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Monday, October 12, 2020

Lakers Dominate Paint, Rout Heat to Capture NBA Championship

The classic game five showdown created hope that we might see a competitive game six and possibly be treated to a seventh game as well, but in retrospect it appears that the Miami Heat had nothing left in the tank. The L.A. Lakers proved to be too big, too deep, and too talented, building a 28 point halftime lead, extending the margin to as much as 36 late in the third quarter, and then coasting the rest of the way to a 106-93 win to clinch a 4-2 series victory. The Lakers now own 17 NBA titles, tying the Boston Celtics for the most ever. LeBron James captured his fourth NBA championship and his fourth Finals MVP after leading both teams in scoring (28 points on 13-20 field goal shooting) and assists (10) while grabbing 14 rebounds. Only Michael Jordan has more Finals MVPs (six) than James, who broke a tie with Willis Reed, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O'Neal to move into sole possession of second place on that list. James is the first player to win at least one Finals MVP with three different teams.

Anthony Davis showed no sign of ill effects from the foot injury that hobbled him last game, and his stat line of 19 points, a game-high 15 rebounds, and two blocked shots understates his impact. He started at center after Coach Frank Vogel benched Dwight Howard in favor of Alex Caruso to improve the Lakers' perimeter defense. Vogel's move paid immediate and decisive dividends as Davis demonstrated his mobility and agility by showing on pick and roll plays before sagging into the paint to discourage drives and lob passes. This version of the Lakers' "small" lineup is a bit smaller than the lineup that the Lakers utilized versus Houston earlier in the playoffs, but it is not really small: Davis is 6-10, James is 6-9, Danny Green is 6-6, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is 6-5, and Caruso is 6-5. The Lakers have a big team, and even their biggest players are very mobile. At halftime, the Lakers not only led 64-36, but they had scored almost as many points in the paint (34) as the Heat had scored overall. 

Rajon Rondo scored 19 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, doing most of his damage in the paint. He added four rebounds and four assists. The criticisms of the Lakers' depth are puzzling. How many teams have the luxury of bringing off of the bench a player who was the starting point guard for a championship team and who has a credible case for being inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame? The last time the Lakers won the championship, their starting point guard was Derek Fisher, who would not have started at point guard for any of this year's Western Conference playoff teams. 

Caldwell-Pope contributed 17 points on 6-13 field goal shooting. The Lakers have two MVP-level players performing at peak efficiency, and that is hard to beat when multiple role players are scoring in the high teens while all five players on the court at any given time are connected on a string defensively. The Lakers were favored in every playoff series and every playoff game for good reason, and it is not like LeBron James had to work miracles for the Lakers to win the title.

Bam Adebayo led the Heat with 25 points and 10 rebounds. He shot 10-15 from the field and passed for five assists while looking healthier, more confident, and more aggressive than he had since injuring his neck in game one of this series. Jimmy Butler, who played so splendidly in the first five games of the series, looked like he needed more time to recover from playing almost every second in game five; he played 45 minutes, but produced just 12 points on 5-10 field goal shooting, plus eight assists and seven rebounds. Butler's pedestrian game six performance is a reminder of just how great and consistent LeBron James is while also highlighting the difference between an All-Star/fringe All-NBA player and a perennial MVP candidate: James first appeared in the NBA Finals 13 years ago, and he is still able to string together one great game after another, while the younger Butler was not quite able to produce six great games in his first NBA Finals.

Jae Crowder (12 points) and Duncan Robinson (10 points) were the only other Heat players to score in double figures. Goran Dragic returned to action for Miami for the first time after tearing the plantar fascia in his left foot in game one of this series, coming off of the bench to score five points on 2-8 field goal shooting in 19 minutes. Bringing back a rusty, limited Dragic was a risky move after the Heat had already won two games in the Finals without him, but Dragic's return ending up not making a difference; the other Heat players (with perhaps Adebayo being the lone exception) were gassed, and Dragic did not perform appreciably better or worse than his teammates did as the Lakers took command.

The plus/minus numbers for this game were misleading for both teams, because the Lakers raced out to a huge lead and then just cruised in the second half. Kelly Olynyk did not see action until the outcome was decided, but he led Miami with a +19 plus/minus number after scoring nine points in 15 minutes. Olynyk's plus/minus was better than the plus/minus of every Laker except Caruso (+20), which is why plus/minus is not meaningful in small sample sizes unless you watch the whole game and can provide some context for the numbers.

