The Stretch Run Primer: Who's In? (The Western Playoff Race)

STRETCH RUN PRIMER

Hey, folks. Until I finish this series, Gothic Ginobili's normal content is going to be put aside for a stretch run awards/storyline handicapping feature. For the first few posts, we'll be going over each of the NBA's season-ending awards and handicapping the field, discussing the top players competing for the award and the dark horse candidates to keep your eye on. Along the way, I'll be writing meandering essays regarding various thoughts about the meaning of each award and the vagaries of sporting awards in a general sense. Fun stuff! Today we won't be covering any awards at all -- we'll be covering one of the few late season storylines with any considerable heft. That is to say, we'll be looking at the Western playoff race. And, well. Yeah. The Lakers.

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THE WESTERN PLAYOFF RACE

About two months ago, you couldn't go two steps without seeing a piece or two eulogizing the Lakers and bidding farewell to their ever-dimming playoff hopes. They'd just lost a shockingly lopsided home game to the Thunder and played the Spurs close in San Antonio, but that didn't really matter -- the idea of a 17-25 team making the playoffs was insane. On the date the Lakers lost to the Grizzlies and chalked up that record, they were 9.5 games behind Golden State, 5 games behind Utah, and 3 games behind Houston -- to put that in perspective, the Lakers were only 3 games ahead of having the worst record in the Western conference. They were closer to being the Sacramento Kings than they were to being a playoff team.

The thing is? They weren't dead yet. It certainly SEEMED like they were, especially when you looked at the numbers and looked at what kind of ball they'd need to play to get back in the playoff race. Compound that with an understanding of their generally tepid play, Pau Gasol's injury, and how good the rest of the west looked? It was reasonable to get a bit hyperbolic, but most people -- myself included -- probably took things a bit too far. After all, this is a team that people thought could win 60-70 games. While they obviously weren't THAT good, they weren't some kind of Sacramento-level abomination either. Eventually, they'd stand a good chance of winning a few of the close, chippy games they lost in the first month or two. Eventually, Golden State's fairy dust stood a good chance of running out. Eventually, Houston's Grinnell-esque three point stylings could come back to haunt them. And if everything conspired for a good few weeks, the Lakers could find themselves right back in the thick of the race.

And make no mistake -- it's not just a race for the #8 seed anymore. Golden State's collapse has vastly increased the complexity of the playoff picture, giving every team currently in the playoff race reason to believe that they can leapfrog 8th and make it all the way to 6th. With the third seed essentially locked in for the Los Angeles Clippers, I don't need to explain why the Lakers might covet such a spot -- excellent though the Clippers are, they haven't looked quite as imposing as the Spurs or the Thunder in the aftermath of Paul's injury, and any Lakers/Clippers series essentially amounts to a 7-game homecourt stand for a Laker team that needs every advantage it can get. There are currently 6 teams jockeying for 3 playoff spots -- two are extreme dark horse candidates, but for the remaining four, I've put together a basic view of their games remaining, split into three buckets -- probable losses, tough wins, and easy wins. I've then wrote two short paragraph discussing both their rough chances at reaching the #6 seed and their rough chances of missing the playoffs. Teams are ordered in the order of the current standings. Let's get to it.

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The Stretch Run Primer: The Importance of Being Surprising (CotY/EotY)

STRETCH RUN PRIMER

Hey, folks. This week, Gothic Ginobili's normal content is going to be put aside for a weeklong awards/storyline handicapping feature. For the first few days, we'll be going over each of the NBA's season-ending awards and handicapping the field, discussing the top players competing for the award and the dark horse candidates to keep your eye on. Along the way, I'll be writing meandering essays regarding various thoughts about the meaning of each award and the vagaries of sporting awards in a general sense. Fun stuff! Today we'll be touching on two awards, both given to non-player personnel. I refer to our yearly coach and executive achievement awards. Let's get at it.

