A Closer Look at Load Management

Each year, NBA teams rest players more and more, particularly in road games, under the concept of load management.  The teams have shown great reluctance to play their stars (and even some non-star players) despite the fact that the players have no apparent injuries.  The most recent example comes from the Lakers, who will sit Anthony Davis and LeBron James in Brooklyn, even though they were off the prior day. The teams insist that they are taking reasonable steps to protect their valuable assets (star players) while writers, ex-players, and fans grumble that the strategy greatly devalues the regular season.

I thought we could take a look at how we got here, what exactly the teams are trying to accomplish, and whether load management can or should be addressed.

A brief history of load management

In olden times, the NBA (well, David Stern) did not take kindly to the concept of rest that was not related to recovery from a specific injury.  At the end of the 1989-90, Stern was fining teams for resting players.  On the last day of that season, the Lakers chose to rest James Worthy and Magic Johnson against the Blazers for a nationally televised game, even though the Lakers and Portland were locked into their playoff seeds (Portland ended up winning by 42).  Jerry Buss actually apologized for the resting, though Pat Riley was defiant that it wasn’t worth the risk stating that  he had “an obligation to our management” to protect his stars.  The NBA said the fine was “for failing to play two healthy players who are normally starters.”  Riley had fought this battle before.  In 1985, the Lakers were also fined for not playing Magic or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a season-ender against the Kings.

It seemed weird that the NBA was so militant about players playing in meaningless games but the issue did not crop up against until the early 2010s. Teams began sitting older players a bit but the issue came to a head in December 2012, when the Spurs sat Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green for a game against the Heat that was set for TNT.  Stern was not amused and fined the Spurs $250,000 because he felt they had no basis for resting players so early in the season under a rule that passed in 2010 that allowed the commissioner to fine teams under a “best interests of the NBA” clause. 

Since 2012, resting has become a much more common practice.  Notably, Steve Kerr rested all his stars for a primetime game against the Spurs in March 2017 but wasn’t fined because he had informed the NBA publicly in a prompt fashion (the Spurs in 2012 did not do so).  Adam Silver was sympathetic to the issue of resting players for long term goals, stating: “I think that’s a core responsibility of the team and I think it’s a very slippery slope for the league office to start getting in the business of telling a coach or team what minutes a player should play.”

At the time, Tim McMahon wrote for ESPN that the coaches felt the problem was intractable. Rick Carlisle rejected the bad public relations of rest: “It’s not that simple.  When you coach in this league for a while, you get a real feel for players and their levels of energy, their levels of wear and tear, both physically and emotionally. There are just times when you know a night of rest strategically spaced within a span of games is going to make a big difference in the long run.”  In that same article, Kerr blamed it on the rigors of the long schedule and traveling: “I think even just going down to 75 games, I think that would make a dramatic difference in schedule. Now I don’t see that happening because there is money at stake for everybody.  I do think this can be remedied though — maybe not remedied — but I think it can be dramatically helped with what the league is already working on for next year and the consideration of geographics when it comes to the schedule.” 

Now, here we are six years later and load management has proliferated and Kerr is talking about reducing the schedule to 72 games.

What is the goal of load management?

Obviously, the goal is to keep players healthy but are we trying to avoid wear-and-tear for the playoffs or is there some other goal?  It’s a little bit of everything.  In 2016, Tom Haberstroh wrote a detailed report on the issue and found that rest on the road is the clear choice: “[w]e are learning that those stars play far better and get injured far less if they rest more. As a Utah School of Medicine study found, back-to-back road games…yields 3.5 times more in-game injuries than those played at home.”

In other words, if your players are gassed AND more likely to get injured how can you not rest them on some of these grueling road trips?  The upside is low and the downside is significant.

As a quasi-counterpoint, a few studies have come to different conclusions on rest.  Here’s a sampling:

-In 2007, two University of Pennsylvania statisticians examined the role of rest and how it related to homecourt advantage in the NBA.  They confirmed that home teams have a big advantage but were skeptical of the role of rest played: “we conclude that the extraordinary high home court advantage enjoyed by NBA teams is partially explained by the tendency of the NBA schedules for the traveling teams to have reduced rest, but that the bulk of the advantage arises from other, non-related factors.”   

In a June 2017 study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that rest during the NBA regular season does not improve playoff performance or affect the injury risk during the playoffs in the same season.  The study looked at over 800 players and review performance and injuries and how they correlated to performance.  The study found that: “[a]lthough multiple potential confounding factors exist and may limit the results of this study, it should not be assumed that NBA players who rest more frequently during the regular season will perform at a higher level or be at a reduced risk of injury in the playoffs during that same season.”

-In December 2021, a group of statistician did a study on player fatigue and load management focusing on the handling of Kawhi Leonard.  This group concluded that: “the case study suggests that Kawhi Leonard’s player impact estimate does not necessarily improve in games immediately following additional rest compared to those with no load management. This calls into question the effectiveness of load management as a strategy in the short run, however it would ultimately be more important to figure out how load management pays off in the long run.”

Even the skeptical studies acknowledge the problems road teams face and don’t totally eliminate the possibility that road trips elevate risk of injury.  This also does not account for individual circumstances like Carlisle referenced where the staff can see that a player is gassed and at unnecessary risk.

What to do?

We can assume that the NBA will not reduce the games because there is a revenue cost to that strategy.  We can debate the ethics of that position but the choices are clear: (a) spread out road games even more than now or (b) accept load management.  The middle ground would be to get with experts to find a way to structure the schedule/travel to reduce risk of injury and allow for proper rest and to define the limits of load management.  In 2017, Silver said he didn’t want to have to be in the business of telling teams who to play and when but that day is rapidly coming anyway.

