The first week of the season saw the new-look Heat facing their two primary challengers in the East. On opening night, they fizzled against the Boston Celtics. Three days later, a more cohesive looking group crushed the Orlando Magic by 26 points.
While the season, and this team, is still young, playing two of the league’s best teams does give a glimpse into the strength and weaknesses of the most talked about team in the recent history of the NBA:
Shot-creating: The Heat have the best penetrators in the league at the 2, 3 and 4 positions. James, Wade and Bosh all have the quickness and ball-handling ability to get right to the rim, one of the most valuable offensive skills in the NBA.
Team defense: The Heat’s Big Three are also some of the fastest and longest players at their positions too. Their wingspans: Wade (6’11), James (7’0) and Bosh (7’3). All have averaged around a block a game over their career, which is particularly impressive from Wade at the shooting guard position. When those three are active defensively, they shrink the court which makes it a lot easier for them to double and recover. Against two of the top offenses in the NBA, they gave up 70 and 88 points.
Pick and roll offense: James, at 6’9, might be the most effective P/R player in basketball. Swarming the pick is pointless because he can see over the top of the double-team and deliver the correct pass in the 3-on-4 situation. Play off the screen and now he has a driving lane at the basket. Wade, with his ability to hit outside shots and split a double team, is very effective as well.
The other two starters: Miami is effectively playing 3-on-5 with their starting line-up. Carlos Arroyo, who averaged only one three-point attempt a game over his career and no longer has the same foot-speed to attack the basket, is taking up space on the floor. Joel Anthony, somehow, is worse. The Celtics literally ignored his presence on the court offensively. Anthony showed absolutely no willingness to exploit the fact that he was not being defended, looking to shovel the ball out of his hands as quickly as he got it. The Heat can get away with one offensive non-threat, but playing two against a defense like Boston’s is asking too much.
Defense at the point: None of the Heat’s current options at the 1 (Chalmers, House or Arroyo) has the foot-speed to stay with the new breed of lightning-fast point guards. Rajon Rondo was able to go wherever he wanted on the court. This should be especially concerning to the Orlando Magic because Jameer Nelson couldn’t take advantage of this mismatch at all. His lack of height (generously listed at 6’0) and wingspan (alligator arms — 6’2 wingspan) makes it easy to double him on the pick and roll, the staple of Orlando’s offense, and block his passing lanes.
The center position: None of the Heat’s three centers can defend the low post. Anthony and Haslem are too small while Ilgauskas doesn’t have the strength or athletic ability.
Where they go from here
Their strongest line-up is the Big Three + the currently injured Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. This pairs their shot-creators with two jump shooters the defense has to respect. Defensively, it puts Wade at the point guard spot, in the same way that Kobe made up for Derek Fisher’s lack of foot-speed by guarding Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo in the playoffs.
The only real weakness in that line-up is defending the low post. The only answer they had for Dwight Howard, who had 19 points in the first half, was getting him in foul trouble by attacking the basket. Around the league, there are several defensively-oriented centers who can’t get minutes because of their lack of offensive ability, which wouldn’t be an issue in Miami. Someone like Charlotte’s DeSagana Diop, who performed a similar role for the ’06 Mavs in their run to the Finals, could be had for a song.
Replace Arroyo with Mario Chalmers in the rotation. Arroyo’s most valuable with the ball in his hands, which is a pretty silly idea considering the Heat’s other starters. If their other guard is just going to be spotting up on the perimeter anyway, Chalmers, a 34.6% career 3-point shooter, would be a much better fit.
Miami has the talent to win a championship, but they are going to have to win it unconventionally. The only play they will need on offense is the pick and roll, especially when it involves some combination of the Big Three.
Against the Celtics, Miami resorted to isolations when their offense was stagnating. LeBron and Bosh left their previous teams because they didn’t have enough help, there’s no need to make their new teammates bystanders. A pick and roll keeps more players involved in the offense and prevents them from dribbling the ball into the ground.
