The LJ/Zo Hornets FAQ

Today, I thought we’d look at another “almost” team of the 1990s, the Charlotte Hornets squads that were led by young stars Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning from 1992 to 1995.  These Hornets were heralded as one of the young teams that might be Shaquille O’Neal-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic’s main rival.  Recently, NBA TV did a fun documentary about the LJ/Zo squad in which the protagonists looked back fondly at the old times but missed many of the complicated details regarding how good the team actually was and why they were broken up.  The team was fun on paper, and appeared to have two bookend stars with LJ’s marketing appeal and Zo’s unparalleled intensity.  How good were they and did they miss out at a shot of title contention?  I have my suspicions but let’s dive in FAQ-style to re-examine the LJ/Zo Years in Charlotte.

A Brief Recap of LJ/Zo Years

For those who have forgotten, the Hornets were a popular but bad expansion team that began life in 1988. They always led the league in attendance but lost 191 games their first three seasons before landing the top pick in the 1991 Draft.  Charlotte used that pick to draft Larry Johnson, the undersized UNLV PF, who had explosiveness and power game that was always compared to fellow short power forward Charles Barkley.

LJ didn’t disappoint.  He promptly won Rookie of the Year in 1991-92 (19.2 ppg, 11.0 rpg) and led the Hornets to a then-franchise best 31-51 record.  They were just bad enough to pull the second overall pick in the 1992 Draft.  They missed out on Shaq but got a nice consolation prize in Mourning, who was a huge star at Georgetown and would’ve been a fine first pick in most drafts. 

With this tandem, in 1992-93, the Hornets improved to 44-38 and won a tight playoff series against the Celtics on a Zo series winning jumper but were then dispatched by the top seeded Knicks 4-1.  In 1993-94, the LJ got a huge extension in October 1993 (for 12 years and $84 million) and Charlotte were outside title contenders in the pre-season.  Vegas had them at 48 wins in the pre-sesaon with the fifth best title odds at +1200 (tied with the Spurs, Rockets, and Blazers).  Unfortunately, LJ promptly hurt his back and struggled all season.  Charlotte finished 41-41 and just missed the playoffs.

 In 1994-95, LJ was healthy but he was decidedly more of a below the rim player.  Still, Charlotte had its best season at 50-32 and earned a fourth seed.  Unluckily for Charlotte, they drew a five seed Bulls who happened to feature a recently unretired Michael Jordan.  MJ dominated the series (32.3 ppg on .585 TS%) and the Bulls won 3-1.  On the eve of the 1995-96, due to a contract negotiation impasse, Zo forced a trade to Miami and the LJ/Mourning ended before it really did anything.  LJ played out 1995-96 with a .500 team before getting traded to New York.  Having established the basic facts, let’s turn to the nitty gritty…

How good was LJ pre-back injury?

My independent memories recall him being a force of nature made up of dunks, primal screams, and gold teeth, but the advanced stats are less impressed:

1991-93 (age 22-23): 38.5 mpg, 20.6 ppg, .561 TS%, 10.8 rpg, 3.9 apg, 18.9 PER, .140 WS48, 1.8 BPM

These are very nice stats but, for context, let’s compare them to Barkley’s stats at the same age: 

1985-87 (age 22-23): 38.5 mpg, 21.4 ppg, .638 TS%, 13.6 rpg, 23.7 PER, .192 WS48, 5.9 BPM

That’s light years ahead of LJ at the same age.  LJ was a definite All-Star but he was several tiers below Barkley and it’s not likely that he would’ve ever caught Sir Charles, who got even better in the ensuing years.  LJ was a building block but his pre-injury form was probably overrated.

How much did LJ drop off post-back injury?

For those that remember LJ on the Knicks as an undersized post up guy, it may come as some surprise that LJ’s post-injury Charlotte numbers were pretty good.  If we exclude 1993-94, the year of the injury, here is how LJ did compared to the pre-injury days:

1991-93 (pre-injury): 38.5 mpg, 20.6 ppg, .561 TS%, 10.8 rpg, 3.9 apg, 18.9 PER, .140 WS48, 1.8 BPM

1994-96 (post-injury): 40.2 mpg, 19.7 ppg, .559 TS%, 7.8 rpg, 4.5 apg, 18.4 PER, .138 WS48, 2.4 BPM

Johnson totally remade his game as a perimeter player.  The boards dropped dramatically but he made up for that by hitting a ton of three-pointers (148-393, .377%) post-injury compared to the low volume and efficiency pre-injury (23-93, .247%).  Some of the increased three-pointer proficiency came from the newly shortened three-point line in 1994 but, the fact is, LJ was roughly as valuable after the injury in Charlotte as a result of this adjustment, even if the style of play was less explosive. 

What about Zo?

Young Mourning put up nice raw stats as a Hornet (21.3 ppg, .589 TS%, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg) but his advanced stats were also a bit tepid (20.8 PER, .151 WS48, 1.1 BPM).  Again, these are perfectly good stats but well below what he would later do with Miami (21.7 PER, .176 WS48, 2.8 BPM).  In terms of value relative to his peers, here is how Mourning’s Charlotte years stacked up in VORP:

Center VORP 1992-1995

1. David Robinson, 26.8 (243 games)

2. Hakeem Olajuwon, 20.4 (234 games)

3.  Shaquille O’Neal, 17.2 (241 games)

4. Patrick Ewing, 13.6 (239 games)

5. Dikembe Mutombo, 9.3 (246 games)

    Vlade Divac, 9.3 (241 games)

7. Brad Daugherty, 6.5 (121 games)

8. Alonzo Mourning, 6.0 (215 games)

9. Oliver Miller, 3.8 (125 games)

10. Rik Smits, 3.0 (237 games)

Advanced stats can be buggy so we can’t take VORP as gospel but Zo was clearly below the big time Hall of Famers by several orders and also a rung below Mutombo, Vlade, and Daugherty.

