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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Golden State Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Finals

# 2 Golden State (58-24) vs. #1 Houston (65-17)

Season series: Houston, 2-1

Houston can win if…Chris Paul picks up the slack when James Harden drops off (assuming that Paul does not wear down, as he often does during the postseason), if Clint Capela dominates the paint as he did during the first two rounds and if Houston's deep roster continues to play well collectively (even if individual players struggle in one game or another).

James Harden is the presumptive 2017-18 NBA regular season MVP. He deserved a lot of credit for Houston's league-leading 65-17 record and he is receiving a lot of credit for Houston's playoff run to this point but the funny thing is that he is not performing at a higher level than he did in previous years when the Rockets flamed out during the postseason; the difference is that now Harden has a better supporting cast, headlined by Paul (who at times--particularly during the playoffs--looks like the team's best player and not Robin to Harden's Batman).

During the first two rounds of the 2018 playoffs, Harden averaged 28.5 ppg while shooting .407 from the field. In Harden's five previous playoff appearances with the Rockets (during only one of which the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals), Harden averaged between 26.3 ppg and 28.5 ppg while shooting between .376 and .439 from the field. He has always been a high variance player, capable of dropping 40-plus points one night and then disappearing the next night, which is why his averages are deceiving--a player who consistently scores at least 20 points but is capable of erupting for 40 is more valuable than a player who averages 26-28 ppg by scoring 45 points one game and seven points the next.

Harden's playoff numbers for rebounds and assists have also not changed significantly over the past several years; to his credit, he has shaved his turnovers to 3.1 tpg--which would be his best postseason mark as a Rocket--but that clearly has a lot to do with Paul taking over a significant percentage of the ballhandling and playmaking duties.

Harden has a history of disappearing at key moments. Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen recently described how he would guard Harden and after making several strategic points Pippen concluded with the most important thing to know about defending Harden: if you take Harden out of his comfort zone, he'll quit. We have seen that happen in almost every playoff run of Harden's career. So far, the Rockets have not faced sufficient resistance to take Harden out of his comfort zone but that figures to change during this series.

Meanwhile, Paul has been the steadiest Rocket during the playoffs and he was sensational during the game five series clincher versus Utah, erupting for 41 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers while shooting 13-22 from the field, including 8-10 from three point range (Harden shot 7-22 from the field and scored 18 points). Paul is scoring 21.8 ppg during the playoffs while shooting .485 from the field, .377 from three point range and .879 on free throws. He is averaging 6.4 apg and just 1.9 tpg while also ranking second on the team in rebounding (5.5 rpg). Paul is an undersized but very talented and feisty two-way player. His competitiveness and defensive intensity have had a tangible effect on the Rockets, who were severely lacking in both areas prior to this season. I did not think that Harden and Paul would have good chemistry based on their divergent personalities and skill sets but--to this point--they have proven me wrong.

Clint Capela has emerged as an All-Star caliber big man and he has played a major role in Houston's success. He is averaging 14.4 ppg on .634 field goal shooting during the playoffs while leading the Rockets in rebounding (12.2 rpg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg). Capela outplayed Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round and he outplayed Utah's Rudy Gobert in the second round.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon have not shot well during the playoffs but both players have not only had some good moments offensively but they have also performed well defensively. Those two plus P.J. Tucker provide some much needed toughness, particularly since the Rockets tend to play small lineups that require their wings and guards to match up with bigger players.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are at full strength with Stephen Curry back in the lineup and because Kevin Durant--not Curry or Harden or Paul--will prove to be the best player on the court during this series.

Curry sat out the final 10 games of the regular season and Golden State's first six playoff games due to an MCL sprain in his left knee but he hardly missed a beat after returning to action in the second round, averaging 24.5 ppg in 31.3 mpg in four games versus the New Orleans Pelicans. The Warriors are a very good team even without Curry but they have shown glimpses of dominance again with Curry back in the fold; they won during Curry's first game back as he came off of the bench, they lost on the road to a New Orleans team determined not to be swept and then they closed out the series with victories by 26 and nine points. Curry has started the last three games and looks bouncier/more confident in each outing.

Durant is having another excellent playoff run, leading the Warriors in scoring (28.0 ppg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.0 rpg), assists (5.0 apg) and blocked shots (1.0 bpg). He is shooting .493 from the field and .891 from the free throw line; the only slight chink in his armor is subpar three point shooting during this postseason (.279). Whatever one may think of his decision to leave a perennial contender to join forces with a super team, Durant has lived up to his end of the bargain for the Warriors in terms of his on court performance.

Klay Thompson was the Warriors' second leading playoff scorer (21.2 ppg) while Curry was out. He is a top notch defensive player as well.

Draymond Green has showcased his usual all-around effectiveness (13.1 ppg, team-high 11.5 rpg, team-high 9.0 apg, team-high 1.9 spg (Curry is averaging 2.0 spg but he has only played four games) and a team-high 1.3 bpg while managing to avoid being ejected or suspended. He is not shooting well (.423 FG%) but the Warriors do not need him to be a knock down shooter.

Andre Iguodala joined the starting lineup while Curry was out and he has started nine of the Warriors' 10 playoff games as Steve Kerr has shuffled the rotation due various matchup considerations. Iguodala is averaging 7.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 3.5 apg.

Comparisons are often made between the Warriors and either Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix teams or D'Antoni's current Houston team but those comparisons are not very apt. The Warriors' success is not merely based on a high octane offense powered by shooting three pointers. The Warriors have a very fluid offense based on passing, cutting and taking advantage of the well-rounded skill sets of multiple players--and, just as significantly, the Warriors play tenacious team defense. Neither D'Antoni's Suns nor his Rockets were this complete offensively or this effective defensively. Houston's offense this season is primarily based on isolating either Harden and Paul; it hardly resembles the Warriors' free-floating offense at all, other than in the superficial sense that both teams score a lot of points.

The Rockets are a talented team that can be difficult to contain when multiple players get hot, but it will be a tough task to take four playoff games from the Warriors playing this way. Relying on isolation and shooting dozens of three pointers is a very high variance strategy. The Rockets could very possibly blow out the Warriors by 20 points in one game this series and still not even push the series to seven games.

Other things to consider: The Rockets have openly stated that they are built specifically to beat the Warriors. That is the contention of team architect Daryl Morey and that confidence is shared by the coaching staff and the players. The Rockets outperformed the Warriors during the regular season--both overall and in the head to head matchup--but none of that matters or will be remembered if the Warriors win this series. I have never been one to overstate the importance of one playoff run, one playoff series or one playoff game. The Rockets could lose this series and then win the championship next year. Overreaction and recency bias are two of the worst traits exhibited by far too many people who cover this great sport. However, with all of that being said, there is no doubt that this is an important playoff series and to some extent it is a referendum on Morey's vision--both on how to build a team overall and specifically on whether or not Harden can be the centerpiece of a championship team.

The Warriors have already carved out a place for themselves in pro basketball history based on their accomplishments during the past few seasons. Losing to them is not a basketball sin--but it is also not a vindication of Morey's openly held belief that he has masterminded a basketball philosophy and roster that can topple Golden State.

The Rockets are healthy and they have home court advantage, so--assuming that they remain healthy--they have no excuses if they lose.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Boston Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

# 2 Boston (55-27) vs. #4 Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James continues his historic playoff run and if his supporting cast fills in the gaps at both ends of the court. James averaged 34.0 ppg, 11.3 apg and 8.3 rpg while shooting .553 from the field as the Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors in the second round; through two rounds, James is averaging 34.3 ppg, 9.0 apg and 9.4 rpg while shooting .553 from the field.

The Raptors posted the best record in the Eastern Conference (59-23) this season and featured both a top seven offense and a top seven defense but the Cavaliers just dismantled them. Game one was a heartbreaking overtime loss for the Raptors after leading throughout regulation but the Cavaliers dominated the Raptors in game two, held on to win a close game three and then stomped Toronto 128-93 in game four.

This outcome is not only a tribute to James' greatness--and to the ability of Coach Tyronn Lue to change his rotation on the fly in the playoffs (more about that below)--but it is also a devastating end to what had been the best season in Raptors' franchise history. The terms "MVP-caliber" and "elite" have always been thrown around way too liberally--and the body of work for Toronto All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, culminating in that second round debacle versus Cleveland, should remove both of their names from either of those conversations for the foreseeable future. James' greatness does not justify or excuse Toronto's total collapse, a collapse that is either a failure of coaching (not in this case, in my opinion) or a failure of effort/heart/focus among the players--and that kind of failure is largely the responsibility of the team's best players.

As for the Cavaliers, it is not that long ago that they were outscored over the course of a seven game first round series by an Indiana team that is hardly elite by any stretch of the imagination. Did Cleveland instantly become a contender, did James singlehandedly dismantle Toronto or did the Raptors--for lack of a better word--choke? There is probably a little bit of truth in each of those suppositions.

It does seem that Coach Lue has figured out the right rotation for the Cavs; putting George Hill in the starting lineup and shifting Kevin Love to center created a lot of matchup problems for the Raptors but it remains to be seen if those adjustments will be as effective versus the Celtics (or if Lue has further moves up his sleeve).

The Eastern Conference Finals will provide a much clearer answer regarding who the Cavaliers really are. I suspect that they may not be as vulnerable as they looked against the Pacers but I also doubt that they are as good as the Raptors made them look.

