Wednesday, May 25, 2011

LeBron: Still The Best Basketball Player Alive, Plus Musings on Clippers Trade, Welts, Kareem Movie

Let's quickly review what LeBron James did defensively in Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

In Game 3, with the score 78-74 Miami midway through the fourth quarter, Udonis Haslem hit a layup to put the Heat up six. Here's what happened in the three following Bulls possessions:

-- 80-74 Miami - Closeout: With a Rose-Boozer pick-and-roll about to be run on the right side, LeBron positions himself on the right block to help out, even though his man, Luol Deng, is stationed in the left corner behind the line.

The ball gets swung around to the left to Deng, and LeBron flies across the court to close out Deng (and, as John Hollinger pointed out, James closed out specifically to Deng's right side to cut off his driving lane).

Deng tries to run a pick-and-roll, but - due to a hard hedge by Udonis Haslem as well as good D from James - the PnR gets pushed toward the perimeter, and a turnover ultimately results. Dwyane Wade hits two free throws on the other end.

-- 82-74 Miami - Basket Protection: After Noah misses a driving shot, Carlos Boozer grabs the offensive rebound and gets his shot blocked by James in the restricted area. Add this to a fairly spectacular denial by Boozer at the rim earlier in Game 3, and a block on Joakim Noah at the goal in Game 4, and that would be three blocks against the other team's starting power forward and center by LeBron James.

And these weren't crazy, flying weakside blocks; these were straight-up denials at the rim. If there's one thing that amazes me about this Heat team, it's that James and Wade are relied upon to provide basket protection so often - and that they're able to do so.

LeBron's block on Boozer led to a transition run by Wade which created two FTs.

-- 84-74 Miami - Help & Steal: After playing consummate help defense, James anticipates a pass inside by Derrick Rose, makes the steal, and takes off downcourt for the KorverKrusher and-one play which effectively seals the game.

In Game 4, James completely shut down Derrick Rose (who went 0-5 with LeBron guarding him, 0-4 in the fourth quarter) while also contributing three blocks and two steals.

To review, James - at 6-8/250+ - played on-ball defense to shut down a point guard who happens to be the MVP and probably the most feared perimeter one-on-one cover in the game. He closed out on shooters at the wing. He provided basket protection in denying power forwards and centers on multiple occasions. And he had five blocks and four steals in the two games to help ignite Miami's transition game.

*That* is an all-around defensive performance which is nothing short of Pippenesque, with Dwyane Wade providing a similar effort. And pair that versatility with Lebron's offense. In Game 3, he was the maestro with a 22-6-10 line - several of his assists were gorgeous cross-court passes, including a few which set up open shots to pitch in to Chris Bosh's big night. In Game 4, he was the closer with a 35-6-6 line that included 14 points in the fourth quarter and OT.


Not going to belabor this, but let's just say I'm feeling pretty comfortable with my pick of LeBron James for league MVP right about now. I felt it was very close among James, Rose, Dwight Howard and Wade, and ultimately went with LeBron simply because I felt he was the best player. I also felt like the Eastern Conference playoffs were going to focus a spotlight on who the most valuable player truly was, and I think that's what's happened.

I know, I know, this is playoffs, that was regular season. I'm reluctant to rehash this stuff, as I have nothing against Derrick Rose or Bulls fans, and think the league is in great hands given the way the 22-year-old performs both on- and off-the-court. Also, I think that Rose was a defensible MVP pick - lots of people I really respect picked him - and not a bad choice at all.

The main thing that bugged me, however, was the sense conveyed by some people, with demeaning undertones, that anyone who didn't reflexively jump on board the Rose narrative bandwagon was some sort of stat geek who didn't watch the games.

Yet much of the evidence was available expressly by watching the games, such as:
• James is a much better defensive player, with much greater defensive responsibility, who doesn't have the luxury of multiple mobile bigs behind him to run the D and the boards.
• James had to deal with key injuries of his own, to Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, as we now see (and given Carlos Boozer's "statuesque" defense, his absence to Chicago may have been overstated).
• The idea that Rose was one superstar vs. two or three in Miami vastly understates how solid Chicago's bench is, especially defensively, and how sharply Miami's roster declines outside the Big 3, especially when Haslem and Miller were out.

Also, the sense that Rose was far superior to James in clutch situations seemed a bit overstated, first because it's enough of a small sample size to be ephemeral, and second because LeBron has actually proven himself to be a strong clutch performer for several years now.

And now, by *watching these games*, the evidence has been laid fairly bare: LeBron James does more for his team than Derrick Rose does for his. LeBron James is still the best basketball player alive, and he will be even if Dallas beats Miami. And, for that matter, neither LeBron James nor Dirk Nowitzki will be soft nor lack clutch ability if and when one loses in the Finals next month. One will win, one will lose.

As someone who's been a big supporter of the Clippers' trade with the Cavs, I have to eat some crow now that the deal has cost them Kyrie Irving, who would slide in perfectly as their point guard of the future.

