Stats expert Jeff Ma on consulting the Blazers, Oden vs. Durant

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Jeff Ma, the star of Ben Mezrich’s excellent non-fiction book Bringing Down The House (the book’s “Kevin Lewis” is, in reality, Ma), the founder of both Protrade.com and Citizen Sports, and the author of The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Vegas, has also done some consulting work with the Portland Trail Blazers. Recently, Ma sat down with Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge for an interview, and Ma said more than a few interesting things. Here are a few excerpts:

On former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard and how receptive GMs in general are to advanced metrics: 

From an analytics standpoint, you can separate the sports executives into three buckets. There are the guys that do analytics themselves. That could sit down at a spreadsheet and crunch out the numbers themselves. There’s only a handful of those. Daryl Morey, [Rockets executive] Sam Hinkie, [San Diego Padres executive] Paul De’Podesta in baseball, there’s a handful of those guys. Then there are the guys in the middle who have an appreciation for analytics, they don’t necessarily understand how to do it or understand a lot of the basic principles but they understand it has value in what they’re doing. Then there’s a third group that doesn’t think there’s any place for it in sports.
Kevin is in that middle group. In some respects I think that’s the best group to be in because you have a great appreciation for what the scouts do and the process of scouting. I think that’s important, that’s valuable, that’s part of this whole thing. You don’t want to have too limited of a viewpoint. I’m not saying Daryl and those guys have too limited of a viewpoint but being in that middle group is the best place to be in some respects because you do allow yourself the ability to make decisions in a lot of different ways, which I think is important when you’re making decisions. 
On Whether Ma had a preference for either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant heading into the 2007 Draft:

Yes. A very big preference actually. If people that use analytics to predict player performance in the NBA, using performance analytics, meaning what they did in college, and they tell you they had Oden ranked higher than Durant, they are full of crap. There are very few statistical measures that would have rated Oden’s numbers in college better than Durant’s. Oden was injured his entire career, that one season at Ohio State. He had to shoot free throws left handed, was not efficient, didn’t have a great statistical season.

Our numbers absolutely said they should pick Durant. It wasn’t even close.

But that kind of decision is never that cut and dry. I would never want the Blazers to make the decision so cut and dry. The thinking they had was that this elite center is very rare and the ability to get that guy was staring them in the face and that’s what they went after. The sad thing is that when you ignore the numbers, the numbers often tell you something regardless of what you’re ignoring. The numbers in this case were ignored because Oden was hurt but what have we seen in Oden’s career? A propensity to get hurt.

I felt like they should have drafted Durant and said they should have drafted Durant but I think it’s really easy to look at this with hindsight. If you had polled NBA executives and even statheads at that time, who they should pick, I think at least 2/3 of them would have said Oden.

I encourage you to read the full interview, as well as Kelly Dwyer’s excellent breakdown of Ma’s interview for Yahoo!. The Oden/Durant stuff will likely get the most attention, but there are lots of interesting and astute observations about the general role of advanced metrics and quantitative thinking in sports in general that make the interview more than worth reading. 

Lakers reportedly ‘seriously considered’ Westbrook trade for Hield, Turner

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“If you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster.”

That was Lakers GM Rob Pelinka on media day talking about the possibility of the Lakers trading the only two first-round picks they control this decade — 2027 and 2029 — to upgrade this roster around LeBron. Pelinka was clear the Lakers were committed to building a winner around LeBron, “We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game, and he committed to us on a long-term contract, a three-year contract… He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”

But should that include a Russell Westbrook trade to Indiana for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner? Shams Charania of The Athletic updated and added to the extensive previous reporting on this trade, saying the Lakers kept the door open right up to the start of training camp but didn’t pull the trigger.

Vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, owner Jeanie Buss and senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis seriously considered sending Westbrook and unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to the Pacers for center Myles Turner and guard Buddy Hield, sources said. They held a series of meetings in the days leading up to camp to analyze the possible Pacers deal from every angle, with the views of Ham and Lakers executives Joey and Jesse Buss also being strongly considered in the process. The organization even delayed the midweek news conference for Pelinka and Ham as the debate continued…

If they were going to gamble on a make-or-break move of this magnitude, the thinking went, then everyone had to have confidence in the same vision. But when that wasn’t the case, sources say, the choice was made by Pelinka to remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.

Hield and Turner would absolutely improve the Lakers. Turner can play the five, is an elite shot blocker who could provide a strong defensive back line next to Anthony Davis, and is a respectable 3-point shooter who can space the floor. He’s a natural fit. Hield brings shooting that the Lakers have coveted for years and need more of now.

That trade would have moved the Lakers up the ladder to a solid playoff team in the West. Would that trade make the Lakers contenders? Probably not. It still would have come back to the bubble version of Davis and LeBron being ready for the final 16-game sprint to have a puncher’s chance (that may be the case regardless of other moves). Also, it would have messed with future free agency plans in Los Angeles — the Lakers can have around $30 million in cap space next summer to chase Kyrie Irving (although Shams reports that’s not in their plans) or other name players, Hield is owed $19.3 million next season and Turner will be a free agent the Lakers would need to re-sign. This deal would end the dream of a free agent taking a little less than the max to come to the Lakers (a dream not likely to come to reality anyway).

