Who’s fighting for the Eastern Conference?

A version of the below article was published in the Daily Campus. 

Last week, I wrote that there were two teams in the NBA that looked like two of the best teams in NBA history: the Warriors and Spurs: and I made sure to mention how dominant San Antonio had looked recently. In classic jinx fashion, they suffered a 30-point blowout loss against Golden State last Monday. While that’s only one game – and it’d be foolish to totally discount the Spurs for a singular bad performance – it’s becoming harder to argue against the Warriors being the favorites for the Western Conference. The more interesting question remains about who’ll be coming from the East to possibly play them in the NBA Finals.


The Cleveland Cavaliers, who were finalists last season, are the favorites to return. After all, they were able to take two games from the Warriors in the previous Finals series – and that was without their star power forward Kevin Love and mostly without their other star, point guard Kyrie Irving. If LeBron James can almost single-handedly take two wins away from Golden State in the NBA Finals, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility to envision a healthy Cleveland team having a late-season resurgence of sorts ala the 2013 Miami Heat.

By their standards, the Cavaliers have had an underwhelming season, but you still can’t sleep on them. They currently boast the third slowest paced team in the league (92.8 possessions per game), along with the third best defensive rebounding percentage. At their best, they grind out victories against other teams and overwhelm their opponents with James, Irving and Love: all of whom can also play uptempo successfully.

Yet, their success earlier in the year and last season was with their now former coach David Blatt, who is essentially the most successful coach ever to be fired midseason. Questions now remain about the direction of their team. I’ve heard a lot of sports fans talk about how easy it is to coach these guys, but for the time being, let’s assume that the Cavs fired Blatt because their front office thought the team would stand a better chance to win an NBA title with the current coach Tyronn Lue.

 

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Photo comes from fansided.com.

Under that criteria for success, only two coaches in NBA history have successfully led a team from midseason: Pat Riley for the 2005-2006 Miami Heat and the 1981-1982 Los Angeles Lakers, and Paul Westhead who took over 1979-1980 Lakers before ironically getting replaced by Riley two seasons later. This doesn’t mean the Cavs are doomed losers, but the odds are certainly not great for them in the long run.

Are the Cavs even that much better than the rest of their conference? It sounds like heresy, but the current No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors are a threat to take the East and also possibly a low-key team that has already kept up with Golden State before, losing both of their games to them only by a combined eight points. With possibly the best point guard defender in Kyle Lowry, the Raptors could have a gameplan to stop any offensive threat that faces their team.


Ranking second out of everyone in position in ESPN’s defensive real plus minus and at just about six feet, Lowry is a few inches shorter than average, but also relatively big at 205 pounds. He is both physically imposing against smaller guards and agile enough to keep up with them. Not to mention – his defensive IQ is incredibly high and he’ll rarely get lost on a rotation, switch or any kind of off-ball play. If anything, his size makes it harder for point guards to try to neutralize him with a pick.

The per-play statistics back up the eye test when it comes to his evaluating his defensive performances. His 0.58 points per possession on isolation plays and 0.71 points per possession when defending pick and roll ball handlers, on 45.4 percent of shot attempts against him show that he is a defensive force to fear. Lowry also gives up only 0.61 points per possession when teams try to exploit him in off-screen play types and only 0.81 points per possession on spot-up defensive plays. Keep in mind that the Celtics are ranked No. 1 as a team in points per possession in that category (at 0.84) and you’ll realize that Lowry’s skillset is just about as good as anyone else in stopping an opposing player.


Which leads me into my next point: something being possible on paper doesn’t make it a reality. In fact, defense wasn’t why the Raptors were able to keep it close against the Warriors in both of their games, when Curry still dropped a combined 81 points to lead Golden State to higher one-game offensive ratings than their average across the season. This suggests that if the Raptors want to outdo their close calls, they have to retain playing better than usual on offense, while stepping up their in-theory solid defense to another level against their contemporaries in the East.

Could the possible dark horse of the East end up as the No. 5 seed Boston Celtics, who took the Warriors to double overtime earlier in the year and were a terrible Isaiah Thomas brick away from actually beating them? After all, they’re the third ranked East team by SRS. It’ll be a tough ride to get there, as the Celtics have lost all their games to Cleveland and Toronto this season, but if you look at how the team is constructed, they have quite a few strengths that could go in their favor.

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Photo from Zimbio.


They’re the best non-Spurs defensive team in the NBA, with a 101.3 defensive rating. The Celtics are also the third fastest paced team, averaging 98.4 possessions a game: just a possession slower than the Warriors, but still very close . A lot of this comes from how their wing defenders, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder are ball hawks, leading a team that ranks No. 3 in opposing turnover percent. When they get on defense, they’re not looking to just stop the opponent from shooting; they’re looking to steal the ball and pounce in transition.

As said before, the Celtics could be a tough matchup for teams that try to get shooters open, as they are the best team in the league at defending spot up plays. In other categories of points allowed per possession, they’re also No. 8 in defending the fast break, No. 10 in isolation and No. 8 against roll men.

