# NBA Playoff Primer

We can all speculate who would win the NBA title if the playoffs started today, but with every team at least two thirds of the way through its season, let’s let the numbers do the talking. I constructed a current playoff bracket and looked at how many points per game each team is scoring and surrendering per game this season to determine outcomes. Offenses tend to fluctuate more depending on where the game is played, so I used each team’s home/road scoring splits to determine how many points they would score. I held all teams responsible for marinating a consistent defensive intensity and used their average PPG allowed for both home and road games.

When it came to picking a winner on the projected score, I had to leave some room for error. It is impossible to assume a team will score exactly as many points as they mathematically should, so I used the following parameters.

If a game was projected to be decided by 1.0 points or fewer, I gave the underdog a 50% chance at winning. The team projected to win was awarded the first victory and then wins rotated from that point forward.

If a game was projected to be decided by 1.1 points to 2.0 points, I gave the underdog a 33% chance of winning.

Are some team pacing themselves while others peak early in the season? Maybe. But over 54+ games, here are what the numbers say will happen in late April/early June.

Eastern Conference

First Round

Miami vs Milwaukee

Average score in Miami: Heat win 103.7 – 97.1

Average score in Milwaukee: Heat win 98.9 – 97.5

Series Result: The Bucks have a 21.8% chance of winning one game in this series, which means the current scoring averages predict a Heat sweep.

Indiana vs Boston

Average score in Indiana: Pacers win 97.4 – 92.2

Average score in Boston: Celtics win 93.6 – 92.7

Series Result: The Pacers hold serve at home and split in Boston. Indiana advances in five games, just enough time to get another nice KG sound bite at some point.

New York vs Chicago

Average score in New York: Knicks win 96.7 – 95.3

Average score in Chicago: Knicks win 94.8 – 93.8

Series Result: In the most competitive series of the first round, neither team defends home court on a consistent basis. The Knicks close out the Bulls in Chicago in six games.

Brooklyn vs Atlanta

Average score in Brooklyn: Nets win 96.9 – 95.1

Average score in Atlanta: Hawks win 97.5 – 94.8

Series Result: Home court advantage is currently up in the air between these two (Atlanta is currently .003 percentage points ahead), but the numbers suggest it doesn’t matter. The Hawks ability to keep it close on the road gives them the edge, regardless of where this series begins. Hawks in six.

Second Round

Miami vs Atlanta

Average score in Miami: Heat win 102.6 – 96.1

Average score in Atlanta: Hawks win 98.5 – 97.8

Series Result: Percentages say that the Heat will drop their first game of the postseason in Atlanta, but with an average 6.5 point advantage at home, that is the only loss projected. The Heat earn a split in Atlanta and dominate at home on their way to winning four of five against the Hawks.

Indiana vs New York

Average score in Indiana: Pacers win 97.6 – 93.9

Average score in New York: Knicks win 95.8 – 92.9

Series Result: This is why the regular season matters. The three point dependant Knicks are much more comfortable at home and are able to extend the Pacers to a seventh game. That being said, the final game will be played in Indiana, where the Pacers have a decided edge. The Pacers win, but the Knicks don’t go down without a fight.

Third Round

Miami vs Indiana

Average score in Miami: Heat win 99.1 – 93

Average score in Indiana:  Pacers win 98.8 – 94.3

Series Result: The Pacers have shown an ability to stare down the Heat this season, and that doesn’t change on the playoff stage. The health and potential emergence of Danny Granger could make this the best series the Eastern Conference has to offer, but ultimately the scrappy Pacers fall just short. The Heat don’t lose at home, and thanks to a dominate regular season, that is good enough. Miami, likely on the shoulders of Dwayne Wade (Paul George matches up well with LeBron), wins the decisive game seven.

Western Conference

First Round

San Antonio vs Houston

Average score in San Antonio: Spurs win 104 – 99.3

Average score in Houston: Spurs win 103.7 – 103.3

Series Result: Houston remains the team that no one wants to see, and they prove to be a tough out at home. The Spurs win, but James Harden and the Rockets take a game at home.

Oklahoma City vs Utah

Average score in Oklahoma City: Thunder win 104.3 – 96.7

Average score in Utah: Thunder win 101.5 – 98.9

Series Result: The Thunder are projected to sweep the Jazz, but the series will be closer than you’d expect. The Jazz are tough at home, and with a forceful front line, they at least make Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook play the fourth quarter on a nightly basis.

Los Angeles vs Golden State

Average score in Los Angeles: Clippers win 102.4 – 97.3

Average score in Golden State: Clipper win 99.7 – 98

Series Result: Forget that the Clippers are the better team and enjoy Steph Curry against Chris Paul. The defense of Paul gives his team the advantage, but the Warriors are capable of catching fire and stealing a game at home. Lob City advances in five games.

Memphis vs Denver

Average score in Memphis: Grizzles win 97.4 – 96.1

Average score in Denver: Nuggets win 99.3 – 97.8

Series Result: The most competitive series in the West’s first round, with two teams that play very different styles. Per the current standings, the Grizzles are the slight favorite to advance in seven games, thanks to the home court edge. Should the Nuggets ascend to the four seed, they would then be the favorite in game seven.

Second Round

San Antonio vs Memphis

Average score in San Antonio:  Spurs win 97.3 – 94.9

Average score in Memphis: Spurs win 96.6 – 94.5

Series Result: Mathematically speaking, the Nuggets would have a better chance to pull of the upset, but regardless of the opponent the Spurs are heavily favored. Memphis simply lacks the firepower sans Rudy Gay to keep up with San Antonio and could be swept. The Nuggets would be projected to take a home game in their high altitude, but the stats say neither team is stopping the Spurs from advancing.

Oklahoma City vs Los Angeles

Average score in Oklahoma City: Thunder win 101.7 – 97.5

Average score in Los Angeles: Clippers win 100.2 – 98.9

Series Result: In the highest scoring series up to this point, the slightest of edges goes to the Thunder. Kevin Durant’s ability to score at will is a huge asset in a high scoring series as is the home court of Oklahoma City. The Clippers battle on a nightly basis and Chris Paul is good enough to spark the upset, but the percentages side with the Thunder in seven.

