Small Market Mondays #2.03: Thanking Ain't Easy

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

Boy, sometimes the world really throws you for a loop! Just the other day I was sitting around feeling glum and gloomy, watching our beloved small-market Cavaliers stumble and bumble their way to a fifth straight loss in a seventeen-point pasting at the hands of the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are woeful this season, but not as woeful as our poor Cavaliers. Just about then, when I was down in the dumps and out on my tuckus, I was visited by a ghost of Christmas past. He told me that I had just three weeks to live and that the world was a cold unfeeling hellscape unfit for human consumption! Weird story, right? Anyway, that was totally unrelated, I just followed up the ghost's arrival by watching the small-market Thunder pull out a miracle overtime win over those Californicators down in Oakland! Cheered me right up. And that got me to thinking: sometimes, a poor down-on-his-luck fella might forget to give his thanks for the things in life that make it worth striving and grinding. Let's amend that, by starting this post out with a list of incredible thanks.

I am thankful for...

  • The Indiana Pacers! Boy oh boy, these guys don't quit. At 16-1,  these rascals are just the 13th team in NBA history to start a season with sixteen wins and just one loss. And that's a pretty select list! Five of those thirteen teams were NBA champions, and all but one of them made the playoffs. So I guess the Pacers are probably gonna make the playoffs. Actually, given the Eastern Conference, those 16 wins might be enough to clinch a playoff spot right now! That's right -- the 9th seed in the East could definitely have less than 16 wins! Holy Moses! Are Eastern Conference courts literally teeming with phantasms and wraiths? Probably. That's what you get for giving New York two teams, you fools.
  • The State of the Small Market Union! In fact, screw the usual second segment, I'm stating it up here. The state of the union is stronger than ever. There are currently five teams with three losses or fewer, and four of those five are a most beloved small market foursome of Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Indiana. Isn't that just swell? Combine that with the fact that Detroit and Charlotte are bringing up the rear in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and New York's current 9 game losing streak, and you'll start to see a smile on even the most curmudgeonly small marketeer. What a world.
  • The joys of family! Alright, yeah, this one is pretty played out. But hear me out. Right now, we have a startling NINE brother/brother combos in the NBA, and that's just hilarious. Take anything you do with your family -- anything at all -- and try to imagine it being done in a family with two NBA players. It's fantastic! There's Justin and Jrue Holiday, chilling like only a Holiday can. Imagine Thanksgiving dinner with the Lopez brothers. Imagine youth soccer with the Plumlees. Tag in the park with Marcus and Markieff? How about High School senior photo day with the Zellers, then? Lord help you if you don't sneak candy bars into the movie theater with the Teagues, it's probably the best ever. Play frisbee golf a La Playa de Las Catedrales con los hermanos Gasol! Do it, jerk! Who DOESN'T play H.O.R.S.E. with the Curries... yeah, we all lose hilariously, but that's the point, right? One caution, though -- don't rob a bank with the Smiths. When the shootout starts, pretty sure J.R. would try to bank his shots off an errant backboard and end up shooting you in the chest.

Above all else, I'm thankful for my incredible go-getting timeliness. After all, this Thanksgiving post is almost 360 days early! Praise Smits!

• • •

The Philadelphia Torn-Sock Opera presents the "BOMBS OVER HALLELUJAH" Spencer Hawes MVP Watch

Figuring out who to feature for our MVP watch segment is actually one of the harder things to do around here. It has to be a player that threads the needle -- a guy who doesn't score too much (because that takes away from his teammates), doesn't get mainstream attention (because we support the little guys), doesn't play for a team that wins a lot (because he battles through adversity), and simply embodies a different class of grit and heart than most NBA guys. Not to say the NBA lacks grit -- true grit can be found anywhere, even in the most confusing places. But our small market MVP watch has to focus on the absolute creme de la creme. The grittiest, hardiest, never-say-die mother lovers in the league. You know the type. The men who could cut stone with their elbows and kick a peacock twenty miles all while blowing kisses to their adoring mother. The men for whom an eyebrow raise is a once-in-a-lifetime emotional extravagance but who will always have time to take a three hour phone call to listen to his mother spin yarns about yarn and clams. The men who eat only rocks when they aren't eating their mom's not-dissimilar-to-rocks home cookin'. These are the men we feature, here. Finding them is difficult.

... except for right now, because oh my God, Spencer Hawes is having a downright hilarious season. Dude is just going nuts. Although he's shooting the most he's ever shot in his career -- generally a disqualifier here -- he's shooting less than Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, and Michael Carter-Williams. And on a per-minute basis, he's shooting less than the newly nicknamed "Mike Dan" Tony Wroten AND Lorenzo Brown, so I'm OK with that amount of shots for the guy. By a hilariously large margin, Hawes is leading the Sixers in shooting efficiency (Hawes has an eFG% of 59% -- second place is James Anderson at 51%), rebound-gobbling (10.1 a night, making him three points off from the NBA's only 20-10 line), blockin' (2 blocks a night, with Daniel Orton posting a slightly higher rate in way fewer minutes), and bandz a make ya dance (I count at least 10 so far this season, making his BER -- Bandz Efficiency Rating -- a league-leading 0.625). All the while, he's sharing hot takes like these on Twitter:

  • Now that my secret karaoke sesh has leaked (#shouldabeenacowboy), the only question that remains is which record labels will come calling (x)

So hot! So feisty! So... amphibious! How could our MVP watch look at anyone else, I ask?

The answer: it can't. Not this week, at least.

 

• • •

Small Market Mondays Game of the Night: INDIANA PACERS at PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Not a whole lot of games tonight. Luckily, one of them is fantastic! Indiana's lugging their weighty 16-1 record into the den of the 14-3 west-leading Trailblazers. Fun fact -- both Indiana and Portland played in Los Angeles last night, Indiana against the Clippers and Portland against the Lakers. Both were tense, close contests decided on a few late game blunders, although the Portland game was about a billion times more hilarious than the Indiana game. If they were being efficient, they might've taken the same plane back. Or they could be even more efficient and just squat to play the game in Staples Center. I bet that would aggravate the sensibilities lifelong Laker Nick Young. Who knows? Anything's possible with these two teams who -- combined -- have three more wins than the entire Atlantic division combined. No, really. They're combined for a 30-4 record. The five-team Atlantic Division currently combines for 27-59. Spoiler alert! The Atlantic division is really unfathomably awful. Anyway. It's a big game. If Indiana manages to win, they'll have an opportunity to play two west-leading teams in a single week, as they'll face off with the Spurs in San Antonio on Friday. While that's obviously Friday's game of the night, we have a few other nice matchups this week. Let's look at them!

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

  • San Antonio at Minnesota (WED, 12/4): This one seems like a featured game even before you find out the best part. After all -- the Spurs are great, the Wolves are awesome, and both are fun small markets with excellent offensive attacks and... well, okay, a single great defense between the two of them, but still. They're good! But get this -- this game isn't being played in Minnesota. It's actually being played in Mexico City. Isn't that amazing? Noche Latina, taken to the furthest possible extent! Is there anything more small market than losing one of your home games in favor of a random regular season game in a random arena in a foreign nation? I don't think so, no!
  • Milwaukee at Washington (FRI 12/6): Milwaukee is reeling from injury and has lost 11 of their last 12 games, all of which in an utterly unwatchable manner. The Wizards have been bad, but in the east, differentiating "bad" from "raging grease fire" is the difference between a solid playoff team and a fringe playoff team. Okay, you know what? There's no sugar coating this one. This game is going to be completely unenjoyable. I have no idea why I made this a game of the week and I apologize for my sins.
  • Cleveland at Atlanta (FRI, 12/6): Although Atlanta isn't a small market, their so-called "highlight factory" arena and generally tepid fanbase make them an honorary member of our small market brotherhood. Cleveland needs no such honorarium, of course, and this game pits one of the East's most disappointing teams in the Cleveland Cavaliers against one of the East's most "Atlanta Hawks" teams in the Atlanta Hawks. I'm using Atlanta Hawks as an adjective in the previous sentence, because I don't think there's a single adjective that adequately describes how typical of the franchise this season's results-to-date are. The Hawks sit at 9-9, second in their division and entrenched in the third seed while a threat to no one in particular. They have a marginally negative differential but a 0.500 record because they've beaten eight teams with records below 0.500 and narrowly squeaked out a one point win over the Mavs after a complete fourth quarter meltdown from Dallas. They are mediocre but marginally overachieving simply because everyone around them is markedly worse than mediocre. In other words, the exact same thing that's been true about the Hawks since 2009. Ladies and gentlemen, your Atlanta Hawks! 

See you next week, Small Marketeers! Stay frosty.

Fourth Week Funderkind -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

kawhi vs blake

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

• • •

Observation #1: KAWHI LEONARD ISN'T HELPING SAN ANTONIO'S OFFENSE

After last year's finals, just about everyone -- me included -- felt that Kawhi Leonard was due to take the proverbial "next step" this year. The theories on how exactly that would come to pass ranged heavily, but most people agreed that he was due to take a large leap offensively. With more responsibility in the offense, he'd start to learn how to facilitate and search for his own shot through careful examination of defensive seams. He'd couple this with his always improving defensive brilliance and become a quasi-star. Perhaps even an all-star, although everyone admits that's less likely given the West's glut of amazing wings and forwards. Right?

Not so much. At least to date. With Kawhi Leonard on the floor, the Spurs are averaging a pedestrian 1.00 points per possession. With Kawhi off the floor, the Spurs are averaging a blistering 1.18 points per possession. To put that in layman's terms: the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to a bottom-five offensive team when Kawhi's in the game. When he's not, the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to NBA Jam with all sliders maxed out. The main difference? The Spurs aren't making many jumpers when their young star's in the game (0.86 points per shot) -- but they're canning them like sardines when he isn't on the floor, scoring 1.08 points per jumper when Kawhi is stuck to the pine. It's a tricky result for a core player that essentially everyone believes to be San Antonio's future.

The eye test tends to agree with the stats on this one, too -- it doesn't really feel like an anomaly. Although the Spurs are missing a lot of open shots with Kawhi on the floor, it seems like every few shots Kawhi controls ends up in a laughably botched pass or a complete prayer of a jumper. The offense has a bad habit of stalling, leaving half the players on the floor watching helplessly as Kawhi abuses his own screens or dribbles himself into positions where San Antonio's open players are completely inaccessible and multiple defenders have a chance at altering the shot. While the offense is still functioning effectively when Kawhi successfully dishes to a driver or runs a play action, more often than not, that action never really initiates -- the offensive set just ends in a desperation heave or a random step-back jumpshot. And as we all know, the degree of difficulty on a random fadeaway jump shot is way, way higher than the stand-still set shots San Antonio generates when the system has the reins and takes an effort to whip the ball around off screens and motion. Hence the gap in jump shot efficiency.

To put it simply, the Spurs offense is a LOT more clunky than it is when Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili takes the reins. Perhaps that's to be expected, but the vast gap in how smart the plays are is somewhat jarring. Screens lie abandoned, simple easy-to-thwart actions are thwarted, and the off ball movement seems to stall. It's just a very strange look for the Spurs offense, as necessary as it may be to develop it.

The strangest part about it all? Kawhi's personal offensive numbers aren't particularly bad, even as the overall team offense looks bad when he's at the helm. His three point shot is consistently missing the mark by a few inches (and his 27% three point percentage shows it), but Kawhi is shooting 60% from inside the three point line. Most would see that and assume he isn't taking any long two pointers, but that's simply not true -- he's taking a hell of a lot of long two point shots, he's just being polite enough to actually make them. He's shooting 14-of-27 from 16-24 feet, a percentage that would usually lead the league from that range.  His turnover rate is up a tad and he's drawing free throws a bit less than he was last year, but his rebounding rate is through the roof and his assist rate is holding steady. It all stands to reason that Kawhi's personal offensive numbers really aren't that bad, making the team's dismal offense with him on the floor all-the-more confusing.

That said, the Spurs are hardly floundering with Kawhi on the floor, and the defense can be thanked for that. In Zach Lowe's yearly "32 Bold Predictions" post, he waxed philosophical about how Chicago's starting lineup (Rose/Butler/Deng/Gibson/Noah) might allow less than 90 points per possession, and then noted that San Antonio's starting lineup accomplished the task last year. San Antonio's starters -- surprisingly -- haven't been quite there this year. But every unit Kawhi is a part of comes remarkably close. No matter who the Spurs put next to Kawhi, opposing teams are scoring just 0.91 points per possession with Leonard on deck (compared to 1.01 with him off the floor -- still good, but not world-beating). What makes this even more impressive is that Kawhi tends to be on the floor against starters and the league's best lineups, and in his semi-limited minutes (27 a night), he doesn't tend to get much burn against the crumbs and detritus of the opposition bench mobs.

