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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Rockets' Fake Toughness

The L.A. Clippers just defeated the Houston Rockets 113-102. Instead of taking their loss and going home, several Rockets players--specifically, James Harden (who did not even play, due to injury), Chris Paul, Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza--tried to get into the Clippers' locker room, apparently to confront Austin Rivers and Blake Griffin. You may recall that several Houston players, "led" by Harden and Ariza, engaged in similar postgame conduct last season after beating the Dallas Mavericks in a chippy contest. When Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni coached the Phoenix Suns, he watched two of his players get suspended for a crucial playoff game after leaving the bench area in a display of fake toughness, so he already knows the consequences of such foolishness and he should  talk to his team about this, if he has not already done so; it is difficult to picture a championship coach such as Phil Jackson or Bill Belichick letting his players get away with such selfish and stupid conduct. Championship level players and coaches put the team first and do not let their in the moment emotions get in the way of their big picture collective goals.

Real toughness in the NBA is displayed by playing defense, focusing on the game plan and executing in the playoffs (Ariza was a solid role player for the Lakers' 2009 championship team, so he at least knows something about those things). Fake toughness in the NBA is displayed by acting like you want to get in a fistfight, knowing full well that there is an armada of security guards and police officers at every NBA arena. Years back, Tim Thomas--speaking about Kenyon Martin--had the perfect term for these kind of antics: "fugazi," meaning "fake."

Of course, arena security intervened before the Rockets players could get very far into the Clippers' locker room. Subsequent reports stated that the L.A. Police Department sent additional officers to the arena. TNT's Inside the NBA crew--most notably Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal--found the story to be hilarious and I laughed so hard at their comments that I almost had tears in my eyes. Barkley mocked the Rockets for sending several guys to go after one guy who is wearing a walking cast (the injured Austin Rivers). Barkley imitated Blake Griffin--"6-10, 225, one of the strongest guys in the league" in Barkley's words--calling the police, supposedly terrified that the "5-10" Chris Paul was going to beat him up. Barkley also wryly noted that none of the reports indicated that the Rockets players were looking for Patrick Beverly, because "he's for real." Barkley joked that the Houston players are guys he would have wanted to see coming into the locker room during his playing days so that he could improve his (boxing) record.

Just before TNT ran a clip of Griffin's post-game comments, Kenny Smith joked, "They don't have to look for him. He's right there." Of course, the last thing the Rockets really wanted to do was actually find Griffin and Griffin was less than concerned about the Rockets' postgame foolishness: "We were where we were supposed to be. We were in our locker room. So whatever happens over there--I mean, we can't control what anybody else does. We control what we did. Everybody was in our seats. That's it. You should ask them." Griffin was asked what Ariza said to him during the game before both players were ejected and Griffin replied, "He asked me if I was still coming to his birthday party. And I said I was going to try."

In the immortal words of L.L. Cool J, Houston's fake tough guys "couldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight/Wouldn't throw a rock in a ghost town." People who confuse fake toughness with real toughness will inevitably fold in clutch situations more often than not, because they do not have a championship mentality. Remember when Matt Barnes faked like he was going to throw a ball at Kobe Bryant's face in a game several years ago and Bryant did not even blink? He knew that Barnes was not going to do anything, so Bryant just stood his ground and smiled. Bryant was a real NBA tough guy, someone who played through numerous injuries and won five championships.

I would love to see guys like Harden, Paul, Green or Ariza (and Golden State's Draymond Green, the serial groin puncher who knows that no one is going to swing on him at the risk of being suspended) play in the 1980s NBA (never mind the 1960s NBA) and try to pull off their fake tough guy act; in today's NBA, if you breathe on a perimeter player it is a foul but in the old days if you drove into the lane you could expect to be knocked down. Harden's incessant flopping and Paul's Napoleon complex posturing would have led to different results during that era--and let Harden, Paul, Green and Ariza show up in Detroit's locker room after a game circa 1989 and see what would have happened. Or let Draymond Green punch someone below the belt during that era, when players often administered their own justice: Robert Parish once cold-cocked Bill Laimbeer after Laimbeer got out of hand and Parish was not even called for a foul, let alone ejected (Parish subsequently received a $7500 fine and a one game suspension but in today's NBA he likely would have received a much larger fine and a multiple game suspension). Near the end of Parish's career, he played for the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan told Parish during practice that he was going to kick his butt. The seven footer calmly looked at Jordan and told him to come get some. Jordan reconsidered his position on the matter and never challenged Parish in that way again. Harden, Paul and the other Rockets have never faced anyone like Parish or other 1980s era players, so the Rockets feel free to act a fool.

The NBA had to institute flagrant fouls and other rules to cut back on fighting; no one wants to ever see another gruesome incident like Kermit Washington nearly killing Rudy Tomjanovich. However, the rules that have cleaned up the sport have also enabled guys who in previous eras would have kept their mouths shut act like they are tough. The only good thing about all of that fake toughness is that those of us who know the real deal can get a good belly laugh out of it. Thank you, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, for treating this story exactly the way it deserved to be treated and for providing some great late night entertainment.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:34 AM

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Houston Sans Harden

James Harden has put up some very impressive statistics in the first portion of the 2017-18 season (league-leading 32.3 ppg, plus 9.1 apg and 5.0 rpg) and he has been touted as a legitimate MVP candidate. One would therefore logically expect that (1) any player other than a superstar who replaces him in the starting lineup would be much less effective and (2) the team would also be much less effective sans such an essential player. Harden is expected to miss at least two weeks of action after suffering a hamstring injury. The early results during his absence are mixed.

The following data is from a small sample size but it at least provides a glimpse at the impact that coaching/playing style can have on individual player statistics. Eric Gordon has taken Harden's place in the starting lineup. Gordon is a good player who won the 2017 Sixth Man Award but he has never been an All-Star, let alone an MVP candidate. In the four games that Harden has missed thus far, Gordon scored 21.5 ppg while shooting .437 from the field, exceeding his season averages in both of those categories. Gordon is averaging just 2.6 apg overall this season and he has never averaged more than 4.4 apg during a season but in the past four games he has averaged 7.3 apg even while playing alongside perennial All-Star Chris Paul, who is a high usage/high apg player. Gordon has not matched Harden's production but Gordon's numbers suggest that any reasonably good player thrust into that role in Houston's offense can score a lot of points while also accumulating a lot of assists.

The Rockets went 2-2 in those games, beating non-playoff teams Orlando and Chicago while losing to defending champion Golden State and a solid Detroit team. The Rockets averaged about 115 ppg with Harden in the lineup and they have averaged just under 112 ppg since he has been out of action. Again, this is obviously a small sample size, so it will be interesting to see how the Rockets and Gordon perform during the rest of the games that Harden misses. It should also be noted that the Rockets were slumping with Harden even before Harden got hurt; they lost five games in a row before needing two overtimes to beat the weak L.A. Lakers (that is the game during which Harden got hurt).

There is no question that Houston is worse without Harden; he is an All-Star caliber player, so the Rockets not only miss the talent that he brings to the table but they also have less depth when he is out of the lineup. The significant points are (1) Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system tends to inflate the numbers posted by his guards and (2) Houston's high-powered offensive attack is not solely dependent on Harden.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

The "Process" is Overhyped

The Philadelphia 76ers have received a lot of publicity/hype so far this season and there has been much talk that Sam Hinkie's infamous "Process"--which involved many seasons of intentionally losing, with the hope of building a contender by obtaining high draft picks--has paid off. The reality is that the 76ers are currently 15-18, ranking 10th out of 15 Eastern Conference teams. If still being a sub-.500 team after years of losing on purpose is classified as a success then I would hate to see what failure looks like.