The Warriors and Extreme Home/Road Splits

With a win in Cleveland yesterday, the Warriors “improved” to 6-18 on the road against an impressive 17-5 home record, which adds up to a .500 team.   That got me wondering if the Warriors’ extreme splits were relatively.  In theory, it is not exactly shocking to see a team play much better at home.  It has long been noted that NBA teams play better at home.  So far, only six teams are above .500 on the road and the Warriors have a pretty big split there are plenty of team that are in the same ballpark (Dallas is 17-7 at home and 8-15 on the road).   

I thought we could dig a little deeper and see how having six road winners compares to historical trends.  I went back to 1979-80 to see how many over .500 road teams there  were each season (HT to BREF):

1979-80: 4

1980-81: 5

1981-82: 4

1982-83: 5

1983-84: 2 (just Boston and the Lakers)

1984-85: 4

1985-86: 4

1986-87: 2 (Lakers and Hawks, even Boston was below .500 at 20-21)

1987-88: 2 (just Boston and the Lakers)

1988-89: 2 (just Detroit and the Lakers)

Let’s pause for a second here to reflect on the 1980s. Consistent road wins meant you were an inner circle title team.  There were some dominant home teams who were not great on the road.  A prominent example was Denver, which was probably helped by the altitude adjustment.  In 1988-89, Denver was 35-6 at home but only 9-32 on the road.  That same year, Utah had slightly less extreme splits but similar (34-7 at home, 17-24 on the road).  Both teams lost in the first round of the playoffs.  Lest you think it was only mountain teams that had such splits, Sacramento and Indiana were .500ish teams at home but won single digit road games.

1989-90: 6

1990-91: 7

1991-92: 6

1992-93: 7

1993-94: 7

1994-95: 7

1995-96: 9

1996-97: 9

1997-98: 9

1998-99: 7

We can see the number of good road teams consistently a bit higher in the 1990s.  I’m sure there are a few factors at play but it had to help that teams no longer were flying commercial like they had done for years prior. The Pistons were the first team to buy their own private plane in the late 1980s. The practice was derided as a waste by some.  In this 1989 Orlando Sentinel article, Magic execs were not thrilled with the idea: “Suffice it to say that the Magic won’t be buying an airliner. Said one [Orlando] team official: ‘The Pistons figure that having the jet costs them an extra $500,000 or $700,000 a year.’”

But it gradually dawned on teams that the Pistons might have an edge on the road that other teams didn’t.  In a 1991 article for the Deseret News, Brad Rock documented this phenomenon: “Increasingly, teams are saying goodbye to crowded airports and hello to flexible flight schedules, cooked-to-order meals, real silverware and sparkling mineral water. There is a growing trend in the NBA for teams to travel by charter flight. The theory is that less time in airports translates into more rest time in the hotels, which translates into more wins.” 

Rock quoted Jeff Malone for his preference for commercial travel: “You end up going to bed sometimes four, five in the morning. Some guys can handle it better than that, but I don’t like it.”  But Rock noted that: “Malone concedes, though, that private planes are an advantage when a team must play back-to-back road games.”  So, yeah why not have a private plane at all times?

1999-00: 7

2000-01: 10

2001-02: 9

2002-03: 5

2003-04: 6

2004-05: 7

2005-06: 5

2006-07: 6

2007-08: 9

2008-09: 7

After initially trending upwards, the number of road winners appears to have plateaued in the 2000s. 

2009-10: 11

2010-11: 8

2011-12: 7

2012-13 8

2013-14: 14

2014-15: 10

2015-16: 7

2016-17: 7

2017-18: 10

2018-19: 9

In the 2010s, good teams have gotten a bit stronger on the road.  The record for the most over .500 road teams was first set in 2009-10 at 11 and then broken in 2013-14 with 14.  Disparity in conference talent had to have a hand in this, as the seven best road teams in 2013-14 were from the West and they feasted on the non-Miami/LeBron teams in the East.  Still, overall, we can see good road teams expected to win more than in the past.

2019-20: 11

2020-21: 14

2021-22: 12

2022-23: 6

Road teams kept strong in 2019-20 and 2020-21 tied the 14-team record.  Of course 2020-21 was an anomalous year due to the lack of fans in the stands for much of the season.  Still, the ten-year trend line clearly is moving towards better road performance for good teams. 

So, how do we explain the drop in 2022-23 to the lowest number since 2006-07?  Obviously it’s early and two teams (Memphis and Milwaukee) are at .500 that could easily be over that mark by season’s end.  Even so, this will likely be a down year for good road teams, the question only is by how much.  It’s had to know if this is the result of random chance or some other factor to which we are not privy.  The easiest tangible non-random explanation is parity (the inverse of the 2013-14 situation).  There are a large number of playoff viable teams, which takes away some of the gimmie wins that might’ve been available in the past (only four teams are awful at home).  This may change if a few borderline teams may pivot to tanking.

Turning back to the Warriors….they have title level talent but is there is any precedent for a team winning in the playoffs with such extreme home-road splits?  Well, past history isn’t great for the Warriors.  In 2020-21, the Warriors were 25-11 at home and 14-22 on the road and that team lost in the play-in tourney.  The title team from 2021-22 was 22-19 on the road and prior GS teams were even better (except that terrible, injury ridden 2019-20 squad).