It compounds to make that number all the more impressive. Perhaps more importantly, it also gives the Spurs a lot of time to figure things out -- as long as the defense is this stout with Kawhi on the floor, the flagging offense is something Popovich has time to work out. This does tend to make this year's Spurs team all the more frightening, assuming good health. After all. The team is 13-1 with everyone on an inconceivably short leash, sporting the sixth best offense and the second best defense. Given Duncan's currently slumping shot and the generally poor offense under Kawhi's purview, the question looms -- what if San Antonio's offensive best is yet to come?

• • •

Observation #2: JACQUE VAUGHN REALLY LIKES MAXIELL/VUCEVIC, APPARENTLY

At some point during his explosion in the first game of the season, I started really liking Andrew Nicholson's game. I was essentially neutral on him after his decent-not-great rookie campaign, but that game sort of put me on the bandwagon. Sure, he's a tiny bit short. He turns the ball over a lot. He isn't exactly a defensive mastermind. I get all that. But he's a very good rebounder and an excellent scorer that really helps out an offense. His three point shot isn't exactly making the opposition cower in fear (after going 2-for-2 from three in the first game of the season, Nicholson went 2-for-17 in the following 11 games), but he has picture-perfect form on his long midrange jumpshot and he's comfortable releasing in the rhythm of the offense. He's been pretty solid... which goes a long way toward explaining why the following minutes distribution of Orlando's big men absolutely floored me:

Big #1     Big #2       Poss    Minutes
Maxiell    Vucevic       368      183.4
Nicholson  Vucevic       213      111.2
Harkless   Vucevic       161       80.7
Nicholson  O'Quinn       159       80.6
Maxiell    O'Quinn        44       21.5
Nicholson  Maxiell        24       12.2

Seriously, Jacque Vaughn... what? Even more damning here is the fact that Maxiell has actually played fewer games than Nicholson has -- in terms of possessions per game, Maxiell/Vucevic is just CRUSHING Nicholson/Vucevic in Vaughn's rotations. This really amuses me. I realize that Nicholson is young, but Jason Maxiell is having a really, really bad season. Which is sort of what most people expected; the man hasn't been particularly passable player since 2010, and his PER (currently 8.2) really understates how bad he's been for Orlando. The Magic are scoring 1.01 PPP and allowing 1.12 with Maxiell on the floor -- when he's on the bench, they're actually outscoring their opponents 1.04 to 1.02 PPP.

Their defense is markedly worse, and watching the tape is pretty damning. Maxiell has lost the athleticism that made him valuable and is regularly losing his man and flying off the handle in pursuit of an errant block. And THAT'S the lineup that Jacque Vaughn is leaning on? I've got a post in the works about how sunny the future is in Orlando, and the moments where Vaughn puts Nicholson and Vucevic on the court together make you wonder how good these two can be. But for now, Jason Maxiell looks like Orlando's best chance at a lottery pick.

Looks like Vaughn really wants that pick.

• • •

Observation #3: THE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR RACE IS UNFATHOMABLY AWFUL

Seemingly every year, commentators repeat ad nauseum the same tired schtick about how the draft is the weakest we've seen in ages. "No young talent! Are there any functioning NBA players? This draft goes three deep!" Generally, these aspersions turn out to be little more than overreactions. You can find three or four high quality players in almost every draft, even the "awful" ones people decry. To wit, here's a subjective top five players from every draft in the last half-decade.

  • 2012: Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, John Henson
  • 2011: Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Vucevic, Klay Thompson
  • 2010: Paul George, John Wall, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins
  • 2009: James Harden, Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday
  • 2008: Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert

Flip through that list. Almost every draft listed had virtually no hype, despite the fact that they all have multiple all-star caliber players and at least five legitimate NBA starters. The draft is a crap shoot, yes, but almost every year brings a few legitimate stars and starters to bolster the league's lower lights.

You know. Except for this year.

Seriously, I don't really have a lot to add here. Look at this list of the "best" statistical seasons by the NBA's current rookies playing over 15 minutes a night, ordered by PER. Note: only one such rookie has an above-average PER.

Rk  Player                    Tm    G    PER     PTS   TRB   AST   MP      eFG%   TOV%   WS/48
1   Michael Carter-Williams   PHI   11   19.5   17.3   5.7   7.4   36.2   0.452   16.2   0.104
2   Mason Plumlee             BRK   10   14.6    6.2   3.5   0.3   16.8   0.636   12.2   0.117
3   Vitor Faverani            BOS   16   14.0    5.8   5.1   0.6   16.8   0.494   22.0   0.073
4   Steven Adams              OKC   12   13.7    4.8   5.1   0.9   18.8   0.455   13.9   0.148
5   Tim Hardaway              NYK   12   12.6    6.5   1.1   0.8   15.3   0.493    6.3   0.056
6   Nate Wolters              MIL   13   12.5    7.5   2.8   4.5   27.0   0.417   13.0   0.042
7   Victor Oladipo            ORL   13   11.0   12.3   4.1   3.4   27.5   0.428   24.1  -0.038
8   Ben McLemore              SAC   13   10.7    8.8   2.8   0.8   21.8   0.467    9.5   0.033
9   Kentavious Caldwell-Pope  DET   12   10.1    7.9   1.8   1.0   22.3   0.401    2.7   0.047
10  Matthew Dellavedova       CLE   8     9.8    3.9   1.8   1.1   16.0   0.538   15.3   0.065
11  Kelly Olynyk              BOS   14    9.4    7.5   5.4   1.6   22.6   0.407   20.1   0.005
12  Cody Zeller               CHA   15    7.7    4.9   4.1   0.7   18.3   0.342   18.8  -0.001
13  Trey Burke                UTA   4     7.5    8.5   3.5   3.0   21.5   0.369   15.6  -0.098

Michael Carter-Williams is running away with the Rookie of the Year hardware right now, but his overall performance leaves a bit to be desired. He's currently shooting 40-36-60, and with his three point shot having been so poor in college, it's hard to imagine that 36% maintaining over time -- indeed, it's been on the downswing since the first 5 games of the season. His free throw shooting is atrocious, as well. All that said, he does look like he has a good shot at being an above-average NBA player. Which is more than I can say about essentially the entire rest of this draft class. Both Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams have faded a bit after an excellent start, but I'd still take their defensive potential and broken offense over just about anyone else on this thoroughly uninspiring list.

Victor Oladipo has been disappointing, in my eyes -- his defense translates moderately well, but his offensive game is broken and his scoring and distribution potential might have been highly overrated. Anthony Bennett isn't the only high profile rookie to flounder, either. Otto Porter hasn't yet stepped on the court and looked obnoxiously bad in Las Vegas Summer League action. Alex Len has been bad enough that Phoenix has made Miles Plumlee their work-a-day option and buried their 5th overall pick on the bench. McLemore, Burke, and Pope all look decidedly awful in their burn to date, and the Olynyk/Zeller/Muhammad don't even look like NBA-quality roleplayers. That's the entire lottery. Micheal Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo, and Steven Adams are the only lottery picks that currently look like they even have the rough potential of becoming an NBA-quality starter -- and the Oladipo/Adams duo have a lot of work to do before they get there, too. Overall? This looks like one of the most inauspicious rookie classes in the last 20 years.

For once, it looks like the nattering nabobs of negativity got it right. Save us, Obi Wan Ke-Noel-bi, you're our only hope!

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

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

  • Week #1: "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... The league average pace is currently down to 94.5. We're starting to get into territory where this is becoming shaky -- last week's games, for instance, were effectively played at snail's pace compared to where we started the season. Again, it's still among the highest in recent memory, but if it doesn't stabilize, we may be down to dismal levels by year's end. Status: STILL TRUE, BUT WAVERING.
  • Week #1: "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." ... Still reasonable. The injury bug might be starting to cause a reversion to his usual patterns, though -- Deng is up to 37 MPG in Butler's absence and there's still little to no idea on any side how he's going to cope with Rose being out. That said, it's still his best minutes-shaving rotation in quite a while, so I'd still assess this as true. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • Week #1: "The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." ... Nope. They swept a home-and-home against the Dallas Mavericks, who look like a legitimately great offense this year. They're up to 8th in full-season offensive rating and 18th in defensive rating. They aren't a contender, but they certainly aren't as awful as they looked to start the season. Status: NOPE, THIS ONE'S GONE
  • Week #2: "The Houston Rockets are currently taking one free throw for every two shots. This is a nearly historically unprecedented rate, and hasn't been seen since the 1950s." ... The Rockets are down to 0.456 free throw attempts per shot. While this isn't historically unprecedented, it's still by large margin the highest rate since the 1950s, so I'd still say this trend is holding. But last week had a huge drop in their rate, so it'll be interesting to see if they start reverting to normal historical levels soon. Status: UNPRECEDENTED, NO. HISTORIC, EFFECTIVELY.
  • Week #2: "Damian Lillard can't finish. He also can't stop making threes -- he's completely inverted his shooting percentages from his rookie year, despite neither looking particularly different." ... Lillard has continued to revert to the mean. He's now at 40% from two and 38% from three. At original writing, Lillard was at 46% from three and 36% from two. He's essentially returned to career averages over the intervening two weeks. Status: UNLESS SOMETHING CRAZY HAPPENS, IT'S OVER
  • Week #3: "Were selections to be made today, there are no Eastern Conference guards who would deserve to make the Western Conference all-star team." ... With the East going 3-17 to the West over the previous week, there really wasn't much opportunity to add to this list. And sure enough, nobody really has yet. Status: YEP, EAST IS STILL AWFUL.
  • Week #3: "Miami is facing a minor point guard crisis -- they're performing better with Norris Cole on the floor than with Mario Chalmers, throwing into question everything we know about the world." ... The Heat are still scoring at a much better rate (1.17 PPP vs 1.12 PPP) and allowing fewer points (1.03 PPP vs 1.07 PPP) with Cole on the court. Still, if you look at the numbers I outlined last week, that's a far less stark advantage than Cole had a week ago, indicating that the previous week has been good for Chalmers. It's definitely still a debate, but Chalmers is starting a comeback.  Status: CONTROVERSY! COLE/CHALMERS! THE CHILLA IN THE CRIB...LLA?
  • Week #3: "The Atlantic Division is on pace to be historically bad -- every single team is under 0.500, the division as a whole is being outscored by 4 points a night, and everything is awful." ... Last week, the Atlantic Division went 5-12. Hilariously, this has improved their cumulative win percentage. Also, their collective point differential is down from -4.1 to -4.6. Not a good look. Status: STILL TRUE, DEAR GOD.

 TRENDS THAT FELL OFF: Andre Iguodala's free throw percentage (not respectable, but no longer hack-an-Iggy level), Steph Curry on pace to break the three point attempt record (not even close, anymore), LeBron playing over 36 MPG (down to 35 MPG). Bye, trends!

Dewey Mnemonic: How to remember the NBA's weirdest names

Giannis Antetokounmp-no.

There's nothing wrong with having a name that's hard for American English speakers to spell. It's a big world, and people constantly struggle with spelling "Dewey" (and my middle name "Trent").  Enter the world of mnemonics. A mnemonic is... well, let's let the first mnemonic tell the tale, here:

Mnemonics Never Effect Memory Or Notice Its Correlations... M before N except after the first N.

Hmm, never mind, that's just a mnemonic to remember how to spell mnemonic. There's a separate mnemonic for what it means.

Memento Nor Effectively a Memo; Openly 'Nrelated; Is Calibrated to be easy to memorize.

Alright, that doesn't help much either. Look, a mnemonic is a tool to help you remember something. 30 days hath September, April, June, and November. January February March April May. I see you cryin' but girl I can't stay. August June July December. That one tells you all the months with thirty days, and the song form helps keep it straight in your mind. Today, I am going to do the same with the toughest NBA names the league has to offer. Get ready to learn some names, folks.

 • • •

Player with Difficult Name: As an English transliteration of a Greek transliteration of a Nigerian name, there are few names in the NBA more imposing than that of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Worse, even though his name is spelled "just like it sounds," you'll only get this particular transliteration from how his name sounds if you happen to be a Nigerian living in Greece. And even then, not a guarantee; there are plenty of different linguistic traditions and several languages in Nigeria alone to alter your personal transcription along the way. Plus, if you're reading this, you must speak English on some level (I mean, probably?), and very few words in English are like spelled or sound like either his first or his last name. Also: If you're trying to sound it out, you're very likely getting the pronunciation wrong to start with (unless you're a serious Bucks fan, or you went out of your way to get it right).

