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

dirk colorful hat

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

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

Let's get to it.

• • •

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

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

• • •

boris the magic diaw

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

• • •

Darren Collison, right now.

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

• • •

kyrie approaches

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

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

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

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

stan van gundy

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

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

Let's get to it.

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

pat riley heat

Story #2: PAT RILEY BALANCING ON THE ABYSS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Story #3: INJURIES! THOSE FREAKING INJURIES!

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

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

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

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

patty patty oi oi

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

confetti spurs

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

THE MIRTHFUL

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

manu celebrates

THE STRANGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

THE DILIGENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

parker grin

• • •

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

Do try to enjoy the quiet before the storm.

2014 NBA Finals: What's the WORST possible story?

green and lebron

As part of our coverage of the 2014 NBA Finals, we're going to have an every-few-days check in with Aaron, Alex, and Jacob regarding various questions and quibbles with the Finals as it plays out. Today, we're going to give you a strange reprieve from the usual preview schtick with a "preview" of the world's worst upcoming stories. No, really. Let me explain...

Just about every single blog and writer has gone hard in the paint to bring you the best storylines and things-to-watch in this year’s Finals. Most of them are really awesome, and some of them are terrible! Friends: what storyline in the NBA Finals promises to be the single most annoying and unnecessary thread we nonetheless devote unseemly amounts of our focus to? What are your top few things-to-avoid-watching? Note: storyline does not have to exist, it merely needs to have the POTENTIAL to exist.

Aaron McGuire

AARON: This one actually happened last year, and it was one of the least substantial NBA stories I’d seen in a while. After the 2013 Finals, Danny Green happened to stop by the club that LeBron was celebrating in and gave him a dap and a handshake before leaving. TMZ (or some related rag) happened upon photographs of it, which led to a number of articles about how Danny Green was a failed Spur and how TRUE rivals wouldn’t be able to give the opposing superstar dap at a club after he’d beaten them for a hard-fought title.

You know what? SHUT THE HELL UP. Danny Green started his career in Cleveland, and he was friends for LeBron for a long time before he was a Spur. So it isn’t exactly some betrayal in the first degree that he felt the need to congratulate a friend of his. The worst part, though, was that the pictures were presented completely out of context and the stories assumed that Green had been seeking LeBron out. According to Green’s later statements, he was just going around from club to club trying to get his mind off the Finals. He happened to find LeBron. He left as soon as he realized LeBron was there, even though LeBron invited him to join the Heat players. In essence, he did exactly what the media would expect of a bitter sports rival – he refused hanging out with his old friend because of residual rivalry fury.

But the pictures were taken out of context and became a stupid big story. I imagine something similar is going to happen this year. Because it happens every year. Don’t know what, don’t know when. Maybe LeBron will be caught flipping off Duncan as a joke. Maybe Parker will be caught making eyes at a Heat cheerleader. But some completely innocuous action is going to get snapped or taken wildly out of context to create a stupid sideshow story that distracts from the awesome series at hand. Alternatively, some quote will be taken completely out of context, like the infamous Jennings “Bucks in Six” comment last year or the “We’ll do it this time” bravado from Duncan this year.

Avoid watching the tabloids. It’s never a good idea.

writer1

ALEX: Ooh. How about one of the most irritating tropes in recent memory, and one that doesn't dog just the Finals but every game the Spurs play. It's sort of a logical counterpart to the "LeBron just needs to take over [take and make 100% of available field goal attempts]" nonsense. It's the idea that ball movement, as practiced by the Spurs and Heat, is fundamentally unselfish and virtuous.

Maybe this is just something that only bothers me--a Spurs fan deigning to choose the exact lines of praise my team receives--but this always strikes me as a basic misapprehension of the sport. It's not always even altogether wrong, but it elides so many complexities as to be practically useless except as ambient noise. Passing as Manu Ginobili or LeBron does is phenomenally difficult. It may be easy to "just find the open man" in, like, a scrimmage, but almost by definition the situation changes the moment competition on a professional level is introduced. Most players in the human population just simply don't have the on-court intelligence or skill or athleticism to dribble all the way to the rim--if someone is in that rarefied air, it takes a kind of genius to be able to get there and then decide between the options you've created in a way that's consistently right even when defenders have been watching your previous choices for signs of exploitable weaknesses. Everything Manu or Boris or Tim does with passing is a potential masterstroke built on years of experience and an unteachable genius with angles and space. The way the Heat find space and surgically swing the ball around the perimeter is awesome and creative. But it's not built on virtue, and I genuinely believe it's not built on virtue even a little bit. No matter how personally caring and understanding these players may be, the dominant factor that determines the success or failure of their style is their unbelievable level of skill to create those kinds of plays, a skill plenty of teams identified as "selfish" would love to have.

And then, there's the slanderous converse of the narrative, even worse to these eyes. Prime example: The Thunder don't have an iso-heavy offense because they lack for virtue, emblematized by Russell Westbrook's evil shot-taking. Rather, it's their personnel. They can get away with several defensive non-scorers on the floor while still putting up a top-5 offense year after year, in part because the very same "selfish" Westbrook is able to selflessly carry that kind of burden. When the Thunder have sought out offensive lineups, why, it's remarkable the gain in virtue and unselfish, Secret-Santa-esque passing lanes! Reggie Jackson must be a saint, I tell you. Seriously, most teams do precisely what they have to do to win, including the Heat and Spurs. And scores of great players on both kinds of teams, whether the versatile two-way anchor of some of the best offenses and defenses of recent memory or the born scoring prodigy from an adjacent state, seem to me personally selfless enough for anyone's tastes. Durant and Duncan give the lie totally to that dichotomy.

The two offenses on display in these Finals are beautiful and a testament to the sport of Naismith. Let's not tarnish these offenses by reducing their brilliant geneses to ordinary virtue.

writer3

JACOB: This is a little more of a hot sports take type of thing, but I do mean it with all sincerity. Thus far it's been mostly overshadowed (and rightfully so) by the imminent drama of two Hall of Fame trios facing off to seize their respective basketball destinies, but were the Heat to seize control of this series, I anticipate the likely continuation of a running story-line 3 years overused: The Heat's triumph over struggles and strife. Look, I'm tired of hearing about the Heat's struggles. All of them. I'm tired of the over-dramatization of what they've "had to go through" and the mental gymnastics fans and the media have collectively performed to justify their slavish treatment of this team.

Seriously, what have the Miami Heat had to go through?

This story-line cropped up a few months ago, when LeBron responded to the Indiana's befuddling internal struggles with dismissal, implying it was nothing compared to what he and the Heat had suffered. Talking heads and the commentariat roundly cheered his response. "Yeah! Suck it up, listen to a real man!" was the implied sentiment towards the Pacers. But seriously, hold the phone. What have the Miami Heat had to suffer through? Wasn't the reason we all turned on them in the first place that they colluded to unite three Hall of Fame players in their prime? Weren't we insulted that they did so with reckless bravado, and responded to their ensuing domination with somewhat of a sneer of dismissal, because of course they were supposed to do that? Wasn't the extent of the suffering they had to go through the exact same kind of media criticism faced by the Pacers -- that is, almost completely self-inflicted? Correct me if I'm missing anything about the post-Decision media dynamics, and explain to me the difference between the two situations (beyond the obvious fact that LeBron speaks with the benefit of hindsight and the "RINGZZZ" that retroactively "justify" his decision).

Sometime during the 2012 Playoffs, while the Heat struggled gamely with a young Pacers team and an overachieving Celtics team playing on borrowed time, everyone seemed to talk themselves into this collective absurdity that everything said of the Heat before the Boston series was no longer true. Because Bosh was injured for a couple of games and Wade was no longer "Finals MVP" Wade, LeBron had done what he never could in Cleveland and dragged an inferior supporting cast past elite competition, won on the biggest stage, and triumphed over adversity. At some point we all talked ourselves into believing that because Chris Bosh's counting stats have fallen off, he's not a player still in his prime who proved himself as one of the best forwards in the league in Toronto. We point to Dwyane Wade not playing half the season as evidence he's basically replacement level (an argument I've heard made unironically by quite a few fans), rather than evidence that he'll be all the more dangerous come the big moments in the playoffs.

The Heat are a team with four Hall of Famers, minimum, playing a majority of the minutes in a system where they can all maximize their roles and unique specialties. They receive unabated adulation from the media. They're an elite team that plays in a largely noncompetitive conference, in one of the most one-sided eras of conference imbalance in modern league history. We all pretended that their jog to the much-lauded Fourth Consecutive NBA Finals wasn't by default because of the Pacers, but it's been clear to everyone since April that the Pacers were as much a perfunctory effort as any other Eastern conference opposition the Heat might face. "Overcoming struggle" never should have been a legitimate part of this team's identity, were it not for the media tripping all over itself to prostrate itself in apology for its overreaction to the Decision.

Don't get me wrong, the Heat have won these past two Finals fair and square (some good fortune in Game 6 last year aside). But in both cases against opponents who've had to overcome far worse in their journey to the same destination, and neither of whom could have ever afforded to "coast" the way the Heat can through large swaths of their regular season, much less the playoffs.

