Race for the MVP

Around the midpoint of another exciting NBA season, there’s already buzz about candidates for the league’s most valuable player, and why not: for only the second time since 2009 (Derrick Rose, though he probably didn’t deserve it), the winner is likely to be someone not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant. With injury problems for both superstars alongside disappointing records (though the Cavs have turned things around of late), other, younger stars have entered the spotlight in bidding to be recognized with the NBA’s most prestigious individual award. Let’s break down how the top candidates stack up, and take a look at who’s most deserving of the award as of this point in the season.

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The West Gets Deeper: How the Addition of Two Enigmatic Veterans Will Affect the Bestern Conference

The Western Conference has been dominant this season. With at least ten playoff-caliber teams and eight legitimate championship contenders – yes, eight (compared to probably two or three in the East) – the disparity between the two conferences may be as large as ever. Three of the most reliable analytics-based power rankings, Hollinger’s, NumberFire’s, and TeamRankings‘, all rank ten Western teams in the NBA’s top fifteen.

It seems the rich are getting richer: in the past week, two of the East’s most talented players in Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith left the Northeast for Texas. Nothing’s for certain, though, as both players have been centers of controversy over the past couple seasons, especially in analytical circles. While both are very skilled, they have the potential to be poor fits for any team, including their new respective squads. Let’s take a look at the possible pros and cons in each situation.

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Right Triangle? On the Knicks’ Struggles and Whether They’ll Continue

After a terrible year in 2013-2014, the Knicks made some big changes this offseason, all stemming from the hire of Phil “Zen Master” Jackson as team president.  Jackson is considered by many to be the greatest basketball genius on the planet, with 13 championship rings – 2 as a Knicks player, 6 as coach of the Bulls, and 5 as coach of the Lakers – to his name. One of Jackson’s self-proclaimed biggest reasons for success is the triangle offense, a system that has taken on a sort of legendary aura over the years. The Zen Master brought his protege Derek Fisher on board to become Knicks head coach and teach the team this art, which is assumed to be the offensive philosophy New York will employ for as long as Jackson remains team president. However, the Knicks haven’t started so hot this season – they’re currently 2-6 and already falling well behind divisional rivals like 7-1 Toronto. Is the slow start due to slow chemistry building and system learning among players, or could New York have a real long-term problem?

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The Comprehensive 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Western Conference

After an amazing 2013-2014 season, the unbearably long offseason is finally coming to a close. There’s a lot to look forward to this year in the NBA, with superstars on new teams, contenders adding pieces, and more squads than ever with a chance to make noise. Let’s continue with my projected standings for the Western Conference, and analysis for the teams in it:

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Who has the Best Backcourt in the NBA? Part 1

Recently there has been a lot of talk about which team has the best backcourt in the league. This began with Dion Waiters stating that he and Kyrie Irving own the title. Next, John Wall stepped up and said that he and Bradley Beal gave the Wizards the best backcourt in the league.  In preparation for the Corner Three Positional Rankings and the Corner Three Top 100, we decided to tackle the backcourt argument using stats.

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A Quick Who, When, and Why for the First Round in the West

San Antonio (1) vs. Dallas (8)

You know how I feel about the Spurs, and nothing’s changed. This will be a fun series, as proven playoff performer Dirk Nowiztki and new running mate Monta Ellis look to keep up the scoring pace with the old men from Texas.

Key Stats

Overall ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 1st, Dallas 10th

Last 10 games ranking (TeamRankings): San Antonio 6th, Dallas 9th

Shooting efficiency (TeamRankings): San Antonio 2nd offensive, Dallas 26th defensive

Three point percentage (TeamRankings): Dallas 2nd offensive, San Antonio 10th defensive

Key Players

Tim Duncan (23rd CornerThree WAR, 17th ESPN WAR) vs. Dirk Nowitzki (39th CornerThree, 4th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

San Antonio 4, Dallas 0

Odds (TeamRankings)

Prediction

The Spurs simply aren’t an ideal matchup for Dallas, as the Mavs have been swept by Gregg Popovich’s squad in each of the past two regular seasons. While Dallas can put up the points, their mediocre defense will be wheezing and panting trying to cover the NBA’s best offense. In what could conceivably be their last matchup, Duncan will get the better of fellow all-time great power forward Dirk in a quick series.

