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

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

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

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

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

• • •

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: LeBron James (CLE)

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

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

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Nerlens Noel (PHI)

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

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

COACH OF THE YEAR: Rick Carlisle (DAL)

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

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

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Anthony Bennett (MIN)

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

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

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Andrew Bogut (GSW)

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

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

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Richard Jefferson (DAL)

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

STOP THIS, ALEX. HERE'S THE REAL AWARD:

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Isaiah Thomas (PHX)

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

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

• • •

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

Lost in Vegas: Who Sources the Sourcemen?

 Every time I walked into this place, "Return of the Mack" played on repeat in my head.

This is the second of a two-part dispatch from the 2014 Summer League. For the first part, see this post.

As I discussed yesterday, my approach to this year's summer league only gave me two days of games and analysis. The second day was a quick two-game slate, starting with a rough-and-tumble grinder between the Rockets and the Hornets. They were playing for a spot in the summer league finals the next day. Somewhat inexplicably, both teams were pretty into the game -- there was at least a cursory effort on the floor, despite the obvious boredom of the coaches and the few remaining agents. Among my favorite examples to the point: near the end of the game, one of the refs completely missed a call on a ball out of bounds play -- Isaiah Canaan and Donatas Montejunas proceeded to SCREAM at the refs and throw their best Duncan bug eyes, pointing incredulously at the ball and various body parts.

Amusingly, the ref just flashed a smile and told them to calm down, reversing the call almost immediately. It's almost like the refs only cared insofar as the players could make them care. Given the quick turnaround on the call (despite the fact that none of the other refs seemed to be present), one wonders if a player like Kevin Garnett or Chris Paul (any obnoxiously vicious competitor, really) probably could've talked himself into 20-30 free throws if they actually cared about winning the contest. "Ref, I'm the only guy who really gives a crap about this game. Free throws, please!"

It became essentially impossible to pay attention to the simplistic and poorly-executed sets being played by both teams after a few minutes of the day's action, which led to me paying a bit more attention to one of my old college favorites: Andre Dawkins. See, okay. I went to Duke. I'm not the biggest fan of my alma mater in the world, and that's putting it lightly. Coach Krzyzewski once hissed at me at a game. I don't think I'm allowed to sit in the student section anymore. But Dawkins was one of the dudes I liked. He had a good head on his shoulders, and was in the same dorm as one of my best friends. Where a lot of the Duke team acted like they were above the rest of the student body (... and yeah, let's be honest, they were!), Dawkins was soft spoken and easy to get along with. An adorably nice kid on a team of people who were generally pretty difficult to talk to. So I've been at least marginally familiar with his game since he arrived at Duke.

I could be totally wrong, but I think he'll make a deep-rotation NBA player at some point. His three point shot is just so functionally pure, I can't imagine he won't get a shot. It's one of the quickest releases I've ever seen, and he can get it off under significant duress. He's also good at slithering without the ball -- he sneaks through seams as well as anyone. Of course, he can't defend worth anything, which dramatically lowers his NBA potential. And he somehow managed to amass a handful of technicals during his time in Vegas (... technicals in summer league! TECHNICALS IN SUMMER LEAGUE!!), so perhaps that soft spoken moniker doesn't apply to him anymore. But a shooter as good as him with passable NBA size has a place in the league on a minimum contract, and I'd be shocked if he didn't end up there. Of course, he also was kept out of Houston's crunch time lineup in a close game against summer league competition, so I could be vastly overstating this.

Aw, heck. I probably am. Love you anyway, Dre.

• • •

The second game of the day -- and the final game of my 2014 Summer League experience -- was a lethargic contest between the Sacramento Champs-in-Waiting (Congrats, Sactown!) and the exhausted Wizards. There were a few things that stood out. For starters, Ben McLemore needs to get better at catching the ball. He doesn't seem to have a good sense of where his hands should be, and it makes passes in his general direction a risky proposition. This was partly obvious because he wasn't receiving great passes, but there were a lot of missed directional reads on his end. Too many to ignore. Another obvious part of the game: the Wizards weren't really ready to play again. Washington started the game with the first two points and held tight for 2-3 minutes, but they ended the first quarter down 18-11 and quickly went down 28-11 within 90 seconds of the second quarter. It's almost like playing a triple overtime game the night before at a league you don't want to be at isn't conducive to a great semifinals performance. Who'd have thought?

Beyond the one McLemore notation, it was hard to really take any coherent basketball knowledge from WAS/SAC -- it was one of the least interested games I've ever seen. Sacramento got bored by halftime and spent the entire second half playing with their food. Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. -- who had combined for almost 60 points the night before -- shot 3-13 combined in the first quarter for 7 points. They got a bit better as the game went on, but both were blisteringly inefficient, combining for a tough-to-watch 1-14 shooting display from the 3-point line. Given their constant grousing to the refs, it was pretty obvious that Washington felt Sacramento was playing too physically, but it's hard to imagine a team playing LESS physical basketball than that of the Kings this game. They were laying off Wizards players and daring them to shoot jump shots. Which they did, they just happened to miss them. All of them, basically. By the middle of the 2nd quarter, the game stood at 43-17 in favor of the Kings. Marshon Brooks had almost completely outscored Washington BY HIMSELF. The game got a bit closer later on, but the Wizards never really launched a credible threat.

Before we knew it, the game was over.

• • •

"Stop taking pictures of me," sources relayed, while calling the police.

PLUGGED IN SOURCES SAY...

This was my girlfriend Julia's first time in Vegas. Since I was there with her, I didn't get a chance to interview the handful of real basketball kingmakers left in the arena. Lots of journalists go for the cutting-edge sources and the big NBA gurus when they're anonymizing sources and turning them into gospel. Me? I'm just gonna take random quotes from Julia and try to turn them into quotes from a plugged in anonymous source. It's all for you, readers.

  • JULIA SAYS: "Man, the refs all have perfectly shaped butts. I'm serious, look at them! Do they have padded butt-pants? The players are nice, but... wow. Just wow."
    • "Plugged-in sources assure Gothic Ginobili that the NBA's referee crew are working diligently in areas related to their respective gluteus maximi, perhaps with the advent of FEDs (fashion-enhancing-drugs). While the players are working to combat this reality, the referees are not to be trifled with."
  • JULIA SAYS: "Wait, you're writing all this down? Oh man. I've gotta get some popcorn."
    • "My sources would only speak on conditions of anonymity. Also: popcorn."
  • JULIA SAYS: "So, uh... I think I heard someone snorting coke in a bathroom stall. Are you sure Summer League is safe?"
    • "Las Vegas is a den of iniquity and drug abuse, sources confirm. Bathrooms are dangerous. Don't use them."
  • JULIA SAYS: "Player #40 seems pretty OK. I don't know. Why are you asking me this?"
    • "Scouts in-the-know say that Jordan Henriquez, a Center playing with New York's summer league squad, is seemingly a lock to be picked up by OKC."
  • JULIA SAYS: "I am outraged that you've never had Dippin Dots. You've been to HOW many sporting events? This is a travesty."
    • "I can confirm that my sources have abandoned me at the curbside due to my lack of Dippin Dots knowledge. Send help."

• • •

MISCELLANY AND NOTES:

  • I didn't notice this last year, but the elevator that takes media members from the main arena floor and the media hospitality room is quite possibly the slowest elevator used in the modern world. It takes almost 30 seconds to make that one-story trip upwards, and 35 seconds to make the one-story trip downwards. This may not sound like much. In a vacuum, it's not a ton of time. But I felt that it was very long for an elevator, and while drunk I inexplicably decided to test this out by counting the seconds it takes other Vegas elevators to get a single story in larger buildings. The average I came to based on the wholly scientific numbers written on the back of my hand (after 5 hotels and a few restaurants) was about 5 seconds. No wonder the arena elevator seemed so absurd. One of the staff members pointed out that the building is extremely old, which led to us to the conclusion that the elevator is slow because there is a long-suffering soul at the bottom of the elevator tasked with pulling it up and down. That's his entire job. Plot twist: his name is Mario Chalmers. Why don't I have a book deal yet?
  • Many other sources have written about this, but I have to emphasize -- hearing random people in the crowd yelling "COVER THE SPREAD!" and "AYO, POPS, WHAT'S THE SPREAD?" is kind of incredible. It's like listening to Carlos Boozer's "GET DAT, JO!", but yelled by random people in the crowd -- it's just the perfect embodiment of the moment and the player, with the moment here being "existing in Las Vegas" and the player here being "the aforementioned random folks in the crowd." Speaking of which, the crowds were actually surprisingly large -- the arena was mostly full, which I wasn't expecting at all. Good on you, Vegas.
  • The halftime entertainment wasn't really BETTER than it was last year, but given that I hadn't had to watch a week straight of it, I was able to accept it a bit easier. In halftime of the SAS/WAS game, they had a bunch of 4-5 year old kids playing ball, and I'm gonna be honest with you, it was pretty amazing. Maybe these were just way better kids than usual, but there were actually several baskets in the game despite the use of NBA regulation hoops. The first one was a layup in a crowd, the second was a neat scoop shot, the third one was a fadeaway scoop shot by this long haired girl with a lot of heart, and the last one was this skyhook-looking thing. Look, okay. It wasn't exactly the greatest basketball in the world. But I can't deny that it was completely adorable.

dirigible

  • By far the strangest addition to this year's summer league action? This obnoxious dirigible that flew over the crowd dropping foam fingers. Seriously, that thing was weird. Look at that picture of it above! It was shaped like a flying smokestack and propelled by what looked like a bunch of handheld fans attached to the bottom of the balloon. The arms race to create bold new methods for swag dispersal is going too far.
  • On press row at the LVSL, there's always a staff member who comes around peddling statsheets for writers on deadlines and anyone who's curious. I tended to avoid them, just because they represent a bunch of clutter I don't particularly want to keep around. But they usually don't ask directly if you want the sheets, instead gesturing them towards you like a cigarette toting hipster outside of a concert. For the last statsheet of the day, though, the staff member changed it up -- he walked up behind me and asked "Hey, do you like stats?" Without skipping a beat, I responded "I do. I mean, I work as a statistician, so I suppose I have to. I don't know if I like referring to statistics as a monolith like that, and admit that there are many places where stats are misused in the profession of basketball, but I'm a fan." He stared at me for a few seconds, before I realized he was holding the stat sheets and was NOT actually asking me a broader question about my profession and life goals. That was about when I decided I was too tired for Summer League.

• • •

This concludes Gothic Ginobili's coverage of the 2014 Summer League. Please wait patiently while we cue up our coverage of the 2014 Extreme Knitting Championships of the World, which is likely to be roughly as relevant to the 2015 NBA season as this year's Summer League was.