Taking the ball to the heart of the defense and drawing fouls will be crucial for the Heat. All the Big Three have to settle for fade-away jumpers; staying aggressive offensively is their best defense against low-post scorers.
Give them a defensive-minded center like Diop, or even Grizzlies bust Hasheem Thabeet, and there would be no stopping them. But their one hole at front gives hope to Orlando, Boston and LA.
For more, check out the FanTake Blog: Get Buckets.
The best player on the defending champions is usually seen as the best player in basketball – from Bird and Magic in the 80’s to Jordan in the 90’s, with Hakeem sneaking in for a brief stretch during Jordan’s baseball hiatus.
After MJ’s second retirement, Phil Jackson moved to LA and started a new dynasty. A love-able giant became the face of the NBA, a 350+ lb. force of nature with a combination of size, athletic ability and skill unseen since the days of Wilt Chamberlain.
The Lakers won three straight championships, with Shaq playing the role of Mufasa in the Lion King, ruling the league with a series of unstoppable post moves. But underneath, all was not well. Little brother wanted a shot at the throne.
The character of Scar lived in his big brother’s shadow at the start of the movie. And from his point of view, it was a terribly unjust situation. He was the smart brother – “born with the lion’s share of the brains in the family” – yet he had to cower before Mufasa’s brute strength.
Even worse, with the birth of Simba, Mufasa’s son, he was no longer in line for succession to the throne. His nephew jumped him, not for anything he had done, but simply through genetics.
Such is life in an undemocratic system.
Kobe Bryant has yearned to claim the throne of best player in the NBA since he entered the league. He grew up watching Michael Jordan, aping his mannerisms and marketing himself as a competitor with the same killer instinct.
So he worked and worked and worked. No player has gotten more out of his physical talent than Kobe. He’s certainly not the only athletic 6’6 shooting guard to enter the NBA in the last fifteen years. But comparable players like Vince Carter lacked his work ethic, his determination and his drive.
Everything someone with a slight 6’6 frame can do a basketball court – shoot, pass, dribble, defend, post-up, run the pick and roll – he can do well. That’s something that only comes from innumerable hours of meticulous practice.
And it’s what made his first seven years in LA so infuriating. All this work and he still had to pay homage to a giant who spent off-seasons dressing up like a genie in ridiculous Hollywood movies. A giant who, despite going on to win four championships and three Finals MVP’s, unquestionably didn’t take full advantage of his physical gifts.
Shaq’s idea of off-season conditioning
As Kobe told a reporter before the 2003 season when asked about Shaq claiming the Lakers as “his team”:
That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape, when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court. I have been successfully sacrificing my game for years for Shaq.
Kobe bought into the myth of the American dream – that hard work alone can get you to the very top. But no matter how hard he tried, he could never be Jordan. He doesn’t have Jordan’s thick frame or his “million dollar hands” (as Phil Jackson called them), which allowed MJ to establish post position and score much closer to the paint.
Kobe has to catch the ball farther away from the basket than Jordan did, so he has to take much more difficult shots. It’s the main reason why Jordan was a career 49.7% shooter and Kobe checks in at 45.5%.
And as he’s gotten older, he’s spent more time on the perimeter, making impossible shots seem possible. A YouTube search for the phrase “Kobe Bryant amazing shot” comes up with 5,090 results.
Two of Kobe’s greatest shots in one game
In fourteen NBA seasons, he’s made and attempted every conceivable (and some not so) shot on a basketball court – over the backboard, falling away with three guys draped over him, sometimes without even seeing the hoop as he shot. He is probably the greatest “HORSE” player of all time.
That’s what makes Kobe so compelling to watch – the degree of difficulty on the shots he takes. When they go in, it’s often breath-taking. But sometimes they don’t.
He’ll have games like Game 7 of the 2010 Finals when he shot 6-24. And you’ll think, man Kobe sure loves to take contested fade-away jumpers.
