The BIG Number: Harden-Howard disconnect

May, 22, 2015
May 22
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Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
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THTV The Podcast: This is not a four-player draft!

May, 22, 2015
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2:53
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
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Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, Devon Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Aaron HarrisonAP Photo/James Crisp

On another edition of TrueHoop TV: The Podcast, David Thorpe explains why this year's "four-player" draft can't be the case. And why there is crying in basketball, and that's a good thing.

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May, 22, 2015
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TrueHoop TV: NBA After Dark

May, 21, 2015
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Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
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Before the start of Warriors-Rockets Game 2, join Amin Elhassan at 8:30 p.m. ET Thursday night for a lively discussion of the conference finals and more.

Rockets are done without Dwight Howard

May, 21, 2015
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By Henry Abbott and David Thorpe
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The BIG Number: Stephen Curry's slam shot

May, 20, 2015
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Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
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NBA DraftJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

NEW YORK – The NBA Draft Lottery, the league’s weirdest career-altering stunt, made peers of three people who will probably never be in the same room again: Sixers rookie Nerlens Noel, Lakers coach Byron Scott and Minnesota billionaire Glen Taylor. As the pageant reached its suspenseful conclusion on Tuesday night, the three stood onstage together as winners of the NBA’s biggest loser contest. They had just been told they were receiving the top three picks in the June 25 NBA Draft (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

Indeed, it was Christmas for losers, and the trio were here to accept gifts from the league on behalf of their teams, which this season collectively won 55 games, 12 short of the Golden State Warriors’ total.

For all of the failure that led to this night, the lottery was a giddy affair. Hundreds filled a curtained-off hotel ballroom in midtown Manhattan, on the floor and in the balcony. Onstage, 14 team representatives – from Larry Bird to Steve Mills to Russell Westbrook – waited with a mix of low-key resignation and high hopes.

On a nearby raised platform, ESPN’s broadcast team of Mark Jones and Jay Bilas narrated and evaluated, while on yet another platform, Cassidy Hubbarth served as a host of sorts when nothing else was going on. For the assembled crowd, she interviewed Willie Cauley-Stein, D’Angelo Russell and Frank Kaminsky, among other potential lottery picks. Off to the side, Heather Cox was dwarfed by Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, perhaps the top two picks in this year’s draft, as they watched video of themselves on the big screen and then talked about their bright days ahead.

The number of NBA players in the room – future, current and retired - added buzz. Before the presentation, Scott, Westbrook and Kings VP Vlade Divac talked in a triangle, a friendly players-only chat that ran 20 minutes. Bird held court off to the side with any number of admirers, while Hall of Fame center Alonzo Mourning and Suns center Alex Len were eye-to-eye in conversation. After the event, reporters – with cameras, phones and recorders – swarmed team executives and athletes alike for instant reaction.

The main reason we were all there: to find out how the NBA’s pingpong balls had reshuffled the draft order, which has the power to shape franchises and lives for years.

The reason to reshuffle: To reduce intentional losing, a.k.a. tanking. (As Phil Jackson might tweet, “Seriously, how’s it goink?”) By taking away a little bit of the certainty that teams crave, this system is supposed to prevent them from losing on purpose. And yet, intentional losing appears to be practiced more systemically than ever.

The fact that tanking can be labeled “rebuilding” and the fact that it’s generally done at the franchise level rather than the player level has allowed league officials to ignore the issue to a large degree. Commissioner Adam Silver denies that teams are tanking.

On the other hand, he and a large group of owners tried last October to push through a change in the lottery system because they saw how certain teams – most prominently the Philadelphia 76ers – were able to use the NBA’s draft rules to gain these valuable prizes, these high draft picks. The rules change was voted down, although it might be revived. The question remains, if teams aren’t tanking, why do we need to continue to change the rules to prevent tanking? (As noted, the lottery exists because of tanking.)

