NBA Finals Preview 2022-23

Another year, another new Finals match up.  The Nuggets against the Heat feels broadly like the 1998-99 Finals redux, where the top seeded Spurs, led by emerging star Tim Duncan played an eight seeded Knicks team that was clearly better than its low seed and featured Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby.   In this case, the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic play the role of the Spurs and Duncan.  Like the Spurs, Denver has a great young big man hoping to lead his ABA team to a first NBA title.  Back in 1999, the Spurs handled the Knicks relatively easily.  Do the Heat have a better shot?  Let’s take a peak…

How is Miami doing this?

Obviously, the emergence of “Playoff Jimmy Butler” is the starting point, as he has bumped up his scoring and minutes quite a bit (22.9 ppg in 33.4 mpg in the regular season and 28.5 ppg in 39.4 mpg).  While having Butler playing bigger minutes has obviously helped, he actually has not shot better or been appreciably better overall.  Yes, he’s been transcendent a few times in the playoffs but, on a whole, his TS% and advanced stats are lower than they were in the regular season and lower than his even more impressive 2021-22 playoffs.  So, Butler playing huge minutes helps but that’s not nearly the whole story.

During the regular season, Miami was a slow paced (96.3, 29th in NBA) and bad offensive team (113.0, 25th in NBA).  Miami has bumped up its offensive rating to 116.3 on an even slower pace (95.5).  The Heat’s three-point shooting has been the driving force in improving the offense (.344% in the regular season but is up to .390% so far in the playoffs).

Miami has shot fewer threes but they are making them.  Here’s a comparison of how some of their key players have done in the regular season and playoffs from three:

PlayerReg. SeasonPlayoffs
Max Strus0.3510.359
Duncan Robinson0.3710.446
Kyle Lowry0.3450.355
Gabe Vincent0.3340.391
Kevin Love0.2970.368
Caleb Martin0.3560.438
Jimmy Butler0.3510.356

Vincent and Martin have gone from meh three-point shooters to really good on higher volume.  The stats don’t show it but a lot of their threes have been difficult and/or off the dribble.  Robinson has shot this well in the past. He’s just getting a chance to play due to Tyler Herro’s wrist injury.  In all, Miami’s hot shooting feels a little anomalous. 

Martin’s great play isn’t just from three, he’s shooting .714% from two as well (compared to .545% in the regular season).  Granted he only takes about four two-pointers a game but that is still an insanely high percentage for a perimeter player.   He literally hasn’t missed a shot in the playoffs from 10-16 feet and is shooting .786% on long twos.  Put it all together and here are Martin’s advanced stats in the regular season and playoffs:

Regular Season: 11.4 PER, .086 WS48, -1.2 BPM, 0.4 VORP

Playoffs: 17.4 PER, .178 WS48, 3.8 BPM, 0.8 VORP

We all know Martin has been great but these stats really highlight just how great.  For perspective, Martin’s BPM compares with that of Jalen Brunson or Lauri Markkanen.  Adding an All-Star level player out of nowhere for the playoffs helps.

Can Miami stop Jokic?

Of course not.  Okay so can they slow him down at all?  It’s nice to see the overall perception of Jokic match how dominant he’s been via advanced stats.  Jokic has been Wilt-like, leading the NBA in PER, WS, WS48, BPM, and VORP each of the last three seasons.  That’s fairly incredible, even if we acknowledge that advanced stats are a bit buggy and don’t seem to properly account for his defensive shortcomings (he regularly leads the league in DBPM, which is quite a suspect assessment).

Miami has been effective using a zone defense for much of the playoffs but you wonder whether zone is a great way to handle Jokic.  You also wonder whether Bam Adebayo has the size to check Jokic under any defensive theory.  Per Basketball-Reference, Jokic is 10-2 against Bam for their career and has dominated him:

Nikola Jokić121021234.78.615.60.5511.43.10.4593.64.30.8272.39.311.
Bam Adebayo12210926.84.810.60.45700.

Limiting the sample size to this year, Denver is 2-0 against Miami and won each game by four and five points.  Jokic was quite dominant and even won the first game without Jamal Murray and Miami having most of its crew available.  Miami played Bam mostly at center but used deep bench big Orlando Robinson quite a bit out of necessity.  This time, Miami can throw Cody Zeller at Jokic a bit but that also seems like a tough match up for Miami. 

