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Monday, May 16, 2016
Cleveland Versus Toronto Preview
Eastern Conference Finals
#1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. #2 Toronto (56-26)
Season series: Toronto, 2-1
Toronto can win if...the
Raptors' All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can be both productive and efficient while DeMarre Carroll spearheads the defensive attack versus LeBron James to the extent that the other Raptor perimeter defenders can stay at home on Cleveland's three point shooters.
Lowry averaged 23.4 ppg during Toronto's 4-3 victory over the Miami Heat but he shot just .401 from the field, while DeRozan scored 22.1 ppg on .388 field goal shooting. For Toronto to beat Cleveland, Lowry and DeRozan must both continue to score 20+ ppg but they both need to elevate their field goal percentages to the .450 range.
No single defender can shut down a motivated and committed LeBron James but if Carroll can limit James to James' regular season averages without requiring a lot of help then the Raptors can avoid succumbing to the record-setting three point shooting that devastated Detroit and Atlanta in Cleveland's pair of early round sweeps.
Cleveland will win because...each of the Cavaliers' All-Stars is performing at a high level, opening up the court for an unprecedented three point shooting barrage; meanwhile, collectively Cleveland is rebounding and defending well.
During Cleveland's 4-0 destruction of the Atlanta Hawks, James averaged a "ho hum" (for him) 24.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 7.8 apg and 3.0 spg. The only blemish on his record was subpar free throw shooting (.591). Kyrie Irving averaged 21.3 ppg and 6.3 apg while shooting .484 from the field (including a blistering .667 on three pointers) and .867 from the free throw line. Kevin Love contributed 19.0 ppg and a team-high 13.0 rpg. Love shot just .324 from the field but he shot an outstanding .475 from three point range; remarkably, he made 19 three pointers and just four two pointers during the series.
Cleveland shot 77-152 (.507) from three point range against Atlanta and if that production/efficiency continues there is no way to beat this team; of course it is not likely that the Cavaliers will shoot that way again but if James is aggressive enough to regularly collapse the defense then the Cavaliers will at the very least have many wide open shots.
Other things to consider: On paper and in popular perception, Toronto is inferior to Cleveland--but the Raptors have two All-Stars and only finished one game behind the Cavaliers in the regular season standings. Toronto is the type of team that has challenged James in the past during the playoffs (a good team that is hard-nosed and has several good but not great players). Tyronn Lue is a rookie coach and it will be interesting to see how he responds if the Cavaliers face adversity during this series, particularly if that adversity comes in the form of James becoming disengaged/disinterested (as has happened repeatedly during LeBron James' career after the first round of the playoffs).
LeBron James has led his teams to five straight NBA Finals appearances (2011-2014 with Miami, 2015 with Cleveland), which is a noteworthy feat even in the somewhat depleted Eastern Conference. His playoff record against clearly overmatched teams is nearly impeccable and that is not meant sarcastically; there is a lot to be said for beating the opponents that you are "supposed" to beat and there are many star players who have been much less effective at this than James has been.
However, at the end of his career James will be compared not with "ordinary" stars but rather with Pantheon-level players such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. James has won two NBA titles but he has also lost four times in the NBA Finals, with the Finals MVPs in those series going to demonstrably inferior players (Dirk Nowitzki is the best player of that quartet but no one would argue that Nowitzki is the same caliber two-way player as James).
In contrast, Johnson went 5-4 in the NBA Finals, including 2-1 versus Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and 2-1 versus Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals.
James has already established himself as a Pantheon-level player even if he never wins another playoff series--but in order to truly measure up with the players to whom he is most often compared this is the kind of series that he needs to win and then he needs to add one or two more rings to his collection.
#1 Golden State (73-9) vs. #3 Oklahoma City (55-27)
Season series: Golden State, 3-0
Oklahoma City can win if...the Thunder's dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to play at an All-NBA First Team--if not MVP--level while the Thunder's platoon of big men dominate the paint.
Durant (28.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.0 apg) and Westbrook (25.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 10.5 apg) were both magnificent as the Thunder eliminated the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs, 4-2. The Thunder won four of the last five games of the series, including two victories in San Antonio (where the Spurs went 40-1 during the regular season).
Thunder big men Steven Adams (11.0 ppg, 11.8 rpg, .703 FG%), Serge Ibaka (11.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, team-high 12 3FGM) and Enes Kanter (8.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg) had a major impact versus San Antonio at both ends of the court.
Golden State will win because...the Warriors feature a three-headed monster (two-time MVP Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson) plus a deep and versatile supporting cast.
Injuries kept Curry out of action for three of the five games versus Portland but when he played he was terrific, averaging 34.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 9.5 apg. He scored 17 points in overtime of game four (his first game in two weeks), breaking Clyde Drexler's record for most points in a playoff overtime session (13, set in 1992).
Green leads the Warriors in playoff mpg (37.6), rebounds (10.4 rpg), assists (7.0 apg), steals (1.6 spg) and blocked shots (2.3 bpg) while ranking third in scoring (17.7 ppg, 3.7 ppg better than his regular season average).
Thompson leads the Warriors in playoff ppg (27.2 ppg in 10 games; Curry is averaging 24.8 ppg in four games) while shooting .474 from the field overall and .475 from three point range.
Shaun Livingston filled in capably for Curry when Curry was hurt, 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala remains an excellent two-way performer and Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights continue to make timely contributions.
Other things to consider: The Thunder blew more fourth quarter leads than any team in the NBA during the regular season, though that statistic is a little deceptive since several of those "leads" were two points or less. Still, it was reasonable to expect that the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs would be more poised than the Thunder and execute more efficiently--but that did not prove to be the case at all; the Oklahoma City-San Antonio series was bookended by blowouts (one by each team) but during the meat of the series the Thunder not only executed better than the Spurs but, as San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich repeatedly mentioned, the Thunder played with more toughness, energy and effort. The Thunder outrebounded the Spurs by nearly eight rebounds per game and those extra possessions more than nullified San Antonio's advantage in the turnover department. When San Antonio went small in the second half of game six, Thunder Coach Billy Donovan--who made some great strategic moves throughout the series after the Thunder were routed in game one--correctly stayed with his big lineup and the Thunder bludgeoned the Spurs to death in the paint. Golden State cannot match up with Oklahoma City's size, so look for the Warriors to use progressively smaller lineups during this series; if the Thunder try to go small, this will work in Golden State's favor (even though the Thunder do have a good small ball lineup) but if the Thunder stay big, keep their turnovers to a minimum and attack the paint then they can pose a lot of problems for the Warriors.
In my Spurs-Thunder series preview, I laid out the blueprint for a Thunder victory--but I could not quite convince myself that the Thunder would pull it off, so I picked the Spurs. Perhaps this Warriors-Thunder preview will be "deja vu all over again"; I have spent a lot of time describing how the Thunder could win, yet I am picking the Warriors. The Thunder are a very dangerous team; if they stay healthy and if they play correctly, they absolutely can win the championship. Perhaps the best way to summarize my take is this: The Thunder are a championship caliber team in a "normal" season but the Warriors are a historically great team, the kind of team that is only seen once every 15-20 years. The Thunder are capable of beating the Warriors but the likelihood is that Golden State will prevail. If these teams played a seven game series 100 times under the same conditions, I would probably expect Golden State to win 60 times.
Miami can win if…Dwyane Wade continues to perform at a high level and each member of the Heat's talented ensemble cast continues to understand and accept the correct role: Luol Deng has thrived as a "stretch four" while Chris Bosh has been sidelined due to injury, Hassan Whiteside can be a ferocious rim protector/rebounder, after a sluggish first two thirds of the season Goran Dragic has thrived as Miami switched to a faster pace and midseason acquisition Joe Johnson has provided scoring punch.
Toronto will win because…the Raptors are a deep, well balanced team that will be more relaxed, confident and efficient than before after finally overcoming the hurdle of winning a seven game series. The Raptors have seemed to be a rising Eastern Conference power during recent regular seasons only to twice stumble in the first round of the playoffs. This year, a game and gritty Indiana team pushed the Raptors to the final minutes of game seven but the Raptors prevailed.
Other things to consider: By reputation, Toronto's All-Star backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry is one of the NBA's top guard tandems but they shot just .319 and .316 from the field respectively in the first round of the playoffs. After building a double digit lead, the Raptors almost collapsed at home in the fourth quarter of game seven versus the Pacers. Toronto seemed to be running some kind of "prevent offense" for the last several minutes, draining 19-20 seconds off of the shot clock before attempting a hurried, low percentage shot. That should never happen to a contending team, particularly one whose strength is in the backcourt. Lowry and/or DeRozan should have taken over the game and made sure that the Raptors got off a good shot attempt each time down the court. That kind of shaky execution concerns me, particularly in a series like this when the opposing team has a proven closer who has been a key member of three championship teams; Dwyane Wade rescued the Heat in the first round on the road in game six versus Charlotte and if the Raptors are sloppy or nervous down the stretch in close games then Wade could very well add some more clips to his Hall of Fame induction video.
I expect this series to have a lot of twists and turns before Toronto prevails, probably in a close seventh game.
Portland can win if…Damian Lillard is the best player in the series and the Trail Blazers accentuate their strengths (rebounding and three point shooting) while limiting their turnovers, particularly open court turnovers that could fuel Golden State's fast break. Lillard led Portland with 22.0 ppg in a 4-2 first round victory over the L.A. Clippers but he shot just .374 from the field, which will not be nearly good enough against Golden State.
Golden State will win because…the Warriors will overwhelm the Trail Blazers with precision passing, tough defense and deadly shooting. In the wake of Stephen Curry's multiple injuries, Klay Thompson led the Warriors with a 23.4 ppg scoring average and 19 three pointers made in a 4-1 first round win over the Houston Rockets, while Draymond Green showcased his all-around skills (13.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.4 bpg).
