Examining the 2014 season's best Statistical Curios

heat at sixers

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

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

1. No Spur has played over 30 MPG

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

spurs minute chart

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

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

2. The Clippers Solved Offense

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

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

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

3. Miami went 1-2 against the 76ers

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

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

MIA vs PHI hilarious

Oh. Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joel+Embiid+Oklahoma+v+Kansas+AO4MUIAIrKnl

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

- Charles Barkley

Dear Joel Embiid,

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

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

Missouri v Kansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry+Jones+III+qjhHU9yvDNlm

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Jacob H.

Tactical Tankfoolery -- When Perverse Incentives Aren't

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

murray rothbard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if the NBA Shortened the Playoffs? (A Look Back)

Everyone loves March Madness. As we enter the NBA's least favorite time of the year, fans of the oft-maligned professional league are constantly reminded about how well the NCAA accomplishes something that the NBA's never quite been able to muster. That is, the twitchy oversimulated madness of the NCAA tournament's one-and-done stylings. The tournament, at its best, is a several week supercharge of the NBA's "league pass alert" nights with 1 or 2 crazy games on at once.

In Zach Lowe's column on tanking yesterday, he offhandedly noted that one way to increase the underdog benefits of being a lower-seeded team in the NBA playoffs would be to decrease the number of games in a series. He has a point. In almost any situation, the easiest way to inflate your variance is to lower your sample size. Many of the smartest NCAA bracket predictors bake in adjustments to account for the fact that teams like Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers play at a deathly slow pace, slow enough to increase the inherent variance in their performance. This can lead to obscene pace-adjusted blowouts that break projection models (see: their numerous 30-40 point wins in 2012 that legitimately broke Ken Pomeroy's ranking system), but it also can lead to a game where the Badgers simply don't have enough possessions to prove they're the better team (see: their near-upset to Vanderbilt one game before nearly beating a fantastic Syracuse team in the 2012 tournament).

The NBA, though? It's one thing to say "hey, let's decrease the number of games in a series." It's quite another to actually figure out how that would impact things. Thing is, this isn't actually all that hard to check. So long as you have the right data. Luckily, I have exactly that. I've got a lot of data lying around that I can manipulate like this, and the question bugged me. This post endeavors to answer that very question -- if the NBA playoffs were a single elimination tournament, how would the course of NBA history change? I went back a decade, but given the size of the images, I'm probably going to post the specific brackets for five years and share the other five (and further) in a later bracket-dump post of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. For now, let's go back and look at the last five years. The results are, if nothing else, hilarious.

As for the methodology here, it was surprisingly simple. Playoff seedings remained the same, but each existing series was decided by the first game in the series. For instance, the Spurs and the Heat still made the finals in 2013 under a first-game-wins scenario -- as such, the Finals were determined by San Antonio's 92-88 win in Game #1. When the series DIDN'T exist in reality, the series was decided by the first regular season game that was played with the home court configuration that would've been at play. For instance, in 2012, Chicago's new second round series against Atlanta was decided by a January 3rd win where the Bulls defeated the Hawks at home. That's about all you need to know. Let's get to it.

• • •

nba playoffs 2013

For the first single elimination tournament, we actually see three fewer upsets than we saw in the actual playoffs. Oklahoma City beats Memphis, as they won the first game of the series behind Durant's heroics. Golden State similarly falls to the Andre Miller-led Nuggets. And Chicago falls to Brooklyn. Of course, that doesn't mean much for Denver, as their first regular season meeting with San Antonio was an embarrassing 26 point blowout in San Antonio. And it doesn't mean much for Brooklyn, as they lost their first matchup with the Heat by 30 points. The Spurs beat the Thunder in the WCF due to their win in the first game of the season. Out of the decade I've looked at so far, this is the only year where the Finals matchup actually stayed in tact. Were the Finals to end after a single game, Duncan would've probably won the Finals MVP with a 20-14-4 performance. That said, a single elimination style bracket doesn't seem to do a whole lot to 2013. What about 2012?

• • •

nba playoffs 2012

This one was actually pretty interesting. Due to the way I was assessing winners (that is, with regular season matchups), the Bulls technically had Rose for this entire playoff bracket. There were a two big upsets here that didn't happen in real life: Orlando over Miami and Atlanta over Boston. (NOTE: There's a typo on the MIA/ORL series -- MIA wins it 90-78, not ORL.) In the west, things actually go almost exactly the same as they went in reality -- the only thing out of wack was the WCF, where the Spurs won due to winning Game #1 of the actual series. In the East, Chicago romps the competition and makes it to a finals matchup with San Antonio. The Bulls win in what essentially amounted to a bracket made of chalk. Rose wins a tepid Finals MVP over Noah for his 29-1-4 game.

• • •

nba playoffs 2011

Here's the first one where upsets completely change the complexion of the bracket. The East stays untouched through the 2nd round, but Atlanta upsets Chicago in the Elite Eight and ruins the brackets of statheads everywhere. Meanwhile, in the West, Dallas is the only top-3 seed remaining after round one after the Hornets upset the Lakers and the Grizzlies upset the Spurs. The Grizzlies (America's team!) keep it going by upsetting the Thunder and the Mavericks in quick succession, becoming the first eight seed to make the finals in quite some time. (Not since Houston -- I don't think Houston makes the Finals in this scenario, but I haven't gone back to check yet.) Regardless. Miami makes it to the Finals and roundly obliterates Memphis for LeBron's first title in Miami. In a funny reflection of real life, Wade wins Finals MVP after LeBron's disappointing game.

• • •

nba playoffs 2010

Look, it's our first overtime finals!

This one ended up being quite a bit different than the way things actually played out -- other than ATL/ORL and BOS/CLE, none of the other series actually ended up mirroring real life. The Blazers upset the Suns in the first round, then keep it going by rallying in their Elite Eight matchup in Dallas. (No, really. They were down 4 entering the fourth -- they took a lead with 6 minutes left in the game and held on in a wild one to pull it out.) Meanwhile, the Lakers suffer a disappointing end to the Denver Nuggets, who stomp into Staples and end their one-seed dreams. Denver makes use of their surprise four-seed home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals by dispatching Portland in short order, getting the LeBron/Melo matchup we all wanted to see. Melo gets the better of LeBron this time, leading his Nuggets to a 118-116 overtime win in the Championship game. Melo scored 40.

• • •

nba playoffs 2009

The story is essentially same as the one we saw in 2010, just with a different ending. This time we see a lot more upsets -- the Sixers upset the Magic and the Bulls upset the Celtics (and then the 41-41 Bulls upset the Sixers!), while the Rockets upset the Blazers and the Lakers in quick succession. The Nuggets, meanwhile, make it all the way to the finals against LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers. (Yes, that means a single elimination tournament would've produced two consecutive Denver/Cleveland finals.) This time, LeBron's Cavs roundly upend Melo's Nuggets, with LeBron getting his first ring and his perfunctory Finals MVP for a workmanlike 22-8-11 game. Mo Williams scored 24, Ben Wallace shot 100%, and Billups scored 26. Fun times.

• • •

Tomorrow, I'll share five more years of brackets (including... a Detroit threepeat?!) and some collected statistics for the "single elimination" playoffs as compared to the NBA's more traditional seven game version. Stay frosty.

The M*A*S*H Rankings #1: Laker Woes and Pelican Throes

Hey, all! In this new segment, Aaron will be going over recent major NBA injuries and assessing their impacts on the teams that suffered them. We are also making this into a general power rankings feature, because the kids love that. The overall style here will be similar to Jonah Keri's long-running Grantland series "The 30" where he provides his weekly MLB power rankings with detailed explications of three teams a week. Instead of broader ranking thoughts, Aaron will be discussing current injury ramifications on three teams nestled softly within broader rankings. Let's go!

• • •

30. Philadelphia 76ers (14th in the East) 15-43, SRS of -11.15
29. Milwaukee Bucks (15th in the East) 11-45, SRS of -9.34

28. Los Angeles Lakers (15th in the West) 19-39, SRS of -5.03

FIVE-MAN INJURED ROSTER: Steve Nash (Nerve irritation), Nick Young (Sore knee), Chris Kaman (Sore back), Xavier Henry (Strained knee), Kobe Bryant (Tibia fracture)

It's too little too late to make any bones at playoff contention, but it's worth noting that this five-man-deep injured roster actually represents L.A.'s least injured roster in the last few months. That's right -- five injured players represents a Laker team that's rounding into some morbid approximation of health. At times this season, their injured roster has included nearly all of their regular starters and every productive player they've got. Most notably, they played a game less than a month ago where they ended the contest with less than five eligible players. Their current injured roster is five players deep, with two of them (Henry, Bryant) out indefinitely and the rest out game-to-game with ailments of varying severity.

Personally, I keep going back to one of the saddest-yet-rarely-discussed things about L.A.'s woefully mismatched roster this year. Namely, the fact that almost everyone on this terrible team is in a contract year. Don't get me wrong -- injuries suck for every NBA player. But they almost count double for roleplayers playing for their next contract. Every missed game, every 10-15 game sad stretch where their stats suffer from awful injuries, every lost step and tentative gait... it all matters, and it's all going to conspire to dramatically stifle the amount any of L.A.'s players can expect on their next contract.

A few examples. Jordan Farmar has actually played some decent basketball this season, at least when he's been fully healthy. He signed a one-year deal with L.A. in hopes that he'd play well and stick in the league. But he's missed 30 games with a wide variety of crummy injuries, and his lagging immediately-back-from-injury efforts are deflating his stats a bit. If he'd stayed healthy and continued to play as well as he has this year, I'd probably pencil him in for a small-time several million dollar deal as a cheap point-off-the-bench for a contender. As it stands, he'd be lucky to stick in the league at all. Same goes for Chris Kaman, whose injuries this year have limited him to a little over half of L.A.'s games. He's 31 years old and looking for what will likely be his last decent-length NBA deal. But he can't stay on the floor, and his value as a player is dropping precipitously because of it despite showing himself to be, as always, a dependably mediocre big man who can't really defend a fly. He probably will stick in the league, but I'd be very surprised if his next contract is anything above a veteran's minimum.

As for how L.A.'s current injuries are impacting their play... I'm not sure it really matters. They've been a remarkably bad team this entire season no matter who they put on the floor. This isn't a team that's one piece away from title contention, or even a playoff spot. Their injuries have exacerbated their pre-existing flaws (namely: poor defensive fundamentals, old-as-dirt personnel ill suited to D'Antoni's pet style, players that genuinely don't fit together), but these are all ills that apply to L.A. regardless of their injury woes. I suspect D'Antoni would be able to wrangle a few more wins on the margins with less-injured talent, but the overall trajectory of this team would remain about the same -- they're a mediocre team that excels at nothing-in-particular in the best of times. I'm really curious to see what Kupchak does with this roster in the offseason. Lord knows they need some spring cleaning.