What was also surprising was that Zo’s presence didn’t guarantee the Hornets a great defense.  In fact, Charlotte was slightly below average on defense in Mourning’s first two years (19th in 1992-93 and 17th in 1993-94).  The bad defense appeared to be based mostly on bad coaching decisions.  Coach Allan Bristow wanted to run and press but the results were not great:

1992-93: 2nd in pace, 19th in defense (44-38)

1993-94: 4th in pace, 17th in defense (41-41)

The pace didn’t help Zo either, who was close to average in DBPM those seasons.  The Hornets finally adjusted after those two seasons.  For the 1994-95 season, Charlotte hired defensive guru Johnny Bach (who was forced out by the Bulls) and the Hornets slowed it down on offense.  The combination was a significant improvement:

1994-95: 22nd in pace, 9th in defense (50-32)

Mourning also had his best DBPM (0.9) in 1994-95 but his overall stats (20.1 PER, .153 WS48, 1.1 BPM) were still below the stats he would put up in Miami in 1995-96 (22.7 PER, .178 WS48, 4.2 BPM).  The Miami Zo stepped up to a Ewing level of effectiveness in one season.  It is possible that the same improvement would’ve occurred in Charlotte had Zo stayed but so many players have made leaps when playing with Pat Riley that the trade to Miani must’ve been a factor.

Did Jordan kill the LJ/Zo Hornets?

Despite the great showing in 1994-95, the Hornets four seed in the playoffs earned the right to play Jordan’s Bulls.  A comparatively shaky MJ was still great and the 47-35 Bulls sported a 4.32 SRS to the Hornets’ 2.87 SRS.  The Hornets were quite aware of their predicament and were salty when questioned by reporters before the start of the playoffs. 

According to this Herald-Journal story from April 22, 1995: “It doesn’t appear to be a matchup the Hornets are relishing. After Thursday’s 91-86 loss to New York, which solidified the Hornets’ matchup with Chicago, Hornets players were evasive – and some downright hostile – when asked about the playoffs. ‘I have no comment on the playoffs,’ said center Alonzo Mourning….. Said guard Hersey Hawkins, a Chicago native who will have the awesome task of guarding Jordan, ‘Does anybody look forward to guarding Michael Jordan? I really haven’t seen him play this year outside of (Jordan’s first game back against) Indiana.’ Said guard Dell Curry, ‘I ain’t worrying about them until we play them.’ One wonders if the Hornets would be reacting the same way if they were preparing to play the Atlanta Hawks or the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.”

Well, the Bulls beat the Hornets with a 3-1 series victory but the Hornets were competitive.  Chicago outscored Charlotte by 3.8 ppg.  The Bulls won the clincher in Game 4 85-84 and needed a fourth quarter comeback to seal the deal. 

After the loss to Chicago, Bristow noted that: “Chicago ruined our season.  There’s no question that if it was any other team, we’d have won and gotten to the second round.”  This seems accurate.  The other potential match ups were Cleveland (the slow paced Fratello Cavs), Atlanta (the slow paced Wilkens Hawks) or Chicago without Jordan, all of whom seemed quite beatable.  The Hornets didn’t exactly destroy these teams in the regular season (3-2 against Cleveland, 2-2 against Atlanta, 2-1 against Chicago without MJ). 

The ultimate reward would’ve been a match up with Shaq, Penny and Orlando in the second round.  Charlotte went 1-3 against Orlando (though two of the games were close) but it’s fair to assume that the Magic would’ve dispatched Charlotte in five or six games and wouldn’t have changed Zo’s imminent trade demand.

So, how good could this team have been if they stayed together?

Assuming coaching improved and utilized Zo correctly, they seemed pretty maxed out at the low 50-win range and not a serious contender in the East.  The rest of the roster was decent but not overwhelming:

-Point guard Muggsy Bogues had very pronounced strengths and weaknesses that added up to a an average player

-Shooting guard was Kendall Gill (excellent slasher, weak shooter) or Hersey Hawkins (pretty good overall player but not explosive at that point)

-Small forward was a weak spot populated by role players (Johnny Newman and David Wingate)

Charlotte should’ve kept Mourning and traded LJ if possible but the ceiling here was still not that high because the stars weren’t as good as perceived, and the rest of the roster was not that deep.

Hornets GM Bob Bass received Glen Rice for Zo and Anthony Mason for LJ.   In the end, the trades of both players worked out well for everyone.  Zo was a borderline MVP candidate and anchored some very good Heat teams that flamed out in the playoffs until he suffered a kidney illness in 2000 that reduced his effectiveness.  LJ was a solid veteran third/fourth option for New York before his back totally gave out in 2001 at age-31.

After the trade, the Hornets had a nice solid team built around the new players (Bass also flipped Rice at the perfect time for Eddie Jones, which kept the run going).  From 1996-97 through 2001-02, the Hornets made the playoffs five times in six seasons and made the second round three times.  In other words, the Hornets built a better team without their original stars. 

In the end, Charlotte didn’t do much with their two most famous stars of the early years.  They beat an older Celtics team in 1993 that also lost Reggie Lewis during the series.  Also of note, Charlotte was the only team to beat MJ in a First Round series game after 1990.  The LJ/Zo Years were fun on paper but poor coaching, a tepid roster, and the actual value of the stars made a title run likely impossible. 

Leaving Portland: Dame v. Clyde

The recent trade demand by Dame Lillard has definitely got me thinking about some of the ancillary issues raised by this kerfuffle.  Dame was seemingly happy in Portland and signed a huge extension in June 2022, at which time, he professed his love for the town and the organization.  After another disappointing season and Portland’s decision to draft his replacement, Scoot Henderson, Dame is not only demanding a trade but has demanded that the only trade partner be Miami.  Let’s review the situation, FAQ-style:

What is the current state of Dame?

