“I’m a basketball minimalist.” Brett Koremenos rocked my psyche with that self identification. The term now haunts so many of my NBA thoughts.
Brett offhandedly used his invented phrase over Gchat, in reference to the inexorably fluid spread pick-and-roll attack. It’s an approach that requires four three point shooters, one of whom waits for the pick from a non-shooting big man like Tyson Chandler. The offense conquers because it exists in just too much space for a defense to hug. It’s practically a cheat code.
For the offense to be even feasible, the Knicks need Tyson Chandler to compensate for all those defensively-deficient shooters with defense and rebounding. He does that, but he’s also about as good an offensive player there is to do it on seven shots per game.
Tyson Chandler can’t shoot well, or dribble well, and he’s a bit skinny. Though, I sometimes wonder whether he’d be worse for his team were he any more blessed in those categories. His lack of a jump shot has led to a cartoonish 70% field goal mark. His lack of a handle has led to one turnover per game. His lack of bulk means fewer shotclock ticks sacrificed to the altar of dribble-dribble-back-down post-ups. New York’s big man enters a game, and only expertly controls a manageable amount of reality.
The reigning assumption is that the best center must be someone who does a lot, especially in the scoring department. Chandler might be changing that notion, if we would only bother to notice what he’s doing.
Catch-all player performance statistics are inherently problematic, because the value of taking a shot will always be up for debate. I do like Win Shares on Basketball Reference because the metric rewards volume shooting less than some other stats do. This is not to say that those other metrics are worse–just that, WS provides a nice counter balance to the mainstream line of rewarding heavy involvement. By this measure, Tyson Chandler’s current Win Share average would qualify for better than any season in Hakeem Olajuwon’s past and all but one Shaq season. Lest you believe it’s a fluke, Chandler’s WS average last season was better than all but one Hakeem year.
I perhaps should have slowplayed you into that factoid. The idea of a 29 year-old non All Star as the league’s best center is already too much for some folks to handle. When you factor in that Chandler was traded for Emeka Okafor in 2009, and gifted to the Mavericks in 2010 for Erick Dampier’s contract, the whole case sounds all the more ludicrous.
But it doesn’t seem silly if you closely watch Tyson Chandler play, especially in his off-the-ball natural habitat. No center traverses more ground than Chandler, and perhaps no center owns more vertical space. The combination of his horizontal and vertical talent makes for a constant threat to the defense. He races out quickly to set a screen and dives back to the rim just as fast. Not only is he slick about setting sticky screens for driving guards, but Chandler’s also adept at spinning off the screen for an alley oop from said guard.
His occasional butt-screens (there is probably a more technical term) make for an amusing, effective tactic. Tyson will put his back and rear into a defender, and bounce off them towards the rim, like a pro wrestler leveraging the ropes. Once he makes a catch off these rim runs, it’s usually over. He’s too large and moving with too much ever-engulfing speed. The rushing wave will make the hoop splash.
The Minimalist also conveys a sense of moment with a mere one-hand redirecting of the basketball. Chandler has effectively closed out at least two games I’ve seen this season with a series of backtaps. Near the end of the fourth quarter, defenses tire in the same way an NFL D might start giving up chunks of rushing yardage. When this happens, Tyson is liable to make as little contact with the ball as possible while making as much impact on the game as possible. Then, teams in their final throes suffer the demoralizing death pang of watching Chandler tap out Knick misses again and again.
That’s Tyson Chandler, so special a specialist as to make him more valuable than any big man generalist. So maximally minimal as to be great. Nowadays, the center position isn’t dead; It’s just found a way to be dominant without dominating.
I can’t remember another NBA moment where a team added three players whose contracts were so openly questioned. Jeremy Lin? A flash in the pan that reflected brighter under those New York lights. Omer Asik? You’re entrusting $25 million to a guy who can’t catch a basketball? Are you an idiot or just stupid? And James Harden, man, I don’t know about him. He just doesn’t strike ya as ya know, a number one guy. An Alpha Dog. The MAN. If he’s your No. 1, you’re never winning anything. You’re seriously going to max out a reserve?
In paying all three, Daryl Morey trusted something quite simple; He trusted what they did. Because, James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik were tangibly good when they played. These guys were doing decent work out in public. It was just a matter of someone trusting that public track record. We’re only three games in, but it would appear, at the very least, that Daryl Morey wasn’t a complete fool for going this route.
It would be ironic if stats-conscious Morey found value in ignoring small sample size concerns. Jeremy Lin’s critics fairly cite his too-brief track record, though some of them will ironically harp on Lin’s one Miami game as more meaningful than the body of work. It is difficult to know just how good Jeremy Lin will be, but we would do well to remember that his late winter success was the result of basketball skill, and not some fairy godmother’s wand wave. Just because “Linsanity!” felt magical, doesn’t mean it was magic. This was just a productive collegian, running a mean pick and roll at the next level.
