Bench Mob Redux: Did OKC Make The Right Moves?


Jacob Harmon is a devoted fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Aaron McGuire is a devoted fan of the trade deadline. Today, Harmon and McGuire's dueling loves came together to form a shockwave that dramatically changed Oklahoma City's stretch run team and grind Twitter to a crumbling halt. Our two analysts will now share their views on the quality of Oklahoma City's acquisitions in a loosely structured back-and-forth.

• • •

Let's start out with what was lost. The Thunder traded away oft-derided big man Kendrick Perkins as well as the disgruntled shoot-first-ask-questions-never Reggie Jackson. In losing these two players, what did OKC give up?

AARON: Simultaneously more and less than you'd think. On its face, it's not that much. Perkins has long been one of the most ragged-on players in the NBA, moreso than almost any rotation player in the league. Less than one year ago, I was slamming his play in an account of the NBA's least-played starters. Reggie Jackson was moderately decent to start the season, but he's fallen off the proverbial cliff in the months since his excellent start and he's been a nonfactor for months. But that's not quite the whole story. Perkins has had one of his best seasons in years with his demotion to the bench. His defense has been better than usual (OKC's defense has been almost 5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court! He's having his best rebounding season in years! OKC GAMES DON'T START WITH A PERKINS POST-UP!!!), and his presence was essential during Durant and Westbrook's absence in the early season when Adams wasn't developing as fast as expected. Jackson has been bad lately, but he's had significant playoff experience in OKC's scheme. It's hard to imagine them having done much better than what they did for Jackson, but I'm much more wary about losing Perkins than I would've been before his bench demotion. Am I off base, Jacob?

JACOB: I don't think so. Reggie's experience and obvious talent aside, he was an unavoidable loss. His relationship with KD and crew has always appeared rocky, but things seemed to have taken a turn towards the toxic this season. It's not hard to see why, and I won't rehash all the details (that we know) of the whole ugly saga. Basically, if Sam Presti sits in a press conference and conspicuously and curtly addresses your departure in all of one sentence, you did not leave a positive legacy. For how he'd been playing and how bad the vibes got, it's hard for me to see Reggie's departure as anything but a gain.

Perkins is another story. It's been all good fun to mock him for his foibles throughout his time in OKC, but everything you said about his role there is absolutely true. He's been legitimately good off the bench this season, handling his diminished role like a true professional and making timely offensive contributions throughout the season. Steven Adams is still developing as a defensive force on the P&R, and he's sidelined for 2-3 more weeks minimum with his broken hand. The Thunder are left fielding a center rotation of Collison, McGary, and Kanter. That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence defensively-speaking.

• • •

Speaking of those acquisitions, let's start going through the players Oklahoma City acquired. We'll begin with the biggest addition. What's Enes Kanter's role on this year's Thunder team? How does he fit going forward?

AARON: Let's start with what Kanter can do. He's a bruiser, offensively. He's a big body. He's great at offensive rebounding. He's got a good post-up game. He doesn't draw fouls particularly often. His passing is, well, passable. Nothing special, but nothing that's going to blow up the world. Those are the positive sides. Unfortunately, he has absolutely no range game -- he shoots 34% beyond 10 feet on shots where defenders are more than a yard away from him. He often gets distracted when he's tasked with defending a play instead of a player, and he gets caught ball-watching badly. His instincts simply aren't very good. He's been improving this season, but that may just drive his price to an untenable high -- there are numerous tales in NBA annals of big men who got it together for a few shining months before a contract only to regress badly when the ink dries.

So... how does he fit with this year's Thunder team? I'm not positive. He might be able to play next to Ibaka if Coach Brooks can bash timing into his brain. But his defense is such a project right now that it's tough to imagine Ibaka fixing all of that. And offensively, he'll force Ibaka to drift farther from the rim to account for Kanter's inability to operate anywhere outside of the rim area. In a vacuum, Kanter is a talent upgrade for this year's team. But swapping out a big man who can't defend for one of OKC's better bench defenders this season is a risky proposition. And it's made more risky when you realize that Kanter's in a contract year. If he plays poorly, they haven't moved the needle on their title chances. If he plays well, they'll probably have to pay him a monstrous amount of money in the offseason just to keep him around. That's rough going.

JACOB: The popular notion has always been that the Thunder need a post-up threat. Kanter is that, and I guess that's why everybody likes this move so much. I'm just... skeptical. You pretty much covered the fit concerns and the limitations with his game. I worry about how Kanter fits in the rotation with a healthy Adams. OKC already has one young developing center with an evolving offensive game, and now they've added another. Adams is a better passer and defender than Kanter, so you'd hope they could co-exist, but since neither of them can function outside of the paint, you can't really play them together. Assuming Brooks sticks with Adams as the starter (as he should), how does Kanter respond? While his complaints with Utah weren't exactly the same as Reggie Jackson's in OKC, there are some concerning similarities, and bold claims from Kanter's agent are enough to give you pause. If he moonlights as the starter for a couple of weeks, then gets relegated back to a bench role for a younger, rawer player, how does he react? I can't pretend to have any close familiarity with the dynamic in Utah, or with Enes as player. But the situation feels a little too familiar for me. If Kanter is happy in OKC, I'm confident in the coaching staff's ability to develop him on the defensive end. I'm just not sure how happy Scott Brooks can make him.

• • •

Moving on to the next most important acquisition -- what can Augustin do for the Thunder?

JACOB: Play his role. I don't really like Augustin's game, but I like the acquisition for the Thunder. Reggie's problem in the back-up point guard role is that he isn't actually a point guard, and when your name isn't Russell Westbrook that's a legitimate criticism. DJ played with KD at Texas, and to the best of my knowledge they're still good friends. You could do worse bringing in friend-of-the-superstar role-players (Royal Ivey). I think some fans are getting a little carried away with their assessment of Augustin's value based on his recent play in Detroit, though. For whatever reason, he seems to have a Kendall Marshall quality to him where he just plays better in a starting role than he does off the bench. His best moments have come in times of increased responsibility, whether it be in Charlotte, Chicago, or Detroit, and now he's going to have to find a way to adjust to a more limited role. But he does fill a necessary role with Reggie gone, and by my estimation still probably gives OKC its best backup floor general since Maynor in 2011, and a marked improvement over Ish Smith (who would've been the alternative). The concern comes in the playoffs, where his size makes him a massive defensive liability. But at 6'3, so was Reggie.

AARON: As you said, I think he'll be a regular season upgrade -- the inherent chemistry he has with KD as former teammates should help him fit in better than any of their other acquisitions. It's sort of like 2012's Diaw acquisition for the Spurs. Diaw played a lot of basketball with Tony Parker in France, and it showed whenever they shared the court. It turned Diaw's acclimation period -- generally a season or so -- into just a few months of regular season hacking. The benefit of shared chemistry is often underrated, and it's going to help Augustin acclimate earlier. The problem comes in the playoffs -- Augustin's playoff record is much worse than most comparable guards, and I don't think it's based on nothing. Augustin is 6'0" -- much shorter than Reggie, even -- with the wingspan of a tyrannosaurus rex. A lot of people point to Augustin's incredible performance in Game 2 of last year's first round series between Chicago and Washington as an example of how Augustin can be effective in the playoffs. Indeed, it was a good night -- he scored 25 points and dished 7 dimes in a 40 minute gem.

One tiny problem: he bageled the last 6 minutes of the game, as Trevor Ariza was able to utterly shut him down and win the game for Washington. Another tiny problem: that game is by far the best playoff game of Augustin's career, and the only particularly good game among them to boot. Augustin shot 11-for-50 from the floor in the other four games of last year's CHI/WAS series, and had 17 assists in the other four games combined. In his best playoff run ever (IND, 2013) Indiana played monstrously worse with Augustin on the court, he shot a TS% of 57%, and his only good series came against a New York Knicks team that had collapsed into itself like an ouroboros one round prior. His 2010 playoff performance in Charlotte is too ghastly to discuss heavily -- he shot 33% from three and 27% from two, and that's about all we need to say about that. If the player is tenacious enough with good enough instincts and a quick enough release (see: Avery Bradley), an undersized player can have a big impact in playoff basketball. But Augustin's prior performance (and lack of mitigating factors for his ills) worries me. It's just markedly easier for defenders to guard players like Augustin in the playoffs, and it's shown in his results. Compound that with his careless defense? If Augustin is playing serious rotation minutes in the playoffs, the Thunder may be in a bit of a pickle.

• • •

And finally, the three point shooters, Singler and Novak.

AARON: Honestly, out of all their acquisitions, these two are the most likable to me. While I readily admit that neither will move the needle in the playoffs, Novak and Singler are the kind of warm body three point marksmen that can inflate regular season win totals. Singler in particular is a decent pickup, an NBA player that can make threes and... well... OK, that's pretty much it. When trying to describe the deadline moves to a casual NBA fan around the water cooler, the only description I could come up with for Singler was "well, Kyle Singler is an NBA player." His status as an NBA player is perhaps the only real distinguishing feature about his game -- his passing is mediocre and his rebounding is relatively anemic. And try not to focus too much on the defense. But he'll shoot open threes and that's about all you need alongside players like Durant and Westbrook in the regular season. As for Novak, he's like Matt Bonner -- he'll win you a game or two when the pace is quick and the opposing teams aren't fully invested, but his shot release is slower than molasses compared to most of the quick-trigger playoff-ready floor spacers. He's not going to make any impact in the playoffs, if he plays at all. But OKC needs to get to the playoffs before they worry about their impact, so I suppose I'm OK with this one -- he'll help them pad the score on bad teams and avoid bad losses.

JACOB: Novak isn't going to play a meaningful minute in the playoffs, and not many more than that in the regular season. Anthony Morrow doesn't get nearly enough minutes as it is, and he's actually a well-rounded NBA player on top of being an elite shooter. If Novak sees a single meaningful minute when Morrow could justifiably be on the floor instead, I'll eat my hat. Singler is a little more interesting. He can't guard anybody, but he's got decent size and he can play the 3 while contributing a measurable NBA skill, which is more than OKC had previously to back up KD. Like Aaron said, he's not going to move the needle in the playoffs. But I'm becoming more and more concerned over the status of Durant's foot, and I get the feeling it's going to be more and more important to have these guys who can spell him time while not being complete non-contributors on the floor. Right now it's Waiters (too small, but for the record, someone I've liked in his time as a Thunder) and Jones (too vague), so Singler will be of some help there.

• • •

Starting to get the sense neither of you liked their pickups that much. Having said all that, what are the positives of today's trade? Try really hard, guys!

JACOB: I've softened on it some as the day has gone on. It now seems that Lopez's representatives had indicated to Presti he had no intent to resign in OKC, so if that's true, I can't bemoan the choice of Kanter over the Nets' offer. The major positive for OKC is that Reggie Jackson has left the building, and the difference was immediately apparent in the Thunder's chemistry against the Mavs. I can't recall Russell and KD ever being so vocal about their distaste for a (now former) teammate, and it seems likely that a weight has been lifted off the locker room's collective shoulders. So the major positive is Reggie Jackson is no longer haunting Chesapeake Arena like some dire spectre of Iago.

It's less that there's a laundry list of complaints for me to voice over the pickups, and more that I'm not sure there's a ton more surefire positives than that. Augustin is likely to be a liability in the playoffs, but probably not worse than the alternative (Ish Smith). Singler will spot KD some minutes, but his defense (and KD's likely increase in minutes) will likely also limit his usefulness in meaningful games. Enes Kanter is a big man whose offense is chained to the paint and who can't play defense in a Western conference filled with bruising offensive big men. He's replacing the team's most effective weapon against those big men. To top it off, his role, and his happiness with it, is a huge question mark going forward. Like I said, it's not that I think this was a bad trade overall, or even that it wasn't a very good haul for a guy who was out the door anyway. I'm just not sure I agree with the popular assessment that this is some huge coup for Oklahoma City. The popular assertion that the Thunder have finally added depth is technically true, I'm just not sure it's going to be meaningful depth.

AARON: You pretty much nailed it. In terms of a simple asset-for-asset swap, this was a really good set of trades for Oklahoma City. Kanter is more talented than Perk in a vacuum. Augustin/Singler/Novak is more useful than Reggie in a vacuum. I'm worried about the non-vacuum portion of the equation, here, but it can't be denied that this is a talent upgrade. They're essentially making a bet that Scott Brooks and his coaching staff can mold Enes Kanter's defense better than Tyrone Corbin and Quin Snyder did. That's not a terrible bet -- Corbin's player development has been notably deficient and Quin Snyder didn't have much time. They also finally added the three point marksmen they've been aiming for -- OKC's in a place where they can regularly put out lineups where 4/5 players on the floor can drain threes. That's going to improve the looks Adams and Kanter get, which should help their offense develop better. And if Lopez wasn't going to re-sign, this may end up a much better trade than the proposed Lopez trade.

• • •


JACOB: A cautious, non-committal B+.

AARON: Honestly? I give it a C+. Asset-wise, it was a great get. I can see why Twitter went nuts over it. But Presti has always taken special care to build his teams with well-aligned character, talents, and fit. I don't know if any of the pieces he acquired will move the needle from a playoff perspective, and I fear that Kanter's acquisition represents a no-win move for Oklahoma City. The point I made earlier bears repeating. If Kanter plays well, they have to max him out and pay him more than they paid Jackson, crippling their opportunity to improve the team in the 2015 offseason. If he doesn't play well, they traded away defense for ill-fitting offense and may be forced Adams to play 36 minutes a night to maintain a playoff caliber defense. Compound that with Augustin's huge playoff struggles and the paucity of minutes available for Singler/Novak, and I'm just not sure what the endgame is here. I'd be much happier with it if they'd kept Perkins, and that's something I literally never thought I'd ever say.

• • •

What do you think about yesterday's huge trades? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!


Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

Three Quick Fixes for the NBA's All-Star Weekend

The NBA's All-Star Weekend gets a lot of flak. It's widely seen as boring, and the no-defense, dunk-heavy stylings of the players go a long way to explain the popular conception that NBA players don't play defense. If the only NBA game you made a point to watch was the All-Star Game, you'd be excused for thinking the NBA was a no-defense league. And make no mistake: a lot of people watch it. Via Sports Media Watch and TVByTheNumbers, here are the NBA's All-Star-Game viewers from 1990 to 2014:

All-Star Ratings, 1990-2014

I've also attached the viewership totals for All-Star Saturday (AKA, the night of the Dunk Contest, the Three Point Challenge, and the Taco Bell Skills Challenge) from 2002 to 2014. While the NBA's All-Star Game pales in comparison to other sports' (and has been in ratings purgatory since the early aughts), part of the league's value proposition for All-Star Weekend has long been an extra night of top-rated coverage that draws millions of viewers and massive interest. It's hard to beat both the dunk contest and the critically acclaimed Taco Bell Skills Challenge in one night.

