A Primer on Cap-Smoothing: the NBA's BRI Problem

Adam Silver answers a question. (Credit Pat Sullivan from the AP for the photo.

Two days ago, Zach Lowe stirred up a minor storm on Twitter with a tiny aside in an otherwise non-controversial piece about the frustrating tête-à-tête between Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix front office within his restricted free agency. The offending aside, in its essence:

And that’s where things get interesting: Executives on lots of teams have gotten the sense from the league office that the NBA will try to smooth the increase of the cap level to minimize the impact of any massive one-year jump in revenue. Exactly how it would do that is unclear. The precise team salary cap — $58 million last season, $63 million this season — is tied to overall league revenues; the two rise and fall together. Players are guaranteed about 50 percent of the league’s “basketball-related income,” and the league and union set the cap figure so player salaries add up to a number in that 50 percent ballpark. The league’s specific plan for smoothing out the cap increase is unclear, and in the end, it may opt against doing so at all. The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

There's a lot of misunderstandings about how exactly this cap smoothing plan could work, and those misunderstandings spread in a controversy so deadly it almost became a twitpocalypse. (Alright, I lied. It was a pretty average twitter controversy. I just wrote that so that I could use the word "twitpocalypse.") Much like Lowe, I don't feel this is all that controversial. And I generally think a cap smoothing plan could be an ideal situation for both the league as a whole and the players as a collective. That sounds weird at the outset, especially because as-described the cap smoothing plan is effectively depressing player salaries.

But there are a lot of key facts about the NBA's general operating agreement that lead me to that conclusion, and I realized while arguing about this that most people were totally unaware of these. While I tried to explain my rationale in 140-character chunks, I quickly realized that Twitter was a terrible medium for this kind of a complicated explanation. Let's try it in post form. My intention is to try and explain a) why it's necessary in the first place, b) what such a proposal would need to entail, and c) a few off-the-cuff ideas of how the parameters of this proposal might look. But to start to explain this, one must start at the very beginning, which can be done by answering a hypothetical posed to me by the incomparable @basquiatball.

• • •

What would the NBA offseason look like if the cap doubled?

The NBA's 2015 salary cap was set about a month ago. The exact figure was $63 million dollars. Let's say, for the purposes of this argument, that the NBA's basketball related income will roughly double in the 2016 offseason, for reasons unknown to all of us. Ergo, the cap (a figure that's tied intricately to BRI) suddenly jumps from this year's $63 million figure to a total of $120 million dollars. This has a lot of side-effects, as the cap figure has a massive impact on the NBA's salary structure. The most important ones for our purposes:

  • An NBA team's minimum collective salary is set at 90% of the NBA's salary cap figure. This past year, it was set at $56 million dollars. In this scenario, it jumps to $108 million dollars.
  • The maximum salary of an NBA player is set at a certain percentage of the cap depending on how many years the player has been in the league. This would result in maximum salaries jumping like so:
    • 0-6 years: 25% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $14.7 million to $30 million.
    • 7-9 years: 30% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $17.7 million to $36 million.
    • 10+ years: 35% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $20.6 million to $42 million.
  • The tax level is set at a certain percentage of BRI, meaning that it matches the cap level. It would rise from $77 million to $146 million.

I filled out a spreadsheet with every contract currently on the NBA's books. The NBA currently has salaries roughly totaling $2 billion dollars for the 2015 NBA season. In a scenario where every team opens up so much cap room, it's a fair assumption to state that every single player in the NBA with a qualifying offer or a player option will reject it and every player with an early termination option will exercise it. With those assumptions, players who remained on the books with their guaranteed contracts would represent $1.3 million of those $2 billion in contracts. The players who represented the other $0.7 billion would become free agents.

At this juncture, let's take a step back to try and understand the mechanisms by which the league and the players meet the overall player salaries proposed in the 2011 CBA. According to that CBA, the players receive 49 to 50% of basketball related income. The cap total (and cap floor) is tied to BRI in such a way that forces teams to dole out salary so that the players get their agreed-upon share. If a team does not meet the minimum salary among all their players, the difference between their total salary and the salary floor is paid out in equal margin to all players on their closing day roster.

Still. With max salaries doubling and every team in the market for every player in free agency, what do you really think is going to happen? Nobody on that free agent market that gets picked up is going to get a minimum salary -- too many teams with too much money will ensure that. If BRI doubles, the total amount that goes back to the players in salary will need to approach $4.3 billion dollars despite only having $1.3 billion dollars on the books in guaranteed money to the players with existing contracts. Even assuming that some teams don't get all the free agents they want and are forced to end the season under the salary floor, that still means that salaries for the players on the free agent market (the ones who made up just 0.7 billion of the NBA's salary in 2015) will need to approach $2 billion dollars for the numbers to work out, with the remaining $1 billion dollars being distributed in payments to players on sub-floor teams. That means that virtually every player in that free agent class will see their salaries double or triple over their previous contract while players with guaranteed contracts see little to no impact from the massive salary boost.

• • •

Why is this bad for the players?

Now that the previous scenario has been laid out, this one should be easier to understand. To put it plainly: every non-free agent in the NBA gets screwed. The NBA doesn't really have many avenues for adjusting to massive shifts in the cap -- under the current CBA, players on existing contracts aren't going to see the benefit of a massive cap increase until they hit free agency. And by that point, the rush on contracts might very well be over. Sure, they'll get MORE in their next contract, but how much more?

Again, let's return to our example. Let's say that BRI projections stay completely flat after rising to $120 million dollars. In the 2015 offseason, we calculated that there would be $1.3 billion dollars of guaranteed salary on the books alongside a BRI projection that would lead the players to require $4.3 billion dollars of the NBA's revenue. In the 2016 offseason, after the projected 2015 spending spree of $2 billion dollars on the 2015 free agents, the total guaranteed salary would instead be roughly $3 billion dollars, leaving $1.3 billion to divvy up between all free agents on the market. This would lead to raises, assuredly -- the new class of free agents have salaries that summed up to roughly $600 million dollars, so those free agents are likely to double their salaries.

But notice what happened in the previous offseason -- due to the wild fluctuation caused by the rapidly rising cap, free agents in the 2015 market ended up with almost triple their previous salary as teams got into predictable bidding wars with their bounty of cap space. Once that cap picture stabilizes and the market starts to look like a normal one again (that is, with 5-6 teams with big cap room and the rest working around the margins), the NBA would return to a generally stable world where future free agents saw their salaries increase to match the big BRI increase. But future free agent classes would never quite see as much of an increase as the initial run -- there wouldn't be as many teams able to engage in large bidding wars nor would there be as much of a need for teams to sign overpaid contracts in an effort to avoid missing the salary floor.

Hence, the big problem. Suddenly increasing the cap by a massive amount DOES increase salaries, which is good for the players in aggregate. But that increase is NOT evenly distributed -- it provides a larger-than-deserved bump to the players who happen to enter free agency during that free agent period without any means of redistributing that money to players on guaranteed contracts. Even after the 2011 CBA decreased the number of years on contracts and forced more of the league into free agency on a yearly basis, the number of players who enter free agency in any given offseason is still much less than half the players in the league. Which means that 30-40% of the league would be reaping the benefits of the increased revenue without any of the players on guaranteed money seeing a dime of it until their own respective free agency periods.

That's simply not a good look. It penalizes:

  • Veterans who signed long contracts as injury insurance.
  • Rookies still on their now comically underpaid rookie deals.
  • Any player whose team convinced them to sign a longer deal to help foment team stability.

That's a hell of a lot of the league. It's pretty hard to see a situation where the 30-40% of the league entering free agency could outvote the 60-70% of the league that would be stuck on the sidelines, watching as free agents gobble up the NBA's suddenly-bountiful cap room with obscenely huge guaranteed contracts. If the league could come up with a cap smoothing proposal that keeps such a free agency period from happening, it's a good bet that most players would support it.

• • •

Isn't salary suppression illegal? Why would the players give up money?

Returning to Zach's quote for a moment, there's one sentence that bears repeating:

The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

This is a core point of any particular cap smoothing proposal. In no universe will the players NOT receive the share of BRI they were promised during the 2011 CBA negotiations. That wouldn't just be bad form -- it would be completely illegal per the NBA's operating agreement, and probably lead to the end of the league through the courts. Even if the salary cap is artificially depressed, the players will still receive their agreed-upon share of the pie. The question therefore is one of distribution -- cap smoothing would be an effort to prevent uneven assignment of the revenue increase, essentially a way to prevent one season of lucky free agents from gobbling up 60-70% of the NBA's salary cap in the near term.

 

Having established that the players are going to receive their money regardless, the question becomes one of the league itself. Why would Adam Silver and the owners want to implement a smoothing proposal if they aren't actually getting any more money? If we consider the players' vested interest in an even distribution of salary, the league has a vested interest in preventing the variety of other ill side effects stemming massive jump in the cap as well. In a world where every team is suddenly under the cap, the chances of any particular team actually accumulating enough salary to go over the tax line in a meaningful way is extremely low. Ergo, the various teams who depend on tax payments would suddenly be without their main source of income. Because every single player who could possibly finagle his way into free agency would do so, the league would look almost completely different from one year to the next -- 40-50% of the league would likely change teams when you account for all the trades and machinations teams would go through to try and attract the star players of the free agent class.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it isn't ideal either. Given the NBA's focus on competitive balance and the subsidizing of small markets, that kind of an offseason free-for-all could be seen by many owners as an anathema to balance and a reward to teams in large markets who haven't managed their cap space particularly well. Hence, the league office has a vested interest in keeping the cap figure stable regardless of whether they get any extra money in doing so.

• • •

How would a cap smoothing proposal work?

So. We know the league's BRI estimates are likely to rise 30-40% after the league agrees to a new TV deal -- that's nowhere near the wild scenarios described in this post, but it would cause a similarly deleterious impact on the league's salary structure. While I'm no legal expert, there are a few ways I could imagine a cap smoothing proposal being both legal under the 2011 CBA and operating in such a way that both the league and the NBPA would agree to it. They are as follows:

SCENARIO #1: EVERYONE AGREES TO PRETEND THE CAP IS LOWER.

I mostly just included this one because it's the most obvious result, even if it's extraordinarily unlikely. The basic idea is that teams would simply operate as though the cap is near historical levels, rising by 5-6% instead of 30-40%. They'd sign contracts commensurate with those from previous free agency periods but reflecting the gradual increase. This is silly for obvious reasons. Even in the unlikely event that all teams collectively agreed to operate under a lower threshold to keep salaries in roughly equivalent ranges, the method by which the CBA deals with a salary shortfall (the aforementioned equal assignment of sub-salary floor money to all players on the team below the floor) is a wildly imprecise method of evening out the league's salary. It would still raise the salaries of free agents signed in that free agency period, and it would grant an equal portion of the pie to minimum-salary journeymen and superstars stuck in max deals. And it would also assign larger raises to players on teams with low salary obligations (like tanking teams) at the expense of teams that are trying to field title contenders. Even if Silver could somehow convince the teams to do that, it's unlikely the result would be to anyone's liking.

SCENARIO #2: THE LEAGUE AND NBPA MUTUALLY AGREE TO DISTRIBUTE EXTRA SALARY THROUGH THE NBPA

There was one way for the NBA to fix errors in the cap that I didn't mention in this post. Per Larry Coon's CBA FAQ:

Since individual salaries are negotiated before the season starts (in many cases years before), and BRI is not determined until the season concludes, there are mechanisms in place to adjust when salaries miss their target. If the players receive less than their guaranteed share of BRI, the league cuts a check to the players association for the difference, and this amount is distributed to the players (this happened in 2010-11, under the 2005 CBA).

This may be the most likely smoothing plan. In this scenario, the league would knowingly keep the BRI estimate lower than expected in concert with the NBPA, which would artificially depress the cap. The remainder of player salary would then be distributed to the players by the NBPA at the end of the season, with the NBPA deciding how to split the large imbalance among all its players. This would probably go on for a few years, increasing the cap by 5-10% each year until the shortfall isn't a massive number anymore. There might be some quibbles among some players with max salaries that this artificial smoothing deflates their max salaries, and that's a very valid point. But this is probably the fairest option.

SCENARIO #3: THE LEAGUE ADJUSTS FOR THE BRI INCREASE BY SHORTENING THE NBA SCHEDULE

Both the league and the players have expressed for some time that the NBA's schedule is a bit too long for comfort. The players don't like the increased risk of injury that comes with a longer season or the unnecessary back-to-back stretches that make it hard to stay at top form all year, while the league isn't particularly fond of the anemic basketball that gets played for months of the NBA's calendar or the widespread perception that the NBA's regular season doesn't matter. The NBA has maintained for quite some time that it would like to add some kind of midseason tournament to manufacture new interest in their product and add different parameters for a successful season outside of the simple "NBA championship or bust" framework they have now.