What’s frustrating is that he knows better. He has one of the highest basketball IQ’s in the league; he knows perfectly well that they’re not necessarily the best shots to take, especially considering the level of talent around him, yet he takes them anyway.
Tex Winter, the architect of the Triangle Offense and Phil Jackson’s assistant for 15 seasons, summed it up perfectly:
“He understands the game. But — and don’t misinterpret this — he understands it a lot better than he plays it.”
O.K., Tex, so as not to misinterpret: Are you saying that he knows the right thing to do but sometimes chooses not to do it?
“Yup, that’s it,” says Tex.
That’s because Kobe has spent his entire career chasing a role he was never meant to play. For just as he was pushing Shaq out of LA, a new contender to the throne was emerging.
The kid from Akron, Ohio made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior. With physical gifts unseen in league history, he quickly grew into a 6’9 260 pound man.
Unlike the other preps-to-pros entrants before him, he didn’t have need an adjustment period to the NBA. Despite entering in one of the most stacked drafted classes of all time, he was the runaway winner of Rookie of the Year.
He was simultaneously one of the top 5 most athletic and top 5 most skilled players in the league. He was Karl Malone with a 40’ vertical and the ability to play point guard. He didn’t make game-winning jumpers; he made game-winning dunks.
LeBron’s two most critical baskets — to win the game in double OT and to take the lead near the end of regulation — come directly at the rim.
In his second trip to the playoffs, he humbled the Detroit Pistons, proud champions and one of the great defensive teams of the last decade. With the series tied 2-2 and Game 5 hanging in the balance, his team gave him the ball, got out of the way and dared Detroit to stop him. He scored the Cavaliers final 25 points in a double-overtime victory.
He was destined for greatness. Even worse, he knew it. He got a tattoo of the phrase “Chosen One” on his back.
And just like any young and future King, he became arrogant and entitled. While Scar was orchestrating a complex series of alliances with the hyenas and plotting a coup, Simba whined and pouted through the first portion of the movie, declaring mischievously that he “just couldn’t wait to be King.”
In 2007, Kobe joined LeBron James and the NBA’s next generation of stars in the USA Olympic basketball program. To a man, they were stunned at how hard he worked.
Kobe is the hard-working kid who studied all night to get an A, LeBron the laid-back genius who never even opened his book and got the same grade. After seven seasons in the NBA, LeBron still doesn’t have an effective low-post game, a deficiency that has been glaring for years.
LeBron’s time in Cleveland
Simba had to be humbled and leave the Pride Lands a nobody before maturing enough to become King. After this summer, for the first time in his career, LeBron’s ascension to the throne no longer seems inevitable.
In a pre-season poll of NBA General Managers, the two-time defending MVP received one vote for MVP of the upcoming season. Kevin Durant, the fresh new face of the league, received 20.
Observers have noticed a change. He’s cutting back on the elaborate celebrations of his Cleveland days. In a move fitting of Jordan, he’s re-tweeted racist comments and warned that he’s taken notice of all the hate he’s received for taking his talents to South Beach.
Simba left the Pride Lands in disgrace, without a friend to his name. To regain his kingdom and defeat Scar, he would need the help of some new allies. He had Timon and Pumba; LeBron has Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
So the 2010-2011 season begins with the Chosen One ready to claim what is rightfully his. The current ruler of Pride Rock, entrenched with a fearsome squad of his own, acts unconcerned. Game on.
The war to be a legend has just begun.
For more, check out the FanTake Blog: Get Buckets.
This isn’t about what LeBron James has done, or hasn’t done. This is about the difference between the expectations others may have of him versus the expectations he has of himself. What should he do? The answer is a question. – Nike Basketball
God, has Nike strayed this far from the good old days of hard work and Bill Bowerman? Remember the days of Steve Prefontaine and one of my favorite quotes of all time “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”
Nike, I know you’re trying to mold the image of LeBron, but you’re better than this. Lets go back to setting a good example for kids and not Jersey Shore-ing things saying “man – sometimes you just gotta do you”
For LeBron James, the Summer of 2010 was supposed to be a coronation. A front-page celebration of his unique talents and a chance to relive the excitement of the college recruiting chase he never had. Instead, a career choice became a character-defining moment, and in the eyes of many, he came up short.
