You’ve heard all the stories about the Finals. How the Warriors went small and changed the complexion of the Cleveland defense. How LeBron and his tattered supporting cast finally ran out of steam. How Steve Kerr pushed all the right buttons while David Blatt bumbled his way. The inspiring story of Andre Iguodala going from starting lineup to bench to Finals MVP.
I want to hit on that last point a little though. We’ve all heard the training camp stories when Kerr had to tell Andre that Harrison Barnes would start at small forward. I think it’s naïve to think that Andre would have caused a riot in the Warriors’ locker room; he’s too much a professional for that, he wasn’t much more a team vet than Kerr, and the Dubs had just come off a disappointing first round loss to the Clippers (though it was a good Clippers team that should have taken the Thunder to 7).
He wouldn’t have become a locker room cancer. But it certainly could have thrown off his game. And in some ways, it might have. I don’t know what it’s like to play in the NBA, but a lot of people say that at the highest level, a lot of it is confidence. You have to believe that you belong, believe that you’re a starter, believe that you can score, believe that you can defend. Maybe Andre lost some of that confidence – his well-documented free throw woes (59.6% from the line against a 71.7% career average, though that average is weighted by his 70%+ average in his Philly days, which are not coming back) indicate a player that thrives on more attempts, a statistical darling whose usage correlates positively with his efficiency. But away from the charity stripe, his per-36 minute numbers are almost identical to last year. Have a look:
That’s what’s amazing about this team. The stuff about how close they are isn’t just a story. I don’t want to perpetuate false narratives, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this past season, a Kentucky team with great closeness went undefeated until the penultimate game, a Duke team with great closeness won the NCAA title, and a Warriors team with great closeness won the NBA regular season and Finals. Think about what happened for each of these teams: Kentucky had stretches where they’d play 10+ guys. Sure a few got injured, a few lost effectiveness, and a variety of shooters may have contributed to their offensive woes late in tournament games, but this was a group that played together. Duke coaxed a career-defining performances out of Quinn Cook in the regular season, and then Justise Winslow, Matt Jones, and especially Grayson Allen in the tournament. Steve Kerr juggled his lineup all playoffs, inserting and removing Marreese Speights, David Lee, Landro Barbosa, and others with impunity. Each of these teams benefitted from their tremendous depth, but without that closeness, I don’t know that depth can shine. I loved watching the Warriors bench, seeing Steph celebrating with David Lee and Lee with a big smile on his face, excited for his guys even though he doesn’t play for games at a time. They know that will be the last time these 15 guys are on the team, they know that basketball is a business, but they’re still genuinely happy to be together and to play together. I'm probably reading too much into this, but check out this photo from Game 5:
And from some random game earlier in the regular season:
I don’t think that every great team needs that closeness – all the things I’ve heard about the late-90’s Bulls indicate otherwise. But those teams had the greatest player to ever live. This may sound trite, but your margin of error increases when you have the best player in the world. The Warriors didn’t – they didn’t even have the best player in the series. But they shoved a 9 man rotation into their margin of error and forced it wider. This was just a fun team – and that’s why I would have picked Steph Curry over James Harden for regular season MVP.
About MVPs quickly – Bill Barnwell tweeted after the game that that, in 15 years, it will seem insane to us that LeBron didn’t win MVP of this Finals. And I agree. Listen, Andre Iguodala deserved to win Finals MVP considering all that he did for that team and the effectiveness with which he played LeBron. But watching LeBron absolutely carry that Cavs team, even with the bad defense and lack of shooting efficiency, was a spectacle. I mean, He posted career playoff-highs for both rebounds and assists this year. I still don’t know what’s more amazing – watching the Warriors well-oiled machine pass its way out of traps and into a tidal wave of wide-open threes, or watching LeBron say “screw it,” and in the 2015 NBA, bully his way into the post and make shot after shot after shot. I was in disbelief. I didn’t know that anyone could still do what he did. And I don’t know if we’ll ever, ever see that again. More teams will try to emulate the Warriors small-ball, switching, flexible style. Most won’t find the magic combination because they won’t have Steph, or the Warriors’ flexibility, or because they just get unlucky. But you’ll see this team again. 2015 Finals LeBron? That have been the end of an era.
