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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Three Great Practitioners of the Step Back Move

Contrary to popular belief, the step back move is not a recent invention. It has been around for several decades, and many of the NBA's greatest scorers and/or shooters included the step back in their repertoires. It is not clear who was the first player to regularly utilize the step back move but three of its greatest practitioners are Adrian Dantley, Larry Bird and Dell Curry. Each player put his own stamp on the move.

Dantley was perhaps the NBA's deadliest scorer in the early 1980s, averaging at least 30 ppg for four straight seasons (though Dantley only played 22 games in the 1982-83 season). Dantley averaged 24.3 ppg during his career while shooting .540 from the field. He won two scoring titles (1981, 1984) and he had five seasons during which he averaged at least 28 ppg while ranking in the top three in scoring (1980-82, 1984, 1986). Dantley led the league in free throws made five times; he was a master of drawing fouls and he did so in a very fundamentally sound way with impeccable footwork and ball fakes.

He stood just 6-5 but he was a technician who had tremendous lower body strength, deceptive quickness and very strong hands. Dantley could score in the paint against any defender at any time. He also had a reliable midrange jumper, plus the ability to drive and finish strongly if his defender crowded him when he faced up. What many people may have forgotten--or not known in the first place--is that the step back was one of his staple moves. Dantley would catch the ball on either wing or at the foul line extended and then either back his defender down for a few dribbles before utilizing the step back or else face up and back his defender off with a jab step before using the step back. If the defender stopped the drive and the pull up jumper, then Dantley would use a jab step to set up his step back into a 15-18 foot jump shot.

Check out the brief video embedded in NBA.com's Adrian Dantley profile. Near the end of the video, you can see a typical example of Dantley's step back move. Note that Dantley did not travel, nor did he push off. The entire sequence is fundamentally sound.

If I had to pick one player's step back as the deadliest of all-time, I would go with Larry Bird. Here is a typical example, as Bird makes Dominique Wilkins fall before burying a step back jumper:



While Dantley utilized the step back as a midrange move, Bird used the stepback almost anywhere on the court, including well behind the three point line. If a defender crowded Bird and Bird did not see an opening to drive (or did not want to deal with a shotblocker lurking in the paint), then Bird used a jab step to set up his step back. Bird stood 6-9 and shot the ball with a quick, high release that made his shot almost unblockable.

Bird matched Dantley with a 24.3 ppg career scoring average and during a four season stretch in the 1980s he averaged at least 25.8 ppg each year while ranking in the top four in scoring each year. Bird was a gifted passer, but he was primarily a scorer and he was not bashful about shooting; he ranked in the top 10 in field goal attempts in eight of his 12 full seasons.

Dell Curry is best known to younger fans as Stephen Curry's father but Dell was a tremendous shooter in his own right. He ranks 37th in career ABA/NBA three point field goal percentage, ahead of luminaries including Ray Allen, Glen Rice, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin and Larry Bird. Curry won the 1994 Sixth Man of the Year award and he was a consistent double figure scorer for playoff teams. Unlike his son, Dell did not dribble very much. His specialty was the catch and shoot three pointer but when he dribbled he often did so to set up the step back. Similar to Bird, Curry loved to create space by using a jab step to get the defender leaning the wrong way and then step back into a quick shot before the defender could recover. Bird and Dantley were more credible threats to drive and they often set up their moves with multiple dribbles, but Curry was the master of the one dribble step back: his first option was always the catch and shoot but if he caught the ball with a defender in his face he had an uncanny ability to take one dribble, step back and fire a three pointer seemingly in one smooth motion.

As a player, I never quite got the hang of Bird's version of the stepback, probably because I was never a driving threat the way that Bird was; if I made a jab step, the driving threat was not highly credible in most circumstances and thus defenders who knew my game still played me for the three point shot. I used the Dantley back down step back against smaller opponents--particularly in one on one games when I did not have to worry about a secondary defender--but I did not have Dantley's knack for using the step back against taller opponents. Curry's step back, though, became a major weapon for me. Not many rec league players in the late 1980s/early 1990s shot one dribble step back three pointers, and many old-school players considered it to be a low percentage shot but Curry showed that if your eyes are on the target and your hands are positioned correctly then it can be a deadly shot.

The best thing about the Dantley, Bird and Curry step backs is that all three players executed the move without traveling or committing offensive fouls. It was an advanced move but it was also a move grounded in fundamentals.

What about Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant? Both utilized the step back at times but both players specialized more in the turnaround jumper as opposed to utilizing the step back jumper as a main weapon.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:41 PM

2 comments

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Civility is a Two Way Street

During Oklahoma City's 98-89 win at Utah on Monday night, a Utah fan named Shane Keisel peppered the Thunder's Russell Westbrook with a variety of unacceptable taunts, including racist ones. Westbrook, who has been the target of much fan abuse--particularly in Utah--pointed Keisel out to security, adding that he would "f-- up" Keisel and Keisel's female companion. Westbrook later stated that Keisel had urged Westbrook to "get down on your knees, like you are used to," and Westbrook added, "Throughout the whole game, since I've been here, especially here in Utah, there's a lot of disrespectful things that's said. I'm not going to continue to take the disrespect to my family. There's gotta be something done. There's got to be some consequences for those types of people."

In some quarters, there is a false conception that playing in the NBA is a privilege, while attending a game as a fan is a right that entitles the fan to say and do just about anything. Playing in the NBA is an accomplishment that players earn through hard work. NBA players are not just the best basketball players in the world; many of them are among the best athletes in the world, regardless of sport. NBA players, like highly skilled professionals in any walk of life, deserve a tremendous amount of respect. Does that mean that a fan cannot boo and/or express a rooting preference? Of course not--but the idea that because a fan pays for a ticket to attend a game he or she can therefore say anything is incorrect not only morally but also legally.

From a moral standpoint, players are human beings, and part of the social contract that keeps society from descending into anarchy is that everyone should be treated with basic respect. There is also the respect that fans owe to other fans--including children who may be attending the game--to create and maintain a certain amount of decorum. Get loud, cheer, boo--but there is no place for profanity and there is certainly no place for blatant disrespect, let alone racism.

From a legal standpoint, a ticket is a revocable, limited license. What that means in plain English is that purchasing a ticket to a sports event provides the purchaser with the limited right to enter the venue, watch the game and then leave after the game is over. The right is "limited" based on the whims of the venue's management, who can revoke that license at any time--and that is the remedy that the Utah Jazz have properly taken in this instance.

On Tuesday, Jazz President Steve Starks announced that Keisel has been banned for life from attending any events at Vivint Smart Home Arena, including but not limited to Utah Jazz games. The Jazz released a statement that explained, "The organization conducted an investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts. The ban is based on excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player during the game that violated the NBA Code of Conduct. The Utah Jazz will not tolerate fans who act inappropriately. There is no place in our game for personal attacks or disrespect."

Starks added, "Everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy and play the game in a safe, positive and inclusive environment. Offensive and abusive behavior does not reflect the values of the Miller family, our organization and the community. We all have a responsibility to respect the game of basketball and, more importantly, each other as human beings. This has always been a hallmark of our incredible fan base and should forever be our standard moving forward."

In the wake of his improper conduct, Keisel did TV interviews during which he lied about what he said/did and attempted to spin the story in his favor, but the Jazz did their due diligence to uncover the truth.

Meanwhile, the NBA fined Westbrook $25,000 for using profane and threatening language. Westbrook left the league little choice considering the intemperate way that he directed attention toward his abuser but the focus here should be squarely on the instigator and not the injured party who responded. Imagine for a moment that you are at work doing your job and someone shows up and hurls offensive, racist language directly at you. Sure, the correct response is to politely contact security or the police and have the offender escorted out of the building. How many of you would do that without saying anything at all to the offender?

Charles Barkley once joked--but may have been half serious--that every player should be permitted to go in the stands once per season and beat the you know what out of a loud-mouthed fan. Obviously, that is not a realistic or legal solution to this problem but Barkley's point is that because of the NBA's weak response to this ongoing, escalating issue fans have become emboldened to say and do things that they would likely not do on the street. NBA security should be protecting fans from other fans, and players from fans--but fans who seek out conflict with players must face immediate and drastic consequences. If that does not happen on a consistent basis, Barkley's half-joke is going to become a reality that will be a nightmare for the NBA. Remember the Malice at the Palace? Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and the others were wrong to do what they did but fan misconduct needs to be addressed as well.

Monday was not a great day in the annals of NBA civility. During Cleveland's 126-101 rout of Toronto, Serge Ibaka grabbed the Cleveland's Marquese Chriss around the neck from behind and then threw a wild punch--that fortunately missed, or else would have done serious damage--in Chriss' direction. Chriss, taken by surprise, threw one punch in self-defense before retreating to safety as the players were separated. The NBA suspended Ibaka for three games because he is a repeat offender who was the primary instigator, but the NBA also suspended Chriss one game for throwing a punch. Under NBA rules, throwing a punch--whether or not it connects, and regardless of any mitigating circumstances--automatically leads to a suspension of at least one game.