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Lost in Vegas: Dispatches from the Summer League Playoffs

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I like to vary my experiences a bit. When Gothic Ginobili covered Summer League last year, I got to Las Vegas the day Summer League started and left right as the "playoffs" portion began. This year, I decided to do the opposite -- instead of coming to Summer League with Dewey and Arnon and dedicating a week of my life to Summer League coverage, I'd arrive in the dead of night on the Friday before the last weekend and observe how the mundane-yet-maniac energy of last year's Summer League changes as an outsider being thrust in right at the end of the game. I'd also be swapping out Arnon and Dewey for my girlfriend Yoko Julia, a lovely individual with no discernible interest in the game of basketball and no particular investment in any of the teams playing at Summer League. The only way this year's Summer League experience could be more different would be a sex change.

To the many who haven’t been to summer league, it’s a difficult place to pin down. "Summer League ball is totally wicked!" is how I'd describe it if I was peddling lies. Also: if I was from Boston. I’m no peddler, so I'll be frank: the basketball at the later reaches of the NBA’s summer league might be the worst basketball in the world. For tiny children playing basketball in Elementary School gymnasiums, at least there's some iota of fun. For mid-league FIBA games, the players are playing for clear and obvious goals, and with knowledge that their end-of-season stat sheets would be finely combed through by the arbiters of their next contract. But the players that remain at summer league at the very end aren't having fun, and they aren't particularly hopeful of building a contract case either.

Why? It’s pretty simple. In the first few games, the scouts are out in full force and all the players are on their best behavior while they try and finagle their way into a big league contract. That changes as time goes on. As one scout aptly relayed: “I saw everything I needed to see in the first few days.” Did he really, for every player? Perhaps, perhaps not. But that’s how scouts approach the exercise, which makes real effort among the players a rarity as time passes. While the scouts are still here, they aren't really paying THAT much attention to the actual basketball anymore, and the main takeaways have already been taken. Which leads to hours upon hours of half-interested "playoff" basketball between teams that aren’t invested and players that have nothing to play for. It’s a pretty dreadful product, and finding fun in one of these games is often like finding water in the middle of a desert – the truly industrious can salvage a few drops, but you’re going to need to chew up a cactus to do it.

• • •

Chief among those rare tidbits of fun: the numerous random moments where NBA journeymen suddenly look like next-level superstars because the competition is so lousy. In the first day of games, this happened most obviously with noted no-shot journeyman Shannon Brown. He was playing for the Knicks, and was cradling the ball around the top of the three point line looking for a hole in the defense. He didn’t really find one, but decided to throw caution to the wind anyway and curl around 3 defenders to charge the rim. If we’re being honest, all of them had ample time to try and steal the ball back from him. It didn’t matter; even at what looked like half-speed, the 28-year-old Brown juked by all three defenders and finished a scoop layup against the remaining two. That’s right – the threat of Shannon Brown warped the entire Charlotte defense and caused the whole team to effectively quintuple team a guy who might never play in the NBA again. Reflective of how warped the NBA’s competitive fabric becomes in the Vegas heat? Sure. But at least Shannon’s having some fun.

Another element of fun comes from the thirsty throngs who make the yearly trek to watch terrible basketball. Sure, they’re mostly ridiculous, but the crowds get significantly more invested into Summer League games than you see at most NBA arenas during the regular season. This is partly a function of size – as with college crowds, Summer League is held in front of a small enough group of people that it’s possible for a single fan to have a far greater impact on the crowd en masse. In fact, a single guy with a loud voice and a grudge can completely take over the arena. Case in point: one tanned-to-the-limit dude sitting near press row ended up taking over the entire crowd with his loud and droning “AIIIIIIR BAAAAALL” chants while the ball was being thrown back in play. They had stopped the music, which made him and his acolytes echo through the arena in a way that felt more like a cage fight than a basketball game. It may not have made much sense, but at least it distracted from the basketball.

Even though the league is theoretically a proving ground for the NBA’s newest younger guys, few of them were still playing when I got there. Wiggins and Jabari were long gone, and the Spurs had eliminated Exum’s one-man-show a few days prior. That left Adriean Payne as the big early showcase for my first day’s action. His stats were rather weak, but I liked what I saw. For starters, Payne had great speed when recovering off a set screen – he was excellent at setting a screen, switching directions, and catching a pass in motion going towards the basket all while moving in a fluid, controlled motion. This isn’t exactly RARE in the NBA, but it speaks to Payne’s offensive versatility in a system that requires a mobile, active big guy on offense. He appears to have a decent toolbox. His decisionmaking was hardly ideal – he was a few steps late on defense with regularity. When you look slow and plodding during summer league, it’s pretty hard to see how you project out as a positive NBA-level defender. This also ignores the fact that he was chucking with abandon, although it’s hard to blame him given how disinterested the rest of his team was in the day’s proceedings.

• • •

I’m sort of burying the lede, though. On my first day of Summer League action, there was one particular game I was excited to watch. It was the most excited I’d been about ANY summer league game I’d ever watched. Yes, even more than the interesting matchup with Wiggins against Jabari -- the story was certainly cool in that one, but the play was never destined to live up to expectations. The summer slate is hardly the place that brings out the best in much-ballyhooed young talent, and the game would hardly serve as a referendum on whether Jabari Parker can hang with NBA-level athletes on a work-a-day level or whether Andrew Wiggins could bring to the league the same defensive tenacity he showed at Kansas. Hence, it wouldn't really answer any of the questions I had about the players, and the hype was so high I felt it could never live up to expectations.

No, my big focus was on the Spurs/Wizards "playoff" game -- the last game on the Saturday slate. There were two reasons for this. I'm a Spurs fan, so there’s a natural enjoyment in watching the various odd and varied incarntaions of the Spurs. San Antonio's summer league teams tend to run a much-simplified version of the classic San Antonio playbook, much like the Austin Toros and the preseason Spurs. It isn’t nearly as beautiful as San Antonio’s regular fare, but it’s a decent enough echo to keep me piqued. The second reason? No team has ever won the NBA title (est. 1946) and the Summer League title (est. 2013) in the same calendar year. So I pose to you my question: WHY NOT THE SPURS, DEAR READERS? WHY NOT THEM.

Alright, yeah -- that’s mostly a joke. But there were plenty of fun Spurs-tinted plays by the faux team. Vander Blue showed off some excellent creativity on the bounce throughout the night, whipping passes that were generally on point and creative. Midway through the second, he threw this positively awesome mustard-ball bounce pass through the outstretched hands of his defender straight into the hands of Austin Daye, who finished a pretty off-hand layup in fluid motion. Good stuff, right? The Summer Spurs had 14 assists on 21 made field goals at halftime, and looked to be on their way to a fun rout. The dream was alive! San Antonio was heading to back-to-back titles! No San Antonio team would furrow away a 10 point lead, right?

Wait. Yeah. They definitely would. These are the summer Spurs. And even the regular season Spurs have noted issues with holding leads, as Gregg Popovich loves to remind his guys – after shooting 50%-57%-100% in the first half, the Spurs shot an almost inconceivable 14%-0%-0% in the first 5:27 of the second half with four mostly-fast-break turnovers. The Wizards almost instantly turned around San Antonio’s bulging lead into a blowout-margin of their own. Although the Spurs fought back, they had trouble getting over the hump, and ended the third frame down a few points. All the uninitiated quickly discovered that Jeff Ayres literally has hands made of stone and granite – pretty hard to put a soft touch on the ball when your hands are a TSA-banned heavy weapon. Alas.

Then, with about a minute left in the game, I wrote this in my notes:

The Spurs and Wizards kept it surprisingly tight (and interesting!) throughout the fourth quarter, but Otto Porter essentially put the Spurs away with a three point basket with roughly 2:30 left in the contest. I mean, being down three with 2:30 to play is hardly a death knell during most of the season. But this is Summer League, where the defense is sparse but the shotmakers sparser.

That’s where the basketball gods decided to mock me. The Spurs went on to tie the game with a chance to win it at the buzzer – they missed, but it made my prognostication look pretty silly. I figured there was no way Coach Udoka would extend a Summer League game. I was wrong. The best part about OT wasn’t the play or any of the stories – it was the fact that I had five rows of press row to myself. Andy Katz was a few rows down, and Holly McKenzie (among others) were closer to the front. But I wasn’t going to let anyone enter my territory – definitely leaning more Walter White than Kermit the Frog, here. So I just ended up with this massive space all to myself. It was delightful.

As for the endgame, it wasn’t too bad – the Spurs rode Vander Blue and Austin Daye pretty hard in the extra period, although they kept inexplicably trying to involve Jeff Ayres in the offense. (Probably for his championship experience. Maybe they thought his will to win the previous year’s title would translate to buckets.) For their part, the Wizards continued doing what they’d been doing the entire night – they fed the ball into Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. and let them do literally everything. Near the end of overtime, Austin Daye had a few free throws that could’ve put Washington away for good. He missed them, leading to a second period where the Spurs were up 3 with less than 3 seconds left in the contest.

That was too much time, as it turned out – Otto Porter drained a three from the left quarter to force an unprecedented TRIPLE overtime, where the Spurs finally fell after essentially conceding the last few possessions in an effort to make sure nobody had to play another overtime. Ime Udoka: the real summer league MVP. Although I spent most of this post grousing about the quality of play this past weekend, I can't deny it -- the SAS/WAS game was the best summer league game I'd ever seen, and about as good as a mid-tier regular season game. As such, my first day ended happily. Hooray!

• • •

MISCELLANY AND NOTES:

  • Midway through a surprisingly tight game between the Summer Rockets and the Summer Hawks, Steve McPherson hijacked the attention of nearly every writer on press row by bringing back everyone’s favorite hashtag: "#RemoveALetterRuinABand”. The general idea is that you can usually completely ruin a band name and change their overall image by taking away a single letter. I want to remember some of these, so here are some of my favorites. I don't remember who tweeted which, but I know that @DamianTrillard and @CalebJSaenz were responsible for a bunch of these. I was pretty proud of "Ron Maiden", myself.
    • Grateful Dad
    • Taking Heads
    • Ron Maiden
    • Dr. Dr
    • 2Chinz

I’ll keep you guys abreast of the situation as I workshop more of these. This is extremely important journalism.

  • Overheard in the crowd: "Ayo, son, Kevin Love lives on double doubles. They like water to him, bruh. I aint sayin Klay Thompson's a bad player, man -- he's a top 20 at his position, maybe -- but he aint that last piece. You gotta have Kevin Love over Klay Thompson man. You just gotta." There are a lot of layers here, and the idea posited probably deserves a post of its own. My main question, though: how is Thompson only top 20 at his position? I realize he's a bit overrated, but there are barely 15 decent starters at that position. By dint of being a half-decent player, he's ALREADY above his positional average. In his defense, I asked him about that later and he realized that he was being a bit hyperbolic. He also said the following: "Jeff Ayres is like a 9 year veteran in this league, but he's still playing in summer league. What that mean to you, son?" It's a good point.
  • The arena staff introduced a fun wrinkle at the end of the final overtime period: tossing copies of NBA Live 2014 into the much-depleted crowd as they broke for the last 4.8 seconds of the first overtime. They spent all day tossing random things, but an actual working video game was saved for the final game of the day, 10-12 minutes from the end. Talk about burying the lede.
  • There was something really silly about the overtimes in the last game of my first day. For most of Summer League, the NBA instituted a rule replacing all extra time after one OT period with a sudden death shootout. It was a really good idea, because nobody there actually wants to register extra time. But rather inexplicably, they abandoned the sudden death concept for the "playoff" component of the league, which meant that as the competition gets more and more languished, the players suddenly have to play extra basketball. Absolutely nonsensical, especially since they set teams up in a position to play three days in a row if they make the "title" game.