Players like Lin are always battling against another statistical term–confirmation bias. If a guy goes undrafted, we keep looking for signs that validate the initial assessment. In the other direction, look at how underperforming high draft picks keep finding buyers. Jeff Green has been consistently disappointing in his career so far. The Boston Celtics saw fit to give the 26 year-old a $36 million dollar contract, and he was subsequently hyped by fans and media in the run up to this season. Ask yourself: Does the undrafted version of Jeff Green get this contract or these expectations? Does DeMar DeRozan eventually get $42 million if he fights his way to the NBA through the D-League?
Jeremy Lin also battled a different kind of perception problem. While Lin’s ethnicity brought about a whole lot of positive attention upon his success, it also caused others to jump to some negative conclusions. As I see it, Jeremy’s flaws are, “shaky high dribble, balky jumper.” And yet, I keep hearing and reading about his lack of athleticism. Interesting assumption, that.
In any organization, in any endeavor, people can get locked into a placement. For Lin, that placement was, “Not drafted.” For James Harden, that placement was, “Sixth man.” Ask yourself this: Why was James Harden, and not Russell Westbrook, the sixth man? Westbrook is far more the prototypical bench scorer than Harden. Was there any special reason why the more productive player came off the bench, apart from incumbency?
Make no mistake: James Harden was the more productive player in relatively fewer possessions. This is a different conversation from “better” or “projects to be better eventually.” We’re talking raw efficiency. In his time with the ball, Harden maximized his contribution with three pointers and free throws. Westbrook produced free throws, but he also dominated the rock en route to many turnovers and missed shots.
But James Harden wasn’t specifically battling Russell Westbrook for playing time. He was backing up Thabo Sefolosha, somewhat ludicrously. I wonder what it would have taken for James to ever supplant Thabo in that lineup, considering that Harden, unlike Manu Ginobili, was young and healthy enough to play full games. Granted, Harden got more minutes than Sefolosha, but 31 MPG wasn’t exactly worthy of the production James garnered. The Beard tallied an absurd 66% true shooting mark and a Durant-equivalent .230 win shares per 48 minutes. By all indications, the Thunder planned on keeping up this arrangement in perpetuity.
Then, after Harden was traded to Oklahoma City, various pundits remarked on why he didn’t strike them as “a franchise guy.” They could still be right, but I would like such statements to be backed by tangible assessments, something better than, “he just doesn’t seem like the type.” Explain why James Harden can’t be who he was with Thunder–but with more minutes and more touches. Related, there seems to be this fallacy that an efficiency drop off for promoted players equals an efficiency cliff (credit Aaron McGuire for this observation). Just because a guy might get worse with more responsibility doesn’t mean he’ll get awful. If James Harden plays 39 minutes per night and gives you a .200 win share mark instead of a .230, you still spent that max contract money wisely.
Finally, Omer Asik dealt with the NBA’s strangest perceptual issue: He suffered from anti-defense bias. I swear, it sometimes seems like this league is in a price fixing conspiracy against its defenders. There are these odes to “defense winning championships,” but then Taj Gibson gets a lesser contract than the aforementioned DeMar DeRozan. David Lee gets over $15 million in 2016 and Ronnie Brewer struggles to stay on any one team. Unless you’re a big man with soft hands, good luck getting paid for defensive brilliance.
Asik was a big man, but his hands were made from WD-40-soaked apple jugs. Asik struggles to catch the softest of passes and gets thwarted at the basket more than Yogi Bear. The cherry on top is that .480 on free throws.
He also happens to play the kind of defense that can cripple an entire offense. Mobile, long, and smart, Omer protects the rim while hounding ball-handlers on pick and roll. Since frontcourt D matters disproportionately, this is no small value. When people scoffed at his $25 million contract, I wondered, “Why isn’t defense worth that much money?”
Asik also contributes offensively, but in subtler ways. He’s a nasty (illegal) screener who can set anyone up from anywhere. This doesn’t get talked about often, but mobility helps a screener. For all the touting of Kendrick Perkins’ screen ability, he’s too slow to get certain places. Omer creates space for Harden in a flash. After setting the pick, Asik juts his butt backwards, like Chris Paul, warding off a defender. This walls off Harden’s man as James sprints towards the hoop. Omer Asik can’t catch a ball, but he can play some offense.
To watch Houston flourish would feel like a revolution. Houston’s Big Three is also the NBA’s Freed Three, because basketball orthodoxy imposed glass ceilings on Harden, Lin, and Asik. Then, Daryl Morey broke the glass apart.
Some strange force is taking hold of my fingers and typing words about Allen Iverson. Please send help.
I wrote about him last week, and your comments were insightful as per usual. There were a few arguments in Iverson’s favor, but one in particular haunts my initial post. I want to start by citing a tweet from the inimitable Myles Brown, though:
He was the anti establishment star of his time and with the coinciding rise of hip hop, he became a cult figure.
Allen Iverson was a man so before his time that he became his time. Like Marlon Brando, Iverson was charismatically rebellious to the point of defining a larger cultural shift. You could say that Allen, the celebrity, came about at the exact right moment.
