Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Category Archives: STATS

Steph Curry as a springboard into the Mind of Karl Malone

Almost 25 years ago to the day, a perturbed Karl Malone nursing hurt feelings and a bruised ego stepped onto the Salt Palace court as the Jazz hosted the Milwaukee Bucks. What ensued was something akin to a pissed off Andre the Giant going off script at a Royal Rumble and tossing all comers out of the ring so quick that the pay-per-view ends two hours early and no one is quite certain what just happened. The game itself was a bloodbath and Malone scored a career-high 61 points on 21-26 shooting while snatching 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes of game play.

The only reason I found this game was thanks to modern-day efficiency king Stephen Curry’s precision in Washington D.C. less than a week ago when he scored 51 in 36 minutes in a road victory over the Wizards while shooting 19-28 from the field and 11-16 from deep. It was peak Curry and peak Warriors in that the reigning MVP needed just 36 minutes to fill it up. In the nationally televised game, he opened the bidding with a 25-point first quarter on 7-8 from three and playing all 12 minutes. In what (as of this writing) Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl refers to as a “California cool” style, Golden State relaxed, turned the ball 15 times through the following three quarters and was outscored over that same period. But the game was close enough that Curry put up his second most shot attempts of the season, tied his most three-point attempts, and exceeded his average minutes/game.

Wizards point guard John Wall described the performance:

It’s like Kobe (Bryant) when he had 81. He couldn’t miss. You keep defending the best way you can. We challenged some shots. He didn’t have too many open looks. He just made them.

Scoring 51 in 36 or less has been accomplished just 12 times since the 1983-84 season with Curry now owning the two most recent occasions. The only other player to appear on the list more than once is Kobe Bryant at four times. What’s unique and I guess predictable is that in all 12 games, the team with the +51-point scorer won. The big scorers are hyper efficient from the field (except Tracy McGrady in 2003) and get to the at least 10 times (except Curry last week who made it to the line just three times).

For me, the most memorable on this list was Kobe’s 62 points on Dallas during his Chamberlain-esque scoring binge of 2005-06 when he had single handedly outscored Dallas through three quarters (62-61). (As a side note, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported then-Dallas Assistant Coach Del Harris was the primary motivator for Kobe’s 62-point outburst as Harris had been Kobe’s coach as a rookie and he still held a desire for revenge for Harris “driving him crazy” as a rookie. The unlucky coincidence (for Harris at least) is that Harris was present as the Bucks head coach the night Malone scored his 61. To my knowledge, Del Harris was in no way affiliated with the Wizards during Curry’s performance.)

02-08-16 - mailman stats

The anatomy of 51 in 36 is one thing whereas motivation is something altogether different and in some cases less discernible.

After his single-handed destruction of Washington, Curry described what we most frequently refer to as the zone. There was no other apparent motivation, no driving force, just “some of the shots that you’re like ‘Oh that’s off,’ they end up going in. It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride that until you can’t anymore.”

But for other players, the motivations are clearer for various reasons:

02-08-16 - Points x PPS

(Note: For a thorough reading on athletes and vengeance, Bill Simmons’ Vengeance Scale from ~2004 (?) still holds up pretty well with an exceptionally robust rating scale.)

But no one on this list can reach the grating disrespect the Mailman felt back in 1990 after the results of the All-Star Game fan vote (hat-tip to Danny Hazan for putting me onto this storyline). It was January 26th, 1990 when Malone, the defending ASG MVP, found out the fans had selected the Lakers’ A.C. Green to start the game. Green edged him out by all of 1,226 votes – less than 1% of the total votes Malone received. At the time, the Mailman was an MVP candidate putting up 30.5ppg on 58% with nearly 11 rebounds and three assists/game. His lividity was so great that Kurt Kragthorpe of The Deseret News wrote: “Before the game, Karl Malone called the NBA office to complain about the voting results and told teammates he would boycott the All-Star Game.”

Teammate John Stockton and the aforementioned fan-selected starter Green were less confounded, both offering more contextual responses. Stockton said,

I don’t know that being selected this way (by fan vote) is any better than being selected the other way (by coaches). It’s tough to be thrilled about a selection process when an absolute shoo-in doesn’t make it. That amazes me.

And Green:

I’m surprised to be on the team. I never knew my position in the balloting, and it’s really out of the players’ control who the fans vote for. Neither one of us did any campaigning. On paper, you’d think (Malone) would be on the team. I mean, he does it night in, night out. That’s what you have to do to be an All-Star.

But on a first glance that didn’t matter to Malone. And so the following day on the 27th of January, he came out with bad intentions, powered forth by the conviction that he had been wronged in the most egregious fashion. He scorched and burned the Bucks big men in the paint and around the rim. All of his points have been wrapped nicely into a single 12-minute Youtube post (below) and a couple things are powerfully evident: of his 21 made field goals, just two came outside the paint and the topic of the All-Star snubbery was hot all night evidenced by the condensed clips where the announcers mention it three separate times including references to “that message was sent airmail, special delivery!”

The way this drama unfolded is fascinating in the sense that Malone was enraged by the fan vote which is something we’ve come to accept 25 years later as a completely uninformed popularity contest. Stockton and Green seemed to grasp that from different perspectives and maybe it’s all the Yao voting or some of the oddities we’ve seen over the years have reinforced the notion that it’s all about popularity, but clearly players in 1990 understood that. And on some level Malone did too, which I’ll explore, but the announcers repeatedly stating that he was “sending a message to voters” is revealing of the most MJ manner of allowing a slight (however significant) to become an all-consuming obsession and that obsession isn’t just accepted by the community, it becomes a rallying point.

Malone’s approach to this game – constant post-ups on the right block, relentlessness on the offensive glass (he had nine offensive boards), and tearing up the court like a demonic man-tank on amphetamines – are indicative of a sustained fixation. All that anger not just harnessed by Malone, but reinforced by who? Reinforced by the local media, teammates, coaches? In The Deseret News the day after the 61-point game, there was a paragraph and anecdote from Stockton that provides some of the insight into the kind of mind that propelled Malone forward:

So who said Malone was overrated this time? In Charlotte last month, teammate John Stockton planted a fake story that the Hornets’ Armon Gilliam had downgraded Malone in a TV interview and the Mailman went out and scored 52. Stockton claimed innocence Saturday, smiling and saying, “Who knows what can lurk in his mind?”

Reviewing the story from the Gilliam game in December of 1989, it sounds like Stockton definitely planted the seed that got Malone going and speaks to the power of security and insecurity, respect and disrespect, succeeding and failure, and fiction versus reality in addition to Stockton’s ability to know which buttons to push and how hard to push them. For the Mailman, just the suggestion that Armon Gilliam or some fans misunderstood his proper place as one of, if not the preeminent power forward in the NBA simultaneously sent him off the rails and pushed him to new heights.

On the one hand, being overlooked by the fan vote feels insignificant. Malone was so obviously at the peak of the game that it seems like it shouldn’t have mattered. The other angle to take is that having achieved so much already (ASG MVP, All-NBA first team, playoffs, top power forward status) and being accepted by his peers, the only audience left to convert was the fans. Where Jordan had his Nike contract and Magic his smile and Larry the faithful of the Boston Garden, Malone was still – at least based on the voting – an unknown. What more did he need to do? What more could he do? Losing out to a clearly lesser player in Green had to be discouragingly Sisyphean and unfair. It had to hurt.

