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

Three's a Crowd: Taking Flight with San Antonio Wings

(Photos by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)

Before I started this post, I was planning on re-drafting a post about Danny Green for today. In my head, it was standard sportswriter fare -- present the Hero's Journey through the lens of a player. Green's is as follows:

  • Be an intelligent, versatile, unselfish, winning player in college... and go undrafted anyway.
  • Get cut by multiple teams (the Cavs and Spurs, specifically)
  • Address flaws and polish strengths (his personality was never in question, but his work ethic went from "respectable" to "irreproachable" quickly as his dire situation became apparent).
  • Have a break-out game (the instantly-legendary "Bench Game" where the bench brought them back from a massive deficit against the Mavs before losing in a ridiculously close match)
  • Start to get acclaim as one of the league's best spot-up shooters
  • Put up one of the most electrifying post-seasons by a role player in recent memory.

Beginning, middle, end. Boom. It's a great story. That standard sportswriter fare has long been the go-to backstory for San Antonio's "3-and-D" position. Hit your corner threes, pass to the wing, (maybe) hit your wing threes, and lock down your man. Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson, and Danny Green all had long breaking-in periods into the league. Heck, Bruce Bowen was actually eligible for the 1993 NBA draft (3 years before Kobe, Nash, or Jesus Shuttlesworth), but he didn't really establish himself as a bonafide NBA player until he made it to the Spurs in his 30s. And Jackson has had long stretches of off-court notoriety. But they're all still in the league! [EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephen Jackson was cut. Also, Bruce Bowen hasn't been in the league in half a decade.] With Danny Green injured, and his current season a bit disappointing, I think it would be nice to focus instead on what's more in view. On Wednesday night the Spurs and Jazz played. Predictably, San Antonio won, although Utah put up an eminently respectable late run that very nearly tied it.

While "3-and-D" is the way Spurs fans tend to look at their off-wing roleplayers, the big match-up most Spurs fans were familiar with was between two men that recently challenged the Bowen role. In the last 5 years, Kawhi Leonard and Richard Jefferson have posed on-court challenges for how the Spurs want to use the small forward position. Their backgrounds differ starkly from the "3-and-D" of Bowen, Jackson, and Green. Both are mid-to-high 1st-round picks, a decade apart, and both Jefferson and Leonard had plenty of hype and respect coming into the league. And both quickly proved worthy of any such respect allotted. Jefferson played a key role in helping his Nets team to two consecutive Finals appearances in his first few years and Leonard played a large role on title-contending teams in his first two seasons as well. Both came via the rare Spurs blockbuster trade, and both were immediately expected to produce. And both had the uncanny air of respect that comes from undeniable professionalism.

Most importantly, both express the athletic gifts that imply a greater athleticism, although they do so in fundamentally different ways. Jefferson has the traditional hops and meat on his bones that makes him consistently deadly in transition and a fantastic dunk artist going back to college. He'll casually uncork a huge vertical when skying for an uncontested rebound, and his full-court sprinting speed in his prime was immense. At one point with the Spurs, Jefferson got a chase-down block at the rim by outrunning Ty Lawson before sprinting back into the play on the other end to hit an above-the-break 3. Jefferson is a track star with physicality perfect form carving out an above-average career in the NBA. Kawhi is less traditionally athletic. but has what I'd call a Spursian modification of athleticism: Ridiculous wing-span, good height, stable frame, incredible hands, agile, and can cover immense ground with length alone. And, most importantly, the seemingly monastic discipline of Tim Duncan.

In its totality, Jefferson's tenure with the Spurs landed halfway between dread mediocrity and an outright disaster. Despite saying all the right things in an uncanny impossible-to-fake way, Jefferson simply did not seem to have the presence of mind expected of professional basketball players on good teams. Fans found him disappointing, as did the coaching staff, as did eventually the most optimistic of Jefferson supporters. His disastrous first season was followed by an off-season back-to-basics regimen by the Spurs and a fat contract extension, and then his mediocre (though great-shooting) second season fizzled out with a quick playoff exit. The Spurs traded for their future in Kawhi on draft night 2011. Jefferson was traded 9 months later for Stephen Jackson, and that was that.