Other things to consider: Injuries have been the headline story of the 2016 postseason thus
far, most notably the MCL sprain that has sidelined 2015 regular season MVP (and the
presumptive 2016 regular season MVP) Curry for at least two weeks. Portland advanced to the second round mainly because the L.A. Clippers' Chris Paul and Blake Griffin suffered injuries that forced them to miss the final two games of the Trail Blazers' first round series win.
Golden State destroyed Houston even though Curry appeared in just two games for a total of only 38 minutes. The Rockets' run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals was obviously a fluke and this talented but dysfunctional squad showed its true colors by barely making the playoffs this season before quitting against the Warriors even after Curry had been definitively ruled out of action for the rest of the series.
This season and this series placed James Harden's shortcomings on full display: he exerts no effort on defense, his leadership style alienates his teammates and his selfish/self-centered style of offensive play generates a lot of attention and statistics for himself but will not win a championship. "Stat gurus" may still love Harden but anyone who watches basketball with understanding cringes at Harden's antics. As Shaquille O'Neal pointed out, Harden dribbles too much without going anywhere. O'Neal stated flatly that he could not play with Harden. Lisa Leslie commented that if she played with a guard like Harden she would get 50 five second violations or start blocking that teammate's shot instead of running up and down the court without ever getting the ball. Charles Barkley noted that Harden's overdribbling takes all of his teammates out of rhythm.
Harden is not 2006 Kobe Bryant playing alongside Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. Harden has veteran teammates who won championships or at least made it to the Finals without him, including Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry. Yes, Harden led the Rockets in assists but accumulating assists does not necessarily mean that a player is a good passer or a good teammate; just ask Stephon Marbury (or, more precisely, anyone who played with him).
Harden does not involve Howard in the offense. Isiah Thomas suggested that Howard is a poor fit for the Rockets' preferred style of play. That is true but it should also be pointed out that the Rockets' preferred style is not a championship-winning style, because it emphasizes offense over defense and it showcases Harden, not the team. It is almost like Houston General Manager Daryl Morey wants Harden to put up big numbers to prove that Harden is in fact a "foundational player" as Morey once insisted, even if this never results in winning a title.
After the Rockets were eliminated, Harden spoke about the need to upgrade Houston's roster. Again, he is not 2006 Kobe Bryant playing alongside starters who would soon be out of the league for good; Harden needs to stop blaming his teammates and instead upgrade his play and change his approach or he will continue to string together first round losses.
What does this have to do with Golden State versus Portland? Harden and Houston are so bad that it is difficult to determine just how much the Warriors will miss Curry when facing a cohesive team that will actually play hard at both ends of the court. My theory is that without Curry the Warriors drop from being historically great (73 wins) to being a "regular" championship contender (equivalent to approximately 55 wins).
I think that translates into at least two Portland wins in this series (and significant problems in the Western Conference Finals if Curry does not return at reasonably close to full health, but that is something to be addressed in a future article).
All four of the regular season games between these teams were decided by at least 16 points: Golden State blew out Portland by 20, 16 and 35, while Portland beat Golden State 137-105 on February 19 as Lillard erupted for a career-high 51 points in just 31 minutes while shooting 18-28 from the field (including 9-12 from three point range).
With Curry absent and Lillard unlikely to drop 51 points in a playoff game, those four regular season contests probably bear little resemblance to what we will see in this series. In order to eliminate Golden State, Portland needs to win one of the first two games on the road, because (1) winning four out of five against Golden State is unlikely and (2) early adversity in this series could place a lot of pressure on the Warriors.
Atlanta can win if…Jeff Teague neutralizes Kyrie Irving, the Hawks prevent the Cavaliers from dominating the boards and LeBron James is slowed down by defense by committee (and/or the mysterious malaise that can inexplicably afflict him at any time after the first round of the playoffs). The Hawks are a somewhat puzzling team. They were not as dominant in the 2015-16 regular season as they were in they were in the 2014-15 regular season and they do not have a superstar player but they have a lot of really good players, including current or former All-Stars Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. Horford struggled in the first round versus Boston, Korver is a great shooter but is not good at creating his own shot, Teague seems to be the team's most important player yet Atlanta advanced despite his .395 field goal shooting versus Boston and Millsap had a bizarre series with four points in one game and then 45 points two games later. All of those players are going to have to be better and more consistent for the Hawks to have a chance against Cleveland.
Cleveland will win because…LeBron James rarely loses playoff series against outmatched teams. The Cavaliers have matchup advantages across the board in this series except for coaching and the center position. Mike "Gregg Popovich, Jr." Budenholzer will coach rings around Tyronn Lue, but the Cavaliers are still better off in that regard now than they were in this round last year when then-assistant coach Lue stopped then-Cleveland Coach David Blatt from calling a timeout that the Cavaliers did not have, which could have resulted in a disastrous technical foul.
Horford should have an advantage against whoever Cleveland plays at center. If any of the games are close enough for strategy and matchup decisions to matter, Budenholzer is going to have the advantage over Lue.
The big questions, as always with the Cavaliers, revolve around James. How will Atlanta guard him and how aggressive will James be? If the Hawks can get away with single coverage on James because James settles for long jumpers, then the Hawks have a chance provided that the quartet of players mentioned above are efficient offensively. If James plays up to his capabilities, the Hawks are obviously in trouble.
Irving was sensational in the first round as Cleveland swept Detroit. He led Cleveland in scoring (27.5 ppg), he shot .471 from the field and he only committed six turnovers.
Kevin Love ranked third on the Cavaliers in scoring versus Detroit (18.8 ppg) and he led the team in rebounding (12.0 rpg) but he shot just .410 from the field and his defense is always questionable.
Other things to consider: Many--if not all--of the teams that had any realistic chance to be competitive against the Cavaliers in a seven game series may be out of the picture soon. Injuries took out the L.A. Clippers and could potentially take out the Golden State Warriors, while the Spurs-Thunder series will eliminate a legit championship contender that is better than any team Cleveland will prior to the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are snacking on light Eastern Conference fare. TNT's Charles Barkley mentioned the possibility that Cleveland will not lose a game before the start of the NBA Finals. While that seems unlikely (Cleveland will lose at least one road game in this round and/or the Eastern Conference Finals), Cleveland obviously has a very favorable return path to the NBA Finals.
Timofey Mozgov, a key contributor to Cleveland's playoff run last
year, has completely disappeared from Lue's rotation, playing just 14
minutes versus Detroit and not appearing at all in two of the four
games. Tristan Thompson, who took over Mozgov's starting center role,
averaged 3.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg against Detroit, hurting James' chances of
winning Executive of the Year; all sarcasm aside, this is the coaching staff and roster
that James handpicked, so the self-proclaimed "Best Player on the
Planet" has no valid excuses or complaints if the Cavaliers do not win
#2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. #3 Oklahoma City (55-27)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Oklahoma City can win if…Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant play at an All-NBA First Team level and the Thunder reverse their season-long pattern of collapsing in the fourth quarter.
Westbrook has clearly been the MVP of the first round, posting playoff career-highs in several categories (26.0 ppg, 11.2 apg, 7.8 rpg, .463 FG%) while leading all players in assists and ranking fourth in scoring. During the regular season, Westbrook ranked second in the league in assists (10.4 apg), fifth in steals (2.0 spg) and eighth in scoring (23.5 ppg). Stephen Curry is the only other player who ranked in the top 10 in all three categories. Westbrook posted 18 triple doubles, the most by any player in one season since Magic Johnson had 18 triple doubles in 1981-82. The Thunder went 18-0 when Westbrook had a triple double. Westbrook notched the second fastest triple double in NBA history (18 minutes) and he reached triple double numbers in less than 30 minutes on five different occasions. Westbrook is the engine that makes the Thunder go and a good case could be made that he is the best all-around player in the NBA. Perhaps the greatest thing about Westbrook is the tremendously high energy with which he consistently plays.
Durant has bounced back from his injury-hit 2014-15 campaign to regain his status as one of the NBA's elite players. He tied Westbrook for team-high honors with a 26.0 ppg average during the Thunder's 4-1 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in the first round but Durant shot just .368 from the field in that series. Durant ranked third in the NBA in scoring during the regular season (28.2 ppg, his third highest average in a nine year career during which he has won four scoring titles) while shooting .505 from the field and averaging a career-high 8.2 rpg.
San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are an efficient team that minimizes errors and mental mistakes. Every possession matters in the playoffs and the Spurs figure to waste fewer possessions than the Thunder. The Spurs are smarter, more efficient and better coached than the Thunder. Oklahoma City's advantages--besides the force of nature that is Russell Westbrook--are youth, explosiveness and size. This series will likely depend on
fourth quarter execution, a strong suit for the Spurs and the weak link for the Thunder.
The Spurs' system does not encourage or permit any one player to put up huge individual numbers but Kawhi Leonard is absolutely an elite player even though his statistics do not jump off of the stat sheet. LaMarcus Aldridge is a top notch power forward even though his first round numbers (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg) are nothing special.
Tim Duncan is in the old-David Robinsion phase of his career; he rebounds, he defends and he is a presence in the paint but he is a limited player who can only be counted on for limited minutes. If he played for any team other than San Antonio he likely would have retired several years ago but instead he has gracefully accepted the reduction in his role and status much like Robinson gracefully accepted a reduction in his role and status when Duncan first joined the team.
Other things to consider: Stephen Curry's status is up in the air and LeBron James is far from a sure thing in the NBA Finals, so this series could very well turn out to be the de facto 2016 championship series.
The Spurs efficiently swept the undermanned Memphis Grizzlies, but it is
puzzling that media members placed so much emphasis on Memphis' injuries when the
Grizzlies have actually not been serious playoff contenders for a while
due to their inability to consistently generate enough offense--and that
has been true regardless of what lineup they use. The Grizzlies made it to the Western Conference Finals in Coach Lionel Hollins' last year with the team (2013) but have been first round fodder in two of the three subsequent seasons. Even at full strength, the Grizzlies would have finished no higher than fifth in the West standings this season and likely would have lost in the first round of the playoffs. It is unfortunate that several of their key players suffered injuries but it is silly to act like these injuries actually changed the balance of power in the league.
Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban has been successful overall during his tenure in the NBA but he has also said and done some stupid things. His assertion that Westbrook is not a superstar may have been intended as some kind of gamesmanship as opposed to being an objective player evaluation but it is still an idiotic statement--and the "reasoning" behind that statement (that if Westbrook were a superstar then he would have led the Thunder to the playoffs last season) is ridiculous: in 2014-15, the Thunder won the same number of games as the eighth seeded New Orleans Pelicans but the Pelicans had the better tiebreaks--and the Thunder went just 5-10 in the 15 games that Westbrook missed, which strongly suggests that Westbrook is a superstar who almost singlehandedly carried the Thunder to the playoffs.
Perhaps Cuban is trying to deflect attention away from his own team, which has now lost in the first round of the playoffs in four of the past five seasons and in seven of the past 10 seasons. Cuban supposedly used analytics to conclude that the best choice was to break up his 2011 championship team but the idea that you can make your team better by making your team worse is silly; just ask the Philadelphia 76ers, who have turned losing into an art form without making any tangible progress toward building a good team.
It is interesting that Cuban gets a pass from the media while the Thunder are often blasted for supposedly making a huge mistake by not retaining the services of James Harden. Harden was never going to be more than a third option in Oklahoma City and in his final year with the Thunder he performed terribly in the NBA Finals while also making it clear that he wanted to have an expanded role and would sulk if he did not get it. Since Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets have repeatedly lost in the first round (other than one fluky Conference Finals run that will not likely be duplicated during his time with the team), while the Thunder have remained a championship contender when Durant and Westbrook have been healthy. The Thunder are the only team in the NBA that has advanced to at least the conference semifinals in five of the past six years and that run includes three trips to the Western Conference Finals. It is good for Daryl Morey that he loves Harden so much, because he is likely stuck with him for many years to come; I doubt that any team that has a legit All-NBA First Team player would trade that player straight up for Harden. The Thunder would most assuredly not be better off if Harden were on their roster and sulking about Westbrook being the focal point of the team's attack.
This year, my annual playoff preview article will be presented in a different, briefer format. Before making my predictions, here are some comments about the 2015-16 NBA season:
Golden State's mini-collapse in the closing portion of the regular season before catching a second wind to finish 73-9 provided a good reminder of just how great and consistent the Chicago Bulls were two decades ago. Keep in mind that the Bulls followed up their 72-10 regular season in 1995-96 with a championship and then posted a 69-13 regular season record the next year (plus another championship) before "slumping" to 62-20 (along with a third straight title) to close out the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen six championship dynasty. The question of how those Bulls would fare head to head against the Warriors may be open to debate but there is no doubt that even after setting the single season wins record the Warriors still have some work to do to match the Bulls' historical accomplishments.
The San Antonio Spurs just completed the least appreciated 67-15 season in pro basketball history; that is the same record posted by the 1986 Boston Celtics, the 1992 Chicago Bulls and the 2000 L.A. Lakers, three of the most legendary championship teams of the past three decades.
The Warriors and the Spurs are clearly the class of the league, while the West's third place team is an enigma. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are two of the league's top five players and their supporting cast looks strong on paper, yet the Oklahoma City Thunder squandered more fourth quarter leads than any team in the league and finished 12 games behind the Spurs. The Thunder have enough talent to win a championship but their defense is too inconsistent and their late game offensive execution is inexplicably bad.
LeBron James once again led his team to the best record in the East, though the Cleveland Cavaliers would have barely held off the Thunder for third place in the West. James has lost a little bit physically, while he seems all over the place mentally. This just feels like one of those years when he will disappear in the first playoff series that is challenging--but that may not happen until the NBA Finals.
A cynic might say that Tom Thibodeau should be voted Coach of the Year based on how the Chicago Bulls fell into oblivion after firing him.
Speaking of falling into oblivion, after making a fluky and unlikely to be duplicated run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals the Houston Rockets went 41-41 to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the season. A lot of numbers are thrown around about James Harden but here are the
most important numbers about Houston's "foundational player": after the Warriors dispatch the Rockets in four or five games James Harden will have led the Rockets to three first round losses in his first four seasons with the franchise. The Rockets would probably ship Harden elsewhere and try to build around someone else but who is going to take a coach-killing, overdribbling prima donna who often does not even pretend to be interested in playing defense? I have to confess that Harden is an MVP candidate this year--a Shaqtin' the Fool MVP candidate (hey, Shaq said it first and I am just stealing his line, so if that sounds like hating then tell Shaq).
Basketball fans everywhere can rejoice that the 76ers finally got rid of Sam Hinkie and his ridiculous tanking plans. With the Colangelos in charge, the 76ers will probably be a playoff team three years from now but it is unlikely that many--if any--of Hinkie's players will be on the roster by that time. The media killed Isiah Thomas for his work in New York, even though it is evident that with James Dolan running the show indisputably great basketball minds like Larry Brown and Phil Jackson cannot turn the Knicks around; when will ESPN.com or the New York Times update (in other words, retract) the breathless praise they have heaped on Daryl "Losing in the First Round is my Middle Name" Morey and Sam "Trust the Process" Hinkie?
I have no doubt that the correct application of basketball statistics can be helpful both in building a team and in analyzing the sport; Hubie Brown was decades ahead of his time in both regards, which is why he won an ABA title, two Coach of the Year awards and widespread recognition as the sport's premier TV analyst. I also have no doubt that Morey and Hinkie have been praised far more than they deserve for reasons that are not at all evident to an objective observer.
On to the first round:
The Eastern Conference features two heavyweights, four 48-34 teams (!) and two pretenders. Stan Van Gundy clearly has the coaching edge over Tyronn Lue but that is Detroit's only significant advantage and the Cleveland Cavaliers will dispatch the Pistons in five games (because LeBron James and company will be too bored/disinterested to make it a sweep). Yes, I am aware that Detroit won the season series and yes I am aware that Andre Drummond had his way in the paint versus Cleveland; I just don't expect those trends to continue in the postseason, because the one thing that James consistently does in the playoffs is dispatch lesser teams with alacrity in the early rounds.
The Toronto Raptors have not won a playoff series in a while and that gives one pause but they match up very well with the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors will advance in six games.
I'll be honest: I am not sure what to make of the 48-34 quartet. Each of those teams has looked like a possible Eastern Conference Finalist at times and each of them has looked like a team that could be swept in the first round. The Miami Heat displayed both traits in the same game on the last night of the season when they blew a 24 point lead versus the Boston Celtics.
The Charlotte Hornets have been really strong in the second half of the season but they don't have a lot of playoff experience. If the Hornets steal a game on the road early then they could win the series in six but I like Miami in seven games.
The Boston Celtics have improved since last season while the Atlanta Hawks have regressed but this is another evenly matched series that will likely be decided by homecourt advantage. I am taking Atlanta in seven games.
In the Western Conference, the Warriors will relish the opportunity to humiliate a Houston team that flapped its gums after losing to Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. James Harden thinks he deserved the MVP award over Stephen Curry? Sure. Harden will average 25 ppg in the series but he will shoot about .400 from the field, he will have at least one game with seven or more turnovers and he will offset a 40-plus point game with a single-digit scoring game. The Warriors will sweep the Rockets.
The Memphis Grizzlies struggle to score 90 points in the playoffs even when they are healthy. Their injury-battered roster has two chances against the San Antonio Spurs: Slim and none. The Spurs will sweep the Grizzlies.
The Oklahoma City Thunder should sweep the Dallas Mavericks but the Thunder will probably mess around and blow at least one double digit fourth quarter lead. Oklahoma City will win in five games.
The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the surprise teams of the season, while the L.A. Clippers act like they are contenders even though they finished a distant fourth in the Western Conference. I'll take the Clippers in six games.
I expect the second round matchups to be Cleveland-Atlanta, Toronto-Miami, Golden State-L.A. Clippers and San Antonio-Oklahoma City. Cleveland is going to smash Atlanta. The Heat have a lot of firepower but the Raptors have been the much more consistent team and the seventh game, if necessary, will be played in Toronto. I expect Toronto to prevail in a topsy turvy series. The Clippers are another team that had a lot to say about the Warriors. The Warriors are going to shut them up and hand Chris Paul yet another second round exit. San Antonio versus Oklahoma City might be the best, most exciting playoff series this year. I can think of a lot of reasons that the Thunder could win but I expect the Spurs to prevail.
The Conference Finals look tremendous on paper. The Raptors' confidence should be sky-high after finally winning a couple playoff series and they have enough talent to at least push the Cavaliers. If the Raptors take a 2-1 lead, James might fold his tent and pout about the front office, his hand-picked coach or some of his teammates. Cleveland should win but I would not be shocked if the Raptors won. The Spurs know the formula to beat the Warriors: play big, slow the game down, pound the ball inside to Aldridge, cut down on open court turnovers that lead to transition points. However, even if Aldridge is not limited by the finger injury that he suffered near the end of the regular season against the Warriors, I question whether the Spurs can execute this game plan effectively enough to beat the Warriors four times. The Spurs don't like to go to one player over and over again, even if that is the optimal strategy. If the 1996 Bulls played the Warriors, the Bulls would walk the ball up the court and wear the Warriors out in the post with Jordan, Pippen or Kukoc (depending on the matchup). The Bulls would use the same mismatch over and over until the Warriors changed their defense and then the Bulls would find another mismatch. The Spurs are most comfortable relying on ball movement but the Warriors would rather scramble and rotate than have to deal with 25 Aldridge postups. I liked the Spurs before the season began but I am picking the Warriors now.
The much-anticipated NBA Finals Golden State-Cleveland rematch will feature a healthy Cleveland team looking for its first NBA title versus a defending champion looking to not only repeat but also to be remembered as one of the greatest teams ever.
