Bench Mob Redux: Did OKC Make The Right Moves?

sadperk

Jacob Harmon is a devoted fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Aaron McGuire is a devoted fan of the trade deadline. Today, Harmon and McGuire's dueling loves came together to form a shockwave that dramatically changed Oklahoma City's stretch run team and grind Twitter to a crumbling halt. Our two analysts will now share their views on the quality of Oklahoma City's acquisitions in a loosely structured back-and-forth.

• • •

Let's start out with what was lost. The Thunder traded away oft-derided big man Kendrick Perkins as well as the disgruntled shoot-first-ask-questions-never Reggie Jackson. In losing these two players, what did OKC give up?

AARON: Simultaneously more and less than you'd think. On its face, it's not that much. Perkins has long been one of the most ragged-on players in the NBA, moreso than almost any rotation player in the league. Less than one year ago, I was slamming his play in an account of the NBA's least-played starters. Reggie Jackson was moderately decent to start the season, but he's fallen off the proverbial cliff in the months since his excellent start and he's been a nonfactor for months. But that's not quite the whole story. Perkins has had one of his best seasons in years with his demotion to the bench. His defense has been better than usual (OKC's defense has been almost 5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court! He's having his best rebounding season in years! OKC GAMES DON'T START WITH A PERKINS POST-UP!!!), and his presence was essential during Durant and Westbrook's absence in the early season when Adams wasn't developing as fast as expected. Jackson has been bad lately, but he's had significant playoff experience in OKC's scheme. It's hard to imagine them having done much better than what they did for Jackson, but I'm much more wary about losing Perkins than I would've been before his bench demotion. Am I off base, Jacob?

JACOB: I don't think so. Reggie's experience and obvious talent aside, he was an unavoidable loss. His relationship with KD and crew has always appeared rocky, but things seemed to have taken a turn towards the toxic this season. It's not hard to see why, and I won't rehash all the details (that we know) of the whole ugly saga. Basically, if Sam Presti sits in a press conference and conspicuously and curtly addresses your departure in all of one sentence, you did not leave a positive legacy. For how he'd been playing and how bad the vibes got, it's hard for me to see Reggie's departure as anything but a gain.

Perkins is another story. It's been all good fun to mock him for his foibles throughout his time in OKC, but everything you said about his role there is absolutely true. He's been legitimately good off the bench this season, handling his diminished role like a true professional and making timely offensive contributions throughout the season. Steven Adams is still developing as a defensive force on the P&R, and he's sidelined for 2-3 more weeks minimum with his broken hand. The Thunder are left fielding a center rotation of Collison, McGary, and Kanter. That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence defensively-speaking.

• • •

Speaking of those acquisitions, let's start going through the players Oklahoma City acquired. We'll begin with the biggest addition. What's Enes Kanter's role on this year's Thunder team? How does he fit going forward?

AARON: Let's start with what Kanter can do. He's a bruiser, offensively. He's a big body. He's great at offensive rebounding. He's got a good post-up game. He doesn't draw fouls particularly often. His passing is, well, passable. Nothing special, but nothing that's going to blow up the world. Those are the positive sides. Unfortunately, he has absolutely no range game -- he shoots 34% beyond 10 feet on shots where defenders are more than a yard away from him. He often gets distracted when he's tasked with defending a play instead of a player, and he gets caught ball-watching badly. His instincts simply aren't very good. He's been improving this season, but that may just drive his price to an untenable high -- there are numerous tales in NBA annals of big men who got it together for a few shining months before a contract only to regress badly when the ink dries.

So... how does he fit with this year's Thunder team? I'm not positive. He might be able to play next to Ibaka if Coach Brooks can bash timing into his brain. But his defense is such a project right now that it's tough to imagine Ibaka fixing all of that. And offensively, he'll force Ibaka to drift farther from the rim to account for Kanter's inability to operate anywhere outside of the rim area. In a vacuum, Kanter is a talent upgrade for this year's team. But swapping out a big man who can't defend for one of OKC's better bench defenders this season is a risky proposition. And it's made more risky when you realize that Kanter's in a contract year. If he plays poorly, they haven't moved the needle on their title chances. If he plays well, they'll probably have to pay him a monstrous amount of money in the offseason just to keep him around. That's rough going.