There are not a ton of other recent teams with extreme home-road splits but here are a few that may be instructive:

-The 2019-20 76ers were 31-4 at home and 12-26 on the road while Miami was 29-7 at home and 15-22 on the road that season.  Since the playoffs were played at a neutral location, we did not get to see how that all would’ve played out under normal conditions.  In the Bubble playoffs, Philly was trounced 4-0 by Boston in the first round while Miami made a surprising run to the Finals. 

-The early post-dynasty Spurs also had big splits.  They were 33-8 at home in 2017-18 and 14-27 on the road and were only slightly less split in 2018-19. The 2017-18 Spurs were beaten 4-1 by the Warriors (winning a home game after going down 3-0).  In 2018-19, the Spurs actually stole a home game from the second-seeded Nuggets and went up 2-1 but dropped Game 4 at home.  The Nuggets ended up winning a tough Game 7.

-The 2016-17 Pacers were 29-12 at home but only 13-28 on the road.  They were swept by the Cavs.

-The 2012-13 Lakers (29-12 home, 16-25 road), Rocket s, (29-12 home, 16-25 road), and Jazz (30-11 home, 13-28 road) also had extreme splits.  The Lakers were swept by the Spurs, though the Lakers were missing Kobe Bryant (who tore his Achilles after playing insane minutes).  Houston lost 4-2 to OKC even though they did win a road game.

-The most recent team I could find with extreme splits that actually won a playoff series was the 2007-08 Jazz (37-4 home, 17-24 road).  They won a tough 4-5 series against the Tracy McGrady Rockets.  Houston had home court but Utah won the first two games in Houston before dropping  Game 3 in Utah but winning the series in six games.  The Lakers beat Utah 4-2 in the second round in a series where the home team won the first five games before the Lakers won in Utah to close it out.

So, the overall playoff results are not favorable to good home/bad road teams that profile like Golden State.  It is true that Golden State is a little different from these teams, given the presence of Steph Curry and the team’s title pedigree.  At some point, however, GS will have to get a little better on the road (which is possible as they’ve looked tough lately) or precedent says they are not a long haul playoff team. 

PJ Tucker and Adventures in Low Usage

1.  Adventures In Low Usage, PJ Tucker:  Despite the high powered offensive era in which the NBA currently operates, PJ Tucker stubbornly refuses to shoot.  Currently, Tucker has started all 31 games he has played and racked up 28.5 mpg, yet he is averaging only 3.1 shots per game, which yields a miniscule 6.5% usage rate.  His shot creation is absurdly low: 100% of his baskets so far have been assisted.  Tucker’s other advanced stats are pretty gross as well: 5.0 PER, .059 WS48, -3.5 BPM.

Of course, Tucker has never exactly been an offensive powerhouse, racking up a 7.2% usage in 2020-21 (he had 7.7% in 32 games as a starter for Houston and 5.8% in 20 games with Milwaukee as a reserve).  Miami was able to get more offense out of Tucker last season, 11.3 PER, 11.7% usage (his best offensive stats since he was with Phoenix back in 2014-15).  Miami appeared to take care to make sure Tucker was somewhat involved in the offense.  Philly has defaulted Tucker back to his role in Houston/Milwaukee of standing in the corner and occasionally taking wide open three-pointers.

Can Philly win games with such an offensive sieve playing so many minutes?   For sure.  The 76ers’ offensive universe is centered around great scorers Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris, so Tucker just has to be enough of a threat to maybe make an open three that his defender hesitates before doubling.  One would think that opponents are going to dare Tucker to shoot more but it hasn’t really happened yet (Tucker was 0-0 in 20 minutes against the Clipps last night).

 You do have to wonder whether Philly could find a decent defender without such extremely low offensive output.  At the moment, the 76ers have an average offense (15th) and the 2nd best defense in the NBA, so perhaps Tucker is more of an asset than his low stats indicate.  Certainly Tucker has usually been useful in the grind out playoff games, where offense becomes harder to come by.

2.  Adventures In Low Usage, Charles Jones:  How historically unique is Tucker’s lack of shooting?  Quite.  According to Basketball-Reference, only one player in the modern era has a lower usage with a minimum of 26 mpg over a full season, Charles Jones of the 1989-90 Bullets. CJ had a 5.6% usage.  Late stage Dennis Rodman with the Lakers and Mavs also had low usages too (6.4 and 6.5%) but he wore out his welcomes quickly and did not play more than 657 minutes.

Jones was an undersized hustling center who forged a 15-year career basically leaning on centers.  In 1989-90, the Bullets had let had no legitimate starting center candidate.  They turned to Jones, who was a 32-year old reserve, to play major minutes.  Jones gamely played 27.7 mpg for 81 games and put up a whopping 3.2 ppg on 2.3 FGA/pg.  He did rack up 6.2 rpg and 2.4 bpg.  His advanced stats were not as bad as they could’ve been: 9.2 PER, .082 WS48, -0.5 BPM.  He took a season high 7 shots on one occasion.  He had nine games with no shot attempt (including from the line), and did not score in 23 games.  The 1991 Pro Basketball Handbook described him as “offensively bankrupt” but lauded his hustle and defense. 

Jones’ stilted skill-set didn’t seem to help as much as Tucker’s has for the current 76ers.  Despite giving CJ heavy minutes for defensive purposes, the Bullets were only 20th in the NBA in defense and were average on offense (16th).  The bad defense wasn’t Jones’ fault but he wasn’t a game changer who could cover for the more defensively challenged players.  For some more context, Washington went 31-51 on a team centered around a 33-year old Bernard King and a 28-year old Jeff Malone, who each had 29.4% usage (tied for fifth highest in the NBA that season):

King: 18.8 PER, .545 TS%, .099 WS48, 2.3 OBPM, -1.9 DBPM

J. Malone: 18.5 PER, .529 TS%, .098 WS48, 2.2 OBPM, -2.2 DBPM

As amazing as King’s comeback was from knee injuries, they were nowhere near as good offensively as current versions of Embiid or old Harden and the Bullets were just not good enough on offense to compensate for CJ’s lack of offense.   In other words, the Bullets/Wizards were futzing around with decent vets and had no direction as a franchise (this seems vaguely familiar to Washington fans).

