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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

LeBron James Versus Kevin Durant: One More Chapter in the Eternal Debate About MVP Criteria

Most informed NBA observers agree that LeBron James is the best all-around player in the league, an unofficial title that he seized from Kobe Bryant several years ago. However, it seems unlikely that James will win the 2014 MVP award, because popular sentiment heavily favors Kevin Durant, the four-time scoring champion who has finished second in MVP voting in three of the four seasons that James won the award. Durant is posting career-high averages in scoring and assists while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to the second best record in the NBA; the Thunder are four games ahead of James' Heat with one game remaining on both teams' schedules. Durant has indisputably authored an MVP caliber season and he has been an MVP caliber player for several years but should he win the award over James based primarily on a slight difference in their respective teams' records and some form of voter fatigue regarding James? Or, should the MVP award go to the player who is still the best all-around performer in the league?

The names are different now but the questions are the same ones that have been debated for many years. Michael Jordan was the consensus best all-around player in the league for roughly a decade--though he missed nearly two full seasons while he pursued a pro baseball career--and is widely regarded as the greatest player of all-time but he "only" won five regular season MVP awards. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Jordan annually battled another greatest player of all-time candidate--Magic Johnson--for MVP honors and then Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each received one MVP during Jordan's prime, supposedly because voters were reluctant to give the trophy to Jordan every single year, a form of "logic" that makes no sense: there is no good reason that one player should not/cannot win eight or 10 MVPs. I much prefer the Rucker League precedent; if I recall the story correctly, even though Connie Hawkins missed most of the season he still made the Rucker League All-Star team because a Rucker League All-Star team simply wasn't authentic if it didn't have Connie Hawkins on it--and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that during the Jordan era an NBA MVP award was not authentic if it went to someone other than Jordan. Obviously, in a more formal league like the NBA a player cannot miss most of the season and still deserve All-Star or MVP consideration but Jordan should have won every regular season MVP from 1988 through 1998, except for 1994 (when he missed the entire season) and 1995 (when he only played 17 games); he was the best all-around player in the league and even though Hall of Famers Johnson, Barkley and Malone had some MVP caliber seasons during that era no knowledgeable observer would have picked any of them ahead of Jordan if all four players were available to be drafted or signed.

Kobe Bryant got an even worse deal than Jordan; at least Jordan still racked up the second most MVPs in pro basketball history, falling just one short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record. Bryant was the best all-around player in the NBA for the better part of the 2000s (circa 2003-2009), he proved equally adept at carrying decrepit teams to the playoffs and at leading a solid but not particularly deep Lakers' team to three straight Finals appearances/two straight championships but he only received one regular season MVP (2008). Bryant should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs and he also played at an MVP level in 2003 and 2009, though Tim Duncan and LeBron James were slightly better than Bryant in those respective seasons (injuries knocked Bryant out of serious MVP contention in 2004 and 2005, as he missed 17 and 16 games respectively).

According to the popular, media driven storyline, this is Durant's time: he is supposedly having a career year while James is allegedly just coasting and waiting for the playoffs to begin. The reality is that Durant is essentially playing at the same level he has been playing at for several years, with two notable exceptions: he is attempting about three more field goals a game and he is dishing off about one more assist a game, though assists are so subjective that this change may not even be statistically significant or have much to do with an actual increase in playmaking ability. Durant is shooting and passing more often not because his skill set has changed but rather but because the Thunder's other All-NBA First Team caliber player--Russell Westbrook--missed almost half of the season due to injury, forcing Durant to shoulder a bigger load. Durant's field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding average, steals average and blocked shots average are all lower than they were last season.

What about the "coasting" James? James has been remarkably consistent since he joined the Heat four years ago, averaging between 26.7 and 27.1 ppg, between 6.9 and 8.0 rpg and between 6.2 and 7.3 apg. He has increased his field goal percentage for seven straight years (including 2013-14), his free throw percentage annually hovers around .750 and this season he has posted the second best three point shooting percentage of his career. There is no discernible evidence that James is taking it easy or that he is declining. The "stat gurus" claim that James' defense has fallen off but while it is true that James' shotblocking--always an overrated part of his game (his best seasonal total is 93, five fewer than the best seasonal total posted by that noted high flyer Larry Bird)--has decreased to a ridiculously low level for a player with his athletic gifts (.3 bpg) James is still the multi-positional anchor for a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been the two best players in the NBA for several years and figure to remain the two best players for a few more years. In any given year, either player could deservedly win the MVP award--but James is the more physically imposing player at both ends of the court, a better inside scorer, a better passer and a better/more versatile defender. James used to be the better rebounder but Durant has closed the gap in that department. I doubt that any GM or coach would prefer to have Durant over James but because of the storyline that the media has relentlessly crafted throughout this season Durant will win the 2014 MVP. Honoring Durant will not likely turn out as badly as presenting Dirk Nowitzki the 2007 MVP hardware in a broom closet at an undisclosed location and perhaps Durant will soon have his day in the Finals' sun much like Nowitzki eventually did but I will always say that the MVP award should go to the league's best all-around player (unless there is a big man like Shaquille O'Neal whose physical dominance trumps the best all-around player's versatility) regardless of storylines, "advanced basketball statistics" and any form of voter fatigue directed against multiple MVP winners.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 PM

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Monday, April 14, 2014

"Stat Gurus" Forced to Consider Possibility That the "Hot Hand" Exists

"Stat gurus" puff out their chests and declare that their proprietary methods give them a significant edge over "old school" talent evaluators but research shows that tanking does not work precisely because of just how difficult it is for anyone--even a "stat guru" armed with reams of "advanced basketball statistics"--to predict/project future player performance. Another cherished "stat guru" assumption is that the "hot hand"--also known as being in the "zone"--does not really exist. Many people who have coached, played or even just watched basketball believe that they can recognize when a player gets "hot"--when he is in an unstoppable "zone"--but "stat gurus" dismiss such ideas.

"Stat gurus" have been mocking the "hot hand" for decades, deriding the concept as nothing more than a figment of the imagination that reveals the inherent fallibility of evaluating players by using the "eye test." Old school basketball talent evaluators say things like "Eyeball is number one" but many "stat gurus" believe that the "eye" lies and that it is more effective to read spreadsheets than to watch games. Of course, a wise talent evaluator combines the knowledge he gains from the "eye test" with the information he gleans from pertinent statistics to paint a full picture of a player's strengths and weaknesses. 

"Stat gurus" cheered when a 1985 study conducted by Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky indicated that what may look like a "hot hand" is really just a random occurrence. One major problem with that study, though, is that it did not represent a meaningful sample size. The researchers focused on the shooting statistics of the Philadelphia 76ers because the 76ers were the only NBA team at that time which kept complete shot by shot data. That is kind of like looking for your lost keys in one small area not because that is where you think that you lost them but because that is the only place where there is enough light to conduct your search.

The amount of available statistical data has exploded in recent years and, after examining more than 70,000 NBA shots from the 2012-13 season, three Harvard researchers concluded that a player who has made his previous several shots is at least slightly more likely to make his next shot. Does this study conclusively prove that the "hot hand" exists? Of course not. The scientific method requires that hypotheses be repeatedly tested; Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity is perhaps the best known and most successful theory in scientific history but researchers to this day still test Einstein's hypotheses regarding space, time and gravity. Any "stat guru" who asserts that he has created the definitive player rating system is not practicing science; he is peddling snake oil.

When I criticize the flawed reasoning employed by many "stat gurus" and when I point out the inherent limitations of "advanced basketball statistics," some people misinterpret my analysis to mean that I harbor some reflexive biases against using the best possible statistical tools to better understand basketball.  My main point is that "advanced basketball statistics" should not be worshiped as some infallible bastion of truth; "stat gurus" should habitually create testable hypotheses and then see if the best, most comprehensive data that can be gathered supports or refutes those hypotheses. If Player X supposedly has a "rating" of 33.8 and is supposedly exactly 2.5 rating points better than Player Y, what is the margin of error in that rating system? If a player rating system cannot be tested objectively then it is of limited use; anyone can juggle certain basic boxscore numbers in order to create a rating system that is biased toward particular statistics at the expense of other statistics. For instance, a player who sports a relatively high field goal percentage may be a very limited offensive player while a player who has a relatively low field goal percentage may be a very dangerous and versatile offensive player whose skills force the opposing team to trap him. A "stat guru" who favors "efficiency" (as defined by his own preferred rating system) will be unduly swayed by the gaudy shooting percentages of an offensively challenged big man, while a shrewd talent evaluator will see that big man for who he is: a player who is dependent on other players to create his scoring opportunities.

