Bench Mob Redux: Did OKC Make The Right Moves?

Posted on Fri 20 February 2015 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire


Jacob Harmon is a devoted fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Aaron McGuire is a devoted fan of the trade deadline. Today, Harmon and McGuire's dueling loves came together to form a shockwave that dramatically changed Oklahoma City's stretch run team and grind Twitter to a crumbling halt. Our two analysts will now share their views on the quality of Oklahoma City's acquisitions in a loosely structured back-and-forth.

• • •

Let's start out with what was lost. The Thunder traded away oft-derided big man Kendrick Perkins as well as the disgruntled shoot-first-ask-questions-never Reggie Jackson. In losing these two players, what did OKC give up?

AARON: Simultaneously more and less than you'd think. On its face, it's not that much. Perkins has long been one of the most ragged-on players in the NBA, moreso than almost any rotation player in the league. Less than one year ago, I was slamming his play in an account of the NBA's least-played starters. Reggie Jackson was moderately decent to start the season, but he's fallen off the proverbial cliff in the months since his excellent start and he's been a nonfactor for months. But that's not quite the whole story. Perkins has had one of his best seasons in years with his demotion to the bench. His defense has been better than usual (OKC's defense has been almost 5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court! He's having his best rebounding season in years! OKC GAMES DON'T START WITH A PERKINS POST-UP!!!), and his presence was essential during Durant and Westbrook's absence in the early season when Adams wasn't developing as fast as expected. Jackson has been bad lately, but he's had significant playoff experience in OKC's scheme. It's hard to imagine them having done much better than what they did for Jackson, but I'm much more wary about losing Perkins than I would've been before his bench demotion. Am I off base, Jacob?

JACOB: I don't think so. Reggie's experience and obvious talent aside, he was an unavoidable loss. His relationship with KD and crew has always appeared rocky, but things seemed to have taken a turn towards the toxic this season. It's not hard to see why, and I won't rehash all the details (that we know) of the whole ugly saga. Basically, if Sam Presti sits in a press conference and conspicuously and curtly addresses your departure in all of one sentence, you did not leave a positive legacy. For how he'd been playing and how bad the vibes got, it's hard for me to see Reggie's departure as anything but a gain.

Perkins is another story. It's been all good fun to mock him for his foibles throughout his time in OKC, but everything you said about his role there is absolutely true. He's been legitimately good off the bench this season, handling his diminished role like a true professional and making timely offensive contributions throughout the season. Steven Adams is still developing as a defensive force on the P&R, and he's sidelined for 2-3 more weeks minimum with his broken hand. The Thunder are left fielding a center rotation of Collison, McGary, and Kanter. That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence defensively-speaking.

• • •

Speaking of those acquisitions, let's start going through the players Oklahoma City acquired. We'll begin with the biggest addition. What's Enes Kanter's role on this year's Thunder team? How does he fit going forward?

AARON: Let's start with what Kanter can do. He's a bruiser, offensively. He's a big body. He's great at offensive rebounding. He's got a good post-up game. He doesn't draw fouls particularly often. His passing is, well, passable. Nothing special, but nothing that's going to blow up the world. Those are the positive sides. Unfortunately, he has absolutely no range game -- he shoots 34% beyond 10 feet on shots where defenders are more than a yard away from him. He often gets distracted when he's tasked with defending a play instead of a player, and he gets caught ball-watching badly. His instincts simply aren't very good. He's been improving this season, but that may just drive his price to an untenable high -- there are numerous tales in NBA annals of big men who got it together for a few shining months before a contract only to regress badly when the ink dries.

So... how does he fit with this year's Thunder team? I'm not positive. He might be able to play next to Ibaka if Coach Brooks can bash timing into his brain. But his defense is such a project right now that it's tough to imagine Ibaka fixing all of that. And offensively, he'll force Ibaka to drift farther from the rim to account for Kanter's inability to operate anywhere outside of the rim area. In a vacuum, Kanter is a talent upgrade for this year's team. But swapping out a big man who can't defend for one of OKC's better bench defenders this season is a risky proposition. And it's made more risky when you realize that Kanter's in a contract year. If he plays poorly, they haven't moved the needle on their title chances. If he plays well, they'll probably have to pay him a monstrous amount of money in the offseason just to keep him around. That's rough going.

JACOB: The popular notion has always been that the Thunder need a post-up threat. Kanter is that, and I guess that's why everybody likes this move so much. I'm just... skeptical. You pretty much covered the fit concerns and the limitations with his game. I worry about how Kanter fits in the rotation with a healthy Adams. OKC already has one young developing center with an evolving offensive game, and now they've added another. Adams is a better passer and defender than Kanter, so you'd hope they could co-exist, but since neither of them can function outside of the paint, you can't really play them together. Assuming Brooks sticks with Adams as the starter (as he should), how does Kanter respond? While his complaints with Utah weren't exactly the same as Reggie Jackson's in OKC, there are some concerning similarities, and bold claims from Kanter's agent are enough to give you pause. If he moonlights as the starter for a couple of weeks, then gets relegated back to a bench role for a younger, rawer player, how does he react? I can't pretend to have any close familiarity with the dynamic in Utah, or with Enes as player. But the situation feels a little too familiar for me. If Kanter is happy in OKC, I'm confident in the coaching staff's ability to develop him on the defensive end. I'm just not sure how happy Scott Brooks can make him.

• • •

Moving on to the next most important acquisition -- what can Augustin do for the Thunder?

JACOB: Play his role. I don't really like Augustin's game, but I like the acquisition for the Thunder. Reggie's problem in the back-up point guard role is that he isn't actually a point guard, and when your name isn't Russell Westbrook that's a legitimate criticism. DJ played with KD at Texas, and to the best of my knowledge they're still good friends. You could do worse bringing in friend-of-the-superstar role-players (Royal Ivey). I think some fans are getting a little carried away with their assessment of Augustin's value based on his recent play in Detroit, though. For whatever reason, he seems to have a Kendall Marshall quality to him where he just plays better in a starting role than he does off the bench. His best moments have come in times of increased responsibility, whether it be in Charlotte, Chicago, or Detroit, and now he's going to have to find a way to adjust to a more limited role. But he does fill a necessary role with Reggie gone, and by my estimation still probably gives OKC its best backup floor general since Maynor in 2011, and a marked improvement over Ish Smith (who would've been the alternative). The concern comes in the playoffs, where his size makes him a massive defensive liability. But at 6'3, so was Reggie.

AARON: As you said, I think he'll be a regular season upgrade -- the inherent chemistry he has with KD as former teammates should help him fit in better than any of their other acquisitions. It's sort of like 2012's Diaw acquisition for the Spurs. Diaw played a lot of basketball with Tony Parker in France, and it showed whenever they shared the court. It turned Diaw's acclimation period -- generally a season or so -- into just a few months of regular season hacking. The benefit of shared chemistry is often underrated, and it's going to help Augustin acclimate earlier. The problem comes in the playoffs -- Augustin's playoff record is much worse than most comparable guards, and I don't think it's based on nothing. Augustin is 6'0" -- much shorter than Reggie, even -- with the wingspan of a tyrannosaurus rex. A lot of people point to Augustin's incredible performance in Game 2 of last year's first round series between Chicago and Washington as an example of how Augustin can be effective in the playoffs. Indeed, it was a good night -- he scored 25 points and dished 7 dimes in a 40 minute gem.

One tiny problem: he bageled the last 6 minutes of the game, as Trevor Ariza was able to utterly shut him down and win the game for Washington. Another tiny problem: that game is by far the best playoff game of Augustin's career, and the only particularly good game among them to boot. Augustin shot 11-for-50 from the floor in the other four games of last year's CHI/WAS series, and had 17 assists in the other four games combined. In his best playoff run ever (IND, 2013) Indiana played monstrously worse with Augustin on the court, he shot a TS% of 57%, and his only good series came against a New York Knicks team that had collapsed into itself like an ouroboros one round prior. His 2010 playoff performance in Charlotte is too ghastly to discuss heavily -- he shot 33% from three and 27% from two, and that's about all we need to say about that. If the player is tenacious enough with good enough instincts and a quick enough release (see: Avery Bradley), an undersized player can have a big impact in playoff basketball. But Augustin's prior performance (and lack of mitigating factors for his ills) worries me. It's just markedly easier for defenders to guard players like Augustin in the playoffs, and it's shown in his results. Compound that with his careless defense? If Augustin is playing serious rotation minutes in the playoffs, the Thunder may be in a bit of a pickle.

• • •

And finally, the three point shooters, Singler and Novak.

AARON: Honestly, out of all their acquisitions, these two are the most likable to me. While I readily admit that neither will move the needle in the playoffs, Novak and Singler are the kind of warm body three point marksmen that can inflate regular season win totals. Singler in particular is a decent pickup, an NBA player that can make threes and... well... OK, that's pretty much it. When trying to describe the deadline moves to a casual NBA fan around the water cooler, the only description I could come up with for Singler was "well, Kyle Singler is an NBA player." His status as an NBA player is perhaps the only real distinguishing feature about his game -- his passing is mediocre and his rebounding is relatively anemic. And try not to focus too much on the defense. But he'll shoot open threes and that's about all you need alongside players like Durant and Westbrook in the regular season. As for Novak, he's like Matt Bonner -- he'll win you a game or two when the pace is quick and the opposing teams aren't fully invested, but his shot release is slower than molasses compared to most of the quick-trigger playoff-ready floor spacers. He's not going to make any impact in the playoffs, if he plays at all. But OKC needs to get to the playoffs before they worry about their impact, so I suppose I'm OK with this one -- he'll help them pad the score on bad teams and avoid bad losses.

JACOB: Novak isn't going to play a meaningful minute in the playoffs, and not many more than that in the regular season. Anthony Morrow doesn't get nearly enough minutes as it is, and he's actually a well-rounded NBA player on top of being an elite shooter. If Novak sees a single meaningful minute when Morrow could justifiably be on the floor instead, I'll eat my hat. Singler is a little more interesting. He can't guard anybody, but he's got decent size and he can play the 3 while contributing a measurable NBA skill, which is more than OKC had previously to back up KD. Like Aaron said, he's not going to move the needle in the playoffs. But I'm becoming more and more concerned over the status of Durant's foot, and I get the feeling it's going to be more and more important to have these guys who can spell him time while not being complete non-contributors on the floor. Right now it's Waiters (too small, but for the record, someone I've liked in his time as a Thunder) and Jones (too vague), so Singler will be of some help there.

• • •

Starting to get the sense neither of you liked their pickups that much. Having said all that, what are the positives of today's trade? Try really hard, guys!

JACOB: I've softened on it some as the day has gone on. It now seems that Lopez's representatives had indicated to Presti he had no intent to resign in OKC, so if that's true, I can't bemoan the choice of Kanter over the Nets' offer. The major positive for OKC is that Reggie Jackson has left the building, and the difference was immediately apparent in the Thunder's chemistry against the Mavs. I can't recall Russell and KD ever being so vocal about their distaste for a (now former) teammate, and it seems likely that a weight has been lifted off the locker room's collective shoulders. So the major positive is Reggie Jackson is no longer haunting Chesapeake Arena like some dire spectre of Iago.

It's less that there's a laundry list of complaints for me to voice over the pickups, and more that I'm not sure there's a ton more surefire positives than that. Augustin is likely to be a liability in the playoffs, but probably not worse than the alternative (Ish Smith). Singler will spot KD some minutes, but his defense (and KD's likely increase in minutes) will likely also limit his usefulness in meaningful games. Enes Kanter is a big man whose offense is chained to the paint and who can't play defense in a Western conference filled with bruising offensive big men. He's replacing the team's most effective weapon against those big men. To top it off, his role, and his happiness with it, is a huge question mark going forward. Like I said, it's not that I think this was a bad trade overall, or even that it wasn't a very good haul for a guy who was out the door anyway. I'm just not sure I agree with the popular assessment that this is some huge coup for Oklahoma City. The popular assertion that the Thunder have finally added depth is technically true, I'm just not sure it's going to be meaningful depth.

AARON: You pretty much nailed it. In terms of a simple asset-for-asset swap, this was a really good set of trades for Oklahoma City. Kanter is more talented than Perk in a vacuum. Augustin/Singler/Novak is more useful than Reggie in a vacuum. I'm worried about the non-vacuum portion of the equation, here, but it can't be denied that this is a talent upgrade. They're essentially making a bet that Scott Brooks and his coaching staff can mold Enes Kanter's defense better than Tyrone Corbin and Quin Snyder did. That's not a terrible bet -- Corbin's player development has been notably deficient and Quin Snyder didn't have much time. They also finally added the three point marksmen they've been aiming for -- OKC's in a place where they can regularly put out lineups where 4/5 players on the floor can drain threes. That's going to improve the looks Adams and Kanter get, which should help their offense develop better. And if Lopez wasn't going to re-sign, this may end up a much better trade than the proposed Lopez trade.

• • •


JACOB: A cautious, non-committal B+.

AARON: Honestly? I give it a C+. Asset-wise, it was a great get. I can see why Twitter went nuts over it. But Presti has always taken special care to build his teams with well-aligned character, talents, and fit. I don't know if any of the pieces he acquired will move the needle from a playoff perspective, and I fear that Kanter's acquisition represents a no-win move for Oklahoma City. The point I made earlier bears repeating. If Kanter plays well, they have to max him out and pay him more than they paid Jackson, crippling their opportunity to improve the team in the 2015 offseason. If he doesn't play well, they traded away defense for ill-fitting offense and may be forced Adams to play 36 minutes a night to maintain a playoff caliber defense. Compound that with Augustin's huge playoff struggles and the paucity of minutes available for Singler/Novak, and I'm just not sure what the endgame is here. I'd be much happier with it if they'd kept Perkins, and that's something I literally never thought I'd ever say.

• • •

What do you think about yesterday's huge trades? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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Examining Tony Parker's Curious Decline

Posted on Fri 30 January 2015 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

Tony Parker and Boris Diaw -- two players that are, uh, kinda crappy this year.

Stats for this post were provided by Basketball Reference,, and magical stat pixies.

Look, Tony Parker hasn't been playing very well this season. It doesn't really matter how you look at it. Whether you're looking at an on/off court perspective, basic counting stats, or SportVU-type detailed breakdowns... he's just been rather mediocre. Bad, even. How bad? Let's find out.

• • •


Virtually everyone is aware of the on/off impact that Kawhi Leonard has had this year with the Spurs. When Kawhi's on the court, they've played excellent ball. When he's not, they've been... shaky, to say the least. Fewer are aware of the fact that Tony Parker's on-court presence has been essentially the opposite. With Parker on the court, San Antonio has been outscored by one point. Their defense has been atrocious and their offense has been below par. With Parker off, they've been absolutely excellent, outscoring opponents by 7.6 points. Here are some simple numbers on San Antonio's team performance with Tony Parker on and off the court from the current season:

Tony Parker's On/Off Stats, 2015

Correlation does not equal causation. The fact that the Spurs rebound a little worse with Parker on the floor has very little to do with Parker. But there are a few things that Parker (as San Antonio's primary ballhandler) is directly involved in. The team's shooting (which has been worse with Tony on the floor), the team's assist rate (slightly higher), the team's turnover rate (slightly lower) and the overall offensive rating (which has been 2.4 points worse with Tony on the floor) all have varying degrees of connection with how Tony plays the game. And the defensive rating helps express the massive drop-off between Tony and Cory Joseph (and, frankly, Tony and Patty Mills -- both Patty and Cory have beaten the pants off Tony defensively this year). Put it all together, and you get a not-so-pretty picture. It's been a bad year for Tony. Worse yet, it's part of a trend.