So yeah, I'm already tired of hearing about the Heat reaching the Finals four times in a row, the "first since the Celtics" and all that. To me, that's a laudable achievement when you've come by it honest, through legitimate competition and strife. But the Miami Heat have yet to suffer any pre-Finals drama that wasn't almost entirely self-inflicted. No team in the Eastern Conference during this run has been good enough to make Miami sweat when Miami isn't playing down to their competition. They still have had multiple game sevens and multiple incomprehensible embarrassments. Their fourth consecutive Finals is more circumstance than anything else, a byproduct of the period of competitiveness in NBA history they happen to play in. It's an accomplishment, but I'm not sure it's quite as incredible as it's been made out to be.

If anything, this talk of a fourth Finals in a row should give us some pause, and lead us to reflect on how screwed up the NBA conferences are that one of these Finals teams only had to beat one team that even would've made the other conference's playoffs in order to reach that much-exalted fourth Finals.

writer1

ALEX: I agree. But I would argue that the overzealous, tracks-covering narrative of triumph over adversity is as old as politics (and perhaps sport) itself. How tall was Goliath, really? How impossible was Thermopylae, really? How many of the great obstacles of history are completely apocryphal and how many legends were only half-legends carried by canny myth-makers eager to build up a legend? And how many actual legends were either forgotten by history or folded into generic legendary figures that were the most convenient or politically advantageous to ascribe those legends to?

Glory is so much determined by how it is framed by history's storytellers that, for me, it's hard to even talk about a supposedly glorious victory in battle without also picturing the glory-seeking PR reps and politicians walking astride the battle, looking for the best photo-op. The real story will always either be lost or fought to the bitter end. Because that's how the story goes, and it works. It's poignant. It's inspiring. It makes good copy.

My point is that it didn't start with the Miami Heat. Even in the NBA. Bill Russell was perhaps the best and surest winner in the history of North American sports, but the Celtics were cheaters. The legendary parquet floor had dangerous nails sticking up and broken boards, strategically placed. That floor had potholes upon potholes, and that famous steal by Bird on Isiah was probably preceded by an unseen bottle thrown by a Boston fan at Thomas, temporarily blinding Isiah from his right field of vision. I'm exaggerating, but not by much: the locker room dirty tricks by Red Auerbach were legendary, and that's after you account for the Celtics being essentially 20 years ahead of everyone else, on and off the court.

Michael Jordan, despite being the greatest player of all time, made up all sorts of adversity for himself. The Spurs feasted on incompetent management across the league and ridiculously advanced scouting and development (and, above all else, completely lucked out with Robinson and Duncan -- would the Spurs be the Spurs if they'd picked a 1997-era Anthony Bennett instead of Tim Duncan? NO!); the Thunder -- even with excellent scouting -- still hit the jackpot with Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Harden; and the Heat and Pacers had Pat Riley and Larry Bird, two of the smartest, savviest folks in the history of the league. And let's not even get into how Showtime and the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics were born.

All this to say that you can make the argument that no great team has ever been in a position of pure adversity. Sports is never like a flat playing field - a large proportion (maybe even a majority) of victories were concocted out of good fortune. Athletes and media, always needing fuel for their next journey, endorse any narrative that makes the hero the uber-hero. That always means exaggerating the triumph and downplaying the fortune. Miami went 7 games against Indiana, Boston, and San Antonio -- they played their worst possible hands and risked elimination time and again, and they still emerged victorious. Ergo, the fact that they loaded the deck with 12 aces didn't matter. Not that much.

If you turn your eyes askew, The Decision was as much a stacking of potential humiliations upon themselves as it was a stacking of potential championships. The East's decline made it several times easier, to be sure. But, on the other side of the coin, imagine if they'd lost to Indiana or Boston. They'd be pariahs of the league, and LeBron would not just be hated by some; he'd be utterly derided. Laughed out the gym. They placed themselves on the cusp of ultimate vulnerability and emerged as champions. And that's just truth-feely enough to put into copy as an ultimate narrative of triumph.

It all circles around, though. It IS the most annoying narrative. When you break it down, they made the easiest path in the world to their great accomplishment, and then they made it rocky only with hubris and unlikable pomp and underperformance, and then they "heroically" overcame that rockiness. And they got some absurd breaks their way. That really isn't the most inspiring narrative in the world. But most real narratives about real people aren't, even legitimate legends, the moment you cast a critical eye.

When Knowledge Isn't Power (2014 NBA Finals Preview)

Here it goes. When the final four teams were locked down -- when the field had been whittled to the Thunder, the Spurs, the Heat, and the Pacers -- this was the match-up that Adam Silver probably wanted. Last year's finals were one of the highest rated since Jordan, and it got better as it went along -- Game 7's Nielsen score is second only to 2010's LAL/BOS Game 7 among post-Jordan NBA games. The Thunder are a fantastic story too, and a Heat/Thunder matchup probably would've had a similarly rated performance. But the potential for a grudge match rematch between the two teams that played one of the best NBA Finals series in the history of the league is undeniably exciting, and the Heat-chasing-a-threepeat angle is historically compelling. As Chris Bosh said in practice yesterday -- "Thursday is game #8." And it's #8 of the best series we've seen in decades. What's not to like?

But it's odd. There's a lot of history between these two teams now. The Spurs and the Heat have played 10 games in the last 12 months, and they're likely about to play 6 or 7 more. Both teams are similar to what they were last year, if not exactly the same. There's a lot of data to go on, and a lot of signals to read. The Spurs have been shutting down superstar offensive players in preparation for LeBron. The Heat have been filleting decent-to-great defenses for three rounds now with their precision offense. We know quite a bit more than we usually do in the run-up to the Finals. So... we should know roughly what's going to happen, right?

In theory, yep. But very few people are entirely sure how to handicap this series.

I'm afraid I'm not one of them.

• • •

Why am I so confused? Why is it so hard to prognosticate this?

Most people are excited about this series. I am too. But there was a smaller contingent of fans on Twitter that run against the grain. Despite last year's tour-de-force in the Finals, they weren't particularly excited to see this matchup. Their general point, in a word? There's nothing NEW here. A repeat of a phenomenal Finals is still a repeat. We don't get to think about what Kevin Durant does in a Harden-free finals environment. We don't get to whet our curiosities with Chris Paul's first deep run. We don't get to vomit into trashcans at the prospect of one more round of Indiana's misery.

Instead, we have the gift of reprise. The experiential comfort of the road once-traveled. But that gift is a nice way to spin a curse -- doomed to revisit, rethink, relive. Doomed to rehash the same tired storylines, over and over again. Spurs fans have spent the last 12 months reliving Ray Allen's three. They get two weeks to relive it in real-time, sure to be referenced in every single broadcast by the ESPN on ABC crew. The rest of the NBA has spent two months hearing about how the Heat and the Spurs are the model franchises, the NBA's golden ne'er-do-wrongs. Regardless of how the Finals plays out, fans will continue to hear that for yet another year. Because they're on top, and they're the NBA's class right now. Neither team features Lance Stephenson. It's not gonna go down like that. But some can't exactly shake the feeling that it's just a little bit TOO familiar. Too comfortable. Too tired. Fun statistic: there have been 15 editions of the NBA's championship series since 1999. Every single one of them has featured Duncan, Wade, or Kobe. Not a majority. Every single one. Isn't that a little trite? 

It all leaves the NBA's scribes (and the poor hobbyists like yours truly) scrambling to find some original angle. "The Spurs will need to run the baseline second stage quasi-hammer HORNS play off a scissor screen mirrored across the court twenty times with a side of fries if they want to score off the 17th inbound of the series." ... "For the Heat to win, it is essential that Rashard Lewis makes 3 shots in the series with only two of those being dunks. He also needs to defend Boris Diaw when Diaw puts his back to the basket, but if he shuffles his feet, the shuffle must be akin to the Electric Slide or else Diaw will score off a scoop layup with an ice cream cone." ... "Neither team can win the game if they don't reach this completely arbitrary sequence of statistics I've invented solely for the purposes of this easily-forgotten preview." We scrape and we pry and we squeeze for the last drops of narrative sustenance. We seek that smart silver bullet that solves the intractable equation of sport-borne randomness.

Which is basically all a run-around to avoid the fact that, for once, more data doesn't really mean we know much more than we did entering last year's Finals. Last year, we knew very little -- the Spurs and the Heat hadn't played a fully healthy matchup since 2011, and nobody really knew exactly what to expect. Some people figured the Heat would roll San Antonio. Others expected the opposite. Instead, what we got was a series where the momentum shifted tectonically with each individual game, and a series whose result offered an elegant proof of concept to the thought that NBA history can often hinge on a single high-leverage random event. The Spurs had a 98.5% chance of winning game six with 28 seconds left in the contest. They still lost it all. Did they lose it on Mike Miller's shoeless three? Did they lose it on Battier's massive one? LeBron's life raft? Or was it all that single bounce, that one unforgettable pass to history's greatest three point shooter?

Hell if I know. But I do know one thing. Last year's Finals shook my faith in the idea that the NBA can really be predicted. I came back around, and I'm back to believing in the confidence of my predictions. But I'm also having a monstrous time trying to handicap this particular series. Because we've been here before. And the stark probabilities and vagaries of the data didn't seem to mean much then, either.

• • •

Here's what we know.

The Heat can win the title. They feature the best basketball player in the world, a right-outside-his-athletic-prime LeBron James whose dominance spreads to all facets of the court. He can kill you on the block, he can kill you from three, he can turn his team to chalk, he can kill with lockdown D. (Much like my ability to kill you with terrible rhymes. Dewey, drop the beat!) He's a Swiss Army Knife with a beretta in the hilt, a force of nature more than an individual man. He's playing at his Cleveland team-dominant best. (And he needs it, given his cast right now, but that's for later.) Dwyane Wade is healthier than he was last year, and he's been better from long range this year than he was last year. San Antonio's success against a Miami team that was markedly better than they were last year was partly a function of Wade's inability to hit long range shots when the Spurs sagged off of him. It looks unlikely that will maintain to this year, not with his health and rest looking so much better than before. Which ups their chances significantly.