Ironically, as more data about basketball is collected and analyzed, it is becoming evident that assumptions made by allegedly objective "stat gurus" are not any more trustworthy than assumptions made by supposedly subjective and/or biased observers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 PM

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why Tanking Does Not Work

"Stat gurus" believe that "advanced basketball statistics" enable them to more accurately and efficiently evaluate players and teams than the "old school" traditional scouting methods (watching players/teams in person, studying players/teams on film, considering basic box score numbers such as per game averages and raw shooting percentages). In theory, a "stat guru" could build a better team than an "old school" basketball talent evaluator by making better draft choices and/or by making shrewder decisions in terms of which players to sign, which players to trade and which players to cut. A high first round draft pick and/or a significant amount of salary cap space should be gold for a "stat guru" and one can easily imagine a team executive who believes in "advanced basketball statistics" thinking that it might be a good idea to tank in order to acquire a lottery pick, disregarding the idea that building a winning team requires putting a winning culture in place; there is no "advanced basketball statistic" that quantifies "winning culture," so such a concept is meaningless to a "stat guru."

In the April 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes that even the most ardent "stat gurus" have been forced to admit how difficult it is to accurately evaluate players--and that the challenges involved in player evaluation are a major reason why tanking does not work:

Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.

Supposedly, the worst thing for an NBA team to do is get stuck on the 40-45 win "treadmill," good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to seriously contend for a championship. Why not gut the roster, plummet to 15-20 wins and rebuild around the talents of a lottery pick? That may seem logical but the reality, as Thompson notes, is "Mediocre teams don’t necessarily stay mediocre. Within two years, they’re three times more likely to become elite (winning at least two-thirds of their games) than the lousy squads that locked up the top picks. Developing and effectively deploying current players, making smart trades and judiciously signing free agents, finding good players later in the draft—these patient, sometimes incremental moves appear to work better than tearing things down to try to land a hyped-up superhero in the draft."

Dallas owner Mark Cuban is a big fan of "advanced basketball statistics." He broke up his 2011 championship team instead of giving that veteran, tough-minded squad a chance to defend their title. The Mavericks' winning percentage dropped from .695 (57-25) to .545 (36-30 in the lockout-shortened season, equivalent to 45-37 in an 82 game season) and they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas went 41-41 last season and failed to qualify for the playoffs, while this season they are currently in a three-team dog fight for the final two playoff spots. Cuban did not literally tank--though Thompson points out that Cuban has publicly stated his support for such a tactic--but the moves that he made are based on the same principle as tanking: instead of trying to win the most possible games right now, he gave up proven players with the hope that he could obtain better and/or younger players. 

Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause thought the same way about the Chicago Bulls during the late 1990s. There are many examples of an owner/general manager combination threatening to break up a team if it did not win a championship but the 1997-98 "Last Dance" Bulls are the first--and, to the best of my knowledge, only--team that the owner and general manager pledged to break up, in advance, even if the team won the championship. Krause could not wait to push Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen out the door so that he could show the world how smart he is and just how quickly he could mold a championship team around his hand-picked coach, Tim Floyd. Since that time, the Bulls have missed the playoffs seven times, lost in the first round five times and made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals just once.

The bottom line is simple and it reflects the truths that pump through the heart of any champion and any person who takes pride in his craft: Tanking does not work, losing on purpose does not build a winning culture and breaking up a championship team is foolish.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:29 PM

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Real Team Nobody Wants to Face

It has been amusing during the past few weeks to hear various commentators suggest that "nobody wants to face" the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. Early last season, the Grizzlies were a team on the rise with Lionel Hollins at the helm and Rudy Gay providing scoring punch from the small forward position to spread the floor for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol but after trading Gay and ditching Hollins the Grizzlies are a much weaker squad; the Grizzlies suffered some injuries this season that some people used as a convenient excuse for Memphis' declining winning percentage and the Grizzlies received a temporary bump when Gasol returned to the lineup but as the regular season concludes they have hardly been setting the world on fire--posting a 6-4 record in their last 10 games--and they are in a three way tie with Dallas and Phoenix for seventh-ninth place in the Western Conference.

In recent seasons, teams that "nobody wanted to face" did not make much noise in the playoffs:
  1. In 2006 nobody wanted to face the Sacramento Kings, who lost 4-2 to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round; the Spurs had a 34 point win and a 22 point win during that series and only lost game three by one point.
  2.  In 2011 nobody wanted to face the Portland Trailblazers, who lost 4-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
  3.  In 2012 nobody wanted to face the New York Knicks, who lost 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the first round. Miami blasted New York 100-67 in the first game and took a 3-0 lead before dropping game four 89-87.
The Grizzlies have a solid inside offensive attack anchored by Randolph and Gasol and they are a very good defensive team but they just cannot score enough points--particularly from the perimeter--to beat an elite team in a playoff series. Russell Westbrook's injury last season enabled the Grizzlies to sneak into the Western Conference Finals--where they were promptly obliterated by the Spurs--but this year the Grizzlies will most likely exit in the first round, assuming that they even qualify for the postseason.

In contrast, the real team that nobody wants to face--or at least that nobody with any sense would want to face--is the Spurs, who have an NBA-best 58-16 record, a .784 winning percentage that is the best in franchise history. Their leaders have championship pedigrees--Coach Gregg Popovich, two-time regular season MVP Tim Duncan, 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker and 2008 Sixth Man of the Year Manu Ginobili--they made it to the NBA Finals last season and they are currently in the midst of a 18 game winning streak; only 12 other NBA squads have won at least 18 games in a row, including some of the greatest teams in pro basketball history (1967 76ers, 1972 Lakers, 1996 Bulls, 2000 Lakers).

The Grizzlies are flawed, mediocre and vulnerable; the Spurs are well-balanced, they have a tradition of excellence and they are accustomed to making long playoff runs. It should be obvious which team "nobody wants to face" and which team would not evoke much fear.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 PM

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Can the Pacers Dethrone the Heat?

The Indiana Pacers pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and they have beaten the Heat in two of their three 2013-14 regular season encounters. The Pacers have openly stated their belief that if they secure homecourt advantage then they will dethrone the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. The reality, though, is that a great team will usually win at least one game on the road during a long playoff series, so homecourt advantage does not guarantee anything other than the comfort of playing game seven in front of a supportive crowd. If these two teams face each other in the postseason, the outcome of the series will be determined less by homecourt advantage and more by two factors: (1) the health of key players and (2) which team imposes its style on the other team.

Indiana's 84-83 home win over Miami on March 26 reinforced and/or revealed several things about these teams:

1) LeBron James is, first and foremost, a big-time scorer; he shredded the NBA's best defense for 38 points on 11-19 field goal shooting despite receiving very little offensive help from Dwyane Wade (15 points on 6-11 field goal shooting before leaving the game with a hamstring injury) and Chris Bosh (eight points on 3-11 field goal shooting). James is the best all-around player in the NBA but his primary skill set advantage, by far, is his ability to score; the Heat would not have won the last two NBA titles if James had not led the league in playoff scoring in 2012 (30.3 ppg) and if he had not ranked fourth in 2013 playoff scoring (25.9 ppg).

2) Greg Oden may be able to clog up the middle as a help defender (two blocked shots in just six minutes) but he does not have the necessary mobility and/or guile to slow down Roy Hibbert in a one on one matchup. The aging and undersized Udonis Haslem did a much better job against Hibbert than Oden did.

3) The Pacers' best chance to beat the Heat is to slow the game down, avoid open court turnovers and pound the ball into Hibbert and David West in the paint--but the Pacers do not have a top notch point guard who can control the tempo of the game and their top two scorers are wing players, so it is not easy or natural for Indiana to do what is necessary to beat Miami. The Pacers have the right personnel to challenge Miami--big men who can score in the paint and mobile, lengthy wing defenders who can challenge James and Wade--and they play the right way in stretches but they can be tempted into taking bad shots and/or committing careless turnovers. In contrast, the Heat can run their offense through either James or Wade and thus they are less apt to stray from what they do best.

4) Lance Stephenson is a versatile and valuable player but he is also a hothead who is prone to making bad decisions that could cost the Pacers; when he foolishly got ejected late in the fourth quarter it almost cost the Pacers the game and they can ill afford for him to exercise such poor judgment in the playoffs.

5) The Pacers are young, talented and hungry. They are clearly a viable threat to the Heat--but playoff series are often decided by the transcendent greatness of an elite player: James has demonstrated that he can fill that role and carry his team to championships, while Paul George--Indiana's best player--has not yet shown that he can take that step from All-Star to elite player.