Keep that in mind for later. For now, here’s that (excerpted) haunting comment from the ever spooky GhostofGeorgeLynch:
“As someone who watched over 95% of the Sixers’ games from 1997 through 2003, let me add that, as mentioned in the article, the league was very different then, so comparing TS% from then to now is misleading. Iverson was paired with other offensively “talented” players on occasion, but due to the nature of the game at that time these players were also extremely inefficient. Jerry Stackhouse then Larry Hughes were probably the best of the bunch. Matt Geiger was also brought to provide an interior presence, but injuries and the fact that he just never was that good hampered him.
At the time, there were no zone defenses, only man, so there were no great three point shooters to kick the ball out to, because their man didn’t leave them to double team. There was also no point in moving the ball around, because defensive players couldn’t shift responsibilities. It made for some really ugly basketball, unless you particularly liked tough man-to-man defense. I do, but I know that’s a rare opinion. Unless you had Shaq, Duncan, or Garnett, your team was likely to be very inefficient.”
Great points. If your early aughts team lacked a center, options were limited. It was either the rules or lack of offensive innovation, but perimeter-based squads of this time were practicing guerilla warfare against highly advantaged post players. The Sixers worked around Allen Iverson, crafting an elite defense and dogged offensive rebounding approach to compensate for A.I.’s flaws. In many ways, Philadelphia was compensating for their own deficiencies, deficiencies that had nothing to do with their primary scorer. Defense was a necessity for a team with only one offensive threat, and offensive rebounding was crucial for such a miss-prone squad.
Such was Allen Iverson’s workload in this system that the Sixers were offensively adequate in good A.I. years. In bad A.I. years, they made masochism out of a spectator sport. So, the answer to, “How good was Allen Iverson?” is far from simple. He was good enough to make a terrible offense effective. He was bad enough to occasionally be a neutral contributor in that same terrible offense.
In 2000-2001, Iverson played well and Philadelphia had a slightly above average offensive attack. The next season, he suffered a dip in shooting percentage and a rise in turnovers while his team sank to 23rd on O. When Allen Iverson played below peak level, it was as though he’d never existed in the bad offense he was tasked with saving–even though A.I. was incredibly involved in said offense.
“I really like this piece but it left an obvious question unanswered: given Iverson’s unique gifts, if he had the benefit of a better situation and better coaching and maybe a different era, what could he have achieved? Would he look like a modern day Westbrook? Maybe an early career Dwayne Wade, only faster?”
When people support Iverson’s basketball legacy, such support often comes with an excoriation of his surrounding talent. If only he’d played on a good team, if only Billy King had been wiser, etc. Few lament the very time in which he played.
This may be the Iverson paradox: A man of his time was doomed by his time. Perhaps, if prime Iverson played in our current non-handchecking, floor-spread era, he would be devastatingly efficient. But then again, he wouldn’t be quite the same iconoclastic cultural force. Also, he might cause the time space continuum to tear its ACL.
The Allen Iverson paradox may go deeper. A release of A.I.’s NBA 2K ranking prompted many fans to tout how good Iverson was at his size. This struck me strangely because, well, when do we give extra credit to players based on height? This doesn’t seem to be a common practice in today’s NBA. Chris Paul is less than six feet in socks, yet you’ll never hear him described as the best “pound-for-pound” anything.
This “pound-for-pound” qualifier could be a function of how Allen Iverson’s time was taller than our current one. In 1999-2000–the season before Iverson burst onto the scene as an MVP winner–the top five PER leaders were Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning, Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Contrast this with 2012, when even tall players like LeBron and Durant score from the perimeter. Nobody cites Chris Paul’s height because Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, and Kyrie Irving all exist. It doesn’t feel so paradigm warping to see an offense powered by a little guy.
The old game may have been an inverse Gulliver’s Travels, with tiny Allen Iverson constrained as giants romped freely. But because of handchecking and man-to-man defense, the star of even a constrained small guard shone brighter. Allen was an alien, a little man in a big man’s game, defying the odds with every basket. If Iverson played today, he just might be a standard superstar guard among quite a few.
Allen Iverson stood out. Though dwarfed by his surroundings, he was always the foreground (back when he was who he was). As the man fades further into an oblivion of Chinese exhibition games and D-League rumors, the legend remains uniquely confounding.
Perhaps you remember those 2011 LeBron and Durant workout videos. Back then, the videos were intriguing. A year later, the videos are hypnotizing.
This was pre-season prep, James was trying to bounce back from an inauspicious Finals. We say “bounce back” for sports recoveries, but the term doesn’t always fit temporally. LeBron’s Finals humiliation was sudden, but the journey to get there was drawn out over 82 regular season games and 21 playoff battles. Maintaining offseason motivation should be especially difficult for NBA superstars because those playoff battles usually mock the notion that the preceding regular season games count. The rule: If your team is good enough to matter, the regular season games don’t matter. Players still have to go through with the tiring charade, though.
How do you “bounce back” slowly? How do you invest so much time in an arduous climb when the fall comes so much quicker? Your run can end on one stupid play. It could all be over before national TV audiences receive the images on the seven second Janet Jackson delay. And how do you build yourself back up, lego-by-lego on the off chance that owners and players might end the 2011 lockout? LeBron and KD were doing this just in case, just so they could start the tiring charade at full tilt.
