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Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Stat Gurus" Learn Value of the Eye Test

The idea of using "advanced statistics" to better understand a sport and to more accurately evaluate teams and players has its roots in baseball. Bill James and other pioneers came up with numbers and interpretations that went well beyond the box score. There is certainly a place for that kind of creative thinking. However, the "eye test"--firsthand evaluations made by qualified observers--cannot be replaced by just looking at numbers. "Stat gurus" are often quick to dismiss the "eye test" as subjective and outmoded while at the same time ignoring the inherent limitations of their preferred methodologies.

Baseball "stat gurus" are particularly proud of some of the defensive metrics that they have developed. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Andrew Beaton and Michael Salfino termed the quest for accurate defensive numbers "nothing less than the holy grail of baseball statistics." For a while, the "stat gurus" thought that they had solved this problem but now it turns out that some of the much ballyhooed "advanced" defensive statistics are not all that they were cracked up to be, particularly since teams employ defensive shifts so often that it is difficult to precisely determine how much credit a player should receive for a particular defensive play. Beaton and Salfino note that defensive shifts make "it almost impossible to assign proper credit for a great defensive play: Did a player make a play because he has incredible range, or because prescient scouting had him stationed in that area?" Beaton and Salfino conclude, "The result is something that no one would have predicted: Eyeball scouting may be more necessary than ever."

It is obvious that it is important to gather as much useful data as possible and to figure out the best way to interpret that data--but raw numbers (and even "advanced" statistics) cannot take the place of the informed eye. It is like the difference between looking at Cliffs Notes and actually studying the course material; the Cliffs Notes may tell you where to look in a general sense but they do not replace the methodical, step by step learning process. An "advanced" statistic may suggest that a certain baseball player has great defensive range or that a certain basketball player is offensively efficient but it is still essential to watch that baseball player or basketball player in action to place those numbers in context.

Basketball is an inherently more difficult sport to quantify than baseball because basketball involves 10 players moving around at once while baseball is a series of discrete actions. The fact that baseball "stat gurus" are realizing that some of their "advanced" numbers are of limited value should give pause to anyone who blindly relies on "advanced" basketball statistics, particularly regarding defense. If defensive range is hard to quantify in baseball, then it is logical to assume that it is even more difficult to quantify individual defense in basketball; a perimeter player could be horrible defensively and yet his "advanced" numbers may not look bad if he is surrounded by teammates who cover up for his mistakes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:10 AM


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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Scottie Pippen: All-Around Performer

Scottie Pippen may be the most underrated great player in pro basketball history. Yes, he was selected to both the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and the Basketball Hall of Fame but there is still a perception among the misinformed that he was primarily Michael Jordan's sidekick when the reality is that Pippen was a franchise player in his own right. It is fashionable to describe certain players as versatile and unselfish but Pippen epitomized those traits; he did not seek personal glory or gaudy statistics but he did whatever it took to help his team win, from taking a charge to digging in to play aggressive one on one defense to using his passing skills to create open shots for his teammates to providing timely baskets in pressure situations. Pippen's defense against Magic Johnson was a key factor in the Chicago Bulls' 1991 NBA Finals victory over the L.A. Lakers and in Chicago's series-clinching game five win Pippen led the Bulls with 32 points and 13 rebounds (plus seven assists and five steals) while playing all 48 minutes. During the 2015 NBA Finals we heard a lot about fatigue but six players averaged at least 41.0 mpg during the 1991 NBA Finals (including Pippen, who logged 43.6 mpg) and none of them complained about being tired or not having enough talent around them.

After the Bulls won three straight championships from 1991-93, Jordan retired to play pro baseball and many people predicted that the Bulls would sink in the standings and that Pippen would try but fail to fill Jordan's shoes as a 30-ppg scorer. Instead, during the 1993-94 season Pippen led the Bulls in not just scoring (22.0 ppg) but also assists (5.6 apg) and steals (2.9 spg) while ranking second on the team in rebounding (8.7 rpg) and blocked shots (.8 bpg) as the Bulls went 55-27 (just two games worse than their record the previous season) and had a potential championship run derailed by a horrible Hue Hollins call in game five versus the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks. The next season, the Bulls overcame injuries and the departure of Horace Grant to remain in playoff contention as Pippen led the team in scoring (21.4 ppg), rebounding (8.1 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.1 bpg). Dave Cowens, Julius Erving, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady are pro basketball's only other "five tool" players (players who led their teams in per game scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots during the same season). Jordan returned to the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season and, though the Bulls fell short in the playoffs that year, the Bulls promptly won three consecutive titles from 1996-98. It is not a coincidence that Jordan and Pippen are the only players who were members of all six Chicago championship teams.

During the Bulls' final championship run, Pippen led the team in playoff assists (5.2 apg), steals (2.1 spg) and blocked shots (1.0 bpg) and ranked second in playoff scoring (16.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.1 rpg). His overall numbers would have been even better if he had not been limited in the latter stages of the NBA Finals by ruptured disks in his back that ultimately required surgery that summer. Prior to the injury, he was playing as well as he had ever played in terms of showcasing his all-around skills and doing whatever it takes to win. In game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, Pippen scored four points on 1-9 field goal shooting but he controlled the game with his full court defense against Indiana point guard Mark Jackson, completely disrupting the Pacers' offense. LeBron James is sometimes compared to Scottie Pippen but it is paradoxical that Pippen could dominate a playoff game while only scoring four points, while James has a baffling propensity to sometimes put up huge boxscore numbers without actually controlling the flow of the game, such as James' disinterested--but statistically prolific--performance versus Boston in game six of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. Pippen just did whatever his team needed for him to do to win, even if he sacrificed his scoring or his statistics. James seems to be very keenly aware of his numbers and sometimes seems to be more intent on making a statistical case for his greatness than on actually making sure that his team wins. Pippen did not complain about the talent level around him when Jordan left or when Pippen played for Houston and Portland; Pippen just figured out what his team needed for him to do and he did it.

It is worth noting that Jordan sans Pippen never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, while Pippen not only led the Bulls on a solid playoff run in 1994 but he led the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers in playoff minutes (38.4 mpg), rebounds (7.1 rpg), assists (4.3 apg) and steals (2.0 spg) as that squad pushed the Shaquille-O'Neal-Kobe Bryant L.A. Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Finals.

I found a wonderful YouTube video filled with Pippen highlights and with quotes about Pippen from those who know the game best: the players and coaches who saw his work firsthand. My experience interviewing such professionals is that knowledgeable NBA insiders have a much higher opinion of Pippen's game than many media members and fans who have not educated themselves about the sport. Here is the video:

Here are some quotes from the video:

"I don't know what position Scottie was; he was just a basketball player. He could dribble, shoot, pass and rebound. Defensively, he was excellent. He had quick hands and quick feet with a great understanding of the game. He could do it all."--B.J. Armstrong

"The subtle things he did so well--defensively helping his teammates, recovering out to guys offensively, making plays being unselfish--those are things that teammates always recognize and noticed. You always felt like Scottie had your back. If you made a mistake somewhere on the floor, he was going to try and cover up for you."--John Paxson

"If I had a vote in that first championship for MVP it would have been Scottie. He brought his whole game and everyone could see. The way he played Magic and made him turn and turn and turn and made him work like that was the difference, especially after we lost the first game."--Horace Grant

"He sets the tempo defensively for us. He can disrupt anybody's offense because he can play anybody from the point guard to the five position."--Michael Jordan

"I know Michael's the best player, but Pippen was the best player on that team."--Chuck Daly on the 1992 Dream Team

"Michael returned from the games raving about Scottie's performance. Before the summer, Michael had regarded Pippen as the most talented member of his supporting cast. But after watching him outplay Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and other future Hall of Famers in Barcelona, Michael realized that Scottie was the best all-around player on what many consider the best basketball team ever assembled. Scottie, Michael had to admit, had even outshone him in several of the games."--Phil Jackson

"He's the best athlete all-around to ever play in the NBA. Tell me somebody who can do what he could do for 48 minutes on the basketball court. He was the best all-around. He could play three positions, four positions, rebound, assists, steals..."--Charles Oakley

"He's the best defender I've ever seen. I put him in a class with Bobby Jones, Sidney Moncrief and certainly Jordan. But they're different. Jordan, at his position, may have been as good as there ever was. But Scottie could guard more positions than Michael. Scottie can handle more sizes."--Mike Dunleavy

"It's like Scottie Pippen--when you played the Bulls, you were praying that, 'I hope he guards the other guy tonight.' Because Pippen was one of those guys that could guard the 1, 2 or 3. And you were hoping, 'Okay, I hope he guards the other guy.' I mean how rare is it that you want Michael to guard you?"--Doc Rivers

"It's amazing to see how good Scottie is. The guy shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game. That's what makes him one of the greatest players ever. He doesn't have to score a point and he can control the whole game."--Steve Kerr

"Let me have Scottie. See how I do then."--Clyde Drexler to Michael Jordan

"He was one of the best. He and Michael Cooper gave me the most problems."--Larry Bird

"There are certain things that Pippen does for that team that Michael doesn't do. Definitely defensively. I think offensively he's always conscious of getting the other guys involved. Not to take anything away from Michael, but I think Scottie is just more cognizant of the total package, and that makes them complement each other real well."--Julius Erving

"What Scottie represented to me is a player whom I would pick first for my team every time. Even if Michael was available, I would pick Scottie Pippen."--Bill Wennington

"Jordan always felt Pippen was something special. Michael realized how easy it was to play with him and how he helped make his teammates better. It's often said Jordan needed Pippen and Pippen needed Jordan. I'm not sure Jordan didn't need Pippen more than Pippen needed Jordan."--Tex Winter

"Scottie was our team leader. He was the guy that directed our offense and he was the guy that took on a lot of big challenges defensively...the year that Michael retired, Scottie I think was the most valuable player in the league. He was probably the player most liked by others. He mingled. He brought out the best in players and communicated the best."--Phil Jackson

Further Reading:

It is Wrong to Call LeBron James "LePippen"

Scottie Pippen Completes His Journey from Hamburg, Arkansas to the Basketball Hall of Fame

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM


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Friday, July 10, 2015

Thoughts About Kobe Bryant's February 2015 Interview With Ahmad Rashad

"I'm not afraid of change."—Kobe Bryant

Those words, spoken near the end of Kobe Bryant's February 2015 interview with Ahmad Rashad, embody who Kobe Bryant is. He was not afraid to jump from high school to the NBA. He was not afraid to challenge coaches, teammates and opponents. He was not afraid to try to win a championship without Shaquille O'Neal. He was not afraid when he suffered injuries during his prime that would have made other players miss games. He was not afraid when he suffered injuries near the end of his career that would have made other players give up and retire. In fact, Bryant says that there is "beauty" in looking at his physical mortality, both in terms of trying to put it off as long as possible and also in terms of planning for what he will do next when his playing career is over.