Lillard will be 33 this season and had a great year (31.9 ppg, 7.3 apg, 26.7 PER, .205 WS48, 7.1 BPM), which should be a huge value if he can put a team into title contention.  On the other side of the ledger is the contract problem.  Dame is owed over $216 million over the next four years (assuming he exercises his $63 million option (!) for 2026-27). The Blazers are reportedly underwhelmed by Miami’s current offer.

Does Dame have a legitimate beef with the Blazers?

It’s hard to feel too bad for a player who chose the security of a long-term deal for the supermax when the cost was his freedom to choose his destination.  Affording Dame some benefit of the doubt, the situation on the ground has changed a little from last summer.  The team was bad this season and Lillard wants to win.  Perhaps the Blazers promised that the team would try to contend and, instead, Scoot’s presence indicates a rebuild is coming.  The counterpoint, though, is that the Blazers haven’t been a favorite in a playoff series since 2019 and it was somewhat unrealistic of Dame to believe that they would be a legit contender through his extension years.  Dame may have believed he could will the team back to contention or that he could deal with a few bad years.  I get Lillard’s feelings but the situation we are in now was entirely foreseeable in June 2022. 

 Had Portland drafted Amen Thompson or traded the pick for vet help, would Dame have been happy?

Probably but, as good as Thompson looked in summer league, he doesn’t look like he would transform Portland back to contender status quickly either.  Like nearly all rookies, Thompson will take some time to develop into an asset for a playoff team and time is not something that Dame has much left (as a superstar player that is).

Trading the third pick for vet help seems like it would’ve made Lillard much happier but this also seems like a limited upside decision.  The third pick is only appealing to rebuilding teams, who usually don’t have the stars to offer for immediate help, unless the counterparty is trading a star under duress (see the trade of Anthony Davis to the Lakers for the fourth pick and other consideration).

Portland was inevitably headed towards a deep rebuild unless management was content to have a Wizards situation, where the team was on the fringe of the playoffs but never a real threat.  Perhaps Dame was surprised at the rebuild or perhaps he figured he would lock in an extension and figure out the future when it came.  Either way, this trade demand is not shocking.

Does having a one team list for a trade demand take some chutzpah?

Yes.  Dame’s demands here are slightly off putting but are not so crazy.  Dame has the right to demand whatever he wants but he should, at least, give Portland some leverage to shop him and this short list of trade partners (actually partner) hurts that effort.  It is true that Dame probably wants Miami to keep as many assets as possible to help him when/if he is traded there but cutting out Portland’s legs is a bit rough and won’t speed up the process.

On top of that, I don’t think Dame’s gambit will work.  The Blazers have indicated that they will not trade Dame at this time because the Miami offer isn’t good enough. They are gambling that Lillard won’t be too difficult if he returns to Portland, similar to the Kevin Durant aborted trade demand from last summer.  If I had to guess, I would agree that Dame would be professional even if he was unhappy still being a Blazer.  Even if Dame is a pain, it doesn’t really matter to Portland.  The Blazers have no incentive to be good next season so who cares if Dame plays?  With time on its side, Portland can force a better Miami offer or induce Dame to permit a few other competing bids from other teams eventually.  Basically, the same playbook the Nets ran with Durant.

Dame v. Clyde

Lillard’s recent trade request started a mini debate as to whether he or Clyde Drexler is the greatest long term Blazer ever (Bill Walton has a strong case too, but his case is short term in nature while Dame and Clyde are long term Blazers and thus their cases are directly comparable).  In my mind, Dame and Clyde are pretty close in value but let’s run the advanced stats for them as Blazers:

-Clyde: 867 games, 21.3 PER, .177 WS48, 5.7 BPM

-Dame: 769 games, 22.5 PER, .177 WS48, 4.9 BPM

Playoffs

-Clyde: 94 games, 20.1 PER, .136 WS48, 6.3 BPM

-Dame: 61 games, 19.8 PER, .114 WS48, 4.3 BPM

Drexler has a slight edge in both the regular season and playoffs stats and has done it in more games played (so far).  Putting stats aside, Drexler also presided over a better sustained title contention run (1989-90 through 1991-92) as well. 

If you want to compare them by how they were perceived by the fans/voters, Clyde made five All-NBA teams to seven for Dame.  Drexler has had better showings in MVP votes, with two top five finishes, including coming in second to Michael Jordan in 1991-92.  Dame’s only top five MVP finish was fourth in 2017-18.  Again, it is close but Clyde is slightly ahead.  The difference is not big enough to definitively pronounce Drexler a clear winner but I lean Drexler as the better Blazer overall.

Another Comparison: Clyde’s End in Portland

The most interesting Dame-Drexler comparison, to me, is how they executed their exits from Portland.  In February 1995, Drexler was famously traded to his hometown Houston Rockets to play with college teammate Hakeem Olajuwon, where they led the Rockets to a title that June.  But let’s go back to the inflection point of Drexler’s trade demand and how Portland dealt with the demand.

