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Sunday, September 24, 2017

How Good Are the New Look Thunder?

After acquiring All-Star Paul George without giving up much, Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti has reportedly traded Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second round pick to the New York Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder now have a "Big Three" consisting of 2017 NBA regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, four-time All-Star/three-time All-NBA Third Team selection Paul George and 10-time All-Star/six-time All-NBA Second Team or Third Team selection Carmelo Anthony. This trio is not going to make anyone forget James-Wade-Bosh, Garnett-Pierce-Allen or other Big Threes that won at least one championship but if each Thunder All-Star understands and embraces his respective role then the Thunder could emerge as the second or third best team in the West, with a puncher's chance to beat the Golden State Warriors if the Warriors suffer injuries and/or complacency.

It is well documented that I do not believe that George or Anthony is equipped to be the best player on a legitimate championship contender. In fact, I recently wrote, "It is very unlikely that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team--and at this stage of his career he probably would not even be the second best player on a championship team."

However, George is an excellent two-way player. He certainly could be the second best player on a championship team, provided that he accepts that role as opposed to believing that he can be or should be running the show.

Similarly, even though Anthony is miscast as the first option or perhaps even as the second option on a championship contender, he is potentially quite well-suited to being the third option on such a team. Anthony was the best player on an NCAA championship team based largely on his superior ability but in the NBA he has generally performed at his best when he has not been required to lead and/or not been required to be the team's best player; Anthony has never displayed the leadership skills or all-around skill set necessary to carry a team to a title but he could be a tremendous third option for a contending team, because this would be similar to the role he has quite successfully filled on more than one occasion for Team USA during FIBA play: score a ton of points while his more talented and versatile teammates draw double teams and cover up for his defensive deficiencies.

Next season, Thunder opponents are going to be primarily focused on containing Westbrook and secondarily focused on dealing with George. Anthony is going to be checked by the third best wing defender or by a slow-footed power forward when the Thunder go small. Anthony will see fewer double teams than he has ever seen outside of FIBA play. If Anthony takes/makes open shots and quickly passes the ball when he is not open then his efficiency should climb, even if his scoring average falls a bit.

Anthony's defense has always been bad but the Thunder can employ lineups that will hide him to some extent. Also, with the pressure to score 25-plus ppg removed from his shoulders, perhaps Anthony will display at least a little more commitment on defense.

Phil Jackson and George Karl--two respected NBA figures who witnessed Anthony up close for years--have both offered scathing indictments of Anthony's work ethic and competitiveness. Playing for the Thunder as the third option is Anthony's best--and, perhaps, last--chance to shut up his critics by playing a key role for a championship-contending team.

I don't expect a miraculous transformation from Anthony but playing for the Knicks was a toxic situation and Anthony should relish the opportunity to distance himself from that and to prove that he can be a key contributor to a winning franchise.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:47 AM

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2017-18 is on Sale Now

You know that pro basketball season is just around the corner when the welcome sight of Lindy's Pro Basketball greets you at your favorite bookstore or newsstand! The 2017-18 edition includes eight feature stories plus 30 team previews. The feature stories are "Scoping the NBA" (Mike Ashley looks at some of the major off-season stories), "Success, Always His Choice" (Michael Bradley examines Kevin Durant's path to an NBA title), "Together Again" (Mark Murphy discusses the reunion of Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward in Boston), "Malcolm in the Middle" (Lindy's editor Roland Lazenby profiles 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon), "NBA Report Card" (Lazenby rates each team's off-season moves), "A Look Ahead" (Jeremy Treatman scouts the 2018 NBA Draft), "Fantasy Basketball" (Ashley provides a handy guide for fantasy basketball enthusiasts) and "A Look Back" (Lazenby recalls Bill Russell's key dual role for Boston's 1968 NBA championship team).

This season, I wrote the team previews and sidebars for the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. My sidebars discuss Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters and Manu Ginobili respectively. Last year I only wrote one team preview (L.A. Lakers) as that summer I had just taken (and passed!) the Ohio Bar Exam but this year I was fortunate enough to have three assignments. It is always a joy to write for Lindy's and then to see the finished product just a couple months later.

Print media has taken a backseat to the internet but it is great that Lindy's is surviving and thriving in this new era. This is the 10th edition for which I have written at least one preview and I hope to continue to contribute for a long time to come.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:50 PM

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Saturday, September 09, 2017

Reflections on the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony

I wrote about the 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class in April after the inductees were announced but after watching Friday night's enshrinement ceremony I have a few additional thoughts to share.

It was wonderful to see George McGinnis' Hall of Fame acceptance speech. McGinnis, the only Hall of Fame eligible NBA or ABA regular season MVP who had not been inducted, talked beautifully and poignantly about how Oscar Robertson inspired him by leading the first all-black team (Crispus Attucks) to win an Indiana high school basketball championship. McGinnis described how he dropped 53 points and 30 rebounds in an Indiana-Kentucky high school all-star game just nine days before his father's death. That would be the last time his father saw him play and his father had told him how proud he was, a moment that clearly means a lot to McGinnis more than 40 years later.

McGinnis' Hall of Fame presenters were Artis Gilmore, Spencer Haywood, Rick Barry and Bobby "Slick" Leonard and McGinnis had special words for each of them. Regarding Gilmore, McGinnis spoke fondly of their Indiana-Kentucky ABA Finals battles in 1973 and 1975. McGinnis thanked Haywood for paving the way for underclassmen to jump straight to professional basketball and McGinnis added that he used his $15,000 signing bonus as a down payment on the house where his mother still lives to this day! McGinnis said that ABA players called Barry "the professor" because of all of the lessons that Barry taught them on the court. McGinnis called his former coach Leonard a "father figure" who has provided great advice and counsel over the years.

Mannie Jackson's speech was simply spellbinding. He spoke of his rise from being born in a boxcar to being a member of six boards of directors--but before he said a word about himself, Jackson spent a lot of time making an impassioned and eloquent plea for an end to the basketball historical revisionism that denies the Harlem Globetrotters' importance for the early NBA. Jackson noted that the Globetrotters were an elite level team in the 1940s and 1950s, fully capable of playing on even terms with the best NBA teams. Globetrotters' owner Abe Saperstein scheduled Globetrotters' games to be the first part of doubleheaders before NBA games, providing an attendance boost for the young league.

Jackson said that basketball played a big role in breaking down Jim Crow discrimination by providing an example of diversity, acceptance and inclusion.

Here is Jackson's speech in its entirety:


Tracy McGrady's speech concluded the evening. McGrady is still salty about his first NBA coach, Darrell Walker, telling him that he was lazy and would be out of the league in three years. It seemed for a moment that McGrady was going to go the Michael Jordan route and revisit every past grudge from his career but then McGrady shifted gears and he delivered a heartfelt and profound message to his four children: focus on your character, not your reputation. Character is who you are in private, which means much more than what people think about you because character represents what you actually are.

Every year it is a treat to hear each new Basketball Hall of Famer describe his or her journey to achieving the sport's highest honor.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 PM

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cavaliers Unload Disgruntled Irving, Position Themselves for Another Finals Run

When Kyrie Irving made it clear that he no longer wanted to be LeBron James' sidekick in Cleveland, it seemed that the Cavaliers would be forced to trade Irving for pennies on the dollar. Instead, the Cavaliers struck gold, shipping Irving to the Boston Celtics for All-NBA Second Team point guard Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn's 2018 first round draft pick.

The winner of an NBA trade is typically considered to be the team that received the best individual player. Irving and Thomas have similar skill sets--they are both dynamic scorers who are above average playmakers and below average defenders--but Irving is younger and bigger so it is reasonable to say that he is the better player. However, Cleveland received additional assets in the trade--Crowder is a solid, two-way rotation player, Zizic has good potential and the first round pick could potentially turn into another rotation player--and did not have much apparent leverage since Irving wanted out; weighing all of those factors, the Cavaliers did very well.

Thomas finished fifth in the 2017 NBA regular season MVP voting, trailing only Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. He averaged a career-high 28.9 ppg and he set career-highs with his .463 field goal percentage and .909 free throw percentage while logging one of the best offensive seasons in the Celtics' rich history.

Irving has a better postseason resume than Thomas, including a Finals MVP caliber performance in 2016 as the Cavaliers captured their first NBA title. Like Thomas, Irving had a career year in the 2017 regular season, setting career highs in scoring (25.2 ppg), field goal percentage (.473) and free throw percentage (.905). However, while Irving has thrived as James' sidekick it is far from clear that he can be the face of the franchise for a contending team the way that Thomas was last season as Boston posted the best record in the Eastern Conference. Irving has never received a regular season MVP vote, the Cavaliers were lousy when he was the best player on the team and since James returned to Cleveland the Cavaliers have hardly won a game in James' absence even when Irving plays. Granted, the cupboard was rather bare when Irving was the team's best player and the sample size of games that James has missed is relatively small, but even though Irving appears to have a Kobe Bryant/Russell Westbrook killer mentality--exemplified by the series-clinching dagger he nailed in the 2016 NBA Finals--he may lack the size, leadership ability and two-way skill set necessary to carry a franchise to championship contention as the best player.

The bottom line is that head to head I would take Irving over Thomas, so I understand why the Celtics made this trade--but considering that Irving forced the Cavaliers' hand and they could have ended up with much less than they did, the Cavaliers did quite well and still must be ranked as the team most likely to win the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM

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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Paul George Acquisition Lifts Thunder Back to Contender Status

The Oklahoma City Thunder took a major step toward contender status by acquiring Paul George from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis. This means that Russell Westbrook is no longer a one man show; now he has a running mate who can take pressure off of him when they are on the court together and who can hold down the fort when Westbrook rests.

