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Sunday, April 19, 2015

What to Watch For in the 2015 NBA Playoffs

My newest article for The Roar looks at some compelling subplots in the 2015 NBA playoffs:

What to Watch For in the 2015 NBA Playoffs

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:26 PM


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Friday, April 17, 2015

2014-15 Playoff Predictions

The overall composition of the Western Conference playoff field is what I expected with the exception of New Orleans taking the place of injury-riddled Oklahoma City but the seeding is different than I predicted. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs lost to New Orleans in the  final game of the season and summarily dropped from second to sixth in the standings. I picked the Spurs to be the West's best team and that could still happen but now the Spurs may have to win three series without home court advantage to achieve this. Of course, the biggest story in the West--and in the league, period--is the 67-15 record posted by the Golden State Warriors. I picked the Warriors to finish fourth, which is probably more generous than most analysts were prior to this campaign. Stephen Curry has emerged as an MVP caliber player and should be the clear favorite for that award if you subscribe to the "best player on the best team" theory (I prefer the best player period theory and believe that LeBron James should have won every regular season MVP since 2009). I will be very interested to see how the highly touted Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies perform; I am much less impressed by those teams than many other commentators are.

In the Eastern Conference, I did not foresee Atlanta's rise from the eighth seed to the top spot. Danny Ferry put together an underrated, supposedly no-name supporting cast around LeBron James in Cleveland a few years ago and now he has built an underrated, supposedly no-name squad that finished ahead of James' new-look Cavaliers. I thought that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers had enough firepower to make the playoffs in the East despite their injury problems but both teams came up just short. The Cavaliers started the season 19-20 but after James exited his self-described "chill mode" they went 34-9 the rest of the way and looked like the best team in the league. Chicago's chemistry--on court and off court, in terms of the simmering feud between Coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office--has not been quite right all season. The other five playoff qualifiers are hardly worth mentioning, at least in terms of being legitimate championship contenders, though Jason Kidd deserves some recognition for the fine coaching job he did while leading Milwaukee to a 41-41 record, a 26 game improvement.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2015 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Atlanta (60-22) vs. #8 Brooklyn (38-44)

Season series: Atlanta, 4-0

Brooklyn can win if...Brook Lopez continues to play at the high level that he reached in the final month or so of the season, Deron Williams plays at an All-NBA level and the Nets contain Atlanta's lethal three point shooting.

Atlanta will win because...the Hawks are a well-rounded squad that has completely embraced the team-first concept that Coach Mike Budenholzer learned as a San Antonio assistant. The Hawks rank fourth in field goal percentage and sixth in defensive field goal percentage; their only weakness is rebounding but the Nets are not a strong rebounding team, either.

Other things to consider: The Hawks do not have a player who would rightly be considered a superstar or a franchise player but four Hawks made the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season. The Hawks have a lot of really good players who function well together.

#2 Cleveland (53-29) vs. #7 Boston (40-42)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Boston can win if...LeBron James enters "chill mode."

Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers have been on fire during the second half of the season. LeBron James reasserted himself as the best player in the league, Kyrie Irving is a dynamic scoring threat and the team's midseason acquisitions have added size, depth and three point shooting.

Other things to consider: Boston started the season 4-11 but closed the season with a 15-6 run to grab a playoff berth. The Celtics are riding a six game winning streak--including two victories against Cleveland, albeit a disinterested Cleveland that could neither move up nor down in the standings--and are probably a better team than their sub-.500 record suggests. However, the Cavs are also better than their record suggests and unless James completely disappears this should be a short series.

#3 Chicago (50-32) vs. #6 Milwaukee (41-41)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Milwaukee can win if...the Bucks can keep the rebounding battle close and find a way to score against Chicago's stingy defense that ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (.435).

Chicago will win because...the Bulls have a lot of playoff-tested veterans and this year's squad has added some offensive firepower with a (somewhat) healthy Derrick Rose and a revitalized Pau Gasol.

Other things to consider: Jason Kidd may not be well-liked in some NBA quarters but he is proving to be a pretty effective NBA coach. No one expected much from the Bucks this season but they surpassed some more heralded teams to earn just their third playoff appearance since 2007.

#4 Toronto (49-33) vs. #5 Washington (46-36)

Season series: Toronto, 3-0

Washington can win if...the Wizards can recapture the form they demonstrated in last year's playoffs and in the first half of this season.

Toronto will win because...the Raptors are a team on the rise in general and they match up well with the Wizards in particular.

Other things to consider: The Wizards started out 19-6 but went 27-30 the rest of the way. There is little reason to believe that they will suddenly turn things around.

Western Conference First Round

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #8 New Orleans (45-37)

Season series: Golden State, 3-1

New Orleans can win if...Anthony Davis plays at a historically great level and if the pressure of being the number one overall seed proves to be too much for the young Warriors.

Golden State will win because...the Warriors proved over an 82 game season that they are an outstanding team. Stephen Curry emerged as the best player on the best team, Klay Thompson is an All-NBA Team candidate and the rotation includes several other very talented players.

Other things to consider: Golden State versus a reasonably healthy Oklahoma City would have been fascinating but that possibility was dashed when the Thunder shut down Kevin Durant. Golden State versus Russell Westbrook on a solo mission would have been compelling theater. Golden State versus New Orleans is going to prove to be a mismatch, though Davis' debut on the postseason stage is worth watching.

#2 Houston (56-26) vs. #7 Dallas (50-32)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if...Dwight Howard controls the paint and the referees reward James Harden for flailing on his drives to the hoop. The Rockets need for Harden to shoot at least .450 from the field, draw a large number of free throw attempts and not turn the ball over at a high rate. Houston also must hope that playoff Rajon Rondo does not show up.

Dallas will win because...the Mavericks are not going to let Harden just march to the free throw line. They will contest his three point shots, exploit his lack of a midrange game and contest his drives without hacking him. Dirk Nowitzki is declining but the every other day scheduling of the playoffs should help him recover between games. Rajon Rondo has a history of rising to the occasion in the playoffs. He could be a pesky defender on Harden.

Other things to consider: We have heard for three years that Harden is a "foundational player," to quote Houston GM Daryl Morey's peculiar description after acquiring Harden. Many people think that Harden deserves the 2015 MVP. Dwight Howard missed half of the season but the Rockets went 28-12 with him--including 5-2 down the stretch to secure the second seed--and he is healthy now. There are no excuses for Harden and the Rockets to not make a deep playoff run--but I think that Harden will once again struggle as his team falls in the first round.

#3 L.A. Clippers (56-26) vs. #6 San Antonio (55-27)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

L.A. can win if...Chris Paul lives up to his press clippings as an MVP candidate.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs finally have their full championship nucleus back in action. San Antonio won 11 straight games before falling in the final game of the season. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard missed 18 games but he reasserted himself down the stretch as one of the best two way players in the league.

Other things to consider: This is a nightmare matchup for the Clippers. The Clippers are not particularly tough mentally and have yet to make it to the Conference Finals despite having a talented roster headlined by two MVP caliber players. These are two of the top six teams in the league but one of them will be going home very early and it will most likely be the Clippers.