3.  Low Usage Miscellany:  A few more random thoughts on low usage players…

-Since game logs have been kept, only five  times has a player logged 42 or more minutes in a game and did not take a shot:

Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia, 11/4/67): 44 mp, 1 pt, 18 rebs, 13 asts (won 117-110)

Wilt Chamberlain (Los Angeles, 3/27/73): 46 mpg, 0 pts, 14 rebs, 4 asts (lost 85-84)

Michael Smith (Sacramento, 1/14/97): 43 mp, 4 pts, 9 rebs (won 105-98 in OT)

Ben Wallace (Chicago, 3/31/07): 48 mp, 2 pts, 12 rebs, 2 blks (lost 112-108 in OT)

Joel Anthony (Miami, 1/18/11): 43 mp, 0 pts, 16 rebs, 3 bks (lost 93-89 in OT)

In case you are wondering, Philly was not thrilled with Wilt’s extreme non-shooting.  According to Wayne Lynch in “Season of the Sixers,” coach Alex Hannum told the press: “You’ll have to ask Wilt, [a]ll I can say is this was not my instructions.  Wilt’s version: “[t]he important thing is still to win, isn’t it?  And we did win, didn’t we?  I didn’t plan on having no shots.  You call it zero percent, I call it one hundred percent.”  Wilt seemed like a pleasure to deal with for coaches.

-Can a team win with a comically low usage player?  Well, Philly is winning now and the Lakers were pretty good with Rodman in 1998-99.  Other notable low usage, but useful, players were TR Dunn and Mark Eaton, who had roles as defense-only guys.  They worked as cogs because they played with Hall of Fame-level offensive teammates.  Eaton and Dunn also played in a more specialized time, where most players weren’t expected to shoot threes or handle the ball as much as they are today.

-If we look at low usage players since 2009-10, there are only a nine season  that are under 10%.  In addition to Tucker (who has done it four times), the group is exclusively small forwards who are corner three guys.  The lowest non-Tucker year came from Andre Roberson in 2017-18 (8.6%) for a very good Oklahoma City team that was top ten in both offense and defense.  Russell Westbrook (34.1%) and Paul George (25.7%) dominated possessions while Roberson, who was always a very poor shooter, was injured halfway through the season (which seems to have effectively ended his career).  When he did play in 2017-18, Roberson put up 5.0 ppg on 4.2 FGA/pg.  Unlike the other players on the modern list, he was not a three point threat and was exclusively a defensive player.  For what it’s worth, OKC was 24-15 in games Roberson played and 24-19 without him.

-Royce O’Neale also clocked in at 9% usage the last three years for Utah for really good offenses.  He is at 13.3% for Brooklyn this year and has looked aggressive offensively at moments, suggesting that the O’Neale’s lack of shots was more by design, as they were loaded with other scorers.

-Reggie Bullock has also dipped below 10% this year.  He is a career 14% usage player and had 13.3% playing last season with the ball dominant Luka Doncic.  This season, Bullock has played the exact same 28 mpg but the drop in usage seems to be due to the fact that he can’t make a shot (.487 TS% versus .558% last season).  Bullock’s shot chart shows he is basically only taking three pointers now (83.4% of his shots versus 65.0% career and 78.2% last season) and he is shooting them poorly (31%).  Perhaps incidentally, Luka’s usage has hit a career high 38.1% this season (which would be 7th highest usage since the stat has been kept).

More On Kyrie (Sigh)

When I first heard about the latest Kyrie Irving controversy, I shrugged and basically ignored it. I’ve long been tired of Kyrie’s off-court baggage going back to his flat-Earth days and was hoping this most recent outburst would be given similar weight by the public and quickly dismissed.  The NBA and the Nets were clearly hoping the same, as they did not initially come down very hard on Irving and, instead, put out generic statements against anti-Semitism, without confronting Kyrie.  

Alas, Irving seemed unable to acknowledge that Holocaust denial is odious and has given quasi-defiant press interviews in which he did not apologize and the story has stayed alive.  Now, he is suspended at least five games and until such time as he does these six things:

-Apologize and condemn the film he promoted.

-Make a $500,000 donation to anti-hate causes.

-Complete sensitivity training.

-Complete anti-Semitism training.

-Meet with the ADL and Jewish leaders.

Since the story won’t die, I reluctantly throw in my two cents as well and try to answer questions from all angles.  [full disclosure: I’m Jewish and find Holocaust denial to be hateful and unequivocally horrid]. 

Did Kyrie do something wrong in posting the video?

Yes.  Promoting a film that traffics in virulent anti-Semitism is wrong.   Even if Irving had no intent to focus on that aspect of the film or does not believe that part of the film, the views are wrong and overshadow any other point he was trying to make.

Did Kyrie’s prior issues with the Nets make the discipline worse?

Probably not but due to any Nets love for Irving.  Kyrie’s prior issues in Brooklyn are many and can be reviewed here.  I have to think that the Nets may be sick of Kyrie but they didn’t use this as an excuse to attack him.  If anything, they gave him multiple shots to fix the situation before resorting to suspension.  The kid gloves approach was not because they love Irving and more likely because the Nets desperately want to keep Kevin Durant happy and this saga has already annoyed KD.  