The “Decision” became a symbol for everything wrong with sports and basketball in general — entitled and narcissistic athletes unwilling to follow in the hard path the previous generation walked. Instead of challenging Dwyane Wade for Eastern Conference superiority, he joined him. It was something Michael Jordan never would have done.
Jordan’s story is modern myth, a classic coming-of-age story set in the world of sport, full of archetypal characters and moral lessons familiar to any reader of mythology.
The young hero proves the non-believers (the coach who cut him in high school, the team who passed him in the draft) wrong, becoming the best player in the world. But before he can reach the ultimate goal (the NBA title), he has to defeat a ruthless challenger (the Bad Boy Pistons). He doesn’t succeed until a wise older figure (Phil Jackson) teaches him to control his talent and trust his teammates (the Triangle offense). Unseen forces drag him away at the height of of his powers (his first retirement), but he returns humbled after a period of self-reflection (his basketball excursion) to vanquish his challengers once more (the second three-peat).
But as Spike Lee tells the audience in this Air Jordan commercial, the story doesn’t end there. The chosen one will one day return. Jordan’s departure coincided with a dramatic decline in public interest in the sport, and the basketball community has spent the last fifteen years desperately searching for signs of his “return”. No stone was left unturned — Nike and Adidas created the world of AAU basketball, reaching into middle schools to find the next great pitchman. Meanwhile the psyche and game of every young perimeter star was combed over with a fine tooth comb for similarities.
Various contenders were bandied about and dismissed. Harold Minor wasn’t talented enough, Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway couldn’t stay healthy, Allen Iverson wasn’t committed to the fundamentals, Vince Carter just didn’t want “it” bad enough. Dwyane Wade emerged for a brief moment in a memorable (though whistle-stained) run to the 2006 Finals, but his team regressed to mediocrity almost as soon as it appeared.
Kobe, with a similar frame and an eerily similar game, was the obvious choice to continue Jordan’s legacy. But he seemed too calculating and almost too eager to please, never able to match Jordan’s charisma while marred by a running feud with Shaq and a criminal charge in Denver. His first three championships, where he played off of a dominant center, were seen as tainted, and not as worthy as Jordan’s, whose best center was Bill Cartwright.
Enter LeBron, the self-proclaimed Chosen One. A young man whose long-suffering home-town team won a lottery for the right to select him and redeem fifty years of sports misery. An unreal 6’9 250 pound tank of an athlete, simultaneously the most skilled and athletic player in the league. His 10-story mural was quickly unfurled over the the Cleveland arena; he was someone who could not just become Jordan but possibly transcend him.
His first few playoff defeats were shrugged off; after all even Jordan needed seven years to win a championship. But the last two years, with the Cavaliers putting a championship-caliber team around him, were supposed to be different. The entire league geared up for a showdown between Kobe and LeBron in the Finals, between the winners of the last three MVP’s and the two most legitimate claimants to the throne. A non-existent rivalry was manufactured, replete with shoe commercials, puppets and Vitamin Water. But basketball, in the form of the Celtics and the Magic, overwhelmed narrative.
This summer, LeBron had several different avenues to pursue Jordan’s legacy in free agency: finish what he started in Cleveland, play alongside a talented young supporting cast in Chicago or start over and bring a championship back to New York. When he signed with the Heat, he wasn’t just choosing with Miami, he was turning his back on a search that had consumed basketball for a generation.
Now that he is playing with another superstar perimeter player who needs as many shots and touches as he does, LeBron won’t be winning any more scoring titles. A Heat title won’t just be his alone, it will be “shared” with Wade. LeBron might have been able to match Jordan’s titles in New York or Chicago or Cleveland, but now we will never know.
