But something has clicked with Wiggins in this, his sixth NBA season. Over the Wolves’ first 11 games, he has come out like a man on a mission to reclaim his former promise. He’s averaging nearly 26 points per game (including scoring 30 or more in four of his past five contests) to go with career-best numbers in assists per game, rebounds per game and true shooting percentage. Still just 24 years old, is Wiggins figuring things out? Can he finally deliver on his long-dormant potential?
Certainly, this is the best Wiggins has played in a very long time. To help ballpark a player’s performance in any given game, I created a Game Score-like box score estimate of points added above replacement via RAPTOR — our new player-value metric — which I’m calling the RAPTOR Game Score, or RAGS.2 Over the past five games, Wiggins has averaged a RAGS of 10.7 points above replacement, which is the most he’s had in any five-game stretch since February 2017, nearly three full seasons ago:
For a little perspective, at no point last year did Wiggins average a five-game RAGS any better than 5.0. So this has already been a remarkable start to the season for him.
The seasonlong numbers bear out Wiggins’s rapid improvement as well. Going into the year, our projection system thought Wiggins would be worth -0.3 points above average per 100 possessions. While that was better than how many other advanced stats regarded him — in Box Plus/Minus, for instance, Wiggins was worth -2.9 points per 100 last season relative to average — it was still quite a bit lower than the career-best +1.9 RAPTOR level (including +5.0 on offense) Wiggins has actually played at to start the season.
One of the key ingredients in Wiggins’s resurgence has been a dramatic uptick in scoring efficiency despite a concurrent increase in usage rate, which doesn’t usually happen. A year after letting his true shooting percentage dip below 50 percent for the first time in his career, Wiggins is now up to a career-high 56.3 mark, to go with a usage of 28.3 percent — 3.9 points higher than last year — as well. He has connected for career-best shooting percentages on both 2-pointers (53.2) and 3-pointers (36.1), despite being assisted on the lowest share of made baskets in his career to date, per data from Cleaning the Glass.
This mix of volume and efficiency is rare. Wiggins is one of only 17 players this season with a true shooting percentage of at least 56 percent and a usage rate of at least 28 percent — joining an elite offensive list with names like James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard on it. And it bears mentioning that, at 6.3 percent, Wiggins also has the lowest turnover rate of anybody on that list.
Some of Wiggins’s improved performance owes to better shot selection — a longtime issue for a player whose repertoire always more resembled midrange gunslingers of yesteryear, such as Kobe Bryant, than modern Moreyball purveyors like Harden. As recently as 2017-18, Wiggins took 47 percent of his shots from midrange and only 24 percent from 3-point range. (Harden, by comparison, takes about 20 percent of his shots from midrange and half of them from three.) Over the past two seasons, Wiggins has steadily improved those ratios; he’s now taking only 35 percent of shots from midrange and 29 percent from three, all while continuing to get to the rim at a solid clip.
Since he’s starting to shoot more from higher-value areas of the court, it makes sense that Wiggins would be a more efficient offensive player this season. But he has also benefited from some trends that may prove unsustainable over the course of the season. According to tracking data from Second Spectrum, Wiggins has taken shots with an expected effective field-goal percentage of 47.7 percent so far this season. That’s still well below the league median (among players with at least 50 shot attempts) of 51.7 percent, but Wiggins has made up for it by shooting an effective field-goal percentage 5.8 points better than we’d expect from shot quality alone. Plenty of star players thrive by making tough shots — Kevin Durant comes to mind — so maybe Wiggins can keep that up … but we’ve also found that shot-making is a highly variable stat from game to game and even season to season. For instance, last year Wiggins shot an effective field-goal percentage 1.4 points below expected after accounting for shot difficulty, according to Second Spectrum.
In truth, Wiggins probably won’t be this good going forward, though he was also never as bad as he appeared to be last season. His Predictive RAPTOR (what we call “PREDATOR”), which is a version that regresses down statistical components known to be noisy in a small sample, has been +0.4 to start the 2019-20 season, somewhat lower than the +1.9 standard RAPTOR that gives players credit for performances even if they might be driven more by luck than skill. Last season, by contrast, Wiggins’s PREDATOR (-1.1) was higher than his regular RAPTOR (-2.0), indicating that luck was working against him.
Wiggins is playing better — and luckier — this season
Andrew Wiggins’s performance by season according to two versions of FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR
After stripping away the luckier aspects of Wiggins’s season to date, he still looks like a markedly better offensive player so far than at any other point in his career. This also makes sense: Our projections have consistentlycompared Wiggins to current Spurs veterans DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay3 when they were the same age, and both of them easily set career-best RAPTOR marks (to that point in their careers) in their age-24 seasons — just like Wiggins is doing now.
But of course, as we’ve written about before, there’s always a catch with Wiggins. Even in a breakout season, his offensive PREDATOR ranks only 53rd among players with at least 150 minutes played, putting Wiggins at roughly the same level as Will Barton and Buddy Hield. Why? Despite the improved scoring, his shot selection inherently limits his ceiling, and even with an improved assist rate, he still doesn’t pass enough (or draw enough fouls) to enhance his offensive value much otherwise. And then there’s defense, where Wiggins still ranks as decidedly subpar. According to defensive PREDATOR, he sits 188th out of 252 players with at least 150 minutes this season — and again, that’s after filtering out the inherent bad luck in things like his -11.4 on-versus-off defensive plus/minus per 100 possessions.
Top 10 MLB teams in 2019 according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo rating*
I mean, sure, the Washington Nationals just beat the Astros to win the World Series in seven games. But still, the Astros were your official Elo champs for the 2019 season. (Somehow I doubt the Astros will throw a parade or put up a banner for the honor.)
Because Elo takes a long view of the entire season, being the best in it is a pretty good proxy for being the best team in the league “on paper.” And it’s actually not uncommon for Elo’s Paper Champion and the team that wins the World Series not to be one and the same. Including Houston this year, it’s happened 28 times — or in a whopping 52 percent of seasons — since the late 1960s, when MLB expanded to a division-based playoff format. Simply put, baseball is a sport in which the best team doesn’t always win. (Or even if it does, maybe we don’t always know who the best team is anyway.)
Take a tour through MLB’s Hall of (Paper) Champions
Actual World Series champions and end-of-season MLB Elo champions* (for years where they were not the same team), 1966-2019
Other sports have their own Paper Champs. (Although none happen anywhere near as frequently as in MLB.) I went back to the start of the Super Bowl era in 19662 and looked at the other sports for which we keep Elo — the NFL, NBA, college football, and men’s and women’s college basketball. Using the versions of our Elo that contain no adjustments for trades or players being in and out of the lineup,3 I found each case where the champion at the end of the season4 was not the team that finished atop the Elo leaderboard. Across all of these sports, these Paper Champs come up more frequently than you might think:
Since 1966, all but seven seasons5 (2013, 2009, 2005, 1998, 1989, 1979 and 1967) contained at least one Paper Champion across these five sports. Some years featured a lot more: In 2011, for instance, there were four Paper Champs — the Yankees in MLB, the Patriots in the NFL, and Ohio State (men’s) and UConn (women’s) in college basketball. (The only champs that actually led in Elo were the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA and Alabama in college football.)
In general, there is about a 50-50 chance that a given baseball season would produce a Paper Champ and somewhere between a 20 and 30 percent probability each of the other sports will as well.
How each sport’s Paper Championship rate compares
Frequency of Elo “Paper Champions” (and rate of the real champion being decided head-to-head) by sport, 1966-2019
No. of Paper Champs
Share of seasons
% of Paper Champs lost H2H**
What does all of this mean? Well, it could be that Elo is broken. Even though it is calibrated to be the best predictor for a team’s next game — given its recent form, long-term expectations, wins and losses, scoring margin, opponent quality and game locations — maybe there are certain aspects of each sport’s postseason that aren’t captured by the algorithm. (This is the “Billy Beane’s Shit Doesn’t Work In The Playoffs” theory.)
A fundamental challenge of forecasting is the balancing act between considering a large amount of information — some of which may be of less relevance than others — and a more specific one that is more relevant, but also more prone to factors such as random variance in a small sample. Our Elo models attempt to straddle this divide, but it’s impossible to find the perfect mix of information that works in every single case.
Still another way of reconciling Paper Champs to postseason reality, though, is to consider that most of these actual champions vanquished their on-paper rivals head-to-head along the way. When there was a Paper Champ in baseball, for instance, 46 percent of the time that team lost directly to the eventual champion in a postseason game or series. (See: Nationals over Astros.) In the NBA, that number was 60 percent; in men’s college basketball, 79 percent; and in the NFL, a whopping 91 percent. Although Elo still wasn’t convinced that the matter was settled afterward, the Paper Champ at least had a chance to make its case on the field or court.
And in most of the cases where things weren’t settled head-to-head, you only have to zoom out a little to find a path of head-to-head superiority between the actual champ and the paper one. Like in the 2017 NCAA Women’s Tournament, when UConn finished as Paper Champ … but lost in the national semis to Mississippi State, which then lost to South Carolina in the title game. Almost every disagreement between Elo and the official championship can be settled either directly head-to-head or in this manner — with the exceptions of a few pre-wild-card MLB seasons (in which the Paper Champ didn’t even make the postseason at all) and a number of older college football campaigns that underscored just how broken the sport’s pre-playoff system truly was.
But at least the BCS existed by then. Before it came along, the 1970s and ’80s often required even more ludicrous daisy-chaining of head-to-head results to reconcile the championship. In 1976, the path from actual champ Pitt to Paper Champ USC required a string of five games. And in 1983, the chain went like this: Actual champ Miami beat Notre Dame, which beat Boston College, which beat Clemson, which tied Georgia, which beat Texas, which beat Auburn, Elo’s Paper Champion. No wonder college football fans clamored for a proper playoff (even if the one they have now could also probably stand to be expanded).