I’m curious about this motivation because these workouts do not look fun. There is squatting, sprinting, and situps. Broadcasted enjoyment can be contagious. We like to rent it from those we watch, laughing along with their laughter. These videos are different. The footage is so enjoyable because this is such joint-rubbering drudgery. LeBron James and Kevin Durant could be betting on camel polo from an invisible helicopter hovering over Dubai, and yet here they are, running windsprints. It’s almost like watching Brad Pitt at his breakfast table, mumbling the words of a fresh script to the mustard stain on his wrinkled shirt. We’re so used to hyped sports drama that drama’s prosaic prep work can amaze. It can even be more titillating than camel polo (but only if the camels aren’t on PEDs, or if they aren’t regional rivals).
It’s even better when we have the dramatic irony of knowing that LeBron’s greatest triumph will cause Kevin to cry in his mother’s arms. That’s where all this is headed. LeBron James doesn’t know and no matter how much he believes in himself, he must carry doubts about ever claiming his moment. LeBron’s people are producing this, so perhaps that’s why KD says so little. I prefer to pretend that Durant is distancing himself a bit from someone so publicly shamed at the time.
Of course, that’s ridiculous. They’re probably friends because all the superstars are friends these days. This reality is widely bemoaned. For some reason, guy who loves sportsmanship despises a new era where competitors regard each other as people first.
The stated rationale is that these new players just don’t care as much about the game, or don’t take ball-through-hoop seriously enough. But that’s not what I see. In a workout interlude, a sweat-drenched James starts kvetching about how tired he is. It ends with a brief statement:
“Me and KD, man, just trying to get better, man. That’s all.”
That’s all. And with that, the two of them are on the court together, honing what looks so comfortably extemporaneous when we see it on the tee-vee. Maybe this buddy system is about caring more, not less. Silicon Valley exists in part because the top tech innovators feed off each other, push each other higher. If you love your craft, how could you not want to learn from your contemporaries? Not only can they understand the life you lead, they can also help fuel your mastery of the job you love.
There are so many stories about just how competitive Michael Jordan was, how it extended far beyond basketball. This became what we want from players–to win simply for victory’s sake. What about getting better for the sake of getting better? There is a correlation between improving at the craft and defeating opponents, but not everyone is motivated by the same goal to the same degree.
LeBron James plays with an ebullient creativity–I always suspected that he loved his job. I also suspected that he wanted to win. Whatever the balance between those qualities, “just trying to get better” is reason enough to share trade secrets with a rival. The modern player might just take the game too seriously to hate his opponent. Maybe the game is bigger than winning a shiny thing, and maybe improvement is its own reward to the basketball nerd.
If that’s the case, I like this “soft” NBA era. Jordan retired in his prime for a variety of reasons, but many believed that there was nothing else for him to “prove.” We never got a clear answer on whether the greatest player of all time even loved the game. We know that he burned out, retreating to baseball mid-career, and golf in his executive stage. Instead of lecturing today’s superstars on how “MJ wouldn’t do that,” maybe we should appreciate the current era of superstars who like each other along with what they do for a living. I don’t need my rivals to be driven by the hatred of one another. Enjoyment can be contagious.
Kevin Durant is the second best player in the world and yet he backed up Carmelo Anthony in Team USA’s exhibition game against the Dominican Republic. If this continues, observers will continue to rationalize. My guess is they’ll wash down the odd decision with, “Well, Melo’s a great international player.”
In complete fairness to Carmelo Anthony, he was a revelation at power forward late in the 2011-2012 NBA season. He’s devastatingly strong on the block and a move to the four could redefine his game as inexorably efficient. I wouldn’t be shocked if Anthony made a spirited 2012 Olympic run in Coach K’s smallball lineups. Not in the slightest.
Okay, caveats gone, now for how I really feel.
Why is there a persistent myth that Carmelo Anthony is some kind of FIBA savant? I’ve encountered the trope countless times since the 2008 Olympics, which strikes me as strange, because I happened to watch every U.S. game of the 2008 Olympics.
Carmelo Anthony, as I’ve repeated quite a few times on the blue bird, was awful in those games. While his 42% shooting and .4 assists might not seem like a basketball travesty, you have to keep in mind that his teammates were killing it against inferior competition.
Dwyane Wade shot 67% on more attempts than Anthony lobbed, while delivering five times as many assists. LeBron James shot 60% with twice as many assists as Wade had. Both LeBron and D-Wade shot better from three point land than Anthony. Team USA’s big men were even more brutally miss-averse. Both Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh claimed over 74% from the field in limited opportunities.
So if you were watching–and I’ve become increasingly convinced that few actually watched–Anthony’s mediocrity was all the more glaring. But the FIBA Melo myth drums on, and its origins are a mystery to me. Anthony did not play much in the 2004 games. He had a nice run in the 2006 World Championships, notching 50% on field goals and leading the team in attempts.
On the diluted international level, these numbers weren’t mind-blowing, but it’s possible that Anthony chucked enough to appear a cut above teammates who scored in tidier ways. The eye test tends to conflate shooting frequency with shooting effectively. It’s as though our subconscious whispers, “He must be great. Why else would he be trusted to shoot so often?” The eye-test often only sees the status quo.