Within this intrusive exploration into the mind of Karl Malone is a glimpse into how that mind works which is what I find so intriguing. If we look at the drama of early 1990 linearly, there’s a nice a smooth narrative arc: the release of the ASG voting which shakes Malone and results in him going as far as reportedly calling the league office. Then there’s the response, the attempt to “send a message to the voters” as if they were a singular mind, as if the vote was indicative of his standing relative to Green’s even though Malone at his most rational had to know how little it implied. The 61 points was intentionally symbolic, but most likely sent to an audience the majority of whom weren’t even listening and the people who were listening already knew Malone’s standing. Even before the eruption, his tone was somewhat more revealing:

  • “The first couple of days, it hurts, but after a while you have to take a little time and think about things.”
  • From the AP via Seattle Times: `When you get put into the situation that I’m in, it’s hard. You get hurt. Everyone has a sense of pride, but I’ve had time to think about it and I think I will go if I’m asked.’

They’re both variations of the same quote and the same theme of having his pride and feelings hurt. Most of us can relate to being stung – whether it’s being disrespected, not being appreciated, being rejected – and responding first with anger expressed through lashing out – or calling the NBA’s front office and saying we’re not going to participate in the ASG. But what we do next is where people’s individual processes vary. Sometimes when I’m angry, I have an immediate outlet and it’s rarely competitive sports. Maybe I dive into work or writing or I’m unfairly being a jackass to my wife. But whether I channel that anger with or without intention, it doesn’t result in anything resembling 61-point games. Other times I’m able to easily identify that what I’m feeling isn’t even anger, but hurt or sadness and I can skip the anger-manifested-as-fill-in-the-blank step and resolve the damn thing in the immediate.

02-08-16 - steph to malone

Where it would seem our species can walk fine lines is in how much these real or imagined slights grow and fester. For the pro basketball community, Michael Jordan is the standard bearer who leveraged slights and insults as well as any basketball player in history. For anyone who saw Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, there was a sad bitterness at how MJ articulated his motivations dating back his high school years (sorry Leroy Smith) and carrying through his entire career. I don’t have any desire or intent to judge MJ’s vindictiveness or the benefits or risks of using that mentality as a value principle for succeeding in life other than to observe that it looks fucking exhausting.

What followed Malone’s seeming acceptance and resolution was no less interesting. On January 31st he was chosen as a reserve for the ASG, but awkwardly stated: “Maybe somebody would say, ‘He doesn’t really want to go.’ After all the attention, I don’t think it would have been a big disappointment not to be selected by the coaches.”

He still wasn’t comfortable with having missed out on the fan vote (again, by a ridiculously narrow margin) and it’s not crazy to at least ask if that frustration factored into his comments on February 6th when he said he would retire in five years – after the 1994-95 season when he’d still be 31.

I won’t go deep on the retirement comment other than to say the timing raises an eyebrow if nothing else. The last piece of this particular Malone-driven drama is what actually ended up happening at the All-Star Game in Miami. Malone didn’t end up playing and cited an injury as the reason. This would be one of two games Malone missed between 1989 and 1997 including regular season, playoffs and ASGs. I have no issue with players sitting out the mid-season games, but sitting this game coupled with the retirement talk are at least anecdotal evidence that this enormous chip that helped him achieve so much (like an insane 61-point game) had the power to impede progress.

These two weeks in the winter of 1990 serve as a dramatic microcosm of Malone’s psyche. Always well-respected, but long labeled a choker, Malone was truly a great player, but a great player who on occasion struggled with the mental aspects of the game. In this way, he’s infinitely relatable. Who among us hasn’t struggled with some mental hurdle that seems pre-loaded into our psyches? And who hasn’t accomplished some thing by some inborn flame which is as old as our individual history? Malone in greatness and bitterness is still just a man – who happens to be 6’9”, 270lbs capable of scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in 33 minutes of a pro basketball game.

 

Pacing against the record books – volume 3

We’re in the thick of things now. Iowa caucuses are dominating the Twitter and cable periphery. Hell, the caucuses and nauseating Presidential politics are dominating everything, but still the NBA game goes on like the little men and women at the center of the Earth pushing the giant gears that keep this frightening globe spinning. And as long as the NBA goes on, we’ll have stats and contexts and histories to thumb through – which is exactly what we prefer to do here. So damn the elections, let’s check in with the NBA, 2016 style:

[NOTE: All stat comparisons use www.basketball-reference.com’s Player Index Finder which cross-references data going back to the 1983-84 season. Anything that occurred pre-83-84 is not included.}

02-02-16 - Pacing pictures

  1. Andre Drummond: 720 rebounds in 48 games. When we last checked in with Drummond, he was averaging over 16rpg. Through January and 48 games, the Middleman in Motor City has dropped to 15rpg, but he’s still semi-prolific. We haven’t seen a player board like this since Kevin Love in 2010-11 and Drummond is just the fourth player in this +30-year data set. His new friends include Love, Dennis Rodman (seven times!), and Kevin Willis.
  2. Hassan Whiteside: 158 blocks in 41 games. After averaging over 4 blocks/game for the first 31 games of the season, Whiteside’s subsequent 10 games have dropped to just a shade over 3/game. It’s nothing to sneeze at and I’m unfamiliar with analysis including sneezes so let’s get away from that. Whiteside’s been dinged up with injuries and appears to get a bit sensitive on Instagram when he’s criticizedwhich is often. Dramas aside, no one’s blocked shots as frequently as Whiteside since Marcus Camby back in 2007-08.
  3. James Harden: 221 turnovers in 50 games. The Rockets have been a hot mess this year and some chunk of the responsibility for their suffering falls on the bearded shoulders of Harden. His stats have been gaudy as he’s averaging ~28ppg, 6rpg, and 7apg, but the most consistent element to his play has been turnovers. So many turnovers. If I told you his TOs/game had decreased since early January, maybe you’d nod in approval. But if I told you his average dropped from 4.47/game to 4.42, maybe you’d shake your head in disgust. The last player to mishandle this much through this many games was that ode to anti-efficiency measures, Allen Iverson back in 1996-97. At least that AI was a rookie with mistakes to make and lessons to learn. Harden is … not a rookie. He shouldn’t be making this many mistakes.
  4. Steph Curry: 221 3s made in 46 games. This stat is a video game. Side note, back when I was in college I had NBA 2k-something on Dreamcast. I added classic players (Wilt, Jordan, Russell, Dominique, etc) to all the rosters, then did a draft. I was in college and had a ton of time on my hands, don’t ask. I’d play games with every team and was a bit of a stickler for having at least somewhat realistic stats. My roommates would sometimes play my season when I wasn’t there – I didn’t care much because I was playing games with every But one day I come back and am looking at the records and see my roommate went nuclear with Jerry West and scored 122 points in a single game. The next most threes any player has made through 46 games is also Steph with 154 two seasons ago. His 221 threes so far this season would’ve led the league as recently as 2010-11. Steph is the Jerry West of my Dreamcast 2k. He is Barry Bonds. He is Tom Brady. He is Tiger Woods.
  5. Draymond Green: 445 rebounds and 343 assists in 47 games. These numbers translate into 9.5rpg and 7.3apg which are both improvements on his thru-December averages from last post. Using basketball-references’s game finder to adjust for number of games played, no player since 83-84 has reached these numbers. But if we open the filter to look at entire seasons, Green gets company in the forms of Larry Bird (89-90), Magic Johnson (81-82), Wilt (twice), and Oscar (four times). We know Draymo’s elevated himself to that next, but sweet mother of triple doubles that’s a historic wrecking crew.

