The best college basketball players you haven’t heard of (yet)

Firstly, happy March. The best month of the season for college basketball fans has finally arrived!

Secondly, this post is not really meant as much beyond an appreciation for some of the more overlooked talents of this strange sport. Every March, a good collection of players get their respective chances to make their March moments. Unfortunately, this means that many, many more don’t. Less than 20% of all college basketball teams will make this year’s NCAA Tournament, and in the post you’re going to see below, only one player belongs to a team that’s a lock to make the Field of 68. While you can likely expect two or three of the below ten to make some sort of March Madness appearance, a lot of these players won’t get their shot.

That’s why I’m writing it. Several of these players are having fabulous, historically impressive seasons that have largely gone unnoticed. They’ve racked up KenPom MVPs left and right while barely scratching the national surface if they have at all. That’s what I’m looking for: players who most college basketball fans likely haven’t heard of who deserve the recognition that would come with an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Beside each player and team is the current likelihood that said team will make the field of 68, per Bart Torvik’s site. These players are in no real order, as will be evident shortly. They’re simply ten college basketball players that are stuffing boxscores every night and are of serious interest to stats nerds like me.

Max Abmas (Oral Roberts)

Current odds of making the NCAA Tournament: 15%

Abmas stands as the nation’s leading scorer at 24.8 points per game, which somehow still undersells just how uniquely efficient he is. Abmas is one of two players in the nation (the other being Drew Timme) with a Usage Rate above 25% and an Offensive Rating above 125, and he’s a significantly more deadly shooter than Timme. Abmas is 84-for-182 (46.2%) from three this season and has scored 40+ twice:

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Abmas is that he’s doing this in a season filled with back-to-backs and rarely, if ever, sees the bench. Oral Roberts has played 20 games against Division I competition; Abmas has gone the full 40 minutes in 12 of them, including nine of their last 11 games. Again, this is in a season where every single Oral Roberts conference game but one has been part of a weekend back-to-back. Out of seven weekend series, Abmas has played every single minute in four of them.

Oral Roberts finished as the four seed in the Summit League despite Abmas’ insane heroics, mostly in part to having the 298th-ranked defense on KenPom. Objectively, they are no better than the third-best team in their own conference. And yet: the idea of seeing Max Abmas versus a 1 or 2 seed is one of those things I can’t help but root for.

Gaige Prim (Missouri State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 9.1%

Prim’s odds of seeing March glory, along with a few others on this list, are quite slim. Missouri State did finish the year third in the MVC, but when the top two teams in the league are Loyola Chicago (11th in KenPom) and Drake (started the season 18-0), your chances of beating both are not terribly high. (Unsurprisingly, Missouri State went 0-4 against both schools, with only the Drake fixtures being somewhat close.) So this is more of a “let’s appreciate what Gaige Prim has done” post.

KenPom has 18 categories that he measures national rankings for. Prim is in the top 250 (of 2,132 eligible players) in ELEVEN of them and in the top 500 for an additional two more. Few players have ever had a season as well-rounded as his. Prim ranks 65th in eFG% at 61.7%, 32nd in OREB% at 13.8%, 216th in Assist Rate at 24.4%, top 500 in both Block and Steal Rates, and, just for fun, draws 5.2 fouls per game, which ranks 194th. In Bart Torvik’s database, which dates back to the 2007-08 season, Prim is the only player ever with a Usage Rate of 25% or more, an eFG% of 60% or greater, an OREB% and DREB% of 10% and 20%, and an Assist Rate of 20%.

Quite literally, there has not been a player in modern college basketball like Gaige Prim. Appreciate him while you still can, as it seems likely that this upcoming MVC Tournament —

YES!!!!!! Alright, you have a full extra year to appreciate what’s going on here. But also, just watch Missouri State this weekend.

JaQuori McLaughlin (UC Santa Barbara)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 41.2%

Add JaQuori McLaughlin to the “players who make college basketball special” pile. McLaughlin is one of just eight players in the last 14 years to hold the following distinctions:

  • Usage Rate of 25% or higher
  • Offensive Rating of 120 or higher
  • eFG% of 55% or higher
  • Assist Rate of 30% or better

Some of the players on this list are fellow college basketball luminaries: Payton Pritchard of Oregon in 2019-20; Denzel Valentine of Michigan State in 2015-16; Thomas Walkup of Stephen F. Austin in 2015-16. McLaughlin belongs on that list. He only averages 15.9 points per game, but it’s his remarkable efficiency at all three levels of the floor (40.8% on threes, 45.2% on long twos, 62.7% at the rim) and solid defense that has elevated UCSB to its best season since 2001-02 if not further back. March needs McLaughlin.

