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Thursday, September 17, 2020

L.A. Lakers Versus Denver Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 L.A. Lakers (52-19) vs. #3 Denver Nuggets (46-27)

Season series: L.A., 3-1

Denver can win if…Nikola Jokic is the best player in this series to the same extent that he was the best player as the Nuggets defeated the Clippers in seven games in the second round. In that series, Jokic led both teams in scoring (24.4 ppg), rebounding (13.4 rpg), and assists (6.6 apg) with shooting splits of .515/.395/.815. Jokic outplayed 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (24.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.9 apg, .442/.359/.872) overall, and particularly when it mattered most in game seven (16 points, 22 rebounds, 14 assists for Jokic; 14 points, six rebounds, six assists for Leonard). Jokic is a gifted scorer who is one of the best passing big men ever. He is not a great defender but he is solid enough--both in his individual matchup and in switches--that he is not a liability, plus he is a tremendous defensive rebounder. 

Jamal Murray was great versus Utah in the first round (31.6 ppg) but he struggled initially versus the Clippers before finding his way as the Nuggets recovered from a 3-1 deficit. The Lakers' strength is upfront with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, so it is very important for Denver that Murray decisively win his matchup.

L.A. will win because…LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be the two best players on the court. James' resume speaks for itself, but what is perhaps most remarkable about the four-time regular season MVP/three-time NBA champion/three-time Finals MVP is how dominant and durable he still is despite his age (35) and years of service (17). Perhaps only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and Karl Malone have played at an equivalent level this deep into their respective careers. Davis is a potent scorer, excellent rebounder, solid passer, and elite-level defender; when he is focused and when he is attacking the paint at both ends of the court he is as good as any player in the league.

It is fashionable to ridicule the Lakers' supporting cast; that is standard operating procedure for the James-adoring media: if James wins then he can be portrayed as a basketball superhero--and if he loses, he can still be portrayed as a basketball superhero who carried a supposedly ragtag group farther than any other mortal could have. The Lakers have a first ballot Hall of Famer coming off of the bench (Dwight Howard), a Hall of Fame caliber guard coming off of the bench (Rajon Rondo), a championship-tested "3 and D" swingman in Danny Green, a potential future All-Star in Kyle Kuzma, and several other solid role players. Compare that group to the 2002 Lakers; Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant won their third straight title despite their third leading playoff scorer (Derek Fisher) shooting .357 from the field. Compare that group to the 2009 Lakers; Kobe Bryant's supporting cast consisted of a player who had been a one-time All-Star prior to joining the Lakers (Pau Gasol), with the third option being career underachiever Lamar Odom, the fourth option being career journeyman Trevor Ariza, and the fifth option being Fisher, who shot .394 from the field during that playoff run. Bryant molded that group into championship form; Gasol is a future Hall of Famer in large part because of the time he spent playing with Bryant, and most of the other Lakers' starters would not have started for the other elite playoff teams of that era. In contrast, Anthony Davis proved to be an elite player before joining forces with James, and the rest of the roster includes several established veterans and several young, upcoming players. It does not in any way diminish James' individual greatness to tell the truth and state that James has more than enough help to win a championship, and he has more help than many other stars have had during their championship runs.

Other things to consider: There is no excuse for the Lakers to not win the 2020 championship. The other three top contenders--the Milwaukee Bucks, the L.A. Clippers, and the Toronto Raptors--have already been eliminated. This means that the Lakers will not have to face either of the top two teams from the Eastern Conference, nor will they have to face the second seeded team in the Western Conference. James and Davis should be the two best players on the court the rest of the way during the playoffs and, as noted above, their supporting cast is more than adequate. The delayed postseason with no home court advantage has been filled with oddities--including the nominal "road" team winning all seven games in the Boston-Toronto series, and both of the top seeded teams in the Eastern Conference failing to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the current playoff system began in 1984--but the chaos has worked out perfectly for the Lakers, who have been relatively drama-free as their rivals have dropped off one by one.

James has proven more than once that he has what it takes to lead a team to a title, but he has also proven more than once that he can shrink under the pressure on the biggest stage. Although he played a pivotal role in Cleveland's 2016 NBA Finals comeback from a 3-1 deficit, he has a tendency to be a frontrunner, and it will be interesting to see how he responds if the Lakers face real adversity at any time during the 2020 playoffs (a 1-0 deficit versus a vastly inferior team such as Portland or Houston does not count as real adversity).

During the 2020 playoffs, the Nuggets have twice looked lethargic while falling into 3-1 holes only to rally to win the series. At one point, Coach Michael Malone resorted to publicly pleading with his team to play hard. The Clippers have been roasted for turning it on and turning it off, but the Nuggets have displayed inconsistent effort and efficiency throughout the 2020 playoffs. However, the Nuggets are also a talented team that has ranked among the Western Conference elite for the past two years, and they have proven that they can stay calm under the most dire circumstances and conditions. If their effort and energy level is consistently high then they could make this series very interesting. I predict that the Lakers will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:57 AM


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Resilient Nuggets Stun Clippers in Game Seven

Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a problem. The Denver Nuggets proved to be an insurmountable and unsolvable problem for the L.A. Clippers after the Clippers took a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game five to stave off elimination, but at that time it still seemed likely that the Clippers would close out the series. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game six to stave off elimination, and suddenly the Clippers faced the pressure of a game seven without the usual benefits of home court advantage. The Nuggets overcame a double digit second half deficit to win game seven--and win convincingly, 104-89. You can argue about which team has more talent, but there is no argument about which team is mentally tougher and which team is more disciplined about following the game plan regardless of whether the point differential is +10 or -10.

Nikola Jokic was the best player on the court in game seven and he was also the best player in this series. In game seven, Jokic had 16 points, a game-high 22 rebounds, and a game-high 13 assists. He only shot 5-13 from the field, but he put his stamp on the game with his rebounding dominance and his pinpoint passing. As ESPN's Tim Legler masterfully showed when he broke down the game seven footage, the Clippers had no answer for the Nuggets' two man game with Jokic and Jamal Murray, mainly because of Jokic's tremendous decision making and peerless passing skills. Jokic gave the Clippers a simple, brutal choice on most possessions: Which way do you want to die? Do you want to die by a pass to the baseline cutter, a pass to the wing three point shooter, or a one legged runner by Jokic? Jokic kept asking the Clippers how they wanted it, and he kept giving it to them. By the fourth quarter of game seven, the Clippers looked like a mentally broken team, collapsing under the weight of defensive breakdowns, shots fired off of the side of the backboard, and careless turnovers.

Jamal Murray made headlines with his record setting scoring as Denver came back from a 3-1 deficit versus Utah in the first round, but you could argue that Jokic was the best player in that series as well, particularly after Jokic had 30 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists in game seven while Murray was limited to 17 points on 7-21 field goal shooting. Murray was outstanding in game seven versus the Clippers, pouring in 40 points on 15-26 field goal shooting. He is not only a gifted one on one scorer but also a key part of the two man game with Jokic. Jokic-Murray is the not the duo promoted the most by the NBA, but it is the duo playing the best in the 2020 playoffs.

While Denver deserves a full measure of praise for winning this series, this result is not the equivalent to a 16th seed in the NCAA Tournament pulling off an upset against improbable odds. The Nuggets posted the second best record in the Western Conference in 2019, and they finished with the third best regular season record in the Western Conference in 2020. This team has consistently ranked near the top of the league for the past couple years. Yet, there is no doubt that this is an upset considering the championship or bust expectations rightly placed on the Clippers after they acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Also, the Nuggets were an uninspiring 3-5 in the seeding games, while the Clippers went 5-3 to preserve the second seed in the Western Conference. Prior to the start of the playoffs, few if any people outside of Denver's locker room expected this team to beat the Clippers in a seven game series.

The Nuggets deserve a lot of credit. They won this series, even though the mainstream media take will likely insist that the Clippers lost the series because the Clippers not only had a 3-1 lead but also had double digit second half leads in each of the final three games. Who cares which team had what kind of advantage before the final buzzer? The goal is to be the first team to win four games, not the first team to build big leads. It has been said that if the Indianapolis 500 were the Indianapolis 400 then Mario Andretti might have won more of them than anyone; I am as big of a Mario Andretti fan as anyone, but I am sure that he would be the first to say that the point of that race is to lead the 200th (final) lap, not to lead the most laps or to to be the leader at lap 100 or lap 150. The Clippers' big leads do not prove that they were the superior team; the Nuggets' four wins prove that they were the superior team. The Nuggets may be the 2020 version of the mid-1990s Rockets, a two-time champion whose Coach Rudy Tomjanovich declared, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!" Denver is the first team to recover from two 3-1 deficits in one postseason, and the first team to win six straight elimination games. 

What went wrong for the Clippers? It is fair to wonder how much the load management philosophy hindered the Clippers from establishing the rhythm and the espirt de corps needed to win a tough seven games series. Teams are built when playing tough back to back games, or when finishing out the fourth game in five days. Often--if not always--Kawhi Leonard sat out those games, and thus the Clippers never built the foundation of their team. They assumed that with all of their talented players on the court during the playoffs everything would just work out, but they never put in the work as a unit to make that into a reality.

