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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Objectively Assessing Talent Versus Issuing "Hot Takes"

If you evaluate basketball players based on their skill sets and their overall resumes, one series and/or a handful of games is not often going to substantially change your player rankings; if you like "hot takes" and small sample sizes, or if you have a bias for/against certain players, then it is easy to fall into the trap of radically altering your rankings based on insufficient evidence.

Damian Lillard is a seven year NBA veteran. This is just the third playoffs during which he advanced past the first round, and the first time that he reached the Conference Finals. He performed well in the first round versus Oklahoma City, eliminating the Thunder by draining a low percentage shot that some media members tried to argue was not a low percentage shot: when you get the ball with enough time to create any shot you want, and you elect to shoot from nearly 40 feet away, that is a bad shot. Consider how Lillard's playoff run just ended: Portland trailed by two at the end of the overtime of game four versus Golden State--albeit with less time remaining than there was during the end of game scenario versus Oklahoma City--and Lillard shot a fadeaway three pointer that did not come close to connecting. That was a bad shot, too. It is called regression to the mean, folks, which is a fancy way of saying that in the long run your performance is going to match who you are and if you take a steady diet of bad shots you are going to miss more of them than you make.

Lillard's final 2019 playoff numbers are 26.9 ppg, 6.6 apg and 4.8 rpg with shooting splits of .418/.373/.833. Lillard's 2019 Western Conference Finals numbers are 22.3 ppg, 8.5 apg and 4.8 apg with shooting splits of .371/.368/.885. Prior to 2019, his career playoff averages were 23.9 ppg, 5.6 apg and 4.5 apg with shooting splits of .400/.341/.890. Lillard had a very good playoff run and, armed with the best supporting cast that he has ever enjoyed, led Portland to its deepest postseason run in nearly two decades. Lillard was an All-NBA caliber player prior to this postseason, and we did not see anything during the playoffs that should change that assessment; his dramatic drop off during the Western Conference Finals is a bit disconcerting, but that is a small sample and his overall 2019 playoff numbers look very much like his previous playoff numbers.

However, the "hot take" after round one was that Lillard had surpassed Russell Westbrook--a former league MVP who has played in four Conference Finals and one NBA Finals--based on five games and one low percentage series-ending shot; if you applied that "hot take" at the start of the playoffs, then if you are consistent your "hot take" after the Western Conference Finals is that Lillard was exposed as not being anywhere near the caliber of Curry or any other MVP level guard. Somehow, I doubt that the talking heads and pundits are going to spend Tuesday morning badmouthing Lillard the way that they badmouthed Westbrook a month or so ago.

It did not take long after Lillard started missing shots for the media to look for excuses for him, and they found an excuse after Lillard suffered a separated rib (which occurred several games after Lillard's shooting dropped off). Lillard's rib has been talked about more often in the past few days than any rib since Adam's. Similarly, when Stephen Curry dislocated a finger on his non-shooting hand the media regularly raised this as an excuse whenever Curry had a bad shooting night, even though he had some bad shooting nights before he got hurt and even though he had a mixture of good and bad shooting nights after the injury. Did it only affect his shooting every other game?

At this time of the year, no NBA players are 100% healthy. If people are going to give free passes for every injury, then be consistent. You probably do not know this, but after the playoffs, Russell Westbrook had surgery to repair a ligament in his left hand and he had surgery on his right knee. Unless you looked really hard for that news, though, it was easy to miss; Westbrook did not use his injuries as an excuse, and the media reported those surgeries as afterthoughts. Somehow, the "hot take" about Lillard's first round left out the information that Westbrook had two injuries that required surgery.

Before the Western Conference Finals, I knew that Stephen Curry was better than Damian Lillard and that Golden State was better than Portland. If Lillard were the transcendent player that some people made him out to be, he would have figured out how to not get swept by the injury-depleted Warriors, but Lillard is an undersized guard and undersized guards tend to wear down as the playoff progress. So, this series did not reveal much that an informed NBA observer did not already know.

As for the "hot take" folks, I will not hold my breath waiting for a "reassessment" of Lillard along the lines of the "reassessment" of Westbrook that happened after the first round.

*****

It was interesting to see Stephen Curry (correctly) whistled for a traveling violation as he attempted to move behind the three point line without dribbling near the end of regulation of game four versus Portland; Curry's travel in that circumstance is James Harden's signature so-called "step back" move, which is both rarely whistled as a violation and bears no resemblance to the step back move as mastered by basketball artists Adrian Dantley, Larry Bird and Dell Curry. It would be great if next season the NBA decides to enforce the traveling rule against James Harden, which would provide a 10 ppg or so correction to his inflated scoring average.

It is worth noting that Curry did not complain about the correct traveling call, though he did mention to the officials that he was fouled on his previous drive to the hoop (which replays showed that he clearly was).

Curry's game is not gimmicky, unlike Harden's game that is based on traveling and flopping. Curry would not have been a two-time MVP in previous eras that allowed handchecking and emphasized post play but he would have been a perennial All-NBA performer based on his shooting, passing, ballhandling and relentless movement without the ball. Curry is depicted as a revolutionary player because of how many three pointers he shoots but in many ways he is the modern day Pete Maravich; Maravich did all of the stuff--and more--that Curry does but he never had a great supporting cast and he played in an era during which you needed a dominant center to contend for a championship. At one time, Maravich owned the third highest scoring average for a guard in NBA history and the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball described him as "the best all-around guard in creation...One of the all-time great passers and ball-handlers."

Maravich suffered the slings and arrows fired by media members who did not understand how far ahead of his time he was, while Curry has been embraced by media members and fans alike--but Maravich was far more revolutionary than Curry, which is not to diminish in any way the extent of Curry's accomplishments.

*****

Another "hot take" making the rounds is that the Warriors are better without the injured Kevin Durant than they were with him. Accepting this "hot take" as valid requires using the Men in Black neuralyzer to pretend that Durant did not win the previous two Finals MVPs and did not establish himself as the dominant scorer in this year's playoffs before he got hurt; it also requires using that neuralyzer to forget that during Curry's first two Finals appearances he was (1) often the third or fourth best player on the court as his Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers sans Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in 2015 and (2) he presided over a collapse from a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Finals, punctuated by a desultory game seven performance (17 points on 6-19 field goal shooting).

The Golden State Warriors are a championship contender without Durant; there is no question about that. The Golden State Warriors are a historically great dynasty with Durant; there is no question about that. What would have happened if Durant had been there first and then Curry joined the team? What would have happened if Durant had never joined the Warriors? Who knows? In the context of evaluating these players individually, who cares? Unless you have been neuralyzed, you know the answer about Durant versus Curry and it is an answer that fits in with what we have seen throughout NBA history; it is not surprising that a seven foot player who impacts the game at both ends of the court is better than a 6-3 player who is a marvelous offensive player but a consistent target of opposing teams on defense.

All of that being said, Curry had a great performance in the 2019 Western Conference Finals, perhaps his finest all-around playoff series ever. Curry may be the greatest shooter ever and his movement without the ball puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses--but let's not exaggerate the impact of that movement: if anything, the Trail Blazers were more guilty of leaving Curry wide open than they were of supposedly being sucked in by his "gravity" and leaving other players wide open. As great as Curry was, the Warriors would not have won this series without the all-around contributions of Draymond Green, who arguably was at least as valuable as Curry. Green anchored the defense, controlled the boards, picked Portland apart with his passing and made timely shots. You may have also noticed that the Warriors' depth is actually a lot better than the media suggested before the series; or, as I put it in my Golden State-Portland preview:

"Golden State's success is not like Curry leading Davidson to the NCAA Tournament, though you might not realize that based on some of what is written and said about Curry; Klay Thompson would be a great, two-way All-Star on any team, Draymond Green is a playmaking wizard who also rebounds and defends, Andre Iguodala is a former Finals MVP and All-Star who has the luxury of being a role player on this talented squad and Shaun Livingston was considered the number one point guard in the nation when he jumped straight from high school to the NBA. Injuries curtailed Livingston's ability to perhaps become an All-Star but he is a talented and savvy player.

Curry is a great player who has accomplished a lot but let's not pretend that it requires heroic contributions from him for Golden State to survive. The Warriors are well-built and well-coached."

The Warriors are a fun team to watch, Curry is a great player and Lillard is an All-NBA caliber player who is perhaps better appreciated by casual fans now than he was two months ago. The playoffs would be much more enjoyable if we were not subjected to endless "hot takes" and to biased commentary that does not apply the same standards to all players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM

19 comments

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Milwaukee Versus Toronto Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 1 Milwaukee (60-22) vs. #2 Toronto (58-24)

Season series: Milwaukee, 3-1

Toronto can win if…Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series. This series will in no small part be decided by the battle between Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, regardless of how often they actually face each other one on one; the superstar who not only plays better but also brings out the best in his teammates will be the superstar whose team represents the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Leonard is averaging 31.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 3.6 apg during the 2019 playoffs, with shooting splits of .539/.408/.868. Pascal Siakam is a very good second option (20.8 ppg during the 2019 playoffs), while Kyle Lowry has settled into being the third option (12.4 ppg during the 2019 playoffs). "Playoff Lowry" is a meme of sorts--and not meant as a compliment--but, despite his poor playoff shooting (maintaining a career-long pattern), Lowry's supporters have a point that he makes valuable contributions in other areas. I am not quite convinced that these contributions completely outweigh his poor shooting--playoff averages of 5.0 rpg and 7.0 apg do not balance out shooting splits of .412/.281/.767--but I agree with those who suggest that Lowry provides value that goes beyond what one sees by superficially examining the box score numbers.