Mnemonic trick: Luckily, we're here to help. Mnemonics such as "Every Good Boy Dies Feverishly" (treble clef) and "Feel A Chill? Enter Giannis" (alto clef) help amazingly young people such as, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo (December 1994!) remember their musical (Wy)clefs, while also reminding them of the heartless facts of life and the inevitable omnipotence of Giannis.

Let's see if a mnemonic will do the trick.

Giannis Is A Nice Name I Spell. And Ninety-Two Eagles To Overcome Krzyzewski Offense Unsettle Noticeably Motion, Passing, Offense.

Giannis Indelibly Ate Ninety-Nine Ice Shards. Antetokounmpo's Never Tried Eating Tacos Of Kipper Overseas Unless Neutral Milestone Passed Obliviously

I remember his name already! I bet you do too.

• • •

Player with Difficult Name: Dwyane Wade -- often critiqued as much for his subversively-spelled name as for his declining game -- is an enigma for the dutiful speller and our "'i' before 'e'" fixations and the various exceptions and meta-exceptions thereof. But it's easy to remember with a simple trick!

Mnemonic trick: Dwyane Wade plays a dynamic but rational game, generally speaking. For all the quibbles about his shot selection, he generally scores efficiently and does all the dirty work necessary for a win. He's a true champion with a good understanding of the game. But, when push comes to shove, D"wy"ane Wade puts the "W" (the victory; the methods necessary to achieve) before the "Y" (the why; the rational). Just do it, as they say in the confusingly named Washington County, Oregon. Another clarification article for another day. Also, the order is the same as in "Wyclef", which is something everyone knows.

Mnemonic trick for his nicknames: All of D-Wade's nicknames are self-imposed and stupid. That always helps me remember them. Flash. Three. D-Wade.  The inventor of the D-Wade Two-Step (which is technically true; he is the first person to execute a move he calls the D-Wade Two-Step). Just think of the dumbest possible nickname for Wade and he's probably floating it to his PR team at that very instant. Easy to remember, let's move on.
• • •

Player with Difficult Name: This is probably cheating, but legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was once a player like you or me, and his Polish name is easy to misspell if you lack... polish in your spelling. [Ed. Note: I'm so sorry, readers.] Never fear, the trickster is here!

Mnemonic trick: "Gee, Coach K, you're sure crazy in your zeal for the game. 'Why?' I ask." And then you remember that there's an at the very end. Foolproof.

Actual mnemonic trick: Fine, Aaron, I hate Duke, but there's actually an easy way to spell his name: The key is getting that five-consonant start down (yeah, more like a dissonant [ethered]). You first spell out "Crazy" as in "You Cameron Crazies ruined my day, just by appearing on my screen! Augh!". Then you replace the "C" with a "K" because if you're really krazy, that's what you do. Now, take out the "a", much like Mike Krzyzewski rids his players of their bad attitudes so that they can make it to the NBA for two years before opening a franchise chain of some sort with the money and connections. Now you're left with Mike Krzy. Now... add a z to the end of that. So it's very simple. You should have the first five consonants right, now. Congratulations. It's Mike Crazy- er, Krazy- er, Krzy- er, Mike Krzyz. We're getting closer.

Now - and note that you have only five letters left - the rest is easy. Mike Krzyzewski sure has the craziez. But even he's not crazy enough to ski! Just imagine him trying to water-ski or ski down a mountain. It doesn't make sense on any level other than as some sort of elaborate team-building retreat. And he's not crazy enough not to plan ahead to avoid the possibility of skiing whatsoever.

To the prospect of such skiing, quoth Mike Krzyz: "Ew, ski!" And there it is. You will never forget how to spell Mike Krzyzewski's name, or your money back. That is...if you can find me.

:releases smoke bomb:
:disappears into Appalachia:
• • •

Player with Difficult Name: Phil Jackson was also a player, in addition to being a coach. Because this list is keeping to its original premise perfectly and because we highly value the list format, we will now cover how to remember Phil Jackson's challenging name.

Mnemonic trick: First thing you have to understand is Phil's Jack's son. And Jack's Nichols' son. And John's Nichols, but Bor is Johnson and Bor is Diaw but boric acid rids Phil (Jack's son)'s house of roaches and leaves only coaches, and that's a big reason why he is so successful. And Wyclef Jean comes in at some point.

Once you've got that, it's time to advance to the next stage of the mnemonic. As a coach, Phil Jackson has exactly as many rings as the string "Phil Jackson" has characters. In a mathematical ring, you can add and multiply two characters together to get one character, and multiplication is associative. In this particular ring, "i" is the only logical choice for "1" in this ring and " " is the only logical choice for "0". Evaluating "P*h*i*l* *J*a*c*k*s*o*n" yields 0 because you multiplied everything by 0. Which, as I've mentioned, is just " ". Space. The Triangle Phil (Jack [John Nichols's son]'s son) is so fond of space that in published treatments of the Triangle, Tex Winter often has started with a note about how players should space themselves. The Triangle Offense used space effectively to allow talented and less talented players to get open. The biggest key with this part is that there's a space. "Phil Jackson" is two words with a space to divide them.

As for the rest? Seriously, just sound it out. It's pretty much how it sounds.

"What? Seriously, what?"

Third Week Hullabaloo -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

norris

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

• • •

Observation #1: EASTERN CONFERENCE ALL-STAR GUARDS ARE HARD TO FIND

When you think of the Eastern Conference, it's not particularly hard to come up with names that sound like they should be all-star quality. Whether it's guards that made the all-star team before or have the unimpeachable all-star chops of a young player coming into their own, in the preseason, the thought was simple. The East's surfeit of talent had finally come to call, lifting the conference up into a tier of respectability heretofore unseen by man. Kyrie, Rose, Wall, Williams -- the talent was undeniable.

Here are a few things we know about all-stars. First, we know they play at least 30 minutes a night. Only one player has ever made an all-star game averaging fewer than 25 minutes a night, and only five have made it averaging fewer than 27 -- you need to be on the court for well over half the game to get consideration. Secondly, although this may surprise you, you generally need to have an above-average PER. Only 60 players have gotten an all-star bid in the past 60 years with a PER under 15, and only one of those occurred in the last 20 years. In general, you need to be at least marginally above average to merit consideration for a spot. Finally, the kicker -- your team needs to win, at least a little bit. Only 1 or 2 all-stars a season will hail from a losing team, and they generally hail from a team that's suffered massive injury trauma.

Having said all that, please take a look at the following table of the NBA's top 20 guard performances this season for those playing above 27 minutes a game, ranked by win shares. Please note: there are only 61 guards averaging over that minutes total. I've included a few below the top 20, with their rank next to their name. Because I am helpful, I have marked all western guards in red and all eastern guards in blue.

	Player			Tm	G	MP	WS	 TS%	PER		FG%	3P%	FT%
1	Chris Paul		LAC	11	36.2	2.2	0.56	26.8		0.42	0.24	0.96
2	Andre Iguodala		GSW	11	37.0	2.0	0.72	19.4		0.61	0.52	0.60
3	Klay Thompson		GSW	11	35.5	1.9	0.67	20.2		0.53	0.51	0.82
4	Stephen Curry		GSW	10	32.7	1.7	0.60	24.0		0.46	0.44	0.89
5	Wesley Matthews		POR	11	35.1	1.7	0.71	19.2		0.55	0.53	0.76
6	Arron Afflalo		ORL	10	36.9	1.6	0.62	21.4		0.49	0.50	0.80
7	Kevin Martin		MIN	10	35.1	1.6	0.60	21.7		0.45	0.47	0.91
8	Eric Bledsoe		PHO	9	34.8	1.5	0.61	23.9		0.50	0.29	0.83
9	Ty Lawson		DEN	10	36.9	1.5	0.56	23.7		0.46	0.32	0.79
10	Damian Lillard		POR	11	37.0	1.5	0.55	19.2		0.40	0.40	0.86
11	Mike Conley		MEM	11	32.6	1.4	0.60	23.0		0.51	0.32	0.87
12	James Harden		HOU	10	39.8	1.4	0.59	21.6		0.44	0.29	0.86
13	Jeremy Lin		HOU	11	33.8	1.3	0.66	19.3		0.53	0.44	0.79
14	Kyle Lowry		TOR	11	35.4	1.3	0.52	16.0		0.39	0.36	0.67
15	Lance Stephenson	IND	10	33.8	1.2	0.54	15.3		0.46	0.45	0.55
16	Tony Parker		SAS	10	31.5	1.1	0.57	20.3		0.54	0.27	0.65
17	J.J. Redick		LAC	11	29.4	1.1	0.61	18.9		0.46	0.38	0.95
18	Jeff Teague		ATL	10	34.3	1.1	0.54	21.2		0.44	0.25	0.76
19	Jodie Meeks		LAL	12	27.5	1.0	0.69	16.1		0.53	0.49	0.77
20	Steve Blake		LAL	12	31.9	0.9	0.54	14.4		0.40	0.46	0.77
        ...
22	DeMar DeRozan		TOR	11	38.2	0.9	0.49	16.1		0.40	0.35	0.82
        ...
-------------------- ALL PLAYERS BELOW THIS LINE ARE BELOW THE AVERAGE ---------------------------
        ...
33	Evan Turner		PHI	12	36.5	0.6	0.54	17.3		0.47	0.19	0.84
34	John Wall		WAS	9	36.9	0.6	0.47	16.9		0.37	0.32	0.85
36	Kyrie Irving		CLE	11	35.8	0.5	0.49	17.6		0.40	0.35	0.82
39	Dwyane Wade		MIA	9	33.2	0.5	0.52	18.5		0.48	0.29	0.61
43	Brandon Jennings	DET	7	34.3	0.4	0.47	19.6		0.38	0.31	0.71
44	Joe Johnson		BRK	10	33.0	0.4	0.50	12.0		0.40	0.34	0.80
48	Bradley Beal		WAS	9	40.1	0.3	0.51	13.1		0.41	0.45	0.73
54	Kemba Walker		CHA	11	34.7	0.2	0.42	12.7		0.33	0.26	0.78
60	Derrick Rose		CHI	8	31.4   -0.1	0.44	 9.2		0.34	0.33	0.88

Seriously, what? There are only five eastern conference guards with above-average win-shares among guards playing 27+ MPG. Jeff Teague and Brandon Jennings are leading Eastern Conference guards in PER. Ray Allen, Arron Afflalo, and Mario Chalmers are leading Eastern guards in shooting -- add in James Anderson, O.J. Mayo, and Martell Webster and you have the only six eastern conference guards with a TS% over 55%. This isn't just a "below average" thing. Eastern conference guards have been an absolute horror-show in the early going, and none have been more disappointing than the conference's anointed preseason all-stars. Derrick Rose is currently sporting negative win shares and a PER of 9. Kyrie Irving's PER is barely above average and he's shooting identical percentages to DeMar DeRozan (seriously, look at them -- to date, both players are shooting 40-35-82). Deron Williams is barely averaging 25 minutes a night, and as such, isn't even on this list. Dwyane Wade is posting by large margin the worst numbers of his entire career and playing lackadaisical defense... and he's probably the most deserving all-star in the East's guard slate right now. It's that bad.

If I had to pick out who "deserves" an Eastern conference all-star spot right now, I'd probably err on the side of Wade, Teague, Afflalo, and Turner. Which is... special, let's put it that way. Much like last season, you can make a case for Jennings and Wall and Irving as Eastern all-stars. Unlike last season, it's not really that any of those three are playing anything even remotely approaching decent basketball -- it's simply that they aren't completely embarrassing themselves, and in this Eastern conference, "not embarrassing yourself" appears to be just about good enough to "deserve" an all-star spot. Conversely, look at the embarrassment of riches in the West. Parker, Paul, and Curry all look like locks, and their production has been phenomenal to date. But Mike Conley has been world's better than anything the East has put up, as has Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. As has Harden and Lin. And don't forget Lillard or Westbrook. Hell, Eric Freaking Gordon has been putting up great numbers compared to his eastern counterparts, and he's world's away from his first all-star selection in the West.

All this is to say: there will probably be five guards from the Western conference selected to this year's all-star game, and there will probably be four or five guards from the Eastern conference selected to this year's all-star game. Don't for one second think that the Eastern selection will mean quite as much as the Western selection, and don't for one moment forget that there are legitimately zero guards in the East that would currently make even a cursory cut for a Western selection.