• • •

27. Orlando Magic (13th in the East) 18-42, SRS of -5.68
26. Utah Jazz (13th in the West) 21-36, SRS of -4.17
25. Boston Celtics (12th in the East) 20-39, SRS of -4.16
24. Denver Nuggets (11th in the West) 25-31, SRS of -1.71
23. New York Knicks (11th in the East) 21-36, SRS of -2.33
22. Atlanta Hawks (8th in the East) 26-31, SRS of -0.68
21. Detroit Pistons (9th in the East) 23-35, SRS of -3.37
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (10th in the East) 23-36, SRS of -5.26
19. Brooklyn Nets (7th in the East) 26-29, SRS of -2.86

18. New Orleans Pelicans (12th in the West) 23-34, SRS of -1.70

INJURED ROSTER: Anthony Davis (shoulder sprain), Ryan Anderson (herniated disk), Jrue Holiday (stress fracture), Jason Smith (right knee surgery)

I was pretty high on New Orleans in the offseason, a sentiment that's partially a product of my perhaps-misguided faith in Eric Gordon's defense. Still, their overall roster construction looked solid. Davis and Anderson represent the kind of perfect in-and-out configuration that represents a matchup nightmare for just about any other team in the league. The Jrue Holiday acquisition gave them a defensive bulldog who'd bother their foe's best perimeter scorer and execute a solid offense, Eric Gordon's return from injury would give them another good wing defender, and Tyreke Evans looked like a decent option to fill the gaps offensively without embarrassing them on defense. ... Well, about that. The Pelicans have been one of the NBA's least inspiring teams, if you look at record and results as a part of a trajectory. Last summer's Pelicans made a lot of moves that appeared prime to push their young roster into a tight Western playoff race.

Instead, the results have been an uninspiring stew of alternating mediocrity and horror. Anthony Davis has had one of the best years of any young player in recent memory, but the team around him has largely disappointed -- Holiday was rubbish even when healthy, Gordon and Evans have been replacement-level at best, and Anderson's injuries have made it next to impossible to fully assess how good this team can be. Worse still, their acquisitions and moves have left them financially tapped out for the next few seasons. The question of the hour for the Pelicans isn't really one of whether this season's play can be salvaged. It can't. They're 10 games out of the eight seed with 25 games left to play, which effectively means that they'd need to put up a record on the order of 20-5 to have a serious shot at playing in the postseason. Even if Davis' shoulder sprain is minor, it would make little organizational sense to trot him out there and risk a franchise-altering injury in pursuit of the impossible. The most apt injury-focused question for New Orleans is one of blame.

Namely, how much are their litany of injuries to blame for their crummy year?

I'd tend to think the Pelicans are closer to the rosy offseason projections than they are to this season's sobering reality. Davis and Anderson showed an excellent two-man game in their time together (scant though it was), and a lot of their disappointing acquisitions seem a little bit fluky. Case in point -- Tyreke Evans is putting up the largest usage rate of his career. Unlike most players, though, he's actually put up a more efficient shot distribution this year than ever before. In Sacramento, Evans took just 7% of his threes from the corner -- he's taking 25% of them from the corner this year. In Sacramento, Evans took 43% of his shots in the immediate vicinity of the rim -- he's taking 55% of his shots there this year. In Sacramento, Evans took 19% of his shots from the "long two dead zone" of 16-23 feet -- he's taking 9% of his shots there this year. In terms of shot distribution and general quality-of-shot, Evans is having a really good season. He just can't seem to make any of the well-placed shots he's taking.

Assuming Evans continues his improved shot profile, it isn't unrealistic to expect that he'd post one of his best seasons once his shot starts coming around. And the Pelicans -- despite the woeful broad strokes -- have shown flashes of brilliance even in this lost year. They hold one of the NBA's best four-man combinations in Holiday/Evans/Anderson/Davis, a fearsome group that's outscored opposing teams by 15 points per 100 possessions in the 143 minutes they've shared the court. The Pelicans are circling the toilet bowl on another lost season, but count me as an optimist for their future trajectory. Their genuinely awful defense probably nixes their potential as a contending force in the NBA (barring a massive leap by Anthony Davis on the defensive end -- hardly a remote possibility), but if they can put together a healthy season, they should be firmly in the mix for one of the West's lower-tier playoff spots in the next few years of their locked-up core.

• • •

17. Sacramento Kings (14th in the West) 20-37, SRS of -1.33
16. Charlotte Bobcats (6th in the East) 27-30, SRS of -2.13
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (10th in the West) 28-29, SRS of 4.54
14. Washington Wizards (5th in the East) 29-28, SRS of 0.00
13. Phoenix Suns (8th in the West) 33-24, SRS of 2.85
12. Chicago Bulls (4th in the East) 31-26, SRS of -0.04
11. Memphis Grizzlies (9th in the West) 32-24, SRS of 1.16
10. Toronto Raptors (3rd in the East) 32-25, SRS of 2.7
9. Golden State Warriors (7th in the West) 35-23, SRS of 4.69
8. Dallas Mavericks (6th in the West) 36-23, SRS of 2.52

7. Portland Trail Blazers (3rd in the West) 40-18, SRS of 5.56

INJURED ROSTER: LaMarcus Aldridge (groin), Thomas Robinson (sprained knee), Meyers Leonard (sprained ankle), Joel Freeland (sprained MCL)

I was going to write a bit about San Antonio's revolving door of injuries and their in-process return to form, but last night's Portland win really shocked me. So much so that I had to write about their team. I've been on record as one of Portland's biggest backers this year, and I went so far as to tab LaMarcus Aldridge as the NBA's MVP at the quarter-way mark of the season. I wouldn't quite put Aldridge at #1 on my ballot anymore. Durant has passed him handily. That said, if I had a ballot I'd still slot him firmly in the top five.

Many harbor disdain for Aldridge as an MVP candidate. They note that his play this season isn't drastically different from his play in the last several seasons, following that nobody in their right mind would've considered him an MVP candidate before this year. Ergo, he can't be considered much of one this year, especially when several other big men in his conference are putting up similarly incredible seasons. This logic isn't unreasonable, but I think it misses a few key points about Aldridge's play this season that bear repeating.

  • HIS DEFENSE: Aldridge has always been a decent-to-good defender, at least when he's locked in. He's no Duncan, but he's almost always in the right place and he's fastidious when it comes to maintaining position and switching. There's a caveat, though. His defensive talent is more reminiscent of a very good accountant who knows the ins and outs of the tax system than an artistic savant who shines in any situation. Fittingly, Aldridge is prone to fits of laziness and defensive lapses when he's stuck on teams that are poor at just about everything on the court. That isn't true about this year's team. The 2014 Blazers are a pathetic defensive team -- a fact that will likely be their death knell in the playoffs -- but it's by absolutely no fault of Aldridge. His effort on defense has been phenomenal this year, and the Blazers have actually needed him more on defense than they have on offense -- the Blazers have been five points per 100 possessions better on defense with Aldridge on the floor, essentially representing the difference between Milwaukee's 30th ranked defense (allowing an ORTG of 110) and Memphis' 10th ranked defense (allowing an ORTG of 105).
  • HE ACTUALLY IS PLAYING BETTER: People are correct when they note that his play isn't dramatically better than it was before. But even disregarding his markedly increased defensive intensity, Aldridge is posting his best long-two shooting percentage of his career by a decent margin despite massively increased usage from that range. He's rebounding at a higher rate than he ever has before, his assist rate is a comfortable career high, and his turnover rate is a comfortable career low. In a vacuum, the changes are all reasonably small. Compounded, though? In context with his massively increased usage? He's made a leap from "perennial deserving all-star" to a number one option you can actually contend for a title with, even if only on the fringes. That's a pretty big deal.
  • PORTLAND'S OFFENSE MAKES NO SENSE WITHOUT HIM: I'm one of the few remaining weirdos who firmly believe that Dirk Nowitzki deserved the regular season MVP in the 2011 season. So perhaps that's part of where my Aldridge-inspired backing comes from -- I have a soft spot for quixotic big men whose skillset is absolutely essential to the way their team plays the game. Portland's league-leading offense is based around subverting the core concept of most defensive schemes -- mainly, the idea that the long-two is an anathema to efficiency. Most teams use that concept and try to force the opposing team to take as many guarded long twos as possible, aware that they're a better result for the defense than a three point shot or any closer two. The Blazers, Heat, and Mavericks all laugh at that concept, each featuring floor-spacing big men that extend the floor and make that theoretically distasteful long two into a downright enviable result. An offense that turns bad results into good ones is one that can sustain through droughts and playoff pressure. Without Aldridge's skillset (or perhaps more to the point, even if he was equally as skilled with a less quixotic skillset), the Blazers aren't anywhere close to the threat they are.

I maintain serious skepticism at Portland's ability to keep a sustained period of quality play going without Aldridge there to open the offense and keep their defense rolling. Especially when it comes to the defense. The Blazers still have the pieces for a reasonably effective NBA offense without Aldridge, although it's more reliant on threes and less likely to sustain productivity against a playoff defense. They just can't really defend anyone, as evinced by the disappointing home loss they recently suffered to the M*A*S*H unit Spurs last week. They scored 23 points in the last six minutes by running a slightly more traditional offense with their remaining personnel, and it was almost enough to win the game. But filling in Aldridge's absence on defense is exceedingly difficult.

That said? Last night's game was pretty amazing on that front for the Blazers. Perhaps Brooklyn was just having a bad night, and perhaps it's too easy to read too far into a single game. But the Blazers put up one of their very best defensive efforts of the season despite starting Dorrell Wright and playing serious minutes while the game was close with an absolutely bonkers Williams-McCollum-Barton-Matthews-Claver lineup. That lineup shouldn't be able to defend ANYONE, let alone a lineup fielding Brooklyn's "best five" unit of Williams/Johnson/Thornton/Pierce/Garnett. I'm admittedly hesitant to say that my initial read on Portland's no-Aldridge defense is wrong. But I can't deny that Portland's guard-fueled defensive triumph with a single active big man is tantalizing for me, even if it came against a mediocre-to-bad Nets team. If Portland's smalls can put that kind of a defensive effort together with Aldridge and Lopez together on the front line, their ceiling rises dramatically. Worth watching, as the season churns to an end.