In short, the Heat’s best plan is to make Jokic work on defense and throw a lot of guys at him on the other end.  This will be tough, especially when you consider how big the rest of the Denver front line is with Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr.

Let’s not forget “Playoff Jamal Murray”

For all the talk of Martin’s postseason stats, Murray has stepped it up similarly:

-Regular Season: 32.8 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .494 2FG%, .398 3FG%

-Post Season: 38.9 mpg, 29.9 ppg, .552 2FG%, .474 3FG%

Murray has shot well from every quadrant of the court in the postseason but his mid-range chops have been really impressive (.563%) and he’s been making tough contested shots.  The only point guard that Miami has faced this postseason with a similar game was Brunson, who gave Miami some real trouble.

Can Denver overcome history?

Denver is a fairly average defensive team, ranking 15th in the NBA in the regular season.  If they win a title, they will have worst defensive ranking for a title team since the 2000-01 Lakers, who ranked 21st in defense but were on cruise control before turning it on for the playoffs (2000-01 was the middle season of the Lakers’ threepeat and they were 1st and 7th in defense the other two title years).  Outside of that anomalous team, an average defensive team has basically never won a title before.


Miami has had a great run and they are legitimately more of a 50-win team than the eight seed they ended up with but I think the size of Denver and Jokic is just too much, particularly with Murray playing so well.  The Heat are not a pushover but the incredible run ends.  Denver wins 4-2.

Playoff Quick Thoughts

So far, the playoffs have been as unpredictable as any, including the Bubble.  We had a sense that the regular season results would be less predictive than usual but seeing Milwaukee get surprisingly dispatched relatively easily by an eight seed Heat team was surprising to say the least.  Let’s run through some interesting questions from the playoffs so far FAQ-style.

How bad was the Bucks’ loss?

Any time a one seed loses to an eight seed, the one seed is not covered in glory.  Nevertheless, I’m inclined to cut Milwaukee some slack.  Jimmy Butler scored nearly 38 points per game and the poorly timed Giannis Antetokounmpo injury didn’t help either.  An argument could be made that the Bucks should have deviated from their normal defense to double Butler more but the Heat supporting cast shot incredibly well from three also (.450% as a team and Duncan Robinson was an incredible 14-19).  The loss was a perfect storm and shouldn’t be taken as a grand indictment of the Bucks as a team.

What does a loss to an eight seed do to the upset favorite?

Just for a little perspective, here’s how past one seed losers did in the aftermath of their disappointments:

-1993-94 Sonics:  After the tough upset against Dikembe Mutombo and the Nuggets, Seattle went 57-25 and post the best SRS (7.91) but were upset by the Nick Van Exel Lakers (of “Nick at Night” fame).  Seattle didn’t throw in the towel (though they did seriously consider trading Shawn Kemp) and went 64-18 and made the Finals in 1995-96 and were a title contender through 1998.

-1998-99 Heat: This doesn’t even count as an upset as they lost to a 27-23 Knicks team during the lockout season when everything was a bit screwy.  The Heat brought the same team back in 1999-00 and went 52-30 but lost to New York (again) in the second round, blowing Game 7 at home.  The team remained competitive until a kidney ailment greatly reduced Alonzo Mourning’s effectiveness in 2000.

-2006-07 Mavericks:  The Mavs were upset by the athletic Baron Davis Warriors, who somehow were able to use smaller players to curtail Dirk Nowitzki.  Dallas retooled a bit by trading for an older Jason Kidd and won 50+ games the next four years.  The Mavs playoff success was varied during that span but they did ultimately win the title in 2010-11.

-2010-11 Spurs:  Yes, the Tim Duncan Spurs were whipped by an eight seed Grizzlies without any real excuses.  The only plausible excuse was that the Grizzlies were much better than everyone realized and had a nice run over the next five years.  As for the Spurs, the playoff malaise was actually longer than just 2011.  Since losing in the 2008 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs lost in the first round two times  (including the 2011 upset) and were swept the one time they made the second round.  The Spurs, however, did not panic and kept the core together (and drafted Kawhi Leonard).  The Spurs then had one of their best runs from 2012 through to 2014, going to the WCF or NBA each season (winning a title 2014 and coming a Ray Allen shot away from a second title in 2013).