Serge Ibaka has made important contributions at key moments during the playoffs but overall his production has dropped significantly (15.0 ppg, team-high 8.1 rpg during the regular season but just 9.0 ppg and 5.8 rpg during the playoffs) and Toronto will not beat Milwaukee with a subpar performance from Ibaka.

Milwaukee will win because…the Bucks are elite both on offense and on defense, and they are led by the best player in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo--who should win the regular season MVP based on his two-way excellence (27.7 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.5 bpg, 1.3 spg, .578 FG%) for the team that posted the league's best record--is having an outstanding playoff run thus far, averaging 27.4 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.6 bpg, 1.1 spg, .522 FG%. Much is made of his lack of a consistent outside shot but he shot .412 from three point range during Milwaukee's 4-1 rout of the Boston Celtics and--more importantly, despite the incessant modern focus on shooting--even when he is not making his outside shot it is very difficult to guard him without committing a second defender to help, which then opens up opportunities for Milwaukee's three point snipers.

Khris Middleton has accepted being the second option, George Hill is a savvy veteran with a lot of playoff experience and the other rotation players have done their jobs for the most part, though Milwaukee needs more from Brook Lopez than he provided versus Boston (5.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, abysmal shooting splits of .286/.222/.500 that look like three awful typos smashed next to each other).

Other things to consider: The Raptors had a better winning percentage during the regular season when Kawhi Leonard was out of the lineup doing his odious "load management" than they did when he played, but the Raptors need for him to be on the court and to play at a high level in this series. Bill Parcells used to exhort his players during the playoffs, "This is why you lift those (bleeping) weights"; I guess that in today's more delicate era, the exhortation is, "This is why you were a healthy scratch during so many regular season games."

Although the margin may not prove to be huge any of the following categories in this matchup, I believe that Milwaukee has the best player, best coach and most depth. If necessary, Milwaukee also has game seven at home.

What many observers fail to understand--or forget in the heat of the moment--is that in a seven game series each game is an entity unto itself, but overall truths will prevail in the end. In other words, in a seven game series the inferior team may win a blowout game and/or may keep things even after four games but--barring serious injuries or suspensions--the best team will ultimately prevail (which is just one reason that the NBA playoffs are a superior competitive endeavor compared to the NCAA Tournament).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM

2 comments

Golden State Versus Portland Preview

Western Conference Finals

# 1 Golden State (57-25) vs. #3 Portland (53-29)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Portland can win if…the Trail Blazers supplement their dynamic backcourt play with timely defensive stops and if they get consistent production from someone other than Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Enes Kanter (that someone does not necessarily have to be the same person in each game, as Portland has impressive depth). Lillard is averaging 28.4 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.8 rpg during the 2019 playoffs. McCollum has been just as effective overall, averaging 25.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 3.4 apg. Kanter, a late season addition as a backup who was thrust into the starting role after Jusuf Nurkic got hurt, is averaging 12.9 ppg and 10.6 rpg in the playoffs. After those three, it is contribution by committee but the committee is deep and versatile (players four through eight in the rotation each are averaging at least 18.0 mpg during the playoffs). Players nine and ten (Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard) provide spot minutes but both have stepped up at crucial times. Depth was a question for Portland entering the playoffs but that question has been answered--at least in the first two rounds.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are too talented and too focused. The finish line is near and the goal--four championships in a five year span, a feat only accomplished by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics (who won eight titles in a row)--is in sight. Prior to losing Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins to injury, I would have added that the Warriors are "too deep," but that safety net is out the window. Golden State is no longer a prohibitive favorite but rather a battle-tested champion with home court advantage (at least for this round).

Kevin Durant is clearly the Warriors' best player, and he has been the league's best playoff player the past two years. Losing him would be a crippling, fatal blow to any other team but the Warriors are different; Durant transformed a one-time champion into a three-time champion and one of the greatest dynasties in pro basketball history but this team is still a championship contender without Durant--they just are not the sure thing that they were before Durant's slender right calf gave out.

Stephen Curry is capable of some marvelous things but he is a 6-3 guard who can be physically worn down and will be relentlessly targeted on defense. His playoff resume suggests that he will have some big quarters, halves and games but he may also disappear for significant times. Golden State's luxury is that, even without Durant, they can withstand Curry's droughts because Klay Thompson can heat up and their defense is consistently good (at least during the playoffs). A mythology is developing around Curry similar to the one that developed around Steve Nash; the media loves soft-spoken guards who are relatively normal-sized (in the 6-3 range) and the media loves to build them into giants.

Golden State's success is not like Curry leading Davidson to the NCAA Tournament, though you might not realize that based on some of what is written and said about Curry; Klay Thompson would be a great, two-way All-Star on any team, Draymond Green is a playmaking wizard who also rebounds and defends, Andre Iguodala is a former Finals MVP and All-Star who has the luxury of being a role player on this talented squad and Shaun Livingston was considered the number one point guard in the nation when he jumped straight from high school to the NBA. Injuries curtailed Livingston's ability to perhaps become an All-Star but he is a talented and savvy player.

Curry is a great player who has accomplished a lot but let's not pretend that it requires heroic contributions from him for Golden State to survive. The Warriors are well-built and well-coached.

Other things to consider: For several months, TNT analysts Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley have both been calling the Trail Blazers a "clear and present danger" to the Warriors. Initially, I was not convinced that even at full strength this team was set for a deep playoff run, and after some injuries hit I wrongly assumed that Portland would once again lose in the first round; then, I thought that Denver, with a home game seven in their back pocket if necessary, would ultimately prevail.

I have only been wrong about three playoff series so far this year and two of them involved Portland, so I apparently am still trying to figure this team out, at least in comparison to other teams. I will say that I am getting progressively less confident about picking against Portland but my reasoning here is that Golden State won a championship without Durant and should be able to win at least one playoff series without him. I would not be shocked at this point if Portland wins--particularly if Durant does not play at all, or is badly limited when he plays--but I still have to believe that Golden State, with a home game seven in their back pocket if necessary, is the smart pick (yes, that sounds suspiciously like the same ultimately incorrect logic that I used to justify my Denver pick but, with all due respect, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala inspire more confidence than Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris).

Durant almost certainly will not play in the first two games of the series and he may not be available at all. It is clearly essential for Portland to at least get a split in the first two road games. I don't like Portland's chances to win a road game seven in this series, so the Trail Blazers need to wrap this up in six games: protect home court three times, steal at least one game on the road, and Portland can return to the NBA Finals. I do not expect that to happen, but the formula is clear and the opportunity is more promising now than it was when a healthy Durant was putting up Jordanesque scoring numbers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

8 comments

Game Seven Sunday Featured a Rare Road Win and an Unprecedented Buzzer Beater

Game seven road wins are rare in the NBA playoffs, and a game seven buzzer beater to win a series is unprecedented, but on Sunday we were treated to both feats. First, the Portland Trail Blazers overcame a 17 point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets in Denver, 100-96. Then, the Toronto Raptors defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 92-90 on a Kawhi Leonard fadeaway jumper from the right baseline as time expired.

Including Sunday, there have been 135 game sevens in NBA playoff history, and the road team has won just 28 of those contests, a .793 winning percentage for the home team. From 1982--when Philadelphia defeated Boston in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals--until 1995, the road team lost 21 straight game sevens; since 1995 (when both Houston and Indiana won game sevens on the road), there has never been a 13 year drought without a road win in game seven but the home team has won 48 of 63 game sevens, a .761 winning percentage for the home team.

As I wrote in my recap of last year's pair of Conference Finals game seven showdowns (A Tale of Two Game Sevens: The Difference Between Being a Superstar and Being an All-Star), "A player's career should not be defined by one game, one series or even one season but it is fair to say that over a period of time a superstar will display the ability to consistently elevate his play in crucial moments in order to lift his team to victory. This trait is not necessarily defined by statistics but rather by impact, which may be hard to quantify at times but is recognizable to those who watch the sport with an informed eye."

Portland's C.J. McCollum, who does not get as much publicity as his teammate Damian Lillard, was the best player on the court, finishing with 37 points on 17-29 field goal shooting, plus nine rebounds and a clutch chase down blocked shot on Jamal Murray late in the game with Portland clinging to an 87-83 lead.

Lillard's floor game was excellent (10 rebounds, eight assists, just one turnover in 45 minutes) but 13 points on 3-17 field goal shooting is not good enough for a player who--apparently on the basis of a handful of playoff games this year--is now supposedly competing for the title of best guard in the league. Lillard is fortunate that (1) his team won the game and (2) he is well-liked by media members. If Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook shot 3-17 from the field in a game seven, the internet would explode even if their teams won, and especially if their teams lost. Lillard deserves credit for contributing in other areas when his shots did not fall and for finding the right balance between not being afraid to shoot/not taking bad shots when he was having a tough time, but let's be honest that his performance in this game is not being treated the same way by the mainstream media that a similar performance by other players would be.