George, a four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA Third Team selection, forced the Pacers' hand by making it clear that he would leave after next season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He has averaged 18.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 3.2 apg during his seven season career; last season, he scored a career-high 23.7 ppg while also posting career-highs in field goal percentage (.461) and free throw percentage (.898, fifth in the NBA).

George does not appear to be the caliber of player or leader who can carry a team to a championship as the number one option, as evidenced by his performance and demeanor during the first round of the 2017 playoffs as the Cavaliers swept his Pacers. That moment and that role as the number one guy were just a little too big for George--and that's OK: not everyone is built for that moment or that role. Westbrook is built for that moment and that role, so if George understands and accepts his place in the pecking order then the Thunder can be a very dangerous team. George has the ability to be a lockdown defender, he is a scorer who also is a shooter (two different skill sets), he is a decent rebounder and he can be the primary playmaker for stretches.

Ideally, George's talents and contributions will enable Westbrook to have better shot selection, to exert more energy on defense and to be able to rest without the entire team falling apart. The Thunder are not yet good enough to beat a fully healthy Warriors team but--if everything breaks right in terms of health and team chemistry--the Thunder could emerge as the second best team in the West. I am not predicting that just yet, mind you, but that is the potential ceiling for this group; I will wait to make my predictions until all of the free agency dominoes fall into place.

The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and acquired free agent power forward Patrick Patterson, which means that their new projected starting lineup is Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Steven Adams. That quintet is a significant upgrade over the Thunder's primary starting five last season: Westbrook, Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Sabonis, Adams. George and Patterson provide better shooting/floor spacing, better rebounding and better defense than Oladipo and Sabonis did.

While the benefits for the Thunder are immediate and obvious, this transaction is obviously a huge setback for the Pacers, who barely made the playoffs last season even with George playing at a high level. Now the Pacers must hope that Myles Turner continues to develop and that Kevin Pritchard--who has replaced Larry Bird as the President of Basketball Operations--is able to rebuild a very flawed and limited roster.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:56 PM

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Friday, July 07, 2017

New York State of Mind, Part VI

The New York Knicks fired team President Phil Jackson on June 28 in the wake of a disastrous three season run that produced an 80-166 regular season record, no playoff appearances and a series of bizarre decisions. Jackson, who won a record 11 NBA titles as the head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, is arguably the greatest basketball coach ever but his dismal failure with the Knicks demonstrates that success in one role in a given field of endeavor is no guarantee of success in another role in that field. Jackson never fully committed to doing what it takes to be a successful NBA executive, which is one reason that I predicted that Phil Jackson's tenure in New York would not end well.

Running a franchise is a full-time job, not something to be dallied with in between trips to Montana and California. The very personality traits and philosophies that contributed to Jackson's coaching triumphs set him up to fail as an executive. Jackson's greatest skill is the ability to motivate and organize a group of players to sacrifice individual glory for team success and to understand--in a famous Kipling line that Jackson often quoted--"The strength of the Pack is the Wolf and the Strength of the Wolf is the Pack." Jackson thrived when he could work with players directly and connect with them as individuals. An executive's role is much different; an executive must be more detached than the coach and must make tough decisions about a player's objective value. An executive also must work tirelessly to assemble information about all available talent pools: free agency, the draft, overseas prospects, etc.

Jackson failed to get rid of Carmelo Anthony and then he compounded the problem by diminishing Anthony's value (and New York's leverage, both with Anthony and with potential Anthony suitors) by publicly criticizing him. Jackson's handling of the Anthony situation--the single most important matter that he dealt with during his tenure with the Knicks--is baffling. Jackson's public comments about Anthony are, for the most part, accurate: Anthony is a ball-stopper, he is not a great leader, he does not have enough commitment to defense. I assumed that, for those very reasons, Jackson would get rid of Anthony as soon as possible but instead Jackson not only re-signed Anthony but he granted him a no-trade clause. It is very unlikely that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team--and at this stage of his career he probably would not even be the second best player on a championship team. It is mystifying that Jackson apparently understood this and yet still tied the fate of his executive career to the heavy anchor of Anthony's inability/unwillingness to lead a team to an elite level.

Perhaps James Dolan insisted that Jackson build around Anthony and so Jackson figured that he would do the best that he could, before realizing that this simply would not work. The Knicks are a dysfunctional franchise under Dolan and they will remain a dysfunctional franchise until Dolan either sells the team or stops trying to micromanage the basketball operations.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM

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Sunday, July 02, 2017

How Will the Chris Paul Trade Impact the Rockets and the Clippers?

The Houston Rockets acquired perennial All-NBA point guard Chris Paul from the L.A. Clippers in exchange for Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a protected first-round pick next year and cash considerations.

NBA conventional wisdom is that the team that acquires the best player "wins" a trade, so from that perspective Houston is the clear winner in this deal. However, even if you buy the premise that Houston "won," it is not clear that the Rockets significantly improved their chances to win a title.

Chris Paul joins James Harden to form one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA. Both players can shoot, score off of the dribble and create open shots for their teammates. Yet, despite their accomplishments and skill sets, there is a large body of evidence suggesting that Paul and Harden are two very good players who--for different reasons--are much better suited to being the second option on a championship team than to being the first option on a championship team.

Paul has proven to be a feisty and divisive player who feuds with coaches and teammates. He has never taken a team past the second round of the playoffs despite being surrounded by excellent talent for most of his career, so it is puzzling that he is so often praised as a great leader. Paul is generously listed at 6-0 tall; he is powerfully built but ultimately he is a small man in a large man's game and thus he is injury prone and has a tendency to wear down in the playoffs.

Harden gives minimal to no defensive effort and his gimmicky offensive style is not nearly as effective in the playoffs against good teams as it is in the regular season against lesser squads. With Harden at the helm, the Rockets have lost in the first round three times in five years under three coaches.

Another major concern for any savvy Rockets fan is that Paul is a defensive-minded player but Coach Mike D'Antoni and Harden do not share that defensive mindset. Paul will confront anyone at any time, while Harden pouts when he is criticized; the interactions between those players after Harden blows multiple defensive assignments will be very interesting.

The other side of the court could also be challenging as well. Paul and Harden both want to monopolize the ball and control the pace of the game, with Paul preferring to grind it out in the halfcourt set while Harden likes to push the tempo.

Houston gave up a lot of depth to acquire Paul. The Rockets beat the Thunder in the first round of the 2017 playoffs because of their depth, not because of Harden; the Thunder actually did quite well during the time that Harden was on the court. There is obvious value to adding a star to the roster but adding an aging, small star whose skill set and demeanor may not fully mesh with the other star on the team may not yield enough to offset all of the value provided by the sacrificed depth.

I am not suggesting that acquiring Paul is necessarily a bad move; if anything, it is a positive sign for the Rockets that perhaps Daryl Morey is realizing that his "foundational player" James Harden needs serious star power by his side to go very far in the playoffs. I just am not convinced that this move is enough to enable the Rockets to get past the second round of the playoffs.

As for the Clippers, the Chris Paul experiment had clearly run its course: three first round losses and three second round losses in six years, including blowing a 3-1 second round lead to Harden's Rockets in 2015. There is nothing to suggest that if the Clippers kept their nucleus intact--which probably was not even possible since it appears that Paul wanted out--then they would ever advance past the second round of the playoffs. The next task for the Clippers is to rebuild around franchise player Blake Griffin, who has agreed to a five year, $173 million deal. It is unclear if Griffin is good enough--and can stay healthy enough--to be the best player on a championship team but by dealing Paul and opening up the bank vault for Griffin the Clippers have chosen their path for the next several years. Guaranteeing that much money to Griffin is risky considering his track record but losing him and completely rebooting is an unpalatable option to any sensible general manager.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 AM

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The MVP Voters Got it Right

The NBA regular season MVP voters got it right, honoring Russell Westbrook for his historic season during which he joined Oscar Robertson as the only two players to average a triple double. Westbrook received 69 of 101 first-place votes and 888 total points. James Harden finished a distant second with 22 first place votes and 753 total points. Kawhi Leonard (500 points, nine first place votes) and LeBron James (333 points, one first place vote) are the only other players who received at least one first place vote.

It can legitimately be argued that LeBron James is a better basketball player than Russell Westbrook but--in terms of performance during the 2016-17 regular season--Westbrook was clearly the NBA's best player. Westbrook won his second scoring title (career-high 31.6 ppg), he ranked third in assists (10.4 apg) and he finished 10th in rebounding (10.7 rpg, an unprecedented average for a 6-3 point guard). Westbrook tallied three 50 point triple doubles, setting both the single season and career records in that category.

Westbrook's amazing individual numbers directly correlated with his team's success. He broke Oscar Robertson's single season record by notching 42 triple doubles and the Oklahoma City Thunder went 33-9 in those games, compared to 14-26 in the remaining games; a 33-9 record projects to 64-18 over a full 82 game season, while 14-26 projects to 29-53. Essentially, when Westbrook played at a historically great level he elevated the Thunder to elite status but when he was "merely" good the Thunder were the equivalent of a Draft Lottery team. The Thunder's relative performance when Westbrook was on the court compared to when he was off the court told the same story: with Westbrook on the court, this flawed roster could compete with just about anyone but take Westbrook out of the game and the Thunder morphed into the league's worst team by far.

As the statistics cited above demonstrate, objectively the MVP race was never close but, for those who had any lingering doubts, Westbrook wrapped up the MVP award with a sizzling closing stretch that included a historic triple double.