02-02-16 - 3s company

  1. Kristaps Porzingis: 54 3s and 93 blocks in 49 games. It seemed in late December or early January like maybe the Zinger had hit the wall, but he bounced back a 7’3” piece of laffy taffy in January when he played his most minutes, scored his most points, and had his highest true shooting percentage month of any month in his young career. Quite possibly the most popular Latvian man in America, the Zinger’s 54 3s and 93 blocks in 49 games make him one of just five players since 83-84 to put up these stats. The most recent was Serge Ibaka who accomplished the feat as a six-year vet. Porzingis isn’t even 21 yet.
  2. Paul George: 131 3s and 335 rebounds in 47 games. George makes just the third player since 83-84 to average over 2.3 3s/game and over 7rpg and the first since current New Orleans Hornet and trade rumor hot topic Ryan Anderson pulled it off in 2011-12. The other is the king of the shimmy, Antoine Walker with Boston back in 01-02. This has the feel of a replicable line for George and could we see him become the honorary chairman of the 2.5/7 club sometime?
  3. Kawhi Leonard: 48% from three, 88% from FT, 50% from FG in 45 games. As long as we add a filter for minutes played, this is a list of elite players known primarily for their marksmanship. Kyle Korver accomplished it last year and before that it was Steve Nash in 07-08. Then there’s Chris Mullin and Kiki Vandeweghe along with Dana Barros and Jason Kapono. As I mentioned last month, Leonard’s game in no way resembles this company. That’s part of his mystique, his charm, his Spurish magnetism. And a gentle hat tip to David Thorpe for this, but Leonard’s percentages over two years in college were 45% from FG, 25% from three, and 74% from the line.
  4. Karl-Anthony Towns: 485 rebounds and 88 blocks in 49 games. Towns turned 20 two and a half months ago. The last rookie to put up a similar 10 rebounds and 2 blocks/game was a 21-year-old Spur named Tim Duncan. Towns isn’t Duncan, but comparing their rookie per/36 numbers looks uncomfortably similar and Towns is about 20 months younger than Duncan was during his rookie season. Towns is oh so good and I’m happy to admit I had no idea he’d be this good.
  5. Kobe Bryant: 637 field goal attempts and 222 field goals in 40 games. Since 83-84, Kobe’s the only person to make so few shots while attempting so many. It’s shitty and not always fun to watch, but at least we’ve all (Kobe included) settled into an acceptance of what this year is and will be.
  6. Ricky Rubio: 336 FGAs and 118 FGs in 43 games. Kind of like Kobe, there’s a sense of acceptance with Rubio. The guy can’t shoot. He’s in his fifth year and you have to scoot around his percentages to find signs of improvement: His TS is matching his career-high (49%), but his FG% (35%) is at a career-low. His FT% is a career-high (82%) while his eFG% (39%) is below his career average. The last player to shoot this poorly on as many shots was Sebastian Telfair back in 08-09. Rubio’s no Telfair, but they share an affinity for crappy shooting.
  7. Tony Parker: 430 FGAs and 225 FGs in 43 games. It’s kind of amazing that at 33 and in his 15th season, Parker is having one of the most efficient shooting seasons of his career, but that’s what’s happening. Seeing Kawhi on this list and knowing how well Duncan has aged, it’s easy to want to praise the Spurs system and they deserve it, but these players have to be working as hard as anyone in the game to do what they do when they do – IE, putting up ultra-efficient seasons well after their athletic primes have been reached. Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat were able to shoot as efficiently in the same amount of games last season, but it’s not as impressive a feat for the big man to do it. The only other guards to make as many shots while attempting so few are John Stockton and Maurice Cheeks.
  8. Russell Westbrook: 1181 points and 485 assists in 49 games. Relatively speaking, Westbrook had a down January. His points, minutes, steals and shooting stats were all down from previous months, but he compensated by bumping emphasizing his rebounding and assists. At this point, we all know Westbrook is a heatsinking missile with bad intentions and with the addition of a new Euro-step, he’s even more Westbrookian. It’s popping in the stats too as he’s joined by little Michael Adams as the only players since 83-84 averaging roughly 24 and 10 through 49 games. If Westbrook can make it to the end of the season with these benchmarks, he’ll join Adams, Tiny Archibald (72-73) and Oscar Robertson (five times) as the only players to do so.
  9. James Harden: 507 FTA and 348 assists in 50 games: Sure, Harden’s sloppy with the turnovers, but with all those possessions a lot of good things happen. He’s getting to the line more than 10 times/game while distributing just a hair under 7 assists/game. He’s the first player with these numbers this deep into the season since LeBron back in 07-08.

The All-Star game and trade deadline are coming soon so February’s a light month for the best basketball league in the world, but the games keep coming. It’s the stretch before the last stretch, a time when people can and do fall off as the playoff picture crystallizes, soft tissues strain and tear and NBA Cinderellas turn into pumpkins late at night – is that you Pumpkin Cousins? The onslaughts will continue so let’s rendezvous here in two fortnights with finger sandwiches and refreshments.

The Fireballs of Winter

Happy New Years, friends. Back in early December, I slogged through a handful of season-to-date performances to see who was performing at historical levels and now we’re here again to revisit those players, their performances and add a few more to the list:

  1. Andre Drummond 531 rebounds in 33 games. Back in December, his company included Dennis Rodman (twice) and Kevin Willis once. In January, it’s four Rodmans and still one Willis. Drummond’s still dominating the glass, but his November/December splits show a two rebound/game dip in production. That’s accompanied by an increase in plus/minus from +2.7 to +6.8 so all’s fair in Drummond and rebounding. For those keeping score, Drummond is 22.
  2. Hassan Whiteside 125 blocks in 31 games. When we last checked in with Whiteside he was averaging 4.7 blocks/game. That’s down to four/game which invites a lot more company than we saw at the end of November. The last player to block at least 125 shots in 31 games was Alonzo Mourning in 1999-00 when he averaged 4.5 bpg through 31 games. The most on record through 31? David Robinson back in 1991-92 averaged 5.2/game. Blah blah blah, this is the Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood.
  3. James Harden 152 turnovers in 34 games. Since 1985-86, just four players in the league have committed more turnovers than Harden has through 34 games. Not too surprisingly, Allen Iverson appears on the list twice along with Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, and, oddly, Gary Grant who marshalled moribund Clippers teams back in the early 90s. His monthly splits show a slight decrease in TOs in December, but this is a season that’s been pockmarked with team and individual struggles. I have no idea where Harden goes from here.
  4. Steph Curry 140 threes made thru 32 possible games and 916 points thru 30 games played. Just because I’m not a Curry fan doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put together one of the best openings to a season in recent memory. His 140 threes made thru 32 possible games (he’s sat two, but I handicapped the criteria just because he’s so far ahead of his historical peers) is 29 more made threes than the next closest player: Ray Allen with 111 in 2001-02. At the end of November he was averaging 31.5. That’s fallen a full point and where he was 22nd all-time on total points thru 19 games, he’s dropped to 30th all-time thru 30 games. Injuries, massive margins of victory, and what should be a desire to keep their most valuable player healthy into June make me think this number will continue to drop.
  5. Draymond Green 230 assists and 290 rebounds thru 32 games. When we looked at Draymo’s 130 assists and 150 rebounds thru November, he had a lot of company – LeBron, Bird, Pippen, Magic, Kidd, and Fat Lever. Nice company, ay? A month and 13 games later and Draymo has no company. In 32 games, no other player has ever picked up as many assists and rebounds – 7.2apg and 9rpg. He’s also averaging nearly 1.5 steals and blocks/game. Green’s versatility reminds me most of Jason Kidd and he’s taken the Swiss Army Knife metaphor to some kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre levels where the knife has motorized blades that hack flesh without discrimination. He’s a nightmare.
  6. Kristaps Porzingis 30 threes made and 67 blocks in 33 games. The Zinger may have hit some sort of rookie wall, but his combination of range and rim protection (looking at you, Jeff Teague) have become even rarer over the past month. Sure, Serge Ibaka accomplished similar stats last season, but before that it was Eddie Griffin (RIP) in 2002-03, then Lamar Odom and Raef LaFrentz (twice) before that. Strange bedfellows indeed.
  7. Paul George 98 threes made and 240 rebounds in 32 games. George’s November vs. December splits reveal some Jekyll & Hyde-lite disparities, but with over three threes and seven rebounds/game, he’s still in lonely historical company with Antoine Walker circa 2001-02.
Stats courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com, a great website.