But even with the perfect playoff system, you can never really avoid Paper Champs. Random variance and matchups — plus a million other factors — will always cause teams to play better or worse than they look on paper. And would we really want it any other way? If we look at who would have benefited most over the past half-century if Elo perfectly aligned with actual championships, the rich would mostly have gotten richer:
Who has beaten their on-paper odds most (and least) often?
MLB, NFL, NBA, college basketball (women’s* and men’s) and college football teams with the biggest positive — and negative — differentials between their actual championships, 1966-2019
No. of championships
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Los Angeles Lakers
New York Giants
St. Louis Cardinals
Kansas City Royals
San Francisco Giants
Ohio State Buckeyes
No. of championships
San Antonio Spurs
North Carolina Tar Heels
New England Patriots
New York Yankees
Alabama Crimson Tide
Although I feel bad for the Orioles and Indians, who would have won multiple extra championships if Elo had been perfectly predictive, other teams that have won plenty of real titles — Alabama football, UConn women’s basketball, the Patriots, the Yankees, the Spurs, etc. — “should” have even more under Elo.
Oftentimes, it’s the unpredictability of sports that make them great — just ask the Nationals. So we’re sorry, Astros. Although the first-ever Elo Championship pennant would be something to behold.
In the first Thursday night TNT game of the 2019-20 NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks picked up a road victory over the Houston Rockets, outscoring the home team 39-24 in the fourth quarter and 26-16 over the final seven-plus minutes of the game. That the Bucks pulled out a close win down the stretch was not unusual in and of itself: On their way to 60 regular-season wins last year, the Bucks were one of the best clutch-time teams in the NBA, going 22-14 in games that were within 5 points at any time in the last five minutes, according to NBA.com. What is unusual about this particular win was that all of clutch time was played without the services of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who fouled out with 5:18 remaining in the game.
The Bucks’ second game of the season also entered clutch time, with their contest against the Miami Heat going to overtime after Antetokounmpo tied the game at the buzzer by tipping a Khris Middleton airball into the hoop. Two minutes and 29 seconds into overtime, though, Antetokounmpo fouled out again. And he wasn’t the only one. Three other players1 fouled out of that game as well.
Foul outs are generally pretty rare, and games with multiple players fouling out are even more so. But that Bucks-Heat matchup was not even the first game this season in which multiple players were disqualified because of fouls, and it almost certainly won’t be the last.2 Foul outs have absolutely skyrocketed early this season.
Through the 51 games played as of Monday night, there had been 21 foul outs. Given that there are 1,230 games played in an NBA season, this puts us on a full-season pace of 506 foul outs this season. How does that compare to previous seasons?3
If this full-season pace holds, the 2019-20 season would see a 60 percent increase in foul outs over the number of foul outs last season, which itself was over a 40 percent increase in foul outs from the year before. The league has not seen even 400 foul outs since the 2006-07 campaign — and prior to last year had not seen 300-plus foul outs since the 2010-11 season.
Some of this year’s incredible foul-out pace is obviously due to a small sample size. There aren’t many games in which four players foul out, and in a sample of just 51 games, having just one will affect the full-season pace quite a bit. But even if you remove that game, the league would still be on pace for 418 foul outs this season, an increase of nearly 32 percent from a year ago.4
What’s behind this early-season phenomenon? There appear to be a few contributing factors. The first is an overall spike in foul calls. Last season, the league averaged 41.6 total foul calls per game, according to data from PBP Stats. This year, that number has shot up to 48.1 per game. Much of that spike can be explained by an increase in the rate of offensive foul calls.
The league identified “Illegal Contact Initiated by Offensive Players” as its first officiating point of education for the 2019-20 season. “The officiating staff will maintain heightened focus on these types of plays moving forward this season,” said Monty McCutchen, Vice President of referee development and training, in a video offering guidance about these types of fouls. But there’s emphasizing a point of education, and then there’s what’s happening this season.
From the 2003-04 to 2018-19 seasons, offensive fouls accounted for 8.8 percent of total fouls. The NBA has broken out offensive fouls by type (i.e., charge vs. non-charge) going back to the 2010-11 season, and in that time, charge calls have ranged between 0.96 and 1.40 per game, and non-charge offensive fouls, such as illegal screens, checked in between 2.05 and 2.68 per game. Overall, offensive fouls per game peaked in 2006-07, at 4.39 per game. That is, until this season.
So far in the 2019-20 campaign, referees are whistling 6.39 offensive fouls per game, nearly 75 percent more than the 3.66 they called a year ago. Charges have spiked from 1.11 per game last season to 1.84 this year. Illegal screens and other offensive fouls have jumped as well, shooting up from 2.55 per game to 4.55 per game. Offensive fouls account for 13.4 percent of all foul calls so far this season and have contributed to 12 of the 21 foul outs leaguewide.
But if offensive fouls are up so dramatically over a year ago, why did the foul-out spike begin last season? And how does that relate to what looks like a second spike this year? The increase in offensive fouls doesn’t seem to be the culprit for the overall movement — the 3.66 offensive foul calls per game last season were just 0.39 more than the year before and lie firmly in the middle of the average number of total offensive foul calls over the previous 15 years. It also doesn’t seem to be due to an increase in pace,5 an increase in overtime games,6 an increase in clutch-time games7 or even an increase in the share of clutch-time games that entered overtime.8
Instead, we may be able to blame a specific group of players: the youngest in the league. Players between 18 and 22 years old are being given more responsibility and a greater share of minutes than ever in our time frame. From 2004 to 2018, these players accounted for between 13.1 percent and 17.9 percent of all leaguewide minutes played. During the 2018-19 season, that number spiked to 20 percent.9
A typical player in that youngest age range averaged 4.4 fouls per 48 minutes, nearly 10 percent greater than a player aged 23 and older, and that’s in line with figures from prior seasons. The 18- to 22-year-olds accounted for 75 of the 317 foul outs the league saw last season, the greatest number of foul outs that group of players had had since the 2008-09 campaign. Perhaps not coincidentally, foul outs began dropping off after that season.
It’s worth noting that the youngins have accounted for five of the 21 foul outs so far this season, which puts them on pace for 121 on the year — or nearly as many as the past two seasons combined. With teams increasingly asking younger players to handle larger and larger minute burdens, and with the league once again looking to crack down on certain types of foul calls, it’s entirely possible we could be in for a season full of players exiting the game early.
When the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s 2019-20 NBA championship odds first opened back in May, the Golden State Warriors were the early favorites to win this season’s title. At +175,1 the Warriors’ odds implied a 36 percent chance2 to win the championship — pretty high in absolute terms, but low relative to recent Warriors odds, as it priced in some uncertainty around whether Kevin Durant would re-sign with the team. That same uncertainty had the New York Knicks optimistically tied for the sixth-best title odds in the league (+1600), as the Knicks harbored hopes of drafting Zion Williamson and signing Durant and Kyrie Irving.
A lot has changed in the NBA since then. The Warriors lost Klay Thompson to a torn ACL and Durant to an Achilles injury before Durant signed with the Brooklyn Nets. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Paul George became Los Angeles Clippers; Anthony Davis became a Los Angeles Laker; Russell Westbrook became a Houston Rocket; and LeBron James crept closer to age 35.3 And true to form, the Knicks missed out on the top pick in the NBA draft, whiffed on marquee player acquisitions and saw their title odds fall to +100,000, tied for worst in the league.
When the NBA’s star carousel finally slowed, the top of the league felt about as balanced as it had in recent years. Heading into Tuesday night’s season openers, the Clippers were favored to win it all (+350, good for an implied probability of 22 percent), followed by the Lakers (+400, 20 percent), Milwaukee Bucks (+600, 14 percent), Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers (+800, 11 percent), Warriors (+1200, 8 percent), Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets (+1600, 6 percent) and Boston Celtics (+2500, 4 percent).4
So how balanced are these teams’ odds in the context of recent NBA history? For starters, the Kawhi-led Clippers are, in odds terms, the NBA’s weakest preseason favorite since the waning months of the George W. Bush administration, or late 2008. In basketball parlance, by then LeBron had already started four All-Star Games; Zion had just started third grade. In any case, Tuesday’s tipoff marked the first time since the start of the 2008-09 season that the NBA’s preseason favorite had championship odds worse than +300.5 Put another way, this is the first time in 11 years in which no NBA team entered the season with an odds-implied probability of at least 25 percent to win it all.
As Vegas odds go, only three of the past 35 NBA seasons6 have featured a weaker preseason favorite than this year’s Clippers: 2007-08 (Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, +450), 2006-07 (Mavericks, +400) and 2004-05 (Spurs, +400). All three of those seasons happened to come in the four-year period between the end of the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant era and the beginning of the Pau Gasol-Bryant pairing in L.A.7 The Spurs won two titles in that span (and three in five years), but Vegas frequently underestimated them along the way, and San Antonio never owned the top of the odds board as other dynasties have.
The Clippers are the weakest favorite in over a decade
Preseason odds to win the NBA Finals and season results, since 1984-85
Despite the team’s low-for-a-favorite odds, Clippers fans would be happy to learn that in the 35 NBA seasons since 1984-85, the preseason favorite or co-favorite made the NBA Finals 27 times and won 18 championships. During the same 35-season period in the NFL, by contrast, only seven preseason favorites or co-favorites won the Super Bowl. The NBA’s +350 favorites don’t win the Finals with the same frequency as NBA favorites in general — only three of seven have made the Finals, and only two have won — but thanks to a handful of somewhat unexpected NBA champions,8 +350 actually represents the median preseason title odds for all NBA champions since 1984-85.9
Beyond the Clippers, the preseason parity of 2019-20 also harkens back to the mid-to-late 2000s. Five of this year’s NBA teams — the Clippers, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Sixers — came into the season with odds-implied probabilities to win the NBA championship between 10 percent and 24.99 percent, the most such teams since 2006-07. Eight teams — the five mentioned plus the Warriors, Jazz and Nuggets — carried odds-implied probabilities of 5 percent to 24.99 percent, the most since 2008-09. This stands in contrast to the past 10 years, when championship odds were concentrated in one or two teams per season — usually the Warriors, Cavaliers, Heat or Lakers — and then dwindled from there.
