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Fidelity Mailbag: NBA Finals

  curry 3

With pioneer shock-jock-turned-corporate-journalist Bill Simmons in time out for a few months, I’ve decided to take over his occasional mailbag idea to answer all of your NBA Finals questions. Hope you get out of jail soon, Simmons. Until then, Fidelity Sports is what’s up.

Like Simmons, these are real questions from real people. Unlike BS, some came via email, some by personal conversation, some by twitter, and one from a nurse as she stuck a needle in my shoulder. However the method, y’all brought your Q’s and now I’ve got your A’s. Let’s get to the first-ever Fidelity Mailbag!

[dramatic hip-hop beat w/ trumpet intro]
[fade out]

***

Q: It seems like everyone’s picking Cleveland. Do you think the Warriors have a chance? – Jared K.

A: Great first question, Jared K., and the Warriors have more than a chance. Very casual fans are always going to say and do stupid things, and this is no exception. People assume the Cavs are the better team because they have LeBron, which is one of the only NBA players they’ve ever heard of. But to be sure, this is G-State’s the better team by far and this is their Finals to lose. Allow me to elaborate.

Reason #1: The Warriors had the best team offense this season. According to Hollinger’s advanced metrics, G-State was first in the NBA in pace of play (100.7), assists/game (19.9), effective shooting (54.0%), true shooting (57.1%), and basically tied with Houston for first in overall efficiency (109.7). Meanwhile, the Cavs’ rank between 4th and 10th in each of these categories, with the exception of pace of play, where they ranked 25th. (That’s not necessarily bad; it’s just a different coaching philosophy. You’ll see the Cavs walking the ball up the court and using far more of the shot clock all series.)

Reason #2: The Warriors had the best team defense this season. Hollinger’s stats put the Warriors’ defensive efficiency first in the NBA as well, at 98.2—better than the Spurs, Hawks, and Grizzlies, who typically get credited as the league’s top D’s. The reason G-State’s D was so underrated this year was because their offense was so good. Because they led the league in pace of play, scoring faster than anyone else, their opponents spent far more time on offense than they did. As a result, the Warriors’ D naturally allowed more shot attempts than anyone and they allowed an average number of points per game (99.9). But when you recognize—as Hollinger’s stat does—the number of points allowed per possession, you see that the Warriors actually allowed fewer points than anyone! By comparison, the Cavs’ defense ranked 20th in the NBA per Hollinger efficiency.

Reason #3: Steph Curry, regular season MVP, is the NBA’s hottest player. Notice I didn’t say “best” player, because that’s still LeBron overall. But Curry did have a better season and is definitely trending upward as LBJ trends down (more on that later). Check out these stat lines. All the great ones get better in the playoffs.

Curry regular season: 23.8 ppg, 49% FG, 3.6 3P/game, 7.7 ast, 2.0 steals
Curry postseason: 29.2 ppg, 46% FG, 4.9 3P/game, 6.4 ast, 1.9 steals

Reason #4: The Warriors combined offensive and defensive efficiency makes them one of the all-time great teams. That might sound like a stretch, Jared K., but it’s true. According to Nate Silver’s ELO metrics, a super sexy statistic developed for baseball and just recently translated to a century of pro hoops’ stats, the 2015 Warriors are the fourth best team in NBA history—behind only two of Jordan’s Bulls teams (’96, ’97) and one Larry Bird Boston team (’86). Not bad company. By comparison, the 2015 Cavs rank #112 all-time according to ELO. And you want to hear crazy town? That was the best mark in the East. The Hawks were the 193rd best, followed by the Bulls (328nd), Raptors (473rd), and Wiz (519th). In fact, according to ELO, the Thunder would have been the 3rd best team in the East this year, instead, they missed the playoffs in the West. Man, it was a bad year for the East! Did I mention how much I love this new miracle ELO stat?

***

Q: After starting 19-20, the Cavs made some roster moves, and since then, they’ve been the best team in the NBA. I predict Cleveland in six. – Dan R.

A: I don’t see a question in there, Dan R., but let me respond anyway. You’re right that 19-20 was the low point for CLE, and after that moment, they went an incredible 34-9 in the regular season and then have gone 12-2 in the playoffs. That combined record of 46-11 (80.7%) is a notch better than G-State’s (46-12, 79.3%). But remember, Dan R., that the Warriors played in one of the historically best conferences in NBA history while the Cavs were playing in the E-league. Just look at the playoffs: Cleveland faced the Celtics (terrible), Wizards (old and injured), and Hawks (which I have previously called the worst 60-win team in NBA history), whereas the Warriors faced the Pelicans (would have been top 4 in the East), Grizzlies (Finals quality team) and Rockets (also Finals quality). If only we had some way of statistically measuring teams across conferences. Oh yeah: ELO!!! Let me come back to this one more time:

Golden State: 3rd best all-time
Cleveland: 112nd best all-time

Cleveland in six, Dan R.? Nah bro. I doubt that.