What about Kyrie’s free speech rights?

Unless the NBA and the Nets are considered government actors, the First Amendment isn’t relevant to this dispute.  Kyrie is not free from business or societal consequences of his speech if others feel it is offensive [yup, our lovely culture wars have jurisdiction to this controversy]. 

It’s arguable whether the NBA or the Nets are mortally offended by Irving’s conduct but they rightfully are concerned that fans will be offended and that this will hurt business to no good end.  Kyrie’s behavior certainly made it unlikely that I would want to root for him or buy his products.  Given this fair and objective concern, the NBA and the Nets have a right to protect their brands against this behavior. 

I get that Kyrie did something wrong but aren’t the NBA and Joe Tsai hypocrites?   What about supporting China?

Doing business with China is a problem for all American companies and the NBA is no different.  It would be nice if more American businesses would condemn Chinese repressive behavior but that’s not relevant to Kyrie’s controversy.  Would it be better if the NBA didn’t attempt to address any bad behavior just because they haven’t figured out what to do with China?  In fact, growing a backbone here may actually help in other instances.

Are the NBA players hypocrites for speaking out against Sterling and Sarver but have not nearly been as forceful against Kyrie?

I don’t think so.  The players were quite vocal when Donald Sterling and Robert Sarver were in the barrel and have been much quieter now.  It took a week for LeBron James to acknowledge that Irving’s post was hurtful but LBJ did give a clear statement.  It would’ve been nice if the players would’ve reacted a bit more quickly but players aren’t generally going to attack their co-workers for obvious reasons.  LBJ’s late statement was pretty strong when you consider the context.

Putting aside that fact, Irving’s post was ignorant but pales in comparison to decades of racist behavior of Sterling and Sarver.  Hopefully, Kyrie doesn’t go down that path and he has no prior public instances of such behavior.

Is Kyrie being treated more kindly than other players?

Here’s a sampling of a few other players who courted political/racial controversy:

-Last year, Meyers Leonard off-handedly used a Jewish slur while filming a live feed of a video game.  The slur was wrong clearly not pre-meditated.   Leonard apologized immediately but was fined $50,000 and suspended a weekDespite the contrition and the fact that the Jewish community forgave him, Leonard has not been signed by another NBA team yet.

-On the other end is former Bull Craig Hodges, who was a third/fourth guard with the Michael Jordan Bulls.  He didn’t do anything wrong that would warrant suspension but the NBA clearly didn’t appreciate his viewpoints.  He was politically active and would exhort MJ to do more for the African American community.  In 1992, when the Bulls visited the White House, Hodges wore a dashiki and brought a letter urging then President Bush to help poor and minority communities.  No team signed Hodges after the 1992 season ending his career.

-In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended for refusing to stand for the National Anthem.  We did a deep dive on this issue back in 2016 during the Colin Kaepernick protest.  To briefly recap, Abdul-Rauf felt that standing for the Anthem went against his faith, which angered fans and caused him to get suspended until a compromise was made (he would pray during the Anthem).  Abdul-Rauf lasted a few more years but wasn’t  the same player afterwards. 

-Enes Freedom (nee Kanter) has repeatedly and vocally attacked the NBA for not doing more to address the terrible plight of the Uyghurs in China.  Freedom, who is 30, hasn’t been signed this year yet.

It’s not fair but a player’s ability dictates whether he will survive a controversy.  Leonard and Hodges were back-end players and any baggage (however light) was enough to knock them out of the NBA (though Leonard might make it back possibly).  Abdul-Rauf was a good player and was not explicitly drummed out of the NBA, though his path got harder afterwards.  Freedom was a solid regular but there is little chance that owners will take a chance on a loud voice who is a bench guy.

Kyrie is far more accomplished on the court than any of them.  He will likely sign somewhere after the season, though his market was already pretty weak relative to his ability.

Will Kyrie ever apologize and take the remedial steps that the Nets have demanded?

Who knows?  I find it hard to believe he will make a clean apology but it’s also not likely that the Nets can suspend him indefinitely.  Any path towards reconciliation can be found in how his flat-Earth stuff played out.  Let’s quickly review the timeline:

-In February 2017, Kyrie appeared on the Richard Jefferson/Channing Frye podcast and said: “The Earth is flat. … I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.”

-In September 2017, Irving slightly backtracked and told the Toucher & Reach radio show that: “All I want to do is be able to have that open conversation. It was all an exploitation tactic. It literally spun the world—your guy’s world—it spun it into a frenzy and proved exactly what I thought it would do in terms of how all this works. It created a division, or, literally stood up there and let all these people throw tomatoes at me, or have somebody think I’m somehow a different intellectual person because I believe that the earth is flat and you think the world is round. It created exactly that.  It became like, because I think different, does that knock my intellectual capacity or the fact that I can think different things than you? That was the intent behind it. Do your own research, don’t come to me and ask me. At the end of the day, you’re going to feel and believe the way you want to feel. But don’t knock my life over that. When I do something, I know my intent. And it proved what I thought it would.”

-In late October 2017, Irving appeared on Geno Auriemma’s podcast and said: “[t]he whole intent behind it, Coach, it wasn’t to bash science. It wasn’t to like have the intent of starting a rage and be seen as this insane individual. When I started seeing comments and things about universal truths that I had known, like I had questions. When I started actually doing research on my own and figuring out that there is no real picture of Earth, not one real picture of Earth—and we haven’t been back to the moon since 1961 or 1969—it becomes like conspiracy, too.”