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EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, can say with any certainty who's going to win the award. We can (and will) go over all the prominent candidates, and we'll discuss the merits of the award in general. But we first need to admit to ourselves that there's absolutely no way we're going to really "predict" the way the voters turn. This is one of the most inscrutable awards out there, relying only on the ever-changing preferences and ideals of the NBA's GM collective. Now. All that said... what IS the Executive of the Year award, anyway? Let's check NBA.com. ... or, wait, let's not! The first kerfuffle: there's no official definition of the award. The NBA states many things outright -- what positions you can vote in the all-star game, the exactitudes of voting for your MVP, whether or not you can safely call out another player for being "bout dis life", et cetera. The Executive of the Year award is not one of those things. We all agree that it's supposed to honor an executive who's had a great year, but we've never been entirely sure what that means.

In practice, this leads the Executive of the Year award to have some interesting tics that other awards don't necessarily have. It doesn't really honor the greatest executive of the year, nor the executive who's done the best job running a team. Nor does it necessarily describe the front office that has had the best year, as you'd note when realizing that in 2011 Pat Riley and Gar Forman tied for Executive of the Year while Forman's partner-in-crime John Paxson ALSO got 3 more votes for Executive of the Year. (So, 14 votes for Chicago, 11 votes for Miami ... and a tied award?) So, no, it's not a front office award in and of itself -- if it was, the Bulls would own the 2011 Executive of the Year "title." So what does Executive of the Year describe?

So far as I've been able to demystify it, the award essentially exists to describe a single aspect of an executive's job role. It describes, above all else, an executive whose team made a trade that worked out. It's a bit jarring, actually, if you look back in recent history and try to find examples where an executive won the award without his team having made a strong free push in free agency or made a blockbuster trade that worked out well in the preceding year. Your team has to be good (in a surprising way), but it also has to have seen some sort of large shake-up. Let's look back at the last five years.

  • 2012: Larry Bird (IND) -- acquired George Hill and put together Vogel's perfectly enormous roster for his coaching talents.
  • 2011: Pat Riley (MIA) -- acquired Miami's "Big Three" of Mike Miller, Mike Bibby, and Juwan Howard.
  • 2010: John Hammond (MIL) -- NO BIG TRADE! ... Did offload Richard Jefferson, though, and had just drafted Brandon Jennings.
  • 2009: Mark Warkentien (DEN) -- acquired Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in the biggest trade of the 2009 season.
  • 2008: Danny Ainge (BOS) -- acquired Boston's "Big Three" of Eddie House, Scot Pollard, and James Posey.

Et cetera, et cetera. There's a reason this award's ambiguous definition is of the utmost importance. A particular name is missing from the award's ledger, a name whose absence generally mystifies just about everyone who's ever chanced to think about it.

That name? R.C. Buford. He's never won the award, nor has anyone in the Spurs' front office since Bob Bass snagged it in 1990. The Spurs organization has maintained as one of the best in professional sports for over 15 years running, with remarkable continuity in their front office and an incredible run of successes by Buford and associates. But there's the thing -- over the last five years, the award has been approached from a standpoint where GMs are assessing the other executives as poker players. A big trade is looked at as a team's "all-in" bet on their current team -- in recent memory, executive of the year reflects the teams whose all-in moves happened to work out. This generally ignores a lot of the (arguably more important) aspects of an executive's job role than the headlining trade gambles. It ignores things like the marginal decisions I discussed last week, the ones that Daryl Morey conventionally excels on. It also ignores things like an executive's commitment to scouting, investment in analytics, general focus on increased player health, success at drafting, and general historical success with their team and management chain -- in some years, like Bryan Colangelo's quite confusing victory back in 2007, simply shaking up a bad front office into general mediocrity and helming a marginally over-performing team can be enough of a case to win the award.

Given all that, it's rather elementary to see why R.C. Buford has never won the award -- the Spurs haven't made an "all-in" trade in Buford's entire tenure, because that simply isn't his style. But you don't actually win Executive of the Year by being the best executive in a single year -- you win Executive of the Year one of three ways: you make a big move that pays off big, you dramatically shake up a bad front office, or you helm a team that was expected to be dismal but ends up being a solid playoff-caliber team (a la Milwaukee, Toronto, et cetera). Additionally, you need to be the only notable NBA figure in your front office, because a split vote between several front office officials  (a la Chicago in 2011) will seriously keep you from winning the award. Now, the big question -- when you couch it in those kinds of conditions, does that really describe an "executive of the year" award?