On - Off, last 5 years

This chart shows the on minus off performance in each of the metrics above. As an example, compare the 2015: ON - OFF column to the chart above. Note that eFG is calculated by 0.505 - 0.509 = - 0.004. Same is true of all the columns. Red indicates something that's bad for that column (for instance, the Spurs defended 11.5 points worse per 100 possessions with Tony on the court in the 2010 playoffs), green indicates something good (the Spurs net rating was 20.5 points per 100 possessions better with Tony on the court in the 2012 playoffs), and yellow indicates mediocrity or generally something close to zero. You'll note that with the singular exception of this year's increased on-court assist rate, Parker's play has been more detrimental to the Spurs this year than it's ever been in San Antonio's recent run. The past few years has seen a steady erosion of Parker's value. They've played better with Parker off the court than they have with him on it ever since the 2013 regular season. You know, two years ago.

There are a bunch of mitigating factors that should be considered here. To specify:

  • Parker tends to face starters and San Antonio's bench mob tends to destroy teams off the bench, inflating +/- differences.
  • The playoff numbers from 2010 to 2013 are comparing wildly different minute profiles, as he spent 70%+ of San Antonio's minutes on the floor.
  • Parker suffered injuries in the 2013 playoffs that significantly compromised his value.

All those factors considered, this still isn't good when it comes to this season's performance. Perhaps it's enough to explain and mitigate his performance last year, but not when the difference is as drastic as this year. Parker's performance has also overlapped highly with most of San Antonio's best performers this season, which makes it harder to justify the bench mob talk.

Who's better with Tony?

The minutes columns show the number of minutes the two players have shared, as well as the percentage of the player's minutes that those represent as well as the percentage of Tony's minutes that those represent. The green/underlined number indicates whether the teammate had better on/off impact with Parker on the floor or better overall, using net efficiency per 100 possessions. For instance, the Spurs have outscored teams by 4.0 points per 100 possessions with Duncan on the court, while they've outscored teams by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with Duncan off the court -- hence, their net + / - with Duncan on the floor has been -0.4. With Parker, his net + / - has been +1.3 in 712 minutes, which is higher than Duncan's overall net + / -. Which is good. Duncan/Parker is a better two man team than Duncan alone.

Unfortunately, the same isn't true when you look at almost every other player on the Spurs. Aron Baynes also has had a slightly more positive impact when working in synergy with Parker than he has alone, but results have been worse with Parker than without for everyone else. Danny Green's three pointers drop less when Parker's setting them up. Leonard's defensive impact gets stalled by having to make up for a two-steps-slow Tony. Even the much-ballyhooed French connection with Diaw and Parker has stalled out, with both players playing worse with Parker and Diaw on the floor.

• • •


On/off numbers are great for teasing out lineup impact and basic player influence, but an individual player's per-game box score contributions can shed light on how the player is making his mark on the floor. Or, in Tony's case, how the player is operating well below expectations. Stat-by-stat, relevant ones only:

  • POINTS: Parker is averaging 14.5 points a game. He's currently an unexpected third in PPG on San Antonio's roster, behind Duncan and Leonard. If the average holds, it's the fewest points per night he's produced since his rookie year. If you adjust for San Antonio's slower pace and Parker's fewer minutes, it's a bit better (25.8 PP100), but that still represents Parker's worst scoring season in over a decade.

  • ASSISTS: I need to get this off my chest. Parker has never been a great "assists" point guard__. He's a good workaday passer that operates perfectly in San Antonio's motion offense, but he's never been the kind of player to average 10-12 assists per night with wild passes peppering the proceedings. Spurs fans tend to overrate his passing a bit, assuming that San Antonio's scheme is somehow lowering his assist rate more than any other system would. I disagree with that. All that said, if Parker isn't scoring, you'd expect he'd at least be producing assists at a solid rate. You'd be wrong. Just as with points, he's averaging fewer assists than he has since his rookie year, and on a per-possession basis it's his worst passing year in a decade. His assist rate of 28% ranks 16th among the NBA's 30 regular starting point guards. He's also below three starting shooting guards and one starting forward (hi, LeBron!). That's... less than ideal.

  • TURNOVERS: One of Parker's greatest talents is generally a close-to-ideal defense of the ball. When he's clicking, he doesn't turn it over very often. Except for this season, where he turns it over on 15% of his possessions. That doesn't sound like much, but it's in spitting distance of his career high (17%) and the 10th worst figure among the NBA's 30 starting point guards. If he was averaging last year's 12%, he'd be 4th in the league behind Lowry, Lillard, Burke, and Irving. There's a big difference between his ballhandling last year and this year.

  • SHOOTING: This is the one place where Parker remains high. If I was President Obama, I'd say that "the state of the Parker remains strong." [EDITOR'S NOTE: I am not Obama.] He's 9th among starting point guards in effective field goal percentage, pretty similar to his performance last year. Not too many nits to pick, here, in terms of the overall view. You need to get into his shot distribution for that. Hey, speaking of which...

... let's look at Tony's shot selection! At a high level, examine the evolution of Tony's shot distribution.

Parker's shot distribution

Once again, it's trending in a bad direction. He's having more trouble getting to the rim this year than he's ever had in his career, and he's relying more and more on his long range game. One could argue that part of the reason for this is his absurdly good three point bombing this season -- Parker's made over 50% of his shots from three this year, nearly 15 points higher than his previous career high over a season. Early in the year, this was a source of solace for Spurs fans eager to consider the possibility that Parker had added a shot to his repertoire.

Count me as a naysayer. Watch some of his threes on the NBA Stats Site -- he's draining wide open threes, as he's always done, but he's still got the same weird hitch in his shot that kept him from being a volume shooter from beyond the arc. It's part of what traditionally makes him so good at long twos, but it's always thrown off his three point shot whenever there's an ounce of pressure. Over 50% of Parker's three point shots come with over 6 feet of space. Sometimes a player will go on a good run and inflate their stats. That's my take on Tony's aberrational three point gunning. Nothing in his form has changed so much that I'd expect him to make that kind of a percentage on his threes. And from a playoffs perspective, it's wildly unlikely he'll be looking at shots that open against any reasonable defense. Parker's improved three point shooting can help carry his regular season stats, but it's not going to be much of a boon come playoff time.

• • •


This post is already going a bit long, so I'll make this part short. Here are a few nuggets from his SportsVU profile that stand out.


  • Tony Parker has been widely known to be one of the fastest players in the NBA. This is still true. In terms of distance traveled per 48 minutes (my favorite of the speed metrics), Parker is leading the league at 3.8 miles traveled per 48 minutes. That leads the league, and (somewhat inexplicably) is actually better than he did last season.

  • Danny Green and Tim Duncan are shooting better off Parker's passes (47% and 55%, respectively) than they did in 2014 (41% and 42%, respectively). He's finding them in better spots than he did last year, which is nice. (As an aside, this is part of why Duncan's on/off numbers are better with Parker around -- Parker's doing a MUCH better job setting him up than Patty or Cory, which makes the offense run better with both of them in sync.)


  • Although Parker is shooting a bit better on quick shots with few dribbles, he's shooting worse and more often with 3 or more dribbles before the shot. This jives with what most Spurs fans have seen. San Antonio's offense has been a lot more stopped up this year, with more dribbling and freelancing over last year's pinpoint execution of the best possible shot. The fact that he's not only shooting more often from those situations but also shooting WORSE is a bad sign.

  • Boris Diaw is only shooting 40% off of Tony Parker passes. Last year he shot 52% off Parker's passes. Part of this is because Diaw is proportionally more three point attempts off Parker's passes, but only part of it -- he's only shooting 23% on three point tries that come off of Parker passes (as opposed to 46% last year), so it's obviously not just a proportion issue.

  • Tony Parker used to be one of the NBA's best guys at getting the "old-fashioned" three point play (a two-point basket and the foul) -- as recently as 2013 he was getting one old-fashioned and-1 opportunity every two games he played. Last year was a bad year for Parker when it came to and-ones, but this year is straight up ridiculous -- he's only had seven opportunities through 33 games. He simply isn't absorbing contact like he used to, which is messing up his offensive flow and making it harder for him to finish at the rim on the whole. Part of this is the injury, but last year's poor numbers (just 19 and-1s all year) may imply that this is part of his evolution as an aging player. Which would be bad, as this kind of high-impact driving was once his bread and butter.

  • Players defended by Tony Parker are shooting 72% at the rim. Not a typo. They're also getting there more often than last year (18% of Tony's defensive possessions as opposed to 13% last year). That's... less than ideal. Parker's never been a defensive stalwart. But he's rarely been quite this bad. Players are shooting ~4% better against Parker than they shoot on average, which is the difference between the best shooting point guard (Stephen Curry) and the 10th best (Mike Conley). Goes a decent distance in explaining why Parker's man keeps going off, doesn't it?

• • •

Some terrible, awful, atrocious analysts have spat obscenities and foretold doom about Parker's play before. He's generally made them look silly. In fact, he's made them look SO silly in the past that people often seem tentative to criticize his play. Much like the Spurs as a whole, there's a decided hesitance to call Parker on his poor play. The guiding assumption is that Parker is eventually going to stave off the cobwebs and return to his scintillating performances he's known for. And articles pointing out his poor return from injury or his tentative steps are going to be out of date in no time flat.

Individually, none of these stats are gospel. Indeed, there are reasonable contextual reasons you could expect one or two of them to underrate or overrate a player like Tony. This post may make me look silly a month from now if Parker comes back in full force. But taken all together the picture is clear -- Parker's performance is flagging fast. If the Spurs intend to make a serious run at a repeat, they're going to need him to put his game back together.

One final thought. When Parker signed his extension at $14 million dollars a year, the prevailing idea was that San Antonio had snagged a huge bargain. If Parker doesn't shape up, that simply isn't true. Given the glut of incredible point guards in the league, $14 million a year doesn't sound particularly enticing for a barely-above-board point guard. Which, frankly, is how he's playing. In all likelihood, Parker will improve. If not, though, his contract will stand as yet another of the NBA's "great at the time, awful in retrospect" contracts that make many of our snap judgments on contract efficacy so retrospectively silly.

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The NBA Bouillon Report: Whose Stock is Boiling?

Posted on Fri 21 November 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire


NOTE: Technically, broth and stock are different things. I realize this. For the purposes of this post, I am also totally ignoring this important fact. Sorry, foodies.

Boullion is one of my favorite things. Nah, not the boxed stuff -- the real deal. The kinds of stay-at-home stocks that take a ton of hands-on effort, where you buy a ton of aromatics and simmer off a beautiful homemade stock that brightens every soup or reduction you make in subsequent weeks. (Or, if you're not a vegetarian, the kind where you buy a bunch of unloved chicken pieces and some gelatin and turn it into God's gift to liquids.) That's my jam. You can't always have a stay-at-home stock, of course -- sometimes you need to resort to boxed stocks. Oftentimes you have to resort to bouillon cubes, those overly salty flavor bases without texture or complexity. Sometimes, in darker hours still, you find yourself in a kitchen bereft of any of better option and need to resort to canned stock. Those are the hard times. The painful hours.

Similarly, the NBA is one of my favorite things. If you look hard enough, you can find a similar hierarchy among the NBA's landscape. You have the teams spinning full-force brilliance on a nightly basis, putting up best-in-class entertainment with unmistakable style. You have the imitations, too -- the teams that are ALMOST there, but lack the creativity and pizzazz to make that last leap. You have the workaday teams that are a bit too salty and a bit too drab but good enough for a simple soup. You have the teams whose inspiration and guile seem to come from the world's worst can of Campbell's soup. And you have the teams who are, for all intents and purposes, not stock at all. (Looking at you, Philly.)

In this post, I will isolate one man's opinion about the varied classes of stock in our noble league. Who's home-made? Who's a suitable workaday stock from a box? Who's a salty over-seasoned mess? I'll highlight one representative example from each class and split the rest of the league between these slightly confusing tiers of watchability and talent. The league's stock is coming to a boil, and it's time to take its temperature... because it depends on your altitude, since boiling point changes with altitude. This is the stock report everyone wants to read in the winter. Jim Cramer, eat your heart out.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: The crème de la crème of stock. Lightly simmered and carefully constructed, the perfect home-made stock is rich without the overpowering saltiness of its lesser iterations. Perfect for virtually every cooking application you can imagine using broth in, and perfect for a few things you can't. This is the stock you can't miss.

If I'm looking for the 2015 season's best overall experience, I'd have to start with the Golden State Warriors. They've got it it all. They've got the fundamentals at their back, with a compelling west-heavy schedule and a competitive division race against the Los Angeles Clippers. They play fun basketball, pushing the tempo at the NBA's fastest pace and featuring (in this man's opinion) the most entertaining player in the NBA's top five with Stephen Curry. His three point accuracy is legendary, and even his dumbest game-by-game mistakes (his often inane turnovers) are fun to watch in a slapstick comedy sort of way. They feature two of the NBA's best defensive players (Bogut/Iguodala), both of whom are fun to watch even when their offense is flailing. They feature Klay Thompson, who's been the NBA's best shooting guard in the early reaches of the season. And they feature one of the best uniforms in the league. As a full package, the Warriors are almost unbeatable. So they'd head up this category. As with real life, home-made stock is hard to come by. There aren't that many other teams that deserve this lofty designation.

The only other two that come to mind: The Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks. Neither of them are quite as good of a team as the Warriors, at least in the early season, but they're very nearly as entertaining. The Warriors generally win on the strength of their defense -- Portland and Dallas both claim a blitzing offensive attack as a mark of their triumph, and it's been a lot of fun to watch. Portland's offense is roughly the same as last year, bolstered slightly by an improved bench and some inspired play from the fill-ins for their stars. (Really, Stotts was able to fill Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard for Batum and Aldridge off a few recent injuries. Everyone's getting better!) As with the Warriors, they're a full package -- contention, watchability, and interesting (if not perfect) play on both ends of the floor. The Blazers don't have nearly the defensive chops that Golden State sports, but this year they've upped the help defense and shored up some of their larger-scale defensive problems that torpedoed them against the Spurs last year, and they're a tiny bit more balanced. They're a team to watch.

