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Sunday, March 22, 2020

"Rebel With a Cause": Danny Tarkanian Tells the Story of His Famous Father

In Rebel With a Cause: The True Story of Jerry Tarkanian, Danny Tarkanian writes with great passion and detail about his famous father. Jerry Tarkanian led UNLV to the 1990 NCAA Championship, and he owns one of the best winning percentages in Division I history. Jerry Tarkanian also dueled with the NCAA leadership for decades, and his son--who is an attorney who represented him in some of those proceedings--is uniquely equipped to describe those legal battles.

In the popular imagination, Coach Tarkanian and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski might be considered opposites, but Coach Krzyzewski has great respect for Coach Tarkanian. In the book's Foreword, Krzyzewski declared, "Coach Tarkanian is arguably the best defensive coach in college basketball history and certainly one of its greatest coaches. His teams applied relentless pressure defense, causing havoc to opposing teams, many times leaving them helpless."

Jerry Tarkanian's mother Rose escaped from the genocide committed by the Turks against the Armenians, and she instilled in Jerry a deep-seated compassion mixed with a strong sense that all people should be treated equally. Jerry Tarkanian coached teams to four straight California junior college championships, winning three at Riverside, and one at Pasadena City College. He achieved unprecedented success at that level, but Danny Tarkanian describes his father's legacy from those years as extending well beyond basketball titles: Danny cites several examples of players from impoverished, troubled backgrounds who might not have attended--let alone graduated--college without Jerry's mentoring, and Danny notes that these players then led accomplished lives after their playing careers finished. Danny draws a direct line from Rose's experiences in Armenia, and what she learned from those experiences, to Jerry's mission to help people who other colleges considered to be bad risks.

Coach Tarkanian took over the basketball program at Long Beach State in 1968, and instantly transformed a losing team into a powerhouse that posted a 122-20 record during the next five seasons. Perennial national champion UCLA, located just 30 miles away, refused to schedule a regular season game with Long Beach State. However, the teams met three straight years in the NCAA Tournament (1970-72), including a showdown in the 1971 West Regional Final; Long Beach State built a 12 point lead before losing 57-55 to a squad that went on to capture its fifth straight NCAA title.

Coach Tarkanian moved from Long Beach State to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) in 1973, and that is when his conflict with the NCAA began in earnest. Danny Tarkanian explains (p. 105), "The NCAA today operates as a self-serving, lucrative bureaucracy with a vindictive, all-powerful enforcement arm. Yet, the university athletic regulatory body's history tells us that, at one time, it was chiefly concerned with player welfare and safety." The second sentence refers to why the NCAA was founded: to end the on-field violence in college football, violence that claimed the lives of several college football players in 1905 (the exact number is disputed, and not relevant to this book review). The NCAA succeeded in that original mission, but later--under the direction of Walter Byers--it evolved into an organization primarily focused on two tasks: revenue generation, and regulation of the conduct of its member universities. The NCAA proved to be spectacularly successful at revenue generation, and very controversial in terms of regulation; as Coach Tarkanian famously said, "Recently, the NCAA got so mad at Kentucky, they put Cleveland State on probation for another two years." The legal concepts of due process and equal protection are generally absent from the NCAA's regulatory procedures.

Danny Tarkanian explains that the NCAA's rules regarding permissible scholarships and benefits that universities can provide to their athletes were created in an era when most of those athletes did not come from impoverished households. He asserts that no current big-time collegiate sports program can survive without violating the NCAA's rules, quoting former American University Coach Ed Tapscott (p. 112): "The crime in the NCAA is not in breaking the rules. It's in getting caught. We have our own MAD--Mutually Assured Destruction. There's a threshold of dirty linen we can all build up, and know that all of us agree tacitly not to disclose it. Because none of us could succeed without breaking the rules."

Sam Gilbert, a so-called "booster," provided a host of improper/illegal benefits to UCLA's basketball players from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, during which time Coach John Wooden led UCLA to an unprecedented run of 10 championships in a 12 year span, including seven in a row (1967-73). The NCAA did not take any action against UCLA during Wooden's run of championships, but in 1981--long after Wooden had retired, and after the Los Angeles Times conducted an in depth investigation--the NCAA determined that UCLA had committed over a decade's worth of violations. The NCAA did not vacate any of Wooden's championships, but only vacated UCLA's 1980 Final Four run, while also placing the basketball team on probation for two years. Coach Wooden denied having knowledge of Gilbert's activities, and it was never proven that Coach Wooden knew, but Coach Wooden also admitted that during that time he had "tunnel vision" and "trusted too much."

In the early 1970s, Coach Tarkanian wrote newspaper articles criticizing the NCAA's selective enforcement of its rules because the NCAA regularly went after small programs for minor violations while ignoring the consistent pattern of major violations committed by big schools such as UCLA and Kentucky. Danny writes that Coach Tarkanian later conceded that writing those articles proved to be a big mistake, as the NCAA then almost immediately turned its focus on him, and remained focused on him for the next three decades.

Coach Tarkanian enjoyed immediate success at UNLV, quickly elevating the program to perennial contender status. At the same time, the NCAA looked for any reason/excuse to slap penalties against Coach Tarkanian. Danny describes in detail the NCAA's attempts to intimidate witnesses/coerce testimony unfavorable to Coach Tarkanian, and the NCAA's determination to "get" Coach Tarkanian at any cost, including completely disregarding even the pretense of conducting a fair investigation. Danny notes that other coaches, including Lou Henson and Hugh Durham, advised Coach Tarkanian to befriend the NCAA investigators, accept whatever punishment is delivered, and hope that the NCAA decided to leave him alone after that; they felt that fighting the NCAA was fraught with peril.

Coach Tarkanian ignored their advice--and the NCAA "got" him: in 1977, without presenting any credible evidence of major rules violations, the NCAA Committee on Infractions voted to suspend Coach Tarkanian from coaching an NCAA team for two years. The NCAA Council upheld that decision, leaving Coach Tarkanian only one avenue to pursue: a lawsuit.

Coach Tarkanian filed suit against UNLV in Clark County District Court, alleging that his 14th Amendment due process rights had been violated. In other words, the manner by which the NCAA sought to terminate Coach Tarkanian's employment violated his rights under the U.S. Constitution. There are two due process rights: substantive and procedural. As Danny explains very clearly and concisely in the book, procedural due process relates to how the action was undertaken: the procedures that must be followed before a school suspends a child from school for a few days are not as stringent as the procedures that must be followed to convict a person of a capital offense--and, of course, there are a range of due process procedures in between those two examples. Substantive due process relates to proving that the defendant committed the charged offense based on credible evidence, as opposed to making a judgment that is arbitrary and capricious.

Coach Tarkanian's suit alleged that both his substantive and procedural due process rights had been violated. District Court Judge James Brennan agreed with Coach Tarkanian, declaring, "There is no legal, credible evidence to support the findings and the action of the NCAA...The Committee on Infractions, and its staff, conducted a star chamber proceeding, and a trial by ambush against the plaintiff...When one sifts through the evidence presented to this Court, the action demanded by the NCAA against the plaintiff can be reduced to one word: 'Incredible.'" A "star chamber proceeding" is a proceeding held in secret that produced an arbitrary result not supported by credible evidence. In layman's terms, the NCAA and UNLV sought to deprive Coach Tarkanian of his job without following proper procedures, and without presenting credible evidence that he had committed an offense.

Danny states that the NCAA had declined the opportunity to participate in the original case, but after the verdict was appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court the NCAA asked to be included. A review of the record indicates that it would be more precise to say that, even though the parties agreed that the NCAA was not a "necessary party" to the case, that agreement did not comport with the requirements of Nevada's civil procedure laws, and therefore the NCAA should have been served a summons, and listed as a defendant in Coach Tarkanian's initial lawsuit. Thus, the Nevada Supreme Court held that the NCAA is a "necessary party" to the case, and remanded the case to the Clark County District Court for a new trial.

After the remand, the Clark County District Court again ruled in favor of Coach Tarkanian: "The NCAA did not, and has not, 'heeded the bounds of reason, common sense and fairness,' and the decision by the NCAA was arbitrary and capricious. This case presents a classic example of how misperception becomes suspicion, which in turn becomes hostility, which leads, inevitably, to a deprivation of one's rights...what started out as an association whose members met, and exceeded, certain lofty goals, ended up as the NCAA-bureaucracy, which looks upon its friends with feigned pleasure, and its enemies with barely-concealed malevolence...The NCAA is an association which exists for the purpose of seeing that there is fair play; it also has the obligation to play fairly."

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld that decision. Coach Tarkanian had beaten the NCAA in court, and he kept his job! Moreover, as a result of Coach Tarkanian's lawsuit, the U.S. Congress investigated the NCAA's procedures, found them to be inadequate if not unlawful, and made 46 recommendations that the NCAA should institute. As you might suspect, none of this made the NCAA feel positively about Coach Tarkanian, who had challenged their power, and publicly exposed their questionable tactics.

