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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trendspotting: Christmas Holiday Edition!

Hey, all! This season, I've been working with an on-again off-again trendspotting feature that sifts through NBA data and spits out some interesting trends-to-date. Given the NBA's long-held tradition of Christmas day goodies, I decided to refrain from doing a normal version of the column this week, instead aiming to go over a trend of note for each team playing in today's action, as well as a short blurb on what these two trends may mean when they collide. So much fun! The trendspotting feature (with sourced trend-tracking and the rest) will return next week. Please enjoy this college try at a Christmas post. Be gentle!

• • •

GAME #1: CHICAGO at BROOKLYN -- Lineup Trouble! (via NBAWowy.com)

CHICAGO: For Chicago fans, this season represents -- effectively -- the darkest possible timeline. Derrick Rose went down 10 games into the season over a month ago. Guess what lineup is STILL the Bulls most used lineup, over a month later? Rose/Butler/Deng/Noah/Boozer. It was used for 129 minutes of NBA action this year -- their next-most-used lineup is Hinrich/Snell/Deng/Noah/Boozer (around 80 minutes), which isn't quite what Chicago fans had in mind when visions of title teams danced in their preseason heads. The worst part? Although it was borderline unwatchable, that Rose/Butler/Deng/Noah foursome wasn't bad at all, scoring 1.06 PPP and allowing 0.95 PPP, rates that would translate to a title team over a whole season. Even with Rose's struggles, the lineups worked decently well -- teams respected Rose's offense and the defense was, as expected, vicious. Chicago's problem this year has been depth, and the fact that just about everyone on the court after those four guys has been disappointing and mired in barely-rotation-player status. Thibodeau is trying his best to find something that works, but his scrabbling is akin to a sous chef on Chopped being handed a bag of dog poop and asked to incorporate it into a beautiful dessert. There really aren't too many outs, there.

BROOKLYN: So, you know all that talk about Chicago's best lineups? Brooklyn's best lineups haven't been nearly as effective on the court, but it's hard to really get a grip on any of them, because none of them have played. Look at this semi-hilarious, semi-depressing list of "top" lineups that the Nets have put out this season:

Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Lopez (175 possessions, 89.6 minutes)
Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Blatche, Lopez (114 possessions, 54.0 minutes)
Livingston, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Blatche (76 possessions, 40.0 minutes)
Williams, Anderson, Johnson, Garnett, Lopez (75 possessions, 39.6 minutes)
Livingston, Anderson, Pierce, Plumlee, Blatche (66 possessions, 34.1 minutes)

I can hear your response now. "Are you kidding? Is this a joke?" Nope, no jokes, just rough chuckles. In a single game, any particular top-rung lineup that's versatile to be used non-situationally can usually muster around 5-10 minutes. Forty minutes of action for their best non-Lopez lineup is just kind of ridiculous at this point. Kidd has been going more than a little bit nuts on the lineup combinations (click on the "units" tab) while desperately searching for something that works. He hasn't quite found it yet. Obviously.

WHAT TO EXPECT? A really depressing game that makes you want to start drinking heavily before anyone opens presents. M*A*S*H unit lineups juggled by overwhelmed coaches. Incredibly slow pace. The dawning of the Shirsey. "Wojbombs over Baghdad."

• • •

GAME #2: OKLAHOMA CITY at NEW YORK -- Assist Opportunities (via NBA's Stat Site)

OKLAHOMA CITY: Although we don't have SportVU data available for any earlier season, one thing I've noticed from Oklahoma City's offense is that in the aftermath of the Harden trade they've tinkered with their offense in such a way that imitates the style they toyed around with during their coming-out party in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. What I mean by this is simple -- more passing, less isolation (although they're still very good at it and do it more than most teams), and more of a concerted effort to set up their fellow man. Since there's no baseline for comparison here, I could be completely wrong. But I have to think that Oklahoma City's average "assist opportunities" total has gone up over the years.

SportVU classifies an "assist opportunity" as the number of passes per game a player throws that could result in assists if their teammate makes the shot. Essentially, it allows fans to put a number to the "wow, ____'s teammates aren't making ANYTHING!" supposition that gets thrown around from time to time. Oklahoma City produces, as a team, 42.8 assist opportunities per game. This produces 21.8 vanilla assists per game (IE, assists as generally defined -- a made shot off of a pass) and 2.68 "free throw" assists per game (IE, non-counted assists where the target of the pass goes to the line). That means that Oklahoma City is converting on 24.4 of their 42.8 assist opportunities per game, producing points on 57% of their explicit passing plays. When the Thunder are passing within the flow of their offense, they're a ridiculously dangerous team.

NEW YORK: ... then again. There are a lot of NBA statistics that don't inform as to the team's quality so much as they inform to the style the team plays with. Assist opportunities -- a devilishly interesting statistic -- seems to fall under "play style" category if you look at it without context. I say this mostly because despite the rotating campfire spit of carnage that is their point guard position, the Knicks actually generate slightly more assist opportunities per game than Oklahoma City. They generate 43.7 plays that would be considered assists if the recipient canned the bucket. The big difference between New York and Oklahoma City, and the context that makes the statistic meaningful? The Knicks don't make the shots. Out of those 43.7 assist opportunities a night, the Knicks convert a baffling 20.2 of them into actual buckets and only 1.2 of them into free throws, which leads you to a conversion rate of 48%. Because we're crudely shoehorning in free throw percentage into the assist opportunities, we can't really compare this directly with field goal percentage. But that's not a particularly good number when you consider that assists are generally supposed to be the most open, high-quality shots a team can generate. This probably will improve when Prigioni and Felton are back to playing big minutes, but for now, if you're wondering about why New York's offense is so poor, you might do well to look at the plays where they're trying to set up their teammates.

WHAT TO EXPECT? Terrible traffic, if you live in the New York area. Seriously, games in both New York arenas? This slate is a gift for all the Jewish hoop-heads in New York, but I feel bad for their traffic congestion right now. Regardless. I didn't go into defense here, but the Knicks are a decidedly bottom-tier defense with poor fundamentals and still-recovering-from-injury centerpieces. Expect the Thunder to have a bunch of assists and a bunch of makes, at least for today.

• • •

GAME #3: MIAMI at LOS ANGELES -- Confounding Rebounding (via Basketball Reference)

MIAMI: This hasn't gotten a lot of press this year to date, and for good reason -- it's not particularly interesting. But one of the things that's separated this year's Miami team from the Heat of year's past is an attempt to take a page out of the shared dynasty Spurs/Celtics playbook and -- essentially -- completely abandon offensive rebounding. At no point in their dynasty have the Heat been a particularly incredible team on the offensive glass, mind you. They were 19th in the league the year they got together and stayed around that range for the following few years. This year, though? The Heat are only rebounding 18% of their own misses, which is on pace for the lowest percentage in NBA history. Look at those teams they're beating! Isn't that wild?

LOS ANGELES: Conversely, the Lakers have been one of the worst rebounding teams all season. Seriously. The Lakers are currently rebounding 71.6% of their opponent's misses, which ranks them as the 29th worst rebounding team in a league of 30. For those counting, that translates to a 28.4% offensive rebound rate among teams that play the Lakers. This isn't nearly as historically unprecedented as Miami's abandonment of the offensive glass, nor is it even particularly rare. There are 736 teams in the history of the NBA that have been worse at rebounding than the Lakers, which isn't actually all that many in the grand scheme of things over a 60 year history, but it's enough that it isn't notorious. Still, kind of hilarious.

WHAT TO EXPECT? Apologies to Nick Young, but this particular confluence of stats is the most interesting thing about this dismal afternoon game to me. When you face one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league -- one that, I might remind you, is doing it on purpose in an effort to shore up their defense! -- against one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league, which trend holds up? Does the better team decide to abandon their broader offensive rebounding strategy in favor of taking advantage of their opponent's flaws, or do they give the Lakers the rebounds they don't usually get? Should be a lot more interesting than the game itself, which is likely to be a yawner.

• • •

GAME #4: HOUSTON at SAN ANTONIO -- Picking up the Pace (via Basketball Reference)

SAN ANTONIO: The Spurs haven't changed much as the season has gone on. With Leonard and Splitter out for large stretches, the Spurs defense hasn't looked quite as good as it did to start the season. But the fundamentals -- their offensive efficacy, their pace of play, their general style -- has remained the same. You know what's changed? THE LEAGUE!

pace of play

This is graph of the Spurs game-by-game pace (NOTE: it's incredibly poorly presented, and I apologize for that -- testing out a new graphing feature and can't figure out why it smoothed out the lines. This is not a smoothed average curve, it's a game-by-game graph that shouldn't be smoothed), juxtaposed with a rough graph of the league's pace over the last two months. (It's very rough. It is a line connecting two points. Realistically, I know the league's pace got down to 95 within 1 month has stayed solid at 94 for the past 3-4 weeks, so it isn't ENTIRELY correct -- it's good enough for our purposes, though.) As the season has gone on, the league's average pace has gone down precipitously. At game seven or so, the Spurs were a bottom-10 team in pace. But by staying where they were while the league dropped off, they've now transitioned to a top-10 team in pace. Which should make this a ridiculously fast game, because...

HOUSTON: ... the Rockets are sixth overall in pace! The two teams accomplish it very differently, but both err on the side of a fast game of basketball. The Spurs tend to do so by shooting quickly and forcing a lot of turnovers. The Rockets tend to do so by shooting an ungodly amount of free throws (a bit under one free throw for every two shots), which raises the statistical pace of the game while adding time to the game itself. It's one of the funniest quirks about pace factor and possession statistics, actually. The teams that create fast pace through free throws tend to essentially make the game significantly longer in real-life, slowing down the pace-we-watch-at in order to raise the pace-they-play-at.

WHAT TO EXPECT? A fast paced contest. The Rockets are bad at taking care of the ball, in general, so look for San Antonio to push the pace and get out in transition quite a bit. Look for the Rockets to try and force the Spurs to foul and send them to the line, and look for Popovich to employ hack-a-Howard if Houston's offense gets into any kind of rhythm. Should be fun, if Harden can play.

• • •

GAME #5: LOS ANGELES at GOLDEN STATE -- Lineup Anti-Trouble! (via NBAWowy.com)

GOLDEN STATE: Remember how we started this piece by talking about all the sad trouble the Bulls and the Nets have had keeping lineups on the floor? The Warriors and the Clippers could not possibly be more different from them. Although Golden State has dealt with injury issues, specifically in the loss of Andre Iguodala, they've had Iggy's services for enough of the season to use him well. Coach Jackson has had the luxury of playing Golden State's crazy-good lineup of Curry/Klay/Iguodala/Lee/Bogut for 270 minutes so far this season. And it's a pretty amazing lineup, too -- the Warriors have put up an offensive rating of 116 with that fivesome along with a defensive rating of 99, which points to a lineup that's been absolutely DESTROYING every team in the league that doesn't start Patty Mills. (Sorry, sorry. That was rude.)

LOS ANGELES: On the other side we have the Clippers, who've had similarly good health luck prior to Redick's injury. Their most-used lineup included Redick, but still was able to put in almost 300 minutes of action before he went down, which is kind of incredible. Still, their next-best lineup is hardly chopped liver, with Paul/Crawford/Dudley/Griffin/Jordan having played 160 minutes and Paul/Green/Dudley/Griffin/Jordan having played 126 minutes. Neither of these lineups have been as killer as Golden State's best-five, which points to Golden State's advantage here -- they get to play a prime-time Christmas home game against a slightly injured competitor whose best lineups haven't been as rock-solid as theirs.

WHAT TO EXPECT? The best game of the night. Last time these two met, the Clippers got a solid victory in a 126-115 offensive masterpiece. I don't expect things are going to be quite as easy this time, given that the Warriors have improved their defensive rotations after a back-and-forth first week and J.J. Redick gave the Clippers a huge boost (although his numbers sounded pedestrian -- 17-5-2 in 28 minutes and 11 shots -- the Clippers played WAY better with Redick on the floor, their spacing effectively perfect and Redick's pressure defense effective in keeping Klay Thompson out of his comfort zone). Don't expect a defensive slugfest between these two -- expect two unbelievable offenses operating at maximum efficiency, and a fitting nightcap to what's hopefully an excellent Christmas.

• • •

Have a wonderful holiday, everybody!

What if the Spurs had traded Manu Ginobili?

The other day, long-time fan-of-the-blog @TBJ_Soldier asked a question on Twitter that stuck in my craw. The question, in short: "what if the Spurs had traded Manu Ginobili?" While rather non-specific, that's part of the beauty of it. When? To whom? For what? After talking with Nik, I had a better idea of the parameters he was looking at -- he was wondering what I thought would've happened if the Spurs had traded Manu Ginobili a la Harden, picking up a late lottery pick and a few short-season cast-aways in return. This piqued my interest, so I decided to give the question due diligence. I examined the guiding confluence of events in Manu's career to determine the three most logical trading points in Manu's career. For each of those points, I figured out a team in the late lottery that would represent a reasonable landing spot for Ginobili's acquisition. Then I tried to mentally cobble together a picture of how the resultant sans-Manu Spurs team would fare, and whether the subsequent few years would be better or worse than those the Spurs enjoyed in their reality. The results are below, framed by the dulcet tones of one Willard "Mitt" Smith. Happy perusing.