Third Round

San Antonio vs Oklahoma City

Average score in San Antonio: Spurs win 101.1 – 99.9

Average score in Oklahoma City: Thunder win 102.8 – 100.4

Series Result: In a matchup that would feature many storylines, I believe this series comes down to the point guard position. If I’m building a team, I think I would feel better about having Tony Parker, but in a seven game series, the upside of Russell Westbrook is hard to ignore. The numbers say this series is over when the Thunder take a 3-2 lead back to their college like atmosphere, setting up a rematch of last year’s final with the Miami Heat.

NBA Finals

Miami vs Oklahoma City

Average score in Miami: Heat win 102.9 – 100.3

Average score in Oklahoma City: Thunder win 103.1 – 98.1

Series Result: On the surface, the statistics as of this very moment point in the direction of the Heat winning a thrilling seven game series. But that could all change if they continue to take the regular season lightly and lose home court advantage. The current numbers suggest that OKC is more likely to defend its home court (5.0 point edge) than the Heat are (2.6 point edge), thus making the Thunder the favorite if they can get four home games. The Heat currently lead the Thunder by .008 percentage points in this hypothetical race for home court in the NBA Finals, something you’ll want to keep an eye on down the stretch. Is it possible the Heat go into cruise control over the final six days (presumably with the one seed clinched) and lose two of their final four games against playoff teams like Boston/Chicago or the every vengeful Cavaliers while the Thunder continue to chase the Spurs?

I’m not going to crown them yet, but the Heat are who we thought they were, and that is the favorite to win another NBA title.

# The Unbearable Heaviness of ‘Midrange’ Monta Ellis

Flickr/Jeremiah John McBride

Ed. Note: Here’s a guest post by Spencer Lund. It’s really good, so you should read it. All stats in the piece are current as of Tuesday, February 26.* Here’s a little bit about the author: Spencer enjoys smoking Camel Lights and mainlining greasy cheeseburgers and burritos. He’s a big fan of Emily Dickinson’s slant rhyme and is currently choosing which William Blake relief etch to tattoo on his back. You can find him around the web elsewhere, or just making basketball gifs.

Somewhere, in the depths of space and time, billions of light years away, Monta Ellis is still a low-efficiency NBA player on Earth’s doppelgänger. That’s because he’s Monta Ellis, and he’s gonna chuck 18-footers until he sloughs off this mortal coil.

Frederich Nietzsche proposed the idea of eternal recurrence in an effort to unravel the strings of fate and to show how they play off free will or humanity’s agency in the throes of an omnipotent force (God, Allah, Yahweh et al) possibly controlling the universe. The basic premise stems from the probability that there is another world constructed exactly in our image; that probability is less than zero (it’s true!). The infiniteness of space and time (discounting Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which renders some of empirical data supporting this idea useless) means there are interminable parallel worlds and events that match up with our own, and we’re all just in the middle of an inevitable circle to repeat that which has come before. Events that have occurred will occur again in self-similar fashion, throughout time. That’s the CliffsNotes version, at least, but it’s a useful tool when talking about the Milwaukee Bucks’ much-embattled off-guard, Monta Ellis. He will be launching, and missing, long 2-pointers always and forever, and it’s a heavy burden the Bucks are currently stuck with; although, their recent acquisition of J.J. Redick at the trade deadline means maybe they’ve found a way out of this vicious cycle.

In the last couple of seasons, Ellis has become synonymous with low-efficiency shot selection and lackadaisical effort on defense, which combine to form the antithesis of the ROI NBA general managers are beholden to in this post-CBA world. A world where the repeater tax has rightfully been called the Monster under the Bed and played a role in last week’s hushed trade deadline. The new CBA attempts to make a player’s salary a direct result of a quantifiable return on that team’s investment (and barring that, the subjective intangibles that increasingly represent what scouts are paid to evaluate). Perhaps no player in the contemporary game exhibits less ROI than Monta Ellis. His shot selection is a compendium of long 2-pointers interspersed with the occasional highlight-level lay-up. But it’s those long 2′s and his inability to hit them with any discernible frequency which are the primary reasons so many basketball bloggers and statisticians loathe his game so loudly and forcibly. That’s completely discounting his inability to defend, but for the purposes of Nietszche’s eternal recurrence, let’s stick to those long 2-pointers.

As the contemporary NBA game has adopted Bill James’s analytics, Monta has come to symbolize just what can happen when you don’t take efficiency into account while composing your roster.** It’s not just that Monta has a problem with shot selection, it’s that he’s doomed to repeat those long 2-pointers ad infinitum; an eternal recurrence that’s already given Bay area fans the winter chills, and has transferred their waking to the poor denizens halfway up the western coast of Lake Michigan, in Milwaukee.

Ellis’s rookie season in Golden State is the only one where he didn’t attempt over 5 shots in the 16-23 foot range, which constitutes the lowest shot efficiency in an NBA half-court (per hoopdata). Lowest, in the sense that it’s the farthest shot you can take from the basket without being awarded an extra point. Ellis has attempted all those midrange jumpers throughout his career despite the fact he’s only connected on better than 40 percent once, for an entire NBA season (in his breakout sophomore year with the Warriors pre-moped injury). Fast forward six years and Ellis is shooting a career low from that range, connecting on just 32 percent of his 5.2 attempts between 16-23 feet, via hoopdata. Only three players, LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Jefferson and Carmelo Anthony, average more attempts from that location on the floor, and none of them are below 40 percent from that distance. In fact, of the 9 players who shoot more than 5 attempts per game in the 16-23 foot area, Ellis is the only one under 40 percent.

You could make the case that hoopdata’s stats look at too narrow a sliver of the court to judge Ellis so harshly. But if we look at NBA.com’s midrange attempts (all stats moving forward come via NBA.com/stats), which takes out 3-pointers and paint shots, and leaves every other shot in play, Ellis is still woefully behind his fellow midrange brethren. Since we’re opening up the parameters to include shots that are closer in than 16 feet, there’s a better chance for Ellis to redeem himself on pull-up jumpers after defenders (stupidly, we might add) jump out when he’s beyond the arc. But, again, of the 15 players who average at least 6 shot attempts a game in the midrange, only Orlando’s Glen Davis shoots a lower percentage (34 percent vs Ellis’ 34.6). No matter how you break down Ellis’ shooting, he’s still below the league average in almost every spot on the court. Except for the zone directly to the right of the paint facing the basket, extending from the elbow to the baseline and the right corner three, Ellis shoots below the league average. In both those outlier zones on the right side of the court, he’s still shooting less than 43 percent, and he’s no better than 3 percentage points over the league average. Obviously, his shot chart is cluttered with red (meaning he’s more than 5 percent worse than the league average).

