It is no secret that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the best basketball player on the planet. It’s also not exactly private knowledge that the supporting cast they’ve given him is far from championship-caliber.
But it’s not just that James is single-handedly trying to will his team to another NBA Finals. It’s that he is doing this at a level of play we may very well have never seen before in the history of the sport.
For starters, James is averaging 33.7 points, nine rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game in these playoffs. The only player in NBA history to match those figures in the postseason was Russell Westbrook last year; the kicker here is that Westbrook’s Thunder were bounced by the Rockets in five games in the first round of the playoffs. We have never seen a player produce this consistently over a full playoff run, but the raw production numbers are not the only sign of James’ historic greatness.
Because while some players have been insanely prolific scorers, passers, and rebounders throughout NBA playoff history, no player has ever done all three of these and combined them with ruthless efficiency.
There have been two postseasons in NBA history in which a player has owned a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 33 or greater and player in at least ten playoff games. LeBron James is the owner of both of them (NOTE: PER was not tracked until the 1988-89 season). Not Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, John Stockton, et al. Just LeBron James. Just the greatest player of our generation. Just the greatest player of all-time.
The Cavaliers, though, are in a similar position to where they have been in the previous two playoff series. They’re playing a Boston Celtics unit that, as a whole, is probably better than they are. The same statement could be made about the Indiana Pacers, who pushed Cleveland to the wall in the first round and outscored the Cavs by 40 points over seven games. The Toronto Raptors could, theoretically, have given the Cavaliers a series, but they blew a 14-point lead in the first half of Game 1 and, on account of them being the Toronto Raptors, lost the next three games and even had ESPN announcers saying that they hailed from “LeBronto”. Now that is rock bottom.
The Celtics, though, are the best team Cleveland has faced to this point in the playoffs. In spite of losing their two best players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, to season-ending injuries, Boston has the best defense in the league and an ensemble cast that has carried them past the Bucks and 76ers to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, they depend on getting much of their offense from rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and 2015 first-round pick Terry Rozier. The only experienced veterans currently playing for the Celtics are Al Horford and Marcus Morris, and while Horford made the All-Star team this year, he isn’t nearly the type of player James is and the Celtics depend just as much on their young players for production. It’s fair to wonder whether or not these three men can regain their mojo as the series returns to Boston for a critical Game 5. The reason this is brought up now is because the Celtics have just one road win in these playoffs, and it came in overtime against the 76ers in a game that nearly ended with a Philadelphia victory in regulation.
The Celtics obviously have a better supporting cast, but against a player like James, will it matter?
My belief is that if Cleveland gets good enough contributions from the likes of Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love, the answer to the question above will be no. You go into this game assuming that James will take what is his, and even if he has a bad night from the field, he’ll still set his teammates up with good looks. Cleveland shot 25-57 (.439) from three in two games at Quicken Loans Arena as opposed to 14-57 (.246) in two games at TD Garden. There may be some regression from Game 4 to Game 5, but if the Cavs continue to get open looks, at least some of them are bound to go in.
The other factor here is the Celtics’ ineptitude on the road. Even though they don’t need to win a road game to win this series, they are only forcing LeBron and company to take one game in Boston assuming their home/road trends continue. Remember, this is the same building in which LeBron dunked Jason Terry into next week and scored 45 in an Eastern Conference Finals elimination game. If tempting fate is your thing, the Boston Celtics are the team for you.
But no matter what happens, we should sincerely appreciate what we are watching on the court on a nightly basis. The greatest player in the history of basketball has been given one of the worst secondary units in the league, and despite that, he may lead this group make to their fourth straight NBA Finals and his eighth in a row. And if you think your profession is miserable, just remember that mine pays a guy $5.5 million per year to go on television, troll LeBron, and tweet out dumb things about him every time he does something good, which is very often.
The greatest basketball player of our generation and the greatest player of all-time has brought the Eastern Conference Finals to a tie at two games apiece against a collective unit that is evidently far better than his. He doesn’t have a very good supporting cast and the odds are that he can’t singlehandedly drag his team to another NBA Finals.
But who needs favorable odds when LeBron James is on your team? The Cavaliers haven’t before, and they certainly don’t now.
The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s hottest team through the first two months of the season and currently hold a Western Conference-leading 25-5 record. Until last night’s loss to the Lakers, one in which MVP candidate James Harden casually dropped 51 points, the team had won 14 games in a row and had also gone 15-0 with point guard Chris Paul in the starting lineup. Paul, though, left last night’s game with an adductor strain and is currently considered day-to-day.
Now that we enjoyed that little bit of fun, it’s time to return to reality and consider whether or not the Rockets can seriously stack up with the Warriors if the two meet in the playoffs.
Much of Houston’s success to this point in the season has been due to the acquisition of Paul from the Clippers this past summer. While Harden has been one of the league’s best players this season, the Rockets are a different monster with CP3 on the floor. To show you just how good Paul has been in just 16 games this season, I give you this table from the good people at Basketball-Reference that provides point differentials and field goal percentages of the Rockets’ lineup combinations to this point in the season. I have modified the table to remove the most common five-man lineups that feature Harden. The point differential, per 100 possessions, of some of these combinations may shock you:
In reality, though, this shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Paul has been a plus/minus god for the better part of ten years and is, for my money, one of the three best point guards in the game today. That makes his injury last night, the second significant one he has suffered this season, all the more concerning. While he isn’t expected to miss much time at the moment, the Rockets cannot possibly win a championship without him. After all, we’ve seen what can happen to the Rockets in the playoffs without him and it wasn’t pretty.
All that being said, this is not at all an affront to James Harden’s abilities. It is, however, a testament to the state of the NBA today that having just one of the best players in the league is not nearly enough to get a team into serious championship contention. The other problem for the Rockets last season was that Harden, without the presence of a true point guard, played the position admirably and nearly won Most Valuable Player honors. The issue was that, by the time the Rockets faced off against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, Harden was asked to create his own offense and initiate most of Houston’s, as well. He barely shot over 41% in the series and the Rockets were dispatched despite the Spurs’ loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard at the end of Game 5. The Rockets don’t have that problem anymore, and while Harden can put the team on his back for periods when Paul is injured or on the bench, the team hopes that they won’t completely need him to come playoff time.
Since we seem to keep coming back to it, let’s address this next issue head-on. Can the Rockets dethrone the defending champions and beat the Warriors in a playoff series?
For starters, let’s take a slightly closer look at the performance of both teams to this point in the season. The Dubs are currently just a half-game back of Houston for the top spot in the West, and while much of the attention has gone to the Rockets’ start, the Warriors have ripped off 25 wins in their first 31 games with little to no fanfare. And you could argue that Golden State has not yet hit its stride, as superstar point guard Steph Curry will be out until the end of this calendar year with an ankle injury.
Simple Rating System, a statistic that rates teams based on point differential and strength of schedule, has the Warriors and Rockets rated just about identically, with Golden State holding the advantage by one one-hundredth of a point. If you want to be skeptical of this metric, you have my full permission; it currently has the Raptors rated as the top team in the East and made the exact same mistake a season ago. But while it may not be perfect, it does take into account most aspects of a team’s performance and gives a number correspondent to the strength of that performance. And according to SRS, the Rockets’ success has been impressive, but it still isn’t enough to put them past the Warriors as the Western Conference’s best team.