It is true that the 76ers have improved. Hinkie took over a 34-48 team that subsequently went 9-63, 18-64 and 1-21 under his command. Since Hinkie's departure, the team has gone 52-123. That .297 winning percentage is nothing to write home about but it is a vast improvement over the .159 winning percentage that the 76ers posted during his reign of error. Now that Bryan Colangelo has been in charge for two and a half seasons, the 76ers have gone from being historically awful to close to mediocre.

However, Hinkie's "Process" had very little to do with the 76ers' improvement. Hinkie "accomplished" two things: (1) he institutionalized a losing culture (which Colangelo is in the process--to borrow a word--of changing) and (2) he built a roster that contained few legitimate NBA players (because Hinkie's goal was to lose). On the final day of the 2015-16 season, the 76ers' active roster consisted of Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Ish Smith, Kendall Marshall, Nerlens Noel, Hollis Thompson, T.J. McConnell, Richaun Holmes, Isaiah Cannon, Elton Brand, Christian Wood and Carl Landry. The 76ers' current roster--the one that is not awful and has posted a close to mediocre record--consists of Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, Justin Anderson, Richaun Holmes, Ben Simmons, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Trevor Booker, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, T.J. McConnell, Furkan Korkmaz, Amir Johnson, J.J. Redick and Markelle Fultz (plus two-way players Jacob Pullen and James Michael McAdoo). So, only three players remain from Hinkie's last season; of those three players, Covington is a starter, McConnell is the seventh player in the rotation and Holmes ranks 11th in minutes played per game. Of course, Embiid--who has been an injury-plagued player during his brief career--was selected by Hinkie in the 2014 NBA Draft but he has only played in 56 games in three and a half seasons; he currently leads the team in scoring (23.8 ppg) and rebounding (11.1 rpg) but he operates under a minutes restriction and it is not clear if he will ever be a full-time, healthy player.

So, the sum product of Hinkie's "Process" is the injury-prone Embiid, one other starter, a rotation player and a guy who rarely sees action. If Hinkie had not been relieved of his duties, the 76ers would have an almost completely different looking roster, they still would have a losing attitude and they would not have even ascended to mediocre status.

What about Ben Simmons? Indeed, what about him? He was the consensus best player in the draft, Colangelo took him and it looks like he will be the Rookie of the Year. Intentionally losing games for years at a time--with no relief in sight until Hinkie was fired--just to obtain a 25% chance of getting the number one draft pick with the hope that Simmons or a player of his caliber would be available is not a sound franchise-building strategy. If Simmons becomes a great player, then Colangelo deserves credit for drafting him and--most importantly--for placing him in a culture that breeds success instead of failure. It is far from certain that, even if Hinkie had drafted Simmons, the 76ers under Hinkie would have placed Simmons in the best possible environment to succeed.

Well-run franchises are not built by tanking and they are able to stay at or near the top of the standings year after year without having top picks in the Draft. Look at the San Antonio Spurs or, broadening our view to other sports, look at the New England Patriots. It is not necessary to tear down a roster and/or lose intentionally in order to build a winner.

The 76ers are not even a playoff team as of today, so they are not worthy of much discussion--but if they are going to be discussed and if any credit is going to be given for the team's improvement, then the discussion should focus on the fine job that Colangelo has done of fixing the mess that Hinkie created.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:41 AM

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Magic and Isiah Reminisce and Reconcile

NBA TV's recent Players Only Monthly "Isiah and Magic" episode featured a heartfelt conversation between two of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Unless you are at least 40 years old and/or a student of basketball history, you probably do not understand either the impact that both Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas had as players or the full nature of their deep friendship that suffered a very public feud.

Johnson won five championships while capturing three Finals MVPs and three regular season MVPs before retiring as pro basketball's all-time assists leader (he now ranks fifth on that list); Thomas won two championships and one Finals MVP and he ranked third all-time in assists when he retired (he is now seventh on that list). Johnson mentored Thomas and Thomas' childhood friend Mark Aguirre. Thomas and Aguirre, as young NBA players, went to the NBA Finals and observed Johnson win titles and the three of them also worked basketball camps together.

Johnson may be better known to younger NBA fans than Thomas is but--as Johnson noted in his words and as highlight footage shown during the episode confirms--long before Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving or even Tim Hardaway were breaking ankles Isiah Thomas was a magician who had the basketball on a string and who could finish in traffic during an era when driving to the basket inevitably meant encountering heavy physical contact.

The Johnson-Thomas friendship initially became a bit strained during the 1988 NBA Finals, the first time that the two players faced each other with a championship directly on the line. Johnson's L.A. Lakers won that title--Johnson's last championship--and then Thomas' Detroit Pistons won the next two titles, beating Johnson's Lakers in the 1989 Finals and then defeating a strong Portland team in the 1990 Finals. Aguirre played a key role for both Detroit championship teams.

The rift widened in the early 1990s, after Johnson announced that he had contracted HIV. Johnson later publicly stated that he believed that Thomas had spread rumors that Johnson is homosexual or bisexual. Thomas has always denied that assertion and Johnson never offered any proof that Thomas had done this. The final blow came when Thomas was left off of the 1992 Dream Team and Johnson later rubbed salt in that wound by stating that Thomas had alienated so many people that no one wanted him on the squad. Thomas' on-court accomplishments should have made him a lock for the team and Thomas was hurt by his omission and further wounded by Johnson's harsh words.

Johnson and Thomas never publicly talked about these matters with each other until the filming of the NBA TV show, during which Thomas (an NBA TV commentator) ostensibly interviewed Johnson but--as the two joked--they in fact interviewed each other. The show charted the arc of their friendship and their Hall of Fame careers, focusing on how Johnson mentored Thomas (and Aguirre) and on how battling for championships forced Johnson to choose between the Lakers and that friendship. Johnson now freely admits that he chose the Lakers, something that Thomas says that he understands but that he found very hurtful at the time.

Johnson and Thomas studied winning--both as basketball players and as businessmen--in a way that should be a model for the NBA stars who came after them. Johnson recalled that the 1984 Finals--when he made several key mistakes as the Lakers lost to their hated rivals the Boston Celtics--was the first time that he failed as an athlete in the sense that he was a major reason that his team lost. "Self evaluation is the hardest thing," Johnson told Thomas.

Johnson realized he was not as good as he had thought he was and thus during the 1984 offseason he devoted himself to improving his game. Thomas and Aguirre were right alongside Johnson both as consoling friends and as sparring partners. Johnson and Thomas recalled a time that Johnson and Aguirre almost came to blows during a pickup game, with Thomas noting that Johnson acted like that was game seven in the Boston Garden.

Johnson's Lakers won the 1985 championship and thus exorcised not only the demons from the 1984 Finals but also decades of frustration that the Lakers had faced versus the Boston Celtics.

By 1987, Thomas' Pistons had emerged as legitimate championship contenders and they likely would have faced Johnson's Lakers in the Finals if not for Thomas' costly turnover versus Boston in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. Just as Thomas had been there for Johnson after Johnson's 1984 miscues, Johnson was there for Thomas three years later.

