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3 Underrated Analytical Metrics in the NBA

Ben Dowsett breaks down three underrated metrics that help us better understand the NBA.

Ben Dowsett

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Increased mathematical proficiency in basketball has given way to a plethora of different figures and statistics attempting to complement and often define our understanding of the game. All-in-one metrics like PER were a big part of this initial push, with their ability to combine many smaller statistics into one larger one that can broadly define a player or team’s value. Plus-minus statistics are more of a recent rage in the public sphere, which are useful in a whole different context, and there’s a vast world in between: everything from broad metrics to the most detailed and minute descriptors possible.

All these different figures vary wildly in terms of value, whether descriptive or predictive in nature. It’s easy to draw conclusions from a particular stat that it’s not designed to reach, an unfortunately common part of the statistical process among more casual fans and analysts. And while it’s less common, the other end of the stick is true also; there are metrics out there that still don’t get enough recognition for the value they provide.

Let’s take a look at three lesser-known stats, at least within the public consciousness, and see how they can help us gain a greater understanding of the game without reaching past their constraints.

Open Shooting Numbers

As the NBA has begun sharing small snippets of SportVU camera data with the public over the last few years, one of the simplest nuggets they’ve released is basic defender distance numbers for every shot taken on an NBA floor. We can tell how far away a player’s closest defender stood for any shot he’s taken since the 2013-14 season. NBA.com defines coverage as “very tight” for a defender within 0-2 feet, “tight” for 2-4 feet, “open” for 4-6 feet and “wide open” for anything beyond six feet. The consensus among those who use these numbers frequently is that these are generally reasonable proxies for how truly open or guarded a guy is on a given shot – particularly the four-foot mark, around which a legitimate jump is observed over large samples of shots that indicates it’s truly a close inflection point between “open” and “guarded.”

These metrics are imperfect, of course. They track only players’ torsos, meaning a guy with particularly long arms might be better at contesting shots than his raw SportVU data would indicate. They also say nothing regarding whether a defender’s hand was in the air or close to the ball, which can also be important. But over a huge sample during the last few seasons, they’ve proven to be the closest thing we have to a real indication of which players and teams are best shooting with certain levels of pressure.

The most easily applicable area here to our on-court understanding is likely within open and uncontested shots. The conditions for a wide open shot aren’t ripe to as many confounding factors – if the closest defender to a jump shot is seven feet away as the ball is released, it doesn’t matter how high he’s jumping or how long his arms are, making all shots of this nature at least relatively similar. In contrast, judging contested attempts in the same vein is much more difficult; such analysis might include layups, for instance, which frequently will feature a defender within a foot or two but not actually challenging the shot.

What this newer data allows us to do with far more specificity than ever before is answer the question of which teams or players are truly the most talented shooters in a vacuum. A very basic example: One would likely call the Warriors the best pure jump-shooting team in the league, right? Turns out one would be supported by the numbers – per NBASavant, the Dubs are head and shoulders above the rest of the league for “open” jump shots outside 10 feet. On the other end of the spectrum, as one would expect, the Philadelphia 76ers bring up the rear for this same category.

The broad implications of all the public SportVU data are vast, but open shooting is among the most reliable and easiest to track for even the casual fan.

Better Pace Metrics

When we discussed certain teams zigging where Golden State has zagged with regard to speed of play as a specific Warriors counter a few weeks back, one of the chief elements was a more detailed definition of “pace.” The typical figure cited for pace, housed on NBA.com and other major sites, is simply possessions per-48-minutes among both teams in a given game. As we noted, though, this can make it tough to highlight an individual team’s tempo preferences – the opponent at any given time may have very different goals or tendencies, making it an incomplete metric.

A website called inpredictable.com has solved that issue in one swoop. Using detailed scraped data, this site separates pace into offensive and defensive categories based on average time of possession. We can see that the Warriors are the fastest for isolated offensive pace, averaging just 13.4 seconds per possession, while the Jazz are the slowest at 16.1 seconds. The creators are also kind enough to separate these possessions by prior actions – time of possession (and efficiency) following a made opponent shot, following a team defensive rebound or following a forced turnover.

