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Underdog Teams With a Shot at the Second Round

Underdogs rarely pull-off upsets in the NBA Playoffs. Yet four underdogs stole a game on their respective opponent’s home floor. Which, if any, can succeed in advancing beyond the first round?

Drew Maresca

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The first round of the NBA Playoffs provides infrequent upsets – especially since 2003 when the first round was extended to a best-of-seven series (from a best-of-five).

Per the usual, this year has its share of favorites in the driver’s seat. For example, it’s a fair assumption that the Celtics, Rockets, Trailblazers and Bucks will advance after winning their first two home games.

All of the aforementioned teams were the higher seed in their respective series and – with the exception of the Trail Blazers vs. Thunder – none were seriously expected to end in upset. And while being down 2-0 isn’t a kiss of death, it is difficult winning four out of five with two of the remaining games on an opponent’s floor; in the 282 seven-game playoff series throughout NBA history, only 20 teams have come back to win from a 2-0 hole, which examines all rounds of the playoffs.

So then let’s focus instead on the underdogs of the 2019 NBA Playoffs who stole a game on their opponent’s floor: the Magic, Clippers, Spurs and Nets, all of whom are tied in their respective series at a game a piece.

For context, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook via an article written by Kaelen Jones for Sports Illustrated, the Warriors were -50,000 against the Clippers entering the series;  the Raptors were -1,400 against the Magic; the 76ers were -800 against the Nets and the Nuggets were -200 against the Spurs.

Put plainly, Vegas had no faith in the Clippers and Magic advancing. It felt strongly about the 76ers’ chances to advance past the Nets. And it was marginally confident that the Nuggets would eliminate the Spurs.

And while none of the aforementioned odds conclusively indicate that a team will advance, it speaks to the outlook of experts as of the start of the playoffs.

But experts can be wrong. And while we know all four series should still not be viewed evenly, stealing one of the first two games is the first step to upsetting a favorite.  So which of the four underdogs who stole one of the first two playoff games are most likely to advance (if any)?

From an analytics standpoint, the Spurs have played their first-round opponent the best of the four teams we’re examining. In the aggregate, the Spurs are -4 against their first-round opponent through two games, whereas the Nets and Clippers are both -13 and the Magic are -26.

After splitting the first two games, the Spurs are given a 36.6% chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs by Basketball-Reference.com, which is not the best odds of the four teams. The best odds go the Nets, who are given a 39.1% chance of success. Next up is the Clippers, who are receive a 23.1% chance of advancing. And finally, the Magic have only a 21.1% chance of advancing. Those odds are determined by 1,000 simulations of the remainder of the playoffs after two games.

But we all know that analytics and simulations aren’t 100% accurate – after all, the Warriors’ odds for success on Monday was as high as 99.9% when up 31 points against the Clippers. Players and teams get hot at unexpected times and coaching and strategy plays a bigger factor in the playoffs more than it does in the regular season.

So what else might affect the outcomes? Let’s examine three factors that could swing the results in favor of the underdogs.

Brooklyn Nets: Jared Dudley

His initial allure to the Nets was his veteran leadership. And that was valuable enough to justify his spot on the roster.

But his impact on Game 1 was profound. However, he was sorely missed in Game 2 as he was recovering from a tight right calf.

In Game 1, Dudley guarded Ben Simmons on 22 possessions, Joel Embiid on three possession, Boban Marjanovic on seven possessions and Mike Scott on 11, in which time they scored a combined two points (Simmons). Drilling down to the All-Stars (Simmons and Embiid), that’s two points on 25 possessions. Not bad for a veteran leader.

And after examining game film from the first game, his value is even more clear. His defensive instincts are incredibly sound. Dudley makes the right choices far more often than not, as evidenced by his discipline in transition when picking up Simmons. He regularly correctly sagged off of Simmons, resisted the urge to bite on fakes and forced Simmons to take less-than-ideal shots or pass the ball.

And Dudley is a willing passer and screener, too, rarely shooting the ball unless open. He provides the Nets with energy, focus and wisdom. If the Nets are to advance, they will need everything they can get from Dudley, who is listed as probable for Thursday night’s game in Brooklyn.

Orland Magic: Point guard play and three-point shooting

The Magic have a few kinks to iron out that could sway their fortunes.

The first of the two comes from D.J. Augustin. They’ll need Augustin to play like the capable floor general he proved he can be in Game 1 when he dropped 25 points and six assists on the Raptors and shot 80% from three-point range, including a game-winning shot with 3.5 seconds remaining.

On the contrary, when he plays like he did in Game 2 – 9 points, 0 assists and 0-1 from three-point range – the Magic will struggle.

Augustin has the ability to be his team’s best three-point shooter and most capable playmaker with the ball in his hands. He must summon his best play if they are to stand a chance against the Raptors.

