How does the NBA stack up to the NFL, MLB, and NHL in spending efficiency?

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Periodically, one financially inclined publication or another takes a look at the performance of professional sports teams in relation to their payroll. What typically ensues is just basic division; the outlets divide the total salary cost by the team’s wins, and then rank the teams according to their total cost per win. It’s a fun exercise, but Ira Boudway of Businessweek took things a step further. After calculating that “cost per win” number for each team across all four major sports over the last five years, Boudway found the standard deviation for each team within their respective sports. Using that standard deviation — dubbed “Efficiency Index” for the purposes of that particular post — Boudway was able to compare across leagues, and determine the spenders who are getting the greatest payoff per dollar spent relative to their competition.

NBA clubs don’t rank too well overall; the Spurs (5th) are the only basketball franchise in the top 10 according to the aforementioned Efficiency Index, and the Jazz (14th) and Lakers (15th) just barely managed to squeeze into the top 15. There are a run of NBA clubs in the low-20s, but overall, pro basketball doesn’t quite seem able to keep up with the MLB or NHL in term of win efficiency in financial terms.

That said, there’s an interesting trend at the top of these rankings: the “smartest-spending” NBA, NFL, and NHL teams are rewarded for their spending efficiency with playoff berths and championships, while MLB teams often fail to compete despite showing well in terms of their cost per win. Only two of the seven baseball teams in the Index’s top 30 have participated in postseason play over the last five years. Three of those inept teams (Florida Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres) have fallen short of the playoffs five straight times despite ranking in the Efficiency Index’s top 10. True to form, this kind of data speaks to the return on high-level spending in baseball, which is by nature inefficient.

However, even when we look at NBA teams within the context of cross-league comparison, it’s hard to draw any concrete conclusions. This kind of reframing is interesting on a self-contained level, but it doesn’t do too much to clarify the existing, oft-debated dynamic between big spending and big wins in professional basketball. We know that exorbitant spending in the NBA isn’t always efficient, but it clearly can be; teams like the Lakers, Mavericks, and Magic have benefited greatly from their ability to give and take on large contracts. However, a line can — and should — be drawn between teams that spend and teams who are willing to spend. The chicken-egg element of these discussions lies in the fact that some owners are willing to spend if they have the right talent base to justify such expenditures, but simply don’t believe their middling clubs are worthy of an excessive investment. This chart, while interesting, doesn’t do much to clarify that debate; we still don’t know if NBA teams spend because they’re good or if they’re good because they spend, and it’s difficult to determine that much without control data taken in different league conditions within the same sport.

So here we are, right where we were: some NBA teams spend intelligently, and some do not, and both of those facts are separate from the total payroll of the teams in question. Here’s hoping the league and the union have more conclusive data to back their competitive equity claims in their negotiations than the limited correlations we try to draw facts from on the outside.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.