NBA Playoffs, Suns v. Spurs: If your heart says Phoenix and your head says San Antonio, the numbers agree with your heart

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Spurs.pngIn the strictest sense, the San Antonio Spurs’ first round victory over the Dallas Mavericks should be considered a monumental achievement. A 2-7 upset should be praised in the highest regard. A pauper bested a prince! David toppled Goliath! The spunky underdogs with hearts of gold took down the evil billionaire!

Only it wasn’t. The Spurs’ win was a nice dose of revenge for the Mavs’ smackdown of a hobbled San Antonio team in last year’s playoffs, but this series may not have even been an upset. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more evenly matched series between a 2-seed and 7-seed, and each game reflected the balance between the two. The Spurs rightfully won the series in six, as their drastically improved health and the incredible parity among Western Conference playoff teams made the playoff seeding more than a bit misleading.

The intriguing underlying narrative of the match-up was win-loss record vs. statistical resume, as the Mavs boasted the superior record (hence the no. 2 seed) and the division-winner label, but the Spurs looked to be the more impressive team by slightly more complicated measures. For one, San Antonio’s point differential (considered by some to be the best predictor of playoff success) was far better (+5.1) than Dallas’ (+2.7), and was more in line with the West’s elite than borderline playoff teams.

Some have touted the Spurs’ series win as a victory for more advanced statistical measures; herein lies proof that win-loss record is not the best indicator of team superiority, and that other measures, even those as intuitive as point differential, could paint a better picture for comparative purposes. Better teams don’t just win more often, but their wins are of a fundamentally more valuable nature.

The irony here should not be lost on anyone. The Spurs, champions of the old guard, are, in this case, a poster team for the statistical revolution. Their victory over the Mavs can be explained away by the injuries or a Dallas collapse, but the data shows that the Spurs were the better team all along, even if they didn’t really hit their stride until late in the season.

It’s not just point differential, either. One of the more important tools of new wave statistics is the per-possession adjustment, a mathematical tinkering that renders pace irrelevant. It’s not about how many points a team scores in a game or even in x minutes, but how productive they are with a given possession. That’s why metrics like offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) and defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) have become critical to the way that the smartest guys in the room are thinking about basketball. This game isn’t about total output, but rather how productive a team can be on a micro level. Every possession counts, and a team’s efficiency on a per-possession basis (either offensively or defensively) is ultimately what determines wins and losses.

Again, with the numbers in mind, the Spurs rightfully beat the Mavs. San Antonio’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency; +5.23 points per 100 possessions for SA) was superior to Dallas’ (+3.96). All is well in the world of the spreadsheet.

Until the second round, which is where things really get interesting. The Spurs hold a slight edge over the Suns in point differential (+5.1 to +4.9), but when you break things down into per possessions measurements rather than per game? Phoenix (+5.81) has been the more efficient team this season, even if they only edge San Antonio (+5.23) by a slight margin.

Maybe the roughly half a point difference between the two teams isn’t enough to decide conclusively which team should take the series, but if we go strictly by efficiency differential in this case, the Suns are the favorite. They also hold home court advantage, which tends to make a difference in these seven-game affairs. If we’re not looking at the momentum each team has coming out of their first round series or the specific match-ups, the Spurs are the statistical underdog, if only barely.

In fact, if we look at the differential for each of Dean Oliver’s four factors (shooting as measured by effective field goal percentage, rebounding as measured by rebounding rate, free throw shooting frequency as measured by free throw rate, and turnovers as measured by turnover rate), the Suns own the advantage in all factors aside from rebounding.

Just like that, the Spurs have gone from de facto favorites to technical underdogs. Why is it, then, that this series feels like San Antonio’s to lose? Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili played with a lot of confidence in the first round, and though plenty of the Spurs’ wins against the Mavs were close, they looked like a team in control. The Suns, on the other hand, wavered a bit during their matchup with the Blazers, despite their white-hot ending to the regular season. The Suns may hold the home court, but the Spurs seem to have every other intangible advantage.

This series should be interesting for a number of reasons, but keep the Suns’ statistical superiority at the back of your mind. Regardless of how both teams look right now, the more detailed numbers show that Phoenix is the slightly better team, even if raw point differential doesn’t.  

DeMarcus Cousins on new Kings coach: “I like him and he likes me”

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) reacts to a foul called against him during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Associated Press
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Dave Joerger was hired in Sacramento to do nearly the impossible: Turn around the Kings into a playoff team with potential, and develop a relationship with DeMarcus Cousins that makes the game’s best center want to stay in Sacramento (his contract is up in the summer of 2018).

The Kings won their opening game and return home Thursday to open their new building against the Spurs (a stiffer test than the Suns, to put it kindly).

As for the relationship part, Joerger is at least doing better than George Karl, as Cousins told our old friend Brett Pollakoff working for SLAM.

Jason Jones at The Sacramento Bee had a longer quote.

“Joerger’s been great,” Cousins said. “I think what he brought to the team is what this team needed. It fits our identity more than how we played in the past. Not to knock any of the previous situations but I think this situation fits this team the best.”

Cousins said last week he likes that’s there’s no gray area with Joerger. He makes everything plain and clear and that’s a plus.

It’s a good start for Joerger, but will it be enough? The feeling from most people around the league outside Sacramento is that it’s too late, the well has been poisoned and Cousins will leave the Kings as a free agent in two summers if they don’t trade him before then.

The Kings are not giving up that easily, especially in the first season in a new building — it is a franchise that wants to show Cousins it has turned the corner. Don’t expect any move with Cousins this season — landing elite players is hard and the Kings don’t want to give up on the one they have. The Kings may eventually have to face a decision on making a trade, but they are not there yet.

Meanwhile, other teams are just circling and waiting.

Derrick Rose with a frank assessment of Knicks opener vs. Cavaliers

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Derrick Rose #25 of the New York Knicks controls the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers on October 25, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The Knicks are primed for a slow start. New coach teaching a new, modified system. New starting point guard who missed most of training camp. New defensive anchor at center, who missed most of training camp. New players throughout the roster, plus the need to develop and highlight Kristaps Porzingis. It’s going to take time to find how it all fits together.

Then their opening game is against the defending champion Cavaliers? Welcome to the NBA.

The Cavaliers won going away, with LeBron James looking every bit the best player on the planet. Derrick Rose, how would you assess the Knicks’ play? Via Barbara Barker of Newsday.

You have to love that Rose is honest. And he’s right.

Rose was part of the problem with the ball movement — 41.2 percent of his shots in that game came after seven or more dribbles and after he held the ball for at least six seconds. Carmelo Anthony was better, but not great. The Knicks stagnation on offense in the second half was a sharp contrast from the way the Cavaliers shared the rock all night.

The Knicks ball movement should get better as Jeff Hornacek pushes this team and they get more comfortable with the balance of pace (which we saw in the first half) and running the triangle (which they did much more after the game was a blowout, almost like a practice). It is going to take time to find that balance. At the same time, the team’s defense needs a lot of work, and the bench needs to improve.

All of that can happen, but in a tight Eastern Conference a slow start could be a tough hole for the Knicks to climb out of.

Bulls’ ‘Late Night Snack with Henry’ is a ton of fun (video)

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The Bulls might be hard on the eyes this season due to their lack of spacing, but darn it if they’re not trying their best to be likable.

Beef? Bradley Beal says he wouldn’t have re-signed with Wizards and John Wall says he wouldn’t have begged Beal back if true

Bradley Beal, John Wall
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

John Wall and Bradley Beal defined their relationship this summer.

Wall: “I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court.”

Beal: “It’s tough because we’re both alphas. … Sometimes I think we both lose sight of the fact that we need each other.”

It’s hard to spin those direct quotes. These aren’t anonymous sources or players venting after a tough loss. In the calm of the offseason, Wall and Beal spoke bluntly about their partnership in the Wizards backcourt.

But no matter how difficult now, Beal and Wall are trying to cast their relationship in a different light.

Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

“This is my brother at the end of the day,” Beal told The Vertical. “Nothing is going to change. If I didn’t want to be here, if we did beef, I wouldn’t have signed my contract. That’s what it ultimately comes down to.”

“And I wouldn’t have begged him to come back,” Wall interjected. “I would’ve been, ‘Don’t come back because in two years, I ain’t coming back.’ We would’ve figured something out. … I think everybody blew it out of proportion for no reason. I mean, if you look at any two great teammates, and two young, great guys, that’s talented and want to be great, you’re going to have ups and downs. Everything is not going to be perfect.”

The flaws in that logic:

Beal was a restricted free agent. The Wizards weren’t letting him go.

Wall is locked up for three more years. It’s in his best interest to have the best teammates possible in that time, whether or not he stays in Washington past 2019. The Wizards had no way to replace Beal with a similar-caliber player.

So, maybe Wall and Beal are completely cohesive. But even if they aren’t, circumstances dictated they continue their basketball partnership.

I believe last summer’s interviews exposed a rift that was forming somewhat beneath the surface. Their honest assessments in the open, Wall and Beal can now go about repairing any cracks in the foundation.

There’s an mostly unavoidable tension between a team’s two leading scorers. That they’re both guards who want to handle the ball makes it only more difficult.

But if Wall and Beal acknowledge their problems, they can try to work past them and win together.