But Augustin’s strong play and improved shooting won’t do it alone. The Magic must must shoot better as a team, notably on three-point field goals. In Game 1, the Magic seized that opportunity, shooting a scorching 48% from deep on 29 attempts – that adds up to 42 points on three-pointers. Compare that to Game 2, in which they shot only 26.5% from three-point territory, which resulted in only 27 points.

Hitting the three-ball has residual benefits that are arguably as important as the points. It opens up driving lanes and forces the defense to either close-out aggressively on shooters or deny them the basketball – either way, the result is a better-spaced floor. While it will be a dog fight for the Magic, they’ll have a shot if they can shoot the three at an above average clip and get elite level play from their point guard and floor general.

San Antonio: Home court advantage

San Antonio isn’t typically mentioned among the elite home crowds by the mainstream media. We hear about Denver and Golden State regularly, and rightfully so. Madison Square Garden gets props despite not playing host to a competitive team in some years. Philly has a reputation for being aggressive, too. But the Spurs home record hints that its home court should get more props than it does.

The Spurs were tied for the third-best home record during the regular season (32-9). Add in the fact that the Nuggets had a sub-.500 winning percentage on the road in 2018-19 and we have a recipe for an upset. Interestingly, the inverse is also true – the Spurs were a sub-par road team and the Nuggets a superb home team – so it’s far from guaranteed that the Spurs win the next two. But if they can, the Spurs will go back to Denver up 3-1 with three opportunities to close out the series.

The NBA Playoffs is less about early-round upsets than it is about seeing giants go head-to-head in the conference semifinals and beyond. The first round and its victors is mostly an afterthought. But maybe not this year. There is potential for more than one underdog to advance, which would shake-up the playoff landscape moving forward. The next step in that journey begins tonight, as the Nets, Spurs and Clippers all look to defend their respective home courts.

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Brungardt, BAM Changing The Game In Accurate Athletic Assessment

Spencer Davies speaks with strength and conditioning specialist Brett Brungardt about co-founding Basic Athletic Measurement and its role in the NBA Draft Combine.

Spencer Davies

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As the NBA’s postseason continues and the crowning of a champion in the Finals draws nearer, the rest of the league’s attention is set on June 20, the date of the 2019 NBA Draft.

Last Tuesday in Chicago, the results of the draft lottery determined the first-round order of the top selections in the field. Over the next three days, attention shifted to the annual NBA Draft Combine.

You didn’t see Zion Williamson’s or RJ Barrett risk injury or hurt their chances by participating. Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, Coby White and Cam Reddish all spoke to the media and met with teams, but they didn’t actually do anything physical. You rarely see any of those premier prospects do so.

The purpose of the NBA Combine is to help boost the draft stock of professional hopefuls that aren’t pegged at the top of their class. It’s the place where some late first-rounders turn into mid-first-rounders. Where once-thought-of undrafted players move up into potential draftee status through athletic testing and live scrimmages in front of executives, agents and coaches.

Every year, there’s always a “winner” at the NBA Combine, and sometimes there are multiple that benefit come draft time. We’ll find that out in about a month.

Whoever that may be, though, will have to thank Brett Brungardt.

Boasting over 25 years of experience—notably as a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Washington and with the Dallas Mavericks—Brungardt is responsible for the co-founding of Basic Athletic Measurement (BAM), a standardized athletic testing organization that has essentially been the straw that stirs the drink at the NBA Combine since the company’s inception in 2008.

Brungardt hatched the idea of BAM based on conversations with head coaches over his time as a strength and conditioning assistant. He’d field questions about 40-yard sprint times and vertical jump measurements, and then would refer to spreadsheets with recorded year-by-year results to answer them.

Unfortunately, almost all the time, Brungardt’s numbers didn’t match up with the staff’s findings—so he brainstormed.

“In the back of my mind I kept thinking there’s gotta be a way to have reliable and valid information in a linear component that’s looking at athletes through time that we can trust,” Brungardt told Basketball Insiders at Quest Multisport in Chicago. “We were the original fake news, to be quite honest.

“On the back of that, we decided to come up with a standardized way of assessing athletes and looking at what we call our performance parameters, and then put that in the equation of making sure we’re creating a well-balanced, healthy athlete through some…they really are quite simple tests, but what we’ve added to make it more reliable is the technology. So we’re looking at a lot of data points. Not necessarily the end results become important, but it’s all the significant data points between the start and finish.”

Brungardt put in the work to travel across the world, scouring through New Zealand and Australia to find the perfect technology that would best help drive his brainchild. Doing his due diligence, he agreed to partner with Fusion Sport, a global leader in human performance software.

And so, along with Martin Haase, his co-founder who had an extensive background in software and statistics to help on the organizing end of things, Brungardt launched BAM.