Coach Tarkanian enjoyed great success at UNLV after leaving Long Beach State, even with the shadow of constant NCAA investigations looming in the background. Danny played point guard for his father at UNLV in the early 1980s. After graduating from UNLV, Danny went to law school, and he became a practicing attorney in Nevada for several years. One of Danny's favorite memories of playing for his father is the focus that Coach Tarkanian demanded from his players, insisting that they must be "mentally, physically, and emotionally ready to play." The physical aspect is developed during the off season and honed during practice, but mental and emotional preparation happened on game day. Coach Tarkanian said that every player should think about the mindset he would have if someone were about to come to his house and attack him; you would not play music, or be laughing and joking in that situation, so why would you play music, or laugh and joke before a game? Coach Tarkanian's teams spent their pre-game moments on the bus, and in the locker room, in focused silence.

Coach Tarkanian produced remarkable and sustained success throughout his NCAA coaching career, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament 18 times, advancing to the Final Four on four occasions, and winning the 1990 National Championship. Danny also notes that Coach Tarkanian emphasized the importance of academics, and he cites statistics that he says show that during UNLV's glory years on the court the team also had one of the best graduation rates among the nation's top 20 basketball programs.

However, Coach Tarkanian's battle versus the NCAA was not over. The NCAA appealed the Nevada Supreme Court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1988 issued a 5-4 decision reversing and remanding the portion of the Nevada decision that found the NCAA liable. Thus, UNLV was liable for suspending Coach Tarkanian in the 1970s because UNLV is a "state actor" employing Coach Tarkanian and, as such, was legally required to honor Coach Tarkanian's due process rights; however, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the NCAA is not a "state actor," and therefore is not required to honor Coach Tarkanian's due process rights. In layman's terms, even though the NCAA acted in a sleazy way, there is no legal remedy available to Coach Tarkanian regarding the NCAA's conduct--but he did have a legal remedy available regarding UNLV, so that part of the decision was upheld, and the Nevada Supreme Court subsequently ruled that UNLV must pay all of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees relating to his original due process lawsuit. The original ruling had required the NCAA to pay 90% of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees, while requiring UNLV to pay 10% of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees; after the U.S. Supreme Court let the NCAA off the hook, UNLV had to assume the portion of the liability that had first been taxed to the NCAA. UNLV appealed the ruling requiring the school to pay 100% of Coach Tarkanian's legal fees, and Coach Tarkanian prevailed in court on that issue.

Coach Tarkanian may not have been a saint, and his son may not be the most objective chronicler of his actions, but it is clear that the NCAA had a vendetta against Coach Tarkanian, and that the NCAA pushed the boundaries of ethics and the law to pursue that vendetta. Coach Tarkanian subsequently sued the NCAA, and the NCAA paid him a $2.5 million settlement after the organization's lawyers ran several mock trials and determined that Coach Tarkanian was likely to prevail in court. Coach Tarkanian's court victory against UNLV and his large settlement award from the NCAA set the stage for many other people to finally challenge the NCAA in court, a prospect that had previously been perceived as too daunting (which is why Coach Tarkanian's colleagues in the 1970s had urged him to back down).

It is important to note that the split U.S.Supreme Court decision--based on some odd reasoning that is a bit beyond the scope of this article--did not in any way justify or vindicate the NCAA's investigative and enforcement procedures; the decision merely held that the NCAA was not acting as a government entity, and thus was not liable for damages under the law that formed the basis for Coach Tarkanian's original lawsuit. This was a technical, hollow victory at best for the NCAA, as demonstrated by their willingness to pay a multi-million dollar settlement to Coach Tarkanian.

Not long after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the NCAA, the NCAA again attempted to impose sanctions against UNLV and Coach Tarkanian. Initially, the NCAA sought to ban UNLV from NCAA Tournament play in 1991 and 1992, which would have prevented the team from defending its 1990 championship. UNLV eventually worked out a deal with the NCAA to enable UNLV to play in the 1991 NCAA Tournament while accepting a ban from the NCAA Tournament in 1992 and 1993.

UNLV lost to eventual champion Duke in the Final Four in 1991, and Coach Tarkanian resigned after leading UNLV to a 26-2 record in 1992. Coach Tarkanian accepted an offer to coach the San Antonio Spurs in 1992, but he resigned after the team started the season 9-11. He returned to college coaching in 1995, compiling a 153-80 record in seven seasons at Fresno State, with two NCAA Tournament appearances and five NIT appearances. Danny asserts that the NCAA continued to target his father even after paying the $2.5 million settlement, and he makes the case that the NCAA's allegations pertaining to Coach Tarkanian's tenure at Fresno State fall into two categories: (1) minor infractions of the type that are committed by every basketball program but only selectively punished by the NCAA, and (2) false accusations of more significant violations for which the NCAA did not provide evidentiary support. Part of the problem--both for individuals fighting the NCAA, and for media members attempting to find out the truth--is that the NCAA is not required to publicly present its evidence. So, the NCAA asserts that Fresno State committed violations, Coach Tarkanian (and his son) deny this, and an outsider is left to assess who sounds more credible. Danny was an involved and affected party, so it would be difficult--if not impossible--for him to be objective, but that does not mean that he is wrong. Anyone who knows anything about the NCAA and its tactics, or anyone who reads the court proceedings involving Coach Tarkanian and the NCAA (as I have), understands that the NCAA does not have much credibility.

This book is clearly a labor of love for Danny Tarkanian, and it is a tribute to his father. The text would have benefited from more editing and fact checking (see below, but if you are interested in the behind the scenes details of Jerry Tarkanian's life and his coaching career then this book is worth your time and attention.


Some of the author's stylistic choices are awkward, and the book would have benefited from a more involved editorial touch, but I chose not to focus on that during the review. However, factual errors must be noted, and hopefully will be corrected in future editions:

1) On page 87, Mack Calvin is referred to as "an NBA Defensive Player of the Year recipient." Calvin never won that award, and during the time frame referenced in the book he was an All-ABA player who had not played in the NBA; after the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, Calvin played four seasons in the NBA, but he was not an All-Star and he was never selected to the All-Defensive Team.

2) On page 96, it is stated that Eddie Ratleff "turned down an $800,000 offer from the ABA (American Basketball Association) Indiana Squires..." The ABA had a team called the Virginia Squires, and a team called the Indiana Pacers, but there was never an ABA team called the Indiana Squires.

3) On page 167, University of Louisville player Darrell Griffith is referred to as "Darryl Griffin."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 AM


Thursday, March 19, 2020

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

Here is a quote from 16 years ago about the three point shot: "It was a great weapon when the players shot eight or nine times a game. Now it's way overused." Care to guess which former player turned TV commentator made that remark? The answer is none other than Steve Kerr, owner of the highest career regular season career three point shooting percentage in ABA/NBA history (.454), and the current coach of the Golden State Warriors--one of the teams most identified with the recent vast increase in the usage of the three point shot.

I first wrote about the evolution of the usage of the three point shot for NBCSports.com in March 2007, and then I posted an updated version of that article at 20 Second Timeout a few months later. The American Basketball Association (ABA) is associated with the three point shot and deserves credit for popularizing it, but it should be noted that the ABA did not invent the three pointer; it had been used in the American Basketball League (ABL) in the early 1960s, and there are reports that the three point shot was used experimentally in a college game (Columbia versus Fordham) in 1945. Some ABA teams incorporated the three point shot into their regular offense, but not all ABA teams did so, and overall the ABA teams did not shoot nearly as many three pointers as NBA teams currently shoot.

The three point shot disappeared from the professional basketball landscape for three seasons after the ABA/NBA merger in 1976, but then the NBA brought it back for the 1979-80 season. For the first part of the decade, most NBA teams only shot three pointers to beat the shot clock, or to beat the buzzer at the end of a quarter, or when they were down by three points with little time remaining in the game. By the end of the 1980s, many teams began to use the three pointer as part of their offense. The NBA shortened the three point arc to a uniform 22 feet (instead of 23 feet nine inches everywhere but the baseline corners) for the 1995-97 seasons, which led to a spike in three point usage that continued even after the league restored the original three point line in 1997-98.

In December 2016, I revisited the evolution of the usage of the three point shot. The growing acceptance of "advanced basketball statistics" had resulted in a significant increase in the usage of the three point shot, and that trend has continued in the past several seasons. NBA teams averaged a then-record 9.7 three point field goals made per game during the 2016-17 season, and that number increased to 12.1 three point field goals made per game during the suspended (but hopefully not concluded) 2019-20 season, so now is a good time to examine how the usage of the three point shot has continued to evolve.

As discussed in the two previous articles in this series, the three point shot has evolved from a rarely used novelty, to an occasionally used weapon, to a minor part of the offensive game plan, to a major part of the offensive game plan, to a central part of the offensive game plan. To understand the distinction between the latter two concepts, think back to the Houston Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, or the Orlando Magic with Shaquille O'Neal; the three point shot was a major part of the offensive game plan, but the primary focus was to first get the ball to the big man, and then shoot three pointers if the opponent double-teamed the big man. In contrast, now many teams are actively hunting three point shots while openly disdaining even wide open two point shots.