The NBA's no-tolerance policy for punches is understandable, and can be traced back to the infamous Kermit Washington punch that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich, who was not even involved in the initial altercation; that incident is also one reason that the NBA has a no-tolerance policy for any player who leaves the bench area during a fight or altercation: while Tomjanovich was in the game at the time that the fight started, the NBA later realized the great potential danger involved with players running on to the court and either escalating a situation and/or possibly being severely injured by a player who believes that the player running on to the court is a threat.

However, criminal law recognizes that in some cases there are mitigating circumstances; that is why we have laws for manslaughter and involuntary homicide, plus laws that provide for a right to proportionately defend oneself.

In this particular instance, Ibaka attempted to put Chriss in a chokehold from behind and then Ibaka threw a hard punch at Chriss' head. No reasonable law or rule should require Chriss to passively wait for help. Chriss threw one punch, clearly in self-defense, and showed little if any further interest in engaging with Ibaka--which is remarkable restraint given the situation. The NBA should amend its no-tolerance policy for punches to include a provision that if a player is attacked in such a fashion that he cannot break free without throwing a punch then he will not be punished for throwing that punch, provided that he does not escalate the situation. Call it the "self-defense" exception. If the NBA is unwilling to provide such a provision for its players to defend themselves, then the NBA should not be surprised if another player gets seriously injured a la Tomjanovich, in which case that injured player would have every right not only to file criminal charges against his attacker but also perhaps a civil suit against the league for creating or fostering an unsafe work environment in which employees are subject to assault and battery but unable to protect themselves without being suspended.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 PM

8 comments

Monday, March 04, 2019

The Paradox of LeBron James

LeBron James baffles and mystifies me more than any other great player who I have observed and/or studied, so it is only fitting that as he enters the final stage of his career he continues to be baffling and mystifying.

James, a 34 year old veteran of 16 NBA seasons, is averaging 27.0 ppg (ninth in the league), 35.5 mpg (eighth in the league), 8.1 apg (third in the league) and a career-high 8.7 rpg while shooting .510 from the field. Based on a superficial look at those statistics, James seems to be having an MVP caliber season--but despite that, he very possibly will not even make the All-NBA First Team, and his L.A. Lakers are collapsing down the stretch, punctuated by an embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns, who are a hard team to lose to since they are in full tank mode: the Suns have a league-worst 13-51 record, including a 17 game losing streak from January 15-February 23. Yes, James' Lakers were just beaten by a team that went five weeks without winning a single game.

James is a case study regarding the limitations of attempting to use individual statistics to quantify a player's value and/or compare the value of various players. James' numbers look impressive but those numbers do not accurately convey the large extent to which his leadership, his defense and his effort/intensity are subpar, if not entirely deficient.

It is possible that James is not completely healthy physically and/or that undefeated Father Time is claiming yet another victim--but it is almost certain that James has checked out mentally. His body language shows that he does not want to be on this team--or, at least, to play with this group of players--and it is quite evident that at least some of his teammates do not want to play with James. Keep in mind that Kyrie Irving ran away from James as fast as he could, despite winning a championship with James, and also remember that Kevin Durant has made it clear that he does not want to play with James. Paul George re-signed with Oklahoma City, choosing Russell Westbrook over James, and there is no reason to believe that Kawhi Leonard has any intention of joining James. The mainstream media narrative asserts that James is a great teammate and leader; the evidence paints a much different picture.

The Lakers last made the playoffs in 2013, when the 34 year old Kobe Bryant's Achilles tendon crumpled under the weight of singlehandedly carrying the team; Bryant missed the postseason but pushed himself hard and came back to play after missing just the first 19 games of the 2013-14 season. Bryant participated in six games before suffering a knee injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. He played in the first 27 games of the 2014-15 season and in the process he became the oldest player to have a 30-10-10 triple double and just the third player aged 36 or older to have multiple triple doubles in the same season. Lakers coach Byron Scott rested Bryant for three straight games and for eight games over a 16 game stretch, as Bryant was dealing with nagging problems with his Achilles, knees, feet and back. Bryant's season ended after he tore his right rotator cuff while completing a two-handed dunk in a January 21, 2015 game versus New Orleans; despite the injury, Bryant returned to action that game and ran the offense while shooting, dribbling and passing almost exclusively with his left hand. He played 66 games during his final season in 2015-16, putting an exclamation mark on his career by scoring 60 points in his final game, a 101-96 victory over Utah. Bryant outscored Utah 23-21 in the fourth quarter to complete the highest scoring game by any NBA player that season.

When James Harden, who is not 37 years old and has not torn an Achilles, scores 30 points on 25 field goal attempts that is headline news and considered an MVP-worthy performance, but when Bryant doubled those numbers in his farewell performance he was belittled as an aging ballhog who was supposedly holding back the development of the Lakers' young players.

Bryant worked with those young players and pushed them to improve their games. Has James worked with the Lakers' young players? James joined the Lakers on a four year deal that supposedly signified his patience but his first season with the team was not even half over before he was trying to get the coach fired and half of the roster traded. Remember what Pat Riley said after James left Miami? Riley said that he would no longer have to deal with "smiling faces with hidden agendas."

No one knows if Anthony Davis wants to join General Manager/Coach/Player LeBron James in Los Angeles. It was not easy to be James' teammate when James was the best player in the world, and it figures to be more difficult to be James' teammate as his skills erode but his behind the scenes maneuvering does not stop.

The media can tout James as a great teammate, and Harden as the MVP. As a lifelong NBA fan--never mind being a commentator or analyst--I would rather watch Kobe Bryant seven days a week and twice on Sunday than watch James sulk or watch Harden "dribble, dribble, dribble" (as Charles Barkley puts it) before committing a traveling violation that enables him to launch an open three pointer. Bryant left it all on the court, every game. He demanded excellence from himself and from everyone around him. When he had even a decent supporting cast around him, his teams were successful, capturing five championships in seven Finals appearances--and, even when he had subpar talent around him, he battled just as hard, and he carried some squads to the playoffs with players who barely even belonged in the league.

It has been said of highly gifted individuals that they have a "rage to master," an insatiable desire to be the best at whatever they do. That is a perfect way to describe Bryant. You can crunch the numbers any way that you want but you will not convince me that James has surpassed Bryant (and, to paraphrase Sparky Anderson's comment about Johnny Bench, don't even embarrass James by comparing him to Michael Jordan).

Based on James' durability and the sustained success he achieved as a number one scoring option, I would rank him ahead of Scottie Pippen, but Pippen's performance in one key playoff game highlights the risks of trying to evaluate players based purely on numbers; there are some aspects of greatness that are not captured by statistics.

The Chicago Bulls beat the Indiana Pacers 85-79 in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. The best and most impactful player on the court during that game was Pippen, who finished with four points on 1-9 field goal shooting. He also had seven rebounds, a game-high seven assists, and four steals. Why was Pippen the best player? He was a one man full-court press who singlehandedly turned Pacers' point guard Mark Jackson six ways to Sunday. Jackson had a game-high seven turnovers and the Pacers had 25 turnovers. The Bulls scored 27 points off of turnovers, a significant source of easy offense in a game during which they shot just .358 from the field. Michael Jordan scored a game-high 31 points but he shot just 11-28 (.393) from the field. Without Pippen's shutdown defense, the Bulls might have lost home court advantage, and could very possibly have lost the series as well; the game one winner of an NBA playoff series wins the series over 80% of the time.

Steve Kerr, now best known as the coach of the Golden State Warriors but then a sharpshooting reserve for the Bulls, said after the game, "It was an amazing defensive performance by our starters coming out in the third quarter, and that turned the game around. It's amazing to see how good Scottie is in particular. The guy shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game. That's what makes him one of the greatest players ever. He doesn’t have to score a point and he can control the whole game."

Indiana coach Larry Bird commented about Pippen's impact: "Obviously, that hurt us offensively. That was the first time that I have seen a player get up on a point guard and not really foul him but get his hands in there and dig the ball out. Next game, we need to do a better job of getting Mark open going down the court."

Pippen could not care less about his numbers. He did what needed to be done to win that game, as one big stepping stone on the path to winning his sixth title in eight seasons. When Pippen played, you could see his passion for the game, and his dedication to do what was best for the team, as opposed to doing what would cover him in the most individual glory.

James has a thicker resume than Pippen, and the capability to be a deadlier scorer, but if I needed a small forward to win one big playoff game--and if I already had a number one scoring option playing at any of the other positions--I would have to at least consider taking Pippen over James. 

After the San Francisco 49ers lost 34-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks during the 2008 season, Mike Singletary, then the  49ers' coach, issued a soon to be famous press conference rant: "I'd rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win."