In February 1995, Drexler was 32 years old and was making $1.6 million but had another year left on his deal for $9.8 million (this was back when the NBA permitted a large “balloon” payment that was essentially deferred income for a star being underpaid for years).  The Blazers had been a legitimate title contender and made the Finals in 1989 and 1991 but were declining with age.  Here’s the Blazers’ year-by-year records during those years:

1989-90: 59-23, 6.48 SRS (Lost in NBA Finals)

1990-91: 63-19, 8.47 SRS (Lost in Western Conference Finals)

1991-92: 57-25, 6.94 SRS (Lost in NBA Finals)

1992-93: 51-31, 2.92 SRS (Lost in First Round)

1993-94: 47-35, 2.60 SRS (Lost in First Round)

After the 1993-94 season, the Blazers fired coach Rick Adelman and restructured the front office.  The Drexler Blazers hadn’t cratered like Dame’s current team but the trend line seemed to be heading downwards.  In Drexler’s autobiography, “The Glide,” he wrote (with Kerry Eggers) that “I just wanted to get out at that point [after the change in management]. My role on the team had changed. I was no longer the do-everything guy. I had fewer opportunities to do things. It was probably for the best.“ (Hat tip to https://nbatrades.tumblr.com/ for sourcing much of this deal).

Drexler told management he wanted to be traded before the 1994-95 season but did not announce it to the public until January 1995.  Ironically, the team was pretty good (25-20) and Drexler was playing great at the time of the trade. His advanced stats with Portland in 1994-95 were career highs in WS48 and BPM and his PER wasn’t too shabby either: 22.7 PER, .217 WS48, 7.9 BPM.  (As a side note, the Blazers signed Arvydas Sabonis the next season and it is conceivable that, if they kept Drexler, with Sabonis, Rod Strickland and Cliff Robinson, they would’ve been very good).

In terms of trading Drexler, it was clear he wanted to go back home to Houston and Portland was willing to accommodate him.  So, what was the return for a HOF guard playing at a prime(ish) level?  Veteran power forward Otis Thorpe, the rights to European draftee Marcelo Nicola, and the Rockets first round pick in the 1995 draft (Houston was 29-17 at the time, which projected the pick to be in the low 20s).  Portland also traded Tracy Murray, who was a deep bench player at the time.  Digging deeper, here are the stats on the new Blazers:

Otis Thorpe: age 32, 13.3 ppg, 8.9 ppg, 14.7 PER, .094 WS48, -1.9 BPM, one year left on his contract at about $2.6 million

Marcelo Nicola: age 24, Argentine power forward, would never play in the NBA

Late first round pick in 1995

In addition, Portland assumed $7 million of the 1995-96 Drexler salary, making the trade cost neutral for Houston.  Portland would finish 19-18 after the trade with Thorpe (and about a dozen other power forwards).  Overall, they were 44-38 and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Suns.

After the season, the Blazers traded the spoils of the deal a bit.  They had the Rocket 1995 pick (which ended up being 19th) and traded that around for other picks, ultimately landing rookie Gary Trent and a 1997 first rounder from Detroit for three 1995 picks.  A few months later, Portland would trade Thorpe to Detroit and get back rookie Randolph Childress (who Detroit had picked 19th with that same Houston pick).  The final tally on the haul for Drexler: a few months of Thorpe, Childress (who washed out), Trent (a solid back up power forward), and the 1997 20th pick (which was used in a package to acquire JR Rider). 

The assets the Blazers got back (in the end, three late first round picks) were probably less than the value of Drexler but not as bad as it seemed at first glance. It appears that Portland management did Drexler a solid, sending him where he wanted to go for a merely decent return.

How does this compare to the current predicament for Portland?

The Blazers are still owned by the Allen family but sentimentality is harder to find this time. Both Portland and Dame are playing hardball.  Would Portland have treated Lillard like Drexler if Dame had been less aggressive about his trade demands?  Probably.  In the end, Portland will get a decent haul (likely from Miami) but we could’ve gotten here without the public protestations.

NBA Finals 2022-23 Wrap Up: Ranking Jokic

The Nuggets impressive post season run really cements Nikola Jokic in the conversation as an all-time great.  Sure, Jokic was a Hall of Famer even before the 2022-23 season started but there is nothing like a title to get consensus from the guys in the back row.  Let’s delve into a few details of the title run, FAQ style…

How impressive was Denver’s run?

Denver went 16-4 and was clearly dominant this post season.  Only two other teams in the last two decades have won a title with only four playoff losses.  Yet when you dig a little deeper, it looks like Denver had as easy a run as any recent title team.  Here are the won-loss records and SRS of the Nuggets playoff opponents:

Round 1: Minnesota, 42-40, -0.22 SRS

Round 2: Phoenix, 45-37, 2.08 SRS

WCF: L.A. Lakers, 43-39, 0.43 SRS

Finals: Miami, 44-38, -0.13 SRS

Of course, it’s not that simple.  The Suns got Kevin Durant (8-0 in his games, 37-37 without him), the Lakers remade their team at the deadline (19-9 after the Russell Westbrook trade), and the Heat went on a really weird hot streak. Independent of the trades, there is also a general sense that most teams are giving away regular season games in the name of load management.  Therefore, maybe won-loss records in the modern era (ie since 2020) don’t matter in assessing the strength of playoff foes?

Let’s compare the Nuggets’ playoff path with that of the other title teams of the post-Warriors dynasty to see if they had it any easier on paper:

2019-20 Lakers (records pro-rated to 82-game season)

Round 1: Portland, 39-43, -0.61 SRS

Round 2: Houston, 50-32, 3.13 SRS

WCF: Denver, 52-30, 2.35 SRS

Finals: Miami, 49-33, 2.59 SRS

Bubble or not, those Lakers were good and played moderately good teams. Stats-wise, Houston and Denver were on par with the 2022-23 Nuggets opponents and the 2019-20 version of the Heat was slightly better than this year’s version.  Looking a little deeper, the Rockets were very good but the aforementioned Westbrook was hurt, making that series easier for the Lakers.  The 2019-20 Nuggets were better than their record, as Jamal Murray was hitting another level that playoffs. Putting all these facts together, my subjective sense is that the Lakers’ run was close to as easy as the Denver 2022-23 run.