JACOB: The popular notion has always been that the Thunder need a post-up threat. Kanter is that, and I guess that's why everybody likes this move so much. I'm just... skeptical. You pretty much covered the fit concerns and the limitations with his game. I worry about how Kanter fits in the rotation with a healthy Adams. OKC already has one young developing center with an evolving offensive game, and now they've added another. Adams is a better passer and defender than Kanter, so you'd hope they could co-exist, but since neither of them can function outside of the paint, you can't really play them together. Assuming Brooks sticks with Adams as the starter (as he should), how does Kanter respond? While his complaints with Utah weren't exactly the same as Reggie Jackson's in OKC, there are some concerning similarities, and bold claims from Kanter's agent are enough to give you pause. If he moonlights as the starter for a couple of weeks, then gets relegated back to a bench role for a younger, rawer player, how does he react? I can't pretend to have any close familiarity with the dynamic in Utah, or with Enes as player. But the situation feels a little too familiar for me. If Kanter is happy in OKC, I'm confident in the coaching staff's ability to develop him on the defensive end. I'm just not sure how happy Scott Brooks can make him.

• • •

Moving on to the next most important acquisition -- what can Augustin do for the Thunder?

JACOB: Play his role. I don't really like Augustin's game, but I like the acquisition for the Thunder. Reggie's problem in the back-up point guard role is that he isn't actually a point guard, and when your name isn't Russell Westbrook that's a legitimate criticism. DJ played with KD at Texas, and to the best of my knowledge they're still good friends. You could do worse bringing in friend-of-the-superstar role-players (Royal Ivey). I think some fans are getting a little carried away with their assessment of Augustin's value based on his recent play in Detroit, though. For whatever reason, he seems to have a Kendall Marshall quality to him where he just plays better in a starting role than he does off the bench. His best moments have come in times of increased responsibility, whether it be in Charlotte, Chicago, or Detroit, and now he's going to have to find a way to adjust to a more limited role. But he does fill a necessary role with Reggie gone, and by my estimation still probably gives OKC its best backup floor general since Maynor in 2011, and a marked improvement over Ish Smith (who would've been the alternative). The concern comes in the playoffs, where his size makes him a massive defensive liability. But at 6'3, so was Reggie.

AARON: As you said, I think he'll be a regular season upgrade -- the inherent chemistry he has with KD as former teammates should help him fit in better than any of their other acquisitions. It's sort of like 2012's Diaw acquisition for the Spurs. Diaw played a lot of basketball with Tony Parker in France, and it showed whenever they shared the court. It turned Diaw's acclimation period -- generally a season or so -- into just a few months of regular season hacking. The benefit of shared chemistry is often underrated, and it's going to help Augustin acclimate earlier. The problem comes in the playoffs -- Augustin's playoff record is much worse than most comparable guards, and I don't think it's based on nothing. Augustin is 6'0" -- much shorter than Reggie, even -- with the wingspan of a tyrannosaurus rex. A lot of people point to Augustin's incredible performance in Game 2 of last year's first round series between Chicago and Washington as an example of how Augustin can be effective in the playoffs. Indeed, it was a good night -- he scored 25 points and dished 7 dimes in a 40 minute gem.

One tiny problem: he bageled the last 6 minutes of the game, as Trevor Ariza was able to utterly shut him down and win the game for Washington. Another tiny problem: that game is by far the best playoff game of Augustin's career, and the only particularly good game among them to boot. Augustin shot 11-for-50 from the floor in the other four games of last year's CHI/WAS series, and had 17 assists in the other four games combined. In his best playoff run ever (IND, 2013) Indiana played monstrously worse with Augustin on the court, he shot a TS% of 57%, and his only good series came against a New York Knicks team that had collapsed into itself like an ouroboros one round prior. His 2010 playoff performance in Charlotte is too ghastly to discuss heavily -- he shot 33% from three and 27% from two, and that's about all we need to say about that. If the player is tenacious enough with good enough instincts and a quick enough release (see: Avery Bradley), an undersized player can have a big impact in playoff basketball. But Augustin's prior performance (and lack of mitigating factors for his ills) worries me. It's just markedly easier for defenders to guard players like Augustin in the playoffs, and it's shown in his results. Compound that with his careless defense? If Augustin is playing serious rotation minutes in the playoffs, the Thunder may be in a bit of a pickle.

• • •

And finally, the three point shooters, Singler and Novak.

AARON: Honestly, out of all their acquisitions, these two are the most likable to me. While I readily admit that neither will move the needle in the playoffs, Novak and Singler are the kind of warm body three point marksmen that can inflate regular season win totals. Singler in particular is a decent pickup, an NBA player that can make threes and... well... OK, that's pretty much it. When trying to describe the deadline moves to a casual NBA fan around the water cooler, the only description I could come up with for Singler was "well, Kyle Singler is an NBA player." His status as an NBA player is perhaps the only real distinguishing feature about his game -- his passing is mediocre and his rebounding is relatively anemic. And try not to focus too much on the defense. But he'll shoot open threes and that's about all you need alongside players like Durant and Westbrook in the regular season. As for Novak, he's like Matt Bonner -- he'll win you a game or two when the pace is quick and the opposing teams aren't fully invested, but his shot release is slower than molasses compared to most of the quick-trigger playoff-ready floor spacers. He's not going to make any impact in the playoffs, if he plays at all. But OKC needs to get to the playoffs before they worry about their impact, so I suppose I'm OK with this one -- he'll help them pad the score on bad teams and avoid bad losses.