For the past 11 years, BAM has taken a combination of advanced technological equipment and data collection to record times and scores—labeled BAMScores—for standardized tests specific to certain drills.

“It’s like an SAT for younger people,” Brungardt said.

At the NBA Combine, BAM administers five different tests, all of which are incorporated into BAMScore:

Pro Three-Quarter Court Sprint: Determines acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance.

Lane Agility: Tests movement patterns in all four directions around the lane and measures the ability to make quick changes of direction while moving at speed.

Reaction Shuttle: Evaluates ability to show how quick and effective decisions are made and actions initiated. The brief interval of time it takes to react to an external stimulus.

Vertical Jump: Demonstrates ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible vertical displacement.

Approach Jump: Athlete starts within 15 feet of the Vertec. It is a running start vertical jump. Measurement is similar to vertical jump, but also includes the athlete’s ability to coordinate and incorporate strength and power with reach.

The process of executing such tests is quite fascinating. According to an interview Brungardt did with Access Athletes, the participants register online ahead of the events and are given an identification tag with their Fusion ID technology. They are then re-registered with their tags verified through video. During the actual tests, an electronic wristband is worn to monitor player movement.

And just in case of the rarity where the software doesn’t reflect the correct outcome, Brungardt utilizes three backups (a video, handheld PDA and a CPU backing up the system).

Once an athlete finishes a test –or is done with the full amount of testing—the timing system downloads the results into BAM’s database where all of the information is stored. From there, the times and BAMScore reports can be shared to whoever requests them.

“For basketball, it’s the biggest standardized database in the world because we’ve been doing it for such a long time and standardized this process with the technology,” Brungardt said. “There are databases out there with hand time, which is highly unreliable, and mixtures of such, but all of ours are an apple-to-apple comparison.”

Physically and athletically speaking, these tests tell us everything we need to know. As for measuring greatness at the professional level, that’s the tough part.

“To use this as a talent identification process, [no]. There’s a lot of things that go on in basketball,” Brungardt said. “Larry Bird probably would not have been a great combine tester. But if you’re looking at a specific role for a player, someone that’s gonna fill a spot, that’s gonna play a role because there’s only one basketball out there, then you may have certain metrics that you deem are meaningful.

“We acquire the data. The brains in the NBA then put their secret sauce together from this data to see what they want to utilize out of that component. There’s great athletes and they’re fun to watch. It’s fun to watch the movement patterns, see how they do. Because it’s becoming more ingrained in the culture of basketball, but it’s still not like other sports where these parameters are instilled in junior high age and kids are performing them. So some of this is new to these athletes.”

Testing well is just one piece of the puzzle. Although it’s not his area of expertise, Brungardt has a general idea of how prospective talent is evaluated by basketball scouts and front office executives.

“There’s a performance box. And if they’re outside that box, probably no matter what their skill set is, it may be very difficult for them to perform at this level because the guys are so athletic,” Brungardt said. “You could be the greatest shooter in the world, but if you can’t create the space or get your shot off fast enough, then they’re gonna get to you and they’re gonna change your world.

“So you have to be athletic enough to create space to move so then you also then can’t be a certain liability. So there’s an athletic box they look at, and then they start to move down to skill pattern. That’s still the priority.”

BAM isn’t just limited to basketball, by the way. The organization does testing in 17 sports in total, with BAMScores compiled for each so that the numbers can be compared across.

For example, Jordan Bone earned the highest BAMScore at the 2019 NBA Combine in Chicago with a total of 2401 points. Put that next to Troy Apke’s impressive showing at the 2018 NFL Combine (unofficial BAMScore of 2379—they can’t authenticate the measures) and you can infer that both are extremely athletic people.

Bone and Apke’s BAMScores fall into the “professional” range of the organization’s scale. Contrasting with the U.S. Men’s National Cricket Team tryouts in April 2018, their player’s top BAMScore was 1957, a figure that ranks in the “varsity” category, three levels below the range those two fell into.

“Some sports have certain parameters that they’re better at because of adaptations and skills that go on in that sport than others,” Brungardt said. “But it doesn’t mean that other sports can’t look at those and become better at those performance parameters.”

Brungardt’s past experiences in basketball coaching played a significant part in making his vision come to life. With Brett’s innovation and the assistance of Haase, BAM has become the standard bearer of accurate athletic assessment.

“We established: ‘These tests are helpful for this sport,'” Brungardt said “Stopwatches just are not the most reliable way in the world to do it. When you start looking at more transcription and every time you touch data humanly, things happen that make it inaccurate.

“For me, it’s about physical development. I wanted to test an athlete, then I trained them and then I wanted to re-test them in a reliable fashion to see if what I was doing in the weight room was improving him on those components. And those were the goals.”

And while Brungardt is proud of the presence BAM has, he understands that upgrading should always be on their mind.

