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Thursday, October 06, 2016

2016-17 Eastern Conference Preview

Watching LeBron James fail to take the Cleveland Cavaliers to the promised land before departing for Miami and winning two titles with the Heat, it was fair to wonder if an all-time great like LeBron James cannot lead the Cavaliers to an NBA championship then maybe the city really is cursed, at least in terms of never winning another professional sports title.

James' return to Cleveland inspired hope that perhaps he would finally lead the Cavaliers to a title but after losing to the Golden State Warriors in six games in the 2015 NBA Finals and then falling behind 3-1 to the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, it seemed like James was authoring yet another chapter in the epic book of Cleveland's sports misery. Instead, James elevated his game and--with more than a little help from Kyrie Irving--lifted the Cavaliers to an improbable comeback and the city's first professional sports championship since Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns won the 1964 NFL title in the pre-Super Bowl era.

Now, James is trying to lead the Cavaliers to back to back championships. No Cleveland professional sports franchise has won consecutive titles since the Browns in 1954-55. James has personally made it to the NBA Finals for six straight years--the first four with Miami and the last two with Cleveland--while winning three championships, including back to back titles with the Heat in 2012-13. He has not had a worthy rival in the East since the decline and fall of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-Rondo Boston Celtics, the last team to defeat James in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Toronto Raptors went 56-26 to finish just one game behind the Cavaliers for first place in the Eastern Conference in the 2015-16 regular season but the Cavaliers raced to a 2-0 lead versus the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto briefly made it a series by taking the next two games at home but then the Cavaliers won by 38 and 26 to advance to the NBA Finals. Behind Toronto was a logjam of eight teams that finished with between 41 and 48 wins, including four teams that won 48 games each. Although both Indiana (45-37) and Miami (48-34) pushed Toronto to seven games, none of those eight teams had a realistic chance to win more than two games against Cleveland in a seven game series.

This season does not figure to be much different in terms of any Eastern Conference team threatening to supplant James' Cavaliers. The Cavaliers, barring injury to James or Irving, will be the best team come playoff time, even if they do not finish with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors will pose the most serious threat to Cleveland's supremacy. Of the four East teams that each won 48 games last year, two have clearly regressed (Charlotte and Miami), one remains a solid playoff team but no more than that (Atlanta) and one is likely to break the 50 win plateau (Boston).

The new-look Boston Celtics--sporting a young nucleus of players plus the addition of free agent All-Star big man Al Horford--are a rising team that could at least challenge the Cavaliers and Raptors for the best record in the East but it is difficult to picture Boston prevailing over Cleveland in a seven game series.

Barring injury, I feel confident that those will be the top three teams in the East. After that, I expect that there will once again be several teams bunched together in the 40-48 win range; a sprained ankle suffered by a key player on one of those teams could be the difference between finishing with the fourth seed and missing the playoffs.

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) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavaliers started out 30-11 with David Blatt at the helm before General Manager David Griffin determined that Blatt was not the right man to lead Cleveland to the championship. Griffin replaced Blatt with lead assistant Tyronn Lue, who was almost immediately given a three year contract, thereby sending a strong message that he is not a lame duck coach. The Cavaliers went 27-14 down the stretch to finish 57-25, a four game improvement over the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks dropped from 60 wins to 48, so Cleveland ascended to the top seed in the conference by one game over Toronto.

Lue wanted the Cavaliers to play at a faster pace, which necessitated changes in the rotation as well as in the team's practice sessions and training methods. Some of the benefits of these changes were not immediately apparent during the regular season but bore fruit during the playoffs. It was also evident that James respects Lue in a way that he did not respect Blatt; therefore, James submitted to Lue's authority and it is only natural that when the best player supports the coach then the other players will fall in line as well. Lue held James accountable for his words and actions in a way that Blatt was either unwilling to do or unable to do because James would not listen to him.

The Cavaliers went 12-2 in the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2015 and in 2016 but the Lue effect showed up most in the NBA Finals. In 2015, the Cavaliers took a 2-1 series lead but then Golden State Coach Steve Kerr went to a small lineup and Blatt blundered by also going small as opposed to continuing to pound the Warriors in the paint. In 2016, the Warriors took a 3-1 series lead but the Cavaliers remained poised and in the final three games of the series James did what he needed to do: attack the paint relentlessly instead of settling for jumpers or passing the ball without first attacking. James seems to need to be constantly reminded to be an attacking player against elite teams and it also seems that he only will accept such reminders from people he respects (Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley, Tyronn Lue, to cite three examples).

I concluded my Cavaliers preview last season by asking "Would you bet your life that any Eastern Conference team can beat the Cavs four times in a seven game series if James is physically healthy and mentally engaged?" The correct answer in the 2016 playoffs was "No" and I believe that the same answer will be true in the 2017 playoffs.

2) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors tend to fly under the radar. Perhaps that is because they do not have a bona fide superstar or because they play their home games outside of the United States or because they had only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once in franchise history before making it to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors should not escape anyone's attention this season, because they are the Eastern Conference team with the best chance to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series.

The Raptors will miss Bismack Biyombo's defense, rebounding and energy but if Jonas Valanciunus stays healthy then they will be fine in the paint. General Manager Masai Ujiri has proven to be one of the top talent evaluators and franchise builders in the NBA but the tough task that he faces is to either (1) find a player who can make LeBron James have to work to score and/or have to exert a lot of energy defensively or (2) build a team that is so talented or deep that it can wear down James and the Cavaliers over the course of a long playoff series. The Raptors have made great strides under Ujiri's leadership but unless James declines dramatically (or gets hurt) they just do not have quite enough to beat Cleveland four times in seven games.

If the Raptors are very focused on obtaining the top seed while the Cavaliers decide to strategically rest players, it is possible that Toronto will finish with the best regular season record in the East.

3) Boston Celtics: My default tendency is to not highly value young players or young coaches/coaches who come to the NBA straight from the collegiate ranks; in the NBA you generally need experience in order to win big. That default tendency is why I did not pick the Celtics to make the playoffs in 2015 (they finished 40-42 but captured the seventh seed in the weak East) and why I picked the Celtics to finish eighth in 2016 (they finished in a four way tie for 3rd-6th with a 48-34 record and received the fifth seed based on tiebreaks).

This season, my expectations for Boston are higher and hopefully have caught up with the pace of the team's development. Coach Brad Stevens is entering his fourth year at the helm and he has proven to be an excellent NBA coach. The young nucleus of players has matured nicely and has now been joined by Al Horford, a four-time All Star with the Atlanta Hawks.

The Celtics were a well balanced team even before adding Horford, who is an excellent all-around player; last season they ranked fifth in scoring (105.7 ppg), sixth in rebounding (44.9 rpg) and seventh in defensive field goal percentage (.441). Their main weakness last season was shooting: they ranked 24th in overall field goal percentage (.439) and 28th in three point field goal percentage (.335). The Celtics did not do anything to address that weakness.

The Celtics will likely win more than 50 games this season and if everything breaks right they could even have the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference--but I am not convinced that they have enough experience and enough shooting to beat the Cavaliers in a seven game playoff series. The formula to beat a LeBron James-led team is (1) have a strong/athletic wing player who is willing and able to hound James defensively, (2) pack the paint with big guys to discourage James from driving, (3) concede long two-point jumpers to James (and hope that he settles for those shots) and (4) utilize an offensive system that spreads the court with quick passes/deft outside shooting, thus minimizing James' ability to impact the game defensively as a roving help defender.

The Celtics look like a team that is going to have a wonderful regular season and be touted as a threat to the Cavaliers only to get defeated decisively if they actually face Cleveland in the playoffs.

4) Detroit Pistons: The Pistons have been on the rise since they replaced the Rodney Stuckey-obsessed Joe Dumars with Stan Van Gundy; few people can capably handle the dual role of executive/coach but Van Gundy has done an excellent job of rebuilding the roster and of developing players after he acquires them. Dumars deserves credit for putting together Detroit's 2004 championship team and for cultivating the sustained excellence that resulted in six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals (2003-08) but the end of his tenure was disastrous: five straight seasons of 30 wins or less.

The Pistons went 32-50 in Van Gundy's first season with the team and then jumped to 44-38 last year, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09 and posting their best record since 2007-08. They could reach the 50 win mark this season and they will have at least a puncher's chance in the playoffs against any Eastern Conference team other than the Cavaliers.

5) Atlanta Hawks: Is Dwight Howard a declining and/or disinterested player or will his game be revived now that he does not have to deal with James Harden's ball dominant play on offense and Shaqtin' A Fool caliber defense? I don't expect Howard to ever be an MVP caliber player again but it was his forceful play in the paint at both ends of the court that powered Houston's run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, regardless of what Harden's media supporters say. Howard can be an effective offensive player on screen/roll actions and with occasional post up opportunities and he is still a strong presence as a rebounder and defender. The Hawks will not win 60 games like they did two seasons ago, nor will they seriously threaten the Cavaliers in the playoffs, but they are a solid squad that should have no problem making their 10th straight postseason appearance.

6) Washington Wizards: New Coach Scott Brooks has a proven track record of developing young players--including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden--and that is his primary task here: develop a roster that is filled with talented young players who have yet to reach their individual or collective potential. I am not expecting miracles but the Wizards only missed the playoffs by three games last season and I believe that Brooks' coaching will be worth at least four or five wins over the course of 82 games.

7) Orlando Magic: Frank Vogel led the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs five times in six years, including back to back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. It did not take long for the Magic to hire him after the Pacers made the puzzling decision to let him go. Vogel will instill a defensive mindset and that will be enough to lift the Magic to the 43-45 win range. The Magic beefed up their soft interior defense by adding Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, two athletic big men who will anchor the back line of Vogel's defense.

8) Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets did not have a great offseason and many pundits expect them to drop from the postseason picture but this is a well-coached, defensive-minded squad and I think that those qualities will enable the Hornets to win just enough games to grab the final playoff spot.

As for the rest of the East, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets will remain the two worst teams. It will take a long time for the 76ers to undo the damage done by Sam Hinkie's foolish tanking. Under Hinkie's misguided direction, the 76ers spent years losing on purpose to gain the right to draft players who cannot stay healthy long enough to prove whether or not they will become significant contributors. The only thing that losing breeds is more losing. I expect that Bryan Colangelo will turn the 76ers around eventually but he has a tough task ahead of him because, as Colangelo put it, Hinkie bred "a culture of losing" and that does not change overnight.

The Nets are not trying to tank but they are just run really, really poorly. After purchasing the team in 2010, Mikhail Prokorov talked big about how he was going to turn the Nets into a championship team within five years but he has found out that the business "techniques" that enabled him to build a fortune as a Russian oligarch do not lead to success in the NBA.

The Khris Middleton injury will be too much for Milwaukee, a non-playoff team last season, to overcome.

The Knicks have a good team on paper--but for five years ago, not now; even if veterans Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah combine with second year budding star Kristaps Porzingis to increase New York's win total by 10 (which is far from certain) the Knicks will still likely miss the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that is steadily becoming stronger and deeper.

The Indiana Pacers replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan, who is a solid coach but not necessarily an upgrade; the Pacers' plan is apparently to play fast, shoot a lot of three pointers and hope that the opposition does not notice that the Pacers are too small to protect the paint. They barely qualified for the playoffs last season with 45 wins and I think that they will decline a bit this year, though perhaps Myles Turner will make a big jump after an impressive rookie season and carry this team to one of the final playoff spots.