 • • •

(andre is the topic)

TRADING POINT #1: July 15, 2004

OK, HERE'S THE SITUATION: In the real world, Manu Ginobili re-signed with the Spurs on a six-year $52 million dollar contract. The contract was already a massive steal at the date it was signed, given Manu's breakout second season. He was coming off of a third-place finish for the 2004's sixth-man-of-the-year award, and he was less than one month away from destroying the world in the Olympics and leading Argentina to the gold medal. This is, incidentally, one of the luckiest breaks the Spurs got during their dynasty. If the Olympics had happened before the 2004 offseason got into gear, Ginobili is probably a lock for a max contract somewhere else, or (at the very least) a much higher per-year salary from the Spurs. And even if we aren't moving the offseason... knowing that Argentina had a legitimate shot at the medal, it's hardly difficult to imagine Manu holding off on contract negotiations until the post-Olympic period. Instead, he signed his entire prime away in an uncommonly underpaid contract that only became more skewed as time went on. Timing is everything, and the Olympics coming after this signing period probably lost him a good $30-40 million dollars. In our Manu-gets-traded world, we're assuming he doesn't come to terms with the Spurs immediately, preferring to wait until after the Olympics. If the Spurs had realized they had to shell out max money to keep him, it's not inconceivable that they sign-and-trade him away. To whom? Well...

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

SAN ANTONIO receives: #9 pick in the 2004 NBA draft (Andre Iguodala), Corliss Williamson

PHILADELPHIA receives: Manu Ginobili's rights, Kevin Willis

This one felt relatively reasonable. The 2004 76ers were a disappointing team, having bottomed out after losing Keith Van Horn and having Eric Snow essentially stop being a productive player entirely. But with Iverson in the fold and a suitable cast around him, the Sixers were a team that didn't feel they were particularly far from contention. Trading away Iguodala for a known quantity like Ginobili would make a decent amount of sense for them, especially if they could save a few bucks on the swap between the then-awful and horribly overpaid Williamson (then at $5.5 million a year) for the pittance-paid Willis ($1.3 million a year). Ginobili's passing would take some of the heat off of the complaints about Iverson's ball domination, while Iguodala would represent an easy swap-in that allowed the Spurs to maintain the rotations that won them a title just one year prior. It's not perfect, but it works on both sides. Hardly an unthinkable proposition.

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

Assuming Iguodala develops in a way roughly similar to the player he became in Philadelphia, he'd fit quite well with the late-aughts Spurs. Try to imagine, if you will, a lineup featuring Parker/Iggy/Bowen/Duncan/Oberto. With Pop's schemes behind them, I honestly have no idea how teams would score against them. Bowen and Iggy give you two lockdown wing defenders, Duncan/Oberto keep the paint dry, and Parker does his thing where he doesn't contribute much but doesn't take anything off the table either. I just don't see how you score consistently against that lineup, which is somewhat terrifying.

Conversely, though? Part of San Antonio's dynasty has always been Manu's freewheeling off the bench. While Iguodala represents a fantastic passing talent (as all the non-acquainted are getting to experience firsthand in Golden State), it's difficult to imagine him bringing the same sort of chaos-in-a-jar to San Antonio's bench offense that Manu did. And that's not a knock. Just the truth -- NOBODY can really replicate Manu's work on that end, and it's silly to even try. But it is true that Iguodala's passing is one of the best outside of the point guard position, even if his creativity isn't quite up to the levels the Spurs came to expect from Manu. I'd imagine the San Antonio offense falls off a bit (which is risky business, given how mediocre it was already) but perhaps not as much as one would initially think.

DO FANS MIND? Probably, yes. I highly doubt the Spurs would've won the 2005 title if they'd replaced Ginobili's near-Finals-MVP performance with that of a rookie Iguodala. By 2007, though, Iguodala's defense would make the Spurs nigh-unbeatable. And I'm not entirely sure the Lakers would've beaten the Spurs in 2008 if you swapped out the then-balky and injured Manu for a fresh, younger wing in Iguodala. Given the much higher probability of losing the 2005 title, I don't think a slightly better shot at the 2008 title would really move the needle here, and I sincerely doubt the Spurs would've beaten the 2008 Celtics even if they pulled off the upset against the favored Lakers. It's also hard to look past 2008, as Iguodala moved up to a max-level salary in the immediate aftermath of his rookie deal. Would San Antonio have given him that maximum salary, or would they have flipped him believing him not to be worth it? My guess is they'd have flipped him, which means the Spurs (in this case) aren't just trading 11 years of Manu for 11 years of Iggy. They're trading 11 years of Manu for 4 years of Iggy and a huge uncertainty. Additionally, Manu's 09-12  comeback seasons are better than what Iguodala put together in that period. Which has me leaning even further towards the balding Argentine. Sorry, Iggy.

 • • •

TRADING POINT #2: February 3, 2009

OK, HERE'S THE SITUATION: At this particular juncture, Ginobili had a year and a half left on his deal. Any team trading for him was getting one and a half years of prime Manu Ginobili, as well as bird rights when it came time to resign the cheeky Argentine. The Spurs sat at 35-16, second in the west but dwarfed by the mighty Bryant/Gasol Lakers. Given that L.A.'s golden boys had embarrassed the Spurs in a five-game pasting the year before, the 2009 season didn't really project to be a particularly strong season. They didn't look like the consensus second-best team in the west (they were third in adjusted point differential, and closer to sixth than the top two), the defense was hardly the league best pace the Spurs were accustomed to and the offense hadn't developed into the 2011 iron maiden it would eventually become, and the hope was low. So why not shake things up and pull a Utah Jazz, trading away one of the big three for a lottery pick, a veteran, and a few other picks? (ANSWER: Because it's dumb. Who trades Manu Ginobili? But let's pretend the Spurs aren't "Spurs Dad", at least for a moment, and assess them mortality akin to lesser beings.)

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

SAN ANTONIO receives: #12 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft (Gerald Henderson), Raja Bell (expiring), Two second round draft picks (2009/2011), cash considerations

CHARLOTTE receives: Manu Ginobili (1.5 years)

This is a pretty uneven trade in retrospect, but the market of teams that were looking to get markedly better (and, more importantly, felt like they were knocking on the door to begin with) in 2009 were scant, and Manu had already dealt with injury trouble in the season. And at the time, this might've seemed reasonable. Bell made the same amount that Manu did in 2009,  The Bobcats made two relatively large transactions during the 2009 season, specifically their acquisition of the Diaw/Bell/Singletary triumvirate from Phoenix for Richardson and Dudley and their jettisoning Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown for Vladimir Radmanovic. At the time, this would have looked like a slightly Charlotte-leaning trade with the potential to pan out nicely for San Antonio in the long run, given that they'd be granted a lottery pick, a chance to kick the wheels on another defensive-minded veteran swingman (who, it must be said, was averaging 12-3-2 on 45-48-85 shooting at the time of this theoretical trade), several second round picks, and some cash to grease the wheels.

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

... oh, well, about that. The Bobcats fought back in the late season to finish with the 12th overall pick, rather than something around the 8th pick which looked like the best case scenario at the time this trade was made. Which makes this even more like the Harden trade than I intended. Complicating matters further is the fact that there weren't many interesting players drafted in the middle of the first round. Ty Lawson was picked at #18, but there were ample concerns about his height and overall game translating to the NBA game. Essentially every other interesting late draft player was a point guard, with Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison highlighting the list. I'd guess that the Spurs would've stuck with the Bobcats' pick in the 12th spot, Gerald Henderson -- he had a solid skillset and great defensive fundamentals going into the draft, and he was a nice low-downside pick that would theoretically add back some of the defense San Antonio was losing to age.

About that. Henderson's a fine player, and I think he's slept on for his defense and his general game. But Spurs fans know Manu Ginobili, and Henderson is no Manu Ginobili. Manu was arguably San Antonio's most essential player in the 2010 season, and by trading him away in 2009, there's an outside possibility that the 2010 Spurs (who finished the season 50-32, in the 7th seed) would've missed the playoffs entirely. Neither of the second round draft picks turned into serious impact players (Derrick Brown and Jeremy Tyler, specifically). Assuming the Spurs draft the best player that remained in both of the years of the second round pick, Danny Green was available when the 2009 second round pick was on the table and Isaiah Thomas was available when the 2011 second round pick was on the table. Thomas was picked at #60, so assuming the Spurs pick him up might be unreasonable, but Green was picked up right around Charlotte's pick and it's not particularly difficult to imagine the Spurs snagging him a few years early.

That said, even if Danny Green became at-his-best a few years early, this doesn't project out as a good trade for the Spurs at all. Their defense could be mildly improved with the Green/Henderson combination taking Manu's minutes with some time-sharing at the three for Pop to experiment with his Parker/Hill lineups. Henderson's presence might quash the Richard Jefferson trade before it happens, which would probably be the best thing the Spurs could get out of this trade. Otherwise? The offense gets a lot worse without any reasonable secondary distributor (at least prior to Isaiah Thomas, if they even pick him up) and large swaths of the Spurs playbook become inaccessible in the absence of Manu Ginobili. Their big lottery pick never develops into much more than an MLE-type player, and disappontment is the word of the hour.

DO FANS MIND? ... Mmm, yeah, of course they do. The first scenario here wasn't the worst thing in the world for San Antonio -- Andre Iguodala's multifaceted game would allow him to act as a secondary facilitator while providing an additional lockdown man next to Bruce Bowen in the middle of San Antonio's dynasty years. This one, though? Gerald Henderson is a poor man's Iguodala, minus the three point stroke or the next-level passing. The second round picks help salvage the deal a little bit, but this one would've been an enormous mistake that Buford and company would never hear the end of.

• • •

BUY THIS SHIRT, IT'S THE BEST SHIRT

TRADING POINT #3: July 15, 2010

OK, HERE'S THE SITUATION: Extensions, extensions, extensions. That's the word of the moment. In reality, the Spurs agreed to a $33.9 million dollar extension with Manu in April of the 2010 season. But what if that extension was a prelude to an instant flip-and-trade? Manu's value was rarely -- if ever -- higher than it was after 2010, where he played the last few months of the season at MVP-quality pace and gave Spurs fans a glimpse at what a Manu-led title contender could look like. The 2010 Spurs were beset with injury and tied to a lot of old players, which made the season something of a punted one. They made the second round, but the Suns absolutely eviscerated them. The contemporary habit of shoveling dirt on the Spurs dynasty in the aftermath of every bad playoff game could be said to have started in 2010 -- in 2008, most people seemed to think the Spurs had one more run in the tank, and even in 2009 the Manu absence made everyone value their future higher. But the Spurs looked positively pedestrian in the 2010 season by their own standards, and their prompt playoff exit started the collective playing of "Taps" by many in the national media, for good reason. Making a move for a younger talent using an underpaid star's deal wouldn't be particularly out of the question. Right? (ANSWER: No, the Spurs have too much loyalty to their stars to do a sign-and-flip. It's a huge jerk move. But it's kind of the whole guiding conceit of this piece, so I guess we have to go with it.)

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

SAN ANTONIO receives: #10 pick in the 2009 draft (Paul George), Brandon Rush (2 years, $4 million), T.J. Ford (Expiring, $8.5 million)

INDIANA receives: Manu Ginobili (3 years, $33.9 million)

Wait, what? Paul George was taken 10th in the 2009 draft? Is this the real life? ... Yep, double checked it and had someone else read me the name. The Pacers hadn't made the playoffs in a while, but in 2010 they had a reasonably promising core. Roy Hibbert looked good, Danny Granger looked like he was still a star, and Troy Murphy had just had the best season of his life. Acquiring Manu Ginobili on a reasonable contract for a lottery pick, an expiring, and a swingman would be a pretty reasonable trade for Indiana. And getting a suitable short-term replacement in Rush along with a long-term replacement in George (and an expiring T.J. Ford, who the Spurs organization really liked early in his career) represents a best-case scenario type offer for San Antonio.

As for Indiana, I would think this changes the game a bit for them. I don't think they'd play Manu Ginobili as their primary point guard, but they'd definitely run their action through him. I doubt Roy Hibbert would become an offensive demon under Manu's tutelage, but I'd sure as hell love to find out. Assuming they still pick up David West in the 2011 offseason, the prospective Pacers core of Hill/Ginobili/Granger/West/Hibbert would still peak around the second or third best team in the east with an outside shot at #1, albeit with a less-dominant peak than we're seeing from the George-led 2014 Pacers.

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

Ironically, it doesn't look that much different than the previous offer -- at least if you consider it from the vantage point of someone who doesn't know how these lottery picks turn out. A late lottery pick, a veteran swingman, and some detritus on the side. But the results? So much better. SO MUCH BETTER. The 2011 season might not end with quite the record the Spurs ended up with -- I don't think they'd have won 60 without Manu, especially with a rookie Paul George taking his place. That said, winning 53-55 games wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, as that would likely mean the 2011 Spurs don't match up with the Memphis Grizzlies. The 2011 Spurs would've had a better shot against the 2011 Hornets or the 2011 Blazers than the Grizzlies they got to play. And after that developmental rookie campaign? You're looking at a Spurs roster with Parker, George, and Duncan putting up all-NBA seasons on wildly underpaid contracts.