Enes Kanter (12 points, game-high tying 13 rebounds) not only helped Portland win the rebounding battle but he also made key, timely offensive contributions as a scorer and screener. It is interesting that the sorry New York Knicks could not figure out how to productively use Kanter but he has become a key contributor to a Western Conference Finals team; free agents who are considering going to New York should think carefully about that franchise's nearly 20 year pattern of failing to get the most out of executives, coaches and players: there is one constant theme/presence throughout all of that losing, and as long as that stays the same the results are not likely to change. As for Kanter, he has put to rest the foolish notion that his defense is so bad that he cannot be on the court for meaningful minutes on a playoff team; Kanter is not a great defender but scoring, rebounding and screen-setting are important, too.

Denver needed more than it got from its three best players. All-Star Nikola Jokic was good but not great: 29 points on 11-26 field goal shooting and 13 rebounds, but just two assists from the player who serves as the hub of the team's offense. The Nuggets needed for Jokic to score more efficiently--Portland does not have anyone who should be able to check him effectively--and to create more offense for his teammates. Jamal Murray, Denver's second-best player (and the youngest rotation player), had a very good series come to a nightmarish end as he could not make a shot when his team desperately needed offensive production; he finished with 17 points on 4-18 field goal shooting. Former All-Star Paul Millsap had an excellent series but the lingering memory will be his game seven disappearing act (10 points on 3-13 field goal shooting), which should not happen for a veteran player on his home court in an elimination game. When your three best players have good (but not great), subpar and awful performances respectively you are not going to win many playoff games, let alone a game seven.

The Nuggets missed 11 free throws and shot 2-19 from three point range. There is a reason that great coaches demand that their teams practice and focus on the so-called "little things"; those "little things" can be the difference between winning a championship and losing in the second round.

This game provided a great example of why the analytics-driven focus on high volume three point shooting at the expense of a versatile offensive attack is misguided. Or, to put it another way, the Houston Rockets' gimmicky style does not work: shooting a massive number of three pointers regardless of time, score and accuracy--combined with hunting three point shooting fouls as opposed to just trying to score within the rules--is a recipe for consistent playoff failure.

There is no question that high percentage three point shooting is a valuable offensive weapon but "stat gurus" act like they are the first and only ones who suddenly figured out that three pointers are worth more than two pointers. Analytics do not account for the human reality of the added pressure of making long range shots in an elimination game, let alone a game seven. Denver shot 2-19 from three point range (.105), while Portland shot 4-26 from three point range (.154); it is not a great fan experience to watch 39 missed three point shots, nor is it a great strategic decision to keep firing away when those shots are not falling. C.J. McCollum's willingness and ability to score from other areas of the court, as much as anything else, decided this game, and challenges the notion that players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant would not thrive in today's game; Jordan and Bryant would exploit the rules that favor offensive players, and in the playoffs they would feast from the midrange while other players missed three pointers and while defenders could not touch them without being whistled for fouls. C.J. McCollum is a nice player but if he can get 37 points under these rules/circumstances in a game seven then Jordan and Bryant would be good for 45-50 points if their teams needed that.

Portland's game seven road win is a rare and laudable feat but Leonard's shot is unique; it is amazing yet true that no player prior to Leonard had ever decided a seventh game with a walk off, game-winning shot. The shot grabbed the headlines and took over the highlights but please consider these two stat lines:

Player A: 47 points, 15-34 field goal shooting (including 5-18 from three point range), 11 rebounds, nine assists, 42 minutes played, +12 plus/minus number.

Player B: 41 points, 16-39 field goal shooting (including 2-9 from three point range), eight rebounds, three assists, 43 minutes played, -2 plus/minus number.

Without knowing anything else about those two players, what are your first thoughts about those stat lines? Do you think that both of those players are selfish, low efficiency gunners? Do you think that Player A somewhat mitigated his .441 field goal percentage by contributing heavily on the boards and as a passer, impact that is reflected in that plus/minus number? Which player do you think is more valuable and had more impact on winning?

Player A is Russell Westbrook, who produced that stat line in Oklahoma City's 105-99 game five loss to Houston in 2017. Player B is Kawhi Leonard, who produced that stat line in Toronto's game seven win on Sunday. Jeff Van Gundy often says that you do not evaluate the quality of a shot based on whether or not the shot was made. Similarly, one should not evaluate the quality of two players based on whether or not one shot was made. Westbrook played his heart out in the game listed above but he did not have nearly enough help and his team lost. Leonard played his heart out on Sunday, he had just enough help to keep the game close until the end and then he made a tremendous individual play to win the game. If Leonard misses that shot and Toronto loses in overtime is Leonard suddenly a selfish gunner? If Westbrook's Thunder win that game is he suddenly a much better player? No on both counts. The fair way to evaluate a player is based on skill set, mentality and how much the player impacts his team's opportunity to win. Unlike most writers, I did not have to scrap my game seven recap's analysis of Leonard's play based on the fateful bounces of Leonard's last shot; I knew that Leonard played the right way and did everything he could do to propel his team to victory, just like I knew that Westbrook did in the game cited above.

Throughout TNT's telecast of the Toronto-Philadelphia game, Greg Anthony emphasized that game sevens are not about field goal percentage or efficiency but about being aggressive. That does not mean that it is OK for a player to shoot an awful percentage, but what it means is that a great player has the responsibility to keep shooting his shots--make or miss--because that is what his team needs and expects him to do. James Harden does not understand this at all. LeBron James intermittently understands this, which is why he has produced some epic playoff performances mixed in with playoff games during which he quit. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant understood this all day, every day and that is a major reason that Jordan won six rings, Bryant won five rings, James has three rings and Harden has no rings.

In game seven, Leonard relentlessly attacked. He was not trying to win the post-game press conference with "efficient" numbers; he was trying to win the game and the series. Anthony also pointed out that Philadelphia's best player, Joel Embiid, did not go to the post enough. Embiid postups not only create high percentage shots for him but also for his teammates. Embiid finished with 21 points on 18 field goal attempts, 11 rebounds and a +10 plus/minus number. A "stat guru" would tell you that Embiid was more "efficient" than Leonard (who needed 41 field goal attempts to score 39 points) and that he had more impact on winning based on the plus/minus numbers--but anyone who watched the game with understanding realizes that Leonard played at an MVP level while Embiid did not. Leonard's Westbrook-like stat line is just the numerical expression of a great performance, and I would take that mentality/effort any day over an "efficient" stat line that camouflages losing plays by someone with a loser's mentality (such as James Harden's "efficient" 35 points on 25 field goal attempts in Houston's series-ending game six loss to Golden State).

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM

3 comments

Monday, May 13, 2019

Rockets Face Many Offseason Questions After Fizzling Versus Durant-less Warriors

Game six of the Western Conference semifinals at home versus the Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors presented a great opportunity for a Houston Rockets team that has loudly and repeatedly declared how prepared they are to dethrone the Warriors; indeed, there were no more excuses left for the Rockets to, at the very least, push the series to seven games.

Instead, the Rockets fizzled in what TNT's Charles Barkley called "one of the worst choke jobs I've ever seen."

ESPN's commentators had some interesting observations before Houston failed. Paul Pierce correctly called this a "legacy game" for James Harden--not because one game should be given elevated importance, but rather because Harden has already failed many times in the playoffs and this game may represent his last, best chance to lead his team to the NBA Finals. If Harden cannot win a home game against the Warriors sans Durant--and, it should not be forgotten, without starting center DeMarcus Cousins as well--then why should one believe that Harden will ever lead his team to the NBA Finals? On a different but related issue, Chauncey Billups said that he cannot stand watching Houston's isolation ball style of play and he asked his fellow ESPN panelists to wake him up at halftime. Billups is right that not only is this style horrible to watch but it also is not likely to ever produce a championship.

The Rockets are often lauded--and, laud themselves--as a team that chases each and every analytical advantage, and then pushes the envelope to exploit these advantages. One of the Rockets' "insights" is that the most valuable play in basketball is a foul on a three point shot. Yes, such fouls are "efficient" mathematically; it is not difficult to calculate that an .800 free throw shooter will produce 2.4 points per three free throw attempts. That equation, however, does not factor in the negative value of hunting such fouls, including but not limited to (1) distorting the overall functioning of the offense via excessive isolation play, (2) giving up a numbers advantage on defense if a foul is not called, the shot is missed and the shooter is lying on the floor (or whining to a referee) as opposed to getting back on defense and (3) potentially missing out on makeable shots while focusing more on deceiving referees by flopping as opposed to concentrating on shooting.