The Miami Heat lost Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng while adding no one of consequence. Even if Hassan Whiteside lives up to his new, big contract that will not be nearly enough to get this team into the playoffs.

Like the Knicks, the Chicago Bulls have talent on paper but that talent is either old or mismatched; if everything meshes just right and Dwyane Wade drinks from the Fountain of Youth this is the team that I have picked to miss the playoffs that I think has the best chance of proving me wrong by winning 45 games instead of 35--but I feel comfortable predicting 35 wins (or less).

It would not shock me if Chicago, Indiana and New York beat out the teams that I have picked for 6th-8th and I fully expect teams 6-11 to be closely bunched together but as things stand now I have more questions than answers regarding the Bulls, Pacers and Knicks.


I correctly picked five of the eight 2015-16 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2016 Total: 66/88 (.750)

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:41 AM



At Thursday, October 06, 2016 12:48:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Good preview as always, David. A few of my random thoughts:

* I agree that Toronto will miss Biyombo, and I think it will show a bit more in their win total than you do. I'm expecting them to backslide some, end up around the 4-5 seed.

* Miami is interesting this year, and I wouldn't rule them out for a low playoff spot. They have two major issues they need to find an answer for to achieve that goal, however:

1) Their replacement-level perimeter additions (Babbitt, Ellington, etc.) will need to make open 3s; with Dragic and Whiteside drawing attention in the paint, those shots will be there, but if they can't can them Miami doesn't have enough offense to beat anybody.

2) They probably need to make a trade or a stellar FA find to deepen their frontcourt; Hassan Whiteside is the only above-average NBA player in their bigs rotation right now. Willie Reed may prove a serviceable backup there (I'm a cautious believer) but the PF position is a giant question mark; they survived the absence of Bosh by slotting in the stellar Luol Deng (probably their second best player on balance last season); without him, they're going to face an uphill battle at that position. If Whiteside gets hurt, they're in real trouble (as we saw in the playoffs vs. Toronto).

* I think Washington is going to struggle some this year, but I agree that Brooks is a good developmental coach.

* I think Boston has a puncher's chance against Cleveland, but they probably will need to play Smart a lot more than Thomas to have a real shot as Thomas is mincemeat defensively against a guard like Irving. Crowder is the kind of guy you want lining up against Lebron, who can at least make him work on both ends, and they have Bradley to throw at him in spurts as well. Horford gives them a dependable front court scoring option and a steadying defensive presence, and Stevens is one of the best coaches in the league.

* I'd be surprised if neither Indiana nor New York make the playoffs; Indy is using a style of basketball that usually translates to winning a few extra regular season games, and New York has a decent amount of talent plus the benefit of playing eight games against Philly and Jersey, who may well be the two worst teams in the league.

* I thought Mirza Teletovic was a great pickup for Milwaukee, but I agree that life without Middleton will be tough.

At Thursday, October 06, 2016 10:02:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...


Nice preview writeup... agree with most, since you stated that the last few spots could easily be interchanged with those you believed are on the fringe...

What might be as interesting might be the comment section this year between you and mister nick f, with dragic basically the main playmaker for miami. Actually looking forward to that... pd, i believe your evaluation of dragic is on point and the arguments you present are both logical and reasonable, but mister nick f's passionate arguing and your point by point rebuttals are very entertaining. Kudos to mister nick f also for being a good sport when arguing.

At Friday, October 07, 2016 1:36:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I refrained from bringing up Dragic's projection specifically because I suspect it'll come up plenty as the season goes. I will say that I'll be shocked if his scoring doesn't go up, and I am very curious (as alluded to above) exactly how many wins Bosh/Wade/Deng/Johnson actually were worth to Miami. I expect them to slip this year, though not nearly as much as David does.

Gun to my head, I suspect Dragic will throw up something in the neighborhood of 20-7, give or take two or three points/one assist. His three-point shooting will probably improve from last year (which was an aberrant low for him), though I'm curious to see how the absence of other threat affects his overall FG%.

Honestly, I think if they'd kept Deng they'd have had a real shot at matching or even exceeding last year's win total with a clearer identity and a bit more shooting. As is, I'm not sure where they're getting rebounding/size/interior D outside of Whiteside, and I don't know that Whiteside (or almost anyone) can single-handedly carry a full team's load on those fronts.

On the Dragic v. Wade issue, I'm curious to see how much, if at all, Chicago improves this year. I actually expect them to backslide slightly, as I just don't see Wade/Rondo fitting together well and I don't think taking Butler off-ball is a strong option.

At Friday, October 07, 2016 5:38:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...


Honestly, if we were being fair, for your assertion of dragic's ranking among pg before, i would expect a production in the neighborhood of 25-8-5 for it hold water. He is in a similar situation with westbrook right now, the main playmaker for the team, the only proven veteran perimeter threat who should now have all the shots and opportunities to post that statline with no proven backup to steal playing time nor backcourtmate to have to defer to. I would love to see you proven right, but ih onestly dont see that happening. Nobody even talks about dragic's statline exploding unlike westbrook... my reasons, skillset, endurance, height and physique.
I believe dragic is a very good player (kudos to you for appreciating lesser stars), but i see him at best as the 3rd best player on a championship team, mostly because i see the dog in him, the way he competes and plays, fearless. Alas, he is limited skillset wise (strong left hand finisher only, no postup game, strong lefty passer only), and is not big enough nor strong/explosive enough (unlike curry who has that 1 extraordinary shooting skill to overcome physical disadvantage) to be the best player on a championship team...
My 2 cents only... dont be offended if i dont respond further as i would really really prefer reading david and you go back and forth, as both of you are more knowledgable than i...

At Friday, October 07, 2016 7:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

No worries, Jackson. Reasonable men can differ.

I disagree that Dragic can only finish lefty (though David is fond of saying so). He's certainly better lefty, but he drives and finishes both ways, and is arguably the best finisher at the rim of any guard in the league (Curry converted a slightly higher percentage at the rim last season, but had a lot more space to operate and got a lot more uncontested looks).

I've stated before, but will reiterate here, that one of Dragic's most valuable assets isn't captured by his individual statlines; he tends to the bring the best out of his teammates, and most guys who play with him do much better than without. Don't be surprised if Babbitt/Ellington/Johnson all see their FG%s and/or scoring spike now that they're playing with him.

I would not, presently, take Dragic over Westbrook (though I think he's a bit better of a defender, and a much more efficient shooter, Westbrook's a superior athlete, passer, and rebounder). I wouldn't take him over Curry or Wall, either. I wouldn't take him over Paul on Paul's best night, but I might over the course of a season given Paul's age/vulnerability to fatigue. I would take him by about a millimeter over Kyle Lowry. I would take him over Irving, Lillard, and any number of other gaudy offensive PGs who put up big numbers on offense but don't bust their ass on the other end.

That being the case, I'd say I rank him as about the 4th-6th best PG in the league. 25-8-5 are borderline MVP numbers*, and Dragic isn't quite at that level. That stat line is probably right around his best-case scenario (mayyyyyybe 25-10, in a super-best case), but he'd need more efficient perimeter shooters around him and a good pick-and-pop partner to get there, all while not giving up much usage. I'm also not sure 5 RPG is realistic for him anyhow, given his play style. Put him in a lineup with, say, JJ Reddick, Klay Thompson, Channing Frye, and Whiteside, he could probably do 25-10. With his current crew, 20-7-3 ish is probably more realistic.

*Assuming some degree of efficiency, defense, and winning to back them up.

At Saturday, October 08, 2016 2:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Valanciunas was the primary big during the regular season when Toronto had the second best record in the East, though of course Biyombo shined in the playoffs after Valanciunas got hurt. Boston might pass Toronto but I would be surprised if Toronto dropped lower than third and, as things stand now, I like Toronto in a seven game series against any East team other than Cleveland.

As currently constructed, Miami is not likely a playoff team. If they make a trade or add a free agent, then they are a different team and I might have to reevaluate.

I probably have higher expectations for Washington than most people. Jared Greenberg and Antonio Daniels of Sirius NBA Radio each picked the Wizards 12th in the East. We'll see. Teams 6-11 will be bunched together, in my opinion, so a lot of this might be decided by one or two injuries to key players. I think that my top eight teams are reasonable choices but there are other reasonable choices as well, particularly after the top three.

I think that the McMillan for Vogel coaching move is a lateral move, at best, and I don't think that Indiana's roster changes improved the team. Again, the Pacers could finish 11th and they could finish 6th but I see them as a 41-41 team that just misses the cut.

Maybe if Jackson coaches the Knicks then the Knicks will make the playoffs (not that Hornacek is bad but Jackson is an all-time great) but I think that Rose and/or Noah will get hurt and Melo never has impressed me as a guy who can carry a team very far, even when he was in his prime. If Rose and Noah play 75 healthy, reasonably productive games then of course the Knicks could be seventh or eighth instead of 10th or 11th.

At Saturday, October 08, 2016 3:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Regarding Dragic, there probably is not that much more to say beyond the extensive coverage he has received in the Comments section of various posts in the past year or two. I don't expect Dragic to average 20-7 this year or to make the All-Star team or to carry the Heat to even the eighth seed--but even if I am right about all three of those predictions, Nick will still contend that Dragic elevated the play of his teammates. I am not sure how to prove or disprove that notion in a way that Nick and I can agree about the conclusion, because we are looking at the same set of facts and interpreting them differently, whether regarding Dragic's career year in Phoenix or his subsequent performance level.

I would be shocked if Dragic averaged 25-8-5 in any system at any time, other than perhaps a Paul Westhead situation with a team averaging 120 ppg and giving up 130 ppg like Westhead's Nuggets did.

My prediction is that Dragic averages 16-18 ppg this season and 5-6 apg for a sub-.500 team. I suspect that his overall FG% will go down because teams will be able to focus on him more in the absence of Wade/JJ/Deng. I am not sure what will happen to Dragic's 3FG%.

I definitely do not have Dragic in the top 4-6 pgs in the league.

When the Heat gave Dragic a big contract, Nick, you suggested that this was an indication that Riley views Dragic as an elite pg. If that is the case, then what are we to make of the big contract Riley gave to Tyler Johnson at the expense of retaining Dwyane Wade? In two years, Johnson will be making more than Dragic. Does that mean that Riley envisions Johnson being the starting pg in two years?

I think that contract size often has more to do with salary cap considerations, which other players are available and similar factors, as opposed to being a literal ranking of players. Riley offered Dragic what he needed to offer him to keep him under contract for the period of time that Riley is willing to commit to having Dragic take up cap space. When Dragic becomes a free agent, he may be worth more or less, depending on his performance and the evolution of the salary cap.

Memphis made Mike Conley the second highest paid player in the entire league but no one really believes that Conley is even a top 10 player, much less the second best player in the NBA. Conley might not even be a top 10 pg, let alone a top 10 player.

At Saturday, October 08, 2016 8:22:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

I agree that Harden has flaws. But I still do consider him the best shooting guard in the leauge. Put Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler ect in place of Harden and I don't believe they will make the playoffs. Houston most likely will be a playoff this year based on Harden being on the team.

