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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Lakers Rout Misfiring Rockets to Advance to Western Conference Finals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:21 AM



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