Tim Duncan, Summarized

Posted on Mon 11 July 2016 in Features by Aaron McGuire

duncan are you not entertained

Everything can be summarized if you strip it down to the bare essentials. The most complex abstractions of human thought can become clever witticisms to the eyes of babes and monks. There's always some way to boil an idea down to the fundamentals and break thoughts up into coherent, tiny pieces. Or so I thought. Then Tim Duncan retired, and I realized just how much gets lost in translation when you break it all down. The numbers alone are huge, towering monoliths over the city of San Antonio and the history of the NBA.

One number above all, obviously: 21, the retiring legend. How do you summarize a phenomenon like Duncan? I was six years old when Tim Duncan was drafted. Everything I know about the pre-Duncan era I picked up through histories and frenzied watchings of classic games in the wee hours of my college days. I'm not a historian, like the great Curtis Harris. I can't put his career into some grand context of future and the past. Frankly, I'm not entirely ready to consider it the past yet.

I'm going to try and break his down, in decreasingly lengthy prose. I'll try not to break down myself.

• • •

2 + 1 paragraphs:

Before Duncan came to the Spurs, their team history was fundamentally indistinguishable from the Denver Nuggets. Both teams had NBA/ABA conference finals appearances (70/78/85 for Denver, 79/82/83/95 for the Spurs), a handful of Hall of Famers (David Robinson, Alex English, Dan Issel, George Gervin, Dikembe Mutombo), and a few really bad seasons. It's worth noting that being the 1996 Denver Nuggets franchise, in a vacuum, wasn't bad. But it wasn't the kind of league-changing superpower the Spurs are now. Tim Duncan changed the Spurs. Before him, they were one of the league's few remaining ABA throwbacks, a solid team with no championship pedigree or influential history.

Now, of course, they're legends. San Antonio is a town full of soul, a more buttoned up Austin with military history and the best Mexican food in the world. San Antonio didn't need Duncan to be a memorable place -- I'll always remember the Alamo, Santa Anna, William Bowie. (Those burritos, too. Oh my GOD.) But it was Tim Duncan who put the city on the map as a basketball powerhouse. It was Tim Duncan who took the silver and black from David Robinson and turned it into a palette to be feared; an obstacle that had to be overcome. And, yes, many overcame the Spurs -- Kobe and Shaq did it a few times. Dirk and LeBron did too. Even Stockton and Malone had to get past them. Duncan's Spurs were a two-decades long boss fight in a video game -- you may not like them, you might not want to see them win, but you always had to face them. And, begrudgingly, you had to respect them.

It wasn't just the accolades, achievements, or triumphs. The Spurs weren't just defined by their victories. Duncan's Spurs were also defined by losses, and more specifically, how they'd respond to them. Everyone's always said that Duncan didn't show emotion on the court, and that was more true than ever in losses. He may have bitched about foul calls and made a joke here or there. In the end, though? If you beat Tim Duncan you'd get a firm handshake, a hug, and a compliment on your play. No controversy, no whining. When Ray Allen made the shot of a lifetime in 2013 and snatched a title from Tim Duncan's fingers, the Spurs didn't grouse or pick nits at missed calls. They held a press conference, played their hearts out in game 7, and accepted the loss as only they could. Class in victory, defeat, and everywhere in between. That's how Tim Duncan's Spurs operated. And that's why they were the class of the league.

• • •


21 item list:

  1. Tim won five titles, tied with Kobe for the best of their era.
  2. Tim scored 26,496 points in the regular season, and 5,172 playoff points.
  3. Tim rebounded 15,091 shots in the regular season, and 2,859 in the playoffs.
  4. Tim blocked 3,020 shots in the regular season, and 568 in the playoffs. (Most ever.)
  5. Tim lifetime win/loss record is 1,072-438, a 71% winning percentage.
  6. Tim had 1,158 wins. That's more than six whole franchises.
  7. Tim is the all-time Spurs leader in points, rebounds, blocks, and games.
  8. Tim received his first MVP vote in 1998. He received his last in 2015.
  9. Tim Duncan never led the league in scoring, but came awfully damn close in 2002.
  10. Tim made $245 million dollars in his career, which should buy a lot of D&D books.
  11. Tim won titles under three different U.S. presidents: Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
  12. Tim made 15 all-star games. His best was 2000, after which he basically peaced out.
  13. Tim drew 3,235 shooting fouls in his career, a pretty dope number.
  14. Tim made thirty threes in his career, which basically makes him Stephen Curry.
  15. Tim's first big block was against Alonzo Mourning. His last was against Dion Waiters.
  16. Tim won 50+ games for 17 consecutive seasons, more than anyone else.
  17. Tim is only one of four NBA players to win 3 Finals MVPs, joining Shaq, Magic, and MJ.
  18. Tim should have a 4th, because 2007 was a trave-- *gets dragged away, yelling*
  19. Tim is the only player in NBA history to average 13-9 at 38 or older.
  20. Tim still to this day holds the Virgin Islands record in the 50 & 100meter freestyle event for swimming.
  21. Tim Duncan was an Apple genius.

• • •

201 words:

Confession: I'm a massive nerd. Always have been. Elementary school gym class was hell. Until, by chance, I happened on an issue of Sports Illustrated for Kids. It had some fun facts about Duncan and Robinson, two players everyone at recess respected but nobody wanted to be. The best fact: Tim Duncan liked to play Dungeons and Dragons. The man was an NBA superstar who wanted his league nickname to be "Merlin."

How ridiculous is that? Tim Duncan isn't my favorite player because he won a bunch of games or scored a lot of points or blocked a lot of shots. Tim Duncan is my favorite player because he helped a little kid named Aaron believe in his worth through schoolyard pranks. It's difficult to explain how validating it was to see someone as successful as Duncan revealed to be a huge nerd.

To me, Tim Duncan made it OK to be a huge nerd. After all, that cutthroat nerd dominated a league of jocks and forced them to respect him. He never had to put on a mask or pretend he was something he wasn't. He could just be Tim Duncan: the league's biggest nerd, and this decade's tallest champion.

• • •

21 words:

Tim Duncan was my favorite player ever, easily among the best ever.

The NBA will never be the same without him.

• • •

2 + 1 words:

I'll miss him.

• • •

2 words, 1 comma:

Goodbye, Timmy.

• • •


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Three Quick Fixes for the NBA's All-Star Weekend

Posted on Fri 13 February 2015 in Features by Aaron McGuire

The NBA's All-Star Weekend gets a lot of flak. It's widely seen as boring, and the no-defense, dunk-heavy stylings of the players go a long way to explain the popular conception that NBA players don't play defense. If the only NBA game you made a point to watch was the All-Star Game, you'd be excused for thinking the NBA was a no-defense league. And make no mistake: a lot of people watch it. Via Sports Media Watch and TVByTheNumbers, here are the NBA's All-Star-Game viewers from 1990 to 2014:

All-Star Ratings, 1990-2014

I've also attached the viewership totals for All-Star Saturday (AKA, the night of the Dunk Contest, the Three Point Challenge, and the Taco Bell Skills Challenge) from 2002 to 2014. While the NBA's All-Star Game pales in comparison to other sports' (and has been in ratings purgatory since the early aughts), part of the league's value proposition for All-Star Weekend has long been an extra night of top-rated coverage that draws millions of viewers and massive interest. It's hard to beat both the dunk contest and the critically acclaimed Taco Bell Skills Challenge in one night.

Surprisingly, the viewership of All-Star Saturday has actually increased in recent years, despite the negative coverage "the Other All-Star Night" sometimes receives. Massive fan interest in 2011 (Blake Griffin's Kia vintage) led to the NBA's highest-rated All-Star Saturday in league history, only a notch below the All-Star Game proper. Even though Saturday's festivities have suffered decreased viewership for four straight years, All-Star Saturday still shows markedly higher ratings than the mid-2000s.

All this to say that the NBA's All-Star Weekend isn't doing quite as badly as you'd think when you read blistering thinkpieces blasting the league or talking the weekend up as an unmitigated disaster. Granted, there's certainly a lot of room to criticize the league's All-Star Game -- the NBA All-Star Game lags significantly behind both the MLB and NFL's versions, despite that the NBA is starting to solidify its status as the second most popular sport in America, with the NBA Finals regularly outpacing the World Series and regular-season NBA games doubling up the ratings of regular-season MLB games. The NBA is doing fine on an overall basis. Audiences are interested enough for the NBA's All-Star game to thrive, and the weekend's demise has been oversold.
Even so, the NBA could do significantly better. I'm sure of it.

To that end, my mother used to tell me that I shouldn't say anything at all if I've got nothing nice to say. Fittingly, I've put together a few weird (but nice!) suggestions for the NBA that could potentially improve their All-Star festivities and add a bit of intrigue to the game itself.

• • •

LET COUSINS PLAY! ... for the east?! (USATSI)


This is my most controversial suggestion. I don't think anyone has suggested it before. (If so, please email me a link and I'll add it here!) But if I'm Don Quixote, this is my most beloved All-Star windmill. I think it would add a really fun dynamic to the game, ensure a higher effort level as a whole, and give (some) players something to play for. The general idea here is that instead of simply taking the next player down in the individual conference, the commissioner should replace the injured player with a player from the opposite conference.

When selecting all-star reserves, the coaches select the all-stars from their respective conference. Playing on the opposite team ensures that the injury replacement player is playing against the coaches that snubbed him and players who were taken over him. Which could really be a sight to behold. A player with a hyper-competitive edge with a nationally-televised shot at his most immediate professional demons? Isn't that the exact dynamic you want to foster? Remember how DeMarcus Cousins barely avoided a second consecutive snub this year? Last year, he responded to his snub by (correctly) saying that he was "flat done wrong" and decrying the bias of the coaches who snubbed him. When he suits up in the All-Star game this year, he'll be standing alongside players who Western coaches said were his betters. If he was suiting up for the East, I imagine he'd be hellbent on making the players who got selected ahead of him know how much of a mistake that was. Maybe he'd play actual defense in the game (gasp!) or take advantage of the lax defense and set a new scoring record.

I do know that it would be fantastically entertaining, though, and an easy way to make sure at least 1 or 2 players a year are gunning for the other team. It would add at least a tiny amount of intrigue, which is exactly what the game needs. And I imagine this could work both ways -- with Cousins gunning for them, wouldn't the West's frontcourt staples (Gasol, Duncan, Durant, etc) want to prove they deserved their spot in the face of his strong challenge? It could raise the play of the game as a whole, and give the players something to play for without tying legitimate season accomplishments to all-star achievements (like the MLB's kooky system where the conference that wins the all-star game gets HCA in the playoffs). Maybe it wouldn't play out that way. Getting Duncan to give a damn about the game might be literally impossible. But isn't it worth a shot?

There's one big downside here. Look at this season -- the NBA had to replace three players in the West (LMA, Davis, and Griffin) and one player in the East (Wade). That could lead to three Eastern players on the Western team and one Western player on the Eastern team. Given the surplus of valuable players in the West and the relative dearth in the East (at least this year), that could be a little controversial. But remember that all-star injuries are essentially random. Here are the injury counts by conference over the last 10 years, with the "more injured" conference bolded:

  • 2015: WEST 3, EAST 1

  • 2014: WEST 1, EAST 0

  • 2013: WEST 0, EAST 1

  • 2012: WEST 0, EAST 1

  • 2011: WEST 1, EAST 0

  • 2010: WEST 3, EAST 1

  • 2009: WEST 0, EAST 2

  • 2008: WEST 0, EAST 3

  • 2007: WEST 4, EAST 1

  • 2006: WEST 0, EAST 1

Overall, that's 12 injuries in the West and 11 injuries in the East. Over time, this stuff evens out. We might have a few years like this year, where getting a pissed off DeMarcus on the Eastern squad is contrasted with the West getting a pissed off... uh... Brandon Knight, Kyle Korver, and Nikola Vucevic? (Which, let's be honest, might still make the game a little more interesting. There are storylines with all three of those guys. Knight would likely be gunning for the East's better-reputed guards, Korver would have to play AGAINST the coach and team he's killing it for, and Vucevic's game might flourish in a no-defense setting like the ASG.)

Just think -- had this idea been adopted in prior years, the 2013 All-Star Game would've featured Stephen Freaking Curry (one of the most egregious snubs of the last decade) replacing the "actual" replacement of Brook Lopez for the Eastern Conference. THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN AWESOME! The 2012 game would've likely featured a pissed-off Kyle Lowry in place of Rajon Rondo, previewing his all-star selection this season and his offseason move across borders. Do I still need to convince you, or are you with me yet?

