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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Roland Lazenby Details Magic Johnson's Triumphs and Tribulations

Magic Johnson starred at Michigan State, leading the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA title in a famous showdown with Larry Bird's Indiana State Seminoles. Johnson then won five NBA titles (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88) with the L.A. Lakers while earning three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90) and three NBA Finals MVPs (1980, 1982, 1987). Johnson broke Oscar Robertson's NBA record for career regular season assists, and Johnson currently ranks seventh on the all-time regular season assists list in addition to holding the record for career playoff assists. Johnson led the NBA in regular season assists four times (1983-84, 1986-87) while also leading the league in steals twice (1981-82) and free throw percentage once (1989).

Johnson suddenly retired from the NBA in November 1991 after being diagnosed as HIV positive, but Commissioner David Stern permitted Johnson to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, and Johnson won the 1992 All-Star Game MVP. Johnson coached the Lakers for the final 16 games of the 1994 season, but did not return to the bench after the Lakers went 5-11 with him at the helm. Johnson came back to the NBA as a player for 32 regular season games and four playoff games in 1996 before retiring for the final time. Johnson's lucrative endorsements and savvy business deals enabled him to amass a net worth of more than $1 billion.

Roland Lazenby's Magic: The Life of Earvin "Magic" Johnson (Celadon Books, 813 pages, $40.00) provides a detailed, engaging account of Johnson's ascension from high school phenomenon to NCAA champion to all-time NBA great. Lazenby has written biographies of several all-time great basketball players, including Jerry West, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. Lazenby's Magic Johnson biography is divided into three parts: Part I is titled "Lansing," Part II is titled "Hollywood," and Part III is titled "Across The Great Divide." 

Lansing

Part I is the longest section of the book (338 pages), and some reviewers have criticized Lazenby for focusing so much attention not only on Johnson's early days but also on Johnson's family history dating back to the 1800s. Lazenby has stated that his intention was to not just tell the story of Johnson's basketball life but to place Johnson's entire life in the larger context of American history. Lazenby may not have written the book that some other people think that he should have written, but it is only fair to evaluate Lazenby's book based on what he wrote and what he tried to accomplish--not on what other people think that he should have written or tried to accomplish. 

It is interesting to learn about Johnson's family history, and it is also interesting to consider the different ways that family history can be interpreted and understood. Some of Johnson's ancestors were slaves, so should we focus on the persecution they suffered, or should we focus on how in America it is possible for a descendant of slaves to become a world-famous sports legend who earned generational wealth? Acknowledging the opportunities that America provides does not in any way diminish the horrors of slavery and racism. Reading about Johnson's family history reminds us that America is a flawed country with a troubling past but also a great country that, in the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is striving to live up to its great, foundational principles: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:53 PM

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Monday, February 26, 2024

Erving-Bird Photo from 2024 All-Star Weekend Sparks Memories of a Great Rivalry

After 2024 All-Star Weekend, Julius Erving posted this picture on his Instagram page:

For those of us who grew up watching the NBA in the 1980s, this picture of Erving standing next to Larry Bird sparks memories of that decade's first great rivalry: Erving's Philadelphia 76ers and Bird's Boston Celtics faced each other six times in each regular season from 1980-87 and they also squared off four times in the Eastern Conference Finals. The final head to head tally was 2-2 in playoff series, 12-12 in playoff games, and 23-21 in Bird's favor in regular season games (their teams split the four games during that era when Bird and/or Erving did not play). Keep in mind that Bird did not face Magic Johnson in a playoff series until the 1984 NBA Finals--by which time Bird had already played Erving in the Eastern Conference Finals three times (1980-82)--and that Bird and Johnson only played each other twice each regular season.

My favorite Erving-Bird photo depicts Erving skying over Bird in game seven of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers won 120-106 as Erving finished with 29 points, five assists, four rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals, shooting 10-21 from the field and 9-9 from the free throw line. Erving's teammate Andrew Toney led all scorers with 34 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, while Robert Parish topped the Celtics with 23 points and 14 rebounds but shot just 8-21 from the field; Bird had 20 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, two blocked shots and two steals but he shot just 7-18 from the field and 6-8 from the free throw line.

In a 1983 "Sports Champions" video, Erving provided a voiceover narration of him driving against Bird that captures the essence of their rivalry while poetically describing the beauty of competition:

When I get the ball in my hands and when you turn and you face him, when you take the initiative to aggressively face him, then he has to react. He may not react physically but his heart jumps if you turn and you really look at him like you mean business. His heart might even stop for a second, especially if you are good. This is when you start playing the game as you were when you were a kid, because this is when you are playing basketball and you are not working. To me this has always been a beautiful experience because I can look in a guy's eye and I can also tell if he means business and I can also feel whether my heart stops or stands still or not. If I'm looking at him and he's looking at me and we have got the same thing in mind--playing basketball and playing it the way that nobody else in the world plays it--then I think we create something beautiful.

There is something very special not only about the incomparable way that Erving played basketball but also about the way that he feels about the game. Erving and Bird brought the best out of each other, and that is the essence of competition at the highest level.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:31 PM

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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Bucks Overwhelm Undermanned 76ers, 119-98

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted game-high totals in points (30), rebounds (12), and assists (nine) while leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 119-98 road win versus the Philadelphia 76ers. Damian Lillard added 24 points and seven rebounds while matching Antetokounmpo with nine assists, Malik Beasley contributed 20 points, and Bobby Portis chipped in 17 points off of the bench. The Bucks have won two in a row after beating the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves 112-107 on Friday. Tyrese Maxey topped the 76ers in scoring (24 points) and assists (seven), but he shot just 8-19 from the field as the 76ers shot 36-97 (.371) from the field overall. Joel Embiid missed his 11th straight game as he recovers from knee surgery, and his absence was felt at both ends of the court.

Hubie Brown did the ABC color commentary; he did the color commentary during Philadelphia's 104-97 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, so this weekend provided a treat for basketball fans who enjoy listening to Brown's insights. Prior to this game, Brown noted that Antetokounmpo ranks first in the league in paint ppg (20.5), first in free throw attempts per game (11.1), third in scoring (30.8 ppg), tied for third in double doubles (44), and sixth in rebounding (11.3 rpg). Antetokounmpo is having another MVP-caliber season, and Brown concluded, "Let’s hope that everything else will turn around here."

This game marked Doc Rivers' return to Philadelphia. Rivers, who improved to 5-7 as Milwaukee's coach, coached the 76ers for the previous three seasons before the team fired him last summer and hired Nick Nurse. Doc Rivers told the ABC crew that he is proud that he coached Embiid during Embiid's MVP season, and he is proud that the 76ers became a championship contender on his watch. 

The Bucks blitzed the 76ers 35-21 in the first quarter and Maxey started the game slowly, but Brown reminded viewers about Maxey's great fourth quarter performance in the 76ers' Friday night win: "15 points under incredible pressure…outstanding foot quickness…you just love his competitiveness." Lillard scored the Bucks' first seven points on 3-3 field goal shooting, and he led both teams with 11 first quarter points. However, during the playoffs it will be interesting to track the impact of Lillard's questionable shot selection: after his hot start, he airballed a 27 foot three pointer with 15 seconds left on the 24 second shot clock. The Bucks have a size advantage against most teams--and a decided size advantage against the 76ers sans Embiid--so it makes no sense to jack up a long three pointer without first challenging the defense with a drive or a post entry pass. Such lapses may not matter in a regular season game against a depleted team like the 76ers, but they will likely be significant in a playoff series versus a strong defensive team.

The 76ers missed 11 straight shots during the first quarter, and this fueled an 11-0 Milwaukee run that flipped the score from 17-16 in Philadelphia's favor to 27-16 for the Bucks, who led the rest of the way. Brown made an excellent point when he mentioned that the biggest challenge for players is to figure out the officiating differences from game to game. He said that it is usually clear in the first eight minutes how loosely or tightly a game will be called, but entering the second quarter it was not clear how this game would be called.

A light-hearted moment happened during the second quarter after Portis drilled a corner three pointer; he ran by the broadcast table, looked at Brown, and said, "Talk about that, Hubie!" Later, Portis came over to the broadcast table and said to Brown with a smile, "I gave you a little shoutout." Brown likes Portis’ game and is happy that Portis has found a comfortable home with the Bucks after playing for the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, and New York Knicks.

The Bucks have struggled defensively this season, and Rivers attributes this in part to the Bucks being "big, not fast." Rivers' solution is to employ more switching so that the Bucks keep size in front of opposing players.  

After the Bucks led 69-48 at halftime, Brown said that one key for the Bucks was "Lillard broke the defense down and made the passes." Brown also liked that Antetokounmpo did not force the action. Antetokounmpo is the first player in NBA history to average at least 30 ppg while shooting at least .600 from the field prior to the All-Star break, and he is seeking to become the first player to reach both levels for an entire season. Although Antetokounmpo's scoring efficiency is unprecedented, Brown said that passing is "the most underrated part of his game this year."