My thought is that it's possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that the league could use this BRI increase as a way to justify shortening the NBA season. Depending on how much they shortened the NBA season, they could depress BRI projections enough to maintain a relatively even cap despite adding the new national TV deal. They could keep the basic skeleton of the schedule the same (that is, start in October and end in late April) but implement 2-3 weeks of dead time around the all-star break, effectively giving NBA players a month off in the middle of the year. That month would lie dormant until the 2017 CBA negotiations, when the NBA could introduce a plan to hold a two week midseason tournament directly in the now-empty weeks. They could structure the TV deal to include basic parameters for covering the midseason tournament with exact terms to be negotiated after the CBA deal, giving an instant BRI boost as soon as the tournament is agreed upon.

If there are fears that the tournament's addition could push the league into a similar cap situation to the one it's facing now, the league and the NBPA could negotiate terms such that tournament income is considered "post-BRI" asset income, much like NBA jerseys. That way, players would get paid for the tournament separately from their salary, allowing the league and players to profit off the

There are a lot of ways the NBA could manage this in a way that benefits both the players and the league. At this point, only one thing is certain -- it's unlikely either side has a great appetite to see how the 2011 CBA holds up in the aforementioned stress case. Artificially easing the cap increase could benefit all parties involved, despite how odd that sounds in a vacuum. Keep an eye on this -- as the NBA's new T.V. deal approaches, this back-and-forth between the league and the players is only going to get more interesting.

The NBA is Worse at Criminal Justice than the NFL

kyle lowry

Word broke today that the NFL has finally completed deliberations on the punishment for Ray Rice's offseason arrest over grisly charges that he assaulted his fiancee. The punishment, in total? A two-game suspension, coupled with a $58,000 fine and a recommendation from the NFL to attend counseling. Rice pleaded not guilty to the offense and was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that led the charges to be dropped, so that NFL penalty (in addition to the intervention program) will represent the sum total of Rice's punishment for his outburst. News flash: this isn't rare. Out of morbid curiosity, I've collected information about the last four years of assault or battery charges in the NBA from Google and the NBA Crime Library. Presented with minimal comment, and ordered by date:

  • June 2014: James Johnson was charged with domestic assault for allegedly slapping and choking his wife. The charges were dismissed because his wife did not appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • October 2013: Kendrick Perkins was charged with assault after punching a two passengers of an automobile in the face after an altercation in a bar parking lot. I have been unable to track down what happened here, but the league nor the Thunder never commented on the allegations. LEGAL PENALTIES: None (that I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2013: Jared Sullinger was charged with assault and malicious destruction of property for allegedly discovering his girlfriend was cheating on him and beating her to the ground before smashing her cellphone. The charges were dropped when his ex-girlfriend refused to appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • May 2013: Terrence Williams was arrested on charges of assault, amidst allegations that he pulled a gun on his child's mother during an annual visitation and made threats. It does not appear that a trial ever occurred, although the Celtics waived him shortly after the news broke (likely as a result of the arrest). LEGAL PENALTIES: None. (That I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None officially, although the Celtics did waive his contract.
  • January 2013: Andray Blatche was arrested on charges of sexual assault, allegedly standing in the doorway and watching as his friend raped a woman in Blatche's hotel room. Charges against Blatche were dropped several months later, although reports are unclear as to whether his friends evaded sentencing. Blatche played in an NBA game against the 76ers the exact same day he was arrested. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2012: Jordan Hill was charged with felony assault for choking a former girlfriend. He pleaded guilty, dropping the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. LEGAL PENALTIES: One year of probation, $500 fine, counseling. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • February 2011: Kyle Lowry was charged with misdemeanor battery for throwing a ball at a female ref during a preseason game and threatening the ref with physical violence. Lowry refused to appear in court, but his lawyer got the charges dropped in exchange for pleading guilty and community service. The NBA said nothing. LEGAL PENALTIES: 100 hours of community service. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • August 2010: Lance Stephenson was charged with assault and harrassment for throwing his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs and allegedly slamming her head into the staircase. The case was eventually dismissed due to a lack of cooporation from his ex-girlfriend. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

Actually, I lied. I said I'd present it without comment, but that doesn't really do it justice. Much of the NBA's twitter community has been devoted to jokes and observations about how horrifying and hypocritical the NFL is for letting Ray Rice get off with a two game suspension while players like Josh Gordon lose a year of their career for something as minor as a marijuana charge. It's true. It's hypocritical, awful, and unbelievably dumb. But a lot of talk has also been made about boycotting the NFL for their hypocrisy, and giving them financial ramifications for their hand-wavy attitude towards the serious issue of assault. My take? Do it. It's justified.

But if we're being honest, you'd be better off boycotting the NBA first.

It's hard to conclude that the NBA is anything if not much worse when it comes to league penalties for non-drug-related criminal behavior. Many of these players actually pleaded guilty without seeing any league penalty. Kyle Lowry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from an actual on-court basketball game -- the league said nothing. Jordan Hill pleaded guilty -- the league said nothing. The rest of these are, for the most part, grisly cases with an abundance of evidence pointing to evidence of guilt. But most of them got off, and not once did the league take even a cursory action. The only two times the NBA players suffered a legitimate on-court penalty were times when the player was an expendable, fringe NBA talent who wasn't worth the hassle. These are all things that happened in the last four years.

And when it comes to former players and public figures, the ledger is just as full. Beloved Grantland contributor Jalen Rose pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge stemming from an event where he got in a car almost immediately after having six martinis and rolled his Cadillac. He could've killed someone. Idolized general manager R.C. Buford was caught doing the same. Marv Albert is a generally accepted commentator, and one of the leading lights of the business -- hell, he's part of Blake Griffin's endorsement deal with Kia! -- but few people remember the disgusting charges of rape he faced back in the 90s. NBC fired him a few months into the scandal, but quietly re-hired him years later after he'd pleaded guilty to lesser charges and the public furor had died down a bit. He's still calling the NBA Finals, using the same voice he used on the stand when he argued that his assault was "consensual."

We can call this a massive moral failing, because it is. But in broad strokes, this is essentially how society treats these crimes. There's a curious amount of outrage over the NFL's punishment without the necessary realization that -- realistically -- this is one of the few times in the history of criminal justice where a sports league has accomplished the following three things in an assault case:

  1. The NFL punished a player who managed to get the charges dropped.
  2. The NFL punished a star player despite their status in the league, and gave a semi-meaningful suspension.
  3. The NFL made it clear that such an action was not OK, and essentially countered Baltimore's disgusting press conference.

The NFL is hardly perfect. It would be nice if they levied harsher punishment against Rice, and the juxtaposition between Rice's punishment and Josh Gordon's inexplicable marijuana suspension is comically off-base. But it's hardly more off-base than the actual criminal justice system's differential treatment of those particular crimes, with assault cases regularly falling apart over extremely minor inconsistencies in evidence or intimidation practiced on the part of the defense while marijuana locks up thousands of poor black teenagers on incomprehensible sentences every single year. And it feels slimy to say this, but at least they did something. Two games out of sixteen is equivalent to a 10 game NBA suspension. That's not sufficient, but it's not nothing. I don't generally endorse giving gold stars for minimal effort, but in this case, it might actually be deserved. Especially compared to the NBA's horrendous record of response on these kinds of cases.

Boycotts are fine. They rarely work, but they're a good way to take action on moral stances and provide heft to your arguments. I rarely watch the NFL anymore, as I have trouble mentally justifying it given their laissez-faire attitude towards concussions and their former players. But if NBA fans are going to boycott the NFL for their treatment of the Rice case, they should probably start off by storming the NBA's league office in New York and demanding answers on the NBA's pitiful track record. And given the widespread love and adoration for some of these players -- Lowry, Stephenson, and Hill in particular -- many might want to rethink the way they approach fandom as a whole. It's easy to pick holes in sports you don't love, but it's much harder to honestly address very real moral failings in the sport you hold dearest. And it's even harder to come to terms with the fact that the players we hold up as totems to virtue and aesthetics are real human beings with real human flaws.

But that's part of being an adult, and it's part of being a sports fan. Games aren't always fun.

Free Agency 2014: More Signings, More Grades!

richard jefferson

Lest you've been living under a rock, I must inform you -- free agency started two weeks ago. One of the unintended consequences of the NBA's 2011 CBA renegotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that dramatically increased the craziness and general velocity of free agency. Any given contract's maximum length was slashed dramatically in the new CBA, meaning that far more of the league (by percentage) goes to free agency than they used to. And because contracts are shorter, teams churn through cap space much quicker, which means a good 10-15 teams have easily accessible avenues to hand out max deals. The in-season trade block is less lucrative than it used to be, but free agency is wilder than ever. In recognition of this, I'm trying to stay abreast on the information overload so you don't have to. Today I'll be covering:

  • A large number of low-end free agents. Not all of them, as there are officially too many to discuss in one post.
  • Grades for each signing based on my take on how said player would fare in a zombie apocalypse.
  • Everything BUT LeBron. His name will not occur after this line. Live to LeBron another day, lovelies.

Let's get to it.

• • •

Here are a large number of deals that have gone down so far with a few snap thoughts on each of them. I will also provide a grade on each contract. Last week's grades were on a rapidly shifting scale with no comparability between the different grades. These will be comparable, but completely agnostic to a player's talent, fit, or general basketball acumen. I'll be grading on my best guess as to whether the player in question would be a standout citizen in a zombie apocalypse. (Before anyone asks -- yes, slow zombies. Get that fast stuff out of here.)

  • Nando De Colo signs with CSKA-Moscow on an undisclosed deal. Nando De Colo was not a particularly groundbreaking NBA player. A perennial backup at best, he showed serious NBA speed but often found himself tricked into making passes that were far outside any possible comfort zone for a player of his caliber. Compounded that with low finishing ability and a shaky-yet-quick-trigger shot. In San Antonio almost seemed like he was trying to imitate Manu. Maybe it was some kind of hilarious attempt to trick Gregg Popovich into giving him extra minutes by getting the two of them mixed up. (SPOILERS: It didn't work.) He cleaned up his act enough in Toronto that you could start to see a decent option at the backup point if you squinted, but in a league replete with point guards that wasn't quite good enough to make the kind of money he wanted. Too replaceable. De Colo might very well be a star with CSKA Moscow -- his aggression and speed that's relatively pedestrian in the NBA could make him a standout in any league that's slightly slower and slightly more by-the-book. Probably a good deal for CSKA Moscow.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: While De Colo isn't an amazing NBA player, the guy is lithe and stringy. Also: delightfully fast. I think he'd survive pretty admirably in a post-apocalyptic wasteland -- perhaps not the most cerebral member of the group, but he'd be quick thinking and good at running when the caca hits the rotors. Four brains out of five.
  • Kent Bazemore signs with the Atlanta Hawks on a 2 year, $4 million dollar deal. Remember when I mentioned less than one paragraph ago that the league has a glut of point guards? Consider Bazemore exhibit A. He's hardly an amazing talent, but he's eminently passable. In a league with fewer options, it's feasible that an athletic wunderkind like Bazemore could get a much larger contract than that. Especially given his turn with the Los Angeles Lakers last year -- in his first serious minutes, Bazemore averaged 28 minutes of burn with 13-3-3 on 47-37-64 shooting and his usual scraphouse grinder defense, which certainly seemed like a decent-tier backup to me. He's only 24 years old, so chances are reasonably high that this deal ages well over the next two years as he develops into his passing game and backs up the entrenched incumbent in Jeff Teague. That's where we are as a league right now -- there are enough passable point guards that $2 million a year can net you a young, low-risk athletic burst guy at your backup point guard slot. No wonder Nando left for greener pastures.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Bazemore's burst and athleticism may make him a strong option for the Hawks at backup point guard, but he's a bit stocky. He's also a physical defender, used to bodying guys up and aggressive fronts. If you aggressively front a zombie, it will be difficult to avoid being bitten. Atlanta, you made the wrong call. Two brains out of five.
  • Brian Roberts signs with the Charlotte Hornets on a 2 year, $5.5 million dollar deal. As with Bazemore, this represents a decent bargain on a flawed-but-developing point guard. Bazemore is more of an offensive project, Roberts is more of a defensive project -- his close-outs were wild and often terribly timed, but he shot the ball well and helmed several reasonably efficient offensive units off the New Orleans bench. This probably signals the end of the Ramon Sessions era in Charlotte, with Charlotte going for a younger option with a bit more upside. Probably a lateral move, if we're honest, but maybe Clifford can milk a bit more out of his game.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Brian Roberts is a worldly player, having played overseas for Israel and Germany. I'm going to assume he's learned a lot of cool tricks from his Israeli and German teammates, giving him that extra edge that nudges him just above replacement level. Three brains and a femur out of five.
  • Willie Green signs with the Orlando Magic on a 1 year, $1.2 million dollar deal. This is selfish, but I hate this deal. I hate this deal for one reason, and one alone -- I hate watching Willie Green play. I just don't think he's an NBA caliber player. This will be his eleventh season in the league. He played almost 16 MPG for one of the three or four best teams in the NBA last season, so it was silly of me to expect he'd leave. But he just didn't really do anything! He shot under 40% from the floor despite playing well over a third of his minutes with Chris Paul. Do you have any idea how hard that is? He only shot 33% from three! Perhaps he'll be a calming veteran presence in an Orlando locker room that needs it. I doubt it. More likely, he'll shoot even worse than he did last year and slowly fade into the ether.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: His name is 'Willie'. Need I say more? One brain out of five.