Terry Taylor (Austin Peay)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 5.9%

Terry Taylor is perhaps this list’s Career Achievement Award recipient. None of Taylor’s Austin Peay teams have come close to making the NCAA Tournament, and this year’s group appears to have a similar future of falling out in the Ohio Valley semifinal. I don’t think it’s Taylor’s fault by any means. He has an extra year of eligibility if he wants it, and I don’t know if he’d spent it at Austin Peay or not, but his stats are so special that it requires a full breakdown.

  • 2,488 career points scored.
  • 1,232 rebounds secured, 508 of them offensive.
  • Averaged a double-double in both his junior and senior year, with nearly the exact same averages (21.8 PPG vs. 21.7 PPG; 11.0 RPG both seasons).
  • Averaged 5.1 offensive rebounds PER GAME this season.
  • In the last 14 seasons of college basketball, 28 players have posted the following collection of stats in a season of play: 110+ Offensive Rating, 20%+ Usage Rate, 10%+ OREB%, <15% TO%, 2.5%+ Block%, 90+ made free throws, and 20+ made threes.
    • Only two players have done it in multiple seasons. Luka Garza did it last year and this year. Terry Taylor did it in every season of his college career.

I would like to note two things here: TERRY TAYLOR IS 6’5” AND GETS ELEVEN REBOUNDS PER GAME. That really does require all capitals. Also, he and Luka Garza may be the only players ever to do this exact thing. It’s just Terry and the almost-certain National Player of the Year. No big deal.

Kendric Davis (SMU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 28%

Davis and SMU are sort of on the periphery of the NCAA Tournament as of now; Bracket Matrix has them as the fourth team out of the field at the time of writing. I’ve been greatly disheartened by the Michigan State and Duke surges of late, because 1. Those don’t interest me whatsoever; 2. They dwindle down the spots available to extremely weird cases like SMU. SMU only got to play 15 games this season and went 0-2 against Houston, but they do own three KenPom Top 100 wins, rank higher than Michigan State in KenPom, and, most importantly, have Kendric Davis.

Davis is a TCU transfer that’s averaging 17.7 a game, which probably doesn’t sound all that notable at first. However, he’s one of just three players this season averaging at least 16 points and seven assists a game, and he’s easily the player that’s closest to making the field of 68. Davis is a fabulous passer, with 45.9% of SMU possessions when he’s on the court resulting in a Davis assist. He’s also the only way the SMU offense becomes watchable, as it’s 16 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Tyson Etienne (Wichita State)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 15.2%

Etienne is the other AAC representative on this list. This has been a surprisingly good year for Wichita State, which goes to show just how low expectations felt after Gregg Marshall was rightfully fired before the season started. The team has banded around now-permanent head coach Isaac Brown, with Etienne as their leader. It’s been Etienne’s phenomenal shooting and overall smart play that’s helped the Shockers overachieve.

Etienne is 45-for-114 (39.5%) from three and has one of the lowest turnover rates in all of America at just 6.8%. He makes a ton of smart decisions with the ball, and it’s been his ability to stay on the court (1.6 fouls committed per 40 minutes) that helps Wichita be Wichita. Their sample size is very small thanks to multiple COVID pauses (17 total games played), but after luck and schedule adjustments, the Shockers go from a team ranking in the 120s to a team in the 40s when Etienne is off versus on the court. He’s the main reason they have at least a shot at being in the field two weeks from now.

Alex Barcello (BYU)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 100%; projected 7 seed on Bracket Matrix

This BYU season caught a lot of people by surprise. The Cougars’ moment was supposed to be last year, when they had one of the best offenses in America and a roster loaded with seniors. Instead, most of their best players departed, and a new group was expected to pick up the slack. All the Cougars have done is go 19-5, be the second-best team in the WCC, and become an NCAA Tournament lock once again. A lot of this is due to Mark Pope being one of the most underrated coaches out there, but one would obviously be remiss to not give significant credit to BYU’s best player, Alex Barcello.

Barcello is an astounding 43-for-89 (48.3%) from three, which would be pretty notable on its own, but he’s also converted 54.7% of his twos and has become a deadly mid-range shooter, making 47.3% of his attempts there. Barcello has also stepped it up against his toughest competition: 23 in a win over Utah State, 22 against San Diego State, and 20 in BYU’s most recent outing against Gonzaga. I want to see what he can do in March, given that BYU is well overdue to show what they’re made of.