Not sure. But so long as it's called "Executive of the Year" rather than a perfunctory "Trade of the Year Blue Ribbon", R.C. Buford should be a top-5 candidate -- speaking as separated as I can from my Spurs fandom, I don't see how anyone can really refute the idea that the man's playing 3-dimensional chess to the average GM's tic-tac-toe. His proteges go on to become highly successful general managers and coaches around the league, he sticks the landing on nearly every decision he makes in free agency, and he's willing to invest heavily in the oft-neglected scouting and analytics that make basketball decisions smarter. Were I to vote, I'd go with Buford, but I'd be willing to hear a strong case for Danny Ferry, Daryl Morey, or Sam Presti. Out of those, I'd expect Daryl Morey to have the strongest shot at the award -- quite ironically, short of Kupchak and King's big acquisitions this summer, Morey is responsible for the biggest trade of this NBA season and it's worked out surprisingly well for him.

No "dark horse picks" required for this one -- there's no executive in the NBA that doesn't have some particular case for the award, however small it may be. Except maybe Quvenzhané Wallis. She does not have a case for this award, no matter how excellent of an actress she is. Sorry, Ms. Wallis. [Editor's Note: Aaron McGuire was fired after completion of this piece.] Continue reading

The Stretch Run Primer: Minutes Managed (DPoY/RoY)

STRETCH RUN PRIMER

Hey, folks. This week, Gothic Ginobili's normal content is going to be put aside for a weeklong awards/storyline handicapping feature. For the first few days, we'll be going over each of the NBA's season-ending awards and handicapping the field, discussing the top players competing for the award and the dark horse candidates to keep your eye on. Along the way, I'll be writing meandering essays regarding various thoughts about the meaning of each award and the vagaries of sporting awards in a general sense. Fun stuff! Today we'll be touching on two awards, loosely connected by a single thread: the importance of playing minutes.

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DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Defensive Player of the Year is one of my favorite awards to think about, even if the winner doesn't always stand up to history. (See: Marcus Camby.) The concept is simple -- you find the player having the best defensive season in the league and you give the man his due. You watch the defensive end with a hawk's gaze and try to pick out the player who's acquitting himself  best on the defensive end. Questions about this award are rarely questions about what the award represents -- rather, they're questions about the ways we measure defensive performance and heft. How do you measure the comparative value of different defensive roles? How good can a plus defender be on a bad defensive team, and how bad can a minus defender be on a good one? Where does the coach come into the picture? Et cetera. I can't give you definitive answers for any of those questions, but I can give you my view on the matter.

When it comes to the comparative defensive roles, my philosophy is simple -- bigger is better. The larger the player is, the more important their role on the defensive end. The amount of defensive responsibility allotted to point guards and small wings is significantly less than that allotted to large wings and forwards, which is in turn less than the responsibility that falls on the team's biggest bodies. In order to put together a dominant defensive possession, the big guys have to be constantly engaged. They need to stick to their man while shading the rim and setting bruising screens. They need to be sedentary but mobile, touchy but laid low. Conversely, a perimeter stopper has to spend the possession following their man (and keeping aware of the necessary switches), but generally lacks the responsibilities inherent in the screening/rim-protection/rebounding-dominance a good defensive big man has to do. Ergo, while I think perimeter stoppers play a valuable role in the NBA, I rarely think of perimeter stoppers as deserving of awards for being best-in-class. For a perimeter stopper to really be having the greatest defensive performance of the season, they'd need to be having one of the best defensive seasons for a wing of all time -- a big guy merely needs to be "really really good" to exert just as much influence on that end.