#4 Portland (51-31) vs. #5 Memphis (55-27)

Season series: Memphis, 4-0

Memphis can win if...the Grizzlies slow the game down, pound the Trail Blazers in the paint and make just enough outside shots to prevent Portland from trapping Memphis' big men.

Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will be the two best players on the court and Memphis' chronic inability to make a shot outside of the paint will enable Portland to harass Memphis' big men with extra defenders.

Other things to consider: Memphis swept the season series but that does not always mean much heading into the playoffs, when there is more time off between games and a team is able to focus on the opposing team's weakness. Memphis went 5-6 in the final 11 games, slipping from second in the West to fifth (Portland received the fourth seed despite having a worse record by virtue of winning the Pacific Division title). The Grizzlies' lack of outside shooting and overall lack of scoring punch will be too much to for them to overcome.


I expect the second round matchups to be Atlanta-Toronto, Cleveland-Chicago, Golden State-Portland and San Antonio-Dallas. Atlanta-Toronto should be entertaining but I expect Atlanta to prevail. Cleveland-Chicago will be a hard fought series; Chicago enjoys an edge in coaching and toughness but LeBron James should be enough to overcome those factors if he plays at his top level. Golden State has too much firepower for Portland. San Antonio and Dallas have contested some classic playoff series and this could be another one but the Mavericks do not have quite enough weapons and togetherness to dethrone the champions.

The Conference Finals should be outstanding. Atlanta is San Antonio East and the Hawks will try to frustrate LeBron James much like the Spurs have done two out of three times in the NBA Finals. As always, it will come down to which LeBron James shows up. If he plays his best, the Cavaliers will beat the Hawks. Golden State-San Antonio is a dream matchup, as the young upstarts seek to unseat the league's model franchise. It is tough to win three playoff series without home court advantage but if any team can do it the Spurs can. Look for the Spurs to get the split at Golden State in the first two games and win the series in six games.

The Spurs have been Kryptonite to LeBron James' Superman ever since they swept his Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals. The Spurs are smart, they are tough and they do not deviate from their principles or game plan under pressure. Coach Gregg Popovich is one of the great leaders in sports history. The Spurs will need all of those assets to win back to back NBA titles and overcome James' quest to end Cleveland's 50-plus year professional sports championship drought. Kawhi Leonard has demonstrated that he can make James work at both ends of the court. Tim Duncan is not as statistically dominant as he was when he won back to back regular season MVPs more than a decade ago but he anchors the Spurs' defense and provides an important post presence offensively. Tony Parker's speed and ability to finish in the paint put great pressure on opposing defenses.

I expect the San Antonio Spurs to win the 2015 NBA championship.


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

In my 2014-2015 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2014-2015 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

That adds up to 61/80 in the East and 64/80 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .781.

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

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

Total: 111/150 (.740)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 10 years I have correctly picked 10 of the 20 NBA Finals participants. In three of those 10 years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 PM


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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Which Statistics Best Predict Championship Success?

Which statistics best correlate with championship success? I wrote about this subject for NBCSports.com in 2006 and then updated that article in 2009. My newest article for The Roar compares the 2015 Golden State Warriors to NBA champions since 1990: Which Statistics Best Predict Championship Success?

Also, here is a list of how the past seven NBA champions ranked in point differential and defensive field goal percentage:

2008 Boston Celtics: 10.2 ppg point differential (1), .419 defensive field goal percentage (1)
2009 L.A. Lakers: 7.6 ppg point differential (2), .447 defensive field goal percentage (6)
2010 L.A. Lakers: 4.7 ppg point differential (6), .446 defensive field goal percentage (5)
2011 Dallas Mavericks: 4.2 ppg point differential (8), .450 defensive field goal percentage (8)
2012 Miami Heat: 6.0 ppg point differential (4), .434 defensive field goal percentage (5)
2013 Miami Heat: 7.9 ppg point differential (2), .440 defensive field goal percentage (6)
2014 San Antonio Spurs: 7.8 ppg point differential (1), .444 defensive field goal percentage (8)

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 PM


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Olympic Star/ABA MVP/NBA All-Star Spencer Haywood Receives Overdue Hall of Fame Selection

Spencer Haywood, who has been selected as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2015 class, is a seminal figure in basketball history. He starred for the 1968 gold-medal winning U.S. basketball team after many black players boycotted that squad. Then, Haywood left the University of Detroit as an underclassman to play for the ABA's Denver Rockets, for whom Haywood won Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game MVP and regular season MVP honors in 1969-70 after leading the league in scoring (30.0 ppg) and rebounding (19.5 rpg). Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain (37.6 ppg, 27.0 rpg) and Walt Bellamy (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg) are the only other rookies in pro basketball history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 19.0 rpg.

After a contract dispute with the Rockets, Haywood jumped to the NBA and signed with the Seattle Supersonics, precipitating a legal battle that eventually reached the Supreme Court:

Haywood's case involved a tangled web of legal issues: the Denver Rockets accused attorney Al Ross of convincing Haywood to breach his contract with them, while Haywood and Ross responded that the Rockets had signed Haywood when he was still a minor and did not have proper legal representation; the NBA objected to Seattle signing Haywood before his college class had graduated; the ABA wanted Haywood to be forbidden from playing for Seattle and compelled to fulfill the terms of his Rockets' contract; the NBA Buffalo Braves felt that they should have the rights to draft Haywood and attempt to sign him before any other NBA club dealt with him.

The NBA's four year rule was declared illegal by the courts and Haywood was permitted to play with the Supersonics until the remaining legal issues were resolved. The legal wrangling wiped out most of Haywood's 1970-1971 season and he played in only 33 games for the Supersonics, posting very respectable averages of 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds. Haywood's case was eventually settled out of court, with the end result that he was allowed to remain with the Supersonics permanently.

The overturning of the four year rule had a lasting impact on collegiate and professional sports. In 1971 the NBA instituted a "hardship" rule that allowed underclassmen to be drafted as long as they proved that they suffered from financial hardship. Needless to say, such declarations were a mere formality, as noted by writer Jackie Lapin in the April 1975 issue of Sport: "…almost anyone who has been any good at the game in the past decade would qualify--with the probable exception of Bill Bradley, the banker’s son."

Haywood's case paved the way for players to enter the NBA before their college class graduated. He thus affected the career paths of a host of Hall of Famers, from Magic Johnson to Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan all the up to Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Haywood's transition to the NBA was not easy. Haywood has often said that during his first season with Seattle the road team public address announcer would say Haywood's name and then declare that he was an "illegal player" who would not be permitted to participate. I have not been able to find a published account that includes that specific detail but, in a larger sense, Haywood's recollection is accurate. The Bulls sued the Supersonics for $600,000 and the Trail Blazers formally protested a 121-118 loss because Haywood's presence on Seattle's roster was an illegal distraction. According to an article in the January 4, 1971 edition of The Bulletin, Haywood sat on the bench but did not play in the games in question versus Chicago and Portland.