Rashad asked Bryant if Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were friends and Bryant replied, "No." The reason that the two superstars were not friends when they were teammates is that they had different approaches to the game. Bryant focused on working hard and perfecting his technique. He modeled himself after Michael Jordan and other perfectionistic workaholics. O'Neal wanted to do things his own way, which meant playing hard but not necessarily focusing on details in terms of practice, staying in shape and improving his technique. Neither player would back down. Bryant described how O'Neal would demand the ball and Bryant would reply, quite reasonably, "If you work, then I will give you the ball. If you don't work, I won't give you the ball." Some people say that Bryant broke up the O'Neal-Bryant tandem but I would say that Bryant's work ethic drove that tandem to three championships and four Finals appearances. Note that O'Neal won exactly one title without Bryant despite playing alongside (at various times) Penny Hardaway, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Steve Nash.

The Bryant-O'Neal relationship is interesting to revisit now, more than a decade after O'Neal left L.A., as some commentators assert that Bryant is a big man killer and that free agents are avoiding the Lakers because of Bryant's large presence. The idea of Bryant as a big man killer is ludicrous and easily refuted, because every big man he regularly played with had his greatest individual and team success as Bryant's teammate. O'Neal won an MVP and three championships with Bryant. Chris Mihm averaged career-highs in points, rebounds and field goal percentage during the two seasons when he was the Lakers' primary starting center. Kwame Brown averaged career highs in field goal percentage and blocked shots while playing alongside Bryant. Andrew Bynum blossomed into an All-Star (before injuries derailed his career) in no small part due to Bryant's tutelage. Pau Gasol went from being a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 playoff record in his pre-Bryant years to being a two-time champion and perennial All-Star after joining forces with Bryant.

Bryant's track record with big men is above reproach in the area that matters most: results.

So why did free agents not flock to the Lakers this summer? The Lakers' management situation is a mess, starting with running off Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson and then continuing with several other blunders. The San Antonio Spurs are clearly a better fit for prize free agent LaMarcus Aldridge than the Lakers due to the Spurs' stability and talent level. Also, Bryant is now an older player whose health is suspect.

During the interview, Bryant discussed how he embraced the challenge of winning a championship without O'Neal. Bryant felt that O'Neal knew that Bryant could do it because O'Neal had seen how hard Bryant worked every day. Bryant considered it disrespectful that anyone would classify him as just a sidekick and he is puzzled by the people who say that it is important to be selfless and then criticize him for sublimating his game to win three titles with O'Neal.

Bryant told Rashad that leaders do not sit around the camp fire singing kumbaya. Leadership can be uncomfortable and lonely for the leader. If someone has food in their teeth, then a leader tells him even if it is momentarily uncomfortable. That puts the onus on the other person to remove the food or look like a fool. Bryant added that if you are not that kind of leader then you will face a team that has that kind of leader and you will lose.

Bryant and Phil Jackson had a bumpy relationship at times; it could be argued that some of Jackson's public comments (perhaps intended to motivate Bryant and/or mollify O'Neal) betrayed Bryant but Bryant proved to be the bigger man by forgiving Jackson and winning two more championships with him. Bryant appreciates how Jackson helped him to elevate his game. Bryant said that he thought about basketball tactically before working with Jackson but Jackson taught him how to approach the game spiritually.

Bryant said that he should have seven championship rings instead of five, but he is grateful for the career he has had. The Lakers' loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals is the most painful defeat for Bryant. The 2005-07 period (also known as the Kwame/Smush wildnerness years, when Bryant pushed, pulled and dragged the Lakers to the playoffs with a starting center and starting point guard who could not have started for any other team in the league, let alone a playoff team) was enormously frustrating for Bryant but he had "strategic patience" because he believed that he would have another chance to win a championship. When the pieces were in place for the Lakers to contend, he pushed himself and those players harder than ever. Bryant declared that winning does not curb passion/work ethic but ramps it up because once you win you do not want anyone else to take that feeling away from you and have it for themselves.

Bryant told Rashad that Russell Westbrook is the current player who most reminds him of himself.

Listening to Bryant talk about his career and remembering how hard Bryant worked to perfect his craft, one realizes that it is not entirely or even mostly accidental that some great players accumulate multiple championships while others accumulate multiple excuses for not quite getting the job done. Has a Kobe Bryant team ever failed to live up to its potential? LeBron James, Steve Nash and Chris Paul are lauded for supposedly being more efficient than Bryant and for supposedly being better teammates yet between the three of them they have just two championship rings--both of them earned by James when he finally accepted the responsibility to push himself and his teammates instead of being passive and making excuses. Nash and Paul have played with many very talented teammates and failed to even reach the NBA Finals. There is something fundamentally flawed about the way many media members define concepts like leadership, teamwork and success. Is it better to act the way media members think that a leader should act or to actually lead men into battle and emerge victorious? Is it better to do things that media members perceive as being team-oriented or to actually win five championships?

The 2008 Team USA squad that won the Olympic gold medal revealed a lot about Bryant, James and Paul. James and Paul played very well but when the outcome of the championship game versus Spain was in the balance Bryant lifted Team USA over the top, putting an end to a string of embarrassing USA failures in FIBA play. Bryant set the defensive tone for the team, providing the critical element that had been missing in previous years. The Team USA coaching staff and players had no doubt who the real leader of the team was and at least two media members realized that Bryant was the difference, despite so many efforts to market James as the face of the team and Paul as supposedly the best leader in the sport.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:39 AM


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Friday, June 26, 2015

The One and Only Harvey Pollack Loved the NBA and Loved Numbers

Harvey Pollack, who passed away on June 23 at the age of 93, had been the last living person who worked continuously for the NBA since the league's first season (1946-47); he saw--and made major contributions to--the league's rise from obscurity to multi-billion dollar global success. Pollack is best known for his love of statistics (he invented the term "triple double"), embodied in the Statistical Yearbook that he produced annually for more than four decades. Pollack kept statistics from the sublime (including plus/minus, dunks, 50 point games) to the obscure (who won the most opening taps, who were the best left-handed players) but--unlike the "stat gurus" who followed in his wake--he did so without an agenda or bias; Pollack tracked the numbers, recorded the results and delivered the information to the public. Sure, he loved Philadelphia teams and players and he was perhaps the first person to assemble all of the Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell head to head individual statistics, showing that Chamberlain dominated that matchup individually even though Russell's more talented Boston teams won more games and championships--but Pollack did not distort the data or selectively pick data to make a point.

Pollack is the only person who was directly associated with each of Philadelphia's NBA championship teams: the 1947 Warriors, the 1956 Warriors, the 1967 76ers and the 1983 76ers. In 1980, the NBA honored its silver anniversary by selecting the greatest players and greatest single season team in league history; that 1967 Philadelphia team was voted the greatest single season team ahead of all of Bill Russell's 11 Boston championship teams and several other legendary squads. One could argue that the 1983 team led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving also deserves consideration for that honor if balloting were done today. In any case, Pollack had the privilege of seeing and working with all of the greats, from Chamberlain and Russell to Erving, Malone and a host of others.

Pollack, known as "Super Stat," was both hard working and quirky. In the early days, he wore several hats; when Chamberlain scored a record 100 points in the Philadelphia Warriors' 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962, Pollack was the game statistician, the Warriors' PR director and a reporter for the AP, UPI and Philadelphia Inquirer. Pollack took a sheet of paper and wrote "100" on it, handing it to Chamberlain to pose for one of the most famous photographs in sports history. Pollack also worked as a stat man for various Philadelphia colleges and he even spent 15 years as the head of the stat crew for the NFL's Baltimore Colts.

While doing all of those jobs, he never lost his sense of fun; Pollack set a Guinness World Record by wearing a different T-shirt for more than 4000 consecutive days. His Statistical Yearbook kept track of every single player tattoo in the league.

In 2002, Pollack received the John Bunn Award, the highest award given by the Basketball Hall of Fame other than enshrinement. He is also a member of more than a dozen Halls of Fame, including the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

I grew up as a 76ers fan, hoping that Julius Erving would win his first NBA title, cheering when he did and then hoping that he would win at least one more before retiring. The 76ers are one of the most storied franchises in league history. Pollack's life, legend and accomplishments are inextricably interwoven into the legacy of the 76ers, the city of Philadelphia and the NBA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:22 PM


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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why the Warriors Won the NBA Championship

It is fun to watch Golden State but it will not be much fun to listen to all of the nonsense and revisionist history that will likely be spewed in the wake of the Warriors' 4-2 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals.