All NBA teams for the most part have credibility. But sometimes they hold no merit. All NBA team awards are not always given to the top five players in the league or one of the best players in the league. But players who have had the best season that year.

Deandre Jordan was first team all NBA last season. Do you believe he's really one of the the top five best players in the league? Or even one of the top 15?

At Saturday, October 08, 2016 10:25:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

I'm sorry. My above comment I meant to put in the Western Conference preview Article. This my mistake.

At Sunday, October 09, 2016 5:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


What do you think that Harden does better and/or more efficiently than Thompson or Butler?
Thompson and Butler are both better defenders than Harden. Harden may be a more creative passer but he is also a turnover machine whose overdribbling is not a plus. If Thompson was in a system that enabled him to have the same number of shot attempts as Harden he would likely score even more points than Harden does. Butler is not as good of a long range shooter as Harden or Thompson but he is a more efficient scorer than Harden.

As a number one option, Harden is just a variation on the Marbury/Arenas/Melo school of put up a lot of individual numbers while playing for teams that never do anything of consequence. Harden could be a good third option for a championship contender but--like Marbury/Arenas/Melo--his ego won't permit him to do that. When Marbury was drafted, Flip Saunders told him that Marbury and KG could be the next Stockton/Malone. Marbury replied, "I don't want to be Stockton." Harden has that exact same mindset.

Jordan is a arguably a top three center in this era that features a shortage of true big men and it is on that basis that he made the All-NBA Team. Jordan is not necessarily a top 15 player overall, because there might be 10 guards who are more valuable than he is--particularly considering how the game is played now--but the All-NBA Team is selected by position (at least in theory; sometimes the voters lose the thread a bit, as I have noted in past years).

At Monday, October 10, 2016 2:30:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I'll save most of my "arguing about Dragic" energy for later in the season, but it's interesting that at least statistically, David and I expect a pretty similar performance. David's got him at 16-18 and 5-6, I have him at 20-7. Had I done mine as an equivalent range, it'd have been probably 19-21 and 6.5-7.5. I expect him to be about 1-3 points and 1-2 assists better than David does (though I have a bit more faith in his FG% given that it was just fine when he was the primary option in PHX).

David's got a stronger expectation of MIA being sub .500 than I do; with their current roster I'd say .500 is about right, but I suspect their roster to change pretty dramatically when Bosh's salary comes off the books in February. I don't think their being sub .500 is necessarily damning, though; the team has only two true, NBA-level starters (three if you're bullish on Winslow), it'd be difficult for almost any PG (except perhaps Curry) to drag them as-constructed much above .500, at least barring improvement from their role player (which, given Dragic's track record, is at least semi-likely but by no means guaranteed).

Ultimately, I think it's less that David and I disagree a lot on Dragic- though we certainly do disagree, particularly re: his impact on his teammates- and more that we disagree about the glut of point guards I rate behind him; the Irving/Lillard/Parkers of the world.

At Tuesday, October 11, 2016 2:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My best case scenario for Dragic aligns with your worst case scenario for Dragic but perhaps you are right that our disagreement is less about what Dragic can do and more about how to rank him among pgs. I definitely do not rank him as highly as you do.

I would be surprised if Miami makes the playoffs without either adding talent and/or something negative happening to the teams that I picked at 4-8, whether that would be injuries or chemistry problems, etc.

Perhaps our biggest disagreement regarding Dragic is how much credit he deserves for making his teammates better. As we have discussed at length, I believe that what you consider to be improvements directly caused by Dragic can be better explained by citing other factors. If Whiteside emerges as an All-Star this season you will almost certainly say that Dragic played a major role, while I may or may not believe that to be the case.

At Tuesday, October 11, 2016 10:33:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I think Whiteside's pretty likely to be an All-Star even if Dragic goes down with an ACL injury in game 1, given his eye-popping stats and the relative dearth of great centers in the league (nevermind the East) right now.

That said, if his shooting percentages go up, if his offensive production is much better with Dragic on the floor than off it (interesting not so much the case with Whiteside (and basically only Whiteside) last year, as he had stellar PnR chemistry with Wade), if a disproportionate number of his points come off Dragic assists, etc. I probably will give Dragic some credit for that.

Whiteside's performance, though, I am less curious about than Winslow/Johnson/Richardson/Johnson/Babbitt/Williams. If Dragic can get more out of those guys, particularly the newbies, it'll give the Heat a fighting chance to make the playoffs. He was able to turn a bunch of scrubs (none of whom have been much good since) into a cohesive, effective team in '14, so it will be interesting to see if he can do it again.

At Wednesday, October 12, 2016 5:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It will be interesting. If those players improve, though, the question will be how much of the improvement is organic (young players tend to improve as they approach their primes) and/or due to the presumably faster pace Miami will play this season as opposed to being specifically and directly linked to Dragic. You and I don't seem able to agree about how to answer that question regarding Dragic, so I suspect we will have differing interpretations of the same set of facts.

At Wednesday, October 12, 2016 5:39:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Eh, most of the "newbies" I was referring to aren't that young.

Ellington is 28, and already spent several years on some pretty up-tempo Minny and LA teams.

James Johnson is 28, and already played a year on an uptempo Sac team.

Williams is 25, entering his 7th year in the league, and has pretty much exclusively played uptempo.

Babbitt is 27, though he's never played on an especially fast team.

Waiters is also in his 7th year, about to turn 25, and played for some pretty fast OKC teams with an elite passer setting him up.

I don't know when the consensus "peak" age is for NBA role players, but I would assume it's right around there. Athleticism hasn't started to much decline yet, but they have the experience to (hopefully) not make dumb rookie mistakes.

Tyler Johnson/Richardson/Winslow are younger, and naturally probably do have some upside still coming their way, but it's worth nothing that all those young guys who had great years in PHX in '14 have yet to replicate that production elsewhere. It will similarly be interesting to see what Deng/Wade/Johnson's numbers- particularly where efficiency is concerned- do this year. I would be surprised to see any of them have a better year this year than they did last year.

Isiah Thomas is thus far pretty much only the Dragic teammate to meaningfully improve his performance post-Dragic, and they play the same position.

Bringing it back around, there's no guarantee these guys will improve this year, but if they do, yeah, I'll probably give some credit to Dragic (barring mitigating context). Whether you do or not is up to you, but the longer that list of "Guys who played better with Dragic" gets the less likely it is to be a coincidence.

Out of curiosity, what would it take in terms of wins, teammate performance, or individual numbers for you to revise your appraisal of Dragic?

At Wednesday, October 12, 2016 7:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't want to revisit the whole discussion that we have had previously. You assert that several Suns' players had career years in the 2014 season. I am not even sure that I agree with how you are defining career years but, just for the sake of this comment, let's accept that to be an accurate statement.

The top eight players (including Dragic) on the 2014 Suns in mpg were all between 24 and 30 years of age. Even if we accept as correct your assertion that most or all of these players had never to be duplicated career years during that season, this is not such an astonishing development that it could only possibly be because of Dragic's greatness. I would expect most NBA players to have their best season somewhere in their mid-20s up to the age of 30.

Similarly, if a bunch of Heat players in a similar age cohort improve their performances this season that, in and of itself, does not prove Dragic's greatness or somehow compound the alleged evidence that Dragic is the reason for the performances of individual Suns players in 2014.

You believe Dragic to be a top five pg and an All-NBA caliber player provided that he is used correctly. I believe that Dragic is an above average starting pg, a 15 ppg-5 apg guy who can produce a little more than that in an ideal situation but not someone who can be the first or second option on a legit championship contender.

I find it somewhat contradictory for you to rank Dragic among the top five at his position and top 15 in the league and yet state that he can only perform at that level when he is used in a very specific way. Teams tend to be built around such players. Sure, if Dragic were as good as Bob McAdoo or Mark Aguirre or Chris Bosh and he ended up as the third, fourth or fifth option on an all-time great team then it would be expected that his individual statistics would decline--but that has never been Dragic's situation and it certainly is not his situation this year.

What would change my opinion about Dragic? Some combination of the factors listed below:

1) Multiple seasons of 20-plus ppg and/or 7-plus apg, provided that he is not playing in a gimmicky Paul Westhead system where his team scores 120 and gives up 130.

2) Being Miami's first or second best player this season and leading the Heat to a top four seed in the East without a major player acquisition that upgrades the roster (if such an upgrade occurs early enough in the season, then the Heat should be better than top four if Dragic is truly elite).

3) Being demonstrably the reason for the improvement of his teammates' performances. I doubt that you and I will agree about how to measure this but I am looking for something beyond a bunch of guys in their mid-20s improving their stats simply because they are naturally developing as players and because they have bigger roles on the team after the departures of Wade et. al.

What I expect to see from Dragic is a slight bump in his individual numbers and the Heat falling out of the playoff picture because he is not an elite player.

At Wednesday, October 12, 2016 8:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I similarly don't wanna go in the same old circles re: career years, so I'll skip to your three conditions:

1) If he breaks 20ppg this year, that'll be two seasons of it, but I assume you meant consecutively. I think that's doable, pending health/not being taken off-ball again.

2) Top four without a major acquisition is probably unlikely, but I don't think Chris Paul or John Wall or Russell Westbrook would make this a top 4 team without additional help, either, and I rate all of them above Dragic. I expect a major acquisition to be semi-likely in February, but time will tell.

3) This one you seem to have already decided on. So long as you remain unpersuaded by On/Offs, career highs in FG% and/or points, and the eye test, we shall probably never agree on this one.

On a clarifying note, I'm not sure that All-NBA translates necessarily to "top 15." As you are fond of pointing out, "size matters," and were I to rank the top 15 players in the NBA right now I suspect that the majority of them would be forwards (though obviously Curry and a few others would also make the cut). Ranking Dragic presently as the 5th best PG, I do not currently see him an All-NBA player this season (though he certainly was in '14, Curry/Wall have both much improved since, and RWB has improved a little as well; for his part, Dragic has improved as a defender but regressed as a long range shooter). I am not sure if I would consider him a top 5 guard or not; it is difficult to compare across roles/positions and whether I would rather have Dragic's playmaking and finishing or the superior perimeter shooting/defense of, say, Klay Thompson would depend more on the rest of the roster than either player individually (though I concede that Thompson fits naturally into more systems, so perhaps that's the tiebreaker).

I also have always tried to be very clear that I believe Dragic is an elite player only when used correctly, and that he lacks the systemic versatility of, say, Steph Curry, who could play on any team in the league and still be All-NBA level deadly. Dragic is much less effective off-ball, and he is less dangerous in slower, iso-heavy systems. But I do believe that an up-tempo, PnR Dragic is one of the most valuable offensive guards in the league, who scores incredibly efficiently while elevating his teammates' performance (an observation backed up by On/Off and +/- numbers in the stretches where he's been allowed to play that way) and an above average (though by no means elite) defender to boot.

I would say that if (barring any roster additions) he keeps this Heat team north of .500, after losing Bosh, Wade, Deng, and Johnson and adding nothing of anywhere near comparable value, that ought to say something. I would contend that those four players are probably worth a combined eight wins over the flotsam and jetsam Miami has assembled to replace them, but I suppose I could be wrong; I suppose it is possible that Wade (though obviously a very good player in a vacuum) may be a case of addition-by-subtraction as his game was poorly suited to play alongside Dragic's (and vice versa).