In 1988, the Pistons toppled the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and Boston's Hall of Fame power forward Kevin McHale--as he left the court near the end of the last game of the series--exhorted Thomas to not be happy just reaching the Finals but to do everything necessary to win the title.

Thomas admitted to Johnson during the NBA TV show that he heard McHale's message but in the moment he did not really understand it. Johnson certainly understood; he told Thomas that at the time he realized that the Pistons posed a different challenge to the Lakers than the Celtics because of the Pistons' youth/athleticism, their deep bench and their physicality. It became apparent to Johnson that he had to choose between his friendship with Thomas and his loyalty to the Lakers. Thomas noted that he was still learning "the formula" to win a championship while Johnson already knew that formula. The 1988 Finals started with a pre-game kiss between Johnson and Thomas but in game three Johnson delivered a forearm shiver to a driving Thomas, who came up swinging. The Pistons built a 3-2 series lead and looked poised to win the championship as Thomas scored a Finals record 25 points in the third quarter of game six--despite playing on a badly sprained ankle--but the Lakers won 103-102 and then won game seven 108-105.

Much like the 1984 failure fueled Johnson, Thomas was motivated by the painful losses to Boston in 1987 and L.A. in 1988. He led the Pistons to the league's best record in 1989 (63-19) and Detroit won the championship by sweeping the Lakers. Johnson went to the winners' locker room to congratulate Thomas. During the NBA TV show, Johnson stated that he was happy that Thomas had won a title because Thomas and the Pistons had earned it.

No NBA team had won three championships in a row since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics won eight straight (1959-66). Johnson's Lakers were the first NBA team to win back to back titles since Russell's Celtics, so in 1990-91 Thomas and the Pistons were on a mission to distinguish themselves from Johnson's Lakers and from Larry Bird's Celtics, who had won three championships in the 1980s but had never won two in a row, let alone three.

Thomas told Johnson that he became "possessed" with the goal of winning "three-peat" titles and, consequently, practiced so hard during the 1990 offseason that he suffered a wrist injury that required surgery. Thomas missed 34 games during the 1990-91 regular season and he was not the same player when he returned for the postseason, scoring just 13.5 ppg on .403 field goal shooting (both playoff career-lows at that time). Thomas' Pistons were swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Chicago Bulls, who went on to win three straight titles with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading the way.

Johnson said to Thomas, "You learn from other teams to win," meaning that the Bulls learned from the Pistons much like the Pistons had learned from the Lakers and Celtics.

After reminiscing about the "joy and pain" of competing for championships while also making their marks individually as basketball players, businessmen and philanthropists, Johnson and Thomas focused on how their friendship had frayed and why this is important not just to them but also on a larger scale. As Thomas put it, "Our relationship is important to our community." Johnson added, "We helped change the All-Star Weekend. We helped change a lot of different things within the league." 

While All-Star Weekend is far from the most important subject touched upon during the show, I cannot let this moment pass without noting how different the NBA All-Star Game was in its golden years (the 1980s) compared to now, a subject that I spoke with Johnson about during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend. In 2005, when the All-Star Game had deteriorated but not yet become the farce that it is now, Johnson told me that the current players "have to understand that there is a fine line. We wanted to put on a show for the fans--let Dr. J be Dr. J, let Dominique be Dominique, Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan, so there were some pretty dunks and pretty moves that they created. But I'm going to tell you something: at the end of the day, both teams were serious about winning. That's what we're all about, especially when that second half started--we were at each other's throats. Shots were being blocked and both teams were trying to win the game."

Johnson reiterated that point to Thomas, recalling how as point guards they set the tone in the All-Star Game by bringing the fans out of their seats with great passes while also maintaining a standard for competing to win the game.

Other than the tensions that occurred on the court during the NBA Finals, Johnson and Thomas did not directly address the controversies from the past; not one word was said about Johnson's HIV status/rumors about his sexuality or about Johnson's comments regarding Thomas' omission from the 1992 Dream Team. Both men seem to understand that the importance and enduring nature of their friendship transcends an analysis of who said what and who was right/who was wrong.

The show concluded with some heartfelt words from Johnson to Thomas: "You are my brother. Let my apologize to you if I hurt you, that we haven't been together. And God is good to bring us back together." The two men then embraced and cried, their friendship publicly renewed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 AM

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Evaluating Kobe Bryant's "Two Careers"

Kobe Bryant has said that if he had the ability to go back in time he would not do so because if you can go back in time and change things then the initial experience had no meaning; the finality of each life event fills those events with meaning. Bryant focuses on what is next and does not dwell on what has already happened.

However, even an existentialist-minded person like Bryant must inevitably think about the past at least a little bit on a night when he has not one but rather an unprecedented two jersey numbers retired by the same franchise. On Monday night, the L.A. Lakers--the most storied franchise in the NBA, along with the Boston Celtics--retired both Bryant's number 8 and Bryant's number 24. Bryant wore 8 during his first 10 seasons before switching to 24 for his final 10 seasons. The Lakers raised both numbers to the rafters to join the likes of legends such as Chamberlain, West, Baylor, Abdul-Jabbar and Magic (full names not required for this list).

The easy narrative--the narrative adapted by most mainstream media accounts of Bryant's NBA career--is that the young Bryant who wore number 8 was fierce, athletic and untamed, while the older Bryant who wore number 24 had a more mature and refined game. These stereotypes fail to acknowledge the depth of Bryant's basketball genius and his capacity to evolve as a player (and as a person, for that matter).

Bryant had two numbers but--contrary to apparently popular belief--he did not have two careers. Of course, Bryant evolved as a player and he constantly pushed himself to hone his skills but the idea that he changed his number and instantly launched a new career is, to put it mildly, absurd.

This attempt to apply a pat narrative to Bryant's career is not new or original. Talk of Bryant becoming a completely different player persisted throughout his career and was usually generated by those who wanted to dismiss or diminish the value of Bryant's earlier accomplishments. In When Did Kobe Bryant Really Become a Team Player?, I addressed in detail the notion that Bryant's game fundamentally changed at or after some arbitrary point in time. Then, in the wake of Bryant's fifth NBA championship, I placed his career in historical context by comparing him with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. After Bryant announced that 2015-16 would be his final campaign, I looked back at what he had accomplished up to that point.

Again, just to make sure that the point is clear, it is true that Bryant evolved throughout his career but it is misleading to state or imply that winning was not always Bryant's primary focus. Bryant made essential contributions to the Lakers’ 2000-2002 "three-peat"; in addition to his Finals’ performances, during that period he was often the best player on the court during the Western Conference Finals, which was the de facto championship series before the Lakers toppled an Eastern Conference representative that likely would not have made it to the Conference Finals in the West.

Bryant authored scintillating individual performances in both numbers. Wearing number 8, he dropped 81 points on Toronto in 2006. Prior to that, he outscored a strong Dallas team 62-61 over the first three quarters before sitting out the entire fourth quarter with the outcome well in hand.

In one of his earliest games wearing 24, Bryant produced a perfect third quarter en route to scoring 52 points in a 132-102 blowout of the Utah Jazz. A few years later, Bryant had a virtuoso scoring performance in Madison Square Garden, setting an arena single game scoring mark that stood for several years.