Stats courtesy of http://www.basketball-reference.com, a great website. NOTE: all non-points stats are 1985-86 to present.

The remaining players are new additions to the list:

  1. Kawhi Leonard shooting 48% from three, 88% from FT, 50% from field in 32 games. One of the more intriguing lists in that it’s made up of guys that were always known as shooters: Kiki Vandeweghe, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Drazen Petrovic, Kyle Korver. Then there’s Kawhi, whose reputation is probably best known as a defender with giant hands and cornrows, but who’s expanded his game into the realm of shooters. The all-enveloping nature of Kawhi’s game is reflected in the steals and block totals on this list where Leonard exceeds every other historical peer thru 32 games and features second in total rebounds to Detlef Schrempf. Kawhi is a diamond with cornrows.
  2. Karl-Anthony Towns 311 rebounds and 62 blocks in 33 games. Towns is the most polished rookie I can recall seeing in some time. His game and athleticism have a refinement that shouldn’t be prevalent in a 20-year-old kid. The last time we saw a rookie put up this many rebounds and blocks thru 33 games, the year was 1997-98 and the rookie was Tim Duncan. The other guys on the list? Zo, Shaq, Mutombo, the Admiral, and Patrick Ewing. For further reading, explore Shaq’s rookie season. In his first 33 games, he was averaging nearly 15 rebounds, over four blocks, and 23 points/game.
  3. Kobe Bryant 499 field goal attempts and 170 makes in 29 games. Kobe’s November-to-December splits show much-needed improvement in field goal shooting, but it doesn’t change the fact that since 1985-86, Kobe’s the only player to take at least 499 shots and hit so few. In 08-09, Baron Davis shot 36% on 501 attempts and 03-04, Quentin Richardson shot 40% on 499 FGAs. Those are both extremely bad and still preferable to Kobe’s 34% thru the end of December.
  4. Ricky Rubio 218 field goal attempts and 73 makes in 27 games. Speaking of horrific shooting, Ricky Rubio’s somehow shooting worse than Kobe from the field although he’s taken less than half as many shots so the impact is significantly reduced. Kobe comparisons aside, we haven’t seen someone shoot as poorly as Rubio on as many shots since Toney Douglas cursed us all back in 11-12 when he shot 32% thru 27 games. The most interesting inclusion this list of sub-standard shooters is everyone’s favorite Canadian back-to-back MVP winner, Steve Nash who spent the first 27 games of 98-99 languishing in shooter’s hell where he shot 36% from the field in his first year as a Dallas Maverick.
  5. Tony Parker 320 field goal attempts and 173 makes in 33 games. I thought Tony Parker was washed up, but like John Matrix in Commando, I thought wrong. Parker’s 173 makes on 320 or less attempts isn’t too rare. Drummond did similar last season and J.J. Hickson the year before, and Nikola Pekovic the season prior. What is interesting though is that Parker’s the only point guard on the list. You have to scroll back to 91-92 (Blue Edwards) and 90-91 (Kevin Gamble) to see perimeter players pop up on this list. How does this happen? Kawhi and LaMarcus Aldridge likely help.
  6. Russell Westbrook 800 points and 300 assists in 33 games. Thru 33 games, Russ put up 854 points and 310 assists. No player since 85-86 has put up those numbers. The only way we can find company for the Oklahoman hero is to open the filter to the nice, rounded 800/300 club and doing so pulls in the little leg-pumping jumper Michael Adams, who back in 90-91 averaged 25 points and nearly 12 assists/game to start the season.
  7. James Harden 358 free throw attempts and 232 assists in 34 games. It stands to reason that Harden appears on this list twice. Once in a positive context and another in a negative. With a game that is the anchor of an entire offense, Harden constantly has the ball in his hands. He takes and makes more free throws than anyone in the league and as part of that attacking barrage, he frequently turns the ball over. Whether charging into defenders, getting stripped or making errant passes, the same tree that yields all those free throw attempts and open looks for teammates contributes to the messiness of nearly five turnovers/game. The Beard giveth, and the Beard taketh, my Houstonian friends.

Meet me back in here February where we’ll compare notes on historical Valentine’s Day performances and see who’s falling off and who’s still going strong.

Steph Curry in 25-game Chunks (plus historical comparisons)

The Golden State Warriors didn’t make any significant roster changes between 2014-15 and 2015-16 and yet they’ve come into the season a better version of themselves, most notably embodied by Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Draymond’s been amazing and deserves his own writing which can be found on other parts of the internet, but I keep going back to Steph and trying to understand how a 27-year-old can experience such a statistical explosion.

Contextually speaking, we’ve only seen one (maybe two, but I’ll get to that) scorers go from good to great the way Curry’s done this year. I took a look at every player in NBA history who has qualified for minutes played and averaged over 30 points for an entire season, then looked at their previous season to identify the greatest leaps season-over-season – essentially players going from good scorers to great scorers, or great to greater in some cases.

5 30ppg scorers in 1 place

5 30ppg scorers in 1 place

There are a handful of outliers that were thrown out and three players (Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, Oscar Robertson) that averaged 30/game as rookies.

The outliers were players that experienced massive leaps between their rookie and second seasons as no baseline of performance had been set. Three of the four greatest season-over-season increases in points-per-game were from players in this outlier set:

  • Jerry West: 17.6ppg as a rookie to 30.8ppg in year two (+13.2)
  • BoB McAdoo: 18ppg as a rookie to 30.6ppg in year two (+12.6)
  • Rick Barry: 25.7ppg as a rookie to 35.6ppg in year two (+9.9)

Then there’s Michael Jordan’s second season which I threw out because he appeared in just 18 games and played 25 minutes/game. So instead of comparing Jordan’s year two average (22.7ppg) to his year three (37.1ppg), I used his first season as a baseline (28.2ppg) which gave him an increase of 8.9ppg. I tossed this out as well.

Once we clear out the noise, we’re left with a sample size of 57 occurrences of players averaging 30 or more – 43 of which saw a season-over-season increase, 14 had a decrease. The greatest non-rookie-to-second season leap ever was Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 when he set the league record with what is still a confounding 50.4ppg which was a 12-point increase over the previous year when he scored a paltry 38.4.

Next on the list is our subject, young Mr. Curry. At 32.3ppg (as of Saturday night), Curry’s a robust 8.5ppg more than he scored last year. That makes for a 26% season-over-season growth which is the highest percentage growth of the entire sample of 57 30-point seasons (with outliers removed). I don’t care or know who the best scorer is on this list, but through 25 games in 2015, Curry’s experiencing an unprecedented growth rate. If we want to get deeper on how silly his season’s become, he’s averaging the lowest minutes/game of any player to ever score 30ppg at 34.9. George Gervin is second at 35.7, then Michael Jordan in 1991 at 37mpg. And maybe it’s not fair to compare percentages from the three-point era to the pre-three-point era, but by any measure that includes weighting the three-point shot (TS% and eFG%), Curry has the all-time highest accuracy rates – 68.8% TS and 64% eFG – of any players to score 30 or more. Adrian Dantley circa 1983-84 is second in TS at 65.2% and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is second in eFG at 57.7% — a full 6.3% behind Curry. But why stop there when Curry also has the highest 2-pt% of anyone on this list at 58.4%.

