Tactical Tankfoolery -- When Perverse Incentives Aren't

"Guys, we are not playing very well." -- Photo by Howard Smith, USA TODAY Sports

A few months ago, Zach Lowe unveiled Mike Zarren's "Wheel" proposal as an alternative to the current draft lottery. In essence, every team's draft order would be set in stone for the next 30 years. This would utterly eliminate any incentive to lose and therefore eliminate any semblance of tanking. Now, there are some problems with this, and with the less-stony updated proposal as Lowe explained it today. But first, let's talk about incentives.

Why incentives? Because something totally mystified Aaron and I when the Wheel first came out. The absolute biggest critique of the Wheel in comments and on Twitter seemed to center on, say, a generational star like Dante Exum choosing his team by waiting for the right draft class. "Oh, I can get to the Lakers if I wait a few years! I'll stay on the amateur circuit until then."

The reason this mystified us is that that scenario freaking crazy.

For several reasons, actually. Unless a prospective rook is genuinely on the fence about something that affects their lifetime earning potential (an upcoming CBA change, whether or not to go to college another year, or if someone has some hidden medical condition where he can only play in Los Angeles), no rational player is going to forgo a huge part of his earning career and his development curve (or risk injury!) to maybe get to a better, more-marketed team. The way the CBA is structured right now is highly unfavorable to productive players on the rookie scale (both in terms of getting market wages and in having free movement between teams), and rational players want to get out of that stage of their careers as soon as they can. What's more, the realities of age mean that the rookie scale is least problematic when a player is 18-20 when they're starting out. Players in that 18-20 age group are far less physically developed and have more uncertainty in their true NBA level; hence, getting less money for their services makes a whole lot of sense for everyone involved. Plus, these players hit free agency just when they're hitting their early physical primes. It works out really well.

On the other hand, if a player waits until he's 22 (no matter how you feel about college ball), then that player is stifling his development as an NBA player and hurting his lifetime earning potential a whole lot, typically. Oh, sure, that player might end up playing for his preferred team, but he's drastically increased the odds that he won't be in the league at all 4 years later years. I could elaborate on all of these things, but my point is: I just don't see the Dante-Exum-staying scenario as being a real problem with the Wheel at all, and it totally mystified us that this was even an issue. There would just be too many incentives going the other way for the Exum Apocalypse Scenario to be even 1% of the discussion.

And yet, it struck me: The reason that we're focusing on this ridiculous hypothetical is that the anti-tanking discussion is seemingly built entirely on these worst-case perverse incentives. Present-day tanking itself being just one example. Sure, Lowe may have given us a very nuanced look at the tanking problem, but in the end, he's viewing the problem almost entirely through these absolute worst-case scenarios. Check out how Lowe goes after a couple of alternative scenarios:

• People around the league like the idea of returning to the unweighted lottery, where every lottery team has the same chance of nabbing the no. 1 pick. Go that route, and I’m tanking the hell out of the no. 8 seed and into the lottery every time — and I might even tank my way through Bill Simmons’s Entertaining As Hell Tournament, if that’s what it takes.

• Thinkers have also kicked around ideas that would make getting into the playoffs a more desirable outcome on its own. One idea would be to place 22 teams into the lottery, excluding only the top four seeds in each conference, and to guarantee some juicy picks — perhaps two picks in the 5-10 range — would go to playoff teams. But that would introduce a tank race into the no. 5 spot, and hold the potential for sending multiple impact rookies to teams that are already strong.

Lowe is presenting his critiques almost entirely in terms of the perverse incentives of a) the current system, b) the simpler alternatives, and c) the Wheel. Now grant(land)ed, he's doing an exceptional job of presenting all of these critiques (and the unintended consequences of several systems). But, for his immense holistic understanding of the league and its people, I'd argue that Lowe (and other anti-tanking folks) has fallen into a Venus Fly Trap of reasoning here in fixating entirely on these perverse incentives over everything else.

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The language of economics is really attractive for constructing narratives and for teasing out the good and bad incentives in every system. If you can find the right dataset and the right interpretation, it's powerful as an aid to understanding. But, it's also prone to giving misleading impressions if a small group of incentives (in this case, the draft lottery system) are falsely assumed to be the whole of an agent's decision-making processes.

There's a crucial and subtle and persistent error in reasoning behind most of these anti-tanking articles. Essentially, it's a mass conflation of "having this one perverse incentive" with "being consistently incentivized to the point of the perverse course of action". Why is this an error? Here are dozens of different incentives for an NBA franchise at any given time. "Having an incentive" just means you're pulled in one direction by one hand, while dozens of hands pull you in their own directions. Clearly, the tanking incentive can turn into action, even accounting for organic rebuilding. But that's just one of many incentives driving teams' actions. What about just plain wanting to develop and find a young, non-contending core (hey, Utah)? What about showing that their franchise is respectable, and not just Tank City (*cough* Philly)? What about desperately wanting a 8th-seeded playoff run to show fans more than distant hope (...Sorry, Cavs.)? Those are all real incentives that have manifested in real outcomes over the last few years, but because most of them aren't anything to get outraged about (or, often, even to notice), we don't even bother with them.

If you have some time to kill, listen to some conservative political commentary on poverty some day, say, on talk radio. There are some attractive arguments that they make, after all, and they're at least worth hearing. They usually go something like this: Welfare encourages poverty and unemployment. If you know you'll be taken care of, then you have less incentive to take care of things yourself. And isn't that right? It's good reasoning, it's well-considered thought, and the incentives driving the discussion are pretty much accurate. Economically, everything that they're saying is totally valid, if not exactly sound. And you know what? You can't just wave it away with 'compassion'. There are fundamental economic truths underlying our society, and, according to those economic truths, welfare does encourage poverty in the ways the commentators explain.

Now, a lot of people buy into these arguments, and they're not wholly without merit. The only problem is that - in their treatment of a complex system - these commentators have fixated wholly on the one positive thing on earth (namely, welfare, low-income housing, and food assistance) that's harder to get if you're rich. Never mind the increased incidence of nearly every malady possible for the poor over the rich, the worse access to health care, education, good infrastructure, and financial literacy. Never mind that being poor means you're always one false or unlucky step away from total financial ruin. Never mind that even for the most motivated poor people, these same commentators have already written them off as lazy.

Much of the poverty discussion in this country, unfortunately (and cynically), is essentially to fixate on the one or two mitigating factors like welfare checks, and to wholly ignore the huge structural disadvantages of, say, living in a poor neighborhood without effective transportation. And ignoring the unseen (in this case, the non-financial, mostly) factors is not actually economics - it's intellectual (and possibly moral) negligence wearing the mask of economics.

And that's roughly how I feel when I listen to the anti-tanking discussions, even in their most nuanced form. As much as any red-blooded sports fan, I dislike seeing a slate of NBA games poisoned by three teams in three games that are tanking. It doesn't quite ruin a diehard's night, but it's rough. I hate tanking and everything that goes with it. I hate teams when they are entirely cynical, and tanking is probably basketball at its most cynical. If we can ameliorate tanking itself, or at least flex out the worst offenders off our national television slate, that would be to everyone's benefit.

But when you're having this discussion, you have to be aggressively honest: if you fixate only on the incentive gap in the lottery between the very worst and the 8th-worst team in basketball, and you don't take into account the massive revenue-building incentives to win those extra games on a nightly basis? If you fixate only on the 18-win team with a potential of adding an All-Star instead of the 38-win team that already has one? Then you're doing the Dante Exum thing -- you're the guy who's saying "Well in this exact circumstance, Exum could stay another year and go to the Lakers instead of the Bobcats. That would be awful; this Wheel thing is such a problem."

No. That minor Exum hypothetical (even if he is that good) isn't nearly enough for the league to completely restructure its incentives around for the other 450 players. Who cares - in the grand scheme of things, mind you - if one player harms his own brand and potential while the league around him does what it does well and advances its personnel, its training methods, and its assets without him? Tanking is a complex issue that can ruin a lot of potentially good basketball. But I've not heard one anti-tanking system that really, honestly engages the economics of the situation - despite that I've heard now hundreds of anti-tanking systems that scold teams or diss their incentives. And, until I do hear that sound economic analysis, I'm not sure that I've heard anything but well-intentioned, half-baked noise. And just as we wouldn't want to restructure our system to avoid the Dante Exum Apocalypse, we probably shouldn't do much more than tweak if our biggest problem is that Thursday is a little more depressing for diehards and professionals.

If that all sounds like an unfair statement, then consider that no one has particularly effectively argued whether or not tanking even works (and if it doesn't, well, it's hardly a problem of incentives at all!). And no one is really controlling for intent vs. results. See, for example, the overperforming tank-intended teams like Phoenix and the underperforming, playoff-intended teams like Cleveland and New York. Phoenix was a cynical, evil team until they overperformed and, hey, look, Hornacek is doing awesome! Look the other way! If they didn't have a bunch of uncertainty coins flip their way (i.e. Jeff Hornacek's head coaching ability), they'd be doing things just like Philly and we'd be just as mad. Howard Beck's great article totally deconstructs the general anti-tanking sentiment by focusing on the particular: what's actually going on with the bad teams. 

So here's my beef, in a nutshell: If you're going to critique an economic phenomenon, you need at least a solid, cohesive theory of what's actually going on with these struggling teams; the costs, the benefits, and the alternatives. We don't really distinguish who's trying to tank -- just who ends up tanking. We don't distinguish whether tanking is a good thing for the team engaging in it -- just that it ends up happening. We don't really know the basic facts of the situation -- we've just established (quite strongly) that it's incredibly unfortunate when tanking ever happens. In quite a few years, we've seen a lot of anti-tanking proposals (most without mention of potential downsides), but only a few clearly-framed problems, even fewer nuanced explanations of tanking, and, as far as I can tell, nothing that would really sway me in the slightest if I were the commissioner of an 11-digit organization. And, if you're making a serious solution, then that has to be the standard.

"What's Wrong With the Spurs?" -- Hashing it out with McGuire and Dewey

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Every once in a while, McGuire and Dewey have expansive conversations on AOL Instant Messenger about odd ideas and strange wrinkles they've noticed in recent NBA action. (Alright, more than "once in a while.") Once in a blue moon, we decide to post these conversations with minimal editing. Is it laziness? Sloth? Idolatry? ... Or is it just entertaining? You be the judge, Dredd.

ALEX: Alright, so. I've got a grand thesis on this year's Spurs season.

AARON: I am now your thesis advisor. Shoot.

ALEX: So, okay. Duncan = Diaw offensively, and Duncan = Splitter defensively, if a bit better on both counts. This is historical fact. The 2013 Spurs were essentially governed by it. Check the top three lineups here. Decent sample size for all three.

AARON: ... what?

ALEX: One is Splitter/Duncan, one is Duncan/Diaw, one is Splitter/Diaw.

AARON: Yes, Alex. They're San Antonio's most effective three big men who not coincidentally played the most minutes. I'm... not sure what this is getting at.

ALEX: Jesus, Lisa, you're tearing me apart. Let me finish.

AARON: OK, Denny.

ALEX: Look, Duncan is very similar to Diaw offensively in terms of impact and role. And when they're on the floor it isn't hugely additive compared to Splitter-Diaw or Duncan-Splitter. But the giant elephant in the room is Duncan's failing shot this season. He can't hit from midrange, even when he's wide open. I just finished watching all of his midrange shots from the last 20 games. It's not pretty. I don't know the cause but I don't think it's mere fluke. It could be conditioning, it could be mechanical, it could be aging. But it's been this way all season, and here's the thing. I don't think it necessarily takes the Spurs out of contention, but it means Duncan is barely better than Tiago Splitter offensively.

AARON: Slow down there, R. Kelly.