As for the good/bad team point, I think that's a key factor as well -- the NBA is a team game, and nowhere is that more obvious than on defense. But "team game" doesn't equate to equally proportioned roles -- a good defensive player tends to encapsulate the idea of a "system-in-a-box." When Dwight Howard was at his best, the general thought was that you could place four terrible defensive players around him and you'd still have a remarkably top-tier defense. That's always been my feeling of the general award, and it's one of the reasons I generally can't stand for the idea of good defensive players on bad defensive teams winning the award. It's not necessarily their fault that they aren't on a team with good defensive pieces, and if their performance is incredible enough they certainly aren't excluded from consideration. But a bad team defense has to reflect, in some way, on the bigs and the stoppers that roll out each and every game. And they lessen the candidacy of anyone unfortunate enough to be on a poor defensive team. (Inversely, I'll occasionally refocus the eye test if a player's team is good enough defensively -- sometimes you lose track of how good a player is under a deluge of numbers and statistics. But if a player's defensive team is top-5, someone is doing something right. And it's on the voters to figure out who that someone really is. ... Even if that's the coach.)

Given all that, there are three main players-to-watch for this year's award. (NOTE: The rankings come from a poll of ESPN Truehoop Network bloggers. They were given five main candidates. Average ranking is simply the average of all ranks 1-to-5 that player received. The number afterwards represents where that average ranking ranked among all players in the poll question.)

1. Joakim Noah -- Avg. Ranking: 2.0 (1)

2. Marc Gasol -- Avg. Ranking: 2.1 (2)

3. Tim Duncan -- Avg. Ranking: 3.2 (3)

Each of these players has a good case. For Noah, it's the sheer minutes total combined with Chicago's continued defensive dominance in the wake of Taj Gibson's generally disappointing year and the loss of Omer Asik. Noah is incredibly active on the defensive end, yelling out orders and getting the entire team communicating. He's about as nimble as a 7-foot behemoth can be, switching madly when he needs to and keeping offensive players on their toes as a general rule. He blocks shots, he blows up pick-and-rolls, he covers when his perimeter backup loses their man. He's a beast. Result-wise, the Bulls are the fourth best defense in the league despite losing key members of their defensive core. Noah's at the heart of everything they do on the defensive end and he's taken on a larger role as needed.

On the other hand, it's hard to look past Marc Gasol. While Gasol doesn't have quite the rebounding chops of a Duncan or a Noah, the general identity of the Memphis Grizzlies lives and dies with Gasol's contributions. The bruising style that's made Memphis famous comes straight from Gasol's long arms, with Gasol notorious for his ability to dart around the rim and body up anyone who tries to get a shot. Early this year, the Grizzlies absolutely obliterated the Heat -- and it wasn't a fluke! When they're rolling, the Grizzlies shut down the other team's at rim game like no other. They force teams to pull back around 3-4 feet out using Gasol's enormity and heft as a deterrent. As with Noah, Gasol's an active communicator -- he barks out orders and points his teammates around with the best of them. It helps that the Grizzlies are the 2nd best defensive team in the league, and that the Grizzlies might be first if they didn't play so many more games in the offensively absurd Western conference

Our third candidate's case is a combination of factors. The first is obvious -- Tim Duncan is quite frankly having one of the best defensive seasons of his career, a renaissance year where his mobility has returned in full form. He's destroying pick and rolls with the vigor of a younger man, and his aptly chanced weakside swats have gotten increasingly well-timed as he's aged. Traditionally, Duncan has struggled mightily to defend athletic big men and keep them in check. While he's had his occasional trouble with DeAndre Jordan and Serge Ibaka, he's mostly reversed that trend this year -- very few big men have "gotten under his skin" so to speak, and the ones that have aren't just "any athletic big whatsoever." Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan have led the Spurs into a defensive renaissance; for the first time in 4 years, San Antonio's defense is markedly better than their offense. They're not a title contender for their blistering offensive pace, they're a title contender because they completely shut teams down. More than anyone else, that's on Duncan.