• • •

Kevin Garnett: starting center on the zombie all-stars.

  • Ben Gordon signs with the Orlando Magic on a 2 year, $9 million dollar deal. In a vacuum, I don't despise this signing. The second year is reportedly a team option, which essentially means they're draining about $4 million on him this season with the intention of cutting him or shipping him off for assets if he shows even the slightest pulse. He hasn't in several years, but it's a flyer on a possible asset grab. The thing is? Even understanding the logic, I still don't see the point of picking up Gordon specifically. It's not like the market is bone dry or anything -- there are a bunch of cheap young mid-career options that Orlando could've kicked the tires on instead. Jerryd Bayless, Jordan Crawford, Xavier Henry, James Anderson... even their own Doron Lamb, who wasn't that bad last season. They probably could've had their pick of any of those shooting guards for the same general price range they're paying Gordon, and all of them are roughly as likely to turn into the kind of trade asset they're hoping to get from Gordon. And none of them left their former team on terms nearly as bad as Gordon's last ouster. Just sort of puzzling to me. Certainly could work out, and it's hardly a harrowing loss even if it goes horribly wrong. Just fundamentally strange, much like their odd Willie Green signing and their difficult to defend Afflalo dump.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Ben Gordon fearlessly took on chomping zombies back when he was a member of the Chicago Bulls, as seen in the picture above. He's a grizzled veteran of the zombie game. Five brains out of five.
  • Richard Jefferson signs with the Dallas Mavericks on a 1 year, $1.5 million dollar deal (10+ year veteran's minimum). Little known fact: Richard "El Jeffe" Jefferson wasn't that bad last season. He wasn't exactly some building block for the future, which begged the question of what on God's green earth Tyrone Corbin was doing by giving him 27 minutes a night. But lost in the futility of his season was the fact that he really wasn't that bad. He was actually better than he'd been since 2011, with perfectly mediocre averages of 10-3-2 on 45-40-75. He brought back a bit of his at-rim finishing game and continued to show off the rehabilitated shot he got in San Antonio. His defense has fallen off a cliff, but as a purely offensive player, he's the absolute definition of "replacement level" at this point. Adequate to a fault. Hence, I actually like this signing for Dallas -- given Shawn Marion's precipitous falloff on defense, Jefferson might actually represent an equal caliber veteran replacement as a backup for Chandler Parsons. Given that the Mavericks are contending for a title (if only on the periphery), it makes a bit more sense to focus on veteran known quantities over flyers at your backup slots. And a vet min deal is decent value for that kind of production. It's a silly deal simply because Richard Jefferson is silly -- it's a good one regardless of the omnipresent humor.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Richard Jefferson reminds me of the mild-mannered side character in most zombie movies. He doesn't really distinguish himself in any way before the zombie apocalypse, but his quiet strength quickly makes him the backbone of the group, quickly showing his importance as the greatest zombie fighter of all. ... YO, I'M PLAYIN, WE'RE TALKING ABOUT RICHARD JEFFERSON. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. One brain out of five.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic signs with the Brooklyn Nets for 3 years, $10 million dollars. I don't know much about Bogdanovic. He's a Croatian player who plays for the Croatian national team, and is coming stateside from a tour with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey. He's 25, which means he has some limited upside, and the deal is structured such that he can opt out of the final year if he wants to try his hand at a larger payout. He's played with fellow Brooklyn bench-bro Mirza Teletovic before, so there might be some preexisting chemistry between the two Croats. All things considered, it isn't a terrible use of the taxpayer MLE -- Bogdanovic averaged 15 points a night in Turkey and has a reasonably smooth perimeter shot, although it remains to be seen if his release is quick enough to get open looks at an NBA level.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: I really know nothing about him. This is a stupendously difficult zombie grade to assess. According to Wikipedia, the Croatian national team's head coach kicked him off the team in 2012 for disciplinary issues. Perhaps that implies that as the going gets tough, Bojan starts to get rougher and tougher, and that he would end up a lone agent in a zombie apocalypse scenario. Going one-on-one in a world like that is not usually conducive to success. Two brains out of five.
  • Danny Granger signs with the Miami Heat for 2 years, $4.2 million dollars. There are few moves this summer that I disliked as much as this one. When negotiations completed on this contract, the Heat still had... uh... "that one dude" (remember, I can't use the L-word!) who should theoretically have be a big free agent draw. They were looking for Granger as a backup spot-minute guy who would play 10-15 minutes a night. His veteran minimum salary value is $1.3 million dollars a year. That's what the veteran minimum was made for! Why were the Heat willing to give up their $4.2 million biannual exception for Danny Granger, despite the fact that they could've signed him to a veteran minimum deal for $2.6 million dollars over two years? Was there a huge market for Granger, despite his scintillating playoff shooting of 27% from the field with 22% from three point range? Look at other players who signed around BAE value -- Kent Bazemore, James Johnson, Beno Udrih, Lavoy Allen. Are you telling me that NONE of them would've considered Miami's money if Riley could've convinced Granger to take a $1.6 million dollar haircut? Come on. Miami should've pushed on the veteran minimum. And if they failed, they should've reoriented and found other quality vets who might've taken it instead and spent their BAE on someone with a modicum of upside. I love Danny Granger, but that was a heck of a puzzling move by Riley.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: High. Not many veterans have their own Batcave -- as long as Granger can make his way to his New Mexico home, he should be able to hole up in the Batcave and hold out a strong defense against the zombified hordes. Huge value for Miami's BAE, and could very well save Riley's butt once everything goes down. Great move. Four brains out of five.

• • •

mario welcome

  • Mario Chalmers re-signs with the Miami Heat for 2 years, $8 million dollars. Although Chalmers is coming off one of the worst NBA Finals performances I've ever seen, this contract seems like a decent value to me. Chalmers is 28 years old, which means it's unlikely he evolves his game much, but he's a capable showrunner for Spolestra's playbook and a decent defensive talent at an ordinarily defenseless position. He's hardly one of the league's better point guards, and as the entrenched Miami starter, he'll remain one of the league's worst starting point men. But he's also quite cheap for a player in his nominal prime and it'll keep Miami from losing too much corporate knowledge as they shuffle the pieces around Bosh and Wade. Which is valuable, if not particularly sexy. (Still wish they had Isiaiah, though.)
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Picture this. The Heat are in their RV, driving to Danny Granger's Albequerque home. Tempers run high. Suddenly, the RV sputters. They turn to Mario in concert, and start yelling at him. Even Spolestra stops the RV, turning to join the mob. Mario, it was your job to fill the tank! Mario, why are you so useless! Mario, THIS WAS YOUR ONE JOB. As they scream, hordes of zombies start clawing at the outside of the RV. Pat Riley looks out the window and steels himself, resigned to their fate. (PLOT TWIST: The gas was full. Mario did his job. It sputtered because RVs do that sometimes. Whoops.) Zero brains out of five.
  • D.J. Augustin signs with the Detroit Pistons for 2 years, $6 million dollars. Augustin isn't an incredible player, but I like his fit in a Stan Van Gundy offense. I could see him playing a role not-dissimilar to the one played by Rafer Alston in 2009 -- a spot of reliable three point shooting and burst scoring off the bench by a generally tepid distributor. Of course, that makes a lot more sense when you aren't paying Brandon Jennings tens of millions of dollars to play a similar role (and play it better!), but that's beside the point. (Yes, pun intended.)
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Augustin is quite small for an NBA player, standing at 6'0". He's also really fast, which means that he'd be great at darting through the woods and escaping a horde on his own. He calls his own number a lot, which probably would frustrate members of his group, but his size makes him a replacement level zombie fighter. Three brains out of five.
  • Cartier Martin signs with the Detroit Pistons for 1 year, $1.1 million dollars (6-year veteran's minimum). Martin isn't a phenomenally adept player, but he can shoot threes. I wrote a few days back about how Stan Van Gundy (the GM) was building the exact sort of team that Stan Van Gundy (the coach) wanted to work with. Martin is a reminder of that desire, a one-dimensional shooter who will spot up to the corners and do little else in his system. One-dimensional or not, he should be useful to a Pistons team that was almost unbelievably bad at shooting threes last season.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: One-dimensional agents can be useful in the aftermath of a zombie takeover, but only if that dimension actually has anything to do with rebuilding society or defending yourself against zombies. Corner threes will not be very useful while zombies are eating you. Zero brains out of five.
  • Aaron Gray signs with the Detroit Pistons for terms that are still totally undisclosed. Seriously, wait, what? It's been ten days, Stan Van Gundy. This was announced over a week ago -- it is now the 15th. Let the terms leak already! ... That said, I don't really love this move, nor do I really understand it. The Pistons are going to have to waive Peyton Siva or Josh Harrellson in order to fit this contract on the books. Siva is talented, and a decent young player to maintain a flyer on. Harrellson is an incredibly cheap floor spacing center with mediocre defense. Neither of them are less substantial than Gray, a 30-year-old NBA lifer who's mediocre at everything and lacks any particular big-ticket skills. The deal is likely for the minimum, so it's hard to fault him too much. But I prefer Harrellson simply for his differential skillset -- adding a traditional meat-and-potatoes big man with no intriguing tertiary skills to a rotation as cramped up as Detroit's strikes me as a poor move.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Aaron Gray is a massive, massive man. This means he'd be stronger in a fight as long as he maintained enough distance from the zombies, but he would be unable to outrun them and would have to stay fully armored the entire time. A tough proposition, and probably an early casualty of the zombie horde. Two brains out of five.

• • •

Fun times. Join me later this week as I continue sifting through the NBA's myriad free agent moves, and continue my ever-present quest to find the least useful grading scale ever. Stay frosty.

Free Agency 2014: Grading a Week's Worth of Signings

dirk colorful hat

Lest you've been living under a rock, I must inform you -- free agency started last week. One of the unintended consequences of the NBA's 2011 CBA renegotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that dramatically increased the craziness and general velocity of free agency. Any given contract's maximum length was slashed dramatically in the new CBA, meaning that far more of the league (by percentage) goes to free agency than they used to. And because contracts are shorter, teams churn through cap space much quicker, which means a good 10-15 teams have easily accessible avenues to hand out max deals. The in-season trade block is less lucrative than it used to be, but free agency is wilder than ever. In recognition of this, I'm trying to stay abreast on the information overload so you don't have to. Today I'll be covering:

  • Every single free agency deal I haven't discussed yet.
  • No, really, every single one! I even graded them, using an incomparable scale!
  • (Okay, actually, I'm missing a few of the one-year deals. Whoops. At least I graded the ones I have!)

Let's get to it.

• • •

Here are all the deals that have gone down so far with a few snap thoughts on each of them. I will also provide a grade on each contract. These will be placed on a constantly shifting scale completely impossible to compare between transaction-to-transaction. No, really. Just TRY to compare them.

  • Dirk Nowitzki re-signs with Dallas on a 3-year, $30 million dollar deal. Unless LeBron signs for a significantly below-market deal (under $20 million), this is the best contract of the summer. Much like Duncan's $30 million dollar deal right after San Antonio's rough jaunt with Oklahoma City in the 2012 WCF, this essentially amounts to getting an all-NBA caliber player for less than a sixth of your cap. Dirk and Duncan both have games that are aging beautifully, with Duncan's offense and Dirk's defense falling off from career highs but their inverse advantages staying roughly in line with career averages. As long as Dirk exists as a threat on the floor, he's likely to deserve this contract and more. GRADE: Three Pterodactyls out of Two Oranges.
  • Kyle Lowry re-signs with Toronto on a 4-year, $48 million dollar deal. Much like Dirk's deal, this was a pretty strong move. Lowry isn't one of the best 3 or 4 point guards in the league, and it's unlikely he'll ever quite reach that stratosphere -- not with stars like Paul, Parker, Westbrook, Curry, and Wall filling the league's ledger above him. But Lowry exists firmly in the next tier of almost-star point guards with Lillard, Irving, Conley, and Rondo -- all of them have a handful of fatal flaws that keep them right outside that top group, but all of them can take over a game with their skillsets. And unless you have LeBron, you better have someone from these lists if your offense intends to contend for a title. If Lowry didn't have his (completely deserved) reputation as a bad-attitude guy, he probably could've strung out for a little bit more. As is? Fairly nice deal with very low blow-up potential for Toronto, and it gives Lowry both financial security and legitimacy as one of the league's 10-or-so best showrunners. GRADE: Five seasons of Orange is the New Black scavenged from six computers.
  • Marcin Gortat re-signs with Washington on a 5-year, $60 million dollar deal. While I don't love this contract, it was probably what Washington needed to pay to keep him. I just wish they could've kept the years down a bit more for the sake of their flexibility. The Wizards were good this year, but they weren't good enough to give the impression that they couldn't have lived with a shakeup around their Beal/Wall core. Especially given how they frittered away what should have been an easy series against a reeling Pacers team -- although Washington relies on a few young pieces (specifically Wall and Beal) they're hardly a young team overall. The "playoff newbies" excuse doesn't hold that much water when Ariza is your 4th man and Gortat/Nene are your one-two punch from the frontcourt. This team isn't strictly built to win now, but bringing the core back doesn't guarantee that they're going to improve enough to pull off a string of conference finals appearances. If Gortat has a down year, I'm not totally sure teams are going to be chomping at the bit to take this kind of a contract off Washington's hands. Still, in a pathetically weak East, even if it isn't a guarantee the potential is there for this Wizards team is good enough to become an ECF staple. And that's worth something, so it's hard to fault them too much. GRADE: Eight wax figurines of Tuco Salamanca out of the Internet.

