Memphis Blues: A Point Guard's Triumph in Turmoil

Memphis Grizzlie Mike Conley celebrates a three-point basket against the Los Angeles Clippers during NBA basketball action in Memphis

There are a lot of strange stories in the NBA this season. The Phoenix Suns are their own little pocket bible of fun times and weird sub-stories. Two weeks into the new year, the Nets and the Knicks are in the process of perfecting a Jeckyll and Hyde routine so evocative that they're sending demo tapes to Broadway. (They're 11-2 in the new year. They were a combined 19-42 in 2013. They've got a puncher's chance at winning more games in a 20-30 game January than they won in 61 games in 2013. This is NOT a drill.) The difficulty of picking the West's deserving all-stars out of a surfeit of fantastic seasons is made even more absurd by the difficulty of picking anyone in the East's candidate pool even having a decent one. Stories are everywhere, if you take the time to look.

Me, though, I've been focusing in on one particular team-contained storybook over the past few weeks. The Memphis Grizzlies have had a rough season by any metric you care to look at. They enter tonight's contest against the Bucks with an 18-19 record, which puts them three games out in the Western Conference playoff picture with a little under half the season in the books. They aren't struck with any particular bad luck in close games, a la the Timberwolves -- their point differential (outscored by about one point per contest) befits that of an 17-20 team.  Most people would glance at their tepid injury-tarred season and change the channel, assuming it's a garden-variety treadmill of mediocrity and small-market woe. Not me, though. And that's mainly due to the brilliance of one incredible season.

Come, my friends. Meet Mike Conley: all-NBA point guard.

If you say "Mike Conley" to an average NBA fan on twitter, you'll generally elicit little more than a shrug. Perhaps a joke about Matt Moore. Perhaps -- if they're really tuned in -- a note about how Conley's footwork is nothing short of immaculate in its trickery. That's about it, though. Conley has been a very good player for quite some time, and I've been nestled snug in his bandwagon for quite some time as well. After all, I wrote in my capsules about his strong case as an elite point guard in the NBA, which actually inspired some laughs at my expense. Perhaps not now, though. Conley has never played quite as well as he's played this season, and he's enjoying one of the easiest-to-underrate seasons in recent memory.

Much has been written about how Kevin Love's bonkers numbers tend to be overlooked because his team has been -- over his last few years -- rather mediocre-to-bad. And this is clearly the case. Love puts up numbers that defy our internal logic of what an NBA player is capable of on a nightly basis, and he does carry the otherwise-somewhat-disappointing Timberwolves to wins they have no business competing in. This is all true. Love isn't Kevin Garnett, but he's his generation's equivalent thereof. A game changing super-duper-star mired in a franchise with a knack for constructing underperforming, defenseless rosters. You know the type -- those collections of castaways that can blow the roof off on a good offensive night but have trouble stopping even the NBA's simplest offensive attacks. That's Love's biggest problem, and most people who watch the Wolves can't come away without feeling a little bit sorry for the man.

Conley hasn't had to deal with those issues over much of his career. He's had a much more enviable position, historically, orchestrating the offense for a team with virtually no offensive expectations as defensive talent carries the team to wins regardless of Conley's personal ups and downs. But that's the past. This season, he's actually had to deal with exactly those issues I described for Love, as injuries have ravaged the complexion of the Grizzlies in such a way that's made it next to impossible to compare this year's Memphis team to the grit-and-grind hustlers of yore. At no point in Conley's career have the Grizzlies had a higher-ranked offense than they sport this season -- they're 13th overall offensively, about a point per 100 possessions better than league average. This ranking actually underrates them slightly -- their tough schedule (toughest in the league by a fair margin per Basketball Reference's "strength of schedule" calculation) has been skewed towards the league's best defenses, so it's likely that Memphis' "true talent" offensive numbers exogenous to their rough schedule are even better.

It's the defense that's been their biggest problem, as the Gasol injury (and Gasol's somewhat out-of-shape first frame pre-injury) left Memphis wanting in the middle for their anchor. With Gasol in the game the Memphis perimeter talent (mainly Conley and Allen) are able and willing to adhere to their men like glue, keeping players off the three point line and largely eliminating the types of easy threes that many great offenses live off. With Gasol out, that firm adherence wanes -- Kosta Koufos is a solid defensive center, but he's no Marc Gasol. The Memphis perimeter attack is unable to stay quite as locked in as they are with Gasol in the middle, and they have to fade back to help guard against drives to the rim. This in turn adds a few more inches of space to shooters behind the three point line, which lets opposing teams get off a few more threes and shoot a bit better on them.

