Houston Rockets guard James Harden has been busy this season redefining just how much offense a single player can create. As we near the NBA All-Star break, Harden has scored at least 30 points in an absurd 30 consecutive games and counting, which, according to Basketball-Reference.com, is the second-longest streak in league history. Harden’s streak trails only Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game run from the 1961-62 season — a season in which Wilt happened to set the NBA record by scoring 50.4 points per game. The way Harden has been filling up the scoresheet, Chamberlain comes up as a frequent comparison, continually amazing for those of us who never thought we’d get to see numbers like Wilt’s in today’s game. But what might be most remarkable about Harden is the way he’s different from Chamberlain — specifically, how his one-man show has changed his team’s offense.
A big reason that Chamberlain keeps popping up is that it’s difficult to find a modern analogue for what Harden is doing. Harden currently has a usage rate of 40.2 percent, meaning he has taken a shot (or turned the ball over) on roughly two out of every five Houston plays when he’s on the court. And when he isn’t trying to score himself, Harden has also assisted on 40.3 percent of teammate baskets. The only other qualified season in NBA history to break those 40/40 thresholds belonged to Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 — and Westbrook was much less efficient that season than Harden has been this year, averaging 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions on plays he had a hand in ending.
To get a sense of just how far Harden is pushing the boundaries of productivity, here’s a breakdown of all qualified seasons since 1976-77 by possession rate1 versus offensive efficiency. (The outermost points up and to the right are the best combinations of workload and efficiency.)
With 118.6 points produced per 100 possessions on a possession rate of 40.5 percent, Harden is currently having the greatest high-usage offensive season in modern history. From a team perspective, those numbers mean that Houston is funneling nearly half of its possessions through a player who is personally averaging nearly 2 more points per 100 possessions than the league’s most efficient team (the Warriors, at 117.0). So in theory, this should be a very good thing for his team’s scoring rate, which in turn should lead to more and more wins.
And in Harden’s case, that appears to be true. Since Harden’s streak began, he is averaging 122 points per 100 possessions with a usage rate of 42.8 percent, both numbers up from the 114 and 37.3 percent marks he had before the streak, respectively. And over the same span, Houston’s teamwide offensive efficiency has zoomed up from 111.2 points per 100 before the streak (sixth-best in the NBA) to 116.9 (second-best) ever since, with his Rockets’ on/off-court offensive efficiency split (+5.8 points per 100) staying roughly the same before the streak and after. Houston is also 21-9 over the streak, after starting the season 12-14. Of course, the recent return of former All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who missed 18 games during Harden’s streak, has buoyed the Rockets as well — but in general it’s safe to say that Harden’s tear has had a very positive effect on Houston’s efficiency and overall record.
Why is that notable, though? Isn’t that simply the logical result of having a highly efficient player dominate his team’s possessions? You might think so, but in a dynamic sport such as basketball, things are often more complicated than they may appear. And the best example of this could be Chamberlain.
Chamberlain’s career was unwittingly one of history’s most fascinating laboratories for basketball experimentation, in large part because he was the NBA’s most extreme statistical outlier ever. Wilt led the league in scoring in each of his first six seasons, with a staggering scoring average of 40.6 points per game over that span; he also led the league in field goal percentage in three of those campaigns, making 50.7 percent of his shots in total (at a time when the NBA average was around 42 percent). With such a high volume of efficient shots, you might expect that Wilt was like Harden, leading his teams to tremendously efficient offensive performances.
But you’d be wrong. Shockingly, Chamberlain’s Warriors struggled to even break league average in efficiency during his seasons with the club, despite the enormous amount of high-percentage scoring Chamberlain did by himself. It wasn’t until Chamberlain switched teams and started scoring less — passing to his teammates more — that his clubs began breaking offensive records.
To better understand the sometimes-counterintuitive effect a single scorer can have on his team’s offense, I reached out to Ben Taylor, author of the book “Thinking Basketball,” who was one of the first researchers to notice this phenomenon in Chamberlain’s numbers. “The arc of [Wilt’s] career is very, very unique,” he said. “Not only do some people consider him the best player ever precisely because of these raw stats, but he goes through many different coaches, they put him in many different situations, and specifically Alex Hannum comes along with this great idea — like, ‘Hey, Wilt, what if you just didn’t shoot that much anymore?’ — and he does this, and the team becomes incredible.”
Chamberlain’s 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons with Philadelphia present the most fascinating test case. According to Taylor’s research, Chamberlain’s own personal scoring attempts in 1966 were much more efficient (averaging about 1.09 points per possession) than those of his teammates when they tried to score (0.94), and the 76ers had a mediocre offense with Chamberlain scoring 33.5 points per game. If anything, that makes it sound like Chamberlain should have shot the ball even more — but instead, Hannum persuaded Chamberlain to spread the ball around the following season. His teammates, basically the same cast of characters, averaged more points per attempt (1.01) on more shots per game, while Wilt himself was far more efficient (1.27 points per attempt!) when scoring “only” 24.1 points per game. The result was a championship for Philadelphia and one of history’s greatest offenses.
Chamberlain’s less-is-more experience is indicative of other one-man shows from throughout NBA history, Taylor said. “You can see it with other high-usage players in a modern setting. I think the classic examples are 1987 [Michael] Jordan, 2006 Kobe [Bryant], guys like that — they’re doing a similar thing, and again you don’t have anywhere near a top-shelf offense.”
But Harden has been able to break that mold by playing differently than other one-man offenses from the past. “Harden’s not the best example of one of these high-usage all time scorers,” Taylor said. “He’s a little weird in that he’s more like Steve Nash — he’s passing and dominating the offense to also set up teammates, and so you have a huge ‘creation’ player. … The stark difference between [Harden and Wilt] is that Wilt, when he was scoring, was more like a black hole, and Harden is just running everything.”
The idea that Harden is what Taylor called a “Scoring Nash” is eye-opening. Playing in a similar (if not exactly identical) system to the one Nash orchestrated for four years under coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden has evolved the role of distributor to include an even greater level of player choice. If one of Nash’s great strengths was drawing defensive attention as a means of setting others up for easy shots, Harden can also use the threat of the pass as a means of giving himself more space to shoot. As a result, Harden has an “offensive load” — Taylor’s metric for measuring direct involvement via scoring or passing within an offense — of 66 percent, compared with Nash’s single-season high of 51 percent under D’Antoni in 2007.
Pass-heavy initiators like Harden don’t always elevate otherwise mediocre offenses to greatness. For instance, Westbrook — who in 2017 set the NBA record for single-season usage rate (just ahead of Harden’s rate this year) — was the centerpiece of a barely average scoring attack that year, despite his record offensive load of 74 percent. But a disproportionate share of history’s greatest offenses were led by players such as Harden, Nash, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even Golden State’s Stephen Curry — players who stretched defenses into oblivion with the interplay between their passing and scoring.
That’s why Harden’s admittedly impressive scoring streak is only one part of the puzzle that has helped vault the Rockets back near the top of the Western Conference’s contender list. By playing more like the Chamberlain of 1967 than 1962, Harden isn’t just helping the team with his own statistics — he’s also making the players around him better.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): While there wasn’t the blockbuster deal that some thought might come at Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, there were plenty of moves — and non-moves — that affected each of the top teams in the East and will factor heavily in the playoff race from here on out.