Many pundits declared that Indiana's win all but clinched the East's top seed but the Heat have won two in a row while the Pacers have lost two in a row since their Wednesday encounter, so Indiana's "big" victory may very well turn out to be just a footnote--and that is why it is not wise to draw broad conclusions on the basis of one game. Winning that "big," nationally televised game does not mean much for the Pacers if they cannot take care of business in the "small" games, because all of the games count the same in the standings.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant cemented their legacies by leading their teams to "three-peat" title runs; Jordan won three championships in a row on two separate occasions, while Bryant captured a "three-peat" early in his career while playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal before leading the L.A. Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and back to back championships near the end of his career. So far, at the championship level James has only matched what Bryant did past his prime and James has not come close to equaling the overall body of work compiled by Jordan and Bryant. No team has made it to the Finals in four consecutive years since the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, so if James carries the Heat to a fourth Finals appearance in a row he will have accomplished something that even Jordan and Bryant failed to do--and if James authors another dominant postseason performance while leading the Heat to a third straight NBA title then it will be valid to compare James with the all-time greats not just on the basis of his individual talents/accomplishments but also on the basis of his ability to elevate a team to the championship level for an extended period of time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Russell Westbrook Inherits Kobe Bryant's Spot--for Better or Worse

Kobe Bryant has been the best guard in the NBA for the better part of the past decade or so but an Achilles injury knocked him out of the 2013 playoffs and caused him to miss most of the 2013-14 regular season before a broken leg sidelined him for the remainder of the current campaign; he made the 2013 All-NBA First Team but his reign as the league's top backcourt performer is likely over, even if he returns to action next season. Bryant has been underrated for most of his career, with critics sniping at his alleged selfishness and foolishly suggesting that the L.A. Lakers were better off when Bryant shot fewer times even when Bryant was at the height of his powers, leading the Lakers to championships while also setting various individual scoring records. There are many reasons that the Lakers have sunk to historic lows this season but the biggest single factor is that Bryant played in just six games.

One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook helped lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference last season (60-22) after playing a major role in the Thunder's run to the 2012 NBA Finals but the Thunder's 2013 championship hopes were dashed when Houston's Patrick Beverly wiped out Westbrook's knee during the first round of the playoffs; sans Westbrook, the Thunder struggled to eliminate the mediocre Rockets before getting blasted 4-1 in the second round by a flawed Memphis team that was promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

The Thunder opened the 2013-14 season with a 23-5 record, including a 21-4 mark with Westbrook in the starting lineup. They once again looked like a bona fide championship contender but then Westbrook reinjured his knee; the Thunder went just 4-4 in their first eight games without him before Kevin Durant put up Kobe Bryant-like scoring numbers in January, almost singlehandedly carrying the Thunder--but even with Durant's MVP-level performance, the Thunder were still not quite as good as they had been to start the season, going 20-7 without Westbrook.

When Westbrook returned to action he was understandably rusty and the Thunder did not immediately take the league by storm. Instead of acknowledging Westbrook's crucial role in the Thunder's recent success, critics loudly suggested that Durant and Westbrook are incompatible and that the Thunder might be better off without Westbrook--ignoring not only that Westbrook had yet to return to form but also that right after Westbrook came back starting center Kendrick Perkins suffered a groin injury that has prevented him from playing. The "stat gurus" hate Perkins but Perkins provides an important physical presence in the paint for the Thunder, who are 43-11 with him this season but just 6-7 without him.

As the calendar shifted to March, Westbrook's game accelerated back into high gear. In seven games this month, Westbrook is averaging 23.6 ppg, 8.7 apg and 6.1 rpg in just 26.9 mpg--those are MVP caliber numbers and he is doing all of that work despite playing restricted minutes. Yes, seven games is a small sample size but we have already seen Westbrook perform at an All-NBA level for multiple seasons so there is no reason to believe that it is a fluke that he is playing at an All-NBA level now. Westbrook has an astonishing +23.9 plus/minus rating in March. Durant has posted a +10.4 plus/minus rating in eight March games; the missing Westbrook game took place last Sunday, when he sat out for precautionary reasons as the Thunder endured their worst loss of the season, a 109-86 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

Kevin Durant is a great player and a strong case could be made that he deserves the 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP; he is worthy of all of the praise that he is receiving. It is just a shame, though, that so many people seem to think that it is necessary to denigrate Westbrook in order to acknowledge Durant's excellence. When healthy, Westbrook is the best guard in the NBA and he is critically important to the Thunder's championship hopes: they seamlessly absorbed the loss of sixth man James Harden as long as Westbrook was healthy but they are just a good team--not an elite squad--when Westbrook does not play or is not at full strength.

Bryant does not have to listen to his critics anymore; he can just cover his ears with his five championship rings. Westbrook does not seem inclined to listen to his critics, either, and that is a good thing for the Thunder, because if he stays healthy he can be the best guard in the NBA for several years and he has a good chance to build his own championship ring collection in partnership with Durant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 AM

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Friday, March 14, 2014

New York State of Mind, Part V: The Phil Jackson Edition

Phil Jackson is about to get paid handsomely to put his money where his mouth is; Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reports that the New York Knicks are prepared to offer Jackson "approximately $15 million annually" to fix a dysfunctional franchise that has, in Jackson's words, a "clumsy roster" filled with mismatched parts and and with players who lack a championship mentality.

Amare Stoudemire, who will make $21,679,893 this season, and Carmelo Anthony, who will make $21,490,000 this season, are by far the two highest paid Knicks; they are the fourth and fifth highest paid players in the NBA, trailing only Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Gilbert Arenas, who was vastly overrated even before a combination of physical injuries and mental foolishness derailed his career (Arenas' contract is so ridiculous--he will be paid until 2016 even though he has not played a game since the 2011-12 season--that Arenas himself admits that it is probably the worst deal in NBA history). Jackson is far from enamored with Anthony or Stoudemire; in a 2012 HBO interview, he told Andrea Kremer, "Well, they don't fit together well. Stoudemire doesn't fit together well with Carmelo. Stoudemire's (a) really good player. But he's gotta play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can’t stop every time it hits his hands. They need to have someone come in that can kinda blend that group together."

Jackson's coaching track record is impeccable. After leading the Albany Patroons to the 1984 CBA championship, he joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach, eventually replacing Doug Collins as head coach in 1989. Michael Jordan, who many people consider to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals once in his first five seasons; Jordan--with a lot of help from Scottie Pippen--led the Bulls to six championships in the seven full seasons that he played for Jackson. Shaquille O'Neal, the most dominant big man of his era, made one NBA Finals appearance and got swept out of the playoffs five times in his first six seasons; O'Neal--with a lot of help from Kobe Bryant--led the Lakers to three straight championships in his first three seasons playing for Jackson. Critics often carp that Jackson has had the horses throughout his NBA career but it is indisputable that when he had the horses he won the races--and it does not seem likely that anyone else would have matched Jackson's standard of nine championships in his first 10 seasons of coaching Jordan and O'Neal.

Unfortunately for the Knicks, they are not hiring Jackson for his coaching prowess; they are hiring Jackson to run their personnel operation, an operation that has been a disaster for many years. It would be one thing if the Knicks brought in Jackson as a coach so that he could try to squeeze the most out of Anthony, Stoudemire, talented head case J.R. Smith and the rest of New York's motley crew but there are good reasons to be a little bit skeptical about what Jackson can do for this team at this time strictly in an executive capacity; it is difficult to picture Jackson traveling around the country scouting college games looking for young talent but young talent is exactly what the Knicks need: they will never win a title with Anthony as their best player or with Smith as his sidekick or with the oft-injured Stoudemire eating up salary cap space like termites destroying a house from the inside out. Jackson is a master at maximizing the talent on hand but he has yet to build a team from scratch--and perhaps that is why this New York opportunity has piqued his interest: if Jackson tears down this roster and builds a championship team from scratch he will add an improbable chapter to his already impressive legacy. It is also possible that Jackson will try to run the team from afar, cashing big checks while the Knicks continue to flounder; the key question is if Jackson is highly motivated to prove what he can do as an executive or if he is highly motivated to score one last big payday while also sticking it to the Lakers for jerking him around during their previous coaching search.

Jackson had a long-running, well-documented public feud with Jerry Krause when Krause was Jackson's boss in Chicago and Jackson also battled with Jerry West when West ran the Lakers, so it will be fascinating to see what Jackson is able to do if he takes New York's offer and puts on an executive's suit. Jackson's name as a coach became synonymous not just with winning games but with winning championships in groups of three (three separate three-peats, plus back to back titles in the midst of three straight trips to the NBA Finals near the end of his second run with the Lakers); the Knicks have made the playoffs each of the past three years--and they still have a chance to sneak in as the eighth seed this year--so Jackson's tenure in New York will be judged not on 50 win seasons or playoff appearances but rather on if the Knicks become a viable championship contender. Krause, West and the rest of the NBA universe will be watching this saga with great interest. My expectation is that if Jackson takes the job he will get rid of Anthony, Stoudemire and Smith as soon as possible so that he can construct a championship-caliber roster around a young, unselfish, versatile and tough-minded superstar--but if the Knicks fail to meet expectations then the fans and the media will pressure Jackson to pick up the coaching reins. Logic suggests that this will not end well for Jackson--unless James Dolan gives Jackson full autonomy and Jackson responds by being 100% engaged in the search for young talent--but it will be intriguing to watch what happens next.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 PM

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Sans Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers Sink to Historic Lows

The L.A. Lakers went 2-4 during Kobe Bryant's cameo appearance this season and some commentators wondered aloud if the Lakers were better off without Bryant. The reality is that the Lakers were not particularly good with Bryant but that they are awful without him. I predicted that by the time Bryant returned the Lakers would have the worst record in the Western Conference; it is not clear if Bryant will play again this season but after last night's 142-94 loss to the L.A. Clippers--the biggest win in Clippers' history and the biggest loss in Lakers' history--the Lakers are 21-41, a half game behind Utah for last place in the West. Even if the Lakers were in the comically inept Eastern Conference they would be 12th in the standings, ahead of only Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Lakers have gone 9-28 since Bryant last suited up; their defense is non-existent, their effort level is deplorable and Bryant summed up the entire state of affairs by commenting, "It's like when big brother is not around, he starts doing some crazy (stuff). It's been rough."

