On the NBA’s perpetually underpaid non-scorers

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It doesn’t take too much game-watching acumen to follow the ball as it goes through the hoop and praise the shooter who put it there, but there’s a certain concentration that’s required in following the game’s off-ball action. The gravitational pull of a basketball is undeniable; the most amazing things on the court happen in the immediate area surrounding that sphere, and the eyes of most every observer of the game trace its movements through crossovers, jumpers, and even more complex sleight-of-hand trickery.

Yet what goes on away from the ball, while not quite as amazing, is crucial for the implementation of actual basketball strategy. The best NBA defense are sophisticated machines, and the most fluid offenses require all kinds of movement and screening to create a single open shot. Each of these actions and skills are valuable in their creations; scorers are obviously required to win games, but having players capable of setting quick, effective screens, snatching up offensive rebounds, or slashing to the bucket to draw a defense’s attention are also incredibly valuable. The age of accessible internet video (and in particular, the incredible utility of services like Synergy Sports Technology) has made certain elements of the NBA game easier to appreciate and analyze than ever. We’re gradually moving away from a world that judges player worth in points per game in part because of all the information and footage that’s available on a wide scale, but it’s worth considering if the salary structure of the NBA will ever truly allow for skills that aren’t quantified in the traditional box score to be valued appropriately.

Obviously not every owner and general manager in the entire league puts the same weight on the same skills, but box score statistics remain the simplest way to determine a player’s direct impact on the floor. It makes sense that players who grab oodles of rebounds or dish out a ton of assists would be paid accordingly. But why not players who defend the pick and roll expertly or lock up the opponent’s best scorer? The smartest NBA clubs in the room keep track of all kinds of quantifiable skills that don’t show up in the public sphere — ranging from things like deflections to merely making a smart read on a play — so it’s not like we’re dealing with abstractions here. The numbers are at their fingertips, and yet non-scorers continue to grab reasonable salaries, but ones dwarfed by those capable of scoring 15 points per game.

The simple reason? The economics of the NBA dictate that some players have to get a short end of the stick, and though the collective logic of the league favors unconventional talent more than ever, the baseline perception still puts money in the hands of scorers. That means that non-box score contributions like defense, while essential, can be bought on the cheap while the Corey Maggettes of the world regularly rake in eight-figure salaries. The owners of the league are indeed speaking with their wallets; every team needs scorers, and that simple desire to put points on the board has led some scorers to pull more of their team’s resources than their contributions actually suggest they should. Yet under the shade provided by lofty salaries afforded to those scorers, the smartest NBA GMs and owners make a killing by exploiting the current market dynamic. Skills that show up indirectly in the box score or fail to at all are still essential for team success, and those with the means — be they statistical or merely observational — to most accurately assess those skills are usually the ones scooping up valuable contributors on the cheap.

The precedent has been set that scoring gets players paid, and reversing that trend is more complex than simply increasing awareness of the value of non-scoring contributions. This is true primarily because those best positioned to shell out money to deserving non-scoring players are encouraged to play the free agency game by its current rules. After all, why should the owners and managers who embrace a holistic understanding of the game pay any more than the market dictates they have to? So long as capable non-scorers remain underpaid, they’ll fill up less of a team’s cap space while largely being courted by only those in the know. There are real contributors in the league who simply produce in ways not accurately measured by the box score — and not encapsulated by trope tags like “championship experience.” By reinforcing the current NBA values, savvy execs are able to find said contributors in the bargain bin. Fair or not, the current system provides a notable advantage for those willing to dig in to the minutiae of the game, and one that would be surrendered if those same owners made an honest attempt to balance the pay scale for non-scoring skills.

The NBA market is stilted, but what empowered owner or manager would seek to establish equilibrium?

Byron Scott isn’t thinking about next year’s draft

Byron Scott

A month into the season, the Lakers the only team in the Western Conference that can absolutely be written out of any hopes of playoff contention. They’re in an awkward position with the upcoming draft: they still need talent long-term, and they owe their pick to the Sixers if it’s outside of the top three. Not surprisingly, Byron Scott isn’t thinking about it at all.

