Trendspotting: Christmas Holiday Edition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

pace of play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Have a wonderful holiday, everybody!

What if the Spurs had traded Manu Ginobili?

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

 • • •

(andre is the topic)

TRADING POINT #1: July 15, 2004

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

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

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

PHILADELPHIA receives: Manu Ginobili's rights, Kevin Willis

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

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

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

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

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

 • • •

TRADING POINT #2: February 3, 2009

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

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

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

CHARLOTTE receives: Manu Ginobili (1.5 years)

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

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

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

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

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

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

• • •

BUY THIS SHIRT, IT'S THE BEST SHIRT

TRADING POINT #3: July 15, 2010

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

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

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

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

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

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

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

The Final Timeout: New York's Final Moments in Knicks/Wizards

mike woodson

The following is a transcript taken from Alex Dewey's SportFU system. SportFU is based around a series of cameras Dewey placed in NBA arenas under the floorboards. After placing them, our intrepid young reporter realized that his cameras captured absolutely none of the visuals of an NBA game, on account of being underground. So he probably could've saved several million dollars by switching to audio recorders. But we won't get into that. At least they captured enough audio to be able to bring you this post, right?

 • • •

Mike Woodson is leading the huddle. His Knicks are clinging to a 1-point lead against the Wizards with 24 seconds left.

Coach Woodson: Alright, y'all. Stick with me here. It's been a rough season, but we've had a great 2nd half today! So let's make something happen! You just gotta trust and believe in your defense, man. One thing I learned in Atlanta is: gotta trust your people, number one. Y'all gotta BELIEVE you can get that stop if ya need it, y'know?

Carmelo Anthony: I believe, Coach. We can get that stop if we need it. Look, you guys, I know we've had troubles before but we can NOT lose this game.  We have to trust each other. As long as we have Tyson in the middle, we're fine.

Woodson: Actually, we don't have Tyson.

Melo: Well, where is Tyson? He's not back yet? Dang!

Woodson: Tyson's got, like, an eternal contusion fracture of the spotless mind or something. Somewhere below his knee. Day-to-day.  Look, he's still in his suit, right over there.

Tyson Chandler: Hey! What's up, guys? I'm right here. Glad you're looking at me, but maybe you want to focus on that timeout instead of me! I can't play, you know!

Melo: Hey, Tyson! Nice to see you.

Woodson: Bottom line? TC's not going to be available. Andrea, it's gonna be you in the middle. Y'all help him out. Support him!

Melo: Oh sh-... I mean, uh... Yeah, you can do it, Andrea. Just man the middle. Just like we've been practicing.

Andrea Bargnani: [consumes pasta]

Woodson: Right, so we HAVE to guard the middle. Y'all know what I mean? GOT to have a presence. We're down by 1 so I'd rather force them to 3 it, feel me? Even a long J would be fine. But no layups. I'd rather they get an semi-open 3 than an easy-ass five footer. Got me?

Melo: [nods] We got it, Coach.

Woodson: J.R., I know you care about your rep. I get that, young man.

J.R. Smith:  [looking up at the ceiling] Right, Coach.

Woodson: But this is our whole team's rep, now. I know you don't want someone to hit a jumper in your-- J.R., ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?

Smith: [thousand-yard stare] Do what now?

Woodson: Damn, J.R. Look... I know you care about your rep, but focus on the basket, please. Just 24 seconds. Focus on helping at the rim. Don't look at your guy at the 3-point line. Protect the rim first and foremost. Help your people under the rim if someone gets beat. They got a rep, too. Y'know?

Smith: [looking at the opposite basket] Right... shoot it at the rim...

Woodson: Look, just... pay attention on defense. That's all I'm asking.

Smith: [looking at Tyson Chandler] Right, Coach. Seriously, protect the rim, help, I'll do whatever I have to do to make sure they don't score.

Woodson: [a bit touched] Thanks.

Melo: [supportively] J.R. the lockdown man! Keep it going for 24 more, J.R.! You can do it!

Woodson: And Pablo and Ray are out, of course.

Melo: Right.

Beno Udrih: So it's up to me, then.

Woodson: Right, Beno. Good chance you end up on Wall or Beal. Now, you've played under some great coaches in your time, right? You played under Pop, of course.

Beno: Right.

Woodson: So you know two things about the next possession. Simple as anything in the world.

Beno: Right... Why don't you just tell me so there isn't any confusion?