• • •



There are two main problems with the NBA's All-Star festivities. The first (and most obvious) is that the players don't care all that much. This gets the most press, because it's the most egregious problem with the game. But there's an issue here -- NBA players care a hell of a lot more about the ASG than the NFL's guys care about the Pro Bowl, and they care only slightly less than the MLB's guys care about their All-Star Game. It's hard to game player interest to be higher than it already is without resorting to gimmickry that influences the actual season. The suggestion above might mitigate it a little bit, but there's no panacea that's going to immediately make NBA players give a damn.

It's a hard problem to solve. The other problem with the NBA's All-Star festivities is similar, but it's got an easier solution. Year after year, game after game... the commentating is just freaking awful. Shaq mumbles around and joylessly mocks the proceedings, Reggie Miller spouts the same infuriating rhetoric that makes him a must-avoid announcer for any given regular season game, and the usually-spry combo of Kenny and Ernie quickly become stale and uninterested in the year-after-year rehash of things they've called for years and years. So, how does one deal with an announcing crew that clearly doesn't want to be on stage?

Simple. Do what the Heat did every time the Spurs went on a run in 2013: bring in The Starters.

I'm a long-time fan of The Basketball Jones, and although I haven't been quite as locked in on their NBATV sponsored Starters conversion as I was on their TBJ work, they're still producing phenomenal work. Imagine it. Leigh Ellis commentating the Three-Point contest with callbacks to his VHS tapes of the Tom Chambers game. Trey Kerby announcing the dunk contest with Brad Miller and Yams. Tas Melas doing play-by-play of the celebrity game like his old Rounders recap segments. J.E. Skeets doing postgame interviews with all related participants. If you aren't familiar with them, you might wonder how this would improve the game. I entreat you -- watch a few episodes. You'll see a collective group that excels at operating in tiny crevices of absurdity.

See, when the TNT crew covers All-Star Saturday, they generally add levity by emphasizing how useless everything is. They don't treat things seriously. It makes sense -- it ISN'T serious. They're clearly having a blast themselves, but their general disinterest in the proceedings seeps through and makes their coverage drab and boring. While it can be fun and funny, TNT's levity is of the "disinterested/apathetic" brand, their enjoyment being related to how useless things are and how little their commentary matters. I don't think that's the attitude The Starters would bring to the table. In their show, they add levity by embracing the ridiculous and putting due diligence into questions and ideas that are silly to the core. Part of what's made them so successful is their insistence on quality and devotion to minutiae and tiny details, even when the subject of such devoted detailing is silly or strange (great example). A group with their talents and chemistry would be the perfect shepherds for All-Star Saturday, a fundamentally ridiculous event that nonetheless requires hosts that care.

Their work on All-Star Weekend has always been top-notch -- it's time to let them take the event itself to the next level.

• • •

Montrezl Harrell dunkin' all over them fools.


Another weird idea, made doubly weird by the fact that some of the participants might end up missing conference games. You might need to add a financial incentive to have them participate, which could get legally messy and turn this into a logistical nightmare given the NCAA's desire to shield their employees student-athletes from all manner of compensation. But, if the NBA could navigate the paperwork and get some buy-in from the NCAA, this could actually work. Promise!

Think of it this way. One of the biggest complaints from fairweather NBA fans are the unrecognizable faces they see on All-Star Saturday. The most widely-watched Saturday ever happened because Blake Griffin chose to do the dunk contest. But LeBron James is never going to do a dunk contest. Kevin Durant's three point contests are only going to happen early in his career, and good luck getting Kobe to waste minutes and energy on the relatively useless all-star events. The NBA's tactic has generally been to make the best of what they have and run through deserving players until they finally reach a handful that accept the invitation. Rinse, cycle, repeat. That leads to experiments like Jeremy Evans and James White in the contest -- they're good at their craft, but if they sputter out like White did last year without really impressing the audience, you've wasted a spot on someone that nobody's tuning in for.

If you're the NBA, you aren't going to get superstars in their prime who are competing for titles. You aren't going to get superstars in their aging years who are watching their legs. You can't rely on getting young players like Blake Griffin to actually enter the contest. And they've proven completely unable to entice young underheralded stars to participate in the weekend's tertiary activities. So... why not poach some college players? The NCAA's ratings are similar to the NBA's, but they skew more southern, and they skew a bit younger. It's a different audience altogether. Highlighting college players would bring that entirely new group into the All-Star Saturday audience, and add a few young prospects who would get a chance to show off their talents and personality with NBA teams and agents abound. I'd primarily expect them to participate in the dunk contest and the three point contests, and there certainly aren't a lack of options.

For the dunk contest, I'd be happy with any of Sam Thompson (Ohio State), J. P. Tokoto (UNC), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Jahlil Okafor (Duke), or Branden Dawson (Michigan State) -- all of them are players from big-name schools with a dunk contest skillset, with Harrell/Okafor projected as first round picks. For the three point contest, it would give college players a few shots at the NBA three point line and potentially increase their exposure/draft slot if they completely nailed it. Imagine Quinn Cook fighting to prove he has NBA range. Or, alternatively, imagine Doug McDermott in last year's three point competition, competing in the event while he was the best player in college basketball rather than a bench-buried guy who casual fans haven't heard about since the draft. When you're subbing out marginal NBA players for uninterested all-stars (Joe Johnson in last year's three-point-contest comes to mind, or Tony Parker in the Skills Challenge ever), I don't really see the downside in letting All-Star Weekend give young players their first taste for the league. Given how much of a party All-Star weekend is, they might even get excited for it!

There's the obvious issue of getting the NCAA to agree to it -- that's a problem, and could prove regrettably difficult. The NCAA has a nasty habit of placing a few high-profile games in direct competition with the NBA's All-Star game, and they probably aren't particularly interested in changing that. (As an example, of the top 25 teams in the AP rankings, 24 of them will be playing on Saturday or Sunday. Notre Dame is the only top 25 team that doesn't play this weekend. The All-Star game will be competing with a #7 Arizona game and All-Star Saturday will compete with #4 Duke vs Syracuse, #3 Gonzaga vs Pepperdine, and #6 Villanova at #18 Butler.) None of the big names I named above would've been able to participate this year without missing a game or some schedule gymnastics. But if the NBA can identify one or two possible targets in the NCAA's preseason when they're building out the schedule, the NCAA could likely adjust accordingly -- after all, it's not that it's impossible for the NCAA to give a few teams a weekend off.

Given the Jeckll and Hyde combative/loving relationship between the NBA and the NCAA, it's hard to see this happening. But it doesn't mean I can't dream it. While I don't mind highlighting some of the NBA's more obscure weirdos (Bonner in the three point contest! JaVale in the dunk contest! THESE THINGS WERE FUN!), I can't think of a single person who cared to see Joe Johnson half-ass last year's three point contest. Or Gerald Green's (no offense, Gerald!) pitiful dunk effort last year. Or anyone doing the skills challenge. Using those spots as a way to showcase incoming players sounds like a far better use. And it opens the door to (eventually) adding a new event to the weekend where the NBA's worst team faces off against the #1 ranked college team, finally solving those water cooler arguments NBA/NCAA fans once and for all.

... alright, yeah, that probably won't happen. But a man can dream.

• • •

Disagree with me on any of these? I'm sure you do! Leave thoughts in the comments.

NOTE: Unofficial idea #4: they could bring back HORSE, but have J.R. Smith and Nick Young face off. It's a cute idea, but I don't know if I want to live in a world where Kevin Durant isn't holding this trophy.

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The Rodeo Road Trip: a History of San Antonio's Yearly Jaunt

Posted on Fri 06 February 2015 in Features by Aaron McGuire

A photograph that is surely coming from the future.

In 2003, the San Antonio Spurs moved from the centrally-located downtown Alamodome to the AT&T Center firmly nestled in San Antonio's east side, in Bexar County. There were a number of positives that came with the move -- the AT&T Center is a much more modern arena, and it was (for the most part!) built for basketball. The cheap seats at AT&T are a bit better than the cheap nosebleeds in the Alamodome, and the concessions/amenities are vastly improved. There was, of course, one small tic the Spurs had to accept when moving into the AT&T Center. They had to accept the fact that they'd be effectively evicted from their home during the month of February on a yearly basis, as the AT&T Center was partially built to serve as an all-time landing spot for the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Without a home to roam on, the Spurs agreed indefinitely to roll out for a February road trip that would take San Antonio all over the U.S.A.

That was in 2013. Twelve years later, the road trip has firmly wedged its way into the Spurs mythos. Famously, San Antonio has yet to experience a losing rodeo road trip. Coach Popovich and the players regularly imply that the trip itself serves as a bonding experience that brings the team together and starts building the relationships they'll need in the playoffs. Spurs fans look at the trip as a litmus test for the team's season, and opposing fans watch with curiosity to see if the Spurs are finally creaking. Dan McCarney wrote a nice history of the trip a few years back -- with the benefit of two more years of trips, I compiled the statistics wrote a nice little reference going over them. Let's take a look back at 12 years of San Antonio's rodeo travels.

• • •


To start, I looked up team records and differentials for the teams San Antonio faced on their rodeo road trips. I looked these up right when the trip started, so that 2015 would be comparable to the rest of them. The W/L columns are (obviously) the collective win/loss records of every team San Antonio faced on the trip as of day #1 of the trip, and the average differential averages all their point differentials on that same day. Mileage is a rough estimate (via Google Maps, with some help from Dan McCarney's piece above) of how many miles the Spurs had to travel for the trip. The "playoff teams" column sums up how many of their road trip opponents would've been playoff teams. The last column, "best team", outlines the best team they played on that year's trip (considering each team's rating and record at the time the trip began). The coloring of that column indicates whether they won or lost that game. (So, the Spurs currently own a 7-5 record against the reigning "best team faced" among all RRT teams. Neat!)

For those wondering about how this year's trip stacks up, it's pretty high up there. The Spurs will be facing the hardest trip by point differential they've ever taken, with 5/9 teams currently playoff teams and 2 more possible playoff teams in Indiana and Detroit. The main thing that makes this year's trip so challenging is just how good the good teams are. The Warriors, Blazers, Raptors, and Clippers should all be reasonably favored against the Spurs going into the trip, and Phoenix is a push given that it comes on a back-to-back. The Spurs have four games that should be gimmes (DET, IND, UTA, SAC), but all the tough ones are very tough. And clever readers might notice that they've already lost to 3 of those 4 gimmes this season, which makes it hard to count any of those teams out.

• • •

Spurs RRT history

Next up, I collected data on what the Spurs themselves looked like going into each year's trip. From that, I was able to calculate expected W/L profiles and differentials for each year using point margin at the onset of the trip as well as an adjustment for home court. I also counted the number of back to backs and added an underperformed/overperformed column that measures whether the Spurs undershot my projection or overshot my projection. (Note: in that column, "P" stands for "push", indicating a year where they underperformed in differential or record but overperformed in the other). Via my projections, the Spurs underperformed five years and overperformed five years, with a push in two years. So, they undershot as often as they overshot, meaning my expectations are (likely) calibrated correctly.

One of the big takeaways you can make from this table? When you adjust for the quality of their opponent, the Spurs were actually favored in a surprisingly large number of Rodeo Road Trip games. If you sum the expected record column, the Spurs have an expected record of 75-25 over the 11 trips they've completed to date. Their actual record is a hair under that, at 71-29. This may seem odd at first glance -- NBA teams are traditionally much worse on the road, with home court advantage worth roughly 3 points a night. Historically, road teams have won roughly 40% of their games in the last decade (although that number has fallen in recent years).

Ergo, it's odd at first glance to think that San Antonio's expected record on these trips is a 75% win percentage. Right? Not quite. That simplification ignores the obvious. The Spurs simply aren't a random road team. Their lowest point differential at the time of the trip was +3.3 in 2009. That +3.3 isn't really that bad -- even their lowest year was still_ remarkably high_ for the NBA as a whole:

Margin of Victory for all NBA teams in the last 12 years

A point differential of +3.3 is low for the Spurs, but it's still a top-percentile team -- among every full-season point differential in the last 12 years, +3.3 is still in the 73rd percentile. That means it's better than almost 75% of all NBA teams that have plied their trade since the Spurs moved into the Alamodome. Even when the Spurs are bad, they aren't THAT bad. Hence their historical performance on the Rodeo Road Trip -- even if you give all the road teams their a home court advantage of +3 points a night (slightly higher than the actuality in many cases), the Spurs are still favored in a remarkable number of their road trip contests because they were consistently outclassing the competition.

