Does Tanking Really Work?

Since the race for once-in-a-lifetime prospect Anthony Davis, tanking has been one of the most controversial topics in NBA conversation. The then-Bobcats aggressively lost games to put themselves in position to get the Brow, leading them to the worst winning percentage in the history of the league.

The biggest argument about tanking is usually regarding its morality, and whether a team and its fans should root for failure in order to find long term success. The league is also split on whether tanking is good for the NBA and its franchises, as shown by the failed “anti-tanking” vote that would’ve revolutionized the lottery system. However, for most NBA fans, there is little doubt that tanking is a “smart” plan. But is tanking really smart? Does it often work?

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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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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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The Comprehensive 2014-2015 NBA Preview: Eastern 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 get started with my projected standings for the Eastern Conference, and analysis for the teams in it:

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Who’s Legit in the East? Part Two: Next Five Seeds

We previously took a look at the top four seeds in the East. Now, we’ll look at the teams currently ranked 5-9, and what kind of chances each of those teams has to do damage in the playoffs.

Brooklyn Nets (39-33)

The Nets had a rough start to the season, sitting at 10-21 by the end of December. 2014, though, has been kind to them. A 29-12 record in the new year, despite the absence of center Brook Lopez, has  Brooklyn as a team to watch as we enter the playoff race.

Their success has come from a balanced and efficient offensive attack, with no active player averaging more than Joe Johnson’s 15.5 PPG. Alongside Johnson, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Marcus Thornton, and Andray Blatche all average double figures in the points column (interestingly, though, they’re only 24th in the NBA in assists per game). Their offense is pretty solid, though not elite, by NBA standards, ranking 10th in effective field goal percentage and 9th in efficiency. Brooklyn’s offense is also balanced from a court standpoint, as they’re top ten in both two-point and three-point efficiency, making them a difficult matchup to prepare for. With the ball, this is a team that is good enough to keep pace with opponents.

Defensively, Brooklyn is less effective. They’re ranked 9th in opponents’ points per game, but that is due only to their slow pace, as their efficiencies are all below average, per TeamRankings.com:

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As the fifth seed, the Nets may also be at a disadvantage without home court in the first round (and most likely the rest of the playoffs, should they advance). They’re 25-11 at home, and rank 8th in the NBA in home power ranking per TeamRankings, making them a formidable force at the Barclays Center for any visitor. However, with the majority of their playoff games to be on the road, where they’re 14-22 (second-worst of the top nine seeds in the East) and rank 18th, Brooklyn may have a tough time giving Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett a last shot at a title.

One interesting tidbit is the Nets’ success against Miami – they’re 3-0 against the defending champs – but barring any big changes to the playoff picture for the top few seeds, a Brooklyn-Miami matchup wouldn’t be possible until the conference finals. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Brooklyn makes it that far.

Best-case scenario: second round berth

Worst-case scenario: first round exit

Washington Wizards (38-35)

Led by emerging star John Wall, the Wizards have secured themselves their first playoff spot since 2008. Wall has truly been one of the league’s best players this season, with career highs in points (20), assists (8.7), steals (1.9) field goal percentage (.436) and three-point percentage (.362). According to Corner Three’s WAR, Wall is considered the tenth-best player in the league, above such players as Paul George, James Harden, Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard… you get the picture. His 1.9 steals per game, tied for fifth in the NBA, spearhead a defense that is excellent at forcing turnovers – they’re fifth in opponents’ turnovers per game, forcing a turnover on 14.9% of their opponents’ possessions (fourth). This allows Washington to capitalize with 16 fast break points per game, good for seventh in the league.

Washington plays an interesting style, as their pace slows down greatly as the game goes along. Take a look at their points for and against by quarter, again per TeamRankings:

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While they outscore their opponents by almost two points in the first quarter, they begin to play a more grinding style through the next three, with differentials of -1.1, +0.1, and +0.2. As the playoffs tend to have slower paces and lower scores, it will intriguing to see if Washington can jump out to the early lead they’re accustomed to.

In terms of shooting efficiency, the Wizards are pretty average on both sides of the ball – 16th on offense and 19th on defense. They’ll have to rely on their steals and havoc defense to get wins in the postseason, but with likely first-round matchup Toronto top 10 in not turning the ball over, the Wizards could find a tough road ahead. However, they’re good enough on both offense and defense to make a hard-fought series with just about any team in the East.