The "stat gurus" have never been particularly fond of Bryant but Bryant impacted the game in ways that "advanced basketball statistics" do not fully capture. The eye test suggests that Bryant was a great clutch player, while "stat gurus" arbitrarily define what a clutch shot is; I still contend that what matters most is the ability to control a game down the stretch, as opposed to a player's field goal percentage or scoring rate during on last second or last minute shots, and I further contend that Bryant's ability to control a game down the stretch has been matched by very few players. Along those lines, LeBron James developed his game a lot in Miami and since he came back to Cleveland but I stand by my contention that Bryant possessed some essential qualities that James lacks in terms of consistently playing the game with a champion's mentality.

Bryant won five championships but he has said that he drew the most satisfaction from the way that he played in 2012-13 as he carried the Lakers to the franchise's most recent playoff berth, rupturing his Achilles tendon along the way.
 
The road back to the NBA after such a devastating injury was not easy even for a tough-minded fitness fiend like Bryant but he made it back and he ended his career on a fitting, unprecedented note, scoring 60 points to push, pull and drag a depleted Lakers team to victory. Bryant was supposedly holding back the young talent on that team but the Lakers have not sniffed the playoffs since the last season when Bryant was fully healthy for most of the campaign (2012-13) and they do not seem likely to make the playoffs any time soon barring a major free agent acquisition and/or significant internal roster improvement.
 
Bryant did not have two distinct careers but it is true that he accomplished enough in both his first 10 years and in his second 10 years to merit two jersey retirements, much like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished more after his prime than many players achieved during their entire careers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM

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Thunder Surging as Westbrook Regains MVP Form

"What is wrong with the Thunder?" is a question being posed by many NBA commentators but the answer to that question may actually be "Nothing." Three weeks ago, I answered that question by suggesting that the Thunder need for Russell Westbrook to play his normal game as opposed to sublimating his game in deference to Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; the team's best player should not be the one who is sacrificing the most.

Last season, Westbrook won the regular season MVP award after averaging 31.6 ppg (capturing his second scoring title along the way), 10.7 rpg (10th in the league) and 10.4 apg (3rd in the league). Westbrook became the only ABA-NBA player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season.

Despite a subdued--by his high standards--start to the 2017-18 campaign, Westbrook is averaging 23.3 ppg, 9.8 apg and 9.6 rpg through 30 games, numbers which would put him closer to averaging a triple double for a season than anyone other than Robertson. During the Thunder's first 10 games in December he elevated his production to 25.2 ppg, 10.5 apg and 10.4 rpg as the Thunder went 7-3. Westbrook notched four triple doubles during those 10 games and the Thunder won each of those four contests.

Westbrook's shooting percentages during this 10 game run are not good but in his most recent game--Oklahoma City's 95-94 win over Denver on Monday night--he scored a season-high 38 points on 16-28 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder outscored the Nuggets by seven in the final stanza. The Thunder won despite George scoring just eight points on 3-13 field goal shooting and despite Anthony scoring just four points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

No one would suggest that the Thunder's formula for long-term success involves George and Anthony shooting so horribly but the larger point--from that one game in particular and the most recent 10 game stretch in general--is that this team is at its best when Westbrook is dominant, as opposed to Westbrook deferring to lesser talents. When Westbrook pushes the ball and looks for his shot, the opposing defense is compromised in a way that opens up opportunities for his teammates, either off of a direct pass (Westbrook had a team-high six assists versus Denver despite the bricklaying by George and Anthony) or off of ball movement initiated by Westbrook's first pass.

If Westbrook continues to play this way, two things will likely happen: (1) Westbrook will regain his shooting rhythm and his shooting percentages will bounce back to his career norms and (2) the Thunder will reel off an 8-10 game winning streak at some point to catapult them into the top four in the Western Conference.

Westbrook is a polarizing figure--much like Kobe Bryant was in the previous era--so no matter what he does he will either be blamed for his team's failures (real or imagined) or else he will not be given the full credit he deserves for his team's success but the suggestion that the reigning MVP needs to change his game to accommodate George and Anthony is just bizarre. Westbrook has already proven that he can be an All-NBA performer for a championship level team while playing alongside Kevin Durant and Westbrook has proven that he can carry a weak supporting cast to a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference, which is more than George or Anthony have accomplished in their careers.

George's job on this team is to be a lockdown defender, a secondary playmaker and a weakside cutter who feasts off of the defensive attention Westbrook draws. In other words, he should be Dwyane Wade to Westbrook's LeBron James, if one wants to compare the Thunder to the Miami Heat team from several years ago. Anthony's job on this team is to post up smaller defenders, drive by bigger defenders and knock down open shots in transition; he will never be a lockdown defender but he must at least give effort at that end of the court. In other words, Anthony should play like he did for Team USA (which is much easier to do against inferior competition while surrounded by the likes of Bryant, James and Durant than it is on a nightly basis in the NBA).

This recent 10 game stretch does not prove that the Thunder have turned the corner. They may very well regress back to being a sub-.500 team and they may never reach their potential. However, this 10 game stretch has provided a glimpse of the way that the Thunder should play and a hint of what they are capable of accomplishing if they build upon this small sample size of relative success.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What is Wrong With the Oklahoma City Thunder?

After the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to play alongside 2017 NBA regular season MVP Russell Westbrook, it was reasonable to assume that the team would be a legitimate contender--but, thus far, that has not proven to be the case. What is wrong with the Oklahoma City Thunder and why has this talented squad posted an 8-11 record?

Before we look at what is wrong, it is important to realize that some things have gone well. One might expect that adding a defensive sieve like Anthony to the rotation would cause major issues at that end of the court but, in fact, the Thunder have displayed a defensive mindset that ultimately could take them far. This season, the Thunder rank first in the league in steals, third in points allowed and seventh in defensive field goal percentage. This is a marked improvement over last season's rankings of 14th, 16th and 19th respectively in those categories. The one caveat is that the Thunder have plummeted from seventh in defensive rebounding to 26th and those extra possessions that they are allowing this season not only slow down their potential fast break opportunities but also force them to exert more energy on defense that otherwise could be saved for offense.

The Thunder's main problem so far has been on the offensive end of the court, where their numbers have dropped across the board. Last season, Westbrook was essentially a one man show but the Thunder still ranked 11th in points scored and 17th in field goal percentage; this season, the Thunder are 22nd in points scored and 26th in field goal percentage.

What has changed? The most obvious difference is that Westbrook has taken a major step back in deference to the team's two new stars. Westbrook won the scoring title last season while averaging 31.6 ppg and shooting .425 from the field on 24.0 FGA per game but this season he is scoring just 21.6 ppg while shooting .401 from the field on 18.9 FGA per game.

Many media members tend to make Westbrook the scapegoat for any problems that the Thunder experience, asserting that Westbrook is a selfish player. The reality is that Westbrook has never been a problem for the Thunder: he is unselfish, he plays hard and he produces in the clutch. Last season he was not only the team's best player but he was the best player in the league. If anything, the problem is not that he needs to be more deferential but rather that he is deferring too much to lesser talents, much like Julius Erving did initially after joining the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1976-77 season. Billy Cunningham, who replaced Gene Shue as the 76ers' coach early in the 1977-78 season, observed that the 76ers had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians"; Erving was the team's best player but he was the one who was sacrificing the most from his game, as opposed to other players deferring to him. Cunningham changed that situation around and Erving soon regained his individual status while the 76ers emerged as a perennial championship contender.