• • •

Some errata and miscellany I found interesting while digging for this post:

  • The Spurs have faced a lot of different teams on the Rodeo trip, but there are a few teams it faces far more often than others. The Spurs have faced the Nets and Pistons on eight road trips apiece and they've faced Toronto and Portland on seven apiece. Personally, this weirds me out -- Portland is one of the toughest road trips in the NBA, and I have legitimately no idea why the NBA's scheduling gods like to add that so often. The team-by-team list of who the Spurs have faced (with W/L records) is here, with teams from this year's trip highlighted:

Rodeo Road Trip All-Time Records

  • There are a few other interesting nuggets from the previous chart. The Spurs only have a losing record against two teams in the history of the Rodeo Road Trip -- Miami (1-2) and Philadelphia (1-3). Ironically, of those games against Philadelphia, the one win came against a team that (at the time) looked like the best Philadelphia team since their title winning eighties days -- the 2012 Sixers that started the season on fire and led the league in point differential up until the season's midway point. The Spurs are undefeated on the Rodeo trip against SAC, LAC, IND, NOP, CHA, MEM, and HOU -- seven whole NBA teams!

  • There are three teams that the Spurs have never faced on any of their rodeo road trips -- the Dallas Mavericks, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Atlanta Hawks. Eagle eyed readers will also note that they've never faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on a Rodeo trip -- every trip to that franchise happened when they were in Seattle.

  • As expected, the Spurs play worse when they face back to back games on their rodeo trips. The Spurs have gone 12-9 on back to back games across all Rodeo Road Trips, with a point differential of +0.7 in those 21 games. However, going by point differential alone, the Spurs would have been expected to go 14-7 with a differential of +3.4. So they lost two wins and underperformed even in the wins they got. It's worth noting, though, that there is one massive outlier value there -- in 2012, the Spurs punctuated an (at the time) 7-0 road trip with one of the worst defeats in franchise history, a 40 point blasting at the Rose Garden. If you take out the 40 point disappointment, the Spurs went 12-8 with a differential of +2.7, which is far less out of line with the expectation.

  • After 12 years of trips, there are a lot of pretty great wins to choose from. Three of them were particularly absurd:

    • 2013: The 38-11 Spurs were one point dogs against the 34-16 Clippers. They won by 26 points.
    • 2010: The 27-19 Spurs were four point dogs against the 33-15 Nuggets. They won by 19 points.
    • 2012: The 16-9 Spurs were nine point dogs against the 17-7 Sixers. They won by 10 points.
  • Conversely, there are also a lot of baffling losses. Their three worst losses, expectation-wise:

    • 2012: The 16-9 Spurs were five point dogs against the 14-10 Blazers. They lost by 40 points.
    • 2007: The 31-14 Spurs were nine point favorites against the 19-25 Heat. They lost by 15 points.
    • 2011: The 40-7 Spurs were four point favorites against the 25-22 Blazers. They lost by 13 points.
  • In their title years, the Spurs have overachieved once, underachieved twice, and pushed (worse record, better differential) once. So, no -- there's no obvious connection between success on their rodeo trip and playoff success.

• • •

Have a question? Ask it in the comments below! I'll update this post with more data if there are interesting lines of inquiry.

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55 or 20/20: Which Brandon Jennings night was less likely?

Posted on Fri 23 January 2015 in Features by Aaron McGuire

Jennings drivin' in Motor City (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, Brandon Jennings went nuts in one of the most unexpected virtuoso performances of the season -- a 20-20 points/assists night against the Orlando Magic. You'll be excused if you forget the last time the NBA's seen a 20/20 performance -- it hasn't happened for over five years. And it's been getting less and less likely over time, too. Check out this histogram tracking the number of 20/20 games since the 1985 playoffs:


That's right -- since 2000, the NBA has only seen FIVE 20/20 performances. Specifically:

  • January 21st, 2015: Brandon Jennings, DET vs ORL (W, 24-21, 2 turnovers, 33 minutes)
  • November 9th, 2009: Steve Nash, PHX at PHI (W, 21-20, 7 turnovers, 36 minutes)
  • April 14th, 2008: Ramon Sessions, MIL vs CHI (L, 20-24, 2 turnovers, 44 minutes)
  • January 2nd, 2006: Steve Nash, PHX at NYK (L, 28-22, 4 turnovers, 55 minutes)
  • April 18th, 2001: Jalen Rose, IND at CLE (W, 22-20, 4 turnovers, 44 minutes)

So, no, this isn't something that happens particularly often. Personally, I've always been one to roll my eyes at statistical achievement based on arbitrary several-stat benchmarks. The more statistics you add to your criterion, the less likely an individual player meets them. It's simple mathematics. Even if you create a completely mundane four stat cutoff, simple exclusionary skillsets make it less likely a player meets them. (As an example, no player in the 2015 season has put up a 13 point, 8 assist, field goal percentage > 60%, 3+ block game. If you find me one person in the world who knew that before I said it, I'll buy you migas.)

But in a flood of arbitrary parameters, the 20/20 barometer is one of the least arbitrary. The concept of scoring and the concept of assists are clearly separate, but the platonic ideal of a point guard has always involved involved an offensive fulcrum who was as likely to set up a teammate as he was to take the open shot. Sure, there have always been pure point types like Rajon Rondo who eschew scoring in favor of gaudy assist totals, but having an offensive zero at the point guard position has always been something of an anathema to a fully-functioning offense. It's like giving the defense a cheat code that lets them throw extra defenders at each play's best action. You can certainly win that way, it's just tougher.

You can create a successful offense with a burst scorer at point guard. And you can create an offense with a dyed-in-the-wool playmaker at point guard. But the very best offenses -- think historic-type jams that define eras and rewrite the game (see Nash, Stockton, Magic) -- function best with point guards who can score on their own but distribute the ball a bit more than they look for their own scoring. Which, not coincidentally, is the exact type of point guard a 20/20 game represents. A point guard who achieves a 20/20 has produced at least 60 points (in the case of Brandon Jennings, five of those assists were on threes, so he produced 47 points from assists for a total of 71). The average score of an NBA game is roughly 100 points per game this season -- that's almost two thirds of your offense coming from a single player. It's a point guard operating at maximum bore.

• • •

In the last 29 years, the league has seen 38 games with the assist-focused 20/20. If we want to find a rough likelihood, we can start by figuring out a few bounding conditions. To that end, here's one really obvious one: you have to start the game. Zero of the league's 20/20 games came off the bench. It makes some sense, if you think about it -- coaches in the NBA find occasion to ride bench guys through good performances, but normally those performances come in a vacuum. Scoring performances, defensive dominations, et cetera. There have only been a handful of players who dependably produce burst-assist games off the bench in NBA history -- and recently, only Manu Ginobili, J.J. Barea, and Sergio Rodriguez dependably fit that bill. And their career highs off the bench are 15, 14, and 12 respectively. Not really in spitting distance of the minutes or productivity you need to net a 20/20. You need to be a point guard, or at least the team's primary distributor. And you need to be playing for an NBA team.

We could build out a simple model for an exact likelihood, but that would involve a lot of data gathering. Let's do a simple one instead. We know that we've seen 38 of these, and we know you need to be a starting primary distributor. You have to be playing for an NBA team. Therefore, we can find single year incidence rates with the following equation:

Approximate conditional incidence of 20/20 games in 2015


If you aren't familiar with conditional probability notation, Pr(TTG | Y = 2015) indicates the probability of any randomly selected game of the season is going to be a 20/20 given the year is 2015. To define variables:

  • X is the number of 20/20 games
  • A is all possible 20/20 games
  • T is the number of teams in the league
  • S is the number of starters
  • G is the number of games passed in the season.

Put it all together and you get "XATSG", the newest chemical compound in Coca Cola.

Wait, no. Put it all together and you get a probability of 0.0007, meaning that one in every 1,278 games from a starting point guard is a 20/20 if you're looking at this season alone. Lucky for us, we have 30 years of data, so we can calculate an approximate probability of a 20/20 games over the past 29 seasons assuming the player at hand is an NBA starting point guard, giving us a reasonably solid estimate of how likely any individual starter has a 20/20 game, exogenous of knowledge about that starter.

Incidence of twenty-twenty games over the past 29 years.

Obviously, this is a flawed estimate. It ignores a whole boatload of important factors, like Jennings' own stats at the time of the 20/20. But it's a reasonable bounding estimate. The NBA has had one 20/20 game for roughly every 1,760 starting distributors in the past 29 years.

• • •

So... what about that 55 point night, then?


As above, this is a histogram showing the incidence by year of 50 point nights. You can see three places where individual players had ridiculous years that stretched the distribution a bit -- Wilt's biggest full season in the sample (he had 14 nights at 50+ in 1964), Jordan's late eighties (18 out of 27 fifty point games from 87 to 89), and Kobe's lonely years (15 of 26 in 2006 and 2007). Overall, though, there are obviously more fifty point nights than 20/20 nights. The 20/20 is clearly looking more unlikely on its face. But... what if you restrict it to the NBA's point guards?


Now that looks more like it. All things considered, it's actually pretty dang unlikely for a point guard specifically to score 50 points in the modern NBA. More likely than it was in the 80s and 90s, sure, but the incidence rate is extremely low. Using the same calculation as we did before...

Probability that any random starting point guard drops a fiddy.

... we find that Brandon's 55 point outburst was almost completely indistinguishable from his 20/20 night. Seriously. The 20/20 game's odds were approximately one in 1760, the 55 point game's odds were approximately one in 1755. By the slimmest of margins, the 20/20 game was slightly less likely. But given that we're using approximations for both of them anyway, I'd err on the side of them being effectively equal, especially since we're by definition using two conditions on the 20/20 games and just one on the 55 point night.

Hence, when Jennings was talking after the game about how he held a slim preference for his 55 point night over his 20/20 night, even from a probabilistic standpoint, there was really nothing unreasonable about it -- his 55 point explosion is no less rare than his 20/20, and visa versa. It's a matter of personal preference.

• • •

One last note, because this didn't really fit anywhere in the post. There's one other thing I find particularly impressive about Jennings' performance on Wednesday. Jennings produced his 20/20 game in 33 minutes of play. Want to know how unlikely THAT particular incidence is? It's literally never happened before. The lowest minutes played of any other 20/20s in my dataset is John Stockton's 34 minute 22-20 night in 1989. Magic had a 35 and Nash had a 36, but 85% of the NBA's 20/20 games came from players who registered 37 minutes or more on the night.

Just a ridiculous performance, and one of the best games of the season from one of the NBA's most interesting journeymen. It's gonna be fun to watch Stan Van Gundy in the playoffs again. Maybe Jennings will add another one to the ledger put up one of those legendary 13 point, 8 assist, field goal percentage > 60%, 3+ block games I mentioned earlier.

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Does Danny Green Deserve a Max Contract?

Posted on Tue 23 December 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

Danny Green blocks Afflalo ( Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Picture this. An NBA player enters the league having had a decent-but-not-exceptional run in the NCAA and having fallen in the draft more than expected. His first few years are a bit disappointing, for reasons that don't necessarily have to do with him, but he figures out his place in the league and blossoms in the last few years of his deal. In that time, a lot of things happen -- his fingers brush against a Finals MVP trophy, he becomes one of the league's best defensive stoppers at the wing, and his temporarily-broken three point shot becomes a legitimate weapon in his arsenal. All the while, the player in question is stuck on a massively below-market deal that would've made him the cheapest Finals MVP of all time. As he mulls over max-to-near-max contract offers after a long season as his team's rock, the question of whether he'd remain a San Antonio Spur is suddenly far more in flux than anyone expected.

Most of that is known, at least for most NBA fans. The interesting thing about the paragraph isn't the obvious person it describes (Kawhi Leonard, of course!), but that it ALSO provides a decent summary of San Antonio's second most important player during the 2015 season to date: Danny Green. The first thing anyone does when they think of Danny Green as a max contract player is balk. But the 2015 season has been a wild one for San Antonio and the league as a whole, and Danny Green may serve to be the beneficiary of the San Antonio's trouble spot and a changing league. To understand why, let's begin at the playoff run that will undoubtedly form the crux of Danny's free agency pitch: his unlikely run at the 2013 Finals MVP trophy.