Kevin Love (20.5 ppg, .353 3FG%), Kyle Korver (14.5 ppg, .560 3FG%) and  J.R. Smith (12.5 ppg, .769 3FG%) provided a lot of help for James versus Toronto after each of those players looked terrible in the first round. The Cavaliers will need strong production from those players to get past the Celtics.

Boston will win because…the Celtics' collective effort and performance will outweigh the individual greatness of LeBron James. Some "experts" thought the injury-depleted Celtics would struggle to beat Milwaukee in the first round but the Celtics won in five games. Even more "experts" were convinced that the Celtics would lose to the Philadelphia 76ers, perhaps overly impressed by the 76ers' season-ending 16 game winning streak (at least six of those wins came against teams that were actively tanking, which is ironic considering Philadelphia's recent years-long tanking "Process"). Boston jumped out to a 3-0 lead and closed out the 76ers in five games.

How is Boston succeeding without injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward? No NBA team goes far without talented players. The Celtics have Al Horford, a strong two-way player whose individual statistics often do not fully capture his impact on winning. The Celtics also have a rising corps of young, scrappy players such as Terry Rozier (24 years old), Jayson Tatum (20), Jaylen Brown (21) and Marcus Smart (24). Those five players--plus 28 year old Marcus Morris--lead a balanced scoring attack, with each player averaging at least 10.6 ppg during the playoffs but no player averaging more than Tatum's 18.8 ppg. That depth and versatility makes it difficult to stop the Celtics. The Celtics are also strong defensively, with several individual plus defenders and a very strong defensive game plan.

That game plan comes from the mind of Coach Brad Stevens, who Horford called a "genius" during the Philadelphia series. Stephens has emerged as one of the NBA's top coaches. Unlike even some of the other top coaches, Stephens is an adept strategist at both ends of the court. He is consistently able to accentuate his players' individual strengths while hiding their weaknesses.

Boston's success is not a fluke and the Celtics will not be an easy out for anyone.

Other things to consider: Conventional wisdom would favor the team with home court advantage--not only because having an extra game at home provides a significant edge but also because that team proved to be better and more consistent over the 82 game regular season schedule. While it may seem that the most important aspect of home court advantage is having a potential game seven at home, it should be noted that game one winners win an NBA playoff series about 80% of the time. The adage about a series not beginning until the road team wins is not statistically or historically correct. Boston earned home court advantage by being more consistent than Cleveland and if the Celtics capture the first two games at home then the Cavaliers will face a lot of pressure to not only "defend" home court but to also win a pivotal game five in Boston.

On the other hand, conventional wisdom would also favor the team that has the best player. James is obviously the best player in this series; some voices are now contending that James is the best player of all-time, a statement that is impossible to prove--but James is without question a member of pro basketball's Pantheon and he has been for quite some time.

A great basketball player can impact team success to a much larger extent than a great baseball player or a great football player but even the greatest players need at least some help to win a championship. This season the Cavaliers remade their roster more than once in an attempt to surround James with the right supporting cast. No matter which combinations they tried, the defense was subpar but that seems to have changed during the playoffs.

It is possible that the Cavaliers have figured everything out after a season marred by injuries, dissension and several roster moves. Coach Lue's current starting rotation of LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and George Hill did not play together during the regular season but was extremely effective versus the East-leading Raptors.

James may also be the modern-day Shaquille O'Neal; O'Neal was blessed with so much size and physical talent that he could, at times, coast during the regular season only to turn up his level during the postseason. While James had a very good regular season on paper, it was obvious that his effort and intensity were below par--especially on defense. The Cavaliers had a solid month when they actually performed better when he was not on the court, which is unheard of during James' career (and very unusual for an MVP level player).

If James is the modern-day O'Neal and if the Cavaliers have figured things out, then the Celtics could be in trouble. Picking a depleted Celtics team against a surging LeBron James may be foolish and may look ridiculous a week or two from now--but I just believe that the regular season means something, that building habits over an extended period of time matters and that the Celtics have been underrated all season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:38 PM

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Monday, April 30, 2018

Toronto Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Toronto (59-23) vs. #4 Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James has another superhuman playoff series (along the lines of 30-10-8 while shooting better than .500 from the field), Cleveland's supporting cast provides at least minimal support on offense and the Cavaliers reverse their-season long pattern of being horrible on defense.

The Cavaliers needed one of the best playoff series of LeBron James' career to sneak by the Indiana Pacers--a gutsy and gritty team but not a championship-contender. James averaged 34.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 7.7 apg (leading both teams in all three categories) while shooting .553 from the field in 41.2 mpg. He saved his best for last, scoring 45 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing seven assists as the Cavaliers won game seven, 105-101. That was James' third 40 point game of the series and just two points short of tying the highest scoring game seven performance ever (a mark shared by Sam Jones and Dominique Wilkins).

In game seven, James operated out of the post on many possessions and he proved to be almost unstoppable, either scoring at will or dishing to wide open teammates if the defense collapsed on him. James does not like playing in the post and it took him years to (1) learn the proper footwork and (2) be willing to play in the post but--as ABC's Jeff Van Gundy aptly put it during the game seven telecast--James may not like playing in the post but he likes winning and that is his team's best chance to win.

As great as James has been during his career, it is fair to wonder how much more he might have done had he been willing to play this way all along. Not that he could have averaged 45 ppg or anything like that, but consistently playing in the post with his size, scoring ability and passing vision/touch would have made James even greater than he has been.

In any case, it was a joy to watch how James performed in game seven. While basketball is a team sport, it is also a sport that allows great individual players to showcase their skills and even to sometimes triumph over a better all-around team. From players 2-15, the Pacers are probably better than the Cavaliers--but player 1 for Cleveland decided that he was not going to let his team lose.

James was not only active as a scorer, rebounder and passer but he was engaged defensively as well, something that had not been true for much of this season. James had four steals, passing Scottie Pippen to become the NBA's all-time playoff career steals leader. James now has 399 steals in 224 playoff games, while Pippen finished with 395 steals in 208 playoff games.

James' supporting cast had been missing in action for much of the series--Cleveland's only other double figure scorer was Kevin Love, who averaged 11.4 ppg on .338 field goal shooting--but they showed up in game seven. Coach Tyronn Lue put Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup after barely using Thompson in the first six games and Thompson responded well, producing 15 points, 10 rebounds and solid defense. Love chipped in 14 points and six rebounds, though he still shot poorly (5-13 from the field). J.R. Smith and George Hill--who missed three games versus Indiana due to back spasms--each scored 11 points.

Cleveland's main problem--which has not been fixed despite trades and lineup changes--is on defense. During the regular season, the Cavaliers ranked 26th in points allowed (109.9 ppg) and 28th in defensive field goal percentage (.474). Those numbers usually belong to teams in the Draft Lottery, not to teams that supposedly harbor legitimate championship aspirations.

Maybe the Cavaliers will figure things out at the last possible moment and go on a deep playoff run but that seems highly unlikely.
 
Toronto will win because…the Raptors are a deep, well-balanced and well-coached team that is well-equipped to exploit Cleveland's weaknesses.

When the season began, it was reasonable to assume that either Cleveland or Boston would win the East. Boston took the early lead in the conference even after losing Gordon Hayward for the season in game one, while Cleveland struggled out of the gate and never consistently looked like a title contender. Toronto started solidly but it was not until a late season 11 game winning streak that it became clear that not only would the Raptors finish with the East's best regular season record but they were a legitimate threat to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

The Raptors are strong at both ends of the court, ranking fourth in regular season scoring (111.7 ppg), seventh in field goal percentage (.472), sixth in points allowed (103.9 ppg) and fifth in defensive field goal percentage (.449).

DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring during the regular season (23.0 ppg) and he led the Raptors with a 26.7 ppg average in the first round of the playoffs as Toronto defeated Washington. He is the master of the now rarely-seen midrange game but he has also added the three point shot to his repertoire.

Kyle Lowry is the engine who makes the offense go (16.2 ppg and 6.9 apg in the regular season; 17.2 ppg and 8.3 apg in the first round of the playoffs).

Toronto's All-Star backcourt is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including center Jonas Valanciunas (13.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg versus Washington) and power forward Serge Ibaka; the Raptors closed last season on a 16-7 run after acquiring Ibaka and they earned the top seed in the East during his first full year with the team, so he has definitely had an impact in the standings even if his individual numbers are not always spectacular.

Other things to consider: Just looking at this series on paper, the Raptors would be an easy choice. There are only two reasons to remotely consider not picking Toronto: (1) The Raptors have never beaten the Cavaliers in the playoffs, so the moment/stage might be too big for them; (2) LeBron James has the ability to tilt a playoff series with his individual dominance. The Raptors answered the call in the first round, winning the first two games at home versus Washington to take a 2-0 lead--a significant accomplishment for a franchise that has historically struggled at home in game one of the playoffs. The Wizards won their next two home games but the Raptors closed out the series in six games with a pair of 10 point wins. This edition of the Raptors has not evidenced the playoff jitters that we have seen with previous Toronto teams, so the Raptors should be judged based on what they are doing now, not what they have done in the past.

