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The Outlet 3.18: Should Karl Go? (and: Oklahoma City's Chances)

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Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? We've consistently discovered there's no way for us to do that every night, but with the capsules done and Aaron back in the saddle as a more active managing editor, we're hoping that we can bring the feature back as a weekly Wednesday post. Sometimes Friday, like today. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • DEN/GSW: Should Karl Go? (by Aaron McGuire)
  • OKC/HOU: The Thunder Will Beat The Rockets (by Alex Dewey)

Read on after the jump.

• • •

DEN/GSW: Should Karl Go?
Aaron McGuire

Most people slept on it a bit, but Scott Brooks had a really good playoff performance last year. In the first round, he arguably outcoached -- even relative to his team's hilarious talent advantage -- Rick Carlisle as his Thunder swept the Mavericks. He had a bit of a disappointing second round, with L.A. being essentially "in" 3 out of the 5 game of the series despite having a markedly inferior team due partly to Brooks' poor adjustments and generally odd strategies. But then... THEN, things got real. He proceeded to completely outcoach Gregg Popovich over the course of a six game series, making excellent adjustments and memorably forcing San Antonio to take a taste of its own medicine. Ball movement, ball pressure, expert closeouts, et cetera. He got his team to play an entirely different way in the Western Conference Finals. That's coaching, and he aced what essentially amounted to a four game PhD thesis to beat Gregg Popovich into the ground. He was riding a high of good-will heading into the finals, having put together his best string of coaching performances yet.

... only to fall flat on his face and completely irrevocably bungle a winnable finals series. He played Perkins too much. He played Fisher too much. He didn't put Westbrook or Durant in a position to succeed. His offense completely lacked the creativity displayed in the Western Conference Finals and his defense was easily schemed. To an equal and opposite extent to which the first few rounds gave his backers hope, the Finals gave his critics ammunition. "You need a better coach, Sam Presti. You need to stop relying on Scott Brooks to become something he isn't. You need a coach that puts his players in a position to succeed, not a coach that puts his players in a position to fail embarrassingly when the chips are down." Et cetera, et cetera. And the drumbeat of voices calling for a change in command grew ever-louder, and the cavalcade of mockery that fell when Presti resigned Brooks to a new three-year deal was all-encompassing.

This brings me to my actual subject of this particular post -- George Karl, and where his fate should stand in the aftermath of a series that saw a generally-more-talented Denver team lose to the upstart Golden State Warriors. Karl made several high profile mistakes in this series. Like Brooks in the finals, he seemed to be the only man in the room (with the possible additional exception of Andre Miller) who didn't realize that putting the wizened Andre Miller on Stephen Curry made Curry's threes about as easy to convert as layups. Like Brooks, his high-regarded regular season offense stalled in their series loss, although Brooks' offense stalled against one of the better defensive teams in the league, whereas Karl's offense stalled against a permissive unit that not a soul would confuse with a merry Memphis grindhouse throwback. The thing that I keep coming back to, though? With both Karl and Brooks?

Align the timing differently, and both coaches would be praised to high heavens. For instance, imagine if the Spurs had pulled out game five, lost game six, then won a narrow contest in game seven. Imagine of Scott Brooks' season had ended in the Western Conference Finals. Would anyone watching have anything other than positive-regard for the man? His extension wouldn't just be a no brainer, it'd be a must -- this is a man who very nearly outcoached the greatest coach in the game today, after all! If the disappointment against Miami doesn't happen, Brooks is scot-free. And he's free to continue being -- generally -- a so-so to poor coach for a team that does legitimately need a better tactician. All because of a single series.

As for the Nuggets, it's worth noting that they finished just one game out of second place in the West -- if they'd won their matchup against the Spurs in the late season, San Antonio faces the Warriors in the first round and the Nuggets face the Lakers. Given L.A.'s injury issues and general inability to cover a faster team, it's hard to imagine a world where this Denver team doesn't win in 5-6 games -- perhaps they even sweep it. And if the Nuggets swept the first round, every single Karl critic calling for his head gets silenced -- it doesn't much matter what they do in the second round against the SAS/GSW winner, it "proves" Karl's system can succeed in the playoffs.

Net and net? My point is thus. A single series is a completely terrible barometer for a coach. You have to assess a coach by his entire career, his creativity, and his ability to react to trouble in his roster on a wholescale level. George Karl has shown that he deserves the benefit of the doubt for all these things -- Scott Brooks has shown the opposite. Having obscenely high visions for Brooks after last year's WCF was silly. He isn't that kind of coach, even if Presti wishes he would be. And the people watching know that (especially with his flaws being hammered home in this year's first round.) Conversely, making rash judgments about Karl thanks to one terrible series is absurd. He makes the team better, and a few poor decisions that didn't pan out don't make him useless.

• • •

OKC/HOU: The Thunder Will Beat The Rockets
Alex Dewey

It's ridiculous to suggest the Rockets have a greater-than-50% chance of doing something that literally no one has ever done. There's no way the Rockets have a greater than 50% chance of winning first home at Toyota and then winning a Game 7 on the road. That's insane. And it's not true. It's insulting to the Thunder's great season to suggest that losing 2 games in a row is more probable than winning 1 of the two. It's not true, and it's insulting.