• • •

Although Danny played better in the 2013 Finals than he'd ever played before, it's often overlooked that he played pretty excellent basketball in in the first few rounds as well. As you might remember, Danny Green averaged a pedestrian (but team-best!) 18-4-1 line in San Antonio's first five games of the 2013 Finals, which put him in the catbird seat with San Antonio up 3-2. Green's real accomplishment wasn't his per-game averages but his borderline impossible efficiency, as he averaged (no joke) 57% from the field, 66% from three, and 83% from the line over those first five games. While slightly neutered, that efficiency was still present in the earlier rounds -- after an uncharacteristic 33% from three point range against the Lakers, Green averaged 44% from three against the Warriors on 6 heaves a game and 47% on 4 heaves a game against a tough Memphis defense. Over the pre-finals playoff run, Green averaged 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal/block as well -- all solid tertiary statistics for a player whose primary value is in lethal floor-warping three point prowess.

Hold up, there's a mistake in that idea -- offense isn't actually Green's primary value. The offensive per-game stats ignore Green's real value during that run (and every run after it) -- Green was one of the bulwarks of San Antonio's improved defensive attack. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined to form one of the best defensive "smalls" duo in the 2013 playoffs (second only to the Conley/Allen pairing on the Memphis Grizzlies), and their ability to shut down guard plays outside the painted area lessened the burden on Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter on the interior. One could make the argument that Green and Leonard's defense was what saved Duncan's legs enough for him to crank out the vintage games that nearly stole San Antonio the title. If you look at what the Spurs did in the playoffs before Kawhi and Green had broken into the rotation, you see the difference -- even with a younger Duncan in 2011, Splitter couldn't even handle the amount of pressure that even the semi-broken Memphis offense placed on him, and Duncan didn't have the energy to pick up the slack. San Antonio has improved defensively in each season since their best-in-the-west 2011 record, despite getting fewer and fewer minutes from their talented big men. Although such an improvement is never entirely one change, the impact of Green/Leonard looms large. Richard Jefferson, Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Manu Ginobili -- these were the players San Antonio gave big minutes as perimeter defenders before Green and Leonard took the bulk of the wing minutes, and these were the players who have slowly gotten phased out of the rotation (either through age or attrition) as San Antonio's defense came back to form.

Before the Spurs had Green and Leonard, any guard that wanted to get to the rim could pretty easily fake out the first line of defense and make it to the paint. That didn't necessarily ruin San Antonio's chances at a good record -- Duncan and Splitter made it through the 2011 season doing fine, statistically, and the team still had an amazing record due to their collective offensive brilliance and their good-enough defense. But when your star big is old and creaky, having to constantly defend several actions on the same play grows tiring, and Duncan had absolutely no legs left by the end of the season. Every blown coverage that resulted in an easy layup attempt in November made Duncan a step slower in April, and the impact accumulated badly -- even before their inglorious playoff ouster, the 2011 Spurs had a few months of mediocre-to-bad play as Duncan tried to get his legs back under him. Although the team was better due to small improvements, the same was true in 2012's final series -- although those Spurs blitzed through the first few teams of the playoffs offensively, as soon as Oklahoma City players figured out how to break through San Antonio's big minutes wings (Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, and the rookie Kawhi Leonard) with pinpoint passing, Duncan's inability to cover that many broken defensive schemes and lazy layups over a whole season became apparent, and their defense blew apart like a house of cards in a windstorm.

Starting in 2013, with Green and Leonard emergent as San Antonio's big sponges at the wing, San Antonio finally had two lockdown perimeter defenders who could force guards to stay outside of the paint on offense without complicated pick and rolls. That allowed Duncan/Splitter to focus on bigs and simple actions, and it proved the difference in 2013 and 2014. By cutting down on the unexpected paint intrusions, Green and Leonard let Duncan and Splitter play their best defense possible when it actually mattered. Even with Danny Green's lesser "counting" statistics in the 2014 playoffs (9-3-1-1-1 on 49-48-82), Green was the biggest difference in San Antonio's WCF rematch against the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he shot 54% from three and averaged two steals a night while buggering Westbrook and Jackson into uncharacteristic mistakes and apprehension towards their usual driving and slicing. Most of San Antonio's players were about as good as they were in 2012, if not worse -- each member of San Antonio's big three had worse statistics in the 2014 rematch than they did in the original, and Kawhi Leonard's improvements were constrained to defense-only -- Ibaka excepted, Green and Splitter were the main differentiators that turned that series around on the San Antonio side.

In sum: while Green's offensive efficiency almost got him a Finals MVP trophy, it wouldn't have been why he deserved it. His blossoming defense (in concert with Kawhi Leonard's blossoming "everything") was what flipped the script on San Antonio's disappointing playoff runs from 2008 to 2012, and what conspired to change San Antonio from an offense-led paper tiger to a whirling dervish of basketball borg collectives.

• • •

This brings us to the current season, where Danny Green is putting up averages of 13-4-2-1-1. Pedestrian, right? The entire premise I'm working with here is that Green might actually deserve a max contract, and those averages would tend to imply that the answer is an emphatic "NOPE." He deserves a raise, obviously, but a max? It's tough to argue that, until you go a bit deeper and start picking apart how he's reached those numbers and how the league is heading. For one thing, Danny Green is just now putting the kibosh on the best month of his entire career -- after starting the season off slowly, Green has been on a rampage over the last month. He's shooting 49-50-95 over his past 17 games for a true shooting percentage of 79.6%. His usage has remained constant (hovering around 17% on the full season and 16.6% over the stretch, the biggest knock on his max player candidacy from an offensive perspective) but his defensive responsibilities have been substantially greater than usual due to Kawhi Leonard's injury absence. San Antonio's defense remains in the top five despite Leonard's constant absence, Tiago Splitter playing just 8.5% of San Antonio's minutes, and a large infusion of lazy Boris Diaw minutes. (NOTE: I love Boris Diaw. That said, he's been playing lazy defense this season and someone should probably call him on it -- it's a borderline miracle that San Antonio remains in the upper echelons of league defense despite Diaw's lost assignments and further loss of speed.) That's Duncan and Green's influence, as they compose San Antonio's most important duo in a snakebit season.

As you sift through the deeper abstracts of Green's statistics, you find a mixed bag. Although he's been borderline terrible at pull-up jumpers this year (he's averaging 28% on pull-up jump shots -- yes, Virginia, a player with a TS% of 80% is somehow shooting 28% on pull-up jumpers. He's that bad at them.), he's finally started to convert at the rim, which is slowly ticking his free throw rate in a positive direction. This is good, because Green has been San Antonio's best foul shooter this year, whether through luck or serious improvement from his career average of 83%. He's shot 97% from the line on the whole season, which puts him at fourth place behind Jerryd Bayless, Ryan Kelly, and Chris Douglas-Roberts as the best free throw shooters in the league (who take more than 1 foul shot a night, obviously). Players shoot 15% worse when Danny Green is guarding them within 6 feet of the basket, making Green better at close-shot guarding than many of the NBA's centers (which, of course, makes sense -- he's currently 2nd in the league in shot blocks for a guard or a wing, right behind Philadelphia's K.J. McDaniels and right ahead of Golden State's Draymond Green, another Green poised for a massive raise when is contract expires). He's a top-percentile rebounder from the guard position despite generally skying for long rebounds and ceding offensive boards, and while his passing is hardly of the "run-the-team" variety, Green functions as an excellent cog in San Antonio's passing machine.

The knock on Danny Green has never been his shooting or his defense -- its his dribbling, and his inability to create shots for himself. And indeed, that's a problem. His incredibly poor percentage on pull-up jumpers even in this incredible stretch underlines that problem, and it's uncertain whether any NBA franchise will shell out max money for a player who can't really create for himself. The thing is? The league is always changing, and you never know exactly when a player's flaws move from an unacceptable flaw to something the league can live with. This season is putting Green in a position where max money may come regardless of his ability to create for himself. Consider this -- the 2015 Atlanta Hawks and the 2015 Golden State Warriors both feature a defensive star at the large guard position who drains threes and has trouble creating offense. Kyle Korver has been making teams better on a mild contract for years now, and Klay Thompson's value is such that almost everyone's coming around to the idea that Golden State made a defensible (if not apt) decision to pass on the proposed Klay Thompson/Kevin Love swap. Neither of them are very good at creating for themselves, but Golden State's offense is built around the Curry/Klay threat (and the Klay/Bogut defense) while Atlanta uses Korver's gravity to free up Teague and Horford for easy buckets.

The game done changed, and contract equations are in flux. It used to be that any player who couldn't dribble wasn't worth a thing in the NBA, as offenses depended on every single player being able to put the ball on the floor (at least to a limited extent). But Atlanta and Golden State are showing that such an equation simply isn't true anymore, and San Antonio's title last season supports it even moreso. Leonard, Green, and Bellinelli barely have a dribble or two between them as creators or shot-designers -- they don't work well as point guards, and they have trouble breaking defense if they're caught in a corner. But the Spurs marched to a title on their backs regardless, working through an offense where dribbling wasn't anything they really had to do. The same has been true for Golden State and Atlanta -- they've minimized Korver and Thompson's need to put the ball on the floor in favor of quick passes if they realize they don't have the shot. Given the modern conception of offense, it's worked fine. Thompson has greatly improved this season in a lot of ways, not least of which his dribbling -- he's been far more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and creating offense, which has improved the team. But Golden State's sets are still designed to take advantage of his catch-and-shoot mastery -- half his shots come without a single dribble. That's fewer than Korver (75%) and Green (62%), but it's in the same general range.

As you're probably aware, Klay Thompson just got a max contract anyway. Green isn't as young as Thompson, but Kyle Korver and Tony Allen have gone great lengths to prove that catch-and-shoot stoppers don't fall off much until their mid 30s. Green is 28, meaning that his next long contract should take him right to Kyle Korver's current age (33). Is it that hard to believe that an NBA team in a cash-flush post-TV deal world will be willing to take a max-contract bet on owning the next Kyle Korver for four years? Green is the rare defensive stopper with offense-bending gravity and the playoff chops to prove it. He may not get a max contract, but it's hard to imagine Green getting much less than Klay Thompson's current "rookie max" deal. Luckily for San Antonio, Green's only been in the league for 6 years -- he'll only be eligible for the 0-6 year max, which represents 25% of the salary cap. Compounding this luck, barring some sort of revenue easing, the cap isn't going to go nuts due to the new TV deal until the 2016 offseason, which means that 25% of the salary cap will likely remain a 15-16 million a year type deal rather than the 20+ that it'll likely represent under the post-TV deal cap environment.

That works in two ways for San Antonio (or whatever team ends up signing Green). First, it means that the salary is simply lower than it would be if this was two years from now, which is always nice from an organizational standpoint. Second, it means the cap will explode shortly after the team signs the contract, which means the contract will take up a proportionally smaller amount of a team's cap space than it would've in a normal environment. Signing a max contract usually means that you're carving out 20-25% of your cap over the duration of the deal for that individual player. In the current environment, that 25% figure only lasts for a single season -- for the other three years of a max deal, the player will likely only take up 15-20% of the cap, a considerably smaller sum that gives teams much more flexibility. The difference is even greater if you consider the possibility that San Antonio is forced to max both Danny Green AND Kawhi Leonard -- if they do that, they're looking at $15 million dollar salaries for the both of them. In a normal environment, that's $30 million out of a cap of $66, or 45%. If the cap blows up to $80 million or more, as expected, that's suddenly only 30% of the cap, leaving 70% of San Antonio's cap free to build a team around their ace perimeter duo. Long story short? Even if the Spurs are forced to max Green (or pay a near-max salary, or something above $12 million), it's entirely possible they'll look at the equation and realize it makes sense in the long run.

So, to circle back: does Danny Green deserve a max contract? It's unclear. On the plus side, his defense is ridiculously good for a guard, and he's one of the best end-to-end fastbreak quashers in the league. He sticks to his man like glue above the three point line and cuts off actions before they get to the last line of defense. He compounds that defensive value with one of the quickest catch-and-shoot jumpers in the league, and (if this season is to be believed) he may have improved his free throw form to become one of the best free throw shooters out there. He rebounds like a big and he's surprisingly durable. On the other hand, he can't dribble worth a donkey's necktie and he doesn't use very many possessions on offense -- he has incredible gravity, but that gravity isn't always a guarantee that he's going to get you a better shot. He's a cold/hot player, and his cold games can be difficult for the offense to survive.