There is also no guarantee that the Rockets will keep up this pace, one that has them winning 83% of their games, for the rest of the season. While the Rockets’ offense shouldn’t be a problem as long as Paul and Harden are healthy (they currently lead the league in offensive rating), their defense could become a concern. A team coached by Mike D’Antoni for a full season has never finished in the top ten of the league in defensive rating; the lockout-shortened 2011-12 New York Knicks, a team D’Antoni resigned from with 24 games to play in the regular season, finished fifth in that category that year. The Rockets currently sit in 7th in the league in defensive rating, and while this may very well be the best team he has ever had in his coaching career, there is also reason to believe that their defensive performance could suffer as the season goes along.
I truly want to believe that the Houston Rockets could dethrone them as the best team in the NBA. I really believe that they are the second-best team in the league right now, and I don’t see that changing, barring injuries or unforeseen circumstances, before the season ends.
But I’ll believe in the Rockets as a championship contender when I see the Warriors lose a playoff series. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Wow. If you think there’s a lot to digest here, you’re right. Let’s start with the trade’s headliners (Thomas and Irving) and then branch out from there.
Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas entered the league at the exact same time; in fact, Irving was the first pick in the 2011 Draft while Thomas was the last. This trade marks the first time in NBA history that the first pick in a draft has been swapped for the last pick in that same draft. Because they have played for the same amount of time, we can conveniently and easily compare their careers to this point.
Possibly the best NBA stat to encapsulate a player’s full value is VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). Since the 2011-12 season, Irving has a slightly higher VORP than Thomas (16.2 to 14.9). Thomas, though, started his career with the Sacramento Kings and was traded to the Celtics at the 2015 trade deadline after a brief layover in Phoenix. Starting with Thomas’ first full season in Boston, though, he has a far higher VORP than Irving (8.2 to 4.4). Thomas, in fact, finished fifth in NBA MVP voting last season and was incredibly valuable to the Celtics in their, at times, seemingly improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Where Thomas is docked by critics, and rightfully so, is for his defense. Among those who played at least 1,500 minutes last season, Thomas was tied for third-to-worst in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), coming in ahead of only Shabazz Muhammad and Nick Young. DBPM measures a player’s contribution to his team in points per 100 possessions, and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (OBPM) does the same thing on the other end of the floor. Part of the problem is that, in case you haven’t heard, Thomas is all of 5’9″ and is the shortest point guard in the league. There are very few matchups, if any, that Thomas can possibly win at the defensive end with his height. What some may not tell you, though, is that Irving, standing at 6’3″, isn’t significantly better at the defensive end. Despite his six-inch height advantage, Irving finished just one point better in DBPM last season, which tied him for fourteenth-worst in the league. Offensively, both players have been pretty much even since coming into the league, with Thomas having a slight advantage in Offensive Box Plus/Minus. If this trade were simply player-for-player, I’d probably call it about even with (maybe) a very slight advantage for the Cavaliers.
The issue for the Celtics, though, is that they didn’t just give up Isaiah Thomas in the trade. Let’s move on from Thomas and Irving and look at the other cool toys the Celtics forked over to get Kyrie.
Crowder is an enticing sixth-year player and the advanced metrics are largely split on how good he actually is. While VORP has him as a slightly above average player, win shares (which is exactly what it sounds like) is very high on him. That statistic rates his value very highly and says that he contributed fourteen wins for the Celtics over the past two seasons, a number slightly better than Irving’s win shares (13.9) over the same period. Another figure that casts Crowder in a very positive light is True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account all of a player’s field goal and free throw attempts. Crowder pulled in the top 20 in TS% (61.3) last season, and both he and Thomas finished in the top 20 and ahead of, wait for it, Kyrie Irving.
While Crowder’s exact value seems to be kind of hard to peg, his presence gives the Cavaliers plenty of lineup opportunities. If the team wishes to go small to try to directly mirror a lineup like the Warriors’, they could start Crowder at small forward, LeBron James at power forward, and then have a choice between Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson as the team’s starting center. The other option for the Cavs is to leave their starting lineup as is, with both Love and Thompson starting, and have Crowder come off the bench to spell James. This choice may be more likely, as James played over 42 minutes per game in last year’s NBA Finals. Either way, the Cavaliers and coach Tyronn Lue have no shortage of options for using their new wing.
And don’t forget that the Celtics also included Croatian big man Ante Zizic in this deal. While Zizic probably isn’t NBA-ready just yet, he is an interesting big man who averaged a double-double per 36 minutes in the Turkish Euroleague last season. When he declared for the 2016 NBA Draft, I compared him to Nikola Vucevic and noted his 25.7 PER in the Adriatic League, a league that features teams from several countries, most notably those comprising the former Yugoslavia. Zizic could be an interesting piece for the Cavs’ future, and even though he struggled at times in the Summer League, he could be a fascinating component of the Cavaliers’ haul for Kyrie Irving. He’s expected to play in the United States this year and will likely spend most of his time in the G-League, formerly known as the NBA’s Developmental League.
Last, but most certainly not least, the Cavaliers received the Celtics’ all-important and unprotected 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were the worst team in the league a season ago and the Celtics received their first-round pick in the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, otherwise known as the gift that keeps on giving the whole year round. The Nets are showing very few signs of improvement for next year, and if the team again has the worst record in the league, then the Cavaliers will have the best chance at acquiring the #1 overall pick in the 2018 Draft. Assuming owner Dan Gilbert and his son, Nick, can work their almost biennial draftlotteryvoodoo, the Cavs will have very good odds at reeling in the first pick.
While we’re likely a little ahead of ourselves with this one, if the Cavs have the first pick, they could choose from Missouri’s Michael Porter, Jr., Duke’s Marvin Bagley, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, and a host of other intriguing prospects. Even if they don’t have the first selection, they could still get a very good player in the first few picks. This is all assuming that the Nets don’t somehow make a run to the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which seems extremely unlikely with the state of their current roster.
Of course, this trade will lose value after next year if James leaves for greener pastures in free agency next summer; Thomas is also a free agent next year and may look to relocate if James leaves. Still, a superstar, a proven starter, a potentially solid international big man, and a potential #1 pick is just about as well as the Cavaliers could have possibly done.
The Cavs’ front office deserves all of the credit they could possibly get for pulling off this deal. When Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge, many assumed that Cleveland would get less than market value for him because Irving would be desperate to leave and the front office would be desperate to move him. Instead, the Cavs actually got above market value for him and the assets they received in the trade could appreciate over time. It is surprising, though, that Celtics GM Danny Ainge decided to pull the trigger on this move when he could have let the Cavaliers trade Irving elsewhere and take his chances going against a Cavs team likely led by James and Kevin Love. That being said, the Celtics still have a lot of assets in tow and Irving will give them valuable and significant contributions. But hats off to new and, until yesterday, relatively unproven Cavs GM Koby Altman for getting as much as he could for his disgruntled star point guard. And while this move probably isn’t enough to close the gap between Cleveland and the Warriors, it looks like the Cavs may have gotten better with yesterday’s trade.
The Cavaliers were in a situation with Kyrie Irving that could best be described as impossible. And yet, somehow, someway, they came out on top when they decided to deal him.