• • •

That concludes our first summer league dispatch, admittedly posted after I got back. I'll compile the rest of my notes into a catch-all conclusion tomorrow before continuing with our inexplicable free agency grades. Stay frosty.

2014 NBA Finals: What's the WORST possible story?

green and lebron

As part of our coverage of the 2014 NBA Finals, we're going to have an every-few-days check in with Aaron, Alex, and Jacob regarding various questions and quibbles with the Finals as it plays out. Today, we're going to give you a strange reprieve from the usual preview schtick with a "preview" of the world's worst upcoming stories. No, really. Let me explain...

Just about every single blog and writer has gone hard in the paint to bring you the best storylines and things-to-watch in this year’s Finals. Most of them are really awesome, and some of them are terrible! Friends: what storyline in the NBA Finals promises to be the single most annoying and unnecessary thread we nonetheless devote unseemly amounts of our focus to? What are your top few things-to-avoid-watching? Note: storyline does not have to exist, it merely needs to have the POTENTIAL to exist.

Aaron McGuire

AARON: This one actually happened last year, and it was one of the least substantial NBA stories I’d seen in a while. After the 2013 Finals, Danny Green happened to stop by the club that LeBron was celebrating in and gave him a dap and a handshake before leaving. TMZ (or some related rag) happened upon photographs of it, which led to a number of articles about how Danny Green was a failed Spur and how TRUE rivals wouldn’t be able to give the opposing superstar dap at a club after he’d beaten them for a hard-fought title.

You know what? SHUT THE HELL UP. Danny Green started his career in Cleveland, and he was friends for LeBron for a long time before he was a Spur. So it isn’t exactly some betrayal in the first degree that he felt the need to congratulate a friend of his. The worst part, though, was that the pictures were presented completely out of context and the stories assumed that Green had been seeking LeBron out. According to Green’s later statements, he was just going around from club to club trying to get his mind off the Finals. He happened to find LeBron. He left as soon as he realized LeBron was there, even though LeBron invited him to join the Heat players. In essence, he did exactly what the media would expect of a bitter sports rival – he refused hanging out with his old friend because of residual rivalry fury.

But the pictures were taken out of context and became a stupid big story. I imagine something similar is going to happen this year. Because it happens every year. Don’t know what, don’t know when. Maybe LeBron will be caught flipping off Duncan as a joke. Maybe Parker will be caught making eyes at a Heat cheerleader. But some completely innocuous action is going to get snapped or taken wildly out of context to create a stupid sideshow story that distracts from the awesome series at hand. Alternatively, some quote will be taken completely out of context, like the infamous Jennings “Bucks in Six” comment last year or the “We’ll do it this time” bravado from Duncan this year.

Avoid watching the tabloids. It’s never a good idea.

writer1

ALEX: Ooh. How about one of the most irritating tropes in recent memory, and one that doesn't dog just the Finals but every game the Spurs play. It's sort of a logical counterpart to the "LeBron just needs to take over [take and make 100% of available field goal attempts]" nonsense. It's the idea that ball movement, as practiced by the Spurs and Heat, is fundamentally unselfish and virtuous.

Maybe this is just something that only bothers me--a Spurs fan deigning to choose the exact lines of praise my team receives--but this always strikes me as a basic misapprehension of the sport. It's not always even altogether wrong, but it elides so many complexities as to be practically useless except as ambient noise. Passing as Manu Ginobili or LeBron does is phenomenally difficult. It may be easy to "just find the open man" in, like, a scrimmage, but almost by definition the situation changes the moment competition on a professional level is introduced. Most players in the human population just simply don't have the on-court intelligence or skill or athleticism to dribble all the way to the rim--if someone is in that rarefied air, it takes a kind of genius to be able to get there and then decide between the options you've created in a way that's consistently right even when defenders have been watching your previous choices for signs of exploitable weaknesses. Everything Manu or Boris or Tim does with passing is a potential masterstroke built on years of experience and an unteachable genius with angles and space. The way the Heat find space and surgically swing the ball around the perimeter is awesome and creative. But it's not built on virtue, and I genuinely believe it's not built on virtue even a little bit. No matter how personally caring and understanding these players may be, the dominant factor that determines the success or failure of their style is their unbelievable level of skill to create those kinds of plays, a skill plenty of teams identified as "selfish" would love to have.

And then, there's the slanderous converse of the narrative, even worse to these eyes. Prime example: The Thunder don't have an iso-heavy offense because they lack for virtue, emblematized by Russell Westbrook's evil shot-taking. Rather, it's their personnel. They can get away with several defensive non-scorers on the floor while still putting up a top-5 offense year after year, in part because the very same "selfish" Westbrook is able to selflessly carry that kind of burden. When the Thunder have sought out offensive lineups, why, it's remarkable the gain in virtue and unselfish, Secret-Santa-esque passing lanes! Reggie Jackson must be a saint, I tell you. Seriously, most teams do precisely what they have to do to win, including the Heat and Spurs. And scores of great players on both kinds of teams, whether the versatile two-way anchor of some of the best offenses and defenses of recent memory or the born scoring prodigy from an adjacent state, seem to me personally selfless enough for anyone's tastes. Durant and Duncan give the lie totally to that dichotomy.

The two offenses on display in these Finals are beautiful and a testament to the sport of Naismith. Let's not tarnish these offenses by reducing their brilliant geneses to ordinary virtue.

writer3

JACOB: This is a little more of a hot sports take type of thing, but I do mean it with all sincerity. Thus far it's been mostly overshadowed (and rightfully so) by the imminent drama of two Hall of Fame trios facing off to seize their respective basketball destinies, but were the Heat to seize control of this series, I anticipate the likely continuation of a running story-line 3 years overused: The Heat's triumph over struggles and strife. Look, I'm tired of hearing about the Heat's struggles. All of them. I'm tired of the over-dramatization of what they've "had to go through" and the mental gymnastics fans and the media have collectively performed to justify their slavish treatment of this team.

Seriously, what have the Miami Heat had to go through?

This story-line cropped up a few months ago, when LeBron responded to the Indiana's befuddling internal struggles with dismissal, implying it was nothing compared to what he and the Heat had suffered. Talking heads and the commentariat roundly cheered his response. "Yeah! Suck it up, listen to a real man!" was the implied sentiment towards the Pacers. But seriously, hold the phone. What have the Miami Heat had to suffer through? Wasn't the reason we all turned on them in the first place that they colluded to unite three Hall of Fame players in their prime? Weren't we insulted that they did so with reckless bravado, and responded to their ensuing domination with somewhat of a sneer of dismissal, because of course they were supposed to do that? Wasn't the extent of the suffering they had to go through the exact same kind of media criticism faced by the Pacers -- that is, almost completely self-inflicted? Correct me if I'm missing anything about the post-Decision media dynamics, and explain to me the difference between the two situations (beyond the obvious fact that LeBron speaks with the benefit of hindsight and the "RINGZZZ" that retroactively "justify" his decision).

Sometime during the 2012 Playoffs, while the Heat struggled gamely with a young Pacers team and an overachieving Celtics team playing on borrowed time, everyone seemed to talk themselves into this collective absurdity that everything said of the Heat before the Boston series was no longer true. Because Bosh was injured for a couple of games and Wade was no longer "Finals MVP" Wade, LeBron had done what he never could in Cleveland and dragged an inferior supporting cast past elite competition, won on the biggest stage, and triumphed over adversity. At some point we all talked ourselves into believing that because Chris Bosh's counting stats have fallen off, he's not a player still in his prime who proved himself as one of the best forwards in the league in Toronto. We point to Dwyane Wade not playing half the season as evidence he's basically replacement level (an argument I've heard made unironically by quite a few fans), rather than evidence that he'll be all the more dangerous come the big moments in the playoffs.

The Heat are a team with four Hall of Famers, minimum, playing a majority of the minutes in a system where they can all maximize their roles and unique specialties. They receive unabated adulation from the media. They're an elite team that plays in a largely noncompetitive conference, in one of the most one-sided eras of conference imbalance in modern league history. We all pretended that their jog to the much-lauded Fourth Consecutive NBA Finals wasn't by default because of the Pacers, but it's been clear to everyone since April that the Pacers were as much a perfunctory effort as any other Eastern conference opposition the Heat might face. "Overcoming struggle" never should have been a legitimate part of this team's identity, were it not for the media tripping all over itself to prostrate itself in apology for its overreaction to the Decision.

Don't get me wrong, the Heat have won these past two Finals fair and square (some good fortune in Game 6 last year aside). But in both cases against opponents who've had to overcome far worse in their journey to the same destination, and neither of whom could have ever afforded to "coast" the way the Heat can through large swaths of their regular season, much less the playoffs.

So yeah, I'm already tired of hearing about the Heat reaching the Finals four times in a row, the "first since the Celtics" and all that. To me, that's a laudable achievement when you've come by it honest, through legitimate competition and strife. But the Miami Heat have yet to suffer any pre-Finals drama that wasn't almost entirely self-inflicted. No team in the Eastern Conference during this run has been good enough to make Miami sweat when Miami isn't playing down to their competition. They still have had multiple game sevens and multiple incomprehensible embarrassments. Their fourth consecutive Finals is more circumstance than anything else, a byproduct of the period of competitiveness in NBA history they happen to play in. It's an accomplishment, but I'm not sure it's quite as incredible as it's been made out to be.

If anything, this talk of a fourth Finals in a row should give us some pause, and lead us to reflect on how screwed up the NBA conferences are that one of these Finals teams only had to beat one team that even would've made the other conference's playoffs in order to reach that much-exalted fourth Finals.

writer1

ALEX: I agree. But I would argue that the overzealous, tracks-covering narrative of triumph over adversity is as old as politics (and perhaps sport) itself. How tall was Goliath, really? How impossible was Thermopylae, really? How many of the great obstacles of history are completely apocryphal and how many legends were only half-legends carried by canny myth-makers eager to build up a legend? And how many actual legends were either forgotten by history or folded into generic legendary figures that were the most convenient or politically advantageous to ascribe those legends to?

Glory is so much determined by how it is framed by history's storytellers that, for me, it's hard to even talk about a supposedly glorious victory in battle without also picturing the glory-seeking PR reps and politicians walking astride the battle, looking for the best photo-op. The real story will always either be lost or fought to the bitter end. Because that's how the story goes, and it works. It's poignant. It's inspiring. It makes good copy.

