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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview With Gene Jones, Developer of Triviation

LeBron James possesses breathtaking physical skills but he did not win a championship until he mastered the mental game. This critical element for success has always fascinated me and I have written many articles on the subject, including my review of Garret Kramer's book Stillpower: Your Inner Source of Excellence in Sports--and Life.

Gene Jones, developer of the Triviation method to "activate breakthrough thinking," believes that honing one's mental/psychological game is important in many aspects of life, including sports:

Hall of Fame baseball player and legendary wordsmith Yogi Berra famously said "90% of this game is 50% mental." While the math of this statement doesn't add up, it points to a vital aspect of sports and athletic competition.     

Although the games we play and watch are visibly physical, the key to success in sports is based on mental preparation and approach. Whether you are a sports hobbyist or a top professional athlete, the mental component of sports is what differentiates those who are continually frustrated from those who succeed. It almost always determines the outcome between two opponents who are fundamentally "evenly matched."

This means that breakthrough thinking is an essential element in all sports endeavors. How many times has it been said that an individual athlete or team "just has to get over the hump" to win a championship, or that one athlete or team has the "mental edge" over another?

I recently conducted a brief email interview with Mr. Jones. His unedited answers to my questions are set apart in italics.

Q: In what ways are your ideas about "flow"influenced by and/or complementary with the work done by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi?

Mihály was a pioneer in this field. When I read his work a number of years ago, I had already formulated many of my views on "flow" states. Reading his work was important confirmation of the conclusions I had arrived at.

Q: Which athletes have you worked with and/or observed who best exemplify the kind of "breakthrough thinking" that you recommend to achieve peak performance? What is a good, specific example of how one of those athletes employed such techniques effectively?

I hesitate to single out any athletes in this regard because I do not know what thought processes they have used.

Q: Are you familiar with Tim Grover's work? My interview with him can be found here: Interview with Tim Grover, Author of Relentless. Do you see a downside to the kind of focus and intensity that is necessary to achieve a high level of success in a given field, perhaps in terms of sacrifices one has to make in other areas of one's life?

There is a downside to any endeavor that is pursued with overwhelming intensity, as other aspects of life are often overlooked. The key word here is finding some balance while also being laser focused on a lofty goal.

To me, the truly successful person is one who reaches a high level of success while also maintaining a balanced and full existence. It is important not to let passion for any one aspect of life run wild and trample the rest of your life. This is true for any field of endeavor--not just sports.

Q: What is the biggest mistake that earnest competitors make when trying to maximize their potential?

There is no single biggest mistake. I like to evaluate each circumstance as an individual challenge.

Q: Do you believe in the concept of "choking" as the opposite of "flow"? If so, how would you define choking and how can one best prevent it?

This question opens up a whole world of its own. Saying that an athlete "choked" is one of the most nasty comments a person can make. Deciding as to whether a person choked or not can often be a subjective judgment. Simply put, choking is the opposite of being "clutch," but it is more than that. Someone who chokes is having an emotional crisis that prevents him/her from performing up to his/her capabilities. Simply missing a shot at the buzzer, or not getting a hit in a critical point of a baseball game, is not necessarily a "choke." Even a great athlete in a "flow" state can miss a shot or hit the ball directly at a fielder, etc. In my opinion, the only time that failure reaches the level of choking is when it is clear that the athlete is emotionally gnarled up and therefore not functioning properly. At that point, it becomes a "nervous condition" that needs to be treated. I would also take a serious look at that athlete's preparation process to see if improving the preparation can relieve the insecurity.

Q: Is there a specific, important idea or concept that I have not mentioned that you would like to share with my readers?

You have asked some good questions. I like to be of assistance to others in any way I can by either answering questions and/or analyzing specific situations. There are always more important ideas and concepts to explore. In fact, I am writing a whole book to try and encompass some of them. But it is difficult to answer such a wide open question as this. To use a baseball metaphor, this question makes me feel like a batter who is trying to pitch to himself...I'm trying to be on the mound at the same time I am in the batter's box.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 PM

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fully Evolved LeBron James Returns to Cleveland

When LeBron James left Cleveland four years ago, he was a great player--the best regular season player in the game--but his on-court game still contained flaws (including an inconsistent outside shot, the reluctance to post up and an incomplete understanding of what it takes to lead a team to a championship) and his off-court game betrayed a lack of maturity: he would be the first to admit now that the "Decision" was poorly thought out/executed and that the subsequent preseason victory party in Miami displayed a staggering combination of hubris and naivete; it is not easy to win "Not one, not two, not three, etc." championships nor is it prudent to boast about the inevitability of doing so before playing a single game with a new team and right after quitting in his most recent playoff series.

Spending four years in Miami changed James. He finally added an outside shot and a post up game to his repertoire, he learned that the best player must assert himself as the best player--and not defer to anyone else--and he figured out the paradoxical truth that understanding how difficult it is to win a championship makes it easier to win a championship. The latter point is perhaps the most important one: if you think that it is easy to win a championship then you will take shortcuts in your preparation, you will be overconfident against opponents who you perceive to be inferior and you will be inclined to quit when things become difficult--because you never expected things to become difficult and thus you are not prepared mentally, psychologically and physically to rise to the challenge. Think of George Foreman versus Muhammad Ali; most of the world thought that Foreman was invincible and Foreman bought into the hype, so when Ali took Foreman's best punches for several rounds and then asked Foreman if that was all he had, Foreman realized that he had nothing left. In his worst playoff performances at the highest levels of competition, James looked like Foreman: an imposing figure physically who was outsmarted and defeated by wily, tough opponents.

James' explanation for why he is returning to Cleveland is mature and measured; he hit all of the right notes, said all of the right things and showed that he has shed himself of the hubris and naivete he displayed to the world four years ago.  He wisely declared, "I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver." James set a confident but not brash or defiant tone. He is the best player in the NBA and he can reasonably expect to win at least one more championship if he plays up to his potential while being surrounded by a competent supporting cast--but nothing is guaranteed.

James' closing remarks are touching and, if backed up by sincere actions, will profoundly affect many lives and perhaps be a positive influence on other elite athletes:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

One part of James' essay sounds insincere, though: "I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there." Was he lying when he stated his goal to win eight championships (he stopped at "not seven" in his premature Miami "victory speech" four years ago) in Miami or is he lying now when he says that returning to Cleveland was always part of his plan? I am sure that after Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert blasted James and Cleveland fans burned James' jersey the last thought in James' mind was returning to Cleveland. When James went to Miami, he thought that joining forces with two stars in their primes would create an unstoppable team that would win more championships than the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Bulls. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took minor pay cuts--accepting slightly less than the maximum--but the three stars really did not leave too much cash left on the table to build a supporting cast; they collaborated to build the Heat and they figured that they could win multiple titles while playing alongside spare parts and castoffs. Wade was thrilled to be joined by two stars in Miami, Bosh was happy to be the third wheel and James naively believed that all that was missing in Cleveland was the star power that he had helped assemble in Miami. After the debacle in the 2011 NBA Finals, James realized that he cannot escape the fact that the responsibility to win a championship lies firmly on his shoulders: yes, Michael Jordan passed to John Paxson and Steve Kerr when the situation warranted but Jordan also did work in the first 47 minutes of those games to force teams to trap him; Jordan never stood around passively, expecting someone else to do the heavy lifting the way that James did against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals and against Boston in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. James is a dominant scorer, like Jordan and like Kobe Bryant, but until James arrived in Miami he lacked the inclination/complete skill set necessary to consistently be a dominant scorer against elite teams in championship level competition.

