The KD/Kyrie Drama Examined

Have you ever had one of those dreams where your goal is to complete a task and, each time you get close, some weird happenstance prevents the completion?  This dream is the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving Nets in a nutshell.  They were a KD toe away from a possible title last year and now both stars want out after a disaster of a season in 2021-22.  Brooklyn was close to accomplishing greatness but seems to be ending in failure.  The public consensus seems to be that Kyrie is mostly to blame but that KD is bailing on his handpicked situation.  The reporting on the Nets’ side was that owner Joe Tsai “lost his belief that this could work” after negotiations with Kyrie became acrimonious.

Still, the situation remains fluid even now and there is much the public does not know.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of facts in the public domain so I thought it would be helpful to go through the history of the KD/Kyrie Nets see what conclusions we can come to at this time and how, if at all, they differ from what most people are saying now.  I find that lining them all together in a timeline makes a coherent narrative that reveals a little more than having disparate factoids bouncing about the brain.  So here goes….

A Review of the Public Facts

-After the 2018-19 season, the Nets signed Kyrie and KD to a “package deal” that seemed to be driven by Irving’s desire to play for his childhood team (he grew up in Jersey), telling the press “I always wanted to play at home.”   Durant didn’t seem to care where he specifically played but he wanted Kyrie as his wingman to go for titles.  At the time, Durant was coming off of a serious Achilles injury and the Nets were willing to pay him to rehab for the 2019-20 season and bet that he could comeback close to his pre-injury form, which was no foregone conclusion.

Kyrie was something of a risk or different reasons.  He had forced his way off of a good situation with LeBron James in Cleveland in 2017 because he had some sort of strange beef with LBJ that was not really explained.  Once he got to Boston, Kyrie had some injury issues and, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, Kyrie “got into repeated public back-and-forths with the team’s younger players, and also announced after a victory over the Raptors in January that he’d made up with James.”  Kyrie clearly ran both injury and other risks but the Nets deemed them worth it if it was the cost of locking in KD.

-During the 2019-20 season, Kyrie played only 20 games due to injuries but was really good when he did play (27.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6.4 apg).   Brooklyn went 8-12 in the games he played.  A first public Kyrie hiccup during the season came in January 2020, after being gone with injury for two months, he publicly assessed that the team was “one or two pieces” away  and named the players who he considered the current “pieces” and conspicuously omitted the other half of the team.  He didn’t play in a game after February 1, 2020. 

Meanwhile, the Nets scrapped into the seven seed mostly without him, going 27-25 in the non-Kyrie games.  Despite seemingly doing a nice job coaching the team, coach Kenny Atkinson was abruptly fired in early March 2020.  There was a rumor that Irving got him fired and was miffed that Atkinson was playing Jarrett Allen over Jordan but that was just a rumor (Steve Nash would later bench Jordan as well).

The reporting at the time blamed Kyrie.  On March 9, 2020, Brad Botkin of CBS Sports wrote that Irving had “soured” on Atkinson and wanted Ty Lue as coach.  In October 2020, Irving addressed the issue further on Durant’s podcast: “Kenny was great for the group that he served, and I was very appreciative of what he was giving us throughout the season when we were playing…we don’t need somebody to come in and put their coaching philosophy on everything that we’re doing and change up the wheel and, ‘Yo, you guys need to start doing this,’ and we start running on the first day of practice, and it’s just like, ‘No.’…I want somebody, I need somebody that’s going to understand that I am a human being first. I serve my community and where I come from first, and then basketball is something I come and do every single day because I love [it], and also I have the right ingredients and people around me to come in and do my job at a high level, and I know that they will hold me accountable to that level.”  That’s not a great explanation of anything but if Irving and Durant wanted Steve Nash as coach, they had the juice to get what they wanted.

Kyrie made a little noise after the pandemic started as well.  He declined to play in the Bubble, which was not an unreasonable decision at the time.  He also publicly stated that the NBA shouldn’t play the playoffs because it was going to take the focus off of the BLM issues that he was championing. 

-In 2020-21, the KD/Kyrie dream came close.  Durant came back from major injury ostensibly as good as he was before, though missed much of the second half with a lingering hamstring issue (he played only 35 of the 72 games). Kyrie played 54 games but had his own injuries.  He also went AWOL for a few days in mid-January 2021 which he told people was due to his upset over the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

 In response to critics regarding his disappearance, Irving posted, without further explanation, that “I am human. No Different than you. I am healing.”  Due to the KD/Kyrie absences, and with the approval of KD/Kyrie, Brooklyn then traded a boatload of picks for James Harden, age-31, to supplement the core.  Harden was healthy and played a ton of minutes and really stabilized the team until the other stars returned.