My point is that it didn't start with the Miami Heat. Even in the NBA. Bill Russell was perhaps the best and surest winner in the history of North American sports, but the Celtics were cheaters. The legendary parquet floor had dangerous nails sticking up and broken boards, strategically placed. That floor had potholes upon potholes, and that famous steal by Bird on Isiah was probably preceded by an unseen bottle thrown by a Boston fan at Thomas, temporarily blinding Isiah from his right field of vision. I'm exaggerating, but not by much: the locker room dirty tricks by Red Auerbach were legendary, and that's after you account for the Celtics being essentially 20 years ahead of everyone else, on and off the court.

Michael Jordan, despite being the greatest player of all time, made up all sorts of adversity for himself. The Spurs feasted on incompetent management across the league and ridiculously advanced scouting and development (and, above all else, completely lucked out with Robinson and Duncan -- would the Spurs be the Spurs if they'd picked a 1997-era Anthony Bennett instead of Tim Duncan? NO!); the Thunder -- even with excellent scouting -- still hit the jackpot with Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Harden; and the Heat and Pacers had Pat Riley and Larry Bird, two of the smartest, savviest folks in the history of the league. And let's not even get into how Showtime and the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics were born.

All this to say that you can make the argument that no great team has ever been in a position of pure adversity. Sports is never like a flat playing field - a large proportion (maybe even a majority) of victories were concocted out of good fortune. Athletes and media, always needing fuel for their next journey, endorse any narrative that makes the hero the uber-hero. That always means exaggerating the triumph and downplaying the fortune. Miami went 7 games against Indiana, Boston, and San Antonio -- they played their worst possible hands and risked elimination time and again, and they still emerged victorious. Ergo, the fact that they loaded the deck with 12 aces didn't matter. Not that much.

If you turn your eyes askew, The Decision was as much a stacking of potential humiliations upon themselves as it was a stacking of potential championships. The East's decline made it several times easier, to be sure. But, on the other side of the coin, imagine if they'd lost to Indiana or Boston. They'd be pariahs of the league, and LeBron would not just be hated by some; he'd be utterly derided. Laughed out the gym. They placed themselves on the cusp of ultimate vulnerability and emerged as champions. And that's just truth-feely enough to put into copy as an ultimate narrative of triumph.

It all circles around, though. It IS the most annoying narrative. When you break it down, they made the easiest path in the world to their great accomplishment, and then they made it rocky only with hubris and unlikable pomp and underperformance, and then they "heroically" overcame that rockiness. And they got some absurd breaks their way. That really isn't the most inspiring narrative in the world. But most real narratives about real people aren't, even legitimate legends, the moment you cast a critical eye.

When Knowledge Isn't Power (2014 NBA Finals Preview)

Here it goes. When the final four teams were locked down -- when the field had been whittled to the Thunder, the Spurs, the Heat, and the Pacers -- this was the match-up that Adam Silver probably wanted. Last year's finals were one of the highest rated since Jordan, and it got better as it went along -- Game 7's Nielsen score is second only to 2010's LAL/BOS Game 7 among post-Jordan NBA games. The Thunder are a fantastic story too, and a Heat/Thunder matchup probably would've had a similarly rated performance. But the potential for a grudge match rematch between the two teams that played one of the best NBA Finals series in the history of the league is undeniably exciting, and the Heat-chasing-a-threepeat angle is historically compelling. As Chris Bosh said in practice yesterday -- "Thursday is game #8." And it's #8 of the best series we've seen in decades. What's not to like?

But it's odd. There's a lot of history between these two teams now. The Spurs and the Heat have played 10 games in the last 12 months, and they're likely about to play 6 or 7 more. Both teams are similar to what they were last year, if not exactly the same. There's a lot of data to go on, and a lot of signals to read. The Spurs have been shutting down superstar offensive players in preparation for LeBron. The Heat have been filleting decent-to-great defenses for three rounds now with their precision offense. We know quite a bit more than we usually do in the run-up to the Finals. So... we should know roughly what's going to happen, right?

In theory, yep. But very few people are entirely sure how to handicap this series.

I'm afraid I'm not one of them.

• • •

Why am I so confused? Why is it so hard to prognosticate this?

Most people are excited about this series. I am too. But there was a smaller contingent of fans on Twitter that run against the grain. Despite last year's tour-de-force in the Finals, they weren't particularly excited to see this matchup. Their general point, in a word? There's nothing NEW here. A repeat of a phenomenal Finals is still a repeat. We don't get to think about what Kevin Durant does in a Harden-free finals environment. We don't get to whet our curiosities with Chris Paul's first deep run. We don't get to vomit into trashcans at the prospect of one more round of Indiana's misery.

Instead, we have the gift of reprise. The experiential comfort of the road once-traveled. But that gift is a nice way to spin a curse -- doomed to revisit, rethink, relive. Doomed to rehash the same tired storylines, over and over again. Spurs fans have spent the last 12 months reliving Ray Allen's three. They get two weeks to relive it in real-time, sure to be referenced in every single broadcast by the ESPN on ABC crew. The rest of the NBA has spent two months hearing about how the Heat and the Spurs are the model franchises, the NBA's golden ne'er-do-wrongs. Regardless of how the Finals plays out, fans will continue to hear that for yet another year. Because they're on top, and they're the NBA's class right now. Neither team features Lance Stephenson. It's not gonna go down like that. But some can't exactly shake the feeling that it's just a little bit TOO familiar. Too comfortable. Too tired. Fun statistic: there have been 15 editions of the NBA's championship series since 1999. Every single one of them has featured Duncan, Wade, or Kobe. Not a majority. Every single one. Isn't that a little trite? 

It all leaves the NBA's scribes (and the poor hobbyists like yours truly) scrambling to find some original angle. "The Spurs will need to run the baseline second stage quasi-hammer HORNS play off a scissor screen mirrored across the court twenty times with a side of fries if they want to score off the 17th inbound of the series." ... "For the Heat to win, it is essential that Rashard Lewis makes 3 shots in the series with only two of those being dunks. He also needs to defend Boris Diaw when Diaw puts his back to the basket, but if he shuffles his feet, the shuffle must be akin to the Electric Slide or else Diaw will score off a scoop layup with an ice cream cone." ... "Neither team can win the game if they don't reach this completely arbitrary sequence of statistics I've invented solely for the purposes of this easily-forgotten preview." We scrape and we pry and we squeeze for the last drops of narrative sustenance. We seek that smart silver bullet that solves the intractable equation of sport-borne randomness.

Which is basically all a run-around to avoid the fact that, for once, more data doesn't really mean we know much more than we did entering last year's Finals. Last year, we knew very little -- the Spurs and the Heat hadn't played a fully healthy matchup since 2011, and nobody really knew exactly what to expect. Some people figured the Heat would roll San Antonio. Others expected the opposite. Instead, what we got was a series where the momentum shifted tectonically with each individual game, and a series whose result offered an elegant proof of concept to the thought that NBA history can often hinge on a single high-leverage random event. The Spurs had a 98.5% chance of winning game six with 28 seconds left in the contest. They still lost it all. Did they lose it on Mike Miller's shoeless three? Did they lose it on Battier's massive one? LeBron's life raft? Or was it all that single bounce, that one unforgettable pass to history's greatest three point shooter?

Hell if I know. But I do know one thing. Last year's Finals shook my faith in the idea that the NBA can really be predicted. I came back around, and I'm back to believing in the confidence of my predictions. But I'm also having a monstrous time trying to handicap this particular series. Because we've been here before. And the stark probabilities and vagaries of the data didn't seem to mean much then, either.

• • •

Here's what we know.

The Heat can win the title. They feature the best basketball player in the world, a right-outside-his-athletic-prime LeBron James whose dominance spreads to all facets of the court. He can kill you on the block, he can kill you from three, he can turn his team to chalk, he can kill with lockdown D. (Much like my ability to kill you with terrible rhymes. Dewey, drop the beat!) He's a Swiss Army Knife with a beretta in the hilt, a force of nature more than an individual man. He's playing at his Cleveland team-dominant best. (And he needs it, given his cast right now, but that's for later.) Dwyane Wade is healthier than he was last year, and he's been better from long range this year than he was last year. San Antonio's success against a Miami team that was markedly better than they were last year was partly a function of Wade's inability to hit long range shots when the Spurs sagged off of him. It looks unlikely that will maintain to this year, not with his health and rest looking so much better than before. Which ups their chances significantly.

As for the team-centric thoughts, those are also simple. The Heat had an impressively easy road to the Finals, and they're as well-rested as they can possibly be. Their offense has blitzed through a decent Charlotte defense in Round #1 and a best-in-class Pacers defense in the conference finals. They know full well they can win in San Antonio, and the only reason the Spurs won a single game in Miami last year was a miracle-beyond-miracle shot by Tony Parker. Their bench is concerning, but it's hardly the end of the world -- Miami's starters can go longer than San Antonio's, and it looks likely they will. Even if their defense hasn't been great, it hasn't really needed to be. Their defense can kick it up to another level of swarming, blitzing brilliance. They'll have a shot to close it out in 6 games at home, something the Spurs didn't have last year. Cut no corners -- the Heat are an incredible team. They can do this.

Of course, the Spurs can win the title too. Even with Tony Parker's status questionable, it's worth reminding that Tony Parker was balky last year and -- by the end of the series -- essentially playing on one leg. He shot 26% on shots outside the paint in last year's Finals (... which includes the Game #1 prayer!), even though the Heat would occasionally sag off him to cover San Antonio's three point shooters. Parker's a much better shooter than he played like last year, and that gave Miami's defense a shot in the arm it needed to reach another level. As long as Parker can suit up, the Spurs should be roughly as good as last year. Kawhi Leonard's defense took a small step forward this year, and he took a decent stride in the right direction on offense. Tim Duncan looks exactly the same as last year (if not a tiny bit better, in a few important ways), and Manu Ginobili's renaissance is similar to Wade's on Miami's side -- Ginobili simply looks like he can hit shots this year he couldn't have possibly sniffed last year. He's worlds healthier, and the team as a whole looks spry and ready-to-play (with Parker's exception). It's a marked change from the usual injury-peppered Spurs team you see entering a series.

As for the broader context, the Spurs have much to like. The Spurs have run roughshod over an incredible gauntlet of Western teams. They're prepared for a dogfight, and they've brought the big guns. The Heat are worse in just about every statistical metric, and the Spurs have improved. They've tinkered with last year's formula and made a version ever-so-slightly superior, with better defense and better offense than they had last year and a team that's rolling to an incredible extent. Last year's Heat won 27 straight games and finished 7 games ahead of San Antonio -- this year's Spurs won 19 straight, finishing 8 games ahead of Miami. The script is sufficiently flipped. San Antonio has home court this time. Even though Miami has the best player in the series, an argument can be made that the Spurs have yet to face a team without one or two players better than all their guys in this year's playoffs. Dirk, Aldridge, Durant, Westbrook. It didn't matter, because the Spurs had an entire lineup of guys that were better than each of those teams' full lineups. And Kawhi Leonard's defense bridged the rest of that gap. If a team could possibly be ready to face LeBron James, it's the Spurs -- they have Kawhi, Boris, and the playbook to match him. The Spurs are hungry. They're determined to wash away last year's bad memories. Like the Heat, they can do this.