The Raptors got away with load management last season, but in general load management is not a recipe for success. A championship team is a finely tuned machine that can withstand tough times; the Clippers often looked unfocused, and they lacked poise when the Nuggets came back in the second half of three straight games. It seemed like the Clippers expected the Nuggets to just succumb, and that the Clippers had no idea what to do when the Nuggets kept resisting. Load management is based on the idea that some games and some possessions are more important than others; once you start down that slippery slope, it can become difficult to convince a team to play hard all of the time. The expectation used to be that great players strive to play all 82 games; I am not sure when exactly that changed, but the San Antonio Spurs are often given credit/blame for load management, so it is worth noting that the Spurs have won just one title in the past 13 years after claiming four titles in nine years prior to embracing load management. Tim Duncan played in at least 80 games in six of his first 10 seasons (and he played all 50 games in the lockout shortened 1999 season), but he never played in 80 games in a season after 2007. 

Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be the best player in this series, but Jokic outplayed him, and you could even argue that Murray's impact matched Leonard's impact. In game seven, Leonard had 14 points on 6-22 field goal shooting, six rebounds, and six assists, looking nothing like the two-time NBA Finals MVP who dominated the 2019 NBA playoffs while leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise's first championship. In the second half of game seven, Leonard shot 1-11 from the field on contested shots. Leonard usually not only gets to his spots at his speed, but he usually converts a high percentage of those shots; against the Nuggets--particularly in the final three games of the series--he did not always get to his spots, and he was much less efficient than usual. Once the other Clippers realized that Leonard was not going to just save the day by himself, they looked tentative, shaken and scared in the second half of each of the last three games. In particular, Paul George--always a bit of an overhyped player (he should not have finished third in MVP voting last season)--fell apart, scoring 10 points in game seven on 4-16 field goal shooting, with several of his misses caroming wildly and threatening the safety of the unwary.

Toronto's second round loss to Boston indicated that the Raptors needed Leonard's star power to get over the hump--but the Clippers' second round loss to Denver indicated that perhaps Leonard needed a supporting cast based on grittiness and toughness as opposed to raw talent. The Clippers sans Leonard are more talented than the Raptors sans Leonard, but who would you take now in a seven game series?

It would have been so much better for the NBA if LeBron James had stayed in Cleveland the first time, if Kevin Durant had stayed in Oklahoma City, and if Kawhi Leonard had stayed in Toronto. Instead of great players pursuing the fantasy of finding the perfect sidekick or the perfect supporting cast, it would be wonderful to see great players following the examples set by Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki.

Perhaps Jokic and Murray will spend their whole careers chasing championships together instead of pursuing personal glory. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Lakers Rout Misfiring Rockets to Advance to Western Conference Finals

The L.A. Lakers dominated the Houston Rockets in game five of the Western Conference semifinals, taking a 13-2 lead at the start of the game and never trailing en route to a 119-96 victory. The Lakers advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since Kobe Bryant led the team to the second of back to back titles in 2010. The Lakers outrebounded the Rockets 50-31, and outshot the Rockets from the field .527 to .371. The Lakers also set a single game franchise playoff record for three pointers made (19) while shooting .514 from beyond the arc. In contrast, the Rockets shot 13-49 (.265) from three point range. The Rockets went all in with small ball and the results are devastatingly bad: they not only got outrebouned by a huge margin but they also lost the three point battle in both raw totals and percentages. One wonders how much evidence Daryl Morey needs to figure out that his interpretation of "advanced basketball statistics" is not producing a championship recipe?

ESPN's Tim Legler said this was the first playoff game this year that "felt like a summer league game." The Rockets set that tone in game four; with a chance to tie the series at 2-2, the Rockets came out flat, fell behind by a large margin, made a late run--but never really threatened--and then succumbed to their fate. In game five, the Rockets capitulated right after the opening tip. After shooting 2-11 from the field in game four--during the Rockets' final opportunity to make this a competitive series--Harden put up good boxscore numbers (30 points on 12-20 field goal shooting), but he and his teammates did not bring energy at the start of the game. Harden had a -29 plus/minus number, meaning the Rockets did worse when he was in the game than they did when he was out of the game. By the time Harden started making shots, the Rockets were already in a deep hole. Harden scored just two points as the Lakers led 23-9 with less than five minutes remaining in the first quarter. On defense, Harden flew by shooters, and then watched the rest of the play from out of bounds as the Rockets played four on five. Houston's Harden-led offense looked pathetic, producing shooting splits of . 371/.266/.708. Jeff Green scored 13 points on 3-9 field goal shooting, Russell Westbrook had 10 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, and no other Rocket reached double figures.

I declared before the season that the Rockets would only contend for the title if they let Westbrook lead the way. It is obvious that Westbrook should be handling the ball and attacking the hoop, with Harden providing shooting/scoring if Westbrook is trapped. It makes no sense for Harden to drive and then kick to Westbrook, as Westbrook is not a three point shooter. The Rockets played the right way for a little over two months, and they were difficult to beat during that time. Then came the COVID-19 shutdown, with Westbrook not only getting COVID-19 but also suffering a leg injury after he came back from the illness. In the playoffs, it did not seem that Westbrook consistently had his normal ability to attack the hoop and finish, so the Rockets reverted to Harden-ball, with predictable results.

In game five versus the Lakers, Harden did not play to win, but rather to score 30 points and let the media carry his water for him with sob stories about how he needs more help to win; in his postgame press conference, Harden asserted that the Rockets need "one more piece." The Rockets have been putting pieces around Harden for years, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook, supplemented by role players who are happy to play defense and only shoot the ball when Harden deigns to stop dribbling long enough to pass to them. The problem is not the pieces; the problem is that Daryl Morey, Mike D'Antoni, and James Harden stubbornly believe in a basketball philosophy that is fundamentally flawed, placing a higher value on three point field goals attempted than any other factor. Championship teams are well-balanced on offense and defense; they can score in a variety of different ways, and they excel at field goal percentage defense and creating a positive scoring differential (which is impacted by shot selection, effort level, defensive strategies, and other factors that are more important than just jacking up as many three pointers as possible).

In contrast to Harden's low energy in games four and five, LeBron James set the tone at both ends of the court from the start of game five. James led the Lakers with 29 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, he tied Anthony Davis for game-high rebounding honors (11), and he had a game-high seven assists. Davis had a quiet game offensively (13 points on 4-9 field goal shooting), but the Lakers defended so tenaciously and shot so well from three point range that it did not matter.

I will have more to say about the Lakers in my Western Conference Finals preview, so the rest of this article will focus on Harden's Rockets. Daryl Morey brought Harden to Houston eight years ago to be a "foundational player" who would lead the team to a title. During that time, the Rockets have never reached the NBA Finals, they have lost twice in the Western Conference Finals (including blowing a 3-2 lead in 2018), and they have lost three times in the first round.

Harden's production and efficiency drop consistently and predictably during the playoffs (to be fair, he did better in both categories in 2020 than he typically does, but not better enough to make a difference or to repair the playoff legacy he already established). ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy mocked the notion that Harden is a playoff choker, but the numbers speak for themselves. This year, Harden posted the best playoff field goal percentage of his career (.478) but here are his year by year playoff field goal percentages as a Houston Rocket prior to 2020: .391, .376, .439, .410, .413, .410, .413. During three of those playoff runs he shot worse than .300 from three point range, and in only two of them did he shoot at least .350 from three point range. This is the player who Morey has said is a better scorer than Michael Jordan. Jordan shot at least .500 from the field in five of his 13 playoff appearances, and he did that during an era when much more physical contact by the defense was permitted. Jordan shot at least .450 from the field--the benchmark that I set for elite perimeter scorers--in 11 of his 13 playoff campaigns, with his two worst shooting performances happening within his first three postseasons. Jordan's career playoff field goal percentage is .487; yes, Jordan's career percentage is better than Harden's best field goal percentage in a single playoff season! Even more telling is that Jordan--not known as a three point shooter--shot .332 from three point range during his playoff career; Harden--supposedly a great three point shooter with a signature step back move (that is actually a travel and not a real step back move)--has a career playoff three point shooting percentage of .331. Not only is Harden not as good of a scorer as Jordan, Harden is not even better at his signature shot than Jordan was.

Harden is an above average scorer, but Morey does Harden no favors by comparing Harden to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Jordan and Bryant were better scorers than Harden by a large margin, and--more importantly--they both could consistently put up big scoring numbers against elite teams in the playoffs.

In contrast, Harden is a regular season sideshow who does not have the necessary skill set to lead a team to a championship. Harden's regular season statistics have also been boosted by playing for Coach Mike D'Antoni. Guards who play in D'Antoni's system tend to have inflated statistics: Consider Raymond Felton, who averaged 9.0 apg during his 54 games playing with D'Antoni's Knicks; Felton averaged 5.2 apg for his career. Felton averaged 17.1 ppg during those 54 games, much better than his 11.2 ppg career scoring average. Chris Duhon averaged 11.1 ppg and 7.2 apg in 2008-09 for D'Antoni, compared to career averages of 6.5 ppg and 4.4 apg.

