Who Are the “Best, Nth-Best” Players?

Article Length: ~1,100 words or about 6-8 minutes of reading.

My last article on the question of who is the best player remained mostly abstract. While it’s an abstract question, I want to try and provide some concrete answers by applying it to NBA players from the 2018-19 season. This will be extremely difficult to do because everything concrete begins with philosophical abstractions, so you’ll just have to roll with my logic (or disagree with me on Twitter).

If all NBA players were placed in a fantasy draft and I had to start from nothing, who would I select first? The answer to this question is the answer to who the “best, first-best” player in the league is. To me, this comes down to two players: LeBron or Steph. I really really want to pick LeBron for this because I still believe that he can reach transcendent levels better than any other player in the league on both sides of the ball, but the knock against him (like most players) is that he works best in a specific team-build: defensively proficient shooters. If for some reason I’m not able to lock down adequate players like that in subsequent rounds, I’m afraid that he’ll lose value.

On the other hand, Curry, being the “best, second-best player” in the league (we’ll get to this), means that he will retain his value regardless of whom is selected in subsequent rounds; furthermore, we’ve seen Curry literally be the “best, first-best” player on the greatest regular season team in history.

Going back to my first round of the draft, here’s a rough outline the “best, first-best” players in the league (the guys that you would want to draft in the first round of a fantasy draft):

  1. Curry
  2. LeBron
  3. Durant
  4. Giannis
  5. Kawhi
  6. Harden
  7. Davis
  8. Jokic
  9. Embiid

If you don’t have one of these nine players on your team, you cannot win a championship right now. Does that mean that the other twenty-three teams in the league should give up? No. You never know when another player is going to skyrocket into this stratosphere of players (Giannis, Jokic, nor Embiid were at this level last year).

The next tier, the “best, second-best” players become trickier to explain. Players can overlap between different levels of being the “best” player, but not all of them will. Curry will also top this list, but LeBron won’t be on it because if you are making your second round selection and LeBron is somehow still on the board, he would turn into your “best, first-best” player because he would most strongly dictate how your team would play. These are the players who either need a player a tier above them to cover some gap in their own skillset or tier 1 players who can seamlessly provide extraordinary value without the ball (e.g. defense, shooting, passing).

Here are the “best, second-best” players in the league:

  1. Curry
  2. Durant
  3. Davis
  4. Jokic
  5. Embiid
  6. George
  7. Gobert
  8. Lillard
  9. Butler
  10. Towns
  11. Walker
  12. Griffin
  13. Some order of Vucevic, Kyrie, Simmons, Beal, Paul, Westbrook, and Nurkic

Below this tier are the “best, third-best” players who will generally fill one of two templates: players who excel in a valuable and malleable skills (defense/shooting) while struggling in other areas (think Danny Green and his shooting vs. shot creation and passing) and players who excel in multiple areas that are malleable while not necessarily leading a team through significant scoring or playmaking (think Pascal Siakam and Draymond Green). Here are those players:

  1. Stephen Curry…yes, I would place him first at literally any round of the draft. I believe he would fit literally in any lineup; therefore, I won’t include him in later lists.
  2. Draymond
  3. Pascal Siakam
  4. Al Horford
  5. Klay
  6. Kyle Lowry
  7. Marc Gasol
  8. Khris Middleton
  9. Malcolm Brogdon
  10. Josh Richardson
  11. Jrue Holiday
  12. Joe Ingles
  13. Buddy Hield
  14. McCollum
  15. Eric Bledsoe
  16. Myles Turner
  17. Capela
  18. Steven Adams

Are we starting to see a pattern? The most successful teams this year had multiple “best, nth-best” players at different and appropriate tiers. Just from these first three tiers, let’s compare some of the top teams (tier 1 – position; tier 2 – position; tier 3 – position):

  1. Toronto (1 – 5; 0; 3 – 3, 6, 7)
  2. Golden State (2 – 1, 3; 0; 2 – 2, 5)
  3. Milwaukee (1 – 4; 0; 3 – 8, 9, 15)
  4. Philadelphia (1 – 9; 2 – 9, 13; 0)
  5. Portland (0; 1 – 8; 3 – 14)

Three of the four conference finalists had a tier one player, and the only one without (Portland) was swept by the Warriors. While neither Milwaukee nor Toronto had a clear-cut “2nd best player,” they both had strong “3rd best players” at multiple positions. After watching how both teams came together, it’s clear that Toronto’s “3rd best players” were simply a better fit in their lineups.

Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM model, which calculates a player’s defensive and offensive impact on a team in a way that takes into account their boxscore production and plus/minus data (for a refresher, check out my article on impact metrics), provides some interesting insights into this “best player” conversation. For 2018-19, the top players are pretty expected: Giannis, Curry, Embiid, etc., but as you go down the list, a few odd names pop up. After LeBron at 14, the following players appear: Vucevic, Brook Lopez, Draymond, Holiday, Drummond, Bledsoe, Danny Green, followed by Kawhi. A simple explanation is that the statistic is flawed because someone like Danny Green (Kawhi’s teammate) couldn’t have had a more positive impact than Kawhi.

The truth is that these players – the Siakams, Greens, Horfords – all can provide more value than a tier 1 player if they are placed in the perfect “nth” role. Having a perfectly fitting “third-best” player can yield more value than a poorly fitting “first-best” player. This explains why someone like Kemba Walker ranks 50th in this statistic: even though he is tremendously talented, he should not be placed in a “first-best” role.

Hopefully, this provides some grounding for my claim that the best player is not always the best player. If I were as in-depth as is necessary, each of these lists would be fluid depending on who was selected in previous rounds. For instance, a player like Lillard would be a better “2nd best player” next to LeBron while Gobert might be “better” next to Harden. I simply don’t have the time to map out an entire fantasy draft matrix contingency.

Once again though, this is why Steph Curry should be rated much higher than he already is. Also, shout out to Robert Covington who is probably the “best, fourth-best player” in the league.

Note: if you want access to the PIPM data, they exist in a few spreadsheets, so searching them out on Twitter is probably your best bet. Jacob Goldstein is the owner.

Addendum: I tweeted a more in-depth explanation of the different tiers, so instead of incorporating those thoughts into this article, I’ve just included the tweets here.

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The Best Player is Not Always the Best Player

Article Length: ~900 words or about 4-7 minutes of reading.

“Who is the best player?” is both the most interesting and least interesting question in all of sports. Usually, it is answered lazily with faulty or simplistic logic; however, I think it’s often the case that the one asking the question is more at fault than the one answering. The issue with the question is the question itself because the best player is never always the best player.

I think that when most people ask the question, they usually mean something like “which player gives his team the best chance to win a championship?” This can be boiled down to any level of competition such as “which player gives their team the best chance to win this pickup game?”