And on the flipside, there are a handful of teams that aren’t in contention that made trades I liked for their future. (And one that did almost nothing, which confuses me.)
This is insane, by the way:
The Hornets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Spurs … That's it for teams who did nothing? 26 teams making moves? Phew …
chris.herring: So what stood out to you all as the deadline came and went? The trades themselves are over, but a number of teams seem likely to keep an eye on the waiver wire for big names that could become available via buyout.
neil: Yes, a week ago, the Bucks were third-best in the East in our ratings. Now they are No. 1. (At least, in terms of full-strength rating.)
chris.herring: They took four second-rounders and the spare parts they got in deals from the past couple of days to get a stretch big who fits their offense perfectly.
Tobias Harris is a more complete player than Mirotic, but the fact that they could get the deal done without giving up much on the personnel side was really impressive.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): What stood out to me is that the biggest losers of the whole trade deadline period were the Lakers and the Celtics, even though they didn’t make any moves. (Well, the Lakers traded for Mike Muscala, but I’m not sure that counts.)
chris.herring: The Sixers could have benefited from a deal like Milwaukee’s.
neil: Yes, the Sixers gave up a ton in that Harris deal.
tchow: The thing that stood out to me is it seemed like Toronto, Milwaukee AND Philadelphia all made moves with the assumption that their time is NOW. They all seem to believe they can win, if not the NBA Finals, then at least the East. Now, obviously, all three of them (four if you include Boston) can’t make it out on top, so it’ll be interesting to see who, if any, regrets these moves at the end of the season.
natesilver: The Celtics were the biggest losers because all three of the other Eastern contenders made trades that make them much tougher outs. Obviously Philly gave up a lot more to do it than Toronto or Milwaukee did, and I agree that the Mirotic trade is the best of the three.
chris.herring: That’s interesting, Nate.
natesilver: The opportunity cost of not making a move is pretty high if you’re Boston.
Especially if they’re now underdogs to make it out of the second round, which won’t help their case for keeping Kyrie Irving.
chris.herring: I actually didn’t feel like Boston was a massive loser here. On the one hand, yeah, they didn’t change the roster. But they also seem to have played a role in Anthony Davis not being moved, which is a win in some ways, no? I guess it depends on whether you’re looking at short-term (which you probably have to, since the Celtics are a contender) vs. long-term/summer.
neil: Certainly Davis staying in play for the summer is a win for Boston, although Davis’s agent and his father have said he’s not interested in signing long-term in Boston.
natesilver: My thing is like: Kyrie has very openly flirted with the idea of leaving. And both the Knicks and the Clippers, two of the most attractive destinations, have totally cleared their books in way that make them very plausible fits for him.
chris.herring: That’s certainly true
natesilver: The Celtics have to fade a lot of risks: AD openly griping about going there, Kyrie not leaving, the Knicks getting the No. 1 (or maybe the No. 2?) pick — in which case their offer for AD could be pretty darn attractive — and maybe none of the Lakers players having a breakout in the playoffs, which would make them more attractive trade assets, too.
chris.herring: All completely fair.
tchow: Yea, if the Celtics get knocked out in the first round or even the second round of the playoffs this year, I feel like they’re going to really regret not making any moves before this deadline.
natesilver: Like, what if the Celtics had traded for Tobias Harris as a rental?
chris.herring: Maybe I’m just of the opinion that the Celtics doing nothing AND watching AD get dealt to the Lakers would’ve been worse for them.
natesilver: The weird thing about Boston is that they don’t have any obvious weaknesses, so they’re a little hard to improve unless you’re actually getting a star. But still…
chris.herring: I don’t know if I would have liked them dealing for Harris, who is kind of a taller Jayson Tatum with less upside, given their difference in age.
neil: Are the Lakers even going to MAKE the playoffs?
tchow: Maybe? Right now, we project them to be a 9 seed.
chris.herring: That’s a good question, Neil.
natesilver: We have them as 2-to-1 underdogs, although they’re going to benefit from the Clippers semi-tanking. And maybe our numbers don’t account for motivation, as much.
neil: Hard as it is to believe a LeBron James team misses the playoffs.
chris.herring: The Clippers are interesting because even after dealing Harris, they aren’t by any means in a bad spot.
natesilver: Yeah, the Clippers have a lot of guys on expiring contracts, so they have incentive to play hard.
In the abstract, the Kings are not tanking, but our numbers hate Harrison Barnes, so that trade didn’t help their chances at all.
chris.herring: I didn’t like that deal for the Kings.
I like that they’re going for it. But I didn’t love trading Justin Jackson.
neil: But it also felt like the Lakers and AD overplayed their hand a little here. It felt like an orchestrated effort to bully the Pelicans into trading a generational player for less than attractive prospects. And the Pelicans didn’t blink.
chris.herring: There were a handful of things that played out today that I didn’t understand.
tchow: Fellow Justin Jackson fan here, checking in.
chris.herring: Toronto’s deal for Marc Gasol was interesting. He’s a former defensive player of the year but has slowed down. You deal Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a second-rounder for him. I don’t know how much better that makes the Raptors. Maybe Gasol is less of a defensive liability, but Valanciunas could beat up on second-string bigs pretty well. And I like Wright’s versatility at times.
What did our projections have on that one? The way the Raps handled deadline was interesting. You kept hearing Lowry’s name floated around, etc.
neil: Our projections still like Gasol quite a bit. Mainly for his defense.
chris.herring: Also, to Nate and Neil’s question about the Lakers, at this point, I’m more interested in how the youngsters play from now on. Many of them had never been through this, with it being public that they’re all for sale. How they respond, how hard LeBron pushes himself and how much the Lakers push him will say a lot about whether they’re in the playoffs. It may not be totally worth it for LeBron to push himself to the limit, given how old he is and how slim a chance they have of taking out the West’s contenders.
natesilver: I think literally every player on the roster other than LeBron was rumored to be going to New Orleans at some point, which can’t have helped with morale.
neil: Probably no coincidence they lost by 40+ on Tuesday.
natesilver: Plus, the Lakers’ plan B isn’t that bad. Sign Klay Thompson or something this summer, give the young guys more chance to develop, and be opportunistic; there are still several ways you could end up with AD, and if you do, you’re going to have a lot more assets to surround him and LBJ with.
chris.herring: Some teams surprised me by not making a deal today. I thought Atlanta — with guys like Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin — could have dealt away a vet to get something in return. Utah seemed to want Mike Conley, yet Memphis decided not to trade him just yet.
But I love Orlando getting Markelle Fultz. They badly need someone at point guard. So I like the first-round pick as a gamble there.
tchow: But our projections HATE Fultz, Chris.
chris.herring: Of course. He hasn’t been good yet!
neil: I don’t think anybody’s projections know what to do with Fultz.
natesilver: Fultz isn’t a guy that projection systems are set up to deal with.
chris.herring: One team that continues to confuse me some is Houston. They kind of cheaped out. Moved James Ennis for very little. Picked up Iman Shumpert, but also dealt away Nik Stauskas right after landing him in a trade. All seemingly to stay beneath the luxury tax. Those guys could’ve been useful. Maybe not great, but useful. On a team with a ton of injuries and little depth.