This feels awfully Bill Simmonsy to write, but re-read that last paragraph. Within the context of volume scorers in league history, no one’s ever done it anywhere remotely similar to Curry this season.

12-16 - 1108_FEA_Curry_opener(1)

Which leads to the question: Just what on god’s green earth is happening to Steph this season? I did some work on this in early November when Curry was averaging 37ppg and some of the trends from then still hold up now: Curry’s opportunities are up year-over-year in terms of FGA/game, 3PA/game, and FTA/game while his accuracy for each is at or above his career-bests – only his free throw percentage is below career-best and he’s still making 90% of them.

But I don’t feel satisfied just saying volume and efficiency have risen even if those things are true. There are notions and theories at play here that I feel compelled to explore. I went back to the start of 2013-14 (starting with game 11 of that season – the reasoning will become clearer) and broke out Steph’s ensuing 201 games into 25-game chunks that include regular season and playoffs. The patterns are intriguing in that we’re able to see sporadic trends during Mark Jackson’s final year with the team when Curry’s three chunks of 25 games saw his minutes fluctuate between an average of nearly 40 in games 11-35 down to just under 36 in games 36-61. When he was playing nearly 40mpg, his FG% and 3p% were the worst of this 8-set sample, as were his turnovers/game – nearly 5.

stats courtesy basketball-reference.com

stats courtesy basketball-reference.com

As Kerr came on in 2014-15, there’s an immediate shift in Curry’s minutes down to a much-more-manageable 32-34/night with a steady rise in his three-point accuracy and a slight dip in total points. During that first regular season under Kerr, he took less field goal attempts, averaged less assists, and turned the ball over than he did under Jackson the previous year. It’s necessary to call out that Kerr taking over as coach led to a lot more changes than Curry’s role in the Warriors offense, but for the sake of this post and your time, we’ll focus on how Curry responded.

Last year’s playoff run is where we get a preview of what’s to come for Curry. Where he shot around eight threes/game in the regular season, it spiked up to 10.6 in 21 playoff games and final four games of the regular season. His three-point percentage stayed right at his average of this 201-game sample size – 43.6% during playoffs/reg season vs. 43.5% overall.

12-16-15 - Steph 3s

It’s that rise in the three-ball volume that appears to have carried over to 2015-16. Beginning in the sixth chunk of 25 games – game 52 to 76 of 2014-15 – Curry experienced his most accurate stretch of three point shooting: 107 of 208 – a 51.4% clip which accounted for 54.1% of his total points. For context, his average percentage of points from the three over this entire sample was 39.4%. From that block of games forward, his volume of three-pointers attempted has only increased. Curry was a great shooter before this stretch, but let’s look at the previous 126 games (start of 2013-14 thru game 51 of last season) against the most recent 75 games (game 52 of 2014-15 to present):

  • 126 game stretch: 412 threes made on 1003 attempts, 3.3 threes/game, 41% accuracy, threes account for 41% total points
  • 75 game stretch: 350 threes made on 751 attempts, 4.6 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 50% total points
  • 25 game stretch in 2015-16: 127 threes made on 277 attempts, 5.1 threes/game, 46% accuracy, threes account for 47% total points

What we’re seeing now is like late-career Barry Bonds crushing all MLB walk records. In 2001, Bonds set the record with 177 walks, then bested it in 2002 by 21, and in 2004 put an exclamation point on his own theater of absurd by walking 232 times. This is Steph with threes – minus the weird head enlargement and freakish physical metamorphosis. Curry is taking a truly great skill (he already holds the top-two single season marks for threes made) and building upon it, but in a way that appears to be a collectively conscious extension of last season’s second half run. It’s not just that he’s taking and making more threes, but that his range is extending – or it was always there and his confidence and the team’s confidence in him taking deeper shots has grown (per stats.nba.com):

  • 2013-14: 5.1 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
  • 2014-15: 5.5 3PAs/game from 25-29ft
  • 2015-16: 7.2 3PAs/game from 25-29ft

He’s already hit as many threes from 30-34 feet (three) as he did all of last season (regular season and playoffs combined) and more than he did in 2013-14 (playoffs and reg. combined). The impact of extending his range out further isn’t lost on his two-point game (again, he’s shooting 58.4% on twos) or his teammates who experience a wider, more open floor. Harrison Barnes approves.

Whatever Golden State saw in last year’s playoffs has carried over into this new season. The volume, the freedom, the carte blanche to shoot from anywhere at any time is open. We’re seeing Curry’s Davidson days replicated at the highest level of basketball in the known universe (when NCAA opponents decided they’d rather lose than have Curry go off on them, they were essentially waving a white flag in the same way MLB pitchers did when they intentionally walked Bonds all those hundreds of times). But what’s most fascinating to me is how Golden State appears to have tapped into an optimal playing time balance for Curry and the rest of the team. As I mentioned earlier when comparing Steph to other 30-point scorers, we’ve never had another 30-point scorer play this few minutes. Last year Curry won the MVP with the fewest minutes ever for a winner at 32.7. This isn’t just happenstance, but occurs when your margin of victory is somewhere between 10-13 points/night and your lead at the end of the third is 20-30 so your starters can kick back and rest during the final period.

If we break out his efficiency and scoring output across five-minute splits, we can see a sweet spot in the 30-40 minute range. The sample below is from 2013-14 to present with playoffs included. It makes sense that in closer games where Curry struggles individually or the Warriors struggle collectively, Curry would play more minutes and see his efficiency dip and indeed his TS and eFG for games where he plays over 40 minutes are below averages in this sample set. What’s interesting though is that Curry’s output is greater in games where he plays 35-40 minutes than 40-45. For some players on that 30-ppg list, there’s a straight forward line between volume (minutes played and shot attempts) and points. For Curry, more doesn’t always equal more and Golden State appears to grasp that.

12-16-15 - steph splits

My suggestion that Golden State may have landed at an optimal spot in terms of Curry’s usage and minutes/game is the last area we’ll touch on. Last year they won 67 games in the regular season and went 16-5 in the post-season. This year, the playmaking responsibilities are increasingly falling in Draymond’s hands and the results are indisputable to-date. I’m curious about how far this envelope can be pushed though. We already see that Curry’s efficiency and even output in some cases takes a hit the more he plays, so pushing the envelope is finding ways to get more shots. It’s easy to look at what this team is doing and suggest that if ain’t broke, don’t break it, but they’ve made changes from last season with nothing but positive outcomes. Steph’s already stolen about two shots/game from Klay and two from somewhere else (David Lee?). Are there two more to go round? Is two more three-point attempts from Steph per game a better use of possessions than a shot each from Bogut and Draymond? Man, I don’t know and I’m not convinced it even matters, but while they’re here they may as well push it to the limit.

King Me at the end of November

It’s December now and the new season is nearly a quarter of the way done with the Golden State’s Warriors stealing the show then having their own show improbably stolen by power-mad Kobe Bryant enabled and emboldened by an out-of-touch cuckoo coach. Everything else except the Zinger is on the NBA periphery, except that it’s not. I take it all back except the part about Kobe; shit’s gone mad and he’s basking in the madness dropping fortune cookie knowledge in post-game pressers. Let’s peel back the layers of the headlines though and see what kind of historic non-headline-snatching are blessing this early season (all stats thru 11/30):

  1. Andre Drummond: 305 total rebounds and 105 offensive boards through his first 18 games. We haven’t seen this type of boarding destruction since Dennis Rodman back in 93-94. For context, Drummond has 70 more boards than his closest competitor, DeAndre Jordan and is snatching 25% of all rebounds and 36% of defensive rebounds.
  2. Hassan Whiteside: 75 blocks (4.7bpg) through 16 games. Sure, Whiteside’s prone to biting fakes and attempting to swat the ball into stands, but since 1985-86, just three other players have blocked more shots in their first 16 games: David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Mark Eaton.
  3. James Harden and Russell Westbrook: At least 85 turnovers thru 18 games. One is reckless, the other unfocused or complacent. Both are averaging at or near five turnovers/game becoming just the sixth and seventh players since 85-86 to do this. Most notable on the short list is a 23-year-old Charles Barkley. In 1986-87, the Round Mound of Barkley was averaging nearly six turnovers/game through his first 18. He was also averaging 24ppg, 14rpg, 6apg while shooting 63% from the field. This reads like a bigger, beefier, but more rampaging Westbrook.
  4. Steph Curry: 94 3s and 600 points thru 19 games. Every volume record associated with the three-point shot will be attached to Curry’s name sooner than later. Thru 19 undefeated games this season, he’s made 94 3s (nearly 5/game) which is 22 more than the next closest shooter in the same amount of games since 85-86: Antoine Walker with 72 in 2001-02. Steph’s also scored 600 points, becoming just the 22nd player to score 600 (31.5/game) this fast and the first since Allen Iverson in 2005-06. For historical context: MJ averaged 38.9 thru 19 in 86-87 and Wilt averaged 40 in 64-65.
  5. Draymond Green: 130 assists and 150 rebounds thru 19 games. I’ve watched a lot of Warriors basketball this season because I’m desperate to be there when they lose so I’m familiar with Draymond’s increasing role as a playmaking facilitator on this team, but I didn’t realize he was averaging over seven assists. The 130/150 has been done nine other times to open a season – nearly all of whom are Hall-of-Famers: LeBron (12-13 and 11-12), Jason Kidd (twice), Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird (twice), Fat Lever, and Magic Johnson.
  6. Kristaps Porzingis: 15 3s and 34 blocks in 18 games. Zinger’s the 11th player to record 15 and 34 since 85-86. Serge Ibaka did it last year and the previous list is a mix versatile post players and combo forwards: Wilson Chandler and Shawn Marion (twice), Rasheed Wallace and Raef LaFrentz (twice), Donyell Marshall and Lamar Odom and of course, Spencer Hawes. No one’s done it with the zest and fanfare of the Zinger though unless we’re considering underground GOP’s love affair with Hawes.
  7. Blake Griffin: 450 points, 150 rebounds, and 80 assists in 18 games. Blake’s game has developed into something borderline unstoppable and it’s showing in the stats he’s putting up thru 18 games. His PER is over four full points greater than his best season and he’s averaging a career-high in points. The 450-150-80 hasn’t been accomplished since Bron in 2012-13 and before that it was Kobe in 02-03 when he started the season with 28/8.5rpg/6.5apg. The Mailman, Barkley, and Bird (twice each for Larry and Charles) are the other admissions.
  8. Paul George: At least eight rebounds and three 3s/game thru 16 games. The increasing emphasis on the three-ball means we’ll continue to see the game evolve as bigger guys are encouraged to add distance to their arsenal. Per basketball-reference, prior to this season Paul George had appeared at power forward for about 2% of his total on-court time. In 2015-16, that number has swelled to 57%. That hasn’t stopped him from drifting outside and spreading the court where he’s hitting over three 3s/game on 45% shooting. Counting Curry and CJ Miles this season, three 3s/game has been reached 13 times since 85-86. Of those three point shooters, PG13 is the only one to ever average over eight rebounds/game, or seven, or six. His combination of rebounding and threes is something we’ve never come close to seeing.

a7043a68ce0b4c59c20298abb508021a

Nearly 20 games into the season, we’re finally free from the “small sample size” qualifier that comes attached to early season wonders. We’ll still see what’s likely to be regression to the mean like Dirk’s three-point percentage sliding from 53% to 46% over a five-game span. But the trends above are worth monitoring and at the end of each month I’ll check back in to see how these guys (and others) are progressing relative to history. Onward to the winter, you kings.

It’s all lollipops and rainbows until someone averages 5 turnovers

Black Friday, a time for some consumers to pit their deal-stalking prowess against the masses, a post-holiday competitive consuming dessert. For the NBA, a day to get back on track after one of the few league-wide off days. For some, strange cornucopias like chocolate drizzled on turkey manifested themselves on this Friday.

11-28-15 - james & russ mysteries

The criteria:

  • 50 or more points
  • Nine or more turnovers

Two of my favorite storylines this year in the NBA sense of soap opera are Philadelphia and Houston. Black Friday was a chance to see these train wrecks on the same court navigating through their own personal debris in efforts to find some stable safety. But there can only ever be one winner in the NBA and for Houston (they won 116-114 at home knocking to Philly to 0-17 and extending their losing streak to 27 games) it took every particle of James Harden’s basketball being to achieve the victory. Harden hoisted the hodge podge Rockets on his back for the following line:

  • Harden, 11/27/15: 50pts on 12-28 from field, 6-12 from 3, 16-20 from the line, 9rebs, 8asts and 9 turnovers

This is right in line with the season he’s having where’s now averaging a career best 30 points/game alongside a career worst five turnovers/game. As I’ve written though, the only time the Rockets seem capable of competing is when James is dominating – efficiency be damned – and his inability to control the ball didn’t prevent a Rockets win. It does put him in some rare company though. As we see below, just two other players in the past 30 seasons have pieced together such uneven lines:

Harden wasn’t the only big leaguer to struggle taking care of the ball on this evening. Up north in Oklahoma City, Mountain Dew pitchman Russell Westbrook bing bang bobbled his way into 11 turnovers in just 29 minutes of play (he fouled out) against the Pistons and former teammate Reggie Jackson. His TOs covered a broad swath of ball un-control:

  1. Dribbled off his foot
  2. Forced a pass
  3. Charge
  4. Bad pass
  5. Bad pass
  6. Stripped
  7. Stepped out of bounds
  8. Charge (bad call as Ilyasova pushed into Russ as he drove)
  9. Dribbled off his foot
  10. Unforced lost ball on drive
  11. Charge (tried to draw contact jumping into defender)

The criteria:

  • 11 or more turnovers
  • 30 minutes or less

Unlike James and his friends Allen and Hakeem, Russ is all alone on this one. Since 1985-86, we’ve never had another guy turn the ball over this much in as limited playing time. It’s entirely possible that someone turned the ball over 12 times in 24 minutes of play, then proceeded to play another 10 minutes of TO-free basketball, but that’s not the criteria.

This is probably Russ’s worst game of the season. On top of the sloppy ball control, he shot 5-14 from the field and fouled out for just the ninth time in nearly 600 career games (playoffs and reg season). His already league-leading turnovers/game went from 4.9 to 5.2 in what’s suddenly become a race to the bottom between him and Harden to see who can turn the ball over most. Like Harden and the Rockets, OKC was still able to win and by double digits despite Russ’s off night. So instead of this being a costly headache, it’s the flipside consequence of a player that exceeds all speed limits and handling guidelines and occasionally goes off the rails as a result.

Not everyone can grace us with the ball protection and calm of a Chris Paul assist-to-turnover ratio. Harden and Westbrook are two of our most dynamic guards, centerpieces of a New NBA with an unstated philosophy that to make the perfect omelet, many, many eggs must be broken. On the same night, pro basketball wunderkind Stephen Curry dropped 41 points while turning the ball over six times and raising his career-worst turnovers/game up to 3.8. It’s like Tyler Durden told us in Fight Club, “even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.”