Of course, in basketball the team with the best individual player usually has at least a puncher's chance. If James reels off several 40 point games while also playing lockdown defense, then the Raptors may have to devote so much attention to him that James' supporting cast will show some life. However, we have seen this Cleveland team for 82 regular season games plus seven playoff games (albeit in a few different iterations, but the team's performance level has been about the same); the Cavaliers are inattentive defensively and typically cannot score enough points against the good teams to make up for their defensive lapses. It is difficult to picture this version of the Cavaliers finding the wherewithal to beat the Raptors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:45 AM

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Boston Versus Philadelphia Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Boston (55-27) vs. #3 Philadelphia (52-30)

Season series: Boston, 3-1

Philadelphia can win if…the 76ers stick to the foundations that have taken them this far: outstanding team defense and rebounding, tremendous passing as a unit and then the individual brilliance of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who returned to the lineup for the final three games of the first round after being out due to an orbital fracture.

During the regular season, the 76ers ranked first in defensive field goal percentage (.434), first in rebounding (47.4 rpg) and second in assists (27.1 apg). They displayed toughness, physicality and unselfishness. The team improved throughout the season and survived the 18 regular season games missed by Embiid, who led the 76ers in scoring (22.9 ppg), rebounding (11.0 rpg) and blocked shots (1.8 bpg) despite playing just 30.3 mpg.

Ben Simmons, who likely will win the Rookie of the Year award, averaged 15.8 ppg, 8.2 apg and 8.1 rpg during the regular season. He is a throwback player who shoots a high percentage from the field (.545) while only attempting just 11 three pointers (none made) during the entire season. His rookie numbers are eerily similar to Magic Johnson's (18.0 ppg, 7.3 apg, 7.7 rpg, .530 FG%, 7-31 three point shooting)--but what made Magic special is that he led the Lakers to the championship that season and then led the Lakers to four more titles in the 1980s. Simmons averaged 18.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 9.0 apg while shooting .500 from the field as Philadelphia took care of Miami in five games in the first round.

J.J. Redick averaged a career-high 17.1 ppg during the regular season and he led the 76ers with 20.0 ppg in the first round of the playoffs. The defensive attention commanded by Simmons and Embiid obviously helps Redick a lot.

Marco Belineli, Dario Saric, Ersan Ilyasova and Robert Covington are all making excellent contributions.

Boston will win because…the Celtics are an outstanding defensive team that is better than the sum of its parts.

Al Horford led the Celtics in scoring (18.7 ppg) and rebounding (8.7 rpg) as Boston defeated Milwaukee in seven games. Jaylen Brown (17.9 ppg) and Terry Rozier (17.6 ppg) were Boston's next two leading scorers.

This may not be a "name-brand" roster but the Celtics can play. During the regular season they ranked second in defensive field goal percentage (.440), first in defensive three point field goal percentage (.339) and third in points allowed (100.4 ppg).

The Celtics are smart, tough and unselfish. They have consistently found ways to win even with their star players sidelined. During the first round, they held serve on their home court and almost won game four in Milwaukee before routing the Bucks 112-96 in Boston in game seven. It will not be easy for the 76ers to take a game in Boston during this series--and if the 76ers do, the Celtics could very well take one in Philadelphia to reclaim home court advantage.

Other things to consider: Both of these teams have had surprisingly good seasons. Few would have expected Boston to do so well after losing Gordon Hayward for the season due to an injury suffered in the opening moments of the first regular season game and even fewer would have expected Boston to make much noise after losing Kyrie Irving to injury prior to the playoffs. After firing Sam Hinkie in 2016, the 76ers finally stopped their seemingly endless tanking and emerged in the second half of this season as a legitimate playoff team. It is important to understand that the so-called "Process" did not make the 76ers good; firing Hinkie and replacing him with a real basketball executive (two-time NBA Executive of the Year award winner Bryan Colangelo) is what turned the 76ers around.

The 76ers closed the regular season with a franchise-record 16 game winning streak and they blitzed an overmatched Miami squad in the first round but dealing with Boston will be a different matter. Philadelphia may actually be more talented on paper but Boston's collective productivity--and having game seven at home, if necessary--will make the difference in what should be a competitive and exciting series that will probably go the full seven games.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the historical note that this is one of the NBA's greatest rivalries. The Celtics and 76ers battled against each other in the 1960s--led by Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain respectively (they also squared off earlier in the decade when Chamberlain played for the Philadelphia Warriors before the franchise moved to California)--and they faced off in a seven game series in 1977 (led by John Havlicek and Julius Erving respectively) before Julius Erving and Larry Bird competed against each other in four Eastern Conference Finals during the 1980s.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:03 AM

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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Houston Versus Utah Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#1 Houston (65-17) vs. #5 Utah (48-34)

Season series: Houston, 4-0

Utah can win if…the Jazz contain Houston's three point attack, force the Rockets to drive into the paint and then rely on Rudy Gobert to protect the rim. Donovan Mitchell scored 171 points in his first six playoff games as a rookie, a total exceeded by only Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Mitchell averaged a team-high 28.5 ppg in Utah's six game series versus Oklahoma City and he made 10 field goals in a row down the stretch of game six to hold off the Thunder. He is a special player who has a diverse offensive skill set plus the right mentality.

Gobert is a great presence in the paint. He averaged 14.0 ppg on .612 field goal shooting versus the Thunder, while also posting 11.2 rpg and 2.0 bpg.

Point guard Ricky Rubio, who was not able to finish game six due to a hamstring injury, is the catalyst for Utah's offense, a good rebounder and a stout defender. His healthy return is critical if the Jazz are going to have any chance to pull off the upset.

Joe Ingles' regular season numbers do not stand out (11.5 ppg, 4.8 apg) but he gave the Thunder fits with his driving, his clever passing and his three point shooting.

The Jazz are not an ordinary fifth seed. They went 29-6 to close out the regular season and they actually had the same win total as the Thunder (48), so they are not a team that Houston should take lightly.

Houston will win because…the Rockets just have too much offensive firepower for the Jazz to contain. Daryl Morey's dream of constructing a team that shoots almost nothing but three pointers, dunks/layups and free throws has come true under the coaching of Mike D'Antoni. The Rockets made 75 three pointers in their five game first round victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who connected 45 times from beyond the arc and could not generate enough offense elsewhere to make up the difference.

James Harden led the way with series-high averages in scoring (29.0 ppg) and assists (7.4 apg). As always, he is a high variance player: he had 44 points on 15-26 field goal shooting in a game one win and then he only scored 12 points on 2-18 field goal shooting as his teammates carried the Rockets to a game two victory. Until I see it happen, I will remain skeptical that a player who is that inconsistent--no matter how well he can play at his best--will lead a team to a championship, but Harden is 12 wins away from proving me wrong.

Chris Paul averaged 19.0 ppg, 6.6 apg and 4.0 rpg against Minnesota. He is a deadly midrange shooter, a crafty driver, a clever passer and a bulldog defensive player. He tends to wear down as the playoffs progress, so that will be something to watch, but his defensive mindset has helped the Rockets significantly and elevated them to the top of the league thus far.

Clint Capela (15.0 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 2.0 bpg versus Minnesota) is the perfect big man for D'Antoni's system: he sets great screens, he rolls hard to the basket, he rebounds, he defends and he does not clog the middle on offense, thus leaving room for Harden and Paul to do their thing.

Eric Gordon did not shoot well during the first round (.344 FG%) but his scoring off of the bench and underrated defense are an important part of Houston's success.

Other things to consider: The Jazz have performed much better than expected after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency and they appear to be a team to watch in the future. Mitchell is performing at an All-NBA level, Gobert's defense is a major factor and Ingles has emerged as a quality secondary playmaker, finishing second on the team in scoring (14.2 ppg) and second on the team in assists (3.2 apg) in the first round. Rubio is a poor shooter (.354 FG% in the first round) but he played a significant role in Utah's victory (14.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, team-high 7.0 apg) and if he can make a healthy return then Utah may have a puncher's chance at upsetting Houston.

On paper, the Rockets should win the championship. They posted the league's best regular season record by a country mile, they are healthy, they have a backcourt consisting of the presumptive regular season MVP and a future first ballot Hall of Famer and they have a deep cast of good players who understand/accept their roles. The elephant in the room is that Harden, Paul and D'Antoni all have a history of underperforming in the playoffs.

I am picking Houston because that is the most logical choice but I will never be surprised if a Harden/Paul/D'Antoni team loses in the second round of the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:44 AM

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Golden State Versus New Orleans Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Golden State (58-24) vs. #6 New Orleans (47-35)

Season series: Golden State, 3-1

New Orleans can win if…Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday continue to play at an elite level offensively and if the Pelicans can slow down the Warriors' high octane offense.

The sixth seeded Pelicans only won two fewer games than the third seeded Portland Trailblazers, so perhaps it is not shocking that New Orleans won that first round series--but it is shocking that the Pelicans swept the Trailblazers with an average margin of victory of nine points.

I picked Portland to win that series in six games, so the gap between what I predicted and what actually happened is probably as large as it has ever been in a series not impacted by injuries to significant players.

What happened and why was I so wrong? While New Orleans' average margin of victory was lopsided, the series was close in many ways; the teams had the same number of rebounds (174) and steals (33) and Portland only had four more turnovers (58-54). Three areas that jump out are field goal percentage (.521 to .453 in New Orleans' favor), free throws made/attempted (68/87 to 49/63 in New Orleans' favor) and blocked shots (26 to 15 in New Orleans' favor). New Orleans feasted on high percentage shots and drew a lot of shooting fouls (Portland only committed four more fouls than New Orleans despite the large disparity in free throws made and free throws attempted), while Portland had great difficulty creating or making good shots.