The 76ers mounted a third quarter comeback, and Brown noted, "Going small has really helped them a lot." The 76ers shot 7-12 from three point range in the third quarter as they shaved the Bucks' lead to just 11 points before trailing 95-82 entering the fourth quarter. However, in the fourth quarter the Bucks' size and defensive focus took over, and the Bucks outscored the 76ers 24-16 while holding the 76ers to 6-23 (.261) field goal shooting.

Brown talked about the challenges facing Rivers after becoming the Bucks' coach during the middle of the season. Brown said that it takes time to define roles while implementing offensive and defensive systems, and he added that the Bucks' "biggest problem" is their subpar road record. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:57 PM

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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Victor Wembanyama Joins 5x5 Club

The exclusive 5x5 Club includes players who had at least five points, at least five rebounds, at least five assists, at least five steals, and at least five blocked shots in the same game. I mentioned the 5x5 Club in my article about Pro Basketball's Greatest Ball Hawks, noting--based on the information available at that time (September 2007)--that Hakeem Olajuwon accomplished this feat six times, Andrei Kirilenko did it three times, and three other players did it once each (Vlade Divac, Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Camby). It must be emphasized that the ABA officially began tracking steals and blocked shots in the 1972-73 season, and the NBA followed suit in 1973-74, so we do not know how many 5x5 games Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and other great players accumulated before steals and blocked shots became official statistics; also, even for the years during which steals and blocked shots were officially tracked the game by game data prior to the mid-1980s is not complete. After I wrote my article, I have uncovered more information about the 5x5 Club, and though this data is without question incomplete here is a list of known 5x5 games courtesy of Stathead via The Sporting News:

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:18 PM

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Friday, February 23, 2024

Maxey Comes to Life in Fourth Quarter as 76ers Hold off Cavaliers, 104-97

The Philadelphia 76ers had lost six straight home games before defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight, 104-97. Tyrese Maxey led the 76ers in scoring (24 points) and assists (five), and Cameron Payne added 16 points in just 20 minutes off of the bench. Jarret Allen had 24 points and nine rebounds for the Cavaliers, and Darius Garland contributed 20 points plus a game-high nine assists. The 76ers outrebounded the Cavaliers 51-43, and their bench players outscored the Cavaliers' bench players, 34-20; combine those numbers with the Cavaliers' dismal three point shooting (8-27, .296), and that was too much for Cleveland to overcome.

Each team was without their best player: the 76ers' Joel Embiid has now missed 10 straight games as he recovers from knee surgery, while the Cavaliers' Donovan Mitchell sat out his second straight game due to an illness.

Hubie Brown handled the ESPN color commentary. His previous ESPN/ABC game was almost a month ago when the New York Knicks routed the Miami Heat. As usual, Brown's pregame analysis was right on point, as he highlighted the key contributions that Allen and Garland made as the Cavaliers went 18-3 since January 3 to vault to second place in the Eastern Conference; those players were Cleveland's best players tonight, albeit in a losing effort. Brown mentioned that Maxey is attempting 20 shots per game but he is averaging nearly 26 ppg. In this game, Maxey was not as efficient as usual--he shot just 9-22 (.409) from the field--but he took over in the fourth quarter with 15 points on 5-9 field goal shooting.

As the Cavaliers took the lead early in the first quarter, Brown noted that the Cavaliers are fourth in the NBA in point differential, which he called a key statistic (and which Brown has long recognized as a key statistic). Brown praised the Cavaliers' depth while sounding a cautionary note about the impact of Mitchell's absence: "The Cavaliers are 10 deep and they can withstand injuries, but Mitchell is different because he is your closer." Brown said that even though the Cavaliers had a successful regular season last year, the organization was not satisfied and decided to become a "beep beep" team that pushes the pace. 

The 76ers were ahead 40-38 midway through the second quarter, with their bench players providing 21 of their 40 points. The 76ers led 53-50 at halftime, with their bench outscoring Cleveland's 25-7. The 76ers rank near the bottom of the league in bench scoring, so this output is unusual and proved to be a major factor in the game's outcome. Brown pointed out that the 76ers held the Cavaliers to nine three point field goals attempted in the first half, which is a low number for a Cleveland team that averages nearly 37 three point field goal attempts per game.

Both teams shot poorly in the third quarter as the 76ers outscored the Cavaliers, 21-20. In the fourth quarter, Maxey did what an All-Star is supposed to do: take over. In his postgame interview with ESPN's Monica McNutt, Maxey admitted that he was tired after playing 40 minutes in yesterday's 110-96 loss to the New York Knicks, and he said that he told his teammates throughout the game to just keep the game close because if they did then he would have something special in the fourth quarter. What Maxey did versus the Cavaliers highlights the difference between being a player who is capable of scoring 25 points in a given game, and being a player who averages 25 points per game for a season; NBA players are very talented and even many of the ones who do not get a lot of minutes or shot attempts on a regular basis can score 25 points in a game if provided with sufficient minutes and shot attempts--but very few players can log heavy minutes over the course of an 82 game season and consistently produce 25 points per game despite being the focal point of their team's offense and the opposing team's defense. 

Trading James Harden to the L.A. Clippers not only bolstered the 76ers' depth while providing the team with additional draft picks, but it also unlocked Maxey's game; in each of the past two playoff runs, Maxey both outscored and outshot Harden, but Maxey's opportunities were limited because of the way that Harden often monopolized the ball. There is no evidence that Maxey will shrink in the playoffs as the second option behind Embiid the way that Harden has spent the better part of a decade shrinking, culminating in last year's game seven debacle versus Boston during which Harden had nine points, five turnovers and three field goals made (a player who has more turnovers than field goals made should be credited with a "Harden"). The Clippers have looked good so far this season, but James Harden in April and May is a different player than James Harden in January and February, as Clippers' fans will soon see firsthand.

The only thing that Maxey cannot do is help Embiid stay healthy and avoid disappearing in the playoffs--Harden's massive flops the past two years helped obscure the reality that Embiid is hardly "Mr. Clutch" in the postseason--but Maxey looks like he is developing into a player who can be a perennial All-Star.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:25 PM

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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The 2024 NBA All-Star Game Descends to New Lows as Any Pretense of Defense is Abandoned

The 2023 NBA All-Star Game may have been not only the worst NBA All-Star Game ever, but possibly the worst basketball game ever played by high level players--until the 2024 NBA All-Star Game sunk to a new low: the teams launched 168 three point shots while attempting just five free throws as the Eastern Conference All-Stars routed the Western Conference All-Stars, 211-186. That is not competitive basketball, and it is unrecognizable compared to what the All-Star Game used to be: in 1994, the East beat the West 127-118 in a game featuring a combined 60 free throw attempts but just 30 three point field goal attempts; there was no shortage of highlight plays/moments but the most important thing is that the players competed.

During the wonderful 2024 NBA Legends Brunch, Larry Bird praised today's players and made a request: "The one thing I would really like to see is they play hard in tonight's All-Star Game. I think it's very important when you have the best players in the world together you've got to compete and you've got to play hard." 

Instead, the players disrespected themselves, the sport, and the legends who built the game that provides them with the opportunity to receive generational wealth. No one is expecting the All-Star Game to resemble game seven of the NBA Finals, but the refusal of the modern players to even pretend to want to compete is sad. This speaks to a larger societal issue: people demand to be highly paid and highly praised, but then balk at the notion that they have any responsibility to anyone or anything other than their own desires. LeBron James said that the best thing about the 2024 All-Star Game is that no one got hurt. While no one wants to see anyone get hurt at any time, injury is one of the risks of competition, and NBA players are blessed with guaranteed contracts ensuring that they get paid even if they get hurt. James' comment exposes the mentality of the modern player: get the "bag" (the big, guaranteed contract) and then prioritize yourself above your teammates, your franchise, and even the league that enables you to receive generational wealth.

Instead of playing hard all of the time during the regular season, or even just being available to play at all, many players whine about the new rule implemented this season requiring them to participate in at least 65 regular season games to be eligible for awards such as the MVP and the All-NBA Team. I have a simple, direct response to the players who are complaining about being expected to show up to work: the players should give up the right to have guaranteed contracts in exchange for taking their chances on winning awards as part-time workers. 

The 2024 All-Stars put forth so little effort and demonstrated so little pride in their craft that I am tempted to just cut and paste what I wrote in my recap of last year's travesty. My personal pride--a quality absent from Sunday's pathetic exhibition of highly paid professional putting forth minimal effort to do their jobs--prohibits me from doing that, but I would say that my passionate summary of last year's debacle applies to this year's travesty as well:

Kids are watching this trash and thinking that this is how basketball is supposed to be played: uncontested dunks followed up by half court shots. 