And that ignores the big "if" in this scenario -- the Spurs traded for Kawhi Leonard one season later, and it's possible that would've happened regardless of this deal. The Manu-for-George Pacers would've looked a bit better in 2011, but their main problem may very well have been the same as it turned out to be: a startling lack of a quality starting point guard. Ginobili's presence would've made that a little bit more of a "nice to have", but after pushing the Bulls or the Heat in a tough first round series,  it's possible the opportunity to acquire Hill for a slightly later first round pick (probably 16-20) would have remained quite the enticing option. If that had still gone down, the Spurs could've been sporting a "best five" lineup of Parker/Leonard/George/Duncan/Splitter from 2011 to 2015, with a Leonard/George/Splitter core ready to take the reins when Parker and Duncan hung up their sneakers for good.

I... what? HOW? The offensive potential of a lineup with those five is tremendous, but it's nothing compared to the unfathomable defense those five could put on the floor. Two lockdown perimeter defenders, one of whom is always comfortable operating in chaos to disrupt plays from the weak-side? The shut-down rim defense Spurs fans have become accustomed to with Duncan and Splitter together? Cripes. Just a brutal combination.

DO FANS MIND? ... did I just trade Paul George to the Spurs? Well then! Unlike the Iguodala trade or the Henderson trade, there is virtually no aspect of this that a Spurs fan could dislike, other than the whole "seeing Manu in another jersey" thing. (Which, let it be said, is a big thing to dislike.) It would bolster their 2012-2015 title shots immensely, give them their next star to build around, and hearken back to the age of George Gervin. All at once! Just a ridiculous potentiality to think about.

• • •

So, what's the moral of this story? The Spurs shouldn't have traded Manu in 2004 or 2009, but they should've tried to trade him in 2010! Got it. ... Kidding, kidding. Look, I mentioned it up there, but the point bears repeating -- from an at-trade vantage point, the 2010 trade and the 2009 trade are virtually indistinguishable. Heck, the 2009 trade might even look slightly more palatable at the time -- Rush was a bit worse than Bell at-time-of-trade, and he wasn't an expiring. T.J. Ford looked done (and, sadly, essentially was), and the 2009 trade would've given the Spurs two more second round draft picks to work with, something the front office generally does magic with. The only difference between the two trades is timing -- the 2009 draft didn't have any future superstars available around that range, the 2010 draft did. To some extent, every trade involving draft picks is a game of Russian Roulette. You never really know exactly how it's going to turn out, and trading an established star player for a cocktail of potential and promise is going to bite you in the hand as often as it saves your franchise.

In this particular case, the way the Spurs do business virtually necessitated that none of these would ever happen. Manu Ginobili was always a player the Spurs procured at below-market value for team-defining contributions, and the Spurs simply aren't a franchise that trade away team-defining players for the gaping maw of the unknown. Although the final trade scenario here turned out to be a strong theoretical reality that would've changed the Spurs' fortune for the better... at the time of transaction, there was every possibility it could've turned out like the second trade here. And that isn't how the Spurs operate. The Spurs break their bread on the idea that they can carve out as much of the NBA's randomness as they possibly can in pursuit of a title -- they take conservative bets, barely ever shoot for the moon, and always try to be one step ahead. They rarely get so clever that they try to move three or four steps in advance. They modulate, they react, they keep a level head in times of crisis and they do their best to keep the boat steady.

You know what doesn't keep the boat steady? Trading Manu Ginobili. Fun as the "what if" may be, there was never any point where it was really going to happen. It's who they are, and who they'll be. Forevermore, perhaps.

Odds & Ends, Week #5: Dudley Does Right and Jefferson's Impact

dudley and paul

Last week, I wrote a fourth installment of a new feature looking at some statistical quirks and odd happenings over the prior week's action. To me, any time in the first month or two is a good time to be looking at NBA stats. There's not quite enough time for the trends to take on set-in-stone significance, but one can ignore them at their own peril. For just about every absurd statistical quirk that will fade as time goes on, the early season throws a truthful tiding or two to keep you on your toes. So, as an ongoing feature, using statistics from NBAWowy, Basketball Reference, and NBA.com, I'm going to try and take a weekly look at some recent trends of note and take my best stab at determining whether they're fated to fade or a reflection of the new normal. I will also, at the bottom of the post, keep a running tally of the trends I've previously enumerated and their current status. My current plan: three new trends per week, and a weekly enumeration of prior trends. Except for this week, where I'm really busy and only had time to isolate two trends. Sorry, folks!

• • •

Observation #1: JARED DUDLEY DOESN'T FREEWHEEL

As things stand, the Clippers are running one of the league's most pinpoint-passing offenses. 63% of their baskets are assisted, and Chris Paul is assisting on 55% of the baskets he's on the floor for. (Chris Paul is incredible.) Someone has to be making those assisted baskets, so it stands to reason that many of the players on the Clippers are being assisted more than they generally are over the course of their careers. And that's largely happening to everyone. Redick is at 88% of his field goals assisted, Blake and DeAndre are both over 70%, and even Jamal Crawford is hovering around 50%. Tons of assists to go around. None, however, are nearly as incredible as Jared Dudley. Dudley has taken 122 shots this season. Of those 122 shots, 121 have been assisted. No, that was not a typo.

In the 2014 season, Jared Dudley has made ONLY A SINGLE BASKET that wasn't assisted. Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is? Shane Battier is known to be the no-stats all-star, the player most likely to give up his personal glory for the good of the team and only take wide open shots off the catch. Shane Battier has been assisted on 85.7% of his shots, and even then, he's only made 28! Dudley has made over 100 shots, and 121 of those were directly off the pass. According to SportVU, Dudley touches the ball for 36 seconds per game. In those 36 seconds, he's scoring 8 points per night. Am I properly conveying how ridiculous this is?

When trying to figure out how strange this was, I realized that our buddy Jared is a special case -- because he's spent the vast majority of the last several seasons playing with Steve Nash, we can compare what he's doing with the Clippers to what he did for the last offense that absolutely murdered the league with pinpoint passing with few excursions. Let's see how much Dudley relied on assists in a Nash offense as compared to a Paul offense.

        eFG%     %AST     PG                
2014    0.553    0.982    Paul
2013    0.547    0.859    Dragic
2012    0.547    0.760    Nash
2011    0.560    0.743    Nash
2010    0.582    0.844    Nash
2009    0.528    0.691    Nash & Felton
2008    0.468    0.663    Felton

Oh. Well. OK then. All in all, this is pretty incredible. It probably won't maintain -- with Redick out, Dudley is going to get his number called a lot more. And more playing time inevitably means that Dudley is going to be on the floor for a few more broken possessions, resulting in some freewheeling and a few out-there shots. But it's worth appreciating just how phenomenally weird his made shots have been in the season to date. It's not rare for a player's offense to be mostly a product of a system -- just ask the beloved roleplayers of the recent dynasty Heat. But what we're seeing from Dudley, where the player has effectively become a robot whose only life's aim is to finish shots set up by his team's pinpoint offense? That's pretty weird, especially from a player as good as Dudley used to be. Credit Dudley for accepting this kind of an offensive role, credit Doc for putting him in a position to do it, and credit Paul for being good enough to let it happen.

Credit any, credit all. But make sure you credit someone. This is too ridiculous not to.

• • •

Observation #2: AL JEFFERSON'S IMPACT

We're far enough into the season that one might start to seriously examine the impact that various new additions are having to their teams. Because I'm clearly a masochist, I decided to start with the nigh-unwatchable Charlotte Bobcats. Let's start with offense. With Al Jefferson on the floor, the Bobcats are not a very good offensive team. Shocker! But really: they're shooting 42.5% from the floor with a 27.8% conversion rate from beyond the arc. Let's not cut corners: that's ghastly. Despite their struggles, 63% of their shots are jumpers! Their only saving grace is free throws drawn and free throws made -- they're shooting one free throw for every three shot attempts, which is quite a lot. And, essentially, is saving them from posting a league-worst offense. All in all, their Al Jefferson-centric product is just about the least aesthetically pleasing offensive product they possibly can on the floor, scoring a pedestrian 1.02 PPP in the process. For the idle consideration about how Al Jefferson might revolutionize Charlotte's offense, it looks... untrue, at least to date. Unless something crazy is happening with him off the court. Let's check!

THE BLOOD IS DROWNING ME.

No matter how offensively dismal the Bobcats are with Jefferson on the floor, they're playing quite a bit worse with Big Al off. They're scoring a crazy-low 0.969 PPP with Jefferson off the floor, with the difference primarily due to two factors: their free throw shooting (while they still draw a ton of attempts, without Jefferson in the game, they make fewer of them -- replacing Jefferson's ~70% with Biyombo's 48% is problematic) and their turnovers (which rise when they don't have Jefferson's steadying presence). Funny enough, the Bobcats shoot a tiny bit better with Jefferson off the court and take a marginally more efficient selection of shots. But shooting percentages and shot distribution are only one part of the offensive puzzle. Jefferson's presence doesn't solve all of these problems, as evinced by the still-very-low 1.02 PPP rate they're scoring at with Jefferson in the game, but he drags a god-awful offense kicking and screaming into a not-quite-as-awful offense. It's the little things.

Although Big Al isn't defending all that much better than he ever has in his career, his defense (if you can even call it that) is working well in Charlotte's new context. Players are still making 56% of their at-rim shots against Jefferson, which is pretty bad, but they simply aren't getting there as much as they used to -- Clifford's guards are trying really hard to keep opponents from penetrating, and they're doing a decent job of it. Jefferson's other positive? He's been in foul trouble just once in the season to-date, and keeping from fouling is keeping the bailout calls low. Opposing units are scoring just 0.991 PPP with Jefferson on the floor, which is a good defensive mark by just about any standard. Having a legitimate NBA center in the middle has bolstered Charlotte's defense -- unlike last year, where players would waltz to the rim with impunity against Biyombo and Mullens after 1 or 2 actions within the flow of the offense, guards are finally having a bit of trouble.

One other thing Jefferson is doing that he wasn't necessarily great at before is simple: he's just staying home and focusing on the boards. Instead of jumping out to contest long two pointers, Coach Clifford has him hanging back and leaving men open at 16-20 feet, with the idea being that a virtually uncontested long midrange jumper is a better outcome for Charlotte than risking that Jefferson can't recover on his man. It's a good gamble, and one that's paying off so far in Charlotte's downright excellent rebounding. Even if you're giving up open shots, you can build a solid defense if your big men are gobbling rebounds at the rate Jefferson, Biyombo, and Adrien are grabbing them.

Overall, in the 2014 season to date, the Bobcats have had a net rating of +2.1 points per 100 possessions with Jefferson on the court and a net rating of -6.3 with Jefferson off the court. Some of this seems bound to revert as time goes on -- Jefferson has only played 10 games so far this season, and two of them were blowout victories against the awful Milwaukee Bucks. As Jefferson gets more and more minutes against offenses that aren't strong candidates for the worst offense ever, I imagine his numbers will stabilize and that curiously large gap will close. Still, if the ballots were cast today, Jefferson would probably be Charlotte's most deserving all-star. They're simply playing much better with him on the court, and were he not in town, they'd look more like a dismal lottery team than a low-tier playoff team.

... Which might've been better for the franchise, but that's a debate for another day.

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

Given that I'm planning on keeping this going all throughout the year, it'd be a bit ridiculous to keep trends on the list the entire year even when they've been irrelevant for weeks. Therefore, I'm going to take trends off the trendspotting ledger once they've been blatantly untrue for two weeks. I'll keep a numbering scheme to remind everyone what post in the series spawned each individual trend, and I'll denote the trends that fell off in each individual week in a small blurb after all the ones we're tracking.