If Wade had not declined so precipitously, I doubt that James would have left Miami. Now that James understands how difficult it is to win a championship, he realizes that it is important to surround himself with young, athletic players to provide a cushion for when his formidable physical gifts begin to fade (though James' game will likely not fall apart the way that Wade's has, because James not only has a more well-rounded skill set than Wade but James is also much bigger than Wade, an important--though underrated at times--factor in NBA greatness/longevity). Vowing to return home not just to reward Cleveland's long-suffering fans with a championship but also to exert a positive influence beyond the basketball court is a pledge that cannot be criticized--but I do not believe for one second that this is part of some master plan hatched in 2010. James left Cleveland for what he presumed to be greener pastures, he experienced great success--though not as much success as he expected--and now he is making a decision (no capital letters, no premature victory parties this time) based on a combination of financial, social and basketball factors. Take note that James signed a two year max deal with Cleveland, with an option to leave after one year; James says that he is fully committed to stay in Cleveland long term and, based on a variety of considerations, it is a shrewd business decision to leave his options open--but James is also giving himself an escape hatch. James has every right to do so, but let's not pretend that his return to Cleveland is primarily motivated by altruistic concerns; he left Cleveland in the lurch four years ago and he just abandoned his "band of brothers" in Miami, so there is every reason to believe that leaving Cleveland after one year is not just a theoretical possibility but also a bargaining tool/threat that James will use to maximum effect. Is James loyal because he is coming back to Cleveland or does he lack loyalty because he is leaving behind two supposedly close friends merely because one friend declined physically and the other friend may not be quite good enough to help James win more championships? If James were truly motivated primarily by hometown concerns, then he never would have left Cleveland--and if his move to Miami was primarily motivated by the powerful bond of friendship (as some writers suggested at the time, speculating that he was trying to recreate his high school experience at St. Vincent-St. Mary) then James would not desert his friends but rather he would finish his career playing alongside them.

LeBron James fully realizes just how much power he wields in the NBA universe and he is not bashful about using that power. That does not make him a bad guy at all, but I am not ready to elevate him to sainthood, either; returning to Cleveland makes sense on many levels for James and I truly hope that he accomplishes all of the off-court goals that he eloquently listed but I do not quite buy his revisionist history about why he left or why he is coming back. I am intrigued, though, by how much he grew as a person and as a player in Miami, and it will be fascinating to watch that process continue in Cleveland--for at least one year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:37 AM

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Brief Thoughts About the Free Agent Feeding Frenzy

I am not sure how all of the dominoes are going to fall after LeBron James makes the Decision, Part II but there is an amusing yet disingenuous quality to so much that is said about the free agency process. Here are a few bullet point thoughts to consider while the basketball world waits with bated breath for James to make one city very happy and several other cities very mad.

1) It is naive beyond belief to say that winning championships is the top priority for James or most of the other big name free agents. If winning championships were James' top priority back in 2010 then he would have stayed in Cleveland and aggressively recruited another star to join him on a squad that had posted the best regular season record in the NBA for two years in a row--or he would have teamed up with Kobe Bryant on the two-time defending NBA champion L.A. Lakers. Imagine James plus Chris Bosh paired with a big, deep frontcourt and coached by the defensive-minded Mike Brown--or imagine the two best players in the NBA (James and Bryant) wreaking havoc at both ends of the court, with Pau Gasol being an excellent third option and with Phil Jackson running the show on the sidelines. The reduced workload for Bryant would have conserved his energy and likely preserved his health. Instead, James went to Miami and things certainly turned out well for him overall but let's not pretend that money, endorsements and lifestyle did not play a huge role in his choice; when James announced "The Decision" he said that he was "taking my talents to South Beach," a phrase that revealed a lot about his narcissism and his true motivations for leaving Cleveland and for not sacrificing money/shot attempts/glory to team up with Bryant, who had won the previous two Finals MVPs.

If winning championships is James' top priority right now, then he will contact the San Antonio Spurs and work out a deal with them. James already has made hundreds of millions of dollars, so if he wants to win three or four more titles then why not give up a few million dollars in salary to join forces with the league's reigning champion/model franchise? Yes, James will have a good chance to win a championship wherever he goes because he is the league's best player but his best chance to win in the remaining years of his prime is to work with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich.

Meanwhile, by once again being coy James has raised Cleveland's hopes to a fever pitch. If he leaves Miami then he is abandoning a team that just made four straight trips to the NBA Finals and he is showing no loyalty to Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh--but if he stays in Miami then he will have broken Cleveland's heart for the second time in four years, something that would not have happened if James had just said from the start that he wanted to stay in Miami. James' desire to be the center of attention and to singlehandedly hold up the rest of the free agency process  makes it seem like he did not learn much from the mistakes he made during the first "Decision." I am pretty sure that James has had a plan in place for a while or perhaps one plan if Miami won the championship and a second plan if Miami did not win the championship--but he seems to enjoy toying with various franchises and watching billionaire owners scurry around trying to figure out how to entice him to join their teams.

2) I like Derrick Rose's attitude. He will not beg any other star to come play with him in Chicago and he will not publicly disrespect his current teammates by saying that he needs more help. He is confident but not cocky and it is a shame that he has not been healthy for several years.

3) I get the feeling that Phil Jackson would not be terribly disappointed if Carmelo Anthony left New York. I don't believe that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team and I think that Jackson understands that reality very well. Jackson is going to keep needling Anthony about taking less money and about diversifying his game until Anthony either begrudgingly accepts Jackson's mentoring or until Anthony flees for a less demanding environment. It would not surprise me if Anthony signs a max deal with New York, then starts complaining halfway through the season, giving Jackson a perfect opportunity to trade Anthony to one of the many teams that overvalues Anthony.

Of course, if Anthony really wants to win more than he wants anything else, there is no reason that he cannot sign with the Spurs. The Spurs have been winning 50-plus games a year for almost two decades; they are always championship contenders, they have made back to back Finals appearances and they just dismantled Miami's "super team" in one of the most lopsided championship series ever. Why isn't every free agent begging to play for the Spurs if winning is truly the most important thing?

4) Chris Bosh will bring an intelligent, all-around skill set and underrated defensive versatility to whichever franchise is fortunate enough to sign him.

5) It is not surprising that Dwayne Wade's game has aged so poorly; he is a muscular, undersized shooting guard with one game plan--bull his way to the hoop for dunks and/or free throw opportunities. He is a below average shooter and he does not have much of a post game. Anyone who ever thought that Wade was a better and/or more complete player than Bryant should take a long, hard look at how limited Wade is now that he cannot just jump over or sprint around other players. Bryant, like Michael Jordan before him, made a seamless transition from high flyer to midrange virtuoso thanks to impeccable footwork and an excellent shooting touch. Jordan and Bryant both played at an MVP level well into their 30s; Wade will either be out of the league or have to accept a much reduced role by the time he is 34 or 35.

6) It will be interesting to see where Kevin Love ends up and how he performs not just individually but in terms of elevating a team to contender status. Is he truly as good as his numbers seem to suggest or is he the ultimate Kenny Smith "looter in a riot," a player who pads his statistics without ever having a huge impact in the won/loss column? I don't think that Love is a true "looter" but I also don't think that he can be the best player on a championship team; I could see him as a solid 20-10 second option on a championship team, though.