Davis, who went on to rank among the NFL's all-time top 10 career yardage leaders for tight ends, never forgot Singletary's words and, nearly a decade later, he publicly credited Singletary for correcting his life path: "That was the moment that turned everything around. Once I saw that, I was like, 'Wow, this guy is really serious.' There’s nothing I can do. This guy right here, he's just tough. I can't beat him. So I just have to straighten myself up, and that's what I did. I straightened myself up and did everything he asked me to do. I became a different person."

Lakers' coach Luke Walton is a dead man/lame duck walking. Wouldn't it be something if he delivered a similar speech to James? James--despite his superficially gaudy numbers--seems to be in "chill mode" until the Lakers give him the coach and teammates that he prefers. If I were a Lakers fan, I would rather see five guys on the court who are passionate about the game and care about their teammates than see a player who (sometimes) says the right things but meanwhile has sabotaged the team from within and who refuses to put forth full effort on a consistent basis.

LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time. Nothing he does on the back nine of his career will change that, but watching the way he handles himself one cannot escape the feeling that he could have won even more had he taken a different approach and focus.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 AM

34 comments

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

LeBron James is NOT the First Player to Rank Among the Top 10 Career Leaders in Scoring and Assists

Contrary to recent headlines and reports, LeBron James is NOT the first player to rank among the top 10 career leaders in scoring and assists. James, who is fifth on the career ABA/NBA scoring list, recently passed Andre Miller to rank 10th all-time in career ABA/NBA assists. This is, without question, a tremendous accomplishment. However, to rephrase a quote from James' past, he is not the first, or second, or third, or fourth, or even fifth player to achieve this distinction.

The inaccurate headlines and stories about this particular subject are symptomatic of a larger issue: basketball history is not well understood and well reported. It is worth recognizing the players who accomplished the dual scoring/playmaking feat prior to James; these players are often not given the credit that they deserve, in part because their accomplishments and milestones are not widely known. 

Rather than going back too far in NBA history, which would provide a small sample size of data, we can begin by looking at the rankings after the 1965-66 season (the NBA's 20th campaign). At that time, Bob Cousy not only ranked first in career assists (6945) but he also ranked fourth in all-time scoring (16,955 points). How many fans and commentators are aware that Cousy was not just the best playmaker of his era but that he was also a big-time scorer?

In 1966, Oscar Robertson ranked second in career assists (4923) and eighth in career scoring (13,998 points). Richie Guerin ranked sixth in career assists (3755) and 10th in career scoring (13,426 points). Dolph Schayes ranked eighth in career assists (3072) and third in career scoring (18,438 points).

Moving ahead by a decade, after the 1975-76 season, Oscar Robertson ranked first in career assists (9887) and second in career scoring (26,710 points). Jerry West ranked fourth in career assists (6238) and third in career scoring (25,192 points). John Havlicek ranked fifth in career assists (5386) and fourth in career scoring (23,678 points). Wilt Chamberlain ranked seventh in career assists (4643) and first in career scoring (31,419 points). Hal Greer ranked eighth in career assists (4540) and sixth in career scoring (21,586 points).

After the 1985-86 season, Oscar Robertson ranked first in career assists (9887) and sixth in career scoring (26,710 points). Jerry West ranked fifth in career assists (6238) and 10th in career scoring (25,192 points). John Havlicek ranked sixth in career assists (6114) and eighth in career scoring (26,395 points). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranked eighth in career assists (5248) and first in career scoring (35,108 points).

In addition, Julius Erving barely missed the cut, ranking third in career scoring (29,021 points) and 11th in career assists (4985, just 55 behind Walt Frazier); Erving retired after the 1986-87 season and he briefly enjoyed the distinction of ranking in the top 10 in both categories (third in career scoring, 10th in career assists), before being passed on the assists list by his former teammate, Maurice Cheeks.

LeBron James is not even close to being the first--or the only--player to rank among the top 10 career leaders in both scoring and assists. Listing the players who accomplished this feat before James does not in any way diminish his greatness; it just sets the record straight, while also providing overdue recognition to a select list of all-time great players who preceded James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 PM

6 comments

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Houston Rockets are Not Helpless Without James Harden

A popular narrative this season has been that James Harden's outlandish scoring has been necessary for the Houston Rockets to win--but is that true?

Last night, James Harden sat out because he was shocked that in Houston's previous game--a 111-106 loss to the L.A. Lakers--the officiating crew actually called offensive fouls against him. No, just kidding: he sat out because he had flu-like symptoms and a sore neck. Harden's wallet is $25,000 lighter after he complained about the officiating; he seems to be genuinely astonished to find out that it is a foul when an offensive player extends his arm and pushes the defensive player out of the way. Harden is apparently certain that those fouls were only called against him because referee Scott Foster is personally biased against him (for the record, Foster did not call all of the fouls that were called against Harden, and all of the fouls that were called against Harden were correct).

Without Harden, the Rockets nevertheless beat the Golden State Warriors, a team that has been favorably compared to the greatest teams of all-time. Chris Paul had 23 points, 17 assists and five rebounds. Eric Gordon, inserted into the starting lineup in Harden's place, scored a team-high 25 points. Clint Capela scored eight points and grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds. Kenneth Faried scored 20 points and snared 10 rebounds. The reality is that, contrary to widespread belief, the Rockets have several very good players and they have players who can both create their own shots as well as create shots for others. The Rockets shot 16-43 from three point range, which is a typical game for them in terms of makes, attempts and percentage. The myth is that Harden's one on one wizardry creates Houston's record-breaking three point shooting attack but the truth is that without Harden in the lineup the Rockets are quite capable of generating those shot attempts and converting them at the same efficiency.

The defending champion Warriors, who have the best record in the Western Conference and the third best record in the league behind Milwaukee and Toronto, had their full complement of players, though Draymond Green sat out the last few minutes of the fourth quarter after spraining his ankle. Kevin Durant scored a game-high 29 points, Stephen Curry added 25 points and Klay Thompson contributed 20 points.

Yes, this was just one game and one game is a small sample size, but it is worthwhile to compare Harden and his supporting cast to the supporting casts of the only two guards in pro basketball history who averaged at least 35 ppg for a season.

Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg for the 40-42 Chicago Bulls in 1986-87. Jordan played in all 82 games that season, so we do not know how that team would have fared without him in the lineup--but we can make an educated guess. Only two other Bulls averaged at least 10 ppg: second year pro Charles Oakley (14.5 ppg) and John Paxson, who became a nice role player for Chicago's first three championship teams but he was not the third scoring option on those teams. Gene Banks, Dave Corzine and Earl Cureton were the three players who started the most games for the Bulls other than Jordan, Oakley and Paxson. Other Chicago starters that season included Granville Waiters, Steve Colter and Brad Sellers. It is difficult to picture that roster winning more than 20 games without Jordan; in the previous season, the Bulls went 9-9 with Jordan and 21-43 in the 64 games that he missed due to injury. That 1985-86 team had more talent than the 1986-87 team, with Orlando Woolridge averaging 20.7 ppg and Hall of Famer George Gervin scoring 16.2 ppg. After the 1986 season, Woolridge left as a free agent and Gervin retired. The Bulls were without question a Draft Lottery team sans Jordan but they were a playoff team with Jordan.

Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 ppg for the 45-37 L.A. Lakers in 2005-06, highlighted by a sensational January during which Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg, including an 81 point outburst versus Toronto. The Lakers went 9-4 with Bryant in January and 0-2 in the January games that he missed. Those were the only two games that Bryant missed that season but a glance at the Lakers' roster provides all one needs to know about the team's prospects without him. Five other Lakers started at least 46 games: Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook. Odom never made the All-Star team but he was a solid player who won the Sixth Man Award in 2011. Parker was out of the league by 2008 at age 26. He might be the worst starting point guard ever for a playoff team. The only times that Brown ever started playoff games were his two seasons playing alongside Bryant. Mihm played 41 more NBA games after the 2006 season. Cook's career lasted six more seasons, during which he started a total of 26 games and never averaged more than 5.0 ppg for a season. Bryant's supporting cast makes the 1987 Bulls look like a powerhouse. Yet, somehow, Bryant and this motley crew pushed the Phoenix Suns--a talented team featuring two-time MVP Steve Nash--to seven games in the first round, and the Lakers would have won in six games if they could have secured one defensive rebound late in regulation. Instead, the ball literally slipped through their fingers and then Brown failed to close out properly to Tim Thomas, who nailed a three pointer to send game six to overtime. Bryant scored all 13 of the Lakers' points in overtime, finishing with 50 points on outstanding 20-35 (.571) field goal shooting, but the Lakers gave up 21 points in the extra session. Other than Odom, not one player in Bryant's 2006 supporting cast would receive meaningful minutes--or, quite possibly, any playing time at all--on the 2019 Houston team.

