The M*A*S*H Rankings #1: Laker Woes and Pelican Throes

Hey, all! In this new segment, Aaron will be going over recent major NBA injuries and assessing their impacts on the teams that suffered them. We are also making this into a general power rankings feature, because the kids love that. The overall style here will be similar to Jonah Keri's long-running Grantland series "The 30" where he provides his weekly MLB power rankings with detailed explications of three teams a week. Instead of broader ranking thoughts, Aaron will be discussing current injury ramifications on three teams nestled softly within broader rankings. Let's go!

• • •

30. Philadelphia 76ers (14th in the East) 15-43, SRS of -11.15
29. Milwaukee Bucks (15th in the East) 11-45, SRS of -9.34

28. Los Angeles Lakers (15th in the West) 19-39, SRS of -5.03

FIVE-MAN INJURED ROSTER: Steve Nash (Nerve irritation), Nick Young (Sore knee), Chris Kaman (Sore back), Xavier Henry (Strained knee), Kobe Bryant (Tibia fracture)

It's too little too late to make any bones at playoff contention, but it's worth noting that this five-man-deep injured roster actually represents L.A.'s least injured roster in the last few months. That's right -- five injured players represents a Laker team that's rounding into some morbid approximation of health. At times this season, their injured roster has included nearly all of their regular starters and every productive player they've got. Most notably, they played a game less than a month ago where they ended the contest with less than five eligible players. Their current injured roster is five players deep, with two of them (Henry, Bryant) out indefinitely and the rest out game-to-game with ailments of varying severity.

Personally, I keep going back to one of the saddest-yet-rarely-discussed things about L.A.'s woefully mismatched roster this year. Namely, the fact that almost everyone on this terrible team is in a contract year. Don't get me wrong -- injuries suck for every NBA player. But they almost count double for roleplayers playing for their next contract. Every missed game, every 10-15 game sad stretch where their stats suffer from awful injuries, every lost step and tentative gait... it all matters, and it's all going to conspire to dramatically stifle the amount any of L.A.'s players can expect on their next contract.

A few examples. Jordan Farmar has actually played some decent basketball this season, at least when he's been fully healthy. He signed a one-year deal with L.A. in hopes that he'd play well and stick in the league. But he's missed 30 games with a wide variety of crummy injuries, and his lagging immediately-back-from-injury efforts are deflating his stats a bit. If he'd stayed healthy and continued to play as well as he has this year, I'd probably pencil him in for a small-time several million dollar deal as a cheap point-off-the-bench for a contender. As it stands, he'd be lucky to stick in the league at all. Same goes for Chris Kaman, whose injuries this year have limited him to a little over half of L.A.'s games. He's 31 years old and looking for what will likely be his last decent-length NBA deal. But he can't stay on the floor, and his value as a player is dropping precipitously because of it despite showing himself to be, as always, a dependably mediocre big man who can't really defend a fly. He probably will stick in the league, but I'd be very surprised if his next contract is anything above a veteran's minimum.

As for how L.A.'s current injuries are impacting their play... I'm not sure it really matters. They've been a remarkably bad team this entire season no matter who they put on the floor. This isn't a team that's one piece away from title contention, or even a playoff spot. Their injuries have exacerbated their pre-existing flaws (namely: poor defensive fundamentals, old-as-dirt personnel ill suited to D'Antoni's pet style, players that genuinely don't fit together), but these are all ills that apply to L.A. regardless of their injury woes. I suspect D'Antoni would be able to wrangle a few more wins on the margins with less-injured talent, but the overall trajectory of this team would remain about the same -- they're a mediocre team that excels at nothing-in-particular in the best of times. I'm really curious to see what Kupchak does with this roster in the offseason. Lord knows they need some spring cleaning.

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27. Orlando Magic (13th in the East) 18-42, SRS of -5.68
26. Utah Jazz (13th in the West) 21-36, SRS of -4.17
25. Boston Celtics (12th in the East) 20-39, SRS of -4.16
24. Denver Nuggets (11th in the West) 25-31, SRS of -1.71
23. New York Knicks (11th in the East) 21-36, SRS of -2.33
22. Atlanta Hawks (8th in the East) 26-31, SRS of -0.68
21. Detroit Pistons (9th in the East) 23-35, SRS of -3.37
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (10th in the East) 23-36, SRS of -5.26
19. Brooklyn Nets (7th in the East) 26-29, SRS of -2.86

18. New Orleans Pelicans (12th in the West) 23-34, SRS of -1.70

INJURED ROSTER: Anthony Davis (shoulder sprain), Ryan Anderson (herniated disk), Jrue Holiday (stress fracture), Jason Smith (right knee surgery)

I was pretty high on New Orleans in the offseason, a sentiment that's partially a product of my perhaps-misguided faith in Eric Gordon's defense. Still, their overall roster construction looked solid. Davis and Anderson represent the kind of perfect in-and-out configuration that represents a matchup nightmare for just about any other team in the league. The Jrue Holiday acquisition gave them a defensive bulldog who'd bother their foe's best perimeter scorer and execute a solid offense, Eric Gordon's return from injury would give them another good wing defender, and Tyreke Evans looked like a decent option to fill the gaps offensively without embarrassing them on defense. ... Well, about that. The Pelicans have been one of the NBA's least inspiring teams, if you look at record and results as a part of a trajectory. Last summer's Pelicans made a lot of moves that appeared prime to push their young roster into a tight Western playoff race.

Instead, the results have been an uninspiring stew of alternating mediocrity and horror. Anthony Davis has had one of the best years of any young player in recent memory, but the team around him has largely disappointed -- Holiday was rubbish even when healthy, Gordon and Evans have been replacement-level at best, and Anderson's injuries have made it next to impossible to fully assess how good this team can be. Worse still, their acquisitions and moves have left them financially tapped out for the next few seasons. The question of the hour for the Pelicans isn't really one of whether this season's play can be salvaged. It can't. They're 10 games out of the eight seed with 25 games left to play, which effectively means that they'd need to put up a record on the order of 20-5 to have a serious shot at playing in the postseason. Even if Davis' shoulder sprain is minor, it would make little organizational sense to trot him out there and risk a franchise-altering injury in pursuit of the impossible. The most apt injury-focused question for New Orleans is one of blame.

Namely, how much are their litany of injuries to blame for their crummy year?

I'd tend to think the Pelicans are closer to the rosy offseason projections than they are to this season's sobering reality. Davis and Anderson showed an excellent two-man game in their time together (scant though it was), and a lot of their disappointing acquisitions seem a little bit fluky. Case in point -- Tyreke Evans is putting up the largest usage rate of his career. Unlike most players, though, he's actually put up a more efficient shot distribution this year than ever before. In Sacramento, Evans took just 7% of his threes from the corner -- he's taking 25% of them from the corner this year. In Sacramento, Evans took 43% of his shots in the immediate vicinity of the rim -- he's taking 55% of his shots there this year. In Sacramento, Evans took 19% of his shots from the "long two dead zone" of 16-23 feet -- he's taking 9% of his shots there this year. In terms of shot distribution and general quality-of-shot, Evans is having a really good season. He just can't seem to make any of the well-placed shots he's taking.

Assuming Evans continues his improved shot profile, it isn't unrealistic to expect that he'd post one of his best seasons once his shot starts coming around. And the Pelicans -- despite the woeful broad strokes -- have shown flashes of brilliance even in this lost year. They hold one of the NBA's best four-man combinations in Holiday/Evans/Anderson/Davis, a fearsome group that's outscored opposing teams by 15 points per 100 possessions in the 143 minutes they've shared the court. The Pelicans are circling the toilet bowl on another lost season, but count me as an optimist for their future trajectory. Their genuinely awful defense probably nixes their potential as a contending force in the NBA (barring a massive leap by Anthony Davis on the defensive end -- hardly a remote possibility), but if they can put together a healthy season, they should be firmly in the mix for one of the West's lower-tier playoff spots in the next few years of their locked-up core.

• • •

17. Sacramento Kings (14th in the West) 20-37, SRS of -1.33
16. Charlotte Bobcats (6th in the East) 27-30, SRS of -2.13
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (10th in the West) 28-29, SRS of 4.54
14. Washington Wizards (5th in the East) 29-28, SRS of 0.00
13. Phoenix Suns (8th in the West) 33-24, SRS of 2.85
12. Chicago Bulls (4th in the East) 31-26, SRS of -0.04
11. Memphis Grizzlies (9th in the West) 32-24, SRS of 1.16
10. Toronto Raptors (3rd in the East) 32-25, SRS of 2.7
9. Golden State Warriors (7th in the West) 35-23, SRS of 4.69
8. Dallas Mavericks (6th in the West) 36-23, SRS of 2.52

7. Portland Trail Blazers (3rd in the West) 40-18, SRS of 5.56

INJURED ROSTER: LaMarcus Aldridge (groin), Thomas Robinson (sprained knee), Meyers Leonard (sprained ankle), Joel Freeland (sprained MCL)

I was going to write a bit about San Antonio's revolving door of injuries and their in-process return to form, but last night's Portland win really shocked me. So much so that I had to write about their team. I've been on record as one of Portland's biggest backers this year, and I went so far as to tab LaMarcus Aldridge as the NBA's MVP at the quarter-way mark of the season. I wouldn't quite put Aldridge at #1 on my ballot anymore. Durant has passed him handily. That said, if I had a ballot I'd still slot him firmly in the top five.

Many harbor disdain for Aldridge as an MVP candidate. They note that his play this season isn't drastically different from his play in the last several seasons, following that nobody in their right mind would've considered him an MVP candidate before this year. Ergo, he can't be considered much of one this year, especially when several other big men in his conference are putting up similarly incredible seasons. This logic isn't unreasonable, but I think it misses a few key points about Aldridge's play this season that bear repeating.