• • •

boris the magic diaw

  • Boris Diaw re-signs with San Antonio on a 3-year, $22.5 million dollar deal. I'm not a massive fan of this one on its face, but I heard a few rumors that the last year might be partially guaranteed. That helps it along a bit. While the exact details of the contract aren't completely clear, it appears the last year is partially guaranteed and the first two years will pay him $18.5 million in total -- that would tend to imply (at least to my eyes) that the contract is set up in a manner similar to Tiago Splitter's contract from the last offseason, where it starts high and gets lower as the years go on. Given the high likelihood of a post-championship hangover from one of the league's most motivation-fickle players, that sounds pretty good to me, and makes his contract easy to move as early as next offseason if the Spurs decide to go in a different direction. Maintains continuity without sacrificing flexibility. Decent move, and rewards him for a great year. GRADE: One perfectly acceptable croissant out of a hole-in-the-wall French chain restaurant.
  • Avery Bradley re-signs with Boston on a 4-year, $32 million dollar deal. A lot of people were complaining about this one, reasoning that Bradley hasn't really shown himself to be a $32 million dollar player. I disagree. He hasn't consistently put together the kind of play you want out of a max guy, but his abilities as a defensive stopper (despite his size) and generally proficient three point shot make him worth this kind of mid-tier money. Some people compare him unfavorably to Danny Green. It's a fine comparison, as Danny is a better player that does nearly everything Bradley does. Does it better, too. But it ignores the fact that Danny Green is incredibly underpaid, and likely deserves to be making anywhere from 10-12 million himself. The small wing is a position of massive scarcity right now. Green has a serious case for top-5 at the small wing, and Harden is almost certainly the best at that position right now despite his massive flaw. In that context, of COURSE Bradley deserves more than an MLE! Especially given his age. Why was this even a question? GRADE: Seven steel unsorted Monopoly pieces taken from seven hundred beat-up game boxes... but they're the seven coolest ones, so you really lucked out.
  • Patty Mills re-signs with San Antonio on a 3-year, $12 million dollar deal. Diaw's contract might be a bit outsized given the likelihood of a worse season, but THIS contract is basically a steal. Yeah, he's injured. Won't play for the first few months of next season! But I hardly care. The Spurs have Cory Joseph to develop during Patty's rehab, and Patty is a $5-6 million dollar player -- possibly more. Mills could put up solid numbers for just about every lottery team in the league, with a superb handle and an unflappable three point acumen. He's been improving his defense, too. And the Spurs only have to pay $4 million a year to lock up his services? Fantastic. GRADE: Sixteen kangaroos out of five spider-clocks.
  • Shaun Livingston signs with Golden State on a 3-year, $16 million dollar deal. I really like this move. Backup point guard was a massive problem for Golden State last year, and Livingston represents a very different approach at the point to the one Curry holds dear. Change of pace is a real thing. It totally changes how the opposing team game-plans your bench. Livingston also has the flexibility to play the two, although it'll be a weird fit. Still. At that price, he was a great pickup. GRADE: Six hundred and seventy two egrets hand-picked from the private recesses of Gil Scott Heron's legendary egret collection.

• • •

Darren Collison, right now.

  • Darren Collison signs with Sacramento on a 3-year, $16 million dollar deal. Since I think Darren Collison is significantly worse than Shaun Livingston, I like this deal a lot less. I also like it less because the Kings were dangerously close to the NBA's hard-cap apron BEFORE this deal was signed. In its aftermath, the Kings have inexplicably forced their own hand regarding Isaiah Thomas' contract -- despite Isaiah's status as a restricted free agent, they can no longer match any offer that takes them over the apron. This deal is shaky-but-reasonable if they're paying Collison to be Isaiah's backup. If they're paying him as a REPLACEMENT, this is just sad. Ergo... well, it's just sad. Sorry, Kings fans. GRADE: Two dumpster-diving hipsters lecturing you about Freegan culture inside a whale-shark.
  • Thabo Sefolosha signs with Atlanta on a 3-year, $12 million dollar deal. If the Hawks get the player OKC had by last year's Conference Finals, this was a bad deal. Sefolosha's shot had degraded to the point that he simply could not stay on the floor, and his defense hasn't been at its career-best for a few years now. That said? Atlanta has had salary space to burn these last few years, and there aren't any big fish they're really aiming to pull. Even if Thabo is useless, a deal like this should be reasonably easy to move in a pinch and given his former highs as a three-and-D Bowen-style stopper, this kind of a deal represents a decent flyer. GRADE: One cumulonimbus cloud placed lovingly on a hoagie bun.
  • Chris Kaman signs with Portland on a 2-year, $10 million dollar deal. The Blazers needed some improvement from their bench guys, but I'm not really sure this was the way to go. They lost in a ridiculously lopsided gentleman's sweep to the champs. Could've at least played the youth game and put in a flyer on Ed Davis or Aaron Gray. Not that either of those guys would've been massive difference makers, but at least there's some upside. What's the upside on a no-defense shot chucking big man? Other than the commercials. Those are pretty high upside. Nevermind, I've talked myself into it -- this signing is all worth it if one hipster joint in Portland gets a sponsorship deal with Kaman and forces him to pretend to be a hipster in a commercial. GRADE: One deleted Animal Crossing save file placed in the context of a whole human life.
  • Spencer Hawes signs with Los Angeles on a 4-year, $23 million dollar deal. Not a huge fan of the years on this one, and the dollar value seems mighty steep for a big man with defense as bad as Hawes. In the big picture, though, it's a solid move. I'm all for moves that fill actual holes, and one of L.A.'s biggest problems in recent years has been a borderline terrifying lack of depth in their frontcourt. Signing Hawes FINALLY gives L.A. a passable option beyond Griffin and Jordan, and (as mentioned in the Livingston note) functions further as a change-of-pace option to space the floor and free up the rim for the other big man. Length is a bit steep, and his defense is going to hurt them. But they aren't going to have to give Glen Davis 15 minutes a night playing center in playoff situations anymore, and that counts for a lot. GRADE: Green Eggs out of Ham.
  • Jordan Farmar signs with Los Angeles on a 2-year, $4.2 million dollar deal. I really like this move. Farmar isn't great, but they don't need a golden God at backup point guard -- Chris Paul can handle it for most of the game. Farmar makes threes and exists as a credible off-ball threat. He won't replicate Collison's wares exactly, but he'll be a good enough facsimile that I doubt the Clippers will notice the difference. And that's an incredibly cheap contract. GRADE: Sixteen Kid's Choice Awards awarded indiscriminately to family members that are vaguely related to you.

• • •

kyrie approaches

  • Kyrie Irving signs an extension with Cleveland for 5-years, $90 million dollars. Kyrie's career hasn't exactly gone as I expected it would. One of my favorite parts of Kyrie's college game was his on-ball tenacity and generally sound defensive fundamentals -- absolutely NONE of that has been present in his NBA game, and he hasn't really evolved like I'd expected him to. His passing hasn't really taken much of a leap forward, his defense has been pathetic, and he simply hasn't changed much. His rookie season was one of the best rookie seasons in the last decade, but that's comparing amongst rookie seasons -- his rookie season was also arguably his best season, which makes it hard to place where his contract deserved to land. That said? Given the weakness of the East, this max was probably worth it. Cleveland might very well have an all-star locked in for the next five years. And it's not the $20 million dollar max, it's the post-rookie max -- that's a huge difference, and it keeps the contract pretty reasonable. Stability is huge, too -- it's a big step forward for a franchise that's been in a state of constant change since LeBron's departure. GRADE: Several origami shurikens thrown from the back of a moving truck by a pyromaniac who's not too lost to cry.
  • C.J. Miles signs with Indiana on a 4-year, $18 million dollar deal. Much like how the Darren Collison deal depends on their treatment of Isaiah Thomas, my feelings depend on how Indiana's pursuit of Stephenson shakes out. If they retain him, this deal is great -- Miles adds a much-needed pop of scoring and shooting to an Indiana bench that's been unfathomably awful these last few years. If they don't, this deal is somewhat unfortunate -- despite the decent price they got for a good bench option, Miles is never going to replicate what Stephenson brings the Pacers, and he represents a huge step down in their rotation. Still. In a vacuum it's a pretty decent deal. But if it really does end their pursuit of Stephenson, it was a mistake. GRADE: Miles and miles of Gomer Pyle, but everyone's still so thirsty.
  • Patrick Patterson signs with Toronto on a 3-year, $18 million dollar deal. I really like this for Toronto -- Patterson has come a long way since my not-particularly-complimentary player capsule, and getting a young big man with a constantly improving track record on a patently affordable seven-figure annual deal is pretty tough in the modern NBA. Combined with the Lowry move, the cost savings Ujiri pulled off from those two moves should allow him the flexibility to continue adding to Toronto's fringe East-contending roster. Great call. GRADE: Five capitalized "P's" placed next to several capitalized "T's".
  • Devin Harris signs with Dallas on a 3-year, $9 million dollar deal. This is... fine. It's fine. I don't love it, mainly because the Mavericks just lost Jose Calderon and really need another point guard in his place. Harris is better in Dallas than he is anywhere else, as he works well in Carlisle's system and plays well off Dirk. And given that Dallas was a pretty good team last year, continuity is worth something here. But Harris is clearly a step down from the league's contending point guards, and Dallas is going to need a better replacement for Calderon if they intend to contend for the West next year. If they strike out on Melo and LeBron, I'd like to see them go after Isaiah Thomas with their remaining cap space -- he's short, but his three point shot would work well in Dirk's shadow and I have a feeling Monta and Isaiah would be must-see TV. Just an inkling. GRADE: Three musketeers out of all the other superior candy bars you could be eating instead.
  • Zach Randolph signs an extension with Memphis on a 2-year, $20 million dollar deal. Although Randolph is reasonably young (currently 32 years old), I'm a little bit concerned about this deal for Memphis. This extension's $20 million dollar price tag doesn't include this year's $16.5 million dollar salary, meaning the overall picture is more like $36 million for three years of late-career Randolph. And that simply isn't what it used to be. True, Randolph's 2014 was a bit of a throwback campaign -- he had his highest TS% since 2011, highest free throw rate, and higher usage than he'd put up since his days with the Clippers. But his rebounding has continued a worrying downward trajectory and his playoff performance was barely a shell of the game he showed against San Antonio years ago -- against LAC, he barely shot above 40% (40.4) and couldn't even clear 9 rebounds a game despite playing almost 40 minutes a contest. Not ideal. For this contract to make any sense at all, Randolph is going to need to get back in shape and perform at a level fitting with that kind of a salary. The Grizzlies aren't going to have much of a chance at a finals berth otherwise. GRADE: That one old girlfriend you always forget when listing off your dating history.

Tomorrow, I'll be covering the inevitable Carmelo Anthony deal (and the resultant detrius) as well as a rumination on this year's considerably entertaining LeBron drama, even if (like most people) I have serious doubts about most of the information we're being fed by anonymous sources. Later, haters!

P.S. For the stampeding legion of slighted Jodie Meeks fans who are wondering where my grade is for his signing, I discussed the Meeks deal last week. However, I did not grade it. Now that I've graded everything else, I see the error in my ways. I apologize, Jodie Meeks fans. My grade for the Jodie Meeks signing is a robust "nineteen stereos playing out-of-sync Feist songs in a hermetically sealed silent room with nothing but a tuba in the corner." Hope that flies with you guys.