Surprisingly, the viewership of All-Star Saturday has actually increased in recent years, despite the negative coverage "the Other All-Star Night" sometimes receives. Massive fan interest in 2011 (Blake Griffin's Kia vintage) led to the NBA's highest-rated All-Star Saturday in league history, only a notch below the All-Star Game proper. Even though Saturday's festivities have suffered decreased viewership for four straight years, All-Star Saturday still shows markedly higher ratings than the mid-2000s.

All this to say that the NBA's All-Star Weekend isn't doing quite as badly as you'd think when you read blistering thinkpieces blasting the league or talking the weekend up as an unmitigated disaster. Granted, there's certainly a lot of room to criticize the league's All-Star Game -- the NBA All-Star Game lags significantly behind both the MLB and NFL's versions, despite that the NBA is starting to solidify its status as the second most popular sport in Americawith the NBA Finals regularly outpacing the World Series and regular-season NBA games doubling up the ratings of regular-season MLB games. The NBA is doing fine on an overall basis. Audiences are interested enough for the NBA's All-Star game to thrive, and the weekend's demise has been oversold. 
Even so, the NBA could do significantly better. I'm sure of it.

To that end, my mother used to tell me that I shouldn't say anything at all if I've got nothing nice to say. Fittingly, I've put together a few weird (but nice!) suggestions for the NBA that could potentially improve their All-Star festivities and add a bit of intrigue to the game itself.

• • •

LET COUSINS PLAY! ... for the east?! (USATSI)


This is my most controversial suggestion. I don't think anyone has suggested it before. (If so, please email me a link and I'll add it here!) But if I'm Don Quixote, this is my most beloved All-Star windmill. I think it would add a really fun dynamic to the game, ensure a higher effort level as a whole, and give (some) players something to play for. The general idea here is that instead of simply taking the next player down in the individual conference, the commissioner should replace the injured player with a player from the opposite conference.

When selecting all-star reserves, the coaches select the all-stars from their respective conference. Playing on the opposite team ensures that the injury replacement player is playing against the coaches that snubbed him and players who were taken over him. Which could really be a sight to behold. A player with a hyper-competitive edge with a nationally-televised shot at his most immediate professional demons? Isn't that the exact dynamic you want to foster? Remember how DeMarcus Cousins barely avoided a second consecutive snub this year? Last year, he responded to his snub by (correctly) saying that he was "flat done wrong" and decrying the bias of the coaches who snubbed him. When he suits up in the All-Star game this year, he'll be standing alongside players who Western coaches said were his betters. If he was suiting up for the East, I imagine he'd be hellbent on making the players who got selected ahead of him know how much of a mistake that was. Maybe he'd play actual defense in the game (gasp!) or take advantage of the lax defense and set a new scoring record.

I do know that it would be fantastically entertaining, though, and an easy way to make sure at least 1 or 2 players a year are gunning for the other team. It would add at least a tiny amount of intrigue, which is exactly what the game needs. And I imagine this could work both ways -- with Cousins gunning for them, wouldn't the West's frontcourt staples (Gasol, Duncan, Durant, etc) want to prove they deserved their spot in the face of his strong challenge? It could raise the play of the game as a whole, and give the players something to play for without tying legitimate season accomplishments to all-star achievements (like the MLB's kooky system where the conference that wins the all-star game gets HCA in the playoffs). Maybe it wouldn't play out that way. Getting Duncan to give a damn about the game might be literally impossible. But isn't it worth a shot?

There's one big downside here. Look at this season -- the NBA had to replace three players in the West (LMA, Davis, and Griffin) and one player in the East (Wade). That could lead to three Eastern players on the Western team and one Western player on the Eastern team. Given the surplus of valuable players in the West and the relative dearth in the East (at least this year), that could be a little controversial. But remember that all-star injuries are essentially random. Here are the injury counts by conference over the last 10 years, with the "more injured" conference bolded:

  • 2015: WEST 3, EAST 1
  • 2014: WEST 1, EAST 0
  • 2013: WEST 0, EAST 1
  • 2012: WEST 0, EAST 1
  • 2011: WEST 1, EAST 0
  • 2010: WEST 3, EAST 1
  • 2009: WEST 0, EAST 2
  • 2008: WEST 0, EAST 3
  • 2007: WEST 4, EAST 1
  • 2006: WEST 0, EAST 1

Overall, that's 12 injuries in the West and 11 injuries in the East. Over time, this stuff evens out. We might have a few years like this year, where getting a pissed off DeMarcus on the Eastern squad is contrasted with the West getting a pissed off... uh... Brandon Knight, Kyle Korver, and Nikola Vucevic? (Which, let's be honest, might still make the game a little more interesting. There are storylines with all three of those guys. Knight would likely be gunning for the East's better-reputed guards, Korver would have to play AGAINST the coach and team he's killing it for, and Vucevic's game might flourish in a no-defense setting like the ASG.)

Just think -- had this idea been adopted in prior years, the 2013 All-Star Game would've featured Stephen Freaking Curry (one of the most egregious snubs of the last decade) replacing the "actual" replacement of Brook Lopez for the Eastern Conference. THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN AWESOME! The 2012 game would've likely featured a pissed-off Kyle Lowry in place of Rajon Rondo, previewing his all-star selection this season and his offseason move across borders. Do I still need to convince you, or are you with me yet?

• • •



There are two main problems with the NBA's All-Star festivities. The first (and most obvious) is that the players don't care all that much. This gets the most press, because it's the most egregious problem with the game. But there's an issue here -- NBA players care a hell of a lot more about the ASG than the NFL's guys care about the Pro Bowl, and they care only slightly less than the MLB's guys care about their All-Star Game. It's hard to game player interest to be higher than it already is without resorting to gimmickry that influences the actual season. The suggestion above might mitigate it a little bit, but there's no panacea that's going to immediately make NBA players give a damn.

It's a hard problem to solve. The other problem with the NBA's All-Star festivities is similar, but it's got an easier solution. Year after year, game after game... the commentating is just freaking awful. Shaq mumbles around and joylessly mocks the proceedings, Reggie Miller spouts the same infuriating rhetoric that makes him a must-avoid announcer for any given regular season game, and the usually-spry combo of Kenny and Ernie quickly become stale and uninterested in the year-after-year rehash of things they've called for years and years. So, how does one deal with an announcing crew that clearly doesn't want to be on stage?

Simple. Do what the Heat did every time the Spurs went on a run in 2013: bring in The Starters

I'm a long-time fan of The Basketball Jones, and although I haven't been quite as locked in on their NBATV sponsored Starters conversion as I was on their TBJ work, they're still producing phenomenal work. Imagine it. Leigh Ellis commentating the Three-Point contest with callbacks to his VHS tapes of the Tom Chambers game. Trey Kerby announcing the dunk contest with Brad Miller and Yams. Tas Melas doing play-by-play of the celebrity game like his old Rounders recap segments. J.E. Skeets doing postgame interviews with all related participants. If you aren't familiar with them, you might wonder how this would improve the game. I entreat you -- watch a few episodes. You'll see a collective group that excels at operating in tiny crevices of absurdity.

See, when the TNT crew covers All-Star Saturday, they generally add levity by emphasizing how useless everything is. They don't treat things seriously. It makes sense -- it ISN'T serious. They're clearly having a blast themselves, but their general disinterest in the proceedings seeps through and makes their coverage drab and boring. While it can be fun and funny, TNT's levity is of the "disinterested/apathetic" brand, their enjoyment being related to how useless things are and how little their commentary matters. I don't think that's the attitude The Starters would bring to the table. In their show, they add levity by embracing the ridiculous and putting due diligence into questions and ideas that are silly to the core. Part of what's made them so successful is their insistence on quality and devotion to minutiae and tiny details, even when the subject of such devoted detailing is silly or strange (great example). A group with their talents and chemistry would be the perfect shepherds for All-Star Saturday, a fundamentally ridiculous event that nonetheless requires hosts that care.

Their work on All-Star Weekend has always been top-notch -- it's time to let them take the event itself to the next level.

• • •

Montrezl Harrell dunkin' all over them fools.


Another weird idea, made doubly weird by the fact that some of the participants might end up missing conference games. You might need to add a financial incentive to have them participate, which could get legally messy and turn this into a logistical nightmare given the NCAA's desire to shield their employees student-athletes from all manner of compensation. But, if the NBA could navigate the paperwork and get some buy-in from the NCAA, this could actually work. Promise!

Think of it this way. One of the biggest complaints from fairweather NBA fans are the unrecognizable faces they see on All-Star Saturday. The most widely-watched Saturday ever happened because Blake Griffin chose to do the dunk contest. But LeBron James is never going to do a dunk contest. Kevin Durant's three point contests are only going to happen early in his career, and good luck getting Kobe to waste minutes and energy on the relatively useless all-star events. The NBA's tactic has generally been to make the best of what they have and run through deserving players until they finally reach a handful that accept the invitation. Rinse, cycle, repeat. That leads to experiments like Jeremy Evans and James White in the contest -- they're good at their craft, but if they sputter out like White did last year without really impressing the audience, you've wasted a spot on someone that nobody's tuning in for.

If you're the NBA, you aren't going to get superstars in their prime who are competing for titles. You aren't going to get superstars in their aging years who are watching their legs. You can't rely on getting young players like Blake Griffin to actually enter the contest. And they've proven completely unable to entice young underheralded stars to participate in the weekend's tertiary activities. So... why not poach some college players? The NCAA's ratings are similar to the NBA's, but they skew more southern, and they skew a bit younger. It's a different audience altogether. Highlighting college players would bring that entirely new group into the All-Star Saturday audience, and add a few young prospects who would get a chance to show off their talents and personality with NBA teams and agents abound. I'd primarily expect them to participate in the dunk contest and the three point contests, and there certainly aren't a lack of options.

For the dunk contest, I'd be happy with any of Sam Thompson (Ohio State), J. P. Tokoto (UNC), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Jahlil Okafor (Duke), or Branden Dawson (Michigan State) -- all of them are players from big-name schools with a dunk contest skillset, with Harrell/Okafor projected as first round picks. For the three point contest, it would give college players a few shots at the NBA three point line and potentially increase their exposure/draft slot if they completely nailed it. Imagine Quinn Cook fighting to prove he has NBA range. Or, alternatively, imagine Doug McDermott in last year's three point competition, competing in the event while he was the best player in college basketball rather than a bench-buried guy who casual fans haven't heard about since the draft. When you're subbing out marginal NBA players for uninterested all-stars (Joe Johnson in last year's three-point-contest comes to mind, or Tony Parker in the Skills Challenge ever), I don't really see the downside in letting All-Star Weekend give young players their first taste for the league. Given how much of a party All-Star weekend is, they might even get excited for it!

There's the obvious issue of getting the NCAA to agree to it -- that's a problem, and could prove regrettably difficult. The NCAA has a nasty habit of placing a few high-profile games in direct competition with the NBA's All-Star game, and they probably aren't particularly interested in changing that. (As an example, of the top 25 teams in the AP rankings, 24 of them will be playing on Saturday or Sunday. Notre Dame is the only top 25 team that doesn't play this weekend. The All-Star game will be competing with a #7 Arizona game and All-Star Saturday will compete with #4 Duke vs Syracuse, #3 Gonzaga vs Pepperdine, and #6 Villanova at #18 Butler.) None of the big names I named above would've been able to participate this year without missing a game or some schedule gymnastics. But if the NBA can identify one or two possible targets in the NCAA's preseason when they're building out the schedule, the NCAA could likely adjust accordingly -- after all, it's not that it's impossible for the NCAA to give a few teams a weekend off.

Given the Jeckll and Hyde combative/loving relationship between the NBA and the NCAA, it's hard to see this happening. But it doesn't mean I can't dream it. While I don't mind highlighting some of the NBA's more obscure weirdos (Bonner in the three point contest! JaVale in the dunk contest! THESE THINGS WERE FUN!), I can't think of a single person who cared to see Joe Johnson half-ass last year's three point contest. Or Gerald Green's (no offense, Gerald!) pitiful dunk effort last year. Or anyone doing the skills challenge. Using those spots as a way to showcase incoming players sounds like a far better use. And it opens the door to (eventually) adding a new event to the weekend where the NBA's worst team faces off against the #1 ranked college team, finally solving those water cooler arguments NBA/NCAA fans once and for all.

... alright, yeah, that probably won't happen. But a man can dream.

• • •

Disagree with me on any of these? I'm sure you do! Leave thoughts in the comments.

NOTE: Unofficial idea #4: they could bring back HORSE, but have J.R. Smith and Nick Young face off. It's a cute idea, but I don't know if I want to live in a world where Kevin Durant isn't holding this trophy.

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

The Rodeo Road Trip: a History of San Antonio's Yearly Jaunt

A photograph that is surely coming from the future.

In 2003, the San Antonio Spurs moved from the centrally-located downtown Alamodome to the AT&T Center firmly nestled in San Antonio's east side, in Bexar County. There were a number of positives that came with the move -- the AT&T Center is a much more modern arena, and it was (for the most part!) built for basketball. The cheap seats at AT&T are a bit better than the cheap nosebleeds in the Alamodome, and the concessions/amenities are vastly improved. There was, of course, one small tic the Spurs had to accept when moving into the AT&T Center. They had to accept the fact that they'd be effectively evicted from their home during the month of February on a yearly basis, as the AT&T Center was partially built to serve as an all-time landing spot for the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Without a home to roam on, the Spurs agreed indefinitely to roll out for a February road trip that would take San Antonio all over the U.S.A.

That was in 2013. Twelve years later, the road trip has firmly wedged its way into the Spurs mythos. Famously, San Antonio has yet to experience a losing rodeo road trip. Coach Popovich and the players regularly imply that the trip itself serves as a bonding experience that brings the team together and starts building the relationships they'll need in the playoffs. Spurs fans look at the trip as a litmus test for the team's season, and opposing fans watch with curiosity to see if the Spurs are finally creaking. Dan McCarney wrote a nice history of the trip a few years back -- with the benefit of two more years of trips, I compiled the statistics wrote a nice little reference going over them. Let's take a look back at 12 years of San Antonio's rodeo travels.