Picking a defensive player of the year out of these three is actually rather difficult. You can boil their cases down to a simple choice of preference. Duncan is the low-minute (1481 minutes played -- 29.6 per game), max-efficiency (the man barely ever takes off a play in the scant minutes he gets on the floor), mid-results (3rd best team defense) candidate. Gasol is the mid-minute (1899 minutes played -- 34.5 per game), mid-efficiency (occasional slacking, mostly locked in), max-results (2nd best team defense) candidate. Noah is the max-minute (1987 minutes played -- 38.2 per game), low-efficiency (almost every Bulls game there seems to be a lull around the time Noah plays his 25-30th minutes, before he reaches his second wind, where he's sucking air and playing it easy on the defensive end), mid-results (4th best team defense) candidate. How you rank them depends entirely on how you rank those individual barometers of defensive success. If you most value a defender who's giving you rock-solid defensive productivity in an insane amount of minutes, Noah's your guy. If you most value the best defensive season for one of the best defensive players of all time in generally minimal minutes, Duncan's your guy. If you straddle the fence and believe the conference matters (as many do), Gasol's your guy. None of them are strictly wrong choices -- they're simply different. They're all having absolutely excellent defensive seasons and nobody should be particularly nettled if any of them win it.

Me? I'd probably vote Duncan. I think Noah pulls it out in the end, though.

DARK HORSE PICKS: For each of these awards sections, I'll also be going over in brief the year's top dark horse candidates for each award, along with a quick blurb on each stating their case and their problems. Three sentences apiece. THREE! THAT'S IT! In this case, most of the dark horses has a reasonable path available to win the award, even if many are quite flawed and stand on significantly less merit than the above players. Our three dark horse picks are...

  • ROY HIBBERT: Most people wouldn't have him in contention for the award, and that's a mistake -- this is a defensive award, and his offense really SHOULDN'T come into play. Hibbert's the essential old-school center at the core of Vogel's grind-it-out defensive system, and his shot blocking/heft is integral to what the Pacers do. On the other hand, his offense is so startlingly bad he'll have trouble getting votes for any award, and he's been helped significantly this season by West and George both having banner years defensively.
  • KEVIN GARNETT: Without him, Boston would've been a well-below 0.500 team for the past 2-3 years, and he's doing the same stuff he always does this year -- furious screaming, insane switching, and the dirty screens fans of the opposing team know and loathe. On the other hand, the Celtics started the year off poorly on the defensive end, and a lot of that fell on Garnett -- he's getting old and it's starting to really show. Garnett should've won the award last year, and if the Celtics recover and end up as the NBA's best defense, I imagine he'll win it this year.
  • ANDRE IGUODALA: As expected, Iguodala has been Denver's only particularly competent defensive player. The schemes haven't worked quite as well as Karl would've liked, but Iguodala's dominance of the opposing team's perimeter game has taken the Denver defense about as far as it can possibly take it. That's probably not far enough -- nobody really fears the Nuggets defensively, and regardless of Iguodala's heft, their swiss-cheese interior defense puts a hard ceiling on the Nuggets' defensive acumen that sits decidedly around "average."

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ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Unlike DPoY, Rookie of the Year tends to be pretty straightforward. Very few of the RoY races we've watched in the last decade have been competitive whatsoever heading into the season's stretch run; a full six of those ten races could be most effectively described as coronations (Kyrie, Griffin, Rose, Durant, Paul, Roy) and a further two were won by a large enough margin to make the proceedings elementary (Tyreke, LeBron). It doesn't tend to be hotly contested after the all-star break. If you ask most people, the pattern's stuck for this season -- Lillard is headed for a wide margin victory with little left to watch for. I entreat you to look a bit closer, though -- there IS a race here, much like for Defensive Player of the Year. It just takes a bit of reorientation and a bit of statistical chicanery.

Our two candidates are...

1. Damian Lillard

2. Anthony Davis

Okay, yeah. That was pretty obvious. I probably didn't need to state the two. But, indeed, the mere fact that there are two is a testament to the quality of the two players. Lillard's case almost doesn't bear repeating -- Lillard stepped in as one of Portland's first options from his first day on the job and didn't skip a beat, showing the kind of savvy domination that befits a much older man. Most rookies spend a season or two adapting to the NBA speed, especially from the point guard position -- there was no such adjustment period for Lillard, who was faking out and completely outsmarting NBA defenders from the second he stepped on the court. He's been indispensable for the Blazers from day 1, and while they're (somewhat predictably) fading from the playoff picture as their schedule catches up to them, Lillard has remained relatively solid despite lacking a backup and being quite a bit more scouted than he used to be. Every single rookie that's averaged his stats has been named Rookie of the Year. He's been very impressive.