Free Agency, 2014: Day #1's Three Biggest Stories

stan van gundy

Lest you've been living under a rock, I must inform you -- free agency started yesterday. Zach Lowe and Tom Ziller have gone over this ad infinitum, but one of the unintended consequences of the NBA's 2011 CBA renegotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that dramatically increased the craziness and general velocity of free agency. Essentially, max contract lengths were slashed dramatically in the new CBA, meaning that far more of the league (by percentage) goes to free agency than they used to. And because contracts are shorter, teams churn through cap space much quicker, which means a good 10-15 teams have easily accessible avenues to hand out max deals. The in-season trade block is less lucrative than it used to be, but free agency is wilder than ever. In recognition of this, I'm going to try and give a rundown of the three most interesting stories (in my oft-besotted mind) of the previous day's free agent action. Today I'll be covering:

  • Stan Van Gundy building the team he wants to coach
  • Miami's shaky tightrope, and Pat Riley's high-risk traversion
  • How an inopportune injury can completely derail a player's career

Let's get to it.

• • •

Story #1: GM STAN VAN GUNDY LISTENS TO COACH STAN VAN GUNDY

In the most shocking development of the first day, it turned out that there is a huge overlap between the wants of Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy and Detroit Pistons General Manager Stan Van Gundy. Shockingly, Van Gundy and Van Gundy appeared to be on the same page. They were acting as one. It was eerie, almost as though they were the same person. Absolute shocker.

Okay, I can't keep that joke going much longer. But more seriously, it WAS a bit shocking that the first contract of free agency rated out as a deal for 3 years and $19 million dollars for -- of all people -- Jodie Meeks. I suppose I knew peripherally that Meeks was a free agent, but even if I'd actively paid attention to him, I probably would've made the fair assumption that he'd be a late-period signing for a team that struck out on all of the big prizes -- you know... your Gortats, your Lowrys, your Melos. Meeks as a first signing seems like an odd choice tactically, although it makes more sense the more you think about it.

Let's start with the obvious. Detroit isn't exactly anyone's first choice when shopping for a future home. There's a massive difference between living in Detroit as an average citizen and living in Detroit on a multimillion dollar salary, but neither is going to sniff the first-in-class choices for either income bracket. To some extent, attracting free agents to Detroit without having a championship-caliber core in place is going to take a bit of overpaying. It's just not somewhere that anyone wants to live. Until Stan Van Gundy molds Detroit's young talent into a contending team, he doesn't really have much to sell on the "potential" side either, which makes living in Detroit an even thornier value proposition. Why live in Detroit to play for a shiftless eastern lottery team?

Through that lens, this particular overpay looks a bit more understandable, even if it's still a bit undesirable. Jodie Meeks is a good shooter, but he's got little beyond that. His defense is hardly worst-in-class (and generally gets way too much crap -- he's a good ballhawk and sticks on his man), but it isn't enough of a tertiary positive to add that many millions to the deal. He doesn't have any best-in-show defensive chops like Danny Green's transition defense or Avery Bradley's petty theft. And Meeks can't handle the ball at all, which is something of a problem for a team that needs tertiary ballhandlers beside their marginally overpaid shooting-focused point guard in Brandon Jennings. He's flawed, essentially. And those flaws have a big potential to make this signing look silly if the Pistons are ever wanting for cap space in the next three years.

That said? If you want to get a free agent to come to Detroit, this is probably the way to do it. Give the free agent a slight overpay earlier than any other team reaches out to them, sell them on their value, then finish it off by reminding them that they were Detroit's first call out of the gate. Make them feel important. My guess is that the overpay was partly ensuring that the offer blew Meeks away and made him accept the money quickly, theorizing (perhaps correctly) that if they waited a week or two, Meeks would have to decide between offers like their deal and a 3-year $10 million dollar deal for a contending team or 3-year $15 million dollar deal for a lottery team in a better location. Much less likely they'd get their guy. If Van Gundy really wanted Meeks, which it appears he did, striking fast and early with a slightly above market offer to counter the location and the inevitable run on shooters is exactly how you get your man.

Beyond the Meeks move, there are signs that Stan Van Gundy is working diligently trying to build a team he'll enjoy coaching. Meeks was a play to get more shooters into the fold for a team that was abysmal beyond the arc last year -- Cartier Martin represents a cheaper all-in raise on Van Gundy's shooting dreams. Meeks is lacking in versatility, but Martin's one-track skillset makes Meeks look like LeBron. He's a decent shooter that does virtually nothing else with any proficiency. Although Greg Monroe might be decent with Stan Van Gundy, there are further signs that Van Gundy is pursuing routes to flip him for someone that fits a bit more into his space-and-pace stylings; just look at the myriad sign-and-trade rumors for Monroe, including this tasty morsel where the Pistons receive Van Gundy alumnus Ryan Anderson in exchange for Monroe's rights. And then there's my favorite rumor of free agency to date -- Van Gundy is mulling an offer of 3-years $24 million dollars for Sacramento's Isaiah Thomas.

Thomas is a restricted free agent, so it's certainly possible (and perhaps likely) that Sacramento matches and ruins Van Gundy's plans. But they're strangely close to the cap despite a team that's nowhere near playoff contention in the West, and a $24 million dollar contract might be a bridge too high for them. Thomas is a phenomenal young guard despite his diminutive stature, and on a team like Detroit that tends to play monstrously large lineups his size could prove to be less of a problem than it would be otherwise. Sort of a change of pace -- as guards switch on and off of each other on defense, it's possible that Isaiah's lower center of gravity would let him take advantage of guards that get lazy and switch to a high dribble while they face off against larger men. And offensively? He'd be lights out -- a brilliant three point shooter, worthy finisher, and an adept floor general that takes care of the ball and keeps the ball moving. All of these are things that you love to see on a Van Gundy team, especially one that's likely to be based around the threat of a Drummond dunk or an unexpected corner three. He'd be a far better fit than Jennings, and a possible perennial all-star candidate in a not-so-packed East.

If there's one story out of the first day's actual action that I'd take away, it's this -- the Pistons aren't playing around, and Stan Van Gundy is really intent on building a Central Division version of the 2009 Orlando Magic. These are fun times to be an NBA fan.

• • •

pat riley heat

Story #2: PAT RILEY BALANCING ON THE ABYSS

Around the middle of free agency's crazy first day, one of the oddest news breaks I've ever seen came up out of nowhere on my news feed. John Canzano, a veteran reporter for the Oregonian, broke what appeared to be news of embryonic final contract numbers for Dwayne Wade (4 years starting at $12 million) and Chris Bosh (5 years starting at $11 million). After an hour of reporters frantically trying to confirm his story one way or the other, Brian Windhorst confirmed that Pat Riley was selling free agents on the idea that Miami had $12 million dollars in cap space, indicating that Canzano's numbers might actually be accurate.

If it seems strange to you that a veteran reporter for the Portland-based Oregonian would be breaking news about the Miami Heat before any of the legion of national reporters assigned to the beat sniffed it, well, you'd be human. And you'd be right. As it turned out, Canzano was correct in the assertion that Riley was selling free agents on significant cap space (indicating massive pay cuts for Bosh and Wade, given LeBron's perfectly reasonable demand for a maximum salary), but completely incorrect on the idea that Bosh and Wade had actually agreed to those terms -- as you can see in the edited closing paragraph in Windhorst's piece.

Let's be frank -- this is a highly dangerous game for Pat Riley. The Miami Heat have -- assuming they waive bird rights (which they'll need to do -- or sign them to sub-market contracts quickly) -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $55 million dollars in cap space. This is a dangerous game. Part of the reason teams rarely allow their entire team to churn is that when everything's up in the air, managing the possible comeback kids with the new roster additions is fraught with peril. There are more moving pieces than there are in the average offseason, and Riley's management of those pieces strikes me as interesting. It appears there's a bit of information asymmetry in how Riley is approaching his discussions with free agents and his own team. That is to say -- he hasn't yet gotten an agreement from Wade and Bosh on the contract numbers he'll need to actually have the space he's advertising to free agents.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's smart strategy -- he's trying to finagle a verbal commitment from a free agent or two given certain contract parameters, bringing those back to the Big Three as a bargaining chip. Once Wade and Bosh balk at the salaries they'd need to take, he's probably counting on their friendship with LeBron to force LeBron's number down a bit and open up the wiggle room he needs to sign the new players and bring the gang back. He's playing his players against each other in such a way that he's able to fill the roster adequately. It's smart. But it's also incredibly risky. Because it's all dependent on a lot of shaky verbal agreements, all it takes is one naysayer to throw the entire ecosystem off balance.

Let's say that Riley gets Lowry to verbally agree to a 4-year deal starting at $9 million dollars, and let's say he gets Pau Gasol to verbally agree to a $4-year deal starting at $4 million. Both of those deals are assumed to be contingent on an in-place big three. He brings those players back to the Heat's current star trio as his leverage to get them to resign, but he needs the big three to make up just $42 million dollars to fit Gasol and Lowry into their space. If LeBron doesn't lower his max salary demands to a $18-20 million dollar level, one of Wade/Bosh is going to have to accept a sub-$10 million dollar deal. If they say no, the entire puzzle falls apart -- Riley has to get Lowry/Gasol to agree to less (hardly likely) or LeBron to lower his salary (likelier, but hard to see if Wade/Bosh can't do it themselves). Which makes the verbal dominoes fall apart, putting Riley squarely back at stage one with days of legwork down the drain.

Additionally, it adds a level of variance to the Big 3's fate. Sure, the assumption is that they'll come back to Miami. It always has been, and until they ink contracts elsewhere, that's going to be the safe bet. But it also means that there's a clearly defined possibility that they'll simply enter real free agency later than the rest of the class. If Riley can't fill his roster with the proper impact players to whet LeBron's desires, it's hard to envision LeBron coming back to a bare-bones roster that's clearly worse than last year's team. Not if there are any better options on the table. And even after the Melo dominoes drop, there are still going to be 3-4 teams that have enough cap space to sign him outright -- and even more still that could open the space with a few easy moves.

Nonetheless. The game's afoot. Most of the reporting around LeBron and the Big Three has focused on how teams are backing off a bit now that LeBron's agent has been cool on other teams. That's fine. But silence doesn't necessarily represent success for Riley, not until the ink's on the paper and he's turned a few of these verbal agreements into something more tangible. Let's see if he can rekindle his 2010 free agency magic. Lord knows he'll need it.

• • •

Story #3: INJURIES! THOSE FREAKING INJURIES!

This isn't a very long one, but it's a sad one. Reports broke yesterday evening that Patty Mills will miss several months of next season rehabilitating a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. I know, I know. It's one injury -- he'll still get a decent value contract (most likely from the Spurs) based on the strength of his breakout 2014 campaign, and he'll likely remain a strong rotation piece on a contending team for years to come. In terms of fit, this might be a better long-term play for him. Mills was a strong candidate to receive one of the league's legendary "post-title glow" contracts, where some random lottery team throws monstrous money at a limited player with expectations that they'll bring championship mojo to their struggling squad. Did we REALLY want to see Mills become the next J.J. Barea?

Well, no. But it still sucks. I feel like I mention this point dozens of times a season, but it bears repeating -- NBA players have really short careers relative to most jobs. They obviously make a lot of money, but for marginal NBA players, that cash represents the vast majority of their career earning potential. Any minor malady that causes them to lose out on a few million dollars during their playing career is a massive hit to their long term savings. It's not like most NBA players smoothly transition from the life of a millionaire to a profitable business owner that makes their money work for them -- there's a depressing trend of NBA players throwing good money after bad and winnowing away their savings within a decade or two after their playing career draws to a close.

In that vein, Patty's injury -- perhaps the most poorly timed injury I can possibly imagine -- royally sucks. Mills was looking at a contract in the $5 million to $7 million a year range -- when Jodie Meeks got 3-years and $19 million dollars, Patty's agent had to be salivating. That's exactly the kind of contract a healthy Mills could've gotten from a spacing-hungry team that struck out on the big players at the point guard slot. Strike out on Isaiah Thomas or Kyle Lowry? Take the unconscious flamethrower fresh off the bench of a champion! It's an easy pitch... you know, when he's healthy. But he wasn't, and he'll probably end up losing out on $5-6 million dollars over the course of the next three years because of it.

Long story short? Injuries suck. They ruin careers and ravage earning potential for marginal players all the time, although rarely as starkly as it's happening here. Here's hoping the Spurs give Patty a fair offer commensurate with what he would've gotten healthy.

patty patty oi oi

The 2014 San Antonio Spurs -- A Team for All Seasons

confetti spurs

"Sir Thomas More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons." -- Robert Whittington on Thomas More

There's going to be a lot of time to reflect on exactly where these incomparable Spurs stand historically. Legacies are written with the benefit of hindsight, not as in-the-moment missives. They ran roughshod over the league in the regular season, managing to win more games than anyone else despite dealing with injury trouble that would cripple their peers. They were the first team since the NBA/ABA merger to go without a single player averaging 30 MPG in the regular season, and they were one of just five title teams in the history of the league to field a Finals MVP who didn't make an all-star game. There are lots of team-wide accolades and accomplishments to thrust upon them, and many ways to tell the same story about their collective brilliance. It is beautiful. But it is hardly the be-all and end-all of the Spurs. Being the so-called "perfect team" can get you far, but to spin their accomplishment like that is to necessarily minimize the individual components that make up the whole.