Zone shooting percentages (NBA.com/stats)

Not only that, but when we look at the incidence of his shots from different areas of the court, he’s spending the majority of his time firing the ball up between 10 and 24 feet from the basket. Of all the 934 shots Monta has jacked this season, almost 45 percent of them (417 total) fall between 10-24 feet, which is the least efficient spot on the court. Rather than get his buckets at the rim, or in the corners, Monta attempts those 6 plus midrange jumpers a game, and connects on less than 35 percent of them.

Shot Distribution Percentages (NBA.com/stats)

He’s not exactly lighting it up at the rim or beyond the arc, either. Currently, he’s shooting 22.7 percent on 3-pointers despite taking over 3 per game, and he’s connecting on 61.4 percent of his shots at the rim, which is still under the league average of 64.5. Still, it’s Monta’s midrange shots with a larger risk for less of a reward that rankle the statistical illuminati of the NBA. Just watch these four samples, culled randomly over the course of this season. There are so many long 2-point shots to choose from, I thought I’d do it blindfold. Sure enough, all four of the shots were misses (not very surprising since he shoots a little more than 34 percent).

But, on the bright side for Bucks fans, Monta is 1-for-6 from beyond 40 feet this season:

Yet, even with all those awful shot attempts throughout his career, Monta will make \$11 million this year from the Bucks, which accounts for over 17 percent of their \$62 million payroll this season. If he elects to exercise his option for next year, and stay in Milwaukee for another \$11 million year tacked on to the end of his contract, it will be more than \$3 million more than the next-highest paid player on their roster next season (Ersan Ilyasova’s \$7.9 million). True, Brandon Jennings is a restricted free agent this off-season, and he’ll probably command close to a max salary, which Milwaukee could match, but it remains to be seen whether GM John Hammond will bring Monta back, especially if J.J. Redick continues to blossom into the all-around player he’s so worked hard to become.

Redick has only played one game with Milwaukee at the time of this writing, and he logged 35 minutes in the Bucks’ one point loss to Atlanta, but Monta still played over 43 minutes in the game. Redick, for the season, has a true shooting percentage of 59.3; Ellis, with all those 2-pointers and the awful shooting from beyond the arc and at the rim, sports a true shooting percentage of 47.2. With both Redick and Ellis most comfortable at the 2-spot, why would Milwaukee even think about starting Monta over Redick? Why isn’t Milwaukee praying that lack of playing time means Monta neglects his player option for another year at \$11 million and inevitably*** gets signed by some team with a dearth of shooting guards. A team that thinks they can curb Monta’s gunning from the midrange? That team won’t be able too, because as long as history continues and the universe continues as a limitless vacuum (how the universe can be limitless and expansive at the same time makes my head hurt, but that’s besides the point), there will be an eternal recurrence of Monta jump shots that clang off the rim. Monta’s midrange is as it was, as it is, and as it will be, now and forever. Amen.

*After this piece was written, Monta hit a ridiculous, off-balance triple, which rolled around, popped back out and finally nestled through the hoop to steal a win in Houston. What no one will mention after his heroics though (even though he was 9-for-23 on the night), is earlier in that same game-winning possession Ellis missed a leaning mid-range jumper from 18 feet before getting the offensive rebound.

**It’s a nice parallel that Monta was traded from Golden State for a player, Andrew Bogut, whose contributions are not easily translatable to an NBA box score, and require more advanced statistical analysis. Even with advanced metrics, Bogut’s someone you appreciate more in the flow of a game rather then an excel spreadsheet. That is, when he’s actually healthy and on the court.

***It would be nice to think of a day where someone like Monta Ellis would decline his player option (like so many players before him), and find that he’s worth less than half the player option amount on the open market (agents mean this will likely never happen, but it’s still fun to imagine). But even though those days might be approaching with the new CBA using prior payrolls to tack on the repeater tax, they’re not here yet. So you can bet some GM will roll the dice on Monta’s awful jumper and offer him over eight figures a year to come and shoot under 40 percent on midrange jumpers and under 30 percent on 3-pointers. They’ll deserve what they get too, for being so foolish with their money (I’m guessing the Lakers, but I’m biased).

# In The Paint – With Bobby Bernethy

In The Paint is an ongoing HP series where we  will learn about the different basketball artists on the Interwebs and break down the inspiration for some of their work.

This week, we are “In The Paint” with Seattle’s Bobby Bernethy who is a talented designer that has done a series of great basketball works for Got ‘Em Coach, and for his own personal site.

How long have you been a basketball fan? How long have you been drawing/making basketball players/art?

I’ve been playing and following basketball for as long as I can remember. My dad is a big basketball fan, and he was taking me to watch games and high school tournaments from a young age. After that I was hooked. I played a few different sports while I was growing up, but basketball has always been my favorite.

I always liked to draw as well. I remember tracing Shawn Kemp photos out of the local paper when I was young. I would doodle in school a lot, and a lot of that was basketball-related.

I kept drawing occasionally throughout high school, but never took any classes or pursued it as anything more than a hobby. I ended up going over to the University of Hawai’i for college (strictly for academic reasons, of course). When I got to school I didn’t know what I initially wanted to do, but I took some basic graphic design courses and realized it was what I wanted to study.

What other artists have inspired you?

I feel like every time I look through design and illustration blogs there is always someone’s work that I envy. There are so many talented people out there, just looking through Dribbble or Designspiration for a few minutes makes me inspired to want to be a better designer.

Some specific artists/designers that have inspired me over the years are people like Sagmeister, Art Chantry, Jon Contino, Christoph Niemann, Brock Davis, and Jessica Hische (and pretty much every other contributor over at Friends of Type).
In terms of basketball-related art, I think what initially inspired me to start putting my own work out there was seeing Jacob Weinstein’s illustrations for Free Darko. I also recently worked in a Seattle office with Matt Hollister, who has done some great basketball art as well, and I gained a lot from working with him.