The Warriors are fun to watch because they play with so much joy and unselfishness. Unlike previous teams that relied on playing fast and shooting a lot of jumpers, the Warriors are a very good defensive team when they want to be. The Cavaliers have dealt with a lot of internal turmoil this year and they just do not "look" like a championship team even though they have all of the requisite parts. The Warriors are building a dynasty, while LeBron James is looking more and more like this generation's Wilt Chamberlain; James has racked up impressive individual numbers during his career but he is stuck on two rings and that does not seem likely to change soon, if ever.
Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8
That adds up to 66/88 in the East and 70/88 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .773.
Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:
At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 11 years I have correctly picked 11 of the 22 NBA Finals participants. In three of those 11 years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.
I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.
Kobe Drops 60 to Drop the Mic on an Unparalleled 20 Year Career
I never thought we would see that again. The last time Kobe Bryant scored at least 60 points in a game was seven years--and many injuries--ago but in his final regular season game Bryant turned back the clock with a performance that can only be described as astounding: 60 points on 22-50 field goal shooting, including 38 points in the second half, 23 points in the fourth quarter and 17 straight points down the stretch as the L.A. Lakers came from behind to beat the Utah Jazz 101-96. Bryant's breathing was labored by the end of the game, his gait looked wobbly at times and on his two dunk attempts he barely got the ball over the rim but Bryant also displayed deft footwork, tremendous grit/determination and a nice shooting touch inside the three point arc (16-29). Bryant added four rebounds, four assists, one steal, one blocked shot and just two turnovers while playing 42 minutes (including all but the final four seconds of the second half) on a night when the plan was for Bryant--whose minutes have been restricted all season--to play just 32 minutes.
Bryant set the NBA single-game scoring high for the 2015-16 season, he joined Bob Pettit as the second player in NBA history to score at least 40 points in a game versus every team in the league, he became the oldest player to score at least 60 points in a game and he joined Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry as the only players to launch at least 50 field goal attempts in a game.
Assuming Bryant is eventually inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame, this performance shatters the previous mark for most points by a Hall of Famer in his final game, set by John Havlicek with 29 points in 1978. Julius Erving, Gail Goodrich, Dave Bing and Maurice Stokes are next on that list with 24 points each.
In a recent interview, Bryant said that if he had the power to turn back time he would not do it because living in the moment would lose all meaning if it were possible to just go back and relive situations until you obtained the desired outcome. The fact that each moment is precious and can never be relived adds "spice" to life, according to Bryant.
If Bryant did not turn back time he at least provided a flashback to a time--not so long ago--when he could dominate games at will. After it was over, he spoke with pride about his daughters watching the game and being old enough now to appreciate his play; he wryly noted that they seemed surprised by how well he played, even after he assured them that he used to do things like this all the time.
During the pregame and halftime shows, Jalen Rose and Doug Collins shared their favorite Kobe Bryant stories. Rose mentioned Bryant's 81 point game, during which Bryant shredded Rose's Toronto Raptors. Rose noted that Bryant had few highlight reel plays in that game and that Bryant did not talk trash or act in a disrespectful manner; Bryant was strictly business--a stone cold basketball assassin--and Rose respects that.
Bryant will always be compared to Michael Jordan--a comparison that Bryant openly invited from the start--and Bryant will always fall short, at least numerically in terms of championships, MVPs and scoring titles. However, Bryant deserves credit for setting the bar so high for himself and he is without question the closest thing we have seen to Jordan since Jordan retired; Bryant is the only "heir to Air" whose body and/or mind did not collapse under the pressure of trying to be Jordan's successor. Think about it: Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady were all touted as the next Jordan but none of them even came close; they were not durable enough physically and/or did not have the right mindset. LeBron James has also been compared to Jordan and, even though James is without question one of the greatest players of all-time, he has fallen short of the Jordan standard in terms of championships. James has also repeatedly been outplayed in the NBA Finals by lesser players, something that never happened to Jordan.
Hubie Brown repeatedly emphasized during the telecast how incredible it is that Bryant made the All-NBA Team 15 times and the All-Defensive Team 12 times. Brown stated that the great players get it done at both ends of the court for a sustained period of time.
We all know that Bryant has not been consistently great or particularly efficient this season but it is commendable that he played as well (and as often) as he did considering that he has put in 20 years of service and that he has come back from a torn Achilles, a broken bone in his knee, a chronically injured shoulder and assorted minor ailments.
Bryant has not lost his skills but his body is falling apart, at least in terms of the health that is necessary to play professional basketball at an elite level. It is worth remembering that Bryant sustained the career-altering Achilles injury at 34 years of age in his 17th season, a campaign during which he made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting. Bryant was carrying an impossible workload as he tried to push, pull and drag the Lakers into the playoffs; he played 319 of a possible 336 minutes in the seven games prior to sustaining the injury.
Bryant's reaction to the injury was remarkable; he stayed in the game and sank two critical free throws, because if he had let someone else shoot the free throws then by rule he would not have been able to reenter the game--and he actually was trying to figure out how to play with a ruptured Achilles tendon! Lakers trainer Gary Vitti recalls that Bryant attempted to manually roll the tendon back down his leg before Bryant walked under his own power back to the locker room. When I first saw that image of Bryant going to the locker room I immediately thought of the times that Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade left the court in a wheelchair with injuries that were not nearly as serious as Bryant's.
We will never see a player like Bryant again; he had a unique combination of impeccable fundamentals, supreme confidence, relentless competitive drive and willingness/capacity to play at a high level while injured. LeBron James is bigger, stronger and possibly faster than Bryant was at his peak but he does not come close to matching Bryant in any of the aforementioned categories--and that is why Bryant won as many titles in his career's second act as James has won in his entire career thus far.
Piggybacking off of Hubie Brown's comments during the telecast, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be another NBA guard who plays 20 seasons, let alone 20 seasons with the same team while winning five titles, making the All-NBA Team 15 times and earning 12 All-Defensive Team selections.
Bryant is firmly entrenched in pro basketball's Pantheon and his performance in his final game is a fitting tribute to the mental/psychological traits and the basketball skill set that enabled him to be so dominant for such a long period of time.
After the game, Bryant spoke to the home fans, expressed his heartfelt appreciation and then literally dropped the mic at center court after saying, "Mamba out."
Lakers Defeat Warriors in Biggest Upset in NBA Regular Season History
No NBA team with a winning percentage as bad as the L.A. Lakers (12-51 entering Sunday's game) had ever beaten a team with a winning percentage as good as the Golden State Warriors (55-5 entering Sunday's game) prior to the Lakers' shocking 112-95 victory over the defending champion Warriors. Jordan Clarkson (25 points) and D'Angelo Russell (21 points) led the way for the Lakers. Kobe Bryant, playing in his final game against the Warriors, contributed 12 points and three assists in 24 minutes while tying Lakers' reserve forward Brandon Bass with a game-high +16 plus/minus rating. Bryant's individual numbers were not eye-popping but he was an inspirational, stabilizing force while he was in the game, providing nifty passing and even accepting the challenge of guarding current (and future) MVP Stephen Curry on occasion. A nagging shoulder injury--Bryant still has not completely recovered from his January 2015 surgery for a torn rotator cuff--prevented Bryant from seeing much second half action but he remained involved and engaged on the bench, mentoring and encouraging his young teammates. Curry topped the Warriors with 18 points but he shot just 6-20 from the field, including 1-10 from three point range.
The Lakers efficiently executed an excellent game plan, demonstrating poise, patience and passing on offense while applying a lot of pressure against the Warriors' key scorers and ballhandlers. The Lakers played physically against the Warriors' guards, trying to deny--or at least heavily contest--every three point shot, while actively rotating to cutting big men after the Warriors' guards passed the ball in response to being trapped. The Warriors shot just .402 from the field, including .133 from three point range (4-30, one of the worst single game three point shooting performances since the NBA adopted the three point shot in the 1979-80 season). The Warriors also committed 20 turnovers. In contrast, the Lakers shot .471 from the field and .375 from three point range while turning the ball over just 11 times. Golden State won the rebounding battle 49-41 but those eight extra possessions could not make up for all of the Warriors' missed shots and ballhandling miscues. How aberrant are those numbers? The Warriors rank second in the NBA in field goal percentage (.486), first in three point field goal percentage (.412) and they average a little over 15 turnovers per game; the Lakers rank 30th (last) in field goal percentage (.415) and three point field goal percentage (.322) while averaging a shade under 14 turnovers per game.
Why did the Lakers seemingly turn into world beaters while the Warriors morphed into the Washington Generals? Part of this is overconfidence by the Warriors, who had destroyed the Lakers in each of the three previous meetings between the teams. Also, there can be no doubt that the Lakers were very pumped up for this game while the Warriors were likely looking ahead on the schedule. Lakers Coach Byron Scott has been much maligned but he deserves credit for designing and implementing the kind of "old school" game plan that many legends of the game have recently said would have slowed down the Warriors if the Warriors had played in a different era; the Lakers did not let Curry or his backcourt partner Klay Thompson have free reign to launch open three pointers and the Lakers rotated well enough to prevent the Warriors from making passes to cutters for layups. The Warriors missed some shots that they usually make but the Warriors were also under more duress than they usually face.
No one should ever get too carried away by the outcome of one regular season NBA game. Ultimately, the Warriors are still likely to win the championship and the Lakers are still a bad team. However, very few things that happen in a game of skill should be entirely attributed to luck. The Lakers demonstrated that there is a way to frustrate the Warriors. Can this way work over a seven game series when the Warriors presumably will be more focused than they were in a March 6 regular season game versus the Lakers? That is the key question, but if San Antonio or Oklahoma City adopt a similar game plan they have much better personnel to execute that plan over seven games than the Lakers do.
The Warriors must finish the season 18-3 to break the Bulls' 1996 record. Think about that: as well as the Warriors have played for the past several months, they still have to be almost perfect to surpass what the Bulls accomplished--and yesterday's game showed that, to borrow a phrase from the NFL lexicon, anything can happen on any given Sunday. What the Bulls did not just in 1996 (winning a championship to punctuate their record-setting regular season) but also in 1997 (69-13 record plus a second consecutive title) and in 1998 (62-20 plus a third consecutive championship) is remarkable.