It would be interesting to know how James Harden views that sort of thing as he’s doing everything by himself, damn-near.
natesilver: Shumpert with good coaching/management could be an interesting fit. But yeah, Daryl Morey is sort of a home run hitter, and this felt like him fouling off a few pitches instead.
chris.herring: True. They’ve always been bold, when it comes to certain things, that boldness pays off. They washed their hands of Carmelo Anthony a lot earlier than some would have, but they turned things around shortly after. Now the Lakers are interested in picking Melo up off the waiver wire, apparently.
tchow: Speaking of Melo, Chris, in the beginning of the chat, you mentioned something about buyouts, and I keep hearing NBA circles talking about a robust or much coveted buyout market this time around. Who are some of the players that are being circled right now? I have no idea why it’s “robust.”
The Lakers plan to evaluate the full buyout market once it takes shape, but Carmelo Anthony is expected to be among the considerations too, league sources tell ESPN.
Not everybody has been bought out yet. But there are a few key ones, Tony. Among them: Robin Lopez, who’s thought to be headed to the Warriors. Wesley Matthews, who sounds set on Indiana.
natesilver: What if Houston traded Chris Paul for the Lakers’ young guys this summer?
Not that crazy if AD goes elsewhere, right?
chris.herring: I don’t think the young Lakers shoot well enough to put them around Harden.
But that idea is still kind of fascinating. I don’t trust CP3 health-wise beyond this year — especially not with that money he’s making. So they would be smart to get something for him if someone is willing to give them a king’s ransom.
natesilver: The 76ers really need a buyout guy. The drop-off from their starting five to their bench is about as steep as you’ll ever see.
tchow: Scouring on NBA Twitter right now, and Wayne Ellington (Tar Heel!!) is another name that is being mentioned a lot.
chris.herring: Yeah. Ellington def isn’t playing with Phoenix, so he’s another — maybe to the Rockets, even. He waived a no-trade clause to leave Miami, so he’d probably only join a contender.
natesilver: Speaking of Philly, the Fultz move actually opens up some cap space, so they could decide to keep Harris and target another max guy if Jimmy Butler leaves.
chris.herring: That Harris deal was such a big, interesting move for them.
Being able to keep him as insurance depending on what happens with Butler — who isn’t my favorite long-term max option anyway — is huge. Harris is also a lot younger than people realize because Philadelphia is already his fifth team at age 26.
tchow: He’s only 26???
natesilver: I like it more for the Sixers than a lot of people do, in part because it gives them several different options going forward.
chris.herring: I was tough on them last year, but can we circle back to the Pistons right quick? Because they are seemingly punting on this season. They gave up Stanley Johnson for Thon Maker, which I don’t mind on its own. Thon could be good. But they dealt away a very decent/good player in Reggie Bullock to the Lakers.
natesilver: Top to bottom, Detroit has to be in one of the worst situations in the league. They’re stuck in that in-between zone, but without very many young assets to pull them out of it.
chris.herring: As it stands, they still wouldn’t be in. And I feel like they hurt their chances, if anything
tchow: Yea, I was about to say. Detroit making the playoffs might be surprising, but if you look at the East, who else would be the 7 or 8 seed that seems more probable? 56 percent seems about right to me.
neil: The Wizards basically blew everything up. (Although I was a little surprised Bradley Beal wasn’t on the move.)
chris.herring: Miami. I trust Erik Spoelstra and that group more than Blake Griffin and the Blakettes.
natesilver: If the Pistons decide they want to blow things up, then I wonder if they’d consider moving Blake this summer.
chris.herring: I guess they probably want to build around him going forward. But yeah, Blake probably should be moved. He could make several teams really interesting.
tchow: Man, I feel so bad for Wizards fans.
chris.herring: Yeah. Speaking of the Wizards, I liked the Bulls jumping in on the Otto Porter situation. Some Bulls’ fans didn’t like it. But Chicago has done literally nothing to make itself more appealing to free agents this summer. So they sacrifice that space by getting Porter, who’s young. But they at least have a young vet who is decent on both ends to put around that young core.
natesilver: There are so many teams with max cap slots open that some of these “bad” contracts, e.g. Blake or CP3 or maybe Kevin Love, could start to look like assets.
All of those guys can still play obviously, but they get very expensive in the back half of their contracts.
tchow: Aren’t all those teams waiting for the summer though, Nate?
natesilver: Yeah, I think the summer is going to be totally wild. Dallas also cleared a max slot, or close to it.
chris.herring: Yeah! The Dallas situation was big. Last week, when we discussed them, we talked about how they didn’t have space. By moving Barnes now, they do. Accelerates the timeline quite a bit, which you obviously want to do now that you have Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis together.
neil: I didn’t realize FuckJerry was referring to Jerry Buss.
natesilver: But maybe the Lakers deserve some blame for that. The chemistry around the team is really weird and there are a lot of mixed messages about what their objectives are.
chris.herring: Completely. I don’t think it was ever fair to assume they could get the deal done. But I do understand L.A.’s frustration if, as reported, they weren’t even getting counteroffers back from the Pelicans.
natesilver: A lot of the better deals of the past few years, like Paul George or Kawhi Leonard or on a smaller scale Mirotic today, are just about teams being opportunistic.
Instead of trying to call their shots.
chris.herring: Yeah. It would’ve been something had Milwaukee or Toronto been able to land Davis. Probably too big of a gamble for Toronto, and maybe Milwaukee didn’t have enough outside of Giannis.
But the gamble for PG paid off; especially considering OKC generally isn’t in play for the biggest free agents because of location.
natesilver: It was sorta funny that AD’s list included the Lakers plus three teams that didn’t really have pieces that fit.
neil: Yeah, there was another conspiracy theory floating around that that was to provide cover when eventually talks circled “back” to the Lakers.
chris.herring: Yeah. It was Lakers or bust this whole time.
natesilver: If the Knicks get the No. 1 pick, what are the odds they flip it for Davis? Gotta be at least 50/50, no? It just feels like a very clean transaction.
chris.herring: Nate, I think the Knicks would be very well-positioned if they win the lottery. They would have the No. 1 pick (Zion Williamson), two recent lottery guys — in Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox — AND the future first-round picks they just got from Dallas.
I don’t think too many teams can touch that. Not a whole lot in the way of players who can make a big, immediate impact. But Zion alone is something you can sell to your fans, as well as a boatload of future picks. And now that the Davis saga is being pushed out to the offseason — and with Boston perhaps being put in a weakened situation, given the lack of clarity around Kyrie — the team that wins the lotto could be best position to make NOLA an offer.
tchow: Circling back to things that did happen, outside of the AD saga, the story of these trades seems to be about the moves the top Eastern Conference teams made. FWIW, this is how the top of the East looked a week ago, compared to now:
neil: I love the East horse race this season! I think the favorite changed hands, like, three times in the last few days. Everyone is making their move now that LeBron is out of the picture.
chris.herring: As they should!
tchow: The King is gone — the throne is wide-open. It’s like “Game of Thrones” in the Eastern Conference.
chris.herring: I really do like the Mirotic trade for Milwaukee. When I tweeted about it, someone said, “Yeah, but how does he help them against Golden State?” Milwaukee hasn’t gotten out of the first round since 2000. They have a real chance to make the finals now, with an elite player, offense and defense and an explosive scheme that allows them to rain threes.
tchow: So. Many. Shooters.
neil: Right, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell were Bucks the last time they were in a spot like this.
chris.herring: Mirotic isn’t perfect. But he really helped AD and the Pelicans down the stretch last year. Can certainly help Milwaukee.
tchow: All right, enough about the trade deadline. Who’s ready for the All-Star draft?