My newest article at The Roar explains that Golden State's triumph is in no way a vindication of the style of play employed by Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns:

Why the Warriors Won the NBA Championship

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:20 PM


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Iggy Does It: Andre Iguodala Wins Finals MVP as Golden State Claims First Title Since 1975

Usually, a player whose man nearly averages a triple double in the NBA Finals does not win the Finals MVP but the 2015 NBA Finals were unusual in many respects. Andre Iguodala, a 2012 All-Star who did not start a single regular season game for the 67-15 Golden State Warriors, won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP after Golden State defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-97 in game six to clinch a 4-2 series victory. Iguodala finished with 25 points (tied with Stephen Curry for team-high honors), five rebounds and five assists. Iguodala averaged 16.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 4.0 apg for the series and he was the primary defender on LeBron James, who stuffed the box score en route to suffering his fourth defeat in six trips to the NBA Finals.

Iguodala's career arc is interesting and it illustrates what it takes to become an NBA champion. He is good enough to start for just about every team in the NBA. He is good enough to start for the Warriors, for that matter--but Iguodala understood that the Warriors would function best if he came off of the bench and he embraced that role, an unselfish and wise decision in a league where many players would rather be the number one option and never win a championship than sacrifice some of their statistics and glory in favor of the greater good. Manu Ginobili made a decision similar to Iguodala's and was rewarded with four championships. On the other hand, Stephon Marbury could have played his whole career alongside Kevin Garnett but Marbury did not want to be the second option--and, more recently, James Harden could have continued to be the sixth man for a powerful Oklahoma City team but he chose to seek more money and more glory. No one would expect LeBron James or Kevin Durant to take a back seat to anyone but if you are not one of the very best players in the NBA and you want to win a championship then it makes sense to put the team's needs before your desire to receive individual accolades.

Iguodala's Finals MVP award will surely generate some controversy. Curry, the 2015 regular season MVP, put up MVP caliber numbers in the Finals as well, leading the Warriors with 26.0 ppg while averaging 6.2 apg and 5.2 rpg. He poured in 37 points--including 17 in the fourth quarter--to lead Golden State to a 104-91 victory in game five but neither that signature moment nor his overall productivity were enough to move the media voters off of the small-ball storyline that gathered steam after Golden State Coach Steve Kerr benched starting center Andrew Bogut for game four and moved Iguodala into the starting five. Going small helped the Warriors open up the court and increase the tempo but the most important effect is that Kerr's move prompted Cleveland Coach David Blatt to counter with his own move: limiting starting center Timofey Mozgov to just nine minutes in game five after Mozgov had 28 points in game four. The Cavaliers were underdogs no matter what Blatt did but the rash decision to bench Mozgov hurt the team's chances to pull off the upset; when Cleveland took a 2-1 series lead, the Cavaliers' main weapons were LeBron James doing everything and Mozgov controlling the paint at both ends of the court. Playing Mozgov for 40 minutes per game the rest of the way in the Finals may not have been a winning strategy for Cleveland but limiting Mozgov's minutes in order to give playing time to James Jones and Mike Miller was definitely a losing strategy.

Klay Thompson, the other half of Golden State's All-Star backcourt duo known as the "Splash Brothers," had a quiet game six (5 points on 2-7 field goal shooting) but Draymond Green picked up the slack with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

LeBron James put up monster numbers in the series and probably received serious consideration for Finals MVP honors even in defeat. He averaged 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg and he had two triple doubles but he also shot just .398 from the field and .687 from the free throw line. James is the first player in NBA Finals history to lead both teams in total points, total rebounds and total assists--but pro basketball history aficionados know that in the 1976 ABA Finals, Julius Erving led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots as his New York Nets defeated the star-studded Denver Nuggets to win the league's final championship. Erving shot .590 from the field while averaging 42.8 mpg during that series and no one--least of all Erving--spoke about Erving being fatigued. Ever since the infamous "Decision" fiasco, James has usually said the right things to the media but he may have taken a step back in the 2015 Finals as in one breath he called himself the "best player in the world" but he also complainied about being fatigued. Most basketball observers understand that James is indeed the best player but if James is going to make bold public declarations about himself then he opens himself up to questions such as "If you are the best player, why are you so much more tired than the other great players who are logging heavy minutes in this series and the other great players who logged heavy minutes in previous NBA Finals?" Games five and six were winnable for the Cavaliers down the stretch if he had been more productive in the fourth quarter.

J.R. Smith scored 19 points in 34 minutes in game six but many of those buckets came late in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers cut the Golden State lead to four before the Warriors closed out the series by making some free throws.

Turnovers killed Cleveland in game six as much as anything else. The Cavaliers committed 16 turnovers that led to 25 Golden State points, wiping out Cleveland's huge advantages in rebounding (56-39) and free throws attempted (39-29).

How would this series have been different if Cleveland's injured stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been available? That question cannot be answered with certainty but Cleveland's management has some very interesting personnel decisions to make soon and those decisions will be based in no small part on their expectations for Irving and Love moving forward.

Today, though, the story is about Golden State. Steve Kerr took over an improving, good team and helped transform it into a great, championship team. Along the way, Stephen Curry emerged as an elite player, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green carved out nice complementary niches, former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee sublimated their egos to come off of the bench and Shaun Livingston's comeback from a devastating knee injury culminated in his becoming a solid contributor on the league's best team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 AM


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Monday, June 15, 2015

Warriors Demonstrate Folly of Trying to Play Small Ball Against Them, Take 3-2 Finals Lead Over Cavaliers

Stephen Curry scored 37 points--including 17 in the fourth quarter--as his Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 104-91 to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals. Curry shot 13-23 from the field, including 7-13 from three point range. He also had seven rebounds and four assists. Curry is one of five players to score 17 points in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game in the past 40 years, a list that includes Shaquille O’Neal (2000 Lakers), Dwyane Wade (2006 Heat), Russell Westbrook (2012 Thunder) and Kevin Durant (2012 Thunder).

LeBron James had another huge game for the Cavaliers, compiling 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists with just two turnovers in 45 minutes. James shot 15-34 from the field, including 1-4 in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter after the Cavaliers had trimmed the Warriors' lead to 85-84.

The big story--literally and figuratively--is Cleveland's starting center Timofey Mozgov, who played a scoreless nine minutes after scoring 28 points in game four and helping to keep the Cavaliers close with his inside presence at both ends of the court. Cleveland Coach David Blatt pulled Mozgov from game five after just five minutes with Golden State leading 8-2; Blatt did not give Mozgov a chance to go to work against Golden State's undersized lineup, a markedly different approach to coaching and matchups from the one that Golden State Coach Steve Kerr took in game four when he stuck with his small lineup despite trailing 7-0 early in the first quarter.

Any player--but particularly a big man whose size and length can wear down opponents over the course of a game--would struggle to find his rhythm if he is used to playing regular minutes but then is suddenly relegated to just four or five minutes per half.

Mozgov averaged 16.8 ppg on .550 field goal shooting plus 8.3 rpg in the first four games of the series, yet after Blatt benched Mozgov early in game five he did not put Mozgov back in the game until late in the third quarter. The Cavaliers cut a 71-67 Golden State lead to 78-77 during Mozgov's cameo second half appearance and then were outscored 26-14 the rest of the way after Blatt yanked Mozgov again. Essentially, Blatt iced his second best player and failed to exploit the only matchup advantage that the Cavaliers have other than James versus whoever tries to guard him one on one.

The minutes that Mozgov would have and should have played went to a combination of perimeter players J.R. Smith (14 points on 5-15 field goal shooting in 36 minutes), James Jones (0 points in 18 minutes) and Mike Miller (3 points in 14 minutes).

The bottom line is that Kerr has outcoached Blatt. Yes, Kerr has more cards to play but Blatt has the biggest card (LeBron James) plus the edge inside with Mozgov but Blatt has not taken full advantage of those trumps. On offense, the Cavaliers should be running a steady diet of James-Mozgov screen/roll plays, forcing the Warriors to either trap James and leave Mozgov open at the rim or else single cover James and pray for salvation. On defense, the idea that Mozgov could not guard any of the Warriors is wrong; Mozgov should be assigned to stand two feet away from Andre Iguodala, who is struggling to make uncontested and wide open 15 foot shots (Iguodala shot 2-11 from the free throw line in game five). The Cavaliers could then pack the paint, stay close to Golden State's three point shooters and dare Iguodala to beat them with two point jump shots. If that strategy sounds familiar that is because it is the strategy that Kerr used to beat Memphis in the playoffs, assigning Bogut to guard Tony Allen--and by "guard" I mean give Allen the space to shoot open jumpers to his heart's content. Iguodala is a very good all-around player but the Warriors are not going to win a championship with Iguodala shooting 15-18 foot jumpers while James and/or Mozgov are getting dunks and free throws.

What did Kerr think of Blatt's quick hook of Mozgov? Here is what Kerr said after game five: "I thought from the very beginning when they went small, had their shooters out there, I thought this is Steph's night. This is going to be a big one for him because he has all that room. He took over the game down the stretch and was fantastic." Translation: "If I had known that all I had to do was bench Bogut and Blatt would respond by taking out his second best player then I would have done it in game one and this series would have been over in four games. I will match our five best perimeter players against Cleveland's five best perimeter players any day of the week. Cleveland then has one matchup advantage with LeBron James but we have four matchup advantages and we do not have to worry about foul trouble or our guys getting worn down by banging around in the paint against a true big man."