• • •


To start, I looked up team records and differentials for the teams San Antonio faced on their rodeo road trips. I looked these up right when the trip started, so that 2015 would be comparable to the rest of them. The W/L columns are (obviously) the collective win/loss records of every team San Antonio faced on the trip as of day #1 of the trip, and the average differential averages all their point differentials on that same day. Mileage is a rough estimate (via Google Maps, with some help from Dan McCarney's piece above) of how many miles the Spurs had to travel for the trip. The "playoff teams" column sums up how many of their road trip opponents would've been playoff teams. The last column, "best team", outlines the best team they played on that year's trip (considering each team's rating and record at the time the trip began). The coloring of that column indicates whether they won or lost that game. (So, the Spurs currently own a 7-5 record against the reigning "best team faced" among all RRT teams. Neat!)

For those wondering about how this year's trip stacks up, it's pretty high up there. The Spurs will be facing the hardest trip by point differential they've ever taken, with 5/9 teams currently playoff teams and 2 more possible playoff teams in Indiana and Detroit. The main thing that makes this year's trip so challenging is just how good the good teams are. The Warriors, Blazers, Raptors, and Clippers should all be reasonably favored against the Spurs going into the trip, and Phoenix is a push given that it comes on a back-to-back. The Spurs have four games that should be gimmes (DET, IND, UTA, SAC), but all the tough ones are very tough. And clever readers might notice that they've already lost to 3 of those 4 gimmes this season, which makes it hard to count any of those teams out.

• • •

Spurs RRT history

Next up, I collected data on what the Spurs themselves looked like going into each year's trip. From that, I was able to calculate expected W/L profiles and differentials for each year using point margin at the onset of the trip as well as an adjustment for home court. I also counted the number of back to backs and added an underperformed/overperformed column that measures whether the Spurs undershot my projection or overshot my projection. (Note: in that column, "P" stands for "push", indicating a year where they underperformed in differential or record but overperformed in the other). Via my projections, the Spurs underperformed five years and overperformed five years, with a push in two years. So, they undershot as often as they overshot, meaning my expectations are (likely) calibrated correctly.

One of the big takeaways you can make from this table? When you adjust for the quality of their opponent, the Spurs were actually favored in a surprisingly large number of Rodeo Road Trip games. If you sum the expected record column, the Spurs have an expected record of 75-25 over the 11 trips they've completed to date. Their actual record is a hair under that, at 71-29. This may seem odd at first glance -- NBA teams are traditionally much worse on the road, with home court advantage worth roughly 3 points a night. Historically, road teams have won roughly 40% of their games in the last decade (although that number has fallen in recent years).

Ergo, it's odd at first glance to think that San Antonio's expected record on these trips is a 75% win percentage. Right? Not quite. That simplification ignores the obvious. The Spurs simply aren't a random road team. Their lowest point differential at the time of the trip was +3.3 in 2009. That +3.3 isn't really that bad -- even their lowest year was still remarkably high for the NBA as a whole:

Margin of Victory for all NBA teams in the last 12 years

A point differential of +3.3 is low for the Spurs, but it's still a top-percentile team -- among every full-season point differential in the last 12 years, +3.3 is still in the 73rd percentile. That means it's better than almost 75% of all NBA teams that have plied their trade since the Spurs moved into the Alamodome. Even when the Spurs are bad, they aren't THAT bad. Hence their historical performance on the Rodeo Road Trip -- even if you give all the road teams their a home court advantage of +3 points a night (slightly higher than the actuality in many cases), the Spurs are still favored in a remarkable number of their road trip contests because they were consistently outclassing the competition.

• • •

Some errata and miscellany I found interesting while digging for this post:

  • The Spurs have faced a lot of different teams on the Rodeo trip, but there are a few teams it faces far more often than others. The Spurs have faced the Nets and Pistons on eight road trips apiece and they've faced Toronto and Portland on seven apiece. Personally, this weirds me out -- Portland is one of the toughest road trips in the NBA, and I have legitimately no idea why the NBA's scheduling gods like to add that so often. The team-by-team list of who the Spurs have faced (with W/L records) is here, with teams from this year's trip highlighted:

Rodeo Road Trip All-Time Records

  • There are a few other interesting nuggets from the previous chart. The Spurs only have a losing record against two teams in the history of the Rodeo Road Trip -- Miami (1-2) and Philadelphia (1-3). Ironically, of those games against Philadelphia, the one win came against a team that (at the time) looked like the best Philadelphia team since their title winning eighties days -- the 2012 Sixers that started the season on fire and led the league in point differential up until the season's midway point. The Spurs are undefeated on the Rodeo trip against SAC, LAC, IND, NOP, CHA, MEM, and HOU -- seven whole NBA teams!
  • There are three teams that the Spurs have never faced on any of their rodeo road trips -- the Dallas Mavericks, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Atlanta Hawks. Eagle eyed readers will also note that they've never faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on a Rodeo trip -- every trip to that franchise happened when they were in Seattle.
  • As expected, the Spurs play worse when they face back to back games on their rodeo trips. The Spurs have gone 12-9 on back to back games across all Rodeo Road Trips, with a point differential of +0.7 in those 21 games. However, going by point differential alone, the Spurs would have been expected to go 14-7 with a differential of +3.4. So they lost two wins and underperformed even in the wins they got. It's worth noting, though, that there is one massive outlier value there -- in 2012, the Spurs punctuated an (at the time) 7-0 road trip with one of the worst defeats in franchise history, a 40 point blasting at the Rose Garden. If you take out the 40 point disappointment, the Spurs went 12-8 with a differential of +2.7, which is far less out of line with the expectation.
  • After 12 years of trips, there are a lot of pretty great wins to choose from. Three of them were particularly absurd:
    • 2013: The 38-11 Spurs were one point dogs against the 34-16 Clippers. They won by 26 points.
    • 2010: The 27-19 Spurs were four point dogs against the 33-15 Nuggets. They won by 19 points.
    • 2012: The 16-9 Spurs were nine point dogs against the 17-7 Sixers. They won by 10 points.
  • Conversely, there are also a lot of baffling losses. Their three worst losses, expectation-wise:
    • 2012: The 16-9 Spurs were five point dogs against the 14-10 Blazers. They lost by 40 points.
    • 2007: The 31-14 Spurs were nine point favorites against the 19-25 Heat. They lost by 15 points.
    • 2011: The 40-7 Spurs were four point favorites against the 25-22 Blazers. They lost by 13 points.
  • In their title years, the Spurs have overachieved once, underachieved twice, and pushed (worse record, better differential) once. So, no -- there's no obvious connection between success on their rodeo trip and playoff success.

• • •

Have a question? Ask it in the comments below! I'll update this post with more data if there are interesting lines of inquiry.

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

Examining Tony Parker's Curious Decline

Tony Parker and Boris Diaw -- two players that are, uh, kinda crappy this year.

Stats for this post were provided by Basketball Reference,, and magical stat pixies.

Look, Tony Parker hasn't been playing very well this season. It doesn't really matter how you look at it. Whether you're looking at an on/off court perspective, basic counting stats, or SportVU-type detailed breakdowns... he's just been rather mediocre. Bad, even. How bad? Let's find out.

• • •


Virtually everyone is aware of the on/off impact that Kawhi Leonard has had this year with the Spurs. When Kawhi's on the court, they've played excellent ball. When he's not, they've been... shaky, to say the least. Fewer are aware of the fact that Tony Parker's on-court presence has been essentially the opposite. With Parker on the court, San Antonio has been outscored by one point. Their defense has been atrocious and their offense has been below par. With Parker off, they've been absolutely excellent, outscoring opponents by 7.6 points. Here are some simple numbers on San Antonio's team performance with Tony Parker on and off the court from the current season:

Tony Parker's On/Off Stats, 2015

Correlation does not equal causation. The fact that the Spurs rebound a little worse with Parker on the floor has very little to do with Parker. But there are a few things that Parker (as San Antonio's primary ballhandler) is directly involved in. The team's shooting (which has been worse with Tony on the floor), the team's assist rate (slightly higher), the team's turnover rate (slightly lower) and the overall offensive rating (which has been 2.4 points worse with Tony on the floor) all have varying degrees of connection with how Tony plays the game. And the defensive rating helps express the massive drop-off between Tony and Cory Joseph (and, frankly, Tony and Patty Mills -- both Patty and Cory have beaten the pants off Tony defensively this year). Put it all together, and you get a not-so-pretty picture. It's been a bad year for Tony. Worse yet, it's part of a trend.

On - Off, last 5 years

This chart shows the on minus off performance in each of the metrics above. As an example, compare the 2015: ON - OFF column to the chart above. Note that eFG is calculated by 0.505 - 0.509 = - 0.004. Same is true of all the columns. Red indicates something that's bad for that column (for instance, the Spurs defended 11.5 points worse per 100 possessions with Tony on the court in the 2010 playoffs), green indicates something good (the Spurs net rating was 20.5 points per 100 possessions better with Tony on the court in the 2012 playoffs), and yellow indicates mediocrity or generally something close to zero. You'll note that with the singular exception of this year's increased on-court assist rate, Parker's play has been more detrimental to the Spurs this year than it's ever been in San Antonio's recent run. The past few years has seen a steady erosion of Parker's value. They've played better with Parker off the court than they have with him on it ever since the 2013 regular season. You know, two years ago.

There are a bunch of mitigating factors that should be considered here. To specify:

  • Parker tends to face starters and San Antonio's bench mob tends to destroy teams off the bench, inflating +/- differences.
  • The playoff numbers from 2010 to 2013 are comparing wildly different minute profiles, as he spent 70%+ of San Antonio's minutes on the floor.
  • Parker suffered injuries in the 2013 playoffs that significantly compromised his value.

All those factors considered, this still isn't good when it comes to this season's performance. Perhaps it's enough to explain and mitigate his performance last year, but not when the difference is as drastic as this year. Parker's performance has also overlapped highly with most of San Antonio's best performers this season, which makes it harder to justify the bench mob talk.

Who's better with Tony?

The minutes columns show the number of minutes the two players have shared, as well as the percentage of the player's minutes that those represent as well as the percentage of Tony's minutes that those represent. The green/underlined number indicates whether the teammate had better on/off impact with Parker on the floor or better overall, using net efficiency per 100 possessions. For instance, the Spurs have outscored teams by 4.0 points per 100 possessions with Duncan on the court, while they've outscored teams by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with Duncan off the court -- hence, their net + / - with Duncan on the floor has been -0.4. With Parker, his net + / - has been +1.3 in 712 minutes, which is higher than Duncan's overall net + / -. Which is good. Duncan/Parker is a better two man team than Duncan alone.

Unfortunately, the same isn't true when you look at almost every other player on the Spurs. Aron Baynes also has had a slightly more positive impact when working in synergy with Parker than he has alone, but results have been worse with Parker than without for everyone else. Danny Green's three pointers drop less when Parker's setting them up. Leonard's defensive impact gets stalled by having to make up for a two-steps-slow Tony. Even the much-ballyhooed French connection with Diaw and Parker has stalled out, with both players playing worse with Parker and Diaw on the floor.

• • •


On/off numbers are great for teasing out lineup impact and basic player influence, but an individual player's per-game box score contributions can shed light on how the player is making his mark on the floor. Or, in Tony's case, how the player is operating well below expectations. Stat-by-stat, relevant ones only:

  • POINTS: Parker is averaging 14.5 points a game. He's currently an unexpected third in PPG on San Antonio's roster, behind Duncan and Leonard. If the average holds, it's the fewest points per night he's produced since his rookie year. If you adjust for San Antonio's slower pace and Parker's fewer minutes, it's a bit better (25.8 PP100), but that still represents Parker's worst scoring season in over a decade.
  • ASSISTS: I need to get this off my chest. Parker has never been a great "assists" point guard. He's a good workaday passer that operates perfectly in San Antonio's motion offense, but he's never been the kind of player to average 10-12 assists per night with wild passes peppering the proceedings. Spurs fans tend to overrate his passing a bit, assuming that San Antonio's scheme is somehow lowering his assist rate more than any other system would. I disagree with that. All that said, if Parker isn't scoring, you'd expect he'd at least be producing assists at a solid rate. You'd be wrong. Just as with points, he's averaging fewer assists than he has since his rookie year, and on a per-possession basis it's his worst passing year in a decade. His assist rate of 28% ranks 16th among the NBA's 30 regular starting point guards. He's also below three starting shooting guards and one starting forward (hi, LeBron!). That's... less than ideal.
  • TURNOVERS: One of Parker's greatest talents is generally a close-to-ideal defense of the ball. When he's clicking, he doesn't turn it over very often. Except for this season, where he turns it over on 15% of his possessions. That doesn't sound like much, but it's in spitting distance of his career high (17%) and the 10th worst figure among the NBA's 30 starting point guards. If he was averaging last year's 12%, he'd be 4th in the league behind Lowry, Lillard, Burke, and Irving. There's a big difference between his ballhandling last year and this year.
  • SHOOTING: This is the one place where Parker remains high. If I was President Obama, I'd say that "the state of the Parker remains strong." [EDITOR'S NOTE: I am not Obama.] He's 9th among starting point guards in effective field goal percentage, pretty similar to his performance last year. Not too many nits to pick, here, in terms of the overall view. You need to get into his shot distribution for that. Hey, speaking of which...

... let's look at Tony's shot selection! At a high level, examine the evolution of Tony's shot distribution.

Parker's shot distribution

Once again, it's trending in a bad direction. He's having more trouble getting to the rim this year than he's ever had in his career, and he's relying more and more on his long range game. One could argue that part of the reason for this is his absurdly good three point bombing this season -- Parker's made over 50% of his shots from three this year, nearly 15 points higher than his previous career high over a season. Early in the year, this was a source of solace for Spurs fans eager to consider the possibility that Parker had added a shot to his repertoire.

Count me as a naysayer. Watch some of his threes on the NBA Stats Site -- he's draining wide open threes, as he's always done, but he's still got the same weird hitch in his shot that kept him from being a volume shooter from beyond the arc. It's part of what traditionally makes him so good at long twos, but it's always thrown off his three point shot whenever there's an ounce of pressure. Over 50% of Parker's three point shots come with over 6 feet of space. Sometimes a player will go on a good run and inflate their stats. That's my take on Tony's aberrational three point gunning. Nothing in his form has changed so much that I'd expect him to make that kind of a percentage on his threes. And from a playoffs perspective, it's wildly unlikely he'll be looking at shots that open against any reasonable defense. Parker's improved three point shooting can help carry his regular season stats, but it's not going to be much of a boon come playoff time.

• • •


This post is already going a bit long, so I'll make this part short. Here are a few nuggets from his SportsVU profile that stand out.