That’s where the overwhelming anger (outside of Cleveland) comes from. It’s the sad anger of Obi-Wan Kenobi yelling at the charred corpse of what would become Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode III: “you were supposed to be the chosen one, to destroy the Sith, not become one.”
Yet this quest to find the “next Jordan”, for every basketball star to maximize their individual gifts, is an inherently selfish one. Maybe LeBron didn’t want to spend his entire career consumed by someone else’s shadow and playing in some variation of Bill Simmons’ HOF Pyramid. Maybe he just wanted to win a lot of basketball games in the next few years.
“The Decision” was a subjugation of individual talent for the good of a team; all three (Bosh, Wade and LeBron) even took less money to play there. How did these become bad things?
The Jordan myth, while great for Jordan, was never great for the game. It broke up many young duos — from Kobe and Shaq to KG and Marbury. It turned the NBA from a sport dominated by teams and rivalries (the Lakers vs. the Celtics, the Bulls vs. the Pistons) into one of individual players.
The three best players on the Miami Heat will sacrifice their statistics in order to win. Their games will lead Sportscenter every night and arenas across the country will sell out to watch them play. These are fundamentally good things or the game of basketball.
By creating his own legacy instead of trying to recreate Jordan’s, LeBron really might be the Chosen One after all, offering a new and more selfless path towards greatness for the next generation.
For more, check out the FanTake Blog: Get Buckets.
The NBA season is one week away from the opening game of all opening games. The Heat take on the Celtics with their new acquisition, Delonte West. With Gloria in attendance, you have to wonder if Delonte will be singing, “Reunited and it feels so good”.
All jokes aside, this game is the ultimate test for both teams. Can the Celtics beat the frontrunners to win the East? Can the Heat beat the team that had that crown last year? All these questions might not be answered in just one game, but you can expect the game to tell a lot.
Dwyane Wade has been injured all preseason, but is expected to play in the opener. This will mark the first time we see Bosh, Wade and The King on the court together being that Wade only played 2 minutes in the preseason. This new look Heat will be going against the Big 1 and the other 3 role players in Boston. Rondo proved to be the star of this team in the playoffs last year with Pierce being the teams secondary scorer, Ray Allen the teams shooter and Garnett the teams leader and defensive anchor. Now the addition of Shaq makes this team very interesting.
Will the Celtics come out next week with a bang and steal the show from the Big 3? Will the Heat get win 1 of their 82-0 season? Make sure you tune in for an exciting game!
There are only a handful of “franchise” players in each generation, guys who will make multiple first-team All-NBA appearances, guys who can be the #1 options on championship teams. So when an organization gets one, there’s only one goal: that ever-so elusive ring (a championship).
And just as any seven-year relationship that doesn’t end in “a ring” (marriage) has fault on both sides, both LeBron and Cleveland share some responsibility for the ugly spectacle that was their public break-up.
Cleveland, one of the most sports-crazy towns in the country, hasn’t won a championship in any major team sport (the NFL, the NBA or MLB) in 47 years. They’ve had a whole lot of guys promise them the world, only to pull the rug from out under them at the last second.
As a result, they became skeptical of every new athlete that came through town. LeBron had no connection with the Drive, the Fumble or the Indians’ implosion in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, but they were all part of the narrative Cleveland fans had for judging sports teams.
No matter how many wins the Cavs had, a self-defeating mentality was alive and well in Cleveland: LeBron couldn’t even wear a New York Yankees hat without causing a city-wide panic.
There’s nothing more frustrating than being blamed for the actions of past boyfriends.
2. LeBron had never “been with” an equal.
By the time he had reached maturity, LeBron James was one of the best basketball players in the world. He was bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled than all his competitors. In AAU and high school ball, he was the team.
Unlike MJ, he was never humbled by a college experience playing for a HOF coach, and unlike Kobe, he never had to buckle to a team full of experienced veterans when he entered the NBA. The Cavs were his team the second he walked through the door.