ALEX: I mean, OK, yeah. Duncan is obviously a better passer, and maybe a bit better defender. Despite switches on threes late in the game that Tiago is more qualified for. But when you restrict Duncan to the low block, there aren't as many passing options for his understanding of space. You essentially have the problem where he's either near the rim or a non-entity, which is subtly affecting Parker. You can't have much motion away from the rim by Duncan, because defenses can simply disrespect and ignore him now. He's been much more effective in Diaw lineups because when Duncan's shot isn't falling Diaw is more complementary than Splitter. Diaw takes over the role of big-man facilitator and high-low passer, and with his newfound offensive aggressiveness he's been decent.

AARON: With you so far, I think.

ALEX: Contextually Diaw's been a fine defender, although his lineups suffer far more than any of the other two big men for obvious reasons. Chiefly, he's not a rim protector. What I'm saying here is that Duncan/Splitter last year is offensively similar to Diaw/Duncan this year. You still get the spacing on the pick and roll, and if Tony gets back to form totally, Danny and Kawhi can get more open looks. It's an elite, perhaps dominant offensive lineup to have Duncan/Diaw with Parker and two shooters. But replacing Splitter with Diaw defensively is killer. I think the playoffs aren't JUST determined by your starters.

AARON: Controversial statements from Alexei Pynchon Dewey, right there.

ALEX: Shut up. Not just starters, but killer competitive advantages engendered by the presence of the starting lineups. Danny Green works because he has the perfect skillset for that spread pick-and-roll lineup to function while adding muscle on defense, not because he's brimming with talent and guile. Anyway. What I'm saying is that Duncan's shot going missing -- if it holds up -- represents the defensive difference between Diaw and Splitter. That's the ripple effect for the Spurs as contenders. And given how great Diaw/Duncan has been, this might not be the end of the world, but Blake and DeAndre Jordan are better on both ends, the Warriors can neutralize the Spurs' attack and punish Diaw's defense, and the Blazers... well, okay, Diaw/Splitter isn't huge against LMA, but Splitter has more presence and could stop a few more Batum/Lopez/Lillard drives a game. And Harden lives at the rim and I'm not loving Terrence Jones against Diaw. And then there's OKC. It'd be GREAT to have two rim protectors against them, and with it, it's arguable that the Spurs could've forded the gap in the 2012 series.

AARON: So, what's your net take here?

ALEX: I don't think this counts the Spurs out, but it definitely makes them a sub-tier contender. This is a huge story. It shows how the fall of one crucial domino can effect a whole bunch of unrelated consequences. We don't think of Duncan's shot as crucially important, but it's the difference between the Spurs being a top-tier "favorite" contender and a middle-of-the-pack squad hoping for a run of good luck. That's my thesis. Do you agree?

AARON: Not completely.

ALEX: Rude.

AARON: Look, it's not bad, but I'm not really bought in on it. My main hang-up is that it's massively oversimplifying their skillsets to frame Duncan/Diaw/Splitter as a straight offense-to-defense trade off. That sort of binary "DUNCAN GOOD, DIAW BAD" framework falls apart when you really take a close look at their skillsets. They all have very different ways to play the game, of course, but they all have their own advantages. For instance, Diaw bodies up people on defense better than Duncan or Splitter, even if he isn't a shot blocker. He's also much better at covering athletic tweeners and three-point shooters than either of them are. Splitter is much more mobile than Duncan and much better at covering up the pick and roll at this stage of their respective careers. Duncan is the best screener of the bunch, I'd say, and he's a more cerebral inside presence that can go toe-to-toe with the league's best bigs in a way that Splitter has never been totally comfortable with.

ALEX: Okay, fair.

AARON: Conversely, Tiago is a better and more creative finisher straight-off-the-pass than Duncan or Diaw, which is why he plays so well with Manu. Duncan has a much broader set of post moves than either Diaw or Splitter, and at his best, his outside shot has an LMA-type impact on San Antonio's spacing that Splitter can't hope to touch. Diaw has a better outside shot than Duncan and combines that with off-the-pass finishing that's nearly at Tiago's level, but he doesn't have the ability to produce offense under pressure like Duncan does and he has a bad habit of over-passing. Both Splitter and Diaw are extremely dependent on San Antonio's system to get them their open looks. Pop has to manage all of these things when he tries to put together lineups, especially with Leonard and Splitter out. Now Diaw is playing the three half the time, which is... special, let's put it that way.

ALEX: *quiet sobbing*

AARON: Anyway. You're spot-on in the assertion that Duncan's absent midrange has modified a lot of aspects of San Antonio's game, mostly in pretty ill-omen ways. But framing it with an oversimplified "he's good at X, he's good at Y, he's good at X+Y" framework is imposing elegance at the expense of real complexity. And I really don't know about the "middle-of-the-pack" contender assertion, especially given exactly how the Spurs have broken down against elite teams this season. Your grand thesis is entirely focused on San Antonio's offensive difficulties, but that simply doesn't make sense. Their offense has yet to break down in a game against elite competition -- their issue, very simply, is that to date they haven't been able to stop a single elite team from running their offense. Duncan/Diaw/Splitter haven't looked particularly spry in ANY configuration against teams with well-designed offenses that know exactly how they want to attack you, and our perimeter guys haven't been nearly as tenacious as they used to be (with the obvious exception of Kawhi). Your theory rests on the idea that the offense is going to be what submarines their playoff hopes, and we just don't have any evidence that's the case.

ALEX: See, it's not the offense. It's the offense when Splitter and Duncan are there, which forces the change to Duncan/Diaw, which hurts the defense by removing one rim protector. That's the thesis -- that the defense has been crippled by a seemingly unrelated offensive problem.

AARON: Sure, but that doesn't reflect what's actually happening. The Spurs have defended worse with Duncan/Splitter on the court than they have with one of the two alone. Checking NBAWowy, with a any of our Duncan/Splitter lineups on the floor, the Spurs are allowing 0.99 PPP. With Duncan (and no Tiago!) it's 1.07 PPP, and with Tiago (and no Duncan!) it's 0.91 PPP. Which may make you think that Duncan's the issue, but it's more that Diaw is dragging him down -- if you look at Duncan's minutes without Diaw OR Splitter on the court the Spurs are allowing 1.01 PPP, which is hardly very different from the Duncan/Splitter numbers.

ALEX: What? I'd need to check that, but my basic assertion was based on this.

AARON: I just checked it for you!

ALEX: I don't know if I trust that, though. What minutes does Tiago play without Duncan, ever?

AARON: Quite a few of them? It's a sample of 268 minutes. The top four units are Diaw/Splitter lineups, then a few with Bonner, then a few with Ayres. A handful of spot lineups with Kawhi at the four, as well. Duncan doesn't play every game, and even when he DOES play, Duncan plays less than 30 minutes a game. The Spurs aren't just playing 18 minutes a night of Ayres/Bonner to maintain our "best" lineups.

ALEX: I'm at least a little skeptical that it's entirely a bench thing. I can't think of any point in the game when that rotation would actually occur. Maybe it's the beginning of the 2nd and 4th quarters?

AARON: That's probably part of it, and I'm not arguing that Tiago's impact isn't getting exaggerated due to the level of competition he's facing. But my main point is that Splitter/Duncan doesn't really look like San Antonio's best foot forward on defense, at least this season. And if we were to cut the sample to ONLY the NBA's elite teams I'm betting the Splitter/Duncan numbers would look downright ghastly. It hasn't been effective in the slightest against the big dogs, on offense or defense.

ALEX: That's fair. I've been focusing on offense, but maybe that's not the problem. Does Duncan look worse on defense this season? He looks maybe a quarter-step slower to me, but not significantly worse. It's not like 2011. He's good on his feet.

AARON: I'm not sure he's worse at all. I do think teams are getting smarter in how they attack his lack of mobility on the pick and roll. And I think one of the more understated issues that's getting to him is that Manu and Marco have supplanted most of Green's minutes. Green is a defensive bulldog that kept his man from making clean drives to the rim -- Manu and Marco are both prone to gambling for steals, and when they inevitably fail, it leaves perimeter players a clear path to the basket that forces Duncan's hand. He still recovers decently well, but he's not as spry as he used to be and the fact that he has to do it so many times a game is starting to harm his numbers. I think.

ALEX: That's fair.

AARON: Also, Danny has played poorly in a general sense. On offense and defense.

ALEX: True.

AARON: My own big-picture thought on the Spurs this year is that they're a very good team. They're one of the five best teams in the league. Perhaps a tier below the Thunder and the Pacers, but right behind those two with the Clippers and the Heat in no particular order. That's good. They certainly have a title shot, regardless of their current issues with elite teams, and if they're healthy come playoff time they'll represent a very tough out for whoever draws them.

ALEX: All good.

AARON: Sure. Except that this season is about as terrible an omen for San Antonio's future as it possibly could be, which goes a long way towards explaining the tortured hand wringing Spurs fans are known for going overboard with. To explain: Kawhi Leonard's offense hasn't developed in any real way this season, despite ample opportunities to do so -- if anything, it's taken a big step backwards with his strangely absent three point shot and his rising turnover rate. Danny Green has been a pretty awful NBA player, straight up. Tiago Splitter has performed well on defense against bad teams, but the gaps in his defense that made him irrelevant against Miami are now making him irrelevant against almost all of the league's best offenses. Tony Parker doesn't really look like a grade-A superstar at the moment, either, despite a few good games in the last few weeks. He's not on my all-star ballot, nor is he particularly close -- if you stretched, you might be able to convince me that he's the fifth best point guard in the league. Maybe. But it's a tough argument, and if I'm honest, I'd probably argue he's outside that fivesome. And he's at the age where expecting bounce-backs and improvements is simply unreasonable, too, which is... depressing. He's supposed to be their superstar in his prime. Certainly doesn't look like it.

ALEX: I don't think Tony's looked great. I'd choose Conley over him, and that hurts.

AARON: Right. The issue with San Antonio's performance in the big picture is that their play is essentially being carried by the two oldest players on the roster. Manu Ginobili is the NBA's best sixth man right now, and arguably San Antonio's most important player -- their offense has been unbelievable with him on the floor, and he's been their spark for virtually every impressive stretch the Spurs have played this season. On the other end of the floor, Duncan has played like San Antonio's overall best player, DESPITE losing his midrange shot! Boris Diaw has been the only overachieving role-player, and he's the fourth-oldest player on the team. This team has been unbelievably dependent on Manu and Duncan (and Diaw!) in a way that -- while sustainable for perhaps the rest of the 2014 season -- is NOT sustainable going forward as Duncan approaches forty and Manu approaches the heat death of the universe. They're not the players in their prime, they're the aging players that San Antonio's playing roulette with. If the Spurs want to contend after Duncan and Manu finally fall off and leave, they desperately need their young players to put up good seasons. Virtually none of them are right now, which is simply not a good sign.

ALEX: You have a point.

AARON: Whether they realize it or not, I think THAT'S why San Antonio fans are freaking out right now. This is the first season since 2009 where San Antonio's young talent has been substantially disappointing. Spurs fans have spent years overlooking their aging core with the reasonable counterpoint that San Antonio's young talent has looked fantastic, and that a "big three" of Splitter/Green/Leonard was maybe one piece away from continued playoff contention. And with the best front office in the business, who was going to argue against that? But that idea assumes those three young players get better -- or, at the very least, don't get worse. This season has broken that assumption, and finally made the Spurs the decrepit old team they've been incorrectly advertised as for years. San Antonio's fans broke the glass to their emergency hyperbole stashes in panicked response. Perhaps it's a bit unreasonable, especially since the Spurs clearly look like a title contender THIS season. But perhaps the sense that this finally IS San Antonio's last rodeo has lent an air of true desperation to the proceedings. As Bill Cosby might say, every loss against a younger elite is a reminder of "a man on the way out." Which is... a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.