• • •

6. Houston Rockets (5th in the West) 39-19, SRS of 4.99
5. Los Angeles Clippers (4th in the West) 40-20, SRS of 6.56
4. San Antonio Spurs (2nd in the West) 41-16, SRS of 6.41
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (1st in the West) 43-15, SRS of 6.82
2. Indiana Pacers (1st in the East) 43-13, SRS of 7.37
1. Miami Heat (2nd in the East) 40-14, SRS of 5.06

Trading Places: NBA Moves and Grooves on the 2014 Deadline (PART I)

Photo by Kelley L Cox for USA TODAY Sports.

Every year, we do SOMETHING for the trade deadline. Sometimes it's an after-the-fact reaction piece with observations that often look silly in retrospect. Sometimes it's a run-down of every single trade that happened. Well. Most of the time, it'll be that. And that "most of the time" includes today, when I'll be updating this post with running reactions to all of the NBA's huge, sea-changing moves. (Spoiler alert: we probably won't get any. We can dream, though.) Let's get to it. I'll keep a list of trades covered in the top piece of the post so you know how recently updated this post is. [LAST UPDATE: 5:43 PM]

  • DEAL #1: BKN acquires Marcus Thornton, SAC acquires Jason Terry & Reggie Evans.
  • DEAL #2: GSW acquires Steve Blake, LAL acquires Kent Bazemore & MarShon Brooks.
  • DEAL #3: CLE acquires Spencer Hawes, PHI acquires Earl Clark and two second round picks.
  • DEAL #4: SAC acquires Roger Mason Jr., MIA acquires literally nothing whatsoever.
  • DEAL #5: CHA acquires Gary Neal & Luke Ridnour, MIL acquires Ramon Sessions & Jeff Adrien.

• • •

EVERY ROSE HAS ITS THORNTONS (Trade story on ESPN.com)

BROOKLYN RECEIVES:

Marcus Thornton (2-yr/$8.3 mil per)

SACRAMENTO RECEIVES:

Jason Terry (2-yr/$5.7 mil per), Reggie Evans (2-yr/$1.7 mil per)

This is an absolutely classic Brooklyn trade. Over his tenure as owner, Mikhail Prokhorov's Nets have made performance art out of trading bad contracts for worse ones that represent marginal talent upgrades. This trade is no different. Marcus Thornton has had an interesting NBA career -- after breaking out in his first two seasons as a surprisingly second round steal, the Kings traded away Carl Landry (who was at the time their best player) for Thornton. They followed up the trade by paying a king's ransom to keep Thornton in-house, specifically in the form of a 4-year $32 million dollar deal. Theoretically, if he'd developed from where he was in his second year season, that contract wouldn't be horrible. In actuality, it turned out to be a downright awful move. Thornton hasn't developed in any real fashion since his sophomore season, and in many ways has deeply regressed. His shot selection (once a mortal lock to improve) has actually gotten worse as time went on, and his shooting has finally reverted to the mean.

"Wait, what? He's shooting 31% from three, what do you mean 'reverted to the mean'?" Well, yeah. Here's what you need to understand about Marcus Thornton. Although he's a good shooter, Thornton's shot selection (in terms of TYPES of shots, not locations) has always been among the worst in the league, and he takes an obscene number of wildly contested shots off the dribble. As I pointed out in his capsule a few clicks back, Sacramento scorekeepers have had a weird habit of crediting other players with assists when Thornton takes shots off several dribbles while moving-into-the-defender. Don't let this numbers fool you. Thornton is notorious for making easy shots difficult with no particular regard for efficiency or tact, and while his awful shooting this season is out of character with his general career numbers (and perhaps more importantly someone with his technically adept form) it's hardly out of character for a player with the shot selection he has. Other than his scoring, there really just isn't much else there -- Thornton's game is essentially an iPhone app that gives you a recorded fajita sizzle without actually providing sustenance. No defense, no passing, no rebounding, no chance. And he's making $8.3 million, which is... less than ideal.

That said, I don't dislike this deal for Brooklyn at all. Nor do I really hate it for Sacramento, either. Brooklyn is at the point where they need to start looking at the future. You don't look at the future by playing the dessicated corpse of Jason Terry, who's effectively done as a professional basketball player. If we're honest, you probably don't look to the future by playing the 27-year-old Thornton either. He is what he is, and it's difficult to see a situation where he becomes a player worth his salary. But at least it's a lateral move with some limited quantity of upside. Perhaps Garnett, Kidd, and Pierce badger Thornton into playing off-ball and using his technically sound shot on fewer off-dribble heaves, making him a passable semi-young three-point gunner on a team that does realistically need more spacing. You know, given Garnett's offensive collapse and the absence of Lopez. He has a possible role, at the very least. And if Thornton DOES fail, it's not a humongous problem -- the Nets will have spent a lot of money on it, but money is essentially a concept rather than an actual restraint to Prokhorov. So it's not really that big of a deal. And the contracts are the same number of years, too.

As for Sacramento, they save a few million dollars, which is going to be essential when it comes time to give Isaiah Thomas his extension this summer -- in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade, they're already pushing up against the luxury tax line. They've got the potential to save a few more as well, if Jason Terry accepts a buyout. They aren't realistically going to get anything on a basketball court from Terry or Evans, but they managed to offload their worst contract and save a few bucks without giving up a draft pick. And the contracts they got are easier to move, especially that of Reggie Evans. I could imagine a team like the Clippers potentially putting out feelers for Evans and giving out a low second rounder for him to bolster their big man rotation. Hardly a shabby result, at least when your main motivation going into the trade was to simply get a gigantic albatross off your books.

• • •

BIDDING ADIEU TO THE BLAKESHOW (Trade story on ESPN.com)

GOLDEN STATE RECEIVES:

Steve Blake (1-yr/$4 mil per)

LOS ANGELES LAKERS RECEIVE:

MarShon Brooks (1-yr/$1.2 mil per), Kent Bazemore (1-yr/$0.8 mil per)

There isn't much to belittle or joke about here. This is just a solid trade for both sides, straight up. The Los Angeles Lakers are a flaming tire fire this season, a team with a record that overstates their quality (yes, they're worse than 18-36) and a rabid fanbase that was clinging to nori-thin playoff hopes for reasons passing understanding. Steve Blake is an odd looking guy whose game has never been big-picture important in the NBA. This move doesn't exactly change that, but it does reflect that he's had a tiny bit of a comeback season this year. At the age of 33, Blake is putting up his best PER since 2009 (which, full disclosure, is still well below average for a point guard). He's posting the highest assist rate of his career and his highest usage rate since 2009, and he's done that despite a gross spate of injuries and a difficult season overall. Which would indicate that he'd be perfect for the Warriors as a final solution to their irritable backup guard problem. I think it's a good move by the Warriors to kick the tires on it, but I admit that I'm not 100% positive it'll work out for them. While Blake has been involved in several of L.A.'s best lineups, a lot of Blake's best work has been done in dual-point lineups when he's alternating his ball-handling with better point guards beside him.

His two best five-man combinations this season have come while he was flanked by Steve Nash (+3.9 net rating for Blake/Nash/Young/Gasol/Kaman) or Kendall Marshall (+10.5 net rating for Blake/Marshall/Johnson/Williams/Kaman). This doesn't extend to ALL lineups including Nash and Marshall, and looking at the tape, Blake certainly did take on more of the ballhandling than you'd expect. But given that Blake's three is his best weapon, you really do need to have another good ballhandler on the floor with him if you intend to fully utilize his skillset. I'm not positive Jordan Crawford is going to suffice as that ballhandler, which may to require Marc Jackson to get creative and test out dual-guard lineups with Curry and Blake, with the two of them getting alternating off-ball reps to force double teams and open up their offense. That said, there's certainly a chance that Blake ends up being everything Golden State wants. Good passer, decent shooter, competent floor general. He's also not an embarrassment on defense anymore, which is great. Old point guards often get a little bit better on defense as time goes on, simply by dint of being around long enough to develop a good predictive sense on where a possession is heading before it gets there. Blake has that second sense, and he reacts accordingly. It doesn't make him a positive defender, but it does make him less of a turnstile than he was earlier in his career.

It's also a relatively low-cost move in the long term for Golden State, as Blake is nestled firmly in a low-money expiring deal that doesn't push them over the tax line. They also opened up a roster spot, which could be used down the stretch if they suffer a big injury and need to pick up some low-cost depth or kick the tires on a D-League prospect. As for the Lakers, the subject of the hour is money -- specifically, the fact that they saved $2 million dollars and now sit within spitting distance of the tax line. If they move Jordan Hill for peanuts (as is expected), any further minor move could place them under the tax and give them a bit more time before they run into the notoriously horrific tax-repeater penalty implemented in the 2011 CBA. Blake is 33 years old, and didn't represent any particular part of L.A.'s future. He was also having one of the better seasons on their team. Moving him out makes them a bit worse and gives them a quality opportunity to assess a semi-talented young piece in Kent Bazemore. It also sets up an epic clash in the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League between Laker Legend Kent Bazemore and the heel-turn summer league dynasty that kicked him to the curb. This is going to be the greatest subplot of the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League. If I were you I'd get a head-start on your disgustingly long oral histories now.

• • •


GUESS THAT'S HAWE THE COOKIE CRUMBLES (Trade story on ESPN.com)

CLEVELAND RECEIVES:

Spencer Hawes (1-yr/$6.5 mil per)

PHILADELPHIA RECEIVES:

Earl Clark (2-yr/$4.2 mil per), 2014 second round CLE/ORL draft pick, 2014 second round MEM draft pick

Color me a bit surprised that Philadelphia got any value at all for Spencer Hawes on an expiring contract, but I probably shouldn't be. One of this season's odd plot twists have been the soaring statistical profile of virtually everyone in Philadelphia despite the nettlesome truth that virtually everyone on their roster has had a disappointing season. This is a result of an age-old tendency to look at a player's season averages without looking at the context around them. Don't make the same mistake -- although Hawes is putting up a classic box score line on downright excellent per-36 rates (specifically, Hawes is averaging per-36 minute numbers of 15-10-4-1-1), those numbers are extremely skewed. The Philadelphia 76ers are currently playing faster basketball than anyone else in the NBA, to the point that they're playing six more possessions in the average contest than the average NBA team. This effect becomes even more pronounced when you're extrapolating per-36 numbers, massively inflating the classical box score chops of Philly's strongmen. Hawes is decent, but tricking teams into giving up actual assets for him is just that -- a trick.