Their biggest weakness might be defending the post-up, where they rank No. 27, but these are still statistically inefficient plays for an opposing offense to run in contrast to setting up shooters on the floor. If a team like Cleveland, Toronto or even Golden State tries to beat the Celtics through running low-percentage plays, the Celtics will take that any day over being blitzed by threes. What could be a bigger issue on the defensive end is Boston’s tendency to let up the second highest opponent free throws per attempt, but that’s almost inevitable considering their physicality on the perimeter.

That said, though the Celtics stand at No. 14 in the NBA in offensive rating, that’s also not exactly something they should feel confident in when playing an offensive powerhouse or even just a team that can get to the line at will against them. Their lack of star players on the offensive end isn’t bad because they need a closer or a “clutch player”, but because they need a guy to draw defensive attention and maximize play from their role players.

It honestly seems almost like every non-Warriors team is playing for runner-up status anyways – and who wins the East might ultimately not matter. However, if there’s one thing watching professional sports has taught us as fans, it’s to never count out the underdog. At least until Curry puts them on a Vine and has his team blow them out by 30.

A Clash of Titans

The following was also partially published in the Daily Campus on 1/20/2016. 

We’re off the heels of a Golden State Warriors blowout over last year’s Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet, make no mistake: despite their 38-4 record, the Warriors may not be the best team in the league. They might not even be the best team in the Western Conference.

Along with their double-digit winning streak, the San Antonio Spurs have been ridiculously dominant for the first half of the season and have an even better point differential than Golden State, outscoring their opponents by an average of 14.3 points per game, and 15.1 points per 100 possessions. If you don’t know the value of that, consider this: not even the 1996 Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls destroyed their opponents by that much.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that the Spurs are expected to keep up this kind of production, nor does not it mean that they are without-question better than the Warriors or any other team in NBA history. What it does tell us is that San Antonio’s performance is about as well as any team has ever played.

Of course they have an incredible offense, but in classic Spurs style, their success this season starts with their defense. Being anchored by stalwarts like Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan shows some level of expectation when it comes to leading the league in defensive rating, but the numbers are even more staggering than you may think.

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Their 95.3 defensive rating is about 9.8 points better than league average – a higher number than any other defense of this millennium. For reference, the gap between the Spurs and the second ranked defense, the Boston Celtics, is larger than the difference between Boston and the New York Knicks.

In addition to being at the top of the league in opponent’s three point attempt rate, the Spurs are also third in opponent’s field goal percent at the rim and tied with the Warriors for lowest opponent’s three point field goal percent. Being able to stop both the three point shot and attempts at the rim is so valuable in today’s league – a theoretical blueprint on slowing down not just the Warriors, but any team. It doesn’t hurt that they are the best defensive rebounding team and give up the lowest effective field goal percent in basketball.

Leonard, in particular has transformed himself into an all-time great defender on the caliber of guys like prime Ron Artest, Scottie Pippen and Bruce Bowen. That sounds like hyperbole, but from watching the tape and looking at the numbers, Leonard’s long arms, quick athleticism and strength while defending the block make him both a force to fear on the pick and roll (0.61 points per possession to roll men), at the rim (44.7 opposing field goal percent) and in isolation (0.55 PPP). He isn’t very good at chasing off-ball shooters, but along with his position and time spent playing both the opposing team’s best on-ball scorer and the paint, consider that the Spurs rarely allow shots from the perimeter anyways.

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Photo of Leonard, per Flickr.


Moreover, starting big man and free agent acquisition LaMarcus Aldridge has transformed into an excellent defender, allowing only 50.5 field goal percent at the basket on more than five opposing shot attempts per game, as well as allowing only 0.59 points per possession to roll men on pick and rolls. While he doesn’t have the kind of defensive volume that the elite defenders of the NBA have, like Rudy Gobert or Duncan, make no mistake that the Spurs’ ability to shut down the interior is a team effort and not just Duncan.

When the Spurs almost certainly, barring no major injuries, matchup against the Warriors for the Western Conference Finals, the resulting matchup is going to make the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 80s look silly. Old-timers could scoff at this suggestion, but there is no evidence that we have ever seen two incredibly dominant teams in the same league.

Judging by Simple Rating System, which measures both point differential and strength of schedule, both the Spurs (12.8) and Warriors (10.3) are already in a category that places them with all-time great teams. If they met this year in the playoffs, it would be the highest combined SRS by two teams in NBA history. It might not be definitive proof that it’s the best matchup ever, but you would have to be a complete buffoon to deny the historical implications of them meeting in the playoffs.

Factually speaking, these two are not playing for an NBA title if they meet in the Western Conference Finals. But saying they’re playing for a chance at a championship is a gross understatement. These are two historic trail blazers that, come May, could be playing in the highest caliber matchup of professional basketball in NBA history.

Coaching Corner Finale: 2015 Awards

That’s it, folks. We’re done with the 2015-2016 regular season of the NFL – and a result, done with this column. It’s been a fun ride, with several halftime draws, kicks on fourth and shorts, blown timeouts and wasted challenges throughout the year. At the time I’m writing this, seven head coaches have either been fired or resigned from their franchise.

That said, it’s time to celebrate the end of the regular season with some totally-official and objective coaching awards.