At Wednesday, October 12, 2016 11:53:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Do you think you are setting the bar a bit high for Dragic David? If he led Miami to the playoffs with those stats I'd be happy to call him a top 5 pg. If he lead them to top 4 in the east we'd be discussing him with Westbrook surely?

At Thursday, October 13, 2016 10:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It depends how we define "lead."

In my opinion, Dragic's performance last season validated my ranking of him; Dragic individually and the Heat collectively performed pretty much as I had predicted they would.

However, Nick believes that Dragic was the Heat's best player and that when they ran their offense correctly Dragic played at an elite level.

So, if Dragic averages 15-5 and the Heat miss the playoffs, Nick will likely say that the Heat did not use Dragic correctly and I will likely say that Dragic/the Heat met my expectations.

If Dragic averages 18-7 and the Heat make the playoffs, Nick will likely say that this validates his evaluation of Dragic and I will likely say that Dragic is a good pg (which I have always said) who slightly increased his production due to the opportunities created by several players departing.

Nick asked what I need to see to change my opinion of Dragic. My answer, above, is that I need to see higher level production from Dragic that is sustained over a period of time. I think that 2014 was a career year for a good pg, while Nick thinks that Dragic can do that every year in the right situation; basically, I am waiting for evidence that Nick is right.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 12:13:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

If Dragic averages 15-5 and the Heat miss the playoffs, what I say will be dependent on context. Was Dragic the primary ballhandler? What was his usage like? Did he pull his weight on defense? If the answers to that are yes, no, and no, respectively, I'll be the first to admit he's at fault. But if the Heat swing a trade for a ball-dominant wing who eats up his touches, or run some weirdo offense where the PG is primarily offball, or if he and/or Whiteside miss significant time with injury, I'll probably point at those factors.

If Dragic averages 18-7 and the Heat make the playoffs (barring a major acquisition), David will argue he improved his production slightly (very slightly over post-All Star Dragic last year), that it was a function of more opportunity, and he will be partially right. What he will understate/ignore is that the Heat lost four All-Star or former All-Star level players, and four of their best six players overall, and added nothing of consequence; how many games would it cost GSW to lose Thompson, Green, Durant, and Iguodala, even if they kept Curry (and for the purposes of this exercise, Bogut)? How many would it cost SAS if they lost not only Duncan but also Aldridge, Parker, and Ginobili? Cleveland, if they still had Lebron but no Irving, Love, *any two starters here*?

I'm of the opinion that, barring a major roster change, keeping Miami north of .500 in the wake of those departures is a major accomplishment, and the lion's share of credit for that should (probably; things could go differently than I expect if Winslow takes a quantum leap or whatever) go to, in order, Dragic, Spoelstra, and Whiteside.

Now, if Dragic averages, say, 18-7 on 50/38/80, and drags this Heat team to the playoffs without any additions, my question would be: which 5 other PGs could do that? RWB's '15 OKC team got 29 games of KD and still missed the playoffs. Wall's never averaged 20 ppg or broken 46 wins (and his supporting cast is better than this Heat team). Curry could probably do it, and Paul's New Orleans teams were only a little better than this Heat team, but that's about it. Kyrie Irving's Lebron-less record is abysmal. Lillard could *maybe* do it, as he's an offensive dynamo and this Heat team at least has solid defenders at the 5, 3, and 2, but he's never had to win without another 20ppg scorer (which, hey, maybe Whiteside is this year). I like Lowry, but his only success has come on some pretty strong-across-the-board TOR teams.

I'm not necessarily saying Dragic is better than all those guys (I have RWB and Wall both ahead of him, and Lowry in a virtual tie), but I do think David is understating the difficulty of the task pretty dramatically.

David, a hypothetical: if Miami wins 45 games this year (3 less than last season), regardless of seeding, and they don't swing any major trades, with Dragic putting up, say, 19/6... would that make him a top 5 PG in your eyes?

At Friday, October 14, 2016 3:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There is not a set ppg/apg number and/or wins number that would necessarily change my view of Dragic. I am most interested in the overall context. Scottie Pippen once scored four points in an ECF game and he was arguably the best player on the court because of his stifling, full-court pressure defense against Mark Jackson that completely disrupted Indiana's offense. Jason Kidd was an MVP caliber player without putting up gaudy scoring stats.

Regarding Dragic, he puts up solid numbers (15-5 or thereabouts) and I just don't see the impact that you claim to see. If I were coaching against him, I would instruct his man to force him right and if Dragic gets in the lane then we want to make him finish right-handed in traffic over our big man. I am not going to have to design something exotic to stop Dragic and I am not going to have to "tilt" my defense toward him the way that I would have to "tilt" my defense toward prime Kobe or LeBron or Durant or Curry or Westbrook, etc.

Dragic is a solid defender but I would not be concerned that he is going to lock down my pg individually or that his help defense is going to be disruptive a la Pippen, Kobe, LeBron, etc.

I find it interesting that you refer to Miami losing four All-Stars/former All-Stars. I agree that Miami has lost a lot of talent but, if I am not mistaken, you spent most of last season declaring that Wade was overrated and that the other three players are not as good as Dragic, either. So, you can't have it both ways. If the Heat simply lost four players who are not as good as Dragic and then have replaced them with some young role players then this is really a chance for Dragic to prove the validity of your assertions about him by elevating those players' performance and elevating the Heat in the East.

I don't believe that you are serious when you are comparing Wade, JJ, et. al to Golden State's top four players. That comparison is just not valid, in the context of this discussion or in any other foreseeable context.

I think that the players Miami lost are better than you described them to be last year. It is uncertain how well Miami's young players can perform in those roles. I don't believe that Dragic is the kind of player who can make those young players that much better but I do believe that young players naturally progress and that Spoelstra is a good developmental coach, going all the way back to his days as an assistant when he used to work with Wade (I watched firsthand as he worked with Wade during pre-game sessions many years ago).

At Friday, October 14, 2016 3:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Regarding '15 Westbrook, first let's note that he was coming off of a serious injury and he made a remarkable recovery. Second, he led the league in scoring, ranked fourth in assists, ranked second in steals and averaged 7.3 rpg as a point guard. Dragic has not, cannot and will not do any of those things. Third, the Thunder went 40-27 when Westbrook played and 5-10 without him; they tied for the eighth playoff spot in the very strong West but lost out on tiebreaks. Dragic has not come remotely close to playing at the level Westbrook attained that season but Westbrook has proven that he can score, rebound, pass and defend at that level on a consistent basis for a team that has repeatedly advanced to the WCF.

It is also worth noting that last year Portland lost Aldridge and other starters but Lillard led the Trail Blazers to the second round of the playoffs while ranking in the top 10 in scoring and assists. I doubt that any GM in the league would take Dragic over Lillard or that Dragic could have done as well for Portland as Lillard did.

Westbrook, Curry, Lillard and Paul are without question significantly better than Dragic, as are Irving and Lowry. As I've indicated before, Dragic would not make my top 10--nor did he make the top 10 or 15 when NBA GMs/execs were polled on this subject. Dragic is not on any top five pg list that I have seen, other than yours.

All of the pgs listed above are harder to defend against than Dragic and even if Dragic is better defensively than some of them it is not enough to sway the overall value in Dragic's favor. Dragic could not do in the NBA Finals what Irving did, even if Dragic played with LeBron James. Dragic is not a 27 ppg, hit big shots in the clutch guy. If Dragic could score 27 ppg then he would do it or he would be commanding so much defensive attention that one of his teammates would be able to go for big numbers. Those things did not happen during the season or during the playoffs. Dragic averaged 14.1/5.8 during the regular season (when you contend that he was not used properly for the most part) and then he averaged 16.5/3.9 in the playoffs (when Dragic was used the way you believe he should be used). It is interesting that the 2.8 ppg scoring increase in the postseason was accompanied by steep declines in his assist average and his field goal percentage--and it's not like Miami's opponents were running some kind of "Dragic stopper" defensive scheme to contain him.

I know that you will disagree with much of the above and there probably is not much point in continuing to revisit old ground but hopefully this clarifies my take on Dragic compared to the NBA's elite point guards.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 3:59:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Re: Miami

I said, mostly, that Wade and Dragic were not complimentary, that Wade did not make sense for the offense that benefited the rest of the team, and that Wade half-assed his job on defense, all of which were demonstrably true and supported statistically.

I can believe that Dragic is better than Wade/Deng/Bosh/Johnson and still believe that those players are valuable, and worth a few wins; a team is not merely their best player. I certainly believe those four are leagues better than Derrick Williams, Luke Babbitt, James Johnson and Wayne Ellington, who have been brought in to replace them. I do not expect Miami to win 48 games again, but I also do not expect them to lose the amount of games you would expect after four players of that caliber depart without being meaningfully replaced.

"Third, the Thunder went 40-27 when Westbrook played and 5-10 without him; they tied for the eighth playoff spot in the very strong West but lost out on tiebreaks. Dragic has not come remotely close to playing at the level Westbrook attained that season but Westbrook has proven that he can score, rebound, pass and defend at that level on a consistent basis for a team that has repeatedly advanced to the WCF."

Several parts of this are incomplete or inaccurate:

Yes, they went 40-27 with Westbrook. They went 27-8 with Durant, but finished 45-37. Their record without Durant was 13-19. Westbrook, without Durant, went 20-17. Total, OKC won 45 games. You also neglected to mention that Durant also did not play in any of the 15 games Westbrook missed. Historically, when Westbrook is out but Durant is in, OKC does just fine.

Second part, I dispute lauding Westbrook's defense. He has moments of brilliance but is in general a defensive liability. I know you disagree, but there's very little evidence for "Westbrook is a good defender" and quite a bit that he is not.

Finally, you lionize Westbrook's 45 win team while dismissing Dragic's 48 win team (which similarly missed the playoffs by a single game, in an even more competitive West). The difference, of course, is that Dragic's second-banana was a much less complimentary (or talented) player than Durant in Eric Bledsoe (who likewise missed half the season), and his third best (Markieff Morris? Channing Frye?) was no Serge Ibaka, either.

Dragic's Suns went 48-34. 45-31 w/ Dragic, 3-3 without him.

None of this is to say that Dragic is a better player than Westbrook in 2016, but it does make the case that Dragic has demonstrated an ability to win as the best player on his team that Westbrook has not (though both have admittedly only really had one opportunity). He may well do so this year, and I currently rank him ahead of Dragic, but given that my initial claim was that *if* Dragic could lead a nothing team to the playoffs, he would be one of the only guards in the league that could do it; Westbrook had a similar opportunity (with a KD boost, even) and whiffed it.

I listed Lillard as someone who conceivably do it, but I would still take Dragic over him as I'd prefer Dragic's superior defense and efficiency over Lillard's volume scoring and defensive cartoonery.

Your claim that Dragic can be defanged by being forced right is interesting, as it means either:

1) Dragic's 60-70% shooting at the rim is a product of no NBA coaches thinking of this fairly obvious solution.
2) That doesn't actually stop him.

I know which I think is more likely.

Finally and lastly (let's save some energy for the season itself), what does actually stop Dragic (sometimes) is packing the paint and daring his teammates to make open jumpers; both Toronto and Charlotte deployed that strategy against him in the playoffs, and it worked very well about half the time (and failed horribly the other half). With better shooters around him, he becomes very, very difficult to stop. It will be interesting to see if Miami's role players this year can make their shots at the necessary clip.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 6:24:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Oof. My math was way off up there on OKC without Durant. What I get for not using a calculator. They went 27-28 without Durant. 21-18 with Westbrook/no Durant. Basically a 44 win team.