One might assume that adding a point per shot for long field goal attempts would increase overall scoring, particularly as the three point shot gained greater acceptance, but history shows otherwise. NBA teams averaged 110.3 ppg in 1978-79, the year before the league added the three point shot. Scoring held steady during the 1980s, and then declined throughout the 1990s. By 1995-96, scoring had fallen under 100 ppg (99.5 ppg) for the first time since 1956-57. NBA scoring reached its modern nadir in the lockout-shortened 1999 season (91.6 ppg), and did not recover to the 100 ppg level until the 2008-09 season, by which time the league had passed rules restricting defensive contact on the perimeter; these rules opened up the game, made it much more difficult to guard players on the perimeter, and--among other things--played a major role in helping Steve Nash to become a two-time regular season MVP. Scoring regressed slightly in the early part of the next decade, but has been on an upward progression for several years, peaking at 111.4 ppg in the 2019-20 season.

Having a three point shot rule does not, in and of itself, increase or decrease team scoring; scoring is impacted by many different factors, including other rules changes, new coaching philosophies, and skill set evolution (or decline, depending on your perspective).

There is also not a direct correlation between shooting a lot of three pointers and winning championships. The Golden State Warriors made five straight Finals appearances from 2015-19, winning titles in 2015 and 2017-18, but during that time they only once led the league in three pointers made--2016, the year that they lost to Cleveland in the Finals. The Warriors ranked second in three pointers made in 2015, fourth in 2017, eighth in 2018, and third in 2019. Here are the rankings for three point shots made by NBA championship teams since I wrote my first article about the evolution of the usage of the three point shot:

2008: Boston (eighth)
2009: L.A. Lakers (17th)
2010: L.A. Lakers (13th)
2011: Dallas (eighth)
2012: Miami (20th)
2013: Miami (third)
2014: San Antonio (12th)
2015: Golden State (second)
2016: Cleveland (second)
2017: Golden State (fourth)
2018: Golden State (eighth)
2019: Toronto (eighth)

During the 2019-20 season, the Milwaukee Bucks rank fourth in three pointers made, while the Toronto Raptors rank fifth, the Boston Celtics rank 13th, the L.A. Clippers rank 18th, the Denver Nuggets rank 24th, and the L.A. Lakers rank 25th. The three teams that have made the most three pointers--Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans--are unlikely to win the 2020 championship (assuming that the season is completed), and most of the rest of the top 10 teams are championship long shots at best (Miami, Minnesota, Utah, Portland, Brooklyn).

Even the championship winners/championship contenders that shoot a lot of three pointers are not teams that are built around three point shooting the way that the current Rockets are. The Golden State Warriors utilized the three point shot as a very effective offensive weapon, but the foundation for their championship success was their tremendous defense: the Warriors ranked first in defensive field goal percentage in 2015 and 2017 before slipping just slightly to third in 2018. Their 73-9 team in 2016 that lost in the NBA Finals ranked third in defensive field goal percentage.

In order to win games during which their shooting touch deserts them, a legitimate championship contender must be able to rely on consistently great defense.

While there is not much correlation between the three point shot rule and team scoring, or shooting a lot of three pointers and winning a championship, the increase in the usage of the three point shot has dramatically changed the shot charts for the league's most prolific individual scorers. During the first decade that the NBA used the three point shot, even the top scorers did not shoot a high volume of three pointers. Alex English, the NBA's leading scorer of the 1980s, scored 21,018 points during that decade while making just 16 three pointers. The next two players on that list made even fewer three pointers; Moses Malone scored 19,082 points in the 1980s while making three three pointers, and Adrian Dantley scored 18,157 points in the 1980s while making six three pointers. Only four of the decade's top 10 scorers made a least 100 three pointers during the 1980s, headlined by Larry Bird and Mark Aguirre; Bird ranked fourth in scoring (17,899 points) while making 455 three pointers, and Aguirre ranked eighth in scoring (14,488 points) while making 255 three pointers. Bird ranked second in the 1980s in three pointers made, trailing only Dale Ellis (472).

Only 11 players made at least 200 three pointers during the 1980s--but 12 players made at least 200 three pointers during the 2018-19 season! Each of the league's top 10 scorers during the 2019-20 season is averaging at least one three pointer made per game, and seven of those 10 players are averaging at least two three pointers made per game. Four of the top five scorers are averaging at least three three pointers made per game, led by James Harden, who ranks first in both scoring (34.4 ppg) and three point field goals made (271). Harden's Rockets have gone all-in with small ball, relying on volume three point shooting to overcome their lack of size/lack of rebounding, but after experiencing initial success the Rockets sputtered recently.

Was Kerr's assessment 16 years ago correct? Since there are no live NBA games now or for the foreseeable future, there is plenty of time to watch classic games from the 1980s and 1990s, and then compare those games--in terms of quality of play, and in terms of entertainment value--with the games that we have been watching recently. I am not opposed to the three point shot--I love the ABA, and I love shooting three pointers when I play pickup or rec league ball--but I prefer to watch basketball players and teams that utilize all areas of the court on offense, as opposed to basketball players and teams that jack up three pointers regardless of time, score, matchups or momentum because the "stat gurus" made the supposedly revolutionary discovery that three is more than two. I cannot say that there is a "right" number of three pointers per game (even though the "stat gurus" think that they can), but both in terms of winning championships and in terms of entertainment value I do not think that 30, 40, or 50 three point shot attempts per team per game--numbers that we are seeing on a regular basis in today's game--is optimal.

Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

Most Three Pointers Made

Year/League..Team..3 FGM..Player (team)..3 FGM

1967-68/ABA..Pittsburgh..243..Les Selvage (Anaheim)..147
1968-69/ABA..Kentucky..335..Louie Dampier (Kentucky)..199
1969-70/ABA..Kentucky..330..Louie Dampier (Kentucky)..198
1970-71/ABA..Indiana..306..George Lehmann (Carolina)..154
1971-72/ABA..Indiana..220..Glen Combs (Utah)..103
1972-73/ABA..Indiana..172..Bill Keller (Indiana)..71
1973-74/ABA..San Diego..216..Bo Lamar (San Diego)..69
1974-75/ABA..Indiana..224..Bill Keller (Indiana)..80
1975-76/ABA..Indiana..250..Bill Keller (Indiana)..123

1979-80/NBA..San Diego..177..Brian Taylor (San Diego)..90
1980-81/NBA..San Diego..132..Mike Bratz (Cleveland)..57
1981-82/NBA..Indiana..103..Don Buse (Indiana)..73
1982-83/NBA..San Antonio..94..Mike Dunleavy (San Antonio)..67
1983-84/NBA..Utah..101..Darrell Griffith (Utah)..91
1984-85/NBA..Dallas..152..Darrell Griffith (Utah)..92
1985-86/NBA..Dallas..141..Larry Bird (Boston)..82
1986-87/NBA..Dallas..231..Larry Bird (Boston)..90
1987-88/NBA..Boston..271..Danny Ainge (Boston)..148
1988-89/NBA..New York..386..Michael Adams (Denver)..166
1989-90/NBA..Cleveland...346..Michael Adams (Denver)..158
1990-91/NBA..Portland..341..Vernon Maxwell (Houston)..172
1991-92/NBA..Milwaukee..371..Vernon Maxwell (Houston)..162
1992-93/NBA..Phoenix..398..Dan Majerle (Phoenix)/Reggie Miller (Indiana)..167
1993-94/NBA..Houston..429..Dan Majerle (Phoenix)..192
1994-95/NBA*..Houston..646..John Starks (New York)..217
1995-96/NBA*..Dallas..735..Dennis Scott (Orlando)..267
1996-97/NBA*..Miami..678..Reggie Miller (Indiana)..229
1997-98/NBA..Seattle..621..Wesley Person (Cleveland)..192
1998-99/NBA^..Houston..336..Dee Brown (Toronto)..135
1999-00/NBA..Indiana..583..Gary Payton (Seattle)..177
2000-01/NBA..Boston..592..Antoine Walker (Boston)..221
2001-02/NBA..Boston..699..Ray Allen (Milwaukee)..229
2002-03/NBA..Boston..719..Ray Allen (Milwaukee-Seattle)..201
2003-04/NBA..Seattle..723..Peja Stojakovic (Sacramento)..240
2004-05/NBA..Phoenix..796..Kyle Korver (Philadelphia)/Jason Richardson (Phoenix)..226
2005-06/NBA..Phoenix..837..Ray Allen (Seattle)..269
2006-07/NBA..Phoenix..785..Arenas (Washington)/Bell (Phoenix)..205
2007-08/NBA..Orlando..801..Jason Richardson (Charlotte)..243
2008-09/NBA..New York..823..Rashard Lewis (Orlando)..220
2009-10/NBA..Orlando..841..Aaron Brooks (Houston)..209
2010-11/NBA..Orlando..770..Dorell Wright (Golden State)..194
2011-12/NBA^^..Orlando..670..Ryan Anderson (Orlando)..166
2012-13/NBA..New York..891..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..272
2013-14/NBA..Houston..779..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..261
2014-15/NBA..Houston..933..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..286
2015-16/NBA..Golden State..1077...Stephen Curry (Golden State)..402
2016-17/NBA..Houston..1181..Stephen Curry (Golden State)..324
2017-18/NBA..Houston..1256..James Harden (Houston)..265
2018-19/NBA..Houston..1323..James Harden (Houston)..378

* The NBA shortened the three point arc to a uniform 22 feet (prior to and subsequent to these three seasons the three point arc was 22 feet in the corners and 23 feet nine inches elsewhere).

^ Season shortened to 50 games by a lockout.

^^ Season shortened to 66 games by a lockout.