-2011-12 Bulls:  This is a sad example because the title contender Bulls were sunk by a knee injury to Derrick Rose during Game 1 of the series against the eight seed 76ers.  Without Rose, Chicago was just okay and they lost to Philly.  Rose was never the same player again.  They remained a 45-50 win team the next three seasons but were not a real contender. 

The moral of the story is that teams should not panic only about one bad playoff result.  Yes, each context is a bit different but star power matters and there is no need to overreact to a single playoff upset (or even consecutive upsets).  Milwaukee may need to adjust around the margins but the are obviously a contender as long as Giannis is healthy and near his peak.

A look back at Jimmy and the summer of 2019 free agents

Hindsight is 20/20 but it’s clear now that the Heat did the best of all the big transactions of that historic summer of 2019.  The Nets and Clippers made rational moves getting Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George but the future is always uncertain (hell, Miami isn’t perfect either, as evidenced by Kyle Lowry signing).  Butler has stayed healthier than the others and led his team to serious playoff success.  By the numbers, here are the stats for each of the players since the 2019 moves:

Jimmy Butler: 231 games, 33.6 mpg, 21.5 ppg, .609 TS%, 6.3 rpg, 5.9 apg, 25.3 PER, .246 WS48, 7.1 BPM, 17.8 VORP

Kevin Durant: 134 games, 35.6 mpg, 28.8 ppg, .656 TS%, 7.1 rpg, 5.7 apg, 25.9 PER, .199 WS48, 7.2 BPM, 11.3 VORP

Paul George: 189 games, 33.1 mpg, 23.2 ppg, .581 TS%, 6.3 rpg, 4.9 apg, 20.0 PER, .122 WS48, 3.8 BM, 9.2 VORP

Kyrie Irving: 163 games, 36.0 mpg, 27.1 ppg, .607 TS%, 4.9 rpg, 5.8 apg, 23.3 PER, .172 WS48, 4.7 BPM, 10.0 VORP

Kawhi Leonard: 159 games, 33.3 mpg, 25.3 ppg, .610 TS%, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 25.6 PER, .219 WS48, 7.4 BPM, 12.8 VORP

Butler has basically played at the same level as KD and Kawhi but has played 70 to 100 games more.  That’s impressive but it gets even better when we add in playoff stats (not including today’s New York/Miami game):

Jimmy Butler: 47 games, 37.8 mpg, 25.1 ppg, .602 TS%, 6.8 rpg, 5.5 apg, 25.8 PER, .223 WS48, 4.4 VORP

Kevin Durant: 22 games, 41.6 mpg, 31.2 ppg, .623 TS%, 8.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, 23.2 PER, .155 WS48, 1.9 VORP

Paul George: 32 games, 39.2 mpg, 24.2 ppg, .563 TS%, 8.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, 18.0 PER, .096 WS48, 1.2 VORP

Kyrie Irving: 13 games, 38.1 mpg, 22.2 ppg, .584 TS%, 5.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, 19.7 PER, .147 WS48, 0.7 VORP

Kawhi Leonard: 26 games, 39.3 mpg, 29.6 ppg, .634 TS%, 8.4 rpg, 5.1 apg, 29.1 PER, .249 WS48, 3.2 VORP

Butler has racked the most games and led his team to, at least, the Conference Finals twice (and a third ECF appearance looks quite possible).  He’s done so with virtual no drop off in playoff performance, which is quite rare (KD, PG13, and Kyrie drop to varying degrees).  Kawhi, somehow, got better in the playoffs but has missed too much time to catch Butler’s cumulative VORP.  In other words, Butler has been as good as anyone since signing in Miami and has solidified his Hall of Fame case.  Who would’ve guessed?

Kevin Love: nexus of the playoff universe?

Many have noted that the Cavs decision to buyout Kevin Love was questionable because he still had value and he could come back to bite the Cavs in the ass in the playoffs.  The Cavs weren’t directly hurt by Love but consider all the things that happened as a result of this decision:

-Love put up 9.8 ppg , .653 TS% (.433% from three), 7.4 rpg  in 21.8 mpg to help beat Milwaukee

-Love took the charge that hurt Giannis, which killed Milwaukee

-Cleveland really needed another shooter to keep up with New York in the playoffs (and Love had played well against New York in the regular season)

-Love is now a key player in the Miami-New York series

Cleveland couldn’t have known all of this would cascade from one seemingly inconsequential decision but this is a reminder that giving up something for little (a discount on the amount due on the contract) has real risk.