  • Tony Parker has been widely known to be one of the fastest players in the NBA. This is still true. In terms of distance traveled per 48 minutes (my favorite of the speed metrics), Parker is leading the league at 3.8 miles traveled per 48 minutes. That leads the league, and (somewhat inexplicably) is actually better than he did last season.
  • Danny Green and Tim Duncan are shooting better off Parker's passes (47% and 55%, respectively) than they did in 2014 (41% and 42%, respectively). He's finding them in better spots than he did last year, which is nice. (As an aside, this is part of why Duncan's on/off numbers are better with Parker around -- Parker's doing a MUCH better job setting him up than Patty or Cory, which makes the offense run better with both of them in sync.)


  • Although Parker is shooting a bit better on quick shots with few dribbles, he's shooting worse and more often with 3 or more dribbles before the shot. This jives with what most Spurs fans have seen. San Antonio's offense has been a lot more stopped up this year, with more dribbling and freelancing over last year's pinpoint execution of the best possible shot. The fact that he's not only shooting more often from those situations but also shooting WORSE is a bad sign.
  • Boris Diaw is only shooting 40% off of Tony Parker passes. Last year he shot 52% off Parker's passes. Part of this is because Diaw is proportionally more three point attempts off Parker's passes, but only part of it -- he's only shooting 23% on three point tries that come off of Parker passes (as opposed to 46% last year), so it's obviously not just a proportion issue.
  • Tony Parker used to be one of the NBA's best guys at getting the "old-fashioned" three point play (a two-point basket and the foul) -- as recently as 2013 he was getting one old-fashioned and-1 opportunity every two games he played. Last year was a bad year for Parker when it came to and-ones, but this year is straight up ridiculous -- he's only had seven opportunities through 33 games. He simply isn't absorbing contact like he used to, which is messing up his offensive flow and making it harder for him to finish at the rim on the whole. Part of this is the injury, but last year's poor numbers (just 19 and-1s all year) may imply that this is part of his evolution as an aging player. Which would be bad, as this kind of high-impact driving was once his bread and butter.
  • Players defended by Tony Parker are shooting 72% at the rim. Not a typo. They're also getting there more often than last year (18% of Tony's defensive possessions as opposed to 13% last year). That's... less than ideal. Parker's never been a defensive stalwart. But he's rarely been quite this bad. Players are shooting ~4% better against Parker than they shoot on average, which is the difference between the best shooting point guard (Stephen Curry) and the 10th best (Mike Conley). Goes a decent distance in explaining why Parker's man keeps going off, doesn't it?

• • •

Some terrible, awful, atrocious analysts have spat obscenities and foretold doom about Parker's play before. He's generally made them look silly. In fact, he's made them look SO silly in the past that people often seem tentative to criticize his play. Much like the Spurs as a whole, there's a decided hesitance to call Parker on his poor play. The guiding assumption is that Parker is eventually going to stave off the cobwebs and return to his scintillating performances he's known for. And articles pointing out his poor return from injury or his tentative steps are going to be out of date in no time flat.

Individually, none of these stats are gospel. Indeed, there are reasonable contextual reasons you could expect one or two of them to underrate or overrate a player like Tony. This post may make me look silly a month from now if Parker comes back in full force. But taken all together the picture is clear -- Parker's performance is flagging fast. If the Spurs intend to make a serious run at a repeat, they're going to need him to put his game back together.

One final thought. When Parker signed his extension at $14 million dollars a year, the prevailing idea was that San Antonio had snagged a huge bargain. If Parker doesn't shape up, that simply isn't true. Given the glut of incredible point guards in the league, $14 million a year doesn't sound particularly enticing for a barely-above-board point guard. Which, frankly, is how he's playing. In all likelihood, Parker will improve. If not, though, his contract will stand as yet another of the NBA's "great at the time, awful in retrospect" contracts that make many of our snap judgments on contract efficacy so retrospectively silly.

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

55 or 20/20: Which Brandon Jennings night was less likely?

Jennings drivin' in Motor City (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, Brandon Jennings went nuts in one of the most unexpected virtuoso performances of the season -- a 20-20 points/assists night against the Orlando Magic. You'll be excused if you forget the last time the NBA's seen a 20/20 performance -- it hasn't happened for over five years. And it's been getting less and less likely over time, too. Check out this histogram tracking the number of 20/20 games since the 1985 playoffs:


That's right -- since 2000, the NBA has only seen FIVE 20/20 performances. Specifically:

  • January 21st, 2015: Brandon Jennings, DET vs ORL (W, 24-21, 2 turnovers, 33 minutes)
  • November 9th, 2009: Steve Nash, PHX at PHI (W, 21-20, 7 turnovers, 36 minutes)
  • April 14th, 2008: Ramon Sessions, MIL vs CHI (L, 20-24, 2 turnovers, 44 minutes)
  • January 2nd, 2006: Steve Nash, PHX at NYK (L, 28-22, 4 turnovers, 55 minutes)
  • April 18th, 2001: Jalen Rose, IND at CLE (W, 22-20, 4 turnovers, 44 minutes)

So, no, this isn't something that happens particularly often. Personally, I've always been one to roll my eyes at statistical achievement based on arbitrary several-stat benchmarks. The more statistics you add to your criterion, the less likely an individual player meets them. It's simple mathematics. Even if you create a completely mundane four stat cutoff, simple exclusionary skillsets make it less likely a player meets them. (As an example, no player in the 2015 season has put up a 13 point, 8 assist, field goal percentage > 60%, 3+ block game. If you find me one person in the world who knew that before I said it, I'll buy you migas.)

But in a flood of arbitrary parameters, the 20/20 barometer is one of the least arbitrary. The concept of scoring and the concept of assists are clearly separate, but the platonic ideal of a point guard has always involved involved an offensive fulcrum who was as likely to set up a teammate as he was to take the open shot. Sure, there have always been pure point types like Rajon Rondo who eschew scoring in favor of gaudy assist totals, but having an offensive zero at the point guard position has always been something of an anathema to a fully-functioning offense. It's like giving the defense a cheat code that lets them throw extra defenders at each play's best action. You can certainly win that way, it's just tougher.

You can create a successful offense with a burst scorer at point guard. And you can create an offense with a dyed-in-the-wool playmaker at point guard. But the very best offenses -- think historic-type jams that define eras and rewrite the game (see Nash, Stockton, Magic) -- function best with point guards who can score on their own but distribute the ball a bit more than they look for their own scoring. Which, not coincidentally, is the exact type of point guard a 20/20 game represents. A point guard who achieves a 20/20 has produced at least 60 points (in the case of Brandon Jennings, five of those assists were on threes, so he produced 47 points from assists for a total of 71). The average score of an NBA game is roughly 100 points per game this season -- that's almost two thirds of your offense coming from a single player. It's a point guard operating at maximum bore.

• • •

In the last 29 years, the league has seen 38 games with the assist-focused 20/20. If we want to find a rough likelihood, we can start by figuring out a few bounding conditions. To that end, here's one really obvious one: you have to start the game. Zero of the league's 20/20 games came off the bench. It makes some sense, if you think about it -- coaches in the NBA find occasion to ride bench guys through good performances, but normally those performances come in a vacuum. Scoring performances, defensive dominations, et cetera. There have only been a handful of players who dependably produce burst-assist games off the bench in NBA history -- and recently, only Manu Ginobili, J.J. Barea, and Sergio Rodriguez dependably fit that bill. And their career highs off the bench are 15, 14, and 12 respectively. Not really in spitting distance of the minutes or productivity you need to net a 20/20. You need to be a point guard, or at least the team's primary distributor. And you need to be playing for an NBA team.

We could build out a simple model for an exact likelihood, but that would involve a lot of data gathering. Let's do a simple one instead. We know that we've seen 38 of these, and we know you need to be a starting primary distributor. You have to be playing for an NBA team. Therefore, we can find single year incidence rates with the following equation:

Approximate conditional incidence of 20/20 games in 2015


If you aren't familiar with conditional probability notation, Pr(TTG | Y = 2015) indicates the probability of any randomly selected game of the season is going to be a 20/20 given the year is 2015. To define variables:

  • X is the number of 20/20 games
  • A is all possible 20/20 games
  • T is the number of teams in the league
  • S is the number of starters
  • G is the number of games passed in the season.

Put it all together and you get "XATSG", the newest chemical compound in Coca Cola.

Wait, no. Put it all together and you get a probability of 0.0007, meaning that one in every 1,278 games from a starting point guard is a 20/20 if you're looking at this season alone. Lucky for us, we have 30 years of data, so we can calculate an approximate probability of a 20/20 games over the past 29 seasons assuming the player at hand is an NBA starting point guard, giving us a reasonably solid estimate of how likely any individual starter has a 20/20 game, exogenous of knowledge about that starter.

Incidence of twenty-twenty games over the past 29 years.

Obviously, this is a flawed estimate. It ignores a whole boatload of important factors, like Jennings' own stats at the time of the 20/20. But it's a reasonable bounding estimate. The NBA has had one 20/20 game for roughly every 1,760 starting distributors in the past 29 years.

• • •

So... what about that 55 point night, then?


As above, this is a histogram showing the incidence by year of 50 point nights. You can see three places where individual players had ridiculous years that stretched the distribution a bit -- Wilt's biggest full season in the sample (he had 14 nights at 50+ in 1964), Jordan's late eighties (18 out of 27 fifty point games from 87 to 89), and Kobe's lonely years (15 of 26 in 2006 and 2007). Overall, though, there are obviously more fifty point nights than 20/20 nights. The 20/20 is clearly looking more unlikely on its face. But... what if you restrict it to the NBA's point guards?


Now that looks more like it. All things considered, it's actually pretty dang unlikely for a point guard specifically to score 50 points in the modern NBA. More likely than it was in the 80s and 90s, sure, but the incidence rate is extremely low. Using the same calculation as we did before...

Probability that any random starting point guard drops a fiddy.

... we find that Brandon's 55 point outburst was almost completely indistinguishable from his 20/20 night. Seriously. The 20/20 game's odds were approximately one in 1760, the 55 point game's odds were approximately one in 1755. By the slimmest of margins, the 20/20 game was slightly less likely. But given that we're using approximations for both of them anyway, I'd err on the side of them being effectively equal, especially since we're by definition using two conditions on the 20/20 games and just one on the 55 point night.

Hence, when Jennings was talking after the game about how he held a slim preference for his 55 point night over his 20/20 night, even from a probabilistic standpoint, there was really nothing unreasonable about it -- his 55 point explosion is no less rare than his 20/20, and visa versa. It's a matter of personal preference.

• • •

One last note, because this didn't really fit anywhere in the post. There's one other thing I find particularly impressive about Jennings' performance on Wednesday. Jennings produced his 20/20 game in 33 minutes of play. Want to know how unlikely THAT particular incidence is? It's literally never happened before. The lowest minutes played of any other 20/20s in my dataset is John Stockton's 34 minute 22-20 night in 1989. Magic had a 35 and Nash had a 36, but 85% of the NBA's 20/20 games came from players who registered 37 minutes or more on the night.

Just a ridiculous performance, and one of the best games of the season from one of the NBA's most interesting journeymen. It's gonna be fun to watch Stan Van Gundy in the playoffs again. Maybe Jennings will add another one to the ledger put up one of those legendary  13 point, 8 assist, field goal percentage > 60%, 3+ block games I mentioned earlier.

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

Does Danny Green Deserve a Max Contract?

Danny Green blocks Afflalo ( Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Picture this. An NBA player enters the league having had a decent-but-not-exceptional run in the NCAA and having fallen in the draft more than expected. His first few years are a bit disappointing, for reasons that don't necessarily have to do with him, but he figures out his place in the league and blossoms in the last few years of his deal. In that time, a lot of things happen -- his fingers brush against a Finals MVP trophy, he becomes one of the league's best defensive stoppers at the wing, and his temporarily-broken three point shot becomes a legitimate weapon in his arsenal. All the while, the player in question is stuck on a massively below-market deal that would've made him the cheapest Finals MVP of all time. As he mulls over max-to-near-max contract offers after a long season as his team's rock, the question of whether he'd remain a San Antonio Spur is suddenly far more in flux than anyone expected.

Most of that is known, at least for most NBA fans. The interesting thing about the paragraph isn't the obvious person it describes (Kawhi Leonard, of course!), but that it ALSO provides a decent summary of San Antonio's second most important player during the 2015 season to date: Danny Green. The first thing anyone does when they think of Danny Green as a max contract player is balk. But the 2015 season has been a wild one for San Antonio and the league as a whole, and Danny Green may serve to be the beneficiary of the San Antonio's trouble spot and a changing league. To understand why, let's begin at the playoff run that will undoubtedly form the crux of Danny's free agency pitch: his unlikely run at the 2013 Finals MVP trophy.

• • •

Although Danny played better in the 2013 Finals than he'd ever played before, it's often overlooked that he played pretty excellent basketball in in the first few rounds as well. As you might remember, Danny Green averaged a pedestrian (but team-best!) 18-4-1 line in San Antonio's first five games of the 2013 Finals, which put him in the catbird seat with San Antonio up 3-2. Green's real accomplishment wasn't his per-game averages but his borderline impossible efficiency, as he averaged (no joke) 57% from the field, 66% from three, and 83% from the line over those first five games. While slightly neutered, that efficiency was still present in the earlier rounds -- after an uncharacteristic 33% from three point range against the Lakers, Green averaged 44% from three against the Warriors on 6 heaves a game and 47% on 4 heaves a game against a tough Memphis defense. Over the pre-finals playoff run, Green averaged 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal/block as well -- all solid tertiary statistics for a player whose primary value is in lethal floor-warping three point prowess.

Hold up, there's a mistake in that idea -- offense isn't actually Green's primary value. The offensive per-game stats ignore Green's real value during that run (and every run after it) -- Green was one of the bulwarks of San Antonio's improved defensive attack. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined to form one of the best defensive "smalls" duo in the 2013 playoffs (second only to the Conley/Allen pairing on the Memphis Grizzlies), and their ability to shut down guard plays outside the painted area lessened the burden on Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the interior. One could make the argument that Green and Leonard's defense was what saved Duncan's legs enough for him to crank out the vintage games that nearly stole San Antonio the title. If you look at what the Spurs did in the playoffs before Kawhi and Green had broken into the rotation, you see the difference -- even with a younger Duncan in 2011, Splitter couldn't even handle the amount of pressure that even the semi-broken Memphis offense placed on him, and Duncan didn't have the energy to pick up the slack. San Antonio has improved defensively in each season since their best-in-the-west 2011 record, despite getting fewer and fewer minutes from their talented big men. Although such an improvement is never entirely one change, the impact of Green/Leonard looms large. Richard Jefferson, Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili -- these were the players San Antonio gave big minutes as perimeter defenders before Green and Leonard took the bulk of the wing minutes, and these were the players who have slowly gotten phased out of the rotation (either through age or attrition) as San Antonio's defense came back to form.