How do you decide who to draw/sketch? Do you just tend to draw players you like or that are in the news? I noticed you like to frequently draw Seattle SuperSonics players and jerseys.

Sometimes an idea will come to me that I think is clever and it’ll eventually turn into a design. Other times I’ll get inspired by someone else’s work; maybe a certain aesthetic style or concept, and I’ll want to try something similar to improve my illustration skills and try to push myself.

Since I’m a Seattle fan, I tend to include former Sonics from my childhood pretty often. It’s always a good feeling to do some work with GP or Kemp in it.

Tell me a little bit more about your overall process and concept.

I started my Tumblr a couple years ago as a place to put personal projects, and as a way to try and add something to the NBA community online. I felt like there were a lot of great NBA-related blogs and podcasts, and that creating funny or interesting artwork was what I could bring to the table.

Also, I love doing graphic design work for a living, but there are times when it can be a bit of a grind. Being able to do some lighthearted work on my own time about something I love like the NBA is always a good feeling and tends to re-energize me. Seeing a project get spread around on Tumblr and getting feedback on it is always a great feeling as well.

Let’s break down your Kobe Got ‘em Coach playing card – give me some insight into the inspiration and concept.

The Kobe card was part of a series I did for Neil Punsalan over at Got ‘Em Coach. My initial idea was to do the LeBron card, because the concept behind him being “King” made the most sense. I was pretty happy with the way it turned out so I made a couple more. Got ‘Em Coach is a predominantly Lakers blog, so I finished the series with Kobe as King of LA.

I’d love to eventually create a whole set of these and have the actual deck printed out. Having the physical product of the playing cards to use would be really cool. And at the very least I need to design Metta World Peace as the Joker some time soon.

Same thing with your Kemp/Lister MS Paint piece but also how long did that take you? Why MS Paint?

The Kemp on Lister MS Paint piece was based on a meme that was already going around on some NBA forums. (I found it on Insidehoops.com) People were re-creating NBA moments in MS Paint and I thought they were hilarious, so I just took a shot at making one myself.

Most people in their 20′s to 30′s remember using MS Paint to make terrible drawings back with Windows 95, so it’s a fun reference to nostalgia.

As for drawing Kemp/Lister, that’s one of my favorite dunks of all time and everyone remembers Kemp pointing at him, so it seemed like a good one to draw.

# Kevin’s Summer Project, Part 9: Shooting Guard Defense

Kobe wasn’t drafted between 2000 – 2010, but the other guy was; Tony Allen locks people down.

Three months ago, I covered Shooting Guard Offense…I’m really dragging this out.   The high points of that article included: shooting guards languish offensively; like their PG counterparts, size provided little benefit; upperclassmen with slow agility times rarely succeed; and long, explosive underclassmen almost always do.  So, which of these trends hold-up for defense?  Do other conclusions emerge?

Regarding the first item; shooting guards also served as the most worthless defensive position.  Two weeks ago, we exposed the dearth of impactful point guard defenders, but this group looks worse: the best SG is worse than the best PG; the tenth best SG season slides in as the thirteenth best PG.

With that out of the way, these guys’ defense provided the strongest correlations yet from this series.  For all underclassmen, 32 of 40 correlations were positive.  For upperclassmen, it was 37 of 40, with the three negative correlations generating from bench press.  This is fairly stark contrast with the offensive outputs, when I noted how the frequency of busts resulted in poorly-defined trends.    The results push more extreme when looking at first-round picks only; every non-agility drill correlation proved positive  for underclassmen, while half exceeded 0.25.  Compared to the offensive distribution around zero noted in Part One, this result looks noteworthy.  Certainly at this position, size and athleticism warrant closer viewing on defense.

The prevailing trend toward physical acumen instigating impressive defensive performance, while minimally impacting offense, makes sense.   Scoring buckets is highly skill based: shooting form, while spotted-up and maintaining it on the move; nifty ball-handling; finishing in traffic, with both hands; court-vision and timing on the pick & roll, and in transition…none of these skills are captured by size & athleticism measurements.  Defense though, certainly man-to-man, is greatly aided by overwhelming the opponent with strength, length and speed.  In the post, muscle helps, while on the perimeter, speed and strength prove important, whether attempting to stay in-front of a speedy opponent, or fighting and trailing a guy through a series of screens.  Obviously, smarts, fundamentals, and effort also play a huge role in solid defense, but speed, leaping, and long arms help make-up ground when recovering or helping from the weak-side.

Coming back full-circle though, these players struggled at making a defensive impact.  So, how much should be read-into the defensive correlations?  The primary difference between the offensive and defensive data lies with the results generated when analyzing the size measurements.  Results were appreciably higher for defense, particularly for underclassmen.  For the entire group, of thirty total correlations, twenty-six were positive (including all 15 for upperclassmen), but only four rose above 0.25.  Viewing only first round picks provides increasingly meaningful numbers though.

While the upperclassmen marks typically end positive, they are definitely unremarkable.  The younger players though, offered markedly better defense with increased length.  Early on, I described 0.50 as the value when I started paying attention.  As their careers progressed, this group approached (or reached) that threshold for both height and reach.

That table doesn’t quite match the strength of the leaping measurements though, which again most-indicated future NBA success for the two-guards.  The table below compares favorably with anything produced in this series.  Most are solidly positive, with an impressive high mark of 0.70, reflected in the graph below.  Uber-athletic Ronnie Brewer and Jason Richardson help prop this up, while floor-bound Dajuan Wagner, Joe Forte and Antoine Wright hold-down the other end.

All twenty speed correlations ended positive, however none exceeded 0.36.  Nine of ten agility correlations for underclassmen were negative, but all ten were positive for the older players.  As noted earlier, upperclassmen with poor agility rarely succeeded, with only two players clearing two career offensive win shares.  That theme repeats itself on defense, as only those same two players cleared 15 Points Stopped in a season, and neither exceeded 38 Points Stopped.  I’m still operating under a theory that exceptional agility drill times are more important for role players, a status more likely for older draftees.   Overall, this upperclassmen group as a whole left much to be desired. Only Dwyane Wade and Tony Allen performed better than 55 Points Stopped in at least two seasons.  Of the 51 upperclassmen shooting guards drafted, only four players reached this level in any season.