As for the team-centric thoughts, those are also simple. The Heat had an impressively easy road to the Finals, and they're as well-rested as they can possibly be. Their offense has blitzed through a decent Charlotte defense in Round #1 and a best-in-class Pacers defense in the conference finals. They know full well they can win in San Antonio, and the only reason the Spurs won a single game in Miami last year was a miracle-beyond-miracle shot by Tony Parker. Their bench is concerning, but it's hardly the end of the world -- Miami's starters can go longer than San Antonio's, and it looks likely they will. Even if their defense hasn't been great, it hasn't really needed to be. Their defense can kick it up to another level of swarming, blitzing brilliance. They'll have a shot to close it out in 6 games at home, something the Spurs didn't have last year. Cut no corners -- the Heat are an incredible team. They can do this.

Of course, the Spurs can win the title too. Even with Tony Parker's status questionable, it's worth reminding that Tony Parker was balky last year and -- by the end of the series -- essentially playing on one leg. He shot 26% on shots outside the paint in last year's Finals (... which includes the Game #1 prayer!), even though the Heat would occasionally sag off him to cover San Antonio's three point shooters. Parker's a much better shooter than he played like last year, and that gave Miami's defense a shot in the arm it needed to reach another level. As long as Parker can suit up, the Spurs should be roughly as good as last year. Kawhi Leonard's defense took a small step forward this year, and he took a decent stride in the right direction on offense. Tim Duncan looks exactly the same as last year (if not a tiny bit better, in a few important ways), and Manu Ginobili's renaissance is similar to Wade's on Miami's side -- Ginobili simply looks like he can hit shots this year he couldn't have possibly sniffed last year. He's worlds healthier, and the team as a whole looks spry and ready-to-play (with Parker's exception). It's a marked change from the usual injury-peppered Spurs team you see entering a series.

As for the broader context, the Spurs have much to like. The Spurs have run roughshod over an incredible gauntlet of Western teams. They're prepared for a dogfight, and they've brought the big guns. The Heat are worse in just about every statistical metric, and the Spurs have improved. They've tinkered with last year's formula and made a version ever-so-slightly superior, with better defense and better offense than they had last year and a team that's rolling to an incredible extent. Last year's Heat won 27 straight games and finished 7 games ahead of San Antonio -- this year's Spurs won 19 straight, finishing 8 games ahead of Miami. The script is sufficiently flipped. San Antonio has home court this time. Even though Miami has the best player in the series, an argument can be made that the Spurs have yet to face a team without one or two players better than all their guys in this year's playoffs. Dirk, Aldridge, Durant, Westbrook. It didn't matter, because the Spurs had an entire lineup of guys that were better than each of those teams' full lineups. And Kawhi Leonard's defense bridged the rest of that gap. If a team could possibly be ready to face LeBron James, it's the Spurs -- they have Kawhi, Boris, and the playbook to match him. The Spurs are hungry. They're determined to wash away last year's bad memories. Like the Heat, they can do this.

• • •

So, those are our potentialities. Summarized and hardly exhaustive, but potentialities all the same. I don't know which circumstances will rise above the others. I don't know which intangibles will prove decisive. Nobody does, and that make prognostication difficult. And potentially embarrassing. In 2013, you could boil the entire series down -- somewhat hilariously -- to the fact that Popovich defends late game threes with Diaw instead of Duncan. Usually, that's an impressively minor fact of life about Pop's coaching. The 2013 Finals hinged on an incredibly minor artifact of an all-time coach's playbook. A tiny speck of X's and O's minutiae doomed to eternal irrelevance were it not for that one pesky possession. Will this Finals be the same? I wonder. I can't stop wondering.

Will Miami's habit of forcing aggressive double teams lead to a wealth of open San Antonio shots in the cacophony of the AT&T center, unfairly dooming their aggressive traps to the dustbin of history? Will Kawhi's hawking of passing lanes lead to constant foul trouble against a tandem as good at contact-drawing as LeBron and Wade, unfairly dooming Kawhi's 2014 defensive season to a punchline in a single few-game sample? Will Marco Bellinelli's astonishingly terrible pick up lines throw LeBron off his game, fairly leading to a heel turn for Marco as Subway's new sponsor? Will James Jones break out his Darth Vader voice in crunch time, scaring the ball away from the basket on a clutch Manu Ginobili three, revealing himself to be a robot voiced by James Earl Jones?

I could see the Spurs win it quickly. They're statistically better to a vast extent, and they match up well with Miami. I could see the Heat win it quickly, overwhelming San Antonio with their well-rested length and a heaping helping of LeBron's magic. It could be exactly like last year -- a momentum-shifting war of attrition between two amazing teams. It could be quick, it could be long. It could hinge on a single play, it could be a lopsided sweep that reveals last season's classic as a quirky aberration. I see a vast expanse of possibility stretched out before us. We know more than usual, but the knowledge comes from a base so muddled and random and uncertain that it makes us even more cautious than we would be without it.

But I must pick something, so I'll pick with the heart.

Spurs in seven. Game eight is Thursday.

• • •

A Game of Loans: Three Theories on Cleveland's #1 Pick

cavs win lottery

"The Cleveland Cavaliers won the most recent NBA Draft Lottery." If you picked a date at random from the 1463 days in between the 2011 NBA draft and the 2015 NBA draft, there's a 75.7% chance that the previous statement would be accurate. The Cavaliers -- those oft-maligned miscreants -- have won three of the past four lotteries, netting them a franchise point guard (Kyrie Irving), a franchise centerpiece (Jor-El Embiid or Ender Wiggins), and the best nickname of the 2013 NBA draft (Anthony "Tubs" Bennett). They've won it three times despite repeated assertions that they were gunning for a playoff spot in literally every year since LeBron left.

No, really. Am I the only person who remembers this? It was obviously unrealistic from a retrospective point of view, but in 2011 Gilbert and his front office were insistent up until late December that the 2011 Cavaliers could make the playoffs led by Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. They underestimated the defensive dropoff in letting Brown walk, but there was a tiny grain of reason in their expectations. In 2012, the expectations weren't super high, but Kyrie and Varejao looked like two possible all-stars in a terrible east, which made a preseason expectation of playoff basketball not-entirely-unrealistic either. In 2013, they added Waiters to the mix and had two rookies poised to make big sophomore leaps in Thompson and Irving, which looked like an eastern playoff team in the preseason. Whoops. And we don't even need to bring up their expectations in 2014, do we?

Most of this is just a result of playing in a dismal eastern conference where shiftless and half-awake basketball is generally enough to secure a top-5 playoff seed. Were they in the Western conference, I don't think Gilbert or the front office could've sold any of the fanbase on slim playoff hopes. But some of this actually made a small deal of sense. Kyrie Irving's best season to date has been his rookie year -- he's stagnated in tiny ways since then, never quite developing the way his previous trajectory implied. (Not that he's bad, just not-quite-as-good.) Anderson Varejao's injury bingo has completely undermined his beautiful defensive game. The supporting cast hasn't just been bad, they've been borderline criminal -- even when the Cavs can put together a decent-by-Eastern-standards group of starters (2013, 2014) the bench has been so grotesque that they STILL can't help but get blown out by any other half-competent team. And when injuries strike? They're a joke.

So, long story short, they keep entering the lottery year-in and year-out, despite fielding a ton of top-tier talent and high-upside rookies. And they usually have a decent chance at a high pick, too. So it isn't totally unreasonable. But, I mean, cripes. It's still pretty unreasonable. Three out of four years? This hasn't ever happened before! It's so deliciously improbable that there HAS to be some incredible conspiracy theory that explains it. Right? This morning, I have decided to outline the three most likely conspiracies that are behind this rampant favoritism towards Cleveland from Stern and Silver. Don your tin-foil caps and follow me to a world of subterfuge and deceit. It's Clarissa Explains it All, only if Clarissa was inordinately concerned with NBA lottery conspiracies. Hooray!

• • •

CONSPIRACY #1: QUICKEN LOANS REFINANCED THE NBA HQ

Okay, bear with me here. Outside of basketball, owner Dan Gilbert is famous for his primary business venture -- founding Quicken Loans, the largest online mortgage lender in the United States. Quicken Loans used to have a somewhat squeaky clean image, mostly by dint of their quick ascent from a minor player in the industry into a ridiculous powerhouse over the last 15 years. Fun fact -- Gilbert founded the company in 1985 under a different name, then sold it in 1999 for about $500 million dollars to the company that sells the eponymous Quickbooks/Quicken tax software. Then, less than 3 years later, he and a group of investors inexplicably managed to repurchase the loans subsidiary for just $64 million dollars.

Nope, not a typo. You read that right. Gilbert and his investors effectively bought back something they sold for $500 million dollars for $64 million less than 3 years later. Investments are so much cooler when you're filthy rich! As with all financial transactions, it is easiest to visualize how hilarious this is with Pokemon cards. Let's say you traded your holographic Charizard to a friend of yours for his entire deck of cards. Three weeks later, you decide you want Charizard back, so you trade your friend a bent Voltorb and a ripped Nidoking. They happily return your Charizard, allowing you to keep everything they originally traded the Charizard for. Isn't that awesome? That's what happened to Dan Gilbert. But I'm getting off track. The point is, Quicken Loans only started experiencing major success in the mid-2000s, around the time of the financial crisis.

