Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Myth Buster

LeBron didn't start super teams:
In the past couple weeks, there has been a lot of chatter about super teams in the NBA and which one came first.  I've already addressed this in a previous post, but I'll quickly recap my thoughts here.  The idea that the first super team wasn't Miami is just dumb.  The Lakers and Celtics of the '60s and '80s were assembled through the draft and trades, so it's apples and oranges.  People don't get upset about a franchise drafting great players or making great trades.  When people refer to "super teams," they're referring to the collaboration of stars.  LeBron tried to claim he didn't start super teams, and pointed to the '99 Rockets, the '04 Lakers or the '08 Celtics.  Here's the difference between those teams and Miami: those were veterans teaming up together.  No dynasties happened, nor were any even expected.  When Miami got together, there's a reason why they went on record saying, "not one, not two, not three..." and proclaiming they were going to win more than seven titles.  Because they were superstars teaming up in their primes.  When you haven't played a game and you project yourself to win more than seven titles, you are a super team!  Only two teams have ever assembled and immediately evoked images of dynasty: the 2011 Heat and the 2017 Warriors.  So you can bring up the '99 Rockets, '04 Lakers, or '08 Celtics all you want, but the ceiling for those teams was never as high, nor the window as wide.

Add LeBron to any team and they're a contender:
This is a popular narrative trumpeted by people.  The main reason people say this is by saying look at Cleveland with and without him and by looking at Miami with and without him. Unsurprisingly, that is a very simplistic view that completely ignores any and all context.  How so? Because LeBron isn't the only difference between those teams.  Let's look at the 2010 Cavs vs the 2011 Cavs (we'll just compare the top 8 guys by minutes played.):

2010 Cavs:
LeBron, Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao, JJ Hickson, Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Shaq

2011 Cavs:
JJ Hickson, Ramon Sessions, Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, Antawn Jamison, Ryan Hollins, Mo Williams, and Anderson Varejao

LeBron wasn't the only change, so you can't pin all the results of the season on one thing. (For more in-depth analysis on this specific change, check out one of my previous posts.)  Not included in that post is the coaching change.  Following LeBron's exit, Mike Brown was fired.  And while Mike Brown isn't a great coach, he's not as bad as Byron Scott.  Byron Scott hasn't won 25 games in a season since 2009!  In thirteen full seasons, he had a winning record in exactly four of them. As for the 2011 Miami Heat, they improved by 11 wins.  And that was adding LeBron and Bosh. No in-depth analysis required.  Now let's forward to LeBron's Miami departure and his return to Cleveland.

2014 Heat:
LeBron, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, and Chris Andersen

2015 Heat:
Luol Deng, Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, Hassan Whiteside, Chris Andersen, and James Ennis

The Heat didn't just lose LeBron.  They also lost Ray Allen and Shane Battier and Bosh played barely more than half the season.

2014 Cavs:
Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Jarret Jack, Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao, Luol Deng, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tyler Zeller

2015 Cavs:
Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, LeBron, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov, and Shawn Marion

The 2015 Cavs didn't just add LeBron; it was almost a completely different roster.  Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving were in their fourth years, and naturally should have gotten better, and they added Kevin Love.  But that wasn't it.  If those weren't improvements enough, they also traded for JR Smith, Timofey Mozgov, and Iman Shumpert.  And if you think that trade didn't make a huge impact, consider this: Prior to the trade, Cleveland was 19-16.  That's a 45-win pace. Then there was a two game adjustment period, where Smith came off the bench one game and Mozgov came off the bench the next game (they lost both games).  Once Smith and Mozgov (and eventually Shumpert) were added to the rotation, they went 34-11.  That's a 62-win pace.  So when you say that LeBron can make any team a contender, do you actually mean LeBron and Bosh, Allen, and Battier or LeBron and Love, Smith, and Shumpert?

Not only did LeBron not single-handedly turn those teams around, but we also have information that contradicts the idea that LeBron, as a solo entity, can make any team a contender.  In the Windhorst article I addressed in my previous post, he had a fascinating tidbit about LeBron's first venture into free agency in 2010:

"When the Chicago Bulls lost a competitive 4-1 series to James and the Cavs in 2010 they hoped it could be turned into a net positive. Young guard Derrick Rose starred in the short series and Joakim Noah, in addition to insulting the city of Cleveland, showed promise as a valuable postseason performer during the first-round series.

The Bulls made a pitch to James as a free agent a few months later, touting their growing core of Rose, Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. The Bulls also made presentations to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When they couldn't open enough salary-cap space to sign all three and Rose declined to directly recruit James, the window closed."