Conclusions:

• Shooting Guards provided a poor rate of success from the 2000 to 2011 drafts.  Sure, Dwyane Wade, Brandon Roy and James Harden kick-ass, but the list of players not living up to expectations runs much longer.
• Generally, the upperclassmen busted.  Aside from Wade, Roy and Allen, the other 48 players combined for 342 Points Stopped over the seasons investigated by this study.  Compare this with Tony Allen’s 300 total Points Stopped in 2010 – 2011 and strike-shortened 2011 – 2012.  Dwight Howard tallied 438 Points Stopped in 2007 – 2008.
• Size and Athleticism proved more important defensively than offensively, particularly for underclassmen, where the size measurements fared better than in previous portion of this study.  The No-Step Vert correlations for the 19-to-21 year olds reached relatively high levels.
• Poor agility times doomed upperclassmen Shooting Guards.

Come back in two weeks, to find out if pre-draft measurements continue to prove more valuable on defense.

# LeBron And Legacies, Then And Now

Photo via cosmic Blast on Flickr

LeBron James commands a limited vocabulary. Though he flirted with various superlatives for a moment there, reeling off game after game of 60 percent shooting from the field, the adjectives were fatigued. There are only so many ways for him to showcase his greatness, and only so many words to capture its essence.

There will be tweaks and subtle shifts and new tricks; 2013 LeBron James will be different from 2014 LeBron James, and 2015, and so on. He’s added a post game and discovered higher levels of efficiency; he’s no longer held at gun point by damning moral pretense or slingshot barbs about choking; he’s not really a dick anymore, either. What we’re left with, then, is a player chasing statistical legacy. There are the points and rebounds and assists, of course, and LeBron will rank somewhere and someone will ascribe meaning. But championships, however romanticized and dimmed by redemption narratives and rites of passage, are a number. MJ has six. Kobe has five. Magic has five. Duncan has four. LeBron has one.

MJ’s six is the magic number these days, Bill Russell’s 11 an out-of-reach circumstantial product. Still, six is five more than one, much more than an arm’s length. Two is equally distant, conversationally. Only when a great player reaches three or four championships, thereabouts, does he earn a thorough eyeballing in The Conversation. Until that point, the championship ticker fractures discussion infinitely: “How good is he?” He’s this good, or that good, or not that good, always defined, always differently. He’s not quite shrouded in a benchmark haze of glory yet, with branches of sub-glory negotiating the details.

We will never be able to reconcile individual credit with a team championship – the formula isn’t cut and dried, how many parts whom contributed how many parts when. Players are pawns of circumstance more than individual winners and losers. Still, whispers about personal championship count live on and numeric certainty brands careers. And these conversations will always happen, because a sport’s history only endures through a historically-facing present. There are two parts to this: memories and their emotions, which always fade, and static numbers. Bill Russell, 11 championships. Wilt Chamberlain, 100 points. Oscar Robertson, triple-double. The real generational adhesive.

It shouldn’t be a weird time to talk about LeBron James; he’s only 28 years old and in the prime of his career. In fact it should be of particular interest, because we’re watching the greatest at his greatest, and it’s time-sensitve. It must be cherished while it lasts, appreciated. That he’s unquestionably the league’s best player, paces ahead of gush-magnet Kevin Durant, says something in its own right; no amount of statistical haggling can dethrone him. He’s even reached the point at which MVP voters could tire of his dominance and casually fling the the award elsewhere for a year – or maybe it’s out of fear, that Kevin Durant could go his entire career without an MVP because LeBron stands in his way.

Last year’s triumph over Oklahoma City pivoted the discussion towards legacy. While that first championship barrier was a hurdle on its own, it was also a lonely talking point. Regular season LeBron James ceased to harvest worthwhile meaning, and only playoff LeBron James could calibrate perception. But at the very least, championship-less LeBron shouldered a narrative: the greatest who couldn’t, who wouldn’t, who choked, who failed, who negative-verbed. He had a character in the NBA drama, would he or wouldn’t he. Were the Heat good enough to win it all? Regular season Miami, at least, mattered.

None of that matters now. LeBron James swallowed The Big Three’s legacy. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are passengers, party to him. None of which, he actively chose, by the way – he’s no conquering warlord. We casually dump this pressure of expectation on all of our stars, endlessly rehashing juxtaposition. This player or that player, or this player, compare, contrast, compare, rank. Except LeBron isn’t quite ready to be thrust into the slaughterhouse, hung up on a plaque somewhere while various parents regulate his memory with sentimentalized anecdotes. Even back-to-back championships, this year and last, will cement nothing and define no one. There are many years left before children sit on grandparents’ laps.

Kobe Bryant is immersed in legacy now. It’s been that way since his fifth championship, and will continue headlong until his numbers become stationery. Maybe there’s a championship or two to be had, after all, or a career points title or other endurance ornaments. Though he’s playing in games with other players, Kobe is a retrospective talent, occasionally harnessing Kobe but more often surfacing as someone else. LeBron James is a waiting game. He wanders into vulnerable creases every once in a while – a losing streak, missed shots, an indiscretion within earshot of an always-hovering media – but mostly we’re just standing around and checking watches and barking about other things. “LeBron James does great thing” is no longer a headline because it always headlines.

One day we’ll dust off the filing cabinet and guide LeBron towards his eternal nook. “Hmmm…yes, over there, behind him, in front of him, next to that guy, just like that. There. Yes, perfect. Okay, who’s next? What’s particularly terrifying is the nonchalance of it all. LeBron James scored 40 points on top of 16 assists and eight rebounds last night. This doesn’t happen, at least with regularity. In his 44th-48th minutes – a second overtime – when he should have been at his most tired, he poured in 11 points on 3-3 from the field and 4-4 from the line. If statistics help to quantify and contextualize these “holy f—” moments, they also dampen them, too. LeBron out-LeBroned LeBron last night, and it’s worth nothing more than an eyebrow raise. The hallmark of supremacy is indifference.