During the 2019 playoffs, Harden's minutes per game went up to 38.5 from 36.8 in the regular season but his numbers declined in most of the significant statistical categories: fewer points (36.1 ppg in the regular season/31.6 ppg in the playoffs), lower FG% (.442/.413), lower 3FG% (.368/.350), lower FT% (.879/.837), fewer assists (7.5 apg/6.6 apg). Most tellingly, his field goal attempts per game remained steady (24.5/24.0) but his free throw attempts per game plummeted from 11.0 to 8.9; that is just one piece of evidence suggesting that hunting three point shooting fouls is not a smart strategy and will not consistently work in the playoffs. In the playoffs, both the referees and the opposing teams are less likely to succumb to Harden's incessant flopping and flailing. Harden's "style" is fake, deceptive and antithetical to authentic basketball; just look at a video of his legitimate shooting motion in the three point contest and in game action when he is not being contested, and then compare that to the gyrations he does when his shot is being contested.

Harden can produce a breakout game or two during a playoff series but he has a long record as a playoff choker and he is best suited to being a number two option on a title contender, a role that his ego will likely never permit him to accept. This is not just about numbers, but about impact. Harden's game six numbers were not terrible but, as Jeff Van Gundy said, individual statistics mean nothing in a loss. Jalen Rose made an excellent observation of just one problem with Harden's game that does not show up in the box score but does show up in the won/loss column: when Harden does not have the ball in his hands, he walks up the court and he looks disinterested. Harden is focused on glorifying himself and inflating his statistics; if he were focused on winning, he would have stayed with Oklahoma City and then he could have been the third option on what probably would have become the NBA's next dynasty, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way as prime scorer/all-around player respectively. Instead, Harden wanted to prove to the world that he could be the best player on a championship team--but, he has actually proven quite the opposite.

If Harden is who Daryl Morey insists he is--a "foundational player"--then he has to propel his team to victory at home against a shorthanded opponent. Plus/minus numbers are "noisy," and most people do not understand their limitation or how to properly use them but it is interesting that in the must-win game six at home Harden had a -10 in a game that the Rockets lost by five points. Take out the meaningless three pointer that he hit with 24 seconds left--if you don't think it was meaningless, look up the analytics for win expectancy for a team trailing by eight points at that stage of the game, which was the scenario when Harden padded his stats before heading into the offseason--and his plus/minus was -13 (irrelevant "noise" like that is just one example of why plus/minus is only meaningful to compare lineups in large five on five sample sizes, or when accompanied by detailed, objective observations of what happened and why it happened). During the portion of the game when the outcome was decided, Houston was losing by double digits at home with Harden on the court--and this is the pattern in Harden's playoff career, not the exception.

This series, with the Warriors being down two starters, represented Houston's best chance to advance to the NBA Finals; last year, the Rockets enjoyed a 3-2 edge over the Warriors and had homecourt advantage but they used Chris Paul's injury as an excuse for their seven game loss, conveniently ignoring that even without Paul they built halftime leads in game six and game seven before choking. This year, the injury shoe was on the other foot, and the Rockets still failed to get the job done.

Remember that Houston is obligated to pay more than $85 million to Paul over the next two seasons.  Morey has maneuvered himself into a financial corner and is essentially committed to ride or die with the notion that the Harden-Paul duo can lead the Rockets to a title--a notion that has little realistic basis. Morey has done a decent job of surrounding Harden and Paul with complementary players but no matter how much lipstick you put on this pig, it is still a pig; Morey will likely change the supporting cast again but supporting players cannot fill the giant gaps created by the weaknesses in Harden's game and Paul's game.

Before wrapping up this summary of Houston's predictable playoff failure, it is worth circling back to the beginning of this series. After game one, there was much talk about officiating and "landing area" and other nonsense that had little to no effect on the result, so it is worth noting that (1) James Harden's game is built around traveling, offensive fouls and trying to trick the officials and that (2) Houston often grabs, pushes and holds on defense, relying on officials to let the contact go because the Rockets are using undersized lineups. Also, for all of the allegations that the Warriors benefited from certain calls/non-calls, the biggest benefit that happened in this series favored the Rockets: Chris Paul was not suspended for game three after bumping a referee near the end of game two.

Paul has a long history of confronting referees during games and belittling them in his postgame comments but he is considered a big star and so the NBA league office is reluctant to discipline him the way just about any other player would have been disciplined. Sirius XM Radio’s Lionel Hollins, a former NBA All-Star and a former NBA head coach, advocates that the NBA league office empower referees to eject players who are blatantly disrespectful and he mentioned on air that when he was on the Competition Committee he implored the league to apply its rules and standards equally to all players. Hollins believes that the double standard that protects stars from being ejected and/or suspended has resulted in an overall worsening of player conduct toward referees.
 
The bottom line in the one-sided Golden State-Houston rivalry is that the Warriors (1) are more  focused, (2) they are mentally and physically tougher, and (3) they have a defensive mindset that enables them to get key stops down the stretch. James Harden is Houston’s best player, and he does not embody any of those traits, which is why his team does not exhibit those traits when those traits are most needed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:26 PM

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Thursday, May 09, 2019

No More Excuses Left for Houston

The Houston Rockets are built to beat the Golden State Warriors, or so they have declared for the past several years.

There are no more excuses left for Houston. Kevin Durant missed the fourth quarter of game five due to injury, and he is out of action indefinitely, with his strained right calf to be reevaluated next week. That means that he will not return to action until at least the Western Conference Finals, assuming that the Warriors advance to the next round.

If the Rockets are indeed built to beat the Warriors, this is their best--and perhaps last--chance to do it.

Durant's injury-induced absence impacts multiple narratives:

1) Who is Golden State's most valuable player--Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry?

2) How valuable is James Harden when it matters most?

3) How insane is it to pay nearly $160 million in a four year span to Chris Paul, an aging, small, injury-prone point guard who has a long history of playoff failures?

4) Are the Rockets well-built to beat the Warriors?

If you do not already understand that Durant's size and skill set provide value that Curry cannot provide, nothing is likely to change your mind. If the Warriors are eliminated by the Rockets, then you will cite Curry's finger injury, or the difficulty of trying to make it to five straight NBA Finals (a feat no NBA team has accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics made it to 10 straight NBA Finals from 1957-66) rather than concede that the reigning two-time Finals MVP is Golden State's best player. The Warriors won one title and had a record-breaking 73 win season (culminating in a Finals loss) without Durant, but with Durant they have become a team for the ages, now just nine wins away from their third straight title and their fourth title in a five year span. The playoffs are what matters most, and Durant has been at his best when it matters most. Curry is a great regular season player, a very good playoff player and a member of three championship teams for which he has not won a single Finals MVP. Has there ever been a player who was the best player on a three-time champion who never won a Finals MVP since the award was first handed out in 1969?

Harden is not valuable when it matters most. We already knew that, dating all the way back to when he was the choking third option on Oklahoma City's 2012 NBA Finalists. We have seen Harden benched in the fourth quarter of a key playoff game (the "sin" that played a major role in Kevin McHale being fired the next season), we have seen Harden's numerous brickfests in elimination games and we have seen Harden set playoff records for most turnovers. So, it is not at all surprising that with Durant out of action and the series up for grabs--game five winners in 2-2 series win the series over 80% of the time, though Harden found a way to be on the wrong end of that statistic last year--Harden attempted just one field goal down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Of course, the "stat gurus" will love Harden's "efficient" production of 31 points on just 16 field goal attempts--but "efficiency" is not the answer to everything and is not always the recipe for championship success. Harden needed to grab that fourth quarter by the throat, assert his dominance and make sure that his team won. Instead, he was passive and did not have an impact when it mattered most. That mentality--not just in one game but over his career--is Harden's defining legacy unless and until he changes that mentality.

The answer to question three is simple: 11 points on 3-14 field goal shooting. That is what Paul produced in the must-win game five, with Durant out of action, Harden drifting out of view and the Rockets' realistic chance to win the series on the line. At least we don't have to hear any more nonsense about how Houston would have eliminated Golden State last year if only Paul had been healthy. Read that again: 11 points on 3-14 field goal shooting. The "stat gurus" have always placed a high value on Paul's "efficiency" but his "efficiency"--which, by the way, often disappears at crucial times--is as meaningless as Harden's.

It is no accident that both Paul and Harden are strangers to the NBA Finals despite spending most of their careers on excellent teams (yes, Harden has one Finals appearance as a bricklaying caddy for Durant and Russell Westbrook); "efficiency" is important but the most important trait for a great basketball player is the ability to rise to the occasion and dominate when the stakes are the highest. When Bill Russell was a color commentator on CBS' NBA telecasts, he used to say that it matters more when you score than how much you score. When you score is also often more important than how efficiently you score. There is such a thing as a bad 10-16 shooting performance, and a good 9-23 shooting performance (and vice versa); context matters, so a player who shoots 9-23 but is aggressive and contributes in other ways (i.e., Stephen Curry last night) is more valuable than a player who shoots 10-16 but disappears in the fourth quarter with the game on the line (i.e., James Harden last night).

Are the Rockets well-built to beat the Warriors? Read the above with understanding and you know the answer. That being said, it is possible that the Rockets can win two games against a Warriors team that is without the services of Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, that has seen Stephen Curry disappearing for significant chunks of time and Klay Thompson not looking like himself. The Rockets should beat the Warriors, particularly if they even close to as good, smart and tough as they tout themselves to be.