James and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ten Games

James Harden’s 2014-15 season ended with a splat. If you remember, Harden bumbled and stumbled his way into a 2-11 shooting night with a reckless 12 turnovers and a game score of one. Houston was bounced from the playoffs and Harden had the summer to vanquish whatever demons crept through his pores on that late May day.

It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 10 games for James

That was nearly six months ago, plenty of time to recalibrate and find the touch that made Harden’s 2014-15 campaign one of Houstonian bliss. Ten games into the new season though and whatever oddities plagued Harden at the end of the playoffs have hardened into a crust. He’s a career 44% shooter from the field with a 51% mark at eFG (adjusted to account for threes being worth one more point than a normal field goal). Since his days as a 20-point scorer began, he averages just under four turnovers/game. Through ten games of the 2015-16 season, Harden’s efficiency has nosedived to 37% from the field with 4.9 turnovers/game.

Comparing Harden to players other than Harden doesn’t offer a much more favorable view. Since 1985-86, just six other players have managed 210 shot attempts with sub-40% from the field over their first ten games. Except for Kobe’s banged up/shot slinging 2014-15, each player below saw some degree of improvement from their early struggles to their end season stats. (As an aside, what in the hell happened in the Atlantic division in 2002-03 that three players began the season so ineptly inefficient?)

data courtesy of basketball-reference.com

data courtesy of basketball-reference.com

It’s not that the list above is filled with bad company, rather it’s an ugly snapshot in time of otherwise talented players.

Much of Harden’s woes from the field can be traced to a combination of increased fascination with the three-ball and significantly decreased accuracy from that spot. His current approach to the three is enough to make Antoine Walker un-shimmy. After putting up between six to seven threes/game over the past three seasons, he’s jacking nearly ten/game in 2015. For context, prior to this season, no player in league history had ever averaged nine three-point attempts/game. Stephen Curry’s shooting 11.5/game this year, but he’s also making a whopping 45% of them. By contrast, Harden’s ten attempts/game are coming with a 24% efficiency. There’s no reason to suspect that his accuracy won’t creep back up to the 36-37% rate he’s maintained his entire career, but it’s also hard to envision him maintaining the current volume.

While Houston has plenty of issues that have contributed to a 4-6 record with a pair of three-game losing streaks (most notably a defense giving up 107.8ppg [27th out of 30th] with a DRtg of 108.9 [29th out of 30]), the chart below highlights the Rockets early-season dependence on Harden’s offensive efficiency for success. In wins, he has an eFG% of nearly 54 while in losses that number drops to under 32%. As a reminder, his career average is 51%.

James Harden eFG by game 2015-16

There’s such a paradoxical element to Harden’s young 2015-16. He’s averaging a career-high in points at 28.4ppg bolstered by nearly 12 free throw attempts/night while sinking 86% of those attempts, but that’s countered by a career-low in ORtg (estimate of points created per 100 possessions). He’s getting more rebounds than at any point in his career, but that’s driven by him seeing more minutes than ever at small forward as Houston’s been forced to go small due to injuries. And CBS Sports’ Matt Moore pointed out that even those numbers come with caveats:

The NBA’s SportVU data has Harden logged for the second-most defensive rebound chances on the team, at 10.8 per game. He’s grabbing just 5.5, with only 1.4 contested. That is a horrendous rate, which is fine if he’s not being asked to do that, but with the Rockets going small, the guards have to rebound, and they’re not.

Speaking of said injuries, through ten games, Houston’s dilly dallied with five different starting lineups to accommodate the health of Dwight Howard and dings to Terrence Jones. Reserve guard Patrick Beverley has spent the season banged up and the assimilation of Ty Lawson appears to be confounding the entire populace of Houston – Lawson’s to-date performance as a Rocket makes Harden’s struggles feel like sunbeams and smart vacation. There’s a continuity issue here reflected in their streaky play (three-game losing streak followed by four straight wins then another three-game losing streak) and need for total domination by Harden to win. In wins he’s averaging 38ppg with a near-38% usage rate while losses 22ppg and 32% usage and a despicable 15% from three on 53 attempts.

We have three-plus seasons of video and statistical evidence that defines a true Harden identity. While he’s been historically bad over ten games, history tells us he’ll progress to the mean at some point and we’ve already seen it happen in a few Houston games this season. The question for coach Kevin McHale and Harden are more of a when than an if. But like Alexander’s mother tells him in the book which this post takes its name from: “Some games are like that. Even in Australia.”

 

4,000 Minutes (or the death of)

A while back I started researching the enormous amount of NBA minutes LeBron James has played in his decorated career. I’ll be exploring this in future work, but focusing on something different today: The 4,000 Minute Club because Dancing with Noah is interested in nothing if not interested in creating exclusive clubs for groups of large men that strut into statistical significance.

members-only

The 4,000 minute club is made up of any player that has appeared in 4,000 minutes or more combined across regular season and post-season for a single year. It’s a testament to some elite level of indispensability to your team, Cal Ripken-ish durability, and team success.

The 4k club is unique in that it’s possibly nearing extinction as you’ll see through the numbers below. While NBA Finals participants have the opportunity to appear in more total games than their NBA forebears due to playoff series expansion, things like sports science or common sense have resulted in minute reduction. A good, but isolated example of this is last year’s MVP Stephen Curry appearing in an MVP record-low 32.7 minutes/game. Golden State’s a unique example in that they’re able to blow out opponents without big minutes required of their top dog, but last season’s league leader in minutes played was James Harden who appeared in less than 3,000 minutes for the regular season – the fewest minutes played in a non-lockout season since 1958-59 when the NBA only played 72 games. These are microcosms of the broader downtrend in minutes played.

To arrive at a modern, contextual list of players, I separated the NBA/ABA into a pre-modern and modern era:

  • Pre-Modern: beginning of time to 1979-80
  • Modern: 1980-81 to present

The 4k threshold has been surpassed 55 times in NBA/ABA history with 36 of those seasons occurring in the pre-modern period when Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell stalked North America feasting on the blood and bones of knobby-kneed opponents. The top-10 of most combined regular and playoff minutes all occurred between 1961-62 and 1973-74 when pros wore low-top Chuck Taylor’s, shorts that would make John Stockton blush, and didn’t yet have the perks of chartered air travel or modern exercise science. The list below is made up of Wilt and Kareem, then four guys from the ABA which had an 84-game season.

11-12-15 - Wilt & ABA 4k minutes

Regardless of how it’s explained or rationalized, it’s difficult to wrap your head around Wilt the Stilt playing 48.5 minutes/game over the course of a 92-game season. He appeared in more than the available regulation minutes not for a game, a week, or a month, but an entire damn season. These super charged numbers are incomprehensible in the way Babe Ruth’s hitting and pitching stats are impossible, in the way Cy Young won over 500 games and threw nearly 750 complete games. They are so far beyond any current comprehension that they’re not comparable to the modern, post-Wilt game.

11-12-15 - 4000 minute man

Instead, the modern breakout exists in a world closer to current standards of sanity and tolerability. Successful teams like the Spurs and Warriors have readjusted what is and isn’t acceptable with NBA player workloads while coaches like Tom Thibodeau are regularly admonished for throwing big minutes at players that who hobble on future arthritic joints.

The modern list is different and while it’s likely less of an achievement, it still speaks to something of the implicit meaning of the US Postal Service’s “rain, sleet or snow” motto that American’s love and cherish so much: We work hard.