Anyone who wants to put "advanced basketball statistics"--with their emphasis on dunks and three pointers, and their abhorrence of the mid-range game--on trial for destroying the game that many of us know and love should just submit the 2023 All-Star Game telecast as Exhibit #1 and then move for summary judgment. "Advanced basketball statistics" have played a major role in destroying competition--think "load management," the ostracism of post play and the midrange game, and the overemphasis on dunks and three pointers to the exclusion of other shot types--while also taking the fun out of the game. Competition is fun. Running up and down the court without playing defense is not competition, and it is not fun to watch. There is a place and value for using various basketball statistics in an intelligent way, but the "stat gurus" have been given way too much power and way too much influence. Watch a tape of any All-Star Game from the 1980s or any NBA Finals from the 1980s, and judge for yourself if the game was better and more fun to watch then or now.

The league should be embarrassed as a whole, and each player should be embarrassed. Sport is about competition, not exhibition. If the NBA is unwilling or unable to restore the All-Star Game to what it can and should be, at a minimum the NBA's official records should distinguish between statistics posted when the All-Star Game mattered and statistics posted when the All-Star Game became a farce, a sham, and a travesty.

Since 2022, the All-Star Game MVP has been named in honor of Kobe Bryant, but much like Bryant derisively noted that the Lakers do not hang banners for anything other than NBA titles (he would be appalled by the Lakers hanging a banner for winning the inaugural NBA Cup) one suspects that he would not be pleased by having his name on a trophy connected with the pathetic, noncompetitive joke that the NBA All-Star Game has become. Bryant competed hard in the NBA All-Star Game and he tied Bob Pettit's record by winning four All-Star Game MVPs because Bryant took the game seriously.

Damian Lillard received the 2024 All-Star Game MVP. Almost every shot that Lillard took--23 of his 26 field goal attempts--was a three pointer. He shot well--14-26 overall, 11-23 from three point range--but nobody played any defense. Lillard won the Three Point Contest on All-Star Saturday Night, becoming the first back to back Three Point Contest champion since Jason Kapono (2007-08). Lillard joins Michael Jordan, who won the Slam Dunk Contest and All-Star Game MVP in 1988, as the only players to win an All-Star Saturday Night event and the All-Star Game MVP in the same year.

Lillard is a fitting All-Star Game MVP for a sport that is now dominated by a perverse set of values dictated by a distorted view of "advanced basketball statistics." Lillard is "efficient," but he showcases his individual talents in a way that has little influence on winning competitive basketball games. He has a 4-8 playoff series record, and the Milwaukee Bucks trading Jrue Holiday for him has transformed the Boston Celtics--who subsequently acquired Holiday from Portland--into a juggernaut while sending the Bucks spiraling from championship contender to a team struggling to find its identity. Lillard has above average shooting and passing skills, but it is ridiculous that he was selected to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team while deserving players--including Chris Bosh, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Artis Gilmore, Dwight Howard, Bernard King, and Tracy McGrady--did not receive that honor.  

A kidney stone sent me to the emergency room on Sunday night, and that is the reason that I finished this article later than usual. I could make various jokes about the All-Star Game being so bad that it literally made me sick to my stomach, but the reality is that I am fine now and the All-Star Game is (or should be) on its deathbed. We hear so much about how great Commissioner Adam Silver is, but it appears that he is praised because he tends to let the players do whatever they want, in contrast to his predecessor David Stern, who viewed himself as a caretaker of the sport as a whole. 

Considering how little today's best players care about putting even forth minimal effort, the NBA should get rid of not just the All-Star Game but even the concept of being an All-Star: retain All-Star Saturday Night (it could be renamed something else, like NBA Showcase Saturday) and of course retain the Legends Brunch, but the All-Star Game serves no purpose, and being selected as an All-Star in today's NBA has no meaning. Only the awards given after the season matter, so let the players grumble about having to play at least 65 out of 82 games--oh, the suffering!--to be eligible to win those awards. 

Here is the challenge to Silver: fix the All-Star Game, or have the intestinal fortitude to not only get rid of it but to publicly say that he is getting rid of it because the players do not take it seriously enough to deserve to have it and to receive the bonuses associated with being selected for it.

Recent NBA All-Star Game Recaps:

The 2023 NBA All-Star Game May Have Been the Worst Basketball Game Ever (2023) 

"The 2023 NBA All-Star Game was not only the worst NBA All-Star Game ever, but it may have been the worst basketball game ever 'contested'--and I use that word with hesitation--by high level players. Denver Nuggets Coach Michael Malone, who coached Team LeBron, made this statement after Team Giannis prevailed 184-175: 'It's an honor to be here, and it's an honor to be a part of a great weekend with great players, but it's the worst basketball game ever played.' Malone also admitted that he has no idea how to fix the game.

The NBA All-Star Game began its horrific slide to irrelevance several years ago (see game recaps appended to this article for more details), but yesterday the league's showcase midseason event descended to a nadir from which there may be no recovery. 

At its best, NBA basketball is about the world's greatest athletes competing at a high level at both ends of the court while working together to help their team win. At its worst--and its worst was on full display last night--NBA basketball is about players flaunting their individual skills without any connection to team success while their 'opponents' step aside and watch instead of competing on defense. The 2023 NBA All-Star Game was such an abomination that it is difficult to decide which moment was the worst."

NBA Formally Honors the 75th Anniversary Team, Stephen Curry Wins the All-Star Game MVP (2022)

"How much has the All-Star Game devolved from an actual competition featuring the league's best players to an exhibition of players demonstrating individual skills devoid of competition or team play? Free throws are a quick way to gauge physicality/defense. The 2022 All-Star Game included eight fouls, four of which were called in the fourth quarter, and Team LeBron shot 2-2 from the free throw line while Team Durant shot 7-7 from the free throw line. This season, NBA teams average a little over 21 free throw attempts per game, so it is obvious that the All-Star Game featured few fouls, few free throws, very little physicality, and token defense compared to a normal NBA game.

All-Star Games used to be played much differently. In the first NBA All-Star Game, the East beat the West 98-93 in overtime in 1954 with the East shooting 36 of 44 from the free throw line and the West shooting 17-26 from the free throw line. In 1962, Wilt Chamberlain set an All-Star single game scoring record (42 points) that stood for 55 years. Chamberlain shot 8-16 from the free throw line, and his East squad shot 24-43 from the free throw line. The West, which won 150-130, shot 36-51 from the free throw line. Chamberlain's scoring record took place during a competitive game, and the record stood until long after NBA All-Star Games ceased to be competitive; his record is so exceptional that even in an era during which it is much easier to score in All-Star Games only two players have surpassed the standard that he set--and Curry did so by making a bunch of uncontested three pointers.

For most of All-Star Game history, players from both sides played hard, played defense, and committed a normal amount of fouls. Things began to change in 2007, when the victorious West only attempted nine free throws and the East only attempted 13 free throws, a big decline from 24 and 28 respectively in the 2006 All-Star Game. The 2008 All-Star Game was more of the same. Matters improved a bit during the next several All-Star Games, but in 2014 the East attempted nine free throws and the West attempted 12 free throws. Since 2014, single digit free throw attempts per team have been the norm rather than the exception--and on the rare occasion that a team has attempted more than 10 free throws most of those free throw attempts have happened in the fourth quarter, when the new scoring rules inspire (or shame) the All-Stars into playing some defense."

Giannis Antetokounmpo Wins All-Star MVP With Perfect Shooting, Leads Team LeBron to 170-150 Win Over Team Durant (2021)

"Giannis Antetokounmpo did not have the first perfect shooting performance in NBA All-Star Game history--Hal Greer shot 8-8 from the field en route to scoring 21 points and winning the 1968 NBA All-Star Game MVP--but he set the NBA All-Star Game record for most field goals without a miss (16), and he captured his first All-Star Game MVP by scoring a game-high 35 points as his Team LeBron routed Team Durant, 170-150. Antetokounmpo played just 19 minutes, so he scored nearly two points per minute. Most of Antetokounmpo's shots were lightly contested--if not uncontested--dunks, but he also shot 3-3 from three point range. Each team shot 3-5 from the free throw line as both teams spent most of the game not even pretending to care about defense. Perhaps the league and/or the players think that the fans want to see uncontested dunks and wide open three pointers, but I think/hope that true basketball fans want to see competition. A contested dunk is a great play; an uncontested dunk is just performance art."

Kawhi Leonard Leads Team LeBron to 157-155 Win over Team Giannis as New Format Results in Exciting Fourth Quarter Competition (2020)

"After three quarters, it seemed that the new NBA All-Star Game format had not inspired many players from either team to even pretend to play at a fraction of their full capabilities. Fortunately, the fourth quarter--a race to 157 points based on adding 24 points (in honor of Kobe Bryant) to the 133-124 lead enjoyed by Team Giannis over Team LeBron at the end of the third quarter--featured high level play as both teams looked fully engaged: Team Giannis' Kyle Lowry seemed to try to take a charge on every defensive possession, players from both teams contested almost every shot, and the level of physicality ramped up to top notch regular season levels, if not even first round playoff levels.