Woodson: Well, for one, they want to put up a shot so they don't leave any time on the clock, and two, they're going to go to Beal on a switch against you, probably on a dribble-hand-off.

Melo: Wait, what?

Beno: How do you know that?

Woodson: Simple. Beal's hot and he's their most explosive scorer, he's a capable ball-handler, and we'd have trouble trapping him. Plus, if he can get a switch to you (and they can easily draw that up), we have to honor it. He's too good a shooter to leave him WIDE open. You're gonna be at a slight size disadvantage, and so they'd be foolish not to try and take advantage.

Beno: Right.

Woodson: But y'all also have a trump card, right?

Beno: [looks around to team] ...Sure, Coach. Why don't you tell everyone so we can all know what you're talking about?

Woodson: The foul to give. We have a foul to give. I can't stress this enough. We have a foul to give.

Beno: Right.

Woodson: If the Wizards try anything before, say, 3 seconds are left (and make sure one of y'all call it out if Beno can't check the time), you should foul them. Make them draw up a whole new in-bounds. That should screw up whatever they want to get, enough to give us the best chance of winning.

Beno: Okay. You know what, I CAN do that, Coach!

Woodson: That's all. Just remember. Trust and believe. Believe and trust. Just do the simple shit that I'm asking of you and we'll win. And, if we don't win and y'all do all of that, y'all can blame me in the next huddle.

Melo: Coach, you're doing great. This is all great stuff.

Woodson: Thank you.

The Knicks gather their hands into the middle of the huddle. 

Team: One, two, three, BREAK!

Legitimate intensity, to a man. Even J.R. looks totally engaged, a terrifying, but beautiful, sight.

James Dolan: Hey, what's up, everyone?

Everyone groans.

Dolan: You can't spare a moment for the guy that signs your checks?

Melo: Come on, James, not now. We're right in the middle of a g--...

Dolan: Controversy, right? Felton for Lowry, who says no?

Woodson: Raymond is a fine young man, can we talk about this later?

Dolan: I just got off the phone with Phil Jackson. Do you want to know what we talked about?

Woodson: Not especia--...

Dolan: I told him I planned to hire Pat Riley and Ettore Messina to co-coach the Knicks next season. Laughs aplenty.

Melo: Look, Coach is who he is. This isn't helping anyone, James. I don't know what you think you're doing.

Dolan: Hello, Andrea.

Andrea: Hi, James.

Dolan: Some fascinating trade rumors are leaking out today. Most of them involving you. Can you think about that for a few moments and tell me what you think after the game?

Andrea: What... why?

Dolan: It's not that you're not working out. You are, but you know how life is. If you don't have your hand on the trigger at any moment, you're always one step away from missing the dream of a lifetime.

Woodson: Come on, James. What is this even about?

Melo: Yeah, Dolan. What's your problem? Let's just run the play. 1, 2, 3, BREAK!

Dolan: Wait! My favorite movie is "Heat". I listen to the Eagles. I'm a kind, compassionate individual. I've had trade offers just today to send J.R. to Moscow!

Smith:  [perking up, stares with attention at Coach Woodson] Moscow? What the hell?

Dolan: Nothing very serious, but you have to keep abreast of these things... "Heat"... "Princess Bride" was good, uh... "The Godfather" was a good movie. "Alien 4" was good.

Smith: [completely losing interest] Never mind, man. I'll score if I get the ball, Coach, if that's what I'm feeling.

Dolan: Beno Udrih for Mike Bibby, Mike Bibby for Orlando Johnson, Orlando Johnson and Bargs for Roy Hibbert, Ryan Anderson, and Omer Asik. Three trades. Who says no?

Woodson: YOU ARE KILLING THIS TEAM, JAMES.

Melo: [sobbing] I just... I played a great game and did everything you asked of me, Coach. Why now? Why this timeout? Why couldn't it have been just three minutes later, James?

Woodson: Nobody knows, Melo.

Dolan: We can compete in the East or West, in the North or South. I sometimes pretend I'm Billy Joel or Bob Seger or Pitbull. I have a band and I like playing in it. I will never trade you, Melo. I will pay you so many dollars, and you will be mine, forever.

Official: Come on, guys. We have a game to play. It's been more than a minute. Commercials are back. If you don't get on the court in 20 seconds, it's a tech.

Woodson: Just... I... yeah, just go, guys. 1, 2, 3, break.

