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NBA Daily: Appreciating The Reigning Champs

With the new season set to begin, it’s time to give some attention to the story that seems to have fallen through the cracks this summer – the story of the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors. Matt John dives in.

Matt John

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The offseason is finally done. Training camp is officially underway. The 2019-2020 NBA season is mere weeks away from starting. As usual, we’ve all been waiting a long time for this moment.

And why shouldn’t we? There are so many exciting storylines to tune into this season. The league’s new-found parity. The new LA teams. The downfall of the Warriors. The growingly restless Bucks and the Greek Freak’s extension. Those are just a few of the many plot threads that should make this a season possibly the most entertaining one we’ve seen in ages.

Lost in all the hoopla has been the story of the one team that, no matter what they lost this summer, is still technically the one that stands above the rest of the league – the reigning champions.

The story of the Toronto Raptors winning their first championship should have been revered as a team that built a winner the right way. No stars joining forces with each other. No tank jobs leading to homegrown superstars coming into their own. Just a team that built itself with enough talent and a solid identity.

Instead, the first thought that came to mind when talking about Toronto was, “Will Kawhi stick around?” Even though no one was to blame for this, it’s sad that what should have been the happiest time for the Raptors franchise was overshadowed by the uncertainty surrounding Kawhi.

Now that he’s gone, the Raptors’ chances of repeating are next to non-existent pending any unexpected trades or player improvement. That being said, with the season approaching, it’s time we give the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors the tribute that they deserve.

The Team That Had Lost All Hope

It was almost a year-and-a-half ago that Toronto – despite enjoying the most success the franchise had ever seen – had really hit rock bottom. For the third consecutive season, LeBron and the Cavs eliminated the Raptors, and pretty easily too.

The third time, though, was where it became more dumbfounding than ever. Cleveland came in at the height of its dysfunction with LeBron, and the Raptors looked primed for a trip to The Finals. When LeBron almost single-handedly swept Toronto, it was so embarrassing that the NBA Twitter decided to give the team the nickname, “LeBronto.”

It only got worse. They already had a long-standing reputation of blowing it in the playoffs, and this particular outing only asked more questions.

Was this far as they could go? At the time, there were no easy answers for Canada’s team. This writer argued that they should have kept it all together on the basis that they be patient a little longer with the roster, but after they fired Dwane Casey, it felt as though there were changes in order.

With Boston getting its best players back, Philadelphia’s young cornerstones another year older, and Milwaukee building the right team around Giannis, Toronto seemed primed to take a back seat to them.

But on July 18, 2018, their fortunes changed.

The Return of a Titan

Did you know that when Kawhi Leonard is an active player, the NBA is 150 percent more fun to watch? It’s a scientific fact. Just ask a dentist.

All jokes aside, many forget that at this time a year ago, the doubt surrounding Kawhi wasn’t primarily whether he was going to re-sign with the Raptors. It was whether he was going to be the same player we all came to know and love.

Following his disastrous fallout with the Spurs, Leonard was labeled as damaged goods, which is why other suitors like Boston opted not to pursue him as hard as they probably should have. Lucky for Toronto, not only did they have a good package for the former Defensive Player of the Year, they also had an offer that appeased the Spurs since DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl was a win-now package.

The Raptors swung for the fences when they acquired Kawhi, and this time, they went deep.

Kawhi was every bit the same player he was back when he was putting himself into the MVP discussion when he was a Spur. In fact, if he hadn’t missed 22 games – kudos to him for pioneering the term “load management,” which may or may not still be a thing for years to come – he probably would have had a better case.

It doesn’t matter though, because even though Kawhi put up some of the best all-around stats we’ve ever seen from him, what we got from the Klaw in the playoffs was a performance for the ages.

On his playoff resume, Kawhi already has outplaying LeBron in The Finals and single-handedly outplaying the super-Warriors (until he sprained his ankle) to boast. What he did for the Raptors may have topped everything he had done previously.

Over 24 games, Kawhi put up 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, almost 4 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.7 blocks on 49/38/88 splits. When you compare those numbers to some of his other outings, some of those aren’t his career-best. That stat line is, however, one of the best individual performances we’ve ever seen from a player who went on an extended run, rivaling the likes of Michael Jordan’s performance in 1991, LeBron James’ performance in 2012, Shaquille O’Neal’s performance in 2000 and many of Tim Duncan’s performances.