I doubt America paid much attention to the 2006 World Championships, but legends have sprouted from less. Though, if I had to peg the genesis of “Melo’s great at FIBA!” it would be the theory of “Melo’s great at FIBA!” (Credit to Nick Flynt on offering said theory).
See, it’s well-known that Anthony takes a lot of long-to-midrange jumpers. From that knowledge of his skillset, logical people probably anticipated that Melo would receive three points where he often got two, lofting his star to new heights. Once that kind of leap is made by announcers and writers alike, they rarely, if ever, examine the hypothesis.
The hypothesis isn’t necessarily wrong, though. Anthony did indeed shoot better from three-point range in FIBA, to the tune of 41%. The fallacy was thinking that this would vault him into some uncharted strata of superstardom. The FIBA line is 19 inches closer, not 19 feet closer. That 19 inch encroachment isn’t moving a whole lot of Melo’s 5.6 long-twos per game over the three point border, and he hits only 35% of such shots.
Also, the other superstars benefit from a closer trey. A sinking three point line lifts all boats, to twist an aphorism. LeBron was better from FIBA deep, as was Kevin Durant in 2010. There’s no rule that grants Melo a monopoly on such an advantage.
In the aggregate, compared to his starting Olympic peers, Carmelo Anthony has been mediocre. He also has a tendency to take a lot of contested shots, a permissible habit when surrounded by terrible players. But Carmelo Anthony isn’t surrounded by terrible players. He’s taking those shots from guys who are better at making them. And he happens to be of a stacked Team USA position.
If you believe that the U.S. will easily win gold anyway, Melo may be a non concern to you. To me, it’s less an issue of what’s best for Team USA, and more an issue of our collective memory failure. It’s as though basketball fans lose their faculties when games are played abroad. The tournament structure is a bit confusing, the rules are somewhat different, the games happen at odd hours. The unfamiliarity fosters a hazy atmosphere from which fans and pundits take only what they believed prior to the tourney. The American basketball fan essentially experiences FIBA games like a drunk experiences a blackout.
I find this frustrating because, for these games to matter, people need to recalibrate how they feel in response to them. America’s 2008 gold medal means less if the public forgets Dwyane Wade’s masterful performance throughout.
Kobe Bryant had a fine 7-of-14, six assist showing in the gold medal game against Spain. It morphed into a collective memory of Bryant dominating the 2008 Olympics, as though nothing else happened. This likely had less to do with what Kobe did than how Blackout USA felt about Kobe going into the tournament. 2008 was around the apogee of Bryant’s star, and the idea that he was America’s best player.
Why do I believe that people were responding more to their beliefs and less to the results? Well, does anybody talk about Dwyane Wade’s 9-of-12, 27 point gold medal game? The one that served as an exclamation point to a Bolt-esque incredible Olympic run? It’s as though D-Wade never showed up to the tournament he owned.
So let us pay attention this time. It’s a lot to ask these guys to play for free if we’re not even paying attention.
Steve Nash is coming to save your franchise. I know your team is over the cap, but he’ll take the mini-mid level exception. Why? Because money doesn’t matter to Steve. Because Steve’s the easy-going dad who trundles down the Whole Foods aisle with a bag full of red quinoa. Because Steve likes Radiohead, and you like Radiohead. Because winning a title obviously means more than anything in the universe to Steve Nash, loyal soldier of Sarver misfortune.
Not so fast!
Steve Nash is still killing it, and could get upwards of $10 million per year for a short term deal on the open market. Teams like the Knicks and Heat would need Nash to take a contract in the three million per year range, per the mini mid-level. So Nash-hopeful fans are assuming he’ll give up, say, seven million dollars of his money, per year to a private, cold-hearted business. Would you be shocked if Portland offered Nash to three years, $35 million? Then don’t be shocked if he rejects three years, nine million from Team Dolan.
It’s just so much fun to imagine, though. Editors have certainly pushed the Nash-to-big-market storyline on me, and I’ve buckled. Such Nash wishing unfortunately makes little sense in the actual world. The idea of “giving up money” is largely abstract to us, and it’s conveniently not our money. The statement, “All he has to do is give up some money” rarely comes with any acknowledgement that some dollar amounts are larger than others. Ya, I could see a player giving up a million or so to play where he wants. But $20 million? Who does that?
My best guess is that the “Who does that?” question can be answered, “Probably not Steve Nash.” Remember, this is someone who left his good team and good friend in Dirk Nowitzki for what appeared to be a mediocre Suns squad. He did it over money. I’ve floated that historical example out before, only to hear, “He’s older now,” or “He wants a ring.”
He’s also experienced the financial siphon that is divorce, and he’s likely quite secure in his basketball skills. I’m sure Nash would love to win a title, but is a mere chance at this worth working for tens of millions less than what you can earn? Nash already knows what it’s like to compete for a championship and knows what it’s like to be good enough to win one. He doesn’t know what it’s like to give massive discounts and I doubt he ever wants to learn.
So, I come not to question Daryl Morey’s wisdom, assiduousness, or even his decision-making. I come to question his effectiveness. He took over in May of 2007 and the Rockets have won one playoff series since. You can’t point to one monumental Morey choice that threw the team off course (perhaps Stern’s veto is an exterior one), but here Houston is, floating along lukewarm NBA waters like an aimless, harmless manatee.