While Golden State is deeper on paper than Cleveland, it is interesting to look at who is actually seeing action in this series. In game five, three Golden State starters played at least 40 minutes and seven Golden State players played at least 17 minutes; three Cleveland starters played at least 40 minutes and seven Cleveland players played at least 18 minutes. For all of the talk about fatigue and depth, the reality is that both teams are using seven man rotations. Yes, LeBron James is carrying a heavy individual workload but that is at least partially because Blatt refuses to take advantage of his second best weapon. Is James really more tired than Michael Jordan was in 1998 at the end of the Bulls' second three-peat or than Kobe Bryant was in 2010 after battling Boston's historically good defense for seven games or than most other great players were when they fought to win championships against worthy opposition? James is putting up great numbers but he is also consistently fading down the stretch while being offered (and accepting) a fatigue excuse that is rarely if ever granted to any other person who has held the greatest player in the world title.

Let's stop pretending that the Cavaliers are nothing more than LeBron James and a bunch of guys he rounded up at the YMCA. Timofey Mozgov is the best big man on either roster. Tristan Thompson is the leading rebounder in the series (and James is second). Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova are credible perimeter defenders. J.R. Smith is a talented, if erratic, player. The main difference in this series since Cleveland took a 2-1 lead is that Kerr convinced Blatt to bench Mozgov in exchange for Kerr benching Bogut, who is averaging 2.5 ppg in the Finals.

Maybe the Cavaliers would have lost game four even if Mozgov had played 35 or 40 minutes. Maybe the Cavaliers would have lost game five even if Mozgov had played more than nine minutes. However, it is a near certainty that if Blatt insists using some combination of Smith, Miller and Jones to match up with Golden State's skilled perimeter players while Mozgov languishes on the bench then Cleveland will lose every time.

As bizarre as this may sound, Cleveland could still win this series if Blatt makes the right moves and if James figures out how to play as hard and well in the final five minutes as he does the rest of the game. A Cleveland victory is by no means probable but it sure would be interesting to see what would happen if Blatt came up with a strategy other than expecting James to play point guard and center the rest of the way while Mozgov watches the action. Magic Johnson won his first NBA championship while doing the point guard/center routine in one game of the 1980 NBA Finals due to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's ankle injury--and Johnson's Lakers already enjoyed a 3-2 lead over Philadelphia, while James' Cavaliers trail 3-2. No onc expected Johnson to do that for an entire Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 AM


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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Adjustments for Cleveland Heading Into Game Five

Basketball is a game of matchups and adjustments but sometimes the best adjustment is no adjustment at all. The favored 67-15 Golden State Warriors had to do something after falling behind 2-1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals because it was clear that the slow down style of play that predominated in the first three games favored Cleveland. Golden State Coach Steve Kerr elected to try to speed up the tempo by going with a small lineup, replacing starting center Andrew Bogut with Andre Iguodala. The Cavaliers promptly took a 7-0 lead in game four by taking advantage of their size inside but the Warriors took control after the Cavaliers went small to match up with Golden State's small lineup; Golden State won 103-82 to even up the series.

In my newest article at The Roar, I explain why Cleveland's best adjustment now is no adjustment at all, but rather sticking with the team's strengths and forcing the Warriors to match up with them or get pounded in the paint:

Cleveland Needs LeBron--and Timofey Mozgov's Height--to Win the Title

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:23 PM


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Friday, June 12, 2015

Warriors Regain Homecourt Advantage with 103-82 Game Four Win

Golden State defeated Cleveland 103-82 to tie the NBA Finals at 2-2 and regain homecourt advantage. Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala led Golden State with 22 points apiece. Timofey Mozgov scored a game-high 28 points for Cleveland while pulling down 10 rebounds. LeBron James finished with 20 points on 7-22 field goal shooting plus 12 rebounds and eight assists.

This game is yet another reminder of how quickly things can turn in a seven game series and how foolish it is to make too much of just one game. Prior to game four, everyone was talking about the Cavaliers being on the verge of pulling off a huge upset as James authored possibly the greatest performance in NBA Finals history. Then in game four the Cavaliers suffered the fourth worst home loss in Finals history. The same people who were writing off Golden State after game three will probably write off Cleveland after game four. The reality is that, except for an occasional mismatch, most NBA Finals are seesaw affairs in which each game is both its own individual story and also one chapter in a larger story that cannot be completely understood until after the fact. It could very well be that the most important moment of the 2015 NBA Finals has not happened yet--or it may have already happened and we do not realize it because we do not know the final outcome.

Most of the analysis of game four will probably focus on Golden State Coach Steve Kerr's decision to go small by inserting Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup over Andrew Bogut. Iguodala, a former All-Star, had started every game of his career prior to this season but had yet to start a single game for Kerr's Warriors. Kerr's move had such an immediate impact that Golden State promptly fell behind 7-0. You can bet that this part of the story will be left out or glossed over in most accounts of the game.

Kerr's decision to go small did not spark the Warriors--but what happened shortly after the game started did. To understand that part of the story we need to look at the plus/minus numbers from this game. Every Cleveland player who played significant minutes had a plus/minus number of -12 or worse except for Mozgov (-5). Kerr went small for two reasons: to accelerate the pace of the game (which favors the Warriors because they are deeper and because their perimeter players are better than Cleveland's) and to entice the Cavaliers to take the bait and also go small--and Blatt fell for the banana in the tailpipe, giving J.R. Smith 28 minutes even though Smith was a one man disaster area. Smith's plus/minus number of -27 (12 points worse than any other player who appeared in the game) only hints at how poorly he played and how negative his impact was. Smith shot 2-12 from the field (including 0-8 from three point range) and finished with as many fouls as points (four).

The Warriors made a 10-4 run to take a 22-20 lead after J.R. Smith replaced Matthew Dellavedova in Cleveland's lineup. Matters really went south for Cleveland after Blatt took out Mozgov at that point to go small with James Jones; Golden State pushed the lead to 31-24 before Blatt put Mozgov back in the game.

There is a natural tendency to focus on the fourth quarter in general and the final minutes/final plays in particular but students of the NBA understand that games are often decided early, even if there are subsequent runs by both teams. Cleveland made a late run in game four but the Cavaliers could not overcome the double digit lead that Golden State built by halftime. Golden State did a lot of damage in the first half with Mozgov on the bench; the Cavs played too fast during that stretch and Smith was awful. Instead of going small, Blatt should have stayed true to his team's strength and exploited his team's advantage inside.

When the Cavaliers went small they also started to play faster and they started firing up three pointers. Cleveland shot 4-27 from three point range. The problem is not just the number of misses or even the number of attempts but rather the quality and nature of the shots. Cleveland won games two and three by pounding the ball inside with James posting or driving, Mozgov cutting through the lane and Tristan Thompson pounding the offensive boards. Most of the Cavaliers' three pointers in those games came as a result of penetration and good ball movement. In game four, James did not attack as much, the Cavaliers settled for low percentage three pointers and the Cavaliers paid the price for Blatt's substitution patterns.

I understand that Blatt has limited options due to injuries but in order for Cleveland to win this series Mozgov's minutes need to go up, Smith's minutes need to go down and James cannot sit out the first two minutes of the fourth quarter because every time that happens Golden State goes on a run; this almost cost Cleveland in game three and it thwarted a potential Cleveland comeback in game four.

James may have to play 42 or 43 minutes per game the rest of the way, including all 12 in the final stanza. That work load is not the cruel and unusual punishment that the media portrays it to be. In the 1993 Finals, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--en route to winning their third straight championship--averaged 45.7 mpg and 44.3 mpg. In the 1996 Finals, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--en route to completing their second three-peat--each averaged more than 41 mpg (and Gary Payton averaged almost 46 mpg for Seattle in a losing cause that year). Superstar players should not only expect heavy minutes in the Finals but they should demand heavy minutes.

Hall of Famer Jerry West, a consultant for the Warriors, has said that in the NBA when you don't have talent coaching can only do so much but when you do have talent coaching is everything. While it is true that Golden State has more talent and more depth than Cleveland, for all intents and purposes both teams are using a seven man rotation now and both teams are talented or they would not be in the Finals; in game four, seven Cleveland players played at least 18 minutes (and three players received three garbage time minutes apiece) and seven Golden State players played at least 15 minutes (and five other players received between one and seven minutes, with four of those players playing three minutes or less). Kerr may have more chess pieces to move around the board than Blatt does but Blatt has the ultimate chess piece (James) and he has a chess piece who is a matchup nightmare for Golden State (Mozgov) so within the options that Blatt has he needs to make the best possible choices to maximize the damage done by his two best pieces.

In addition to Kerr outcoaching Blatt (or Blatt outcoaching himself), the other big factor in game four is that LeBron James was not nearly as aggressive as he had been in the first three games of the series when he averaged 41 ppg. James scored 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting in the first half and if he had reached his normal level of production in this series then Cleveland would not have trailed by 12 at halftime. Yes, that is a lot to ask of one player but when James is aggressive he not only creates scoring opportunities for himself but he also creates scoring opportunities for his teammates.

James suffered a large gash late in the first half when he hit his head on a courtside camera lens after receiving a hard foul from Andrew Bogut. It is unclear how much that injury affected James but he had been passive and the Cavaliers had been trailing even before that happened.