When I asked the question on Twitter last night, most Spurs fans balked at the idea, and many were confused as to why it was even a question after a game where he'd scored 11 points. But the NBA works in mysterious ways -- whether he deserves it or not, Green has played his way into a massive payday of some sort, and the league's environment is warping in such a way that his flaws just might not matter when the contract negotiations come around. For non-star players on the fringes, a big payday requires an intersection of bankable talent, an environment that values you, and the luck to let those overlap.

We may not know exactly what he's about to make, but one thing is clear -- Danny Green is one lucky man.

Danny Green, Lucky Dude (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

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A Primer on Cap-Smoothing: the NBA's BRI Problem

Posted on Fri 25 July 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

Adam Silver answers a question. (Credit Pat Sullivan from the AP for the photo.

Two days ago, Zach Lowe stirred up a minor storm on Twitter with a tiny aside in an otherwise non-controversial piece about the frustrating tête-à-tête between Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix front office within his restricted free agency. The offending aside, in its essence:

And that’s where things get interesting: Executives on lots of teams have gotten the sense from the league office that the NBA will try to smooth the increase of the cap level to minimize the impact of any massive one-year jump in revenue. Exactly how it would do that is unclear. The precise team salary cap — $58 million last season, $63 million this season — is tied to overall league revenues; the two rise and fall together. Players are guaranteed about 50 percent of the league’s “basketball-related income,” and the league and union set the cap figure so player salaries add up to a number in that 50 percent ballpark. The league’s specific plan for smoothing out the cap increase is unclear, and in the end, it may opt against doing so at all. The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

There's a lot of misunderstandings about how exactly this cap smoothing plan could work, and those misunderstandings spread in a controversy so deadly it almost became a twitpocalypse. (Alright, I lied. It was a pretty average twitter controversy. I just wrote that so that I could use the word "twitpocalypse.") Much like Lowe, I don't feel this is all that controversial. And I generally think a cap smoothing plan could be an ideal situation for both the league as a whole and the players as a collective. That sounds weird at the outset, especially because as-described the cap smoothing plan is effectively depressing player salaries.

But there are a lot of key facts about the NBA's general operating agreement that lead me to that conclusion, and I realized while arguing about this that most people were totally unaware of these. While I tried to explain my rationale in 140-character chunks, I quickly realized that Twitter was a terrible medium for this kind of a complicated explanation. Let's try it in post form. My intention is to try and explain a) why it's necessary in the first place, b) what such a proposal would need to entail, and c) a few off-the-cuff ideas of how the parameters of this proposal might look. But to start to explain this, one must start at the very beginning, which can be done by answering a hypothetical posed to me by the incomparable @basquiatball.

• • •

What would the NBA offseason look like if the cap doubled?

The NBA's 2015 salary cap was set about a month ago. The exact figure was $63 million dollars. Let's say, for the purposes of this argument, that the NBA's basketball related income will roughly double in the 2016 offseason, for reasons unknown to all of us. Ergo, the cap (a figure that's tied intricately to BRI) suddenly jumps from this year's $63 million figure to a total of $120 million dollars. This has a lot of side-effects, as the cap figure has a massive impact on the NBA's salary structure. The most important ones for our purposes:

  • An NBA team's minimum collective salary is set at 90% of the NBA's salary cap figure. This past year, it was set at $56 million dollars. In this scenario, it jumps to $108 million dollars.

  • The maximum salary of an NBA player is set at a certain percentage of the cap depending on how many years the player has been in the league. This would result in maximum salaries jumping like so:

    • 0-6 years: 25% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $14.7 million to $30 million.
    • 7-9 years: 30% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $17.7 million to $36 million.
    • 10+ years: 35% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $20.6 million to $42 million.
  • The tax level is set at a certain percentage of BRI, meaning that it matches the cap level. It would rise from $77 million to $146 million.

I filled out a spreadsheet with every contract currently on the NBA's books. The NBA currently has salaries roughly totaling $2 billion dollars for the 2015 NBA season. In a scenario where every team opens up so much cap room, it's a fair assumption to state that every single player in the NBA with a qualifying offer or a player option will reject it and every player with an early termination option will exercise it. With those assumptions, players who remained on the books with their guaranteed contracts would represent $1.3 million of those $2 billion in contracts. The players who represented the other $0.7 billion would become free agents.

At this juncture, let's take a step back to try and understand the mechanisms by which the league and the players meet the overall player salaries proposed in the 2011 CBA. According to that CBA, the players receive 49 to 50% of basketball related income. The cap total (and cap floor) is tied to BRI in such a way that forces teams to dole out salary so that the players get their agreed-upon share. If a team does not meet the minimum salary among all their players, the difference between their total salary and the salary floor is paid out in equal margin to all players on their closing day roster.

Still. With max salaries doubling and every team in the market for every player in free agency, what do you really think is going to happen? Nobody on that free agent market that gets picked up is going to get a minimum salary -- too many teams with too much money will ensure that. If BRI doubles, the total amount that goes back to the players in salary will need to approach $4.3 billion dollars despite only having $1.3 billion dollars on the books in guaranteed money to the players with existing contracts. Even assuming that some teams don't get all the free agents they want and are forced to end the season under the salary floor, that still means that salaries for the players on the free agent market (the ones who made up just 0.7 billion of the NBA's salary in 2015) will need to approach $2 billion dollars for the numbers to work out, with the remaining $1 billion dollars being distributed in payments to players on sub-floor teams. That means that virtually every player in that free agent class will see their salaries double or triple over their previous contract while players with guaranteed contracts see little to no impact from the massive salary boost.

• • •

Why is this bad for the players?

Now that the previous scenario has been laid out, this one should be easier to understand. To put it plainly: every non-free agent in the NBA gets screwed. The NBA doesn't really have many avenues for adjusting to massive shifts in the cap -- under the current CBA, players on existing contracts aren't going to see the benefit of a massive cap increase until they hit free agency. And by that point, the rush on contracts might very well be over. Sure, they'll get MORE in their next contract, but how much more?

Again, let's return to our example. Let's say that BRI projections stay completely flat after rising to $120 million dollars. In the 2015 offseason, we calculated that there would be $1.3 billion dollars of guaranteed salary on the books alongside a BRI projection that would lead the players to require $4.3 billion dollars of the NBA's revenue. In the 2016 offseason, after the projected 2015 spending spree of $2 billion dollars on the 2015 free agents, the total guaranteed salary would instead be roughly $3 billion dollars, leaving $1.3 billion to divvy up between all free agents on the market. This would lead to raises, assuredly -- the new class of free agents have salaries that summed up to roughly $600 million dollars, so those free agents are likely to double their salaries.

But notice what happened in the previous offseason -- due to the wild fluctuation caused by the rapidly rising cap, free agents in the 2015 market ended up with almost triple their previous salary as teams got into predictable bidding wars with their bounty of cap space. Once that cap picture stabilizes and the market starts to look like a normal one again (that is, with 5-6 teams with big cap room and the rest working around the margins), the NBA would return to a generally stable world where future free agents saw their salaries increase to match the big BRI increase. But future free agent classes would never quite see as much of an increase as the initial run -- there wouldn't be as many teams able to engage in large bidding wars nor would there be as much of a need for teams to sign overpaid contracts in an effort to avoid missing the salary floor.

Hence, the big problem. Suddenly increasing the cap by a massive amount DOES increase salaries, which is good for the players in aggregate. But that increase is NOT evenly distributed -- it provides a larger-than-deserved bump to the players who happen to enter free agency during that free agent period without any means of redistributing that money to players on guaranteed contracts. Even after the 2011 CBA decreased the number of years on contracts and forced more of the league into free agency on a yearly basis, the number of players who enter free agency in any given offseason is still much less than half the players in the league. Which means that 30-40% of the league would be reaping the benefits of the increased revenue without any of the players on guaranteed money seeing a dime of it until their own respective free agency periods.

That's simply not a good look. It penalizes:

  • Veterans who signed long contracts as injury insurance.
  • Rookies still on their now comically underpaid rookie deals.
  • Any player whose team convinced them to sign a longer deal to help foment team stability.

That's a hell of a lot of the league. It's pretty hard to see a situation where the 30-40% of the league entering free agency could outvote the 60-70% of the league that would be stuck on the sidelines, watching as free agents gobble up the NBA's suddenly-bountiful cap room with obscenely huge guaranteed contracts. If the league could come up with a cap smoothing proposal that keeps such a free agency period from happening, it's a good bet that most players would support it.

• • •

Isn't salary suppression illegal? Why would the players give up money?

Returning to Zach's quote for a moment, there's one sentence that bears repeating:

The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

This is a core point of any particular cap smoothing proposal. In no universe will the players NOT receive the share of BRI they were promised during the 2011 CBA negotiations. That wouldn't just be bad form -- it would be completely illegal per the NBA's operating agreement, and probably lead to the end of the league through the courts. Even if the salary cap is artificially depressed, the players will still receive their agreed-upon share of the pie. The question therefore is one of distribution -- cap smoothing would be an effort to prevent uneven assignment of the revenue increase, essentially a way to prevent one season of lucky free agents from gobbling up 60-70% of the NBA's salary cap in the near term.


Having established that the players are going to receive their money regardless, the question becomes one of the league itself. Why would Adam Silver and the owners want to implement a smoothing proposal if they aren't actually getting any more money? If we consider the players' vested interest in an even distribution of salary, the league has a vested interest in preventing the variety of other ill side effects stemming massive jump in the cap as well. In a world where every team is suddenly under the cap, the chances of any particular team actually accumulating enough salary to go over the tax line in a meaningful way is extremely low. Ergo, the various teams who depend on tax payments would suddenly be without their main source of income. Because every single player who could possibly finagle his way into free agency would do so, the league would look almost completely different from one year to the next -- 40-50% of the league would likely change teams when you account for all the trades and machinations teams would go through to try and attract the star players of the free agent class.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it isn't ideal either. Given the NBA's focus on competitive balance and the subsidizing of small markets, that kind of an offseason free-for-all could be seen by many owners as an anathema to balance and a reward to teams in large markets who haven't managed their cap space particularly well. Hence, the league office has a vested interest in keeping the cap figure stable regardless of whether they get any extra money in doing so.

• • •

How would a cap smoothing proposal work?

So. We know the league's BRI estimates are likely to rise 30-40% after the league agrees to a new TV deal -- that's nowhere near the wild scenarios described in this post, but it would cause a similarly deleterious impact on the league's salary structure. While I'm no legal expert, there are a few ways I could imagine a cap smoothing proposal being both legal under the 2011 CBA and operating in such a way that both the league and the NBPA would agree to it. They are as follows:


I mostly just included this one because it's the most obvious result, even if it's extraordinarily unlikely. The basic idea is that teams would simply operate as though the cap is near historical levels, rising by 5-6% instead of 30-40%. They'd sign contracts commensurate with those from previous free agency periods but reflecting the gradual increase. This is silly for obvious reasons. Even in the unlikely event that all teams collectively agreed to operate under a lower threshold to keep salaries in roughly equivalent ranges, the method by which the CBA deals with a salary shortfall (the aforementioned equal assignment of sub-salary floor money to all players on the team below the floor) is a wildly imprecise method of evening out the league's salary. It would still raise the salaries of free agents signed in that free agency period, and it would grant an equal portion of the pie to minimum-salary journeymen and superstars stuck in max deals. And it would also assign larger raises to players on teams with low salary obligations (like tanking teams) at the expense of teams that are trying to field title contenders. Even if Silver could somehow convince the teams to do that, it's unlikely the result would be to anyone's liking.


There was one way for the NBA to fix errors in the cap that I didn't mention in this post. Per Larry Coon's CBA FAQ:

Since individual salaries are negotiated before the season starts (in many cases years before), and BRI is not determined until the season concludes, there are mechanisms in place to adjust when salaries miss their target. If the players receive less than their guaranteed share of BRI, the league cuts a check to the players association for the difference, and this amount is distributed to the players (this happened in 2010-11, under the 2005 CBA).

This may be the most likely smoothing plan. In this scenario, the league would knowingly keep the BRI estimate lower than expected in concert with the NBPA, which would artificially depress the cap. The remainder of player salary would then be distributed to the players by the NBPA at the end of the season, with the NBPA deciding how to split the large imbalance among all its players. This would probably go on for a few years, increasing the cap by 5-10% each year until the shortfall isn't a massive number anymore. There might be some quibbles among some players with max salaries that this artificial smoothing deflates their max salaries, and that's a very valid point. But this is probably the fairest option.


