How do contending teams perform in the fourth quarter?

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Always Be Closing.

That’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Great teams close out strong. They finish well together. They’re able to end games with finality. It’s that ability to lock down in the fourth quarter and finish teams off that separates the men from the boys. Young, weak teams can’t get it done, and teams that want to contend for a title have to be able to.

But how does this year’s crop of contenders compare in that fourth segment?

Using stats from HoopStats.com, I took a look at eight teams that could be considered “contenders” should you carry it out to a fairly liberal degree. And yes, Utah, I hear you, but I needed to make a cutoff somewhere and OKC happened to have more wins when I started this post. For reference, here are Utah’s stats.

Here’s what I found:

The first column of data is the difference between the average points scored in the fourth quarter and opponents’ points scored in the fourth. The second and third columns reference the winning percentages when leading or trailing after three quarters, and the fourth is to provide perspective for the season. All data was before Friday’s night’s games.

Before you start screaming, let’s get some caveats out of the way. The Lakers, as you’ll notice, have a 7.6 point differential and yet get outscored in the 4th. Which pretty much means they establish huge leads and then coast in the fourth when their subpar bench unit comes strolling in and let’s teams make pity runs. Some of it is on account of their inability to close out when down (as evidenced by their .25 winning percentage when down after three quarters). Similarly, there’s no data here to suggest who it is that these teams are battling down the wire. If the Mavericks keep coming back against teams they shouldn’t be down in the fourth to anyway, that doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence. But still, if we take the fourth as its own game, they’re getting it done, and that’s the point of this little exercise.

What’s notable here is that the Spurs are the best team in the fourth as well as the best team in the league right now record-wise. Compare this with the Heat who are the third best team in the league and tops in point differential, yet fourth in fourth quarter differential, third in win percentage when leading after three, and fourth when trailing. Not great closers.

The Bulls on the other hand are a study in contrast. When things are going well, they’re going really well (second-best win percentage of any contender when winning after three), and when they’re not going well, they struggle to respond in the fourth (fifth-best win percentage when trailing after three. And with a tops differential of +3 in the 4th, it’s clear that the Bulls play exceptionally strong in the final frame when things are going well.

The Magic have real problems here. The worst point differential in the fourth, tied for fourth when leading, and a pitiful .23 win percentage when trailing. To put that in real terms, the Magic come back on their opponent in the fourth less than a quarter of the time. Getting outscored in the fourth is in and of itself and indictment, but when you look at it,the Magic have a very poor chance of winning should they not be leading after three.

The Mavericks best live by the idea of playing on edge the whole time. Nearly no difference in points scored versus points allowed in the fourth (.1 points better than their opponents’ average), the lowest win percentage of any team going into the fourth with a lead, but the second best percentage when trailing. They come back on their opponent half the time, while losing nearly 15% of the time with a lead. Injuries have likely bogged this down as the Mavericks have been in games late, only to fail without Dirk Nowitzki and Caron Butler.

Perhaps most interesting is the Thunder, though, with the second worst win percentage when leading, third worst when trailing, and third worst fourth quarter differential while having the worst total point differential. The Thunder very much seem like a young team that still struggles with closing out games from this data set, despite their reputation as a team wise beyond its years. While this data set is fraught with caveats like the one listed above and well beyond the boundaries of context, it’s an interesting set nonetheless.

Closing in the fourth during the regular season is vastly different than it is in the playoffs, when you can’t rattle off a 10-2 run against the Kings. But this data at least gives us a sense of what the top teams in the league are doing as the game reaches its close.  And while the Lakers have been great overall but bad in the fourth and the Bulls have been solid overall but brilliant in the fourth, both will need to keep working on keeping that extra gear in good condition. It can be the difference in a ring and disappointment when spring comes a calling.

Report: Jimmy Butler less enthused about Lakers after they signed LeBron James

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In 2014, Jimmy Butler said, “I like being a role player. Star has never been next to Jimmy Butler’s name. It never will be. I’ll always be an under-the-radar dawg.”