This isn’t an underrated metric as much as it’s a lesser-known improvement on a more common one. Raw pace stats can tell us something, but there are very few cases where this more isolated form won’t be more informative and valuable.

Rim Protection

Many areas of NBA.com’s SportVU tracking come with some amount of noise, and rim protection figures are no exception. As with shot defense data above, simply tracking whether a player was within five feet of the rim while defending a shot can be an incomplete exercise because the level to which they’re actually “contesting” the shot can vary wildly even within that small space.

In the case of interior defensive figures, though, a couple factors combine to make them among the most robust available of all SportVU metrics. First, the number of shots attempted at the rim with a defender nearby is so high that minor inconsistencies (say, guys who don’t put a hand up quite often enough) will be teased out over time and reflected in long term figures only if they’re truly detrimental factors in how well a given player defends the rim.

Second, and more importantly, work by smart and generous folks in the statistical community has even further increased the specificity with which we can understand these numbers. Nylon Calculus houses a rim protection section which, rather than focusing simply on percentage allowed at the rim, includes a couple other vital factors as well. They track the percentage of all shots taken at the rim while a given player is on the floor that said player contests, and also separate rim protectors based on the position they play – data over the years has shown that there’s a big difference in expectation for interior defenders even between centers and power forwards.

Combining all factors, they’re able to come up with a much more descriptive final statistic: position-adjusted points saved per-36-minutes. That is, how many points does a given rim protector “save” his team at the rim on a per-minute basis above or below the league average at his position?

There are always a few surprising outliers, but the lists tend to conform closely with who we’d expect to see among the league’s best and worst at this particular skill over larger samples. Guys like Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut and Serge Ibaka are virtually a constant atop these rankings, while known defensive liabilities like Al Jefferson and Andrea Bargnani are typically at the bottom. In a game where scoring at the rim is more important than ever before, accurately assessing which defenders are best at preventing opponents from doing so is a vital part of our analysis.

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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Are The Sacramento Kings Postseason Bound?

One year older, wiser and better – surrounded by an enviable blend of young talent and veteran depth – could De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III help the Kings end the league’s longest postseason drought? Jack Winter examines.

Jack Winter

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Midway through leading the Sacramento Kings to their best record in over 10 years, then-head coach Dave Joerger compared De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III to this generation’s gold-standard tandem of homegrown superstars.

“…We have the next Durant-Westbrook,” he said in December. “That’s how good they’re gonna be.”

Joerger is gone a few months later, the latest victim of Sacramento’s time-honored struggle for cohesion between the coaching staff and front office. But the Kings are on an upward trajectory regardless, sprinting their way toward respectability in a Western Conference as wide open as it is loaded – and if Fox and Bagley live up to offseason hype, that lends some measure of credence to Joerger’s claim, maybe more.

The notion that Sacramento could snag one of the eight playoff spots in the West means a team with more proven postseason ambitions won’t. It’s impossible to make a confident choice about which teams will ultimately be watching the action on vacation among those with plans to be playing next spring and early summer. There are a handful of teams with realistic title aspirations out west, and several more could be subject to seismic – and currently unforeseen – organizational shifts should they fail to make the playoffs.

Neither distinction applies to the Kings.

As training camp looms, they sit beside the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference pecking order as virtual unknowns compared to more established foes at the top of the West. But none of Sacramento’s playoff-hopeful peers can match its blend of last season’s success, core continuity and, most importantly, room to grow in 2019-20.

Fox, of course, is the driving force behind that optimism. He finished third in Most Improved Player of the Year voting last season, an especially ringing endorsement due to voters’ increasing hesitance to reward sophomores for making a leap most foolishly expect is inevitable. Still, it’s undeniable that the broad scope of Fox’s progress has gone mostly overlooked outside of California’s capital.

The Kings ranked first in transition frequency last season, per Cleaning the Glass, by no accident. Fox, arguably the fastest player in the game with the ball in his hands, isn’t James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he owns his team’s offensive identity every bit as much as the league’s last two MVPs.