The Mavericks are a special case. Part of what makes them so interesting is their utterly horrible defense -- I'd consider Dallas one of the league's best bouillon teams regardless. Their offense is that good. The distance between Dallas' top offense and the #2 offense in the league (Toronto) is equivalent to the distance between Toronto and league average (Memphis). They're playing offense on an entirely different level than anyone else right now, and exceptional edge cases like that can override a few serious flaws. Also, as noted above, fulfillment and failure are never completely separate. It's not simply THAT you fail, it's HOW you fail. From that perspective, Dallas fails in a way that's fun to watch -- you're almost always looking at the opposing team's best foot forward on offense, and their defense is so bad that it circles around and becomes fun. A must-watch.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: When you're looking for stock, boxed stock is usually your second best bet. Absent the tinny flavor of canned stock, boxed stock generally doesn't last quite as long (not as many preservatives) but the grotesque aftertaste fades. Hardly perfect, but good in a pinch. For this definition, we're going with the best possible boxed stocks, the ones where you can taste the different ingredients that went into the stock and reduce it a bit without turning your food into a salty mess.

When you're trying to analyze a league or a group through weird analogies, it's usually pretty easy to identify a league's best-of-the-best and the worst-of-the-worst. It's much tougher to look at the landscape and figure out the gradations between those two designations, especially since the best and the worst encompass only 4-5 teams. Never fear, however -- in the early season, there are a few distinct classes of teams within the "not quite home-made stock, but certainly not bad" designation. To wit:

  • The Title Chasers -- These are the ones that aren't quite the must-watch, must-digest teams as the perfect three above, but they're title-chasing teams with serious aspirations and serious talent. The Houston Rockets aren't nearly as watchable as the above teams, but they've been downright excellent on the defensive end this year with Ariza spotting Parsons' old minutes and a rejuvenated Dwight Howard. They're not a must-watch (no contender that depends on foul shots and James Harden is), but they're a strong team and a great choice for a random night game. Memphis is very nearly in the above bucket, as their defense/offense mix has been about as close to my platonic ideal of a defensive juggernaut as it could possibly be. I love Gasol, I love Z-Bo, I love Conley. They're great. Maybe they belong in the above category, actually.

  • The Young Upstarts -- This list is highlighted by Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans, who serve as one of the league's most entertaining teams with Davis on the court and one of the league's most mediocre with Davis on the bench. The entertainment they provide is almost entirely related to the amount of Anthony Davis on your TV screen. Nature of the beast. You also have the Raptors, a hard-to-believe-in yet delightfully tame group of players that look likely to snag a top-4 seed and a better playoff run than last year's disappointing bow-out. The Kings are much like the Pelicans -- terrible without DeMarcus Cousins on the court, a must-watch with Boogie at the helm. (NOTE: There will be more on the Kings. I love these Kings.)

  • The Hopeless Scamps -- These teams kind of suck, but they're really entertaining and interesting regardless. Start with the Boston Celtics, who've been a surprisingly fun watch. They go heavy on the passing (as you'd expect from a Rondo team) and have several delightful pet plays for well-designed layup conversions. Very fun. The Pacers are in this box too, although I get the feeling I'm alone on the "Indiana is fun!" train. Watching Solomon Hill do work as a team's leading light is one of the weirdest things going in the NBA this season, and Roy Hibbert has been absolutely amazing for them. No, really. Look at his statlines, and watch a few Pacers game. He's absolutely carrying their defense on his shoulders right now. It's impressive. And he's doing it without most of his best running mates. He deserves an all-star spot (or DPoY) even more right now than he did last season. The Charlotte Hornets have been really atrocious this season, but as expected, their confluence of talent is solid and the overall product is intriguing. Cody Zeller is quietly developing into an actual NBA talent (his two-man game with Lance Stephenson is one of the neater things about these Hornets) and even though they look like a pretty awful team they play with an odd style that makes them fun and engaging. Finally? The Utah Jazz. They've been bad-but-entertaining, with Quin Snyder's rotations a refreshing exultation of Utah's best players instead of the constant veteran-emphasized lineups Tyrone Corbin tortured Jazz fans with for years. Hayward has been surprisingly good, Dante Exum is fun, and... let's just not talk about Trey Burke, thanks.

The world of boxed stocks is dangerous. It's hardly as can't-lose as a well-crafted homemade blend, and although there are good ones, there are some real problem children among them. But you can find some beauty if you look hard enough, and there's usually one or two delightful notes in any boxed stock worth its salt. Drink these teams, readers. Drink without regret.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: The nice thing about bouillon cubes? They last. You can keep a box of bouillon cubes in the cabinet for months or even years at a time. The highly concentrated vegetable/chicken/beef dust of a bouillon cube reconstitutes into a salty stock when you add boiling water. It's almost magic. Only ALMOST, though. The final result almost invariably tastes like it came from a cube, and it's worse off for it. Good in a pinch, but bad to rely on.

This section is much smaller than the above section, because the main identifying feature of a bouillon cube as compared to a boxed stock or canned stock is the delightfully long storage period. Liquid stock simply doesn't last as long -- even if canned stock is usable after its expiration, it takes on a progressively more metal taste as time goes on and it absorbs flavor from its packaging. And boxed stock necessarily can't last quite as long as either of them. Ergo, cubes represent the intersection of canned stock and boxed stock, not quite good enough to make out the different flavors but a fair step above the worst of your stock options. Before the fans kill me, I'M NOT SAYING ANY OF THESE TEAMS SUCK. They're good teams. But as of yet, they're unfinished products whose results will make much more sense in retrospect than they do in-the-now. And for various reasons, they're all kind of crappy teams to watch at the moment, even if we all expect they'll have more lasting flavor than some of the above teams. Hence, the NBA's three bouillon cubes:

  • SAN ANTONIO SPURS -- The Spurs entered the 2015 season incredibly banged up and sloppy. Eleven games later, they remain... well, incredibly banged up and sloppy. The Spurs offense has been effectively broken to date in the 2015 season. They run the same actions that got them open shots during the 2015 run, but without Patty/Marco/Tiago, the finishers on the end of those actions can't drain the open shots the system generates. As the team's offense grows more and more frustrated with the clanked open shots, the offense breaks into isolations and the same idiotic one-on-one play that Spurs fans chide Kobe for. Defensively, San Antonio has been fantastic. But truly judging San Antonio's play (and, frankly, enjoying what they've done) is going to have to wait for the Spurs to get healthy. And the playoffs, if we're honest. The true measure of San Antonio's season comes in the title defense, and that hardly starts until the ides of April.

  • LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS -- The Spurs have a really good excuse for looking lethargic. They entered the season banged up and dealing with the after-effects of a title-winning season. The Clippers have no such excuse. Count me as one of the dozens of people who felt the Clippers would run away with a top-3 seed in the West this year -- with Paul, Griffin, Doc, and another year of continuity, it was tough to see a universe where the Clippers didn't start the season off like world-beaters. Theory, meet reality. Griffin looks worse than last year, with his shot more than a little bit busted and his energy level on the boards virtually absent. And Chris Paul's aggression level is lower than it's been in years -- he's driving less, shooting less, and making more conservative passes than last year. Unlike 2012, though, he doesn't have Eric Bledsoe to rely on when he's feeling tepid. The overall picture is fine for L.A. -- they have all the fundamental pieces of a contender, and there's little reason to think they won't right the ship at some point. They've got a top-10 SRS rating despite their mediocre start, and as the schedule eases up it's easy to imagine them going on a run. They just need to do it.

  • CLEVELAND CAVALIERS -- I could imagine this Cavs team being one of the best watches in the league for any NBA beatnik who's a big fan of schadenfreude. After all, few teams in history have been quite as highly hyped as this year's Cavs team, and they've started out as a surprisingly mediocre unit. Their defense is pathetic and their offense -- while good -- isn't anything world-beating like this year's Dallas team. As everyone states ad infinitum, "the talent is there." Love, LeBron, Irving, Varejao, and Waiters should combine to make a better top 5 than they've shown to date. Thompson, Dellavedova, Marion, Miller, Harris, Haywood -- that depth is decent, and the fact that Blatt hasn't been able to put together a coherent rotation with that much offensive talent is somewhat disappointing. Still, I don't think Cleveland's incoherence will last the whole year. Their talent and potential is too damn high, just like the rent. They'll be there in the playoffs, even if they aren't good enough to win a title. (Because, let's be honest here, they aren't -- they're going to need a massive shot in the arm on defense if they want to be a title-winning team. They simply aren't there yet.)

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: The bottom of the barrel. Canned stock is gross. It's overly salty to help it preserve longer, and it has no real inherent flavor of its own. As Ms. Humes discovered in her exposè on the different types of chicken broth, canned broth can have a deceptively rich first sip before the aftertaste mellows on your tongue and you realize MSG is the #1 ingredient. And take it from a vegetarian -- the story is even worse with vegetable broth, with the canned stuff tasting like liquified burnt rubber. Just disgusting stuff.

You know how you could theoretically create a serviceable homemade soup with 1 or 2 boiled vegetable or meat elements in any of the above stocks? You can't really do that with canned stock. If I'm forced to use canned stock in my cooking, I try and douse it with herbs and spices, and generally use only a few drops of it as I rely on my aromatics to seize the day and carry me to the promised land. The teams in this designation (... a lot of them, let's be honest) can't hope to carry your TV night by themselves. They've played truly uninspired basketball to date in the 2015 season. You can make a dish with these teams, but you have to add some other things too.

Like... copious amounts of alcohol. Gambling. All-encompassing fandom for any of these 14 teams. You need to do SOMETHING else. Because as a non-fan, watching games between these teams is sort of like pulling teeth, at least so far. And I have to emphasize this -- uninspired is not simply a synonym for "bad." There are good teams here too. But they've all been uninteresting above all things, at least to these eyes, and their performance has been (in most cases) disappointing and drab. To wit, the teams in this designation (ordered by SRS):

  • Chicago Bulls. Offense is better with Pau in the fold, but their defense has fallen to mediocrity with Pau on the court and their offense simply isn't better enough to make up for it. They're a decent team, but they're a thoroughly uninteresting one to date.

  • Phoenix Suns. Part of this is last year's impressive performance making this year seem worse, yeah. But without Channing Frye this team is simply not as fun as they used to be. The slash brothers are still fun to watch, and Isaiah Thomas is a nice addition. But their schemes are much more traditional and they aren't taking anyone by surprise anymore. Sorry, Phoenix. The Kings replaced you.

  • Washington Wizards. With Beal back, I think the Wizards are going to jump up to the boxed broth. They're gonna evolve. They just haven't quite yet -- Wizards games have been fun if you're a Wizards fan but droll if you're anyone else, as Washington has become surprisingly over-reliant on throwback seasons from Paul Pierce, Rasual Butler, and Kris Humphries (as well as, obviously, relying on John Wall to be the brilliant star he is.) They're a good team, for sure, and I'd say they're probably better than the Raptors. But they aren't particularly entertaining yet.

  • Miami Heat. The Heat are a little odd -- when they're fully healthy and rolling, they're a fantastic team. Fun to watch, and their offense is a good approximation of their dynastic spoils. Their problem is the same reason LeBron may have been better off leaving for Cleveland -- they simply have no depth. They have 3-4 legitimate NBA players and the rest of the roster is liquid garbage, which leads to large swaths of each game where the Heat look like absolute crap. If they make the playoffs and everyone's healthy, I could imagine the Heat going on a tiny run in the East and possibly making the second round. But a roster this thin is going to have trouble going over 0.500 in a full season. They simply can't take injury.

  • Brooklyn Nets. Lionel Hollins isn't my favorite coach, and I don't like their roster. My most enjoyable Brooklyn moment this season was when Joe Johnson went nuclear over the Pistons. That's pretty much it. J.J. is pretty good, Deron is pretty meh, and the entire roster is older than Samson's toenail. That's about the size of it.

  • Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks aren't bad at all, and I wouldn't be particularly shocked if they ended up with a top-5 seed in the East. Millsap and Horford fit together as well as they were projected to last season, Teague is having a down year that isn't that bad, and Korver is as game-changing as always. All that said? Until San Antonio's inevitable fall from grace, if I want to watch the Spurs, I'll watch the Spurs. Budenholzer's mini-me system works really well, but it's still an imitation of something I'd rather watch instead.

  • Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks aren't nearly as good as their record, and when their schedule coagulates they're going to fall off hard. But they're fun. Giannis is really good, Jabari is a decent rook, and the overall roster is finally starting to make sense with Larry Sanders back in full form. They're a team to watch for the future, but that future isn't quite here yet.

  • Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are 2-0 since Kevin Arnovitz posted his excellent summary of the franchise. Don't let the 2-0 fool you -- these Nuggets are bad news, and Kevin's summary is a must-read that effectively summarizes their season to date. Just read that.

  • Los Angeles Lakers. No big fan, but... I really wish Kobe didn't have to end like this.

  • Orlando Magic. COME BACK, HOME DIPO!

  • Oklahoma City Thunder. My tears are made of blood.

  • Minnesota Timberwolves. I wish Thaddeus Young was more enjoyable to watch as his team's only star.

  • Detroit Pistons. Stan Van Gundy (the coach) should probably fire Stan Van Gundy (the GM).

  • New York Knicks. The Knicks would have one of the league's most entertaining teams if the NBA was played as a one-on-one league against each team's best player. The Knicks would also have one of the league's most entertaining teams if basketball was a competition of who has the best hair in the league. Unfortunately, basketball is neither of these things.

• • •


STOCK DEFINITION: This is not a stock.

No, boiling water isn't stock. It really, really isn't. If you go to a restaurant and are served a plate with naught but boiling water, you will complain. Because it's not stock, it's not soup, it's not... anything, really. It's just boiling water. It's fundamentally separated from our idea of a flavor base because it is inherently lacking in flavor. Hot water thrives off the absence of flavor, not an abundance of it.

So, obviously, that's your Sixers. Welcome to the 2015 season, Philadelphia!


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NBA Awards Preview 2015: What's in the Cards?

Posted on Tue 28 October 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.28.58 PM

I hate click-bait article titles. As such, before we get into this post, I want to answer the question I posed.

Q: "What's in the Cards?" -- Aaron McGuire, minutes ago.

A: Nothing. They are a baseball team, not a storage receptacle.

Glad to get that cleared up. Now, since we've reached the absolute final day of the offseason, let's quickly run down a season-preview type post where I emerge from the murky depths to share the precognitive ramblings of a dying goat (EDITOR'S NOTE: Me) relayed through ticker tape by a starving artist (EDITOR'S NOTE: Also me) whose exploits are relayed humbly through a website built on the exploits of giant anthropomorphic ants (EDITOR'S NOTE: That's also m--wait, that's not me, who let an anthropomorphic ant into my blog's masthead? Dewey, I'm disappointed in you.) I will award the season-ending awards of the 2015 season before a single game has been played, and as an added bonus, I'll tack on some alternate reality awards. You know, just in case the NBA gets a lot weirder before the 2015 season ends.