• • •

Observation #2: MIAMI HAS A POINT GUARD CRISIS

"Wait, what? Really?"

That overstates it, but... sort of. After a year or so of scuffling in wanting for a point guard worth their salt, the Heat finally seemed to converge nicely around Chalmers in 2012. They haven't really looked back ever since -- and it must be noted that they really haven't needed to, as Chalmers has been decent enough to keep the show going without breaking anything and keeping things relatively tied down for LeBron and Wade to orchestrate the show. Chalmers isn't broken, so there's no real reason to fix him, yes?

Well, again -- sort of. Norris Cole was an abhorrent NBA player in his first few seasons -- bad at shooting, worse at running an offense, worse still at playing defense. He didn't really fit seamlessly into the Heat's system, to the point where he duplicated skills that needed no duplication and was bereft of skills that the heat needed dearly. So they buried him on the bench and the thought was that he'd take a bigger role when the time came that he'd finally learned how to run an NBA offense.

If early season numbers are accurate, that time might very well be now.

After noticing Cole's strong impact in the excellent Dallas game a few nights back, I took a dip into the stat-pool. Using Evan Zamir's NBAWowy tool, I took a look at how the Heat offense was faring under Chalmers and under Cole. The results were surprising. The Heat offense is scoring 1.08 points per possession with Chalmers on the floor, which is quite nice... but they're scoring 1.22 points per possession with Cole on the floor, which is borderline unholy. The difference is mainly due to differential shooting percentages -- they're shooting better from three and better from midrange with Cole on the floor -- but I admit that my main curiosity was whether the Heat were taking a different profile of overall shots with Cole on the floor. The answer: a little bit. Cole isn't much of a three point marksman, so the expectation should be that the Heat take fewer threes with him on the floor -- and they take marginally fewer. They take a few more midrange shots, but shoot significantly better from that range. They have more dunk attempts and more tip shots than they do under Chalmers, but slightly fewer layups.

Does this mean that the Heat should dramatically cut Chalmers from their rotation in pursuit of more production from Cole? Probably not -- Chalmers is still a better defender than Cole, even if he takes a lot of stupid risks, and there's something to be said for continuity. For my part, I don't think the raw difference in PPP is going to hold up over time. Although they're shooting better under Cole, they're shooting worse shots. That probably isn't going to lead to a sustainable gap between them. That said, both players have a very different way of running the game, and from an adaptation standpoint, it's always nice to have new options. I'd bet you anything Spolestra's already drawing up some new strategies to spring on teams in the playoffs using their differential styles to keep the opposing defense off guard. A bit of a scary development for the rest of the league, all things considered.

NOTE: I don't really have any explanation for this, but the Heat are actually being outscored with Chalmers on the floor, as opponents are averaging 1.09 PPP with Chalmers on the floor and 1.01 PPP with Cole on the floor. This is not a reflection of their defense, as Chalmers really is a better defender in space than his man. He does, as I said, take a lot of stupid risks... but on the whole he's a bit better than Cole. I don't really know what's up with that. Especially since Chalmers shared almost triple the minutes with LeBron/Bosh/Wade than Cole did. Not sure what to say about that, so I'm just going to place that here and let you think about it. Think about what you've done, readers.

• • •

Observation #3: THE ATLANTIC DIVISION MIGHT BE HISTORICALLY BAD

Because I don't store data on teams by-division (and don't have a large number of years in my "team stats by year" personal database), I don't have many statistics on their historical comparables. But I do have a decent number of statistics on their overall performance to date. And let's be real, for a moment -- if things continue as they've played out to date, the Atlantic division may very well end up being a historically awful display of NBA futility. Some facts about the division:

  • Collectively, the division as a whole is on a 12 game losing streak. None of the five teams from the Atlantic Division have won a game in regulation since Toronto's 103-86 upset of the Grizzlies last Wednesday. That's right -- almost a week. If the Knicks and the Celtics lose tonight, it'll stretch to a 14 game losing streak, and officially stretch the division's collective streak without a regulation win to a week. (Note: there were two OT wins in that period by Brooklyn and Philadelphia)
  • Currently, the division has been outscored by 4.1 points per game over a collective 53 games. Their collective record as a division is 19-34. I've heard a lot of people note that the division has a lot of close losses. True. But the expected win percentage of a team that is outscored 4.1 points per game is 36%, and 36% of 53 games is, well... 19 wins. [uncomfortable side glance] Really, though, to bring you some context: only 5 teams lost by more than four points a game over the course of the 2013 season. Those teams: CLE (-4.7), ORL (-7.0), CHA (-9.2), SAC (-4.9), and PHX (-6.5). Yikes.
  • The Philadelphia 76ers are the only team in the division with a winning home record. Every other team has a losing home record, and every team in the division has a losing road record. It is not a fun time to be an Atlantic division fan attending games. (Not coincidentally, the Sixers are currently leading the division. You know, almost one month into the season. The Sixers start James Anderson and have been missing their starting point guard. It's a great look.)

The division seems incredibly awful, but I sincerely doubt this particular trend is going to maintain going forward. They've got one hilarious saving grace right now -- they haven't played themselves. So far, they've only played one intra-division game this season, a showdown where the Raptors beat the Celtics. The division will necessarily go 1-1 on every game they play against themselves, with a net margin of zero. This is going to drag their collective point margin closer to zero, and provide a consistent source of wins. Even if the division loses every other game they play this year, they'll go 36-36 with a margin of zero on the 72 intra-divison games that they play. And, I mean, they can't possibly lose every other game they play... right?

Right?!?

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

  • "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... The league average pace is currently down to 94.9. As it was last week, it's still the fastest since 1994 -- just a tiny bit slower, is all. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • "Stephen Curry is currently shooting nine three pointers a game, putting him on pace to smash through the all-time three pointers attempted mark in the 2nd quarter of game 75." ... Yeah, definitely not. He's missed a game and is now down to seven three-point attempts a game. He isn't going to smash the all-time attempted record, although his last-year record of three pointers made is an outside possibility. Might transition this off the trend list next week. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
  • "LeBron James is playing well over 36 MPG. He should not be playing this much, for rest reasons." ... He's down to exactly 36 MPG. I'm OK with this. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
  • "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." ... Still completely reasonable. Only one player over 36 (Luol Deng) and everyone else in the low 30s to high 20s. It's a Popovich-type rotation right now. Status: STILL CONFUSING, STILL TRUE.
  • "The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." ... Nope. Officially gonna state it -- this Denver team isn't an absurdly awful basketball team. They aren't very good, and I'm going to be shocked if they finish the season over 0.500, but they're a respectable low-tier playoff contender that'd easily make the playoffs in the East. Their main issue is their defense, which is awful, but their post-Karl offense is still reasonably effective. Status: AWFUL, PERHAPS NOT ABSURDLY THOUGH?
  • "The Houston Rockets are currently taking one free throw for every two shots. This is a nearly historically unprecedented rate, and hasn't been seen since the 1950s." ... This one's maintaining. It went down a tad because of a single off-game, which makes one think that if Harden and Dwight combine to miss 10-15 games, this one might be lost. But their overall rate went from 0.511 last week to 0.497 this week, which still has them at a hilarious 4th all-time in free throw attempts per field goal attempts. Status: HISTORY BEING MADE
  • "Damian Lillard can't finish. He also can't stop making threes -- he's completely inverted his shooting percentages from his rookie year, despite neither looking particularly different." ... This one is starting to revert to the mean. At writing, Lillard was at 46% from three and 36% from two -- he is now at 40% from three and 40% from two, so last week showed Lillard finally finishing at the rim and draining the long twos he used to while his above the break three stopped being quite so lethal. Bears watching, but it appears this was just a strange glitch in the matrix. Status: REVERTING TO THE MEAN
  • "Andre Iguodala has the 5th worst free throw percentage in the league among players taking more than 2.5 shots a night -- if this doesn't improve, hack-an-Iggy is going to be a reasonable strategy for Golden State's opposition to pursue." ... At writing, Iguodala was under 50% at 47%. He's now at 60%, which is... well, it's not great, but it's a damn sight better than the point where a hack-an-Iggy strategy would make sense. This is a bit more in tune with his career averages, as well, so it would make sense if he maintains here over the full season. We'll keep watching, but this one seems like a trend that's died. Status: FLY AWAY TREND, BE FREE AS THE NIGHT

 

Small Market Mondays #2.02: When Cavaliers Get Cavalier

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

I have some bad news, my beautiful small marketeers. Word out of one of our most beloved franchises says that some of our basketballing heroes have turned tail on the small market values and virtues that sustain and nourish all of us. To wit, check out this excerpt about locker room squabbles, quoted with the necessary mad-lib style redactions to keep you guessing at the team's identity. Blue represents a mad-lib replacement of the actual word from the excerpt:

"The Argonauts held a players-only meeting following Wednesday's 29-point loss to the Basilisks , multiple sources told ESPN.com. But the meeting got contentious, and players confronted each other, according to sources. In a loss at the Den of Unholy Sin on Monday, Argonauts coach Chief who Stomps Earthquakes and star guard Sparklelord Peat-Swiller got into a heated exchange on the bench after Earthquake Chief pulled Sparklelord from the game. "

You'd think that describes the big market Knicks, right? The Nets? The Lakers?

Nope. With shame and sadness, I relay honesty -- when you remove the redactions, this excerpt is about your very own Cleveland Cavaliers. I admit, in the preseason, perhaps we really should've seen this coming. After all, the Cavaliers are starting to put on some big market airs. They entered the season expecting to take part in this mystical circus known only as the "playoffs." The path to such a land can lead you astray. Worse yet, they added Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark, both of whom bring with them the big market baggage that Los Angeles deposits with all their players.

Who can really know WHAT sorts of sins those two are sharing with the team? Bynum, in his wicked wisdom, might be teaching the Cavaliers about the existence of women. Fun fact: most small marketeers don't know about the existence of women until they're married, just like the lord intended. In fact, this whole observation probably was the first time any of you heard about them. Please wipe these revelations from your memory. Pro tip: watch some Jeff Foster archive footage and some Jimmer Fredette interviews, then return to this article. You'll forget everything. ... Thanks! As for Earl Clark, he's a known drama queen from his time with the Zhejiang Guangsha. Although the fightin' Zhejiangs [ED. NOTE: They are the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions. Saying "the fightin' Zhejiangs" is kind of like saying "the fightin' Chicagos."] gave him every opportunity he needed to succeed, the big market bully couldn't hack it in the small market Zhejiang province. [ED. NOTE: The Zhejiang province has a population of 54 million people.] Typical, huh?

I think we all know what needs to happen here. The Cavaliers need to trade Bynum and Clark, and they need to do it quickly. It needs to happen before the big market flu turns into a big market swine flu. [ED. NOTE: That is not how diseases work.] Might I suggest... Jimmer Fredette, the small market superduperstar that's woefully underutilized in Sacramento? Dare I dream it, dear readers? I do dare. Darkly Daring Dex-McGuire, the drama of wholesome deeds and delights a-plenty. Thanks, Cleveland, for bringing back my dreams. Maybe this rough patch will lead to a recovery that'll save our season. We can only hope.

• • •

The State of The Small Market Union (Sponsored by The Memphis School of Modern Dance)

All is well in the small market union. Although our perfect Pacers lost, the Spurs and Pacers are still "pacing" the league with 18 wins in 20 tries. Portland's small-market beacons are currently outplaying the large market bullies in Los Angeles and Oakland, keeping a firm grasp on the #2 seed. And our small-market heroes in Minnesota look like a contender, sporting the third highest point differential in the league and a surprisingly stingy defense. The only small market sadness right now is in the Eastern Conference, where only two of the eight playoff teams really qualify as members of our "small market" cabal -- Indiana and Charlotte. Luckily for us, only four teams in the east are over 0.500, so it shouldn't be too hard for our small market sleepers in Cleveland, Washington, Detroit, and Milwaukee to rise up and claim their rightful throne-spots. Actually, Milwaukee is 2-7 and look like absolute rubbish. So it may be sort of hard for them to rise up. Oh well. Can't have everything, I suppose.

