LeBron James was good, but we expect more of him

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The Miami Heat did not lose Thursday night because of LeBron James.

But they didn’t win because of him either.

That is ultimately the challenge that lies before him — he cannot be merely good, not if he is to meet the expectations put upon him,  ones he encouraged and welcomed — he needs to be legendary. And he has been nothing of the sort.

A lot of factors went into Dallas taking a 3-2 lead in the NBA finals, a lot of reasons the Heat lost — Miami’s slower rotations defensively early that let Dallas get into a shooting rhythm, Dallas then hitting 13-of-19 from three, and Dallas executed better in the fourth quarter. Again.

Those are not on LeBron, those are on the Miami Heat.

LeBron had a good game, he had an unassuming triple double if that is possible (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists). He tried to be more aggressive but Dallas continued to keep a defensive focus on him and so he made the basketball play every high school coach calls for and passed to the open man.

But we expect more from LeBron.

He is the best player walking the planet earth right now. The most gifted. With that we expect him not to be good in big games, we expect him to absolutely dominate. To impose his will and lead his team to victory. When Dwyane Wade got injured we expected LeBron to take over, to dominate the game in a way we have come to expect superstars to do.

He did not.

LeBron is being measured against our expectations of him, against the memories left us by other greats. That is a nearly impossible standard to live up to, but that is the price of his incredible gifts.

Right now, all great players are measured against Michael Jordan. A guy who, when faced with a team floundering in the finals, took over to put on heroic performances. In the last two seasons Kobe Bryant, though not as great or efficient a player as Jordan, tried to fulfill that archetype by getting angry, playing through pain and willing his team to rings.

In Game 5, LeBron fell well short of that standard. He was not angry dominant. And fair or not, that is the standard he will be measured against.

That can change. His legacy is far from defined. There are two more chances this season (if the Heat are to win) where he could prove greatness and lead his team to a comeback victory and a ring. Beyond that, right now we are at the midpoint of LeBron’s NBA career and to say that this series will define how we think of him in a decade is ridiculous.

But today, right now, LeBron James has not lived up to the expectations before him.

What makes a great dramatic hero — from great literature to a comic book hero — is a person who must grow, be better than even they thought they could be to overcome a resilient and seemingly unstoppable opponent. They must pass a challenge even greater than they expected. That is where LeBron James finds himself heading into Game 6. The chance to become greater than he had expected and to fulfill the destiny that has seemingly been before him since he was a high school sophomore. It’s not really fair to put all that on him, but he has never shrunk from welcoming that challenge. By going to Miami, he invited it.

We’ll see Sunday if right now he is capable of living up to that.

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Chris Paul out for Rockets-Warriors Game 6

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The Rockets bought themselves margin for error by earning home-court advantage and taking a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

They’ll need it.

Chris Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow with a strained hamstring.

Rockets release:

The Houston Rockets announced today that guard Chris Paul will miss Saturday’s game at Golden State with a right hamstring strain that occurred during the fourth quarter of last night’s game against the Warriors. He will be re-evaluated after the team returns to Houston.

Golden State was already heavily favored at home. This will tilt the odds even further in its favor.

But the Rockets aren’t completely incapable without Paul. They went 15-9 without him this season. James Harden and Eric Gordon can assume extra playmaking duty.

Still, this is a massive loss. When Harden is overburdened offensively, his defense suffers. Gordon is already playing a lot of minutes, so greater responsibility will come in role, not playing time. To fill Paul’s minutes, Mike D’Antoni will have to expand a rotation he had masterfully tightened. Gerald Green could play more. Luc Mbah a Moute could return to the rotation.

A Game 7 looks increasingly likely. Will Paul return for that? The 2018 NBA title might hinge on that question.

Given how quickly the Rockets announced Paul would miss Game 6, there isn’t much reason for optimism about Paul’s availability three days from now, either.

Report: Chris Paul’s hamstring injury ‘not good’

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The question looming over the Western Conference finals: How is Chris Paul?

The Rockets revealed little last night about Paul’s hamstring injury. Time to see how his body responded would provide clarity.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

That stinks. It’s also a fairly expected development. Paul appeared to be in rough shape before leaving the court.

The Rockets have bought themselves margin for error, but a sidelined or even hobbled Paul would sap a lot of it.

If Paul can’t play in Game 6 tomorrow, expect Eric Gordon and James Harden to receive a larger offensive roles (though not necessarily more minutes). Gerald Green could play more, and maybe Luc Mbah a Moute gets back into the rotation.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr: ‘I feel great about where we are right now. That may sound crazy’

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The Rockets beat the Warriors in a pivotal Game 5 last night, taking a clear upper hand in the Western Conference finals.

Unless you ask Golden State coach Steve Kerr.

Kerr:

I feel great about where we are right now. That may sound crazy, but I feel it. I know exactly what I’m seeing out there, and we defended them beautifully tonight. We got everything we needed. Just too many turnovers, too many reaches, and if we settle down a little bit, we’re going to be in really good shape.

It could be argued Golden State is outplaying the Houston overall. The Warriors have outscored the Rockets by 25 in the series. A couple different breaks in Houston’s three-point Game 4 win and four-point Game 5 win, and Golden State might be up 3-2 or even have won the series already.

