on a Toronto team that was not good enough to contend for a championship, and then he shifted seamlessly to the third option role as Miami advanced to four straight NBA Finals while winning back to back titles in 2012-13. 

Adrian Dantley seems destined to be underrated and underappreciated. He was not selected to the 50 Greatest Players List in 1996, and even with the addition of 26 more roster spots he did not make the cut for the 75th Anniversary Team. He also waited a decade to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. The lack of respect for Dantley is mystifying. His numbers speak for themselves (23,177 points, 24.3 ppg, .540 career field goal percentage), but Dantley also had a tremendous and versatile skill set. His step back move was poetry in motion, and he executed it without traveling. There is no way that I would rank James Harden over Dantley as a scorer or all-around player.

Alex English played a different style than Dantley did, but English is from the same era and he is similarly underrated. I interviewed English over 15 years ago, and I titled my profile of him Alex English: A True Basketball Artist. He was the NBA's leading scorer for the 1980s decade, and he played at least 80 games for 10 straight seasons. English was durable, productive, and efficient. English scored 25,613 points during his career, the third highest total among players who were not selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List behind only Dominique Wilkins (who is on the 75th Anniversary Team) and Dan Issel. English was a good rebounder and passer who thrived in Denver's fast-paced, record-setting offense. If he played today, he would no doubt add the three point shot to his repertoire, and he would easily score 30-35 ppg. 

Perhaps Dantley, English, and Bernard King (see below) get lost in the shuffle because some of their prime years overlapped with the prime years of Pantheon forwards Julius Erving and Larry Bird, but that is no excuse for failing to give Dantley, English, and King the recognition that they deserve. 

Artis Gilmore dominated the paint in the ABA for five seasons before having a great 12 season NBA career during which he was an elite rebounder and shotblocker who was also a potent low post scorer (17.1 ppg in the NBA, plus four straight NBA field goal percentage titles). For many years before Gilmore was finally selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011passionately and publicly advocated on his behalf. The Basketball Hall of Fame encompasses all levels of the sport, so it was inexcusable to wait so long to induct him after he played at such a high level in college and the ABA before his NBA career, but figuring out where to rank Gilmore on a purely NBA list is a little tricky. There is a separate ABA All-Time Team (of which Gilmore is a deserving member), so for the purposes of this discussion I am just looking at NBA statistics. Gilmore deserved consideration for the 50 Greatest Players List even without including his ABA numbers, and he would have been a lock if his ABA numbers were included. I rank Gilmore among the 75 Greatest NBA players even without considering his ABA numbers. It is good that several players who split their careers between the ABA and the NBA are on the 75th Anniversary Team, including Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, George Gervin, and Moses Malone. If ABA numbers were factored into the 75th Anniversary Team selection process, then Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, and George McGinnis at a minimum would merit consideration, along with possibly Spencer Haywood and Connie Hawkins. 

My "finalists" for the final 26 slots included about 40 players, so I did not expect to agree with all of the official selections, but one egregious omission is Dwight Howard. I rank Howard in the top 50 all-time, so in my estimation the official voters have signficantly underrated him by not even placing him in the top 76. Forget what you may think about the back half of Howard's career, because that is of minimal relevance (though it should be noted that he was a key role player on the Lakers' 2020 championship team, and being a key role player after being a superstar is a difficult adjustment to make), and just remember how great Howard was for the better part of a decade, as I wrote when explaining why I rank Howard in the top 50:

It is easy to forget--and many people seem to have forgotten--how dominant Dwight Howard was during his prime. Howard won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards (2009-11), the only player to accomplish that feat. Only Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo have won more Defensive Player of the Year awards (four each) since the honor's inception in 1982-83 (it is safe to call Bill Russell, whose 13 season career ended in 1969, the unofficial career leader in this department). Howard finished in the top five in MVP voting for four straight seasons (2008-11), including second place in 2011.

He has made the All-NBA Team eight times, including five consecutive First Team selections (2008-12). Only two centers in NBA history have earned more consecutive All-NBA First Team selections than Howard: Shaquille O'Neal made the All-NBA First Team seven straight seasons (2000-2006), and George Mikan made the All-NBA First Team six straight seasons (1949-54, including one All-BAA First Team selection prior to the merger of the BAA and NBL to form the NBA). Artis Gilmore made the All-ABA First Team in each of his five ABA seasons (1972-76).