In contrast to the (non) supporting casts Jordan and Bryant were saddled with, Harden is surrounded by talent. Not counting Carmelo Anthony (who is no longer with the team) or Faried (who has averaged 16.0 ppg in 14 games for Houston so far), the Rockets have four double figure scorers in addition to Harden. Paul, Gordan and Austin Rivers are each capable of creating shots for themselves as well as for their teammates. The big man rotation of Capela, Faried and Nene Hilario is first rate; Capela is an All-Star caliber center, while Faried and Hilario provide energy/toughness/rebounding. P.J. Tucker, the only Rocket who has started all 59 of the team's games this season, is an excellent "3 and D" wing who defends, rebounds and knocks down open three pointers.

The 1987 Bulls and 2006 Lakers needed the 35-plus ppg scoring that they received from Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant respectively. When surrounded by better supporting casts, Jordan and Bryant won multiple titles. In contrast, the Rockets have a very good roster even without Harden; they do not need for him to dribble all of the time and take so many shots, but this is the way that Harden wants to play and the team has accepted it for several years now. Unlike Jordan and Bryant, Harden has yet to prove that he can be the best player on a team that advances to the NBA Finals, much less be the best player for multiple championship teams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 PM

2 comments

Thursday, February 21, 2019

ESPN Attempts to Revive the Tim Donaghy Scandal

ESPN has published a very lengthy piece about disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, and has made the very inflammatory declaration that their story explains how Donaghy "conspired to fix NBA games." There is a saying that applies equally to science and to the law: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Just because something may seem plausible when viewed in a certain way does not make it true, or likely to be true, or even admissible in a court of law. Much has been made of the size of the ESPN article but an article's length should not be construed to signify its depth: a 10 line poem can be profound and deep, while a 10,000 word article can be superficial and shallow.

The factual background concerning the allegation that Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games is that the federal government and the NBA conducted separate, independent investigations and could not prove this to be the case. Donaghy pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to transmit wagering information. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison. In an attempt to draw attention away from himself, and perhaps get a lighter sentence, Donaghy alleged to the court that the NBA conspired to alter the outcomes of various games--including the much-discussed game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, a game that Donaghy did not officiate--but no proof was ever presented or discovered to support that allegation.

After Donaghy made the accusation about the league conspiring to fix multiple games, I wrote that the NBA should publicly release the grades for the three referees from game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Does the NBA classify that as a well-officiated game or a poorly officiated game? How did each of the controversial calls grade out? Such transparency would be welcome. The closest that the NBA has come to doing this came within the Pedowitz Report, which contained the findings of an independent investigation conducted in the wake of the Donaghy scandal; Pedowitz' team broke down game six in great detail and concluded that, while the game was poorly officiated, there was no evidence that the officiating was biased in favor of the Lakers.

When the Donaghy case first became publicized, then NBA Commissioner David Stern publicly stated that Donaghy had graded highly as a referee. That may be true but it is also worth noting that Donaghy never officiated in the NBA Finals--which is where the highest graded referees go--and he did not officiate a large number of playoff games. It would be helpful if the NBA released the data concerning how Donaghy graded out.

It is difficult to reconcile the conflicting notions that (1) Donaghy was objectively a good referee and (2) Donaghy deliberately made incorrect calls and/or incorrect non-calls in order to change the outcomes of games. How could both statements be true? That would be quite a tightrope act., to figure out how to influence the outcome of games by generally making calls that favor one side, but doing so predominantly on calls that are so close in nature that no matter which way they went they would not be graded as incorrect. If the NBA has objective data that shows that Donaghy did not make an unusual number of bad calls/non-calls, that data could put to rest any notion that Donaghy fixed games.

The ESPN article does not present much new information, and the new information that it presents does not prove anything; just counting the number of foul calls that went for or against one team is not meaningful without supplying context concerning time, score, playing style/philosophy of both teams, individual matchups/mismatches, etc. Is it unusual that one team was whistled for x number of fouls in a row? Maybe yes, maybe no. It may be "statistically significant" in the sense that a coin flip would not be expected to generate x number of heads or tails in a row but that statistical significance does not prove that a certain official made those calls to change the outcome of that game.

Other than the number crunching--and the NBA disputes the conclusions that ESPN drew from the number crunching--the rest of the ESPN article primarily consists of statements about Donaghy from dead people, anonymous people and/or convicted criminals. Little if anything in that article that was not already presented in court would be admissible in a court of law. The ESPN article does not prove how Donaghy allegedly conspired to fix games but it presents a scenario that may or may not be true about how he could have conspired to fix games.

Do I believe that Donaghy fixed games? It is certainly possible, and that possibility is very disturbing to me as a lifelong NBA fan who loves pure athletic competition. That which we know Donaghy did is bad enough, and a black eye for him and for the league that did not figure this out sooner. If he fixed games, that is awful; if he is right that the league fixed games and that many referees were involved, that would make me incredibly sad.

However, more than a decade after Donaghy's illegal activity was discovered, there is no smoking gun, no proof that he did more than bet on games that he officiated and provide inside information to gamblers. The league would have everything to lose and nothing to gain by conspiring to fix games; the NBA has been booming financially for decades, and changing the outcome of a few games is not going to provide enough financial upside to cover against the huge downside of getting caught committing such a crime. If it were proven that the NBA fixed games, that would be the end of the league.

I agree with one assertion in the ESPN article: the advent of widespread, legalized betting on NBA games opens up the potential for a large number of problems; as the ESPN writer noted, citing some research done on this issue, the more money that is added to this situation the greater the likelihood for wrongdoing and scandal. Just look at the recent Anthony Davis melodram; is he going to play, is he not going to play, is he going to play hard, is the team going to play him in the fourth quarter--there are numerous ways for one or more unscrupulous parties to manipulate the point spreads for New Orleans' Pelicans' games. Then you have the issue of rest (or "load management," the new catchphrase for sitting out otherwise healthy players), not to mention the issue of tanking. What if someone is able to get the inside scoop about which stars are going to rest for which games, or which teams decided to tank 10 games before the general public could tell that those teams are tanking? The NBA's recent embrace of widespread legalized gambling is fraught with peril.

It has been interesting for me to look back on my coverage of the Donaghy scandal. When the Donaghy story first broke in the summer of 2007, I was several years away from even considering going to law school; now, I am several years removed from graduating law school, passing the bar and being a licensed attorney. So, understandably, I view the Donaghy story--at least in terms of the legal aspects concerning burden of proof and other issues--through a different prism than I did when I was a journalist who did not have any formal legal training. That being said, when I review what I wrote at that time--see the links below--I stand by my coverage; I grasped the issues and I raised pertinent questions without jumping to conclusions or succumbing to unsupported speculation.

The ESPN story is a page-turning drama but it does not provide any new facts or evidence, just speculation. I am not naive enough to say that there is no way that Donaghy was fixing games but I would be interested to hear an explanation for how he could grade out at least adequately while also deliberately making enough bad calls/non-calls to fix the outcome (or cover the point spread) of multiple games for a period of several years.


20 Second Timeout's Coverage of the Tim Donaghy Story:

New York Post Reports that an NBA Referee is Under Investigation for Fixing NBA Games (July 20, 2007)

Some Questions to Consider About the Tim Donaghy Case (July 21, 2007)

David Stern Sheds Some Light on the Tim Donaghy Investigation  (July 24, 2007)

Tim Donaghy's Media Guide Bio Contains Discrepancies (July 26, 2007)

How Hard is it to Detect Crooked Officiating? (July 28, 2007)

Are Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell Really the Best Authorities on Refereeing? (July 31, 2007)

What is the Purpose of a Basketball Blog?  (August 2, 2007)

Ric Bucher Says that the NBA's Officiating Problems Go a Lot Deeper than Tim Donaghy (August 5, 2007)

The Other Shoe Set to Drop in Donaghy Case (August 15, 2007)

Donaghy Pleads Guilty to Two Felonies, Faces Up to 25 Years in Prison (August 15, 2007)

When Donaghy Starts Singing Will 20 NBA Referees be Sent Dancing? (August 18, 2007)
 
Tim Donaghy's Tales (June 12, 2008)

Donaghy Sentenced, Key Questions Remain Unresolved (July 30, 2008)

Pedowitz Report Implicates Only Donaghy but Recommends Several Changes to NBA Officiating Program (October 2, 2008)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM

3 comments

Monday, February 18, 2019

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

The NBA All-Star Game is not as good as it used to be, and it probably never will be again. If one understands and accepts those premises, it is possible to still derive enjoyment from watching the world's best basketball players showcasing their athleticism and skills. I have been watching the NBA All-Star Game since the 1980s and I have seen highlights--if not complete game footage--from many of the pre-1980s All-Star Games as well. The All-Star Game used to showcase both a higher fundamental skill level and a greater level of competitiveness than it does now. Today's players can do incredible things but they don't understand that those things are even more incredible when accomplished against defensive resistance as opposed to defensive indifference.