It is mystifying that most NBA players seem to need external motivation to play their best in the All-Star Game, but with a substantial portion of the weekend's festivities dedicated to the memory of Bryant--including naming the All-Star MVP award for him--it would have been a travesty for the players to just sleepwalk through the entire proceedings. Kawhi Leonard is a pioneer of the less than commendable load management scourge, but at least he always plays hard when he is on the court. Leonard scored a game-high 30 points on 11-18 field goal shooting (including 8-14 from three point range), grabbed seven rebounds, dished for four assists, and received the first Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP Award as his Team LeBron won, 157-155."

Kevin Durant Wins his Second All-Star MVP as Team LeBron Overcomes 20 Point Deficit to Defeat Team Giannis, 178-164 (2019)

"The All-Star Game sunk to such depths a few years ago that there were even whispers that it might be discontinued. Instead, the league changed the format from East versus West to a format in which the top two vote-getters conduct a draft consisting of a pool of other All-Stars selected by fans, coaches and media members. LeBron James faced off against Giannis Antetokounmpo in this year's All-Star draft. Popular consensus was that James, whose draft strategy seemed to be focused on acquiring every major player who will be a free agent soon, got the better of Antetokounmpo--but it did not look like that initially, as Team Giannis led 53-37 after the first quarter and 95-82 at halftime. Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 38 points on 17-23 field goal shooting, including 10 dunks. He also had 11 rebounds and five assists. He set the tone in the first quarter with 16 points. Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee teammate/All-Star teammate Khris Middleton added 20 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, including 6-10 from three point range. Middleton scored 12 first quarter points.

To coin--or repeat--a phrase, it seemed like Team LeBron was in 'chill mode' during the first half, but in the second half they exerted at least some defensive effort and they rained down a barrage of three pointers. Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis 96-69 in the second half while shooting 22-49 from three point range. The teams combined to attempt 167 three pointers during the game, compared to 108 two pointers attempted.

Kevin Durant earned MVP honors by scoring 31 points on 10-15 field goal shooting (including 6-9 from three point range) while also contributing seven rebounds. He had 11 points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Durant's Golden State teammate Klay Thompson finished second on Team LeBron with 20 points on 7-16 field goal shooting (6-12 from three point range) and he had eight rebounds and four assists as well."

LeBron James Earns Third All-Star Game MVP as Team LeBron Outlasts Team Stephen, 148-145 (2018):

"LeBron James scored a game-high 29 points on 12-17 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high tying 10 rebounds and dished eight assists as Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 in the first year of the NBA's new All-Star selection format; instead of the traditional matchup featuring the Eastern Conference facing the Western Conference, a team of All-Stars picked by LeBron James faced a team of All-Stars picked by Stephen Curry. The NBA tweaked the All-Star Game in the wake of several subpar All-Star Games, culminating in last year's farce.

Before the 2018 All-Star Game, James already held the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (314 points) and yesterday he surpassed Julius Erving (321 points) to set the record for most points scored in ABA and NBA All-Star Games combined. Bob Pettit (1956, 58, 59, 62) and Kobe Bryant (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011) share the record with four All-Star Game MVPs each, while James joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as three-time winners; James previously earned the All-Star Game MVP in 2006 and 2008."

The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce (2017):

"The Western Conference's 192-182 victory over the Eastern Conference is without question the worst NBA All-Star Game that I have ever watched. Other than the MLB All-Star Game that ended in a tie (and many NFL Pro Bowls of recent vintage) it may be the worst major professional league All-Star Game ever. When the reigning two-time regular season MVP literally lies down on the court instead of attempting to play defense, you know that the event has jumped the shark."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 PM

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The 2024 NBA Legends Brunch Honors Tamika Catchings, Jalen Rose, Reggie Miller, and Larry Bird While Also Featuring ABA Panel Discussion

The NBA Legends Brunch is the highlight of NBA All-Star Weekend. I covered this event six times as a credentialed journalist (2005-10), and I watch it every year on TV when I am not able to attend. TNT's Ernie Johnson is a wonderful host/master of ceremonies, and you can tell that he genuinely enjoys his role.

Retired NBA player Harvey Catchings presented the Pioneer Award to his daughter, Tamika Catchings, who starred for the WNBA's Indiana Fever. Harvey recalled that Tamika had an insatiable love for basketball right from the start; when the whole family went to the gym together, Tamika did not want to leave, imploring her father, "Daddy, can we play one more game?" Harvey said that he never let Tamika win, because he knew that the world can be harsh and that she faced challenges because of her hearing issue and her speech impediment. He told her that she has to set the standard for herself, and that if she does that then she can become one of the greatest basketball players ever. 

After receiving the award from her father, Tamika began her speech by remembering when her father first brought her to the NBA Legends Brunch and she wondered why she had to sit next to old people, but she grew to understand that this was a blessing. She said that she could have never imagined standing on the NBA Legends Brunch stage as a Legend, let alone as the Pioneer Award winner. Tamika modeled her game after players that her father played with or against--including Julius Erving, Larry Bird, and Bob Lanier--but her favorite player of all-time (other than her father, she hastened to note!) is Alonzo Mourning. Her father told her that to be a great player you have to be great at more than one thing, and Tamika felt that Mourning's game embodied that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:07 AM

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Sunday, February 18, 2024

Mac McClung Wins Second Consecutive NBA Slam Dunk Contest

Mac McClung stole the show in the 2023 Slam Dunk Contest, and he defended his title in 2024, prevailing over a field including three-time NBA All-Star Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr., and fellow G-Leaguer Jacob Toppin (brother of Obi Toppin, who won the 2022 Slam Dunk Contest after finishing second to Anfernee Simons in 2021). McClung is the first repeat Slam Dunk Contest winner since Zach LaVine in 2015-16. Other repeat winners include Michael Jordan (1987-88), Jason Richardson (2002-03), and Nate Robinson (2009-10). Robinson is the only three-time champion (he also won in 2006), while Dominique Wilkins (1985, 1990) and Harold Miner (1993, 1995) each won two non-consecutive Slam Dunk titles.

McClung had not played in an NBA regular season game prior to last year's Slam Dunk Contest, and he has still only played in four NBA regular season games (none this season). It has been a long time since the Slam Dunk Contest consistently attracted All-Star players, and those days seemingly are gone forever; the top players either don't want to bother with the event, or else they fear that not winning would somehow hurt their endorsement portfolio. It is sad that the best players don't want to compete in the Slam Dunk Contest, but this is just symptomatic of the larger problems of load management, tanking, and a generally lax attitude toward competition (which has completely infected the All-Star Game itself, turning a once prestigious showcase into a pathetic farce).

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:43 AM

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Thursday, February 08, 2024

Lakers Unveil Statue Honoring Kobe Bryant, Will Unveil Two More Bryant Statues Later

The L.A. Lakers honored Kobe Bryant on 2/8/24--a date representing his daughter Gianna's jersey number as well as both jersey numbers that Kobe wore during his 20 season Lakers career--by unveiling a statue depicting Bryant wearing jersey number eight and raising his right arm triumphantly after scoring 81 points versus the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006. The base of the statue carries the inscriptions Kobe Bean Bryant and "Black Mamba" above a list of a few of his many accomplishments. 

Bryant's widow Vanessa was the final speaker before the Lakers unveiled the Bryant statue. Vanessa explained that there will be two other Bryant statues: one will include Bryant alongside Gianna, and the other will depict Bryant wearing jersey number 24. Vanessa took a preemptive strike against anyone who might criticize how tonight's statue looks--a sad certainty in an era of social media oversaturation--by noting that Bryant chose the pose used for the statue and he provided other input about the design. Vanessa said that she only suggested a few alterations, including adding tattoos on Bryant's arms in tribute to all of his daughters even though not all of his daughters had been born yet in 2006. Vanessa added, "This moment isn't just for Kobe, but it is for all of you who have been rooting for him for all of these years...It brings me joy to see how much love you have for all of us. We love you back."

During TNT's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal spoke from the heart about winning three straight NBA championships while playing alongside Bryant, who he called his best teammate ever. It is no secret that Bryant and O'Neal openly feuded while they were teammates, mainly because Bryant had a much more serious and disciplined approach to the game than O'Neal did. O'Neal's current version of those events--that he and Bryant were not really feuding but just both pushing each other to be great--has more than a whiff of revisionist history to it but it is true that they made their peace with each other years before Bryant died, so perhaps it is best that O'Neal does not dwell on every detail of their feud or try to act like he was right.

This statue is just the latest in a series of posthumous honors and recognition for Bryant, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021. In 2022, the NBA named the All-Star Game MVP after him. I am proud that I contributed to Forever Mamba--a special Kobe Bryant tribute magazine published by Lindy's Sports and edited by Roland Lazenby--and that I wrote an essay for a Kobe Bryant Tribute magazine published in Japan.

It has been four years since Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others. Bryant and Gianna have been mourned by millions of people around the world, but it should always be remembered that the families of the seven other people who died suffered that day, and they mourn just as deeply. 

