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Kawhi Leonard injury an all-time "what if?"

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Eight days ago, we didn’t know whether Kawhi Leonard – who injured his ankle when Zaza Pachulia slid under his jumper – would play again this postseason.

But as a frustrated Gregg Popovich ranted about Pachulia’s dirtiness, I suspect the Spurs coach knew. I think Popovich knew, after years of anticipating a playoff matchup with the high-octane Warriors, Leonard’s injury had robbed San Antonio of a competitive conference finals – and maybe a championship.

The Spurs led Game 1 by 23 when Leonard got hurt. He never returned, and San Antonio blew its opening-game lead then lost Games 2-4 by 36, 12 and 14. None of the final three games were competitive down the stretch.

In all, the Spurs outscored Golden State by 21 in Leonard’s 23 minutes and got outscored by 85 otherwise.

The Warriors advance to their third straight NBA Finals. San Antonio is left wondering, what if?

Popovich’s Spurs have beaten nearly every highly touted team to come along during his reign as coach – the Chris Webber/Vlade Divac/Mike Bibby/Peja Stojakovic Kings, Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Goin’ To Work Pistons, Steve Nash/Mike D’Antoni Suns, LeBron James Cavaliers, Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks, Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder, LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh Heat.

But these Warriors escaped San Antonio. The Spurs beat Golden State in the 2013 second round, but that wasn’t the same team. Those Warriors hadn’t started Draymond Green, signed Andre Iguodala or hired Steve Kerr – three people integral to Golden State’s identity. And of course, the Warriors hadn’t signed Kevin Durant, who turned this year’s squad into possible the greatest super team of all time.

At the same time, San Antonio was loading up. The Spurs were the second-best regular-season team over the last three years behind Golden State, but the teams didn’t meet in the playoffs.

Despite having the NBA’s third-best net rating, San Antonio had to face the Clippers (NBA’s second-best net rating) in the 2015 first round thanks to conference imbalance and a since-changed seeding system for division winners. The Clippers won a hard-fought seven-game series.

In 2016, the Spurs had an even higher net rating than Golden State, which went 73-9. But they ran into the Thunder, whose athleticism buzz-sawed them and nearly toppled the Warriors.

This year was San Antonio’s chance.

The Spurs showed an ability to adjust to spread attacks while topping the Rockets in the second round. In its next-level challenge, San Antonio – behind Leonard’s 26 points on 13 shots, eight rebounds and three assists – dominated early.

But as soon as Leonard went down, the entire series turned.

The Spurs outscored Golden State by 42 points per 48 minutes with Leonard and got outscored by 24 points per 48 minutes without him – one of the greatest disparities in a playoff series this era.

Here are all the series where a team performed at least 60 points better per 48 minutes with a certain player on the court rather than off since 2001, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference records go (requiring more than 10 minutes played, as to eliminate extreme garbage-time examples):

  • Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player off
  • Right: Left: Point difference per 48 minutes with player on
  • Center: Difference

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Raw totals:

Player On Off
Chauncey Billups (2002 MIN 0, DAL 3) 0 in 134 min. -32 in 10 min.
Draymond Green (2015 GSW 4, NOP 0) +77 in 166 min. -45 in 31 min.
Gilbert Arenas (2005 WAS 4, CHI 2) +31 in 276 min. -20 in 12 min.
Pascal Siakam (2017 TOR 0, CLE 4) +14 in 10 min. -75 in 182 min.
Kobe Bryant (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +66 in 119 min. -22 in 26 min.
Kevin Garnett (2004 MIN 4, DEN 1) +58 in 206 min. -38 in 34 min.
Luke Jackson (2007 TOR 2, BRK 4) +14 in 11 min. -46 in 277 min.
LeBron James (2007 CLE 4, WAS 0) +47 in 182 min. -12 in 11 min.
Allen Iverson (2001 PHI 1, LAL 4) -25 in 239 min. -9 in 6 min.
Kawhi Leonard (2017 SAS 0, GSW 4) +21 in 24 min. -85 in 168 min.
Shawn Marion (2003 PHO 2, SAS 4) -17 in 283 min. -15 in 10 min.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad (2003 DAL 2, SAS 4) +19 in 16 min. -49 in 272 min.
Russell Westbrook (2017 OKC 1, HOU 4) +15 in 195 min. -58 in 46 min.
Shaquille O’Neal (2001 LAL 3, POR 0) +55 in 131 min. -11 in 13 min.
Chris Webber (2001 SAC 3, PHO 1) +59 in 169 min. -21 in 23 min.
Tim Duncan (2001 SAS 4, DAL 1) +89 in 202 min. -31 in 38 min.
Kirk Hinrich (2016 ATL 0, CLE 4) +11 in 12 min. -61 in 180 min.
Thomas Gardner (2009 ATL 0, CLE 4) +12 in 16 min. -84 in 177 min.

This list is essentially divided into three groups:

  • Bench-warmers who played a few good minutes while their team got torched throughout the series. Pascal Siakam, Luke Jackson, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kirk Hinrich and Thomas Gardner fit this category.
  • Stars who dominated while on the court and saw their teams torched when they sat. For example, in the massive leader in this stat, the Timberwolves played the Mavericks even in the 2002 first round with Chauncey Billups on the court. But Minnesota got outscored by 32 in the 10 minutes Billups sat the entire series and got swept. (Billups was starting for an injured Terrell Brandon, so Robert Pack got pressed into duty behind Billups.)
  • Kawhi Leonard. Every other star played a high majority of his teams’ minutes, essentially as much as he could handle. Then, his team just hoped to hang on in the star’s brief breathers. Leonard was stuck on the bench nearly the entire series, watching the the Spurs look helpless after he led them to a commanding advantage.

To be fair, San Antonio wouldn’t have necessarily won with Leonard.

Golden State was better than the Spurs throughout the season, and the lopsided start was a small sample. Simple regression to the mean could have tilted the series.

Also, the Warriors are at their best with Draymond Green at center, and they used that lineup just 11 seconds before Leonard’s injury. In 59 minutes with Green at center in the series, Golden State posted offensive/defensive/net ratings of 123.9/90.3/+33.5. If they needed to lean on those lineups more to beat a Leonard-led Spurs, they could have.

Yet, I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if Leonard stayed healthy.

The question towers over the last great playoff-injury fascination – whether the Cavaliers would have won the 2015 Finals if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy.

I contend no. The Warriors were better than Cleveland overall each of the last two years, and they were a stylistic problem for the Cavs – especially Love and especially in 2015. The Cavaliers winning in 2016 adds doubt, but Stephen Curry was hobbled and Draymond Green got suspended for a game. A hungrier and more available 2015 Golden State team was more primed to win than the 2016 edition that lost to Cleveland.

Perhaps, a 2017 Finals rubber match will inform my opinion how Love’s and Irving’s injuries affected the 2015 NBA championship. For now, I’m sticking with the Warriors winning anyway.

But with Leonard’s injury in this year’s conference finals, I just don’t have a feel for whether the Spurs would have prevailed.

And that’s the most frustrating part.

Report: One last push for NBA to return with all 30 teams

Thunder owner Clay Bennett
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The NBA has 30 teams.

Some teams don’t want that forgotten as the league heads toward resuming with just 22 teams.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Near the end of the NBA’s Board of Governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams re-start a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: was there a way to safely bring all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games – March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four-to-five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the Players Association, sources said.

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too — with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

The irony: Bennett moved the Thunder to small-market Oklahoma City from larger-market Seattle.

Get past that, and he has a point: Ideally, all 30 teams would finish their seasons. That’s how the season was originally designed. It’d be nice if it could be completed that way.

But it’s also important not to become consumed by that goal in the face of other – sometimes competing – concerns.

The more teams playing, the higher the risk of coronavirus spreading. It’s that simple. In the NBA’s setup, maybe there’s negligible safety difference between 16 teams and 22 teams and 30 teams. That’s worth exploring. But increasing the number of teams increases the risk.

Of course, increasing number of teams also increases revenue. Just as 22 teams will draw more money than 16 teams, 30 teams would draw more money than 22 teams (if safe). That can’t be ignored.

It’s not as if this is a huge departure from normal, though. At this point in the season, many teams begin several months without meaningful games. Fix the tanking issue in normal times. Especially now, it seems absurd to recall teams just for games the organization prefers to lose.

This also isn’t simply a market-size issue. The Knicks, Warriors and Bulls are among the teams outside the top 22. Sure, there’s room for consideration for teams that aren’t resuming. But it’s not as if they’re just small-market teams left to wallow.

Plus, an extended period without basketball is an all-too-convenient concern all of a sudden. Where was that rallying cry while owners held lockouts? Owners canceled games to serve their greater objectives then. It’s a reasonable consideration now, too.

Mandatory summer training camps won’t help eliminated teams sell sponsorships and tickets. Those camps might not even have much value in team building. With contracts generally shorter now, so many players are heading into free agency. For impending free agents on finished teams, protecting their health is most important – not practicing with a team they won’t necessarily stay with.

There are no perfect answers here. NBA commissioner Adam Silver must decide on the least-bad option. It’s perfectly fine if that doesn’t include all 30 teams.

How many teams will make 2020 NBA Playoffs?

Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan vs. Kings
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The NBA could resume with 16, 20, 22 or 30 teams. The league is weighing playing more regular-season games, jumping straight to the playoffs, holding a play-in tournament and even drawing for a group stage. The most important thing is finding the proper format for this unprecedented season interrupted by coronavirus.

But that still leaves a question: How will playoff inclusion be determined?

Importantly, that affects which teams participate in the lottery. The whole point is to give every non-playoff team and only non-playoff teams a shot at the top picks in the draft.

A few notable streaks are also on the line:

San Antonio and Sacramento are in that tightly grouped 9th-12th range in the Western Conference (with the Pelicans and Trail Blazers). Phoenix has the league’s 21st-best record.

The postseason could simply include just the normal 16 teams. But the alternative formats open other possibilities.