It is mathematically possible that both the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs will win at least 70 games this season, a plateau only reached by the 1996 Bulls. I have been thinking a lot about what this means. Are both the Warriors and the Spurs two of the best single season teams in NBA history, much like the Lakers (69-13) and Bucks (63-19 after going 66-16 and winning the championship the previous year) in the 1971-72 season? Or, is the league somewhat watered down now?
When they are at their best, the Warriors are a joy to watch: they pass, they cut, they shoot the ball exceptionally well and they help each other on defense. Similarly, the Spurs are also a joy to watch, for many of the same reasons. I have always believed that the very best teams from any year in the post-shot clock era would do well if transplanted to a different era but I am not convinced that the Warriors and Spurs both possibly rank among the three best teams of all-time alongside the 1996 Chicago Bulls. There are multiple NBA teams that are tanking now, even though it has been demonstrated that tanking does not work. While some of the criticisms of today's game and today's players may sound like they are based on jealousy or bitterness about the amount of fame and money today's players receive, specific and valid points made by the sport's legends should not be blithely dismissed: (1) it is true that the game used to be more physical and (2) it is true that the Warriors and Spurs are exploiting various rules changes that have been made over the years. The Warriors and Spurs deserve credit for adapting their style of play to be successful but it is fair to question how well the Warriors and Spurs would do in the 1990s against the Chicago Bulls' "doberman" perimeter defenders or in the 1980s against the Bad Boys Pistons or in the 1970s when seemingly every team had an enforcer.
Commentators should not take either point to the extreme; it seems silly to suggest that the 2007 Warriors would beat the 2016 Warriors in a playoff series just because the 2007 Warriors beat a 67 win Dallas team in the first round but it is also premature to crown the 2016 Warriors as the best team of all-time when they have yet to prove that they are even the best team of this year by winning the championship. In 1996, Chicago's Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper made some T-shirts bearing the phrase, "72-10 Don't Mean a Thing Without the Ring." Regardless of how many games the Warriors win this season, in order to be in the greatest team of all-time conversation they must win the championship. No one talks about the 68-14 Boston Celtics from 1972-73 or the aforementioned 2007 Mavericks because those teams did not win the title.
Golden State probably will win the 2016 NBA championship and earn a seat at the sport's symbolic "Champions of Champions" table but--as we just saw yesterday--no team is invincible. If the Warriors have one misstep at home in the playoffs, a team like San Antonio or Oklahoma City could eliminate them with three home wins.
Westbrook's Intensity Stood Out in Otherwise Desultory All-Star Game
NBA All-Star Weekend was filled with verbal and video tributes to Kobe Bryant but the best and most fitting tribute to Bryant in his farewell All-Star Game is the way that Russell Westbrook played en route to becoming the first player to win outright MVPs in consecutive NBA All-Star Games: Westbrook poured in 31 points on 12-23 field goal shooting while grabbing a team-high eight rebounds, passing for five assists and swiping a game-high five steals in just 22 minutes. This is not just about numbers, though. Westbrook played like he actually cared who won the game and like he actually takes pride in competition. That kind of relentless attitude is what sets Bryant apart from his peers and is an example of why Bryant has said that Westbrook reminds him of himself.
It is poignant that, after 20 seasons, Bryant is no longer physically capable of playing with that kind of intensity for extended stretches; Bryant had 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes and TNT's Shaquille O'Neal noted that when he asked Bryant during the contest when Bryant was going to take over Bryant gestured to indicate that he could not do that. Before the game, Bryant told TNT's Craig Sager that he hoped for a game with competitive spirit in which the West emerged victorious. Sadly, not only can Bryant no longer push himself to the ultimate limits anymore but he also cannot force the next generation of elite players to push themselves to the ultimate limits.
The All-Star Game is an exhibition event but it is not supposed to be a farce. The Western Conference's 196-173 victory over the Eastern Conference featured fewer moments of real competition than a contest between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. Numerous records were smashed but the video game numbers lose meaning when there is no defensive resistance. Two of the most telling records set are most three pointers made by both teams (51) and fewest free throws made by both teams (four). Players repeatedly jacked up uncontested shots from several feet behind the three point line and when they were not doing that they drove the lane for uncontested dunks.
The All-Star Game looked like a funhouse version of the style of play embraced by "stat gurus": dunks and three pointers. The usage of the three point shot evolved significantly from the 1960s through the mid-2000s and in the past few years the usage of the three point shot has increased more dramatically than it did in the previous several decades. That is not necessarily a bad thing; simple math proves that a 40% three point shooter accumulates the same number of points in 100 shots as a 60% two point shooter (something that I used to say, in vain, during the late 1980s when the three point line first showed up in rec league games and my old school teammates thought that I was shooting too many three pointers). The three point shot is a powerful weapon when correctly used but in order to win a championship a team must still be able to attack the paint (this is now done less by post up and more by dribble penetration or passing) and a team still must be able to play excellent defense. The Golden State Warriors are not dominating solely because of their great outside shooting; if all they did was run and shoot three pointers then they would be the Mike D'Antoni Phoenix Suns, not a squad threatening to win over 70 regular season games and claim back to back championships. The key strategic concept to understand about three point shooting is that it involves more variance than post up play; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his prime was going to score in the paint and command double teams night after night, with little variation, but even the best three point shooter is going to have some awful nights beyond the arc: this season, Stephen Curry has shot .273 or worse from three point range eight times this season, which works out to once out of every six games. When the three pointers are not falling, a player and his team must be able to rely on dribble penetration/passing to score and they must play sound defense.
The style of play featured in the All-Star Game is not aesthetically pleasing nor is it winning basketball. It is possible to play hard, play the right way and still be entertaining: Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and their peers did this in the 1980s. Those All-Star Games were fun to watch and featured highlight reel plays but there was at least some defensive resistance.
I reject the idea that the current All-Star are trying to avoid injury and save themselves for the playoff push. This was about wanting to look cool and not wanting to put your reputation on the line by playing hard against a great player and either missing a shot or having a shot made against you despite your best effort--and it was the opposite of the kind of thinking that helped these players become All-Stars in the first place. I asked Erving about this mentality years several years ago and his response should be posted in both locker rooms prior to every All-Star Game, if not every game period:
Today's game, some of these All-Star Games, players have figured out a
way to allow guys to dunk the ball and not have it perceived as the guy
dunking on somebody. When I was coming up, you rarely could dunk on
people and people did not want to get dunked on, it was almost like
being 'posterized' if somebody dunked on you. Guys tried their best not
to let anybody dunk on them. Sometimes they would just grab you rather
than let you dunk. That seems to be lost somewhere in what I see with a
lot of the high wire act performances. It is almost like, 'I'm going to
let the guy dunk. And I'm going to get far enough out of the picture so
nobody is perceiving this as me being dunked on or being posterized.' I
don't understand the mentality of just letting a guy go in there and
throw it down and applauding it, if he's wearing a different colored
uniform. It's just playing to the crowd but I think that the crowd would
respect and appreciate a play being made when somebody is trying to
contest it. I think it makes for a great photo-op and a great poster if
somebody is there. I remember being in Madison Square Garden and going
up for a dunk and Lonnie Shelton was there and my knees were up on his
shoulders. He was trying to draw a charge, I guess. Looking at that
shot, when somebody is there, it is poetry in motion. Just throwing the
ball up and going through the motions, I guess guys don't want to get
hurt. I like watching the dunk contests--but I don't like a game to turn
into a dunk contest with no defense. That does nothing for me.
The best part of the 2016 NBA All-Star Game happened in the final minute when the Western Conference displayed some pride and did not just part the lane to let Paul George break Wilt Chamberlain's single-game All-Star scoring record of 42 points, a mark that has stood since 1962. It is great to see that George has fully recovered from the devastating broken leg that could have ended his career but it would have been a disservice for him to wipe out Chamberlain's record by hitting a bunch of uncontested shots.
LeBron James, who should be the best player in the league (a mantle he has ceded to Stephen Curry) and who should set an example of competitiveness for his peers, made wild, low percentage passes and attempted to throw a lob to himself off of the shot clock. He finished with 13 points, which was just enough to eclipse Bryant by one point for the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (291 points); little mention was made of this during the telecast and no mention was made of the fact that Erving still holds the ABA-NBA record with 321 points.
Perhaps the one positive thing about the recent spate of All-Star Games featuring subpar defense is that such performances expose the falsehood that NBA teams do not play defense during the regular season; clearly, if that were the case then the regular season scoring totals and shooting percentages would be much higher.
There is no doubt that the league has many very talented athletes who also possess elite basketball skills; it is a shame that the best players of this era do not take more pride in excelling at both ends of the court and at challenging themselves by playing hard against their peers.
Interim Houston Rockets Coach J.B. Bickerstaff bluntly admitted that his underachieving team is "broken." This has been evident for quite some time, as the Rockets sputtered to a 4-7 start and fired Coach Kevin McHale just a few months after he guided the team to an improbable Western Conference Finals appearance.
Houston's problems are not difficult to identify, nor are they unexpected to anyone who watches this team with understanding. The Rockets roster has been assembled by Daryl Morey, who values the spreadsheet above all and has little appreciation for the importance of chemistry. Greg Anthony recently pointed out that the Golden State Warriors are great not because they have the five best players but rather because their players play well together. It is not surprising that the Rockets have enormous chemistry problems, because chemistry was not adequately considered when putting this team together.
Dwight Howard should be the central focus of this team, literally and figuratively. He is capable of being a dominant scorer, rebounder and defender. It is not a coincidence that Houston's run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals happened after Howard returned to health. Howard led the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals because that team was built around his strengths; opposing teams could not double team him because that would leave a sniper open outside the three point arc. The Magic had good spacing, enabling Howard to average 20.6 ppg during that 2008-09 regular season even though he has a relatively limited arsenal of low post moves. He averaged at least 20 ppg four times in a five year stretch with the Magic but as a Rocket his scoring averages have been 18.3 ppg and 15.8 ppg. He is scoring 14.6 ppg so far this season.
