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NBA PM: Round-Number Psychology and Triple-Doubles

Russell Westbrook deserves his MVP buzz – but not due to triple-doubles. Ben Dowsett explains.

Ben Dowsett

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Human obsession with round numbers occupies a curious corner of psychological study. It’s a phenomenon that dates back millennia, with applications in some of the most visible areas of history. If they were called the Nine Commandments, would they occupy quite the same level of historical significance?

Research suggests the answer is no, and also tells us several other fascinating things about the mind’s desire for stability within numerical patterns.

A study at Pace University displayed a pair of digits on a screen, and asked responders to press a button in front of them only if both numbers were even or both numbers were odd, and therefore not if one was even and the other was odd. It took subjects an average of 20 percent longer to press the button when a pair of odd numbers came up compared to a pair of even numbers, suggesting what researcher Terence Hines called “the odd effect” – it literally takes the average human mind longer to process odd numbers.

In the consumer world, the effect shows a little differently. It’s well known within sales industries that prices ending in “.99” have been proven to lead to higher purchasing rates, but a 2015 study gave us more context:

Rounded prices ($100, $10, $5) are processed more fluidly by the brain, leading to more reliance on feelings and emotion within purchasing decisions. Non-rounded prices ($13.99, $199.99), though, are processed less fluidly, and therefore produce a higher subconscious reliance on cognition and reason.

Best of all, though, is the human response when we know we influence these numbers in our lives. A 2010 study found that we will exert ourselves far above normal levels to perform just above a certain round numerical threshold, rather than just below it. Professional baseball players are about four times more likely to finish with a batting average of .300 than an average of .299; high schoolers taking the SAT test are more likely to retake it if they fall just below a round number than if they fall just above one.

There’s no question the human mind carries a distinct, subconscious attachment to the emotional significance of certain numbers. These psychological roots form the basis for superstitions, laws and even life or death in some cultures. They’re deep, and they’re visible everywhere.

* * * * * *

Nowhere in sports is this phenomenon more obvious than with basketball’s triple-double.

The basis for this one goes back about as far as human records exist. The vast majority of human societies (with a few exceptions) have operated using a base-10 numerical system, with most psychologists in general agreement about the source: The number of fingers we have. Yep, it’s that simple.

And on its face, the triple-double is a great way to get that psychological kitten purring. Three numbers all at 10 or higher is much more powerful to the brain than just one or two, and the fact that most triple-doubles represent a distinctly positive team contribution by the player in question just reinforces the association.

Here’s the equally logical reason why our growing obsession with the stat is fundamentally flawed, though: Exactly how positive a contribution they represent is an incredibly variable factor, and there’s even evidence that certain triple-doubles do not represent a cumulative positive.

To prove it, let’s turn to the numbers.

Before John Hollinger was the Executive VP of Basketball Operation for the Memphis Grizzlies, he was a savant-like journalist/analyst who created a number of metrics. The most popular is likely PER (Player Efficiency Rating), but another that has several practical uses is Game Score.

Game Score, still housed on basketball-reference.com, is a stat designed to give a single numerical representation of a player’s statistical productivity in a single game. This is naturally a number that leans heavily toward offensive contributions, since most box score elements track offensive events (and the ones that don’t are limited indicators of defensive contributions). This is fine for triple-doubles, though, since they’re generally far more weighted to the offensive end anyway.

Using Hollinger’s Game Score, we can aggregate the 350 or so “best” NBA games played since 1983-84. Exactly 378 games have been played with a Game Score of 40 or higher, if we’re satisfying our mind’s desire for round numbers. From a statistical standpoint, nearly all of these games would rank among any objective list of the 400 or 500 best games played in this time period by a single player.

Know how many of these 378 games were triple-doubles? Twenty-one. That’s roughly 5.5 percent.

Yes, barely one in 20 of the best statistical performances over the last 30-plus years was a triple-double. These figures hold for more recent timelines. In fact, they even drop below 5 percent since 2000. If you’re ranking each of these games in order of Game Score, you have to scroll down all the way to row 22 to find the first one that was a triple-double.