  • HIS DEFENSE: Aldridge has always been a decent-to-good defender, at least when he's locked in. He's no Duncan, but he's almost always in the right place and he's fastidious when it comes to maintaining position and switching. There's a caveat, though. His defensive talent is more reminiscent of a very good accountant who knows the ins and outs of the tax system than an artistic savant who shines in any situation. Fittingly, Aldridge is prone to fits of laziness and defensive lapses when he's stuck on teams that are poor at just about everything on the court. That isn't true about this year's team. The 2014 Blazers are a pathetic defensive team -- a fact that will likely be their death knell in the playoffs -- but it's by absolutely no fault of Aldridge. His effort on defense has been phenomenal this year, and the Blazers have actually needed him more on defense than they have on offense -- the Blazers have been five points per 100 possessions better on defense with Aldridge on the floor, essentially representing the difference between Milwaukee's 30th ranked defense (allowing an ORTG of 110) and Memphis' 10th ranked defense (allowing an ORTG of 105).
  • HE ACTUALLY IS PLAYING BETTER: People are correct when they note that his play isn't dramatically better than it was before. But even disregarding his markedly increased defensive intensity, Aldridge is posting his best long-two shooting percentage of his career by a decent margin despite massively increased usage from that range. He's rebounding at a higher rate than he ever has before, his assist rate is a comfortable career high, and his turnover rate is a comfortable career low. In a vacuum, the changes are all reasonably small. Compounded, though? In context with his massively increased usage? He's made a leap from "perennial deserving all-star" to a number one option you can actually contend for a title with, even if only on the fringes. That's a pretty big deal.
  • PORTLAND'S OFFENSE MAKES NO SENSE WITHOUT HIM: I'm one of the few remaining weirdos who firmly believe that Dirk Nowitzki deserved the regular season MVP in the 2011 season. So perhaps that's part of where my Aldridge-inspired backing comes from -- I have a soft spot for quixotic big men whose skillset is absolutely essential to the way their team plays the game. Portland's league-leading offense is based around subverting the core concept of most defensive schemes -- mainly, the idea that the long-two is an anathema to efficiency. Most teams use that concept and try to force the opposing team to take as many guarded long twos as possible, aware that they're a better result for the defense than a three point shot or any closer two. The Blazers, Heat, and Mavericks all laugh at that concept, each featuring floor-spacing big men that extend the floor and make that theoretically distasteful long two into a downright enviable result. An offense that turns bad results into good ones is one that can sustain through droughts and playoff pressure. Without Aldridge's skillset (or perhaps more to the point, even if he was equally as skilled with a less quixotic skillset), the Blazers aren't anywhere close to the threat they are.

I maintain serious skepticism at Portland's ability to keep a sustained period of quality play going without Aldridge there to open the offense and keep their defense rolling. Especially when it comes to the defense. The Blazers still have the pieces for a reasonably effective NBA offense without Aldridge, although it's more reliant on threes and less likely to sustain productivity against a playoff defense. They just can't really defend anyone, as evinced by the disappointing home loss they recently suffered to the M*A*S*H unit Spurs last week. They scored 23 points in the last six minutes by running a slightly more traditional offense with their remaining personnel, and it was almost enough to win the game. But filling in Aldridge's absence on defense is exceedingly difficult.

That said? Last night's game was pretty amazing on that front for the Blazers. Perhaps Brooklyn was just having a bad night, and perhaps it's too easy to read too far into a single game. But the Blazers put up one of their very best defensive efforts of the season despite starting Dorrell Wright and playing serious minutes while the game was close with an absolutely bonkers Williams-McCollum-Barton-Matthews-Claver lineup. That lineup shouldn't be able to defend ANYONE, let alone a lineup fielding Brooklyn's "best five" unit of Williams/Johnson/Thornton/Pierce/Garnett. I'm admittedly hesitant to say that my initial read on Portland's no-Aldridge defense is wrong. But I can't deny that Portland's guard-fueled defensive triumph with a single active big man is tantalizing for me, even if it came against a mediocre-to-bad Nets team. If Portland's smalls can put that kind of a defensive effort together with Aldridge and Lopez together on the front line, their ceiling rises dramatically. Worth watching, as the season churns to an end.

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6. Houston Rockets (5th in the West) 39-19, SRS of 4.99
5. Los Angeles Clippers (4th in the West) 40-20, SRS of 6.56
4. San Antonio Spurs (2nd in the West) 41-16, SRS of 6.41
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (1st in the West) 43-15, SRS of 6.82
2. Indiana Pacers (1st in the East) 43-13, SRS of 7.37
1. Miami Heat (2nd in the East) 40-14, SRS of 5.06

Trading Places: NBA Moves and Grooves on the 2014 Deadline (PART I)

Photo by Kelley L Cox for USA TODAY Sports.

Every year, we do SOMETHING for the trade deadline. Sometimes it's an after-the-fact reaction piece with observations that often look silly in retrospect. Sometimes it's a run-down of every single trade that happened. Well. Most of the time, it'll be that. And that "most of the time" includes today, when I'll be updating this post with running reactions to all of the NBA's huge, sea-changing moves. (Spoiler alert: we probably won't get any. We can dream, though.) Let's get to it. I'll keep a list of trades covered in the top piece of the post so you know how recently updated this post is. [LAST UPDATE: 5:43 PM]

  • DEAL #1: BKN acquires Marcus Thornton, SAC acquires Jason Terry & Reggie Evans.
  • DEAL #2: GSW acquires Steve Blake, LAL acquires Kent Bazemore & MarShon Brooks.
  • DEAL #3: CLE acquires Spencer Hawes, PHI acquires Earl Clark and two second round picks.
  • DEAL #4: SAC acquires Roger Mason Jr., MIA acquires literally nothing whatsoever.
  • DEAL #5: CHA acquires Gary Neal & Luke Ridnour, MIL acquires Ramon Sessions & Jeff Adrien.

• • •

EVERY ROSE HAS ITS THORNTONS (Trade story on ESPN.com)

BROOKLYN RECEIVES:

Marcus Thornton (2-yr/$8.3 mil per)

SACRAMENTO RECEIVES:

Jason Terry (2-yr/$5.7 mil per), Reggie Evans (2-yr/$1.7 mil per)

This is an absolutely classic Brooklyn trade. Over his tenure as owner, Mikhail Prokhorov's Nets have made performance art out of trading bad contracts for worse ones that represent marginal talent upgrades. This trade is no different. Marcus Thornton has had an interesting NBA career -- after breaking out in his first two seasons as a surprisingly second round steal, the Kings traded away Carl Landry (who was at the time their best player) for Thornton. They followed up the trade by paying a king's ransom to keep Thornton in-house, specifically in the form of a 4-year $32 million dollar deal. Theoretically, if he'd developed from where he was in his second year season, that contract wouldn't be horrible. In actuality, it turned out to be a downright awful move. Thornton hasn't developed in any real fashion since his sophomore season, and in many ways has deeply regressed. His shot selection (once a mortal lock to improve) has actually gotten worse as time went on, and his shooting has finally reverted to the mean.

"Wait, what? He's shooting 31% from three, what do you mean 'reverted to the mean'?" Well, yeah. Here's what you need to understand about Marcus Thornton. Although he's a good shooter, Thornton's shot selection (in terms of TYPES of shots, not locations) has always been among the worst in the league, and he takes an obscene number of wildly contested shots off the dribble. As I pointed out in his capsule a few clicks back, Sacramento scorekeepers have had a weird habit of crediting other players with assists when Thornton takes shots off several dribbles while moving-into-the-defender. Don't let this numbers fool you. Thornton is notorious for making easy shots difficult with no particular regard for efficiency or tact, and while his awful shooting this season is out of character with his general career numbers (and perhaps more importantly someone with his technically adept form) it's hardly out of character for a player with the shot selection he has. Other than his scoring, there really just isn't much else there -- Thornton's game is essentially an iPhone app that gives you a recorded fajita sizzle without actually providing sustenance. No defense, no passing, no rebounding, no chance. And he's making $8.3 million, which is... less than ideal.

That said, I don't dislike this deal for Brooklyn at all. Nor do I really hate it for Sacramento, either. Brooklyn is at the point where they need to start looking at the future. You don't look at the future by playing the dessicated corpse of Jason Terry, who's effectively done as a professional basketball player. If we're honest, you probably don't look to the future by playing the 27-year-old Thornton either. He is what he is, and it's difficult to see a situation where he becomes a player worth his salary. But at least it's a lateral move with some limited quantity of upside. Perhaps Garnett, Kidd, and Pierce badger Thornton into playing off-ball and using his technically sound shot on fewer off-dribble heaves, making him a passable semi-young three-point gunner on a team that does realistically need more spacing. You know, given Garnett's offensive collapse and the absence of Lopez. He has a possible role, at the very least. And if Thornton DOES fail, it's not a humongous problem -- the Nets will have spent a lot of money on it, but money is essentially a concept rather than an actual restraint to Prokhorov. So it's not really that big of a deal. And the contracts are the same number of years, too.

As for Sacramento, they save a few million dollars, which is going to be essential when it comes time to give Isaiah Thomas his extension this summer -- in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade, they're already pushing up against the luxury tax line. They've got the potential to save a few more as well, if Jason Terry accepts a buyout. They aren't realistically going to get anything on a basketball court from Terry or Evans, but they managed to offload their worst contract and save a few bucks without giving up a draft pick. And the contracts they got are easier to move, especially that of Reggie Evans. I could imagine a team like the Clippers potentially putting out feelers for Evans and giving out a low second rounder for him to bolster their big man rotation. Hardly a shabby result, at least when your main motivation going into the trade was to simply get a gigantic albatross off your books.

• • •

BIDDING ADIEU TO THE BLAKESHOW (Trade story on ESPN.com)

GOLDEN STATE RECEIVES:

Steve Blake (1-yr/$4 mil per)

LOS ANGELES LAKERS RECEIVE:

MarShon Brooks (1-yr/$1.2 mil per), Kent Bazemore (1-yr/$0.8 mil per)

There isn't much to belittle or joke about here. This is just a solid trade for both sides, straight up. The Los Angeles Lakers are a flaming tire fire this season, a team with a record that overstates their quality (yes, they're worse than 18-36) and a rabid fanbase that was clinging to nori-thin playoff hopes for reasons passing understanding. Steve Blake is an odd looking guy whose game has never been big-picture important in the NBA. This move doesn't exactly change that, but it does reflect that he's had a tiny bit of a comeback season this year. At the age of 33, Blake is putting up his best PER since 2009 (which, full disclosure, is still well below average for a point guard). He's posting the highest assist rate of his career and his highest usage rate since 2009, and he's done that despite a gross spate of injuries and a difficult season overall. Which would indicate that he'd be perfect for the Warriors as a final solution to their irritable backup guard problem. I think it's a good move by the Warriors to kick the tires on it, but I admit that I'm not 100% positive it'll work out for them. While Blake has been involved in several of L.A.'s best lineups, a lot of Blake's best work has been done in dual-point lineups when he's alternating his ball-handling with better point guards beside him.