Best-case scenario: second round berth

Worst-case scenario: first round exit

Charlotte Bobcats (35-38)

Like the Wizards, the Bobcats have been starved for playoff position until this season. The biggest reason for this year’s success is Al Jefferson, who would also be the Bobcats’ key to pulling a possible, however unlikely, first-round upset of Miami.

Charlotte’s recipe for success has been pretty simple: play well on defense, and give the ball to Big Al on offense. Jefferson’s line of 21.5 PPG / 10.4 RPG / 1.09 BPG / 0.97 SPG has contributed to his ranking as a top-5 center according to WAR, and his ability to score with ease on the block has led to people like future Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce to label him as “unguardable.”

However, teams in the playoffs, especially help-happy Erik Spoelstra’s Heat (who the ‘Cats figure to meet in the first round) will not hesitate to double Jefferson and force Charlotte’s 20th-ranked three-point percentage to do their damage. Despite a solid defense that ranks ninth in opponents’ shooting efficiency, Charlotte’s inability to force turnovers (28th in the league) and ho-hum offense (24th in shooting efficiency) won’t be good enough to beat the top seeds in the East, assuming Charlotte can stick it out the rest of the season and become eligible for postseason play. If Charlotte were able to somehow pass Washington and find their way out of a Indiana/Miami first-round matchup, they might have a shot at making some noise, but at three games back with just nine remaining, it would be difficult.

Best-case scenario: second round appearance (after jumping to sixth seed)

Worst-case scenario: Miss playoffs

Atlanta Hawks (31-41)

The Hawks have been – for lack of a better word – a disaster. After a 25-21 start that had them third in the East, they’ve won just six of their past 26 games. The biggest reason for their absolute freefall has been the loss of Al Horford, who went down just five days before that dreadful stretch began. Without their likely best player (on both sides of the ball), Atlanta is a mess.

The Hawks are in the bottom 10 in both rebounds and blocks, and are 17th in points both for and against in the paint. They rank 20th in both TeamRankings’ overall rankings and Hollinger’s power rankings.

Atlanta needs to turn their season around now if they want to retain their playoff spot, as their six-game losing streak has lined up quite nicely – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – with a late Knicks surge. However, even with a playoff berth, despite an underrated offense that ranks second in assists (thanks to Mike Budenholzer’s Gregg Popovich training), their defense is probably too weak to put them on top of a seven-game series against any of the East’s playoff bound teams:

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Best-case scenario: first round loss

Worst-case scenario: early offseason

New York Knicks (31-41)

The Knicks are a curious case. They’ve won 10 of their past 13 games, but two of those losses were blowouts (one against the Lakers) and the other to a Kyrie-less Cavaliers team at home at Madison Square Garden. Regardless, thanks to the previously documented struggles of Atlanta, the Knicks have a good shot at the playoffs even after one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

Down years from Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Tyson Chandler, and basically every member of the roster not named Carmelo Anthony or Tim Hardaway Jr., combined with very questionable coaching schemes from lame duck Mike Woodson, have all contributed to the Knicks struggles. Despite one of the league’s highest payrolls, New York is 21st in TeamRankings’ – and 18th in Hollinger’s – rankings.

Even with former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler in the center, their defense has been absolutely brutal this season. Woodson’s propensity for switching bigs onto guards and doubling without quick rotations or accountability have led to defensive efficiency numbers that are, across the board, as bad or worse than Atlanta’s:

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The Knicks also seem to make it as hard on themselves as possible to score points, as they’re 30th in fast break points, points in the paint, and free throw attempts. 30th in all three. The life they’ve showed in the past couple weeks is a very good sign, and if they can push into the playoffs, which Hollinger gives them a 13.6% chance of doing as of today, they’d likely match up against the Pacers, a team that has had unthinkable struggles in the same past couple of weeks, and whom New York beat during that stretch. It would be interesting to see New York get hot against the one-seeded team that eliminated them last season, though the numbers say betting on such a situation would not be smart.

Best-case scenario: return to the second round

Worst-case scenario: miss playoffs

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

Does Clutch Exist?

Is Kobe Bryant clutch?

Are Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki?  Was Michael Jordan ever clutch?