All that said, Davis isn't completely out of the running yet. In fact, a few odd ducks would place him as the better rookie on the basis of his efficiency. And that's not an inconsequential argument. For all of Lillard's flash, he's still shooting 41% from the field and 34% from three despite jacking up six threes a night. That's... not ideal, even if the Blazers lack many other good options from behind the arc. Lillard has a very high usage rate for a point guard and doesn't quite have the efficiency to warrant it -- Davis, on the other hand, has been quietly phenomenal for a better-than-their-record Hornets team. Defensively, he's been incredible -- a maelstrom shot-blocking force that can't be stopped by conventional means. As he's gotten more muscular and NBA-fit, he's improved his one-on-one defense and clearly ranks as one of the best rookie big-man defenders I've had the pleasure of following. He's no slouch offensively, either -- he's converting on 51% of his shots from the field, with a nice baby hook, a solid floater, and a fundamentally sound jump shot. He's averaging 13-8 in 28 minutes a night, which translates to 16-10 per 36 minutes. Combine that with his incredible defense and Lillard's abysmal defense, and you start to wonder why exactly Lillard's conventionally seen to be winning the award by such a large margin.

And then you come across the reason -- as with Duncan, there's a single statistical category that separates Davis from the winner-in-waiting: minutes. While Davis has missed several games to injury with a concussion and other small maladies, Lillard has stayed firmly on the court in the face of an insane minutes load and accumulated ridiculous statistics to go with that. He's one of just 26 players in the history of the NBA to play 38 minutes per game as a rookie, and most of them either won the award outright or put up a strong challenge for it against a ringer of a candidate (Gasol, Rose, Walter Davis, et cetera). When you accumulate so many minutes that your on/off numbers become virtually irrelevant due to small sample size, you know you're playing a lot. As a rookie, one of the most impressive accomplishments you can muster is the ability to play large minutes -- most coaches resist playing rookies through mistakes and follies. Lillard sidestepped that by simply eradicating mistakes and follies from his game -- Davis still makes the occasional blunder that causes Monty Williams to yank him early, and he's still extremely raw. He's productive, but he's raw -- and at some point, simply being able to count on Lillard for an extra 10-12 minutes of rookie star-level performance does actually come into play.

All that said, while I think Lillard is going to win the award (and win it relatively handily, provided he doesn't completely melt down in these last two months)... as with my picking Duncan above, I can't completely overlook what Anthony Davis is doing for the artists formerly known as Hornets. He hasn't played as many minutes due both to injury and Monty Williams playing it safe and keeping their future star fresh, yes. But you can't completely eliminate him based on that alone -- Davis has been markedly more efficient when he's seen the floor than Lillard has, and he looks like he's got quite a ways to grow. I don't know if anyone outside of Portland believes that Lillard is going to be the better player of the two in 2 or 3 years. All that said? I'd probably STILL vote Lillard, simply because I love what he's done and I love what I've seen from him. As we enter the season's stretch run, I'd take as much time as you can to turn an eye to these two -- the race is closer than you think, and both are scintillating to watch and enjoy.

DARK HORSE PICKS: For each of these awards sections, I'll also be going over in brief the year's top dark horse candidates for each award, along with a quick blurb on each stating their case and their problems. Three sentences apiece. THREE! THAT'S IT! In this case, there's really no way -- barring catastrophe -- that any other candidate will make a strong run for the award. Here's 2013's single dark horse candidate.

  • ANDRE DRUMMOND: Who else? Mini-Shaq represented the bourgeois's best shot at a competitive race -- when he went down with a back fracture, that essentially ended his candidacy. He's been arguably the most efficient of all this year's rookies, and he may end up the best player; the award's for a season of action, though, and the injury makes it unlikely he'll see enough time to garner more than 1 or 2 token votes.

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Hope you enjoyed this first installment. We'll continue tomorrow, handicapping more awards. See you then!