Via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

With the Lakers fielding the NBA’s second-worst record, how much effort will the franchise put in retaining its top-3 protected draft pick?

“I don’t think about that whatsoever,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “I probably won’t until April. That’s something I can’t control.”

The Lakers are in a precarious position. They appear likely bad enough to lose a lot of games. But will they lose enough to land in the top three? Otherwise, the Lakers owe Philadelphia their first-round pick as part of the Steve Nash trade.

“It’s impossible to think about the team, try to get our young guys better, the team better and also thinking about a pick,” Scott said. “That’s six months away and you might not even get it.”

Given Scott’s mentality, it’s not at all surprising that he isn’t thinking about the draft. But with his insistence on playing Kobe Bryant and Lou Williams more crunch-time minutes on this dismal Lakers team than D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, it’s pretty laughable that he talks about wanting to develop their young players.

Scott may not be thinking about the draft, but with the position the franchise is in and the likelihood that they lose their pick, he should be.

Report: Jahlil Okafor stopped for driving 108 MPH three weeks ago

Jahlil Okafor, Derrick Favors

Jahlil Okafor‘s first month in the NBA has been eventful for all the wrong reasons. Early Thanksgiving morning, he was caught on video getting into a fight with a heckler in Boston. Then, a report surfaced of another altercation from October, in which Okafor apparently had a gun pulled on him. Now, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Okafor was recently pulled over in Philadelphia for driving 108 miles per hour:

Four sources independently confirmed to The Inquirer the 76ers center was pulled over on the Ben Franklin Bridge around three weeks ago for 108 miles per hour. Anything over 40 m.p.h. is considered reckless driving.

108 miles per hour in a 40-mile zone isn’t a minor speeding infraction—it’s incredibly dangerous. It might be possible to write off any of these incidents by themselves—particularly the one where he had a gun pulled on him, which doesn’t seem to have been his fault at all. But together, the Boston incident and this speeding report aren’t a good look at all for Okafor. He’s had a solid start to the year for the Sixers, but off the court has been another story.

Harrison Barnes could be out “a few weeks” with ankle injury

Harrison Barnes
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The Warriors’ Friday night 135-116 win over the Suns was bittersweet: Harrison Barnes suffered a sprained left ankle in the third quarter and left for the remainder of the game. He missed Saturday night’s blowout win over the Kings as well, which extended the Warriors’ best-ever start to the season to 18-0.

Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton didn’t have an answer for how long Barnes will be out, but he said it could be a few weeks.

Via’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss:

“He’s being evaluated [Saturday]. We haven’t gotten the results back yet,” interim head coach Luke Walton told reporters before Saturday’s game. “It’s all speculation. It could be a few weeks. It could be a week.

“We’re not going to rush him back because we want to be healthy for later in the season and we don’t want lingering injures, so we’ll have him take his time.”

Losing a starter is never good news, but the silver lining for the Warriors is that they have enough depth and enough of a cushion to be able to take their time and not rush Barnes back. Saturday night, Walton opted to keep Andre Iguodala in his usual sixth-man role and instead start the little-used Brandon Rush in Barnes’ place. Rush responded with a 16-point performance, shooting 4-of-5 from the three-point line. If they can keep getting that kind of production out of their reserves, the Warriors will be able to withstand the loss of Barnes just fine.

Emmanuel Mudiay with the no-look, behind-the-head assist (VIDEO)

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Emmanuel Mudiay is still a work in progress on the court — he’s a rookie, what did you expect? — but he has the court vision and flair you cannot teach.

As evidence, I present this pass from Saturday night, where in transition Mudiay goes with the no-look, behind-the-head dish to Darrell Arthur for the dunk.

The Nuggets dropped this game to the Mavericks 92-81 and have lost six in a row.