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Three's a Crowd: Taking Flight with San Antonio Wings

(Photos by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)

Before I started this post, I was planning on re-drafting a post about Danny Green for today. In my head, it was standard sportswriter fare -- present the Hero's Journey through the lens of a player. Green's is as follows:

  • Be an intelligent, versatile, unselfish, winning player in college... and go undrafted anyway.
  • Get cut by multiple teams (the Cavs and Spurs, specifically)
  • Address flaws and polish strengths (his personality was never in question, but his work ethic went from "respectable" to "irreproachable" quickly as his dire situation became apparent).
  • Have a break-out game (the instantly-legendary "Bench Game" where the bench brought them back from a massive deficit against the Mavs before losing in a ridiculously close match)
  • Start to get acclaim as one of the league's best spot-up shooters
  • Put up one of the most electrifying post-seasons by a role player in recent memory.

Beginning, middle, end. Boom. It's a great story. That standard sportswriter fare has long been the go-to backstory for San Antonio's "3-and-D" position. Hit your corner threes, pass to the wing, (maybe) hit your wing threes, and lock down your man. Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson, and Danny Green all had long breaking-in periods into the league. Heck, Bruce Bowen was actually eligible for the 1993 NBA draft (3 years before Kobe, Nash, or Jesus Shuttlesworth), but he didn't really establish himself as a bonafide NBA player until he made it to the Spurs in his 30s. And Jackson has had long stretches of off-court notoriety. But they're all still in the league! [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut. Also, Bruce Bowen hasn't been in the league in half a decade.] With Danny Green injured, and his current season a bit disappointing, I think it would be nice to focus instead on what's more in view. On Wednesday night the Spurs and Jazz played. Predictably, San Antonio won, although Utah put up an eminently respectable late run that very nearly tied it.

While "3-and-D" is the way Spurs fans tend to look at their off-wing roleplayers, the big match-up most Spurs fans were familiar with was between two men that recently challenged the Bowen role. In the last 5 years, Kawhi Leonard and Richard Jefferson have posed on-court challenges for how the Spurs want to use the small forward position. Their backgrounds differ starkly from the "3-and-D" of Bowen, Jackson, and Green. Both are mid-to-high 1st-round picks, a decade apart, and both Jefferson and Leonard had plenty of hype and respect coming into the league. And both quickly proved worthy of any such respect allotted. Jefferson played a key role in helping his Nets team to two consecutive Finals appearances in his first few years and Leonard played a large role on title-contending teams in his first two seasons as well. Both came via the rare Spurs blockbuster trade, and both were immediately expected to produce. And both had the uncanny air of respect that comes from undeniable professionalism.

Most importantly, both express the athletic gifts that imply a greater athleticism, although they do so in fundamentally different ways. Jefferson has the traditional hops and meat on his bones that makes him consistently deadly in transition and a fantastic dunk artist going back to college. He'll casually uncork a huge vertical when skying for an uncontested rebound, and his full-court sprinting speed in his prime was immense. At one point with the Spurs, Jefferson got a chase-down block at the rim by outrunning Ty Lawson before sprinting back into the play on the other end to hit an above-the-break 3. Jefferson is a track star with physicality perfect form carving out an above-average career in the NBA. Kawhi is less traditionally athletic. but has what I'd call a Spursian modification of athleticism: Ridiculous wing-span, good height, stable frame, incredible hands, agile, and can cover immense ground with length alone. And, most importantly, the seemingly monastic discipline of Tim Duncan.

In its totality, Jefferson's tenure with the Spurs landed halfway between dread mediocrity and an outright disaster. Despite saying all the right things in an uncanny impossible-to-fake way, Jefferson simply did not seem to have the presence of mind expected of professional basketball players on good teams. Fans found him disappointing, as did the coaching staff, as did eventually the most optimistic of Jefferson supporters. His disastrous first season was followed by an off-season back-to-basics regimen by the Spurs and a fat contract extension, and then his mediocre (though great-shooting) second season fizzled out with a quick playoff exit. The Spurs traded for their future in Kawhi on draft night 2011. Jefferson was traded 9 months later for Stephen Jackson, and that was that.

On the other hand, Kawhi's tenure has been somewhere halfway between good and sublime. A mirthful Hubie Brown voiceover seems to hang in the background whenever you watch Kawhi, even on his bad nights. His first season was promising and incredibly productive, his second was excellent and punctuated by moments of quiet dominance, and despite a slow start to this season Kawhi still appears to be on an All-Star trajectory. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Maybe. He plays in the West!] It's fair to say that Kawhi is much the superior player to Jefferson in nearly every facet of the game. It's hard to think of any situation that I would ever want to bench present-day Kawhi Leonard for Richard Jefferson. And, in the Jazz-Spurs game last night, Kawhi clearly outplayed RJ. This has been the hierarchy since Kawhi's first game with the Spurs (and, perhaps, since Kawhi turned about 18).

Yet, if you were looking closely, Jefferson was making similar sorts of 'impact' plays to Kawhi last night, and they weren't altogether flukes. Lacking Kawhi's handle, grace, defensive length, and apparent presence of mind, Jefferson has nevertheless carved out a niche for himself in the Utah franchise on both ends. Suddenly the presence-of-mind and poor decision-making issues that had plagued Jefferson on the Spurs look to be somewhat in the past, or at worst ameliorated. Sure, watching all his shots this month, RJ has made some hilariously bone-headed attempts that recall the worst of his Spurs (and Warriors) days. And don't get me wrong -- some of the hilariously bone-headed attempts are the essence of NBA comedy. My personal favorites are his turnaround contested air-balls and his perennially absurd attempt to dribble from the corner to the hoop in an parabolic arc whose vertex gets closer and closer to the three-point line every season. But overall, Jefferson makes screens, comes off screens well, and typically stays beyond the arc (but in an engaged, motion-heavy way that helps his set-up men find him in rhythm).

Because I'm a masochist, I actually watched all of Jefferson's shots-on-the-season at the end of November. And the difference is stark and fascinating: The Richard Jefferson of December and January is completely different from the offensive "jugger-not" of October and November. And let's be clear. In these dark days, it was a totally credible position that Jefferson's extended minutes early were a de facto wink-wink-nudge-nudge-win-no-more Producers-esque arrangement to tank as effectively as possible. For that first month, everything that was good about Jefferson was mitigated by his crushing flaws, and what was terrible was magnified by circumstance. His shot -- the stellar improvements in which led to his infamous 2010 extension -- looked to have a hitch in it. His offense was a wreck of awful baseline dribbles and up-to-that-point-waiting-to-die corner threes.

But with the emergence of Michigan rook Trey Burke as a savvy, well-developed point guard that can hang in the league, Jefferson has flourished. Suddenly the iso-heavy sad spacing of the Jazz has been replaced with motion-heavy downright-competent offense. Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward have made strides as well, but the player benefiting the most from Burke's ascent (other than Burke himself!) has been Jefferson. His percentages are up, and he constitutes a real weapon in the Jazz arsenal. Gone are the nights where the Jazz looked like the worst offense in the league. According to the NBA's stats site, the Jazz have made hand-over-hand improvement, month to month. In their first 10 games this season (they went 1-9), Utah's offense was scoring 92.2 points per 100 possessions. Their last 10 games? A very-nice 106.3 (they're going 5-5). It's not scorching, but it's above-average and, for the season, those numbers would be comparable to fine teams like Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Golden State. All this despite having arguably less offensive talent than any of those teams (well, Phoenix is... its own thing, but still). Maybe it won't hold, but the Jazz offense has a pulse, and for a non-playoff team looking for a great lottery pick? That's highly encouraging with the inevitable breaking-in period with their lottery pick looming next season.

Yes, their defense has been league-worst. Yes, that league-worst defense comes from the very same games I'm lauding. But consider that at one point they looked to be the worst offense in the NBA by a wide margin, and they've climbed their way back, first into respectability and second into downright good. And their defense? It's still awful, but that's not really Jefferson's fault, as RJ has looked aware and sprightly in defensive space and in taking the load off of Hayward a bit with typically-tougher-and-larger assignments (though they're properly both small forwards).

And yet, it's reductive to say adding Burke immediately fixed the Jazz, because a) basketball is not just an additive game but a game of repeatable processes, and b) Burke's shooting numbers have been (relatively speaking, and yes, he can get better!) abysmal. Burke is shooting under 40% and below 50% true shooting. Burke is worlds better than Diante Garrett and John Lucas, but the rookie's shooting numbers are frankly comparable to oft-derided Ricky Rubio without Rubio's passing brilliance. Plus, he's not exactly spacing the floor at 35.4% beyond the arc.

What really seems to be going on with the Jazz is more complicated. It helps that Gordon Hayward doesn't have to do everything, most obviously losing the ball-handling responsibilities to Burke. As a result, Hayward is much more effective. Even beyond Hayward, the Jazz are making the best of their point guard addition with all manner of baseline motion. Flex cuts among the wings are common and the players are individually good at making decision-making to use those flex cuts to their advantage, leading to open shooters and good match-ups in the post. The Jazz have a battle-tested drive-and-kick game coming out of the abject despondency of November; now, however, the drives and kicks are actually starting to work as there are more options for a defense to worry about and Hayward, Burke, Jefferson, and Burks continue to develop as solid passers to, from, and around the perimeter.

And what's kind of fascinating is that the Spurs are doing much the same thing with Kawhi. Flex cuts along the baseline (that serve to get Kawhi open in his most potent area of the half-court) have been gradually entering the Spurs' vocabulary the last couple years. Set plays designed with Kawhi's role in mind (especially to open up 3s for him) seem to be far more common. More generally, the Spurs have been trying to buck their old approach to small forwards in order to guarantee that Leonard's jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none offensive repertoire is resulting in at least a few great looks a game, and that these looks fit into their offense. With the Big Three in the precarious and unpredictable spin cycle of father time, integrating Kawhi (and making it really work) is all the more difficult.

This might sound like basic stuff, but in a way Kawhi and RJ are both right-around-average half-court players relative to their own team. This is true for Kawhi because he's with the Big Three, etc., etc., etc. It's true with Jefferson because he's surrounded by precocious pupae. Kawhi started the season having improved from virtually every area within the arc and having gone cold from every area outside it, a trend that's only starting to reverse a bit. His assists and threes (so crucial to his offensive role) are only starting to rise to the levels that would garner All-Star consideration over the next few years. Kawhi's situation is on a whole different level as Jefferson's, yes, and Kawhi is -- as I've said many times -- worlds better than Jefferson.

But the way the Spurs are molding their offense around Kawhi makes me wonder in hindsight whether Jefferson's failed tenure with the Spurs was really as attributable to Jefferson's flaws as it seemed. Perhaps the Spurs organization bears some blame for treating him like a low-usage, worse-at-defense replacement for the entirely-different Bruce Bowen. If the Spurs had recognized Jefferson's below-average handle quickly and chose to focus on other things, like his off-ball motion in baseline and backdoor cuts, perhaps Jefferson could have been more valuable. Instead of being locked in a bad role by a poor handle and easily-scoutable in the corners and wings, maybe the mobile Jefferson could have been more than a poor man's Bruce Bowen or a less-aware Danny Green. Maybe he could've started a pastry habit and become a new-age Boris Diaw. I wonder if Jefferson was quite as foolhardy on the court as he appeared in San Antonio, in short. Perhaps he was just overly hesitant in an unfamiliar and unhelpful role, feeling that he was being put in a situation not conducive to success and not knowing how to tell terrible decisions from just plain bad.

Honestly,  I have no clue. You can't transplant the solutions a desperately awful rebuilding team has come up with on partially by fortune to the clever solutions of a well-scouted, top-ranked offense in flux. And Jefferson has looked awful the better part of three years before his resurgence with the Jazz. But while RJ provided an endless source of comedy to me while with the Spurs, his recent success bears notice. Veterans like RJ in a drain-circling swan song generally don't stick around for a few more productive years, but the Big Jeff has a serious chance to do so. Be honest -- you didn't see this coming. And I must admit -- despite being the world's leading expert on Richard Jefferson and Richard Jefferson culture, I too didn't see this coming either. Sometimes folks surprise you. Sometimes folks are Richard Jefferson.