“Anytime you have more data on a test, it becomes more valid. It’s testing when it purports to test and that’s what validity is,” Brungardt said. “The technology is better. It always gets better.

“It’s about right now, we feel it’s really good. We’re always looking to improve things, but there’s always the human component because you have proctors. There’s lots of things we try to make as consistent as possible, but here what we’re doing, everything that we touch, pretty good!”

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NBA Daily: Tacko Fall Out To Prove He’s More Than Tall

Most of the attention centered around Tacko Fall stems from his height, but after an impressive combine outing, he’s out to prove that there’s so much more to him.

Matt John

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Tacko Fall was one of the many participants who attended the NBA Draft Combine this past week in Chicago.

By so doing, the combine retrieved all of his official measurements as a player such as his height, weight, and wingspan among others. After the combine was over, Fall had the following measurements.

Height (without shoes): 7’5 ¼’’
Height (with shoes): 7’7″
Weight: 289 pounds
Wingspan: 8’2 ¼’’
Standing Reach: 10’2 ½”
Vertical Leap: 26.5″

Those measurements set many records at the combine. So, in case you didn’t know it before, growing has never exactly been an issue for Tacko Fall. Even though the findings that measured how freakishly tall Fall is shocked the masses, none of them really fazed the man himself as long as that meant he wasn’t going to grow anymore.

“I kind of already knew so I wasn’t really surprised,” Fall said. “I don’t think I’m going to keep growing. I think it’s just going to stay there. Hopefully. We’ll see.”

Fall’s physical advantages made him look like a man among boys in his four years at the University of Central Florida. The Senegal native averaged 2.4 blocks and 7.7 rebounds – in only 23 minutes per game – and put up a scorching field goal percentage of 74 percent over the four-year span of his college career. Basically, Fall’s good stats mainly come from his unrivaled length.

During his time at the combine, Fall believes that sticking to his guns and not doing things out of his comfort zone made him look good to spectators.

“I think I’m doing pretty good,” Fall said. “I’m holding my own. I’m not going out there doing anything out of character. I’m staying true to myself. I’m playing hard. I’m talking. I’m running hard. I’m doing everything that I need to do.”

Despite his towering presence, Fall is not expected to be a high selection in this year’s NBA Draft, if he is selected at all. Not many mock drafts at the time being list his name among those who will be taken, and the ones that do have him among one the last selections in the draft.

Some of his primary critiques as a player include his low assist-to-turnover ratio and his faulty shooting mechanics. The biggest one of them all is his lack of mobility. Being as tall as he is would make it hard for anyone to move around well enough to compete with NBA offenses that rely more on quickness and spacing now than it did on mass.

The concerns surrounding Tacko’s mobility were made loud and clear to him. That’s why he believed he had something to prove to the skeptics at the combine.

“For people my size that’s the biggest thing that they’re looking for,” Fall said. “‘Can he move?’ ‘Can he keep up with the game?’ ‘Can he run the floor?’ ‘Can he step out and guard?’ I feel like I have the ability to do those things. So, coming in here and having the opportunity to play against great competition and showing my abilities have been a great blessing for me.”

Before the combine, Fall’s stock benefited from his final performance as a college basketball player. Tacko and the ninth-seeded Knights fought the first-seeded Blue Devils until the very end but ultimately lost 77-76. Fall had much to do with UCF’s near-upset over Duke, putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes before fouling out.

That game did a lot for Tacko’s belief in himself as a player leading to the combine. Putting up that kind of stat line against one of the best college basketball programs with three top-10 prospects with so much on the line had to make him feel good about his chances. He said as much following his performance at the combine.

“That was definitely one of the best games in my college basketball career,” Fall said. “It helps build confidence. You go toe-to-toe with those people. You think, ‘Wow I can really do this.’ All you have to do is keep working and working and keep proving that you can step out there and compete every night.”

For some prospects, the NBA Combine is nothing more than just a formality. In fact, multiple prospects for this upcoming draft – including RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, and consensus No. 1 pick Zion Williamson – decided to skip out on it. For prospects who are on the bubble like Tacko, it’s a rare opportunity to show that there’s more to them than what they showed in college.

Fall recognized the importance of the occasion and voiced his appreciation for the chance he had to show everyone who attended what he can bring to a basketball court.

“It’s been a great experience,” Fall said. “I’m blessed to be here. I worked really hard. I thank God I’m in this position. I just got to take advantage of it.”

Tacko’s efforts impressed scouts and media members alike. There have been rumblings that his play at the combine has further increased his stock in the NBA Draft. Even with all the work he’s put in and the ambition he has to make it to the biggest stage, Fall is soaking it all in.

“I’m enjoying it because not a lot of people get the opportunity to come here,” Fall said. “I’ve worked really hard and God put me in this position. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

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NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA

After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.

Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.

Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.

“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”

Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.

“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”

Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.

At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.

“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”

Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.

“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”

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