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NBA PM: The Joy of Stats

Does momentum exist? Which teams are the best at comebacks? We have fun statistics to answer all these questions and more…

Joel Brigham

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Fifty years ago, NBA teams could not have cared less about statistical trends, especially those of an advanced nature. But in our more modern understanding of the game of basketball and the myriad numbers that come with that modern game, we now know that looking at statistics is an integral part of running a successful team. Every organization in the league has employees whose job is to look at and consider all these numbers and how they might be used to improve the quality of a team.

Sometimes, though, statistics can be flat-out fun. David Beaudoin, a statistics professor at Laval University in Quebec City, Canada, has spent months pouring over data to find the answers to what are some really interesting questions. His analysis considers the last fourteen NBA seasons (not including the current one) to determine things like which teams have been the most “clutch” over time, and whether league parity has increased or decreased since the turn of the century. The questions are important ones, and the answers are both fascinating and even downright entertaining in some instances.

Who Are the Most and Least “Clutch” Teams?

Everybody loves a close game, mostly because of the drama that is associated with the moment, but is there really as much drama as we think? According to the numbers, there are some teams that are significantly better during tight games, and in looking at the data from the last 14 years, it probably won’t come as a huge surprise which teams were best at owning the moment.

In games where the margin of victory ended up being three points or fewer, or if the game went into overtime, the San Antonio Spurs have the best winning percentage of any team in the league at 62.0 percent. The Dallas Mavericks (57.6 percent) and L.A. Lakers (56.2 percent) round out the top three. But the fourth-best “clutch” winning percentage in the league is a bit surprising: the New Orleans Pelicans/Hornets (55.8 percent).

The least effective teams in tight games include the Minnesota Timberwolves (40.7 percent), Toronto Raptors (42.9 percent) and New York Knicks (43.7 percent).

To find the real surprises in this analysis, however, it was necessary to compare these “clutch” win percentages against actual overall team winning percentages. When doing that. Charlotte (+10.6 percent), Brooklyn/New Jersey (+10.0 percent) and New Orleans (+9.1 percent) were the teams that were actually better in tight games than their record would suggest. The Phoenix Suns (-9.0 percent), Golden State Warriors (-6.4 percent) and Indiana Pacers (-5.0 percent) were actually worse in close games than their regular season record.

Also, in the last 14 years, only one team, the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs, has won all of its “close” games in a season, while only the 2015-2016 Philadelphia 76ers have ever gone an entire season without winning a single close game. Those, officially, are the most and least clutch teams of the millennium so far.

Which Teams Have Made the Most Comebacks?

The team that scores the first points in the game doesn’t always win the game, naturally. Basketball is a game of back-and-forth, and deficits don’t necessarily mean that a team is buried. Take the San Antonio Spurs’ recent 28-point comeback against the Sacramento Kings, for example. No team is ever completely out of the woods until the final horn sounds.

Some teams though, including the Spurs, are more adept at comebacks than others. In fact, all three Texas teams hold the top spots on the list of organizations with the most comebacks over the last 14 seasons.

Naturally, San Antonio has been the best, and their ability to comeback is frankly staggering. When trailing after the first quarter, all NBA teams have a comeback proportion between 24 percent and 48.1 percent. San Antonio, however, approaches a 59 percent probability of winning when trailing after one period.

Understandably, the number of wins when trailing after three quarters decreases considerably. The Spurs are still the top team in this regard, with a comeback percentage of 27.7 percent when trailing heading into the final period, but only nine teams consistently win 20 percent or more of games when they’re trailing after three: San Antonio, Dallas, Cleveland, Portland, Houston, Miami, Boston, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago.

Cleveland, ranked 10th and 16th in comeback percentage after one quarter and two quarters, respectively, jumps to third overall when trailing after three quarters. There’s a good chance that LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have something to do with that.

Has League Parity Increased or Decreased?

That there have been seven different organizations win the NBA championship in the last nine years suggests that league parity isn’t a problem, but data trends suggest that there actually has been a decrease in parity over the course of the last 14 years. In other words, it’s only getting easier for the good teams and harder for the bad ones, and despite all these different champions, the playing field isn’t as even as it some would hope.

The number of teams with a record around .500 in a given season has been decreasing, specifically over the last nine seasons. From 2002 through 2007, league parity actually appeared to be on the rise, a conclusion that can be drawn by considering that, earlier on in the study, there were more teams around .500 and fewer teams with very good or very bad records.

In the more recent NBA past, that has changed. Furthermore, the study claims that a decrease in parity would suggest fewer comebacks, since more teams matching up more evenly would experience closer games, but average comeback percentages have been decreasing steadily over the past nine seasons. Fewer teams are coming back to win games, which suggests that those exciting, close games are happening less often.

The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer, but that passes the eye test, as well. Fans have complained about parity for years now, and the numbers suggest they may have a legitimate gripe.

Does “Momentum” Really Exist in Games?

The last question is a great one because every sports fan has watched a game and seen momentum shift right in the middle of a game. After trailing, a player or two will get hot and knock down a handful of shots in a row. The home crowd gets into it, and before we know it, it’s like we’re watching a completely different game. That switch flips on and off several times in just about every game played in the NBA.

But do the numbers suggest that momentum actually is a real thing?

Of course it is, but it may be contained to a single quarter. Coaches call timeouts to shut down a run for a reason, and the longer, more official breaks in action really do seem to shut down any momentum a team may experience in a quarter.

In looking at the halftime scores, the idea would be that if a home team outscored its opponents by six or more points in the most recent quarter, they’d have the momentum in the game. However, the numbers suggest that the home team actually wins more often when the road team had that measure of momentum in the 2nd quarter.

In other words, momentum is a thing, but it may not have the outcome on winning that we think it does, especially if those runs happen earlier on in the game.

*****

Chances are very good that the data from the 2016-2017 season would alter some of these findings somewhat, but as only 1/15th of the number pool they likely wouldn’t change the overall trends. Parity is decreasing, momentum doesn’t matter, and the San Antonio Spurs are awesome in yet another measurable way. We have stats to thank for all that.

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NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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