When he was hired in May to coach the Milwaukee Bucks, Mike Budenholzer inherited a promising but underachieving core of young players led by Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks — who have not won a playoff series since 2001 — had just suffered yet another postseason disappointment and hoped a coaching change would help them escape perpetual mediocrity.
To say the results have been encouraging would be an understatement. Budenholzer has implemented a new and more modern offensive strategy that is utilizing Antetokounmpo’s unique talents like never before. Under Budenholzer this season, the Bucks are scoring at a conference-leading rate of 113.2 points per 100 possessions. The team has the best record in the NBA, has won 10 of its last 11, and has already beaten conference rivals Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto (three times now). Milwaukee is heading into All-Star weekend as perhaps the most intimidating team in the Eastern Conference.
So, yes, the coaching change has worked. But what exactly has Budenholzer done — and why is it working so well for the Bucks? One strategic change was clear even back in the preseason when Budenholzer rolled out his new offense.
Last year, the Bucks attempted just 24.7 3-pointers per game (25th-most in the league). Under Budenholzer, they have pumped up their long-range volume to 37.8 3-pointers per game, second-most in the NBA this season (trailing only the Houston Rockets).
But Budenholzer has done more than just open the 3-point flood gates in Milwaukee this year: He has engineered a sea change in shot selection.
“I think there’s a lot of focus on how many 3s [we are taking], but hopefully we’re having the best of everything,” Budenholzer said to The Athletic. “If you’re an efficient offense, you’re getting to the basket. You’re getting to the paint. You’re getting to the free-throw line. And you’re shooting a bunch of 3s.”
This season, the Bucks have done more to modernize their shot chart than any other team in the league, as shown in these year-to-year charts.1 Their share of shots taken at the rim or behind the 3-point line — referred to as the Moreyball Rate, after Houston general manager Daryl Morey — has jumped by 16 percentage points, according to data compiled by PBP Stats. Correspondingly, their average 2-pointer is being attempted from a shorter distance, about 2.5 feet closer to the hoop. And everybody on the team is cutting back on midrange jumpers.
The Bucks’ transformations in Moreyball Rate and 2-point shot distance are the biggest changes by any team in the NBA from last season to this one. In fact, the Bucks’ sudden modernization is among the most drastic changes in shot selection by any team during the entire era of play-by-play data (available since 2001-02).
Milwaukee has modernized its shot selection, big time
Teams with the biggest jumps in their Moreyball Rate from the previous season and their change in average distances from the basket on 2-point field-goal attempts, since 2001-02
AVG. 2PA DISTANCE
Appropriately, Morey produced the biggest Moreyball makeover in league history during Houston’s 2012-13 season, James Harden’s first with the team.
For the Bucks, the advantage of being laggards in the Moreyball revolution has been an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of their competitors. Seth Partnow, now Milwaukee’s director of basketball research, wrote for Vice Sports in 2016 that creating makeable shots takes more than just jacking threes and driving headlong into the lane. “Three-pointers and shots at the rim are indicators of good offense, but they’re not good offense in a vacuum, and teams that use them as targets should be wary of putting the cart before the horse. Those are good shots in theory. In practice, the best shots are the ones the personnel on hand can make.”
Fundamentally, the Bucks have achieved their impressive offensive efficiency on the strength of the two principles of Budenholzer’s offensive philosophy: pace and space.
Budenholzer’s emphasis on court spacing has been emblemized by the image of five “stand-here” squares he had taped to the floor of the Bucks practice court, surrounding the 3-point line. By initiating their offensive possessions with all five players outside the 3-point line, the Bucks leave more space for Antetokounmpo to attack the basket. Once Antetokounmpo draws attention around the basket, he’s free to kick the ball out to open 3-point shooters in space. It’s a positive feedback loop that yields easier shots for Antetokounmpo and his teammates.
The Bucks’ improved floor spacing has been facilitated by some shrewd front-office maneuvers. The team signed capable stretch bigs Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova on team-friendly contracts while at the same time cutting ties with paint-clogging centers Greg Monroe, Tyler Zeller and, most recently, John Henson.
With all that extra space, Antetokounmpo has been attacking the basket relentlessly this season. Since last year, he has increased his volume of drives per game from 11.0 to 12.9; his paint touches are up from 5.3 to 6.5 per game; and he’s now taking more shots at the rim (523) than any other player in the league. These additional basket-attacking duties have put the onus on Antetokounmpo to read the defense and distribute the ball to his teammates.
The result has been a career high in assists for Antetokounmpo this season (5.9 per game), with an emphasis on kick-out dimes. On 289 total assists this season, Antetokounmpo has set up a teammate for a 3-point basket 168 times (58 percent), while he has assisted a teammate in scoring a 2-point basket just 121 times (42 percent). In other words, Antetokounmpo has created 262 more points via assisted 3-pointers than he has via assisted 2-pointers this year. That is the biggest such margin of any player in the league and it’s not even remotely close — Detroit’s Blake Griffin is second with 98 more points assisted on 3-pointers than 2-pointers.
Among the top-30 assist leaders this season, Antetokounmpo and teammate Eric Bledsoe are two of only seven players who have created more points via assists on 3s than on 2s.
The Bucks’ drive-and-kick is producing threes
The top 30 2018-19 NBA assist leaders by the difference in points created from assisted 3-pointers vs. 2-pointers, through Feb. 5
At the top of the list, Antetokounmpo finds himself in the company of a few other big ball handlers — Griffin, Ben Simmons, Luka Doncic — who can distribute to their teammates from the inside out. LeBron James, who is basically the prototype for this point-forward approach, assisted on 344 of his teammates’ 3-pointers in Cleveland last year (for 1,032 points), more than any other player in the NBA. (He created 226 more points on the 3s he assisted than on 2s.) Antetokounmpo is on pace to post a similarly lopsided distribution of assists this season.
Impressively, when Antetokounmpo has been on the court this season, 89 percent of the Bucks’ 3-pointers have been assisted; that’s 11 percentage points more than the team’s assisted-3 rate when he’s been on the bench. The Bucks’ improved spacing seems to be helping Antetokounmpo create all the right shots for his Milwaukee teammates.
Establishing a faster pace has gone hand-in-hand with the Bucks’ efforts to create better spacing. Budenholzer has emphasized playing with urgency and purposeful movement, and the team has shaved nearly a second off the duration of its average offensive trip (from 14.0 to 13.1 seconds per possession). According to Synergy Sports, the Bucks have attempted fewer field goals this season during the last seven seconds of the shot clock (from 19 percent of all field-goal attempts to 15 percent) and have correspondingly increased the proportion of their attempts (from 59 percent to 65 percent) that are attempted with somewhere between seven and 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
Antetokounmpo helps push the pace for the Bucks. Budenholzer has instructed his lanky star to dribble the ball up the court immediately after securing any defensive rebound, which has created more uptempo half-court possessions and shots in semitransition.
The Bucks are shooting better when they keep their offensive flow uptempo like this — with an effective field-goal percentage of 56 percent on shots taken with between seven and 18 seconds left on the shot clock and just 48 percent on their more slowly developing shots.