However, I stand behind the belief that the trade was a gamble worth taking. The *only* pick which could have hurt L.A. was the no. 1 pick, as the main candidates at no. 2 are power forwards who would overlap with Blake Griffin (namely Derrick Williams and Enes Kanter, though Bismack Biyombo may have been intriguing as a defensive complement), and there was a 97.4% chance that that result wouldn't happen.

I would also argue that the Clippers are still in really good shape moving forward. By holding Minnesota's unprotected no. 1 pick in 2012, they should be able to plug in a small forward for the future with one of three extremely promising prospects at the position: Michael Gilchrist, Harrison Barnes or Quincy Miller.

And this trade still has to be considered incomplete at worst, as it depends upon what the Clippers do with the cap space they cleared in 2012 by dealing Baron Davis (though an amnesty clause which would have allowed them to drop Baron from their cap without harm would really be a bite in the butt). If Chris Paul, for example, should decide to move on from New Orleans, I don't think he'll find a better supporting roster than Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and one of the aformentioned future SFs TBD. A huge, crazy, enormous hypothetical, yes - but this trade story is not over yet.

Phoenix Suns CEO Rick Welts made headlines last week for becoming the first openly gay senior executive in major American men's team sports. I would note that, long before Welts' brave step, I've believed that he's deserved to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a Contributor.

The Hall of Fame uses the Contributor designation to induct people like owners or broadcasters or others like Tom "Satch" Sanders, who will be inducted this year for his role in developing the NBA's Rookie Transition Program, in addition to being a defensive stopper on several Celtics championship teams.

Also inducted as a Contributor is Danny Biasone, the Syracuse Nationals owner who invented the 24-second shot, and in doing so, helped make the game of pro basketball much more popular.

Along those lines, I very strongly believe that Rick Welts deserves to be a Hall of Famer for his role as an expert marketer in helping revive the popularity of the game in the '80s, most notably for inventing the concept of the All-Star Weekend, now a major tentpole, and an event which has helped propel the popularity of basketball forward around the globe.

I think that my favorite thing about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's statue-related tweeting last week was how he followed several sharp, fairly sensational, missives at Lakers management with the gentle reminder that the documentary movie he recently produced, On The Shoulders of Giants, was becoming available on Netflix streaming.

I just wanted to close with a quick thumbs-up for the movie, which I caught On Demand a couple months ago. The centerpiece of the story is a 1939 matchup at the World Pro Basketball Tournament between the New York Rens (a black-owned team based in Harlem, which was one of the legendary pre-NBA pro basketball teams) and the Harlem Globetrotters (which was actually a white-owned team based in Chicago).

I guess I'd never put two-and-two together and realized that there was a natural rivalry between the two teams and their fans, centered around the fact that the Rens (short for Renaissance) had a much more legitimate claim on Harlem.

I thought the story was well-told overall. The brief footage of the Rens was something to behold - oh, the ball movement! It was tricky to deal with the fact that there's no footage of the Rens-Globetrotters game (at one point, the key moments are depicted via Kareem telling the story to Chuck D, sitting across from him), though the animated artistic renditions of the game (and other elements throughout the movie) are pretty cool stylistically.

As an added bonus, there are a few scenes of Kareem walking around Harlem talking with the good doctor Cornel West, which is probably worthy of a documentary in its own right.

I don't know that it's going to change your life, but if you're interested in the roots of basketball history, then On The Shoulders of Giants is definitely worth your time and money.


At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as the clips are concerned, what are your thoughts on Eric Bledsoe going forward? I thought having watched a lot of him this year that with a little development and maturity he will become a really solid option to run things well for them.

At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

D Rose = K Malone, 1997
Voter's just didn't want to give it to Lebron(Jordan).

At 2:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 8:47 AM, Blogger Sol Orwell said...

Woah, no need to insult Malone.

Malone had a real body of work. D Rose is just (yes, just) the #1 offensive option on the #1 defensive AND #1 rebounding team.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Ron said...

Don't want to rehash a TON on the MVP debate, but there is something to be said for the old, "Take this player away and what do you have?" Taking LeBron away from Cleveland made it clear what he brings to the table, and I loves me some LBJ.

That said, it's not fair to JUST take away. If Miami hadn't signed LeBron, they'd have signed a seond tier good forward. I don't want to give them 'Melo (who i think is overrated anyway, and who would drive Riley up a wall with his lack of defense), since that's another superstar. But I don't think anyone would disagree with, say, Danny Granger. How good is Miami with that lineup? Possible champ? No. Playoffs? Sure.

Now do the same exercise with Chicago, but with an equivalent PG. Again, not CP3, not Deron Williams. But how about Tony Parker? Or Rajon Rondo? (Nash couldn't play defense for Thibs, though I love him dearly.) Are they even a playoff team with their injuries?

I wouldn't have objected to any of Rose, LBJ, or Howard. I thought Tony Parker deserved SOME mention for leading that team to the best record in the league with Manu hurt some and Tim Duncan on the down side. But it's far from clear to me that LBJ is a better choice.

At 12:30 AM, Anonymous Filipe said...

I don't think amnesty clause matter on the Baron trade. In another team yes, but Sterling wouldn't sign on paying all that money to Baron for him not to play for them.

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