Westbrook carried the Thunder to the sixth seed in the always competitive Western Conference and he put up mind-boggling numbers in the first round of the playoffs (37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg) but the Thunder collapsed every time he left the court, enabling the Houston Rockets to prevail four games to one. The Thunder's total dependence on Westbrook--and Houston's ability to thrive even when Harden was not on the court--further established that Westbrook is indeed worthy of being recognized as the league's Most Valuable Player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:18 PM

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mission Accomplished: Durant Leads Warriors to Championship-Clinching Game Five Victory

Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City because he thought that joining forces with the Golden State Warriors provided him with his best chance to win an NBA title. Whether or not you agree with Durant's reasoning, the record will forever show that in the first season after Durant made his move he led the Warriors to the NBA championship. Durant's Warriors faced the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's first championship trilogy and the Warriors emerged victorious in five games to claim their second title in three years, capping off a 16-1 postseason run to join the 15-1 2001 L.A. Lakers and the 12-1 1983 Philadelphia 76ers as one-loss NBA champions.

Cleveland's record-setting game four win punctured the Warriors' dream of completing the NBA's only 16-0 playoff run but Durant made sure that the Cavaliers would not add a comeback from a 3-0 deficit to a resume that includes last season's comeback from a 3-1 deficit versus the Warriors. Durant finished game five with 39 points, seven rebounds and five assists while shooting 14-20 from the field; his .700 field goal percentage in a championship-clinching game is the best such mark in NBA Finals history with a minimum of 20 field goal attempts (and tied for fifth best overall regardless of the number of attempts). He earned the 2017 Finals MVP by averaging 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field. Durant joined Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the list of players who shot at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range and at least .900 on free throws in an NBA Finals. He is just the third player (joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan) to win four scoring titles plus at least one NBA championship.

Stephen Curry added 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds; he averaged 26.8 ppg, 9.4 apg and 8.0 rpg in the best of his three Finals performances, one that would be MVP-worthy in most seasons: he scored and passed at a high level while also asserting himself on the boards. Klay Thompson finished with just 11 points but he averaged a solid 16.4 ppg during the series while also playing great defense.

LeBron James scored a game-high 41 points, pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds and dished for eight assists. That pushed his series averages to 33.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg and 10.0 apg as James notched the first aggregate triple double in NBA Finals history. Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, slightly under his series average of 29.4 ppg. The third member of Cleveland's Big Three, Kevin Love, had six points and 10 rebounds, finishing the series with averages of 16.0 ppg and 11.2 rpg--not bad for a third option, though he will be the scapegoat for the media and for many fans.

The 4-1 margin suggests that the Warriors are vastly superior to the Cavaliers but the reality is that for long stretches the Cavaliers matched the Warriors shot for shot: Cleveland should have won game three after leading by six points with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Cleveland dominated game four and Cleveland led for most of the first half of game five, so if the Cavaliers could have sustained focus for two more minutes in game three and about five minutes during the second quarter of game five then the Cavaliers could be up 3-2 and heading home with a chance to win back to back titles. What would the outcome have been if the Cavaliers had played as hard in games one and two as they did for most of games three through five? The problem is that when the best player on the team admittedly enters "chill mode" for stretches of the regular season it is not realistic to expect his teammates to play hard all of the time, either.

Brian Scalabrine of Sirius XM NBA Radio made an interesting point prior to game five: throughout NBA history, star players typically receive the blame or credit for the outcome of a championship series--but when James is involved, the media narrative often places the blame on his supporting cast. Scalabrine noted that James is supposed to be the best player on the planet and with that title comes the responsibility to carry a lot of weight in each game. James had a marvelous, record-breaking series statistically but the reality is that he is now just 3-5 in the NBA Finals and the series MVP award once again went to the player directly matched up against him.

In case the media forgot the prescribed narrative after Durant walked off with the MVP hardware, James repeatedly insisted during his postgame press conference that he had left it all on the court and done everything he could possibly do--which, of course, is a not so veiled way of saying, "We would have won a championship if my teammates had done more." That is not the message that great players typically deliver upon losing in the championship round. James' comments beg the question of whether or not he really did give his all--and anyone who watched the series (or checks the tape) knows that is not the case. Just during the game five telecast alone, Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly admonished James for  "standing, staring, watching" on defense. That theme is one that Van Gundy often repeats during playoff telecasts and I recall him providing the exact same criticism toward Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum years ago when they played for the Lakers; it is not recency bias to suggest that such a criticism could not accurately be applied to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant during their Finals appearances.

Game five was a winnable game for Cleveland and a more introspective James would have acknowledged that those plays when he stood, stared and watched could have made a difference.

Cleveland led 37-33 after the first quarter on the strength of .625 shooting from the field. James and Irving scored 12 points each in the first stanza, as did Curry. The Cavaliers pushed that margin to 41-33 in the second quarter before the Warriors hit the Cavaliers with a 28-4 run. Near the end of that outburst, Irving missed a shot but tied up David West, who swung his elbow toward Irving's face and was immediately whistled for a technical foul. J.R. Smith pushed West, who by that time was jaw to jaw with Tristan Thompson. Smith and Thompson were each called for technical fouls, so the net result of the sequence was a Stephen Curry free throw followed by a jump ball between West and Irving.

James anticipated where West would tip the ball and then fired up a three pointer that cut the margin to 61-48. That was a great play, a championship level play, but James also has some inexcusable mental lapses--including (1) not even running past half court during a Golden State fastbreak when the Warriors missed the initial shot but then scored (Van Gundy called out James and Richard Jefferson on that play) and (2) standing rooted in place as Andre Iguodala drove to the hoop for an uncontested dunk. If James wants to argue that it is not reasonable to expect him to produce more than 41-13-8, then he might have a point--though it should also be noted that for most of the game he was the biggest and strongest player on the court as both teams went small--but his narrative that he left everything on the court and played hard every minute is demonstrably false.

J.R. Smith's late, long three pointer cut the margin to 71-60 just before the halftime buzzer. Durant scored 21 first half points on 7-10 field goal shooting and Curry added 20 points on 5-11 field goal shooting. James led Cleveland with 21 first half points on 9-15 field goal shooting.

Clearly, the game was still within reach for the Cavaliers. Indeed, James' offensive rebound and putback cut Golden State's lead to 79-71 in the third quarter. After that play, Van Gundy noted that in the first half James lacked energy at times, particularly on defense, but that this kind of play represented the energy level that the Cavaliers needed from James in order to win an NBA Finals road game. Early in the fourth quarter, a James layup pulled the Cavaliers to within 98-95 and a Kyle Korver three pointer at the 8:28 mark made the score 108-102 Golden State but down the stretch the Cavaliers committed too many defensive breakdowns and had too many empty possessions.

James scored 10 points in the final 7:18, all of them deep in the paint; as the biggest player on the court and with rules that prohibit defensive players from touching him, James is unstoppable, so the question is why did James wait until the waning moments to attack the paint that way? The Cavaliers sure could have used that kind of offense during Golden State's big second quarter run. James' 41 points are impressive but what would Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Julius Erving score under these rules and with no seven footers on the court? Erving averaged 30.3 ppg in the 1977 NBA Finals with Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas camped in the paint. Jordan averaged over 30 ppg during his Finals career despite having players draped all over him. Bryant averaged 28.6 ppg in the 2010 Finals versus the Boston Celtics, one of the last teams to consistently play physical defense. I don't care how long Durant is or how wily Thompson or Andre Iguodala are; those guys are not stopping Erving, Jordan or Bryant if they cannot touch them and if there is not a seven footer protecting the rim.

I used to always wonder why some people insisted that Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain despite the record-setting numbers that Chamberlain posted but watching LeBron James for over a decade has been eye-opening. While James ended the game by padding his scoring total with layups that would not change the outcome, I thought back to something that Russell once said: he claimed that after the result was decided, he would let Chamberlain score a few buckets to kind of soften Chamberlain up for the next time that they met. All Russell cared about was the final score, not his head to head individual numbers versus Chamberlain.

James is a marvelously gifted player and he had a great series by any quantifiable measure. Is it fair to expect him to produce even more points, rebounds and assists than he did? I guess the answer to that question depends on your perception of the responsibility that is carried by a Pantheon-level player and your perception of what opportunities are available to a great scorer playing under the current rules against lineups that typically do not feature a true big man protecting the paint.

Perhaps we are all guilty of missing the forest for the trees: there is a segment of the media that acts as if James has long since surpassed Bryant and is on the verge of surpassing Jordan, so as a historian of the game I feel duty-bound to refute those two notions--but maybe the real story here is how Durant's game has evolved from one dimensional shooter to multi-dimensional scorer who can also impact the game as a rebounder, passer and defender. While many of us are debating how to rank James within the Pantheon, Durant just "quietly" had one of the best Finals performances ever and that should not be overlooked. Durant is now as close to matching James' championship total as James is to matching Bryant's--and, barring unforeseen circumstances, it is certainly a distinct possibility that Durant will snare at least two more titles and two more Finals MVPs before his career is over.