He had the ultimate trump card — free agency. He never had to dismiss his posse from team functions, never had to commit fully to defense, never had to listen to his coaches. What were they going to do? Cleveland would never trade him, no matter what he did.
It’s almost impossible to have a good relationship when the power dynamic is so tilted to one side.
3. By the end, it was clear that it was never going to happen in Cleveland.
LeBron had some incredible performances in Cleveland: dragging them to the NBA Finals with a starting back-court of Sasha Pavlovic and Eric Snow, scoring 25 straight points against the Pistons, averaging 38/8/8 in the 2009 ECF.
But eventually, the Cavs would run into a team with a dominant seven-footer (Tim Duncan in 2007, KG in 2008/2010 and Dwight Howard in 2009) who would stop LeBron from controlling the paint, and the Cavs offense would fall apart.
There’s a short window to building a championship-contender in the NBA, once a franchise player signs a max contract, the team’s too good to get high lottery picks and has too much money committed to get quality free agents.
The Cavs had to settle for grabbing aging veterans like Shaq and Antawn Jamison in salary dumps; neither was the type of player that would push them over the top. Even if LeBron had stayed in Cleveland, the new-look Bulls, the Carmelo/Amare Knicks and the Wade/Bosh Heat would have had much more maneuverability to leap-frog a Cavalier team that could do nothing but stay in place.
If LeBron was ever going to get his ring, he had to leave Cleveland. The relationship was over, but neither side had the courage to come out and say it right away.
4. LeBron handled the break-up the wrong way.
“The Decision”: the worst PR move since the White Bronco?
If you’re going to break someone’s heart, at least have the decency to do it in private. Don’t broadcast it, literally, to the entire world. C’mon man.
5. Cleveland got jealous when they saw him out with his new team.
Like any scorned woman, Cleveland had one snap reaction: Who is this trifling b****?
They just knew Wade had been whispering in LeBron’s ear for a while; they just knew their “franchise guy” had been stolen from them by a new fair-weather city, who hadn’t been with LeBron with beginning, who hadn’t suffered like Cleveland had suffered, who didn’t even really care about sports.
And when they saw LeBron throwing alley-oops to Wade and Bosh like he used to throw to JJ Hickson and Varejao, well they understandably got a little emotional.
6. The fans made it personal to get under his skin.
When LeBron came back to Cleveland, he didn’t want any drama. He had his new team; he was ready to move on. But they weren’t going to make it easy for him. They were going to get their moment of catharsis one way or the other.
Sometimes you really don’t want to get in a fight. But the other person is so desperate to goad you into one that they unload everything they can think of to get a rise out of you. And you know you should be the mature one and walk away, but they didn’t have to go there!
So LeBron and the Heat just styled on the Cavs, giving them a 28-point beating while LeBron dropped 38, including 24 in an unforgettable third-quarter clinic. Cleveland never recovered; before the game they were a respectable 7-10. Afterwards, they went on a shame spiral of epic proportions, losing 26 straight games and 33 of 34.
7. Both sides are starting to move on.
Upon getting to Miami, LeBron discovered there were no short-cuts to a championship. That he would have to learn to sacrifice and share and just maybe learn a post-game too. That maybe it wasn’t all the fault of Cleveland’s management.
And while the break-up was undoubtedly more difficult for Cleveland, it was for the best. Their epic losing streak gave them the worst record in the NBA; it’s much better to bottom-out and get top draft picks than get stuck in the 30-35 win range on the “mediocrity treadmill.”
If they are lucky enough to get the top pick and draft someone like Duke’s Kyrie Irving or Baylor’s Perry Jones, hopefully they learned something from their last relationship. Maybe they shouldn’t deify a 22-year old and kowtow to everything he says, and maybe they won’t hire a half-wit for a coach or spend $100 million on Donyell Marshall and Larry Hughes.
And if the new man works out and gets Cleveland that ring, will LeBron have conflicting emotions? Of course. He’ll be happy that all those people he left behind finally reached the promised land, but some small part of him will wish that he took them there.