Decision-LeBron was LeBron James at his most human – flawed, presumptive, disloyal, caustic. Post-championship LeBron, pre-legacy conversation LeBron, is a number. One, right now. He could be two by the end of this year, or three or four in years to come. It all feels unfairly reductionist, but LeBron is no martyr; he’s a really rich guy topping his profession with a particular ease and grace. Still, humanizing his performance amounts to familiar analogizing – LeBron James is more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, we’re told. Or, really, that he’s someone else, various templates welded together. (And this is all fine, I think, because in some way the gravity of what’s happening is only heightened in comparison). But forgetting that LeBron James is also LeBron James, unique, is a disservice, too. You might never see him again.

# Lion Face/Lemon Face, 2/25/13: The Wilson Chandler Show

The Wizards’ third overall pick had another stellar game, something that’s becoming a regularity for him lately. His shooting mastery was the only thing watchable about a game that featured plenty of ugliness on both sides.

Lemon Face: Literally everything else about Wizards-Raptors

Lion Face: Al Horford

20/20 games are an automatic Lion Face. Horford finished with 23 points and 22 boards.

Lemon Face: The Pistons

The Hawks’ 11-point margin of victory doesn’t really do justice to how bad the Pistons looked last night. I take back everything I’ve said about wanting Andre Drummond to take his time coming back, strictly for watchability’s sake.

Lion Face: The Manimal, Pierre, and Iguodala

The three Nuggets most known for throwing down monster dunks put on a show last night against the Lakers. Seemingly every other Denver possession resulted in a transition dunk by Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, or Andre Iguodala:

Lion Face: Wilson Chandler’s Breakout Game

The possessions that weren’t dunks were probably buckets for Wilson Chandler, who had an excellent game after being given a last-minute start for an injured Danilo Gallinari. He finished with 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting including 3-of-5 from three-point range, and four rebounds. Masai Ujiri has already emailed his highlight video out to every GM in the league in preparation for this summer.

Lemon Face: Dwight Howard

This photo (courtesy of our friend Mike Prada at SB Nation) sums up Dwight’s defensive effort better than I could:

Lion Face: Paul Pierce

Pierce dominated the fourth quarter of a surprisingly fun Jazz-Celtics game, hitting several key shots to force an overtime, and a few more in the extra period to put the Jazz away and keep the Celtics in playoff position.

# Sean & Jovan Compare NBA Players to Rappers

A couple weeks ago, I appeared on ClipperBlog Live, a Google Hangout-based show held after every Clippers game on HP’s TrueHoop sister site ClipperBlog. I’d made a few appearances previously, but this was my first time appearing with my friend, CB writer and (briefly) HP alum Jovan Buha. Among other things, we discussed Drake, someone Jovan and I have had differing opinions about over the years. Because CBL was supposedly a basketball podcast, we started comparing him to different NBA players, and got the idea to do a full show where we attempted to find contemporary NBA counterparts to several dozen rappers. It went two hours. A handful of people watched the whole thing live, and they have our eternal love and gratitude. They know who they are. For the rest of you, here it is in its entirety, along with a cheat sheet to help you find your favorite rapper.

2:25 – Kanye West

4:58 – Lil Wayne

6:53 – OutKast

10:56 – A\$AP Rocky

13:44 – Chief Keef

14:10 – Lil B

15:30 – Common

19:40 – J. Cole

23:15 – Jay-Z and Nas

31:35 – Dr. Dre

35:09 – Eminem

39:05 – The Game

42:21 – 50 Cent

46:35 – T.I.

49:25 – Wiz Khalifa

51:33 – 2 Chainz

53:53 – Wale

56:45 – Drake

1:04:33 – Soulja Boy

1:07:41 – Big Sean

1:12:03 – Which rapper is Derek Fisher?

1:14:58 – Diddy

1:17:34 – Lupe Fiasco

1:22:46 – Rick Ross

1:24:38 – Kendrick Lamar

1:26:37 – Meek Mill

1:28:57 – Future

1:32:41 – Snoop Dogg

1:40:25 – The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac

1:43:38 – The Roots

# 15 Footer, 2/25/2013: Playoff Implications (Or Not)

Photo via Heiko Brinkmann on Flickr.

As February draws to a close, we’re getting to the point in the season where every game that isn’t in the Bobcats-Suns tier has playoff implications. Teams are on the edges of the race for the eighth seed, attempting to hold home-court advantage, and praying they can play their way out of an unfavorable first-round matchup. With one exception, today’s games all have at least some bearing on the playoff pictures in each conference.

Wizards at Raptors (7:00pm ET)

Two teams that might be on the periphery of the playoff picture if they hadn’t started the season so terribly. The Wizards pulled out an upset over the Rockets on Saturday, and the Raptors ain’t the Rockets. Toronto has been playing well lately, though. Rudy Gay has proven himself to be a legitimate late-game option, and Kyle Lowry is back to some semblance of his early-season play now that Jose Calderon isn’t starting ahead of him. KLOE and John Wall is a very Twitter matchup, and Bradley Beal has had more freedom since the Wizards traded Jordan Crawford. We might be talking about this game as a playoff preview in a few years. For now, it’s at least going to be entertaining.

Hawks at Pistons (7:30pm ET)

Quick tangent: This morning, it was reported that Andre Drummond could be on track to return as soon as a week from now, after suffering a stress fracture in his lower back. The Pistons are currently six games out of the eighth seed in the playoffs. A team in the Western Conference that’s also on the outside looking in at the playoff picture at the moment also has an enormously talented center who came back early from back surgery. It hasn’t gone great for them. Detroit isn’t making the playoffs, and they own their own draft pick this June. Wouldn’t it make more sense to hold Drummond out the rest of the year, let him take his time to recover, and make sure that the potential franchise cornerstone of a team with a suddenly promising future doesn’t hurt his long-term health most of the way through his rookie season? Meh. With Brandon Knight hurt and Will Bynum suspended, the Pistons will be shorthanded. There will be a lot of Rodney Stuckey and a lot of Charlie Villanueva. The Hawks are trying to solidify a playoff spot and claw their way up to home-court advantage. Do the math.

