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.  

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Ja Morant
Brandon Dill/Getty Images
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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

DeAndre Ayton got the start for Phoenix, put up 26 and 21 (VIDEO)

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Coach Monty Williams changed things up as Phoenix went into Madison Square Garden Thursday:

Deandre Ayton got the start at center and Aron Baynes came off the bench.

The result? Ayton had his first-ever 20/20 game — 26 points and 21 rebounds — as the Suns blew out the Knicks 121-98.

Phoenix also got a big night from Ricky Rubio, 25 points and 13 assists. He kept finding Ayton in places the second-year big man could do damage.

It’s one step in a long road for the Suns’ big man, but it was good to see.

Here’s video of Klay Thompson getting up shots in an empty Chase Center

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“I would love to get out there… But I’m trying to make sure this type of injury never happens to me again. So, I’ll be very patient because I want to play at a high level until I’m in my late-30s.”

That’s how Klay Thompson recently described his recovery, making sure there was no specific timeline mentioned. He’ll be back when the doctors clear him to be back — which could be next season. He will be re-evaluated next month. 

That said, Thompson is getting in work on the court and putting up shots. As you can see from the video above, he’s doing it headband on in the Chase Center pregame.

What does that mean? Nothing. It’s not like Thompson is moving at NBA speeds in this video, and ultimately it’s the people who spent years in medical school who get to make this call. Considering where the Warriors are in the standings, management may decide to give Thompson the entire season off. Even if he wants to return.

For now, just enjoy the video.

 

Three Things to Know: Brandon Ingram has earned an All-Star nod and max contract

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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Every day in the NBA 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) Brandon Ingram has earned an All-Star nod and max contract. There were legitimate reasons the Pelicans were hesitant to give Brandon Ingram a contract extension last summer.

He was coming off a blood clot issue that, if it returned, would threaten his career. He wasn’t a guy who took or made a lot of threes. He had most of his offensive success in isolation or as a pick-and-roll ball handler, how would he fit in coach Alvin Gentry’s offensive system that required ball movement and catch-and-shoot skills? How would he fit next to Zion Williamson?

Ingram made a leap this season and blew all those questions out of the water (except the Zion one, that starts to get answered next week).

Ingram is averaging 25.8 points per game and is shooting 40.6 percent from three on 6.2 attempts from deep per game. He has dramatically improved his jump shot, fit in brilliantly with Gentry’s system, and become the Pelicans’ best — and go-to — player. Exactly the guy the Lakers envisioned when they drafted him No. 2 out of Duke in 2016.

That peaked on Thursday night when Ingram dropped a career-high 49 on the Utah Jazz and led the Pelicans to a win that snapped Utah’s 10-game win streak.

This leap would not have happened if the Lakers had not traded Ingram, he was never going to be a comfortable fit next to LeBron James (even if Ingram has improved off-the-ball in Gentry’s system).

“[The Lakers] have such a rich history of winning, a lot of pressure goes on the shoulders of those young guys,” said the Clippers’ Lou Williams, who spent half a season as a teammate of then-rookie Ingram. “Different organizations have more of a patience to develop more guys. The Lakers want to win right away. So some of the pressure was deserved because [Ingram and Lonzo Ball] was high picks, and they should be good quality basketball players, but at the same time they’re young guys trying to figure it out.”

Ingram figured it out, but things might have been different, he might not have made this leap if Zion had stayed healthy. The Pelicans offense would have been different with the No. 1 pick (also out of Duke).

Forget the “what ifs” however — Brandon Ingram has made the leap and now the rewards should be flowing. NBA coaches should select him as a reserve for the All-Star Game in Chicago. He’s earned it.

Next summer, Ingram will get a max contract — almost certainly from the Pelicans. While New Orleans has not seen Ingram next to Williamson in a meaningful way (the preseason doesn’t count), it can’t afford to lose the restricted free agent and other teams will undoubtedly be lined up with max offers.

Ingram is about to get PAID. That comes with the respect he’s earned.

Ingram was also at the heart of the wild ending in New Orleans Thursday night. The Pelicans thought they had won the game in regulation on Ingram’s off-balance jumper with 0.2 seconds left.

Utah had just 0.2 left to make a play, which by NBA rule means it had to be a tip. The Pelicans packed the paint, but rookie Jaxson Hayes was called for holding Rudy Gobert as the Utah center attempted to free himself for the desperation tip-in (the Last Two Minute report in this game is going to be fascinating, but because there was a little hold — not enough to get called in this situation, but it was there — expect the report to back the refs).

The holding call was upheld after video review.

That gave Gobert a chance to win it by making two foul shots, but he split them, tied the game, and sent it to overtime. In the extra frame, Gobert fouled out on an Ingram drive (another very questionable call) and behind a final five points from Ingram — plus seven from Derrick Favors — the Pelicans got the home win.

2) We have a trade Hawks/Timberwolves trade… that sets up other trades. If one were to grade this trade as a stand-alone move, The Timberwolves would fail the test.

The first trade of the deadline season sees Minnesota sending Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham to Atlanta, and getting Allen Crabbe in return.

For Atlanta, they get a much needed backup point guard behind Trae Young (it’s a short-term fix, but they told a frustrated Young they would get him help). When Young is running the show and bombing deep threes, the Hawks have a respectable offense. However, when Young sits, the Atlanta offense scores far less than a point per possession (90.7 offensive rating) and those stretches end up costing the team games. Teague is a solid point guard who can organize the Hawks offense and keep things from dropping off a cliff while Young rests.

For Minnesota, this trade only makes sense if it’s seen as the precursor to a second trade (maybe involving Crabbe, who makes $18.5 million this season). It clears out a roster spot, something the Timberwolves needed to do to go big game hunting. They are still interested in Golden State’s D’Angelo Russell (to play with his good friend Karl-Anthony Towns) and but lose some flexibility in how to make that trade happen. Whether they should trade for Russell is another question — Wolves GM Gersson Rosas said he wants a playmaking point guard, not a scoring one, except that’s not Russell — but the Timberwolves are moving to try and make that a reality. It’s hard to judge this trade for the Timberwolves until we see what other shoes drop.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks remind everyone they are beasts of the East with a win against the Celtics. Boston has joined the long list of teams — pretty much 29 of them — that have no good answer to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Greek Freak scored 32 points and pulled down 17 rebounds, and that plus Khris Middleton’s 23 was enough for Milwaukee to knock off the Celtics 128-123 on Thursday night. The Bucks have now won five in a row and remain on pace for a 70-win season (even if their GM says they will not chase a record number of wins).

Kemba Walker scored 40 points to lead Boston. The bigger concern for the Celtics is Jaylen Brown, who suffered a sprained right thumb against Detroit and sat this game out, plus he could miss more time.