Before the Spurs had Green and Leonard, any guard that wanted to get to the rim could pretty easily fake out the first line of defense and make it to the paint. That didn't necessarily ruin San Antonio's chances at a good record -- Duncan and Splitter made it through the 2011 season doing fine, statistically, and the team still had an amazing record due to their collective offensive brilliance and their good-enough defense. But when your star big is old and creaky, having to constantly defend several actions on the same play grows tiring, and Duncan had absolutely no legs left by the end of the season. Every blown coverage that resulted in an easy layup attempt in November made Duncan a step slower in April, and the impact accumulated badly -- even before their inglorious playoff ouster, the 2011 Spurs had a few months of mediocre-to-bad play as Duncan tried to get his legs back under him. Although the team was better due to small improvements, the same was true in 2012's final series -- although those Spurs blitzed through the first few teams of the playoffs offensively, as soon as Oklahoma City players figured out how to break through San Antonio's big minutes wings (Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, and the rookie Kawhi Leonard) with pinpoint passing, Duncan's inability to cover that many broken defensive schemes and lazy layups over a whole season became apparent, and their defense blew apart like a house of cards in a windstorm.

Starting in 2013, with Green and Leonard emergent as San Antonio's big sponges at the wing, San Antonio finally had two lockdown perimeter defenders who could force guards to stay outside of the paint on offense without complicated pick and rolls. That allowed Duncan/Splitter to focus on bigs and simple actions, and it proved the difference in 2013 and 2014. By cutting down on the unexpected paint intrusions, Green and Leonard let Duncan and Splitter play their best defense possible when it actually mattered. Even with Danny Green's lesser "counting" statistics in the 2014 playoffs (9-3-1-1-1 on 49-48-82), Green was the biggest difference in San Antonio's WCF rematch against the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he shot 54% from three and averaged two steals a night while buggering Westbrook and Jackson into uncharacteristic mistakes and apprehension towards their usual driving and slicing. Most of San Antonio's players were about as good as they were in 2012, if not worse -- each member of San Antonio's big three had worse statistics in the 2014 rematch than they did in the original, and Kawhi Leonard's improvements were constrained to defense-only -- Ibaka excepted, Green and Splitter were the main differentiators that turned that series around on the San Antonio side.

In sum: while Green's offensive efficiency almost got him a Finals MVP trophy, it wouldn't have been why he deserved it. His blossoming defense (in concert with Kawhi Leonard's blossoming "everything") was what flipped the script on San Antonio's disappointing playoff runs from 2008 to 2012, and what conspired to change San Antonio from an offense-led paper tiger to a whirling dervish of basketball borg collectives.

• • •

This brings us to the current season, where Danny Green is putting up averages of 13-4-2-1-1. Pedestrian, right? The entire premise I'm working with here is that Green might actually deserve a max contract, and those averages would tend to imply that the answer is an emphatic "NOPE." He deserves a raise, obviously, but a max? It's tough to argue that, until you go a bit deeper and start picking apart how he's reached those numbers and how the league is heading. For one thing, Danny Green is just now putting the kibosh on the best month of his entire career -- after starting the season off slowly, Green has been on a rampage over the last month. He's shooting 49-50-95 over his past 17 games for a true shooting percentage of 79.6%. His usage has remained constant (hovering around 17% on the full season and 16.6% over the stretch, the biggest knock on his max player candidacy from an offensive perspective) but his defensive responsibilities have been substantially greater than usual due to Kawhi Leonard's injury absence. San Antonio's defense remains in the top five despite Leonard's constant absence, Tiago Splitter playing just 8.5% of San Antonio's minutes, and a large infusion of lazy Boris Diaw minutes. (NOTE: I love Boris Diaw. That said, he's been playing lazy defense this season and someone should probably call him on it -- it's a borderline miracle that San Antonio remains in the upper echelons of league defense despite Diaw's lost assignments and further loss of speed.) That's Duncan and Green's influence, as they compose San Antonio's most important duo in a snakebit season.

As you sift through the deeper abstracts of Green's statistics, you find a mixed bag. Although he's been borderline terrible at pull-up jumpers this year (he's averaging 28% on pull-up jump shots -- yes, Virginia, a player with a TS% of 80% is somehow shooting 28% on pull-up jumpers. He's that bad at them.), he's finally started to convert at the rim, which is slowly ticking his free throw rate in a positive direction. This is good, because Green has been San Antonio's best foul shooter this year, whether through luck or serious improvement from his career average of 83%. He's shot 97% from the line on the whole season, which puts him at fourth place behind Jerryd Bayless, Ryan Kelly, and Chris Douglas-Roberts as the best free throw shooters in the league (who take more than 1 foul shot a night, obviously). Players shoot 15% worse when Danny Green is guarding them within 6 feet of the basket, making Green better at close-shot guarding than many of the NBA's centers (which, of course, makes sense -- he's currently 2nd in the league in shot blocks for a guard or a wing, right behind Philadelphia's K.J. McDaniels and right ahead of Golden State's Draymond Green, another Green poised for a massive raise when is contract expires). He's a top-percentile rebounder from the guard position despite generally skying for long rebounds and ceding offensive boards, and while his passing is hardly of the "run-the-team" variety, Green functions as an excellent cog in San Antonio's passing machine.

The knock on Danny Green has never been his shooting or his defense -- its his dribbling, and his inability to create shots for himself. And indeed, that's a problem. His incredibly poor percentage on pull-up jumpers even in this incredible stretch underlines that problem, and it's uncertain whether any NBA franchise will shell out max money for a player who can't really create for himself. The thing is? The league is always changing, and you never know exactly when a player's flaws move from an unacceptable flaw to something the league can live with. This season is putting Green in a position where max money may come regardless of his ability to create for himself. Consider this -- the 2015 Atlanta Hawks and the 2015 Golden State Warriors both feature a defensive star at the large guard position who drains threes and has trouble creating offense. Kyle Korver has been making teams better on a mild contract for years now, and Klay Thompson's value is such that almost everyone's coming around to the idea that Golden State made a defensible (if not apt) decision to pass on the proposed Klay Thompson/Kevin Love swap. Neither of them are very good at creating for themselves, but Golden State's offense is built around the Curry/Klay threat (and the Klay/Bogut defense) while Atlanta uses Korver's gravity to free up Teague and Horford for easy buckets.

The game done changed, and contract equations are in flux. It used to be that any player who couldn't dribble wasn't worth a thing in the NBA, as offenses depended on every single player being able to put the ball on the floor (at least to a limited extent). But Atlanta and Golden State are showing that such an equation simply isn't true anymore, and San Antonio's title last season supports it even moreso. Leonard, Green, and Bellinelli barely have a dribble or two between them as creators or shot-designers -- they don't work well as point guards, and they have trouble breaking defense if they're caught in a corner. But the Spurs marched to a title on their backs regardless, working through an offense where dribbling wasn't anything they really had to do. The same has been true for Golden State and Atlanta -- they've minimized Korver and Thompson's need to put the ball on the floor in favor of quick passes if they realize they don't have the shot. Given the modern conception of offense, it's worked fine. Thompson has greatly improved this season in a lot of ways, not least of which his dribbling -- he's been far more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and creating offense, which has improved the team. But Golden State's sets are still designed to take advantage of his catch-and-shoot mastery -- half his shots come without a single dribble. That's fewer than Korver (75%) and Green (62%), but it's in the same general range.

As you're probably aware, Klay Thompson just got a max contract anyway. Green isn't as young as Thompson, but Kyle Korver and Tony Allen have gone great lengths to prove that catch-and-shoot stoppers don't fall off much until their mid 30s. Green is 28, meaning that his next long contract should take him right to Kyle Korver's current age (33). Is it that hard to believe that an NBA team in a cash-flush post-TV deal world will be willing to take a max-contract bet on owning the next Kyle Korver for four years? Green is the rare defensive stopper with offense-bending gravity and the playoff chops to prove it. He may not get a max contract, but it's hard to imagine Green getting much less than Klay Thompson's current "rookie max" deal. Luckily for San Antonio, Green's only been in the league for 6 years -- he'll only be eligible for the 0-6 year max, which represents 25% of the salary cap. Compounding this luck, barring some sort of revenue easing, the cap isn't going to go nuts due to the new TV deal until the 2016 offseason, which means that 25% of the salary cap will likely remain a 15-16 million a year type deal rather than the 20+ that it'll likely represent under the post-TV deal cap environment.

That works in two ways for San Antonio (or whatever team ends up signing Green). First, it means that the salary is simply lower than it would be if this was two years from now, which is always nice from an organizational standpoint. Second, it means the cap will explode shortly after the team signs the contract, which means the contract will take up a proportionally smaller amount of a team's cap space than it would've in a normal environment. Signing a max contract usually means that you're carving out 20-25% of your cap over the duration of the deal for that individual player. In the current environment, that 25% figure only lasts for a single season -- for the other three years of a max deal, the player will likely only take up 15-20% of the cap, a considerably smaller sum that gives teams much more flexibility. The difference is even greater if you consider the possibility that San Antonio is forced to max both Danny Green AND Kawhi Leonard -- if they do that, they're looking at $15 million dollar salaries for the both of them. In a normal environment, that's $30 million out of a cap of $66, or 45%. If the cap blows up to $80 million or more, as expected, that's suddenly only 30% of the cap, leaving 70% of San Antonio's cap free to build a team around their ace perimeter duo. Long story short? Even if the Spurs are forced to max Green (or pay a near-max salary, or something above $12 million), it's entirely possible they'll look at the equation and realize it makes sense in the long run.

So, to circle back: does Danny Green deserve a max contract? It's unclear. On the plus side, his defense is ridiculously good for a guard, and he's one of the best end-to-end fastbreak quashers in the league. He sticks to his man like glue above the three point line and cuts off actions before they get to the last line of defense. He compounds that defensive value with one of the quickest catch-and-shoot jumpers in the league, and (if this season is to be believed) he may have improved his free throw form to become one of the best free throw shooters out there. He rebounds like a big and he's surprisingly durable. On the other hand, he can't dribble worth a donkey's necktie and he doesn't use very many possessions on offense -- he has incredible gravity, but that gravity isn't always a guarantee that he's going to get you a better shot. He's a cold/hot player, and his cold games can be difficult for the offense to survive.

When I asked the question on Twitter last night, most Spurs fans balked at the idea, and many were confused as to why it was even a question after a game where he'd scored 11 points. But the NBA works in mysterious ways -- whether he deserves it or not, Green has played his way into a massive payday of some sort, and the league's environment is warping in such a way that his flaws just might not matter when the contract negotiations come around. For non-star players on the fringes, a big payday requires an intersection of bankable talent, an environment that values you, and the luck to let those overlap.

We may not know exactly what he's about to make, but one thing is clear -- Danny Green is one lucky man.

Danny Green, Lucky Dude (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

The NBA Bouillon Report: Whose Stock is Boiling?


NOTE: Technically, broth and stock are different things. I realize this. For the purposes of this post, I am also totally ignoring this important fact. Sorry, foodies.

Boullion is one of my favorite things. Nah, not the boxed stuff -- the real deal. The kinds of stay-at-home stocks that take a ton of hands-on effort, where you buy a ton of aromatics and simmer off a beautiful homemade stock that brightens every soup or reduction you make in subsequent weeks. (Or, if you're not a vegetarian, the kind where you buy a bunch of unloved chicken pieces and some gelatin and turn it into God's gift to liquids.) That's my jam. You can't always have a stay-at-home stock, of course -- sometimes you need to resort to boxed stocks. Oftentimes you have to resort to bouillon cubes, those overly salty flavor bases without texture or complexity. Sometimes, in darker hours still, you find yourself in a kitchen bereft of any of better option and need to resort to canned stock. Those are the hard times. The painful hours.

Similarly, the NBA is one of my favorite things. If you look hard enough, you can find a similar hierarchy among the NBA's landscape. You have the teams spinning full-force brilliance on a nightly basis, putting up best-in-class entertainment with unmistakable style. You have the imitations, too -- the teams that are ALMOST there, but lack the creativity and pizzazz to make that last leap. You have the workaday teams that are a bit too salty and a bit too drab but good enough for a simple soup. You have the teams whose inspiration and guile seem to come from the world's worst can of Campbell's soup. And you have the teams who are, for all intents and purposes, not stock at all. (Looking at you, Philly.)

In this post, I will isolate one man's opinion about the varied classes of stock in our noble league. Who's home-made? Who's a suitable workaday stock from a box? Who's a salty over-seasoned mess? I'll highlight one representative example from each class and split the rest of the league between these slightly confusing tiers of watchability and talent. The league's stock is coming to a boil, and it's time to take its temperature... because it depends on your altitude, since boiling point changes with altitude. This is the stock report everyone wants to read in the winter. Jim Cramer, eat your heart out.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: The crème de la crème of stock. Lightly simmered and carefully constructed, the perfect home-made stock is rich without the overpowering saltiness of its lesser iterations. Perfect for virtually every cooking application you can imagine using broth in, and perfect for a few things you can't. This is the stock you can't miss.

If I'm looking for the 2015 season's best overall experience, I'd have to start with the Golden State Warriors. They've got it it all. They've got the fundamentals at their back, with a compelling west-heavy schedule and a competitive division race against the Los Angeles Clippers. They play fun basketball, pushing the tempo at the NBA's fastest pace and featuring (in this man's opinion) the most entertaining player in the NBA's top five with Stephen Curry. His three point accuracy is legendary, and even his dumbest game-by-game mistakes (his often inane turnovers) are fun to watch in a slapstick comedy sort of way. They feature two of the NBA's best defensive players (Bogut/Iguodala), both of whom are fun to watch even when their offense is flailing. They feature Klay Thompson, who's been the NBA's best shooting guard in the early reaches of the season. And they feature one of the best uniforms in the league. As a full package, the Warriors are almost unbeatable. So they'd head up this category. As with real life, home-made stock is hard to come by. There aren't that many other teams that deserve this lofty designation.

The only other two that come to mind: The Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks. Neither of them are quite as good of a team as the Warriors, at least in the early season, but they're very nearly as entertaining. The Warriors generally win on the strength of their defense -- Portland and Dallas both claim a blitzing offensive attack as a mark of their triumph, and it's been a lot of fun to watch. Portland's offense is roughly the same as last year, bolstered slightly by an improved bench and some inspired play from the fill-ins for their stars. (Really, Stotts was able to fill Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard for Batum and Aldridge off a few recent injuries. Everyone's getting better!) As with the Warriors, they're a full package -- contention, watchability, and interesting (if not perfect) play on both ends of the floor. The Blazers don't have nearly the defensive chops that Golden State sports, but this year they've upped the help defense and shored up some of their larger-scale defensive problems that torpedoed them against the Spurs last year, and they're a tiny bit more balanced. They're a team to watch.