Okay, so it’s not all so gloomy. Teams featuring a player recording a triple-double win about 75 percent of their games over this same time span. This is a fantastic percentage, without question.

But is an event truly worthy of jaw-dropping amazement when the team in question still loses once every four times? What about if that number drops to 55 percent when the player in question attempts at least 25 shots (it does)? What if it drops well below 50 percent when the player takes at least 25 shots, but makes 40 percent or fewer of them? Is that still a great game deserving of endless platitudes?

* * * * * *

If you’ve made it this far, you can probably see where this is going.

In a season where the triple-double’s Q-score has no doubt skyrocketed, Russell Westbrook has nearly become synonymous with the term. He’s set to average one, and produces the feat more regularly than we’ve ever seen in the modern era.

Let’s get one thing straight right away: This is not an indictment of Russ, or his case for the league’s biggest award. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – an indictment of the obsessive mindset that’s reduced his MVP candidacy to a single, arbitrary statistic.

It’s not Westbrook himself who brought on the obsession, either. The guy was getting sick of it three full months ago. Does he stat-chase sometimes? Absolutely. So does virtually every star (virtually every player) in the league. Does it mean he’s more focused on it than he should be? Almost certainly not.

Everyone discussing it sure is, though. Nearly every big feature written about Westbrook this season features the term in the title or the lede. A Google News search for “triple-double” yields about as many first-page results for Russ as all other players combined, depending on which day you type it in. NBATV is currently airing a show called The Art of the Triple Double, surely in no small part due to Westbrook’s charge at history.

This is selling Westbrook woefully short. Defining his ridiculous season based on such a lazy, easy crutch ignores all the more complex ways he’s dominating.

For starters, another half-dozen healthy games will give Russ a case for having completed the most physically taxing season in NBA history – and surely one of the most exhausting in the annals of modern team sports.

Before this year, just 18 guys had finished a full season using at least 35 percent of team possessions while on the floor, per basketball-reference.com. Under half managed to do so while missing fewer than 10 games, and Russ would become just the third – joining Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – to play all 82 while pulling this off.

He’d do it while setting the NBA record for usage percentage. He’ll have run nearly 200 miles during NBA gameplay since the beginning of the season, per SportVU figures extrapolated at his current averages.

Through this lens, his effectiveness-to-volume ratio is pure insanity. Just five of those 18 guys through history with uber-high usage figures managed a better team winning percentage than Westbrook’s Thunder are on track to post, and that’s without considering supporting casts or a cupcake schedule over the final few weeks of the year.

If you absolutely must find meaning in triple-doubles, find it in a similar team theme. Remember those figures we cited above, showing how much worse the team record in triple-doubles gets when the guy in question is chucking mercilessly?

Not with Russ. Other guys through history have won 55 percent of their triple-double games with at least 25 shots attempted; Westbrook has won 75 percent of such games this season. Many of these aren’t just chucking for chucking’s sake – the Thunder needed those ridiculously burdensome performances. Oklahoma City wins games where Russ manages a triple-double at a significantly higher rate than the league throughout history.

If you’re obsessed with unique historical numbers, all of this is barely scratching the surface. We could double the length of this article simply listing the various, volume-related statistical crevices in which Westbrook is either all alone or in short, illustrious company.

In the interest of transparency: If this pen filled out an MVP ballot, Russ wouldn’t currently occupy the top spot. He might be as low as fourth.

Anyone with a serious objection to Westbrook winning, though, either hates fun or roots for the Cavs, Spurs or Rockets. There isn’t enough separation between the top four guys, especially not when parsing out who deserves an award the NBA intentionally defines ambiguously to stoke the fire on debates like these.

If he does win, though, here’s hoping it’s due to more than a deep-seated obsession with round numbers. Ask any smart statistician, and they’ll tell you: You can prove virtually anything if you manipulate the data the right way. Using the right statistical thresholds, anyone with internet access can find several examples of how LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden are posting historically unique seasons this year.