Both the league and the players have expressed for some time that the NBA's schedule is a bit too long for comfort. The players don't like the increased risk of injury that comes with a longer season or the unnecessary back-to-back stretches that make it hard to stay at top form all year, while the league isn't particularly fond of the anemic basketball that gets played for months of the NBA's calendar or the widespread perception that the NBA's regular season doesn't matter. The NBA has maintained for quite some time that it would like to add some kind of midseason tournament to manufacture new interest in their product and add different parameters for a successful season outside of the simple "NBA championship or bust" framework they have now.

My thought is that it's possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that the league could use this BRI increase as a way to justify shortening the NBA season. Depending on how much they shortened the NBA season, they could depress BRI projections enough to maintain a relatively even cap despite adding the new national TV deal. They could keep the basic skeleton of the schedule the same (that is, start in October and end in late April) but implement 2-3 weeks of dead time around the all-star break, effectively giving NBA players a month off in the middle of the year. That month would lie dormant until the 2017 CBA negotiations, when the NBA could introduce a plan to hold a two week midseason tournament directly in the now-empty weeks. They could structure the TV deal to include basic parameters for covering the midseason tournament with exact terms to be negotiated after the CBA deal, giving an instant BRI boost as soon as the tournament is agreed upon.

If there are fears that the tournament's addition could push the league into a similar cap situation to the one it's facing now, the league and the NBPA could negotiate terms such that tournament income is considered "post-BRI" asset income, much like NBA jerseys. That way, players would get paid for the tournament separately from their salary, allowing the league and players to profit off the

There are a lot of ways the NBA could manage this in a way that benefits both the players and the league. At this point, only one thing is certain -- it's unlikely either side has a great appetite to see how the 2011 CBA holds up in the aforementioned stress case. Artificially easing the cap increase could benefit all parties involved, despite how odd that sounds in a vacuum. Keep an eye on this -- as the NBA's new T.V. deal approaches, this back-and-forth between the league and the players is only going to get more interesting.

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The NBA is Worse at Criminal Justice than the NFL

Posted on Thu 24 July 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

kyle lowry

Word broke today that the NFL has finally completed deliberations on the punishment for Ray Rice's offseason arrest over grisly charges that he assaulted his fiancee. The punishment, in total? A two-game suspension, coupled with a $58,000 fine and a recommendation from the NFL to attend counseling. Rice pleaded not guilty to the offense and was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that led the charges to be dropped, so that NFL penalty (in addition to the intervention program) will represent the sum total of Rice's punishment for his outburst. News flash: this isn't rare. Out of morbid curiosity, I've collected information about the last four years of assault or battery charges in the NBA from Google and the NBA Crime Library. Presented with minimal comment, and ordered by date:

  • June 2014: James Johnson was charged with domestic assault for allegedly slapping and choking his wife. The charges were dismissed because his wife did not appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

  • April 2014: Dante Cunningham was arrested twice in one week -- first for domestic assault by strangulation, and second for sending "terroristic threats" to his ex-girlfriend and violating probation. The league said nothing. His trial is forthcoming. LEGAL PENALTIES: None (yet). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None. (He rejoined the team immediately after getting out of jail.)

  • October 2013: Kendrick Perkins was charged with assault after punching a two passengers of an automobile in the face after an altercation in a bar parking lot. I have been unable to track down what happened here, but the league nor the Thunder never commented on the allegations. LEGAL PENALTIES: None (that I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

  • September 2013: Jared Sullinger was charged with assault and malicious destruction of property for allegedly discovering his girlfriend was cheating on him and beating her to the ground before smashing her cellphone. The charges were dropped when his ex-girlfriend refused to appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

  • August 2013: DeAndre Liggins was arrested on charges of domestic assault and violence with a deadly weapon in the presence of a minor, including felony counts of kidnapping. I was unable to find the result of the trial, but the Thunder waived him shortly after the news broke. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. (That I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None officially, although the Thunder did waive his contract.

  • May 2013: Terrence Williams was arrested on charges of assault, amidst allegations that he pulled a gun on his child's mother during an annual visitation and made threats. It does not appear that a trial ever occurred, although the Celtics waived him shortly after the news broke (likely as a result of the arrest). LEGAL PENALTIES: None. (That I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None officially, although the Celtics did waive his contract.

  • January 2013: Andray Blatche was arrested on charges of sexual assault, allegedly standing in the doorway and watching as his friend raped a woman in Blatche's hotel room. Charges against Blatche were dropped several months later, although reports are unclear as to whether his friends evaded sentencing. Blatche played in an NBA game against the 76ers the exact same day he was arrested. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

  • September 2012: Jordan Hill was charged with felony assault for choking a former girlfriend. He pleaded guilty, dropping the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. LEGAL PENALTIES: One year of probation, $500 fine, counseling. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

  • February 2011: Kyle Lowry was charged with misdemeanor battery for throwing a ball at a female ref during a preseason game and threatening the ref with physical violence. Lowry refused to appear in court, but his lawyer got the charges dropped in exchange for pleading guilty and community service. The NBA said nothing. LEGAL PENALTIES: 100 hours of community service. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

  • August 2010: Lance Stephenson was charged with assault and harrassment for throwing his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs and allegedly slamming her head into the staircase. The case was eventually dismissed due to a lack of cooporation from his ex-girlfriend. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

Actually, I lied. I said I'd present it without comment, but that doesn't really do it justice. Much of the NBA's twitter community has been devoted to jokes and observations about how horrifying and hypocritical the NFL is for letting Ray Rice get off with a two game suspension while players like Josh Gordon lose a year of their career for something as minor as a marijuana charge. It's true. It's hypocritical, awful, and unbelievably dumb. But a lot of talk has also been made about boycotting the NFL for their hypocrisy, and giving them financial ramifications for their hand-wavy attitude towards the serious issue of assault. My take? Do it. It's justified.

But if we're being honest, you'd be better off boycotting the NBA first.

It's hard to conclude that the NBA is anything if not much worse when it comes to league penalties for non-drug-related criminal behavior. Many of these players actually pleaded guilty without seeing any league penalty. Kyle Lowry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from an actual on-court basketball game -- the league said nothing. Jordan Hill pleaded guilty -- the league said nothing. The rest of these are, for the most part, grisly cases with an abundance of evidence pointing to evidence of guilt. But most of them got off, and not once did the league take even a cursory action. The only two times the NBA players suffered a legitimate on-court penalty were times when the player was an expendable, fringe NBA talent who wasn't worth the hassle. These are all things that happened in the last four years.

And when it comes to former players and public figures, the ledger is just as full. Beloved Grantland contributor Jalen Rose pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge stemming from an event where he got in a car almost immediately after having six martinis and rolled his Cadillac. He could've killed someone. Idolized general manager R.C. Buford was caught doing the same. Marv Albert is a generally accepted commentator, and one of the leading lights of the business -- hell, he's part of Blake Griffin's endorsement deal with Kia! -- but few people remember the disgusting charges of rape he faced back in the 90s. NBC fired him a few months into the scandal, but quietly re-hired him years later after he'd pleaded guilty to lesser charges and the public furor had died down a bit. He's still calling the NBA Finals, using the same voice he used on the stand when he argued that his assault was "consensual."

We can call this a massive moral failing, because it is. But in broad strokes, this is essentially how society treats these crimes. There's a curious amount of outrage over the NFL's punishment without the necessary realization that -- realistically -- this is one of the few times in the history of criminal justice where a sports league has accomplished the following three things in an assault case:

  1. The NFL punished a player who managed to get the charges dropped.
  2. The NFL punished a_ star_ player despite their status in the league, and gave a semi-meaningful suspension.
  3. The NFL made it clear that such an action was not OK, and essentially countered Baltimore's disgusting press conference.

The NFL is hardly perfect. It would be nice if they levied harsher punishment against Rice, and the juxtaposition between Rice's punishment and Josh Gordon's inexplicable marijuana suspension is comically off-base. But it's hardly more off-base than the actual criminal justice system's differential treatment of those particular crimes, with assault cases regularly falling apart over extremely minor inconsistencies in evidence or intimidation practiced on the part of the defense while marijuana locks up thousands of poor black teenagers on incomprehensible sentences every single year. And it feels slimy to say this, but at least they did something. Two games out of sixteen is equivalent to a 10 game NBA suspension. That's not sufficient, but it's not nothing. I don't generally endorse giving gold stars for minimal effort, but in this case, it might actually be deserved. Especially compared to the NBA's horrendous record of response on these kinds of cases.

Boycotts are fine. They rarely work, but they're a good way to take action on moral stances and provide heft to your arguments. I rarely watch the NFL anymore, as I have trouble mentally justifying it given their laissez-faire attitude towards concussions and their former players. But if NBA fans are going to boycott the NFL for their treatment of the Rice case, they should probably start off by storming the NBA's league office in New York and demanding answers on the NBA's pitiful track record. And given the widespread love and adoration for some of these players -- Lowry, Stephenson, and Hill in particular -- many might want to rethink the way they approach fandom as a whole. It's easy to pick holes in sports you don't love, but it's much harder to honestly address very real moral failings in the sport you hold dearest. And it's even harder to come to terms with the fact that the players we hold up as totems to virtue and aesthetics are real human beings with real human flaws.

But that's part of being an adult, and it's part of being a sports fan. Games aren't always fun.

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Free Agency 2014: More Signings, More Grades!

Posted on Tue 15 July 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

richard jefferson

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

  • A large number of low-end free agents. Not all of them, as there are officially too many to discuss in one post.
  • Grades for each signing based on my take on how said player would fare in a zombie apocalypse.
  • Everything BUT LeBron. His name will not occur after this line. Live to LeBron another day, lovelies.

Let's get to it.

• • •

Here are a large number of deals that have gone down so far with a few snap thoughts on each of them. I will also provide a grade on each contract. Last week's grades were on a rapidly shifting scale with no comparability between the different grades. These will be comparable, but completely agnostic to a player's talent, fit, or general basketball acumen. I'll be grading on my best guess as to whether the player in question would be a standout citizen in a zombie apocalypse. (Before anyone asks -- yes, slow zombies. Get that fast stuff out of here.)

  • Nando De Colo signs with CSKA-Moscow on an undisclosed deal. Nando De Colo was not a particularly groundbreaking NBA player. A perennial backup at best, he showed serious NBA speed but often found himself tricked into making passes that were far outside any possible comfort zone for a player of his caliber. Compounded that with low finishing ability and a shaky-yet-quick-trigger shot. In San Antonio almost seemed like he was trying to imitate Manu. Maybe it was some kind of hilarious attempt to trick Gregg Popovich into giving him extra minutes by getting the two of them mixed up. (SPOILERS: It didn't work.) He cleaned up his act enough in Toronto that you could start to see a decent option at the backup point if you squinted, but in a league replete with point guards that wasn't quite good enough to make the kind of money he wanted. Too replaceable. De Colo might very well be a star with CSKA Moscow -- his aggression and speed that's relatively pedestrian in the NBA could make him a standout in any league that's slightly slower and slightly more by-the-book. Probably a good deal for CSKA Moscow.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: While De Colo isn't an amazing NBA player, the guy is lithe and stringy. Also: delightfully fast. I think he'd survive pretty admirably in a post-apocalyptic wasteland -- perhaps not the most cerebral member of the group, but he'd be quick thinking and good at running when the caca hits the rotors. Four brains out of five.
  • Kent Bazemore signs with the Atlanta Hawks on a 2 year, $4 million dollar deal. Remember when I mentioned less than one paragraph ago that the league has a glut of point guards? Consider Bazemore exhibit A. He's hardly an amazing talent, but he's eminently passable. In a league with fewer options, it's feasible that an athletic wunderkind like Bazemore could get a much larger contract than that. Especially given his turn with the Los Angeles Lakers last year -- in his first serious minutes, Bazemore averaged 28 minutes of burn with 13-3-3 on 47-37-64 shooting and his usual scraphouse grinder defense, which certainly seemed like a decent-tier backup to me. He's only 24 years old, so chances are reasonably high that this deal ages well over the next two years as he develops into his passing game and backs up the entrenched incumbent in Jeff Teague. That's where we are as a league right now -- there are enough passable point guards that $2 million a year can net you a young, low-risk athletic burst guy at your backup point guard slot. No wonder Nando left for greener pastures.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Bazemore's burst and athleticism may make him a strong option for the Hawks at backup point guard, but he's a bit stocky. He's also a physical defender, used to bodying guys up and aggressive fronts. If you aggressively front a zombie, it will be difficult to avoid being bitten. Atlanta, you made the wrong call. Two brains out of five.
  • Brian Roberts signs with the Charlotte Hornets on a 2 year, $5.5 million dollar deal. As with Bazemore, this represents a decent bargain on a flawed-but-developing point guard. Bazemore is more of an offensive project, Roberts is more of a defensive project -- his close-outs were wild and often terribly timed, but he shot the ball well and helmed several reasonably efficient offensive units off the New Orleans bench. This probably signals the end of the Ramon Sessions era in Charlotte, with Charlotte going for a younger option with a bit more upside. Probably a lateral move, if we're honest, but maybe Clifford can milk a bit more out of his game.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Brian Roberts is a worldly player, having played overseas for Israel and Germany. I'm going to assume he's learned a lot of cool tricks from his Israeli and German teammates, giving him that extra edge that nudges him just above replacement level. Three brains and a femur out of five.
  • Willie Green signs with the Orlando Magic on a 1 year, $1.2 million dollar deal. This is selfish, but I hate this deal. I hate this deal for one reason, and one alone -- I hate watching Willie Green play. I just don't think he's an NBA caliber player. This will be his eleventh season in the league. He played almost 16 MPG for one of the three or four best teams in the NBA last season, so it was silly of me to expect he'd leave. But he just didn't really do anything! He shot under 40% from the floor despite playing well over a third of his minutes with Chris Paul. Do you have any idea how hard that is? He only shot 33% from three! Perhaps he'll be a calming veteran presence in an Orlando locker room that needs it. I doubt it. More likely, he'll shoot even worse than he did last year and slowly fade into the ether.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: His name is 'Willie'. Need I say more? One brain out of five.

