One year removed from the second departure of LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ shift in course has never felt more comforting.
With players wearing smiles, showing their humorous sides and taking pictures at various stations, it wasn’t hard to tell how clear the air in the building was at Media Day. After all, we’re officially into October, meaning that NBA training camps and preseason have gotten underway.
This time of year signifies a fresh start for all teams and optimism is at its highest. Regardless of what happened in the previous season or during the summer, there are clean slates across the board in the wins and losses column. For a Cavaliers group coming off a discombobulated, injury-riddled 19-win campaign in 2018-19, it’s especially relieving.
“I felt we had almost like three seasons to be honest with you,” Jordan Clarkson said Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
Clarkson remembers Tyronn Lue’s firing six games into the year. He remembers Larry Drew taking over as the voice of the team before agreeing upon interim head coaching duties through the finish line. He can’t help but shake his head, snickering at the thought of how many bumps and bruises the team gathered along the way, leaving no choice but to lean on a collection of two-way players and 10-day contracts.
New Cavaliers head coach John Beilein, however, did not go through that tumultuous time with the wine and gold. Instead, he was leading the Michigan Wolverines to a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament run in their second straight season with at least 30 wins. Beilein surprised many when he decided to take a stab at making the jump to the pros after 41 years of coaching in the college ranks, but he’s never been more excited to dive right in with his first NBA squad.
“There’s a lot of opportunities here instead of challenges,” Beilein said when asked about what would be the most difficult aspect of his transition.
No longer will Beilein have to live in a suitcase while taking plane rides to various states on recruiting trips, nor will he have to worry about factors outside of teaching his players hands-on. At 66 years old, he’ll be embarking on a new journey with more energy than he’s ever had before in order to turn the tide in Cleveland.
Beilein will have plenty of assistance in all of this. He constantly reminds everyone of how J.B. Bickerstaff, Antonio Lang, Dan Geriot and Lindsay Gottlieb are playing just as important of a role as he is. Still, don’t exclude the guys on the court doing their part either.
“When we have a player-led team, that’s when we’re a really good team,” Beilein said. “Whether it’s Kevin [Love], whether it’s Tristan [Thompson], whether it’s Collin Sexton, whether it’s Darius Garland, anybody can move into that leadership position. So it’s really important that we’re connected with them, so they can take over and we can just adapt to changes we need to make.”
Beilein understands how demanding of an endeavor it will be. He knows that the Cavaliers ranked dead last defensively a season ago, the worst rating in NBA history. Making such improvements on both ends will not happen overnight. He’ll have about one-third of the practice time he’s used to and nearly three times the amount of games to accomplish what he wants.
Whatever lies ahead, he’s prepared for it by having in-depth conversations with Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens — two coaches that also leaped to the pros from Division-I — and his staff as a whole.
“We’re coaching a lot of veterans, we’re coaching a lot of young men. There’s very similar strategy to those,” Beilein said. “You learn from defeat. You get better from defeat. Defeat doesn’t kill you. It’s going to make you better. You don’t want to lose too much, but it’s that same thing. Handling adversity is easier than handling prosperity. You’ve got to be mentally tough to handle a winning streak, too. And so, all those things come into play as you’re reading the pulse of the team.”
Beilein’s top priority in his debut year is to get Cleveland on a steady rise, ensuring development and true growth out of his players, both young and old, with a focus on fundamentals. He maintains if that vision comes to fruition, the wins will take care of themselves.
Needless to say, tied with the Phoenix Suns for the second-worst record in the league, the wins did not take care of themselves last year. There were flashes of progression here and there, and the team was noticeably better when it had healthy players soaking up the majority of the minutes — but there was no hiding the fact that the Cavaliers were a level below everybody else.
Going through a rebuilding process takes patience and a strong mind. Keeping an eye on the bigger picture is key, often taking the harsh downswings in stride alongside the rarer highs. Such a mentality will be necessary once again this season, as Cleveland has hit the reset button with its personnel and its roster.
“It definitely just kinda changed your mindset in terms of everything and prepared us for this year,” Clarkson said. “I feel like us coming in here, everybody should have an open mind ready to compete and play because everything is new.”
“As a team, I feel like we can’t go backwards,” Sexton said. “We can only move forward and continue to get better.”
Sexton and Clarkson were the only Cavaliers to play over 80 games in 2018-19, with the former featured in every single contest.
Cedi Osman, another crucial piece in this young core, played the third-most amount during his first full year in the NBA. What’s unique about him is that he was a part of that conference championship-winning team as a rookie, so he’s experienced both sides of the spectrum, something the Turkish forward feels has readied him for what lies ahead.
“First two years, it was like white and black,” Osman said. “I saw going to the Finals and not making the playoffs, so that’s why I believe that those two years really made me better. This year, I believe we have a much better team and I think we’re gonna have the chance to surprise a lot of teams . . . I really believe we have a bright future in front of us.”
Love and Thompson played integral roles during championship-caliber seasons at the Cavaliers’ height. They’ve also been on rebuilding ball clubs before in the early days of their respective careers. Larry Nance Jr. is somewhere in the middle has he enters year five. No member of that trio is a stranger to what an 82-game marathon consists of.
“There’s gonna be lumps and bumps. There’s gonna be growing pains and bruises and all of that stuff,” Nance said. “It’s gonna take time to mesh, take time to jell together – and all that takes mental toughness. Especially with me hopefully shouldering more of the leadership load in the locker room this year. Mental toughness is what it’s all about.
“It’s not just gonna be from me. It’s gonna be from Kev, from Tristan, Darius and Collin. It’s gonna be from all of us. This is a unique team. I think that we can be really good, but it’s gonna take a lot of stick-to-it-ness.”