The Mavericks are a special case. Part of what makes them so interesting is their utterly horrible defense -- I'd consider Dallas one of the league's best bouillon teams regardless. Their offense is that good. The distance between Dallas' top offense and the #2 offense in the league (Toronto) is equivalent to the distance between Toronto and league average (Memphis). They're playing offense on an entirely different level than anyone else right now, and exceptional edge cases like that can override a few serious flaws. Also, as noted above, fulfillment and failure are never completely separate. It's not simply THAT you fail, it's HOW you fail. From that perspective, Dallas fails in a way that's fun to watch -- you're almost always looking at the opposing team's best foot forward on offense, and their defense is so bad that it circles around and becomes fun. A must-watch.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: When you're looking for stock, boxed stock is usually your second best bet. Absent the tinny flavor of canned stock, boxed stock generally doesn't last quite as long (not as many preservatives) but the grotesque aftertaste fades. Hardly perfect, but good in a pinch. For this definition, we're going with the best possible boxed stocks, the ones where you can taste the different ingredients that went into the stock and reduce it a bit without turning your food into a salty mess.

When you're trying to analyze a league or a group through weird analogies, it's usually pretty easy to identify a league's best-of-the-best and the worst-of-the-worst. It's much tougher to look at the landscape and figure out the gradations between those two designations, especially since the best and the worst encompass only 4-5 teams. Never fear, however -- in the early season, there are a few distinct classes of teams within the "not quite home-made stock, but certainly not bad" designation. To wit:

  • The Title Chasers -- These are the ones that aren't quite the must-watch, must-digest teams as the perfect three above, but they're title-chasing teams with serious aspirations and serious talent. The Houston Rockets aren't nearly as watchable as the above teams, but they've been downright excellent on the defensive end this year with Ariza spotting Parsons' old minutes and a rejuvenated Dwight Howard. They're not a must-watch (no contender that depends on foul shots and James Harden is), but they're a strong team and a great choice for a random night game. Memphis is very nearly in the above bucket, as their defense/offense mix has been about as close to my platonic ideal of a defensive juggernaut as it could possibly be. I love Gasol, I love Z-Bo, I love Conley. They're great. Maybe they belong in the above category, actually.
  • The Young Upstarts -- This list is highlighted by Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans, who serve as one of the league's most entertaining teams with Davis on the court and one of the league's most mediocre with Davis on the bench. The entertainment they provide is almost entirely related to the amount of Anthony Davis on your TV screen. Nature of the beast. You also have the Raptors, a hard-to-believe-in yet delightfully tame group of players that look likely to snag a top-4 seed and a better playoff run than last year's disappointing bow-out.  The Kings are much like the Pelicans -- terrible without DeMarcus Cousins on the court, a must-watch with Boogie at the helm. (NOTE: There will be more on the Kings. I love these Kings.)
  • The Hopeless Scamps -- These teams kind of suck, but they're really entertaining and interesting regardless. Start with the Boston Celtics, who've been a surprisingly fun watch. They go heavy on the passing (as you'd expect from a Rondo team) and have several delightful pet plays for well-designed layup conversions. Very fun. The Pacers are in this box too, although I get the feeling I'm alone on the "Indiana is fun!" train. Watching Solomon Hill do work as a team's leading light is one of the weirdest things going in the NBA this season, and Roy Hibbert has been absolutely amazing for them. No, really. Look at his statlines, and watch a few Pacers game. He's absolutely carrying their defense on his shoulders right now. It's impressive. And he's doing it without most of his best running mates. He deserves an all-star spot (or DPoY) even more right now than he did last season. The Charlotte Hornets have been really atrocious this season, but as expected, their confluence of talent is solid and the overall product is intriguing. Cody Zeller is quietly developing into an actual NBA talent (his two-man game with Lance Stephenson is one of the neater things about these Hornets) and even though they look like a pretty awful team they play with an odd style that makes them fun and engaging. Finally? The Utah Jazz. They've been bad-but-entertaining, with Quin Snyder's rotations a refreshing exultation of Utah's best players instead of the constant veteran-emphasized lineups Tyrone Corbin tortured Jazz fans with for years. Hayward has been surprisingly good, Dante Exum is fun, and... let's just not talk about Trey Burke, thanks.

The world of boxed stocks is dangerous. It's hardly as can't-lose as a well-crafted homemade blend, and although there are good ones, there are some real problem children among them. But you can find some beauty if you look hard enough, and there's usually one or two delightful notes in any boxed stock worth its salt. Drink these teams, readers. Drink without regret.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: The nice thing about bouillon cubes? They last. You can keep a box of bouillon cubes in the cabinet for months or even years at a time. The highly concentrated vegetable/chicken/beef dust of a bouillon cube reconstitutes into a salty stock when you add boiling water. It's almost magic. Only ALMOST, though. The final result almost invariably tastes like it came from a cube, and it's worse off for it. Good in a pinch, but bad to rely on.

This section is much smaller than the above section, because the main identifying feature of a bouillon cube as compared to a boxed stock or canned stock is the delightfully long storage period. Liquid stock simply doesn't last as long -- even if canned stock is usable after its expiration, it takes on a progressively more metal taste as time goes on and it absorbs flavor from its packaging. And boxed stock necessarily can't last quite as long as either of them. Ergo, cubes represent the intersection of canned stock and boxed stock, not quite good enough to make out the different flavors but a fair step above the worst of your stock options. Before the fans kill me, I'M NOT SAYING ANY OF THESE TEAMS SUCK. They're good teams. But as of yet, they're unfinished products whose results will make much more sense in retrospect than they do in-the-now. And for various reasons, they're all kind of crappy teams to watch at the moment, even if we all expect they'll have more lasting flavor than some of the above teams. Hence, the NBA's three bouillon cubes:

  • SAN ANTONIO SPURS -- The Spurs entered the 2015 season incredibly banged up and sloppy. Eleven games later, they remain... well, incredibly banged up and sloppy. The Spurs offense has been effectively broken to date in the 2015 season. They run the same actions that got them open shots during the 2015 run, but without Patty/Marco/Tiago, the finishers on the end of those actions can't drain the open shots the system generates. As the team's offense grows more and more frustrated with the clanked open shots, the offense breaks into isolations and the same idiotic one-on-one play that Spurs fans chide Kobe for. Defensively, San Antonio has been fantastic. But truly judging San Antonio's play (and, frankly, enjoying what they've done) is going to have to wait for the Spurs to get healthy. And the playoffs, if we're honest. The true measure of San Antonio's season comes in the title defense, and that hardly starts until the ides of April.
  • LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS -- The Spurs have a really good excuse for looking lethargic. They entered the season banged up and dealing with the after-effects of a title-winning season. The Clippers have no such excuse. Count me as one of the dozens of people who felt the Clippers would run away with a top-3 seed in the West this year -- with Paul, Griffin, Doc, and another year of continuity, it was tough to see a universe where the Clippers didn't start the season off like world-beaters. Theory, meet reality. Griffin looks worse than last year, with his shot more than a little bit busted and his energy level on the boards virtually absent. And Chris Paul's aggression level is lower than it's been in years -- he's driving less, shooting less, and making more conservative passes than last year. Unlike 2012, though, he doesn't have Eric Bledsoe to rely on when he's feeling tepid. The overall picture is fine for L.A. -- they have all the fundamental pieces of a contender, and there's little reason to think they won't right the ship at some point. They've got a top-10 SRS rating despite their mediocre start, and as the schedule eases up it's easy to imagine them going on a run. They just need to do it.
  • CLEVELAND CAVALIERS -- I could imagine this Cavs team being one of the best watches in the league for any NBA beatnik who's a big fan  of schadenfreude. After all, few teams in history have been quite as highly hyped as this year's Cavs team, and they've started out as a surprisingly mediocre unit. Their defense is pathetic and their offense -- while good -- isn't anything world-beating like this year's Dallas team. As everyone states ad infinitum, "the talent is there." Love, LeBron, Irving, Varejao, and Waiters should combine to make a better top 5 than they've shown to date. Thompson, Dellavedova, Marion, Miller, Harris, Haywood -- that depth is decent, and the fact that Blatt hasn't been able to put together a coherent rotation with that much offensive talent is somewhat disappointing. Still, I don't think Cleveland's incoherence will last the whole year. Their talent and potential is too damn high, just like the rent. They'll be there in the playoffs, even if they aren't good enough to win a title. (Because, let's be honest here, they aren't -- they're going to need a massive shot in the arm on defense if they want to be a title-winning team. They simply aren't there yet.)

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: The bottom of the barrel. Canned stock is gross. It's overly salty to help it preserve longer, and it has no real inherent flavor of its own. As Ms. Humes discovered in her exposè on the different types of chicken broth, canned broth can have a deceptively rich first sip before the aftertaste mellows on your tongue and you realize MSG is the #1 ingredient. And take it from a vegetarian -- the story is even worse with vegetable broth, with the canned stuff tasting like liquified burnt rubber. Just disgusting stuff.

You know how you could theoretically create a serviceable homemade soup with 1 or 2 boiled vegetable or meat elements in any of the above stocks? You can't really do that with canned stock. If I'm forced to use canned stock in my cooking, I try and douse it with herbs and spices, and generally use only a few drops of it as I rely on my aromatics to seize the day and carry me to the promised land. The teams in this designation (... a lot of them, let's be honest) can't hope to carry your TV night by themselves. They've played truly uninspired basketball to date in the 2015 season. You can make a dish with these teams, but you have to add some other things too.

Like... copious amounts of alcohol. Gambling. All-encompassing fandom for any of these 14 teams. You need to do SOMETHING else. Because as a non-fan, watching games between these teams is sort of like pulling teeth, at least so far. And I have to emphasize this -- uninspired is not simply a synonym for "bad." There are good teams here too. But they've all been uninteresting above all things, at least to these eyes, and their performance has been (in most cases) disappointing and drab. To wit, the teams in this designation (ordered by SRS):

  • Chicago Bulls. Offense is better with Pau in the fold, but their defense has fallen to mediocrity with Pau on the court and their offense simply isn't better enough to make up for it. They're a decent team, but they're a thoroughly uninteresting one to date.
  • Phoenix Suns. Part of this is last year's impressive performance making this year seem worse, yeah. But without Channing Frye this team is simply not as fun as they used to be. The slash brothers are still fun to watch, and Isaiah Thomas is a nice addition. But their schemes are much more traditional and they aren't taking anyone by surprise anymore. Sorry, Phoenix. The Kings replaced you.
  • Washington Wizards. With Beal back, I think the Wizards are going to jump up to the boxed broth. They're gonna evolve. They just haven't quite yet -- Wizards games have been fun if you're a Wizards fan but droll if you're anyone else, as Washington has become surprisingly over-reliant on throwback seasons from Paul Pierce, Rasual Butler, and Kris Humphries (as well as, obviously, relying on John Wall to be the brilliant star he is.) They're a good team, for sure, and I'd say they're probably better than the Raptors. But they aren't particularly entertaining yet.
  • Miami Heat. The Heat are a little odd -- when they're fully healthy and rolling, they're a fantastic team. Fun to watch, and their offense is a good approximation of their dynastic spoils. Their problem is the same reason LeBron may have been better off leaving for Cleveland -- they simply have no depth. They have 3-4 legitimate NBA players and the rest of the roster is liquid garbage, which leads to large swaths of each game where the Heat look like absolute crap. If they make the playoffs and everyone's healthy, I could imagine the Heat going on a tiny run in the East and possibly making the second round. But a roster this thin is going to have trouble going over 0.500 in a full season. They simply can't take injury.
  • Brooklyn Nets. Lionel Hollins isn't my favorite coach, and I don't like their roster. My most enjoyable Brooklyn moment this season was when Joe Johnson went nuclear over the Pistons. That's pretty much it. J.J. is pretty good, Deron is pretty meh, and the entire roster is older than Samson's toenail. That's about the size of it.
  • Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks aren't bad at all, and I wouldn't be particularly shocked if they ended up with a top-5 seed in the East. Millsap and Horford fit together as well as they were projected to last season, Teague is having a down year that isn't that bad, and Korver is as game-changing as always. All that said? Until San Antonio's inevitable fall from grace, if I want to watch the Spurs, I'll watch the Spurs. Budenholzer's mini-me system works really well, but it's still an imitation of something I'd rather watch instead.
  • Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks aren't nearly as good as their record, and when their schedule coagulates they're going to fall off hard. But they're fun. Giannis is really good, Jabari is a decent rook, and the overall roster is finally starting to make sense with Larry Sanders back in full form. They're a team to watch for the future, but that future isn't quite here yet.
  • Los Angeles Lakers. No big fan, but... I really wish Kobe didn't have to end like this.
  • Orlando Magic. COME BACK, HOME DIPO!
  • Oklahoma City Thunder. My tears are made of blood.
  • Minnesota Timberwolves. I wish Thaddeus Young was more enjoyable to watch as his team's only star.
  • Detroit Pistons. Stan Van Gundy (the coach) should probably fire Stan Van Gundy (the GM).
  • New York Knicks. The Knicks would have one of the league's most entertaining teams if the NBA was played as a one-on-one league against each team's best player. The Knicks would also have one of the league's most entertaining teams if basketball was a competition of who has the best hair in the league. Unfortunately, basketball is neither of these things.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: This is not a stock.

No, boiling water isn't stock. It really, really isn't. If you go to a restaurant and are served a plate with naught but boiling water, you will complain. Because it's not stock, it's not soup, it's not... anything, really. It's just boiling water. It's fundamentally separated from our idea of a flavor base because it is inherently lacking in flavor. Hot water thrives off the absence of flavor, not an abundance of it.

So, obviously, that's your Sixers. Welcome to the 2015 season, Philadelphia!


Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

NBA Awards Preview 2015: What's in the Cards?

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.28.58 PM

I hate click-bait article titles. As such, before we get into this post, I want to answer the question I posed.

Q: "What's in the Cards?" -- Aaron McGuire, minutes ago.

A: Nothing. They are a baseball team, not a storage receptacle.