Yesterday, NBA Twitter collapsed on itself with the report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving is asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Irving has been the second-most important player on a Cavaliers squad that has reached the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons, and the news of his trade request comes as a complete shock to both the Cavs and the rest of the league. Irving’s reasoning for doing this is to get out of the shadow of LeBron James, who is somehow still the best player on the planet at age 32. The Cavaliers are reportedly none too pleased with the demands becoming public because the news lessens Irving’s trade value. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on here.
Irving has stated that he prefers four potential destinations: San Antonio, Minnesota, Miami, or the Knicks. Let’s just say that he would make any of those four teams better, with the degree of improvement being dependent on how much each team is willing to fork over in a deal. We’ll leave this space to what a possible trade would do to the Cleveland Cavaliers as they are currently constituted.
The present-day Cavalier offense is built around isolation sets for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. While the Cavs averaged 110.3 points per game last season, James and Irving, on average, scored 51.6 of those points; combined, the two accounted for nearly 47% of their team’s points in every game they played. Kyrie averaged career highs in points and shots taken per game a season ago, and a 32-year-old James appears to have been ready to cede more of the offense to the team’s star point guard. In fact, Irving’s regular season usage rate was higher than LeBron’s a season ago.
Of course, Irving is not a true point guard in every sense. He has never averaged more than 6.1 assists in a season and has drawn comparisons to Allen Iverson both for his slick ball-handling and his isolation tendencies. This doesn’t mean that he’s a selfish player; he wasn’t even the primary ball-handler in Cleveland’s offense when he and James were on the floor together. But it would be a stretch to see him putting up numbers akin to the league’s best assist men (John Wall, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, etc.) anytime soon.
That being said, the impact of his impending departure from Cleveland cannot be overstated. Many of the problems Cleveland had last season, particularly against the Warriors, came because of the overuse of James and Irving. If you think LeBron James is currently overworked (which he is), you won’t want to see the Cavaliers without a legitimate second option to give him relief. There are numbers to back this up.
For example, in last year’s NBA Finals, James and Irving both pulled usage rates of over 30 percent. Translated: when both players were on the floor, they accounted for over 60% of the Cavaliers’ offense. Cleveland wasn’t playing two-on-five, but at times, it felt like they were. Irving’s usage rate increased when James went to the bench while James’ increased without Irving. The two players averaged a ridiculous 41.4 (!) minutes per game in this past Finals but without the defensive attention devoted to Irving, the Cavaliers offense simply does not operate as efficiently.
Together, James and Irving chipped in 77 points in Game 3 of the 2017 Finals. The Cavaliers won that game by…. that’s right, they lost. One of the best performances by two teammates in an NBA Finals game still wasn’t enough to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. Even with Irving, the Cavaliers, as currently constituted, are not nearly good enough to win a championship. Without him, they’re still a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference (having the best player on Earth will do that to you), but they are not the unassailable force out East that they are right now.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that Irving is traded to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. Let’s also assume that the Knicks’ star power forward, Kristaps Porzingis, is not involved in any potential deal. Irving’s PER (player efficiency rating) last season was 23.0 while Anthony’s was 17.9 (league average in 15). Anthony’s VORP (value over replacement player) was 0.7 while Irving’s was 2.9. Irving ranked in the top 15 of all players last season in Offensive Box Plus/Minus, while Anthony barely scratched the top 50. Most interestingly, Anthony’s Box Plus/Minus last year was -2.2, a rating similar to players such as Derrick Rose, Arron Afflalo, Jamal Crawford…. and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs would essentially be trading away one of the best offensive players in the game for an aging player whose career trajectory is quickly hurtling toward a serious decline at age 33. The Cavs would also not improve at all on defense, which was easily their weakest point last year. This trade would make perfect sense for the Knicks, which obviously means that there’s no way it’ll ever come to fruition.
The Cavaliers, though, are likely left with no better options. The team and new GM Koby Altman are faced with no good alternatives after Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge yesterday. Altman is taking over for the jettisoned David Griffin, who was fired on June 30, much to the dismay of the Cavs’ best player. The Cavaliers are also the biggest soap opera in the NBA today; their superstars are disgruntled, their owner is meddling in the team’s success, and their roster could be gutted by this time next year. In the short term, though, a potential Irving trade may put the Celtics ahead of the Cavs in the Eastern Conference next season. With all indications pointing to James potentially leaving Cleveland after next season, his second stint with the Cavs may end like the first one did: with a playoff loss to the Celtics. I’m not ready to say that for sure just yet, but Irving’s loss would be catastrophic to Cleveland’s championship hopes.
Kyrie Irving shocked the basketball world yesterday by asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Because Irving made the request, the trade is likely to happen sooner rather than later, and it will be interesting to see where he goes and what the Cavaliers can get in return for his services.
His demands truly put the Cavaliers in a peculiar place, but Cleveland has itself to blame for his wanting out.
Well, at least until tomorrow. This week marks the only time in the calendar year in which no professional sports games will be played. It’s a slow news week and at this point, it seems like we’re almost inventing news to get us through it. Think about that story: a player took his franchise’s ineptitude into account, as well as the sport’s inherent health risks, when deciding whether or not to keep playing football. No, never! Anyhow, it’s not the best week for new developments in the sports world.
This is good. Really, it is. We need breaks every now and then to take us out of a 500-mile-per-hour sports news cycle rife with blowhard dads, out-of-control beefs, and lots and lots of basketball. (The last game of the NBA Finals was on June 12. It feels like the sport never left us.) This also gives yours truly an opportunity to examine something I’ve somehow become opinionated about over the past year or so:
The debate over who is truly the best basketball player of all time, a debate that can be narrowed down to just two players: LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
You’ve probably heard the crazier, louder, and most controversial opinions on this subject. From our flawed memories to the supposed clutch gene, we’ve heard just about every possible opinion on this subject. It’s not that these opinions are bad or even wrong, but they do become tiring after a while. Once the discussion reaches a certain point, it feels like the same facts (or opinions) are being regurgitated and we try to come up with new, more interesting, and more controversial ways to address this matter.
This used to be something I spent zero time and energy on. After all, it’s the most hotly-contested debate in sports between fans, pundits, and even players. The contrarian in me said that I should ignore this and pay attention to other issues in sports that I viewed as being more important at the time. It really does put the psycho in psychoanalysis and I used to loathe it with a burning passion:
Anyone who makes a sincere argument about James’ legacy compared to Jordan’s clearly doesn’t understand just how much basketball has changed over the past 20 years. These people also don’t understand that the two men are completely different players who do completely different things on the court. LeBron has always been aware of this, thankfully.
Sure, the game of basketball has changed over the past 20 years. And I’d like to think that I’ve become less of a sarcastic, angry curmudgeon over the past thirteen months (wishful thinking). So I decided to further investigate some things myself, and even I must admit that I was surprised by just some of what I found. For all of my life, I had always assumed that Jordan was better, but I gave myself a serious self-examination to discover why I held that opinion and whether or not I was right.
I decided that I was going to examine this analytically and accept that I may not expect the outcome I would eventually come to. I was jumping in on the hottest debate in sports.