Chicago had Rose, Noah, Deng, and Gibson and that wasn't good enough for LeBron so much so that they also would've needed to add Wade AND Bosh?  If LeBron didn't think Chicago was good enough, how on earth are you going to tell me he could make Brooklyn or Sacramento a contender?  Claiming that putting LeBron on a terrible team would instantly make them a contender ignores all the information to the contrary.  Let's recap what has actually happened: LeBron didn't want to go to a talented Chicago team, instead teamed up with two of the best players in basketball and brought in really good veteran players, and then when that started to get a little old he went to Kyrie and brought in Kevin Love and traded for Smith, Shumpert and Mozgov.  Not only do we have no record of him single-handedly carrying a lottery team to contention, but his moves have been exactly the opposite.  Not only does he not team up with bad players, he intentionally seeks out great players.  So no, teaming up with Bosh, Wade, Love, Kyrie, Allen, Battier, Smith, Thompson etc. isn't evidence that he would win with Willie Cauley-Stein and Ben McLemore.

None of this is to criticize LeBron's skill as a basketball player, but rather the myths surrounding him.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Formidable or Feeble?

Last month, Brian Windhorst wrote an article about how LeBron has conquered the Eastern Conference.  It's true, LeBron has conquered the East.  But is that achievement as great as Windhorst made it sound?  Anyone that has followed the NBA knows that the Eastern Conference has been incredibly weak, since shortly after the turn of the century.  If that truth isn't patently obvious to you, then let's look at some basic numbers.

During LeBron's 14 years, the top three franchises with the most wins in the league are all in the West (San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston).  Following those three teams are Miami, Denver, Boston, OKC, Golden State, Chicago, Cleveland, Indiana, Phoenix, LAL, Utah, and Memphis. That's the top 15 best records in the league and ten of them are Western Conference teams.  It's even more lopsided than that though; because of the top five Eastern Conference franchises, two were teams he played for (Miami and Cleveland) and not rivals.  Not only is the West better at the top, it's also better at the bottom.  The bottom ten (from worst to "best") is Charlotte, Minnesota, Philly, Sacramento, NY, Brooklyn/NJ, Milwaukee, Washington, New Orleans, and Orlando.  So of the bottom ten franchises in the league, seven of them are from the East.

If that isn't enough for you, let's take a look at how the best players are distributed.  Of the 210 All-NBA players since '03-'04, 137 have been in the West.  The fact that 65% of All-NBA players have been in the West doesn't even illustrate how much of an imbalance exists.  Why?  Let's look at the top 25 most selected players in each conference, with the West players in bold:

LeBron 13x
Kobe 10x
Duncan 9x
Dirk 9x
Paul 8x
Wade 8x
Durant 7x
Howard 6x
Westbrook 6x
Nash 5x
Yao 5x
Curry 4x
Harden 4x
Carmelo 4x
Stoudemire 4x
Parker 4x
Aldridge 4x
Griffin 4x
George 3x
McGrady 3x
Garnett 3x
Arenas 3x
P. Gasol 3x
B. Wallace 3x
D. Jordan 3x

Of the top 25, 19 are from the West!  It's not even close.  Who is LeBron's competition?  He didn't have to go against Kobe, Duncan, Dirk, Paul, Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Curry etc.  Not only that, but his most formidable foe became a teammate!  In the last 14 years, 9 MVPs are from the West.  And of the five MVPs from the East, four were LeBron.  It goes even further than that.  If you took the top 3 finalists for MVP for each of the last 14 years, the West holds 26 of the 42 spots and LeBron holds ten of the 42 spots.  That means that there are only six top three finishes by LeBron's competitors!  One Rose MVP and one MVP finalist season from Wade, Shaq, Carmelo, Howard, and Jermaine O'Neal.  Again, who has been LeBron's competition?

No matter how you slice it, the East has been incredibly weak.  67% of the top 15 franchise records, 65% of All-NBA players, and 64% of MVPs have been from the West and 70% of the worst ten franchises are from the East.  So don't pretend that he conquered a stacked, or even competitive, conference.  He faced the tail end of the Pistons, the brief reign of the Celtics, an abbreviated run from the Magic and Bulls, and a flicker of the Pacers.  LeBron didn't make the Pistons and Celtics get old, he didn't make Rose's knee and Howard's back deteriorate, and he didn't make Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson lose their ability to play basketball.  And in spite of facing few strong competitors, he still teamed up with Wade and Bosh and then essentially traded them in for Kyrie and Love.