7) I just do not understand why the Oklahoma City Thunder get blasted for supposedly being cheap and for supposedly making a huge blunder by trading James Harden. What exactly has Harden accomplished so far in Houston, other than convincing a lot of media members to overrate him? The other day, a radio commentator criticized Thunder owner Clay Bennett for being more concerned about profits than winning, contrasting Bennett with Mark Cuban and Mickey Arison. That would be the same Mark Cuban who broke up a championship team to save money and the same Mickey Arison who refused to spend enough money to keep Mike Miller around. The Thunder offered Harden a market value deal, Harden declined and the Thunder made a prudent decision to trade him and build around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. If Westbrook and Ibaka had been healthy in the past two postseasons the Thunder may very well have won at least one championship. I will be surprised if the Thunder have a worse record next season than Harden's Rockets, Cuban's Mavericks or Arison's Heat.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Highlights from First Virginia Squires Reunion

The Virginia Squires recently celebrated their first reunion. The franchise's two most famous alumni, Hall of Famers Julius Erving and George Gervin, both attended, along with former owner Earl Foreman and former Coach Al Bianchi. Here is a brief interview with Erving; check out the still photo around the :18 mark for a great image of a young Dr. J defying gravity:



Erving, Gervin and their former teammates enjoyed reminiscing with each other and with local fans:



Wavy.com posted a two part history of the Squires. Part One includes a great shot of Erving lofting a finger roll over Artis Gilmore (check out the video around the 1:57 mark):

History of the Virginia Squires, Part One

Part Two details the franchise's demise after the cash-strapped Foreman sold Erving to the New York Nets and sold Gervin to the San Antonio Spurs:

History of the Virginia Squires, Part Two

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:07 AM

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Spurs' Teamwork Overwhelms Heat's Star-Centered Approach

The San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in James' first NBA Finals appearance, they nearly dethroned James' defending champion Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals and then in the 2014 NBA Finals they completely dismantled a star-studded Heat team that was trying to win a third straight championship. The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs are a remarkable team. They set an NBA single-season playoff record with 12 victories by at least 15 points and they won the championship despite the fact that none of their key players is in the prime of his career, which is unusual if not unprecedented. The Spurs have the greatest power forward of all-time (Tim Duncan), a perennial All-Star point guard (Tony Parker), one of the league's top sixth men/third options (Manu Ginobili) and a young, versatile star in the making who has enormous untapped potential (Kawhi Leonard)--but Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are all past their primes, while Leonard may still be two or three years away from his prime.

Parker is generally referred to as the Spurs' best player and Leonard won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP but I think that Duncan is not only the Spurs' best player but that a good case could be made that he should have won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP (I felt the same way after the 2007 NBA Finals); Duncan provides a significant low post presence for the Spurs at both ends of the court, making the game much easier for his teammates. Duncan no longer posts gaudy individual statistics, so "stat gurus" and conventional-thinking media members alike fail to appreciate his contributions, but he is the one common denominator for all five of San Antonio's championships (along with Coach Gregg Popovich) and that is not a coincidence.

Much is made in some quarters about how "stat gurus" have reshaped the NBA landscape by supposedly unearthing the value of three point shooting but it does not take "advanced basketball statistics" to realize that a .333 three point shooter produces as many points as a .500 two point shooter if they both attempt the same number of shots. Jacking up three pointers from all angles because three pointers are "efficient" does not win championships; if that strategy worked, then Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns would have been a dynasty and the Houston Rockets would have already won at least one title in the Daryl Morey era. The reality is that three point shooting can be a good ingredient in a championship recipe if that recipe also includes paint attacks (by posting up and/or driving) on offense, good floor balance and tenacious defense. If one or more of your key players shoots a lot of three pointers while also acting like playing defense leads to a terminal illness then your team will not win a championship, no matter how "efficient" your team looks on paper. 

The Spurs routed the Heat with pinpoint passing, excellent defense and tremendous discipline; borrowing a phrase used by chess champion Susan Polgar, the Spurs accepted their devastating 2013 NBA Finals loss with grace and they won the 2014 NBA Finals with dignity. The Spurs are a joy to watch for any basketball purist.

In contrast to the Spurs' balance, the Heat have four future Hall of Famers (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen), two of whom are in their primes (James and Bosh) and two of whom are filling reduced roles that they should be more than capable of handling at the current stages of their respective careers. The numbers say that James was very productive during the 2014 NBA Finals and that he did all he could reasonably be expected to do--but the eye test says that he rarely dominated and that he often was not the best player on the court. James' talent is unquestionable and his mental game has grown by leaps and bounds but there is something missing when he faces the highest level of competition. His teams are now 2-3 in the NBA Finals, a record that does not compare favorably with the ABA/NBA Finals records of most Pantheon-level players:

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

Erving and Bird each suffered two Finals losses to teams that featured Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson. Jordan went 1-0 against Johnson sans Abdul-Jabbar in Johnson's final full season. Russell defeated the West-Baylor duo four times and once he defeated a Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio. Also worth mentioning are the career NBA Finals records of Kobe Bryant (5-2), Tim Duncan (5-1) and Shaquille O'Neal (4-2), the three most dominant players of the post Michael Jordan era other than James. This additional context shows that Russell's Boston Celtics repeatedly frustrated Chamberlain, West, Robertson and Baylor--but most players who can make a reasonable case for being the greatest player of their era (if not of all-time) won at least three championships and did not have a losing record in the Finals.

James is a great player; he is the best player in the NBA, the 2014 regular season MVP vote notwithstanding. He may set the record for most regular season MVPs and he still has an opportunity to win more championships. However, as things stand right now he is not a more dominant champion than several of his great predecessors--and the argument that those great predecessors had more help can be countered by pointing out that they also faced teams that had multiple future Hall of Famers in their primes. James leading the Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships is a laudable accomplishment--but a slightly past his prime Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals appearances and back to back championships with a supporting cast that was not as deep or as talented as James' Heat. James is not as terrible as his harshest critics suggest--but if he were as great as his biggest fans believe then he would have done more in his prime with two Hall of Fame sidekicks than an aging Bryant did while playing alongside Pau Gasol (who was 0-12 in the playoffs before teaming up with Bryant), Lamar Odom (who never made the All-Star team, never mind being a future Hall of Famer), Andrew Bynum (who put up Luc Longleyesque numbers during the Lakers' three straight trips to the Finals) and the ghost of Ron Artest.

Wade's career has followed an interesting arc; his productivity has steadily declined since 2009, when he averaged a career-high 30.2 ppg and won his only scoring title. Wade has not made the All-NBA First Team since 2010, when he was 28. Wade used to be a good defender but this season he made James Harden look like a defensive stopper; not only did players routinely blow by Wade but Wade often did not make the slightest effort to recover and in open court situations he trotted back on defense as if he were lugging two pianos on his back. The Heat rested Wade liberally during the regular season to keep his body fresh for the playoffs and there is no indication that something is wrong with Wade physically; it just seems like he no longer plays as hard as one would expect an elite player to play.

Size matters in the NBA and having a complete skill set matters, particularly for an undersized players as he ages. Wade has always only had one plan of attack: bull toward the hoop, overpower any defenders in his path and either finish at the hoop or hope to be bailed out by a foul call in his favor. He never developed a reliable jump shot and he has shot better than .800 from the free throw line just once in his 11 year career. Wade has not aged well because his game is not nearly as well-rounded or adaptable as Jordan's or Bryant's; Jordan and Bryant both had the necessary height and skill set to compensate for declining athleticism.