Yes, Bryant's "little brothers" have been doing some "crazy (stuff)" now that Bryant is not around to police the locker room and the practice court. Say what you will about Bryant's demeanor--and many people have said a lot of negative things about Bryant's leadership skills--but Bryant made sure that his teammates practiced hard, played hard and did not do "crazy (stuff)." That kind of leader/teammate is only considered "difficult" by people who do not understand how much effort and sacrifice it takes to create and sustain a winning program.

The Lakers' abject collapse without Bryant this season provides some indication of his impact, reaffirming what I have been saying for years: the Lakers' overall talent level has been overrated. Bryant carried weak Lakers' teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 and he led the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 with a sidekick, Pau Gasol, who had not won a single playoff game prior to becoming a Laker and with a group of bench players who, for the most part, hardly distinguished themselves before or after getting championship rings courtesy of Bryant. It could be argued that the Lakers are even more talent-depleted now than they were in 2006 and 2007 and it is undeniable that injuries to several players have taken their toll but it is odd that more is not made of the fact that without Bryant on the court for most of the season the Lakers have devolved from a playoff team to a laughingstock. Losing Dwight Howard clearly has hurt the Lakers but he was not fully healthy last season and if Pau Gasol were as good as so many people say then he would be able to carry a team at least to within shouting distance of a .500 record sans Bryant and Howard.

After LeBron James left Cleveland, media members incorrectly ignored all of the other changes that the Cavs made and attributed all of the team's decline to James' departure, without noting that the franchise had also changed the front office staff, the coaching staff and most of the roster. The Lakers have problems that extend beyond Bryant's absence and it would not be correct to say that the Lakers are terrible only because Bryant is inactive--but in his prime Bryant carried some pretty awful teams to the playoffs without getting much credit from the MVP voters, so the Lakers' collapse this season does provide further context regarding just how well Bryant performed during the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker "era." If Bryant can return to full health next season, it will be interesting to see just what the Lakers look like, particularly if they are not able to add much talent to the roster in the offseason.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 PM

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Pass First Players Do Not Score 61 Points in a Game

LeBron James scored a career-high/Miami Heat franchise single-game record 61 points in the Heat's 124-107 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday. He shot 22-33 from the field--including 8-10 from three point range--and 9-12 from the free throw line while accumulating seven rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers. James is the 23rd player in NBA history to score at least 60 points in a regular season game; Larry Miller (67 points), Zelmo Beaty (63 points), Julius Erving (63 points) and Stew Johnson (62 points) accomplished this feat in the ABA. A journeyman NBA player can get hot and score 40 points and most All-Stars are capable of dropping 50 points under the right conditions but the 60 point plateau is hallowed ground for a scorer: most of the players who scored at least 60 points in a game have either already been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame or else are certain to be inducted as soon as they become eligible; the few exceptions are the aforementioned Miller, Beaty and Johnson, plus Tom Chambers and Gilbert Arenas: Miller was a good player who had an exceptional game, Beaty made the All-Star team five times in two leagues, Johnson earned three ABA All-Star selections, Chambers was a four-time NBA All-Star and Arenas made the NBA All-Star team three times.

Many of the members of the 60 Point Club were/are great playmakers in addition to being great scorers but none of those players could accurately be called a "pass first" player. James often refers to himself (and is frequently described by others) as a "pass first" player, a contention that I have repeatedly disputed: after James ransacked the Boston Celtics for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Miami's 98-79 victory in the sixth game of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, I wrote, "Contrary to what so many people have written/said, James is not a 'pass first' player; he is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer. Magic Johnson was a 'pass first' player and it was major news when he scored more than 40 points, a plateau he only reached six times in his regular season career (three times hitting exactly that number) and four times in his playoff career; James has scored at least 40 points 48 times in the regular season (including nine 50 point games, seventh on the all-time list) and 11 times in the playoffs. It is understandably confusing to James' teammates (and outside observers) when he spends the first three quarters of a game looking like one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and then spends the final 12 minutes standing in the corner; that is not being unselfish or being a 'pass first' player: that is failing to accept the responsibility associated with being an MVP level player and that is worthy of criticism, regardless of what Mike Breen or Jeff Van Gundy say."

James has outgrown his reticence to take over as a scorer in playoff games against elite defensive teams and it is no coincidence that after he accepted that responsbility he led the Heat to back to back championships. James always had the ability to pile up points by bulling his way to the hoop but now he has added a solid post up game and a reliable perimeter shot to augment his athletic ability and size. He has also vastly improved his shot selection. When James is taking good shots and when his perimeter game is flowing he is unguardable; even when he takes bad shots and his jumper is off it is no picnic to check him but at least in those situations he is not getting dunks, layups and free throws.

James has assembled an impressive resume as a scorer:
  1. James ranks third in ABA/NBA regular season history with a 27.5 ppg scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg). 
  2. James ranks third in ABA/NBA playoff history with a 28.1 ppg scoring average, trailing only Jordan (33.5 ppg), Allen Iverson (29.7 ppg), Jerry West (29.1 ppg) and Kevin Durant (28.6 ppg).
  3. James has averaged at least 26.7 ppg for 10 consecutive seasons after scoring 20.9 ppg as a rookie entering the NBA straight out of high school.
  4. James won the 2007-08 scoring title with a 30.0 ppg average and that is not even his single season career-high; he finished third in the NBA with a 31.4 ppg average in 2005-06.
  5. James has ranked no lower than fourth in the league in regular season scoring average in each of the past 10 seasons; in addition to claiming the aforementioned 2008 scoring title, he also finished second three straight years (2009-11).
  6. James has scored at least 50 points in 10 regular season games, ranking seventh on the all-time ABA/NBA list behind only Chamberlain (105), Jordan (30), Kobe Bryant (24), Elgin Baylor (14), Rick Barry (13) and Iverson (11). 
  7. Early this season, James reached double figures in scoring for the 500th consecutive game and his still active streak of 551 games ranks fourth in NBA history, trailing only Jordan (866), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (787) and Karl Malone (575).
  8. James ranks 33rd in ABA/NBA regular season history with 22,614 points. At his current pace, he will vault into the top 10 in less than three years.
  9. James ranks 10th in ABA/NBA playoff history with 3871 points. If he continues to score prolifically while leading the Heat on deep postseason runs then he will move into fifth place in two years.
Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:25 AM

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Basketball Hall of Fame Finally Honors Bobby "Slick" Leonard

I am delighted that the Basketball Hall of Fame's ABA Committee has made another fine selection, tapping Bobby "Slick" Leonard for induction in the fall of 2014. Leonard led the Pacers to three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73) and five ABA Finals appearances. Leonard's Pacers were the Boston Celtics of the ABA and they had the upper hand in their "Interstate 65" rivalry with the Kentucky Colonels, winning three of their five head to head playoff series. Leonard's coaching accomplishments alone merit Hall of Fame induction, but it is worth noting that Leonard also twice earned All-America honors as a player at Indiana University and he starred on their 1953 NCAA championship team. He enjoyed a solid NBA playing career, averaging 9.9 ppg in seven seasons (including a career-high 16.1 ppg in 1961-62), before becoming a coach.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo deserves credit for living up to his pledge to recognize worthy individuals who "slipped through the cracks" and did not get inducted when they should have been. Under Colangelo's watch, the newly formed ABA Committee has finally inducted Artis Gilmore plus Leonard's Indiana Pacers' stars Mel Daniels and Roger Brown.

For the past 29 years, Leonard has been the color commentator for the Pacers' radio broadcasts. His signature "Boom, Baby!" call is one of the most famous catchphrases in pro basketball. Whenever I cover a Pacers' home game it is always a treat to speak with Leonard about pro basketball past and present. The stories he told me about Sam Jones, Gus Johnson, Roger Brown and James Silas and enriched the articles that I wrote about those players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 AM

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kobe Bryant: "I'm a Difficult Person to Deal With"

In an All-Star Weekend interview, a reporter asked Kobe Bryant if his reputation for being a "difficult teammate" might hinder the Lakers' rebuilding efforts. Bryant replied:

No, not necessarily.  I'm a difficult person to deal with.  For people who don't have the same kind of competitiveness or commitment to winning, then I become an absolute pain in the neck.  Because I'm
going to drag you into the gym every single day.  If you need to be drug in, that's what I'm going to do.


And for players that have that level of commitment, very, very, easy.  And we can wind up enhancing the entire group and elevating them to that type of level.  But if we don't have that commitment, man, I'll absolutely be very, very tough to get along with.  No question about it. 

