The other night in San Antonio, the Spurs “regained control” of their series with the upstart Golden State Warriors. Their winning formula was familiar: Tim Duncan and Tony Parker led the team in field goal attempts, while Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green each provided valuable supplements. The Spurs have a clear hierarchy of talent and leadership that generally manifests into a predictably similar order on the stat sheet.
The current Warriors hierarchy is in a bit of disarray. Although these playoffs have undeniably improved the reputations of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in Game 5 it was Harrison Barnes and Jarrett Jack leading the Warriors in field goal attempts, while Curry and Thompson were off somewhere in the basement of the Alamo.
Less than 90 seconds into Monday’s Game 4 between the Bulls and Heat, something seemingly uneventful happened. Dwyane Wade had just received an entry pass down on the right block, where he was doubled by Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer. Joakim Noah was also interested in stopping Wade, and he had strayed from Udonis Haslem to camp out alone at the crown of the restricted area. Suddenly, one of those non sequitur whistles sounded and play abruptly stopped.
Joakim Noah was called for defensive three seconds, which results in a technical foul. This call established early on that the refs were not going to tolerate Noah’s cheating toward the basket, thus denying the Bulls a vital tactical advantage.
With the 56th pick in the 1999 NBA draft, the Golden State Warriors selected Tim Young, a 7-foot Bay Area kid who grew up in Santa Cruz and played college basketball at Stanford.
"Tim's a presence," said Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo. "He's got good size, he does a little bit of everything — passes the ball well, shoots the ball well, he can block some shots. He worked out very, very well for us. Obviously, we know him very well. He's absolutely a first-rate person."
During his brief 25-game NBA career, Young made 13 of his 39 shots and logged a total of 137 minutes. But this was not a horrible draft pick; many players taken at the bottom of the second round never see the light of an NBA court. However, the very next pick in that draft would prove to be one of the best second-round picks in NBA history.
The October trade that sent James Harden from Oklahoma to Texas has been dissected a thousand times by a thousand people. However, the trade is particularly relevant again today; 87 games later, Harden is leading his Rockets squad to a potential upset over his former team. Sure, the Westbrook injury changed the series — and the entire Western Conference playoffs, for that matter — but an upset in this series would still be a huge moment for Harden and the Rockets.
While it’s obvious that Harden has made the Rockets a better basketball team, it’s also important to recall that eight months ago we had little idea how Harden would react to his new environment. After a few years in OKC, we knew he could be Ginobili, but it was unclear whether he could be Parker or Duncan. Though it was apparent that Harden would be the primary scorer for his new team and his volume would surge, it was anybody’s guess as to how he’d perform.
Well, the volume surged, and he’s performed extremely well. He took 17 shots a game this season after only attempting 10 per game last year. He’s also proven that he is a superstar-level player who deserves a max contract, and he’s got one of the more interesting and unique games in the league.
The first reason I like Steph Curry is that he's a relatively normally sized human being who has figured out a way to become an NBA superstar. When you look at guys like Dwight Howard, LeBron James, or Dirk Nowitzki, it’s easy to see why they might be incredible basketball players. Stephen Curry doesn't look like those guys; someone with his exact figure could walk into any pickup gym in America and few people would notice. Curry is skinny and shortish by NBA standards, but pound-for-pound he is probably the best scorer the league has seen since Allen Iverson.
It’s Curry’s tiny frame and the current NBA injury plague that make what happened the other night in Denver more bothersome. Kenneth “Manimal” Faried stuck out his foot, in what was possibly an attempt to trip Curry, who could easily be nicknamed “beanpole.” I love Faried as much as anyone but was repulsed to see him resort to that. To me it seemed out of character and dickish (or malicious), which is a word I would never use to describe Faried or his game. Why would he resort to tripping? Those saying fouls like that are part of the game neglect to mention that this exact move could easily start a fight at any level of basketball. Tripping is never part of the game and it never should be.
A lot of people have argued, “Well, this is playoff basketball and hard fouls are the norm.” They cite the Pistons beating up Michael Jordan as an example. They imply that there’s some old-school cred associated with this stuff. There’s not, and thank god the days of clotheslining are bygone. Hurting dudes who make the NBA fun to watch is not cool now, and it never really was. If you want to watch big guys fight each other, there’s a sport for you, but it’s not basketball. There is no dignity in “touching up”; there should be no pride in substituting brutality for skill. And though it’s an argument for another time, you’ll find many of the same people who embrace the notion of hard gymnasium fouls on Friday preaching about the importance of player safety in other sports on Sundays.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Grantland’s own Jonah Keri talk about some Reds pitcher who had “lost velocity” on his fastball. As he spoke, I wondered what the NBA equivalent of this would be. Baseball has radar guns that reliably identify a downturn in pitching ability; we don’t have that instrument in the NBA. It’s not as easy to detect performance declines in basketball.