Phil Jackson understood this concept as well. While he is known for utilizing the Triangle Offense--which, in theory, is an equal opportunity system--he made sure that there was a clear pecking order on his teams. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen (during Jordan's first retirement), Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant did not have to defer to anyone when they were the best players and this resulted in 11 championships. Basketball is a team sport but championship teams are usually focused around the talents of one superstar (who is often ably assisted by a second star).

The Thunder are at their best when Westbrook controls the ball and runs the show at a fast pace. Isolation plays for Anthony and George should only be run when one of those players has a clear mismatch that will likely lead to a score or a double team that will open up a high percentage shot for someone else. Anthony must accept the role that he fills for Team USA, being a spot up shooter as opposed to being a ball-stopping one on one player; similarly, George must accept the role that suits him best, which on this team means being a back door cutter a la Dwyane Wade during Miami's great run from 2011-14 when LeBron James was the team's best player.

It is not too late for the Thunder to turn their season around. It often takes some time for star duos/star trios to learn how to successfully meld their talents together to achieve team success. For instance, Miami's Big Three of LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh did not set the league on fire at first and that trio eventually won two titles while making four straight NBA Finals appearances. The Heat's stars each had to recognize and embrace their roles: James was clearly the best player, Wade was the second best player and Bosh had to accept being the third option; defensively, each player also had to figure out and accept how he fit into the overall game plan, with James playing multiple positions, Wade using his athleticism to guard bigger players at times and Bosh utilizing his combination of size/agility to pick up the slack all over the court.

Oklahoma's Big Three is not nearly as good as Miami's but nevertheless the Thunder are capable of being an elite team if the correct pecking order is established prior to the playoffs. Less than a week ago, we saw a glimpse of the Thunder's potential when they routed the defending champion Golden State Warriors 108-91 as Westbrook posted 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists but now the Thunder must figure out how to play that way on a consistent basis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 PM

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Blake Griffin's Evolution

Blake Griffin made a name for himself as a high-flying dunker, the centerpiece of the Los Angeles Clippers' "Lob City" offense that was more style than substance and that consistently fizzled in the postseason. As Griffin candidly admitted recently, "We were front-runners. When things were going great, the ball was hopping around. But when we felt resistance in games, we splintered."

A big part of the problem was that the Clippers had a divided locker room: Chris Paul--who is often labeled one of the best leaders in the sport, despite his inability to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs--was the loudest voice but he was not the team's best player and perhaps not even the team's most respected player. No wonder the team fell apart any time things became even a little difficult.

Now that Paul plays for Houston, Griffin's game can fully blossom and it is becoming evident that he is a complete player, not just an elite athlete. Griffin is a student of the game who is not only determined to broaden his skill set--witness his improved shooting from both the free throw line and from beyond the three point arc--but to also hone his mental approach to the game. According to a November 13, 2017 Sports Illustrated article by Lee Jenkins, Tim Duncan provided some sage advice to Blake Griffin: "The leader isn't the guy yelling the loudest or talking the most. It's the guy everybody looks at in the end and knows, 'I'm following him.'" Duncan, of course, was that kind of guy, a player who spoke softly but whose actions, demeanor and character established him as the unquestioned leader of San Antonio's five NBA championship teams.

Griffin must still prove that he can remain healthy and that his newly developed skills will not regress under playoff pressure but it will be fascinating to watch the second half of his career as he attempts to evolve from All-Star to elite player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM

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Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Thoughts About Two High Scoring Performances and Observations About the Start of the 2017-18 NBA Season

The first 10 games or so of the 2017-18 NBA season have featured some great individual performances and some surprising team performances. Here are some of my thoughts and observations about what has transpired thus far:

* LeBron James scored 57 points on 23-34 field goal shooting (including 2-4 from three point range) as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Washington Wizards 130-122 on Friday night. He made all nine of his free throw attempts, while also grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds and dishing a team-high seven assists in 43 minutes. James set single-game career highs in both field goals made and field goals made in the restricted area (14) while establishing a new single game scoring mark for Capitol One Arena, the fourth facility where he owns or shares the single-game scoring record (Air Canada Centre, American Airlines Arena and Vivint Smart Home Arena are the others).

James tied the franchise single-game scoring record set by Kyrie Irving versus the San Antonio Spurs on March 12, 2015 and James became the youngest player in pro basketball history to score 29,000 career points, just two years after becoming the youngest member of the 25,000 Point Club. James also became the only player other than Kobe Bryant to notch a 50 point game in his 15th season or later (Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his 20th--and last--NBA season).

This game reaffirms a few things about James:

1) He is not a "pass-first" player. As I wrote after James scored a single-game career high 61 points three years ago versus Charlotte as a member of the Miami Heat, "Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs."

2) While it is obviously not realistic to expect James to score this many points and/or shoot this well on a consistent basis, he is unguardable when he is committed to attacking the paint as opposed to settling for jump shots.

3) James is developing a deadly turnaround midrange shot that could help him age effectively a la Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, in contrast to some highly athletic players whose games declined as soon as they lost a step.

The Cavaliers' early season struggles--they are currently 12th in the Eastern Conference, an embarrassing start for a talented team featuring James--are largely a result of individual and collective defensive indifference; assuming that the Cavaliers address that issue by playoff time, an offensive attack focused around James attacking the paint--while being supported by several three point shooters--will be very difficult to stop.

* Two days after LeBron James scored 57 points, James Harden poured in 56 points on 19-25 field goal shooting while dishing a game-high 13 assists in Houston's 137-110 thrashing of the Utah Jazz. When Harden is hot from three point range--he nailed seven of his eight attempts from beyond the arc in this contest--he is very difficult to guard and his shooting efficiency in this game is very impressive.

Harden has always been a potent offensive player both as a scorer and as a passer. A major key for success for any offensive player is freedom and Coach Mike D'Antoni has given Harden the opportunity to dominate the ball-handling for this squad. It has been proven that D'Antoni's offenses are difficult to contain during a long, hectic regular season and not nearly as difficult to contain during the postseason. It has also been proven that neither D'Antoni nor Harden place much emphasis on defense.

Both of these 50 point games are outliers but the key difference is that the way that James played--attacking the paint--is both repeatable and a recipe for team playoff success, while it is highly unlikely that Harden will shoot .875 from three point range in a playoff game or that Harden's Rockets will advance very far in the postseason if they are relying on him consistently making seven three pointers per game.

* Led by Harden, the Houston Rockets currently own the Western Conference's best record (8-3). The Rockets have accomplished this largely without the services of Chris Paul, who injured his left knee in the season-opening win against Golden State and has not yet returned to action. Paul was not particularly effective in that game (he shot 2-9 from the field and posted a -13 plus/minus number) and it is not at all clear that he can form a complementary duo with Harden. The Rockets are Harden's show and since they have proven that they can win (in the regular season) with Harden dominating the ball it is difficult to imagine that Harden is going to cede touches/control to Paul, who is also used to dominating the ball. Paul is not a catch and shoot long range marksman, so what is he going to do while Harden monopolizes the ball? There are also the not insignificant issues that (1) Paul plays gritty defense while Harden does not and (2) Paul is not shy about publicly yelling at teammates while Harden has proven to be very sensitive to any form of real or imagined criticism. This does not look like a recipe for postseason success.