For decades, Haywood has felt slighted by the NBA, its players and the Hall of Fame selection process. He believes that the NBA never forgave him for winning in court and that many of the players who came after him never heard of him and/or did not appreciate his role in changing the rules. In a 2004 interview, Haywood told me, "The young guys coming out now don't get to know who Spencer Haywood is. They (the NBA) have named the rule 'early entry.' So, 'early entry' was not a person. 'Early entry' never went to the Supreme Court and fought anybody."

Haywood is very proud of his performance in the 1968 Olympics, when he averaged a team-high 16.1 ppg and set a U.S. Olympic record by shooting .719 from the field as Team USA went 9-0. He is the first teenager (age 19) to play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Haywood told me, "In '68 we went to the Olympics and we had the black boycott and all these things, Harry Edwards and everybody was against us and all these things, but we looked at ourselves as Americans, Americans first, and that we had to defend our country against the oncoming enemy, which at that time was Russia, the Soviets, whoever. It's the same thing that is going on now in terms of sports. When you talk about international sports, you talk about the Davis Cup in tennis and the World Cup, I mean countries are going nuts over this. Why aren't we as Americans looking at it as something special?"

After carrying Team USA to the gold medal, Haywood made his aforementioned spectacular ABA debut. Haywood was a dominant player in the first portion of his career. He averaged 24.9 ppg and 12.1 rpg during his five seasons in Seattle, earning four All-Star selections and four All-NBA Team selections (including First Team honors in 1972 and 1973 when he finished fifth and seventh respectively in MVP voting).

Seattle traded Haywood to the New York Knicks in 1975 and his battle with cocaine addiction tarnished the latter part of his career. He bounced around to several teams and he only averaged more than 20 ppg once in his final seven seasons. Haywood averaged a career-low 9.7 ppg in 1979-80 as a member of the Lakers' championship team, though he was suspended during the playoffs and did not receive his championship ring for several years. He spent the 1980-81 season playing pro basketball in Italy. Haywood bounced back in 1981-82 as a solid contributor (13.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) who helped Washington advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the Bullets reached the NBA Finals in 1979.

Haywood averaged 20.3 ppg and 10.3 rpg in his 13 season professional career. His high performance level in college basketball, Olympic basketball and pro basketball should have earned him Hall of Fame induction years ago. When I spoke with Haywood about the slight, he was understandably upset but also philosophical about his situation: "What I do is I try to eat right, treat people right, and do right and pray right and just be righteous with people. In time, it will come. That's my thing."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:42 PM


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Monday, April 06, 2015

Can Advanced Basketball Statistics Really Bridge 50 Years of NBA History?

Oscar Robertson is the only player in pro basketball history who averaged a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62; he also averaged an aggregate triple double over the course of his first five NBA seasons). Russell Westbrook is having a great 2015 season (27.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 8.6 apg) but is it really accurate--or meaningful--to declare, as Tom Haberstroh recently did, that Westbrook's statistics project to 46.9 ppg, 14.6 apg and 12.2 rpg at the NBA's 1961-62 pace of play? I explore this issue--and the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" in general--in my newest article at The Roar:

Can Advanced Basketball Statistics Really Bridge 50 Years of NBA History?

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:23 PM


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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Steve Nash’s Place in the Point Guard Pantheon

Steve Nash had a nice run in Dallas and won two MVPs in Phoenix before the sad denouement of his career in Los Angeles. He established himself as a very efficient shooter and deft playmaker but he never took a team to the NBA Finals. In my newest article at The Roar I examine Nash's legacy:

Steve Nash's Place in the Point Guard Pantheon

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 PM


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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Enigmatic LeBron James

LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He is also one of the most perplexing members of that elite group. He has tremendous physical talent and he is a student of the game; that combination of athletic ability and mental prowess makes some of his decisions and actions baffling. How can someone who is so great just quit at home in game five of a 2-2 series?

How can someone who is so great be outplayed for extended stretches in the NBA Finals by the likes of Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard? The great multiple-time MVPs and/or multiple-time champions--including Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were never the primary reason that their teams lost and they were never outplayed in their primes by non-Hall of Fame players with a championship on the line.

My newest article for The Roar examines the enigmatic nature of LeBron James' greatness:

The Enigmatic LeBron James

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:32 PM


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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why the Memphis Grizzlies Will Not Win the Championship

Many people consider the Memphis Grizzlies to be a team that is well-built for postseason play but in my column at The Roar I identify the fatal flaw that will prevent the Grizzlies from capturing the NBA crown:

Why the Memphis Grizzlies Will Not Win the Championship

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 PM


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Friday, March 13, 2015

Russell Westbrook is Proving that He is the NBA's Best Guard

There have not been many players who, by consensus, reigned as the NBA's best all-around guard. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West fought for the crown in the 1960s and early 1970s. Magic Johnson controlled the top spot for most of the 1980s. Michael Jordan at the very least challenged Johnson in the late 1980s and then Jordan took over in the 1990s. After Jordan retired, several players (including Jason Kidd and Tracy McGrady) vied for the title before Kobe Bryant emerged as the standard bearer. Bryant's career is winding down and during each of the past two seasons injuries have kept him off of the court for substantial periods of time and reduced his dominance when he was healthy enough to play.

Late last season, I suggested that Russell Westbrook is "poised" to inherit Bryant's spot. It is becoming increasingly evident that Westbrook is in fact the new Kobe Bryant, in mind and spirit if not quite in body, and that Westbrook is the proper heir to Bryant as the NBA's best all-around guard. Westbrook will likely never surpass Bryant's peak value because size matters in the NBA but Westbrook's attacking mindset and his ability to overcome both doubters and physical ailments show that he is very much built from the same mold as Bryant.

Westbrook has already earned four All-Star selections and three All-NBA Second Team nods but in the second half of this season he has taken his game to a new, almost unprecedented level. Westbrook averaged 31.2 ppg, 10.3 apg and 9.1 rpg in February, joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average 30 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in a calendar month (minimum 10 games). During a five game span starting February 24, Westbrook ranked in the top five in the league in scoring (38.2 ppg, first), assists (9.8 apg, third) and rebounding (12.4 rpg, ninth).

He also became just the fourth player in NBA history to have at least three straight 40 point--five rebound--five assist games. Elgin Baylor did this for four straight games in 1960-61, while Michael Jordan (1988-89) and Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64) did it for three straight games each. Baylor also did it for three straight games during the 1962-63 season.

Westbrook has performed at a high level throughout the season and he is the only player in the league who ranks in the top five in scoring (27.3 ppg, first), assists (8.3 apg, fourth) and steals (2.1 spg, third).

Westbrook's critics say that he shoots too much, that he is selfish and that he does not play a winning style of basketball but the Thunder's record states otherwise. The Thunder are 30-19 with Westbrook this season (.612 winning percentage), including 12-5 since February 1 as the team began making a late playoff push despite being without the services of 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant for much of that time (the Thunder are 6-4 in the most recent 10 game stretch that Durant has missed). The Thunder are just 5-10 (.333 winning percentage) without Westbrook (that record includes some early season games that both Durant and Westbrook missed).

