Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Perfect Third Wheel?

Still, it's hard to look at those numbers without wondering, "Is Chris Bosh severely overqualified for the role that Miami gave him?" 
The answer: NO! He's actually perfect. 
If you believe Miami could replace Bosh by dealing him in a package for two or three cheaper players (and cobbling his numbers together), you're saying that he's semi-expendable. And I beg to differ.14 With the way Miami plays basketball right now, you'd want an athletic "small-ball 5" as your third wheel, preferably an intelligent, unselfish teammate who (a) doesn't need a ton of shots to thrive, and (b) doubles as an above-average shooter. Well, check out Bosh's per-game averages on shots from 16 to 23 feet: 5.0 attempts (eighth highest in the NBA), 2.6 makes (second highest), 52 percent (best of anyone who took more than 2.2 per game). Only Kevin Garnett can match the specific things that Bosh does for Miami … and KG might retire in two months.  
I  think it's safe to say that Simmons's opinion has not been vindicated by events.

To be fair, this appeared to be exactly correct during last year's playoffs.  When Bosh returned from injury, and the Heat suddenly had a big player who could do something with the ball, it seemed apparent the pieces fell together perfectly.

But this year, it's not clear.  Against Indiana, the Heat; didn't need a "small-ball 5," they needed somebody who could stand up Roy Hibbert and David West, and grab some rebounds.   That Bosh was couldn't completely fill this role meant that LeBron and Wade had to pitch in as well, which may be partly why they're struggling against the Spurs.

When Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were winning championships, their third banana was Horace Grant and then Dennis Rodman.  They were not overqualified for their roles -- they here doing what they did best -- rebounding and defending.  When you think about the best three players on championship teams, there's always one whose natural role includes rebounding -- Kareem, Robert Parish, Tim Duncan.

Bosh's natural role is probably something more along the lines of KG and Duncan.  But the Heat don't need that from him, and involving him in the offense to the level of those players would probably slow them down. So he's adopted this Horace Grant role he's overqualified for.

The thing is, it's not clear he's suited to be the best or second best player on a championship team.  I'm beginning to think there are certain players whose skills not suited to fitting in to championship teams, and this is not a failure on those players' part.  Players like Bernard King, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins, Allen Iverson, or Carmelo Anthony.  They may win a championship by taking a role as a "third banana" late in their career -- like Gary Payton, Ron Artest, and Ray Allen did -- but it's an odd fit.

Bosh in unique in deliberately moving to "third banana" status in the prime of his career.  He may have been smart enough to recognize that this was the best way to mold his skills into a championship team, and that championships is how we measure players.

I'm not sure I have the answer, but it's interesting to think about what are the ideal players to surround someone like LeBron with.  Someone like Jordan had an obvious position, so you could surround him with players at the other positions.  LeBron can do anything, or else it seems that way; the question is what he should do to maximize his effectiveness, and thus what kind of players it's best to surround him with.

I submit that it's best if someone other than LeBron is responsible for banging against the David Wests and Boris Diaws of the world. Which makes Bosh a less than ideal third banana.  Better to have someone like the 1992 Horace Grant.

The Coaching Carousel

Here is a list of the NBA coaches that have won championships in the past 30 years
  • K.C. Jones
  • Pat Riley
  • Chuck Daly
  • Phil Jackson
  • Rudy Tomjanovich
  • Gregg Poppovich
  • Larry Brown
  • Doc Rivers
  • Rick Carlisle
  • Eric Spoelstra
You'll notice that the length of this list is much lower than 30.  And it is guaranteed not to grow this year.  This suggests that at any given time, there are only a handful of coaches that give you a real chance at winning a championship.

Or maybe not.  Here is a list of the players who have been the best players on a championship team in the past 30 years:

  • Larry Bird
  • Magic Johnson
  • Isiah Thomas
  • Michael Jordan
  • Hakeem Olajuwan
  • Tim Duncan
  • Shaquille O'Neal
  • Chauncey Billups
  • Dwyane Wade
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Paul Pierce
  • Dirk Nowitzki
  • LeBron James
Still a short list, but longer than the list of coaches.  And can be partially explained by the fact that players occasionally get hurt and open the door for other players, whereas coaches don't.

Obviously, Step 0 of contending for a championship is assembling talent.  Preferably one of the best five players in the league, another one in the top 20, and another one in the top 50.  The '04 Pistons are the only championship team without a first team all-NBA caliber player .

But what matters from there?  I don't think it's clear.  Is it building a supporting cast of role players -- your Shane Battiers, Derek Fishers, Robert Horrys, etc.?  Or is it to have a championship-caliber coach.

It seems plausible that the next step is to ensure you have a championship caliber coach.  And if you have the talent, but you have an inkling that your guys isn't one of those guys, the prudent thing is to cut him loose and take a chance on someone else.

Now, we are talking about human beings.  It does seem cruel to "fire" someone like George Karl or Lionel Hollins who seems to have done a good job.  But if the only thing between a group of talented hard-working players and a championship is the lack of an elite coach, it would not be fair to them to decline to pursue one.

It makes it hard to be an NBA Head coach.  They can console themselves with the knowledge that they are orders of magnitude better compensated than lots of other jobs that are no more stable.  And that they can likely move into another job in coaching or broadcasting.