The Rockets may very well protect home court in game six, and then game seven becomes a 48 minute crapshoot. However, I expect Golden State to win a close game six or, failing that, a not so close game seven. Harden and Paul have not developed a championship mentality yet, and it is unlikely that they will develop it now.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:19 PM

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Monday, April 29, 2019

Traveling, Flopping, and Whining: Why it is Painful to Watch the Houston Rockets

The good news is that in two weeks or less, we will not have to see the Houston Rockets traveling, flopping and whining again until next fall. The bad news is that we are going to see a lot of the Houston Rockets traveling, flopping and whining for another three to six more games.

This season, James Harden set scoring records made a mockery of the NBA rulebook and all of those foul chickens are coming home to roost in what should be a great series--Golden State versus Houston for the right to advance to the Western Conference Finals--but is instead devolving into bizarre commentary, not to mention incessant complaining, about the officiating.

In game one, Golden State beat Houston 104-100. It was a typical Golden State-Houston playoff game: Kevin Durant was by far the best player on the court, James Harden scored 35 points despite shooting terribly from the field (9-28) and the Rockets fired a large number of three pointers without much success (14-47, .298). Get used to those things, because it is going to be rinse, wash and repeat for the next several games, with perhaps a couple Houston wins thrown into the mix if/when the Rockets get hot from three point range.

We were "treated" to Harden repeatedly traveling, flopping and whining. He also committed several offensive fouls, most of which were not called. His teammate Chris Paul did not travel to the best of my knowledge but he more than made up for that with his flopping, whining and (mostly uncalled) fouling.

Let's start with the fact that Harden's signature move, the step back three point shot, is often a travel according to the rule book. A player who picks up his dribble must shoot or pass before completing a 1, 2 step. In other words, if I pick up my dribble at the three point line, I can take a step back with one foot but I must shoot or pass before my second foot hits the ground. Otherwise, I have taken a two foot hop that is illegal (and impossible to guard, which explains the dramatic increase in Harden's scoring average this season).

Harden typically combines his traveling with flopping; after he shoots his step back three pointer, he falls to the ground a large percentage of the time. I have attempted many three pointers during my basketball career and more than a few (legal) step back three pointers (think of Dell Curry's signature move, not Harden's illegal move). I can count on the fingers of two hands the times that I fell down after those shots, and on each of those occasions I was hit with a certain degree of force, usually by a bigger player. There is no way that Harden is being fouled as often as he pretends to be fouled; he is either flopping or he should undergo immediate neurological testing to determine what kind of vertigo/balance disorder is afflicting a person who otherwise appears to be a healthy 6-5, 220 pound elite athlete.

After Harden travels and flops, he then whines. To get the full picture of the hypocrisy involved, it is important to note that when he drives to the hoop he wraps his off hand/arm around the defender and pulls the defender toward him to make it appear like he is being fouled or if the defender is in front of him he uses his off hand/arm as a battering ram to "create space"--and, on defense, Harden invariably uses one or two hands to the hip or midsection to not so subtly knock his man off balance. Handchecking is illegal for perimeter defenders in the modern NBA but Harden does it all the time and is rarely called for it. In fact, handchecking on the perimeter is practiced by all Houston defenders, with Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker being particularly adept at it. Kevin Durant is the player who rightfully could have complained throughout game one, as he was repeatedly the victim of non-calls on his shot attempts.

Supposedly, the big story from today's game is that Harden and Paul should have been granted many more free throws than they were because of defenders not giving them space to land after they shot (the so-called "Kawhi Leonard rule," enacted after Zaza Pachulia ended Leonard's playoff run in 2017 by stepping under his foot in game one of the Western Conference Finals). There is no question that it is a dirty play for a defender to slide his foot into a jump shooter's landing space--but if you look at the so-called disputed plays, that is not what happened in most of them (one or two were borderline, but it is understandable that the referees are tired of Harden and Paul repeatedly trying to fool them).

A normal shooting motion is to jump straight in the air, release the ball and land approximately in the same area from which you jumped; if you shoot a fadeaway, of course you might land behind where you jumped, and it is possible that if you shoot a running shot you might land in front of where you shot. It is not a normal shooting motion to kick out one or both legs, place your body in a twisted or horizontal position and entangle yourself with the defender's body--but that is what Harden and Paul regularly do. A defender has a right to jump straight up and contest a shot. What Pachulia did that was dirty was he ran toward Leonard, stopped on the ground and then stuck his foot out right where it was obvious that Leonard--who shot with a normal shooting motion--would inevitably land. That most assuredly did not occur on any of the so-called disputed plays in game one. Perhaps in one instance Klay Thompson closed out a little too far and initiated marginal contact but Harden also flopped on the play, making it difficult to see in a split second what exactly had caused Harden to fall.

Paul made several bad plays that potentially cost his team the game; he argued about a foul call while Golden State scored an uncontested fastbreak hoop, he received two technical fouls that cost his team points and he spent more time trying to draw fouls/argue about fouls than he did focusing on playing well. Paul incessantly pushes, grabs and holds on defense but then whines about phantom fouls that he alleges were committed against him on offense. He used to be a scrappy player but now he is a small, older player who has lost a step and has to use his hands on defense to make up for the foot speed he has lost; he is the NBA version of the old guys I could not stand to have guarding me when I was a skinny teenager playing rec league ball/pick up ball: old guys did not want to chase me all over the court, so they would grab, hold and push to get me off balance.

After the game, Harden whined that he just wants things called fairly and then he can "live with the result." Harden's sense of entitlement is breathtaking; he is rarely called for offensive fouls, he gets away with traveling on his signature move, he leads the league in free throw attempts every season (and he had 14 in this game) and he gets away with illegal handchecking on defense but he is convinced that he is the aggrieved party!

Thanks to all of those free throw attempts, Harden had an "efficient" game by "stat guru" standards--but he missed 19 shots and committed four turnovers, which adds up to 23 empty possessions. A team typically has about 100 possessions per game, so Harden wasted nearly a fourth of those. This style of play is gimmicky, is highly unlikely to ever result in a championship and is not fun to watch. As Charles Barkley has described Houston's offense, it is basically Harden doing "dribble, dribble, dribble" and then shooting or passing at the last moment. Harden is a showboat, a ballhog and a serial rules violator but until the NBA cracks down on his rules violations he is not going to change.

Maybe today's game was a step in the right direction but I fear that there is going to be so much criticism of the officiating that the officials will not have the guts to call things correctly the rest of the way. It was disappointing to hear the ABC/ESPN broadcast team buy into all of Houston's nonsense. Harden and Paul have been traveling, flopping and whining all season long. Kudos to the officiating crew for putting an end to this garbage, and I hope that the rest of the series is officiated the same way, if not better (the officials still missed several Harden offensive fouls and defensive handchecks).

Kudos also to Golden State, which did not give in to Houston's foolishness by playing gimmicky defenses against Harden such as defenders putting their hands behind their back or standing behind him to deter the step back shot. Harden spent most of this season making a mockery of the rule book and I hope that this playoff series will set thing right.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:47 AM

36 comments

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Denver Versus Portland Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Denver (54-28) vs. #3 Portland (53-29)

Season series: Denver, 3-1

Portland can win if…Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum dominate Denver's backcourt, while Portland's frontcourt at least slows down Nikola Jokic; the Nuggets went 3-0 versus the Trail Blazers this season in the games that Jokic played.

Portland did well to win a first round series as the favorite after suffering an embarrassing first round sweep last year but the Nuggets are a much better team than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Portland survived the absence of Jusuf Nurkic in the first round but now that Enes Kanter's status is questionable due to a shoulder injury the Trail Blazers could really suffer in terms of frontcourt size and depth.

If Kanter cannot deliver effective minutes, this could be a short series. On the other hand, all four head to head games between these teams were decided by less than 10 points, so it is possible that Portland Coach Terry Stotts will cobble together a way to extend the series even if Kanter is out or ineffective.

Denver will win because…the Nuggets are more talented, deeper and enjoy homecourt advantage. If Portland were at full strength--with a healthy Nurkic and Kanter--this series could potentially have gone the distance. Now, the main obstacle for the Nuggets is their lack of playoff experience, which leads to inconsistent performances from one game to the next. The Nuggets looked like they were hanging on for dear life as the San Antonio Spurs made a big second half comeback in game seven but perhaps surviving that experience will accelerate the Nuggets' growth as a contender.

Jokic had a fantastic series versus the Spurs, averaging 23.1 ppg, 12.1 rpg and 9.1 apg with shooting splits of .488/.333/.875. He had a triple double in game one (10 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists) and a triple double in game seven (21 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) but there was a world of difference between those two triple doubles. In game one, Jokic had just nine field goal attempts and that is not enough aggression for a team's best player; in game seven, Jokic had 26 field goal attempts, fully accepting the responsibility that a team's best player must shoulder in order to advance in the playoffs.