• • •


For LeBron James to avoid winning an MVP award this season, things are going to need to go awfully wrong for the Cavaliers. His primary opponents in the MVP chase include a superstar who's going to miss 15-20 games of the season, a two-headed star combo where nobody can agree on the superior player, a defense-challenged point guard whose team generally wins on the defensive end of the floor, a 36-year-old German whose role will be chopped back as the year goes on, and a guy who shot 15/59 in FIBA play this summer. So... yeah. I think LeBron's probably got this.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Moist Valuable Player, awarded to the sweatiest player in the NBA. I'm going with Zach Randolph.


There's a lot more uncertainty than usual in the predictions for this one. Noel is my pick, simply because I don't see Wiggins, Parker, or Exum putting up world-beating stats for any of their teams. Wiggins is going to spend most of the season learning NBA speed, and Parker might end up marginally rotation-buried on a dismal Bucks team. Exum looks like a quality player, but he'll be defended by the other team's best defender on a nightly basis and will be prying his trade in the defensively pesky West. On the other hand, Noel exists in a position of scarcity in a conference generally lacking premier big-man defenders. He'll get ample minutes and he'll be playing for a team that plays fast-paced stat-padding basketball. I wouldn't be shocked if he put up a shimmering 13-9-3 type line with reasonable percentages and decent defense, and I have a feeling a line like that could eke out the award this year.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Wookie of the Year, awarded to the most luxurious body hair in the NBA. I'm taking the long view and assuming that this will be the year that Nikola Pekovic tries growing a playoff beard. His body hair will then gain sentience. When detached, it will serve double-time as the antagonist in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It will also wear stupid hats and star in a crummy NBC drama. It's gonna be a really weird year for Nikola Pekovic's sentient body hair.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Rick Carlisle (DAL)

Dallas is going to be really, really good this year. They won 49 games last season in a brutal Western gauntlet and upgraded just about every position on the floor. Their bench looks better, their starters look better (...outside of PG), and their army of options meshes really well with Carlisle's coaching style. He likes giving opponents different looks and different defensive flows depending on the needs of the game -- with his versatile multi-punch roster, he should be able to keep opponents on their toes for most of the season. Don't be surprised if Dallas schemes their way into a few crazy wins on strategy and gamesmanship alone. I mean, alright, you should be a LITTLE surprised if they win the game entirely without playing the game of basketball, but that's not what I meant.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Paunch of the Year, awarded to the player who entered the year in decent shape and ends it with more chins than playoff wins. The problem with this award is that you need to find someone who started the season in good shape but is a strong candidate to completely fall apart physically due to disinterest and dismay. Let's go with Caron Butler!


Generally, I have an issue naming incoming sophomores as the league's most improved player. It may be true, but almost every rookie improves by leaps and bounds after their first season in the league, and the sophomore jump can hardly be considered a revolutionizing charge. On the other hand, the MIP award is the most nebulous of the NBA's season-ending accoutrements, and it's hard to take it all that seriously regardless. And very few rookies have ever been as bad as Anthony Bennett was in 2014. If Bennett puts up a season that's legitimately deserving of a spot on all-star weekend's all-sophomore team, he'll have a strong case for deserving this award.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Most Improved Playa, awarded to the beach that undergoes the most improvement over the course of the 2015 season. Congratulations to Mylopotas Beach in Ios, you are Gothic Ginobili's pick for MIP!


Call it a hunch. Call it a guess. Call it crazy. But don't call it a comeback. Bogut has been one of the finest defensive centers in the league for much of his career, and Golden State has given him one of the most unlikely jumping-off points for showing it to the world. Last year's Golden State team made its bread on defense, a surprise to any casual NBA fan who's primary exposure to Oakland's fast-paced history came at the hands of Run TMC, Don Nelson, or the Curry/Monta/Lee incarnation of the current team that aimed for the playoffs before Bogut's arrival. Marc Jackson got a lot of credit for their revolutionized schemes, and he deserved a decent bit. So too did Draymond Green, whose underrated defensive strength allows Bogut to stay within a smaller range of the court during active defensive possessions and save his legs for the playoffs. If Bogut can stay healthy this year, his efforts are likely to lead the Warriors to a top-5 defensive unit. That'll deserve a DPoY nod.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Pensive Player of the Year, for the most thoughtful NBA player of the year. Jaden Smith wins this award. I mean, come on. Will Smith has an ownership stake in the Sixers, and the Sixers would EASILY be a more entertaining team if Jaden Smith was on the court. I'm just going to pick this award aspirationally and hope with all my heart that Jaden laces it up this season. As a wise man once said, "Once All 100% Is Neglected You Have A Citizen. A Walking Zombie Who Criticizes Every Thing They See. Have Fun Its A Really Awesome Place."

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Richard Jefferson (DAL)

Aaron, don't delete this. I wrote something about RJ. It's really awesome and I want to share it. Okay, so in honor of NaNoWriMo (uh... crap it's only the 28th, uh... let's roll with it), I have written a novelization of Richard Jefferson's upcoming season with the Mavericks. Unfortunately, all but the first and last paragraphs were destroyed in an oddly-specific fire that I may have started, in a momentary fugue of mercy and compassion. Following are those paragraphs.

Call me Richard. Well, I suppose you'd already planned to, here in Dallas. My childish nickname being RJ, and my given name Richard Jefferson, my veteran tongue would make of both names nothing longer or more absurd than Richard. So I called myself Richard, you know, and came to be called Richard. We were somewhere in Golden State when the small forward rotation began to take hold. I would be, you know, the back-up to Chandler Parsons. Every starter is happy; every backup is unhappy with his minutes in a different way. I had high hopes for this season; the Galactic Empire was dying in San Antonio. The most merciful thing in the world, you know, is the inability of the basketball veteran's mind to simultaneously take stock of all his injuries. It is a truth universally acknowledged, you know, that a veteran in possession of a good fortune and free agency must be in want of a contender. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this baller Dirk.


Don't ever tell anybody you're retiring. If you do, you start missing everybody. Heh. After a while I went out and left the ring ceremony and walked to the hotel in the sun. Tomorrow is, you know, another day. Dirk believed in the green light on the break, the orgastic crowd that year by year increases among us. Rings eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine June evening--

So we beat on, shots against the backboard, bounced back ceaselessly into the net.

So, this is actually just the start of what I wanted to write about Richard Jefferson today, Aaron. I have at least 1500 more words of equal caliber that I wish to share with



Most of the usual suspects for this award are conspicuously absent or hobbled this season. Quietly, the quickly-aging Jamal Crawford has been getting a bit worse over the last few years with Los Angeles, and his poor performance against Oklahoma City was one of the tipping points that cost L.A. the series. He'd have to have a pretty incredible regular season to offset the poor taste left from his uninspiring playoff woes last year. There's also a distinct possibility that L.A.'s gaping roster wound at the three-spot forces Doc Rivers to experiment with a three-guard starting lineup that features Crawford as a starter for large portions of the season. Manu Ginobili is coming back from a fracture, and chances are slim he'll stay healthy long enough to put up a serious challenge for the hardware. Taj Gibson is likely to start for much of the season, Markieff Morris is likely to step into Channing Frye's starting spot, and Reggie Jackson's offense might be needed in the first unit as well. So why not Isaiah Thomas, the obvious odd man out in Phoenix's curious three-headed-hydra at the point? He's a burst scorer, he's unlikely to start, and he's going to have to prove he deserves the playing time he gets.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Simple Plan of the Year, awarded to the NBA player most likely to play Simple Plan's rendition of the Scooby Doo theme song for their first dance on their wedding day. Let's go with Matt Bonner. Sure, he's already married. But people can reaffirm their vows any time they want to. And I have no doubt that if Matt Bonner REALLY thought about it, he'd realize that his best course of action is to reaffirm his vows to the dulcet tunes of Simple Plan's Scooby Doo theme song. His new wedding cake can be in the shape of a giant hoagie. He can dress up as a perfect Shaggy. The question isn't when, it's "why hasn't it happened already?"

• • •

Hey, all! Glad to be back. I'm going to try and pull out one to two posts a week now that the season is back. Enjoy tonight's slate.

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Lost in Vegas: Who Sources the Sourcemen?

Posted on Wed 23 July 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

Every time I walked into this place, "Return of the Mack" played on repeat in my head.

This is the second of a two-part dispatch from the 2014 Summer League. For the first part, see this post.

As I discussed yesterday, my approach to this year's summer league only gave me two days of games and analysis. The second day was a quick two-game slate, starting with a rough-and-tumble grinder between the Rockets and the Hornets. They were playing for a spot in the summer league finals the next day. Somewhat inexplicably, both teams were pretty into the game -- there was at least a cursory effort on the floor, despite the obvious boredom of the coaches and the few remaining agents. Among my favorite examples to the point: near the end of the game, one of the refs completely missed a call on a ball out of bounds play -- Isaiah Canaan and Donatas Montejunas proceeded to SCREAM at the refs and throw their best Duncan bug eyes, pointing incredulously at the ball and various body parts.

Amusingly, the ref just flashed a smile and told them to calm down, reversing the call almost immediately. It's almost like the refs only cared insofar as the players could make them care. Given the quick turnaround on the call (despite the fact that none of the other refs seemed to be present), one wonders if a player like Kevin Garnett or Chris Paul (any obnoxiously vicious competitor, really) probably could've talked himself into 20-30 free throws if they actually cared about winning the contest. "Ref, I'm the only guy who really gives a crap about this game. Free throws, please!"

It became essentially impossible to pay attention to the simplistic and poorly-executed sets being played by both teams after a few minutes of the day's action, which led to me paying a bit more attention to one of my old college favorites: Andre Dawkins. See, okay. I went to Duke. I'm not the biggest fan of my alma mater in the world, and that's putting it lightly. Coach Krzyzewski once hissed at me at a game. I don't think I'm allowed to sit in the student section anymore. But Dawkins was one of the dudes I liked. He had a good head on his shoulders, and was in the same dorm as one of my best friends. Where a lot of the Duke team acted like they were above the rest of the student body (... and yeah, let's be honest, they were!), Dawkins was soft spoken and easy to get along with. An adorably nice kid on a team of people who were generally pretty difficult to talk to. So I've been at least marginally familiar with his game since he arrived at Duke.

I could be totally wrong, but I think he'll make a deep-rotation NBA player at some point. His three point shot is just so functionally pure, I can't imagine he won't get a shot. It's one of the quickest releases I've ever seen, and he can get it off under significant duress. He's also good at slithering without the ball -- he sneaks through seams as well as anyone. Of course, he can't defend worth anything, which dramatically lowers his NBA potential. And he somehow managed to amass a handful of technicals during his time in Vegas (... technicals in summer league! TECHNICALS IN SUMMER LEAGUE!!), so perhaps that soft spoken moniker doesn't apply to him anymore. But a shooter as good as him with passable NBA size has a place in the league on a minimum contract, and I'd be shocked if he didn't end up there. Of course, he also was kept out of Houston's crunch time lineup in a close game against summer league competition, so I could be vastly overstating this.

Aw, heck. I probably am. Love you anyway, Dre.

• • •

The second game of the day -- and the final game of my 2014 Summer League experience -- was a lethargic contest between the Sacramento Champs-in-Waiting (Congrats, Sactown!) and the exhausted Wizards. There were a few things that stood out. For starters, Ben McLemore needs to get better at catching the ball. He doesn't seem to have a good sense of where his hands should be, and it makes passes in his general direction a risky proposition. This was partly obvious because he wasn't receiving great passes, but there were a lot of missed directional reads on his end. Too many to ignore. Another obvious part of the game: the Wizards weren't really ready to play again. Washington started the game with the first two points and held tight for 2-3 minutes, but they ended the first quarter down 18-11 and quickly went down 28-11 within 90 seconds of the second quarter. It's almost like playing a triple overtime game the night before at a league you don't want to be at isn't conducive to a great semifinals performance. Who'd have thought?

Beyond the one McLemore notation, it was hard to really take any coherent basketball knowledge from WAS/SAC -- it was one of the least interested games I've ever seen. Sacramento got bored by halftime and spent the entire second half playing with their food. Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. -- who had combined for almost 60 points the night before -- shot 3-13 combined in the first quarter for 7 points. They got a bit better as the game went on, but both were blisteringly inefficient, combining for a tough-to-watch 1-14 shooting display from the 3-point line. Given their constant grousing to the refs, it was pretty obvious that Washington felt Sacramento was playing too physically, but it's hard to imagine a team playing LESS physical basketball than that of the Kings this game. They were laying off Wizards players and daring them to shoot jump shots. Which they did, they just happened to miss them. All of them, basically. By the middle of the 2nd quarter, the game stood at 43-17 in favor of the Kings. Marshon Brooks had almost completely outscored Washington BY HIMSELF. The game got a bit closer later on, but the Wizards never really launched a credible threat.

Before we knew it, the game was over.

• • •

"Stop taking pictures of me," sources relayed, while calling the police.


This was my girlfriend Julia's first time in Vegas. Since I was there with her, I didn't get a chance to interview the handful of real basketball kingmakers left in the arena. Lots of journalists go for the cutting-edge sources and the big NBA gurus when they're anonymizing sources and turning them into gospel. Me? I'm just gonna take random quotes from Julia and try to turn them into quotes from a plugged in anonymous source. It's all for you, readers.

  • JULIA SAYS: "Man, the refs all have perfectly shaped butts. I'm serious, look at them! Do they have padded butt-pants? The players are nice, but... wow. Just wow."

    • "Plugged-in sources assure Gothic Ginobili that the NBA's referee crew are working diligently in areas related to their respective gluteus maximi, perhaps with the advent of FEDs (fashion-enhancing-drugs). While the players are working to combat this reality, the referees are not to be trifled with."
  • JULIA SAYS: "Wait, you're writing all this down? Oh man. I've gotta get some popcorn."

    • "My sources would only speak on conditions of anonymity. Also: popcorn."
  • JULIA SAYS: "So, uh... I think I heard someone snorting coke in a bathroom stall. Are you sure Summer League is safe?"

    • "Las Vegas is a den of iniquity and drug abuse, sources confirm. Bathrooms are dangerous. Don't use them."
  • JULIA SAYS: "Player #40 seems pretty OK. I don't know. Why are you asking me this?"

    • "Scouts in-the-know say that Jordan Henriquez, a Center playing with New York's summer league squad, is seemingly a lock to be picked up by OKC."
  • JULIA SAYS: "I am outraged that you've never had Dippin Dots. You've been to HOW many sporting events? This is a travesty."

    • "I can confirm that my sources have abandoned me at the curbside due to my lack of Dippin Dots knowledge. Send help."

• • •


  • I didn't notice this last year, but the elevator that takes media members from the main arena floor and the media hospitality room is quite possibly the slowest elevator used in the modern world. It takes almost 30 seconds to make that one-story trip upwards, and 35 seconds to make the one-story trip downwards. This may not sound like much. In a vacuum, it's not a ton of time. But I felt that it was very long for an elevator, and while drunk I inexplicably decided to test this out by counting the seconds it takes other Vegas elevators to get a single story in larger buildings. The average I came to based on the wholly scientific numbers written on the back of my hand (after 5 hotels and a few restaurants) was about 5 seconds. No wonder the arena elevator seemed so absurd. One of the staff members pointed out that the building is extremely old, which led to us to the conclusion that the elevator is slow because there is a long-suffering soul at the bottom of the elevator tasked with pulling it up and down. That's his entire job. Plot twist: his name is Mario Chalmers. Why don't I have a book deal yet?