  • Week #1: "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... The league average pace is currently at 94.2, which holds steady from last week. As I said then -- as long as it stabilizes here, it's still one of the fastest seasons in recent memory. But if it continues to drop, this trend falls off. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • Week #1: "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." ... Even after Monday's ridiculous 56 MP night from Luol Deng, he's only up to 38.4 MPG. If his minutes creep up much higher, I might have to take this off in respect to the poor man's trials. But no other active Bulls player is playing much more than 31 minutes a game, and you have to respect Thibodeau's devotion to the cause. He's doing a good job here. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • Week #2: "The Houston Rockets are currently taking one free throw for every two shots. This is a nearly historically unprecedented rate, and hasn't been seen since the 1950s." ... The Rockets are now down to 0.428, which is by far the lowest they've been this season. This is still among the highest in the modern era, but they've dipped a hair below the free throw gobbling 1998 Utah Jazz. As someone nicely pointed out last week (and I should have mentioned, admittedly), this is partly due to Harden's absence. Primarily so, even. But it's dropped all the same. If they drop below the 90s Knicks, I'll officially retire this trend. I don't think they will, but we'll see. Status: IN HARDEN'S ABSENCE, WAVERING.
  • Week #3: "Were selections to be made today, there are no Eastern Conference guards who would deserve to make the Western Conference all-star team." ... John Wall has put up a good fight in the last week, and is now the proud owner of the East's best 2014 season by a current guard. That said, I'd still have him below the West's current fantastic seasons by Curry, Parker, Conley, Paul, Westbrook, Iguodala, Bledsoe, Lillard, and Harden in any reasonable all-star standings if he played there. Which means he definitely hasn't cracked this trend yet. Status: WALL IS PUSHING, BUT HOLDING STRONG.
  • Week #3: "Miami is facing a minor point guard crisis -- they're performing better with Norris Cole on the floor than with Mario Chalmers, throwing into question everything we know about the world." ... The Heat are still scoring 1.08 PPP with Chalmers on the floor, but the Chalmers-on-court defense has dropped such that they're only allowing 1.04 PPP. Of course, they're still scoring 1.15 and allowing 1.02 with Cole on the floor. So this one is still quite the pickle. Status: STILL TRENDING.
  • Week #3: "The Atlantic Division is on pace to be historically bad -- every single team is under 0.500, the division as a whole is being outscored by 4 points a night, and everything is awful." ... Let's take these one-by-one. Is every Atlantic team still under 0.500? Check. Is the division still collectively being outscored by 4 points a night? Check -- actually, their collective point differential is now at -4.8. Is everything still awful? Well, they went 5-15 this past week, bringing their collective record to 29-61. And one of those wins was when teams in the Atlantic Division were playing themselves. So... Status: AHAHAHA WHAT.
  • Week #4: "Kawhi Leonard is, strangely enough, not helping the San Antonio offense right now. They're averaging 1.0 PPP with Kawhi on the floor and 1.2 PPP with Kawhi off." ... Their offense was marginally worse this past week than it was over the whole season, as their Kawhi on-court offensive numbers fell to 0.99 PPP. Their Kawhi off-court offensive numbers are down slightly as well, but they're still at 1.17, so that's still quite the gap to be forded. This trend's still relevant. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • Week #4: "Contrary to all human reason, Jacque Vaughn has apparently decided that Jason Maxiell is Orlando's second best big man and has placed him firmly at second in Orlando's rotation, burying Andrew Nicholson on the bench despite Orlando playing much better with Vucevic/Nicholson than Vucevic/Maxiell." ... This one isn't quite true anymore, but it's not because Vaughn is favoring Nicholson. Glen Davis just came back from injury, and Davis has leapfrogged both of them. Both Nicholson and Maxiell's minutes have fallen precipitously since Glen Davis returned to action, with neither player now posting better than 20 MPG. Maxiell is still getting a bit burn than Nicholson, but they're both effectively buried right now. Which is... strange. Status: STILL TRUE, BY A HAIR.
  • Week #4: "The Rookie of the Year race looks really bad, and this rookie class looks extremely poor." ... I used some overstatement in this trend piece, and I apologize for that. That said, this week wasn't particularly kind to the rookies either, until Oladipo and MCW had one of the best rookie duels in recent memory in last night's 2OT PHI/ORL thriller. I'm wavering on this one. Status: WAVERING.

TRENDS THAT FELL OFF: The Nuggets are a bad basketball team (they aren't great, but at WORST they're mediocre -- Shaw has done a great job with these guys so far), Lillard finishing poorly but canning threes at record rates (his numbers have stabilized to a rough facsimile of his rookie year numbers.) Bye, trends!

Fourth Week Funderkind -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

kawhi vs blake

Last week, I wrote a third installment of a new feature looking at some statistical quirks and odd happenings over the prior week's action. To me, any time in the first month or two is a good time to be looking at NBA stats. There's not quite enough time for the trends to take on set-in-stone significance, but one can ignore them at their own peril. For just about every absurd statistical quirk that will fade as time goes on, the early season throws a truthful tiding or two to keep you on your toes. So, as an ongoing feature, using statistics from NBAWowy, Basketball Reference, and NBA.com, I'm going to try and take a weekly look at some recent trends of note and take my best stab at determining whether they're fated to fade or a reflection of the new normal. I will also, at the bottom of the post, keep a running tally of the trends I've previously enumerated and their current status. My current plan: three new trends per week, and a weekly enumeration of prior trends. Let's get to it, then.

• • •

Observation #1: KAWHI LEONARD ISN'T HELPING SAN ANTONIO'S OFFENSE

After last year's finals, just about everyone -- me included -- felt that Kawhi Leonard was due to take the proverbial "next step" this year. The theories on how exactly that would come to pass ranged heavily, but most people agreed that he was due to take a large leap offensively. With more responsibility in the offense, he'd start to learn how to facilitate and search for his own shot through careful examination of defensive seams. He'd couple this with his always improving defensive brilliance and become a quasi-star. Perhaps even an all-star, although everyone admits that's less likely given the West's glut of amazing wings and forwards. Right?

Not so much. At least to date. With Kawhi Leonard on the floor, the Spurs are averaging a pedestrian 1.00 points per possession. With Kawhi off the floor, the Spurs are averaging a blistering 1.18 points per possession. To put that in layman's terms: the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to a bottom-five offensive team when Kawhi's in the game. When he's not, the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to NBA Jam with all sliders maxed out. The main difference? The Spurs aren't making many jumpers when their young star's in the game (0.86 points per shot) -- but they're canning them like sardines when he isn't on the floor, scoring 1.08 points per jumper when Kawhi is stuck to the pine. It's a tricky result for a core player that essentially everyone believes to be San Antonio's future.

The eye test tends to agree with the stats on this one, too -- it doesn't really feel like an anomaly. Although the Spurs are missing a lot of open shots with Kawhi on the floor, it seems like every few shots Kawhi controls ends up in a laughably botched pass or a complete prayer of a jumper. The offense has a bad habit of stalling, leaving half the players on the floor watching helplessly as Kawhi abuses his own screens or dribbles himself into positions where San Antonio's open players are completely inaccessible and multiple defenders have a chance at altering the shot. While the offense is still functioning effectively when Kawhi successfully dishes to a driver or runs a play action, more often than not, that action never really initiates -- the offensive set just ends in a desperation heave or a random step-back jumpshot. And as we all know, the degree of difficulty on a random fadeaway jump shot is way, way higher than the stand-still set shots San Antonio generates when the system has the reins and takes an effort to whip the ball around off screens and motion. Hence the gap in jump shot efficiency.

To put it simply, the Spurs offense is a LOT more clunky than it is when Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili takes the reins. Perhaps that's to be expected, but the vast gap in how smart the plays are is somewhat jarring. Screens lie abandoned, simple easy-to-thwart actions are thwarted, and the off ball movement seems to stall. It's just a very strange look for the Spurs offense, as necessary as it may be to develop it.

The strangest part about it all? Kawhi's personal offensive numbers aren't particularly bad, even as the overall team offense looks bad when he's at the helm. His three point shot is consistently missing the mark by a few inches (and his 27% three point percentage shows it), but Kawhi is shooting 60% from inside the three point line. Most would see that and assume he isn't taking any long two pointers, but that's simply not true -- he's taking a hell of a lot of long two point shots, he's just being polite enough to actually make them. He's shooting 14-of-27 from 16-24 feet, a percentage that would usually lead the league from that range.  His turnover rate is up a tad and he's drawing free throws a bit less than he was last year, but his rebounding rate is through the roof and his assist rate is holding steady. It all stands to reason that Kawhi's personal offensive numbers really aren't that bad, making the team's dismal offense with him on the floor all-the-more confusing.

That said, the Spurs are hardly floundering with Kawhi on the floor, and the defense can be thanked for that. In Zach Lowe's yearly "32 Bold Predictions" post, he waxed philosophical about how Chicago's starting lineup (Rose/Butler/Deng/Gibson/Noah) might allow less than 90 points per possession, and then noted that San Antonio's starting lineup accomplished the task last year. San Antonio's starters -- surprisingly -- haven't been quite there this year. But every unit Kawhi is a part of comes remarkably close. No matter who the Spurs put next to Kawhi, opposing teams are scoring just 0.91 points per possession with Leonard on deck (compared to 1.01 with him off the floor -- still good, but not world-beating). What makes this even more impressive is that Kawhi tends to be on the floor against starters and the league's best lineups, and in his semi-limited minutes (27 a night), he doesn't tend to get much burn against the crumbs and detritus of the opposition bench mobs.

It compounds to make that number all the more impressive. Perhaps more importantly, it also gives the Spurs a lot of time to figure things out -- as long as the defense is this stout with Kawhi on the floor, the flagging offense is something Popovich has time to work out. This does tend to make this year's Spurs team all the more frightening, assuming good health. After all. The team is 13-1 with everyone on an inconceivably short leash, sporting the sixth best offense and the second best defense. Given Duncan's currently slumping shot and the generally poor offense under Kawhi's purview, the question looms -- what if San Antonio's offensive best is yet to come?

• • •

Observation #2: JACQUE VAUGHN REALLY LIKES MAXIELL/VUCEVIC, APPARENTLY

At some point during his explosion in the first game of the season, I started really liking Andrew Nicholson's game. I was essentially neutral on him after his decent-not-great rookie campaign, but that game sort of put me on the bandwagon. Sure, he's a tiny bit short. He turns the ball over a lot. He isn't exactly a defensive mastermind. I get all that. But he's a very good rebounder and an excellent scorer that really helps out an offense. His three point shot isn't exactly making the opposition cower in fear (after going 2-for-2 from three in the first game of the season, Nicholson went 2-for-17 in the following 11 games), but he has picture-perfect form on his long midrange jumpshot and he's comfortable releasing in the rhythm of the offense. He's been pretty solid... which goes a long way toward explaining why the following minutes distribution of Orlando's big men absolutely floored me:

Big #1     Big #2       Poss    Minutes
Maxiell    Vucevic       368      183.4
Nicholson  Vucevic       213      111.2
Harkless   Vucevic       161       80.7
Nicholson  O'Quinn       159       80.6
Maxiell    O'Quinn        44       21.5
Nicholson  Maxiell        24       12.2

Seriously, Jacque Vaughn... what? Even more damning here is the fact that Maxiell has actually played fewer games than Nicholson has -- in terms of possessions per game, Maxiell/Vucevic is just CRUSHING Nicholson/Vucevic in Vaughn's rotations. This really amuses me. I realize that Nicholson is young, but Jason Maxiell is having a really, really bad season. Which is sort of what most people expected; the man hasn't been particularly passable player since 2010, and his PER (currently 8.2) really understates how bad he's been for Orlando. The Magic are scoring 1.01 PPP and allowing 1.12 with Maxiell on the floor -- when he's on the bench, they're actually outscoring their opponents 1.04 to 1.02 PPP.

Their defense is markedly worse, and watching the tape is pretty damning. Maxiell has lost the athleticism that made him valuable and is regularly losing his man and flying off the handle in pursuit of an errant block. And THAT'S the lineup that Jacque Vaughn is leaning on? I've got a post in the works about how sunny the future is in Orlando, and the moments where Vaughn puts Nicholson and Vucevic on the court together make you wonder how good these two can be. But for now, Jason Maxiell looks like Orlando's best chance at a lottery pick.

Looks like Vaughn really wants that pick.

• • •

Observation #3: THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR RACE IS UNFATHOMABLY AWFUL

Seemingly every year, commentators repeat ad nauseum the same tired schtick about how the draft is the weakest we've seen in ages. "No young talent! Are there any functioning NBA players? This draft goes three deep!" Generally, these aspersions turn out to be little more than overreactions. You can find three or four high quality players in almost every draft, even the "awful" ones people decry. To wit, here's a subjective top five players from every draft in the last half-decade.

  • 2012: Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, John Henson
  • 2011: Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson
  • 2010: Paul George, John Wall, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins
  • 2009: James Harden, Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday
  • 2008: Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert

Flip through that list. Almost every draft listed had virtually no hype, despite the fact that they all have multiple all-star caliber players and at least five legitimate NBA starters. The draft is a crap shoot, yes, but almost every year brings a few legitimate stars and starters to bolster the league's lower lights.

You know. Except for this year.

Seriously, I don't really have a lot to add here. Look at this list of the "best" statistical seasons by the NBA's current rookies playing over 15 minutes a night, ordered by PER. Note: only one such rookie has an above-average PER.