Thompson embraces being an important voice in the locker room. He enjoys taking his teammates under his wing, particularly rookies going from a 30-game season to a much longer one in the pros.
“For us, we’ve gotta tell ‘em, you’re gonna have some nights where you feel like this NBA stuff is easy and you’re gonna have nights where you feel like, ‘Man, do I belong?’ But you’ve just gotta stay the course,” Thompson said. “It’s on us veterans to kinda help their process [and make it] easier. However we can help ‘em be the best they can be, that’s on us. And as a leader of this team, it’s important for me to help these guys transition very smoothly.”
The reality is this: All but five players on Cleveland’s roster have fewer than six years of experience under their belt. Three rookies — and potentially a couple more on two-way contracts — will be carving out their respective niches on the team as things move along. With learning comes lessons. With lessons come losses. And with losses, invariably, comes second-guessing.
Handling everything with a one game at a time approach is a quality some players have trouble with. For those exposed to the league for the first time, it can be even more difficult to grasp. Noise can enter their heads and drive them down. Garland has spoken with his agent, Rich Paul, about this very subject.
“[Rich has] dealt with a lot of guys, so I’ve heard a lot of different stories,” Garland said. “It’s a long season. 82 games is a long season. Coming from college — I only played five — it’s gonna be crazy for me to play all 82. I mean, I’m ready though. I’m ready to just attack the season really hard, play my game, get my teammates involved and do what we have to do to win.”
Beilein has wasted no time in implementing his methods.
Working one week early with rookies such as Garland, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. — along with Dean Wade and Marques Bolden — he introduced the Beilein Ball, a customized, official NBA basketball with a black stripe lasered around it. The concept is to see the rotation of the ball and correct hand positioning on shots and spin on passes.
“He’s really into his craft,” Garland said. “That’s what I like about him. He’s really a gym rat. He’s always in here working or doing something with the guys, so it’s really fun being around him.”
Nance senses Beilein’s eagerness, going as far as to say that his coach has more energy than him. Clarkson is already a fan of his emphasis on ball movement. Sexton, too, has noticed a change in culture with him and his staff in charge.
Getting through to Love and Thompson is arguably the most imperative for Beilein as he tries to gain respect and set the tone; but so far, so good. Thompson has had conversations with former teammate Nik Stauskas and friend Darius Morris, hearing rave reviews about the offensive guru from two former Wolverines.
“He kinda wants to see what can you bring to the table instead of just boxing you up before knowing who you are as a player,” Thompson said of Beilein. “That’s what you want from your coach, especially a new coach.”
Beilein treats practice as seriously as he does a game — with tempo and intensity. He has a daily mantra in which everybody on the floor participates before the two-and-a-half hour session begins.
How are we gonna practice? “Hard!” How are we gonna practice? “Smart!”
Day one featured a lot of station work, with the team sorted into rotating groups of three by jersey color: red, white and green. Each of those were assigned to assistants. Lang worked with the big men, Bickerstaff and Geriot took defensive responsibilities with the guards and Gottlieb assumed a role centered around development. The morning finished off with 5-on-5.
Following the first practice of training camp, Love referred to Beilein’s ways as “old school” with an attention to detail and getting back to the basics.
“I think it’s his enthusiasm, just in how he talks and how he approaches every day,” Love said after the first day. “But [old school] was what I was around when I grew up. My dad [Stan Love] put the ball in my hands and he talked about every era, even before he came into the league. So maybe a breath of fresh air is the wrong terminology, because I’ve played for some great coaches, but just a different look.”
Day two was a bit more rough around the edges. There were moments of slippage in defensive stances and sporadic bad passes. There were no sour attitudes or any signs of apathy, but rather just not doing the simple things.
“They don’t have a lack of discipline,” Beilein said Wednesday. “They probably have a lack of knowledge of how to play efficiently. That’s what discipline is. You have discipline, you’re efficient.”
That’s why Beilein intends to really emphasize the instructional side of practice, showing the players specific mistakes that were made and assuring they grow and learn from those.
“Many of the young players have probably been able to get by with talent and still win the game without a lot of discipline. They’re so good – sometimes their team wins by 30, 20, all these things – and they don’t really know what wins and loses games,” Beilein said.
“And now as they get into college and now from here, they start to really realize, ‘That was really boring when coach taught it to me, but it’s really important now.’ It takes time. Everybody will have a different learning curve. But it takes time for some more than others to put some significance, put some more importance [into] some simple things that are really easy to do, but in the middle of action, they’re hard to do when you’re thinking about something else.”
There are three weeks of training camp until the regular season gets underway later this month. As of today, 30 teams in the NBA are even at 0-0.
While everybody technically has a fresh start, the Cavaliers have undergone a true facelift. The building is filled with hope. The demeanor around the organization is loose. There is really no pressure on them outside of the maturation of the franchise as a whole.
Beilein drew a comparison to the newly-renovated Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to paint a picture of how he looks at the upcoming campaign.
“There’s a lot of new things going on down there, just like with our basketball program,” Beilein said. “They didn’t have to knock it down and build another one. They had to repurpose, refinish, rebuild different areas to keep up with the times, and we’re going to be doing the same thing.
“I think you’ll embrace the product. Be patient with it. And as we go along, hopefully you’ll see steady improvement, both in the wins and in the losses.”
Cleveland’s ascension is set to begin with Beilein at the helm.
It’s up to the rest to buy-in.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield is taking these contract talks very personally. In an emotional postgame interview, he talked about “finding another home” if the team doesn’t get a deal done by Monday’s deadline. pic.twitter.com/sEkJEZfNkS
— Jason Anderson (@JandersonSacBee) October 17, 2019
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.”
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.
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.