NBA Playoffs Preview 2022-23

Predictions were much easier to make when the Spurs, LeBron Miami, and then the peak Warriors ruled the roost.  On the other hand, I love the wide-open Western Conference where four teams have very plausible cases to win the and a fifth (the Lakers) sort of as well.  In the East, the 76ers and Celtics will have a war for the honor of playing Milwaukee.  Before we get to that, here are the First Round predictions:

Eastern Conference

1. Bucks v. Heat:  There is a prevailing thought that the well-coached Heat and Jimmy Butler can always catch fire and that might give Miami a puncher’s chance but the offense just isn’t strong enough to stop Milwaukee.  Bucks win 4-1.

2.  Celtics v. Hawks:  I also don’t see a strong case for Atlanta.  The team has worked better since the coaching change but went 0-3 against Boston with none of the games being particularly close.  Celtics win 4-1.

3.  76ers v. Nets:  This feels very similar to their 2019 playoffs match up.  Then, we had the plucky undersized Nets against big Joel Embiid wherein Embiid bullied Jarrett Allen relentlessly.  I expect a similar outcome between Embiid and Nic Claxton.  76ers win 4-0.

4.  Cavaliers v. Knicks:  The only interesting First Round matchup in the East.  New York won the season series 3-1 but that was due, in part, to a red hot Julius Randle, who is coming off of an ankle injury.  In addition, even when healthy, Randle’s manic energy has been easier to stop in the playoffs.  The Cavs huge front line of Allen and Eric Mobley should wear Randle down enough to win a tough series.  Cavaliers win 4-3.

Western Conference

1.  Nuggets v. Timberwolves:  A credible case could be made that Minnesota will give Denver some trouble.  The teams split their games 2-2.  The Rudy Gobert-Nikola Jokic is always fun but Gobert has never exactly shut down the JokerNuggets win 4-2.

2.  Grizzlies v. Lakers:  Credit the Lakers for fixing the roster imbalances and righting the ship (relatively speaking).  Whether decent balance plus LeBron and Anthony Davis is sufficient to beat the Grizz is another question.  Memphis has also had a weird season and they are clearly more vulnerable than your average two seed in the First Round.  Still, the chances that a hobbled 38-year old LBJ can hold up for a long series without home court advantage seems unlikely.  Grizzlies win 4-3.

3.  Kings v. Warriors:  How often are six seeds decisively favored in the First Round?  As we looked at previously, the Kings’ extreme offensive style doesn’t usually translate to playoff success.  On top of that, it’s also hard to pick against a healthy Steph Curry.  The Kings are no pushovers, but I agree with the consensus that Golden State will be the winner.  Warriors win 4-2.

4.  Suns v. Clippers:  If only Paul George was healthy now, this series would be incredible to watch.  Without PG13, however, the Clippers are really light on shooters and it will be hard to hang with the high octane Suns, who are undefeated when Kevin Durant plays.  Phoenix has vulnerabilities too.  The have age and health related issues because they rely so heavily on KD (and Chris Paul).  Even when healthy, they also lack of depth due to the giant haul sent to Brooklyn to get Durant in the first place.  There is a chance that Kawhi Leonard carries this team but I expect another frustrating year for the Clipps.  Suns win 4-2.

Second Round

Bucks beat Cavaliers, 4-2

Celtics beat 76ers, 4-3

Suns beat Nuggets, 4-2

Warriors beat Grizzlies, 4-2

Conference Finals

Bucks beat Celtics, 4-3

Suns beat Warriors, 4-3


Bucks beat Suns, 4-3

The Kings and Offense-Only Playoff Teams

As we approach the NBA playoff season, the Western Conference is rich with uncertainty.  I thought we could briefly focus on the particular case of the Sacramento Kings.  They are pretty locked into the three seed and have none of the historical baggage of many of the other teams in the conference.  Yet, there is an undercurrent that the Kings offense-only style is not a real threat. 

Currently, the Kings are 47-31 (after a bad loss to the Spurs) but the team lacks balance.  The Kings have the NBA’s top offense but are 24th on defense and are 11th in pace.  Even in this high scoring era, pace tends to slow down in the playoffs and scoring is usually harder to come by.  How unprecedented would it be for a team with the Kings’ defense to make a deep playoff run?