Just for kicks:
Everyone on that list is an all-time great power forward or center besides LeBron and Big O. Between Kareem and Wilt, you have possibly the two greatest offensive centers of all time, and Shaq can make an argument he’s better than both. Elgin Baylor averaged 38ppg while serving in the military. And if you add assists:
It was 50 years before we so Big O again. We may never see another LeBron.
Bonus NBA Draft Round! (based on Chad Ford Big Board 12.0)
1. Karl-Anthony Towns: Not an explosive leaper like a Garnett, but still don’t know what this guy can’t do.
2. D’Angelo Russell: I’m not concerned about the defense. The comparisons to Steph have to stop, but he fits that mold of a playmaking guard.
3. Jahlil Okafor: Rich man’s Al Jefferson. Jefferson started dominating when he got into shape, but has been derailed a bit by injuries. Jahlil will make the playoffs if you surround him with 3 and D types, but you’ll need someone else to carry you to the Finals. One concern: people have said how good he is passing from the post. DraftExpress says this about him: "He's also a very good passer for a 19-year old big man, looking extremely patient with his moves and having no qualms whatsoever about throwing the ball out if he faces a double-team or sees an open teammate spotting up on the perimeter." All true, but a lot of this was built into the Duke offense, i.e.: hold ball, see double, cut happens, then back-screen for 3. Problem is, with a shorter shot clock, he will have to make decisions more quickly. I didn't see great instincts passing out of doubles when the timing was off, like after Jahlil made his move. In college he was good enough to dribble out of it (this comes to mind) or escape with his quickness and strength. That will also be more difficult in the NBA. And let's not forget, his assist/TO rate was only 1.3/2.5. He's still a special talent, but his passing must improve.
4. Kristaps Porzingis: I think his ability to speak English and connect to people really helps him in his first year, as well as having an older brother that’s a vet (in Europe though). I am concerned about his weight though – some guys just don’t add weight well, and some guys lose a lot of athleticism when they do. And as good a shooter he is in practice, the Dirk comparisons have to stop. Come on. Dirk Nowitizki is one of the 10 best jump shooters in the history of the NBA. He wasn’t always, but that’s not the point. The point is that shooters are drafted every year, and there are still not many players like Dirk. But I like Kristaps’ footwork and feel for the game offensively. I think he turns into a good player. I like his style better than Okafor for today’s NBA.
5. Emmanuel Mudiay: Everyone says he has great feel for the game, and I think China helps him. The key to his development will be shooting and defense. You don’t have to be Steph, but you cannot play PG in this league without a jumper; roster construction gets too difficult. That’s a question the Jazz are still facing with Dante Exum. Like Exum, Mudiay will have to prove that he belongs physically on defense. I saw Dante square off against Steph Curry and Curry still got his, but Exum was never lost, a good sign.
6. Mario Hezonja: I’m more worried about Mario than Kristaps. If you watch the DraftExpress video, you’ll see a lot of defenders that would never make it on an NBA floor. What happens when he’s scouted and pressured? Jeremy Lin is still a good player, but Linsanity died once the Heat scouted and devoted resources to him. These teams are too good at identifying weaknesses and subtly shading guys in your way.
7. Justise Winslow. Love him. His floor as a 3 and D wing justifies this draft position alone. And after watching this in the Finals:
I’m not so concerned about his lack of height. How many SFs are going to take him into the post anyway? LeBron? The FT shooting is concerning and the Kawhi comparisons are too lofty – Kawhi is elite at getting his own shot now and his mechanics are fluid – but he has that type of potential and work ethic. Denver would be great for him.
8. Willie Cauley-Stein: Another player whose baseline is a quality defensive starter. He’s DeAndre Jordan.
9. Devin Booker: Everyone raves about his shooting, and rightfully so with a 41.1% mark from deep. But many of those shots were wide open and I don’t know what else Booker gives you offensively. And lots of great college shooters struggle to transition to the NBA 3 – JJ Redick and Jimmer Fredette come to mind. Defensively, Booker has size, but that Kentucky frontcourt erased a lot of mistakes. I just felt uneasy about him all year – Kentucky hummed when he was on, but I didn’t tell if they could rely on him in tough moments. It seemed like Tyler Ulis was their best crunchtime guard. I would not draft him in the top 20.