Such a young player shouldering that type of burden would normally be indicative of a team growing his game through trial by fire. Not for Sacramento, whose newfound emphasis on pace led to Fox upping his usage, true shooting percentage, assist ratio and lowering his share of assisted baskets all while cutting his turnover rate – a rare, telling feat.

Even more encouraging was the ease and patience with which he began manipulating multiple levels of the defense as a ball-screen operator, and how he drained pull-up threes at a solid 35.2 percent clip, more than doubling his amount of attempts as a rookie.

After a two-week stint as a teammate of Fox’s with Team USA, P.J. Tucker came away with the same realization to which the entire basketball world will soon be privy.

“All these young guys like De’Aaron Fox is amazing, he is way better than I thought he was, not saying I didn’t think he was good, but he is really, really good,” Tucker said, per USA Basketball.

Fox received similar adulation from other national program players and coaches, but their assessment of Bagley’s performance with Team USA is what should have the Kings most excited. Fox’s All-NBA ceiling is a known commodity to those who closely followed the team last season. Bagley’s chances at ever receiving that honor, even after a First Team All-Rookie debut, were a matter worthy of much more debate, and frankly, skepticism.

Bagley is stuck between frontcourt positions at this early stage of his career. He’ll never be a game-changing rim-protector and must get stronger, but is still better suited checking opposing centers than chasing shooters around the perimeter. There is some switch potential with Bagley, though. He has good feet for a big man, and the ability to contest shots from behind after getting beaten off the bounce due to the jaw-dropping quickness with which he gets off the floor.

Concerns about his optimal role on defense, for now, take a backseat to the glowing praise he received from members of USA Basketball this summer. Bagley, like Fox, entered training camp in Las Vegas as a member of the Select Team, but left Sin City a week later having been added to the senior roster – the only sophomore to be considered for FIBA.

He decided to leave USA Basketball shortly thereafter, but not before the perception of his place in the league began to change. Bagley, a mega recruit dating back to his days as a high school underclassman, has long possessed the raw tools of an impact player. If so much talk of his refined shooting stroke and additional strength manifests itself on the floor, he’ll show more than flashes of fulfilling that long-held expectation on a game-by-game basis come the regular season.

Disclaimer: Sacramento’s net rating with Fox and Bagley on the floor was just a hair worse than its season-long number of minus 1.2, per NBA.com. Even in a perfect world of linear development further accelerated by ballyhooed summers, they won’t be ready to lead their team to the playoffs all by themselves. But it’s not like the Kings went a surprise 39-43 last season on the backs of their franchise cornerstones alone, either.

Buddy Hield is coming off one of the best long-range shooting seasons of all time, having drained 278 threes at a 42.7 percent clip – a blend of quantity and quality only ever surpassed by Steph Curry, according to Basketball-Reference. Bogdan Bogdanovic further staked his claim as one of the league’s most dynamic reserve playmakers, and Harry Giles III – finally getting his feet back under him after multiple ACL tears – at times flashed a higher degree of two-way potential than Bagley.

Sacramento overpaid for Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza in free agency. The same goes for Harrison Barnes’ wink-wink four-year, $85 millon deal, signed after he declined a $25 million player option on his existing contract. But it’s not like the Kings have ever been major players on the open market, and the final season of each contract given to those new additions is only partially-guaranteed, while Barnes’ declines in value over its duration.

More importantly, it’s impossible to put any price on what a playoff berth would mean for this franchise. Bonzi Wells was Sacramento’s leading scorer the last time it advanced to the postseason, all the way back in 2006.

Even so, none of the Kings’ offseason acquisitions is a panacea.

Dedmon’s solid rim-protecting numbers last season figure to help a team that finished just above dead last in that regard, but the Atlanta Hawks were actually stingier in the restricted area when he was on the bench, per NBA.com.

Joseph’s limitations as a shooter make him a tricky fit against certain matchups, especially given Fox and Hield’s need for major minutes, despite his rippling defensive value.

Ariza quietly made just 34.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes with the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards, and in his mid-thirties, usually saves his utmost defensive intensity for drastic circumstances of time and score.