Sir Thomas More was the philosopher-statesman who refused to recognize King Henry VIII's authority as the supreme head of the Church of England, given Henry's ill-begotten marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was executed. He's historically relevant for both the courage of his convictions and the uncommon range of character and nobility he embodied -- as his friend Robert Whittington described him, More was a man of all seasons. Gentle, mirthful, noble, grave. He had a range of emotion and character rarely discussed when those around him canonized and idealized him. They simplified his character for ease of reference, and boiled him down to an uncomplicated idea in order to better share his story with future generations. They glossed over his flaws (see: his rabid persecution of protestants) to tell a simple and beautiful story. They obviously succeeded -- we're still talking about him, right?

Inevitably, we will simplify the Spurs. The 2014 Spurs will always be remembered as a stunning achievement of a team that redefined the NBA's hierarchy. But there will be time to reflect on the team as a whole later. For now, while the taste is fresh, it profits us to discuss the range of characters that conspired to bring about this singularly dominant run. The motley crew of oddballs and weirdos who collectively made up one of the finest NBA teams to ever run the gamut. There are fun men, there are sad men, there are hard-working men. There are strange, strange men.

These are their stories, at least a taste of them.

• • •

THE MIRTHFUL

If you're looking for San Antonio's resident smiley-sacks, you'd do well to start with the first point guard off the bench. You know who I'm talking about -- Patty Mills, professional towel-waver. His background was covered rather extensively in the player capsule I wrote about him and his little-known history. Ethnically, Mills is an aboriginal Australian, a long-suffering race of people who were subjugated by the British and whose children were forcibly torn from their homes with little-to-no records kept to put the pieces back together again. Patty's mother was taken from her family at the age of two, and Mills proudly waves the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags as strongly as he waves his Australian flag.

Mills could be a gloomy man. He could be of grave disposition -- he could be stoic, silent, sad. But he's not. He's the happiest man on the Spurs roster, a whirling dervish of energy and smiles that makes the court shine every second he steps on it. His family has had hardships to last a million lifetimes, but the man virtually never stops smiling. He's Australia's most famous basketball player. He averaged 22 points per game at the most recent Olympics, and he's finally filled an NBA niche as a hyper-efficient bench scoring guard with a great handle and a pestering defensive activity. His incredible turn in the 2014 Finals likely priced him straight out of San Antonio's budget for next season, but I doubt there's a single Spurs fan who won't remember him fondly. And nobody can deny the warm and tender feelings of his first title. He made it to the top of the mountain -- and with him, he brought his people and flags along for the ride. He gets to cement his aboriginal flag straight to the NBA's pinnacle.

Matt Bonner already won a title. And he was a bit player to end all bit players in this one, averaging the fewest minutes-per-game of his career (11.3) and even fewer in the playoffs (6.2). That said, he still filled a role, at least for me. Every single time he checked into the game, he was a threat for one of his patently hilarious lumberjack teardrops. That's what I call his unbelievably weird attempts at driving to the rim and scoring, a lumbering ginger determined to sniff the rim. Teams would generally leave him wide open, mostly because he's Matt Freaking Bonner. Matt Bonner took four free throws in the Finals this year -- prior to the Finals, his last free throws were in early March. That's right -- he went THREE MONTHS without taking a free throw in an NBA game. He made three of the four, because Matt Bonner is wonderful. Thanks, Coach B.

Austin Daye seems to enjoy the game of basketball. That's a good thing, because Spurs fans made it a point to give him "honorary MVP status" midway through the season. Clearly, he lived up to the task -- the Austin Daye Spurs have yet to lose a playoff series. When you compare it to the Nando era, it's like night and Daye. (... yeah, that pun was pretty bad. I'm sorry, but I'm also not really sorry in the slightest.) And then there's Aron Baynes. I've been really happy to watch Baynes this year, mostly because he's (fittingly) the NBA player who's closest to imitating the way I play in pick-up basketball. I'm skinnier than him (...obviously), but I can't shoot the ball to save my life and just try to constantly bruise in for post-ups. Aron Baynes is the Aaron McGuire of the NBA. Watching him play amuses me to no end. He's also the Aaron McGuire of the NBA in how he celebrated his title:

With his country's flag wrapped around his shoulders, Aron Baynes bellowed out, "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just Australian!" as he dumped champagne on his own face.

Yep. That's pretty much how I'd play it too, Baynesie.

• • •

manu celebrates

THE STRANGE

There are weirdos on the Spurs roster, too. The organization may be mundane and buttoned up from the outside, but some of the NBA's strangest stories come from the sweltering San Antonio heat. (Yes, that's a joke about the air conditioning mix-up in Game #1 that's likely doomed to be forgotten in a year or so. If you're a future generation of NBA fan reading this to remember the 2014 Finals, run a Google search for the air conditioning kerfuffle in Game #1. It was kind of absurd.) To wit, three of San Antonio's weirdos:

  • Marco Belinelli. Yeah, I know. He played like rubbish throughout the entire playoffs. Doesn't matter. He's a champion now! And him being a champion gives me an excuse to go back to one of this season's most hilarious sideshow stories -- Marco's early-season attempt to use Twitter as Tinder and match up with a randomly selected cute follower. Seriously, spend a moment to really take that pickup line in. It's astonishing. Possibly the worst pickup line ever. How weird of a person do you need to be to think that's a reasonable line? WHO EVEN SAYS THAT?! Look. Every single time Belinelli shot the ball during the playoffs, I was scared for my life. But we'll always have this pickup line, and he'll always have his ring. (Somehow.)
  • Boris Diaw. When people refer to the Spurs as a team built of men taken from the garbage heap, Diaw is probably the first player everybody will flock to. After all... Boris was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats, a team then in the midst of a season where they'd come ever-so-close to the worst record in league history. People don't quite remember the circumstances correctly -- he was waived less because he was useless and more because he wanted to go to a new team but there wasn't a team in the league that would trade for him. But it's a fine story regardless. Diaw is roly poly to a fault, a post-up passing mastermind whose nicknames range from the "Stay-Puft Marshmallow Center" to "the Cream Shake". He's a tubby maestro whose basketball success is based on a multifaceted game the league may very well never see again. He was 3rd or 4th on most people's Finals MVP ballots despite averaging 6-9-6 in 35 minutes a night. The league will see other superstars, certainly. But it will NEVER see another Bobo. (Read this, when you get a chance. You'll understand.)
  • Jeff Ayres. Okay, no. He's not that strange. Ayres is the player formerly known as Jeff Pendergraph, if you weren't familiar. Pendergraph was the surname of his stepfather, a man who married his mother when he was in elementary school. Pendergraph Sr. left the picture when Ayres was in high school, and when Ayres and his wife had their first child this past summer, they decided that they didn't want their daughter to have the name of a stepfather that left his life years ago. Ayres is the name of his biological father, chosen to hearken back to his ultimate roots. There's nothing particularly strange about the idea of changing your name to better reflect your heritage -- it's a beautiful sentiment. But it is a bit out of the ordinary, and the story itself is sort of funny. There was a point in their name choices where they were jokingly considering renaming themselves to Mr. and Mrs. Awesome. Seems legit.

Finally, there's the player who most embodies the fundamental weirdness of the San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili. All praise in the world to San Antonio's star shooting guard, the doting father whose weirdness is more on-court than off-court. We call ourselves Gothic Ginobili for a reason -- we're a weird blog, and Manu's a fundamentally weird player. He completes passes that exist on the fringes of human possibility. He's always a billion steps ahead of everyone -- sometimes, in his turnovers, this precognition is a curse. But all too often he just sees things that nobody else can. For all the talk about how teams should "play the right way" and play like San Antonio does, there's hardly a single player in the NBA who makes as many ridiculous and unnecessary plays as Manu Ginobili does. A Manu by any other team could be considered a chucker, or a risky daredevil who gets too cute for his own good.

It is strange, then, that he is so important to the Spurs.

But he is. And that's his charm. That's the odd twist at the core of the San Antonio system. The precise, rigid machinations of San Antonio's pinpoint passing are possible partly because of the wild unpredictable chaos that Ginobili brings on the court. Any lineup of marginal players becomes an offensive nightmare with Manu on the court. Any lineup of star players becomes unpredictable when he's on the court, and it disorients the defense in a way that few other players accomplish. His passing is similarly prolific, but it's fundamentally different from that of Steve Nash or LeBron James -- he doesn't JUST put his teammates in a position to succeed, and he doesn't JUST dominate the ball and score like an all-time great. His game isn't that simple.

Ginobili is an unstable chemical compound. He's an acid that reacts with the basketball to turn the game into a chaotic storm of air-bending passes and impossible step-back jumpers with barely a hair of space. He whips the ball from butter to cream, shakes defenders, and scoffs at the impossible. Manu Ginobili essentially blew out his hamstring on a dunk earlier this season. In Game #5 of the NBA finals, Manu rose and threw down exactly the same dunk -- in traffic, under duress, without fear or hesitation. That's his way. That's how he plays the game. He doesn't know how else to play. That's what it means to be Manu Ginobili. And the Spurs would crumble without him.

• • •

THE DILIGENT

Not all players on the Spurs can be considered weirdos. Not all players are likely to be smiling on any random moment you turn on a Spurs game. The overriding narrative about the Spurs places them as a team of lunch-pail strivers, a team of diligent workhorses who do their jobs and operate within their system like the blue collar folks that watch their games. This is, for many players, bluster. Nothing about Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, or Patty Mills is "blue collar." They all work hard, but the Spurs don't necessarily work any harder than any other NBA team. They're more talented, more successful, more beautiful (to certain eyes). But that's silly. To conflate talent and success with how hard they work is to make a rank mistake in how you assess any team.

That being said, there ARE a few strivers on the team -- and they're worth mentioning, even if you reject the broader storyline. There's Cory Joseph, of course. He was a bit player during this run, and he wasn't a very important player to San Antonio's season on the whole. He played a tiny bit over six minutes in the Finals, when all was said and done. But his tiny role undermines his evolution as a player, and the importance he held in one key play. Joseph used to be a generally useless player -- no real defense to speak of, little shot, passing of ill repute. He's hardly perfect now, and he can't really get minutes in San Antonio given their reliance on Parker, Green, Ginobili, Mills, and Belinelli. But he's gone from a marginal-to-worthless player to a skilled spark-off-the-bench, mirroring the transformation Patty Mills went through from his marginal spark in Portland to his key rotational cog this year.

And, as I mentioned, he had that moment. Amidst a deflating blowout loss that had Spurs fans in peptic nervous terror, there were few positives for Spurs fans. The Thunder had roundly destroyed San Antonio's system in the fourth game of the Western Conference Finals, making Duncan and Parker look mortal and keeping Kawhi Leonard completely in check. Virtually the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, and Spurs fans are used to the random back-and-forth of those minutes -- it's hard to really take anything from it. Usually. Except for Cory Joseph, who used those garbage time minutes to do something nobody else on the Spurs had the courage to do. To wit -- he went straight at Serge Ibaka, rose up, and threw the damn ball in the hoop like an angry pint-size rottweiler. It's funny that a play as visceral and emotional as that one can be considered a triumph of process and work ethic, but it was. It stood as a culmination of Joseph's evolution as a player up to this point. And the Spurs took notice -- from that moment onward, the Spurs went hard at Ibaka regardless of their fear of his blocks, and the Spurs offense stopped getting quite so gummed up. Even though he barely played in the Finals, that play cemented Joseph's impact on this title run. It changed the complexion of a series the Spurs could have lost. He earned that ring.

And what of Tiago Splitter? The Spurs' oft-criticized starting center was beyond essential in the first two rounds, taking primary coverage on Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge (who both had, not coincidentally, a terrible time scoring on him). He matched up less well against Miami and Oklahoma City, but he hardly backed down; he simply accepted the matchup difficulties and accepted his move to the bench with aplomb, impacting the game with his quiet defensive brilliance and his impeccable movement, screening, and box-outs. He doesn't play loud, and his skills are subdued. But he was as essential to this run as he needed to be, showing himself to be mightily deserving of the large contract he got last offseason.