Yet, even a declining and/or disinterested Wade would still be the number one offensive option if he played for the Spurs; the Spurs did not beat the Heat because of superior talent (though superior depth was a factor to some extent) but rather the Spurs beat the Heat because they maximized the abilities of their stars while making the Heat's stars feel uncomfortable. Duncan has diversified his offensive game, Parker has added a jump shot to his arsenal and former All-Star Ginobili has learned how to make the most of limited minutes/field goal attempts--but Wade is still trying to do the same things that he did in his prime, with much less success.

Bosh may be the most misunderstood future Hall of Famer in the NBA. He is a versatile and intelligent player who receives senseless criticism because of his willingness to take a back seat to James and Wade. Bosh averaged 24.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg in his final season with the Toronto Raptors before joining the Heat, so he clearly possesses elite level talent and the ability to be a number one option for a playoff team--but he understands that for Miami to be successful he must accept being the third option offensively and he must be willing to function as an undersized center defensively so that the Heat can run most teams off of the court with their athleticism and defensive pressure.

The Spurs' championship window supposedly slammed shut many years ago but if they had just been able to close out game six or game seven of the 2013 NBA Finals they would now be the reigning two-time defending champions. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs are able to keep their aging nucleus together but even if some of their older players retire they may still be a viable contender if Leonard emerges as an All-Star/All-NBA caliber performer. Meanwhile, the much younger Heat nucleus may be broken up or may decide to break itself up; if all of the rhetoric that the "Big Three" spouted three years ago about sacrificing money to win championships is true then those players would no doubt accept pay cuts so that the team can bolster its depth--but Wade has publicly stated his unwillingness to do this, so James may therefore decide that the time has come to team up with a sidekick who is younger and/or has a more diversified game than Wade.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 AM

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

The Conference Finals round featured two much anticipated matchups but neither series went the distance. The Indiana Pacers took a 1-0 lead over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat but then the Heat won four of the next five games, exposing the Pacers as a good team that does not have quite enough talent or mental toughness to take the next step. Lance Stephenson had a solid series statistically (14.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.0 apg) but he embarrassed himself and his team with his foolish and at times reckless behavior. The Pacers did not look, act or play like a championship team. LeBron James had a subdued series by his lofty standards (22.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .559 FG%) but he controlled the action and asserted himself as the best player when it mattered most. Dwyane Wade has settled very comfortably into a secondary role, conserving his energy during the regular season and providing just enough postseason production to supplement James' all-around greatness. Chris Bosh's contributions will always be underrated by people who do not understand basketball; he is overmatched physically as a center but his agility and outside shooting touch make him the perfect center at both ends of the court for a speed-based team like the Heat. The Heat have two future Hall of Famers who are in or near their physical primes (James and Bosh), plus a declining future Hall of Famer who is still a potent threat (Wade) and a future Hall of Famer who is a key asset as a sharpshooting role player (Ray Allen).

Bill Russell (1957-66 Boston Celtics), Magic Johnson (1982-85 L.A. Lakers) and Larry Bird (1984-87 Boston Celtics) are the only players prior to LeBron James to lead their teams to at least four straight NBA Finals appearances; Russell's Celtics won nine titles in those 10 years (and 11 out of 13 years overall during his career), Johnson's Lakers captured two titles in those four years en route to becoming the team of the 1980s with five championships and Bird's Celtics won two titles in those four years (and three overall during his career). Some critics belittle the Heat's accomplishments by noting the relative lack of strength of the Eastern Conference in recent years but the fact that only four teams in NBA history have made it to four straight Finals proves that the Heat are, at the very least, a special team in the context of their own era--and a third title, which would represent two straight Finals' wins over a franchise that has claimed four championships during the Tim Duncan era, would solidify Miami's place as one of the NBA's top dynasties.
 
The Oklahoma City Thunder won all four regular season games versus the San Antonio Spurs and defeated the Spurs four straight times in the 2012 Western Conference Finals after dropping the first two games of that series but in the 2014 Western Conference Finals the Thunder never quite recovered after falling into a 2-0 hole. Serge Ibaka missed the first two games due to injury and his return in game three provided a big spark for the Thunder but the Spurs ultimately rode home court advantage into the NBA Finals, winning all three of their home games before closing out the series with a 112-107 overtime victory at Oklahoma City. If Ibaka had been healthy in the first two games--or if Russell Westbrook's regular season injuries had not cost the Thunder home court advantage--then the series may have had a different outcome. As Hall of Fame Coach Tex Winter says, "Everything turns on a trifle."

The much-criticized Westbrook shined during the Western Conference Finals, leading both teams in scoring (26.8 ppg), assists (7.3 apg) and steals (3.2 spg), and 2014 regular season MVP Kevin Durant averaged 25.8 ppg but the Thunder lost the series defensively; without Ibaka for the first two games, they could not contain the Spurs and it was not realistic to expect to come back from a 2-0 deficit two times in three years against a great team. San Antonio's Tim Duncan no longer posts gaudy individual numbers but he has gone from being recognized as perhaps the greatest power forward of all-time to being one of the most underrated players in the league; he controls the paint defensively and his post presence anchors the Spurs' half court offense. That said, Tony Parker's ankle injury could prove to be the biggest story of the NBA Finals; in order to beat the Heat, it is essential to attack the paint both in the post (which Duncan can do) and with dribble penetration (which is Parker's forte). The Spurs must both score in the paint and also utilize their paint attacks to collapse Miami's defense and create open three point shots.

Manu Ginobili is a perfect third option for the Spurs; he can score, he can create scoring opportunities for his teammates and he is a crafty defender but because the Spurs have Duncan and Parker plus a solid bench they do not need Ginobili to play at an All-Star level in every game. The role he has filled for the Spurs is the role that James Harden should have accepted for the Thunder, as opposed to making contract demands that resulted in him being traded to Houston.

The Spurs showed during last year's NBA Finals that they have the necessary personnel, playing style and toughness to defeat the Heat; they can pose matchup problems for Miami at both ends of the court--attacking the paint offensively and containing the Heat's speed game defensively--and in game six they came about as close as any team in NBA history has come to winning a championship without sealing the deal. Ginobili is healthy this time, unlike last year, though that may be mitigated by Parker's injury. The Heat have been very good this season but they seem to lack that extra gear that they found during their previous two playoff runs; maybe that is because no team has pushed them to the limit (something that both Indiana and San Antonio did during the 2013 playoffs) but I wonder if after four grueling campaigns the Heat still have that gear if/when they need to use it. At the start of the playoffs, I picked the Thunder to dethrone the Heat, so there is a certain logic to predicting that the team that ousted the Thunder will beat Miami. I think that Tim Duncan will win the 2014 Finals MVP and ride off into the sunset, finishing his career with five championships overall plus a 2-1 Finals record against James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:39 AM

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Celtics Were the First Bad Boys

ESPN's 30 for 30 episode "Bad Boys" originally aired last month. Here are three important truths to take away from that documentary:

1) Isiah Thomas is one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history. He was tough, he was fearless and he had an impeccable skill set: he was a tremendous ballhandler, he was a gifted passer who racked up legitimate assists (not fake ones given to him by generous scorekeepers), he rebounded well for his position, he was a solid individual defender who played heavy minutes for one of the best defensive teams of all-time and even though he was not a great outside shooter he made a ton of clutch jump shots throughout his career--and he was a good enough shooter that defenders could not just sag off of him. Thomas dropped 25 points on the L.A. Lakers in the third quarter of game six of the 1988 NBA Finals while playing on one leg, setting an NBA Finals single quarter record and the tying ABA/NBA Finals record set by Julius Erving during the 1976 ABA Finals; veteran NBA reporter Jack McCallum called Thomas' heroics "one of the top five offensive performances that there ever was." Thomas sacrificed a lot of his scoring and assist numbers to blend in with Detroit's team concept--so the "stat gurus" will forever underrate his value--but a strong case could be made that Thomas is the greatest 6 foot and under (don't believe his listed height of 6-1) player ever.