• • •

So, those are our potentialities. Summarized and hardly exhaustive, but potentialities all the same. I don't know which circumstances will rise above the others. I don't know which intangibles will prove decisive. Nobody does, and that make prognostication difficult. And potentially embarrassing. In 2013, you could boil the entire series down -- somewhat hilariously -- to the fact that Popovich defends late game threes with Diaw instead of Duncan. Usually, that's an impressively minor fact of life about Pop's coaching. The 2013 Finals hinged on an incredibly minor artifact of an all-time coach's playbook. A tiny speck of X's and O's minutiae doomed to eternal irrelevance were it not for that one pesky possession. Will this Finals be the same? I wonder. I can't stop wondering.

Will Miami's habit of forcing aggressive double teams lead to a wealth of open San Antonio shots in the cacophony of the AT&T center, unfairly dooming their aggressive traps to the dustbin of history? Will Kawhi's hawking of passing lanes lead to constant foul trouble against a tandem as good at contact-drawing as LeBron and Wade, unfairly dooming Kawhi's 2014 defensive season to a punchline in a single few-game sample? Will Marco Bellinelli's astonishingly terrible pick up lines throw LeBron off his game, fairly leading to a heel turn for Marco as Subway's new sponsor? Will James Jones break out his Darth Vader voice in crunch time, scaring the ball away from the basket on a clutch Manu Ginobili three, revealing himself to be a robot voiced by James Earl Jones?

I could see the Spurs win it quickly. They're statistically better to a vast extent, and they match up well with Miami. I could see the Heat win it quickly, overwhelming San Antonio with their well-rested length and a heaping helping of LeBron's magic. It could be exactly like last year -- a momentum-shifting war of attrition between two amazing teams. It could be quick, it could be long. It could hinge on a single play, it could be a lopsided sweep that reveals last season's classic as a quirky aberration. I see a vast expanse of possibility stretched out before us. We know more than usual, but the knowledge comes from a base so muddled and random and uncertain that it makes us even more cautious than we would be without it.

But I must pick something, so I'll pick with the heart.

Spurs in seven. Game eight is Thursday.

• • •

A Game of Loans: Three Theories on Cleveland's #1 Pick

cavs win lottery

"The Cleveland Cavaliers won the most recent NBA Draft Lottery." If you picked a date at random from the 1463 days in between the 2011 NBA draft and the 2015 NBA draft, there's a 75.7% chance that the previous statement would be accurate. The Cavaliers -- those oft-maligned miscreants -- have won three of the past four lotteries, netting them a franchise point guard (Kyrie Irving), a franchise centerpiece (Jor-El Embiid or Ender Wiggins), and the best nickname of the 2013 NBA draft (Anthony "Tubs" Bennett). They've won it three times despite repeated assertions that they were gunning for a playoff spot in literally every year since LeBron left.

No, really. Am I the only person who remembers this? It was obviously unrealistic from a retrospective point of view, but in 2011 Gilbert and his front office were insistent up until late December that the 2011 Cavaliers could make the playoffs led by Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. They underestimated the defensive dropoff in letting Brown walk, but there was a tiny grain of reason in their expectations. In 2012, the expectations weren't super high, but Kyrie and Varejao looked like two possible all-stars in a terrible east, which made a preseason expectation of playoff basketball not-entirely-unrealistic either. In 2013, they added Waiters to the mix and had two rookies poised to make big sophomore leaps in Thompson and Irving, which looked like an eastern playoff team in the preseason. Whoops. And we don't even need to bring up their expectations in 2014, do we?

Most of this is just a result of playing in a dismal eastern conference where shiftless and half-awake basketball is generally enough to secure a top-5 playoff seed. Were they in the Western conference, I don't think Gilbert or the front office could've sold any of the fanbase on slim playoff hopes. But some of this actually made a small deal of sense. Kyrie Irving's best season to date has been his rookie year -- he's stagnated in tiny ways since then, never quite developing the way his previous trajectory implied. (Not that he's bad, just not-quite-as-good.) Anderson Varejao's injury bingo has completely undermined his beautiful defensive game. The supporting cast hasn't just been bad, they've been borderline criminal -- even when the Cavs can put together a decent-by-Eastern-standards group of starters (2013, 2014) the bench has been so grotesque that they STILL can't help but get blown out by any other half-competent team. And when injuries strike? They're a joke.

So, long story short, they keep entering the lottery year-in and year-out, despite fielding a ton of top-tier talent and high-upside rookies. And they usually have a decent chance at a high pick, too. So it isn't totally unreasonable. But, I mean, cripes. It's still pretty unreasonable. Three out of four years? This hasn't ever happened before! It's so deliciously improbable that there HAS to be some incredible conspiracy theory that explains it. Right? This morning, I have decided to outline the three most likely conspiracies that are behind this rampant favoritism towards Cleveland from Stern and Silver. Don your tin-foil caps and follow me to a world of subterfuge and deceit. It's Clarissa Explains it All, only if Clarissa was inordinately concerned with NBA lottery conspiracies. Hooray!

• • •

CONSPIRACY #1: QUICKEN LOANS REFINANCED THE NBA HQ

Okay, bear with me here. Outside of basketball, owner Dan Gilbert is famous for his primary business venture -- founding Quicken Loans, the largest online mortgage lender in the United States. Quicken Loans used to have a somewhat squeaky clean image, mostly by dint of their quick ascent from a minor player in the industry into a ridiculous powerhouse over the last 15 years. Fun fact -- Gilbert founded the company in 1985 under a different name, then sold it in 1999 for about $500 million dollars to the company that sells the eponymous Quickbooks/Quicken tax software. Then, less than 3 years later, he and a group of investors inexplicably managed to repurchase the loans subsidiary for just $64 million dollars.

Nope, not a typo. You read that right. Gilbert and his investors effectively bought back something they sold for $500 million dollars for $64 million less than 3 years later. Investments are so much cooler when you're filthy rich! As with all financial transactions, it is easiest to visualize how hilarious this is with Pokemon cards. Let's say you traded your holographic Charizard to a friend of yours for his entire deck of cards. Three weeks later, you decide you want Charizard back, so you trade your friend a bent Voltorb and a ripped Nidoking. They happily return your Charizard, allowing you to keep everything they originally traded the Charizard for. Isn't that awesome? That's what happened to Dan Gilbert. But I'm getting off track. The point is, Quicken Loans only started experiencing major success in the mid-2000s, around the time of the financial crisis.

Their main claim to fame is that they were able to not only stay afloat but aggressively expand their market share during the crisis, something Gilbert attributes to their can-do attitude and special culture. Others have a slightly different take on the matter, with lawsuits claiming that they used their small stature and internet-base to dodge regulations, which is (the lawsuits imply) much more responsible for their expansion than any sort of cultural version of M.J.'s Secret Stuff. If the accusations are true, Quicken Loans was (and perhaps remains) one of America's big-time predatory lenders, a company that sells numerous lemon loans to elderly people in high-pressure situations and made it a regular business practice to inflate customer interest rates and use false appraisals when hashing out loan terms.

I don't know whether the accusations are true or not. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. But assuming they are, what's the operative clause in the previous paragraph? Lemon loans sold to elderly people, of course! What if part of Dan Gilbert's purchase of the Cavaliers back in 2005 included refinancing on the mortgage of the NBA's New York headquarters? If Quicken Loans is used to suckering old dudes, David Stern's 2005 incarnation was pretty elderly. The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't have their own pick in the 2005 NBA draft, so it wouldn't have been obvious that year. And they made the playoffs every year from 2006 to 2010, which made it impossible for any lottery-based stipulations in the loan to rear their head during that duration. But after LeBron left and the franchise collapsed, Gilbert and the QuickCabal (... still workshopping this one, bear with me) came to Stern and pointed out the following TOTALLY REAL clause in the terms on the NBA's mortgage refinance that TOTALLY EXISTS:

74. The provisions of this Article 74 shall govern all Commissioners of the NBA.

(a) Whensoever the Cleveland Cavaliers, owned by Daniel "The Hammer" Gilbert, are to be found in the draft lottery, a special odds-boosting algorithm shall be employed. The exact mechanisms of this algorithm are at the NBA Commissioner's discretion, so long as they are bound and governed by the following provision: in THREE (3) out of every FOUR (4) lotteries in which the Cleveland Cavaliers are receiving lottery odds, the Cleveland Cavaliers must win the first pick in the NBA draft. This is applicable even in cases of busts, fraud, murder, Low Winter Sun marathons, and the drafting of entire contracts in the "Comic Sans" typeface. Furthermore, the Commissioner is bound and obligated to read Twitter's response to each lottery win, staring vacantly as the NBA's greatest fans balk in confusion and woe over this downright incomprehensible gesture."

Gilbert, you slithering snake.

• • •

captain planet

CONSPIRACY #2: CANADIAN CAPTAIN PLANET

This one is my favorite, even if doesn't actually make sense. Or possibly exist. It's like my version of reptilians. Captain Planet was an environmentalist cartoon from the 90s. The basic premise was that five kids had rings that allowed them to tap into the Earth's core five elements: Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! ... Heart? (Yeah, I don't think they ever really explained that one.) When they acted apart, they could control their respective element through their ring of power. When they worked as a team, and put all their elements together, they could summon this strange chrome man with the powers of all their rings, along with the additional power to tell 10-20 bad puns per second.

Actually, wait. Hold on a second. I don't think combining their powers into Captain Planet actually increased their ring abilities at all. They could've done what he did just by working together. In fact, I distinctly remember that his only weakness was pollution, which is exactly what they faced in every single episode. Hey, but... wait... then why did they ever summon him at all? What was the point? "Hey, polluters! We're going to combine all our powers to create ONE person who's weak to your crap, instead of FIVE people who are! And we can't use our rings while he's around, which makes us all completely useless! Take that, nerds!" I'm not entirely sure that the premise of Captain Planet made any sense whatsoever. Huh. How about that.

Anyway. Captain Planet and the five kids were tasked with defending the Earth from polluters and drugs and all sorts of things that are Bad For Kids (TM). In this conspiracy theory, Captain Planet doesn't exist, because he's silly and a cartoon. Instead, there's a CAPTAIN CANADA.

Yeah, that's right. CAPTAIN CANADA is entering your world. He'll never leave it.