His two best five-man combinations this season have come while he was flanked by Steve Nash (+3.9 net rating for Blake/Nash/Young/Gasol/Kaman) or Kendall Marshall (+10.5 net rating for Blake/Marshall/Johnson/Williams/Kaman). This doesn't extend to ALL lineups including Nash and Marshall, and looking at the tape, Blake certainly did take on more of the ballhandling than you'd expect. But given that Blake's three is his best weapon, you really do need to have another good ballhandler on the floor with him if you intend to fully utilize his skillset. I'm not positive Jordan Crawford is going to suffice as that ballhandler, which may to require Marc Jackson to get creative and test out dual-guard lineups with Curry and Blake, with the two of them getting alternating off-ball reps to force double teams and open up their offense. That said, there's certainly a chance that Blake ends up being everything Golden State wants. Good passer, decent shooter, competent floor general. He's also not an embarrassment on defense anymore, which is great. Old point guards often get a little bit better on defense as time goes on, simply by dint of being around long enough to develop a good predictive sense on where a possession is heading before it gets there. Blake has that second sense, and he reacts accordingly. It doesn't make him a positive defender, but it does make him less of a turnstile than he was earlier in his career.

It's also a relatively low-cost move in the long term for Golden State, as Blake is nestled firmly in a low-money expiring deal that doesn't push them over the tax line. They also opened up a roster spot, which could be used down the stretch if they suffer a big injury and need to pick up some low-cost depth or kick the tires on a D-League prospect. As for the Lakers, the subject of the hour is money -- specifically, the fact that they saved $2 million dollars and now sit within spitting distance of the tax line. If they move Jordan Hill for peanuts (as is expected), any further minor move could place them under the tax and give them a bit more time before they run into the notoriously horrific tax-repeater penalty implemented in the 2011 CBA. Blake is 33 years old, and didn't represent any particular part of L.A.'s future. He was also having one of the better seasons on their team. Moving him out makes them a bit worse and gives them a quality opportunity to assess a semi-talented young piece in Kent Bazemore. It also sets up an epic clash in the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League between Laker Legend Kent Bazemore and the heel-turn summer league dynasty that kicked him to the curb. This is going to be the greatest subplot of the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League. If I were you I'd get a head-start on your disgustingly long oral histories now.

• • •


GUESS THAT'S HAWE THE COOKIE CRUMBLES (Trade story on ESPN.com)

CLEVELAND RECEIVES:

Spencer Hawes (1-yr/$6.5 mil per)

PHILADELPHIA RECEIVES:

Earl Clark (2-yr/$4.2 mil per), 2014 second round CLE/ORL draft pick, 2014 second round MEM draft pick

Color me a bit surprised that Philadelphia got any value at all for Spencer Hawes on an expiring contract, but I probably shouldn't be. One of this season's odd plot twists have been the soaring statistical profile of virtually everyone in Philadelphia despite the nettlesome truth that virtually everyone on their roster has had a disappointing season. This is a result of an age-old tendency to look at a player's season averages without looking at the context around them. Don't make the same mistake -- although Hawes is putting up a classic box score line on downright excellent per-36 rates (specifically, Hawes is averaging per-36 minute numbers of 15-10-4-1-1), those numbers are extremely skewed. The Philadelphia 76ers are currently playing faster basketball than anyone else in the NBA, to the point that they're playing six more possessions in the average contest than the average NBA team. This effect becomes even more pronounced when you're extrapolating per-36 numbers, massively inflating the classical box score chops of Philly's strongmen. Hawes is decent, but tricking teams into giving up actual assets for him is just that -- a trick.

He's not a 15-10 type player, and despite the gaudy averages, he probably averages out as a 3rd or 4th best big man on a contending team in the overall picture. Despite his 7'0" height, Hawes a terrible habit for completely disengaging on defense, which is something you simply can't abide as a starting center in the NBA. He reminds me of a slightly larger edition of Indiana's career-year Troy Murphy -- his rebounding total is deceptively high (10 rebounds per 36 minutes!) due to Philadelphia's pace. He actually rates out as the NBA's 25th best rebounder out of 40 bigs who receive regular minutes this season, and he's far closer to the bottom than the top. His offense is valuable mostly in that he's actually developed into quite an effective three point shooter, as he's shot an incredible percentage (40%) on serious volume this season. His post moves are an adventure and his short-range shotmaking is poor, but his range could be a deathly effective option in a pick and roll heavy offense with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters setting him up. Possibly. His flagging rebounding and awful defense should put the kibosh on dreams of him as a starter, but he could be a nice younger piece to grow as a tertiary big beside Cleveland's young core.

In the overall picture, I like this trade for Philadelphia. While Earl Clark has two years on his deal, next year is a team option they're extremely unlikely to take. The Memphis second round pick is probably not going to be particularly valuable (it currently projects as the 50th pick overall), but the other pick is a nice get. Reports aren't yet clear on whether it's Cleveland's own secondyou round pick or Orlando's second round pick, but it hardly makes a difference -- it's likely to end up in the 32-37 range, which is exactly where you want to be in the second round. Given the current CBA, a pick from 31-40 is arguably a higher value bet than a pick from 20-30. Players from 20 onward are all crapshoots, but the high second rounders combine the merits of a decently large player pool with the merits of non-guaranteed money and flexibly structured salary. It essentially lets Philadelphia take a flyer on a late first round talent without having to take on the guaranteed salary that entails, which is a giant boon when you're looking for cheap young talent that could make up pieces of your core.

As you might've picked up, I'm a bit more shaky on Cleveland's role in the trade. I see why they did it -- Spencer Hawes likely represents a large upgrade from any value the Cavs could've gotten from the two second round picks, and Earl Clark was an unmitigated failure in Cleveland. From a value perspective,  they got good value for their picks, and it was a decent move in a vacuum. But I'm not entirely loving the end-game here. Tyler Zeller is finally having a nice stretch of games that indicates his potential as exactly the sort of 3rd-to-4th big that Spencer Hawes represents, and the Cavs currently have one of the league's biggest boondoggles in their frontcourt. Adding Hawes to the mix virtually guarantees that one or two members of the Varejao/Thompson/Zeller/Bennett foursome will lose minutes, and that's not a result I find very appealing.

Rentals for shakily valued picks are good if you're intending to kick the tires on a player who you were thinking of signing in the offseason. It's a great way to ensure the player fits with your core BEFORE you sink a large amount of money into their deal. But I don't really have the slightest idea where Hawes fits without sending out some of Cleveland's big men. Given the age and relative productivity of Cleveland's cadre of frontcourt young'ns, I'm not sure if Hawes is much of an upgrade at all, even if they'd gotten him for free. Good trade, value-wise. But Chris Grant's epitaph as a general manager was a guy who got excellent value in almost all of his trades but never had a coherent plan to use that value. Grant may be gone, but this trade echos his philosophy. Which isn't ideal.

• • •


GUEST POST: BILL SIMMONS ON ROGER MASON JR. TO SACRAMENTO

MIAMI RECEIVES:

A draft pick that literally does not exist.

SACRAMENTO RECEIVES:

Roger Mason Jr. (1-yr/$1.3 mil per)

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm on my lunch break, so I decided to commentate this trade by simply copy and pasting a segment from the Sports Guy's feature on the James Harden trade from the 2013 preseason. I have done no editing to the text other than replacing "James Harden" with "Roger Mason Jr.", all Lakers mentions with Nets mentions, and all Thunder mentions with Heat mentions. Also, I took out a swear. This is exactly how to analyze this trade.

Never — not in my wildest dreams — did I imagine Miami breaking them up.

When everyone started playing the blame game after the trade — Roger Mason Jr. shouldn’t have been so greedy, Miami should have played it out for one more year, the trade never would have happened if Roger Mason Jr. played better in the national TV Finals rematch against the Spurs, Pat Riley didn’t get anything whatsoever back in this trade, etc., etc., etc. — I kept thinking about those three guys with their arms around each other. Do you really want to break THAT up? Weren’t these guys headed somewhere together? Wasn’t that series part of the journey? Wasn’t this like canceling a great TV series after one and a half seasons, like if Homeland just stopped right now and we never found out what happened to Brody and Carrie?

Forget about worrying whether Roger Mason Jr. is a max player (and by the way, he is — 15 teams would have given it to him), or why Roger Mason Jr. didn’t play better in the 2013 Finals (um, James Worthy sucked in the 1984 Finals and turned out fine), or if it meant something that Roger Mason Jr. didn’t just blindly take less than what he’s worth (when he had already sacrificed minutes, numbers, and shots to succeed on that team). Miami significantly hindered their chances of winning a title — not just this year, but every year. And they did it because, after raking in ridiculous amounts of money these past four years (including $30-35 million PROFIT during last year’s shortened season), they valued their own bottom line ahead of their title window. A window that included the second-best player in the league (Roger Mason Jr.), a top-10 player (Roger Mason Jr.) and a top-20 player (Roger Mason Jr.) … all under the age of 45.

That’s why every Brooklyn Nets fan spent the weekend rejoicing and making 2014 Finals plans. This was the one team that scared the living crap out of them — these past two seasons, Miami was too young, too fast, too relentless, too everything. Even after the Nets added Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, it’s worth noting that (a) Paul Pierce can’t defend Roger Mason Jr. unless he’s allowed to use a two-by-four, and (b) Juwan Howard is overpaid mainly because he’s been Garnett’s Kryptonite these past few seasons, someone with the bizarre ability to frustrate and even neutralize Garnett beyond any realm of common sense. After the Heat traded Roger Mason Jr., every Nets fan I know e-mailed me. They were overjoyed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Aaron McGuire has been fired.

• • •


LET'S MAKE A NEAL

CHARLOTTE RECEIVES:

Gary Neal (2-yr/$3.2 mil per), Luke Ridnour (1-yr/$4.3 mil per)

MILWAUKEE RECEIVES:

Ramon Sessions (1-yr/$5.0 mil per), Jeff Adrien (1-yr/$0.9 mil per)

This deal is relatively minor on its face, but I'd deem it a pretty good get for Charlotte. Ramon Sessions is a useful player as a slasher, but he's a bit duplicative with Charlotte's current rotation of smalls. Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are all effective slashers with good at-rim games and generally shaky range -- it was somewhat unlikely Sessions was coming back after his contract expired anyway, so replacing him with a few pieces that add different wrinkles to the Charlotte offense is a reasonably strong move. Especially for the two they picked.  Luke Ridnour has fallen off badly this season with the absolute dearth of talent in Milwaukee, but he's less than a year removed from a solid season in Minnesota next to Rubio and Love and his assist rate is roughly commensurate with what Ramon Sessions gave the Bobcats at the point. He's still a decent three point shooter, as well -- even in this year's down season he's sitting snug at 37% from behind the arc.

