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Saturday, November 09, 2019

Analyzing Pro Basketball's Triple Double Standouts

Harvey Pollack invented the "triple double" phrase/concept to coincide with Magic Johnson's rookie season in 1979-80. Pollack's famous statistical guide included records for all regular season triple doubles compiled since 1979. For quite some time, Magic Johnson was the leader by a wide margin in post-1979 triple doubles, finishing his career with 138, but recently Russell Westbrook passed Johnson. Westbrook has 140 career triple doubles. Oscar Robertson is the career leader with 181 triple doubles. The only other players who have at least 50 career triple doubles are Jason Kidd (107), LeBron James (84), Wilt Chamberlain (78) and Larry Bird (59).

Robertson was the first player who averaged a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62, his second NBA season), and he remains the only player who averaged an aggregate triple double over a five season span (30.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 10.6 apg from 1961-65). Early in his career, Magic Johnson was touted as a player who could possibly average a triple double for a season, but he only came close to doing it once, averaging 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82, his third season; the season prior to that, he averaged 21.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 8.6 apg in just 37 games, and in 1982-83 he averaged 16.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 10.5 apg. Johnson averaged at least 10 apg in each of the remaining seasons of his career (other than his short comeback in 1995-96), but he never again averaged at least 8 rpg.

Kidd averaged double figures in assists three times, but he never averaged more than 7.5 rpg in those seasons. His peak rebounding season was 2006-07 (8.2 rpg), when he averaged 13.0 ppg and 9.2 apg.

Kidd had over 40 games in which he missed a triple double by just one point, rebound or assist, but he never chased individual numbers. "That's disrespecting the game," he declared in 2008 when he was on the verge of passing Chamberlain on the career triple double list. "That's how I see it. If it happens, it happens. If you disrespect the game, though, sooner or later it will come back to get you." That being said, Kidd also felt that the triple double is significant because it indicates a player's overall effect on the game: "The league has promoted scoring, but I think that any time you have a line where you can be involved in three categories--maybe four--it shows you've had a real impact. It tells me that I was involved--really involved--in the game."

Kidd's coach with the New Jersey Nets at that time, Lawrence Frank, said that the triple double "is the empirical evidence of how good he is. The thing about Jason that you try to describe to people is that without him ever having to say a word, you feel him as a coach, a teammate, an adversary, a fan--you feel him in the game."

Kidd is one of just three players to average a triple double in a Conference Finals or Division Finals series (17.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 10.2 apg in 2002), joining Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson. Kidd is also one of just three players to average a triple double for an entire playoff run (2007), along with Oscar Robertson (1962) and Russell Westbrook (2017).|

Wilt Chamberlain averaged 24.3 ppg, 23.8 rpg and 8.6 apg in 1967-68, leading the league in both total rebounds and total assists (league leaders were not determined by average until 1969-70). On February 2, 1968, Chamberlain posted the first 20-20-20 game (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists), a feat that has since been duplicated only once, by Russell Westbrook (20 points, 20 rebounds, 21 assists). Robertson holds the record with 14 games with at least 15 points, at least 15 rebounds and at least 15 assists, followed by Chamberlain (nine such games) and Westbrook (eight).

Larry Bird accumulated a large number of triple doubles, but he never came close to averaging a triple double for an entire season. He averaged at least 10 rpg in each of his first six seasons, but he averaged between 4.5 apg and 6.6 apg during those seasons; later in his career, he had three seasons during which he averaged at least 7 apg, but he averaged between 8.5 rpg and 9.5 rpg during those seasons.

LeBron James has a combination of size, athletic ability, durability and passing vision that would seem to make him a candidate to average a triple double for a season, but he has never averaged more than 8.6 rpg and he has averaged more than 9 apg just once.

In a December 30, 2001 Sacramento Bee article about the history of the triple double, Antonio R. Harvey declared, "It is arguably the greatest individual achievement in professional sports. It is also among the least appreciated and least discussed, perhaps because Oscar Robertson set the bar so high no one has come close to duplicating what he did 40 years ago. A triple double for a season. Today, it's news if a player has a triple double in a single game." Robertson expressed the opinion that no one would ever duplicate the feat.

Speaking a few years after Harvey wrote that article, Kidd felt that Robertson's triple double season did not receive enough appreciation: "It belongs with DiMaggio's hitting streak, with any record that's ever been set. Unless there's somebody close to doing it again, I think that would be the only way people could really appreciate it. That's the only opportunity we'd have to quite understand what Oscar did. I don't think he gets enough recognition for what he did achieve."

If Magic Johnson and LeBron James could not match Robertson's triple double season, it seemed unlikely that anyone else could do it, either. No one could have predicted or imagined that a 6-3 athletic dynamo who some critics charged to be miscast as a point guard would rewrite the triple double records.

Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double for the 2016-17 season (31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg), and he also broke Robertson's single-season triple double record (41) by posting 42 triple doubles. Westbrook averaged a triple double in each of the next two seasons as well. Over the past five seasons, Westbrook has averaged 26.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg and 10.1 apg; if he averages around 12.5 rpg this season (he averaged a career-high 11.1 rpg last season) and maintains double figure averages in the other two categories then he could match Robertson's feat of posting a triple double average over five seasons (2016-20). Nate Archibald remains the only player to win a scoring title and an assist title in the same season (1972-73), but Westbrook is now the only player who has won multiple scoring titles (2015, 2017) and multiple assist titles (2018-19). Westbrook had at least 800 rebounds and at least 800 assists in back to back seasons (2017-18). Robertson, during his triple double season, is the only other player to have even one such season.

The cover of the April 6, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated summarized what makes Westbrook a unique force: "The Athleticism of LeBron + The Drive of Kobe." In Lee Jenkins' accompanying cover story, Westbrook explained his approach to his craft: "There are many times throughout a season that you may not feel like playing. You may not want to play on this night, or against this team. But I don't feel that way. This is one of the best jobs in the world, and you never know how long you'll be able to do it--how long you'll be able to run like this and jump like this. So I go for it. I go for it every time. It may look angry, but it's the only way I know."

That is beautiful and admirable. The NBA--the world--would be so much better if everyone thought that way and, more to the point, lived that way. The relatively short duration of an NBA career is a metaphor for the short duration of life itself. You don't know how long you are going to be here, so why not have the most positive impact that you can during every minute of your life?

Of course, most people are not wired that way, cannot be that focused and that committed.

Westbrook's dynamic, multi-faceted play had a significant impact on team success during his 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder made the playoffs nine times during that span, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs' 11 appearances. The Thunder made it to one NBA Finals (2012) and four Western Conference Finals (2011-12, 2014, 2016) while posting the third best regular season record in the NBA from October 29, 2008 (the franchise's first game after moving from Seattle to Oklahoma City) through the final game of the 2018-19 season--and the Thunder had the league's second best regular season record from December 31, 2008 through the final game of the 2018-19 season, trailing only the Spurs. The Thunder became the second team to increase their winning percentage for five straight seasons while posting a winning percentage of at least .700 in at least two of those seasons (the first team to do this was the 1955-60 Boston Celtics, who were boosted by the 1957 addition of Bill Russell).

As noted above, Westbrook is one of only three players who averaged a triple double for an entire playoff run. He is also one of six players in pro basketball history who have averaged at least 17 ppg, at least 7 rpg and at least 5 rpg during a playoff career consisting of at least 30 games: Walt Frazier, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. The first four were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, while James is a Pantheon-level player.

Westbrook is the only player among the top seven all-time triple double leaders who has not won a championship, but his statistical profile and all-out playing style matches the profiles of players who have led teams to titles (or, in Kidd's case, being a significant contributor to a title run in 2011 with Dallas after twice leading New Jersey to the NBA Finals during his prime).

Robertson was regarded during his era as the greatest all-around player in the sport, and nearly 50 years after he retired he still is on the short list for that title. Chamberlain, Johnson, Bird and James all must be ranked among the 10-15 greatest players of all-time. Kidd was widely respected as a great all-around player long before he capped off his career as a contributor--but not the best player--on a championship team. However, their triple double heir, Westbrook, is held to a different standard than other players. Take a recent example. Plus/minus numbers for one player for one game--or even a larger but still small sample size--can be very noisy. Much was made of Westbrook compiling a career-worst -46 plus/minus number in Houston's embarrassing 129-100 loss to the Miami Heat, but not much was made of Westbrook's +40 plus/minus number in Houston's subsequent 129-112 win over the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook's teammate James Harden outscored Westbrook 36-18 in the latter game but Harden's plus/minus number was +20, much lower than Westbrook's plus/minus number.

This season, the Rockets are 2-0 when Westbrook has a triple double, 3-1 when he has at least 10 rebounds and 2-0 when he has at least 10 assists. They are 0-2 in games that he played but did not reach double figures in either category (they beat the hapless Memphis Grizzlies during a game that Westbrook sat out).

All of pro basketball's triple double standouts had and/or are having a tremendous impact on winning. It will be interesting to see if the Rockets are savvy enough to maximize Westbrook's multi-faceted impact, or if they will sacrifice winning on the altar of the James Harden experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 PM

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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's First Pro Coach, Passed Away

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's first pro coach with the ABA's Virginia Squires, died of natural causes on Monday at the age of 87. Bianchi scored 5550 points during a 10 year NBA playing career, averaging 8.1 ppg with a career-high 10.3 ppg average in 1961-62. He was Wilt Chamberlain's teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers for a little over a year, and Bianchi retired just one season before Chamberlain led the 76ers to the 1967 NBA title.

Bianchi won 283 games as a head coach in the ABA and the NBA. He also served as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns from 1976-87 and again from 2001-02. Bianchi won the 1971 ABA Coach of the Year award. He was the General Manager of the New York Knicks from 1987-91, during which time he made two key moves that contribute to the team's resurgence in the 1990s: he traded Bill Cartwright for Charles Oakley, and he signed future All-Star guard John Starks. The Cartwright trade also yielded a draft pick that Bianchi used to select Rod Strickland.

I interviewed Bianchi during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix in 2009. Our conversation was not scheduled in advance; I recognized him across the room at the Legends Brunch, approached him and he very graciously spoke with me about his time coaching Julius Erving in the ABA. Here is an excerpt:

Friedman: "Describe the way that Julius Erving played in the ABA that was even above the level of greatness that we saw in the NBA."

Bianchi: "When he went to the NBA, one of the knocks that Red Auerbach and some of the people said was that he was (just) OK--and it was a natural tendency for the NBA to downplay the ABA players a little bit. They said that he could not shoot from the outside."

Friedman: "He developed the outside shot later, though, right?"

Bianchi: "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could put points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate and I used the phrase that we never had so many players (on the bench) pay attention to the game until I got Julius that year that he came in as a rookie. Over a long period of time, when you have players sitting on the bench, they might be wandering around (and not closely watching the game). When we got Julius, every game was a new highlight film. He did something different. He would come underneath and dunk and he had those enormous hands and everybody was paying attention to the game."