Bryant may be a "difficult teammate" but it is also rewarding to be his teammate; his impact on the Lakers goes far beyond what statistics can measure: many players have championship rings only because they were fortunate enough to play alongside Bryant during Bryant's prime--and many players had their best individual seasons while playing alongside Bryant, including Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.

If I had been blessed with the opportunity to play in the NBA, I would not have found it difficult at all to play with an MVP-caliber player whose main goal is to win championships--but I would have found it very difficult to play with Carmelo Anthony or Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury or any other All-Star caliber player who only gives consistent effort at one end of the court and who often seems to have an agenda that is focused on something other than winning (playing in a big city, getting paid, being quirky, etc.). I don't understand a guy like James Harden; he probably could have won multiple championships playing the Manu Ginobili role for the Oklahoma City Thunder but he preferred to force a trade to Houston so that he could get paid and "prove" that he is "the man." If you are "the man," then beat out Russell Westbrook for the number two role on the team--or, better yet, do whatever it takes to win a championship (a la Ginobili with the Spurs) and don't worry about who gets the credit or who gets paid. The Thunder have not missed a beat without Harden and the Rockets had to acquire the best center in the NBA just to move one step up from battling for the eighth seed. 

Harry Truman was renowned for "giving hell" to his opponents but he said, "I never did give them hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell." Bryant, like Michael Jordan before him, tells his teammates the truth: if they are not playing hard or if they are making stupid plays, he lets them hear about it in no uncertain terms. That may seem "difficult" or feel like "hell" but it also creates a no excuses, no slacking allowed environment. When Bryant plays with an avulsion fracture in his finger or other injuries that would force most players out of the lineup, he sets an example that no one should be visiting the trainer's room unless that player is at death's door. 

The Lakers face a challenging rebuilding task not because Bryant is "difficult" but rather because Bryant can no longer carry the Smush Parkers and Kwame Browns of the world into the playoffs; with Bryant injured or absent, all of the Lakers' weaknesses are exposed and there is no relief in sight: that was true during the 2013 playoffs even when the Lakers had a twin towers pairing of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and it is true during this season even though the Lakers have at least as much talent now as they did circa 2006 when Kwame Brown and Smush Parker became two of the most improbable playoff starters in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:32 AM

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

LeBron James Explains How Dwyane Wade Helped Him to Develop a Championship Mentality

LeBron James' All-Star Weekend interview with Steve Smith has received attention regarding James' selections for a hypothetical all-time pro basketball "Mount Rushmore" (Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson)--but what I found most intriguing was James' explanation of how he transformed his game during his second season in Miami (2011-12), particularly in terms of his relationship with Dwyane Wade:

It's easy when you sit around in the summertime and say, "Let's team up." That's the easy part. The hard part is when you actually get on the floor and see how similar both guys are and how both guys are used to having the ball in their hands. Two or three possessions go by where you're like, "I've been playing defense for three straight possessions. I need the rock." It's just two alpha males going at it...

We weren't playing good basketball, we were out of sync and me and D. Wade were looking at each other like, "Did we make the right choice, man? Is this what we really want?" Can two guys who basically held franchises on their shoulders and decided to team up give one shoulder to each other to make this happen? There was a clash for sure.

If we can look back on it, I'm surprised we even got to the (2011) Finals. I'm still surprised we even got there...

D. Wade called me (after Miami lost in the 2011 Finals) and we went to the Bahamas...I felt like, if I don't win this year, I'm going to get buried under every cemetery that they've got. So, we went to the Bahamas and had some great conversations there. D. Wade was like, "In order for us to be great, you have to be the guy." I was looking at him like, "What? What do you mean by that? I am the guy but what do you mean by 'the guy'?" He was like, "In order for us to be great, in order for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish while we are playing together, you have to be the guy that you were in Cleveland and I'll take a step back."

Many commentators asserted that what went wrong with James' Cleveland Cavaliers was that James did not have a good enough supporting cast--an excuse that completely went out the window after he lost in the 2011 NBA Finals while playing alongside perennial All-Stars Wade and Chris Bosh plus a host of solid role players--but the reality is that on several occasions as a Cavalier when James was challenged in the playoffs by elite level opponents he quit and complained; James went to Miami trying to escape the responsibility of posting dominant numbers in the playoffs against elite teams, so it is very ironic that in order to win championships James had to adopt the very mindset that he was reluctant to have in Cleveland: instead of griping about a supposed lack of help, James--and any other MVP level player who aspires to win a championship--must embrace the necessity to dominate the game and to impose his will on his teammates and the opposition. This is what Wade implored James to do and this is what Kobe Bryant consistently did while winning five championships with the L.A. Lakers; until the past couple seasons the difference between Bryant and James was that James was reluctant to accept this responsibility. It is fascinating to hear James now admit that before he had that fateful offseason conversation with Wade he did not fully understand the necessary mentality to be a champion; if James had developed that mentality in Cleveland then he could have led the Cavaliers to a championship but he deserves credit for being introspective enough to accept and learn from Wade's sound advice.

James' explanation echoes what Tim Grover told me: "When he was in Miami, Dwyane Wade--having gone through all the trials and tribulations with the Miami Heat, from the (2006) championship to all the way down to being a Lottery team--learned how to deal with all the different levels of adversity and success. He was able to teach LeBron or when he would see LeBron in certain situations playing or in practice he knew how to put LeBron in position to succeed." Prior to Miami winning back to back titles, I often made the point that the only way for the Heat to be successful is for James to accept the responsibility to be the best player on the court. James should never take a back seat to Wade or anyone else--and the idea that the Heat could win a title with James in a secondary role never made any sense to me.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 PM

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

All-Star Weekend Impressions

NBA All-Star Weekend is by far the best event of its kind--the comparable NFL, MLB and NHL talent showcases are not nearly as entertaining--but it is not as great as it used to be or as great as it could be. The best thing about NBA All-Star Weekend is that it provides a platform to show the world just how fast, strong and explosive NBA athletes are. I am not a big fan of the Rising Stars Challenge--mainly because the event is characterized by a serious lack of defensive intensity/competitiveness--but the game provides national exposure for some talented young players who are members of small market teams. The Shooting Stars competition enables current NBA players to compete with and against NBA legends and WNBA players. The Skills Challenge is fun to watch, though during a real game one does not need to master the "skill" of passing a ball into a barrel or dribbling through cones. The Three Point Contest is a pure demonstration of a fundamental basketball skill being executed at the highest level by some of the sport's top marksmen. The Slam Dunk Contest lets fans live vicariously through the exploits of some of the league's best gravity-defying leapers. Sunday's Legends Brunch pays tribute to the players who built the sport from the ground up and was my favorite event to attend during the six years that I covered All-Star Weekend.

Team Hill defeated Team Webber 142-136 in the Rising Stars Challenge. Detroit's Andre Drummond grabbed MVP honors, leading Team Hill with 30 points and a game-high/Rising Stars record 25 rebounds--but suffice it to say that video of this game will not be used at any basketball camps as an example of fundamentally sound basketball, particularly at the defensive end of the court. Chris Bosh won his second straight Shooting Stars event, leading Team Bosh (including Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash) over Team Westbrook in the championship round. The problem with this event is that each team is required to make a half court shot in each round, which is much more a matter of luck than skill; I'd prefer that either the half court shot is scrapped or else the entire event is morphed into a HORSE contest, maybe pitting a retired player versus an active player (with no dunking allowed). Damian Lillard and Trey Burke won the Skills Challenge; it is the second such title in a row for Lillard, who took top honors last year when the Skills Challenge was a solo event. Journeyman Marco Bellinelli--who has played for five teams in his seven season NBA career--outgunned a host of All-Stars (including Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson, Damian Lillard and Kevin Love)--to win the Three Point Contest.

The Slam Dunk Contest is the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday night but I about fell out of my seat when I saw the TNT graphic touting the Slam Dunk Contest judges. Who is "Julius Irving"? How is it possible that one of the league's primary networks cannot properly spell the name of one of the sport's all-time greatest players? Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins joined Erving as judges. Team East (Paul George, Terrence Ross and John Wall) defeated Team West (Harrison Barnes, Damion Lillard and Ben McLemore) and Wall was selected by the fans (via online voting) as the Dunker of the Night. Wall's clinching dunk, a double pump after grabbing the ball out of the hands of the Wizards' mascot, was impressive but overall the event lacked star power, excitement and suspense. Almost every year, Kenny Smith, Magic Johnson and/or some other prominent figure proclaim that the Slam Dunk Contest is "back" and they once again said that after Wall's victory but I don't buy it. The reality is that there is not likely any way to make the Slam Dunk Contest as great now as it was in the 1980s. Back then, many of the league's brightest stars competed on an annual basis and a missed dunk all but eliminated a player from winning the contest; competing in the Slam Dunk Contest was like doing a trapeze act without a net but that did not deter all-time greats like Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler from participating on multiple occasions. The two biggest problems now are that most of today's biggest stars don't participate and that the format removes suspense/anticipation by permitting players to miss multiple dunks without any penalty. During a recent "Open Court" program, Wilkins cut to the heart of the matter, declaring that today's players do not really want to find out who is the best dunker, because they might risk not earning that title. Erving amplified this excellent point, mentioning that players have agents and marketing advisers who tell them that the downside of not winning the contest outweighs the potential upside of emerging victorious.