  • Many other sources have written about this, but I have to emphasize -- hearing random people in the crowd yelling "COVER THE SPREAD!" and "AYO, POPS, WHAT'S THE SPREAD?" is kind of incredible. It's like listening to Carlos Boozer's "GET DAT, JO!", but yelled by random people in the crowd -- it's just the perfect embodiment of the moment and the player, with the moment here being "existing in Las Vegas" and the player here being "the aforementioned random folks in the crowd." Speaking of which, the crowds were actually surprisingly large -- the arena was mostly full, which I wasn't expecting at all. Good on you, Vegas.

  • The halftime entertainment wasn't really BETTER than it was last year, but given that I hadn't had to watch a week straight of it, I was able to accept it a bit easier. In halftime of the SAS/WAS game, they had a bunch of 4-5 year old kids playing ball, and I'm gonna be honest with you, it was pretty amazing. Maybe these were just way better kids than usual, but there were actually several baskets in the game despite the use of NBA regulation hoops. The first one was a layup in a crowd, the second was a neat scoop shot, the third one was a fadeaway scoop shot by this long haired girl with a lot of heart, and the last one was this skyhook-looking thing. Look, okay. It wasn't exactly the greatest basketball in the world. But I can't deny that it was completely adorable.


  • By far the strangest addition to this year's summer league action? This obnoxious dirigible that flew over the crowd dropping foam fingers. Seriously, that thing was weird. Look at that picture of it above! It was shaped like a flying smokestack and propelled by what looked like a bunch of handheld fans attached to the bottom of the balloon. The arms race to create bold new methods for swag dispersal is going too far.

  • On press row at the LVSL, there's always a staff member who comes around peddling statsheets for writers on deadlines and anyone who's curious. I tended to avoid them, just because they represent a bunch of clutter I don't particularly want to keep around. But they usually don't ask directly if you want the sheets, instead gesturing them towards you like a cigarette toting hipster outside of a concert. For the last statsheet of the day, though, the staff member changed it up -- he walked up behind me and asked "Hey, do you like stats?" Without skipping a beat, I responded "I do. I mean, I work as a statistician, so I suppose I have to. I don't know if I like referring to statistics as a monolith like that, and admit that there are many places where stats are misused in the profession of basketball, but I'm a fan." He stared at me for a few seconds, before I realized he was holding the stat sheets and was NOT actually asking me a broader question about my profession and life goals. That was about when I decided I was too tired for Summer League.

• • •

This concludes Gothic Ginobili's coverage of the 2014 Summer League. Please wait patiently while we cue up our coverage of the 2014 Extreme Knitting Championships of the World, which is likely to be roughly as relevant to the 2015 NBA season as this year's Summer League was.

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Lost in Vegas: Dispatches from the Summer League Playoffs

Posted on Tue 22 July 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 9.48.07 AM

I like to vary my experiences a bit. When Gothic Ginobili covered Summer League last year, I got to Las Vegas the day Summer League started and left right as the "playoffs" portion began. This year, I decided to do the opposite -- instead of coming to Summer League with Dewey and Arnon and dedicating a week of my life to Summer League coverage, I'd arrive in the dead of night on the Friday before the last weekend and observe how the mundane-yet-maniac energy of last year's Summer League changes as an outsider being thrust in right at the end of the game. I'd also be swapping out Arnon and Dewey for my girlfriend Yoko Julia, a lovely individual with no discernible interest in the game of basketball and no particular investment in any of the teams playing at Summer League. The only way this year's Summer League experience could be more different would be a sex change.

To the many who haven’t been to summer league, it’s a difficult place to pin down. "Summer League ball is totally wicked!" is how I'd describe it if I was peddling lies. Also: if I was from Boston. I’m no peddler, so I'll be frank: the basketball at the later reaches of the NBA’s summer league might be the worst basketball in the world. For tiny children playing basketball in Elementary School gymnasiums, at least there's some iota of fun. For mid-league FIBA games, the players are playing for clear and obvious goals, and with knowledge that their end-of-season stat sheets would be finely combed through by the arbiters of their next contract. But the players that remain at summer league at the very end aren't having fun, and they aren't particularly hopeful of building a contract case either.

Why? It’s pretty simple. In the first few games, the scouts are out in full force and all the players are on their best behavior while they try and finagle their way into a big league contract. That changes as time goes on. As one scout aptly relayed: “I saw everything I needed to see in the first few days.” Did he really, for every player? Perhaps, perhaps not. But that’s how scouts approach the exercise, which makes real effort among the players a rarity as time passes. While the scouts are still here, they aren't really paying THAT much attention to the actual basketball anymore, and the main takeaways have already been taken. Which leads to hours upon hours of half-interested "playoff" basketball between teams that aren’t invested and players that have nothing to play for. It’s a pretty dreadful product, and finding fun in one of these games is often like finding water in the middle of a desert – the truly industrious can salvage a few drops, but you’re going to need to chew up a cactus to do it.

• • •

Chief among those rare tidbits of fun: the numerous random moments where NBA journeymen suddenly look like next-level superstars because the competition is so lousy. In the first day of games, this happened most obviously with noted no-shot journeyman Shannon Brown. He was playing for the Knicks, and was cradling the ball around the top of the three point line looking for a hole in the defense. He didn’t really find one, but decided to throw caution to the wind anyway and curl around 3 defenders to charge the rim. If we’re being honest, all of them had ample time to try and steal the ball back from him. It didn’t matter; even at what looked like half-speed, the 28-year-old Brown juked by all three defenders and finished a scoop layup against the remaining two. That’s right – the threat of Shannon Brown warped the entire Charlotte defense and caused the whole team to effectively quintuple team a guy who might never play in the NBA again. Reflective of how warped the NBA’s competitive fabric becomes in the Vegas heat? Sure. But at least Shannon’s having some fun.

Another element of fun comes from the thirsty throngs who make the yearly trek to watch terrible basketball. Sure, they’re mostly ridiculous, but the crowds get significantly more invested into Summer League games than you see at most NBA arenas during the regular season. This is partly a function of size – as with college crowds, Summer League is held in front of a small enough group of people that it’s possible for a single fan to have a far greater impact on the crowd en masse. In fact, a single guy with a loud voice and a grudge can completely take over the arena. Case in point: one tanned-to-the-limit dude sitting near press row ended up taking over the entire crowd with his loud and droning “AIIIIIIR BAAAAALL” chants while the ball was being thrown back in play. They had stopped the music, which made him and his acolytes echo through the arena in a way that felt more like a cage fight than a basketball game. It may not have made much sense, but at least it distracted from the basketball.

Even though the league is theoretically a proving ground for the NBA’s newest younger guys, few of them were still playing when I got there. Wiggins and Jabari were long gone, and the Spurs had eliminated Exum’s one-man-show a few days prior. That left Adriean Payne as the big early showcase for my first day’s action. His stats were rather weak, but I liked what I saw. For starters, Payne had great speed when recovering off a set screen – he was excellent at setting a screen, switching directions, and catching a pass in motion going towards the basket all while moving in a fluid, controlled motion. This isn’t exactly RARE in the NBA, but it speaks to Payne’s offensive versatility in a system that requires a mobile, active big guy on offense. He appears to have a decent toolbox. His decisionmaking was hardly ideal – he was a few steps late on defense with regularity. When you look slow and plodding during summer league, it’s pretty hard to see how you project out as a positive NBA-level defender. This also ignores the fact that he was chucking with abandon, although it’s hard to blame him given how disinterested the rest of his team was in the day’s proceedings.

• • •

I’m sort of burying the lede, though. On my first day of Summer League action, there was one particular game I was excited to watch. It was the most excited I’d been about ANY summer league game I’d ever watched. Yes, even more than the interesting matchup with Wiggins against Jabari -- the story was certainly cool in that one, but the play was never destined to live up to expectations. The summer slate is hardly the place that brings out the best in much-ballyhooed young talent, and the game would hardly serve as a referendum on whether Jabari Parker can hang with NBA-level athletes on a work-a-day level or whether Andrew Wiggins could bring to the league the same defensive tenacity he showed at Kansas. Hence, it wouldn't really answer any of the questions I had about the players, and the hype was so high I felt it could never live up to expectations.

No, my big focus was on the Spurs/Wizards "playoff" game -- the last game on the Saturday slate. There were two reasons for this. I'm a Spurs fan, so there’s a natural enjoyment in watching the various odd and varied incarntaions of the Spurs. San Antonio's summer league teams tend to run a much-simplified version of the classic San Antonio playbook, much like the Austin Toros and the preseason Spurs. It isn’t nearly as beautiful as San Antonio’s regular fare, but it’s a decent enough echo to keep me piqued. The second reason? No team has ever won the NBA title (est. 1946) and the Summer League title (est. 2013) in the same calendar year. So I pose to you my question: WHY NOT THE SPURS, DEAR READERS? WHY NOT THEM.

Alright, yeah -- that’s mostly a joke. But there were plenty of fun Spurs-tinted plays by the faux team. Vander Blue showed off some excellent creativity on the bounce throughout the night, whipping passes that were generally on point and creative. Midway through the second, he threw this positively awesome mustard-ball bounce pass through the outstretched hands of his defender straight into the hands of Austin Daye, who finished a pretty off-hand layup in fluid motion. Good stuff, right? The Summer Spurs had 14 assists on 21 made field goals at halftime, and looked to be on their way to a fun rout. The dream was alive! San Antonio was heading to back-to-back titles! No San Antonio team would furrow away a 10 point lead, right?

Wait. Yeah. They definitely would. These are the summer Spurs. And even the regular season Spurs have noted issues with holding leads, as Gregg Popovich loves to remind his guys – after shooting 50%-57%-100% in the first half, the Spurs shot an almost inconceivable 14%-0%-0% in the first 5:27 of the second half with four mostly-fast-break turnovers. The Wizards almost instantly turned around San Antonio’s bulging lead into a blowout-margin of their own. Although the Spurs fought back, they had trouble getting over the hump, and ended the third frame down a few points. All the uninitiated quickly discovered that Jeff Ayres literally has hands made of stone and granite – pretty hard to put a soft touch on the ball when your hands are a TSA-banned heavy weapon. Alas.

Then, with about a minute left in the game, I wrote this in my notes:

The Spurs and Wizards kept it surprisingly tight (and interesting!) throughout the fourth quarter, but Otto Porter essentially put the Spurs away with a three point basket with roughly 2:30 left in the contest. I mean, being down three with 2:30 to play is hardly a death knell during most of the season. But this is Summer League, where the defense is sparse but the shotmakers sparser.

That’s where the basketball gods decided to mock me. The Spurs went on to tie the game with a chance to win it at the buzzer – they missed, but it made my prognostication look pretty silly. I figured there was no way Coach Udoka would extend a Summer League game. I was wrong. The best part about OT wasn’t the play or any of the stories – it was the fact that I had five rows of press row to myself. Andy Katz was a few rows down, and Holly McKenzie (among others) were closer to the front. But I wasn’t going to let anyone enter my territory – definitely leaning more Walter White than Kermit the Frog, here. So I just ended up with this massive space all to myself. It was delightful.

As for the endgame, it wasn’t too bad – the Spurs rode Vander Blue and Austin Daye pretty hard in the extra period, although they kept inexplicably trying to involve Jeff Ayres in the offense. (Probably for his championship experience. Maybe they thought his will to win the previous year’s title would translate to buckets.) For their part, the Wizards continued doing what they’d been doing the entire night – they fed the ball into Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. and let them do literally everything. Near the end of overtime, Austin Daye had a few free throws that could’ve put Washington away for good. He missed them, leading to a second period where the Spurs were up 3 with less than 3 seconds left in the contest.

That was too much time, as it turned out – Otto Porter drained a three from the left quarter to force an unprecedented TRIPLE overtime, where the Spurs finally fell after essentially conceding the last few possessions in an effort to make sure nobody had to play another overtime. Ime Udoka: the real summer league MVP. Although I spent most of this post grousing about the quality of play this past weekend, I can't deny it -- the SAS/WAS game was the best summer league game I'd ever seen, and about as good as a mid-tier regular season game. As such, my first day ended happily. Hooray!

• • •


  • Midway through a surprisingly tight game between the Summer Rockets and the Summer Hawks, Steve McPherson hijacked the attention of nearly every writer on press row by bringing back everyone’s favorite hashtag: "#RemoveALetterRuinABand”. The general idea is that you can usually completely ruin a band name and change their overall image by taking away a single letter. I want to remember some of these, so here are some of my favorites. I don't remember who tweeted which, but I know that @DamianTrillard and @CalebJSaenz were responsible for a bunch of these. I was pretty proud of "Ron Maiden", myself.

  • Grateful Dad

  • Taking Heads
  • Ron Maiden
  • Dr. Dr
  • 2Chinz

I’ll keep you guys abreast of the situation as I workshop more of these. This is extremely important journalism.

  • Overheard in the crowd: "Ayo, son, Kevin Love lives on double doubles. They like water to him, bruh. I aint sayin Klay Thompson's a bad player, man -- he's a top 20 at his position, maybe -- but he aint that last piece. You gotta have Kevin Love over Klay Thompson man. You just gotta." There are a lot of layers here, and the idea posited probably deserves a post of its own. My main question, though: how is Thompson only top 20 at his position? I realize he's a bit overrated, but there are barely 15 decent starters at that position. By dint of being a half-decent player, he's ALREADY above his positional average. In his defense, I asked him about that later and he realized that he was being a bit hyperbolic. He also said the following: "Jeff Ayres is like a 9 year veteran in this league, but he's still playing in summer league. What that mean to you, son?" It's a good point.

  • The arena staff introduced a fun wrinkle at the end of the final overtime period: tossing copies of NBA Live 2014 into the much-depleted crowd as they broke for the last 4.8 seconds of the first overtime. They spent all day tossing random things, but an actual working video game was saved for the final game of the day, 10-12 minutes from the end. Talk about burying the lede.

  • There was something really silly about the overtimes in the last game of my first day. For most of Summer League, the NBA instituted a rule replacing all extra time after one OT period with a sudden death shootout. It was a really good idea, because nobody there actually wants to register extra time. But rather inexplicably, they abandoned the sudden death concept for the "playoff" component of the league, which meant that as the competition gets more and more languished, the players suddenly have to play extra basketball. Absolutely nonsensical, especially since they set teams up in a position to play three days in a row if they make the "title" game.

• • •

That concludes our first summer league dispatch, admittedly posted after I got back. I'll compile the rest of my notes into a catch-all conclusion tomorrow before continuing with our inexplicable free agency grades. Stay frosty.

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2014 NBA Finals: What's the WORST possible story?