As a competitive person and a lifelong NBA fan, I would have preferred to see Durant try to dethrone the Warriors instead of joining forces with them but I respect--and am impressed by--the way that Durant played this season, particularly how he outplayed James in the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Put Away the Brooms: Feisty Cavaliers Defeat Warriors

Put away the brooms. Shelve the greatest team of all-time talk--at least for three days. The Golden State Warriors were one win away from completing the only perfect postseason in NBA history but the Cleveland Cavaliers set a boatload of Finals scoring records en route to posting a 137-116 win. The Cavaliers now trail 3-1, the same deficit that they faced last season before rallying to claim the franchise's first NBA title. Of course, last year the Warriors did not have Kevin Durant, so it seems improbable that the Cavaliers will win four straight games against this team--but a game like this is a lot more satisfying as a fan than just watching the Cavaliers lay down and die, which many observers thought/feared might happen in game four.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavaliers with a game-high 40 points on 15-27 field goal shooting but this was a true team effort for Cleveland. LeBron James had 31 points, a game-high 11 assists and 10 rebounds; his ninth Finals triple double broke the previous mark of eight, set by Magic Johnson. James posted an eye-popping +32 plus/minus number, easily the best total on either team. Kevin Love added 23 points. J.R. Smith had 15 points on timely 5-9 three point shooting.

Kevin Durant had another big scoring night (35 points) but he shot just 9-22 from the field and he had a pedestrian floor game (four rebounds, four assists) compared to the standard he set in the first three games of the series. Draymond Green had 16 points and a game-high 14 rebounds; he is a talented player but he is also a hothead (and cheap shot artist) who is allowed to get away with way too much complaining/gesturing. He claims that he is remorseful for getting suspended during last year's Finals but he almost got ejected (and should have been ejected) in this game, so it does not appear that he really has learned his lesson. Stephen Curry did not make his presence felt, finishing with just 14 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, though he did have 10 assists.

Perhaps the two biggest stories of the game were (1) Cleveland's record-setting three point shooting (24-45) and (2) some very uneven officiating. Cleveland has been a great three point shooting team all season, so it is not surprising that the Cavaliers could make a lot of three pointers but it is surprising that they made 13 more three pointers than Golden State considering how well the Warriors shoot and how well they (usually) defend. The officiating did not decide the outcome but it was disappointing nonetheless: obvious calls were missed (not in a biased way but just in an inexcusably sloppy way) and Draymond Green was clearly whistled for a technical foul in the first half but when he received another technical foul in the second half--which should have resulted in automatic ejection--one official bizarrely insisted that Green's first technical foul had actually been assessed to Golden State Coach Steve Kerr.

After Cleveland's late collapse in game three, it was reasonable to wonder if the Cavaliers had any fight or spirit left--but any doubts about that were erased very early in the game: Cleveland led 49-33 after the first quarter, setting a record for most point in one quarter in Finals history--and the Cavaliers missed eight free throws! Cleveland's Big Three had their fingerprints all over the fast start, with Love scoring 14 points, Irving adding 11 and James contributing eight points plus six assists.

The Warriors are such a potent offensive team and such an excellent defensive team that one wondered if they could/would make a run but instead Cleveland led 69-49 by the middle of the second quarter and 86-68 at halftime. Cleveland broke the record for most points in one half of a Finals game (81, set by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982). Irving (28 points), James (22 points, eight assists, six rebounds) and Love (17 points) led the scoring barrage.

The third quarter seemed like it was played in mud: a lot of pushing and shoving and skirmishes and replay reviews but in the end Cleveland won the quarter 29-28 and the Warriors never seriously threatened the rest of the way.

It is difficult to know what to make of this game, because so many odd (and probably not repeatable) things happened. This is what I believe: Golden State is the better team but Cleveland has enough talent to compete with and, if the Cavaliers execute the correct game plan at a high level, beat the Warriors. If both teams play their best, then the Warriors will win this series but if Cleveland somehow takes game five on the road then this series becomes very interesting; the members of last year's Warriors would then start to feel the pressure of a flashback from last year's collapse versus Cleveland in the Finals, while Durant (who has yet to win a title) could have flashbacks of his own from playing a major role in the Thunder's collapse from a 3-1 lead versus the Warriors. A comeback from a 3-0 deficit is unlikely, to say the least, but by all rights Cleveland should have won game three and the Cavaliers dominated game four, so the idea touted by some that Golden State is unbeatable is demonstrably false. Kyrie Irving is a basketball assassin, particularly in games when his team faces elimination, and it is apparent that no one on the Warriors can contain him off the dribble. The question, as always, is what kind of tone James will set and whether or not he will sustain his energy/effort throughout the game; he did so in game four and we see the result.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM

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Friday, June 09, 2017

Warriors Stun Cavaliers With Late 11-0 Run to Take 3-0 Series Lead

The Cleveland Cavaliers squandered a great opportunity to beat the Golden State Warriors in game three of the NBA Finals. Cleveland led 113-107 with 2:25 remaining in the fourth quarter but the Warriors ended the game (and, for all practical purposes, the series) with an 11-0 run spearheaded by Kevin Durant's seven points. Durant's clutch three pointer over LeBron James at the :45 mark put the Warriors up 114-113 and James' slump-shouldered look after the ball went through the net made it clear that the Cavaliers were not going to retake the lead. The Cavaliers missed their last eight field goal attempts of the game, punctuated by Andre Iguodala's block of James' three point attempt with 12 seconds to go and Golden State up 116-113.

Durant, who is well on his way to claiming 2017 NBA Finals MVP honors, finished with 31 points on 10-18 field goal shooting, plus eight rebounds and four assists. During the Finals, Durant is averaging 34.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 bpg and 1.3 spg while shooting .561 from the field (including .524 from three point range) and .895 from the free throw line. He did not commit a single turnover in game one and he has just six turnovers overall. He has scored at least 25 points in each of his first eight career NBA Finals games, tying a mark held by Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.

Klay Thompson continues to play great defense and he rediscovered his shooting stroke as well, pouring in 30 points on 11-18 field goal shooting. Stephen Curry contributed 30 points, a game-high 13 rebounds (remarkable for any point guard not named Russell Westbrook) and six assists.

James authored a monster stat line: 39 points on 15-27 field goal shooting, 11 rebounds and a game-high nine assists in 46 minutes. He had a +7 plus/minus number that was not only better than any other Cavalier but also better than all but three members of the winning Warriors (Draymond Green +14, Curry +11, Iguodala +10). He is an all-time great player having a very impressive series statistically for a team that is an underdog by any reasonable measure or conception.

However, greatness is not merely defined by numbers but also by impact. During the 1983 NBA Finals telecast, Bill Russell and Dick Stockton made the point that Julius Erving was a special player not only because of his impressive statistics but because of "when" he got those numbers. Each of the first three games of the 2017 NBA Finals has been competitive in the first half and game three went down to the wire but James has repeatedly disappeared just when his team needs him the most.

James spent most of the second half of game three getting into the paint and then passing to the perimeter instead of finishing at the rim, despite the fact that he was usually the biggest and strongest player on the court. Brian Windhorst identified the issue years ago: "Everything that LeBron does, his going into a bunker, turning off social media; these are all anti-choking maneuvers…the choke is what Lebron is prone to do. And so everything he's doing in the postseason is to avoid that choke."

Did James choke in the final minutes of game three? He did not score in the last 4:28, after scoring at will for most of the game and most of the series. Is he tired? Is he frustrated? Is he overwhelmed?

Many reasons/explanations/excuses are offered on James' behalf but the bottom line is that the reasonable expectation for a Pantheon-level player is to come through more often than not in clutch situations. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals with six Finals MVPs. Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 seasons and would likely have won a host of Finals MVPs if the award had existed in the first 12 years of his career. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4 in the Finals and he won a pair of Finals MVPs, including one when he was 38.

James is 3-4 so far in the NBA Finals, which is a subpar Finals resume compared to most Pantheon members:

Bill Russell: 11-1
Michael Jordan: 6-0
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 6-4
Magic Johnson: 5-4
Julius Erving: 3-3
Larry Bird: 3-2
Wilt Chamberlain: 2-4
Jerry West: 1-8
Oscar Robertson: 1-1
Elgin Baylor: 0-7

I classify Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as the four greatest players of the post-Jordan era. O'Neal went 4-1 in the Finals with three Finals MVPs. Duncan went 5-1 in the Finals and he won three Finals MVPs. Bryant went 5-2 in the Finals and he won two Finals MVPs. It seems unlikely that James' eighth Finals appearance will net him a championship or a Finals MVP, so his record is about to drop to 3-5. James recently lamented that it is his fate to face dynasty teams at the peak of their powers (apparently referring to Duncan's Spurs and the current Warriors, while ignoring the not so little detail that he twice switched teams to personally create a Big Three that was supposed to become a dynasty)--but the only Pantheon players who fared worse than James in the Finals had to contend with Bill Russell and a roster stacked with Hall of Famers. I suspect that Chamberlain, West, Robertson and Baylor would happily trade teams and eras with James, because they would do quite well in a watered down 30 team league that has legislated physicality out of the game. The Warriors cannot guard Kevin Love when he actually posts up and the Cavaliers decide to give him the ball; how are they going to guard Chamberlain? Before you say that Chamberlain could not keep up with a fast-paced game, remember that he was a track and field star with sprinter's speed.

Is it James' fault that the Warriors are poised to sweep his Cavaliers? No, but if James had the mentality to reach the gear that Russell, Jordan, Bryant and other Pantheon members often reached in the Finals then this series would, at the very least, be more competitive than it has been.

The bottom line is that James is not playing badly but he is providing a lot of footage that can be shown to put a stop to the foolish comparisons to Jordan; let's just put a moratorium on such talk and see if James can actually get within striking distance of O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant.