For starters, most everyone agrees that James is a better passer than Jordan. This is certifiably true; not only does James (7.0) average more career assists per game than MJ (5.2), LeBron’s 35.0% assist percentage easily outshines Jordan’s (24.9%). Okay, we’ll give this facet of the game of basketball to LeBron. As long as Jordan isn’t hurting his teammates on the offensive end, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right?
As many will tell you, the absolute worst thing you can possibly do with the basketball is turn it over. In the case of an unskilled player like me, the worst thing you can do is shoot it, but that’s an entirely different conversation. Anyway, James has, as you would expect, more turnovers per game than Jordan. Again, this is over the course of both players’ full careers, so everything they have done is being factored in.
Take a closer look at that number, though, and you’ll see that it isn’t as black-and-white as it may seem. Sure, James averages more than three turnovers per game, but as we pointed out earlier, he also gets about seven assists. In terms of career totals, James’ assist-to-turnover ratio is about 2.06. Jordan, who obviously passed the ball less in his day, has an assist-to-turnover ratio of roughly 1.93. At this stage, I should point out that I won’t be counting Jordan’s comeback season in 1995, one in which he played just 17 regular season games. While much is often made of James’ turnovers, particularly in the playoffs, the problem is actually overblown in the regular season. If you take James over Jordan, you’re getting an extra 106 assists in exchange for just over 36 more turnovers. Wouldn’t you take that literally every single time? I know I would.
If you place a lot of import in playoff statistics, like I also do, you’ll notice that these numbers are slightly different. James’ assist-to-turnover ratio dips to 1.93 while Jordan’s hovers around 1.87. While both players are down, James is still slightly better. If you hitch your wagons to playoff LeBron and ditch playoff Jordan, you’re signing up for 45 more assists and 22 more turnovers. Again, you’d take that trade-off.
Another common knock against James’ overall game is his shooting ability. For some reason, many have made LeBron’s “inability to shoot” their justification for knocking him as a player. So of course Jordan’s shooting numbers have to be better, right?
Actually, that’s not necessarily the case. What if I told you that James has better career percentages on both two-pointers and three-pointers? That would probably shock you, right? Well, it’s true. While Jordan has a better field goal percentage in the playoffs, James actually has a better true shooting percentage; true shooting percentage, or TS%, is a measure of every “shot” a player takes over the course of a game or a season (twos, threes, and free throws). The numbers state that James is kind of, sort of a better shooter than Michael Jordan. Funny how that happens.
Now, many Jordan zealots will point to his scoring numbers (three more points per game in the regular season and five more in the playoffs) as a way to essentially stiff-arm these critiques. But in the playoffs, Jordan is able to pull off these numbers by taking over four more shots per game (in the regular season, it’s just over three extra shots per contest). Those numbers, then, are not as impressive when you consider how much harder he has to work for them. That isn’t meant to be a knock on Jordan’s offensive prowess but it does put both players’ scoring ability into context.
There’s one more thing to think about here: Jordan appeared in six NBA Finals and LeBron has appeared in eight. While most will take this time to point out that Jordan has six rings as opposed to James’ three, the fact that James has been to eight Finals total and seven in a row speaks to how consistently good he has been. Of course, if Jordan didn’t take the better part of two years off to play baseball, he may have matched or even surpassed this feat. And while Jordan has a 6-0 record in the Finals, he also lost to other Eastern Conference teams in the playoffs in the earlier stages of his career. That should also factor into his playoff greatness, whether you like it or not. This is the question: would you rather lose early in the playoffs or get to basketball’s biggest stage and then succumb to a simply better team? That’s pretty much what you’re saying if you bring up Jordan’s Finals record as the be-all, end-all answer in the debate between these two titans of basketball.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that I am something of an advanced stats nerd. Advanced analytics, particularly in basketball, place everyone on a level playing field and make all things virtually equal. This next section may bore you, but it is arguably most significant when comparing both players.
One of the main statistics used to evaluate players in basketball is Player Efficiency Rating, or PER for short. In that category, Jordan is slightly ahead of James (27.9 to 27.6). The distance between these two players, the top two in the history of the NBA in PER, and the third-place player (Shaquille O’Neal) is sizable. Jordan and LeBron are the two best players in this all-encompassing category, but we’ll cede the high ground to MJ on this one.
The more revealing stat in this debate is Value Over Replacement Player, otherwise known as VORP. VORP essentially tries to quantify just how much better (or worse) a player is than just about any other replacement player in the league in terms of points per 100 team possessions added (or subtracted). It is basically basketball’s answer to Wins Above Replacement. You get it, I VORP. I’m sorry. I had to throw that in.
Back to the matter at hand now. Just like with PER, both players are in the top two all time (it should be noted that these rankings also encompass the ABA). This time, though, James finds himself on top (115.9 to Jordan’s 104.4). While career PER is an average of a player’s efficiency rating over the course of his career, VORP is a statistic that accumulates as a player racks up more career minutes. So surely, upon seeing this, you would think James has played significantly more career games and minutes than Jordan, right?
Well, it’s not exactly that way. James has played 41,272 career regular season minutes. Jordan has played 41,011. The difference in service time between the two all-time greats? 261 minutes, a difference that Jordan would have compensated for in roughly seven games.
Another similar measure of a player’s success is a stat called Box Plus/Minus (BPM). Box Plus/Minus is almost identical to VORP, except that it attempts to quantify the contributions of a player per 100 possessions while he is on the floor. BPM, just like PER, is an averaged statistic and is not dependent on minutes played. James and Jordan possess all three of the greatest BPM seasons of all time, but James has a slightly better BPM than Michael (9.1 to 8.1). There are also separate calculations for offensive and defensive BPM. LeBron has the advantage in both figures.
Advanced statistics have spoken. They say that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all-time.
This is a debate that you could spin yourself in knots with. There are legitimate arguments to be made for both players and it’s hard to find blame with any opinion… as long as it makes logical sense, of course. To tell you the truth, I’m still not entirely comfortable having this conversation, as Jordan’s second retirement came just under four weeks before my birth. I’m also not comfortable with some seemingly downplaying Michael Jordan’s impact on the game of basketball, as he came into the league when NBA Finals games were broadcast on tape delay and left the sport of basketball as the second-most popular sport in the United States.
That being said, this discussion is simply about which man is the better basketball player and, by extension, the best basketball player ever. My careful study of the numbers shows that LeBron James has a slight but clear advantage.
The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.
One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.
In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.
While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.
Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?
That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.
Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.
Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?
In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.
Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.
Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.
George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.
That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.
The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.
But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.
And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.
Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.
Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.
The news was passed down early yesterday morning, as Jackson and owner James Dolan began to have major philosophical differences about the future of the franchise. This frustration is reported to have revolved around a potential buyout of Carmelo Anthony, an avenue that would have entailed the Knicks paying him a large sum of money, potentially up to $54 million, to play elsewhere. While Anthony wanted out of New York, Jackson wanted to get something back for his services. With this, the tumultuous, turbulent, three-year tenure of Jackson’s rule over the Knicks came to an end yesterday.
Needless to say, Knick fans are pretty stoked about the team getting out of Jackson’s grasp. At this point, though, it’s probably a good idea to take a look back at Jackson’s time with the Knicks and just what exactly went so wrong for him and the team over these past three years. It’s also important to look at where the Knicks are now as opposed to where they were when Jackson took over as the team’s lead executive.