There are two problems with Howard: (1) injuries seem to have robbed him of some of his explosiveness and (2) he does not have a consistently dominant mindset. His personality is too passive for him to lead the team and James Harden is happy to fill that void--but the problem is that Harden's leadership style revolves around him accumulating big individual statistics, as opposed to playing in a way likely to maximize team success. Harden's style of play sets such a bad example at both ends of the court that it is unlikely he could ever be the best player on a championship team or even fill a leadership role on such a team.
Harden is perhaps the most overrated player in the NBA, though some people are starting to see the truth this season after Harden almost tricked the media into giving him the 2015 NBA MVP. Harden is the same kind of player as Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony; physically and stylistically those three players are different but the essence of who they are is the same: they lack leadership qualities, they are at best indifferent on defense and they want to be recognized as superstars without actually taking responsibility for the success or failure of their team. They have All-Star level talent but they are not elite players.
Marbury put up 20 ppg-10 apg seasons like no one since Oscar Robertson but Marbury's numbers were meaningless; he passed the ball not to help his team win but to make sure he got enough assists to pump up his numbers. Anthony is a prolific one on one scorer who has no idea how to lead a team anywhere and the rare, limited playoff success that he has enjoyed came when he played alongside point guards who are strong leaders (Chauncey Billups in 2009, Jason Kidd in 2013).
Harden plays no defense, he monopolizes the ball on offense, his pouting and self-absorption make him ill-equipped to lead and on top of all of that he came into camp this season out of shape. I laughed out loud the other night when a TV commentator said that Harden is having a "career year." Harden is averaging a career-high 28.0 ppg but he is shooting just .427 from the field--his worst percentage since his rookie season--and he is leading the league with a career-high 4.5 turnovers per game average. When Harden went to Houston four years ago I predicted that he would be an All-Star player who struggled to lead the Rockets past the first round. The Rockets lost in the first round in Harden's first two seasons with the team and are struggling to even make the playoffs this year after their fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals. Yes, it was a fluke--I said it at the time and those who did not understand/believe it in May 2015 will understand/believe it as this season and subsequent seasons unfold.
What objective evidence shows that their playoff run was fluky? The Rockets clinched the second seed in the West but only had the fifth best point differential in the conference--and point differential is a better measure of strength and more accurate predictor of success than wins and losses. The Clippers had the Rockets on the ropes in the second round but the Clippers have their own issues and blew a 3-1 lead. It was obvious that this season the Rockets would not come close to contending for the Western Conference Finals. I predicted that the Rockets would be the fifth best team in the West but so far they have been even worse than I expected: they are ninth in the West with a 27-28 record entering the All-Star break after losing their last three games and six of their last 10.
What can the Rockets do to avoid spending the next five or six years battling for the eighth seed and losing in the first round of the playoffs? The Rockets need to acquire or develop a true leader, a two-way player who the rest of the players on the roster will respect and follow. The Rockets need to involve Howard more in the offense and they need to develop a defensive scheme that takes advantage of his presence in the paint. The Rockets need to get the ball out of Harden's hands and have him play off of the ball more; the Rockets either need more scoring balance (with Harden scoring 20-22 ppg with a higher FG% and the other players being more involved) or they need to acquire a better first option player so that Harden can go back to being an efficient second or third option player.
The Rockets are not going to be a contender with Harden scoring 28 ppg while shooting less than .430 from the field and impersonating a turnstile on defense.
"How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on
the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players.
Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses
either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to
an NBA title."
Therefore, I cannot criticize the Cleveland Cavaliers for firing Blatt. However, the timing and the context are strange. The Cavaliers have the best record in the Eastern Conference and have won two games in a row after their embarrassing 132-98 loss to the Golden State Warriors. We have not learned anything about Blatt in the past week--or in the first half of the 2015-16 season--that we did not already know. General Manager David Griffin said that he replaced Blatt with lead assistant coach Tyronn Lue--who has been given the job outright and does not wear the interim tag--not based on the win/loss record but because Blatt is not creating a championship culture. If that is really the reason that Blatt was fired--and it is a legitimate concern--then Griffin should have fired Blatt after the Cavaliers blew a 2-1 lead in the 2015 NBA Finals.
Brendan Haywood, an NBA commentator who played for Blatt's Cleveland Cavaliers last season, gave a very insightful interview today in which he stated that Blatt is a nice man and a good coach but all of the players knew that he could not help them win a game against the likes of Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr. Blatt does not understand NBA substitution patterns and he struggles to design effective end of game plays. Haywood said that the Cavs ultimately had to scrap Blatt's offense and run sets that Lue learned from his time working as an assistant for Doc Rivers. Blatt simply does not know the league well enough and, to compound the issue, he is very stubborn and stuck in his ways because he thinks that decades of minor league coaching in Europe qualify him to run the show in the most sophisticated basketball league in the world. Blatt is overmatched and anyone who understands NBA basketball could see it. Haywood also noted that Blatt would not call out LeBron James during film sessions but would criticize mistakes made by other players. Great players want and need to be coached hard and to be pushed. Julius Erving and Tim Duncan are two examples of great players who did not bristle when their coaches yelled at them, because they understood that if they were coachable then everyone else on the roster would fall in line.
If Griffin had fired Blatt last summer then he either could have replaced him with a veteran NBA coach or, at a minimum, he could have given Lue the opportunity to have a whole training camp to put in his system. I don't know if Lue is an elite NBA coach or not. Lue was a heady role player during his NBA career and there is a precedent for heady role players becoming championship coaches (Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr immediately come to mind) but Derek Fisher was a heady role player who hardly has taken the league by storm as a head coach.
Lue has been on Griffin's radar since Griffin made Lue the highest paid assistant coach in the NBA less than two years ago. If Lue is really a championship level coach, then the Cavs should have hired him in 2014 or 2015; a year and a half of cleaning up Blatt's mistakes has hardly made Lue any more prepared to run the show than he already was. Throwing Lue into the fire in the middle of the season looks like a panic move as opposed to a well thought out decision--or, it looks like a move made to appease the man who really runs the show in Cleveland: LeBron James.
Griffin's defiant assertions that he does not take polls before making decisions and that he did not seek LeBron James' opinion/approval are equally disingenuous and unsurprising. The Cavaliers don't change the toilet paper in the bathrooms at Quicken Loans Arena without having James' approval--and they don't have to ask his opinion about anything because James, through his minions, makes his wishes very clearly known. It is no secret that James does not respect Blatt and it is no secret that James signs short term deals with the Cavs to maximize his leverage based on the very credible threat that he will flee town if he does not get his way. James has every right to conduct his playing and business careers as he sees fit--but his greatest success as a player came in Miami when Pat Riley insisted that James respect his coach and did not let James' crew run roughshod over everyone in the organization.
James says that he left Miami to bring a championship to Cleveland but it is not a stretch to suggest that, after winning two rings in Miami, James grew tired of having to follow Riley's rules and preferred to return to a situation where he knew he could call all of the shots--and that is what he has done: LeBron James the general manager wanted Kevin Love instead of Andrew Wiggins and he wanted reserve forward Tristan Thompson signed to a huge deal. James the general manager wanted Tyronn Lue as head coach. James is the only player in the NBA who checks himself in and out of games on his whim without consulting his coach and that practice is likely to continue with his hand picked man/puppet on the bench.
So, when the Cavaliers are eliminated from the 2016 playoffs, if James blames the general manager for how the roster is put together or the coach for playing him too much/too little, let us hope that the talking heads who keep trying to put James in the same class with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan make it clear that the blame belongs with James.
One of the best things about getting a press pass to an NBA game is the opportunity to interview and interact with basketball lifers who truly know and love the sport; most of my favorite memories from covering the NBA revolve around the time I spent with these wise basketball lifers--and Johnny Bach, who passed away on Monday at the age of 91, is one of my most special interview subjects. I first spoke with him early in my NBA writing career and I found him to be very generous with his time and his knowledge. One interview with Johnny Bach provided enough material for at least half a dozen articles on a variety of basketball-related subjects. He spoke the truth and did not care if that offended anyone. I just read an article that suggested that when Jerry Krause wanted to trade Scottie Pippen and asked the Chicago Bulls' coaching staff to vote on it, Bach declared that anyone who thinks a vote is necessary is an idiot. Pippen was an all-time great, Bach knew it and he did not want to waste time arguing about it. I don't know if that story is true but it is believable: Bach understood basketball and he had no patience for nonsense. Krause got rid of Bach shortly after that incident but a decade later Bach had a second run with the Bulls (after the Bulls got rid of Krause) and that is when I had the great fortune to speak with Bach.
Bach was a man in full who knew about and experienced a lot more than basketball. He served in World War II and later in life he became an accomplished painter. Sam Smith, one of the classiest and best writers I encountered during my time covering the NBA, has penned a must-read tribute to Bach in which Smith calls Bach "one of the truly great Americans of the 20th Century" and adds, "I'd exaggerate Johnny's accomplishments if I could, but I’d only end up falling short. This was truly a remarkable and skilled man, principled in his
commitment to his nation and his profession, articulate and endearing,
tough and scholarly with a passion for learning and sharing. Johnny reached the apex of pretty much every profession and discipline he encountered."
Phil Jackson authored a tribute to Bach as well. Jackson praised Bach's immense contributions to the Chicago Bulls' 1991-93 championship teams and concluded with these fitting words: "Tonight I'll think of him and that spirit he embodied, especially his motto after a late night on the road. 'What? You can't be tired, you can sleep in the grave.' Sleep well, Johnny."