Whether you think there’s value in this year’s NBA odds ultimately comes down to whether you believe any teams have a greater probability to win the championship than the betting markets imply. These perceptions naturally vary between fans, pundits and computer models. FiveThirtyEight’s predictions, powered by the new RAPTOR player ratings, agree with Vegas about which nine teams had the highest preseason probability of winning the NBA Finals. But relative to the oddsmakers, RAPTOR is more bullish on the Rockets and bearish on the Lakers.
FiveThirtyEight’s model estimated that the Rockets entered the season with a 28 percent chance to win it all — best in the league and considerably higher than the 11 percent chance implied by their +800 Vegas odds. By that logic, the Rockets should have priced closer to +255 or +260. Meanwhile, our final preseason forecast gave the Lakers just a 3 percent chance of winning the Finals, seventh-best in the league and a fraction of the 20 percent probability implied by LeBron and Co.’s +400 odds. A 3 percent chance at the Larry O’Brien Trophy suggests that the Lakers’ odds should have been more like +3200.
In the end, this new era of NBA player movement makes the already difficult exercise of basketball prognostication even more challenging. Oddsmakers, computer models and casual bettors need to consider not only the teams today but also potential in-season trades — and which teams have the gumption and chips to pull them off. Here’s to an exciting 2019-20 NBA season, both on and off the floor.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NBA conference finals are just three games old, but we’ve already seen two of the most entertaining games of the entire playoffs.
After Golden State easily dispatched Portland in Game 1 in the West, Milwaukee needed a furious comeback to take down Toronto in the East’s first game. And then came Thursday night, when the Trail Blazers led the Warriors by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, but Golden State used a 27-8 run to get back into the game. The teams traded leads down the stretch, but the Warriors prevailed.
Let’s start with the Golden State-Portland series. What have you made of these first two games?
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): The “Warriors are better without Kevin Durant” crowd has gotten REALLY loud.
I’m not stupid enough to say they’re better without KD, but I can see the argument being made that they might be more fun to watch?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Tony, that feels like a way to rationalize the idea that KD will feel dejected or something by the Warriors because they can win without him so he’ll have to come to the Knicks.
tchow: I’m still auditioning for my Knicks GM job, Nate.
I think Portland losing on Thursday was pretty brutal. It’s sounding more and more like Durant won’t be back in the conference finals, and a win would have gone a long way toward making this a series again. It’s hard to imagine them winning four of the next five.
tchow: You’re not kidding about the heavy ball movement, Chris. Per Second Spectrum, the Warriors have averaged 42 more passes per 100 possessions when KD was not on the floor during these playoffs.
natesilver: I guess the question is whether the Warriors could win grind-it-out, slower-paced, half-court-type games at the same rate without KD.
chris.herring: And that’s the thing. When the Warriors play that way, it’s changing the pace of the game. If you have a game with fewer possessions, I’d venture to guess it leaves things to random chance more often and helps the underdog.
tchow: Yeah, even with that scoreline at halftime, after the first three minutes of the third quarter, I think all of us kinda went, “Oh, the Warriors are winning this.”
natesilver: The Game 6 closeout against Houston, in a game where the Rockets played pretty well, was impressive. But I’m still not sure I really have a great sense for how Golden State is going to match up with Milwaukee or Toronto, with or without KD.
sara.ziegler: A Portland win would have completely changed the tone of this series. And it was close to happening — even after the Warriors stormed back!
natesilver: “Were the Blazers actually close to winning or was it all just an illusion” is a fun epistemological question. I mean, obviously, a win probability model or whatever would have them ahead for a lot of the game. But the Warriors have made SO many third-quarter comebacks over the years that I just don’t really know.
sara.ziegler: When the Blazers were up 8 with 4:28 left, I thought they could really win it.
natesilver: What if Seth Curry woke up one day and had Steph Curry’s skills, and vice versa? That feels like a weird/bad movie plot.
tchow: “Freaky Friday 2”
natesilver: Would the Blazers play McCollum at the 3 or something? It would be a really weird team.
chris.herring: I already feel like it’s a weird team as is.
Credit to them for adjusting heavily after how bad Game 1 was.
tchow: You knew they had to do something about that pick-and-roll defense.
chris.herring: Enes Kanter was back at the free-throw line in Game 1 and then moved much farther up to contain their pick and rolls in Game 2. That made Golden State’s looks far more challenging, which you almost have to do in order to have a chance.
sara.ziegler: The Blazers didn’t get much on offense from Kanter on Thursday, though. What was going on there?
tchow: I’m actually not sure what else they can do. They played well on Thursday and still lost. I feel for Portland fans, I really do. But our predictions give them a 6 percent chance of making it to the finals which seems … high?
chris.herring: Realistically, unless Golden State has another major injury, that was probably it. I don’t see a whole lot of adjustments for a scenario where you were in control most of the game. You just have to finish the game. Period.
natesilver: I guess the one piece of good news for Portland is that it’s not obvious that KD’s going to play any time soon.
tchow: Chris mentioned that they needed another huge bench performance to have a chance, but both Rodney Hood and Seth Curry had pretty decent games. I don’t know where else it could come from. Zach Collins?
sara.ziegler: Meyers Leonard! He had a pretty good game.
chris.herring: Collins had five fouls in eight minutes yesterday, somehow. Leonard was impactful, though.
tchow: Yeah, some of those Collins fouls were bad fouls, too.
chris.herring: That’s why it’s hard to see Portland doing this: Everything seems really scattered right now.
natesilver: Maybe Draymond secretly hates KD and so ups his effort level when KD is out?
sara.ziegler: LOL. I kind of want that to be true. Since the NBA is just a soap opera, at its core.
tchow: “The Plays of Our Lives”
sara.ziegler: OMG, yes.
Moving on to the East: Chris, you wrote after Game 1 that the Raptors would likely be kicking themselves for letting that get away from them. How important was that outcome to the series?
chris.herring: Not nearly as much of a killer as Game 2 for Portland. But still potentially big.
There’s that saying that a series hasn’t begun until a road team wins a game. And on some level, that may be true. I just think that if you’re going to beat Milwaukee, it makes sense to grab the winnable game when it’s there. And the Bucks played really poorly in some regards, yet they still won. They are a complete team, whereas the Raptors look very stilted on offense at times.
And it’s part of why I continue to like Milwaukee’s chances of winning this whole thing.
tchow: It’s been really impressive seeing how well the Bucks have continued to play when Giannis Antetokounmpo is not on the floor.
natesilver: The thing I’d hate if I were a Raptors fan is that I felt like my team played pretty well in Game 1, and it still wasn’t enough. Obviously, not everything was perfect — the cold shooting in the fourth quarter — but it felt like a relatively fair contest.
chris.herring: Yeah. I guess there are two ways to view it:
1) Lowry is probably never going to shoot like that again.
2) There’s probably no way they’ll ever get less of a contribution from the rest of the team than they did in Game 1.
tchow: 3) Brook Lopez will not have a game like that again.
chris.herring: I’m not completely sure about No. 3! If Toronto doesn’t go smaller, the Raptors are going to have to sacrifice something defensively. I don’t know that he’ll have almost 30 again, but the Raps are going to dare Brook and guys like him to prove they can make that shot as opposed to letting Giannis run wild in the paint.
That’s the risk.
sara.ziegler: To your second point, Chris, you can’t imagine a scenario happening again where no Raptor aside from Lowry makes a single shotin an entire quarter.
chris.herring: Yeah, those stats — 0 for 15 aside from Lowry in the fourth, and 1 for 23 in the second half outside of Lowry and Leonard — were some of the more insane ones I’ve ever seen.
tchow: The last time Lopez had a double-double while scoring more than 20 points was … one second, I’m still scrolling up on Basketball-Reference.
chris.herring: That part is true. But him scoring a bunch wouldn’t shock me based on how they’re defending him. Brook isn’t the biggest rebounder, in part because he’s more concerned with boxing out and making sure a teammate collects the miss. (But also, their minutes are longer in the playoffs, meaning he’ll have more chances.)
tchow: Found it! Nov. 3, 2017, when he was on the Lakers. And it was the Lopez revenge game because they played the Nets.
chris.herring: Remember: Milwaukee was 11 of 44 from three! That’s 25 percent. So the Bucks left a ton of points on the table. And many of them were wide-open shots.
As I was saying, I think Toronto may want to consider playing a little smaller. That would potentially crank up the tempo to a level Lopez isn’t comfortable with, and potentially give him more defensive responsibility, to where he has to come out farther to defend.
natesilver: I dunno, I feel weird about slicing-and-dicing the Raptors’ shooting stats into so many little pieces. Overall, they shot 15 of 42 on threes, which is pretty average/good.
chris.herring: Lowry was 7 of 9 by himself!
natesilver: They didn’t shoot great on twos, but a lot of teams don’t do that well against MIlwaukee. They made 85 percent of their free throws.
chris.herring: The statistics illustrated that in Game 1. Leonard drove 15 times, and 11 of them were to his left. During the season, he drove to his right a little more than 57 percent of the time.
sara.ziegler: That seems to be a huge focus for the Bucks — and it looks like it’s paying off. But again, the Raptors almost stole Game 1. It would be huge for them to get Game 2 tonight.