Game three was a winnable game in a must win situation and O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant did not let many of those slip away during the primes of their respective careers. Golden State hit Cleveland with a barrage of 39 points (including a Finals record nine three pointers) in the first quarter but the Warriors only led 67-61 at halftime. The Cavaliers attacked the paint in the first half and James led the way with 27 points. The argument that the Cavaliers are a flawed team because they need James to score a lot of points flies in the face of basketball history. Were the Bulls flawed because Jordan scored over 40 ppg versus the Suns in the 1993 Finals? That Bulls team had one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time (Scottie Pippen), an All-Star caliber power forward (Horace Grant) and several outstanding role players but Jordan still scored at a record-setting clip; that is the responsibility of a Pantheon-level player in such situations. Let's not compare James to Russell Westbrook, either; in the 2017 playoffs, Westbrook's second best teammate was Andre Roberson, who spent significant portions of the series running around playing tag because he did not want to be fouled since he cannot make a free throw. In marked contrast, in game three James had another superstar on his own team matching him point for point: Kyrie Irving finished with 38 points on 16-29 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the third quarter as James cooled off.

If you are comparing James to Jordan then you are arguing that Jordan would have found a way to lose a Finals game in which his sidekick dropped nearly 40 points and in which his team had a two possession lead with barely two minutes to go. Sorry, I am not buying that for one second.

It may be true that James was too tired to drop another 20 or 25 points in the second half but, again, that means he is not quite at the level of Jordan or Bryant, guys who logged heavy minutes while playing hard at both ends of the court. James coasted through the regular season and had more than a week off before the Finals. Playing 46 minutes in a Finals game used to be a badge of honor, not an excuse for failure.

James' inability to seal the deal in this series is markedly contrasted by Durant consistently rising to the occasion at both ends of the court. He is taking his one on one matchup with James very seriously, much the way that Jordan and Bryant tried to destroy whoever they were matched up with individually. Durant's ability to come through in clutch moments has been questioned and it is undeniable that he came up short last year for the Oklahoma City Thunder when they blew a 3-1 lead versus the Warriors. This time around, Durant has been magnificent. One championship and one Finals MVP would not move him past James on the all-time list--but James being bested so decisively by a contemporary is a negative mark on his resume that is missing from Jordan's resume.

I don't like the way that Durant left Oklahoma City to join Golden State and I wish that he would have embraced the challenge of trying to beat the Warriors but I respect the way that Durant has made it clear that his primary focus is winning a championship. Durant has come a long way from the soft-spoken kid who I interviewed when he was a second year player. Durant has grown physically and emotionally in the past decade and it will be interesting to see if this season is a stepping stone toward further achievements for him and his new team or if injuries/complacency/lack of focus will prevent the Warriors from achieving their full potential.

The Warriors are now on the verge of completing an unprecedented 16-0 postseason run. The Warriors are 15-0 in the 2017 playoffs, breaking the record of 13 straight postseason wins set by the L.A. Lakers, who went 11-0 to start the postseason before being swept in the Finals by Detroit (the Lakers also won the last two games of the 1988 playoffs). Worth noting is that the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers went 12-1 en route to winning the title and the 2001 Lakers went 15-1 during their championship run. From a matchup standpoint, I am still not convinced that these Warriors would beat the 1983 76ers, 1996 Bulls or 2001 Lakers in a seven game series--less than a month ago the Warriors were down by more than 20 points to the Spurs before Zaza Pachulia took out Kawhi Leonard, so it is not like the Warriors are invincible even in their own era--but whether they go 16-0, 16-1 or even 16-2 they have carved out a special place in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:02 AM

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Durant and Curry are Magnificent as Warriors Roll to 132-113 Win

Game two of the NBA Finals featured two recurring themes: Kevin Durant was again the best player on the court and the Golden State Warriors again routed the Cleveland Cavaliers, this time by the score of 132-113. The Cavaliers played with more energy, effort and physicality in game two than they did in game one--particularly in the first half, resulting in a competitive 67-64 score after the first 24 minutes--but they wilted in all three categories in a lackluster second half. The Warriors have now won 14 straight playoff games, adding to the list of NBA records that they have broken in the past three years.

Durant led both teams in scoring (33 points), rebounds (13), blocked shots (five) and steals (three, tied with LeBron James and Iman Shumpert). He shot 13-22 from the field, including 4-8 from three point range, and he did a lot of his damage one on one versus LeBron James, who has been proclaimed by many (including James himself) to be the best player on the planet. James was the third best player on the court during game two, as Stephen Curry notched his first career playoff triple double (32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds). Klay Thompson continued to play great defense and he emerged from his shooting slump with 22 points on 8-12 field goal shooting.

James' numbers look great, as they almost always do: 29 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds. James cut his turnovers from eight in game one to four in game two (Curry took over the role of Edward Scissorhands with the ball, committing eight turnovers in game two). He tied Magic Johnson's career Finals record with his eighth triple double. No other player in NBA history has more than two Finals triple doubles. James is not performing badly--but he is not performing well enough, either. This is not about numbers but about impact: the Cavaliers need James to be the best player on the court and they need him to win his individual matchup with Durant but neither of those things is happening.

The rush to prematurely crown James as Michael Jordan's successor reminds me of the similar rush to crown Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The analogy is not perfect, of course, as there is a big difference between an individual sport and a team sport; the point is that we can only compare James to Jordan via numbers or a subjective eye test of how we imagine they might fare against each other despite playing under different conditions in different eras--the same limitations inherent in comparing Federer to Borg and other greats from the past--but we can get our popcorn ready and watch James versus Durant right now, much like we have been able to watch Federer versus Nadal for over a decade. After watching Nadal beat Federer head to head so many times, it is very difficult to buy the notion that Federer is the greatest player of all-time. Similarly, before James leapfrogs Jordan (not to mention Kobe Bryant) he needs to solidify his dominance among his peers; James does not necessarily have one player who is Nadal to his Federer but James does have a history of being outshined by lesser players on the biggest stage and that pattern seems to be repeating itself in this series. No one is comparing Kevin Durant to Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan (nor should such comparisons be made) but Durant is clearly getting the best of James right now--and this is coming on the heels of a regular season during which James coasted so that he could be well-rested for just this moment, in marked contrast with the approach that Jordan and Bryant took: they did not rest during the regular season and yet they were at their best when it mattered most.

James had just 18 field goal attempts and five free throw attempts in game two. That is not enough. James started out the game with the right mindset by aggressively attacking the hoop, which is a major reason--along with a similar mindset displayed by Kevin Love--that the Cavaliers kept the game close for the first half. However, in the second half James settled for jump shots or just deferred completely to other players; sometimes it looks like once James has reached certain statistical plateaus in a game he figures "I got mine and they can't blame me if we lose, so I am going to keep my field goal percentage intact." Russell Westbrook would have shot the ball 18 times in the fourth quarter alone if he had been in James' place yesterday and both Jordan and Bryant would have gone down firing as well (or, perhaps, emerged victorious by firing...). Justifying James' passivity by calling him a pass-first player is ridiculous; if he stays healthy and keeps playing then he will retire as the all-time leading scorer in the regular season, the playoffs and the All-Star Game. James is a great scorer who also possesses excellent passing skills but in order to win championships he--like every other Pantheon player except Bill Russell--must accept the burden of being a big-time scorer. When James has done that, he has won championships. It is odd that it seems like James has to relearn this lesson almost every time he advances to the Finals.

Love played very well (27 points on 12-23 field goal shooting, along with seven rebounds) and the Cavaliers should feed him the ball in the post even more often than they did. The winning formula for the Cavaliers is (1) physical team defense, (2) James staying in relentless attack mode for the whole game and (3) pounding the ball into the paint with James driving (or posting up), Love posting up and Tristan Thompson diving to the hoop for layups or offensive rebounds.

Try this little trick when you watch game three; instead of looking at the score, spend a few possessions just watching James and Love: if you see them consistently in the paint with the ball, then the score is probably close and Cleveland may even be winning--but if you see James and/or Love spending most of the time on the perimeter, then the Warriors are probably winning by 10 or more points.

I cringe every time James spends a possession camped out behind the three point line. This reminds me of a picture that Sports Illustrated published decades ago during the playoffs: several players actively pursued a rebound in the paint, while Darryl Dawkins--the most athletic and physically imposing big man of his day--stood rooted to the ground and the caption acknowledged the aggressive efforts of most of the players to get the ball while drily noting that Dawkins "awaits future developments." James cannot stand in the corner awaiting future developments; he must get in the paint and make things happen--not just for a quarter or for a half but for the entire game.

James' supporters will retort that Golden State is more talented than Cleveland and that Golden State has two MVP caliber players while Cleveland only has James. They will argue that even if James plays his best the Warriors still might win. Those things may all be true but that is not the point, at least in terms of putting James in the same conversation with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, because if James is the greatest player of all-time then it is incumbent upon him to play in the way that maximizes his potential and maximizes his team's opportunity to win. When Michael Jordan faced Clyde Drexler in the 1992 Finals, Jordan took this as a personal challenge to prove that he was the best player at his position and the best player in the league, period. Drexler admitted, years later, that he should have accepted that challenge as well, instead of thinking (and publicly saying) that the series was about Chicago versus Portland, not Jordan versus Drexler.