The Big Three played only a few games together and went 13-3 in those games.  Here is the record for each player while playing for Brooklyn that year:

Harden: 29-7

Irving: 36-18

Durant: 23-12

The Nets lost an epic seven-game series to Milwaukee in the playoffs and Brooklyn probably would’ve won that series and the title but for Irving spraining his ankle and Harden tweaking his hamstring. Nevertheless, the season was a success so much so that, last October, the Nets offered  Harden a three-year $161 million extension that would likely take him well-past his star years.  Harden declined, ostensibly because he could get more money and be eligible for a supermax extension of $227 million if he played out 2021-22.

-2021-22, as we all remember, is when things went sideways, with Kyrie refusing to get vaccinated and Harden loafing in a manner that indicated he didn’t want to be in town.  While we remember all the drama, the Nets were basically on pace for the same sort of season this year (they were 27-15) until KD sprained his knee and Harden’s passive aggressive vibe got stronger.  The team tanked and Harden nudged his way out of town.  The Nets rallied to a solid finish but were swept by the Celtics. 

-Now, we are back to the present.   After all the strife of the season, Kyrie wanted a max extension and the Nets were not happy and offered him,  according to Shams Charania: “a two-year max with incentives based on games played and a four-year max with the first two years guaranteed and triggers that would kick in based on games played in Years 1 and 2.”  When Irving rejected the offer, the Nets allowed him to find a deal elsewhere and, shockingly, no offers near that number were forthcoming.  Irving, instead, exercised his $37 million option and posted a cryptic message that strongly indicated that he would not be a happy camper: “Normal people keep the world going, but those who dare to be different lead us into tomorrow. I’ve made my decision to opt in. See you in the fall.” 

The Nets potentially have a good team if KD, Kyrie, and Ben Simmons play next year but, within a day, KD demanded a trade.  It’s not clear if the trade is in support of Kyrie or whether it he just wants to wash his hands of the entire situation.  Tsai is telling people he is sick of the whole situation and wants out of both of them.

-While not really noted in much of the reporting on the current drama, the Nets are currently deep in the NBA’s luxury tax which escalates each year a team consecutively exceeds the salary cap.  Without getting into the weeds, the Nets are so deep into the cap that, unless they can get under, the repeater penalty, per the Daily News, would mean that paying Nic Claxton $15 million next season would cost an additional $65 million in luxury taxes (Claxton was recently re-signed for $10 million).  Here’s the Nets’ payroll and tax situation the last few years (per Sportrac):

2020: payroll $163 million, luxury tax $102 million

2021: payroll $158 million, luxury tax $98 million

2022: payroll $174 million, luxury tax $74 million

Obviously, the Nets have huge incentives to get below that luxury tax threshold in 2023.  Only a year ago, however, they were willing to max out Harden and eat the likely bad years at the end of his contract.  A few months later, the Nets have changed perspective.

Having run through the basics, let’s make some findings of facts:

The Nets made a huge gamble on an injured KD in hopes that they could create a superteam to contend for a title.  Kyrie was a complicated figure but worth the risk as an add-on to bring in Durant.  The play was to overpay Kyrie, Durant, and Harden for most of the decade to try to get a ring in the next three years or so (Irving will be 30, KD 34, and Harden 33 in 2022-23). Realistically, this core was good for title runs through, maybe, 2024.

And this plan sort of worked.  The Nets were really good for about a season and a third.  We can’t help but notice that the team played much better with Harden and Durant than they did with just Kyrie and Durant.  Once Harden wanted out, the plan shifted quite a bit and now relies on Simmons returning to form which well….who knows?

-Kyrie: tortured genius or chutzpah personified?  For someone who takes attendance at games so lightly, it’s a little silly that he’s not willing to give the Nets any protection in case he misses future games.  Their reported offer was a little light but well above what the market would yield for Kyrie.  If the Nets’ extension offer was real, it does suggest that Tsai’s reported disdain for Irving was not as great as indicated.  This is all reported second-hand but it seems that Tsai made a major offer and Kyrie was a hard ass about compensation, perhaps not totally understanding how his performance the last three years was viewed objectively.

-Durant’s motivations are mysterious at this point.  We have no idea why he demanded the trade.  If it was because he felt Kyrie was disrespected by the Nets then what can the Nets’ do?  Between missed games, flights of fancy, and luxury tax exposure, paying Kyrie  a max deal without protections is not sane.  If KD is sick of Brooklyn and/or just wants to go to a better team that is certainly his right.  But he just signed a four-year extension and the Nets traded all their picks in the Harden trade in reliance of the fact that their stars would be in town for a few years.  The Nets should not trade him until they get an acceptable return and could force him to play in Brooklyn next year (KD plays so hard I can’t see him malingering like Harden or Irving).

Despite the fact that Durant deserves some scorn for wanting to jump ship so abruptly, he doesn’t shoulder nearly as much blame as Harden or Kyrie who expressed themselves by pouting or refusing to play.  KD has played hard and has been an inner circle Hall of Famer for about a decade.  He seems concerned with winning another ring and seems annoyed that the Golden State team he left won another ring before he did.  But the lesson to take from GS was not necessarily that KD made a mistake leaving.  Instead, the lesson is that GS was patient and suffered  a little before its window reopened.  Going to Phoenix or GS will likely give KD a better shot at a ring in 2022-23 but it’s not always that simple.