10. Stanley Johnson: A load physically, he’s going to have to turn into a great defender and improve his jumper to see much of the floor in the NBA. You can build around a non-shooter if he gives you great interior defense, but if he’s only so-so on that end and on the boards, he needs a jumper. Doesn’t have the ups or finishing ability to subsist as a PNR screener. Despite all those negatives, I like his style of play and for some reason, I think he’s going to be good.
11. Cameron Payne: I’m worried about teams trying to find the next Damian Lillard. Lillard is a unique player and as much as I love him, I’m not totally convinced he’s worth the max. I mean, Steph isn’t getting the max (for injury concerns, but still). And wasn’t C.J. McCollum putatively the next Lillard already? We have to stop lumping all Euro bigs, all mid-major players, into the same bucket. Damian was an elite, elite shooter considering the defenses he faced. Payne doesn’t look that good, but he’s a great ball handler and just competes. I think he’ll be fine, but different.
12. Trey Lyles: Calipari's big men have a good track record, and Lyles is a smaller 4 playing out of position. He has a nose for the ball and the rim, a good combo. And this guy was going against Towns, Cauley-Stein, and Poythress every day in practice. I think he’ll be a good backup big in the Taj Gibson mold.
13. Myles Turner: Worried about him. It’s really hard to develop offensively in the NBA – that’s why I love Jahlil, because he was able to show in just one college season that he has the goods. I’m worried that a team that drafts Turner will expect too much of him and eventually, his lack of efficiency will kill his playing time. I just don’t think he translates.
14. Sam Dekker: A bit worried about Dekker as well. Guess what his 3 point % was at Wisconsin? Not 40%. Not 35%. 34.8%, and 33.1% the year before. He’s not a disruptive on-ball defender, so he’s going to have to make his hay on his 63.9% 2 point shooting rate. Problem is that % was a clear outlier from the 56.7% and 55.0% he posted as a freshman and sophomore. He’s an adequate rebounder (not elite) and a poor passer. He’s average from the line and doesn’t get there much. I don’t know what his role is the 3-layup-FT NBA.
15. Frank Kaminsky: I like Frank more than his teammate. He wasn’t a fluky shooter like Cody Zeller and I think his ability to produce against solid competition speaks for itself. I think the defense concerns are overblown. Lots of bigs don’t play great D and are paired with players that do. His effort on the boards should be enough.
Miscellaneous selections ranked in the bottom half of Round 1. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pretending I know anything about Kelly Oubre, Bobby Portis, etc.
1. Motrezl Harrell: DeJuan Blair doppelganger – I think it makes sense to compare players when the comparison focuses on their actual style of play (instead of ethnicity, region, school, etc.):
Blair (no per-40 stats available):
I'm not forgetting that Blair was a rebounding machine on the offensive end, probably the best I've seen in college, but Pitino’s defensive scheme calls for a lot out of Harrell too.
2. Jerian Grant: Rich man’s Jordan Crawford, with a passing gene. He'll be really bad on a rebuilding team, could be a good shot of energy for someone sniffing the playoffs. If someone gives him the keys, he's a darkhorse ROY candidate.
3. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: Poor man’s MKG/Aaron Gordon. Combined draft position of those two: 6. Chad Ford’s ranking for Hollis-Jefferson: 20
4. R.J. Hunter: Poor man’s Cameron Payne
5. Justin Anderson: Worried about him. Got a lot of 3s out of Virginia’s Princeton system. Didn’t see great individual defense. Not sure what is role is on an NBA team - does he have one elite NBA skill that will force a coach to play him?
6. Tyus Jones – He has 2 elite NBA skills – passing ability and IQ. I loved how the entire Duke offense was controlled by him. Even when they pushed in transition without him touching the ball, those decisions were made as a natural part of their scheme. I think a coach is gonna love having him run the second unit, setting tempo, making everyone else better. And as he gets accustomed to NBA speed – lookout. Love this kid.
7. Delon Wright – I don’t care about the age thing – this guy can play in the NBA. He can hang defensively and athletically/physically. I think you’d be crazy to draft Sam Dekker before Wright. Wright’s shooting numbers are just as good as Dekker’s, he gets to the line (5.8x a game as a freshman, 5.2x last year), and he is a much better passer. He can’t guard 3s, but neither can Dekker.
Big shoutout to Basketball-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com for the data - go there and you'll be smarter.