The Heat kept the game close for about the first 10 minutes, but the Lakers finished the first quarter on an 11-4 run to lead 28-20 before blowing the game open in the second quarter. The Lakers decimated the Heat's interior defense by relentlessly driving to the hoop, and the Lakers played suffocating defense that turned each Miami possession into a tedious, disorganized mission to generate an open shot.

After the game, James accepted the Finals MVP by asking/begging to receive "respect," but it is odd--if not unseemly--for a player who owns four regular season MVPs and four Finals MVPs to complain about not being respected. James finished second in the 2020 regular season MVP voting this season behind a player who had a historically great season while leading his team to the NBA's best record for the second season in a row. James is widely recognized as one of the greatest players of all-time, and only someone who is biased and/or foolish would deny that he deserves to be mentioned in any such discussion.

Does winning this championship elevate James above every player who ever played the game? It is human nature to be most aware of and most impressed by whatever we have seen most recently, never mind the fact that many of the people watching the NBA today are too young to remember or know much about the accomplishments of Michael Jordan--not to mention the accomplishments of his great predecessors such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. I bring up those three players specifically because of a statistic that ESPN kept emphasizing: James just joined Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, and Jordan as the only players who have won at least four championships and at least four regular season MVPs. What ESPN did not emphasize--although the accompanying graphic showed the numbers--is that James has both fewer titles and fewer MVPs than each of the other three players.

Bill Russell won 11 championships and five regular season MVPs. Also, the Finals MVP was first awarded during his last season, when his Celtics won the championship but the Lakers' Jerry West became the first (and still the only) player from the losing team to receive the Finals MVP. How many Finals MVPs would Russell have won had that award been presented throughout his career?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six championships and a record six regular season MVPs. He also won two Finals MVPs. 

Michael Jordan won six championships and five regular season MVPs. As noted above, he holds the record with six Finals MVPs.  

When trying to use facts and logic to prove a point, it is useful to have an analysis rubric. Lawyers are taught many different rubrics, but one widely used rubric is known as IRAC (Issue/Rule of Law/Analysis/Conclusion). Here, the issue is "Who is the greatest basketball player of all-time?" and ESPN's proposed rule of law is that such a player must win at least four championships and at least four regular season MVPs. If our analysis focuses on applying that rule to that issue, how does one reach the conclusion that the greatest player of all-time is the player from that list who won the fewest championships and the fewest MVPs? If ESPN is proposing that list as designating the "rule of law" for this issue, then James ranks fourth, not first, unless there is some convincing analysis explaining why the championships and regular season MVPs won by the other three players should be worth less than the championships and regular season MVPs won by James. Of course, this hypothetical IRAC exercise is ignoring the not insignificant question of whether ESPN's "rule of law" is even the correct one, because this rule excludes from consideration players such as Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant, each of whom won more titles than James while also posting a better Finals winning percentage. 

ESPN's post-game set is not a law school classroom, nor is it designed to be a forum for calm, logical and in depth discussion; the point of live TV is to get in and get out with quick, provocative hot takes. That is not to discount the value or relevance of anything that is said in such a setting, but if there is a definitive answer to this "issue" (and I am not convinced that there is) it will not be found in such a setting.

Keep in mind that the TV networks and media outlets that cover the NBA have a vested interest in promoting James as the greatest player ever. It does not help their bottom line to have a nuanced conversation about this topic, let alone to say that the greatest player played in the 1990s or--even worse--in the 1960s or 1970s. If you are trying to get people to watch the games and follow the league now then it is not desirable to say that the best player retired decades ago. 

James belongs in the greatest player of all-time conversation--and he belonged there before last night. Instead of spending this moment providing a hot take that lifts James above everyone else, or providing a take down that ranks James below a few other players, let's spend this moment by simply saying that LeBron James and the Lakers deserve congratulations and credit for capping off this most unusual and difficult season with an impressive championship run.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM



At Monday, October 12, 2020 1:45:00 PM, Anonymous Jodial said...