The big upside bet the Bobcats are making in this deal lies in Neal, the once-proficient three point gunner that Milwaukee poached in the offseason from San Antonio. I've never been Neal's biggest fan for a wide variety of reasons that don't really bear mentioning here, because he simply doesn't make enough money for them to matter. Neal's sitting at $3.2 million a year on an extremely short contract. Yes, he's been awful this year (39-36-83 shooting with absolutely nothing outside his scoring), but again... $3.2 million! For a team like Charlotte that all too often has to overpay veterans to attract them in free agency, getting to kick the tires on a once-proficient young shooter on a bargain bin deal makes a heck of a lot of sense. Even if Neal and Ridnour maintain their tepid play from Milwaukee, they'll still roundly upgrade Charlotte's three point attack and immediately give the team 3-4 more decent-percentage heaves from the three point line every night. If Neal can return to his San Antonio form, the bet becomes even better -- I've a suspicion that Neal at peak form would work extremely well in a space-and-drive lineup with Kemba, Henderson, Jefferson, and Tolliver. He might take too many shots, but Charlotte's stagnant offense isn't generating looks that are all that much better than any average Neal chuck anyway. It's just generally a good fit.

As for Milwaukee, they wanted to get out of Neal's long term money, and -- perhaps -- wanted to kick the tires on a cheap prospect in Jeff Adrien. Sessions is hardly in Milwaukee's future plans, and his summer departure seems like a lock to me. They'll get 30 games of two players unlikely to play a huge role in their future as they tank for a blue chip superstar. They'll hope for the best, because there isn't really much else to do. It's hard to take a long view at Milwaukee's future, because that future seems so desperately far away. Maybe Ramon Sessions will do the fans a solid and uncork one of his throwback 24-assist nights. Let's hope so.

• • •

I was pretty sure going into the day that I'd be able to fit all of the trades into a single post. Evidently, I was wrong -- I'm already hovering around 4000 words and I've only gone over 5 deals. Thus, I'll cut this post off here and analyze the rest of these in a brand new fresh-til-death post on the remaining seven deals. Taste the fever!

Examining the NBA's "Starters in Name Only"

vince carter chillin

If you follow college basketball in any capacity, you probably read Ken Pomeroy's excellent blog. If you don't, start reading it now and pretend you always did. Professor Pom-Pom (NOTE TO SELF: Never again call him this) recently posted a fun little piece going over two groups of NCAA players: a selection of guys that don't start but play a ton and another selection that start the game but barely play at all, headlined by the fantastically named "Matt Milk." I thought it was an neatway to highlight a segment of the league's players that have made the "starter" designation a lot less meaningful in the NBA's modern era, so much so that I decided to run the numbers for the NBA and find the NBA's closest analogues to the Tre Dempses and the Matt Milks of the world.

Now, I did need to change a few aspects. In the NCAA, there are quite literally thousands of players from which to choose from. At the time I looked up the numbers in this post, 4711 players had registered minutes in the NCAA this season. Only 456 have suited up for the NBA. As a result, outlier cases are a bit harder to wrangle in the NBA, so I had to relax the conditions on Pomeroy's lists a little bit to get a collection of players that felt representative. To wit:

  • For our starters in name only, the cutoff points are players that have started more than 85% of their games played. For good measure, they also have to have played in more than 40 games.
  • For our bench staples who play a ton (or our "starters off the bench", as I'm calling them) the cutoff points are players that haven't started a single game but have played in at least 45. This does eliminate a few players (like Manu Ginobili and Draymond Green), but it leaves enough bench staples for a five player list.

All that said, let's get into our two lists.

THE STARTERS OFF THE BENCH

#5: MARCUS MORRIS, PHOENIX SUNS
21.9 MPG in 51 games -- 0 starts, 45.4% of PHX minutes played

I'm a big fan of Pomeroy's adherence to "percentage of team minutes played" when looking at playing time, so I'm going to do that for this post. Hence: of all the minutes Phoenix has played basketball this season, 45.4% of those minutes featured Marcus Morris. Like his brother, Marcus has carved out quite a nice role for himself in Phoenix. Role-wise, he serves as the three-point floor spacer to Markieff's rim-rocking stylings. And he's been effective -- the Suns have been marginally less effective with Marcus on the floor than they've been without him, but he's played a role in several aggressive bench-heavy lineups that have done a lot to keep Phoenix afloat during Bledsoe's absence. Fittingly, Marcus' best four-man group is one of such bench-heavy pairings featuring him and his brother together -- the Suns have outscored teams by 24 points per 100 possessions in the 125 minutes they've played with the four man group of Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, and the Morris Twins on the floor together (alongside any of Phoenix's intriguing wing options alongside them).

#4: JEREMY LAMB, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
22.2 MPG in 54 games -- 0 starts, 46.0% of OKC minutes played

Last season, Lamb was less than an afterthought in the rookie of the year race -- he played 147 minutes in the NBA (alongside 689 minutes in the D-League) and did just about jack-all with the opportunity, showing a tentative shooting stroke against more aggressive NBA defenses and an even worse grasp of himself on the defensive end. Although he was young and the Thunder didn't need a ton out of him, the initial returns on the Harden trade looked to be bunk. Guess we spoke too soon. Lamb's play this season has been reasonably excellent, and as a result he's played more minutes at the all-star break than he did in the NBA and D-League seasons combined last year. He'll never be better than Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis, but this year has lent a much more sympathetic eye to the infamously panned Harden trade. His defense is still a bit of a struggle, but he puts in time on that end and does about as well as an mildly undersized guard can do. His real value hasn't been in value added as much as it has a terrific continuity of Oklahoma City's offensive flow -- the Thunder's loss of Kevin Martin turned out to be a blessing, as they've replaced Martin's expensive, waning, and aging contributions for Lamb's time. He produces just about the same excellence as the 2013 Thunder came to expect from Martin -- he just does it cheaper, better, and with more staying power. He's an offensive fulcrum who waxes and wanes with the flow of Oklahoma City's offense, but he's a piece for the future rather than a fragment of the past.

#3: MO WILLIAMS, PORTLAND TRAIL-BLAZERS
24.3 MPG in 49 games -- 0 starts, 46.4% of POR minutes played

This is not Mo Williams' best season. It's a rarity among NBA talent to have a guy's best season cleanly overlap with the only time in their career where they're in a position to make an all-star game. But Mo's a lucky one -- there's exactly one season in Mo's repertoire where he played all-star caliber ball, and it just so happened to be the exact season where an injury opened a spot for him in a weak eastern conference slate. All that said, while it certainly isn't Mo's best season (he's a no-defense player with a PER of 11 -- that's ROUGH), he's taken on his most important season in his post-Cleveland years by accepting and thriving in two separate roles. In most lineups, he serves as a decoy from beyond the arc meant to open up offensive sets inside and keep defenders honest. But in his best lineup, his function is different -- the Blazers are the first team in quite a while to demand that Mo take on primary ball-handling duty for long stretches of games and have it NOT blow up in their face. The Blazers have outscored teams by 17 points per 100 possessions in Mo's most-common lineup (104 minutes played). It features Mo at point, Matthews and Batum at the wings, and Lopez/Aldridge at the bigs -- their starting lineup minus Lillard, essentially. This lineup has not succeeded with much help from Mo's shooting -- without Lillard to set him up, Mo puts up a borderline-disgusting 35% TS% in that lineup. It's successful because everyone else on the floor works incredibly well together, and Mo and Batum combine to assist on nearly half the made shots this lineup produces. Good on Mo -- and the Blazers -- for finding one of Mo's first post-LeBron lineups where his passing is actually effective.

#2: VINCE CARTER, DALLAS MAVERICKS
24.1 MPG in 53 games -- 0 starts, 49.1% of DAL minutes played

Although making fun of Vince Carter is something akin to a Canadian national pastime, at some point you have to admit that his longevity is pretty impressive. We've only got 15 players left who were drafted in 1998 or earlier, and few of them play any time at all. In fact, only five of them have played over a thousand minutes in the 2014 season. To wit, these five:

  1. DIRK NOWITZKI -- 52 games, 52 starts, 1675 MP at the age of 35
  2. TIM DUNCAN -- 49 games, 49 starts, 1448 MP at the age of 37
  3. PAUL PIERCE -- 45 games, 38 starts, 1303 MP at the age of 36
  4. VINCE CARTER -- 52 games, 0 starts, 1276 MP at the age of 37
  5. RAY ALLEN -- 47 games, 9 starts, 1246 MP at the age of 38

Nobody else among the oldies is contributing much at all, with Kobe representing the single player out of the remaining 10 who might ever return to a contributing form at all. Isn't that sort of impressive? I've never been a big fan of Carter's case for the NBA's hall of fame, but his late career renaissance in Dallas is starting to make the prospect a bit less absurd to me. If you'd told me a few years back that Vince Carter would be toiling at the age of 37 for a marginal playoff team, coming off the bench and working his ass off for barely any return or glory, I'd have thought you mad. But there he is.

He's fallen off, obviously, and he's not an amazing asset anymore... but he's a productive three point shooter with more dependable pressure defense than most of the young guns in Carlisle's wheelhouse, and he still shows flashes of his stat-stuffing wunderkind days long past. I mean, really -- he averages 17-5-4 per 36 minutes, which is hardly far removed from his 19-5-4 he put up in 2010 when he helped Orlando make the Eastern Conference Finals. He's not a massive factor, obviously. Nor is he particularly important. But I can't help appreciating the fact that the player who supposedly never gave a damn is -- somehow -- still putting up a strong facsimile of his old play at age 37 , as the 8th oldest player in the entire league.