Howard has made the All-Defensive Team five years in a row (2008-12), including First Team selections from 2009-12. Howard has made the All-Star team eight times.

He has led the league in rebounding five times (2008-10, 2012-13); the only players who won more rebounding titles are Wilt Chamberlain (11), Dennis Rodman (seven), and Moses Malone (six). Howard averaged at least 10 rpg in each of the first 14 seasons of his career, and his career average of 12.1 rpg ranks 17th in ABA/NBA history. The only player active in the past 20 years who has a higher career rpg average is Andre Drummond (13.8 rpg). Howard has ranked in the top 10 in rebounding 13 times.

He has led the league in blocked shots twice (2009-10), and he has ranked in the top 10 eight times. Howard led the league in field goal percentage in 2010, and he has ranked in the top 10 12 times. He has averaged at least 20 ppg four times, including a career-high 22.9 ppg in the 2010-11 season.

Howard was the best player for the 2009 Orlando Magic team that defeated the LeBron James-led, league-best 66-16 Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs en route to losing to Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals (side note: James' 3-6 playoff record versus teams led by Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, and Dirk Nowitzki raises the interesting question of how many titles James would have won if his teams had faced squads led by Bill Walton, Elvin Hayes/Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Robert Parish, which is the challenge Julius Erving faced in the late 1970s/early 1980s). Howard played a key role for the Lakers' 2020 championship team, including starting seven of their 18 playoff games.

Howard was a dominant rebounder, defender, and scorer in the paint for over a decade. There is no question he belongs on the 50 Greatest Players List.

Bernard King had an excellent case to be included on the 1996 list: 1985 scoring champion, the players' choice as the 1984 MVP (Larry Bird won the offical vote, conducted by the media), first player to play in an All-Star Game with a reconstructed ACL, posted at least one 20 ppg season in three different decades. With the list now expanded to 76, King must be included.

I mentioned Tracy McGrady above, so I will just add a few more thoughts about him. During his prime, it was not crazy to suggest that he was on par with Kobe Bryant. Think about that for a moment. Bryant is a Pantheon-level player, and McGrady at his peak had the talent to go toe to toe with Bryant. Injuries limited McGrady later in his career, and he never had the fortune while he was elite and healthy to play with another elite, healthy player. McGrady could score from anywhere, he was a great passer, and he could be a great defender (admittedly, he may not have always been fully committed at that end of the court, particularly when he was on mediocre teams that needed him to score over 30 ppg just to be competitive).

It is natural to ask why I included McGrady but not Penny Hardaway, a similarly sized player with a similar skill set. The answer is simple: Penny essentially had two healthy elite seasons as an All-NBA First Team player (1995 and 1996). He was very good as a rookie in 1994, but he was not yet elite, and he was elite in 1997 before he got hurt, but after 1997 he never made the All-NBA Team again, he never averaged more than 17 ppg and even as a role player he missed a ton of games due to various injuries. In contrast, McGrady was an elite player for the better part of eight seasons, during which time he won back to back scoring titles (2003-04) and earned seven All-NBA Team selections (including two First Team selections). Perhaps peak Hardaway was as good as peak McGrady (though I tend to think he was not), but McGrady maintained his peak for far longer. 

Penny Hardaway was not on my "finalist" list, but I have heard his name mentioned by others, and the comparison between Hardaway and McGrady provides straightforward evidence for not including Hardaway.

I will conclude with thoughts about some of the players who rank in my top 100, but did not make the cut for top 76 status. These players are listed in alphabetical order.

It was tough for me to leave out Walt Bellamy. There was a good case for putting him on the 1996 list, but the voters did not choose him at that time. I did not include him in the 50 Greatest Players list that I published a few months ago, but I indicated that in 1996 I would have been inclined to choose him. As it turns out, to include him on my top 76 list would have involved one of several options that I find unpalatable: (1) removing one player from the original 50, (2) not including Dantley, English, Gilmore, King, McAdoo, Payton, or Wilkins, or (3) not including one of the 19 all-time greats who emerged in the post-1996 period. Even if the 1996 list is not perfect, I have kind of warmed up to the idea of not removing anyone to create the 2021 list; it is one thing to remove players to keep the list's size at 50, and quite another to remove players after expanding the list to 76. After much deliberation, and even though this may somewhat contradict a position that I took in Part II of my series about the 50 Greatest Players, I decided to not include Bellamy.