-The Nets took a good gamble and it was working as intended until the wheels totally came off.  There is an argument that they should’ve paid Kyrie the max just to keep the peace but I get the reluctance.  The window had one or two years left and they would not abide another dud year like 2021-22. 

Some commentators have taken the KD/Kyrie run as proof that players have run amok and that player empowerment has gone too far.  Like it or not, huge stars are paid so much that they are effectively equity partners with owners.  Partnerships rise and fall based on the honest commitment of their members.  If you are linked up to committed stars like Steph Curry, a team can more securely invest in the player and in paying the luxury tax (note that there are plenty of shitty owners who screw over their stars too).  KD is arguably such a star in the right situation.  Kyrie is another story.

2021-22 NBA Finals Preview

Celtics/Warriors is a particularly interesting matchup for the NBA Finals on many levels.  Let’s breakdown some of the facts that caught my attention….

Ancient History Between Celtics and Warriors

It has little relevance to the current squads but the Celtics and the old Warriors had quite an interesting rivalry while Wilt Chamberlain was with the Philly/Golden State franchise.  Wilt had little luck actually beating Bill Russell during that time but here’s the breakdown of their prior playoff match ups:

-1957-58:  Boston beat the Warriors 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.  This was actually the Neil Johnston/Paul Arizin Warriors (pre-Wilt).  Boston went up 3-0 and controlled the series (Russ had 28.8 rpg).  Johnston shot well but was held way below his regular season average.  Tom Gola and Woody Sauldsberry couldn’t make a shot (they were 33% from the field).

-1959-60: Boston beat the Warriors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Wilt shot better in the series than in the regular season (50% versus 46%) but he scored 7 fewer ppg.  Russ had 21 ppg and 27 rpg and Boston largely controlled the series, getting out to a 3-1 lead.  Bob Cousy couldn’t get a shot off (he shot 30%) but Russell and Tom Heinsohn carried the load.  After the series, Wilt threatened to retire because he was getting fouled too much.

-1961-62: Boston beat the Warriors 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals.  This was the closest series between the squads. This was the year Wilt had 50 ppg but Boston held him down to 33.6 ppg on 47% shooting (he shot 50% in the regular season).  Boston never quite ran away with the series as the team alternated wins all series and Game 7 was a barnburner too.  Wilt had only 22 points in Game 7.  Despite the back-and-forth wins, Boston outscored Philly by nearly 6 ppg.

-1963-64: Boston beat the Warriors 4-1 in the NBA Finals.  The Warriors had moved to San Francisco and this was their only Finals meet up with Boston until 2022.  Even though the series was 4-1, the Warriors were actually pretty tough.  They were only outscored by 4 ppg and Wilt had his best showing against Russell (29.2 ppg, .517 FG%, 27.6 rpg).  Russell had 25.2 rpg but only 11.2 ppg on .386 FG%.  I suspect that Wilt being paired with a young Nate Thurmond helped.  This series is most famous for Wilt decking Clyde Lovellette.

Per Earl Strom in Terry Pluto’s “Tall Tales,”:  “Lovellette was at the end of his career and playing backup center for Boston…the Celtics were way ahead, ready to win the title….Lovellette, who thought he was going to put on a show for the Boston fans….was bumping Wilt, throwing some elbows.  Wilt said, ‘Look, Clyde, the game is over….cut the crap out or I’ll knock you out.’….Clyde [then] stuck him with an elbow.  Wilt turned, put the ball on the floor, then reared back and punched Lovellette in the jaw.  Clyde went down in sections, he was out cold….Red yell to me, ‘I want Wilt out of the game.’  I said, ‘Red, get this stiff [Lovellette] out of here so we can finish the game.”

There you have it…Boston went 4-0 against the Warriors in the playoffs and the last time they met, the lasting image is Wilt knocking someone out.   It’s been a long 58 years.

Recent History

Despite all the hype surrounding its offense, the Warriors were a defense-first team in the regular season: 112.5 O-Rating (17th), 106.9 D-Rating (1st) and 98.4 pace (13th).  The Warriors have been slightly slower but a bit more offensively inclined in the playoffs.  Some of that was due to the match ups with the more offensive Nuggets and Mavs.  The Grizzlies series was a much more grind out affair and we should expect that same slower pace against Boston.

Boston has been sort of a throwback to the 1990s style: 114.4 O-Rating (7th), 106.9 D-Rating (2nd) on a languid 96.6 pace (24th).  In fact, Boston has been slower and better defensively in the playoffs (match ups with the Bucks and Heat probably colored the stats a bit).  The Celtics offense, which is primarily isolating Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on a switched defender, isn’t beautiful but it works.  It should be fascinating to see how Boston tries to isolate the Warriors’ weaker defenders (Jordan Poole).  The return of Gary Payton II is going to be quite important because he is well-suited to defend this game plan.