Bold indicates an ABA/NBA record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

COVID-19, the NBA, and Unanswered Questions

It was surreal to watch in real time last Wednesday night as an NBA game, an NBA season, and then life as we know it disappeared before our eyes. I feel like we are all now living in an X-Files movie, but Mulder and Scully are not here to seek the truth.

So many questions, and so few answers.

I understand that as soon as one NBA player became infected with COVID-19 the league had to shut down, at least temporarily, to evaluate the situation. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is being hailed as a visionary, but it is more honest to say that he is a realist. How can a season continue with possibly five or six teams under quarantine? Anyone with sense knew that as soon as one NBA player tested positive for COVID-19 the season had to be suspended.

I don't understand why ESPN was in such a rush to publicly announce the name of the infected player, possibly before he even had an opportunity to communicate this news to his family. It is OK to mention Rudy Gobert's name now, because he has gone public to talk about the situation, but that was not the case when his name was first broadcast by ESPN.

SIRIUS XM NBA Radio's Jason Jackson and Amin Elhassan--the former used to work for ESPN, while the latter is still employed by the network--had a thoughtful, in depth discussion of why it is meaningless (and, at times--like this time--harmful) for a media member to report something "first" as opposed to being both accurate, and also sensitive to larger issues. It was sufficient for ESPN to report that a player had tested positive. As Elhassan noted, the NBA and/or the player would have revealed the rest in short order. Elhassan pointed out a recent, and even worse, example of being "first" as opposed to being accurate, and being sensitive to larger issues: the initial "reporting" about the helicopter crash that took Kobe Bryant's life was a confused and confusing mixture of wrong-headed speculation pertaining to who exactly had perished. It was falsely reported that Bryant's former teammate Rick Fox was on the helicopter, and it was also falsely reported that more than one of Bryant's daughters were aboard. Being "first" and wrong is worse than meaningless. It is irresponsible, if not evil.

I understand that once the NBA suspends its season, most other sports organizations are going to follow suit.

I don't understand why Gobert's situation is not being studied more closely by medical professionals who are trying to figure out how to deal with COVID-19 (if Gobert's situation is being studied, I apologize for suggesting otherwise). The initial, breathless reporting--including referring to Gobert as "Patient Zero"--suggested that Gobert was going to singlehandedly infect, if not imperil, a large number of people, including the players and support staff from the Utah Jazz plus opposing players and other people with whom he came into contact after becoming infected. Much was made of Gobert intentionally touching reporters' microphones/recorders just two days before he tested positive; much less has been made of an interview given by a reporter covering the Jazz who stated that medical officials told all of the media members covering the Jazz that what Gobert did had a very low risk of transmitting COVID-19. That is not meant to suggest that what Gobert did was anything other than stupid, reckless and possibly dangerous, since he had no way to properly assess the potential consequences when he engaged in those actions. However, media coverage focusing incessantly on what Gobert did without providing any proper medical context to the actual risk is misleading at best, and panic-inducing at worst.

Presumably all of those people who came in close contact with Gobert have been tested, and it turns out that only one other person directly connected to Gobert has COVID-19: his teammate Donovan Mitchell (whose name I mention only because Mitchell has also gone public to discuss the situation). Note that even though there was a report that a fan who received an autograph from Gobert at a Utah Jazz game has COVID-19, medical officials have stated 1) that Gobert was not infected/contagious at the time he signed the autograph, and 2) that interaction was not likely to have transmitted the disease even if Gobert had been infected at that time.

I wear many hats--father, lawyer, basketball commentator, chess player--but I am not a medical doctor or an epidemiologist. I don't pretend to have any expertise about how contagious COVID-19 is, or how deadly it is. So, what follows are honest, sincere questions, with no subtext. If a medical doctor or epidemiologist reads these words, feel free to post a comment to enlighten me and my readers.

If COVID-19 is as contagious as it is depicted to be, and if Rudy Gobert had the kind of sustained, direct contact with so many people that one can reasonably assume that he had after he became contagious but before he was isolated, then why is there only one infection directly connected to him? Whole countries are being shut down, and millions of lives are being disrupted on the premise that this disease is highly contagious. More than one media outlet has reported that one person in New York singlehandedly infected over 100 people.

Shouldn't somebody with medical expertise be looking into why Gobert is not very contagious, and why this other person supposedly is so contagious? Do we not have all the facts? Did Gobert somehow infect more people than we know? That seems doubtful based on how many people connected to him have already been tested. Is the one person in New York possibly not responsible for infecting over 100 people? If Gobert only infected one person, but this other individual infected over 100 people, then what actionable knowledge can we gain from those two situations to limit the spread of this disease? Alternatively, if this other individual only infected one or two people, then other method(s) of disease transmission involving the rest of the folks incorrectly linked to that individual presumably would have implications for the effort to slow the spread of the disease.

Gobert felt well enough to play NBA basketball on the night that he tested positive. By all accounts, Donovan Mitchell is doing fine, too.

Are people who are younger than a certain age and reasonably healthy seriously at risk?

I understand the concepts of "flattening the curve," and the importance of minimizing how many people get sick so that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed--but shutting down the entire country will also have a serious impact on the economy, on mental health, and ultimately on physical health. An autopsy can prove if someone who died had COVID-19. An autopsy cannot prove that someone who died would have lived if not for the transformative disruptions of society that are increasing on a daily basis to mitigate the spread of a disease that we do not understand very well.

Is it possible that protectively isolating the elderly and the most vulnerable without shutting down the whole economy would lead to a better outcome, both in terms of disease mitigation, and the mitigation of other negative outcomes?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions--but I know that these are very important questions, and that they need to be answered intelligently not only to deal with this crisis, but to deal with whatever the next crisis will be.

I extend my deepest sympathy to all the family and friends of those who have died as a result of COVID-19, and to all those who are suffering as a result of the mass disruptions of society, and I hope that there are better days ahead for all of us as soon as possible.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:39 AM


Monday, March 09, 2020

Focused and Forceful LeBron James Leads the Lakers to Back to Back Wins over Bucks, Clippers

The L.A. Lakers defeated the L.A. Clippers 112-103 on Sunday night to push their Western Conference-leading record to 49-13. The Lakers had lost both of their previous games against the Clippers this season, with LeBron James being held well below his season scoring average and field goal percentage. This time, James finished with 28 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds while shooting 7-17 from the field, but those numbers do not tell the story of James' dominance; sometimes, James will put up gaudy statistics without impacting the flow of the game, but this is an instance where the box score understates his impact: James attacked the hoop to score, he took the challenge of guarding Kawhi Leonard for extended stretches, and he set a mental and physical tone that his teammates followed. With the result up for grabs in the fourth quarter, James scored 12 points in the final stanza to put the game away. He only shot 3-8 from the field to compile those 12 points, but his aggressive drives took over the game. Being the best player on the court, and helping your team win games, is about a lot more than just putting some pretty numbers in the box score.

One sequence told the story of the game: LeBron James attacked Kawhi Leonard from the left block, drove to the middle of the lane, elevated for a shot, and overpowered Leonard, who fell to the floor while fouling James as James scored. A "stat guru" will tell you that a post up shot is worth two points, and is not as efficient as a three point shot--but that ignores the reality of competition. Prior to the game, ESPN showed a revealing film clip from one of the James-Leonard NBA Finals showdowns; James was at the free throw line, and as Leonard checked back into the game James said "Aw, shucks" (or words to that effect): it was obvious that James wanted no part of dealing with Leonard, and that has been one of the most puzzling things about James throughout his career, because most great players love to compete against other great players. If you have ever played basketball at any level, you know what it means for your team's confidence when the best player on your team can take the best player on the other team; if you have ever played an individual sport such as chess, or tennis, or boxing, you know what it feels like when your opponent is afraid of you.

I am not saying that Leonard is afraid of James--but the point is that, at least in this game, James was not afraid of Leonard, and that had an impact on the Lakers that no statistic can directly measure.

This version of LeBron James is much more valuable than the version of LeBron James who drifts around the perimeter, collects a triple double, and does not control the game.

The Lakers were ahead 85-81 after three quarters, and they are now 42-0 this season in games that they led at the end of three quarters. That ability to maintain/extend leads is important, and should serve the Lakers well during the playoffs; they are demonstrating the ability to play to their strengths and be consistent, in contrast to a team like the Houston Rockets that relies on gimmicks and three point shooting, resulting in tremendous variance from game to game, and even from quarter to quarter.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 30 points, and he also grabbed eight rebounds. The Clippers often left Avery Bradley open while they tried to cope with James and Davis; Bradley punished the Clippers by scoring 24 points on 9-17 field goal shooting, including 6-12 from three point range.

Paul George scored a game-high 31 points on 9-16 field goal shooting, but he did most of his damage in the first half (19 points, 7-12 field goal shooting), and he disappeared in the fourth quarter with the outcome of the game in doubt. This kind of performance should concern Clippers' fans: the numbers look great, but an elite player should impact the game in some fashion down the stretch. Kawhi Leonard did not play poorly, but he also did not have the impact that one would expect based on his previous success head to head against LeBron James and against LeBron James' teams. Leonard scored 27 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, but he shot just 2-9 from three point range, and he only had two rebounds and no assists. Montrezl Harrell had a strong game in every sense of the word, muscling his way to 20 points, eight rebounds, and two blocked shots. Lou Williams scored just seven points on 3-11 field goal shooting; he also was targeted on defense by the Lakers on several late possessions, as the Lakers set screens to force switches so that Williams ended up as the defender on the ballhandler.