While I still think Milwaukee is clearly the stronger team in this matchup, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to say that Toronto is out of this, regardless of what happens tonight. This is a more evenly matched set of opponents than with Portland and Golden State, clearly.
sara.ziegler: So let’s end on some soft predictions. How long will each series go?
tchow: I believe Dame and CJ can do enough to get at least one win in Portland.
chris.herring: Agreed on the West.
In the East, I’ll go six, with the Bucks winning. Though if Milwaukee wins tonight, I wouldn’t be shocked if they closed it in five.
natesilver: I’m going to go seven games for the East. Despite what I said earlier about Game 1 being a bearish indicator for Toronto, I still think they’re a liiiiiiittttle underrated, and Nick Nurse probably has more ways to make adjustments than Mike Budenholzer does.
WHAT IF DURANT HAS PLAYED HIS LAST GAME FOR THE WARRIORS?!?!?
tchow: * searches in google * Durant Knicks jersey
chris.herring: That doesn’t sound as crazy to me as some people might think.
If it’s a more serious strain, and it’s closer to a month than it is a one-week or two-week injury, then the NBA Finals or the middle of the finals would be more realistic for him.
But if the finals aren’t competitive …
natesilver: So Knicks fans should be rooting for a Warriors sweep?
chris.herring: I don’t know. It would be really interesting. If the Warriors win easily without him, it would be weird for him to stay if he wants validation. If the Warriors LOSE, it gets interesting. Because, obviously, the last time the Warriors lost, he went and signed with them.
tchow: I just really want Curry to win his first finals MVP trophy.
sara.ziegler: Would THAT push KD to the Knicks?
natesilver: I think the BEST-case scenario for the Knicks would be if the Warriors are like up 3-1 over Milwaukee in the finals, and then KD comes back and they LOSE.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): So we just witnessed what our friend Zach Lowe called the “wildest lottery ever.” The Zion-Williamson-to-the-Knicks (or its less-heralded cousin, Zion-to-the-Lakers) hype train gained a ton of steam when both teams were revealed to be in the Top 4 … and then it crashed and burned on live TV as the Lakers ended up at No. 4 and the Knicks at No. 3.
Guys, take me through each of your experiences and emotions as you saw what unfolded.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I think we saw right away how crazy this new lottery system has the potential to be. By flattening out the worst teams’ odds of winning, you get a higher probability of something like last night playing out. It was insane at the actual lottery here in Chicago. There were these enormous gasps when they announced that the Bulls were going to pick seventh, the Suns were going to pick sixth, and the Cavs were going to choose fifth.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I was at a fairly nice Italian restaurant with a friend who doesn’t really like basketball, and I made him pull out his phone along with my phone just so we could see who had the faster livestream. Unfortunately, this restaurant had a lot of wood paneling or something that was causing the signal to be pretty weak. Anyway, the livestream cut out right when it looked like the Knicks might be shut out of the Top 4 entirely, then it came back on and they were in the Top 4, and then right after that they got the No. 3 pick. As dumb as it sounds, the experience of having my expectations lowered made the No. 3 pick seem a lot better as a quasi-Knicks fan.
Also, we ordered pasta for dessert, which people should try.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): My fingers and toes were crossed from the time Boston’s 14th pick was announced. I started jumping up and down on my couch and screaming sometime between Phoenix’s sixth pick reveal and Cleveland’s fifth. There was a moment during that window that I thought 14 percent really meant something like 98 percent, and I was ready to buy my Zion Knicks jersey.
chris.herring: Hahahahaha. Brutal.
neil: Our colleague Chad Matlin had a great experience as well that he granted me permission to share:
“a small anecdote from brooklyn last night: I’m walking home from dinner down Flatbush Ave and a man appears half a block behind me and starts violently screaming something, but I can’t quite make out what. he keeps screaming. I only catch snippets. “FUCKING!!!” “ALL!!!” “LOSING!“”” this goes on for 90 seconds as he crosses street aimlessly, screaming the same thing over and over. I finally piece it together: “ALL THAT FUCKING LOSING FOR NOTHING!!”
And that’s when I found out the Knicks didn’t win the lottery.”
Suffice to say, emotions were running high here in New York.
natesilver: I had run the numbers beforehand, and the No. 3 pick — in a draft where there’s a clear drop-off between Nos. 3 and 4 — is slightly above the expected value for the Knicks pick. Even if you think Zion is going to be reaaaaaaaaaaaly good, a 14 percent chance just isn’t that high.
chris.herring: On some level, the lottery process and unveiling is really, really challenging for the average person — even for me — to follow along with if you aren’t focused on a single team and where they’re ending up.
tchow: Yeah, Chris, in the hysteria last night, the graphics on TV really played a trick on me: They had the Top 4 picks in individual blocks on top, while 5 through 14 were listed below as they were revealing the picks. As the blocks were getting filled in, you saw the Lakers, then the Grizzlies and then the Pelicans, and I went, “Holy shit, we got No. 1!”
chris.herring: One team being slotted lower than you expect is useful information, but it’s hard to know exactly who it benefits until there are only two or three teams left.
Rachel Nichols was explaining it in real time, but it still takes a hot second or two to register what it all means, because of the pick swaps and protections, etc.
neil: It’s kind of incredible that so many of us devote time to watching the unveiling of the results of pingpong balls based on probabilities, which each have obscure caveats (protections, etc), and it actually makes for compelling TV. The NBA is amazing.
natesilver: Maybe they should reveal it one pick per day at a time over the course of the playoffs, sort of like an advent calendar.
Think of all the opportunities for #content.
chris.herring: I’m still kind of shocked that New Orleans ended up getting it. Makes a huge difference for them going forward. All this time, analysts were suggesting that they make a deal with the team that wins the lottery for Anthony Davis. Now they have the No. 1 pick AND Anthony Davis.
chris.herring: It seemed that might have been his preference.
tchow: Can you imagine all the “it’s rigged” people if the Hawks did end up getting No. 1 after the logo double tap?
chris.herring: Can’t remember too many people WANTING to go to Atlanta, but I actually hoped he’d end up there after that.
tchow: Zion with Trae Young is really intriguing.
But if we’re playing alternate universes and what-ifs, can we play “what if Zion did go to the Knicks?” Neil thinks owner James Dolan would have somehow messed it up anyway. I disagree.
neil: Right, my take was always that he should be happy he didn’t go to the Knicks. Everything that franchise touches goes to ruin.
tchow: But he could have changed that, Neil!
chris.herring: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was reporting pretty adamantly that the Knicks wouldn’t have traded him. So it seems like they would have moved forward with him, and then gone into free agency shooting for the stars.
natesilver: I think it would have been dumb to trade him. Like, more dumb than people realize. When you consider the contracts, and that the Pelicans don’t rally have much leverage, I think you can even argue that Zion straight up is TOO MUCH for AD, without all the other assets that the Knicks were likely to have to throw into the deal. But, anyway, I guess we don’t have to worry about that now.
chris.herring: I agree. You’re going to want and need cost-controlled contracts for when you get other stars, anyway. Having Zion would allow you to do that.
tchow: Is it wrong of me to think that this is even more proof that the lottery was rigged? Like, the results were so much the complete opposite of what you thought a “rigged” one would look like that it’s almost too opposite. Am I making sense? Like, the results seemed to be what someone would produce to prove that something wasn’t rigged when it actually was.
natesilver: Tony I think you’re overthinking this just a liiiiiiiiiiiiittle bit.
neil: Of course, they did invite some of this rigging speculation by having Patrick “Frozen Envelope” Ewing there to represent the Knicks.
chris.herring: As someone who’s been in the room, it’s not rigged. They go to great lengths to let people watch it. And make the actual process available on YouTube shortly after.
I think the variance is going to be really wild going forward because of how they’ve flattened out the odds for the worst few teams, though. And honestly, it will make it more fun and heartbreaking.
tchow: I know it’s not rigged. But……
neil: But yeah Chris, I wanted to ask about that. Did we see the death of tanking last night?
Look at how much the results at the top differed from the ranking in order of worst records:
natesilver: I mean, that’s how the system is supposed to work, right?
neil: Well, I’ve always thought these tanking teams underestimated the luck involved in the lottery. Even under the old system.
chris.herring: Last night’s outcome was probably about as solid as you could hope for from the league’s perspective if that’s the message you wanted to send. That being awful gives you a better chance but by no means guarantees you the very best — or even second-best — pick.
tchow: Big win for Mr. Silver. (Adam, not Nate.)
natesilver: And it’s not like the Knicks were categorically different than the Cavs, Suns or Bulls. They were just better at tanking. No. 3 is a comparatively good result vs. the rest of that group.
BTW, someone should check the lottery ball codes to see what the results would have been under last year’s system.
neil: Yeah, it’s weird to think of the Knicks as “winners” last night. But things could have been worse.
chris.herring: The Knicks were the only team with the best lottery odds that didn’t fall out of the top four!
natesilver: I really don’t get the losers talk, and I think it goes to show how people’s intuitions about probability aren’t very good.
tchow: 14 percent means 100 percent, Nate!
natesilver: People were treating it like 60 percent or something, I swear.
neil: Knick fans’ expectations are always out of whack with reality, though… (This is a franchise that wins like the Mets but acts like it has the pedigree of the Yankees.)
tchow: Neil, this is an NBA chat.
chris.herring: I’m on record saying that I feel like the average Knick fan expects bad things to happen.
neil: Maybe it’s more the New York media than rank-and-file fans, Chris.
natesilver: This does leave open at least the tantalizing possibility of trading for Anthony Davis. If the Knicks do want to make a play for AD, this is one of the better scenarios for them. There’s no one who can trade Zion to the Pels since they already have him! The No. 3 pick is probably comparable to the best single asset that the Celtics and Lakers can offer. And if the Knicks get Kyrie Irving, maybe the Celtics don’t even try to get AD anyway.