 • • •

But now all the Knicks look worried or disinterested. They all heard the ref, but barely beat his 20-second deadline as they wade over to contest the inbound pass.

The Wizards run a dribble hand-off leaving Beno Udrih guarding Bradley Beal. Beno - with sudden thoughts of retirement (or worse, being traded for the retired Mike Bibby), is unfocused and doesn't foul when Beal makes his move with plenty of time. Beal easily slips past Beno, and the rest of the team is caught unawares, expecting him to foul.

The Knicks aren't way out of position, at this point, but Bargs is angry at Dolan's sudden leak to the public about his lack of faith and refuses to man the middle. J.R. Smith, worried about going to Moscow (and a little intrigued, which occupies his attention even more), stays on his man in the corner even after Beal beats Beno. J.R. is not going to let someone shoot over him and give Dolan the ammo to send him to Moscow.

Beal gets an easy, uncontested lay-up on the Knicks' basket. The Knicks have three time-outs, but Mike Woodson has checked out of the game at this point. He refuses to call time-out, and Melo, the only one left to care, heaves a desperate shot.

NOTE: After the game, James Dolan trades his 2022 first-rounder to the ether for Ben Wallace.

Small Market Mondays #2.04: Pacers Gonna Pace

Remember our cracked-skull columnist, Alex Arnon? He hit his head, fainted, and woke up a delusional man with tidings of a world where small markets ruled all comers. Yeah, about that. Over the summer, Alex tripped while walking backwards, managing to completely reverse the head trauma that created this series. Poor guy's back to rooting for the Knicks and wishing he still had his former faith. Our editor, Aaron McGuire, has no such idle whims -- to perpetuate this baffling feature, he's developed a drug that mimics Arnon's former mental losses just long enough to go on the weekly vision quest required to write this. Welcome back, #SmallMarketMondays! This week's subjects: the Pace Index, a Plumdog Millionaire, and THUNDERSPURS!

Hello, friends! Last time we broke our small market griddle cakes together, I was proactively celebrating next year's Thanksgiving and your small-market Trailblazers were 14-3. In the intervening weeks, I declared a silent moratorium on thanking people (YOTO) and your small-market Trailblazers followed up that 14-3 streak with a 7-1 patch (thanks, TBJ Prod! ... wait, damnit). Overall, after starting the season 2-2, the Blazers have gone 19-2 in the following 20 games. After playing 7 games, they were 5-2, but now they here. Started from 0-0 now they're 21-4. If you arranged their games in one win streak and one losing streak, they would have a 21-0 win streak and a 0-4 losing streak. If you are a computer, the Blazers are 10101-100. If you are a cat, Nic Batum has a 2-0 "owning a cat" streak. If you are dead, you do not care about Portland's W/L record because you are no longer capable of physical thought and movement. If you are Alex Dewey, write a post. (All statistics in this paragraph copyright $TAT$ LLC, 2013-2015, all rights reserved.)

So much has happened to the Western Conference leaders that it's almost hard to keep up! Which is exactly why we're going to completely ignore the Trail Blazers for the rest of today's column. Because I, Aaron McGuire, totally hate the Blazers and would never pick a Blazer for anything meaningful ever. Instead, we're going to follow the lead of our sponsor corporation, ESPN, and create something that nobody asked for but everybody secretly wanted. That's right: welcome to the Pace Index, your one-stop-shop for Pacers news and reviews! Bask in the glory of your beloved Champacers underneath the not-particularly-bright musty neon lights of Jollywood, VA. Appreciate Paul George's regal last name and Roy Hibbert's funny Parks and Recreatweets. Jest with the best or get left with the rest. We're getting turnt up 24/6, because we take Sundays off because we live in Indiana. Get ready to rumble!

Upcoming Pace Index features include:

  • THE RACE FOR 48: A bi-weekly counter updated to track Indiana's progress towards 48 wins. Some people might say that 48 is arbitrary. Well, some people, #48 is Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR number. And given that this is a "race" to 48, folks, you simply can't get more racist than NASCAR. ... Just a second, folks, getting word that "racist" does not mean "pertaining to car races." My bad.
  • THE SCENE: Our boots-on-the-ground reporter will give us the skinny on what's going on in Indiana's all-too-active downtown scene while the Pacers are pacing their way to the league's best record. One problem with this that I can already see is that our boots-on-the-ground reporter is actually a pair of boots on the ground, and I don't think he can write things because he is not an animate object. Maybe I'll trade up for that one toaster kid.
  • PARKS AND RECREATWEETS: This is going to be a twitter list composed of nothing but actors who play major roles on Indiana's hit T.V. property, Parks and Recreation. I didn't come up with a joke here, I just wanted to put them all in one place. It's funny stuff, guys.