He's not a 15-10 type player, and despite the gaudy averages, he probably averages out as a 3rd or 4th best big man on a contending team in the overall picture. Despite his 7'0" height, Hawes a terrible habit for completely disengaging on defense, which is something you simply can't abide as a starting center in the NBA. He reminds me of a slightly larger edition of Indiana's career-year Troy Murphy -- his rebounding total is deceptively high (10 rebounds per 36 minutes!) due to Philadelphia's pace. He actually rates out as the NBA's 25th best rebounder out of 40 bigs who receive regular minutes this season, and he's far closer to the bottom than the top. His offense is valuable mostly in that he's actually developed into quite an effective three point shooter, as he's shot an incredible percentage (40%) on serious volume this season. His post moves are an adventure and his short-range shotmaking is poor, but his range could be a deathly effective option in a pick and roll heavy offense with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters setting him up. Possibly. His flagging rebounding and awful defense should put the kibosh on dreams of him as a starter, but he could be a nice younger piece to grow as a tertiary big beside Cleveland's young core.

In the overall picture, I like this trade for Philadelphia. While Earl Clark has two years on his deal, next year is a team option they're extremely unlikely to take. The Memphis second round pick is probably not going to be particularly valuable (it currently projects as the 50th pick overall), but the other pick is a nice get. Reports aren't yet clear on whether it's Cleveland's own secondyou round pick or Orlando's second round pick, but it hardly makes a difference -- it's likely to end up in the 32-37 range, which is exactly where you want to be in the second round. Given the current CBA, a pick from 31-40 is arguably a higher value bet than a pick from 20-30. Players from 20 onward are all crapshoots, but the high second rounders combine the merits of a decently large player pool with the merits of non-guaranteed money and flexibly structured salary. It essentially lets Philadelphia take a flyer on a late first round talent without having to take on the guaranteed salary that entails, which is a giant boon when you're looking for cheap young talent that could make up pieces of your core.

As you might've picked up, I'm a bit more shaky on Cleveland's role in the trade. I see why they did it -- Spencer Hawes likely represents a large upgrade from any value the Cavs could've gotten from the two second round picks, and Earl Clark was an unmitigated failure in Cleveland. From a value perspective,  they got good value for their picks, and it was a decent move in a vacuum. But I'm not entirely loving the end-game here. Tyler Zeller is finally having a nice stretch of games that indicates his potential as exactly the sort of 3rd-to-4th big that Spencer Hawes represents, and the Cavs currently have one of the league's biggest boondoggles in their frontcourt. Adding Hawes to the mix virtually guarantees that one or two members of the Varejao/Thompson/Zeller/Bennett foursome will lose minutes, and that's not a result I find very appealing.

Rentals for shakily valued picks are good if you're intending to kick the tires on a player who you were thinking of signing in the offseason. It's a great way to ensure the player fits with your core BEFORE you sink a large amount of money into their deal. But I don't really have the slightest idea where Hawes fits without sending out some of Cleveland's big men. Given the age and relative productivity of Cleveland's cadre of frontcourt young'ns, I'm not sure if Hawes is much of an upgrade at all, even if they'd gotten him for free. Good trade, value-wise. But Chris Grant's epitaph as a general manager was a guy who got excellent value in almost all of his trades but never had a coherent plan to use that value. Grant may be gone, but this trade echos his philosophy. Which isn't ideal.

• • •


GUEST POST: BILL SIMMONS ON ROGER MASON JR. TO SACRAMENTO

MIAMI RECEIVES:

A draft pick that literally does not exist.

SACRAMENTO RECEIVES:

Roger Mason Jr. (1-yr/$1.3 mil per)

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm on my lunch break, so I decided to commentate this trade by simply copy and pasting a segment from the Sports Guy's feature on the James Harden trade from the 2013 preseason. I have done no editing to the text other than replacing "James Harden" with "Roger Mason Jr.", all Lakers mentions with Nets mentions, and all Thunder mentions with Heat mentions. Also, I took out a swear. This is exactly how to analyze this trade.

Never — not in my wildest dreams — did I imagine Miami breaking them up.

When everyone started playing the blame game after the trade — Roger Mason Jr. shouldn’t have been so greedy, Miami should have played it out for one more year, the trade never would have happened if Roger Mason Jr. played better in the national TV Finals rematch against the Spurs, Pat Riley didn’t get anything whatsoever back in this trade, etc., etc., etc. — I kept thinking about those three guys with their arms around each other. Do you really want to break THAT up? Weren’t these guys headed somewhere together? Wasn’t that series part of the journey? Wasn’t this like canceling a great TV series after one and a half seasons, like if Homeland just stopped right now and we never found out what happened to Brody and Carrie?

Forget about worrying whether Roger Mason Jr. is a max player (and by the way, he is — 15 teams would have given it to him), or why Roger Mason Jr. didn’t play better in the 2013 Finals (um, James Worthy sucked in the 1984 Finals and turned out fine), or if it meant something that Roger Mason Jr. didn’t just blindly take less than what he’s worth (when he had already sacrificed minutes, numbers, and shots to succeed on that team). Miami significantly hindered their chances of winning a title — not just this year, but every year. And they did it because, after raking in ridiculous amounts of money these past four years (including $30-35 million PROFIT during last year’s shortened season), they valued their own bottom line ahead of their title window. A window that included the second-best player in the league (Roger Mason Jr.), a top-10 player (Roger Mason Jr.) and a top-20 player (Roger Mason Jr.) … all under the age of 45.

That’s why every Brooklyn Nets fan spent the weekend rejoicing and making 2014 Finals plans. This was the one team that scared the living crap out of them — these past two seasons, Miami was too young, too fast, too relentless, too everything. Even after the Nets added Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, it’s worth noting that (a) Paul Pierce can’t defend Roger Mason Jr. unless he’s allowed to use a two-by-four, and (b) Juwan Howard is overpaid mainly because he’s been Garnett’s Kryptonite these past few seasons, someone with the bizarre ability to frustrate and even neutralize Garnett beyond any realm of common sense. After the Heat traded Roger Mason Jr., every Nets fan I know e-mailed me. They were overjoyed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Aaron McGuire has been fired.

• • •


LET'S MAKE A NEAL

CHARLOTTE RECEIVES:

Gary Neal (2-yr/$3.2 mil per), Luke Ridnour (1-yr/$4.3 mil per)

MILWAUKEE RECEIVES:

Ramon Sessions (1-yr/$5.0 mil per), Jeff Adrien (1-yr/$0.9 mil per)

This deal is relatively minor on its face, but I'd deem it a pretty good get for Charlotte. Ramon Sessions is a useful player as a slasher, but he's a bit duplicative with Charlotte's current rotation of smalls. Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are all effective slashers with good at-rim games and generally shaky range -- it was somewhat unlikely Sessions was coming back after his contract expired anyway, so replacing him with a few pieces that add different wrinkles to the Charlotte offense is a reasonably strong move. Especially for the two they picked.  Luke Ridnour has fallen off badly this season with the absolute dearth of talent in Milwaukee, but he's less than a year removed from a solid season in Minnesota next to Rubio and Love and his assist rate is roughly commensurate with what Ramon Sessions gave the Bobcats at the point. He's still a decent three point shooter, as well -- even in this year's down season he's sitting snug at 37% from behind the arc.

The big upside bet the Bobcats are making in this deal lies in Neal, the once-proficient three point gunner that Milwaukee poached in the offseason from San Antonio. I've never been Neal's biggest fan for a wide variety of reasons that don't really bear mentioning here, because he simply doesn't make enough money for them to matter. Neal's sitting at $3.2 million a year on an extremely short contract. Yes, he's been awful this year (39-36-83 shooting with absolutely nothing outside his scoring), but again... $3.2 million! For a team like Charlotte that all too often has to overpay veterans to attract them in free agency, getting to kick the tires on a once-proficient young shooter on a bargain bin deal makes a heck of a lot of sense. Even if Neal and Ridnour maintain their tepid play from Milwaukee, they'll still roundly upgrade Charlotte's three point attack and immediately give the team 3-4 more decent-percentage heaves from the three point line every night. If Neal can return to his San Antonio form, the bet becomes even better -- I've a suspicion that Neal at peak form would work extremely well in a space-and-drive lineup with Kemba, Henderson, Jefferson, and Tolliver. He might take too many shots, but Charlotte's stagnant offense isn't generating looks that are all that much better than any average Neal chuck anyway. It's just generally a good fit.

As for Milwaukee, they wanted to get out of Neal's long term money, and -- perhaps -- wanted to kick the tires on a cheap prospect in Jeff Adrien. Sessions is hardly in Milwaukee's future plans, and his summer departure seems like a lock to me. They'll get 30 games of two players unlikely to play a huge role in their future as they tank for a blue chip superstar. They'll hope for the best, because there isn't really much else to do. It's hard to take a long view at Milwaukee's future, because that future seems so desperately far away. Maybe Ramon Sessions will do the fans a solid and uncork one of his throwback 24-assist nights. Let's hope so.

• • •

I was pretty sure going into the day that I'd be able to fit all of the trades into a single post. Evidently, I was wrong -- I'm already hovering around 4000 words and I've only gone over 5 deals. Thus, I'll cut this post off here and analyze the rest of these in a brand new fresh-til-death post on the remaining seven deals. Taste the fever!

Examining the NBA's "Starters in Name Only"

vince carter chillin

If you follow college basketball in any capacity, you probably read Ken Pomeroy's excellent blog. If you don't, start reading it now and pretend you always did. Professor Pom-Pom (NOTE TO SELF: Never again call him this) recently posted a fun little piece going over two groups of NCAA players: a selection of guys that don't start but play a ton and another selection that start the game but barely play at all, headlined by the fantastically named "Matt Milk." I thought it was an neatway to highlight a segment of the league's players that have made the "starter" designation a lot less meaningful in the NBA's modern era, so much so that I decided to run the numbers for the NBA and find the NBA's closest analogues to the Tre Dempses and the Matt Milks of the world.

Now, I did need to change a few aspects. In the NCAA, there are quite literally thousands of players from which to choose from. At the time I looked up the numbers in this post, 4711 players had registered minutes in the NCAA this season. Only 456 have suited up for the NBA. As a result, outlier cases are a bit harder to wrangle in the NBA, so I had to relax the conditions on Pomeroy's lists a little bit to get a collection of players that felt representative. To wit:

  • For our starters in name only, the cutoff points are players that have started more than 85% of their games played. For good measure, they also have to have played in more than 40 games.
  • For our bench staples who play a ton (or our "starters off the bench", as I'm calling them) the cutoff points are players that haven't started a single game but have played in at least 45. This does eliminate a few players (like Manu Ginobili and Draymond Green), but it leaves enough bench staples for a five player list.