Glad to get that cleared up. Now, since we've reached the absolute final day of the offseason, let's quickly run down a season-preview type post where I emerge from the murky depths to share the precognitive ramblings of a dying goat (EDITOR'S NOTE: Me) relayed through ticker tape by a starving artist (EDITOR'S NOTE: Also me) whose exploits are relayed humbly through a website built on the exploits of giant anthropomorphic ants (EDITOR'S NOTE: That's also m--wait, that's not me, who let an anthropomorphic ant into my blog's masthead? Dewey, I'm disappointed in you.) I will award the season-ending awards of the 2015 season before a single game has been played, and as an added bonus, I'll tack on some alternate reality awards. You know, just in case the NBA gets a lot weirder before the 2015 season ends.

• • •


For LeBron James to avoid winning an MVP award this season, things are going to need to go awfully wrong for the Cavaliers. His primary opponents in the MVP chase include a superstar who's going to miss 15-20 games of the season, a two-headed star combo where nobody can agree on the superior player, a defense-challenged point guard whose team generally wins on the defensive end of the floor, a 36-year-old German whose role will be chopped back as the year goes on, and a guy who shot 15/59 in FIBA play this summer. So... yeah. I think LeBron's probably got this.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Moist Valuable Player, awarded to the sweatiest player in the NBA. I'm going with Zach Randolph.


There's a lot more uncertainty than usual in the predictions for this one. Noel is my pick, simply because I don't see Wiggins, Parker, or Exum putting up world-beating stats for any of their teams. Wiggins is going to spend most of the season learning NBA speed, and Parker might end up marginally rotation-buried on a dismal Bucks team. Exum looks like a quality player, but he'll be defended by the other team's best defender on a nightly basis and will be prying his trade in the defensively pesky West. On the other hand, Noel exists in a position of scarcity in a conference generally lacking premier big-man defenders. He'll get ample minutes and he'll be playing for a team that plays fast-paced stat-padding basketball. I wouldn't be shocked if he put up a shimmering 13-9-3 type line with reasonable percentages and decent defense, and I have a feeling a line like that could eke out the award this year.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Wookie of the Year, awarded to the most luxurious body hair in the NBA. I'm taking the long view and assuming that this will be the year that Nikola Pekovic tries growing a playoff beard. His body hair will then gain sentience. When detached, it will serve double-time as the antagonist in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It will also wear stupid hats and star in a crummy NBC drama. It's gonna be a really weird year for Nikola Pekovic's sentient body hair.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Rick Carlisle (DAL)

Dallas is going to be really, really good this year. They won 49 games last season in a brutal Western gauntlet and upgraded just about every position on the floor. Their bench looks better, their starters look better (...outside of PG), and their army of options meshes really well with Carlisle's coaching style. He likes giving opponents different looks and different defensive flows depending on the needs of the game -- with his versatile multi-punch roster, he should be able to keep opponents on their toes for most of the season. Don't be surprised if Dallas schemes their way into a few crazy wins on strategy and gamesmanship alone. I mean, alright, you should be a LITTLE surprised if they win the game entirely without playing the game of basketball, but that's not what I meant.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Paunch of the Year, awarded to the player who entered the year in decent shape and ends it with more chins than playoff wins. The problem with this award is that you need to find someone who started the season in good shape but is a strong candidate to completely fall apart physically due to disinterest and dismay. Let's go with Caron Butler!


Generally, I have an issue naming incoming sophomores as the league's most improved player. It may be true, but almost every rookie improves by leaps and bounds after their first season in the league, and the sophomore jump can hardly be considered a revolutionizing charge. On the other hand, the MIP award is the most nebulous of the NBA's season-ending accoutrements, and it's hard to take it all that seriously regardless. And very few rookies have ever been as bad as Anthony Bennett was in 2014. If Bennett puts up a season that's legitimately deserving of a spot on all-star weekend's all-sophomore team, he'll have a strong case for deserving this award.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Most Improved Playa, awarded to the beach that undergoes the most improvement over the course of the 2015 season. Congratulations to Mylopotas Beach in Ios, you are Gothic Ginobili's pick for MIP!


Call it a hunch. Call it a guess. Call it crazy. But don't call it a comeback. Bogut has been one of the finest defensive centers in the league for much of his career, and Golden State has given him one of the most unlikely jumping-off points for showing it to the world. Last year's Golden State team made its bread on defense, a surprise to any casual NBA fan who's primary exposure to Oakland's fast-paced history came at the hands of Run TMC, Don Nelson, or the Curry/Monta/Lee incarnation of the current team that aimed for the playoffs before Bogut's arrival. Marc Jackson got a lot of credit for their revolutionized schemes, and he deserved a decent bit. So too did Draymond Green, whose underrated defensive strength allows Bogut to stay within a smaller range of the court during active defensive possessions and save his legs for the playoffs. If Bogut can stay healthy this year, his efforts are likely to lead the Warriors to a top-5 defensive unit. That'll deserve a DPoY nod.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Pensive Player of the Year, for the most thoughtful NBA player of the year. Jaden Smith wins this award. I mean, come on. Will Smith has an ownership stake in the Sixers, and the Sixers would EASILY be a more entertaining team if Jaden Smith was on the court. I'm just going to pick this award aspirationally and hope with all my heart that Jaden laces it up this season. As a wise man once said, "Once All 100% Is Neglected You Have A Citizen. A Walking Zombie Who Criticizes Every Thing They See. Have Fun Its A Really Awesome Place."

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Richard Jefferson (DAL)

Aaron, don't delete this. I wrote something about RJ. It's really awesome and I want to share it. Okay, so in honor of NaNoWriMo (uh... crap it's only the 28th, uh... let's roll with it), I have written a novelization of Richard Jefferson's upcoming season with the Mavericks. Unfortunately, all but the first and last paragraphs were destroyed in an oddly-specific fire that I may have started, in a momentary fugue of mercy and compassion. Following are those paragraphs.

Call me Richard. Well, I suppose you'd already planned to, here in Dallas. My childish nickname being RJ, and my given name Richard Jefferson, my veteran tongue would make of both names nothing longer or more absurd than Richard. So I called myself Richard, you know, and came to be called Richard. We were somewhere in Golden State when the small forward rotation began to take hold. I would be, you know, the back-up to Chandler Parsons. Every starter is happy; every backup is unhappy with his minutes in a different way. I had high hopes for this season; the Galactic Empire was dying in San Antonio. The most merciful thing in the world, you know, is the inability of the basketball veteran's mind to simultaneously take stock of all his injuries. It is a truth universally acknowledged, you know, that a veteran in possession of a good fortune and free agency must be in want of a contender. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this baller Dirk.


Don't ever tell anybody you're retiring. If you do, you start missing everybody. Heh. After a while I went out and left the ring ceremony and walked to the hotel in the sun. Tomorrow is, you know, another day. Dirk believed in the green light on the break, the orgastic crowd that year by year increases among us. Rings eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine June evening--

So we beat on, shots against the backboard, bounced back ceaselessly into the net.

So, this is actually just the start of what I wanted to write about Richard Jefferson today, Aaron. I have at least 1500 more words of equal caliber that I wish to share with



Most of the usual suspects for this award are conspicuously absent or hobbled this season. Quietly, the quickly-aging Jamal Crawford has been getting a bit worse over the last few years with Los Angeles, and his poor performance against Oklahoma City was one of the tipping points that cost L.A. the series. He'd have to have a pretty incredible regular season to offset the poor taste left from his uninspiring playoff woes last year. There's also a distinct possibility that L.A.'s gaping roster wound at the three-spot forces Doc Rivers to experiment with a three-guard starting lineup that features Crawford as a starter for large portions of the season. Manu Ginobili is coming back from a fracture, and chances are slim he'll stay healthy long enough to put up a serious challenge for the hardware. Taj Gibson is likely to start for much of the season, Markieff Morris is likely to step into Channing Frye's starting spot, and Reggie Jackson's offense might be needed in the first unit as well. So why not Isaiah Thomas, the obvious odd man out in Phoenix's curious three-headed-hydra at the point? He's a burst scorer, he's unlikely to start, and he's going to have to prove he deserves the playing time he gets.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Simple Plan of the Year, awarded to the NBA player most likely to play Simple Plan's rendition of the Scooby Doo theme song for their first dance on their wedding day. Let's go with Matt Bonner. Sure, he's already married. But people can reaffirm their vows any time they want to. And I have no doubt that if Matt Bonner REALLY thought about it, he'd realize that his best course of action is to reaffirm his vows to the dulcet tunes of Simple Plan's Scooby Doo theme song. His new wedding cake can be in the shape of a giant hoagie. He can dress up as a perfect Shaggy. The question isn't when, it's "why hasn't it happened already?"

• • •

Hey, all! Glad to be back. I'm going to try and pull out one to two posts a week now that the season is back. Enjoy tonight's slate.

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

A Primer on Cap-Smoothing: the NBA's BRI Problem

Adam Silver answers a question. (Credit Pat Sullivan from the AP for the photo.

Two days ago, Zach Lowe stirred up a minor storm on Twitter with a tiny aside in an otherwise non-controversial piece about the frustrating tête-à-tête between Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix front office within his restricted free agency. The offending aside, in its essence:

And that’s where things get interesting: Executives on lots of teams have gotten the sense from the league office that the NBA will try to smooth the increase of the cap level to minimize the impact of any massive one-year jump in revenue. Exactly how it would do that is unclear. The precise team salary cap — $58 million last season, $63 million this season — is tied to overall league revenues; the two rise and fall together. Players are guaranteed about 50 percent of the league’s “basketball-related income,” and the league and union set the cap figure so player salaries add up to a number in that 50 percent ballpark. The league’s specific plan for smoothing out the cap increase is unclear, and in the end, it may opt against doing so at all. The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

There's a lot of misunderstandings about how exactly this cap smoothing plan could work, and those misunderstandings spread in a controversy so deadly it almost became a twitpocalypse. (Alright, I lied. It was a pretty average twitter controversy. I just wrote that so that I could use the word "twitpocalypse.") Much like Lowe, I don't feel this is all that controversial. And I generally think a cap smoothing plan could be an ideal situation for both the league as a whole and the players as a collective. That sounds weird at the outset, especially because as-described the cap smoothing plan is effectively depressing player salaries.

But there are a lot of key facts about the NBA's general operating agreement that lead me to that conclusion, and I realized while arguing about this that most people were totally unaware of these. While I tried to explain my rationale in 140-character chunks, I quickly realized that Twitter was a terrible medium for this kind of a complicated explanation. Let's try it in post form. My intention is to try and explain a) why it's necessary in the first place, b) what such a proposal would need to entail, and c) a few off-the-cuff ideas of how the parameters of this proposal might look. But to start to explain this, one must start at the very beginning, which can be done by answering a hypothetical posed to me by the incomparable @basquiatball.

• • •

What would the NBA offseason look like if the cap doubled?

The NBA's 2015 salary cap was set about a month ago. The exact figure was $63 million dollars. Let's say, for the purposes of this argument, that the NBA's basketball related income will roughly double in the 2016 offseason, for reasons unknown to all of us. Ergo, the cap (a figure that's tied intricately to BRI) suddenly jumps from this year's $63 million figure to a total of $120 million dollars. This has a lot of side-effects, as the cap figure has a massive impact on the NBA's salary structure. The most important ones for our purposes:

  • An NBA team's minimum collective salary is set at 90% of the NBA's salary cap figure. This past year, it was set at $56 million dollars. In this scenario, it jumps to $108 million dollars.
  • The maximum salary of an NBA player is set at a certain percentage of the cap depending on how many years the player has been in the league. This would result in maximum salaries jumping like so:
    • 0-6 years: 25% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $14.7 million to $30 million.
    • 7-9 years: 30% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $17.7 million to $36 million.
    • 10+ years: 35% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $20.6 million to $42 million.
  • The tax level is set at a certain percentage of BRI, meaning that it matches the cap level. It would rise from $77 million to $146 million.

I filled out a spreadsheet with every contract currently on the NBA's books. The NBA currently has salaries roughly totaling $2 billion dollars for the 2015 NBA season. In a scenario where every team opens up so much cap room, it's a fair assumption to state that every single player in the NBA with a qualifying offer or a player option will reject it and every player with an early termination option will exercise it. With those assumptions, players who remained on the books with their guaranteed contracts would represent $1.3 million of those $2 billion in contracts. The players who represented the other $0.7 billion would become free agents.

At this juncture, let's take a step back to try and understand the mechanisms by which the league and the players meet the overall player salaries proposed in the 2011 CBA. According to that CBA, the players receive 49 to 50% of basketball related income. The cap total (and cap floor) is tied to BRI in such a way that forces teams to dole out salary so that the players get their agreed-upon share. If a team does not meet the minimum salary among all their players, the difference between their total salary and the salary floor is paid out in equal margin to all players on their closing day roster.

Still. With max salaries doubling and every team in the market for every player in free agency, what do you really think is going to happen? Nobody on that free agent market that gets picked up is going to get a minimum salary -- too many teams with too much money will ensure that. If BRI doubles, the total amount that goes back to the players in salary will need to approach $4.3 billion dollars despite only having $1.3 billion dollars on the books in guaranteed money to the players with existing contracts. Even assuming that some teams don't get all the free agents they want and are forced to end the season under the salary floor, that still means that salaries for the players on the free agent market (the ones who made up just 0.7 billion of the NBA's salary in 2015) will need to approach $2 billion dollars for the numbers to work out, with the remaining $1 billion dollars being distributed in payments to players on sub-floor teams. That means that virtually every player in that free agent class will see their salaries double or triple over their previous contract while players with guaranteed contracts see little to no impact from the massive salary boost.

• • •

Why is this bad for the players?

Now that the previous scenario has been laid out, this one should be easier to understand. To put it plainly: every non-free agent in the NBA gets screwed. The NBA doesn't really have many avenues for adjusting to massive shifts in the cap -- under the current CBA, players on existing contracts aren't going to see the benefit of a massive cap increase until they hit free agency. And by that point, the rush on contracts might very well be over. Sure, they'll get MORE in their next contract, but how much more?

Again, let's return to our example. Let's say that BRI projections stay completely flat after rising to $120 million dollars. In the 2015 offseason, we calculated that there would be $1.3 billion dollars of guaranteed salary on the books alongside a BRI projection that would lead the players to require $4.3 billion dollars of the NBA's revenue. In the 2016 offseason, after the projected 2015 spending spree of $2 billion dollars on the 2015 free agents, the total guaranteed salary would instead be roughly $3 billion dollars, leaving $1.3 billion to divvy up between all free agents on the market. This would lead to raises, assuredly -- the new class of free agents have salaries that summed up to roughly $600 million dollars, so those free agents are likely to double their salaries.