JACOB: Novak isn't going to play a meaningful minute in the playoffs, and not many more than that in the regular season. Anthony Morrow doesn't get nearly enough minutes as it is, and he's actually a well-rounded NBA player on top of being an elite shooter. If Novak sees a single meaningful minute when Morrow could justifiably be on the floor instead, I'll eat my hat. Singler is a little more interesting. He can't guard anybody, but he's got decent size and he can play the 3 while contributing a measurable NBA skill, which is more than OKC had previously to back up KD. Like Aaron said, he's not going to move the needle in the playoffs. But I'm becoming more and more concerned over the status of Durant's foot, and I get the feeling it's going to be more and more important to have these guys who can spell him time while not being complete non-contributors on the floor. Right now it's Waiters (too small, but for the record, someone I've liked in his time as a Thunder) and Jones (too vague), so Singler will be of some help there.

• • •

Starting to get the sense neither of you liked their pickups that much. Having said all that, what are the positives of today's trade? Try really hard, guys!

JACOB: I've softened on it some as the day has gone on. It now seems that Lopez's representatives had indicated to Presti he had no intent to resign in OKC, so if that's true, I can't bemoan the choice of Kanter over the Nets' offer. The major positive for OKC is that Reggie Jackson has left the building, and the difference was immediately apparent in the Thunder's chemistry against the Mavs. I can't recall Russell and KD ever being so vocal about their distaste for a (now former) teammate, and it seems likely that a weight has been lifted off the locker room's collective shoulders. So the major positive is Reggie Jackson is no longer haunting Chesapeake Arena like some dire spectre of Iago.

It's less that there's a laundry list of complaints for me to voice over the pickups, and more that I'm not sure there's a ton more surefire positives than that. Augustin is likely to be a liability in the playoffs, but probably not worse than the alternative (Ish Smith). Singler will spot KD some minutes, but his defense (and KD's likely increase in minutes) will likely also limit his usefulness in meaningful games. Enes Kanter is a big man whose offense is chained to the paint and who can't play defense in a Western conference filled with bruising offensive big men. He's replacing the team's most effective weapon against those big men. To top it off, his role, and his happiness with it, is a huge question mark going forward. Like I said, it's not that I think this was a bad trade overall, or even that it wasn't a very good haul for a guy who was out the door anyway. I'm just not sure I agree with the popular assessment that this is some huge coup for Oklahoma City. The popular assertion that the Thunder have finally added depth is technically true, I'm just not sure it's going to be meaningful depth.

AARON: You pretty much nailed it. In terms of a simple asset-for-asset swap, this was a really good set of trades for Oklahoma City. Kanter is more talented than Perk in a vacuum. Augustin/Singler/Novak is more useful than Reggie in a vacuum. I'm worried about the non-vacuum portion of the equation, here, but it can't be denied that this is a talent upgrade. They're essentially making a bet that Scott Brooks and his coaching staff can mold Enes Kanter's defense better than Tyrone Corbin and Quin Snyder did. That's not a terrible bet -- Corbin's player development has been notably deficient and Quin Snyder didn't have much time. They also finally added the three point marksmen they've been aiming for -- OKC's in a place where they can regularly put out lineups where 4/5 players on the floor can drain threes. That's going to improve the looks Adams and Kanter get, which should help their offense develop better. And if Lopez wasn't going to re-sign, this may end up a much better trade than the proposed Lopez trade.

• • •

FINAL GRADE

JACOB: A cautious, non-committal B+.

AARON: Honestly? I give it a C+. Asset-wise, it was a great get. I can see why Twitter went nuts over it. But Presti has always taken special care to build his teams with well-aligned character, talents, and fit. I don't know if any of the pieces he acquired will move the needle from a playoff perspective, and I fear that Kanter's acquisition represents a no-win move for Oklahoma City. The point I made earlier bears repeating. If Kanter plays well, they have to max him out and pay him more than they paid Jackson, crippling their opportunity to improve the team in the 2015 offseason. If he doesn't play well, they traded away defense for ill-fitting offense and may be forced Adams to play 36 minutes a night to maintain a playoff caliber defense. Compound that with Augustin's huge playoff struggles and the paucity of minutes available for Singler/Novak, and I'm just not sure what the endgame is here. I'd be much happier with it if they'd kept Perkins, and that's something I literally never thought I'd ever say.