Remember how Captain Planet combined five elements to form the core of his powers? Captain Canada combines five too: maple syrup, poutine, public nudity, the NHL, and Quebec. His mission? To seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no -- ... I mean, to spread Canadian values and smiles all over the world. Obviously. What does this have to do with the NBA draft? Simple. The Cavaliers already have Tristan Thompson, Canada's #1 basketball son. When the Cavaliers chose Thompson back in 2011, Captain Canada put the Cavs on his radar -- he realized that he finally had an NBA team to slowly turn into Canada's 2nd national team! Ever since, he's sneakily tried to push all the Canadian players he could Cleveland's way.

And he's succeeding! In 2013, he was scared that they'd pass Bennett over for someone else, so he snuck into their minds and made Bennett their top choice before giving them the #1 pick to ensure that nobody else messed it up. In 2014, he realized that the only way to ensure Wiggins made it to Cleveland was to rig the #1 pick for Cleveland and slowly release false information about Embiid's injury. His next task? Get the Spurs to trade Cory Joseph to the Cavaliers, and have the Cavs flip some of their tertiary pieces for Andrew Nicholson from Orlando. At that point, Cleveland will be able to put out an all-Canada lineup of Cory Joseph, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Nicholson, and Tristen Thompson.

That... oh my god, wait, that's a terrible lineup. Captain Canada, what have you done.

• • •

CONSPIRACY #3: SILVER ACTUALLY WANTS TO ELIMINATE THE LOTTERY

By the standards of conspiracies, this one is pretty low-key. It has the conspiracy feature that it actually sounds halfway reasonable if you're willing to set aside disbelief for a second. No, the commissioner doesn't really have the power to rig the lottery, not how it's currently set up. But if he did, wouldn't a three-in-four showing by Cleveland be EXACTLY the kind of ridiculous flawed incentive-rewarding that would put some gas behind serious lottery reform? The media response and the fan response to Cleveland's win was unpredictably vitriolic for me, but for a smart guy like Silver, I'd imagine he had a decent idea of what was about to go down.

The way I looked at it -- taking off my "Cleveland Sports Fan" glasses for a moment -- it was a minor repudiation of tanking. The Cavaliers, failed though they were, actually tried to win this year. And they tried to win last year, too. They were just amazingly bad at it, much like the 2014 Milwaukee Bucks. Chris Grant made some terrible moves and they constantly leveraged their draft picks to pick up rental deals on marginal pieces in pursuit of what would've likely been a 5-6 game pasting at the hands of a solid Indiana squad. They spent the entire season trying to wring as many wins as possible out of a mismatched roster with a not-very-good coaching staff. They probably fell below their true talent, but only just -- the ceiling for this team was probably around 35-36 wins, and they came within a hair of it. They have a lot of dead weight crowding out the marginal talent they've accumulated, and desperately needed a jolt of something to bring them back into the realm of the living. So the argument is that their win isn't THAT bad -- it just pooh-poohs tanking teams and reminds everyone that winning doesn't necessarily torpedo you.

Except that's not what happened. At all. Twitter erupted with all the indignation of a seriously offended Mount Vesuvius when it became obvious the Cavaliers had moved up in the lottery. And when it became obvious that they'd won it again, that indignation turned to righteous volcanic fury. The basic thesis behind this is both simple to understand and a little bit hard to justify. The Cavaliers have gotten every lucky bounce since LeBron left, but mismanagement and general incompetence have kept them mired in a place where they aspire to rank mediocrity. And they fail miserably at actualizing those aspirations, despite it all. It's like watching a child constantly buzz in first on Youth Jeopardy, get all the Daily Doubles, throw all his opponents off their game... and completely mangle the obvious answers every single time, leading to a loss despite it all. It's like watching a born-rich white guy turn their riches to rags.

It marginally challenges the concept of "fairness" and lends new vigor to the anti-tanking movement. If Silver really wants the lottery gone, there aren't many ways to make it look like a farce. Give it to a tanking team, it "works." Give it to a randomly selected good team, and it seems like it's doing its job. But give it to a flailing team with no reasonable explanation for their string of good luck? Give it to an owner who non-Cleveland fans completely despise? That's probably the one way Silver could've gotten this kind of an anti-lottery reaction. As I've said multiple times, I sincerely doubt this is actually what he was doing. But if it was, well... let's not lie to ourselves. He would've done a pretty slick job of it, huh?

First Round Midcap (EAST): Here Come the Wizards!

Joe Johnson attacks the basket. Demar Derozan pretends to care.

A few weeks ago, I put those first round predictions on Twitter. I didn't have the time to do a huge piece explaining all of them, but I figured it made sense to scribe them down and revisit the predictions when reality had rudely awakened me to the dire mortality of my reasoning. Strangely enough, they haven't actually been that bad -- one in particular will haunt me for the rest of my days (... OK, no it won't), but for the most part my original reasoning has proved to be some combination of apt and silly. Given that all seven series currently have two games in the books, I felt like this would be a good time to do some revisiting. Reflect on what we've learned in the first two games, revisit my original thoughts, revise predictions when necessary. All fun things. We have a lot to get to, so let's get to it. Let's start in the east. I'll work my way westward tomorrow.

• • •

INDIANA (1) vs ATLANTA (8) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: INDIANA IN 4

Well... I was wrong about that. Look, I'm all for respecting a team that suffered injury trouble, but let's not overstate things. This Atlanta team won 38 games this year. They were outscored on the season by about half a point a game (... although, come to think of it, two other playoff teams were outscored by more), and they sport roughly two NBA-caliber high rotation players in Millsap and Horford. Jeff Teague is a marginally below league-average point guard and Kyle Korver is an excellent tertiary piece with his silky quick shot. Both of those mean something, but having those two as your 3rd and 4th best players (2nd and 3rd with Horford out) is a really bad look for an NBA team. Their offense and defense are well-designed but not well-executed, for the most part, and they just aren't that hard to gameplan. I figured that nothing Indiana did would override the fact that Atlanta is simply not a good basketball team.

Alright, yeah. I was wrong. Indiana's absurd inflexibility (as expertly noted by Zach Lowe) hurt them when Coach Bud chose to use Antic as a floor-spacing center and play "come-at-me" defense in a way that would reinforce George's worst tendencies. The Hawks romped Atlanta in Game #1 and as the series moves back to Atlanta it's an open question whether the Pacers can get it together and win the road game they need to retake home court. I still think they will, but lord almighty... how do you handicap this Pacers team? If they play to their worst tendencies they will lose to everyone. Literally everyone in America. The Kentucky Wildcats? They upset the Pacers. The Washington Generals? They upset the Pacers. Your little league team? They upset the Pacers. It's ridiculous! How can a team with such a refined command of the crisp grime (like: Memphis!) play like this without any real driving factors? Cripes.

The only thing keeping me from picking Atlanta at this point is that I can't fathom a world where Atlanta is actually a good enough team to beat this Indiana squad. I refuse to believe that's going to happen until I see it happen. Plain and simple. The Antic gimmick is a strong play by Coach Bud, but I have to believe the Pacers won't be quite so befuddled over the course of a long series that they won't be able to gameplan it out. I have at least a little bit of faith in Coach Vogel. Don't let me down, Frank. Still, it won't be a short series -- my guess is 6 or 7 games, simply because the Pacers have been rubbish on the road recently and expecting them to sweep the two games in Atlanta necessary to finish it in five is a fool's errand.

• • •

MIAMI (2) vs CHARLOTTE (7) -- Miami leads 2-0

Original prediction: MIAMI IN 5

It kind of hurt me not to make the original sweep prediction here. I'm pretty sure that this is the worst Miami team of the last four years -- even if we're accounting for the "pedal off the medal" factor, this team just isn't quite as crisp or clean as any of the last three Finals-bound iterations. LeBron isn't slower, but he's lazier. Wade is markedly worse than 2011. Bosh has been a bit of a disappointment this year, too. Not terrible, mind you, but certainly not up to the standards we'd expected. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I expected Bosh to take the reins a bit more as Wade cycled into a late career preservation phase. He hasn't, really, and although his defense has been solid his general game has been a big disappointment for me. He's a max player who's playing like a 12-13 million dollar man. Still a great player, but not quite up to snuff. And outside of the big three, this hodgepodge of declining aged roleplayers doesn't elicit nearly the teeth-gnashing fear of Miami's 2012 or 2013 group.

In sum, it's just really hard to get a feel for this Miami squad. It's a very uneven team, and while they're probably the most likely champion (even now), it's tough to predict them sweeping. So I didn't. But I kind of felt like they would. Even against Charlotte, a team that I've really enjoyed watching. As I noted yesterday, the step the Bobcats took this season has been one of the more heartwarming stories of the year. Their ceiling isn't through the roof or anything, but they're a respectable basketball team that might be even better next year as Clifford's tendrils take root. And I'd give them a puncher's chance at a competitive series against Indiana, Toronto, or Chicago. But Miami is just an absolute nightmare matchup for them. Al Jefferson (especially as balky as he's been) can't dominate against Miami's stout front-line defense in the same way he can against most of the league. Kidd-Gilchrist can't hide on offense against Miami's pressure D, and it's just incredibly hard for Charlotte's cut-based system to find daylight when Miami deigns to play its game.

So, what have we learned? Not a ton, so I'd probably maintain my Heat-in-five thoughts. Yes, Miami won both games, but they just barely won last night's contest and the first game was exceedingly close until the end. This isn't like last year, where Miami roundly obliterated the Bucks in the first two games (by 23 and 12 point margins). Or even the year before, where Miami completely stunted on the New York Knicks (by 33 and 10 point margins). It's more like the 2011 Sixers than anything else in Miami's history, who lost a tight game one contest by 8 points and a more lopsided game two by 21 points. That Sixers team went on to lose in 5 games, which is probably the most likely fate for the Bobcats now that we've got a better sense of where these two teams stand. Miami's too sloppy to sweep these next two games in Charlotte. Right? (Please?)

• • •

TORONTO (3) vs BROOKLYN (6) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: TORONTO IN 5

The way I visualized this series in my head had Toronto dominating Brooklyn on the boards and crushing them in the paint, with Jonas and Lowry and Amir rocking rims and finishing calmly over Brooklyn's not-so-stout interior defense. I didn't really think Brooklyn would be able to fight back from that without some incredible three point shooting and a lot of forced turnovers. And Garnett would need to have a throwback series, obviously. Two games in, and... well... pretty much all of Brooklyn's needs have come to pass, and they've totally outclassed the original matchup issues that I thought would swing the series Toronto's way. To wit, through two games:

  • Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 16-16 on 55% shooting. Beastly numbers. Less beastly: he's turning the ball over on 30% of his possessions, which is astonishingly bad. He's averaging 6 turnovers a game. Bad news bears, kid.
  • Amir Johnson is shooting 75% at the rim, as expected. Unfortunately for Toronto, he's barely ever getting there, as Garnett and Plumlee have done an expert job keeping him off the glass and away from the rim.
  • Kyle Lowry is doing his normal Kyle Lowry thing, averaging 16-7-7 on 13 shots a night. One adjustment Casey might want to consider? Entreating Lowry to do his Kyle Lowry thing on defense, against Joe Johnson this time. Johnson has completely torn the Raptors defense up in the two games to date, mostly matched on Demar DeRozan. Maybe a different look with Lowry could trip him up.