Of course, that description assumes Tony Allen is healthy. He hasn't been. He's missed 9 of their 36 games, nine games in which Mike Conley became their de facto perimeter stopper. It makes sense, given that he's the best perimeter defender on the team when Allen is out, but it's evocative of the struggle Conley's had with the roster around him. Point guards have a tough enough job on a normal night, being tasked with orchestrating -- effectively -- a massively complicated multidimensional sonata and keeping everyone happy without overcomplicating the offense. But acting as your team's top perimeter stopper besides? That's like plopping a friend who's never played a single video game in front of Doom on Inferno difficulty and expecting them to make it through in one sitting. Sure, it can theoretically be done, but you have to have a gift to even be in the conversation. Also: why would you do that?!

So. How exactly has Conley acquitted himself in this tough situation?

Spoiler alert: very well.

The load on Conley's back this season has been -- quite simply -- absurd. In a recent contest, Conley scored or assisted on 23 points of the Grizzlies' 31 in the fourth quarter of a close Memphis win. This isn't particularly rare. Conley is averaging his highest usage rate of his career by a large margin, and -- unusually -- is coupling that with his highest effective field goal percentage as well (50.6%, above his former sophomore-year high of 50.3% and well above his shooting in recent vintages). But usage rate doesn't fully account for things like free throws made off of Conley passes -- one of the neat little things one can find in sifting through the new SportVU data is a better sense of "true" usage for high-touch point guards. In Conley's case, he's producing 14.6 points per game off his assists directly. He also sets up one trip to the line per game, and is the secondary-assist producer on two made shots a night.

This is a bit difficult to compare directly with other players, mostly owing to the fact that the Grizzlies have played -- very nearly -- the slowest basketball in the league. (It's oscillated back-and-forth between the New York Knicks and the Grizzlies over the past few weeks -- at time of writing, the Knicks had the title.) The average Grizzlies game has roughly four fewer possessions than league average, and many of the league's best point guards operate on the faster-paced end of the spectrum. For instance, Stephen Curry's Warriors play roughly seven more possessions in an average game. The Thunder, Suns, Clippers, and Nuggets all play roughly six more possessions in an average game. The Spurs and Blazers generally play five more possessions. Hence, comparing the raw points-off-of-assists in a game is a bit misleading, as it blithely ignores the pace-of-play difficulties that work against Conley's all-star campaign.

This argument extends to the normal box score averages, like points and assists. Conley's averages don't exactly jump off the page. He's putting up 18.1 points a night, with 2.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists to boot. He's got 1.6 steals a game, and turns the ball over two times a night. None of that is bad, necessarily, but at first glance, you wouldn't exactly think those are the numbers of a strong all-star candidate. They are, though. In the following table, I'm going to roughly calculate the percentage of their team's offense the eight leading western all-star candidates are responsible for on any given night using APTS (the points-produced-through-assists metric from SportVU), foul assists (adding team FT% multiplied by two for the two free throws multiplied by the number of free throw assists SportVU says the player produces), and their own points. I'll also relay their counting stats and turnover rates, as those are moderately relevant to my next paragraph.

pct of off produced

Adjusting for differences in pace using the "percentage of team production" metric virtually erases the large gap in Conley's stats when compared to most of his prime competition. Yes, he still gets pasted by Curry and Paul, but so does everyone. Conley produces more offense for the Grizzlies than Dragic, Lillard, or Parker produce for theirs, and he's closer to Westbrook than Westbrook is to Curry/Paul. Translation makes the heart grow fonder, at least in Conley's case. The same is true for his stats -- if the Grizzlies played at the pace the Warriors play at, a direct translation of Conley's line would average out to 20-7-3 with 2 steals a night and 2 turnovers besides. His shooting efficiency (via eFG%) is less than Dragic/Lillard/Parker but markedly higher than that of Lawson's, and his main bugaboo offensively is his general inability to sell a call -- he shoots just 3.4 free throws a game despite shooting an excellent 85% from the line, far fewer trips than anyone else on this list. That's just about the biggest nit to pick with Conley's production.