Kawhi may have topped them all with his consistent dominance throughout the postseason, and to top it all off, he added one the most epic buzzer-beaters we’ve ever seen.

We already knew Kawhi Leonard was a future Hall of Famer. This performance cemented his legacy as one of the best of his generation and puts him in the discussion with the greatest of all time.

The Sudden Uprise of a New Star

Kawhi Leonard proved himself to still be one of, if not, the best player in the NBA, but even the best of the best need help. He alone would not be enough. That’s where more spectators became more skeptical of the impending Raptors who intended to be more impenetrable.

Kyle Lowry had yet to show that he had what it took to be one of the leading men of a championship team. If they just had someone else who could take the role of the No. 2 and run with it, their chances would suddenly get better. Nobody knew it at the time, but we’d come to find out that they had it all along in Pascal Siakam.

Siakam had already exceeded expectations when he went from throwaway draft pick to solid role player for Toronto the previous season. Finding an average player in the late first-round is satisfactory for anyone. What Pascal has become is something that was beyond Toronto’s wildest dreams.

A man who was once a backup wing suddenly became one of the better young power forwards in the game. In just his third season and at just 25 years old, Siakam evolved into an excellent all-around wing, averaging 17 points, almost seven rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game on 55/37/78 splits while also playing enough like a pest to garner him some All-NBA Defense recognition.

Toronto has seen its young talent shrink when the playoffs come around. Such was not the case with Siakam. While his three-pointer became a little less consistent, Pascal kept his production up, averaging 19 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on 47/28/76 splits. Kawhi may have had an all-time playoff performance, but even those can be wasted – just ask LeBron in 2015. Pascal delivered for Toronto when they needed him to.

He became the Pippen to Kawhi’s Michael Jordan. Perhaps now we’ll find out what Pippen would have been like without Jordan now that Siakam is Toronto’s alpha dog.

The Breakthrough of a Diminished Star

At the front of Toronto’s failures leading up to 2019 was Kyle Lowry. He wasn’t solely responsible for the team’s past issues, but Lowry would routinely share the gist of the blame for the Raptors coming up short time and time again.

The addition of Kawhi Leonard put more pressure on Lowry to be the second-in-command, which was tough to ask from a guy who was going to be 33 when the playoffs came. Luckily, both Kawhi’s presence along with the uprise of Siakam minimized Lowry’s duties.

If you look at his stats from last season, you’ll see that both Lowry’s scoring and shooting numbers took a noticeable turn for the worse. However, because there wasn’t nearly as much of a demand for Kyle to score the ball, Lowry had his best season as a distributor, averaging 8.7 assists per game, which easily topped his previous career-high of 7.4 in 2014.

The Raptors’ offense was plus-10.4 when he was on the court, and he also was in the top-10 in charges drawn during the regular season. He may not have put up his usual All-Star numbers, but he still made an All-Star-like impact, which probably factored into how he made his fifth consecutive All-Star team.

Lowry again did not have the best outing in the playoffs, averaging 15 points on 44/36/80 splits while also averaging 6.6 assists and almost five rebounds per game. But again, the Raptors didn’t ask him to be their go-to scorer. They asked him to keep playing his game, and he did just that. He distributed the ball while also playing tough defense, even leading the playoffs by far in charges drawn.

By having a lesser role, Kyle thrived more for the Raptors by doing all the little things. His story proves more or less that a guy who can really be at his best when he’s in his wheelhouse. For Kyle Lowry, less was more for him.

The Offensive Re-Serge-Ence

This was also a nice little twist for the Raptors. Serge Ibaka was seen as a player on a rapid decline coming into the season. So much went right for Toronto that we overlooked that Ibaka had one of his best seasons in recent memory.

With the exception of his three-point shooting, which Toronto didn’t go to as much this past season, Ibaka put up some of his best offensive numbers since 2014. He put up 15 points per game while shooting 53 percent overall from the field and also corralling 8.1 rebounds per game. Those are numbers that rival the career-highs that the man put up with the Thunder. The only difference is that, in Toronto, he puts up those stats in six less minutes per game.

Serge’s defensive impact is probably never going to be what it once was when he played in Oklahoma City, but it’s not like Toronto was expecting him to do that.

When the Raptors added some more grit in the front at the trade deadline, Serge wasn’t nearly as impactful, but his efficiency for the season remained. Ibaka’s numbers weren’t something that Toronto necessarily asked for, but the fact that they got that kind of contribution from Serge when everyone though his best days were done is something that deserves more attention.