I present a paradox. If a general manager has made largely good decisions, then how can you possibly criticize him? Morey has wrung quite a lot from seemingly mediocre rosters. That superstarless 22-win streak is the most notable example. There have been a few miststeps along the way, but that’s not even my focus here.
I point to David Aldridge’s recent report that Dwight Howard would not sign with Houston long term, were the Rockets to trade for him. Morey is still probably in hot pursuit of the capricious center, despite the cold shoulder. Dwight might change his mind, but Chris Bosh won’t. Too late for that, obviously, as the 2010 object of Morey’s affections is on contract in South Beach, title in tow.
Morey pitched Chris Bosh on returning to Texas roots, but lost out to Pat Riley’s ambitious plan. Riley may not be an analytics maven, but he flaunts charisma and NBA cachet. This is the element of general managing we usually elide when fantasizing about being a GM: You must be something of a car salesman. In a league where a few superstars have such a large impact, recruiting can trump all else. In an era where superstars are increasingly antsy about staying at Forced Rookie Contractville, recruiting matters more than ever.
The focus is on how Morey’s decisions are a referendum on his statistical acumen and statistics in general, but we could be missing why those decisions largely happen in a vacuum. A smart GM is fantastic, but he’ll only help you discern between options–he won’t extend the scope of your options to superstar hires. Daryl Morey is in a large, warm-weather market, but has yet to leverage it to his advantage.
Not every executive needs to be Pat Riley. The subdued Sam Presti built through the draft, after all. Perhaps that’s the lesson: If your GM isn’t like Calipari on the recruiting trail, then be bad enough to draft Calipari’s players.
Now that we’ve had a few days to digest LeBron James’s first championship, it’s an appropriate moment to examine this moment in the context of his entire career. It’s a neat little 10 year capsule: from discovery as a high school wunderkind to his recent coronation.
When I look at that decade, I’m struck not just by the dramatic swings, but how and when those swings occurred.
Why did LeBron James matter so incredibly much to American sports fans?
There are plenty of ways to answer this, but the answer may simply be: it’s a well constructed story.
Okay, I need to level with you (as if the image above wasn’t a big enough clue). I’m about to make a comparison that may just be a bit too much of some of the people who read this, but bear with me: this is eerie.
To answer the above questions, I think we need to go back to William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest storyteller ever to use the English language (WHO DIDN’T EVEN EXIST!!… OR DID HE?!). He used something called five-act structure for many of his great plays, and a ton of awesome movies like Iron Man do the same.
I’m going to suggest that James has been so compelling a public character not just because of his obvious and fantastic talent, but because his public performance has hit all the marks of an enthralling five act play. It’s the kind of drama that could make even Tim Duncan compelling to a casual observer.
Take a look…
(Suggested puns include [but are not limited to, that’s what the comments section is for]: LeBromlet, Lebeth, LeBras You Like It, Midsummer’s Night James, and my favorite: Titus LeBronicus.)
Act 1 (2002-2004): Main characters, key conflict introduced.
ROMEO AND JULIET: The audience finds out that the two teenagers love each other, that their families want to kill the other, and also a bit about most everyone else who’s going to be in the play.
Consider the rise of “The Chosen One.” Key players: LeBron James, Gloria James, high school friends (such as a one Mr. Maverick Carter). Key Question: Can LeBron James, the most hyped player ever, reach the top of the basketball world and cash in on his unprecedented combination of talents, or will destiny be derailed?
It’s a great tease! And look, he delivered:
Highlights from his first year in the NBA include:
25 points and 9 assists in his first game (including making his first shot)
13 30 point games
22 games with 8 or more assists
41 points and 13 assists against New Jersey
Wins Rookie of the Year
Act 2 (2005-2009): Key conflict deepens and we learn something new about main characters.
HAMLET: The princely protagonist pretends to be crazy and proves he is the smartest dude in Denmark. But wait! Could he be a bit too calculating for his own good?
By age 21 James was leading the NBA in PER. At 22 he took his team to the Finals for the first time, singlehandedly demolishing the proud Pistons in one of the most conspicuous “passing of the torch” moments in the NBA history.
This is the part of the movie where Peter Parker is zooming around New York City, just havin’ a ball with his newfound abilities.
This phase of his career lasted until about 2009, when he won his first MVP award and lugged his team to the Eastern Conference Finals, in which he averaged 35.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 9.1 RPG and .510 FG.
At this point it truly felt like a matter of when, not if LeBron would win a title. He had never truly faltered in the postseason, his 2007 Finals against the overwhelming Spurs was excusable. Sure, some criticized his late game decisions, wondered about whether he passed too much and the like. Still, his regular season totals were just silly — no contemporary even approached his production — and he played with a joy that wasn’t innocent but perhaps approached carefree.
But if the movies have taught us one thing, it’s that it’s all fun and games until you’re wrestling in an illegal cage match, thus setting in motion a chain of events that ends with your beloved uncle being shot by the very man you had the power to stop.