Some people suggest that putting a million dollars--or some other similarly extravagant sum--on the line might motivate more stars to participate but that is ridiculous: these are highly paid professionals and if they don't want to test their skills against their peers while also entertaining the fans then that is really a shame. Erving participated in his final two Slam Dunk Contests when he was 34 and 35 years old; he did not win either event but he defied Father Time by proving that he could still take off from the foul line and dunk. There is no way that any 34 or 35 year old all-time great would compete in the Slam Dunk Contest today; even all-time greats who are in their prime--most notably, LeBron James--refuse to put their dunking reputations on the line.

In addition to being a Slam Dunk Contest judge, Erving also participated in a panel discussion honoring Bill Russell during Sunday's Legends Brunch. Erving described how much he looks up to Russell and how Russell has been providing sage advice to him since he was a student athlete at the University of Massachusetts; Russell told young Erving that the most important building on campus was not the gymnasium but rather the library and Russell told the then-50 year old Erving that as one ages one should pare down one's life to essential people and activities, focusing on what is most meaningful and letting go of that which is less meaningful.

Russell was not a great shooter, he did not possess the all-around skill set of Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson and he was not as statistically dominant as Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan--but a strong case could be made that Russell is the greatest individual performer in team sports history; his teams won the championship in almost every season of his basketball career, extending from high school to college to the 1956 Olympics to the NBA, where he led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented 11 titles in 13 seasons, including a record eight straight crowns (1959-66).

The All-Star Game itself was record-setting (most combined points, most points by one team, most combined three point field goals made, etc.) but watching it felt more like gorging on junk food as opposed to feasting on gourmet fare. The East's 163-155 victory over the West lacked competitive spirit. I know that this is an exhibition but I like what Kobe Bryant--who did not play due to injury--said during his in-game interview: "The fans want to see us do what we do best, which is compete hard, and to go up here and run up and down and just play the game in a silly way, I don't think that shows much respect to the basketball gods." All-Star Games are often high-scoring affairs just because both teams have so much offensive firepower but in the past players competed harder at the defensive end of the court. The previous highest scoring All-Star Game (the West's 154-149 overtime win over the East in 1987) featured a combined 63 fouls and 14 blocked shots, two indicators that the players played at least some defense; the 2014 All-Star Game included just 21 fouls and no blocked shots--that's right, in 48 minutes of action the sport's best players did not manage to block even one single shot! In 1987, the teams combined to shoot 6-17 from three point range; in 2014, the teams shot 30-100 from beyond the arc. At times, the 2014 All-Star Game looked like a very high level pickup game with players shooting uncontested three pointers and driving through the lane unimpeded, not a competition pitting the world's greatest athletes against each other.

The 2014 All-Star Game featured several outstanding individual performances, though the gaudy numbers would have meant more had they been posted against greater defensive resistance. Kyrie Irving had a fantastic game (31 points on 14-17 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 14 assists), winning MVP honors after leading the East to a come from behind win. Carmelo Anthony scored 30 points, set the All-Star single game three point field goals made record (eight) and he committed three fouls, including one to stop Blake Griffin from scoring in the open court (Anthony playing defense at any time, let alone an All-Star Game, may be a sign of impending apocalypse). LeBron James made a solid all-around contribution to the East's win (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists). The West's Kevin Durant (38 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) and Blake Griffin (38 points on 19-23 field goal shooting) both made serious runs at Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star single game scoring record (42 points).

NBA All-Star Weekend is a lot of fun, whether one experiences it in person or just watches it on TV. If the league tweaks the Shooting Stars competition and the Slam Dunk Contest and encourages the All-Stars to elevate the competition level of Sunday's game then All-Star weekend will be even better.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 PM

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The LeBron James-Kevin Durant Narrative

The narrative during the NBA All-Star Weekend centered around Kevin Durant all of a sudden becoming the best player in the NBA. Statistically, Durant has been a beast, and he has outclassed Lebron James on paper. However, the MVP award and NBA championships are not handed out based off of production in one day fantasy sports leagues. Instead, Durant is going to have to show in the second half of the regular season that he can not only lead a team to the NBA finals but also win it.

With back-to-back championships already under his belt, Lebron James has taken it slightly easy in the regular season so far this year. His numbers in one day fantasy sports are down, but that is mostly because his minutes are down. The Miami Heat have played a lot of games in the last few years, and James also participated in the Olympics in 2012. Even though he seems to be indestructible, Miami is making sure that he is well rested so that he can have success when it matters most.

For Durant, he has been dealt a tough hand so far this season. Not only is he in the deeper Western Conference, but he has had to play most of the season without point guard Russell Westbrook. Those two factors have made him focus more on putting up big numbers so that his team can have success. It is certainly not a given that they can just coast to the playoffs and have home court advantage. That is why Durant is playing and scoring more when compared to James.

When it comes to the NBA, it takes time to get the title as the best player in the league. It took Lebron James a few years before he was pretty much unanimously considered better than Kobe Bryant. There is a chance that Kevin Durant never gets to that point when compared to James. There are certainly people who feel like he is better, but it is hard to compare when both players are trying to accomplish different things this regular season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Advanced Basketball Statistics" Do not Tell the Complete Andrew Bynum Story

It sounds patently absurd now (and it sounded absurd at the time), but not too long ago some "stat gurus" suggested that Andrew Bynum was more valuable to the L.A. Lakers than Kobe Bryant; these "stat gurus" crunched some numbers out of context and concluded that Bynum was more efficient and productive than Bryant, failing to understand that Bynum's efficiency was a product of the defensive attention drawn by Bryant. As I explained in a 2010 article, Kobe Bryant's Impact on the Lakers Goes Far Beyond What Statistics Can Measure.

Bynum essentially played the Luc Longley role for the Lakers teams that won back to back NBA titles; his scoring and rebounding averages during those two playoff runs (2009-10) were 6.3/3.7 and 8.6/6.9 respectively. Throughout his Lakers' career, Bynum was limited by chronic knee problems and he repeatedly displayed immaturity on and off of the court. The idea that he was a franchise player--even during his one All-Star campaign, which happened after the Lakers had already fallen from the ranks of the legit title contenders--made no sense, because Bynum has never been physically and/or psychologically equipped to carry a team.

Bynum was never as good as the "stat gurus" suggested--and much of what he accomplished in L.A. resulted not just from the attention that Bryant drew on the court but also the mentoring that Bryant provided:

Although Bynum has made significant strides, his development is clearly still a work in progress; he does not play hard on a consistent basis, he frequently says and does boneheaded things (on and off the court) and he complains about his touches even though he frequently does not battle for good low post position and even though he is far too often befuddled by double teams...

Bryant gets it; he understands what kind of preparation it takes to perform like a champion and he understands the delicate balance between inspiring a teammate to work on his game and beating a teammate down through relentless verbal sniping that destroys camaraderie instead of creating it. Will Bynum use the lessons he learned from Bryant in L.A. to become a veteran leader for the Philadelphia 76ers and a legit number one option on a contending team? That remains to be seen but Bryant provided a nice blueprint for Bynum if Bynum is smart enough and mature enough to use it.

There is an impressive list of players--ranging from the sublime (future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (legend in his own mind Smush Parker) who played for at least two teams and had the best season of their careers while playing alongside Bryant. Bynum emerged as an All-Star last season and had the best season of his career in part because of Bryant's patient tutelage; it will be interesting to see if Bynum continues the growth process that Bryant helped to start.


There is no stat for drawing double teams and there certainly is no stat for mentoring, so you cannot convince a "stat guru" that these concepts exist, much less that they actually matter--but, nevertheless, these concepts are important elements in the construction of winning teams. The Lakers' record without Bryant this season speaks for itself but it is also worth noting what Bynum has been up to since the Lakers traded him to acquire Dwight Howard. Bynum is gifted with size, strength, agility and other athletic tools but those qualities are not enough to make someone a great player; Bynum's body and mind were well suited for being a role player on Bryant-led championship teams but when Bynum is asked to be the lead guy the results are predictable: his body falls apart and his mind wanders. Bynum did not play a single game for the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2012-13 season and then he displayed remarkable insubordination this season in Cleveland, reportedly shooting the ball from anywhere on the court during scrimmages in blatant disregard for the team concept. The Cavaliers got rid of Bynum, who landed in a perfect situation in Indiana; he can once again be a role player whose contributions could be valuable but will not be essential to the team's success.

Chris Grant, the recently fired Cleveland General Manager who brought Bynum to the Cavaliers, is reportedly a big believer in "advanced basketball statistics." There may not be a number to quantify Bryant's impact on the Lakers in general or on Bynum in particular but there is a number to quantify Grant's impact on the Cavaliers: a 20-33 record that places the Cavaliers 11th in the incredibly weak Eastern Conference.