On the other hand, Kawhi's tenure has been somewhere halfway between good and sublime. A mirthful Hubie Brown voiceover seems to hang in the background whenever you watch Kawhi, even on his bad nights. His first season was promising and incredibly productive, his second was excellent and punctuated by moments of quiet dominance, and despite a slow start to this season Kawhi still appears to be on an All-Star trajectory. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Maybe. He plays in the West!] It's fair to say that Kawhi is much the superior player to Jefferson in nearly every facet of the game. It's hard to think of any situation that I would ever want to bench present-day Kawhi Leonard for Richard Jefferson. And, in the Jazz-Spurs game last night, Kawhi clearly outplayed RJ. This has been the hierarchy since Kawhi's first game with the Spurs (and, perhaps, since Kawhi turned about 18).

Yet, if you were looking closely, Jefferson was making similar sorts of 'impact' plays to Kawhi last night, and they weren't altogether flukes. Lacking Kawhi's handle, grace, defensive length, and apparent presence of mind, Jefferson has nevertheless carved out a niche for himself in the Utah franchise on both ends. Suddenly the presence-of-mind and poor decision-making issues that had plagued Jefferson on the Spurs look to be somewhat in the past, or at worst ameliorated. Sure, watching all his shots this month, RJ has made some hilariously bone-headed attempts that recall the worst of his Spurs (and Warriors) days. And don't get me wrong -- some of the hilariously bone-headed attempts are the essence of NBA comedy. My personal favorites are his turnaround contested air-balls and his perennially absurd attempt to dribble from the corner to the hoop in an parabolic arc whose vertex gets closer and closer to the three-point line every season. But overall, Jefferson makes screens, comes off screens well, and typically stays beyond the arc (but in an engaged, motion-heavy way that helps his set-up men find him in rhythm).

Because I'm a masochist, I actually watched all of Jefferson's shots-on-the-season at the end of November. And the difference is stark and fascinating: The Richard Jefferson of December and January is completely different from the offensive "jugger-not" of October and November. And let's be clear. In these dark days, it was a totally credible position that Jefferson's extended minutes early were a de facto wink-wink-nudge-nudge-win-no-more Producers-esque arrangement to tank as effectively as possible. For that first month, everything that was good about Jefferson was mitigated by his crushing flaws, and what was terrible was magnified by circumstance. His shot -- the stellar improvements in which led to his infamous 2010 extension -- looked to have a hitch in it. His offense was a wreck of awful baseline dribbles and up-to-that-point-waiting-to-die corner threes.

But with the emergence of Michigan rook Trey Burke as a savvy, well-developed point guard that can hang in the league, Jefferson has flourished. Suddenly the iso-heavy sad spacing of the Jazz has been replaced with motion-heavy downright-competent offense. Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward have made strides as well, but the player benefiting the most from Burke's ascent (other than Burke himself!) has been Jefferson. His percentages are up, and he constitutes a real weapon in the Jazz arsenal. Gone are the nights where the Jazz looked like the worst offense in the league. According to the NBA's stats site, the Jazz have made hand-over-hand improvement, month to month. In their first 10 games this season (they went 1-9), Utah's offense was scoring 92.2 points per 100 possessions. Their last 10 games? A very-nice 106.3 (they're going 5-5). It's not scorching, but it's above-average and, for the season, those numbers would be comparable to fine teams like Denver, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Golden State. All this despite having arguably less offensive talent than any of those teams (well, Phoenix is... its own thing, but still). Maybe it won't hold, but the Jazz offense has a pulse, and for a non-playoff team looking for a great lottery pick? That's highly encouraging with the inevitable breaking-in period with their lottery pick looming next season.

Yes, their defense has been league-worst. Yes, that league-worst defense comes from the very same games I'm lauding. But consider that at one point they looked to be the worst offense in the NBA by a wide margin, and they've climbed their way back, first into respectability and second into downright good. And their defense? It's still awful, but that's not really Jefferson's fault, as RJ has looked aware and sprightly in defensive space and in taking the load off of Hayward a bit with typically-tougher-and-larger assignments (though they're properly both small forwards).

And yet, it's reductive to say adding Burke immediately fixed the Jazz, because a) basketball is not just an additive game but a game of repeatable processes, and b) Burke's shooting numbers have been (relatively speaking, and yes, he can get better!) abysmal. Burke is shooting under 40% and below 50% true shooting. Burke is worlds better than Diante Garrett and John Lucas, but the rookie's shooting numbers are frankly comparable to oft-derided Ricky Rubio without Rubio's passing brilliance. Plus, he's not exactly spacing the floor at 35.4% beyond the arc.