The Lakers do have the No. 4 pick, but at least based on the scouting consensus, there’s a big drop-off between 3 and 4. We’ll see if the Pelicans agree with that or not.
chris.herring: I honestly don’t have a sense of what the Pelicans would prefer at this point.
The Celtics would obviously be in play, based on their young talent and the draft picks they have. The Knicks just got the No. 3 pick and have two picks they got from Dallas in the Porzingis trade. Though those picks could end up being lower-end ones, depending on how the Mavericks are in the future. And then there are the Lakers, who just landed the No. 4 pick, plus all the guys they reportedly offered in February for Davis already.
So it’s a combination of which players the Pelicans like, plus how they value the notion of future picks that would likely be lower in the draft, as opposed to higher ones they could make use of right now.
natesilver: Fun hot take: RJ Barrett could be the new Carmelo Anthony. High-volume, medium efficiency, good rebounder, mediocre effort on defense despite good athleticism.
tchow: Looking at the different mock drafts, it does seem like there is a consensus on Top 3 (Zion, Ja, RJ in that order) and the fourth pick is immediately where you start seeing disagreements.
neil: Which I think speaks to how few truly elite picks are in this draft class, Tony.
chris.herring: Totally agreed.
neil: But the Lakers can’t complain too much. They only had the 11th-best odds going on, so even moving up to fourth in a three-star draft is something.
chris.herring: On Tuesday I walked past Gar Forman, from the Bulls’ front office, and he had a pretty grim look on his face after the team finished No. 7. Thought it was noteworthy that the Bulls’ John Paxson all but acknowledged that with a pick that low, the team was more likely to trade for a veteran as opposed to making it work with a rookie.
It’s far more of a crapshoot outside of the Top 3.
chris.herring: There are a lot of options now for New Orleans. A lot of people were wondering out loud, too, whether getting Williamson might make the Pelicans more likely to find a deal for point guard Jrue Holiday, who could help a ton of teams as well.
tchow: Chris, Paxson also had another pretty optimistic outlook on the results that I hadn’t thought of last night:
John Paxson: "My mind immediately went to the fact that three of the top four are going out West and New York didn’t get No. 1. So that’s something in our favor."
chris.herring: Yeah, that quote infuriated Bulls fans here. It read like something out of The Onion.
neil: Do the Pels have more or less leverage in an AD trade now than they did at the deadline?
natesilver: Weirdly, they have less, because there’s no one who can trade them Zion!
chris.herring: Exactly. Likely less leverage but more flexibility in terms of the path they take, since they can feel pretty comfortable about building their future around him.
natesilver: Are people too confident that Memphis will take Ja Morant and not RJ Barrett? They both have one glaring flaw (Morant: defense, Barrett: shooting), and historically, you’d rather go with the guy who can fix his shooting than a guy who is probably too undersized to ever be a great defender. Barrett’s also almost a year younger.
Just to show how much a year can matter, compare Morant’s stats this year vs. last year:
natesilver: I don’t think Memphis has any business keeping Conley either way.
chris.herring: I’m interested in that question, too.
natesilver: And I’m not sure it affects their pick much. If you want Ja, you can keep him and use Conley as a mentor if you want.
chris.herring: Memphis is one of the smaller markets in the league, and because of that, I think they maybe hold on to players a year or two longer than they should. Perhaps because of the ties those fans feel to certain players.
Morant is seemingly good enough where you draft him and then figure out the answer to that question with Conley later.
natesilver: The Grizzlies have historically been a bit allergic to high-usage-rate guys, and both Barrett and Morant use a lot of possessions, so in some ways neither one feels like a natural Grizzly.
chris.herring: Wow. Knick fans would love if you became the Grizzlies’ GM.
natesilver: The thing that’s really hard to project with Barrett is his defense. A lot of the comparables are pretty unflattering because people want to typecast him as Andrew Wiggins 2.0, maybe just because they’re both Canadian. But Wiggins was thought of as a guy who was going to be a plus defender, and he’s been pretty darn terrible instead. If Barrett’s a good defender, though, you start getting into a whole different set of comps, more along the lines of Jimmy Butler (if he tamps down the usage rate a bit) or Victor Oladipo.
neil: Just goes to show how much defense — which I think can go overlooked for prospects at times (and is difficult to predict out of college) — can really alter a player’s pro trajectory. This, from ESPN’s mock draft on Barrett, sounds like it’s ripped out of the Wiggins scouting report: “he wasn’t the defender his physical tools suggest he should have been.”
chris.herring: In fairness, Morant’s defense isn’t all that great, either. That’s part of what makes the No. 1 pick so easy, among other things.
natesilver: Barrett was a much better rebounder, which counts for something. A much better and more active passer. And he was using a ton of possessions, which sometimes yields lower effort on defense. And Duke played a very tough schedule.
I don’t know. If Barrett had shot 38 percent from three instead of 31 percent, I think people would be talking about him and Williamson like it’s … I don’t know, the Kevin Durant/Greg Oden draft or something. And of course, you can’t just disregard the difference between 38 percent and 31 percent. But he’s a pretty spectacular prospect if he learns how to shoot.
chris.herring: It’s so hard to tell in college. The shooting is somewhat predictive. But even if he had shot 38 percent this year, I think there would be room to ask whether it was completely real.
neil: It’s also worth remembering that Barrett was actually the No. 1 prospect in that star-studded class going into their freshman seasons. But I’ve seen studies that indicate the weight given to even one year of college should far outweigh our priors for prospects coming out of high school.
tchow: This chat is just becoming a conversation about how Duke players perform in the NBA.
gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): After a lopsided and — let’s face it — largely uninteresting first round, the second round of the NBA playoffs is delivering on its promise. We have only one team that’s already punched its ticket (Milwaukee). Philadelphia and Portland were each able to force a Game 7 last night with clutch wins at home, but let’s start with the Golden State-Houston series, which resumes with Game 6 in Houston tonight. The extent of the Kevin Durant injury is not totally known, but we do know he is out for the remainder of this series. This possibly devastating news was likely a little bit easier to swallow for Golden State fans considering that many people (including myself) looked at that noncontact injury Wednesday and assumed he injured his Achilles.
Does this give Houston a legitimate shot to take this series? Or did they blow a crucial opportunity by not stealing Game 5 when KD went down?
If they lose the series, they’re going to kick themselves for what happened in Game 5. But that said, they still have a decent shot to pull the upset. The margin for error is so much less now without KD there. They have to play well enough on offense while hoping that either Steph Curry or Klay Thompson are simply ineffective for a game or two. Steph reached down deep and remembered who he was in that fourth quarter, but it’s not inconceivable to me that Houston takes advantage of this.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It absolutely gives them a shot. Golden State was basically the equivalent of half a star player better than the rest of the top tier (Houston, Milwaukee, Toronto). Take that player away, and they’re probably a half-step behind instead. Without KD, they’re underdogs in a neutral-court series against all of those teams. HOWEVER, the Warriors only need to win one of the two remaining games to close out against Houston, and one of those games is at home, so they’re still overall favorites (64 percent favorites, more precisely) to win the series.
natesilver: At the same time, although Harden disappeared down the stretch run for Game 5 and that wasn’t great, I think Houston gets a little bit too much grief. Beating the KD-less Warriors is still a big feat — remember, they won 73 games without KD! — especially at Oracle Arena.
chris.herring: It’s just that Houston had erased a 20-point Warriors lead and taken the lead on the road, with KD out of the picture, and Steph struggling. If you win that game, you’re up 3-2 with a chance to close it at home. They can still do it, but now they have to come back instead of merely going in for the kill.
neil: We often talk about the seeming inevitability of Golden State winning these past few years. But if they win again, that fourth quarter will be looked back at as a turning point of sorts, I think. A place where they made their stand as the season could have begun slipping away. Curry even started to get things rolling in that fourth quarter, after a brutal series for the most part.
natesilver: I don’t know — the whole game felt like Golden State’s to lose. The first half in particular was wide-open and sloppy, which you’d think was the Warriors’ jam more than Houston’s.
chris.herring: Just a couple of really clear things that killed the Rockets. Paul has never shot that poorly in a playoff game. Kevon Looney basically became PJ Tucker for a night, with all the offensive rebounds. The bizarre, fluke play at the end of the game.
natesilver: Sometimes I wonder if these analytics-heavy teams don’t emphasize offensive rebounding enough. Of course, they’ve spent way more time looking at the data than I have. But certain types of situations increase offensive rebound percentage more than others, and it can be a hidden source of value.
chris.herring: Maybe it was just GSW’s game to take unless the Rockets took it from the Warriors, which goes to Nate’s point about the game having been in Oakland.
I’m just really stuck on the “What if?” of that outcome. What if that was the last game at Oracle, potentially, and the Rockets could close this out tonight at home? The hype surrounding tonight would be insane.
I guess similar to last year, when Houston had a 3-2 lead but without Paul.
neil: It’s worth noting that with KD on the court in the series, the Warriors are +8.8 per 100 possessions; without him, they’re -6.2. So this injury really does add a huge late wrinkle to what was already a mega-interesting series.
chris.herring: I know the Warriors have won championships without KD and have even played stretches without him since he joined the team. But I do think it’s interesting that they’d gotten so used to relying on him this postseason.
He’d led them in scoring for eight straight games.
neil: He also completely changes HOW they play. They run so many more isolations with KD.
chris.herring: Even for Steph and Klay, going from that to having to do it all themselves again is a shift.
gfoster: Obviously, Curry and Thompson will need to step up on the offensive side to make up for that lost production — and both have been pretty so-so if not bad. But without DeMarcus Cousins and with a thin bench, I wonder how this affects them defensively. How do you think both teams adjust?
chris.herring: I would assume the Warriors are going to start Looney without Durant there.