Yikes. It's not a lost cause for Toronto yet -- 1-1 isn't a death knell, and there are certain adjustments the Raptors could do to change the game a bit against Brooklyn's unconventional lineups. But the Raptors clearly don't outclass the Nets as much as I thought they did (if they even do at all), and my five-game gentleman's sweep seems like an extremely unlikely dream right now. I'd still pick Toronto, but after those two games, I'm thinking this series probably goes the distance. On a somewhat unrelated note, it'd be nice if Terrence Ross could do anything. He's made 2-12 shots in 21 minutes a night so far, and he's turned the ball over almost as many times as he's snagged a rebound. Get it together, Ross.

• • •

CHICAGO (4) vs WASHINGTON (5) -- Washington leads 2-0

Original prediction: WASHINGTON IN 6

This was one prediction where quite a few people called foul. But I maintain now what I maintain then -- Nene is a terrible matchup for Noah. Noah is a fantastic defender, but like most great big man defenders, he doesn't operate well when the opposing offense drags him too far from the paint and makes an active effort to force him to guard too much space. A weapon like Nene forces Noah to guard a massive chasm of offensive activity, and it's simply exhausting. Washington has some of the best cutters in the business, too, which makes Nene's matchup difficulty doubly tough for Chicago to wrangle. But the Bulls still have a stout defense -- having one or two interesting offensive quirks like Nene's versatility that can squeeze out a few more points over the course of a game are ridiculously useful, but you don't beat the Bulls on that alone.

No, you beat the Bulls by suffocating their already-stagnant offense to "failed autoerotic asphyxiation" levels. And the Wizards are doing that well -- in spots, at least. Mostly in the second half of games. Noah, Gibson, and Dunleavy are the only Bulls that have gotten anything going offensively, and they're generally carrying the team right now. Due to red-hot starts (or, well, whatever Chicago's approximation of "red hot" can possibly be called), Chicago's offensive rating over the full series (roughly 107 points per 100 possessions) is actually a vast improvement over their season-long 102.5 mark. But that covers up the fact that Washington's stout defense has effectively shut down Chicago over the late period in both games to date. In fact, in Tuesday's win, Chicago went scoreless for almost four minutes of overtime, only able to generate offense when it was essentially too late to matter.

Honestly? I could see Washington pulling it out in 4 or 5, but I've got a suspicion the Bulls are going to win one of these close ones eventually. And on-the-ropes home teams rarely lose game 5 to a roadster. Wizards in 6 still sounds like the most likely scenario for me.

Examining the 2014 season's best Statistical Curios

heat at sixers

curio, n. -- a small and unusual object that is considered interesting or attractive

No, I didn't just misspell "curious." I promise! I'm referring in plural to the singular "curio", the definition of which can be seen above. It's usually used to describe tchotchkes and baubles. In this case, I'm referring to those little statistical factoids that interest the multitude of NBA nerds among us. The general point of the matter is that there are a lot of interesting statistical oddities that we've been person to in a substantially strange 2014 season. Many have gone widely reported (Durant's point streak, Corey Brewer's 50 point explosion, Indiana's collapse). Others haven't. Some of them are more interesting than others, and some of them are especially fun for me. In this post, I'll examine my seven favorite oddities. Let's get to it.

1. No Spur has played over 30 MPG

Let's start by taking a look at their overall minutes chart.

spurs minute chart

This may not surprise you. We all know the drill: the Spurs are known league-wide for their minutes management tactics and their general strategic resting. So why would it be surprising that no Spur has played over 30 MPG? Simple. This is the first time in the history of the NBA that a team has gone without a 30+ MPG player. And not by a close margin, either. There are very few who are even remotely close -- Hubie Brown's 2004 Grizzlies almost did it, with their only 30 MPG player being a 23-year-old Pau Gasol. The 2012 Spurs were similar, with Parker's 32 MPG being their only transgression. But that's it. The actual accomplishment -- arbitrary though it may be -- has only been achieved by these Spurs.

Look, I get it. This is the Spurs! They do this! Except that what they did this season isn't just quirky and strange, it's completely historically unprecedented. Even last year, they had THREE players who averaged over 30 MPG. Portland had five this year. Every other team has a handful. The Spurs may not win the title -- getting out of the West is going to be a hell of a task, regardless of who they face. But in keeping their minutes so equal, the Spurs have grasped a substantially strange accomplishment that makes them the first team ever to even their regular season minutes to this extent. It's pretty impressive, and it lends them historical notoriety as a strange footnote in NBA history.

2. The Clippers Solved Offense

This one isn't quite as historically unprecedented as my last one. Nor is it quite as stark as the Pacers were earlier in the season. Still interesting, though. The league-leading offensive rating the Clippers put up over the whole season (an offensive rating of 112) was bettered by two teams in 2013 (the Heat and the Thunder, respectively, with 112.4 and 112.3) and by virtually every iteration of Steve Nash's Suns. So... how exactly did they "solve" offense? Simple. Very few teams have finished the season with a league-leading offense despite losing key pieces for the majority of the year. The Clippers were able to accomplish it because whenever their full complement of offensive players have played together, the results have been absolutely terrifying.

Check out the top two offensive lineups in the league this year. I'll wait. ... Yep. The two best offensive lineups in the NBA were LAC lineups. And what's more? Other lineups weren't even close. The Paul/Crawford/Barnes/Griffin/Jordan lineup scored at a rate of 117.5 points per 100 possessions. When Crawford wasn't available and they had to use Darren Collison, the same lineup produced at 117 points per 100 possessions. The third place lineup was 4 points per 100 possessions worse on offense, roughly equivalent to the distance between the 3rd place lineup and the 17th place lineup.

Los Angeles has a half-decent defense this year, but don't fool yourself into thinking that the defense is going to drag them to the Finals. If they make the finals, it's going to be because nobody in the league can stop their core lineups from filleting their defense. Plain and simple.

3. Miami went 1-2 against the 76ers

I can't get over how funny this is. Yeah, I know -- they were resting LeBron and Bosh for the last game of the season. Obviously. But Wade still played 23 minutes and Miami's supporting cast isn't THAT bad. In the last game of the season, Miami's obscenely permissive defense allowed the Sixers to shoot 53% (their 3rd best field goal percentage of the season) with an offensive rating of 109.8. It was one of Philadelphia's best games this year. And that's despite Michael Carter-Williams going 3-of-10 in a forgettable 12-6-4 performance.

So, it begs the question. Has a defending champion ever had a losing record against a team that ended the season with a point point differential of -10 or worse? There have been 16 teams in NBA history who have been outscored by the requisite margin. So that gives us 16 champions to look at.

MIA vs PHI hilarious

Oh. Oh wow.

So, the funniest part about this? The 1988 Clippers -- who beat the Lakers once in 6 tries -- only won that game in overtime by a single point. Philadelphia's first game of the 2014 season is the first win by a team that got outscored by 10+ points per game over the course of a season has beaten the NBA's defending champions in regulation... ever. And their two wins against Miami this season doubled the number of wins that their 15 previous counterparts accumulated over FORTY EIGHT previous tries. Seriously. 1-47. That's the total record of sub-10 point margin teams against the defending champs, until now. Am I the only person who can't stop laughing about this? The Heat have as much of a chance as anyone of winning the title, but this factoid has me keeled over.

4. Spurs starters paced the league... on defense, again.

A lot of ink was spilled in the early season about how the Spurs -- despite a decent record -- were underperforming with their "core five" starting unit of Parker-Green-Leonard-Duncan-Splitter. In 2013, the unit was one of the NBA's best, obliterating the league with a league-best defense and a near-best offensive attack. Midway through this current season, results with the their starting lineup were decidedly negative, and savvy Spurs fans were starting to wonder if Duncan's absent shot and Danny Green's initially tepid defensive season had made their core lineup lose its bite.

Of course, then the post all-star break happened. And for the second year in a row, the Spurs have the league's best defensive lineup. Keep in mind that the Pacers spent most of the season with one of the best defenses in league history. And, indeed, they're second. But once Leonard returned to full-form, the Spurs blitzed the league on defense in the second half to such a degree that completely overwrote their poor play in the first half. Pretty excellent result for the Spurs, and -- frankly -- the biggest reason Spurs fans feel better now than they did entering the break.

5. Grizzlies are on-track for a fourth straight OKC/LAC/SAS draw

I have absolutely no idea how I should go about quantifying how weird this is. So I won't. But the Grizzlies have played seven playoff series over the last 4 years -- two in 2011 (vs SAS, OKC), one in 2012 (vs LAC), and three in 2013 (vs LAC, OKC, SAS), and at least one in 2014 (vs OKC). This year, they're starting out vs OKC, and they may well lose that matchup. But am I the only person who's a bit weirded out by the fact that they're on track for a fourth straight year of facing OKC/LAC/SAS, if they make a deep run? If the Grizzlies make the conference finals and the other seedings play out as they'd be projected to, their draw this year would be to start in OKC, play LAC, then play SAS. That would be four years and nine separate playoff series played against just three teams. Every once in a while a franchise gets caught in a trap where they only play a team from a small shortlist, but I can't for the life of me remember a time when a team has the ability to make consecutive conference finals without facing a single new lineup. The last time the Grizzlies played a non-OKC/LAC/SAS team, Pau Gasol was a Grizzly. Just saying.

6. Mike Miller played 82 games, but Ramon Sessions played more!

On first glance, that's not a particularly surprising result. Each NBA season has somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 players who play every single game. But look at Mike Miller's career. He's only played 82 games ONCE before -- his rookie year. He hasn't played more than 60 games since 2009, when he was in his late 20s. He's had back surgeries and medical maladies that would make most people's knees weak. Despite that? He played more games than every single player on the Grizzlies, and would've tied for the league lead... if the league lead was 82. Yes, despite playing every regular season game, Mike Miller did NOT lead the league in games played.

That honor goes to Ramon Sessions, who ended up suiting up for 83 games this season due to his midseason trade to Milwaukee. It's the first time since 2011 that a player has managed to play over 82 games in a single season. Sessions joins a list of 40 players who managed the feat, with five of those coming in the last decade. The all-time leader in single-season games played is Walt Bellamy, who played 88 games in 1969 after being traded from New York to Detroit. My question for cap experts: do players who end up playing extra games due to trades get paid extra for the extra work? It depends on how the NBA distributes their salary, I'm guessing, but where does the money come from? Does their per-game salary just drop slightly after the trade to accommodate the additional games? I tried figuring the answer out myself, but I'm honestly not sure I've found it yet.