Oh, and that other guy. Danny Green. Don't forget him either. Green's story is one of redemption and evolution above all else. He entered the league as a marginal player, a bit piece from one of the greatest college teams ever whose NBA skills seemed lacking. He was less than a nonfactor on LeBron's final Cavaliers teams, and he (like Diaw) was waived by a bad Cleveland team and left to the trash heap. He went abroad, and played in the D-League, and came back to the league as one of San Antonio's young guns. And he worked. For all the credit Chip Engelland gets for San Antonio's shooting stars, it takes an incredible amount of work to actually apply the tips and form overhauls Chip gives a player. And Green was ready to do it. He had his coming out party last year, with his NBA-record threes-in-a-Finals. This year he was less impressive, offensively -- he made 9 threes, a far cry from last year's 27. But his defensive achievements were many, including a national coming-out party for the best-in-class transition defense that silly egghead Spurs fans like myself have appreciated for a few seasons now. And he solidified his status as one of the league's absolute best shooting guards, full-stop.

He represents the absolute ideal of a roleplayer, and he's a roleplayer so game-changing and impressive that he's very nearly as valuable as a star. He always had the talent, but it took so much work to unlock it that one would be remiss not to point that out. He's got his ring.

And then there's -- in my view -- San Antonio's last strictly blue-collar player. It's strange to call him that, especially given his personality, game, and tastes. He's the drama. He's the one who wanted to go to New York. He's the one with the occasional bouts of heroball and isolation basketball. But Tony Parker's game has hardly stayed the same with time, and that's part of what makes him so similar to the Josephs and Splitters and Greens of San Antonio's universe. Think about it this way: Tony Parker was a superstar, back in the day. He was San Antonio's most essential offensive player for 3-4 years, a cog without whom the offense simply wouldn't function. San Antonio's constant playoff failures rarely fell squarely on his shoulders, but there was always a decent case that they should have. He was their rock, and he never quite seemed to be all there in the bitter end.

But now? Years later, as the Spurs ran roughshod over the league and ripped the title out of Miami's lethargic grasp, Parker had... a profoundly nonessential playoff run. He was important, of course -- he held the ball more than any other Spur, he darted across the court to make the plays and the reads Pop needed, and he kept the ball under control against Miami's tired-yet-dangerous defense. All of this is good. But part of Parker's brilliance was that he too sunk and faded into the background, letting the threat of his breakout game keep the floor open for the shooters San Antonio knew they could rely on. The Spurs offense could've worked with Parker averaging 20 points a game, most likely. But Diaw and Joseph were the only two Spurs who shot worse from the field over the NBA Finals, even with his garbage-time padding at the end of the final game.

Which is really the point. Miami spent much of the 2014 Finals chasing the shadows of Parker's prior accomplishment, covering him hard as they dared San Antonio's lesser lights to beat them. They were so scared of the threat of a throwback Parker game that they refused to leave him, even if it left a few open shooters around the rotation. At an earlier time in Parker's career, he would have seen that as a challenge -- he would have driven into the double and thrown up a wild layup, or accepted the long two and tried to drain fadeaways until the lights went dark. But this is a more evolved Parker -- he still does all of those things, but he does them contextually. He does them when the game really demands it, not when it's merely convenient.

Parker could have averaged 20-25 points a night in these Finals. But the Spurs wouldn't have won quite so emphatically. Perhaps they'd still have taken it in five -- it's hard to imagine any individual switch flipping the last three games. But the feeling of annihilation, this overriding sense that the Spurs demolished the competition en route to the title? That was accomplished by pushing every lever, and understanding EXACTLY which threats should remain threats and which roleplayers should shine to keep the opposition disoriented and disheveled. Parker couldn't have done that five years ago. Hell, he couldn't have done that three years ago.

But he's there now, and the Spurs are too.

parker grin

• • •

Yes, I know. I'm missing two of San Antonio's players. You know the ones -- Duncan and Leonard, the past and the future. This post has gotten too long to do them justice, so I'll have to return to them later this week. They deserve more words than I could possibly give them, but I'll try. Until then? Welcome to the offseason. Basketball will be back, before long.

Do try to enjoy the quiet before the storm.

What if the NBA Shortened the Playoffs? (A Look Back)

Everyone loves March Madness. As we enter the NBA's least favorite time of the year, fans of the oft-maligned professional league are constantly reminded about how well the NCAA accomplishes something that the NBA's never quite been able to muster. That is, the twitchy oversimulated madness of the NCAA tournament's one-and-done stylings. The tournament, at its best, is a several week supercharge of the NBA's "league pass alert" nights with 1 or 2 crazy games on at once.

In Zach Lowe's column on tanking yesterday, he offhandedly noted that one way to increase the underdog benefits of being a lower-seeded team in the NBA playoffs would be to decrease the number of games in a series. He has a point. In almost any situation, the easiest way to inflate your variance is to lower your sample size. Many of the smartest NCAA bracket predictors bake in adjustments to account for the fact that teams like Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers play at a deathly slow pace, slow enough to increase the inherent variance in their performance. This can lead to obscene pace-adjusted blowouts that break projection models (see: their numerous 30-40 point wins in 2012 that legitimately broke Ken Pomeroy's ranking system), but it also can lead to a game where the Badgers simply don't have enough possessions to prove they're the better team (see: their near-upset to Vanderbilt one game before nearly beating a fantastic Syracuse team in the 2012 tournament).

The NBA, though? It's one thing to say "hey, let's decrease the number of games in a series." It's quite another to actually figure out how that would impact things. Thing is, this isn't actually all that hard to check. So long as you have the right data. Luckily, I have exactly that. I've got a lot of data lying around that I can manipulate like this, and the question bugged me. This post endeavors to answer that very question -- if the NBA playoffs were a single elimination tournament, how would the course of NBA history change? I went back a decade, but given the size of the images, I'm probably going to post the specific brackets for five years and share the other five (and further) in a later bracket-dump post of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. For now, let's go back and look at the last five years. The results are, if nothing else, hilarious.

As for the methodology here, it was surprisingly simple. Playoff seedings remained the same, but each existing series was decided by the first game in the series. For instance, the Spurs and the Heat still made the finals in 2013 under a first-game-wins scenario -- as such, the Finals were determined by San Antonio's 92-88 win in Game #1. When the series DIDN'T exist in reality, the series was decided by the first regular season game that was played with the home court configuration that would've been at play. For instance, in 2012, Chicago's new second round series against Atlanta was decided by a January 3rd win where the Bulls defeated the Hawks at home. That's about all you need to know. Let's get to it.

• • •

nba playoffs 2013

For the first single elimination tournament, we actually see three fewer upsets than we saw in the actual playoffs. Oklahoma City beats Memphis, as they won the first game of the series behind Durant's heroics. Golden State similarly falls to the Andre Miller-led Nuggets. And Chicago falls to Brooklyn. Of course, that doesn't mean much for Denver, as their first regular season meeting with San Antonio was an embarrassing 26 point blowout in San Antonio. And it doesn't mean much for Brooklyn, as they lost their first matchup with the Heat by 30 points. The Spurs beat the Thunder in the WCF due to their win in the first game of the season. Out of the decade I've looked at so far, this is the only year where the Finals matchup actually stayed in tact. Were the Finals to end after a single game, Duncan would've probably won the Finals MVP with a 20-14-4 performance. That said, a single elimination style bracket doesn't seem to do a whole lot to 2013. What about 2012?

• • •

nba playoffs 2012

This one was actually pretty interesting. Due to the way I was assessing winners (that is, with regular season matchups), the Bulls technically had Rose for this entire playoff bracket. There were a two big upsets here that didn't happen in real life: Orlando over Miami and Atlanta over Boston. (NOTE: There's a typo on the MIA/ORL series -- MIA wins it 90-78, not ORL.) In the west, things actually go almost exactly the same as they went in reality -- the only thing out of wack was the WCF, where the Spurs won due to winning Game #1 of the actual series. In the East, Chicago romps the competition and makes it to a finals matchup with San Antonio. The Bulls win in what essentially amounted to a bracket made of chalk. Rose wins a tepid Finals MVP over Noah for his 29-1-4 game.

• • •

nba playoffs 2011

Here's the first one where upsets completely change the complexion of the bracket. The East stays untouched through the 2nd round, but Atlanta upsets Chicago in the Elite Eight and ruins the brackets of statheads everywhere. Meanwhile, in the West, Dallas is the only top-3 seed remaining after round one after the Hornets upset the Lakers and the Grizzlies upset the Spurs. The Grizzlies (America's team!) keep it going by upsetting the Thunder and the Mavericks in quick succession, becoming the first eight seed to make the finals in quite some time. (Not since Houston -- I don't think Houston makes the Finals in this scenario, but I haven't gone back to check yet.) Regardless. Miami makes it to the Finals and roundly obliterates Memphis for LeBron's first title in Miami. In a funny reflection of real life, Wade wins Finals MVP after LeBron's disappointing game.

• • •

nba playoffs 2010

Look, it's our first overtime finals!

This one ended up being quite a bit different than the way things actually played out -- other than ATL/ORL and BOS/CLE, none of the other series actually ended up mirroring real life. The Blazers upset the Suns in the first round, then keep it going by rallying in their Elite Eight matchup in Dallas. (No, really. They were down 4 entering the fourth -- they took a lead with 6 minutes left in the game and held on in a wild one to pull it out.) Meanwhile, the Lakers suffer a disappointing end to the Denver Nuggets, who stomp into Staples and end their one-seed dreams. Denver makes use of their surprise four-seed home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals by dispatching Portland in short order, getting the LeBron/Melo matchup we all wanted to see. Melo gets the better of LeBron this time, leading his Nuggets to a 118-116 overtime win in the Championship game. Melo scored 40.

• • •

nba playoffs 2009

The story is essentially same as the one we saw in 2010, just with a different ending. This time we see a lot more upsets -- the Sixers upset the Magic and the Bulls upset the Celtics (and then the 41-41 Bulls upset the Sixers!), while the Rockets upset the Blazers and the Lakers in quick succession. The Nuggets, meanwhile, make it all the way to the finals against LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers. (Yes, that means a single elimination tournament would've produced two consecutive Denver/Cleveland finals.) This time, LeBron's Cavs roundly upend Melo's Nuggets, with LeBron getting his first ring and his perfunctory Finals MVP for a workmanlike 22-8-11 game. Mo Williams scored 24, Ben Wallace shot 100%, and Billups scored 26. Fun times.

• • •

Tomorrow, I'll share five more years of brackets (including... a Detroit threepeat?!) and some collected statistics for the "single elimination" playoffs as compared to the NBA's more traditional seven game version. Stay frosty.

The Outlet 4.01: Scouting Freakazoid and Durant's New Wrinkle

outlet logo

Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? This is that series, only it appears once in a blue moon and often has little to do with the games of the previous night. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • CHI at CLE: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part I (by Aaron McGuire)
  • OKC at SAS: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part II (by Aaron McGuire)
  • POR at OKC: Durant's New Wrinkle (by Jacob Harmon)

Read on after the jump. Continue reading

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

da mystery of brad millerboxing

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

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

 THE SQUIRREL-STYLE ROADKILL: 30 to 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 THE GIRAFFE-STYLE PRETENDERS: 16 to 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 THE TOAD-STYLE CONTENDERS: 6 to 1

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

5. Grizzlies - we in the mud.

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

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

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

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

da mystery of chessboxin

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

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

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

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

Putting on a Fertility Clinic: CLE/CHI Trade Thoughts

"Fertility Clinic photograhs on MY Gothic Ginobili? It's more likely than you think."

"Fertility Clinic photographs on MY Gothic Ginobili? It's more likely than you think."

If I had to venture a guess, I'd assume that most of our readers aren't married with children. It's okay, friends. I'm not either. But if there's one piece of advice I would -- and have! -- given to virtually all of my friends who eventually want to be mothers and fathers, it's to eschew sweating the small stuff and make absolutely positive they cut into the context of any childbirth statistics ever given in an effort to push them into a certain course of action. This is important in all walks of life, obviously, but it's never more important than it is when you're dealing with something as important as a child. Whether the data is inspiring them to get a child or entreating refrain, it's a decision that's way too important to let apocryphal data and societal mores dictate the way you and your partner proceed. There's an exceedingly excellent case study to this effect centered around a truism presented as statistical fact by a vast majority of the doctors advising on childbirth in the 21st century.

"One out of three women over the age of 35 will not have conceived after a year of trying."

Simple, short, sweet. If you want kids, everyone had better start before 35, or you're in for years and years of sitcom-quality disappointment! Built in laugh tracks and sad trombones will follow you around as the process goes awry again and again. If you're looking for a fulfilling child-filled life, better jump in the sack early and conceive as soon as possible. Get on it! There's just one small nit to pick with this conclusion, and it has to do with the data the statistic is based on. It's not that it's without data. In fact, it's got some very strong data behind it, at least compared to a lot of the bunk medical statistics that inundate junk science and crazy recommendations. It's from a dataset of 3,508 families from church records spanning over 150 years. It included rural areas and areas of significantly higher socioeconomic status. It was performed in France, a decent reflection of the world at the time.