While Kyrie’s stance on this issue was ill-informed, it didn’t really hurt anyone.  Or did it?  In late September 2018, Kyrie apologized for his flat-Earth stance at a Forbes summit.  Irving said “[a]t the time I didn’t realize the effect. I was definitely at that time, ‘I’m a big conspiracy theorist. You can’t tell me anything.’ I’m sorry about all that. For all the science teachers, everybody coming up to me like, ‘You know I have to reteach my whole curriculum!’ I’m sorry. I apologize. I apologize.”

Other than the presence of anti-Semitism now, flat-Earth controversy tracks very similarly.  In both cases, Irving insists he knows something and it is not receptive to the holes in his position.  Apparently, a bunch of science teachers convinced him he was wrong in the instance of flat-Earth. 

But who will play the role of the science teacher in the current controversy?  Unlike flat-Earthers, here, Kyrie strongly links his post endorsing the movie to his personal identity.   He has a strong emotional stake in this dispute.  Irving clearly views an apology as a partial repudiation of this identity.  How do you thread this needle?

Meeting with Jews who have been victim of anti-Semitism might help.  In addition, in other contexs, Kyrie understands red lines in terms of offensive words and behaviors.  On April 10, 2021, the normally placid Irving was ejected for a heated argument with the Lakers’ Dennis SchroederIrving was enraged when Schroeder called Kyrie the n-word (apparently in a trash talking way and not intending to say something racially insulting but Kyrie did not accept this lingo).  In addition to fighting Schroeder, Irving posted the following:

“The N-word is a derogatory racial slur! It will never be…

-a term of endearment



NEVER FORGET ITS FOUL AND TRUE HISTORY! Throw that N-word out the window, right alongside all of those other racist words used to describe my people. We are not slaves or N’s.”

This is a commendable stance.  Someone must explain to Kyrie that Jews view Holocaust denial (or minimization) as similarly hurtful.  Hopefully, Irving sees the connection and comes around on this point. 

How will this affect the Nets’ season?

The Nets appear desperate to take another shot at a title so any sincere apology will probably be enough to get Kyrie back on the roster.  A title run seems remote based on the terrible start to the season but the Nets are willing to do anything to try. 

It seems that, either way, Irving’s tenure with the Nets won’t make it past April 2023.  As for KD, he will have to be traded or the Nets will have to show enough progress to convince him to be happy with a quasi-rebuild like the Warriors did after he left town.  Given how close Durant is to Irving, this scenario seems unlikely.

NBA 2022-23: Western Conference Preview

We turn now to part 2 of our NBA preview, the Western Conference.  I find the West even more difficult  to predict than the East.  Yes, the Warriors are good but it’s hard not to remember that they were shaky coming into the 2021-22 playoffs and they rely on some very veteran players.  On top of that, at least five teams can make a credible argument that they will win 50 or more games.  So, let’s dive in to some assorted questions….

Could six or more Western Conference teams win 50+ game?

For sure.  Last year, four teams won 52 or more games and Utah (49 wins) and Denver (48 wins) were a hair away from joining them.  Since 1979-80, a conference has had six or more 50-win teams 14 times.  For kicks, here are some more fun facts on the subject (note that in years when the NBA didn’t play a full schedule, we defined a 50-win team as one with a winning percentage above .610)….

-From 1979-80 to 1988-89, no conference had more than four 50-win teams.  Yup, the Showtime Lakers had it really easy most of the 1980s.

-From 1989-90 to 1998-99, a conference had six or more 50-win teams three times. 1990-91 was the first time this happened when the West was stacked.

-From 1999-00 to 2000-09, things got funky.  Seven times, a conference exceeded six 50-win teams, with all eight playoffs teams hitting the mark in 2007-08 when the 57-25 Lakers drew the 50-32 Nuggets as the eight seed. Denver featured Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, and Kenyon Martin.  Still, Kobe and the Lakers smoked Denver, 4-0 and outscoring them by 13.3 ppg.

-From 2009-10 to 2018-19, the number of six or more 50-win teams regressed back to three times, though the 2009-10 West hit eight teams again.  That year, the Lakers again were the one-seed drawing a tough matchup against the 50-32 Oklahoma City Thunder with young Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.  This series was tighter than against Denver, as L.A. won 4-2 but had a ppg margin of only +1.7. 

-Since 2019-20, only one time has a conference exceeded 50+ wins with six teams.

-Weirdly, the Eastern Conference has only had six or more 50-win teams one time (1996-97), while the other 13 times happened out West.

Will the Draymond punch hurt the Warriors’ shot at repeating?

Probably not.  Draymond Green’s quasi-sucker punch was reckless and particularly inexcusable for a vet player.  Nevertheless, Jordan Poole wasn’t hurt and, regardless of intent, lack of injury is what matters most, as our prior study of teammate punching incidents found

No, the Warriors’ most pressing concern is keeping Steph Curry fresh and healthy.  As amazing as Steph still is, he had his lowest full season rate stat numbers since before GS became a dynasty.  He still should be really good but that is the real risk for a 34-year old who relies on perpetual motion to score.

Are the Suns toast?

They are definitely a 50-win team but there is a sense, after the terrible end to 2021-22 and the ugly off-season tiffs with Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder and Chris Paul hitting age-37 that they are no longer inner circle contenders.  There are no stats to show this but that is my sense as well.

Can the Mavs continue to improve without Jalen Brunson?

Definitely.  Brunson was a tough loss but ultimately, the Mavs are a slow-paced (95.4 pace was slowest in the NBA) and average offense (15th) with a great defense (6th).  Most of the offense revolves around Luka Doncic isolations and he’ll need a little help at some point but this style should scale well for the playoffs.