The Lakers' win over their biggest Western Conference rival comes just two days after the Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 113-103 to tie the head to head season series at 1-1. The Bucks have separated themselves from the rest of the NBA with a 53-11 record, but they may be falling back to the pack: not only have they lost three of their past four games, but Sunday's loss to Phoenix marks the first time this season that the Bucks lost consecutive games. Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out the Phoenix game due to a knee injury, and that injury is expected to cause him to miss at least one more game.

LeBron James played at an MVP level versus the Bucks (37 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, 12-21 field goal shooting), attacking the hoop to score on offense, while also taking the challenge of guarding Antetokounmpo late in the game; it should be noted that Antetokounmpo also played at an MVP level (32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, 10-21 field goal shooting), and that the difference in this particular game was that James' supporting cast--led by another MVP candidate, Anthony Davis (30 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots)--outplayed Antetokounmpo's supporting cast.

James' statistics on Sunday versus the Clippers were not as impressive as his statistics versus the Bucks, but in both games he played with the focus, intensity, and physicality that the Lakers will need from him if they are going to win the championship.

Recency bias and the addiction to "hot takes" could provoke some people to treat the Lakers' wins over the Bucks and Clippers as definitive statements about team supremacy, and about the 2020 MVP race, but it is worth taking a look at the bigger picture before drawing conclusions.

Here is the Lakers' record this season versus the league's other top teams:

Milwaukee: 1-1
L.A. Clippers: 1-2 (one game remaining)
Denver: 2-1 (one game remaining)
Toronto: 0-1 (one game remaining)
Boston: 1-1

Total: 5-6 (plus three games remaining)

Here is the Bucks' record against the elite teams:

L.A. Lakers: 1-1
L.A. Clippers: 2-0
Denver: 0-1 (one game remaining)
Toronto: 2-0 (two games remaining)
Boston: 1-1 (two games remaining)

Total: 6-3 (five games remaining)

The Bucks have been more consistent than the Lakers over the course of the season, but perhaps the Lakers are peaking at the right time. If James plays throughout the playoffs the way that he played on Friday and Sunday, the Lakers will be very difficult to beat.

James has had an excellent season by any standard, and a remarkable season for a 35 year old in his 17th season. James is leading the league in assists (10.7 apg) while also ranking 11th in scoring (25.6 ppg) and maintaining averages close to his career norms in rebounding (7.8 rpg; 7.4 rpg for his career), steals (1.3 spg; 1.6 spg for his career), field goal percentage (.499; .504 for his career), and three point field goal percentage (.347; .344 for his career). Leading the league in assists is nice, but in order to win the championship the Lakers need for James to attack the paint as a scorer like he did versus the Bucks and versus the Clippers, and not just be a big John Stockton, so it is significant that James is on pace to set the all-time single season scoring record for a player who is at least 35 years old while playing in his 15th season or later.

According to BasketballReference.com, there have been 19 players in NBA/ABA history who have compiled a total of 29 seasons during which they averaged at least 15 ppg in their 15th season or later while being at least 35 years old on February 1 during the season, and while playing enough games to qualify for the league's statistical leaderboards (this list does not include the current campaigns of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, who are each on pace to join this group). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone are the all-time leaders with four such seasons each. From 1984-87, Abdul-Jabbar won two championships, captured the 1985 Finals MVP, made the All-NBA Team three times (including two First Team selections), and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting three times (fourth in 1984, fourth in 1985, fifth in 1986). His peak scoring average during that time frame was 23.4 ppg (1986), and he averaged at least 21.5 ppg in three of those four seasons. Abdul-Jabbar accomplished more as an "old" player than some Hall of Famers did during their entire careers!

From 2000-03, Malone made the All-NBA Team twice and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting once (fourth in 2000). His peak scoring average during that time frame was 25.5 ppg, and he averaged at least 20.6 ppg in each of those four seasons.

James is on pace to break Malone's single season ppg record for a player who is 35 or older in at least his 15th season; in the past 35 years or so there has been a significant increase in the number of such players who are still big-time scorers: when Julius Erving averaged 18.1 ppg as a 36 year old in his 15th season (1985-86), that was the fourth highest scoring average ever for a player 35 or older in at least his 15th season--trailing only three Abdul-Jabbar campaigns--but now Erving's scoring average ranks 14th on the list (and will be 15th barring a collapse down the stretch by James). Erving turned 35 toward the end of the 1984-85 season, when he averaged 20.0 ppg as the second best player on a Philadelphia team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics.

Of course, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, and James are much taller and bigger than Erving; since Erving retired, the only "mid-size" older players who have exceeded Erving's 18.1 ppg mark are Michael Jordan (20.0 ppg as a 40 year old in 2003), Paul Pierce (18.6 ppg as a 35 year old in 2013), and Clyde Drexler (18.4 ppg as a 35 year old in 1998). Erving had 82 blocked shots in 74 games as a 36 year old guard/forward (and he had 94 blocked shots in 60 games as a 37 year old in his final season); in the seasons listed above, Drexler had 42 blocked shots in 70 games, Jordan had 39 in 82 games, and Pierce had 30 in 77 games. James has 30 blocked shots in 59 games this season. Erving also had 169 offensive rebounds, tied with Karl Malone for fourth best among the 35-plus year olds in their 15th season or later who averaged at least 15 ppg, trailing only Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neal. James has 57 offensive rebounds so far this season.

James may be having the best regular season ever by a player who is at least 35 years old who has played at least 15 seasons, but the above numbers show that when people talk about great players who maintained their elite athletic ability at an advanced age Erving's name should be mentioned--and Abdul-Jabbar set a four year standard that even James may find hard to match.

Some people assumed that after NBA salaries exploded we would see fewer long careers, but the opposite has happened: why would anyone walk away from making millions of dollars per year?

James is on the short list of 2020 regular season MVP candidates, but 2019 regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has been even better this season in several key statistical categories than he was last season:

2019: 27.7 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.5 bpg, .578 FG%, .256 3FG%, .729 FT%
2020: 29.6 ppg, 13.7 rpg, 5.8 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.0 bpg, .547 FG%, .306 3FG%, .633 FT%

Furthermore, Antetokounmpo's Bucks have been so dominant that he has only had to play 30.9 mpg (he averaged 32.8 mpg last season, and 36.7 mpg two years ago), and he often plays sparingly, if at all, in the fourth quarter. Despite playing fewer minutes than James, Antetokounmpo is scoring more points and grabbing more rebounds than James while shooting better from the field. While it may be true that the Bucks benefit from playing in a weaker conference than the Lakers, it is indisputably true (as noted above) that the Bucks have performed better against the elite teams than the Lakers have.

James is an MVP candidate, which is a rare and remarkable accomplishment for a 35 year old, and his past two games may be his best, most impactful games of this season--but it would be odd to determine the MVP winner based on one or two games out of an 82 game season. Antetokounmpo has been the best player in the league over the entire course of the season, and he deserves to win the MVP again, barring something significant and unforeseen happening during the season's final weeks.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM


Friday, March 06, 2020

Clippers Rout Misfiring Rockets

The L.A. Clippers beat the Houston Rockets 120-105 on Thursday night--and the game was much more one-sided than even that 15 point margin suggests: the Clippers led 107-77 midway through the fourth quarter before the Rockets made a late, meaningless rally during what Marv Albert often calls "extensive garbage time."

This game was hyped as a battle between Western Conference contenders, but in reality this game demonstrated the difference between a Western Conference contender and a Western Conference pretender. The Clippers are a complete team: they are well-coached, they are well-balanced (with a good mixture of size, speed, playmaking, and shooting), they are deep, they play hard at both ends of the court, and they are led by Kawhi Leonard, a proven champion and a tremendous all-around player. In contrast, the Rockets are a flawed team: they stubbornly play one way no matter what (as TNT's Charles Barkley noted at halftime with the Clippers leading 67-44, the Rockets have no plan B), they lack size, they don't fully utilize the depth/talent that they have, they often do not play hard, and they suffer serious confusion about who is their best player.

Ever since the "stat gurus" made the revolutionary (to them) discovery that a three pointer is worth more than a two pointer, they have convinced themselves that the optimal basketball strategy is to minimize, if not eliminate, two point field goal attempts. The "stat gurus" do not look at matchups, they do not look at size, they do not consider physical or mental fatigue, they dismiss psychology, and they just keep repeating "Three is more than two." According to them, post play is dead, an antiquated relic from a primitive era before "stat gurus" dispensed basketball enlightenment to the unwashed masses. According to them, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal would not be as effective in today's game as they were during their eras because those two dominant big men could neither make three pointers nor guard players who shoot three pointers.

Taking these beliefs--and they are much more akin to religious beliefs than scientific theories that have been tested--to their logical extreme, the Rockets have gone all-in with a small ball lineup. Not surprisingly, the Rockets have been outrebounded in every game that they have played since trading away starting center Clint Capela--but, according to the "stat gurus," rebounding does not matter because "three is more than two." Supposedly, that extra point per shot compensates for lack of size, for the inevitable fatigue that will affect small players who are guarding bigger players every game, and for being outrebounded every game.