I looked back to the start of this Steph Curry Three Point Era in 2014-15, to see if any teams made the conference finals with a team with as extreme an offensive makeup as the Kings.  Here’s the list of conference finalists together with their offense, defense, and pace rankings during this time:

2021-22Golden State17113
2020-21LA Clippers4828
2019-20LA Lakers11311
2018-19Golden State11310
2017-18Golden State3115
2016-17Golden State124
2016-17San Antonio9127
2015-16Golden State152
2015-16Oklahoma City21310
2014-15Golden State211

Over this span, conference finals teams have an average offense rank of 6th in the NBA and a defense average rank of 9th.  A few teams (some LeBron Cavs teams and the 2020-21 Hawks) have been offense-only in the regular season and have made the conference finals but there are some significant differences between those teams and these Kings. 

The LeBron James Cavs teams were bad on defense (21st in 2016-17 and 29th in 2017-18) but it was pretty clear that LBJ was coasting during the regular season and the Cavs were a different team in the post-season.  Most recently, the Hawks snuck into the Eastern Conference Finals with the 21st defense but they were slower paced than the Kings and they had the help of the sui generis event of Ben Simmons’ meltdown.

If we go beyond the Curry Era, the most similar team to the Kings was the 2009-10 Suns with late stage Steve Nash.  Phoenix was 1st on offense, 23rd on defense and 4th in pace.  They were dispatched by the Lakers.  Earlier versions of the Nash Suns also had similar splits and made the WCF.

In short, the past data isn’t great for the Kings unless they are as good offensively as those old Suns teams.  The Kings could easily win the first round but the Kings’ path to the WCF is quite narrow.  We will revisit this when the playoff seeding becomes clearer.

Wilt’s 100-Point Game Revisited

On March 2nd we passed the 61st anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game against the Knicks.  The 100-pointer has been a very well-covered event by plenty of books (notably “Tall Tales” by Terry Pluto and “Wilt” by Robert Cherry) and articles looking into most of its nooks and crannies.  I thought we could dig a little deeper and see if we could find a few more interesting tidbits.  Before doing so, let’s go over some of the basics:

-Wilt scored 100 against a bad and undermanned Knicks team in a game played at a neutral site in Hershey, Pennsylvania late in the 1961-62 season.  The Knicks went 29-51 for the season and were the second worst team in the NBA.  New York’s center was 6’10 Darrall Imhoff, who fouled out against Wilt in 20 minutes.  Backup Phil Jordon was injured so the next biggest defenders were 6’9 rookie Cleveland Buckner and 6’6 Dave Budd.

-This 100-point game came during Wilt’s apex as a scorer.  He averaged a record 50.4 ppg that season (up from 38.4 ppg the prior season).  In terms of high octane offense, 1961-62 was about as high as it got, as NBA teams averaged a record 118.8 ppg (by comparison the current torrid NBA season is at an average of 114.3 ppg per team).

-The Warriors were up big in a meaningless game for both teams and when Wilt hit about 80 points, they decided to go for the record. The fourth quarter of the game was a bit farcical, with Philly force feeding Wilt and the Knicks desperately trying to stop it.  There are great quotes about the game in “Tall Tales.”  Tom Meschery said that, late in the game, “the Knicks were waiting until the 24-second clock was about to expire before they shot…they were [also] fouling everyone except Wilt so he wouldn’t get 100.”  Knicks Richie Guerin countered that the Warriors were also “fouling us immediately to get the ball back and give Wilt more chances.”  Al Attles also noted that Warriors coach Frank McGuire had Wilt at the point guard “down the stretch so that if New York wanted to foul someone, it had to be Wilt.”  Wilt said he was “embarrassed” by the game because “I pushed for 100 and it destroyed the game because I took shots that I normally never would.  I was not real fluid.  I mean, 63 shots?”  Guerin, who was present for Elgin Baylor’s 71-point game and Wilt’s 100-point game: “[i]n Wilt’s game, they set out to get him the record.  There was nothing artificial about Elgin’s 71.”  (Guerin was a tad bitter).

-Despite the weird fourth quarter, the weirdest part of the game was Wilt hitting 28 of 32 foul shots when he was a career .511% foul shooter.  The chances of his having such a hot night from the line were quite low.  1961-62 was Wilt’s best foul shooting season (.613%) but going .875% on 32 attempts still seems anomalous.  Had Wilt shot his season 61% average, we would expect an average yield of 20 makes on the 32 shots.