One other notable point from the previous table? The turnover rate. Mike Conley's turnover rate of 10.8% may look roughly equivalent with the rest of the guards in the table -- it's true, most of them are reasonably good at taking care of the ball. But 10.8% isn't just a garden variety "good ball control" number. It's actually a historically strong campaign. Consider it as a mental venn diagram. In one circle, you have high usage players, who score the ball a lot and are responsible for putting up a decent number of points every night. In another circle, you have prolific passing players, who pass the ball a lot and are responsible for setting up a large number of teammates on any given night. And in the last circle, you have low turnover players, who are extremely hard to steal the ball from and who rarely make sloppy passes. It's not particularly hard to locate players who have one of those three traits -- 10-20 a season, usually, even if you put in a decent minutes restriction. It's not even particularly hard to find a player that combines two of the traits -- low turnover high usage setup scorers were big a few years back (think Michael Redd, Ray Allen, the best case scenario for Klay Thompson) and there are many low-usage point guards who are borderline savants at ball control (think Chauncey Billups, Kirk Hinrich, the best case scenario for Kendall Marshall).

But a player who combines all three in a single year? High usage, high passing, low turnovers? That's rare. Exceedingly so, in fact, and Mike Conley's season is a quintessential example of such a year. Only 31 seasons around his level can be found when querying the historical data, and it's quite a neat list to be on. Chris Paul, Michael Jordan, Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, and prime Brandon Roy are all in the party. Turnovers tend to be one of those stats that people ignore a bit when assessing players -- unless a player is REALLY bad at them, it doesn't tend to enter the evaluation discussion unless nits are being picked, and a player with extremely low rates doesn't tend to get much credit for it. If you compound his fantastic turnover rate with counting stats that are easy to overlook given his team's pace/schedule and his best-in-class point guard defense, you have a surprisingly strong all-star candidacy.

(NOTE: It's also really quite impressive that these singular players are producing 30-45% of the offense for the league's best offenses, especially considering most of these players are only on the court for 2/3 of the game. For those who are bad at mental math, indicates these guys are producing 50% or more of their team's offensive production whenever they take the floor. Every offense helmed by these eight players is in the top half of the league. Point guards are often blasted for poor defense and their occasional off nights. Step back for a moment -- if you had to directly produce half of your team's best-in-class offense when you were on the floor, wouldn't you be a bit gassed?)

He has a case, obviously, but I can't lie to you: Conley isn't going to make the all-star team. There's almost no way he makes it in at this point. The selections are later this month, and at 18-19 the Grizzlies are far enough out of the playoff picture to scrub him from the conversation. Not when Lillard's Blazers are the story of the season, Paul/Curry have locked up two slots, and Dragic is his team's only remaining all-star candidate. I'd venture that Monta Ellis has a higher chance at making the game than Conley, simply because I don't think it's likely that the Western coaches send 5-6 point guards and a single shooting guard to the game. Especially not with the surplus of excellent big men in the conference who deserve a spot there too. He might make the all-defense team (and he should!), and he has a shaky case for 3rd team all-NBA (an honor he will almost certainly not achieve).

There's a more interesting (and more pressing) question for Conley and the Grizzlies, far removed from the all-star game and any all-NBA questions. Very simply: can the Grizzlies make the playoffs? I'd venture they can. Conley has gotten good enough this year that they just might, although the margin for error is virtually nil. They've made one particular big problem for themselves in this first half of the season -- they're down 0-2 with two games to go in the season series against Dallas, who's one of their stronger opponents for the bottom two seeds. That's their main damage, tiebreaker-wise, and it probably is going to make the seven seed unattainable if the Mavericks can hold on to that (something I suspect they'll do). They're down 0-1 in the tiebreaker against Minnesota, although they have three games remaining to make that up. They have two games remaining against Oklahoma City, a team that despises them after last year's unceremonious ouster.

That said? It's not all bad. They've clinched the tiebreaker against Phoenix, which is EXTREMELY important since the Suns represent the most likely team to drop out of the playoff picture. They've still got a good shot at the tiebreaker against Denver, as they're 1-1 against them. Gasol has returned at essentially the perfect time -- he has over a week of easy games to get his legs back before their next big test, a home-and-home against Houston later this month. The three games they have against Minnesota are virtually going to be playoff games -- the Wolves and the Grizzlies have identical records right now, and they're each other's biggest competition in the race to unseat the Suns from the eight spot. And what's more, the tough schedule the Grizzlies endured is going to lead to a relatively easy slate for the rest of January, much of February, and a much of March. Their last few weeks are going to be difficult, but if they're sporting a full squad at the time they have a good shot at replicating their run to the 8 seed in 2011 where they started rolling around the all-star break and ended the year on a tear.