8. But it would probably be better if they didn’t see each other for a while.
With the Heat returning to Cleveland for a second time tonight, passions will be lower than they were that ugly night in December. The rule of thumb is that it takes half as long as a relationship lasted for a woman to get over a man, which would mean that Cleveland won’t forgive LeBron until somewhere in 2013.
Eventually, Cleveland will find a new franchise guy, if not in this draft than in the next, while LeBron will have a whole new range of highs and lows to deal with in Miami, as he tries to win a ring with the Heat.
And as time fades, both sides will remember the good times as nostalgia kicks in. My prediction: LeBron’s jersey will one day hang from the rafters of the Q. But maybe not until Dan Gilbert sells the team.
For more, check out the FanTake Blog: Get Buckets.
The European sailors who “discovered” Australia were stunned by the island continent’s black swans. All European swans were white. In their language, the expression that something was “as rare as a black swan” meant that it was impossible.
Black swans existed, but because no European had ever seen them before, there was no way for their models of the world to account for them.
In his award-winning book “Black Swan”, Nasim Taleb characterizes major scientific breakthroughs and historical shatterpoints as “black swans” — completely unpredictable. Two recent examples he gives are the 9/11 attacks and the collapse of the housing market in 2008.
These “black swan” events are statistical outliers — they don’t occur within the normal bounds of historical behavior — but they have an out-sized impact on the course of history.
Taleb’s main point was that a statistical model for the American economy that perfectly predicted the events of 2001-2007 but completely missed the housing bubble was of far less value than we realized. Even if a model predicted events with 99% accuracy, if the 1% of events it missed were of sufficient importance, than it really wasn’t worth all that much.
He’s no academic dilettante either. Taleb, a hedge fund manager, has run some of the biggest investment firms in the world and made himself a small fortune based on his analysis of the unpredictability of risk.
** It has become somewhat fashionable to bash the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell as his work (Blink, Tipping Point) has become increasingly popular and influential in American society. But if you are just looking for an interesting magazine article to read, check out his archives. Every article, even if it is based on a dubious premise, is interesting and thought-provoking. **
In the basketball world, many people have been trying to construct statistical models that can capture, explain and (most importantly) predict what’s happening on the court.
One of their first discoveries (which has held true in all major team sports) was the importance of point differential. Their counterintuitive conclusion was that a team’s win-loss record told us less about how good the team was than its average scoring margin.
Or as Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders put it: “Championship teams are generally defined by their ability to dominate inferior opponents, not their ability to win close games.”
But what about that other 1%?
A single basketball player can have a much larger impact on a team (1 out of 12) than a single baseball (1 out of 25) or football (1 out of 53) player.
** This is why I’m fairly dubious of the value of a quarterback being a “winner”. **
So are there any “black swans” in basketball?
Are there any historically unique players who impact games in new and different ways than the players before them?
In 2008-2009, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the best point differential in the NBA at +8.9. But the results of that year’s playoffs — a resounding six-game loss to Orlando in the ECF, who the Lakers proceeded to trounce in 5 games in the Finals — make it pretty clear that they were not the best team.
In 2009-2010, the Cavs had the second best differential at +6.5. But after Game 5 of their second round series against Boston, it was obvious they had no chance of becoming champions.
So what happened? Why do LeBron James’ teams under-perform their regular season point differential in the playoffs? And what does that tell us about the 2010-2011 Miami Heat, who currently lead the NBA with a +9.5 scoring margin?
The conventional interpretation of this statistic is that LeBron does not have “the heart of a champion”. I disagree strongly.
Instead, I’d say that LeBron is such a good player, that he can so completely dominate bad teams, that it tends to distort his team’s point differential and disguise how good (or bad) they really are.
If someone gave a basketball player a ball and told them they had to make their next shot or they would kill you, what shot would you want them to take? You would want them to dribble it up the court and dunk it.