Posted on Thu 05 June 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

green and lebron

As part of our coverage of the 2014 NBA Finals, we're going to have an every-few-days check in with Aaron, Alex, and Jacob regarding various questions and quibbles with the Finals as it plays out. Today, we're going to give you a strange reprieve from the usual preview schtick with a "preview" of the world's worst upcoming stories. No, really. Let me explain...

Just about every single blog and writer has gone hard in the paint to bring you the best storylines and things-to-watch in this year’s Finals. Most of them are really awesome, and some of them are terrible! Friends: what storyline in the NBA Finals promises to be the single most annoying and unnecessary thread we nonetheless devote unseemly amounts of our focus to? What are your top few things-to-avoid-watching? Note: storyline does not have to exist, it merely needs to have the POTENTIAL to exist.

Aaron McGuire

AARON: This one actually happened last year, and it was one of the least substantial NBA stories I’d seen in a while. After the 2013 Finals, Danny Green happened to stop by the club that LeBron was celebrating in and gave him a dap and a handshake before leaving. TMZ (or some related rag) happened upon photographs of it, which led to a number of articles about how Danny Green was a failed Spur and how TRUE rivals wouldn’t be able to give the opposing superstar dap at a club after he’d beaten them for a hard-fought title.

You know what? SHUT THE HELL UP. Danny Green started his career in Cleveland, and he was friends for LeBron for a long time before he was a Spur. So it isn’t exactly some betrayal in the first degree that he felt the need to congratulate a friend of his. The worst part, though, was that the pictures were presented completely out of context and the stories assumed that Green had been seeking LeBron out. According to Green’s later statements, he was just going around from club to club trying to get his mind off the Finals. He happened to find LeBron. He left as soon as he realized LeBron was there, even though LeBron invited him to join the Heat players. In essence, he did exactly what the media would expect of a bitter sports rival – he refused hanging out with his old friend because of residual rivalry fury.

But the pictures were taken out of context and became a stupid big story. I imagine something similar is going to happen this year. Because it happens every year. Don’t know what, don’t know when. Maybe LeBron will be caught flipping off Duncan as a joke. Maybe Parker will be caught making eyes at a Heat cheerleader. But some completely innocuous action is going to get snapped or taken wildly out of context to create a stupid sideshow story that distracts from the awesome series at hand. Alternatively, some quote will be taken completely out of context, like the infamous Jennings “Bucks in Six” comment last year or the “We’ll do it this time” bravado from Duncan this year.

Avoid watching the tabloids. It’s never a good idea.


ALEX: Ooh. How about one of the most irritating tropes in recent memory, and one that doesn't dog just the Finals but every game the Spurs play. It's sort of a logical counterpart to the "LeBron just needs to take over [take and make 100% of available field goal attempts]" nonsense. It's the idea that ball movement, as practiced by the Spurs and Heat, is fundamentally unselfish and virtuous.

Maybe this is just something that only bothers me--a Spurs fan deigning to choose the exact lines of praise my team receives--but this always strikes me as a basic misapprehension of the sport. It's not always even altogether wrong, but it elides so many complexities as to be practically useless except as ambient noise. Passing as Manu Ginobili or LeBron does is phenomenally difficult. It may be easy to "just find the open man" in, like, a scrimmage, but almost by definition the situation changes_ the moment_ competition on a professional level is introduced. Most players in the human population just simply don't have the on-court intelligence or skill or athleticism to dribble all the way to the rim--if someone is in that rarefied air, it takes a kind of genius to be able to get there and then decide between the options you've created in a way that's consistently right even when defenders have been watching your previous choices for signs of exploitable weaknesses. Everything Manu or Boris or Tim does with passing is a potential masterstroke built on years of experience and an unteachable genius with angles and space. The way the Heat find space and surgically swing the ball around the perimeter is awesome and creative. But it's not built on virtue, and I genuinely believe it's not built on virtue even a little bit. No matter how personally caring and understanding these players may be, the dominant factor that determines the success or failure of their style is their unbelievable level of skill to create those kinds of plays, a skill plenty of teams identified as "selfish" would love to have.

And then, there's the slanderous converse of the narrative, even worse to these eyes. Prime example: The Thunder don't have an iso-heavy offense because they lack for virtue, emblematized by Russell Westbrook's evil shot-taking. Rather, it's their personnel. They can get away with several defensive non-scorers on the floor while still putting up a top-5 offense year after year, in part because the very same "selfish" Westbrook is able to selflessly carry that kind of burden. When the Thunder have sought out offensive lineups, why, it's remarkable the gain in virtue and unselfish, Secret-Santa-esque passing lanes! Reggie Jackson must be a saint, I tell you. Seriously, most teams do precisely what they have to do to win, including the Heat and Spurs. And scores of great players on both kinds of teams, whether the versatile two-way anchor of some of the best offenses and defenses of recent memory or the born scoring prodigy from an adjacent state, seem to me personally selfless enough for anyone's tastes. Durant and Duncan give the lie totally to that dichotomy.

The two offenses on display in these Finals are beautiful and a testament to the sport of Naismith. Let's not tarnish these offenses by reducing their brilliant geneses to ordinary virtue.


JACOB: This is a little more of a hot sports take type of thing, but I do mean it with all sincerity. Thus far it's been mostly overshadowed (and rightfully so) by the imminent drama of two Hall of Fame trios facing off to seize their respective basketball destinies, but were the Heat to seize control of this series, I anticipate the likely continuation of a running story-line 3 years overused: The Heat's triumph over struggles and strife. Look, I'm tired of hearing about the Heat's struggles. All of them. I'm tired of the over-dramatization of what they've "had to go through" and the mental gymnastics fans and the media have collectively performed to justify their slavish treatment of this team.

Seriously, what have the Miami Heat had to go through?

This story-line cropped up a few months ago, when LeBron responded to the Indiana's befuddling internal struggles with dismissal, implying it was nothing compared to what he and the Heat had suffered. Talking heads and the commentariat roundly cheered his response. "Yeah! Suck it up, listen to a real man!" was the implied sentiment towards the Pacers. But seriously, hold the phone. What have the Miami Heat had to suffer through? Wasn't the reason we all turned on them in the first place that they colluded to unite three Hall of Fame players in their prime? Weren't we insulted that they did so with reckless bravado, and responded to their ensuing domination with somewhat of a sneer of dismissal, because of course they were supposed to do that? Wasn't the extent of the suffering they had to go through the exact same kind of media criticism faced by the Pacers -- that is, almost completely self-inflicted? Correct me if I'm missing anything about the post-Decision media dynamics, and explain to me the difference between the two situations (beyond the obvious fact that LeBron speaks with the benefit of hindsight and the "RINGZZZ" that retroactively "justify" his decision).

Sometime during the 2012 Playoffs, while the Heat struggled gamely with a young Pacers team and an overachieving Celtics team playing on borrowed time, everyone seemed to talk themselves into this collective absurdity that everything said of the Heat before the Boston series was no longer true. Because Bosh was injured for a couple of games and Wade was no longer "Finals MVP" Wade, LeBron had done what he never could in Cleveland and dragged an inferior supporting cast past elite competition, won on the biggest stage, and triumphed over adversity. At some point we all talked ourselves into believing that because Chris Bosh's counting stats have fallen off, he's not a player still in his prime who proved himself as one of the best forwards in the league in Toronto. We point to Dwyane Wade not playing half the season as evidence he's basically replacement level (an argument I've heard made unironically by quite a few fans), rather than evidence that he'll be all the more dangerous come the big moments in the playoffs.

The Heat are a team with four Hall of Famers, minimum, playing a majority of the minutes in a system where they can all maximize their roles and unique specialties. They receive unabated adulation from the media. They're an elite team that plays in a largely noncompetitive conference, in one of the most one-sided eras of conference imbalance in modern league history. We all pretended that their jog to the much-lauded Fourth Consecutive NBA Finals wasn't by default because of the Pacers, but it's been clear to everyone since April that the Pacers were as much a perfunctory effort as any other Eastern conference opposition the Heat might face. "Overcoming struggle" never should have been a legitimate part of this team's identity, were it not for the media tripping all over itself to prostrate itself in apology for its overreaction to the Decision.

Don't get me wrong, the Heat have won these past two Finals fair and square (some good fortune in Game 6 last year aside). But in both cases against opponents who've had to overcome far worse in their journey to the same destination, and neither of whom could have ever afforded to "coast" the way the Heat can through large swaths of their regular season, much less the playoffs.

So yeah, I'm already tired of hearing about the Heat reaching the Finals four times in a row, the "first since the Celtics" and all that. To me, that's a laudable achievement when you've come by it honest, through legitimate competition and strife. But the Miami Heat have yet to suffer any pre-Finals drama that wasn't almost entirely self-inflicted. No team in the Eastern Conference during this run has been good enough to make Miami sweat when Miami isn't playing down to their competition. They still have had multiple game sevens and multiple incomprehensible embarrassments. Their fourth consecutive Finals is more circumstance than anything else, a byproduct of the period of competitiveness in NBA history they happen to play in. It's an accomplishment, but I'm not sure it's quite as incredible as it's been made out to be.

If anything, this talk of a fourth Finals in a row should give us some pause, and lead us to reflect on how screwed up the NBA conferences are that one of these Finals teams only had to beat one team that even would've made the other conference's playoffs in order to reach that much-exalted fourth Finals.


ALEX: I agree. But I would argue that the overzealous, tracks-covering narrative of triumph over adversity is as old as politics (and perhaps sport) itself. How tall was Goliath, really? How impossible was Thermopylae, really? How many of the great obstacles of history are completely apocryphal and how many legends were only half-legends carried by canny myth-makers eager to build up a legend? And how many actual legends were either forgotten by history or folded into generic legendary figures that were the most convenient or politically advantageous to ascribe those legends to?

Glory is so much determined by how it is framed by history's storytellers that, for me, it's hard to even talk about a supposedly glorious victory in battle without also picturing the glory-seeking PR reps and politicians walking astride the battle, looking for the best photo-op. The real story will always either be lost or fought to the bitter end. Because that's how the story goes, and it works. It's poignant. It's inspiring. It makes good copy.

My point is that it didn't start with the Miami Heat. Even in the NBA. Bill Russell was perhaps the best and surest winner in the history of North American sports, but the Celtics were cheaters. The legendary parquet floor had dangerous nails sticking up and broken boards, strategically placed. That floor had potholes upon potholes, and that famous steal by Bird on Isiah was probably preceded by an unseen bottle thrown by a Boston fan at Thomas, temporarily blinding Isiah from his right field of vision. I'm exaggerating, but not by much: the locker room dirty tricks by Red Auerbach were legendary, and that's after you account for the Celtics being essentially 20 years ahead of everyone else, on and off the court.

Michael Jordan, despite being the greatest player of all time, made up all sorts of adversity for himself. The Spurs feasted on incompetent management across the league and ridiculously advanced scouting and development (and, above all else, completely lucked out with Robinson and Duncan -- would the Spurs be the Spurs if they'd picked a 1997-era Anthony Bennett instead of Tim Duncan? NO!); the Thunder -- even with excellent scouting -- still hit the jackpot with Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Harden; and the Heat and Pacers had Pat Riley and Larry Bird, two of the smartest, savviest folks in the history of the league. And let's not even get into how Showtime and the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics were born.

All this to say that you can make the argument that no great team has ever been in a position of pure adversity. Sports is never like a flat playing field - a large proportion (maybe even a majority) of victories were concocted out of good fortune. Athletes and media, always needing fuel for their next journey, endorse any narrative that makes the hero the uber-hero. That always means exaggerating the triumph and downplaying the fortune. Miami went 7 games against Indiana, Boston, and San Antonio -- they played their worst possible hands and risked elimination time and again, and they still emerged victorious. Ergo, the fact that they loaded the deck with 12 aces didn't matter. Not that much.

If you turn your eyes askew, The Decision was as much a stacking of potential humiliations upon themselves as it was a stacking of potential championships. The East's decline made it several times easier, to be sure. But, on the other side of the coin, imagine if they'd lost to Indiana or Boston. They'd be pariahs of the league, and LeBron would not just be hated by some; he'd be utterly derided. Laughed out the gym. They placed themselves on the cusp of ultimate vulnerability and emerged as champions. And that's just truth-feely enough to put into copy as an ultimate narrative of triumph.

It all circles around, though. It IS the most annoying narrative. When you break it down, they made the easiest path in the world to their great accomplishment, and then they made it rocky only with hubris and unlikable pomp and underperformance, and then they "heroically" overcame that rockiness. And they got some absurd breaks their way. That really isn't the most inspiring narrative in the world. But most real narratives about real people aren't, even legitimate legends, the moment you cast a critical eye.

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When Knowledge Isn't Power (2014 NBA Finals Preview)

Posted on Tue 03 June 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

Here it goes. When the final four teams were locked down -- when the field had been whittled to the Thunder, the Spurs, the Heat, and the Pacers -- this was the match-up that Adam Silver probably wanted. Last year's finals were one of the highest rated since Jordan, and it got better as it went along -- Game 7's Nielsen score is second only to 2010's LAL/BOS Game 7 among post-Jordan NBA games. The Thunder are a fantastic story too, and a Heat/Thunder matchup probably would've had a similarly rated performance. But the potential for a grudge match rematch between the two teams that played one of the best NBA Finals series in the history of the league is undeniably exciting, and the Heat-chasing-a-threepeat angle is historically compelling. As Chris Bosh said in practice yesterday -- "Thursday is game #8." And it's #8 of the best series we've seen in decades. What's not to like?

But it's odd. There's a lot of history between these two teams now. The Spurs and the Heat have played 10 games in the last 12 months, and they're likely about to play 6 or 7 more. Both teams are similar to what they were last year, if not exactly the same. There's a lot of data to go on, and a lot of signals to read. The Spurs have been shutting down superstar offensive players in preparation for LeBron. The Heat have been filleting decent-to-great defenses for three rounds now with their precision offense. We know quite a bit more than we usually do in the run-up to the Finals. So... we should know roughly what's going to happen, right?

In theory, yep. But very few people are entirely sure how to handicap this series.

I'm afraid I'm not one of them.

• • •

Why am I so confused? Why is it so hard to prognosticate this?

Most people are excited about this series. I am too. But there was a smaller contingent of fans on Twitter that run against the grain. Despite last year's tour-de-force in the Finals, they weren't particularly excited to see this matchup. Their general point, in a word? There's nothing NEW here. A repeat of a phenomenal Finals is still a repeat. We don't get to think about what Kevin Durant does in a Harden-free finals environment. We don't get to whet our curiosities with Chris Paul's first deep run. We don't get to vomit into trashcans at the prospect of one more round of Indiana's misery.