• • •

nate wolters

The Milwaukee Towne Crier presents the "I'M ON FIRE SOMEONE HELP ME" Nate Wolters MVP Watch

Man, Nate Wolters! In our season-opening Small Market Mondays joint, Wolters was KILLING it. And last week's borderline all-time great performances did nothing to dissuade me of including Nate the Great in our MVP watch segment for a second week in a row. Check out these world-beating lines over the last week of basketball from "The Colt with the Wolt":

  • 9 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 STEALS!!! on 50-0-50 shooting in a 23 point loss to the Miami Heat.
  • 9 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal on 37-0-75 shooting in a 3 POINT!!! loss to the Orlando Magic. (In just 40 minutes!)
  • 8 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 2 BLOCKS!!! on 36-0-0 shooting in a 27 point loss to the Indiana Pacers.
  • 7 points, 6 REBOUNDS!!!, 4 assists on 30-0-100 shooting in a 13 point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

... yeah, world-beating, right? [sweats profusely] Pay no attention to the non-exclamatory stats, or the fact that Wolters went a baffling 0-for-7 from the three point line this week. After all, that 0-for-7 is a GOOD thing. It actually means that Nate the Great shot 14-for-30 from two point range, which is almost 50, which is more points than anyone has scored this season to date. And after all -- his shooting percentage is rough, but I'm sure most of the NBA is shooting under 40% from the floor with a sub-20% performance from three. I mean, look at this rogue's gallery of league-leading lights. Derek Fisher's a champion! Ben Gordon is making a billion dollars! Matthew Dellavedova has a fantastic name! EVERYTHING'S GOOD, NATE, YOU BEAUTIFUL MAN.

[sobs]

We will have a new small market MVP next week.

• • •

Small Market Mondays Game of the Night: DENVER NUGGETS at OKLAHOMA CITY

Honestly, this is one of the least small-market friendly "game of the night" features we've ever had to highlight. Denver is a small market in theory, I suppose, but it's one of the largest cities in the southwest outside of Phoenix and it's one of those small-market-in-name-only cities. Luckily, the actual game is occurring at Oklahoma City, which means that Denver's not-quite-small-market status won't come into play at the contest. We'll get to enjoy all the mini-market joys of Oklahoma City's only sporting franchise. I refer of course to their pre-game prayers, the hilarious face painting for regular season matchups, and the borderline embarrassing focus on throwing t-shirts into a crowd of presumably grown adults to hype them up. ... Wait, they do that last one in every arena? God help us.

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

  • Minnesota at Washington (TUE, 11/19): This should be a good one. We've got two playoff contenders -- one surprising, one unfathomably disappointing in one of the worst Eastern Conference gauntlets we've seen in ages --  and both are duking it out for our small market love. Also: duking it out in a constant attempt to figure out who won the "Mike Miller and Randy Foye for the pick that would become Ricky Rubio" trade. Seems like a pretty fair trade to me!
  • San Antonio at Memphis (FRI, 11/22): Although the Grizzlies aren't off to a particularly many-splendored start, these two teams sort of despise each other. Well, they used to. Now it's a little one-sided, as I'm pretty sure that sweeping a team in a deep playoff run actually erases most of the animosity once held for the team, so the Spurs are probably mostly over the first round upset Memphis dealt them years ago. But these are still delightful grit-and-grind outfits, made even more gritty and grindy with San Antonio's new defensive focus and Memphis' not-at-all-new "what is offense at all, even?" focus. Taste the fever!
  • Philadelphia at Indiana (SAT, 11/23): The Sixers have been one of the most shocking teams in the league, and although they're under 0.500, they're currently firmly ensconced in the playoff picture because they lead a division that's collectively gone 19-32. That actually understates how unfathomably awful that division has been -- collectively, the average result for a game played by an Atlantic division team this season has been a little over a four point loss. Their AVERAGE result. For context, only 5 teams lost by more than four points a game over the course of the 2013 season: the Cavaliers (-4.7), the Magic (-7.0), the Bobcats (-9.2), the Kings (-4.9), and the Suns (-6.5). Seriously, it is entirely possible that every single team in the Atlantic ends the season well under 0.500. It's a hilarious but altogether real possibility. ... I'm sure the Sixers will turn it around against one of the best defenses in the last decade, though. Seems legit. Go team!

See you next week, Small Marketeers! Stay frosty.

When expertise doesn't inform: Tanking & Krzyzewski

coach k teaches typing

“If [tanking] is happening, shame on whoever is doing it. … As an American I wouldn't like to think that an American team would [ever] want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose,” he said. “I can't even fathom -- I can't go there. I can't believe that that would happen. Maybe I'm naïve and going to read a fairytale after this.”

-- Mike Krzyzewski, post game after a 94-83 loss to Kansas

How do you really feel, Coach? Say this for Coach K -- he doesn't mince words. Many of those who detract tanking couch their detractions in caveats. Bill Self expressed light disapproval before saying that he didn't believe it ever happened. NBA commentators often express distaste at the idea of "losing to win" a la tanking, and morality plays are common. But few people bring a jingoistic nationality play into it, and few people outright shame any team involved. He has a strong opinion. And I understand why seemingly every news organization has posted some sort of analysis or report of the quote. It all makes sense.

Here's the thing: I'm really not sure Coach K can properly contextualize NBA decision-making.

• • •

I'm fully aware of the humor in that line. Coach Krzyzewski is one of the finest basketball minds in the world. In terms of knowledge about the game itself and the shape of college's competitive sphere, he's nearly unparalleled. The man has won almost 1000 basketball games at the NCAA level. He's orchestrated two gold medals and a revitalization of America's Olympic basketball program. He's won four NCAA championships. He's won the greatest hair plugs known to man. (... Alright, maybe not that last one.) Still: Coach K is one of the greatest basketball minds ever, and it's a tall order to say that his opinion isn't particularly well informed on ANYTHING related to the game. But I'm game, so let's attempt it.

The main issue, in my mind, lies in the quite different motivations Krzyzewski optimizes for when he's solving the competitive calculus of the college game. Team building in the NCAA isn't just a tiny bit different than the NBA, it's essentially a completely different game. And the penalties for failure, insofar as a franchise or school are concerned, are unquestionably lower. The best way to think about this is to consider how long a failed move impacts your team. Let's compare two big ones -- on the college level, we'll actually use one of Coach K's failures -- his inability to entice John Wall to attend Duke University. At the NBA level, we'll look at Toronto's failed first-overall-pick of Andrea Bargnani back in 2006. Let's examine what both franchises lost as a result:

  • DUKE MISSES OUT ON JOHN WALL, 2010: John Wall played extremely well as a college basketball player, producing first-team All-American performance for Calipari at Kentucky and leading them to an elite eight loss to a very good West Virginia team. He then opted to jump to the NBA. Coach K's failure to recruit Wall resulted in missing out on one year of production from a very good player. Funny enough, Duke won the title that year. They weren't missing Wall all that much, despite Wall's excellent college production. And even if Duke had bottomed out, they would've only missed a year. See: Kentucky's 2013 college basketball season. Length of impact: One year.
  • TORONTO PICKS ANDREA BARGNANI OVER LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, 2006: This is essentially the exact inverse of the above miss. Bargnani ended up being a pox on the organization for seven years. While Aldridge was blossoming as a valuable piece in Portland, the Raptors continually doubled down on the failed Bargnani pick, trying to push him into more minutes and different roles. All told, over Bargnani's tenure, the Raptors fired two coaches and let a general manager go. They never quite got over blowing the 2006 draft, and have effectively spent eight years rebuilding the roster in an effort to create a contending team. One wonders what the Raptors would've looked like with a Bosh/Aldridge core instead of a Bosh/Bargnani core. All we do know? Bargnani was a horrible waste, and the 2014 season is the first one where his husk isn't looming over the franchise as a whole. Length of impact: Seven years.

The key here isn't that Coach K's mistake didn't matter. It did, and anyone who tells you the 2010 Duke team wouldn't have been better if John Wall had been running point (or even playing shooting guard alongside Jon Scheyer) is nuts. And the point isn't that Toronto is a terrible franchise, or that their pick was even particularly bad. Bargnani seemed like a good pick at the time, and although he didn't pan out, these things happen. The point is more a reflection of the overall calculus behind decisions in the NBA. That is to say: virtually any personnel decision you make in the NBA is going to impact your roster for 3-4 years at a bare minimum. Sign a player? You're dealing with that contract over the duration of its lifespan, and that's (on average) 3-4 years. Draft a player? You probably just made a seven year investment, better hope it was a good one. Hire a coach? Unless you're the Lakers, you've probably tied yourself to at least a few years of leeway for the new guy.

In college, any mistake you make -- whether in recruiting, player development, or implementing a bad system -- is reasonably fungible. No player is going to be on your team for more than five years, and generally speaking, few game-changing players are going to be on your team for more than two. The impact of a bad decision is thus quite a bit lower. Missed out on John Wall? Who cares, it was just a year. Completely misused Andre Drummond for reasons passing understanding? Who cares, you get a clean slate the next year. Tried to implement a terrible offensive system that didn't fit your players? In two years, 75% of your team will have churned away, and with it all the habits and tics you mistakenly gave them will wash away as well. Mistakes simply don't matter as much to the decisionmakers in the college game, for better or for worse.

This works both ways, also -- if you're a smart franchise with good management and good coaching, the length of impact of a good decision can span just as long or longer. Just look at the Lakers and Spurs. One made a great move for Kobe, the other had a great tank for Duncan. Both of those moves have had sixteen years of profoundly positive impact for both franchises. Conversely, we'll go back to Coach K's 2010 season -- the player development and long process of molding Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek into lights-out NCAA players was a fantastic piece of work from Coach K and his staff. But they only really got to experience the tidings of their good work for a single season -- Scheyer was OK in the seasons leading up to 2010, but he only really came into his own in that final season. And Zoubek was little more than a running joke for his first three years. The year ended, Duke won the title, and Scheyer and Zoubek moved on. Scheyer tried and failed to make the NBA, settling down in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv. Zoubek started a cream puff dessert shop that recently closed.

But nothing more for Coach K, and that's kind of the point.

• • •

Tanking -- to me -- represents an NBA franchise that is actively sitting players and liquidating veterans for draft assets in an effort to accelerate a natural rebuilding process. That's my definition. I don't think it happens obscenely often -- perhaps one or two teams per season, on a large scale. I think it may be a larger problem this season than most, given the generally agreed upon glut of talent in the 2014 draft. But I'm of the view that most awful teams are simply bad because they're bad. It's not rocket science. There was no greater power that was holding Bismack Biyombo back and preventing him from being a great basketball player -- he simply isn't very good, and he still represented Charlotte's best option for a year or two. A team where that's the case is going to be pretty vile, and there are few avenues the front office really had to make the team better. But the teams that do actively tank draft position are -- in a general sense -- trying to avoid the depressingly long downside that a bad decision has in the NBA.

Understanding the longstanding impact of a bad decision is essential to anyone trying to get to the bottom of the NBA's tanking problem. An NBA team that makes a mistake on who they draft feels the repercussions for a long time. That period often spans an entire management staff's tenure. If one were to be hired as a new GM of an NBA team and one were to immediately make a poor decision with a high draft pick or a bad free agent acquisition, chances are reasonably high that the poor decision would outlast you in the organization. As it was with Bargnani -- he outlasted two coaches and a GM that (hilariously) won executive of the year twice. The NBA draft is one of the best pick-to-talent drafts in professional sports. The marginal value of a higher pick in the NBA is much larger than the marginal value of a higher pick in the NFL or the MLB. In basketball, the good players simply matter more -- they have more on-court impact and can make-or-break a franchise in the long term in a way that's more rare in the other professional sports.

And, of course, the rub: the way that a top prospect can makes-or-break a franchise for a decade or more is completely nonexistent in the NCAA. It's a ridiculous, absurd stretch from anything a college coach has to contend with. Period. I reiterate: Coach Krzyzewski is one of the greatest coaches ever, and disdain for his views on tanking has nothing to do with how good he is at his job. But I can't help thinking that Coach K's tanking views are less a reflection of a top basketball mind placing his attention on a grand problem and more a reflection of how vast the gulf is between franchise building in the NBA and program building in the NCAA. The motivations are as different as the game of chess and the game of darts. Does Garry Kasparov do color commentary for the World Series of Poker? Does Usain Bolt critique Michael Phelps from the booth? Did Rambo analyze Rocky's left jab?

Of course not. While all of those would be varying levels of awesome, they're all patently ridiculous. And maybe -- just maybe -- going to college coaches for thoughts on NBA team-building strategies is a tiny bit ridiculous too.