You don’t have a ton of options, really.
But the Rockets can shade their defense a lot differently without Durant in the mix.
natesilver: I guess the one thing about Golden State is that with both KD and Steph out there — and Klay! — there are probably some diminishing returns in terms of being able to get good looks. Meaning, KD won’t hurt quite as much as if they didn’t have another super-high-usage player (Curry) and another super-efficient player (Thompson). Maybe there’s less margin of error against Houston’s defense, though.
neil: If the Warriors’ lack of depth was ever going to finally catch up to them, it’s now.
natesilver: Yeah, what I really worry about for GSW is the bench units. Curry still doesn’t look exactly right, and if you’re playing him 42 minutes, or whatever, that probably isn’t great.
But also not great if you’re playing him 38 minutes and have 10 minutes of a pretty terrible lineup.
gfoster: Likewise, Draymond Green gets into foul trouble again, and it’s even more complicated.
chris.herring: It’s pretty wild to consider how inevitably we talk of the Warriors winning it all again when an injury like this — one that keeps him out the remainder of the series, but not for the entire playoffs — is so consequential.
natesilver: For the past several seasons, our model has usually had Golden State at about 50 percent to win the championship when the playoffs begin. Sometimes a little higher, sometimes a little lower. Either way, though, that’s a long way from 100 percent.
chris.herring: I’m interested to see how Paul responds tonight. And to see whether Tucker is a pest again the way he was in Game 4.
neil: Tucker, Paul and (weirdly) Austin Rivers seem to be the bellwethers for Houston. When they play well, the Rockets have won. Harden, on the other hand, has been pretty even in production between wins and losses this series.
natesilver: Which is usually how it works, Neil. But I agree. This is one of those series where I think basically every game was the deserved outcome, notwithstanding some of the foul controversies in Game 1.
neil: Well, my point is that it hasn’t exactly been Harden abnormally taking over games to will Houston to their wins. (To the extent that 35 points per game is just normal for him, haha.)
natesilver: I agree, it’s been the entire game plan working. And I don’t think the game plan really worked in Game 5.
gfoster: The Trail Blazers and Nuggets will play Game 7 in Denver. Game 7s in the NBA playoffs strongly favor the home team: Nearly 80 percent of them have gone to the home side. How are Portland’s chances of being in that 20 percent group?
natesilver: We actually have Denver at “only” 76 percent, so a bit lower than the historical norm, and we account for the fact that teams at altitude have a bigger home court-advantage. But the home team in Game 7 is by definition the higher seed, and the thing about the Nuggets is that they aren’t as strong as a typical highly seeded team.
chris.herring: The Blazers’ chances are wonderful if they can get one more game of bench production like the one they just got in Game 6.
neil: Rodney Hood! He knows a new contract is coming. Averaging 16.2 PPG in this series.
It was also big for Dame Lillard to get hot from three again like he was against OKC.
natesilver: If Zach Collins and Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood are having breakout games … maybe that just means that Denver isn’t very good?
chris.herring: The Nuggets haven’t been able to take Nikola Jokic off the court at all.
gfoster: I wonder how much fatigue will begin to play a factor, which we have obviously seen in these long series. Dame looks a little gassed no?
natesilver: Jokic has also looked gassed at times, except that’s how he always looks so it’s hard to read too much into it.
chris.herring: Dame hit some ridiculous shots yesterday — both of the “he’s in a different area code” sort of way, and one where he was falling over and just threw something up and got it go down anyway.
natesilver: Did we discuss the four-overtime game? I thought some of the player usage decisions were pretty ridiculous, in terms of teams not incorporating their benches more.
neil: Yeah, there were some wild minute totals being recorded in that game. Jokic played 65 minutes!
gfoster: C.J. McCollum played 60. Dame played a relatively breezy 58.
chris.herring: It’s been tough. Denver’s backup point guard, Monte Morris, who in my opinion was one of the two or three most consistent bench players in the league, has scored 4, 3, 0, 2, 6 and 0 in this series.
And trusting a bench that is consistently giving you negative returns whenever Jokic takes a breather … there isn’t time to watch negative returns roll in!
It’s the playoffs. Every minute is huge.
natesilver: Random aside, but it does seem like teams that are dependent on a PG or a C can have more problems with their depth than a look at their roster might imply. If your star is a SG or SF or maybe a PF, you can slide guys around a lot more and give the team different looks. It’s hard to replace a guy like Jokic, though, in way that’s fluid with your overall gameplan.
neil: Yeah, there’s a lot more benefit to versatility in the middle of basketball’s “defensive spectrum” (or whatever we’re calling it).
chris.herring: 100 percent, Nate.
neil: Both ends call for more specific skills that aren’t as easily replicated when your star needs a breather.
natesilver: This is also sort of an interesting problem with on/off statistics. If certain types of players make roster construction harder, and lead to worse lineups when they’re off the floor, a lot of the +/- stats will mistakenly give them credit for that.
chris.herring: There was that game to start the playoffs that Denver lost, where Jokic took only nine shots. I was close to writing an entire story about that notion.
They’ve done a much better job making sure he’s constantly involved in everything since then. They just have a limited bench.
I still wouldn’t like their chances in the next round. But if KD takes a while to come back, at least they’d be playing another thin team in GSW, assuming the Warriors find a way to get one of the next two.
gfoster: Moving to the East, Philly staved off elimination and will go back to Canada for Game 7 — and they didn’t get booed (that much) by their home fans, so that’s big. Obviously, this was a big game for Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, but Joel Embiid posting a +40 in 36 minutes while only scoring 17 is absurd.
neil: Philly’s Big 3 were amazing in Game 6. They finally got it all together at once.
chris.herring: I thought Simmons was the story of the night.
natesilver: While Embiid’s +40 stood out in Game 6, I noticed that Simmons has had a positive rating in every Philly win so far in the playoffs and a negative one in every Philly loss.
chris.herring: Simmons had 21 points in Game 6, but had only managed 33 TOTAL in Games 2-5.
natesilver: I guess that isn’t hugely surprising, but still — Simmons is one of the ultimate “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” players.
chris.herring: I think it’s somewhat unlikely that he has a repeat performance in Game 7 on the road. But even if they can get 15 or so from him on halfway efficient shooting, it’s massive.
We know what he is for now.
natesilver: I was sorta-kinda persuaded by the argument that his natural position is as a stretch center.
chris.herring: But I think that’s part of what works against him in these playoffs: If you keep him and Philly out of transition, he’s going to struggle to score, and he’s going to clog the paint in that dunker’s spot
I really loved that story, too, Nate — and was going to find a reason to post it in here.
neil: “A bigger and more athletic version of Draymond Green with more scoring ability”
chris.herring: And in a way, that’s what he did yesterday.
natesilver: I think he’s become a bit underrated at this point. Like, even if you concede the argument that he and Embiid are a bad fit together, if I’m one of the 29 other GMs, I’d be looking for a way to buy low on Simmons.
chris.herring: He scored off a couple putbacks. And he scored on fastbreaks. Your challenge is that you can game-plan him during the playoffs as an opposing defense.
The fact that he isn’t a jump-shooting threat whatsoever — like, we KNOW he’s not going to shoot — makes him different in that sense than a Draymond, or a Giannis Antetokounmpo. It puts more pressure on the other guys to find ways to score while playing defenses that take advantage of that.
But he’s still really, really good.
natesilver: If Simmons shot a Giannis number of threes, could he shoot at Giannis’s percentage? It’s not that high a bar to clear.
chris.herring: Nah, I’ve watched him warm up several times before. Whereas most NBA players, at any position, can knock down a handful of threes without much trouble, it doesn’t come natural for Simmons at all.
chris.herring: You’re more likely to see him miss five or six triples in a row than you are to see him hit three or four out of 10 when he’s warming up wide-open.
chris.herring: I think it’s a real possibility, yes. When you watch him shoot with his right hand, it looks more natural than with his left.
And I said it on Twitter recently: I think Giannis will be a league-average shooter from three next year.
neil: Is perimeter shooting a skill that a player can learn to at least be competent at with enough work? I guess Giannis is a weird comparison point because his best 3-point percentage in a season was still the 34.7 percent he hit as a 19-year-old rookie.
natesilver: Historically, lots and lots of players have learned to shoot the three, especially recently.
natesilver: But with Simmons, his free-throw percentage is pretty bad, and he’s bad on long twos, so that does suggest there might be something structurally wrong with his shot.
chris.herring: Anyway, I think the Raptors should be fine at home. The series has showcased a number of swings in either direction. If they keep Simmons out of transition, Kyle Lowry doesn’t lay an offensive egg at home, and Kawhi Leonard is himself, I think they’ll be OK
gfoster: Kristaps Porzingis aside, was there a bigger trade deadline move than Toronto getting Marc Gasol? I suppose we could point back to Rodney Hood.
chris.herring: Gasol was tailor-made for this series, and the matchup with Embiid. He’s not nearly as talented, but he can hold his own with a player who otherwise would have had a chance to break this series open.