The Rockets rank first in three point field goals made and three point field goals attempted but just 23rd in three point field goal percentage after ranking 15th in three point field goal percentage last season. The Rockets rank 15th in defensive field goal percentage after ranking 23rd in that category last season. Some might argue that the Rockets' three point shooting is likely to improve--and that is probably true--but it is at least as likely that their defense will also regress to accustomed levels.

The three point shot is a great weapon but there is a misconception that Golden State's recent dominance is primarily attributable to three point shooting. The Warriors are unquestionably a great three point shooting team but their star players are also willing and able to score in other ways, while D'Antoni's Rockets are fully committed to jacking up three pointers regardless of whether or not those shots are falling on a given night. Even more importantly, the Warriors are individually and collectively focused on consistently playing great defense, which means that they can win even if their shots are not falling on a particular night.

The Rockets may very well have a great regular season--that would not be a first for a D'Antoni-coached team--but a quick postseason exit is still the most logical expectation for any team that is built this way and that functions this way.

* Chris Paul's former team, the L.A. Clippers, started the season 4-0 and they are now 5-4. Many commentators expected the Clippers to suffer mightily after trading Paul but the reality is that Paul--despite his gaudy assist totals and his ability to play at a high level on both ends of the court--has never had as much impact on winning as the "stat gurus" believe. Paul is an undersized point guard and he does not fit either of the historical profiles of players who typically lead teams to championships (usually either dominant big men or else versatile players in the 6-7--6-9 range). The traditional, mainstream narrative about Paul is that he is (1) a great leader and (2) a player who makes his teammates better. I would argue that if he is as great a leader as his supporters suggest then at some point he would have actually led his talented supporting casts past the second round of the playoffs. Regarding the second point, I am more interested in objectively determining if--and how--a player makes his team better than I am in bold, subjective assertions that certain players allegedly make their teammates better. Blake Griffin, for example, is a great player with or without Paul.

The Clippers are not as good as they looked during their fast start nor as bad as they have looked in the past week or so but--barring injury--they should be a solid playoff team in the competitive Western Conference.

* Last season, I expected Coach Frank Vogel to revitalize the Orlando Magic and lift them into playoff contention--but instead they fell from 35-47 to 29-53. This season, I predicted that the Magic would miss the playoffs but the early returns suggest that I underestimated this squad. Evan Fournier (20.3 ppg, .474 3PT FG%), Aaron Gordon (19.1 ppg, .559 3PT FG%) and Nikola Vucevic (17.9 ppg, .405 3PT FG%) are spearheading a surprisingly potent offensive attack and the Magic have been very solid on defense as well, ranking 11th in defensive field goal percentage. They may not be able to maintain their lights-out three point shooting for 82 games but if they continue to play as hard as they are now then they will be a lot better than I (or just about anyone else) expected them to be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM

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Sunday, October 08, 2017

2017-18 Western Conference Preview

It did not take much of an adjustment period for the Golden State Warriors to remain dominant after they acquired Kevin Durant last summer; the Warriors rolled to a league-best 67-15 regular season record and then went 16-1 in the playoffs to capture their second championship in three years. Durant was sensational during the postseason and he outdueled LeBron James to win the Finals MVP. During the Finals, Durant averaged 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field, joining Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the short 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.

The Warriors' tremendous combination of talent, depth and chemistry has the rest of the league scrambling to keep up. Several teams made huge, potentially risky moves to try to at least come close to matching the Warriors' star power. The Houston Rockets traded a lot of depth to acquire perennial All-Star Chris Paul, while the Oklahoma City Thunder gave up minimal assets to land both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The young Minnesota Timberwolves added veteran savvy and a two-way skill set by bringing Jimmy Butler into the fold. 

The San Antonio Spurs largely stood pat and it has become something of an annual ritual to write them off but somehow every year they manage to win at least 50 games and assert themselves as a legit championship contender.

Russell Westbrook's historic season-long triple double performance earned him his first regular season MVP and propelled the talent-thin Thunder into the Western Conference playoffs. George may still bolt for L.A. after one season and it remains to be seen how much Anthony has left in the tank but if George and Anthony are willing to accept their roles then the Thunder could be a very dangerous team.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has long been something of a point guard whisperer but it will be interesting to see how he tries to keep James Harden and Chris Paul happy, as both players like to monopolize the ball.

This preview has the same format as my Eastern Conference Preview; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:

1) Golden State Warriors: The Warriors looked like a potential dynasty in the making before they acquired Kevin Durant. With Durant in the mix, the Warriors often look unbeatable. They struggled briefly during the regular season when Durant went down with a knee injury but ultimately they went 16-4 when he was out of the lineup. It is rare for a team to have two legit MVP caliber players who are both in their primes--and the Warriors are blessed to have not only Durant and two-time MVP Stephen Curry but also All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green plus a solid cast of role players, including 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (a former All-Star).

Barring significant injuries, there is no legitimate reason to pick against the Warriors to again win the West and to win their third title in four years.

2) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs had the Warriors on the ropes in game one of last season's Western Conference Finals but after Kawhi Leonard went down with an ankle injury the Warriors cruised to a sweep. The Spurs proved that there is a game plan that can be effective versus the Warriors but even if the Spurs had won game one it is far from certain that they would have been able to successfully execute that game plan three more times; beating the Warriors is kind of like destroying the Death Star: it is theoretically possible but it requires a precise, focused plan targeting a very hard to access weakness.

Leonard appears to be completely recovered from the ankle injury but the Spurs are holding him out of preseason play due to a recurring right quadriceps injury. Leonard's health is obviously critical for the Spurs. If everything breaks right for the Spurs and if the Warriors are slightly off of their game then the Spurs could win the West but the most likely scenario is that the Spurs' season will again end in the Western Conference Finals.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook proved that he could be an All-NBA performer for a perennial championship contender. Then, after Kevin Durant fled Oklahoma City to join the Golden State dynasty, Westbrook proved that he could perform at a historically great level while carrying a bad team to a playoff berth. The next question, as his ever vocal critics are quick to point out, is whether Westbrook can successfully function as the number one option while flanked by two All-Stars. Paul George is an excellent two-way player who seems best suited to being the second best player on a contending team. The question is not whether Westbrook can play with George--Westbrook functioned quite well alongside a much better player (Durant)--but rather whether George can accept his role and flourish within it. Similarly, the onus is not on Westbrook to blend in with Carmelo Anthony but rather on Anthony to accept being the third option offensively while putting forth at least some effort defensively.

The Thunder now have enough offensive firepower to battle on even terms with any team. The key questions will revolve around defense and chemistry--and that is why I cannot rank this squad higher than third in the West.

4) Houston Rockets: James Harden is an All-Star whose skill set and leadership style are not well-suited for him to be the best player on a championship contender. Chris Paul has long been lauded as one of the league's best leaders and fiercest competitors. Unlike Harden, Paul plays hard at both ends of the court--but, at some point, the praise for Paul rings hollow when he repeatedly proves that he is unable to lead talented teams past the second round of the playoffs.

Both Harden and Paul are used to dominating the ball on offense, so that dynamic will be very interesting to watch. Paul is known for barking at his teammates and Harden is known for pouting when he is criticized, so that is another dynamic that bears watching.

The Rockets are going to score a ton of points. On some nights, they are going to look unbeatable--but, ultimately, they are basing their hopes on two stars who are just not suited to being the best player on a championship team. The Rockets will not make it past the second round of the playoffs--and could possibly fall in the first round, depending on matchups.