Small ball can work during the regular season against teams that are mediocre or worse. It can even work occasionally against good teams. However, small ball is unlikely to work four times against a good team in a seven game playoff series. Even if the Rockets make a high percentage of their three point shots in a given game, they could still lose if their opponent pounds them in the paint--and the Rockets will almost certainly lose every single game against a good team when they shoot 7-42 (.167) from three point range, as they did against the Clippers.

Rockets' supporters will say that the bad three point shooting was an aberration. That is true in a literal sense--the Rockets typically shoot better than .167 from three point range--but in a larger sense this kind of woeful shooting accompanied by no plan B is something that you can expect to see at least once per playoff series. By playing this way, the Rockets are giving away at least one game per playoff series. That might work in the first round, but it is unlikely to work after the first round. Relying on volume three point shooting is willingly submitting yourself to a high variance outcome: you might shoot 21-42 from three point range (though that is unlikely to happen very often in the playoffs against a good team that is focused on playing defense), but you also might shoot 7-42 from three point range.

Back to Chamberlain and O'Neal for a moment. Would you take either of them over Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell? Zubac scored 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting while grabbing 12 rebounds in 20 minutes versus the Rockets. He had a plus/minus number of +23. Harrell had 19 points on 5-9 field goal shooting while snaring 10 rebounds in 22 minutes. He has a plus/minus number of +3 (being on the court during garbage time deflated that number, which is a good example of why plus/minus numbers in a small sample size are often not the best way to evaluate a player's impact on winning). Chamberlain was a world class track and field athlete; until the last few seasons of his career, O'Neal was very mobile and surprisingly agile. If Zubac and Harrell can go 17-12 and 19-10 against Houston while playing less than half of the game, what would Chamberlain and O'Neal do? For Chamberlain, who routinely played 48 minutes during his prime, a 70-40 game versus this Houston team is not out of the question; for O'Neal, 60-25 seems like a reasonable projection.

Leonard was brutally efficient: 25 points, six rebounds, five assists, 8-15 field goal shooting in 29 minutes. You can't speed him up or slow him down, and you can't make him take a bad shot; he plays at his own pace, he takes the shots that he wants, and he may be the most disruptive defensive player of his size since Scottie Pippen was in his prime. Paul George contributed 13 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while shooting 5-13 from the field; he finished third in last season's regular season MVP voting, and he led the Indiana Pacers to back to back Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 2013-14, but it is difficult to picture him being the best player on a championship team. George is in the perfect role with the Clippers; Leonard carries the weight on most nights, and George chips in here and there without being depended upon to be the main guy. George has all of the tools to be a superstar--he is big, he is quick, and he can shoot, pass, rebound, and defend--but there is just some element that is missing in terms of putting his imprint on a game, a series, and a playoff run the way that guys like Leonard, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James have done while leading their teams to championships and winning seven of the past eight Finals MVPs.

Russell Westbrook led both teams with 29 points and 15 rebounds. He led the Rockets with five assists. He played hard, and he attacked the hoop relentlessly, but he was often the only Rocket with two feet in the paint, and the larger Clippers harassed him into 11-27 field goal shooting. Westbrook is Houston's best player, and any success that they have had since going all-in on small ball is attributable to running the offense through Westbrook. Without Westbrook's drives to the hoop and his remarkable rebounding as a 6-3 point guard, the Rockets would struggle to win half of their games as currently constituted. Of course, they likely would not have traded Capela if they did not have Westbrook; as I noted in a recent article, the Capela trade is a "Jedi mind trick" that forces Harden to play harder on defense while also shifting the emphasis on offense away from Harden and toward Westbrook. Houston's only chance to have any sustained playoff success is to hope that Westbrook's forays to the hoop can compensate for the games when the Rockets shoot a very low percentage from three point range--but, as this game showed, when the Rockets are missing a ton of three pointers and are too stubborn to try anything else (other than Westbrook driving), even Westbrook cannot stem the tide.

Harden was the third option when he played alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. The only things that Harden has added to his game since that time are flopping, traveling, and a higher volume of three point attempts at the expense of shot attempts from other areas of the court, so it is amusing that so many so-called analysts cling to the belief that Harden is Houston's best player. Harden scored 16 points versus the Clippers on 4-17 field goal shooting, including 0-8 from three point range; we saw "playoff Harden" weeks before the playoffs begin! One sequence was very interesting: Harden had an opportunity to score an uncontested fastbreak layup, but he slowed down to try to bait Patrick Beverly into fouling him ("stat gurus" insist that free throws are better than two point field goal attempts)--and Beverly delivered a hard foul so that Harden would not have a three point play opportunity. Beverly was assessed a flagrant foul 1. Harden split the pair of free throws, and then the Rockets did not score on the possession that they received as a result of the flagrant foul. Harden made the "analytically correct" play by drawing a foul, and Beverly made the "old school" play of not letting someone score a layup. The result was that instead of Harden just converting an easy two points, the Rockets ended up with one point. This is a great example of how the Rockets are outsmarting themselves by treating basketball as if the sport is nothing more than rows of numbers on a spreadsheet.

Data driven decision making using analytics that are accurate, complete and relevant has revolutionized many fields, including my field (the legal profession)--but the Rockets are not effectively utilizing analytics: they are instead committing themselves to a style of play that quite obviously is not likely to produce a championship. This is the logical, inevitable result of hiring Daryl Morey well over a decade ago, and it will be interesting to see what direction the Rockets take after they are eliminated from the 2020 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 AM


Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Antetokounmpo-Harden Comparison is No Comparison

"I wish I could be 7 feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I'll take that any day.--James Harden, making a not so veiled reference to Giannis Antetokounmpo

The notion that there is a "feud" between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden is nonsense created by ESPN, and then hyped up by ESPN and other media outlets to boost ratings and internet clicks. There is not a Giannis Antetokounmpo-James Harden "feud" because Antetokounmpo is too mature to get involved in such foolishness. Antetokounmpo is focused on leading his Milwaukee Bucks to this year's NBA championship, not on arguing about who should have won last year's regular season MVP or who should win this year's regular season MVP.

There are two stories here: one is about objectively comparing the two players on a skill set basis, and the other is about the insights we can gain into the mentality of the two players.

Scottie Pippen, who has never been afraid to speak his mind, cut to the chase in response to Harden's comment to Rachel Nichols that he is unstoppable: Pippen noted that Houston is not in the top three in the West, so clearly someone is able to stop him! Harden thinks that if he scores 35 points then he is "unstoppable" even if his team loses, but six-time NBA champion/two-time Olympic gold medalist Pippen understand that in a team sport the goal is team victory, not individual glory.

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

I refuted the absurd notion that Harden is the best offensive player of all-time, and I demonstrated that Harden should not be ranked ahead of Michael Jordan as a scorer, so I refer the interested reader to those two articles as an introduction to rebutting the Harden mythology that has taken hold in many quarters--including, apparently, in Harden's mind (assuming that he believes his public statements about himself).

Strip away the hype that has piled up over the past several years, and it is evident that Harden is a perennial All-Star caliber player, but also that he is not an elite player on the level of (in no particular order) Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant (when healthy) and Stephen Curry (when healthy). One funny aspect of the Antetokounmpo-Harden comparison is that, while Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league, it is not even clear that Harden is the best player on his own team. The Rockets pulled a Jedi-mind trick on Harden by going all-in with the small ball lineup: playing small forces Harden to be attentive on defense (he will be easily exposed if he is not, because the other four small players play hard) while also shifting him more often to the post at that end of the court (Harden is much better at post defense than at perimeter defense); further, while many people may have wrongly assumed that small ball is meant to unleash Harden, the truth is that after Houston committed to small ball Harden's numbers have been dropping while Westbrook's numbers are surging, and it is not coincidental that this shift in emphasis has corresponded with the Rockets being more successful as a team. The only way that Houston has a chance to win a championship is with Westbrook leading the way on offense by relentlessly attacking the hoop while all five small players hustle and scrap on defense and on the boards, a point that I made in my 2019-20 Western Conference Preview: "If the Rockets let Westbrook run the offense, attack the hoop and pass to open shooters when he is trapped then they will have a virtually unstoppable offense--and if the Rockets also commit to consistently playing hard and smart on defense then they will be serious championship contenders."

Harden is a good shooter (at least in the regular season) who is physically strong and durable. He is a capable, if not creative, passer; Houston's system places shooters in designated spots, and when Harden elects to stop dribbling and not shoot he is competent at making passes to those shooters; these could be called "Mike D'Antoni assists," and there are many point guards in the NBA who could rack up assists playing Harden's role. Harden is also effective at delivering lob passes to cutters. Harden rebounds well for his size, and he is a sturdy low post defender when he decides to engage mentally at that end of the court; he is often inattentive and ineffective as a perimeter defender, and he is generally awful at making the transition from offense to defense, particularly when the opposing team is running a fast break. Harden has repeatedly choked in the playoffs, and his inability to be at his best when it matters most puts into question just how meaningful his gaudy regular season numbers are.