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.

James had a subdued game by his standards, finishing with 19 points on 9-17 field goal shooting (including 1-8 from three point range), plus eight rebounds and four assists. Kawhi Leonard also had 19 points, along with five rebounds and two assists. Leonard had nine points--all on three pointers--in the fourth quarter. Kyrie Irving was the unlikely Team LeBron rebounding leader with nine. He also had 13 points and six assists, one behind Ben Simmons' team-high seven assists. Simmons contributed 10 points and six rebounds. Damian Lillard had 18 points, six rebounds and five assists while compiling a game-best +20 plus/minus number. He scored nine points in the third quarter to help kick-start the comeback.

Paul George scored 20 points for Team Giannis, doing most of his damage from beyond the arc. His Oklahoma City teammate Russell Westbrook added 17 points, four rebounds and three assists. Westbrook shot too many three pointers--ending up just 1-8 from beyond the arc--and his gait has not seemed quite right all season in the wake of his knee surgery, but he played with his customary energy and made a point of trying to get his teammates involved, twice passing up shots in the paint to set up open three pointers.

Stephen Curry had some nice moments but he fell apart in the fourth quarter, shooting just 3-11 from the field (including 1-8 on three pointers) as Team Giannis collapsed down the stretch. Curry finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists but he shot a woeful 6-23 from the field (4-17 on three pointers), and one of his six makes was an uncontested dunk as time ran out.

Joel Embiid led Team Giannis with a game-high 12 rebounds but he scored just 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting and in the fourth quarter he fumbled the ball like he was Edward Scissorhands, repeatedly letting smaller players slap the ball away on plays when he should have scored or drawn a foul. Officially, in the final stanza he shot 1-4 from the field and had one turnover but it looked/felt like he squandered more possessions than that.

Charlotte fans enjoyed watching the Hornets' Kemba Walker amass a game-high eight assists, but he shot just 2-8 from the field and scored only four points.

The Commissioner's special selections, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade, delighted the fans during their cameo appearances for Team Giannis and Team LeBron respectively. Nowitzki scored 9 points on 3-3 shooting from three point range in four minutes, while Wade had seven points, four assists and two rebounds in 10 minutes. Nowitzki moves like he is encased in ice and he looks like he will need a week long ice bath for recovery after every game, but he shoots like he will be able to make spot up, tippy toe three pointers forever.

The golden age of the NBA All-Star Game took place in the 1980s, when perennial All-Star point guards Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas set a tone that nicely balanced showmanship and competitiveness. For example, look at the 1988 contest (Magic Johnson was injured and did not play in the 1989 game 30 years ago): the East won 138-133 over the West in a high scoring, up tempo game, but a game that was not completely out of the context of how the regular season games were played during that season when the average team scored 108.2 ppg and the top-scoring team (the Denver Nuggets) averaged 116.7 ppg. Also, the East shot 3-6 from three point range and the West shot 1-5 from three point range. The East shot .519 from the field, while the West shot .426 from the field. No one is suggesting that the 1988 All-Star Game was a defensive slugfest but there was at least some defensive resistance and it looked--both visually and statistically--like some semblance of a "real" game. Players shot from the post, from midrange and on drives, showcasing a variety of skills.The East had 11 steals and 11 blocked shots, while the West had 11 steals and seven blocked shots. The East committed 29 fouls, while the West committed 27 fouls.

In contrast, this season, the average team is scoring 110.7 ppg and the top-scoring team (the Golden State Warriors) is averaging 118.8 ppg but the All-Star game made a run at matching those totals in the first half. As noted above, the vast majority of shots attempted in the 2019 All-Star Game were three pointers, many of which were fired up early in the shot clock from well beyond the arc. Team LeBron had nine steals and six blocked shots while committing nine fouls and Team Giannis had eight steals and one blocked shot while committing six fouls; those numbers starkly contrast with the 1988 numbers, and suggest that the 1988 All-Star Game at least resembled a real game, while the 2019 All-Star Game was much more like an intra-squad scrimmage--and a low intensity one at that, not like the famous Dream Team scrimmage pitting Michael Jordan's squad against Magic Johnson's squad.

NBA players have remarkable athletic ability and shooting skills but those abilities and skills are best demonstrated in an environment that is at least semi-competitive.

Recent NBA All-Star Game Recaps:

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

"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 @ 2:57 AM

3 comments

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

George Mumford and Julius Erving Discuss Mindfulness

I mentioned the House Call With Dr. J Podcast last October and it is worth emphasizing again how wonderful these episodes are. They cover a lot more than basketball and it is a shame that no episodes have been added to the archives in recent months; I hope that does not mean that the project has been shelved.

I recently listened to the George Mumford conversation--the podcasts are much more like a dialogue than an interview--and it was the highlight of my lunch break, a great way to feed my mind while I fed my body before completing the work day.

Mumford was Erving's roommate during their college days at the University of Massachusetts. They hit it off immediately and developed a lifelong friendship. Mumford, a year behind Erving in school, looked up to the young basketball star not only because of Erving's on court prowess but also because of Erving's demeanor when interacting with people regardless of their station in life.

As Mumford put it during the podcast, "No matter what you're doing, it's who you're being that is really important."

Mumford's basketball career ended prematurely due to injuries, and eventually Mumford transitioned from the painkillers that he took to deal with those injuries to harder substances. Mumford prevailed over his drug addiction and became a world-renowned expert on mindfulness; Phil Jackson brought Mumford in to work with both the Chicago Bulls and also later with the L.A. Lakers. Mumford has trained a host of world-class athletes from a variety of sports about how to be in the moment and calm their racing thoughts.

Mumford cites Erving as both an influence and an inspiration and he sees similarities in the mindsets of Erving and two of the most prominent basketball players with whom he has worked: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Erving and Mumford discussed the mindset that it takes to be successful. Erving described himself as a "square" who has "never smoked a joint" and sees no reason to do so now. He said that his focus on what he needed to do to get where he was trying to go enabled him to sidestep the temptations that lured others away from the path to success. Erving was careful to say that he was not judging Mumford or anyone else who succumbed to drug addiction. Mumford said that when he was at his lowest point he distanced himself from Erving because he did not want to bring around Erving the kinds of people with whom he was associating.

Mumford admired the dedication that Erving showed to perfect his craft, always working on a new move or a new shot. Erving noted that it has always irritated him when people emphasize his "natural talents" as opposed to acknowledging how hard he worked, adding that it took him his whole life to become a so-called overnight success (success being defined by when the general public knows about your skills, as opposed to when and how those skills were actually developed).

Mumford pointed out that many people say that they want to be like Erving or Jordan or Bryant but few people are willing to pay the necessary price in terms of work and sacrifice.

Regarding Jordan, Mumford was struck by his tremendous concentration level. He began working with Jordan during Jordan's first comeback and they focused on changing Jordan's leadership style now that he had so many teammates who had not been members of Chicago's first three championship teams.

As for Bryant, Mumford told him, "Kobe, the best way to score is not to try to score...there is a difference between willing yourself and forming the intention and then allowing it to happen."

Mumford listed several characteristics that Erving, Jordan and Bryant share, with two of the most important being a basic intelligence about life--not just sports--and a singular commitment to excellence. Mumford cited as an example the way that Bryant persevered through an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his shooting hand by completely changing his shooting stroke and ultimately leading the Lakers to the 2010 championship. Mumford described what Bryant did as higher level thinking; if there is not a way, then you just figure out a way or make a way, something that most people cannot do. Mumford said that to do this you "Train the mind, connect it to the spirit."

Mumford mentioned three other traits that Erving, Jordan and Bryant have:

1) Positive energy
2) Social support
3) The ability to see stress as a challenge

When someone is on top of the world, it is easy to delude oneself into thinking that this was meant to be and had been smooth sailing but the reality is that it takes tremendous energy, support and persistence to achieve anything significant.

This podcast lasts less than 30 minutes and is well worth your time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 AM

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Monday, February 11, 2019

James Harden's Travels Through the NBA Record Book

Back in the day, when someone traveled in one of my rec league games and the referees missed it, a friend of mine used to yell, "Ref, he took a bus!"--as in, the offender did not just slightly travel, but he took an extended journey so far beyond the confines of the traveling rule that Stevie Wonder could have made the call.

There is a backlash against the backlash against James Harden and it goes something like this: "Why is everyone hating James Harden's greatness? He makes stepback threes that no one else can make, he has a knack for drawing fouls and he has a combination of strength/quickness that enables him to get to the hoop and finish in traffic. No one else can score as prolifically as Harden, nor can anyone else score in the variety of ways that he scores."

I will stipulate that the court of basketball truth may take judicial notice of the following facts: Harden is capable of making difficult shots, Harden is both strong and quick, and Harden has a knack for finishing in traffic/drawing fouls.

