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?

Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari trade halfcourt buzzer-beaters (video)

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Warriors star Stephen Curry drained a halfcourt shot to end the first quarter. Not to be outdone, Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari hit a halfcourt shot to end the second quarter.

I’m just marveling how much less of a heave Curry’s shot was, even if it was slightly closer. His range is incredible.

Golden State won, 134-127, behind 44 points from Curry.

Report: Markelle Fultz, Kyle Kuzma among NBA players who received agency money while in school

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Details are emerging in the FBI’s probe into college basketball – specifically how former NBA agent Andy Miller distributed money (through college coaches) to players, i.e., potential clients.

Pat Forde and Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports:

An ASM balance sheet in the hands of federal investigators shows accounts through Dec. 31, 2015, with the subheading, “Loan to Players.” It listed several who were in high school or college as receiving four-figure and five-figure payments from ASM Sports. Among the largest listed loans:

  • Dennis Smith, who would go on to play at North Carolina State in 2016-17, received $43,500 according to the documents. Another document headed “Pina,” for ASM agent Stephen Pina, says Smith received a total of $73,500 in loans, and includes notes about “options to recoup the money” when Smith did not sign with ASM.
  • Isaiah Whitehead, at the time a freshman at Seton Hall, received $26,136 according to the documents. The “Pina” document says Whitehead received $37,657 and was “setting up payment plan.” Whitehead signed with ASM but later left the agency for Roc Nation.
  • Tim Quarterman, at the time a junior at LSU, received at least $16,000 according to the balance sheet.
  • Diamond Stone, at the time a freshman at Maryland, received $14,303 according to the documents.
  • A listing that refers to “BAM” for $12,000 is later identified in the documents as Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, who would go on to play at Kentucky in 2016-17. He did not sign with ASM. There’s a later reference to Adebayo that says he received $36,500. “Bad loan,” reads the document.
  • Markelle Fultz, who would go on to play at Washington and become the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, received $10,000 according to the documents. He did not sign with ASM.

Former Utah star Kyle Kuzma received at least $9,500 while in school, according to the documents.

Former Wichita State player Fred VanVleet. Documents show he received at least $1,000.

Apples Jones, the mother of former Kansas player Josh Jackson, received $2,700 according to documents.

Images attached to the article also show more NBA players, dating quite far back.

My simple reaction: Good for these players. They have a marketable skill, and they deserved to be compensated by the open market for it. It’s a shame the NCAA’s cartel system prevented that.

As Kevin Pelton of ESPN put so well:

Big nights for Ben Simmons (32 points), Joel Embiid good sign for Sixers

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It was a dramatic win — because Philadelphia’s two best players stepped up.

Down one with eight seconds left and Chicago having the ball, Joel Embiid forced a turnover, Ben Simmons scooped up the ball and was fouled, then drained a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds to play and the Sixers got their sixth straight victory, 116-115.

It wasn’t just that play. Simmons had a career-high 32 points, along with 11 assists and eight rebounds, while Joel Embiid had 30 points and 13 rebounds. Coach Brett Brown said after the game the pair carried Philly on the night — and the Sixers are going to need more of that to end their playoff drought.

Check out their highlights above.

Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook was clutch; Curry was vintage Curry

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The NBA is back, and every day around the league there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook rescues Thunder with game-winner vs. Kings. It wasn’t just averaging a triple-double for a season, when it came time to vote for MVP last season one of the reasons Russell Westbrook came out on top was how clutch he had been. He hadn’t just willed his team into games they probably should have lost, he got them the wins — in the final three minutes of games within three points last season (something that happened 32 times for the Thunder), Westbrook averaged 4.4 points scored (best in the NBA of anyone who played in more than five such games) and shot 38.7 percent from three.

That Westbrook was back on Thursday. With the game tied 107-107 and one second left, the Thunder ran an out-of-bounds play where Westbrook got surprisingly open coming off a double screen and had room for a clean look catch-and-shoot three. Do we need to tell you what happened?

OKC needs the wins for playoff seeding through its final 22 games — the Thunder are now just 1.5 games out of being the three seed in the West, or 2.5 games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. The West is that bunched up. They should make the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com gives them an 89 percent chance of being in) but where they fall will determine how tough a run through the playoffs they will face.

2) Stephen Curry was hitting Stephen Curry shots, drops 44 on Clippers. If Stephen Curry’s shot chart looks like this, it’s going to be a long night for the opposition.

Curry had 44 points on 19 shots and just could not seem to miss, even nailing a buzzer-beater from the center-court logo.

Credit the Clippers here, who put up points (22 from Tobias Harris) and made this a contest, falling 134-127. Los Angeles is fighting for a spot in the playoffs (they are currently one game back of New Orleans for the eight spot) and have found ways all season despite a rash of injuries and Blake Griffin being traded. They should be appreciated for their play this season. There’s just not much you can do when Curry and the Warriors are going off.

3) New look Cavaliers suffer first loss, fall to Wizards. The newfound energy was there in Cleveland. LeBron James was playing at an MVP level. The versatility of the new-look Cavaliers roster was on full display.

Cleveland just couldn’t shoot Thursday night. To be more specific, Cavaliers not named LeBron James (32 points on 18 shots) couldn’t buy a bucket. Cleveland was 8-of-35 from three and in the final nine minutes of the game the non-LeBrons were 0-of-10 shooting. The Wizards went small and were +17 with that lineup as the Cavs had no answers (the lineup was Bradley Beal, Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris). The Wizards got the win 110-103.

Cleveland can chalk this up to an off night, and it was. It was also a reminder of why this Cleveland team isn’t as good as a year ago — they don’t have a reliable second shot creator and scorer who can just get buckets and lift the team up. Kyrie Irving is an elite scorer, but he’s in Boston. George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and the new guys are not on that level. Some nights that will be an issue.

The Wizards are now 8-2 since John Wall went down and are scoring 4.2 points per 100 possessions above their season average in that stretch. The ball is moving and the players are moving off it, Beal has been brilliant, Satoransky has stepped up, and the Wizards are securing their spot in the top half of the East. When Wall returns he has to figure out how to fit in with this offensive style, not come in and dominate it with the ball in his hands.

The Wizards need more wins like this as they enter a tough stretch of their schedule (14 of the next 16 are against teams currently in the playoffs).