2) The Pistons were not the NBA's first "Bad Boys" or even the baddest of the bad. The Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics were a brutally physical team--think back to McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and M.L. Carr undercutting Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and the way that their whole frontcourt mauled the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt in game seven of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals while the officials swallowed their whistles. Erving was one of the classiest players in pro basketball history, someone who rarely received technical fouls and never got into fights--but during a November 1984 regular season game he took a swing at Bird after getting frustrated by Bird's roughhousing tactics (and verbal taunting, something that Erving never did on the many occasions that he outplayed Bird and other players). James Worthy put it best during "Bad Boys": "We knew that they (the Pistons) were a good team, a very physical team, but 'Bad Boys' was something that, nah, they didn't get much respect from us. Playing against the Celtics--it didn't get any tougher, no one got any badder. You could call the Celtics 'Bad Boys' back in the early '80s."

Erving's 76ers overcame the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982 despite the Celtics' rough tactics and then in 1983 the 76ers brought in Moses Malone as the final piece to their championship puzzle; although the 76ers had proven that they could circumvent the Celtics' physical tactics without changing their own style, they needed Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Pistons followed a similar path in the mid to late 1980s, adding Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman in order to matchup with the size, strength and physicality of the Celtics' frontcourt--but the idea that the Pistons did something fundamentally different from what the Celtics had been doing for years is nonsense. The Celtics taught the Pistons how to use physicality to gain an edge and win championships but then the Celtics got mad and lost their composure when they received a dose of their own medicine.

3) The Adrian Dantley-Mark Aguirre trade was not a product of politicking by Thomas on behalf of his boyhood friend Aguirre but rather a shrewd basketball move made by Detroit General Manager Jack McCloskey to put the final championship piece in place. Dantley resented Dennis Rodman's increasingly large role on the team and Aguirre was a much better passer than Dantley; bringing in Aguirre improved the Pistons at both ends of the court and the Pistons rolled to two straight titles with Aguirre and Rodman splitting time at the small forward position. Dantley wanted the Pistons to be his team, while Aguirre fit in perfectly; in his second year with the Pistons, Aguirre voluntarily gave up his starting role to Rodman, an unselfish act that Dantley would never have considered doing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:03 PM

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Second Round Recap/Conference Finals Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of all four second round series, improving my record to 11-1 for the 2014 playoffs. The highlight of the second round was the dominant performance authored by Russell Westbrook; during Oklahoma City's 4-2 win over the L.A. Clippers, Westbrook was often the best player on the court, outshining both his teammate/2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant (who also had an excellent overall series) and Chris Paul, who many people have touted for years to be the NBA's top point guard. Westbrook averaged 27.8 ppg, 8.8 apg and 6.0 rpg in the series. In the pivotal fifth game, with the series tied 2-2, Westbrook exploded for a game-high 38 points plus five rebounds, a team-high six assists and a team-high three steals as the Thunder won 105-104.

Westbrook is averaging 26.6 ppg (fourth in the league), 8.4 apg (third in the league) and 8.0 rpg during this postseason. If Paul were putting up similar numbers for a team that made it at least as far as the Western Conference Finals, the "stat gurus" and Paul's supporters in the mainstream media would not be able to contain their praise--but because Westbrook is not as popular in those quarters as Paul, his contributions are minimized. Oscar Robertson is the only player in NBA playoff history to average at least 27 ppg, at least eight apg and at least eight rpg in a single postseason, a feat that he accomplished three different times--and even if Westbrook matches that accomplishment there still will be many people who will assert (1) that the Thunder were foolish to trade James Harden, (2) that the Thunder should trade Westbrook because he is supposedly incompatible with Durant and (3) that Westbrook is not the best all-around guard in the NBA. Westbrook is having a historically great playoff run for a team that may win the NBA title.

I see no reason to change my original predictions that Miami will beat Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals and that Oklahoma City will beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals. LeBron James is having another great postseason for Miami, ranking second in playoff scoring (30.0 ppg) behind Durant (31.4 ppg), shooting a playoff-career high .564 from the field and once again demonstrating the absurdity of describing him as a "pass-first" player (James is averaging a playoff career-low 4.7 apg and neither his statistics nor his game even vaguely resemble the statistics/games of truly "pass-first" players like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd, neither of whom could dream of scoring at the rate that James has for his entire career).

The so-called experts have struggled to figure out the Pacers--vacillating between anointing them as the Heat's successors and blasting them for their poor performance in the second half of the regular season--but the reality is that the Pacers are a very good young team that is not quite mentally strong enough to take out the Heat. Serge Ibaka's injury is a major blow for the Thunder and may ultimately cost the Thunder the championship but the Spurs--who have injury concerns of their own (Tony Parker's balky left hamstring)--cannot contain Russell Westbrook and Westbrook's excellence will be the difference as the Thunder advance to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM

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Monday, May 05, 2014

First Round Recap/Second Round Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of seven of the eight first round playoff series. I completely whiffed on the Washington-Chicago series; I did not expect Washington's frontcourt to dominate Chicago's frontcourt, nor did I expect that the Wizards would commit just 10 turnovers a game after averaging nearly 15 turnovers a game during the regular season. Most of the other storylines went according to the scripts that I envisioned, including Russell Westbrook proving to be the difference for Oklahoma City versus Memphis, James Harden flaming out as Houston lost to Portland and Indiana outlasting Atlanta even though the Pacers floundered during the second half of the season and despite the fact that the Hawks matched up well with the Pacers during the regular season.

Westbrook authored a dominant performance as the Thunder closed out the Grizzlies 120-109 in game seven. He produced 27 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot. Westbrook and Rajon Rondo are the only players in NBA history who have notched two game seven triple doubles. Jerry West, James Worthy, Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen each had one game seven triple double. Westbrook is often criticized for his shot selection and decision making but against Memphis under win or go home pressure he shot 10-16 from the field, though he did commit seven turnovers.

Westbrook missed last year's Oklahoma City-Memphis series due to injury and his absence is the single biggest reason that the Grizzlies prevailed; this time around, Westbrook averaged 25.6 ppg (sixth in the playoffs), a team-high 9.7 rpg (ninth in the playoffs) and 8.0 rpg (third in the playoffs) against Memphis. He is playing at an MVP level--putting up rebounding and assist numbers like Jason Kidd in his prime but with the added dimension of explosive scoring--and yet critics continue to snipe at him. It seems like every time Kevin Durant misses a shot it is Westbrook's fault. Neither player shot particularly well against Memphis but the duo helped Oklahoma City earn homecourt advantage during the regular season and both players came through in game seven at home.