Their main claim to fame is that they were able to not only stay afloat but aggressively expand their market share during the crisis, something Gilbert attributes to their can-do attitude and special culture. Others have a slightly different take on the matter, with lawsuits claiming that they used their small stature and internet-base to dodge regulations, which is (the lawsuits imply) much more responsible for their expansion than any sort of cultural version of M.J.'s Secret Stuff. If the accusations are true, Quicken Loans was (and perhaps remains) one of America's big-time predatory lenders, a company that sells numerous lemon loans to elderly people in high-pressure situations and made it a regular business practice to inflate customer interest rates and use false appraisals when hashing out loan terms.

I don't know whether the accusations are true or not. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. But assuming they are, what's the operative clause in the previous paragraph? Lemon loans sold to elderly people, of course! What if part of Dan Gilbert's purchase of the Cavaliers back in 2005 included refinancing on the mortgage of the NBA's New York headquarters? If Quicken Loans is used to suckering old dudes, David Stern's 2005 incarnation was pretty elderly. The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't have their own pick in the 2005 NBA draft, so it wouldn't have been obvious that year. And they made the playoffs every year from 2006 to 2010, which made it impossible for any lottery-based stipulations in the loan to rear their head during that duration. But after LeBron left and the franchise collapsed, Gilbert and the QuickCabal (... still workshopping this one, bear with me) came to Stern and pointed out the following TOTALLY REAL clause in the terms on the NBA's mortgage refinance that TOTALLY EXISTS:

74. The provisions of this Article 74 shall govern all Commissioners of the NBA.

(a) Whensoever the Cleveland Cavaliers, owned by Daniel "The Hammer" Gilbert, are to be found in the draft lottery, a special odds-boosting algorithm shall be employed. The exact mechanisms of this algorithm are at the NBA Commissioner's discretion, so long as they are bound and governed by the following provision: in THREE (3) out of every FOUR (4) lotteries in which the Cleveland Cavaliers are receiving lottery odds, the Cleveland Cavaliers must win the first pick in the NBA draft. This is applicable even in cases of busts, fraud, murder, Low Winter Sun marathons, and the drafting of entire contracts in the "Comic Sans" typeface. Furthermore, the Commissioner is bound and obligated to read Twitter's response to each lottery win, staring vacantly as the NBA's greatest fans balk in confusion and woe over this downright incomprehensible gesture."

Gilbert, you slithering snake.

• • •

captain planet

CONSPIRACY #2: CANADIAN CAPTAIN PLANET

This one is my favorite, even if doesn't actually make sense. Or possibly exist. It's like my version of reptilians. Captain Planet was an environmentalist cartoon from the 90s. The basic premise was that five kids had rings that allowed them to tap into the Earth's core five elements: Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! ... Heart? (Yeah, I don't think they ever really explained that one.) When they acted apart, they could control their respective element through their ring of power. When they worked as a team, and put all their elements together, they could summon this strange chrome man with the powers of all their rings, along with the additional power to tell 10-20 bad puns per second.

Actually, wait. Hold on a second. I don't think combining their powers into Captain Planet actually increased their ring abilities at all. They could've done what he did just by working together. In fact, I distinctly remember that his only weakness was pollution, which is exactly what they faced in every single episode. Hey, but... wait... then why did they ever summon him at all? What was the point? "Hey, polluters! We're going to combine all our powers to create ONE person who's weak to your crap, instead of FIVE people who are! And we can't use our rings while he's around, which makes us all completely useless! Take that, nerds!" I'm not entirely sure that the premise of Captain Planet made any sense whatsoever. Huh. How about that.

Anyway. Captain Planet and the five kids were tasked with defending the Earth from polluters and drugs and all sorts of things that are Bad For Kids (TM). In this conspiracy theory, Captain Planet doesn't exist, because he's silly and a cartoon. Instead, there's a CAPTAIN CANADA.

Yeah, that's right. CAPTAIN CANADA is entering your world. He'll never leave it.

Remember how Captain Planet combined five elements to form the core of his powers? Captain Canada combines five too: maple syrup, poutine, public nudity, the NHL, and Quebec. His mission? To seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no -- ... I mean, to spread Canadian values and smiles all over the world. Obviously. What does this have to do with the NBA draft? Simple. The Cavaliers already have Tristan Thompson, Canada's #1 basketball son. When the Cavaliers chose Thompson back in 2011, Captain Canada put the Cavs on his radar -- he realized that he finally had an NBA team to slowly turn into Canada's 2nd national team! Ever since, he's sneakily tried to push all the Canadian players he could Cleveland's way.

And he's succeeding! In 2013, he was scared that they'd pass Bennett over for someone else, so he snuck into their minds and made Bennett their top choice before giving them the #1 pick to ensure that nobody else messed it up. In 2014, he realized that the only way to ensure Wiggins made it to Cleveland was to rig the #1 pick for Cleveland and slowly release false information about Embiid's injury. His next task? Get the Spurs to trade Cory Joseph to the Cavaliers, and have the Cavs flip some of their tertiary pieces for Andrew Nicholson from Orlando. At that point, Cleveland will be able to put out an all-Canada lineup of Cory Joseph, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Nicholson, and Tristen Thompson.

That... oh my god, wait, that's a terrible lineup. Captain Canada, what have you done.

• • •

CONSPIRACY #3: SILVER ACTUALLY WANTS TO ELIMINATE THE LOTTERY

By the standards of conspiracies, this one is pretty low-key. It has the conspiracy feature that it actually sounds halfway reasonable if you're willing to set aside disbelief for a second. No, the commissioner doesn't really have the power to rig the lottery, not how it's currently set up. But if he did, wouldn't a three-in-four showing by Cleveland be EXACTLY the kind of ridiculous flawed incentive-rewarding that would put some gas behind serious lottery reform? The media response and the fan response to Cleveland's win was unpredictably vitriolic for me, but for a smart guy like Silver, I'd imagine he had a decent idea of what was about to go down.

The way I looked at it -- taking off my "Cleveland Sports Fan" glasses for a moment -- it was a minor repudiation of tanking. The Cavaliers, failed though they were, actually tried to win this year. And they tried to win last year, too. They were just amazingly bad at it, much like the 2014 Milwaukee Bucks. Chris Grant made some terrible moves and they constantly leveraged their draft picks to pick up rental deals on marginal pieces in pursuit of what would've likely been a 5-6 game pasting at the hands of a solid Indiana squad. They spent the entire season trying to wring as many wins as possible out of a mismatched roster with a not-very-good coaching staff. They probably fell below their true talent, but only just -- the ceiling for this team was probably around 35-36 wins, and they came within a hair of it. They have a lot of dead weight crowding out the marginal talent they've accumulated, and desperately needed a jolt of something to bring them back into the realm of the living. So the argument is that their win isn't THAT bad -- it just pooh-poohs tanking teams and reminds everyone that winning doesn't necessarily torpedo you.

Except that's not what happened. At all. Twitter erupted with all the indignation of a seriously offended Mount Vesuvius when it became obvious the Cavaliers had moved up in the lottery. And when it became obvious that they'd won it again, that indignation turned to righteous volcanic fury. The basic thesis behind this is both simple to understand and a little bit hard to justify. The Cavaliers have gotten every lucky bounce since LeBron left, but mismanagement and general incompetence have kept them mired in a place where they aspire to rank mediocrity. And they fail miserably at actualizing those aspirations, despite it all. It's like watching a child constantly buzz in first on Youth Jeopardy, get all the Daily Doubles, throw all his opponents off their game... and completely mangle the obvious answers every single time, leading to a loss despite it all. It's like watching a born-rich white guy turn their riches to rags.

It marginally challenges the concept of "fairness" and lends new vigor to the anti-tanking movement. If Silver really wants the lottery gone, there aren't many ways to make it look like a farce. Give it to a tanking team, it "works." Give it to a randomly selected good team, and it seems like it's doing its job. But give it to a flailing team with no reasonable explanation for their string of good luck? Give it to an owner who non-Cleveland fans completely despise? That's probably the one way Silver could've gotten this kind of an anti-lottery reaction. As I've said multiple times, I sincerely doubt this is actually what he was doing. But if it was, well... let's not lie to ourselves. He would've done a pretty slick job of it, huh?

First Round Midcap (EAST): Here Come the Wizards!

Joe Johnson attacks the basket. Demar Derozan pretends to care.

A few weeks ago, I put those first round predictions on Twitter. I didn't have the time to do a huge piece explaining all of them, but I figured it made sense to scribe them down and revisit the predictions when reality had rudely awakened me to the dire mortality of my reasoning. Strangely enough, they haven't actually been that bad -- one in particular will haunt me for the rest of my days (... OK, no it won't), but for the most part my original reasoning has proved to be some combination of apt and silly. Given that all seven series currently have two games in the books, I felt like this would be a good time to do some revisiting. Reflect on what we've learned in the first two games, revisit my original thoughts, revise predictions when necessary. All fun things. We have a lot to get to, so let's get to it. Let's start in the east. I'll work my way westward tomorrow.

