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.  

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.

Report: NBA considering play-in tournament for playoffs

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Adam Silver and LeBron James are publicly arguing about 1-16 playoff seeding.

But that’s not the only change to the NBA’s postseason potentially afoot.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

sources say there is also some behind-the-scenes momentum for the idea of a play-in tournament determining the last two seeds in each conference — to the point that two specific proposals are circulating at the highest levels within teams and the league office.

The play-in proposal that has generated the most discussion, according to several sources: two four-team tournaments featuring the seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th seeds in each conference. The seventh seed would host the eighth seed, with the winner of that single game nabbing the seventh spot, sources say. Meanwhile, the ninth seed would host the 10th seed, with the winner of that game facing the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the final playoff spot.

It is not coming next season, and it would be a shock if the NBA adopted it in time for 2020 or even 2021. It may never happen. Any such change would need approval from the competition committee, and then from a supermajority of 23 NBA teams. That process has not even started.

The NBA playoffs, with best-of-seven series, makes it more likely the better team advances. The NCAA tournament, with one game per team per round, generates excitement with increased variance and upsets.

Each format presents its own pros and cons, and I think too many NBA people seek the unpredictability of college basketball without considering the tradeoffs.

But I actually like this, because it makes the long regular season matter more. Each play-in seed faces a progressively easier route to the real playoffs:

  • No. 7 seed: Win one of up to two home games
  • No. 8 seed: Win one road or one home game
  • No. 9 seed: Win one home and one road game
  • No. 10: Win two road games

With more doors open to post-regular-season basketball, that’d theoretically curb tanking. Most tanking occurs lower in the standings, and the NBA hopes its lottery reform will address that. But this could incentivize teams otherwise be out of the playoff race to keep competing.

There are still plenty of questions to answer: How is revenue from the play-in tournament distributed? Could it work in conjunction with 1-16 seeding? How are are play-in-tournament teams treated in the lottery?

But this at least seems plausible.

Anthony Davis on Kevin Garnett saying he regrets not leaving Timberwolves sooner: ‘It makes you think’

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Kevin Garnett spent his first 12 seasons with the Timberwolves, only once advancing past the first round. Yet, he remained loyal to Minnesota. Finally, he helped facilitate a trade to the Celtics by signing a contract extension contingent on the deal. His first year in Boston, he won a championship while playing with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo.

Jay King of MassLive:

Keep in mind, this is only Pierce’s description of Garnett’s words. Even if completely accurately relayed, it’s easier for Garnett to say this in hindsight – and while he’s mad at the Timberwolves.

But no matter the context, this resonated with Anthony Davis, who missed the playoffs in four of his first five years with the Pelicans and has never won a postseason game.

Davis, in an interview with Rachel Nichols of ESPN:

When you hear that, it makes you think. Not gonna lie. It makes you think, because you’re wondering if you’re following in that same path. But then again, you’re like, oh, this year could be the year. You don’t know. So, you’ve just got to take it year-by-year and just see, see where the team is going, what direction they want to go to and just see where their head is.

For years, Davis insisted his loyalty to the Pelicans was unwavering. Now, he keeps dropping hints he could move on.

That doesn’t mean he will. I still believe winning in New Orleans is his priority.

But what if the Pelicans don’t win? If they re-sign DeMarcus Cousins, they’ll be deeply committed to a roster that isn’t even a playoff lock. If they don’t re-sign Cousins, they’ll have no mechanism to add a comparable replacement. It’s the same damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t choice that led to Jrue Holiday‘s massive contract last summer.

At some point, Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – might have to choose between major winning and New Orleans. And he might leave.

He’s so good already, but even he must imagine how he’d perform on a team with even more weapons around him. He in particular can use the support.

Maybe the Pelicans can upgrade his supporting cast. He seems to be applying pressure on them to do so.

But if not, we’ll at least have seen his departure coming.

Kings aim to bring NBA All-Star game to Sacramento

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The Sacramento Kings are looking to bring the NBA All-Star game to California’s capital city for the first time ever.

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and local tourism officials are set to detail plans for the bid for the game in either 2022 or `23 later Thursday and officially submit an application to the league on Friday.

Getting the All-Star game would cap a remarkable comeback for Sacramento, which nearly lost its franchise to Seattle in 2013 before Ranadive bought the team and put together a deal to build a state-of-the-art downtown arena.

“I think it would be a recognition of the fact that the city went all-in on the Kings,” Ranadive said. “It would be the ultimate recognition that the city pulled it off. There’s a love affair between the Kings and the city and the NBA. It would be an exclamation point on that love affair.”

Winning the bid won’t be easy. The Golden State Warriors are seeking the game for their new arena in downtown San Francisco that is set to open for the 2019-20 season. Milwaukee is also bidding to play the game in its new arena set to open next season and other cities also will get involved.

Commissioner Adam Silver said at the All-Star game last weekend in Los Angeles that he generally supports a bid from Sacramento with one major caveat.

“Sacramento and the surrounding communities provide a tremendous opportunity for an All-Star. Wine country, great golf, great scenery, all kinds of wonderful things that I think people would love to visit around an All-Star. But at the end of the day, we have to have a sufficient number of hotel rooms,” he said.

Ranadive said new projects will ensure that there will be enough hotel rooms to meet the NBA’s requirement of about 6,000 rooms in the area. But the bid will offer even more options with up to 1,000 rooms through a partnership with Airbnb, as well as two or three 300-room small luxury cruise ships in the Port of Sacramento.

Silver said he would be open to that possibility, pointing out that USA Basketball players and guests have used cruise ships in the past for accommodations at the Olympics, including the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

“Not only will we meet the requirement but we’ll also give them a choice,” Ranadive said. “Do they want to be on a beautiful river? Do they want to be in a beautiful home? Or do they want to be in a hotel room? All of that will be accessible in less than 30 minutes.”

The events surrounding the game will be anchored by the Golden 1 Center, with an indoor-outdoor Global Pavilion near the capitol to host concerts and food events that show off the region.

The bid promises to be able to transport fans from transportation hubs to accommodations and venues in 30 minutes or less by the use of self-driving vehicles and dedicated traffic lanes.

It also will show off arena that Ranadive believes raised the bar on technology and environmentalism for sports venues. There are “smart turnstiles” that allow fans to enter at more than triple the usual speed and the NBA’s first 4K ultra HD video board that stretches 84 feet long.

The arena is the first professional sports venue powered completely by solar energy, saves about 1 million gallons of water a year compared to a typical venue of its size, was built with recycled material from the mall that stood at the site before construction began and gets 90 percent of its food and beverages from within 150 miles.

“I think when we built the arena we had a goal that it would be the best arena that had ever been built,” Ranadive said. “It would be an iconic structure to look at. It would give the fans an experience like no other. To be able to share that with the entire basketball loving world is obviously a huge privilege and would be a treat for us to do that.”

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