5) Minnesota Timberwolves: Adding veteran two-way All-Star Jimmy Butler is a move that should be worth at least 8-10 wins in the standings. Chalk up at least another 8-10 wins based on the continued improvement of the team's young core players and this is a team that could threaten to obtain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Veteran NBA coach Hank Egan once told me that it takes "deep into your second year" before a team fully absorbs the defensive principles of a new coaching staff. Tom Thibodeau is one of the premier defensive coaches in the league and Minnesota figures to make a significant improvement defensively during his second season at the helm.

6) Denver Nuggets: The acquisition of veteran All-Star Paul Millsap solidifies the rotation and should be enough to push this young team on the rise to a secure spot in the West's top eight. Millsap is a perfect complement for Nikola Jokic, who emerged as a star in his second season. The Nuggets likely do not have enough depth or experience to advance past the first round but the franchise is headed in the right direction.

7) L.A. Clippers: Chris Paul never managed to lead the talent-laden Clippers past the second round of the playoffs, so now the franchise is clearly built around Blake Griffin--who was, in fact, always the team's best player, even though Paul has a stronger and more vocal personality. The Clippers are not a championship contender but they never really were one even with Paul in the fold. Assuming that Griffin avoids injuries--the one factor that has been his biggest downfall--the Clippers still have enough talent to make the playoffs.

8) New Orleans Pelicans: Now that Anthony Davis will have the opportunity to play a full season with DeMarcus Cousins plus new addition Rajon Rondo, it will be interesting to see if he is truly a superstar in the making (as many observers believe) or if he is what TNT's Kenny Smith would call a "looter in a riot" (a player who can put up great individual numbers for a mediocre or bad team but who is not able to lift a team to playoff contention). The Pelicans' roster has some chemistry questions and skill set limitations but there is enough talent here to at least grab the final playoff spot and it should be considered a disappointment if this team again fails to qualify for postseason play.

There are some solid teams in the West that just do not have quite enough to qualify for the playoffs in the league's top conference. The Portland Trail Blazers' dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum managed to sneak into the playoffs last season but this season I think that rising teams such as Minnesota and Denver will push Portland just out of the postseason mix.

Lack of shooting has been a problem for Memphis for several years. They barely made the playoffs the past two seasons, only to lose in the first round both times. The departure of Zach Randolph indicates that the team is shifting from the "grindhouse" style to a more uptempo philosophy but this is a flawed and declining team that is no longer among the West's eight best teams.

Before the departure of Gordon Hayward, the Utah Jazz looked like a team on the rise but now they are a team that will struggle to stay in the playoff race.

The rest of the West is in bad shape. 

Mark Cuban bet nearly $100 million that Harrison Barnes could become a superstar. Barnes had a solid first year in Dallas but he will not be leading this team to the playoffs any time soon.

Kobe Bryant supposedly held back the growth of the Lakers' young players during his farewell tour in 2015-16 but Magic Johnson's moves make it very clear that he understands what should have been apparent all along: the Lakers have yet to acquire a legit star and the players that Bryant supposedly held back are role players at best. Without Bryant in 2016-17, the Lakers were still terrible, so Magic Johnson hit the reset button and got rid of D'Angelo Russell, one of the players whose development Bryant had supposedly been stifling. The Lakers have some decent young players but it does not appear that they have any future All-Stars on the roster, unless rookie Lonzo Ball's play eventually equals all of the hype that has been generated about him--and the answer to that will not be clear until he plays real games, not just summer league and preseason contests. 

Phoenix and Sacramento are two rudderless franchises that need significant changes before they will qualify for the playoffs again.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2017 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: 6/8
2015: 7/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2017 Total: 77/96 (.802)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 PM

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2017-18 Eastern Conference Preview

The biggest off-season story in the Eastern Conference--if not the entire NBA--was the dissolution of Cleveland's Big Three as the Cavaliers sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for a package of players and draft picks headlined by All-Star Isaiah Thomas. Irving had teamed up with fellow All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love to lead the Cavaliers to three straight NBA Finals and the 2016 championship but Irving either grew tired of being the second option or else he did not relish the possibility of being the best player on this particular squad in the event that James leaves Cleveland for a second time.

It is very unusual for two teams bidding with each other for conference supremacy to trade star players to each other. Irving is a tremendous clutch scorer who can get buckets from anywhere on the court but he has yet to prove that he can be the main guy on a championship level team; this is not to say that he cannot do it or will not do it but he has yet to prove his capability in that regard and, in fact, Cleveland's record was very poor when Irving was the best player on the court (both before James returned from Miami and in the games that James sat out since he returned). Last season, Thomas was the best player on the first place team in the Eastern Conference but he is undersized, he is a subpar defensive player and he is still recovering from a serious hip injury that sidelined him for the final three games of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.

Thanks to the additions of Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston could very well again post the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics should at least match last season's win total (53), while the Cavaliers may struggle to exceed last season's win total (51); James is known for taking off quarters or even entire games during the season and it is doubtful that at this advanced stage of his career he will exert himself to chase regular season wins just to get the number one seed, particularly while Thomas is out of action.

Of course, the key questions to be answered are "Did this trade help Cleveland possibly defeat Golden State?" and "Did this trade close the gap between the Celtics and the Cavaliers?" We will not get answers to those questions until these teams face off in the Eastern Conference Finals, a showdown that is almost certain to happen for the second year in a row barring injuries to key players or some other significant, unforeseen development.

The Toronto Raptors seem to have peaked two years ago and it is unlikely that young teams like the Washington Wizards or Milwaukee Bucks can gain enough ground in one year to pose a realistic playoff challenge to Cleveland or Boston.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James has led two different franchises to a combined seven straight NBA Finals and three championships in the past seven years. Say what you want about the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference during that period or about James orchestrating moves to construct two "super teams," those are still impressive accomplishments--and accomplishments that seemed unlikely in the wake of how he quit versus Boston in the 2010 NBA playoffs and then came up short in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas. James has learned from his failures and grown as a result. The departure of Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas' questionable health could relegate the Cavaliers to the second seed in the East again but, assuming that Thomas is reasonably healthy by the playoffs, the Cavaliers still must be considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

Do the Cavaliers have enough to beat the presumptive Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors? If the Warriors are fully healthy and completely engaged, the answer to that question is probably "No" but it will be interesting to see how Coach Tyronn Lue integrates Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jae Crowder into Cleveland's rotation. Wade has a strong championship pedigree and Rose is a former regular season MVP who will presumably start at point guard until Thomas fully recovers. Green and Crowder add depth. The Cavaliers appear to have more offensive firepower and more defensive versatility than they did last season but much depends on Thomas' health and on how much Rose and Wade have left in the tank.

2) Boston Celtics: In my 2016-17 Eastern Conference Preview, I ranked Boston third but noted, "The Celtics will likely win more than 50 games this season and if everything breaks right they could even have the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference--but I am not convinced that they have enough experience and enough shooting to beat the Cavaliers in a seven game playoff series." That turned out to be prophetic, as the Celtics did indeed post the conference's best record only to lose decisively to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics almost completely remade their roster in the off-season, which is a bold move for a team that had been just three wins away from reaching the NBA Finals. Irving is younger and healthier than Thomas and Irving already has championship experience, albeit under James' large wings. Hayward is a very good two-way player, so on paper it looks like the Celtics have clearly improved. It remains to be seen if the roster moves will negatively affect the great chemistry and team spirit that the Celtics developed in the past couple years and it also remains to be seen if the Celtics have enough talent/depth to overcome "Playoff LeBron," who has dominated the Eastern Conference for seven straight years.