One reason tanking isn’t synonymous with game-fixing or match-fixing (which is illegal in sports across the globe) appears to be that it’s so ingrained in NBA culture that we expect teams to try to lose to improve their draft position – to win by losing. Indeed, the anger in New York among Knicks fans on Tuesday night appeared to be directed at Jackson, coach Derek Fisher and the Knicks for winning a pair of games at the end of the season that hurt their lottery odds -- rage that had flared up even as the games were happening, to the point where Fisher had to make a statement defending himself and his team for winning.

At ESPN and elsewhere, there have been many recommendations for better, fairer systems than the current draft. Celtics exec Mike Zarren proposed “the wheel.” At HoopIdea, we put economists and others on the case. FiveThirtyEight crowdsourced solutions. This week Amin Elhassan became the most recent analyst to call for an end to the draft, which would encourage teams to try to win and put together the best team possible at all times.

But with the success of the lottery and the draft as one-night TV and media fan-friendly events, the league is reluctant to look for a better way, even when tanking is the reason for one of those events.

A few quick case studies from Tuesday night:

Minnesota Timberwolves
Official position: 1st pick in the draft
Unofficial position: Ironic, but about time!

The Timberwolves have still never moved up in the lottery in 17 tries. (Since the draft is about fairness: Is that fair?) The irony this time – they didn’t want to move anywhere.

The other irony was voiced by owner Glen Taylor, the Wolves’ rep, who admitted that he had attempted and failed to make it harder for the worst team, which turned out to be his own team, to get the No. 1 pick.

Talking to reporters after the lottery, Taylor said that he had expected Minnesota to be a playoff team this season. “I wasn’t planning on being here this year,” he said. “We really thought we would get into the 7th or 8th position in the playoffs.”

In fact, he said he was so sure the Wolves would not be in the running for the No. 1 pick that he supported the plan to reduce the lottery odds of the worst team. The effort failed, and so did the Timberwolves, thereby succeeding.

Los Angeles Lakers
Official position: 2nd pick in the draft
Unofficial position: We deserve it!

I grew up a huge fan of the Magic Johnson-era Lakers, I know the size and strength of Laker Nation and I understand intimately the appeal of having the league’s marquee franchise win more than, say, 21 games. But even so, it’s a bit sad to see the Lakers go on corporate welfare and be granted one of the most valuable prizes the NBA has to offer, especially after the half-hearted way they finished the season. Magic himself celebrated the outcome on Twitter.

The Lakers are worth an estimated 2.6 billion dollars, have won 16 NBA championships -- including two in the past six seasons -- and hold significant advantages over every other NBA team when recruiting players to join their franchise.

Now for the second straight year, they get an outright gift for failure – one of the most talented players coming into the league, on a rookie salary scale while the salary cap goes up and up.

The draft is generally understood to be an attempt to level the playing field and create competitive balance -- and particularly to provide small-market teams a way to compete. It’s an adjustment to the structural advantages that large markets naturally have. Given that, it’s amazing to see the league rewarding Los Angeles and New York for failure and incompetence by granting them the rights to the biggest prizes.

Scott and Kobe Bryant both said the Lakers deserved such a prize, though their takes were markedly different. Scott called the No. 2 pick in next month’s draft “a little bit of a reward” for all their recent misery. On Twitter, Bryant resorted to potty humor that hinged on the double meaning of “No. 2,” saying, “We played like crap all season.”

The draft is where crap turns to gold.

Philadelphia 76ers
Official position: 3rd
Unofficial position: It could’ve gone better, but we knew the math.

The 76ers are a lightning rod for critics because of their coldly methodical approach to creating a roster that, they hope, will eventually be able to compete for NBA titles. The Sixers have lost 127 games the past two seasons -- quite intentionally, many believe -- which has “earned” them a pair of high draft picks. Team president Sam Hinkie’s unorthodox moves, including trading away rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams for a future draft pick, have annoyed some observers and puzzled others.

After the lottery, Hinkie calmly described the Sixers’ process to reporters, noting that for a bad team looking for talent, it was entirely normal to churn through a lot of players before finding the ones to keep. As he said, if a player he picks up has a 25 percent chance of becoming someone you’ll want for the long haul, you probably need four such players to find the one you are looking for.