Second Week Warbles -- Odds & Ends from the Week that Was

james harden shooting a free throw

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

• • •

Observation #1: HOUSTON AND FREE THROWS -- A LOVE STORY

To the surprise of roughly no one, a team featuring both Dwight Howard (36 MPG) and James Harden (40 MPG) shoots a lot of free throws. The surprising thing about the trend is just how unprecedented the rate is. The Rockets are currently attempting one free throw for every two shots they take. That's an almost unprecedented rate. Seriously, take a gander at the all-time leaderboard for free throw attempts per field goal attempt (FTR). It's kind of hilarious:

Rk    Season    Tm      FTR  
1    1952-53    SYR*    0.554
2    2013-14    HOU     0.511
3    1952-53    ROC*    0.506
4    1951-52    SYR*    0.497
5    1952-53    NYK*    0.497
6    1950-51	SYR*	0.491
7    1953-54	NYK*	0.488
8    1952-53	FTW*	0.476
9    1953-54	SYR*	0.475
10   1952-53	BOS*	0.471
         ...
29   1997-98	UTA*	0.433
         ...
40   1998-99	UTA*	0.417
41   2005-06	NYK	0.417

To help you contextualize that, I've highlighted every team in the top 40 that didn't play in the 50s, as well as the only team from the aughts in the top 100 (congrats, Knicks! You win the prize!). Spoiler alert: there are only three teams in the top 40 from anything approaching a modern vintage, and the Rockets blow all of them out of the water. I know quite a few people who put the Rockets reasonably high in their "League Pass Team" rankings. Unless you're the world's biggest free throw fanboy, I have absolutely no idea why you would do that to yourself. They play at a fast pace from a pure "basketball statistical calculation" standpoint, but with half of that fast pace wasted on an endless parade of free throws, I have no idea why you'd turn away from a Blazers game or a Warriors game to watch Dwight Howard and James Harden play pop-a-shot at the free throw line into the infinite.

Will the Rockets keep this level up? I was tempted to say "no", simply because it's such a historical aberration, but I'm really not so sure. Hacking Dwight for free defensive possessions isn't just a Popovich thing anymore, and it seems like every coach in the league is trying to uncork the strategy once or twice a game. James Harden has always gotten a lot of free throws, and he's currently taking fewer free throws per 36 minutes than he took last year. The aberration is that the two of them are on the same team, not that this is a statistically untenable trend. So I'm going to guess that it actually continues. They might fall to the lower reaches of the top 10 if either misses time for injury, but I'd deem it a pretty good bet that Houston ends up with more free throws per shot than any team since the 1950s. If free throw rates were championships, Daryl Morey would have just put together the 1996 Bulls.

• • •

Observation #2: DAMIAN LILLARD CAN'T FINISH

This one is one of the weirder ones. Last season, Lillard posted a relatively normal shooting line for a scoring point guard. He shot 42% overall from the field, but as most people realize, that number means almost nothing without some context for shot placement. Lillard was a good three point shooter (38%), a decent at-rim finisher (53% -- middling, but not bad at all), a decent shooter from the mid-to-long range distance (43% on a ridiculous 366 attempts), and a dependable free throw stroke (84%). It stood to reason that Lillard would probably keep those numbers steady this season, if not improve them.

Lillard shot chart provided by NBA.com, 11/12/2013

Oh, well then!

Seriously, where do you even begin? Lillard's current shooting stats are essentially a complete inversion of last season's  numbers -- he's currently shooting almost 46% from three point range and a baffling 36% from two point range. His two-point numbers aren't being dragged down by a surplus of long twos, either -- he's taking fewer shots from between the paint and the three point line and more shots at the rim relative to last year. His true shooting percentage is actually higher this season due to his wild three point percentage, but that doesn't really explain his anemic finishing. Watching tape doesn't really shed any light on it either -- his shots look about as good as they did last year, they just aren't going in. Oh, and the best part: despite his wildly different shooting profile, his free throw numbers are virtually identical (84% last season, 84% this season). Good luck figuring that one out.

My best guess? His shooting numbers -- by midseason -- are going to invert and look about the same as his numbers from last year. His shot doesn't look markedly different and his three point shot -- while good -- isn't THAT good. Lillard isn't a 50% bet for threes taken above the left key. Sorry, but no. That said, his at-rim finishing will get better, for sure. And I'd take a bet that his long twos will too -- he took an absurd amount at a half-decent percentage last year, and I doubt he's going to continue his current run of futility there. Of course, there's also the upside/downside prognostications for Blazers fans -- the upside would be that perhaps Lillard really has improved his three point shot and is due for a reversion to the mean on only his two-point range shots, which would make him one of the best scoring guards in the league. The downside would be that perhaps Lillard is profiting from the same sort of early-season hot streak that Brandon Jennings seems to have every other year, and his troubles inside are a result of better scouting for his team and defense tuned to his play rather than a mere dry spell.

• • •

Observation #3: ANDRE IGUODALA IS THE LEAGUE'S WORST FREE THROW SHOOTER

Okay, no, that's not entirely true. DeAndre Jordan takes that particular cake, at least to date. But Iguodala's free throw shooting is way, WAY more confusing to me. Here is the current league leaderboard for free throw futility (cut down to players with 2.5 attempts per game or more, as going to the line for a few shots a game seems essential to being the league's real "worst" free throw artist):

Rk    Player          FT%      FTA
1     DeAndre Jordan  0.378    5.6
2     Bismack Biyombo 0.389    2.6
3     John Henson     0.429    2.8
4     Dwight Howard   0.471   10.9
5     Andre Iguodala  0.478    3.3
6     Ben Gordon      0.500    4.0
7     Miles Plumlee   0.500    2.9
8     Xavier Henry    0.537    5.1
9     Nene Hilario    0.538    6.5
10    Jeff Taylor     0.542    3.4

Seriously, cripes. There are only five players in the league taking a decent number of free throws a game and shooting under 50%. Ben Gordon is confusing too, but everyone else on this list is pretty self explanatory. Jordan has never had a free throw stroke worth a chia pet and Biyombo is similarly lacking. Henson, Howard, Plumlee -- all of them are big men who have well-advertised free throw problems. But Iguodala? To see this kind of a huge decline in free throw effectiveness from a player that's unchanged in all other aspects of his game is almost unprecedented.

And don't cut corners. This is a HUGE, huge decline. Iguodala's career mark from the line is 72%, but that's not without its higher points -- he shot 82% from the line in his third year and was above 72% in each of his first six years. Then he shot 69%, which seemed a bit odd, but not totally out of line. Then he shot 62% in his last year in Philadelphia, which is where people started noticing that his free throw percentage was definitely dropping. Then he shot 57% last year, when it started to become a huge problem and just about everyone noticed. And now he's one of the league's five or six best bets for any coach's pet hack-a-whoever strategy.

Not entirely sure where his Nick Anderson moment was, but I'm betting the Warriors are wishing he'd never had it. After all, Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the league when he's locked in and he's integrated seamlessly into the Warriors' offense. But if that offense can get held to under a point a possession every time Iguodala gets fouled, teams are eventually going to start picking up on that, and Iguodala's playing time will suffer greatly as a result. Sort of ridiculous. And there's no real explanation for it, at least so far as I can find. While I'm guessing he'll recoup a bit, I've guessed that three seasons in a row and it's legitimately never panned out for me. Maybe he's fallen to the point where he can't possibly fall anymore? That's the hope, I suppose. We'll see.

• • •

TRENDSPOTTING -- HOW DID THE PRIOR TRENDS FARE?

  • "The league average pace is at 96.2, much faster than any yearly average since 1994." ... Well, the pace is currently 95.1. That's STILL the fastest since 1994, but you can take the "much" out of there. Also, it's gone down a full possession in the interceding week. This one bears further examination. For now, though, it's still quite true. Status: STILL TRUE.
  • "Stephen Curry is currently shooting nine three pointers a game, putting him on pace to smash through the all-time three pointers attempted mark in the 2nd quarter of game 75." ... Curry is down to 8.1 three point attempts per game -- still ungodly, but less so. He also missed a game. Combine these two, and he's no longer on track to break the record. Still a ton of threes, but not a record-breaking ton. Anymore, at least. Status: NOT TRUE ANYMORE.
  • "LeBron James is playing well over 36 MPG. He should not be playing this much, for rest reasons." ... I do know a lot of people disagree with me on this. Evidently, Spolestra isn't one of them. LeBron's minutes are down to 37 MPG, and have been on a generally downward trajectory since that first week. Status: IN THE PROCESS OF BEING MADE SILLY.
  • "Tom Thibodeau -- to the surprise of literally everyone on Earth -- is sporting a patently reasonable minutes rotation for the Chicago Bulls." -- This is still true. In fact, it's even more true than it was when I originally noted it -- now the only player above 36 MPG is only at 36.2 MPG (it's Deng, but oh well) and everyone else is at 31 MPG or below. What? Seriously, what? Status: STILL CONFUSING, STILL TRUE.
  • "The Denver Nuggets look like an absurdly awful basketball team." -- This is still somewhat true, though less so after a week where they got a few wins in. The Nuggets started the week looking reasonably good against a basically-half-asleep Spurs team, and they notched a few nice wins against the Hawks and the Jazz. The weird thing about the Nuggets is that the Jazz performance has had the effect of rocketing their defensive rating to league average, which doesn't in any way match how awful they've looked on that end from a basic play-watching standpoint. If the defense sinks back to the level most of us assess it -- one of the worst in the league -- it's obvious their offense isn't going to be saving them this year. So this one's essentially a push. Status: AWFUL, PERHAPS NOT ABSURDLY THOUGH?

Small Market Mondays #2.01: The Return of Milk Toast

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

"Another day, another dollar." That's what my small market uncle used to say. My family generally didn't like to see me hanging out with him, as one dollar a day is not a wage that a child should generally look up to. Even in the smallest of markets. But they weren't in my head, folks. I didn't look up to his laughable salary. I looked up to his grit and his will to win. I looked up to the aura of competence he had around him. I looked up to the way he talked to dogs and earnestly believed they'd talk back. And, above all, I looked up to the small market spirit he had floating in the air around him. The spirit to never give up even when his salary was comparable to the coins in a normal working class Joe's couch cushions. Today, as we embark on a bold new season of small marketeering in a world of dread piracy, I aim to appreciate some of the many small market heroes that embody my uncle's up-and-at-em spirit.

  • Patrick Beverley, HOU ($788,872) -- Deron Williams, the starter for this feature's arch nemesis, makes $18,466,130. He makes 23 times the salary of Houston Rockets starter Patrick Beverley. Despite being injured and having an artificially deflated PER due to this, Beverley's PER is less than one point lower than Deron's (13.6 vs 14.4). Take that, money. You aren't the boss of us! Here's to Beverley, our old friend.
  • Jeremy Tyler, ATL ($100,000) -- LeBron James probably could find a hundred thousand dollars in his couch cushions, and Jeremy's making less money than literally everyone in the NBA right now, so I think we can overlook Atlanta's actually-large-market city size and appreciate him. (Related note: someone should tell LeBron to stop using hundred dollar bills as cushion stuffing, it's really uncomfortable.) He hasn't actually played this season, so here's hoping he... wait, he got waived? I'm featuring someone who is completely without employment in this highlight? Dangit. Sorry Jeremy.
  • Orlando Johnson, IND ($788,872) -- The best thing about Orlando Johnson is that he's three small markets in one. First he's in Indiana, a favorite of this feature. Then his first name is Orlando, which evokes another small market to admire and contemplate. Then, to top it all off, his last name is Johnson. That's the most small market last name a person can have! It's not quite as popular as "Smith", but being second is something Small Market Mondays can appreciate. And to top it all off, he doesn't make a ton of money and isn't actually great at basketball. There is literally no downside to Orlando Johnson. He is my hero, and he is a hero to us all. Thanks, America.

You know, come to think of it, I have no idea what my uncle's job was. And I never saw him with his own home or apartment. And he had a hat that he'd just put on the ground next to him while sitting at highly trafficked areas, which was when we tended to hang out. And he thought he'd been abducted by aliens on a weekly basis. And he ran every time he saw a cop, and the reason I haven't seen him for a while is that he got arrested for murder or something.

Starting to understand why my parents didn't want me to hang out with him.

Editor, scratch this column. Wait, I am the editor. I don't remember how to scratch columns. These meds are rough, guys.