Friedman: "I talked to Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones about Julius as a teammate. You had Julius when he was really young, just 21 years old. Talk about the way that he interacted with his teammates and the leadership style that he had even as a young guy coming into the league."

Bianchi: "One of the great things about Julius is that even though he came in as a young man he was very, very mature. He knew the ways of the game and from the first day the players accepted him. It was like he had been there for five years. He just had that kind of personality. They respected--they could see that this guy was on a different level and also he was one of them. He had that maturity."

I am glad that I had that chance encounter with my basketball hero's first pro coach, who I found to be an engaging and pleasant interview subject. Rest in peace, Al Bianchi.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 PM

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Evaluating the NBA's "MV3" Guards Early in the 2019-20 Season

Stephen Curry (2015-16), Russell Westbrook (2017) and James Harden (2018) combined to win four straight NBA regular season MVPs before Giannis Antetokounmpo broke the reign of the "MV3" guards and became the first non-guard to win the award since 2014. Centers won 16 straight NBA regular season MVPs from 1965-1980--a run bookended by guard Oscar Robertson in 1964 and forward Julius Erving (already a three-time ABA regular season MVP) in 1981--but the last center to win the NBA regular season MVP is Shaquille O'Neal, who claimed his first and only such honor in 2000.

The NBA has become a perimeter-oriented game in the past 15 years or so, due to a combination of rules changes, evolving coaching philosophies and the prevalence of "advanced basketball statistics" that place great value on three point shooting while deriding the efficiency of post play.

Each of the "MV3" players has a substantially different situation in 2019-20 than he had in 2018-19: Curry's Warriors lost Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson (at least for most of this season), Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, Westbrook moved from Oklahoma City to Houston, and Harden is now playing alongside Westbrook instead of Chris Paul.

The season is young, the sample sizes are small, and the unfounded hot takes are everywhere, but it is worthwhile to examine what we have seen so far, and try to project what we might reasonably expect to see moving forward.

So much was written and said about Curry's "gravity" last season that I thought he was officially going to join the ranks of our solar system's largest planets alongside Jupiter and Saturn. Various commentators suggested that the Warriors were better without the then-injured Kevin Durant because Curry sans Durant was able to fully exploit his "gravity" to open up shots for himself and his teammates. Supposedly, Durant gummed up the works of Golden State's otherwise smooth offense.

That was a bunch of high-sounding nonsense, and I wrote as much at the time.

Fast forward from the 2019 playoffs to the start of this regular season, and Curry's "gravity" looks markedly less powerful without Durant attracting defensive attention, and without Iguodala, Durant and Klay Thompson providing top notch two-way play so that Curry could be hidden on defense while operating in a wide open court on offense. The Warriors dropped their first two games of the season in ugly fashion, leading many commentators to forget about "gravity" and instead proclaim that the sky is falling upon Golden State. The Warriors bounced back to beat an undermanned New Orleans squad and they are now 1-2, while ranking 20th (out of 30 teams) in scoring, 25th in field goal percentage and 22nd in three point field goal percentage.

Curry is averaging 24.0 ppg, 6.7 apg and 5.0 rpg with shooting splits of .436/.267/1.000. His field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage are career-lows, his scoring average is around his career-norm--but his lowest since 2014-15--and his rebounds and assists are in line with his career norms. Again, this is a small sample size, and it is reasonable to expect Curry and the Warriors to perform better as the season progresses; I picked the Warriors to make the 2020 playoffs and I see no reason to change that prediction. They should make the playoffs: Curry is a two-time MVP/six-time All-Star, Draymond Green is a former Defensive Player of the Year/three-time All-Star and D'Angelo Russell made the 2019 All-Star team; there is no excuse for a team with a former multiple MVP winner and a total of three All-Stars to not make the playoffs, even in the tough Western Conference.

It is interesting to look at how the media evaluates Curry; last season, it was widely asserted that Curry was a more important player to the Warriors than Durant, but after the Warriors did not defend their title no one blamed Curry. Before this season, many media members predicted that without Durant on the scene we would see Curry return to his MVP form, but in the wake of the Warriors' slow start and Curry's bricklaying the narrative is not that we should expect more from Curry and the Warriors but rather that the whole roster has been remade and it is not reasonable to expect the Warriors to make the playoffs. Note the common theme throughout these narratives: Curry is great and no matter what happens it is not his fault, nor does it detract from his greatness.

The media never showed such leniency toward Kobe Bryant, either during his five championship runs or during the 2006 and 2007 seasons when he pushed, pulled and carried the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker hooptie into the playoffs. It would be refreshing--actually, it would be shocking--if the media just covered situations as they occur without trying to shape every narrative to fit their preconceived notions, their biases, and their lack of high level understanding of the NBA game, but I know better than to expect that to happen.

Stephen Curry is a great player. I love watching him play, just like a generation ago I loved watching his father Dell, who is one of my favorite role players/sixth men of all-time. Stephen Curry probably should not have been a two-time MVP, but he is a better player than his forerunner Steve Nash, who also should not have won two MVPs. There are 15 multiple regular season MVP winners in pro basketball history (13 in the NBA, plus Mel Daniels in the ABA and Julius Erving, the only player who won at least one MVP in both leagues). Steve Nash and Karl Malone are the only names on that list who did not win a championship. Of the 12 multiple MVPs who won championships, nine won at least one Finals MVP; Bob Pettit retired before that award was given out, Bill Russell retired in the first year that the award was given out and Curry has watched four different players pick up Finals MVPs in his five Finals appearances (LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant twice and Kawhi Leonard). The multiple MVP winners did not win the Finals MVP every time they reached the Finals--other than Michael Jordan, who went six for six--but it is an odd look for a multiple MVP winner to play in five Finals during his prime and never be the best player on the court.

Stephen Curry is not Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James--those four players are Pantheon level players. There has been more than enough talk about "gravity," and more than enough excuses offered after Golden State's shaky three game start. Let's see if two-time MVP Stephen Curry can go as far with two All-Stars as Kobe Bryant did with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, before we elevate Curry above his great predecessors--or even some of his contemporaries.

In 2014, I wrote, "One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook." Westbrook validated both parts of that prediction, winning a well-deserved regular season MVP in 2017, and then having his game picked apart by critics in subsequent seasons during a run in which the 6-3 point guard averaged a triple double for three consecutive seasons. Westbrook has made the unprecedented and spectacular seem so ordinary that no one even pays attention any more. For most of pro basketball history it seemed extremely unlikely that anyone would match Oscar Robertson's triple double season, let alone Robertson's feat of averaging an aggregate triple double over a five season span (which Westbrook has a shot of matching); Magic Johnson, Lafayette Lever, Jason Kidd and maybe a couple other players were touted as possibly being capable of this, but none of them came particularly close to doing it.

What Westbrook has accomplished in the past three seasons may be the most underrated significant accomplishment in pro basketball history.

If LeBron James had averaged a triple double for a season, ESPN and the internet would have spontaneously combusted. Media members would be building a monument for James that would surpass the Taj Mahal and the pyramids of Egypt.

The first time Westbrook did this, he won the MVP--as he should have--but with each subsequent season the appreciation for his game has dimmed. I recall reading a quote attributed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar early in his career when he regularly averaged 30-plus ppg and he said that he would never try to average 40 or 50 ppg like Wilt Chamberlain because then people would expect him to do it every year. Paradoxically, it seems as if Westbrook would receive more appreciation if he had not repeated his triple double feat.

Westbrook can be effective in any system and with any set of teammates. His rebounding numbers are sometimes belittled but he does not "steal" rebounds; he plays hard all of the time, which makes him an anomaly in today's game. Westbrook does not know the meaning of "chill mode" or "load management."

Is Westbrook a Pantheon player? No, at least not yet. Like Curry, Westbrook is a little small for the Pantheon; Jerry West is the only Pantheon player shorter than 6-5, and West had no skill set weaknesses at either end of the court. Westbrook is an incredibly dynamic player but it is well-documented that he is not a great shooter, and it is also true that his shot selection could be better (though it is not as bad as many people suggest that it is, given the overall context of his teammates' strengths/weaknesses, game situation, etc.). Could Westbrook be a Pantheon player? If he is demonstrably the best player on a championship team in addition to everything else he has accomplished in the regular season and the playoffs then he would at least enter the conversation.

The pairing of Westbrook with Harden is fascinating. Westbrook plays hard and does not care much about his individual numbers (if he cared, he would shoot less so that his statistical profile would be more "efficient"). Harden plays hard when he has the ball, and he is often a vaguely disinterested observer during the rest of the game. Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has tried to solve this problem by letting Harden dribble the ball for a substantial portion of the game, because if Harden is dribbling (or shooting) he is engaged.

Westbrook is the first teammate that Harden has had in Houston who is clearly a better player than Harden (Dwight Howard was arguably better--and certainly had more of an impact on winning--but Howard was already declining and injury-prone while Harden's star was rising, at least in popular perception). The logical strategy for Houston is to let Westbrook attack the defense, cause a breakdown and then shoot or pass depending on what the defense does; playing that way, Westbrook could easily shoot a career-high percentage, as could Harden, and as could many other players on the team. Few teams have the necessary personnel or discipline to both stay in front of Westbrook and not leave Harden or other shooters open on the perimeter.

Having Harden dribble the ball until the ball becomes flat or Harden decide to shoot is, frankly, stupid--regardless of what the "analytics" might suggest. If Harden is dribbling, then Westbrook is spotting up, and he is not a spot up shooter. The whole offense is backwards at that point. Harden can be a deadly spot up shooter, if he is so inclined, but if he were so inclined then he would not have left Oklahoma City--where he was the third option behind Durant and Westbrook--to become the first option in Houston. Harden's ego may force him to remain the first option in Houston until his body breaks down or until a different coach imposes order, but Houston will not likely win a title with Harden as the first option.

Harden is not efficient, at least in terms of winning basketball games at the team level, and particularly in terms of winning basketball games at the team level during the playoffs. He is an advanced version of Gilbert Arenas, of whom I once wrote, "...if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next then the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up eight or nine three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success." Houston fans have watched the Harden horror show annually in the playoffs, as Harden perennially melts down at the key moments with errant shooting and/or huge turnover numbers.

Harden is a talented player, but it almost seems like he, D'Antoni and Daryl Morey are more interested in flouting conventional wisdom than in winning a title. Everyone understands that three pointers are worth more than two pointers. The problem is that basketball is not a station to station game like baseball; in baseball, if you uncover an analytical insight you have a better opportunity to isolate that insight and apply it because of the discrete nature of action in that sport. Basketball is different and in basketball three is not always more than two, because of floor balance, because of the higher degree of variance with three point shooting compared to shooting from closer to the hoop and because of many other factors. Unless the Rockets change their ways, it is much more likely that when Morey is an old man he will be reminiscing about how the Rockets "could have" won a title or "should have" won a title based on analytics than it is that he will be reminiscing about the Rockets actually winning a title anywhere other than his spreadsheets.