As a longtime advocate for the ABA, I cannot neglect to mention that even though James' 123 points through the first three games of the Finals is an NBA record it is not a pro basketball record; in the 1976 ABA Finals, Julius Erving scored 124 points in the first three games as his underdog New York Nets took a 2-1 lead over the powerful Denver Nuggets. James now has 143 points after four games but Erving scored 158 points in the first four games in the 1976 ABA Finals and for the series he led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as the Nets won 4-2 over a squad that featured two Hall of Famers (David Thompson and Dan Issel) plus the best defensive forward in pro basketball (Bobby Jones) and a Hall of Fame coach (Larry Brown). Erving shot .590 from the field against the Nuggets. Considering the quality of the opponent, the all-around statistical dominance and the efficiency, a good case can be made that this is the greatest single series performance in pro basketball history. Just keep that historical perspective in mind when placing James' numbers in proper context. James has played great overall in the first four games but basketball history did not begin with Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan and basketball history includes (or should include) the ABA, though you might not realize this if you depend on the mainstream media outlets for basketball commentary.

OK, enough with the historical interlude for now. What will happen next in the 2015 NBA Finals? The only honest answer is, "I don't know." What I do know is that Golden State has the better team but Cleveland has the best player. Cleveland is capable of winning by employing the right strategy and playing really hard but Golden State has a larger margin for error. If Cleveland wins this series it would clearly be an upset but I am not sure it would be the biggest upset ever, as some people have suggested; let's wait and see if Cleveland prevails before trying to figure out how big of an upset it would be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM


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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cleveland Shows the Value of the Paint--and the True MVP

The Cleveland Cavaliers lead the Golden State Warriors 2-1 in the 2015 NBA Finals but the score could easily be 3-0 either way. Cleveland may be halfway toward completing an improbable upset but Golden State may come back and cap off a 67 win season with a championship. Since the outcome is still in doubt, it would be premature to make definitive conclusions about what we have seen so far.

However, there are some trends that seem to be emerging, including the value of having an "inefficient" superstar who attracts a lot of defensive attention and the way that post play, team defense and rebounding can overcome analytics-driven small ball.

At The Roar, I discuss some of the things we have learned from the first three games of the Finals:

Cleveland Shows the Value of the Paint--and the True MVP

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:20 PM


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Monday, June 08, 2015

Cavaliers Tie Series as James Posts Triple Double and Curry Struggles

LeBron James posted big numbers across the board--39 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists, 11-35 field goal shooting, 14-18 free throw shooting--as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors 95-93 in overtime to tie the NBA Finals at 1-1. "Stat gurus" will decry his lack of efficiency and bemoan Cleveland's reliance on isolation plays for James that lead to the dreaded shots that are neither layups nor three pointers (i.e., the lost art of the midrange game, the same skill set that enabled Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to lead their teams to multiple titles). Obviously, it would be better for James and the Cavaliers if James shot a higher field goal percentage but the way James is playing now is the right way: he is in aggressive, attack mode and he is forcing the defense to stop him from scoring before he gives up the ball. If James had played like this throughout his NBA Finals career then he probably would have never lost in the NBA Finals. Precisely by scoring so prolifically he is bringing out the best in his teammates, because as Golden State sends more defenders toward James he is able to pass the ball to his teammates for wide open shots. This is the way that Kobe Bryant played during his prime but many members of the media never gave him proper credit for it. I praised Bryant for shouldering the responsibility of being a great player and I say the same thing about James now. Cleveland is succeeding despite being undermanned by relying on a tried and tested formula: defense, rebounding and the brilliance of a great player who is not afraid to keep shooting.

James is doing a lot but he is not all by himself. Timofey Mozgov contributed 17 points, 11 rebounds and excellent defense in the paint. Mozgov's size and ability to draw fouls hurt Golden State. Tristan Thompson has little offensive game (he scored just two points) but he is so ferocious on the boards (14 rebounds) that Golden State tried to face guard him at times, a tactic which may not have been seen at this level of the game since Dennis Rodman's prime.

Matthew Dellavedova's stat line does not look like anything special (nine points on 3-10 field goal shooting, five rebounds, three steals, six turnovers) but he played a huge role in Cleveland's victory; his tough defense against Stephen Curry contributed to Curry's poor shooting performance and Dellvedova made several crucial hustle plays, culminating in grabbing an offensive rebound, getting fouled and nailing the game-winning free throws with 10.1 seconds remaining in overtime.

ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said it all about J.R. Smith: "Dumb gets you beat." Smith was Cleveland's third leading scorer (13 points on 5-13 field goal shooting) but he earned Van Gundy's ire with a series of stupid fouls that almost cost Cleveland the game. Smith is an enormously gifted player who can shoot, drive, pass and defend but after more than a decade in the NBA he still has not figured out how to intelligently use his gifts on a consistent basis.

Klay Thompson kept Golden State in contention by pouring in 34 points on 14-28 field goal shooting  but he did not receive much help. Curry never found his rhythm, scoring 19 points while shooting just 5-23 from the field (including 2-15 from three point range). Curry also had six rebounds, five assists and he tied Dellavedova with a game-high six turnovers.

It is humorously inevitable that the team that has just won in the NBA Finals is described by the media as being nearly invincible/a team of destiny while the team that just lost has choked/has no chance but the reality is, in the words of Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter, "Everything turns on a trifle." In a seven game series, the best team will almost always win but each play, each game and the series itself can turn in a moment: a call, a missed shot, a deflected pass, a ligament strained just past its limits.

No one can say for sure who will win this series. Golden State was and remains the smart pick because the Warriors were much better than the Cavaliers during the regular season, because the Warriors are great at both ends of the court and because the Warriors are deeper and healthier. Yet, the first two games have demonstrated that these teams are evenly matched enough that anything could happen. Golden State could be ahead 2-0 now and the talk could be about how the Warriors rank among the league's all-time best teams and about how James falls short so often in the NBA Finals; Cleveland could be ahead 2-0 now and the talk could be about how James is on the verge of playing the 1975 Rick Barry role, flipping the script on the Warriors.

One thing that is interesting to note about this series is that the new, "advanced" theory of basketball may have a chink or two in it. The math behind relying on three point shooting makes sense; a 40% three point shooter is statistically equivalent to a 60% two point shooter and since the current defensive rules make it much easier to get open on the perimeter than inside it seems to make sense to jack up three pointers as much as possible. I get that; in fact, nearly 20 years ago when no one talked about "advanced basketball statistics" I used to argue with the older guys who played pickup basketball with me that dumping the ball inside to an inefficient big guy made no sense if a team had a consistent three point shooter. However, a style of play that works in pickup basketball or college basketball or even FIBA basketball may not be quite as successful in the NBA. The problem is that a good inside player who shoots 50% or 55% or 60% probably can do that fairly consistently; he shoots close to the basket and has little margin for error (he also probably gets fouled a lot and puts his team in the bonus early). A three point shot covers greater distance and has a greater margin for error. A three point shooter who shoots .400 from three point range might be 1-10 one night and 7-10 the next night. His team will almost certainly lose on the nights he shoots 1-10 (that is a lot of empty possessions to overcome) but may not necessarily win on the nights he shoots 7-10. The variability of three point shooting can work against using it as the staple of a team's offense. Teams like the Olajuwon Rockets and the Duncan Spurs established an inside presence and shot three pointers off of double teams, ball reversal and offensive rebounds. Now, many teams just jack up three pointers at any time. The math looks good on paper but it can also lead to results like last night's, when a team that seems to have an advantage at four out of five positions plus a deeper bench got sucked into a slow down game in which one team established at least some inside presence while the other team kept shooting jumpers, expecting that they have to go in sooner or later.

LeBron James is attacking the hoop like Jordan and Bryant used to do via drives and postups, which also creates opportunities for Mozgov to attack the hoop and for Tristan Thompson to get offensive rebounds. Look at the last shot that James missed during regulation: he attacked the hoop and, even though he missed, he attracted so much attention that Tristan Thompson had a chance for a point blank tip in shot. When James missed a long jumper at the end of regulation in game one, the defensive attention he attracted led to an offensive rebound but one that was further from the hoop and led to a lower percentage attempt.

In the long run, attacking the hoop on offense, playing solid defense and rebounding remains a pretty good championship recipe. If Golden State does those things--or limits Cleveland's ability to do those things--the Warriors can still win this series. If the Warriors continue to "let" LeBron James put up historic stat lines, then the Cavaliers can pull off the upset; I use "let" advisedly, because I am not sure that the media characterization of Golden State's strategy is correct. Contrary to published reports, Golden State is not defending James one-on-one and just letting him score. The Warriors are sending a lot of help defenders in James' direction. The problem is that they are not doing so effectively enough; Mozgov cannot be left open running through the lane, Thompson cannot be left unattended on the boards and Smith cannot be left open for three point shots. The Warriors should help in such a fashion that Iman Shumpert is left open for two point jumpers and Dellavedova is forced to create shots off of the dribble.

The one thing that remains constant in the NBA Finals and in all forms of competition is the importance and the purity of playing with maximum effort at all times. Precisely because everything turns on a trifle, the players and teams that exert maximum effort for the longest period of time are most likely to be rewarded. "Super John" Williamson used to exhort his teammates, "Go down as you live" and one of those teammates--Phil Jackson--later adopted that as a slogan for the teams he coached to 11 NBA titles.

The twists and turns of game two, culminating in a Cleveland win that most analysts considered to be improbable if not impossible, reaffirms the wisdom of what I wrote just prior to that contest:

"I disagree with the notion that LeBron James is playing with 'house money' just because his team has suffered injuries. He has some talented teammates and any team that is good enough to make it to the Finals should not just be happy to be there. James is the best player on the court and he has the ability to elevate his team so that each game is at least competitive."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM


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Saturday, June 06, 2015

LeBron James' Legacy Should not be Defined by the 2015 NBA Finals

There is a tendency now to want instant--but superficial--analysis leading to quick and supposedly definitive conclusions. Nuance, context and patience are foreign words. Many people are trying to build up the 2015 NBA Finals as some kind of definitive referendum on LeBron James' career, either suggesting that a Cleveland victory would be worth two titles on James' resume (according to one ESPN commentator) or suggesting that one missed shot at the end of regulation of game one proves that James is just not a winner (according to another ESPN commentator--and it is not a coincidence that ESPN is the source of a lot of superficial, if not superfluous, commentating).

