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On the Fortune and Future of the Grizzlies

Metrics show that the 2015-16 Grizzlies are among the “luckiest” teams of all-time. Ben Dowsett explains.

Ben Dowsett

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The raw win-loss standings at a given point in an NBA season are quite often an incomplete cumulative representation of team quality. They don’t take schedule or health into account, or a skewed home-away distribution. They offer limited data points by which to judge a team; one focus of a movement many refer to as “analytics” is using some relatively simple arithmetic to widen the available data points, producing a more accurate and predictive way of evaluating teams and players.

By a few of the simplest such metrics available, the 2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies are among the “luckiest” teams of all-time. That term can be thrown around loosely, so a more firm definition here: The gap between what simple contextual metrics project a team like Memphis’ record to be and what their record actually is checks in as one of the largest positive gaps in recent observable league history.

Simple Rating System (SRS) is a metric housed primarily on basketball-reference.com, and gives a team rating based on season-long point differential while accounting for team strength of schedule. Imagine a team that had only played two games – winning one contest by one point but losing the other by 40. Despite being .500 in the standings, this team would have a bad SRS score for these two games, because the metric cares only about points (of which there are many more than wins or losses, and therefore a much larger sample with which to judge). Adjusting for strength of schedule adds another layer of control for exterior factors that, on balance, are expected to average out over the course of a full year.

Entering play Monday night (as are all statistics henceforth unless otherwise noted), the Grizzlies’ SRS score was -0.92. Zero is average, meaning this is well below par. Those paying attention above and also aware of Memphis’ current record will see the discrepancy: How are the Grizzlies 11 games over .500 if their point differential indicates they should be a below-average team?

As it turns out, this gap between projection and reality is likely the largest in league history. Since 1946-47, no team has ever finished a full season with an SRS rating so low and a winning percentage so high – the Grizzlies’ .586 win rate entering play Monday night was nearly five full percentage points higher than any other team with an SRS at least as negative. Only 22 other teams in nearly 70 years, in a sample of nearly 600 seasons below the SRS threshold, even managed to win at least half their games.

Put another way, the best any of these previous 22 teams ever managed was a 44-38 record, on six separate occasions. The Grizzlies’ pace entering Monday night had them right on track for a 48-34 mark, or four full wins better than any other team with the same level of negative point and schedule indicators.

Some might scoff at the notion that a few simple metrics make Memphis the “luckiest” team of all-time, and they wouldn’t be without ground to stand on. These statistics aren’t complete indicators, and only measure the probability of wins and losses based on a wide data set.

The Grizzlies are 21-11 in games that were within five points anytime in the final five minutes, a win percentage that trails only behemoths Golden State and San Antonio; some would cite elements of good fortune here while others might point to an experienced team well-trained in raising their level down the stretch, and the truth is somewhere in between. There’s certainly something to be said for gutting out close wins frequently, and a few over-the-top stinkers like a 50-point beating at the hands of the Warriors four games into the season set a bad baseline for point-fueled metrics.

Whatever your feelings on luck or skill, these are more than interesting stats; they’re highly relevant to the playoff conversation this season. Based on Pythagorean win expectation – similar to SRS, with no strength of schedule variable included – Memphis projected as a 28-30 team entering Monday night.

In that alternate reality, the Grizzlies would be squarely in the middle of an airtight race for what would then be the five through nine seeds out West, with Portland, Dallas, Houston and Utah all in the mix. As it is, they’re far enough ahead of that pack that missing the playoffs would probably only be possible with a total collapse, though that’s theoretically not out of the question with Marc Gasol presumed done for the year.

Assuming no crazy slide down the stretch, the playoff appearance could have varied effects on the franchise. The most obvious is the protection on the 2016 first-round pick they owe Denver, which is for picks 1-5 and also 15-30. Memphis keeps their pick if they make the playoffs, but almost certainly loses it if they fall out barring some major luck with the ping pong balls. Assuming no pick conveys this year, the protection is limited to just 1-5 in 2017.