• • •

What do you think about yesterday's huge trades? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Three Quick Fixes for the NBA's All-Star Weekend

The NBA's All-Star Weekend gets a lot of flak. It's widely seen as boring, and the no-defense, dunk-heavy stylings of the players go a long way to explain the popular conception that NBA players don't play defense. If the only NBA game you made a point to watch was the All-Star Game, you'd be excused for thinking the NBA was a no-defense league. And make no mistake: a lot of people watch it. Via Sports Media Watch and TVByTheNumbers, here are the NBA's All-Star-Game viewers from 1990 to 2014:

All-Star Ratings, 1990-2014

I've also attached the viewership totals for All-Star Saturday (AKA, the night of the Dunk Contest, the Three Point Challenge, and the Taco Bell Skills Challenge) from 2002 to 2014. While the NBA's All-Star Game pales in comparison to other sports' (and has been in ratings purgatory since the early aughts), part of the league's value proposition for All-Star Weekend has long been an extra night of top-rated coverage that draws millions of viewers and massive interest. It's hard to beat both the dunk contest and the critically acclaimed Taco Bell Skills Challenge in one night.

Surprisingly, the viewership of All-Star Saturday has actually increased in recent years, despite the negative coverage "the Other All-Star Night" sometimes receives. Massive fan interest in 2011 (Blake Griffin's Kia vintage) led to the NBA's highest-rated All-Star Saturday in league history, only a notch below the All-Star Game proper. Even though Saturday's festivities have suffered decreased viewership for four straight years, All-Star Saturday still shows markedly higher ratings than the mid-2000s.

All this to say that the NBA's All-Star Weekend isn't doing quite as badly as you'd think when you read blistering thinkpieces blasting the league or talking the weekend up as an unmitigated disaster. Granted, there's certainly a lot of room to criticize the league's All-Star Game -- the NBA All-Star Game lags significantly behind both the MLB and NFL's versions, despite that the NBA is starting to solidify its status as the second most popular sport in Americawith the NBA Finals regularly outpacing the World Series and regular-season NBA games doubling up the ratings of regular-season MLB games. The NBA is doing fine on an overall basis. Audiences are interested enough for the NBA's All-Star game to thrive, and the weekend's demise has been oversold. 
Even so, the NBA could do significantly better. I'm sure of it.

To that end, my mother used to tell me that I shouldn't say anything at all if I've got nothing nice to say. Fittingly, I've put together a few weird (but nice!) suggestions for the NBA that could potentially improve their All-Star festivities and add a bit of intrigue to the game itself.

• • •

LET COUSINS PLAY! ... for the east?! (USATSI)

1. TAKE INJURY REPLACEMENTS FROM THE OPPOSITE CONFERENCE

This is my most controversial suggestion. I don't think anyone has suggested it before. (If so, please email me a link and I'll add it here!) But if I'm Don Quixote, this is my most beloved All-Star windmill. I think it would add a really fun dynamic to the game, ensure a higher effort level as a whole, and give (some) players something to play for. The general idea here is that instead of simply taking the next player down in the individual conference, the commissioner should replace the injured player with a player from the opposite conference.

When selecting all-star reserves, the coaches select the all-stars from their respective conference. Playing on the opposite team ensures that the injury replacement player is playing against the coaches that snubbed him and players who were taken over him. Which could really be a sight to behold. A player with a hyper-competitive edge with a nationally-televised shot at his most immediate professional demons? Isn't that the exact dynamic you want to foster? Remember how DeMarcus Cousins barely avoided a second consecutive snub this year? Last year, he responded to his snub by (correctly) saying that he was "flat done wrong" and decrying the bias of the coaches who snubbed him. When he suits up in the All-Star game this year, he'll be standing alongside players who Western coaches said were his betters. If he was suiting up for the East, I imagine he'd be hellbent on making the players who got selected ahead of him know how much of a mistake that was. Maybe he'd play actual defense in the game (gasp!) or take advantage of the lax defense and set a new scoring record.

I do know that it would be fantastically entertaining, though, and an easy way to make sure at least 1 or 2 players a year are gunning for the other team. It would add at least a tiny amount of intrigue, which is exactly what the game needs. And I imagine this could work both ways -- with Cousins gunning for them, wouldn't the West's frontcourt staples (Gasol, Duncan, Durant, etc) want to prove they deserved their spot in the face of his strong challenge? It could raise the play of the game as a whole, and give the players something to play for without tying legitimate season accomplishments to all-star achievements (like the MLB's kooky system where the conference that wins the all-star game gets HCA in the playoffs). Maybe it wouldn't play out that way. Getting Duncan to give a damn about the game might be literally impossible. But isn't it worth a shot?