The reality is that no matter what individual numbers Westbrook puts up or how many championships he wins, he will never satisfy all of the naysayers; after all, Bryant's five championships and numerous individual records/accomplishments have far from silenced his vocal critics. Those who understand basketball, though, appreciate how Bryant prepared for and played the game and that same respect should be extended to Westbrook as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 PM


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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Why Tanking Does Not Work

Last season, I cited Derek Thompson's article in The Atlantic about why tanking does not work. Despite the fact that tanking is both unethical and ineffective, it is becoming increasingly popular in the NBA. At The Roar, I reexamined the subject, focusing on the Philadelphia 76ers, who are pathetic in every sense of the word:

Why Tanking Does Not Work

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:05 PM


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Sunday, March 01, 2015

NBA MVP: Best Player in the League or Best Player on the Best Team?

My newest column for The Roar discusses the 2015 NBA MVP race:

NBA MVP: Best Player in the League or Best Player on the Best Team?

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM


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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Louie Dampier Earns Direct Election into the Basketball Hall of Fame

Louie Dampier is the fifth nominee directly elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame by the ABA Committee, joining Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Bobby "Slick" Leonard. I covered the Basketball Hall of Fame press conference five years ago when Jerry Colangelo, the Chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Board, pledged that under his leadership the Basketball Hall of Fame would honor players and teams that had "slipped through the cracks." I asked Colangelo specifically about several worthy ABA veterans and Colangelo replied, "I am hopeful that over a period of time these people will be recognized for their contributions." It is delightful that Colangelo has been true to his word and helped the Basketball Hall of Fame uphold the standards that it should have applied many years ago.

Artis Gilmore is a familiar name to NBA fans, "Slick" Leonard still does radio commentary for his beloved Pacers, Roger Brown was recently the subject of a wonderful documentary produced by Ted Green and Mel Daniels won two ABA regular season MVPs (second in league history behind Julius Erving's three MVPs) but Dampier's contributions and skill set may be less familiar to casual and/or younger basketball fans.

The 6-0, 165 pound Dampier holds the ABA career records for regular season points (13,726), games played (728), assists (4044) and three point field goals made (794). Dampier held the career ABA-NBA three point field goals made record until Dale Ellis broke it during the 1992-93 season (the NBA first used the three point shot in the 1979-80 season but the long ball did not immediately become a major weapon). Dampier ranked in the top five in three point field goal percentage for eight straight seasons, leading the ABA with a .387 mark in 1973-74. He twice led the ABA in three point field goals made and his 199 treys in 1968-69 stood as the ABA-NBA single season record until John Starks made 217 three pointers for the New York Knicks in 1994-95, the first of three seasons in which the league experimented with a shorter three point line (Dan Majerle and Mookie Blaylock each made 199 three pointers that season as well). Dampier's record for most three pointers made in a season with the three point line at the normal distance stood until Antoine "I only shoot threes because there are no fours" Walker shimmied his way to 221 three pointers in 2000-01.

Dampier was one of the outstanding players during the ABA's early years, ranked third in the league in scoring in 1968-69 (24.8 ppg) and fourth in the league in scoring in 1969-70 (26.0 ppg). He participated in all nine of the ABA's seasons as a member of the Kentucky Colonels, earning seven All-Star selections and four All-ABA Second Team selections.

Indiana native Dampier played a prominent role in the Kentucky Colonels--Indiana Pacers rivalry. He averaged 16.9 ppg (third on the team) and a team-leading 7.5 apg in the 1975 playoffs as the Colonels defeated the Pacers 4-1 in the ABA Finals to claim the franchise's only championship.

After the Colonels did not participate in the ABA-NBA merger, the San Antonio Spurs (a former ABA team) acquired Dampier. He spent three seasons with the Spurs in a reserve role, retiring the year before the NBA adopted the three point shot.

Dampier was not a franchise center like Daniels and Gilmore, nor was he an all-around superstar like Brown, but he was a tremendous shooter and playmaker who made a significant contribution to some very successful Kentucky teams. Dampier's Hall of Fame selection is well deserved and overdue.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:42 AM


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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Nobody Wants to Face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Playoffs

My second piece for The Roar focuses on the surging Oklahoma City Thunder:

Nobody Wants to Face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Playoffs

In case you missed it, my first column for The Roar compared the Atlanta Hawks to two teams that won NBA championships without having one of the league's 10 best players (the 1979 Supersonics and the 2004 Pistons):

Atlanta Hawks Seek to Win Championship Without a Superstar

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 PM


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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Atlanta Hawks Seek to Win Championship Without a Superstar

Most NBA championship teams--and all NBA dynasties that have won at least three titles--are led by one or two of the 10 best players in the league. The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks are built on a different model; they do not have one true superstar but they have several very good players. In my first piece for The Roar, where I am now a weekly columnist, I compare the Hawks to the 1979 Supersonics and the 2004 Pistons, two teams that won titles without having a superstar player.

Here is the link to that article:

Atlanta Hawks Seek to Win Championship Without a Superstar

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 AM


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Monday, February 16, 2015

Westbrook Leads West to 163-158 All-Star Game Victory

Russell Westbrook came out firing, pouring in 27 first half points in just 11 minutes, en route to scoring 41 points in 25 minutes as his Western Conference All-Stars defeated the Eastern Conference All-Stars 163-158. He shot 16-28 from the field, including 11-15 in his blazing hot first half. Westbrook set the All-Star Game record for points and field goals in a half and he fell just one point shy of tying Wilt Chamberlain's 1962 single game All-Star scoring mark. Westbrook also had five rebounds and a team-high three steals in an impressive, energetic and explosive display of his all-around basketball skill set.

Yes, this is just an exhibition game but it is also an exhibition game featuring the league's greatest players and in the 64 year history of the contest the list of players who previously cracked the 40 point barrier is short and includes, arguably, the two most dominant scoring machines that pro basketball has ever seen: Chamberlain scored 42 points as his East squad lost 150-130 in 1962 (the West's Bob Pettit won the MVP with 25 points and 27 rebounds) and Michael Jordan earned the MVP after scoring 40 points in front of his home Chicago fans while leading the East to a 138-133 victory in 1988.

LeBron James battled Westbrook for the MVP, leading the East in scoring with 30 points while adding seven assists and five rebounds. The East outscored the West by one point when James was on the court; Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague was the only other East player with a positive plus/minus number (three), but Teague only played 13:27 while James logged nearly 32 minutes. James has now scored 278 points in NBA All-Star competition, moving past Jordan (262) and now ranking second only to Kobe Bryant (280), though it should be noted that Julius Erving holds the ABA/NBA All-Star record with 321 points.

Reigning regular season MVP Kevin Durant scored just three points in 10 minutes, but James Harden picked up the slack for the West with 29 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. LaMarcus Aldridge added 18 points in 18 minutes, connecting on all four of his three point attempts. Stephen Curry contributed 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while DeMarcus Cousins scored 14 points on 6-7 field goal shooting.

Kyle Korver ranked second in scoring for the East with 21 points, doing all of his damage from beyond the arc. John Wall added 19 points and seven assists. East starting forward Carmelo Anthony made a bid for MVP honors for the West, bricking his way to 14 points on 6-20 field goal shooting.