Rk  Player                    Tm    G    PER     PTS   TRB   AST   MP      eFG%   TOV%   WS/48
1   Michael Carter-Williams   PHI   11   19.5   17.3   5.7   7.4   36.2   0.452   16.2   0.104
2   Mason Plumlee             BRK   10   14.6    6.2   3.5   0.3   16.8   0.636   12.2   0.117
3   Vitor Faverani            BOS   16   14.0    5.8   5.1   0.6   16.8   0.494   22.0   0.073
4   Steven Adams              OKC   12   13.7    4.8   5.1   0.9   18.8   0.455   13.9   0.148
5   Tim Hardaway              NYK   12   12.6    6.5   1.1   0.8   15.3   0.493    6.3   0.056
6   Nate Wolters              MIL   13   12.5    7.5   2.8   4.5   27.0   0.417   13.0   0.042
7   Victor Oladipo            ORL   13   11.0   12.3   4.1   3.4   27.5   0.428   24.1  -0.038
8   Ben McLemore              SAC   13   10.7    8.8   2.8   0.8   21.8   0.467    9.5   0.033
9   Kentavious Caldwell-Pope  DET   12   10.1    7.9   1.8   1.0   22.3   0.401    2.7   0.047
10  Matthew Dellavedova       CLE   8     9.8    3.9   1.8   1.1   16.0   0.538   15.3   0.065
11  Kelly Olynyk              BOS   14    9.4    7.5   5.4   1.6   22.6   0.407   20.1   0.005
12  Cody Zeller               CHA   15    7.7    4.9   4.1   0.7   18.3   0.342   18.8  -0.001
13  Trey Burke                UTA   4     7.5    8.5   3.5   3.0   21.5   0.369   15.6  -0.098

Michael Carter-Williams is running away with the Rookie of the Year hardware right now, but his overall performance leaves a bit to be desired. He's currently shooting 40-36-60, and with his three point shot having been so poor in college, it's hard to imagine that 36% maintaining over time -- indeed, it's been on the downswing since the first 5 games of the season. His free throw shooting is atrocious, as well. All that said, he does look like he has a good shot at being an above-average NBA player. Which is more than I can say about essentially the entire rest of this draft class. Both Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams have faded a bit after an excellent start, but I'd still take their defensive potential and broken offense over just about anyone else on this thoroughly uninspiring list.

Victor Oladipo has been disappointing, in my eyes -- his defense translates moderately well, but his offensive game is broken and his scoring and distribution potential might have been highly overrated. Anthony Bennett isn't the only high profile rookie to flounder, either. Otto Porter hasn't yet stepped on the court and looked obnoxiously bad in Las Vegas Summer League action. Alex Len has been bad enough that Phoenix has made Miles Plumlee their work-a-day option and buried their 5th overall pick on the bench. McLemore, Burke, and Pope all look decidedly awful in their burn to date, and the Olynyk/Zeller/Muhammad don't even look like NBA-quality roleplayers. That's the entire lottery. Micheal Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo, and Steven Adams are the only lottery picks that currently look like they even have the rough potential of becoming an NBA-quality starter -- and the Oladipo/Adams duo have a lot of work to do before they get there, too. Overall? This looks like one of the most inauspicious rookie classes in the last 20 years.

For once, it looks like the nattering nabobs of negativity got it right. Save us, Obi Wan Ke-Noel-bi, you're our only hope!

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

Given that I'm planning on keeping this going all throughout the year, it'd be a bit ridiculous to keep trends on the list the entire year even when they've been irrelevant for weeks. Therefore, I'm going to take trends off the trendspotting ledger once they've been blatantly untrue for two weeks. I'll keep a numbering scheme to remind everyone what post in the series spawned each individual trend, and I'll denote the trends that fell off in each individual week in a small blurb after all the ones we're tracking.

  • Week #1: "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... The league average pace is currently down to 94.5. We're starting to get into territory where this is becoming shaky -- last week's games, for instance, were effectively played at snail's pace compared to where we started the season. Again, it's still among the highest in recent memory, but if it doesn't stabilize, we may be down to dismal levels by year's end. Status: STILL TRUE, BUT WAVERING.
  • Week #1: "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." ... Still reasonable. The injury bug might be starting to cause a reversion to his usual patterns, though -- Deng is up to 37 MPG in Butler's absence and there's still little to no idea on any side how he's going to cope with Rose being out. That said, it's still his best minutes-shaving rotation in quite a while, so I'd still assess this as true. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • Week #1: "The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." ... Nope. They swept a home-and-home against the Dallas Mavericks, who look like a legitimately great offense this year. They're up to 8th in full-season offensive rating and 18th in defensive rating. They aren't a contender, but they certainly aren't as awful as they looked to start the season. Status: NOPE, THIS ONE'S GONE
  • Week #2: "The Houston Rockets are currently taking one free throw for every two shots. This is a nearly historically unprecedented rate, and hasn't been seen since the 1950s." ... The Rockets are down to 0.456 free throw attempts per shot. While this isn't historically unprecedented, it's still by large margin the highest rate since the 1950s, so I'd still say this trend is holding. But last week had a huge drop in their rate, so it'll be interesting to see if they start reverting to normal historical levels soon. Status: UNPRECEDENTED, NO. HISTORIC, EFFECTIVELY.
  • Week #2: "Damian Lillard can't finish. He also can't stop making threes -- he's completely inverted his shooting percentages from his rookie year, despite neither looking particularly different." ... Lillard has continued to revert to the mean. He's now at 40% from two and 38% from three. At original writing, Lillard was at 46% from three and 36% from two. He's essentially returned to career averages over the intervening two weeks. Status: UNLESS SOMETHING CRAZY HAPPENS, IT'S OVER
  • Week #3: "Were selections to be made today, there are no Eastern Conference guards who would deserve to make the Western Conference all-star team." ... With the East going 3-17 to the West over the previous week, there really wasn't much opportunity to add to this list. And sure enough, nobody really has yet. Status: YEP, EAST IS STILL AWFUL.
  • Week #3: "Miami is facing a minor point guard crisis -- they're performing better with Norris Cole on the floor than with Mario Chalmers, throwing into question everything we know about the world." ... The Heat are still scoring at a much better rate (1.17 PPP vs 1.12 PPP) and allowing fewer points (1.03 PPP vs 1.07 PPP) with Cole on the court. Still, if you look at the numbers I outlined last week, that's a far less stark advantage than Cole had a week ago, indicating that the previous week has been good for Chalmers. It's definitely still a debate, but Chalmers is starting a comeback.  Status: CONTROVERSY! COLE/CHALMERS! THE CHILLA IN THE CRIB...LLA?
  • Week #3: "The Atlantic Division is on pace to be historically bad -- every single team is under 0.500, the division as a whole is being outscored by 4 points a night, and everything is awful." ... Last week, the Atlantic Division went 5-12. Hilariously, this has improved their cumulative win percentage. Also, their collective point differential is down from -4.1 to -4.6. Not a good look. Status: STILL TRUE, DEAR GOD.

 TRENDS THAT FELL OFF: Andre Iguodala's free throw percentage (not respectable, but no longer hack-an-Iggy level), Steph Curry on pace to break the three point attempt record (not even close, anymore), LeBron playing over 36 MPG (down to 35 MPG). Bye, trends!

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

Giannis Antetokounmp-no.

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

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

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

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

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

 • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What? Seriously, what?"

Third Week Hullabaloo -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

norris

Last week, I wrote a second installment of a new feature looking at some statistical quirks and odd happenings over the prior week's action. To me, any time in the first month or two is a good time to be looking at NBA stats. There's not quite enough time for the trends to take on set-in-stone significance, but one can ignore them at their own peril. For just about every absurd statistical quirk that will fade as time goes on, the early season throws a truthful tiding or two to keep you on your toes. So, as an ongoing feature, I'm going to try and take a weekly look at some recent trends of note and take my best stab at determining whether they're fated to fade or a reflection of the new normal. I will also, at the bottom of the post, keep a running tally of the trends I've previously enumerated and their current status. My current plan: three new trends per week, and a weekly enumeration of prior trends. Let's get to it, then.

• • •

Observation #1: EASTERN CONFERENCE ALL-STAR GUARDS ARE HARD TO FIND

When you think of the Eastern Conference, it's not particularly hard to come up with names that sound like they should be all-star quality. Whether it's guards that made the all-star team before or have the unimpeachable all-star chops of a young player coming into their own, in the preseason, the thought was simple. The East's surfeit of talent had finally come to call, lifting the conference up into a tier of respectability heretofore unseen by man. Kyrie, Rose, Wall, Williams -- the talent was undeniable.

Here are a few things we know about all-stars. First, we know they play at least 30 minutes a night. Only one player has ever made an all-star game averaging fewer than 25 minutes a night, and only five have made it averaging fewer than 27 -- you need to be on the court for well over half the game to get consideration. Secondly, although this may surprise you, you generally need to have an above-average PER. Only 60 players have gotten an all-star bid in the past 60 years with a PER under 15, and only one of those occurred in the last 20 years. In general, you need to be at least marginally above average to merit consideration for a spot. Finally, the kicker -- your team needs to win, at least a little bit. Only 1 or 2 all-stars a season will hail from a losing team, and they generally hail from a team that's suffered massive injury trauma.

Having said all that, please take a look at the following table of the NBA's top 20 guard performances this season for those playing above 27 minutes a game, ranked by win shares. Please note: there are only 61 guards averaging over that minutes total. I've included a few below the top 20, with their rank next to their name. Because I am helpful, I have marked all western guards in red and all eastern guards in blue.

	Player			Tm	G	MP	WS	 TS%	PER		FG%	3P%	FT%
1	Chris Paul		LAC	11	36.2	2.2	0.56	26.8		0.42	0.24	0.96
2	Andre Iguodala		GSW	11	37.0	2.0	0.72	19.4		0.61	0.52	0.60
3	Klay Thompson		GSW	11	35.5	1.9	0.67	20.2		0.53	0.51	0.82
4	Stephen Curry		GSW	10	32.7	1.7	0.60	24.0		0.46	0.44	0.89
5	Wesley Matthews		POR	11	35.1	1.7	0.71	19.2		0.55	0.53	0.76
6	Arron Afflalo		ORL	10	36.9	1.6	0.62	21.4		0.49	0.50	0.80
7	Kevin Martin		MIN	10	35.1	1.6	0.60	21.7		0.45	0.47	0.91
8	Eric Bledsoe		PHO	9	34.8	1.5	0.61	23.9		0.50	0.29	0.83
9	Ty Lawson		DEN	10	36.9	1.5	0.56	23.7		0.46	0.32	0.79
10	Damian Lillard		POR	11	37.0	1.5	0.55	19.2		0.40	0.40	0.86
11	Mike Conley		MEM	11	32.6	1.4	0.60	23.0		0.51	0.32	0.87
12	James Harden		HOU	10	39.8	1.4	0.59	21.6		0.44	0.29	0.86
13	Jeremy Lin		HOU	11	33.8	1.3	0.66	19.3		0.53	0.44	0.79
14	Kyle Lowry		TOR	11	35.4	1.3	0.52	16.0		0.39	0.36	0.67
15	Lance Stephenson	IND	10	33.8	1.2	0.54	15.3		0.46	0.45	0.55
16	Tony Parker		SAS	10	31.5	1.1	0.57	20.3		0.54	0.27	0.65
17	J.J. Redick		LAC	11	29.4	1.1	0.61	18.9		0.46	0.38	0.95
18	Jeff Teague		ATL	10	34.3	1.1	0.54	21.2		0.44	0.25	0.76
19	Jodie Meeks		LAL	12	27.5	1.0	0.69	16.1		0.53	0.49	0.77
20	Steve Blake		LAL	12	31.9	0.9	0.54	14.4		0.40	0.46	0.77
        ...
22	DeMar DeRozan		TOR	11	38.2	0.9	0.49	16.1		0.40	0.35	0.82
        ...
-------------------- ALL PLAYERS BELOW THIS LINE ARE BELOW THE AVERAGE ---------------------------
        ...
33	Evan Turner		PHI	12	36.5	0.6	0.54	17.3		0.47	0.19	0.84
34	John Wall		WAS	9	36.9	0.6	0.47	16.9		0.37	0.32	0.85
36	Kyrie Irving		CLE	11	35.8	0.5	0.49	17.6		0.40	0.35	0.82
39	Dwyane Wade		MIA	9	33.2	0.5	0.52	18.5		0.48	0.29	0.61
43	Brandon Jennings	DET	7	34.3	0.4	0.47	19.6		0.38	0.31	0.71
44	Joe Johnson		BRK	10	33.0	0.4	0.50	12.0		0.40	0.34	0.80
48	Bradley Beal		WAS	9	40.1	0.3	0.51	13.1		0.41	0.45	0.73
54	Kemba Walker		CHA	11	34.7	0.2	0.42	12.7		0.33	0.26	0.78
60	Derrick Rose		CHI	8	31.4   -0.1	0.44	 9.2		0.34	0.33	0.88

Seriously, what? There are only five eastern conference guards with above-average win-shares among guards playing 27+ MPG. Jeff Teague and Brandon Jennings are leading Eastern Conference guards in PER. Ray Allen, Arron Afflalo, and Mario Chalmers are leading Eastern guards in shooting -- add in James Anderson, O.J. Mayo, and Martell Webster and you have the only six eastern conference guards with a TS% over 55%. This isn't just a "below average" thing. Eastern conference guards have been an absolute horror-show in the early going, and none have been more disappointing than the conference's anointed preseason all-stars. Derrick Rose is currently sporting negative win shares and a PER of 9. Kyrie Irving's PER is barely above average and he's shooting identical percentages to DeMar DeRozan (seriously, look at them -- to date, both players are shooting 40-35-82). Deron Williams is barely averaging 25 minutes a night, and as such, isn't even on this list. Dwyane Wade is posting by large margin the worst numbers of his entire career and playing lackadaisical defense... and he's probably the most deserving all-star in the East's guard slate right now. It's that bad.