#1: MARKIEFF MORRIS, PHOENIX SUNS
25.0 MPG in 50 games -- 0 starts, 50.9% of PHX minutes played

Ah, the other Morris! Although Markieff has played in fewer games than Marcus, he's played quite a few more minutes and had a bit more time to shine. Mostly because he's better. One of the somewhat-hilarious dangers of Phoenix's connective reliance on the Morris twins is that it makes it all the less likely that either of them win any sixth man of the year hardware. If I had to choose, Markieff would be the obvious one to pick -- he's played more efficient offense, more effective defense, and has been a lot more important to Phoenix's overall attack. Like Marcus, he's a true sixth man -- he does good work with elements of Phoenix's starting unit, but he's a member of the Suns' bench mob through-and-through. While Marcus essentially spots out beyond the arc and opens the floor for his teammates, Markieff functions as his team's primary rebounder when he's on the floor. In previous years, this would bea death knell for the Suns. Although Markieff has always been a good individual rebounder, he didn't used to very aggressive in boxing out and contesting rebounds. That's changed this year, and his newfound aggression is paying dividends -- it allows Phoenix to play wonky bench lineups with Markieff playing the nominal center, which gives the Suns a ton of weird lineup advantages on the offensive end. And when you combine his excellent rebounding with his quick trigger passes off offensive rebounds and his crafty layups, you have one of the NBA's strongest contenders for this year's 6MOTY honors. (Provided Marcus doesn't steal his votes, of course!)

Photo by Joshua Lott for The New York Times.

STARTERS IN NAME ONLY

#5: JASON THOMPSON, SACRAMENTO KINGS
25.7 MPG in 53 games -- 47 starts, 53.0% of SAC minutes played

Thompson's an interesting case -- theoretically, given his relatively young age and longtime experience with the franchise, he'd make a good building-to-the-future pairing next to DeMarcus Cousins and would be considered a strong piece for Sacramento's future. This season has been a bit disappointing, though, and Kings fans are left wondering a bit if Thompson is going to pan out as the permanent Cousins-flanking option the franchise hoped he'd be. With Mike Malone's new system chaining Cousins deep in the post on offense (which, let's be fair, has been absolutely incredible for Cousins and unleashed a dominant side of their star that had been seen in little more than glimpses in seasons prior), it stands that whoever is next to Cousins is going to need to operate a lot more outside the paint. Just think of the Duncan/Splitter conundrum in San Antonio or the Asik/Howard conundrum in Houston. Hence, Thompson has to step out and shoot outside the paint.

The issue? He's not great at it. He's not BAD, but he isn't exactly a spacing threat, which harms Sacramento's overall spacing and creates offensive duplication. He's entirely dependent on other players to get him the shots he lives on when he's shooting outside the post -- to wit, of Thompson's 42 made shots outside of 10 feet, 38 of them were assisted. Thompson is a very good post player when he's assertive with the ball and goes up strong -- unfortunately, he's been a bit off this season, and with Cousins taking up so much room in the post in Sacramento's offensive scheme, it's been a bit difficult to get Thompson the possessions needed to work through his struggles. Defensively, he's been fine -- at least against smaller players. Thompson is good at covering smaller power forwards and decent at stepping out to contest shots, but he doesn't function nearly as well when he's switched onto larger centers. Luckily, at 6'11", there aren't exactly a ton of NBA centers dwarfing him in size. Unluckily, if you're a good offense, running plays that switch Thompson onto a larger center isn't THAT hard, and Sacramento doesn't have anywhere near the defensive discipline to accommodate it.

Anyway. All that said, the fact that Thompson -- a player who's played 53% of Sacramento's possible minutes on the season and does represent a reasonably important piece for Sacramento's future -- is showing up on a "starters-in-name-only" list probably says more than any criticisms that could be made to explain his slightly waning role. While the NCAA has a lot of coaches who play with the starter designation and give spot starts to players that aren't huge players, there are only a handful of guys in the NBA who ACTUALLY fit that role. Those handful are the four players below, and nobody else really qualifies.

#4: KENNETH FARIED, DENVER NUGGETS
24.8 MPG in 48 games -- 45 starts, 49.6% of DEN minutes played

Out of all the players on this list, Faried is by far the most confusing. Unlike Thompson, he's actually played less than 50% of Denver's minutes this season, despite Denver's odd depth situation and despite the fact that Denver's strange new management decided to clear out their big men in an effort to free up more minutes for Faried and Mozgov. Outside of Ty Lawson, Faried is the only other player on Denver's roster that really qualifies as a young talent, and he's not supremely injured -- he's battled some ankle trouble, but nothing to write home about. Denver also has one of the most unenviable cap situations in the NBA, featuring dead weight salary on players that don't figure to play a part in their future and very little flexibility over the next 2 years, despite a team that looks the part of a perennial noncontender. So, I say it again -- why isn't Faried playing more?

His defense is as it always has been -- awful. But they knew that going in. He's shooting essentially exactly as well as he did last year from the floor, and his finishing has been the same as it's always been. His rebounding is excellent, as usual, and he's only been in foul trouble once this season (a January 15th win against the Warriors where he played 17 minutes with five fouls.) The Nuggets have denied all season that Faried is on the trading block, reaffirming that he's a big piece of their future. Sure. Then why not play him? If I had to venture a guess, I'd probably think this is their odd management coming to a head with new head coach Brian Shaw. Shaw came to Denver directly from Indiana, a team where everyone defended like their lives depended on it and every player put in a lot of effort. Faried, for all his energy, is not a good defensive player nor does he put in more than a cursory effort on that end. Shaw's minutes restrictions for Faried -- while frustrating -- are probably his attempts to impose discipline on Faried in an effort to whip him into shape defensively. Doubt it's a good idea, but that'd be my guess.

#3: KEVIN GARNETT, BROOKLYN NETS
21.5 MPG in 43 games -- 43 starts, 38.9% of BRO minutes played

Now the doctor came in, stinking of gin,
And proceeded to lie on the table.
He said, "Rocky, you met your match".
And Rocky said, "Doc, it's only a scratch.
And I'll be better, I'll be better, Doc, as soon as I am able".

Every time I watch Kevin Garnett play this season, I get "Rocky Raccoon" stuck in my head. Not the whole song, just an echo of it. At first. Then it gets louder and louder as I watch him fumble around with Brooklyn's awful entry passes and tokenizing attempts at getting him offense. Then it isn't an echo anymore. I watch as the Nets thrive in their odd "longball" configuration where Garnett is reduced to a husk of the player he once was. And you can see him calling for the ball, and begging, and trying to do the things he used to do. He's this defiant man, struck down in ignominy and trying to play out the string for a team that barely deserves the echos they got of him. And it's sad, because he just can't do what he used to. But there's this glimmer of defiance and anger and fury, and occasionally the echo of Kevin Garnett crystallizes into a cry, and he uncorks a perfect post move or a furious rebound or a crisp game-deciding jumpshot. And then the song starts up again. And then it stops, because it's only an echo that can fool you every now and again. That's what it's like to watch Kevin Garnett play this season.

It hurts me.

#2: SHANE BATTIER, MIAMI HEAT
20.9 MPG in 43 games -- 39 starts, 37.6% of MIA minutes played

One of the long-running subplots of the LeBron/Bosh/Wade Heat that I've been most interested in is their reliance on essentially over-the-hill veterans. The Heat have been an amazing team during the dynasty. But outside of their big three, they've mainly done so on the backs of some unfathomable throwback performances by once-star players on the very last legs of their career. Don't get me wrong -- that's the way to do it. If you rely on young guns with talent and guile around your young and highly-paid stars, the role players will inevitably price themselves out of your range and leave the organization before you're ready for them to do it, a la Lance Stephenson in the coming summer or James Harden for the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Or you'll overpay them to keep them, clogging up cap space and eliminating future flexibility in the name of roleplayer retention.) Relying on over-the-hill veterans does a lot to fix this problem, because few teams are going to field competitive offers for a 35-year-old vet that didn't even star on a title team. They have enough money in the bank to be focused on winning rings, and they have enough NBA experience that it's easier for them to pick up your system. Best of all worlds, except when it comes to upside.

Still, there's also an inherent risk in putting so many of your eggs in the "old and creaky" basket. That's the risk they'll fall off for good. And I'm afraid that time might have finally come for Shane Battier. He's still been moderately effective in a few ways, but his defense has fallen to the point where he takes the "D" out of "3-and-D". Which is sort of sad. Battier essentially can't hope to cover larger players any more without constantly fouling and hoping the refs don't notice, and he isn't really quick enough to shade smaller players either. His offense is one-note to the verge of stark absurdity -- he's taken 35 two-point-shots and 144 threes this season. He's made only 10 unassisted shots all season (to put it another way: Battier creates his own shot once every 4 games) and his percentages are down across the board despite his reliance on Miami's offensive system. His offensive ineptitude hasn't harmed Miami that much, as teams still respect his three point shot, and Miami's offense has been better with Battier on the court than it has been with Battier off. But one wonders if taking advantage of Battier's eroding game could be the crucial matchup advantage that a team like Indiana uses to finally oust the Heat this year.

#1: KENDRICK PERKINS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
20.1 MPG in 52 games -- 52 starts, 40.0% of OKC minutes played

Okay, let's be honest. You knew this was coming, right? Who else could possibly lead the list? Perkins is widely maligned as the NBA's worst starter, and that's not a particularly hard argument to make. His defense has fallen off badly in the years since his huge extension, and he's actively made Oklahoma City worse on both ends this season. That's partly because Steven Adams replicates Perk's positives without any of his negatives, and it's partly because Brooks doesn't really utilize him effectively. But let's be fair -- how the hell DO you utilize Perkins effectively at this stage of his career? He's effectively immobile in the post, and I feel like I've seen him cause OKC three second violations (a stat tracked by NBAWowy -- he has seven, meaning he gets one once every six games or so) in every few games I've watched this year, and he commits uncalled violations of the type in every game. He currently has 83 turnovers to 74 field goals on the season. He has 150 personal fouls to 27 blocked shots. His field goal percentage is at a career low, and he has a PER of 6.2.

Despite all this, he has started every single game he's played. The only positive you can really find with Perkins is that he's the least-played regular starter in the NBA (on an MPG basis), and that Brooks has only played him 40% of the minutes he possibly could. If the playoffs come and Perkins is still playing 40% of OKC's minutes, I'd be somewhat surprised. As a Spurs fan, I'd be happy, because that gives my guys (and the Warriors, and the Clippers, and the Rockets, and the Blazers) a fighting chance. Of course, I'd also be deeply depressed as an NBA fan, because it would be the equivalent of the 2001 Lakers limiting Shaq to 20 minutes a night to see if they could win with a handicap. Perhaps they could, but I mean... why? There's little reason for historically dominant teams to play with a handicap. Oklahoma City, at their best, is that kind of a team. And Kendrick Perkins is exactly that handicap, moreso than Fisher or Thabo or any of the other players that fans complain about when it comes to Scott Brooks.