San Antonio in 4

Oklahoma City (2) vs. Memphis (7)

Last season, with Russell Westbrook out, the Grizzlies made round 2 a living hell for Kevin Durant, triple teaming him all over the court and effectively ignoring half of Oklahoma City’s roster. They’ll go with a similar strategy this time around, and the Thunder hope Durant’s improved passing ability, alongside a second star in Westbrook, will paint a different picture.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Oklahoma City 2nd, Memphis 8th

Last 10 games ranking: Memphis 5th, Oklahoma City 7th

Free throws made per game (TeamRankings): Oklahoma City 5th offensive, Memphis 5th defensive

Offensive rebound percentage (TeamRankings): Memphis 2nd offensive, Oklahoma City 9th defensive

Key Players

Kevin Durant (1st CornerThree WAR, 2nd ESPN WAR) vs. Mike Conley (35th CornerThree, 16th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Oklahoma City 3, Memphis 1

Odds

Prediction

The Thunder shouldn’t take Memphis lightly – they play excellent team defense, including one of the best point guard defenders in the league in Mike Conley to throw onto Westbrook. Regardless, this season’s all-but-MVP of the regular season will continue his incredible play and will be a huge part of his team’s overcoming the Grizzlies in round 1.

Oklahoma City in 6

Los Angeles (3) vs. Golden State (6)

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, the Clippers are one of my favorites for this season’s title. With one of the best big threes of all time, they’ll be a lot for the Warriors to handle. Steph Curry will have his hands full defensively and will be hounded by Chris Paul on the other end for the entire series. However, Curry seems to like making magic in the playoffs, and with an improved Klay Thompson and the addition of one of the best defensive players, if not the best, in the entire NBA in Andre Iguodala, this series figures to be an exciting one. With well-established bad blood between these two teams, it might be the best show of the first round.

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Los Angeles 3rd, Golden State 6th

Last 10 games ranking: Los Angeles 2nd, Golden State 10th

Ranking in Los Angeles (TeamRankings): Los Angeles 1st home, Golden State 3rd away

Three pointers made per game (TeamRankings): Golden State 2nd offensive, Los Angeles 9th defensive

Key Players

Chris Paul (3rd CornerThree WAR, 6th ESPN WAR) vs. Stephen Curry (18th CornerThree, 3rd ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Los Angeles 2, Golden State 2

Odds

Prediction

The Dubs will give the Clips a great fight (perhaps even literally), but without Andrew Bogut (out for the series) to check one of the Clippers’ two elite big men, the Warriors will likely have to match up two of David Lee / Jermaine O’Neal / Draymond Green / Harrison Barnes, all below-average low post defenders, against Blake and DeAndre. With the Clippers finally healthy with JJ Redick in the starting lineup and a scary-deep bench mob, all-time great playoff coach Doc Rivers will have no shortage of options to eventually overcome the exciting splash brothers.

Los Angeles in 6

Houston (4) vs. Portland (5)

Harden and Lillard going at it. Dwight and Aldridge going at it. Two teams that are relatively new on the Western Conference playoff scene will battle it out in a series that could go either way, and in exciting fashion. Both squads love to run, move the ball, fire away on threes, and crash the glass hard. Let’s take a deeper look to see which team will come out on top:

Key Stats

Overall ranking: Houston 4th, Portland 5th

Last 10 games ranking: Portland 1st, Houston 15th

Shooting efficiency: Houston 3rd offensive, Portland 5th defensive

Total rebounds per game (TeamRankings): Houston 1st, Portland 4th

Key Players

James Harden (17th CornerThree WAR, 20th ESPN WAR) vs. LaMarcus Aldridge (19th CornerThree, 10th ESPN)

Regular Season Series Results

Houston 3, Portland 1

Odds

Prediction

This is the toughest series for me to pick. The teams are definitely equally matched, and will each win multiple games for their home fans. For Houston to cool off the Blazers, who have been on a tear the last couple weeks, they’ll need great defense on LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. If Terrence Jones guards Aldridge, he’ll likely have a field day, whereas if Dwight Howard guards him, one of the league’s best defensive centers will be pulled away from the paint (Aldridge shoots an almost innumerable amount of long mid-range jumpers). Lillard’s situation is more simple: Patrick Beverley is one of the league’s most aggressive and successful defenders at the point guard position, and could be this series’ X-factor.  However, he’s just coming back from injury. If Beverley’s not healthy, Lillard will be hard for Houston’s weak defensive guards to slow down, and I’ll quickly regret the following prediction.

Houston in 7

Find the corresponding Eastern Conference breakdown here.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

Is Parity in Sports Really Better?

It has been said recently that the NBA has never been stronger than it is right now, and it really is true.  The NBA is all over the sports news, currently dominating the news cycle on ESPN, getting more airtime than America’s pastime, the MLB.  Franchise values are skyrocketing and the league recently turned down a prospective owner who wanted to pay a billion dollars for the Kings, over $300 million more than they was valued at before the bidding war began.  The league has two extremely marketable superstars in Kevin Durant and LeBron James, who by all accounts are not only phenomenal basketball players, but also good citizens.