Warning: Pace Index feature will exist exactly as long as this joke remains funny.

Warning #2: Actually, it wasn't funny to begin with, so it never existed.

Warning #3: Given the previous two warnings, if I remember Back to the Future right, your computer might start fading into nonexistence right after you read this and it'll be totally our fault. Sorry about that.

• • •

rip miles

Phoenix Citizenship and Immigration Services presents the "Surprise! You're Arrested!" Miles Plumlee MVP Watch

Okay, okay. Phoenix isn't really a small market, at least for our purposes. It's a city of 1.4 million people that ranks as the sixth largest city in the nation. At 4.1 million people, the Phoenix metropolitan area is the 12th largest in the nation. It makes up almost 2/3 of Arizona's population by itself! So calling Phoenix a small market based on city characteristics falls flat. But I feel passably comfortable calling it a town with a small market mindset -- Robert Sarver's penny-pinching ways are the stuff of legend, and the way he let Steve Nash's supporting cast trickle away during the franchise mainstay's prime is one of the saddest low-key stories in sports. But, much like the Pacers, you'd be hard pressed to find any particular wealth of people who give a crap. Don't get me wrong -- you've got your respectable diehards, as you do in any market. But the franchise endures constant struggles at the bottom of the NBA's attendance ladder (and like with the Pacers, regardless of team quality -- even in the mid-aughts, they were a middling team attendance-wise who tended to draw much better on the road than at home) and the amount of hype Phoenix give its sports teams is seemingly inversely proportional to the city's size.

Best possible example of this: I gave out Halloween candy in Phoenix this year. I was wearing a Tim Duncan shirt. Given the Spurs/Suns rivalry, I figured I'd get a few callouts from trick-or-treaters. Nothing doing -- the only callout I got was from one kid dressed up as Kobe (specifically catcalling with "the Lakers are waaay better than the Spurs this year bro, we're gonna roll you in the playoffs") and one kid who was apparently the world's saddest Pistons fan (specifically despairing with "I miss the 2005 finals"). No, seriously, that's it! No Suns fan made fun of me for, needled me for, or otherwise gave a crap that I was handing out candy wearing the colors of their most bitter rival. Just confusing. This is all to say that I think we can establish Phoenix as a small-market in training, just waiting for a Detroit-esque mass exodus to scramble over the top. It'll probably happen when they run out of water.

Anyway, I really didn't think this particular Plumdog Millionaire would amount to much in the NBA. I figured there was a reasonable chance that Miles was as good as his brother Mason, primarily because Mason Plumlee has a strange dearth of knowledge when it comes to "playing the game of basketball" -- Miles was a more cerebral player at Duke, lacking the athleticism of Mason but making up for it by simply having a lot more smarts. Where Mason would jump wildly into the air for a rebound, Miles would set a clever box-out and tap it to make sure Duke got the rebound. He'd defend big guys adequately, relying on positioning and guile instead of skying for blocks. His offense was essentially nothing but tip-ins, but it's not like Mason was ever breaking out with Hakeem moves under Krzyzewski's watchful eye. Mason jumps and dunks. That's it. That's basically always been "it." So when Miles was awful and genuinely useless in the NBA last season, I figured it was more a sign that Mason would be pretty bad too than a sign that there were better things to come. Also: a general aspersion to the Plumlees as NBA quality players.

But that was not to be! By the third quarter of this season's second game, Miles Plumlee had already played more minutes in the 2014 season than he'd previously played in his entire NBA career. And he's doing stuff with those minutes, too. His defense has been textbook, showing a solid grasp of Indiana's scheme fundamentals and an NBA translation of his former focus on excellent box-outs and tip rebounds for Miles. (That wasn't supposed to be a pun, but now it is, and you're just going to have to live with it.) His offense is still quietly pretty abhorrent, but his defense has more than made up for it. And his rebounding has been an unexpected upgrade over Marcin Gortat's half-donkey'd efforts these last few years. He's added a David West-esque shot from the midrange that's been surprisingly useful for opening the floor for Bledsoe and Dragic, and his career trajectory has shot from "forgotten D-League backup" to "valuable starter that'll probably stick around on 5-6 million a year deals into the infinite" in no time flat. So he's this week's player-to-watch in our Small Market MVP segment. Who will take his place next week? I don't know! Probably me, I've got great fundamentals and as a resident of a city without an NBA team it's virtually impossible to be smaller market than I am. I bet Miles is quaking in his boots.