• • •

Kevin Garnett: starting center on the zombie all-stars.

  • Ben Gordon signs with the Orlando Magic on a 2 year, $9 million dollar deal. In a vacuum, I don't despise this signing. The second year is reportedly a team option, which essentially means they're draining about $4 million on him this season with the intention of cutting him or shipping him off for assets if he shows even the slightest pulse. He hasn't in several years, but it's a flyer on a possible asset grab. The thing is? Even understanding the logic, I still don't see the point of picking up Gordon specifically. It's not like the market is bone dry or anything -- there are a bunch of cheap young mid-career options that Orlando could've kicked the tires on instead. Jerryd Bayless, Jordan Crawford, Xavier Henry, James Anderson... even their own Doron Lamb, who wasn't that bad last season. They probably could've had their pick of any of those shooting guards for the same general price range they're paying Gordon, and all of them are roughly as likely to turn into the kind of trade asset they're hoping to get from Gordon. And none of them left their former team on terms nearly as bad as Gordon's last ouster. Just sort of puzzling to me. Certainly could work out, and it's hardly a harrowing loss even if it goes horribly wrong. Just fundamentally strange, much like their odd Willie Green signing and their difficult to defend Afflalo dump.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Ben Gordon fearlessly took on chomping zombies back when he was a member of the Chicago Bulls, as seen in the picture above. He's a grizzled veteran of the zombie game. Five brains out of five.
  • Richard Jefferson signs with the Dallas Mavericks on a 1 year, $1.5 million dollar deal (10+ year veteran's minimum). Little known fact: Richard "El Jeffe" Jefferson wasn't that bad last season. He wasn't exactly some building block for the future, which begged the question of what on God's green earth Tyrone Corbin was doing by giving him 27 minutes a night. But lost in the futility of his season was the fact that he really wasn't that bad. He was actually better than he'd been since 2011, with perfectly mediocre averages of 10-3-2 on 45-40-75. He brought back a bit of his at-rim finishing game and continued to show off the rehabilitated shot he got in San Antonio. His defense has fallen off a cliff, but as a purely offensive player, he's the absolute definition of "replacement level" at this point. Adequate to a fault. Hence, I actually like this signing for Dallas -- given Shawn Marion's precipitous falloff on defense, Jefferson might actually represent an equal caliber veteran replacement as a backup for Chandler Parsons. Given that the Mavericks are contending for a title (if only on the periphery), it makes a bit more sense to focus on veteran known quantities over flyers at your backup slots. And a vet min deal is decent value for that kind of production. It's a silly deal simply because Richard Jefferson is silly -- it's a good one regardless of the omnipresent humor.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Richard Jefferson reminds me of the mild-mannered side character in most zombie movies. He doesn't really distinguish himself in any way before the zombie apocalypse, but his quiet strength quickly makes him the backbone of the group, quickly showing his importance as the greatest zombie fighter of all. ... YO, I'M PLAYIN, WE'RE TALKING ABOUT RICHARD JEFFERSON. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. One brain out of five.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic signs with the Brooklyn Nets for 3 years, $10 million dollars. I don't know much about Bogdanovic. He's a Croatian player who plays for the Croatian national team, and is coming stateside from a tour with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey. He's 25, which means he has some limited upside, and the deal is structured such that he can opt out of the final year if he wants to try his hand at a larger payout. He's played with fellow Brooklyn bench-bro Mirza Teletovic before, so there might be some preexisting chemistry between the two Croats. All things considered, it isn't a terrible use of the taxpayer MLE -- Bogdanovic averaged 15 points a night in Turkey and has a reasonably smooth perimeter shot, although it remains to be seen if his release is quick enough to get open looks at an NBA level.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: I really know nothing about him. This is a stupendously difficult zombie grade to assess. According to Wikipedia, the Croatian national team's head coach kicked him off the team in 2012 for disciplinary issues. Perhaps that implies that as the going gets tough, Bojan starts to get rougher and tougher, and that he would end up a lone agent in a zombie apocalypse scenario. Going one-on-one in a world like that is not usually conducive to success. Two brains out of five.
  • Danny Granger signs with the Miami Heat for 2 years, $4.2 million dollars. There are few moves this summer that I disliked as much as this one. When negotiations completed on this contract, the Heat still had... uh... "that one dude" (remember, I can't use the L-word!) who should theoretically have be a big free agent draw. They were looking for Granger as a backup spot-minute guy who would play 10-15 minutes a night. His veteran minimum salary value is $1.3 million dollars a year. That's what the veteran minimum was made for! Why were the Heat willing to give up their $4.2 million biannual exception for Danny Granger, despite the fact that they could've signed him to a veteran minimum deal for $2.6 million dollars over two years? Was there a huge market for Granger, despite his scintillating playoff shooting of 27% from the field with 22% from three point range? Look at other players who signed around BAE value -- Kent Bazemore, James Johnson, Beno Udrih, Lavoy Allen. Are you telling me that NONE of them would've considered Miami's money if Riley could've convinced Granger to take a $1.6 million dollar haircut? Come on. Miami should've pushed on the veteran minimum. And if they failed, they should've reoriented and found other quality vets who might've taken it instead and spent their BAE on someone with a modicum of upside. I love Danny Granger, but that was a heck of a puzzling move by Riley.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: High. Not many veterans have their own Batcave -- as long as Granger can make his way to his New Mexico home, he should be able to hole up in the Batcave and hold out a strong defense against the zombified hordes. Huge value for Miami's BAE, and could very well save Riley's butt once everything goes down. Great move. Four brains out of five.

• • •

mario welcome

  • Mario Chalmers re-signs with the Miami Heat for 2 years, $8 million dollars. Although Chalmers is coming off one of the worst NBA Finals performances I've ever seen, this contract seems like a decent value to me. Chalmers is 28 years old, which means it's unlikely he evolves his game much, but he's a capable showrunner for Spolestra's playbook and a decent defensive talent at an ordinarily defenseless position. He's hardly one of the league's better point guards, and as the entrenched Miami starter, he'll remain one of the league's worst starting point men. But he's also quite cheap for a player in his nominal prime and it'll keep Miami from losing too much corporate knowledge as they shuffle the pieces around Bosh and Wade. Which is valuable, if not particularly sexy. (Still wish they had Isiaiah, though.)

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Picture this. The Heat are in their RV, driving to Danny Granger's Albequerque home. Tempers run high. Suddenly, the RV sputters. They turn to Mario in concert, and start yelling at him. Even Spolestra stops the RV, turning to join the mob. Mario, it was your job to fill the tank! Mario, why are you so useless! Mario, THIS WAS YOUR ONE JOB. As they scream, hordes of zombies start clawing at the outside of the RV. Pat Riley looks out the window and steels himself, resigned to their fate. (PLOT TWIST: The gas was full. Mario did his job. It sputtered because RVs do that sometimes. Whoops.) Zero brains out of five.
  • D.J. Augustin signs with the Detroit Pistons for 2 years, $6 million dollars. Augustin isn't an incredible player, but I like his fit in a Stan Van Gundy offense. I could see him playing a role not-dissimilar to the one played by Rafer Alston in 2009 -- a spot of reliable three point shooting and burst scoring off the bench by a generally tepid distributor. Of course, that makes a lot more sense when you aren't paying Brandon Jennings tens of millions of dollars to play a similar role (and play it better!), but that's beside the point. (Yes, pun intended.)

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Augustin is quite small for an NBA player, standing at 6'0". He's also really fast, which means that he'd be great at darting through the woods and escaping a horde on his own. He calls his own number a lot, which probably would frustrate members of his group, but his size makes him a replacement level zombie fighter. Three brains out of five.
  • Cartier Martin signs with the Detroit Pistons for 1 year, $1.1 million dollars (6-year veteran's minimum). Martin isn't a phenomenally adept player, but he can shoot threes. I wrote a few days back about how Stan Van Gundy (the GM) was building the exact sort of team that Stan Van Gundy (the coach) wanted to work with. Martin is a reminder of that desire, a one-dimensional shooter who will spot up to the corners and do little else in his system. One-dimensional or not, he should be useful to a Pistons team that was almost unbelievably bad at shooting threes last season.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: One-dimensional agents can be useful in the aftermath of a zombie takeover, but only if that dimension actually has anything to do with rebuilding society or defending yourself against zombies. Corner threes will not be very useful while zombies are eating you. Zero brains out of five.
  • Aaron Gray signs with the Detroit Pistons for terms that are still totally undisclosed. Seriously, wait, what? It's been ten days, Stan Van Gundy. This was announced over a week ago -- it is now the 15th. Let the terms leak already! ... That said, I don't really love this move, nor do I really understand it. The Pistons are going to have to waive Peyton Siva or Josh Harrellson in order to fit this contract on the books. Siva is talented, and a decent young player to maintain a flyer on. Harrellson is an incredibly cheap floor spacing center with mediocre defense. Neither of them are less substantial than Gray, a 30-year-old NBA lifer who's mediocre at everything and lacks any particular big-ticket skills. The deal is likely for the minimum, so it's hard to fault him too much. But I prefer Harrellson simply for his differential skillset -- adding a traditional meat-and-potatoes big man with no intriguing tertiary skills to a rotation as cramped up as Detroit's strikes me as a poor move.

    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Aaron Gray is a massive, massive man. This means he'd be stronger in a fight as long as he maintained enough distance from the zombies, but he would be unable to outrun them and would have to stay fully armored the entire time. A tough proposition, and probably an early casualty of the zombie horde. Two brains out of five.

• • •

Fun times. Join me later this week as I continue sifting through the NBA's myriad free agent moves, and continue my ever-present quest to find the least useful grading scale ever. Stay frosty.

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

Posted on Mon 07 July 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

dirk colorful hat

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

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

Let's get to it.

• • •

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

  • Dirk Nowitzki re-signs with Dallas on a 3-year, $30 million dollar deal. Unless LeBron signs for a significantly below-market deal (under $20 million), this is the best contract of the summer. Much like Duncan's $30 million dollar deal right after San Antonio's rough jaunt with Oklahoma City in the 2012 WCF, this essentially amounts to getting an all-NBA caliber player for less than a sixth of your cap. Dirk and Duncan both have games that are aging beautifully, with Duncan's offense and Dirk's defense falling off from career highs but their inverse advantages staying roughly in line with career averages. As long as Dirk exists as a threat on the floor, he's likely to deserve this contract and more. _GRADE: Three Pterodactyls out of Two Oranges.

  • Kyle Lowry re-signs with Toronto on a 4-year, $48 million dollar deal. Much like Dirk's deal, this was a pretty strong move. Lowry isn't one of the best 3 or 4 point guards in the league, and it's unlikely he'll ever quite reach that stratosphere -- not with stars like Paul, Parker, Westbrook, Curry, and Wall filling the league's ledger above him. But Lowry exists firmly in the next tier of almost-star point guards with Lillard, Irving, Conley, and Rondo -- all of them have a handful of fatal flaws that keep them right outside that top group, but all of them can take over a game with their skillsets. And unless you have LeBron, you better have someone from these lists if your offense intends to contend for a title. If Lowry didn't have his (completely deserved) reputation as a bad-attitude guy, he probably could've strung out for a little bit more. As is? Fairly nice deal with very low blow-up potential for Toronto, and it gives Lowry both financial security and legitimacy as one of the league's 10-or-so best showrunners. GRADE: _Five seasons of Orange is the New Black scavenged from six computers.