• • •

The State of The Small Market Union (Sponsored by The Memphis School of Modern Dance)

You know how the small market union was strong last season? It's basically made of diamond now, baby. (And when I say diamond, I mean the "diamond special" at your local IHOP, because diamonds are much too expensive for us true small marketeers.) Seriously, though, the standings right now are basically a beautiful paragon of small market appreciation and excellence. The following facts are true about the beautiful season we've been watching to date:

  • The Spurs, Pacers, and Thunder are a combined 18-2, with the top three records in the league.
  • The Knicks, Nets, Lakers, and Bulls are a combined 9-16, and none of them are in their conference's playoff picture.
  • The upstart Minnesota Timberpuppies are at 5-2, and just eviscerated the Lakers by 23 points at the Staples center. What!
  • The Bobcats and Hawks are at the 4/5 seeds in the Eastern Conference at 3-3 apiece, which is adorable.
  • Those big market bullies in Utah are 0-7, which finally gets some comeupp-- wait, UTAH?!?

Okay, scratch that last one. Wait, I forgot again. I'm the editor. Damnit. Where's my backspace key? How do I delete things?

• • •

nate wolters

The Milwaukee Yoga Farm presents the "Namaste Cow Moos Twice" Nate Wolters MVP Watch

Handsome. Trustworthy. Brunette. These are all words that have never in our natural lives been used to describe Nate Wolters, the small marketeer point guard filling in for Milwaukee's Knight of the Brandon table. These are all words that I will be avoiding in my short description of Nate's amazing play for the Milwaukee Buckaroonies. The Bucks are hardly a great team -- they're currently 2-3, and they were lucky to get an upset win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to pad that 2-3 record. But if it wasn't for the up-and-at-em play of this "young Buck" (yes, I will be arrested for crimes against words someday), they wouldn't even be 2-3.

Wolters is currently averaging 9-6-4 for the Bucks, and we have some new stats that give us context for Nate's splendor. According to NBA.com's "SportsVU" statistics, Wolters is currently throwing 56.3 passes per game. That's 19th overall in the league, despite the fact that he's 21st overall in assists per game! That means his passes aren't leading to quite as many assists as the rest of his peers, which is another sign of Nate's never-say-die attitude. Why generate a ton of flashy assists when you can demonstrate to your fans the true meaning of existential worthlessness by completing beautiful pinpoint passes to players that can't finish? Nothing is beautiful and everything hurts. Great performance, Nate. You're our first "Small Market Mondays" MVP candidate. Keep it up, handsome!

... wait, I said I wasn't gonna use that word. Seriously, how do I delete things?!?

• • •

Small Market Mondays Game of the Night: MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES AT INDIANA PACERS

The Grizzlies haven't gotten off to quite the season start they were hoping for -- they're currently 3-3 with a strange mix of blowouts, bad losses, and good wins. As I mentioned earlier (and will probably get more into next week), the Indiana Pacers have gotten off to their best start in decades. They're undefeated! Tonight's game, defensive slog though it may be, is really going to be a no-lose scenario for small marketeers like us. If the Grizzlies win, they're the small market David that's slain yet another Goliath, and they'll return to the Western playoff picture -- where they should be. If the Pacers win, they stretch their 7-0 start to an 8-0 start and further chisel their ridiculously strong start into the annals of league history. It's great! Here's hoping the game is even remotely watchable!

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

  • Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies (WED, 11/13): Although Toronto isn't technically a small market, their history of futility and general status as the only NBA team in Canada evokes the same sort of "only game in town" feeling you get from a small market team. So we'll count them for now. Should be a barnburner, if you're one of those weirdos that burns down barns every time they watch Rudy Gay and Demar DeRozan chuck indiscriminately against an excellent defense. If so, please turn yourself in to the authorities. Thanks in advance.
  • Milwaukee Bucks at Indiana Pacers (FRI, 11/15): This is one of  those rare early season treasures that most people inexplicably never watch. Don't make that mistake. Nate Wolters is our current Small Market Mondays MVP choice, and Paul George is a reasonable "actual MVP" choice. The Pacers are probably gonna roll over the Bucks, but it's hard to sleep on that Wolters/Pachulia/Neal core. ... Okay, I retract that, it's pretty easy to sleep on them. But don't! Please?
  • Detroit Pistons at Los Angeles Lakers (SUN, 11/17): This is your obligatory "small market mainstay" versus "big market monster" of the coming week. The difference? The Pistons are probably going to be favored! It isn't just possible that they win, it's actually likely! Should be fun to watch the Pau Gasol revenge game to try and get the Pistons back for the 2004 Finals. Pau has a lot of saved up fury over that series, probably. Expect a 60-40-20 game from Pau "Laker for Life" Gasol, staved off only by a vintage 30 point 30 assist Chauncey Billups performance. (I live in a fantasyland made of snow cones.)

See you next week, Small Marketeers! Stay frosty.

Sympathy for the Devil: Relating to Andrew Bynum

the return of andrew bynum

By now, I'm sure most of our readers have read the Richie Incognito story. It's taken an expanse of media real estate over the past few days, for good reason. I'm not erroneously referring to it as "the Richie Incognito story" rather than the Jonathan Martin story, either. While stories about bullies certainly center around the response the victim has to the bully-at-large, we tend to over-emphasize the victim in all stories of assault and treat the perpetrator as an outside factor, much like storytellers treat the weather. Sure, we'll mention a raindrop or two, but the weather is as close to an uncontrollable act of God as you can get in this great world of ours. Remarkably, this frame of reference is often applied to assault -- we overanalyze the actions of the victim as we search around for the tiniest things a victim could've done to get out of their situation. "Stand up. Speak out. Don't walk there. Don't live here. Get better friends." Et cetera, et cetera. The issue is, this viewpoint necessarily treats the person who's actually in-the-wrong as though they're devoid of responsibility.

After all... do you blame a few raindrops when an unexpected downpour floods your car? Do you blame a snowflake when snowfall kills your vegetable garden? And, thus: do you blame a bully for acting out when it "would've happened anyway?" Hence the problem. All that needed to happen for this particular instance of assault to stop was for Richie Incognito to realize he was being an ass and take a step back, instead of stepping further and further out of line. It wouldn't have mattered what Martin did if Incognito had simply stopped being such a twat. While you can make the argument that the NFL's hazing culture is such that it would've continued happening even if Incognito threw in the towel, that has little to do with the facts of the case and more to do with the seedy facts of NFL hazing. It's a useful discussion, but a markedly different one. And it's also, regrettably, far more difficult to prove. The facts of this case are actually rather simple. Incognito had an easy way to stop psychologically tormenting his teammate. He didn't.

This isn't some "everyone's at fault, look at how society reared him, Incognito is a reflection of his zeitgeist" pablum -- it's an incident where one party had an incredibly easy way to fix things and simply ignored it in favor of being a psychopath. Hence, it's the "Richie Incognito story" -- it's a story about an prick being an prick who deserves to be treated like one. The victim is less pertinent to the case than the one who had the easy ability to stop it. They're the one that should be pilloried, overanalyzed, and made to answer for their overreach. And so it goes. Having said all that, I don't really intend to talk about that case today. I'm actually more focused on an NBA player that the Richie Incognito case inadvertently reminded me of.

Andrew Bynum!

Now, let's take a step back. No, Bynum's sins aren't quite at the psychological torture level of Incognito's answering machine message. At least not that we know of. But years of play has made a point we really should probably pay more heed. Andrew Bynum is, in most definitions of the term, something of a bully. Think back to the 2011 playoffs, where Bynum essentially tried to kill J.J. Barea only to later state that he wasn't sure what the big deal was. Classy. Bynum has enough dirty hits -- see this, this, or this for examples -- to compose a highlight reel entirely built of dirty career-threatening plays. The man is a 7'0" behemoth with nearly 300 pounds of muscle on his frame. It's one thing if Muggsy Bogues has a highlight reel of hits. That's just funny. (Seriously, can someone make that highlight reel? I really want to see it.) Andrew Bynum's highlight reel is filled with scary, scary plays where a jackhammer of a man nearly ends a variety of smaller players' careers. Not exactly Mother Teresa.

And then you get off the court, where Bynum's transgressions are given more depth. Bynum doesn't (or, as I'll later note, didn't used to) care about the game of basketball all that much. This makes his dirty, scary fouls even more befuddling. Why threaten the livelihood of others for a game you don't really care much for? When Carl Mays killed Ray Chapman with his spitball, the only mitigating factor you could really give was that Mays cared about baseball too much, and his semi-psychotic will to win drove him to play dangerously enough that murdering a player with his throwing arm was an ever-present possibility. Bynum has never made a public statement that would imply anything close to that, instead stating a clear preference for the finer things in life (his engineering pursuits, playboy bunnies, and fast cars among them). That's not a big deal in a vacuum, and respectable in its own way. But not quite so much when you indiscriminately throw your weight around and put your fellow NBA players in danger. By all accounts, Bynum is sort of a jerk in his personal interactions too -- parking badly in handicapped spots, driving over a divider to the wrong side of the road to pass someone going the speed limit, and is (evidently) the worst neighbor in recorded history. All in a season's work for the big guy.

And yet... after reading Bynum's recent interview, I come away strangely sorry for him.

“Retirement was a thought, it was a serious thought. It still is,” Bynum said after the Cavs practice Thursday at Temple University. “It’s tough to enjoy the game because of how limited I am physically. I’m working through that. Every now and again I do (think about retirement)…It’s still career threatening. I’m a shell of myself on the court right now. I’m just struggling mentally. ... I just want to be able to play without pain and find the joy again,” Bynum said. “Right now I’m battling pain and it’s annoying. I’m not able to do the things I’m used to doing and it’s frustrating.”

Admittedly, it isn't the end of the world. The effectiveness of an NBA player waxes and wanes with age regardless of who it is. Injury speeds up that aging timeline in a very uncomfortable way, but it's not like Bynum instantly transformed from an eternal font of vigor and health into something he was never going to be. At some point in his career Bynum was going to be physically limited by age and a loss of athleticism. He was never to be the NBA's first immortal player regardless of entering the league as impressively young as he did.

But there's also another side to Bynum's not-being-psychotically-interested-in-basketball. Unlike, say, Duncan or Bryant or Nowitzki, Bynum isn't some intensely obsessed basketball demigod who's made his mark on history and is bouncing back from the grave as much out of his legacy's momentum as a personal calling. His non-obsession with the game makes his ongoing recovery from injury that much harder. As he said, basketball used to be fun, if only just. Have you ever been deathly ill but had to go to work anyway? Have you ever tried to help a friend move after spraining your ankle? If you haven't: try to avoid both. They're awful situations and they suck for everyone involved. Trying to do something you don't quite love while you're physically prevented from performing at your best is something most people have experienced. And most people agree: it really really sucks.

So, regardless of Bynum's myriad personal faults and the bully-centric undertones he's given off over the years, I find myself actually feeling pretty bad for the guy's current position. He's trying to have fun in the game, and he's trying to ward off thoughts that he isn't good enough to keep going. The trope of the wayward bully who becomes a sympathetic character after reaching a moral quandary is well-worn. But it's a trope for a reason: trials and sadness bring out the pitiable sides of even the hardest bullies, and Bynum has always been more of a devil-may-care jerk than one who's actively trying to make people's lives worse. Hence, as situations arise where Bynum is struggling through loss of self-worth and possibly career-ending mental blocks, it's hard not to feel bad for the guy. Feeling like you're a shell of yourself isn't a feeling I'd wish on anyone, even a guy who's been utterly intolerable in the past. If you'd told me a few years ago that all it would take would be a single sad interview and a few games of "Bynum struggling up and down the court" game tape for me to stop being judgmental and disenchanted with Bynum's game, I'd have told you you're crazy. When a bully is being called to task for their actions it's hard to imagine EVER being positive about them again.

But they're human, with struggles and trials all their own. And in the long run, try as we might to demonize the bullies, sympathy tends to win out. Which -- to circle back around -- makes all the focus on the victim in the Incognito case even more confounding. After all: we're probably going to forgive Incognito en masse in the long run anyway. It's how we are. So why NOT focus on his awful behavior while it's the reason he's on our minds? Why are so many willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as a non-responsible product of his environment and take Martin to task instead? If only we knew.

First-Week Surprises -- Odds & Ends from the Week That Was

"SPEED IT UP... because fast never apologizes."

Now that Monday's games are in the books, we've had an entire week of NBA action to digest and enjoy. Every team has played three or four games (...with the exception of Denver), every team has played their home opener, and almost every team has recorded a loss or two. We're starting to get a handle on this year's prominent early storylines (BREAK UP THE SIXERS!) and this year's particularly flawed early expectations (See: Washington). I admit, I haven't gotten quite as much game tape down as I'd like, to date -- I was back in Arizona for a friend's wedding and the revelry tended to disincentivize becoming a league pass hermit. I have, however, noticed a few interesting odds and ends that may pique the interests of a few team's fanbases, and a few general leaguewide trends that should continue to be monitored going forward. Instead of doing a bunch of separate posts exclusively analyzing each, I figured it made as much sense to shorten the text and examine five interesting things at once. Let's get to it.