But the Kings don’t need those guys, or even Barnes, to be something they aren’t to make the playoffs. Sacramento was just a game back of the LA Clippers for eighth in the West heading into the All-Star break last February. The difference this season between the Kings crumbling down the stretch and making a postseason push in March and April could be as simple as subtle improvements sparked by their offseason acquisitions, the hiring of Luke Walton or the marginal growth of young players.

Sacramento was 24th in transition defensive efficiency last season, per Cleaning The Glass, a finish that would be disappointing in 2019-20 due to the presence of defensive-minded veterans and a coach with years of experience managing solid defense despite his teams pushing the pace.

Fox already draws fouls at an elite rate for a point guard; the Kings will be better on offense this season merely by virtue of him getting more easy points at the free-throw line. With a versatile defender like Barnes and stretch big like Dedmon, they have an extra dose of lineup and stylistic flexibility up front, too.

The ugly truth is that Sacramento’s playoff hopes are largely out of its control. In a vacuum of on-paper rosters and perfect health, Walton’s team isn’t among the top eight in the Western Conference. But the regular season never goes according to plan. Some teams with especially active offseasons will struggle to coalesce, and star players, unfortunately, will suffer serious, season-changing injuries.

The Kings, finally, are in a position to take advantage once those opportunities present themselves. Long-term, though, they’re thinking bigger than ending the league’s longest postseason drought, and rightfully so considering the presence of Fox, Bagley and an enviable blend of young talent and veteran depth surrounding them.

“I didn’t come here three or four years ago to make the playoffs,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac, a key member of Sacramento’s last title contender, told Bleacher Report in December. “I came here to do some unfinished business, to build a championship team.”

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NBA

NBA Daily: Indiana’s X-Factor, Malcolm Brogdon

A reshaped roster and injury concerns cloud Indiana’s season outlook. But their success or failure rests on the shoulders of their new starting point guard and the many-changing roles he will play.

Chad Smith

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Over the past few seasons, the Indiana Pacers have relied upon familiarity and continuity within their roster. That will not be the case this year, as the organization massively reshaped their team over the summer.

The biggest move that the Pacers made was acquiring restricted free agent guard Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks. The price was steep, both in terms of the contract dollars and the number of assets given up. For Indiana though, it was a price worth paying.

Of course, for starters, Brogdon was the first second-round pick to win the Rookie of the Year Award since Willis Reed in 1965. Last season, the 26-year old became just the eighth player in NBA history to achieve a 50-40-90 season, while his 93 percent free throw rate was the best in the league. Among guards, Brogdon had the fourth-best effective field goal percentage.

The numbers are fantastic, but how will the three-year veteran fit into the Pacers’ system? Several factors will determine that. Chief among them is the absence of the franchise player, Victor Oladipo. The All-Star guard is recovering from a devastating long-term injury and is not expected to be back on the floor until after Christmas.

In Milwaukee, Brogdon was thrust into many different positions but was never a ball-dominant point guard, owning a usage rate of just about 20 percent. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the newly-crowned MVP, did many things for the Bucks, including handling the ball and drawing in defenders. The spacing will not be the same for Brogdon in Indiana, especially without Oladipo.

On paper, the Brogdon fit seems perfect. In the initial stages of the season, he will need to be the motor for the offense. He is terrific with the ball going downhill and getting into the teeth of the defense — a feat that results in a high number of kick-outs and free throw attempts.

The biggest concern will be if he is still able to maximize that part of his game with two big men on the floor — spacing is everything. Last season, Brogdon shot 31 percent from downtown when a defender was more than six feet away. He has a slow release, so the best solution might be to use Domantas Sabonis as a pivot point for the offense. Notably, Brogdon is exceptional at making plays coming off of a dribble handoff.

Indiana’s first 11 games are very favorable, too, and they will travel to India for a pair of preseason games against the Sacramento Kings. Brogdon will have ample time to gel with the team before Oladipo is healthy. When that time comes, Brogdon should have no problem sliding into the role of an off-ball initiator. He is a malleable backcourt pairing for Oladipo, easily taking the pressure off of him without actually taking anything away from him.

Standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Brogdon will be a sizeable upgrade over Darren Collison. His size, length and defensive prowess will be a welcomed addition to the backcourt. During his senior campaign at Virginia, Malcolm became the first player in ACC history to win both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. With Indiana’s already massive frontcourt, the Pacers will boast one of the larger starting lineups in the league.

While Brogdon may not be at the top of the opposing team’s scouting report, he has been the picture of consistency throughout his career. He has done so while working with both the starters and the second unit too. He has three years of playoff experience that he brings to the table, but staying healthy may be his biggest challenge.

After missing an entire season in college due to a foot problem, the injuries followed Brogdon to the NBA. He has played in just 187 games in three full seasons. Last year, Malcolm missed seven weeks with a plantar fascia tear in his right foot. He appeared in just 48 games the year before that, after suffering a partially torn quad tendon. Still, the potential is undeniable.

Despite the injuries, Brogdon has improved his field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding and scoring averages each year. His leadership and ability to play multiple positions is something the Pacers will lean on heavily in the first few months of the season — and will continue to do so even after Oladipo makes his way back.

Given the circumstances, the Pacers’ success this season will hinge heavily on the shoulders of a second-round pick. Then again, Brogdon has already proven that he is so much more than that.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Most Underrated Departures

A lot can be made about the under-the-radar players that teams pick up, but not enough is made about the under-the-radar players that teams lose. Matt John elaborates.

Matt John

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When comparing the loss of a star player to the loss of a glue player, there’s no question which one is worse. Losing a star can set back a franchise for years, with so many questions surrounding what they should do next in light of his departure. Losing a glue player doesn’t make as much of a sting, but it can make all the difference in a playoff series.

It’s a shame that Golden State had all the injuries that it did. Because, had the Warriors been at full health, we would have seen one of the most obvious advantages the Raptors had over them – their glue guys. The Raptors had plenty of them at their disposal while the Warriors’ glue guys had slowly disintegrated into a shell of the depth they once had.

Before Durant’s injury, Golden State had enough star power to match up with Toronto’s, but Toronto’s glue players rounded out the edges whereas Golden State’s could not. That made a big difference in how the NBA Finals turned out.

Which brings us to this summer. This may have been the most epic player movement in one offseason. The highlight has been the movement among the players considered among the upper class.

A fair amount of quality teams lost their star players this year. Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Boston lost Kyrie Irving. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler. None of these teams replaced their departed stars with players who can do everything they can, but their replacements can do enough to keep the team afloat.

It’s a rarity to see playoff teams that lose their star players make such an effort to replace them. What’s not a rarity is that these teams also lost some of their glue players in the process. Since so many big names switched teams this offseason, their decisions have overshadowed the role players who have done the same.

This won’t be the case next summer when the NBA has one of its weakest free agency classes it’s had in years, but not enough has been made about the glue guys who find themselves on different teams this summer. Let’s take a look at who would fit that bill.

JJ Redick – Philadelphia 76ers

The acquisitions of Josh Richardson and Al Horford – on top of paying top dollar to re-sign Tobias Harris – has overshadowed the loss of the man who helped kick “The Process” into a higher gear.

Redick was a brilliant addition for the 76ers. With Simmons slated to play his rookie year and Embiid itching to capitalize on his promising rookie season, Philadelphia knew that it was too good to be a bottom dweller. With the centerpieces coming into place, the team needed immediate help. With all the cap room in the world, it added a surefire contributor with Redick.

JJ’s all-around abilities as a player are not what they once were, but what he is best at showed up so beautifully that it made him worth every penny in Philly. Because Philly used his elite three-point shooting as a focal point of its offense, Redick averaged career-highs in points per game in his two years as a Sixer.

Averaging 17.1 points per game in one season then 18 the next doesn’t usually happen with players entering their mid-thirties. The 76ers basically used JJ the same way the Hawks used Kyle Korver, only at a higher volume. Offensively, he may have never looked better in his entire career.

Because Redick’s shooting fit so snugly next to Simmons and Embiid – the three-man trio was the most used three-man lineup by Philly last year – his three-point shot became a weapon. Now that weapon is gone.