Westbrook deserves it as much as any of these guys, but not because his uniqueness conforms more to your brain’s natural tendencies than the others. Count this as a plea that those with a vote come April think a little better of their base nature, and look a little deeper.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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New Orleans Pelicans and Cliff Alexander Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The New Orleans Pelicans and free agent forward Cliff Alexander have agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Alexander will give New Orleans 20 players heading into training camp.

Alexander spent last season playing 40 combined games with the Erie Bayhawks and Long Island Nets in the G-League, where he averaged 15.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. Alexander also shot 52 percent from the field and blocked one shot per game.

The 21-year-old forward was a McDonald’s All-American and won MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic in 2014 before attending Kansas University. Alexander played 28 games as a Jayhawk and averaged 7.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 17.6 minutes per game before declaring for the draft.

After going undrafted, Alexander played in eight games for Portland during the 2015-16 season and received a 10-day contract from the Brooklyn Nets in April.

For more information on the salary cap and roster situation for the New Orleans Pelicans, click here.

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Atlanta Hawks and John Jenkins Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The Atlanta Hawks and free agent guard John Jenkins have agreed to a training camp deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

The addition of Jenkins will give Atlanta 20 players heading into training camp.

Jenkins drew interest from several other teams, including the Minnesota Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks.

The 26-year-old guard began his career in Atlanta after the Hawks selected him 23rd overall out of Vanderbilt in the 2012 draft. For his career, Jenkins has averaged 5.1 points in 12.8 minutes per game while shooting 45 percent from the field overall and 36 percent from beyond the arc.

For more information on Atlanta’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.

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NBA

Golden State Warriors 2017-18 Season Preview

The Golden State Warriors remain the cream of the NBA crop, even after several franchises went all in this offseason. Can anyone really beat the Warriors in a seven-game series? We look at the Warriors in this final NBA season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors were highly favored to win the 2016-17 championship with the offseason addition of Kevin Durant. In the Warriors’ third straight Finals match up with Cavaliers, Golden State, with plenty of help from Durant, over-matched Cleveland in last season’s NBA Finals. This year, with Durant taking a pay cut, the team did a masterful job of bringing back just about all of the key players from last year’s championship run. Now the team is primed to wreak havoc on the league once again.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It’s almost comical at this point how the best team in basketball keeps getting better.

After adding Kevin Durant last summer, and then completely decimating the entire NBA, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the Golden State Warriors did was go out and add two players in Omri Casspi and Nick Young who almost perfectly fit their brand of “you’re not out-shooting us” basketball.

The powers of the NBA all shuffled around their rosters this season in hopes of trying to assemble some type of “anti-Warriors” remedy, and when it’s all said and done, those moves will be all for naught. Expect Golden State to ride their legendary roster to another NBA title.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

What do you need me to say about the Warriors that you don’t already know? Two of the best five players in the league are on the roster, as well as arguably the top defensive player in the league and a cast of reserves that fit perfectly with the superstars running the show. Even JaVale McGee is shooting three pointers now. The Warriors are unstoppable and in some ways even better than the team that won a championship a few months ago. It’s going to be a long season for every other team in the league. They’re all playing for second place.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

The road to the NBA Finals obviously goes through Oakland, especially after the club managed to re-sign JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Nick Young will give the team some additional firepower, but they probably don’t even need it.

So long as these guys stay healthy, they’ll probably find their way to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, and with the Clippers having lost Chris Paul, the Warriors should have a relatively easy time winning the Pacific Division for the fourth straight year.

I’m usually longer-winded than that, but I’m not sure much else needs to be said about the Warriors.