• • •

Small Market Mondays Game of the Night: DETROIT PISTONS at INDIANA PACERS

What better way to ring in the Pace Index than with another monstrous Pacers win? In 2011, the 62-win Chicago Bulls threatened for the first-ever perfect division record in the modern era, finishing tied with the NBA's 15-1 record (2005 MIA, 2009 BOS, 2013 MIA) with their only loss coming in an overtime 115-108 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Unfortunately for Indiana, the best they can do is tie that 15-1 mark -- as you might remember, their undefeated season was snapped a la Batman's back in The Dark Knight Rises earlier this year in Chicago. They lost by 16 points and it was hardly that close. So their divisional record currently stands at 4-1, with comfortable wins against Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee bookending that grotesque loss to the Rose-bearing Bulls. With two of their games against Chicago already in the books and comfortable wins against every other team in the division, I feel safe to say that the Pacers have as good a shot as anyone of tying that 15-1 mark despite the early loss. And that will continue tonight, since they're getting to face (while rested) an inferior Pistons team that had their hearts torn out in OT the night before. Just a guess.

Other quick-hits for great small-market matchups in the coming week:

  • Sacramento at Charlotte (TUES, 12/17): If the commissioner had known that the Kings would acquire Rudy Gay: Franchise Player (imagine that each letter in the preceding four words was scribed in sparkling, animated gold print), this is the kind of star-struck night that would normally merit inclusion as a Christmas Day game. Gay, Jefferson, Cousins? Total treat to get this a little over a week in advance. Thanks, NBA!
  • Portland at Minnesota (WED 12/18): One of the stranger stories of the early season is how unlucky the Wolves have been. The team is 12-12 despite reasonably good health and a rock-solid MOV (+3.7, generally the type you'd see with a 15-9 team rather than a 12-12 team). Assuming health, they should make the playoffs regardless, but their preternaturally good health to date can elicit a little bit of worry -- these healthy moments are the ones where the Wolves should be banking wins, not breaking even. The Wolves have a generally decent defense/offense combination, so this has a nice potential for being a mutual offensive explosion type of night. Something like their game a few days ago where the Wolves put up a single-game ORTG of 112 only to fall to San Antonio's 119. Watch it!
  • Oklahoma City at San Antonio (SAT, 12/21): Okay, so, breaking character for a second, OKC/SAS is one of the best western rivalries going right now. The Spurs think they should've had 2012, the Thunder think they should've had 2013. The two teams are atop the west, both entering tonight with 19-4 records and hopes as high as the moon. If the West has a favorite right now, it's in-arguably one of these two teams. Both teams will have two-days rest, so we'll be seeing both teams at their best (barring injury in the intervening week). Even if this wasn't a dreamboat of a small market matchup, this is a game everyone should be watching. No jokes, no sly witticisms, no sarcasm. This one is what the NBA is all about. It's the closest you can come to early-season appointment viewing. 

See you next week, Small Marketeers! Stay frosty.

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

dudley and paul

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

• • •

Observation #1: JARED DUDLEY DOESN'T FREEWHEEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Observation #2: AL JEFFERSON'S IMPACT

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

THE BLOOD IS DROWNING ME.

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

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

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

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

Small Market Mondays #2.03: Thanking Ain't Easy

Remember our cracked-skull columnist, Alex Arnon? He hit his head, fainted, and woke up a delusional man with tidings of a world where small markets ruled all comers. Yeah, about that. Over the summer, Alex tripped while walking backwards, managing to completely reverse the head trauma that created this series. Poor guy's back to rooting for the Knicks and wishing he still had his former faith. Our editor, Aaron McGuire, has no such idle whims -- to perpetuate this baffling feature, he's developed a drug that mimics Arnon's former mental losses just long enough to go on the weekly vision quest required to write this. Welcome back, #SmallMarketMondays! This week's subjects: giving thanks, Spencer Hawes, and the best faces the best!