While some "stat gurus" praised Bynum to the hilt and raved about Bryant's supporting cast during the 2009 and 2010 title runs, I called those squads "among the least talented and least deep champions of the past two decades." Other than Bryant, the top nine players in the 2010 Lakers' rotation (based on total regular season minutes played) were Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell and Sasha Vujacic.

Vujacic, Powell and Farmar were all out of the league within two years, though Farmar is now back with the Lakers. Brown could barely get on the court for Cleveland's deep 2007 and 2008 teams but he was a key rotation player for the Lakers. Bynum's NBA journey was discussed above. Fisher was the established starter for the point guard-bereft Lakers but he has played a smaller role in most of his other NBA stops. Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding initially improved after he joined forces with Bryant but his impact sans Bryant has not been impressive and he did not win a single playoff game before teaming up with Bryant. Odom went from being Sixth Man of the Year with the Lakers (which is a little deceptive, in the sense that he often played alongside the starters in crunch time while Bynum rode the bench) to seeing his career completely fall apart as soon as he left L.A. Peace, an All-Star caliber player at his peak, was a solid role player during the Lakers' second championship season and he is now winding down his career as a little-used reserve for the Knicks; Peace was a core member of the Lakers' rotation but now he is, at best, the 10th man for a sorry New York team.

"Advanced basketball statistics" can indicate that Bynum was productive while playing alongside Bryant--but they cannot explain why Bynum was productive, nor can they accurately predict how productive Bynum might be in a different role on a different team; only someone who watches basketball with understanding can make such evaluations. If Bynum and the other 2010 Lakers were as good as so many people said that they were, it is reasonable to assume that at least one of those players would be doing better without Bryant than they did with him. In retrospect, it seems incredible that Bryant won two of his NBA titles with a career journeyman starting at point guard, with Lamar Odom as the team's third best player and with Pau Gasol as the team's second best player. Most NBA championship teams are stacked with multiple All-Stars and/or future Hall of Famers--players who made their names before the championship run--but the only 2010 Laker besides Bryant who might make the Hall of Fame is Gasol, whose career was not on a Hall of Fame trajectory until he teamed up with Bryant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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Saturday, February 08, 2014

Anthony Davis Replaces Injured Kobe Bryant on West All-Star Roster

NBA fans gave Kobe Bryant a career achievement award of sorts by selecting him as a Western Conference All-Star starter but injuries have limited Bryant to just six games this season and will keep him off of the court indefinitely; new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has selected New Orleans Pelicans power forward/center Anthony Davis as Bryant's All-Star replacement. West Coach Scott Brooks will decide which All-Star reserve will take Bryant's starting spot.

My Western Conference All-Star selections included two players not ultimately honored by the coaches, San Antonio's Tim Duncan and Golden State's David Lee. I still think that Duncan deserves recognition for being the primary post presence at both ends of the court for one of the West's top two teams and I am still impressed by Lee's overall performance for the Warriors. It is worth noting that Davis has missed eight games so far, while Lee has only missed two and Duncan, despite his advanced age (in basketball years), has missed just four games.

Although I do not think that I was wrong to tap Duncan and Lee, upon further reflection I can understand why Silver believes that Davis is the most worthy choice: the Pelicans are mired near the bottom of the West with a 22-27 record but Davis has been outstanding individually, ranking first in the NBA in blocked shots (3.2 bpg) while also averaging 20.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 1.5 spg. Davis has bulked up this season after being overpowered physically as a rookie and he has improved his statistics across the board.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 PM

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

NBA Enters Post-David Stern Era

David Stern completed his 30 year tenure as NBA Commissioner on February 1, turning the reins over to his long-time trusted deputy, Adam Silver. Until fairly recently, the consensus opinion seemed to be that Stern was vying with former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for the title of greatest sports commissioner of all-time. In the past decade or so, Stern has been assailed by increasingly vocal critics who disapprove of his allegedly dictatorial leadership style and who blame Stern for some problems/controversies that the league faced, including lockouts in 1998 and 2011, the Tim Donaghy scandal and the voided Chris Paul trade. I strongly feel that the NBA should do more to recognize, honor and support its retired legends--including but not limited to the "Pre-1965ers"--and that the NBA should belatedly complete the ABA-NBA merger by finally granting official status to ABA statistics; it is disappointing that Stern did not use his power to make those things happen. Nevertheless, Stern's overall track record is very positive. I wrote my David Stern legacy column in October 2012 after Stern first announced his plan to retire as NBA Commissioner in February 2014 and I stand by the conclusion I declared at that time:

When I think of David Stern, I think of his response to the "Malice in the Palace"; he immediately issued several lengthy suspensions, he suspended Ron Artest for the entire season and when media members asked Stern if a vote had been taken about those punishments Stern replied, "It was unanimous, one to none." That is leadership; he did not pass the buck, he did not wait to see which way the wind was blowing: he made it very clear that players who go into the stands to fight with fans will not be playing in his NBA. In contrast, when I think of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, I think of Selig shrugging impotently as the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie--and, much more seriously, I think of Selig turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the abundant evidence of rampant PED cheating in his sport. For 30 years, Stern has looked the part of a commissioner and, much more significantly, he has acted the part. You never doubted who was in charge of the NBA with David Stern at the helm.

Stern may have rubbed some people the wrong way by acting like he was the smartest man in the room and by using his intelligence and strong will to lead the NBA on a certain path--but the reality is that he often was the smartest man in the room and the decisions he made resulted in skyrocketing revenue that benefited owners and players alike, a pioneering drug policy, global expansion of the game, innovative community service programs like NBA Cares, increased executive employment opportunities for women and minorities (the NBA has consistently been far ahead of the other pro sports leagues in this regard) and overall development of the league that would have been unimaginable when Stern first took office; under Stern's watch, the NBA went from having its premier event--the NBA Finals--televised on tape delay to having its top stars become one-name global icons: Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron.

Stern does not deserve all of the credit for the NBA's tremendous growth--throughout his tenure the league had a steady stream of great stars and great teams--but he deserves a lot of credit for not only making sound marketing decisions but also for disciplining owners, players and anyone else who stepped out of line and conducted themselves in a way that could potentially damage the league. Stern's leadership was equally evident during good times and during bad times; he not only helped the league derive maximum benefit from the skills and charisma of Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and other stars but he also guided the league through the dark days of the Donaghy scandal and through contentious labor negotiations that might have caused serious damage to the NBA if the league had not been fortunate enough to have a strong, wise leader at the helm.

David Stern has carved out a very prominent place not only in NBA and sports history but in the cultural history of the United States and the world, because the NBA's impact cuts across socioeconomic and national borders; in the early 1980s, no one could have imagined that basketball would be the global game that it is today and that the NBA would be able to touch the lives of young people so profoundly in so many different countries.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM

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Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 All-Star Reserve Selections Feature Veterans Nowitzki and Bosh Alongside Three Newcomers

In 2013, six of the 14 All-Star reserves were first-timers and 2012 featured five newcomers but this year there are only three new All-Stars among the coaches' selections: DeMar DeRozan, Paul Millsap and John Wall (Stephen Curry is the only newcomer among the 10 starters selected by the fans). Dirk Nowitzki returns to the midseason classic after a one year absence, while Tim Duncan was not tapped despite serving as the primary post presence for the San Antonio Spurs, who are tied for the second best record in the Western Conference. Nowitzki has earned 12 All-Star selections, a total exceeded by just 13 players in ABA/NBA history. Overall, the coaches agreed with 11 of my 14 All-Star reserve selections after agreeing with all 14 of my choices in 2013 and after agreeing with 12 of my 14 selections in 2012.

The 2014 Western Conference All-Star reserves are LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and James Harden. I would have substituted Duncan for Nowitzki as a frontcourt player and David Lee for James Harden as a wild card; Duncan's impact for a winning program extends well beyond his individual numbers (though he still ranks among the league leaders in rebounding and shot blocking despite playing limited minutes), while Lee is the main frontcourt threat for Golden State, serving a more valuable all-around role than the one filled by Harden for Houston. That said, Nowitzki and Harden are both playing at an All-Star level this season, so I don't have a big problem with either choice. At least one more roster spot will probably open up in the West because starter Kobe Bryant does not plan to play, so new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will select Bryant's replacement and then West Coach Scott Brooks will decide which reserve will be elevated to a starting slot.

The 2013 Eastern Conference All-Star reserves are Chris Bosh, Roy Hibbert, Paul Millsap, John Wall, Joakim Noah, DeMar DeRozan and Joe Johnson. I picked Lance Stephenson as a wild card instead of Noah. Stephenson has emerged as a valuable, versatile threat for the East-leading Indiana Pacers, topping the team in assists while ranking second in scoring and rebounding. Noah is an excellent player who is having another very good season and he is not a bad choice but I think that this season Stephenson is the better choice. Perhaps Stephenson's checkered history/reputation cost him some consideration.

Bosh is a popular whipping boy for some media members and some fans but he is now a nine-time All-Star, tying him on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Robert Parish, Gary Payton, Dominique Wilkins and Lenny Wilkens.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:03 PM

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who Should Be Selected as All-Star Reserves?