LeBron didn't conquer the best.  He faced the path of least resistance.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Brady vs. Montana

On Sunday, Tom Brady is playing for a chance to win his 5th Super Bowl title, so naturally the discussion of his place in history has been a big topic of conversation.  Many people think Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all-time.  For the ones who don't agree with that, the most obvious contender for that title is Joe Montana.  So, who's better?

Regular season
First, let's take a look at their regular season numbers.  But not the raw totals, since the game has evolved so much.  Instead the comparison will be made by era.  Montana became a starter in 1981 and finished his career in 1994.  Brady became a starter in 2001 and is obviously still going.  So we'll compare how they performed relative to their era (1981-1998 for Montana and 2001-present for Brady).  Also, since the number of games can vary between players, the stats that we'll be looking at will be yards per game, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, completion percentage, and passer rating (minimum 2,500 pass attempts).

Yards per game:
Montana ranked 4th
Brady ranks 6th

Yards per attempt:
Montana ranked 3rd
Brady ranks 10th

TD%:
Montana ranked T-4th
Brady ranks 4th

Int%:
Montana ranked 3rd
Brady ranks 2nd

Cmp%:
Montana ranked 2nd
Brady ranks 10th

Passer rating:
Montana ranked 2nd
Brady ranks 3rd

Montana performed better in his era than Brady has in his era, almost across the board.  Now a common argument from Brady supporters is that Montana had Jerry Rice.  Which is meant to imply that Montana benefited more from Rice than Brady has from Moss, Welker, Gronkowski, and Edelman.  But is that true?  Let's compare Montana before and after 1985 and Brady before and after 2007.

Montana pre-1985: 240.7 yds/game, 7.7 Y/A, 5.1 TD%, 2.5 Int%, 63.7 Cmp%, 93.6 passer rating
Montana post-1985: 248.6 yds/game, 7.7 Y/A, 5.4 TD%, 2.8 Int%, 63.5 Cmp%, 94 passer rating

Brady pre-2007: 226.9 yds/game, 7.0 Y/A, 4.8 TD%, 2.5 Int%, 61.9 Cmp%, 88.4 passer rating
Brady post-2007: 283.8 yds/game, 7.8 Y/A, 6.0 TD%, 1.4 Int%, 64.9 Cmp%, 102.5 passer rating

Montana had almost no statistical change from before Rice to with Rice.  Meanwhile, Brady's numbers all increased considerably, once he got elite weapons (and the rules changed).  Before Rice, the Niners offense averaged 5th in scoring.  With Rice, they averaged 5th in scoring.  Before Moss, Welker, Gronk etc, the Pats averaged 8th in scoring.  After Moss, Welker, Gronk etc, they averaged 3rd in scoring.  So whose stats really benefited from better weapons (and massive rule changes)?

Awards
Montana was truly eligible for awards in 11 seasons (he missed 1991, 1992, and half of 1986).  In those 11 seasons, he made 8 Pro Bowls, First-team All-Pro 3 times, Second-team All-Pro twice, MVP twice and Super Bowl MVP 3 times.  In 15 seasons, Brady has made 12 Pro Bowls, First-team All-Pro twice, Second-team All-Pro twice, MVP twice, and Super Bowl MVP 3 times.  Their award cases are pretty identical.  The one major difference is in All-Pro appearances.  Montana made 5 in 11 seasons (45%).  Brady has made 4 in 15 seasons (27%).

Super Bowl
The final point of comparison is performance in Super Bowls.  The reason that people put Brady and Montana over Marino, Elway, Manning, Brees, Rodgers etc is because of one thing: winning.  So the question is, who won more impressively?  Here are the stats for each:

Montana- 1,142 yards (285.5 yds/game), 11 TDs, 0 INT, 68% completion percentage, 127.8 passer rating, 105 yards rushing, 2 TDs

Brady- 1,605 yards (267.5 ydgs/game), 13 TDs, 4 INT, 66% completion percentage, 95.3 passer rating, 11 yards rushing, 0 TDs

Montana was lights out in the Super Bowl.  He outperformed Brady by every single measure.  And that was reflected in each team's performance too.  The Patriots' total point differential is currently +6.  The Niners point differential was +76.  Yes, the Niners' defense did perform better (15.75 pts/game compared to 21.5 pts/game for the Patriots), but their offense also performed substantially better (34.75 pts/game compared to 22.5 pts/game).  In total, the Niners scored 139 points and the Patriots scored 135 points (technically 136 for the Niners, because Ray Wersching essentially scored three points by himself, and 128 for the Patriots, because Ty Law had a pick-6 in the first Super Bowl).  Yes, the Niners scored more points in four Super Bowls than the Patriots have scored in six.  Which is why the Niners convincingly won three of them.  The other one was tied in the 4th; and after Cincinnati gained the lead with a FG, Montana drove down for a touchdown with 34 seconds to go.  Worst case scenario for Montana is 3-1.  Meanwhile, the Patriots only convincingly won a single Super Bowl (against the Eagles), so it's completely possible for them to be 1-5.