Boy, sometimes the world really throws you for a loop! Just the other day I was sitting around feeling glum and gloomy, watching our beloved small-market Cavaliers stumble and bumble their way to a fifth straight loss in a seventeen-point pasting at the hands of the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are woeful this season, but not as woeful as our poor Cavaliers. Just about then, when I was down in the dumps and out on my tuckus, I was visited by a ghost of Christmas past. He told me that I had just three weeks to live and that the world was a cold unfeeling hellscape unfit for human consumption! Weird story, right? Anyway, that was totally unrelated, I just followed up the ghost's arrival by watching the small-market Thunder pull out a miracle overtime win over those Californicators down in Oakland! Cheered me right up. And that got me to thinking: sometimes, a poor down-on-his-luck fella might forget to give his thanks for the things in life that make it worth striving and grinding. Let's amend that, by starting this post out with a list of incredible thanks.

I am thankful for...

  • The Indiana Pacers! Boy oh boy, these guys don't quit. At 16-1,  these rascals are just the 13th team in NBA history to start a season with sixteen wins and just one loss. And that's a pretty select list! Five of those thirteen teams were NBA champions, and all but one of them made the playoffs. So I guess the Pacers are probably gonna make the playoffs. Actually, given the Eastern Conference, those 16 wins might be enough to clinch a playoff spot right now! That's right -- the 9th seed in the East could definitely have less than 16 wins! Holy Moses! Are Eastern Conference courts literally teeming with phantasms and wraiths? Probably. That's what you get for giving New York two teams, you fools.
  • The State of the Small Market Union! In fact, screw the usual second segment, I'm stating it up here. The state of the union is stronger than ever. There are currently five teams with three losses or fewer, and four of those five are a most beloved small market foursome of Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Indiana. Isn't that just swell? Combine that with the fact that Detroit and Charlotte are bringing up the rear in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and New York's current 9 game losing streak, and you'll start to see a smile on even the most curmudgeonly small marketeer. What a world.
  • The joys of family! Alright, yeah, this one is pretty played out. But hear me out. Right now, we have a startling NINE brother/brother combos in the NBA, and that's just hilarious. Take anything you do with your family -- anything at all -- and try to imagine it being done in a family with two NBA players. It's fantastic! There's Justin and Jrue Holiday, chilling like only a Holiday can. Imagine Thanksgiving dinner with the Lopez brothers. Imagine youth soccer with the Plumlees. Tag in the park with Marcus and Markieff? How about High School senior photo day with the Zellers, then? Lord help you if you don't sneak candy bars into the movie theater with the Teagues, it's probably the best ever. Play frisbee golf a La Playa de Las Catedrales con los hermanos Gasol! Do it, jerk! Who DOESN'T play H.O.R.S.E. with the Curries... yeah, we all lose hilariously, but that's the point, right? One caution, though -- don't rob a bank with the Smiths. When the shootout starts, pretty sure J.R. would try to bank his shots off an errant backboard and end up shooting you in the chest.

Above all else, I'm thankful for my incredible go-getting timeliness. After all, this Thanksgiving post is almost 360 days early! Praise Smits!

• • •

The Philadelphia Torn-Sock Opera presents the "BOMBS OVER HALLELUJAH" Spencer Hawes MVP Watch

Figuring out who to feature for our MVP watch segment is actually one of the harder things to do around here. It has to be a player that threads the needle -- a guy who doesn't score too much (because that takes away from his teammates), doesn't get mainstream attention (because we support the little guys), doesn't play for a team that wins a lot (because he battles through adversity), and simply embodies a different class of grit and heart than most NBA guys. Not to say the NBA lacks grit -- true grit can be found anywhere, even in the most confusing places. But our small market MVP watch has to focus on the absolute creme de la creme. The grittiest, hardiest, never-say-die mother lovers in the league. You know the type. The men who could cut stone with their elbows and kick a peacock twenty miles all while blowing kisses to their adoring mother. The men for whom an eyebrow raise is a once-in-a-lifetime emotional extravagance but who will always have time to take a three hour phone call to listen to his mother spin yarns about yarn and clams. The men who eat only rocks when they aren't eating their mom's not-dissimilar-to-rocks home cookin'. These are the men we feature, here. Finding them is difficult.