Some people may attribute Memphis' loss this year to Zach Randolph's game seven suspension but there are two reasons that Randolph's absence should not be compared with Westbrook's absence versus Memphis last year: (1) Westbrook missed the entire series as opposed to sitting out just one game and (2) Westbrook missed those games due to a condition beyond his control, while Randolph disqualified himself because he punched Steven Adams in game six and every NBA player knows that there are strict rules against throwing a punch, let alone actually hitting someone. Part of predicting the outcome of a playoff series is making a judgment about which team's stars are more consistently productive and reliable.

Speaking of unreliable, James Harden could be a solid number two option or an excellent third option for a championship contender but unless or until he adds a midrange game, a postup game and some semblance of defensive awareness/effort to his skill set repertoire he will be better suited to a supporting role than a leading role. Harden averaged 26.8 ppg, 5.8 apg and 4.7 rpg in Houston's first round loss to Portland but he shot just .376 from the field and .296 from three point range; during last year's playoffs, Harden averaged 26.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 4.5 apg while shooting .391 from the field and .341 from three point range. Harden's game is based on shooting a lot of three pointers and flailing his arms while driving to the hoop, hoping to get bailed out with a foul call. Teams that deny Harden open three pointers and block his path to the hoop without fouling him can force Harden to shoot a low percentage. In other words, he is poorly suited to be the number one option for a championship contending team because when he faces elite teams he will not score efficiently and/or draw double teams, nor will he make enough contributions in other areas to offset his ineffective offensive game. The Thunder can and have replaced Harden's offense but Harden has not yet found two superstars like Durant and Westbrook who can take the pressure off of him.

Many "stat gurus" see little value in the midrange game, asserting that basketball teams should take the majority of their shots either at the rim or behind the three point line. The math behind that theory is sound--the highest percentage shots are dunks and open three pointers--and I used to take that same position with my teammates in recreational league/pickup play, arguing that a three point shooter who shoots .400 from that distance is equivalent to a two point shooter who shoots .600, but there are major differences between amateur basketball and NBA basketball. Teams below the NBA level can win by bombarding the opposition with three pointers, because the players' skill level and the coaches' acumen are not nearly as advanced as they are in the NBA. Paul Westhead had great success as a college coach and he won a WNBA title employing a fast paced approach with a high number of three point attempts but his 1980 L.A. Lakers championship team played a more conventional style.

The Houston Rockets' organization, led by Daryl Morey, believes very strongly in the three pointer/dunk theory and that is why Morey considers Harden to be a "foundational player." The evidence does not support Morey's belief. Portland crowded Harden at the three point line and cut off his driving lanes and Harden had no answer; his lack of a midrange game and a postup game became particularly evident in late shot clock and late game situations, because he has no effective way to free himself for a 15 foot jump shot and/or a back to the basket inside move. Kobe Bryant killed teams with those kinds of shots during his five championship runs and LeBron James added those shots to his arsenal in the past two season en route to leading the Miami Heat to back to back titles but Harden does not have those weapons and there is no reason to believe that he will develop that kind of game in Houston.

The Indiana Pacers looked terrible in the second half of the regular season. It is obvious that they have some internal problems, that Paul George is not yet quite as good as some people said and that Roy Hibbert is a bit overrated as well--but the Pacers still had the best record in the Eastern Conference after an 82 game marathon. That fact should not be casually dismissed. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat will most likely expose all of Indiana's flaws but a team like Atlanta is not quite good enough to win a game seven on the road versus the Pacers.

I will stay true to my original second round predictions: Miami, Indiana, San Antonio and Oklahoma City will advance. The Nets were built to beat the Heat and did a fine job of that during the regular season but in a seven game playoff series LeBron James will wear down the Nets' aging nucleus. Perhaps I am still underestimating the Wizards but I just cannot see Washington beating Indiana in a seven game series no matter how bad the Pacers' chemistry may be and no matter how stagnant the Pacers' halfcourt offense can become. The Spurs are probably the only franchise that can win multiple titles and still consistently be counted out; the Blazers will fight hard but come up short. Throughout the Oklahoma City-L.A. Clippers series we will repeatedly hear that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook cannot play well together, that Scott Brooks does not know how to coach and that the Thunder miss Harden, the most inefficient volume shooter of the 2014 playoffs--and then Durant and Westbrook will shine in the series clincher as the Thunder advance to the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:25 AM

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New Ted Green Documentary Tells Bobby "Slick" Leonard's Life Story

Bobby "Slick" Leonard is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2014; he made his mark as an outstanding collegiate player at Indiana University, a solid professional player with the Lakers, a great professional coach who won three championships with the Indiana Pacers and a respected broadcaster. Ted Green, who previously produced the outstanding documentary "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story," is making a documentary about Leonard. Here is a working trailer for the Leonard documentary, which is scheduled to premiere at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on July 29:

Bobby "Slick" Leonard documentary trailer

Green interviewed Larry Bird, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor; Leonard coached against Bird (who now runs the Indiana Pacers) and he played alongside West and Baylor with the Lakers. Leonard once told me that he had played with or against, coached and/or seen every great player who has come down the pike in the past 60 years or so and the high praise that these all-time greats offer to Leonard reaffirms that Leonard's Hall of Fame induction is long overdue. Green should be commended for his tireless efforts to record and preserve the life stories of Brown and Leonard, two very underrated and extremely important figures in basketball history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:26 AM

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

2013-14 Playoff Predictions

The Miami Heat have flown under the radar about as much as any two-time defending championship team can; mainstream media attention has focused on the upstart Indiana Pacers, the streaking San Antonio Spurs, the surprising Phoenix Suns, the sinking Philadelphia 76ers and many other storylines, while largely ignoring the fact that the Heat have a chance to place themselves in a rare group of teams that have reached the NBA Finals four straight years. That feat has only been accomplished by three legendary dynasties: 1957-66 Boston Celtics, 1982-85 L.A. Lakers, 1984-87 Boston Celtics. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to a pair of three-peats (1991-1993, 1996-98) but Jordan's first two retirements prevented the Bulls from potentially reaching the Finals four consecutive times.

This season, the Heat posted their worst winning percentage of the "Big Three" era but the same thing was true for the Jordan/Pippen teams in the third year of their two three-peats; sustaining a high level of excellence exacts a mental and physical toll but no one should expect that it will be easy to beat the Heat four times in seven games. The 1993 Bulls looked weary during the regular season and they faced a 2-0 deficit against the number one seeded New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals but then the Bulls ripped off four straight wins against the Knicks before defeating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

The San Antonio Spurs are rightfully considered to be the best team in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers are hungry--though flawed and vulnerable--challengers to Miami's Eastern Conference supremacy and the Oklahoma City can beat anyone if Russell Westbrook stays healthy but the Heat are chasing history while being led by a historically great player and it would be foolish to count them out. The Heat made it through the regular season with a good record while staying as healthy as could reasonably be expected and they will elevate their game in the playoffs. I expect them to join the Russell Celtics, Magic Lakers and Bird Celtics by making a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2014 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Indiana (56-26) vs. #8 Atlanta (38-44)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Atlanta can win if...their perimeter players get hot from three point range and if the Pacers fail to exploit their inside strength at the other end of the court; the Hawks ranked second in three point field goals attempted but just 13th in three point field goal percentage, so their best chance for an upset is to hope that enough of their long range bombs hit the target.