What really seems to be going on with the Jazz is more complicated. It helps that Gordon Hayward doesn't have to do everything, most obviously losing the ball-handling responsibilities to Burke. As a result, Hayward is much more effective. Even beyond Hayward, the Jazz are making the best of their point guard addition with all manner of baseline motion. Flex cuts among the wings are common and the players are individually good at making decision-making to use those flex cuts to their advantage, leading to open shooters and good match-ups in the post. The Jazz have a battle-tested drive-and-kick game coming out of the abject despondency of November; now, however, the drives and kicks are actually starting to work as there are more options for a defense to worry about and Hayward, Burke, Jefferson, and Burks continue to develop as solid passers to, from, and around the perimeter.

And what's kind of fascinating is that the Spurs are doing much the same thing with Kawhi. Flex cuts along the baseline (that serve to get Kawhi open in his most potent area of the half-court) have been gradually entering the Spurs' vocabulary the last couple years. Set plays designed with Kawhi's role in mind (especially to open up 3s for him) seem to be far more common. More generally, the Spurs have been trying to buck their old approach to small forwards in order to guarantee that Leonard's jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none offensive repertoire is resulting in at least a few great looks a game, and that these looks fit into their offense. With the Big Three in the precarious and unpredictable spin cycle of father time, integrating Kawhi (and making it really work) is all the more difficult.

This might sound like basic stuff, but in a way Kawhi and RJ are both right-around-average half-court players relative to their own team. This is true for Kawhi because he's with the Big Three, etc., etc., etc. It's true with Jefferson because he's surrounded by precocious pupae. Kawhi started the season having improved from virtually every area within the arc and having gone cold from every area outside it, a trend that's only starting to reverse a bit. His assists and threes (so crucial to his offensive role) are only starting to rise to the levels that would garner All-Star consideration over the next few years. Kawhi's situation is on a whole different level as Jefferson's, yes, and Kawhi is -- as I've said many times -- worlds better than Jefferson.

But the way the Spurs are molding their offense around Kawhi makes me wonder in hindsight whether Jefferson's failed tenure with the Spurs was really as attributable to Jefferson's flaws as it seemed. Perhaps the Spurs organization bears some blame for treating him like a low-usage, worse-at-defense replacement for the entirely-different Bruce Bowen. If the Spurs had recognized Jefferson's below-average handle quickly and chose to focus on other things, like his off-ball motion in baseline and backdoor cuts, perhaps Jefferson could have been more valuable. Instead of being locked in a bad role by a poor handle and easily-scoutable in the corners and wings, maybe the mobile Jefferson could have been more than a poor man's Bruce Bowen or a less-aware Danny Green. Maybe he could've started a pastry habit and become a new-age Boris Diaw. I wonder if Jefferson was quite as foolhardy on the court as he appeared in San Antonio, in short. Perhaps he was just overly hesitant in an unfamiliar and unhelpful role, feeling that he was being put in a situation not conducive to success and not knowing how to tell terrible decisions from just plain bad.

Honestly,  I have no clue. You can't transplant the solutions a desperately awful rebuilding team has come up with on partially by fortune to the clever solutions of a well-scouted, top-ranked offense in flux. And Jefferson has looked awful the better part of three years before his resurgence with the Jazz. But while RJ provided an endless source of comedy to me while with the Spurs, his recent success bears notice. Veterans like RJ in a drain-circling swan song generally don't stick around for a few more productive years, but the Big Jeff has a serious chance to do so. Be honest -- you didn't see this coming. And I must admit -- despite being the world's leading expert on Richard Jefferson and Richard Jefferson culture, I too didn't see this coming either. Sometimes folks surprise you. Sometimes folks are Richard Jefferson.

And sometimes, so very rarely, the aforementioned two folks are the same exact person.

Memphis Blues: A Point Guard's Triumph in Turmoil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert: very well.

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

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

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

pct of off produced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... Hey, wait a second!

aw frig

aw dang it

Coping With Loss: On The Eric Bledsoe Injury

bledsoe and hornacek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why does it hurt so much?

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

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

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

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

da mystery of brad millerboxing

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

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

 THE SQUIRREL-STYLE ROADKILL: 30 to 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 THE GIRAFFE-STYLE PRETENDERS: 16 to 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 THE TOAD-STYLE CONTENDERS: 6 to 1

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

5. Grizzlies - we in the mud.

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

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

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

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

da mystery of chessboxin

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

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

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

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

Putting on a Fertility Clinic: CLE/CHI Trade Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 • • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trendspotting: Christmas Holiday Edition!

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

pace of play

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

Have a wonderful holiday, everybody!