If I had to pick out who "deserves" an Eastern conference all-star spot right now, I'd probably err on the side of Wade, Teague, Afflalo, and Turner. Which is... special, let's put it that way. Much like last season, you can make a case for Jennings and Wall and Irving as Eastern all-stars. Unlike last season, it's not really that any of those three are playing anything even remotely approaching decent basketball -- it's simply that they aren't completely embarrassing themselves, and in this Eastern conference, "not embarrassing yourself" appears to be just about good enough to "deserve" an all-star spot. Conversely, look at the embarrassment of riches in the West. Parker, Paul, and Curry all look like locks, and their production has been phenomenal to date. But Mike Conley has been world's better than anything the East has put up, as has Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. As has Harden and Lin. And don't forget Lillard or Westbrook. Hell, Eric Freaking Gordon has been putting up great numbers compared to his eastern counterparts, and he's world's away from his first all-star selection in the West.

All this is to say: there will probably be five guards from the Western conference selected to this year's all-star game, and there will probably be four or five guards from the Eastern conference selected to this year's all-star game. Don't for one second think that the Eastern selection will mean quite as much as the Western selection, and don't for one moment forget that there are legitimately zero guards in the East that would currently make even a cursory cut for a Western selection.

• • •

Observation #2: MIAMI HAS A POINT GUARD CRISIS

"Wait, what? Really?"

That overstates it, but... sort of. After a year or so of scuffling in wanting for a point guard worth their salt, the Heat finally seemed to converge nicely around Chalmers in 2012. They haven't really looked back ever since -- and it must be noted that they really haven't needed to, as Chalmers has been decent enough to keep the show going without breaking anything and keeping things relatively tied down for LeBron and Wade to orchestrate the show. Chalmers isn't broken, so there's no real reason to fix him, yes?

Well, again -- sort of. Norris Cole was an abhorrent NBA player in his first few seasons -- bad at shooting, worse at running an offense, worse still at playing defense. He didn't really fit seamlessly into the Heat's system, to the point where he duplicated skills that needed no duplication and was bereft of skills that the heat needed dearly. So they buried him on the bench and the thought was that he'd take a bigger role when the time came that he'd finally learned how to run an NBA offense.

If early season numbers are accurate, that time might very well be now.

After noticing Cole's strong impact in the excellent Dallas game a few nights back, I took a dip into the stat-pool. Using Evan Zamir's NBAWowy tool, I took a look at how the Heat offense was faring under Chalmers and under Cole. The results were surprising. The Heat offense is scoring 1.08 points per possession with Chalmers on the floor, which is quite nice... but they're scoring 1.22 points per possession with Cole on the floor, which is borderline unholy. The difference is mainly due to differential shooting percentages -- they're shooting better from three and better from midrange with Cole on the floor -- but I admit that my main curiosity was whether the Heat were taking a different profile of overall shots with Cole on the floor. The answer: a little bit. Cole isn't much of a three point marksman, so the expectation should be that the Heat take fewer threes with him on the floor -- and they take marginally fewer. They take a few more midrange shots, but shoot significantly better from that range. They have more dunk attempts and more tip shots than they do under Chalmers, but slightly fewer layups.

Does this mean that the Heat should dramatically cut Chalmers from their rotation in pursuit of more production from Cole? Probably not -- Chalmers is still a better defender than Cole, even if he takes a lot of stupid risks, and there's something to be said for continuity. For my part, I don't think the raw difference in PPP is going to hold up over time. Although they're shooting better under Cole, they're shooting worse shots. That probably isn't going to lead to a sustainable gap between them. That said, both players have a very different way of running the game, and from an adaptation standpoint, it's always nice to have new options. I'd bet you anything Spolestra's already drawing up some new strategies to spring on teams in the playoffs using their differential styles to keep the opposing defense off guard. A bit of a scary development for the rest of the league, all things considered.

NOTE: I don't really have any explanation for this, but the Heat are actually being outscored with Chalmers on the floor, as opponents are averaging 1.09 PPP with Chalmers on the floor and 1.01 PPP with Cole on the floor. This is not a reflection of their defense, as Chalmers really is a better defender in space than his man. He does, as I said, take a lot of stupid risks... but on the whole he's a bit better than Cole. I don't really know what's up with that. Especially since Chalmers shared almost triple the minutes with LeBron/Bosh/Wade than Cole did. Not sure what to say about that, so I'm just going to place that here and let you think about it. Think about what you've done, readers.

• • •

Observation #3: THE ATLANTIC DIVISION MIGHT BE HISTORICALLY BAD

Because I don't store data on teams by-division (and don't have a large number of years in my "team stats by year" personal database), I don't have many statistics on their historical comparables. But I do have a decent number of statistics on their overall performance to date. And let's be real, for a moment -- if things continue as they've played out to date, the Atlantic division may very well end up being a historically awful display of NBA futility. Some facts about the division:

  • Collectively, the division as a whole is on a 12 game losing streak. None of the five teams from the Atlantic Division have won a game in regulation since Toronto's 103-86 upset of the Grizzlies last Wednesday. That's right -- almost a week. If the Knicks and the Celtics lose tonight, it'll stretch to a 14 game losing streak, and officially stretch the division's collective streak without a regulation win to a week. (Note: there were two OT wins in that period by Brooklyn and Philadelphia)
  • Currently, the division has been outscored by 4.1 points per game over a collective 53 games. Their collective record as a division is 19-34. I've heard a lot of people note that the division has a lot of close losses. True. But the expected win percentage of a team that is outscored 4.1 points per game is 36%, and 36% of 53 games is, well... 19 wins. [uncomfortable side glance] Really, though, to bring you some context: only 5 teams lost by more than four points a game over the course of the 2013 season. Those teams: CLE (-4.7), ORL (-7.0), CHA (-9.2), SAC (-4.9), and PHX (-6.5). Yikes.
  • The Philadelphia 76ers are the only team in the division with a winning home record. Every other team has a losing home record, and every team in the division has a losing road record. It is not a fun time to be an Atlantic division fan attending games. (Not coincidentally, the Sixers are currently leading the division. You know, almost one month into the season. The Sixers start James Anderson and have been missing their starting point guard. It's a great look.)

The division seems incredibly awful, but I sincerely doubt this particular trend is going to maintain going forward. They've got one hilarious saving grace right now -- they haven't played themselves. So far, they've only played one intra-division game this season, a showdown where the Raptors beat the Celtics. The division will necessarily go 1-1 on every game they play against themselves, with a net margin of zero. This is going to drag their collective point margin closer to zero, and provide a consistent source of wins. Even if the division loses every other game they play this year, they'll go 36-36 with a margin of zero on the 72 intra-divison games that they play. And, I mean, they can't possibly lose every other game they play... right?

Right?!?

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

  • "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... The league average pace is currently down to 94.9. As it was last week, it's still the fastest since 1994 -- just a tiny bit slower, is all. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • "Stephen Curry is currently shooting nine three pointers a game, putting him on pace to smash through the all-time three pointers attempted mark in the 2nd quarter of game 75." ... Yeah, definitely not. He's missed a game and is now down to seven three-point attempts a game. He isn't going to smash the all-time attempted record, although his last-year record of three pointers made is an outside possibility. Might transition this off the trend list next week. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
  • "LeBron James is playing well over 36 MPG. He should not be playing this much, for rest reasons." ... He's down to exactly 36 MPG. I'm OK with this. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
  • "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." ... Still completely reasonable. Only one player over 36 (Luol Deng) and everyone else in the low 30s to high 20s. It's a Popovich-type rotation right now. Status: STILL CONFUSING, STILL TRUE.
  • "The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." ... Nope. Officially gonna state it -- this Denver team isn't an absurdly awful basketball team. They aren't very good, and I'm going to be shocked if they finish the season over 0.500, but they're a respectable low-tier playoff contender that'd easily make the playoffs in the East. Their main issue is their defense, which is awful, but their post-Karl offense is still reasonably effective. Status: AWFUL, PERHAPS NOT ABSURDLY THOUGH?
  • "The Houston Rockets are currently taking one free throw for every two shots. This is a nearly historically unprecedented rate, and hasn't been seen since the 1950s." ... This one's maintaining. It went down a tad because of a single off-game, which makes one think that if Harden and Dwight combine to miss 10-15 games, this one might be lost. But their overall rate went from 0.511 last week to 0.497 this week, which still has them at a hilarious 4th all-time in free throw attempts per field goal attempts. Status: HISTORY BEING MADE
  • "Damian Lillard can't finish. He also can't stop making threes -- he's completely inverted his shooting percentages from his rookie year, despite neither looking particularly different." ... This one is starting to revert to the mean. At writing, Lillard was at 46% from three and 36% from two -- he is now at 40% from three and 40% from two, so last week showed Lillard finally finishing at the rim and draining the long twos he used to while his above the break three stopped being quite so lethal. Bears watching, but it appears this was just a strange glitch in the matrix. Status: REVERTING TO THE MEAN
  • "Andre Iguodala has the 5th worst free throw percentage in the league among players taking more than 2.5 shots a night -- if this doesn't improve, hack-an-Iggy is going to be a reasonable strategy for Golden State's opposition to pursue." ... At writing, Iguodala was under 50% at 47%. He's now at 60%, which is... well, it's not great, but it's a damn sight better than the point where a hack-an-Iggy strategy would make sense. This is a bit more in tune with his career averages, as well, so it would make sense if he maintains here over the full season. We'll keep watching, but this one seems like a trend that's died. Status: FLY AWAY TREND, BE FREE AS THE NIGHT

 

Second Week Warbles -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

james harden shooting a free throw

Last week, I wrote a tiny feature looking at some statistical quirks and odd happenings over the first week's action. To me, any time in the first month or two is a good time to be looking at NBA stats. There's not quite enough time for the trends to take on set-in-stone significance, but one can ignore them at their own peril. For just about every absurd statistical quirk that will fade as time goes on, the early season throws a truthful tiding or two to keep you on your toes. So, as an ongoing feature, I'm going to try and take a weekly look at some recent trends of note and take my best stab at determining whether they're fated to fade or a reflection of the new normal. I will also, at the bottom of the post, keep a running tally of the trends I've previously enumerated and their current status. My current plan: three new trends per week, and a weekly enumeration of prior trends. Let's get to it.

• • •

Observation #1: HOUSTON AND FREE THROWS -- A LOVE STORY

To the surprise of roughly no one, a team featuring both Dwight Howard (36 MPG) and James Harden (40 MPG) shoots a lot of free throws. The surprising thing about the trend is just how unprecedented the rate is. The Rockets are currently attempting one free throw for every two shots they take. That's an almost unprecedented rate. Seriously, take a gander at the all-time leaderboard for free throw attempts per field goal attempt (FTR). It's kind of hilarious:

Rk    Season    Tm      FTR  
1    1952-53    SYR*    0.554
2    2013-14    HOU     0.511
3    1952-53    ROC*    0.506
4    1951-52    SYR*    0.497
5    1952-53    NYK*    0.497
6    1950-51	SYR*	0.491
7    1953-54	NYK*	0.488
8    1952-53	FTW*	0.476
9    1953-54	SYR*	0.475
10   1952-53	BOS*	0.471
         ...
29   1997-98	UTA*	0.433
         ...
40   1998-99	UTA*	0.417
41   2005-06	NYK	0.417

To help you contextualize that, I've highlighted every team in the top 40 that didn't play in the 50s, as well as the only team from the aughts in the top 100 (congrats, Knicks! You win the prize!). Spoiler alert: there are only three teams in the top 40 from anything approaching a modern vintage, and the Rockets blow all of them out of the water. I know quite a few people who put the Rockets reasonably high in their "League Pass Team" rankings. Unless you're the world's biggest free throw fanboy, I have absolutely no idea why you would do that to yourself. They play at a fast pace from a pure "basketball statistical calculation" standpoint, but with half of that fast pace wasted on an endless parade of free throws, I have no idea why you'd turn away from a Blazers game or a Warriors game to watch Dwight Howard and James Harden play pop-a-shot at the free throw line into the infinite.

Will the Rockets keep this level up? I was tempted to say "no", simply because it's such a historical aberration, but I'm really not so sure. Hacking Dwight for free defensive possessions isn't just a Popovich thing anymore, and it seems like every coach in the league is trying to uncork the strategy once or twice a game. James Harden has always gotten a lot of free throws, and he's currently taking fewer free throws per 36 minutes than he took last year. The aberration is that the two of them are on the same team, not that this is a statistically untenable trend. So I'm going to guess that it actually continues. They might fall to the lower reaches of the top 10 if either misses time for injury, but I'd deem it a pretty good bet that Houston ends up with more free throws per shot than any team since the 1950s. If free throw rates were championships, Daryl Morey would have just put together the 1996 Bulls.

• • •

Observation #2: DAMIAN LILLARD CAN'T FINISH

This one is one of the weirder ones. Last season, Lillard posted a relatively normal shooting line for a scoring point guard. He shot 42% overall from the field, but as most people realize, that number means almost nothing without some context for shot placement. Lillard was a good three point shooter (38%), a decent at-rim finisher (53% -- middling, but not bad at all), a decent shooter from the mid-to-long range distance (43% on a ridiculous 366 attempts), and a dependable free throw stroke (84%). It stood to reason that Lillard would probably keep those numbers steady this season, if not improve them.

Lillard shot chart provided by NBA.com, 11/12/2013

Oh, well then!