Steve Nash went from being an All-Star to being considered an MVP while playing for D'Antoni. In 2004-05, nine year veteran Nash posted a career-high 11.5 apg, and a career-high .502 field goal percentage in his first season playing for D'Antoni. Experienced players in their early 30s rarely undergo complete skill set transformations. It should be obvious that something else happened. In 2005-06, Nash set a new career-high field goal percentage (.512) while scoring a career-high 18.8 ppg. Nash set a new career-high with 11.6 apg in 2006-07. He averaged double figures in assists all four seasons that he played for D'Antoni, but he only reached double figures in assists in three of the other 14 seasons in his career. Nash won back to back MVPs playing for D'Antoni and he finished second in MVP voting in 2007. Nash never finished higher than eighth in MVP voting in any other season. Nash received three straight All-NBA First Team selections while playing for D'Antoni and Nash made the All-NBA Second Team in 2008. Nash never made the All-NBA First Team before or after his D'Antoni years, and Nash received just three All-NBA selections in the other 14 seasons of his career.

One might argue that D'Antoni is a master at developing players, but if that were the main story here then the players he "developed" would presumably retain what they had learned even after they no longer played for D'Antoni. No, the pattern above suggests that D'Antoni installs an offensive system that generates impressive individual statistics for his guards. It must be noted that D'Antoni has yet to reach the NBA Finals. In contrast, Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense did not elevate Michael Jordan's statistics but rather improved the team's offensive efficiency, resulting in six championships. Jackson's Triangle Offense had the same effect for the L.A. Lakers--the team improved (after failing to reach the Finals under previous coaches), as opposed to the individual players running amok outside of the context of playing championship level basketball.

Harden is an All-Star level player, but he is overrated now due to his statistics being inflated while playing under D'Antoni, who became Houston's coach for the 2016-17 season. During that campaign, Harden had 22 triple doubles after having nine triple doubles in his seven year career prior to that season. Harden averaged a career-high 11.2 apg in 2016-17, winning his first and only assist title. Then, Harden won the next three scoring titles in a row while averaging at least 7.5 apg in each of those seasons; Harden's previous season-high for apg was 7.5. Unlike Nash, Harden's shooting percentages stayed roughly the same, but Harden has had the four highest scoring seasons of his career during his four seasons playing for D'Antoni, peaking at 36.1 ppg in 2018-19. Only Wilt Chamberlain (five times) and Michael Jordan (once) have averaged more than 36.1 ppg in a full season (Elgin Baylor averaged 38.3 ppg in 48 games during the 1961-62 season).

Did Harden's skill set suddenly and dramatically improve four years ago? Or did D'Antoni give Harden the same opportunity to dominate the ball and amass gaudy individual statistics that D'Antoni gave to his previous point guards? Under D'Antoni, average point guards put up All-Star numbers, and All-Star point guards get vaulted into the MVP conversation. Steve Nash is a more durable Mark Price--and that is no slight: Price was a great player, but no one gave him serious MVP consideration during his career, and no one gave Nash serious MVP consideration before or after the time he played for D'Antoni.

The Rockets' entire attack is focused on Harden and rises or falls based on what Harden does, but you can expect that the media will blame this fiasco on Westbrook, who averaged 17.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg, and 4.6 apg in eight playoff games. Westbrook ranked second on the team in playoff scoring, playoff rebounding, and playoff assists. Westbrook missed Houston's first four playoff games due to injury, but he came back in time to help the Rockets win two out of three to survive a first round scare versus Oklahoma City. Westbrook obviously did not play at the triple double level we are accustomed to seeing, or even the level he displayed from January-March 2020 when he was arguably the best player in the league. If you look at Westbrook's career resume and conclude that his legacy is defined by his performance in the 2020 playoffs, then you do not understand basketball. 

Unlike Harden--who chafed at playing the sixth man role for Oklahoma City and has made it clear that he must be the first option in Houston--Westbrook has demonstrated that even though he is capable of being the number one scoring option he is willing to accept being the number two scoring option. Westbrook partnered with Kevin Durant to lead the Thunder to four Western Conference Finals appearances (only the Cavaliers, Celtics, Heat, Lakers, Pistons, Spurs, and Warriors have made more Conference Finals appearances in the past 20 years), he won the scoring title in 2015 and 2017, and he accepted the role of second option in 2019 as Paul George finished second in the NBA in scoring with a career-high 28.0 ppg. The evidence that Westbrook brings out the best in his teammates is overwhelming, and yet many media commentators stubbornly repeat the false talking points about Westbrook not being a good teammate.

I don't believe in small ball or micro ball or whatever you want to call what Houston is doing, but if there is any way that this can work then it must be with Westbrook running the offense flanked by three point shooters. If Harden were willing to cut, post up and do something other than either monopolize the ball or impersonate a mannequin then he could actually be a dangerous offensive weapon. Playing this style, the Rockets' statistical targets should be something along the lines of Westbrook averaging 27-9-9 while shooting .450 from the field, Harden averaging 24-6-6 while shooting .480 from the field (including .400 from three point range), and at least two other Rockets shooting at least .375 from three point range. The Rockets would also have to be willing to commit to hustling and scrapping on defense for 48 minutes per game, making every offensive possession as difficult as possible for the opposing team. Little, scrappy guys can be annoying to play against if they hustle and if they are efficient--but if they are lazy and if they just jack up shots randomly then they are easy to play against, and you can pound them to death until they quit, which is what the Lakers did during this series. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:21 AM


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Boston Versus Miami Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#3 Boston (48-24) vs. #5 Miami (44-29)

Season series: Boston, 2-1

Miami can win if…Jimmy Butler is dominant--not good, not very good, but dominant. Butler is leading Miami in playoff scoring (21.8 ppg, including a team-best 23.4 ppg as the Heat upset the number one seed Milwaukee Bucks), but he has only scored at least 20 points in four of Miami's nine playoff games. In the other five games, Butler has scored 18 points, 17 points twice, 13 points, and six points. Butler's overall production is good, but there is more value in consistently scoring 20-25 points than in scoring six points in one game (as Butler did in game four of Miami's first round sweep over Indiana) and then 40 points in the next game (as Butler did in game one of Miami's five game second round win over Milwaukee).

Former All-Star Goran Dragic has thrived in this year's playoffs; he has more talent around him than he did in previous seasons, and he is most productive and efficient when he does not have to carry the weight of being the number one option. Opposing defenses focus on Butler and also have to pay attention to All-Star center Bam Adebayo, so Dragic has a lot of room to operate.

One possible advantage for the Heat is that--much like a baseball team that is strong up the middle with All-Stars at catcher, shortstop, and center fielder--Miami is receiving All-Star caliber play at all three levels: guard (Goran Dragic), wing (Jimmy Butler), and big man (Bam Adebayo). The Celtics are a perimeter-oriented team without an All-Star big man, and they may have to go small to win this series, much like they went small for extended stretches versus Toronto; however, going small against the Heat could leave Boston vulnerable in the paint, as Adebayo could punish the Celtics to a greater extent than any of Toronto's big men did.

Boston will win because…Jayson Tatum is emerging as an elite player. Tatum is the Celtics' playoff leader in scoring (25.3 ppg) and rebounding (10.1 rpg) while also averaging 4.3 apg. In Boston's 92-87 game seven victory over Toronto, Tatum led both teams in all three categories (29 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists); he joined Larry Bird and LeBron James as the only players to lead both teams outright in all three categories in a seventh game.

Jaylen Brown is second for the Celtics in playoff scoring (21.0 ppg) and rebounding (7.6 ppg), while Kemba Walker is averaging just a shade under 20 ppg in the playoffs. The Celtics may have acquired Walker to be the number one option, but he is the team's third option behind Tatum and Brown.

If Gordon Hayward can return from injury for Boston then he could provide a lift as a playmaker and as a valuable perimeter defender.

Other things to consider: This is the first time since the NBA went to a 16 team playoff format in 1984 that the Eastern Conference Finals will not include the number one seed or the number two seed, but this is not a shocking circumstance in a "bubble" environment that negates the value of home court advantage. Boston became the first team in NBA history to win four "road" games in one series. Would Boston have won game seven versus Toronto had that game been played in Toronto? We will never know the answer to that question, but regardless of any extenuating circumstances both Boston and Miami deserve respect for earning upset victories by playing great defense supplemented by timely offense.

This is Boston's third appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in the past four years. That sustained success has flown under the radar to some extent, perhaps because the Celtics have not made it to the NBA Finals since 2010 and because the Celtics have played musical chairs with All-Star point guards (Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker) during the past several years. Coach Brad Stevens has been on the bench for all three Eastern Conference Finals appearances, and he has established himself as one of the league's best coaches.