For comparison, Dragic played 76 games in '14, which would compute to 49 over 82 games. And he didn't have anybody as good Ibaka, let alone Durant.

Mea culpa. I'm a basketball fan, not a math guy.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 6:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A few quick points, then I am done with this subject until we have seen a month or two of regular season play with Dragic averaging 16-18/5-6 for a team struggling to stay above .500:

1) Nothing that I stated about Westbrook is "inaccurate." However, as you just noted, you listed the wrong W-L record for OKC with Durant in '15: it was 18-9. Also, the 27-28 without Durant mark includes 3-10 when Westbrook was out with a broken hand; OKC played at a 47-49 win pace with Westbrook/sans Durant (see next two points).

2) What killed OKC that season was a 5-12 start. Durant missed all of those games, while Westbrook only played in game one plus eight minutes of game two before breaking his hand.

3) Durant missed the final 27 games of the season and OKC went 16-11 during those games, which is a 49-33 pace for an 82 game season. That 27 games is a small sample and I am not about to go through it to look at opponents, home/road splits, etc. but it is certainly reasonable to say that if Westbrook had been healthy the whole season then the Thunder would have made the playoffs even if Durant had missed the whole season.

It is indisputable that Westbrook played at a historically great level, particularly during the second half of the season. I am not "lionizing" that Thunder team but I appreciate and respect how exceptionally well Westbrook played, particularly since he was coming off of a serious knee injury AND he played most of the season with a broken hand that was mending.

4) As for the 2014 Suns, let's keep in mind (1) this was Dragic's career year yet his ppg-apg-rpg numbers would be subpar for Westbrook/Curry/Paul/Irving/Lillard and (2) the Suns went 28-15 when Bledsoe played but just 20-19 without Bledsoe. Bledsoe has been at least a 17-6 player the last three seasons (though he always gets hurt, so he has missed a lot of games during that time), while Dragic's 2014 performance is an outlier even when just considering his four seasons as a full-time starter.

The 2014 Suns played a quirky style, they caught some teams by surprise and some guys (including Dragic) had career years or close to career years. This was not a formula that could be sustained or duplicated and the Suns realized that, which is why they did not build their team around Dragic moving forward. Dragic was perhaps the best pg Riley could get at the time and Riley still thought that with two of the Big Three plus some other solid players that perhaps Miami could contend if Dragic could be a solid starting pg. I don't interpret the contract that Riley gave Dragic to be a way to rank Dragic among the league's pgs, any more than I would interpret Mike Conley's contract or Tyler Johnson's contract that way.

5) Whatever Dragic shoots at the rim, he consistently averages about 15-5 and he does not distort defenses in a way that enables someone else on his team to just go off. He is not getting to the rim often enough that coaches are going to worry that Dragic is shooting 60 or 70% on a couple layups per game.

There really is no reason or excuse for Dragic to not have a career season if your evaluation of him is correct: the Heat have lost a lot of talented players and without Wade around there is no reason that the Heat cannot play at Dragic's preferred pace with Dragic controlling the ball. As Jackson said, if Dragic is as good as you think then he really should average 25-8 this season--but even you are not predicting that and with good reason.

6) I think that the Heat lost about 20 wins with the various departures and that they will "gain" 8-10 wins with Whiteside's improvement, the growth of other players and whatever value the veteran acquisitions supply. So, that works out to something like 35 wins. As I have said before, if everything clicks for Miami (or any of the teams that will be bunched together in spots 5-11) then the Heat could sneak into the playoffs but at this point I think Miami is closer to 10-11 than 7-8-9.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 8:34:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

"OKC played at a 47-49 win pace with Westbrook/sans Durant"

I apologize if I've gotten the math wrong again, but I ran the numbers on that and it came out at 44 (or 44.153 yadda yadda).

"the Suns went 28-15 when Bledsoe played but just 20-19 without Bledsoe"

That makes sense. He was the only other guy on the team who'd be considered above average (and indeed, one of the only ones still with a starting gig) on that team. Given that he was not as good as the third best OKC player, let alone Durant, I'm not sure what that proves. Dragic went a little over .500 with a team starting Gerald Green, PJ Tucker, Channing Frye, & Miles Plumlee. Frye is an excellent shooter and Green is an above average athlete, but none of those guys would have started for any playoff team last season (Frye, PHX's 3rd best guy, could hardly get on the floor in Cleveland). Westbrook, meanwhile, had success with Ibaka (an All-Defensive player) and Steven Adams (probably one of the seven best players at his position in the league). Not exactly apples to apples. Dragic/Green/Tucker/Frye/Plumlee cut a 42 win pace while Westbrook/Roberson/Singler/Ibaka/Adams cut 44. I'd say Roberson/Singler/Ibaka/Adams are probably worth 2 games over Green/Tucker/Frye/Plumlee, though PHX probably had a bit better of a bench that year.

"The 2014 Suns played a quirky style"

Kind of? They played a high but far from league-leading tempo; the only really weird thing they did was play two PGs, which helped or hurt them depending on the matchup (especially since Bledsoe couldn't reliably make 3s yet). In the era of Pace-and-Space, they were a pretty standard guard-driven team, though, similar to last year's Portland outfit.

"the Heat could sneak into the playoffs but at this point I think Miami is closer to 10-11 than 7-8-9."

As stated way above, I'm undecided. I think their ultimate record has more to do with 1) whether or not their shooters can open shots, and 2) whether or not they find a starter-caliber player at PF/any frontcourt depth. If they manage to do both, I see them in the 44-48 range. If they do neither, probably in the high 30s. If they do just one, probably just barely north of .500.

But I do expect to see Dragic's numbers go up (15-5 would definitely be a failure, barring something super weird), and I expect to see all these role players who've previously stunk suddenly seem more offensively viable with him setting them up. You will chalk that up to "growth" I suspect, even among those who are 28/7 years in, but it will be quite a coincidence if they all experience that growth simultaneously.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 8:44:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

This one got long and deserves its own post. Your dismissal of Dragic's scoring at the rim is... odd.

"He is not getting to the rim often enough that coaches are going to worry that Dragic is shooting 60 or 70% on a couple layups per game."

In '14, only Rose, Westbrook, and MCW (who did not make many) among starting PGs took more FGA at the rim per game than Dragic. It is worth nothing that Dragic led all starting PGS in FGM at the rim, and did so as his team's primary option and the opponent's primary mark while shooting 66.5% on them.

In '15, only Westbrook and Jackson took more, and only Westbrook made more (though Dragic made 0.7 fewer on 3 fewer attempts). Would you rather have 9.2 pts on 8.6 attempts or 7.8 pts on 5.7 attempts? A league-average shot was worth about a point that year, so the math is pretty easy.

In '16, Dragic was 11th among starting PGs in attempts (as his usage dropped to accommodate Wade, and teams, despite David's claims above, packed the paint to stop him by ignoring Wade/Winslow). He was 5th in makes and 2nd in % (behind Curry).

Post All-Star, once Spo sobered up & bumped up Dragic's role, he was 6th in attempts and tied with Westbrook for 3rd in makes. Curry and Thomas were ahead in makes, but Thomas made .6 more (about 1 ppg), but took 2.4 more attempts to get there. Curry took .4 more per game, but converted .1 more per game (about 1 extra point on 2 extra attempts over 5 games) as Dragic once again led all PGs in the league in %. Among all starting guards, only Andrew Wiggins converted at a higher rate over that span (by 0.2%). Westbrook made the exact same amount as Goran over that span, but missed 1.2 more per game, and shot 11.4% lower on them.

Over the last 3 years Dragic's been 1st, 2nd, and 6th (3rd post All-Star) in FGM at the rim among PGs, while being 1st (66.5%), 1st (68.2%) and 2nd (63%) (1st, 67.1% post-AS) in FG%. A Goran paint attempt returns about as many points per shot as a three from a 44% 3pt shooter (and teams DEFINITELY try to stop those).

Last year, in terms of players that both shot more at the rim and converted at a higher rate, there were 17. 15 were Cs or PFs, the other two were Lebron and Butler. Post AS, only 5 (only non-bigs: Lebron and Wiggins). In 2015, only 5: Lebron, Davis, Whiteside, & Jordan (all at least 6'9). In 2014 only 6 (Wade & Lebron only non-bigs).

If teams aren't trying to stop him at the rim, they're pretty dumb, since he's probably the best guard in the league at scoring there. Really, it's the number one way to stop him, since his jump shot was unreliable last year.

I'd argue coaches probably do care about denying that, it's just hard. As mentioned above, there's a way to do it, but it doesn't work when he has shooters around (which is why the '14 numbers are his best; PHX didn't have a ton of versatility, but it had shooters).

Bonus round:

"I think that the Heat lost about 20 wins with the various departures and that they will "gain" 8-10 wins with Whiteside's improvement, the growth of other players and whatever value the veteran acquisitions supply."

Can they really be both "veteran acquisitions" and "young players improving as they approach their prime?" I suspect Whiteside's RPG and BPG to stay about where they are, his scoring to go up, and hopefully his defensive fundamentals to improve. I agree that they probably lost about 20 wins worth, but given that they acquired no starter-caliber players (except arguably Waiters, I guess) I'd say they "gain" about 3 wins from Whiteside's improvement (his extra scoring will not makes up for the 50ish PPG they lost) and anything else is a product of Dragic, Spoelstra, and possibly improvement from Winslow/Richardson/TJohnson.

At Friday, October 14, 2016 11:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I indicated above, no further points from me, but I will clarify some of the numbers I cited:

Durant missed 55 games, with Westbrook missing 13 of those (3-10 record). Subtract the 3-10 record from the 27-28 record without Durant and you get 24-18, which equates to 47 wins in 82 games. If you just look at the final 27 games sans Durant (when Durant was officially shut down and OKC could plan for sure that he was not coming back), OKC went 16-11 (49 win pace) or 15-11 if you want to leave out the one game in that span that Westbrook missed (47 win pace). That is my basis for saying that OKC was on a 47-49 win pace if Westbrook had played the whole season and if Durant had missed the whole season. Keep in mind that Westbrook was coming off of a major knee injury and that he played most of the season with a broken hand. If Westbrook had been fully healthy from start to finish (i.e., no major injuries but just the normal wear and tear of the season) it is plausible that he would have led that group to more than 50 wins.

Anyway, regardless of what we say about the supporting casts or games missed due to injury, Westbrook was individually dominant in a way that few point guards have ever been, winning a scoring title while ranking in the top five in assists and grabbing over 7 rebounds per game. That is much more impressive than Dragic putting up 20-5: 28-8-7 beats 20-6-3. Dragic made All-NBA Third Team in 2014, while Westbrook made Second Team in 2015 (and he should have been First Team, but the voters--perhaps using Westbrook's 15 games missed as an excuse--put Harden on the First Team, a choice I am sure that we agree was mistaken).

At Friday, October 14, 2016 11:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


This is what I originally wrote about how to guard Dragic: "I would instruct his man to force him right and if Dragic gets in the lane then we want to make him finish right-handed in traffic over our big man. I am not going to have to design something exotic to stop Dragic and I am not going to have to 'tilt' my defense toward him the way that I would have to 'tilt' my defense toward prime Kobe or LeBron or Durant or Curry or Westbrook, etc."