Seriously, where do you even begin? Lillard's current shooting stats are essentially a complete inversion of last season's  numbers -- he's currently shooting almost 46% from three point range and a baffling 36% from two point range. His two-point numbers aren't being dragged down by a surplus of long twos, either -- he's taking fewer shots from between the paint and the three point line and more shots at the rim relative to last year. His true shooting percentage is actually higher this season due to his wild three point percentage, but that doesn't really explain his anemic finishing. Watching tape doesn't really shed any light on it either -- his shots look about as good as they did last year, they just aren't going in. Oh, and the best part: despite his wildly different shooting profile, his free throw numbers are virtually identical (84% last season, 84% this season). Good luck figuring that one out.

My best guess? His shooting numbers -- by midseason -- are going to invert and look about the same as his numbers from last year. His shot doesn't look markedly different and his three point shot -- while good -- isn't THAT good. Lillard isn't a 50% bet for threes taken above the left key. Sorry, but no. That said, his at-rim finishing will get better, for sure. And I'd take a bet that his long twos will too -- he took an absurd amount at a half-decent percentage last year, and I doubt he's going to continue his current run of futility there. Of course, there's also the upside/downside prognostications for Blazers fans -- the upside would be that perhaps Lillard really has improved his three point shot and is due for a reversion to the mean on only his two-point range shots, which would make him one of the best scoring guards in the league. The downside would be that perhaps Lillard is profiting from the same sort of early-season hot streak that Brandon Jennings seems to have every other year, and his troubles inside are a result of better scouting for his team and defense tuned to his play rather than a mere dry spell.

• • •

Observation #3: ANDRE IGUODALA IS THE LEAGUE'S WORST FREE THROW SHOOTER

Okay, no, that's not entirely true. DeAndre Jordan takes that particular cake, at least to date. But Iguodala's free throw shooting is way, WAY more confusing to me. Here is the current league leaderboard for free throw futility (cut down to players with 2.5 attempts per game or more, as going to the line for a few shots a game seems essential to being the league's real "worst" free throw artist):

Rk    Player          FT%      FTA
1     DeAndre Jordan  0.378    5.6
2     Bismack Biyombo 0.389    2.6
3     John Henson     0.429    2.8
4     Dwight Howard   0.471   10.9
5     Andre Iguodala  0.478    3.3
6     Ben Gordon      0.500    4.0
7     Miles Plumlee   0.500    2.9
8     Xavier Henry    0.537    5.1
9     Nene Hilario    0.538    6.5
10    Jeff Taylor     0.542    3.4

Seriously, cripes. There are only five players in the league taking a decent number of free throws a game and shooting under 50%. Ben Gordon is confusing too, but everyone else on this list is pretty self explanatory. Jordan has never had a free throw stroke worth a chia pet and Biyombo is similarly lacking. Henson, Howard, Plumlee -- all of them are big men who have well-advertised free throw problems. But Iguodala? To see this kind of a huge decline in free throw effectiveness from a player that's unchanged in all other aspects of his game is almost unprecedented.

And don't cut corners. This is a HUGE, huge decline. Iguodala's career mark from the line is 72%, but that's not without its higher points -- he shot 82% from the line in his third year and was above 72% in each of his first six years. Then he shot 69%, which seemed a bit odd, but not totally out of line. Then he shot 62% in his last year in Philadelphia, which is where people started noticing that his free throw percentage was definitely dropping. Then he shot 57% last year, when it started to become a huge problem and just about everyone noticed. And now he's one of the league's five or six best bets for any coach's pet hack-a-whoever strategy.

Not entirely sure where his Nick Anderson moment was, but I'm betting the Warriors are wishing he'd never had it. After all, Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the league when he's locked in and he's integrated seamlessly into the Warriors' offense. But if that offense can get held to under a point a possession every time Iguodala gets fouled, teams are eventually going to start picking up on that, and Iguodala's playing time will suffer greatly as a result. Sort of ridiculous. And there's no real explanation for it, at least so far as I can find. While I'm guessing he'll recoup a bit, I've guessed that three seasons in a row and it's legitimately never panned out for me. Maybe he's fallen to the point where he can't possibly fall anymore? That's the hope, I suppose. We'll see.

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

  • "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... Well, the pace is currently 95.1. That's STILL the fastest since 1994, but you can take the "much" out of there. Also, it's gone down a full possession in the interceding week. This one bears further examination. For now, though, it's still quite true. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • "Stephen Curry is currently shooting nine three pointers a game, putting him on pace to smash through the all-time three pointers attempted mark in the 2nd quarter of game 75." ... Curry is down to 8.1 three point attempts per game -- still ungodly, but less so. He also missed a game. Combine these two, and he's no longer on track to break the record. Still a ton of threes, but not a record-breaking ton. Anymore, at least. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
  • "LeBron James is playing well over 36 MPG. He should not be playing this much, for rest reasons." ... I do know a lot of people disagree with me on this. Evidently, Spolestra isn't one of them. LeBron's minutes are down to 37 MPG, and have been on a generally downward trajectory since that first week. Status: IN THE PROCESS OF BEING MADE SILLY.
  • "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." -- This is still true. In fact, it's even more true than it was when I originally noted it -- now the only player above 36 MPG is only at 36.2 MPG (it's Deng, but oh well) and everyone else is at 31 MPG or below. What? Seriously, what? Status: STILL CONFUSING, STILL TRUE.
  • "The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." -- This is still somewhat true, though less so after a week where they got a few wins in. The Nuggets started the week looking reasonably good against a basically-half-asleep Spurs team, and they notched a few nice wins against the Hawks and the Jazz. The weird thing about the Nuggets is that the Jazz performance has had the effect of rocketing their defensive rating to league average, which doesn't in any way match how awful they've looked on that end from a basic play-watching standpoint. If the defense sinks back to the level most of us assess it -- one of the worst in the league -- it's obvious their offense isn't going to be saving them this year. So this one's essentially a push. Status: AWFUL, PERHAPS NOT ABSURDLY THOUGH?

Sympathy for the Devil: Relating to Andrew Bynum

the return of andrew bynum

By now, I'm sure most of our readers have read the Richie Incognito story. It's taken an expanse of media real estate over the past few days, for good reason. I'm not erroneously referring to it as "the Richie Incognito story" rather than the Jonathan Martin story, either. While stories about bullies certainly center around the response the victim has to the bully-at-large, we tend to over-emphasize the victim in all stories of assault and treat the perpetrator as an outside factor, much like storytellers treat the weather. Sure, we'll mention a raindrop or two, but the weather is as close to an uncontrollable act of God as you can get in this great world of ours. Remarkably, this frame of reference is often applied to assault -- we overanalyze the actions of the victim as we search around for the tiniest things a victim could've done to get out of their situation. "Stand up. Speak out. Don't walk there. Don't live here. Get better friends." Et cetera, et cetera. The issue is, this viewpoint necessarily treats the person who's actually in-the-wrong as though they're devoid of responsibility.

After all... do you blame a few raindrops when an unexpected downpour floods your car? Do you blame a snowflake when snowfall kills your vegetable garden? And, thus: do you blame a bully for acting out when it "would've happened anyway?" Hence the problem. All that needed to happen for this particular instance of assault to stop was for Richie Incognito to realize he was being an ass and take a step back, instead of stepping further and further out of line. It wouldn't have mattered what Martin did if Incognito had simply stopped being such a twat. While you can make the argument that the NFL's hazing culture is such that it would've continued happening even if Incognito threw in the towel, that has little to do with the facts of the case and more to do with the seedy facts of NFL hazing. It's a useful discussion, but a markedly different one. And it's also, regrettably, far more difficult to prove. The facts of this case are actually rather simple. Incognito had an easy way to stop psychologically tormenting his teammate. He didn't.

This isn't some "everyone's at fault, look at how society reared him, Incognito is a reflection of his zeitgeist" pablum -- it's an incident where one party had an incredibly easy way to fix things and simply ignored it in favor of being a psychopath. Hence, it's the "Richie Incognito story" -- it's a story about an prick being an prick who deserves to be treated like one. The victim is less pertinent to the case than the one who had the easy ability to stop it. They're the one that should be pilloried, overanalyzed, and made to answer for their overreach. And so it goes. Having said all that, I don't really intend to talk about that case today. I'm actually more focused on an NBA player that the Richie Incognito case inadvertently reminded me of.

Andrew Bynum!

Now, let's take a step back. No, Bynum's sins aren't quite at the psychological torture level of Incognito's answering machine message. At least not that we know of. But years of play has made a point we really should probably pay more heed. Andrew Bynum is, in most definitions of the term, something of a bully. Think back to the 2011 playoffs, where Bynum essentially tried to kill J.J. Barea only to later state that he wasn't sure what the big deal was. Classy. Bynum has enough dirty hits -- see this, this, or this for examples -- to compose a highlight reel entirely built of dirty career-threatening plays. The man is a 7'0" behemoth with nearly 300 pounds of muscle on his frame. It's one thing if Muggsy Bogues has a highlight reel of hits. That's just funny. (Seriously, can someone make that highlight reel? I really want to see it.) Andrew Bynum's highlight reel is filled with scary, scary plays where a jackhammer of a man nearly ends a variety of smaller players' careers. Not exactly Mother Teresa.

And then you get off the court, where Bynum's transgressions are given more depth. Bynum doesn't (or, as I'll later note, didn't used to) care about the game of basketball all that much. This makes his dirty, scary fouls even more befuddling. Why threaten the livelihood of others for a game you don't really care much for? When Carl Mays killed Ray Chapman with his spitball, the only mitigating factor you could really give was that Mays cared about baseball too much, and his semi-psychotic will to win drove him to play dangerously enough that murdering a player with his throwing arm was an ever-present possibility. Bynum has never made a public statement that would imply anything close to that, instead stating a clear preference for the finer things in life (his engineering pursuits, playboy bunnies, and fast cars among them). That's not a big deal in a vacuum, and respectable in its own way. But not quite so much when you indiscriminately throw your weight around and put your fellow NBA players in danger. By all accounts, Bynum is sort of a jerk in his personal interactions too -- parking badly in handicapped spots, driving over a divider to the wrong side of the road to pass someone going the speed limit, and is (evidently) the worst neighbor in recorded history. All in a season's work for the big guy.

And yet... after reading Bynum's recent interview, I come away strangely sorry for him.

“Retirement was a thought, it was a serious thought. It still is,” Bynum said after the Cavs practice Thursday at Temple University. “It’s tough to enjoy the game because of how limited I am physically. I’m working through that. Every now and again I do (think about retirement)…It’s still career threatening. I’m a shell of myself on the court right now. I’m just struggling mentally. ... I just want to be able to play without pain and find the joy again,” Bynum said. “Right now I’m battling pain and it’s annoying. I’m not able to do the things I’m used to doing and it’s frustrating.”

Admittedly, it isn't the end of the world. The effectiveness of an NBA player waxes and wanes with age regardless of who it is. Injury speeds up that aging timeline in a very uncomfortable way, but it's not like Bynum instantly transformed from an eternal font of vigor and health into something he was never going to be. At some point in his career Bynum was going to be physically limited by age and a loss of athleticism. He was never to be the NBA's first immortal player regardless of entering the league as impressively young as he did.

But there's also another side to Bynum's not-being-psychotically-interested-in-basketball. Unlike, say, Duncan or Bryant or Nowitzki, Bynum isn't some intensely obsessed basketball demigod who's made his mark on history and is bouncing back from the grave as much out of his legacy's momentum as a personal calling. His non-obsession with the game makes his ongoing recovery from injury that much harder. As he said, basketball used to be fun, if only just. Have you ever been deathly ill but had to go to work anyway? Have you ever tried to help a friend move after spraining your ankle? If you haven't: try to avoid both. They're awful situations and they suck for everyone involved. Trying to do something you don't quite love while you're physically prevented from performing at your best is something most people have experienced. And most people agree: it really really sucks.

So, regardless of Bynum's myriad personal faults and the bully-centric undertones he's given off over the years, I find myself actually feeling pretty bad for the guy's current position. He's trying to have fun in the game, and he's trying to ward off thoughts that he isn't good enough to keep going. The trope of the wayward bully who becomes a sympathetic character after reaching a moral quandary is well-worn. But it's a trope for a reason: trials and sadness bring out the pitiable sides of even the hardest bullies, and Bynum has always been more of a devil-may-care jerk than one who's actively trying to make people's lives worse. Hence, as situations arise where Bynum is struggling through loss of self-worth and possibly career-ending mental blocks, it's hard not to feel bad for the guy. Feeling like you're a shell of yourself isn't a feeling I'd wish on anyone, even a guy who's been utterly intolerable in the past. If you'd told me a few years ago that all it would take would be a single sad interview and a few games of "Bynum struggling up and down the court" game tape for me to stop being judgmental and disenchanted with Bynum's game, I'd have told you you're crazy. When a bully is being called to task for their actions it's hard to imagine EVER being positive about them again.

But they're human, with struggles and trials all their own. And in the long run, try as we might to demonize the bullies, sympathy tends to win out. Which -- to circle back around -- makes all the focus on the victim in the Incognito case even more confounding. After all: we're probably going to forgive Incognito en masse in the long run anyway. It's how we are. So why NOT focus on his awful behavior while it's the reason he's on our minds? Why are so many willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a non-responsible product of his environment and take Martin to task instead? If only we knew.