Plus, Chris Paul is injured. Whether Paul misses games or is just slowed, that favors the Warriors.

But it’s not an indisputable fact Golden State is outplaying Houston. The Rockets missed a lot of open 3-pointers last night, and I wouldn’t credit the Warriors defense for that. Houston is controlling the style of play. And I don’t think the Warriors can divorce their good shots from the turnovers Kerr believes can be eliminated by just settling down. To generate good shots against the Rockets’ switching defense, Golden State must run a high-degree-of-difficulty set of actions – mixing in slipped and set screens, cuts in different directions and risky passes. Reducing exposure to turnovers would just lead to the isolation game Kerr wants to avoid.

More importantly, the Warriors are down 3-2. Even if they’re playing slightly better than Houston, winning two straight games is very difficult in this situation. The series won’t be decided by which team outplays the other over the next two games. Golden State advances only if it wins both.

This is the 182nd time a team has trailed a best-of-seven series 3-2 with a Game 6 at home and a theoretical Game 7 on the road. The trailing team has won the series just 8% of the time. In fact, the trailing team has usually lost in Game 6.

The history of the Warriors’ situation:

image

The list of teams to come back is so short, we can present the entirety of it:

  • Cleveland Cavaliers over Golden State Warriors in 2016 Finals
  • Brooklyn Nets over Toronto Raptors in 2014 first round
  • Orlando Magic over Boston Celtics in 2009 second round
  • San Antonio Spurs over New Orleans Hornets in 2008 second round
  • Utah Jazz over Houston Rockets in 2007 first round
  • Detroit Pistons over Miami Heat in 2005 conference finals
  • Los Angeles Lakers over Sacramento Kings in 2002 conference finals
  • New York Knicks over Miami Heat in 2000 second round
  • Houston Rockets over Phoenix Suns in 1995 second round
  • Washington Bullets over Seattle SuperSonics in 1978 NBA Finals
  • Phoenix Suns over Golden State Warriors in 1976 conference finals
  • Baltimore Bullets over New York Knicks in 1971 conference finals
  • Boston Celtics over Los Angeles Lakers in 1969 NBA Finals
  • Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers in 1968 division finals
  • Philadelphia Warriors over St. Louis Bombers in 1948 BAA semifinals

This isn’t so much about holding home-court advantage. It’s that the team with home-court advantage got it by being superior throughout the regular season.* Even if we all know Golden State coasted during the regular season and is much better than its 58-24 record, the Rockets proved themselves to be darn good, too.

*Though the Cavaliers and Celtics also fit this scenario, I don’t find the history of similar series nearly as telling for the Eastern Conference finals. Without Kyrie Irving, Boston isn’t the same team that secured home-court advantage with its strong regular-season play.

Maybe the Warriors will win the series. They’re arguably the most talented team of all-time.

But even if we grant Kerr’s implication that they’re outplaying Houston, that’s not nearly enough to consider it likely they’ll win two straight games before the Rockets win one.

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Just how concerned should we be about Deandre Ayton’s defensive issues?

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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I still remember the first time that I realized just how good of a prospect DeAndre Ayton is.

It was at Peach Jam, the finals of Nike’s EYBL circuit, back in 2016, and all of high school basketball’s best big men were at the event. Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Mo Bamba. And Ayton, going head-to-head with just about all of them, came out the winner, in the box score if not on the scoreboard.

But there was one play that stood out to me. Ayton, running with a full head of steam in transition, caught a pass and, as a defender stepped in front of him to take a charge, he euro-stepped around him, avoiding the charge and finishing at the rim.

Humans that are his size are not supposed to be able to move like that, and if they are, they shouldn’t be allowed to have his shooting touch as well.

And therein lies what makes Ayton such an intriguing player.

He has the size. He has the length. He has the athleticism, explosiveness, fluidity and mobility. He can space the floor and, in theory, both protect the rim and handle his own if forced to guard on the perimeter.

In theory, Ayton is the total package and an ideal five for the modern NBA.

Whether or not he will live up to his considerable potential is a different story.

HEIGHT: 7-foot-0.5
WEIGHT: 261
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-5
2017-18 STATS: 20.1 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 61.2/34.3/73.3
DRAFT RANGE: Top 3

STRENGTHS

Any discussion about what Ayton does well must start with his physical gifts. He’s a shade over 7-feet tall with a wingspan that has been measured at 7-foot-5. He’s 261 pounds and has an NBA-ready body and a frame that can handle the muscle he’s amassed. He’s a ridiculous athlete given his size — his explosiveness his fluidity, his mobility, the way he can move his feet.

Given his tools, he is everything that you would look for if designing a small-ball five for the modern NBA.

And the skill-set is there, too.

Let’s start with the offensive end of the floor, where Ayton can just about do anything. He was one of college basketball’s best post scorers — 1.052 PPP, according to Synergy, a company that logs per-possession statistics. While that isn’t always the best way to measure a big man’s transition to the NBA, the simple fact is that Ayton is going to be bigger and stronger than many of the fives that he’ll see at the NBA level. That adjustment will be easier for him, and the fact that he has a fairly advanced set of moves and impressive footwork on the block certainly helps as well.