And sometimes, so very rarely, the aforementioned two folks are the same exact person.

NBA Chessboxing Power Rankings: Who's Toad-Style?

da mystery of brad millerboxing

A game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first before you move.

Chessboxing is one of the most well-known sports of our time. I don't think there are more than two or three people who don't know what chessboxing is. With that in mind, I don't intend to actually define chessboxing at any point in this post. I only seek to answer a simple question: which teams would do best in a chess boxing match? We explore, you decide.

 THE SQUIRREL-STYLE ROADKILL: 30 to 18

30. Bucks - Tremendous upside, as Alph-bent-etokounmpo could surely play chess and box and have a puncher's chance against just about any other team's lineup. Everything else about this franchise? Incredibly depressing. No clue why chess boxing would be an exception.

29. Knicks - I'm not necessarily saying they're unintelligent, or bad, or that they'd have some kind of trouble executing the most basic things and having their best ideals and decisions stymied by an owner that alternates between laughably ignorant and seemingly malicious. [EDITOR'S NOTE: You won't fool me, Dewyn Davis. That's exactly what you're saying!] All I'm saying is that the Knicks playing chess is just about the funniest thing you can possibly imagine. Try to think of the worst possible move to make on a chess-board. Got it? Good. There's probably a way worse move that someone from New York's organization intentionally made happen to the Knicks.

28. Sixers - They're fine right here, thank you very much. Check back in a few.

T - 25. Bobcats, Cavs, Raptors - What do you want me to say? You're not very good at chess, and you're not very good at boxing. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I dunno, man. Anderson Varejao is a wild man and you never count Kyle Lowry out in a fight. And Luol Deng would be a chessboxing superstar. I don't like what you're doing here. I don't feel like I have a lot of outs.]

24. Pistons - I keep trying to put them somewhere but they keep going down and down and down the list. I think they'd lose the chess match in the first round, is the bottom line. What are Drummond's free throw struggles but a gigantic strategic target on their backs? You just have to dare Josh Smith to throw a right or hypnotize Drummond to think he's at the free throw line. And what's Greg Monroe doing? How does he fit in, to either chess or boxing? Brandon Jennings is fine, and probably an asset to boxing, but he's not an elite chess player. They could win if they have a good match-up that gets Smith in the thick of boxing. Or whatever the heck actually works for and/or motivates this team. They have yet to discover this on the court, so I don't know how they'd adapt to a new situation like chessboxing.

23. Orlando Magic - In Wu-Tang's "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," it sort of sounds like they say Jacque Vaughn at one point. They aren't, but let's pretend.

22. Thunder - Westbrook is injured, and I have a feeling that Brooks would feel obligated to start the first round of chess with Fisher and the first round of boxing with Perkins to "get them involved." Also, because Kevin Durant is too lean to be an elite boxer. [EDITOR'S NOTE: While Fisher is an obvious downgrade from Westbrook, we should at least accept that chessboxing is easily the most perfect sport in the world for him. Have you SEEN how bulked he is? Guy's a bulldog, he'd destroy the point guards of the vast majority of other teams boxing! And he's extremely intelligent (head of the NBPA!) and cockroach-style adaptive (somehow still getting NBA minutes!) -- both things that help on a chessboard. Also, Perkins is huge. Who boxes against him and beats him?]

What's more, Durant's particular blend of creativity and athleticism doesn't seem to be the same sort of creativity that would help him excel at chess, in a hard-to-explain way. So let me try: Part of KD's particular charm is the virtually limitless continuum of possibilities he embodies at any given moment on the court. Durant's special creativity is built in part on the dramatic foundation that at any moment, he can go to a until-that-moment-impossible place on the court and react naturally. Every trip down the court feels like the first time someone with his particulars has handled the situation before him. This is maybe tautological -- technically, the present moment is completely new to everyone reading this and presents an endless series of... et cetera, you know where I'm going. And we're all unique snowflakes (no, really). It's just that KD is so obviously and visibly different from all of his peers (and seemingly his historical peers as well), and watching him is (and not "is like", but the flat "is") watching the first player like him to handle a specific situation. It's watching the logic of basketball applied to a thitherto-impossible-even-as-a-metaphor situation, which is perhaps right there (old rules, new context) the heart of all creative thought.

The only problem with Durant as chessmaster is thus that you're taking away a whole lot of the "new context" part of the formula right from the get-go, because chess is a discrete, well-understood sport. Durant is probably not different enough in his mentality from his peers in the same way he's different physically from his peers. Plenty of prodigies modern and historical, plenty of room for creativity, but all of it is bounded by mutually-understood rules and exhaustively-understood context, and I just think KD would find such a vast degree of context and creative history overly-imposing. And for us as viewers of the chess boxing, we'd find that KD's creative output would seem far more pedestrian when stripped of his instantaneous ability to create a new context simply by existing, as he can on the basketball court. Chess itself just feels like something KD would not want or be able to excel at, and any time he would spend dwelling on chess would constitute a tragic stunting of his inevitable phoenix-like basketball ascendancy that spans the universe entire. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Eh...]

(Okay, time to come clean. They're an easy top-10 team, but I'd forgotten about them until the end and didn't want to re-number everything from 10 to 22. Sorry.) [EDITOR'S NOTE: That's better. I accept your apology.]

21. Jazz - Look, I could point to the structural flaws and successes with chess boxing here: Like that Richard Jefferson's just not a good boxer (SOURCE: intuition, watching him on the Spurs). Gordon Hayward would rather play Starcraft than play chess (even if he and RJ likely have some chess game between them).

But the bottom line is that -- for whatever else I could say -- both chess and boxing are sort of violent. Yes, obviously boxing is filled with physical violence. But beyond that, both sports have a dramatic spike in activity centered around a decisive end-move. The knock-out. The check-mate. The end-game. There's a sort of Rube-Goldberg-machine series of alternating game-theoretic levers in an exchange of chess or boxing whose end goal is (eventually) the strategic obliteration of a contestant or an army. Yes, there is a detached, intellectual pleasure to the science of chess (and, to many generations of sportswriters past, to the sweet science of boxing). But ultimately I'm thinking jugular as soon as my pawn crosses the halfway point.

Chess and boxing - unlike the long, obviously-accumulative grind of basketball - are not about having a steady, patient hand through 48 minutes to help your team preserve, endure, and eke its way into a hard-fought 5-point victory (as the Jazz are eminently capable of with the development of Trey Burke). No, these sports - and therefore chess boxing - are about having a steady, patient hand only for the purposes of pulling a world-ending trigger. And - as great as Hayward has looked in stretches - the Jazz are not a team that pulls the trigger. Nor Burke, nor Favors. And especially not Richard Jefferson, despite his pleasant career renaissance on the Jazz.

Trey Burke and Rudy Gobert (eligible) are going to be crucial. After all, it's possible to force check-mate with just two rooks.

20. Wolves - In theory, a great chess boxing team. Plenty of great athletes (and a world-beater in Love), a total savant in Rubio that can probably visualize chess openings in his head given a brief description, and a good system that they're able to adhere to. The only problem is that the Wolves suck in close games, and boxing and chess are always incredibly close games. You're hardly two feet from your opponent!

19. Bulls - Top-five boxing, bottom-five chess. Kirk Hinrich plays an important role in both, which makes people that watch kinda sad.

18. Lakers - Top-five chess, bottom-five boxing. Nick Young plays an important role in both, which makes people that watch irrepressibly mirthful.

 THE GIRAFFE-STYLE PRETENDERS: 16 to 8

T - 16. Pelicans and Kings - The Pelicans are only here because Pierre isn't technically eligible. I have no doubt Pierre would consume the opposition, the only unknown is whether that's a literal statement or not. The Kings are here because they average out to a very average chessboxing team. Some mechanical issues aside, Isaiah Thomas and DMC would be excellent at chess and boxing respectively (even if I have my doubts about DMC's patience in a game of physical momentum). The only problem is that no one else on the Kings would be remotely passable. Except for Rudy Gay, and I don't know that I'd want him playing chess or boxing if I were coaching. Also, "Kings"? Talk about having a target on your back, as far as chess goes. Yeesh.

15. Hawks - "Never Trust The Hawks" is a bit like "Nothing Was The Same" in that they're both common four-letter short-hands you'll see in the intersection of basketball and hip-hop culture. Unfortunately, they're mutually contradictory. You have to choose one. If "Nothing Was The Same," then you could wake up tomorrow and trust the Hawks. If you can never trust the Hawks, then something is the same. QED. As for me, I'm going NTTH. Sorry, Drake. Here is a vocoder; why don't you sing how you feel?

14. Nuggets - Altitude gives them a cheap advantage or they'd be 20th. Oddly, despite the NBA influence being more athletic-based, the Nuggets benefit more in chess than in boxing. Impulsive moves from queens and rooks are generally easier to avoid when you don't have to go to bed in Miami and wake up in an ice fortress in the sky.

13. Mavericks - They'd be good, it's just that I'm pretty sure DeJuan Blair is something like 1-13 against Tim Duncan all-time in the Spurs' surely-extant offseason boxing work-outs. They're fine, but I don't trust that frontcourt to box and also play chess. I bet Monta is sneaky-good at chess but plays too impulsively to bank on.

12. Clippers - With Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Stephen Jackson [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut.], and J.J. Redick, the Clippers would certainly have the advantage during the chess rounds over most teams. Chris Paul is probably the smartest single player in the league, or, at the very least, he's the most visibly and tangibly cerebral player in the league. He probably knows those tricky openings that can kill beginning chess players before they get a chance to fight back. And Stephen Jackson probably has a gigantic chess set in his backyard. I don't know why. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut.] Their weakness comes in the boxing category. Immense athleticism, and not taking anything away from their toughness, perceived or otherwise, but physically I don't think it works. After all, this isn't chess kickboxing. T-Rex arms by Blake and late (but improving!) off-hand defense by DeAndre Jordan will neutralize their athleticism and guarantee that they'll be above-average but mediocre at chess boxing. Sorry. And S-Jax would be - and likely is - a great boxer, but he's aging badly. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut.]

11. Rockets - Morey would teach them the high-leverage points in both sports, and how to take advantage of the single moment of opportunity that will raise Houston's chess and boxing games above an average nerd's into some super-human realm of self-actualization that is still really hard to watch with all the free throws (... technically they're called en passant and holds, but still). [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cu--wait, you didn't mention him, my B.]

10. Suns - Scrappy, will beat the Vegas odds every time. The Morris twins will run interference for each other and end up upsetting better chess players using their brotherly wiles. Miles Plumlee went to Duke, which -- for once in his life as an NBA player -- might actually be valuable.

9. Nets - Yes, they're a little long in the tooth. But they're also long in the arms and the legs and the career histories. As for chess? I wouldn't necessarily want any of them to play chess except for Deron Williams and maybe KG. Actually, I haven't decided if KG would be an incredible chess player, or just someone that constantly tried to use the king to shove pawns off the board when it wasn't anyone's turn and the opponent wasn't watching, thinking that he was winning the "psychology game". Or maybe that's what an incredible chess player actually does. I don't know.

8. Heat - They're great on paper, but it's a gimmicky tournament and Wade is going to be in full branding mode. He'll demand the Heat only move bishops and bishop's pawns ("Three" moves). He'll endorse a new product (Connect Three), be featured in a commercial and say "I got you. Diagonal-three." on your TV screen ad infinitum on what is basically tic-tac-toe (like the ticky-tack fouls he draws!). [EDITOR'S NOTE: ...What?] Spolestra will have crow's feet and circles under his eyes as he gets no sleep for a month trying to compensate for Wade's demands, and in the end Spo'll do a pretty good job putting together a chess boxing squad, helped by the fact that LeBron turns out to be possibly the best boxer on the planet and a passable chess player.

