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Thursday, January 05, 2023

Winning Players Versus Stat-Padding Players

What is the best way to determine if a player is primarily focused on team success as opposed to being primarily focused on stat-padding? There is not one statistic or one observation to definitively prove this, but there are several methods that can at least bring us close to the truth.

I consume a lot of NBA content via TV, radio, and print. It is fascinating how often various "experts" assert that (1) the Dallas Mavericks cannot win a championship with Luka Doncic playing the way that he currently plays, and that (2) LeBron James makes the L.A. Lakers a dangerous team that no one wants to face in the playoffs.

Luka Doncic is in good company as a superstar whose ability to win a championship is doubted. Many "experts" declared that Michael Jordan would never win a championship because Jordan was supposedly too selfish and too focused on winning scoring titles--and then Jordan won six NBA titles and six NBA Finals MVPs along with a record 10 scoring titles. Many "experts" declared that Shaquille O'Neal would never win a championship because he was a poor free throw shooter--and then O'Neal won four NBA titles and three NBA Finals MVPs. Many "experts" declared that Kobe Bryant would never win a championship because Bryant was supposedly too selfish and too focused on individual glory--and then Bryant won three NBA titles alongside O'Neal. After the Lakers traded O'Neal, many "experts" declared that Bryant would never win a championship without O'Neal--and then Bryant won two more NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVPs.

That is not to suggest that Doncic is as great or will become as great as Jordan, O'Neal, or Bryant; the point is that for several decades the "experts" have not provided much insight about the future championship prospects of great players.

Last season, Doncic led the Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since Dirk Nowitzki carried the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title. Prior to tonight's game versus the Boston Celtics, the Mavericks are 22-13 this season with Doncic and 0-3 without him. The Mavericks are enjoying a seven game winning streak, their longest winning streak since their 2010-11 championship campaign. Doncic is leading the NBA in scoring (career-high 34.3 ppg) while posting career-highs in FG% (.507), assists (8.9 apg), and steals (1.7 spg). Doncic is not a great defensive player, but he ranks seventh in the league in defensive rebounds and sixth in the league in steals, so there are ways that he impacts the game positively on defense. The eye test shows that he is in better shape and has better stamina than he had early in his career. 

A great player needs help to win a championship, and it remains to be seen if Doncic has or will get enough help, but there is no evidence supporting the contention that the Mavericks cannot win a championship with Doncic playing the way he is playing. Doncic is playing a better, more well-rounded game than other players who have led teams to championships.

LeBron James has already won four NBA titles and four NBA Finals MVPs, so there is no question about his ability to lead a team to a title. He is more productive than any 38 year old or 20 year veteran has ever been. However, the above facts do not prove that he is currently playing like a championship level player, nor do they prove that he makes the Lakers a dangerous team that no one wants to face in the playoffs. In his four full seasons as a Laker, the Lakers have won one title but they have also missed the playoffs twice and lost once in the first round. The Lakers are currently in 12th place in the Western Conference, and thus would not even qualify for the Play-In Tournament if the season ended today. The Lakers are 13-16 this season with James and 4-5 without him. 

Throughout his career, James' strongest offensive weapon has been driving to the basket, but this season he is attempting 6.8 three pointers per game (the second highest number of his career) while attempting just 5.7 free throws per game (tied for the lowest number of his career). Overall, James is attempting 22.1 field goals per game (the second highest number of his career). 

The eye test reveals that James does not have the same defensive impact that he used to have, which is not surprising considering his age and years of service. The numbers support the eye test, as his steals and blocked shots are below his career averages (though he is still an excellent defensive rebounder).

It is no secret that James is less than 500 points away from breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career regular season scoring record--and it is obvious that James' primary goal right now is breaking that record, not winning games or championships. As the team's de facto General Manager, James traded away young players who may or may not have become championship level players in order to acquire Anthony Davis, which resulted in winning one title but will also probably result in the Lakers being a non-contender for the foreseeable future.

Unless or until James plays differently and unless or until Anthony Davis demonstrates that he can remain healthy and focused, no team fears playing the Lakers in the playoffs--assuming that the Lakers can even make the playoffs, which is far from certain.

This does not mean that Doncic will have a greater career than James, or that James is having a bad season. James is having a very productive season, but the eye test and the numbers both show that he is primarily focused on breaking the scoring record, because he is not playing the way that he played when he led teams to championships.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:09 PM



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