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

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

Switching from a skill set comparison to a mentality comparison, the regular season MVP is an obsession for James Harden, and for the Houston Rockets as well. Harden won the 2018 MVP, and he finished second in 2015, 2017 and 2019. He has been very outspoken in his belief that he should have won the award each of the times that he placed second, and the Rockets have not been shy about publicizing (slanted) statistics to try to support Harden's contentions. It is evident that the regular season MVP means more to Harden than winning a championship; if this were not true, then Harden would be focused on adapting his game to postseason play to optimize his team's winning chances as opposed to talking so much about why he should be voted as the best regular season player. Harden forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he craved individual glory, and could not stomach the notion of being the third option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, even though that was Harden's best chance to win a title; he could have been the Manu Ginobili of this era, winning multiple rings, but it was more important to him to chase the scoring title and the MVP award.

In contrast, Antetokounmpo has not lobbied for the MVP award, and prior to this season he said that he should not be referred to as the reigning MVP because last season is over, and therefore he has to prove himself all over again. Antetokounmpo has worked on his outside shooting and his decision making; now, when opposing teams pack the paint against him he is making the correct passes, or he is punishing them by hitting open jumpers. He is upgrading his skill set to be ready for the postseason. He plays hard all the time, and you can tell that his focus is winning, not individual statistics.

Antetokounmpo's growth curve, skill set and mentality suggest that he could be a Pantheon level player. To accomplish that, he must prove to be consistent and durable, and he must elevate his team to perennial championship contention.

Harden is in a different, lesser category. Every time Harden opens his mouth, and every time Harden bricks a three pointer during the playoffs, he tells us a lot about his mentality and his game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 PM


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Are the Milwaukee Bucks a Historically Great Team?

This season, NBA media coverage has focused a spotlight on--in no particular order--the new-look Lakers, the new-look Clippers, the emergence of Luka Doncic as an MVP candidate, Joel Embiid's every utterance (no matter how silly or inconsequential), rookie Zion Williamson (who will miss more than half of the season even if he plays in every game the rest of the way), the return of Carmelo Anthony, Houston going all-in on small ball, and every single real and imagined source of drama with the two New York teams.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks are on pace to become just the third team in NBA history to win at least 70 regular season games. The first team to win a least 70 regular season games, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10), is arguably the greatest team of all-time; the Bulls won the title that season, and then won the next two titles as well. The second team to win at least 70 regular season games, the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9), had already won the 2015 title and then, after losing in the 2016 Finals, won the next two championships after acquiring Kevin Durant.

In other words, although the sample size of 70 win teams is small, each of the two teams that  accomplished this feat proved to be a dynasty that won multiple championships.

No one seems to think about or talk about the Bucks in those terms, even though the Bucks went an NBA-best 60-22 last season. Perhaps some of the skepticism about the Bucks stems from the fact that the Bucks squandered a 2-0 lead versus the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, but consider that if the Bucks had won game three of that series (a contest that went to overtime) they likely would swept the Raptors and then beaten Golden State to win the title.

The Bucks were a championship-caliber club last season, and rather than making any excuses about falling short they have come back this season with renewed focus and energy. You have to look long and hard to find any weaknesses with this team: the Bucks lead the league in scoring (120.8 ppg), point differential (12.2 ppg), defensive field goal percentage (.412), and rebounding differential (5.9 rpg). They also rank second in field goal percentage (.483), third in blocked shots (6.8 bpg), and fifth in assists (26.2 apg). Perhaps the only slight blemishes are that the Bucks are in the middle of the pack in three point field goal percentage (.362, 15th), and they are near the bottom of the league in free throw percentage (.738, 27th).

The Bucks also have the 2019 regular season MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who sets a mature tone for this team: he refuses to be called the reigning MVP--stating that he must prove himself all over again this season--and he refuses to work out with players from opposing teams during the offseason. Antetokounmpo is confident but humble, and he has worked very hard to become a complete player: he scores, he rebounds, he passes, he defends, and he leads. He is not a pure shooter, but he is an improving shooter, and the many things that he does at the highest level more than make up for the one skill that he does not do at the highest level (which is not to say that he should be--or is--satisfied with his shooting). 

The Bucks are 50-8 after winning 108-97 in Toronto in the second game of a back to back set, and the Bucks had already clinched a playoff berth earlier in the season than any other team in NBA history. The defending NBA champion Raptors built a double digit first half lead, but the Bucks trimmed that margin to 52-50 by halftime, and then the Bucks dominated the third quarter 34-19.

The Raptors had a good game plan against the Bucks (keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint, make him play in a crowd, and then fire up a ton of three pointers on offense), and the Raptors executed reasonably well--but they still lost by double digits. Antetokoumpo had an off game by his high standards--but he finished with 19 points, 19 rebounds, and eight assists, though he shot just 5-14 from the field. Khris Middleton led the Bucks in scoring with 22 points on 7-14 field goal shooting. Middleton is on pace to average more than 20 ppg while shooting at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range, and at least .900 from the free throw line. The only members of the 20 ppg .500/.400/.900 club are Stephen Curry, Larry Bird (twice), Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant. Anteotokounmpo is the best player in the NBA, but it takes nothing away from his greatness to acknowledge that Middleton is an exceptional player in his own right.

Pascal Siakam topped the Raptors with 22 points, but he had a -20 plus/minus number, tied for the worst in this game. The Raptors know that they will struggle on the boards against the Bucks (Milwaukee won the rebounding battle 53-43), and they tried to compensate with long-range bombing, making 18 of their 52 three point attempts.

The 2007 Dallas Mavericks went 67-15 during the regular season before losing to Golden State 4-2 in the first round in the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. At that time, the only other NBA team to win at least 65 regular season games and not capture the championship was the 1973 Boston Celtics, who lost 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion New York Knicks after Hall of Famer John Havlicek suffered a shoulder injury; the Celtics won two of the next three championships.

Since 2007, the 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16, lost in the Eastern Conference Finals), the 2016 San Antonio Spurs (67-15, lost in the Western Conference semifinals), the 2016 Golden State Warriors (73-9, lost in the NBA Finals), and the 2018 Houston Rockets (65-17, lost in the Western Conference Finals) each failed to claim the title after winning at least 65 regular season games. Perhaps the failures of these recent 65-plus win teams create skepticism about the Bucks. I wonder if tanking plus decline in the overall depth of talent in the NBA has made it relatively easier for a team to win 65-plus games; other than the 2016 Warriors (who, as noted above, were in the midst of winning three titles in four seasons), none of these 65-plus win teams that failed to win a title will be much remembered or talked about 10 or 20 years from now. There is no reason to believe that any of those teams would win a seven game series against 65-plus win teams from the 1980s such as the 1983 76ers, 1986 Celtics, or 1987 Lakers.

However, there are good reasons to think that the Bucks are cut from a different cloth than the 65 win teams that fell short. Start with Antetokounmpo. He is playing at a higher overall level than the best player on any of those teams did. I saw 2009 LeBron James in person, and I have seen 2020 Antetokounmpo in person, though not as many times as I saw James, and there is no doubt in my mind that this Antetokounmpo is a better, more complete player than that James; Antetokounmpo does not quit, does not enter "chill mode," and he has been an elite defender for a while. Then, consider that the Bucks have surrounded Antemkounmpo with a well-balanced supporting cast, led by a legitimate All-Star/All-NBA caliber player in Middleton.

The main challenge for the Bucks will be to overcome defenses that load up against Antetokounmpo while packing the paint. Contrary to the oversimplified story lines provided by many media members, this is not a challenge for Antetokounmpo alone, nor is it entirely the responsibility of Coach Mike Budenholzer to make the proverbial (and overrated) "in game adjustment." There is not one magic answer to such defenses. At times, Antetokounmpo needs to shoot the face up jumper with confidence, to punish defenders who concede such shots to him. At times, Anteotkounmpo needs to quickly and decisively pass the ball to the open man--but it is that player's responsibility to position himself in a spot where he can immediately shoot, drive, or make the next pass. Poise and proper spacing are critical, because defenses that play two or three on one versus Antetokounmpo inevitably are conceding open shots elsewhere on the court. The Bucks must dictate who is taking those shots, and from where those shots are being taken.

Against Toronto last night--particularly in the second half--the Bucks deftly exploited the holes in Toronto's defense. Sometimes, Middleton cut through the paint and Antetokounmpo hit him with a pinpoint pass. Other times, Antetokounmpo gave up the ball, and his teammates responded with poised aggression.

Injuries can derail any team at any time; we saw that last season with the Warriors. It is also possible that the Lakers, Clippers, or maybe even the Celtics will prove to be better than the Bucks over the course of a seven game series.

However, the Bucks have shown and proved enough during the past year and a half that it is not ridiculous to compare them to the 65-win teams of the past. I did not expect Milwaukee to be quite this good this season--no one did--but I did pick Milwaukee to be clearly the best team in the East this season. Where are all the "experts" who said that deciding not to re-sign Malcolm Brogdon proved that the Bucks were not serious about trying to win a title? Declining to overpay Brogdon was a smart choice, and the Bucks were also smart to retain the rest of their core players.

If you have not already seen the Bucks play, make sure that you do so. Also, take note of how often media members try to goad Antetokounmpo into saying something stupid (recent attempts have related to Embiid calling himself the best player in the world, and Drake showing up at last night's game with some wrestling championship belts)--and how Antetokounmpo does not insult the media members, but also does not take the bait. Anteokounmpo is focused on improving his individual skills to help his team win games, and he does not get distracted by anything else.

