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.  

Miami churns up plenty of memories for Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game Six
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MIAMI (AP) Dirk Nowitzki tries to avoid feelings of nostalgia.

That’s impossible when he’s in Miami.

For all the cities around the world where he’s played, whether with the German national team or the Dallas Mavericks, the only place where Nowitzki celebrated the ultimate prize is Miami – where he led the Mavs to the 2011 NBA championship , avenging a loss to the Heat five years earlier. So on Thursday, before playing in Miami for the 25th time, Nowitzki was understandably reflective.

“You definitely never forget,” Nowitzki said, as he relaxed for a few minutes in a courtside seat across from the Heat bench. “You don’t always want to live in the past. You kind of want to make it work now in the present, so I don’t always think about that year, but coming here, walking in the hotel, walking in this building, it’s tough to forget.”

Nowitzki is under contract for next season, though no one seems sure if he’ll play past this season. He turns 39 in June. He’s probably just a few weeks away from reaching the 30,000-point mark. His place in the Basketball Hall of Fame was ensured long ago. And the Mavericks are in a rebuilding phase, making it fair to say that another title probably isn’t in the immediate offing.

So it’s possible that Thursday may be his Miami farewell.

Whenever he leaves the game, the Heat will tip their caps.

“At the highest level, in the biggest moments, he proved that he can be the best player in the world – period,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “What else do you need to say? His game is timeless, too.”

It’s timeless, yet evolving. Nowitzki was probably more of a small forward when he broke into the NBA, became a power forward who changed the game with his combination of 7-foot height and guard-like shooting, and now plays a hybrid center role. The one-legged step-back jumper – his signature move – has been emulated by many, including Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.

Nowitzki went to The Finals twice, both times against Miami, and the Heat still offer him what they call ultimate respect.

“You could say that Dirk Nowitzki, in his prime, forced longer and more coaching meetings around the league, or at least as much as any player in the league,” Spoelstra said. “He was so unique. You had to have specific Nowitzki rules. The absolute best of the best require their own rulebook, and you had to design ways of defending that may not be consistent with your system but specific for him.

“Otherwise,” Spoelstra continued, “you would run around in circles looking like idiots.”

Much has changed since Nowitzki first played in Miami on April 7, 1999.

The Mavericks and the Heat both had different logos than they do now. Don Nelson was coaching Dallas, Pat Riley was still in his first of two stints coaching Miami. Vancouver and Seattle still had NBA teams. The Heat weren’t even playing in AmericanAirlines Arena at that point – they were at Miami Arena, which was demolished in 2008.

Nowitzki went scoreless in three minutes that night, and scoreless again three nights later against Golden State. He’s failed to score only twice in 1,454 games since, the last of those coming in 2003.

“I used to be a tough matchup,” Nowitzki said.

He won’t say it, but he still is.

Age has slowed him, for sure. The skills and the know-how, that doesn’t change.

“Hall of Famer,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “One of the best big men to play the game. He definitely changed the game. Hell of a competitor, a champion, somebody who I have a lot of respect for.”

Haslem had the task of guarding Nowitzki in those Finals meetings.

“I really found out what I was made of as a competitor,” Haslem said.

The Mavericks don’t always stay in the same hotel when they visit Miami, but the one they got for this trip helped spark Nowitzki’s trip down memory lane. They stayed there in 2006 during the Finals when they lost three games in Miami, and stayed there again in 2011 when they left Miami with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in tow.

All the memories, good and bad, started flooding back as Nowitzki walked through the lobby.

“You know, `06 will obviously never be out of my memory,” Nowitzki said, “but `11 definitely made it sweeter.”

Kings make it official: Rudy Gay out for season with torn Achilles

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We all knew this was coming, but the MRI made it official:

Kings’ wing Rudy Gay is out for the season with a torn left Achilles, the team confirmed Thursday. He will have surgery to repair the Achilles soon, but a date has not yet been set. Recovery from this injury lasts at least nine months, often closer to a year.