Losing the pick obviously feels bad on the surface, and probably is in most scenarios, but the 2017 draft already has a lot of buzz as deeper and more talented than this year’s. A worst-case scenario could see the Grizzlies keep a late teens pick in a down year before forking over a mid-to-late lottery selection in a stronger class if they lose a step on the court next year.

Open to more vague speculation is whether success some might consider unsustainable could lead to a false sense of self from an organizational standpoint. The extreme end of team-building philosophies dictate a sometimes cold realization when a group has hit its collective ceiling, and either a tear down or, at minimum, a pivot. Can the Grizzlies, typically a measured and never-impatient front office, even consider such a drastic route with Gasol locked up to likely his last big deal? Even if they determine with certainty that they’re too far behind the elites to truly compete – a very tough conclusion to reach for a franchise accustomed to consistent success – getting back among the contenders before Big Spain winds things down is a tough proposition. Titles aren’t the only consideration for every franchise, even if they’re orders of magnitude more important than any other single goal for most.

The biggest domino of all is Mike Conley’s impending free agency. A max contract would start in the neighborhood of $25 million, and would ensure Conley and Gasol occupied roughly 40 to 50 percent of the Grizzlies’ cap through the turn of the decade. With good flexibility outside those two moving forward, the right moves could certainly put them squarely in the title conversation, particularly if Conley was generous enough to let Memphis play the market with their cap space before re-signing him with Bird rights this summer.

There’s a flip side, too: Conley and Gasol are great players, but strike out around them and you could be stuck paying a lot of money for the purgatory of a middling NBA team for another half decade. The right names aren’t always available or interested, which of course could be the case whether or not Conley remains in town.

Whether their perhaps-fortunate success this year significantly influences any decisions along the way is nothing more than pure speculation at this point. The Grizzlies have a fascinating line to straddle, something reflected in their approach at the trade deadline, and how they continue to approach it in the league’s anticipated bonanza summer will be worth keeping an eye on.

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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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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NBA AM: 50 NBA Predictions for 2017-2018

As he always does, Joel Brigham makes 50 predictions for the forthcoming NBA season.

Joel Brigham

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If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making NBA predictions that end up being correct right about half the time. Every season for as long as I’ve been writing about basketball, I’ve made 50 predictions about the forthcoming season, only to return to those predictions in the spring and berate myself for believing the things I believed back in the fall. It’s an annual emotional rollercoaster.

Well, it’s the fall, which means regardless of whether or not readers agree with these predictions, most can at least see how a good deal of them could come to fruition. Flip a coin, though, because last season I only went 21-for-42. Here’s to hoping I do a little better than that this season.

On to this season’s NBA predictions:

Individual Predictions

1. James Harden will lead the league in scoring this season.

2. Both he and Russell Westbrook will top 30 points per game.

3. DeAndre Jordan will lead the league in rebounds.

4. John Wall will be the only player in the league to average 10.0 or more assists per game.

5. J.J. Redick will be among the top eight players in the league in terms of three-pointers made.

6. Rudy Gobert will lead the league in blocks.

Team Predictions

7. Once again, the Boston Celtics (not the Cleveland Cavaliers) will post the best record in the Eastern Conference.

8. Last season the Houston Rockets broke the record for most three-pointers attempted in an NBA season. They’re going to break that record again.

9. The Golden State Warriors are going to win a ton of games in 2017-2018, as they always do, but once again they will fall just a touch shy of 70 wins.

10. The Northwest Division (Denver, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Portland and Utah) will have more collective wins than any other division in basketball.

11. The Minnesota Timberwolves will win at least 20 more games than they did last season.

12. The three top scoring teams in the league all will be in the Western Conference.

Rookie Predictions

13. Dennis Smith will be Rookie of the Year.

14. He also is going to lead all rookies in scoring.

15. Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball both will average more than 6.5 assists per game.

16. Simmons and Philadelphia teammate Markelle Fultz both will be on the All-Rookie First Team.

17. John Collins will lead all rookies in rebounds and blocks.

18. Lauri Markkanen will lead all rookies in made three-pointers.

19. Jordan Bell will be this year’s most successful second-rounder.

Playoff Predictions

20. One game or fewer will determine which team will be the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs and which team will have the least ping pong balls in the lottery that year.