I never said that Dragic is a poor finisher or that I dismiss the value of his finishes in the paint. I suggested that he should be forced right and IF he gets in the lane then he should be forced to use his right hand. I stand by this being the best way to defend Dragic. If Dragic is an unstoppable driver, as you seem to believe, I would suggest that he and Spoelstra utilize these capabilities to the tune of 25-8 this season, which would still not match Westbrook's best seasons but would to some extent begin to validate your faith in Dragic's alleged prowess.

I was using shorthand terms to describe Miami's new roster. To clarify, James Johnson, Babbitt and Ellington are "veteran acquisitions." I don't necessarily expect them to "improve" their skill sets but their numbers could go up because their roles may increase.

Tyler Johnson, Whiteside and Winslow are young, improving players. I expect their skill sets to continue to develop and mature. If they play markedly better this year than last year I would be disinclined to attribute this to Dragic in the absence of some very compelling evidence to the contrary. Based on age, potential and salary cap numbers, it would not shock me if Tyler Johnson is the starting pg in a couple years, while Dragic is dealt for other assets. Dragic has peaked and he is not elite, while Johnson could become as good as Dragic is now, which would make Dragic an expensive backup down the line.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 1:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

First the long one, then the shorter ones. Been a while since I got to do these deep stat-dives, feels good to be back :)

"28-8-7 beats 20-6-3" Devoid of other context, absolutely. However, 7.6 extra shots to generate 7.8 extra points is not a great return for a star player (a league average player would score a little over 7.8 on 7.6, in fact), and 1.6 TOs translates to (on average) around 4 opposing points as well (technically a little bit more, but I don't have the exact figure so let's give him the benefit of the doubt here). Then comes the question of defense, where I know we disagree. This article posits that Russ cost OKC 31 defensive pts vs the Spurs in a playoff game: http://www.welcometoloudcity.com/2016/5/7/11614470/russell-westbrook-defense-playoffs-game-three

Despite being a pro-Thunder blog, let's allow that 1) that blog is overly harsh on RWB's defense, 2) SA is a way above average offensive team, and 3) RWB tries just as hard on D in the regular season. So let's say in an average game RWB's shoddy defense/lazy getting back/biting on every fake costs his team only half that (15.5). Note that that article blames him only for blown rotations/not-getting back/lack of effort, not for well-defended shots that happened to go in. Let's say Dragic, despite being above average defensively, costs his team, say, 6 PPG on defensive miscues by the same standard (his #s from last season suggest it's less than that, but he was not as good a defender in '14).

Net points, then, are 12.5 (RWB) to 14 (GD), although RWB took over 7 shots more to get there. He gets 4 more rebounds per game (about 4 points worth), but also creates about 7 more (about 5.5 points for the opposition worth assuming a 20% ORB rate for OKC). Another net -3.

His 2 extra assists are mostly (but not entirely) set off by his extra 1.6 TOs. Let's say he comes out roughly 1 pt ahead there.

So, net impact? Valuing a rebound as one point and assist as two (and a TO as about 2), RWB ends up with a hypothetical net impact 12.5 (Pts- DefensiveCost) -2.7 (REB- 80% MFGA) + 8.4 (Assistsx2- TOsx2) = 18.2

Dragic nets: 14 (Pts- DefensiveCost) -2.6 (REB - 80%MFGA) + 14.2 (Assistsx2 -TOsx2)= 25.6

Now, that formula is FAR from perfect (among other things, it ignore steals, blocks, and drawing/committing fouls) , but it makes the point that there's a lot more to a box score than Pts/Rbs/Ass, and judging players off just those stats is missing an awful lot of what counts.

In a related story, OKC was about 1.4 PP100 better with RWB that year than without him. PHX was about 9.4 PP100 better with Dragic. OKC was 2 pts worse defensively with RWB on the floor, while PHX was almost 4 points better defensively when Dragic played.

+- has them a bit closer (Dragic at +4, RWB at +3.7)... though if you filter it to post-AS, when Durant didn't play, RWB's drops a bit to 3.3 (you'd think it'd go up, but... turns out his brand of offense is more good for him than it is for the team).

Basically, David is of the opinion that RWB's '15 was awesome because BIG NUMBERS. He is ambivalent to RWB's awful D that season, and to his high TOs and low FG%. I think Dragic's '14 is awesome despite the lower numbers, because it cost his team less (and because they won more games with less help), and because basically his entire team had career years (and have regressed since). Despite what the above numbers would suggest, I'm not taking one season over the other; I actually think they're pretty close, and I'd probably take '16 RWB over either of them (as he actually played decent D that year until about February).

But... that Dragic season is just as impressive in its way, and there's a reason I rate him as highly as I do, and a reason his team out-performed RWB's despite no Durant/Ibaka/Adams (also, RWB's backup for 50 games was Reggie Jackson, who would arguably have been PHX's second best player).

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 1:51:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

"Durant missed 55 games, with Westbrook missing 13 of those (3-10 record)."

You are mistaken. Westbrook missed 15 of those (5-10 record). That is why we got different results. 22-18. A 45 win pace (I was also wrong, as I miscalculated by a digit).

"This is what I originally wrote about how to guard Dragic: "I would instruct his man to force him right and if Dragic gets in the lane then we want to make him finish right-handed in traffic over our big man. I am not going to have to design something exotic to stop Dragic and I am not going to have to 'tilt' my defense toward him the way that I would have to 'tilt' my defense toward prime Kobe or LeBron or Durant or Curry or Westbrook, etc.""

There's a pretty big difference between those first four guys and RWB, but sure. My issue was that later you claimed that "He is not getting to the rim often enough that coaches are going to worry that Dragic is shooting 60 or 70% on a couple layups per game."

Why wouldn't they worry about him getting to the rim? He does it more effectively than basically any other guard these days, and more often.

"he does not distort defenses in a way that enables someone else on his team to just go off. "

I mean, basically everyone who's played with him the last three years except a few shot-creating All-Stars (Wade, Bosh, Thomas) had their best games & seasons of at least a few year span, if not their entire careers, playing with him, but sure. Deng you have to bend the #s a bit to when Dragic had the ball (post-AS), but then it scans for him, too.How many 40 pt games has Gerald Green had without Goran? How many wins have Frye/Tucker/Plumlee started for since he left? Isn't it odd that Joe Johnson's FG% jumped by 12 as soon as he got traded to Dragic's team? Why is it Markieff hasn't been able to figure it out since? Is it a little weird that even in a system pointedly designed to create open 3s, Marcus still can't hit at the same clip? Etc. Etc. Old argument, I know, but I still feel pretty damn right about it.

"I don't necessarily expect them to "improve" their skill sets but their numbers could go up because their roles may increase."

I bet you at least a few of their FG%s go up, too, which is usually the opposite of what happens with more shots.

"Dragic has peaked and he is not elite, while Johnson could become as good as Dragic is now, which would make Dragic an expensive backup down the line."

There are parts of this I disagree with, but given that Dragic is a white guy with a game predicated on speed who's nearing the end of his prime years, the clock is certainly ticking. It's conceivable he could be demoted to backup in 3-4 years if Johnson blossoms into a star... though I so far haven't seen the ball handling or court-vision chops of a PG from Johnson, and I think his best destiny is more likely as a super-sixth man combo guard.

That said, I wouldn't be shocked to see Johnson included in some kind of package for a PF around the deadline when Bosh's contract evaporates. Of their young guys, he's probably the one they'd most like to move.

"I suggested that he should be forced right and IF he gets in the lane then he should be forced to use his right hand. I stand by this being the best way to defend Dragic."

You are welcome to that opinion, but so far it hasn't really worked out for anyone. The one thing that seems to work (besides his coach sticking him in the corner for some reason) is packing the paint and making him shoot over you/pass around the perimeter. Might work against this Miami team, too, unless Waiters & Co can hit quick threes.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 2:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't agree that Westbrook's defense was "consistently awful" in 2015. Westbrook received significant All-Defensive Team consideration that year (13 First Team votes, but John Wall made the Second Team over him despite receiving only seven First Team votes because Wall received more votes overall). All-Defensive Team voting is not the be all and end all (particularly since it is voted on now by the media, not the coaches) but I don't think that "awful" defenders receive that much consideration.

Your formula for equating Dragic's '14 productivity with Westbrook's '15 productivity is very creative but of course the valuations are subjective.

If Dragic is as good as you say, then at some point an intelligent, championship level coach like Spoelstra will use him as you recommend he be used and Dragic will not just have some mystical alleged effect on his teammates but he actually will produce elite level numbers. Or, none of that will happen and I will remain unconvinced that Dragic is as good as you suggest that he is.

I have not broken down Dragic's field goals by area as you have but, whatever Dragic is doing, the end result is 15-5 (except for the outlier year). That is why I don't think that coaches are overly concerned about him. I did not say and certainly did not mean that coaches don't care if Dragic makes layups. Again, my point is that if I were coaching against Dragic I would want to force him right, try to keep him out of the paint and try to make him finish with his right hand if he gets in the paint.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 2:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, somewhere in my responses I conflated the 13 games Westbrook missed during the 5-12 start with the 15 games he missed overall.

The larger point is that, unlike Dragic in '14, Westbrook in '15 missed a lot of games and that is the biggest reason that OKC '15 finished with a worse record than PHX '14.

Ibaka missed significant time in '15 and Adams was not as good then as he is now. As a young player, he has developed and will continue to develop, the same way that I expect Dragic's young Miami teammates to develop.

This is an interesting conversation and you stick to your convictions but I think that you get so wrapped up in certain statistical details that you miss the larger picture: Dragic does not put up "big" numbers, '14 PHX is the only team that used him as a consistent number one option (and management quickly figured out that this was not a recipe for long-term success) and--contrary to your expectations prior to last season--Miami did not just turn him loose as an indication that Riley believes Dragic to be a superstar. You were sure that leaving foolish PHX for Miami would unleash '14 Dragic but that was not the case at all, as I correctly predicted in our discussions prior to last season.

I don't blindly follow conventional wisdom and in fact I often attack it, as I have done regarding Arenas, Marbury, Melo, Harden (players who I don't think are as good as conventional wisdom suggests) and Erving, Pippen, Bryant (players who I think are better than conventional wisdom suggests) but the fact that Dragic receives no All-Star consideration, only one year of All-NBA consideration and was not ranked among the top 10-15 at his own position in a poll of NBA execs must mean something. Why does no one but you think that Dragic is a star, including several coaches of his from multiple franchises?

I am bucking conventional wisdom about Harden big-time but I have made predictions about Harden that have come true: I predicted that his scoring would go up while his FG% went down, I predicted that he would flame-out individually in the postseason and that his team would consistently lose in the first round. The accuracy of those predictions validates my stance on Harden, even if his high scoring average impresses some people the same way that Arenas, Marbury and Melo have impressed (fooled) some people.

In contrast, you have yet to make an accurate prediction about Dragic that can be measured. You thought that he would be the best player (or second to Bosh, perhaps) on a Miami team that challenged Cleveland for East supremacy. Bosh's injury/health problem is obviously something that you could not predict or control but after Bosh went down Dragic did not go nuts and start rattling off triple doubles like Westbrook did in '15.