On March 18, 2014, the Knicks hired Jackson as their team president. The team was 28-40 at the time and in no position to make a run towards the playoffs. In fact, Phil’s first move as the lead executive, as certain individuals will happily remind you, was to sign Lamar Odom, who, at the time, was in the midst of an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. As a metaphor, it wasn’t the best start to the Jackson era in New York.
After the season, Jackson fired head coach Mike Woodson and replaced him with the recently-retired Derek Fisher. While the hiring was met with optimism, the Knicks previously had their heart set on Steve Kerr, who instead took a job with the Golden State Warriors. The team reportedly low-balled Kerr by offering him $13 million for three years; the Warriors offered to pay Kerr $5 million per year for five years, an offer he happily accepted. Three years and two Golden State championships later, it’s clear that the disenfranchisement of Kerr set a negative tone for Phil Jackson’s tenure as president of the Knicks.
Perhaps more telling, though, were the assistant coaches hired by Jackson to help the inexperienced Fisher. Among others, Jackson hired Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis to spots on Fisher’s bench. Why was this significant? Well, both men were former assistant coaches under Jackson in his time with the Bulls and Lakers; they would help implement Jackson’s favored Triangle offense, an offensive system he used in both of his previous coaching stints to help him win eleven championships. The Knicks, however, did not have Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and it showed, as the team went 17-65 for the 2014-15 season, Jackson’s first full campaign as leader of the Knicks’ front office.
The seminal move of that season was the team’s trade of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In a three-team trade that also included Dion Waiters and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks acquired… Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson, and Lance Thomas. Smith and Shumpert became important pieces to the Cavaliers’ run to the NBA Finals that season and both are still in Cleveland. Jackson had finally helped build a title contender. Unfortunately, that title contender played in Cleveland, serving as yet another metaphor for the hapless Knicks.
Jackson’s lasting legacy as an executive will be his selection of Latvian power forward Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Porzingis has been excellent as a Knick and represents the team’s future as Carmelo Anthony begins to decline. Of course, in true Jacksonian fashion, he tried to trade the 21-year-old Porzingis before this year’s draft. When asked why he would even think about doing such a thing, the principal reason he cited was the Knicks’ future. The main reason for trading Porzingis would have been because he blew off last year’s end-of-season exit meetings because he, like everyone else, was and is frustrated with the Knicks’ dysfunction. While Phil cited the future to explain why the Knicks took calls about Porzingis’ availability, little did he know that trading the team’s best asset would have sabotaged the future Jackson said he was trying to protect.
This is also to say nothing of the relationship (or lack thereof) Jackson cultivated with Anthony. Among other insults, Jackson suggested that Anthony was a ball hog and didn’t necessarily care about winning. Jackson later went back to his Twitter with this truly bizarre clarification after subtweeting his star player:
So after starting a 🔥storm with a misunderstood tweet, I offer this✌🏻our society is torn with discord. I’m against it. Let It Be
One thing Jackson does understand about being an executive is the use of social media. As an influential leader in the 21st Century, Jackson understands that Twitter is a way to get your message out without going through the media. Unfortunately, his Twitter usage only created further problems for the Knicks, a team already torn apart by bad management and poor performance.
So where are the Knicks right now? After firing Fisher and bringing in new coach Jeff Hornacek before last season, the Knicks are at something of a crossroads. While Jackson and the Triangle are out, Hornacek and the remains of his staff and the team’s front office will have to fend for themselves with a roster somewhat in question; point guard Derrick Rose is a free agent and the team reportedly wants to try to trade Anthony, even though Jackson has left the front office.
Even though Phil Jackson proved to be a fairly awful executive (the Knicks were 80-171 under his leadership), he didn’t completely sabotage the team’s future. While there were times it looked like he would, Jackson still left the Knicks with Kristaps Porzingis and the opportunity to get something meaningful in exchange for Anthony’s services.
As for who will replace Jackson, that still remains to be seen. The top candidates to emerge for the position are former Cavaliers GM David Griffin and Raptors president Masai Ujiri. If the Knicks can lure Ujiri from Canada, the Raptors are likely to receive draft pick compensation in return. Of course, the success of Jackson’s replacement will depend on how willing owner James Dolan is to trust the new decision-maker(s). Dolan’s track record could use some improvement; since 2002, the Seattle SuperSonics have won more playoff games than the Knicks. Since 2008, the Seattle SuperSonics have been known as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The task awaiting whoever takes over as the president of the Knicks is to rebuild the worst-run franchise in the NBA into a contender. Good luck.
But the new president of the team will have Porzingis, Anthony, and, most importantly, a bright future for a team that has not reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 2000. That’s a lot better than nothing.
Another NBA Draft has come and gone and, as usual, there are plenty of storylines to go around. Markelle Fultz was taken first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, Lonzo Ball went second to the Lakers, the Timberwolves traded for Bulls superstar Jimmy Butler, and college freshmen (or the age equivalent of college freshmen) accounted for the first eleven picks in the draft.
Needless to say, there is plenty to talk about after last night’s NBA Draft. Here are some unsolicited thoughts on the last night’s draft and the events that surrounded it.
Ball Don’t Lie
Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Lakers traded away guard D’Angelo Russell and the unyielding contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for center Brook Lopez. Many believed the move was meant to make room for the team, led by new President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, to draft UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. Sure enough, that’s what the Lakers did with the second overall pick in last night’s draft.
Ball is the team’s point guard of the future and has the ability to make all of his teammates better. The Lakers aren’t going back to the glory years of “Showtime”, but the acquisition of Ball could be what helps them get back into playoff contention. And while the specter of Lonzo’s father, LaVar, hangs over the selection, Johnson and General Manager Sam Seaborn Rob Pelinka have decided that hitching the Lakers’ wagon to the UCLA guard is worth the risk. And personally, I must say that I agree. Ball was the best player available for the Lakers and he could start the team toward a return to prominence. Don’t let a crazy father stop you from thinking that.
The Timberwolves’ Future Is Now
Arguably the biggest move on draft night was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. In return, Chicago acquired guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn from Minnesota; the Bulls also acquired the draft rights to Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, the seventh pick in the draft. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, also received the rights to the 16th pick in the draft, Justin Patton of Creighton.
While LaVine is an exciting player who averaged nearly 20 points per game last season, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on February 3. Dunn, on the other hand, averaged all of 3.8 points per game in his rookie season after being drafted last year to unseat Ricky Rubio as Minnesota’s starting point guard. Rubio, though, had possibly the best year of his career last season, making the 23-year-old Dunn more than expendable this summer. Markkanen is an intriguing player who has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis as a sharpshooting seven-footer, but it’s very fair to wonder just how much more the Bulls could have gotten for Jimmy Butler, one of the best players in the game today.
Last season, Butler ranked fifth in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, and before you cast that aside, consider that he came in ahead of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry, among others, in that category. In the category of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), Butler again was fifth in the league, ahead of Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant. The T’Wolves, led by Butler’s former coach, Tom Thibodeau, are getting a legitimate and experienced superstar who is one of the best players in the league at both ends.