All of that being stipulated for the record, I cannot speak for all of the so-called "haters" but I can state clearly and simply why I am not impressed by what Harden is doing this season: James Harden travels on a regular basis, and this is a major reason accounting for his ongoing travels up the charts in the NBA record books. There are other reasons to be skeptical of Harden's supposed greatness, but that is the biggest single one--at least for me. I would estimate that Harden is scoring an extra 8-10 ppg purely based on being permitted to blatantly and repeatedly travel. Those extra points are the difference between being the 28-30 ppg scorer that he has been in recent years, and the 35-40 ppg scoring machine that he has been in recent weeks.

Harden's traveling is not a subject for debate; just watch the tape, with the understanding that the traveling rule remains the same as it has always been: after a player stops dribbling, he must pass or shoot without taking more than a "1, 2" step. In other words, if you pick up your dribble in midstride then you can put one foot down and then put down the other foot (or come to a two-footed jump stop immediately after picking up your dribble) but before you take a third step the ball must be out of your hands via shot or pass.

P.J. Carlesimo recently did a segment for ESPN that lasted about 90 seconds and that showed several different examples of Harden taking three or more steps before draining a shot. Carlesimo commented that if he were coaching against Harden then he would be yelling at the officials all the time to enforce the traveling rule because there is no way to guard Harden if he is going to be allowed to blatantly and repeatedly violate the traveling rule.

There is no doubt that Harden is a talented scorer. There is no doubt that he makes some shots that are very difficult.

There is also no doubt that any above average NBA player is going to score a lot more points than usual if he is permitted to take extra steps.

The issue is compounded by the fact that Harden often pushes off first before he takes his three steps backward. In other words, he commits an offensive foul, then he travels, and then he scores. He often looks with disdain at his discarded defender before making the wide open shot. Forgive me for not being entertained by this nonsense.

I don't know how to guard Harden under the current set of circumstances but a couple thoughts come to mind, beyond the obvious "high hands" strategy that San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich has advocated for a while:

(1) No soft fouls. If Harden pushes you and then travels, live with the outcome, because lunging at him and committing a soft foul just results in a potential four point play.

(2) Many hard fouls. Old-timers may recall that Dave Cowens was once whistled for what he deemed to be a questionable call, whereupon on an ensuing play he basically laid out an opposing player, turned to the ref and declared, "Now that's a (bleeping) foul!" That kind of blatant hard foul would almost certainly be considered a flagrant foul today but one possible answer to Harden's shenanigans is to put a non-essential player on him for a stretch of a few minutes and instruct that player that every time Harden does the foul/travel combo whack Harden's shooting hand as hard as you can. I don't believe that fouling a shooter's shooting hand would be deemed a flagrant foul, particularly if you look like you are going for the ball, and it would be interesting to see if Harden retained an appetite for violating the rules after receiving a steady diet of such fouls.

Anyone who has played basketball at any level knows that there are ways to get someone to stop being foolish and to simply play the game without doing anything that is flagrant or dangerous. I think that it was Charles Barkley who once said that every time he played against Dennis Rodman he would elbow Rodman in the ribs the first time Rodman yanked his shorts or did some other offense that went undetected; the message was, "Do you want to play ball or do you want to do something else?" Rodman was much more successful against players like Alonzo Mourning who fell for the proverbial banana in the tailpipe then he was against players who neither tolerated shenanigans nor let shenanigans distract them. If I were coaching against Harden I would not complain to the referees and I would fine any of my players who got technical fouls for doing so; if this nonsense is going to be legislated out of existence then it is going to take place league-wide and not by lobbying individual officials. However, as a coach or player I would make sure that my team takes countermeasures against Harden, as described above.

As a competitor, one thing that I would not do is just accept that a player on the other team is allowed to get away with violating the rules.

If Harden can score 35-plus ppg within the confines of the rules, more power to him and I have never believed that it is appropriate to hard foul a guy just if he is beating you within the confines of the rules--but let's be honest and admit that is not what is happening with Harden. Harden has had some legitimately great moments and great games but the bulk of what he is doing would not be possible without the traveling violations.

As for the large number of free throws that Harden shoots, after watching him play a lot I have reached two conclusions: (1) He is awarded a lot of questionable calls and (2) he does have a knack for baiting unfocused defenders into fouling him. These are not mutually exclusive concepts; it is possible--and, in fact, true--to say both that Harden benefits from a favorable whistle and that Harden is very good at drawing fouls.

Saturday night's Oklahoma City-Houston game was a microcosm of the good, the bad and the ugly regarding Harden. The Rockets built a 68-42 first half lead as Harden scored on a variety of shots/moves, some of which were incredible but legal and others of which involved the push off/travel duo. Predictably, once the Rockets stopped making three pointers the Thunder came roaring back to win, 117-112. Most of the in game commentary focused on Harden--who scored 42 points on 11-28 field goal shooting--and Paul George, who scored 45 points on 12-22 field goal shooting. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook "merely" amassed his ninth straight triple double (21 points, game-high tying 12 rebounds, game-high 11 assists), tying the all-time triple double streak set by Wilt Chamberlain. Westbrook struggled with his shot and he had several sloppy turnovers but, as George noted after the game, Westbrook had his fingerprints on just about everything positive that the Thunder did as well.

Harden's poor shooting is justified by some because he shoots so many three pointers and free throws but the reality is that regardless of Harden's points per shot or true shooing percentage 17 Houston possessions ended in missed shots by Harden; that is a ton of empty possessions and that is a recipe for blowing a lead. Harden had a -9 plus/minus number, which means that the Rockets had the advantage when he sat and lost the lead while he played. George had a +16 plus/minus number, while Westbrook's plus/minus was +2. Westbrook's miscues played a role in Oklahoma City falling behind, but his rebounding, passing and defense--plus a few timely shots-- also played a role in the comeback.

The ebbs and flows of that game strongly suggest that no matter how much the league tilts calls in Harden's favor it will still be difficult for Houston to consistently beat good teams, which means that their 2019 postseason run will most likely end in a meltdown similar to the ones that punctuated each of Harden's previous Houston postseasons. Basketball purists who are not entertained by the Rockets and by Harden's shenanigans cannot wait for the madness to end.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM

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Saturday, February 09, 2019

Remembering the Day When Ron Artest Thanked His Therapist After Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals

After the L.A. Lakers won game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals over the Boston Celtics to capture their second title in a row, Ron Artest conducted a free flowing post-game press conference. He candidly admitted that the pressure of a close game could negatively affect him and he thanked his therapist for teaching him how to relax in such situations: "Usually I am not good at these moments and I know that about myself. So, what do I do to be good at these moments? Figure it out. I needed some type of way to relax during these moments...I just trusted everything that she told me as far as relaxing and, bam, the big three goes in." There should not be a stigma about seeking help from a therapist and Artest's willingness to be open about his struggles hopefully provides strength to other people facing similar struggles.

How is Artest doing now? Shaun Powell's article Ron Artest finds peace amid mental health journey
provides some answers. Powell begins, "What about the demons? Well, they never really left him. They hibernate and lurk and stay on standby. Lord, how those demons created a mess for him. At times they nearly stole his soul, although it is the now-retired Artest who is winning that war. He's moving forward--triumphantly and surprisingly so, you soon learn--while never too embarrassed or hesitant to survey what he left behind."

Artest is candid about some of his past behaviors/misbehaviors: "Showing up to practice and disrupting practice, showing up a coach or a teammate, just going over the line. There's a lot of things I wish I had done differently. But maybe I couldn't at that time. I felt trapped."

Artest's battles with anxiety and depression began during his tumultuous childhood: "I always had anger issues because that's all I grew up around, anger. I also had love and that's why people see two sides from me. I saw my parents happy and mad. I grew up with friends who were happy and the next moment guns were firing. As a kid it was unbalanced and confusing. There was never a chance to relax. It was just get up and see what's going to happen today. I might have a good day. I might wake up on the other side of the bed. I was suspended in nursery school, kindergarten, first through 12th grade every year for fighting. In college I got in trouble and in the NBA I was in trouble for something or another every year except my last year."

A domestic violence conviction in 2007 forced Artest to seek the counseling that he had long needed, and he has been in counseling ever since. Artest recalls, "I was the best two-way player in the league at 24. I was also spiraling downward emotionally. My emotions were eating away at my skills. Like a parasite eating away at your body. It was eating away at my skill and my work habits and my mental focus and my discipline. Before I got into the brawl I wanted to retire. I requested papers to file to the NBA. I knew something was terribly wrong and nobody really knew. The league called and asked if I really wanted to do this. I needed time away because I couldn't get a hold of myself. There were so many things bothering me, so many things I couldn't handle: Taking care of so many people, wanting to have fun, not being a loyal partner with my now ex-wife … I said, 'OK, I need a break. I need to put my life in order.' I didn't go through with retirement but I wish I did. It wasn't about the money. I was going crazy by 2008."