I picked Toronto to beat Boston in seven games, and that series was up for grabs until the final seconds of game seven, so even though my pick was wrong I am not shocked by the outcome. I like Jimmy Butler as a two-way player and as a leader; it is clear how much Philadelphia misses him, and how much he has helped Miami. This evenly matched series may very well be decided by whether Butler or Tatum is the best player. In my Toronto Versus Boston Preview I wrote, "If Tatum establishes himself as clearly the best player on the court during this series, then the Celtics could outlast the Raptors." In game seven, Tatum became the second youngest player to post at least 25 points, at least 10 rebounds, and at least five assists in a seventh game. Kobe Bryant, Tatum's mentor, is the youngest player to post such numbers. For all of the talk about Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, and others, we may look back on the 2020 playoffs as the coming out party for Tatum, much like Bryant elevated his status during the Lakers' run to the 2000 NBA title.

I expect this series to be just as close as the Boston-Toronto series, and I am picking Boston to beat Miami in seven games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM


Friday, September 11, 2020

Lakers Dominate Paint, Win 110-100 to Take 3-1 Lead Versus Rockets

The L.A. Lakers outrebounded the Houston Rockets 52-26, shot .586 from inside the three point line, outscored the Rockets 62-24 in the paint, and built a 23 point lead before settling for a 110-100 victory in game four of the Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers are up 3-1, and can advance to the Western Conference Finals with a win on Saturday night. Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 29 points on 10-18 field goal shooting, adding 12 rebounds and five assists. LeBron James contributed 16 points, a game-high 15 rebounds, and a team-high nine assists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lakers led 57-41 at halftime, and had held the Rockets to 79 points in the previous four quarters. This is not a fluke or a coincidence. This lack of production and efficiency is predictable; I predicted it before this series, and I have predicted it before every series in which Harden's Rockets faced a legitimate championship contender: Harden may have one or two big games, but when the chips are down he folds and his team's high-variance offense falls apart. We have eight years of evidence, and yet so many people still pretend that Harden is an elite player. Harden is a more durable, physically stronger version of Gilbert Arenas. The scoring titles and media-given accolades mean that Harden is a lock for the Hall of Fame, but comparing Harden to elite players like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard--let alone Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan--is ridiculous. While it is true that Giannis Antetokounmpo has not yet had more playoff success than Harden, Antetokounmpo is younger and bigger than Harden, in addition to already being a great two-way player. Antetokounmpo has work to do, but I would take him over Harden any day of the week.

Houston's collapse during game four versus the Lakers is typical of what we have seen for years from Harden and the Rockets. During a 16 minute stretch from near the end of the first quarter into the early portion of the third quarter, the Rockets shot 4-20 from the field as the Lakers outscored them 41-23. "There is small ball, and then there is absurdity," TNT's Kenny Smith said after the game, referring to Houston trotting out a 6-6 and under lineup versus a Lakers team that has great players who are big but actually can play small ball better than the Rockets do: LeBron James and Anthony Davis can beat you in the paint and outside the paint. As I explained in Efficiency Versus High Variance, "'Stat gurus' outsmart themselves when they value offensive efficiency over every other factor. They have determined that three pointers and free throws are the most efficient NBA shots. While that may be true mathematically, it is not true in a relevant way in the real world; there is value in trying to improve offensive efficiency, but there is also value in improving proficiency in other areas, including defense and rebounding."

You can predict what Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni will say after this kind of performance--we need to play with more energy, we will keep taking the same shots but next game we will make them--and you can predict what will happen: the Rockets will go down not with a bang, but with a whimper.

It is worth revisiting my assessment of James Harden when the Rockets acquired him in 2012. I asserted that Harden would not be worth a maximum value contract, and that he is best suited to being an All-Star contributor on a championship contender as opposed to the number one option: "Harden is a very good player but all of his weaknesses will be exposed in Houston if the Rockets expect him to be a franchise player. Harden is not an All-NBA First or Second Team caliber player. He is not someone who can draw double teams over the course of an 82 game season and then carry a team deep into the playoffs as the number one option. He is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James." I added that Harden is the kind of player who is overrated by "stat gurus" who do not consider the context in which a player puts up his numbers; there is a difference between being an "efficient" second or third option as opposed to being the number one option: there is a qualitative difference between Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and between Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

I underestimated Harden's physical strength and his durability, and I did not anticipate that NBA officials would so often fall for Harden's flopping and flailing (at least during the regular season); thus, I was wrong from the standpoint that I did not expect Harden to win multiple scoring titles and to be selected not only as an All-NBA First Team player, but also as an MVP candidate and the 2018 MVP winner.

However, my prediction that Harden would not be capable of performing at an elite level in the playoffs was 100% correct, and that is the prediction that matters most: I was right that Harden "is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James" and I was right that Harden is not the "foundational player" that Morey declared Harden to be. I was right that Harden gave up the chance to be part of a potential dynasty alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in exchange for pursuing individual glory. I was right that Harden would accumulate individual recognition without achieving team success. The fact that Harden received more individual recognition than I expected does not invalidate my larger point that Harden sacrificed an opportunity to win championships had he been willing to accept the role for which he is best suited.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:32 AM


Wednesday, September 09, 2020

What is Next for the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the Eastern Conference each of the past two seasons, collecting the 2019 regular season MVP and the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year award; it will be a surprise if he does not win the 2020 regular season MVP. However, Milwaukee lost 4-2 to Toronto in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals and then lost 4-1 to Miami in the 2020 Eastern Conference semifinals. In today's society, instant gratification is often elevated above all other considerations, so it is considered natural to assume that Antetokounmpo will leave Milwaukee to team up with another All-Star.

Every NBA title is meaningful and valuable, but some championships resonate more than others, and the ones that resonate the most for me involve a long-term partnership formed by a great player with his first NBA team:

1983: Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers
1989-90: Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons
1991-93, 1996-98: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls
1994-95: Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets
1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014: Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs
2000-02, 2009-10: Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers
2011: Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks

Erving won two ABA titles (1974, 1976) with the New York Nets prior to the ABA-NBA merger, and then he spent his entire NBA career with the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving led the 76ers to three NBA Finals (1977, 1980, 1982) before winning the championship in 1983. Erving could have left for greener pastures, or the 76ers could have decided to go in a different direction, but instead the legend and the franchise formed a partnership. Although free agency did not exist during that era in the way that it exists in the modern era, players who wanted to be traded could get traded--and teams have always been able to get rid of players who they do not want, so Erving and the 76ers only stayed together because both sides wanted to stay together. By 1983, Erving was the only 76er on the roster who played for the team during the 1977 NBA Finals. The 76ers put a team around Erving that complemented his talents, and they finally acquired the one essential asset for winning a title during the NBA's first several decades: an All-Star center (Moses Malone). With the exception of the 1975 Golden State Warriors, all of the NBA championship teams from 1951 (the first year that the NBA had an All-Star Game) through 1990 had a current or future All-Star at center (Bill Cartwright, the center for Chicago's 1991-93 championship teams, was a former All-Star and hardly an All-Star caliber player during his championship years). Pantheon level non-centers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird only won titles when playing alongside Hall of Fame centers.

Isiah Thomas joined the Pistons in 1981 when the Pistons were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and eight years later he led a completely remade roster to the first of back to back titles. So much is said and written about the "Bad Boys"--much of it untrue or exaggerated--that it is easy to forget the deeper story: Thomas joined a dysfunctional organization, and his combination of talent and will power transformed the franchise into a team that could vanquish the legendary Celtics and Lakers squads, not to mention hold Jordan's Bulls at bay for a few years.

Michael Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984 when the Bulls were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and seven years later he led a completely remade roster to the first of three straight titles en route to winning six titles in an eight year span. Jordan embraced the challenge of elevating his game while also lifting his teammates. Jordan's Bulls supplanted Thomas' Pistons, beat Magic Johnson's Lakers, and then established the sport's most successful dynasty since Bill Russell's Celtics won eight straight titles/11 titles in 13 years.

Hakeem Olajuwon joined the Rockets in 1984 when the Rockets were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and 10 years later he led a completely remade roster to back to back titles. Yes, Olajuwon won his first ring during Jordan's baseball hiatus and he won his second ring shortly after Jordan's comeback, but that does not in any way diminish Olajuwon's two-way dominance, nor does it diminish the head to head superiority that he demonstrated versus David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and a young Shaquille O'Neal.

Tim Duncan joined the Spurs in 1997 after the Spurs had a down year in the midst of a solid run of playoff appearances, and in his second year he led the Spurs to the title. The team changed the roster a lot over the next decade and a half, but Duncan remained the one constant as the Spurs captured four more titles. Duncan became the greatest power forward ever (even if it seemed like he played center at least part of the time), and he played the most important role in building the Spurs' championship culture.

Kobe Bryant joined the Lakers in 1996, the same year that Shaquille O'Neal signed with the team. O'Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to three straight championships in 2000-02, and then after O'Neal left the Lakers rebuilt around Bryant, who took the Lakers to three straight Finals, winning titles in 2009-10. Bryant changed his jersey number midway through his career, and it is remarkable that he had a Hall of Fame career with each jersey number.