Anthony Davis led the way for New Orleans in scoring (33.0 ppg), rebounds (12.0 rpg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg). He also shot .570 from the field and tied for the team lead with 1.8 spg. Often, the biggest concern for a higher seeded team is that the lower seeded team has that one superstar player who will not be denied and that is a big part of why New Orleans prevailed.

However, Davis had a lot of help. Jrue Holiday averaged 27.8 ppg and 6.5 apg while shooting .568 from the field. Holiday never remotely approached those numbers in his three previous playoff appearances and those numbers easily exceed his career-high averages (19.0 ppg, .494 FG%) in 81 games during the 2017-18 regular season.

The often-maligned Rajon Rondo showed that "Playoff Rondo" is not just an urban legend, as he averaged 11.3 ppg, a series-high 13.3 apg and 7.5 rpg. Rondo may not be a great shooter and he may have a difficult personality at times but there is no denying his high basketball IQ or how hard he competes.

Meanwhile, Portland's backcourt featuring three-time All-Star Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum came up short. Lillard struggled mightily, averaging just 18.5 ppg on .352 field goal shooting while committing a series-high 16 turnovers. McCollum played well (25.3 ppg, .519 FG%) but did not keep pace with the less-heralded Holiday.

Al-Farouq Aminu had a solid series for Portland (17.3 ppg, team-high 9.0 rpg) but no one had an answer for Davis and no one picked up the slack for the slumping Lillard.

Of course, it is one thing to shut down Lillard and quite another thing to deal with the multiple high caliber offensive weapons that Golden State brings into battle.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors have many more defensive answers than Portland did in the first round and the Warriors' offensive attack is too potent for the Pelicans to contain.

The Warriors took out the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs 4-1, despite not having the services of Stephen Curry, the 2015 and 2016 regular season MVP who has been out of action since suffering a grade two MCL strain in his left knee on March 23. It is not clear when Curry will return to action, though it is reasonable to assume that he will be available for at least limited duty at some point during this series.

The Warriors have an embarrassment of riches. Veteran Andre Iguodala, the former All-Star and 2015 NBA Finals MVP, replaced Curry in the starting lineup versus the Spurs; as is often the case with Iguodala, his individual numbers do not jump off of the page but he made winning plays as the quintessential "glue guy."

Kevin Durant's numbers almost always jump off the page and the first round was no exception: team-high 28.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5.2 apg, .480 FG%, .946 FT%. Klay Thompson scored 22.6 ppg while shooting .529 from the field and a team-high .516 from three point range. Draymond Green flirted with a triple double average (11.4 ppg, plus a series-high 11.2 rpg and a series-high 8.0 apg), while the Warriors received excellent contributions off the bench from Shaun Livingston and JaVale McGee.

The Warriors' offense--with or without Curry--will pose a significantly greater challenge for New Orleans than Portland's limited attack but the real key to this series (and Golden State's sustained run of success) will be the Warriors' defense. Davis is a great player who can put up numbers against just about any defense but it is doubtful that he will maintain both his scoring average and his field goal percentage from the previous series. If necessary, Thompson will guard Holiday and not let him run wild.

I have seen/heard some suggestions that the Pelicans could pose a real threat to the Warriors but I expect the Warriors to win in five games.

Other things to consider: The Warriors may be the most "under the radar" dynasty in NBA history. Last season, they capped off the best three year regular season run in pro basketball history, with 207 wins during that time span. The Warriors also won two titles and have an excellent chance to become the first team to take three NBA titles in a four year span since the L.A. Lakers "three-peated" from 2000-2002.

In my Golden State-Utah preview during last year's playoffs, I compared the Warriors to several of the NBA's previous dynasties. I ranked Russell's Celtics, the '67 Sixers, the '72 Lakers, the '82 Lakers, the '83 Sixers, the Bulls' "three-peat" teams and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers over the Warriors, while also stating that the '84-'86 Celtics and '87-'89 Lakers "could match the Warriors star for star."

For single season dominance--particularly during their playoff runs--I would still take the '67 Lakers, '72 Lakers, '82 Lakers and '83 Sixers over any edition of the Warriors. If the Warriors win a third title, they clearly move into a different category from teams that won one title--no matter how dominant they were during that one season--and deserve to be compared in depth with the squads that sustained championship excellence for several years. I am still not convinced that I would take the Warriors over Russell's Celtics, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers--but a third championship enables the Warriors to at least legitimately enter those conversations.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:02 AM

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Friday, April 13, 2018

2017-18 Playoff Predictions

Before I make my annual playoff predictions, I will offer some comments about the 2017-18 NBA season.

This season's biggest story is the Houston Rockets, who finished with the best record in the league by far--65-17, six games ahead of the Toronto Raptors and seven games ahead of the defending champion Golden State Warriors. To put that in perspective, in each of the last two seasons, the Warriors finished six games ahead of the rest of the league.

The Rockets had a better season than I--or just about anyone else--expected or predicted. Much of the praise and attention is focused on James Harden, the presumptive regular season MVP. Harden had an exceptional season: he won his first scoring title by averaging a career-high 30.4 ppg and he ranked third in assists (8.8 apg). However, Harden has put up big numbers before and that has not led to this much team success.

The big difference for Houston is team defense. The Rockets are mediocre in defensive field goal percentage (.462, 16th in the league) but they force a lot of turnovers and thus they have vastly improved in points allowed: last season the Rockets ranked 26th out of 30 teams in points allowed but this season the Rockets vaulted to sixth in the league in that category. Mike D'Antoni-coached teams are always going to push the ball, score a lot of points and shoot a lot of three pointers but this may be the first D'Antoni team that takes defense seriously.

There is still a misconception in some quarters that Golden State's recent success is somehow a vindication of D'Antoni's "Seven Second or Less" Phoenix Suns teams--but, in fact, the Warriors took a much different approach. D'Antoni's Suns just tried to outscore teams and were largely indifferent to defense, while the Warriors individually and collectively are great defensively.

Chris Paul has always been a feisty, combative and effective defensive player despite his small statute. His mentality has had an impact in Houston, along with the addition of other tough-minded defensive players such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Clint Capela has blossomed into an All-Star caliber center for this era, a mobile big who runs to the rim on offense and who rebounds/plays defense.

The Rockets have shown over 82 games that they have enough talent to win it all. It will be very interesting to see how they do in the playoffs, especially considering the less than stellar postseason resumes of D'Antoni, Harden and Paul.

The second biggest story of the season is the under the radar individual excellence of Russell Westbrook, who won the 2017 regular season MVP after becoming the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season. Westbrook just pulled off an even more impressive accomplishment: he averaged a triple double for the 2018 regular season to become the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double in consecutive seasons (or two seasons at all).

I picked Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder to finish third in the West, so their fourth place finish in a very competitive conference is not terrible or surprising but some people talk like this team is a major disappointment. The reality is that last season Westbrook absolutely carried a talent-bereft team to the sixth seed in the West and this season he carried a more talented but still flawed team to the fourth seed. While the Thunder only added one win to their 2017 total, their relative standing in the conference improved.

Westbrook averaged 25.4 ppg (seventh in the NBA), 10.2 apg (first in the NBA and his fourth straight top four finish--not bad for a player often derided for allegedly not keeping his teammates involved) and 10.1 rpg (tenth in the NBA for the second year in a row, a remarkable feat for a 6-4 point guard). Westbrook improved his FG% from .425 last season to .449 this season, though his three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage both declined (from .343 to .298 and .845 to a career-low .737 respectively).

Westbrook is understandably resentful that he has been accused of artificially chasing certain statistics: "A lot of people make jokes about whatever, stat-padding or going to get rebounds. If people could get 20 rebounds every night, they would. If people could get 15 rebounds, they would. People that's talking or saying whatever they need to say, they should try doing it and see how hard it is. Since everybody wants to be talking, I'm tired of hearing the same old rebound this, stealing rebounds, all this (stuff).  I take pride in what I do. I come out and play, and I get the ball faster than someone else gets to it. That's what it is. If you don't want it, I'm gonna get it. Simple as that."

Westbrook's teams have always performed much better when he gets a triple double than when he does not, so even if it were true that Westbrook is "chasing" numbers that alleged "chase" has helped his team; the Thunder went 20-5 this season when Westbrook posted a triple double and 28-29 when he did not. In other words, when Westbrook is not playing at an Oscar Robertson Pantheon level, the Thunder are just a mediocre team.

The third biggest story is the unexpected rise of the Toronto Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Raptors went 51-31 last season before being swept in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers and it seemed as if Toronto's contending window was closing or closed. Instead, the Raptors posted the best record in franchise history (59-23) and secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history. Fringe MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan led the way but he had a lot of help from a deep and versatile supporting cast. There will be justifiable skepticism about this team until it proves that it can maintain this performance level in the playoffs but the front office, coaching staff and players deserve credit for an outstanding season.

The fourth biggest story is the puzzling Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished fourth in the East despite the gaudy statistics posted by the seemingly ageless LeBron James. Ever since James returned to Cleveland, it has been obvious that he has a major say in the composition of the coaching staff and the roster. James always has "his" guys. Yet, the Cavaliers stumbled through this season while playing some of the worst defense ever for a team that fancies itself to be a championship contender. James' individual numbers look great (27.5 ppg, career-high 9.1 apg, 8.7 rpg) but his defensive effort has been subpar for most of the season and the Cavaliers actually went through a lengthy stretch of games during which they performed better when he was on the bench than when he was on the court.