It is a fallacy to assume that money, fame and popularity insulate a person from the effects of mental illness; if anything, those three things can both exacerbate and cover up deep-seated issues.

Artest put his money where his mouth is: he donated his 2010 championship ring, with the raffle proceeds of $651,000 earmarked for mental health charities. He also helped put his brother through law school and he set up a division in his company to help athletes with tax preparation.

If all you think about when you hear the name Ron Artest is the "Malice at the Palace" brawl, then you have missed the point. Artest is an example of what can happen when a person acknowledges mistakes, seeks help and strives to become a better person.

For information about finding a therapist near you, go to BetterHelp.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:23 PM

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The 76ers Retire Moses Malone's Jersey, and Include All of his Teammates Per His Request

Last night, the Philadelphia 76ers raised a banner signifying the retirement of jersey #2 worn by three-time MVP Moses Malone but the banner is different from most, if not all, retired jersey banners: per Malone's request, the banner includes the names of all 48 of his Philadelphia teammates--not just the members of the 1983 NBA championship team, but every single person who played for the team during his five seasons with the organization (1983-86, plus a curtain call in 1994). The 76ers also honored Malone with a statute placed on their Legends Walk near their Camden, New Jersey practice facility. Other 76ers who have been honored with Legends Walk statues are Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks

Here is a picture of the banner, and a picture of the statue, with (left to right) Bobby Jones, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson among those present to pay tribute to Malone.

Image result for moses malone bannerImage result for moses malone statue

Malone passed away in 2015 but he would be happy that the team remembered and honored his one condition about his jersey being retired. Malone's request speaks volumes about the kind of person and teammate he was. Michael Lee wrote a nice story about Malone's career and the ceremony and some of the quotes in that piece provide meaningful context about one of the most underrated great players of all-time. His Philadelphia Coach, Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, said, "Moses Malone is as smart a basketball player that I've ever been around." Pat Williams, the general manager who brought both Julius Erving and Moses Malone to Philadelphia, described Malone's style of play: "He wasn't beautiful. He wasn't graceful. He just outworked people. Out-hustled them. Went after every rebound. Never backed down. And we haven't seen that type of player ever again, probably never will." Maurice Cheeks recalled Malone's sense of humor; after a game during which Cheeks only made one shot, Malone quipped that he should have at least made two so that people would not assume that the one was just a lucky shot.

Unlike many of today's superstars who incessantly seek out the spotlight and demand that they are recognized as "The Man," Malone--the reigning (1982) MVP joining a Philadelphia team led by the previous (1981) MVP Julius Erving--quashed any hint of that nonsense with a simple, direct statement: "This Doc's team." Malone deservedly won the 1983 regular season MVP and the 1983 Finals MVP as the 76ers rolled to 65-17 regular season mark and then went on a record-setting 12-1 playoff run, but Malone let his play speak for itself as opposed to running his mouth. Malone and Erving each earned All-NBA First Team honors, and Erving finished fifth in MVP voting. They provided the blueprint for the way that two all-time great players should share the spotlight and the glory while leading their team to the top; it is a shame that they did not get paired together a few years earlier (Erving turned 33 during the season that Malone joined the team) or they might have won several championships in a row. Instead, they enjoyed one dominant season together, plus a strong push to the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals that ended with a defeat at the hands of the younger Boston Celtics, who were in the midst of a run of four straight NBA Finals appearances.

For a variety of reasons that fall outside the scope of this article, it is difficult to determine which basketball team is the greatest team ever but Philadelphia's 1983 championship team takes a back seat to no single season squad in pro basketball history; that does not mean that they are definitely the best, but it means you cannot point to a single team that is clearly better.

Malone was the dominant force on that dominant team, along with the incomparable Erving, and it is fitting that the 76ers honored not only Malone's greatness but that they did so in keeping with his wish to recognize all of his teammates as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 PM

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Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Truth About Kevin Durant's Rant

Last night, Kevin Durant's post-game press conference primarily consisted of an anti-media rant, with the two primary themes being (1) he does not trust the media to provide accurate coverage and (2) he does not see how talking to the media will help him do his job better.

Durant is right regarding point one. When I covered NBA games on a regular basis, I witnessed reporters who would go to one locker room, ask a leading question to a player and then go to the other locker room and tell a player, "Player A said X, Y, Z. What do you think of that?" The reporter did not tell the second player that the first player's comments--usually paraphrased to change the meaning--were not just a random statement but were in fact an answer to a question from that reporter!

Other reporters asked questions that betrayed complete ignorance of the NBA game and/or had no meaningful connection to anything that is relevant.

Not all reporters and media members are deceptive and/or incompetent but many of them are; they create "news" instead of reporting facts.

If I were Durant, I would not want to talk to them, either.

As a competent journalist, I often found that I had to overcome the default assumption by players/coaches/scouts that media members do not know what they are doing or, even worse, that media members have a negative agenda. Only after I proved that I know my stuff and that I was working on a legitimate project would they open up.

Regarding point two, Durant is correct that talking to the media will not help him play basketball better. Unfortunately for Durant and other NBA players, part of their job is dealing with the media, because the media provide access for the fans. Without TV and internet coverage, the players would not make the salaries that they make.

Durant has justifiable complaints but instead of ranting he should simply be careful and reserved with the answers that he gives and he should only provide in depth responses to media members who have proven their competence, ethics and reliability.

I interviewed Durant early during his second year and he unhesitatingly provided thoughtful answers to my questions. Sadly, if I were to approach him today he probably would not want to be interviewed at all, unless he happened to remember me from more than 10 years ago.

Some media members do a great job. It is always informative and entertaining to listen to Frank Isola on Sirius XM NBA Radio's morning show during the week; Eddie Johnson provides a great ex-player's perspective on that same channel during a different show. Other media members are outstanding as well, including Roland Lazenby, the longtime Lindy's Pro Basketball editor who has written definitive biographies of Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Unfortunately, the media members who do a poor job make it more difficult for the competent media members to get access and continue to do their work.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:01 PM

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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

MVP Musings

For at least 25 years or so--ever since it supposedly became too "boring" to vote for Michael Jordan to be the NBA regular season MVP--I have often not agreed with or even understood NBA regular season MVP voting. Sometimes, the narrative is that the best player on the best team should win, even if that player is clearly not the best all-around player in the NBA. Sometimes, we are told that a player whose team does not rank in the top four in his conference is automatically disqualified no matter how well he plays. Other times, we are told that the best player should win regardless of team success. Basically, the qualifications seem to shift depending on which narrative is preferred by the majority of the media members who have MVP votes in a given season; they decide who they want to win, and then choose to hype the narrative that best matches their choice.

My take on MVP voting has consistently been simple and direct: the MVP should be the best all-around player in the game, with the only exception being if there is a player who is so dominant in one or two areas that he is more valuable/impactful than even the best all-around player; that caveat is how I would justify awarding multiple MVPs to Shaquille O'Neal, who was never the best all-around player but was for a period of time the most dominant player. Team success can be a consideration or perhaps a tiebreaker in an otherwise close race but the problem is that team success depends on many factors that cannot be controlled by just one player. I agree with Kenny Smith's oft-repeated statement that one has to be wary of a "looter in a riot," a player who is amassing gaudy statistics while playing for a bad team, but it is not often that such a player gets serious MVP consideration anyway.

By my reckoning, over the past 20 years or so Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James should have won more MVPs, while Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose and James Harden should have won fewer MVPs.

Glancing at mainstream media coverage, the consensus seems to be that this season's MVP race is a two man contest between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. I am baffled, but not surprised.

The 40-13 Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the league largely because of the all-around prowess of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 26.7 ppg (eighth in the league), 12.6 rpg (seventh in the league) and a team-high 5.9 apg. A good argument could be made that Antetokounmpo is the best all-around player in the league, which is the primary criterion I consider when evaluating MVP candidates. He is an elite scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. If being the best player on the best team is the MVP standard, how can Antetokounmpo not be considered the clear favorite at this point of the season? 

Last season, the Bucks had the seventh best record in the East. No one expected the Bucks to be this good this season. When the Phoenix Suns exceeded expectations and posted the NBA's best record in 2004-05, Steve Nash won the regular season MVP despite averaging just 15.5 ppg (fourth on his own team) and having no impact whatsoever defensively. Voters were so impressed by what they perceived his impact to be that they gave him the MVP the next season as well, even though the Suns did not post the best regular season record. Nash won the first MVP ahead of Shaquille O'Neal (who he edged out 65-58 in terms of first place votes), Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and a young (but already impactful) LeBron James; Nash won the second MVP ahead of James, Nowitzki, Bryant and Chauncey Billups. In 2005-06, Bryant won the scoring title with the highest average (35.4 ppg) since Michael Jordan scored 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and Bryant carried a team with non-NBA level players Kwame Brown and Smush Parker starting at center and point guard, traditionally the two most important positions. Bryant received 22 first place votes, second only to Nash's 57, but Bryant slipped to fourth overall because many voters did not even rank Bryant in the top five! Ostensibly, this was because Bryant's team did not win enough. Based on that precedent, if the voters are going to be consistent then they can never give the MVP to a player whose team does not finish in the top five in wins, because it is hard to imagine a player ever having a better, more explosive season than Bryant did in 2006 and then not only not winning the MVP but being left entirely off of many ballots.