Hinkie understands that one part of the rebuilding process -– perhaps the most important part of the process - is to take full advantage of the NBA’s offer of free talent via the draft (free, as long as you don’t mind a losing season). Hinkie wants to win championships, and to do that he needs stars, the kind of players that are hard to get most of the time, but much easier to get through the draft.

He is wary of getting stuck in NBA purgatory, reserved for teams not good enough to compete for a title and not bad enough to get high draft picks. He wants high draft picks and has shown himself adept at acquiring them – so adept that some teams and fans are bothered by the way Hinkie, who holds an MBA from Stanford, and the Sixers have conducted business the last two years. But that’s just what it is: Hinkie’s judgment about what constitutes good NBA business sense.

So on the one hand, Tuesday night was a success – Philadelphia got the No. 3 pick and a potential star. On the other hand, it wasn’t quite the blowout victory the Sixers might have hoped for. Philly had a chance on Tuesday to set an NBA record by winning three lottery picks, because they hold rights to protected draft picks from the Lakers and the Heat. But the balls didn’t bounce quite their way, and now they have to wait for those latter two draft picks, which might become less valuable over the years as those teams improve.

Hinkie understood this, and noted that he and his staff had run the numbers already, saying, “We never anticipated we’d get the Lakers’ pick this year. We spend countless hours trying to evaluate those sorts of things, those sorts of uncertain things in the future.”

If you want to know where Sixers-style losing gets you, we saw that on Tuesday night. Like it or not, this is the system the NBA has set up.

New York Knicks
Official position: 4th
Unofficial position: OK, we’ll take it. Anybody wanna trade us a star?

Phil Jackson wasn’t there – he sent Steve Mills. After the Knicks “fell” to fourth, Mills said, "It's not a setback at all. We went into this draft knowing we can get a good player, anywhere from 1 to 5 [in the draft].”

Emotionally, that didn’t seem accurate, but technically, it was – the fourth pick in a loaded draft is the equivalent of a big bonus after a bad year at the office. And yes, we did just see the NBA grant James Dolan a prized top-four draft pick.

The Knicks will surely explore how to get a star player in return for the pick, as Mills acknowledged on Tuesday.

Before and after the lottery, I surveyed some of the executives and others attending the affair, to ask: Do the Knicks and these other teams deserve a lottery pick? I asked about a variety of teams, including three from large markets: Los Angeles, New York and Philly.

The consistent answer, which matched NBA doctrine, was that yes, they did deserve a high draft pick after successfully losing and/or tanking their way into the lottery.

And I get that. Losing is painful, as one longtime NBA executive noted in our chat.

But to say that teams “deserve” a high pick is to reward failure. In Malcolm Gladwell’s critique of the NBA draft, he noted the “moral hazard” of rewarding losing. Rewarding failure is generally considered bad policy, whether in sports or other endeavors.

Perhaps fans themselves do “deserve” to be rewarded for their loyalty. The excitement and the potential that stems from the lottery and the draft do indeed give fans a reason to hope, a reason to believe. Of course, if some fans “deserve” such rewards, that implies that other fans deserve them less.

When it comes to the teams themselves, “deserve” might be entirely the wrong word. Perhaps it’s another d-word that keeps the draft going, that creates excitement and buzz around something as peculiar as the lottery.

Perhaps it’s desire. Desire to have a shot, deserved or not, at a transcendent talent that can change team and career trajectories.

Desire. Isn’t that always the fuel that makes a lottery go?

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Why the Hawks will beat the Cavs

May, 20, 2015
May 20
12:21
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By Henry Abbott and David Thorpe
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May, 20, 2015
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The case for the Rockets

May, 19, 2015
May 19
12:26
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By Henry Abbott and David Thorpe
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A top pick doesn't guarantee draft success

May, 19, 2015
May 19
12:19
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Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
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The BIG Number: Retooled Rockets

May, 19, 2015
May 19
12:14
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Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Is Barkley right about Rockets' D?