But... is there something a little less insulting? Because Houston's chance of pulling off an upset that would make the world quake with chaos is surely higher than zero. In conditional probability, gamblers and actuaries alike have to adjust our odds constantly to the world-at-large surprising us. It's ridiculous to suggest a team down 0-3 has a really solid chance of winning four in a row, short, say, of the 3-0 team trading LeBron James with the 0-3 team for present-day Muggsy Bogues, who must play every minute at every game, at center, before Game 4. Or the 3-0 team having to play literally 5v4 against the 0-3 team.

That would probably do it.

But there's something a little less absurd about the feat if you condition on what has happened since. Even without the Westbrook injury, which hangs in the air of every attempt to analyze this series.

Let's look at the present moment: the Rockets have won two straight, one at home, one on the road. Just like they have to in order to win the series. So they've done exactly what they will need to do already. They just have to repeat the feat. And, what's more, it looked remotely sustainable. The Thunder crowd couldn't rile up their dispirited team. The Rockets fed off of the crowd both at home and on the road. Omer Asik hit some free throws. Harden has struggled, and the Rockets have actually picked up the slack. The Thunder's offense seems eerily similar to the Lakers' attack against the Spurs in the other bracket of the West; 1-4-5 because it's the only offense they can run. (Granted, the Lakers had worse and fewer shooters, and Durant is a transformational offensive player. They aren't missing their best stopper Thabo Sefolosha, and Derek Fisher is much more valuable than Antawn Jamison in any game that matters at this point, which is pretty strange to type. Kevin Martin needs one excellent game to completely change the texture of this series, and by "completely change the texture of" I mean "win handily")

But the Rockets just look better, for what it's worth.  It's not a 50% chance to win both games for the Rockets, but couldn't you make the case that it's pretty close to (or even better than) a coin flip for the Rockets in either game, individually? I think the Rockets are a better team than the Thunder right now, without any sort of irony. James Harden has not been outplaying Kevin Durant in this series, even at Harden's best. KD is playing at a transformational level, at least in the sense that he is almost singlehandedly the Thunder's offense (with an assist by Ibaka), and it's somehow not the worst offense in the history of the league, even though the Rockets are hurting him at the rim and from 3, he's making his bones at the line, and he's not exactly flopping to get there. A couple rip throughs and exaggerations a game don't explain 33.6 points, put it that way.

But Ibaka and Durant against Asik at the rim? So far I'd say (considering their relative importance) Asik has got their number, at least at the rim, at least when the Rockets don't need a secondary rim defender to slide over. Chandler Parsons, a quick and crafty scorer, against the pump-faking Ibaka and the slow-footed Perkins? That's almost unfair. Francisco Garcia has been checking Durant admirably, and not just in the "you tried hard, son." sense. Kevin McHale is having his guys play his and their game, and Scott Brooks and the Thunder look lost in the wake of Westbrook, in terms of offense obviously, in terms of defense subtly, but most of all in terms of energy. Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher may have their skills (and obviously, for all his flaws no one can sleep on Fisher), but neither is deadly or especially menacing in any position on a basketball court. They just get open, and sometimes they hit it. And never having a deadly guard has a subtle price for the Thunder: The Rockets can afford to rest their attention and minds and bodies a bit when they aren't on offense. This allows them to play more frenetically on offense, it allows them to play a much more cerebral style in passing lanes. And it allows Omer Asik to have an extra full step that is all such a brilliant defender needs to get all the space he needs to be a deadly shot-blocker and contester. Asik doesn't need to step up on offense at this point, and neither does Garcia. And so the Rockets can essentially commit all their energy to precisely their best efforts. That's the real price of the matchup -- nobody on the Thunder can play his game, and nobody on the Rockets can fail to play his game.

Here's a thought experiment. Even if the Thunder would probably win 53 games without Westbrook and the Rockets would still win 45? I'm starting to think that the slack that Westbrook took up is potentially as valuable as the buckets that KD picks up, and those 8 games of difference are more a product of talent and experience rather than of sustainable playoff production. Westbrook takes shots with abandon, and yes, it's a frustrating prodigality, but the missing point here is that Westbrook only wastes possessions after creating them with abandon. The Thunder's futile attempts to pick up the slack for Westbrook suddenly makes him seem like the most irreplaceable player in the league, an ironic vindication of the Harden trade. If not a bit depressing for Thunder fans.

To put the most rudimentary numbers to the situation: When teams are evenly matched on a neutral court, it's a 50-50 battle. Say it's 60-40 for the home team, again, when the teams are evenly matched. So call it 24% for the Rockets, round up to 25%. So no, it's not 50% that they win both games. But, gosh, a couple coin flips? Doesn't that sound just about right?

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Aaron McGuire
Editor in Chief at Gothic Ginobili
Aaron McGuire works as the lead mathematician and CTO for a small financial consulting firm in Richmond, VA. As a basketball writer, he's primarily known for Gothic Ginobili's 2012 Player Capsule series, where he wrote the equivalent of 1.5 Russian novels about every NBA player around. Nowadays, he writes a weekly column on whatever he damn well feels like.

One thought on “The Outlet 3.18: Should Karl Go? (and: Oklahoma City's Chances)

  1. you guys write great articles. Thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful. What more could a fan ask for, other than more.

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