All that said, let's get into our two lists.

THE STARTERS OFF THE BENCH

#5: MARCUS MORRIS, PHOENIX SUNS
21.9 MPG in 51 games -- 0 starts, 45.4% of PHX minutes played

I'm a big fan of Pomeroy's adherence to "percentage of team minutes played" when looking at playing time, so I'm going to do that for this post. Hence: of all the minutes Phoenix has played basketball this season, 45.4% of those minutes featured Marcus Morris. Like his brother, Marcus has carved out quite a nice role for himself in Phoenix. Role-wise, he serves as the three-point floor spacer to Markieff's rim-rocking stylings. And he's been effective -- the Suns have been marginally less effective with Marcus on the floor than they've been without him, but he's played a role in several aggressive bench-heavy lineups that have done a lot to keep Phoenix afloat during Bledsoe's absence. Fittingly, Marcus' best four-man group is one of such bench-heavy pairings featuring him and his brother together -- the Suns have outscored teams by 24 points per 100 possessions in the 125 minutes they've played with the four man group of Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, and the Morris Twins on the floor together (alongside any of Phoenix's intriguing wing options alongside them).

#4: JEREMY LAMB, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
22.2 MPG in 54 games -- 0 starts, 46.0% of OKC minutes played

Last season, Lamb was less than an afterthought in the rookie of the year race -- he played 147 minutes in the NBA (alongside 689 minutes in the D-League) and did just about jack-all with the opportunity, showing a tentative shooting stroke against more aggressive NBA defenses and an even worse grasp of himself on the defensive end. Although he was young and the Thunder didn't need a ton out of him, the initial returns on the Harden trade looked to be bunk. Guess we spoke too soon. Lamb's play this season has been reasonably excellent, and as a result he's played more minutes at the all-star break than he did in the NBA and D-League seasons combined last year. He'll never be better than Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis, but this year has lent a much more sympathetic eye to the infamously panned Harden trade. His defense is still a bit of a struggle, but he puts in time on that end and does about as well as an mildly undersized guard can do. His real value hasn't been in value added as much as it has a terrific continuity of Oklahoma City's offensive flow -- the Thunder's loss of Kevin Martin turned out to be a blessing, as they've replaced Martin's expensive, waning, and aging contributions for Lamb's time. He produces just about the same excellence as the 2013 Thunder came to expect from Martin -- he just does it cheaper, better, and with more staying power. He's an offensive fulcrum who waxes and wanes with the flow of Oklahoma City's offense, but he's a piece for the future rather than a fragment of the past.

#3: MO WILLIAMS, PORTLAND TRAIL-BLAZERS
24.3 MPG in 49 games -- 0 starts, 46.4% of POR minutes played

This is not Mo Williams' best season. It's a rarity among NBA talent to have a guy's best season cleanly overlap with the only time in their career where they're in a position to make an all-star game. But Mo's a lucky one -- there's exactly one season in Mo's repertoire where he played all-star caliber ball, and it just so happened to be the exact season where an injury opened a spot for him in a weak eastern conference slate. All that said, while it certainly isn't Mo's best season (he's a no-defense player with a PER of 11 -- that's ROUGH), he's taken on his most important season in his post-Cleveland years by accepting and thriving in two separate roles. In most lineups, he serves as a decoy from beyond the arc meant to open up offensive sets inside and keep defenders honest. But in his best lineup, his function is different -- the Blazers are the first team in quite a while to demand that Mo take on primary ball-handling duty for long stretches of games and have it NOT blow up in their face. The Blazers have outscored teams by 17 points per 100 possessions in Mo's most-common lineup (104 minutes played). It features Mo at point, Matthews and Batum at the wings, and Lopez/Aldridge at the bigs -- their starting lineup minus Lillard, essentially. This lineup has not succeeded with much help from Mo's shooting -- without Lillard to set him up, Mo puts up a borderline-disgusting 35% TS% in that lineup. It's successful because everyone else on the floor works incredibly well together, and Mo and Batum combine to assist on nearly half the made shots this lineup produces. Good on Mo -- and the Blazers -- for finding one of Mo's first post-LeBron lineups where his passing is actually effective.

#2: VINCE CARTER, DALLAS MAVERICKS
24.1 MPG in 53 games -- 0 starts, 49.1% of DAL minutes played

Although making fun of Vince Carter is something akin to a Canadian national pastime, at some point you have to admit that his longevity is pretty impressive. We've only got 15 players left who were drafted in 1998 or earlier, and few of them play any time at all. In fact, only five of them have played over a thousand minutes in the 2014 season. To wit, these five:

  1. DIRK NOWITZKI -- 52 games, 52 starts, 1675 MP at the age of 35
  2. TIM DUNCAN -- 49 games, 49 starts, 1448 MP at the age of 37
  3. PAUL PIERCE -- 45 games, 38 starts, 1303 MP at the age of 36
  4. VINCE CARTER -- 52 games, 0 starts, 1276 MP at the age of 37
  5. RAY ALLEN -- 47 games, 9 starts, 1246 MP at the age of 38

Nobody else among the oldies is contributing much at all, with Kobe representing the single player out of the remaining 10 who might ever return to a contributing form at all. Isn't that sort of impressive? I've never been a big fan of Carter's case for the NBA's hall of fame, but his late career renaissance in Dallas is starting to make the prospect a bit less absurd to me. If you'd told me a few years back that Vince Carter would be toiling at the age of 37 for a marginal playoff team, coming off the bench and working his ass off for barely any return or glory, I'd have thought you mad. But there he is.

He's fallen off, obviously, and he's not an amazing asset anymore... but he's a productive three point shooter with more dependable pressure defense than most of the young guns in Carlisle's wheelhouse, and he still shows flashes of his stat-stuffing wunderkind days long past. I mean, really -- he averages 17-5-4 per 36 minutes, which is hardly far removed from his 19-5-4 he put up in 2010 when he helped Orlando make the Eastern Conference Finals. He's not a massive factor, obviously. Nor is he particularly important. But I can't help appreciating the fact that the player who supposedly never gave a damn is -- somehow -- still putting up a strong facsimile of his old play at age 37 , as the 8th oldest player in the entire league.

#1: MARKIEFF MORRIS, PHOENIX SUNS
25.0 MPG in 50 games -- 0 starts, 50.9% of PHX minutes played

Ah, the other Morris! Although Markieff has played in fewer games than Marcus, he's played quite a few more minutes and had a bit more time to shine. Mostly because he's better. One of the somewhat-hilarious dangers of Phoenix's connective reliance on the Morris twins is that it makes it all the less likely that either of them win any sixth man of the year hardware. If I had to choose, Markieff would be the obvious one to pick -- he's played more efficient offense, more effective defense, and has been a lot more important to Phoenix's overall attack. Like Marcus, he's a true sixth man -- he does good work with elements of Phoenix's starting unit, but he's a member of the Suns' bench mob through-and-through. While Marcus essentially spots out beyond the arc and opens the floor for his teammates, Markieff functions as his team's primary rebounder when he's on the floor. In previous years, this would bea death knell for the Suns. Although Markieff has always been a good individual rebounder, he didn't used to very aggressive in boxing out and contesting rebounds. That's changed this year, and his newfound aggression is paying dividends -- it allows Phoenix to play wonky bench lineups with Markieff playing the nominal center, which gives the Suns a ton of weird lineup advantages on the offensive end. And when you combine his excellent rebounding with his quick trigger passes off offensive rebounds and his crafty layups, you have one of the NBA's strongest contenders for this year's 6MOTY honors. (Provided Marcus doesn't steal his votes, of course!)

Photo by Joshua Lott for The New York Times.

STARTERS IN NAME ONLY

#5: JASON THOMPSON, SACRAMENTO KINGS
25.7 MPG in 53 games -- 47 starts, 53.0% of SAC minutes played

Thompson's an interesting case -- theoretically, given his relatively young age and longtime experience with the franchise, he'd make a good building-to-the-future pairing next to DeMarcus Cousins and would be considered a strong piece for Sacramento's future. This season has been a bit disappointing, though, and Kings fans are left wondering a bit if Thompson is going to pan out as the permanent Cousins-flanking option the franchise hoped he'd be. With Mike Malone's new system chaining Cousins deep in the post on offense (which, let's be fair, has been absolutely incredible for Cousins and unleashed a dominant side of their star that had been seen in little more than glimpses in seasons prior), it stands that whoever is next to Cousins is going to need to operate a lot more outside the paint. Just think of the Duncan/Splitter conundrum in San Antonio or the Asik/Howard conundrum in Houston. Hence, Thompson has to step out and shoot outside the paint.

The issue? He's not great at it. He's not BAD, but he isn't exactly a spacing threat, which harms Sacramento's overall spacing and creates offensive duplication. He's entirely dependent on other players to get him the shots he lives on when he's shooting outside the post -- to wit, of Thompson's 42 made shots outside of 10 feet, 38 of them were assisted. Thompson is a very good post player when he's assertive with the ball and goes up strong -- unfortunately, he's been a bit off this season, and with Cousins taking up so much room in the post in Sacramento's offensive scheme, it's been a bit difficult to get Thompson the possessions needed to work through his struggles. Defensively, he's been fine -- at least against smaller players. Thompson is good at covering smaller power forwards and decent at stepping out to contest shots, but he doesn't function nearly as well when he's switched onto larger centers. Luckily, at 6'11", there aren't exactly a ton of NBA centers dwarfing him in size. Unluckily, if you're a good offense, running plays that switch Thompson onto a larger center isn't THAT hard, and Sacramento doesn't have anywhere near the defensive discipline to accommodate it.

Anyway. All that said, the fact that Thompson -- a player who's played 53% of Sacramento's possible minutes on the season and does represent a reasonably important piece for Sacramento's future -- is showing up on a "starters-in-name-only" list probably says more than any criticisms that could be made to explain his slightly waning role. While the NCAA has a lot of coaches who play with the starter designation and give spot starts to players that aren't huge players, there are only a handful of guys in the NBA who ACTUALLY fit that role. Those handful are the four players below, and nobody else really qualifies.

#4: KENNETH FARIED, DENVER NUGGETS
24.8 MPG in 48 games -- 45 starts, 49.6% of DEN minutes played

Out of all the players on this list, Faried is by far the most confusing. Unlike Thompson, he's actually played less than 50% of Denver's minutes this season, despite Denver's odd depth situation and despite the fact that Denver's strange new management decided to clear out their big men in an effort to free up more minutes for Faried and Mozgov. Outside of Ty Lawson, Faried is the only other player on Denver's roster that really qualifies as a young talent, and he's not supremely injured -- he's battled some ankle trouble, but nothing to write home about. Denver also has one of the most unenviable cap situations in the NBA, featuring dead weight salary on players that don't figure to play a part in their future and very little flexibility over the next 2 years, despite a team that looks the part of a perennial noncontender. So, I say it again -- why isn't Faried playing more?