First-Week Surprises -- Odds & Ends from the Week That Was

"SPEED IT UP... because fast never apologizes."

Now that Monday's games are in the books, we've had an entire week of NBA action to digest and enjoy. Every team has played three or four games (...with the exception of Denver), every team has played their home opener, and almost every team has recorded a loss or two. We're starting to get a handle on this year's prominent early storylines (BREAK UP THE SIXERS!) and this year's particularly flawed early expectations (See: Washington). I admit, I haven't gotten quite as much game tape down as I'd like, to date -- I was back in Arizona for a friend's wedding and the revelry tended to disincentivize becoming a league pass hermit. I have, however, noticed a few interesting odds and ends that may pique the interests of a few team's fanbases, and a few general leaguewide trends that should continue to be monitored going forward. Instead of doing a bunch of separate posts exclusively analyzing each, I figured it made as much sense to shorten the text and examine five interesting things at once. Let's get to it.

• • •

Observation #1: THE NBA IS ON SPEED

Okay, no, the NBA isn't on speed. But you'd have to excuse anyone who's been paying attention to the last week for thinking so. Basketball Reference has a neat statistic they share in their season summary page -- Pace Factor, meant to represent the number of possessions per game that a team plays in their average game, normalized to account for pace inflation from OT and other such things. Let's go through the last 5 seasons or so, as the NBA has sped up a bit in recent years, and find each year's fastest-paced team and each year's league average.

  • 2009:          GSW, 98.2     (AVG: 91.7)
  • 2010:          GSW, 100.4    (AVG: 92.7)
  • 2011:          MIN, 96.5     (AVG: 92.1)
  • 2012:          SAC, 94.7     (AVG: 91.3)
  • 2013:          HOU, 96.1     (AVG: 92.0)

Fun times. Want to venture a guess what the current NBA high is?

This year's current fastest team (the young 76ers, much to Doug Collins' eternal chagrin) are averaging a blistering 103 possessions per game. What's more interesting is that they aren't doing it against a skewed schedule -- three of their four opponents to date are currently at or below league average in pace. The Sixers are the ones pushing the tempo, as anyone who's watched Brett Brown's young team can attest. Generally it isn't considered a great idea to rack up a wealth of extra possessions as a team with lagging talent -- as the old adage goes, increasing your sample size vis a vis your possessions per game tends to be a bad idea when your "average" performance is worse than the other guys. Hence why you get so many upsets in the NCAA tournament (... and so many losses for the 2012 Kings). But the Sixers have avoided infamy by being strikingly good at pushing the pace in the right sort of way, taking advantage of the defensive miscues of their foes and any particular slow-footed veterans for easy leak-outs, transition baskets, and open threes before the defense sets. They almost certainly won't be able to keep it up, not with a negative overall margin of victory at a 3-1 record and a league that's suddenly flush with scouting tape on them. But it does appear that Brett Brown may have been a particularly inspired coaching choice, and that's always a delightful find.

Still, that's just one team. Early season results are generally chock-full of outlier values and averages skewed by one or two one-off games. What does the league as a whole look like? Is there anything interesting there? Yes, in fact. While the highest team may be averaging 103 possessions per game, the pace isn't just picking up in Philadelphia. The pace is picking up virtually everywhere. After 50 games played, the current league average pace stands at 96.2 -- higher, I might note, than last year's fastest-paced team. The speed of the game hasn't just gone up for the league's usual fast-paced teams, either (HOU, GSW, DAL) -- it's gone up for the league's slowest teams too. Last year's slowest paced team was the Memphis Grizzlies, who averaged 88 possessions per game. They're currently averaging 94. The Bulls were averaging 89 last year -- they're at 95, now. One other item of interest -- many of the league's highest risers are teams with recent coaching shifts (and, accordingly, shifts in their overall strategy). To wit, three of the top five risers are new coaches, and six of the top eleven.

Lg Rk	Team	New Coach		2013	2014	DIFF
1	PHI	BRETT BROWN		91.0	103.0	+12.0
2	LAC	DOC RIVERS		91.1	99.6	+8.5
4	ATL	MIKE BUDENHOLZER	92.6	99.6	+7.0
6	BKN	JASON KIDD		88.8	94.9	+6.1
10	MEM	DAVE JOERGER		88.4	94.0	+5.6
11	CLE	MIKE BROWN		92.3	97.3	+5.0
22	DET	MAURICE CHEEKS		90.8	93.5	+2.7
23	CHA	STEVE CLIFFORD		91.5	93.5	+2.0
25	PHO	JEFF HORNACEK		93.4	94.6	+1.2
27	BOS	BRAD STEVENS		91.7	91.3	-0.4
28	DEN	BRIAN SHAW		95.1	94.2	-0.9
29	SAC	MIKE MALONE		93.6	91.9	-1.7
30	MIL	LARRY DREW		94.7	92.5	-2.2

That said, the only four teams with a downward pace trajectory are new coaches, so... your mileage may vary.

Now for the cold water. Pace is usually up a little bit at the beginning of the NBA season. While it's never been quite as obscene as this (at least to my knowledge -- don't really feel like pulling together the data to confirm that, at the moment), teams generally start fast and peter out as the season gets on and injuries tarnish the high-flying exuberance of the first month or two. It's unlikely we've seen a sudden sea change into a vastly faster league. It does appear, however, that we've got an inside track on clinching the NBA's highest paced season since 2010. The last time the NBA had an average pace above 93 possessions per game was the 2000 season -- with the Sixers, Clippers, Nets and Rockets exceedingly likely to keep their fast-paced style going (and Mike Budenholzer keeping his Vin Diesel impression immaculate) and many of the league's usual suspects for "slow team that ruins your life" speeding it up (thanks, Joerger!), it seems like taking the over on league pace may serve a solid bet on this one. All good news for fans of faster basketball.

 • • •

Observation #2: STEPH CURRY HAS ALL OF YOUR THREES

The percentages players shoot on threes this early in the season are not particularly significant. Rife with variance, it's hard to get a sense of whether a player's hot shooting represents a new mean or a future trivia fact about a player's unbelievable start to the season. Hence, I'm not going to go insane about Curry's current shooting percentage of 50% from three point range. We know he's a good shooter. That's enough. But there IS one thing that may portend to be a leading indicator of a season-wide trend. That indicator? Attempts. Stephen Curry -- through four games -- has shot 36 three pointers. That's nine per game, which has him on track to break the all-time record of threes taken in a single season (678, set somewhat hilariously by George McCloud in 1996) in the 2nd quarter of game 75, with 7 games left to pad his record. Whether Curry continues to shoot 50% or not is irrelevant. The fact that the Warriors aren't afraid to challenge the historical border lines between usage and efficiency to figure out the true maximum value Curry's incredible shooting can give a team should be heartening to Warriors fans. And anyone who likes threes. (... And Tom Haberstroh, since Stephen Curry apparently reads his work.)

• • •

Observation #3: LEBRON SHOULD GET SOME REST, MAYBE

I poked around, thinking that someone else would've probably made this observation already. Apparently not. Despite the Heat's 2-2 record, LeBron James has played: 38, 36, 42, and 34 minutes so far this season. These aren't egregious minute totals, in a vacuum -- especially for the best player in the world. But the Heat are a team that above all else should be looking at the long haul. They don't need to keep to a Popovich-type rest schedule to keep LeBron at 36 minutes a night or fewer. A lot has been made over his career about how LeBron has never suffered an injury that caused him to miss significant time. It's a good observation, but it also comes with an important counter-observation -- he's never actually had to recover from an injury, either, so LeBron's recovery process (whenever it ends up happening) is going to be a touch-and-go thing that's entirely new to all parties involved. Which all comes around to make me think that 42 pressure-packed minutes in a generally meaningless November game against a still-gelling Brooklyn Nets team is a bridge too far, if only just.

I get the whole "certain games are statement games" thought, and I understand that it's difficult to keep LeBron out of the game. They may decide to approach the problem from the other end, effectively cancelling practices for LeBron in order to keep him in the game as much as possible while resting him when it doesn't matter. I also understand that the Heat aren't exactly lighting the world on fire right now -- at writing, the Heat are currently nestled in at 21st in the league in defensive rating despite their evisceration of the Bulls in their season-opener. If you're Coach Spolestra, you're a bit worried about complacency and a team collectively resting on their laurels. But they'll come around, and they know they will. If you combine LeBron's regular season, playoff, and Olympic totals, you're looking at a superstar that's played 11,484 minutes of professional basketball in the three years that have passed since he first donning his Miami reds. Yet another 38-39 MPG season with the assumption that LeBron is an inhuman monster that knows nothing of fatigue or injury may be as reasonable as it's ever been (and don't get me wrong -- by his track record, that's exactly the assumption we SHOULD have)... but count me as one of the few who think the Heat are playing with fire here.

• • •

Observation #4: TOM THIBODEAU'S MINUTES ARE COMPLETELY REASONABLE

Come with me, dear boy, and look at the minutes per game Tom Thibodeau has allotted his top six players in the three games the Bulls have played to date.

  1. Jimmy Butler, 36.7 MPG
  2. Luol Deng, 35.3 MPG
  3. Derrick Rose, 33.7 MPG
  4. Carlos Boozer, 32.3 MPG
  5. Joakim Noah, 29.3 MPG
  6. Taj Gibson, 24.7 MPG

As someone who's spent roughly the entirety of the past 3 seasons sounding the alarm about Thibodeau's absurdist minutes distribution, I have to give credit where credit is due. These are patently reasonable. Butler, their youngest core piece, is the only one above 36 MPG and he's barely there. Rose is getting a slightly shorter leash to help acclimate himself to NBA game speed. Deng is finally -- FINALLY -- not averaging 38+ MPG (which, if it holds, would represent the first Thibodeau-coached season where Deng plays less than 38 minutes a night). He's keeping his big men under 33 MPG, which is generally the danger zone for injury-riddled bigs. The Bulls have not looked very good at any particular moment of their uninspiring 1-2 start. But Thibodeau is keeping his minutes-demons in check, which is fantastic news to anyone hoping that the Bulls get through the season healthy.

• • •

Observation #5: DENVER LOOKS RIDICULOUSLY BAD

There are several teams that could be highlighted here that have looked like genuinely terrible teams to start the season -- the Bucks, the Celtics, and the Wizards all have looked pretty rudderless in the action I've seen them in, as do the Knicks. (The Bucks in particular are starting to worry me a bit -- especially coach Larry Drew's insistence on playing his old friend Zaza Pachulia over Larry Sanders, even though admittedly Pachulia has looked a fair sight better than Sanders in the early going.) But this week's "wait, oh my god" moment for me was when the Denver Nuggets were getting blown out in their home opener by a good-but-not-incredible Portland team.

Let's set the stage. The Blazers had just flown from Phoenix to Denver after having been crushed by a crummy looking Suns team in their home opener, and represented a chance for Denver to get back on track after losing their way against the Kings in THEIR home opener. It looked like the classic situation where Denver's altitude and play-style would carry them against a team that had more talent on their roster. At least, that was my thought going into the game. Suffice to say, that didn't happen. The Nuggets were roundly embarrassed by the visitors, giving up 40 points in the second quarter and trailing by 26 before the Blazers took their foot off the gas in the fourth frame. But even that was hardly a comfort to Denver's season -- after the Nuggets got close, a series of foolish defensive breakdowns by Denver's porous big men let LaMarcus Aldridge drain jumper after jumper to extend a 101-94 lead to a 15-point laugher of a margin. The game never seemed in doubt.

It essentially cemented my prevailing thought when looking at Denver's mish-mash roster. That is: they can't defend anyone. J.J. Hickson may get his boards, but he can't keep in front of anyone and his rotations are two steps late at best. Javale McGee hunts for blocks, not substance, and Anthony Randolph? Get real. Faried may actually be a defensive positive compared to those three, which is pretty awful news for the Nuggets brass that would like to think they didn't completely dismantle a 55-win team and leave themselves a most improbable cellar-dwelling tank machine. Apparently, they did. The Nuggets have time to recover, and I'm sure they will to some extent. Gallo is a solid defender, and as Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler come back, they'll start to get a bit of their mojo. And they will always have their built-in home court dominance to fall back on when things get rough -- I can't imagine they won't squeeze out 15 wins or so from opponent back-to-backs in the Pepsi Center alone. But this team looks about as far from a repeat playoff appearance as the Miami Heat look from the lottery, and to fans who were getting used to last season's Cinderella contender, that's not a good look. (NOTE: Now that I have written this, the Nuggets will beat the Spurs by 30 points tonight.)

• • •

One last thing. Hoopdata was officially retired today. Count me as one of the 10-20 remaining people who still used Hoopdata regularly. It's old-hat, now, and other sites DO have everything it once held dear. But humans are creatures of habit, and Hoopdata's delightful quirks were one of mine. I will miss the site dearly. Absolutely incredible work to Joe Treutlein and Matt Nolan for their years of hard work and perseverance to build one of the absolute first public databases that completely changed the game for basketball statistics. You may be gone, but you'll never be forgotten.