James' extended run of individual greatness and team success is incredible but this has been an odd season in an often paradoxical career; James is so talented that he can consistently put up tremendous numbers regardless of circumstances (including age, injuries to his teammates, etc.) but team success does not always result from his efforts. He has been a dominant player on stacked teams for most of his career, so winning three championships is both an accomplishment but also perhaps something short of what should be expected of him.

Here are my first round predictions:

As noted above, the Toronto Raptors had a great season but in the past four years (since they became a playoff contender after missing the postseason for five straight years) they have only made it past the second round once. The Washington Wizards seemed to be poised to be one of the East's top teams but chemistry issues and an injury that caused All-Star John Wall to miss 41 games pushed them to the bottom of the conference's playoff pack. The Wizards went 2-2 against the Raptors during the season. Wall's late season return could make this series interesting but ultimately the Raptors are a well-balanced and focused team while the Wizards play in fits and spurts. Toronto will win in six games.

After finishing with the best record in the East last season, the Boston Celtics did a major overhaul with the goal of assembling a roster that can beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. Newly acquired Gordon Hayward went down with a season-ending injury in the opening moments of the first game but the Celtics still had the best record in the East for most of the year before being passed by Toronto. Losing All-Star Kyrie Irving for the stretch run and the entire postseason is a devastating blow but Boston is a well-coached, fundamentally sound team that should be able to get past a young Milwaukee team that features rising star Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.8 apg) but ranked last in the league in rebounding and is not stout enough defensively to win a playoff series. The Celtics will win in five games.

Let's get one thing straight. The Philadelphia 76ers have not proved that tanking works; they only started to become good after they fired the tanking guru and put a real GM in charge of the team. That GM--Bryan Colangelo, the NBA's Executive of the Year in 2005 and 2007--changed the franchise's losing culture and assembled a legitimate NBA roster. The 76ers went 52-30 this season and set a franchise record by closing the campaign with a 16 game winning streak, breaking the mark set by the 1983 NBA championship team led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Pump the brakes on the idea that this team is even close to being as good as that team, though; it is sad to say that at least six of those 16 wins came against teams that are tanking at least as much as the 76ers were just a few years ago.

The 76ers' first round opponent, the Miami Heat, remain an inconsistent and hard to figure squad. Last season the Heat started out 11-30 and closed 30-11 to miss the playoffs on a tiebreaker. This season, the Heat--with a playoff berth at stake--limped to a 12-9 finish but ended up with the sixth seed thanks to even more desultory closing runs by the Wizards and Bucks. The 76ers and Heat split their season series 2-2 but on paper the surging 76ers should make quick work of the Heat; the one caveat is that the 76ers lack any meaningful playoff experience. The 76ers will win in six games.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the worst defensive team in the playoffs. The Indiana Pacers are perhaps the most surprising team in the East and they handled the Cavaliers 3-1 in the regular season. All that is well and good but do you want to pick against LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs? I don't. The Cavaliers will have some embarrassing defensive lapses but they will beat the Pacers in six games.

The final seedings in the Western Conference were not determined until the last day of the regular season. The Rockets had already lapped the field a while ago and the Warriors were safely ahead of the  rest of the pack but teams 3-8 finished two wins apart, with three teams tying at 47-35 and two others going 48-34.

Houston manhandled Minnesota in the regular season, sweeping the series 4-0. I don't trust D'Antoni, Harden and Paul in the playoffs but I am not foolish enough to think that an eighth seed that needed an overtime win on the last day of the season to even make the playoffs is going to threaten them. The playoff history of Houston's main trio is so checkered that I would not be surprised if they stumble out of the gate and lose one of their first two home games but the Rockets are so much better than the Timberwolves that even if that happens it will not change the outcome of the series. Houston will win in four games.

A healthy and focused San Antonio team is a serious threat to the Golden State Warriors, as we saw during last year's playoffs before Golden State's de facto playoff MVP Zaza Pachulia delivered a cheap shot to Kawhi Leonard from which the Spurs still have not recovered. The Warriors took the season series 3-1 and they will beat the Spurs in five games.

During last year's playoffs, Portland was first round 4-0 roadkill for the Golden State Warriors but this season the Trailblazers seized the third seed and homecourt advantage in the first round. New Orleans' Anthony Davis has been on a tear since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles but Davis has exactly zero playoff game wins so far in his career; that run of futility figures to end soon: he will get a win against Portland (and probably two) but not four. Portland will beat New Orleans in six games.

In one game, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a threat to anyone, including the Rockets and Warriors. Unfortunately, the Thunder often play down to their competition and they close games about as smoothly as a jalopy going uphill after a wheel fell off. If Carmelo Anthony or Paul George are isolated at the end of a playoff game with the Thunder trailing, I am turning the TV off; if George and Anthony do what they are supposed to do--carry some weight in the first three quarters so that the Thunder can build and maintain a lead without running Westbrook into the ground--then the Thunder could make some noise. Westbrook will play hard 100% of the time--which should go without saying about all NBA players but sadly does not go without saying--but I just don't trust this squad when the chips are down. However, homecourt advantage and some late heroics by Westbrook should be enough for the Thunder to beat the Jazz in seven games.

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Thus, I expect the second round matchups to be Toronto-Cleveland, Boston-Philadelphia, Houston-Oklahoma City and Golden State-Portland. The Cavaliers have eliminated the Raptors in the playoffs the past two years, winning eight of the 10 games, but it is hard to picture a team as bad defensively as Cleveland making it past the second round. The caveat, of course, is that James and the Cavaliers are capable of flipping the switch like no other team. This series is a great opportunity for Toronto, though. James has a long track record of quitting as an underdog when physical and/or psychological pressure is placed on him. If Toronto takes care of business at home in the first two games then the Raptors could advance and that is what I expect will happen.

If the Thunder can get a split in Houston then they can really put pressure on D'Antoni, Harden and Paul--but the Thunder will probably go down 0-2, rally to tie the series and then fall in six games. I never thought that I would pick a D'Antoni-Harden-Paul squad to get past the second round but this seems to be their year.

Boston-Philadelphia is one of the NBA's great historic rivalries. This looks like it will be a seven game war but I like Boston’s defense and veteran toughness making the difference in game seven at home.

Golden State should be at full strength by the second round and that is too much for Portland, who will fight valiantly before falling.

The conference finals--the NBA's version of the Final Four, though no one calls it that--will be fun as always. A full strength Boston team probably would have won the East this year but with both of their All-Stars sidelined the Celtics' playoff run will end in Toronto.

Houston should beat Golden State. The Rockets have homecourt advantage, they have health (barring something unforeseen happening) and they should be more hungry than the two-time champions--but I just cannot pick D'Antoni-Harden-Paul to win a conference finals until I see it happen.

The Warriors are gunning for their third championship in four years but it seems like they have almost been an afterthought this season. They will not be an afterthought after they beat Toronto in six games in the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant will capture his second straight Finals MVP.

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Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2017-2018 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2017-2018 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2017: East 5/8, West 7/8
2016: East 5/8, West 6/8
2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 77/104 in the East and 83/104 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .769.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2017: 14/15
2016: 12/15
2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 147/195 (.754)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 13 years I have correctly picked 15 of the 26 NBA Finals participants. In five of those 13 years (including 2016 and 2017) I got both teams right and twice I got both teams right and predicted the correct result (2007, 2017). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began three times: 2007, 2013, 2017.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM

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Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Revising the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, Part II

In 2008, Athlon Sports published a list of the 50 Greatest Pro Basketball Players, ranking each player in order and providing a one sentence summary of each player's accomplishments. Here is Athlon's list (an asterisk indicates that the player was not on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List):

1) Michael Jordan
2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3) Bill Russell
4) Wilt Chamberlain
5) Oscar Robertson
6) Magic Johnson
7) Larry Bird
8) Jerry West
9) Karl Malone
10) Elgin Baylor
11) Bob Pettit
12) John Havlicek
13) Shaquille O'Neal
14) Hakeem Olajuwon
15) Tim Duncan*
16) George Mikan
17) Kobe Bryant*
18) Julius Erving
19) Moses Malone
20) Bob Cousy
21) John Stockton
22) Kevin Garnett*
23) Charles Barkley
24) Dolph Schayes
25) Rick Barry
26) Scottie Pippen
27) Isiah Thomas
28) David Robinson
29) Elvin Hayes
30) Allen Iverson*
31) Bob McAdoo*
32) Nate Archibald
33) Dave Bing
34) Bill Sharman
35) Billy Cunningham
36) Kevin McHale
37) Dave Cowens
38) Walt Frazier
39) Jason Kidd*
40) George Gervin
41) Patrick Ewing
42) Clyde Drexler
43) Willis Reed
44) Pete Maravich
45) Gary Payton*
46) George McGinnis*
47) Connie Hawkins*
48) Paul Arizin
49) Dennis Rodman*
50) Walt Bellamy*

Thus, Athlon's added Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Bob McAdoo, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, George McGinnis, Connie Hawkins, Dennis Rodman and Walt Bellamy to the list and did not include Dave DeBusschere, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Robert Parish, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, James Worthy and Lenny Wilkens from the NBA's 1996 list.

This article will not reevaluate the entire 50 Greatest Players List but will only compare the 11 players Athlon's added to the 11 players Athlon's did not include. Keep in mind that Athlon's list is from 10 years ago, before LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook had won a single MVP or championship. The Top 50 candidacies of those players--and other players of more recent vintage, including Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade--will be discussed in a future article in this series.