Here’s where it starts to go downhill.
Act 3 (May 2010- June 2011): The plot thickens. Herein lies the BIG TURN that sets up the climax.
MACBETH: Macbeth has his buddy Banquo murdered, then starts to publicly lose control when his Banquo shows up to a celebratory dinner as a ghost sitting in Macbeth’s chair. Macbeth, in the throws of Nixonian paranoia, prepares for the war that will eventually be his undoing.
LeBron, hubris firmly intact after winning a stunning 66 regular season games, is crushed by the Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. Reasons were sought and excuses were made, but really the whole scene at the end of that series was so bizarre, so not in keeping with his entire professional career to date, that it seem more like an anomaly than a sign of things to come.
Then The Decision (hey, have heard about this part?). Seeking what many view as an “easy out,” an opportunity to shirk the responsibility of his gifts, LeBron heads to South Beach.
Some said it was a sign of the apocalypse. Others giddily anticipated James-Wade-Bosh would offer a peek into basketball heaven.
However you felt about The Decision, almost everyone thought was the low, the plot point from which James would rally. Really, this was James tripping over himself, and it would take another 12 months to complete his fall.
During the 2011-12 season, James himself spoke of trying to “be the villain” and of reinventing the character that performed each night to unrelenting boos. One must assume James has a private persona, but we only know him as an improvisational public performer. The characters he could play on the court: defensive stopper, lights out scorer, point forward — these were one element of his performance. Slapping his hands together to send a plume of powder over his head, miming a photo shoot with teammates, scowling after a skywalking dunk — these antics were what really defined the “character” he played in the NBA. And this part of his on court persona pretty much died when James moved to South Beach.
Ironically, though he probably assumed his move would grant him more power over his career (ie- win a ring), James seemed to lose the agency he had enjoyed in Cleveland to define his own public image. Now, for the first time, he seemed to be blatantly responding to what strangers wanted him to be.
Still, it all looked worth it when he returned to the finals against the seemingly overmatched Mavericks.
The ghost of 2010 Conference Semifinals LeBron, the on James thought he vanquished by pounding Boston and Chicago in the playoffs, is … ON THE COURT AND WEARING CURRENT LEBRON’S OVERSIZED HEADBAND!
The loss destroys the character he has built for the last ten years. He’s no longer the best hope for a Jordan-esque career and he looks far from happy-go-lucky when he loses his cool in the Game 6 postgame presser.
This was the real bottom, when LeBron lost his confidence and sense of purpose on the court as well as the faith of his fans, including yours truly.
I’m not sure whether James intended to help me write this when he said it, but here’s how he explained that moment a year later: “It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom basically to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person.”
I don’t think this is what Joakim Noah meant when he famously called James and the Heat “Hollywood as hell,” but it really is too perfect.
ACT 4 (July 2011-April 2012): Decision time. Characters ponder the events of the first three acts and plan their next moves (ie, set up the climax).
JULIUS CAESAR: Caesar is really, really well-stabbed by Act 4, so now Brutus (who we learn is a deeply reflective man — he reads!) and Cassius do lots of arguing, almost killing, and planning to cement their rule of Rome.
There’s a reason the fourth was always Shakespeare’s shortest act, his 66 game season. They are generally boring from the standpoint of real action. We want to get to the good stuff (more killing, please), but Act 4 is also important because there’s one more climax coming and it needs to be properly set up.
Now that LeBron James has been kicked down destiny’s stairs, all the way to “rock bottom,” what does he do? (Cue montage).
First, he shuts it all down. Goes back to the bat cave and retools. Hits up Yoda for some new tricks. Well, actually he picks up a new skill from the Postmaster General of retired NBA players, Hakeem Olajuwon.
Then he unleashes one of the greatest seasons ever and hints that he’s been working on the ol’ post game, foreshadowing his Finals performance. His percentage of post up possessions doubles from a season before, hinting that, though he’s already put in two MVP seasons, things are different this time.
And yes, while James changes his game, there also seems to be something at work internally. He gets married, moves his family to Miami and seems to play with actual joy and very adult focus. He’s locked in and having fun.
Again, in LeBron James’ own words: “The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing The Finals, you know, and me playing the way I played, it was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics. It humbled me.”
James, we learn, is a reflective dude after all.
But would it matter at the moment of reckoning?
ACT 5 (April 2012-June 2012): Conflict! Climax! Catharsis! Prophecies come true and big questions set out in Act 1 are answered.
TITUS ANDRONICUS: Lots of murdering/unwitting eating of family members. Basically an absurd bloodbath. But the deaths allow for a “New Rome” (a good thing), which is basically the payoff in the event you need one following a mother eating her two sons baked as pies.
Before Act 3, the question we had about LeBron was “Will he be an all-time great talent?”
We learned that the answer was, unequivocally, “yes.”
The new question was “Can he be an all-time great competitor?”
James answered in a manner befitting a classic sports movie.The Heat fell behind in a series three times in the playoffs, and three times James responds with a transcendently spectacular performance — his Game 6 in Boston being actually unbelievable.
James exorcised all those ghosts who had vexed him in Boston and in the Finals (this almost never happens in Shakespeare, for whom ghosts are pretty much unbeatable).