But notice what happened in the previous offseason -- due to the wild fluctuation caused by the rapidly rising cap, free agents in the 2015 market ended up with almost triple their previous salary as teams got into predictable bidding wars with their bounty of cap space. Once that cap picture stabilizes and the market starts to look like a normal one again (that is, with 5-6 teams with big cap room and the rest working around the margins), the NBA would return to a generally stable world where future free agents saw their salaries increase to match the big BRI increase. But future free agent classes would never quite see as much of an increase as the initial run -- there wouldn't be as many teams able to engage in large bidding wars nor would there be as much of a need for teams to sign overpaid contracts in an effort to avoid missing the salary floor.

Hence, the big problem. Suddenly increasing the cap by a massive amount DOES increase salaries, which is good for the players in aggregate. But that increase is NOT evenly distributed -- it provides a larger-than-deserved bump to the players who happen to enter free agency during that free agent period without any means of redistributing that money to players on guaranteed contracts. Even after the 2011 CBA decreased the number of years on contracts and forced more of the league into free agency on a yearly basis, the number of players who enter free agency in any given offseason is still much less than half the players in the league. Which means that 30-40% of the league would be reaping the benefits of the increased revenue without any of the players on guaranteed money seeing a dime of it until their own respective free agency periods.

That's simply not a good look. It penalizes:

  • Veterans who signed long contracts as injury insurance.
  • Rookies still on their now comically underpaid rookie deals.
  • Any player whose team convinced them to sign a longer deal to help foment team stability.

That's a hell of a lot of the league. It's pretty hard to see a situation where the 30-40% of the league entering free agency could outvote the 60-70% of the league that would be stuck on the sidelines, watching as free agents gobble up the NBA's suddenly-bountiful cap room with obscenely huge guaranteed contracts. If the league could come up with a cap smoothing proposal that keeps such a free agency period from happening, it's a good bet that most players would support it.

• • •

Isn't salary suppression illegal? Why would the players give up money?

Returning to Zach's quote for a moment, there's one sentence that bears repeating:

The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

This is a core point of any particular cap smoothing proposal. In no universe will the players NOT receive the share of BRI they were promised during the 2011 CBA negotiations. That wouldn't just be bad form -- it would be completely illegal per the NBA's operating agreement, and probably lead to the end of the league through the courts. Even if the salary cap is artificially depressed, the players will still receive their agreed-upon share of the pie. The question therefore is one of distribution -- cap smoothing would be an effort to prevent uneven assignment of the revenue increase, essentially a way to prevent one season of lucky free agents from gobbling up 60-70% of the NBA's salary cap in the near term.


Having established that the players are going to receive their money regardless, the question becomes one of the league itself. Why would Adam Silver and the owners want to implement a smoothing proposal if they aren't actually getting any more money? If we consider the players' vested interest in an even distribution of salary, the league has a vested interest in preventing the variety of other ill side effects stemming massive jump in the cap as well. In a world where every team is suddenly under the cap, the chances of any particular team actually accumulating enough salary to go over the tax line in a meaningful way is extremely low. Ergo, the various teams who depend on tax payments would suddenly be without their main source of income. Because every single player who could possibly finagle his way into free agency would do so, the league would look almost completely different from one year to the next -- 40-50% of the league would likely change teams when you account for all the trades and machinations teams would go through to try and attract the star players of the free agent class.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it isn't ideal either. Given the NBA's focus on competitive balance and the subsidizing of small markets, that kind of an offseason free-for-all could be seen by many owners as an anathema to balance and a reward to teams in large markets who haven't managed their cap space particularly well. Hence, the league office has a vested interest in keeping the cap figure stable regardless of whether they get any extra money in doing so.

• • •

How would a cap smoothing proposal work?

So. We know the league's BRI estimates are likely to rise 30-40% after the league agrees to a new TV deal -- that's nowhere near the wild scenarios described in this post, but it would cause a similarly deleterious impact on the league's salary structure. While I'm no legal expert, there are a few ways I could imagine a cap smoothing proposal being both legal under the 2011 CBA and operating in such a way that both the league and the NBPA would agree to it. They are as follows:


I mostly just included this one because it's the most obvious result, even if it's extraordinarily unlikely. The basic idea is that teams would simply operate as though the cap is near historical levels, rising by 5-6% instead of 30-40%. They'd sign contracts commensurate with those from previous free agency periods but reflecting the gradual increase. This is silly for obvious reasons. Even in the unlikely event that all teams collectively agreed to operate under a lower threshold to keep salaries in roughly equivalent ranges, the method by which the CBA deals with a salary shortfall (the aforementioned equal assignment of sub-salary floor money to all players on the team below the floor) is a wildly imprecise method of evening out the league's salary. It would still raise the salaries of free agents signed in that free agency period, and it would grant an equal portion of the pie to minimum-salary journeymen and superstars stuck in max deals. And it would also assign larger raises to players on teams with low salary obligations (like tanking teams) at the expense of teams that are trying to field title contenders. Even if Silver could somehow convince the teams to do that, it's unlikely the result would be to anyone's liking.


There was one way for the NBA to fix errors in the cap that I didn't mention in this post. Per Larry Coon's CBA FAQ:

Since individual salaries are negotiated before the season starts (in many cases years before), and BRI is not determined until the season concludes, there are mechanisms in place to adjust when salaries miss their target. If the players receive less than their guaranteed share of BRI, the league cuts a check to the players association for the difference, and this amount is distributed to the players (this happened in 2010-11, under the 2005 CBA).

This may be the most likely smoothing plan. In this scenario, the league would knowingly keep the BRI estimate lower than expected in concert with the NBPA, which would artificially depress the cap. The remainder of player salary would then be distributed to the players by the NBPA at the end of the season, with the NBPA deciding how to split the large imbalance among all its players. This would probably go on for a few years, increasing the cap by 5-10% each year until the shortfall isn't a massive number anymore. There might be some quibbles among some players with max salaries that this artificial smoothing deflates their max salaries, and that's a very valid point. But this is probably the fairest option.


Both the league and the players have expressed for some time that the NBA's schedule is a bit too long for comfort. The players don't like the increased risk of injury that comes with a longer season or the unnecessary back-to-back stretches that make it hard to stay at top form all year, while the league isn't particularly fond of the anemic basketball that gets played for months of the NBA's calendar or the widespread perception that the NBA's regular season doesn't matter. The NBA has maintained for quite some time that it would like to add some kind of midseason tournament to manufacture new interest in their product and add different parameters for a successful season outside of the simple "NBA championship or bust" framework they have now.

My thought is that it's possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that the league could use this BRI increase as a way to justify shortening the NBA season. Depending on how much they shortened the NBA season, they could depress BRI projections enough to maintain a relatively even cap despite adding the new national TV deal. They could keep the basic skeleton of the schedule the same (that is, start in October and end in late April) but implement 2-3 weeks of dead time around the all-star break, effectively giving NBA players a month off in the middle of the year. That month would lie dormant until the 2017 CBA negotiations, when the NBA could introduce a plan to hold a two week midseason tournament directly in the now-empty weeks. They could structure the TV deal to include basic parameters for covering the midseason tournament with exact terms to be negotiated after the CBA deal, giving an instant BRI boost as soon as the tournament is agreed upon.

If there are fears that the tournament's addition could push the league into a similar cap situation to the one it's facing now, the league and the NBPA could negotiate terms such that tournament income is considered "post-BRI" asset income, much like NBA jerseys. That way, players would get paid for the tournament separately from their salary, allowing the league and players to profit off the

There are a lot of ways the NBA could manage this in a way that benefits both the players and the league. At this point, only one thing is certain -- it's unlikely either side has a great appetite to see how the 2011 CBA holds up in the aforementioned stress case. Artificially easing the cap increase could benefit all parties involved, despite how odd that sounds in a vacuum. Keep an eye on this -- as the NBA's new T.V. deal approaches, this back-and-forth between the league and the players is only going to get more interesting.

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.

The NBA is Worse at Criminal Justice than the NFL

kyle lowry

Word broke today that the NFL has finally completed deliberations on the punishment for Ray Rice's offseason arrest over grisly charges that he assaulted his fiancee. The punishment, in total? A two-game suspension, coupled with a $58,000 fine and a recommendation from the NFL to attend counseling. Rice pleaded not guilty to the offense and was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that led the charges to be dropped, so that NFL penalty (in addition to the intervention program) will represent the sum total of Rice's punishment for his outburst. News flash: this isn't rare. Out of morbid curiosity, I've collected information about the last four years of assault or battery charges in the NBA from Google and the NBA Crime Library. Presented with minimal comment, and ordered by date:

  • June 2014: James Johnson was charged with domestic assault for allegedly slapping and choking his wife. The charges were dismissed because his wife did not appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • October 2013: Kendrick Perkins was charged with assault after punching a two passengers of an automobile in the face after an altercation in a bar parking lot. I have been unable to track down what happened here, but the league nor the Thunder never commented on the allegations. LEGAL PENALTIES: None (that I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2013: Jared Sullinger was charged with assault and malicious destruction of property for allegedly discovering his girlfriend was cheating on him and beating her to the ground before smashing her cellphone. The charges were dropped when his ex-girlfriend refused to appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • May 2013: Terrence Williams was arrested on charges of assault, amidst allegations that he pulled a gun on his child's mother during an annual visitation and made threats. It does not appear that a trial ever occurred, although the Celtics waived him shortly after the news broke (likely as a result of the arrest). LEGAL PENALTIES: None. (That I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None officially, although the Celtics did waive his contract.
  • January 2013: Andray Blatche was arrested on charges of sexual assault, allegedly standing in the doorway and watching as his friend raped a woman in Blatche's hotel room. Charges against Blatche were dropped several months later, although reports are unclear as to whether his friends evaded sentencing. Blatche played in an NBA game against the 76ers the exact same day he was arrested. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2012: Jordan Hill was charged with felony assault for choking a former girlfriend. He pleaded guilty, dropping the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. LEGAL PENALTIES: One year of probation, $500 fine, counseling. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • February 2011: Kyle Lowry was charged with misdemeanor battery for throwing a ball at a female ref during a preseason game and threatening the ref with physical violence. Lowry refused to appear in court, but his lawyer got the charges dropped in exchange for pleading guilty and community service. The NBA said nothing. LEGAL PENALTIES: 100 hours of community service. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • August 2010: Lance Stephenson was charged with assault and harrassment for throwing his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs and allegedly slamming her head into the staircase. The case was eventually dismissed due to a lack of cooporation from his ex-girlfriend. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

Actually, I lied. I said I'd present it without comment, but that doesn't really do it justice. Much of the NBA's twitter community has been devoted to jokes and observations about how horrifying and hypocritical the NFL is for letting Ray Rice get off with a two game suspension while players like Josh Gordon lose a year of their career for something as minor as a marijuana charge. It's true. It's hypocritical, awful, and unbelievably dumb. But a lot of talk has also been made about boycotting the NFL for their hypocrisy, and giving them financial ramifications for their hand-wavy attitude towards the serious issue of assault. My take? Do it. It's justified.

But if we're being honest, you'd be better off boycotting the NBA first.

It's hard to conclude that the NBA is anything if not much worse when it comes to league penalties for non-drug-related criminal behavior. Many of these players actually pleaded guilty without seeing any league penalty. Kyle Lowry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from an actual on-court basketball game -- the league said nothing. Jordan Hill pleaded guilty -- the league said nothing. The rest of these are, for the most part, grisly cases with an abundance of evidence pointing to evidence of guilt. But most of them got off, and not once did the league take even a cursory action. The only two times the NBA players suffered a legitimate on-court penalty were times when the player was an expendable, fringe NBA talent who wasn't worth the hassle. These are all things that happened in the last four years.

And when it comes to former players and public figures, the ledger is just as full. Beloved Grantland contributor Jalen Rose pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge stemming from an event where he got in a car almost immediately after having six martinis and rolled his Cadillac. He could've killed someone. Idolized general manager R.C. Buford was caught doing the same. Marv Albert is a generally accepted commentator, and one of the leading lights of the business -- hell, he's part of Blake Griffin's endorsement deal with Kia! -- but few people remember the disgusting charges of rape he faced back in the 90s. NBC fired him a few months into the scandal, but quietly re-hired him years later after he'd pleaded guilty to lesser charges and the public furor had died down a bit. He's still calling the NBA Finals, using the same voice he used on the stand when he argued that his assault was "consensual."

We can call this a massive moral failing, because it is. But in broad strokes, this is essentially how society treats these crimes. There's a curious amount of outrage over the NFL's punishment without the necessary realization that -- realistically -- this is one of the few times in the history of criminal justice where a sports league has accomplished the following three things in an assault case:

  1. The NFL punished a player who managed to get the charges dropped.
  2. The NFL punished a star player despite their status in the league, and gave a semi-meaningful suspension.
  3. The NFL made it clear that such an action was not OK, and essentially countered Baltimore's disgusting press conference.

The NFL is hardly perfect. It would be nice if they levied harsher punishment against Rice, and the juxtaposition between Rice's punishment and Josh Gordon's inexplicable marijuana suspension is comically off-base. But it's hardly more off-base than the actual criminal justice system's differential treatment of those particular crimes, with assault cases regularly falling apart over extremely minor inconsistencies in evidence or intimidation practiced on the part of the defense while marijuana locks up thousands of poor black teenagers on incomprehensible sentences every single year. And it feels slimy to say this, but at least they did something. Two games out of sixteen is equivalent to a 10 game NBA suspension. That's not sufficient, but it's not nothing. I don't generally endorse giving gold stars for minimal effort, but in this case, it might actually be deserved. Especially compared to the NBA's horrendous record of response on these kinds of cases.

Boycotts are fine. They rarely work, but they're a good way to take action on moral stances and provide heft to your arguments. I rarely watch the NFL anymore, as I have trouble mentally justifying it given their laissez-faire attitude towards concussions and their former players. But if NBA fans are going to boycott the NFL for their treatment of the Rice case, they should probably start off by storming the NBA's league office in New York and demanding answers on the NBA's pitiful track record. And given the widespread love and adoration for some of these players -- Lowry, Stephenson, and Hill in particular -- many might want to rethink the way they approach fandom as a whole. It's easy to pick holes in sports you don't love, but it's much harder to honestly address very real moral failings in the sport you hold dearest. And it's even harder to come to terms with the fact that the players we hold up as totems to virtue and aesthetics are real human beings with real human flaws.

But that's part of being an adult, and it's part of being a sports fan. Games aren't always fun.

Aaron McGuire
Aaron McGuire works as a statistician for a moderately large financial services company. He writes about sports in his downtime, as evinced by the post you just finished reading. His future goals include happiness.
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