Former players and television analysts alike continue to fruitlessly (and hilariously) fight the numbers movement in the NBA, but even the staunchest among them can’t deny the cumulative advances in basketball understanding made over the last decade-plus. It requires no advanced mathematics degree to get on board with the idea that there are more descriptive qualifiers of a player’s strengths and weaknesses than a two-number per-game average (Player A averages 17-10) or a single, context-absent counting stat. Even if you don’t subscribe to some of the heavier empirical metrics out there, the consciousness of the average fan has reached this point.
It’s strange, then, that the voting process for the league’s most prestigious awards still often reflects an electorate stuck in a more primitive time – despite its ostensible status as a collection of relatively highly informed basketball minds.
Rest easy, beat writer friends around the country – this isn’t a shot at any of you. Rather, it’s a recognition of a simple fact: A voter group comprised almost exclusively of people whose job is to watch and catalogue a single team in copious detail often won’t do a good job accurately researching and voting on awards that involve 29 other teams’ worth of players. It’s not a question of commitment, but one of available time and job description.
What often results is a shorthand of sorts; those with understandable time constraints look to simpler, less time-consuming ways to make the process easier for them. This can manifest itself in word-of-mouth evaluation, small memory samples (typically the few games per year a given voter saw a given opponent) or, by far the most common symptom, over-reliance on the low-hanging fruit represented by simple counting stats (particularly points per game).
Nowhere is this reality more readily apparent than in recent voting for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. A table from Hardwood Paroxysm’s Jacob Rosen in a recent article on the subject showcases the somewhat incredible degree to which voters gravitate toward scoring alone within the confines of this particular award: No winner in the last 14 years finished outside the top three in scoring among eligible candidates, and only on one single occasion did any top-three selection for Sixth Man average single-digit nightly points (Anderson Varejao finished third in 2009-10 while scoring 8.6 points per game).
An examination of each individual race would surely reveal that this bias rewarded the “right” guys on many occasions, but it’s plain to the naked eye how this sort of extreme reliance can lead to issues. While it’s understandable that points are the first go-to for many while evaluating players given their importance on the scoreboard, it’s very strange to see such an overuse persist even as it’s exorcised from most areas of general basketball consciousness. There are better ways of determining player value, whether a guy starts or comes off the bench.
Andre Iguodala doesn’t average a gaudy point total. Given the roster around him, it’d be a bit silly if he did. His 7.1 points per game are all the Warriors need from him, with myriad other duties on his plate that mean more to team success. A couple decades ago, tracking and understanding the impact of these other elements of Iguodala’s game might have been tough given available resources. Today, it’s a couple clicks away and frankly it’s becoming a bit strange to see these resources widely ignored in some circles.
Under the simple assumption that NBA awards like Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year are attempts to qualify overall value added by a player within the category, the fact that Iguodala trails guys like Jamal Crawford and Enes Kanter – gunners who have demonstrably hurt their teams in vital areas while on the court – on many hypothetical ballots is nearly laughable at this point. At best, it’s a recognition that Iguodala’s impact is harder to quantify empirically (probably lazy, but somewhat fair); at worst it’s conscious ignorance, not of some complex analytical rocket science, but of basic arithmetic and basketball logic.
Crawford is a popular name with a glorious history as the prototypical “sixth man,” a guy who comes in and props up bench units with mostly individual creation and shot-making. Many NBA players even feel Crawford deserves the Sixth Man of the Year award for a record third time, as Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy detailed here. Here’s the problem: He hasn’t propped up anything but opponent plus-minus figures this year. He’s having his worst year as a Clipper by a wide margin, and arguably his worst overall season since his rookie year in 2000-01.
Crawford barely nudged himself over 40 percent from the field in the last week or so, and is assisting on the lowest percentage of teammate baskets in his entire career. Worse yet has been his team impact – a small drop-off while Crawford plays would be understandable given the top-heavy nature of this Clippers team, but the degree to which L.A. improves when he leaves the floor is staggering. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, a metric designed to weed out teammate and opponent noise in this category, places him 73rd overall among 97 shooting guards (Iguodala rates eighth among 81 small forwards – the highest of all realistic Sixth Man of the Year hopefuls excepting Portland’s Ed Davis, who’s a fringe candidate).