So, are the Milwaukee Bucks a historically great team? That question can only be answered in the playoffs--but the Bucks are doing all of the right things to distinguish themselves from the rest of the league.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:41 AM


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Happy 70th Birthday, Julius Erving!

It is hard to believe that my favorite basketball player of all-time and childhood hero Julius Erving celebrated his 70th birthday today. His combination of skill, grace, competitive greatness, and class are rare, if not unique.

I have already written many articles totaling tens of thousands of words about Erving (there is a whole section in 20 Second Timeout's right hand sidebar containing links to those articles); I have probably written more about Erving than anyone other than the beat writers who covered him for 11 years in Philadelphia.

So, what is something new or different that I can say about Erving on this milestone birthday?

One thing came to mind yesterday as I watched Zion Williamson, who has started his rookie season in sensational fashion; ESPN showed several graphics noting that in a variety of categories Williamson is putting up scoring numbers (in terms of most 20 point games and most 30 point games in his first 10 games as a professional) that have not been seen since the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan. I know that ESPN and most other major media outlets ignore ABA numbers, so I wondered how many 20 point games and 30 point games Erving had in the first 10 games of his rookie season, and these are Erving's 1971-72 scoring numbers as listed at BasketballRefererence.com: 21, 20, 17, 26, 31, 35, 21, 30, 19, 17.

That adds up to 23.7 ppg, with seven 20 point games (including three 30 point games). Erving's early rookie numbers are right up there with the numbers that ESPN listed for Jordan (27.3 ppg, eight 20 point games, three 30 point games), O'Neal (23.8 ppg, seven 20 point games, two 30 point games), and Williamson (22.1 ppg, eight 20 point games, two 30 point games). Individual rebound totals, individual assist totals, and field goal percentage numbers are not available at BasketballReference.com for those games, but Erving averaged 15.7 rpg, and 4.0 apg while shooting .498 from the field as a rookie, so one can reasonably assume that his numbers in those categories in his first 10 games were very good. Erving almost certainly outrebounded Williamson (probably doubling Williamson's numbers). Erving's Virginia Squires went 7-3 during those games, and Erving eventually led the Squires to the Eastern Division Finals while averaging 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg, and 6.5 apg during the playoffs (those are not typos).

Erving posted remarkable numbers throughout his career, and he did so in spectacular fashion, using his huge hands, tremendous leaping ability, and fantastic body control to literally and figuratively take the game of basketball to new heights.

Not only are Erving's numbers underrated--if not completely ignored--but Erving's status as a great winner is not accorded proper emphasis. Erving's teams reached at least the Conference Finals (called the Division Finals early in his career) 10 times during his 16 year career, winning six times. Erving won three championships, and he was the Playoff MVP during two of those three championship runs (he made the All-NBA First Team and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting as a 33 year old 12 veteran during his last championship season). Three of the six times that Erving's teams did not reach at least the Conference Finals happened in his final four years, when he was between 34 and 37 years old; for the vast majority of Erving's career, he led his teams to the "Final Four" on a nearly annual basis.

Erving's teams made the playoffs and did not have a losing record in each of his 16 seasons, an accomplishment unmatched in any of the major North American team sports at the time that Erving retired in 1987. In five of his first six NBA seasons, Erving's Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs by that season's championship team, led by a Hall of Fame center (the 76ers featured Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins at center during that era, a period in basketball history when it was almost impossible to win a title without a top flight big man).

It turns my stomach when anyone suggests that Erving was more flash than substance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Erving had both flash and substance: his teams won often, and won big, while Erving established himself as arguably the most exciting player of all-time (that is a subjective title, and he is my choice; other people may choose differently).

Happy Birthday, Dr. J! Thank you so much for the memories, and may you enjoy many, many more years!

Selected Articles About Julius Erving

Happy 60th Birthday, Dr. J! (2010)

Julius Erving's Best Scoring Streaks/Most Productive Scoring Months (2015)

Julius Erving's Legend Resonates Nearly 30 Years After He Retired (2016)

Imagining the Young Julius Erving Playing in Today's NBA (2017)

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Shane Battier on Guarding Kobe Bryant: "The Absolute Pinnacle of Challenge in my Profession"

Ben Cohen's February 10, 2020 Wall Street Journal article titled "He Didn't Know Kobe. But He Did" (subscription required) details Shane Battier's experiences playing against Kobe Bryant. Battier's approach to guarding Bryant became a hot topic for discussion after Michael Lewis wrote about this in the New York Times in February 2009, and I wrote several articles about this subject as well; links to some of those articles are provided below.

Battier always spoke intelligently and realistically about his matchups with Bryant, and this is true of his conversation with Cohen. Battier told Cohen that Bryant was the most difficult player for him to guard, and the one player he never quite figured out: "He was the only guy. What Kobe represents is the absolute pinnacle of challenge in my profession. He made me feel the most alive I ever did on the basketball court. I knew I had to be at my absolute best. If I wasn't, I was in serious trouble. Even when I was, I was in serious trouble."

Battier enjoyed not only the physical challenge of matching up with Bryant, but also the psychological game within the game. "I always prided myself as a guy who could get in the mind of another player," Battier said, and he added that his best psychological duels were those versus Bryant: "Nothing in my life has even come close to replicating that."

Battier first faced Bryant in 2002, during Battier's rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Bryant outscored Battier 56-6--and Bryant did not play in the fourth quarter! Bryant shot 21-34 from the field and did not commit a turnover in 34 minutes of action. Battier said, "Everyone remembers his 81 point game. There's no question he would've scored 80 points if he'd played the fourth quarter."

Battier declared that the best defensive game of his career was Houston's 104-92 win over the L.A. Lakers on March 23, 2008. That victory extended Houston's winning streak to 22 games, a streak that ended when they lost their next game by 20 points to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. Bryant scored 24 points in 47 minutes, but he shot just 11-33 from the field. Battier has no illusions about being able to stop Bryant, but Battier took pride in making things as difficult as possible for Bryant, and in trying to encourage Bryant to settle for the shot that Battier considered to be Bryant's weakest (weakest being a relative term): the long two point jumper off the dribble moving to the left.

Battier regrets that he and Bryant never shared time together off of the court to discuss their matchups: "The physical battles were what they were, but there are very few people who could understand the psychological battles. I don't think I could have that conversation with anybody else in the world."

A Partial List of 20 Second Timeout Articles About Kobe Bryant and Shane Battier:

1)  Shane Battier Talks About Kobe, LeBron--and Chess (January 14, 2009):

I interviewed Battier one on one in Cleveland after Battier's Rockets lost 99-90 to LeBron James' Cavaliers. Among other subjects, Battier explained the difference between guarding Bryant and guarding James:
In transition, you really have to find Kobe (on the perimeter). LeBron has improved his three point shooting but with Kobe you really have to start looking for him once he crosses halfcourt. But with LeBron, you better know where he is when he crosses the other free throw line because if he has a step and he is going full bore he is tough to stop in transition.
2) Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0 (April 4, 2009):

Daryl Morey insisted that LeBron James is the NBA's best player, and is unguardable, but the results from that season showed otherwise: 
Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).

3) "He Can't Guard Me": Bryant Says It and Bryant Proves It (May 7, 2009):

Bryant did not rest on his regular season laurels, but he went straight at Battier during the 2009 playoffs:
Kobe Bryant has apparently heard more than enough about Shane Battier's defensive prowess; Battier played good defense against Bryant in Houston's game one win over the Lakers and Bryant still scored 32 points with a solid .452 field goal percentage. In game two, Bryant's actions and words both spoke loudly as he poured in 40 points on 16-27 (.593) field goal shooting in a 111-98 Lakers victory; on several occasions, Bryant loudly proclaimed, "He can't guard me," eventually receiving a technical foul for taunting. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history to have at least one 40 point game in four straight postseasons; Michael Jordan had eight year (1985-92) and four year (1994-97) streaks, while George Mikan (1948-51), Elgin Baylor (1959-62) and Allen Iverson (1999-02) each had four year streaks.
4) Energetic Lakers Shut Down Rockets in Game Seven (May 18, 2009):

The Rockets did not shut Bryant down during the 2009 regular season, and they did not shut him down during the 2009 playoffs, either: 
In my series preview I wrote, "This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use 'advanced basketball statistics' to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range." While Bryant did not match his exceptional regular season production versus Houston, during this series he still averaged 27.4 ppg on .453 field goal shooting and .344 three point shooting. Bryant averaged just 1.6 turnovers per game in the series despite being guarded by All-Defensive Team members Artest and Shane Battier and despite being almost constantly double and triple teamed; Bryant had no turnovers in two of the games and his series-high four turnovers took place in the Lakers' 118-78 game five rout. Bryant averaged 26.8 ppg and 2.6 tpg in the regular season while shooting .467 from the field and .351 from three point range, so there is an 11 game sample size (four regular season games versus Houston plus this playoff series) that suggests that even with two All-Defensive Team members at their disposal the Rockets' "stat gurus" have not been able to prove--on the court, where it counts, as opposed to in newspaper articles--that their "advanced metrics" give them any kind of real advantage versus Bryant. In fact, after the Rockets seized homecourt advantage with a game one win and could have taken control of the series with a game two victory Bryant bounced back with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting, a clutch performance in a must-win game for the Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM