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Hi! How Was Your Summer? Cleveland Cavaliers

2012-2013 W-L: 24-58

New Faces: Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack, Mike Brown (coach, Lakers/unemployed)

New Places: Omri Casspi (Houston), Marreese Speights (Warriors), Shaun Livingston (Nets), Wayne Ellington (Mavericks)

Draft: Anthony Bennett (1), Sergey Karasev (19), Carrick Felix (33)

Dan Gilbert didn’t make good on his personal Comic Sans guarantee of three summers ago; it’s almost fall 2013 now, and the “self-titled former king” has two NBA championships compared to Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ zero.  But no matter.  After another fortuitous and prosperous offseason, it’s time that Cleveland finally forgets.

The future is here.

The Cavaliers won the draft lottery.  They signed two marquee free agents.  Their young core is improving.  And they still have Kyrie Irving.  This season could be the first of what should be perennial playoff contention in Cleveland, and the Cavs have the summer to thank for accelerating their pace up a steep developmental curve.

This team will be better in 2013-2014, that much is certain.  It’s the extent of improvement that’s unknown for now; perhaps no team in the league has a ceiling so high and a valley so low.  Health is of utmost importance across the NBA landscape, but its potential influence looms larger in Cleveland than anywhere else.

Why? Irving, Bynum and Anderson Varejao – this team’s three most accomplished players – combined to miss 162 games last season.  Their simultaneous absence isn’t a fluke or coincidence, either; each has been notoriously injury-prone throughout their respective careers.

To rely on such considerable impact from multiple players with shoddy health histories isn’t ideal, but commend Cleveland for taking a chance.  A healthy Bynum is worth far more than the incentive-laden two-year, $24 million deal he signed with the Cavs in July.  His physical and emotional status will always be tenuous, but Bynum’s juice – even as he gets back up to playing speed after missing all of last season – is easily worth the squeeze of his contract.

Best case? He and Irving form the best center-point guard pairing this league’s seen in decades.  Worst? Cleveland pays $6 million for a year of his service and moves on next summer.

When – not if – Bynum and Varejao miss time due to injury, the Cavaliers are well-suited to withstand their absence.  Third-year big man Tristan Thompson made major strides last season, and is primed for another leap this year after completely reworking his jumper this offseason.  It’s been easy to overlook Thompson’s unprecedented effort to change his primary shooting hand, and Bennett’s presence undoubtedly has something to do with it.  His unique talent is obvious no matter your position on his draft selection.  Few players combine Bennett’s size and athleticism with such a versatile offensive repertoire.  And while sophomore center Tyler Zeller is admittedly limited, he’s above replacement-level.

There are redundancies here.  Thompson isn’t big enough to play center for extended periods, and Bennet’s chance to play the perimeter likely won’t come this season.  Zeller can’t rebound or defend, either.  But the Cavs’ post depth is suddenly an envy of many.  Even assuming injury complications, the Cleveland frontcourt should be a strength this season.

And taking that into consideration is when it’s easy to get excited about the Cavaliers.  Jack is a middling defender at best and sometimes prone to confounding shot-selection, but his two-way versatility is a valuable asset off the bench.  Lightening Irving’s heavy offensive burden is important for Cleveland going forward, and Jack’s presence certainly helps in that regard; Irving will thrive as a scorer a la Steph Curry when paired with Jack in the backcourt.  Dion Waiters is still in the mix too, of course, and will also benefit from Jack doing a lion’s share of ballhandling when he’s on the floor.

And though a three-headed playmaking monster of Irving-Jack-Waiters obviously presents a laundry list of defensive issues, they’d make up for much of them on the other end.  This won’t be Mike Brown’s primary set of perimeter players, obviously, but at the very least offers a scary late-game option when Cleveland needs points.

The Cavaliers are at least a mystery now.  Seasons like last year’s and the one before it are a thing of the past, when Cleveland had no realistic aspirations aside from internal development.  So questions are a good thing; they mean progress and potential.  Will the Cavs stay healthy? Can they play league-average defense? What to make of Bynum? Where does Bennett fit? How much better are Thompson and Waiters? Are Clark, Alonzo Gee and CJ Miles enough on the wing?

The questions are endless and the answers are varied.  That’s not enough for some teams, the ones that deserve to dream biggest.  But dreaming at all should be enough for Cleveland right now, a mere three years removed from heartbreak and complete destruction.  Playoffs for the Cavs? It’s really anyone’s guess, but that alone means they’re headed the right direction.

 

 

When it falls down, who you gonna call now?

lucidtech | Flickr

Noam and Amin try to break down what’s going on with Miami, where Indiana’s future is taking them, and how teams can be successful over the long haul.

Noam: This Heat-Pacers series has been something of a basketball treat. All games have been competitive, excepting those in which Udonis Haslem goes 8 of 9 from the field (which, incredibly, amounts to more than one game). Paul George and Roy Hibbert have made themselves household names. Chris Andersen LITCHERALLY hasn’t missed a shot. And that LeBron guy is pretty good. Having seen these two squads matched up two years in a row, I would gladly sign up for another four or five.

You posit an interesting question on Twitter, though: could the Pacers possibly be considered as favorites in any future permutations of this series? Of Miami’s core, only LeBron, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are on the right side of 30. More importantly, Dwyane Wade, supposedly among the younger-oldies at 31, has seen fluctuations between his prime self and a sadder, broken down version happen frequently and violently. On the other side, Indiana’s starting wings are 22 and 23, with latter doubling as a third-team All-NBA premier wing defender. Roy Hibbert is 26, George Hill is 27.

But Indiana, for all its up-and-coming appeal, does have a major age concern. That would be David West, 33 by the time 2013-14 will tip off. He had ACL surgery two years ago, and while he seems to have recovered admirably, he plays a very physical game. Indiana’s strength is in their five man unit, but if one declines sharply, are we sure that balance isn’t irrevocably disrupted? Could growth on the wings, as well as the incremental improvements Hill and Hibbert project to make as they hit their prime, be enough to offset West’s age?

Amin: First of all, I don’t want your Chris Traeger reference to go unacknowledged. Well done, sir.

Second of all, yes my question is interesting. That’s sort of what I was alluding to. Indiana’s core–aside from West–is on the upswing. I could see West decline (as you said, he’s 33, he had ACL surgery, and he plays a tough, low-post game), but he looks like he’s declining gradually. I think that’s kind of the most ideal situation for any player in any sport, but especially for a guy who plays how he does. West will be slightly less effective next year, but he won’t have a stark drop off. Hibbert should improve, right? Will he make up for any potential deficiencies in West? Will Indiana let Hansbrough walk and pick up a backup PF who has a little more offense up his sleeve? Maybe Indiana can pounce on Thomas Robinson’s availability and play him heavy minutes behind West? Wowee.

Then, you’ve got the potential re-addition of Granger. Assuming Granger can play at even 75% of his former self… that’s pretty good. Granger is an effective scorer and a great defender. He gave LeBron fits during their intra-division CLE-IND series a few years ago. Granger also doesn’t seem like the type of player who would be difficult to fit back into a Pacers-style offense or defense. And based on the Pacers’ slower offense and their need for a wing upgrade over Gerald Green, slotting Paul George at the 2 (with Lance Stephenson behind) and Granger at the 3 seems like it would make the Pacers really good without causing extra stress/undue injury to Granger and his recover. And when I say “good” I mean “really really good.”Back to Miami real quick: Even with a very effective post game, LeBron + a bunch of other guys is probably not a championship team, right? That’s what existed in Cleveland, and it was proven time and again that LeBron needed a bit more reliability from the rest of the roster. That reliability came in Miami in the form of 1 guy who can get to the free throw line at will to close any gap (Wade) and another guy who is essentially guaranteed to make any shot if he’s wide open (Bosh). Those two players were not available in Cleveland. I am saying this as an unabashed Cleveland homer and someone who is rooting for a team with TYLER HANSBROUGH to beat the Heat.

Sorry about the Cleveland-aside. FOCUS. Ahem, OK. So, what I’ve noticed during this series is that the Pacers have been VERY good at preventing LeBron and Wade from living at the free throw line. As Derek alluded to in his piece, they’ve also effectively neutralized Chris Bosh’s impact by drawing him away from the basket on nearly every possession and contesting every shot he puts up. Miami has been relying on LeBron (as it should) and a 20-point performance by random role player X on any given night. Last night, it was Udonis Haslem. Haslem played really well, and the Heat needed every bucket he made–if not for their points then for their momentum.

When you look at the Heat’s roster, LeBron and Bosh are still in their primes, Cole and Chalmers are still young, and pretty much everyone else is a dinosaur in NBA years. Also, Chris Bosh is still possibly a dinosaur, but for other reasons (JOKES!). Going into next season–and more important the next postseason–if you have this same roster, you have LeBron still in his prime, a Bosh that people can figure out, an OK Chalmers/Cole backcourt (OK in Miami, average or less elsewhere), a Wade whose bad nights are starting to outnumber is good nights, a Ray Allen/Shane Battier combo that not doing its only required task of making open 3s, a revolving door of bigs, and Udonis Haslem. That’s… not gonna cut it.

Sorry, guess that wasn’t quick. But as it stands now, Indiana’s got options and are generally moving uphill. The Heat are still going to be good, but with their cap situation, they’re really only going to be able to make changes around the edges… and right now, their potential long term problems are with their core.

What do you think the next step for both teams will be to make sure we’ve got a rematch of them in the ECF next year?

Noam: It’s hard to throw out a foolproof ECF plan just because so many things can go wrong – injuries, luxury tax, injuries, random bounces, injuries, Nate Robinson catching fire, injuries. My gut says Miami is pretty much fine staying the course, as Erik Spoelstra would say, using the mini-MLE to get another 3-and-D guy (but maybe a less decrepit one this time, eh?) and gambling on a few minimum deal bigs. Indiana might be more interesting – I think convincing cases can be made for both keeping and trading Danny Granger, West is a free agent and could potentially come out of this summer either overpaid or in another jersey, the Pacer bench is epically horrendous. Also, after they refused to give up the 23rd pick in the draft for J.J. Redick, I demand that they either sign J.J. Redick or find a way to draft an immediate contributor with that pick. DEMAND IT, I SAY. HEAR ME, DONNIE?! However, I will immediately turn on my designation of Indiana being more interesting than Miami and ask you this question: is Miami’s run for a repeat title a historic abberation? This whole Wade business creates a unique vibe around the Heat – the way they came together and the mere existence of a 28 year old LeBron James makes them seem dynastic, and yet, as covered earlier, they might just be headed for a decline. We’ve seen teams win the title in a manner that seemingly dooms the following decade (Jordan Bulls, Duncan Spurs, any Laker title team ever), and we’ve seen teams win titles while giving the impression that they’re about to fall off from that level (the 2011 Mavs are a prime example of that), but do you remember any other team ever looking like it may just be both?

Amin: There are three important variables in this evaluation: 1) The CBA and salary cap, 2) Are any of the things that LeBron/Wade/Bosh do things that other players can do? and 3) What is Miami’s draft outlook looking like?

If you want this 3-man core to be dynastic, then the ret of the roster needs to be filled out in the same way as San Antonio’s. You gotta draft, develop, and trade your way into good parts that fulfill some of the tasks (or cover the deficiencies of) your core guys. And you gotta have the money to do it. If you do, you start to play your core guys fewer minutes as they get older, but the system is locked down. Alternatively, you can do what Dallas does and break the bank, stack, and reload the roster later around 1 or 2 pieces.

Right now, the Heat have a lot of good players, one great player, and two guys in between that are injured so are playing as good-level. Now, San Antonio has definitely recovered from a situation like that, but they’ve also consistently had draft picks and a well-managed cap. There’s a good chance Miami can pick up the same great play next year–like 99% certainty if Wade is healthy–but the nature of the Heat’s management of those 3 Spursian variables points to them not being able to turn this team into a 3+ championship dynasty like they hubristically promised.

In today’s CBA, is 3 rings the best anyone can do? Will the Spurs be terrible after their core retires/leaves? Can any team maintain contender or semi-contender status for 10+ years anymore? 5+ years, even?

Noam: The Thunder will be the ultimate test case for that, won’t they? They’ve hit all the theoretical checkpoints by drafting a transcendent star in Durant, finding another all-star to flank him in Russ, and being good enough early enough so his prime isn’t wasted. It’s what the Cavs couldn’t do with LeBron – they got to the Finals in his fourth year, one year ahead of the pace Durant set for OKC, but they did it with a supporting cast that was mostly veterans and role players. As LeBron continued to grow, they wilted instead. I think that’s the point that makes San Antonio so unique – David Robinson sitting out in 96-97 gave them their two cornerstones as a starting point, and they capitalized even further on that by inexplicably picking up two more in Tony and Manu. Without discrediting their developmental system, there are only so many such players percolating through depth charts, and grabbing several of them closely enough to have them all hit their primes together (or, in two different batches) requires immense amounts of luck.

Could it happen again? Sure, in theory. It’s hard to say if there are any other candidates for such a run, though. The Pacers are trying, but Paul George isn’t LeBron or Durant, and Hibbert is more Ibaka than Westbrook. Since this has somehow become a heavily anti-Cleveland exchange, we should point out that Kyrie might be that kind of transformative talent, and is being smartly surrounded by players his age, though none of the Waiters/Thompson/Zeller(/Nerlens Noel?) seems to be of the Westbrook caliber. There are some other tandems that one might throw out there – Chris Paul/Blake, Rose/Noah, Rubio/Love, Harden/Morey Acquisition X, Andrew Wiggins/Whoever Is On The Roster That Drafts Andrew Wiggins – but all are stretches, whether because they are dependent on unknown qualities, or because the known qualities have so far been lacking.

Is that CBA-designed or just plain happenstance? I would call it the latter, but it’ll be hard to tell without the benefit of hindsight. After all, this Spurs stretch is an outlier not just for the 2010s, but throughout NBA history. Outside of Red Auerbach being decades ahead of the curve, the Lakers continuously getting hall of fame centers, and the greatest player of all time existing, these things tend not to happen more often than they do. Again, the viability of the model could hinge on where OKC lands, with the Harden trade as the potential turning point. It’s an interesting wrench in that it simultaneously rid them of a third all-star, but brought in some assets that, if maximized, could theoretically bring in some of those young assets to develop in the Spursian manner you mentioned. If their run is cut shorter than we envisioned when this team came together, the Harden trade could become the turning point in NBA dynasty building.

Which brings us back to the Heat. They seem to be staring down some financial issues of their own – they’re scheduled to be repeater tax payers the moment such designations become available. If Wade’s knees don’t ruin everything, could his contract? Could Bosh’s? Are they due for a Harden trade of their own? Or, conversely, LeBron walking next summer before his supporting cast is torn apart? God, these would be great questions to discuss retroactively during all the free time we’ll have in the 2017 lockout.

Amin: Game 6 seemed to exacerbate all the same questions we had after Game 5. It’s going to be tough to figure out what Miami needs to do, but they need to do something. Be it a Harden-type trade, a use of the amnesty provision, any other type of trade that creates some complementarity and reliability… something. I don’t think they anticipated their core becoming unstable like this so quickly. And I don’t think any of us did either.

LeBron James and the False Narrative of Deja Vu

Jack and I tackle the sudden, mistaken narrative of LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s reversion, as well as the Heat’s newfound uncertainty. 

Jack: The already tired trope of today is LeBron reverted back to his days in Cleveland last night, dominating the ball with jumper after jumper as Wade and Bosh played glorified parts of Delonte West and JJ Hickson.  And it’s true to an extent, that a gimpy Wade and out-muscled Bosh have forced James into more of a scorer this series than he’s ever been and likely wanted to be since joining the Heat.  But that general narrative is missing a crucial aspect that’s easy to overlook unless you’re taking LeBron’s game 5 performance in deeper context with respect to his time as a Cavalier: those jumpers are still jumpers, but they’re good ones, the kind he didn’t have the patience to probe for as a younger player in Cleveland.

LeBron jumpers gleaned from a HORNS set or even a simple pick-and-roll with Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole are far departures from his former dribble-dribble-shoot-a-fadeaway mindset, and he deserves credit for it.  This new, heretofore unseen maturity is just another step in James’ constantly-evolving game, and an important reminder of just how much he’s grown mentally over the last several years.  But whether more James jump-shooting is by Miami’s design or mere coincidence due to specific circumstance, we can surely all agree it’s still not the best way for LeBron to play and the Heat to win.  They’ll need more from his all-too-supporting cast to win game 6 in Indiana, let alone take down Popovich, Duncan, Parker and company in the Finals.
Jordan: It’s as if we’re sacrificing reality for a sexier story. The 2010 Cavaliers were great because LeBron was great. And while LeBron’s even further evolved greatness is principal to Miami’s greatness, it is not the only reason. Miami is a terrific team because of Spoelstra’s ingenious stratagems, role players such as Shane Battier and somehow-underrated stars like Chris Bosh. Cleveland succeeded despite Mike Brown’s uninventive offense and the scientific phenomenon that was Antawn Jamison aging 50 years in the span of a few weeks.

One other thing that Cleveland team lacked that this Miami team does not is an aura of inevitability, if not invincibility. Cleveland was arguably the best team in the league and was the prohibitive favorite to win the championship, but it was never a certainty. The Lakers loomed large in the West, while the sneaky Celtics should never have been counted out. Not so with Miami. Usually reserved for the likes of the Spurs and the Lakers, the aura manifested itself, emanating from South Beach during the Heat’s win streak. The streak featured comebacks aplenty, yet none of those comebacks were surprising. It was just assumed, an accepted fact of reality, that the Heat would come back and continue making mincemeat of the rest of the league.
Lately, however, Indiana, and the monstrous shadow of Roy Hibbert have dimmed that once-blinding light. Even though the Heat won last night, it wasn’t an expected victory. No matter how large the lead, it never felt as if the game was out of reach and victory secured. Uncertainty, perviously exhumed from the lexicon of the Heat, returned for the first time since perhaps the 2011 finals. Is it because of Hibbert? Vogel? Paul George? Or is the resurrection of doubt a product of Miami itself?
Jack: That’s the only remaining question of these playoffs that will have lasting effects on the league’s landscape.  The Spurs are brilliant, but the stars aligned for them to win the West this season; they’ll be a major threat for as long as Duncan staves off retirement, of course, but hardly prohibitive favorites to win a championship like Miami or Oklahoma City.  Whether or not Indiana – playing without Danny Granger and facing a couple pertinent financial and personnel decisions this offseason – belongs beside the Heat and Thunder is a matter of not only what you make of Hibbert, George and the rest, but also Wade, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and advantages gleaned from Miami’s style.

Today, watching him frequently lose a suddenly slow dribble and James drive the Heat with him entrenched in the backseat, it’s easy to forget Wade’s brilliance from just a couple months ago.  His raw per game averages from March of 24, 6, 6 and almost 3 combined steals/blocks are vintage Wade, and he was doing all that while shooting more efficiently (53.2% FGs) than ever, too.  It’s crucial to remember that he’s fighting not just general wear, but injuries to both knees, too.  A player so reliant on 45-degree cuts and misdirection for success on both ends will of course struggle to adjust with ailing knees.  Whether or not Wade will ever recover the way Miami needs him to is anyone’s guess at this point, though, and if he doesn’t they’ll need even more from the aging, laboring Allen and Battier.  When a shooter’s legs go, what else does he have? And when a versatile defender is finally too banged up to be stretched to his limit, what does he offer? Those are concerns facing the Heat today, obviously, but also ones just as pertinent to their prospects going forward.
All that said, the most vexing development this series has presented for the present and future is the dominance of Hibbert.  Not only did some malign the Pacers for matching the maximum offer sheet he signed with Portland last summer, but their laughs were validated early this season, too, when he was a complete liability on offense.  Before January 1, he was a 7-footer that shot 39.5% from the field! And even after that absolutely dreadful stretch, there wasn’t a full month when Hibbert hit more than 48% of his shots.  But against downsized Miami, he looks like a perennial MVP candidate.  So who, exactly, is Roy Hibbert? He’s not Joel Anthony but he’s not vintage Dwight Howard, either; the truth is he’s somewhere in between, an All-Star most years whose awesome defensive presence is bigger than his offensive one.  And that’s okay! Indy advanced past Atlanta and New York with Hibbert scoring something like his normal self earlier this postseason.  If he’s only this all-encompassing throwback to the days of alpha-male centers against the Heat, he’s still a good enough player to justify his second or third position in the Pacers hierarchy.  And considering George – despite undue proclamations that he’s a top-10 player overall – has still just scratched the surface of his offensive development, that’s a great sign for Indiana going forward.
Is it one that will propel them to an improbable series win down 3-2 to the defending champions? Probably not, but that creeping Miami doubt you touched on gives them more of a chance than any of us anticipated.  Whether or not it’s due to the Heat’s deficiencies or not is a discussion for seasons coming.
Jordan: You’re right. As much of a revelation as Hibbert has been this series, and really in the playoffs, we still don’t fully know who he is. Will he maintain this form, or even improve upon it, next season? Or will he regress, as he won’t be able to face such a small frontcourt for all 82 games? I’ll agree that he’s likely a perennial All-Star and contender for Defensive Player of the Year, but it will be interesting to see how teams game plan for him in greater detail.
And again, we come back to uncertainty. LeBron needs more from his supporting cast, but we’re not sure if he’ll get it, either in this series or, if they advance in the next. Chris Bosh is facing a less-than-ideal match up against Hibbert/West, and Duncan/Splitter likely won’t be much kinder. Roy Hibbert, darling of the playoffs, certainly deserves the heaps of adulation, but uncertainty rears its head when questions of identity and consistency arise.

What we do know is this: this Miami Heat team hasn’t somehow mystically transformed into the 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron’s masterful performance wasn’t a completely vintage affair, more, as you said, a blend of the old and the new. For one night, he had to do it by himself (and even that’s a mostly false narrative, if Udonis Haslem has anything to say about it), but that was more a demand of the game’s circumstances, not of his entire team.

Lion Face/Lemon Face 4/18/13: LAKERS RULE, JAZZ DROOL

Records broke, playoff seeds clinched, and a lot of really terrible basketball. Ladies and gentlemen, the last night of the 2013 regular season!

Lemon Face: Alonzo Gee Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 8.09.21 AM

 

This is brilliant, and it’s how I’m going to answer most of life’s important questions from now on.

Job interview: “Jordan, why should I hire you?” “I’m here.”

Marriage: “And do you, Jordan White, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, in sickness and health, until death do you part?” “I’m here.”

Birth of my first child: “Mr. White, are you ready to hold your baby for the first time?” “I’m here.”

Lion Face: Stephen Curry

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(Graphic courtesy of the Golden State Warriors)

Not only did Curry break the mark for most three-pointers in a single season (272), he did so while shooting a ridiculous 45% from beyond the arc this season on nearly eight attempts per game.  ANKLES? HE DON’T NEED NO STINKING ANKLES.

Lion Face: Chris Copeland

Last night, Copeland became the first Knicks rookie since 1980 to notch consecutive 30-plus point games.  It’s been a terrific, near-storybook season for Copeland, whose path to the NBA has been well chronicled. Also, his lion’s mane alone is worthy of a Lion Face

Lemon Face: Utah Jazz

 sadjazz1.0_cinema_1050.0

 

Utah, not wanting to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, went with the unorthodox strategy of sewing up the ninth seed in the Western Conference. This bold maneuver paid off, as the Jazz lost to the Grizzlies, gifting a playoff berth to the Lakers as a result. It’s unfortunate that Utah’s most important game of the season came against one of the league’s premier defensive teams, but you still expected a better effort than what was put forth last night in Memphis.

(Photo courtesy of SBNAtion.com)

Lion Face: Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers lived up to their preseason hype, securing the seventh seed after defeating the Houston Rockets in overtime.

Lion Face: NASA

Lemon Face: Houston Rockets

You let NASA down, Houston. NASA.

Lion Face: Orlando Magic

I have to admit, you really scared me at first, Orlando. You were actually winning games to start the season, and not by accident! That’s not how tanking works! But you righted the ship, finishing the season at 20-62, and are now the proud owners of the worst record (but highest lottery odds!) in the 2013 season. Tankalicious!

Lemon Face: Rasheed Wallace retiring

Goodnight, sweet prince.

Statistical Anomaly: Cavaliers @ Celtics

Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian the Celtics containing Kyrie Irving but still losing a home game to the Cavaliers.

Jeff Green has stepped into the primary scorer some nights for the Celtics, but I am more impressed with 26 year olds ability to fill it up in an efficient manner. He scored a team high 23 points against Cleveland, the sixth time he has tallied at least that many points. The power forward is shooting 66.3% from the field in those games while averaging nearly three made triples. In fact, this was the first such game in which Green failed to make multiple three pointers. Sure, the Celtics are have only earned a split in those six games, but if you consider that the majority of those have been played without Boston’s big names, it is evident that Green  is the scoring option of the future for the C’s.

If you bought a ticket for this game a while back, you were expecting to see the big three of Boston and arguably the games most promising point guard (if not player at any position) in Kyrie Irving. Instead, Boston’s Three Party all watched and Irving far short of 100%, paving the way for less heralded scoring options. Consider this nugget: the eight players who scored 10+ points in this game have totaled 36.9% fewer career points than Paul Pierce has alone (entering this game).

 pp bar

 

Or, if you prefer a circular view

pp pie

Fans may not have seen the names they know for Boston or the game they’ve come to know from Irving (4/20 from the field), but they caught glimpse of the future. The Cavaliers get 49 points per night from players 22 years of age or younger, giving them as high an offensive ceiling as anyone.

Jordan Crawford left Washington with a score first, second, and third reputation, with very few people considering him a nice all around player. But since joining Boston in late February, he has focused more on team points than personal points. For the fifth time in seven games, Crawford recorded at least as many assists as FGM. Not to shabby for a player who averages 60% more FGM than assists for his career. While scoring points is his calling card, the ability to distribute is an encouraging sign for his future value to Boston (or any NBA team for that matter) in the future.

The Cavaliers broke an eight game losing streak that lasted over two months in games against teams that have clinched a playoff berth when Tristan Thompson attempts at least 10 shots. That being said, increasing Thompson’s role in the offense (attempted 10+ shots in 21.7% of games last season and is doing so in  48% of games this year) figures to pay dividends sooner rather than later. His scoring has increased by 25.6% while shooting nearly 5% better from the field. His numbers have spiked without a healthy Anderson Varejao, but the skill set is there, and shouldn’t disappear when playing alongside the rebounding machine. If Cleveland can ever get all of its pieces on the court at the same time, this is a scary team that is only going to get better with time.

Kevin Jones struggled from the field but was very active on the glass, earning his 22 minutes by grabbing eight rebounds (three offensive). Jones has appeared in 25 games this season, but has tallied 37% of his rebounds in just two of those contests and 50% of them have come on a Friday. At 6’8” and 260 pounds, Jones is another young force around the rim that can serve as a stop gap when the starters are out of the game. Jones’ rebounding and positive impact was felt by the 14 point advantage held by the Cavaliers in the paint, a game changing stat given the fact that Cleveland won the game by six points. His body type gives him the potential to turn into a specialist, as he can  matchup physically with some of the elite scorers in the league.

RTOE: ProBasketballDraft bridges the NCAA tourney to the NBA lottery (Part 2)

A very special RTOE for you all today. I recruited the help of the guys at ProBasketballDraft.com to help make sense of some of the choices this year’s lottery teams will have to make from the pool of NCAA talent. Joe Kotoch, Jeffrey Paadre, Jonathan Gordon, and Luka Papalko: take it away for part 2! (Note: Part 1 dropped earlier today.)

1. Hello, my name is the Cleveland Cavaliers. My team has a ton of cap space going into the off-season, not a whole lot of depth, and for some reason or another, there’s a giant, gaping hole at Small Forward. Assuming the Lakers make the playoffs and I get their pick, too, what’s my best fit in the first round of the draft?

Joe: The Cavs are a team that still can do in a few directions on draft night. I expect Cleveland to be very aggressive and package picks to move into the back end of the Lottery. In addition to both first round picks the Cavs also own their own 2nd round pick and Orlando’s too. I expect Cavs GM Chris Grant to target a few players on draft night such as Nerlens Noel, Alex Len, Otto Porter, and possibly Victor Oladipo. As for best fits, the hole at SF is gaping but a certain former Cav could return next summer and Cleveland could opt to solve that position in free agency or via trade for next year.

Jeffrey: The Cavaliers have easily the most enviable position of all of the teams in the draft lottery this season. Kyrie Irving is a franchise point guard, Tristan Thompson has been very productive, and Dion Waiters has shown spurts of greatness. Anderson Varejao won’t be around forever and if he’s available, Nerlens Noel can become the franchise’s defensive anchor for many years to come. If Noel gets swiped up before the Cavs pick, Shabazz Muhammad, Victor Oladipo, and Otto Porter all should garner interest from Cleveland. Of the three, Porter should be their top priority due to his great size for the position and amazing defense. He needs to put on a little weight but he can be the small forward of the future for Cleveland. If the Lakers make the playoffs and the Cavs get that pick as well, a player like a Rudy Gobert or an Isaiah Austin, two high potential big men, would be a home run for Cleveland later in the draft. Jeff Withey could also be a good fit later in the first round, with a potential Laker pick. He will come in, grab boards and block shots; that’s all the Cavs can ask for.

Jonathan: The first round is going to require you to break out your best undercover investigation skills. With only one predicted SF (Otto Porter) going in the top 10, it’s imperative you land him. Snoop around and see what teams in front of you are planning to do. If Porter will still be available, take Porter and use your later pick to build some depth (any position will do—you’re short-handed everywhere). If you need to trade up, offer some cash or your other pick. A young backcourt of Irving and Porter will be one of the more dynamic, exciting backcourts in the league for years to come.

Luka: Despite the Cavs having improved their team over the past two years, this still isn’t a time to be picky and pick for need. The Cavs still need to go for the best player available with their first pick and follow up with whatever they didn’t get with their second pick. Nerlens Noel is the best player in the draft and while he’s not an ideal fit with the current core, the Cavs would have to take him should they be in position to.

This is a weird draft for the Cavs with there being no true fit upfront for their needs. The only true all-around center who would fill the need is Alex Len, who teams still are trying to figure out. Otherwise, it’s either all offense and little defense (Zeller, Austin) or all defense and little offense (Cauley-Stein, Adams). So if Len doesn’t pass the test, it’s pick your poison and draft according to your philosophy: do you value interior offense or interior defense more.

On the wing, Otto Porter looks to be a perfect fit should the Cavs first pick be in the 3-7 range. He’s a guy who would fit in well with Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving in the backcourt, being a player who can function well with or without the ball and also play solid defense on the wing. While Ben McLemore might not be an ideal fit, he still would be a good pick considering he’s a top talent and would play well off the ball in Cleveland.

In an ideal world, the Cavs get a the top pick and take Nerlens Noel and trade back into the lottery with their second pick to grab their small forward.

2. Hi there, Cleveland. Can I call you Cleveland? My name is Minnesota Timberwolves, and I wasn’t supposed to be here this year, but here I am. I know my biggest problem is injuries as opposed to depth, but I have to figure that out anyway. I guess I could probably use a Shooting Guard, but I don’t know. Like I said, I wasn’t supposed to be here. Who’s my best fit in the first round, as long as I draft in the top 13?

Joe: For the Wolves, you have to look at ways to get better along the perimeter and protect Ricky Rubio defensively. In the top 10 the Wolves should target Oladipo or Ben McLemore. However, the Wolves could be in prime position to draft a sleeper that should be a borderline lottery-pick come draft night, San Diego State’s Jamaal Franklin. Franklin does so many things well and would add much needed athleticism to a Wolves team that needs more of it. Franklin is not the best shooter but is effective and productive in many aspects of the game. He’d be an excellent fit alongside Rubio, Love, Pekovic.

Jeffrey: The T-Wolves have been brutal from beyond the arc this season. No team has shot worse than Minnesota and their 29.9 percent clip from three point land. For this season, shooting guards like Shabazz Muhammad, Victor Oladipo, and Ben McLemore should all get attention from David Kahn depending on where their pick falls. McLemore would be ideal, but he may not be around by the time the Wolves pick. Muhammad and Oladipo each would look good on the receiving end of Ricky Rubio passes for the near future. Either of them would be a welcome upgrade over Shved, who’s been wildly inconsistent this season. Another possibility, depending on what happens with Pekovic this offseason, could be Maryland’s Alex Len. Len is a legitimate big man who could compliment Kevin Love very well if the Wolves don’t re-sign Pekovic.

Jonathan: With strong players in Pekovic, Love, and Rubio, your biggest need is indeed a Shooting Guard. Lucky you! This year’s class features three premier Shooting Guards all within the top 10. Given your choices of McLemore (Kansas), Muhammad (UCLA), and Oladipo (IND), any pick would be a big improvement at the 2-position, both short-term and long-term. If all three are available, your safest bet is Oladipo. A strong rebounding guard (6.4 RPG), consistent scorer (13.6 PPG), and one of the best defenders available, Oladipo can contribute on both ends of the court. A more experienced player, Oladipo has the maturity to step in and play for a contender. Muhammad needs the ball in his hands a lot, robbing Rubio of his duties, and McLemore has struggled recently (5 points on 2-7 shooting in Big 12 Championship and 2 points on 0-9 shooting in NCAA second-round). Muhammad and McLemore have more upside and “star power”, but you don’t need that. You need a quality player able to contribute immediately. If you fall out of the top 10 and all three are gone, one option would be to draft Zeller (IND) and let Pekovic, a free agent at the end of the season, go. Pekovic will likely ask for (and get) an overvalued contract. Drafting Zeller gives you a premier big man to complement Love and opens up some cap size. On second thought, just draft a doctor.

Luka: What the Timberwolves need most is an instant impact player, which might be hard to do with this draft and with where they could be picking. The Timberwolves are a ticking time bomb as a team: David Kahn could soon be gone, Rick Adelman could too (depending on the health of his wife), Kevin Love is far from being a happy camper, they’ll have key free agents this year (Budinger & Pekovic) and not a lot on the cap for years after that. Moral of the story is if the Timberwolves want to win, they’ll need to do it ASAP.

The T’Wolves need to hope they either magically land a high enough spot to draft Ben McLemore or Shabazz Muhammad falls to wherever they end up drafting. Quite frankly, while McLemore is seen as a better prospect I’d venture to say Muhammad is a better fit for the T’Wolves. Yes his age is causing him to fall like a rock but he does the one thing they need most: score at a NBA level. Muhammad can get his shot, something McLemore is still developing right now. While Muhammad doesn’t contribute in a lot of either areas and is a ball dominant guard, the T’Wolves need his scoring and ability to create. It’s a good fit for player and team, in this case.

3. Hey guys. Orlando Magic here. You guys remember me? We were the ones that drafted back to back #1 picks in 1992 and 1993. We drafted #1 again in 2004… yada yada yada, WE’RE BACK! Did you miss us? No? Oh, ok. Well, we’ve got a LOT of young guys on our roster. Who’s part of our core going forward? Is there anyone at the top of this draft that’ll be complimentary to that core?

Joe: Well I have been predicting the Magic as the winner of the Lottery ever since the Dwight Howard saga began. Rookie GM Rob Hennigan has been masterful in acquiring young talent to build around. Obviously Nikola Vucevic has blossomed for Orlando and combined with Moe Harkless and Tobias Harris the Magic look like they have a promising front court. Going forward the Magic need to find more offense and someone who can create their own shot. Ben McLemore and Shabazz Muhammad are names to watch. However, I would not be surprised to see the Magic have Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart a top their board. Smart would be an instant mismatch nightmare at PG and could blossom into a Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose type of physical marvel at that position. The Magic have some pieces but lack a star to build around right now.

Jeffrey: Orlando has a very nice foundation for the future. Vucevic has been a tremendous surprise and Moe Harkless has really turned it on as of late. They need a point guard at this point. A lot of their young talent is great but many of these guys have trouble creating their own shots. Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State should be their target. He’s a big point guard with tremendous potential. Jameer Nelson has shown this season that he’s not a point guard to build around, but with Smart, Nelson could develop a little more value as an off-ball shooter.

Jonathan: You must be mistaken. The only team that plays basketball in Florida is perennial powerhouse Florida Gulf Coast University. But, for the sake of this discussion, we’ll pretend you exist. First, let’s take a look at your roster. Starting at the 1 and assuming a healthy roster, you go Nelson, Afflalo, Harris, Davis, and Vucevic. With the exception of Nelson, all five are pretty young. Vucevic has been a pleasant surprise posting double-digit rebounds (11.5 RPG) and leading the team with an 18.0 Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Afflalo has showed the ability to score (16.5 PPG). Harris and Davis have also showed bright spots. While Nelson is an Orlando favorite and has been a tremendous leader, he doesn’t have many years left. Going forward, he’s clearly the odd one out. Draft a point guard, put him under Nelson’s wing, and slowly begin the transition. Smart (Oklahoma State) appears to be the top PG in the draft and the SMARTest pick. Do your best to get him. If not, Burke (Michigan) and Carter-Williams (Syracuse) are also excellent. Then again, you don’t REALLY exist so none of this matters.

Luka: Again, like the Cavs, this is a case where the top of the draft isn’t necessarily conducive to the needs of the Magic. The Magic have a nice developing core but there’s no true dominant player at a position of need for the Magic. There is also no player on the roster that has a long-term hold at their respective starting position (except maybe for Nikola Vucevic), which means no player should be off the table.

What the Magic need most is a cornerstone piece, someone they can build around. While this draft doesn’t really have a true player at the top like that, Marcus Smart is their best bet to do so. I would usually say Nerlens Noel should be the 1st pick, but in this case Smart is rated at a similar level but fills a much larger role for the Magic. Smart would immediately come in and take over as the leader of the team. He would provide them with the ball-handler and shot creator that they need. While there are concerns about his outside shot, he’s got an extremely good work ethic and is a high character prospect. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, if Smart ended up as the best player in this draft 5 years down the road and followed in the footsteps of the new wave of point guards.

4. Yo, Cleveland. Maybe some of us don’t want the Lakers to make the playoffs. Ever thought of that? Jeez. Selfish. Oh, hi. I’m Phoenix Suns. I’m new around these parts. It’s weird to be here. Can anyone help me out? What exactly do I do here?

Joe: The last few seasons the Suns have confused many of us with their moves but they appear to be set on a complete rebuild. So Phoenix’s main issue right now is that Marcin Gortat, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, and Luis Scola are all at least 27 by the start of next season and considerably older in Scola’s case. The Suns have acquired the Morris twins and Kendall Marshall but have no superstars to build around and lack the youthful talent that brings optimistic energy. Perhaps no team that is lottery-bound is in more need of two top picks than the Suns. Nerlens Noel, Marcus Smart, Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Bennett, Alex Len, and Trey Burke are just a few examples of the type of prospects the Suns need to acquire to help their fan base cope with the beginning of the post-Nash era.

Jeffrey: Phoenix should be going in position-blind at this point. They have very few quality ballplayers and talent should certainly take precedence. It’s probably too early to admit defeat on the Kendall Marshall pick from last year, so Smart from Oklahoma State may be the one non-possibility at this point. Marshall has tremendous court vision, so why not surround him with a wing player who can score? McLemore would be ideal if he’s around but if not, Otto Porter could be a good fit here. Another guy to look at would be UNLV’s Anthony Bennett. Bennett is a hyper-athletic forward who needs to develop his wing game a little bit but has limitless potential. As an added bonus, another wing would likely mean less playing time for Michael Beasley, which can’t hurt the Suns. If they get the Lakers pick, a proven winner like CJ McCollum could be another good fit late in the lottery. He can create his own shot and is a deadly shooter.

Jonathan:

Step 1: Begin (continue?) tanking to ensure a higher draft pick.
Step 2: Justify your tanking by playing “young, unproven rookies who need experience.”
Step 3: Acknowledge that your top three scorers (Dragic, Scola, and Gortat) are all international players.
Step 4: Continue international presence by drafting other international players.
Step 5: Draft Rudy Gobert, a 7-1 French center with a 7-9 wingspan.
Step 6: Draft Dario Saric, a 6-10 Croation small forward with Toni Kukoc comparisons.
Step 7: Rename yourself the “European Suns” and relocate overseas.

Luka: Well, it would be best if Robert Sarver sold the team but we all know the likelihood of that happening any time soon is slim. After forcing him out doesn’t happen, management needs to figure out a direction of the team. Does it want to win now or does it want to build for the future? The moves last off-season (signing Scola, trading for Beasley, and still having terrible contracts on the books) seem to make one believe the Suns thought they could compete this year and we all see how that’s going.

So what they need to do is cut bait, start over and build for the future. There are some decent pieces there but they don’t have any true cornerstone players, just a bunch of okay young guys. They need to be hoping for a top-3 pick and grab a cornerstone offensive player or else they’ll likely be adding to the limited, but decent group of talented young players. A guy like McLemore, Oladipo or Porter could help but doesn’t give them the offense they need.

Anthony Bennett is the guy they really need to be hoping for, Yes they have the Morris twins but neither of them can do what Bennett can do. Bennett will remind Suns fans of Amar’e Stoudemire, for both good and bad. He’s arguably the best, most versatile offensive player and quite the athlete for his size. Going out to Phoenix, he would hope to form a new era duo for Steve Nash and Amare’ with Dragic.

5. Will you guys keep it down in here? Some of us regulars are trying to THINK. Sometimes, guys like us don’t get respect from any of these up-and-comers, know what I mean, Charlotte?

I sure do, Sacramento. Say… what are you guys looking for this year?

… I was about to ask you the same thing.

Joe: It seems like every year you can count on taxes and the Kings and Bobcats to be in the lottery. Starting with MJ’s crew the Bobcats are a league-worst right now but the Bobcat never seem to be fortunate enough to win the lottery. In a year where it is this wide-open the Bobcats can sit back and let McLemore, Smart, Muhammad, Noel, and Bennett all try to impress enough them. Unfortunately the Bobcats really need the one-and-done rule abolished so they can draft Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Julius Randle. None of the top prospects in this draft cycle will give the Bobcats the star they desperately seek.

The Kings have been a mess this year and the ownership is a joke. While Kevin Johnson continues to do an admirable job to save the Kings the issues start at the top and run into the front office, which has become stale. The Kings stockpile the best players every year but have no sense on how to build a team. Having given up on Thomas Robinson in his rookie year I would not feel comfortable with any member of the current front office returning or drafting, if I were a Kings fan. Will Tyreke Evans return? Has DeMarcus Cousins played himself out of Sacramento? What is going on with this roster? So many questions need to be answered. Objectively speaking if Evans is not re-signed than the Kings need to find perimeter scoring and McLemore would be the best fit but Muhammad would bring more baggage, which seems like a must for any potential King under this regime. Marcus Smart would be a great addition here as well.

Jeffrey: First to Sacramento, other than keeping Thomas Robinson for more than half a season? Maybe it’s time to finally grab a point guard. The Kings have relied for far too long with small, shoot first guards like Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, etc. If Marcus Smart is available, grab him and don’t think twice. He’ll help change some of the culture around the team. If he’s not, Michael Carter-Williams would be a great fit. He’s a pass first point guard, with super potential due to his size and court vision, two things that the Kings’ guards have lacked recently.

For Charlotte, Kemba Walker looks like he’s got the potential to help the team going forward, and Gerald Henderson just said he wanted to be a Bobcat next year, so that’s a plus. Nerlens Noel is a great fit for every team, but with Bismack Biyombo, two athletic, defensive big men who are raw offensively may be a bit too redundant. That or it could be the foundation for an up-and-coming defense, but since they’re committed to Biyombo and MKG, a scoring wing to play the two is a must. McLemore should be priority 1, but if they don’t luck out with the one pick, Shabazz Muhammad should be where they look.

Jonathan: Welcome back guys, you two have set a great example on how to consistently get top picks. Two franchises looking for an identity (and, in one case, a new home), you guys have to go big here. Get some top talent, get fans in seats, and get people to remember you exist. While some of these players may be riskier than other first-round talent, they have the biggest upside and could be a franchise-changer. Players to consider: Noel (Kentucky), McLemore (Kansas), Smart (OK State), Porter (Georgetown), Bennett (UNLV), and Muhammad (UCLA). If either of you draw the lucky #1 pick, take Noel. “But he’s hurt!” Yes. But he will be better. Noel provides a stable centerpiece for a rebuilding franchise. Putting Noel in the middle makes everyone else’s job a lot easier. The other five are all premier scorers. Take your pick and hope he goes off for 30+ a night. If not, I’ll see you again next year.

Luka: Sacramento is looking to stay in Sacramento, first and foremost. If they can’t stay in Sacramento, which I think we all hope happens, then this draft won’t matter. But in hoping they do stay in Sacramento, they need to draft for fit more than any other team. Year after year Petrie has thrown together a bunch of square pegs in round holes and hoped it’s worked. So far his plan, which has been doomed from the start, has worked at keeping the Kings in the cellar. In addition to drafting for need, the Kings need to draft a high character, high intangible player. With DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans as the leaders of the team, it’s not hard to figure out why this team has long been a very immature one. Really any one of Marcus Smart, Otto Porter or Victor Oladipo would fit what the Kings should be looking for. But I would be quite curious to see what Trey Burke could do in trying to change the culture out West.

Luckily for the Bobcats, Kemba Walker looks to be developing and worth the 9th overall selection back in 2011. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo look like quite the defensive foundation but the offensive side has seen mixed results for them. What the Bobcats need most is what Michael Jordan never had problem himself finding: scoring. They need an offensive option worth a damn and someone who can get his own shot. Anthony Bennett or Shabazz Muhammad would both fill this hole and give them someone who they can rely on scoring wise. Both have their flaws but they’re flaws you can live with as the Bobcats when you need someone to score a basket, considering they’re near the bottom the league in scoring.

RTOE: ProBasketballDraft bridges the NCAA tourney to the NBA lottery (Part 1)

A very special RTOE for you all today. I recruited the help of the guys at ProBasketballDraft.com to help make sense of some of the choices this year’s lottery teams will have to make from the pool of NCAA talent. Eric PalutsisIan Levy, Fred Katz, and Ryan Glassman: take it away for part 1! (Note: Part 2 dropped later today.)

1. Hello, my name is the Cleveland Cavaliers. My team has a ton of cap space going into the off-season, not a whole lot of depth, and for some reason or another, there’s a giant, gaping hole at Small Forward. Assuming the Lakers make the playoffs and I get their pick, too, what’s my best fit in the first round of the draft?

Eric: As tough as it is to believe right now, with the Cavs blowing huge second half leads to Miami and Boston in recent games, it was not too long ago that Cleveland was actually lighting up scoreboards with an offensive rating over 110 during the month of February. Obviously the lack of depth has reared its ugly head with injuries to Kyrie Irving and now Dion Waiters but the larger issue has been terrible defense, specifically an atrocious interior defense. Tyler Zeller just is just not cutting it inside right now. Best case scenario for the Cavs? Win the lottery and draft Nerlens Noel, his shot-blocking and interior defensive presence is something that Cleveland has sorely been missing. If Noel is gone by the time the Cavs are picking in June, I don’t know that there is another big man worth taking that high; I would lean towards someone like Victor Oladipo who can become the lock-down perimeter defender that Cleveland has been lacking since a certain someone took his talents to South Beach. Arguments could be made for a small forward like Otto Porter to take some of the scoring load off of Irving but a scorer like Kentucky’s Alex Poythress or even Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III (assuming they throw their names in the draft) could be had later in the first round with the Lakers pick.

Ian: The continued development of Dion Waiters, paired with the continued brilliance of Kyrie Irving means the Cavaliers have some stout cinderblocks laid in the foundation of their backcourt. There are a couple of intriguing options from them at the top of the draft. Indiana University wing, Victor Oladipo could be a solid fit alongside Irving and Waiters.

Oladipo is an elite perimeter defender with the ability to make an instant impact at that end of the floor. On offense he’s a terrific finisher and has grown into a respectable outside shooter. His ceiling at that end of the floor is probably as a very efficient complementary player, but that’s exactly the ingredient Cleveland is missing. Oladipo is probably a hair shorter than the 6’5″ he’s listed at, but with a wingspan stretchy enough to help defend small forwards in a pinch. Although he probably isn’t the starting small forward answer, his elite defense and complimentary offensive game mean he could be a nice third-guard, playing alongside either Waiters or Irving and stretching into the small forward role when matchups allow.

Another option is 6’8″ wing, Otto Porter, from Georgetown. A defensive prospect equally as intriguing as Oladipo, Porter has the size to fully inhabit the Alonzo Gee shaped hole at small forward. Offensively Porter has the potential to develop a much more well-rounded game than Oladipo and is already a more polished ball-handler and shot creator.

Fred: Well, Cleveland, that all depends on how much you luck out (or unluck out) in the lottery. If you end up with the first or second overall pick, you kind of have to take Nerlens Noel, don’t you? I know Anderson Varejao is a quality player. I know he was having a great season until he went down for the year only 25 games in. I know your fans love him. But is he the guy that’s going to take you to the promise land with Kyrie?

Realistically, next year is still a building year for you. You won’t be “there” yet. Meanwhile, Andy is going to be on an expiring $9.1 million deal with a team option for the next year at $9.8 million. That’s pretty team friendly. A lot of contenders that are one big short would love to take a team-oriented guy, who was averaging 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds before he got hurt this year, on a contract like that. You can get legitimate value back for him. So trade Andy and move on with a core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Noel. That’s pretty strong.

If you fall lower, which you probably will, the small forward route is the way to go. You need rebounding – especially to compensate for Waiters, who is weak in that area. Shabazz Muhammad and Otto Porter would both fit that mold, but since Kyrie is already a natural scorer and Dion goes for more aimless Runaround Sues than anyone else in the league, Porter may serve as a better Cav complement than Shabazz.

Ryan: Cleveland, I love what you’re doing in the backcourt with the scoring tandem of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. Up front, Tristan Thompson looks like he can be a solid forward for a long time, and hopefully you can continue to get some good production from Andy Varejao next season. But before you guys get serious about taking the leap to playoff contender in the Eastern Conference, you need a player to fill in at SF for Alonzo Gee. Gee is probably better suited to play off of the bench than start alongside a pair of scorers in the backcourt, where his shots are limited.

What the Cavs need in that starting spot is a versatile player that can guard wings, rebound, and get his points without having to dominate the ball, a guy like Georgetown’s Otto Porter. In a weak draft class, there may not be more of a sure thing than Porter, a stat sheet stuffer that will contribute consistently on both ends of the ball. Porter has the frame and athleticism to guard elite wings at the NBA level, and also already has a refined midrange game that fits well alongside the perimeter-oriented games of Irving and Waiters. Porter may not have the superstar ceiling of some other prospects, but with one of the league’s best young talents already on your roster, all you need is a player that can contribute from Day 1, and add talent and depth to the team. The Porter pick allows you to look to a scorer in the frontcourt with the Lakers’ pick, where a skilled big like Kelly Olynyk makes a lot of sense.

2. Hi there, Cleveland. Can I call you Cleveland? My name is Minnesota Timberwolves, and I wasn’t supposed to be here this year, but here I am. I know my biggest problem is injuries as opposed to depth, but I have to figure that out anyway. I guess I could probably use a Shooting Guard, but I don’t know. Like I said, I wasn’t supposed to be here. Who’s my best fit in the first round, as long as I draft in the top 13?

Eric: The Timberwolves situation is perplexing, to say the least. Injuries have obviously ruined this season but that means the pieces should still be in place for a dramatic improvement next season, especially with how much better Ricky Rubio has been playing as of late. That being said, Minnesota could certainly use an improvement at small forward and they would love to have a shot at Otto Porter if they were drafting in the top five. However, it is highly unlikely that the Timberwolves will be drafting that high a perimeter scorer like Shabazz Muhammad could be in play. Muhammad’s ability to play the 2 or the 3 would also allow Minnesota more lineup flexibility, shifting him to shooting guard in order to put a Derrick Williams-Kevin Love-Nikola Pekovic frontcourt on the floor.

Ian: The Timberwolves shooting guard rotation has definitely been a steaming pile of Shved this season, ranking near the league’s basement in both offensive and defensive competency. A player like Oladipo could be a nice fit, as could one of the more-scoring focused guards like Ben McLemore, Shabazz Muhammad or Gary Harris. However, looking into the not-too-distant future, the challenges of keeping Kevin Love happy and Nikola Pekovic affordable mean that shoring up depth in the front-court may be more important.

A healthy Nerlens Noel would be a dream. Actual Nerlens Noel, with an unsettled medical chart, would be exciting but certainly not settle any stomachs at the Target Center. Either of those scenarios would probably require moving up significantly in the lottery. If the Timberwolves stay in their slot and decide to chase size, a project like Alex Len or Rudy Gobert could make sense. Gobert brings a sloppy swirl of tightly wound energy and athleticism, with a significant amount of polish standing between his present-day self and an extended NBA career. Len has a broader foundation of skill to fall back on than Gobert, but needs just as much development to reach his true potential.

Fred: Your best bet might be taking someone out of med school. Or maybe you should trade for Pau Gasol. I know you’ve always liked him and he really wants to be a doctor. You have to promise you won’t tell the other lottery teams what I’m about to tell you: you should’ve made the playoffs. You have a better roster than any of these other teams. You just got really unlucky. But seriously, Minnesota, don’t tell any of those other guys I just said that. I don’t want to get in trouble.

That said, you really need shooting. What happened to you guys? You know you’re under 30 percent from three right now, right? So who can shoot? Shabazz Muhammad can. Ben McLemore can make his long-range shots when he’s hot. Otto Porter seems to have pretty good range. Any of those guys would work and any of those guys would be able to stay with you on a cheap deal after Andrei Kirilenko’s contract runs up.

Ryan: Injuries aside, Minnesota, you need to add some guys to the roster that can score from the perimeter. An offensive rating rank of 24 has got to improve to match the team’s average to above-average defensive output if you want to push for the playoffs with a hopefully healthy roster next season. There’s a guy out west whose stock has gone down recently, but whose game I still like, and I think would fit your roster pretty well. I can’t tell you with certainty how old he is, but I can tell you that there may not be a scorer in this draft as naturally gifted as UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad.

The Bruins freshman has a knack for scoring the ball, and can play at the next level from the 2 or at times the 3. He plays extremely hard, finishes well at the rim, and is a great shooter from the midrange and beyond once he is able to get his feet set. Muhammad is a guy that may not challenge for any scoring titles, but should be able to average 15-18 PPG for a long time with his offensive skill set. Playing in the backcourt with a guy like Ricky Rubio that loves to get up the floor and hit open shooters, Muhammad has the opportunity to thrive with the Timberwolves as a scorer that can get his points from all over the floor, in both transition and in half court sets.

3. Hey guys. Orlando Magic here. You guys remember me? We were the ones that drafted back to back #1 picks in 1992 and 1993. We drafted #1 again in 2004… yada yada yada, WE’RE BACK! Did you miss us? No? Oh, ok. Well, we’ve got a LOT of young guys on our roster. Who’s part of our core going forward? Is there anyone at the top of this draft that’ll be complimentary to that core?

Eric: The Magic currently have five rookies on their roster as they try to rebuild and put the saga of the Dwight Howard years behind them. Andrew Nicholson and Mo Harkless have shown glimpses and have the potential to be effective NBA players but no one is going to confuse them with future superstars. Wait and see is the best case scenario for the rest but that means Orlando has plenty of options of where to go with the likely No. 2 overall pick. A shooting guard is likely the most pressing need, so a high-ceiling player like Kansas’ Ben McLemore, considered by many to be the second best player in the entire draft, could certainly fit the bill. A number of mock drafts also have point guard Marcus Smart rising up draft boards thanks to his superior size and athleticism. Either guard would be nice complements to the rest of the Magic’s young squad and have the raw, high-ceiling potential to develop into the star Orlando desperately needs.

Ian: This pick, likely at the top of the lottery, offers the Magic a golden opportunity to move past the Jameer Nelson era. Oklahoma State point guard, Marcus Smart, seems like the most obvious choice. He has all the tools to be an elite point guard and just needs some time to refine and align them. Most intriguing is the way his physical style complements his bulldog personality. This combination could be the perfect elixir to pull together all the talented young pieces the Magic have assembled and start driving them in the same direction.

Fred: You’re full of weirdos. You have some nice veteran guys. You have some good, young players. I like Andrew Nicholson, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, and Tobias Harris. You have a good coach in Jacque Vaughn. How the heck are you only a half a game better than the Bobcats?

You guys seriously need some shooters. We’ve learned that Arron Afflalo makes his jumpers when he’s open, but doesn’t make him create threes for himself. That means you should probably go with Marcus Smart, who can’t shoot from long range just yet, but probably will be able to in the future. More importantly, Smart can create open looks for other guys. I know you don’t want to hear this right now, Orlando, but Jameer Nelson is no longer an All-Star point guard. He’s Janearing the end so remember that next year should just be your next step to improvement. It’s not a sprint. It’s a Jameerathon.

Ryan: Orlando! First and foremost, let me credit you in trying to make the best of that messy Dwight Howard situation last year. Looking around at a few of your trade partners, I think you guys actually made off okay in that one. I love the games of Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless, two very young and athletic wings that have improved with more minutes this season. They are definitely an important part of your core going forward. Nikola Vucevic was the steal of that entire draft, an elite rebounder that adds youth and athleticism to the front line, while Andrew Nicholson is an appealing prospect that can score both inside and out. I think each of those four guys, with Arron Afflalo adding some scoring and defense on the wing, each ought to be a part of the blueprint going forward. What your team needs now is a sense of identity. You have these four young guys that each fill a role, but now you need a floor general to set the tone on both ends, especially with the pending team option for Jameer Nelson’s contract after the ’13-’14 season.

There is not a better fit for the Magic in this draft than Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, a point guard that brings elite leadership and toughness to every team he plays for. Smart if a strong, physical guard, a great athlete that loves to get into the lane and can finish at the rim against length and size. He has good court vision and can lead the break, and can also rebound extremely well for his position. Smart fits the best on a young roster like yours, where he can come in and breed a mentality of toughness and competitiveness from Day 1. I love Marcus Smart’s leadership skills and overall motor, and think they would be an outstanding fit with your talented but young roster.

4. Yo, Cleveland. Maybe some of us don’t want the Lakers to make the playoffs. Ever thought of that? Jeez. Selfish. Oh, hi. I’m Phoenix Suns. I’m new around these parts. It’s weird to be here. Can anyone help me out? What exactly do I do here?

Eric: The Suns could really use a scorer to add to their roster–no player on the current roster is averaging more than 15 points per game. With Phoenix likely to pick in or around the top five, the Suns should be praying that Otto Porter drops to wherever they are drafting. A dynamic scorer, Porter should be able to be plugged into the Suns’ lineup right away and has the intangibles that scouts drool over. He would certainly give Phoenix a consistent scoring option with a high motor, night in and night out. If Porter is not available, Muhammad is another player who projects as a consistent NBA scorer, although he is considered to be more one-dimensional than Porter and does not bring nearly as much to the table.

Ian: The Phoenix Suns draft board should be wide open. Priorities number 1-5 are adding talented basketball players. Priority number 6 is figuring out where they fit. The Suns don’t really appear to be tied to anyone other than Goran Dragic, but even that could go out the window if someone like Marcus Smart fell into their lap. They don’t have to hit a home run, but they can’t afford any wild swings and misses.

Players with refined, if limited games, like Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller or C.J. McCollum may be interesting to them. I’m guessing the Shabazz Muhammad – Michael Beasley vibe hits a little too close to home, but they could also chase a player like Otto Porter, Anthony Bennett or James McAdoo, who may not hit their considerable ceilings but have a talent versatile enough to all but ensure they become regular NBA contributors.