A new and more modern offensive approach predicated on floor spacing and pace, along with some smart personnel decisions, have helped Budenholzer unlock the immense potential of the Bucks’ young superstar. Perhaps when they hired Budenholzer the Bucks would have been happy with winning a playoff series. But with Milwaukee in pole position for its first conference championship appearance in nearly two decades, the Bucks now have eyes on a bigger prize. The older Milwaukee generation is surely reminiscing of the summer of ’71 — the last time there was a transformative young star in town. And who knows, maybe this season will end like that one, with an NBA championship for the Bucks.
New York Knicks executives in recent years have said they would rebuild cautiously and avoid trading their first-round picks. That approach paid off — sweet-shooting big man Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2015, quickly ascended into a star, giving the team hope that it could finally build something sustainable with just another solid move or two. All the organization needed to do was avoid somehow taking a step backward.
And then Thursday happened.
New York has agreed with Dallas on trade that includes Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., for Wesley Matthews, Dennis Smith Jr. and DeAndre Jordan, league sources tell ESPN. Players and agents are being notified of particulars. Deal may include more draft assets.
In response, FiveThirtyEight’s biggest NBA fans gathered to process the reported trade.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I covered the Knicks for five years. Not their worst five, necessarily. But saw their worst season in franchise history. You’re naturally going to see them do things that make you scream, “Why?!” But this is a new level, even for me.
This Porzingis trade, if they don’t land a max-level star or two, is just befuddling.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer/angry Knicks fan): I think I’m going to be a Brooklyn Nets fan now. Why the hell would you do this?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Do we know what draft pick compensation they got, if any? Because that seems pretty important. (These details, which weren’t clear during the time of the chat, emerged shortly after we finished the conversation. New York will receive two future first-round picks in the trade.)
chris.herring: Not the exact terms, no. Though it seems really likely that the Mavs are going to give up something on that front.
natesilver: I guess I’d say this: The process by which the Knicks got to this point is crazy. The outcome, I think, might not be as bad as it seems at first glance. But it really depends on the pick(s).
chris.herring: More than anything, this was about allowing the Knicks to send over their bloated contracts so that they could clear salary cap space. Especially Tim Hardaway Jr., whose deal would’ve made it tough for them to add a second star next to Porzingis this summer.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah, if there is a silver lining (Is there a silver lining?), they just freed up a massive amount of cap space.
The Knicks could be staring at $74.6M in projected cap space for next season. That would be good enough for 2 max slots.
chris.herring: Only spent seven or eight years there, but this is where my New York cynicism comes into play. The Knicks haven’t had a very good history when it comes to FAs.
natesilver: They also got a buy-low guy in Dennis Smith Jr., although it seems like they have about 14 other buy-low point guards on the roster right now.
tchow: But in losing Porzingis, doesn’t that make the Knicks a less attractive destination to come play? If you were a max player, why would you look at this team and say, “I want to go to there”?
natesilver: Well, yeah, that’s the catch.
tchow: I guess maybe two max players could buddy up and that nullifies what I just said.
natesilver: A team of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and … uuuhhhh, who’s the third-best player on that team? Smith Jr., I guess?
tchow: I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. This is INSANE!!! I’m still in shock.
chris.herring: If nothing else, I guess this all just surprises me because it speaks to one of two things. Either 1) You have that much confidence that a superstar is coming …
tchow: Well you’re forgetting Zion, Nate.
chris.herring: Or 2) Things had gotten so bad/toxic with Porzingis that you didn’t see how you could make it work with him anymore. They really had no obligation to give into this right now, even if he was unhappy.
neil: Right, he was only a restricted free agent after the season.
tchow: Well, Chris, if things have gotten that bad with Porzingis, you would think they were secretly shopping him around earlier. Is this really the best deal they could get? I find that hard to believe.
natesilver: It is worth keeping in mind that Porzingis has a serious injury that other guys have struggled to recover from, that he hadn’t reached superstar status yet, and that he was about to get expensive. The upside is so high, though, that you’d think a team, maybe a cap-constrained team, might have given up a little more.
chris.herring: Yep. I’m not blown away by the fact that they dealt him. It’s what they dealt him for.
natesilver: Getting technical, but his cap hold is only like $12 million this summer, so that was a big benefit too.
chris.herring: There are two or three different reasons to potentially deal him. I just don’t know that any of them were worth dealing him for that return.
Kristaps Porzingis, who can become a restricted free agent this summer, has yet to make a decision on his future with Dallas, league sources tell ESPN. He expects to start the process of getting to know the organization soon. Porzingis will continue to rehab his ACL injury.
natesilver: No those don’t contradict. Sign the qualifying offer for one year. Then become a full-fledged free agent in summer 2020.
tchow: Oh damn … you’re right. OK … back to crying.
chris.herring: During the time I spent on the Knicks beat, I got used to watching them attach useful players to ones whose contracts were albatrosses. They traded Tyson Chandler (useful) to unload Raymond Felton (albatross). And Iman Shumpert (useful) to unload JR Smith (albatross).
natesilver: Were Hardaway and Lee that untradeable? They aren’t terrible players, and their contracts aren’t that bad.
chris.herring: Neither is a bad player. Maybe overpaid (I’ve definitely argued that with Hardaway).
natesilver: In some sense, everyone in the deal is a distressed asset.
chris.herring: If anything, Hardaway is just pricey because of what you want to accomplish this summer.
tchow: Watch Dennis Smith Jr. come out of this as the best player in the trade.
natesilver: It’s not nothing.
chris.herring: But Porzingis should not be the sweetener in any deal like this! He’s the lone All-Star changing hands here.
neil: Smith Jr. certainly got a lot of hype as a rookie last year.
tchow: KP IS A UNICORN
chris.herring: I’ll put it this way: Smith and his folks floated that he potentially wanted out of Dallas a week or two ago. That came and went, likely because no one felt like he was worth all that much. He’s explosive. He’s young enough to gamble something on. But he’s not even a clear starter in everyone’s eyes.
natesilver: So what else could they have gotten? What do we think the market price for Porzingis would be? Would Toronto have given up Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, for instance, and taken on either Hardaway or Lee but not both?
chris.herring: It was only 20 minutes or so before the trade reports came that this tweet went out.
The Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors are among many teams expected to pursue Kristaps Porzingis in a trade, league sources tell ESPN.
natesilver: I’m just saying that if you clear the decks for two max free agents but you have a guy like Siakam making just $2.5 million a year, that gives you a lot more to work with.
chris.herring: Notice how smart we perceive those particular franchises to be. I saw someone say, “The smart franchises are circling the dumb one.” Almost like the Knicks were the prey here.
tchow: Right?? I keep thinking there must be other, better trades.
chris.herring: For sure. At least with Siakam, you have a good, athletic two-way player to build around.
tchow: This is all just us talking, right? There were no reports that Toronto was even looking to offer Siakam. Right? Right?
chris.herring: I honestly don’t know whether Smith will be a starter two or three years from now. There’s some faith because of how young he is, but he hasn’t shown consistency yet. And the Knicks haven’t been great with developing two-way talent at the guard spot lately.
natesilver: I wanna know about the draft pick(s) too. Dallas still owns its own pick if it’s 1-5 this year — otherwise it goes to Atlanta — and they’re probably still going to end up in the lottery.
neil: I think we are being very NYC-centric here and focusing on the Knicks’ angle. But for the Mavs, their new Doncic-Porzingis combo seems like it could eventually be very scary.
natesilver: NYC IS BASKETBALL MECCA, NEIL! SUCH A MECCA THAT THE ONLY GOOD PLAYER ON THE KNICKS IN THE PAST 10 YEARS GETS TRADED FOR CAP SPACE
tchow: No, Neil’s right. Forget the Knicks. I already have. Porzingis and Luka together is going to be amazing!! No way Dirk retires now.
chris.herring: Dallas is gonna be fun.
natesilver: Yeah, how did they do that? Turn the No. 5 pick and — Dennis Smith Jr.? — into Luka and Porzingis?
chris.herring: The Knicks were spending all this time trying to find a running mate for KP, and now Porzingis has Doncic.
tchow: So right now, we have them projected to be way out of the playoffs. When is Porzingis supposed to return? I’m getting ahead of myself
chris.herring: They’re relevant now. Even if they unloaded a hefty part of their rotation here to get Porzingis. But this was a great move for them.
natesilver: It was a little bit ambiguous. Dallas is tanking, obviously, so maybe they just play him for like six games to show he still had something left (as an inducement to free agents, etc.) and then find some excuse to shut him down.
chris.herring: Yeah. Porzingis probably wasn’t going to play for NYK this year. Maybe he gets into a few games for Dallas, but I doubt it.
natesilver: Yeah, they might as well tank too. Maybe not an outright tank, but they do keep their own pick if it’s 1-5.
chris.herring: If you’re the Mavs, this makes sense. You’ve still got Harrison Barnes under contract making a lot of money. Hardaway is under contract a couple more years.
tchow: “Makes sense” is such an understatement here.
natesilver: Don’t the Mavs have space for a max free agent too?
chris.herring: I don’t think so? Not with all the money they just took on.
The 12 teams with projected cap space will now likely shrink to 11 with the Mavericks coming off the board. The Hardaway Jr./Lee/KP additions will put the team over the cap heading into the summer.
tchow: Look at that. That’s a “we’re going to be teammates” handshake.
natesilver: THE FIX WAS IN.
chris.herring: I soooo hope the Knicks — who could’ve drafted Smith but instead took Frank Ntilikina — weren’t enamored by his good game to where they said, “You know what? That sounds good to us.”
tchow: Chris, that is EXACTLY what happened.
chris.herring: What it all comes down to for the Knicks is free agency: If you land two guys who are truly worth it, it’s hard to look back at this and be angry.
tchow: And there is my silver lining.
chris.herring: But for the time being, it is just astounding.
natesilver: The Knicks also haven’t drafted very well. Kevin Knox is regarded as a future rotation piece, if not a star, and I sorta get why because he looks like a good player, but his numbers are unbelievably terrible.
chris.herring: Also: My favorite stat ever, from my Knick beat days: The Knicks haven’t re-signed one of their draft picks on a multiyear deal since Charlie Ward, who they took in 1994. Trading Porzingis keeps that alive.
natesilver: Wow. BASKETBALL MECCA.
tchow: That is insane.
chris.herring: So them wanting to build it through free agency is fitting.
natesilver: I think I have to go to their next home game just to see what a shitshow it is.
tchow: FiveThirtyEight field trip, Nate?
natesilver: I’m down, dude. At least tickets will be cheap.
tchow: Hey, at least we still have Allonzo Trier. And Enes Kanter is back. Things are looking up for the Knicks.
chris.herring: Not that it has any bearing on how this summer pans out. But I think their last four deals for $90 million or more were, in this order: Melo, Amar’e Stoudemire, Stephon Marbury and Allan Houston.
natesilver: I mean, just look at this shit:
tchow: My god that is … depressing.
natesilver: I guess their bigs have been OK? Noah Vonleh and Luke Kornet and Mitchell Robinson?
neil: Ooof, you were not kidding about Knox’s numbers, Nate.
natesilver: Yeah, Neil, and it’s not just some advanced stats thing. He’s shooting just 37 percent. Just 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. For a guy who’s pretty athletic, that’s kind of sad.
natesilver: Knox has a nice-looking 3-point stroke, and I guess you can say he’d get the numbers up if they weren’t tanking. That’s what’s a little hard to figure out on a team like the Knicks where they basically don’t have any incentive to work in their shot selection or to play defense.
tchow: If this is just going to become a shitting on Knox chat, I think it’s time to end it.
natesilver: I’m happy to also shit on other Knicks.
tchow: Just for fun, to end this chat, should we all say who we think won this trade?
chris.herring: Assuming the Knicks don’t land two absolute studs in FA, the Mavs.
natesilver: It’s clearly a good trade for Dallas. Where it ends up on the spectrum from “terrible” to “OK” for the Knicks depends on the draft picks and, yeah, the free agent situation.
chris.herring: Agreed, Nate. You just paired two of the best 25-and-under players in the league together. It could turn out to be a home run for both sides. I just don’t have that level of faith that everything will go right for New York.
natesilver: There is a downside risk with Porzingis, too, which is that he’s never really healthy again. But you do have a year to evaluate him before making a commitment. So the fact that he’s not looking to sign a long-term extension right away is both a bug and a feature.
chris.herring: I guess.
neil: And given the lengths we’ve seen teams go to just to have a chance to get a franchise-altering star, it seems worth it.
chris.herring: I’d be OK with that gamble if it means giving up DSJ and a pick. Dallas has always been willing to roll the dice on acquiring a star.
tchow: You know who won? NBA Twitter won cause this is going to provide so much content for the next few days/until Anthony Davis gets traded.
chris.herring: They even traded Tyson Chandler the summer after he was the linchpin to their title because they thought it’d allow them a chance at a star. They wanted to clear space.
neil: The NBA needs to push its trade deadline further from the Super Bowl.
Wait your turn, NBA! You’ll have the limelight next week.
The Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the most interesting teams of the 2018-19 NBA season so far — and that hasn’t always been a good thing. On the court, they’re a fast-paced squad with a ton of young talent, but they haven’t quite made the leap forward people expected after last year’s breakout performance. Off the court, they followed up a crazy offseason with the blockbuster trade of the year to date, snagging Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves. But perhaps predictably, it didn’t take long before reports emerged about drama between Butler and Philly’s coaching staff. Stir in Joel Embiid’s troll tweets and the depressing saga of former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz’s shot, and there’s never a dull moment with these Sixers.
But as SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck pointed out a few weeks ago, Simmons’s unwillingness to shoot could be hampering Philly’s potential against better opponents. “In Simmons’ 11 career games against the Celtics,” Ellentuck wrote, “Boston has outscored Philly by 125 points in 402 minutes with him on the floor, according to StatMuse.” By comparison, that number was somehow 134 points worse than Embiid’s plus-minus against Boston in a comparable number of minutes.1 Ellentuck went on to show a similar split for Simmons against other contenders (such as the Toronto Raptors), and more favorable splits against poor teams such as the Atlanta Hawks, although a lot of that is to be expected — obviously a good player on a good team will have a better plus-minus against bad teams than fellow good ones.