• • •

INDIANA (1) vs ATLANTA (8) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: INDIANA IN 4

Well... I was wrong about that. Look, I'm all for respecting a team that suffered injury trouble, but let's not overstate things. This Atlanta team won 38 games this year. They were outscored on the season by about half a point a game (... although, come to think of it, two other playoff teams were outscored by more), and they sport roughly two NBA-caliber high rotation players in Millsap and Horford. Jeff Teague is a marginally below league-average point guard and Kyle Korver is an excellent tertiary piece with his silky quick shot. Both of those mean something, but having those two as your 3rd and 4th best players (2nd and 3rd with Horford out) is a really bad look for an NBA team. Their offense and defense are well-designed but not well-executed, for the most part, and they just aren't that hard to gameplan. I figured that nothing Indiana did would override the fact that Atlanta is simply not a good basketball team.

Alright, yeah. I was wrong. Indiana's absurd inflexibility (as expertly noted by Zach Lowe) hurt them when Coach Bud chose to use Antic as a floor-spacing center and play "come-at-me" defense in a way that would reinforce George's worst tendencies. The Hawks romped Atlanta in Game #1 and as the series moves back to Atlanta it's an open question whether the Pacers can get it together and win the road game they need to retake home court. I still think they will, but lord almighty... how do you handicap this Pacers team? If they play to their worst tendencies they will lose to everyone. Literally everyone in America. The Kentucky Wildcats? They upset the Pacers. The Washington Generals? They upset the Pacers. Your little league team? They upset the Pacers. It's ridiculous! How can a team with such a refined command of the crisp grime (like: Memphis!) play like this without any real driving factors? Cripes.

The only thing keeping me from picking Atlanta at this point is that I can't fathom a world where Atlanta is actually a good enough team to beat this Indiana squad. I refuse to believe that's going to happen until I see it happen. Plain and simple. The Antic gimmick is a strong play by Coach Bud, but I have to believe the Pacers won't be quite so befuddled over the course of a long series that they won't be able to gameplan it out. I have at least a little bit of faith in Coach Vogel. Don't let me down, Frank. Still, it won't be a short series -- my guess is 6 or 7 games, simply because the Pacers have been rubbish on the road recently and expecting them to sweep the two games in Atlanta necessary to finish it in five is a fool's errand.

• • •

MIAMI (2) vs CHARLOTTE (7) -- Miami leads 2-0

Original prediction: MIAMI IN 5

It kind of hurt me not to make the original sweep prediction here. I'm pretty sure that this is the worst Miami team of the last four years -- even if we're accounting for the "pedal off the medal" factor, this team just isn't quite as crisp or clean as any of the last three Finals-bound iterations. LeBron isn't slower, but he's lazier. Wade is markedly worse than 2011. Bosh has been a bit of a disappointment this year, too. Not terrible, mind you, but certainly not up to the standards we'd expected. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I expected Bosh to take the reins a bit more as Wade cycled into a late career preservation phase. He hasn't, really, and although his defense has been solid his general game has been a big disappointment for me. He's a max player who's playing like a 12-13 million dollar man. Still a great player, but not quite up to snuff. And outside of the big three, this hodgepodge of declining aged roleplayers doesn't elicit nearly the teeth-gnashing fear of Miami's 2012 or 2013 group.

In sum, it's just really hard to get a feel for this Miami squad. It's a very uneven team, and while they're probably the most likely champion (even now), it's tough to predict them sweeping. So I didn't. But I kind of felt like they would. Even against Charlotte, a team that I've really enjoyed watching. As I noted yesterday, the step the Bobcats took this season has been one of the more heartwarming stories of the year. Their ceiling isn't through the roof or anything, but they're a respectable basketball team that might be even better next year as Clifford's tendrils take root. And I'd give them a puncher's chance at a competitive series against Indiana, Toronto, or Chicago. But Miami is just an absolute nightmare matchup for them. Al Jefferson (especially as balky as he's been) can't dominate against Miami's stout front-line defense in the same way he can against most of the league. Kidd-Gilchrist can't hide on offense against Miami's pressure D, and it's just incredibly hard for Charlotte's cut-based system to find daylight when Miami deigns to play its game.

So, what have we learned? Not a ton, so I'd probably maintain my Heat-in-five thoughts. Yes, Miami won both games, but they just barely won last night's contest and the first game was exceedingly close until the end. This isn't like last year, where Miami roundly obliterated the Bucks in the first two games (by 23 and 12 point margins). Or even the year before, where Miami completely stunted on the New York Knicks (by 33 and 10 point margins). It's more like the 2011 Sixers than anything else in Miami's history, who lost a tight game one contest by 8 points and a more lopsided game two by 21 points. That Sixers team went on to lose in 5 games, which is probably the most likely fate for the Bobcats now that we've got a better sense of where these two teams stand. Miami's too sloppy to sweep these next two games in Charlotte. Right? (Please?)

• • •

TORONTO (3) vs BROOKLYN (6) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: TORONTO IN 5

The way I visualized this series in my head had Toronto dominating Brooklyn on the boards and crushing them in the paint, with Jonas and Lowry and Amir rocking rims and finishing calmly over Brooklyn's not-so-stout interior defense. I didn't really think Brooklyn would be able to fight back from that without some incredible three point shooting and a lot of forced turnovers. And Garnett would need to have a throwback series, obviously. Two games in, and... well... pretty much all of Brooklyn's needs have come to pass, and they've totally outclassed the original matchup issues that I thought would swing the series Toronto's way. To wit, through two games:

  • Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 16-16 on 55% shooting. Beastly numbers. Less beastly: he's turning the ball over on 30% of his possessions, which is astonishingly bad. He's averaging 6 turnovers a game. Bad news bears, kid.
  • Amir Johnson is shooting 75% at the rim, as expected. Unfortunately for Toronto, he's barely ever getting there, as Garnett and Plumlee have done an expert job keeping him off the glass and away from the rim.
  • Kyle Lowry is doing his normal Kyle Lowry thing, averaging 16-7-7 on 13 shots a night. One adjustment Casey might want to consider? Entreating Lowry to do his Kyle Lowry thing on defense, against Joe Johnson this time. Johnson has completely torn the Raptors defense up in the two games to date, mostly matched on Demar DeRozan. Maybe a different look with Lowry could trip him up.

Yikes. It's not a lost cause for Toronto yet -- 1-1 isn't a death knell, and there are certain adjustments the Raptors could do to change the game a bit against Brooklyn's unconventional lineups. But the Raptors clearly don't outclass the Nets as much as I thought they did (if they even do at all), and my five-game gentleman's sweep seems like an extremely unlikely dream right now. I'd still pick Toronto, but after those two games, I'm thinking this series probably goes the distance. On a somewhat unrelated note, it'd be nice if Terrence Ross could do anything. He's made 2-12 shots in 21 minutes a night so far, and he's turned the ball over almost as many times as he's snagged a rebound. Get it together, Ross.

• • •

CHICAGO (4) vs WASHINGTON (5) -- Washington leads 2-0

Original prediction: WASHINGTON IN 6

This was one prediction where quite a few people called foul. But I maintain now what I maintain then -- Nene is a terrible matchup for Noah. Noah is a fantastic defender, but like most great big man defenders, he doesn't operate well when the opposing offense drags him too far from the paint and makes an active effort to force him to guard too much space. A weapon like Nene forces Noah to guard a massive chasm of offensive activity, and it's simply exhausting. Washington has some of the best cutters in the business, too, which makes Nene's matchup difficulty doubly tough for Chicago to wrangle. But the Bulls still have a stout defense -- having one or two interesting offensive quirks like Nene's versatility that can squeeze out a few more points over the course of a game are ridiculously useful, but you don't beat the Bulls on that alone.

No, you beat the Bulls by suffocating their already-stagnant offense to "failed autoerotic asphyxiation" levels. And the Wizards are doing that well -- in spots, at least. Mostly in the second half of games. Noah, Gibson, and Dunleavy are the only Bulls that have gotten anything going offensively, and they're generally carrying the team right now. Due to red-hot starts (or, well, whatever Chicago's approximation of "red hot" can possibly be called), Chicago's offensive rating over the full series (roughly 107 points per 100 possessions) is actually a vast improvement over their season-long 102.5 mark. But that covers up the fact that Washington's stout defense has effectively shut down Chicago over the late period in both games to date. In fact, in Tuesday's win, Chicago went scoreless for almost four minutes of overtime, only able to generate offense when it was essentially too late to matter.

Honestly? I could see Washington pulling it out in 4 or 5, but I've got a suspicion the Bulls are going to win one of these close ones eventually. And on-the-ropes home teams rarely lose game 5 to a roadster. Wizards in 6 still sounds like the most likely scenario for me.

Examining the 2014 season's best Statistical Curios

heat at sixers

curio, n. -- a small and unusual object that is considered interesting or attractive

No, I didn't just misspell "curious." I promise! I'm referring in plural to the singular "curio", the definition of which can be seen above. It's usually used to describe tchotchkes and baubles. In this case, I'm referring to those little statistical factoids that interest the multitude of NBA nerds among us. The general point of the matter is that there are a lot of interesting statistical oddities that we've been person to in a substantially strange 2014 season. Many have gone widely reported (Durant's point streak, Corey Brewer's 50 point explosion, Indiana's collapse). Others haven't. Some of them are more interesting than others, and some of them are especially fun for me. In this post, I'll examine my seven favorite oddities. Let's get to it.