Head-to-Head

The teams went 1-1, each winning on the other’s home court but the results are pretty meaningless.  GS won in Boston early in the year when the Celtics were a struggling team.  Boston trounced the Warriors later but Stephen Curry barely played.  It should be noted that the Celtics have played the Warriors pretty well in Golden State over the last few years, even when the Warriors were at their peak.

A Little Historical Love for Boston

SRS isn’t everything but Boston had the best in the NBA this year (7.02).  This is a really good team.  To give a little context, in the vaunted history of the Celtics, the 2021-22 squad tanks higher than many Russell and Bird teams.  Here are the Boston SRS leaders:

1. 2007-08, 66-16, 9.30

2. 1985-86, 67-15, 9.06

3. 1961-62, 60-20, 8.25

4. 1959-60, 59-16, 7.62

5. 1964-65, 62-18, 7.46

6. 2008-09, 62-20, 7.44

7. 1979-80, 61-21, 7.37

8. 1972-73, 68-14, 7.35

9. 1966-67, 60-21, 7.24

10. 2021-22, 51-31, 7.02

SRS is a slippery tool, particularly during the era of load management and Covid but this team has been really impressive.

Unprecedented: Return of Golden State to the Finals

I was trying to come up with a historical analog for the 2021-22 Warriors.  The former dynasty looked decidedly over after 2019.  Have we ever seen another dynasty reinvigorate after it looked like the window had closed?  Other dynasties have returned to the Finals after a two year drought.  The 1983-84 Celtics did the same thing but they were a much younger bunch.  Similarly, the Bulls bounced back in 1995-96 with an older team but they were missing Michael Jordan for two years. 

The closest comparison I could come up with was the late model Spurs of 2012-13 and 2013-14, who had missed the Finals from 2007 until finally breaking through again in 2013.  This isn’t quite the same as the current Warriors either because those Spurs teams were still great that whole time they were not making the Finals while the Warriors’ window looked like it had totally closed after two bad seasons.  In other words, the 2021-22 Warriors should be appreciated, we may not see Golden State as a contender again.

The Bottom Line

This is a very close series but the Warriors have a few advantages: (a) home court advantage, (b) they are well-rested, (c) the Warriors can score more easily than most of Boston’s prior opponents, and (d) the Warriors have quite a lot of experience in the Finals.  None of these facts are decisive but, in a close series, I think it gives the Warriors the slight edge.  The other factor to consider is Boston’s great three-point defense (.317% so far in the playoffs).  I just don’t believe that Boston can shut down Curry and the tons of great shooters like they did against more tepid shooting Milwaukee and Miami teams (the Nets shot quite well from three against Boston).  This will be fascinating to watch and Boston has a good chance of winning but I can’t quite get there.  Prediction: Warriors in seven games.

Miami/Boston and ECF Game 7s

1.            We’ve Got a Game 7!: While these payoffs have had some fun moments, we haven’t really had any epic series.  The two Game 7s we have had (Boston/Milwaukee and Dallas/Phoenix) were blow outs.  I’m moderately hopeful that tonight’s Boston/Miami Game 7 could get us the epic Game 7 we all want a la Milwaukee/Brooklyn last year.   

What should we expect from a Game 7 here?  Well, the series has been a defensive war most of the time.  Miami has shrunk its rotation to about six or seven players (depending on Kyle Lowry’s health) and is relying Jimmy Butler to go crazy in isolation (yes, they won Game 3 with Butler missing the second half but they barely hung on).  The intriguing question is whether Butler’s cumulative minutes will make it too hard for him to go to the well in Game 7.  He has played 40 and 46 minutes the last two games and that’s tough to do again.  Still, if you are a Heat fan, you can note that Butler had some excellent games after heavy minutes in the Philly series. 

It is incumbent on Miami to get some perimeter help.  The 3-point shooting has been pretty bad as a team outside of PJ Tucker.  Erik Spoelstra, though, wants defenders he can trust and we are seeing a lot of Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent as a result.  We are also seeing Max Strus over Duncan Robinson because Strus is physically a lot stronger.  It’s easy to understand Miami’s thinking when we see so many isolations called for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and how important it is to make them work hard for shots.  Still, Miami will need a few easy buckets or knock down threes to win.  It’s a difficult balance but it may be tilted slightly too far to the defense side.  Perhaps a little more Robinson in the first half or third quarter could help.

As for Boston, I’m pretty optimistic about its chances even though it is coming off of a crushing loss in Game 6 and has to play Game 7 on the road.  Boston is the deeper team and they have two great scorers in Brown and Tatum.   Ime Udoka has shortened the rotation too but his key players are mostly much younger.  Lastly, the Celtics have outscored Miami handily for the series (+5.5 ppg).  Yes, this is a small sample size and past results don’t totally matter in a one game winner-take-all.  Nevertheless, Boston has been the best team in the East all year by SRS and most measures.  They are not resounding favorites but Boston has a slight edge.