May, 19, 2015
May 19
10:38
AM ET
By Alok Pattani
ESPN.com
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videoBack in February, Charles Barkley took various shots at the Rockets and GM Daryl Morey on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.” Barkley said, “I’ve always believed analytics was crap” and “I never mention the Rockets as legitimate contenders, 'cause they’re not.”

In particular, Barkley criticized the Rockets' defense, saying, “Just because you’ve got good stats doesn’t mean you’re a good team defensively. They’re not a good defensive team. They gave up 118 points. No good team gives up 118 points.”

Barkley’s comments sparked several responses from the analytics community, most of which attempted to show the value of analytics in the NBA in general. But now that the Rockets have made the Western Conference finals, let’s take a closer look at the actual basketball point Barkley was making:

Are the Rockets actually any good on defense?

The basic “points allowed” numbers that someone like Barkley looks at are misleading. Both teams playing at a fast or slow pace will make those numbers high or low, and by only looking at one game you may just be seeing an unusual moment. Looking at a whole season's worth of games, and adjusting for number of possessions and quality of opposition played is a better predictor and shows that the Rockets have a top-10 defense.

Let’s start with the basics on how to evaluate defense. Using points allowed without adjusting for pace is bad enough; using points allowed in a single game to make wholesale conclusions about a team’s defensive capability is worse.

Houston allowed 118 points five times in the regular season, same as the Cavaliers and only once more than the Warriors and Hawks did it. All but two NBA teams allowed 118 points in at least one game this season. So by Chuck’s definition, none of the conference finalists have “good” defenses, and the lottery-bound Heat and recently-eliminated Grizzlies are the only teams eligible to be “good.”

In the Rockets’ case, allowing high point totals is more defensible because of the number of possessions in their games. Their already high regular-season possession numbers have gone up in the playoffs -- nearly 105 per game, compared to a league average of 97. This is partly due to Houston’s up-and-down style, but further exacerbated by the "Hack-A-" strategy used both by and against Kevin McHale’s team in its first two series.

If you include both regular and postseason games together, the Rockets' defense ranks 24th in points allowed. But adjusting for the fact that the Rockets have had to defend more possessions than the average team, their defense ranks a much more respectable 10th.

Still, Houston’s defense has slipped in the playoffs and is ranked 12th (out of 16) in defensive efficiency in postseason games only. But consider the quality of offenses the Rockets have had to face, particularly in the first two rounds.

To measure opponent offensive strength, we’ll use the offensive component of each team’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) rating, which tells you how many points above or below average the team’s offense is. The Rockets faced slightly harder than average offensive teams (+0.4 Off BPI) in the regular season, and they have played 12 games versus two top-five offenses this postseason in the Clippers and Mavericks (+5.6 Off BPI, on average).

Once you adjust for the Rockets having played the toughest opposing offenses and consider that they held those teams below their normal offensive efficiency, Houston moves up to sixth in terms of opponent-adjusted defense across the regular season and playoffs.

So after accounting for some pretty straightforward things like number of possessions and opponent quality, the Rockets' defense ranks much better than you might guess by just looking at how many points they’ve given up.

The Rockets face another offensive power in the Western Conference finals, as the Warriors rank third in offensive BPI. Put that together with the fact that Golden State averages basically the same number of possessions as the Rockets, and the point margins they give up once again won’t be indicative of their defensive performance. In some cases, they may give up what looks like a boatload of points while actually slowing the Warriors down on a per-possession basis.

The bigger issue for Houston is that unlike the Mavericks or Clippers, the Warriors are really strong on defense as well -- third in defensive BPI at plus-4.0. Compare that to Houston’s ninth-ranked BPI offense (plus-2.3), and you see that while the Rockets' defense may be good enough to slow down the Warriors, Golden State’s defense is strong enough to more than return the favor.

So while Barkley was pretty wrong about the Rockets' defense, he may be “proven right” that they aren’t legitimate contenders -- if losing to a potentially historically great team in the conference finals disqualifies a team from being “legitimate.”

James Harden wins with team play

May, 18, 2015
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3:16
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By Henry Abbott and David Thorpe
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TrueHoop TV Live

May, 18, 2015
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