The 2015 NBA Finals will be one part of LeBron James' legacy but it will not, in and of itself, define LeBron James' legacy. My newest article at The Roar places LeBron James' legacy in historical context:

LeBron's Legacy Shouldn't be Defined by Another Playoff Loss

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 PM


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Friday, June 05, 2015

LeBron James Did a Lot--but not Quite Enough--in Golden State's 108-100 Game One Win Over Cleveland

LeBron James scored an NBA Finals career-high 44 points on 18-38 field goal shooting last night but the Golden State Warriors still prevailed over his Cleveland Cavaliers 108-100 in overtime to take a 1-0 series lead. James also had eight rebounds and six assists. Stephen Curry led Golden State with 26 points on 10-20 field goal shooting, plus a game-high eight assists.

Recent media coverage of James has focused on his poor shooting percentage during the 2015 playoffs and attributed this at least in part to James shifting from being a pass-first player to being more of a scorer because of the injuries that have knocked Kevin Love out of the lineup and limited Kyrie Irving's availability. That description of James' play is false, contrived and does not match reality. James did not suddenly emerge as a great scorer. James has the fourth highest regular season career scoring average (27.3 ppg) in pro basketball history and the highest regular season career scoring average among active players. He also ranks fifth in playoff career scoring average (28.0 ppg). Entering the 2015 NBA Finals, James did not rank in the top ten in NBA Finals career scoring average and that helps explain why James owns four regular season MVPs but only two Finals MVPs while posting a 2-3 record in his previous Finals appearances. James has always been a great scorer and his teams have always been at their best when he scores a lot of points. Sometimes, James has played passively in the Finals after spending the whole regular season and playoffs putting up big point totals and in those situations his teammates understandably could not compensate for James' reduced scoring. It is to James' credit that he is also capable of passing the ball very well but James' greatest asset is his ability to use his size, strength, athletic ability and shooting touch to score.

The first quarter of game one of the 2015 Finals is yet another example of how James' team thrives when he scores a lot. James scored 12 points on 4-9 field goal shooting as Cleveland led by as many as 14 points before settling for a 29-19 advantage after the first 12 minutes. James played all 12 of those minutes and clearly earned his +10 plus/minus rating.

James did not quite maintain that scoring pace the rest of the way and Golden State shot much better from the field in the final three quarters of regulation but with less than 10 seconds remaining James had scored 42 points and he had the ball in his hands with the score tied at 98. One more basket would have given James 44 points (nearly the 48 point pace he had set in the first quarter) and would have given Cleveland an upset win. James had the necessary time and space to attack the paint and take a high percentage shot but instead he let the clock wind down before missing a low percentage fadeaway jump shot. Running the clock down with just seconds remaining in a tied game is good strategy--the offensive team in that situation should either win or go to overtime but should not give the defensive team any time to score--but the fadeaway jump shot only makes sense if Cleveland had inbounded the ball with less than two or three seconds remaining. James should have attacked the paint around the five second mark with the mindset of scoring, getting fouled or dishing to an open teammate (if help defenders engulfed him).

Golden State scored the first 10 point in overtime. James shot 1-4 from the field in overtime--including 0-2 on three pointers--and he committed two turnovers; his scoring during the first four quarters nearly carried Cleveland to victory and his lack of scoring in the overtime doomed Cleveland to defeat. Is that analysis too dramatic or oversimplified? Not really. The great, iconic players have usually carried a heavy burden during championship runs. A few well-balanced teams spread out the scoring and the glory but most championship teams (and almost all championship-winning dynasties) have one player who carries a significantly larger weight than his teammates.

James had a plus/minus number of -3 during game one of the Finals. Does that mean that Cleveland was better off without him? No, because Cleveland was +5 during regulation time when James was in the game; James authored a dominant performance in the game's first 48 minutes and nearly led the Cavaliers to a road victory in the NBA Finals against a team than won 67 regular season games. However, James took a low percentage last second shot to end regulation and he came up empty in overtime save for Cleveland's lone basket of the extra session, a hoop that even James termed "meaningless." Taken in isolation, that plus/minus number of -3 can be misinterpreted but placed in proper context it provides some illumination about the ebbs and flows of game one.

I mention James' plus/minus number--and how to correctly understand what it means--because I have previously noted that James Harden had a negative plus/minus number throughout the entire 2015 playoffs. There are apparently few basketball sins worse than merely suggesting that Harden might not be one of the two best basketball players on the planet, so some diehard Harden fans accused me of selectively using the plus/minus statistic against Harden after allegedly not using it in my analysis of other players and games. The latter accusation is easily refuted; my coverage of Team USA in FIBA play--which can be found in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's home page--includes many references to plus/minus. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic. It must be used judiciously and placed in proper context. With my Team USA coverage, I provided very detailed explanations of why Team USA performed better when certain players were in the game. With my Harden coverage, I noted that during the playoffs the Rockets had extended periods of meaningful time when they did better with Harden on the bench. The "noise" from plus/minus often comes from numbers that are skewed by garbage time but this was not the case with Harden; in fact, on multiple occasions in the playoffs, Houston made important fourth quarter runs with Harden on the bench--and Harden actually padded his individual numbers, if not also his plus/minus numbers, by staying in some blowout losses and getting buckets while his team trailed by more than 20 points. I do not lend much credence to individual statistics that are padded by garbage time points but I do take note when a supposedly MVP caliber player is on the bench while his team makes series-defining runs with home court advantage on the line (versus Dallas in game two) and with elimination on the line (versus the L.A. Clippers in game six).

A player's plus/minus number for a game, a playoff series or even an entire season is "noisy" and, without context, does not mean very much--but a plus/minus number combined with observation and analysis can be helpful in determining what factors led to a team's success or failure.

LeBron James had a great game one. He was not flawless but no great player is flawless. He did a lot to put his team in position to win. With each great game that he plays in the NBA Finals, James is diminishing the weight of his earlier failures in the NBA Finals. After his travails and triumphs in Miami, he finally seems to understand how large of a burden a great player must shoulder to win an NBA championship. This one particular series will not define James' legacy any more than any one particular series defined Kobe Bryant's legacy or Michael Jordan's legacy. James has already earned the title of NBA champion and no one can take that away; only James can determine how far he will climb within pro basketball's Pantheon and that determination will not be based on one game or one series but on his entire body of work.

It could turn out that this series is not about James as much as it is about Curry. Curry did not arrive in Golden State accompanied by all of the hype that preceded James' jump from high school to the NBA but Curry has developed from solid pro to All-Star to All-NBA player to MVP in a very short period of time. Curry is the best player on a 67 win team and he may cap off that season with Finals MVP honors. He has authored one of the greatest years ever by a 6-3 and under player. I about fell out of my chair when I heard Jeff Van Gundy say during a radio interview that Harden is better than Jerry West; that is one of the most absurd player comparisons ever made by an otherwise sensible analyst. However, while Harden is receiving unwarranted praise, Curry may very well be playing his way into the ranks of the greatest guards of all-time; he is a peerless shooter, a deft ballhandler/passer and a more than capable defensive player.

James, by virtue of his physicality, individual numbers and team accomplishments, is a magnet for attention, analysis and criticism but when we may look back on the 2015 NBA Finals we may realize that the main story really was not about him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 PM


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The NBA Coaching Carousel Rotates Quickly

If you believe the rumors, the same David Blatt who led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals almost got fired before the All-Star break. The idea of letting players and coaches develop seems laughably quaint; almost every current NBA coach was hired within the past four years and within the past decade or so it has become a bizarre tradition for a coach to be fired within a few years of winning the Coach of the Year award. Did all of those Coach of the Year honorees suddenly take stupid pills or is it possible that the coach is simply the most convenient scapegoat after teams fail to reach expectations that may not have been realistic in the first place?

At The Roar, I discuss the recent firings of Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau:

The NBA Coaching Carousel Rotates Quickly

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 PM


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Monday, June 01, 2015

NBA Finals Focus: The Coaching Matchup

Unless you remember the Truman administration, you do not remember the last time that two rookie head coaches squared off in the NBA Finals. In 1947, Eddie Gottlieb's Philadelphia Warriors defeated Harold Olsen's Chicago Stags 4-1 in the Basketball Association of America (BAA) Finals. In 1949, four teams from the National Basketball League (NBL) joined the BAA to form the National Basketball Association (NBA). The NBA traces its history back to the 1946-47 season, so the 1947 Philadelphia-Chicago series is considered to be the first official NBA Finals.

This year's NBA Finals features a coaching matchup of rookie David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers and rookie Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors (the same franchise that won the first NBA title).

My newest article for The Roar looks at the Blatt-Kerr chess match that will not receive as much hype as the LeBron James-Stephen Curry duel but that could ultimately decide which team wins the series:

NBA Finals Focus: The Coaching Matchup

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:05 PM


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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

I predicted that the Western Conference Finals would be "quite an eye-opener." What I meant by that is the impending showdown between Stephen Curry and James Harden would reveal a lot about those two players. Curry was a lightly-recruited player heading into college and even after he shined at Davidson many analysts questioned how good of an NBA player he would be but I predicted that he would be a very good NBA player and I noted that he was a lot more than just a high scoring jump shooter a la J.J. Redick. Curry earned a starting spot as a rookie and played very well. He battled some injuries early in his career but he persevered through that while also improving his skill set, most notably on defense. In his fifth season (2013-14), Curry emerged as an All-NBA player and this season he won the MVP award after leading the Golden State Warriors to the best record in the league (67-15). Curry deflects praise and focuses on what he can do to increase his team's success.