Individually, though, Simmons does have one of the NBA’s largest splits in performance based on the quality of the opponent, and the Sixers have won disproportionately more games against bad teams than good ones. Using data from HoopsStats.com, I broke out the DRE (Daily RAPM Estimate, a useful all-in-one “game score”-type stat from Nylon Calculus) per 36 minutes for every player who logged at least 500 minutes against opponents who are better and opponents who are worse than .500 this season.
Many players across the league see a decline in production when facing tougher teams, but Simmons has seen the fourth-biggest drop-off. And while No. 1 on the list belongs to Steph Curry of all players, Curry still does plenty of damage against good teams, ranking eighth in DRE per 36 vs. teams with winning records. Simmons, by contrast, ranks 77th against those same opponents.
Which players drop off against good teams?
Biggest declines in Nylon Calculus’s Daily RAPM Estimate (DRE) for 2018-19 NBA players against opponents with winning records vs. losing records
DRE per 36 minutes
In addition to Curry, you can also see the maniacally stat-stuffing James Harden and even Curry’s own teammates Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson near the top of the list. So in itself, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of postseason limitations or of players who haven’t yet reached their full potential. But there’s a difference between players who are amazing against all kinds of teams (just playing extra-great against bad ones) and ones who feast on bad opponents in particular.
Right now, Simmons is fitting into the latter category. He sees greatlyreduced rates of scoring (from 19.2 points per 36 minutes to 15.5), shooting efficiency (from a 60.1 field goal percentage to 54.2) and foul-drawing (from 6.2 free throw attempts per 36 to 5.5) against winning clubs, along with an increase in turnovers (from 3.5 per 36 to 4.0). (Simmons’ rebounds and assists stay roughly stable between each level of competition.) These opponents are the ones best equipped to approach Simmons like Boston did in the playoffs last year, cutting off driving lanes and exploiting the reduced amount of space his shooting range requires them to defend.
But there’s also evidence Simmons’s game is adapting in his second healthy season as a pro. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, his drives per game are down from 15.5 last season (sixth-most in the league) to 9.0 (54th-most), and his pick-and-roll ballhandling plays are down from 18.1 to 8.1 — largely due to the arrival of Butler, who commands 10.0 picks per game as a ballhandler and tries 8.6 drives per game. So while Simmons now gets the vast majority of his buckets in transition, which makes sense given his skill set, he’s also ramped up his workload in areas more closely linked to traditional big men, such as rolling off screens and posting up. And more importantly, he’s gradually been taking more jumpers over the past few weeks: In January (through Tuesday’s game), 14 percent of Simmons’s shots have come from outside 10 feet of the basket (with a field goal percentage of 29 percent), compared with only 11 percent of shots (and a 20 percent field goal percentage) in October through December.
Simmons still has a lot of work to do in these new parts of his game, but he is at least showing some signs of developing a more diversified offensive profile. And the fact that he’s managed to increase his true shooting percentage and offensive efficiency somewhat significantly while doing so has to be encouraging for the Sixers in the grand scheme of Simmons’s evolution as a player. Although his shortcomings may still leave him vulnerable to good teams for now, that may not always be the case.
Winners of five straight games, the Houston Rockets nudged their record back up to their season-high mark of two games over .500 (16-14) with a blowout win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night, during which they set an NBA record by making 26 3-pointers. Despite this hot streak, however, it’s still fair to say that the Rockets have not performed as expected thus far this season. When searching for reasons why that might be the case, the focus has often been on their inability to replicate last season’s switch-happy defense or the early-season injuries and suspensions they had to weather or their general offensive malaise. (If ranking fifth in offensive efficiency can be described as a malaise.) But the root of Houston’s issues may actually just be that the rest of the league is increasingly subscribing to Houston’s core beliefs, which has eaten into the team’s math advantage.
To fully understand what that means and how that’s happened, we need to back up a bit. Daryl Morey has been the general manager of the Rockets since 2007, but it wasn’t until the 2012-13 season that the purest form of Morey’s basketball philosophies truly began to shine through on the floor.
Coming off three consecutive non-playoff seasons and having just traded for James Harden, the Rockets re-engineered their offense to play not only to their new star’s strengths, but also to The Math. It was during that season that the Rockets began their maniacal pursuit of the most efficient shot on every single possession, turning their collective backs on years of NBA tradition by eschewing the lost art of the mid-range jumper whenever possible in favor of attempts either at the rim or behind the three-point line.
It’s easy to see the benefits of that offensive strategy now — six years after the Rockets took it to what then seemed like its logical extreme — but at the time, it was not yet really accepted that this was a healthy way to construct an offense. Not everybody believed in The Math. The Rockets did, however, and they did to a degree that was then unheard of in league history.
By attempting so many more of their shots from the most efficient areas of the floor than any other team, the Rockets created for themselves a healthy math advantage. Through shot selection alone, they essentially began each game with a small lead that their opponents needed to erase in addition to out-scoring them over the course of 48 minutes in order to win the game.
For the nextthreeseasons under Kevin McHale, however, the Rockets’ Moreyball Rate stayed fairly stagnant. They still led the NBA in Moreyball Rate during each of those seasons, but they did so with rates that hovered between 72.6 and 73.8 percent. At the same time, the league average Moreyball Rate crept upward, eating into the Rockets’ math advantage and, by extension, that small de facto lead with which they began every game.
This is perhaps best exemplified by scaling their Moreyball Rate against the league average. Fans familiar with baseball statistics like OPS+ will recognize this formula: The NBA average Moreyball Rate is given a score of 100, while a team whose Moreyball Rate is 10 percent better than league average receives a Morey+ score of 110, and a team whose Moreyball Rate is 10 percent worse than league average receives a Morey+ score of 90. So, in a world where the league average Moreyball Rate is 50 percent, a team with a 55 percent Moreyball Rate has a Morey+ of 110, while a team with a 45 percent Moreyball Rate has a Morey+ of 90.
Using the same formula, we can calculate that during the 2012-13 season when the Rockets had a Moreyball Rate of 73.6 percent against a league average of 57.1 percent, they had a Morey+ of 129.1, meaning they attempted shots in the restricted area or from three-point territory at a rate 29.1 percent higher than that of the average NBA team. That is a ridiculously high mark. But it was also essentially the high-water mark for the McHale-era Rockets, whose Morey+ plummeted over the next few seasons, though not through any offensive fault of their own.
The decline of the Rockets’ math advantage during that time looks even starker when pitting their offense and defense against each other. At the same time as they were shooting 29.1 percent more often from Moreyball areas than the average team in 2012-13, they were forcing opponents to shoot from those areas 3.2 percent less often than the average squad. Add those two numbers up, and the Rockets had a Moreyball Advantage of 32.2 points during that season. By the time they got to the 2015-16 campaign, however, their Moreyball Advantage had been cut by more than half (to 13.8 points).
During those four years, the Rockets were the only team to have a Moreyball Rate above 68.8 percent, but the average team still gained steadily gained on them, and their ability to prevent their own opponents from getting to Moreyball areas declined as well. And it was then that Morey decided to hire Mike D’Antoni. Because if the Rockets couldn’t stop the rest of the league from following their lead in following The Math, then the next-best option was for them to take The Math to new heights.