DeVante Jones (Coastal Carolina)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 13.3%

Two things of note here: yes, Cliff Ellis still coaches Coastal Carolina somehow, and yes, they are pretty unlikely to make the field of 68, even in the strangest Sun Belt season of all time. (Some teams have played 17 conference games, others have played 12, no team ranks higher than 148th in KenPom, and everyone has at least three in-conference losses.) What Coastal mainly has going for them is the sheer excitement that shooting guard DeVante Jones brings to the table.

Remember the 18 KenPom categories from earlier? Jones ranks in the top 500 in 13 of them and in the top 300 in nine. Jones is one of eight players this year to have a Usage Rate of 25% or above and an Offensive Rating of 120 or better. When you’re on the same list as Luka Garza and Drew Timme, you’re doing something correctly. (Abmas, Prim, and McLaughlin are all on this list, too.) Jones is really special, and I hope he gets his March moment somehow.

Loren Cristian Jackson (Akron)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 8.3%

I have posted about my infatuation with Loren Cristian Jackson, Akron’s 5’8” point guard, many times before. I even did it pretty recently! So why post about him again? Two reasons. Firstly, Akron’s NCAA Tournament hopes are very slim. They did get to 12-6 in MAC play, but that was only enough to make them the fourth-best team in the league. 

Secondly, Loren Cristian Jackson is a senior and has yet to say if he’ll come back for a fifth year or not. I can’t blame anyone for choosing either side of the possible coin here; you can either get paid or you can hope things get better in a non-COVID year. Still, there’s only so much time left to appreciate little LCJ, and he’s really made the most of it lately. Over Akron’s last eight games, Jackson has averaged 23.4 points per game and took a hilarious 28 shots against Buffalo in an 80-78 loss. He’s playing like he’s racing against the clock, which somehow only makes him more thrilling.

Obadiah Noel (UMass Lowell)

Current NCAA Tournament odds: 4.1%

UMass Lowell is in an America East semifinal for the first time ever Saturday, where they’ll take on UMBC as a somewhat-heavy underdog. Lowell has done their thing in the middle-pack of the AE for years now after coming up from Division II. As stated above, they only have a 4.1% chance of making the NCAA Tournament, which is not high. And yet: I’m pretty fascinated by foul-drawer extraordinaire Obadiah Noel.

Noel isn’t extremely efficient, but he’s extremely unique: a backcourt player that draws 8 fouls per 40 minutes. Those are Sharife Cooper numbers, and I can almost guarantee Noel doesn’t get quite the same calls and/or respect from officials that Cooper has received. (Not complaining here, just stating a fact.) Noel was out with an injury for Lowell’s final four conference games, where they went 1-3 in his absence. He’s come back for the America East conference tournament, and through two games, he’s dropped 51 points on 33 shots and pretty much single-handedly led them to their win over New Hampshire. I don’t know how it’ll end up for him, but he’s quite a fun curiosity to keep track of as a 20.5 PPG scorer.

Six additional questions answered about Tennessee and mid-range jumpers

If you’re reading this site for the first time, I wrote about 7,000 words on Tennessee’s infatuation with mid-range jumpers last Tuesday and was quite pleased with how it came out. Please read that first before reading this.

I got a lot of great, informational feedback on my mid-range article last Tuesday, and I’d like to thank everyone who responded or shared the piece in whatever way they saw fit. I’ve found myself inwardly cringing every time I see any mid-range jumpshot as of late, which is not a good way to live. In the right hands, the mid-range jumper is a tool that can free up space all over the court for an offense in need of it. If you have multiple excellent mid-range shooters, you’re probably going to have a pretty solid offense on the whole.

The issue, as Tennessee fans have seen this season, is that Tennessee doesn’t really have any. This is not 2018-19, when Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone were knocking shots down. It’s been a parade of bad shot selection, frustrating misses, and what looks like a team-wide case of being locked in a mental pretzel. As a fan, it isn’t fun; as a writer trying to make the team sound interesting, it is very annoying.

Anyway, I got several good follow-up questions, and I thought it might be best to devote an article to answering them. No GIFs in this piece, just words; do prepare yourselves for that.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a question, click below. They’re across the next two pages.

  1. Can you clarify some of the data sources?
  2. Are there any other teams that take more or as many mid-range jumpers as Tennessee?
  3. Has *anyone* been great offensively over the last few years taking this many mid-range jumpers?
  4. Has Tennessee been better/worse efficiency-wise in games where they’ve taken a lot/very few mid-range jumpers?
  5. Can we see shooting splits over first 11 games versus the last 12?
  6. Is it just Tennessee’s stars that do this, or is it the entire team?