... except for right now, because oh my God, Spencer Hawes is having a downright hilarious season. Dude is just going nuts. Although he's shooting the most he's ever shot in his career -- generally a disqualifier here -- he's shooting less than Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, and Michael Carter-Williams. And on a per-minute basis, he's shooting less than the newly nicknamed "Mike Dan" Tony Wroten AND Lorenzo Brown, so I'm OK with that amount of shots for the guy. By a hilariously large margin, Hawes is leading the Sixers in shooting efficiency (Hawes has an eFG% of 59% -- second place is James Anderson at 51%), rebound-gobbling (10.1 a night, making him three points off from the NBA's only 20-10 line), blockin' (2 blocks a night, with Daniel Orton posting a slightly higher rate in way fewer minutes), and bandz a make ya dance (I count at least 10 so far this season, making his BER -- Bandz Efficiency Rating -- a league-leading 0.625). All the while, he's sharing hot takes like these on Twitter:

  • Now that my secret karaoke sesh has leaked (#shouldabeenacowboy), the only question that remains is which record labels will come calling (x)

So hot! So feisty! So... amphibious! How could our MVP watch look at anyone else, I ask?

The answer: it can't. Not this week, at least.

 

• • •

Small Market Mondays Game of the Night: INDIANA PACERS at PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Not a whole lot of games tonight. Luckily, one of them is fantastic! Indiana's lugging their weighty 16-1 record into the den of the 14-3 west-leading Trailblazers. Fun fact -- both Indiana and Portland played in Los Angeles last night, Indiana against the Clippers and Portland against the Lakers. Both were tense, close contests decided on a few late game blunders, although the Portland game was about a billion times more hilarious than the Indiana game. If they were being efficient, they might've taken the same plane back. Or they could be even more efficient and just squat to play the game in Staples Center. I bet that would aggravate the sensibilities lifelong Laker Nick Young. Who knows? Anything's possible with these two teams who -- combined -- have three more wins than the entire Atlantic division combined. No, really. They're combined for a 30-4 record. The five-team Atlantic Division currently combines for 27-59. Spoiler alert! The Atlantic division is really unfathomably awful. Anyway. It's a big game. If Indiana manages to win, they'll have an opportunity to play two west-leading teams in a single week, as they'll face off with the Spurs in San Antonio on Friday. While that's obviously Friday's game of the night, we have a few other nice matchups this week. Let's look at them!

Other quick-hits for great small-market matchups in the coming week:

  • San Antonio at Minnesota (WED, 12/4): This one seems like a featured game even before you find out the best part. After all -- the Spurs are great, the Wolves are awesome, and both are fun small markets with excellent offensive attacks and... well, okay, a single great defense between the two of them, but still. They're good! But get this -- this game isn't being played in Minnesota. It's actually being played in Mexico City. Isn't that amazing? Noche Latina, taken to the furthest possible extent! Is there anything more small market than losing one of your home games in favor of a random regular season game in a random arena in a foreign nation? I don't think so, no!
  • Milwaukee at Washington (FRI 12/6): Milwaukee is reeling from injury and has lost 11 of their last 12 games, all of which in an utterly unwatchable manner. The Wizards have been bad, but in the east, differentiating "bad" from "raging grease fire" is the difference between a solid playoff team and a fringe playoff team. Okay, you know what? There's no sugar coating this one. This game is going to be completely unenjoyable. I have no idea why I made this a game of the week and I apologize for my sins.
  • Cleveland at Atlanta (FRI, 12/6): Although Atlanta isn't a small market, their so-called "highlight factory" arena and generally tepid fanbase make them an honorary member of our small market brotherhood. Cleveland needs no such honorarium, of course, and this game pits one of the East's most disappointing teams in the Cleveland Cavaliers against one of the East's most "Atlanta Hawks" teams in the Atlanta Hawks. I'm using Atlanta Hawks as an adjective in the previous sentence, because I don't think there's a single adjective that adequately describes how typical of the franchise this season's results-to-date are. The Hawks sit at 9-9, second in their division and entrenched in the third seed while a threat to no one in particular. They have a marginally negative differential but a 0.500 record because they've beaten eight teams with records below 0.500 and narrowly squeaked out a one point win over the Mavs after a complete fourth quarter meltdown from Dallas. They are mediocre but marginally overachieving simply because everyone around them is markedly worse than mediocre. In other words, the exact same thing that's been true about the Hawks since 2009. Ladies and gentlemen, your Atlanta Hawks! 

See you next week, Small Marketeers! Stay frosty.