Still, I'm a Spurs fan. Can Perk can go 48 minutes, Scottie? Let's find out!

sadperk

Eulogizing Chris Grant: the Dark Side of Upside

chris grant chillin

I have a friend from work. Let's call him "Chief Kickingstallionsims." Kickingstallionsims absolutely HATES the city we live in. Just despises it. He goes full hog on the anti-Richmond jokes just about every day. Some quotes from my guy: "I wish a volcano would rise from the ground and erupt, leveling the entire town in a hipster-rending explosion that kills millions." ... "I hope there's a shortage of skinny jeans such that the hipsters revolt and start killing each other off in an orgy of senseless violence and terror." ... "If the zombie apocalypse ever happens, I hope it happens here and that the government traps all Richmond citizens to be consumed by the horrors they have created."

Not a big fan of our humble abode. As a result, Chief's been job-hunting ever since we started at our firm. Recently, he struck gold on the job market. The guy had three concurrent offers! In one, he would make his current salary but with higher bonus potential and a bit more leadership responsibility. In another, he would make about $10,000 more than his current salary but the job was with a company he wasn't sure he respected. In another, he would pull in about $15,000 more than his current salary and receive a signing bonus that would cover his "projected" bonus at our current firm and receive a complimentary moving budget... but the job looked really boring, with a high emphasis on technical work rather than creative work. All three of these jobs were in his hometown, a place he's wanted to return to for years.

We all figured he was done, and we started setting up the farewell party. Well, we were wrong. Chief Kickingstallionsims didn't take any of them, which led to shocked head-explosions among just about everyone who knew him. His logic behind rejecting all the offers and staying with our firm was simple: we tend to get yearly merit raises, and he has solid bonus potential in his role. The thought was that the merit raise in conjunction with the bonus would erase most of the salary gap between our current job and the job offers, and he enjoys his job here even if he doesn't like the city at all and wants to leave it desperately. We also were up for promotion, which he wasn't sure if he'd get or not, but if he WAS to get a promotion his salary would kick the pants off any of his "new job" salaries. So he decided to roll the dice with all the possible good things that could make his current job preferable to all the offers.

And you know what? That was a hilariously huge mistake.

We just learned our compensation information for the new year -- the results were incredibly disappointing for him. No promotion, obviously, and his raise clocked in at under $1000/year. His bonus was middling-tier, one of the smallest he's received at the firm. He was ALSO just moved between departments, which means his job -- the one he liked in the first place -- has completely changed anyway! Barring a scenario where he didn't get a raise at all and didn't get a bonus at all, this is a worst-case-scenario for Chief Kickingstallionsims -- he rejected exceedingly solid offers on the table in favor of a perfect ideal he deemed more likely than it was. He didn't account for downside risk. Unremarkably, he got burned for it.

All names, salaries, companies, and identities were changed in the previous story to protect the innocent. (I can only wish I was actually friends with Chief Kickingstallionsims.) I also changed some of the parameters of the story. Hence, it isn't a real-life story so much as it is a sketch painted in broad strokes roughly imitating life. But the essentials are there. And the moral is a universal maxim: my friend valued the intangible perfect over the attainable great. He saw all of the upside and none of the downside for his final move. He chose to value the possible future over the probable present.

Although we like to herald the NBA's new era of crack decisionmaking and analytics-inspired masterstrokes, this sort of thinking is hardly a thing of the past. It's essentially an NBA general manager's pastime. And I don't think it's really their fault; blame it on the environment. As far as I can surmise, it's mostly due to the fact that trades and acquisitions take so much time and effort to push through your management that you really HAVE to approach them in that kind of a rose-colored classes way (at least publicly). I don't remember which of the NBA's talented national scribes wrote it (probably Zach Lowe, that cad), but there's a maxim that's always rang true for me. "For every single trade we see, there are -- conservatively! -- seven deals that sputter out just before the finish line, because somebody gets cold feet." In a vacuum, most NBA decisions a GM has to make involves fooling themselves and their management into completely ignoring downside risk and hyping up the upside reward to make the final decision livable. It involves belief in the franchise's overall health and the idea that the franchise will do things with the retrieved assets that the other team couldn't. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're wrong.

And if they're neither of those, they're Chris Grant.

When a general manager gets canned it's usually pretty easy to isolate exactly what they did wrong. David Kahn made terrible trades and boneheaded draft picks. Glen Grunwald was in the same organization as James Dolan, a big no-no for any sensible person. Otis Smith was fired for being unable to put together a competent supporting cast around Dwight Howard. Et cetera, et cetera. The hits go on. In Chris Grant's case, there's an easy Occam's Razor answer to the question of "why he got fired." His rosters have been terribly constructed and profoundly disappointing, and someone needs to take the blame for Cleveland's nightmarish 2014 season. But I think that's oversimplifying a bit. Because of the core truth that many Cleveland scribes are discovering as they look through all of Grant's moves (such as here, in Sam Vecenie's excellent enormous rundown) -- namely, the fact that they aren't very bad moves.

In a vacuum, you can make a fringe case that Chris Grant has produced many of the most lopsided trades (comparing assets in versus assets out) of the past three years. The issue with Grant's tenure hasn't really been that his individual moves were bad, or that he's failed to accumulate assets. It's hard to even say for sure whether his player assessment is that bad -- he's had his misses, but he's had some successes too. With the exception of last year's nightmare draft, most of Grant's picks have shown at least a modicum of NBA talent, and they compare quite well to most of the players who were selected immediately thereafter. The jury's still out on many of them.

The issue has been that effectively none of Grant's innumerable assets have panned out as they were expected to despite the ready accumulation of them. It's common for a large proportion of assets to flame out. It's NOT common for virtually every single one of them to turn into a dud in your hands. It's the reverse of a Midas touch. Everything Midas touched turned to gold... and everything Chris Grant touched turned to pot. Somehow, despite effectively wiping the floor with trade partners in every trade he's conducted to date, the upside assets he's accumulated have amounted to virtually nothing.

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To wit, a few choice examples of the upside versus the reality in some of Grant's most publicized moves.

  • THE TRADE: Ramon Sessions and Christian Eyenga for Luke Walton and a first round picks, with added swap rights.
    • THE PRE-RESULTS UPSIDE: Grant traded an expiring contract and one of the least talented NBA players I've ever seen play the game for a marginally overpaid player that could augment Cleveland's bench rotation, swap rights, and a first round pick. Nobody does that anymore, because that's a beyond crazy haul for a marginally above average point guard on an expiring contract.
    • WELL, ACTUALLY... As it turned out, Luke Walton was actually the best thing Cleveland received in the trade. The coveted lottery swap didn't happen, because the Cavaliers are horrible and the Lakers aren't quite that bad yet. The 2013 draft pick DID convey, which was cool, but it ended up netting them the #19th pick in the draft, which got them Sergey Karasev. Neither Karasev nor Walton have given Cleveland nearly enough to outpace what Sessions gave Los Angeles over his few months as a Laker, which means that none of the trade's upside scenarios came to pass, and the best aspect of the trade was Zach Lowe's annual "Luke Walton All-Stars" column. Whoops.
  • THE ACQUISITION: The Cleveland Cavaliers sign Andrew Bynum on a team-friendly hail mary contract.
    • THE PRE-RESULTS UPSIDE: If Bynum played up to his potential, Cleveland would have a max-salary big waiting in the wings on a below-market contract, and they controlled the parameters of his salary due to the way the deal was structured. At his best, Bynum was a driving force behind the talent-bare 2012 Lakers and one of the league's best centers. He could help the Cavaliers on both ends. Right? ... RIGHT?!
    • WELL, ACTUALLY... It turned out that all the hand-wringing about Bynum's attitude wasn't a joke. Bynum made a toxic Cleveland locker room even worse, and completely submarined Cleveland's play when he was on the floor with lackadaisical effort and mindless ball-hogging that would make Nick Young blush. The thought when the Cavs signed him was that $6 million dollars couldn't possibly be an overpay for what a healthy Bynum would produce. Turns out that was wrong -- it WAS an overpay, and a pretty big one at that.
  • THE DRAFT PICK: The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Dion Waiters #4 overall, causing the world to go bug-eyed in confusion.
    • THE PRE-RESULTS UPSIDE: Although a lot of people were weirded out by the pick, it wasn't necessarily a bad idea. In theory, Waiters represented a burly two-man who had an enviable at-rim game and a three point shot that would pair beautifully with Kyrie Irving's gifts as a setup man and off-ball threat. It would cement a similarly-young backcourt duo that could grow up together.
    • WELL, ACTUALLY... I mean, on paper, it made sense. Sort of. But Dion's shot selection leaves a lot to be desired -- he's not a bad three point shooter, but his habit of constantly taking fully-guarded isolation threes from odd angles needs to stop. And his habit of pulling up and taking doomed long twos instead of driving with a clear path to the rim is similarly frustrating. As for the two-man game... well, with about one and a half years gone in his career, it's safe to say that Irving and Waiters have about as much of a two-man game as Coyote and the Roadrunner. They freeze each other out and (reportedly) quarrel in the locker room on a bi-weekly basis. Waiters may very well be the 3rd or 4th best player from the 2012 draft. He also turned out to be about as poor a fit for Cleveland's team as he could've possibly been, in a situation that effectively utilizes zero of his skills.

Grant's failure to survive the season serves as a reminder of one of the life's harshest realities. You can do virtually everything right within the basic parameters of your job and still be a no-holds-barred failure if you inherited the wrong situation and run into a string of bad luck. It's not ENTIRELY bad luck that's sunk him, of course -- he's made some controversial moves, and like Chief Kickingstallionsims, he's made many decisions where the upside scenario was sort of unlikely. Presidents fall on the sword of economic maladies they had nothing to do with, Chief Kickingstallionsims can vastly overestimate his raise and get burned by the perfect over the good, and Chris Grant can win every trade in a vacuum and still average out as a bad-to-terrible general manager when none of his assets pan out. It's cruel, but it's life.

The problem with inextricably tying your career to endless asset accumulation, upside bets, and celebrations of the possible is simple -- it's never a guarantee. And if the downside crashes upon you all at once, the job security that your upside bets got you lasts about as long as a snowman in summer. And thus ends the curious case of Chris Grant, the General Manager who did everything right... right up to the point where he had to deliver an actual NBA team. C'est la vie.