The issue with how this iteration of the question is answered is in how it is interpreted. Most people perceive it as “starting from scratch, which player will give their team the best chance to win?” In the NBA (and all other professional sports), no player is being drafted, traded, or signed to a team that has literally no other players which makes the player’s value dependent on the other players on the team. This splits the original question into two separate questions: a hypothetical one and a reality-based one. My aim is to answer the former (Ben Taylor answers the latter with his own statistical-based response for 2018-19).

To hypothetically answer who the best player in the league is, it’s necessary to ask a series of questions which are as follows:

  1. If the league entered a full fantasy draft, who would be selected first overall to give his team the best chance to win a championship?
  2. Who would be selected second?
  3. Who would be selected third?

And this line of questioning would continue until a full roster of twelve players was created. Actually selecting the players is obviously where this hypothetical becomes tricky.

The common parlance for maximizing a superstar on a team is “building around” him. This implies that a player’s skillset requires some level of fit to ensure success (for a much deeper dive of this, check out my article series from a couple of years ago). It also means that a player who contributes significantly to winning WITHOUT being able to fit into any system should be selected first. Let me explain.

If I have the first pick in an all-time draft and I select Michael Jordan first, my choices for subsequent picks drop significantly because I shouldn’t look for another player who plays guard, maximizes his skills by having the ball, and scores a lot. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and James Harden might still be on the board in the second round, but all of their skills would encroach significantly on MJ’s skills reducing the impact that either would have on the team.

Is this annoyingly pedantic and blog boyish? Should you just select the “best” possible player no matter what? NO! That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of “best” in this situation! Real, actual players don’t come with a handy 2K rating that shows some objective level of skill that they have. If it’s my turn to select my third player in a draft and I already have LeBron and Gobert, who should I choose given the following three players: Danny Green, Donovan Mitchell, or Nikola Vucevic. Most people would list both Mitchell and Vucevic as better players than Danny Green, but given the context, Danny Green would actually be the “better” player. How? Because, in this case, Green is the “best, third-best” option available based on how his skills complement LeBron and Gobert.

I propose that each player should be described as the “best, nth-best” player where “n” is the round in the fantasy draft in which the player would hypothetically be selected. Looking back to the first iteration of the question “who is the best player?” most people consider only players who would be the “best, first-best player” player which is why Stephen Curry is often so underrated.

The magic of Curry is that the scalability of his skillset is so immense that he could theoretically be the “best” player in any round of the fantasy draft. His off-ball movement, shooting, and off-ball screening have such an independent value that he could be plugged into any system with significant returns. Contrast this with Harden who derives almost all of his value from having the ball.

Throughout these last few years, the Warriors have built their immense success on matching players who are either the “best” or one of the “best” at multiple rounds of our fantasy draft. Some people argue that Durant is the “best, first-best” in the league. Curry has a similar “first-best” impact, but he is also the “best, second-best” player by a margin that we have never seen in the league. Klay and Draymond are both the “best, third or fourth-best” players with Draymond possibly being the all-time “3rd-best” player (competing with the Bulls’ Rodman and the Celtics’ Garnett).

As a sports community, we often ignore the contingent and necessary value of players: the 90s Bulls, 2000s Lakers, 2010s Warriors, and 2000s Spurs all had one of the “best, first-best players” along with the “best, second-best” player and multiple other “best, nth-best” players. A player like Stephen Curry who can fluidly transition between being the best at different roles should be viewed in a much more positive light than we view him.

Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 7: The Coach, Team Strategy, and Defending the Cuts

Article length: about 3,000 words (the second longest post behind this one)

 

This is it! The final section of a seven part series! Don’t quit on me now. Dig deep and find that dark place that helps you push to a new height. Do it! Go back and read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5, and part 6. It’s a lot of reading, I know, but you’ll hopefully find some mild entertainment.

Just to make things easier, here’s the complete roster along with each player’s skillset:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding
Mike Conley 8 7 7 4
Deron Williams 9 6 4 4
Ray Allen 6 7 5 5
Klay Thompson 4 8 7 4
Manu Ginobili 7 7 7 5
Paul George 5 6 8 6
Peja Stojakovic 6 8 4 6
Shawn Marion 3 6 9 8
Draymond Green 8 4 10 6
Ben Wallace 2 1 10 9
Yao Ming 4 7 8 8
Giannis Antetokounmpo 7 7 8 7

Since this piece has three parts, I’m going to split it into two sections by combining the coach selection and team strategy because I believe that they go hand-in-hand. Then, once the strategy is spelled out, I’ll explain why certain players didn’t make the team in the context of the strategy.

Ready? Ready.

Coach/Strategy

Since I have to choose a coach that has not won Coach of the Year, my pool of extremely talented coaches is limited. I narrowed it down to two, and those two do NOT include the legendary Jerry Sloan (who definitely deserved CotY at one point or another) because of his curmudgeonly demeanor, his “my way or the highway” attitude, his old-school play style, and his war with Deron Williams. Look, Sloan was an incredible coach, and I wish him all the best with his current health, but I need someone who is going to manage personalities better, promote a more free-flowing offense, and have players shoot more threes. Personally, I think Sloan’s style stymied the likes of canonball players like Kirilenko, but that’s another conversation for another day.

My two coaches come down to Brad Stevens and Rick Adelman, and ultimately, I’m going with Stevens. Adelman coached two Portland teams to the NBA Finals (1990, 1992) and Portland and Sacremento to two Conference Finals (1991, 2002 respectively), and was described as a real player’s coach So why not go with Adelman? Simple: I’m biased.

USA Today

I’m biased towards more recent coaches because the last six or so NBA seasons has created a (semi) position-less and three-point revolution. Stevens has embraced this new NBA, and beyond that, the Celtics have embraced him as their leader. Just look at how Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas revitalized their careers in Boston. That’s not a coincidence; that’s a buy in. Part of that has to do with his players loving to play with him, and part of it is his focus on fundamentals, team-oriented basketball, and defense. Perfect. Sign the man up.

So let’s talk strategy.

Since we’re dealing with an 82-game season, I want to establish some consistency so that there’s no guesswork game-to-game. We’ll definitely change up lineups once in a while, but in general, here’s who I imagine being in the starting lineup.

Starters:

Mike Conley, Ray Allen, Paul George, Draymond Green, and Ben Wallace

NBA.com

DEFENSE!! This lineup is just stupid defensively. Ray Allen is by far the worst defender, and honestly, he’s not that bad. I fiddled around with Draymond and Ben starting together, but that defensive flexibility was too enticing for me to pass up. Both can switch out on a pick-and-roll (Draymond doing so on an elite level), and both can protect the rim better than most. Ben isn’t going to provide any offense (besides offensive boards), and Draymond won’t be that dangerous scoring-wise, but he is a tremendous facilitator, and can’t be left open from three.