The Timberwolves were able to get that caliber of player without having to gut their assets to do so. And the Bulls gave up the face of their franchise without getting many good assets in return. The Timberwolves are the clear winner in this deal, and the acquisition of Butler could help the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
The Knicks May Have Stumbled Into a Good Decision
I get it, the Knicks and good decisions go together like toothpaste and orange juice. But hear me out here.
While it’s not a long line of great players, the Knicks have had success in recent years with international players. This has entailed both drafting and signing foreign talent, including drafting Kristaps Porzingis, acquiring Willy Hernangómez in a draft night trade two years ago, and signing Lithuania’s Mindaugas Kuzminskas last summer. And, not to belabor the point, but all of those moves were made, with varying levels of success, by Phil Jackson. Thank me later.
Last night, the Knicks continued that trend, selecting France’s Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick. Whlie Ntilikina is raw, he won’t turn 19 until next month, and at 6’5″ he has elite length for a point guard. Most importantly from the Knicks perspective, he fits Jackson’s Triangle offense, a system that is very successful when it’s led by Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the best out of any point guard in this year’s draft. While you may not agree with that, Ntilikina is a system pick and could prove to be successful. I would have taken NC State’s Dennis Smith, but I understand the Knicks’ reasoning.
And besides, the Knicks front office knows what it’s doing. Just ask them. And even as their owner played a blues concert with his band during a huge night for his organization, the Knicks may have done something right, even if they didn’t do it on purpose.
Speaking of Teams Accidentally Doing Good Things…
The Sacramento Kings have not had many things go right for them recently. The team’s last playoff appearance was in 2006 and the last eleven years have consisted of bad trades, multitudesofheadcoaches, and general dysfunction both on and off the floor. Last night, though, the Kings did good things with their first-round picks.
With the fifth pick, the Kings selected Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox. Fox played the aforementioned Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA Tournament and absolutely dominated the matchup, scoring 39 points in a Kentucky victory. Fox is a dynamic playmaker with amazing speed and athleticism, and he looks to be Sacramento’s point guard of the future.
While the Kings possessed the tenth pick in the first round, they decided to flip that pick to the Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th overall picks. They would use those picks on North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Duke’s Harry Giles, respectively. Jackson is an intriguing player because of his length and his perimeter shooting, but I was most impressed with the selection of Giles. Giles is an energetic big man who would have been selected earlier in the draft if he had not suffered two ACL tears in the span of just four years. The Kings could be getting a steal with the Duke big man, as he is an excellent rebounder and finisher inside. If he can stay healthy, he’ll prove to be far more valuable than his 20th overall selection.
Hopefully for the Kings, Fox, Jackson, Giles, and others can help the organization move forward in a post-DeMarcus Cousins world.
Welcome to Chapter VII of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place.
In Chapter VII, we examine the 2016 NBA Finals, one in which the Warriors get off to a hot start before the Cavaliers take a run at the most improbable comeback in NBA Finals history. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here.
Without further ado, this is Chapter VII of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.
The 2016 NBA Finals tip off on June 2, 2016, and anticipation for the second Cavs-Warriors matchup is at a fever pitch. The television broadcaster for the Finals, ABC, is expecting a massive rating for the games. Ticket prices are, on average, selling for over $1,500. This series is a big deal, and much of the sports world is grinding to a halt to check it out.
While much of the anticipation for the series revolves around its two best players, LeBron James and Steph Curry, Game 1 belongs to both teams’ ancillary pieces. The Warriors take a 52-43 lead into the halftime break in spite of just 10 combined points from Curry and Klay Thompson. The Cavaliers come back strong and take the lead late in the third quarter. A James layup puts the Cavs up 68-67 with just over two minutes left in the third. Unfortunately for them, it’s the last lead they have in the game, as the Warriors go on a 15-0 run between the third and fourth quarters behind bench cogs Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, the defending Finals MVP. Golden State pulls away in the fourth quarter en route to a 104-89 victory and a 1-0 Finals lead. Livingston leads the team with 20 points while Draymond Green gets 16 points and 11 rebounds. Curry scores just 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting, but even with the unanimous MVP struggling, the Warriors are able to handily fend off the Cavs. James goes for 23 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists, while Kyrie Irving leads all scorers with 26 points.
Many expect the Cavaliers to come back stronger in Game 2, but instead, their play goes in the opposite direction. Kevin Love suffers a concussion in the second quarter while fighting with Golden State’s Harrison Barnes for a rebound; Love stays in the game until experiencing dizziness early in the second half and going to the locker room. While the Cavaliers have the game within six points shortly after halftime, the Warriors again blow it open in the third quarter and open up a 20-point lead behind 28 points and five threes from Green. James and Irving shoot a combined 12-of-31 from the field and score just 29 points. Curry is better in this game, as he makes seven of 11 shots and scores 18 points. Most impressively, the Warriors are +25 with him on the floor. The fourth quarter is fully anticlimactic, so exciting that ABC’s announcers take to discussing important matters such as old Paul Simon concerts. Golden State wins 110-77 to pull within two victories of their second straight NBA championship.
Before Game 3, the main question for the Cavaliers, among many others, is the availability of Love. That question is answered shortly before tip-off, as he is ruled out with a concussion and will be replaced in the starting lineup by 35-year-old Richard Jefferson, who will start his first NBA Finals game since 2003. That does not address the matter of whether or not the Cavs’ performance will improve when the series gets back to Cleveland.
The answer to that question, though, is yes. The Cavaliers blow a close game open in the second half on their way to a 30-point victory and their first win of the series. James scores 32 points and Irving adds 30 as the Cavaliers pull away. On the other side, the Warriors, possibly the best three-point shooting team of all-time, shoot just 27% from downtown in the loss. There is only one day of rest between Games 3 and 4, the only occurrence in the series in which there are less than two days off. Now, the Cavaliers have a chance to tie the series at two games apiece on their home floor. And better yet, Kevin Love will be back in time for the game.
Game 4, to this point, is the best game of the series, and it’s also Curry’s best performance of the NBA Finals. Irving, though, is matching him, and the Warriors carry a slim 79-77 lead through three quarters of play. In the fourth, though, the show belongs to the MVP, as he scores 13 points in the quarter to finish with 38 for the game along with seven made threes. With 2:42 to go, however, the turning point of the NBA season occurs.
With the Warriors in possession of the ball and Curry pump-faking for a three, Draymond Green attempts to set a screen on LeBron James. James, after a brief period of hand-fighting, knocks Green to the ground. While James walks over Green a la Allen Iverson, Green, in attempting to get up, crashes into James’ midsection. The two spar, leading to a double foul and a jump ball. Green’s foul is ruled a common foul on the floor, but the league reserves the right to review the play at a later time. The play does not affect the Warriors, as they go on to win Game 4, 108-97.
Irving closes with 34 points and a 14-of-28 performance from the field. James finishes with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists, but many are critical of his seemingly “passive” performance. Kevin Love scores 11 points off the bench, as Jefferson starts his second straight game but contributes minimally on the offensive end. In advance of Game 5, Golden State’s main concern is Green’s status; the NBA is reviewing his play at the end of Game 4 as a possible flagrant foul. Because he had already accumulated two flagrant foul points, any type of flagrant foul would warrant a one-game suspension under the league rules.