21 Milwaukee will be a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and will have homecourt advantage in the first round.

22. Philadelphia does make the postseason, but as a seventh or eighth seed.

23. For the fourth season in a row, it will be the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers playing in the NBA Finals.

24. The Golden State Warriors will (once again) win the NBA championship.

Awards Predictions

25. Giannis Antetokounmpo will win the MVP award this year. With LeBron James likely being more restful than ever in the regular season and Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden deferring more often to other superstars on their respective teams, Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard have the clearest road to individual dominance this year. Something tells me Giannis is on the precipice of doing some truly amazing things, both physically and statistically.

26. Kawhi Leonard will win Defensive Player of the Year. His streak was broken by Draymond Green a year ago. He’ll get it going again with a win in 2018.

27. Brad Stevens will win NBA Coach of the Year.

28. J.R. Smith is going to win Sixth Man of the Year. This award typically values scorers on good teams, and that’s exactly what J.R. is to going to be this year. If he had to get booted to the reserves, he may as well be the best one, right?

29. The Most Improved Player typically is someone who goes from being good to being elite, and that guy this year looks like it will be Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis or Nikola Jokic. For the sake of settling on one, I’ll say Porzingis.

30. Danny Ainge will win Executive of the Year. Getting his hands on Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward without giving up much and landing a top rookie prospect in Jayson Tatum is about as good as it gets.

Trade Predictions

31. After finding himself in just about every single Phoenix Suns trade rumor over the course of the last three seasons, this is the year Eric Bledsoe finally gets moved midseason.

32. There are big questions surrounding New Orleans’ roster, which likely will lead to some DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors. The Pelicans will not, however, trade the All-Star big man.

33. In the midst of their rebuild, Atlanta will try to move Kent Bazemore, the most expensive player on their roster. They will not succeed in this.

34. There has been a Kenneth Faried mention in the trade predictions section of this article seemingly every year, so let’s keep it going. This is the year Faried finally gets shipped from Denver.

35. Jahlil Okafor will be a Chicago Bull by the end of the season.

36. Portland’s frontcourt is absolutely loaded. As such, at least one of their big men will get shipped by the deadline.

37. At least one of the Lopez twins will not finish the season on the same team he started the year playing with.

38. Cleveland’s “Brooklyn Pick,” despite being a hot commodity with the potential to bring in another star player for a championship run, will not change hands. That pick stays with Cleveland.

Miscellaneous Predictions

39. The Chicago Bulls have led the league in attendance for years, but not this season. If the Chicago Bears still are going to have tickets available on game day, so are the Bulls. This season, Cleveland leads the league in attendance for the first time ever.

40. The Atlanta Hawks will win the draft lottery.

Insiders Predictions

For the second year in a row, my fellow writers at Basketball Insiders will bear the burden of making these predictions, and they too will be held accountable when we revisit these in the spring. Here’s a look at some of their bold predictions:

41. Joel Embiid will play at least 70 games this year. (Dennis Chambers).

42. Joel Embiid will not play 60 games. In the games he does play he will look awesome and put up amazing stats, but his absences will ultimately cost the Sixers the playoffs. (Steve Kyler).

43. Marcus Smart will shoot at least a league average percentage on deep balls this season. (Shane Rhodes).

44. Giannis Antetokounmpo will become the first player in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in back-to-back seasons (Tommy Beer).

45. This will be the first time in Carmelo Anthony’s Hall of Fame career that he will not average 20 points per game. (Lang Greene).

46. The Wizards will finish with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Brian Fritz).

47. Blake Griffin and Danillo Gallinari both will play in at least 60 games this year. (Jesse Blancarte).

48. Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons each will have at least ten triple doubles this season. (Michael Scotto).

49. Bogdan Bogdanovic will finish among the top three in Rookie of the Year voting. (Benny Nadeau).

50. The Memphis Grizzlies will miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. (Spencer Davies).

***

You’re going to read a lot of predictions articles this time of year, but I’m the only one who will come to these predictions at the end of the season to gauge how smart (or, more likely, how completely and utterly stupid) I was in making some of these. Check back in June for the wrap-up, and here’s to another great season of NBA basketball!

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