2.            Conference Finals Game 7s, A History:   For fun, we went through all the Conference Finals Game 7s that have been played since the three-point rule came into effect in 1979-80.  The data is not great for Boston but there are some nuggets of hope.  First the list of games:

1980s

1981 ECF: 76ers at Celtics, Celtics win 91-90

1982 ECF: Celtics at 76ers, Celtics win 120-106 (*Road Win)

1987 ECF: Pistons at Celtics, Celtics win 117-114

1988 WCF: Mavericks at Lakers, Lakers win 117-102

1990s

1990 ECF: Bulls at Pistons, Pistons win 93-74

1993 WCF: Sonics at Suns, Suns win 123-110

1994 ECF: Pacers at Knicks, Knicks win 94-90

1995 ECF: Pacers at Magic, Magic win 105-81

1996 WCF: Jazz at Sonics, Sonics win 90-86

1998 ECF: Pacers at Bulls, Bulls win 88-83

2000s

2000 WCF: Blazers at Lakers, Lakers win 89-84

2001 ECF: Bucks at 76ers, 76ers win 108-91

2002 WCF: Lakers at King, Lakers win 112-106 (*Road Win)

2005 ECF: Pistons at Heat, Pistons win 88-82 (*Road Win)

2010s

2012 ECF: Celtics at Heat, Heat win 101-88

2013 ECF: Pacers at Heat, Heat win 99-76

2016 WCF: Thunder at Warriors, Warriors win 96-88

2018 ECF: Cavs at Celtics, Cavs win 87-79 (*Road Win)

2018 WCF: Warriors at Rockets, Warriors win 101-92 (*Road Win)

There is a bit to unpack here but here are some takeaways:

-Road teams are 5-14 in Conference Finals Game 7s.

-Despite the overall trend, the last two Conference Finals have been won by the road team, both in 2018 (which feels like 20 years ago).  The Rockets’ loss gets an asterisk because Chris Paul was injured.  The Cavs win also defies trends because they had peak(ish) LeBron James who has negated home court many times. 

-Zooming out slightly, road teams are 4-3 in the last seven Conference Finals Game 7s.  Dwyane Wade was playing hurt in 2005 but the Pistons legitimately were a deeper team.  The 2002 Lakers/Kings series was an epic but, in the end,  the Kings played tight while Shaq/Kobe did not.  

-The closest Conference Finals Game 7 was the Celtics’ win over Philadelphia back in 1981.   Philly did pay them back the next year in Boston.

-The 1990s had the most close Conference Finals Game 7s.  The 1998 Bulls-Pacers and 1994 Knicks-Pacers have gotten a lot of attention in retrospectives the last few years but the Sonics win over the Jazz in 1996 deserves some props.  That was a crazy series with Payton/Kemp versus Stockton/Malone going to the wire.  Alas, Malone did miss a couple of key free throws near the end of that series.

-The 2012 ECF shares some similar facts to the 2022 ECF.  The same teams played and Miami pulled out a Game 6 in Boston before clinching Game 7 in Miami.  But those superficial similarities don’t hold up on further scrutiny.  Miami was a younger team with more talent.  I don’t think most fans expected Boston to hang so tough or to win the series.  That Boston forced a Game 7 was a tribute to its aging but feisty core of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

-Finally, history tells us we get four or five Conference Finals per decade so enjoy the first of the 2020s!

Barnes/Mobley And The Closest ROY Votes Since 2002-03

Today, Scottie Barnes won the Rookie of the Year over Evan Mobley in the closest vote in over 20 years.  According to the NBA, Barnes received 378 voting points and Mobley got 363 (the current voting format gives 5 points for a first place vote, 3 points for a second place vote, and 1 point for a third place vote).  The closeness of the vote and the reference to historically close votes has inspired me to do a moderate dive into the vote and other close ROY votes.

Was there any voting weirdness?

Not too much weirdness.  In reviewing the results a few things pop out:

-Barnes and Mobley appear to be the best two rookies yet Mobley was actually omitted from one of the ballots.  As odd as that decision is, it didn’t change anything since the additional 3 points (assuming Mobley got a second place vote) was not enough to close the voting gap anyway.

-Jalen Green somehow got a second place vote.  His raw stats look okay (17.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.6 apg) but his advanced stats are decidedly negative (0.15 WS48, -2.8 bpm, -0.5 VORP).  Those advanced stats are consistent with the eye test, which showed Green to be very mistake-prone most of the year.  He did improve over the season but not nearly as much as Cade Cunningham, who looked better objectively and by raw stats as well (17.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.6 apg).

-Both Herbert Jones and Franz Wagner received a few third place votes. Each player had cognizable arguments to be voted ahead of Cunningham.  They both were better for the full year, even though Cunningham finished strong and clearly has the higher ceiling going forward.  That raises an interesting philosophical question about whether a player’s future potential should matter in ROY voting.  I’m agnostic on this issue but, in a very close case, I could see erring on the side of a brighter projected future. 