This was expected after the initial diagnoses Wednesday. Still, it’s a blow to Sacramento and its playoff dreams.

Gay was the Kings’ second-leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, plus pulling down 6.4 rebounds a night, and this season the team gets outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court. Matt Barnes and, once he returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks, Omri Casspi will be asked to pick up the slack. Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings in terms of scoring.

The big picture for Gay also gets cloudy. Gay made it very clear he was not happy in Sacramento and planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer. That led to him being a potential trade deadline target. Those trades are off the table. At age 30 and trying to come back from a traumatic injury, it’s fair to question if Gay will even opt out.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry lead NBA All-Star starters to New Orleans

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The fans had their say — they wanted Stephen Curry as a starter in the All-Star Game and they got it. But that leaves Russell Westbrook on the outside looking in.

The NBA All-Star Starters for the Feb. 19 game in New Orleans were announced Thursday. Remember, the fan vote — which used to be the only vote — now only counts for 50 percent, with the players and media each getting 25 percent (call it The Pachulia Effect). The rules were all voters had to choose two guards and three frontcourt players for each conference (there is no longer a center position).

Here were the guys who earned starting spots.

ALL-STAR STARTERS

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
James Harden (Houston)
Kevin Durant (Golden State)
Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto)
LeBron James (Cleveland)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Jimmy Butler (Chicago)

Here are some thoughts on the selections:

• The biggest oversight? How is Russell Westbrook not a starter? You can thank the fans for that. The man averaging a triple-double for the season was third in the fan voting behind Curry (first) and Harden (second). The media and players both had it Westbrook, then Harden, with Curry third. Once all the math was done Curry, Harden, and Westbrook all tied in points so the fan vote was the tie-breaker. That sent Westbrook to the bench. Westbrook is guaranteed to get a spot from the coaches on the reserves, and you can bet he will still get some run with Harden in the backcourt. Still, if anyone got screwed it’s him.

• Sorry people reading in the Republic of Georgia, we know you all stuffed the ballot box online, but Zaza Pachulia did not make the cut as a starter. While he was second in the fan voting thanks to your effort, he came in way, way, way back with the other parties — 12th in player voting, 10th in media — and so he is out. Also, that still seems high from the players and media for him.

Isaiah Thomas was tied with DeRozan in total points — fan, media, and player votes — but DeRozan gets the tie breaker because he was third in the fan voting and Thomas was fourth. Thomas is a lock to be selected by the coaches for a reserve spot.

Joel Embiid finished third in the fan voting for the East frontcourt, edging out Kevin Love, and Butler was sixth with the fans. However, the players and media had Butler third, while Embiid was fifth in the media voting and eighth with the players. So Butler leapfrogged Embiid and got to be a starter.

• Giannis Antetokounmpo, at age 22, is the youngest international starter in NBA All-Star Game history, breaking the record of Yao Ming back in 2003.

Dwyane Wade came in second in the fan voting in the East for the guard spot, but he came in sixth in media and player voting (which still is too high if you ask me) and so he fell out.

• The players have pushed to have their say in these kinds of situations and, well…

• The NBA coaches vote for the remaining bench spots in each conference (two backcourt, three frontcourt, two wild card) and that will be announced in one week on Jan. 26 on TNT.

Hakeem Olajuwon has nothing but praise for Joel Embiid, can “see himself” in rookie

Hakeem Olajuwon
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The most interesting comparison I heard a scout make about Joel Embiid was this is what people expected Greg Oden to be, before Oden’s body betrayed him.

But do you see some Hakeem Olajuwon in his game?

Olajuwon does, and he has nothing but praise for the rookie, as you can see in this video via the NBA’s Twitter account.

https://twitter.com/i/web/status/821424375819685888

I can see it in terms of mobility — Embiid is agile for a big man. He’s also a good passer and has a good feel for the game.

But he’d be the first to admit he has a long way to go to be in the same club with one of the greatest centers ever to play the game. Embiid needs to become a much better defender, and he needs a lot more polish on the offensive end.

Embiid has the potential to get there. That’s what we all see.