For the record, in their Super Bowl seasons, the Niners averaged 4th in offense and 4th in defense and the Patriots averaged 5th in offense and 5th in defense; so the teams performed very similarly.  And the Super Bowl the Niners almost lost was one with Rice.  And the year they went 15-1 and blew out Dan Marino and the Dolphins, they didn't have Rice yet.  Brady in Super Bowls with Moss, Welker and/or Gronk averaged 19.7 points.  Montana before Rice averaged 30.5 points.  So the idea that Montana only achieved greatness cause of Jerry Rice is patently false.

None of this is to disparage Brady.  He's clearly an all-time great.  But when you look at how they compared to their eras, and to each other on the biggest stage, anyone anointing Brady needs to take a second look.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Greatness Unrecognized

A little over a month ago, Klay Thompson had a brilliant performance, when he scored 60 points in only three quarters of play.  Everyone then, rightfully, talked about how that compared to other great performances.  Everyone knows about Wilt's 100 and Kobe's 81.  But what about other 60+ point outings?  The website Land of Basketball has a great list of every 60+ point game in history.  You can read over that page and notice some really cool things: Wilt accounts for nearly half of them (32 out of 66), Jordan owns the playoff record (with 63), Baylor owns the Finals record (with 61), two occurred in the same season against the same team (Carmelo and LeBron against Charlotte), and two occurred on the same day (George Gervin scored 63 and David Thompson scored 73).

But there's one that you might not have even noticed; or even if you did notice it, you might not have grasped the magnitude of it.  The game I'm speaking of is Kobe scoring 62 points, in three quarters, against Dallas.  Why is that game so impressive?  Because Dallas was really good that year.  How good?  Let's examine that and compare how Dallas stacked up against the other opponents (for the purposes of this exercise, we're just going to examine the 60+ point games in the modern era, after the NBA and ABA merged).  Since the merger, there have been 25 such games.  Let's compare how those teams stacked up by record, defensive rating, and offensive rating.

Team Record:
Kobe vs 60-22  '05-'06 Mavs
Jordan vs 57-25  '86-'87 Hawks
Jordan vs 52-30  '86-'87 Pistons
Malone vs 44-38  '89-'90 Bucks
Carmelo vs 43-39  '13-'14 Bobcats
LeBron vs 43-39  '13-'14 Bobcats
Arenas vs 42-40  '06-'07 Lakers
Jordan vs 42-40  '89-'90 Cavs
King vs 42-40  '84-'85 Nets
K. Thompson vs 19-18  '16-'17 Pacers (current record would translate to 42-40)
Chambers vs 41-41  '89-'90 Sonics
Jordan vs 41-41  '92-'93 Magic
Maravich vs 40-42  '76-'77 Knicks
Kobe vs 40-42  '15-'16 Jazz
Gervin vs 39-43  '77-'78 Jazz
D. Thompson vs 38-44  '77-'78 Pistons
Iverson vs 36-46  '04-'05 Magic
Bird vs 34-48  '84-'85 Hawks
Kobe vs 32-50  '08-'09 Knicks
Kobe vs 32-50  '06-'07 Blazers
Kobe vs 27-55  '05-'06 Raptors
Robinson vs 27-55  '93-'94 Clippers
McGrady vs 25-57  '03-'04 Wizards
Kobe vs 22-60  '06-'07 Grizzlies
Shaq vs 15-67  '99-'00 Clippers