The 2015 NBA All-Star Game was a shootout from start to finish as the teams tied the All-Star Game record for point in a half (165 in the first half) and set a new record with 321 total points. Korver and Harden each shot 7-12 from three point range as the teams combined to make 48 three pointers, obliterating the record of 30 set last year.

Anyone who suggests that defense is not emphasized during the NBA regular season and playoffs should look no further than this game to refute that oft-repeated but tired and inaccurate notion; the high level of defense typically played in the NBA is best demonstrated by looking at what happens when most of the players are operating on cruise control at that end of the court: if teams did not focus on defense then the game scores would regularly reach 140, 150 and even 160 points, because NBA players are just that talented.

Although some enjoyment can be derived from watching great players score with amazing dunks and heat check three pointers, I agree with Julius Erving that the All-Star Games were better when the defensive intensity was more consistent. It is possible to have fun, entertain the fans and not get hurt while still competing at both ends of the court. Other than three overtime contests (1980, 1984, 1987), only one team scored at least 140 points during Erving's 11 NBA All-Star appearances (West, 1985). The winning team topped 140 points three times in Erving's five All-Star appearances in the ABA, which featured a more wide-open style of play.

Like many people, most of my favorite All-Star Game memories will probably always date back to my youth, but I also enjoyed the six All-Star Games that I covered in person (my recaps of the 2005-2010 All-Star Weekends can be found in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's home page) and I still consider the All-Star Game must-see TV because of the sheer talent that the event showcases.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM


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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Kobe Bryant the Realist Faces His Basketball Mortality

Kobe Bryant had successful--but season-ending--surgery yesterday to repair the torn right rotator cuff that he suffered during the L.A. Lakers' 96-80 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Wednesday. Although Bryant will undoubtedly do his best to return to action as soon as possible (nine months is the expected recovery time for this procedure), the injury could possibly signal the end of Bryant's career; he still has not quite completely recovered from the Achilles and knee injuries that limited him to just six games last season and now he faces yet another grueling rehabilitation regime.

Bryant hurt his shoulder while converting a driving, two-handed dunk. He stayed in the game, attempting to play left-handed and even nailing a left-handed turnaround jumper before Coach Byron Scott removed Bryant from the contest. After the game, Bryant insisted that the injury was no big deal but last Friday an MRI revealed the extent of the damage. Reports indicate that Bryant may have been playing with a shoulder injury of some sort throughout this season, which could possibly at least partially explain his career-low .373 field goal percentage.

Prior to tearing his rotator cuff, Bryant seemed to be making some necessary adjustments/concessions to his age and physical limitations. During the L.A. Lakers' 109-102 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 15, Kobe Bryant posted 19 points, seven rebounds and a career-high 17 assists. The 36 year old Bryant became the oldest player in Lakers' history to have at least 15 assists in a game. Bryant returned to the NBA this season after a ruptured Achilles forced him to miss the 2013 playoffs and his recovery from that injury plus a lateral tibial fracture in his left knee caused him to miss all but six games of the 2013-14 season. In his 19th season, Bryant has been forced to accept that he can no longer single-handedly carry his team--and that he cannot play 36-plus minutes a night and that he probably cannot handle back to back games on a regular basis. This state of affairs has also been an adjustment for Coach Scott, who was Bryant's teammate when Bryant was a rookie and Scott was in his final season; the young Kobe Bryant would refuse to leave the game and occasionally might just check himself back into a contest if he felt that things were getting out of hand while he was on the bench. Prior to this season, Bryant realistically suggested to Scott that his minutes should be restricted but Scott--perhaps fooled by how fit Bryant is--thought that Bryant could handle a heavier workload. Recently, Scott trimmed Bryant's minutes and deactivated Bryant for entire games when necessary.

For most of his career, Bryant could take over games at will. Bryant understands that he can no longer do that: "Well, the Kobe from five years ago could physically pick up this whole team by myself. I've always been a realist, though. Always. I'm not afraid to self-assess and be honest about that and be brutally honest with myself. I can look myself in the mirror and say, physically, I can't do that, so I'm not going to do that. I'll do something else. I'll figure out how to do something else. You can't achieve that level of anything if you're not brutally honest with yourself, man. You've got to be. I am that. That's why you're not seeing that."

Bryant's harsh and vocal critics this season overlook that he can still impact the game in many positive ways. Bryant explains, "It's just different. It's more putting the pieces in the right place. It's more quarterbacking. It's more positioning. It's more strategic. It's less foot on the throttle. I'll be at a high level. I can get 15 [points], 10 assists, eight rebounds in 30 minutes in my sleep."

The most deceptive aspect of the aging process regarding elite athletes who work hard to stay in shape is that, superficially, they often appear to have not lost anything. For instance, Jerry Rice and Hakeem Olajuwon kept themselves in marvelous physical condition. They looked young and fit even at the very end of their careers but, unfortunately, their bodies could no longer perform at an elite level. Jerry Rice standing on the football field in his uniform in 2004 looked just as fit as Jerry Rice looked in 1985 or 1995--but in 2004 his explosiveness was gone. Hakeem Olajuwon as a Toronto Raptor in 2002 looked like a marvelously conditioned human being--but he could not play like Hakeem Olajuwon did as a Houston Rocket in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kobe Bryant version 2014-15 has more left in the tank than Rice and Olajuwon did in their final seasons--but Bryant and the Lakers have been forced to adjust to changing circumstances. It is not wise or fair to compare this Kobe Bryant to the Kobe Bryant who won five championships or the Kobe Bryant who twice carried Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the playoffs.

In one sense it will be a shame if the last images of Bryant's career consist of Bryant shooting left-handed and trying to use his one good arm to single-handedly carry a bad team--but, in another sense, it would be quite fitting: Bryant never quits, never makes excuses, never gives in to pain or injury and always finds a way to be productive when he is on the court. Watching Bryant sink that left-handed turnaround jumper with textbook form, I thought of LeBron James--immensely talented, in the prime of his career, the most dominant player in the sport when he wants to be--talking earlier in the season about being in "chill mode." Like Michael Jordan, like most great champions, Bryant does not have "chill mode." LeBron James is bigger and stronger than Kobe Bryant and James may run faster and jump higher than Bryant did even in Bryant's prime (though it is easy to forget just how athletic the young Bryant was)--but even after belatedly learning just how hard he has to play to become a champion, James still seems to have not completely internalized just how much focus it takes to reach the highest level in Pro Basketball's Pantheon.

I try to avoid ranking players within the Pantheon but--much like I have felt for years that Bryant will never quite match up with Michael Jordan, though the gap is not as wide as some people like to believe--it just seems like James' mental game and his championship ring total will never quite match up with Kobe Bryant's. There are little things that maybe aren't so little at all that tip the balance toward Bryant. When Bryant played with All-Star big men (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol), those players had the best seasons of their careers; when James played with All-Star big men (Chris Bosh, Kevin Love), those players had to sacrifice their games and accept lesser roles. It is so ironic that James is cast as a pass-first, unselfish player and yet Bryant has done so much more to bring out the best in his teammates. When you watch James you get the feeling that he knows exactly how many points and assists he has and what his field goal percentage is but when you watch Bryant you get the feeling that he is just trying to make sure that his team kills the opposing team and statistics be damned. If I had one playoff game to win and could take either guy in his prime the choice would be very easy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM


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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Changing of the Guard--or Diminishing of the Guards?