Then, Butler kept getting better and better. He started to appreciate his stature within the game. He took a leadership role on the Bulls. He embraced celebrity.

Maybe his trade request from the Timberwolves – ideally to the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets or L.A. Clippers – is the next step in this evolution.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

He is enamored with the idea of playing a central role in a big market, sources said. Butler had once imagined playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, but LeBron James‘ arrival as the franchise’s cornerstone made it less appealing for Butler in the prime of his career, league sources said.

Playing with LeBron isn’t for everyone. Kawhi Leonard reportedly became more reluctant to join the Lakers once they got LeBron. (Interestingly, Leonard is reportedly dissuaded by the hoopla LeBron would attract while Butler apparently believes he wouldn’t get enough of a spotlight).

And of course, Kyrie Irving requested and received a trade from LeBron’s Cavaliers last year. Irving and Butler are friends, and maybe Irving warned Butler about the perils of playing with LeBron.

I’m not sure how this report fits with Butler wanting to play with Irving, though. Irving is more popular than Butler. Perhaps, Irving holding a smaller stature than LeBron is enough for Butler. Maybe playing with Irving would be the exception to Butler’s desire to have his own team in a big market.

Or maybe Butler still winds up in Los Angeles with LeBron. Butler was reportedly open to it, though that’s a pretty low standard.

No matter what, Butler should pursue what he wants. NBA careers are short. Players should make the most of theirs, whatever that means to them.

Butler has so far shown he can balance working hard and playing well with stardom. He has earned the right to seek a larger public profile without major consternation about what it’d mean to his on-court production.

Would Jimmy Butler actually sign a contract extension?

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly doesn’t want to grant Jimmy Butler‘s requested trade request – to the Knicks, Nets, Clippers or elsewhere.

Just how badly does Butler want to leave Minnesota?

Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, Butler is “open to signing extension” with one of his preferred destinations. That could be Butler’s silver bullet out of town.

Or it could be a miswording.

There’s a significant difference between signing a contract extension and getting traded then signing a new contract after the season. However, those different events often get described (sometimes inaccurately) under the term “extension.”

The largest extension Butler could sign while still being dealt before the February trade deadline is two years, $45,994,418 ($22,998,209 annually). It doesn’t matter whether he gets traded first or signs the extension first. That’s the limit.

However, if Butler gets traded then re-signs with his new team next summer, his max projects to be about $190 million over five years (about $38 million annually).

Would Butler really sacrifice so much? If so, that’d make him a far more-appealing asset. Not only would the team getting him gain longer team control, Butler would be locked into a relatively cheap salary. Teams that want him would offer more for him in that scenario – maybe even enough to convince a reluctant Thibodeau to deal the star.

Butler could also pledge to sign a larger extension with his new team six months after the trade. That extension would be capped at four years, $100,514,631 – the same extension he rejected from Minnesota this summer.* However, at that point, Butler will be near free agency. He might as well wait until his current contract expires.

His max contract next summer projects to be worth about $190 million over five years (about $38 million annually). Or, if he wants to leave his team, his max projects to be worth about $141 million over four years (about $35 million annually).

Either way, Butler’s max next summer far surpasses his largest-possible extension.

Of course, Butler isn’t guaranteed the max next summer. He’ll turn 30 before playing on his next contract, and he has plenty of mileage. But it seems likely he’ll come out well ahead on a new contract compared to an extension. That’s why he rejected Minnesota’s offer this summer.*

*The Timberwolves’ extension offer was frequently reported as four years, $110 million. But Butler’s base salary for calculating an extension is lower than his cap number, which also includes a portion of his signing and trade bonuses. The $110 million figure is based, incorrectly, on his cap number.

So, I doubt Butler will sign an extension. Promise to re-sign somewhere? Sure, that could definitely happen, though it’d be a non-binding pledge.

But as long as a potential extension is being reported, we should still consider the possibility.