They'll also have their chances to mess up other teams' playoff aspirations, even if they're out of the playoff picture late in the season. From March 24th to the end of the year, they play Minnesota twice, Denver twice, Phoenix once, Dallas once, and play four of the league's six main title contenders in the final few weeks (Miami, San Antonio, Golden State, Portland). If they do manage to pull off the eight seed, they could end up as one of the most dangerous eight seed matchups in recent memory. Given how well that treated them the last time, I don't know if they'd really complain too much if that's the way the cookie crumbles. Luckily for Gregg Popovich, the Spurs aren't on pace for the #1 seed right now, so he doesn't have to worry about that particular potentiality.

... Hey, wait a second!

aw frig

aw dang it

Coping With Loss: On The Eric Bledsoe Injury

bledsoe and hornacek

As a Grizzlies fan, no one should be happier about Eric Bledsoe going down than me. My team -- flailing without Marc Gasol for two months, although they're staying afloat -- now has a much better shot at making the playoffs. In fact, at this point, if they DO manage to reach the top-8, we may end up seeing the Bledsoe injury as directly responsible for the spot.

Despite all that, I'm inconsolable. Out of all the major injuries in the NBA this season, this one hits me hardest. Yes, even harder than Marc. Yes, even harder than Rose. One might think this is because the Grizzlies march to the postseason now seems almost too easy, but that'd be wrong-headed -- nothing related to my guys has anything to do with it. If they get in, I'll be thrilled regardless of how they accomplish the feat. What devastates me so much about this injury is that one of the weirdest basketball stories in the last few seasons will be left unfinished. We'll never know what exactly this Suns team could have done.

Take a step back: the Suns weren't expected to do anything this year other than lose very frequently. In an insanely deep Western Conference, the Suns were the only team that no one thought could compete for a playoff spot. (Even Utah had a few crazy believers!) They were supposed to bottom out for a draft pick, nothing more than four easy wins for the Clippers and Warriors. Instead, they stunned everyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to basketball. I mean, cripes -- they started out 21-13. Twenty-one wins! That represented more wins in their first 34 than many would have given them over an entire season. And this wasn't some case where they kept getting lucky in close games, either. Their point differential matched their record -- their expected Win-Loss record was right on track  with their actual record. No one could totally explain or understand the Suns, and no one had to. It was beautiful. They just worked.

The best thing about the Suns, to me, was that one of their expected problems turned out to be their greatest strength. Dragic and Bledsoe weren't supposed to be able to play together. Dragic was supposed to be trade bait while they bottomed out, because there was no way two point guards could exist in the starting lineup. Right? Wrong. The Dragic-Bledsoe duo proved to be phenomenal, stymieing opposing defenses and rivaling Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for the title of best back court in the league. Splash brothers meet slash brothers, or so they say.

As the wins kept piling up, the question of "can they keep it up" hung in the balance. Even though their record was consistent with their Pythagorean Win-Loss mark, it still seemed questionable that they could keep playing THIS well. After all. Channing Frye couldn't keep playing that well. Miles Plumlee couldn't keep playing that well. Gerald Green couldn't keep playing that well. Whether or not the Suns could blow our minds for a whole season and actually make the playoffs was shaping up to be most fascinating storyline in the league going down the stretch. And we'll never know the answer.

Given their inspiring play to-date, there's a chance they might not fall all the way into the gutter. They've still got more than a puncher's shot of finishing over 0.500, a massive accomplishment for the roster they put together. But with Bledsoe gone, their limitations are impossible to ignore. Dragic is their only true quality player at this point. Everyone else on this team was playing above their expected talent level, and the idea of them playing even more out of their minds than before is pretty laughable. What's more likely is that without Bledsoe, the team will fall into a funk. It's hard to know how much psychological factors can impact a team's performance, but its not a stretch to think the loss of Bledsoe could hurt the Suns just as much mentally as it does talent-wise. With Bledsoe healthy, this team knew they could win, even if no one else believed them. Now, no matter how much they might try to deny it, they know they don't have much of a shot. Confronting that on a daily basis could end up accelerating their descent into the gutter.