Duncan and Bryant had not entered the NBA when the original list was selected. Garnett had just completed his rookie season and Iverson was just starting his rookie season. This raises an interesting question: Is there some "magic" number of players who should be included on a greatest players list or should the list size continue to grow as the league gets older and more great players complete their careers?

This is a subjective question and my subjective answer is that any greatest players list that is larger than 100 is a bit too large to wrap one's mind around as a fan and probably a bit too large to properly construct as an analyst. My inclination is that 50 is not a "magic number"--it was only chosen originally because the NBA was celebrating its 50th anniversary--but it is a good number and that there is nothing wrong with Pantheon-level players like Duncan and Bryant knocking some players off of the list. However, I also do not have a serious problem with pushing the list to 75 or even 100.

In Part I of this series, I listed four methodologies that should be used in no particular order to compare players from different eras:

1) How great was a particular player in his own era?
2) How highly does a player rank overall in key statistical categories?
3) Based on a skill set evaluation, how well would a player have performed in a different era when facing different rules and circumstances?
4) Did the player have a historical impact on the game, in terms of forcing rules changes and/or influencing shifts in style of play?

Using those standards (or just about any other standards, for that matter), the inclusion of Duncan and Bryant is obvious and indisputable.  

Duncan won two regular season MVPs (2002-03; he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting nine times), three Finals MVPs (1999, 2003, 2005), one All-Star Game MVP (2000) and the 1998 Rookie of the Year award. He made the All-NBA Team 15 times (tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant for the most all-time), including 10 First Team selections. Duncan made the All-Defensive Team a record 15 times, including eight First Team selections. He also made the All-Star team 15 times.

Duncan ranks seventh all-time in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (15,091), sixth all-time in ABA/NBA regular season blocked shots (3020), sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff points scored (5172), third all-time in ABA/NBA playoff rebounds (2859) and first all-time in ABA/NBA playoff blocked shots (568). Blocked shots have only been an official statistic for the NBA since 1973-74; the ABA began tracking blocked shots in 1972-73.

Duncan could score in the post or facing the basket within 15-18 feet. He was an excellent screener and a very good passer. Duncan was a top notch defender and rebounder. Perhaps his only skill set weakness was free throw shooting (.696 career free throw percentage, including four seasons below .640).

Duncan did not force rules changes or influence shifts in style of play but he was the centerpiece of one of pro basketball’s most dominant franchises for nearly two decades, playing a major role on five San Antonio championship teams (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014).

Bryant won one regular season MVP (2008; he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting 11 times), two Finals MVPs (2009-10) and a record-tying four All-Star Game MVPs (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011). He won two regular season scoring titles (2006-07) and he led the league in playoff scoring average three times (2003, 2007-08). Bryant made the All-NBA Team 15 times (tied for the most all-time), including 11 First Team selections (tied for the most all-time with Karl Malone and LeBron James). Bryant made the All-Defensive Team 12 times, including nine Frist Team selections (tied for the most all-time with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett). He made the All-Star team 18 times, second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19).

Bryant ranks third all-time in ABA/NBA regular season scoring (33,643 points), fourth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff points (5640), ninth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1040) and sixth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff steals (310). Steals have only been an official statistic for the NBA since 1973-74; the ABA began tracking steals in 1972-73.

Bryant is one of the few players in pro basketball history who had no skill set weaknesses. He could
score in the post, facing the basket or off the dribble. He was an excellent free throw shooter and a great passer who excelled at drawing double teams; even when he did not make the pass that led directly to the basket, his presence often tilted the defense to create the scoring opportunity. Bryant was an elite defender for most of his career and he was an excellent rebounder for his position.

Bryant's combination of high level athleticism grounded in solid fundamentals emulated Michael Jordan. Some people criticized Bryant for copying Jordan but why not copy someone who has a similar body type and is the greatest ever at that position (and arguably the greatest player of all-time)? Bryant was an All-NBA level performer for five championship teams (2000-02, 2009-10), plus two other teams that advanced to the NBA Finals (2004, 2008).

Kevin Garnett did not dominate to the same extent that Duncan or Bryant did but he is a worthy addition to the 50 Greatest Players List. Garnett won the 2004 regular season MVP and he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting five times. He won the 2003 All-Star Game MVP and was selected as the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. Garnett made the All-NBA Team nine times, including four First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team 12 times, including a record-tying nine First Team selections. Garnett was a 15-time All-Star. He won four regular season rebounding titles (2004-07).

Garnett ranks 10th all-time in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (14,662).

Garnett's greatest skill set strengths were defense and rebounding. He also had a very high motor and his energy/enthusiasm could be contagious. Garnett had a reliable face up jumper out to 15-18 feet. He could score in the post but he was not a dominant post player and he preferred to face the basket. Garnett was an outstanding screener and a good passer. Garnett needed more help around him to win a championship than Duncan or Bryant did but when Garnett had that help his Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA title and advanced to the 2010 NBA Finals.

Although Garnett was not a three point shooter, his versatility and his preference to play facing the basket from the power forward position presaged to some extent the “stretch four” role that has now become prevalent in the NBA.

Allen Iverson should not be a controversial selection but some people may balk at adding him to the list because of his off-court controversies and/or because his playing style did not translate well in terms of "advanced basketball statistics." Iverson won the 2001 regular season MVP, he ranked in the top five in MVP balloting three times and he won two All-Star Game MVPs (2001, 2005). Iverson won the 1997 Rookie of the Year award. He captured four regular season scoring titles (1999, 2001-02, 05) and he ranks seventh in ABA/NBA regular season scoring average (26.7 ppg). Iverson also led the league in playoff scoring twice (1999, 2005) and he ranks second to Michael Jordan in ABA/NBA playoff scoring average (29.7 ppg). Iverson made the All-NBA Team seven times, including three First Team selections. Iverson was an 11-time All-Star.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Iverson's career is his durability, which is even more incredible considering that he was listed at 6-0, 165 pounds. Iverson ranks fourth in ABA/NBA regular season mpg (41.1) behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. Iverson led the NBA in regular season mpg seven times (1999, 2002-04, 06-08), a mark exceeded only by Chamberlain’s nine. Iverson averaged 45.1 mpg in the playoffs, third behind Chamberlain and Russell, and he led the NBA in playoff mpg three times (1999, 2001, 05).

In addition to his durability, Iverson's greatest skill set strength was his ability to relentlessly attack the basket to score, get fouled or draw so much defensive attention that his missed shots were--as Doug Collins astutely pointed out--essentially assists that enabled his teammates to have easy putbacks. He was not a great three point shooter but he could hit them in the clutch at times. Iverson was an underrated passer who averaged 6.2 apg during his career and who four times ranked in the top 10 in assists. Iverson was not a great one on one defender but he excelled in playing the passing lanes; he ranks 10th all-time in ABA/NBA regular season steals per game (2.2). Iverson was a solid rebounder considering his size and the other responsibilities that he shouldered.

Iverson's personal style and attitude carried significant cultural influence, plus his ability to excel in the NBA at his size inspired many of the players who came after him. He would thrive even more in today's era of drive and kick basketball during which handchecking is not permitted.

Bob McAdoo won the 1975 NBA regular season MVP and he finished in the top five in MVP balloting three times. He was the only player who had won an NBA regular season MVP as of 1996 who was not selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. I would not say that winning a regular season MVP should automatically qualify a player for top 50 status but I would say that a player who was the best player in the league during a given season should probably make the cut provided that he sustained excellence for a reasonable period of time; McAdoo certainly fits that description and he should have been on the original list.

McAdoo was an elite player in the mid-1970s, winning three straight scoring titles (1974-76) and making the All-Star team five consecutive times (1974-78). He won the 1973 Rookie of the Year Award and he earned two All-NBA selections, including a First Team nod in 1975.

He bounced around to a few different teams in the middle of his career before becoming a valuable sixth man for two L.A. Lakers' championship teams (1982, 85). Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers to five championships during the Showtime era, has stated that the Lakers would not have won the 1982 and 1985 titles without McAdoo’s contributions at both ends of the court.

Stylistically, McAdoo was a hybrid big forward/small center who had tremendous shooting range. The NBA did not adopt the three point shot until midway through his career and the trey did not feature as a prominent weapon in the league until after McAdoo retired but his ability to operate facing the basket on offense combined with his mobility and his ability to defend multiple positions mean that he would be a prototype "stretch four" in the modern game.

Jason Kidd shared the 1995 Rookie of the Year award with Grant Hill. He never won a regular season MVP but he placed in the top five twice, including a second place finish to Duncan in 2002. Kidd made the All-NBA Team six times, including five First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team nine times, including four First Team selections. Kidd was a 10-time All-Star.

Kidd led the NBA in assists five times (1999-01, 2003-04) and he ranks eighth in ABA/NBA regular season apg (8.7). He also ranks second in ABA/NBA regular season assists (12,091). Kidd ranks fourth all-time in ABA/NBA playoff assists (1263), trailing only Magic Johnson, John Stockton and LeBron James. He is second in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2684) and seventh in ABA/NBA playoff steals (302).

Kidd resurrected a moribund Nets franchise, leading the team to consecutive NBA Finals (2002, 03). He was a key contributor for the 2011 Dallas Mavericks team that upset the favored Miami Heat in the Finals.