The Last Piece of The Puzzle

On February 7, the Raptors weren’t in dire need of making any drastic changes. They ranked in the top-10 in both offensive rating (112.3 – seventh overall) and defensive rating (107.4 – eighth overall), and had an excellent record of 39-16. Yet, it felt like something was missing.

As good as they were, the Raptors knew that facing the likes of Joel Embiid and/or Nikola Vucevic – two of the better centers in the game – was a likelihood if they wanted to go the distance in the postseason. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas wasn’t the worst center rotation in the world, but that pairing could have used an upgrade.

The Raptors knew with Kawhi expiring and LeBron out of their life, this was a rare opportunity as ever to win it all, so they had to seize it at every avenue. At the trade deadline, they added the finishing touch to their roster by trading Valanciunas, Delon Wright and CJ Miles for Marc Gasol.

Toronto didn’t want Gasol to be the two-way superstar he was in Memphis. All they wanted him to do was fill in the remaining gaps. Those gaps included spacing the floor, making the right pass and defending the post. The Spaniard’s numbers fell down the tubes, which at first glance would make trading for him look like a failure. If you watch Gasol when he was on the floor, you knew he gave them so much more flavor than they had before.

There were other stories worth mentioning, like Nick Nurse being up to the task of coaching a title team as a rookie head man in charge, or Fred VanVleet fall and subsequent uprise, or Danny Green’s steady influence or Norman Powell’s return to the rotation. Those guys definitely played a part in Toronto’s first title, but the previously five mentioned storylines were worth expanding on more. Feel free to disagree.

As inspiring as this team’s story was, one could argue that the stars aligned for the Raptors. They were lucky that San Antonio happened to be selling off Kawhi at the exact time Toronto had enough to trade for him. They were lucky that Memphis happened to be blowing it up at the exact time Toronto needed an upgrade in the frontcourt. They were lucky that Golden State, upon entering its fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, were fatigued to the tenth degree when they faced off.

And who knows if they would have gotten as far as they did if Pascal Siakam had remained as just a rotation player?

Luck is part of the equation for every championship team. You’re lucky if certain offseason twists go your way. You’re lucky if your team stays healthy throughout the whole season. You’re lucky if you get the favorable matchup in the playoffs.

More than anything else, the 2018-2019 Toronto Raptors rise to the top felt organic. They were a team that made the right moves. They took the necessary risks. They even parted with players they grew attached to in the name of reaching their final destination, and it all paid off.

This season, there won’t be nearly as high expectations what with Kawhi now a Clipper and all, but ask anyone – whether it be a fan or an employee of the team or anyone – who is involved with the Raptors how they felt about the Leonard trade knowing what they know now, and they’ll say the same thing.

Totally worth it.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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Should the Knicks Pick Up Options On Young, Unproven Talent?

The Knicks have three young players whose third- and fourth-year options must be decided on before Nov. 1. Should they pick them up or continue amassing salary cap space in hopes of chasing Anthony Davis? Drew Maresca analyzes the pros and cons of hanging on to young talent for another year.

Drew Maresca

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NBA teams face all kinds of decisions and, of course, most major decisions teams face have underlying financial implications. Naturally, Oklahoma City would have loved to re-sign Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka following the 2012 season, but the prospect of paying the luxury tax seemed too prohibitive to ownership and general manager Sam Presti.

And like most other teams, the Knicks have plenty of big financial decisions to make very soon – namely, whether or not to offer long-term extensions or merely pick up their respective team options.

For context, teams must decide on rookie-scale extensions by Monday, Oct. 21 — the night before the beginning of the season — and they need to weigh fourth-year options for players with two years of experience and third-year options for those that signed their rookie deals last year by Oct. 31. Rookie deal third-and fourth-year options are still affordable enough that it makes sense to pick up most team options regardless if a player plays a major role or not – and if they do, the option becomes all-the-more affordable.

Now, most lottery picks see their third and fourth-year team options picked up. But the Knicks are in the unusual position of having to decide on all three prior to any of them demonstrating consistency or overly-productive play. The three currently eligible for extensions or team options are Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox. None have set themselves apart as a long-term starter. None of them are seen as a complete player. And each has his own well-documented limitations – but still, do the pros outmeasure the cons?

Ntilikina is a rock-solid defender — butut his production on the offensive end has been inconsistent and unreliable. He shot a mere 28.7 percent on three-point attempts last season with a 39.5 percent effective field goal percentage. Unfortunately, he has proven to be a non-factor in terms of scoring the ball consistently and he disappears entirely at times.

