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.  

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis escorted from courtside seat for screaming at Chris Paul after fight

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Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul got into it. Rondo’s girlfriend and Paul’s wife reportedly got into it.

And if that weren’t enough, Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis angrily challenged Paul during Saturday’s Lakers-Rockets fracas.

“California, show your teeth,” indeed.

Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau on Derrick Rose: ‘As long as he’s healthy, he’ll be one of the best players in the league’

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Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose has already played two games better than he had all of last season. He scored 12 points with eight assists and no turnovers in a win over the Cavaliers on Friday then posted 28-5-5-2 against the Mavericks on Saturday.

But let’s not overreact to such a small –

Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press:

If Tom Thibodeau is referring to a level of health Rose hasn’t had in several years and will never have again, that’s fine. Rose won MVP while healthy.

But if Thibodeau means just available to play without a limp, wow. His love of former Bulls extends even further than we realized.

Rose could help Minnesota in a limited role. He started to find a groove late last season, and he’s obviously starting strong this year. But this type of praise only prompts mocking.

Bulls sign Shaquille Harrison, waive Omer Asik

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Kris Dunn, the Bulls’ clear top point guard, has yet to play this season due the birth of his child. Even when he returns, Chicago’s other point guards – Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis – are uninspiring, even as backups.

So, the Bulls added Shaquille Harrison, whom the Suns waived after agreeing to sign Jamal Crawford.

Bulls release:

The Chicago Bulls have signed guard Shaquille Harrison.

In a preceding move, the Bulls waived center Omer Asik.

Harrison is a nice pickup, one of the better free agents available and someone who plays a position of need. The Bulls could use several swings at finding long-term point guards, and the 25-year-old Harrison is a potential fit.

Waiving Asik is an interesting move. Asik was injured, and this could end the 32-year-old’s career. But Chicago loses the ability to trade his contract. Just $3 million of Asik’s $11,977,527 2019-20 salary was guaranteed, which could have been useful in a salary-accepting trade.

Instead, Asik will count $11,286,516 against the cap this season and $3 million after that. The Bulls can either pay the entire $3 million next season or stretch it to $1 million each of the next three seasons. Stretching the money would indicate Chicago still plants to be aggressive in free agency next summer. Paying all it once would suggest a more patient rebuild.

Report: Darius Bazley, who’s sitting out awaiting draft, receives $1 million guaranteed on shoe contract

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Negotiations on lowering the NBA’s age limit have stalled, though there’s plenty of time to negotiate before the targeted allowance of high school players declaring for the draft in 2022.

In the meantime, the NBA’s minor league will soon offer $125,000 salaries to 18-year-olds – up from the standard G League salary of $35,000. Will players sign those Select Contracts rather than playing college basketball, which comes with cartel-limited compensation?

Darius Bazley – who committed to Syracuse, planned to play in the NBA’s minor league then decided to sit out the upcoming season – could provide an illuminating test case. Represented by Rich Paul, Bazley signed an endorsement deal with New Balance.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

According to Paul, Bazley’s multiyear deal will pay him $1 million “no matter what happens” with his N.B.A. career — and can pay up to $14 million if he reaches all performance incentives.

That dwarfs even the increased minor-league salary. Bazley can receive that endorsement money because he no longer cares about preserving college eligibility. The same would apply to Select Contract players.

But the shoe company would become the primary employer. If the shoe company decides playing in the NBA’s minor-league for $125,000 offers the best return on investment, that’s what the player will do. If the shoe company decides the player is better off doing something else, the player will do that.

Bazley ranked just No. 17 in his class, per the 247 composite. He projects as a late first-rounder once draft-eligible next year. The money gets even bigger with more highly touted prospects.

College basketball remains the place that offers them the most exposure, and shoe companies might continue to funnel players there with under-the-table payments. That was no longer an option with Bazley, but this ought to serve as a reminder of who drives the money for elite 18-year-old players. It isn’t the G League.