Were there any candidates who deserved a vote but didn’t receive one?

Arguably, Josh Giddey, Bones Hyland, and Alperen Senguin were candidates.  They all looked pretty good but just didn’t play enough minutes to warrant a third place vote over Jones, Wagner, or Cunningham.

Who did deserve to win between Barnes and Mobley?

Let’s start with the stat tale-of-the-tape:

-Barnes: 35.4 mpg, 15.3 ppg, .552 TS%, 7.4 rpg, 3.5 apg, 16.3 PER, .122 WS48, 0.9 BPM, 1.9 VORP

-Mobley: 32.6 mpg, 17.4 ppg, .549 TS%, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 16.1 PER, .107 WS48, 0.6 BPM, 1.5 VORP

Barnes appears to have the edge.  He’s not quite the scorer that Mobley was but Barnes was versatile on defense and is slightly better in advanced stats.  Barnes also played five more games, which ups the edge a little more as well.

On Mobley’s end, his argument rests on his scoring and the fact that he’s a big man who can guard on the perimeter.  Barnes is no slouch on defense either but Mobley feelslike higher ceiling player.  As noted above, though, Barnes has narrow but discernable edge and would’ve gotten my vote.

A look at other close votes in the modern voting format

And now the interesting part….a look at other close votes.  Without even looking at historical records, I recall the two famous ROY voting ties: 1994-95 (Grant Hill with Jason Kidd) and 1999-00 (Elton Brand with Steve Francis).  The voting has changed a bit since those days.  Before 2002-03, each voter had only a first place vote.  This binary system was ditched for the current 5-3-1 weighted vote in 2002-03.  Since that time, there have been few close votes (and plenty of unanimous or near unanimous ROYs) but here are the votes that were closest in that time:

2009-10, Tyreke Evans defeats Stephen Curry, 491-391 (+100).  Yup, the player who changed how basketball is played lost out to Evans (who is now remembered for other not great reasons).  Tyreke had a pretty strong stat argument:

Evans, 18.2 PER, .097 WS48, 1.3 BPM, 2.2 VORP

-Curry, 16.3 PER, .077 WS48,0.7 BPM, 2.0 VORP

Curry was lower usage and still turned the ball over a bit more.  Since then, Curry has pulled ahead slightly.

2003-04, LeBron James defeats Carmelo Anthony 508-430 (+78).  The consensus, at the time, was that LBJ was clearly the better player.  I’m actually pretty surprised that it was so close given that James scored about the same (21 ppg) and was essentially the Cavs point guard (6 apg versus 2.8 apg for Anthony).  It seems that Anthony got some extra credit for bringing a previously terrible Denver team to the playoffs, while Cleveland didn’t quite get in.  

Of course, it’s a bit simplistic to over-credit Melo for Denver’s good season (they also had Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, and Nene).  The head-to-head advanced stats favored James:

-Anthony, 17.6 PER, .098 WS48, 0.0 BPM, 1.5 VORP

-James, 18.3 PER, .078 WS48, 1.7 BPM, 2.9 VORP

LBJ hadn’t quite lapped Melo yet but it’s pretty hard to justify an argument that Anthony had a better season.

2004-05, Emeka Okafor defeats Ben Gordon 514-443 (+71).  This was a close vote between two solid UConn teammates, neither of whom had incredible years.  Okafor had 15.1 ppg, .447 FG%, 10.9 rpg and Gordon had 15.1 ppg, .411 FG%, .405 3FG%, 2.0 apg.  In reality, Dwight Howard was the real star of that draft class.  Did Howard have a cognizable claim to the ROY as well?  Well, he came in third in the vote with 161 points and his raw stats were competitive (12 ppg, .520 FG%, 10 rpg).  Let’s look at the advanced stats:

-Gordon, 14.9 PER, .084 WS48, 0.7 BPM, 1.4 VORP

-Howard, 17.2 PER, .131 WS48, 0.0 BPM, 1.4 VORP

-Okafor, 16.3 PER, .074 WS48, -2.0 BPM, 0.0 VORP

On top of the fact that Okafor has distinctly lower stats, he played nine fewer games than the other two (though he soaked up virtually the same minutes played as Howard and 600 more minutes than Gordon).  Howard was the clear best player of the group, even as a teenager.  He played the most and was most effective when he did play.