It is too early to include Luka Doncic. Perhaps in 10 years we will look back and wonder why he was not on the list, but if that happens then he can be added to the next list, much like Jason Kidd and Gary Payton were not on the 1996 list that was released early in their careers but then they earned their way on to the 2021 list. 

Manu Ginobili was an excellent two-way player for four San Antonio championship teams (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014) but his career averages were 13.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, and 3.8 apg. I believe in the value of intangibles, and I commend him for sacrificing individual statistics for the betterment of the team, but production matters. He only twice averaged more than 30 mpg during the regular season; essentially, he was able to conserve his energy, and have the advantage of often playing against either reserves or tired starters. I would take him over someone like Harden in a heartbeat--Ginobili had the type of career that Harden should have had (or wanted to have, as opposed to seeking out individual glory under circumstances that were never going to lead to championship success)--but Ginobili is not one of the 76 best players in NBA history. After you list the MVPs, the All-NBA First Teamers, and the perennial All-NBA members, Ginobili is at or near the top of the next group. He's probably top 100 now, but of course as new MVPs and All-NBA First Teamers emerges his ranking will drop.

As the Golden State Warriors' coach, Steve Kerr almost is compelled to advocate for Draymond Green, but Green is not as good of a rebounder or defender as Rodman, who did not make the cut for my team (but Rodman is on the official list). Put Green on a team that does not have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (let alone Kevin Durant), and Green would not even be noticed or discussed. That is not to say that the things Green does are not significant, but he needs to be surrounded by great players to be at his best. How much impact did Green have on team success the past two years? Green was not a "finalist" in my book, but I mention him briefly mainly because his name is being brought up by others.

Grant Hill is a better and somewhat healthier version of Penny Hardaway, and he was a "finalist" for top 76 consideration but I left him off for the same reasons that I left off Hardaway.

Nikola Jokic is intriguing, and one of the last players who I "cut." He is the reigning MVP, and he is not one of those players whose MVPs do not count in my book. Jokic is an elite scorer, rebounder, and passer. He has been a productive playoff player. It is not difficult to picture him winning another MVP, nor is it difficult to picture him leading Denver to a championship at some point. So why did I leave him off? If he retired tomorrow, would he be on the list? I would have to say that he would not, though he would be in the discussion. Shaquille O'Neal made the 1996 list largely based on potential, and he more than fulfilled that potential, but in general I think that these lists should not be made based on potential (which is not to say that I disagree with choosing O'Neal, but he was a unique case because he was so dominant and he showed no signs that he would break down physically at a premature age). Jokic is well on his way to qualifying for the next list.

Bob Lanier established himself as one of the NBA's best players while competing against the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone, Bob McAdoo, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, and Bill Walton. How many players from one position from a given era should be selected? Lanier never made the All-NBA Team--though he did twice finish in the top five in MVP voting--and he never won a championship. Each of the centers listed above won at least one title (Gilmore led the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA title), and each of the centers listed above won at least one MVP (Gilmore won the 1972 ABA MVP).

Regarding Tony Parker, refer to my Damian Lillard/small point guard analysis. Yes, Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP--though I thought that Tim Duncan should have received the award--and he played on four championship teams alongside Duncan and Ginobili, but Parker was not as good of a shooter, passer, rebounder, or defender as the small point guards who I ranked ahead of him. Parker was a "finalist" for my top 76 list, and I would rank him ahead of Ginobili based on having a greater impact while playing more minutes over a longer period of time.

Klay Thompson is definitely better than several of the players on the official list, including each of the guards taken ahead of him who are not on my list (Ray Allen, James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Reggie Miller). From that standpoint, I can understand why he has publicly expressed his diasppointment about not being chosen. However, he is not better than the seven players who I chose who did not make the official list: Chris Bosh, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Bernard King, and Tracy McGrady. So, yes, Thompson was snubbed in terms of lesser players being selected ahead of him, but if the list had been constructed correctly then Thompson still would have missed the cut. 

Thompson is not only a great shooter but he is also a top notch defender. He is a below average rebounder and passer, so he is not quite the all-around player that his supporters make him out to be. It is also not clear how well he would do if he had to be the number one option; of course, he has been very successful on championship-winning teams as the number two option and as the number three option. So, I can understand him looking at the official list and being upset, but in the big picture it is correct that he did not make the cut. Thompson is in the top 100 all-time, but he is not in the top 80 or 85.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:27 PM

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