Lakers at Nuggets (9:00pm ET)

The Nuggets already used their amnesty on Chris Andersen. The Lakers have not used their amnesty on anybody. Has anyone suggested lately, particularly the owner of another Western Conference playoff hopeful, that LA should use it on Kobe? It’s something I haven’t heard about, if it’s even happened at all. Anyway, this is a must-win for the Lakers. Every game going forward will be a must-win, so that’s not saying a lot, but the Nuggets are pretty firmly entrenched in a playoff spot, so a win against them would be a huge confidence boost for LA. Andre Iguodala guarding Kobe should be riveting. Plus, Dwight and JaVale. Even Jared Dubin can’t say argue that Pierre is the more annoying of the two centers.

Celtics at Jazz (9:00pm ET)

Two teams trying to stay afloat in the playoff pictures in their respective conferences. The Celtics’ offense looked pretty rough last night against the Blazers, and they’re on the second end of a road back-to-back. They’ve won a lot of games since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, but nobody really thinks that hot streak is sustainable in any way. The Jordan Crawford Celtics Experience has been fun so far, though, especially now that Terrence Williams is in the mix on a 10-day contract. It’s the Marbury/Francis of backup wings. Post-Rondo, the only real reason to watch the Celtics is to hope that it turns into a blowout and Fab Melo gets some garbage minutes. As for the Jazz, they got blown out by the Clippers on Saturday and cling to a two-game lead in the loss column over the Rockets for the seventh seed. The Lakers are gaining on both of them. It won’t be pretty basketball, but it’s one of those games we’re obligated to watch because of the playoff implications.

# Bigger Than Life

Photo by clappstar on Flickr

Right now, there’s an endlessly repeating GIF of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist detonating a small thermonuclear device over the peaceful town of Greg Monroe in one of my browser tabs. I recommend you go watch it run through a couple times. I’ll wait.

Done? Good. Here’s the beauty of a GIF: you can save it, open it up in Photoshop, and then look at each individual frame. After careful study, I’ve determined that the entire key to this dunk is contained in two frames.

In this frame, Kidd-Gilchrist is caught in a swirl of motion blur that blends him into the background: the ball is a hazy orange dot; the “CATS” logo on his chest is just a random collection of vertical lines; his front foot is still close enough to the ground that he might be shooting a hook shot. Frankly, it’s a mess.

Then there’s the very next frame.

The dunk has crystallized. Even though he is in full flight at this moment, you can see the lines on the basketball. The aforementioned logo has come into focus. Kidd-Gilchrist stands out from the background, frozen in that instant with his arm still slightly cocked, thrumming with murderous intent. His jersey looks extra white.

I’m pointing to this as a way to say that great dunks are not strictly physical acts carried out in three-dimensional space before disappearing into an unrediscoverable past. They are not simply performed, but witnessed, recorded, replayed, ingrained in our memories. They are spontaneously generated, but not out of the void, not from nothingness. They instead occur where the ley lines of practice, talent, chance, the known and the unknown converge to create something larger than life.

In this way, they are less part of a game and more akin to musical improvisation.

The big lie about the great improvisers is that they are music’s intrepid explorers, blazing trails into the tonal wilds. In reality, they’re more like the Night’s Watch, standing guard at edges of the known world. The overwhelming mass of improvisations from blues to jazz to rock to freestyle rap are composed of repurposed and rebuilt fragments. Rarely is someone out there on stage doing something they’ve genuinely never done before for the simple reason that it’s hard to tell what’s going to work before you’ve tried it.

This is not a knock on improvisors: music, like any language, is not not only about expression but about reception. Every speaker needs a listener, every player needs an audience. Understanding can only grow from common ground, from a shared vocabulary. Let’s put it this way: the riffs, the licks, the whole tone diminished scale, the understanding of chords voiced in fourths—they’re not the end products of creativity but instead the tools that take you nine-tenths of the way there.

So the improviser begins with a set of tools that together form an approach. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, for example, builds his solos almost entirely from the melody of the piece he’s improvising on. He alludes to it, darts around it—cracks jokes, even—as he teases out the line and finds new ways through it. Coltrane, by way of contrast, was more concerned with the possibilities locked within the chords of a song, frequently abandoning attachment to the initial melody quickly in favor of scaling the extensions and implied modes of the progression.

In either case, they’re building a scaffolding out of what they have at hand towards something beyond their reach. Many nights, they don’t make it. Most of them, even. On a few, they do. But on a lot of them, even if they’re still comfortably within the boundaries of their known world, they manage to push the audience to someplace new, to some new height or understanding.

But here’s the twist: it actually matter little in terms of the end product whether they’re genuinely innovating or simply ably generating the excitement that goes along with the thrill of the new. At the apex of an improvisation, when the gravity of the thing takes on a life of its own and everything around you, the listener, starts sparking and spitting, what you’re witnessing is sleight of hand. It’s not absolute creativity, but rather the collision of talent, practice, chance, the known and the unknown.

When it bears up under repeated listening, when it keeps revealing itself in new ways, a truly great improvised solo becomes a kind of vivisection, a study in how the human mind adapts, reacts and explores using the tools it has at hand.

In this way, it’s not so different from a great slam dunk.

How much of Michael Jordan’s free throw line dunk is contained in his extended tongue? How much in the way he draws the ball back for an instant before extending for the slam? How much of Vince Carter’s reverse 360 windmill is in the long, loping strides he takes to the basket, in the way he bounces when he lands, spinning a half-circle in the opposite direction as if the dunk had overwound him? How much in the yell he gives? When he caught Tracy McGrady’s bounced pass and put it between his legs, he landed and pointed skywards like he was drawing a bow before walking away, scissoring his hands in front of him and mouthing to the camera that it was over. It absolutely was.

People bemoan the missed attempts at the dunk contest, but the majesty of Carter’s between-the-legs alley-oop started to build with his first false start. Sure, if it had taken him five tries, it would have sucked the air out of the room, but once it became apparent that something awesome was about to happen, the anticipation was palpable. Look at Jason Kidd’s face as he awaits it:

Look at Steve Francis, who was a competitor in the dunk contest that year:

That’s the look of an already-defeated man.