Vanessa has displayed remarkable grace and poise in the wake of losing her husband and her second eldest daughter on the same horrible day. Much as Jacqueline Kennedy sought to preserve and enhance the legacy of her slain husband John F. Kennedy, it is evident that Vanessa has put a lot of thought into how to best honor and remember her husband and their daughter. Vanessa's speech during Bryant's memorial ceremony and her speech representing Bryant during the Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony highlighted her intelligence, her sensitivity, and her amazing ability to maintain composure while processing tremendous grief. She displayed those same qualities during her speech prior to the statue's unveiling. Vanessa is insuring that Bryant's legacy will endure not just in terms of his basketball accomplishments but also in terms of his post-basketball playing life that had only just begun when it was so cruelly cut short.

I remember as a child reading about Roberto Clemente's tragic passing at 38 in a plane crash as he flew to Nicaragua to personally deliver relief supplies for earthquake victims. The baseball legend had just logged his 3000th career hit, punctuating a brilliant career during which he won two World Series titles (1960, 1971) and one National League MVP (1966). I am not sure how to best express this, but when you learn about someone who has already tragically died at a young age you absorb the timing and manner of death as part of his life story--it is history by the time you know about it. It is different when someone whose life you followed--let alone someone who you personally interacted with on multiple occasions--dies suddenly and unexpectedly at a young age. Roberto Clemente is a historical figure to me: I admire and respect him, but his life did not intersect with my life.

I saw Kobe Bryant play in person. I spoke with him before games, and I spoke with him after games. I saw his mangled pinkie finger up close in person and could not understand how someone could play basketball at all--let alone dominate--with such an injury to his shooting hand; it was perhaps even more amazing when he played despite suffering an avulsion fracture to the index finger of his shooting hand, turning that finger into a bruised, purplish appendage that I also saw up close in person. At some level we all know about our mortality, but when someone who is young and seemingly invincible dies suddenly it is jarring. I don't mean to make this about me; Bryant may be a big part of my life journey because I wrote about him so frequently, but I don't pretend that I was a big part of his life journey. My point is that for those of us who are old enough to remember observing Bryant's life, his death will always be a milestone event that we process differently than we process the deaths of historical figures who perished outside of our living memory.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:58 PM

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Monday, February 05, 2024

Remembering Earl "The Twirl" Cureton

Earl "The Twirl" Cureton passed away unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 66. The Detroit native had just substituted for Rick Mahorn on the Detroit Pistons radio network on Friday night, and Cureton was scheduled to call Sunday's game versus Orlando as well. 

Cureton enjoyed a 12 season NBA career. Like many NBA role players, he was a star in college, averaging 16.2 ppg and 9.5 rpg in 81 games for Robert Morris and Detroit Mercy. Cureton scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Detroit's 95-87 loss to Lamar in the 1979 NCAA Tournament. Cureton began his NBA career with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1980 and he played three seasons with the 76ers. Cureton was a teammate of Julius Erving's on Philadelphia's 1983 NBA championship team before playing for his hometown Detroit Pistons from 1983-1986. Cureton was Michael Jordan's teammate with the Chicago Bulls in 1986-87, and he also played for the L.A. Clippers, Charlotte Hornets, Houston Rockets, and Toronto Raptors in addition to playing pro ball in Italy, France, Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina. Cureton only played in two regular season games for the 1994 Houston Rockets, but he served as an effective rotation player in 10 playoff games as they won the NBA title.

Most recently, Cureton worked as the Community Ambassador of the Detroit Pistons. His Pistons teammate Isiah Thomas issued this statement: "All of us are hurting. He was a tremendous teammate, tough competitor, a champion and a great human being. Earl always held the Detroit community close to his heart and worked tirelessly to make a difference for the city he loved. He will be greatly missed."

You can get a sense of Cureton's upbeat demeanor in this video during which he reminisces about his NBA career:

Cureton recalled that when he was growing up he had Julius Erving's posters on his wall, never dreaming that one day he would be Dr. J's teammate and play on a championship team with him. Cureton called Erving the "ambassador for the NBA. I think he was that player who set the standard for the league. A class act. He had a certain air about him. When he walked into a room, you knew Doc was in that room...Always gave 110% out there on the basketball court. You can't have a better role model than that..I think that he was the best at going to the basket. No other player that played in the league went to the basket like that."

The 1983 76ers--featuring Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, and Bobby Jones plus Hall of Fame caliber guard Andrew Toney--will always be my favorite team of all-time. They set the all-time record (since broken in the expanded playoff format) by going 12-1 in the playoffs, culminating in a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers. If you loved the 1983 76ers, you remember Cureton hitting a skyhook over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after Malone got in foul trouble in game two of the 1983 NBA Finals. In the commemorative championship video, Erving good-naturedly joked to the post-game media scrum that Cureton will now become so famous that he won't be able to walk the streets of Detroit without being recognized, while Cheeks said Cureton had seen Abdul-Jabbar shoot the skyhook against him so many times that he probably figured he might as well do it once. The 76ers had fun along the way, but they never lost sight of their mission to get Erving his first NBA championship ring to go alongside his two ABA championship rings. Bruce Newman covered the series for Sports Illustrated during a golden era for the league (and the magazine).

Cureton is the third member of that squad to pass away. Mark McNamara passed away on April 27, 2020, and Moses Malone passed away on September 13, 2015. The 1983 76ers brought a lot of joy not just to Philadelphia but to the basketball world with their teamwork, their unselfishness, and their determined focus to complete their journey; in the three seasons prior to acquiring Malone, the 76ers lost to the L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals in 1980 and 1982, and they lost in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals after building a 3-1 lead versus the Boston Celtics. 

The passage of time and the passages of life are sobering reminders of how important it is to cherish every moment of the journey.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM

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Russell Westbrook Joins the Elite 25,000 Point Club, and is the Second Player With 25,000 Points/9000 Assists/8000 Rebounds

Last Friday night, Russell Westbrook joined pro basketball's 25,000 point club after scoring 23 points as his L.A. Clippers defeated the Detroit Pistons, 136-125. According to the NBA and its media partners, Westbrook is the 25th member of the 25,000 point club--but ABA statistics should be counted by the NBA just like AFL statistics are counted by the NFL, so the truth is that the 25,000 point club has 29 members. Julius Erving (30,026 career points, ranking eighth all-time), Dan Issel (27,482 points, 13th), George Gervin (26,595 points, 18th), and Rick Barry (25,279 points, 26th) are the ABA players who are excluded by the NBA, while former ABA player Moses Malone is docked 2171 points but still makes the "official" cut.

Just as it has become more common for players to score 60 points or even 70 points in a single game, it is more common for players to score more than 25,000 career points. The 1977-78 Official NBA Guide (published the season after the ABA-NBA merger) lists the NBA's All-Time Top Scorers. The 25,000 point club had four members at that time: Wilt Chamberlain (31,419 points), Oscar Robertson (26,710 points), Jerry West (25,192 points), and John Havlicek (25,073 points). As I discussed after Vince Carter became the 26th member of the 25,000 point club on November 21, 2018, this club used to be ultra-exclusive (note that in 2018 LeBron James had not yet surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the regular season career scoring list):

Younger fans may not realize that the 25,000 point club used to be even more exclusive. The "charter" members, so to speak, are Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and John Havlicek, who founded the club from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, the club added six members: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who is still the all-time scoring leader), Julius Erving, Dan Issel, Elvin Hayes, George Gervin, Moses Malone and Rick Barry. The club has since more than doubled in size. This is similar to the dramatic increase in the number of chess players who have at least a 2600 FIDE (International Chess Federation) rating; there were just 15 such players on the first official rating list in 1971 but by 1991 there were 33 and by 2004 a 2600 rating was not enough to earn a top 100 spot in the world rankings. Chess ratings are affected by the composition of the entire pool of players (it is easier to gain points when there are more players who have high ratings), while pro basketball point totals are affected not just by skill but also by rules changes, style of play changes, training advances that have extended careers and other factors. 

In 1977, even the 20,000 point club was very exclusive, including only (in addition to Chamberlain, Robertson, West, and Havlicek) Elgin Baylor (23,149 points), Hal Greer (21,586 points), Walt Bellamy (20,941 points), and Bob Pettit (20,880 points).  

Although the 25,000 point club is less exclusive than it used to be, tallying 25,000 points is still a milestone accomplishment: if a player averages 25 ppg and plays in 80 games per season for 12 years, he will be 1000 points short of 25,000, so it is obvious that all of the 25,000 point scorers combined high level production with durability.

Westbrook has won two scoring titles (2015, 2017), but he made his mark as an all-around player who is an elite scorer, rebounder, and passer. He and LeBron James are the only players in pro basketball history to have at least 25,000 career points, at least 9000 career assists, and at least 8000 career rebounds. Westbrook led the NBA in assists three times (2018-19, 2021), he became pro basketball's career triple doubles leader in 2021--breaking Oscar Robertson's record of 181--and he currently has 198 career triple doubles. Nikola Jokic ranks second among active players with 120, trailing only Westbrook, Robertson, and Magic Johnson (138). LeBron James (110) and Jason Kidd (107) are the only other players who amassed at least 100 career triple doubles.