2020-21 Bucks (records pro-rated to 82-game season)

Round 1: Miami, 46-36, -0.06 SRS

Round 2: Brooklyn, 55-27, 4.24 SRS

ECF: Atlanta, 47-35, 2.14 SRS

Finals: Phoenix, 58-24, 5.67 SRS

The Bucks had some luck (the Nets’ injuries, KD’s toe being over the line, and Philly melting down against Atlanta) but this was a nice impressive run as the Nets and Suns were both title-worthy teams.

2021-22 Warriors

Round 1: Denver, 48-34, 2.15 SRS

Round 2: Memphis, 56-26, 5.37 SRS

WCF: Dallas, 52-30, 3.12 SRS

Finals: Boston, 51-31, 7.02 SRS

Last year’s Warriors ran a serious gauntlet.  They did dodge the top seeded Suns but GS didn’t exactly get a reprieve with the Luka Doncic/Jalen Brunson Mavs.  This was a legitimately difficult title chase and makes Denver’s 2022-23 run look quite easy by comparison. Golden State played three legit title contenders and the Grizz and Celtics were probably the best teams on paper. 

In all, Denver had a significantly easier path by the numbers and subjective factors but they are worthy champs based on how dominant they were against the teams they played.  We will see where the age of parity takes us and whether regular season dominance no longer correlates as much with post season success.  I suspect regular season dominance will still be important to most teams and that 2022-23 was particularly anomalous.

Where does Jokic rank on the all-time centers list?

This is a difficult and inherently subjective question.  Jokic basically plays point center and even the great passing centers of the past generations didn’t pass the way he does in initiating a motion offense.  Wilt Chamberlain passed more from the stationary post and would hand off into teammates bread baskets (which was also quite impressive).  Jokic also is the first truly great three-point shooter, something that none of the other greats did (or were expected to do). 

On the other hand, Jokic is the only all-time list who has little defensive presence and is vulnerable to the pick-and-roll.  Putting aside Wilt & Russell, more recent greats were excellent in both these areas (except Shaq who was toasted regularly in the pick-and-roll by the late 1990s Stockton-Malone tandem).

It’s also very early to compare career value to centers who were great for 10-15 years.  So, it’s really unfair to peg a precise value on Jokic due to his unique skillset, the early phase of his career, and the different contexts in which these centers put up their numbers.  Having said all that, it’s reasonable to conclude that, as a player with ridiculous offensive stats, a title win, and two MVPs, Jokic has surpassed the outer circle of the great centers. 

Let’s compare him to the inner circle.  Your mileage may vary, ESPN writers voted on this point in 2016 and came up with the following list:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

2. Wilt Chamberlain

3. Bill Russell

4. Shaquille O’Neal

5. Hakeem Olajuwon

6. Moses Malone

7. David Robinson

8. Patrick Ewing

9. George Mikan

10. Bill Walton

It’s hard to assess a list unless you define the criteria.  Are we measuring dominance relative to peers? Are we taking players at their peak?  Are we magically bringing the players to play in the 2022-23 NBA?  Without articulating a measure, voters usually meld several factors for an overall “feel” of the players being ranked.  Without guidance, this is an inherently unsatisfying exercise but still let’s do it anyway.

We can safely put Jokic ahead of Walton who barely played (but was great for about two years before his feet went).  Also, Mikan’s era is so far removed from the modern NBA that he’s not worth assessing (though if the criteria was dominance relative to era, Big George was as good as almost anyone).

That takes Jokic to the Ewing/Robinson/Moses level.  Ewing was never too close to an MVP as Jokic has been and, though Ewing had a great career, he is clearly a level below the Joker by virtue of this fact.  Robinson and Moses are closer calls and it’s hard to put Jokic ahead of them unless he maintains this level of dominance for another few years.  If Jokic can play this well for another three years or so, he could vault into the inner sanctum.  At worst, Jokic is the eighth best modern center ever right now (yes, Joel Embiid is also creeping up the list too but is behind Jokic at this point).

Okay, so where does Jokic rank against this crew through the same age?

Ugh I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that.  The era differences complicate the comps but here are the advanced stats of this group through age-27:

Regular Season

Jokic: 596 games, 27.7 PER, .247 WS48, 9.4 BPM

Kareem: 467 games, 26.7 PER, .276 WS48, 7.6 BPM (partial stats)

Wilt: 391 games, 30.3 PER, .272 WS48 (no BPM available)

Hakeem: 468 games, 23.6 PER, .182 WS48, 4.6 BPM

Shaq: 534 games, 27.9 PER, .224 WS48, 6.1 BPM

Russell: 415 games, 20.2 PER, .201 WS48 (no BPM available)

Ewing: 357 games, 21.8 PER, .149 WS48, 3.5 BPM

Moses: 670 games, 23.1 PER, .186 WS48, 2.4 BPM

Robinson: 314 games, 26.3 PER, .239 WS48, 7.7 BPM

Walton: 223 games, 22.1 PER, .175 WS48, 7.7 BPM

Playoff Stats

Jokic: 68 games, 29.0 PER, .236 WS48, 10.4 BPM

Kareem: 57 games, 25.5 PER, .236 WS48 (no BPM available)

Wilt: 36 games, 29.3 PER, .274 WS48 (no BPM available)

Hakeem: 47 games, 26.2 PER, .224 WS48, 7.2 BPM

Shaq: 89 games, 28.5 PER, .192 WS48, 6.8 BPM

Russell: 67 games, 21.2 PER, .210 WS48 (no BPM available)

Ewing: 23 games, 22.2 PER, .142 WS48, 3.9 BPM

Moses: 64 game, 23.0 PER, .191 WS48, 3.9 BPM

Robinson: 24 games, 23.5 PER, .201 WS48, 6.7 BPM

Walton: 21 games, 20.2 PER, .166 WS48, 6.3 BPM

Advanced stats are a bit buggy and the data is limited for the pre-1973 players.  Also, DBPM weirdly rates Jokic as a top defender when he is objectively not great in that area.  Even with all those caveats, Jokic rates about as good as any NBA center to ever play through age-27.  Assuming he maintains a normal aging pattern, he will plausibly be in the top tier by the end of his career, if not sooner.