Still -- what's the big deal? After all, the Suns know what they have in Dragic and Bledsoe, and there's no reason they can't be competitive next year. If anything, they could be even better, since the prowess they've shown in the first half of the season should increase their odds of a luring a big-name free agent. Further, dropping into to the lottery -- even the fringes of the lottery -- gives them a better draft pick in one of the most loaded drafts in recent memory. And it's not like this year's Suns team was going to win a championship, anyway. Anything after the first round would have been a miracle.

So why does it hurt so much?

Because of the same reason the 2004 Heat are Aaron's favorite Heat team ever -- this is the only year where it was going to be special. We know what the Suns are capable of now, and we're going to into next year basing our expectations on that. If they lure the likes of Luol Deng or Carmelo Anthony to town, we'll be even more confident in their abilities. This was the only year where the Suns were going to push our imaginations to the limit. As NBA fans, we know the game we love is predictable, and we know it's hard to get casual fans excited about it. "Don't the Lakers/Heat just win it every year? I'll watch in June." It's hard to combat that attitude, because deep down, they kind of have a point. The year starts with four or five legitimate championship contenders and four or five legitimate tire fires. The year ends with the same, year-in and year-out.

These teams oscillate, and there's a decent amount of back-and-forth while we adjust expectations and figure out exactly who they are. But the broad strokes remain the same, except in extraordinary circumstances. The 2014 Suns -- prior to this injury -- were an extraordinary circumstance. The greatest thing about basketball's wretched predictability is that when we do happen upon a team like the Suns, it's all the more mesmerizing. Look at the NFL. The worst team in 2012 (the Kansas City Chiefs) ended up winning 11 games and making the playoffs this year, and it wasn't even that much of a surprise. That's the downside of parity, and the upside of predictable hierarchies; when a team plays better than they have any business playing, it really feels like something. It rekindles your excitement for the game and continues to teach you new things.

Deep down, I know the Rose injury is a much bigger deal. It caused the front office to blow the team up with Deng out the door and Boozer likely joining him soon, and now we'll never know if the Rose-Deng-Noah-Boozer Bulls could have won a title. I'm pretty unhappy about that, too, but at least by the time Rose went down again, I already knew where the Bulls were talent-wise. After all, we saw them finish 1st the East for two straight years. They were a known quantity, even if the injuries made them a nebulous unknown. With the Suns, I had no idea how good the team actually was. I had no idea how far they could go. That made them fascinating night in, and night out. They'll certainly be intriguing next year (I'm already expecting them to be at the the top of my Tiers Of Intrigue come September), but the element of surprise will be a gone. And in a sport where genuine surprises come some few and far between, it will be sorely missed.

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

da mystery of brad millerboxing

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

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

 THE SQUIRREL-STYLE ROADKILL: 30 to 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 THE GIRAFFE-STYLE PRETENDERS: 16 to 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 THE TOAD-STYLE CONTENDERS: 6 to 1

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

5. Grizzlies - we in the mud.

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

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

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

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

da mystery of chessboxin

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

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

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

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

Putting on a Fertility Clinic: CLE/CHI Trade Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 • • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Line-Setting (and, the Keys to the Game)

Hello, readers! There are 16 games on Thursday and Friday. I'll probably watch some of them. Before you and I partake in the ritual entertainment provided tonight, though, I'd like to show you something I've been thinking about. It's probably obvious, it's probably trivial, and yet I don't think I've ever made a working example.

One thing that's always bugged me about basketball broadcasts (mostly because I'm such a junkie for the sport) are those "Keys to the Game" bullets you see before broadcasts, where analysts will try to pinpoint the most important few things that both teams can do to maximize their respective chances. Offensive rebounding, "get out in transition," or "get off to a good early start". Hit your open shots, Serge Ibaka! After all, you can turn the ball over a hundred times -- if turnovers aren't one of your Keys to the Game and you handle your keys to the game, you guys are gonna win!

I mock it, but it's a neat and quick little feature that works even for the most pedestrian of broadcasts. We can laugh, but yes, there are "Keys to the Game" in every game. Call them what you will: Leverage points, facets of special interest, stochastic weights that -- pulled or pushed -- favor one or the other team. Call them what you will, but recognize them. After all, they're little things, and mostly trivial. But much like pills in a pharmacy, the most powerful of these little things can be fatal or can save a patient from death. Enter "Keys to the Game".