His defense is as it always has been -- awful. But they knew that going in. He's shooting essentially exactly as well as he did last year from the floor, and his finishing has been the same as it's always been. His rebounding is excellent, as usual, and he's only been in foul trouble once this season (a January 15th win against the Warriors where he played 17 minutes with five fouls.) The Nuggets have denied all season that Faried is on the trading block, reaffirming that he's a big piece of their future. Sure. Then why not play him? If I had to venture a guess, I'd probably think this is their odd management coming to a head with new head coach Brian Shaw. Shaw came to Denver directly from Indiana, a team where everyone defended like their lives depended on it and every player put in a lot of effort. Faried, for all his energy, is not a good defensive player nor does he put in more than a cursory effort on that end. Shaw's minutes restrictions for Faried -- while frustrating -- are probably his attempts to impose discipline on Faried in an effort to whip him into shape defensively. Doubt it's a good idea, but that'd be my guess.

#3: KEVIN GARNETT, BROOKLYN NETS
21.5 MPG in 43 games -- 43 starts, 38.9% of BRO minutes played

Now the doctor came in, stinking of gin,
And proceeded to lie on the table.
He said, "Rocky, you met your match".
And Rocky said, "Doc, it's only a scratch.
And I'll be better, I'll be better, Doc, as soon as I am able".

Every time I watch Kevin Garnett play this season, I get "Rocky Raccoon" stuck in my head. Not the whole song, just an echo of it. At first. Then it gets louder and louder as I watch him fumble around with Brooklyn's awful entry passes and tokenizing attempts at getting him offense. Then it isn't an echo anymore. I watch as the Nets thrive in their odd "longball" configuration where Garnett is reduced to a husk of the player he once was. And you can see him calling for the ball, and begging, and trying to do the things he used to do. He's this defiant man, struck down in ignominy and trying to play out the string for a team that barely deserves the echos they got of him. And it's sad, because he just can't do what he used to. But there's this glimmer of defiance and anger and fury, and occasionally the echo of Kevin Garnett crystallizes into a cry, and he uncorks a perfect post move or a furious rebound or a crisp game-deciding jumpshot. And then the song starts up again. And then it stops, because it's only an echo that can fool you every now and again. That's what it's like to watch Kevin Garnett play this season.

It hurts me.

#2: SHANE BATTIER, MIAMI HEAT
20.9 MPG in 43 games -- 39 starts, 37.6% of MIA minutes played

One of the long-running subplots of the LeBron/Bosh/Wade Heat that I've been most interested in is their reliance on essentially over-the-hill veterans. The Heat have been an amazing team during the dynasty. But outside of their big three, they've mainly done so on the backs of some unfathomable throwback performances by once-star players on the very last legs of their career. Don't get me wrong -- that's the way to do it. If you rely on young guns with talent and guile around your young and highly-paid stars, the role players will inevitably price themselves out of your range and leave the organization before you're ready for them to do it, a la Lance Stephenson in the coming summer or James Harden for the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Or you'll overpay them to keep them, clogging up cap space and eliminating future flexibility in the name of roleplayer retention.) Relying on over-the-hill veterans does a lot to fix this problem, because few teams are going to field competitive offers for a 35-year-old vet that didn't even star on a title team. They have enough money in the bank to be focused on winning rings, and they have enough NBA experience that it's easier for them to pick up your system. Best of all worlds, except when it comes to upside.

Still, there's also an inherent risk in putting so many of your eggs in the "old and creaky" basket. That's the risk they'll fall off for good. And I'm afraid that time might have finally come for Shane Battier. He's still been moderately effective in a few ways, but his defense has fallen to the point where he takes the "D" out of "3-and-D". Which is sort of sad. Battier essentially can't hope to cover larger players any more without constantly fouling and hoping the refs don't notice, and he isn't really quick enough to shade smaller players either. His offense is one-note to the verge of stark absurdity -- he's taken 35 two-point-shots and 144 threes this season. He's made only 10 unassisted shots all season (to put it another way: Battier creates his own shot once every 4 games) and his percentages are down across the board despite his reliance on Miami's offensive system. His offensive ineptitude hasn't harmed Miami that much, as teams still respect his three point shot, and Miami's offense has been better with Battier on the court than it has been with Battier off. But one wonders if taking advantage of Battier's eroding game could be the crucial matchup advantage that a team like Indiana uses to finally oust the Heat this year.

#1: KENDRICK PERKINS, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
20.1 MPG in 52 games -- 52 starts, 40.0% of OKC minutes played

Okay, let's be honest. You knew this was coming, right? Who else could possibly lead the list? Perkins is widely maligned as the NBA's worst starter, and that's not a particularly hard argument to make. His defense has fallen off badly in the years since his huge extension, and he's actively made Oklahoma City worse on both ends this season. That's partly because Steven Adams replicates Perk's positives without any of his negatives, and it's partly because Brooks doesn't really utilize him effectively. But let's be fair -- how the hell DO you utilize Perkins effectively at this stage of his career? He's effectively immobile in the post, and I feel like I've seen him cause OKC three second violations (a stat tracked by NBAWowy -- he has seven, meaning he gets one once every six games or so) in every few games I've watched this year, and he commits uncalled violations of the type in every game. He currently has 83 turnovers to 74 field goals on the season. He has 150 personal fouls to 27 blocked shots. His field goal percentage is at a career low, and he has a PER of 6.2.

Despite all this, he has started every single game he's played. The only positive you can really find with Perkins is that he's the least-played regular starter in the NBA (on an MPG basis), and that Brooks has only played him 40% of the minutes he possibly could. If the playoffs come and Perkins is still playing 40% of OKC's minutes, I'd be somewhat surprised. As a Spurs fan, I'd be happy, because that gives my guys (and the Warriors, and the Clippers, and the Rockets, and the Blazers) a fighting chance. Of course, I'd also be deeply depressed as an NBA fan, because it would be the equivalent of the 2001 Lakers limiting Shaq to 20 minutes a night to see if they could win with a handicap. Perhaps they could, but I mean... why? There's little reason for historically dominant teams to play with a handicap. Oklahoma City, at their best, is that kind of a team. And Kendrick Perkins is exactly that handicap, moreso than Fisher or Thabo or any of the other players that fans complain about when it comes to Scott Brooks.

Still, I'm a Spurs fan. Can Perk can go 48 minutes, Scottie? Let's find out!

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Eulogizing Chris Grant: the Dark Side of Upside

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I have a friend from work. Let's call him "Chief Kickingstallionsims." Kickingstallionsims absolutely HATES the city we live in. Just despises it. He goes full hog on the anti-Richmond jokes just about every day. Some quotes from my guy: "I wish a volcano would rise from the ground and erupt, leveling the entire town in a hipster-rending explosion that kills millions." ... "I hope there's a shortage of skinny jeans such that the hipsters revolt and start killing each other off in an orgy of senseless violence and terror." ... "If the zombie apocalypse ever happens, I hope it happens here and that the government traps all Richmond citizens to be consumed by the horrors they have created."

Not a big fan of our humble abode. As a result, Chief's been job-hunting ever since we started at our firm. Recently, he struck gold on the job market. The guy had three concurrent offers! In one, he would make his current salary but with higher bonus potential and a bit more leadership responsibility. In another, he would make about $10,000 more than his current salary but the job was with a company he wasn't sure he respected. In another, he would pull in about $15,000 more than his current salary and receive a signing bonus that would cover his "projected" bonus at our current firm and receive a complimentary moving budget... but the job looked really boring, with a high emphasis on technical work rather than creative work. All three of these jobs were in his hometown, a place he's wanted to return to for years.

We all figured he was done, and we started setting up the farewell party. Well, we were wrong. Chief Kickingstallionsims didn't take any of them, which led to shocked head-explosions among just about everyone who knew him. His logic behind rejecting all the offers and staying with our firm was simple: we tend to get yearly merit raises, and he has solid bonus potential in his role. The thought was that the merit raise in conjunction with the bonus would erase most of the salary gap between our current job and the job offers, and he enjoys his job here even if he doesn't like the city at all and wants to leave it desperately. We also were up for promotion, which he wasn't sure if he'd get or not, but if he WAS to get a promotion his salary would kick the pants off any of his "new job" salaries. So he decided to roll the dice with all the possible good things that could make his current job preferable to all the offers.

And you know what? That was a hilariously huge mistake.

We just learned our compensation information for the new year -- the results were incredibly disappointing for him. No promotion, obviously, and his raise clocked in at under $1000/year. His bonus was middling-tier, one of the smallest he's received at the firm. He was ALSO just moved between departments, which means his job -- the one he liked in the first place -- has completely changed anyway! Barring a scenario where he didn't get a raise at all and didn't get a bonus at all, this is a worst-case-scenario for Chief Kickingstallionsims -- he rejected exceedingly solid offers on the table in favor of a perfect ideal he deemed more likely than it was. He didn't account for downside risk. Unremarkably, he got burned for it.

All names, salaries, companies, and identities were changed in the previous story to protect the innocent. (I can only wish I was actually friends with Chief Kickingstallionsims.) I also changed some of the parameters of the story. Hence, it isn't a real-life story so much as it is a sketch painted in broad strokes roughly imitating life. But the essentials are there. And the moral is a universal maxim: my friend valued the intangible perfect over the attainable great. He saw all of the upside and none of the downside for his final move. He chose to value the possible future over the probable present.

Although we like to herald the NBA's new era of crack decisionmaking and analytics-inspired masterstrokes, this sort of thinking is hardly a thing of the past. It's essentially an NBA general manager's pastime. And I don't think it's really their fault; blame it on the environment. As far as I can surmise, it's mostly due to the fact that trades and acquisitions take so much time and effort to push through your management that you really HAVE to approach them in that kind of a rose-colored classes way (at least publicly). I don't remember which of the NBA's talented national scribes wrote it (probably Zach Lowe, that cad), but there's a maxim that's always rang true for me. "For every single trade we see, there are -- conservatively! -- seven deals that sputter out just before the finish line, because somebody gets cold feet." In a vacuum, most NBA decisions a GM has to make involves fooling themselves and their management into completely ignoring downside risk and hyping up the upside reward to make the final decision livable. It involves belief in the franchise's overall health and the idea that the franchise will do things with the retrieved assets that the other team couldn't. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're wrong.