It appears most likely 22 teams will resume, though it could be 20. Either scenario could include a play-in tournament – with an unspecified number of teams. Maybe four, maybe six, maybe some other number. Though the name – “play-in” – suggests those teams wouldn’t be considered playoff teams unless advancing, that’s not an official designation. The first NCAA Tournament games each year are commonly called play-ins. But teams that lose those games are considered to have made the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has formally called that round “Opening Round,” “First Round” or “First Four.” The NBA could do something similar.

Though momentum has appeared to stall for a group phase, that format posed the most uncertainty about which teams would be deemed in the playoffs. Would all 20 participating teams? Just eight teams would advance to a tournament (the equivalent of the second round of a normal playoffs). Would only those eight be considered playoff teams? Would the league designate the third- and fourth-place finisher in each group as playoff teams after the fact to reach 16 postseason teams? It’d be weird to “make the playoffs” only after getting eliminated.

But the NBA has had plenty of variance on this throughout its history.

We’ve grown accustomed to 16 teams making the playoffs, the system in place since 1984. But in 1984, there were just 23 teams. So, nearly 70% of the league made the playoffs.

The league has since expanded to 30 teams. So, just 53% of teams make the playoffs now.

Only two periods have seen a lower proportion of the league make the playoffs. From 1971-1974, just 47% of teams (8/17) reached the postseason. From 1981-1983, just 52% of teams (12/23) reached the postseason.

It wouldn’t be ahistorical for the NBA to include more than 16 teams in this year’s playoffs.

Here’s a history of the percentage of teams that have made the playoffs each year (blue). The orange lines represent how that would compare to various scenarios this season – 8, 16, 20 and 22 postseason teams:

Obviously, eight playoff teams would be a major outlier. But having 20 or even 22 playoff teams wouldn’t.

Like with many issues right now, the NBA had latitude and must just decide where to draw the line.

NBA coaches’ union: ‘We have the power and platform to affect change, and we will use it’

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Warriors coach Steve Kerr often speak loudly on political issues.

Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests around the country, the entire NBA Coaches Association is speaking out.

NBA Coaches Association:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In describing recent events of “police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism” as “shameful, inhumane and intolerable,” the National Basketball Coaches Association has established a committee on racial injustice and reform to pursue solutions within NBA cities.

[Hawks coach Lloyd] Pierce played a leadership role in the NBCA’s weekend dialogue and has shown a determination to encourage the entire roster of coaches — not just those traditionally speaking on issues of race and equality — to be part of a movement of voice and action within the profession’s ranks.

Floyd’s death was a tragedy that has shaken the entire country. It has compelled many – including within the NBA – to speak out and act.

It is wonderful that people are standing up to injustice.

Coaches also ought to carefully consider how to use their union as a tool in that fight.

Per the union’s website:

THE NBA COACHES ASSOCIATION WAS ESTABLISHED TO ACHIEVE THE FOLLOWING GOALS:
  • To promote the profession of NBA Basketball Coach
  • To assist in securing for its members maximum salary opportunities, disability and retirement benefits and individual and group marketing opportunities
  • To act as a liaison between the NBA and its body of coaches
  • To organize regular meetings for its members where information and ideas concerning the sport of basketball and coaching may be exchanged
  • To create opportunities for coaches in radio, television, the internet, publishing, and other related activities, and for opportunities in international coaching clinics and international basketball
  • To maintain contact with and support coaches between assignments
  • To take advantage of current technology as it applies to the game of basketball
  • Provide a forum for the betterment of the NBA coaches profession

There might be a narrow way for the union to take action while fitting its mission. But as its letter says, the National Basketball Coaches Association has a “diverse group” of members. The union should be careful not to collect dues from members to spend outside its purview.

NBA coaches are people, not just coaches. I applaud each of them who choose to speak out. They do have the platform and power to affect change.

I hope they find the right way to do that.

Another report Tom Thibodeau is the ‘heavy favorite’ to become next Knicks coach

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From the moment the Knicks hired former agent Leon Rose to head their basketball operations, Tom Thibodeau has been considered the frontrunner to be the team’s next head coach. Rose and Thibodeau have a decades-long relationship, and Thibodeau reportedly wants the job.

Now comes another report, this time from the well-connected Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, that the job is Thibodeau’s to lose.

Moving forward to the Leon Rose era can’t begin in earnest until he hired his coach. To that end, sources say Tom Thibodeau is the heavy favorite to land the job… But the belief is that this is Thibodeau’s to lose, and a source said he’s confident about getting the job — to the point that Thibodeau has made calls to assemble a staff.

There will be others interviewed, Kenny Atkinson and interim coach Mike Miller are on the list, there may be more. However, the buzz around the league is this will be Thibodeau’s job next season.

Thibodeau wants to coach in the NBA again. Is he the right fit? That’s up for debate. Thibodeau has a history as a win-now coach who leans on veterans, he’s struggled to build relationships with some young players such as Karl-Anthony Towns, and he’s clashed with management at more than one stop. For his part, Thibodeau says he has grown and will bring a new perspective to his next job.

Whether New York builds with its young core or trades for a star (if one becomes available), it sounds like Thibodeau will be tasked with turning this team into a playoff team again. That might take a couple of seasons, hopefully, this time Knicks management can be patient with that process.