Fred: Phoenix, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life right now. I think this is the point where your parents need to give you a stern talk. It feels like the only asset you have at this point is your training staff. Knowing you, you’ll probably make some pick that makes absolutely no sense and it’ll be backed by the logic of, “How do we make this work with Michael Beasley?” People are laughing at you, Phoenix. They’re all laughing at you!

Can you at least get someone to help with your three-point defense? Did you know that opponents are shooting 39.5 percent against you, worst in the NBA? Judging from the way you play, I’m guessing that’s a no. Well, Victor Oladipo could help with that. Have you seen him on the perimeter? I don’t care that his offense may turn him into a one-dimensional, catch-and-shoot player. Tony Allen with catch-and-shoot ability or Thabo Sefolosha with potentially better defense is pretty darn valuable. So make that pick not because he works well with Goran Dragic and Beasley, but because it makes sense.

Ryan: Phoenix, sad to see you down here, but I guess things have to get worse before they can get better. The roster looks to be in a state of flux right now, but the biggest need to me appears to be scoring, from just about every position on the roster. Without a guy averaging 15 points a game this season, I think the move in the draft is to look at some athletes that can score and get up and down the floor. A lot of this depends on where this pick ends up, but a guy I like for your team is Kansas freshman Ben McLemore.

In a draft class where draft boards are more of a flavor-of-the-month posting than a concrete standing of the top prospects, McLemore is a guy currently on the downswing because of a lackluster NCAA Tournament thus far. But, although he is criticized for being a bit passive at time, the guard is still an elite shooting prospect with NBA range and athleticism. At his best, McLemore is a dynamic scorer that can beat you from outside or get to the rim and finish with his explosive leaping ability. McLemore is a good rebounder for his position, and has the physical tools to improve into a very god defender. But his upside as a potential top-5 pick is as a deep range shooter with great athleticism and a quick release on his jump shot. Playing alongside Goran Dragic, a guard who loves to get up and down the floor and create looks for others, McLemore has the chance to contribute early on as a shooter and improve as he becomes better at creating offense off the dribble.

5. Will you guys keep it down in here? Some of us regulars are trying to THINK. Sometimes, guys like us don’t get respect from any of these up-and-comers, know what I mean, Charlotte?

I sure do, Sacramento. Say… what are you guys looking for this year?

… I was about to ask you the same thing.

Eric: For Charlotte and Sacramento, the general consensus has to be that anything is better than what is currently in place. With only a few pieces to build around for each team they could go any number of directions and likely (hopefully) be better off. For Charlotte, actually winning the lottery for once would be huge, especially because it would mean earning the right to draft Noel. While he does not project to be the same franchise player that Anthony Davis did a year ago, Noel’s defensive abilities and raw athleticism would still be a huge upgrade over Bismack Biyombo. Charlotte may also have Portland’s first round pick (top 12 protected) and could draft a shooter like C.J. McCollum to space the floor between Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

As for the Kings, after trading last year’s first round pick Thomas Robinson, Sacramento could go after a power forward once again and UNLV’s Anthony Bennett would be great fit, potentially becoming a great complement to DeMarcus Cousins. However, unless the Kings land in the top five, Bennett will likely be gone, so an electric point guard like Trey Burke could make sense as a steady hand to lead the Kings’ offense.

Ian: The short answer is that I have no idea. Sacramento appears to be taking the Jackson Pollock approach to team building, just throwing paint at the wall, hoping something beautiful emerges. Charlotte apparently has some sort of plan, but I’m not sure they can read it. Shabazz Muhammad’s elite scoring and questionable decision-making seem like a perfect fit for the maelstrom in Sacramento. Charlotte likely ends up with the top pick which gives them the opportunity to take Nerlens Noel and experiment with a Noel, Biyombo, Kidd-Gilchrist two-on-five offensive attack.

Fred: I’ll address my two most troubled students separately for this one. Sacramento, I don’t know what you’re doing defensively, but the good news is I don’t think you do either. So get someone who can at least give you some defense. Oladipo would work if he is still on the board when you pick. So would Porter. The knock on Anthony Bennett is that he’s a 6-foot-7 power forward, but height being important is one of the biggest myths in all of basketball. Let’s see how Bennett’s wingspan measures up before the NBA Draft. I’m betting he’s more than qualified to guard NBA forwards. And if you decide not to draft Bennett because you’ve already got Patrick Patterson and Jason Thompson, then shame on you.

And you, Charlotte. At least you have Kemba Walker. I guess the only way the season could go worse for you is if you don’t get the first overall pick, which would be both hilarious and depressing if that scenario played out two years in a row. If you end up picking first, don’t think about the injury and take Nerlens Noel. Do you see how well everyone is recovering from ACLs nowadays? Well, I’m betting that a 19-year-old kid recovering from injury is less of a risk than Ben McLemore (who goes more silent than Charlie Chaplin for oddly long stretches), Marcus Smart (who is athletic and looks like he could definitely improve, but who struggles with shot selection and shot 40.4 percent from the field and 29.0 percent from three this year), Cody Zeller (who had about every single one of his flaws exposed against Syracuse), and Shabazz Muhammad (who might not have the athleticism to guard bigger and faster NBA wings on the perimeter). Go with Noel, let his offensive game develop, let him dominate on the defensive end, and give yourself a defensive anchor for the first time in your franchise’s history. It’s the right thing to do.

Ryan: Alright guys, lets try to actually get this right this year. Sacramento, let’s start with you. There are a lot of pieces on this roster with talent that can score, but the pieces just don’t seem to fit together. A guy like Victor Oladipo makes a lot of sense for this team, considering the work ethic and intensity that he brings from the wing position. But I’m afraid his meteoric rise has taken him higher in the draft than where you will be picking. A nice option for you guys, and a guy that just knocked Oladipo out of the tournament, is Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas are both talented players, but are not true pass-first point guards dedicated to getting looks for others. Carter-Williams, with his great size, length, and court vision, is an elite passer that can create offense for others both in transition and in the half court. Carter-Williams would bring the Kings a true passer to distribute the looks for everybody else, a talent that your team desperately needs.

And as for you, Charlotte, another year at the bottom of the league brings a new set of needs when looking at the draft. I like what you have out on the perimeter with Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but its time to look inside and try and improve upon that league-worst defense. In spite of his ACL injury, I think taking Nerlens Noel makes a lot of sense for you guys. As good a shot-blocking prospect as there has been in years, including Anthony Davis, Noel has the potential to immediately anchor a defense as a rim-protector along the front line. But where Noel has a lot of upside, and where I don’t think he gets enough credit already, is on the offensive end. Noel’s post game got better in his year at Kentucky, and he has the coordination and athleticism to blossom into a very solid back-to-the-basket player down the line. But Noel is one of the league’s best shot blockers from the moment he makes his debut, a rare trait that NBA teams such as the Bobcats should hold in high regard.

Statistical Anomaly: Celtics @ Cavaliers

Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Robert S. Donovan via Flickr

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Celtics last second win over the Cavaliers.

Since Rajon Rondo went down with a torn ACL, Paul Pierce has assumed the distributing role while continuing to be a viable scoring option. He recorded eight dimes and seven made baskets against Cleveland, increasing his percentage of games with at least as many AST as FGM to 59.3% since the Rondo injury. While he has made a strong effort to get his teammates involved, he has still managed to average over 15 points in those games. His ability to score opens up driving lanes for Jeff Green and mid range jump shots for Brandon Bass, two players who have emerged since Boston lost their floor general. In fact, they have scored at least 99 points in a winning effort more time (12) in less games (33) played without Rondo than they did with him (11 in 38). The Celtics are much more talented with Rondo in the lineup, but the playmaking ability combined with the scoring capabilities of Pierce has made them a more efficient team since January 25th.

Brandon Bass missed only his second free throw of the month and his first misfire in 12 games (335 minutes played). Oddly enough, the Celtics are 6-2 since January 17th when Bass misses at least one free throw but have lost three games in the past eight days when he makes all of his attempts (minimum one attempt). With Kevin Garnett’s health issues, the emergence of Bass has come at the most opportune of times. In March, Bass has been remarkably efficient, averaging 1.37 points per FGA (Garnett is averaging 1.18 points per FGA this season). The Celtics are a team no one wants to play this year, but I contend that the end of the KG/Pierce era will not signify the end of the Celtics competitive teams. Rondo (27 years old) and Avery Bradley (22) can hold their own against any backcourt and Jordan Crawford (24) provides a strong scoring punch. In the front court, Jeff Green (26) and Bass (27) have versatile styles that are tough to matchup against. They aren’t an old basketball team, it is simply the household names that are aging. The names won’t be the same, but the win totals aren’t going to change much as the Celtics roster turns over.

Celtics

Each quarter in this game was decided by at least five points. The Celtics won the first and fourth quarter by a total of 13 points (they are outscored by an average of 0.2 points in those two quarters) while the Cavs won the second and third quart by a total of 12 points (they are outscored by an average of 2.2 points in those two quarters). The strong late game performance by Boston is a welcomed site, as they are currently set up for a date with the Knicks in the postseason (the NBA’s second best fourth quarter team in terms of point differential). The subtraction of Rondo helps a bit in this category as well, taking a FT liability out of the game in favor of a player like Jason Terry (86%), Courtney Lee (85%), or Jordan Crawford (79%).

For his career, Daniel Gibson averages 4.2 points per assist, but against the Celtics since December of 2010, Gibson has the exact same number of assists as points. Gibson’s career trajectory has been trending downward ever since LeBron James left town. His percentage of games started, three point percentage, free throw percentage, points, and assists have decreased every single season since The Decision. Don’t be surprised if Gibson, as a unrestricted free agent, isn’t a Cavalier next season, as they’ve got five guards that are his age or younger (Kyrie Irving, Wayne Ellington, Dion Waiters, CJ Miles, and Shaun Livingston) that they seem to like more.