But here's the thing, even if your team does put all its effort into offensive rebounding, and even if it is all "effort": If you're a bottom-10 offensive and defensive rebounding team going against a top-10 team in those categories, you're probably not going to out-rebound that other team. Oh, sure, your team can, because one game is one game, but at this point in the season? 31 games in, after both of the teams have been trying their best, your stats somewhat reflect your personnel that night, usually. If you have shot creators, your offense will be good. If you have good rebounders, you'll have those rebounding stats. If you have elite rim protectors? You'll probably have a good defense. And... if you're an NBA team in the bottom ten of both rebounding categories, and your opponent is in the top ten of both categories? Then your opponent will probably out-rebound you. And there's nothing wrong with that.

See, there are a lot of ways to win an NBA game. And sometimes that means giving up the offensive rebounding battle because the other team has Love and Pekovic... and because your team has something else going for it, too. You don't necessarily need to be ashamed that you only have two offensive rebounds and they have seven. They have Kevin Love. That's what he does! What's more.... If you lose an individual battle by less than you'd expected, that can be a win, too. If you're outrebounded by the Wolves, and you're not a good rebounding team, but you held the battle close? That swings the game in your favor. Holding the rebounding differential to a minimum (i.e. losing by less as opposed to winning the battle) is somewhat of an anathema to how we typically think about sports, but we've all heard the sentence "You'll live with Dirk scoring 30" at some point in our lives, often accompanied by alcohol to deal with the pain. And it's almost always right. You'll live with Dirk scoring 30 so long as Jason Terry doesn't score 30, too. I'll live with the Wolves out-rebounding me if we make them pay in transition. I'll live with the Rockets out-shooting me if they're throwing the ball every which way before shots. I'll live with the Pacers out-defending me if they can't enter it into the post. I'll live with the Spurs out...-not-fouling me (???) if Tim Duncan never sees the ball go through the net.

We'll live with our disadvantages if we can also march forth with our advantages and let the ledger judge the better at the end.

 • • •

Very quickly, I did a little empirical stuff for this post, like, with data and such. I haven't figured out how to present quite all the results, but for now, I'll leave you with a few simple projections for last night's games, based only on the average efficiency (and pace) of what we've seen so far, adjusted for the strength of their respective opponent.

 ORL  96.94   CLE  94.30
 GSW  99.75   MIA 102.35
 BOS  87.81   CHI  87.90
 BKN  93.83   OKC 107.35
 NYK  91.32   SAS 103.23
 MEM  95.21   PHO 100.86
 MIL  91.80   UTH  91.00
 CHA  93.90   POR 101.50
 PHI 104.79   SAC 109.08

This isn't adjusted for strength of schedule (or home court, in a huge and glaring omission. We're still ironing this out! Don't bet anything on this yet!). So, the Heat's offense is adjusted for Golden State's defense, but the disparity in schedule that helped to cause those offensive numbers (from being, like, almost the only good team in your conference) is not accounted for. So East-West match-ups are likely more lopsided towards West teams than they appear, so I'd probably nudge West teams up a couple points - i.e. I'm expecting the Jazz to win, the Kings to beat the Sixers by more than 5, the Heat-Warriors game to be awesome and probably closer than what you're seeing. And those Thunder-Nets, Spurs-Knicks, and Bobcats-Blazers games? Yeesh. Fuggedaboutit.

Update, Friday morning: Those projections above turned out to be unfathomably wrong.

  • First, let me note that this next part sounds reasonable. The away teams scored an average of 3.5 points better than I projected (home teams scored an average of 1 point better than I projected). So in terms of total points scored? My projections on average were 4.5 points lower than what we actually saw and home teams did about 2.5 points worse in terms of margin of victory than I'd projected.
  • But, see, my original projections never adjusted for home-court advantage. So even though I was assuming a neutral court, the road teams actually did 2.5 points better than that neutral-court assumption. If normal HCA is taken into account (call it, say, 3 points?), then I'm actually off by 5.5 points per game.
  • And that's not even counting the absolute margin of error here. Home teams were about 11.3 points off from my projection; road teams were more like 10 points (9.86). The margin (by which you'd probably choose your betting lines)? I was off by an average of 12.97 points. What's more, if I'd adjusted for home-court and strength-of-schedule, I likely would have underestimated even more the road teams.
  • By the way, by the stopped clock theorem, I actually got some things right. My total for Bulls-Celtics was .28 points too high and my Bucks-Jazz total was about .19 points too high. Not too shabby. But I also had three games (ORL-CLE [33.24 high], GSW-MIA [34.88 low], and CHA-POR [42.59 low]), where I was more than thirty points off the actual total. In terms of betting lines? I only had one game where I was less than 10 points off the margin of victory in regulation. Cavs-Magic (Cavs outperformed by 2.64), which might as well have been point-shaving the way regulation ended. Plus, I was more than 15 points too high in the point totals for both of those teams. Heh.