 THE TOAD-STYLE CONTENDERS: 6 to 1

T-6. Wizards and Celtics - I think John Wall could handle this all himself. Cerebral and athletic. He's a player that can credibly contest Greg Monroe at the rim in a game. Twice. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the length. As for the Celtics, Rondo and Brad Stevens both advanced past chess when they were five (were given cap and gown to signify their graduations in brief, private ceremonies) and moved on to the real hard stuff: Connect Four. They are both aficionados of the sport, which is probably the closest single-game encapsulation of chess boxing. Will we ever understand da mystery of chessboxing? No, but Rondo and Stevens probably already have. They got you, diagonally.

5. Grizzlies - we in the mud.

4. Wa--... [EDITOR'S NOTE: Four words for my Grizzlies, Alex? THAT'S ALL YOU WROTE?!?! FOUR WORDS???]

5. Grizzlies - Apparently Aaron is literally refusing to let me continue this post until I expand on his favorite chessboxing team. I'm willing to bet money that Tony Allen is actually a grandmaster under multiple aliases he maintains as he red-eyes between dozens of seedy Russian airports and hotels. I'm willing to bet he's also pretty good at boxing. This is one of those matchups that's straight-up unfair for most other teams, given that the Grizzlies have 5-6 legitimate large-dude big men on the roster that include 3-4 of the most unguardable boxing talents in the league. And that's BEFORE you get into scrappy technical never-say-die fighters like Conley and the wildcards like Allen. Mike Miller strikes me as a decent chess player, too. Really strong team.

4. Warriors - Start with Bogut and Green for boxing, Curry and Barnes for chess. Iguodala for both. They could be a contender, although I have issues with their depth and don't really know where David Lee fits, which sounds not-dissimilar to my preseason thoughts about their basketball roster. Still, a virtuoso like Curry and bruisers like Bogut and Green are going to put you high on any chessboxing rankings. Just a fact.

3. Blazers - They have the presence to get offensive boards, they have somewhat-unguardable length, and their general level of production is pretty much sustainable. They don't have any obvious weaknesses, except for defense, and they have enough energy to weather a storm. They don't lack confidence, poise, or mechanics. Their collective footwork and handwork -- Lopez aside -- is pretty darn good. That will pay off in the sweet science. Lillard and Stotts can handle the chess, making moves that are unorthodox and risky but that pay off precisely because no opponent is on Lillard's wavelength enough to bring about the down-side. They're exciting, they're dynamic, they're elite. But I'm putting them here largely by default, because of health, random chance, and the lack of better alternatives. The Spurs of Chess Boxing Power Rankings.

da mystery of chessboxin

T-1. Pacers and Spurs - These teams have to be at the top for several reasons.

  1. The Spurs are the most likely team to have several chess players, followed closely by the Lakers, Heat, and Pacers, in that order.
  2. As you can see above, both team spend time in the off-season boxing, and the Spurs have for several seasons. We know this practice dates at least back to Fabricio Oberto.
  3. Roy Hibbert boxes through his connection to Tim Duncan. George Hill was on the Spurs for a few wonderful years and likely boxed several times. And David West obviously boxes every day of his life and knows every boxer in the world personally from having boxed said boxer. Paul George is a ridiculously lengthy athlete entering his prime who relishes defensive assignments.
  4. The Spurs have Kawhi Leonard.
  5. Aaron and I are contractually obliged to post this image whenever we possibly can.

Physically I'll give the slight advantage to the Pacers. They have tremendous length and know how to use it. Hibbert with his rather slow frame might be susceptible to toppling, but that's assuming you're able to reach him to put your full weight at Hibbert, a gambit that, if it misses, is immediately disastrous. And there's a good chance Hibbert's just too large for that to even become a consideration, even against NBA athletes. You might be able to tire him out, but then the Pacers can just go to West or George to spell him. The Spurs are - at least in terms of starters - plenty old and on a bad night could end up getting destroyed like the sad later career of Ali, before they even get to play a round of chess. Duncan would get toppled at it would be so sad. But on a good night, they're not only formidable but elite. Also, Boris Diaw is impossible to move intentionally and would likely be deceptively elite at dodging and using your momentum against you.

As for chess: With Pop on the sidelines, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Manu, Danny Green, and Patty Mills? I'm sorry, this is a lopsided match-up for just about anyone. Maybe Chris Paul takes control of the Clippers/Spurs chess match. I doubt it.

Adventures in Line-Setting (and, the Keys to the Game)

Hello, readers! There are 16 games on Thursday and Friday. I'll probably watch some of them. Before you and I partake in the ritual entertainment provided tonight, though, I'd like to show you something I've been thinking about. It's probably obvious, it's probably trivial, and yet I don't think I've ever made a working example.

One thing that's always bugged me about basketball broadcasts (mostly because I'm such a junkie for the sport) are those "Keys to the Game" bullets you see before broadcasts, where analysts will try to pinpoint the most important few things that both teams can do to maximize their respective chances. Offensive rebounding, "get out in transition," or "get off to a good early start". Hit your open shots, Serge Ibaka! After all, you can turn the ball over a hundred times -- if turnovers aren't one of your Keys to the Game and you handle your keys to the game, you guys are gonna win!

I mock it, but it's a neat and quick little feature that works even for the most pedestrian of broadcasts. We can laugh, but yes, there are "Keys to the Game" in every game. Call them what you will: Leverage points, facets of special interest, stochastic weights that -- pulled or pushed -- favor one or the other team. Call them what you will, but recognize them. After all, they're little things, and mostly trivial. But much like pills in a pharmacy, the most powerful of these little things can be fatal or can save a patient from death. Enter "Keys to the Game".

But here's the thing, even if your team does put all its effort into offensive rebounding, and even if it is all "effort": If you're a bottom-10 offensive and defensive rebounding team going against a top-10 team in those categories, you're probably not going to out-rebound that other team. Oh, sure, your team can, because one game is one game, but at this point in the season? 31 games in, after both of the teams have been trying their best, your stats somewhat reflect your personnel that night, usually. If you have shot creators, your offense will be good. If you have good rebounders, you'll have those rebounding stats. If you have elite rim protectors? You'll probably have a good defense. And... if you're an NBA team in the bottom ten of both rebounding categories, and your opponent is in the top ten of both categories? Then your opponent will probably out-rebound you. And there's nothing wrong with that.

See, there are a lot of ways to win an NBA game. And sometimes that means giving up the offensive rebounding battle because the other team has Love and Pekovic... and because your team has something else going for it, too. You don't necessarily need to be ashamed that you only have two offensive rebounds and they have seven. They have Kevin Love. That's what he does! What's more.... If you lose an individual battle by less than you'd expected, that can be a win, too. If you're outrebounded by the Wolves, and you're not a good rebounding team, but you held the battle close? That swings the game in your favor. Holding the rebounding differential to a minimum (i.e. losing by less as opposed to winning the battle) is somewhat of an anathema to how we typically think about sports, but we've all heard the sentence "You'll live with Dirk scoring 30" at some point in our lives, often accompanied by alcohol to deal with the pain. And it's almost always right. You'll live with Dirk scoring 30 so long as Jason Terry doesn't score 30, too. I'll live with the Wolves out-rebounding me if we make them pay in transition. I'll live with the Rockets out-shooting me if they're throwing the ball every which way before shots. I'll live with the Pacers out-defending me if they can't enter it into the post. I'll live with the Spurs out...-not-fouling me (???) if Tim Duncan never sees the ball go through the net.

We'll live with our disadvantages if we can also march forth with our advantages and let the ledger judge the better at the end.

 • • •

Very quickly, I did a little empirical stuff for this post, like, with data and such. I haven't figured out how to present quite all the results, but for now, I'll leave you with a few simple projections for last night's games, based only on the average efficiency (and pace) of what we've seen so far, adjusted for the strength of their respective opponent.

 ORL  96.94   CLE  94.30
 GSW  99.75   MIA 102.35
 BOS  87.81   CHI  87.90
 BKN  93.83   OKC 107.35
 NYK  91.32   SAS 103.23
 MEM  95.21   PHO 100.86
 MIL  91.80   UTH  91.00
 CHA  93.90   POR 101.50
 PHI 104.79   SAC 109.08

This isn't adjusted for strength of schedule (or home court, in a huge and glaring omission. We're still ironing this out! Don't bet anything on this yet!). So, the Heat's offense is adjusted for Golden State's defense, but the disparity in schedule that helped to cause those offensive numbers (from being, like, almost the only good team in your conference) is not accounted for. So East-West match-ups are likely more lopsided towards West teams than they appear, so I'd probably nudge West teams up a couple points - i.e. I'm expecting the Jazz to win, the Kings to beat the Sixers by more than 5, the Heat-Warriors game to be awesome and probably closer than what you're seeing. And those Thunder-Nets, Spurs-Knicks, and Bobcats-Blazers games? Yeesh. Fuggedaboutit.

Update, Friday morning: Those projections above turned out to be unfathomably wrong.

  • First, let me note that this next part sounds reasonable. The away teams scored an average of 3.5 points better than I projected (home teams scored an average of 1 point better than I projected). So in terms of total points scored? My projections on average were 4.5 points lower than what we actually saw and home teams did about 2.5 points worse in terms of margin of victory than I'd projected.
  • But, see, my original projections never adjusted for home-court advantage. So even though I was assuming a neutral court, the road teams actually did 2.5 points better than that neutral-court assumption. If normal HCA is taken into account (call it, say, 3 points?), then I'm actually off by 5.5 points per game.
  • And that's not even counting the absolute margin of error here. Home teams were about 11.3 points off from my projection; road teams were more like 10 points (9.86). The margin (by which you'd probably choose your betting lines)? I was off by an average of 12.97 points. What's more, if I'd adjusted for home-court and strength-of-schedule, I likely would have underestimated even more the road teams.
  • By the way, by the stopped clock theorem, I actually got some things right. My total for Bulls-Celtics was .28 points too high and my Bucks-Jazz total was about .19 points too high. Not too shabby. But I also had three games (ORL-CLE [33.24 high], GSW-MIA [34.88 low], and CHA-POR [42.59 low]), where I was more than thirty points off the actual total. In terms of betting lines? I only had one game where I was less than 10 points off the margin of victory in regulation. Cavs-Magic (Cavs outperformed by 2.64), which might as well have been point-shaving the way regulation ended. Plus, I was more than 15 points too high in the point totals for both of those teams. Heh.

In short, and I don't want to belabor the point too much - I chose the worst night imaginable to start doing projections, and maybe my projections are also the worst. I was indefensibly wrong and I'm sorry. The only slight bit of fortune here is that you didn't see these predictions and use them, because you would have lost 50 dollars and held it against me forever.

Anyway, so I still have another day of projections to burn off, using the same model. Warning: The following is canon.

TOR     95.81    WAS     93.70
GSW    102.70    ATL    100.05
NOP     99.60    BOS     97.94
NYK     96.21    HOU    103.84
LAC    105.69    DAL    102.30
MEM     96.18    DEN     97.55
UTH     96.23    LAL    100.36

There you have it. But please don't use these numbers; they are the worst.

Also, if you do use them, remember that I haven't adjusted for home court, strength of schedule (especially East/West disparity), or anything else that isn't offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, or pace. Those are the only three numbers I used.

Anyway, these projections are not to be trusted. Also, if you do put any remote faith in them (and don't, seriously), I'd bump the home team by a few points up in terms of the margin, give the Nuggets a big boost for the back-to-back, don't trust the Lakers, don't trust the Hawks, the Pellies will probably beat the Celtics, the Knicks just played a competent game so hell is freezing over, and I'd take the Warriors by more than 3 points. Also, I like Bradley Beal. The Wizards' offense is fine. I enjoy watching them. Wizards-Raptors feels like a basketball hellscape waiting to happen. If you gamble on that game, you will feel obligated to watch that game.

The Final Timeout: New York's Final Moments in Knicks/Wizards

mike woodson

The following is a transcript taken from Alex Dewey's SportFU system. SportFU is based around a series of cameras Dewey placed in NBA arenas under the floorboards. After placing them, our intrepid young reporter realized that his cameras captured absolutely none of the visuals of an NBA game, on account of being underground. So he probably could've saved several million dollars by switching to audio recorders. But we won't get into that. At least they captured enough audio to be able to bring you this post, right?