1. No Spur has played over 30 MPG

Let's start by taking a look at their overall minutes chart.

spurs minute chart

This may not surprise you. We all know the drill: the Spurs are known league-wide for their minutes management tactics and their general strategic resting. So why would it be surprising that no Spur has played over 30 MPG? Simple. This is the first time in the history of the NBA that a team has gone without a 30+ MPG player. And not by a close margin, either. There are very few who are even remotely close -- Hubie Brown's 2004 Grizzlies almost did it, with their only 30 MPG player being a 23-year-old Pau Gasol. The 2012 Spurs were similar, with Parker's 32 MPG being their only transgression. But that's it. The actual accomplishment -- arbitrary though it may be -- has only been achieved by these Spurs.

Look, I get it. This is the Spurs! They do this! Except that what they did this season isn't just quirky and strange, it's completely historically unprecedented. Even last year, they had THREE players who averaged over 30 MPG. Portland had five this year. Every other team has a handful. The Spurs may not win the title -- getting out of the West is going to be a hell of a task, regardless of who they face. But in keeping their minutes so equal, the Spurs have grasped a substantially strange accomplishment that makes them the first team ever to even their regular season minutes to this extent. It's pretty impressive, and it lends them historical notoriety as a strange footnote in NBA history.

2. The Clippers Solved Offense

This one isn't quite as historically unprecedented as my last one. Nor is it quite as stark as the Pacers were earlier in the season. Still interesting, though. The league-leading offensive rating the Clippers put up over the whole season (an offensive rating of 112) was bettered by two teams in 2013 (the Heat and the Thunder, respectively, with 112.4 and 112.3) and by virtually every iteration of Steve Nash's Suns. So... how exactly did they "solve" offense? Simple. Very few teams have finished the season with a league-leading offense despite losing key pieces for the majority of the year. The Clippers were able to accomplish it because whenever their full complement of offensive players have played together, the results have been absolutely terrifying.

Check out the top two offensive lineups in the league this year. I'll wait. ... Yep. The two best offensive lineups in the NBA were LAC lineups. And what's more? Other lineups weren't even close. The Paul/Crawford/Barnes/Griffin/Jordan lineup scored at a rate of 117.5 points per 100 possessions. When Crawford wasn't available and they had to use Darren Collison, the same lineup produced at 117 points per 100 possessions. The third place lineup was 4 points per 100 possessions worse on offense, roughly equivalent to the distance between the 3rd place lineup and the 17th place lineup.

Los Angeles has a half-decent defense this year, but don't fool yourself into thinking that the defense is going to drag them to the Finals. If they make the finals, it's going to be because nobody in the league can stop their core lineups from filleting their defense. Plain and simple.

3. Miami went 1-2 against the 76ers

I can't get over how funny this is. Yeah, I know -- they were resting LeBron and Bosh for the last game of the season. Obviously. But Wade still played 23 minutes and Miami's supporting cast isn't THAT bad. In the last game of the season, Miami's obscenely permissive defense allowed the Sixers to shoot 53% (their 3rd best field goal percentage of the season) with an offensive rating of 109.8. It was one of Philadelphia's best games this year. And that's despite Michael Carter-Williams going 3-of-10 in a forgettable 12-6-4 performance.

So, it begs the question. Has a defending champion ever had a losing record against a team that ended the season with a point point differential of -10 or worse? There have been 16 teams in NBA history who have been outscored by the requisite margin. So that gives us 16 champions to look at.

MIA vs PHI hilarious

Oh. Oh wow.

So, the funniest part about this? The 1988 Clippers -- who beat the Lakers once in 6 tries -- only won that game in overtime by a single point. Philadelphia's first game of the 2014 season is the first win by a team that got outscored by 10+ points per game over the course of a season has beaten the NBA's defending champions in regulation... ever. And their two wins against Miami this season doubled the number of wins that their 15 previous counterparts accumulated over FORTY EIGHT previous tries. Seriously. 1-47. That's the total record of sub-10 point margin teams against the defending champs, until now. Am I the only person who can't stop laughing about this? The Heat have as much of a chance as anyone of winning the title, but this factoid has me keeled over.

4. Spurs starters paced the league... on defense, again.

A lot of ink was spilled in the early season about how the Spurs -- despite a decent record -- were underperforming with their "core five" starting unit of Parker-Green-Leonard-Duncan-Splitter. In 2013, the unit was one of the NBA's best, obliterating the league with a league-best defense and a near-best offensive attack. Midway through this current season, results with the their starting lineup were decidedly negative, and savvy Spurs fans were starting to wonder if Duncan's absent shot and Danny Green's initially tepid defensive season had made their core lineup lose its bite.

Of course, then the post all-star break happened. And for the second year in a row, the Spurs have the league's best defensive lineup. Keep in mind that the Pacers spent most of the season with one of the best defenses in league history. And, indeed, they're second. But once Leonard returned to full-form, the Spurs blitzed the league on defense in the second half to such a degree that completely overwrote their poor play in the first half. Pretty excellent result for the Spurs, and -- frankly -- the biggest reason Spurs fans feel better now than they did entering the break.

5. Grizzlies are on-track for a fourth straight OKC/LAC/SAS draw

I have absolutely no idea how I should go about quantifying how weird this is. So I won't. But the Grizzlies have played seven playoff series over the last 4 years -- two in 2011 (vs SAS, OKC), one in 2012 (vs LAC), and three in 2013 (vs LAC, OKC, SAS), and at least one in 2014 (vs OKC). This year, they're starting out vs OKC, and they may well lose that matchup. But am I the only person who's a bit weirded out by the fact that they're on track for a fourth straight year of facing OKC/LAC/SAS, if they make a deep run? If the Grizzlies make the conference finals and the other seedings play out as they'd be projected to, their draw this year would be to start in OKC, play LAC, then play SAS. That would be four years and nine separate playoff series played against just three teams. Every once in a while a franchise gets caught in a trap where they only play a team from a small shortlist, but I can't for the life of me remember a time when a team has the ability to make consecutive conference finals without facing a single new lineup. The last time the Grizzlies played a non-OKC/LAC/SAS team, Pau Gasol was a Grizzly. Just saying.

6. Mike Miller played 82 games, but Ramon Sessions played more!

On first glance, that's not a particularly surprising result. Each NBA season has somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 players who play every single game. But look at Mike Miller's career. He's only played 82 games ONCE before -- his rookie year. He hasn't played more than 60 games since 2009, when he was in his late 20s. He's had back surgeries and medical maladies that would make most people's knees weak. Despite that? He played more games than every single player on the Grizzlies, and would've tied for the league lead... if the league lead was 82. Yes, despite playing every regular season game, Mike Miller did NOT lead the league in games played.

That honor goes to Ramon Sessions, who ended up suiting up for 83 games this season due to his midseason trade to Milwaukee. It's the first time since 2011 that a player has managed to play over 82 games in a single season. Sessions joins a list of 40 players who managed the feat, with five of those coming in the last decade. The all-time leader in single-season games played is Walt Bellamy, who played 88 games in 1969 after being traded from New York to Detroit. My question for cap experts: do players who end up playing extra games due to trades get paid extra for the extra work? It depends on how the NBA distributes their salary, I'm guessing, but where does the money come from? Does their per-game salary just drop slightly after the trade to accommodate the additional games? I tried figuring the answer out myself, but I'm honestly not sure I've found it yet.

 7. Charlotte -- CHARLOTTE! -- made 'the leap'

Credit to Nathan Walker's Twitter feed for bringing this one to mind for me. If there was a most improved team award for the team that improved their efficiency differential the most, the Bobcats would've won it (with a close second place finish from the Phoenix Suns). A lot of people have talked about how impressive Phoenix's rise has been, but I feel like Charlotte's got a bit of a short stick given their Eastern allegiance. But make no mistake -- watching Charlotte this season has been a joy. They haven't been one of the league's best teams, certainly, but they've been exceedingly solid. Respectable. Decent, even! Their offense is simple yet effective, their defense structurally sound though unrefined. Much of this has been attributed to first time coach Steve Clifford, and that's a fair assessment in a lot of ways. His system has been a vast improvement over the puzzling wares of Mike Dunlap,  and they've put together a legitimately competent NBA defense without a surfeit of defensive talent. That takes gusto. But the men on the court are the ones who play the game, and fetishizing improved coaching strategy at the expense of the very real progress made by Charlotte's young guns would be a bit of a mistake.

Kemba Walker has broken out from a marginal journeyman into a legitimate rotation piece, and Gerald Henderson has been a minor steal on his recently resigned meager deal. Michael Kidd Gilchrist is approaching mastery of NBA defense (although his offense is still a bit grotesque) and Josh McRoberts had an unexpectedly strong comeback. Of course, no Charlotte appreciation could be written without an appreciation of the incredible season Al Jefferson's put up. He's been roughly the same as he's always been, offensively, but he's worked within a team defense better than he's ever done before. Clifford deserves a lot of credit for putting him in the right spots, but Jefferson deserves a lot too -- it's hard to wash out an entire career of bad defense in a single season. He put in the work and became passable. That's a huge achievement.

Although Charlotte's likely to find themselves run out of the building in the remainder of their series against Miami, don't sleep on what they accomplished this season. Many talk about the leap between a roleplayer and a star on an individual. Fewer talk about the leap between a hodgepodge of lost souls and a real honest-to-goodness basketball team. More should. And Charlotte, bless their hearts, managed to make that leap and drag their downbeat fanbase into a few exciting playoff games. Good work, kitties.

Don't Stay In School: A Personal Plea to Joel Embiid (And Others)

Joel+Embiid+Oklahoma+v+Kansas+AO4MUIAIrKnl

"Did you graduate from Auburn?"
"No, but I have a couple people working for me who did." 