The league comes down with its ruling on Sunday, June 12, just one day before Game 5. Green’s foul against James is upgraded to a Flagrant 1, and Green is suspended for Game 5. He will not be allowed in the stadium for the game itself, but the league gives him the okay to appear in Oracle Arena in the case of a hypothetical championship trophy presentation. In an ironic twist, Green, quite possibly the series MVP for the Warriors, will be forced to watch Game 5 from O.Co Coliseum, the home of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics; the Coliseum is situated directly across the street from Oracle Arena, and Green can travel between both venues via an underground tunnel.
In Game 5, neither offense can be stopped in the first half. The game is tied at 61 after just 24 minutes of play, and Klay Thompson scores 26 points in a scorching-hot half of basketball. Iguodala starts for Golden State and, once again, defends James; LeBron scores 25 to lead the Cavaliers. The first half is easily the most exciting half of the series, and the Warriors’ offense doesn’t miss a beat without Green. The issue for them, though, is their defense, which allows the Cavaliers to shoot over 54% from the field in the first half.
However, the second half is very different than the first. Both teams collectively run out of gas offensively, and the Cavaliers turn to their two best players to push them over the edge. The second half is the James and Irving show, and their heroics are enough for the Cavaliers to pull away to a 112-97 victory to force a Game 6 in Cleveland. Irving and James combine for 29 of the Cavaliers’ 51 points in the first half and 82 of the team’s 112 points for the game. It is the first time two players score 40 points in an NBA Finals game in the history of the league, and their superhuman effort extends the Cavs’ season for an extra three days. Thompson leads the Warriors with 37 points while Curry contributes 25. Golden State’s scapegoat is Harrison Barnes, who scores just five points on 2-of-14 shooting. Green will return to the Warriors for Game 6, but the Cavaliers have firmly established momentum by stealing Game 5.
Unlike Game 5, the start of Game 6 is a complete disaster for the Warriors. Cleveland opens on a 13-2 run and expands the lead to 22 points near the end of the first quarter. One of the best offensive teams in NBA history barely musters double-digit points and trails 31-11 after 12 minutes of play. Golden State is able to cut the lead to eight before Cleveland goes on a 13-5 run to close the half with a 16-point edge. 18 of Golden State’s 43 first-half points come from Curry, but the overall brilliance of James is hypnotizing the Warriors. Green is back, but it doesn’t seem to matter, as he scores just four points in the first half. While Golden State closes the game to seven points in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers are in complete command all night; the Warriors never lead for the entire game. In the fourth quarter, though, the face of the Warriors’ organization has a moment he would assuredly like to forget.
Steph Curry is playing with five fouls with 4:28 left in the game and the Warriors down 12. His team is still theoretically in a position to win the game, but Curry needs to be careful to not pick up a disqualifying sixth foul. After a missed free throw from Klay Thompson, Curry attempts to steal the basketball from James and is called for a reach-in foul, his sixth. In response to the call, Curry throws his mouthpiece into the crowd and strikes a fan, drawing two technical fouls and an ejection. The game is effectively over, and a deciding Game 7 will be held in Oakland on Sunday, June 19. Curry’s ejection is the first in an NBA Finals game since 1996 (SuperSonics forward Frank Brickowski). He closes with 30 points and Thompson finishes with 25.
However, the star of the series is LeBron James, who scores 41 points, dishes out 11 assists, and grabs eight rebounds in the Game 6 victory. He has basically toyed with the Warriors over the past two games, and the combination of he and Irving has proven lethal against Golden State’s defense. Draymond Green finishes Game 6 with just eight points to go along with ten rebounds and six assists. Once again, the Warriors’ biggest disappointment is Barnes, but he somehow compounds his Game 5 performance with a 0-point, 0-assist, two-rebound showing in Game 6. Andrew Bogut misses Game 6 after suffering a significant knee injury in Game 5. He will not play in Game 7, and his fill-in for Game 6 is none other than Andre Iguodala. Game 7 will be highly-anticipated, even more so than the rest of the series. And the two teams are evenly matched, too: through six games, both squads have scored exactly 610 points. Nonetheless, the closest contest was Game 4, an 11-point victory for the Warriors. Many will hope for a closer game than that to decide the 2015-16 NBA champion.
For Game 7, the Warriors make a critical lineup change: backup center Festus Ezeli is inserted into the starting lineup to replace Iguodala and, by extension, the injured Bogut. The first quarter is close but choppy, as one would expect in a nerve-wracking, winner-take-all Game 7. The Cavaliers have a 23-22 lead after one quarter behind six points from James. The second quarter, though, belongs to the Warriors, and, more specifically, Draymond Green.
After scoring seven points in the first quarter, Green really goes to the work in the second, scoring 15 points on four made three-pointers. Part of the intrigue of this performance is Green’s suspension in Game 5; many feel that he was the Warriors’ best player in the series before his forced exile. Game 7 is no different, and Green’s offensive outburst leads the Warriors to a 49-42 halftime lead.
Cleveland comes out firing to start the second half, as J.R. Smith scores eight points in the first three minutes to fuel a 12-5 run and force a Golden State timeout with the score tied at 54. The two teams go back and forth for the rest of the quarter, but the Warriors are able to retain a one-point lead after 36 minutes. The star of the third quarter is Irving, who leads all scorers with 12 points. The NBA is twelve minutes away from crowning its next champion.
The fourth quarter, just like much of the third, is a back-and-forth affair. the lead changes hands on three separate occasions before a Klay Thompson layup ties the game at 89 with 4:39 to play. Both teams then go scoreless for well over two minutes, and both offenses are completely stagnant. It is noted on the television broadcast that both teams, after a series full of twists and turns, appear to be on their last legs. That is, of course, until a Warriors fast break with just under two minutes to go.
After an Irving miss and an Iguodala rebound, the Warriors push on the fast break with Curry and Iguodala. The break appears to be a 2-on-1 against J.R. Smith when Curry gives the ball back to his teammate after a give-and-go. Iguodala double-clutches for the layup and appears to have a clear shot at the basket until James, defying all laws of gravity and energy, rises up and blocks his shot against the backboard. The play comes to be the defining moment of the 2016 NBA Finals and quite possibly the defining moment of James’ career.
After misses at both ends of the floor, the Cavaliers have possession with just under a minute left. They run a pick-and-roll to switch Curry onto Irving; Thompson has guarded Irving for most of the series and is a superior defender to his MVP teammate. Irving exploits the switch and rises up for a three, which he makes. Suddenly, the city of Cleveland is just 53 seconds away from its first professional sports championship since 1964.
The Warriors decline to use either of their two remaining timeouts and instead leave their next possession in the hands of Curry. Curry is guarded by the previously-injured Love on the next possession, and he too looks to take advantage of the mismatch. Love’s effort on the switch is championship-worthy and critical to the Cavs’ ultimate success, as he forces Curry to miss a difficult three-pointer. At the other end, Irving attempts to score quickly with just under 30 seconds left, misses, but gets his own rebound. The Cavaliers reset and Barnes fouls James; while the Warriors have a foul to give, the foul gives Cleveland an extra three seconds of possession. With that possession, James drives to the basket and, in attempting a soul-crushing, series-ending dunk, is fouled by Green, misses the dunk, and comes down awkwardly on his right wrist. While he is able to shoot the subsequent two free throws, he still needs to make one to put Cleveland ahead by two possessions. After missing the first free throw, James rattles home the second to put Cleveland up 93-89 with 10.6 seconds remaining. Golden State misses multiple shot attempts on their next possession and the Cavaliers are NBA champions.