***

Q: Can anything possibly be more boring than the NBA? – Michael M.

A: Ridiculous question! How’d that get in here? Michael M., I respect you as a person, but I’m going to have to refer you to my 2013 essay where I prove emphatically that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

***

Q: Do you still think Rose is better than Curry? – Adam E.

Good question, Adam E. This refers to a tweet I tweeted on Twitter earlier this Spring, where I said Derrick Rose was the still the best guard in the NBA outside of Kobe and Chris Paul. Here’s why I made that case: D-Rose’s 2011 (25.0 ppg, 7.7 assists) was just as epic as Curry’s 2015 season has been, and Rose carried a much worse team. Curry is a much better shooter, but Rose is more athletic and has a higher ceiling. I hurt for the guy after all his injuries, but I’m still of the impression that Rose can be a top ten all-time player if he gets and stays healthy. The kid’s only 26, after all. (Remember, in 2011, he became the youngest MVP in history.)

But now? Curry has made 73 three’s in just 15 postseason games—crushing the previous postseason record set by Reggie Miller in 2000 (58 three’s in 22 games). His game is clearly more injury-safe than Rose’s (like Russ Westbrook, injuries will always be a concern just because of his playing style). And if he lands an NBA championship the same year as he’s MVP, and with a rookie coach… I don’t know, Adam E., I don’t know. I say if G-State (or “The City” to reference their sweet 60’s uniforms) wins the Finals and Curry hoists the Finals MVP trophy, he robs CP3 of best-current-guard award, and my best-active-guards list (based on entire careers, not current ability) looks like this.

Tier 1: Kobe Bryant
Tier 2: Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Steph Curry
Tier 3: Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, John Wall, Kyrie Irving*
Tier 4: Klay Thompson, Jeff Teague, Mike Conley, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Monta Ellis, Goran Dragic, Ty Lawson, Ricky Rubio**

* Paul George would go here too if counted as an SG.
** Just kidding on Rubio.

***

Q1: Who will Cleveland stick on Curry? – Duncan B.
Q2: What’s the best 1-on-1 matchup within this series? – Dane P.

A: That’s an important question, Duncan B., and I’m glad you’re asking it, because the Cleveland front office obviously forgot to about eight months ago. (And Dane P., my answer to your question is Curry-vs-Whoever-gets-stuck-on-him-the-most.) In short, it will have to be a rotation, not a single guy. If you’re Cleveland, you can’t put Kyrie on him too much, because of Irving’s injuries and average defense. You can’t have LeBron there too much, because he needs to be fresh on offense. Dellavedova’s too slow to be a great option, and JR Smith won’t work because, well, he’s JR Smith. That leaves Iman Shumpert as the best defensive option, which is probably not a great sign for the Cavs. And don’t forget that if you smother Curry the way teams were able to smother James Harden in the playoffs, you still have Klay Thompson to worry about. They’re not called the Splash Brothers for nothing.

Let me make a critical point here. In the offseason, just weeks before the LeBron letter, the Cavs had the #1 pick in the NBA draft (thanks for the going-away-present, Stern!) and knew they needed a great perimeter defender, so they took Andrew Wiggins. But then when LBJ showed up, they got greedy, forgot Fidelity Rule #3 (Good Things Take Time), and hustled Wiggins out for a year and a half of Kevin Love acting like a 6-foot-11-inch shooting guard who doesn’t play D. How’s that working out for ya, CLE? K-Love is on the bench with a sore shoulder, Wiggins was Rookie of the Year, and the Cavs’ best option to contain the NBA MVP and possibly the best shooter in history is a backup nicknamed “Stumphouse.” Uh oh, Cavs fans. Uh oh.

***

Q: Who do the Rockets land in free agency? Where does LaMarcus Aldridge land? – Justin K.

A: Ok, settle down with all the questions, Justin K. Let me answer them in the order they were asked. First, I think the Rockets will win “biggest loser” award in the free agency this year. Who is really going to want to go play second fiddle to Harden’s get-fouled-a-lot show and have to deal with Dwight Howard, a top 10 all-time athlete with the will-to-win of a distracted three-year old. Second, LaMarcus Aldridge will either land in Dallas (if they can’t convince K-Love to leave CLE) or San Antonio (if they can clear enough cap space, he would be a moron not to go). Can you picture a 2016 Spurs team with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Alridge ballin’ alongside a reduced-minutes Duncan-Ginobli-Parker under the watchful eye of Grand Pop? That’s starting to sound like a sixth ring to me.

***

Q: Give us the top five current NBA logos. Mine? Glad you asked: 1) Bulls, 2) GS, 3) Boston, 4) Wiz, and 5) Lakers/Knicks. – Trey K.