Subjectively, it seems like there is a changing of the guard--literally and figuratively--in the NBA. Young players like Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis are moving to the forefront, while older players who have dominated the NBA for the past several years are declining and/or hampered by injuries. The shooting guard position is taking on a new look. Kobe Bryant, the best shooting guard--and often the best player overall--in the NBA for the better part of the past decade and a half, has just suffered another season-ending injury; surgery on his right rotator cuff is expected to keep him out of action for nine months. Dwayne Wade, probably the second best shooting guard in the NBA for most of the time frame that Bryant dominated, has been battling injuries and declining athleticism for several years.

In FanDuel leagues the best fantasy basketball player options at shooting guard are guys like James Harden and Klay Thompson. Harden and Thompson--who set the all-time NBA record by pouring in 37 points in a quarter en route to scoring 52 points during Golden State's 126-101 rout of Sacramento last Friday--are also the scoring leaders among shooting guards so far this season, at 27.6 ppg and 23.0 ppg respectively (Harden is the NBA's overall scoring leader as well). Surprisingly, Bryant (22.3 ppg) and Wade (21.4 ppg) are next in line, though of course Bryant will not play enough games this season to be a qualifier. Monta Ellis is fifth (20.3 ppg) and Jimmy Butler is the only other shooting guard averaging at least 20 ppg (20.1 ppg).

My initial assumption was that if I looked back five years the list would be much different but in 2009-10 the scoring leaders among shooting guards were Kobe Bryant (27.0 ppg), Dwyane Wade (26.6 ppg), Monta Ellis (25.5 ppg), Tyreke Evans (20.1 ppg) and Jamal Crawford (18.1 ppg). Evans is seventh this season (17.0 ppg) and Crawford is 11th (15.7 ppg).

However, 10 year ago the shooting guard landscape included greater quality and quantity. Allen Iverson led the scoring parade (30.7 ppg, capturing the last of his four scoring titles) but seven other shooting guards also averaged at least 20 ppg: Kobe Bryant (27.6 ppg), Tracy McGrady (25.7 ppg), Vince Carter (24.5 ppg), Dwyane Wade (24.1 ppg), Ray Allen (23.9 ppg), Michael Redd (23.0 ppg) and Jason Richardson (21.7 ppg). The first six players on that list are future Hall of Famers in their primes, while the 2005 versions of Redd and Richardson would almost certainly be All-Stars in 2015 (Redd made the All-Star team once in an injury-riddled career and Richardson never made the All-Star team).

Obviously, even though the position is called "shooting guard" a lot more goes into being a great shooting guard than just shooting/scoring. However, I doubt that many objective talent evaluators would take the top shooting guards of 2015--using any relevant statistic or standard--as a group over the top shooting guards of 2005. Maybe we are not seeing a changing of the guard as much as we are seeing some talent depletion at the shooting guard position. Such things are cyclical and it could be argued that the point guard position is now enjoying a renaissance but thinking about this does put All-NBA selections and All-Star selections in perspective; when considering such honors from a historical standpoint, it is important not to just look at how many times a player was tapped but also what kind of depth existed at his position during his prime.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:51 PM


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Sunday, January 04, 2015

NBA Potpourri: James Harden, David Blatt, and The New York Knicks' Mess

The start of a new year is as good a time as any to revisit some recurring NBA themes, specifically how James Harden's game should be evaluated, how good of an NBA coach David Blatt is and what it will take to turn around the New York Knicks.

How Good Is James Harden?

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to Houston in 2012 after Harden refused to sign anything less than a max contract, I declared that Harden is best-suited to being a third option on a championship-contending team and I rejected the notion that he is an All-NBA First Team or Second Team caliber player. In contrast, Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, one of the most highly regarded "stat gurus," proclaimed that Harden is a "foundational player." I had never heard that phrase before but the only relevant or sensible interpretation is that Morey believes that Harden is great enough to be the best player on a championship-caliber team and/or that Harden is great enough to lift a mediocre or worse team well above its otherwise expected performance level. Harden is more than a third of the way through his third season in Houston, so one can draw at least preliminary conclusions about his game. Three issues should be examined: How Harden's departure affected the Thunder, how Harden's arrival affected the Rockets and how Harden has performed in terms of his individual productivity.

The Thunder posted a .712 winning percentage in Harden's final season with the team (2011-12) and they advanced to the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat in no small part because Harden performed awfully on the sport's biggest stage; during the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden averaged 12.4 ppg--4.4 ppg worse than his regular season average--while shooting just .375 from the field and committing 12 turnovers in 164 minutes (Harden's teammate Russell Westbrook posted 11 turnovers in 211 minutes despite playing most of his minutes against the Heat's best players while Harden had the opportunity to play against reserves and/or tired starters).

Without Harden in 2012-13, the Thunder improved their winning percentage to .732 and eliminated Harden's Rockets 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs--but Westbrook suffered a playoff-ending injury versus the Rockets, crushing the Thunder's hopes of returning to the NBA Finals. In 2013-14, the Thunder posted a .720 winning percentage even though Westbrook missed 36 games while recovering from his knee injury. The Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. This season, both Westbrook and 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP Kevin Durant have missed a significant number of games due to injury but the Thunder are 17-17, including six wins in their past 10 games as Durant and Westbrook have returned to action.

There is no evidence that Harden's departure has negatively impacted the Thunder; their regular season record improved without him--no small accomplishment considering how good their record was in 2011-12--and their failure to make it back to the NBA Finals is related to injuries, not Harden's absence. If the Thunder had kept Harden then they likely would have lost Serge Ibaka and they would have been worse off.

What about Harden's impact on his new team? The Rockets' winning percentage improved from .515 to .549 in Harden's first season in Houston. That is equivalent to about three wins in an 82 game season. After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Rockets sneaked in as the eighth seed and promptly lost in the first round to, as mentioned above, Harden's old team.

In 2013-14, the Rockets added Dwight Howard--a five-time All-NBA First Team center who had almost completely recovered from the back surgery that slowed him down in 2012-13 when he played for the L.A. Lakers--and improved their winning percentage to .659. The Rockets tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the fourth best record in the Western Conference, received homecourt advantage versus Portland based on a tiebreaker and still did not manage to even push the series to seven games, losing 4-2. 

This season, the Rockets got off to a fast start but their current winning percentage is .697 and they would not even have homecourt advantage in the first round if the playoffs began today. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games and it seems much more likely that they will fall behind the L.A. Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder as opposed to passing the teams that are already ahead of them in the standings.

The Rockets have improved a bit since Harden's arrival but they are still not a legitimate contender and the improvement that they have made has at least as much to do with Dwight Howard as it does with Harden. Harden is neither carrying a bad roster to unexpected heights nor is he lifting a good roster into legitimate championship contention. The Rockets have been first round playoff fodder the past two seasons and there is no reason to believe that they will advance past the first round this season.