NBA Finals Preview 2022-23

Another year, another new Finals match up.  The Nuggets against the Heat feels broadly like the 1998-99 Finals redux, where the top seeded Spurs, led by emerging star Tim Duncan played an eight seeded Knicks team that was clearly better than its low seed and featured Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby.   In this case, the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic play the role of the Spurs and Duncan.  Like the Spurs, Denver has a great young big man hoping to lead his ABA team to a first NBA title.  Back in 1999, the Spurs handled the Knicks relatively easily.  Do the Heat have a better shot?  Let’s take a peak…

How is Miami doing this?

Obviously, the emergence of “Playoff Jimmy Butler” is the starting point, as he has bumped up his scoring and minutes quite a bit (22.9 ppg in 33.4 mpg in the regular season and 28.5 ppg in 39.4 mpg).  While having Butler playing bigger minutes has obviously helped, he actually has not shot better or been appreciably better overall.  Yes, he’s been transcendent a few times in the playoffs but, on a whole, his TS% and advanced stats are lower than they were in the regular season and lower than his even more impressive 2021-22 playoffs.  So, Butler playing huge minutes helps but that’s not nearly the whole story.

During the regular season, Miami was a slow paced (96.3, 29th in NBA) and bad offensive team (113.0, 25th in NBA).  Miami has bumped up its offensive rating to 116.3 on an even slower pace (95.5).  The Heat’s three-point shooting has been the driving force in improving the offense (.344% in the regular season but is up to .390% so far in the playoffs).

Miami has shot fewer threes but they are making them.  Here’s a comparison of how some of their key players have done in the regular season and playoffs from three:

PlayerReg. SeasonPlayoffs
Max Strus0.3510.359
Duncan Robinson0.3710.446
Kyle Lowry0.3450.355
Gabe Vincent0.3340.391
Kevin Love0.2970.368
Caleb Martin0.3560.438
Jimmy Butler0.3510.356

Vincent and Martin have gone from meh three-point shooters to really good on higher volume.  The stats don’t show it but a lot of their threes have been difficult and/or off the dribble.  Robinson has shot this well in the past. He’s just getting a chance to play due to Tyler Herro’s wrist injury.  In all, Miami’s hot shooting feels a little anomalous. 

Martin’s great play isn’t just from three, he’s shooting .714% from two as well (compared to .545% in the regular season).  Granted he only takes about four two-pointers a game but that is still an insanely high percentage for a perimeter player.   He literally hasn’t missed a shot in the playoffs from 10-16 feet and is shooting .786% on long twos.  Put it all together and here are Martin’s advanced stats in the regular season and playoffs:

Regular Season: 11.4 PER, .086 WS48, -1.2 BPM, 0.4 VORP

Playoffs: 17.4 PER, .178 WS48, 3.8 BPM, 0.8 VORP

We all know Martin has been great but these stats really highlight just how great.  For perspective, Martin’s BPM compares with that of Jalen Brunson or Lauri Markkanen.  Adding an All-Star level player out of nowhere for the playoffs helps.

Can Miami stop Jokic?

Of course not.  Okay so can they slow him down at all?  It’s nice to see the overall perception of Jokic match how dominant he’s been via advanced stats.  Jokic has been Wilt-like, leading the NBA in PER, WS, WS48, BPM, and VORP each of the last three seasons.  That’s fairly incredible, even if we acknowledge that advanced stats are a bit buggy and don’t seem to properly account for his defensive shortcomings (he regularly leads the league in DBPM, which is quite a suspect assessment).

Miami has been effective using a zone defense for much of the playoffs but you wonder whether zone is a great way to handle Jokic.  You also wonder whether Bam Adebayo has the size to check Jokic under any defensive theory.  Per Basketball-Reference, Jokic is 10-2 against Bam for their career and has dominated him:

PlayerGWLGSMPFGFGAFG%3P3PA3P%FTFTAFT%ORBDRBTRBASTSTLBLKTOVPFPTS
Nikola Jokić121021234.78.615.60.5511.43.10.4593.64.30.8272.39.311.66.81.10.82.73.222.2
Bam Adebayo12210926.84.810.60.45700.103.85.30.7142.14.86.92.80.90.62.41.813.4

Limiting the sample size to this year, Denver is 2-0 against Miami and won each game by four and five points.  Jokic was quite dominant and even won the first game without Jamal Murray and Miami having most of its crew available.  Miami played Bam mostly at center but used deep bench big Orlando Robinson quite a bit out of necessity.  This time, Miami can throw Cody Zeller at Jokic a bit but that also seems like a tough match up for Miami. 

In short, the Heat’s best plan is to make Jokic work on defense and throw a lot of guys at him on the other end.  This will be tough, especially when you consider how big the rest of the Denver front line is with Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr.

Let’s not forget “Playoff Jamal Murray”

For all the talk of Martin’s postseason stats, Murray has stepped it up similarly:

-Regular Season: 32.8 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .494 2FG%, .398 3FG%

-Post Season: 38.9 mpg, 29.9 ppg, .552 2FG%, .474 3FG%

Murray has shot well from every quadrant of the court in the postseason but his mid-range chops have been really impressive (.563%) and he’s been making tough contested shots.  The only point guard that Miami has faced this postseason with a similar game was Brunson, who gave Miami some real trouble.

