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.