Individually, Harden has put up some gaudy scoring numbers. He ranked fifth in the league in scoring in both 2012-13 and 2013-14 and he currently leads the league in scoring. However, Harden's field goal percentage plummeted as his role changed from being the third option to being the first option. For such a big-time scorer, Harden has a very limited offensive game; he either shoots three pointers or he drives to the hoop, throws himself into opposing players and begs for foul calls (which he often gets, at least in the regular season). Harden has no postup game and no midrange game; he plays the way that "stat gurus" prefer, because he racks up most of his points from either three pointers or free throws. It does not require an advanced mathematics degree to figure out that long two point shots (i.e., shots taken from just inside three point range) are not good shots; a player who has the ball just inside the three point arc should either step back and take advantage of the potential extra point or else drive closer to the hoop for a higher percentage two point shot. However, the idea held by many "stat gurus" that the midrange game is completely inefficient and/or unnecessary is extreme. Teams that cannot score in the midrange game are not going to advance very far in the playoffs unless they perform exceptionally well in other areas on a consistent basis.

Harden puts up decent assist totals but those numbers are a deceptive product of Houston's drive and kick offense; Harden is not individually creating offensive opportunities for his teammates a la great playmakers such as Magic Johnson or Isiah Thomas.

A player like Harden is not so hard to defend in the playoffs when the competition is tougher and the teams are well rested; you put one mobile defender on Harden, you deny Harden open three point shots and when Harden drives you avoid body contact while making sure to contest his shot. It is not necessary to double team Harden; Harden does not "tilt the floor" the way that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do. It is no accident that Harden has shot worse than .400 from the field in three of his five postseasons, including both of his Houston playoff appearances.

Despite his high scoring average, I still think that Harden is an overrated offensive player. When Durant and Westbrook created opportunities for Harden, Harden was a much more efficient player. Now, Harden has a license to shoot at any time but he is not efficient and he has not elevated his team beyond the middle of the playoff pack.

Then, there is the notorious matter of Harden's defense. Harden may be the worst defender among All-Star players in quite some time. Often, he does not even pretend to try at that end of the court. Supposedly his defense has improved this season but he set the bar so low that the only way he could have gotten worse is if he actually put the ball in the hoop for the other team.

So, if my description of Harden is correct then why did he make the All-Star team the past two years and why did he earn an All-NBA Third Team selection in 2013 before making the All-NBA First Team in 2014? I never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a good player; he just is not an elite or "foundational" player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets.

In 2013, I gave Harden serious All-NBA consideration before tapping Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry as my choices for the league's six best guards. Last season, injuries decimated the ranks of the league's elite guards (including Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo), paving the way for Harden to ascend to All-NBA First Team status.

Maybe Harden will prove me wrong. Maybe he will become more efficient offensively. Maybe he will start to play defense. Maybe he will shoot better than .400 in the playoffs and lead Houston past the first round. Until he does those things, though, I will not consider him an elite or "foundational" player.

Is David Blatt an NBA Championship-caliber Coach?

The simple answer is "No." How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players. Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to an NBA title.

Let us not misunderstand what happened several years ago when Team USA went through a stretch of failing to win gold medals in FIBA play. Those Team USA rosters did not include Kobe Bryant--the best player in the world at the time--and neither the players nor the coaching staff took the task seriously enough. If Team USA had been better coached and if the rosters had been better constructed then Team USA would have won every time. The fact that some FIBA teams could win one 40 minute game under FIBA rules against NBA players did not at all prove that the FIBA players and/or teams are superior to NBA players and NBA teams playing under NBA rules. If the best FIBA team played an 82 game NBA schedule that team would struggle to win 41 games--but if Team USA players trained year round under FIBA rules they could show up in any FIBA league or competition and win the championship.

The NBA game is faster, tougher, more physical and more complicated than the FIBA game with which Blatt is familiar. Blatt's supposedly sophisticated FIBA offensive sets are not getting the job done in the NBA even though Blatt's Cleveland squad is blessed with the best player in the NBA, two other All-Stars and a host of good NBA role players--and Blatt has yet to prove that he can teach and/or motivate NBA players to play good defense on a consistent basis.

The real questions are (1) Can David Blatt become an NBA championship-caliber coach? and (2) Will he become such a coach fast enough to keep his job in Cleveland? Blatt is not entirely to blame for Cleveland performing below expectations; LeBron James has admittedly coasted at times, various players have been injured and now Anderson Varejao is out for the season. However, even when LeBron James played hard and the Cavaliers were at full strength they did not consistently look like a championship team. It is interesting to recall how much criticism Mike Brown received during his first stint as Cleveland's coach. The current Cleveland team has more name-brand talent than Brown ever coached in Cleveland--though I think that talent on Brown's teams has been underrated a bit--but Blatt's squad lacks the attention to detail on defense that Brown's teams consistently displayed.

What Will it Take to Turn Around the Knicks?

The Knicks must get rid of Carmelo Anthony and rebuild their roster from the bottom up. When Mike Ditka first became coach of the Chicago Bears, he told the players that the good news was that he was going to lead the team to a championship but the bad news was that most of them would not be on the team by the time that happened. I expected that after Phil Jackson took over New York's basketball operations he would not re-sign Anthony; if someone other than Jackson did that he would probably be ridiculed for letting an allegedly elite player go but I thought that Jackson has enough championship credibility to defend such a move in the media--and cutting ties with Anthony is clearly the route that the Knicks should have taken.

Jackson publicly identified the Knicks' problems before he joined the team's front office: the Knicks have, as Jackson put it, a "clumsy roster." Anthony will probably be able to put the ball in the bucket until he is 40 years old but his overall game has not improved much since he entered the league: he likes to play one-on-one isolation basketball, he passes only as a last resort, he plays defense when he feels like doing so (not often enough to lead a team to a championship) and he is a capable, though not exceptional, rebounder considering his overall athletic gifts. He is not a good leader; he and his teams perform best when he is being guided/mentored by players with a championship mentality (Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd in the NBA, Kobe Bryant with Team USA). 

The Knicks are currently 5-30, barely ahead of a Philadelphia team that has been accused of tanking. How can anyone possibly believe that Anthony is even close to being an elite player? Take Anthony off of that New York roster and add any elite player from the past 30 years; can you imagine the Knicks only winning five out of 35 games? A few years ago, Kobe Bryant made it to the playoffs in the Western Conference with Smush Parker at point guard and Kwame Brown at center. At some point, people have to stop looking at statistics, stop being blinded by reputation and just look at what is actually happening on the court. Carmelo Anthony is a physically gifted athlete and an All-Star caliber performer but he is never, ever going to lead a team to an NBA championship. He could possibly be the second best player on a championship team if the best player is a great leader, if the team is extremely well coached and if the right supporting cast is on hand.