RPM hates Kanter too, rating him 53rd among 77 centers – and dead last among these 77 for isolated defensive RPM, even behind rookie Jahlil Okafor in Philadelphia. This metric is far from an end-all and isn’t perfect, but it suggests (strongly, given the gap between Kanter and nearly everyone else at his position) that he’s among the most detrimental defensive players in the NBA, if not the very worst. Should a few extra points and rebounds a game next to his name really smother the blatant reality that Kanter damages his team on one side of the ball more than his value impact suggests he helps on the other?
There are other semi-realistic choices without such glaring holes in their candidacies, but Iguodala’s overall impact swallows them up. An injury that caused him to miss just under 20 games comes up most often as a detractor to his case, and while it certainly doesn’t help, a few bits of context beg attention. Easiest is the fact that his minute totals are still comparable to other major candidates – Iguodala played just 18 fewer minutes on the year than Kanter prior to Wednesday’s games, and wasn’t so wildly far behind others that his broad impact can be ignored.
More importantly, though, one must consider the circumstance and quality of the minutes played. The timing of Iguodala’s injury means he was active for a huge percentage of the most important minutes and games played by Golden State this year (from a strict standings perspective, excluding their run for 73). Through March 11, Iguodala’s final game before his stretch on the sidelines, the Warriors were 58-6, all but locking up the top seed in the West. It absolutely matters more that he was present for their historic first few months, a stretch that furthered their title goals significantly more than their results during the time he missed.
The in-game importance of the minutes he played also stands out from his peers, an even more vital consideration. Iguodala is a constant presence in crunch time for a team that’s been historically dominant during these high-leverage situations – none of his competition for the award even comes all that close. Take a look at this chart, gratefully borrowed from Matt Femrite in a recent blog post, which shows the percentage of team crunch minutes played by various other Sixth Man of the Year candidates as of early April:
Iguodala’s total before his injury was 89 percent, mostly as part of the most dominant single lineup in NBA history. Not only does Iguodala close tight games much more often than his competition (over four times as often as Kanter, for instance), he plays a vital role, defending top opposing wings in every situation and often sliding up or down a position to check a particularly potent ball-handler.
If the quantifiable aspects make the point, the intangibles drive it home. Iguodala isn’t a flashy shooter like teammates Steph Curry and Klay Thompson or an uber-talented spark plug like Draymond Green, but his value to his team is much closer to these other three than most would believe. He’s nearly as indispensable to “the Death Lineup” as Draymond, a long and versatile defender who doesn’t need to see the ball at all to make a significant impact. It’s an imperfect science, but a look at other variations of the Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green unit that’s destroyed the league suggests that removing Iguodala is more damaging than swapping any other single piece besides Curry (yes, including Green).
Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect the electorate to consider all the detail herein. Maybe it’s not. The answer likely depends on who you talk to, including those who believe the voting process should be scrapped altogether and started fresh. That’s a conversation for another time, but this pen would be in support of any changes that encouraged real research and effort by those voting. Sure, they aren’t NBA championship rings, but these awards mean real things to the players considered – from pride and legacy concerns all the way to a real, tangible impact on the checkbook in many cases.
In the short-term, here’s hoping the current voter group makes the right call. No primary bench player has added anywhere near as much value to their team as Andre Iguodala this season, particularly with any weight whatsoever given to the high-leverage minutes that often separate the champions from the also-rans. Give the man the hardware.
NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises
The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.
While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.
The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.
The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.
Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.
Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.
Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.
Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.
Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.
When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.
Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.
The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.
Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers
Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.
There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.
Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.
And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.
But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.
He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.
For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.
“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”
“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”
To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.
And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.
Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.
In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.
“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”
“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”
Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.
He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.
“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”
With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.
“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”
For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.
Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.
“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”
And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.
NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.
Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.
Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.
Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.
It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.
The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.
And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.
Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.
Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.
While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.
Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.
White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.
Trick now for Lonnie Walker is to stay aggressive even after DeRozan comes back. "He doesn’t lack for anyone repeating that to him," Pop said. "There are like nine coaches, and we are all saying the same thing to him. We are trying to make it a habit – take no prisoners."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 13, 2021
Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.
The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.
Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.
Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.
Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.
And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.