The NBA is an interesting test case because of the idea of parity in sports. With the NBA, you can pick 8 teams at the beginning of the season and you will have a 90% chance of getting the correct champion. Don’t believe me? Check this out.

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Forgotten, but not Gone: The San Antonio Spurs

What do the following teams have in common?

  • Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Los Angeles Clippers
  • Houston Rockets
  • Miami Heat
  • Indiana Pacers

I’ll hasten with the answer: each team does not own the best record in the NBA. That title belongs to San Antonio, a team that, for whatever reason, year after year, continues to fly under the radar. An appearance on the biggest of stages, the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat in 7 games, apparently was not enough to garner respect for the bunch. TeamRankings.com, one of the leaders in sports analytics, uses an NBA power ranking system based off of tons of different information tidbits from every single game: home/away status, margin of victory, and many other factors. These data values are then algorithmically compared against thousands of past games, and higher weight is put on factors that tend to have greater effects on, and association with, winning. Let’s take a glance at their top six as of today: Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 3.54.58 PM

San Antonio doesn’t just have the league’s best record. These analytics like them as the league’s best team. Let’s look deeper in to some of the key points from the table:

  • Their rating is pretty convincing: the gap between SA and the Clippers, ranked third, is the same size as the gap containing all of teams 3-6. Additionally, the distance between SA and second-ranked Oklahoma City is tied for the largest gap between two consecutive teams in this top six.
  • Aside from dominating bad teams, they’ve taken care of business against the good teams ranked from 6-16, boasting the best record against those teams of the top six.
  • They’ve been very consistent in their excellence, as the lowest they’ve dropped in the rankings all season is fourth, by far the best of any team in the league.
  • The only scratch on this record seems to be their record against the top five, an ugly 3-8. They’re 0-3 against OKC, 2-1 against LAC, 0-3 against Houston, and 1-1 against Miami. This could definitely be a concern, as all of those teams are possible, even likely, playoff opponents. However, as will be outlined in a bit, the Spurs play a very different game in the playoffs.

What’s most amazing about the Spurs is that they don’t even go their hardest during the regular season. Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who is probably the league’s best, is notorious for saving his team’s health for the playoffs, once actually sent his four best players home just before a matchup with the Heat due to a back-to-back. How’s this for an amazing stat: they only have one player averaging over 30 minutes per game this season – Tony Parker. Parker’s 30.7 MPG average is good for 82nd in the league. 81 players play more minutes per game than Parker, and he’s only played in 52 of the Spurs’ 63 games. Talk about keeping your legs fresh. Of course, with only one player playing over 30 minutes, you need an exceptional gameplan (enter Gregg Popovich) and a well-balanced effort. The Spurs’ leader in win shares, an estimate of wins contributed by a single player based on a myriad of data, is Tim Duncan, with 5.5. Compare that to the Thunder, where Kevin Durant boasts a 15.5 and Serge Ibaka a 7.5. The Spurs have seven players owning more than 4 win shares; the Thunder only two. This balanced attack makes them tough to defend, as they don’t really need any specific players to have a great game to win, whereas if you can find a way to slow Kevin Durant enough, the Thunder are a far less effective team.

One of the Spurs’ most important players, in fact, might be Kawhi Leonard, often lost beneath the team’s legendary “Big Three.” However, his on-ball defense, rebounding, toughness, transition play, and outside shooting make him a weapon for Popovich in many facets of the game. Take a look at how his injury, and return, has effected the Spurs, via NBA.com:

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 6.50.56 PM

And here’s one of my all-time favorite videos – LeBron reacting to Leonard checking in during last year’s Finals:

It’s players like Leonard, who might be fourth or fifth on the opponents’ scouting reports, who really make the Spurs so successful.

Heres a glance at the overall excellence of Popovich’s bunch this season:

  • 3rd in average score margin (+6.7)
  • 7th in average points in the paint (45.8)
  • 2nd in assists per game (24.9)
  • 4th in assist/turnover ratio (1.688)
  • 2nd in effective field goal percentage (53.8)
  • 4th in free throw percentage (78.8)
  • 1st in three point percentage (39.6)
  • 1st in fouls per game (18.1)

The efficiency of this team is like that a well-oiled machine, putting up around 105 points on you every night whether you like it or not, doing it from multiple sources, and doing it with ease. They take care of the basketball while still being able to move it around to find the best possible shot on each possession. They take analytics-friendly shots, too, as they love to jack up threes and get into the paint. They’ve been doing it for years. Credit the players and the coaches, and take advantage of the Spurs while you can – you never know when Pop, Duncan, Manu, and Parker might call it a career.

Other squads may get the TV spots, but depth, balance, efficiency, and coaching: all the ingredients for yet another deep San Antonio playoff run.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University