I wonder if Jackson thought that Anthony would play his way out of New York in such a fashion that Jackson would not be blamed and meanwhile Jackson could take his time retooling the rest of the roster. In other words, if the Knicks had posted a respectable 45-37 record this season and Anthony had turned in his typical playoff disappearing act in a first round loss then Anthony might have considered waiving his no-trade clause and Jackson could have dealt Anthony without being viewed as the villain.

Jackson must have known that the Knicks would not be a contender this season but he could not have possibly imagined things going as disastrously as they have. Media members are rightly criticizing Jackson for giving up Tyson Chandler but Jackson's biggest mistake thus far has been committing so much guaranteed money to someone who is just not a franchise player. Jackson should have done what Masai Ujiri did in Denver: send Anthony to a team dumb enough to take him in exchange for a package of good, solid players. If Anthony would not have agreed to such a sign and trade, then the Knicks should have let him walk and used the salary cap space to rebuild their roster. Normally, I would not advocate possibly letting an All-Star leave without getting anything in return but in this case the reality is that Anthony is not going to lead New York to a championship and thus it makes no sense for the Knicks to pay him as if he is an elite performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM


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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kobe Bryant is not as Good as Michael Jordan--So What?

Kobe Bryant scored 26 points during the Lakers' 100-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday December 14 to move past Michael Jordan into third place on pro basketball's career scoring list. One might think that this accomplishment would be an occasion to reflect upon Bryant's consistency and longevity but while some observers have taken that approach many commentators go to great lengths--either via anecdotes or via statistics--to "prove" that Jordan is not just better than Bryant but that Jordan is much better. The very fact that the comparison is often made--even if it is just done to belittle Bryant--says a lot. No one is comparing scrub players to Michael Jordan. For that matter, no one is comparing LeBron James or Tim Duncan or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Garnett to Jordan. Bryant has won five championships and he has been a dominant two-way player since the early 2000s. There is no one else since Jordan retired who can be compared with Jordan. Yes, everyone in the post-Jordan era falls short in that matchup, but at least a case can be made for Bryant in terms of Bryant being a fundamentally sound, freakishly competitive multiple championship winner with a high pain tolerance and a low tolerance for teammates who lack willpower and desire.

The way that some people compare Jordan and Bryant is interesting. The best case for Jordan versus Bryant would focus on Jordan's efficiency and Jordan's performances during his 6-0 run in NBA Finals (Bryant has one more Finals appearance than Jordan but also two more Finals losses). Of course, field goal percentages in general were higher during Jordan's era, the rules and style of play were much different and Jordan's overall numbers benefited from him playing college ball before immediately becoming an NBA starter while Bryant jumped straight to the NBA from high school and thus needed some on the job training as a bench player.

The similarities between the players--in skill set, physique and demeanor--are striking and not just superficial. If Jordan had publicly called his teammates soft and then the next night his undermanned squad defeated the reigning NBA champions, the media would have exploded with paeans to Jordan's competitive greatness and how Jordan brings out the best in his teammates--but when Bryant does this he is mocked, media members predict that Bryant is going to shoot 50 times against the Spurs and then when the Lakers win the whole story disappears.

While some media members and fans may not understand or appreciate the rough edges of Bryant's personality, Kevin Durant, the 2014 NBA MVP, respects Bryant's approach and refutes the idea that good players do not want to play with Bryant:

Excuse my language, but that's (expletive). I want to play with a winner every single night, especially somebody who wants to win that bad, who works that hard, who demands a lot, who raises up your level. I'd want to play with a guy like that every day...(His style) may make people uncomfortable, how he acts and just how he approaches the game, but I love that type of stuff. I think (the accusation) is BS.

Durant admires the way that Bryant pushes his teammates to be better, a trait that Durant observed firsthand as Bryant's teammate while winning the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics:

Just his work ethic, just his demeanor man. He doesn't mind being an (expletive), and he comes to work man. He's intense. He demands a lot out of his teammates, and I've seen that just playing alongside him in the Olympics (in 2012). He demands a lot out of everybody. He makes them better. Everybody out on the court. You've got to respect that. As a player, I study guys like that. We might not have the same personality, but I think we approach the game the same way and I've learned a lot from just watching him.

Once one moves past comparing Bryant to Jordan and once one understands that any player with the right mindset would welcome the challenge and opportunity of playing with Bryant, one can focus on just how remarkable Bryant's current season is. Forget for a moment his career-low field goal percentage and consider the fact that Bryant is a highly productive player in his 19th NBA season. Only three players in NBA history have even made it past their 19th season: Robert Parish (21 seasons), Kevin Willis (21 seasons) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20 seasons). All three of those players are big men who could camp out in the post and did not have the responsibility of handling the ball full-court. Parish did not average more than 5 ppg after his 18th season. Willis was not a full-time starter or double figure scorer after his 14th season. Abdul-Jabbar, one of the most dominant centers in pro basketball history, did not average more than 25 ppg or more than 9 rpg after his 13th season; he made the All-Star team in his 19th, 20th and 21st seasons but he did not average more than 18 ppg or 7 rpg in any of those campaigns.

In contrast, during the 2014-15 season Bryant is logging heavy minutes (35.4 mpg), his floor game is still excellent (5.1 rpg, 4.9 apg and 1.4 spg, numbers that are comparable to his career averages of 5.3 rpg, 4.8 apg and 1.4 spg) and he is scoring 24.6 ppg. Bryant's field goal percentage (.372) is not good but he is remarkably productive and durable for a 19 year veteran who is coming off of two serious leg injuries. Bryant is in excellent shape and if his body holds up his field goal percentage will probably improve during the course of this season as he regains his game legs after being out of action for such an extended period.

No, Kobe Bryant is not quite as good as Michael Jordan and, no, Kobe Bryant is no longer as efficient or dominant as he was during his prime--or even during his last healthy full season, when he was a legitimate MVP-caliber player averaging 25.5 ppg on .463 field goal shooting (including a career-high .510 from two point range) as a 17 year NBA veteran--but Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan that we have seen or are likely to see anytime soon. Bryant's former dominance and his remarkable, ongoing longevity should be celebrated.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:02 AM


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Friday, December 12, 2014

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" Makes its ESPN Classic Debut Tonight!

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" will air on ESPN Classic tonight starting at 10:30 p.m. Producer Ted Green's labor of love--a film about a great basketball player who triumphed despite being deprived of the opportunity to play pro ball during a significant portion of his prime years--is gripping, heartwarming and heartbreaking. It should be appointment viewing for any serious basketball fan.

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" made its Dayton, Ohio debut in August, 2013. Dayton, my hometown, is where Roger Brown played freshman ball for the University of Dayton and where he excelled for several years on the AAU circuit before signing with the ABA's Indiana Pacers. Brown's spectacular clutch shooting helped the Pacers win three ABA titles and earned him the respect of several of the greatest players of all-time: Julius Erving, George Gervin and Rick Barry spoke very highly of Brown when I interviewed them more than a decade ago and asked if they thought that Brown deserved to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Brown's long overdue Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement took place in 2013.  Brown did not live long enough to enjoy that honor but his name and his accomplishments are inextricably interwoven with the history of the Pacers, the ABA and pro basketball as a whole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:28 AM


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