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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?

Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves battle back to top Hornets 125-120 in OT

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins, left, looks to pass around Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. Minnesota won 125-120. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Perhaps this was the type of win the talented and young Minnesota Timberwolves needed to get on a roll.

Andrew Wiggins scored 29 points, Karl-Anthony Towns added 27 points and 15 rebounds, and the Timberwolves showed late-game poise by erasing a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Southeast Division-leading Charlotte Hornets 125-120 in overtime on Saturday night.

“The more close games you’re in and the more you win, the better you get,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Repetition builds habits. When you see things happen in a game, it slows everything down.”

Zack LaVine added 17 points and Ricky Rubio had nine points and 12 assists for the Timberwolves, who snapped a four-game losing streak and avoided being swept by the Hornets for the third straight season.

“We came back and really made some really winning plays down the stretch,” LaVine said. “That’s what happens when you keep fighting. We’ve been fighting the last four or five games and been in those positions but we got over that hump. It feels good. Now we need to keep it going.”

Towns, a dominant force on the glass all night, had six points in overtime, including a backbreaking follow off a missed shot with 21 seconds left to put the Timberwolves up by six. Towns sealed the victory with two free throws with 3.9 seconds remaining.

Charlotte appeared on its way to its fourth win in five games, leading 104-97 with less than one minute to play.

But Minnesota battled back to tie the game in regulation with LaVine, Rubio and Wiggins all hitting 3-pointers in the final 39 seconds. Wiggins’ pull-up from 31 feet in transition with 8.9 seconds tied the game at 106.

The Hornets had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but Kemba Walker missed everything on a step-back 18-footer at the buzzer.

“There were a lot of mistakes on the defensive end and we gave up some big baskets,” Walker said. “We missed some rotations and we have to be better down the stretch.”

Walker led Charlotte with 22 points and eight assists. Frank Kaminsky had 21 points and Nic Batum had 15 points and 12 assists.

TIP-INS:

Timberwolves: Wiggins and Towns were a combined 22 of 42 from the field. … Blocked 10 shots.

Hornets: The Hornets have given up an average of 16.5 points per game in the first quarter in the last two games, compared to a season average of 27.1 points. … Cody Zeller had four blocks.

STRONG OT START

The Timberwolves took advantage of the momentum they had built at the end of regulation, opening overtime with a 7-0 run.

“You know, it always looks better when the ball is going in,” Thibodeau said. “When we’re getting the right shots and sharing the ball, everything looks a lot better. Obviously, playing from a lead is important and we haven’t been doing that.”

NOT PHYSICAL ENOUGH

Hornets coach Steve Clifford said he was “especially disappointed” with this loss because the team had emphasized getting its defense set and physicality in terms of blocking out.

“They crushed us with the block outs in the fourth quarter,” Clifford said. “They had at least four that might have led to nine points. That can’t happen. It’s been discussed and we’ve watched it and the reality is we either going to become a more physical group or we’re not going to win – at least not every night.”

TOWNS PASSES GARNETT

Towns established a new Timberwolves record with his 27th straight game with at least one blocked shot. He had two blocks against the Hornets.

 

Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews power Mavericks past Bulls 107-82

Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes, right, is defended by Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Associated Press
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DALLAS (AP) Wesley Matthews has taken greater responsibility with Dirk Nowitzki out of the Dallas Mavericks’ lineup much of this season.

Matthews scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half of Dallas’ 107-82 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night.

“Matthews was the star of the game, obviously,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He is our leader right now with Dirk out. He really sets the tone for us in the locker room and on the floor. He is just the vocal guy.”

Matthews has accepted the expanded role as Nowitzki has been limited to five games by a strained right Achilles tendon.

“I feel like that’s one of the reasons why they brought me over here (from Portland). Through this rough patch, injuries and everything, everybody had to mold together. It’s almost like we had to restructure ourselves. I think everybody has embraced that.”

Harrison Barnes scored 17 of his 22 points in the first half to help Dallas improve to 4-15.

Chicago was coming off a 111-105 victory over defending champion Cleveland on Friday night.

Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 26 points.

“I don’t think anybody played well tonight,” Butler said. “We didn’t play with energy on either end of the floor.”

Barnes powered the Mavericks to a 17-point first-quarter lead with eight points.

“They came out and threw the first punch and kept throwing, and we could just never recover from that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We did expend a lot of energy (Friday) night.”

Dwight Powell (17) and rookie Dorian Finney-Smith (11) had career highs in scoring, and Deron Williams had a season-high 15 assists with only one turnover.

“The biggest thing was we were even (43-43) on the boards,” Carlisle said. Andrew Bogut had a game-high 11 rebounds, and Powell grabbed eight.

Neither team scored in the first 2:15, but Dallas went on a 7-0 run over the next 1:20. The Mavericks led 23-6 with 3:17 left. The quarter ended with Dallas leading 29-18. Bogut had six points and eight rebounds.