2002-03, Amare Stoudemire defeats Yao Ming, 458-405 (+53).  The closest vote of the modern ROY voting era looked closest on paper too. Check their raw stats:

-Yao, 29.0 mpg, 13.5 ppg, .498 FG%, 8.2 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.8 bpg, 2.1 topg,

-Amare, 31.3 mpg, 13.5 ppg, .472 FG%, 8.8 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.1 bpg, 2.3 topg

I remember looking at these raw stats at the time and thinking that, as exciting as Amare was, he just didn’t shoot, pass, or block shots as well as Yao.  Since that time, we have the benefit of advanced stats and they really tell a clear story even more in Yao’s favor:

-Yao: 20.6 PER, .570 TS%, .176 WS48, 2.2 BPM, 2.5 VORP

-Amare: 16.2 PER, .530 TS%, .116 WS48, -1.3 BPM, 0.4 VORP

Ironically, a March 16, 2013 Houston Chronicle article reported that Yao “appeared to be the runaway winner of the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year award…In an informal poll of 28 voters for NBA postseason awards, Yao was named as the choice for Rookie of the Year by 20 voters, with Phoenix rookie Amare Stoudemire getting the other eight.”  Well, that didn’t work out as expected.  Amare ended up getting 59 first place votes to 45 for Yao.  The twist was that Caron Butler (15.4 ppg, .416 FG%, .318 3FG%, 5.1 rpg, 2.7 apg) somehow got the other 13 first place votes.

Should We Tweak the Play-In?

Is the play-in game bad for the NBA?  Not too many people have directly said that it is.  In fact, Draymond Green called the concept “lit.”  The result of the Western Conference play-in, however, reveals a potential issue.  The 36-46 Pelicans made the playoffs over the 42-40 Clippers, when New Orleans was helped a bit by the Clipps losing Paul George to a particularly poorly timed case of COVID.  Injuries/COVID are facts that all teams have to deal with at all times.  Nevertheless, there is a tension underlying the play-in concept: the attempts to keep the middling teams from tanking definitely risks devaluing regular season success of the seven or eight seeds, which would otherwise have breezed into the playoffs under the previous rules.  The play-in seemed very reasonable in the East, where the seven through ten seeds were separated by one game. 

Personally, I like the play-in concept but there is potential to for problems around the margins.  What if the gap between the seven and eight seeds and the nine and ten seeds was much larger?  New Orleans was six games worse than the Clipps.  The Pelicans leapfrogging the Clipps feels a little wrong but certainly not absurd. 

I thought we could use the past as a guide to see where the typical nine or ten seeds have stacked up in the pre-play-in era, as well as any other interesting tidbits that pop up.  Before we dive into the data, it should be noted that our inquiry will start effective the 1995-96 season, when the Grizz and Raptors debuted (there were only 27 teams before that season, with only 13 in the Western Conference).  The inquiry stops after 2018-19 because the 2019-20 season had that mini-play-in during the Bubble.  With those caveats in my mind, here’s what we found:

-The average nine seed in the East won 38.7 games and the average ten seed won 36 games (we pro-rated team wins for an 82-game season for the two lockout shortened seasons).  Those numbers are lower than the NBA would want from play-in competition but not so low that it would be worth abandoning the experiment.

-The average nine seed in the West won 41.4 games and the average ten seed won 37 games.  This is a little better.  It is also worth noting that that these stats were compiled without the carrot of a play-in game.  It is conceivable that the win totals would be a bit higher with that incentive.

Where things get really interesting is looking at individual seasons and there are some real interesting outliers:

-In 1996-97, the bottom of the Western Conference was so bad that the Kings (34-48) and the Warriors (30-52) would’ve made a hypothetical play-in.  A middling Clipper team (36-46) led by Darrick Martin and Loy Vaught was the eight seed, so it’s not so bad that they could’ve been bumped off. 

-The West was even worse in 1997-98.  The last gasp of the Hakeem/Barkley/Drexler Rockets made the eight seed at 41-41 (they were actually beating Utah in the playoffs until Barkley hurt his elbow). At the nine seed were the terrible Kings (27-55) and the worst tenth seed ever, the 20-62 Mavs (-6.33 SRS).  The gap between these teams and the Rockets was so great that it seems absurd that Houston could have even theoretically lost out on the playoffs in a play-in, even if the risk was remote.   Still, it could’ve happened if they had used the play-in system.  All the Kings needed was a badly timed injury to a Rocket star coupled with a hot game from Mitch Richmond.  This would’ve been a nightmare result for the NBA.

-In the East, the worst ten seed in a full season was the 2009-10 Pacers, who were 32-50 and big step below the nine seeded Raptors.  In a partial season in 2011-12, the ten seed Pistons were slightly worse (25-41, which projects to 31 wins).

-The only Eastern Conference nine seed to exceed .500 was the 1998-99 Hornets who were 26-24 and just missed the playoffs to a 27-23 Knick team that had that memorable run to the Finals.

-The play-in would’ve been quite fair for the 2006-07 Warriors and 2013-14 Suns, who missed the playoffs despite going 48-34.  The 2008-09 Suns were 46-36 but missed the playoffs.  The ten seed Warriors, however, were 29-53.  That hypothetical nine-ten play-in game seems a bit absurd.  (The 2018-19 Nuggets also missed the playoffs with 46 wins).