These tiny things, these little, texture-giving things are not just for dunk contest dunks. How much of Shawn Kemp’s dunk on Alton Lister is in the finger guns? How much of Blake Griffin’s comprehensive remodeling of Kendrick Perkins is in the way Griffin hits Perkins then keeps going up and up until he somehow turns at the apex and delivers?

In-game dunks and dunk contest dunks are two different kinds of animals. The former erupts from the framework of the game, distorting everything around it while still only showing up as two points in the box score. The latter occur within a space custom-made for them, which is part of the problem, but I’m here to say that the problem doesn’t lay with: a failure of imagination; a lack of preparation; too many props; not enough props; the limits of physics; the format; the fact that stars are loathe to compete these days; the insistence on pushing marketing opportunities such as All-Star Weekend branded balls that have a different feel than the regulation NBA balls—a move which may have doomed James White this year.

No. The main failure of dunk contests rests with our own inability to accept the sleight of hand, to understand that great dunks don’t transcend the limits of physics but toy with them in a way that make us believe. We place value on the novel, on the never-seen-before, and it sends dunkers down paths that lead to failed dunks and gimmickry, rather than focusing on the performance itself.

For my money, the very first dunk of this year’s slam dunk contest was the best one, an alley-oop off the side of the backboard to Gerald Green:

He nailed it on the first try, almost nonchalantly, yet it contained that explosion of force that separates the genuinely nasty dunks from the merely competent. In real time, you can tell there’s something more than meets the eye, but it’s only when you see it through the lens of the NBA’s Phantom Camera that it truly blooms:

Green brings the ball down ridiculously far, plus holds it there for longer than seems possible as he reaches the peak of his jump but keeps traveling laterally through the air. Just as he starts to descend, he snaps the ball back up, which further extends our perception of his vertical. And the ball spins slowly backward after grazing the bottom of the backboard as the net flips.

Yes, the Phantom Camera exaggerates everything about this dunk. But when you speed it back up, it’s all still in there, uncoiling with blinding speed. And that’s what’s so particularly thrilling about this dunk. Not that we’d never seen it before or that it had a great prop or that it had no prop.

Like a great improvisation, it was something created in a flash out of the performer’s toolbox, but hardly unplanned. When you slow it way down, you can see the craft, and marvel at how quickly and assuredly it all came together. When you speed it back up, it regains its force and power. I’d take a dunk contest composed completely of dunks like this over one replete with multiple failed attempts and a garage full of stuff to jump over.

Dunks live and die in a moment, but the best ones are born out of a confluence of circumstance and design that transcends our idea of physical limitations. Dunks don’t care if they beat the buzzer (they rarely do); they don’t care if it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter, if it’s preseason or the playoffs or the dunk contest. Dunks need to be understood on their own terms and when they are, that’s when they become bigger than life.

# Two Sides to Every Rebuild

Photo via marc falardeau on Flickr.

When the Cavs and Magic face off tonight, they will have a lot of things in common. Both teams have redefined or are in the process of redefining their identities following the loss of the best players in their respective histories. They’ve taken more or less the same approach to the rebuilding process, although the Cavs are two years further along and already have one player around whom to shape their roster. Neither team has much to play for at this point in the season beyond ping-pong balls, and both are in the business of developing the talents that may or may not be their future.

The Cavs and the Magic each began the season with one veteran player who is perennially underrated and is the type of talent that makes everyone say they’d “love to see him on a contender.” Both have been constantly on the trade block for the last several years, but were either too injured or too highly valued to be dealt. If Anderson Varejao was healthy, he would have likely headlined Thursday’s trading deadline along with J.J. Redick. Redick was shipped from the Magic to the Bucks for a pretty solid package of expiring money and young talent, probably similar to what Cleveland could have hoped for in return for Varejao. Tonight’s game will mark the debut of Doron Lamb, Tobias Harris, and Beno Udrih in Magic uniforms. It’ll take some time for them to get acclimated in Jacque Vaughn’s rotation. The Cavs also have Kyrie Irving. This game could get ugly quickly for the Magic—not that the entire season hasn’t been for them.

When LeBron James left the Cavs for the Heat in 2010, Cleveland bottomed out. They trotted out one of the worst rosters in NBA history, a mishmash of non-contributing veterans and “young talent” without a lot of upside, and were rewarded with the top pick in the 2011 draft. The Magic are on pace to rack up a similarly impressive number of losses in the first season of the post-Dwight Howard era. The difference is that they have four players acquired this offseason (Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn, Nikola Vucevic, and Moe Harkless) who already look like they will be legitimate rotation players with productive NBA careers. And that’s before you add Lamb and Harris. This amount of losing is much easier for a franchise to swallow when it’s done with this much young talent already in place before they land their Kyrie Irving. They’re banking on the 2013 or (more likely) 2014 drafts and the 2014 free-agent class for that.

The earliest the Cavs will realistically contend for a title again is the 2014-15 season, and it’s obvious what has to happen for that pipe dream to become reality. LeBron can become a free agent, and there are already rumblings that he’s eyeing a return to the team that drafted him. Whether he would leave Miami if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still reasonably healthy is a different discussion, as is the idea of LeBron and Dan Gilbert mending fences after LeBron’s ridiculous TV special and Gilbert’s somehow more ridiculous Comic Sans open letter. But put the undisputed best player in the world on a team with the premier young point guard, the blossoming Tristan Thompson, and two more years’ worth of lottery picks, and yeah, I’d say that team would contend. If they don’t land LeBron, they might be another couple of years away beyond that. But they’re on the right track.

The Magic’s future title hopes rest largely at the feet of one high-schooler, and their path there is even less certain. Orlando is banking on continuing to bottom out next season and landing Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 draft. And even if that happens, Wiggins has to live up to the “best high-school prospect since LeBron” hype, which isn’t unthinkable or even unrealistic but also isn’t a sure thing. There are other paths back to contention, but as Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, and LeBron himself have shown us, the best way for a small-market team to get great ad stay great is to land a transcendent, once-in-a-generation-level talent in the draft. That player doesn’t appear to be in this year’s draft, so the Magic are playing the long game and hoping for Wiggins or Jabari Parker.

Tonight’s game between these two teams doesn’t matter a great deal, but it does give us a chance to view two case studies in modern-day NBA roster building and rebuilding in action, at various levels of completion.