Consider Houston's recent 116-112 win over Oklahoma City. Harden shot 8-21 from the field--including 3-14 from three point range--but he was "efficient" according to "advanced basketball statistics" because he ended up with 40 points after shooting 21-22 from the free throw line. The scoring total and "efficiency" look gaudy, but it is interesting that Harden's plus/minus number was -3 in 37 minutes. Meanwhile, Westbrook finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists while shooting 9-16 from the field. Westbrook's plus/minus number was +19 in 36 minutes. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic that is only meaningful (1) if you watch a whole game and break down what happened/why or (2) over a large enough sample size of games to smooth out randomness due to garbage time, schedule strength, etc. Harden has demonstrated that over the course of a whole season he can pad his numbers enough against bad teams and/or in garbage time to amass a deceptively good plus/minus number--but in the playoffs, he cannot hide, and the truth about his deficiencies is consistently exposed. Near the end of this particular game, Harden bricked a three pointer, but Westbrook hustled to get the offensive rebound, brought the ball out to reset the offense and then drove to the hoop, forced the defense to collapse and swung the ball to P.J. Tucker in the right corner for a wide open three pointer that put Houston up 111-105 with 54 seconds remaining.

If the Rockets want to win a championship as presently constructed, then they need to understand that Westbrook is the team's best player and Harden is a great second option. On some nights, Harden--like any great second option--may be the first option, but Westbrook's energy and all-around play must be this team's centerpiece. The Rockets do not need for Harden to jack up 14 or 15 three pointers--particularly on a night when his shooting touch is off--because they can always spread the floor and get a good shot by giving the ball to Westbrook at the top of the key, or by letting Westbrook work his magic in transition.

By the end of the season, the Warriors will not be terrible, the Rockets will have one of the better records in the league, and the media--regardless of the truth--will perpetuate the narratives about Curry's "gravity," Westbrook's supposed selfishness and Harden's "efficiency."

Then, the playoffs will roll around, and the truth will be laid bare for all to see.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:34 PM

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Thursday, October 24, 2019

In 2019 Season Opener, Kawhi Picks Up Where He Left Off

The last time we saw Kawhi Leonard on a basketball court in a game that counted, he destroyed Golden State's dynasty and won the Finals MVP after leading the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title. As I wrote in my 2019-20 Western Conference Preview, Leonard is a "dynasty killer." He ended the Heat's dynasty in 2014, winning his first Finals MVP as his San Antonio Spurs beat the brakes off of Miami, four games to one--with each San Antonio victory boasting a margin of at least 15 points. Then, Leonard ended San Antonio's dynasty: the Spurs won 61 games and made it to the 2017 Western Conference Finals in his final full season with the team--but he sprained his ankle in game one of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs blew a huge lead and then were swept by the Golden State Warriors after Leonard was not able to return to action. Leonard played just nine games for the Spurs in 2017-18 before landing in Toronto last season. The Spurs won 47 games in 2018 and they won 48 games last season, losing in the first round both times.

On opening night, Leonard put a dent in the "dynasty" of the 2020 paper champions, the darlings of the "stat gurus," the L.A. Lakers. Many commentators warned that Leonard's L.A. Clippers would get off to a slow start because Paul George is sidelined as he recovers from shoulder injuries. Meanwhile, the Lakers--who have not made the playoffs since 2013, the last time that Kobe Bryant played a full, healthy season--have what has been breathlessly described in some quarters as potentially the greatest duo of all-time, featuring the aging LeBron James and Anthony "I won one playoff series in my first seven seasons" Davis. Apparently, we are all now living in a universe in which Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Magic Johnson, Moses Malone/Julius Erving, Larry Bird/Kevin McHale and Bill Russell/pick a Celtic do not exist.

What could Leonard do when facing the greatest duo ever?

Nothing much--just 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in 32 minutes without doing a fancy dance, or trash talking or even changing his facial expression very much. Meanwhile, investigators have been dispatched to find out who kidnapped Davis and James at halftime; they put up decent numbers in the first half and then disappeared when the game was up for grabs as the Clippers cruised to a 112-102 win.

The "LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time" articles are really cute, but before we compare James to Jordan and the other elite players who preceded James are we really, really sure that James is better than his contemporaries such as five-time champion Kobe Bryant and five-time champion Tim Duncan? Are we sure that James is better than peak Kevin Durant? Are we even sure that James is better than peak Leonard? Have we even seen peak Leonard yet?

TNT's Charles Barkley--who once said that the next person who compares James to Jordan should be punched in the face--noted that Leonard is like Oscar Robertson in that both players always play at their own pace and do not let the defense dictate to them. That is a very apt and perceptive observation. Doc Rivers, Leonard's current coach, once wrote a wonderful little book titled Those Who Love the Game.  That book has more insight on any given page that you can find in a whole book by Bill Simmons, who has been a vocal critic of Rivers. In Those Who Love the Game, Rivers described Chris Mullin as the "King of Tempo," emphasizing that what matters in basketball is not being fast so much as being able to change speeds to keep the opposition off balance. Leonard is a level above Mullin--who, as a Hall of Famer and original Dream Team member, is no slouch--and Leonard can control tempo to an even greater and more powerful extent than Mullin could.

It would have been great to see Leonard stay in Toronto and try to carry the Raptors to back to back titles, but this Clippers team has a chance to be special. Last season, they were tough, scrappy, defensive-minded and well coached, but they lacked star power. Now, they have added Leonard's transcendent talent and George's ability to be a complementary star (the notion that he is or should be an MVP candidate is silly, but he is perfectly suited to being the second option), without losing their toughness, their scrappy nature and their defensive mindset.

After James the general manager builds a team, it generally takes a while for James the player/coach to figure out how to get the team to function well together; we saw that in Miami, and in Cleveland during James' second stint in Ohio. So, it is entirely possible that the Lakers will be a force to reckon with, and not a fourth quarter farce, by the time the 2020 playoffs begin--but the Clippers are a force now, and even if James builds a dynasty caliber team he will not win the championship unless he figures out how to beat the "dynasty killer" four times in seven games. Maybe James the general manager will sign Zaza Pachulia, whose dirty footwork took Leonard out in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. Pachulia is the only player who has slowed Leonard down during the playoffs in recent years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Fun With NBA Finals Field Goal Percentages

Do you remember the NBA Finals when one of the team's guards just kept shooting and shooting despite his low field goal percentage, instead of passing to the team's dominant big man who had a high field goal percentage?

Here are some field goal shooting numbers from that NBA Finals:

"Gunner" guard: 72-160 (.450)
Dominant big man: 70-112 (.625)

You might think that after losing that championship series the "Gunner" guard would have learned something, but the next time that team made it to the NBA Finals the field goal percentages and field goal attempts of the "Gunner" guard and the Dominant big man were separated by an even larger margin:

"Gunner" guard: 38-117 (.325)
Dominant big man: 39-65 (.600)

Surely the guard must have learned from that experience, right? Nope, the next time that team made it to the NBA Finals here is how those two players shot:

"Gunner" guard: 42-95 (.442)
Dominant big man: 22-42 (.524)

Quick, call Mike Wilbon or Jon Barry or Bill Simmons to revisit their numerous anti-Kobe Bryant screeds; that "Gunner" guard is Kobe Bryant, right?

Wrong!

The "Gunner" is Jerry West, who fired a lot of blanks while playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA Finals in 1970, 1972 and 1973 as the L.A. Lakers lost two out of three of those series to the New York Knicks. Chamberlain was the MVP of the 1972 series that the Lakers won; the Lakers lost in seven games in 1970 and in five games in 1973. It should be noted that West, in his first season playing with Chamberlain, won the first Finals MVP award in NBA history in 1969, shooting .490 from the field as the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. West is still the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP.

Kobe Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals, winning two Finals MVPs. Jerry West went 1-8 in the NBA Finals, winning one Finals MVP. Yet, West is immortalized as "Mr. Clutch," while Bryant is the pinata for "stat gurus" and self-proclaimed basketball experts who blame Bryant for the titles he did not win but are reluctant to give him much credit for the titles he won. To be fair, West's clutch reputation was formed early in his career, when he had many scintillating playoff series, during which time he posted these Finals scoring/field goal shooting numbers as his Lakers lost five times to the Celtics:

1962: 31.1 ppg .456 Boston d. L.A., 4-3
1963: 29.5 ppg .490 Boston d. L.A., 4-2
1965: 33.8 ppg .424 Boston d. L.A., 4-1
1966: 33.9 ppg .515 Boston d. L.A., 4-3
1968: 31.3 ppg .486 Boston d. L.A., 4-2

West's earlier numbers duly noted, it should also be noted that his low Finals field goal percentages relative to his teammate Chamberlain were not in any way construed to harm West's "Mr. Clutch" reputation or legacy. The media understood that West performed well overall given the roster construction of the Lakers and their opponents, the style of play, the matchups and other factors--and the media understood that West was playing through significant injuries in the 1972 Finals, the one Finals in which he shot poorly by any standard.

The disparate "conventional wisdom" narratives about Bryant and West demonstrate why statistics should not be taken out of proper context and why it is misleading to try to summarize a player's legacy in a soundbite. Ironically, and in direct contrast to the popular narrative about the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant duo, one contemporary narrative regarding the Chamberlain-West dynamic blamed Chamberlain, not West! For example, after the Lakers lost to the Knicks and a hobbled Willis Reed in game seven of the 1970 Finals, Bill Russell criticized Chamberlain for not exploiting Reed's lack of mobility; Russell--who was surrounded by Hall of Fame scorers throughout his great career and thus never carried a significant scoring burden--stated that he would have been insulted if a player as limited as the injured Reed had the temerity to play against him. Chamberlain was deeply hurt by Russell's remarks, which led a to rift between the two men that was not resolved for quite some time.

I am not aware of quotes, comments, articles or TV clips that suggested that West shot too much and/or that West should have fed the ball to Chamberlain more frequently. West was praised for carrying such a heavy offensive load, and his numerous losing trips to the Finals were portrayed with much pathos and sympathy. Chamberlain, who went 2-4 in the NBA Finals, was often portrayed as a loser--even though he won twice as many titles as West, and even though he won his first title without West after beating Russell's Celtics, a team that West never defeated in a playoff series. So, while the media gave a fair--or even lenient--appraisal of West, Chamberlain was portrayed much more harshly. Chamberlain lamented, "Nobody loves Goliath" and one might also wonder if there was at least some racial/racist component at work.