All three of Mike Conley, Paul George, and Ray Allen can stretch the floor at an elite level. Paul George ranked in the 84th percentile in spot-up threes   and Conley ranked in the 90th percentile. This shooting data doesn’t exist for 2001, but I’m sure Allen would be right around those numbers as well at an even higher volume. Ultimately, scoring for this unit will heavily come from these three.

I don’t want to step on Stevens’ toes with setting up minutes, so I’ll just talk through my favorite lineup possibilities (this will seem very familiar if you’ve read Bill Simmons’ book).

Most Unselfish Passing:

Mike Conley (maybe Deron), Manu Ginobili, Peja Stojakovic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Draymond Green.

Image result for nba ball movement

Inside Hoops

This is just brilliant. The only player who might hold the ball for too long is Giannis, but after a few reps, he’d assimilate perfectly with this group. Peja is the only middling defender, but he, Giannis, and Draymond could seamlessly switch.

Spacing:

Deron Williams (or Conley), Ray Allen, Klay Thompson, Peja Stojakovic, and Draymond Green.

Are you seeing why I’m giddy about Draymond? Dude fits into pretty much any kind of lineup. This lineup definitely sacrifices defense with Deron, Ray, and Peja, but it’s offensive potency is off the chart. Just give the ball to Deron, have Ray, Peja, and Klay run through screen, and have Draymond set some picks. The other team is forced to defend the three-point line 1-5. Poor defenders would be exposed quickly.

Defensive Nightmare (my favorite option):

Giannis, George, Marion, Draymond, and Wallace.

I’m speechless. Here, we run point-Giannis with George helping out a bit, and the rest is just free-form. Would the offense be ugly? Definitely, but the defense would be stifling. 1-5 could legitimately switch better than any other lineup in history. Even the 2017 Warriors might struggle to score against them.

Also, since 2000, the 2012 Thunder have averaged the most blocks per game at 8.2. This single lineup averages 8.2 blocks per game…

Fast-break

Williams, Klay, Marion, Giannis, Draymond

Any of the five can bring the ball up, Deron can facilitate, Giannis and Marion are relentless, and Klay can’t be left alone. Good luck keeping up with this.

Keep a Lead With a Minute Left

Conley, Manu, Ray, Peja, and Yao.

Conley has the lowest free-throw percentage with 86%. Good luck (have I said this for every lineup so far? Weird).

These lineups are all fine and dandy, but if I’m preparing for anything, can I pull together a lineup that can stand against the best lineups in history? Let’s take a look.

2017 Warriors (Curry, Klay, Iggy, Durant, and Draymond)

I mean, why not start off with the best lineup ever?

Conley, Klay, Giannis, Draymond, and Wallace.

Sports Illustrated

Jesus, that Warriors lineup still might be better! The only reason I put in Wallace instead of Marion is I need to expose the Warriors’ only weakness: rebounding. Wallace would punish them on missed shots, and that might be the only way to expose them. All five of them can switch well enough with Conley’s size being the only issue.

2001 Lakers (Fisher, Kobe, Fox, Horry, and Shaq)

Conley, Klay, George, Peja, and Wallace (or Yao)

The Hoop Doctors

This is a much easier lineup to handle because my main concerns are 1) make sure my guards can make Kobe’s life hell and 2) slow down Shaq as much as possible. Wallace is one of the only players to effectively guard him, and if that doesn’t work out, Yao is one of the other players to effectively guard him. The rest of the lineup’s offensive firepower would be too much, and Shaq can’t switch against four of the five players.

2013 Heat (Chalmers, Wade, Battier, LeBron, and Bosh)

Conley, Ginobili, George, Marion, and Wallace

onehotseason.com

The Heat were an excellent trapping defense, so it’s important to have multiple ball-handlers on the court. Both Marion and George have had mild success guarding LeBron, and since both Wade and LeBron thrive off scoring in the point, having Wallace as the last line of defense is essential. Plus, Marion and Wallace will absolutely punish the Heat on the boards.

1986 Celtics (Johnson, Ainge, Bird, McHale, Parish)

Williams, Klay, George, Draymond, and Yao.

Pinterest

This is a really tough lineup to defend. They passed the ball effortlessly, destroyed teams in the paint, and were lead by apex Bird. I opted for Williams over Conley because Conley might just be too small to be that effective defensively. Williams wouldn’t be posted up that easily. Yao would thrive in this situation because neither McHale nor Parish could stretch out to shoot a three. All of Klay, George, and Draymond could switch onto Bird and bother him.

1996 Bulls (Harper/Kerr, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Longley)

Deron, Klay, George, Draymond, and Wallace.

neoGAF

I really like my chances against the GOAT’s best team. Jackson’s Triangle Offense usually works best with big guards, like Jordan and Harper, so having Williams over Conley is important because Williams won’t get bullied around. George, Klay, and Draymond all can switch onto either Jordan and Pippen while making their lives a bit more difficult. Wallace is one of the best options for curbing Rodman’s otherworldly rebounding. Also, what are the odds of Draymond, Rodman, and Wallace starting Malice in the Palace part two?

1987 Lakers (Magic, Scott, Green, Worthy, and Kareem)

Ginobili, George, Peja, Draymond, and Wallace

RantSports

This Lakers lineup doesn’t resemble any modern lineup because 1) they made a total of 74 three-pointers in this year (Scott made 65 of those) and 2) they have a classic “dinosaur” center in Kareem who is way past his prime; however, their position-less flexibility between Green, Magic, and Worthy made them formidable on defense especially with Kareem lurking in the back.

To counter this, I opted with Manu for a bit more craftiness than Williams, and I picked Peja because he doesn’t have to worry about chasing too many guards on the perimeter. As documented in “Airplane,” Kareem didn’t work that hard on defense later in his career, and I think Kareem couldn’t contain Wallace on the boards while causing problems with their paint-heavy offense.

1983 Sixers (Cheeks, Toney, Dr. J, Iavoroni, and Moses)

Williams, Allen, Giannis, Draymond, and Yao

ivanjordanproductions.weebly.com

Why not Wallace over Yao? Because I want to take advantage of any deficiencies that Moses has on defense. Yao will force him to work on the side of the ball that he struggles with the most: defense. Wallace would help mitigate his offensive rebounding numbers, but I think it’s more pertinent to have him deal with an offensive force in the post.

As for Dr. J, both Giannis and Draymond will match his length and strength. Both can dare the Doctor to shoot jumpshots while making any drives, his preferred method of scoring, strenuous.

From these teams, I wanted to show that the roster we have built is prepared to face any sort of roster. With all of the two-way forwards, we’re best prepared to face modern offenses that are predicated on three-pointers and driving, but we’re still prepared for anything….