By Defensive Rating:
Jordan vs 2nd ranked '86-'87 Hawks
Jordan vs 5th ranked '86-'87 Pistons
Carmelo vs 5th ranked '13-'14 Bobcats
LeBron vs 5th ranked '13-'14 Bobcats
Kobe vs 7th ranked '15-'16 Jazz
Jordan vs 10th ranked '89-'90 Cavs
Gervin vs 10th ranked '77-'78 Jazz
Kobe vs 11th ranked '05-'06 Mavs
Bird vs 11th ranked '84-'85 Hawks
King vs 12th ranked '84-'85 Nets
Jordan vs 12th ranked '92-'93 Magic
Malone vs 14th ranked '89-'90 Bucks
D. Thompson vs 14th ranked '77-'78 Pistons
K. Thompson vs 15th ranked '16-'17 Pacers
Maravich vs 15th ranked '76-'77 Knicks
Iverson vs 18th ranked '04-'05 Magic
Robinson vs 18th ranked '93-'94 Clippers
McGrady vs 20th ranked '03-'04 Wizards
Chambers vs 21st ranked '89-'90 Sonics
Kobe vs 23rd ranked '08-'09 Knicks
Arenas vs 24th ranked '06-'07 Lakers
Kobe vs 26th ranked '06-'07 Blazers
Kobe vs 29th ranked '05-'06 Raptors
Shaq vs 29th ranked '99-'00 Clippers
Kobe vs 30th ranked '06-'07 Grizzlies

By offensive ratings:
Kobe vs 1st ranked '05-'06 Mavs
Jordan vs 4th ranked '86-'87 Hawks
Kobe vs 5th ranked '05-'06 Raptors
Arenas vs 7th ranked '05-'06 Lakers
Chambers vs 8th ranked '89-'90 Sonics
Jordan vs 9th ranked '86-'87 Pistons
Maravich vs 10th ranked '77-'78 Knicks
D. Thompson vs 12th ranked '77-'78 Pistons
Kobe vs 13th ranked '06-'07 Grizzlies
Jordan vs 13th ranked '92-'93 Magic
King vs 13th ranked '84-'85 Nets
Kobe vs 16th ranked '15-'16 Jazz
Bird vs 16th ranked '84-'85 Hawks
Kobe vs 17th ranked '08-'09 Knicks
Malone vs 17th ranked '89-'90 Bucks
Jordan vs 19th ranked '89-'90 Cavs
K. Thompson vs 19th ranked '16-'17 Pacers
Kobe vs 20th ranked '06-'07 Blazers
Gervin vs 21st ranked '77-'78 Jazz
Iverson vs 21st ranked '04-'05 Magic
Carmelo vs 24th ranked '13-'14 Bobcats
LeBron vs 24th ranked '13-'14 Bobcats
Robinson vs 22nd ranked '93-'94 Clippers
McGrady vs 27th ranked '03-'04 Wizards
Shaq vs 28th ranked '99-'00 Clippers

Look at any metric, and it's clear that Dallas is one of the best teams to ever have 60+ points scored against them.  And if those metrics aren't enough for you, consider that the Mavs went to the Finals that year.  Yes, Kobe dropped 62 points on a Finals level team.  And he did it in three quarters. Here's how his minutes played compared to everyone else's.

Minutes played:
K. Thompson 29 minutes played vs '16-'17 Pacers
Kobe 33 minutes played vs '05-'06 Mavs
Malone 33 minutes played vs '89-'90 Bucks
Kobe 37 minutes played vs '08-'09 Knicks
Carmelo 39 minutes played vs '13-'14 Bobcats
Jordan 41 minutes played vs '86-'87 Hawks
King 41 minutes played vs '84-'85 Nets
LeBron 41 minutes played vs '13-'14 Bobcats
Kobe 42 minutes played vs '15-'16 Jazz
Kobe 42 minutes played vs '05-'06 Raptors
Chambers 42 minutes played vs '89-'90 Sonics
Iverson 42 minutes played vs '04-'05 Magic
Jordan 43 minutes played vs '86-'87 Pistons
Bird 43 minutes played vs '84-'85 Hawks
Robinson 44 minutes played vs '93-'94 Clippers
Kobe 45 minutes played vs '06-'07 Grizzlies
Shaq 45 minutes played vs '99-'00 Clippers
McGrady 46 minutes played vs '03-'04 Wizards
Jordan 47 minutes played vs '92-'93 Magic
Arenas 49 minutes played vs '06-'07 Lakers
Kobe 50 minutes played vs '06-'07 Blazers
Jordan 50 minutes played vs '89-'90 Cavs
*minutes played for Maravich, D. Thompson, and Gervin not available

So Kobe scored 62 against one of the best teams to ever give that up and he did it in fewer minutes than anyone but one guy.  And that's not all.  Do you know how many points Dallas had after three quarters?  61.  Yes, Kobe outscored a Finals level team through three quarters.  Even on a bad night for Dallas, that's insane.  Dropping 60+ on a Finals bound team is crazy.  Outscoring a team is crazy.  Outscoring a Finals quality team?  Absurd.  It's one of the greatest performances ever and one of the least talked about.  It is greatness unrecognized.