His post play was the skillset that launched a thousand columns.
He looked as though he had undergone some emotional recalibration during the offseason, so people who didn’t like him before could justify coming around.
And at the end of it all, America’s sweetheart Kevin Durant joined Kevin Garnett’s tough guy Celtics, the glitzy (by location only) New York Knicks and gritty Midwestern Pacers in a bloody heap while James displayed the drenched sword above his heaving chest.
Suffice to say, it’s total slaughter
James fulfills his destiny.
Rise, Fall, Redemption, a wedding and, just maybe, living happily ever after?
Turns out James’ career is a comedy after all.
Here’s what LeBron, bracketed by the Larry O’Brien and Finals MVP trophies, said at the podium: “You know, I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today. You know, my dream has become a reality now, and it’s the best feeling I ever had.”
Dreaming of future moments the eve of a great battle? That’s about as Shakespearean as it gets!
There’s no arguing that the arc of James’ professional career is gripping, and in some ways, right out of the movies. But I wonder how much the way James was covered influenced those events. Could the desire for a perfect narrative have produced one? We know (from his and his teammates own words) that he heard, internalized and acted based on media and fan criticism — what degree were we shaping James, and how did his play shape our reactions?
The tension surrounding whether James would/could claim his destiny had been building since 2002 and become nearly unbearable by Summer 2012. However you felt about James, it’s hard to deny the satisfying catharsis that came from watching him win. It was over, and the audience was ready for it to be over.
Kevin Arnovitz captures that dynamic with his pitch-perfect post on how LeBron’s championship would allow the basketball world to move on.
Move on we will, satisfied with the payoff after years of discussion, arguments, heartbreak and hope. And so will James. This is no tragic play, in which our must hero die before the curtains close. This perfect five-act segment will soon be just an episode in James’ ongoing career. Perhaps, like Jordan’s early struggles, the second decade of his career will completely alter our understanding of his first 10 years.
Who knows? More immediately, let’s cheer our luck. We fans will move on from the Thunder-Heat Finals with something almost as great as a gripping sports story: the promise of a thrilling sequel.
It’s possible we always had such a strong recency bias, but it sure feels like recency bias is at its apogee. It’s also possible that recency bias just makes it seem as though Twitter is the ultimate warden to our collective prisoner of the moment. The commentary on athletes certainly smacks of an especially jerky knee jerking.
And damned if this James Harden mockery isn’t a bit silly. Five games ago, he was an obvious max contract for some lucky team out there. Now, cash is supposedly flying out of his pockets, like a bank in a tornado.
The max contract is and should be closer to the truth. Harden had a bad Finals, but let’s look at the bigger picture. James is 22 years old, and posted an equivalent win share mark to Kevin Durant in his most recent season. He was fourth in the league in true shooting percentage, and he shot more often than the three players ahead of him. He maintains such efficiency with a deadly outside shot, perceptive court vision, and a propensity for drawing fouls. Harden also has much room for improvement, as he can barely hold a coffee cup with his right hand.
What about the playoffs? Well, despite his much maligned Finals performance (and yes, it was mediocre), Harden was first among all two-guards in win share average this postseason. He was third among all guards in this stat, mostly because Ty Lawson and Darren Collison posted fine marks in very few minutes. The bearded one was also third in PER behind such schlimazels as Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant. Obviously, James Harden stinks.
But it’s just so fun to mock a man for losing money on the big stage, I suppose. While I hate to rain on such a good-natured activity, it should be noted that Harden has a whole year to prove that he isn’t what you saw in the NBA Finals. Between now and then you’ll likely fluctuate on how good you think James Harden is and what kind of contract he should command. My guess: Harden will look a lot better when not forced to guard a certain oft-doubted, oft-maligned superstar. We may be prisoners of the moment, but James Harden isn’t.
LeBron James was, without question, the best player in these NBA Finals. With 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game, James was historically great, leaving no doubt in the end that he won that thing.
He also couldn’t hit a shot.
LeBron was 19% from three point land and 26% on two-point attempts outside of three feet. In total, he was 24% on shots outside three feet. Show me those numbers before the Finals and I say, “Thunder in four.” James usually hits over 41% of these types of attempts, with a .362 three point percentage. These comparatively awful percentages would look disastrous for a man whose burden is the choking trope. I happen to believe that luck is a huge factor in success on jumpers. Looks like LeBron was unlucky at the exact wrong time.
And yet, James finished with a high 55.8% true shooting mark en route to all those aforementioned points. What the hell? How did this happen? Well, LeBron treated Thunder players like steps on his personal staircase to the hoop, averaging an incredible 10 shots per game at the rim. It wasn’t all driving, though the drives were gnarly. James was excellent off the ball, carving OKC’s defense with well-timed weak-side cuts. Oh, and he also averaged over 10 boards while making passes that evoked Magic Johnson memories.
This was a dominant performance from a player who, had he managed his usual shot percentages, would have scored nearly five more points per Finals game. LeBron James may have been unlucky in these Finals, but he didn’t need luck. LeBron was off. Still turned it on. That’s a true testament to greatness.