- Charles Barkley

Dear Joel Embiid,

How are you? I hope your back is feeling better. Back injuries are no joke, and I imagine a spinal stress fracture is pretty painful. You seem like a tough dude though, and I'm confident you'll rebound from this. (Pun intended.) I'm sorry I didn't get to watch you play in March Madness. I'll be honest, I don't really watch college basketball much. I've been keeping up with your highlights though, and with your teammate Andrew's, and with Jabari Parker's at Duke, and with all the big NBA prospects. It's really cool to watch you guys play, and exciting to imagine a future where you're all playing in All-Star games, breaking records, making faces at Joey Crawford, and dominating at the big stage of NBA basketball. That's what I'm into, you know? I love NBA basketball. So yeah, I'm not really into the college game, but it's not like I can ignore dudes like you. Especially with how March Madness is, I can't help but tune in, or pull up YouTube, and watch what kind of crazy stuff you're doing and get hyped about the NBA player you might become.

That's why I was really bummed out when I read a while back that you were thinking about staying another year in college. Look bro, I get it. This is all really new to you, you're overwhelmed and excited and you're in the thick of it with your teammates and your coach and the Kansas fans, and you've gotta say the right thing. Obviously you can't just come right out and say you're heading to the league in a few months, even if you are. And I'm sure there was some honesty in there too, I figure you probably meant it a little when you talked about how you weren't sure you were ready for the NBA (You totally are, though). But don't indulge those temptations dude. More than ever, you're going to hear both people on the television and people close to you talking about all sorts of high-minded ideals. They're going to be talking about "maturity" and "learning to play the right way." You're going to read about this new NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and how he wants to institute a two-year rule for prospective NBA players. You're going to see a lot of people, smart respectable basketball people, agreeing with him. You're even going to hear guys like Charles Barkley (my hero) supporting the idea. They're going to talk about how it's important to get an education. They're going to bring up all sorts of examples of great college players, two to four year guys, who went on to have great NBA careers. They'll probably bring up Tim Duncan. They'll talk about Damian Lillard. You're going to be hearing all these smart voices, thinking about your school, those Kansas fans, and maybe a little nagging voice of uncertainty in the back of your head, and you're going to really think about it. You'll think about staying.

Missouri v Kansas

It's important you ignore all of that, and get the hell out of college. Get to the NBA, as fast as you can, as soon as you can. It's a real bummer that Kansas bowed out so early. It sucks. There are probably a ton of feelings that keep you tied down to Kansas and the dreams of a NCAA title. But you can't let it cloud your vision. And really, that's all you have to be worried about, because that's all you're going to lose by going to the NBA. Don't listen to this crap about how you need "an education," because you and I both know your main priority is winning ball games for your team, your fans, and your school. You're an NBA player in everything but title, and the only difference between you and them is that you aren't getting paid yet.

Don't worry about college. You can go to college later! I can't stress enough how easy it will be for you to go to college later. Whether you'll still feel like it will be up to you, but you're going to have a long career and a good half-century to get an education after your NBA career is over. You'll have the time, the motivation, and the money to pay for it. You'll have years of experience as a professional working adult that'll provide the direction you need to steer that education wisely. If you get to that point and find that you don't feel that you need it, great. You probably won't need it. Some of the most successful people in this country, athletes or otherwise, never attended college. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have built pretty successful brands for themselves outside their athletic achievements, and neither has had the benefit of a single semester of higher education. Smart guys are smart guys.

Speaking of those guys, if you ever find yourself looking at a chart showing the correlation between length of time in college and longevity of NBA careers, which is something I've seen floated around lately, here's a real solid rebuttal: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire, Josh Smith, Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Garnett. That's a good solid list of All-Star NBA players who enjoyed or are enjoying long NBA careers, straight out of high school. Lot of big guys on that list too. And having watched your potential at Kansas, I don't think it's a reach to say you'll probably belong in that same stratosphere with those guys.

Kendrick+Perkins+Oklahoma+City+Thunder+v+Boston+zOmxtuexOqGl

But hey, somebody'll be in your ear. Maybe it'll even be that same little voice that sounds a lot like you. That voice might say "But most of those guys are Hall-of-Famers. What if I'm not as good as them?" You never know, right? Well, there's also: Shaun Livingston, Dorrell Wright, Martell Webster, JR Smith, Gerald Green, Monta Ellis, Andray Blatche, Amir Johnson, and Kendrick Perkins. Don't get me wrong, I love Kendrick Perkins. But I'm pretty sure you're better than Kendrick Perkins. I'm pretty sure you could step on an NBA floor right now and be a more valuable contributor than big Perk, and he's had a long successful career. He's won a title, and he's made a lot of money. In terms of an NBA career, that's the most anybody can expect from themselves. Not everyone can be Michael Jordan. To make it, to carve out a role for yourself however big, to be valuable, and to win. That's success, no matter what anyone says about you. That's what you want for yourself.

But does it seem like that's what these people want for you? Doesn't it seem strange that all these talented high school players, many of whom have had all-time careers, many of whom are respected as some of the smartest in the league, never went to college? That they never learned to "play the right way?" That they developed in the league, playing against the best basketball talent in the world, and were all the better for it? Isn't it strange that you're a legal adult with a set of marketable job skills which, as evidenced by your draft stock, are valued in the millions of dollars a year, and yet not only are you required to work unpaid for a year of your adult life, but there are prominent media figures who guilt you and your peers for thinking something might be ethically wrong with that system?  That the average NBA career is less than ten years, yet you're expected to sacrifice your body, your health, and a year of pay to work at what amounts to an unpaid internship? Does it seem like people are thinking of your professional well-being and security when they're talking about whether you "learn the game" or not, or whether you're "mature?"

Perry+Jones+III+qjhHU9yvDNlm

Isn't it depressing that Perry Jones III, a versatile 6'10 big man who can play three positions, was a projected lottery pick had he entered the draft after his freshman campaign at Baylor?  He stayed another year though, and when he didn't show the progression scouts expected (as many college players playing within a system don't), he saw his draft stock fall. Then doctors red-flagged his knees, a mark against his health that sent him tumbling all the way down to the 28th pick, where my Oklahoma City Thunder snatched him up. He's been pretty good, but he doesn't get a lot of minutes. He would've gotten more time had he gone to a team that would've featured him. His knees appear to be fine. He's making about $1 million dollars this year. He could be making $5 million. Who knows, he might've proved himself and lined himself up for a big contract. At this rate, it's doubtful he'll get the chance.

What if your spinal injury affects your play? I'm praying that it doesn't, but what if it does? It's not uncommon for talented NBA prospects to appear to stagnate in their second year because of the nature of college basketball and more stringent offensive systems. What if your health isn't the same on top of it? Your circumstances won't matter to NBA scouts, they'll drop you on their board in a second. But right now it's unlikely you go any lower than #3 in this summer's NBA draft, regardless of your back. You're that good. And that rookie contract is guaranteed, not like some other sports leagues. If things go the worst they possibly can for you, you'll be covered on hospital bills and whatever you need. You'll be taken care of.

It bothers me that you have so little choice in the matter. It bothers me that Adam Silver and a bevvy of owners are so transparently unconcerned with the professional freedom of the players that form the foundation of the sport. It bothers me that game breaks are inundated with "NBA Cares" advertisements where players extoll the virtues of giving back, yet the league has sought to structure itself in such a way that increasingly penalizes players for the faults of management and ownership. It bothers me that the NBA offers only the most half-assed of educational programs to help teach young players about financial management. It bothers me that the players union has been actively complicit in working against its own membership. It bothers me that the media, whose responsibility it is to hold truth to power and protect the interests of players, seems to be overflowing with prominent voices enthusiastic about propping up an ethically broken and exploitative business model.

But hey, you know what? A lot of things bother me. The truth is, that's the system man. It is what it is. I'm not saying you or me can do anything to change it. All you can do is know how to get the most out of it for yourself. And look, I believe that everyone is entitled the freedom to do what they think is right for themselves. I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life. You know your body, and your skills. If you think staying at Kansas an extra year is what's best for you, then more power to you. That's your right. If you want to give up basketball and join the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, whatever, that's your right too. You're the master of your fate, there's no rules to this thing. But if you want to make a career out of playing basketball, you should look at what decision gives you the best odds to succeed while securing a future for yourself and yours. That's getting yourself an NBA contract, as big of one as possible, as soon as possible. If you're ready, you're ready. If you're not, you'll have more than enough time getting ready. Getting ready will be your job. Because we both know that's what you're already doing for them. A job. They're just trying to stiff you on pay as long as they can get away with it.

Tournament, no tournament. Ready, not ready. Healthy, not healthy. Just don't give them an excuse not to pay you, Joel. You've already earned that money, you've just gotta collect. Anyway, I hope you get to feeling better. I'm rooting for you.

Love,

Jacob H.

Tactical Tankfoolery -- When Perverse Incentives Aren't

"Guys, we are not playing very well." -- Photo by Howard Smith, USA TODAY Sports

A few months ago, Zach Lowe unveiled Mike Zarren's "Wheel" proposal as an alternative to the current draft lottery. In essence, every team's draft order would be set in stone for the next 30 years. This would utterly eliminate any incentive to lose and therefore eliminate any semblance of tanking. Now, there are some problems with this, and with the less-stony updated proposal as Lowe explained it today. But first, let's talk about incentives.