 • • •

Mike Woodson is leading the huddle. His Knicks are clinging to a 1-point lead against the Wizards with 24 seconds left.

Coach Woodson: Alright, y'all. Stick with me here. It's been a rough season, but we've had a great 2nd half today! So let's make something happen! You just gotta trust and believe in your defense, man. One thing I learned in Atlanta is: gotta trust your people, number one. Y'all gotta BELIEVE you can get that stop if ya need it, y'know?

Carmelo Anthony: I believe, Coach. We can get that stop if we need it. Look, you guys, I know we've had troubles before but we can NOT lose this game.  We have to trust each other. As long as we have Tyson in the middle, we're fine.

Woodson: Actually, we don't have Tyson.

Melo: Well, where is Tyson? He's not back yet? Dang!

Woodson: Tyson's got, like, an eternal contusion fracture of the spotless mind or something. Somewhere below his knee. Day-to-day.  Look, he's still in his suit, right over there.

Tyson Chandler: Hey! What's up, guys? I'm right here. Glad you're looking at me, but maybe you want to focus on that timeout instead of me! I can't play, you know!

Melo: Hey, Tyson! Nice to see you.

Woodson: Bottom line? TC's not going to be available. Andrea, it's gonna be you in the middle. Y'all help him out. Support him!

Melo: Oh sh-... I mean, uh... Yeah, you can do it, Andrea. Just man the middle. Just like we've been practicing.

Andrea Bargnani: [consumes pasta]

Woodson: Right, so we HAVE to guard the middle. Y'all know what I mean? GOT to have a presence. We're down by 1 so I'd rather force them to 3 it, feel me? Even a long J would be fine. But no layups. I'd rather they get an semi-open 3 than an easy-ass five footer. Got me?

Melo: [nods] We got it, Coach.

Woodson: J.R., I know you care about your rep. I get that, young man.

J.R. Smith:  [looking up at the ceiling] Right, Coach.

Woodson: But this is our whole team's rep, now. I know you don't want someone to hit a jumper in your-- J.R., ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?

Smith: [thousand-yard stare] Do what now?

Woodson: Damn, J.R. Look... I know you care about your rep, but focus on the basket, please. Just 24 seconds. Focus on helping at the rim. Don't look at your guy at the 3-point line. Protect the rim first and foremost. Help your people under the rim if someone gets beat. They got a rep, too. Y'know?

Smith: [looking at the opposite basket] Right... shoot it at the rim...

Woodson: Look, just... pay attention on defense. That's all I'm asking.

Smith: [looking at Tyson Chandler] Right, Coach. Seriously, protect the rim, help, I'll do whatever I have to do to make sure they don't score.

Woodson: [a bit touched] Thanks.

Melo: [supportively] J.R. the lockdown man! Keep it going for 24 more, J.R.! You can do it!

Woodson: And Pablo and Ray are out, of course.

Melo: Right.

Beno Udrih: So it's up to me, then.

Woodson: Right, Beno. Good chance you end up on Wall or Beal. Now, you've played under some great coaches in your time, right? You played under Pop, of course.

Beno: Right.

Woodson: So you know two things about the next possession. Simple as anything in the world.

Beno: Right... Why don't you just tell me so there isn't any confusion?

Woodson: Well, for one, they want to put up a shot so they don't leave any time on the clock, and two, they're going to go to Beal on a switch against you, probably on a dribble-hand-off.

Melo: Wait, what?

Beno: How do you know that?

Woodson: Simple. Beal's hot and he's their most explosive scorer, he's a capable ball-handler, and we'd have trouble trapping him. Plus, if he can get a switch to you (and they can easily draw that up), we have to honor it. He's too good a shooter to leave him WIDE open. You're gonna be at a slight size disadvantage, and so they'd be foolish not to try and take advantage.

Beno: Right.

Woodson: But y'all also have a trump card, right?

Beno: [looks around to team] ...Sure, Coach. Why don't you tell everyone so we can all know what you're talking about?

Woodson: The foul to give. We have a foul to give. I can't stress this enough. We have a foul to give.

Beno: Right.

Woodson: If the Wizards try anything before, say, 3 seconds are left (and make sure one of y'all call it out if Beno can't check the time), you should foul them. Make them draw up a whole new in-bounds. That should screw up whatever they want to get, enough to give us the best chance of winning.

Beno: Okay. You know what, I CAN do that, Coach!

Woodson: That's all. Just remember. Trust and believe. Believe and trust. Just do the simple shit that I'm asking of you and we'll win. And, if we don't win and y'all do all of that, y'all can blame me in the next huddle.

Melo: Coach, you're doing great. This is all great stuff.

Woodson: Thank you.

The Knicks gather their hands into the middle of the huddle. 

Team: One, two, three, BREAK!

Legitimate intensity, to a man. Even J.R. looks totally engaged, a terrifying, but beautiful, sight.

James Dolan: Hey, what's up, everyone?

Everyone groans.

Dolan: You can't spare a moment for the guy that signs your checks?

Melo: Come on, James, not now. We're right in the middle of a g--...

Dolan: Controversy, right? Felton for Lowry, who says no?

Woodson: Raymond is a fine young man, can we talk about this later?

Dolan: I just got off the phone with Phil Jackson. Do you want to know what we talked about?

Woodson: Not especia--...

Dolan: I told him I planned to hire Pat Riley and Ettore Messina to co-coach the Knicks next season. Laughs aplenty.

Melo: Look, Coach is who he is. This isn't helping anyone, James. I don't know what you think you're doing.

Dolan: Hello, Andrea.

Andrea: Hi, James.

Dolan: Some fascinating trade rumors are leaking out today. Most of them involving you. Can you think about that for a few moments and tell me what you think after the game?

Andrea: What... why?

Dolan: It's not that you're not working out. You are, but you know how life is. If you don't have your hand on the trigger at any moment, you're always one step away from missing the dream of a lifetime.

Woodson: Come on, James. What is this even about?

Melo: Yeah, Dolan. What's your problem? Let's just run the play. 1, 2, 3, BREAK!

Dolan: Wait! My favorite movie is "Heat". I listen to the Eagles. I'm a kind, compassionate individual. I've had trade offers just today to send J.R. to Moscow!

Smith:  [perking up, stares with attention at Coach Woodson] Moscow? What the hell?

Dolan: Nothing very serious, but you have to keep abreast of these things... "Heat"... "Princess Bride" was good, uh... "The Godfather" was a good movie. "Alien 4" was good.

Smith: [completely losing interest] Never mind, man. I'll score if I get the ball, Coach, if that's what I'm feeling.

Dolan: Beno Udrih for Mike Bibby, Mike Bibby for Orlando Johnson, Orlando Johnson and Bargs for Roy Hibbert, Ryan Anderson, and Omer Asik. Three trades. Who says no?

Woodson: YOU ARE KILLING THIS TEAM, JAMES.

Melo: [sobbing] I just... I played a great game and did everything you asked of me, Coach. Why now? Why this timeout? Why couldn't it have been just three minutes later, James?

Woodson: Nobody knows, Melo.

Dolan: We can compete in the East or West, in the North or South. I sometimes pretend I'm Billy Joel or Bob Seger or Pitbull. I have a band and I like playing in it. I will never trade you, Melo. I will pay you so many dollars, and you will be mine, forever.

Official: Come on, guys. We have a game to play. It's been more than a minute. Commercials are back. If you don't get on the court in 20 seconds, it's a tech.

Woodson: Just... I... yeah, just go, guys. 1, 2, 3, break.

 • • •

But now all the Knicks look worried or disinterested. They all heard the ref, but barely beat his 20-second deadline as they wade over to contest the inbound pass.

The Wizards run a dribble hand-off leaving Beno Udrih guarding Bradley Beal. Beno - with sudden thoughts of retirement (or worse, being traded for the retired Mike Bibby), is unfocused and doesn't foul when Beal makes his move with plenty of time. Beal easily slips past Beno, and the rest of the team is caught unawares, expecting him to foul.

The Knicks aren't way out of position, at this point, but Bargs is angry at Dolan's sudden leak to the public about his lack of faith and refuses to man the middle. J.R. Smith, worried about going to Moscow (and a little intrigued, which occupies his attention even more), stays on his man in the corner even after Beal beats Beno. J.R. is not going to let someone shoot over him and give Dolan the ammo to send him to Moscow.

Beal gets an easy, uncontested lay-up on the Knicks' basket. The Knicks have three time-outs, but Mike Woodson has checked out of the game at this point. He refuses to call time-out, and Melo, the only one left to care, heaves a desperate shot.

NOTE: After the game, James Dolan trades his 2022 first-rounder to the ether for Ben Wallace.

Dewey Mnemonic: How to remember the NBA's weirdest names

Giannis Antetokounmp-no.

There's nothing wrong with having a name that's hard for American English speakers to spell. It's a big world, and people constantly struggle with spelling "Dewey" (and my middle name "Trent").  Enter the world of mnemonics. A mnemonic is... well, let's let the first mnemonic tell the tale, here:

Mnemonics Never Effect Memory Or Notice Its Correlations... M before N except after the first N.

Hmm, never mind, that's just a mnemonic to remember how to spell mnemonic. There's a separate mnemonic for what it means.

Memento Nor Effectively a Memo; Openly 'Nrelated; Is Calibrated to be easy to memorize.

Alright, that doesn't help much either. Look, a mnemonic is a tool to help you remember something. 30 days hath September, April, June, and November. January February March April May. I see you cryin' but girl I can't stay. August June July December. That one tells you all the months with thirty days, and the song form helps keep it straight in your mind. Today, I am going to do the same with the toughest NBA names the league has to offer. Get ready to learn some names, folks.

 • • •

Player with Difficult Name: As an English transliteration of a Greek transliteration of a Nigerian name, there are few names in the NBA more imposing than that of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Worse, even though his name is spelled "just like it sounds," you'll only get this particular transliteration from how his name sounds if you happen to be a Nigerian living in Greece. And even then, not a guarantee; there are plenty of different linguistic traditions and several languages in Nigeria alone to alter your personal transcription along the way. Plus, if you're reading this, you must speak English on some level (I mean, probably?), and very few words in English are like spelled or sound like either his first or his last name. Also: If you're trying to sound it out, you're very likely getting the pronunciation wrong to start with (unless you're a serious Bucks fan, or you went out of your way to get it right).

Mnemonic trick: Luckily, we're here to help. Mnemonics such as "Every Good Boy Dies Feverishly" (treble clef) and "Feel A Chill? Enter Giannis" (alto clef) help amazingly young people such as, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo (December 1994!) remember their musical (Wy)clefs, while also reminding them of the heartless facts of life and the inevitable omnipotence of Giannis.

Let's see if a mnemonic will do the trick.

Giannis Is A Nice Name I Spell. And Ninety-Two Eagles To Overcome Krzyzewski Offense Unsettle Noticeably Motion, Passing, Offense.

Giannis Indelibly Ate Ninety-Nine Ice Shards. Antetokounmpo's Never Tried Eating Tacos Of Kipper Overseas Unless Neutral Milestone Passed Obliviously

I remember his name already! I bet you do too.

• • •

Player with Difficult Name: Dwyane Wade -- often critiqued as much for his subversively-spelled name as for his declining game -- is an enigma for the dutiful speller and our "'i' before 'e'" fixations and the various exceptions and meta-exceptions thereof. But it's easy to remember with a simple trick!

Mnemonic trick: Dwyane Wade plays a dynamic but rational game, generally speaking. For all the quibbles about his shot selection, he generally scores efficiently and does all the dirty work necessary for a win. He's a true champion with a good understanding of the game. But, when push comes to shove, D"wy"ane Wade puts the "W" (the victory; the methods necessary to achieve) before the "Y" (the why; the rational). Just do it, as they say in the confusingly named Washington County, Oregon. Another clarification article for another day. Also, the order is the same as in "Wyclef", which is something everyone knows.