There's one big downside here. Look at this season -- the NBA had to replace three players in the West (LMA, Davis, and Griffin) and one player in the East (Wade). That could lead to three Eastern players on the Western team and one Western player on the Eastern team. Given the surplus of valuable players in the West and the relative dearth in the East (at least this year), that could be a little controversial. But remember that all-star injuries are essentially random. Here are the injury counts by conference over the last 10 years, with the "more injured" conference bolded:

  • 2015: WEST 3, EAST 1
  • 2014: WEST 1, EAST 0
  • 2013: WEST 0, EAST 1
  • 2012: WEST 0, EAST 1
  • 2011: WEST 1, EAST 0
  • 2010: WEST 3, EAST 1
  • 2009: WEST 0, EAST 2
  • 2008: WEST 0, EAST 3
  • 2007: WEST 4, EAST 1
  • 2006: WEST 0, EAST 1

Overall, that's 12 injuries in the West and 11 injuries in the East. Over time, this stuff evens out. We might have a few years like this year, where getting a pissed off DeMarcus on the Eastern squad is contrasted with the West getting a pissed off... uh... Brandon Knight, Kyle Korver, and Nikola Vucevic? (Which, let's be honest, might still make the game a little more interesting. There are storylines with all three of those guys. Knight would likely be gunning for the East's better-reputed guards, Korver would have to play AGAINST the coach and team he's killing it for, and Vucevic's game might flourish in a no-defense setting like the ASG.)

Just think -- had this idea been adopted in prior years, the 2013 All-Star Game would've featured Stephen Freaking Curry (one of the most egregious snubs of the last decade) replacing the "actual" replacement of Brook Lopez for the Eastern Conference. THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN AWESOME! The 2012 game would've likely featured a pissed-off Kyle Lowry in place of Rajon Rondo, previewing his all-star selection this season and his offseason move across borders. Do I still need to convince you, or are you with me yet?

• • •

"AND BILL SIMMONS HEADS DOWN THE GUTTER! WHAT HAVE WE HERE!"

2. LET THE STARTERS CALL ALL-STAR SATURDAY

There are two main problems with the NBA's All-Star festivities. The first (and most obvious) is that the players don't care all that much. This gets the most press, because it's the most egregious problem with the game. But there's an issue here -- NBA players care a hell of a lot more about the ASG than the NFL's guys care about the Pro Bowl, and they care only slightly less than the MLB's guys care about their All-Star Game. It's hard to game player interest to be higher than it already is without resorting to gimmickry that influences the actual season. The suggestion above might mitigate it a little bit, but there's no panacea that's going to immediately make NBA players give a damn.

It's a hard problem to solve. The other problem with the NBA's All-Star festivities is similar, but it's got an easier solution. Year after year, game after game... the commentating is just freaking awful. Shaq mumbles around and joylessly mocks the proceedings, Reggie Miller spouts the same infuriating rhetoric that makes him a must-avoid announcer for any given regular season game, and the usually-spry combo of Kenny and Ernie quickly become stale and uninterested in the year-after-year rehash of things they've called for years and years. So, how does one deal with an announcing crew that clearly doesn't want to be on stage?

Simple. Do what the Heat did every time the Spurs went on a run in 2013: bring in The Starters

I'm a long-time fan of The Basketball Jones, and although I haven't been quite as locked in on their NBATV sponsored Starters conversion as I was on their TBJ work, they're still producing phenomenal work. Imagine it. Leigh Ellis commentating the Three-Point contest with callbacks to his VHS tapes of the Tom Chambers game. Trey Kerby announcing the dunk contest with Brad Miller and Yams. Tas Melas doing play-by-play of the celebrity game like his old Rounders recap segments. J.E. Skeets doing postgame interviews with all related participants. If you aren't familiar with them, you might wonder how this would improve the game. I entreat you -- watch a few episodes. You'll see a collective group that excels at operating in tiny crevices of absurdity.