So, we can rightly conclude that Wilt’s 100 points were forced but still a crazy impressive accomplishment.  Digging a little deeper with the help of Basketball-Reference, here are a few more tidbits:

-Wilt’s big game didn’t come out of the blue.  He scored 64.3 ppg in the three games prior to the 100-point game and shot 45-59 (.763%) from the line at that time.  Over the four-game span that includes the 100-point game, Wilt shot 73-91 (.802%), the third best four game mark of his career (the other two were on only 12 attempts).  From both the field and the line, Wilt was riding a hot streak even relative to his historic pace that year.  For a little perspective, Wilt averaged 49.6 ppg through the first 72 games of the season before averaging 75.3 ppg during this super-hot four-game streak.

-Two days after the 100-point game, Wilt played the Knicks again, this time in New York.  They “held” Wilt to 58 points and 35 boards in a one-point win for the Warriors.

-32 free throws attempts was not Wilt’s highest.  His career high for attempts occurred when he went 19-34 against the Hawks on February 22, 1962.  The 28-32 (.875%) was Wilt’s best percentage in a game where he took at least 20 free throws (there were 89 regular season games of 20 or more attempts).   His worst came on January 4, 1967, when he shot 5-24 (.208%) from the line.  Wilt had only five 20 or more free throw games in the playoffs.  He shot 50% of more in three and won those games.  He shot 8-22 (April 17, 1968) and 8-25 (April 12, 1966), both close losses against Boston.

-The 63 field goal attempts may have been forced but Wilt shot well.  His other high attempt games were much less efficient.  Here’s a list of his top five shot attempt games:

Shot 36-63 (.571%) in a win on 3/2/62 (the 100-point game)

Shot 31-62 (.500%) in a loss on 12/8/61

Shot 27-58 (.466%) in a loss on 11/26/64

Shot 25-50 (.500%) in a win on 2/11/64

Shot 18-49 (.367%) in a loss on 1/26/64

Incidentally, the most shot attempts by a player not named Wilt or Elgin was George Gervin’s 49 attempts to score 63 points on April 9, 1978, the last game of the season, to clinch the scoring title in a 21-point loss (correction, Kobe’s final game and Rick Barry were each 50 shot games).  There are quite a few late season gunner games in NBA history so let’s not be too hard on Wilt for gunning to 100.  It may have been forced but Wilt was shooting quite well in Hershey and he made history that deserves to be appreciated on its terms. 

End of KD/Kyrie Era FAQ

Well, I’ve put it off as long as I could but it’s time to touch on the end of the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving Era in Brooklyn.  This is not exactly new territory and it seems that the consensus is that, while there is much blame to go around, the largest share lies with Kyrie and his frequent flair for controversy.  I largely agree with that assessment but I thought we could do a quick examination of the end of this partnership, FAQ style, and hopefully touch on some issues that haven’t really been addressed.

Before turning to the FAQ let’s agree on the facts of the most recent timeline of Nets’ drama:

-On January 25, 2023, various outlets report that Irving wants an extension from the Nets with his agent telling Bleacher Report that: “The desire is to make Brooklyn home, with the right type of extension, which means the ball is in the Nets’ court to communicate now if their desire is the same.”  Kyrie wanted a four-year $200 million(ish) maximum contract.  The Nets were reluctant to offer that much given how much time Irving missed the last few years (for various reasons) and were in no rush to negotiate, thinking that Irving needed their help to do a sign-and-trade with another team after the season to get the same max money elsewhere (the team holding Kyrie’s contract at its expiration would hold Bird Rights to fully max out his next contract).  The Nets figured Irving’s leverage was limited because he was unable to get a big contract last summer and hasn’t exactly raised his value since then.

-Faced with an impasse, Kyrie had two options: (a) he could’ve played out the season and tried to build value on the court by playing well (and without controversy) or (b) he could stir the pot and demand a trade and otherwise complain of nagging injuries to make the status quo untenable.  Irving chose the latter route, demanding a trade on February 3, 2023.

-Two days later, Irving was traded to Dallas for a haul of win-now players (Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith) and draft picks (most notably the Mavs’ unprotected 2029 first-rounder).  It wasn’t clear whether Durant would be traded because the roster seemed good enough to contend and Durant gave no indication as to whether he wanted a trade.  Shortly after, the Nets traded KD to Phoenix for a pretty big haul and here we are.