The 2014 NBA All-Star Game starters were announced last Thursday. LeBron James led the fan balloting for the third time in his career (2007, 2010,2014), tying him with Kobe Bryant (who received the most votes in 2003, 2011 and 2013) for fourth on the all-time All-Star voting leader list and placing him behind only Michael Jordan (nine times), Julius Erving (four times) and Vince Carter (four times) since fans began voting for NBA All-Star starters in the 1974-75 season.

Here is the list of the 2013 NBA All-Star Game starters:

Eastern Conference

LeBron James, Miami 1,416,419 votes
Paul George, Indiana 1,211,318 votes
Carmelo Anthony, New York 935,702 votes
Dwyane Wade, Miami 929,542 votes
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland 860,221 votes

Western Conference 

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City 1,396,294 votes
Stephen Curry, Golden State 1,047,281 votes
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers  988,884 votes
Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers 688,486 votes
Kevin Love, Minnesota 661,246 votes

Generally, the fans do a good job of selecting players who deserve this honor but this season the fans chose Kobe Bryant--who has appeared in just six games--as one of the West's starting guards. Many commentators have been griping for years that fans should not be given the opportunity to choose the All-Star starters but, as I noted in my Februray 2012 article about this issue, "starting in an All-Star Game is a subjective honor (unlike, for instance, the distinction between making the All-NBA First Team and the All-NBA Second Team or the All-NBA Third Team) and when we look back at a player's career we do not consider how many times he started in an All-Star Game but merely how many times he was selected overall; as long as the fans choose five players who are worthy of being ranked among the top 12 players in each conference there is not a problem, because the league's coaches will fill out the roster by selecting the other seven All-Stars."

Bryant clearly has not earned All-Star status this season but even though the fans erred by giving him some kind of career achievement award the end result is still going to most likely turn out all right; Bryant has stated that he does not plan to play in the All-Star Game, which means that NBA Commissioner David Stern will select a worthy replacement player (and then the West Coach will decide who takes Bryant's spot in the starting lineup). I still think that it is fine that fans have a say in the All-Star selection process, particularly because checks and balances are in place to make sure that deserving players who do not receive starting nods will be tapped as reserves when the coaches make their selections; speaking of which, the coaches will now complete the All-Star rosters by choosing seven players: three frontcourt players, two guards and two wild cards (coaches are not permitted to vote for players from their own teams).

Last season, the coaches agreed with all 14 of my All-Star reserve selections and in 2012 the coaches concurred with 12 of my 14 choices. Here are my picks for the All-Star reserves, with brief comments about each player:

Western Conference

(FC) LaMarcus Aldridge: He is posting career-high numbers in scoring (24.3 ppg, fifth in the league), rebounding (11.5 rpg, sixth in the league) and assists (2.8 apg) while leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the third best record in the West.

(FC) Dwight Howard: Howard has not quite regained the explosiveness and dominance that he displayed prior to injuring his back during the 2011-12 season but he is still a powerful presence in the paint at both ends of the court. He is averaging 18.0 ppg, just slightly below his career average of 18.2 ppg, though well short of his career-high 22.9 ppg in 2010-11 (his last fully healthy season). Howard remains a productive rebounder (12.5 rpg, fourth in the league after winning the rebounding crown in five of the six previous seasons) and shot blocker (1.8 bpg, ninth in the league but his lowest average in this category since the 2005-06 season). He also ranks fifth in the NBA in field goal percentage (.577).

(FC) Tim Duncan: Some "stat gurus" might scream in protest but Duncan is the primary post presence at both ends of the court for a San Antonio Spurs team that has the second best record in the West and the third best overall record. The Spurs rank second in field goal percentage and eighth in defensive field goal percentage in no small part due to Duncan's contributions. Duncan's per game numbers are no longer as gaudy as they were during his back to back MVP seasons (2002, 2003) but despite playing limited minutes he still ranks sixth in blocked shots (2.0 bpg) and 15th in rebounding (9.8 rpg).

(G) Damian Lillard: The 2013 Rookie of the Year is the second most valuable player for the much improved Trail Blazers. His assist average and two point field goal percentage have declined this season but he has increased his scoring average (from 19.7 ppg to 20.8 ppg) and three point field goal percentage (from .368 to .419). His free throw percentage is up and his turnovers are down, so overall he has become a more mature and efficient player.

(G) Tony Parker: Duncan's post presence has been the foundation for San Antonio's success since he arrived in the NBA but Parker's speed, penetrating ability and shooting touch make him the catalyst for the Spurs' offense. His statistics are not as spectacular as the numbers posted by some NBA guards but Parker plays a key role in a winning program. He is not what TNT analyst Kenny Smith would call a "looter in a riot," a player scoring a lot of points for a bad team.

(WC) Chris Paul: The 32-15 L.A. Clippers are 10-3 without Paul, so perhaps he is not quite the indispensable leader that he is made out to be, but--even considering the fact that his assist numbers are artificially inflated--Paul is a first rate playmaker who remains on the short list of top NBA point guards.

(WC) David Lee: This two-time All-Star provides inside muscle for Golden State to complement the outside shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He ranks 12th in the league in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and 18th in field goal percentage (.522).

If Russell Westbrook were not out indefinitely due to his knee injury (and thus presumably unavailable to play in the All-Star Game) then he would be my top reserve guard and I would bump everyone else down a notch (meaning that Lee would not be on my reserve roster in that case). Oklahoma City went 21-4 with Westbrook in the lineup, as the dynamic scorer/passer/defender averaged 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and a career-high 6.0 rpg. Kevin Durant is playing extremely well while picking up the slack for Westbrook but the Thunder are 15-6 sans Westbrook--Durant's greatness has kept the Thunder in the mix but they are only a dominant team when Westbrook is healthy.

James Harden is not an elite or "foundational" player; he is performing at an All-Star level--ranking seventh in the league in scoring (23.7 ppg)--and I would put him on the team to take the injured Bryant's place but I think that the seven players listed above are more valuable than Harden. Put it this way: Harden would not start ahead of any of the aforementioned guards if they were on the same team, nor would a good general manager trade Aldridge, Howard, Duncan or Lee for Harden (contract status and age notwithstanding but looking only at current on court impact).

Dirk Nowitzki is playing very well for a Dallas team that is clinging to the eighth playoff spot but his numbers and impact do not match the performances posted by the frontcourt players and wild card players who I selected.

Eastern Conference

(FC) Chris Bosh: Bosh is underrated by many fans and commentators but coaches realize his true value: he is an eight time-All-Star, though he has only been voted in by the fans three times. Bosh scores inside the paint and from the perimeter, he ranks second on the Miami Heat with 6.7 rpg despite playing out of position as an undersized center and his defensive versatility is vitally important to the two-time defending NBA champions.

(FC) Roy Hibbert: Hibbert is the cornerstone piece of Indiana's dominating defense and he has come a long way from when his awkward gait reminded me of "Anakin Skywalker taking his first halting steps after being entombed in the Darth Vader suit." His numbers do not jump off of the stat sheet--though he ranks second in the league in blocked shots (2.6 bpg)--but his impact is undeniable.

(FC) Paul Millsap: Millsap is the best, most consistent player on the fourth seeded team in the East; that is not much to write home about this year but it is good enough to earn an All-Star selection in 2014.

(G) John Wall: The fourth year Wizard is finally healthy and he is having a career year, averaging 20.0 ppg (16th in the league), 8.5 apg (fourth in the league) and 1.9 spg (fifth in the league). Washington is below .500--like most of the Eastern Conference--but the Wizards would be even worse without the contributions of their versatile point guard.

(G) Lance Stephenson: In his rookie season with Indiana four years ago, Stephenson scored just 37 total points but now he is a key all-around threat for the East's top team: he leads the Pacers in assists (5.3 apg) while ranking second in scoring (14.2 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg). He has authored three triple doubles, topping the NBA in that category.

(WC) DeMar DeRozan: DeRozan ranks 11th in the league in scoring (21.8 ppg) and he is the best player on a Toronto team that surprisingly has the third best record in the East.

(WC) Joe Johnson: The Brooklyn Nets' big name starting five has not produced many wins but Johnson is the one star on the roster who has at least come close to meeting expectations; he leads the team in scoring (15.7 ppg) and three point field goals made (83 in 42 games).

Outside of Indiana and Miami, the East is a vast wasteland this season. It is difficult to rave about individual performers on sub-.500 teams; no one on the sorry Eastern teams is playing like Pistol Pete Maravich in his prime or like Kobe Bryant in the Smush Parker-Kwame Brown years, carrying decrepit squads to the brink of respectability. Many former Eastern Conference All-Stars are either out of action due to injuries (most notably Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo) or have declined dramatically due to age, changing roles and/or other factors. The situation is so bad that TNT's Charles Barkley could not even come up with seven worthy reserve candidates; he picked Hibbert, Bosh, Stephenson, Wall, Millsap, Johnson and "a Raptor."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 PM

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