See, when the TNT crew covers All-Star Saturday, they generally add levity by emphasizing how useless everything is. They don't treat things seriously. It makes sense -- it ISN'T serious. They're clearly having a blast themselves, but their general disinterest in the proceedings seeps through and makes their coverage drab and boring. While it can be fun and funny, TNT's levity is of the "disinterested/apathetic" brand, their enjoyment being related to how useless things are and how little their commentary matters. I don't think that's the attitude The Starters would bring to the table. In their show, they add levity by embracing the ridiculous and putting due diligence into questions and ideas that are silly to the core. Part of what's made them so successful is their insistence on quality and devotion to minutiae and tiny details, even when the subject of such devoted detailing is silly or strange (great example). A group with their talents and chemistry would be the perfect shepherds for All-Star Saturday, a fundamentally ridiculous event that nonetheless requires hosts that care.

Their work on All-Star Weekend has always been top-notch -- it's time to let them take the event itself to the next level.

• • •

Montrezl Harrell dunkin' all over them fools.

3. ADD NCAA (AND FOREIGN?) PLAYERS TO ALL-STAR SATURDAY EVENTS

Another weird idea, made doubly weird by the fact that some of the participants might end up missing conference games. You might need to add a financial incentive to have them participate, which could get legally messy and turn this into a logistical nightmare given the NCAA's desire to shield their employees student-athletes from all manner of compensation. But, if the NBA could navigate the paperwork and get some buy-in from the NCAA, this could actually work. Promise!

Think of it this way. One of the biggest complaints from fairweather NBA fans are the unrecognizable faces they see on All-Star Saturday. The most widely-watched Saturday ever happened because Blake Griffin chose to do the dunk contest. But LeBron James is never going to do a dunk contest. Kevin Durant's three point contests are only going to happen early in his career, and good luck getting Kobe to waste minutes and energy on the relatively useless all-star events. The NBA's tactic has generally been to make the best of what they have and run through deserving players until they finally reach a handful that accept the invitation. Rinse, cycle, repeat. That leads to experiments like Jeremy Evans and James White in the contest -- they're good at their craft, but if they sputter out like White did last year without really impressing the audience, you've wasted a spot on someone that nobody's tuning in for.

If you're the NBA, you aren't going to get superstars in their prime who are competing for titles. You aren't going to get superstars in their aging years who are watching their legs. You can't rely on getting young players like Blake Griffin to actually enter the contest. And they've proven completely unable to entice young underheralded stars to participate in the weekend's tertiary activities. So... why not poach some college players? The NCAA's ratings are similar to the NBA's, but they skew more southern, and they skew a bit younger. It's a different audience altogether. Highlighting college players would bring that entirely new group into the All-Star Saturday audience, and add a few young prospects who would get a chance to show off their talents and personality with NBA teams and agents abound. I'd primarily expect them to participate in the dunk contest and the three point contests, and there certainly aren't a lack of options.

For the dunk contest, I'd be happy with any of Sam Thompson (Ohio State), J. P. Tokoto (UNC), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Jahlil Okafor (Duke), or Branden Dawson (Michigan State) -- all of them are players from big-name schools with a dunk contest skillset, with Harrell/Okafor projected as first round picks. For the three point contest, it would give college players a few shots at the NBA three point line and potentially increase their exposure/draft slot if they completely nailed it. Imagine Quinn Cook fighting to prove he has NBA range. Or, alternatively, imagine Doug McDermott in last year's three point competition, competing in the event while he was the best player in college basketball rather than a bench-buried guy who casual fans haven't heard about since the draft. When you're subbing out marginal NBA players for uninterested all-stars (Joe Johnson in last year's three-point-contest comes to mind, or Tony Parker in the Skills Challenge ever), I don't really see the downside in letting All-Star Weekend give young players their first taste for the league. Given how much of a party All-Star weekend is, they might even get excited for it!

There's the obvious issue of getting the NCAA to agree to it -- that's a problem, and could prove regrettably difficult. The NCAA has a nasty habit of placing a few high-profile games in direct competition with the NBA's All-Star game, and they probably aren't particularly interested in changing that. (As an example, of the top 25 teams in the AP rankings, 24 of them will be playing on Saturday or Sunday. Notre Dame is the only top 25 team that doesn't play this weekend. The All-Star game will be competing with a #7 Arizona game and All-Star Saturday will compete with #4 Duke vs Syracuse, #3 Gonzaga vs Pepperdine, and #6 Villanova at #18 Butler.) None of the big names I named above would've been able to participate this year without missing a game or some schedule gymnastics. But if the NBA can identify one or two possible targets in the NCAA's preseason when they're building out the schedule, the NCAA could likely adjust accordingly -- after all, it's not that it's impossible for the NCAA to give a few teams a weekend off.