It is baffling and inexcusable that so many media members use any excuse to bash Westbrook. Not only is Westbrook one of the most talented and accomplished players of all-time, but he also embodies all of the best values of a professional athlete: He shows up for every game, he plays hard, he accepts whatever his role is, and he is a great teammate. Westbrook has played in all 48 of the L.A. Clippers' games this season, and he has enthusiastically accepted a bench role that would cause many players of his status--and even players of a lesser status--to complain and sulk. 

Westbrook's critics remind me of a line from the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer; the chess prodigy's father in the movie notes that his son is better at playing chess than most people will be at anything they do. Russell Westbrook is better at playing basketball than most people will be at anything, and that goes double for many of the credential-wearing people who pose as journalists. The way that the L.A. Lakers and LeBron James' media sycophants treated Westbrook during Westbrook's brief time with the Lakers was despicable, and it is noteworthy that the legendary Hubie Brown stood out from the crowd by praising Westbrook

It is fitting that with Westbrook playing a key role the Clippers are now fighting for the number one seed in the Western Conference while the Lakers--who supposedly improved themselves by trading Westbrook last season--are struggling to qualify for the Play-In Tournament. The Lakers made a fluky run to the Western Conference Finals last year, but--as happened with other teams that made fluky playoff runs, including Portland (2019 Western Conference Finals) and Atlanta (2021 Eastern Conference Finals)--the Lakers are now showing their true level in terms of defense and professionalism; Westbrook was not causing the Lakers' problems, and getting rid of him did not solve their problems.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:21 AM

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Friday, February 02, 2024

How Did the Lakers Sans LeBron and AD Beat the Celtics in Boston?

We are told by many media members (also known as LeBron James' public relations staff) that the L.A. Lakers lack talent and can only win games if the 39 year old James plays at a superhuman level. There is no doubt that James is a Pantheon level player, and there is no doubt that the way he is playing at his advanced age is impressive and unprecedented--but is James correct to declare himself "The Greatest Player of All-Time" and is it true that the Lakers are helpless without James?

One game is the ultimate small sample size theater, but we can still learn something from each game. On Thursday night, the L.A. Lakers trudged into Boston without not only James but also Anthony Davis, who joined James on the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team and joins James on the 2024 Western Conference All-Star team as well. Surely the shorthanded Lakers--who have been worse than mediocre for most of this season (other than winning the inaugural NBA Cup) even with James and Davis--would collapse against the mighty, league-leading Celtics.

Not so fast my friend, as Lee Corso says.

The Lakers jumped out to an 11 point first quarter lead and never trailed in the second half en route to a 114-105 win. All five Laker starters plus bench player Rui Hachimura scored in double figures, led by Austin Reaves' game-high 32 points. The Lakers shot 19-36 (.528) from three point range, and they only committed seven turnovers. The Lakers rank 15th in the league in three point field goal percentage (.365), and they rank 21st in turnovers per game (14.3).

In contrast, the Celtics shot just 16-48 (.333) from three point range, and they coughed up 15 turnovers. The Celtics rank fourth in the league in three point field goal percentage (.380) while leading the league in three pointers made and three pointers attempted, and they rank sixth in turnovers per game (12.5). MVP candidate and 2024 All-Star Jayson Tatum paced the Celtics with 23 points on 8-21 field goal shooting. Kristaps Porzingis and Sam Houser each scored 17 points. Jaylen Brown, who last summer signed the richest contract in NBA history and is a 2024 All-Star, managed just eight points on 4-12 field goal shooting.

The words "aberration" and "regression to the mean" come to my mind. The Lakers are not as good as they looked, nor are the Celtics as bad as they looked. Nevertheless, it is instructive to consider why the Lakers looked so good and why the Celtics looked so bad.

The three point shot is considered the most efficient shot by "stat gurus," but it is also a high variance shot. When the treys are going down, you can look like the Lakers did last night or like Gilbert Arenas looked when some media members--including the vampire who for the past several years has made a living by praising James and using anonymous sources to slander Russell Westbrook--touted Arenas as an MVP candidate; when the long balls fall short, you can look like the Celtics looked.

A .400 three point shooter is more efficient statistically than a .550 two point shooter--but if that .550 two point shooter has a steady diet of high percentage shots in the paint then his numbers are not going to vary much from game to game. In contrast, that .400 three point shooter may go 6-10 one game and 2-10 the next game. Where are the missing points coming from during those 2-10 games? The 2018 Daryl Morey/Mike D'Antoni/James Harden Houston Rockets are still looking for those missing points after missing 27 straight three pointers while going down in flames versus Golden State in game seven.

Celtics other than Tatum and Houser shot 6-29 (.207) from three point range versus the Lakers. Davis and James are the Lakers' two best defensive players, and without Davis the Lakers have no shotblocking (they blocked just two shots versus the Celtics). I am not sure who is going to beat the Celtics in the 2024 NBA playoffs, but if the Celtics fail to win the championship despite having the league's best record their downfall will probably be a game seven during which they miss a ton of three pointers while being unwilling or unable to make up those missing points. The Celtics should lean more on their defense and on attacking the paint on offense instead of this foolish quest to jack up 50 three point shots per game. They have the most talented starting five in the NBA, and they are setting themselves up to shoot themselves into a devastating playoff loss against a team that is less talented but more resilient, more gritty, and less stubborn about shooting three pointers.

All of that being said, Thursday's result did not happen just because the Celtics missed a lot of three pointers. The Lakers played well at both ends of the court, and that must confound the "experts" who view the Lakers as James, Davis, and a bunch of dudes who could not play dead in a cowboy movie. Why did the Lakers' supporting players perform so well versus the Celtics?

The reality--and this is something that I have written about throughout James' stellar career--is that James often plays in a way that maximizes his personal statistics but does not necessarily maximize his team's winning chances. On the surface, that may seem like nonsensical "hate." I am not ignoring the indisputable facts that (1) James has been the best player on four championship teams and (2) James has authored some incredibly clutch playoff performances. There is no doubt that James has had a major impact on winning for each of the three franchises that employed him, as reflected by the fact that he led each franchise to at least one championship. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the impression that James is very conscious of his statistics and of how to shape narratives. Sometimes, he puts up big numbers after the outcome is no longer in doubt; always, he controls the ball and decides who will shoot the ball, which means he controls his points, his assists, and everyone's field goal percentage. 

James makes many great decisions. I am not questioning his basketball IQ--far from it. My point is that Bill Russell used his genius level basketball IQ to figure out how to maximize the likelihood that his Boston Celtics would win, and Russell did not care how many points he scored or how many triple doubles he amassed. In contrast, after James quit versus Boston in game five of their 2010 playoff series he bristled at questions about his performance, and he petulantly stated that he had spoiled fans with his greatness. I covered that game in person, and I covered that press conference as well. I was flabbergasted by James' performance and by his excuses. I cannot imagine Russell (or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant) uttering such words after such a bad performance. For Russell, Johnson, Jordan, and Bryant, the game is about doing whatever it takes to win championships--no excuses. For James, the game is often about maintaining the narrative of his greatness. After that devastating 2010 game five loss to the Celtics, James' first thought was not that his league-leading 61-21 team was facing playoff elimination; his first thought was how to spin his performance in a way that did not reflect negatively on his greatness, and he did that by directing attention away from how he played versus Boston and toward how he had played overall in previous years. Whether or not it is a valid point to say that James had few bad games, that is not the way that the greatest of the great think about when they fall short of the high standard they set for themselves. I recall Jerry Rice saying that if he caught 15 passes and dropped one he only thought about the dropped pass; in the same situation, James would say, "I caught 15 out of 16 and I spoiled the fans by setting so many records over the years."

In short, James' talent often lifts his teams, but it also can suffocate his teammates. The Lakers played free and loose without James controlling the ball, and several players showed that they are capable of creating their own shots and playing solid defense. Does that mean the Lakers are better without James? Of course not. Those players are not conditioned mentally or physically to play that way for 82 games. However, the Lakers would benefit if James consistently played in a way that focused less on narrative and more on team success.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 AM

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Would NBA Players Give Up Guaranteed Salaries in Exchange for Amending the Player Participation Policy?

Prior to this season, the NBA instituted a Player Participation Policy that stipulates--among other things--that any player who fails to play in at least 65 out of 82 regular season games is ineligible for several major awards, including regular season MVP. Joel Embiid has already missed 13 games this season, and now that he has reportedly suffered a lateral meniscus injury it is almost certain that he will not meet the 65 games played threshold. Some media members and some NBA players have complained that in light of his high level play this season--including a 70 point game and a league-leading 35.3 ppg scoring average--it is not fair for Embiid to be automatically disqualified from MVP consideration.