Some players worry too much about "advanced basketball statistics" and efficiency; efficiency is important but not at the expense of aggressiveness, because when a great player is aggressive that breaks down the opposing team's defense even if that player does not shoot a high percentage in a particular game. Field goal attempts are not the only measure of aggressiveness but they are one good indicator. Aggressiveness should not be confused with taking bad shots or shots out of the context of the team's game plan; aggressiveness means taking the shots that a great player is expected to take based on the team's offense, as opposed to excessively deferring to less talented teammates.

Jamal Murray also had an excellent series (19.0 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.7 rpg, .451/.343/.792). Lillard is a better player than Murray but Murray is not going to back down from the challenge and he is not going to be dominated; Lillard will probably have the better individual statistics during the series but this matchup will be competitive.

The Nuggets are a young team but they are also a well-constructed and well-coached team.

Other things to consider: If you believe the hype after Portland advanced, Lillard has now surpassed Russell Westbrook among the league's elite guards. Westbrook's career and some of the fallacies that media members commit while evaluating players are addressed in a separate article. This article will focus on Lillard, plus how Denver and Portland match up with each other.

Lillard averaged 33.0 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.4 rpg in the first round, with .461/.481/.846 shooting splits. He ended the series in dramatic fashion with a game-winning shot from well beyond the three point line. There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not that was a good shot but this is simple: when a team gets the ball with more than 10 seconds left in a tie game and ends up shooting the ball from nearly 40 feet, that is not a good shot and it is certainly not an optimal shot, unless one is saying that the coaching staff and players are so inept that they cannot run a play to generate a high percentage shot in that time frame against that particular team.

Much has been made about Lillard practicing that shot and having shot a good percentage on a small sample size of those shots; does that mean if a player practices half court shots and shoots a high percentage on a small number of them then he should deliberately aim to shoot a half court shot with a playoff game on the line? Get out of here. Lillard demonstrated a lot of confidence and a lot a skill and he deserves credit for his play throughout the series--more so than for just hitting one shot--but by no means was that a good shot or an optimal shot in that situation.

Regarding Lillard's overall play and his status in the league, this is Lillard's seventh season, sixth playoff appearance and third second round appearance. He has yet to advance past the second round. Stephen Curry has as many championships as Lillard has second round appearances, and Westbrook has more Western Conference Finals appearances (four) than Lillard has second round appearances. So, Lillard's resume in terms of team playoff success is a bit thin and that has to be considered before getting too excited about a sample size of five playoff games.

Granted, Lillard has little control over who his teammates are, and both Curry and Westbrook have, for at least part of their careers, been surrounded by better supporting casts than Lillard (though that has not been true for Westbrook for several years). Let's look at Lillard's individual career playoff numbers: boosted by his great first round--which represents one eighth of a playoff career that has only included 40 total games--Lillard's career playoff averages are 25.0 ppg, 5.7 apg and 4.5 rpg with .408/.364/.883 shooting splits. Of course after between four and seven second round games versus Denver those numbers may look a lot different--for better or worse.

Lillard has averaged at least 25 ppg in each of the past four regular seasons and he has averaged at least 25 ppg in three of the past four postseasons (albeit with field goal percentages below .370 in two of those four campaigns).

Should Lillard be in the conversation when the best point guards in the NBA are discussed? Yes. That conversation includes Curry, Westbrook, Harden* (the asterisk is because when Harden's game is analyzed one has to consider not only his consistent postseason choking but also the way that he is blatantly permitted to travel and to commit uncalled offensive fouls) and Kyrie Irving in addition to Lillard. Each of those players has individual strengths and weaknesses and each player's career has particular contextual factors that must be correctly analyzed/considered when ranking him alongside his peers. One first round series victory is certainly a piece of evidence to consider but it does not immediately or automatically change the rankings, despite the vocal overreactions of media members.

If Murray comes close to matching Lillard's individual numbers in this series and Denver wins, does that immediately elevate Murray to elite status? Of course not, though it would be a piece of evidence to consider.

The other guard matchup in this series, C.J. McCollum versus Gary Harris, will also be interesting. Harris missed 25 regular season games and averaged just 12.9 ppg on .424 field goal shooting when he played but he scored 14.7 ppg on .487 field goal shooting versus the Spurs. McCollum averaged 24.4 ppg on . 455 field goal shooting versus the Thunder. McCollum has a larger role for his team, which will likely result in him posting bigger numbers, but Harris is not going to back down and if the final series scoring averages are something like 21-17 in McCollum's favor as opposed to 24-15 then that is a victory for the Nuggets.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:19 PM

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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Golden State Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Golden State (57-25) vs. #4 Houston (53-29)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if…the Rockets shoot a very high percentage from three point range and if they play consistently engaged and aggressive defense. Two other keys to this series will be Chris Paul's health and James Harden's history of playoff choking.

This is the time of year that Paul typically gets injured and that Harden typically chokes. Paul's injury history is so consistently bad that I have heard several pundits say that the Rockets are better off facing the Warriors now than in the Conference Finals because this way it is more likely that Paul will make it through the entire series. I am not wishing injury on anyone but I do not expect Paul to be fully healthy for the duration of this series; by game three or game four, something will be wrong with him and if the series extends to six or seven games Paul will be out of the lineup or extremely limited.

As for Harden's choking, he has been his usual self in the 2019 playoffs. Last year, Harden averaged 28.5 ppg on .407 field goal shooting leading up to the Golden State-Houston showdown, while this year he has averaged 27.8 ppg on .374 field goal shooting in the playoffs. As I wrote in last year's Golden State-Houston preview, "In Harden's five previous playoff appearances with the Rockets (during only one of which the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals), Harden averaged between 26.3 ppg and 28.5 ppg while shooting between .376 and .439 from the field. He has always been a high variance player, capable of dropping 40-plus points one night and then disappearing the next night, which is why his averages are deceiving--a player who consistently scores at least 20 points but is capable of erupting for 40 is more valuable than a player who averages 26-28 ppg by scoring 45 points one game and seven points the next."

In the first round versus Utah this year, Harden missed 17 straight field goal attempts over a period from the end of game two until deep in the second half of game three but the Jazz were not able to take advantage of Harden's meltdown. Harden missed his first 15 field goal attempts in game three and he finished 3-20, one of the worst high volume shooting performances in playoff history. This is not an anomaly for Harden; he shot 5-21 from the field--including 0-11 from three point range--in game five of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus Golden State and the Rockets won anyway.

The Rockets will stay the course no matter what in terms of firing up a large number of three point shots and Harden is the poster child for Houston's strategic choice to go all-in on high volume three point shooting; the untold, or seldom told, story here is that the Rockets have assembled a strong, versatile team around Harden, a team that can at times overcome his choking and bricklaying. The Rockets led Golden State in both game six and game seven of the Western Conference Finals last year, only to ultimately be done in by historically bad three point shooting down stretch--which segues directly into why Golden State will win.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are more than just a high volume three point shooting team. The Warriors, contrary to popular belief, do not represent the culmination of Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" approach with the Phoenix Suns but rather they represent a melting pot of skill-set diverse All-Stars who are productive on offense and attentive to detail on defense. The Warriors' main weakness is that they sometimes get bored/careless, as seen in their game five loss to the L.A. Clippers a few days ago--which was followed by a 129-110 rout to send the Clippers home, during which Kevin Durant scored 38 first half points en route to a 50 point game that could have been a 60 or 70 point game if necessary.

The Warriors won one championship and also had a record-setting 73 win regular season prior to signing Durant but the Durant acquisition turned this team into one of the greatest dynasties in pro basketball history (we will not know exactly how great until the run comes to an end, but the Warriors on a very short list for sustained championship excellence already, alongside Russell's Celtics, the Magic/Kareem Lakers, the Jordan/Pippen Bulls and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers). Durant is a front-runner who left a perennial championship contender to put the final touches on the Death Star (not to say that the Warriors are evil but rather that they have the ability to destroy other teams the way that the Death Star destroyed planets)--but whatever one thinks of his personal/business choices there is no denying his greatness as a basketball player; he has won the last two Finals MVPs and he is off to a sensational start this postseason, averaging 35.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.5 spg and 1.2 bpg versus the Clippers with great shooting splits (.567/.400/.949).

Stephen Curry is a great player in his own right, but Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA and Durant is nearly seven feet all while Curry is 6-3; Durant can literally and figuratively reach heights that Curry cannot. Curry averaged 24.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 5.2 apg versus the Clippers while shooting .500/.500/.973. He tweaked his right ankle during the game six win, which could easily be the greatest damage caused by Golden State's careless approach to game five; by not putting the Clippers away when they could have and should have, the Warriors had to play an extra game and Curry got hurt in that extra game. Mess around with the "basketball gods" and the "basketball gods" may mess around with you. The Clippers are a scrappy and well-coached team but there is no way that they should have won a game against the Warriors, let alone two games at Golden State. Carelessness and/or injuries are the only things that could derail Golden State versus Houston.

If the Warriors are focused and relatively healthy, they will win in five games, max; if they lose focus and/or if more than one of their main guys are limited (the Warriors can survive the loss of DeMarcus Cousins and can even win with a hobbled but still active Curry) then this series could go the distance. If the Warriors lose focus, lose two of their main guys to injury, Chris Paul stays healthy and James Harden does not choke at all then the Rockets can win.