These questions may seem ridiculous, as each of these players has made many “big shots” in the dwindling moments of close games. But how many of those shots are attributable to “clutchness,” and do they matter as much as we think they do?

All of those people mentioned are/were professional basketball players. They spend many hours each day perfecting their shot form on different plays from different areas of the floor. A specific isolation or post-up play, when run in a game, in the beginning or end, has probably been run multiple times during practice or scrimmages, and the offensive players involved have mastered these situations to the best of their respective abilities. The chances of those shots then going in are then left to just that – chance. Taken from a distribution of an uber-complicated probability model just like every other shot in the game.

Consider this: players like Kobe and Durant may be able to make so many shots in “crunch time” simply because they’re better players, not because they’re clutcher players. A play is run, and the abilities of those players are put on display in an effort to score.

Take a look at the top eight point-scorers in crunch time last season, courtesy of 82games.com:

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The first thing you may notice is that perhaps Kobe and Durant weren’t as clutch as you thought, both shooting well below their season averages. But what I’d like to point your attention to is the minutes column. These numbers fall between 104 and 161 minutes over the course of the season, not much more than the course of a few games. This is a statistical concept called small sample size – there simply is not enough data to make an overarching prediction about any of these players.  If James Harden were to go out on a three-game stretch and shoot .402, not very much would be made of that. So why does this same amount of minutes – 143 out of 3936 minutes in a season – over the course of an entire season draw such attention from fans and media alike? A lot is made of players who perform “when it matters.” Here’s a concept: the first three quarters of the basketball game actually matter three times more than than the fourth – 36 minutes compared to 12. All points count for the same amount from quarter to quarter, and the first five minutes matter just as much as the last five.

According to Rob Mahoney of the New York Times, “No player can be [clutch]; the word itself describes but a tiny slice of past performance, and indicates the timing and importance of a particular play rather than a fundamental attribute of any one player… Jordan wasn’t a winner in crunch time. He was just a winner.”

Shall we take a look at who was best at making “clutch” shots? Here’s the same data, sorted by field goal percentage:

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As you can see, the top five most efficient scorers in these situations were all centers, players who normally shoot better percentages then the rest of their teams due to the nature of their close-to-the-basket shots. Were they more efficient in the clutch than their peers, or simply more efficient than their peers in general?

Statistics has a test specifically designed for situations like this. Known as the “two-sample t test,” this tests takes two sets of data and provides, with 95% confidence, whether or not they come from different probability distributions. In this case, we’d want to decide whether players are actually performing differently (better or worse) in the clutch, or if they’re just as good as they are for the rest of the game.

This test would be most effective with the most data possible, so let’s start with Kyrie Irving, who took the most crunch-time shots of anyone else in the NBA last season. A comparison of his .467 shooting on 38.8 attempts to his .452 shooting that season says that the two numbers are too similar to say they’ve come from separate distributions.

This is called rejecting the alternative hypothesis: just like how a criminal is innocent until proven guilty in the courtroom, this test assumes there is no clutch factor changing the data, unless sufficient data says otherwise.

For Kobe, his .426 in the clutch, compared to his .463 percentage that season, although seemingly very different, comes from a small enough sample size that the test detects no significant clutch factor. Even if it did, it would say Kobe – who is widely hailed as being clutch – is actually a less efficient player in those crunch-time moments. Conflicting evidence for widely held opinions make the clutch argument a difficult one.

Despite all of that, the fact remains that NBA players are people, and any psychologist will tell you that their performance would be affected by their surroundings and situation. NBA players themselves refer to the concept of clutch as fact all the time, and talk about their nerves in late-game situations. Does a player’s personal confidence, or belief in clutch, affect his performance in such situations? It’s certainly possible, and there are many parts of this discussion that statisticians might never be able to solve or agree upon.

Another possibility is that the minus for defensive focus on star players, combined with the plus from their clutch, causes the stats to be such a wash, in which case, the data could be deceiving. What’s deeper behind the numbers?

With such small sample sizes for clutch shots, alongside some conflicting evidence, it is very difficult to make a concrete decision either way on whether or not clutch exists. If it does, though, its effect is many times smaller than most people assume. Not only does it have little effect on the efficiency distributions, but in terms of number of shots over the course of the game, having a player who’s clutch would only help for a small amount of time, only doing so if the game were close.

So, what do you think? Does clutch exist? Does it matter?

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University