Smith Jr. can absolutely get buckets. His athleticism is a major positive and he’s a better defender than most people believe. But Smith Jr. has efficiency problems, too. In 2018-19, Smith Jr. shot only 32.2 percent on three-pointers and 63.5 percent from the free-throw line — both are far below what teams expect from a starting guard. Worse, those season totals are better than what he demonstrated in two and a half months in New York. Beyond that, his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.07) was below the league average for point guards last season.

Knox is younger and has less experience, so he deserves a little extra slack. Still, there are a number of knocks on Knox – specifically around defense and efficiency. According to cleaningtheglass.com, Knox’s assist percentage was in the sixth percentile among players at his position and his turnover percentage was in the tenth percentile. Somehow, he posted an equally horrid defensive rating and effective field goal percentage. Knox has lots of potential, but he also needs to make major improvements and make better decisions with the ball and on defense.

Re-signing any of the three to long-term deals is probably out of the question from a timing standpoint as there are only three days left to do so. And there’s probably limited desire to do so, anyway. But what about their third- and fourth-year options, should the Knicks pick them all up? The answer is simple – yes, and without hesitation, but let’s explore why:

The options for Smith Jr., Ntilikina and Knox are set at $5.68 million, $6.176 million and $4.58 million, respectively.

While the 2020 free agent class appears limited compared to recent seasons – there are no sure-fire All-Stars other than Anthony Davis –  the Knicks maintained salary cap flexibility thanks to creative team options and one-year signings that cover literally every signing made this past offseason. So picking up all of the aforementioned options represents a commitment of more than $16 million, which will eat into the aforementioned flexibility they smartly invented just recently.

Well, yes — but there should be more space to use. However, the Knicks can’t know exactly where the salary cap will land next season – and it could end up significantly lower than previous estimates due to the current NBA-China beef – but the options represent three contributors to the roster, all of whom they can control for at least one more season. And remember, New York doesn’t have too much depth.

Beyond their young core. Smith Jr., Ntilikina and Knox will all play a role for the team. Looking back to last season, they played 21.0, 29.02 and 28.8 minutes per game as Knicks last season, individually. Those numbers should go up in 2019-20, and paying between $4.5 and $6.2 million apiece to play such large roles is mostly impossible elsewhere.

Thusly, approximately $16 million is a bargain for three contributors — but that becomes all the more obvious when we consider that the average salary was $6.38 million in 2018-19 – more than any of the individual option years. At 21, 21 and 20 years old, these three players should all take leaps forward in their respective development, meaning their salaries could become even more of a bargain than they are now. Further, the salary cap is $109 million this season and none of those options would represent even six percent of the 2019-20 cap.

Even if the Knicks played it frugally and declined their options in favor of cap savings, what would the Knicks even do with them? We’ve already established that the class is less-than-stellar; but what’s more, who’s to say any would be attracted to Madison Square Garden, anyway? The Knicks have had limited (and small) success(es) in free agency. That’s not to say they should give up. But it’s their reality and it’s on them to change it.

New York has suffered major culture setbacks in recent years that landed them exactly where they are. In reverse chronological order, there’s been: The public fallout of them being burned by 2019 free agents, Kristaps Porzingis asking to be traded, James Dolan having Charles Oakley escorted out of Madison Square Garden and all of the damage done by Phil Jackson (e.g., the “posse” fiasco and his public, passive-aggressive war with Carmelo Anthony). That only takes us back through 2014 and ignores the Isiah Thomas-era and the fact that they’ve won one playoff series in the past 18 years.

Having said all that, and despite what Presidential candidate Andrew Yang thinks, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. But from a cost-efficiency standpoint, as well as to continue building a positive perception league-wide, the Knicks must pick up all three options. Ultimately, they’ll be better for in both the short- and long-term.

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NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain

Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.

“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”

The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.

But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.

“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”

Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9  attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.

Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.

That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.

Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.

The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.

Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.

Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?

Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.

There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.

If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.

Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.

“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”

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The Divide On Analytics

The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.

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Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.

After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!

LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.

This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.

Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.

Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.

In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.

Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.

The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.

Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.

On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:

“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”

This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”

“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.

Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.

Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.

The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.

Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.

The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”

And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).

But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.

Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.

You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.

But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.

Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.

Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.

A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.

So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).

Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.

The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.

To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.

But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.

Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.

Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.

It’s more effective. The math says so.

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