Can Denver overcome history?

Denver is a fairly average defensive team, ranking 15th in the NBA in the regular season.  If they win a title, they will have worst defensive ranking for a title team since the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 21st in defense but were on cruise control before turning it on for the playoffs (2000-01 was the middle season of the Lakers’ threepeat and they were 1st and 7th in defense the other two title years).  Outside of that anomalous team, an average defensive team has basically never won a title before.

Prediction

Miami has had a great run and they are legitimately more of a 50-win team than the eight seed they ended up with but I think the size of Denver and Jokic is just too much, particularly with Murray playing so well.  The Heat are not a pushover but the incredible run ends.  Denver wins 4-2.

Playoff Quick Thoughts

So far, the playoffs have been as unpredictable as any, including the Bubble.  We had a sense that the regular season results would be less predictive than usual but seeing Milwaukee get surprisingly dispatched relatively easily by an eight seed Heat team was surprising to say the least.  Let’s run through some interesting questions from the playoffs so far FAQ-style.

How bad was the Bucks’ loss?

Any time a one seed loses to an eight seed, the one seed is not covered in glory.  Nevertheless, I’m inclined to cut Milwaukee some slack.  Jimmy Butler scored nearly 38 points per game and the poorly timed Giannis Antetokounmpo injury didn’t help either.  An argument could be made that the Bucks should have deviated from their normal defense to double Butler more but the Heat supporting cast shot incredibly well from three also (.450% as a team and Duncan Robinson was an incredible 14-19).  The loss was a perfect storm and shouldn’t be taken as a grand indictment of the Bucks as a team.

What does a loss to an eight seed do to the upset favorite?

Just for a little perspective, here’s how past one seed losers did in the aftermath of their disappointments:

-1993-94 Sonics:  After the tough upset against Dikembe Mutombo and the Nuggets, Seattle went 57-25 and post the best SRS (7.91) but were upset by the Nick Van Exel Lakers (of “Nick at Night” fame).  Seattle didn’t throw in the towel (though they did seriously consider trading Shawn Kemp) and went 64-18 and made the Finals in 1995-96 and were a title contender through 1998.

-1998-99 Heat: This doesn’t even count as an upset as they lost to a 27-23 Knicks team during the lockout season when everything was a bit screwy.  The Heat brought the same team back in 1999-00 and went 52-30 but lost to New York (again) in the second round, blowing Game 7 at home.  The team remained competitive until a kidney ailment greatly reduced Alonzo Mourning’s effectiveness in 2000.

-2006-07 Mavericks:  The Mavs were upset by the athletic Baron Davis Warriors, who somehow were able to use smaller players to curtail Dirk Nowitzki.  Dallas retooled a bit by trading for an older Jason Kidd and won 50+ games the next four years.  The Mavs playoff success was varied during that span but they did ultimately win the title in 2010-11.

-2010-11 Spurs:  Yes, the Tim Duncan Spurs were whipped by an eight seed Grizzlies without any real excuses.  The only plausible excuse was that the Grizzlies were much better than everyone realized and had a nice run over the next five years.  As for the Spurs, the playoff malaise was actually longer than just 2011.  Since losing in the 2008 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs lost in the first round two times  (including the 2011 upset) and were swept the one time they made the second round.  The Spurs, however, did not panic and kept the core together (and drafted Kawhi Leonard).  The Spurs then had one of their best runs from 2012 through to 2014, going to the WCF or NBA each season (winning a title 2014 and coming a Ray Allen shot away from a second title in 2013).

-2011-12 Bulls:  This is a sad example because the title contender Bulls were sunk by a knee injury to Derrick Rose during Game 1 of the series against the eight seed 76ers.  Without Rose, Chicago was just okay and they lost to Philly.  Rose was never the same player again.  They remained a 45-50 win team the next three seasons but were not a real contender. 

The moral of the story is that teams should not panic only about one bad playoff result.  Yes, each context is a bit different but star power matters and there is no need to overreact to a single playoff upset (or even consecutive upsets).  Milwaukee may need to adjust around the margins but the are obviously a contender as long as Giannis is healthy and near his peak.

A look back at Jimmy and the summer of 2019 free agents

Hindsight is 20/20 but it’s clear now that the Heat did the best of all the big transactions of that historic summer of 2019.  The Nets and Clippers made rational moves getting Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George but the future is always uncertain (hell, Miami isn’t perfect either, as evidenced by Kyle Lowry signing).  Butler has stayed healthier than the others and led his team to serious playoff success.  By the numbers, here are the stats for each of the players since the 2019 moves:

Jimmy Butler: 231 games, 33.6 mpg, 21.5 ppg, .609 TS%, 6.3 rpg, 5.9 apg, 25.3 PER, .246 WS48, 7.1 BPM, 17.8 VORP

Kevin Durant: 134 games, 35.6 mpg, 28.8 ppg, .656 TS%, 7.1 rpg, 5.7 apg, 25.9 PER, .199 WS48, 7.2 BPM, 11.3 VORP

Paul George: 189 games, 33.1 mpg, 23.2 ppg, .581 TS%, 6.3 rpg, 4.9 apg, 20.0 PER, .122 WS48, 3.8 BM, 9.2 VORP

Kyrie Irving: 163 games, 36.0 mpg, 27.1 ppg, .607 TS%, 4.9 rpg, 5.8 apg, 23.3 PER, .172 WS48, 4.7 BPM, 10.0 VORP

Kawhi Leonard: 159 games, 33.3 mpg, 25.3 ppg, .610 TS%, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 25.6 PER, .219 WS48, 7.4 BPM, 12.8 VORP

Butler has basically played at the same level as KD and Kawhi but has played 70 to 100 games more.  That’s impressive but it gets even better when we add in playoff stats (not including today’s New York/Miami game):