And if they're neither of those, they're Chris Grant.

When a general manager gets canned it's usually pretty easy to isolate exactly what they did wrong. David Kahn made terrible trades and boneheaded draft picks. Glen Grunwald was in the same organization as James Dolan, a big no-no for any sensible person. Otis Smith was fired for being unable to put together a competent supporting cast around Dwight Howard. Et cetera, et cetera. The hits go on. In Chris Grant's case, there's an easy Occam's Razor answer to the question of "why he got fired." His rosters have been terribly constructed and profoundly disappointing, and someone needs to take the blame for Cleveland's nightmarish 2014 season. But I think that's oversimplifying a bit. Because of the core truth that many Cleveland scribes are discovering as they look through all of Grant's moves (such as here, in Sam Vecenie's excellent enormous rundown) -- namely, the fact that they aren't very bad moves.

In a vacuum, you can make a fringe case that Chris Grant has produced many of the most lopsided trades (comparing assets in versus assets out) of the past three years. The issue with Grant's tenure hasn't really been that his individual moves were bad, or that he's failed to accumulate assets. It's hard to even say for sure whether his player assessment is that bad -- he's had his misses, but he's had some successes too. With the exception of last year's nightmare draft, most of Grant's picks have shown at least a modicum of NBA talent, and they compare quite well to most of the players who were selected immediately thereafter. The jury's still out on many of them.

The issue has been that effectively none of Grant's innumerable assets have panned out as they were expected to despite the ready accumulation of them. It's common for a large proportion of assets to flame out. It's NOT common for virtually every single one of them to turn into a dud in your hands. It's the reverse of a Midas touch. Everything Midas touched turned to gold... and everything Chris Grant touched turned to pot. Somehow, despite effectively wiping the floor with trade partners in every trade he's conducted to date, the upside assets he's accumulated have amounted to virtually nothing.

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To wit, a few choice examples of the upside versus the reality in some of Grant's most publicized moves.

  • THE TRADE: Ramon Sessions and Christian Eyenga for Luke Walton and a first round picks, with added swap rights.
    • THE PRE-RESULTS UPSIDE: Grant traded an expiring contract and one of the least talented NBA players I've ever seen play the game for a marginally overpaid player that could augment Cleveland's bench rotation, swap rights, and a first round pick. Nobody does that anymore, because that's a beyond crazy haul for a marginally above average point guard on an expiring contract.
    • WELL, ACTUALLY... As it turned out, Luke Walton was actually the best thing Cleveland received in the trade. The coveted lottery swap didn't happen, because the Cavaliers are horrible and the Lakers aren't quite that bad yet. The 2013 draft pick DID convey, which was cool, but it ended up netting them the #19th pick in the draft, which got them Sergey Karasev. Neither Karasev nor Walton have given Cleveland nearly enough to outpace what Sessions gave Los Angeles over his few months as a Laker, which means that none of the trade's upside scenarios came to pass, and the best aspect of the trade was Zach Lowe's annual "Luke Walton All-Stars" column. Whoops.
  • THE ACQUISITION: The Cleveland Cavaliers sign Andrew Bynum on a team-friendly hail mary contract.
    • THE PRE-RESULTS UPSIDE: If Bynum played up to his potential, Cleveland would have a max-salary big waiting in the wings on a below-market contract, and they controlled the parameters of his salary due to the way the deal was structured. At his best, Bynum was a driving force behind the talent-bare 2012 Lakers and one of the league's best centers. He could help the Cavaliers on both ends. Right? ... RIGHT?!
    • WELL, ACTUALLY... It turned out that all the hand-wringing about Bynum's attitude wasn't a joke. Bynum made a toxic Cleveland locker room even worse, and completely submarined Cleveland's play when he was on the floor with lackadaisical effort and mindless ball-hogging that would make Nick Young blush. The thought when the Cavs signed him was that $6 million dollars couldn't possibly be an overpay for what a healthy Bynum would produce. Turns out that was wrong -- it WAS an overpay, and a pretty big one at that.
  • THE DRAFT PICK: The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Dion Waiters #4 overall, causing the world to go bug-eyed in confusion.
    • THE PRE-RESULTS UPSIDE: Although a lot of people were weirded out by the pick, it wasn't necessarily a bad idea. In theory, Waiters represented a burly two-man who had an enviable at-rim game and a three point shot that would pair beautifully with Kyrie Irving's gifts as a setup man and off-ball threat. It would cement a similarly-young backcourt duo that could grow up together.
    • WELL, ACTUALLY... I mean, on paper, it made sense. Sort of. But Dion's shot selection leaves a lot to be desired -- he's not a bad three point shooter, but his habit of constantly taking fully-guarded isolation threes from odd angles needs to stop. And his habit of pulling up and taking doomed long twos instead of driving with a clear path to the rim is similarly frustrating. As for the two-man game... well, with about one and a half years gone in his career, it's safe to say that Irving and Waiters have about as much of a two-man game as Coyote and the Roadrunner. They freeze each other out and (reportedly) quarrel in the locker room on a bi-weekly basis. Waiters may very well be the 3rd or 4th best player from the 2012 draft. He also turned out to be about as poor a fit for Cleveland's team as he could've possibly been, in a situation that effectively utilizes zero of his skills.

Grant's failure to survive the season serves as a reminder of one of the life's harshest realities. You can do virtually everything right within the basic parameters of your job and still be a no-holds-barred failure if you inherited the wrong situation and run into a string of bad luck. It's not ENTIRELY bad luck that's sunk him, of course -- he's made some controversial moves, and like Chief Kickingstallionsims, he's made many decisions where the upside scenario was sort of unlikely. Presidents fall on the sword of economic maladies they had nothing to do with, Chief Kickingstallionsims can vastly overestimate his raise and get burned by the perfect over the good, and Chris Grant can win every trade in a vacuum and still average out as a bad-to-terrible general manager when none of his assets pan out. It's cruel, but it's life.

The problem with inextricably tying your career to endless asset accumulation, upside bets, and celebrations of the possible is simple -- it's never a guarantee. And if the downside crashes upon you all at once, the job security that your upside bets got you lasts about as long as a snowman in summer. And thus ends the curious case of Chris Grant, the General Manager who did everything right... right up to the point where he had to deliver an actual NBA team. C'est la vie.

Programming note here. Apologies for the inactivity -- work's been hectic beyond reason for me in recent months. If you want more of my writing, you can read last night's Daily Dime as well. There's some interesting data-driven work coming up in this space later this month, which should be good for fans of the site. And at the end of the month I'll be slumming it at the Sloan Sports Analytic Conference again, where I'll be bringing you all the latest insights from the NBA's beloved egghead convention. In the meantime, let us know in the comments below what you miss most about our former content-heavy slate, and we'll try and accommodate your whims as we get back in the saddle. Stay frosty.

"What's Wrong With the Spurs?" -- Hashing it out with McGuire and Dewey

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Every once in a while, McGuire and Dewey have expansive conversations on AOL Instant Messenger about odd ideas and strange wrinkles they've noticed in recent NBA action. (Alright, more than "once in a while.") Once in a blue moon, we decide to post these conversations with minimal editing. Is it laziness? Sloth? Idolatry? ... Or is it just entertaining? You be the judge, Dredd.

ALEX: Alright, so. I've got a grand thesis on this year's Spurs season.

AARON: I am now your thesis advisor. Shoot.

ALEX: So, okay. Duncan = Diaw offensively, and Duncan = Splitter defensively, if a bit better on both counts. This is historical fact. The 2013 Spurs were essentially governed by it. Check the top three lineups here. Decent sample size for all three.

AARON: ... what?

ALEX: One is Splitter/Duncan, one is Duncan/Diaw, one is Splitter/Diaw.

AARON: Yes, Alex. They're San Antonio's most effective three big men who not coincidentally played the most minutes. I'm... not sure what this is getting at.

ALEX: Jesus, Lisa, you're tearing me apart. Let me finish.

AARON: OK, Denny.

ALEX: Look, Duncan is very similar to Diaw offensively in terms of impact and role. And when they're on the floor it isn't hugely additive compared to Splitter-Diaw or Duncan-Splitter. But the giant elephant in the room is Duncan's failing shot this season. He can't hit from midrange, even when he's wide open. I just finished watching all of his midrange shots from the last 20 games. It's not pretty. I don't know the cause but I don't think it's mere fluke. It could be conditioning, it could be mechanical, it could be aging. But it's been this way all season, and here's the thing. I don't think it necessarily takes the Spurs out of contention, but it means Duncan is barely better than Tiago Splitter offensively.

AARON: Slow down there, R. Kelly.

ALEX: I mean, OK, yeah. Duncan is obviously a better passer, and maybe a bit better defender. Despite switches on threes late in the game that Tiago is more qualified for. But when you restrict Duncan to the low block, there aren't as many passing options for his understanding of space. You essentially have the problem where he's either near the rim or a non-entity, which is subtly affecting Parker. You can't have much motion away from the rim by Duncan, because defenses can simply disrespect and ignore him now. He's been much more effective in Diaw lineups because when Duncan's shot isn't falling Diaw is more complementary than Splitter. Diaw takes over the role of big-man facilitator and high-low passer, and with his newfound offensive aggressiveness he's been decent.

AARON: With you so far, I think.

ALEX: Contextually Diaw's been a fine defender, although his lineups suffer far more than any of the other two big men for obvious reasons. Chiefly, he's not a rim protector. What I'm saying here is that Duncan/Splitter last year is offensively similar to Diaw/Duncan this year. You still get the spacing on the pick and roll, and if Tony gets back to form totally, Danny and Kawhi can get more open looks. It's an elite, perhaps dominant offensive lineup to have Duncan/Diaw with Parker and two shooters. But replacing Splitter with Diaw defensively is killer. I think the playoffs aren't JUST determined by your starters.

AARON: Controversial statements from Alexei Pynchon Dewey, right there.

ALEX: Shut up. Not just starters, but killer competitive advantages engendered by the presence of the starting lineups. Danny Green works because he has the perfect skillset for that spread pick-and-roll lineup to function while adding muscle on defense, not because he's brimming with talent and guile. Anyway. What I'm saying is that Duncan's shot going missing -- if it holds up -- represents the defensive difference between Diaw and Splitter. That's the ripple effect for the Spurs as contenders. And given how great Diaw/Duncan has been, this might not be the end of the world, but Blake and DeAndre Jordan are better on both ends, the Warriors can neutralize the Spurs' attack and punish Diaw's defense, and the Blazers... well, okay, Diaw/Splitter isn't huge against LMA, but Splitter has more presence and could stop a few more Batum/Lopez/Lillard drives a game. And Harden lives at the rim and I'm not loving Terrence Jones against Diaw. And then there's OKC. It'd be GREAT to have two rim protectors against them, and with it, it's arguable that the Spurs could've forded the gap in the 2012 series.