NOTE: Apologies for the late article this week. Turns out that I still have to put in a good amount of work for an online class.


“Most Likely To Be Compared To A Fascist By His Players” = Chip Kelly

Last week, I wrote a 1500 word or so piece centered around Kelly’s rise and fall with the Philadelphia Eagles. Among rumors that circulated about him were that he was a racist, dictator-like megalomaniac within the locker room.

Like I said earlier, the problem with Kelly wasn’t his inability to coach a game – it was him losing a power struggle with the front office and also not having enough support in the locker room to keep him around.

Although this is mostly speculation on my part, I suspect that the Eagles would have probably kept Kelly around had he not been such an albatross within the front office as well. Perhaps Philadelphia offered him a chance to come back on the condition that he was no longer allowed to maintain control over the team’s scouting, personnel management, etc.

The Romeo Crennel Cowardly Lion Award” = Jeff Fisher

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I already took a look at the teams that were most unwilling to go for it earlier this year when I created the “Chicken Index:” a number that takes the amount of times a team punts or kicks a field goal on fourth and short (defined by needing two yards or less), divides it by the total amount of fourth and short attempts and multiplies the result by 100. Take a wild guess where its name comes from.

When I updated the Chicken Index for end of the season stats, I found out that the biggest chicken in the NFL was Fisher with an 86.7 rating on 15 attempts.

While his conservatism might stem from the Rams’ lack of an offense outside of running back Todd Gurley (they rank No. 29 in Football Outsiders’ offensive defense-adjusted value over average), it certainly doesn’t help. If anything, continuing to play passively on fourth down only contributes more to an inability to score points.

For those curious about the rest of the Chicken Index, here’s the full table. It’s obvious not an absolute indicator of passive coaching or effective coaching, but just a fun “statistic” I made.

“The Out of Time Award” = Tom Coughlin

Despite what I’ve written before. Coughlin is most certainly a Hall of Fame caliber coach. Even outside of his Super Bowl-winning success with the New York Giants, Coughlin’s decade-long run with the Giants should be a model for future coaches on how to maintain relationships with players and the front office.

What should not be emulated is Coughlin’s penchant for blowing late games – especially this season, where New York finished 3-8 in games decided by one possession or less. This included a painful opening loss where Coughlin left too much time left in the game for his opponents to make a comeback, another loss which I wrote about in great detail and three consecutive late-game losses to New England, Washington and the cross-town rival Jets in the middle of the season. Had the Giants won half of those, they could have still made the playoffs. Instead, they are at home and without a head coach.

A 3-8 record in one-possession games is inexcusable, but it’s not as if this year was some kind of deviation from the norm. Ever since winning another Super Bowl in the 2011 season, Coughlin has consistently lost one-possession games to opponents and his inability to use timeouts effectively or deal with late-game situations has consistently hurt his team.

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For reference, a 9-19 record in one-possession games is equal to about a 47.4 winning percent, which over the course of a regular season would be about 7.5 wins. While some might point to this record as simply bad luck on the Giants’ part and not necessarily Coughlin’s fault, I think the record over four seasons illustrates a pretty strong correlation between his mismanagement of timeouts in late-game situations and losing.

Consider that the results of one-possession games are essentially a coin flip between the team teams playing (due to its innately high-variance) and it becomes clear that though Coughlin may benefit his teams in other areas, late-game situations are not one of them – even if two of his Super Bowl victories ironically came from clutch plays near the end of the games.

Second Worst Playcall of the Year: Half-time draw by Andy Reid against the Broncos

There is literally no point to this play, as I have mentioned before. Don’t do it, coaches.

Most Hilarious Playcall of the Year: Snapfu by Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano

Was there any doubt which play I had to mention in this column?

Another funny note: when informed that he was staying with Indianapolis after their disappointing 8-8 season, Pagano said it was “absolutely the best day of my life.” This came from a guy who literally survived cancer. Just think about how messed up that is.

The Coaching Corner Goat of the Year = Mike McCoy

Where do I start with McCoy? His conservatism on fourth and short, which ranked just behind Fisher as the biggest wuss in the league, per the Chicken Index? The San Diego Chargers’ 3-9 record in one-possession games, including a stretch where they lost five straight games by a combined 24 points?

Even when it came to developing a successful offense, where the former Broncos offensive coordinator and quarterback coach McCoy was supposed to shine, he was relatively disappointing, leading the Chargers to a mediocre No. 26 placing in points scored per game. This included a No. 31 finish in offensive rushing defense-adjusted value over average, per Football Outsiders. Banged up offensive line or not, such a statistic is unacceptable for a team that starts Phillip Rivers.

Although he never had legendarily horrible performances like some of his peers, McCoy’s consistently disappointing talent development, passiveness on fourth down and inability to deal with late game situations makes him worthy as the worst coach of the year and a great conclusion for a column I have thoroughly enjoyed writing throughout the season. Thank you to all my readers (all five of you), my friends , family and especially two of my awesome colleagues: Daily Campus sports editor Matt Zampini and my managing editor Matt Zabierek – both who inspired me to write this column every week and further instilled my love of professional sports. See you next week, with another topic!