In short, and I don't want to belabor the point too much - I chose the worst night imaginable to start doing projections, and maybe my projections are also the worst. I was indefensibly wrong and I'm sorry. The only slight bit of fortune here is that you didn't see these predictions and use them, because you would have lost 50 dollars and held it against me forever.

Anyway, so I still have another day of projections to burn off, using the same model. Warning: The following is canon.

TOR     95.81    WAS     93.70
GSW    102.70    ATL    100.05
NOP     99.60    BOS     97.94
NYK     96.21    HOU    103.84
LAC    105.69    DAL    102.30
MEM     96.18    DEN     97.55
UTH     96.23    LAL    100.36

There you have it. But please don't use these numbers; they are the worst.

Also, if you do use them, remember that I haven't adjusted for home court, strength of schedule (especially East/West disparity), or anything else that isn't offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, or pace. Those are the only three numbers I used.

Anyway, these projections are not to be trusted. Also, if you do put any remote faith in them (and don't, seriously), I'd bump the home team by a few points up in terms of the margin, give the Nuggets a big boost for the back-to-back, don't trust the Lakers, don't trust the Hawks, the Pellies will probably beat the Celtics, the Knicks just played a competent game so hell is freezing over, and I'd take the Warriors by more than 3 points. Also, I like Bradley Beal. The Wizards' offense is fine. I enjoy watching them. Wizards-Raptors feels like a basketball hellscape waiting to happen. If you gamble on that game, you will feel obligated to watch that game.

Trendspotting: Christmas Holiday Edition!

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

pace of play

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

Have a wonderful holiday, everybody!

What if the Spurs had traded Manu Ginobili?

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

 • • •

(andre is the topic)

TRADING POINT #1: July 15, 2004

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

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

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

PHILADELPHIA receives: Manu Ginobili's rights, Kevin Willis

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

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

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

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

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

 • • •

TRADING POINT #2: February 3, 2009

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

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

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

CHARLOTTE receives: Manu Ginobili (1.5 years)

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

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

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

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

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

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

• • •

BUY THIS SHIRT, IT'S THE BEST SHIRT

TRADING POINT #3: July 15, 2010

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

WHICH SPURS GO AWAY FOR A WEEK'S VACATION?

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

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

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

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

LET'S TAKE A SPIN IN THE BRAND NEW PORSCHE

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

mike woodson

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

 • • •

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

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

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

Woodson: Actually, we don't have Tyson.

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

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

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

Melo: Hey, Tyson! Nice to see you.

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

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

Andrea Bargnani: [consumes pasta]

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

Melo: [nods] We got it, Coach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woodson: [a bit touched] Thanks.

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

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

Melo: Right.

Beno Udrih: So it's up to me, then.

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

Beno: Right.

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

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

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

Melo: Wait, what?

Beno: How do you know that?

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

Beno: Right.

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

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

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

Beno: Right.

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

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

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

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

Woodson: Thank you.

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

Team: One, two, three, BREAK!

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

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

Everyone groans.

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

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

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

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

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

Woodson: Not especia--...

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

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

Dolan: Hello, Andrea.

Andrea: Hi, James.

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

Andrea: What... why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woodson: YOU ARE KILLING THIS TEAM, JAMES.

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

Woodson: Nobody knows, Melo.

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

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

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

 • • •

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

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

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

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

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

Small Market Mondays #2.04: Pacers Gonna Pace

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

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

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

Upcoming Pace Index features include:

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

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

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

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

• • •

rip miles

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

See you next week, Small Marketeers! Stay frosty.

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

dudley and paul

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

• • •

Observation #1: JARED DUDLEY DOESN'T FREEWHEEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Observation #2: AL JEFFERSON'S IMPACT

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

THE BLOOD IS DROWNING ME.

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

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

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

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