Indiana will win because...the Pacers are an elite defensive team, while the Hawks are mediocre at both ends of the court, as demonstrated by their sub-.500 record.

Other things to consider: Much has been made of the Pacers' struggles in the second half of the season but an 82 game marathon inevitably contains some ups and downs; the bottom line is that they maintained the number one record in the Eastern Conference for most of the campaign and, despite some embarrassing recent performances, they achieved their goal of earning homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers have some obvious weaknesses (including half court offensive execution, chemistry issues and Lance Stephenson's volatility) but the Hawks are not a good enough team to exploit those weaknesses.

#2 Miami (54-28) vs. #7 Charlotte (43-39)

Season series: Miami, 4-0

Charlotte can win if...team owner Michael Jordan enters a time machine, emerges two decades younger and signs himself to a pair of ten day contracts.

Miami will win because...this is the kind of series that has always brought out the best in LeBron James; even before he learned how to consistently excel in playoff series against elite teams he always demonstrated the capacity to put up huge numbers against inferior teams in early playoff rounds. All season long, James' critics have accused him of coasting and that storyline will probably cost James the MVP award but he will take out those frustrations in this series; look for him to post at least one 40 point game.

Other things to consider: Charlotte's rise to respectability has been remarkable; rookie Coach Steve Clifford deserves a lot of credit for improving the team's defense and overall mindset, while Al Jefferson provided leadership and great post presence. Dwyane Wade's inexorable physical decline could be a problem for Miami during the postseason but it will not be a major factor in this series.

#3 Toronto (48-34) vs. #6 Brooklyn (44-38)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Toronto can win if...the Raptors' youthful enthusiasm trumps the Nets' veteran savvy.

Brooklyn will win because...this veteran-laden team was put together to peak in the postseason; they are getting healthy and figuring out how to play together at just the right time.

Other things to consider: Many NBA fans have probably never heard of Masai Ujiri but when he ran the Nuggets he fleeced the Knicks out of several good players in exchange for an overrated Carmelo Anthony; it is not a coincidence that after he moved to Canada the Nuggets got worse while the Raptors instantly transformed into one of the top teams in the East. The Raptors posted the best record in franchise history and seem poised to make the playoffs for years to come but this is not a good playoff matchup for them.

#4 Chicago (48-34) vs. #5 Washington (44-38)

Season series: Washington, 2-1

Washington can win if...their young, talented backcourt duo (John Wall/Bradley Beal) suddenly acquires the wisdom of the ages--the kind of wisdom that is generally obtained by losing playoff series against tough-minded, veteran teams.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls' defense will cause fits for the young, impatient Wizards.

Other things to consider: Tom Thibodeau is the coaching equivalent of MacGyver: no Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, no problem: just give Thibodeau some duct tape (and a throat lozenge for his perpetually hoarse voice) and he'll work wonders. The Bulls do not have enough offensive firepower to make a deep playoff run but their defense and Thibodeau's strategic acumen will carry them into the second round.

Western Conference First Round

#1 San Antonio (62-20) vs. #8 Dallas (49-33)

Season series: San Antonio, 4-0

Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has a flashback and starts regularly posting 30 points/15 rebounds, if Monta Ellis goes off for about 25 ppg and if the Mavericks contain Tony Parker's dribble penetration without opening up opportunities for Tim Duncan inside and the Spurs' sharpshooters who camp out behind the three point line.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs are not only the better team overall but they have shown that they match up particularly well with the Mavericks.

Other things to consider: Armchair psychologists said that the Spurs could not recover from their devastating loss in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals--but the Spurs refuted that idea by playing valiantly in game seven. Then the armchair psychologists asserted that it would be too much for the old Spurs to make yet another championship run but the Spurs have been the class of the league for the better part of the season. The Spurs do not match up well with the Oklahoma City Thunder because they have no one who can stay in front of Russell Westbrook but they have no reason to fear any other team in the league.

#2 Oklahoma City (59-23) vs. #7 Memphis (50-32)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1

Memphis can win if...Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominate inside while the Grizzlies' wing players hit enough outside shots to prevent the Thunder's defense from clogging the paint.

Oklahoma City will win because...Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the two best players in this series and two of the five best players in the league. They will spearhead an offensive attack that will overwhelm the Grizzlies.

Other things to consider: Here they are in all of their glory, the team nobody wants to face; the Grizzlies needed a late season flourish to sneak into the playoffs with six fewer wins than they had last year but the top teams are supposedly petrified of them. Here is a different theory: the Thunder know that they would have beaten the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs if Westbrook had been healthy and they are very eager to prove that point on the sport's biggest stage. Look for the Grizzlies to struggle to score 90 points per game and look for a lot of Durant/Westbrook highlights as the Thunder stun the "experts."

In other "expert"-related news, objective observers are still searching in vain for a shred of proof that letting James Harden walk in order to keep Serge Ibaka has in any way weakened the Thunder or hurt their chances to win an NBA title.

#3 L.A. Clippers (57-25) vs. #6 Golden State (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Golden State can win if...Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson--aka the "Splash Brothers"--rain jumpers from all angles and if David Lee picks up the slack inside for the injured Andrew Bogut.

L.A. will win because...Doc Rivers has spent the season changing the team's mindset; the Clippers are now more focused on defense and on half court execution as opposed to making the highlight reels as "Lob City." Chris Paul's extended absence due to injury proved that he is not, in fact, the best player on the team; that title belongs to Blake Griffin.

Other things to consider: Vinny Del Negro did a solid job with the Clippers when the team had a lot of players who needed to mature and it is worth noting that in Rivers' first year the Clippers only increased their victory total by one--but the coaching change is still justifiable because it is reasonable to believe that the Clippers have a higher ceiling with Rivers on the bench than they did with Del Negro calling the shots.

#4 Houston (54-28) vs. #5 Portland (54-28)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if...Dwight Howard dominates in the paint at both ends of the court and if James Harden shows that he can be a productive and efficient scorer/playmaker in the postseason as his team's number one option (as opposed to doing so as the third option, which was his role when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder).

Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will outplay Dwight Howard and James Harden.

Other things to consider: This is a "pick 'em" series; the teams have identical records, they are both talented offensively but flawed defensively and I cannot see either one making it past the second round unless their opponent suffers a serious injury to a star player. The deciding factor for me is that I trust Portland's style of play in the playoffs just a little more than I trust Houston's style of play.

The Rockets launch a lot of three pointers--leading the league in makes and attempts--but they only rank 16th in three point field goal percentage. If they get hot, they can put a scare into any team but this is not the NCAA Tournament, which means that they have to get hot for four out of seven games in order to advance.

The Blazers will try to establish Aldridge in the post, while also using Lillard's ballhanding ability and shooting touch to put pressure on Houston's suspect perimeter defenders. Harden will probably go off for 30-plus points in one of Houston's home games and he probably will have a couple 4-17 field goal shooting performances on the road. The series will be entertaining and closely contested but Portland will win in six or seven games.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Indiana-Chicago, Miami-Brooklyn, San Antonio-Portland and Oklahoma City-L.A. The Pacers-Bulls series could make for some brutal TV watching, with both teams struggling to score 80-85 points against suffocating defenses, but in the end the Pacers will prevail. The Nets were built with the primary goal of matching up with the Heat and they did so quite nicely during the regular season, sweeping the series--but the playoffs are a different animal and the Nets' geezers will run out of gas trying to chase around the athletic Heat. The Trailblazers have had a surprisingly good season but they will fall to the Spurs in the second round. The Thunder and the Clippers are developing an intense rivalry; that series will probably go the distance but in game seven at home Durant and Westbrook will not be denied.