Instead, we have the gift of reprise. The experiential comfort of the road once-traveled. But that gift is a nice way to spin a curse -- doomed to revisit, rethink, relive. Doomed to rehash the same tired storylines, over and over again. Spurs fans have spent the last 12 months reliving Ray Allen's three. They get two weeks to relive it in real-time, sure to be referenced in every single broadcast by the ESPN on ABC crew. The rest of the NBA has spent two months hearing about how the Heat and the Spurs are the model franchises, the NBA's golden ne'er-do-wrongs. Regardless of how the Finals plays out, fans will continue to hear that for yet another year. Because they're on top, and they're the NBA's class right now. Neither team features Lance Stephenson. It's not gonna go down like that. But some can't exactly shake the feeling that it's just a little bit TOO familiar. Too comfortable. Too tired. Fun statistic: there have been 15 editions of the NBA's championship series since 1999. Every single one of them has featured Duncan, Wade, or Kobe. Not a majority. Every single one. Isn't that a little trite?

It all leaves the NBA's scribes (and the poor hobbyists like yours truly) scrambling to find some original angle. "The Spurs will need to run the baseline second stage quasi-hammer HORNS play off a scissor screen mirrored across the court twenty times with a side of fries if they want to score off the 17th inbound of the series." ... "For the Heat to win, it is essential that Rashard Lewis makes 3 shots in the series with only two of those being dunks. He also needs to defend Boris Diaw when Diaw puts his back to the basket, but if he shuffles his feet, the shuffle must be akin to the Electric Slide or else Diaw will score off a scoop layup with an ice cream cone." ... "Neither team can win the game if they don't reach this completely arbitrary sequence of statistics I've invented solely for the purposes of this easily-forgotten preview." We scrape and we pry and we squeeze for the last drops of narrative sustenance. We seek that smart silver bullet that solves the intractable equation of sport-borne randomness.

Which is basically all a run-around to avoid the fact that, for once, more data doesn't really mean we know much more than we did entering last year's Finals. Last year, we knew very little -- the Spurs and the Heat hadn't played a fully healthy matchup since 2011, and nobody really knew exactly what to expect. Some people figured the Heat would roll San Antonio. Others expected the opposite. Instead, what we got was a series where the momentum shifted tectonically with each individual game, and a series whose result offered an elegant proof of concept to the thought that NBA history can often hinge on a single high-leverage random event. The Spurs had a 98.5% chance of winning game six with 28 seconds left in the contest. They still lost it all. Did they lose it on Mike Miller's shoeless three? Did they lose it on Battier's massive one? LeBron's life raft? Or was it all that single bounce, that one unforgettable pass to history's greatest three point shooter?

Hell if I know. But I do know one thing. Last year's Finals shook my faith in the idea that the NBA can really be predicted. I came back around, and I'm back to believing in the confidence of my predictions. But I'm also having a monstrous time trying to handicap this particular series. Because we've been here before. And the stark probabilities and vagaries of the data didn't seem to mean much then, either.

• • •

Here's what we know.

The Heat can win the title. They feature the best basketball player in the world, a right-outside-his-athletic-prime LeBron James whose dominance spreads to all facets of the court. He can kill you on the block, he can kill you from three, he can turn his team to chalk, he can kill with lockdown D. (Much like my ability to kill you with terrible rhymes. Dewey, drop the beat!) He's a Swiss Army Knife with a beretta in the hilt, a force of nature more than an individual man. He's playing at his Cleveland team-dominant best. (And he needs it, given his cast right now, but that's for later.) Dwyane Wade is healthier than he was last year, and he's been better from long range this year than he was last year. San Antonio's success against a Miami team that was markedly better than they were last year was partly a function of Wade's inability to hit long range shots when the Spurs sagged off of him. It looks unlikely that will maintain to this year, not with his health and rest looking so much better than before. Which ups their chances significantly.

As for the team-centric thoughts, those are also simple. The Heat had an impressively easy road to the Finals, and they're as well-rested as they can possibly be. Their offense has blitzed through a decent Charlotte defense in Round #1 and a best-in-class Pacers defense in the conference finals. They know full well they can win in San Antonio, and the only reason the Spurs won a single game in Miami last year was a miracle-beyond-miracle shot by Tony Parker. Their bench is concerning, but it's hardly the end of the world -- Miami's starters can go longer than San Antonio's, and it looks likely they will. Even if their defense hasn't been great, it hasn't really needed to be. Their defense can kick it up to another level of swarming, blitzing brilliance. They'll have a shot to close it out in 6 games at home, something the Spurs didn't have last year. Cut no corners -- the Heat are an incredible team. They can do this.

Of course, the Spurs can win the title too. Even with Tony Parker's status questionable, it's worth reminding that Tony Parker was balky last year and -- by the end of the series -- essentially playing on one leg. He shot 26% on shots outside the paint in last year's Finals (... which includes the Game #1 prayer!), even though the Heat would occasionally sag off him to cover San Antonio's three point shooters. Parker's a much better shooter than he played like last year, and that gave Miami's defense a shot in the arm it needed to reach another level. As long as Parker can suit up, the Spurs should be roughly as good as last year. Kawhi Leonard's defense took a small step forward this year, and he took a decent stride in the right direction on offense. Tim Duncan looks exactly the same as last year (if not a tiny bit better, in a few important ways), and Manu Ginobili's renaissance is similar to Wade's on Miami's side -- Ginobili simply looks like he can hit shots this year he couldn't have possibly sniffed last year. He's worlds healthier, and the team as a whole looks spry and ready-to-play (with Parker's exception). It's a marked change from the usual injury-peppered Spurs team you see entering a series.

As for the broader context, the Spurs have much to like. The Spurs have run roughshod over an incredible gauntlet of Western teams. They're prepared for a dogfight, and they've brought the big guns. The Heat are worse in just about every statistical metric, and the Spurs have improved. They've tinkered with last year's formula and made a version ever-so-slightly superior, with better defense and better offense than they had last year and a team that's rolling to an incredible extent. Last year's Heat won 27 straight games and finished 7 games ahead of San Antonio -- this year's Spurs won 19 straight, finishing 8 games ahead of Miami. The script is sufficiently flipped. San Antonio has home court this time. Even though Miami has the best player in the series, an argument can be made that the Spurs have yet to face a team without one or two players better than all their guys in this year's playoffs. Dirk, Aldridge, Durant, Westbrook. It didn't matter, because the Spurs had an entire lineup of guys that were better than each of those teams' full lineups. And Kawhi Leonard's defense bridged the rest of that gap. If a team could possibly be ready to face LeBron James, it's the Spurs -- they have Kawhi, Boris, and the playbook to match him. The Spurs are hungry. They're determined to wash away last year's bad memories. Like the Heat, they can do this.

• • •

So, those are our potentialities. Summarized and hardly exhaustive, but potentialities all the same. I don't know which circumstances will rise above the others. I don't know which intangibles will prove decisive. Nobody does, and that make prognostication difficult. And potentially embarrassing. In 2013, you could boil the entire series down -- somewhat hilariously -- to the fact that Popovich defends late game threes with Diaw instead of Duncan. Usually, that's an impressively minor fact of life about Pop's coaching. The 2013 Finals hinged on an incredibly minor artifact of an all-time coach's playbook. A tiny speck of X's and O's minutiae doomed to eternal irrelevance were it not for that one pesky possession. Will this Finals be the same? I wonder. I can't stop wondering.

Will Miami's habit of forcing aggressive double teams lead to a wealth of open San Antonio shots in the cacophony of the AT&T center, unfairly dooming their aggressive traps to the dustbin of history? Will Kawhi's hawking of passing lanes lead to constant foul trouble against a tandem as good at contact-drawing as LeBron and Wade, unfairly dooming Kawhi's 2014 defensive season to a punchline in a single few-game sample? Will Marco Bellinelli's astonishingly terrible pick up lines throw LeBron off his game, fairly leading to a heel turn for Marco as Subway's new sponsor? Will James Jones break out his Darth Vader voice in crunch time, scaring the ball away from the basket on a clutch Manu Ginobili three, revealing himself to be a robot voiced by James Earl Jones?

I could see the Spurs win it quickly. They're statistically better to a vast extent, and they match up well with Miami. I could see the Heat win it quickly, overwhelming San Antonio with their well-rested length and a heaping helping of LeBron's magic. It could be exactly like last year -- a momentum-shifting war of attrition between two amazing teams. It could be quick, it could be long. It could hinge on a single play, it could be a lopsided sweep that reveals last season's classic as a quirky aberration. I see a vast expanse of possibility stretched out before us. We know more than usual, but the knowledge comes from a base so muddled and random and uncertain that it makes us even more cautious than we would be without it.

But I must pick something, so I'll pick with the heart.

Spurs in seven. Game eight is Thursday.

• • •

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A Game of Loans: Three Theories on Cleveland's #1 Pick

Posted on Thu 22 May 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

cavs win lottery

"The Cleveland Cavaliers won the most recent NBA Draft Lottery." If you picked a date at random from the 1463 days in between the 2011 NBA draft and the 2015 NBA draft, there's a 75.7% chance that the previous statement would be accurate. The Cavaliers -- those oft-maligned miscreants -- have won three of the past four lotteries, netting them a franchise point guard (Kyrie Irving), a franchise centerpiece (Jor-El Embiid or Ender Wiggins), and the best nickname of the 2013 NBA draft (Anthony "Tubs" Bennett). They've won it three times despite repeated assertions that they were gunning for a playoff spot in literally every year since LeBron left.

No, really. Am I the only person who remembers this? It was obviously unrealistic from a retrospective point of view, but in 2011 Gilbert and his front office were insistent up until late December that the 2011 Cavaliers could make the playoffs led by Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. They underestimated the defensive dropoff in letting Brown walk, but there was a tiny grain of reason in their expectations. In 2012, the expectations weren't super high, but Kyrie and Varejao looked like two possible all-stars in a terrible east, which made a preseason expectation of playoff basketball not-entirely-unrealistic either. In 2013, they added Waiters to the mix and had two rookies poised to make big sophomore leaps in Thompson and Irving, which looked like an eastern playoff team in the preseason. Whoops. And we don't even need to bring up their expectations in 2014, do we?

Most of this is just a result of playing in a dismal eastern conference where shiftless and half-awake basketball is generally enough to secure a top-5 playoff seed. Were they in the Western conference, I don't think Gilbert or the front office could've sold any of the fanbase on slim playoff hopes. But some of this actually made a small deal of sense. Kyrie Irving's best season to date has been his rookie year -- he's stagnated in tiny ways since then, never quite developing the way his previous trajectory implied. (Not that he's bad, just not-quite-as-good.) Anderson Varejao's injury bingo has completely undermined his beautiful defensive game. The supporting cast hasn't just been bad, they've been borderline criminal -- even when the Cavs can put together a decent-by-Eastern-standards group of starters (2013, 2014) the bench has been so grotesque that they STILL can't help but get blown out by any other half-competent team. And when injuries strike? They're a joke.

So, long story short, they keep entering the lottery year-in and year-out, despite fielding a ton of top-tier talent and high-upside rookies. And they usually have a decent chance at a high pick, too. So it isn't totally unreasonable. But, I mean, cripes. It's still pretty unreasonable. Three out of four years? This hasn't ever happened before! It's so deliciously improbable that there HAS to be some incredible conspiracy theory that explains it. Right? This morning, I have decided to outline the three most likely conspiracies that are behind this rampant favoritism towards Cleveland from Stern and Silver. Don your tin-foil caps and follow me to a world of subterfuge and deceit. It's Clarissa Explains it All, only if Clarissa was inordinately concerned with NBA lottery conspiracies. Hooray!

• • •


Okay, bear with me here. Outside of basketball, owner Dan Gilbert is famous for his primary business venture -- founding Quicken Loans, the largest online mortgage lender in the United States. Quicken Loans used to have a somewhat squeaky clean image, mostly by dint of their quick ascent from a minor player in the industry into a ridiculous powerhouse over the last 15 years. Fun fact -- Gilbert founded the company in 1985 under a different name, then sold it in 1999 for about $500 million dollars to the company that sells the eponymous Quickbooks/Quicken tax software. Then, less than 3 years later, he and a group of investors inexplicably managed to repurchase the loans subsidiary for just $64 million dollars.

Nope, not a typo. You read that right. Gilbert and his investors effectively bought back something they sold for $500 million dollars for $64 million less than 3 years later. Investments are so much cooler when you're filthy rich! As with all financial transactions, it is easiest to visualize how hilarious this is with Pokemon cards. Let's say you traded your holographic Charizard to a friend of yours for his entire deck of cards. Three weeks later, you decide you want Charizard back, so you trade your friend a bent Voltorb and a ripped Nidoking. They happily return your Charizard, allowing you to keep everything they originally traded the Charizard for. Isn't that awesome? That's what happened to Dan Gilbert. But I'm getting off track. The point is, Quicken Loans only started experiencing major success in the mid-2000s, around the time of the financial crisis.

Their main claim to fame is that they were able to not only stay afloat but aggressively expand their market share during the crisis, something Gilbert attributes to their can-do attitude and special culture. Others have a slightly different take on the matter, with lawsuits claiming that they used their small stature and internet-base to dodge regulations, which is (the lawsuits imply) much more responsible for their expansion than any sort of cultural version of M.J.'s Secret Stuff. If the accusations are true, Quicken Loans was (and perhaps remains) one of America's big-time predatory lenders, a company that sells numerous lemon loans to elderly people in high-pressure situations and made it a regular business practice to inflate customer interest rates and use false appraisals when hashing out loan terms.

I don't know whether the accusations are true or not. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. But assuming they are, what's the operative clause in the previous paragraph? Lemon loans sold to elderly people, of course! What if part of Dan Gilbert's purchase of the Cavaliers back in 2005 included refinancing on the mortgage of the NBA's New York headquarters? If Quicken Loans is used to suckering old dudes, David Stern's 2005 incarnation was pretty elderly. The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't have their own pick in the 2005 NBA draft, so it wouldn't have been obvious that year. And they made the playoffs every year from 2006 to 2010, which made it impossible for any lottery-based stipulations in the loan to rear their head during that duration. But after LeBron left and the franchise collapsed, Gilbert and the QuickCabal (... still workshopping this one, bear with me) came to Stern and pointed out the following TOTALLY REAL clause in the terms on the NBA's mortgage refinance that TOTALLY EXISTS:

74. The provisions of this Article 74 shall govern all Commissioners of the NBA.

(a) Whensoever the Cleveland Cavaliers, owned by Daniel "The Hammer" Gilbert, are to be found in the draft lottery, a special odds-boosting algorithm shall be employed. The exact mechanisms of this algorithm are at the NBA Commissioner's discretion, so long as they are bound and governed by the following provision: in THREE (3) out of every FOUR (4) lotteries in which the Cleveland Cavaliers are receiving lottery odds, the Cleveland Cavaliers must win the first pick in the NBA draft. This is applicable even in cases of busts, fraud, murder, Low Winter Sun marathons, and the drafting of entire contracts in the "Comic Sans" typeface. Furthermore, the Commissioner is bound and obligated to read Twitter's response to each lottery win, staring vacantly as the NBA's greatest fans balk in confusion and woe over this downright incomprehensible gesture."

Gilbert, you slithering snake.