That brief tour down memory lane takes us directly to James Harden, who is scoring a league-high 36.5 ppg for the Houston Rockets, who currently have the fifth best record in the Western Conference and the 10th best record in a 30 team league. The Rockets started the season slowly, as Harden showed up in less than optimal shape, and although they have played better recently they are 6-4 in their past 10 games even as Harden keeps setting scoring records. Harden remains a subpar defender, and his offensive numbers are indisputably inflated by (1) his team's style of play (every lead guard who plays for Mike D'Antoni--going all the way back to Nash--has inflated numbers relative to what he did/would do in a more conventional system), (2) rules changes that favor perimeter offensive players and (3) the inexplicable but undeniable facts that (a) Harden is permitted to blatantly travel on his patented "step back" move and that (b) Harden is awarded free throws on plays that do not result in free throws for any other offensive player. Harden is officiated so much differently than any other player that opposing players have taken to putting their hands behind their backs when guarding Harden so that referees do not have the slightest excuse to call a foul, but of course such "defense" enables Harden to shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make without difficulty. The context in which Harden is equaling or surpassing marks set by Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is farcical, and bears no relationship to the context in which those records were set, when players were allowed and even encouraged to play defense and when offensive players were required to at least loosely adhere to the rule against traveling.

Harden is without question a talented scorer but the perfect storm of factors listed above has transformed him into a record-setting scorer--but even with him setting records left and right his team is still not a legit contender well past the halfway mark of the season. When Bryant and Jordan averaged 35-plus ppg they were also All-Defensive Team performers (unlike Harden) but even that was not enough to ensure an MVP (Jordan did not win in 1987 but in 1988 he won his first MVP after his second 35 ppg season, when he also earned the Defensive Player of the Year award and his Chicago Bulls won 50 games, third best in the East). Barring a tremendous jump in performance by Houston down the stretch, an MVP award for Harden would fly in the face of the historical precedents established when Jordan and Bryant did not win MVPs as 35 ppg scorers who had games that were more complete and fundamentally sound than Harden's.

Of course, a flawed precedent should not be followed but the point is there is not a rational set of criteria by which Harden would finish first: he is not the best player on the best team, he is not the best all-around player and he is not better than previous top performing players for non-contending teams who did not win MVPs. On what basis does it make sense to place Harden ahead of Anteokounmpo?

If the MVP race were decided by the criteria that I value, the leading candidates would be Anteokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Paul George. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry are each playing at an MVP level but have missed too many games to qualify (barring exceptional circumstances/performance, an MVP should play at least 70 out of 82 regular season games). What about Harden? We have already seen this movie before, albeit with slightly less pyrotechnics, but we know that Harden's gimmicky game does not translate well into the playoffs. Why should that matter when voting for a regular season award? The answer is that this is not just any award but rather the most prestigious individual award and likely the first line on a player's Hall of Fame resume, along with championships won/Finals MVPs won. Harden is a high level "looter in a riot," doing things in the regular season that (1) are not translating into his team having top five status during this season and (2) will almost certainly not translate into postseason success. Does Harden belong on the select list of players who have won an NBA regular season MVP, let alone the even more select list of two-time winners? I don't buy it. I realize this is a minority opinion and I am OK with that. I have been providing minority opinions here on many issues for well over a decade and history has vindicated the vast majority of those opinions.

Antetokounmpo's MVP resume is listed above. It should be added that he has superior size, speed, agility and ball-handling skills. He is a taller version of Scottie Pippen who looks for his own shot a little more than Pippen did.

Westbrook has been the most underrated great player in the league for several years and the gap between his playing level/the perception of his playing level is growing each year. On Tuesday night,  Westbrook had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 16 assists as his Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Orlando Magic, 132-122. That was Westbrook's seventh career 15-15-15 game, tied with Wilt Chamberlain for second on the all-time list behind Oscar Robertson, who accomplished the feat 14 times.

Westbrook has posted seven straight triple doubles, averaging 20.0 ppg, 13.2 rpg and 14.4 apg during that streak as his Oklahoma City Thunder went 6-1 while scoring 124.6 ppg. The Thunder have the third best record in the Western Conference. This is the third time that Westbrook has had a triple double streak of seven games, tying Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson (who each did it just once) for second all-time behind only Wilt Chamberlain, who once had a streak of nine consecutive triple doubles. Westbrook has averaged a triple double in each of the past two seasons and is averaging a triple double this season as well. Prior to Westbrook, Robertson was the only player to average a triple double in a season (1961-62; he also averaged an aggregate triple double during his first five NBA seasons).

The NBA community is acting like averaging a triple double for multiple seasons is no big deal, while simultaneously lavishing praise on Harden for scoring tons of points when no one is permitted to be within a foot of Harden without being whistled for a foul.

Oklahoma City Coach Billy Donovan is baffled that Westbrook's triple doubles feats are largely being ignored: "I think it's crazy that anybody is devaluing that in my opinion. Oscar Robertson did it for a season and it hadn't happened again in 60 years. (Westbrook) is in the process of doing it three consecutive years, so just that is something in and of itself that has not happened in the history of the game. He impacts our team in so many different ways."

Westbrook's teammate Paul George--who defied the expectations of the "experts" and re-signed with the Thunder as opposed to going to the L.A. Lakers to play with LeBron James--declared that Westbrook is the main reason that the Thunder's offense so explosive: "He is definitely the reason for that. He is the reason we have had the highest (offensive) months in Thunder history. I cannot say enough for the credit he deserves for our offense being at the level it is at."

Westbrook is the best all-around player in the NBA--no player possesses his unique combination of scoring, rebounding and passing skills--but I would rank Antetokounmpo ahead of Westbrook now because Antetokounmpo is so much bigger. Size matters in the NBA and even if one argues that Westbrook's triple double skill set may be better than Antekounmpo's skill set, size is the decisive tiebreaker.

There is every reason to believe that both players can and will play the same way during the postseason.

Kevin Durant has won the last two Finals MVPs, outdueling LeBron James, who is the best all-around player in the league when he is healthy. This season, Durant is averaging 27.5 ppg (fifth in the league), 7.1 rpg and a career-high 6.0 apg. He is an unguardable player who can score from anywhere on the court, though he is more effective facing the hoop than playing with his back to the basket, despite being 7 feet tall (or very close to that, regardless of what height he is listed at). Durant has been the most productive player for a Golden State team that has the best record in the Western Conference; his running mate Stephen Curry has a slightly higher scoring average but Curry has played in 11 fewer games and has less of an impact than Durant in every area of the game other than scoring. If Curry had not missed as many games as he has then he would certainly deserve to at least be in the MVP conversation but this year he does not make the cut.

Paul George is the most intriguing player on my 2019 regular season MVP short list. His game and impact are consistently misunderstood by most analysts. First, they widely assumed that he would leave Oklahoma City last summer to join forces with LeBron James in L.A.; the media seems to have difficulty grasping the concept that many players do not want to have anything to do with the drama that inevitably comes with playing alongside James, who thinks nothing of throwing coaches and teammates under the bus. Then, after George stayed with the Thunder and played some of the best ball of his career during the first half of this season, the media--instead of crediting Westbrook for "making his teammates better," which would have been the narrative if George had played this way alongside James--acted as if George is doing well despite Westbrook and that George has supplanted Westbrook as the Thunder's best player. Right now, Westbrook is 1A and George is 1B, an arrangement that is not uncommon on championship contenders. Westbrook is the engine who makes the team go (reread the above George quote about Westbrook) but George's timely scoring/shotmaking nicely complement Westbrook's all-around game, particularly as Westbrook has struggled with his shot at times this season. George is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who is also averaging a career-high 28.0 ppg (fourth in the league). George is not nearly the rebounder or playmaker that Westbrook is, and George is more comfortable having Westbrook run the show (which is still the case, even though George is scoring more points), but George is playing at an elite level and deserves to be in the conversation for top five MVP candidates.

Barring something unforeseen, the media will turn this into a two candidate race between Antetokounmpo and Harden, with George and Durant receiving some "honorable mention" type consideration and Westbrook probably not getting any votes--but that does not make their presumptive MVP voting pattern this year any more right than it was when they, in their infinite wisdom, gave MVPs to various other players when O'Neal, Bryant and James were more deserving (as was Jordan, in a previous era).

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:47 PM

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