Then, in the playoffs, even after Miami had changed its offense somewhat to better suit Dragic, he had one double figure assist game in 14 postseason contests. He had four assists or fewer in 12 of Miami's playoff games. I am the first person to admit that assists do not tell the whole story of shot creation/playmaking ability but the eye test also does not tell me that Dragic creates nearly as much offense as you say that he does.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 2:58:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


In conclusion, Dragic is quick, Dragic is a great finisher--but in 14 playoff games during which the Heat desperately needed points with Bosh out of the lineup, Dragic had one 30 point game and just three others of at least 20 points. He had 15 points or fewer in eight games. In six of those eight games he had at least 13 FGA but he still could not score at a big time level because he shot poorly and he could barely get to the free throw line at all (he never attempted more than six free throws in a playoff game last season and in two playoff games this supposedly unstoppable driver did not attempt even one free throw, which I consider to be pretty convincing evidence that teams do in fact defend his drives the way that I suggested: force him right, contest his shots and don't foul, because he is not really the driving threat that you say he is, regardless of the stats you choose to highlight).

If Dragic is as good as you say, then either he lacks the killer instinct to play to his potential--particularly in the playoffs--or the Miami coaching staff (which relies a lot on analytics) either does not know about the stats you cite or else believes that those stats don't mean what you think they mean in terms of Dragic's ability to have a meaningful effect on the game.

More concisely, I don't care about Dragic's shooting percentage in the paint or how many paint points per game he scores if at the end of the day he is going to finish with 15 points and five assists. Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan have great field goal percentages and their field goal percentages in the paint are off the charts but that does not mean that they are great offensive weapons. Dragic is of course a better, more versatile offensive player than those two but he is limited in ways that you will never see if you continue to believe that certain stats in isolation tell the whole story when the big picture conveys a different story.

Blind faith in numbers without using the eye test and without considering skill set strengths/weaknesses has led to Philly's current predicament and has led to Morey calling Harden a "foundational player" prior to Harden authoring three first round exits in four years.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 10:35:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

"I don't agree that Westbrook's defense was "consistently awful" in 2015. "

As I anticipated. That said, I watched a lot of OKC that year, and there's a reason the On/Offs show that team as stronger defensively in his absence, even though he played most of his minutes with Adams and/or Ibaka. I am not moved by All-Defensive votes the way you are, as those teams often seem to reward the players with the best defensive statistics (and RWB is an excellent rebounder who gets steals) over the players who actually play solid, fundamental, un-flashy defense.

"If Dragic is as good as you say, then at some point an intelligent, championship level coach like Spoelstra will use him as you recommend he be used and Dragic will not just have some mystical alleged effect on his teammates but he actually will produce elite level numbers."

You and I define elite level numbers differently, but it seems likely that Spo will up his usage and pace this season. I will be more interested in their win total (and to a lesser extent, his On/Offs, +-, and how his teammates do with/without him) than his individual points or assists, though.

"You were sure that leaving foolish PHX for Miami would unleash '14 Dragic but that was not the case at all,"

I mean, once they gave him the keys at the AS break pretty much what I said would happen, happened: he put up 17/7, and all his teammates saw their performance jump (you will claim that's just a function of pace/smallball, but if it were that simple, every team would play that way; it takes a special kind of PG to run that system, as PHX found out when he left). That's three fewer ppg than he got in PHX, but you can chalk that up mostly to his lower 3pt FG% and still-lower-than-PHX usage rate. More importantly, Miami's win percentage during that span was that of a 53 win team ( before that, their win rate was that of a 45 win team, even with Chris Bosh).

"Why does no one but you think that Dragic is a star, including several coaches of his from multiple franchises?"

Kevin Durant stumped for him to be an AS, he made an All-NBA team, and Erik Spoelstra ran the offense through him through the last half of the season, so I don't really think I'm the only one who sees it.

"I have not broken down Dragic's field goals by area as you have but, whatever Dragic is doing, the end result is 15-5 (except for the outlier year)"

I mean, there's also the back half of last year. It's about 50/50, and it's pretty easy to draw a line from "does he have the ball?" to where his numbers end up. I do not agree with turning the ball primarily over to Wade or Bledsoe/Thomas, but I understand why those calls were made (namely, Wade & Bledsoe couldn't space the floor, and Thomas is much better with the ball than off it).

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Regarding last year's playoffs, a few points:

* Miami often turned much of the offense back over to Wade (particularly in losses) and slowed the game back down. It worked in G6 vs Charlotte and... well, it worked in G6 vs Charlotte.

* Dragic definitely underperformed in several games.

* Dragic also saved them in three different elimination games (Q3 of G6, G7, and G6 vs TOR).

* The defense that "worked" on Dragic is the one I described (putting an extra 2 defenders in the paint and daring MIA"s shooters to punish them, which they couldn't do consistently), not the one you described (single-covering him, forcing him right, and making him finish over a big). His low FG% in the games where it was low (say, G7 vs TOR) was a product of him taking too many long jumpers because the paint was packed, not missing shots at the rim because somebody made him go right. He went 1-10 from 3 in the final 3 losses vs TOR, but 16-31 from everywhere else (he shot very well in their first loss to TO, before Joe and Wade pissed the game away in crunch time).

* I agree that his APG should have been better. I also understand that it is harder to wrack up assists when the paint is packed, denying penetration; it was on his teammates to make those open shots, and when they did so, MIA usually won. (they were 7-22 in their final game vs TOR, for example).

But Dragic-the-playmaker is only partially about assists; the bigger thing he does, when properly deployed, is draw an extra defender or two and create openings; sometimes those are one pass away, sometimes the ball has to swing a bit more. He is a good passer but not a transcendent one... but he is an excellent penetrator, he's one of the only guards I notice bumping guys off their routes/soft-screening after giving up the ball, and he has excellent court-awareness. It is my position that these factors have a lot to do with why his teammates tend to up their numbers when he's around (this was true last year of everyone except Whiteside, who was about the same with or without him).

He was not able to do this every night in the playoffs, but when his team was making their shots enough to punish the opposing team for collapsing the paint, Miami won.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 10:47:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

"Blind faith in numbers without using the eye test and without considering skill set strengths/weaknesses has led to Philly's current predicament and has led to Morey calling Harden a "foundational player" prior to Harden authoring three first round exits in four years."

It's also what's led to you overvaluing Westbrook a bit, in my opinion. My faith in Dragic is mostly predicated on the eye-test, on the way he opens things up for his teammates, and on the observation that when he drives, good things usually happen (whether a coach allows him those drives/whether his teammates make enough shots for it to matter is a separate issue, and not entirely within his control). It is also predicated on win/loss results, On/Offs, +-, and basically everything except raw box score numbers (which, as you noted with Harden, can be deceptive).

You mentioned that if Westbrook had played more, OKC would probably have made the playoffs (although their Durant-less win rate was that of a 44 win team, I agree they would have won at least one more game had he been healthy all year; that said, had they played all year without Durant, the odds say they would have won... 44 games.)

They did go 16-11 down the stretch, as you pointed out, during which time they went 5-9 against playoff teams. The best team they beat was Portland. 11 of their wins were against sub-.500 teams. Over a season, things are a bit trickier than that.

Incidentally, for all his big numbers, RWB put up an average +- of +2 over that span, as the defense when he was on the court went a long way towards neutralizing his video-game offensive numbers.

Oh, and if we're playing the "what if" injuries games, had Dragic not missed games/been playing the least few weeks on one leg in'14, PHX probably would have gotten the extra win they needed to make the playoffs, too. Heck, if Bledsoe had played as many games as Ibaka did for '15 OKC, PHX might have even had home court. So what?

Ultimately, getting away from Dragic, when it comes to numbers you're right about Harden, but somehow blind to the fact that Westbrook is basically just super-Harden. He's better defensively (but still a massive liability) and puts up even more monstrous numbers, but he's overvalued by the media for the same reasons Harden is (and it's worth noting that the media seems to value the two of them about equally). We've covered your estimation of Dragic, but I wonder what you will say if RWB's OKC team struggles to make the playoffs/escape the first round the same way Harden's Houston teams do? Will he ever be the best player on a team that makes the second round? Will Adams become his Howard, secretly the better (but less eye-popping) member of the team?

You killed Harden for that stretch in the playoffs where his team made their comeback with him on the bench, but in 4 losses vs. GSW last year Westbrook's +- was never better than the final margin; in two of those games, OKC beat GSW while he was sitting, and in the other two played them to a tie. Why is that?

In the Spurs series, he got similar results; in bot of their losses and one of their wins, OKC actually performed better with him off the court. That's not typical for an MVP candidate. It is typical for a ball-dominant offensive player who doesn't do his share on the other end.

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 5:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't think that we will ever agree about Dragic, because (1) when we look at the same set of facts we interpret them differently and (2) we also disagree to some extent about which facts/data/statistics are important.

I expect Dragic to be a 16-8/5-7 guy for a sub-.500 team in the East this year. Last season, I predicted that he would be a 15-5 guy for the fourth seeded team in the East; his numbers were worse than I expected and Miami finished third (on tiebreaks; their record tied for third-sixth).

So, somehow, despite not understanding Dragic or Miami (in your opinion), I pretty much nailed how both would perform.

I expect Westbrook to be a 27-10-8 guy (could be 30-9-6 or some variation but the point is that his numbers will be "big" in all three categories) for an OKC team that wins around 45 games and finishes seventh in the West. He will be an All-Star, an All-NBA team member and will get some MVP consideration.

Last season, I predicted that OKC would compete for top honors in the West and would be capable of beating the Spurs and GSW in a series (though I favored both teams against OKC). You consistently said that OKC could not beat the Spurs or GSW. Of course, OKC beat the Spurs and came within a few minutes of beating GSW (which validates my belief that OKC "could" have beaten GSW).

I suspect that, similarly, at the end of the 2017 season you will be trying to explain why your predictions did not come true, while my predictions (in the main, and barring injuries of course) will come true.

Or, to put it more concisely, in the immortal words of Tim Hardaway (Sr.) on a completely different subject, "We gonna see."

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 6:04:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

That's all fair, and your first point is definitely a good one- we do disagree about how to weight some of those things, especially on the defensive end.

Your prediction for Miami came true in a very technical sense, but you expected Bosh to be healthy/their best player. I don't think I'd be out of line in assuming that you did not expect their best play to come with him off the court?

I was wrong about their seeding (I had them second, so I too was off by a spot), but I was right that they would play their best ball by hitching their wagon to Dragic, not Wade. That it took them half a season to figure that out was frustrating, but the outcome when they did was validating.

In terms of predictions, I remain of two minds about Miami, pending the situation at Power Forward and seeing how their shooters perform. Gun to my head, I'll say 44 wins seems about right, though I would not be surprised to see either higher or lower (especially if injuries get involved). I think OKC is weaker than GSW, SAS, LAC, and UTA, firmly in that next tier of "not actually contenders" with POR, DAL, MEM, HOU, and possibly NO or MIN. I think they're probably about a 9 or 10 seed, with a worse record than MIA, despite having an on-paper superior roster. I do not think RWB will ever make the Finals as the best player on his team. He is better than Harden, so I hope he will at least occasionally make the second round, but if he does it will not be soon.