Given the Jeckll and Hyde combative/loving relationship between the NBA and the NCAA, it's hard to see this happening. But it doesn't mean I can't dream it. While I don't mind highlighting some of the NBA's more obscure weirdos (Bonner in the three point contest! JaVale in the dunk contest! THESE THINGS WERE FUN!), I can't think of a single person who cared to see Joe Johnson half-ass last year's three point contest. Or Gerald Green's (no offense, Gerald!) pitiful dunk effort last year. Or anyone doing the skills challenge. Using those spots as a way to showcase incoming players sounds like a far better use. And it opens the door to (eventually) adding a new event to the weekend where the NBA's worst team faces off against the #1 ranked college team, finally solving those water cooler arguments NBA/NCAA fans once and for all.

... alright, yeah, that probably won't happen. But a man can dream.

• • •

Disagree with me on any of these? I'm sure you do! Leave thoughts in the comments.

NOTE: Unofficial idea #4: they could bring back HORSE, but have J.R. Smith and Nick Young face off. It's a cute idea, but I don't know if I want to live in a world where Kevin Durant isn't holding this trophy.

The Rodeo Road Trip: a History of San Antonio's Yearly Jaunt

A photograph that is surely coming from the future.

In 2003, the San Antonio Spurs moved from the centrally-located downtown Alamodome to the AT&T Center firmly nestled in San Antonio's east side, in Bexar County. There were a number of positives that came with the move -- the AT&T Center is a much more modern arena, and it was (for the most part!) built for basketball. The cheap seats at AT&T are a bit better than the cheap nosebleeds in the Alamodome, and the concessions/amenities are vastly improved. There was, of course, one small tic the Spurs had to accept when moving into the AT&T Center. They had to accept the fact that they'd be effectively evicted from their home during the month of February on a yearly basis, as the AT&T Center was partially built to serve as an all-time landing spot for the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Without a home to roam on, the Spurs agreed indefinitely to roll out for a February road trip that would take San Antonio all over the U.S.A.

That was in 2013. Twelve years later, the road trip has firmly wedged its way into the Spurs mythos. Famously, San Antonio has yet to experience a losing rodeo road trip. Coach Popovich and the players regularly imply that the trip itself serves as a bonding experience that brings the team together and starts building the relationships they'll need in the playoffs. Spurs fans look at the trip as a litmus test for the team's season, and opposing fans watch with curiosity to see if the Spurs are finally creaking. Dan McCarney wrote a nice history of the trip a few years back -- with the benefit of two more years of trips, I compiled the statistics wrote a nice little reference going over them. Let's take a look back at 12 years of San Antonio's rodeo travels.

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TEAMS SAN ANTONIO FACED: RRT 03-15

To start, I looked up team records and differentials for the teams San Antonio faced on their rodeo road trips. I looked these up right when the trip started, so that 2015 would be comparable to the rest of them. The W/L columns are (obviously) the collective win/loss records of every team San Antonio faced on the trip as of day #1 of the trip, and the average differential averages all their point differentials on that same day. Mileage is a rough estimate (via Google Maps, with some help from Dan McCarney's piece above) of how many miles the Spurs had to travel for the trip. The "playoff teams" column sums up how many of their road trip opponents would've been playoff teams. The last column, "best team", outlines the best team they played on that year's trip (considering each team's rating and record at the time the trip began). The coloring of that column indicates whether they won or lost that game. (So, the Spurs currently own a 7-5 record against the reigning "best team faced" among all RRT teams. Neat!)

For those wondering about how this year's trip stacks up, it's pretty high up there. The Spurs will be facing the hardest trip by point differential they've ever taken, with 5/9 teams currently playoff teams and 2 more possible playoff teams in Indiana and Detroit. The main thing that makes this year's trip so challenging is just how good the good teams are. The Warriors, Blazers, Raptors, and Clippers should all be reasonably favored against the Spurs going into the trip, and Phoenix is a push given that it comes on a back-to-back. The Spurs have four games that should be gimmes (DET, IND, UTA, SAC), but all the tough ones are very tough. And clever readers might notice that they've already lost to 3 of those 4 gimmes this season, which makes it hard to count any of those teams out.

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Spurs RRT history

Next up, I collected data on what the Spurs themselves looked like going into each year's trip. From that, I was able to calculate expected W/L profiles and differentials for each year using point margin at the onset of the trip as well as an adjustment for home court. I also counted the number of back to backs and added an underperformed/overperformed column that measures whether the Spurs undershot my projection or overshot my projection. (Note: in that column, "P" stands for "push", indicating a year where they underperformed in differential or record but overperformed in the other). Via my projections, the Spurs underperformed five years and overperformed five years, with a push in two years. So, they undershot as often as they overshot, meaning my expectations are (likely) calibrated correctly.