The nuanced reality is that West was not a gunner--at least in terms of the negative connotations associated with that word--and neither was Bryant. The incorrect assumption that often leads to flawed conclusions is that if Player A has a much higher field goal percentage than his teammate Player B then Player A should shoot less often and Player B should shoot more often. Superficially, that may sound reasonable and mathematically sound, but the problem is that it is not necessarily true that Player B can or will maintain his current field goal percentage if his shot attempts increase. A rhythm jump shot by Jerry West or Kobe Bryant with the team having proper floor balance to either go for the offensive rebound or retreat into a good defensive position may very well be a better option than trying to force the ball into a crowded paint area; forcing the action can lead to turnovers or contested shots that fuel the opposing team's transition game. Jeff Van Gundy often says that one should not judge the correctness of a play or a shot attempt based on the outcome; a good shot is a good shot even if it does not go in, while a bad shot is a bad shot even if the ball swishes through the hoop.

The previous paragraph is more baffling to many "stat gurus" than the bizarre implications of quantum mechanics are to physicists. "Stat gurus" are convinced that Kobe Bryant's best option was to pass to any teammate of his who had a higher field goal percentage, from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown). It is interesting that even as "stat gurus" are now deriding the post up shot as one of the lowest percentage shots they still cannot resist hammering Bryant for his supposed basketball sins (a recent story suggested that the key for Jayson Tatum's success this season will be to unlearn everything that Bryant taught him last year, which sounds like a satirical piece from the Onion but was meant to be taken seriously, though Tatum has publicly rejected the article's anti-Bryant premise).

Why shouldn't West have passed to Chamberlain every time? Why shouldn't Bryant have passed to O'Neal every time? (If you don't understand why Bryant should not have passed to Kwame Brown every time, it is surprising you made it this far into the article without your brain exploding). There are a host of reasons that could apply: if the big man is too fatigued to obtain prime post position (or if a sagging defense is preventing him from doing so early enough in the shot clock) then the offense--mindful of the ticking 24 second shot clock--cannot wait forever; if the big man received the ball in the paint, was trapped and then passed the ball to the open man then that open man may be looking at the highest percentage shot his team will get on that possession; injuries, foul trouble and matchups may also be factors that work against just pounding the ball inside every time down the court. An open shot early in the shot clock may be a better option than a contested shot later in the shot clock.

Does this mean that every shot that West and Bryant took was optimal? Of course not. Basketball is a free-flowing game of continuous action played under duress; only in a computer simulated game is it possible for every player to make optimal choices all of the time.

"Stat gurus" are correct that it makes sense to track five on five actions and determine which plays are the most successful over a large sample size. That kind of analysis, done properly, can influence lineup changes and matchups; that is "advanced basketball analysis" at its finest (one example of which is the Dallas Mavericks' insertion of J.J. Barea into their 2011 championship rotation; his individual statistics were not gaudy, but the five on five data indicated that the team performed better overall when he was on the court).

When you read or hear stories about teams utilizing "advanced basketball statistics," keep in mind that the smart teams are not using these numbers to "prove" that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan or other nonsensical, headline grabbing declarations that "stat gurus" and their media buddies like to propagate; smart teams utilize analytics as one tool to figure out how to optimize their team's performance in various five on five situations. The "stat guru" who proclaims that James is better than Jordan or Pau Gasol is better than Kobe Bryant is just trying to commercialize his "unique analytics" to line his own pockets; meanwhile, the "stat guru" who you have never heard of is working behind the scenes for an NBA team looking for exploitable competitive advantages.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM

2 comments

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

NBA Cares About Profits

"NBA Cares" is a clever marketing slogan, but some people are just now figuring out what all of us should have always understood: the NBA is a multi-billion dollar business that "cares" first and foremost about profits. Any public stance that the NBA and/or its players or coaches have taken on a social or political issue has rarely involved sacrifice of money or freedom for a larger principle (see below for one notable exception, involving Enes Kanter).

In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to participate in the military draft, he sacrificed his heavyweight world championship title, a significant amount of money and the prime years of his boxing career. Whether or not you agreed then or agree now with the stance that he took, there is no denying that Ali placed his beliefs and his principles above profit. In marked contrast, the NBA with its slogans, and its individual players sporting t-shirts and spouting comments, have rarely displayed the kind of courage that Ali did.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has a fiduciary responsibility to his bosses--the owners of the league's 30 franchises--to maximize the NBA's profitability. That is Silver's primary job, and the owners can fire him if he does that job poorly, or if they determine that someone else could do a better job. Understand that, and you understand why Silver is doing everything in his power to appease a totalitarian Chinese regime that does not approve of Daryl Morey's tweet regarding Hong Kong.

On October 4, 2019, Darryl Morey, the Houston Rockets' General Manager, tweeted "Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong." After a major backlash from China's Communist government--including economic reprisals against the NBA--Morey deleted his Hong Kong tweet. Hong Kong dealt with many anti-government demonstrations this past summer regarding a proposed bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, whose judicial system's fairness is questionable, to say the least. China's long, awful history of oppression and government-sanctioned violence is well-documented--including the ongoing persecution of Uighur Muslims-- so it is understandable why Hong Kong 's citizens would prefer to maintain as much autonomy as possible.

On Sirius XM Radio's NBA channel, former NBA player Brendan Haywood summarized the NBA's policy considerations succinctly and accurately. Haywood said that the NBA is primarily focused on profits, which explains why the NBA took a pro-LGBT position regarding the All-Star Game in North Carolina, and also explains why the NBA will continue to bow to Chinese pressure regarding Morey's tweet: the LGBT community and the Chinese government both represent constituencies that are significant income sources for the league. Haywood concluded that if the LGBT community did not have purchasing and lobbying power, and if China did not provide a significant portion of the league's Basketball Related Income (BRI) then the NBA would have had different policies in both situations.

The NBA's policies are not based on "caring" or being "woke" or any other high-sounding principles. The NBA's policies are based on generating income and increasing profits--period.

One could argue whether or not that is the way the NBA should run its business, but there is no disputing how the NBA is running its business, and therefore the NBA should stop publicly emphasizing how socially conscious the league is. The NBA should admit that it does not want to lose billions of dollars of revenue from the Chinese market, and therefore the league is willing to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government's oppressive policies, even though some of those policies adversely affect the very same groups and people who the NBA purportedly "cares" about in other circumstances.

Regarding NBA coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich who have been very outspoken about selected topics but are following the company line regarding China, we understand that China is paying a significant portion of their salaries and thus they may find it imprudent to offend their master, but it is disingenuous for them to act like they take high-minded, thoughtful positions on social and political issues if they are unwilling to speak out about China. Think back to any previous public policy pronouncement made by Kerr or Popovich; have they ever risked or sacrificed their money or freedom to uphold a principled belief the way that Muhammad Ali did?

Kerr's specific statement that he does not feel well informed enough about China to comment does not pass muster; Kerr, Popovich and other world famous NBA figures have made numerous personal appearances in China, and those appearances lend comfort and support to that country's regime. When you do that, and when China is paying part of your salary, you have an obligation to be informed. Further, Kerr's comment that all countries, including the United States, have issues to address is, to put it mildly, an ignorant comparison/moral equivalency. China is a dictatorship whose citizens do not have the most basic rights: no right to vote, no right to due process, no right to free speech. Chinese citizens can be arrested or even killed without consequence.

In the United States, citizens have the right to elect government officials, the right to due process and the right to publicly speak out--including the right to criticize government officials, a right that Kerr and Popovich regularly exercise. The American Experiment--the American Dream--of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community living together in peace and freedom is not perfect, but it is unprecedented in human history and it is a beacon of hope for many people around the world; that is why people tend to flee China and countries like China, and why people flock to America. If you cannot understand the differences between the challenges of holding together a fragile, free and open multicultural society versus the systematic evils committed by a totalitarian regime then you are a fool. If you understand those differences but decline to speak truth to power because it might cost you money, then you are something far worse than a fool. I respect Kerr and Popovich as coaches, as leaders, and as generally intelligent individuals, and that is why I expect a lot more from them on this issue than they have provided thus far.

This is not meant to suggest that players should "shut up and dribble" or that coaches should "shut up and coach." The point is that there is a vast difference between speaking out publicly only when it benefits you financially--or, at the very least, is unlikely to cause you any financial harm--as opposed to speaking out publicly in a way that could potentially cause you financial harm. Many years ago, Michael Jordan was heavily criticized for allegedly saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too" to justify not endorsing a Democrat, but at least Jordan was honest and not hypocritical: he did not want to make any political statements that might cost him money.

LeBron James' recent comments criticizing Morey's tweet are the height of hypocrisy; however you think or feel about Jordan, he was honest: he was not trying to be Muhammad Ali or Curt Flood or Oscar Robertson. James strives to be perceived as "woke," but chides Morey for a tweet because "so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually." Translation: "Shut up and be a GM, Mr. Morey, because you are potentially costing me a lot of Chinese money."

James added, "I believe he wasn't educated on the situation at hand and he spoke," and James later tweeted about Morey, "Could have waited a week to send it." So, was Morey truly not "educated" or should he have just "waited a week" to save the NBA's money?  How would James respond if someone suggested that he is not "educated" about the issues that he addresses publicly, or that James should wait before commenting because his comments might affect others on his team or in the league? Has James ever considered how anyone but himself is affected by his statements and actions? Let's take a poll of his teammates from last season--or his Cleveland teammates circa 2010--on that point.

In contrast to James, Enes Kanter has publicly spoken out against the repressive policies of Turkey, Kanter's native land. Responding to James' reaction to Morey, Kanter tweeted the consequences of his public statements about Turkey:

"-Haven't seen or talked to my family 5 years
-Jailed my dad
-My siblings can't find jobs
-Revoked my passport
-International arrest warrant
-My family can't leave the country
-Got Death Threats everyday
-Got attacked, harassed
-Tried to kidnap me in Indonesia

FREEDOM IS NOT FREE"

Kanter has made many sacrifices as a result of his public stance. If he wants to call himself "woke," he has earned that right (but most, if not all, people who are truly "woke" would never describe themselves that way). Most of the other members of the NBA community are more interested in counting dollars than making sense.
 
In today's globally interconnected economy, it is probably difficult it not impossible for most of us to have no economic connection to China or Chinese products (It could also be debated whether it is better to boycott, or to engage with the hope of changing policies over time; a detailed discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this article, but as a starting point to that conversation I would suggest boycotting authoritarian regimes, while working with countries that have free elections and free speech even if we disagree with some policy decisions made by those countries). However, the NBA has chosen to actively participate in China's economy to a significant extent, and to reap billions of dollars in income from that participation. The NBA could decide to participate to a much lesser extent, or to make any participation at all contingent on policy changes that enhance personal freedom for China's citizens. The NBA has chosen otherwise, and it is weak for Kerr, Popovich or anyone else to ignore that choice or to plead ignorance about it. To put it in the vernacular phrasing, regarding China, I would suggest, "If you don't know, ask somebody"--and ask somebody outside of the NBA cocoon, somebody who understands the issues. To borrow a phrase, this is more than a game--this is a life and death situation for the Chinese people.