Do we blame Kyrie for creating this new drama?

Last summer when the trade requests first bubbled up, I did a deep dive on the KD/Kyrie Nets and concluded that Kyrie was the main problem as he was constantly missing games and repeatedly creating controversy unnecessarily.  Still, Irving was fully within his rights to demand that max extension and a trade.  Both demands took a lot of chutzpah but were fair game in negotiations.  Of course there was some subtext that Irving might make Brooklyn miserable if they didn’t trade him and that isn’t cool but is tacitly accepted gamesmanship in the NBA (within reason).  So, it would be nice if Irving would’ve played out his option and tried a title run but Kyrie has never operated that way and he is not required to do so.

Should the Nets have just bit the bullet and pay Kyrie?

Hell no.  The Nets have paid over $200 million in luxury taxes the prior two seasons and Irving barely played over that time.  Irving is 30 and a smaller guard who is not likely to age well.  On top of that, he’s not reliable.  For the Nets to take on that salary, tax, and risk, they needed a much better team.  Brooklyn was pretty good this year but not quite good enough to take those risks, in light of Kyrie’s previous history.  The case for paying Kyrie was mostly because it would possibly placate Durant but the luxury tax and lack of deep title runs overshadowed that benefit.

If this Kyrie trade was inevitable, shouldn’t the Nets have just traded Irving last summer?

Perhaps but the offers weren’t there in the summer.  The only interested team was the Lakers and they were allegedly offering Russell Westbrook’s gross contract and one first-round pick, which was not the most enticing return.  The Nets were stuck with the narrow path of trying to play this season with Kyrie and hoping he performed or was tradeable for a better deal.  Both those things happened but the process to get here was still exceedingly painful.

Was this a good move for Dallas?

I think the Mavs know that the Kyrie Experience will get weird but they obviously felt desperate enough to make an impact in the playoffs to keep Luka Doncic happy.  The Mavs are currently 31-27 (2-1 since getting Irving) and are a good offensive team (7th), bad on defense (22nd) and slow paced (29th in pace).  Irving might help the offense and pace but not the defense (Irving has rated negative on DBPM the last few years and is at -0.9 this season so far).  In all, Irving certainly gives Dallas a puncher’s chance of getting deep in the playoffs but it’s also just as likely that Dallas flames out or, even worse, pisses off Doncic.  In short, this is a gamble I wouldn’t have taken when factoring the risk-reward possibilities.  (Yes, Dallas also let Jalen Brunson walk and he’s having a better year than Kyrie, is younger, and is super reliable.  The Mavs now have to overpay Kyrie and give up significant assets to replace Brunson.  Ouch).

How good a long term bet is Irving as a player?

Putting aside all the hype/controversy, Irving is still a great player but how good does he project to be going forward?  Here are his advanced stats from the last few years:

2018-19 w/Boston: 2,214 minutes, 24.3 PER, .197 WS48, 7.2 BPM (6.0 OBPM, 1.1 DBPM)

2019-20 w/Brooklyn: 658 minutes, 26.2 PER, .210 WS48, 7.7 BPM (6.7 OBPM, 0.9 DBPM)

2020-21 w/Brooklyn: 1,886 minutes, 24.4 PER, .189 WS48, 5.5 BPM (5.7 OBPM, -0.2 DBPM)

2021-22 w/Brooklyn: 1,091 minutes, 21.4 PER, .147 WS48, 3.0 BPM (4.2 OBPM, -1.2 DBPM)

2022-23 w/Brooklyn & Dallas: 1,592 minutes, 22.0 PER, .152 WS48, 3.7 BPM (4.6 OBPM, -0.9 DBPM)

Between injuries, mental health breaks, and vaccine stuff it is possible that the above numbers are buggy but the general trend shows that he’s really good but exiting his prime years.  This is backed up by his shooting dating that shows he’s been getting to the rim much less the last two years (12.2% versus 23% for his career) and he has set a career high in three-point frequency each of the last two years.  Of Irving’s comparable players (guys like Derek Harper, Rod Strickland, Mookie Blaylock, and Stephon Marbury), most of them had only one or two years left near their age-30 production.  Granted, players are playing longer these days but decline is coming soon for Kyrie and a four-year deal covering ages 31 to 34 seems a bit scary to the team handing it out.