Chicago pulled within six points three times in the second quarter, but Dallas finished the first half with a 57-45 lead. In the third quarter, Matthews had 14 points, and the Maverick led by as many as 21 points.

TIP-INS

Bulls: C Robin Lopez has a career-high 11 straight games with 10 or more points. He scored 15 against Dallas. … F Jimmy Butler has reached 20 points in 17 of 19 games. He scored on a drive with 1:00 left in the third quarter, but was charged with a technical foul for arguing that he had been fouled.

Mavericks: G Wesley Matthews made 7 of 11 3-point attempts. … C Andrew Bogut fouled out, but had 11 rebounds and a season-high eight points. … The Mavericks’ 29 first-quarter points were a season high. … Their largest margin of victory before Saturday was 12 points.

WADE RESTS

Bulls G Dwyane Wade missed his second game this season, both to rest. He stayed in Chicago after Friday’s win over Cleveland. Their flight landed in the DFW Metroplex at 2:30 a.m. for the second game in a stretch of four games in five days. Nikola Mirotic started in Wade’s place and was scoreless in 13 minutes played.

NOWITZKI “INDEFINITE”

The Mavericks said that they no longer will keep a timetable for when F Dirk Nowitzki (strained right Achilles tendon) would play. Instead, his return will be listed as “indefinite.” He has played in only five games this season.

“We said I’m still a few games away, but luck can change, so I just have to go day by day,” Nowitzki said.

“At this stage in my career, I don’t move well anyways, so if I’m out there at like 80, 90 percent, I don’t think I’m a big help, so I want to make sure my body’s responding the right way and we’ll go from there.”

 

Bucks win fourth straight with 112-103 victory over Brooklyn

Milwaukee Bucks' Matthew Dellavedova drives past Isaiah Whitehead during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Bucks coach Jason Kidd wondered if his young team could rebound from a third-quarter lull.

Milwaukee’s kids did just that, winning their fourth straight game despite letting a 16-point third-quarter lead slip away.

Matthew Dellavedova scored 12 of his season-high 18 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Bucks hold off the Brooklyn Nets 112-103 on Saturday.

“I thought it got a little sloppy,” Kidd said. “I wanted to see if they were going to figure it out. I wasn’t going to call timeout. I wanted to see if they were going to talk themselves through it because that’s what good teams do.”

Milwaukee led 62-46 after a layup by Tony Snell with 8:11 left in the third, but Brooklyn closed the quarter on a 26-13 run to get within 75-72. Consecutive 3-pointers by Joe Harris gave the Nets an 82-81 lead with 10:00 to play.

Sean Kilpatrick scored 13 of his 19 points in the third quarter, when he went 8 for 8 from the foul line.

“It definitely wasn’t anything the coach did,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “It was all the players playing well. We didn’t change anything and kept with our rotations. The guys came out with focus.”

With the game tied at 94, Milwaukee began a 9-1 run to lead 103-95 with 1:43 remaining.

“We had a chance in the third quarter to break the game wide open, and we didn’t take it,” Dellavedova said. “They came back and played well. We then did a good job of pulling away.”

John Henson led Milwaukee with 20 points and added seven rebounds, Giannis Antetokounmpo had 16 points and 10 rebounds, Jabari Parker added 15 points, Greg Monroe scored 13 points and Snell chipped in 10 points.

“They were just finding me,” Henson said. “I was open. (Antetokounmpo and Parker) are huge threats coming down the lane and off a pick-and-roll, so it is my job to finish for them and take a little heat off of them.”

Bojan Bogdanovic led Brooklyn with 24 points. Brook Lopez had 13 points but was just 3 for 17 from the field and 0 for 10 in the first half.

“I just wasn’t good enough,” Lopez said. “I made a lot of turnovers. I missed a lot of shots that I need to make. I think I let us down on both ends of the floor.”

TIP-INS

Nets: Forward Trevor Booker missed the game due to an illness. Anthony Bennett started in his place and had seven points and a career-high 14 rebounds. … Lopez grabbed four rebounds to tie Derrick Coleman for second place on the Nets career list with 3,690.

Bucks: Milwaukee is 10-0 after leading at halftime and 8-0 when leading after three quarters. … The Bucks scored 62 points in the paint. … Antetokounmpo tied his career high with five blocked shots.

FAMILIAR FOES

Milwaukee and Brooklyn were playing for the second time in three days after the Bucks beat the Nets 111-93 on Thursday night.

The Bucks will face the same team in consecutive games four more times this season, including home-and-homes later this month with the Bulls, Cavaliers and Wizards.

 

One more look back: Top 10 clutch shots of season to this point

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The opening weeks of the season have seen some dramatic finishes — and for a Saturday night, why not watch a compilation of them? What else were you going to do? You’ve got 3:30 to sit through these.

Who got the top spot? Marc Gasol? Damian Lillard? Al Horford? John Henson? If we told you it would just destroy the surprise.