It would be unfortunate if Daryl Morey loses his job as a result of his tweet, but Haywood made a good point about this as well: the Constitutional right to free speech means that the U.S. government cannot prevent you from voicing your opinion, but it does not protect you from being fired by your private employer. It is interesting that, for all of Morey's self-professed analytical acumen, he could not figure out that tweaking the totalitarian source of billions of NBA dollars would not go over well with the league. However if Morey is fired, it should not be because of his tweet, but because he is a flawed talent evaluator who ranks James Harden ahead of Michael Jordan as a scorer and because the advantages that he self-promotes as a "stat guru" have failed to translate into a single NBA Finals appearance after more than a decade of wheeling and dealing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:25 PM

10 comments

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

What Makes Kevin Durant Run?

The September 2019 issue of The Wall Street Journal Magazine includes a J.R. Moehringer profile of Kevin Durant titled "Net Gains." The piece is well-written, but ultimately puzzling, leaving the reader wondering, "What does Kevin Durant really want?" and "What could make Kevin Durant happy?" As Bill Walton might say, "If you can't be happy winning championships and Finals MVPs for the Golden State Warriors, that's just sad."

Pro basketball writing--and writing in general--too often focuses on a preconceived narrative, as opposed to striving to make an in depth examination of the subject matter at hand. Moehringer's Durant narrative is that questions about Durant's happiness are misplaced because Durant is on an introspective search and that Durant's introspective search has been misinterpreted to mean that he is not happy. "I've always been on a search," Durant tells Moehringer, and Moehringer accepts that premise at face value. The subtitle of the article implores, in part, "Now he's focused on his recovery and elated to be coming to Brooklyn, so can everyone stop wondering whether or not he's happy?"

Life does not work like that. It is logical to assume that Kevin Durant would be happy after achieving such fantastic individual and team success as a Golden State Warrior; it is also logical to wonder why he seemed so unhappy during his final season with the Warriors, and why he left one of the sport's greatest dynasties ever to join a Nets franchise that has not won a title since its ABA glory days.

Moehringer's piece opens with this Durant quote: "Some days I hate the NBA." Durant explains, "Some days I hate the circus of the NBA. Some days I hate that the players let the NBA business, the fame that comes with the business, alter their minds about the game. Sometimes I don't like being around the executives and politics that come with it. I hate that."

It is important to remember that Durant, like most NBA superstars--and even NBA players who are not household names--lives in a different world than most of the rest of us. Moehringer casually notes that--prior to moving to Brooklyn--Durant paid $90,000 per month to live in a Beverly Hills mansion. Durant's monthly rent is more than the average annual income of 2/3 of U.S. households! His day to day thoughts, concerns and motivations are different from the vast majority of people who have to focus on having enough money to meet their basic needs. If Durant never plays another game of basketball he can live the rest of his life in the lap of luxury.

In that sense, one could argue that happiness is relative: for most people, happiness in no small part correlates with being able to survive on a day to day basis with enough money and time left over after they have taken care of their work responsibilities to do the things that they enjoy. Durant and most other NBA players have so much money that they are insulated from day to day concerns. They have minions to take care of those things for them, so their happiness is measured or conceptualized differently.

Go back to the first Durant quote. Durant hates the "fame" and the "executives and politics" that are part of being an NBA superstar. Many people would be willing to trade making $9000 per year--or even $90,000 per year--for being able to easily afford $90,000 per month in rent while having to deal with "fame" and "executives and politics."

One could counter by arguing that having a lot of money does not necessarily correlate with happiness, because personal relationships are more important--but Durant has never suggested that his personal, private life is unhappy; his complaints are primarily related to "the circus of the NBA." Many would call that the price of doing business--the price of being paid more than $40 million per year to play basketball--and many would be more than willing to pay that price without complaint (and, in fact, many NBA players express their gratitude for being able to earn so much money for playing a game that they love, a game that they had played for free for many years before joining the NBA).

In 2016, Durant teamed with Russell Westbrook to carry their Oklahoma City Thunder to a 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder looked like a very real threat to not only dethrone the reigning NBA champion--a team that had also just won a record 73 regular season games--but also to capture the NBA title. Instead, the Warriors came back to win the series in seven games. It appeared that the Warriors and Thunder had just started a rivalry that could have lasted for several years--but then Durant left the Thunder to join forces with the Warriors.

Many assumed that Durant felt that he could never win a title with the Thunder, and that Durant felt that the Warriors' free-flowing offensive system was better suited to his skills and to championship level play than the system that the Thunder used.

It is not surprising that Durant's teammates and fans were devastated and hurt by his decision. The entire community had embraced Durant and felt betrayed when he left, but Durant is baffled at the backlash he experienced. Think about it this way: If your wife left you to marry your archrival and then helped your archrival to have greater success than the two of you ever experienced while you were together, how would you feel?

Fast forward to the 2018-19 season. Durant had just led Golden State to back to back titles while winning back to back Finals MVPs but by the beginning of his third season with the team his wandering eye was already looking elsewhere. Durant tells Moehringer, "I came in there wanting to be part of a group, wanting to be part of a family, and definitely felt accepted. But I'll never be one of those guys. I didn't get drafted there...Steph Curry, obviously drafted there. Andre Iguodala, won the first Finals, first championship. Klay Thompson, drafted there. Draymond Green, drafted there. And the rest of the guys kind of rehabilitated their careers there....how are you going to rehabilitate me? What are you going to teach me? How can you alter anything in my basketball life? I got an MVP already. I got scoring titles."

Durant claims that he never felt welcomed or accepted in Golden State and that is the reason he left Golden State. Durant denies that his early season in-game argument with Draymond Green played any role in his decision to leave. Durant also mocks the Golden State offense that, at one time, was considered to be a major factor in his decision to leave Oklahoma City: "The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point. We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we're going to have to mix in individual play. We've got to throw teams off, because they're smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me."

In other words, Durant feels the need to play the way that he had played when he was with the Thunder! Is Durant implicitly acknowledging that he was wrong to leave in the first place, or is he just someone who always thinks that the grass is greener on the other side?

There is a clear pattern here. Durant never feels happy or satisfied, no matter how much those around him cater to his needs and his expressed wants. The Thunder built their team around Durant, but he left; the Warriors embraced Durant from day one, built their team around him, but he left despite having the most successful all-around seasons of his career. Durant's comment that Golden State could not "alter anything in my basketball life" is odd, unless he values his individual honors and achievements over team success: he did not obtain ultimate team success until he joined a team that had already won a title just two years before he arrived.

Moehringer's narrative is that Durant is neither happy nor unhappy but rather "pleasantly idling in neutral" during his quest for self-awareness. That may sound deep on first read, but what does it really mean? Durant was unhesitatingly embraced by Oklahoma City and he claims that no one could teach him anything about basketball after he won his MVP and scoring titles, so why leave? Then, Durant reached an even higher level individually and collectively in Golden State, only to leave after just three seasons. To be on a quest implies that there is a defined goal. What is Durant's goal? It is clearly not to play in one city for his whole career, or to win MVP, or to win scoring titles, or to win championships. None of those things satisfied him.

Durant may win multiple titles in Brooklyn, or he may not win any titles. He may reestablish himself as an elite player after missing a full season due to a significant injury, or he may never return to his old form. Based on past experience, though, one thing seems certain: he will not be happy--and that is sad.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM

4 comments

Thursday, October 03, 2019

2019-20 Western Conference Preview

The Golden State dynasty is over after the Warriors lost to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn in free agency, and lost Klay Thompson for most, if not all, of the 2019-20 season due to a knee injury. While the Western Conference is more wide open than it has been for quite some time, there is still a clear separation between the contenders and the pretenders; what has narrowed is the yawning gap that used to separate the (healthy) Warriors from everyone else.

Kawhi Leonard took his talents from Toronto to the L.A. Clippers, and he persuaded the Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George to join him. The Clippers won 48 games last season despite injuries to key players, the midseason trade of leading scorer Tobias Harris to Philadelphia. and not having a single All-Star on the roster. Now, the Clippers have added arguably the league's best two-way player, plus a perennial All-Star. This is a team that could win 60-plus regular season games and must be considered the preseason favorite to win the NBA championship. Doc Rivers has already won a championship while coaching the 2008 Boston Celtics and he has proven his chops with multiple franchises.

Two other Western Conference contenders made headline-grabbing moves.

The L.A. Lakers acquired Anthony Davis, after months of maneuvering and shenanigans. It remains to be seen if LeBron James can stay healthy as he ages, if the often injury prone Davis can stay healthy, and if the Lakers possess the necessary mentality and focus to win a championship.

The Houston Rockets acquired 2017 regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, who has an ongoing record-setting streak of three straight seasons averaging a triple double. Westbrook is also the only player in NBA history who has won multiple scoring titles (2015, 2017) and multiple assist titles (2018, 2019). The Rockets now have a player who is good enough to relegate James Harden to being an off of the ball second option; unfortunately for Houston fans, Daryl Morey thinks that Harden is a better offensive player than Michael Jordan, and if the Rockets base their game plan on that concept then they will not win a title.

The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are two other teams that will battle the three teams listed above for a top four seed and home court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.

This preview has the same format as my Eastern Conference Preview; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:

1) L.A. Clippers: Kawhi Leonard does not produce flashy highlights or headline-worthy soundbites. He just makes winning plays at both ends of the court. Leonard won the 2014 Finals MVP as his San Antonio Spurs dismantled the Miami Heat's "Big Three" and last year he won the 2019 Finals MVP after leading the Raptors to their first championship by beating the two-time defending champion Warriors. Leonard is a dynasty killer; in between killing the dynasties built by the Heat and the Warriors, he killed the Spurs by forcing his way out of San Antonio. Leonard dictated to the Clippers that he would only come to L.A. if he could play with Paul George, and the Clippers delivered. Offseason surgeries to both shoulders will keep George out of action until at least November, but with Leonard leading the way the Clippers should be able to start the season on a strong note before hitting their full stride after George returns.

2) Houston Rockets: The Daryl Morey era in Houston began in 2007, amid much hype and fanfare. Here is my take: "During the subsequent 12 seasons, the Rockets have missed the playoffs three times, have lost in the first round four times, have lost in the second round three times and have lost in the Western Conference Finals twice. Thus, more than half of the time Morey's teams have advanced no further than the first round of the playoffs. They have never won a championship or even a conference title. If you ran an organization and Morey showed up in your office offering to sell you his expertise/his proprietary analytics would you buy based on those results?"

Morey took a huge risk when he overpaid Chris Paul, but he rectified that mistake this summer by swapping Paul for Russell Westbrook. If the Rockets let Westbrook run the offense, attack the hoop and pass to open shooters when he is trapped then they will have a virtually unstoppable offense--and if the Rockets also commit to consistently playing hard and smart on defense then they will be serious championship contenders.