Great question, and pretty good picks yourself. I’m going to translate this question into overall team uniforms/logos/branding, since each team has strengths and weaknesses. What I’m looking for in a uniform/logo: Classic, timeless look; Great symmetry and aesthetic appeal; Color pairing; and Fit to unique city/team dynamic. Some teams have great history but ruin it on their current uni’s (Pacers, Clippers, Kings); others have a great uniform in their rotation but mess with too many alternates (Cavs, Rockets, Pistons, Hawks). It’s not that I’m just a “throwback” guy; there’s just a reason some uniforms/logos last several decades and some last a couple years. So that gives me this top five:

1. Boston Celtics
2. “The City” Warriors
3. Portland Trailblazers
4. Chicago Bulls
5. Brooklyn Nets
Hon. Mention: SA Spurs, NY Knicks, Philly 76ers, LA Lakers

 ***

Q: How much closer would this series be with K-Love? – Dane P.

A: I like your style, Dane P., assuming that a Warriors win is inevitable and K-Love would have just made it a bit more digestible for Cavs fans. But I honestly believe the Cavs are worse with Love on the team. They may be better when he’s on the court—he’s a phenomenal player who adds far more than Mozgov or Stumphouse alone. But they’re better with him back in Minnesota—their biggest need is not another large guy who bombs three’s and gets a few defensive rebounds, it’s outside defending.

 ***

Q1: Does LeBron get a pass for another Finals loss since Love is out and Kyrie is a shell of himself? Once LeBron loses his fourth (yes, FOURTH) NBA finals, can we all agree to stop the MJ comparisons? – Trey K.
Q2: How many more championships for LeBron? – Justin K.

A: OK, This is where I address all the annual questions about LeBron’s legacy. If you missed my playoffs preview, check out at least my assessment of James as a Floyd Mayweather type athlete-as-media-sensation, not a MJ/Kobe type athlete-as-psychopathic-winner. I give LeBron one more championship run out of the goodness of my heart. And that’s probably a stretch. LeBron is the most physically gifted basketball player in human history. But he’s just not a winner/killer. The MJ comparison has always been apples-and-oranges. The Magic Johnson comparison is on point: both are hyper-athletic, oversized, positionless players that showed flashes of utter brilliance and won a few championships, but were far more focused on building a brand for themselves (commercials, etc) than spend that time in the gym shooting free throws (which is exactly what Kobe is doing right now; I’m not saying it’s a recipe for healthy parenting, but it does tend to translate to championships). So hopefully a 2-4 Finals record puts in a nail in the MJ/LBJ discussion coffin.

I’d say the Over/Under on new LBJ rings has got to be about 0.8. A few reasons: (1) Even though this is a historically good G-State team, this might be his best shot at another. The Thunder are about to be really good, The City’s not going anywhere, and the East is so bad, they can only get better—the Bulls, Pacers, and Hawks should all be legit contenders next year, so James & Co. won’t get a free pass to the Finals. (2) I don’t see the Cavs getting much better, and we definitely won’t see another 80% win rate out of them any time soon. I already addressed the K-Love conundrum. Kyrie has the potential to make the jump from Tier 3 to Tier 2 any moment now, but he can’t make the jump as long as LBJ is in Ohio. Sadly, he’ll never have the chance to be the vocal leader of the team and have the ball in his hands with the clock running out. (3) LeBron’s odometer has rolled over more times than people realize. Yes, he’s only 30 or 31, but he has played so many pro minutes, he’s already past retirement age. Seriously. Look at these career minutes numbers—which don’t include Olympics and World Championships that James has been playing in.

Kobe Bryant 46,774
Michael Jordan 41,011
LeBron James 35,769
Isaiah Thomas 35,516
Larry Bird 34,443
Magic Johnson 33,245

If you look at a list of all-time minutes played, you could conclude that a full NBA career is about 25,000 minutes and a long NBA career is 35,000 minutes—that would put you in the top 60 in history. LeBron, then, has already surpassed both marks. He’s already jumped the retirement ages of Magic, Bird, Isaiah, and Jordan (who logged 35,887 before going to the Wiz). I think we have one year left of the All-NBA, 25/7/7 machine we’ve come to expect, and then it’s late-stage mode for two or three more. 18 months from now, at best, James will be Paul Pierce—starting but with limited minutes, still taking big last shots—and at worst, he’ll be Paul Pierce—whining at every bit of contact, jacking up ridiculous 25-footers, robbing younger players of big-shot moments. So, just being the kind, benevolent pastor that I am, I’ll give LeBron one more championship. But I’m not sure how or when it’s going to come.