At the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the class of the Eastern Conference but they are far from being a championship team. After the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, we heard a lot of noise--at least some of which came from the Cavaliers themselves--about how much different the result would have been if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been available. It is fair to assume that the Warriors took notice of those comments. On Christmas Day, during the first of two meetings between the teams this season, the Warriors proved that they could beat the Cavaliers playing a grind it out style game, prevailing 89-83 at home. Irving and Love started for the Cavaliers and combined for 23 points on 9-31 field goal shooting.
In the much anticipated Martin Luther King Day rematch in Cleveland, the Warriors raced to an early 12-2 lead and never looked back, hitting the Cavaliers with their worst home loss in a game during which LeBron James played, 132-98. James--as he has done a puzzling number of times in big games during an otherwise stellar career--was oddly passive and disinterested, posting a quiet stat line of 16 points, five rebounds and five assists in what was supposed to be a statement game. Irving and Love scored 11 points on 4-16 field goal shooting.
Meanwhile, reigning regular season MVP Stephen Curry blistered the nets with 35 points on 12-18 field goal shooting--including 7-12 from three point range--in just 28 minutes before sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Curry could have scored 50 points easily if necessary, which is just one of many reasons that statistics have to be placed in context when they are used to compare players. Andre Iguodala, who earned the 2015 Finals MVP in part because of his role in limiting James' efficiency during the championship series, scored 20 points off of the bench, Draymond Green flirted with a triple double (16 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) and Klay Thompson added 15 points.
Too much should not be read into one regular season game. I well remember that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls--one of my favorite teams of all-time and one of the greatest teams of all-time--lost 104-72 to the New York Knicks. Two months later, the Bulls smashed the Knicks 4-1 in the playoffs en route to winning the championship.
However, this particular Cleveland loss highlighted some things about the Cavaliers that should not be blithely dismissed. Any team or person can have a bad day but not all bad days are created the same; some bad days reveal some problems/issues that may be glossed over until adversity strikes.
Cleveland Coach David Blatt and his star player LeBron James did not ask for my advice but I will provide it anyway:
1) Committing flagrant fouls and knocking over opposing players does not prove that you are tough; it shows that you lack discipline
You show toughness by playing hard, playing smart and playing through pain. Focus on the game plan and put the team's success above your own individual glory/agenda. Those are the traits of championship teams. Look at the difference between the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals. It can be summed up simply: "Dumb gets you beat every time." The Bengals blew a playoff game against their archrival the Pittsburgh Steelers because some of the Bengals players got so caught up in fake toughness and personal agendas that they lost sight of the main goal: win the game.
What does this have to do with the Cavaliers? When the game with the Warriors was up for grabs, the Cavaliers did not play hard or smart and they lacked focus to such an extent that they committed a five second violation, which is rarely seen in the NBA. Then, when the game was out of reach, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert started committing hard fouls. Smith got ejected after making no effort to get around a screen. Even James got in on the act, throwing Curry to the court in the first half. Those kinds of plays do not win games and do no prove that you are tough; they just prove that the other team has gotten into your head to the point that you are so frustrated you can no longer focus on the game plan.
2) Kevin Love seems uninterested in playing good defense; Kyrie Irving may not be able to consistently play good defense
One time when former Georgetown Coach John Thompson was commenting on an NBA game he made the very cogent point that Dirk Nowitzki was athletic enough to accomplish all kinds of things on the offensive end of the court and thus he was athletic enough to at least play competent defense. That was early in Nowitzki's career and Nowitzki eventually became a solid defender as he led Dallas to the 2011 NBA title. Nowitzki never became a great defender but he learned how to move his feet better and at least use his size to bother opposing shooters.
Love has the skill set to be an outstanding offensive player, so he has the necessary tools to be at least an adequate defender but far too often he looks disinterested at that end of the court.
Irving has improved on defense and at times he uses his quickness/athleticism to make some good individual defensive plays--but he lacks size and does not seem to have a strong base; the Warriors repeatedly went into the post with whichever player Irving was guarding. Irving's defensive effort is better than it used to be but he is not likely to grow, so unless he develops a better base and learns how to prevent taller players from getting good post position he will always be a defensive liability to some extent.
Therefore, it is up to the coaching staff to figure out how to either motivate Love and Irving to contribute more on defense or else put those players into defensive schemes/matchups that minimize their deficiencies.
3) The Cavaliers do not maximize the talents of their players who are not named LeBron James
It is often said that James makes the players around him better. It is certainly true that James makes his team better; James is a productive scorer, rebounder, playmaker and defender. However, it seems like the players around James have to give up parts of their games to fit in with him. Chris Bosh was a 20-10 guy before playing with LeBron James but when he played with James he was often relegated to being a three point shooter. Similarly, Kevin Love's game has regressed since he joined the Cavaliers to play alongside James. Despite all of the talk about how selfish Kobe Bryant supposedly is, consider how many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside him, ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown and Smush Parker).
How many players have had career-best years playing alongside LeBron James? The number is rather small and I am not sure why this is the case. There are undoubtedly many factors involved and I do not mean to suggest that this is all James' fault or even mostly James' fault--but James is clearly a prodigious individual talent and it does not seem like he is going to win championships at the level that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan did. Many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside those guys. Jordan and Bryant had to fight the "selfish" tag, while Johnson and Duncan are lauded for their unselfishness; there is more than one way to get the job done but each of those players got the best out of their teammates while also playing at a high level individually. James almost seems like a modern-day Wilt Chamberlain; James is the best athlete in the NBA (or he was during his absolute prime) and he is going to own a boatload of records when he retires but his tally of two titles (the same number that Chamberlain won) is surprising considering that he was the consensus best player in the league for several years in a row and that he was blessed with very good supporting casts during those seasons.
4) The Cavaliers cannot beat the Warriors playing small ball
Even without Irving and Love, the Cavaliers took a 2-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. Then, the Warriors decided to go small--inserting Iguodala in the starting lineup--and Blatt panicked, going small by slashing the minutes of center Timofey Mozgov. The Warriors went small because they were trailing in the series and could not match up with Cleveland's big lineup. The Cavaliers should have stuck with what worked in the first three games of the series; the Cavaliers may have lost no matter what they did but they had zero chance of winning by playing small ball against a team who has more good small players ("small" being a relative term, as we are talking about players who range from 6-3 to 6-8) than the Cavaliers do.
I guarantee you that if a fantasy matchup could somehow be arranged between the current Warriors and the 1980s Showtime Lakers there is no way that Lakers Coach Pat Riley would bench Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play small ball. Obviously, Mozgov is no Abdul-Jabbar but the point is that basketball is about matchups and when you have a big guy who can score in the paint you force the other team to guard him, especially when the other team prefers to play small.
Since the Warriors are being compared to the 1995-96 Bulls, I will take this opportunity to throw in my two cents: the 1996 Bulls would beat the Warriors in a seven game series because Jordan and Pippen would be the best players on the court at both ends of the court. The Bulls would not shut down Curry but they would not let him score an efficient 30 points, either. I think that Chicago Coach Phil Jackson would keep Luc Longley in the game to be a post up threat but the Bulls could play small against the Warriors for at least part of the game: a small ball lineup of Jordan, Harper, Pippen, Rodman and Kukoc is a far cry from the small ball lineup the Cavaliers trotted out in the NBA Finals.
It takes exceptional defensive versatility to accumulate at least 100 steals and at least 100 blocked shots in the same season. The ABA officially tracked steals and blocked shots from 1972-73 until 1975-76 (after which the ABA merged with the NBA), while the NBA has officially recorded steals and blocked shots since 1973-74. I first wrote about pro basketball's 100-100 Club in the April 2002 issue of Basketball Digestand then I revisited the subject for NBCSports.com in November 2006. The version of the latter article that I posted at 20 Second Timeout was updated to include the 2006-07 season; in the past eight years, there have been nine 100-100 seasons recorded by a total of seven players. Six players joined the 100-100 Club since the 2006-07 season: Dwyane
Wade (2009), Dwight Howard (2011), Kevin Durant (2013), Andre Drummond
(2014), Anthony Davis (2015) and Nerlens Noel (2015). Josh Smith logged
his first 100-100 season in 2006-07 and has added three more such
seasons to his total (2008, 2010, 2014) to move into a tie with Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar, Terry Tyler and Andrei Kirilenko for 11th-14th place on the
all-time list. Smith is the only player who has had more than one 100-100 season since 2006-07.
Only 58 players have had a 100-100 season and 32 of those players have accomplished the feat just once. Julius Erving not only founded the 100-100 Club in 1972-73 with 181 steals and 127 blocked shots for the ABA's Virginia Squires (ranking third and seventh in the league respectively in those categories) but he remains the 100-100 Club king with a record 12 such seasons, a mark tied by Hakeem Olajuwon. Kevin Garnett had eight 100-100 seasons before turning 30 but injuries and the aging process stalled his attempt to match Erving and Olajuwon.
The all-time top 10 is rounded out by Sam Lacey (seven 100-100 seasons), David Robinson (seven), Bobby Jones (six), George Gervin (five), Vlade Divac (five) and Shawn Marion (five).
The even more exclusive 200-100 Club still has just four members: Michael Jordan (twice), Julius Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen.
The 100-200 Club has expanded to 14 members, welcoming Anthony Davis last season as he tallied exactly 100 steals and exactly 200 blocked shots. Josh Smith had 123 steals and 227 blocked shots in 2007-08, becoming the eighth player with at least two such seasons. Olajuwon had 11 100-200 seasons, followed by David Robinson (seven), Abdul-Jabbar (three) and Ben Wallace (three).
In 2014-15, Nerlens Noel became the ninth member of the Top Ten Club by ranking seventh in blocked shots per game (1.9) and 10th in steals per game (1.8). Erving had six seasons during which he ranked in the top 10 in both steals per game and blocked shots per game. Olajuwon did this four times and no one else has done it more than twice. Josh Smith very narrowly missed the cut in 2009-10, ranking third in blocked shots per game and 11th in steals per game, just .0247 steals per game behind Stephen Jackson.