In all, the play-in game is an improvement over the old system.  The data shows that the nine/ten seeds are historically good enough to overcome most of the misgivings we have about letting a blah team have a puncher’s chance at the playoffs.  We do see some scenarios where the play-in breaks down when teams are so bad that their presence in the play-in wouldn’t have passed the straight face test.  The NBA should set a modest minimum win total (perhaps 33 games) under which a nine or ten seed forfeits its eligibility for the play-in.  There would be some potential bad unintended consequences (most notably a team could tank its way out of the play-in) but I think the alternative of having a joke play-in game, while unlikely, would be worse.

Examining the 50-Point Explosions

March 2022 has featured eight 50-point games so far.  According to NBA.com, this month has had the most 50-point games since there were nine in December 1962 (six by Wilt Chamberlain and three by Elgin Baylor).  In the early 1960s, with the fast pace and the existence of Wilt, 50-point games were quite commonplace.  But now we have seen 50-point games emerge more often and, sometimes, from more random players like Saddiq Bey, a good player but quite surprising 50-point guy.  I wanted to take a look and see about the frequency of 50-point games over time and what, if anything, we can learn from this.

With the help of Basketball-Reference we have gleaned the following fun facts:

-Since 1946-47, there have been 605 50-point games (including playoffs but excluding ABA)

-A reminder of how great Wilt was…he has 122 of all NBA 50-point games, or roughly 20% of the total.  46 of Wilt’s games came during his legendary 1961-62 season when he averaged 50.4 ppg.  As he slowed down with age, and the NBA slowed down, Wilt scored much less. From 1965-66 to the end of his career in 1972-73, Wilt had 12 50-point games.  His last 50-point game came on February 9, 1969, when he dropped 66 points on Phoenix.

-Michael Jordan is second with 39 50-point games.  He had six 50-point games after his return in 1994-95.  He had none in 1997-98, his final year with the Bulls, but pulled one more with the Wiz on December 29, 2001.

-The recently retired Jamal Crawford has four 50-point games, which is the most by a player never to be an All-Star. 

-Purvis Short has the most points in a game by a player who never made an All-Star game when he dropped 59 on the Nets on November 17, 1984.  Incidentally, the Warriors lost that game by 17.

-Box scores are incomplete until the mid-1980s but the lowest Game Score for a 50-point scorer was Dale Ellis on November 19, 1989, when he put up 27.4 (he shot 18-39 from the field in 69 minutes (!) and had one assist and eight turnovers).  Kobe Bryant was next lowest at 27.6 on March 30, 2007 (19-44 shooting, and only two assists).  The best Game Score goes to MJ’s 69-point game against Cleveland in 1990, which just edged out Kobe’s 81-point game.

-The ugliest shooting 50-point game goes to James Harden on December 3, 2019.  He shot 11-37 from the field and 4-20 from three but was an impressive 24-24 from the line.  Wilt had a bad 50-point game on October 28, 1962 when he shot 23-60 with two assists against the Royals.  Both of their teams lost.  Wilt and Russell Westbrook had quite a few poor 50-point games where they shot under .412%.

-GOAT alert! Jordan has the most playoff 50-point games with eight.  He had a bunch of those during the scoring scarce 1990s.  Wilt is second with four 50-point playoffs games.  Allen Iverson is third with three (two happened in the same week against the Raptors in 2001). 

-In all, there have been 45 50-point playoff games but many have come recently.  12 of the 45 games have come since 2017 and four came in the 2020 bubble (two each by Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell).  The overall breakdown of 50-point playoff games by decade:

1950s: 2

1960s: 9 (4 by Wilt, 2 by Jerry West)

1970s: 3 (note there is a gap of 11 years between the last 50-point game of the 1970s, Bob McAdoo in 1975, to Dominique Wilkins in 1986)

1980s: 6 (4 by MJ)

1990s: 5 (4 by MJ)

2000s: 8 (3 by Iverson)

2010s: 5 (there was a gap of 8 years between Ray Allen in 2009 to the next 50-pointer by Russell Westbrook in 2017)

2020s: 7

So, the flood gates have really opened up in 50-point playoff games.  The three-point shot has helped. Murray hit 9 threes in each of his two big games. Giannis Antetokounmpo did it the hard way in the 2021 Finals with only one three-pointer.  Jordan was the last player to score 50-points in a playoff game without making a three back in Game 4 of the 1993 Finals versus Phoenix.

Turning to the regular season, here’s the decade-by-decade breakdown of 50-point games (we define a decade based on the year the season ended in.  For example, the 1950s range from 1949-50 thru 1958-59, etc.):

1950s: 11

1960s: 162

1970s: 51

1980s: 60

1990s: 49

2000s: 85

2010s: 85

2020s: 54

There you have it.  In not quite three seasons, the decade of the 2020s is poised to exceed the 1960s as the decade of the most 50-point games (if the 2020s keep the same pace, there should be about 180 50-point games).  Obviously, the rules could change in such a way that could stifle offense but it’s clear that the modern rules have us in an inflationary offensive atmosphere.  We should also take this opportunity to marvel, again, about how Jordan was able to score in the era where the rules so favored defense.