But what about the players who were cut? Could we beat a team of players scorned? If we were to build a team using Team USA’s strategy, we would just take the best players regardless of fit. Could a team of players scorned beat us? The twelve-man roster (which I’m constructing with significantly less thought) is as follows:

Guards: John Wall (2017), Kyle Lowry (2016), Jimmy Butler (2017), Brandon Roy (2009), Vince Carter (2001)

Forwards: Carmelo Anthony (2014), Andrei Kirilenko (2004), Blake Griffin (2014), Paul Millsap (2016), Gordon Hayward (2017)

Centers: Rudy Gobert (2017), Marcus Camby (2008)

To some folks, this might actually look like a better team than the one that we’ve built. I agree that this team has more offensive talent, but it would struggle with spacing issues and personality issues (especially alpha status between Butler, Roy, Carter, Wall, and Melo). Let’s pretend that their coach Rick Adelman makes them all like each other. How does our team match up? Well this team’s best lineup, in my opinion, is as follows:

Wall, Butler, Hayward, Anthony, and Kirilenko (or Gobert).

Sole Collector

This lineup can easily catch fire, and their individual offensive talent is off-the-charts. Plus, Butler, Hawyard, and Kirilenko (kinda Melo) can switch on defense and cause a bit of mayhem. All five players are comfortable bringing the ball up especially on the break, and they all must be defended for spot-up shots (though you can definitely give up that shot to Wall, Butler, and Kirilenko). So to counter this, I would toss out the following:

Conley, Ginobili, Allen, George, and Draymond

Fight small ball with small ball. In a single game situation, the other team might beat us once in a while, but I’ve constructed the team to last 82 games plus a playoffs. I’m rolling with our guys.

To finally cap off everything, I’m going to go through some of the players that I cut and briefly (I’ll try) defend why I cut them. Here it goes.

Defending My Cuts

Carmelo Anthony 2014

I’ve never been a huge believer in Melo. He’s been to the Conference Finals once, shown a poor attitude (like when he refused to sub out of a game in Denver), doesn’t defend particularly well, and he isn’t a willing passer. He’s a transcendent scorer, but I value that less than other attributes.

Blake Griffin 2014

Full disclosure: Blake was on the team until I started writing this. He’s a tremendous passer and a dominant scorer and rebounder. His perimeter defense is actually underrated, and his jumpshot is serviceable. Unfortunately, I think he’s most effective with the ball in his hands, and I wanted to move away from players like that. With the smaller roster, Blake would probably be pushed into the center position, but I can’t have a center that can’t defend the rim (for reference, Blake ranks between Channing Frye and Enes Kanter here. Not great company).

Jimmy Butler 2017

The savior of Chicago this past year, Jimmy exploded as an incredible two-way player. Unfortunately his alpha complex pissed of Rose and Noah a few years ago, and his three-point shooting isn’t enough to be a reliable spot-up man. He can score and facilitate, but like Griffin, he needs the ball. It’s a shame because we could’ve used his defense.

John Wall 2017

Simply put, Wall’s half-court scoring ability is atrocious. He’s dominant on the fastbreak, and he passes as well as anyone, but he can’t reliably score with the game on the line (side note: I’m not a big fan of judging a player off one game, but this article does a good job of summing up my concerns). He shot 34% on open and wide open threes last year. Plus, he’s had some personality issues with people throughout the years.

Kyle Lowry 2016

You know that one restaurant that consistently has great food? I mean, that place where you walk in with some buddies, order an appetizer, and everyone is fighting over the last piece of it? Then, when the meal comes, conversations are curbed and replaced by your friends Instagramming the food, loud and constant “MMMMs,” and the the repetition of the phrase, “We have to come back here!” It’s been a great meal, so you all dive in on a dessert, one of those big ones that everyone shares with a fork. Silver slices delicate chocolate/apple/milky goodness, and you plop it in your mouth. Pause. You all look nervously at one another. Chewing slows down, and at least one person conspicuously lifts a napkin to their lips. The dessert is chalky/bitter/undercooked/eggy/ bland. It literally wipes the delicious taste of your entree from your mouth, and you’re forced to stop at a local doughnut shop on the way home to avoid this agonizing experience. That’s Kyle Lowry’s regular season and post-season in a nutshell

Brandon Roy 2009

Look, I love Brandon Roy. He’s unnervingly clutch, led the second best offensive team in 2009, and garnered the following praise from Kobe Bryant:

Kobe Bryant was asked who the toughest player for him to guard in the Western Conference on the John Thompson Show the other day. This was Kobe’s response:

“Roy 365 days, seven days a week. Roy has no weaknesses in his game.”

– Ryne Nelson, “Kobe Bryant: Roy over Durant,” 2010

The issue with Roy is that his game isn’t suited for a star-studded, egalitarian basketball team. Like Jimmy Butler (and, appropriately, Kobe), Roy dominated with the ball in his hands with a series of step-backs, pull-ups, and drives. He facilitated at a solid level, but not at a game-changing level.

Vince Carter 2001

Here’s an excerpt of misdeeds Carter committed against Toronto:

(a) his being accused in the Tacoma News Tribune of tipping off the Seattle SuperSonics about the Raptors’ plays — a month before he stopped playing for Toronto; (b) distorting his face in derision and mocking the Air Canada Centre crowd for chanting “MVP” at Chris Bosh during a Raps-Nets game this season; and, worst of all, (c) telling broadcaster John Thompson he didn’t push himself as hard as he could have when he worked and lived north of the border.

– Adam Proteau, “How Our Love for Vince Carter Turned to Hate,” 2007

Not cool with any of that. Sorry Vince.

Kyrie Irving 2017

I fought with this one for a while because of his Finals experience and nearly unprecedented isolation scoring ability, but he’s not a willing passer, possibly doesn’t put winning firstis one of the worst defenders in the leauge, and, according to NBAWOWY data, hasn’t led the Cavs to a positive On/Off differential without LeBron on the court with him. In short: I think Kyrie is extremely overrated.

Rudy Gobert 2017

Having Gobert back up Wallace would’ve been an immovable defensive choice, but his injury in the first round of the playoffs concerns me. Also, he doesn’t have the intangible leadership abilities of Yao.

Andrei Kirilenko 2004

Kirilenko was a superstar, and I strongly believe that a combination of injuries and Jerry Sloan’s coaching style stifled an illustrious career. He played 13 years too early, for his defensive switching ability might rival Draymond’s. I ultimately went with Giannis over him because they were the same age (using AK47’s 2004 season), and I wanted somebody who was more dominant on the break. I still kind of regret not bumping someone else for AK47…

For now, that’s a good enough list of players and why they didn’t make the team. If you’re just dying to know why I cut 2007 Josh Smith or 2005 Elton Brand, please tweet at me, comment on this post, or hit me up on Facebook.