(Although it’s fair to point out that Embiid has also had, like, three different illnesses this series, somehow.)
natesilver: It’s a pretty high-leverage Game 7 in that whichever team loses isn’t going to feel at all good about its season. Not like, say, Portland, which to be honest can be pretty happy even if they get blown out in Denver.
gfoster: Does Brett Brown keep his job if Philadelphia loses?
natesilver: I don’t think so.
chris.herring: I’d like to think he *should* be safe with a loss, since the series made it seven games. But the owner has been pretty clear in saying that he wanted to see progress with how all-in the Sixers just went. And losing in the second round again, technically, wouldn’t be progress.
natesilver: I know Philly has a bunch of weird fits, but Occam’s razor is that a team with Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick ought to be VERY good, even with no bench.
chris.herring: We talked about it before, but I don’t know if I could blame Brown for not getting more out of a group that hasn’t spent that much time together. Especially with Embiid being less than healthy this series. But I’m also not the one making multimillion-dollar decisions in these trades, hirings and firings.
neil: Yeah, even though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they went in a new direction, it would feel a little unfair given the fit and the lack of cohesion.
natesilver: I do sort of wonder if they trade Simmons if they lose.
gfoster: Does Butler return if they lose?
chris.herring: The city of Philadelphia will riot if they don’t bring Butler back.
chris.herring: He’s been fantastic at times, and it’s clear how much he cares about winning. I think the better question is whether they’ll bring Harris back — and if so, at what money.
neil: I’m always shocked at how young Butler is. He feels like he’s been around forever.
natesilver: Who they would trade Simmons for is a tricky question, because his salary is still pretty low next year. On Twitter the other day, I suggested that an interesting trade might be Simmons straight up for the No. 2 or 3 overall pick, and everyone semed to hate that.
chris.herring: A Simmons trade could immediately improve the playoff outlook of the team, but he’s also so young to where it’s very easy to see how and where he could improve. But it’s part of the reason why I’d at least like to see him experimenting with a jumper during games. You really can’t go entire postseasons without so much as even attempting a shot outside the paint. And playing center on a team with Embiid won’t work long-term.
natesilver: Because he’s only making like $8 million next year, though, it’s hard to trade him for a veteran talent without having to package him with someone else and messing up your books. So if you could trade him for a young point guard, and actually use Butler as your primary ball handler in a lot of lineups, that might be interesting.
gfoster: Speaking of next season’s plans, I wanted to touch on Boston quickly, who was knocked out this week by Milwaukee (who we haven’t even mentioned). What is going to happen with that team? Does Kyrie Irving stay?
chris.herring: I just want to reiterate here: I think Milwaukee can, and probably will, win the whole thing this year.
The Bucks haven’t gotten quite enough credit for taking care of business. We wrote the piece about the Celtics having shut down Giannis in Game 1 — and then didn’t mention them again. The Bucks have been impressive as hell.
neil: If the Rockets hold court at home in Game 6, the Bucks will be the only team to advance in less than seven games. (And they did it in five.) Although idk how much that says about the Celtics.
chris.herring: But Kyrie … who knows with this guy?
natesilver: Good news, New York: Kyrie Irving is now officially enough of a headcase to play for the Knicks!
neil: LOL, Nate.
chris.herring: I don’t think you can go as far as to say that Kyrie burned bridges with the Celtics. But there were so many odd moments where he seemed to be talking about his teammates and what all they needed to do when it wasn’t clear that Kyrie had the stature to say those things.
What I mean by that: If you aren’t all the way in, and you waffle on the idea of being somewhere long-term, it looks weird if you readily critique your younger teammates, who probably feel just as invested, if not more invested, as you are. So it was interesting to see Terry Rozier say that he felt he dealt with BS all season. It was interesting to see Jaylen Brown’s many faces on the bench as their season was winding down.
natesilver: It’s still hard to see him coming back. I mean, he hasn’t been that subtle about conveying his intentions. Which doesn’t mean he couldn’t change his mind later.
Yeah. I think he’s gone. Knick fans had to be ecstatic at how that all played out.
natesilver: It’s also not clear how much Boston wants him back. Certainly the fans have turned on him. His teammates don’t love him. He doesn’t provide that much value relative to the max contract. I’m pretty bullish on Kyrie, but he’s not a huge bargain.
chris.herring: Aside from wanting to make up for whatever this season was, I don’t know why Kyrie would return to Boston at this point if he feels over the whole situation.
gfoster: I think Kyrie’s status in Boston is contingent on whether the Celtics pursue Anthony Davis, right? Wouldn’t he stay in that scenario?
chris.herring: I never understood why he committed to staying as the season was starting. But the fact that he did, if he doesn’t actually want to be there, doesn’t mean he should still follow through with it. I think they’ll likely pursue Davis regardless of Irving.
natesilver: Mayyybee not, Geoff? A lot of the other teams that Kyrie might go to could also put together a decent offer for AD.
chris.herring: The challenge there is if Irving is gone/leaving, you would have a pretty bare cupboard to entice Davis to stay. Because he’ll be a free agent pretty soon, too.
natesilver: By this point next week, we’ll know who has the No. 1 overall pick, too.
chris.herring: That was the risk the Celtics waged by trading for Irving in the first place. (They gave up a banged-up Isaiah Thomas, so it wasn’t a huge risk. But still.)
This risk would likely involve Jayson Tatum and other important pieces. You’d have to make sure Davis wanted to be there before pulling that trigger, I’d think.
natesilver: If push comes absolutely to shove, the Celtics still have Tatum and Brown on cheap deals, a ton of extra draft picks and a good coaching/scouting/analytics staff.
So that’s a fair bit of assets to fall back on. It might make you a little more risk-averse, even though Danny Ainge has a reputation as a gambler.
gfoster: So under the new lottery rules, the Knicks, Cavs and Suns each have a 14 percent chance at landing Zion Williamson. The Bulls are 12.5 percent, Atlanta 10 percent, Wizards 9 percent.
natesilver: Which is the most annoying scenario? That he ends up in Cleveland, maybe?
gfoster: It’s like when the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery in four out of six years. (hockey reference!!)
chris.herring: Maybe I’m too much of a purist? The idea of them winning a fourth lotto in such a tight window would be insane (and maybe depressing on some level, because it feels like incompetent ownership would be gifted with a star yet again). But I also think it would make the Cavs interesting. That said: If he goes to the Hawks, that would be kind of fascinating — perhaps the most interesting fit of the teams with a realistic chance.
neil: Trae Young + Zion, let’s GOOOOOO.
chris.herring: If he goes to the Knicks, the hype will be like something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. Especially with the KD/Kyrie rumors having been out there, too.
gfoster: I do like the idea of Ja Morant on the Knicks.
natesilver: Would you trade him for Anthony Davis, though?
chris.herring: Will give a lot of voice to the idea of the Knicks swapping the No. 1 pick for a Davis package or something
natesilver: WOULD YOU DO IT, CHRIS, IF YOU’RE THE KNICKS?!?
gfoster: All-caps questions need answers.
neil: Yeah, I feel like the bottom part of this chat has just been Nate angling to get AD, KD and Kyrie on the Knicks.
chris.herring: If I had a really strong sense that I was going to get Durant and/or Kyrie, I would be fine with that. If it was just Davis, and no pieces around him, no. I don’t trust the Knicks enough to truly build it from the ground up, with a single star player in place.
Hopefully that makes sense and won’t get me stoned by the Knick fans who read this.
chris.herring: He’s not. But man, it would be great to hold on to him if you could.
Especially if you’re giving them Zion/the first pick. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, you’d feel more comfortable giving away.
natesilver: Yeah, I think Zion for Davis is at least fair value for New Orleans, considering that he really just has one year left on the contract. So if the Knicks are giving up a bunch of other stuff too, I start to not like the trade.
gfoster: All right, the lottery is Tuesday, so next week we will have more developments to discuss in this weekly 2018-19 Playoffs/Wild Knicks Speculation chat. Enjoy the conclusion of the second round!
Joel Embiid has described himself as the “most unstoppable player in the league” — and for good reason. When he’s at his best, like in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he can make defenders look downright foolish as he pump-fakes his way into windmill dunks. But so far in Philadelphia’s series against Toronto, Game 3 has been the exception. The Raptors have all but shut Embiid down on the offensive end, thanks in large part to Marc Gasol — the man who has perfected the art of stopping the league’s most unstoppable player.
If you think those numbers are obscured by Embiid’s recent upper respiratory problem, consider this: Over the past two seasons (which is as far back as the NBA’s matchup data goes), Gasol has played against Embiid on nine separate occasions (including the regular season and this year’s playoffs). During that stretch, the two have matched up on a total of 379 possessions. Embiid averages just 19 points per 100 possessions when Gasol is his primary defender, by far his lowest average against anyone who has guarded him on at least 100 possessions.
To put it another way: Against average competition, Embiid rivals Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden as the most prolific scorer in basketball in terms of points per 100 possessions. But when he’s guarded by Gasol, he essentially turns into Dewayne Dedmon.
At 7 feet tall and 250 pounds, Embiid can usually bully smaller defenders and tactically position himself in the post. But Gasol is too big to be pushed around, and it’s forcing Embiid out of his sweet spots. Throughout the series, Gasol has refused to cede ground to Embiid, denying the entry pass into the post and forcing Embiid to catch the ball outside of the paint. During the regular season, Embiid averaged 7.4 touches in the paint per game. Against Gasol and Toronto in the playoffs, Embiid is averaging just 4.2 touches in the paint per game.
Another factor contributing to Embiid’s lack of paint touches is the crowd that’s been forming right around the basket. Fellow Sixer Ben Simmons can’t shoot outside of 10 feet and so positions himself near the rim, which brings his defender to effectively provide help defense when Embiid is in the post. That’s a problem especially when the help defender is Kawhi Leonard, the player who has guarded Simmons most of the series.
To make up for his lack of paint touches, Embiid has had to rely on his jump shot to generate points. But that’s not his strong suit. In the regular season, Embiid shot 34 percent on jumpers. In this series, he’s just 10 for 37 (27 percent) on those shots. Gasol is forcing Embiid to do what he does least well, and it’s working to the Raptors’ advantage.