Jimmy Butler: 47 games, 37.8 mpg, 25.1 ppg, .602 TS%, 6.8 rpg, 5.5 apg, 25.8 PER, .223 WS48, 4.4 VORP

Kevin Durant: 22 games, 41.6 mpg, 31.2 ppg, .623 TS%, 8.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, 23.2 PER, .155 WS48, 1.9 VORP

Paul George: 32 games, 39.2 mpg, 24.2 ppg, .563 TS%, 8.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, 18.0 PER, .096 WS48, 1.2 VORP

Kyrie Irving: 13 games, 38.1 mpg, 22.2 ppg, .584 TS%, 5.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, 19.7 PER, .147 WS48, 0.7 VORP

Kawhi Leonard: 26 games, 39.3 mpg, 29.6 ppg, .634 TS%, 8.4 rpg, 5.1 apg, 29.1 PER, .249 WS48, 3.2 VORP

Butler has racked the most games and led his team to, at least, the Conference Finals twice (and a third ECF appearance looks quite possible).  He’s done so with virtual no drop off in playoff performance, which is quite rare (KD, PG13, and Kyrie drop to varying degrees).  Kawhi, somehow, got better in the playoffs but has missed too much time to catch Butler’s cumulative VORP.  In other words, Butler has been as good as anyone since signing in Miami and has solidified his Hall of Fame case.  Who would’ve guessed?

Kevin Love: nexus of the playoff universe?

Many have noted that the Cavs decision to buyout Kevin Love was questionable because he still had value and he could come back to bite the Cavs in the ass in the playoffs.  The Cavs weren’t directly hurt by Love but consider all the things that happened as a result of this decision:

-Love put up 9.8 ppg , .653 TS% (.433% from three), 7.4 rpg  in 21.8 mpg to help beat Milwaukee

-Love took the charge that hurt Giannis, which killed Milwaukee

-Cleveland really needed another shooter to keep up with New York in the playoffs (and Love had played well against New York in the regular season)

-Love is now a key player in the Miami-New York series

Cleveland couldn’t have known all of this would cascade from one seemingly inconsequential decision but this is a reminder that giving up something for little (a discount on the amount due on the contract) has real risk.

NBA Playoffs Preview 2022-23

Predictions were much easier to make when the Spurs, LeBron Miami, and then the peak Warriors ruled the roost.  On the other hand, I love the wide-open Western Conference where four teams have very plausible cases to win the and a fifth (the Lakers) sort of as well.  In the East, the 76ers and Celtics will have a war for the honor of playing Milwaukee.  Before we get to that, here are the First Round predictions:

Eastern Conference

1. Bucks v. Heat:  There is a prevailing thought that the well-coached Heat and Jimmy Butler can always catch fire and that might give Miami a puncher’s chance but the offense just isn’t strong enough to stop Milwaukee.  Bucks win 4-1.

2.  Celtics v. Hawks:  I also don’t see a strong case for Atlanta.  The team has worked better since the coaching change but went 0-3 against Boston with none of the games being particularly close.  Celtics win 4-1.

3.  76ers v. Nets:  This feels very similar to their 2019 playoffs match up.  Then, we had the plucky undersized Nets against big Joel Embiid wherein Embiid bullied Jarrett Allen relentlessly.  I expect a similar outcome between Embiid and Nic Claxton.  76ers win 4-0.

4.  Cavaliers v. Knicks:  The only interesting First Round matchup in the East.  New York won the season series 3-1 but that was due, in part, to a red hot Julius Randle, who is coming off of an ankle injury.  In addition, even when healthy, Randle’s manic energy has been easier to stop in the playoffs.  The Cavs huge front line of Allen and Eric Mobley should wear Randle down enough to win a tough series.  Cavaliers win 4-3.

Western Conference

1.  Nuggets v. Timberwolves:  A credible case could be made that Minnesota will give Denver some trouble.  The teams split their games 2-2.  The Rudy Gobert-Nikola Jokic is always fun but Gobert has never exactly shut down the JokerNuggets win 4-2.

2.  Grizzlies v. Lakers:  Credit the Lakers for fixing the roster imbalances and righting the ship (relatively speaking).  Whether decent balance plus LeBron and Anthony Davis is sufficient to beat the Grizz is another question.  Memphis has also had a weird season and they are clearly more vulnerable than your average two seed in the First Round.  Still, the chances that a hobbled 38-year old LBJ can hold up for a long series without home court advantage seems unlikely.  Grizzlies win 4-3.

3.  Kings v. Warriors:  How often are six seeds decisively favored in the First Round?  As we looked at previously, the Kings’ extreme offensive style doesn’t usually translate to playoff success.  On top of that, it’s also hard to pick against a healthy Steph Curry.  The Kings are no pushovers, but I agree with the consensus that Golden State will be the winner.  Warriors win 4-2.

4.  Suns v. Clippers:  If only Paul George was healthy now, this series would be incredible to watch.  Without PG13, however, the Clippers are really light on shooters and it will be hard to hang with the high octane Suns, who are undefeated when Kevin Durant plays.  Phoenix has vulnerabilities too.  The have age and health related issues because they rely so heavily on KD (and Chris Paul).  Even when healthy, they also lack of depth due to the giant haul sent to Brooklyn to get Durant in the first place.  There is a chance that Kawhi Leonard carries this team but I expect another frustrating year for the Clipps.  Suns win 4-2.

Second Round

Bucks beat Cavaliers, 4-2

Celtics beat 76ers, 4-3

Suns beat Nuggets, 4-2

Warriors beat Grizzlies, 4-2

Conference Finals

Bucks beat Celtics, 4-3

Suns beat Warriors, 4-3

Finals

Bucks beat Suns, 4-3