Programming note here. Apologies for the inactivity -- work's been hectic beyond reason for me in recent months. If you want more of my writing, you can read last night's Daily Dime as well. There's some interesting data-driven work coming up in this space later this month, which should be good for fans of the site. And at the end of the month I'll be slumming it at the Sloan Sports Analytic Conference again, where I'll be bringing you all the latest insights from the NBA's beloved egghead convention. In the meantime, let us know in the comments below what you miss most about our former content-heavy slate, and we'll try and accommodate your whims as we get back in the saddle. Stay frosty.

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

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

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

AARON: I am now your thesis advisor. Shoot.

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

AARON: ... what?

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

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

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

AARON: OK, Denny.

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

AARON: Slow down there, R. Kelly.

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

AARON: With you so far, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

AARON: Not completely.

ALEX: Rude.

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

ALEX: Okay, fair.

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

ALEX: *quiet sobbing*

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

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

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

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

AARON: I just checked it for you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALEX: That's fair.

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

ALEX: True.

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

ALEX: All good.

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

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

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

ALEX: You have a point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memphis Blues: A Point Guard's Triumph in Turmoil

Memphis Grizzlie Mike Conley celebrates a three-point basket against the Los Angeles Clippers during NBA basketball action in Memphis

There are a lot of strange stories in the NBA this season. The Phoenix Suns are their own little pocket bible of fun times and weird sub-stories. Two weeks into the new year, the Nets and the Knicks are in the process of perfecting a Jeckyll and Hyde routine so evocative that they're sending demo tapes to Broadway. (They're 11-2 in the new year. They were a combined 19-42 in 2013. They've got a puncher's chance at winning more games in a 20-30 game January than they won in 61 games in 2013. This is NOT a drill.) The difficulty of picking the West's deserving all-stars out of a surfeit of fantastic seasons is made even more absurd by the difficulty of picking anyone in the East's candidate pool even having a decent one. Stories are everywhere, if you take the time to look.

Me, though, I've been focusing in on one particular team-contained storybook over the past few weeks. The Memphis Grizzlies have had a rough season by any metric you care to look at. They enter tonight's contest against the Bucks with an 18-19 record, which puts them three games out in the Western Conference playoff picture with a little under half the season in the books. They aren't struck with any particular bad luck in close games, a la the Timberwolves -- their point differential (outscored by about one point per contest) befits that of an 17-20 team.  Most people would glance at their tepid injury-tarred season and change the channel, assuming it's a garden-variety treadmill of mediocrity and small-market woe. Not me, though. And that's mainly due to the brilliance of one incredible season.

Come, my friends. Meet Mike Conley: all-NBA point guard.

If you say "Mike Conley" to an average NBA fan on twitter, you'll generally elicit little more than a shrug. Perhaps a joke about Matt Moore. Perhaps -- if they're really tuned in -- a note about how Conley's footwork is nothing short of immaculate in its trickery. That's about it, though. Conley has been a very good player for quite some time, and I've been nestled snug in his bandwagon for quite some time as well. After all, I wrote in my capsules about his strong case as an elite point guard in the NBA, which actually inspired some laughs at my expense. Perhaps not now, though. Conley has never played quite as well as he's played this season, and he's enjoying one of the easiest-to-underrate seasons in recent memory.

Much has been written about how Kevin Love's bonkers numbers tend to be overlooked because his team has been -- over his last few years -- rather mediocre-to-bad. And this is clearly the case. Love puts up numbers that defy our internal logic of what an NBA player is capable of on a nightly basis, and he does carry the otherwise-somewhat-disappointing Timberwolves to wins they have no business competing in. This is all true. Love isn't Kevin Garnett, but he's his generation's equivalent thereof. A game changing super-duper-star mired in a franchise with a knack for constructing underperforming, defenseless rosters. You know the type -- those collections of castaways that can blow the roof off on a good offensive night but have trouble stopping even the NBA's simplest offensive attacks. That's Love's biggest problem, and most people who watch the Wolves can't come away without feeling a little bit sorry for the man.

Conley hasn't had to deal with those issues over much of his career. He's had a much more enviable position, historically, orchestrating the offense for a team with virtually no offensive expectations as defensive talent carries the team to wins regardless of Conley's personal ups and downs. But that's the past. This season, he's actually had to deal with exactly those issues I described for Love, as injuries have ravaged the complexion of the Grizzlies in such a way that's made it next to impossible to compare this year's Memphis team to the grit-and-grind hustlers of yore. At no point in Conley's career have the Grizzlies had a higher-ranked offense than they sport this season -- they're 13th overall offensively, about a point per 100 possessions better than league average. This ranking actually underrates them slightly -- their tough schedule (toughest in the league by a fair margin per Basketball Reference's "strength of schedule" calculation) has been skewed towards the league's best defenses, so it's likely that Memphis' "true talent" offensive numbers exogenous to their rough schedule are even better.

It's the defense that's been their biggest problem, as the Gasol injury (and Gasol's somewhat out-of-shape first frame pre-injury) left Memphis wanting in the middle for their anchor. With Gasol in the game the Memphis perimeter talent (mainly Conley and Allen) are able and willing to adhere to their men like glue, keeping players off the three point line and largely eliminating the types of easy threes that many great offenses live off. With Gasol out, that firm adherence wanes -- Kosta Koufos is a solid defensive center, but he's no Marc Gasol. The Memphis perimeter attack is unable to stay quite as locked in as they are with Gasol in the middle, and they have to fade back to help guard against drives to the rim. This in turn adds a few more inches of space to shooters behind the three point line, which lets opposing teams get off a few more threes and shoot a bit better on them.

Of course, that description assumes Tony Allen is healthy. He hasn't been. He's missed 9 of their 36 games, nine games in which Mike Conley became their de facto perimeter stopper. It makes sense, given that he's the best perimeter defender on the team when Allen is out, but it's evocative of the struggle Conley's had with the roster around him. Point guards have a tough enough job on a normal night, being tasked with orchestrating -- effectively -- a massively complicated multidimensional sonata and keeping everyone happy without overcomplicating the offense. But acting as your team's top perimeter stopper besides? That's like plopping a friend who's never played a single video game in front of Doom on Inferno difficulty and expecting them to make it through in one sitting. Sure, it can theoretically be done, but you have to have a gift to even be in the conversation. Also: why would you do that?!

So. How exactly has Conley acquitted himself in this tough situation?

Spoiler alert: very well.

The load on Conley's back this season has been -- quite simply -- absurd. In a recent contest, Conley scored or assisted on 23 points of the Grizzlies' 31 in the fourth quarter of a close Memphis win. This isn't particularly rare. Conley is averaging his highest usage rate of his career by a large margin, and -- unusually -- is coupling that with his highest effective field goal percentage as well (50.6%, above his former sophomore-year high of 50.3% and well above his shooting in recent vintages). But usage rate doesn't fully account for things like free throws made off of Conley passes -- one of the neat little things one can find in sifting through the new SportVU data is a better sense of "true" usage for high-touch point guards. In Conley's case, he's producing 14.6 points per game off his assists directly. He also sets up one trip to the line per game, and is the secondary-assist producer on two made shots a night.

This is a bit difficult to compare directly with other players, mostly owing to the fact that the Grizzlies have played -- very nearly -- the slowest basketball in the league. (It's oscillated back-and-forth between the New York Knicks and the Grizzlies over the past few weeks -- at time of writing, the Knicks had the title.) The average Grizzlies game has roughly four fewer possessions than league average, and many of the league's best point guards operate on the faster-paced end of the spectrum. For instance, Stephen Curry's Warriors play roughly seven more possessions in an average game. The Thunder, Suns, Clippers, and Nuggets all play roughly six more possessions in an average game. The Spurs and Blazers generally play five more possessions. Hence, comparing the raw points-off-of-assists in a game is a bit misleading, as it blithely ignores the pace-of-play difficulties that work against Conley's all-star campaign.

This argument extends to the normal box score averages, like points and assists. Conley's averages don't exactly jump off the page. He's putting up 18.1 points a night, with 2.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists to boot. He's got 1.6 steals a game, and turns the ball over two times a night. None of that is bad, necessarily, but at first glance, you wouldn't exactly think those are the numbers of a strong all-star candidate. They are, though. In the following table, I'm going to roughly calculate the percentage of their team's offense the eight leading western all-star candidates are responsible for on any given night using APTS (the points-produced-through-assists metric from SportVU), foul assists (adding team FT% multiplied by two for the two free throws multiplied by the number of free throw assists SportVU says the player produces), and their own points. I'll also relay their counting stats and turnover rates, as those are moderately relevant to my next paragraph.

pct of off produced

Adjusting for differences in pace using the "percentage of team production" metric virtually erases the large gap in Conley's stats when compared to most of his prime competition. Yes, he still gets pasted by Curry and Paul, but so does everyone. Conley produces more offense for the Grizzlies than Dragic, Lillard, or Parker produce for theirs, and he's closer to Westbrook than Westbrook is to Curry/Paul. Translation makes the heart grow fonder, at least in Conley's case. The same is true for his stats -- if the Grizzlies played at the pace the Warriors play at, a direct translation of Conley's line would average out to 20-7-3 with 2 steals a night and 2 turnovers besides. His shooting efficiency (via eFG%) is less than Dragic/Lillard/Parker but markedly higher than that of Lawson's, and his main bugaboo offensively is his general inability to sell a call -- he shoots just 3.4 free throws a game despite shooting an excellent 85% from the line, far fewer trips than anyone else on this list. That's just about the biggest nit to pick with Conley's production.

One other notable point from the previous table? The turnover rate. Mike Conley's turnover rate of 10.8% may look roughly equivalent with the rest of the guards in the table -- it's true, most of them are reasonably good at taking care of the ball. But 10.8% isn't just a garden variety "good ball control" number. It's actually a historically strong campaign. Consider it as a mental venn diagram. In one circle, you have high usage players, who score the ball a lot and are responsible for putting up a decent number of points every night. In another circle, you have prolific passing players, who pass the ball a lot and are responsible for setting up a large number of teammates on any given night. And in the last circle, you have low turnover players, who are extremely hard to steal the ball from and who rarely make sloppy passes. It's not particularly hard to locate players who have one of those three traits -- 10-20 a season, usually, even if you put in a decent minutes restriction. It's not even particularly hard to find a player that combines two of the traits -- low turnover high usage setup scorers were big a few years back (think Michael Redd, Ray Allen, the best case scenario for Klay Thompson) and there are many low-usage point guards who are borderline savants at ball control (think Chauncey Billups, Kirk Hinrich, the best case scenario for Kendall Marshall).