In other words, do not count on Houston winning this series.

Other things to consider:  The Rockets have made it abundantly clear for quite some time that their primary organizational goal is to construct a team to beat the Warriors. Thus, by virtue of their own beliefs and statements, we know that Harden's gaudy regular season numbers are meaningless, as is Houston's regular season winning percentage. This team was put together to (1) beat Golden State in the playoffs and then (2) win a championship.

I still do not believe that Harden will win a championship as his team's main player, so there is a fundamental flaw in the basis of how Daryl Morey constructed this team. That being said, Morey has done a very good job of surrounding Harden with players who complement Harden's skills and minimize Harden's weaknesses. The Rockets are loaded with tough guys who can make three pointers, play gritty defense and not mind that most of the shine and dollars go to Harden, with most of the remaining shine and dollars going to Paul. Morey has pushed his chips to the table and gone all-in on the Harden-Paul duo, which means that the Rockets will be paying Paul max money well into his declining years. If Houston wins at least one title, Morey is vindicated--but if Houston does not win at least one title, then Morey will have spent an incredible amount of money just to tweak conventional wisdom by showcasing a gimmicky All-Star/gimmicky style of play.

The way to beat the Warriors, as shown by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, is to go big, slow the game down and pound them in the paint. The Warriors have too much perimeter talent to beat them in a fast paced game featuring a lot of three point shooting.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:29 PM

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Player Evaluation, Media Bias and False Narratives

Media coverage of the NBA is either amusing or pathetic, depending on your perspective and sense of humor (the same is true of media coverage of the world in a broader sense but that is a story for a different day and a different platform). For instance, here are the 2019 first round playoff statistics of two players, one of whom is portrayed as a clutch performer and the other of whom is portrayed as a player who did not perform well at all:

Player A: 21.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 7.7 apg, .8 spg, .2 bpg, .433/.333/.829 shooting

Player B: 22.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 10.6 apg, 1.0 spg, .6 bpg, .360/.324/.885 shooting

Player A is Lou Williams and Player B is Russell Westbrook. It should be noted that the above numbers represent, by far, the best playoff performance of Williams' 14 year NBA career; his brief 2019 playoff run is an outlier, not his typical level. This is not meant as a knock against Williams, who is a very good player and a top sixth man. The point is that many media members craft narratives that suit their purposes and biases, regardless of the truth. Williams is a soft-spoken, well-liked and well-respected player. It is understandable why media members like him. Williams had some strong performances as his L.A. Clippers battled valiantly against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors before losing, 4-2.

Westbrook is a brash, outwardly confident--if not arrogant--player who treats many media members with outward contempt. In the pre-internet days it used to be said that one should not pick quarrels with those who buy ink by the barrel. Westbrook is engaged in active combat with the people who write/tell the stories that define his career; those same people also vote for awards such as MVP and the All-NBA Team.

In his 2019 exit interview, Westbrook made it clear that he does not care what those people think, write or say:
If you want to determine my career and what I've done over two, three games, you go ahead. That don't mean [anything] to me. It doesn't. I'm going to wake up, like I told you before, three beautiful kids, I'm going to wake up and smile, be happy, enjoy my life. Doesn't change anything about--talk about if I'm playing bad or who's better, who's not. I know who I am as a person, and that's the biggest thing I can say about myself. I know who I am. I know what I'm able to do. I know my capabilities. I know what I've done. I know what I can and can't do. So I'm OK with that. I'm OK with who I am. I'll just be blessed to wake up every day and enjoy my life. The talk about--I don't even know what talk you're talking about, but whatever that is, you guys can keep talking about it, and I'm going to keep living my life...
There used to be conversations if I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists for the past three years or whatever it is, that's getting squashed out. So now the conversation is about shooting. Next year I'm going to become a better shooter. After that it'll be probably [be] my left foot is bigger than my right one. Who knows. So that's why, back to your point, I don't really care what people say, what they think about me, because it doesn't really matter. I know what I'm able to do and know what I'm able to do at a high level every night, and nobody else can do what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis, and I truly believe that. If they could, I'm pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can...
When you do so much at a high level, a lot of haters come. That's how life is, man. That's life, man. When you do so much, people going to try to pull and take away and try to take that away from you. But nobody can take away from me. I've been blessed, and I stay prayerful, stay thankful to be able to do what I'm able to do, and nobody can ever take that away from me, regardless of what it is, how many stories are written, how many stats are put up, how many numbers are put up.
Westbrook was asked if he has made the triple double "passé" by averaging a triple double for three straight seasons and he replied, "If it's passé, so be it. Let somebody else do it, or try to."

Here is Westbrook's resume:
Two notes:

1) Any attempt to suggest that the triple double is watered down now--or was watered down when Oscar Robertson became the only player to average a triple double in a season even once--is refuted by the simple fact that no one other than Robertson has come close to matching what Westbrook is doing. If the triple double were easy or watered down, then other players would be averaging triple doubles.

2) The NBA is designed to encourage and create parity--not to the extent of the NFL, but to a large extent nonetheless. Thus, 13 of the 15 Western Conference teams advanced to the Conference Finals at least once between 2000-2018 (only the Clippers and Pelicans failed to do so). However, just four teams made it that far at least four times: Spurs (nine), Lakers (seven), Warriors (four) and Thunder (four). The Thunder is the only team from that group that did not win a championship, but what Westbrook accomplished alongside Kevin Durant should not be blithely dismissed, because that is a level of team achievement that is rare in the NBA. The best and most dominant players from those teams--Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook--are a cut above just about everyone else who played in the NBA during that era. LeBron James, whose teams advanced to eight straight NBA Finals and nine NBA Finals overall while he played in the Eastern Conference, can be added to that list as well but few--if any--other players from that era combined that degree of high level team success with individual statistical dominance.

---

Westbrook is a 30 year old, 11 season NBA veteran who has already established himself as a first ballot Hall of Famer. He has also endured multiple knee surgeries that have clearly taken away some of his explosiveness and flexibility and those physical issues have affected his shooting percentages: he cannot finish at the rim like he used to, nor can he get the same elevation on his jump shot.

All great players need help to win a championship, and they need the right kind of help to mesh with their (many) skill set strengths and their (few) skill set weaknesses. The Warriors have dominated the NBA for the past four years by accumulating more star power than anyone else and then just overwhelming the opposition, though the Warriors have also featured good to excellent benches as well. LeBron James only won championships when he was surrounded by excellent shooters, plus big men who were willing to do the grunt work of setting screens and playing defense. Kobe Bryant won three championships alongside a dominant big man and then two more championships with a very good--but not great--big man. Tim Duncan won championships with ensemble casts containing a good mixture of shooting, defense and high basketball IQ.

Even when the Thunder had Durant along with Westbrook, there never was a season during which the team had the best or most suitable roster to complement Westbrook's game. The previous iteration of the Thunder was built around Durant and came very close to winning a title. The post-Durant version of the Thunder has been cobbled together year to year and is less than the sum of its parts because those parts, some of which may appear to be good in isolation, do not fit together properly.

Looking specifically at the first round series during which Portland beat Oklahoma City 4-1, Eddie Johnson of Sirius XM Radio correctly noted, "The Portland Trail Blazers have a better team around their two guards."

The Thunder's supporting cast is not well designed for the modern NBA playoffs. They do not shoot the three point shot particularly well, nor do they defend the three point shot particularly well. With each passing year, the NBA is becoming more and more like FIBA. As I have noted in many of my articles about Team USA's participation in FIBA events, it is not essential to shoot a high percentage from three point range to win at the FIBA level but it is essential to limit the opposing team's three point shooting percentage.

Portland made 12 more three pointers than Oklahoma City while shooting .405 from three point range compared to .331 for the Thunder. Paul George led the Thunder by a wide margin with 47 three pointers attempted but he made just 15 (.319). Meanwhile, Damian Lillard shot 26-54 (.481) from three point range and C.J. McCollum shot 17-38 (.447) from three point range. The Thunder could have survived George's subpar three point shooting if they had defended better.

NBA defense is not about one player or one matchup. It is about five players being, as coaches put it, "on a string." If that string breaks at any point, the whole string collapses. The Thunder put up good team defense numbers during the regular season but those overall numbers hid inconsistencies and flaws. The Thunder were prone to lapses and to giving up big runs; those things tend to be washed out when looking at 82 games' worth of numbers but they are magnified in a short series.

The Thunder either need a better defensive game plan, or they need players who are more committed to consistently executing the coaching staff's game plan.

At the other end of the court, the Thunder need an offense that consistently generates shots that are high percentage shots for the personnel that they have on the roster. That is largely on the coaching staff. The Thunder also need to surround Westbrook with a complementary supporting cast. That is the front office's responsibility for the most part, though the coaching staff plays a role in terms of developing the players who are on the roster to their maximum potential.

Ignoring the realities described above, it has become fashionable to blame most or all of the Thunder's problems on Westbrook's shot selection. It is true that his shot selection could be better. He does not shoot well from three point range but he attempts a large volume of three pointers.