Harden is very focused on personal glory. After he flamed out in the 2012 NBA Finals, Oklahoma City still offered him a contract that would have paid him a lot of money to be the third best player on a perennial championship contender. Harden wanted the accolades and cash that come with being the number one option on offense, even if that reduced the likelihood that he would win a championship. He could have been Manu Ginobili, who has been an All-Star and All-NBA player while winning four championships with the Spurs. Instead, Harden chose to be Stephon Marbury (when Minnesota Coach Flip Saunders told Marbury that Marbury and Kevin Garnett could be the next Karl Malone/John Stockton duo, Marbury dismissively stated that he did not want to be John Stockton).

Weeks ago, Harden declared that Golden State is not that good and that he should have won the MVP instead of Curry. It is true that the media has been on the wrong side of the MVP vote many times. In 1995, David Robinson received the honor over Hakeem Olajuwon, who had taken his game to another level in 1994 while leading the Houston Rockets to the NBA title. However, unlike Harden, Olajuwon did not run his mouth. Olajuwon let his game do the talking, destroying Robinson in their one on one playoff matchup and leading the Rockets to a second title. That is what franchise players do.

Harden did not go the Olajuwon route. He went the route taken by guys who have been given a little bit more responsibility than they can handle and in so doing he confirmed that even though the media got it wrong by voting Harden second in the MVP race at least the media got it right to the extent that they did not give the award to Harden. In game five versus the Warriors, Harden shot 2-11 from the field with a playoff single-game record 13 turnovers. Overall during the series, Harden had two good games, one great game (albeit when his team was already down 3-0) and two awful games. That is not the consistency that a franchise player displays. Also, Harden did not accept the challenge defensively by insisting on covering Curry. In 1995, Olajuwon relished the chance to prove his superiority over Robinson. In the 1992 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan took it as a personal challenge to outduel Clyde Drexler.

Harden's supporters may feel vindicated by Harden's gaudy regular season numbers and his occasional great playoff games but they are missing the point. I never said that Harden could not put up gaudy regular season numbers or make the All-Star team, nor did I ever say that he could not have a good or even a great playoff game. I said that he is not good enough on a consistent basis to be the best player on a championship team. His offensive game is gimmicky, his defense is poor and his maturity is questionable (consider not only his comments about Curry/Golden State but also his childish feud with a Houston writer during last year's playoffs and his pouting in Oklahoma City when he did not get the minutes/shot attempts that he wanted).

The past two years, Harden could not get the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs. This year, the Rockets faced a more favorable draw and they also benefited greatly from Dwight Howard's reemergence in the playoffs as a dominant, elite level player. With homecourt advantage on the line in game two versus Dallas in round one, Howard converted six second half lobs from Josh Smith while Harden struggled through a 5-17 shooting performance after shooting 4-11 from the field in game one. Harden was great in game three versus Dallas (42 points on 15-24 field goal shooting) and the Rockets eventually prevailed in five games.

The Rockets fell down 3-1 to the L.A. Clippers before rallying to win the series in seven games. Harden shot .412 or worse from the field in four of the seven games. Houston trailed by 19 points with 14 minutes to go in game six. Facing elimination, the Rockets benched Harden (who shot 5-20 from the field in that game) and stormed back to win. Harden shot just 7-20 from the field in game seven and he committed seven turnovers but he got to the free throw line 18 times and managed to score 31 points in Houston's 113-100 win. Dwight Howard dominated inside with 16 points and 15 rebounds.

Harden played well in the first two games of the Western Conference Finals but Houston still fell into an 0-2 hole. At the end of game two, with six seconds left and a chance to go for the win, Harden instead passed the ball to Howard at the top of the key. By the time Harden got the ball back, it was too late to shoot. That is just one play and Harden performed well otherwise but it is yet another example of Harden not being quite suitable for the number one role on a championship caliber team. If you want the glory and the money, then you shoot the ball in that situation and you live with the result. Harden is supposed to be the master at drawing fouls, so he should have put his head down and either taken the shot or drawn a foul. That is the responsibility that comes with being the best player. Sure, if a legitimate shooter had been wide open and there was time to get him the ball then it would have been OK to pass but you do not pass the ball to Howard at the top of the key in that situation.

The Rockets needed to win game three at home. Win that game and then win game four at home and all of a sudden it is a three game series and maybe Golden State feels some pressure. Instead, Harden shot 3-16 from the field as Golden State won, 115-80. That performance was not unusual; Harden shot .417 from the field or worse in eight of Houston's 17 playoff games.

Most teams that are down 3-0 win game four, because no one wants to be swept and because the team with the advantage usually gets a bit complacent. Harden scored 45 points on 13-22 field goal shooting as Houston extended the series with a 128-115 win but that just set up a fitting finale for Harden. As mentioned above, in game five Harden provided some nice video evidence of why he is not quite suited to being the best player on a championship contender.

Harden's advocates will always take refuge in regular season wins, "advanced basketball statistics" and criticisms of Houston's supporting cast but if you watch Harden dispassionately you can see the skill set weaknesses: he is an inconsistent shooter, he has no post game, he is sloppy with the ball and he is disinterested in defense. He is talented enough to put up big numbers on any given night but he does not have the skill set, mentality or consistency to lead a team to a title. Harden had at least one awful game in each round of the playoffs.

Harden is a good player but he is not a franchise player. He is Manu Ginobili let loose and given the freedom to shoot whenever he wants. If Ginobili had wanted that opportunity, he could have left San Antonio, averaged 25-plus ppg and lost in the first round of the playoffs more often than not. If everything broke right one year, he might have even made it to the Conference Finals. That would not have changed Ginobili's fundamental value as a player.

What difference does it make if Harden is overrated? If one player is overrated then that means that someone else is underrated and not receiving the acclaim he deserves. It also means that games and series are not being analyzed correctly in terms of why teams win and lose. At some point, the people who put Harden on the All-NBA First Team and give him MVP votes are going to have to explain the dichotomy between Harden's regular season numbers/honors and his playoff inconsistency.

While the Warriors outclassed the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, LeBron James powered the Cleveland Cavaliers to a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Hawks led the East with 60 wins, they won 19 games in a row (and 24 out of 25 during one stretch) and they sent four players to the All-Star Game but they proved to be no match for a Cleveland team that was without the services of three-time All-Star Kevin Love and that only had the services of three-time All-Star Kyrie Irving for one game.

Bill Russell (1957-66 Boston Celtics), Magic Johnson (1982-85 L.A. Lakers) and Larry Bird (1984-87 Boston Celtics) set a high standard by leading their teams to four straight NBA Finals. LeBron James has set a new standard by leading his team to five straight NBA Finals and he accomplished this as a member of two different franchises. James led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals but his lack of a consistent jump shot, his puzzling passivity at crucial times and his inability/unwillingness to post up made it very easy for the San Antonio Spurs to hold him to 22.0 ppg on .356 field goal shooting and 5.8 turnovers per game en route to a 4-0 victory.

James later fled to what he considered greener pastures in Miami but his skill set weaknesses followed him there and showed up again during the 2011 NBA Finals as Dallas upset Miami. James averaged just 17.8 ppg versus Dallas, nearly 9 ppg below his average during the 2011 regular season. In the next two seasons, though, James' aggressiveness proved to be the difference as he led the Heat to back to back championships.

After the Heat lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Finals, James returned to Cleveland to take care of unfinished hometown business. James has a better supporting cast with the Cavaliers than some people will admit but he has also played at an amazing level during the playoffs. James' shooting percentages have plummeted--a result of fatigue and questionable shot selection--but the most important thing is that he has been relentlessly aggressive. Perhaps his biggest weakness prior to becoming an NBA champion is that James would become oddly passive at key moments; he would spend the whole season and most of the playoffs scoring 28-30 ppg or more and then all of a sudden he would drift into the corner, give up the ball and seem befuddled that his team lost.

James has learned that in the playoffs he must stay in attack mode. If the stays in attack mode and Irving is reasonably healthy, the Cavaliers could push the Warriors. The more likely scenario, though, is that the Warriors have too much depth and too much defense for James and the Cavaliers to overcome. Before the playoffs began, I picked the San Antonio Spurs to repeat as NBA champions by once again defeating a LeBron James-led team. Perhaps I should have realized that San Antonio's precipitous fall from second seed to sixth seed in the final week of the regular season foreshadowed that the Spurs were not at the top of their game when it mattered most. In any case, the L.A. Clippers beat the Spurs in seven games, the Rockets beat the Clippers in seven games and the Warriors destroyed the Rockets in five games. The Cavaliers have had a very impressive playoff run but the Warriors just look like the class of the league right now. The Warriors shoot well, they pass well and they defend well. The Warriors are a little careless with the ball at times but that is their only weakness and that is not a big enough chink in their armor for the Cavaliers to prevail.

Golden State will end a 40 year drought and LeBron James' career NBA Finals record will drop to 2-4.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 AM


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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LeBron James Leads the Cleveland Cavaliers Back to the NBA Finals

LeBron James has entered some rarefied air. He has led a team to the NBA Finals for the fifth straight time, a feat not accomplished since Bill Russell's Celtics ruled the league in the 1950s and 1960s. James does not seem to have quite the same spring in his step that he had even last season but he has performed at a very high level in the 2015 playoffs.