 

That’s it! You have stuck with this series through thick and thin. I’m sure you’ve disagreed with some things along the way, but I feel very comfortable with the team that we have constructed. After 10,000 some words, this still feels incomplete, so if I think of anything else, I’ll revisit the series at some point in the future.

 

As always, all stats from Basketball ReferenceStats.NBA, and NBAWOWY

Second-Tier Universe Cup Part 2

Article Length: about 1,700 words.

 

To summarize part 1, I picked Ray Allen. On with the next selections.

Mike Conley 2016-2017

Notable Accolades: Playoffs: 7th BPM; 8th OBPM

Regular Season/ Playoff Stats

Season Age Tm Lg Pos G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 69 68 33.2 6.7 14.6 0.46 2.5 6.1 0.408 4.2 8.6 0.497 0.545 4.6 5.3 0.859 0.4 3.1 3.5 6.3 1.3 0.3 2.3 1.8 20.5
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 6 6 37.3 8.3 17.2 0.485 2.8 6.3 0.447 5.5 10.8 0.508 0.568 5.2 6.2 0.838 0.2 3.2 3.3 7 1.7 0.5 2 1.8 24.7

Regular Season/ Playoff Advanced Stats

Season Age Tm Lg Pos G MP PER TS% 3PAr FTr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS WS/48 OBPM DBPM BPM VORP
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 69 2292 23.2 0.604 0.415 0.365 1.5 10.8 6 34.5 2.1 0.8 11.8 26.3 7.5 2.5 10 0.209 6.5 -0.7 5.8 4.5
2016-17 29 MEM NBA PG 6 224 27.4 0.62 0.369 0.359 0.6 11 5.8 38.5 2.5 1.2 9.1 29.4 0.9 0.1 1 0.204 6.6 1.9 8.5 0.6

Okay okay, let’s calm down. To me, this was a no-brainer pick even though Conley has never been an all-star, never been on an All-NBA, and the only accolade he’s ever won was All-Defense 2nd Team (and garnering a 5th place MVP vote in 2013-14). I know that calling Conley underrated has become a platitude, but dammit, it’s true! You can count on one hand the number of players who are tougher than Conley, and the best display of this is when he broke his face during the 2015 playoffs, had the multiple breaks surgically repaired, and missed ONLY ONE GAME! Please read the article that I just linked for a gory account. Just in case you don’t, here are a couple of snippets:

“That night, I was throwing up,” Conley said. “And every time I threw up—because when you do it, you can’t really control this—I’d have to open my mouth. It would just kill me because I couldn’t really open my mouth. Then, all of a sudden, blood would come out of my nose and I was like: I think I’m dying. It was crazy.”

 

“After I got the CAT scan, they told me I did have a blowout fracture,” Conley said. “I had three fractures at that point: one under my eye, one on the side of my eyebrow, and then there was one that was a displaced fracture almost where my jaw is.” Doctors also told Conley that he had very nearly broken his jaw and likely had a broken nose.

-Rob Mahoney, 2015

Also, that game for which he returned was game 2 against the eventual champion Warriors. Conley led the Grizzlies to a victory after shooting 8/12 from the field….

So what? Plenty of players are tough, and if that’s my only criteria, then why not sign Metta World Peace (Ron Artest at the time) who had the courage to consider fighting all of Detroit? Jonathan Abrams of (RIP) Grantland outlines how Conley developed into the intellectual, gritty leader that he is today. Furthermore, the dude has never received a technical foul. I like that intangible combination of quiet but tough leadership. He and Ray will ground the calm personality of our team.

Conley is also a rare point guard who is dominant on both ends of the floor. He specifically specialized in defense earlier in his career, and he showed that in the 2012-13 season when The Grizzlies played their worst defense when he was off the floor (even worse than when Gasol would sit).

After years of toiling in the Western playoffs, Coach Fizdale stepped in and provided Conley with new offensive confidence, helping Conley reach new heights as an offensive player. According to NBAWOWY, The Grizzlies played significantly better when Conley was on the court versus when he shared the court with Gasol or when Gasol was on the court without Conley:

Grizzlies: 2016-17 Regular Season

Points/100 Poss Points Allowed/100 Poss Net Rating
Conley (no Gasol) 113.7 105.6 8.1
Gasol (no Conley) 106.5 105.7 0.8
Conley + Gasol 112.1 109.7 2.4
No Conley or Gasol 100.1 110 -9.9

For comparison, an 8.1 Net Rating would’ve ranked second-best in the league behind the Warriors’ staggering 12.1 and above the Spurs’ 7.9.

To me, Conley’s appeal lies in his ability to both run an offense and play off-the-ball. Players like John Wall and Rajon Rondo are excellent “Dime Droppers,” but without the ball, their best skill is rendered useless. Conley can step away to provide some necessary spacing and allow for the offense to move more fluidly. Just like how I talked about Curry’s ability as a “Cog,” remember that Conley was second in the league in secondary assists (behind Curry).

Stepping away from these advanced metrics for a moment, the game that solidified Conley’s place on this team occurred this year against the 61-win Spurs and their ridiculous two-way superstar Kawhi (against whom the Grizzlies won two games). Conley’s game 4 performance was spectacular as he went toe-to-toe with Leonard before leading the Grizzlies to a two-point victory:

Starters MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS +/-
Kawhi Leonard 44:10:00 14 30 0.467 7 10 0.7 8 8 1 1 7 8 3 6 0 4 4 43 +18
Mike Conley 41:52:00 13 23 0.565 4 8 0.5 5 7 0.714 0 9 9 8 1 0 3 3 35 +9

On a theoretical level, Conley’s skillset breakdown looks as follows:

Mike Conley 2017 – Playmaking (Elite– 8); Scoring (Elite– 7); Defense (Elite– 7); Rebounding (Average– 4)

We now have one Elite “Floor Spacer” and one Transcendent “Floor Spacer” along with two offensive talents who are able to put aside their egos for the betterment of the offense. What we’re lacking at this point is “Transcendent” defensive players, so let’s move in that direction for the next couple of players.

 

Draymond Green 2015-16

Notable Accolades: Regular Season – All-Defense 1st Team, 7th in MVP voting, All-Star, 8th in total rebounds, 7th in total assists, 6th in DWS, 10th in WS, 9th in BPM, 4th in DBPM, and 9th in VORP.

Playoffs – 1st in total minutes, 1st in total rebounds, 1st in defensive rebounds, 3rd in assists, 3rd in steals, 1st in blocks, 5th in OWS, 1st in DWS, 3rd in WS, 7th in BPM, 5th in DBPM, and 3rd in VORP.