***

Q: On TV, Reggie Miller said ‘Cavs in seven,’ but my husband said ‘Warriors in five.’ What do you think? – The nurse at my allergy shot clinic

A: Ma’am, your husband knows what’s up. (And what would Reggie Miller know about winning the NBA Finals? Oh snap!) Your hubbie’s prediction is the perfect fit: Warriors are clearly the better offense and defense, Kerr is a better coach than Blatt, Kyrie is banged up and Love is out (again, if JR Smith is your second-best guy on the court, do you really think you’ll win four games against a nearly-perfect G-State team?), and the Splash Brothers-plus-home-court-advantage combination is just too much to overthink. LeBron’s still got enough super gas in the tank to win a home game all by himself, but I can’t give them more than that.

Golden State in five, haters.

Epilogue

(Wherein the author takes a few more questions that follow Golden State’s Game 1 win.)

Q: What do you make of Game 1?

A: The Cavs should have won. Before we get to Kyrie’s injury, remember that the Cavs should be up 1-0 right now if they don’t hand away a 15-point first quarter lead, squander a rare poor G-State shooting night, and fail to capitalize on a one-on-one matchup including the world’s best athlete. Even without Irving, if the Cavs are up One-Oh and James just put up 44 points, the Warriors have to be concerned. Instead, they’re pre-ordering their championship rings.

After Kyrie’s spectacular block of Curry’s driving layup (just dunk it Steph!), the Cavs had a dream situation: game tied, plenty of time to get the ball into The King’s hands, complete isolation with no help D. As the seconds ticked away, LeBron seemed hesitant to make a committed move toward the basket and settled for a 19-foot fadeaway. Casual fans may look at this picture and think, “Wow, great look for LeBron.”

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) shoots against Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala (9) during the first half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

(AP Photo)

But the guy is 6-foot-8 and 275-pounds of muscle! HOW DO YOU NOT JUST BULLDOZE YOUR WAY INTO THE LANE!? Who’s going to stop him—Andrew Bogut? The man can dunk on all five Warriors at once!

This is classic LeBron: unbelievable talent, unwilling to live into his game. He’s not a great jump shooter. Don’t overthink it: put the ball on the floor, make Iguodala play D, make the ref blow the whistle… just don’t settle for a shot that has about a 40% chance of going in and totally negates your enormous physical advantage. Ugh. (Thank you Lord for not pre-ordaining me a Cleveland fan.)

***

Q: How does the Kyrie injury change this series?

A: It doesn’t change the outcome—still Warriors in five. But it changes how this Finals gets remembered. Even with Love out, this was supposed to be about LeBron’s fifth straight Finals appearance and whether or not he could lift a good Cavs team to a championship. But now that script will have a major asterisk: with Love and Irving both out, James’s supporters will say that this doesn’t really count as a lost Finals since 2/3 of their stars were out with injuries.

I really do feel bad for Kyrie, and not just because if LeBron scores at the end of the fourth quarter, Irving’s kneecap is still in one piece. He’s by far my favorite Cavalier since either Danny Ferry or Craig Ehlo (I can’t decide). I was really hoping Kyrie would pull out one of those get-out-of-my-way-LeBron type games where he puts up 40 points. But instead, we have to endure three or four more games of LBJ isolations and post-ups. Again: Ugh.

The only silver lining here? We finally have a chance to see if LeBron is one of the all-time greats. If he is, then he can carry this team at least into Game 6 or 7 by averaging 45+ points. For the first time in the last five years, LeBron isn’t surrounded by the league’s best free agents that he hand-picked to take the pressure off him in the playoffs. Now he has to win one on his own. (Is this a good time to note that His Airness never even saw a Game 7 in his six Finals appearances?)

***

Q: Do you have any obscure NBA Finals statistics to make my evening?

A: Here are a few of my favorites…

35: Most points in a half, by Michael Jordan; Bulls vs Blazers, 1992 (“the shrug” game)

21: Most missed free throws in a game, by Shaquille O’Neal; Lakers vs Pacers, 2000

19: Most rebounds in a quarter, by Bill Russell; Celtics vs Lakers, 1962

41.0: Highest scoring average in a Finals series, by Michael Jordan; Bulls vs Suns, 1993

8: Most triple-doubles in Finals history, by Magic Johnson

43: Age of oldest player to win an NBA Championship, Robert Parish, Bulls, 1997

Much love to you, friends.

2 Responses to “Fidelity Mailbag: NBA Finals”

  1. mcmorgan0

    I remain skeptical, but mutual respect demands I re-read that essay. If anything, your passion could be the contagion.

    Reply
  2. Fletcher

    Overall, I give this essay a 4 out of 5. I like what you have to say about Lebron – no way he’s in the same category as MJ – but your Kansas/Paul Pierce hatred-bias is both seething and hilarious. AND, as a Grizzlies fan, you saying that GSW has the best defense is insulting. We’re the only team in the league who can shut GSW down on defense (when at full strength). TA 1stTAD.

    Reply

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