If there’s one theme that’s dominated the last few weeks in the NBA, perhaps it’s the immemorial relationship between age and decay. The NBA season is long, basketball is grueling, and old guys break down. The league is full of aging superstars who are always a tweak or aggravation away from street clothes.
The below graphic shows every shot attempted in the NBA during the regular season.
NBA players attempted 201,608 field goals this season; they made 91,282 of them. In other words, the league shot 45.3 percent from the floor. These are pretty standard numbers for a full 82-game season, but there were two noticeable trends in NBA shooting patterns. First, compared to last year’s shortened and condensed season, the league was more efficient on offense. The 45.3 field goal percentage was a slight increase from last year, when the league made 44.8 percent of its shots.
Despite their loss last night, the Knicks remain one of the hottest teams in the NBA. As we approach the conclusion of the regular season, New York has won 13 of 14 games, and has have established itself as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. At the same time, Carmelo Anthony has established himself as the second-best player in the Eastern Conference.
Melo always has been a very active shooter, but he appears to be a different player this year than last; his shooting patterns have changed, and his efficiencies are way up. While Anthony deserves tons of credit for his recent scoring terror, it’s also a reminder of how important teammates and coaches are in the NBA. Simply put, Melo is in a better situation this season; he’s got better teammates, and as a result he’s taking better advantage of better scoring chances.
Back on March 25, the Grizzlies and Wizards were playing a game at the Verizon Center. The score was only 4-4 when Zach Randolph missed an 11-foot jumper along the left baseline. The rebound came down into the hands of Washington’s Emeka Okafor, who quickly fired a long outlet pass to John Wall, who dribbled across midcourt and attacked Memphis’s transition defense. As Wall weaved toward the free throw line, Steve Buckhantz, the Wizards play-by-play guy said, “Here comes Washington with Wall who cuts into the middle.”
As Wall rose for a transition 17-foot shot, Buckhantz said, “now he’ll take that shot ... ”
The shot fell and he noted, “Very confident. I mean his game has come to a new level right now.”
On February 5 in Brooklyn, the Lakers and Nets were tied at 80 with about 2:50 left in the fourth quarter. The Lakers had the ball with seven seconds on the shot clock. Kobe Bryant had isolated on Gerald Wallace, 30 feet from the rim, beyond the left wing. Bryant crossed the ball over to his left hand and quickly went through his legs back to his right. He stuttered and accelerated to his right toward the paint. The attack consisted of two short dribbles and a few quickened strides. He elevated just outside the restricted area. Kris Humphries, the Nets' 6-foot-9, 235-pound power forward who would turn 28 the next day, awaited. Bryant was not deterred. With Gerald Wallace right on his heels and Humphries helping, the graying Mamba leaped and dunked hard on both men to make the score 82-80. In this one play Kobe changed the mood on the floor and in the arena. The Nets would score only three more points; the Lakers went on to win 92-83.
One of the basic tenets of basketball is that some shots are easier than others; a layup is easier than a half-court heave. However, it turns out that the relationship between shot distance and field goal percentage is more complicated than you might expect. Although it seems logical to assume that there is a direct relationship between shot distance and field goal percentage, this is not true. In fact, one of basketball analytics’ inconvenient truths is that many 3-point shots have higher average field goal percentages than many 2-point shots, and many of the league’s lowest-percentage shots occur much closer to the basket than you might think.
One of the things about sports analytics these days is that, while combing through and analyzing massive amounts of performance data, you come across “findings” that are unexpected or surprising. Without ever watching a game or studying film, you discover things you never knew about a player or a team. Occasionally these findings are so unbelievable you are forced to somehow validate them. You say things like “That can’t be right” and look for opportunities to confirm.
On February 13, the Spurs and Cavaliers were tied at 93 with about 15 seconds left in the game. Dion Waiters was dribbling near midcourt and about to make one of the biggest shots of his career. With just under 14 seconds left, Tristan Thompson set a screen on Kawhi Leonard near the top of the arc, enabling Waiters to advance the ball a little closer to the basket along the left side. As Waiters approached the left elbow, he lunged toward Tim Duncan, but quickly stepped back to create space for a long, off-balance 2-point shot. The ball left Waiters’s hand from about 20 feet out and went through the net with 9.5 seconds remaining. Despite not passing the ball once, the Cavs scored, the score was now 95-93, and Dion made this face:
Yesterday, we revealed the 2013 CourtVision all-stars of the Eastern Conference. Today we look to the west, where there are many great players, but only five slots to fill. Remember, the selection criterion is simple: These are the players who are scoring much higher than league averages at their most common shooting locations.
So, it’s All-Star weekend and the teams have already been chosen. But, I want to use this symbolic time on the NBA calendar to pay tribute to the guys who are having the most efficient shooting performances this season. I’ve selected my own all-star teams on the basis of shooting efficiency. The CourtVision all-stars are the guys who are scoring much higher than league averages at their most common shooting locations. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of overlap with the “real” all-stars here, but there are also some interesting differences. Let’s start in the backcourt.