At The Roar, I examine the three phases of James' career and describe how he has evolved since his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers: 

LeBron James Stamps his Authority as the Cavs Head Back to the NBA Finals

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:47 PM


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Saturday, May 23, 2015

LeBron James is Not a Pass First Player but He is a Great Passer

LeBron James is at his best when he is in attack mode. He is a tremendous scorer and it is his great scoring ability that enables his passing skills to fully flourish. I don't understand why so many people describe James as a pass first player when he is actually one of the most dominant scorers in pro basketball history. He won his two championships because he accepted the burden of being a big-time scorer against elite teams during the postseason, after failing to win in his previous Finals trips precisely because he was too passive.

My newest article for The Roar explains why it is important for a great player to attack the defense and describes the difference between just passing the ball and actually threatening the defense with a pass:

LeBron James is Not a Pass First Player but He is a Great Passer

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 PM


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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How Valuable is James Harden?

According to WinShares, James Harden was the best player in the NBA during the 2014-15 regular season--and LeBron James barely cracked the top ten and Rudy Gobert checked in at 15th, meaning he supposedly deserves to make the All-NBA Third Team.  If you buy what "advanced basketball statistics" sell about Harden, then you also must buy what those numbers say about James and Gobert.

I don't buy any of it. James Harden is a very good player but he is in the mold of Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury, not LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

In my newest article for The Roar, I look at the case for and against the idea that Harden is an elite player:

How Valuable is James Harden?

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:13 PM


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Monday, May 18, 2015

Second Round Recap/Conference Finals Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of three of the four second round series. It looked like I would go 4-0 before the L.A. Clippers collapsed against the Houston Rockets in one of the most stunning non-injury related come from ahead losses in NBA history. That series made my brain hurt, because the prediction that I really wanted to make is that neither team would win, even though that is obviously impossible. The funny thing is, it kind of seems like neither team won; the Rockets did not show up for more than half of the series and then the Clippers disappeared in the final three games. The team that stumbled the least backed into the Western Conference Finals, a series that should be quite an eye-opener, but more about that later.

The reason my brain hurt during the Rockets-Clippers series is that I have good reasons to believe that neither team is a legitimate championship contender. Over the years, I have stated that J.J. Redick is not good enough to be a starting shooting guard for a playoff team (let alone a championship contender), I have opined that Chris Paul is too small to be the best player on a championship team and I rejected the notion that James Harden is good enough to be the best player on a championship caliber team. Obviously, when these teams face each other one set of those narratives will be "disproved"--at least until the next round.

After Dwight Howard came to Houston, I wrote, "When healthy, Howard is the best big man in the NBA and a top five player overall. He can turn a mediocre team into a playoff team and a playoff team into a championship contender." In a battle between two teams that I find equally ill-equipped to win a championship, maybe I should have picked Houston based not only on home court advantage--which carried the day to a great extent in game seven after some raggedness in the first six games--but also based on Howard's reemergence. No one seems to be noticing or commenting much about Howard's recent dominance, which is odd considering that for several years prior to his injury issues Howard was widely recognized as an elite player. Howard appears to be healthy now and he has had a major impact for Houston in the playoffs. Everyone understands that Bill Russell was Boston's best player even though he was not the team's leading scorer--which is not for one moment to suggest that Howard is as good as Russell or Houston is as good as Russell's Celtics--but that understanding is lacking regarding Howard and the Rockets.

Howard is the 2015 NBA playoff leader in rebounds (13.8 rpg) and he ranks second in blocked shots (2.5 bpg), trailing only Anthony Davis, whose New Orleans Pelicans made a cameo playoff appearance before being swept. Howard is shooting .588 from the field and even though his free throw percentage is lousy he draws a ton of fouls and thus helps Houston get into the bonus early, which pads James Harden's scoring totals by giving Harden extra free throws every time he flops even in non-shooting situations.

I disagree with the idea that Harden has somehow validated himself based on the Rockets beating the Clippers. Here is a capsule review of what happened in that series. In game one, Harden had nine turnovers as the Rockets squandered home court advantage despite Chris Paul sitting out due to injury. In game two, Harden played well as the Rockets evened the series. In game three, the Clippers blew out the Rockets 124-99 as Harden padded his box score totals (he scored nine of his 25 points in the fourth quarter when Houston never cut the deficit to less than 20 points). In game three, the Clippers routed the Rockets 128-95. This time, Harden padded his numbers in the third quarter, scoring 10 points while the Clippers expanded their lead from 60-54 to 103-79. Harden played very well in game five (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Rockets staved off elimination with a 124-103 win.

Game six was the turning point of the series, as the Clippers returned home with a 3-2 advantage. The Clippers stormed out to a 19 point lead. Harden sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter as the Rockets made one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history. How often has a supposedly MVP level player been benched for the fourth quarter of an elimination game as his team comes from behind to win? I heard someone compare this to game six of the 1992 NBA Finals, when Scottie Pippen and four reserves led a huge Chicago comeback with Michael Jordan on the bench. Give me a break! Jordan returned to the game to finish matters off alongside Pippen (the Bulls won 97-93 to clinch their second consecutive title) and Jordan led both teams with 33 points on 13-24 field goal shooting. Jordan played 43 minutes in that game. In contrast, Harden shot 5-20 from the field and finished with a -21 plus/minus number (every other Houston starter was +10 or better) while playing 30 minutes.

In game seven, Harden scored a game-high 31 points on 7-20 field goal shooting--but three other players (including Howard) had better +/- numbers. I am not a big believer in +/-, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is very telling that Harden's plus/minus numbers in the playoffs consistently indicate that the Rockets are winning despite him and not because of him, regardless of his individual statistics. Harden's plus/minus number through 12 playoff games is -.3. For the entire playoffs, the Rockets have actually been outscored slightly when Harden is in the game. Howard's plus/minus number is 1.3. For comparison purposes, consider the 2015 playoff plus/minus numbers of the leading regular season MVP candidates: Stephen Curry (9.6), LeBron James (6.4), Chris Paul (3.1). Former MVP Derrick Rose had a 6.2 plus/minus number. Anthony Davis posted a -5.0 plus/minus number but that is skewed because his team was severely outmatched and got swept by Curry's Warriors. Plus/minus is not the be all, end all statistic; Draymond Green (12.7) is the 2015 playoff leader and no one thinks that he is the best player in the NBA. However, all of the people who scream and shout that Harden is the best player in the NBA must explain why Houston's playoff run thus far has largely been accomplished despite and not because of Harden.

Why did I say that the Golden State-Houston series will be an eye-opener? Harden ran his mouth weeks ago, declaring that Golden State is not that good and that he deserved the MVP over Curry. Now is put up or shut up time. If Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should demand the opportunity to guard Curry. When Cleveland Coach David Blatt drew up an end of game play that did not involve LeBron James shooting the ball, James nixed that idea in a hurry before taking (and making) the game-winner. It is one thing to flap your gums during the regular season and talk about how good you are; now is Harden's chance to put his money where his mouth is. Also, if Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should be in the game when the outcome is decided and he should be the primary player deciding that outcome.
Golden State swept Houston 4-0 during the regular season and Curry outperformed Harden individually in those games. As ABC's Doug Collins pointed out, regular season head to head records do not always foreshadow playoff results; teams have more rest and can make more adjustments during the playoffs. It also must be noted that Howard missed two of those games. Maybe an energized Howard will make a big difference, but I think that Curry will turn this series into a personal showcase and the Warriors will advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1975. I am tempted to say Warriors in five but I will go with Warriors in six.

Meanwhile, LeBron James reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth straight season, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA's Final Four after taking Miami there each of the past four years. Even with Kevin Love sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving hobbling, James received a lot of help from his teammates. James had a an epic performance in game five versus Chicago (38 points on 14-24 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocked shots and no turnovers in 41 minutes) but he is shooting just .424 from the field during the playoffs.

James is the best all-around player in the NBA but he has only been at his best sporadically during this postseason. That will not be enough against a deep, balanced Atlanta team that sent four players to the All-Star Game and won a franchise-record 60 games. The Cavaliers need for James to be a big-time scorer while also accepting the challenge on defense. James cannot hide behind the "I am a pass-first player" mythology in this series. Yes, James is an excellent passer and his passing opens up opportunities for his teammates but James' teams have always been built around his scoring prowess; it is not fair to his teammates for him to suddenly decide not to shoot or to settle for outside shots instead of driving into the paint. If James becomes passive then he throws his own team out of rhythm; we have seen James do this on the biggest stage several times (2007 NBA Finals, 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, 2011 NBA Finals, 2014 NBA Finals) and if he does it versus Atlanta then the Cavaliers have no chance.

James' erratic shooting and questionable shot selection during the 2015 playoffs are cause for concern but I think that James very much wants to win a championship in his first year back in Cleveland. James left unfinished business behind when he went to Miami and he is eight wins away from ending Cleveland's long championship drought. If he cannot focus and bring his best game now, he may never finish that business; a crop of new, young stars is emerging and James is already showing signs of physical decline even though he can still perform at a very high level.

The Hawks peaked early during the regular season and seem to have been coasting ever since. They have not been overly impressive during the playoffs but the disrespect card will undoubtedly motivate them in this series. They feel like they have been overlooked and they know that many people are picking Cleveland. The Hawks own home court advantage and that could matter if the series goes seven games (just ask the Clippers).

Throughout NBA history, we have often seen matchups of the best player surrounded by a good supporting cast facing an ensemble of really good players. On the surface, it would seem like a group of really good players should be able to nullify the best player but most of the time the team with the best player wins, though James has been on the wrong end of that a few times. I expect that James will have his best series of 2015 and the Cavaliers will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 PM


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