Hi David,
I don't comment very often, but I read you faithfully, and I welcome your informed and nuanced analysis of pro basketball history. I've always been irked by the way modern sports reporting is so eager to frame each discussion of championships and players in “GOAT” terms, a regrettable reduction of the sport's history into soundbites since Jordan took over the narrative. I much prefer your concept of a "pantheon" that allows for acknowledgment of the sport's multiple elite legends and places them in context.
I'll preface this with the full disclosure that I'm a long-time Laker diehard - I've been glued to the team since the mid-70s - but I appreciate great players and teams from all around the league, even if I don't always like them!
It's hard for me to even come up with a "greatest" Laker - Kareem was always my guy (since Finals MVPs are a topic of discussion lately, recall that Kareem won his two Finals MVPs fourteen years apart!), but I've never seen a career as inspiring or thrilling as Kobe's...and I had thought the same thing about Magic...et cetera. I'm just glad I’ve been able to root for all of them.
Which brings me to this year's title run. I always respected LeBron and gave him his props, though I never particularly liked him on other teams, and I was always somewhat dubious about his ability to bring the best out of his teammates, something that was always part of the media narrative about his career. His first season with the Lakers didn't endear me to him any further. But I was really, really impressed with everything he was able to do this season.
This team played cohesive, focused ball all season long, under the most trying of circumstances imaginable. Obviously, LeBron was surrounded with great talent, capable veterans, and excellent coaching - but honestly, it would have been easy for things to go south with this bunch. It says something that, in a season that dripped with potential elements for distraction and chaos (will the presence of Jason Kidd undermine Frank Vogel? can AD and LeBron be two Alphas on the court together? will Howard/McGee/Rondo/Smith accept their roles, or be a distraction? how will the team respond to the Kobe tragedy? or deal with the long layoff? or the bubble? etc.), none of those talking points materialized. There never seemed to be a chink in the armor surrounding this team. They led the West virtually wire to wire, and when the playoffs started it was apparent that LeBron was determined not to let his team lose games or focus. Players’ roles shifted from series to series, sometimes within a series - guys who were starters one game would be on the bench the next, all the way up until the closeout game - it was never a problem, and you really have to give LeBron some credit for holding that all together at the top. And his play on the court speaks for itelf.
One more thing - I don’t know where I’d rank this Lakers team with other championship squads, but I feel pretty confident in saying this is the best defensive squad I’ve ever seen in purple and gold. They have a great defensive coach, no real weak spots defensively on the roster, and an absolute monster of a defender in Anthony Davis. I’ve always loved AD’s game, going back to his time in New Orleans, and he is magnificent on the offensive end, but I have really been blown away watching him play defense day in and day out. I’m glad he and the team were able to close this series out with that kind of a defensive effort, because it was really emblematic of the way they played and thrived this season.
Thanks for another excellent season of analysis, and my hat is off to the NBA for the job they did in the bubble - salvaging a season with an exciting playoff run, while putting social justice at the forefront of the discussion and keeping everyone safe from the virus, was no small feat.

At Tuesday, October 13, 2020 2:04:00 AM, Anonymous Glen said...

I've been a Lakers fan since the Magic/Kareen Lakers teams in the 80s. I always preferred Kobe over Shaq because I appreciated the hard work and dedication that Kobe demonstrated in his game throughout his career. I also preferred Kobe over Lebron as Lebron had far too many moments where he inexplicably choked on the biggest stage. Even when Kobe was young and did not have the game he possessed as he matured, he didn't act like a choker. When he airballed those 3 pointers in Utah, he still acted like he had supreme confidence in his own abilities. That came to serve him well in the next few years as he dominated and helped the Lakers win 3 consecutive championships.

OTOH, I watched Lebron dominate a still dangerous and in their prime Detroit Pistons team all to just maddeningly choke against the Spurs in the NBA finals. I watched Lebron constantly bite his nails on the bench and watched as he quit on his team against the Celtics in game 7 and also get dominated by Dallas in the finals when he was with Miami. There was simply too much evidence that Lebron did not have the skills, nor the confidence to be the best player in the NBA as long as Kobe was in his prime. Frankly, even when Miami beat the Spurs in the NBA finals, Lebron should thank Ray Allen and, of course Popovich for that insane substitution taking Duncan out of the game which prevented the Spurs from being able to rebound a miss and ulitmately led to Ray Allen's series saving 3 pointer. But for those things, Lebron's time in MIami would have been a bit of a failure with just 1 ring.