Missing a lot of games is not an aberration for Embiid, an injury-prone player who sat out every game of his first two NBA seasons. He played 31 games in his third season, 2016-17, and since that time he has played at least 65 games in a season just twice (66 in 2022-23, 68 in 2021-22). Embiid is not only frequently unavailable during the regular season, but he often disappears during the playoffs: his playoff numbers for scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage are all significantly lower than his regular season numbers, he has never won a second round series, and he has an 0-3 game seven record. Embiid has only won one series that went past five games, which indicates that (1) he only wins in the playoffs when his team is markedly superior to the opposing team, and (2) he tends to wear down over the course of a series.

Embiid won the regular season MVP last season, but is the above resume an MVP resume overall? There is no disputing that Embiid is a very talented player, but is he an MVP-level all-time great player? Put another way, should an MVP be expected to play more than 65 regular season games per year and deliver more in the playoffs than a bunch of second round losses? 

The Philadelphia 76ers obtained Embiid's draft rights by tanking, and they most assuredly have not tanked to the top. Tanking and load management are two sides of the same counterfeit coin, because both practices minimize the value of winning regular season games. The NBA was much better when tanking and load management did not exist, and when players like Julius Erving and Moses Malone took pride in playing every game: "From 1967-82, the NBA regular season MVP played in 81 or 82 games every year except for 1978, when 1977 NBA Finals MVP Bill Walton captured the regular season MVP despite being limited to 58 games due to injuries--and Walton was not 'load managing': he was legitimately injured. Erving won four regular season MVPs during his ABA/NBA career; in those MVP seasons, he played in 84, 84, 84, and 82 games (the ABA regular season lasted 84 games). Malone won three regular season MVPs during his ABA/NBA career; in those MVP seasons, he played in 82, 81, and 78 games."

Bill Walton's regular season MVP in a 58 game season is an aberration, and Embiid is not Bill Walton. Embiid has never led a team to the Eastern Conference Finals--let alone an NBA title--and there is no indication that he will ever be durable enough to avoid wearing down or getting injured before or during the playoffs. Think about that: Bill Walton--the poster child for injury-prone players--proved to be more durable when it matters most than Embiid has been up to this point in his 10 year NBA career. By traditional standards, Embiid has never had an MVP-caliber season. 

With the Player Participation Policy in place, NBA fans are now seeing star players on the court--as opposed to sipping wine on the sidelines--more often than has been the case for the past several years. The NBA should not reverse this positive trend. Most working people are either paid based on showing up for work every day (i.e., paid by the hour) or based on performance; few people have salaries that are guaranteed regardless of their attendance or performance. If NBA players want to be eligible for postseason awards--and for contractual bonuses connected to those awards--then there is a simple solution that does not involve amending the Player Participation Policy: eliminate guaranteed contracts, and transition to paying each player per game played: Don't play, don't get paid. Under those rules, if players want to miss more than 17 game checks and hope that the award voters will still select them for MVP or the All-NBA Team, go for it.

I am not "blaming" Embiid or anyone else for being legitimately injured (there is no indication that Embiid is load managing). My two-fold point is (1) By definition the regular season MVP is (or should be) a player who plays at a very high level while missing very few games, and (2) players should not expect to both receive guaranteed paychecks despite missing a large number of games and be eligible for major awards: something has to give--either give up the guaranteed money, or accept that it is fair to expect major award winners to both stay healthy and not engage in load management.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:28 AM

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Saturday, January 27, 2024

New Look Knicks Rout Slumping Heat

The Miami Heat jumped out to a 19-9 first quarter lead versus the New York Knicks, but the Knicks trimmed that margin to 30-27 by the end of the first quarter en route to posting a 125-109 win. Jalen Brunson scored a game-high 32 points and dished for a game-high eight assists. Julius Randle contributed 19 points and nine rebounds before leaving the game after suffering a dislocated right shoulder while bracing his fall as he drove to the hoop with 4:27 remaining in the fourth quarter. OG Anunoby added 19 points plus four assists. The Knicks outrebounded the Heat 46-38. The Boston Celtics are the class of the Eastern Conference if not the entire NBA, but the Knicks have looked like an elite team since acquiring Anunoby from the Toronto Raptors, posting a 12-3 record (including 12-2 in games when Anunoby played). The Knicks have won six games in a row, highlighted by a 122-84 victory on Thursday versus the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets.

Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 28 points, and he also had eight rebounds and four assists. Duncan Robinson scored 19 points, and Tyler Herro had 18 points. The Heat have lost six straight games, and with a 24-22 record they do not rank among the top six teams in the East; of course, last season the Heat reached the NBA Finals after only finishing with the seventh best record in the East, so we have learned not to count out the NBA's version of Rasputin.

Hubie Brown is my all-time favorite NBA analyst, and it was wonderful to hear his commentary during this game. The video of Brown and Spike Lee enjoying a conversation on court before the game is priceless, showing the former Knicks coach reminiscing with the most famous Knicks fan. Brown noted during the telecast that he has known Lee since the 1970s! 

Brown's most recent ABC or ESPN game was 10 days ago, when the Cavaliers crushed the Bucks, 135-95. There is a huge gap between Brown and most other current NBA analysts, because Brown not only has unparalleled understanding of basketball strategy but he also knows basketball history. During this game, ABC/ESPN showed a graphic indicating that Brunson is on pace to become the only Knick other than Richie Guerin to average at least 25 ppg and at least 5 apg in the same season. Brown immediately noted that Guerin began his career as a center at Iona, and then became one of the greatest Knicks of all-time before being a top notch NBA coach. Brown's love and respect for the game's pioneers is preferable to the arrogant ignorance regularly displayed by ABC/ESPN analyst J.J. Redick.

Brown is not stuck in the past, though. He is very familiar with the NBA's current players, and he loves Brunson's game. It is remarkable how Brunson has blossomed from solid role player in his first two NBA seasons to All-Star--if not All-NBA--caliber performer. Before the game, Brown said, "Brunson is so clever off of the dribble...he has multiple moves to free himself." 

In the first quarter, Knicks shot just .417 from the field while missing several shots in the paint. Butler, who often seems to coast during the regular season, was aggressive and focused in the first quarter, scoring 11 points on 4-7 field goal shooting. Brown pointed out that Butler only averages 13 field goal attempts per game, and he noted, "He's shooting 48% from the floor, 41% from three, and you can't foul him" because he is an excellent free throw shooter (.881).

As the Knicks recovered from their slow start and took control, Brown praised their ball movement, their scoring in the paint, and the strong contributions made by their bench players. Brown also liked Randle's play: "Randle has been patient. Make the extra pass, and let's free up the open guy."

Brown diagnosed the Heat's problem: although they are strong defensively (ranking seventh in the league in points allowed), they struggle to score (ranking 27th in scoring and 25th in field goal percentage). In this game, the Heat's defense was subpar, and they did not score nearly enough points to make up for that.

The Knicks led 61-51 at halftime, and then pushed that advantage to 13 points in the third quarter before the Heat rallied to tie the score at 86 on a Butler drive with 13.2 seconds remaining in the quarter. Butler missed the free throw after being fouled, Randle hit a three pointer just before the buzzer sounded, and the Knicks led the rest of the way.

Assuming that Brunson and company can hold down the fort until Randle returns--and assuming that Randle makes a full recovery without missing too many games--the Knicks could be a dangerous playoff team because of their defense, their toughness, and Brunson's timely scoring/playmaking.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:15 PM

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Luka Doncic Posts Fourth Best Single-Game Scoring Performance in NBA History, Devin Booker Logs Second 60 Point Game of His Career

Just four days after Joel Embiid joined the 70 point club and Karl-Anthony Towns had the second 60 point game of his career, Luka Doncic scored 73 points as his Dallas Mavericks defeated the Atlanta Hawks, 148-143. Doncic tied Wilt Chamberlain and David Thompson for the fourth highest scoring game in ABA/NBA history, trailing only Chamberlain's 100 point game, Kobe Bryant's 81 point game, and Chamberlain's 78 point game. Doncic shot 25-33 from the field and 15-16 from the free throw line, but what is most striking is his 17-20 field goal shooting from inside the arc. Yes, Doncic shot .850 on his two point field goal attempts! A cardinal defensive principle in basketball is to not allow straight line drives to the hoop, but the Hawks offered little to no resistance as Doncic repeatedly drove straight to the basket. Michael Jordan would have scored 90 or 100 points against that type of defense; that may sound like hyperbole, but if you watched Jordan play then you know it is true. Jordan attacked the hoop relentlessly during an era when the game was much more physical.

Doncic stole the headlines from Devin Booker, who scored 62 points as his Phoenix Suns lost to the Indiana Pacers, 133-131. Booker now has two 60 point games during his career. Until 1988, pro basketball's 60 Point Club had only two members who had logged more than one 60 point game: Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. Jordan finished his career with four 60 point games (plus his 63 point playoff game, which is still the record for the postseason). After Jordan, the next player who had more than one 60 point game is Bryant, whose six such games trail only Chamberlain's 32(!) on the all-time list. 