Kidd showed remarkable skill set development during his career. The player who was derisively called "Ason" because he had no "J" transformed himself into a very good three point shooter while also elevating his free throw percentage from the high .600s to the high .700s/low .800s. Kidd was always a superb playmaker and top notch defensive player. Above all, Kidd was a winner who consistently helped his teams improve, while teams that he left consistently got worse.

Gary Payton's career largely overlapped Kidd's and for several years they battled for the unofficial title as the league's best point guard. Payton never won a regular season MVP but he placed in the top five once and he finished sixth five times. Payton made the All-NBA Team nine times, including two First Team selections. He made the All-Defensive Team nine times, each time receiving First Team honors (tied for the most all-time First Team selections). Payton won the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year award, the same season that he led the league in steals for the only time. Payton made the All-Star team nine times.

Payton ranks eighth in ABA/NBA regular season assists (8966) and he finished in the top 10 in apg in seven seasons. He ranks fourth in ABA/NBA regular season steals (2445).

He was a below average free throw shooter and outside shooter. Payton's main strength was his tremendous defense. He was also a good playmaker and a capable scorer who was an outstanding postup player at 6-4. Payton was a solid rebounder who averaged a career-high 6.5 rpg in 1999-00 but never averaged more than 5 rpg in any other season. He helped lead Seattle to the 1996 Finals. He started--but did not play well--for the Lakers team that lost in the 2004 Finals. Payton rode Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to the 2006 title, averaging just 5.8 ppg on .422 field goal shooting during Miami's playoff run that season (though Payton did make a couple big plays).

Payton was a flashier player than Kidd and a more explosive scorer but Kidd was the superior all-around player and he had a bigger impact on winning. A valid case could be made to add Payton to the 50 Greatest Players List but a valid case could also be made to not include him; Athlon's ranked Payton 45th and I would not place him any higher than that.

George McGinnis shared the 1975 ABA regular season MVP with Julius Erving and he finished in the top five in MVP balloting three times. McGinnis won the 1973 ABA Playoff MVP award. He made the All-ABA or All-NBA Team five times, including three First Team selections. McGinnis made the ABA or NBA All-Star team six times and he won the 1975 ABA regular season scoring title (29.8 ppg).

McGinnis played a major role on two Indiana ABA championship teams (1972-73) and on the Philadelphia team that advanced to the 1977 NBA Finals. He was a dominant player in the ABA and a very good player for several NBA seasons but his performance level dropped dramatically at the age of 29. By the age of 31 he was out of the league. In terms of peak value, a credible Top 50 case can be made for McGinnis but his overall body of work is not quite good enough to make the cut.

Connie Hawkins had Top 50 talent without question but he was blackballed from the NBA during a significant portion of his prime. He began his professional career with the Harlem Globetrotters and then he enjoyed a brief but very successful run in the ABA, winning the 1968 regular season and Playoff MVP awards while leading the Pittsburgh Pipers to the league's inaugural championship. Hawkins won the regular season scoring title (26.8 ppg) that year and he also led the league in playoff scoring (29.9 ppg).

An injury limited Hawkins to 47 games in his second ABA season, by which time he had settled a lawsuit that enabled him to jump to the NBA. Hawkins made a sensational NBA debut in 1969-70, earning All-NBA First Team honors and finishing fifth in MVP balloting. The years and the mileage soon caught up with Hawkins. He finished his career with three top five MVP finishes, three All-ABA/All-NBA First Team selections and five All-Star Game appearances.

Hawkins was a flashy player whose huge hands and tremendous leaping ability foreshadowed the brilliant moves made more famous by Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. In terms of peak value and overall impact on the sport Hawkins deserves a spot on the 50 Greatest Players List but in terms of long term sustained excellence he falls short of the mark.

Dennis Rodman was a rebounding machine and a ferocious defender who could guard any position in his prime. He captured seven straight regular season rebounding titles (1992-98) with some rpg averages that had not been seen since Chamberlain and Russell patrolled the paint. Rodman's off court antics seem to have cost him a bit in terms of receiving awards/recognition but he made the All-NBA Team twice and he was a two-time All-Star. Rodman made the All-Defensive Team eight times, including seven First Team selections, and he won back to back Defensive Player of the Year awards (1990-91).

Rodman only averaged 10-plus ppg once during his career but he was a valuable offensive player not only because of his prodigious offensive rebounding but also because he was an excellent screener and an intelligent passer.

Rodman was a key member of two Detroit championship teams (1989-90) and three Chicago championship teams (1996-98). His personal style and his playing style were both unorthodox but his impact on winning is unquestionable.

Walt Bellamy never made the All-NBA Team and never finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. He won the 1962 Rookie of the Year Award and he made the All-Star team four times. Just based on those facts, one might wonder why he is in the Hall of Fame, let alone being potentially considered as one of the 50 greatest players--but Bellamy's career is not so simply summarized. His rookie campaign is one of the most dominant ever: 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, league-best .519 field goal percentage. As I noted in my 2013 obituary for "Big Bells," "Bellamy averaged at least 22.8 ppg and at least 14.6 rpg in each of his first five NBA seasons...Just seven players other than Bellamy have had multiple 22.8 ppg/14.6 rpg seasons and only 18 players in NBA/ABA history accomplished this feat even once." Bellamy ranks eighth in ABA/NBA career regular season rpg average (13.7) and he also averaged 20.1 ppg during his regular season career. No matter how one accounts for pace/style of play/era/level of competition, those numbers are impressive. If Bellamy had not played in the same era as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, he would probably have been a perennial All-NBA Team member.

The players who Athlon's removed from the list have impressive accomplishments worthy of recognition and acknowledgment. Players from earlier eras should not be judged based solely or primarily on numbers, at least not without placing those numbers in the context of the vast differences between eras.

Dave DeBusschere never received serious MVP consideration and he made the All-NBA team just once but he made the All-Star team eight times and he earned six straight All-Defensive First Team selections. DeBusschere was an elite defender, so when looking at his career honors it is important to remember that the All-Defensive Team was first selected in 1969--the seventh season of his 12 year NBA career--and he thus received First Team recognition every season that he could have possibly done so. The Defensive Player of the Year award did not exist during his career and neither steals nor blocked shot became official NBA statistics until his final season.

Field goal percentages were lower and pace was higher during DeBusschere's career, so more rebounds were available than in later eras, but by any standard he was a very good rebounder: he averaged 11.0 rpg during his career and after his first two seasons he never had a season during which he averaged less than 10 rpg.

DeBusschere was a key member of two New York championship teams (1970, 1973). Although he was a rugged defender and rebounder, on offense he often played outside of the paint, spreading the floor by firing long jumpers. The NBA did not have a three point shot during that era but if he played in the current era he would have easily added that weapon to his repertoire.

Hal Greer was the third best guard during an era when two of the best guards in pro basketball history played: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Thus, Greer made the All-NBA Second Team for seven straight seasons but he never received a First Team nod. Greer also earned 10 All-Star selections and he won the 1968 All-Star Game MVP.

Greer was a vital member of the 1967 Philadelphia team that went 68-13 during the regular season--the best record ever at that time--and broke Boston's eight year stranglehold on the NBA championship; Greer averaged 22.1 ppg during that season and he increased his scoring to 27.7 ppg during that year's playoffs, best on a squad that included Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Chet Walker. In 1980, this 76ers team was selected by the NBA as the greatest team in the league's first 35 years.

Greer's career regular season point total (21,586) currently ranks 39th in ABA/NBA history but it must be noted that when he retired he was the fifth leading scorer in pro basketball history behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Greer currently ranks 82nd in career regular season assists (4540) but he ranked seventh in career assists when he retired.

Sam Jones' legacy is defined by winning and by clutch performances. He won 10 championships (1959-66, 68-69), more than any player in pro basketball history other than his Boston teammate Bill Russell (11). Jones posted a 9-0 record in playoff game sevens with the Boston Celtics, averaging 27.1 ppg in those contests.

Jones twice finished in the top five in MVP voting but--like Greer--because he played in the same era as Robertson and West he never made the All-NBA First Team. Jones earned three All-NBA Second Team selections and he made the All-Star team five times.

Jones scored 15,411 career regular season points, which does not look like an eye-popping total now--but he ranked 12th on the NBA’s career scoring list when he retired in 1969. He also ranked third on the NBA's career playoff scoring list when he retired, trailing only Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In the context of his era, Sam Jones was a big-time scorer.

Jerry Lucas was one of the greatest rebounders in pro basketball history. His 15.6 career regular season rpg average ranks fourth in ABA/NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Pettit. Lucas' 12,492 career regular season rebounds ranked fourth all-time when he retired in 1974 (trailing only Chamberlain, Russell and Walt Bellamy) and Lucas still ranks 18th all-time more than 40 years later. Lucas twice averaged at least 20 rpg during a season; the only other players who averaged at least 20 rpg during a season are Chamberlain (10 times), Russell (10 times), Nate Thurmond (two times) and Bob Pettit (one time).

Lucas won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award and the 1965 All-Star Game MVP. He finished fifth in the 1966 regular season MVP voting and he made the All-NBA Team five times, including three First Team selections. He was a seven-time All-Star. Lucas was a member of the 1973 New York Knicks' championship team.

Like his New York teammate DeBusschere, Lucas was a rugged player who also had an excellent outside shooting touch. Lucas shot .499 from the field during his regular season career, the fifth best mark in pro basketball history when he retired, and he led the NBA in that category in the 1963-64 season. Lucas ranked eighth in the NBA in free throw percentage in 1964-65 and he shot .783 from the charity stripe for his career, a very good mark for a big man in that era.