1st place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

At this point, what’s really left to say? The Warriors had arguably the best basketball team ever assembled last season, and that was while dealing with minor role concerns and dealing with Kevin Durant’s midseason injury. Then they went out and improved this offseason, adding the likes of Omri Casspi and Nick Young as perfect end-of-roster pieces. Combine that with what most would expect will be even better fit and chemistry across the roster this season, and the Warriors stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league even with several squads making big power moves to try and bridge the gap. Anything but a third title in four years will fail to do justice to the incredible, historical talent on this roster.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

The best team in the NBA went out and retained key players and signed Omri Casspi and Nick Young to round out the roster. As has been the case for several years now, the Warriors enter the upcoming season with the most overall talent, improved chemistry, good health and every ingredient necessary to win an NBA championship. Several other contenders pulled off some impressive moves to try and bridge the gap between themselves and the Warriors, but Golden State still holds the advantage against every other team in the league. So long as the Warriors are playing up to their potential, or anywhere near it, the other contenders are out of luck. Unless the Warriors face some serious injuries this upcoming season or some internal discord, we should expect them to win their third championship in four seasons.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant

Don’t knock me for not clearly choosing a single player here. The individual excellence of both Stephen Curry and Durant cannot be stated enough. While Curry’s statistics did take a bit of a step back from the year prior, he still led the way for the Warriors last season. Last year, Curry led the team in points per game (by a slim margin), three-pointers made, assists and usage percentage. Keep in mind, Durant was excellent but Curry still commanded the offense for the most part. However, Durant was right on Curry’s heels and in the playoffs actually slightly surpassed Curry in points per game. In addition, Durant remains as tough to cover one-on-one as anyone in the league. Regardless, both players are unbelievable individual talents and would easily be the top offensive player on just about any other team.

Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green

For the foreseeable future, Draymond Green has this category on lockdown for the Warriors. Green uses a combination of length, strength, timing and sneaky athleticism to smother his opponents. Green’s versatility allows him to guard a range of positions in the post and switch to guard guards and forwards on the wing effectively as well. His versatility is the lynchpin of the Warrior’s vaunted death line up that uses Green at center and brings Iguodala off the bench to close games. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year race came down to Green and Utah center Rudy Gobert. In the end, Green’s versatility as well as his ability to guard the rim effectively made him the top choice in voters’ minds. Expect Green to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year this upcoming season as well.

Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry

When the Warriors added Durant to the roster, many wondered, even for a team as unselfish as the Warriors, how would Stephen Curry and Durant manage to share the ball? That question was answered when Curry took a step back and allowed Durant’s individual offensive brilliance to shine. Curry’s points per game dropped (30.1 to 25.3) as did his usage percentage (32.0 to 29.2). Curry’s individual excellence continued regardless as he remained the Warriors’ top distributor (followed closely by Draymond Green). In addition, Curry garners so much attention that his simple presence on the court creates more room for teammates to operate. Curry’s ability to pull up from virtually anywhere on the court and willingness to make the extra pass to teammates makes him a nightmare to cover and the Warriors’ top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry

Once again, you could give this award to either of the Warrior’s two best offensive players. Curry dominates most of the advanced statistics when breaking down clutch play, defined as the last minutes of a game within 5 point or less, per nba.com. However, based on Durant’s size, length and ability to get off a shot in isolation, he makes for an excellent clutch player in just about any situation. Either is an extraordinary option and their play in crunch time continues to be critical to their championship fortunes.

The Unheralded Player: Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson is a phenomenal talent who does a number of things well. He’s an unbelievable three-point shooter and defends elite point guards to alleviate the pressure on Curry. For a team with two elite offensive players, having Thompson as your third option on offense is just unfair to the rest of the league. Thompson lights up the league with his ability to hit outside shots without needing to dominate the ball. Don’t just count on Thompson to score as he takes pride in his defense and his ability to lockdown on defense.