In D’Antoni’s first season, the Rockets had a Moreyball Rate of 81.8 percent, blasting the previous league highs they’d set over the prior few seasons. That 81.8 percent figure was, obviously, the highest in the NBA by far, making it the fifth consecutive season during which the Rockets led the league. Crucially, that rate bumped their Morey+ all the way back up to 128.8 — almost all the way back to where it was during that 2012-13 campaign, when the Rockets first began truly orienting their offense around The Math.
Morey+ score* for the Houston Rockets
During that 2016-17 season, though, five other teams exceeded the Moreyball Rate of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who had the highest non-Rockets Moreyball Rate of any team from 2012 through 2016. That incredible jump from one-sixth of the league foreshadowed what has happened since: The league’s Moreyball Rate has been rising far faster than it did during the McHale years, meaning that the Rockets’ math advantage is once again shrinking, through no fault of their own offensive priorities.
While the average Moreyball Rate jumped only 3.7 percentage points from 2012 (58.1 percent) through 2016 (60.8 percent), it has rocketed (pun very much intended) all the way up to 68.3 percent in 2019. That’s a jump of 7.5 percentage points in just three seasons, compared with the four it took to erase a smaller advantage for the previous incarnation of the Rockets. And at the same time that the NBA’s average Moreyball Rate has shot through the roof, the Rockets themselves have once again stalled out. They appear to have hit a ceiling in terms of how many of their shots can really be taken from the most efficient areas of the floor.
Houston’s sky-high Moreyball Rates during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons helped them to two of the most efficient offensive seasons in NBA history. During that 2016-17 campaign, the Rockets registered the 10th-best offensive efficiency in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference. During the 2017-18 season, they posted the 11th-best offensive efficiency in history. And during both seasons, the Rockets led the NBA in Moreyball Rate by a healthy margin, even while the league as a whole was catching up.
This year, however, they don’t even lead the league in Moreyball Rate, marking the first time since the 2011-12 campaign that they’ve fallen out of first place. (They’ve been passed by Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks, who are at 82.6 percent, the highest figure that can be gleaned from the shot location data in NBA.com’s database, which reaches back to the 1996-97 season.) Amazingly, Houston’s Morey+ this season has already dropped below where it was during the 2015-16 season that inspired Morey to bring in D’Antoni in the first place. And even while they’ve cleaned up their defense a bit these past two years, the rate at which leaguewide Moreyball Rates are spiking has left their Moreyball Advantage at the lowest point it’s been in years.
It seems unlikely that other NBA teams will simply stop pursuing shots from the Moreyball areas of the floor, so the league average will presumably continue to rise — if not necessarily at quite the rate it has these past few years. And with the Rockets having seemingly maxed out their own Moreyball Rates in the low 80s, it looks like the best way for them to regain the sky-high Moreyball Advantage they had in the early 2010s is by engineering their defense so that opponents simply can’t access the most efficient areas of the floor. But that’s also what every other team in the league has been trying to do to the Rockets for years, and as they’ve been showing us for quite some time now, it’s easier said than done.
The highs and lows of being an NBA fan aren’t necessarily dependent on wins and losses. When your team has been bad for a while, small victories — like upsetting a better team during the regular season — can be your version of winning a championship. Conversely, when your team is a finals contender every year, some setbacks can feel like signs of the end times.
One way to quantify the ups and downs of a fan base is to look at how active they are: After all, the only fans worse than angry fans are uninterested ones. To help with that, we have Reddit — the discussion-based website with more than a million communities, or subreddits, each devoted to a different subject.
Over the years, basketball fans have flocked to /r/nba, the site’s professional basketball subreddit, to discuss games in progress, seek meaning in the latest trade rumors and debate the legality of surrounding Steph Curry in a moving ring of teammates with locked arms. With more than 11 million comments made from January through October, /r/nba is the third most active subreddit this year, trailing only /r/AskReddit and /r/politics. It’s also far and away the busiest sports subreddit: Through October, /r/nba had received 3 million more comments this year than /r/soccer, the next most active sports-related subreddit.
One noteworthy aspect of /r/nba is that users have the option to publicly display their allegiance to teams through “flairs,” which appear as icons next to usernames in posts and comments. Although flairs are optional, roughly 80 percent of comments made on /r/nba since October 2011 have been made by users with those icons.
We used those flairs on comments made since Oct. 1, 2011,1 to chart the activity of each NBA fan base. To normalize for the growth of Reddit over time, we calculated the total number of daily comments made by a fan base divided by the total number of daily comments made by all users (flaired or not). In addition, we used a 30-day rolling average2 indexed to each team’s highest point in order to make the trends for teams in small markets as clear as the trends for teams in large markets. Indexing allows us to show all 30 teams at once, but cross-team comparisons must be made with caution because the y-axis for each team’s chart is unique.
In other words, each fan base’s activity is relative only to itself. We can infer from the data that 76ers fans on Reddit were more active earlier this year than they had ever been, but we shouldn’t infer that 76ers fans were more active than Warriors fans.
To understand the landscape of fandom on /r/nba, it’s worth examining in detail the comment activity for fans of the Philadelphia 76ers, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans.
No team has had a more linear increase in comment activity over the past seven years than the Philadelphia 76ers. Sixers fans have grown more active on /r/nba each year, in part because their team has gotten incrementally better each year.
Because the data is available only through Oct. 31, 2018, the chart does not capture the reaction to Philadelphia’s trade for Butler earlier this month. But given that the replays of Butler’s game winners against Charlotte and Brooklyn are two of the most-upvoted, or highest-rated, posts of the season thus far on r/nba, 76ers fans are likely just warming up.
Cavs and Lakers
When LeBron James returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, Cavaliers fans instantly became more active on /r/nba. With their teammate squabbles, midseason trades and postseason heroics, the Cavaliers were a constant topic of conversation from 2014 to 2018 — and never more so than during their championship run in 2016.
But when James left to join the Lakers this offseason, he took the conversation with him. We charted the comment activity for fans of the Lakers and Cavaliers together, without indexing the shares so that we could make a cross-team comparison.
The most-upvoted post of all time on /r/nba is the announcement that LeBron would sign with the Lakers. Ever since then, the L.A. fan base, which is one of the largest on /r/nba, has been more active than usual. Meanwhile, comment activity among Cleveland fans is the lowest it’s been since the first post-LeBron era.
The New Orleans Pelicans exist in one of the smallest media markets in the NBA. Their team-specific subreddit, /r/NOLAPelicans, has the second fewest subscribers among all 30 teams (/r/memphisgrizzlies has the fewest). And yet, their fan base is in the middle of one of its most active periods. For every subscriber to /r/NOLAPelicans, Pelicans’ fans made more than 1.2 comments on /r/nba in the month of October, the highest mark of any fan base.
The NBA’s most talkative fans
Number of subscribers to team subreddits and comments made by users with that team’s flair on r/nba, October 2018
Comments from flaired fans on r/nba
If Anthony Davis decides to stay in New Orleans beyond his current contract, it’s likely to be in part because of the small but passionate fan base that supports him.
It’s worth pointing out that Golden State Warriors fans rank dead last in comments per subscriber. But this is probably misleading because of the inflated subscriber count of /r/warriors. During the summer of 2017, those who downloaded Reddit’s mobile app were subscribed to the Warriors subreddit by default if they selected the NBA as a category they were interested in. This resulted in a spike in subscribers to /r/warriors and created a gap between them and the rest of the league.