James joins Jerry West and James Worthy as the only players to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals; unsurprisingly, he is named Finals MVP. Most importantly, though, he has followed through on his promise to bring an NBA championship to the city of Cleveland, the first in over 50 years. The 73-win Warriors miss out on the one thing they had always wanted: another championship. Many point to Green’s Game 5 suspension as the turning point of their title contention.
After Game 7, Green calls General Manager Bob Myers about the team’s plans for the summer. Later that night, he makes another phone call, and it’s to the top free agent in the summer of 2016:
This series will continue later in the summer, and the final chapters will be put on hold in order to give ourselves some distance from the historical events of this past year.
When I was younger, ESPN aired a show on its alternate networks called “The Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame….”.
The show was an engaging and contrarian look at events in the history of sports, and it tried to take a different look at conventional wisdom in order to exonerate certain sports pariahs. The first episode in the series, which aired from 2005 to 2007, attempted to absolve Steve Bartman of the blame for the Chicago Cubs not advancing to the World Series in 2003. My personal favorite episode, though, is the one dedicated to former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
Buckner, of course, booted a ground ball in the tenth inning that enabled the New York Mets to win Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and force a Game 7. Many blame Buckner for the Red Sox losing the series, as his error is believed to be the reason why the Mets won the championship. However, the show goes into great detail about relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi’s implosion in the tenth inning of Game 6 as well as the truly inexplicable and baffling managerial decisions of John McNamara.
Many also forget that Buckner had been playing with multiple debilitating injuries and may not have even beat Mets speedster Mookie Wilson, the man who hit the ground ball, to first base anyway. Additionally, McNamara had defensive replacement and backup first baseman Dave Stapleton on the bench; the Red Sox turned to Stapleton in every one of their playoff victories to replace the hobbled Buckner and close out the game at first base. John McNamara, for reasons only known to John McNamara, left Buckner in for the tenth inning of the most important game of the season. Buckner shouldn’t have been in a position to botch the grounder in the first place.
Why am I bringing this up now? Today, the Golden State Warriors are NBA champions, at least partially because they signed the game’s second-best player, Kevin Durant, away from the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer. The Warriors had made back-to-back NBA Finals without him and one could argue that they would have won it all this season even if they hadn’t acquired another superstar. But the addition of Durant basically made the Warriors’ second title in three years a fait accompli, and many were critical of his decision to leave the Thunder, who lost to the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals after leading them 3-1 in the series.
Joining the Warriors, of course, was likely the best professional decision Durant could have made. While the Thunder were also a championship contender, the Warriors already had three stars on the roster and the addition of Durant made their offense virtually unassailable. The professional and basketball implications of the decision, though, are not the only reason why KD jumped ship.
In late 2014, the NBA announced a new deal with its television partners, ESPN and Turner Sports. The nine-year, $24 billion extension would begin with the 2016-17 season and would affect what was at the time a $63 million salary cap. The NBA’s proposed remedy for this imposing spike was to have the cap artificially smoothed so that a dramatic increase would not occur from one year to the next. The Players’ Association, spearheaded by executive director Michele Roberts, vehemently rejected that idea. The reasoning makes sense on both sides; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wanted the cap to grow exponentially while Roberts wanted to maximize the profits for the players she is in charge of.
Because of the Players’ Association’s rejection of the proposal, the salary cap jumped from $70 million to just over $94 million from last year to this year. Durant, an impending free agent in the summer of 2016, now had more options to choose from; while eight teams were able to sign him before the cap spike, 28 teams were able to sign him after it. One of those teams was the Golden State Warriors, who happened to be coming off the best regular season in NBA history and were one game away from winning their second straight championship the year before.
Durant, of course, decided to sign with the Warriors, helping to form quite possibly the most talented team in the history of the NBA. His move to Golden State, for all intents and purposes, made the regular season academic. The Warriors were clearly the best team in the league, and even Durant’s six-week absence near the end of the regular season didn’t derail the team from winning 67 games and breezing through the Western Conference playoffs without a loss. The addition of Durant made what was already an outstanding team one of the best in the history of the NBA, and his presence made sure no one would seriously compete with the Warriors for the NBA championship.
So, Durant left the Thunder and won a championship in his first season with the Warriors. The team also has the potential to become a dynasty, provided that their stars stay with the organization. Seems like a good decision, right?
Well, according to the sports media world of lambasting people for doing the right thing, Durant is a snake who doesn’t value loyalty and sold his soul for a ring. The idea is that Durant somehow owes something to the Thunder for employing him for the first nine years of his career. Of course, that’s not the case, and the idea of being able to freely choose who you play for has gone back nearly 30 years. Tom Chambers, the 1987 All-Star Game MVP who later became the author of the single most underrated dunk in NBA history, was disgruntled with his organization, the Seattle SuperSonics, for building a frontcourt that wasn’t exactly centered around him. While there was free agency at the time, it was only restricted, and if a player was good, his team would almost always re-sign him. However, the Players’ Union was able to agree with the league that one could become an unrestricted free agent if he met certain conditions, and so Tom Chambers became the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent and later signed with the Phoenix Suns. He later became the Suns’ sixth man when they went to the NBA Finals in 1993. Oddly enough, no one was angry at him for making the move from Seattle to Phoenix.
Many were upset with Durant for making the NBA season less interesting, and you can bet his decision did just that. But you have to remember that he made his decision for himself and not for us, and if you were in his position, you’d probably do the exact same thing.
One of the most vocal critics of Durant has been ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith; Smith famously spouted off on Twitter, a medium often noted for its users’ contemplative reason and thought, merely minutes after Durant announced his decision on July 4 of last year. What’s interesting about this is that Smith himself once left the Philadelphia Inquirer to join ESPN, and did so for possibly the exact same reason Durant left the Thunder: the opportunity to advance himself professionally and financially. While sports is different from the real world, what Durant did is what people do in real jobs all the time: take a position at a more prestigious company to gain exposure and experience with the hopes of progressing onward in their professional lives.
But, instead of looking at it that way, many have derided Durant as a traitor and a villain. And it’s not just the sports world that feels this way, either. Last night, Jeopardy! savaged KD with this clue:
After a loss to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Finals, this Thunder stud didn’t beat ’em, he joined ’em
It’s clear that not many people are willing to defend Durant on this one. I can see the logic in being angry at his decision, but you have to remember just that: it’s his decision, not yours. If you were in his shoes (hopefully not the KD 9 Birds of Paradise), you’d probably do the same thing. And, after all, the move paid off, as Durant is an NBA champion today.
Kevin Durant’s move also should have never been possible. Had the NBA put its foot down and forced the players to accept a smoothed cap, the Warriors would not have had the cap space to reel in Durant. Instead, they, like just about every other team in the NBA, had the money to pull it off, and it did create an unfair advantage for the Warriors.
And that is not Kevin Durant’s fault. Like Bill Buckner, he should’ve never been in a position to do what he did in the first place.