As Pelinka said, the Lakers have one shot with trading their two picks to upgrade the roster — they have to hit a home run, this can’t be a solid single. The Lakers were not convinced Hield and Turner could be that home run tandem.

So Los Angeles will go into the season with a starting five of Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, LeBron, Davis, and Damian Jones, with a bench of Patrick Beverley, Thomas Bryant, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder. The Lakers will see if it fits, how far it looks like this group can take them under new coach Darvin Ham, and watch the market to see what other stars could become available.

The Lakers aren’t done dealing, but it looks like a deal with Indiana is now in the rearview mirror.

PBT Podcast: Philadelphia 76ers 2022-23 season preview

2022-23 Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Philadelphia 76ers are title contenders — if James Harden and Joel Embiid can play up to their potential on the biggest of NBA stages. That hasn’t always happened before, particularly with Harden.

Those two are now set up well. Philadelphia learned its lessons from the playoff loss to Miami last season. GM Daryl Morey rounded out the roster with more toughness and two-way players in the form of P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and DeAnthony Melton. Add in the development of Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle and you have a deep roster of quality players — down to BBall Paul.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia joins me to discuss if Doc Rivers is ready to take this team to the next level, and if all the additions can come together when it matters. Can Harden shake his history of playoff reputation and lead a team to the Finals?

You can always listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

When will LeBron James break Kareem’s all-time scoring record?

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LeBron James is trying not to think about it too much.

“The only time I’ve kind of like thought about it is when someone, you know, been posting on social and it went through my scroll, through my feed, and I’ve seen it,” LeBron said at Lakers’ media day. “And every single time I’m kind of in awe of it, like, wow.”

The wow is breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record.

It was a record thought almost untouchable at 38,387 points, but now LeBron sits just 1,326 points shy of breaking it — health willing, he should pass Kareem this season.

When? Well, that takes a little math and speculation.

LeBron scored 30.3 points a game last season, but the two seasons prior to that it was closer to 25 points a game. If we split the difference and land at 27.5 points per game, it would take 48-49 games. We have to assume that 37-year-old LeBron (turning 38 just before the New Year) will sit out at least a couple of those first games, pushing this back a few games.

Considering LeBron could slide back in scoring to close to 25 a game again, the smart bet is he breaks Kareem’s record in late January or early February. The Lakers have a five-game East Coast road trip that includes Boston and New York starting Jan. 28 and running through Feb. 4, and that’s about the window.

“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, something that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super like humbling, for myself,” LeBron said. “I think it’s super cool.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well. I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Having been in the spotlight for as long as LeBron has — remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler — he can be very practiced, very polished with the media. His brand is smooth, as are his dealings with the press in general.

However, when talking about passing Abdul-Jabbar, it felt like LeBron’s guard was down. He was raw, more reflective and genuinely moved.

“You guys always see me use my hashtag #thekidfromakron and that those are the moments where I really think about that kid from Akron. Walking those streets and, you know, playing basketball when I had actually had a basketball and the hoop, or actually just walking around and air dribbling and shooting into it and invisible hoop you know, and counting 5…4…3…2…1 and, you know, making game-winning shots.

“I’m not going to put too much pressure on it throughout the season. But I think it’s a pretty historical moment when it gets here and you know, as long as my family and friends are all there that’s that’s the most important for me.”

LeBron’s family will undoubtedly be there, and the whole world will be watching. Longevity and LeBron’s ability to be great into age 38 (and beyond) is part of his GOAT argument — and there is no better cornerstone of that argument than being the game’s all-time leading scorer.

Suns fall to hot shooting Adelaide 36ers from Australia, 134-124

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The Adelaide 36ers may be from Australia’s National Basketball League, but they are professional players — leave them wide open and they will hit shots.

Phoenix treated Sunday like their first preseason game (it was) and the 36ers hit 24 3-pointers on their way to an upset of the Suns, 134-124. The 36ers were the aggressors all night long, playing team basketball and putting Phoenix on its heels.

It’s just preseason. One preseason game is not a bellwether for the season, there should be little more than raised eyebrows in Phoenix. However, with their last game being a crushing 33-point loss to Dallas which eliminated them from the playoffs a season ago, this was not the palate cleanser that Phoenix fans were hoping for.

Craig Randall — you may remember him from the University of Memphis and Tennessee-Martin — scored 35 points while Robert Franks added 32. The 3-point shot is the great equalizer in basketball and the 36ers were on fire.

 

The last NBA team to lose to an International squad before Sunday was the Thunder in 2016 to Real Madrid. The year before, Turkish power Fenerbahce beat Brooklyn in the preseason. It does happen.

Reserve point guard Cameron Payne led the Suns with 23 points, while Deandre Ayton looked solid and dropped 22, as did Mikal Bridges, who also had 22. Devin Booker had 13 points and Chris Paul dished out 12 dimes.

With the size of Ayton and the athletic slashing of Bridges, the Suns scored 64 points in the paint, more than doubling the 36ers. But math was not on the Suns’ side, as they traded twos for threes and kept falling behind.

This is great for the NBL and its efforts to grow the brand — the 36ers will now take on the Thunder later this week.

It’s a shrug and move on game for the Suns. Expect a more focused effort from the team next game.