His length and athleticism will also make him an effective lob target in the halfcourt, and while his numbers as a roll-man at Arizona weren’t all that impressive, that likely had as much to do with Arizona’s massive spacing issues as anything else. There’s virtually no chance that a player with his tools will be ineffective as a roller, but what makes Ayton so intriguing is that he can shoot it, too. He shot 34.3 percent from three on the season (just 35 attempts) and was somewhere around average as a jump-shooter as a whole, but his 73.3 percent clip from the foul line and a stroke that looks like it isn’t a fluke make it easy to see him being a capable NBA perimeter shooter.

Throw in that he’s a monster on the glass, and the total package is there.

He’s a franchise center in every sense of the word, but the concern with Ayton is that he may not actually want to be a “center”.

WEAKNESSES

Given his physical tools, Ayton has always been a disappointment on the defensive end of the floor, and the question that the organization that drafts him is going to have to answer is ‘why’. Is he a lazy defender? Does he lack defensive instincts because he’s never been coached? Will he only defend when motivated? Does he even want to be a center?

We’ll start with the latter, because that might be the most intriguing part of all of this. Ayton considers himself a power forward. On Arizona’s team roster, Ayton — the tallest member of the team — is listed as a forward while Dusan Ristic is listed as a center and 6-foot-10 Chase Jeter is classified as a forward/center. It’s been this way for Ayton for years, and it’s probably not a coincidence that Ayton spent the entire season playing alongside Ristic (and out of position) despite the fact that it torpedoed Sean Miller’s typically-vaunted defense.

Put another way, while Ayton is so perfect as a positionless five offensively he seems to have no desire to play that role on defense, even if it is his ticket to NBA superstardom.

That may belie the bigger point: Is Ayton just a bad defender?

In theory, he should be an elite rim protector, right? Take a look at the block rates of some recent top ten picks:

That’s concerning, particularly because Ayton’s physical profile is far closer to that of the top three on that list than Kaminsky and Okafor.

The other issue is that, while Ayton can move laterally and is willing to sit in a stance and guard on the perimeter, he simply is not someone that you can ask to spend 36 minutes a night guarding big wings. You want him as your five, guarding on the perimeter when switches make it necessary. We saw that in Arizona’s first round loss to Buffalo in the 2018 NCAA tournament, when the Bulls used a four-guard look and let their “power forward” — a 6-foot-7 scoring guard named Jeremy Harris — give Ayton that work:

Arizona was a flawed basketball team last season. They didn’t have the floor spacing to let Ayton dominate the paint against smaller teams, and they refused to play Ayton at the five, which is what led to dreadful performances against Buffalo in the tournament and against the likes of N.C. State, SMU and Purdue in the Bahamas.

Then there were the team issues that the Wildcats had defensively. Playing Ristic and Ayton together was never going to lead to defensive success on a team that has below-average perimeter defenders, and those issues manifested themselves early and often, as I documented here.

Ayton was hardly blameless in that, but he improved throughout the year, particularly in his ball-screens coverages. That leads me to believe that there is a chance that some of his issues on that end can be solved as he continues to be coached up.

That said, his issues as a rim protector and the fact that he went for long stretches where he seemed to have no interest in actually playing the five played as big of a role in those problems as anything.

NBA COMPARISON

It’s tough to find a direct comparison for Ayton. Physically, he profiles more or less the same as Steven Adams, Joel Embiid and Greg Oden. Ayton is much more skilled offensively than Adams. He’s not quite at the level of Embiid offensively, and both players are, defensively, what Ayton should be if it all comes together for him.

OUTLOOK

The truth is that, for Ayton, it all comes down to whether or not he decides he wants to be great.

If he does, I don’t think it’s out of the question to say that he could end up being a Hall of Famer, maybe one of the 15 or 20 greatest to play the game. Imagine Embiid without limits on his minutes or the number of games that he is allowed to play.

But that assumes that Ayton will put in the work to become something that borders on unstoppable offensively. That also assumes that he will, like Embiid, become one of the NBA’s dominant defensive forces, and that is far from a guarantee. Defense for someone with the physical tools that Ayton has is about want-to, and I think it’s pretty clear he didn’t “want-to” be great on that end of the floor as a freshman or as a high schooler.

In the end, that’s been the knock on Ayton his entire career. When he has been challenged — at that 2016 Peach Jam, when he arrived at Arizona — he absolutely dominated. When he did not feel like playing — like the first round blowout loss at the hands of Buffalo — he looked like a shell of himself, and it’s not hard to think about the grind of an 82-game season playing on a team that was bad enough to end up at the top of the lottery and wonder where the motivation to be great on a nightly basis is going to come from.

The good news for whoever ends up taking Ayton is that his floor is high. It will be quite impressive if Ayton somehow doesn’t turn into a guy that spends a decade or more in the NBA, posting something similar to Adams’ 13.9 points, 9.0 boards and 1.0 blocks. The bad news is that, in my mind, there’s a higher-than-you’d-like chance that Ayton ends up being closer to his floor than his ceiling.