One of the big takeaways you can make from this table? When you adjust for the quality of their opponent, the Spurs were actually favored in a surprisingly large number of Rodeo Road Trip games. If you sum the expected record column, the Spurs have an expected record of 75-25 over the 11 trips they've completed to date. Their actual record is a hair under that, at 71-29. This may seem odd at first glance -- NBA teams are traditionally much worse on the road, with home court advantage worth roughly 3 points a night. Historically, road teams have won roughly 40% of their games in the last decade (although that number has fallen in recent years).

Ergo, it's odd at first glance to think that San Antonio's expected record on these trips is a 75% win percentage. Right? Not quite. That simplification ignores the obvious. The Spurs simply aren't a random road team. Their lowest point differential at the time of the trip was +3.3 in 2009. That +3.3 isn't really that bad -- even their lowest year was still remarkably high for the NBA as a whole:

Margin of Victory for all NBA teams in the last 12 years

A point differential of +3.3 is low for the Spurs, but it's still a top-percentile team -- among every full-season point differential in the last 12 years, +3.3 is still in the 73rd percentile. That means it's better than almost 75% of all NBA teams that have plied their trade since the Spurs moved into the Alamodome. Even when the Spurs are bad, they aren't THAT bad. Hence their historical performance on the Rodeo Road Trip -- even if you give all the road teams their a home court advantage of +3 points a night (slightly higher than the actuality in many cases), the Spurs are still favored in a remarkable number of their road trip contests because they were consistently outclassing the competition.

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Some errata and miscellany I found interesting while digging for this post:

  • The Spurs have faced a lot of different teams on the Rodeo trip, but there are a few teams it faces far more often than others. The Spurs have faced the Nets and Pistons on eight road trips apiece and they've faced Toronto and Portland on seven apiece. Personally, this weirds me out -- Portland is one of the toughest road trips in the NBA, and I have legitimately no idea why the NBA's scheduling gods like to add that so often. The team-by-team list of who the Spurs have faced (with W/L records) is here, with teams from this year's trip highlighted:

Rodeo Road Trip All-Time Records

  • There are a few other interesting nuggets from the previous chart. The Spurs only have a losing record against two teams in the history of the Rodeo Road Trip -- Miami (1-2) and Philadelphia (1-3). Ironically, of those games against Philadelphia, the one win came against a team that (at the time) looked like the best Philadelphia team since their title winning eighties days -- the 2012 Sixers that started the season on fire and led the league in point differential up until the season's midway point. The Spurs are undefeated on the Rodeo trip against SAC, LAC, IND, NOP, CHA, MEM, and HOU -- seven whole NBA teams!
  • There are three teams that the Spurs have never faced on any of their rodeo road trips -- the Dallas Mavericks, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Atlanta Hawks. Eagle eyed readers will also note that they've never faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on a Rodeo trip -- every trip to that franchise happened when they were in Seattle.
  • As expected, the Spurs play worse when they face back to back games on their rodeo trips. The Spurs have gone 12-9 on back to back games across all Rodeo Road Trips, with a point differential of +0.7 in those 21 games. However, going by point differential alone, the Spurs would have been expected to go 14-7 with a differential of +3.4. So they lost two wins and underperformed even in the wins they got. It's worth noting, though, that there is one massive outlier value there -- in 2012, the Spurs punctuated an (at the time) 7-0 road trip with one of the worst defeats in franchise history, a 40 point blasting at the Rose Garden. If you take out the 40 point disappointment, the Spurs went 12-8 with a differential of +2.7, which is far less out of line with the expectation.
  • After 12 years of trips, there are a lot of pretty great wins to choose from. Three of them were particularly absurd:
    • 2013: The 38-11 Spurs were one point dogs against the 34-16 Clippers. They won by 26 points.
    • 2010: The 27-19 Spurs were four point dogs against the 33-15 Nuggets. They won by 19 points.
    • 2012: The 16-9 Spurs were nine point dogs against the 17-7 Sixers. They won by 10 points.
  • Conversely, there are also a lot of baffling losses. Their three worst losses, expectation-wise:
    • 2012: The 16-9 Spurs were five point dogs against the 14-10 Blazers. They lost by 40 points.
    • 2007: The 31-14 Spurs were nine point favorites against the 19-25 Heat. They lost by 15 points.
    • 2011: The 40-7 Spurs were four point favorites against the 25-22 Blazers. They lost by 13 points.
  • In their title years, the Spurs have overachieved once, underachieved twice, and pushed (worse record, better differential) once. So, no -- there's no obvious connection between success on their rodeo trip and playoff success.

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Have a question? Ask it in the comments below! I'll update this post with more data if there are interesting lines of inquiry.