If the Rockets continue to be the James Harden show then they will not win a game of consequence.

It really is that simple. The Rockets now have enough talent to win a title, but they need to have the right mindset from the top of the organization down. I am not sure what to expect from this team, but three scenarios seem most likely, in this order: (1) 55-60 regular season wins, playoff flameout as Harden pulls his usual disappearing act; (2) 45 regular season wins and first round exit because Harden will not give up the reins, relegating Westbrook to standing in the corner watching the Harden show; (3) 55-60 regular season wins and a championship as the Rockets give up on the delusion that Harden is a "foundational player," let Westbrook run the show, and follow Westbrook's lead in terms of playing hard all of the time.

3) Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets posted the West's second best record in 2018-19 before losing at home in in the seventh game of the second round to the Portland Trail Blazers. Based on seeding, that was an upset, but Denver only won one more game than Portland during an 82 game season. Denver did not make any blockbuster moves during the offseason, but the acquisition of Jeremi Grant improves the team's depth and helps at both ends of the court. The Nuggets will again fight for the top seed, but the question in the playoffs will be whether or not Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray can outduel the superstar duos from the conference's other elite teams.

4) L.A. Lakers: To say LeBron James' first season in L.A. was a disappointment is a vast understatement. James left Cleveland for ostensibly greener pastures, but the Lakers won just two more games with James than they won the season before without him. The Anthony Davis saga fractured the locker room and, although James put up superficially impressive statistics, James' effort level was suboptimal--particularly on defense--and his teammates followed his lead in that regard.

We are supposed to believe that the acquisition of Davis and the firing of Coach Luke Walton will cure all of the team's ills. Maybe, but there are reasons to be skeptical: James is an aging player who seems more focused on his other interests than on basketball, Davis has never won anything of consequence, and it is far from certain that James will respect new Coach Frank Vogel any more than he respected Walton (or David Blatt or Mike Brown).

Placing the Lakers fourth is a bit of a compromise; if everything goes perfectly, this could be the best team in the West--if not the entire league--but if everything goes south the Lakers could be in the bottom half of the playoff picture. So fourth may end up being wrong, but it represents the middle of a wide range of possibilities.

5) Portland Trail Blazers: After making their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since 2000, the Trail Blazers are fully committed to Coach Terry Stotts plus their ace backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. However, Portland made significant changes to the rest of the roster and will rely on newcomers Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver in particular to quickly fit in and make meaningful contributions.

How far Portland advances will mainly be determined by how well Lillard and McCollum perform versus the other top duos in the West. Portland's Western Conference Finals run last season looks like an outlier; based on skill set and size, it is difficult to picture Lillard and McCollum consistently outdueling the likes of Leonard/George, Westbrook/Harden (if Houston plays in optimal fashion), Jokic/Murray or James/Davis. Yes, Portland beat Denver's Jokic and Murray in seven games last season, but Denver appears to be a team on the rise while Lillard and McCollum have likely peaked.

6) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs will receive a major boost with the healthy return of guard Dejounte Murray, who missed all of last season because of a torn ACL. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are an excellent 1-2 scoring punch, with each averaging over 21 ppg last season. Rudy Gay is a solid third scoring option who shot a career-high .504 from the field in 2018-19. San Antonio pushed second seed Denver to seven games in the first round last season, so regardless of how the Spurs rank in the regular season they will likely once again be a tough out in the postseason.

7) Utah Jazz: Last season, I overrated the Jazz, who finished fifth in the West and lost in the first round after reaching the second round each of the previous two seasons. The Jazz reloaded by acquiring Mike Conley, Emmanuel Mudiay and Bojan Bogdanovic and they may in fact have a better roster this year than they did last year. However, the teams ahead of them last year improved to a greater extent, and even a couple of the teams behind the Jazz last year look better than the Jazz now (Lakers, Spurs). Utah is heading toward a second consecutive first round exit.

8) Golden State Warriors: We heard a lot of noise during last year's playoffs that the Warriors are a better team without Kevin Durant because they have better ball movement and because they are able to fully exploit Stephen Curry's "gravity." This is no longer a theoretical exercise on someone's spreadsheet; now we will be able to test that hypothesis with a full sample of 82 games. Even without Durant, and with Klay Thompson sidelined for most--if not all--of the season due to an ACL injury, the Warriors have two-time former MVP Curry and three-time All-Star/2017 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green leading a strong supporting cast. The Warriors acquired 2019 All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the sign and trade deal that sent Durant to the Brooklyn Nets. There is no excuse for this team to not at least make the playoffs--but, as the 82 game season will demonstrate, the notion that the Warriors are better without Durant is absurd.

The Western Conference has several teams that could push for a playoff berth before falling short. The Dallas Mavericks are one of those teams. Their future, anchored by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, looks bright. The New Orleans Pelicans are a chic pick to qualify for the playoffs despite losing Anthony Davis, but they are a bit too young and inexperienced. The Sacramento Kings finally seem to be moving in the right direction after many years of being adrift, but they are not quite good enough to crack the top eight.

On paper, Oklahoma City has enough talent to compete for a playoff berth, but the reality is that Chris Paul will probably get injured, get traded or both. The Thunder are focused on acquiring draft picks, not on winning games this season, and their final record will reflect that focus.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a lot of young talent but Jimmy Butler not so subtly suggested that the young talent lacks drive/focus, and the team's arc after Butler's departure to Philadelphia seems to confirm that.

Six years after the firing of Coach Lional Hollins after he led the Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference Finals, Memphis fans are still waiting to see the benefits of the front office's "forward-thinking" analytics--but perhaps the franchise took a step in the right direction in April by reorganizing the front office and putting Zach Kleiman in charge. Kleiman will not be able to turn around this long-sinking ship in one year, but maybe better days are ahead.

The Phoenix Suns have turned into the New York Knicks West, with Robert Sarver playing the role of James Dolan.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2019 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2018: 6/8
2017: 7/8
2016: 6/8
2015: 7/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2019 Total: 90/112 (.804)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 AM

2 comments

2019-20 Eastern Conference Preview

The Eastern Conference has been depleted of star power in recent years. LeBron James moved from Cleveland to L.A., Paul George was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City, and this past summer Kawhi Leonard departed Toronto to join forces with Paul George, forming a power duo that makes the L.A. Clippers a legitimate championship contender for the first time in franchise history. Leonard is the first reigning Finals MVP to change teams the year after winning the award.

There is a lot of hype about the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Milwaukee Bucks should be the class of the East now that the Toronto Raptors will be taking a step backwards. Although the 76ers look good on paper and arguably have the best staring lineup in the Eastern Conference, I question the long term chances of a team that relies on the injury-prone Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who has skill set limitations and seems to lack a consistently aggressive mentality.

The Boston Celtics should still be a strong team after essentially swapping Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker, but losing Al Horford to Philadelphia hurts them at both ends of the court while also strengthening a key rival.

The East is wide open from the standpoint that there is not one dominant team, but the reality is that--barring injuries or unforeseen developments--the three above teams will most likely emerge as a cut above the other teams in the conference.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:

1) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo has emerged as the heir apparent to LeBron James as the league's best all-around player. Like the young James, however, Antetokounmpo will have to refine and complete his skill set in order to have the same impact in the playoffs that he has in the regular season. Antetokounmpo won the 2019 regular season MVP and earned his first selections to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team after posting career-highs in scoring (27.7 ppg, third in the league), rebounding (12.5 rpg, sixth in the league), assists (5.9 apg) and field goal percentage (.578). His averages for blocked shots (1.5 bpg) and steals (1.3 spg) both slightly exceeded his career averages (1.3 and 1.2 respectively).

However, his production and efficiency dropped a bit during the playoffs, as Antetokounmpo proved unable to consistently make jump shots, which affected his ability to attack defenses that sat in the paint and waited to thwart his drives. He averaged 25.5 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 4.9 apg in the playoffs, but his field goal percentage slumped to .492. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the best record in the NBA (60-22) and the team's first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2001, yet his game still has room for growth. The good news for Bucks fans is that Antetokounmpo has displayed a relentless work ethic, and thus there is every reason to believe that he will continue to develop as a player.

The Bucks declined to overpay Malcolm Brogdon and instead traded him to the Indiana Pacers. Other than losing Brogdon, the Bucks return intact the key rotation players from a squad that ranked third in field goal percentage, first in points scored, first in defensive field goal percentage and first in rebounds. The Bucks are elite both offensively and defensively, and they have the sport's best individual player. They are clearly the best team in the East; that is not the same as saying that they are the best team by a wide margin, but they are a step above every other team in the East.

2) Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers tanked for four seasons to produce a squad that has lost in the second round of the playoffs each of the past two years. This summer, they lost two starters--Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick--plus rotation player T.J. McConnell, but they acquired Al Horford, Josh Richardson and Trey Burke. The projected starting lineup of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson is arguably the most talented in the East, but does not include any players with NBA Finals experience, let alone championship experience.

Embiid has playing time restrictions and often misses games due to injury and/or "load management." He is very talented but it is far from certain that he can lead a team to a title. Simmons has seemed to lack a high rev motor dating back to college; the comparison with Magic Johnson is ludicrous, and does Simmons no favors. If he can evolve into an All-NBA player that would be a step up, and still leave him a few steps short of reaching Johnson's level.

Horford will improve the 76ers at both ends of the court, but late game half court execution will likely remain a problem for this team. At least Butler could take--and make--key shots down the stretch. It is not clear who is willing and/or able to do that for the 76ers now.

The ongoing devolution of the East may result in the 76ers reaching the Eastern Conference Finals but this is a flawed team that could be headed toward its third straight second round elimination.

3) Boston Celtics: Last season was disappointing for the Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returned from injury to join a young nucleus that had advanced to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, but in 2019 the chemistry was never right and Boston bowed out 4-1 to Milwaukee in the second round.

Irving left Boston to join forces with Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, and then the Celtics largely replaced Irving's scoring--but not his playmaking and his playoff experience--by signing Kemba Walker. Enes Kanter is a nice addition as well, though obviously he cannot replace Horford.

This season will tell us a lot about Boston's young nucleus: are the young guys truly stars in the making who just needed for Irving to give them a chance to shine, or were Irving's not so thinly veiled complaints correct? As for Walker, he has played in 11 playoff games during his eight season career and he has not advanced past the first round. Can he be the best player on a contending team, or is he one of Kenny Smith's proverbial "looters in a riot" (players who put up gaudy regular season statistics for mediocre or bad teams but who are not able to carry a good team very far)?

Boston will be in the mix at the top of the conference, and could win the East if things break right--i.e., the Bucks suffer injuries--but most likely the Celtics will lose in the second round of the playoffs.