Richardson and Horford are adequate three-point shooters, but their ability to shoot the longball isn’t as intimidating as Redick’s is. Compared to Redick, their three-point shots are not accurate nor quick enough that other teams would frantically do everything to make sure their shot couldn’t see a glimmer of daylight.

The Sixers should be fine this season, but adjusting to Redick is not going to be easy. Especially for Simmons and Embiid, who lest we forget are their two cornerstones.

Aron Baynes – Boston Celtics

There was some temptation to put Al Horford on this list, but those in the know can see clear as day that going from Horford to Enes Kanter is a downgrade for the Celtics. Boston’s going to miss Horford the most out of all the players it lost, but losing Baynes is really going hurt the team’s defense in the post.

There are lots of reasons as to why the Celtics disappointed as badly as they did. There’s no reason to rehash everything because you probably saw it yourself. In regards what Baynes has to do with it, well, an injury-plagued season had him play in only 51 games.

In the 31 games that Baynes was absent, the Celtics went 17-14. When taking into effect that the Celtics won 49 games in total, it’s not totally out of left field to suggest that maybe they could have added a few more wins, and then some, had Baynes avoided the injury bug.

His unavailability definitely played a role in how the Celtics defensive rating went from 103.8 to 108 in 2019. Since the defense allowed 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor – the highest among players who played 800 minutes or more – they missed what he could do when he was out last season, and it’ll be the same reason why they’re going to miss him in his entirety this season.

To make things worse, Baynes and Horford made for one terrific frontcourt duo. In their first season, the two of them together combined for a defensive rating of 95.5. The next season, that defensive rating was 98.5. Baynes doesn’t have the typical criteria for a shot-blocker, but the results speak for themselves. When he’s on the court, he makes life hell in the paint.

Boston had to trade him in order to get the cap space to bring Kemba Walker in. With a star like that, sacrificing Baynes is more than understandable, but his absence should be felt.

The real question is, why exactly did Phoenix go out of its way to get him?

Al-Farouq Aminu/Moe Harkless – Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers lost a lot of players that helped them reach their first Conference Finals since 2000. Enes Kanter. Evan Turner. Seth Curry. Harkless and Aminu stand out the most among them because they’ve been with the team since 2015 – the year Portland lost LaMarcus Aldridge – and have been in the starting lineup for most of that time.

Losing continuity can really hurt. In Portland’s case, there’s more to this than just losing two players that they relied on. They didn’t replace what they can do. Both Harkless and Aminu are wings capable of playing power forward in a small-ball lineup. This summer, the Blazers added Kent Bazemore and Mario Hezonja and retained Rodney Hood.

Bazemore is a two/three tweener who’s barely played power forward. Hezonja has played some power forward, but he hasn’t really put it together. Hood played a fair amount of power forward in this year’s playoffs, but in the regular season, not so much. Most of the minutes he’s played are at small forward.

There is a gap there that one way or the other, Portland is going to have to fill. Neither Aminu nor Harkless are the best three-point shooters – Harkless’ three-ball somehow went to hell this season – but their defense will sorely be missed. Harkless has a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.69 while Aminu had one of 1.46. While not the best, both finished in the top-20 in their respective positions.

With Jusuf Nurkic out for who knows how long, Portland definitely had to do something to fill that gap. Trading Harkless for Hassan Whiteside – in a contract year – was a move the Blazers had to make even if it’s just a stopgap.

Losing both continuity and versatility can definitely hurt when you’re trying to pounce on a tough, but wide-open Western Conference. If the Blazers want to go further than they did last year, they need to address this before the season starts.

Glue guys are important, but what they bring to the court can be replaceable in some cases. Fans should really keep an eye out on how buyout season goes because, with all the contracts that are set to expire this year, we could see a lot of talent on the open market six months from now.

The teams that lost these players have the privilege of waiting to see how they fare. Even if losing a role player doesn’t sting as much as losing an All-Star does, getting someone who can replace what he does can make all the difference between winning the championship and getting eliminated in the opening round in this day and age.

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