This series will be remembered as James versus Durant--and Cleveland has no chance to win unless James accepts that challenge and wins that matchup. Kyrie Irving showed during last year's Finals that he can match Curry shot for shot, Love can post up anyone in Golden State's frontcourt and Cleveland's bench players have been productive all season when given the right opportunities but this series has hinged and will hinge on the James-Durant showdown.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM

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Saturday, June 03, 2017

Durant Dominates as Warriors Rout Cavaliers, 113-91

The Golden State Warriors cruised to a 113-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in game one of the NBA Finals. The much anticipated--and unprecedented--Finals "trilogy" of two teams meeting three years in a row on the sport's biggest stage became an anticlimactic rout in the third quarter after a relatively competitive first half. Kevin Durant was the best player on the court, by far, leading the Warriors with a game-high 38 points plus eight rebounds and eight assists; he scored inside, outside and everywhere in between while also doing work as a rebounder, playmaker and defender. He had more dunks (six) than the Warriors had turnovers (four, tying a Finals single game record). Durant posted a +16 plus/minus number and did not have a single turnover despite his significant duties as scorer/ballhandler/distributor. Stephen Curry also played very well, scoring 28 points, dishing for a game-high 10 assists and grabbing six rebounds. Curry's plus/minus number (+20) led both teams. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green both shot poorly but they contributed to a stifling Golden State defense that held the Cavaliers to .349 field goal shooting while forcing 20 turnovers.

The biggest story of the game other than Durant's performance is that the Warriors were much more physical than the Cavaliers. It is almost inevitable that in the first few minutes of game two we will see a hard foul or even a flagrant foul by the Cavaliers in an attempt to assert their physical presence in this series. In game one, the Cavaliers played with regular season intensity while the Warriors looked like a team on a mission to win a championship.

The difference in physicality had a lot to do with Cleveland losing the possession game; the Cavaliers actually won the rebounding battle 59-50 (though it did not "feel" that way when watching the game) but they committed 20 turnovers, which is one reason that the Warriors launched 106 field goal attempts compared to just 86 field goal attempts for the Cavaliers. Cleveland held Golden State to .425 field goal shooting but those turnovers (plus the 14 offensive rebounds the Cavaliers allowed) gave the Warriors many extra possessions. The Warriors are difficult to beat under any circumstances but they are probably impossible to beat if they win the possession game by such a lopsided margin.

LeBron James remains the most enigmatic Pantheon player. He has led his teams to eight NBA Finals--but he has lost game one seven times and has won just three of those series. The game one winner ultimately wins the series over 80% of the time in the NBA, so losing the first game places a team at a serious disadvantage. James filled up the box score in game one (28 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists) but he--more than any other superstar who I have observed--has the propensity to produce large numbers that seem small; by the "eye test" he just did not have much impact on the outcome of the game and that subjective evaluation is backed up to some extent by the plus/minus numbers, as James had the worst plus/minus (-22) of any player on either team. James also had eight turnovers, so he played a significant role in the Cavaliers losing the possession game.

James' supporters will say that game one was an example of a great player doing everything that he could but just not having enough help; that is always the rallying cry for James' supporters: he would win the title every year if only he had enough help--but something does not add up in this equation. James is supposed to be the best player in the league, by far, and some people are even comparing him favorably to Michael Jordan (which really needs to stop; as several sensible people have noted, let James surpass Kobe Bryant first before we even bring up Jordan's name). James has two current All-Stars, plus former All-Stars and playoff-tested veterans coming off of the bench to help him now; in Miami, James had two future Hall of Famers (three if you count Ray Allen, a role player by that time) helping him and he still lost twice in the Finals in four tries. How much help does Michael Jordan's supposed peer need in order to win a championship? Kobe Bryant won two of his five championships with nothing more than Pau Gasol (a one-time All-Star before he joined forces with Bryant) and a bunch of role players, many of whom were soon out of the league--and for one of those titles Bryant's Lakers took down a Boston team featuring three future Hall of Famers. Dirk Nowitzki beat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the 2011 NBA Finals with a supporting cast of two past their prime former All-Stars (Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion) and some solid role players (Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, J.J. Barea).

Kyrie Irving (24 points on 10-22 field goal shooting) and Kevin Love (15 points, 21 rebounds, three blocked shots) both played well in game one, so it is not like James is one man against the world here. The Cavaliers' problem is that they treated the regular season like a joke and they believed that they could turn up their defensive intensity by flipping the proverbial switch. That worked during the Eastern Conference playoffs but it will not work in the NBA Finals--and that tone of deciding which games to take seriously and which games to blow off is set by the team's best player. Jordan and Bryant treated every game like a supreme individual and collective challenge, a veritable war--and they made sure that their teammates had a similar mindset. James is just not wired that way.

I understand that the Warriors are a great team but there is no reason for the Cavaliers to lose by more than 20 points. There is no reason for James to commit twice as many turnovers as the opposing team or for James to be outplayed at both ends of the court by his primary matchup, Durant.

This series is not over--at least not yet. The Cavaliers will be more physical in game two and they may very well seize homecourt advantage. Even if they lose game two, they proved last year that they can overcome a deficit, as they bounced back from trailing 0-2 and then 1-3 to eventually beat the Warriors. Of course, such an improbable comeback is even less likely this year now that the Warriors have added Durant to the mix--but James is always the main story in any game or series. Will he assert his will and dominate the proceedings the way that Pantheon players do in the Finals? As I have often stated when writing about Jordan, Bryant, James and other all-time greats, this is not about numbers--it is about impact. When Michael Jordan played in the NBA Finals, no one doubted who was the best player on the court--and the same is true for most other Pantheon players (unless they were facing another Pantheon player and I am not quite ready to put Durant in that club just yet). For all of James' wonderful accomplishments and despite his gaudy Finals numbers, it is far too often not clear that he is the best player on the court when the championship trophy is up for grabs.

The Cavaliers kept game one close for the first half. If they execute at both ends of the court--specifically, cut down the turnovers, stop giving up so many offensive rebounds and attack the hoop on offense--then they absolutely can compete with and even beat the Warriors. James has to set the tone, though, and in game one the Cavaliers followed his lead on offense (too many turnovers) and on defense (poor execution individually and collectively).

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Golden State Versus Cleveland Preview

NBA Finals

Golden State (67-15) vs. Cleveland (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 1-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James is not only productive but also engaged, if the Cavaliers are committed defensively and if James' deep supporting cast continues to play at a high level.

It has been suggested that (1) the Cavaliers are massive underdogs who can only win this series if James plays at a historically great level and (2) if the Cavaliers beat the Warriors then James will have equaled, if not surpassed, Michael Jordan. I disagree with both premises.

I agree that on paper the Cavaliers are the underdogs; that is self-evident based on the teams' won-loss records and the resulting fact that the Warriors enjoy homecourt advantage. However, the notion that the Cavaliers consist of LeBron James and a bunch of nobodies is ridiculous. James has two All-Star/borderline All-NBA caliber teammates: Kyrie Irving is a tremendous clutch shooter, perhaps the best one on one scorer in the league and an underrated passer, while Kevin Love is a premier scorer/rebounder/three point shooter/outlet passer who has accepted the Chris Bosh third option reduced role. Both of those guys can have big games against any team that is unwilling or unable to commit adequate defensive resources toward stopping them.

Tristan Thompson is the Cavaliers' Horace Grant, a reliable rebounder who is tenacious and versatile defensively (Grant was a better shooter, while Thompson is more physical). J.R. Smith is a very talented wild card who can be a defensive stopper and a deadly three point shooter.

Then, the Cavaliers bring off of the bench two former All-Stars: Deron Williams (who not that long ago was considered to be neck and neck with Chris Paul as the best pure point guard in the league) and three point marksman Kyle Korver. The Cavaliers' bench also includes Richard Jefferson (who was a 20 ppg scorer for the Nets back when they were an elite Eastern Conference team that advanced to two NBA Finals) and Channing Frye, a quintessential "stretch four."

Cleveland's All-Star triumvirate supported by former All-Stars/players who started for good playoff teams is reminiscent of the talent/depth that the best teams of the 1980s used to have.

Of course, everything runs through and around James, who has been extraordinarily productive during the 2017 playoffs, even by his lofty standards: 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.0 apg, .566 FG% (including .421 from three point range) in 40.9 mpg. During Cleveland's five game romp over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, James averaged 29.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 6.8 apg while shooting .580 from the field (including .345 from three point range) in 38.6 mpg.

It is not an accident or a fluke that the Cavaliers went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs--and they easily could have been 12-0 if not for a 21 point blown lead capped off by Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating, game-winning three pointer in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals. James' aforementioned numbers would have been even greater if he had not mailed in his game three performance (11 points on 4-13 field goal shooting in 45 desultory minutes).

That brings us straight to the Cavaliers' three biggest weaknesses/question marks: (1) Their defensive effort/execution is often subpar, (2) they occasionally do not treat their opponents with much respect and (3) James--more than any other Pantheon-level player--has a baffling propensity to quit/become disengaged/become passive (choose the adjective that you prefer, as some people find "quit" to be too strong a term even though it seems to best describe the phenomenon). Just to be clear, every Pantheon player has had bad games during their primes and some of them even had a bad series but James has had games/series during which it looked like he just did not care. At least this time, James (1) admitted that he played poorly instead of defiantly proclaiming that he had "spoiled" fans with his previous excellent play and (2) did not let whatever mental state he entered in game three linger into games four and five. If James quits for even just one game in the NBA Finals then the Cavaliers will surely lose, because they do not have the necessary margin of error to give away a game for any reason.

James will almost certainly be productive versus the Warriors but he must also be engaged during the entire series. Sadly, there is no way to predict whether or not that will be the case.

That melancholy thought brings us to point number two, namely the "ghost" (Michael Jordan) that LeBron James has openly stated that he is "chasing." Sparky Anderson once said that he would never embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench. I am not comfortable definitively naming Jordan (or anyone else) as the greatest basketball player of all-time but I feel comfortable saying that he is the greatest player of the past 30 years of so--call that the "modern" era if you want to, though of course the meaning of "modern" inevitably shifts over time--and I do not feel like the competition is that close. Kobe Bryant was the closest thing to Jordan at the shooting guard position since Jordan retired, Shaquille O'Neal was very dominant, Tim Duncan was consistently great (though not as dominant or imposing as O'Neal) and LeBron James is a marvelous all-around player but I would not take any of those guys over Jordan.