  • Marcin Gortat re-signs with Washington on a 5-year, $60 million dollar deal. While I don't love this contract, it was probably what Washington needed to pay to keep him. I just wish they could've kept the years down a bit more for the sake of their flexibility. The Wizards were good this year, but they weren't good enough to give the impression that they couldn't have lived with a shakeup around their Beal/Wall core. Especially given how they frittered away what should have been an easy series against a reeling Pacers team -- although Washington relies on a few young pieces (specifically Wall and Beal) they're hardly a young team overall. The "playoff newbies" excuse doesn't hold that much water when Ariza is your 4th man and Gortat/Nene are your one-two punch from the frontcourt. This team isn't strictly built to win now, but bringing the core back doesn't guarantee that they're going to improve enough to pull off a string of conference finals appearances. If Gortat has a down year, I'm not totally sure teams are going to be chomping at the bit to take this kind of a contract off Washington's hands. Still, in a pathetically weak East, even if it isn't a guarantee the potential is there for this Wizards team is good enough to become an ECF staple. And that's worth something, so it's hard to fault them too much. GRADE: Eight wax figurines of Tuco Salamanca out of the Internet.

• • •

boris the magic diaw

  • Boris Diaw re-signs with San Antonio on a 3-year, $22.5 million dollar deal. I'm not a massive fan of this one on its face, but I heard a few rumors that the last year might be partially guaranteed. That helps it along a bit. While the exact details of the contract aren't completely clear, it appears the last year is partially guaranteed and the first two years will pay him $18.5 million in total -- that would tend to imply (at least to my eyes) that the contract is set up in a manner similar to Tiago Splitter's contract from the last offseason, where it starts high and gets lower as the years go on. Given the high likelihood of a post-championship hangover from one of the league's most motivation-fickle players, that sounds pretty good to me, and makes his contract easy to move as early as next offseason if the Spurs decide to go in a different direction. Maintains continuity without sacrificing flexibility. Decent move, and rewards him for a great year. GRADE: _One perfectly acceptable croissant out of a hole-in-the-wall French chain restaurant.

  • Avery Bradley re-signs with Boston on a 4-year, $32 million dollar deal. A lot of people were complaining about this one, reasoning that Bradley hasn't really shown himself to be a $32 million dollar player. I disagree. He hasn't consistently put together the kind of play you want out of a max guy, but his abilities as a defensive stopper (despite his size) and generally proficient three point shot make him worth this kind of mid-tier money. Some people compare him unfavorably to Danny Green. It's a fine comparison, as Danny is a better player that does nearly everything Bradley does. Does it better, too. But it ignores the fact that Danny Green is incredibly underpaid, and likely deserves to be making anywhere from 10-12 million himself. The small wing is a position of massive scarcity right now. Green has a serious case for top-5 at the small wing, and Harden is almost certainly the best at that position right now despite his massive flaw. In that context, of COURSE Bradley deserves more than an MLE! Especially given his age. Why was this even a question? GRADE: _Seven steel unsorted Monopoly pieces taken from seven hundred beat-up game boxes... but they're the seven coolest ones, so you really lucked out.

  • Patty Mills re-signs with San Antonio on a 3-year, $12 million dollar deal. Diaw's contract might be a bit outsized given the likelihood of a worse season, but THIS contract is basically a steal. Yeah, he's injured. Won't play for the first few months of next season! But I hardly care. The Spurs have Cory Joseph to develop during Patty's rehab, and Patty is a $5-6 million dollar player -- possibly more. Mills could put up solid numbers for just about every lottery team in the league, with a superb handle and an unflappable three point acumen. He's been improving his defense, too. And the Spurs only have to pay $4 million a year to lock up his services? Fantastic. GRADE: _Sixteen kangaroos out of five spider-clocks.

  • Shaun Livingston signs with Golden State on a 3-year, $16 million dollar deal. I really like this move. Backup point guard was a massive problem for Golden State last year, and Livingston represents a very different approach at the point to the one Curry holds dear. Change of pace is a real thing. It totally changes how the opposing team game-plans your bench. Livingston also has the flexibility to play the two, although it'll be a weird fit. Still. At that price, he was a great pickup. GRADE: Six hundred and seventy two egrets hand-picked from the private recesses of Gil Scott Heron's legendary egret collection.

• • •

Darren Collison, right now.

  • Darren Collison signs with Sacramento on a 3-year, $16 million dollar deal. Since I think Darren Collison is significantly worse than Shaun Livingston, I like this deal a lot less. I also like it less because the Kings were dangerously close to the NBA's hard-cap apron BEFORE this deal was signed. In its aftermath, the Kings have inexplicably forced their own hand regarding Isaiah Thomas' contract -- despite Isaiah's status as a restricted free agent, they can no longer match any offer that takes them over the apron. This deal is shaky-but-reasonable if they're paying Collison to be Isaiah's backup. If they're paying him as a REPLACEMENT, this is just sad. Ergo... well, it's just sad. Sorry, Kings fans. GRADE: Two dumpster-diving hipsters lecturing you about Freegan culture inside a whale-shark.

  • Thabo Sefolosha signs with Atlanta on a 3-year, $12 million dollar deal. If the Hawks get the player OKC had by last year's Conference Finals, this was a bad deal. Sefolosha's shot had degraded to the point that he simply could not stay on the floor, and his defense hasn't been at its career-best for a few years now. That said? Atlanta has had salary space to burn these last few years, and there aren't any big fish they're really aiming to pull. Even if Thabo is useless, a deal like this should be reasonably easy to move in a pinch and given his former highs as a three-and-D Bowen-style stopper, this kind of a deal represents a decent flyer. GRADE: One cumulonimbus cloud placed lovingly on a hoagie bun.

  • Chris Kaman signs with Portland on a 2-year, $10 million dollar deal. The Blazers needed some improvement from their bench guys, but I'm not really sure this was the way to go. They lost in a ridiculously lopsided gentleman's sweep to the champs. Could've at least played the youth game and put in a flyer on Ed Davis or Aaron Gray. Not that either of those guys would've been massive difference makers, but at least there's some upside. What's the upside on a no-defense shot chucking big man? Other than the commercials. Those are pretty high upside. Nevermind, I've talked myself into it -- this signing is all worth it if one hipster joint in Portland gets a sponsorship deal with Kaman and forces him to pretend to be a hipster in a commercial. GRADE: One deleted Animal Crossing save file placed in the context of a whole human life.

  • Spencer Hawes signs with Los Angeles on a 4-year, $23 million dollar deal. Not a huge fan of the years on this one, and the dollar value seems mighty steep for a big man with defense as bad as Hawes. In the big picture, though, it's a solid move. I'm all for moves that fill actual holes, and one of L.A.'s biggest problems in recent years has been a borderline terrifying lack of depth in their frontcourt. Signing Hawes FINALLY gives L.A. a passable option beyond Griffin and Jordan, and (as mentioned in the Livingston note) functions further as a change-of-pace option to space the floor and free up the rim for the other big man. Length is a bit steep, and his defense is going to hurt them. But they aren't going to have to give Glen Davis 15 minutes a night playing center in playoff situations anymore, and that counts for a lot. GRADE: Green Eggs out of Ham.

  • Jordan Farmar signs with Los Angeles on a 2-year, $4.2 million dollar deal. I really like this move. Farmar isn't great, but they don't need a golden God at backup point guard -- Chris Paul can handle it for most of the game. Farmar makes threes and exists as a credible off-ball threat. He won't replicate Collison's wares exactly, but he'll be a good enough facsimile that I doubt the Clippers will notice the difference. And that's an incredibly cheap contract. GRADE: Sixteen Kid's Choice Awards awarded indiscriminately to family members that are vaguely related to you.

• • •

kyrie approaches

  • Kyrie Irving signs an extension with Cleveland for 5-years, $90 million dollars. Kyrie's career hasn't exactly gone as I expected it would. One of my favorite parts of Kyrie's college game was his on-ball tenacity and generally sound defensive fundamentals -- absolutely NONE of that has been present in his NBA game, and he hasn't really evolved like I'd expected him to. His passing hasn't really taken much of a leap forward, his defense has been pathetic, and he simply hasn't changed much. His rookie season was one of the best rookie seasons in the last decade, but that's comparing amongst rookie seasons -- his rookie season was also arguably his best season, which makes it hard to place where his contract deserved to land. That said? Given the weakness of the East, this max was probably worth it. Cleveland might very well have an all-star locked in for the next five years. And it's not the $20 million dollar max, it's the post-rookie max -- that's a huge difference, and it keeps the contract pretty reasonable. Stability is huge, too -- it's a big step forward for a franchise that's been in a state of constant change since LeBron's departure. GRADE: Several origami shurikens thrown from the back of a moving truck by a pyromaniac who's not too lost to cry.

  • C.J. Miles signs with Indiana on a 4-year, $18 million dollar deal. Much like how the Darren Collison deal depends on their treatment of Isaiah Thomas, my feelings depend on how Indiana's pursuit of Stephenson shakes out. If they retain him, this deal is great -- Miles adds a much-needed pop of scoring and shooting to an Indiana bench that's been unfathomably awful these last few years. If they don't, this deal is somewhat unfortunate -- despite the decent price they got for a good bench option, Miles is never going to replicate what Stephenson brings the Pacers, and he represents a huge step down in their rotation. Still. In a vacuum it's a pretty decent deal. But if it really does end their pursuit of Stephenson, it was a mistake. GRADE: Miles and miles of Gomer Pyle, but everyone's still so thirsty.

  • Patrick Patterson signs with Toronto on a 3-year, $18 million dollar deal. I really like this for Toronto -- Patterson has come a long way since my not-particularly-complimentary player capsule, and getting a young big man with a constantly improving track record on a patently affordable seven-figure annual deal is pretty tough in the modern NBA. Combined with the Lowry move, the cost savings Ujiri pulled off from those two moves should allow him the flexibility to continue adding to Toronto's fringe East-contending roster. Great call. GRADE: Five capitalized "P's" placed next to several capitalized "T's".

  • Devin Harris signs with Dallas on a 3-year, $9 million dollar deal. This is... fine. It's fine. I don't love it, mainly because the Mavericks just lost Jose Calderon and really need another point guard in his place. Harris is better in Dallas than he is anywhere else, as he works well in Carlisle's system and plays well off Dirk. And given that Dallas was a pretty good team last year, continuity is worth something here. But Harris is clearly a step down from the league's contending point guards, and Dallas is going to need a better replacement for Calderon if they intend to contend for the West next year. If they strike out on Melo and LeBron, I'd like to see them go after Isaiah Thomas with their remaining cap space -- he's short, but his three point shot would work well in Dirk's shadow and I have a feeling Monta and Isaiah would be must-see TV. Just an inkling. GRADE: Three musketeers out of all the other superior candy bars you could be eating instead.

  • Zach Randolph signs an extension with Memphis on a 2-year, $20 million dollar deal. Although Randolph is reasonably young (currently 32 years old), I'm a little bit concerned about this deal for Memphis. This extension's $20 million dollar price tag doesn't include this year's $16.5 million dollar salary, meaning the overall picture is more like $36 million for three years of late-career Randolph. And that simply isn't what it used to be. True, Randolph's 2014 was a bit of a throwback campaign -- he had his highest TS% since 2011, highest free throw rate, and higher usage than he'd put up since his days with the Clippers. But his rebounding has continued a worrying downward trajectory and his playoff performance was barely a shell of the game he showed against San Antonio years ago -- against LAC, he barely shot above 40% (40.4) and couldn't even clear 9 rebounds a game despite playing almost 40 minutes a contest. Not ideal. For this contract to make any sense at all, Randolph is going to need to get back in shape and perform at a level fitting with that kind of a salary. The Grizzlies aren't going to have much of a chance at a finals berth otherwise. GRADE: That one old girlfriend you always forget when listing off your dating history.

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

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

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

Posted on Wed 02 July 2014 in Features by Aaron McGuire

stan van gundy

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

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

Let's get to it.

• • •


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

pat riley heat


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •


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

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

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

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

patty patty oi oi

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