Dirk Nowitzki joined the Mavericks in 1998 when the Mavericks were one of the worst teams in the NBA, and he persevered for more than a decade before outdueling Miami's star-studded superteam to lead Dallas to the 2011 NBA title. Early in his career, Nowitzki received unfounded criticism for being soft, but he did not run away to join forces with an established star; he stayed the course in Dallas, and the Mavericks eventually surrounded him with the right supporting cast.

In contrast, LeBron James and Kevin Durant both left the teams that drafted them in order to win titles with teams stacked with multiple All-Stars. Each player won two championships with his new team before maneuvering his way out of town: James returned to Cleveland from Miami and won a championship in Cleveland before leaving again to join the L.A. Lakers, a team that he remade by running off several players to lure Anthony Davis to L.A.; Durant fled Golden State for Brooklyn, where he teamed up with Kyrie Irving (one of James' All-Star teammates during Cleveland's 2016 championship season) but has yet to play due to injury.

Antetokounmpo may follow the path laid out by James and Durant, but it would be great if Antetokounmpo instead takes the route traveled by Erving, Thomas, Jordan, Olajuwon, Duncan, Bryant, and Nowitzki. The pursuit of instant gratification is no guarantee for success, much less enduring happiness; there is value in struggling to earn an accomplishment as opposed to seeking out shortcuts.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 PM


Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Numbers and Narratives

In my January 11, 2007 article Fun With Numbers we saw that the numbers put up by Mark Price in his prime are very similar to the numbers put up by Steve Nash during Nash's two MVP seasons. In my April 27, 2019 article Player Evaluation, Media Bias and False Narratives we saw that many media members draw vastly different conclusions from similar numbers posted by two different players. Here is another example of similar numbers resulting in different narratives:

Player A: 13 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, four turnovers, 4-17 field goal shooting (0-3 from three point range), 5-7 free throw shooting, -16 plus/minus number. Player A's team lost by nine points.

Player B: 10 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, seven turnovers, 4-15 field goal shooting (1-7 from three point range), 1-3 free throw shooting, -14 plus/minus number. Player B's team lost by eight points.

Neither player shot well, and both players' teams did better when they were out of the game. Both players rebounded well. Can we draw broad, career-defining conclusions about either player? Player A's poor performance has not received much media coverage, and no one is drawing sweeping conclusions about him--but if you run an internet search for Player B's name you will find many articles blasting this player, calling for his minutes to be reduced or even suggesting that he will be traded (presumably not during the playoffs, which would be against NBA rules). 

Player A is Kawhi Leonard, who struggled as his L.A. Clippers lost game two to Denver. That loss tied the series at 1-1. Player B is Russell Westbrook, who struggled as his Houston Rockets lost game two to the L.A. Lakers. That series is tied 1-1. The Clippers are favored to win their series, while the Rockets are the fourth seed facing the number one seed. 

Any reasonable person understands that we cannot yet draw broad conclusions about either of these series yet, let alone about the 2020 playoffs or these players' careers. Leonard bounced back with a strong performance as the Clippers won game three; we will see how Westbrook and the Rockets respond in game three of their series.
Game two was just Westbrook's fifth game back after missing six straight games--and eight of the previous nine games--due to injury. Just prior to the NBA season restart, Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19. Suffice it to say, Westbrook is not at 100% physically; that is not an excuse, but just a statement of what should be obvious. Despite those challenges, Westbrook had strong performances in the previous two games, both victories: game seven in round one (20 points, nine rebounds) and game one in round two (24 points, nine rebounds, six assists). The Rockets went 2-1 in round one with Westbrook and 2-2 without him, and he played a critical role in the upset victory over the Lakers in game one. From January through March--when Westbrook was healthy--he was not only Houston's best player but arguably the best player in the league. How can anyone rationally conclude that game two of the second round defines Westbrook in some grand and permanent way? 

In general, I disagree with the notion that a great player's career is defined by any one game, but if we are looking for defining games in Westbrook's career up to this point then let's look at his numbers from games when his team faced elimination:

2020 Game Seven, First Round: 20 points, nine rebounds, two assists (won)
2019 Game Five, First Round: 29 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists (lost)
2018 Game Six, First Round: 46 points, 10 rebounds, five assists (lost)
2018 Game Five, First Round: 45 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists (won)
2017 Game Five, First Round: 47 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists (lost)
2016 Game Seven, Western Conference Finals: 19 points, seven rebounds, 13 assists (lost)
2014 Game Six, Western Conference Finals: 34 points, seven rebounds, eight assists (lost)
2014 Game Seven, First Round: 27 points, 10 rebounds, 16 assists (won)
2012 Game Five, NBA Finals: 19 points, four rebounds, six assists (lost)
2011 Game Five, First Round: 31 points, eight rebounds, five assists (lost)
2011 Game Seven, Second Round: 14 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists (won)
2010 Game Six, First Round: 21 points, five rebounds, nine assists (lost)
Totals: 352 points (29.3 ppg), 107 rebounds (8.9 rpg), 108 assists (9.0 apg); 4-8 record; three straight 40 point games; three triple doubles.
Westbrook's career is still in progress, and there are many ways to define/quantify his accomplishments, but if we are going to single out one game or one set of games it makes more sense to look at how Westbrook has performed when his team faced elimination as opposed to how Westbrook performed in game two of a second round series after he played a key role not only in his team winning game seven in round one but also in his team scoring an upset victory in game one in round two. The stakes are the highest in elimination games, and Westbrook has performed very well in such games, including three wins out of four game seven appearances. Even when Westbrook's teams were outmanned and outgunned in series that did not go the distance, he left it all on the court and provided his team with scoring, rebounding, and playmaking.
Regardless of what happens in either series, one bad game--particularly a bad game early in a second round series--is not a career-defining moment. Perhaps Leonard gets more benefit of the doubt from some media members because Leonard has two titles and two Finals MVPs while Westbrook has yet to win a title, but unless Westbrook retires after this season without winning a title his championship legacy remains to be written. Further, if the Clippers lose to the Nuggets that is an upset, while if the Rockets lose to the Lakers that is not an upset. 

Long story short, and put more bluntly, we would all be better off if "Screaming A" Smith and other misinformed commentators were not provided with the privilege of shouting nonsense to large audiences.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:19 AM


Saturday, September 05, 2020

Bucks on the Brink of Elimination

The fourth seed Miami Heat lead the number one seed Milwaukee Bucks 3-0, which is a stunning development considering that there have been no injuries or suspensions to tilt the balance so decisively in favor of the underdog. The Heat won the season series 2-1, and I expected this series to be competitive, but no one could have predicted that the Heat would be on the verge of sweeping a Milwaukee team that was on a 70 win pace for most of the season.

Milwaukee has been the top seed in the Eastern Conference each of the past two seasons. Last year, the Bucks took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors but then Toronto won the next four games. Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 22.7 ppg, 13.5 rpg, and 5.5 apg in that series, but he shot just .448 from the field and was outplayed in key moments by Kawhi Leonard (29.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, .442 FG%).

Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.6 ppg, 15.0 rpg, and 6.4 apg through the first eight playoff games in 2020. He shot .543 from the field in those games. Those numbers are very similar to his 2019-20 regular season numbers (29.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 5.6 apg, .556 FG%), though it is true that through the first three games of the Miami series Antetokounmpo's scoring and field goal percentage numbers are down (22.7 ppg, .455 FG%). That is a small sample size from which to draw broad conclusions, and Antetokounmpo's other numbers are excellent (13.3 rpg, 7.0 apg). Antetokounmpo needs to improve his midrange shot and his free throw shooting. At this stage, he is similar to a young LeBron James in terms of athleticism and ability to score in the paint; the differences are that Antetokounmpo is a better rebounder/defender but worse shooter/passer than young James was.

It must be noted that Jimmy Butler has been the best player in this playoff series, and neither he nor his teammates have been shy about pointing that out. Butler's career is a great story. He has worked his way up from obscurity to All-Star status to elite level. Anyone in Minnesota or Philadelphia who did not want to play with him or who did not think that he could be the best player on a championship contender was a loser and/or not very good at player evaluation. Butler is similar to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant from a personality standpoint: Butler is primarily focused on winning, he has a fanatical work ethic, and he does not care who he offends or disturbs (on his team or the opposing team) on the way to victory. Of course, Butler is a level below Jordan and Bryant in terms of skill set, but Butler is a two way player and he is a clutch performer. There is so much focus on what this series may mean for Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo that it is easy to ignore what this series means for Butler and Miami. Butler deserves full credit for how well he is playing, regardless of whether this becomes a sweep or not, and regardless of whether or not this scrappy Heat team wins the 2020 championship.

All of that being said, there was every reason to expect the Bucks to at least reach the NBA Finals, and now that they are virtually assured of not doing that this year--no NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit, though if any team could do it Milwaukee in the "bubble" has as good of a shot as any team--it is inevitable that Milwaukee's front office, coaching staff, and players will face a lot of scrutiny.