In the classic book Wait Til Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica, Goldman noted that after enough time passes, virtually every great athlete's resume and accomplishments are belittled in a way that would have been unimaginable during that athlete's prime. Goldman called the athlete's struggle to stay relevant a battle "To the Death" and he asserted that Wilt Chamberlain was perhaps the only athlete who grew more legendary over time, because we are reminded of his greatness every time someone becomes the first to do "this" or "that" since Chamberlain.

Not long ago, it would have been inconceivable to attack Jordan's resume but now we hear rumblings that the competition in his era was not so good and that his record of six championships/six Finals MVPs in six attempts is somehow tainted because he suffered several first round losses and may have suffered more such losses (or perhaps lost in the Finals, ending his perfect record) if he had not retired for about 18 months to play baseball.

Many people seem to have forgotten that, at least on paper, Jordan's Bulls were underdogs in the 1993 and 1998 Finals; in both of those series, the Bulls defeated the team that had the best regular season record and that season's MVP. If your retort to that is that "everyone knew" that Jordan was better than Charles Barkley and Karl Malone respectively, then it must also be acknowledged that "everyone knows" that James is better than Kevin Durant. The idea that Jordan did not face significant competition is ridiculous; he just made it look that way in retrospect because he was so dominant (with more than a little help from Scottie Pippen, of course, but there have been few championship teams that truly only had one star player).

The significance of Jordan's six for six accomplishment is that every time Jordan had a team that was good enough to advance to the Finals he won the title and he was the primary reason that his team won the title (though one could perhaps argue that Pippen was at least in contention for one or two of those Finals MVPs, depending on how much one values Pippen's all-around excellence versus Jordan's scoring dominance combined with very good all-around play). A team that loses in the first or second round was just not good enough to win a championship (unless there are mitigating factors such as a serious injury to a key player or the best player just quitting when his team had a great opportunity to win). James has lost in the Finals four times and on at least three of those occasions he was outplayed by lesser players who won the Finals MVP (Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala). During the 2011 Finals, James was not only outplayed by all-time great Dirk Nowitzki but he was also outplayed during key moments by Jason Terry.

Isiah Thomas has said that after his college coach Bobby Knight first coached Jordan in the Olympics, Knight said, "This one is a little different." It has also been noted that Knight advised Portland to draft Jordan and when the Portland brass stated that they needed a center Knight replied, "Then play him at center."

Those two quotes sum up Jordan compared even to the great players who followed him: he is just a little different and he would do whatever it takes to win in any situation. Jordan just had some levels and some skills that I don't see even in Kobe, Shaq, Duncan or LeBron, who are clearly the four best players of the post-Jordan era.

If James and the Cavaliers win the championship this season, then James will be 4-4 in the NBA Finals. Four rings is impressive in any era and any context but a 4-4 record on the game's biggest stage does not come close to a 6-0 record--period. Jordan never lost as the favorite and when he lost as an underdog he put up a hell of a fight. James' quitting and his losses as a favorite are part of his resume. Even if he wins six rings, he still has gaps and holes on his resume that cannot be filled when comparing him to Jordan.

Bottom line: if Cleveland wins this series it is an upset but not an upset of monumental proportions; nothing that James does in this series can vault him past Jordan.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are fully healthy and fully committed. It is not often that a team has two legitimate MVP candidates/top five players in the league but when that does happen then championships tend to ensue: Kareem/Magic, Moses/Doc, Jordan/Pippen, Shaq/Kobe. I don't know what the official MVP results will say but the reality is that Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are former MVPs who both rank among the league's top five players.

Durant has sustained his excellent regular season play (25.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.8 apg) during the playoffs (25.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.7 apg), while Curry has elevated his regular season play (25.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.6 apg) during the playoffs (28.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.6 apg). The Warriors did well for the most part when Durant missed 20 regular season games but when the Warriors have been at full strength Durant has clearly been their best player, though the gap between Durant and Curry has not been significant during the playoffs to this point.

Draymond Green provides great all-around play but he is in the perfect role on the perfect team for his talents; if he had to create his own shot as the number one option then he would not be nearly as effective, nor would he average anywhere close to 7 apg if he were not surrounded by three all-time great shooters.

Klay Thompson had an excellent--if somewhat overlooked--regular season but he has struggled with his shot during the playoffs. Even a slumping Thompson is still a problem for opposing defenses, because it would be a risky strategy to dare him to make open shots for an entire series.

Like the Cavaliers, the Warriors have a deep bench filled with former All-Stars and players who have previously been starters for playoff teams.

Some say that the Warriors' regular season success and one championship represent a vindication of Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns but, if anything, these Warriors are a repudiation of D'Antoni's philosophy: D'Antoni minimizes the importance of defense because he believes that in the long run a barrage of three pointers will prevail over a team that shoots two pointers; the Warriors are an elite defensive team that can win grimy, low scoring games if necessary, though of course they prefer to be involved in shootouts.

D'Antoni's Suns and Rockets are like basketball junk food; it may look good/taste good in small quantities but consumed in large quantities it is not so good. In contrast, the Warriors play a fun style that does not mock traditional basketball values such as defense and rebounding.

Other things to consider: Mike Brown has not lost a game since taking over as Golden State's interim head coach in the wake of the complications that have afflicted Steve Kerr as a result of back surgery. Many media members openly mock Brown but he is a very good coach, as demonstrated by the results that he has produced throughout his career, posting a 347-216 regular season record, a 47-36 playoff record prior to going 12-0 this postseason and winning the 2009 NBA Coach of the Year award. He led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals early in James' career and then guided the Cavaliers to 66 and 61 wins in the 2009 and 2010 campaigns respectively; the opportunity to win a championship at the expense of a star player who quit on him during the 2010 playoffs should not be dismissed as a factor in this series.

Although the Warriors and Cavaliers have both fully embraced the new era philosophy regarding volume three point shooting, both teams are throwbacks in terms of how they are constructed; most of the modern NBA teams have one star surrounded by role-playing specialists but the Warriors and the Cavaliers have multiple All-Stars backed up by players who were All-Stars during their primes. That combination of talent and depth--in addition to injuries suffered by key players on opposing teams--largely explains why neither team has been challenged very much up to this point.

Based on historical pedigree, we are looking at all-time greatness: the Warriors have posted the best three year regular season run in NBA history and have made it to three straight Finals while winning one title; the Cavaliers have not matched the Warriors as a regular season juggernaut but they have also won one title while making it to three straight Finals. In addition, LeBron James extended his personal streak of Finals appearances to seven, which is something that has not been accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in the 1960s.

This is the first time that the same two teams have met in three straight NBA Finals; Kareem and Magic faced Dr. J three times in a four year span from 1980-83 and then Kareem and Magic faced Bird, McHale and Parish three times in a four year span from 1984-87. The Kareem/Magic Lakers are viewed as the team of the 1980s in large part based on taking two out of three in both of those trilogies and the winner of the 2017 Finals will also likely assume an exalted place in pro basketball history.

The Warriors are like a basketball Death Star; they only have one weakness and it is not easy to exploit: teams that are willing and able to attack in the paint offensively without compromising their defensive floor balance can beat the Warriors. We saw this from the Cavaliers during the final three games of the 2016 Finals and we saw this from the San Antonio Spurs for the first three quarters of game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Zaza Pachulia's two step closeout took Kawhi Leonard out and effectively ended the Spurs' opportunity to compete with the Warriors. We will never know if the Spurs would have been willing and able to sustain that method of attack throughout the series but for over 30 minutes the Warriors looked quite mortal.

Will LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson pound the Warriors inside, opening things up for the Cavaliers' three point shooters to do damage if the Warriors are forced to collapse into the paint? As suggested above, the Cavaliers are capable of doing this but I do not believe that they will do this enough throughout the series, so I expect that Golden State will prevail.

Before the playoffs began, I picked Golden State over Cleveland in six games and after observing these teams storm through their respective conferences I will stick with that prediction.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 PM

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Warriors Overwhelm Shorthanded Spurs 129-115, Complete Record-Setting Third Straight 4-0 Sweep

The Golden State Warriors advanced to their third straight NBA Finals after defeating the San Antonio Spurs 129-115 to complete their third consecutive four game sweep in the 2017 playoffs. The Warriors are the first team to advance to the Finals with a 12-0 record, though the 1989 Lakers and the 2001 Lakers each went 11-0 en route to the Finals when the first round was a best of five series. No NBA team has ever survived an entire playoff season without a loss; the 1983 76ers (12-1) and the 2001 Lakers (15-1) are the only NBA teams to make it through the postseason with just one loss.

The Warriors' one-two punch of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant has been impressive throughout this 12-0 run and particularly so versus the Spurs. Curry averaged 31.5 ppg and 4.8 apg in the Western Conference Finals while shooting .564 from the field (including .467 from three point range) and Durant averaged 29.8 ppg and 7.3 rpg while shooting .603 from the field (including .409 from three point range). Curry tallied 36 points on 14-24 field goal shooting in the closeout game, while Durant added 29 points on blistering 10-13 field goal shooting.

It is worth noting that the Warriors are undefeated with Interim Head Coach Mike Brown at the helm. Fools will say that anyone could coach a team that is this talented but the reality--without calling out any names in particular--is that pro basketball history is littered with the names of coaches who did not win as much as they could have or should have despite being blessed with talented rosters. Brown's coaching acumen is underrated by most media members, though within the coaching fraternity and among knowledgeable basketball observers his skills are understood.