4) Indiana Pacers: In the past four years, the Pacers have won between 42 and 48 regular season games and lost in the first round of the playoffs four straight times. Victor Oladipo has made the All-Star team in both of his seasons with the Pacers, but he missed the 2019 midseason classic after suffering a season-ending right quad tendon rupture. Oladipo is not expected to be able to play until December or January, and it is uncertain what level his game will be at when he returns. He made the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team in 2017-18 but he was not playing at quite that level even prior to the injury; his scoring dropped from 23.1 ppg to 18.8 ppg, his field goal percentage slumped from .477 to .423, his free throw percentage declined from .799 to a career-low .730 and his spg average fell from a league-best/career high 2.4 to 1.7. It is not clear that he ever was good enough to be the best player on a championship team, and it is even less clear that he will ever again be as good as he was two seasons ago.

The Pacers lost their second leading scorer (18.0 ppg), Bogdan Bogdanovic, to the Utah Jazz. Wesley Matthews signed with the Bucks and Tyreke Evans was suspended by the NBA. Brogdan and T.J. McConnell will fill the void in the backcourt, while T.J. Warren (acquired from the Phoenix Suns) will bolster the frontcourt.

The net result of all of those moves will probably not be much different from what we have seen the past several years: the Pacers will be a solid team that could possibly advance to the second round, but they will not go any further than that.

5) Brooklyn Nets: Last season, the Nets returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. First-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell led the team in scoring (21.0 ppg) and assists (7.0 apg) but he is with Golden State now in exchange for two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, who will miss the entire season after rupturing his Achilles. The Nets also signed Kyrie Irving, who will be the focal point of the offense this season. This is at least the fourth distinct stage of Irving's career. He was a "looter in a riot" in Cleveland prior to LeBron James rejoining the team, he was an Andrew Toney-like clutch assassin during Cleveland's four straight Finals trips (including the 2016 title), he was a lightning rod for criticism in Boston last season as the Celtics failed to live up to expectations and now--at least until Durant makes a healthy return--he is the face of a young Brooklyn team. We will learn a lot about Irving this year. Can he parlay his playoff experience from the Cleveland years to lead Brooklyn to the playoffs sans Durant, or is he destined to be remembered as a very good second option who cannot carry a team? My hypothesis is that Irving is better than his worst critics suggest and that the Nets will have a solid season without Durant.

The Nets have a very good coaching staff and a strong organizational culture. The Nets do things the right way and that is why I expect them to be even a little better than last season despite a lot of roster turnover and despite Durant not being available. The Nets will fight for homecourt advantage in the first round, and could advance to the second round, depending on matchups and health.

6) Toronto Raptors: Congratulations, Toronto! You are the first non-American based team to win an NBA title and the first team to watch the reigning Finals MVP leave to play for another squad. Kawhi Leonard came, he "load managed," he saw, he conquered and he moved on to what he expects to be greener, sunnier pastures.

What Leonard left behind is a well-coached team that has a solid nucleus including a five time All-Star guard (Kyle Lowry) and a rising young talent (Pascal Siakam). The Raptors have zero chance of contending for a title as currently constructed without Leonard, but they will play hard and smart and they will be a tough out for someone in the first round of the playoffs. Observers who believe that Toronto's 17-5 regular season record without Leonard foreshadows Toronto being among the top three teams in the East will learn that just because something is true does not mean that it matters; it is true that the Raptors were very good without Leonard last season during a small and skewed sample of games, but that does not tell us much about how the team would fare over 82 games without Leonard.

7) Miami Heat: Pat Riley's teams do not tank and they do not make excuses. The 30-11 run during the second half of the 2016-17 season was a mirage, and it turns out that the Heat were who we thought they were: a team that can win 40-48 games while annually contending for a playoff spot.

Miami has the second highest payroll in the league, and they have not yet received much bang for those considerable bucks. Even in view of the Monopoly money being thrown around to anyone who has a pulse, Goran Dragic's contract has not turned out to be a good value: he has been with the Heat for four and a half seasons, during which time he has made the All-Star team once and the team has advanced past the first round once. Dragic is not the only, or even biggest, mistake that the Heat made but when a one-time All-Star is making over $19 million as the team's second-highest paid player your roster is not constructed to go very far.

The Heat acquired a true All-Star by signing Jimmy Butler. The four-time All-Star, four-time All-Defensive Team member and two-time All-NBA player is by far the best player the Heat have had since the ending of the "Big Three" era. Unfortunately, the Heat lost their leading scorer (Josh Richardson) and their best rebounder/shot blocker (Hassan Whiteside), so the 10-15 wins that Butler is probably worth will just offset the 10-15 wins that those players are worth.

The net result will likely be that the Heat narrowly make the playoffs after missing the cut last season.

8) Detroit Pistons: Under Dwane Casey's leadership, the Pistons made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2016. That was just their second postseason appearance in the past 10 seasons.

Detroit added some interesting pieces--including Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris--to a roster that already included Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. This is not a great team by any stretch of the imagination but it is a well-coached team with a pretty solid starting lineup. If injury-prone players like Griffin, Jackson (who played all 82 games last season for the first time in his career) and Rose stay healthy then the Pistons could finish as high as fourth or fifth, but another eighth seed seems more likely.

As for the rest of the East, the Orlando Magic made no substantive roster changes while several other Eastern Conference teams improved. The Magic will still fight for a playoff berth, and could obtain one if things break just right, but I expect them to fall just short. Atlanta should improve by a few wins, but not enough to make the playoffs. The Charlotte Hornets are in trouble after essentially losing All-NBA guard Kemba Walker for nothing. The Cleveland Cavaliers will improve but not be close to playoff contention.The New York Knicks will again be terrible, but RJ Barrett is a rookie who could make some noise. The Chicago Bulls will remain awful. The Wizards need to reboot.

**********
Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2018-19 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2018: 6/8
2017: 5/8
2016: 5/8
2015: 5/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2019 Total: 83/112 (.741)

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM

2 comments

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Revising the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, Part IV

Part II and Part III of this series looked at the NBA's 50 Greatest Players lists published by Athlon Sports (in 2008) and the Boston Globe (in 2015) respectively. Both of those lists were compiled many years after the NBA released its official list in 1996, so those newer lists incorporated the next generation or two of NBA players. Before continuing our chronological examination of various NBA's 50 Greatest Players lists, it is worth considering the selections made in 1996 by two well-known NBA writers who were not members of the 50 person panel that selected the NBA's official list.

In an October 21, 1996 Chicago Tribune column published a few days before the NBA released its official list, Sam Smith--author of the book The Jordan Rules--chose his 50 Greatest NBA players, in order (the official list did not rank the players). Also, in an October 29, 1996 USA Today column published just before the NBA's official list was revealed, Bryan Burwell declared, "But 50 is too easy. Fifty allows a lot of room to work, and fewer egos to bruise. I prefer smaller numbers...The real challenge is gleaning all that greatness down into a more condensed digest of 20." Burwell ranked his all-time top 20 NBA players. We will first look at Smith's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

1) Michael Jordan
2) Wilt Chamberlain
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4) Magic Johnson
5) George Mikan
6) Bill Russell
7) Oscar Robertson
8) Larry Bird
9) Jerry West
10) Elgin Baylor
11) Rick Barry
12) Julius Erving
13) Hakeem Olajuwon
14) Isiah Thomas
15) Bob Pettit
16) Bill Walton
17) Earl Monroe
18) Bob Cousy
19) Charles Barkley
20) Scottie Pippen
21) Moses Malone
22) Pete Maravich
23) Willis Reed
24) Kevin McHale
25) John Havlicek
26) Elvin Hayes
27) Wes Unseld
28) Karl Malone
29) Walt Bellamy*
30) Gus Johnson*
31) Walt Frazier
32) Lenny Wilkens
33) Joe Fulks*
34) George Gervin
35) Dave Cowens
36) Bernard King*
37) Jerry Lucas
38) Nate Archibald
39) John Stockton
40) Hal Greer
41) Dominique Wilkins*
42) Nate Thurmond
43) Bob McAdoo*
44) Robert Parish
45) Clyde Drexler
46) Dennis Johnson*
47) Slater Martin*
48) David Robinson
49) Paul Arizin
50) Sam Jones

Thus, Smith's list included eight players who were not on the official list: Walt BellamyGus Johnson, Joe Fulks, Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins, Bob McAdoo, Dennis Johnson and Slater Martin. Smith's list did not include these eight players from the official list: Dave Bing, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman and James Worthy.

Smith's 2019 selections would undoubtedly be different, but here we will only consider his 1996 list based on what had happened up to that time.

In Part I of this series, I mentioned a set of criteria (in no particular order) for comparing great players from different eras:

1) How great was a particular player in his own era?

2) How highly does a player rank overall in key statistical categories?

3) Based on a skill set evaluation, how well would a player have performed in a different era when facing different rules and circumstances?

4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?
 
Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for Bellamy and McAdoo.

Gus Johnson made the All-NBA Second Team four times, he made the All-Defensive First Team twice and he earned five All-Star selections. After playing nearly 10 seasons in the NBA, he finished his career by playing a little more than half a season as a valuable reserve for the Indiana Pacers' 1973 ABA championship team. Johnson was one of pro basketball's first high flying dunkers, but he was more than just a rugged and flashy athlete. Earl Monroe, Johnson's teammate with the Baltimore Bullets, praised Johnson's all-around game: "Gus was ahead of his time, flying through the air for slam dunks, breaking backboards and throwing full-court passes behind his back. He was spectacular, but he also did the nitty gritty jobs, defense and rebounding." Johnson averaged 16.2 ppg and 12.1 rpg during his pro career, ranking 18th in ABA-NBA career rebounding average.

Joe Fulks played the first three seasons of his professional career in the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which then merged with the National Basketball League to form the NBA in 1949-50--but the NBA includes BAA statistics from 1946-49 in its official records, so Fulks is considered the NBA's first scoring champion (1389 points in 60 game in 1946-47, when the title was decided by total points instead of ppg average). The regular season MVP award did not exist during his career and the first NBA All-Star Game was played during his second to last season, but Fulks made the All-Star team each of the two times he was eligible and he made the All-League Team (BAA or NBA) four times, including three First Team selections. Fulks was one of the pioneers of the jump shot and he was the leading scorer in both the regular season and the playoffs in 1947 when his Philadelphia Warriors won the championship. The argument against Fulks' Top 50 candidacy is that he was a 6-5, 190 pound forward who starred in the pre-shot clock era when the NBA was largely segregated, and it is not clear how well his skill set would have translated even 10 years after his prime, let alone several decades later.