For these same reasons I had mixed feelings when Lebron joined the Lakers. I still viewed him as a choker. it took Draymond getting tossed in the NBA finals, Bogut getting injured, and Kyrie being a total assassin to help the Lebron led Cavs beat the Warriors.

However, after watching the entire playoffs this year, Lebron seems to have finally figured it out in terms of playing with confidence and knowing when to dominate. I can't even fault his pass at the end of Game 5 as he was really triple teamed and the refs were clearly not giving the Lakers as many calls in the 4th qtr, and Lebron was clutch as hell throughout the entire Game 5. There's no way Lebron should try to dunk or shoot with 3 defenders so tightly on him.

What Lebron did in these playoffs and particularly in the NBA Finals was nothing short of amazing for a 35 yr old. I dare say that 35 yr old Lebron this year, played every bit as well as 35 yr old MJ when MJ won his 6th championship. I'd still give MJ the GOAT mantle as MJ, like Kobe, played with supreme confidence even before he started winning championships and throughout his amazing run whereas it took Lebron more time and development before he reached MJ's level. MJ sustained peak performance and confidence for a much longer period than Lebron has.

Nevertheless, as a Lakers fan, it feels great to have the Lakers be NBA champions again, to tie the Celtics for all time championships and to have Lebron demonstrate that he is truly the best all around active player in the NBA even at 35 yrs of age.

I can't wait to see what happens next year when the Lakers play Brooklyn. It will be amazing to see how a prime AD with the full confidence of being an NBA champion, will fare against KD.

Here's hoping that Lebron stays injury free and can help the Lakers win at least another 2 championships. At that point, even as an MJ fan, I may have to agree that Lebron is the greatest NBA player of all time given his longevity, ability to reinvent his game and his overall impact on the game... but we will have to see what happens in the next several seasons.

At Tuesday, October 13, 2020 11:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for being a long time reader, and for taking the time to write such an in depth comment.

I agree that it is difficult enough to pick the "greatest" Laker, let alone pick one player as the greatest of all-time.

I agree that LeBron, AD, the coaching staff, and the supporting cast all deserve credit for the way that this team came together so quickly to win a title in their first season together.

I agree that the 2020 Lakers played great defensively at times--game six of the Finals was a defensive clinic--but overall the team ranked eighth in defensive field goal percentage. These Lakers did not always play stifling defense, but they picked their spots. The 2000 Lakers went 67-15 while ranking first in defensive field goal percentage and sixth in points allowed, so that squad was probably better (or at least more consistent) defensively than the 2020 team.

At Tuesday, October 13, 2020 12:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with your analysis of Kobe. LeBron has gaps in his resume that most candidates for greatest of all-time status do not have. He has learned from his mistakes and he has grown, but most great players did not have to learn to not quit. They had to learn to trust their teammates, or manage score/time/matchups, etc. That being said, I agree (and have previously written about) that LeBron's performance as a 35 year old is very rare. Kareem, Jordan, and a slightly younger, pre-Achilles injury Kobe may be the only valid comparisons, with Wilt possibly in the conversation as well (though at that stage of his career Wilt was no longer a big-time scorer).

With few exceptions (such as Bill Russell retiring in 1969 and Michael Jordan retiring in 1998), the defending champion usually enters the next season looking like the favorite or at least one of the favorites. With game six fresh in mind, the Lakers look like the favorites now, but we don't know when or under what conditions the next season will begin, and LeBron's age will become a factor at some point. I suspect that for the Lakers to win another title with LeBron it will be necessary for AD to assume a larger role. Also, without knowing what will happen with free agency, the draft, injuries, etc. it is difficult to project who will be the biggest threat to the Lakers. The format of the season--bubble or no bubble, 82 games or less, etc.--will also be a huge factor. I am not sure that these Lakers would have won the 2020 title if they had to play an 82 game season, and then possibly face the Clippers and/or the Bucks in traditional playoff series. The pandemic gave LeBron a midseason break, shortened the regular season, and facilitated the elimination of top teams that did not want to be in the bubble/did not have the extra advantage of playing game seven on their home court. The Lakers deserve credit for being the team that adjusted the best to these circumstances, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have won the title under normal circumstances, or that they will win the next championship.


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