• • •

captain planet


This one is my favorite, even if doesn't actually make sense. Or possibly exist. It's like my version of reptilians. Captain Planet was an environmentalist cartoon from the 90s. The basic premise was that five kids had rings that allowed them to tap into the Earth's core five elements: Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! ... Heart? (Yeah, I don't think they ever really explained that one.) When they acted apart, they could control their respective element through their ring of power. When they worked as a team, and put all their elements together, they could summon this strange chrome man with the powers of all their rings, along with the additional power to tell 10-20 bad puns per second.

Actually, wait. Hold on a second. I don't think combining their powers into Captain Planet actually increased their ring abilities at all. They could've done what he did just by working together. In fact, I distinctly remember that his only weakness was pollution, which is exactly what they faced in every single episode. Hey, but... wait... then why did they ever summon him at all? What was the point? "Hey, polluters! We're going to combine all our powers to create ONE person who's weak to your crap, instead of FIVE people who are! And we can't use our rings while he's around, which makes us all completely useless! Take that, nerds!" I'm not entirely sure that the premise of Captain Planet made any sense whatsoever. Huh. How about that.

Anyway. Captain Planet and the five kids were tasked with defending the Earth from polluters and drugs and all sorts of things that are Bad For Kids (TM). In this conspiracy theory, Captain Planet doesn't exist, because he's silly and a cartoon. Instead, there's a CAPTAIN CANADA.

Yeah, that's right. CAPTAIN CANADA is entering your world. He'll never leave it.

Remember how Captain Planet combined five elements to form the core of his powers? Captain Canada combines five too: maple syrup, poutine, public nudity, the NHL, and Quebec. His mission? To seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no -- ... I mean, to spread Canadian values and smiles all over the world. Obviously. What does this have to do with the NBA draft? Simple. The Cavaliers already have Tristan Thompson, Canada's #1 basketball son. When the Cavaliers chose Thompson back in 2011, Captain Canada put the Cavs on his radar -- he realized that he finally had an NBA team to slowly turn into Canada's 2nd national team! Ever since, he's sneakily tried to push all the Canadian players he could Cleveland's way.

And he's succeeding! In 2013, he was scared that they'd pass Bennett over for someone else, so he snuck into their minds and made Bennett their top choice before giving them the #1 pick to ensure that nobody else messed it up. In 2014, he realized that the only way to ensure Wiggins made it to Cleveland was to rig the #1 pick for Cleveland and slowly release false information about Embiid's injury. His next task? Get the Spurs to trade Cory Joseph to the Cavaliers, and have the Cavs flip some of their tertiary pieces for Andrew Nicholson from Orlando. At that point, Cleveland will be able to put out an all-Canada lineup of Cory Joseph, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Nicholson, and Tristen Thompson.

That... oh my god, wait, that's a terrible lineup. Captain Canada, what have you done.

• • •


By the standards of conspiracies, this one is pretty low-key. It has the conspiracy feature that it actually sounds halfway reasonable if you're willing to set aside disbelief for a second. No, the commissioner doesn't really have the power to rig the lottery, not how it's currently set up. But if he did, wouldn't a three-in-four showing by Cleveland be EXACTLY the kind of ridiculous flawed incentive-rewarding that would put some gas behind serious lottery reform? The media response and the fan response to Cleveland's win was unpredictably vitriolic for me, but for a smart guy like Silver, I'd imagine he had a decent idea of what was about to go down.

The way I looked at it -- taking off my "Cleveland Sports Fan" glasses for a moment -- it was a minor repudiation of tanking. The Cavaliers, failed though they were, actually tried to win this year. And they tried to win last year, too. They were just amazingly bad at it, much like the 2014 Milwaukee Bucks. Chris Grant made some terrible moves and they constantly leveraged their draft picks to pick up rental deals on marginal pieces in pursuit of what would've likely been a 5-6 game pasting at the hands of a solid Indiana squad. They spent the entire season trying to wring as many wins as possible out of a mismatched roster with a not-very-good coaching staff. They probably fell below their true talent, but only just -- the ceiling for this team was probably around 35-36 wins, and they came within a hair of it. They have a lot of dead weight crowding out the marginal talent they've accumulated, and desperately needed a jolt of something to bring them back into the realm of the living. So the argument is that their win isn't THAT bad -- it just pooh-poohs tanking teams and reminds everyone that winning doesn't necessarily torpedo you.

Except that's not what happened. At all. Twitter erupted with all the indignation of a seriously offended Mount Vesuvius when it became obvious the Cavaliers had moved up in the lottery. And when it became obvious that they'd won it again, that indignation turned to righteous volcanic fury. The basic thesis behind this is both simple to understand and a little bit hard to justify. The Cavaliers have gotten every lucky bounce since LeBron left, but mismanagement and general incompetence have kept them mired in a place where they aspire to rank mediocrity. And they fail miserably at actualizing those aspirations, despite it all. It's like watching a child constantly buzz in first on Youth Jeopardy, get all the Daily Doubles, throw all his opponents off their game... and completely mangle the obvious answers every single time, leading to a loss despite it all. It's like watching a born-rich white guy turn their riches to rags.

It marginally challenges the concept of "fairness" and lends new vigor to the anti-tanking movement. If Silver really wants the lottery gone, there aren't many ways to make it look like a farce. Give it to a tanking team, it "works." Give it to a randomly selected good team, and it seems like it's doing its job. But give it to a flailing team with no reasonable explanation for their string of good luck? Give it to an owner who non-Cleveland fans completely despise? That's probably the one way Silver could've gotten this kind of an anti-lottery reaction. As I've said multiple times, I sincerely doubt this is actually what he was doing. But if it was, well... let's not lie to ourselves. He would've done a pretty slick job of it, huh?

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First Round Midcap (EAST): Here Come the Wizards!

Posted on Thu 24 April 2014 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

Joe Johnson attacks the basket. Demar Derozan pretends to care.

A few weeks ago, I put those first round predictions on Twitter. I didn't have the time to do a huge piece explaining all of them, but I figured it made sense to scribe them down and revisit the predictions when reality had rudely awakened me to the dire mortality of my reasoning. Strangely enough, they haven't actually been that bad -- one in particular will haunt me for the rest of my days (... OK, no it won't), but for the most part my original reasoning has proved to be some combination of apt and silly. Given that all seven series currently have two games in the books, I felt like this would be a good time to do some revisiting. Reflect on what we've learned in the first two games, revisit my original thoughts, revise predictions when necessary. All fun things. We have a lot to get to, so let's get to it. Let's start in the east. I'll work my way westward tomorrow.

• • •

INDIANA (1) vs ATLANTA (8) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: INDIANA IN 4

Well... I was wrong about that. Look, I'm all for respecting a team that suffered injury trouble, but let's not overstate things. This Atlanta team won 38 games this year. They were outscored on the season by about half a point a game (... although, come to think of it, two other playoff teams were outscored by more), and they sport roughly two NBA-caliber high rotation players in Millsap and Horford. Jeff Teague is a marginally below league-average point guard and Kyle Korver is an excellent tertiary piece with his silky quick shot. Both of those mean something, but having those two as your 3rd and 4th best players (2nd and 3rd with Horford out) is a really bad look for an NBA team. Their offense and defense are well-designed but not well-executed, for the most part, and they just aren't that hard to gameplan. I figured that nothing Indiana did would override the fact that Atlanta is simply not a good basketball team.

Alright, yeah. I was wrong. Indiana's absurd inflexibility (as expertly noted by Zach Lowe) hurt them when Coach Bud chose to use Antic as a floor-spacing center and play "come-at-me" defense in a way that would reinforce George's worst tendencies. The Hawks romped Atlanta in Game #1 and as the series moves back to Atlanta it's an open question whether the Pacers can get it together and win the road game they need to retake home court. I still think they will, but lord almighty... how do you handicap this Pacers team? If they play to their worst tendencies they will lose to everyone. Literally everyone in America. The Kentucky Wildcats? They upset the Pacers. The Washington Generals? They upset the Pacers. Your little league team? They upset the Pacers. It's ridiculous! How can a team with such a refined command of the crisp grime (like: Memphis!) play like this without any real driving factors? Cripes.

The only thing keeping me from picking Atlanta at this point is that I can't fathom a world where Atlanta is actually a good enough team to beat this Indiana squad. I refuse to believe that's going to happen until I see it happen. Plain and simple. The Antic gimmick is a strong play by Coach Bud, but I have to believe the Pacers won't be quite so befuddled over the course of a long series that they won't be able to gameplan it out. I have at least a little bit of faith in Coach Vogel. Don't let me down, Frank. Still, it won't be a short series -- my guess is 6 or 7 games, simply because the Pacers have been rubbish on the road recently and expecting them to sweep the two games in Atlanta necessary to finish it in five is a fool's errand.

• • •

MIAMI (2) vs CHARLOTTE (7) -- Miami leads 2-0

Original prediction: MIAMI IN 5

It kind of hurt me not to make the original sweep prediction here. I'm pretty sure that this is the worst Miami team of the last four years -- even if we're accounting for the "pedal off the medal" factor, this team just isn't quite as crisp or clean as any of the last three Finals-bound iterations. LeBron isn't slower, but he's lazier. Wade is markedly worse than 2011. Bosh has been a bit of a disappointment this year, too. Not terrible, mind you, but certainly not up to the standards we'd expected. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I expected Bosh to take the reins a bit more as Wade cycled into a late career preservation phase. He hasn't, really, and although his defense has been solid his general game has been a big disappointment for me. He's a max player who's playing like a 12-13 million dollar man. Still a great player, but not quite up to snuff. And outside of the big three, this hodgepodge of declining aged roleplayers doesn't elicit nearly the teeth-gnashing fear of Miami's 2012 or 2013 group.

In sum, it's just really hard to get a feel for this Miami squad. It's a very uneven team, and while they're probably the most likely champion (even now), it's tough to predict them sweeping. So I didn't. But I kind of felt like they would. Even against Charlotte, a team that I've really enjoyed watching. As I noted yesterday, the step the Bobcats took this season has been one of the more heartwarming stories of the year. Their ceiling isn't through the roof or anything, but they're a respectable basketball team that might be even better next year as Clifford's tendrils take root. And I'd give them a puncher's chance at a competitive series against Indiana, Toronto, or Chicago. But Miami is just an absolute nightmare matchup for them. Al Jefferson (especially as balky as he's been) can't dominate against Miami's stout front-line defense in the same way he can against most of the league. Kidd-Gilchrist can't hide on offense against Miami's pressure D, and it's just incredibly hard for Charlotte's cut-based system to find daylight when Miami deigns to play its game.

So, what have we learned? Not a ton, so I'd probably maintain my Heat-in-five thoughts. Yes, Miami won both games, but they just barely won last night's contest and the first game was exceedingly close until the end. This isn't like last year, where Miami roundly obliterated the Bucks in the first two games (by 23 and 12 point margins). Or even the year before, where Miami completely stunted on the New York Knicks (by 33 and 10 point margins). It's more like the 2011 Sixers than anything else in Miami's history, who lost a tight game one contest by 8 points and a more lopsided game two by 21 points. That Sixers team went on to lose in 5 games, which is probably the most likely fate for the Bobcats now that we've got a better sense of where these two teams stand. Miami's too sloppy to sweep these next two games in Charlotte. Right? (Please?)

• • •

TORONTO (3) vs BROOKLYN (6) -- Tied up at 1-1

Original prediction: TORONTO IN 5

The way I visualized this series in my head had Toronto dominating Brooklyn on the boards and crushing them in the paint, with Jonas and Lowry and Amir rocking rims and finishing calmly over Brooklyn's not-so-stout interior defense. I didn't really think Brooklyn would be able to fight back from that without some incredible three point shooting and a lot of forced turnovers. And Garnett would need to have a throwback series, obviously. Two games in, and... well... pretty much all of Brooklyn's needs have come to pass, and they've totally outclassed the original matchup issues that I thought would swing the series Toronto's way. To wit, through two games:

  • Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 16-16 on 55% shooting. Beastly numbers. Less beastly: he's turning the ball over on 30% of his possessions, which is astonishingly bad. He's averaging 6 turnovers a game. Bad news bears, kid.

  • Amir Johnson is shooting 75% at the rim, as expected. Unfortunately for Toronto, he's barely ever getting there, as Garnett and Plumlee have done an expert job keeping him off the glass and away from the rim.

  • Kyle Lowry is doing his normal Kyle Lowry thing, averaging 16-7-7 on 13 shots a night. One adjustment Casey might want to consider? Entreating Lowry to do his Kyle Lowry thing on defense, against Joe Johnson this time. Johnson has completely torn the Raptors defense up in the two games to date, mostly matched on Demar DeRozan. Maybe a different look with Lowry could trip him up.

Yikes. It's not a lost cause for Toronto yet -- 1-1 isn't a death knell, and there are certain adjustments the Raptors could do to change the game a bit against Brooklyn's unconventional lineups. But the Raptors clearly don't outclass the Nets as much as I thought they did (if they even do at all), and my five-game gentleman's sweep seems like an extremely unlikely dream right now. I'd still pick Toronto, but after those two games, I'm thinking this series probably goes the distance. On a somewhat unrelated note, it'd be nice if Terrence Ross could do anything. He's made 2-12 shots in 21 minutes a night so far, and he's turned the ball over almost as many times as he's snagged a rebound. Get it together, Ross.

• • •

CHICAGO (4) vs WASHINGTON (5) -- Washington leads 2-0

Original prediction: WASHINGTON IN 6

This was one prediction where quite a few people called foul. But I maintain now what I maintain then -- Nene is a terrible matchup for Noah. Noah is a fantastic defender, but like most great big man defenders, he doesn't operate well when the opposing offense drags him too far from the paint and makes an active effort to force him to guard too much space. A weapon like Nene forces Noah to guard a massive chasm of offensive activity, and it's simply exhausting. Washington has some of the best cutters in the business, too, which makes Nene's matchup difficulty doubly tough for Chicago to wrangle. But the Bulls still have a stout defense -- having one or two interesting offensive quirks like Nene's versatility that can squeeze out a few more points over the course of a game are ridiculously useful, but you don't beat the Bulls on that alone.

No, you beat the Bulls by suffocating their already-stagnant offense to "failed autoerotic asphyxiation" levels. And the Wizards are doing that well -- in spots, at least. Mostly in the second half of games. Noah, Gibson, and Dunleavy are the only Bulls that have gotten anything going offensively, and they're generally carrying the team right now. Due to red-hot starts (or, well, whatever Chicago's approximation of "red hot" can possibly be called), Chicago's offensive rating over the full series (roughly 107 points per 100 possessions) is actually a vast improvement over their season-long 102.5 mark. But that covers up the fact that Washington's stout defense has effectively shut down Chicago over the late period in both games to date. In fact, in Tuesday's win, Chicago went scoreless for almost four minutes of overtime, only able to generate offense when it was essentially too late to matter.

Honestly? I could see Washington pulling it out in 4 or 5, but I've got a suspicion the Bulls are going to win one of these close ones eventually. And on-the-ropes home teams rarely lose game 5 to a roadster. Wizards in 6 still sounds like the most likely scenario for me.

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