Can the Lakers bounce back?

They can make the playoffs but the West is way too deep for this older team to compete.  We all agree that Russell Westbrook is a horrid fit with LeBron James and it’s concerning that management could think this would fit AND that it did not rebalance the roster after watching them play together.   This is potentially a mess unless Rob Pelinka can pivot.

Can the Clippers stay healthy?

I have no idea but did you know that Kawhi Leonard has never played more than  74 games in a season and he broke 66 games  played only twice?  On the stats-side, Kawhi has become a much better passer, though some of his dynamic stats (blocks) have lagged since his injury with the Spurs.  The Clipps should be really good but questions abound.

With all that said, here are my predictions, of which I have little confidence:

1.  Golden State Warriors

2.  Denver Nuggets

3. Los Angeles Clippers

4. Phoenix Suns

5. Memphis Grizzlies

6. Dallas Mavericks

7.  Minnesota Timberwolves

8.  New Orleans Pelicans

Play In Teams

9.  Los Angeles Lakers

10.  Portland Trail Blazers


11.  Sacramento Kings

12.  Utah Jazz

13.  Houston Rockets

14.  San Antonio Spurs

15.  Oklahoma City Thunder


Second Round

-Warriors over Grizzlies

-Clippers over Nuggets

Conference Finals

-Warriors over Clippers


-Bucks over Warriors

MVP: Joel Embiid

ROY: Paolo Banchero

COY: Doc Rivers

DPOY:  Giannis Antetokounmpo

NBA 2022-23: Eastern Conference Preview

With each season of the 2020s, the NBA becomes more and more opaque.  The 2021-22 Warriors were a very good team but were nowhere near as dominant as their prior iterations.  But Golden State, like most of the good teams, has a decent argument that it can win the 2022-23 title.  There are plenty of title-worthy teams but no prohibitive favorite and compelling arguments against nearly every team.

Today, let’s run through the some assorted burning questions and predictions for the East:

How will Boston do without Udoka?

In case you are curious, here’s the list of teams, since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1983-84, who made the NBA Finals and fired/lost their coach before the next season (note that a ton of coaches were fired during the season after making the Finals but that is a different inquiry):

1998-99 Bulls:  We all remember Michael Jordan’s Last Dance and how Phil Jackson was bid adieu with the rest of the team.  Chicago tried college coach Tim “Pink” Floyd as a replacement for the 1998-99 Bulls went 13-37 and were essentially an expansion team.

2000-01 Pacers: Larry Bird’s interest in coaching was limited to begin with and he quit exactly when the core of the Reggie Miller/Rik Smits team was due for a rebuild. Indiana let vets Mark Jackson and Dale Davis go for younger players and Smits retired. Isiah Thomas was brought in as coach and cobbled together a 41-41 record.

2004-05 Lakers: Phil Jackson (and Shaquille O’Neal) were pushed out by Kobe Bryant and management for various reasons.  Without Shaq, Los Angeles was not a serious contender and went 34-48 with Rudy Tomjanovich.  Rudy quit for health reasons after a 24-19 start and the Lakers cratered thereafter.  Kobe had a great statistical season (27.6 ppg) but was miserable with the results on-and-off the court. 

2005-06 Pistons:  This is the one scenario most similar to the Udoka situation.  The Pistons were still a really good team (with a great defense) when Larry Brown did his usual Brown things to get himself out of his contract due to his innate urges to leave jobs and to complain.  The Pistons replaced him with vet coach Flip Saunders, who led the team to a 64-18 record and kept the defensive intensity. 

Of the above group, only the Pistons situation even remotely resembles what’s going on now in Boston.  The Celtics, however, are a bit younger than that Detroit team and Boston has gone with the very young and untested Joe Mazzulla as coach.  He may very well be a coaching prodigy but more likely Boston may struggle a bit compared to last year.

Over the years, studies have shown that certain coaches typically get their teams to play better defense than others.  Here, there is evidence that the defense might not be a Udoka driven phenomenon. Udoka’s great defense only has a one-year track record and Boston has had good defensive teams in the past (Boston was top seven in defense each season from 2017-18 through 2019-20), with the notable exception of the 2020-21 team that struggled to defense and  was woefully weak in the middle (mostly playing Daniel Theis).

The interesting ancillary question here is how much of the Celts’ lockdown defense can be maintained without Ime Udoka.  DBPM gave a ton of credit for the defense last season to Al Horford (2.9) and Robert Williams (3.1) and these stats jive with the eye test.  Horford is turning 36 and has never had a defensive season quite this good.  Williams has been really slowly recovering from knee surgeries.  Defensive regression, to some extent, seems probable.  This is a seriously talented team but not quite where they were a few months ago.  Jayson Tatum will have to reach an even higher lever to offset this.

What will happen in Brooklyn?

I have no idea either.  Yes, the array of plausible outcomes range from miserable to title contention.  My sense is that things snowballed so badly last year that it is unlikely that something so bad happens again.  60 games of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Ben Simmons is worth about 50 wins.  There are serious questions how this will work on the court and I’m pretty intrigued to see what it will look like, even if I’m not overly optimistic.

Can Julius Randle return to form?

Let’s take a look at Randle’s three-point shooting the last few years:

2018-19: .344

2019-20: .277

2020-21: .411

2021-22: .308

Time to accept that 2020-21 was the anomaly but the hope is the Knicks can get, at least, the 2018-19 Pelicans version.  Either way, New York needs to tread water and continue to wait for that elusive star that they’ve been waiting for since Carmelo Anthony times.