Baylor, Chamberlain, Jordan, and Bryant are Pantheon-level players. Here are the players who have had at least two 60 point games post-Bryant: Damian Lillard (five), James Harden (four), Karl Anthony-Towns (two), Luka Doncic (two), and Devin Booker (two). With all due respect to that quintet, those players are not close to the level--as scorers, let alone as all-around players--of Baylor, Chamberlain, Jordan, and Bryant. 

The 70 Point Club has experienced a similar significant expansion. After Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points in a game last season, I wrote, "Not counting Chamberlain--whose name dominates the NBA record book--the NBA has seen less than one 70 point game per decade, so even in this era when it is easier to score than ever it may take 10 years before anyone matches what Mitchell did last night." Instead of taking a decade for someone to match Mitchell's feat, Damian Lillard scored 71 points in a game less than two months later, and now Doncic has topped both players with his 73 point explosion.

Lillard and Mitchell are both very good players, and Doncic is a great player, but the 70 Point Club used to be reserved for the all-time greats, not the "very good" and not the "great." Elgin Baylor founded the 70 Point Club on November 15, 1960 when he scored 71 points versus the New York Knicks. Baylor's record did not stand for long, as Chamberlain had six 70 point games from 1961-63, five of which topped Baylor's 71 point game. The only 70 point games from 1964-2006 were authored by David Thompson, David Robinson, and Kobe Bryant. No one scored 70 points in a game from 2007-2016, but from 2017-2024 Booker, Mitchell, Lillard, Embiid, and Doncic have done it. 

Baylor, Chamberlain, and Bryant are in the Pantheon. Thompson arguably had Pantheon-level talent, and he still had a Hall of Fame career despite battling drug addiction. Robinson is no worse than top 30-35 all-time. Would any informed NBA observer make the argument that Booker, Mitchell, Lillard, Embiid, and Doncic belong in such a group? Maybe Embiid or Doncic have a chance to elevate themselves to such lofty heights, but they are not there yet.

Regular season NBA games are starting to resemble the NBA All-Star Game in terms of lack of defense/lack of competitive effort, and last year's NBA All-Star Game may have been the worst basketball game ever. Prior to Monday, there had been one day in ABA/NBA history during which two players had 60 point games--and now that has happened twice in five days. Pointing out such facts is not "hating." The NBA powers that be have drastically altered the game, and not for the better: instead of featuring the best athletes in the world competing at the highest level, the NBA has degenerated into a glorified skills exhibition. I have attended dozens if not hundreds of NBA games in person as a credentialed media member or as a fan, and I have seen firsthand that even "non shooters" in the NBA can shoot an absurd percentage on uncontested warmup shots; this helped me to understand how great NBA defense is (or was). With all due respect to Doncic, in his 73 point game he shot .850 from the field on shots that were not much more difficult than warmup shots.

The modern NBA has lowered the bar competitively, which devalues each game and cheapens the record book.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:16 PM

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Thursday, January 25, 2024

Central Division Shakeups: Bucks and Pacers Make Big Changes

Before this season began, the Milwaukee Bucks were viewed as championship contenders, while the Indiana Pacers looked like a team that would be fighting to qualify for the Play-In Tournament. As this season reaches the halfway mark, the Bucks have the second best record in the Eastern Conference, but their shaky defense--they rank 16th in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage and 25th in points allowed--is cause for concern; the Pacers are tied for the sixth best record in the Eastern Conference, but they have dominated the Bucks head to head (4-1, including a win in the NBA Cup en route to making it to the NBA Cup Championship Game), and their dynamic point guard Tyrese Haliburton is having a breakout season with career-high averages in scoring (23.6 ppg) and assists (12.6 apg, first in the league). 

The won-loss records suggest that both teams are who we thought they were, but the perception is that the Bucks are not meeting expectations while the Pacers are exceeding expectations--and those perceptions led both teams to shake up the status quo: the Pacers acquired two-time All-NBA selection/two-time All-Star Pascal Siakam from Toronto in exchange for Bruce Brown, Jordan Nwora, and three first round draft picks; the Bucks fired first year head coach Adrian Griffin, and will reportedly replace Griffin with Doc Rivers.

The Pacers' front office is excited enough about what their young team has shown thus far to believe that it is worthwhile to give up three first round draft picks and solid rotation player Brown to add a veteran All-Star; that is not a move made by a team that is satisfied with making it to the Play-In Tournament: the Pacers think that adding Siakam to their rotation is enough to lift them to at least the top four in the Eastern Conference, and presumably they also think that they can persuade Siakam to re-sign with them in the offseason when Siakam becomes a free agent. 

Siakam was the second best player behind Kawhi Leonard on Toronto's 2019 championship team, but Leonard joined the L.A. Clippers after that season and with Siakam as the first option the Raptors won just one playoff series since 2019. Siakam is an excellent scorer, rebounder, playmaker, and defender but--like many very good but not great players--he may be better suited to the second option role than the lead role. That may work out fine for the Pacers, because Haliburton seems to have the temperament to fill the lead role. 

There is no question that the Pacers are better with the addition of Siakam. Are they good enough to beat Boston, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia in a playoff series? The 76ers have been a shaky playoff team throughout the Joel Embiid era. Maybe Coach Nick Nurse will change that in his first season with the 76ers, but the Pacers have good reason to think that they can compete versus the 76ers. The Bucks lack stability and a defensive identity; they have perhaps the best all-around player in the NBA--two-time regular season MVP and 2021 NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo--but the Pacers have proven this season that they match up well with the Bucks even before adding Siakam to the mix. The Celtics are the team to beat in the East. The two possible stumbling blocks for the Celtics are injuries (which could affect any team), and their stated goal of jacking up 50 three point shots per game; if the Celtics stay healthy and do not abandon the midrange game and the inside game then they will win the Eastern Conference. 

I would not pick the Pacers to win the Eastern Conference at this point, but it is reasonable for them to believe that they are close enough to contender status that it is worthwhile to give up future assets (draft picks) to obtain an established All-Star who could help them win multiple playoff series this year.

While the Pacers are optimistic, the Bucks appear to be in panic mode as they hire their third coach in eight months: last May they fired Mike Budenholzer, who led the Bucks to the 2021 NBA title, and now they are parting ways with Griffin, who had no head coaching experience prior to joining the Bucks. According to published reports, Doc Rivers was not on the Bucks' short list last summer. Hiring a coach who has no head coaching experience only to fire him halfway into the season and then replace him with a coach who was not seriously considered for the job just a few months ago smacks of both desperation and disorganization. 

Nevertheless, hiring Rivers now makes a lot more sense than hiring Griffin last summer. Rivers is an established NBA coach and proven winner. It was not clear last summer--and is even less clear now--why anyone thought that Griffin could lead the Bucks to a championship. Don't be fooled by the Bucks' record, which has been achieved versus weak teams; their second half of the season schedule is much tougher, and Griffin's bend before breaking defense would have collapsed versus strong competition.

Media coverage and analysis of coaching is even worse than media coverage of sports in general, so the Bucks' hiring of Rivers will undoubtedly unleash a cascade of articles declaring that Rivers is an awful coach. As part of the NBA's 75th anniversary celebration, Rivers was selected as one of the 15 greatest NBA coaches of all-time; those 15 coaches were selected by a panel of 43 current and former coaches, with no media members participating in the voting. I do not rank Rivers quite that highly, but the record shows that Rivers is an exceptional coach who has proven that he can do well with teams that lack talent (he won the 2000 Coach of the Year award with the "Heart and Hustle" Orlando Magic) and he can do well with teams that are stacked with talent (he led the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA title). It is true that Rivers has lost more game sevens and squandered more 3-1 leads than any coach in NBA history; did he set those marks because of his poor decisions, or because those teams relied on players who established a track record--before and after playing for Rivers--of disappearing in big moments? It is true that Rivers never won a championship despite coaching (with various teams) Tracy McGrady, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Joel Embiid--but no one else has won a championship with those guys, either. McGrady never won a playoff series until he sat on the bench late in his career with the 2013 Spurs. Griffin never won an NBA title and is not currently with an NBA team. I am willing to bet that Paul and Harden will never win a championship as the first or second option (and possibly not as the third option, either). I am not yet willing to bet that Embiid never wins a championship as the best player on his team, but I think that it is more likely than not that he will end his career without winning a title: there is no indication up to this point in his career that he can or will be "the guy" during a championship run, regardless of how gaudy his regular season numbers are.

With the Bucks, Rivers has proven championship-winning players--including Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis--but he also has Lillard, whose indifferent at best defense is reminiscent of Harden and whose thin playoff resume is much like the playoff resumes of Paul, Harden, and Embiid. Rivers' first and most important task is to get the championship core players to buy into his offensive and defensive game plans. His second task is to figure out how to either (1) influence Lillard to show some interest in playing defense or (2) schematically cover up for Lillard's defensive deficiencies. With Antetokounmpo leading the way and Lillard's defensive shortcomings minimized, the Bucks have enough to win the Eastern Conference and be a formidable Finals opponent for whoever wins the Western Conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:14 PM

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