One has to wonder how much of an impact the NBA's brief strike had on the Bucks. The Bucks were the first team to go on strike, at the instigation of reserve guard George Hill. Hill made it clear before, during and after the strike that he regretted coming to the "bubble"--and most of the NBA players made it clear after the brief strike that they wanted to be in the "bubble" and they did not want to cancel the playoffs. It is hard to imagine that Hill's attitude has had zero impact on the Bucks. That being said, the Bucks showed some signs of slippage in the final games prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, and the team has a sub-.500 record in its past 21 games (spanning the original regular season, the seeding games and the eight playoff games), a shocking decline considering how well the team had played for the previous 140 games or so.

Overreaction is as much a part of the playoffs as matchups and buzzer beaters. Overheated commentators routinely declare that whatever happened in the most recent playoff game not only can be used to predict the outcome of the next game but also to write the definitive evaluation of the legacies of players, coaches, and franchises. Make no mistake, Miami has looked like the superior team for most of the series versus Milwaukee, but the 3-0 margin is a little deceptive: Miami won game two on a deadball free throw, a very unusual ending for a playoff game, and Miami won game three after posting the largest fourth quarter scoring margin in NBA playoff history. A couple bounces here or there, and we would be looking at this series very differently. For example, Toronto was a miracle shot away from falling down 3-0 versus Boston in the other Eastern Conference second round series--and now the series is tied 2-2. As the great Tex Winter used to say, "Everything turns on a trifle."

Commentators and fans face no repercussions from reacting emotionally, but if team executives make decisions based on emotions the results can be disastrous. It would be foolish to conclude that Giannis Antetokounmpo cannot lead a team to a title or that the whole roster surrounding him now needs to be changed. Consider a little history from less than 15 years ago. Young Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks blew a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals. Then, in 2007 the scrappy Golden State Warriors got the better of Nowitzki and the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. How shortsighted would it have been for the Mavericks to give up on Nowitzki after back to back playoff disappointments? Four years later, Nowitzki outplayed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh as the Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. LeBron James spent the first half of his career falling short of ultimate success in the NBA playoffs before winning three titles in a five year span.

While several all-time greats won a championship early in their careers--including Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird--others did not win their first title until they had played for many years. Skill set development, roster composition, playoff matchups--and, sometimes, injuries or other forms of uncontrollable misfortune--all impact a great player's chances to win a title.

I reject the notion that Antetokounmpo is unworthy of being regular season MVP based on his playoff performances thus far, and here I would distinguish him from Nowitzki. In 2007, I did not think that Nowitzki should have won the MVP because Kobe Bryant was a proven champion who also had a better regular season; Nowitzki had the far superior supporting cast that season and ended up not going any further in the playoffs than Bryant did in 2007. Antetokounmpo has been the best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference for two years in a row. He deserved last season's regular MVP, and--regardless of what happens versus Miami in the playoffs--he will be a deserving winner if, as is widely expected, he wins the 2020 MVP. Kawhi Leonard is a better playoff performer than Antetokounmpo and that is why Leonard owns two championships and two Finals MVPs--but load management is not a recipe for winning the regular season MVP. You could make a strong case for LeBron James being the 2020 regular season MVP, but James spends more regular season time in self-described "chill mode" than Antetokounmpo does. James Harden is an All-Star/All-NBA player, but his game is too gimmicky to qualify him as an MVP candidate--and, while Antetokounmpo is a young player who is still developing, we already have a large enough body of evidence to understand that Harden will not win a championship as his team's best player playing the way that he does (though he might win a championship as his team's second best player with Russell Westbrook providing energy, leadership, and paint points).

Why do I still believe that Antetokounmpo is an MVP caliber player who could be the best player on a championship team and how would I contrast his game with Harden's game? Antetokounmpo is 25 years old, he is 6-11 or 7-0 tall, he is a two-way player, and he has already demonstrated that he not only has a great work ethic but also that he makes no excuses for his play or his team's play. Harden is older, smaller, not a two-way player, and he has demonstrated that he prefers to work on the skills he has already developed as opposed to adding new dimensions to his game. Harden has improved his defensive effort in spots, and he makes fewer excuses than he used to make, but he does not elevate his game on a year to year basis the way that Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant did. It is no coincidence that those players (along with Tim Duncan, who entered the NBA more fully developed after playing four years of college ball) have been the dominant champions of the past 40 years.

If I ran the Milwaukee Bucks, I would be a lot more concerned about George Hill and any other players who want out of the "bubble" than I would be about Antetokounmpo. Hill will likely get his wish very soon and be on his way out of the "bubble"; the Bucks have one more year to shore up the supporting cast around Antetokounmpo before he can leave as a free agent. I expect Antetokounmpo to continue to refine and improve his game, like Nowitzki and James did.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:12 PM


Thursday, September 03, 2020

L.A. Lakers Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (52-19) vs. #4 Houston (44-28)

Season series: Houston, 2-1

Houston can win if…the Rockets effectively utilize Russell Westbrook to score in the paint and create shots for others to offset the inevitable stretches during which James Harden disappears/cannot make a shot. The Rockets went 2-1 with Westbrook during the first round after splitting the first four games of their series with Oklahoma City. For two or three months prior to the NBA shutting down due to COVID-19, Westbrook was playing as well as any player in the league, and he diversifies Houston's attack so that the Rockets are not relegated to just living and dying with three pointers. Since coming back from injury three games ago, Westbrook seems to have maintained his quickness but he lacks either the physical ability and/or the confidence to finish with authority in the paint. If Westbrook gets injured again or is not able to play for any other reason, L.A. could sweep Houston.

The Rockets must also limit their turnovers, force as many turnovers as possible, and do whatever they can to offset what is likely to be a significant rebounding disadvantage. If the Rockets cannot generate "extra" possessions then that will put even more pressure on them to shoot a very high percentage.

L.A. will win because…the Lakers have two of the five best players in the NBA: LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers have big, skillful players, and their size should overwhelm the Rockets, assuming that the Lakers do not get lazy and settle for jump shots.

James averaged 27.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg, and 10.2 apg during the Lakers' five game first round victory over Portland. He shot .600 from the field during that series. His productivity would be remarkable for any player, and is even more noteworthy considering that he is a 35 year old veteran of 17 NBA seasons. Davis led the Lakers in scoring (29.8 ppg) versus Portland while shooting .573 from the field and contributing 9.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 1.6 bpg. If James and Davis are focused and if they attack the paint then the undersized Rockets have no answers.

Although James refers to himself--and is referred to by others--as a "pass first" player, he remains a potent and efficient scorer. One difference is that in the past James always positioned himself as his team's first option but this season James has taken a step back and let Davis be the first option. It is not clear if this was a necessary condition for signing Davis and/or if this is a necessary concession to age. The Lakers still need James to score at least 25 ppg.

James picked Davis and built the roster around himself and Davis, so James has no valid reason to complain about his supporting cast. This team has the necessary talent and depth to win a championship, but in order to do that James--like the championship-winning superstars who came before him--must play at a high level on a consistent basis.

Other things to consider: As I expected, the Lakers lacked the focus necessary to sweep a vastly inferior eighth seeded Portland team, but after the Lakers lost game one they reeled off four consecutive wins, including two by at least 20 points each. Although it was fashionable in some quarters to pick Portland to beat L.A., if that had happened without James and/or Davis suffering a serious injury then that would have been perhaps the biggest first round upset in pro basketball history.

The Lakers will succumb to one or two games when the Rockets are hot from three point range, but--barring injuries or some other unexpected factor--the outcome of this series is not in doubt.

This is just the second playoff series in NBA history featuring two duos of 25 ppg scorers. James was involved in the previous such series when his Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors in the 2017 NBA Finals.

James Harden may erupt for a 40 point game early in the series, but it should be no surprise when he flames out with 4-15 field goal shooting (or something like that) in the series finale--and, unlike the first round, Harden will not erase the memory of his poor shooting by coming up with a big blocked shot.

I am picking L.A. in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:02 AM


Rockets Survive Frenetic Final Seconds to Eliminate Thunder

Denver's game seven win over Utah ended with a wild sequence of events, but Houston and Oklahoma City topped that drama, with James Harden improbably making the key defensive play as the Rockets prevailed, 104-102. The Rockets led 103-102 when Chris Paul--who claims he lives for such moments--gave up the ball as the clock ran down, ultimately leaving the Thunder's fate in Luguentz Dort's hands. Harden blocked Dort's three point attempt with 4.8 seconds remaining. Dort retrieved the miss, but he had jumped from out of bounds and thus Houston retained possession. The Thunder used their foul to give and then fouled Robert Covington on the inbounds play with 1.4 seconds remaining. Covington split a pair of free throws. Then, Harden foolishly committed a dead ball foul, enabling the Thunder to potentially score a point with no time running off of the clock. The Thunder selected Danilo Gallinari to shoot the free throw, but Gallinari missed, squandering an opportunity to give the Thunder a chance to hit a two point shot to win. Now, the Thunder needed two points to tie or three points to win. Gallinari's missed free throw enabled the Rockets to overplay the three point line without having to fear losing on a two point shot, and P.J. Tucker stole Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's pass to end the game.