Why incentives? Because something totally mystified Aaron and I when the Wheel first came out. The absolute biggest critique of the Wheel in comments and on Twitter seemed to center on, say, a generational star like Dante Exum choosing his team by waiting for the right draft class. "Oh, I can get to the Lakers if I wait a few years! I'll stay on the amateur circuit until then."

The reason this mystified us is that that scenario freaking crazy.

For several reasons, actually. Unless a prospective rook is genuinely on the fence about something that affects their lifetime earning potential (an upcoming CBA change, whether or not to go to college another year, or if someone has some hidden medical condition where he can only play in Los Angeles), no rational player is going to forgo a huge part of his earning career and his development curve (or risk injury!) to maybe get to a better, more-marketed team. The way the CBA is structured right now is highly unfavorable to productive players on the rookie scale (both in terms of getting market wages and in having free movement between teams), and rational players want to get out of that stage of their careers as soon as they can. What's more, the realities of age mean that the rookie scale is least problematic when a player is 18-20 when they're starting out. Players in that 18-20 age group are far less physically developed and have more uncertainty in their true NBA level; hence, getting less money for their services makes a whole lot of sense for everyone involved. Plus, these players hit free agency just when they're hitting their early physical primes. It works out really well.

On the other hand, if a player waits until he's 22 (no matter how you feel about college ball), then that player is stifling his development as an NBA player and hurting his lifetime earning potential a whole lot, typically. Oh, sure, that player might end up playing for his preferred team, but he's drastically increased the odds that he won't be in the league at all 4 years later years. I could elaborate on all of these things, but my point is: I just don't see the Dante-Exum-staying scenario as being a real problem with the Wheel at all, and it totally mystified us that this was even an issue. There would just be too many incentives going the other way for the Exum Apocalypse Scenario to be even 1% of the discussion.

And yet, it struck me: The reason that we're focusing on this ridiculous hypothetical is that the anti-tanking discussion is seemingly built entirely on these worst-case perverse incentives. Present-day tanking itself being just one example. Sure, Lowe may have given us a very nuanced look at the tanking problem, but in the end, he's viewing the problem almost entirely through these absolute worst-case scenarios. Check out how Lowe goes after a couple of alternative scenarios:

• People around the league like the idea of returning to the unweighted lottery, where every lottery team has the same chance of nabbing the no. 1 pick. Go that route, and I’m tanking the hell out of the no. 8 seed and into the lottery every time — and I might even tank my way through Bill Simmons’s Entertaining As Hell Tournament, if that’s what it takes.

• Thinkers have also kicked around ideas that would make getting into the playoffs a more desirable outcome on its own. One idea would be to place 22 teams into the lottery, excluding only the top four seeds in each conference, and to guarantee some juicy picks — perhaps two picks in the 5-10 range — would go to playoff teams. But that would introduce a tank race into the no. 5 spot, and hold the potential for sending multiple impact rookies to teams that are already strong.

Lowe is presenting his critiques almost entirely in terms of the perverse incentives of a) the current system, b) the simpler alternatives, and c) the Wheel. Now grant(land)ed, he's doing an exceptional job of presenting all of these critiques (and the unintended consequences of several systems). But, for his immense holistic understanding of the league and its people, I'd argue that Lowe (and other anti-tanking folks) has fallen into a Venus Fly Trap of reasoning here in fixating entirely on these perverse incentives over everything else.

• • •

murray rothbard

The language of economics is really attractive for constructing narratives and for teasing out the good and bad incentives in every system. If you can find the right dataset and the right interpretation, it's powerful as an aid to understanding. But, it's also prone to giving misleading impressions if a small group of incentives (in this case, the draft lottery system) are falsely assumed to be the whole of an agent's decision-making processes.

There's a crucial and subtle and persistent error in reasoning behind most of these anti-tanking articles. Essentially, it's a mass conflation of "having this one perverse incentive" with "being consistently incentivized to the point of the perverse course of action". Why is this an error? Here are dozens of different incentives for an NBA franchise at any given time. "Having an incentive" just means you're pulled in one direction by one hand, while dozens of hands pull you in their own directions. Clearly, the tanking incentive can turn into action, even accounting for organic rebuilding. But that's just one of many incentives driving teams' actions. What about just plain wanting to develop and find a young, non-contending core (hey, Utah)? What about showing that their franchise is respectable, and not just Tank City (*cough* Philly)? What about desperately wanting a 8th-seeded playoff run to show fans more than distant hope (...Sorry, Cavs.)? Those are all real incentives that have manifested in real outcomes over the last few years, but because most of them aren't anything to get outraged about (or, often, even to notice), we don't even bother with them.

If you have some time to kill, listen to some conservative political commentary on poverty some day, say, on talk radio. There are some attractive arguments that they make, after all, and they're at least worth hearing. They usually go something like this: Welfare encourages poverty and unemployment. If you know you'll be taken care of, then you have less incentive to take care of things yourself. And isn't that right? It's good reasoning, it's well-considered thought, and the incentives driving the discussion are pretty much accurate. Economically, everything that they're saying is totally valid, if not exactly sound. And you know what? You can't just wave it away with 'compassion'. There are fundamental economic truths underlying our society, and, according to those economic truths, welfare does encourage poverty in the ways the commentators explain.

Now, a lot of people buy into these arguments, and they're not wholly without merit. The only problem is that - in their treatment of a complex system - these commentators have fixated wholly on the one positive thing on earth (namely, welfare, low-income housing, and food assistance) that's harder to get if you're rich. Never mind the increased incidence of nearly every malady possible for the poor over the rich, the worse access to health care, education, good infrastructure, and financial literacy. Never mind that being poor means you're always one false or unlucky step away from total financial ruin. Never mind that even for the most motivated poor people, these same commentators have already written them off as lazy.

Much of the poverty discussion in this country, unfortunately (and cynically), is essentially to fixate on the one or two mitigating factors like welfare checks, and to wholly ignore the huge structural disadvantages of, say, living in a poor neighborhood without effective transportation. And ignoring the unseen (in this case, the non-financial, mostly) factors is not actually economics - it's intellectual (and possibly moral) negligence wearing the mask of economics.

And that's roughly how I feel when I listen to the anti-tanking discussions, even in their most nuanced form. As much as any red-blooded sports fan, I dislike seeing a slate of NBA games poisoned by three teams in three games that are tanking. It doesn't quite ruin a diehard's night, but it's rough. I hate tanking and everything that goes with it. I hate teams when they are entirely cynical, and tanking is probably basketball at its most cynical. If we can ameliorate tanking itself, or at least flex out the worst offenders off our national television slate, that would be to everyone's benefit.

But when you're having this discussion, you have to be aggressively honest: if you fixate only on the incentive gap in the lottery between the very worst and the 8th-worst team in basketball, and you don't take into account the massive revenue-building incentives to win those extra games on a nightly basis? If you fixate only on the 18-win team with a potential of adding an All-Star instead of the 38-win team that already has one? Then you're doing the Dante Exum thing -- you're the guy who's saying "Well in this exact circumstance, Exum could stay another year and go to the Lakers instead of the Bobcats. That would be awful; this Wheel thing is such a problem."

No. That minor Exum hypothetical (even if he is that good) isn't nearly enough for the league to completely restructure its incentives around for the other 450 players. Who cares - in the grand scheme of things, mind you - if one player harms his own brand and potential while the league around him does what it does well and advances its personnel, its training methods, and its assets without him? Tanking is a complex issue that can ruin a lot of potentially good basketball. But I've not heard one anti-tanking system that really, honestly engages the economics of the situation - despite that I've heard now hundreds of anti-tanking systems that scold teams or diss their incentives. And, until I do hear that sound economic analysis, I'm not sure that I've heard anything but well-intentioned, half-baked noise. And just as we wouldn't want to restructure our system to avoid the Dante Exum Apocalypse, we probably shouldn't do much more than tweak if our biggest problem is that Thursday is a little more depressing for diehards and professionals.

If that all sounds like an unfair statement, then consider that no one has particularly effectively argued whether or not tanking even works (and if it doesn't, well, it's hardly a problem of incentives at all!). And no one is really controlling for intent vs. results. See, for example, the overperforming tank-intended teams like Phoenix and the underperforming, playoff-intended teams like Cleveland and New York. Phoenix was a cynical, evil team until they overperformed and, hey, look, Hornacek is doing awesome! Look the other way! If they didn't have a bunch of uncertainty coins flip their way (i.e. Jeff Hornacek's head coaching ability), they'd be doing things just like Philly and we'd be just as mad. Howard Beck's great article totally deconstructs the general anti-tanking sentiment by focusing on the particular: what's actually going on with the bad teams. 

So here's my beef, in a nutshell: If you're going to critique an economic phenomenon, you need at least a solid, cohesive theory of what's actually going on with these struggling teams; the costs, the benefits, and the alternatives. We don't really distinguish who's trying to tank -- just who ends up tanking. We don't distinguish whether tanking is a good thing for the team engaging in it -- just that it ends up happening. We don't really know the basic facts of the situation -- we've just established (quite strongly) that it's incredibly unfortunate when tanking ever happens. In quite a few years, we've seen a lot of anti-tanking proposals (most without mention of potential downsides), but only a few clearly-framed problems, even fewer nuanced explanations of tanking, and, as far as I can tell, nothing that would really sway me in the slightest if I were the commissioner of an 11-digit organization. And, if you're making a serious solution, then that has to be the standard.