Here are Butler’s four major options – signing an extension in conjunction with a trade now (blue), signing an extension six months after a trade (blue), re-signing on a new contract next summer (green), signing elsewhere on a new contract next summer (green). Rounded numbers are based on the projected 2019-20 salary cap.

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Space Jam 2 closer to reality: LeBron reportedly teams with Black Panther director

Courtesy Warner Bros.
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Space Jam 2 starring LeBron James — and, we can dream, Boban Marjanovic as one of the new Monstars — could be filming next summer and in theaters in 2019 or 2020.

This has been in the works for a while. LeBron James’ production company has a development deal with Warner Bros. and a Space Jam sequel was always at the heart of it. While there had been rumors about the project for years, you knew there was some substance the talk when Warner Bros. extended its trademark on “Space Jam” a couple of years ago.

In a sign this movie is going to be a reality, LeBron has found a producer — the guy who last directed Black Panther. From the Hollywood Reporter:

In his first project since directing the record-breaking Black Panther, Ryan Coogler is teaming with LeBron James on the anticipated follow-up to the Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny hit Space Jam, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

Coogler will produce the Space Jam movie and Terence Nance – who created HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and directed the experimental film The Oversimplification of Her Beauty – will direct. Production on the Warner Bros. film is tentatively slated for 2019, during the NBA offseason. It will be James’ first starring role after a successful turn as a supporting character in the 2015 Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck…

“I loved his vision” for Black Panther, James tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that when he was a kid growing up in Akron, Ohio, there were no black superheroes. “So for Ryan to be able to bring that to kids, it’s amazing.”

That’s a good team to make a movie, although we are all curious about the script.

Not that the original Space Jam starring Michael Jordan was winning a writing Oscar, but the move was a cultural phenomenon. It had MJ going head-to-head with aliens in a battle for Earth. Kid me loved that movie, adult me re-watched it and…

I didn’t love it as much as Patrick Patterson, who wrote: “To make a sequel to Space Jam would be like trying to paint the Mona Lisa again. Sure, you can probably do it, but why the hell would you want to?”

A lot of the older generation will say that, but if it’s a good movie it will do better than Uncle Drew. (Which, honestly, was better than I expected.) It could be a marketing coup for LeBron, plus add to his legacy of NBA titles and gold medals. Not everyone can put “saved the earth from annihilation” on their resume.

Report: Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau ‘has no interest’ in trading Jimmy Butler

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Jimmy Butler reportedly requested a trade from the Timberwolves to the Knicks, Nets or Clippers.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

For now, however, Timberwolves president and coach Tom Thibodeau has no interest in trading Butler and wants to try and return to the playoffs with him in the lineup, league sources said.

Minnesota is resistant to immediately honor the trade request, especially given Thibodeau’s tenuous status with owner Glen Taylor, league sources said.

That seems… untenable.

Butler and younger teammates like Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins had tension last season, as Butler came in and bristled at those who didn’t match his work ethic and competitiveness. Of course, that didn’t always sit well with those teammates. To be fair, everyone got along well enough for Minnesota to end a 13-year playoff drought. But how will Towns and Wiggins handle Butler’s intense and demanding style if they believe he’ll be gone in a year? And how would Butler react to even more resistance from teammates who’ve accomplished less than him?

Lame-duck leadership probably won’t work.

And Butler can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Chancing losing him for nothing – especially if the results next season underwhelm – would be a huge risk.

But my assessment considers only the overall health of the Timberwolves. The franchise isn’t a self-running entity. Rather, it’s a collection of individuals with their own agendas.

Thibodeau can be quite stubborn. Maybe he just doesn’t want to give into a trade request. That inclination could be pushed even further by a desire to impress Taylor, who reportedly isn’t sold on Thibodeau. The simplest way to do that is win, and Butler – chemistry concerns aside – is an elite player. He’d likely contribute more to winning than anyone Minnesota could trade for at this point.

Of course, this could be a bluff to maximize Butler’s trade value. If the Knicks, Nets, Clippers and other interested teams believe Thibodeau is inclined to keep Butler, they might offer more to pry him loose.