AARON: So, what's your net take here?

ALEX: I don't think this counts the Spurs out, but it definitely makes them a sub-tier contender. This is a huge story. It shows how the fall of one crucial domino can effect a whole bunch of unrelated consequences. We don't think of Duncan's shot as crucially important, but it's the difference between the Spurs being a top-tier "favorite" contender and a middle-of-the-pack squad hoping for a run of good luck. That's my thesis. Do you agree?

AARON: Not completely.

ALEX: Rude.

AARON: Look, it's not bad, but I'm not really bought in on it. My main hang-up is that it's massively oversimplifying their skillsets to frame Duncan/Diaw/Splitter as a straight offense-to-defense trade off. That sort of binary "DUNCAN GOOD, DIAW BAD" framework falls apart when you really take a close look at their skillsets. They all have very different ways to play the game, of course, but they all have their own advantages. For instance, Diaw bodies up people on defense better than Duncan or Splitter, even if he isn't a shot blocker. He's also much better at covering athletic tweeners and three-point shooters than either of them are. Splitter is much more mobile than Duncan and much better at covering up the pick and roll at this stage of their respective careers. Duncan is the best screener of the bunch, I'd say, and he's a more cerebral inside presence that can go toe-to-toe with the league's best bigs in a way that Splitter has never been totally comfortable with.

ALEX: Okay, fair.

AARON: Conversely, Tiago is a better and more creative finisher straight-off-the-pass than Duncan or Diaw, which is why he plays so well with Manu. Duncan has a much broader set of post moves than either Diaw or Splitter, and at his best, his outside shot has an LMA-type impact on San Antonio's spacing that Splitter can't hope to touch. Diaw has a better outside shot than Duncan and combines that with off-the-pass finishing that's nearly at Tiago's level, but he doesn't have the ability to produce offense under pressure like Duncan does and he has a bad habit of over-passing. Both Splitter and Diaw are extremely dependent on San Antonio's system to get them their open looks. Pop has to manage all of these things when he tries to put together lineups, especially with Leonard and Splitter out. Now Diaw is playing the three half the time, which is... special, let's put it that way.

ALEX: *quiet sobbing*

AARON: Anyway. You're spot-on in the assertion that Duncan's absent midrange has modified a lot of aspects of San Antonio's game, mostly in pretty ill-omen ways. But framing it with an oversimplified "he's good at X, he's good at Y, he's good at X+Y" framework is imposing elegance at the expense of real complexity. And I really don't know about the "middle-of-the-pack" contender assertion, especially given exactly how the Spurs have broken down against elite teams this season. Your grand thesis is entirely focused on San Antonio's offensive difficulties, but that simply doesn't make sense. Their offense has yet to break down in a game against elite competition -- their issue, very simply, is that to date they haven't been able to stop a single elite team from running their offense. Duncan/Diaw/Splitter haven't looked particularly spry in ANY configuration against teams with well-designed offenses that know exactly how they want to attack you, and our perimeter guys haven't been nearly as tenacious as they used to be (with the obvious exception of Kawhi). Your theory rests on the idea that the offense is going to be what submarines their playoff hopes, and we just don't have any evidence that's the case.

ALEX: See, it's not the offense. It's the offense when Splitter and Duncan are there, which forces the change to Duncan/Diaw, which hurts the defense by removing one rim protector. That's the thesis -- that the defense has been crippled by a seemingly unrelated offensive problem.

AARON: Sure, but that doesn't reflect what's actually happening. The Spurs have defended worse with Duncan/Splitter on the court than they have with one of the two alone. Checking NBAWowy, with a any of our Duncan/Splitter lineups on the floor, the Spurs are allowing 0.99 PPP. With Duncan (and no Tiago!) it's 1.07 PPP, and with Tiago (and no Duncan!) it's 0.91 PPP. Which may make you think that Duncan's the issue, but it's more that Diaw is dragging him down -- if you look at Duncan's minutes without Diaw OR Splitter on the court the Spurs are allowing 1.01 PPP, which is hardly very different from the Duncan/Splitter numbers.

ALEX: What? I'd need to check that, but my basic assertion was based on this.

AARON: I just checked it for you!

ALEX: I don't know if I trust that, though. What minutes does Tiago play without Duncan, ever?

AARON: Quite a few of them? It's a sample of 268 minutes. The top four units are Diaw/Splitter lineups, then a few with Bonner, then a few with Ayres. A handful of spot lineups with Kawhi at the four, as well. Duncan doesn't play every game, and even when he DOES play, Duncan plays less than 30 minutes a game. The Spurs aren't just playing 18 minutes a night of Ayres/Bonner to maintain our "best" lineups.

ALEX: I'm at least a little skeptical that it's entirely a bench thing. I can't think of any point in the game when that rotation would actually occur. Maybe it's the beginning of the 2nd and 4th quarters?

AARON: That's probably part of it, and I'm not arguing that Tiago's impact isn't getting exaggerated due to the level of competition he's facing. But my main point is that Splitter/Duncan doesn't really look like San Antonio's best foot forward on defense, at least this season. And if we were to cut the sample to ONLY the NBA's elite teams I'm betting the Splitter/Duncan numbers would look downright ghastly. It hasn't been effective in the slightest against the big dogs, on offense or defense.

ALEX: That's fair. I've been focusing on offense, but maybe that's not the problem. Does Duncan look worse on defense this season? He looks maybe a quarter-step slower to me, but not significantly worse. It's not like 2011. He's good on his feet.

AARON: I'm not sure he's worse at all. I do think teams are getting smarter in how they attack his lack of mobility on the pick and roll. And I think one of the more understated issues that's getting to him is that Manu and Marco have supplanted most of Green's minutes. Green is a defensive bulldog that kept his man from making clean drives to the rim -- Manu and Marco are both prone to gambling for steals, and when they inevitably fail, it leaves perimeter players a clear path to the basket that forces Duncan's hand. He still recovers decently well, but he's not as spry as he used to be and the fact that he has to do it so many times a game is starting to harm his numbers. I think.

ALEX: That's fair.

AARON: Also, Danny has played poorly in a general sense. On offense and defense.

ALEX: True.

AARON: My own big-picture thought on the Spurs this year is that they're a very good team. They're one of the five best teams in the league. Perhaps a tier below the Thunder and the Pacers, but right behind those two with the Clippers and the Heat in no particular order. That's good. They certainly have a title shot, regardless of their current issues with elite teams, and if they're healthy come playoff time they'll represent a very tough out for whoever draws them.

ALEX: All good.

AARON: Sure. Except that this season is about as terrible an omen for San Antonio's future as it possibly could be, which goes a long way towards explaining the tortured hand wringing Spurs fans are known for going overboard with. To explain: Kawhi Leonard's offense hasn't developed in any real way this season, despite ample opportunities to do so -- if anything, it's taken a big step backwards with his strangely absent three point shot and his rising turnover rate. Danny Green has been a pretty awful NBA player, straight up. Tiago Splitter has performed well on defense against bad teams, but the gaps in his defense that made him irrelevant against Miami are now making him irrelevant against almost all of the league's best offenses. Tony Parker doesn't really look like a grade-A superstar at the moment, either, despite a few good games in the last few weeks. He's not on my all-star ballot, nor is he particularly close -- if you stretched, you might be able to convince me that he's the fifth best point guard in the league. Maybe. But it's a tough argument, and if I'm honest, I'd probably argue he's outside that fivesome. And he's at the age where expecting bounce-backs and improvements is simply unreasonable, too, which is... depressing. He's supposed to be their superstar in his prime. Certainly doesn't look like it.

ALEX: I don't think Tony's looked great. I'd choose Conley over him, and that hurts.

AARON: Right. The issue with San Antonio's performance in the big picture is that their play is essentially being carried by the two oldest players on the roster. Manu Ginobili is the NBA's best sixth man right now, and arguably San Antonio's most important player -- their offense has been unbelievable with him on the floor, and he's been their spark for virtually every impressive stretch the Spurs have played this season. On the other end of the floor, Duncan has played like San Antonio's overall best player, DESPITE losing his midrange shot! Boris Diaw has been the only overachieving role-player, and he's the fourth-oldest player on the team. This team has been unbelievably dependent on Manu and Duncan (and Diaw!) in a way that -- while sustainable for perhaps the rest of the 2014 season -- is NOT sustainable going forward as Duncan approaches forty and Manu approaches the heat death of the universe. They're not the players in their prime, they're the aging players that San Antonio's playing roulette with. If the Spurs want to contend after Duncan and Manu finally fall off and leave, they desperately need their young players to put up good seasons. Virtually none of them are right now, which is simply not a good sign.

ALEX: You have a point.

AARON: Whether they realize it or not, I think THAT'S why San Antonio fans are freaking out right now. This is the first season since 2009 where San Antonio's young talent has been substantially disappointing. Spurs fans have spent years overlooking their aging core with the reasonable counterpoint that San Antonio's young talent has looked fantastic, and that a "big three" of Splitter/Green/Leonard was maybe one piece away from continued playoff contention. And with the best front office in the business, who was going to argue against that? But that idea assumes those three young players get better -- or, at the very least, don't get worse. This season has broken that assumption, and finally made the Spurs the decrepit old team they've been incorrectly advertised as for years. San Antonio's fans broke the glass to their emergency hyperbole stashes in panicked response. Perhaps it's a bit unreasonable, especially since the Spurs clearly look like a title contender THIS season. But perhaps the sense that this finally IS San Antonio's last rodeo has lent an air of true desperation to the proceedings. As Bill Cosby might say, every loss against a younger elite is a reminder of "a man on the way out." Which is... a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.

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The Outlet 4.01: Scouting Freakazoid and Durant's New Wrinkle

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Remember how we had that one series, a long time ago, where we'd entreat our writers to scribe short vignettes on the previous night's games? This is that series, only it appears once in a blue moon and often has little to do with the games of the previous night. As always, the vignettes may not always be tactful, tacit, or terse -- they'll always be under a thousand words, though, and generally attempt to work through a question, an observation, or a feeling. Today's short pieces are as follows.

  • CHI at CLE: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part I (by Aaron McGuire)
  • OKC at SAS: Gothic Ginobili goes Wojnarowski, Part II (by Aaron McGuire)
  • POR at OKC: Durant's New Wrinkle (by Jacob Harmon)

Read on after the jump. Continue reading