Bernard King finished second in the 1984 regular season MVP balloting and he likely would have finished higher than seventh in 1985 if he had not suffered a devastating knee injury that ended his season after just 55 games; King averaged 26.3 ppg in 1983-84, and then he led the league in 1984-85 with a 32.9 ppg scoring average, picking up where he had left off after topping the NBA in 1984 playoff scoring (34.8 ppg). King became the first player to make the All-Star team after tearing his ACL; it took him nearly two full years to return to action--surgical techniques and rehabilitation regimens for ACL injuries were not nearly as advanced in the 1980s as they are today--and he triumphantly regained All-Star status in 1991, before missing all of the 1992 season due to injury and then retiring after playing just 32 games in 1992-93. King made the All-NBA Team four times, including First Team selections in 1984 and 1985. He also earned four All-Star selections. In his prime, he was one of the league's deadliest finishers on the break and he owned a lethal turnaround shot on the baseline.

Dominique Wilkins ranked in the top five in MVP balloting three times (including a second place finish in 1986). Wilkins won the 1986 scoring title (30.3 ppg), one of four seasons during which he averaged at least 29.0 ppg. Wilkins averaged at least 25.9 ppg for 10 straight seasons (1985-94, including 1992 when a ruptured Achilles limited him to 42 games). He made the All-NBA Team seven times, including one First Team selection. Wilkins made the All-Star team for nine straight seasons (1986-94). He is known for his ferocious dunks, but Wilkins scored 26,668 career regular season points and he is fond of pointing out that he did not score all or even most of them on dunks. Wilkins was a solid rebounder from the small forward position, with a career average of 6.7 rpg.

Dennis Johnson earned the nickname "Airplane" because of his high-flying exploits as a 6-4 guard who could rebound and block shots just as well as players who were much taller. He won the 1979 Finals MVP while leading Seattle to the NBA title, he finished fifth in regular season MVP voting the next season and in 1981 he earned his only All-NBA First Team selection. Johnson also made the All-NBA Second Team in 1980 and he made the All-Star team five times. Johnson made the All-Defensive Team nine times, including six First Team selections. He spent his first three seasons in Seattle, played his next three seasons in Phoenix and then finished his career with seven seasons in Boston, where he played a key role as the starting point guard on two championship teams (1984, 1986). Larry Bird once called Johnson his smartest teammate ever. Johnson was not a great shooter but he had a well-deserved reputation for making clutch shots, and he averaged 17.3 ppg in his playoff career compared to 14.1 ppg in his regular season career.

Slater Martin made the All-NBA Team five times and he made the All-Star team seven times. He ranked in the top 10 in assists six times and he was the starting point guard for five championship teams (four times with the Minneapolis Lakers, one time with the St. Louis Hawks).

The players from the official 50 Greatest Players List who Smith did not include accomplished a lot during their careers. Capsule resumes are provided in Part II for DeBusschere and Worthy, and in Part III for Bing, Cunningham, and Sharman.

Patrick Ewing won the 1986 Rookie of the Year award and he finished in the top five in MVP voting six times. He made the All-NBA Team seven times, including one First Team selection (1990). He made the All-Defensive Team three times and he made the All-Star team 11 times. Ewing entered the league as a rebounder and defensive specialist but he quickly proved to be a dominant scorer and one of the best shooting big men of all-time. He averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg in nine straight seasons.

Shaquille O'Neal won the 1993 Rookie of the Year award. He won one regular season MVP (2000) and he finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting eight times. He won three Finals MVPs (2000-02) while playing on four championship teams. O'Neal led the league in regular season scoring twice (1995, 2000) and he led the league in playoff scoring once (2000). O'Neal led the league in field goal percentage 10 times, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's record of nine. Among ABA/NBA career leaders, O'Neal ranks fourth in field goal percentage (.582), ninth in blocked shots (2732) and 10th in points (28,596).

Dolph Schayes finished in the top five in MVP voting three times. He made the All-NBA Team each of the first 12 seasons of his career, including six First Team selections. Schayes also played in 12 straight All-Star Games. He ranked in the top 10 in scoring 11 times, led the league in rebounding once and he finished in the top 10 in assists three times. For nearly six years, Schayes was the NBA's career scoring leader, before being passed by Bob Pettit and then Wilt Chamberlain.

Based solely on the players' career statistics and accomplishments as of October 1996, I agree with three of the players Smith added: Walt Bellamy, Bob McAdoo and Dominique Wilkins. I agree with three of the players Smith did not include: Dave Bing, Bill Sharman and James Worthy. Thus, I would not have added Joe Fulks, Dennis Johnson, Gus Johnson, Bernard King and Slater Martin, and I would not have left off Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Patrick Ewing, Dolph Schayes and Shaquille O'Neal.

Bellamy was a dominant scorer and rebounder; critics suggest that he did not always play hard, which brings to mind Ralph Wiley's comment about baseball great Rickey Henderson: if he put up those numbers while coasting then he must be the greatest player of all-time. I am not suggesting that Bellamy is even a Top 10 player all-time, but he was a Top 50 player as of 1996.

McAdoo was the only NBA regular season MVP who did not make the original Top 50 list. He was a "stretch four" (or even a "stretch five") before the term was invented, and McAdoo also rebounded and blocked shots. Pat Riley has said that the Lakers would not have won their 1982 and 1985 titles without McAdoo.

Wilkins was the eighth leading scorer in NBA history/11th leading scorer in ABA/NBA history when the original Top 50 list was selected. He was a pure scorer who was somewhat underrated in other areas of the game, and he belonged on the original list.

While a case can be made for Bing, Sharman and Worthy, equally good--if not even better--cases could be made for other players even in 1996, as I discussed in Parts II and III of this series.

I am puzzled by Smith's inclusion of Fulks, Martin, Dennis Johnson and Gus Johnson. While all four players are clearly deserving Hall of Famers, none of them should receive serious Top 50 consideration. Fulks was the only member of this quartet who was statistically dominant in his own era, but Fulks had a short career in the NBA's formative years and there just is not enough evidence to rank him in the Top 50. Martin and Dennis Johnson each served as the point guard on multiple championship teams and Johnson was even the best player on one championship team, but most of the time they were not even the second best player on their championship teams. Gus Johnson was a fantastic player but neither his peak value nor his short career justify ranking him in the Top 50.

A good case could be made for Bernard King: he had at least one 20 ppg season in three different decades, he had a stretch as an MVP-caliber performer and, were it not for the knee injury, he displayed a talent level that may very well rank him among the top 30 players of all-time. It is tough to leave him off, and I would not argue strenuously against including him in 1996, but he and Wilkins were similarly skilled players, with Wilkins sustaining a peak level for a longer period of time than King did. It could very well be argued that perhaps King deserved inclusion over players not discussed in this article, but focusing just on who Smith included and who Smith left off compared to the official list, I would reluctantly leave King off.

I would have kept Billy Cunningham and Dave DeBusschere on the list in 1996. Cunningham was a top notch scorer, rebounder and playmaker; he won an ABA MVP and he twice finished in the top five in NBA MVP voting. DeBusschere was a rugged power forward who could score inside and outside, rebound and defend. He was the final piece to the Knicks' championship puzzle. DeBusschere would not make my Top 50 in 2019, but he deserved inclusion in 1996.

The main argument that could be made to keep O'Neal off of the list in 1996 was that he had only played three seasons. However, by that time he already owned a scoring title, a Rookie of the Year award, two top five MVP finishes and two All-NBA selections, in addition to leading the Orlando Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals. Perhaps it was premature to include a third year player, but it was also obvious that if he was not included the list would look silly pretty soon. In Smith's defense, he made his list before the NBA announces their list, and perhaps Smith just neglected to seriously consider anyone who had not played at least five or six seasons.

Less understandable are Smith's omissions of Schayes and Ewing. Schayes was a dominant scorer/rebounder/passer for a dozen years, and he continued to perform at a high level after the introduction of the shot clock and after the talent surge of the 1950s and early 1960s added Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and others to the mix. It is particularly odd that Smith included Fulks--who had a shorter career, mostly in the pre-shot clock era--but left out Schayes, a bigger and more dominant player who proved that his skill set fit in even as the NBA evolved to become faster paced and more athletic.

Ewing never won an NBA title, and his demeanor probably did not win him many fans in the media, but you have to give the man his due: he scored, rebounded and defended at a very high level for more than a decade. No offense to several of the players listed above who Smith included, but no general manager or coach in his right mind would take those players over Ewing.

Regarding Burwell's list, as noted above he decided to select just 20 players, not 50. Every player he chose made the cut both for the NBA's official list and for Smith's list, which is not surprising considering that those lists were more than twice as long. Here is Burwell's list:

1) Michael Jordan
2) Wilt Chamberlain
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
4) Magic Johnson
5) Larry Bird
6) Bill Russell
7) Oscar Robertson
8) Julius Erving
9) Jerry West
10) Elgin Baylor
11) George Mikan
12) Isiah Thomas
13) Rick Barry
14) Earl Monroe
15) Bob Pettit
16) Hakeem Olajuwon
17) Bob Cousy
18) Charles Barkley
19) Pete Maravich
20) Moses Malone

Burwell's top four is identical to Smith's top four. Smith had Mikan at five, while Burwell placed him at 11. Mikan is the toughest case; he was voted the most dominant basketball player of the first half of the 20th century, but he played his best basketball in the pre-shot clock, largely segregated NBA, so it is very difficult to figure out how his skill set and dominance would have translated even into the 1960s, let alone later decades. In terms of how he dominated his era, Mikan is a top five player of all-time, but in terms of how his skill set would have translated there is no way to say with any confidence; that is why I restrict my player rankings to the post-shot clock era.

I thought that Smith ranked Erving a little low (12th), so it is nice to see Erving at eighth on Burwell's list, and that is a more accurate reflection of educated conventional wisdom at that time (I could make a good case to rank Erving higher, but most analysts at that time would have probably put Erving in the bottom portion of the top 10).

The second part of Burwell's list raises some eyebrows. Isiah Thomas is arguably the greatest little man in pro basketball history but it is questionable to rank him as the 12th best player overall. Earl Monroe at 14th jumped out at me, and Smith had Monroe at 17th; I cannot recall any other list--certainly not one made after the early 1970s--that would rank Monroe that highly. Monroe was a tremendous player, a Hall of Famer and easily a Top 50 choice in 1996, but I am baffled that anyone would rank him above--to choose just two MVPs--Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone. Monroe deserves credit for being an innovative ballhandler and scorer, as well as for accepting a lesser role statistically to help the New York Knicks win the 1973 title, but that still should not have placed him in the Top 20 even back in 1996.

Burwell ranked Pete Maravich 19th and Smith ranked Maravich 22nd. Maravich is one of my favorite players of all-time, so it is great to see him receive appreciation, and I think that as time passes/memories fade he is becoming underrated.

Maravich was the best guard in the NBA in the mid-1970s before he suffered a serious knee injury, but his peak was brief and his career only lasted 10 seasons. Maravich was way ahead of his time, and if you transplanted him to today's game with his skill set he would average something like 35 ppg and 10 apg, but based on what he actually accomplished during his pro career both Burwell and Smith ranked him a few spots higher than I would have at that time.

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Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

Part II of this series can be found here.

Part III of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:10 AM

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