 7. Charlotte -- CHARLOTTE! -- made 'the leap'

Credit to Nathan Walker's Twitter feed for bringing this one to mind for me. If there was a most improved team award for the team that improved their efficiency differential the most, the Bobcats would've won it (with a close second place finish from the Phoenix Suns). A lot of people have talked about how impressive Phoenix's rise has been, but I feel like Charlotte's got a bit of a short stick given their Eastern allegiance. But make no mistake -- watching Charlotte this season has been a joy. They haven't been one of the league's best teams, certainly, but they've been exceedingly solid. Respectable. Decent, even! Their offense is simple yet effective, their defense structurally sound though unrefined. Much of this has been attributed to first time coach Steve Clifford, and that's a fair assessment in a lot of ways. His system has been a vast improvement over the puzzling wares of Mike Dunlap,  and they've put together a legitimately competent NBA defense without a surfeit of defensive talent. That takes gusto. But the men on the court are the ones who play the game, and fetishizing improved coaching strategy at the expense of the very real progress made by Charlotte's young guns would be a bit of a mistake.

Kemba Walker has broken out from a marginal journeyman into a legitimate rotation piece, and Gerald Henderson has been a minor steal on his recently resigned meager deal. Michael Kidd Gilchrist is approaching mastery of NBA defense (although his offense is still a bit grotesque) and Josh McRoberts had an unexpectedly strong comeback. Of course, no Charlotte appreciation could be written without an appreciation of the incredible season Al Jefferson's put up. He's been roughly the same as he's always been, offensively, but he's worked within a team defense better than he's ever done before. Clifford deserves a lot of credit for putting him in the right spots, but Jefferson deserves a lot too -- it's hard to wash out an entire career of bad defense in a single season. He put in the work and became passable. That's a huge achievement.

Although Charlotte's likely to find themselves run out of the building in the remainder of their series against Miami, don't sleep on what they accomplished this season. Many talk about the leap between a roleplayer and a star on an individual. Fewer talk about the leap between a hodgepodge of lost souls and a real honest-to-goodness basketball team. More should. And Charlotte, bless their hearts, managed to make that leap and drag their downbeat fanbase into a few exciting playoff games. Good work, kitties.

Don't Stay In School: A Personal Plea to Joel Embiid (And Others)

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"Did you graduate from Auburn?"
"No, but I have a couple people working for me who did." 

- Charles Barkley

Dear Joel Embiid,

How are you? I hope your back is feeling better. Back injuries are no joke, and I imagine a spinal stress fracture is pretty painful. You seem like a tough dude though, and I'm confident you'll rebound from this. (Pun intended.) I'm sorry I didn't get to watch you play in March Madness. I'll be honest, I don't really watch college basketball much. I've been keeping up with your highlights though, and with your teammate Andrew's, and with Jabari Parker's at Duke, and with all the big NBA prospects. It's really cool to watch you guys play, and exciting to imagine a future where you're all playing in All-Star games, breaking records, making faces at Joey Crawford, and dominating at the big stage of NBA basketball. That's what I'm into, you know? I love NBA basketball. So yeah, I'm not really into the college game, but it's not like I can ignore dudes like you. Especially with how March Madness is, I can't help but tune in, or pull up YouTube, and watch what kind of crazy stuff you're doing and get hyped about the NBA player you might become.

That's why I was really bummed out when I read a while back that you were thinking about staying another year in college. Look bro, I get it. This is all really new to you, you're overwhelmed and excited and you're in the thick of it with your teammates and your coach and the Kansas fans, and you've gotta say the right thing. Obviously you can't just come right out and say you're heading to the league in a few months, even if you are. And I'm sure there was some honesty in there too, I figure you probably meant it a little when you talked about how you weren't sure you were ready for the NBA (You totally are, though). But don't indulge those temptations dude. More than ever, you're going to hear both people on the television and people close to you talking about all sorts of high-minded ideals. They're going to be talking about "maturity" and "learning to play the right way." You're going to read about this new NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and how he wants to institute a two-year rule for prospective NBA players. You're going to see a lot of people, smart respectable basketball people, agreeing with him. You're even going to hear guys like Charles Barkley (my hero) supporting the idea. They're going to talk about how it's important to get an education. They're going to bring up all sorts of examples of great college players, two to four year guys, who went on to have great NBA careers. They'll probably bring up Tim Duncan. They'll talk about Damian Lillard. You're going to be hearing all these smart voices, thinking about your school, those Kansas fans, and maybe a little nagging voice of uncertainty in the back of your head, and you're going to really think about it. You'll think about staying.

Missouri v Kansas

It's important you ignore all of that, and get the hell out of college. Get to the NBA, as fast as you can, as soon as you can. It's a real bummer that Kansas bowed out so early. It sucks. There are probably a ton of feelings that keep you tied down to Kansas and the dreams of a NCAA title. But you can't let it cloud your vision. And really, that's all you have to be worried about, because that's all you're going to lose by going to the NBA. Don't listen to this crap about how you need "an education," because you and I both know your main priority is winning ball games for your team, your fans, and your school. You're an NBA player in everything but title, and the only difference between you and them is that you aren't getting paid yet.

Don't worry about college. You can go to college later! I can't stress enough how easy it will be for you to go to college later. Whether you'll still feel like it will be up to you, but you're going to have a long career and a good half-century to get an education after your NBA career is over. You'll have the time, the motivation, and the money to pay for it. You'll have years of experience as a professional working adult that'll provide the direction you need to steer that education wisely. If you get to that point and find that you don't feel that you need it, great. You probably won't need it. Some of the most successful people in this country, athletes or otherwise, never attended college. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have built pretty successful brands for themselves outside their athletic achievements, and neither has had the benefit of a single semester of higher education. Smart guys are smart guys.

Speaking of those guys, if you ever find yourself looking at a chart showing the correlation between length of time in college and longevity of NBA careers, which is something I've seen floated around lately, here's a real solid rebuttal: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire, Josh Smith, Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Garnett. That's a good solid list of All-Star NBA players who enjoyed or are enjoying long NBA careers, straight out of high school. Lot of big guys on that list too. And having watched your potential at Kansas, I don't think it's a reach to say you'll probably belong in that same stratosphere with those guys.

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But hey, somebody'll be in your ear. Maybe it'll even be that same little voice that sounds a lot like you. That voice might say "But most of those guys are Hall-of-Famers. What if I'm not as good as them?" You never know, right? Well, there's also: Shaun Livingston, Dorrell Wright, Martell Webster, JR Smith, Gerald Green, Monta Ellis, Andray Blatche, Amir Johnson, and Kendrick Perkins. Don't get me wrong, I love Kendrick Perkins. But I'm pretty sure you're better than Kendrick Perkins. I'm pretty sure you could step on an NBA floor right now and be a more valuable contributor than big Perk, and he's had a long successful career. He's won a title, and he's made a lot of money. In terms of an NBA career, that's the most anybody can expect from themselves. Not everyone can be Michael Jordan. To make it, to carve out a role for yourself however big, to be valuable, and to win. That's success, no matter what anyone says about you. That's what you want for yourself.

But does it seem like that's what these people want for you? Doesn't it seem strange that all these talented high school players, many of whom have had all-time careers, many of whom are respected as some of the smartest in the league, never went to college? That they never learned to "play the right way?" That they developed in the league, playing against the best basketball talent in the world, and were all the better for it? Isn't it strange that you're a legal adult with a set of marketable job skills which, as evidenced by your draft stock, are valued in the millions of dollars a year, and yet not only are you required to work unpaid for a year of your adult life, but there are prominent media figures who guilt you and your peers for thinking something might be ethically wrong with that system?  That the average NBA career is less than ten years, yet you're expected to sacrifice your body, your health, and a year of pay to work at what amounts to an unpaid internship? Does it seem like people are thinking of your professional well-being and security when they're talking about whether you "learn the game" or not, or whether you're "mature?"

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Isn't it depressing that Perry Jones III, a versatile 6'10 big man who can play three positions, was a projected lottery pick had he entered the draft after his freshman campaign at Baylor?  He stayed another year though, and when he didn't show the progression scouts expected (as many college players playing within a system don't), he saw his draft stock fall. Then doctors red-flagged his knees, a mark against his health that sent him tumbling all the way down to the 28th pick, where my Oklahoma City Thunder snatched him up. He's been pretty good, but he doesn't get a lot of minutes. He would've gotten more time had he gone to a team that would've featured him. His knees appear to be fine. He's making about $1 million dollars this year. He could be making $5 million. Who knows, he might've proved himself and lined himself up for a big contract. At this rate, it's doubtful he'll get the chance.

What if your spinal injury affects your play? I'm praying that it doesn't, but what if it does? It's not uncommon for talented NBA prospects to appear to stagnate in their second year because of the nature of college basketball and more stringent offensive systems. What if your health isn't the same on top of it? Your circumstances won't matter to NBA scouts, they'll drop you on their board in a second. But right now it's unlikely you go any lower than #3 in this summer's NBA draft, regardless of your back. You're that good. And that rookie contract is guaranteed, not like some other sports leagues. If things go the worst they possibly can for you, you'll be covered on hospital bills and whatever you need. You'll be taken care of.

It bothers me that you have so little choice in the matter. It bothers me that Adam Silver and a bevvy of owners are so transparently unconcerned with the professional freedom of the players that form the foundation of the sport. It bothers me that game breaks are inundated with "NBA Cares" advertisements where players extoll the virtues of giving back, yet the league has sought to structure itself in such a way that increasingly penalizes players for the faults of management and ownership. It bothers me that the NBA offers only the most half-assed of educational programs to help teach young players about financial management. It bothers me that the players union has been actively complicit in working against its own membership. It bothers me that the media, whose responsibility it is to hold truth to power and protect the interests of players, seems to be overflowing with prominent voices enthusiastic about propping up an ethically broken and exploitative business model.

But hey, you know what? A lot of things bother me. The truth is, that's the system man. It is what it is. I'm not saying you or me can do anything to change it. All you can do is know how to get the most out of it for yourself. And look, I believe that everyone is entitled the freedom to do what they think is right for themselves. I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life. You know your body, and your skills. If you think staying at Kansas an extra year is what's best for you, then more power to you. That's your right. If you want to give up basketball and join the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, whatever, that's your right too. You're the master of your fate, there's no rules to this thing. But if you want to make a career out of playing basketball, you should look at what decision gives you the best odds to succeed while securing a future for yourself and yours. That's getting yourself an NBA contract, as big of one as possible, as soon as possible. If you're ready, you're ready. If you're not, you'll have more than enough time getting ready. Getting ready will be your job. Because we both know that's what you're already doing for them. A job. They're just trying to stiff you on pay as long as they can get away with it.

Tournament, no tournament. Ready, not ready. Healthy, not healthy. Just don't give them an excuse not to pay you, Joel. You've already earned that money, you've just gotta collect. Anyway, I hope you get to feeling better. I'm rooting for you.

Love,

Jacob H.

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.

• • •

murray rothbard

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.