Mnemonic trick for his nicknames: All of D-Wade's nicknames are self-imposed and stupid. That always helps me remember them. Flash. Three. D-Wade.  The inventor of the D-Wade Two-Step (which is technically true; he is the first person to execute a move he calls the D-Wade Two-Step). Just think of the dumbest possible nickname for Wade and he's probably floating it to his PR team at that very instant. Easy to remember, let's move on.
• • •

Player with Difficult Name: This is probably cheating, but legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was once a player like you or me, and his Polish name is easy to misspell if you lack... polish in your spelling. [Ed. Note: I'm so sorry, readers.] Never fear, the trickster is here!

Mnemonic trick: "Gee, Coach K, you're sure crazy in your zeal for the game. 'Why?' I ask." And then you remember that there's an at the very end. Foolproof.

Actual mnemonic trick: Fine, Aaron, I hate Duke, but there's actually an easy way to spell his name: The key is getting that five-consonant start down (yeah, more like a dissonant [ethered]). You first spell out "Crazy" as in "You Cameron Crazies ruined my day, just by appearing on my screen! Augh!". Then you replace the "C" with a "K" because if you're really krazy, that's what you do. Now, take out the "a", much like Mike Krzyzewski rids his players of their bad attitudes so that they can make it to the NBA for two years before opening a franchise chain of some sort with the money and connections. Now you're left with Mike Krzy. Now... add a z to the end of that. So it's very simple. You should have the first five consonants right, now. Congratulations. It's Mike Crazy- er, Krazy- er, Krzy- er, Mike Krzyz. We're getting closer.

Now - and note that you have only five letters left - the rest is easy. Mike Krzyzewski sure has the craziez. But even he's not crazy enough to ski! Just imagine him trying to water-ski or ski down a mountain. It doesn't make sense on any level other than as some sort of elaborate team-building retreat. And he's not crazy enough not to plan ahead to avoid the possibility of skiing whatsoever.

To the prospect of such skiing, quoth Mike Krzyz: "Ew, ski!" And there it is. You will never forget how to spell Mike Krzyzewski's name, or your money back. That is...if you can find me.

:releases smoke bomb:
:disappears into Appalachia:
• • •

Player with Difficult Name: Phil Jackson was also a player, in addition to being a coach. Because this list is keeping to its original premise perfectly and because we highly value the list format, we will now cover how to remember Phil Jackson's challenging name.

Mnemonic trick: First thing you have to understand is Phil's Jack's son. And Jack's Nichols' son. And John's Nichols, but Bor is Johnson and Bor is Diaw but boric acid rids Phil (Jack's son)'s house of roaches and leaves only coaches, and that's a big reason why he is so successful. And Wyclef Jean comes in at some point.

Once you've got that, it's time to advance to the next stage of the mnemonic. As a coach, Phil Jackson has exactly as many rings as the string "Phil Jackson" has characters. In a mathematical ring, you can add and multiply two characters together to get one character, and multiplication is associative. In this particular ring, "i" is the only logical choice for "1" in this ring and " " is the only logical choice for "0". Evaluating "P*h*i*l* *J*a*c*k*s*o*n" yields 0 because you multiplied everything by 0. Which, as I've mentioned, is just " ". Space. The Triangle Phil (Jack [John Nichols's son]'s son) is so fond of space that in published treatments of the Triangle, Tex Winter often has started with a note about how players should space themselves. The Triangle Offense used space effectively to allow talented and less talented players to get open. The biggest key with this part is that there's a space. "Phil Jackson" is two words with a space to divide them.

As for the rest? Seriously, just sound it out. It's pretty much how it sounds.

"What? Seriously, what?"

Bill Don't Lie: Congressional Efficiency through the NBA

dwight and bob

This post was compiled and written by Evan Kalikow, known as @killakow on Twitter. During the recent shutdown, Evan had some free time. Instead of posting #ObstructionIsNotGovernance every day (love you, Amin), Evan chose to connect his love of the NBA with the curious working habits of our United States legislative branch. What follows is the resulting piece. Happy reading!

Like most sports, basketball is a game of efficiency. If your team has players that can score more often and on fewer attempts than your opponents, you’re in pretty good shape. Ever since basketball became a fully-realized sport, scouts, coaches, and general managers have used shot efficiency (in one form or another) to evaluate players.

Hey, maybe the same is true of U.S. politics!

Just like NBA players, Congress talks a big game. But does it deliver? Can we use similar measures to evaluate politicians? How efficient are our members of Congress, though? Are they more like James Harden or more like 2011 Mike Bibby? I found myself wondering these questions the other day, when it became apparent to me (and countless others) that Congress can’t get a dang thing done... more like the 2011 vintage of Mike Bibby. I decided to dive into the data and figure out how efficient our men and women of Congress really are, comparing the 113th U.S. Congress (January 2013 to October 2013) to NBA players from the 2012-2013 season (October 2012 to April 2013).

First, to define the measures of efficiency that I will be using. For NBA players, efficiency is measured simply by Field Goal Percentage, or FG% (field goals made divided by field goals attempted). We'll look at every NBA player who took at least 100 shots during the 2012-2013 regular season. I hear you -- FG% isn't a perfect measure of player quality or player efficiency, and the metric is biased toward certain types of players (more on that later), but look at it this way: when U.S. Senators were young enough to play basketball without immediately tearing every ligament and tendon in their body simultaneously, Field Goal Percentage was state-of-the-art. And I'm all about communication.

Things get slightly trickier for measuring congressional efficiency. To get these values, I took all 538 members of both houses of Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) and created a similar measure; essentially, Congressional Efficiency is defined as bills and resolutions passed divided by bills and resolutions proposed*. Again, this measure has flaws -- some of them hilarious -- and simply measures efficiency, not difficulty.

*NOTE CONTAINING GORY DEFINITIONAL DETAILS: Bills are considered passed if they passed the House, passed the Senate, agreed to as a simple resolution, passed the House with changes, passed the Senate with changes, agreed to as a concurrent resolution, enrolled (i.e. passed by the House and Senate and presented to the President to sign), or signed by the President. Conversely, bills with a most recent status of introduced, referred to committee, reported by committee, failed under suspension, failed cloture, failed House, or failed Senate are considered not passed. Although this definition of success is relatively broad, it works well for our purposes.

After compiling and organizing the data, the first thing that struck me was how much less efficient Congress was than the NBA, even though I was using the lowest-skewed NBA field goal statistic. To wit: the average efficiency of a Congressperson was 8.06%... compared to an average field goal percentage of 44.55% for an NBA player. Statistically, that notorious bill on Capitol Hill probably should have died on the steps. To make it a bit easier to see comparisons between the two, I took the difference between the two averages and added it to each Congressperson’s efficiency, giving us equivalent averages and comparable agents. Adjusted Congressional Efficiency (ACE) I'll call it, but only this one time.

The Senators, Representatives, and Delegates of the 113th Congress naturally separated themselves into seven distinct groups based on their adjusted efficiencies. Let’s take a look.

To access the spreadsheet with the data for all congressmen and NBA players, click here.

• • •

Group 1: The No-Shows

Description: These four Congresspeople alone - out of all of Congress - have proposed exactly 0 bills or resolutions so far. Not a single one. This makes sense for Brown and Scott, who are in their first terms. It makes extra sense for Chiesa, who was only appointed in June and has barely set up his office. But John Boehner, Speaker of the House? That’s downright pathetic, man. Write a bill or something, dork!

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Andrew Bynum, Charles Barkley, you, your grandma, anyone you saw on the street today, a baby who was literally born yesterday.

Best One-On-One Comparison: John Boehner (0%) is exactly as efficient as an orange (0%).

 • • •

Group 2: League Minimum

Description: The Senators and Representatives in this group all proposed at least one bill, but passed none. Due to the fact that we're equalizing the averages by adding, their 0% actual efficiency gets adjusted into an ACE of 36.5%. In basketball terms, that is horrendous. To put this into perspective, Austin Rivers -- a man who put together one of the all-time worst rookie seasons ever last year -- had a FG% of 37.2%, which is higher than every single senator or representative that graces this list. And make no mistake: there's a lot of them. A total of 331 Congresspeople ended up in this group with absolutely zero bills passed, which just goes to show you (a) how difficult it is to get a bill passed, and (b) how much less efficient Congress is than the NBA.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Austin Rivers, Ricky Rubio, Kirk Hinrich, Kent Bazemore, Ason Kidd.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Ted Cruz (36.5%) is slightly less efficient than Sixth Man of the Year vote recipient Luke Babbitt (36.8%). Ted for 6MOTY!

 • • •

Group 3: Point Guards and Role Players

Description: The NBA players in this group are slightly below league average in terms of FG%. You’ll find some stinkers in there (Royal Ivey), but also a lot of excellent point guards (Russell Westbrook, for one). PGs tend to shoot the ball a lot, so their FG% drops accordingly. The men and women of Congress in this group mostly follow the high-usage PG model, with high-usage, low-efficiency Senators like Bob Casey and David Vitter, as well as Representatives like Diane Black and Cody Gardner. This makes sense--over half of the Senators and Representatives in this study didn’t get a single bill passed, so you see more Congressional Goran Dragics and fewer congressional Jodie Meekses.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Rudy Gay, Jordan Crawford, Kemba Walker, Jrue Holiday, Russell Westbrook

Best One-On-One Comparison: TIE. On one hand, you have Diane Feinstein (38.7%) doing her best Rasheed Wallace (38.7%) impression. But on the other hand, Chuck Grassley (42.8%), everyone’s favorite tweeter, is a slightly better Ray Felton (42.7%). It’s tough to say which one of these comparisons is better. Which will happen first: Diane Feinstein getting a T on the Senate floor, or Chuck Grassley dropping 50 on the Dems?

 • • •

Group 4: Very Good Players

Description: This is the first group of NBA players that are all above the league-average in FG%. Lots of these players are, as the group name would suggest, very good. You have guys like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving who are better shooters than the PGs in the last group, and you have guys like Jeff Green and Jimmy Butler, who are solid. There are also some higher-usage Centers like Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah, as well as classic big men in Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. On the Congressional side, there are some heavy-hitters, like Richard Blumenthal. But a lot of this group is made up of low-usage, high-efficiency types, who propose fewer than 10 bills but can get at least one passed. This is exemplified by Rodney Davis and Richard Hanna, who each only proposed 8 bills, but each also got 1 passed, giving them both 49.0% adjusted efficiencies.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Roy Hibbert, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Josh Smith, Chris Paul, Paul Millsap.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Michele Bachmann (47.6%) comes out of the pack as a slightly more efficient version of DeMarcus Cousins (46.5%). I’m buying $1000 worth of stock in whatever TV network can get them to live in a house together and videotape the results.

 • • •

Group 5: Lots of Tall People

Description: I mentioned earlier that FG%, as a measurement, is biased toward a certain group of NBA players. By that, I of course meant tall people. The kinds of shots that Centers take and make are generally close to the basket and highly efficient on their own. This gives Centers a leg up when comparing FG% data, and it shows in this group. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Ed Davis’ or Tiago Splitter’s immediate families who say that those are better players than Kevin Durant, but that’s what the rankings in this group say. A similar phenomenon develops with the Congressional members of this group, where even more low-usage, high-success rate candidates emerge. Patrick Leahy, who proposed 23 bills and passed 4 of them, is one of the exceptions. Good on you, pal.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: Kevin Durant, Larry Sanders, Chris Bosh, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin.

Best One-On-One Comparison: I don’t know too much about Senator Mike Johanns (55.3%), but the Personal Life section of his Wikipedia page is pretty dull; he had some kids and grandkids, got divorced, and then remarried. This dullness makes him a perfect complement to Kenneth Faried (55.2%), who has been described as many things but never dull.