Tristan Thompson, however, is a player that is in the future plans of Cleveland. The 22 year old undersized forward grabbed nine rebounds, his 19th straight game with at least seven rebounds. He has produced seven double doubles over that stretch. The numbers are nice, but the fact that three of his double doubles this month have come against strong teams in the paint (Pacers, Grizzlies, and Jazz) is encouraging. He isn’t the ideal size for a NBA PF (227 pounds), but he is good around the basket and has a nose for the basketball. His statistics are up across the board from his rookie campaign, a trend that should continue as the young Cavs continue to improve.

Correlation Between NetRtg and Quarter

What quarter deserves the most attention when trying to draw a link between NetRtg (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions) and winning? What does it take to be number one?

In each season, beginning with the 2007-2008 campaign, the most linked quarterly Rtg (offensive or defensive) was the first quarter. A poor DefRtg in the first 12 minutes resulted in the highest Loss Correlation in each of the past five seasons.

Also, fans like to obsess over the fourth quarter scoring (How often have you heard, “Kobe is the most clutch player of all time” or early in his career “LeBron freezes up down the stretch and couldn’t finish a game is his life depended on it”?), but is that really all that important? The average Win Correlation for OffRtg (how directly tied the game result is to the number of points scored per 100 possessions) is lower in the fourth quarter than the average of quarters one through three in every single season since 2007. This stat indicates that the offensive efficiency prior to the fourth quarter is consistently more crucial to winning that what a team does in the final 12 minutes.

In fact, if you’re still going to look at the fourth quarter as the most crucial of quarters, you’re better off looking at the defensive efficiency. In three of the five seasons studied, the average Loss Correlation for DefRtg was higher in the fourth quarter than the average of the first three quarters three times.

When analyzing the data from the past five seasons, it becomes obvious that games are won in the early going, as opposed to the final few minutes. Success is ultimately determined by victories and the wins leader (Lakers with 277) has the greatest cumulative first quarter NetRtg (48.2) over the last five seasons. Coincidence? I think not.

The total number of wins by the quarterly NetRtg leader decreases as you progress through the game. But this trend isn’t only true for the elite teams, it holds true for the NBA as a whole. The top 17 teams in terms of wins over the last five seasons are the exact same 17 teams that lead the way in cumulative first quarter NetRtg. Here is a look at how each team stacked up in total wins and cumulative NetRtg by quarter since 2007.

Win Chart

 

Top 10

 

Middle 10

 

Bottom 10

Further disproving the myth of fourth quarter efficiency and its overall importance is the overall trend of the top teams in NetRtg and the bottom teams in NetRtg . Now, one must acknowledge the fact that blowouts do play a role in the late game data and not the early game stats, but with five years of games (394 games per team), the vast majority of games are competitive throughout. Even during a game which has for all intensive purposes been decided with considerable time left on the clock, both teams will turn to their reserves, thus not skewing the data a whole lot. Take a glance at the trend of the best team/worst team in terms of cumulative NetRtg by quarter.

First Place

NetRtg Last Place

As you can see, the worst team in the league (in terms of cumulative NetRtg) improves as the game progresses while the best team gets worse. The gap from the best team to the worst team shrinks from 94.5 in the first quarter to 59.4 in the fourth stanza, a 37.1% drop off.

With all of this data surrounding the fact that the best team excels early in the game, it would only follow that the best player in the world would be associated with a similar trend. Since 2008-2009, no player has won more games than LeBron James (231) and his teams have dominated in the first quarter. In the last four seasons, James’ team has had a first quarter cumulative NetRtg of 47.5, far and away tops in the league. While his fourth quarter efficiency is still very good (27.2) in those seasons, that represents a 42.7% downward trend.

 LeBron James Pie

 If your gut feeling is to blame that disparity on James’ slow developing “clutch gene”, consider that Kobe Bryant’s Lakers (the most successful franchise over the last five seasons) have seen their cumulative NetRtg drop by 72% from the first to the fourth quarter.

Kobe Bryant Pie

 What could this trend of production early in games tell us about the future?

Since the 2007-2008 season the East has gradually improved and finally overtook the West as the better conference when it comes to playoff teams. The 2007-2008 Eastern Conference playoff teams (Celtics, Pistons, Magic, Cavs, Wizards, Raptors, 76ers, Hawks) had an average NetRtg of 3.2, with four teams logging a negative NetRtg. It was a top heavy conference, as the top three seeds had the highest NetRtg’s in the NBA. The Western Conference, however, had the next eight highest NetRtg totals from its playoff teams (Lakers, Hornets, Spurs, Jazz, Rockets, Suns, Mavs, Nuggets) and averaged a far superior 5.84 NetRtg.

Since that point in time, however, the Eastern playoff teams have cut into that gap until finally passing their Western counterparts last season. Despite a minor regression in 2009-2010, the East teams have gained ground on the West in average NetRtg (trailed by 2.64 in 2007-2008, by 0.68 in 2008-2009, 0.87 in 2009-2010, by 0.37 in 2010-2011) before finally breaking through with a higher NetRtg by 1.24 last season. Instead of being a top heavy conference, the East boasted five of the top seven playoff teams in total NetRtg.

Production in the first half of games appears to be directly correlated with this changing of the guard. In 2007-2008, the Western Conference playoff teams averaged a NetRtg of 12.3 in the first half of games, a number that was 40.2% greater than the Eastern Conference playoff teams. The East gradually chipped away at that difference by cutting the disparity to 16.2% the next season and 2.8% in 2009-2010. The East broke through last season, as their NetRtg was 13.9% greater than that of the West. They were able to make these strides specifically due to their strong play in the second quarter. Back in 2007-2008, the average Western Conference playoff team had a NetRtg that was 3.1 points better than the Eastern teams in the second quarter alone. Fast forward to the 2011-2012 season, and the Eastern teams had a NetRtg 1.69 points higher than the West.

Since the 2007-2008 season, the Eastern Conference has won 14 games (five seasons) in the Finals. They had won only 17 since the Michael Jordan era (nine seasons) ended in 1997-1998. The bottom feeders in the East are as bad as ever, but are we seeing a changing of the guard at the top of these conferences?

Feasting on crumbs

Image via diongillard on Flickr

Image via diongillard on Flickr

In the past few years, we’ve seen blockbuster trade after blockbuster trade. Well, maybe they’ve always been happening, but the internet has just amplified their existence a bit more. Whether it’s been the size, amount, or amplification into spectacle, we fans have learned to crave trades. Talk as we may about hating trade rumors, we all love it because it we love talking about good guys, bad guys, winners, losers, geniuses, morons, superteams, market sizes, and the most deliciously convoluted-yet-I-wouldn’t-have-it-any-other-way salary cap in all professional sports. We love it when we see superstars team up (even if we really hate it), and we love it even more when those superstars can’t seem to make it work (even if we REALLY REALLY love it). With Twitter stringing the fans, players, owners, writers, and everyone in between together, big trades add a human interest dimension to basketball that can grab you and won’t let you go.

In the offseason, we saw Dwight Howard and Steve Nash make their ways to Los Angeles, leaving other players and draft picks in their wakes. Of course, there was also the trade centered around James Harden and Kevin Martin. Since then, there have been a lot of D-League call-ups and Free Agent veteran’s-minimum signings, but there haven’t been many trades aside from the Warrick-Carroll trade in early November (and it’s not even officially listed on NBA.com’s list of transactions). Lots of Rudy Gay smoke, but no fire. All work and no trades make Amin get antsy.

Then yesterday, a trade fell out of the sky in front of us. We all dove towards it, sniffed it a few hundred times, batted it around in our paws. After a couple of bites to make sure it was real, we rejoiced that we were finally seeing a trade. It was probably the most interesting trade that had happened all season (I mean, there wasn’t much competition from Warrick and Carroll), even if it wasn’t all that flashy. It didn’t involve a franchise player getting booted out of town, nor did he beg and plead his way out. It was a good, solid medium-impact win-win trade for the Grizzlies and the Cavaliers. The Grizzlies got some much-desired cap relief and the ability to have people stop asking them about Rudy Gay all the damn time, and the Cavs got some much-needed depth–but not enough to screw up their lottery chances. Oh, and the Cavs got a lottery-guaranteed pick from Memphis for sometime starting in 2015 and thereafter.

As a Cavs fan, I immediately started thinking about this trade from Cleveland’s point of view: adding Selby to the backcourt rotation helps Irving and Waiters spread out their minutes a bit more. Adding Ellington gives a shooter for spacing. Adding Speights gives them a young frontcourt veteran who can sop up some minutes since Varejao is out for the year. And you gotta love that extra lottery pick. I have no idea who’ll be eligible in the draft in 2015-2018–I don’t keep up with 9th grade AAU basketball, as it were–but a lottery pick is a lottery pick. If the Cavs build their core by then, they’ll use it as a trade chip. If they don’t, they’ll use it to beef up the core.

As a Hollinger fan, I then started poring over the personnel and financial side of this trade. As the new VP of Basketball Operations for the Grizzlies, I’d have to think that Hollinger wanted to make the Grizzlies better on the margins while cutting as much from the payroll as possible YET not upsetting the playoff-bound core. By getting the team $2million under the luxury tax and adding Jon Leuer to the frontcourt, as well as signing Delonte West (and Bill Walker) to the backcourt, Hollinger made an upgrade in depth, defense, and ball-handling while keeping the bosses financially content.

But as a trade fan, this was EXCELLENT. Mostly because it was the first trade in a while, but it was still great. What a way to start trade season, eh? Two teams both getting things they want. No animosity, no bamboozling, no talks of fair or unfair. This was a trade that made the parties who walked away from it feel good about what they’d accomplished for their teams. Hopefully the guys who were traded don’t feel any bad blood either. One would think, with the roles they’ll be filling, that these guys are all actually going to get a chance to play more than they had in their previous situations. And one would hope that’d make them happier.

The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, February 21st, and the league is still full of iffy situations for players and teams. Is Dwight Howard getting booted from LA? Are the Magic ever really going to blow it up? Is Rudy Gay safe until the summer? We don’t know the answers to any of these yet, but we’ve got about a month of anticipation left. Thanks to the Cavs and Grizzlies, we’ve got enough to tide us over for a little while, but we’re going to need to sniff something else pretty soon.