I think that the Celtics are a year away from winning the East. Their nucleus needs some time to grow together and, of course, if James departs Cleveland next summer then the conference will almost certainly be there for Boston to take starting in 2018-19.

3) Washington Wizards: The Wizards started 6-12 last season and many of Coach Scott Brooks' critics came out of the woodwork. Those critics fell silent as the Wizards went 43-21 down the stretch to claim the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington then beat Atlanta 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs and pushed the number one seeded Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

In last season's Wizards' preview, I noted that Brooks "has a proven track record of developing young players--including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden--and that is his primary task here." I suggested that Brooks' coaching would be "worth at least four or five wins over the course of 82 games" and indeed the Wizards improved their record by eight games.

This season, the Wizards will probably neither start as slowly nor finish quite as strongly as they did last season, so 50 wins or a little more than that is a reasonable goal. The Wizards are a rising team and could possibly beat Boston or Cleveland in a seven game series but it is not likely that they could topple both Eastern Conference favorites to make it to the NBA Finals.

4) Toronto Raptors: Toronto slipped from 56 wins in 2016 to 51 wins last season. One might assume that injuries played a role in this decline, particularly since All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry missed 22 games--but it is worth noting that the Raptors went 36-24 with Lowry in the lineup and 15-7 without him.

After advancing to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, it seems like the Raptors have peaked at a level slightly below Boston and a bit further below Cleveland. Past the midway point of the season, the Raptors acquired Serge Ibaka to fill the void left by Bismack Biyombo, who had departed as a free agent prior to the season. Ibaka posted solid box score numbers but he did not have the impact defensively and on the glass that he did during his peak seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, the Raptors went 16-7 in Ibaka's 23 games with the team, which projects to a 57 win pace over 82 games, so perhaps it is too soon to completely give up on the Raptors.

5) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo had a breakout season last year, making the All-NBA Second Team and finishing seventh in MVP voting after averaging 22.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.9 bpg and 1.6 spg. He led the Bucks in all five of those key categories, joining an elite list of "Five Tool Players" that includes Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady. The Bucks have made the playoffs in two of Jason Kidd's three seasons as head coach and they seem to be a team on the rise, albeit a team that does not yet have quite enough talent, depth or experience to win the East.

6) Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars left a big mess for Stan Van Gundy to fix and that process may be taking a bit longer than Pistons' fans had hoped that it would but--despite a slight setback last season after making the playoffs in 2015-16--the Pistons look poised to be a solid playoff team. The acquisition of two-way guard Avery Bradley should solidify the Pistons at both ends of the court and it is reasonable to expect bounce back performances from Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, both of whom were hampered by injuries last season.

7) Miami Heat: The Heat stunk in the first half of the 2016-17 season and then looked like world-beaters in the second half of the season, finishing tied for eighth in the East only to miss the playoffs by virtue of losing a tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. The Heat are not as bad as they looked in the first half but they are not as good as they looked in the second half, either. Since the breakup of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh "Big Three" that led the Heat to four straight Finals appearances and two titles, Pat Riley has failed to acquire or develop a legitimate big-time star who can lead the franchise back to prominence. Riley has gone all-in with the nucleus that spearheaded the 30-11 run down the stretch last season and it will be interesting to see how that turns out--but, ultimately, this team simply does not have enough star power to be a serious contender.

8) Charlotte Hornets: Coach Steve Clifford almost immediately transformed Charlotte into a strong defensive team after he was hired prior to the 2013-14 season but since that time there has been some slippage. Kemba Walker emerged as an All-Star last season but unless Clifford can improve the team's defense it will be difficult for the Hornets to do much better than fight for the final playoff spot. New acquisition Dwight Howard is no longer a superstar but he has a good history with Clifford dating back to their Orlando days, so perhaps Howard can make an impact defensively and on the glass for 25-30 mpg.

As for the rest of the East, Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago are three teams that barely made the playoffs last season and figure to take major steps backward in 2017-18. There is a lot of hype in some quarters about the Philadelphia 76ers but I think that it will take at least one more season under Bryan Colangelo to reverse the damage done by Sam Hinkie's foolish tanking.

The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic are three franchises that--for different reasons--seem to be adrift and need significant overhauls to be good again.

**********
Note:

I correctly picked five of the eight 2016-17 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: 5/8
2015: 5/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2017 Total: 71/96 (.740)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:01 PM

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Rest in Peace, Connie Hawkins

Connie Hawkins passed away on Friday at the age of 75. Hawkins is part of the lineage of elite basketball high flyers that began with Elgin Baylor and then continued after Hawkins with Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. The NBA blackballed Hawkins for several years after Hawkins was wrongly implicated in a college basketball point shaving scandal, so Hawkins spent his prime first in the American Basketball League and then with the Harlem Globetrotters before winning the 1968 regular season MVP in the ABA's first season. Hawkins led the Pittsburgh Pipers to the 1968 ABA title, averaging 30.7 ppg in seven games versus the New Orleans Buccaneers. Hawkins averaged 29.9 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 4.6 apg during the 1968 playoffs after averaging 26.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 4.6 apg during the regular season. Hawkins was the league's top scorer during the regular season, playoffs and Finals.

In 1969--after years of being wrongly blackballed--Hawkins settled his multi-million lawsuit with the NBA and as a result he was finally able to showcase his talents on the sport's biggest stage. In 1969-70, Hawkins made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in regular season MVP voting after averaging 24.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 4.8 apg for the Phoenix Suns. The Suns were a second year expansion team but Hawkins led them to the Western Division semifinals, where they lost in seven games to the powerful Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor led L.A. Lakers.

Hawkins made the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons but his body was starting to break down and he only showed flashes of the form that he displayed regularly in his younger days. By 1976, his pro career was over.

Two of Hawkins' trademark moves were the soaring slam dunk and the one-handed pass. Before Hawkins' knees went bad his dunking prowess was on par with anyone who has played the game. Hawkins' passing skills were uncanny; he would hold the ball in his hand like a softball, wave it around his head and then whip a pass to a cutter for an easy layup.

Jerry Colangelo, who brought Hawkins to Phoenix after the NBA lifted its ban, has said that if Hawkins had entered the league as a 22 year old and played out his entire career there then he "could have been one of the top 10 or 15 players to ever play the game." Years of barnstorming and of playing in lesser leagues--before the newly formed ABA gave Hawkins a chance--did Hawkins no favors both physically and in terms of challenging him to hone his skill set.

The injustice that robbed Hawkins of the opportunity to showcase his skills in the NBA during his prime years did not affect how his peers viewed him. For example, Hawkins earned a permanent place as the sixth man in Julius Erving's All-Time Starting Five, high praise coming from one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Erving has explained that his list--which includes "Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center"--is not meant to disrespect modern players but rather to pay homage to the players who came before him, who built the sport and who inspired him to become the best player that he could become.

Despite the truncated nature of his professional basketball career, in 1992 Hawkins became the first Phoenix Suns' player to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame; the voters finally looked past Hawkins' relatively modest career totals and recognized his diverse skill set and his enduring impact on the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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