Harden deserves credit for blocking Dort's shot (and avoiding a foul in a league where officials now love to call fouls on three point attempts), but that does not change the fact that for 47 minutes and 56 seconds Luguentz Dort outplayed James Harden in game seven.

Let that sentence marinate for a moment. James Harden--the 2018 regular season MVP and a player who Daryl Morey ranks ahead of Michael Jordan as a scorer--was outplayed by Luguentz Dort. No disrespect to the hardworking Dort, but no MVP in his prime who is often compared to Michael Jordan should be outplayed by a role player at any time, let alone in a game seven. Dort scored a game-high 30 points on 10-21 field goal shooting--including 6-12 from three point range--and his defense played a major role in Harden's awful performance. Harden finished with 17 points on 4-15 field goal shooting, including 1-9 from three point range. Harden's floor game was solid--nine assists, three rebounds, three blocked shots, two steals, and four turnovers--but in the second half of a close game, Harden scored seven points on 2-7 field goal shooting; the player who supposedly can score at any time against any defense scored four points in the fourth quarter. I have said it for years, and I will say it again: Harden is an All-Star caliber player, but his inflated regular season numbers are the product of a gimmicky style that has not consistently worked--and will not consistently work--in the playoffs. The only way Harden ever belongs in the same sentence with Michael Jordan is if that sentence reads, "James Harden does not belong in the same sentence with Michael Jordan as a player, scorer, or leader." 

Harden struggling in the playoffs and then coming up small in elimination games is not a new story. It is a pattern. During last year's playoffs, Harden and the Rockets produced what Charles Barkley termed "one of the worst choke jobs I've ever seen." Harden's bricklaying turnover fests in elimination games are an annual tradition.

Paul is the other guard in this series who receives endless love from the media. Paul had a triple double in game seven--19 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds--but he committed six turnovers, shot 5-11 from the field and did not take command in the final minutes with the game up for grabs. He had the ball in his hands with Houston up two, but instead of creating a good shot for himself or a teammate he just gave up the ball without making a move that threatened the defense--and that is the sequence that culminated in Harden blocking Dort's shot.

During this series, Paul played well in the games his teams won--particularly in game six--but are we just supposed to forget how awful he was in game two (-36 plus/minus rating) and game five (-28 plus/minus rating)? Talking about how you are built for such moments after a game six win that does not end the series sounds really dumb when you disappear down the stretch of a game seven loss. Kawhi Leonard is built for this. That is why his trophy case includes championships and Finals MVPs. Kevin Durant is built for this. LeBron James is built for this to some extent, though he has had some baffling playoff performances for a player with his immense talents. Coming up big in some games, but ultimately losing suggests that you are not, in fact, built for this, if "this" is defined by consistent playoff success/deep playoff runs.

Paul is a future Hall of Famer who is quick and savvy, he is strong for his size, and he can be deadly from midrange--but size matters in the NBA and that is why there is only one player in the 6-0 height range who was a dominant performer for championship teams: Isiah Thomas. If we are going to praise Paul when he does well in the clutch, then we also have to note when he does not do well in the clutch, and we have to look at his body of work, including a long playoff resume that has just one Western Conference Finals appearance and no NBA Finals appearances. Not only did Paul have multiple subpar games during this series, he failed to organize his team down the stretch of a winnable game seven. The so-called "best leader in the NBA" (as Charles Barkley loves to say) who is praised for his basketball IQ ran an offense that generated six points in the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, the guard who the media loves to denigrate quietly saved the series for the Rockets. Russell Westbrook, who recovered from COVID-19 before missing several games due to a quadriceps injury, made his first appearance in this series in game five. The Rockets were fizzling prior to Westbrook's return, losing two games in a row to turn a 2-0 series lead into a 2-2 tie. Westbrook looked rusty in game five, but he led the team in assists with seven, he grabbed six rebounds, he did not commit a turnover, and he provided an energy boost in a blowout Houston win that put the Rockets up 3-2. Anyone who follows sports and understands the challenges involved in coming back from an injury knows that the second game back can be more difficult than the first one, particularly when there is a quick turnaround. The media seemed to delight in spotlighting each of Westbrook's seven turnovers in game six while ignoring that Harden had five turnovers in that game. Still, there is no doubt that all of those turnovers--by Harden and by Westbrook--were very costly in a four point loss.

In game seven, Westbrook contributed 20 points on 9-20 field goal shooting. He also had nine rebounds, and he only committed two turnovers. His ability to exploit mismatches by driving and by posting up enabled Houston to score easy baskets that offset Harden's bricklaying; that extra dimension Westbrook provides is the difference between Houston winning this game seven, and losing elimination games in previous years when Harden choked and no one else on the team was willing or able to pick up the slack. Westbrook is clearly not 100% physically, and he did not shoot well in the fourth quarter but without his efficient production in the first three quarters the Rockets would not have been close enough for Harden's blocked shot to matter.

Eric Gordon also played a huge role, leading the Rockets with 21 points on 6-11 field goal shooting, including 5-9 from three point range.

This was a difficult series for me to handicap, and the only first round series that I got wrong. I could not decide who was more likely to choke between Harden and Paul, so the tiebreaker for me was that I assumed that Westbrook would miss so many games--and be so rusty if he returned--that the Thunder would prevail. Instead, Westbrook returned in game five and the Rockets went 2-1 when he played after going 2-2 in the games that Westbrook missed. Don't hold your breath waiting to hear anyone else mention that statistic, though; after all, Harden blocked a shot in the last five seconds, and that may be enough for the league to figure out a way to put Harden on the All-Defensive Team. Morey may soon declare that Harden is not only a better scorer than Jordan but also a better defensive player with five seconds left in a game seven; after all, Jordan never blocked a shot to seal a game seven win, and the numbers never lie, right?

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:41 AM


Wednesday, September 02, 2020

L.A. Clippers Versus Denver Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 L.A. Clippers (49-23) vs. #3 Denver (46-27)

Season series: L.A., 2-1

Denver can win if…Jamal Murray continues to set playoff scoring records, Nikola Jokic dominates in the paint, and the Nuggets are able to contain Kawhi Leonard down the stretch of close games. Also, the Nuggets must display more defensive consistency than they did during the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

L.A. will win because…The Nuggets have no answer for Kawhi Leonard's all-around brilliance. Leonard has no discernible weaknesses. He scores, rebounds, passes, and defends at an elite level. Not only does he score prolifically, but he can score in a variety of ways--including the midrange game that "stat gurus" deride but that historically has been a vital ingredient for championship teams; Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard each won multiple championships and multiple Finals MVPs as midrange assassins. LeBron James did not start winning titles until he was willing and able to make midrange shots against elite competition in the playoffs. Overeliance on three point shooting leads to high variance results, and dominant post players can be double-teamed (or fouled if they are subpar free throw shooters), but it is almost impossible to effectively double team a midrange assassin without giving up wide open high percentage shots to the midrange assassin's teammates.

Leonard led the Clippers in scoring (32.8 ppg), rebounding (10.2 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), and steals (2.3 spg) while shooting .538 from the field as the Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 4-2 in the first round. He did not shoot well from three point range (.294) but the Clippers still shot .404 from three point range overall in no small part because he attracts so much defensive attention. Leonard's offensive game--particularly at playoff time--is a less flashy but no less effective version of the offensive games of Jordan and Bryant. Leonard attacks the hoop when possible, kills from the midrange with consistency, takes the shots that he wants (not the shots the defense wants him to take), makes key three pointers even if his percentage is not great, and he is a premier fourth quarter closer.

There are still three rounds left in the playoffs, but if Kawhi Leonard leads the Clippers to the title and wins the Finals MVP he will become the only player in pro basketball history to win a championship and a Finals MVP with three different franchises. Leonard does not consistently post dominant regular season statistics, but he is assembling a postseason resume that could elevate him to Pantheon status. His career is unusual from the standpoint that Pantheon players tend to dominate in both the regular season and the playoffs, but if winning championships is the ultimate goal and Leonard ends up winning as many (or more) championships during this era as any of the greatest players who are his contemporaries then how could Leonard not be ranked as a Pantheon-level player? Again, there is a lot of basketball left to be played, but I am very impressed by Leonard's consistent excellence and his ability to elevate good teams to the championship level.

Paul George put up decent scoring, rebounding, and assist numbers versus Dallas (18.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 4.0 apg) but he shot just .358 from the field and he looked out of sorts for much of the series. He has publicly stated that he has been battling some mental health issues while in the "bubble," and he deserves credit for speaking candidly about those issues. I certainly hope that his mental health improves and stabilizes. That being said, and I will choose my words carefully here, if he had not mentioned his mental state publicly and we just looked at his numbers, his performance to this point is not substantially different from his career playoff averages (20.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.9 apg, .417 field goal shooting). It is fair to say that he has not proven that he could be the first option on a championship team, and he has a great opportunity playing alongside Leonard to prove that he can be the second option on a championship team.