Will there be any regression in Milwaukee?

They still have the best player in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo and they have a really easy division.  The primary question is whether the key supporting players are starting to fall off:

-Brook Lopez is 34 and missed most of the season with back surgery.  On paper, he was slightly less effective than he had been prior seasons.

-Khris Middleton is only 31 and had a season very similar to 2020-21 but he missed most of the playoffs and has had lingering wrist and leg issues.

-Jrue Holiday was really good last season but will be 32 and regressed a bit in the playoffs.

So, there is moderate concern but these three should still be largely as good as they’ve been.   With Giannis as the heart, they should still be on the short list of title teams but the one seed might be hard to get.

What will Philly look like this year?

There are a few fascinating things to watch here.  First, a full season of James Harden in lieu of Ben Simmons should complete the transformation from a defensive team to an offensive team.  In 2020-21, Philly was a decent offensive team (13th) and really good on defense (2nd).  Last year, the pace really slowed (25th) and the defense fell (12th).  Granted, the 76ers had neither Simmons nor Harden for a good chunk of the season. Still, a Harden/Tyrese Maxey backcourt sounds leaky.  Despite this misgiving, the 76ers are a good team with peak Joel Embiid and plenty of options.  Doc Rivers has some postseason issues but they are poised to have a nice regular season. 

How are a couple of 33-year old star lead guards going to do?

Yes, Jimmy Butler and James Harden are the same age and I’ve been low-key obsessed with how their skill sets will age.  Harden has been on quite a ride, forcing trades and “modulating” his effort level from time-to-time.  Putting all this aside, here are Harden’s raw numbers from the last four years:

-2018-19: 78 games, 30.6 PER, .254 WS48, 11.0 BPM

-2019-20: 68 games, 29.1 PER, .245 WS48, 9.6 BPM

-2020-21: 44 games, 24.5 PER, .208 WS48, 7.2 BPM

-2021-22: 65 games, 20.9 PER, .152 WS48, 4.0 BPM

There are reasons for the decline here but the trendline is straight down.  Even 2021-22 Harden is an All-Star level player and his playoff stats were really good the whole time except for last season, when he had his worst playoff performance of his career by far (16.8 PER, .112 WS48, 1.9 BPM).  Winter may not be here yet but its coming.

As for Butler, things look a little different:

-2018-19: 65 games, 20.2 PER, .173 WS48, 3.7 BPM

-2019-20: 58 games, 23.6 PER, .221 WS48, 5.4 BPM

-2020-21: 52 games, 26.5 PER, .255 WS48, 7.7 BPM

-2021-22: 57 games, 23.6 PER, .228 WS48, 6.3 BPM

Butler misses games but has been largely the same player the last three years.  Can they keep it up?  History is pessimistic.  Here’s the list of guards, 6’5 or bigger, at age-33, who had positive BPMs (minimum 1,900 minutes played):

Michael Jordan 1996-97: 8.9 BPM (had 10.5 BPM the previous year, fell to 6.9 at age 34)

Manu Ginobili 2010-11: 5.4 BPM (had 6.7 BPM the previous year, jumped to 6.9 BPM at age 34 in only 792 minutes.  Was slightly less effective in fewer minutes the next couple of years after that)

Ray Allen 2008-09: 4.0 BPM (had 3.0 BPM the previous year, fell to 1.2 the year after.  Averaged 2.5 BPM the next couple of years after that)

Clyde Drexler 1995-96: 4.0 BPM (had 6.5 BPM the previous year and 4.8 BPM the year after. Retired at age-35 with a 3.4 BPM)

Kobe Bryant 2011-12: 3.3 BPM (had 5.2 BPM the previous year and 4.6 BPM the year after but tore his Achilles, which basically ended his career)

Kyle Korver 2014-15: 2.8 BPM (had 1.1 BPM the previous year and -1.0 BPM the year after.  Korver had a career year at age-34 somehow and regressed immediately)

Vince Carter 2009-10: 2.0 BPM (had 2.4 BPM the previous year and fell to 0.3 BPM the year after. Was mostly okay after but did have a nice year at age-36 randomly)

Jamal Crawford 2013-14: 1.6 BPM (had 1.0 BPM the previous year and fell to 0.7 BPM the year after. He lasted for years but was negative player all that time)

Doug Christie 2003-04: 0.8 BPM (had 3.2 BPM the previous year and fell to -1.3 BPM the year after and career ended shortly after)

We should ignore MJ because he can’t be compared to anyone.  Manu played well but in many fewer minutes.  The best hope for Butler and Harden come from Drexler, who played at 3-4 BPM level in his later years.  Allen was able to be helpful for years but was no longer a lead guard.  In all, the data tells us that the chances are both Harden and Butler are due for some decline.  Of course, the aging curve is constantly changing over time but regression is likely over the next two years.

East Final Predictions:

1. Philadelphia 76ers

2.  Milwaukee Bucks

3.  Boston Celtics

4. Miami Heat

5.  Brooklyn Nets

6.  Toronto Raptors

7. Cleveland Cavaliers

8. Atlanta Hawks

Play-In Teams

9.  New York Knicks

10.  Chicago Bulls

Lottery Bound

11.  Charlotte Hornets

12.  Washington Wizards

13.  Detroit Pistons

14.  Orlando Magic

15.  Indiana Pacers

Playoffs Second Round

-Nets over 76ers

-Bucks over Celtics

Conference Finals

-Bucks over Nets

Stay tuned for Western Conference preview and Finals prediction….