And has anyone in the history of the NBA been better at that than LeBron James?
Not many guys can get game-winning dunks in the playoffs against a set defense in the half-court.
He’s listed at 6’8 250, but many people believe he’s really somewhere in the range of 6’9 270. Combine that with a 7’0 wingspan and a vertical easily north of 30 inches, and LeBron is one of the best athletes in the history of the NBA.
Add an all-around game superior to most of the league’s point guards, and you’ve got a “black swan”. There’s no one who would have predicted a player like LeBron James could exist in 1995.
While the media has been fixated on the tabloid circus around South Beach, the Miami Heat have been an incredibly predictable team. If you don’t have a seven-footer who can protect the paint and stop LeBron from dunking on your head, you are going to lose. If you do, and you have either a low-post player or a dominant point guard (the two types of players the Heat cannot guard), you have a good chance of winning.
** Of the nine NBA games I’ve bet on so far this year, my only three wins have come in Miami Heat games. But I’ve been able to stay even because the Heat games were such easy calls (“Clay Davis” games). People just refuse to analyze them rationally. **
This is a bad sign for the Heat, who have been shellacking the NBA’s worst teams en route to winning 19 of 20 games and accumulating the league’s best point differential.
Boston has a shot-blocking center (Perkins) and a great point guard (Rondo); Orlando has a shot-blocking center (Howard) who doubles as a low-post threat and Chicago has a shot-blocking center (Noah) and a great point of their own in Derrick Rose.
A great point guard, a low-post threat and a near seven-foot defensive anchor: watch out Miami.
** It’s no coincidence that the league’s worst teams tend to not have good defensive centers. **
The main reason why a team’s scoring margin predicts their future performance better than wins and losses is that performance in close games can be attributed mostly to luck:
NBA stat mavens such as ESPN.com’s John Hollinger will tell you that pretty much no team in history has shown sustained, year-after-year success in winning close games, even when keeping most of the same personnel. History says that good teams and bad generally tend toward .500 as the games get closer.
Yet in 2008-2009, the Dallas Mavericks went 18-5 in games decided by five points or fewer. In 2009-2010, the Mavericks went 18-7. This year, they are 10-5. Since 2004-2005, they are an astounding 103-49. Hollinger calculated that Dallas would have a 1 in 150 chance of compiling this record.
He dismisses it as a statistical fluke, but isn’t it possible we’ve found another black swan?
In this case, a seven-footer with a fundamentally perfect jump shot.
Dirk Nowitzki has the 15th highest career free throw percentage in the history of the NBA at 87.6%. No other seven footer is in the top 40. His mentor, Holger Geschwindner, believes he should shoot 95% from the line ever year. And his percentage has been steadily increasing as he has gotten older.
What makes this skill so valuable is that’s impossible to deny a seven-footer on an inbounds pass. Even if you double him on defense, the offense can just throw it high in the air and let him grab it over the smaller defenders.
So if you have a seven-footer who is automatic from the free-throw line, you have a huge advantage in closing out basketball games. If the other team is trailing with less than :24 seconds left, they foul and hope you miss your free throws. If you’re playing Dallas, that’s pretty much not going to happen.
So when the Mavericks give the ball to Dirk and Jason Terry (a career 84.4% FT shooter) at the end of the fourth quarter, they are shortening the game. A one-run deficit against the New York Yankees in the ninth inning is about as insurmountable as missing a shot in the last fifteen seconds and giving the Mavericks the ball with a two-point lead. Dallas will make all four free throws they are given, so the other team has to knock down two contested 3′s in the span of ten seconds.
** It’s easy to underestimate how skilled NBA players are at knocking down open shots. When I was working for the Dallas Morning News, I watched Jason Terry take about 200 3′s after practice one day. He missed about ten and grazed the rim no more than a quarter of a time. **
Long story short, I think the Miami Heat are worse than their point differential (+9.5) and the Dallas Mavericks are better (+4.1).
For more, check out the FanTake Blog: Get Buckets.