Regular season/ Playoff Stats

Season Age Tm Lg Pos G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 25 GSW NBA PF 81 81 34.7 5 10.1 0.49 1.2 3.2 0.388 3.7 6.9 0.537 0.551 2.8 4.1 0.696 1.7 7.8 9.5 7.4 1.5 1.4 3.2 3 14
2015-16 25 GSW NBA PF 23 23 38.2 5.2 12 0.431 1.7 4.5 0.365 3.5 7.5 0.471 0.5 3.4 4.7 0.738 1.7 8.3 9.9 6 1.6 1.8 2.4 3.5 15.4

Look, I know that usually my posts are filled with some statistical jargon that alienates some of the NBA fanbase. I know that sometimes my actual writing is lost within a series of hyperlinks, graphs, and acronyms that take the soul out of writing. Sometimes though, it’s completely necessary to whip out some numbers that are just mind-boggling.

For example, during the 2015-16 season, the same season that Curry went absolutely nuclear with possibly the greatest offensive season we’ve ever seen, the Warriors captured the most wins in regular season history before losing to the Cavaliers in a 7-game Finals series. By playing around with NBAWOWY’s On/Off numbers, we can see which lineups were must effective during a specific timeframe. The following are the Warriors Offensive Rating (Points/100 Possessions) and Defensive Rating (Points Allowed/100 Possessions) depending on Curry’s and Green’s on-court presence.

Warriors: 2015-16 Regular Season

Points/100 Poss Points Allowed/100 Poss   Net Rating
Green (no Curry) 110.4 102.1 8.3
Curry (no Green) 112.9 110.6 2.3
Green + Curry 120.2 100.7 19.5
No Green or Curry 102.1 112.8 -10.7

Is this officially the perfect statistic for comparing teammates? No statistic is perfect, but boy does it tell an interesting story. Not only did the Warriors’ offense thrive with Green leading without Curry, their defense was absolutely stifling. Even more interesting though is how well these two meshed to garner the Warriors a 19.5 net rating. Even even more more interesting is their numbers during the Finals:

Warriors: 2015-16 Finals

Points/100 Poss
 Points Allowed/100 Poss  Net Rating
Green (no Curry) 117 94.7 22.3
Curry (no Green) 108 111.5 -3.5
Green + Curry 110.1 111.2 -1.1
No Green or Curry 97.4 119.7 -22.3

Before we leap to any conclusions, this is over the course of seven games which yields a significantly smaller sample size rendering the numbers more volatile; however, it tells me that even after winning a championship, Green brought his absolute A-game to defend their honor (not that Curry didn’t. The Cavs just matched up very well with him last year).

I chose to start with those numbers because, well, to be honest, Draymond’s game isn’t particularly sexy. He doesn’t score in bunches or in flashy ways. He doesn’t catch fire from three, and he doesn’t (often) chase players down on the break. He doesn’t whip no-look passes, and he doesn’t posterize players. Draymond is simply one of (if not the) greatest offensive/defensive engine in history.

Image result for draymond steal gif

By engine, I mean a couple of things. First, his defensive versatility allows him to literally guard all five positions (check out my earlier post where I claim that five Draymonds would be the best defensive lineup possible) and defend the rim at an elite level. With the NBA’s defenses becoming all the more complicated with threes and picks flying everyone, it’s more important than ever to have a player that can step out and contest a shooter (without being beat off the dribble).

Secondly, his passing ability is tremendous for a forward. Mike Brady of the pro-Warrior “Golden State of Mind” blog where he claims that Draymond is the actual MVP of the Warriors states the following:

Last season Draymond Green and LeBron James were the only two front court players in the top 10 for Points created by assists (per game)The only other front court players inside the top thirty were Nicolas Batum (20th), Blake Griffin (29th) and Kevin Durant (30th).

This season Draymond Green is currently ranked 8th in that same category and is also 8th in secondary assists (the pass to the player who makes the assist), while also sitting sixth in assist to turnover ratio.

-Mike Brady, 2016

Granted, his anger and propensity to kick genitalia possibly cost the Warriors the Finals series, but with this uniquely modern skillset, I can’t afford to not have Draymond on our team. He brings so much to the table, and looking back to Morris’ defense of Rodman, Green might just be in the top-5 “third best” players in history.

Before closing, let’s look at his theoretical skillset:

Playmaking Scoring Defense Rebounding

 

Draymond 8 4 10 6

Draymond is the ultimate “Cog” and “Chameleon.”

As a closing thought, Draymond had an all-time great Finals game-7 performance that was overshadowed by the King. He scored 32 points on 11-15 shooting (6-8 from 3), grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished 9 assists. I respect any two-way role-player with that kind of grit in the biggest game of the season. 

 

Stats from basketball referencestats.nba, and NBAWOWY.

NBA Theory: Player Archetypes and Team Construction Part 3

Article Length: about 2,100 words.

 

The “Part 3” in the title means that you’re doing yourself a disservice by not reading part 1 and part 2, but if it’s a choice between reading this one or reading none, then by all means continue on.

Part 2 ended with a discussion about Klay, Durant, and Steph seamlessly blending their scoring abilities because of the particular ways (mostly floor spacing) that they all score.

On a theoretical level, this means that for a scorer to mitigate diminishing returns for other scorers on the team, they need to be an “Elite” or better “Floor Spacer” which Thompson, Durant, and Curry all are. Jordan and Pippen, the two main scorers for the Bulls, are not “Elite” floor spacers. While both were at least “Proficient” “Cutters,” you couldn’t reliably count on their spot up ability which is why they were successful with only one “Transcendent” scorer in Jordan because nobody was better at being “Ball Dominant” than he. As for the Celtics, McHale needed the rock to score since he mastered the greatest array of post moves in NBA history. On the other hand, Bird was a masterful “Cutter,” and the original “Floor Space” which allowed McHale more room to operate.

On scoring though, James Harden’s ominous claim about the Warriors that there’s “Only one basketball seems to somewhat miss the point. Harden is literally correct that only one person maximum can score per a single possession, but there’s so much more to a team’s offense beyond scoring. When you have players who unselfishly pass the ball, and when other teams need to seriously guard every single player on the court (unlike how teams treat Tony Allen, Andre Roberson, Joakim Noah, etc.), ball movement works to both get players open shots and tire defensive players. If you look at team passing and assist data, the Celtics followed by the Warriors led the league in total passes per game with the Warriors followed by the Celtics leading the league in assists per game. Intuitively, this points towards passing as being a skill that isn’t affected as much by diminishing returns; however, and this is an important differentiation, you need multiple “Cogs” and/or “Floor Generals” to fully take advantage of this skill. Having multiple “Dime Droppers,” players similar to Chris Paul and John Wall, can easily diminish their skills because only one player maximum can score an assist during any scoring possessions. While it may help open up the floor for another “Cog” on the court, that specific ability is less useful when grouped together than a “Cog’s” ability.