Julius "Dr. J" Erving and "Pistol" Pete Maravich were teammates with the Atlanta Hawks for three preseason games in 1972 and my interview with Erving about those games was cited in the book Maravich by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill. Erving and Maravich also played for the Eastern Conference in the 1977 and 1979 NBA All-Star Games. This recently posted video includes some great highlights of Erving and Maravich in those two NBA All-Star games. Their connection is telepathic and their chemistry is explosive; if they had played on the same team with any halfway decent big man their team would have been a perennial championship contender.
Around the 3:16 mark of the video, several quotes about Erving and Maravich are displayed, including one from my article. Erving is my favorite basketball player of all-time: I have written a short story about him, plus several poems (Doc on the Break: Early 1970s, The Dunk, One on One and Geometry, Art--and Doc) and of course many, many articles analyzing his impact on the sport. Maravich was one of my favorite players as a kid and I wrote a heartfelt poem after his premature passing. The above video captures at least a small part of why these two players became legends and I am proud that the person who posted this video decided to include my words in this tribute to Doc and the Pistol.
Julius Erving's Best Scoring Streaks/Most Productive Scoring Months
During his prime, Kobe Bryant had some amazing scoring streaks. He averaged at least 40 ppg in a calendar month four times, more than any player in pro basketball history other than Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged at least 40 ppg in 11 calendar months. During one of those 40 ppg months (February 2003), Bryant scored at least 40 points in nine straight games, tying Michael Jordan for the fourth longest such run in pro basketball history (Chamberlain had two 14 game streaks, plus a 10 game streak). Whenever Bryant went on a scoring tear, basketball historians went to the archives to see whose records he was approaching or breaking. The names that came up most often were Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. Sometimes Elgin Baylor's name would appear as well but Julius Erving's name was rarely if ever part of that particular conversation.
Erving was just the third player in pro basketball history to score more than 30,000 career points, so he put up some big numbers, particularly during the first five years of his career when he played in the ABA--but the NBA does not officially recognize ABA statistics and most mainstream media outlets ignore the ABA so little is reported about the first third of Erving's Hall of Fame career. For instance, when I researched Erving's playoff career I found out that he posted amazing--and, in some cases, unprecedented--statistics. As a rookie in 1971-72, Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring (33.3 ppg) and playoff rebounding (20.4 rpg); the only other player in pro basketball history to average 30-20 in a playoff season is Chamberlain (1960-62, 64) and the only other players in pro basketball history to lead the ABA or NBA in playoff scoring and rebounding in the same year are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA), Hakeem
Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of those legendary centers came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average when they accomplished their league leading scoring/rebounding double. Facing fellow future Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry in game one of the second round of the 1972 ABA playoffs, Erving produced 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists as his Virginia Squires defeated Barry's New York Nets 138-91. I have yet to uncover a comparable playoff performance, though Chamberlain had the only 20-20-20 regular season game in pro basketball history (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists for the Philadelphia 76ers in a 131-121 regular season victory over Detroit on February 2, 1968).
I previously compiled a complete list of Erving's 40 point games, so I know that even in the ABA he did not have any streak of 40 point games approaching what Chamberlain, Bryant and Jordan did; Erving's longest streak of 40 point games was two (which he accomplished six times, including once in the playoffs), although he had longer streaks during which he averaged at least 40 ppg overall. Erving never averaged 40 ppg in a calendar month, topping out at 35.1 ppg in March 1973; that is one of 12 calendar months in which Erving averaged at least 30 ppg, all of which took place during his ABA years.
Erving first posted back to back 40 point games in March 1972, near
the end of his rookie season (41 points on March 26, 45 points on March
28), which was also the first month that he averaged at least 30 ppg
(30.9 ppg). Erving's teammate Charlie Scott--who won the 1972 ABA
scoring title with a 34.6 ppg average--jumped to the NBA's Phoenix Suns
after the first six games in March; Erving averaged 27.3 ppg in those
six games and 32.8 ppg in the remaining 11 games, including three games
of at least 40 points.
Erving missed the first four games of the 1972-73 season due to a
contract dispute. The Squires went 0-4 in those games but promptly won
three in a row after Erving returned to the lineup in late October.
Erving did not completely hit his stride in October 1972 (25.5 ppg in
six games) but in November 1972 he averaged 32.9 ppg in 16 games (which
turned out to be the third highest scoring calendar month of his entire
career). Erving's November to remember point totals were 39, 33, 42, 38,
34, 34, 24, 23, 35, 45, 27, 36, 30, 46, 16, 25.
was almost as prolific in his 16 games in December 1972 (31.3 ppg), topped by a
trio of 41 point games (including his second back to back 40 point
games, on December 7 and December 8). The December schedule included
games on four consecutive nights (December 6-9), with Erving scoring 32,
41, 41 and 30 in those games. Erving also played on four consecutive
nights less than a week later (December 14-17), scoring 24, 24, 37
and 35 in those games.
Erving averaged 30.2 ppg in 14 January 1973 games--including 46 points
on January 16 and 47 points on January 31--but the closest that Erving came to sustaining a Chamberlain-Jordan-Bryant kind of scoring run was in February and March of 1973. Erving averaged 34.8 ppg in nine games in February 1973, scoring 20, 35, 58 (his regular season career-high for a non-overtime game), 44, 35, 44, 20, 31 and 26 points. Erving averaged 45.3 ppg in the four games starting with his 58 point outburst in a 123-108 win versus the Nets. I do not have complete records for highest scoring average in a four game stretch but not including Chamberlain--who averaged a record 50.4 ppg in 1961-62 and 44.8 ppg in 1962-63--Erving's tally as a second year pro must rank pretty high on the list.
Erving averaged 35.1 ppg in 10 games in March 1973, scoring 38, 38, 29, 36, 29, 29, 42, 38, 44 and 28 points. The 29-42-38 run came on three consecutive nights (March 8-9-10) and that type of old-school back to back to back scheduling led to wear and tear which could somewhat explain the chronically sore knees that Erving experienced even early in his career. Erving averaged a career-high 31.9 ppg in the 1972-73 season en route to
claiming the first of his three ABA regular season scoring titles.
Erving joined the Nets for the 1973-74 season. He averaged 30.7 ppg in nine October games but after a 4-1 start the Nets lost nine games in a row. Coach Kevin Loughery realized that he was overworking Erving, expecting Erving to lead the league in scoring while also serving as the key figure in the team's full-court press: "My original concept seemed perfectly suited to the Doctor. He plays so hard, so fast. But no one could play that way for 84 games. By the third week of the season, I had run him into the ground. I was in the process of destroying the best player on my team, maybe in the game."
For the remainder of Erving's three seasons with the Nets under Loughery, the team ran and pressed more selectively. Erving did not average 30 ppg in a month again until February 1975--but with Erving leading the way as an all-around threat at both ends of the court the Nets won championships in 1974 and 1976. In March 1974, Erving "only" averaged 27.1 ppg in 17 games but he logged back to back 40 point games for the fourth time in his career (41 on March 16, followed by 41 on March 17).
Erving's 30.7 ppg average in 15 games in February 1975 included three 40 point games: 40 on February 3, a career-high 63 in four overtimes on February 14 and 51 on February 22, Erving's 25th birthday. In a five game stretch from February 14-February 22, Erving averaged 40.4 ppg.
After averaging 27.4 ppg in 1973-74 (good enough to win his second consecutive scoring title) and 27.9 ppg in 1974-75, Erving averaged 29.3 ppg in 1975-76, capturing his third and final scoring title with the second highest scoring average of his career. He averaged 32.0 ppg in five October 1975 games (the minimum number of games used by the Elias Sports Bureau when comparing calendar month scoring statistics), including 39 and 42 in back to back games on October 29 and October 31. Erving averaged 30.2 ppg in 11 November 1975 games. The Nets won three of four games in a stretch spanning October 29-November 4 as Erving averaged 38.0 ppg.
Erving averaged 30.9 ppg in 17 games in January 1976, including 49 points on January 10 and 51 points on January 18. In the five games spanning January 10-18, Erving averaged 37.0 ppg. Erving averaged 31.7 ppg in 17 games in February 1976, including the fifth and final time that he posted back to back 40 point games in the regular season (44 points on February 5, 40 points on February 8).
Erving's performance in the 1976 ABA playoffs--capped off by leading both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in the ABA Finals while carrying the Nets to the final ABA title before the ABA-NBA merger--is as sublime as any accomplishment in pro basketball history. Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring (34.7 ppg) for the fourth time in five years and he topped the 40 point barrier in each of the first two games of the ABA Finals versus the Denver Nuggets, who had assigned Bobby Jones--arguably the best defensive forward in pro basketball at that time--to guard Erving. Erving scored 45 points on 17-25 field goal shooting (.680) in game one, hitting the game-winning jumper over Jones at the buzzer, and then Erving poured in 48 points on 17-26 field goal shooting (.654) in a game two loss. Erving scored 41 points in a one point game six loss in the previous series versus San Antonio before scoring 28 points in the Nets' game seven win; thus, in a four game span against the ABA's toughest competition Erving averaged 40.5 ppg as the Nets eliminated the Spurs and gained home court advantage in the Finals with a 1-1 split against the Nuggets.
After the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, Erving was a very productive and consistent player during his 11 year NBA career but--like many great players, including Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan--his highest scoring seasons happened within the first five years of his pro career. Erving averaged between 27.3 ppg and 31.9 ppg each season during his ABA career, while in the NBA he averaged at least 20 ppg each season until he turned 35 but he never averaged more than 26.9 ppg, when he ranked fourth in the league in scoring during his fourth NBA season, 1979-80. In the final month of that campaign, he hit his peak as an NBA scorer, averaging 29.8 ppg in 13 games in March 1980. In a three game stretch from March 12-16 he averaged 38 ppg, scoring 40, 33 and 41 points.
"A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."--Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Lecture)
"The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--Edgar Allan Poe
"In chess what counts is what you know, not whom you know. It's the way life is supposed to be, democratic and just."--Grandmaster Larry Evans
"It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence."--Tom Callahan