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.

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).