But a player who combines all three in a single year? High usage, high passing, low turnovers? That's rare. Exceedingly so, in fact, and Mike Conley's season is a quintessential example of such a year. Only 31 seasons around his level can be found when querying the historical data, and it's quite a neat list to be on. Chris Paul, Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, and prime Brandon Roy are all in the party. Turnovers tend to be one of those stats that people ignore a bit when assessing players -- unless a player is REALLY bad at them, it doesn't tend to enter the evaluation discussion unless nits are being picked, and a player with extremely low rates doesn't tend to get much credit for it. If you compound his fantastic turnover rate with counting stats that are easy to overlook given his team's pace/schedule and his best-in-class point guard defense, you have a surprisingly strong all-star candidacy.

(NOTE: It's also really quite impressive that these singular players are producing 30-45% of the offense for the league's best offenses, especially considering most of these players are only on the court for 2/3 of the game. For those who are bad at mental math, indicates these guys are producing 50% or more of their team's offensive production whenever they take the floor. Every offense helmed by these eight players is in the top half of the league. Point guards are often blasted for poor defense and their occasional off nights. Step back for a moment -- if you had to directly produce half of your team's best-in-class offense when you were on the floor, wouldn't you be a bit gassed?)

He has a case, obviously, but I can't lie to you: Conley isn't going to make the all-star team. There's almost no way he makes it in at this point. The selections are later this month, and at 18-19 the Grizzlies are far enough out of the playoff picture to scrub him from the conversation. Not when Lillard's Blazers are the story of the season, Paul/Curry have locked up two slots, and Dragic is his team's only remaining all-star candidate. I'd venture that Monta Ellis has a higher chance at making the game than Conley, simply because I don't think it's likely that the Western coaches send 5-6 point guards and a single shooting guard to the game. Especially not with the surplus of excellent big men in the conference who deserve a spot there too. He might make the all-defense team (and he should!), and he has a shaky case for 3rd team all-NBA (an honor he will almost certainly not achieve).

There's a more interesting (and more pressing) question for Conley and the Grizzlies, far removed from the all-star game and any all-NBA questions. Very simply: can the Grizzlies make the playoffs? I'd venture they can. Conley has gotten good enough this year that they just might, although the margin for error is virtually nil. They've made one particular big problem for themselves in this first half of the season -- they're down 0-2 with two games to go in the season series against Dallas, who's one of their stronger opponents for the bottom two seeds. That's their main damage, tiebreaker-wise, and it probably is going to make the seven seed unattainable if the Mavericks can hold on to that (something I suspect they'll do). They're down 0-1 in the tiebreaker against Minnesota, although they have three games remaining to make that up. They have two games remaining against Oklahoma City, a team that despises them after last year's unceremonious ouster.

That said? It's not all bad. They've clinched the tiebreaker against Phoenix, which is EXTREMELY important since the Suns represent the most likely team to drop out of the playoff picture. They've still got a good shot at the tiebreaker against Denver, as they're 1-1 against them. Gasol has returned at essentially the perfect time -- he has over a week of easy games to get his legs back before their next big test, a home-and-home against Houston later this month. The three games they have against Minnesota are virtually going to be playoff games -- the Wolves and the Grizzlies have identical records right now, and they're each other's biggest competition in the race to unseat the Suns from the eight spot. And what's more, the tough schedule the Grizzlies endured is going to lead to a relatively easy slate for the rest of January, much of February, and a much of March. Their last few weeks are going to be difficult, but if they're sporting a full squad at the time they have a good shot at replicating their run to the 8 seed in 2011 where they started rolling around the all-star break and ended the year on a tear.

They'll also have their chances to mess up other teams' playoff aspirations, even if they're out of the playoff picture late in the season. From March 24th to the end of the year, they play Minnesota twice, Denver twice, Phoenix once, Dallas once, and play four of the league's six main title contenders in the final few weeks (Miami, San Antonio, Golden State, Portland). If they do manage to pull off the eight seed, they could end up as one of the most dangerous eight seed matchups in recent memory. Given how well that treated them the last time, I don't know if they'd really complain too much if that's the way the cookie crumbles. Luckily for Gregg Popovich, the Spurs aren't on pace for the #1 seed right now, so he doesn't have to worry about that particular potentiality.

... Hey, wait a second!

aw frig

aw dang it

Coping With Loss: On The Eric Bledsoe Injury

bledsoe and hornacek

As a Grizzlies fan, no one should be happier about Eric Bledsoe going down than me. My team -- flailing without Marc Gasol for two months, although they're staying afloat -- now has a much better shot at making the playoffs. In fact, at this point, if they DO manage to reach the top-8, we may end up seeing the Bledsoe injury as directly responsible for the spot.

Despite all that, I'm inconsolable. Out of all the major injuries in the NBA this season, this one hits me hardest. Yes, even harder than Marc. Yes, even harder than Rose. One might think this is because the Grizzlies march to the postseason now seems almost too easy, but that'd be wrong-headed -- nothing related to my guys has anything to do with it. If they get in, I'll be thrilled regardless of how they accomplish the feat. What devastates me so much about this injury is that one of the weirdest basketball stories in the last few seasons will be left unfinished. We'll never know what exactly this Suns team could have done.

Take a step back: the Suns weren't expected to do anything this year other than lose very frequently. In an insanely deep Western Conference, the Suns were the only team that no one thought could compete for a playoff spot. (Even Utah had a few crazy believers!) They were supposed to bottom out for a draft pick, nothing more than four easy wins for the Clippers and Warriors. Instead, they stunned everyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to basketball. I mean, cripes -- they started out 21-13. Twenty-one wins! That represented more wins in their first 34 than many would have given them over an entire season. And this wasn't some case where they kept getting lucky in close games, either. Their point differential matched their record -- their expected Win-Loss record was right on track  with their actual record. No one could totally explain or understand the Suns, and no one had to. It was beautiful. They just worked.

The best thing about the Suns, to me, was that one of their expected problems turned out to be their greatest strength. Dragic and Bledsoe weren't supposed to be able to play together. Dragic was supposed to be trade bait while they bottomed out, because there was no way two point guards could exist in the starting lineup. Right? Wrong. The Dragic-Bledsoe duo proved to be phenomenal, stymieing opposing defenses and rivaling Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for the title of best back court in the league. Splash brothers meet slash brothers, or so they say.

As the wins kept piling up, the question of "can they keep it up" hung in the balance. Even though their record was consistent with their Pythagorean Win-Loss mark, it still seemed questionable that they could keep playing THIS well. After all. Channing Frye couldn't keep playing that well. Miles Plumlee couldn't keep playing that well. Gerald Green couldn't keep playing that well. Whether or not the Suns could blow our minds for a whole season and actually make the playoffs was shaping up to be most fascinating storyline in the league going down the stretch. And we'll never know the answer.

Given their inspiring play to-date, there's a chance they might not fall all the way into the gutter. They've still got more than a puncher's shot of finishing over 0.500, a massive accomplishment for the roster they put together. But with Bledsoe gone, their limitations are impossible to ignore. Dragic is their only true quality player at this point. Everyone else on this team was playing above their expected talent level, and the idea of them playing even more out of their minds than before is pretty laughable. What's more likely is that without Bledsoe, the team will fall into a funk. It's hard to know how much psychological factors can impact a team's performance, but its not a stretch to think the loss of Bledsoe could hurt the Suns just as much mentally as it does talent-wise. With Bledsoe healthy, this team knew they could win, even if no one else believed them. Now, no matter how much they might try to deny it, they know they don't have much of a shot. Confronting that on a daily basis could end up accelerating their descent into the gutter.

Still -- what's the big deal? After all, the Suns know what they have in Dragic and Bledsoe, and there's no reason they can't be competitive next year. If anything, they could be even better, since the prowess they've shown in the first half of the season should increase their odds of a luring a big-name free agent. Further, dropping into to the lottery -- even the fringes of the lottery -- gives them a better draft pick in one of the most loaded drafts in recent memory. And it's not like this year's Suns team was going to win a championship, anyway. Anything after the first round would have been a miracle.

So why does it hurt so much?

Because of the same reason the 2004 Heat are Aaron's favorite Heat team ever -- this is the only year where it was going to be special. We know what the Suns are capable of now, and we're going to into next year basing our expectations on that. If they lure the likes of Luol Deng or Carmelo Anthony to town, we'll be even more confident in their abilities. This was the only year where the Suns were going to push our imaginations to the limit. As NBA fans, we know the game we love is predictable, and we know it's hard to get casual fans excited about it. "Don't the Lakers/Heat just win it every year? I'll watch in June." It's hard to combat that attitude, because deep down, they kind of have a point. The year starts with four or five legitimate championship contenders and four or five legitimate tire fires. The year ends with the same, year-in and year-out.

These teams oscillate, and there's a decent amount of back-and-forth while we adjust expectations and figure out exactly who they are. But the broad strokes remain the same, except in extraordinary circumstances. The 2014 Suns -- prior to this injury -- were an extraordinary circumstance. The greatest thing about basketball's wretched predictability is that when we do happen upon a team like the Suns, it's all the more mesmerizing. Look at the NFL. The worst team in 2012 (the Kansas City Chiefs) ended up winning 11 games and making the playoffs this year, and it wasn't even that much of a surprise. That's the downside of parity, and the upside of predictable hierarchies; when a team plays better than they have any business playing, it really feels like something. It rekindles your excitement for the game and continues to teach you new things.

Deep down, I know the Rose injury is a much bigger deal. It caused the front office to blow the team up with Deng out the door and Boozer likely joining him soon, and now we'll never know if the Rose-Deng-Noah-Boozer Bulls could have won a title. I'm pretty unhappy about that, too, but at least by the time Rose went down again, I already knew where the Bulls were talent-wise. After all, we saw them finish 1st the East for two straight years. They were a known quantity, even if the injuries made them a nebulous unknown. With the Suns, I had no idea how good the team actually was. I had no idea how far they could go. That made them fascinating night in, and night out. They'll certainly be intriguing next year (I'm already expecting them to be at the the top of my Tiers Of Intrigue come September), but the element of surprise will be a gone. And in a sport where genuine surprises come some few and far between, it will be sorely missed.

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!

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Have a wonderful holiday, everybody!