• • •

Observation #1: THE NBA IS ON SPEED

Okay, no, the NBA isn't on speed. But you'd have to excuse anyone who's been paying attention to the last week for thinking so. Basketball Reference has a neat statistic they share in their season summary page -- Pace Factor, meant to represent the number of possessions per game that a team plays in their average game, normalized to account for pace inflation from OT and other such things. Let's go through the last 5 seasons or so, as the NBA has sped up a bit in recent years, and find each year's fastest-paced team and each year's league average.

  • 2009:          GSW, 98.2     (AVG: 91.7)
  • 2010:          GSW, 100.4    (AVG: 92.7)
  • 2011:          MIN, 96.5     (AVG: 92.1)
  • 2012:          SAC, 94.7     (AVG: 91.3)
  • 2013:          HOU, 96.1     (AVG: 92.0)

Fun times. Want to venture a guess what the current NBA high is?

This year's current fastest team (the young 76ers, much to Doug Collins' eternal chagrin) are averaging a blistering 103 possessions per game. What's more interesting is that they aren't doing it against a skewed schedule -- three of their four opponents to date are currently at or below league average in pace. The Sixers are the ones pushing the tempo, as anyone who's watched Brett Brown's young team can attest. Generally it isn't considered a great idea to rack up a wealth of extra possessions as a team with lagging talent -- as the old adage goes, increasing your sample size vis a vis your possessions per game tends to be a bad idea when your "average" performance is worse than the other guys. Hence why you get so many upsets in the NCAA tournament (... and so many losses for the 2012 Kings). But the Sixers have avoided infamy by being strikingly good at pushing the pace in the right sort of way, taking advantage of the defensive miscues of their foes and any particular slow-footed veterans for easy leak-outs, transition baskets, and open threes before the defense sets. They almost certainly won't be able to keep it up, not with a negative overall margin of victory at a 3-1 record and a league that's suddenly flush with scouting tape on them. But it does appear that Brett Brown may have been a particularly inspired coaching choice, and that's always a delightful find.

Still, that's just one team. Early season results are generally chock-full of outlier values and averages skewed by one or two one-off games. What does the league as a whole look like? Is there anything interesting there? Yes, in fact. While the highest team may be averaging 103 possessions per game, the pace isn't just picking up in Philadelphia. The pace is picking up virtually everywhere. After 50 games played, the current league average pace stands at 96.2 -- higher, I might note, than last year's fastest-paced team. The speed of the game hasn't just gone up for the league's usual fast-paced teams, either (HOU, GSW, DAL) -- it's gone up for the league's slowest teams too. Last year's slowest paced team was the Memphis Grizzlies, who averaged 88 possessions per game. They're currently averaging 94. The Bulls were averaging 89 last year -- they're at 95, now. One other item of interest -- many of the league's highest risers are teams with recent coaching shifts (and, accordingly, shifts in their overall strategy). To wit, three of the top five risers are new coaches, and six of the top eleven.

Lg Rk	Team	New Coach		2013	2014	DIFF
1	PHI	BRETT BROWN		91.0	103.0	+12.0
2	LAC	DOC RIVERS		91.1	99.6	+8.5
4	ATL	MIKE BUDENHOLZER	92.6	99.6	+7.0
6	BKN	JASON KIDD		88.8	94.9	+6.1
10	MEM	DAVE JOERGER		88.4	94.0	+5.6
11	CLE	MIKE BROWN		92.3	97.3	+5.0
22	DET	MAURICE CHEEKS		90.8	93.5	+2.7
23	CHA	STEVE CLIFFORD		91.5	93.5	+2.0
25	PHO	JEFF HORNACEK		93.4	94.6	+1.2
27	BOS	BRAD STEVENS		91.7	91.3	-0.4
28	DEN	BRIAN SHAW		95.1	94.2	-0.9
29	SAC	MIKE MALONE		93.6	91.9	-1.7
30	MIL	LARRY DREW		94.7	92.5	-2.2

That said, the only four teams with a downward pace trajectory are new coaches, so... your mileage may vary.

Now for the cold water. Pace is usually up a little bit at the beginning of the NBA season. While it's never been quite as obscene as this (at least to my knowledge -- don't really feel like pulling together the data to confirm that, at the moment), teams generally start fast and peter out as the season gets on and injuries tarnish the high-flying exuberance of the first month or two. It's unlikely we've seen a sudden sea change into a vastly faster league. It does appear, however, that we've got an inside track on clinching the NBA's highest paced season since 2010. The last time the NBA had an average pace above 93 possessions per game was the 2000 season -- with the Sixers, Clippers, Nets and Rockets exceedingly likely to keep their fast-paced style going (and Mike Budenholzer keeping his Vin Diesel impression immaculate) and many of the league's usual suspects for "slow team that ruins your life" speeding it up (thanks, Joerger!), it seems like taking the over on league pace may serve a solid bet on this one. All good news for fans of faster basketball.

 • • •

Observation #2: STEPH CURRY HAS ALL OF YOUR THREES

The percentages players shoot on threes this early in the season are not particularly significant. Rife with variance, it's hard to get a sense of whether a player's hot shooting represents a new mean or a future trivia fact about a player's unbelievable start to the season. Hence, I'm not going to go insane about Curry's current shooting percentage of 50% from three point range. We know he's a good shooter. That's enough. But there IS one thing that may portend to be a leading indicator of a season-wide trend. That indicator? Attempts. Stephen Curry -- through four games -- has shot 36 three pointers. That's nine per game, which has him on track to break the all-time record of threes taken in a single season (678, set somewhat hilariously by George McCloud in 1996) in the 2nd quarter of game 75, with 7 games left to pad his record. Whether Curry continues to shoot 50% or not is irrelevant. The fact that the Warriors aren't afraid to challenge the historical border lines between usage and efficiency to figure out the true maximum value Curry's incredible shooting can give a team should be heartening to Warriors fans. And anyone who likes threes. (... And Tom Haberstroh, since Stephen Curry apparently reads his work.)

• • •

Observation #3: LEBRON SHOULD GET SOME REST, MAYBE

I poked around, thinking that someone else would've probably made this observation already. Apparently not. Despite the Heat's 2-2 record, LeBron James has played: 38, 36, 42, and 34 minutes so far this season. These aren't egregious minute totals, in a vacuum -- especially for the best player in the world. But the Heat are a team that above all else should be looking at the long haul. They don't need to keep to a Popovich-type rest schedule to keep LeBron at 36 minutes a night or fewer. A lot has been made over his career about how LeBron has never suffered an injury that caused him to miss significant time. It's a good observation, but it also comes with an important counter-observation -- he's never actually had to recover from an injury, either, so LeBron's recovery process (whenever it ends up happening) is going to be a touch-and-go thing that's entirely new to all parties involved. Which all comes around to make me think that 42 pressure-packed minutes in a generally meaningless November game against a still-gelling Brooklyn Nets team is a bridge too far, if only just.

I get the whole "certain games are statement games" thought, and I understand that it's difficult to keep LeBron out of the game. They may decide to approach the problem from the other end, effectively cancelling practices for LeBron in order to keep him in the game as much as possible while resting him when it doesn't matter. I also understand that the Heat aren't exactly lighting the world on fire right now -- at writing, the Heat are currently nestled in at 21st in the league in defensive rating despite their evisceration of the Bulls in their season-opener. If you're Coach Spolestra, you're a bit worried about complacency and a team collectively resting on their laurels. But they'll come around, and they know they will. If you combine LeBron's regular season, playoff, and Olympic totals, you're looking at a superstar that's played 11,484 minutes of professional basketball in the three years that have passed since he first donning his Miami reds. Yet another 38-39 MPG season with the assumption that LeBron is an inhuman monster that knows nothing of fatigue or injury may be as reasonable as it's ever been (and don't get me wrong -- by his track record, that's exactly the assumption we SHOULD have)... but count me as one of the few who think the Heat are playing with fire here.

• • •

Observation #4: TOM THIBODEAU'S MINUTES ARE COMPLETELY REASONABLE

Come with me, dear boy, and look at the minutes per game Tom Thibodeau has allotted his top six players in the three games the Bulls have played to date.

  1. Jimmy Butler, 36.7 MPG
  2. Luol Deng, 35.3 MPG
  3. Derrick Rose, 33.7 MPG
  4. Carlos Boozer, 32.3 MPG
  5. Joakim Noah, 29.3 MPG
  6. Taj Gibson, 24.7 MPG

As someone who's spent roughly the entirety of the past 3 seasons sounding the alarm about Thibodeau's absurdist minutes distribution, I have to give credit where credit is due. These are patently reasonable. Butler, their youngest core piece, is the only one above 36 MPG and he's barely there. Rose is getting a slightly shorter leash to help acclimate himself to NBA game speed. Deng is finally -- FINALLY -- not averaging 38+ MPG (which, if it holds, would represent the first Thibodeau-coached season where Deng plays less than 38 minutes a night). He's keeping his big men under 33 MPG, which is generally the danger zone for injury-riddled bigs. The Bulls have not looked very good at any particular moment of their uninspiring 1-2 start. But Thibodeau is keeping his minutes-demons in check, which is fantastic news to anyone hoping that the Bulls get through the season healthy.

• • •

Observation #5: DENVER LOOKS RIDICULOUSLY BAD

There are several teams that could be highlighted here that have looked like genuinely terrible teams to start the season -- the Bucks, the Celtics, and the Wizards all have looked pretty rudderless in the action I've seen them in, as do the Knicks. (The Bucks in particular are starting to worry me a bit -- especially coach Larry Drew's insistence on playing his old friend Zaza Pachulia over Larry Sanders, even though admittedly Pachulia has looked a fair sight better than Sanders in the early going.) But this week's "wait, oh my god" moment for me was when the Denver Nuggets were getting blown out in their home opener by a good-but-not-incredible Portland team.

Let's set the stage. The Blazers had just flown from Phoenix to Denver after having been crushed by a crummy looking Suns team in their home opener, and represented a chance for Denver to get back on track after losing their way against the Kings in THEIR home opener. It looked like the classic situation where Denver's altitude and play-style would carry them against a team that had more talent on their roster. At least, that was my thought going into the game. Suffice to say, that didn't happen. The Nuggets were roundly embarrassed by the visitors, giving up 40 points in the second quarter and trailing by 26 before the Blazers took their foot off the gas in the fourth frame. But even that was hardly a comfort to Denver's season -- after the Nuggets got close, a series of foolish defensive breakdowns by Denver's porous big men let LaMarcus Aldridge drain jumper after jumper to extend a 101-94 lead to a 15-point laugher of a margin. The game never seemed in doubt.

It essentially cemented my prevailing thought when looking at Denver's mish-mash roster. That is: they can't defend anyone. J.J. Hickson may get his boards, but he can't keep in front of anyone and his rotations are two steps late at best. Javale McGee hunts for blocks, not substance, and Anthony Randolph? Get real. Faried may actually be a defensive positive compared to those three, which is pretty awful news for the Nuggets brass that would like to think they didn't completely dismantle a 55-win team and leave themselves a most improbable cellar-dwelling tank machine. Apparently, they did. The Nuggets have time to recover, and I'm sure they will to some extent. Gallo is a solid defender, and as Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler come back, they'll start to get a bit of their mojo. And they will always have their built-in home court dominance to fall back on when things get rough -- I can't imagine they won't squeeze out 15 wins or so from opponent back-to-backs in the Pepsi Center alone. But this team looks about as far from a repeat playoff appearance as the Miami Heat look from the lottery, and to fans who were getting used to last season's Cinderella contender, that's not a good look. (NOTE: Now that I have written this, the Nuggets will beat the Spurs by 30 points tonight.)

• • •

One last thing. Hoopdata was officially retired today. Count me as one of the 10-20 remaining people who still used Hoopdata regularly. It's old-hat, now, and other sites DO have everything it once held dear. But humans are creatures of habit, and Hoopdata's delightful quirks were one of mine. I will miss the site dearly. Absolutely incredible work to Joe Treutlein and Matt Nolan for their years of hard work and perseverance to build one of the absolute first public databases that completely changed the game for basketball statistics. You may be gone, but you'll never be forgotten.