Shot selection, particularly at the NBA level, involves a multi-factor analysis. The 24 second shot clock looms large. When teams pack the paint and the clock is ticking down, sometimes there is little choice but to launch a three pointer--and when that happens, the team's star player is stuck with the "hand grenade" (shot clock that is about to explode) more often than the team's other players (unless, like LeBron James and James Harden, he is skilled at ducking his responsibilities by chucking that "hand grenade" to one of his less-skilled teammates).

OK, one might answer, but why does Westbrook shoot them early in the clock? The point is that there is a chain reaction happening here; poorly run offenses often generate "hand grenades," and then the star may adjust by electing to shoot earlier in the shot clock because he knows that if he waits until late in the shot clock then he is going to end up with a shot from the same location that is more contested because the defender can crowd him, knowing that there is not enough time to drive.

Thus, while it is true that in an ideal world Westbrook would either (1) shoot fewer threes and/or (2) shoot a better percentage from three point range, the realities of the situation are more nuanced than most media members are capable of understanding and/or willing to report. On deadline, writing about a player who you don't like who just shot 6-20 (or whatever), it is much easier to write, "Westbrook is killing his team by shooting too much" as opposed to analyzing the game at a deeper level.

Looking at this issue even more deeply, there are many often repeated fallacies about shot distribution and about the capabilities of various players. A player's shooting percentage is affected by the defensive attention that is paid to the other players on the court. Thus, a player who shoots 4-8 on a particular diet of shots may not shoot 8-16 on a different diet, but media members love to count field goal attempts, look at field goal percentages and then draw broad (and wrong) conclusions. Think of Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry breathlessly counting Kobe Bryant's field goal attempts while also breathlessly ignoring everything else that happened during the game.

Put more simply, just because a star player shot 6-20 from the field and a different player on the same team shot 6-12 from the field one cannot necessarily conclude that the star should have shot less often and the other player should have shot more often. In many cases, those 12 "good" shots were created by the presence and skills of the star, while the star's 20 "bad" shots were a result of the overall functioning of the offense.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the coverage of the Portland-Oklahoma series is that George--a dark horse MVP candidate according to many media members during the regular season--shot worse than Westbrook on three pointers and free throws while also accumulating fewer rebounds, fewer assists and fewer blocked shots. If George is supposedly an MVP level player and supposedly the best player on the team then why do all of the media narratives blame only Westbrook for the Thunder's loss?

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All of this overreaction to one playoff series is reminiscent of the hack who wrote, 10 years ago, that game seven of the Lakers-Rockets series would be the defining moment of Kobe Bryant's career. That hack was no doubt eagerly anticipating that the Rockets would beat the Lakers; the media's decade-long love affair with Daryl Morey and the Rockets had just begun, while the media also loved to take unwarranted shots at Bryant.

Not surprisingly, after the Lakers beat the Rockets and went on to capture the first of their back to back titles in the second half of Bryant's career, that hack had nothing to say about the Lakers' game seven win over the Rockets or Bryant's subsequent Finals MVP.

Prior to the Houston series, Bryant had won three titles and had distinguished himself numerous times in postseason play. That game seven against Houston was important--all elimination games are obviously important--but by no stretch of the imagination would that one game define his career, win or lose.

Bryant won two of his five titles at the back end of his career with some of the weakest championship team supporting casts in recent memory, but the media consensus is that LeBron James--who has won three titles during his entire career--not only surpassed Bryant but is on par with Michael Jordan.

Perhaps the funniest thing about all of these comparisons is that the media purports to be ranking players by championships and then selects Jordan, who won six, as the standard, ignoring other all-time greats who won at least six titles. Bill Russell won 11. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six. Neither of those players had losing records in the Finals, let alone a mark as bad as James' 3-6.

If putting up elite individual statistics while winning the most championships are the benchmarks for being the greatest player of all-time, LeBron James is not even close to the top of the list; after Russell, Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan, there is Bryant (five), Tim Duncan (five), Magic Johnson (five) and Shaquille O'Neal (four), not to mention players who also won three titles and have to be in this conversation as well (Julius Erving, Larry Bird). There are also players who, while not quite individually on par with James, were great players in their own right who made significant contributions to multiple championship teams; that list includes John Havlicek (eight championships) and Scottie Pippen (six championships).

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 PM

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Friday, April 26, 2019

Toronto Versus Philadelphia Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Toronto (58-24) vs. #3 Philadelphia (51-31)

Season series: Toronto, 3-1

Philadelphia can win if…the 76ers' star-studded starting lineup lives up to the hype. The 76ers have been touted--and tout themselves--as a championship contender but, despite adding Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to a roster that advanced to the second round last year, the 76ers finished just fourth in the East, which means that they will have to win at least one road game to survive this series; they probably will need to win two road games, as the Raptors will likely win at least one game in Philadelphia.

Supporters of the so-called "Process" have been screaming "Mission Accomplished" for a while but the point of all of that tanking was to win a title, not lose in the second round of the playoffs. The reality is that Tanking Does Not Work, in addition to being bad for the sport in terms of not providing authentic competition and not providing full value to paying customers/sponsors.

The crown jewel of Sam Hinkie's Philadelphia tanking is Joel Embiid, who is talented, mercurial and injury-prone. Embiid has averaged 24.3 ppg, 11.4 rpg and 2.0 bpg in the regular season during his three year career but he has appeared in just 158 out of 246 possible games. Perhaps the most important "ability" is availability, but the 76ers rarely know for sure if, when, or for how long Embiid will be available; even when he plays, he often operates on a minutes restriction and he has barely averaged 30 mpg during his career.

Large basketball players who are injury-prone early in their careers rarely are able to have long, productive, injury-free careers; the likelihood is that Embiid's career will be short compared to other top level big men, and that he will not be able to lead a team to a title.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia's other young showcase player, had a reputation in college for not being a high energy player, and that reputation has held true for the most part in the NBA as well. Simmons is touted by some as the next Magic Johnson or a poor man's Magic Johnson, but Johnson was a better all-around individual player who also had a much greater tangible impact on team success.

Jimmy Butler is the only Philadelphia player who is consistently reliable in clutch situations but he will never be the main guy as long as Embiid is around. Butler knows this and does not like it, which could impact his decision to stay or leave after the season.

In short, the 76ers have assembled a lot of individual talent but it does not appear that they have assembled a legitimate championship caliber team.

Toronto will win because…Kawhi Leonard provides leadership, stability and production at both ends of the court that the Raptors have lacked during their recent playoff runs. He posted career-highs this season in scoring (26.6 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg). Leonard won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and he is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year (2015, 2016). His playoff scoring average has increased each year that he appeared in the playoffs, starting at 8.6 ppg in 2012 and peaking at 27.8 ppg so far in 2019 (just a tick above the 27.7 ppg he averaged in the 2017 playoffs; he missed the 2018 playoffs due to injury).

Only Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs know what caused the complete breakdown in the player-organization relationship and since both player and organization have long held to a strict omerta code the rest of us may never find out the real story. Whatever happened in San Antonio has not hindered Leonard's performance with his new team.

The only negative with Leonard in Toronto thus far has been "load management." Leonard missed 22 games--more than a fourth of the schedule--primarily, if not exclusively, to rest. "Load management" is not as bad as tanking but it is bad for the league. Perhaps there is some legitimate science behind the concept but if that is the case then--in the interest of player health and safety--the owners and players should collectively agree to shorten the season, which of course would also mean adjusting the salaries downward accordingly on a proportional basis to offset the lost ticket and media revenue.

Kyle Lowry is a very good regular season player whose playoff impact is highly questionable; he just flat out disappears at times. Anyone can have a bad half or even a bad game but Lowry has too many of them in the playoffs for a player of his ability. He did not make a field goal in Toronto's game one upset loss to Orlando in the first round but he bounced back the rest of the way as the Raptors won four games in a row. Lowry averaged 11.4 ppg and 8.6 apg in the first round.

Pascal Siakam ranked second on the team in scoring during the regular season (16.9 ppg) and he increased that number to 22.6 ppg versus Orlando while also leading the Raptors in rebounding (8.4 rpg) during that series. He, not Lowry, is the team's second best player, but the Raptors will not go very far unless Lowry brings something to the table to supplement the efforts of Leonard and Siakam.

Other things to consider: The 76ers built their team by tanking and then stockpiling draft picks. Many people believe that the 76ers have the best starting lineup in the NBA; they narrowly missed becoming the first team in league history to feature five players who each averaged at least 17 ppg during the regular season (Joel Embiid 27.5 ppg, Tobias Harris 18.2 ppg, Jimmy Butler 18.2 ppg, J.J. Redick 18.1 ppg and Ben Simmons 16.9 ppg). Golden State has the best starting five in the NBA until further notice; let's see the 76ers advance to the NBA Finals at least once before throwing so many flower petals in their direction.

In recent years, the Toronto Raptors have been an outstanding regular season team that just not figure out how to get past LeBron James in the playoffs. With James out of the picture, the path is clear for the Raptors to at least advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for just the second time in franchise history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM

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