The problem: this 150 year study spanned 1630 to 1780. That's right -- the statistic doctors and armchair experts love to cite when convincing women to bear children early is based on a study that's well over 200 years old. Things were a little bit different back then. For one thing, lower life expectancy meant that at birth, the average person would be dead by 39. (Modern medicine has pushed the expected-age-at-death upon birth all the way up to 70 this past year.) Women who were between 20 and 24 years old at marriage bore 7 children on average, with only 3.7% of them remaining childless. (That's 2.6 children per women today, at least in the United States.) The most important part? There was absolutely no fertility treatment in that day and age, no contraceptives, and no widely available healthcare at all. There were midwives to help the birth along but little guidance on moving the process along, something we have in spades today.

Although women do clearly lose fertility at a certain age, there's scant little present-day evidence supporting the idea that modern infertility dawns before 40. In fact, there are a number of important studies to the contrary. A 2004 study found that 82% of 35-39 year old women conceived within a year (as compared to 86% of 27-34-year-olds, hardly a vast gap). A 2013 study found that 78% of 35-40-year-olds conceived within a year. Some smart takes have suggested the gap is rooted less in an inherent tendency of older women with children being slightly less fertile to begin with, noting that the most fertile ladies have a higher probability of "accidentally" filling out their family earlier and that women who are fastidious about birth control usage have roughly the same chance of a mid-20s woman of bearing children easily.

My point, in short: even strong data with a huge sample size and a large tail is eventually made obsolete.  The study that doctors are referring to with the scare statistic on women in their 30s is very real, and it's one of the best pieces of data we have from back in the 1700s. It's immensely valuable to historians and it's immensely interesting to analyze. But that's about as far as we can take it. The surrounding facts are simply too different to easily generalize the findings of generations past in a modern context, and citing it when discussing modern decisions is about as irresponsible as advice wrought from citing no data at all.

 • • •

On Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers swapped Andrew Bynum's non-guaranteed $12 million dollar salary for half a year of Luol Deng. As sweeteners, the Cavaliers threw in two second round draft picks, a protected-to-the-moon Sacramento draft pick, and the lottery-protected right to swap picks in the 2015 draft. For the Bulls, this was considered a decent haul for a player they weren't intending on paying going forward. Expiring contracts don't mean much in the modern NBA, and as Bill Simmons might say: any time you can pick up three draft picks and save money, "you have to do it."

A lot of the analysis of the trade was focused on Cleveland's future. Most of this analysis ended up rather negative. After all, the future plan here isn't exactly golden. What's Cleveland really doing? At 11-23, the Cavaliers entered the trade at 3 games out of the Eastern Conference playoffs with three teams separating them and the eight seed. Deng should improve them, but they can reasonably expect New York and Brooklyn to be improved in the season's second half as well. Not to mention the obvious fact that they looked like a solid lottery team in the much-ballyhooed "best draft in the history of the human race." (OK, nobody's said that. They've just heavily implied it and been hilariously overenthusiastic about it.) Why give that up -- and draft picks! -- on a lark?

All that said? I think both these conclusions are a bit hasty. The way I look at the trade is thus: Cleveland just acquired an immensely solid player that fits perfectly with their long-contract coach's style and playbook. The player in question is currently having the best season of his career on a cap-friendly expiring deal that neither imperils their summer cap space nor takes minutes from any in-position rookie. Acquiring a player like that is rare. Very rare, actually. Anthony Bennett might lose a few of his struggling out-of-position minutes, but that's probably for the best when it comes to his future development. It's very easy to mention the assets Cleveland liquidated in scare quotes and laugh lines. "The Cavs just gave up three draft picks on a rental! What's wrong with them? WHAT'S UP WITH THAT?" It's true -- their future is confounding, and their goals are a bit unclear. But what assets did they really give up? To wit:

  • 2015 Portland Trail Blazers second round pick: Unless the Blazers implode in a flaming rush of flighty glory, chances are pretty high that Portland's 2015 season looks a lot like Portland's 2014 season. At least in broad strokes. I'd say 50 wins or so is the most likely scenario, barring a crazy injury, and that should be enough to push this pick into the second round's bottom ten. Let's say 50.
  • 2016 Portland Trail Blazers second round pick: Handicapping a team two years in the future is difficult. But Aldridge and Lillard should still be in their primes, and the team as a whole is quite young. So I don't see any particular reason why we shouldn't expect another win total in the 50s in 2016, either.
  • The Most Protected First Round Pick Ever: Okay, that's really quite unfair. But it was essentially the point when Sacramento traded the pick in the first place, and it remains the point today. If the Kings finish with a top-12 pick in 2014, they will not convey the pick this year. As they currently stand at 11-22 (on pace for the fourth overall pick), that seems exceedingly unlikely. In 2015 and 2016, the pick is protected such that if they finish with a top-10 pick, it doesn't convey. I did some simple math to calculate the average win-range of the 11th worst record in the league. The range spanned 35-40 wins. It's not unattainable for Sacramento, but it's going to be rather difficult -- DeMarcus Cousins is having an all-star caliber offensive season this year and Isaiah Thomas is at the peak of his potential. They're still one of the worst defensive teams in the league, and in a conference like the modern West, it's hard to see them winning 35-40 games unless they manage to adapt defensively in such a way that lets them stop a team or two. Will the rookies of the next few years improve the Kings defensively enough so that 40 wins is realistic? Color me unsure. Best case scenario would be the 11th pick in either draft. Worst case? If the pick doesn't convey in 2015 or 2016, it becomes Sacramento's 2017 second round pick, which is problematic given that 2017 is far enough away that it's easier to imagine a better-constructed roster having taken hold at that point.
  • Lottery-protected swap rights in 2015: This is an asset for Chicago, as it represents a potential maximum pick gain of (if they have the best record and the Cavaliers are the worst playoff team) around 15 spots, and gives their own pick more upside in trade talks if they decide to flip some of their now-owned picks for veterans that can bolster Rose after his return next season. This is also quite possibly one of the easiest things Cleveland has ever given up. Look at it this way: if the Cavs fail to improve enough to make the playoffs this season or next, they'll keep their lottery pick and give up nothing. If they improve enough to make the playoffs this season, the general youth of their team would have them internally thinking they'll have the potential to make the leap to a 4/5 seed team next season and lose -- at worst -- 4-5 spots in the draft to Chicago. And this whole strategy is a very high-upside/low-downside one for Chicago -- if Chicago flames out and ends up a marginal playoff team next year, the swap could be as little as one or two picks or -- if they miss the playoffs (a situation more possible than most care to admit) -- completely impossible.

When you take the picks out of the amorphous and scary "three draft picks" verbiage, it becomes a lot less enticing. And Chicago's haul in the trade becomes a lot less fun for Bulls fans. At their very best, barring future moves, they'll have a pick at #11 overall (ideally in 2015, since they'll want their high pick to be contributing at a high level at some point before Noah's body gives out), two picks in the fifties, and... maybe they get to pick a few spots higher in the 2015 draft? The real benefit for them is the one that Cleveland didn't care much about at all -- Bynum's contract was only half-guaranteed, and to my knowledge, Cleveland's already paid almost all of that guaranteed money. Reinsdorf saved something in the neighborhood of $20 million dollars on the deal, which was the real reason the Bulls traded away the guy who was playing the best ball in Chicago for four shaky assets. Cleveland was going to waive Bynum regardless -- this trade allowed them to flip some of their shakiest, lowest-probability assets and a contract they didn't care about for a player that could -- quite possibly -- end up as a big part of their long term plan, a la David West in Indiana. As the Gilberts might say: "what's not to like?"

• • •

"No, Manu, get back to the end of the draft order. Future people need you for some specious arguments."

One last thing, and a tie-in to the earlier tangent regarding fertility rates. (No, that wasn't the start of an attempt to gradually turning Gothic Ginobili into a blog about historical fertility, tempting though that may be.) One of the oft-repeated truisms that's been shared ad nauseum in response to any ambivalence about these so-called "assets" is the idea that every draft pick is an asset. After all, you can find talent everywhere in the draft. Manu Ginobili was selected at 57. Isaiah Thomas was selected at 60. Tons of great undrafted players make the league every year. There's still talent down there, and we need to always state that and heavily price it in when assessing the value of late second round picks. Right?

You know what? No. Not right. It's a factor, and it's context that needs to be noted. But it's also incredibly misleading without the contrary context. When doctors and armchair fertility experts cite scare quotes about the women-over-35 statistic, they're being intellectually dishonest despite being factual and accurate. Lies by omission can be as insidious as simply making things up. When someone makes things up it's generally easy to track back their statement and discover they were lying to begin with. It's significantly harder to take a factually correct statement and discover what contextually made it inappropriate for your situation. And simply stating "Manu got picked there" as though it invalidates aspersions to the draft pick's value ignores a lot of the context around Manu getting picked there at all, not to mention the basic context about relative pick value in the first place.

In the 1990s, foreign scouting wasn't just a small-scale enterprise. It was virtually nonexistent. At the time Manu was drafted, he'd been leading professional basketball teams since the age of 17 and putting up high-quality numbers for four years. He was an athletic NBA-size player with a beautiful game and a ridiculous work ethic. In the modern world, a player like Manu Ginobili would be isolated much like Ricky Rubio -- he'd be on the radar of NBA teams from 14-15 years old, and competing internationally at a very young age. This is not to say that every single market inefficiency that keeps a player from being picked early is gone. There will always be new places to find value, and there will be ways to get decent value at that range of the draft. But it IS to say that as scouting has improved and international players have made their mark on the league, the exact market inefficiency that caused a Hall of Fame player like Manu Ginobili to go in the late 50s has closed. And it's difficult to imagine what future market inefficiency would cause something as unfathomably unlikely as that to ever happen again.

And none of this even gets into the biggest issue in treating all draft picks as amorphous "assets" -- draft picks are all assets, but the NBA's extremely late draft picks are akin to playing scratch cards for $50 winnings. To try and support the case of "value in the late draft", a good friend and quality analyst in Kevin Draper sent the following 17 player list of good players that were picked in the late 50s or undrafted: Manu Ginobili, Kyle Korver, Marcin Gortat, Amir Johnson, Ramon Sessions, Patty Mills, Isaiah Thomas, E'Twaun Moore, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem, Jeremy Lin, Jose Calderon, Wesley Matthews, Anthony Morrow, Reggie Evans, J.J. Barea, Chuck Hayes. It's a great list, and it does much to support the idea that smart teams can find some value in the late reaches of the draft.

But, again, consider context -- that list of 16 players arrived over fourteen years of draft picks.

Assuming that every season there are 11 picks from 50-60 and about 10 guys who went undrafted that'll make the league (a fairway assumption, I admit, but a lowball one), that's still something in the neighborhood of sixteen NBA-quality rotation players out of a group of THREE HUNDRED OR MORE POSSIBLE PLAYERS. Sixteen in three hundred! That's around a 5% chance of the pick panning out, if you're counting. That means a draft pick in the 50s is an asset where 95% of the time you're looking at a wasted roster spot or a waived player with no recognizable value to the team. Five percent of the time, if you're lucky, you might get a guy like Patty Mills or Reggie Evans, a 9th or 10th man that you could've gotten for a few million on the open market. And then, if your team is really really lucky, and your scouting department is years ahead of the game on a glaring market inefficiency that nobody else has keyed into yet, you might get the next Manu Ginobili. Oy gevalt.

Draft picks are valuable. Unbelievably so. But a draft pick cannot only be valued by its very highest upside potentiality -- it must be valued rationally as a function of the upside, the downside, and the overall likelihood of both. For low draft picks, they're genuinely low-upside value plays with extraordinarily low probabilities on the upside scenario. The Cavaliers are flush with draft picks in a general sense -- even after trading away three draft picks, they still have four first round draft picks in the next two years and four second round draft picks as well. (Yes, that's right -- pre-trade, the Cavs had eleven draft picks in the next two years. Gilbert had officially become the exact opposite of Ted Stepien.) They flipped the uncertainty inherent in their two least valuable second round picks, a contract they were going to waive anyway, and their amorphous protected first round pick for an expiring deal on a player they've coveted for a while.

What's more, that player fits. Very well. He plays their by-far worst position and doesn't crowd out the minutes of any of their younger players. He fits well with their long-contract coach. If Cleveland didn't hit a slam dunk on this trade (and indeed got as "embarrassed" as some very smart analysts have said), is it even possible for a non-title-contending team to "win" a trade in media discourse if they give up a single draft pick? Does giving up draft picks -- no matter how low-upside those draft picks may be -- foment an instant loss in every trade for a team that isn't playing for June? Perhaps, but I don't think so. Question Cleveland's future plan all you want -- it's about as questionable a future plan as they come. But they weren't being irrational, and they definitely weren't getting bilked.

Special thanks to the December 2013 issue of Significance magazine for alerting me to the fertility story. I enjoyed it.