Gun to my head:
Miami: 44 Wins, 8 seed
OKC: 42 Wins, 9 seed

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 11:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My preference is to predict seeding and give a range of wins as opposed to picking an exact total (because this is simply not an exact science).

You have Mia with 44 wins and an eighth seed; I see Miami as 10th or 11th in the East with around 35 wins.

You have OKC with 42 wins and the ninth seed, while I see OKC as a seventh seed with around 45 wins. It's funny that our predicted win totals for OKC are close but are seedings differ.

It will be interesting to see how things turn out!

At Saturday, October 15, 2016 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Yeah, it's totally possible that I'm overestimating the rest of the West, particularly Utah (who looks great on paper, but might not mesh in reality). I'm more confident in the win-total (or at least being close) than I am on the seeding for sure.

In Miami's case, I'm even less confident given 1) the likelihood they do something semi-big in February, and 2) how bad even a short injury to Dragic or Whiteside is likely to be for them, as well as the variables mentioned before. But, if we're gonna argue later, we may as well have predictions to use now :)

At Tuesday, October 18, 2016 12:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Interesting post on Dragic's defense on Today's Fastbreak. Position there just 'cause I don't know who else to bother with it.

"Defensively, Dragic is underrated. I’ll start you off with a few numbers."

Among the 139 players that defended at least nine shots per game, He ranked fifth in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage (40.3), only behind Kevin Durant (38.5), Kawhi Leonard (39.2), Draymond Green (39.4), and Curry (40.1)

He ranked in the 71st percentile when defending the PnR ball-handler

Among the 75 players that defended the PnR ball-handler at least 200 times, only Evan Turner (30.9%) “allowed” a lower field goal percentage than Dragic (35%). Leonard also “allowed” 35% shooting on those plays, but defended 162 fewer possessions.

He ranked in the 77.9 percentile defending dribble-handoffs"

Full disclosure, the article rightly toasts him for his poor performance vs. Isos, though it's worth noting that opponents shot only 35 times against him out of isolation all season long; you'd think teams would target him more than that if he's vulnerable there. Reasonable assumption: the guys who were iso-ing him were the guys who knew they could take him, mostly I assume the biggest and/or fastest guards. Walker can ISO him, for instance, but I'm betting George Hill or Patrick Beverly probably wouldn't try it. If Hassan can improve his defensive discipline as the last line of defense, it'll go a long way towards covering for this weakness (I'd recommend watching tapes of Duncan saving Parker on every ISO, PnR, or cut for the last bajillion years).

Things that jump out at me:

* I knew Curry had improved defensively, but I did not realize he was such a strong contester. He does have some of the fastest hands in the league, though, so I guess it makes at least some sense.

* Seeing Durant up there doesn't surprise me, but it reinforces my doubts about OKC's perimeter D this year. Oladipo and Roberson are both gifted defenders but unless one or both of them has improved their shot it probably isn't tenable to run them both at once, and neither has the length/athleticism of Durant. With RWB, Singler, Ilyasova, Kanter, and a bunch of 1st or 2nd years all figuring to see serious minutes, smart teams should be able to find a weak point to target in the OKC D on almost every possession.

* I knew Dragic was a strong PnR defender (he fights through screens harder than almost anyone except Kawhi and Tony Allen), but I didn't realize he was quite *that* strong of a PnR defender.

* The two "percentile" stats are theoretically interesting, but without knowing how they're calculated, probably meaningless. Is it frequency of play or success rate? Are players who successfully defended a single play during their one ten-day contract included? What constitutes "defending" etc.? I wouldn't read too much into those one way or the other.

At Tuesday, October 18, 2016 7:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Other than Charley Rosen (whose work I have enjoyed--despite certain biases and sloppiness that he displays from time to time--since reading his book God, Man and Basketball Jones), Today's Fastbreak mainly seems to hire inexperienced writers with questionable, at best, credentials. Like Abbott's True Hoop Network, the result is more like a "developmental league" as opposed to a professional league. So, I would take anything that is posted there with a large grain of salt.

I share your skepticism of the specific statistics cited by the author. When someone tells me that a player ranks in a very specific percentile (to the tenth of a point no less!) in a subjective skill (as opposed to, say, a specific percentile in free throw percentage) my gut instinct is to disregard both the statistic and the author who thinks that statistic takes the place of actually watching games with understanding.

Regarding some of the specific points that caught your eye, (1) Curry has been an underrated defender for quite some time. He has quick hands, is deceptively strong and he has a very high basketball IQ. We all know that the Cavs exploited him defensively in the latter stages of the 2016 NBA Finals but I think that was a combination of Irving being a great player, Curry being worn down and/or injured and Curry being the relatively weakest defender of an otherwise outstanding perimeter defensive lineup featuring Thompson, Green, Iguodala, etc. Curry is the relative weak link in that group but that does not mean he is a bad defender (though, again, he was not fully up to par in the Finals); (2) you consistently either underestimate OKC's defense and/or overestimate how important this alleged weakness will be. Last season, you insisted that OKC could not beat San Antonio or GSW in a series because OKC did not have enough two-way players but in fact OKC beat the Spurs and came within a few minutes of beating GSW (ironically, OKC's star offensive players let them down in those crucial moments much more so than the defense did); (3) I agree with the general idea that Dragic is a pesky defender who gives good effort at that end of the court but he is mismatched against strong guards and against super quick guards. At the other end of the court, Dragic is a 15-5 guy, not a 25-10-8 superstar, so it is hard to picture Dragic ever being the best player on a championship contender: he is neither dominant offensively, nor is he an elite All-Defensive Team caliber defender.

At Tuesday, October 18, 2016 10:56:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I wasn't really commenting on the writer or the site (where I largely agree with your appraisal) as citing my source for the statistics, which I thought helped articulate why I'm so high on Dragic as a defender.

That said, I agree that he's not quite All-Defensive level. He's at best maybe the fourth or fifth best defensive PG in the league, and there are several 2s who are stronger defenders as well. That said, I do think he's a better defender than most (sans Wall, Paul, and perhaps Curry) of the people we usually compare him to, and dramatically so in the cases of Lillard, Westbrook, and Irving.

I also mostly agree that he's not strong enough to be the best player on a title team, at least unless it were a '04 Pistons or '79 Sonics type outfit full of nearly-as-good players built around his strengths (for the sake of argument I'd say Whiteside/Deng/Crowder/Bradley would be a conceivable version of that)...but then I think Curry is the only PG in the league who currently is good enough to be the best player on a title team (though I think Wall may get there eventually). I do think Dragic could easily be the second best player on a title team with a truly elite PF or C (and respectable supporting cast); I don't think Whiteside is quite at that level or likely to get there, nor do I think Miami is presently anywhere near a title team.

I agree that I underestimated OKC in the playoffs last year. I underestimated the team as a whole- and especially Kevin Durant- defensively, and was shocked to see Adams, Waiters, and Kanter all play their best ball of the season when it counted most. That said, they allowed an average of 106 ppg in the series against the Warriors, equivalent to a bottom five defense, so I hesitate to place the blame solely on their offense (which scored at a top 3 rate); the series was close enough that improving either would have been enough to win, but given that they gave up 108, 118, and 120 in three of their four losses, I think more out of the defense is perhaps the fairer ask... but, given that they were already overachieving on that end, probably not a realistic one.

On the other hand, they lost their best perimeter defender and their best shot blocker, so I expect their defense to drop somewhat dramatically, especially given their defensive performance the last time they were without Durant and Ibaka (18 games at the end of '15), during which time they gave up an average of 108.3 ppg against a powder-puff schedule. 108.3 would have been second worst in the league last season. Adding Oladipo will help some, but he hurts their already dicey spacing on offense and his natural position is the same as their other best perimeter defender (Roberson). Unless the Sabonis kid is improbably great, they have no real defensively competent option at the 4.

That said, Billy Donovan seems to be a pretty sharp coach, so perhaps he'll figure something out and prove me wrong.

Anyway, I didn't post those stats to start a new argument so much as to illustrate part of why I'm higher on Dragic defensively than the mainstream is (he doesn't put up gaudy steal numbers, so they could give a damn). But I do think all this stuff is interesting and I can't wait for the season to start so we have fresher content to talk about.

At Wednesday, October 19, 2016 12:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


OKC held GSW to well below their regular season scoring average, so 108.3 ppg does not correlate with a bottom five defense in that context.

I have yet to see anyone other than you rank Dragic as a top 10 pg, let alone a top five pg. Taking a minority position is not necessarily bad--I have done so for years with players like Arenas, Marbury, Melo and Harden on one hand and Erving, Pippen and Bryant on the other hand--but doing so carries the burden of providing a lot of evidence and/or reliably accurate predictions. My predictions about Arenas, Marbury, Melo and Harden have come true. Doc retired before I could predict anything about him. I won a lot of friendly bets about how the Bulls would do after Jordan retired the first time. I was probably the only media member who did not side with Shaq and who stated that Mia win the deal in the short run but that if the Lakers gave Kobe even minimal help they would win the deal in the long run.

So, Dragic has a lot of work to do to belong even in a top 10 pg discussion, never mind top five. Being the second best player on a non-playoff team this season will not build his case very much.

At Wednesday, October 19, 2016 1:14:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I disagree that he will be the second best player on the Heat (Whiteside's numbers are eye-popping, but he has little beyond athleticism on offense (and relies on someone like Dragic or Wade to create his looks for him) and poor fundamentals on defense), but I agree that if the Heat fail to make the playoffs Dragic's perception will not meaningfully change for most.

I predicted Miami will make the playoffs, but even I had them as a low seed, so it is certainly possible they miss out, particularly if either Dragic or Whiteside misses any real time (semi-likely; they missed a combined 19 games last season, and that could be death for this group this year), or if the team chooses to tank in an allegedly loaded draft year (presumably this would involve trading Dragic, at which point we'll have a whole new set of variables to argue about).

I also predict that, like last year, their on-court performance will correlate heavily with Dragic's presence and usage, and that he will lead all starters, if not the entire team, in both On-Off and +-, and possibly Net RTG as well (though given the front court situation, Whiteside may steal that one). I also suspect at least some of their new acquisitions will mark career highs in FG and/or 3pt %.

Defining Dragic by Miami's success or failure in a vacuum, though, isn't quite fair; would Lillard/Irving/etc. do any better with this roster? Would he do better with theirs? I think Cleveland would improve with Dragic's presence (he's a much better defender and a better scorer from everywhere except midrange, though CLE's pace is not ideal for him) and I think Miami would be weaker with Irving. Portland is harder to call, as Lillard is such a critical emotional/leadership component of that team, but I'd take Dragic over him on more NBA teams than not, including Miami.

I am aware my position is a minority one, but I remain pretty confident in it. For three years, both Dragic's teams and his teammates have consistently seen their best results when he's prominently involved. He is a brutally efficient scorer (particularly if his 3pt percentage inches back up towards the high 30s/low 40s this year), an able facilitator, and a well-above average defender who brings out the best in his team; I'd take that in a heartbeat over all but four other PGs in the league. I think that most of the guards that I disagree with the majority about (Lillard and Irving, chiefly) are overvalued by the media/casuals as they put up big scoring numbers, and their major weakness- defense- is something that receives precious little attention/coverage; they are quite similar to James Harden in that way, though both have a better attitude than he does.


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