 • • •

Group 6: Even More Tall People (and LeBron!)

Description: Every single player on here either plays Center or is named LeBron James. They take a lot of close-range and low-risk shots, they’re at or near 7 feet tall, or they’re LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet. At the top of this list is Chris Wilcox, who took 153 shots and made 110 of them, earning an FG% of 71.9%. At the bottom of the list is LeBron James, 4x winner of the Most Valuable Player award, who made a paltry 56.5% of his shots (he also made exactly 5 times as many shots as Chris Wilcox, but who’s counting?). Basically what I’m trying to say is that a lot of very tall people who make a high proportion of their low-risk shots make up this group, a group that also contains perhaps the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan. LeBron James. I’m talking about LeBron James in that last part. As for Congress, more of the same. Many props to Candace Miller of Michigan’s 10th district for hitting 7 of 20 and posing a 71.5% adjusted efficiency.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James, LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Arnett Moultrie, JaVale McGee, Serge Ibaka.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Robert Menendez (58.1%) is only slightly more efficient than Dwight Howard (57.8%). Fun fact: Robert Menendez is the size of a regulation basketball. Take that, Dwight!

 • • •

Group 7: The MonSTARS

Description: This group of Congresspeople is small, but it’s ridiculously efficient. The least efficient member of this group, Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, had an adjusted efficiency ranking of 72.9%. And that’s the worst of this group. Major props are also due for Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Rob Woodall, Pete Sessions, and Xavier Becerra, who each posted adjusted efficiencies of over 100% with at least 7 proposed bills each. Let’s put it in basketball terms. To get an adjusted efficiency as high as Becerra’s 125.4%, an NBA player would have to make 5 out of 4 baskets, which is capital-I Impossible. That’s why these ladies and gentlemen are the MonSTARS: like the popular Space Jam villains, they can defy time and space to be incredibly efficient.

NBA 12-13 Equivalents: The MonSTARS, Superman flying around the world quickly to turn back time, Michael Jordan at the end of Space Jam, two LeBrons playing at the same time.

Best One-On-One Comparison: Harry Reid (100.3%) is slightly more efficient than Al Horford was from the 3 point line during the 2009-2010 season (100%).

 • • •

There were a few interesting takeaways. In Congress, like the NBA, high-efficiency "centers" are rare to come by and highly desirable. The Congressional Centers take few chances, low-risk chances, or some combination of the two when proposing legislation, and as a result are highly efficient at getting their priorities legislated. If you’re a Democrat or Republican, that's the type of Congressperson that you hope gets elected.

Lots of people take issue with the NBA (and basketball in general) as a superstar-driven sport. It’s easy to see how that can be, but it’s nothing compared to Congress. Over half of the Congresspeople barely get any of their legislation passed! At all! Then again, maybe the 113th Congress is a poor example--it’s on pace to be the least productive ever, after all. In any event, we can take a small bit of comfort in the concept of DeMarcus Cousins and Michele Bachmann living together, right?

NBA data courtesy of basketball-reference.com. Congressional data courtesy of GovTrack.us; current as of October 3, 2013.

HoopIdea: The [REBUILDING] tag

tanking state warriors

Tanking exists to avoid contraction. Can we be completely upfront about that? If we didn't have a system that could bail out a team that is legitimately doing horrible, then teams that are horrible would tend to remain horrible. And teams that remain horrible are the first in line for contraction, relocation, and long-term disrespect and franchise deflation the likes of which tanking strategically can never bring them. Sure, horrible teams would have some natural pressure towards the mean and 41 wins, but in the "meantime" would also have plenty of opportunities to fall into historic and un-climbable holes.

Fundamentally, this is a worse state of affairs than what we have now. If we did something to eliminate tanking, then we might have teams competing hard for 1,230 games today, this season, but teams on the verge of historical, long-term awfulness would tire out as the lack of cushioning their bad seasons would begin to wear them down. A bad team might even over-play its best players and trade assets to the point of injury and be left with nothing, even if all the stars would have otherwise aligned. You can't simply eliminate tanking and leave no options for the teams with bare cupboards. That said, tanking is a problem and it hurts to watch those teams. And it's a negative externality: teams may pay a price when they tank, but a tanking team hurts the league as a whole more than the team loses itself.

So, after thinking on it for a while, I've come up with an interesting idea that could retain the opportunity-for-betterment that tanking brings without sabotaging league-wide play. Let's talk about the "Rebuilding Tag."

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Humor and Pain -- A Farewell to the 2013 Spurs

If Alex Dewey stepped on an NBA court, Kenyon Martin would say this. (Thanks to Trey Kerby of TBJ for the pic.)

Both in writing and in person, I make a lot of self-deprecating comedy. That's just how I frame my existence. I could give you an example, but I accidentally screwed up my computer by banging my elbow against it. While slipping on a banana peel nearby. This actually just happened. I'm typing on my phone, really slowly. The ambulances will be here shortly. But that's not gonna help anything. Because nothing can help me. Look, I already dropped my phone. Aw, frig. It's broken too. Aaron publish this piece immediat--

Look, I'm just fine. None of the previous paragraph actually happened. Still, while I'm sure someone was disturbed by that last paragraph, I was enjoying it. Because I just never win, and others need to know about it. No matter how close I get, at the moment of truth even my noblest endeavor is stymied. Every time I think of a joke it turns out Rodney Dangerfield beat me to the punch. In 1935. But I can laugh about it. My mom came up to visit and declared my apartment uninhabitable and proceeded to clean for 10 minutes and got it cleaner than it had been since I'd moved in. I was so happy but I couldn't figure out the words to thank her. So I settled for "Happy Mother's Day." [Ed. Note: Now I understand why Dewey tells me "Happy Editor's Day" every time I edit his pieces...]

See, folks, I can laugh about my foibles because I have so many of them. I laugh at my foibles the way others laugh at my hair follicles - because a) there's so many of them, b) they're so unbefitting, and c) I screwed up trying to condition them. Heh. See what I mean? You have to shut me up or I'll go on like that forever. I'm sorry. I'm like one of those old Energizer Bunnies, except I never have any energy and when I'm tired I annoy the crap out of anyone I interact with using my inscrutable stream of consciousness ramblings and an abjectly terrible sense of humor. I'm always tired, so this is my always: this is my basic condition upon the Earth. Started at the bottom now I'm here. Which is not much improved, I'll just say, and the food's just a little better. I write a hundred sprawling essays on every minor indignity that visits me, and I do so with a smile on my face.

 • • •

Look, I'm not going to argue that the Spurs couldn't win solely because I was rooting for them, in some cosmic comedic sense. Yes, that thought flashed across my mind as the Spurs began their inbound to Kawhi with about a minute left. That would be silly and irresponsible. There's no way I was solely cosmically responsible. Surely something called chance intervened and made futile the Spurs' best efforts, and then, when the tide in the affairs of Spurs had receded, the Heat took advantage of the confusion and fled with their trophy. Surely it wasn't entirely my fault, in a cosmic sense. Surely my reverse-jinxes and postgame comments (meant to be classy, but probably just came off as irritating like everything else I do) were innocuous. Surely I wasn't literally affecting events in Miami with my own magic gift to make everything I touch break down or suck. But to be honest, the only reason I don't think I affected the outcome is that I can barely get my phone to work.

I've said it before: As Micky Arison spoke after Game 7 at the podium, I was regurgitating my dinner and dry heaving through tears. I like to think that this was a reflection upon Arison (whose name is making me wretch from conditioning to type). But it's probably a reflection upon sadness. Sadness for the fallen Spurs. I don't think I've been that sad in a pretty long while, because I'm not that emotional, except when I'm trying desperately to rationalize my most recent mistake. Maybe it was just that the curry I'd made was not very good. But I went to sleep, said probably a hundred times on cyberspace and meatspace how it was "Just how the ball bounces. Congratulations to the Miami Heat." and then I went home and watched "The Tree of Life" and played "Simple Twist of Fate" a hundred times, huddled beside a blanket.

Everything happens to me. Poor me. Well, okay, it's closer to "I happen to everyone I come into contact with. Poor them." The Spurs had a perfect chance to seal the deal and even then I couldn't accept it. Like a neurotic I said outright "This game is far from over" on Twitter when the Heat were down 5. When Ray Allen hit that 3 there was a delay emotionally because I kind of expected something like this to happen, to me, again. I couldn't just be crushed, I had to lose hope right when things were most probable, right before there was any reason to lose hope. I said I was really happy with the quality of play this series, and I meant it. But then, I also hid the part where the Spurs losing the best series I'd ever seen would be totally crushing. Put yourselves in their positions: The Spurs had done everything right up to that point, for a freaking decade. They'd rested their starters, developed their shooters, developed a system on both ends and made the best player in the world seem for about 240 minutes like a relative non-factor on the backs of smart acquisitions and brilliant trades and brilliant coaching. Tim Duncan has deferred and asserted, deferred and asserted, done everything he needs to do, and now they just need to close the last few seconds of, again, a decade of hard work.

And then it doesn't materialize and the Spurs are goats. "And then, Ray Allen. And then, LeBron James." The only way to deal with that is as the punchline to a joke. The Spurs were made to feel they already had the trophy. But 25 seconds took what was in sight, and then another 53 finally brought to logical conclusion an existing fact - the Heat were not better, but they were getting bounces, and suddenly, those bounces were starting to chain together into some sort of unstoppable dribble machine, and LeBron simply took the reins, took care of business, and here we are.

 • • •

I've never had a lot of self-confidence. Usually, I don't lack for self-confidence, either. I'm basically average. But I'm pretty introspective, probably to a fault. Take it all together, add a sense of humor, and I'm someone that can accurately see the foibles of everyone I interact with, internalize them, and move on with an innocuous laugh. And I can see my own foibles, and I can look more deeply and see my own failures that underlie them. Just to name a couple: chronic underachievement, prodigal talent constantly wasted in a mire of disorganization and flighty attentions. I see my own unstructured life with comedy and look deeper and see a life littered with the memories of pain that make this structure more difficult. I see the people I love returning to me after an adolescence where they had to leave me because I was sort of pushed aside by the world and relationships that have always been bigger than me. I see a decade in which it's been all development and scrutiny for me, and yet, at the end of it all, I feel (probably falsely) that most people like me but no one really understands me. [Ed. Note: Except for me, his Virginia-bound brain double.]

And my favorite team lost after four years and roughly 260 games watched. And it wasn't just the games I watched - I wrote dozens of articles, along the way learning whatever I could about all of the players, the system, the league in which they were positioned, the subtle stories that a simple trip down the SI Vault might miss. The Spurs lost after four years of my intense attention when they had a 1.5% chance to lose. Lost after they had the sea of probability practically parted for them. The Spurs were a historically elite team this postseason, outplayed and outscored the Heat (at one point for 4 out of 6 games (this is supposed to be a great team itself)), and yet, the Heat saw that sliver of uncertainty, slipped in at the single highest-leverage moment, and attacked, and won. Won like I knew they would, even when it was 98.5%. Won because that's what I'm accustomed to. Won because I don't know how I'd be if I ever won at anything. And so I'm in a dark apartment eating Greek yogurt and watching existential films and listening to "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and writing it all down.

And all of this is funny to me, as well it should be. I know it to be the case, because I've never been one for sob stories or wallowing in pain for very long. That's just not my nature. I've got the mindset of a coach, in a lot of ways, and I do remember things for a long time. So I suppose the Duncan bunny will weigh upon me for a long time. But in the end I'm far more neurotic about the immediate past and the immediate future. What everyone else may call the pain of a decade I call a minor setback and frustration. What others call a chip on my shoulder I only call another thing I have to freaking carry. No, whatever pain you want to ascribe to me only weighs upon me in dreams and in bank deposits. And I'm awake right now. So I suppose I'll be alright. I've already written one sprawling essay about this subject, and surely that will be the end of the story for me.

But I sure wish the Spurs had won.