This brings us to the skillset that seems to be mostly unaffected by diminishing returns: defense. Much like scoring and passing though, not all aspects of defense can be multiplied advantageously for the team. Ultimately, this is what differentiates Draymond Green’s defense and Rudy Gobert’s defense and why Green will win DPOY later this month. Rudy Gobert is tremendous at defending the rim, but his inability to switch on defense opens him up to being bamboozled by quicker guards.

Draymond defends the rim at an elite level while being able to switch onto any position in the league. This is what people mean when they say somebody can guard 1-5: the player can switch onto a player of any position and not give up a noticeable advantage. Check out this scatter plot of the fifteen players who contested the most shots per game at the rim (of players who played at least sixty games). The lower the “X” on the graph, the better the rim protector.

Rim protection

Notice the “x” on the far right and way at the bottom? That’s Gobert, meaning that he contested the most shots at the rim per game and made the shooter miss that shot at a higher percentage (-12.8 percentage points off their usual shooting percentage at the rim) than most anyone else. What about that other “x” that’s even a little lower than Gobert’s? Oh yeah, that’s Draymond…with that incredibly rare combination of lateral speed, strength, and rim protecting ability, Draymond is one of the greatest defenders we’ve ever seen, and both Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe have acknowledged that on their respective podcasts. Also, notice that Jokic is garbage at rim protection. Players literally shoot better at the rim when he is defending. 

If I had a lineup of five Gobert’s, they would do an excellent job of rotating to protect the rim, and no shot in the paint would be easy against them, but faster guards who can shoot would toast them at the perimeter. Not a lineup of Draymond Greens. They could effectively protect the rim and switch on a pick-and-roll. Ultimately, that would be the best defensive lineup in NBA history, and I don’t think it can realistically be topped ( a possible defensive lineup that would be better: Gary Payton, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan. Even then, the five Draymonds would be better. A fantastical better lineup would be three [or four] Scottie Pippens with two [or one] Olajuwons [or Ben Wallaces]. These are the deep questions that I tweet about with no response from more established sports writers. I also stand by my change from Garnett to Olajuwon or Wallace). The following video does a great job of illustrating Draymond’s versatility on the defensive end by showing him switch onto every Blazer in one possession.

I haven’t discussed rebounding as much because, at the end of the day, it’s the least important skillset to consider when building a team. The LeBron Heat years never had a player average over 8.3 rebounds per game, and during their 66-win season, LeBron led the team with 8 rebounds per game (he also led the team with 6.9 rebounds per game in 2013-14). If you argue that their success was an outlier because they had LeBron, then you’re missing the point. LeBron is not inherently dominant and a game changer. LeBron, like all basketball players, happens to fit a very particular archetype that is conducive to success that doesn’t include rebounding.

Look, rebounds are plenty important, and even Dean Oliver identified rebounds as one of the Four Factors in winning, but it’s easily covered up or dominated by a single player. The incredibly innovative Benjamin Morris (again…) proved this in his epic defense of Dennis Rodman as possibly the greatest player of all time (no hyperbole…maybe). It’s a very long read, but one of the greatest pieces of sports analytics out there. Here’s a snippet of a conversation he recalls having with one of his buddies about Dennis Rodman being “the best 3rd best player” ever. This on its own may change the way that you think about star power and team construction:

 

“Well, it’s tough to say when it’s hard to even define ‘third-best’ player, but [blah blah, ramble ramble, inarticulate nonsense] I guess I’d say he easily had 1st-best player value, which [blah blah, something about diminishing returns, blah blah] . . . which makes him the best 3rd-best player by a wide margin”.

“How wide?”

“Well, it’s not like he’s as valuable as Michael Jordan, but he’s the best 3rd-best player by a wider margin than Jordan was the best 1st-best player.”

“So you’re saying he was better than Michael Jordan.”

“No, I’m not saying that. Michael Jordan was clearly better.”

“OK, take a team with Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it. Which would hurt them more, replacing Michael Jordan with the next-best primary scoring option in NBA history, or replacing Rodman with the next-best defender/rebounder in NBA history?”

“I’m not sure, but probably Rodman.”

“So you’re saying a team should dump Michael Jordan before it should dump Dennis Rodman?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure, I’m not sure exactly how valuable other defender-rebounders are, but regardless, it would be weird to base the whole argument on who happens to be the 2nd-best player. I mean, what if there were two Michael Jordan’s, would that make him the least valuable starter on an All-Time team?”

“Well OK, how common are primary scoring options that are in Jordan’s league value-wise?”

“There are none, I’m pretty sure he has the most value.”

“BALLPARK.”

“I dunno, there are probably between 0 and 2 in the league at any given time.”

“And how common are defender/rebounder/dirty workers that are in Rodman’s league value-wise?”

“There are none.”

“BALLPARK.”

“There are none. Ballpark.”

“So, basically, if a team had Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman on it, and they could replace either with some random player ‘in the ballpark’ of the next-best player for their role, they should dump Jordan before they dump Rodman?”

“Maybe. Um. Yeah, probably.”

“And I assume that this holds for anyone other than Jordan?”

“I guess.”

“So say you’re head-to-head with me and we’re drafting NBA All-Time teams, you win the toss, you have first pick, who do you take?”

“I don’t know, good question.”

“No, it’s an easy question. The answer is: YOU TAKE RODMAN. You just said so.”

“Wait, I didn’t say that.”

“O.K., fine, I get the first pick. I’ll take Rodman. . . Because YOU JUST TOLD ME TO.”

“I don’t know, I’d have to think about it. It’s possible.”

-Benjamin Morris (2011)

Here’s what Morris is implying in a nutshell: Michael Jordan’s skillset as the GOAT compared to, for argument’s sake, LeBron’s skillset is a smaller margin of dominance as the first option than Dennis Rodman’s skillset over the next best possible third option because Rodman’s unparalleled “Transcendent” dominance in his skillset. Morris even offhandedly references “Diminishing Returns” because Rodman’s skills blend in so fluidly compared to “Ball Dominant” scorers and other popular skillsets.

Let’s not forget that Dennis Rodman was also a 1st Team all Defense for multiple years, so he still combines his “Transcendent” rebounding with “Transcendent” defense. He’s the guy, like Draymond, that you want not as your first option, but as your third-onward option.