Earl Monroe won the 1968 NBA Rookie of the Year award. The next season, he earned his only All-NBA First Team selection and he made the first of his four All-Star Game appearances. He scored at least 21.9 ppg in each of his first four NBA seasons with the Baltimore Bullets. Monroe was traded to the New York Knicks early in the 1971-72 season and he blended his talents with fellow future Hall of Famer Walt Frazier to form the "Rolls Royce" backcourt that led the Knicks to the 1972 NBA Finals before winning the 1973 championship. Monroe's scoring dipped early in his Knicks tenure but then he averaged 20.9 ppg, 20.7 ppg and 19.9 ppg in the three seasons after he turned 30; this is one example of individual numbers not telling the whole story: Monroe sacrificed personal glory for the greater good of winning a championship and then when the Knicks needed more scoring after some of their other great players retired, Monroe stepped up.

Players should be evaluated on skill set and impact and not just on statistics. Monroe had a tremendous skill set as a scorer and ballhandler and he had an outsized impact on the sport that goes far beyond his numbers. Before becoming an NBA star, Monroe set many records at Winston-Salem State while leading the team to the 1967 NCAA College Division title. Monroe averaged 41.5 ppg and he earned the "Earl the Pearl" nickname after a newspaper published a list of his high scoring games titled "Earl's Pearls." On the playgrounds, Earl was already known as "Black Jesus."

Robert Parish finished in the top five in the regular season MVP voting once and he earned two All-NBA selections but his prime years overlapped with the careers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone so he never made the All-NBA First Team. Parish made the All-Star team nine times, including seven straight selections during the 1980s (1981-87). He never averaged 20 ppg in a season, nor did he ever average more than 12.5 rpg in a season; his career was defined by consistency and durability as opposed to dominance. Parish was a key member of three Boston championship teams (1981, 84, 86) and he formed the "Big Three" with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, a trio that is perhaps the best frontcourt of all-time. Parish lasted in the NBA until he was 43 and he picked up a fourth championship ring as a little-used reserve for the 1997 Chicago Bulls. Parish never led the NBA in rebounding but he accumulated 10 top 10 finishes and he ranks ninth in ABA/NBA regular season rebounds (14,715).

Nate Thurmond finished second in the 1967 NBA regular season MVP voting but he never made the All-NBA Team while playing in an era dominated by Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell (the MVP voting was conducted by the players at that time, while the All-NBA Team was selected by the media). The All-Defensive Team was not created until Thurmond's sixth season but he still made the squad five times, including two First Team selections. Thurmond was a seven-time All-Star.

Thurmond specialized in defense and rebounding but he averaged at least 20 ppg in five straight seasons during his prime. He averaged at least 10.4 rpg in each of this first 12 seasons but despite twice averaging over 20 rpg he never won a rebounding title. Thurmond was a great center who was overshadowed by Chamberlain and Russell early in his career and then Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed and Dave Cowens later in his career; each of those centers won at least one regular season MVP.

Unseld won the 1969 NBA Rookie of the Year and the 1969 NBA regular season MVP; that dual feat has only been matched by Chamberlain (1960 NBA) and Spencer Haywood (1970 ABA). He also earned his only All-NBA First Team selection that season. Unseld had a very good career but he never made the All-NBA Team after his rookie season and he never again finished higher than eighth in regular season MVP voting, though he did win the 1978 Finals MVP after leading the Washington Bullets to the title. Unseld made the All-Star team five times.

Unseld averaged at least 10 rpg in 12 of his 13 seasons, falling short only in his injury-riddled 1973-74 campaign--but he bounced back to lead the league with 14.8 rpg in 1974-75 and he also led the NBA in field goal percentage in 1975-76 (.561). Unseld's strengths were rebounding, passing (particularly outlet passing) and screen-setting. He never averaged more than 16.2 ppg and he only averaged more than 10 ppg once in his final eight seasons.

Bill Walton is perhaps the most difficult Top 50 candidate to evaluate. He led the league in rebounding and blocked shots in 1976-77 before capturing the 1977 Finals MVP as his Portland Trailblazers defeated the favored Philadelphia 76ers 4-2. Walton won the 1978 regular season MVP despite being limited to 58 games due to injury; the Trailblazers began the season 50-10 when Walton was healthy before going 8-14 down the stretch without him. Injuries forced Walton to miss three of the next four seasons and he only played 14 games in 1979-80.

Walton played in just 33, 55 and 67 games in the 1983-85 seasons, with his minutes per game averages declining each year. He was a solid player when he was on the court but he was not an All-Star; Walton's only All-Star selections happened in 1977 and 1978 and those were the only years that he earned All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors, making the All-Defensive First Team both seasons and the All-NBA First Team in 1978.

Walton joined the Boston Celtics for the 1985-86 season. Playing less than 20 mpg, he appeared in a career-high 80 games, shot a career-high .562 from the field and earned the Sixth Man of the Year Award as a key contributor to arguably the best of Larry Bird's three championship teams. Injuries limited Walton to 10 games in 1986-87 and he retired at 34 years of age after playing in just 468 regular season games.

Walton is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but of course the Hall of Fame also recognizes a player's collegiate career--and Walton is one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time. Walton played the equivalent of less than six NBA seasons. When he was healthy he was an elite player but he was healthy for a very limited amount of time.

James Worthy made the All-NBA Team just twice (as a Third Team selection in 1990 and 1991) but he made the All-Star team seven times and he won the 1988 Finals MVP. He was a key contributor to three Lakers' championship teams (1985, 87-88). He shot at least .531 from the field in each of his first eight seasons, using a tremendous first step and an outstanding ability to finish above the rim to frustrate even the league's best defensive players. Worthy averaged at least 20 ppg in four different regular seasons but he could have scored more points if he had not been playing alongside fellow future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. He earned the nickname "Big Game James" and he lived up to that by increasing his scoring average from 17.6 ppg in the regular season to 21.1 ppg in the playoffs. He was a below average rebounder considering his 6-9 size and his leaping ability; Worthy never averaged more than 6.4 rpg in a season and he finished his career with a 5.1 rpg average. He was a solid passer and a decent defensive player. 

Lenny Wilkens finished second to Wilt Chamberlain in the 1968 NBA regular season MVP voting and he won the 1971 All-Star Game MVP. He made the All-Star team nine times and he led the league in assists in 1969-70 but he never was selected to the All-NBA team. Wilkens ranked in the top 10 in assists 12 times in his 15 seasons and he finished his career second on the all-time regular season assists list (he currently ranks 14th). Wilkens was primarily a playmaker but he was also a first rate scorer: he averaged at least 20 ppg in three different seasons and he has a higher career regular season scoring average (16.5 ppg) than several guards who are perhaps more renowned for scoring, including Gary Payton, Joe Dumars and Tony Parker. Wilkens, John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn are the only individuals inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach; Wilkens was inducted a third time as a member of the coaching staff of the 1992 United States Olympic "Dream Team."

Before evaluating Athlon's choices, it is clear from the capsule biographies above that the 11 players Athlon's did not include each accomplished a lot and each played at a very high level. There is a lamentable tendency in many quarters to reflexively discount the meaning or significance of anything that happened more than 20 or 30 years ago.

That being said, if the size of the list is being kept at 50 then Duncan, Bryant, Garnett and Iverson--four players who had not achieved prominence as of 1996--clearly deserve inclusion, which means that several players have to be removed to make room. McAdoo should have made the cut the first time. Kidd had such an impact on winning that I cannot leave him off of the list. Payton's longevity as a two-way player is noteworthy.

So, among the 22 players that Athlon's shuffled, I disagree about six of them: I would keep Greer, Lucas and DeBusschere in the Top 50 and I would thus decline to include Hawkins, McGinnis and Rodman. My reasoning is that Greer, Lucas and DeBusschere sustained a high level of play for longer than Hawkins and McGinnis, while Rodman was not quite multi-dimensional enough to move past Lucas or DeBusschere—two championship winning forwards who not only rebounded and defended but who also scored. It is tough to not include MVP winners Hawkins and McGinnis--who would each likely be on a list of the 50 most talented players of all-time--but sustained excellence is important.

Regarding the other players mentioned in this article, none of them quite measure up to their counterparts. Jones was a clutch performer but his individual resume does not stack up against his contemporary Greer and he was never in the running for best guard in the league like Kidd and Payton later were. Monroe had a short peak and was not as versatile as the guards ranked ahead of him. Parish and Thurmond were great centers but they were never the best or even second best in the league at their position during their careers. Unseld had one great year and then many very good ones; if he had not won one MVP then he probably would not be considered at all, so that one outlier season does not outweigh the body of work produced by the players ranked ahead of him. If Walton had been healthy, he might have been a top 10 or top 20 player--but he was not healthy and thus we are forced to evaluate him based on what he actually accomplished, not what might have been. Worthy was never close to being the best forward in the NBA and, while he may have posted gaudier individual numbers as a headliner for a less talented team, he benefited greatly from playing alongside many other great players. Worthy's resume is impressive and it is Hall of Fame caliber but it is just not enough to make this list; he should not have made it over, for instance, McAdoo back in 1996 and Athlon's was correct to leave him off in 2008.

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Further Reading:

Part I of this series can be found here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM

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