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.  

Bucks’ Michael Beasley has to be helped to locker room after apparently hyperextending knee

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 04:  Michael Beasley #9 of the Milwaukee Bucks in action against Mindaugas Kuzminskas #91 of the New York Knicks during their game at Madison Square Garden on January 4, 2017 in New York City.  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 Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Let’s just hope this is nothing too serious.

Michael Beasley was getting back up court to try and defend a LeBron James drive to the basket early in the clock Monday night when he took an awkward step and appears to hyperextend his knee. You can see the video above. He tried to leave the floor under his own power but had to be helped back to the locker room by teammates.

The team is calling it a sprain for now.

Beasley has been solid off the bench for the Bucks this season, averaging 9.7 points a game with a and with a PER of 17.6 (above the league average). They would miss him in the rotation as they try to make a playoff push if he has to miss any time.

Kevin Durant on return to Washington D.C. that never was: “I really just didn’t want to play at home”

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 07:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors during the game against the LA Clippers at Staples Center on December 7, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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A year or two ago, there was a palpable buzz among Wizards fans — they had a shot to get Kevin Durant. LeBron James had just returned like a prodigal son to Cleveland, and there seemed to be a sense from fans that other stars wanted to go home to play. The Wizards needed another star, they had the cap space, so some saw a path for Durant to return to his native D.C.

Except, a lot of players don’t want to go home again. Not to play.

Durant was one of them, as he confirmed to the Washington Post.

“I don’t want to open up anything in the past, but I really just didn’t want to play at home,” Durant said. “It was nothing about the fans. Being at home, I was so happy with that part of my life — playing at home, being in front of friends, hanging with friends and family every day. That was a part of my life that has come and gone.

“I was like, I’m trying to build a second part of my life as a man living in a different part of the country, just trying to do different things. I did everything I was supposed to do in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, I felt. Now it’s time to do something new. I didn’t want to come back. That’s just my thought process behind it. It had nothing to do with basketball, the fans, the city.”

Not every Wizards fan will see it this way, but that’s an entirely reasonable thought process. Sometimes in life, we need a change of direction, and for Durant this would have been a step back into the past. The one he made to go to Golden State has worked out pretty well for him so far.

KD is not alone in this. Players see a lot of added stress returning home, both in terms of expectations and the demands of family and friends (asking for tickets, etc.), and some are just not into the idea of a return. The idea that Blake Griffin wants to return to Oklahoma and play for the Thunder may not fit with who he is right now. Russell Westbrook seems to like it in OKC and isn’t itching to get back to Los Angeles (but Paul George might be). Each player is a different case — how they view their hometown, whether they would want to play for the team there  — and each will make his decision.

Durant made his and is comfortable with it.

Pat Riley says Magic Johnson will win with the Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 22:  Los Angeles Dodgers part owner and former Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson (R) talks with Miami Heat President and former Lakers head coach Pat Riley during the game with the San Francisco Giants on August 22, 2012 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) — Pat Riley has never doubted Magic Johnson, and isn’t about to start now.

Riley believes Johnson will succeed in what looks like a daunting task of getting the Los Angeles Lakers back to prominence. After the Lakers cleaned house this past week, Johnson and Riley are contemporaries – Riley as president of the Miami Heat, Johnson in the same role out in L.A., where they won four titles together in the 1980s.

Trade talks, he cautioned, will be dangerous for both sides.

“He’s going to try to rifle my pockets and I’m going to try to rifle his,” Riley said. “But I’m happy for him, and I’m also happy for the Lakers.”

The news took Riley back to 1991, when Johnson delivered the shocking word that he was HIV-positive and had to retire from basketball. Riley was gone from Los Angeles by that point, and was then coach of the New York Knicks. But it resonated deeply within Riley, who has maintained a very close relationship with Johnson.

Hearing Johnson speak about taking over the Lakers this past week moved Riley as well, albeit in an obviously different fashion.

“Back then, all of us and I think everybody in the country not knowing exactly what HIV was all about, we all sort of looked at that as a very difficult time and possibly a death sentence for the kid,” Riley said. “Now 25 years later, he stands at the press conference saying that he’s president of the team. Deja vu, you know?”

Riley said Johnson didn’t seek his counsel on what life is like as a team president before taking the Lakers job. Riley said Johnson already knew the answer to anything he would ask, simply from being around his former coach so many times in recent years.

The news wasn’t entirely easy for Riley to digest, since he also holds now-former general manager Mitch Kupchak in high regard. Kupchak, who played for Riley, was let go as part of the front-office sweepout by the Lakers this past week.

But he sounded completely confident in what Johnson will accomplish.

“There couldn’t be a better person and worker, I think, to be the sort of face and also to spearhead,” Riley said. “He’ll get the job done out there.”

 

Jose Calderon, Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings all officially waived; contenders line up for their services

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It was only a question of when, not if, but it has happened.

Jose Calderon, Andrew Bogut, and Brandon Jennings have been waived and are about to hit the free agent market, according to reports.

They have to clear waivers (Wednesday) before they can sign with a new team. However, all three seem to be headed to teams with dreams of going deep into the playoffs.

The Golden State Warriors want a little depth at the point for the postseason, and they are going with the steady but aged veteran Calderon. He will have limited run behind Stephen Curry and Shaun Livingston, but he will have a role in the playoffs and as a steadying force.

The Washington Wizards are going another, more talented but more combustible direction, and appear the frontrunners to sign Brandon Jennings (Chris Haynes of ESPN had that link. . The Wizards have not loved the play of Trey Burke this season and have leaned on Tomas Satoransky to run some point, expect Jennings to get some healthy run if and when he arrives in Washington.

Bogut is expected to sign with the Cavaliers, although the Spurs could have a shot at him and other teams are asking to get in the mix (not his former team the Warriors, however).