What about KD’s future prospects?

He’s great and ostensibly has had the same production levels since2017-18.  He’s doing it differently now (he now shoots much more from the mid-range) but he’s still great.  His main problem is injuries, as he basically misses 30+ games most years.  I have no idea how KD will age but his closest comp, Kevin Garnett, was great thru age-36 before turning into a role player.

Moreover, the older players who are in KD’s ballpark, in terms of production, all aged incredibly well too.  Durant has the fourth best BPM of any 34-year old.  Check the top five:

Stephen Curry 2022-23: 8.2

LeBron James 2018-19: 8.0

Karl Malone 1997-98: 7.3

Kevin Durant 2022-23: 7.0

Michael Jordan 1997-98: 6.9

Pretty good company.  MJ retired after that season but Malone played at the same level for three more years and was still an All-Star at age-38.  LBJ, of course, is still pretty good now (6.6 BPM this season at age-38).  Interesting side note is that Malone and LBJ’s teams got much worse over the next few years despite their production.  Still, Durant is a good bet to stay great thru the remaining years of his time with Phoenix if he can stay moderately healthy.

Does Durant make Phoenix the favorite to win a title this year?

Among the favorites for sure.  The Suns are 31-27 and 17th in offense.  They shoot well from three but are the worst two-point percentage team in the NBA.  I imagine getting the best scorer in the NBA will help.  KD’s impact is limited a bit by the depth surrendered to bring him to town (Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson) but the Suns are a serious title contender now and they weren’t before.

As a quick side note, I found it fun how varied the opinions were on the KD trade.  Most experts thought he would help but there is great variation on whether the Nets’ return was too much or not enough.  I thought the return was pretty steep but the trade was rational for both teams.

Should the Nets have just kept KD and reevaluated in the summer?

A good case could be made for that course if Durant was on board and it appears, based on the return for the Irving trade, that keeping KD was possible.  Either Durant told the Nets he wanted a deal or the Nets felt the Suns deal was too good to turn down (it was likely a combination of the two). 

How would you sum up the KD/Kyrie Era in Brooklyn?

Snake bit failure.  It was definitely worth the try and it wasn’t the same kind of abject failure as the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett gambit.  In that case, the stars just weren’t good enough to be a title contender.  Here, the Nets were sabotaged by bad luck and Kyrie-being-Kyrie.  The Nets made some mistakes for sure, in particular, trading everything for James Harden and then flipping Harden for the ghost of Ben Simmons.  We will also never know what attempts were made to get Kyrie more on board but, presumably, the Nets tried.

They Kyrie experience is best summed up by a recent interview in Dallas where he stated that his leaving Brooklyn: “was in the works like after Year 1. I was unsure about whether I wanted to be in Brooklyn long-term again because of things that were happening behind the scenes.”  Okay, but one week ago Irving’s agent (who is also his stepmother) specifically said Irving was happy and wanted to stay in New York.  It seems that his main problem was the lack of a new contract and this interview is a disingenuous post hoc rationalization.  I understand Kyrie was just going through high stakes negotiations and he had reason to be angry that the Nets wouldn’t pay up but at least be honest about the situation.  It was about money, which is totally reasonable but, again, don’t give excuses that seem palpably false.

Putting KD/Kyrie in Nets historical context

In the end, after all the crap, the KD/Kyrie Era yielded one good season (and two good partial seasons).  For what it’s worth, the 2020-21 Nets are likely the best Nets team of the franchise’s NBA years.  The 2002-03 team had a slightly higher SRS (4.42 to 4.24) but the 2020-21 team had a better winning percentage (48-24 versus 49-33) and that was with KD and Harden playing only about half the year (Kyrie also missed 17 games).  No doubt Nets fans will remember 2002-03 with Jason Kidd more fondly but 2020-21 was the best team they’ve had so far.

The KD squad has made some marks on Nets history.  Harden’s 2020-21 half season marks as highest BPM in Nets’ history and KD has three of the next four (Vince Carter 2004-05 is also in the mix).  Without the ABA, the All-Time Nets starting lineup is Jason Kidd, Harden, VC, KD, and the always interesting Derrick Coleman (yes, Kyrie has an argument but he’s clearly not as good as Kidd or Harden).  KD’s presence was definitely felt in Brooklyn, even if the experience was largely unhappy for fans.