What does all this mean when constructing a team? It helps point us in the correct direction when somebody inevitably asks the following question: if you could make the best team possible choosing from the following group, who would you choose? Endless possibilities exist to answer this question, but it should somewhat follow this formula:

  • An emphasis on as many “Cogs” (players who effectively move the ball) and “Chameleons” (players who can switch onto multiple positions on defense) as possible since they yield the least diminishing returns when grouped together.
  • At least one or two “Elite” or better scorers. If you choose multiple scorers, make sure that they are either “Floor Spacers” or “Cutters.”
  • You absolutely need “Floor Spacers.” Don’t fall into the same trap as the Cavaliers and just build with “Floor Spacers” that can’t defend though. The Warriors have an excellent selection that can both defend and pass.
  • It never hurts to have a couple of players that can rebound. Most elite teams have a “garbage” player of some kind.

One thing that I never discuss in all of this is the necessity of leadership and having players that aren’t afraid of the moment. Bill Simmons discusses the best teams as those that have “been there” before (2010). They have won championships, so they bring a level of swagger that helps to shed any doubt on the team. I still need to think on this a bit more before I write any further, but I want to acknowledge that this is an important aspect of successful teams. I immediately think of Chauncey Billups or any player that brings a “Veteran Presence” to a team who contributes more than the box score indicates. 

Okay, let’s recap quickly because I just spilled a ton of cyber ink in this series.

  1. All NBA players (and any basketball players ever) can be broken down into four archetypal skillsets which can then be broken down more: Playmaking, Scoring, Defending, and Rebounding.
  2. The goal of team construction centers around mitigating diminishing returns of specific skills. It’s not enough to just have the “best” players, for those players’ skills must complement each other in a way that they don’t encroach upon each other’s skills.
  3. Each one of these skillsets can be ranked from “Transcendent” to “Inadequate” depending on the player.
  4. An analysis of specific players and their skillsets (such as Draymond, Curry, Durant, and Gobert) reveal that dominance in a specific subset of each skillset is more important than generally just being a good “scorer.”
  5. An overview of a few of the greatest teams in history reveals that “Cogs” and “Chameleons’ are the two subsets of the skillsets that most effectively mitigate diminishing returns.

 

Hopefully this helps to orient discussions about team construction and how to choose the most effective lineups. This also serves as a useful (and lengthy) introduction to my next team building project which I will once again unveil in multiple parts. Let’s see how difficult it is to not break my own rules!

 

 

All statistics either from basketballreference.com or stats.nba.com

The Cleveland and Golden State Matchup: Why I am Cheering for the Cavaliers (and why you should too)

Article Length: ~1,000 words or about 5-8 minutes of reading.

As of tonight, the finals are set.  The 53-29 Cavaliers will officially be facing the 67-15 Warriors, and, as always America will be cheering for the underdog Cava….wait what?  The majority of people in America want the better team to win?  Well that’s very un-American of us.  I’ve never watched a movie with the tagline “A true top-dog story.”  “Miracle” would’ve been far less interesting if the Russians ended up beating the Americans, and the only time we care about the underdog losing is if there’s a moral at the end of the loss.  Well in the NBA, the only moral is win or pray that you don’t get traded, cut, or fired.

If the Warriors win the finals, they’ll be the first team since Jordan’s 1991 Bulls to win a championship having zero players with NBA finals experience.  I don’t want a team like that winning.  To me, that’s like the cocky freshman that walks into the first day of basketball practice proclaiming that he’s the shit, and then proceeds to rip apart his competition the entire season, starting every game, leading his school to a record breaking season, and then winning a state championship.  Sure, they accomplished their ultimate goal, but that cocky kid didn’t learn a moment of humility.

I want the cocky kid walking into that gym thinking they’re the best of all time, but leaving with his head hanging down wondering what went wrong.  I want to see how far that cocky kid will push himself, how much better he can be.  Steve Kerr is in his first year coaching, Draymond Green is in his second year, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry have only been to the playoffs three times, so on and so forth.  Curry has broken record after record with his shooting, crushing his playoff competition without the slightest bit of worry.  I want every single one of them to go back to the drawing board.  What more (if anything) can the MVP Curry add to his game?  Will Draymond stay with the Warriors, or will another team offer him a max and coax him away?  How long can Andrew Bogut and Shaun Livingston stay healthy?  These are the questions and struggles that really push a team to the brink and reveal to us what they’re made of.

Set aside your LeBron hate for a second (don’t give me that look, I know you have it) and listen to this comparison for a second.  I sadly did not come up with it, but a Reddit user by the name of “steezstylo” perfectly put the series into perspective:

“When you put it like that, Cavs vs GS is pretty much every highschool sports movie ever where a bunch of ragtag misfits go up against a well oiled team of prep school snobs

The Cavs have the prodigal son who messed things up but is trying to find redemption by becoming a leader, the headstrong young star who slowly learns the meaning of teamwork, the troubled badass who is trying to escape a reckless life of giving [women] the pipe…

The bowling scene where they put aside their differences at their lowest point, and bond to a musical montage of them joking around is just classic film story structure” (2015).

I want that preppy sports team to feel that defeat, to go back and get their hands dirty.  I want Stephen Curry to feel his inner-villain overcome him, like some budding Sith Lord.

Oh, you think I’m being a bit too harsh huh?  Think about it, every great team and player first faced bone-crushing adversity.  Michael Jordan had to lose to the Pistons two years in a row in the conference finals before making the finals.  Shaq was completely waxed by Olajuwon after eliminating Jordan in his comeback.  Isiah had to watch as Larry and Magic completely monopolized the 80s (who by the way are the exception to this rule because they had such a legendary, decade-long rivalry).  Durant has been chasing LeBron every step of his career, unable to firmly grasp onto the best-player-in-the-league title.  He lost in the finals, lost his best chance to win a title (Harden), and is coming off an injury-ridden season.  Durant finally is ready to win a title.  I lump Chris Paul into the same category as Durant.

Then there’s LeBron who was crushed by the Spurs, moved to Miami, was collectively hated by the universe (and Skip Bayless…), then crushed by the Mavericks.  He almost matched Kobe, Jordan, and Russell by almost winning three straight, but once again the Spurs (led by the third greatest player of all time, Tim Duncan) stopped him in his tracks.  LeBron deserves to win his third championship after doing what 99.9% of NBA players were unable to: go to five straight finals.

I guess my full point is that I appreciate players and teams that have paid their dues, teams that have gone to Hell and back in their odyssey to the finals.  This is why I’ll cheer for Tim Duncan and the Spurs until the day Duncan retires.  Nobody has shown such class and professionalism through such a consistent NBA tenure, and if anybody deserves to go out in a blaze of glory, it’s the Big Fundamental.

So go on, continue cheering for the perfection that has been this Golden State team.  Keep telling yourself that they’ve been the underdog, that they deserve it the most, and that it’s Stephen Curry’s time.  But answer me this: did you cheer for the perfection seeking Patriots back in 2008 when the Giants won the Superbowl?  I didn’t think so.