Before commenting any further about the Warriors, it must be mentioned that a dirty play altered--at the very least--the duration of this series, if not the outcome; the Spurs enjoyed a lead of as much as 25 points in game one before Zaza Pachulia took away Kawhi Leonard's landing space on a jump shot, resulting in Leonard reinjuring the ankle that he had sprained in the previous round versus the Houston Rockets. With Leonard out of action for the rest of the series, the Spurs promptly blew their game one lead, played like a disheartened team in game two and then fought hard for most of games three and four despite clearly not having enough talent on the court to ultimately prevail. There is a game plan to beat the Warriors, as I noted in my Western Conference Finals preview, but it is not clear if any team has both the necessary talent and the game plan discipline to execute this plan over the entire course of a seven game series; what is clear is that the Spurs understood that game plan and were executing it very well in game one before Leonard's injury. We will never know if the Spurs would have pulled off the upset but before anyone crowns the Warriors as the greatest team of all-time it should be remembered that this series could have had a different outcome--and that is even more true considering that the Spurs' lost starting point guard Tony Parker to a season-ending injury in the previous series versus Houston.

Pachulia's play was unquestionably dirty. I have played organized basketball for over 35 years, albeit not at the professional level, and I can say without question that I know where my feet (and hands and elbows) are. I might slap at the ball and hit someone's arm by accident but I have never slid my foot underneath a shooter because that would be a dangerous and deliberate action that could cause a serious injury. ESPN's Jalen Rose addressed this issue directly, admitting that he intentionally injured Kobe Bryant during the 2000 NBA Finals and noting that such a move is never accidental. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, understandably upset by the loss of his MVP candidate under such circumstances, publicly blasted Pachulia but Popovich is not the best spokesman to deliver this message; in fact, Popovich's comments seem hollow and hypocritical in light of the fact that for years he defended similar actions by his ace defender Bruce Bowen. If as a coach you encourage or at least tolerate dirty play then it is hard to credibly take the moral high ground on that subject.

Switching our focus back to the Warriors, the NBA Finals will not start until June 1, so there is plenty of time to engage in endless discussions about where this team ranks among the greatest squads in pro basketball history. The first thing to note is the phrase trademarked by Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper after the 1996 Bulls went 72-10: Don't Mean a Thing Without the Ring. If you are not the best team in a given season then it is doubtful that you are one of the greatest teams of all-time.

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the Warriors win the championship, that would be their second title in three years after setting several records for regular season wins. That is impressive but not unprecedented, as the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won three titles in a row, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls notched two three-peats sandwiched around Jordan's minor league baseball career and Bill Russell's Celtics won eight championships in a row. The Warriors have the two most recent regular season MVPs on their roster (Durant 2014, Curry 2015-16), a distinction matched only by the 1983 76ers (Moses Malone 1982, Julius Erving 1981). Malone won the 1983 MVP as well, but neither Durant nor Curry will receive the 2017 honor as they are not among the three MVP finalists recently announced by the league. In addition to their MVP power duo, the Warriors also have two All-Star level players (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) plus a former All-Star who won the 2015 Finals MVP (Andre Iguodala); in this sense the Warriors are like a throwback team, even though their playing style is new: in the early to mid-1980s, the league's best teams (Lakers, Celtics, 76ers) were routinely stacked with multiple All-Stars and former All-Stars. This is much less commonplace today, perhaps a symptom of expansion (both in terms of number of teams and roster sizes) diluting the league's talent.

The bottom line is that the Warriors are great, they are fun to watch and they deserve a lot of praise but based on the eye test I cannot see them beating the star-studded teams of yesteryear, as I indicated in an earlier series preview article about the Warriors. I like Kevin McHale's line about Draymond Green: "That guy could not grow enough to guard me." The Lakers, Celtics and 76ers from the 1980s loved to play at a fast pace--and had players who could make three pointers, though that was not in vogue during that era--but they also could slow the game down and pound the ball inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish-Kevin McHale and Moses Malone respectively. The combination of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge looked pretty strong versus the Warriors in game one of the Western Conference Finals, so I would take my chances with Magic-Kareem, Bird-Parish-McHale or Julius Erving-Moses Malone. The 1990s Bulls did not have a low post dreadnought but Jordan-Pippen-Harper comprised the greatest perimeter defensive trio ever assembled on one roster, while Dennis Rodman likely would have baited the hotheaded Draymond Green into getting suspended.

Meanwhile, in the other bracket the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed poised to match Golden State's 12-0 playoff mark before suffering what was most likely a one game aberration versus the Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers not only have a three-headed monster of star power with LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love but they also have tremendous depth, with multiple former All-Stars coming off of the bench (Deron Williams, Kyle Korver) plus numerous veterans who understand and thrive in their roles. No NBA team in recent memory has been as deep as these Cavaliers and certainly no team that has three All-Stars has been this deep since at least the aforementioned elite teams from the 1980s, when former MVPs like Bob McAdoo and Bill Walton came off of the bench for championship squads.

It will be interesting to see how the 2017 playoffs conclude but my preliminary thoughts about the historical comparisons are that the Warriors and Cavaliers deserve high rankings on the all-time lists but not necessarily the very highest rankings; if you contracted the NBA by nearly 200 players (by folding seven teams to bring the total back to 23 and by limiting the rosters to 12 players instead of 15) it is unlikely that the Warriors and Cavaliers would be dominating to quite the extent that they are currently dominating.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cleveland Versus Boston Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 1 Boston (53-29) vs. #2 Cleveland (51-31)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-1

Boston can win if…Isaiah Thomas is the best player on the court for extended periods of time and if Boston's rugged crew of perimeter defenders can "limit" LeBron James to something along the lines of "merely" 25 ppg, 8 rpg, 6 apg while not letting Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love exceed their regular season averages and not letting Kyle Korver shoot open three pointers like fish in a barrel.

Thomas has been a fourth quarter killer all season long and the Celtics will need his finishing touch (assuming that they can keep the games close enough for this to matter). It has become fashionable to pick against Boston as a "weak" number one seed but the Celtics overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Chicago in the first round--albeit with Rajon Rondo's injury obviously affecting that result--and then survived a seven game battle royale against Washington, one of the hottest teams in the NBA after starting off the season sluggishly.

Thomas has been Boston's best playoff performer (25.4 ppg, 6.5 apg) but he has received a lot of help, including double figure scoring from Al Horford (16.1 ppg), Avery Bradley (15.8 ppg) and Jae Crowder (13.2 ppg). Also, Kelly Olynyk (9.7 ppg) came up huge in game seven versus Washington. Horford was brought in to be a difference maker and help this team rise to contending status. While Horford's numbers do not jump off the page, his impact on both ends of the court is significant.

Cleveland will win because…LeBron James is playing at a historically great level in the 2017 playoffs, averaging 34.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 7.1 apg while shooting .557 from the field.

Kyrie Irving is a big-time shot maker; he reminds me a lot of Andrew Toney--a fearless player in clutch moments who is primarily a scorer but who has underrated passing skills. Like Toney, Irving is perhaps not quite good enough to be the best player on a championship team but he is perfectly cast as a secondary star on a championship team. Irving is averaging 23.8 ppg and 5.8 apg in the playoffs after averaging 25.2/5.8 in the regular season, though Irving's field goal percentage has dropped precipitously in the postseason (from .473 to .399).

Kevin Love is playing the Chris Bosh third option role to perfection, averaging 13.8 ppg and 9.1 rpg in the playoffs while spreading the court with his shooting touch (.401 3FG% in the playoffs).

Kyle Korver is shooting .485 from three point range in the playoffs, making it difficult to send double teams at James, Irving or Love.

Cleveland is a solid rebounding team, while the Celtics ranked 27th in the NBA in that category during the regular season. The Cavaliers will likely make more three pointers than the Celtics and thus the Celtics are doomed unless they can compensate by generating extra possessions via rebounds and/or turnovers.

James complained about his supporting cast not being good enough and now he has former All-Stars Korver and Deron Williams coming off of the bench to supplement the efforts of the James-Irving-Love Big Three. This is one of the deepest and most complete teams in recent memory, although the Cavaliers are obviously not quite as top heavy with talent as the Golden State Warriors, who sacrificed depth for starting lineup star power, while the Cavaliers actually have both starting lineup star power and depth.

Other things to consider: I do not like the way that LeBron James and the Cavaliers treated the regular season like it was a secondary consideration but they must feel vindicated by that approach after sweeping through the first two playoff rounds with an 8-0 record. The Cavaliers have the better team on paper and they have the best player in the league performing at a very high level. Boston's only trump is home court advantage. Cleveland is clearly the favorite.

Yet, Boston has a chance. The Celtics have proven to be tough-minded and resilient. There is also the undeniable fact that on several occasions in the playoffs--2010, 2011, 2014--LeBron James has allowed lesser players to outperform him for significant stretches of key games. Whether one terms this quitting or entering "chill mode," it is very unusual for an all-time great to do this, particularly on multiple occasions on the biggest stage.

One could argue or assume that James has outgrown this flaw/tendency but because it happened several times--and as recently as three years ago--it is hard to ever completely trust James' effort in the clutch the way one would trust Russell, Jordan, Duncan or Bryant.

I expect the Cavaliers to win in six games. By mentioning James' history I am not "hating" and I am not hedging on my prediction--but I am saying that if Boston wins in seven after Thomas scores 15 in the final stanza while James is passive this would be surprising but not shocking, because we have seen a similar script before.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 PM

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