Best New Addition: Omri Casspi

Overall, the Warriors have had an unbelievable stretch of luck when it comes to injuries, which will hopefully rub off on Omri Casspi this season. With his length, versatility and the ability to stretch the floor, he can slide into either forward spot. His addition strengthens the team’s ability to survive the grind of the regular season and lessen the minutes of the starters. Casspi fills a lot of needs for several teams that are looking to challenge the Warriors, so simply keeping him away from those teams is an added benefit to his signing.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr continues to be the perfect coach for this team. He helps to keep the players focused on their individual roles within the larger team structure and has so far prevented major dissension and discord. Kerr took the team that Mark Jackson previously coached and helped to transform the team into champions. Credit is deserved for his part in successfully orchestrating the move of former All-Star Iguodala to a bench role and meshing Durant’s individual brilliance with the Warriors’ pre-existing, pass-happy offense. Kerr has missed significant time due to his botched spinal surgery, but if he can manage his health, count on Kerr to keep the Warriors a well-oiled machine.

2. Nick Young

Nick Young is a player that has had an up-and-down career. Credit Young for carving out a relatively successful career as a journeyman three-point shooting wing. Keeping Young focused and unlocking his full range of talents has been difficult for many organizations. The Warriors are up next and will give the 11th year pro an opportunity to do what he does best — knocking down three-pointers. As a career 37.6 percentage three-point shooter, Young will have a chance to get more open looks from distance than he has previously in his career. Like JaVale McGee, Young will also have a chance to transform his reputation if he proves to be a disciplined, effective contributor to a championship team.

3. Jordan Bell

What’s the perfect piece for a rebuilding team in need of young talent to build around? Jordan Bell, selected with the 38th pick in this year’s draft), is just that sort of player. The Warriors acquired the pick from the Chicago Bulls for cash consideration. The Bulls loss is the Warriors gain as hopes are high for the young talent from the University of Oregon. The Warriors will take their time with the 6-foot-9 forward and hope that he will build on and develop his defensive talents and one day be a reliable contributor for Golden State.

4. Shaun Livingston

Shaun Livingston is many years removed from the knee injury that nearly ended his professional career. While Livingston has played for nine teams in his career, he continues to be loyal to the Warriors, the team with which he has experienced the most success post-injury. Livingston continues to do whatever the team requires as he slides into either guard slot when needed and provides reliable production from the bench. Opposing backup point guards often get caught being posted up by the lengthy 6-foot-7 guard. Count Livingston as another essential cog who will do whatever it takes to help the Warriors win at all costs.

– James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Warriors are a major spender at $135.4 million in guaranteed salary, resulting in at least $32 million in luxury taxes. Golden State used its Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception to sign Nick Young at $5.2 million for a season. Having re-signed on one-year deals, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee can block any trades.

Before November, the Warriors need to decide on 2018-19 team options for Kevon Looney and Damian Jones. Next summer, Kevin Durant can opt out again but now the team has his Early Bird Rights and the ability to give him a raise in the $35 million range. The Warriors seem willing to pay for a winner but for how long as luxury taxes grow progressively as the team gradually becomes a repeat offender?

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

This team continues to have everything you could want in a modern NBA team. An electric point guard who is nearly unstoppable, a 3-and-D wing with a killer three-point shot, an unstoppable one-on-one player who can score from anywhere, a dominant and flexible defensive forward who can play center and a defensive wing who is a great glue guy. That’s just the five players that are normally used to close out games. The rest of the roster has a number of key contributors ready to do whatever the team needs. Oh, and they also have a great coach to keep everyone on the same page. With all the pieces a team could want, expect the Warriors to again push a possible record-breaking pace in the regular season on their way to the playoffs and likely the Finals.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The easiest answer here is none. Eventually the injury bug might hit the Warriors but for now they have everything they could want to continue their excellent play. Perhaps some players may lose a sense of urgency in the regular season after breaking records and dominating the last few seasons, though that seems unlikely. On paper, this team is not afflicted by any major weaknesses.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can anyone stop the Warriors?

Other teams continue to make moves to get better. On September 23, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded agreed to terms on a deal to acquire Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks. With that move, count the Thunder, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and the Cavaliers as the biggest potential obstacles in the Warriors’ path to repeat. One of these teams may beat them, but the Warriors are the heavy favorites and the team most likely to win the championship next year.

– James Blancarte

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