Other things to consider: There will be a quick two day turnaround for the Nuggets from their game seven win over Utah to game one of this series. Game one winners tend to win playoff series, and this game one figures to be an uphill struggle for Denver, though of course that is somewhat mitigated by the absence of home court advantage in the "bubble."

The Clippers have several players who have hothead tendencies, including Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Marcus Morris. In a close game, a technical foul or a flagrant foul could be the difference, so if the series is competitive then the behavior of those players bears watching. Harrell could have easily been fined or suspended for his racist remarks directed toward Luka Doncic, and Morris is fortunate that he was not fined or suspended for his double karate chop against Doncic; Morris was assessed a flagrant foul 2 and automatically ejected from game six, but the Clippers survived without him.

I am picking L.A. in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM


Survive and Advance: Denver Defeats Utah 80-78 in Game Seven

"Survive and advance" is a phrase often used in reference to the NCAA Basketball Tournament but it applies to the thrilling--or heartbreaking, depending on your perspective--conclusion to the Denver-Utah first round series. Denver led 80-78 and appeared to be poised to clinch the game at the free throw line after Gary Harris stole the ball from Donovan Mitchell, but instead Torrey Craig inexplicably drove to the hoop and missed a layup. Rudy Gobert snared the rebound and passed to Mike Conley, who fired a three pointer just before time expired. The cliche about "a game of inches" never rang more true than after Conley's shot went halfway down the hoop and then spun out as the buzzer sounded. Those few inches determined the fate of both teams; the Nuggets survived and will advance to face the L.A. Clippers, and the Jazz are heading home.

This series was a roller coaster ride, with Utah taking a 3-1 lead and then Denver storming back to force a game seven. Denver's Jamal Murray and Utah's Donovan Mitchell set a host of scoring records in the first six games. One wonders if the high scoring exploits in this series--and in the "bubble" in general--can be explained by all of the games being played at a neutral site, by a lack of travel, and/or by the players being refreshed from having extended time off before the restart. It is worth remembering that the two highest scoring playoff games--Michael Jordan's 63 points in 1986, and Elgin Baylor's 61 points in 1961--were both authored by players who missed substantial portions of the preceding regular seasons. Similarly, Mitchell's 57 points in game one of this series--the third highest single game playoff output ever--came after a shortened regular season (and a four month break).

Denver's Nikola Jokic played very well in the first six games (25.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.7 apg, .513 field goal shooting) but his all-around play was overshadowed by the Murray-Mitchell scoring pyrotechnics. However, Jokic was by far the best player in game seven, scoring a game-high 30 points, grabbing a team-high 14 rebounds, passing for four assists, and shooting 12-23 from the field.  After averaging 34.0 ppg on .585 field goal shooting in the first six games of the series, Murray scored 10 points on 4-7 field goal shooting in the first half, but he shot just 3-14 from the field in the second half to finish with 17 points on 7-21 field goal shooting.  

Mitchell averaged 38.7 ppg on .548 field goal shooting in the first six games, but he struggled mightily in the first half of game seven, scoring just seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting while committing five turnovers. Mitchell had four more turnovers in the second half--including one on the Jazz' second to last possession--and he shot 6-15 from the field to finish with 22 points on 9-22 field goal shooting with nine turnovers and just one assist. Commentators selectively decide which moments to focus on but--as Mitchell noted in his post-game press conference after game seven--all possessions matter, and Mitchell lamented various errors/lapses that he and his team made throughout the series; were it not for those mistakes, the series may not have been decided by a last second shot. Utah had a 3-1 lead, and the Jazz missed many opportunities to finish the series prior to game seven.

"Stat gurus" rave about the value of three point shooting and drawing fouls and offensive efficiency, but this game demonstrated once again that in playoff basketball--and particularly in a seventh game--defense and mental toughness become paramount. In game seven, every possession becomes a mental and physical grind, and the shooting percentages often plummet. During the Chicago Bulls' "Last Dance," the Bulls had to survive game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Indiana Pacers; the Bulls won 88-83 as Michael Jordan shot 9-25 from the field--but Jordan grabbed five of the Bulls' 22 offensive rebounds as the Bulls outrebounded the Pacers 50-34. Similarly, in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant shot 6-24 from the field but he grinded his way to a game-high 23 points plus 15 rebounds as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics (the first of a series of super teams put together in the past dozen years or so). Jordan and Bryant are both in a special category of players who can not only string together 30 point games during long playoff runs after long regular seasons, but can also overcome the mental and physical grind that it takes to win a game seven. Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals, while Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals; they produced at an elite level for an extended period of time. Look at how drained Murray and Mitchell were by the seventh game of a first round series after having the benefit of four months off, and then multiply that by all of the regular season games and all of the playoff games that Jordan and Bryant played, and only then can one start to appreciate the greatness that Jordan and Bryant exemplified.

On Wednesday night, the "small ball" Houston Rockets will rely on their high variance three point shooting to attempt to survive and advance versus the underdog Oklahoma City Thunder. It is a good bet that the Houston-Oklahoma City game seven will be decided not by three pointers made but rather by which team does better at grinding out possessions. Chris Paul advanced past the first round in six of his first 14 seasons, while James Harden advanced past the first round in six of his first 10 seasons (including four out of seven since he went to Houston and became the Rockets' top offensive option), so the only thing that we know for sure is that one of these players who often does not play in the second round will make it at least that far this year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:57 AM


Monday, August 31, 2020

John Thompson: Iconic Leader and Coach

John Thompson's career spanned several eras and included two legendary teams--one that he joined as a player, and one that he built as a coach. Thompson's death yesterday just days short of his 79th birthday is yet another sad event in a year overflowing with death and tragedy; in the basketball community alone, we lost David Stern and Kobe Bryant in January, and then Cliff Robinson and Lute Olson within the past week.

Thompson won two NBA championships in two seasons as Bill Russell's backup center with the Boston Celtics. Thompson was selected by Chicago in the 1966 expansion draft, but he retired to begin his coaching career. Six years later, he took over a moribund Georgetown basketball team that had posted a 3-23 record the previous season and had made just two postseason appearances since 1952. The Hoyas improved to 12-14 in Thompson's first season, they reached the NCAA Tournament in his third season, and they rapidly developed into a powerhouse. From 1982-85, the Hoyas made three NCAA Championship Game appearances in four seasons, winning the 1984 title. Thompson bristled at any commentary about being the first black coach to win an NCAA Division I basketball title, noting that there had been many worthy coaches before him who did not receive the opportunities that they deserved.

Thompson is revered by the players who played for him, and respected by his opponents. He was an assistant coach for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal, and in 1988 he coached the final all-collegiate team that the U.S. sent to the Olympics; that squad won a bronze medal, a disappointing result but in retrospect perhaps not as surprising as it may have seemed at the time: other countries were rapidly closing the gap with the U.S. basketball team, and it no longer made sense to send collegians to compete against seasoned professionals. 

Thompson was a central, indispensable figure in the rise of the Big East as a power conference. A good argument could be made that no basketball conference was ever as dominant in a single season as the Big East was in 1985, and Georgetown was right in the middle of that dominance, losing in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game to Villanova, a fellow Big East team.

The phrase "Hoya Paranoia" was often used to describe the attitude of Thompson's teams. "Hoya Paranoia" is partially an image intentionally created by Thompson to intimidate opponents, and partially a media invention to stigmatize the team as a group and the players as individuals. Thompson's Georgetown teams were known for playing tough, physical defense. The anchor of that defense during Georgetown's glory days was Patrick Ewing. Racist fans taunted Ewing with vile chants during Ewing's collegiate days, and they held up signs saying "Ewing is an Ape" and "Ewing Kant Read Dis." 

I interviewed Ewing and he was far from being a paranoid or intimidating or mean person. He is an intelligent and thoughtful person who was generous with his time with me, a writer who he did not know and who he could have easily brushed aside (as an NBA assistant coach, he did not have to do media availability and was not required to speak with me).

Ewing told me, "Coach Thompson is a great person and a great coach. I felt that I came to Georgetown as a boy and left there as a man. He taught me a lot of things not only on the basketball court but also in life. He played the position so he could give me a lot of insights about the center position." For the past three seasons, Ewing has served as the head coach for Georgetown after paying his dues for many years as an NBA assistant coach. One can imagine how much pride Thompson felt about Ewing's accomplishments, and how much pride Ewing must feel about following in his mentor's footsteps.

Thompson coached two other Hall of Fame centers: Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. Later, Thompson coached Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson. Iverson was sent to jail for four months as an 18 year old for his alleged role in a bowling alley altercation, but Iverson was subsequently granted clemency by the Virginia governor prior to the Appeals Court overturning Iverson's conviction based on insufficient evidence. Throughout Iverson's ordeal, Thompson stood by Iverson, so it is no surprise that after Thompson passed away Iverson sent out a heartfelt message including these words: "Thanks For Saving My Life Coach."

Many years ago, I tried to schedule an interview with Thompson, but it never worked out. I respected his basketball acumen and I would have been fascinated to speak with him not only about basketball but also his status as a leader and role model.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:23 PM