18 players appear 19 times on the list of modern guys who have surpassed the 4k limit. They range in age from 22 to 34, in total games from 94 to 107, from MVPs to a lanky, lean Tayshaun Prince. 14 of the 19 occurrences made Finals appearances and every player on the list appeared in more than 40 minutes/game in the playoffs. Enough with demographics, take my hand and let’s explore this wonderful numerical forest.

11-12-15 - Modern 4k minutes

The table above is sorted by total minutes and right at the top of this who’s who of NBA MVPs is “Thunder” Dan Majerle. Not exactly the two guard I would’ve expected to see at the top of the list, but when the Suns made the Finals in 1993, Majerle was an indispensable spoke. He appeared in all 106 games for Phoenix with 33.5% of his total 4,270 minutes played coming in the playoffs. His playoff MPG (44.6) represent the highest lift over regular season MPG with an increase of 5.6 minutes capped off by a 28-point performance on 6-8 from three in a 59-minute triple OT game in the Finals.

Only one player made this list without even advancing to the conference finals. Back in 2002-03, Allen Iverson appeared in all 94 of Philadelphia’s games, averaging a whopping 43 MPG. I don’t think anyone questions Iverson’s toughness, but for a player who weighed under 170lbs and averaged nine free throw attempts/game to play 43 minutes every night for 94 games is remarkable. Worth noting: The following season Iverson appeared in just 48 games.

Michael Jordan is the oldest player to reach 4k minutes and the only player in the modern era with two 4k seasons to his name. We’ll focus on his age-34 season when he appeared in 103 games averaging 39.3 MPG. While lacking the nightly minute madness of Iverson’s 2003 or Majerle’s beastly playoff run of 1993, MJ carried a massive load for 1998 Bulls. Scottie Pippen spent the season fighting injuries and the Bulls front office over contract issues and the result was a 34-year-old Jordan leading the league in usage while appearing in the most total minutes of his career. The combination of shouldering the load for this Bulls team and navigating the front office shenanigans of GM Jerry “Crumbs” Krause no doubt added to MJ’s decision to hang up the high tops following 1998.

We’ll wrap up the player-level analysis with the youngest guy on the list and the one who originally led me on this 4,000-minute quest: 22-year-old LeBron James in 2007. He was probably a year ahead of schedule carrying a team that just wasn’t that good all the way to the Finals. Playing 40 minutes/night in the regular season and nearly 45/night in the playoffs was the only way this team could compete and it wore down the young LeBron. After exceeding 55% true shooting in the regular season, he dipped below 52% for the playoffs.

11-12-15 - Bron 2007

The glut of minutes coupled with an average team and more creative defensive looks in the playoffs sucked the life out of Bron’s 2007. It’s telling that there’s only a single point guard (Gary Payton) on the list above. And with James so frequently playing that ball handling/offense-initiating role, it’s fair to wonder if that and a dose of Spursian common sense have resulted in just one 4k season for him.

The last time we saw a player cross the 4k barrier was 2008 with a 29-year-old Kobe Bryant. Given the aforementioned stats about Steph Curry and Harden last year coupled with theories that players are more susceptible to injury due to a multitude of factors (sleep deprivation, poorer diets, playing tons of basketball at younger ages, and poor weight training habits) and advances in sports medicine and biometric testing point to what should be a smarter, more cautious approach to managing player health and minutes, aka assets and investments. Though one could make the counter argument that advances in science may reveal new and better ways for athletes to protect their bodies and thus play even more minutes. The future is a damn abyss to which we’re all inevitably hurtling and nothing should be a surprise. But if teams follow the lead of two of our league’s most successful franchises, then we’ll no doubt see minutes trend downward and friends of the 4k club remaining a tidy, fraternal group of 17 (RIP, Moses Malone).

James Harden and the 43-13 Club

Once upon a time in the pre-presidential Obama days of the NBA, young Mr. Michael Jordan showed up for a game in Indianapolis against the Pacers and their funny two-guard, Reggie Miller. Jordan’s Bulls lost by four points, but it was due in no part to Jordan who crapped all over the Pacers for a sizzling 47 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists, four steals and two blocks while shooting 57% from the field and 13-14 from the line. Egads!

Of course Michael Jordan, he of “commerce over conscience” infamy, is the modern-day NBA (defined as 1985-86 which is the first season basketball-reference offers certain box score stats) pioneer of the 43-13 club; aka 43-points and 13-assists, a truly dominant offensive game mixed of equal parts attack and distribution, but all attack.

So how’d we arrive here? James Harden delivered us to this moment on a Friday night in Sacramento in November with his vintage Hardenesque performance: 43 points on 23 shots with 16 FTAs and 13 assists. Harden was a rock or ogre or something irrepressible. And it was kind of fitting that in a league where all two guards are measured by their ability or inability to emulate his Airness, that the two-guard with the most un-MJish game would be the latest in a short line of NBA greats to repeat his feat from 1989.

James Harden considering Mars

James Harden considering Mars

Here’s the criteria:

  • 43 points or more
  • 13 assists or more

The inductees:

  1. Michael Jordan, 26-years-old in 1989: 47pts, 11rebs, 13asts, 4stls
  2. Larry Bird, 33 in 1990: 43pts, 8rebs, 13asts
  3. Kenny Anderson, 23 in 1994: 45pts, 8rebs, 14asts, 4stls, 20-23 from FT
  4. Antoine Walker, 24 in 2001: 47pts, 5rebs, 13asts, 4stls, 9-14 from 3
  5. Tracy McGrady, 23 in 2003: 46pts, 10rebs, 13asts, 2blks
  6. Allen Iverson, 31 in 2007: 44pts on 16-22 shooting, 15asts
  7. Gilbert Arenas, 27 in 2009: 45pts, 13asts
  8. LeBron James, 25 in 2010: 43pts, 13rebs, 15asts, 4blks, 1-9 from 3
  9. James Harden, 26 in 2015: 43pts, 13asts, 7 TOs

It’s an illustriously exclusive crowd Harden’s just joined, but fitting given the versatility of his game. Long a playmaker and dynamic scorer, the Beard is one of just 12 players in league history to average 27ppg and 7apg over the course of a single season. Where our eyelashes barely bat at the inclusion of MJ, Bird or LeBron, Kenny Anderson and Antoine Walker are more surprising. Anderson’s game was necessitated by an injury to Derrick Coleman while Walker’s was an outmatched team on the road where he caught fire.

Context for games like these matters. In Harden’s case, it was his sixth game of the year, the first three of which had all resulted in 20-point losses with last season’s MVP runner-up shooting a combined 12-54 (22%) from the field and 3-32 (9%) from three. His team has been ravaged by early injuries and the challenge of integrating speedy playmaker Ty Lawson into the attack. On this Friday night, there was no Dwight Howard, no Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, or Patrick Beverley. So against an undermanned (no DeMarcus Cousins) Kings team, Harden seized the reigns and torched the Kings. It was without peer as his best game of the new season with the Rockets largest margin of victory and his own highest usage and ORtg.

Which takes us to the final noteworthy relationship of the 43-13 club; the relationship between usage and Ortg. The 43-13 club means you’re accounting for no less than 60 of your team’s points. A player becomes the catalyzing engine driving the offensive attack from multiple planes much to the defense’s helplessness. I expected higher usage rates which isn’t to say the rates aren’t high, but below we see a consistent relationship: mid-30s usage, mid-130s Ortg – with a couple of truly unique outliers. Allen Iverson’s 44 and 15 on 16-22 shooting stands out as a model of harnessed efficiency which, given his career-long struggles with efficiency becomes the greatest outlier and a likely topic for a future edition.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

Stats courtesy of the great Basketball-Reference.com.

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