The fact that Gasol has given Embiid trouble shouldn’t be all that surprising. Even at 34 years old, Gasol can still play like the defensive player of the year he once was. Just ask Nikola Vucevic: Gasol neutralized the All-Star center during the Raptors’ first-round series against the Magic. Vucevic scored just 17 points per 100 possessions when Gasol was the primary defender — a far cry from Vucevic’s season average of 32 points per 100 possessions.
When Gasol was brought to Toronto in a midseason trade, it was reasonable to wonder whether the big Spaniard had enough in the tank to make a difference on a contending team. Those doubts have been put to rest, in part because Gasol has chiseled out a perfect role for himself. In Toronto, Gasol doesn’t need to anchor a defense while also serving as a primary scorer, like he was forced to do in Memphis. Instead, he’s able to focus on what he does best, which is lock down the opposing team’s best big man.
In all fairness to Embiid, he’s reportedly battled through injury on top of illness during the playoffs. And if we’ve learned anything from his monster Game 3, it’s that a healthy Embiid can live up to his self-proclaimed title. The only question is whether he can do it consistently against an elite defensive stopper like Gasol.
For a long time now, the Golden State Warriors have owned the NBA’s ace in the hole: the Death Lineup. First deployed at the suggestion of assistant coach Nick U’Ren during the 2015 NBA Finals, the lineup quickly became the most dangerous in the league. And it got even scarier when the Warriors swapped out the weakest member of the first iteration of the Death Lineup — Harrison Barnes — for Kevin Durant before the 2016-17 season.
Since Durant signed with Golden State, the lineup of him, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green has played 529 minutesduring theirregular-season run, outscoring opponents by a total of 268 points — and 20.5 points per 100 possessions. Prior to their series-evening Game 4 loss against the Houston Rockets, the grouphad sharedthe floor for 317 playoff minutes, outscoring opponents by 121 total points and 16.7 points per 100 possessions.
In this year’s playoffs, though, the NBA’s most feared lineup has begun to show signs of vulnerability — and the Houston Rockets have taken advantage. In Game 4, Houston outscored that unit by 11 points across 22 minutes — and that figure includes the 14-8 run with which the Warriors closed the game over the final 5:45. Such a performance for the Death Lineup is — to put it mildly — highly unusual.
That unit has now seen the floor together in 32 of the 48 playoff games that encompass the Durant era,1 and it has been outscored in just seven of those 32 games. When the lineup has shared the floor for at least five minutes, it has been outscored just four out of 23 times. And when that group has played 10-plus minutes together, they’ve been outscored only twice in 13 games.
Take a look at the list of seven playoff games in which the Death Lineup has been outscored, though, and see if you notice anything.
The Death Lineup is killing the wrong team
Since acquiring Kevin Durant, the playoff games in which Golden State’s “Death Lineup” has been outscored, 2017-2019
2018: conference finals, Game 2
2019: Round 2, Game 4
2019: Round 1, Game 5
2017: Round 2, Game 4
2017: Round 1, Game 1
2019: Round 1, Game 3
2019: Round 1, Game 2
First, and most obviously, the two worst games that group has played have come against the Rockets. Last year, they were blasted by 18 points in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, and Monday night, they were outscored by 11. But you might also notice that of the seven games, four of them are from this year’s playoff run, which right now is only 10 games old.2
Part of this may be a product of Steve Kerr and the Warriors leaning too much on the Death Lineup. Before this series, the Death Lineup had never been used for more than 22 minutes in a single playoff game. It has now played 22 or more in all four games against the Rockets, including an all-time playoff high of 34 in Game 3, and the Warriors still managed to lose two of those four games. Those losses dropped their playoff record when the group shares the floor for 20-plus minutes to just 2-3, with all of those games coming against the Rockets.3
That the Warriors have had to use their best lineup more often against Houston than anybody else is perhaps not surprising. The Rockets were fairly open last season about having constructed their team specifically to defeat the Warriors — so open that general manager Daryl Morey declared prior to the start of last season that the organization was “obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”
They nearly pulled it off during last year’s Western Conference finals, falling in seven games after taking a 3-2 lead but seeing Chris Paul get injured in the final moments of Game 5. Houston was criticized in some circles for its offseason maneuvers, namely letting Trevor Ariza walk for a deal with the Phoenix Suns. The crowing got even louder when Houston started the season poorly,4 but here they are again in position to send the Warriors home early. The Rockets don’t have home-court advantage this time around, but perhaps they have another advantage: their bench.
Houston’s in-season pickups of Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert fleshed out their wing depth, and that duo has provided strong minutes during this series. Rivers missed Game 1 with an illness, but the Rockets are plus-17 in his 85 minutes over the past three games. Similarly, they’re plus-15 in 65 minutes with Shumpert on the floor during the series. Nene has been used only sparingly as the Rockets have leaned into small-ball lineups with P.J. Tucker at center when Clint Capela rests, but Houston is nevertheless plus-18 with Nene in the game.
The Warriors’ bench, meanwhile, has been a disaster. All five players who have come off the bench for at least 10 minutes during these four games have seen the Warriors get outscored during their time on the floor. It’s getting to the point where Kerr seemingly cannot trust any of them — including previously reliable role players like Shaun Livingston.
Playoff games in which Golden State has used the bench for 50 or fewer minutes, 2017-2019
2019: Round 2, Game 3
2019: Round 2, Game 1
2019: Round 2, Game 4
2018: conference finals, Game 4
2019: Round 2, Game 2
Kerr gave his bench guys only 47 combined minutes in Game 4, the third-fewest minutes he has ever given them in 48 playoff games since the team signed Durant. Only five times has he given out 50 bench minutes or fewer, and four of them have come during this series, which is only four games old.
With his bench foundering and the Death Lineup no longer delivering its standard kill shot, Kerr is going to have to hope things take a different turn as the series returns to Oracle Arena for Game 5. Maybe that’s Curry busting out of his series-long shooting slump in an even bigger way than he did on Monday night or Klay Thompson finally exploding for the first time in what seems like forever. Maybe it’s figuring out a way to force James Harden into a subpar performance. Maybe it’s something else. But something has to change for them, or else they’re going to be heading home for the summer unexpectedly early.
Even though they held a one-point lead with just more than a minute left in Game 4, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors found themselves with their backs against the wall on Sunday in Philadelphia.
The Sixers and their raucous home crowd at Wells Fargo Center could almost taste a victory, one that would have given them an enormous 3-1 series advantage over Toronto heading into Game 5. And they would be accomplishing that despite getting a poor scoring effort from Joel Embiid, who was under the weather for the second time during the series.
But as the clock ticked down to that final minute, Leonard, who’d gotten almost everything he’d wanted Sunday, had other plans. He used a screen from teammate Marc Gasol, and four dribbles to his right, but both of Philly’s pick-and-roll defenders — Embiid and Ben Simmons — opted to follow Leonard to the right wing. Where another player might have passed the ball, Kawhi chose to elevate, lofting a rainbow 3-pointer over the outstretched left arm of the 7-foot-2 Embiid.
In this series against Philly, Leonard is somehow averaging 38 points on 62 percent shooting, with a perfect-looking shot chart. He’s drained an unthinkable 21 of his 24 uncontested shot attempts through the four games, including hitting 6-for-6 on Sunday.
Leonard did all this while continuing to have an impact on the defensive end, where he held Simmons in check during the first half before sliding over during the third period and heavily limiting swingman Jimmy Butler, who had scored efficiently up until that switch occurred.
Leonard wasn’t solely responsible for Toronto’s win Sunday. Gasol — who’d been held to eight points or fewer in Games 1-3 — was more aggressive and finished with 16 in Game 4. Similarly, Kyle Lowry looked for his shot early and finished with 14 points after having just seven in Game 3. Danny Green was a perfect 8-for-8 from the line. All of these contributions were helpful in light of Pascal Siakam, arguably Toronto’s second-best player, shooting 2-of-10 from the floor while playing through a calf injury, and Serge Ibaka being the only Raptor to score off the bench.
But make no mistake: Kawhi has played as if he were content to do this all by himself if need be. And in many ways, that spectacle is still noteworthy considering how far a cry it is from what Leonard was earlier in his career, before he became a clear-cut franchise player.
During this postseason, just 33 percent of Leonard’s baskets have been assisted, according to NBA Advanced Stats, while the other two-thirds have been self-created. Snapshots over time illustrate how that’s flipped almost entirely, as he’s become more of a 1-on-1 player. During the 2012-13 regular season, for instance, 65 percent of Kawhi’s makes were assisted. That share of assisted baskets dropped to 54 percent during 2014-15, and to just under 48 percent in 2016-17 before dwindling to just a third during these playoffs.
The question to raise here, of course, is whether it’s possible for Leonard to keep this up. He can’t keep shooting 70 percent from midrange when he was a 46-percent shooter from there during the regular season, right?
On some level, the answer to that may depend on whether the Sixers are willing to be more aggressive about forcing the ball out of Leonard’s hands. We’ve written before about what makes Leonard so different from the other stars in the NBA (aside from how mysteriously quiet he seems to be): He does just about everything at an above-average level, while defending and scoring better than almost anyone. But if there’s one area to test, it’s his playmaking, which generally pales in comparison to LeBron James’s or even Kevin Durant’s. (Both contemporaries regularly enjoy 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratios, while Leonard has yet to post such a season.) Leonard, who had five assists and seven turnovers Sunday, has closer to a 1-to-1 ratio this postseason, with 31 assists and 29 turnovers so far.
Going one level deeper, Kawhi was the NBA’s least efficient wing player5 this past regular season when opposing defenses either blitzed or trapped him in pick-and-rolls, with the Raptors scoring just 0.46 points per chance in such situations, according to data from Second Spectrum.
So while Philadelphia hasn’t been able to stop The Terminator-like Kawhi yet, the Sixers at least have something they can try in hopes of slowing him down as the series moves back to Toronto.