Indiana has all of the necessary tools to beat Miami: size, toughness, defensive intensity, homecourt advantage. After a season during which the Pacers vowed to beat the Heat in the playoffs if game seven would be played in Indianapolis, the Eastern Conference Finals will be put up or shut up time for the would-be champions. From a historical standpoint, part of me does not believe that LeBron James and the Heat are quite equipped to reach territory only inhabited by three of the most legendary squads in pro basketball history--but, focusing purely on what we have seen from the Pacers this season, I don't quite trust Indiana in the biggest moments. James will likely add another page to his legacy by authoring a classic game seven performance on the road as the Heat survive what figures to be a grueling series.

The San Antonio-Oklahoma City series will be high level basketball at its finest. Russell Westbrook is the key factor in the series, because the Spurs simply have no answer for him, much like the 1980s Boston Celtics had no answer for the Philadelphia 76ers' Andrew Toney. If Westbrook is healthy, the Thunder will win. Perhaps I should not count on Westbrook's health, considering his recent injury history, but I am picking the Thunder.

A rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals will be fun to watch. LeBron James is now older and wiser but so are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The James-Durant battle will be epic but the series could be decided by the battle between the health of Dwyane Wade's cranky old knees and Westbrook's cranky young right knee. The Thunder were not quite ready two years ago but they have learned their lessons and Westbrook's injuries have also helped them to understand that every trip to the NBA Finals is precious because you never know when--or if--you will return. James is the best player in the NBA but the Thunder will prove to be the best team. If the Thunder win the championship with the much-criticized Westbrook and without the much-praised Harden it will be interesting to hear what the "experts" say.

********************

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

In my 2013-2014 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams and I also went six for eight in my 2013-2014 Western Conference Preview, including placing the top four in the correct order. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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 56/72 in the East and 57/72 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .785.

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

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: 98/135 (.726)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past nine years I have correctly picked nine of the 18 NBA Finals participants. In three of those nine 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.

********************

This playoff preview article is, to some extent, a coda for 20 Second Timeout. I am beginning a two year law school journey that will limit the amount of time and energy I can devote to watching pro basketball, much less analyzing it at a high level--and then in late August I will become a first-time father, which obviously will be a life-changing experience in many ways. From my days at Basketball Digest through this website's nine year run, I have enjoyed sharing my knowledge about and passion for pro basketball with a dedicated group of loyal readers; I will miss being able to write extensive treatises about Julius Erving, Roger Brown, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other great pro basketball players past and present but the new chapter in my life promises many new adventures and opportunities for personal growth. I will continue to post here as my schedule permits and I like to think that the archival material in the main page sidebar can serve as a great resource for anyone who is interested in learning about basketball history and basketball analysis.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:52 PM

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Backspin Chronicles Pete Strobl's Basketball Odyssey

"They say that you should never stop learning if you want to keep a youthful outlook. They also say that the best way to really master something you love is to teach it to someone else. So, I'm going to go find a gym and teach somebody how to play basketball."--Pete Strobl

Pete Strobl's autobiography Backspin tells the story of his evolution from a Niagara University freshman who received little playing time to a successful pro basketball player in Europe to a highly respected basketball skills development coach. Hubie Brown (the Basketball Hall of Famer equally known for his great coaching career and his great skills as a TV commentator) and Calvin Murphy (who averaged 33.1 ppg during his college career before becoming an NBA All-Star and a Basketball Hall of Famer) are two of Niagara's most famous alumni. Brown came back to Niagara to give a clinic when Strobl was a freshman and Strobl's description of his failed attempt to impress Brown is priceless.

A key moment in Strobl's career happened in his first year at Niagara when he was very disappointed about riding the bench. Assistant coach Tom Parrotta listened to Strobl's complaints and provided a blunt response that sharpened Strobl's focus. Strobl writes (p. 25), "He didn't try to sell me anything; he didn't give me some threadbare speech from a coaching manual on how to deal with immature players who think that they should play more because they were high school studs. He simply listened. He listened to something he's probably heard a hundred times, possibly even from his own mouth when he was a struggling young player hungry for minutes of his own. He hit me right between the eyes with some truth. 'Prove it!' he said. And by not trying to alleviate my pain, he helped to fuel my fire."

Strobl's roommate during his first two years at Niagara was Alvin Young, also known as "Al-Boogie"; Young led the nation in scoring (25.1 ppg) as a senior in 1998-99. Young earned a basketball scholarship to Niagara despite not playing one minute of organized high school basketball. He honed his game on the playgrounds and learned how to get his shot off against any defender. Strobl recalls (p. 31), "The most valuable thing I learned from watching Al was that offensive moves are all about execution and repetition. Time after time, I watched him make the same move, make the same ball fake, hesitate for just exactly the same split-second, and many times against the very same defender. Time after time the result would be the same. He could tell a defensive player exactly what he was going to do and still execute the move flawlessly to get his shot off every time."

Strobl earned his bachelor's degree in just three years and completed his MBA by taking two summer semesters after his senior season. Strobl then began his professional playing career in France, where he initially experienced tremendous culture shock; he quickly adapted to the different language and different way of life and now he looks back with fondness on the time he spent in France. Strobl performed well enough to earn the opportunity to play in high level leagues in Austria and Germany, enabling him to explore his family's roots--and expand his game: Strobl was a late bloomer as a player but in Austria he began to display his full skill set, culminating in a playoff game when he scored 56 points while making 10 of his 15 three point field goal attempts.

While he was in Austria, Strobl began his coaching career by working with his club's Under 12 team. Strobl played a cerebral brand of basketball and he applied that same approach to his life--planning his next move much like "Al-Boogie" set up his next shot--because he realized that a playing career lasts a relatively short amount of time while a coaching career can last for decades.

Strobl subsequently played for teams in Iceland, Ireland and Switzerland, where his playing career came to an abrupt and unexpected end; after the birth of Strobl's second child, Stobl's team declined to provide adequate health insurance for Strobl's family or to release him from his contract so that he could play for a more accommodating club. For his entire life, Strobl had defined himself primarily as a basketball player but now he shifted his focus and made the decision to return to the United States. The lessons Strobl learned during his college career and his European odyssey prepared him for the next phase in his life. In 2009, he founded The Scoring Factory, a Pittsburgh-based basketball skills development academy that trains high school athletes, NBA-bound athletes and athletes who plan to play professionally in Europe.

Recognizing connections between seemingly disparate pursuits is an important aspect of coaching, because this enables a coach to teach by using analogies that can vividly resonate with his students in a way that straight, rote instruction may not. Strobl's father worked as a professional musician and Strobl explains some qualities that are shared by basketball and music (pp. 196-197): "Both require a lot of discipline and have structure and rules. A group of musicians has to play in the same key and time signature, just as a basketball team has to run some kind of offensive set and know what the defensive strategy is. There are role players or accompanists in both music and basketball. But for the great soloist, both music and basketball have plenty of opportunity for creative improvisation. Role players sometimes go unnoticed, but are often the difference between a hit record or not."

Backspin is an entertaining and informative book, full of insights not just about basketball but also about coaching/teaching, the benefits of stepping outside of one's comfort zone and the importance of learning from every life experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 PM

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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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