NEXT PAGE: Questions 1-3

The 31 teams I’d most like to see in the NCAA Tournament

I do this every year, but seeing as I’m desperate for the NCAA Tournament, it seems like a good enough idea to do this exactly one month from the start date of the First Four. It’s been 22 long months since we last saw an NCAA Tournament game, and even longer since we saw the joys of conference tournament week and Selection Sunday. We won’t have that same carefree spirit this year, probably, but it’ll simply be nice to have some of these things back.

When I did this post last year, I tried to focus on teams that played fast-paced, fun offense. This year, my focus is more on the extremes the sport provides. What team in a conference does one particular thing really well? Is there a team that generates a ton of points from the post in the least post-friendly time in college basketball history? What about a team that leads the nation in turnover margin? Or a team that forces the most off-balance jumpers defensively? All of these things can lead to success in March, but even if they don’t, these are all teams I’m pretty curious about and hope to see more of next month.

There is only one rule for this post: on Bart Torvik’s site, the team selected must have at least a 10% chance of making the field. This narrowed it to 124 eligible teams, which means we picked 25% of this group. It worked out well.

I’ve arranged all 31 teams in alphabetical order by conference, meaning the first team you’ll see in this post is from the America East Conference and the final team is from the Western Athletic Conference. There are 10 conferences on each of the next two pages with 11 on the final page. I’ve got at least one GIF lined up for all 31 teams, minus the most obvious pick in this entire post, Gonzaga. They are above GIFs at this point.

Click below to get to the section of your choice.

Show Me Future Opponents: Kentucky vs. Richmond/Kansas

Hi! This is, hopefully, the final installment for a little while in this short series titled Show Me Future Opponents. Beginning next week, with any luck, I’ll be back to the traditional schedule of previewing Tennessee basketball games. Until then, please enjoy this piece on Kentucky basketball and its successes/failures.

In the preseason, I felt of two minds about Kentucky’s #10 AP Poll ranking, two spots higher than Tennessee’s. On one hand, every post-2015 Kentucky team has started somewhat poorly, but by March, they’ve rounded into the form of roughly an Elite Eight-level team. Consider the following, as run on Bart Torvik’s fantastic site:

  • 2015-16: #25 overall in games played from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31; #3 in games played from Jan. 1 to end of season
  • 2016-17: #3; #8
  • 2017-18: #29; #21
  • 2018-19: #25; #6
  • 2019-20: #42; #26

In four of the last five seasons, they’ve gotten noticeably better once conference play has started; the only outlier was the 2016-17 squad that was consistently excellent pretty much the whole way through. (Also a reminder that every 2019-20 SEC team was worse than you remember.) It stands to reason that a team that barely returned 7% of its minutes from 2019-20 won’t be very good to start the season, yes?

However, I’d like to posit the other hand of my argument: has Kentucky’s recent second-half play actually been enough to make up for their first-half issues? Look at those numbers over the last five years and you’ll see Kentucky failing to elevate their play in time for March in both 2017-18 and 2019-20. In four of those five years, they were barely, if at all, a top 25-level team entering conference play. Shouldn’t Kentucky automatically be given, like, the 19th spot in the preseason Top 25 until they show they can figure it out for a full season?

When Kentucky had the ball

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I wasn’t terribly surprised this Kentucky roster lost to Richmond or Kansas, though it was kind of surprising they lost to both. A Richmond team that returned 80% of its minutes from a year ago was going to be much more prepared for a November battle; same goes for Kansas, even if they returned just under half of their minutes. What shouldn’t be excusable about Kentucky’s play thus far, even against two exceptional opponents, is just how bad their shot selection has been.

It’s one thing for Kentucky to be shooting 9-for-47 from three this season, as we’ll cover shortly. (They went 3-for-31 against Richmond and Kansas combined.) However, it would be another thing if Kentucky were simply missing shots you know they can hit while taking good, worthy shots otherwise. They decidedly aren’t doing that. Per Simon Gerszberg’s Shot Quality metric, Kentucky’s offense ranks in the 34th-percentile nationally through three games in terms of offensive shot quality. They’re two spots behind Howard, a team that got demolished by Division II Queens (NC) last week. Things are not good!

Through three games, Kentucky has some truly alarming shooting splits, in terms of where their shots are being taken. An astounding 39.1% of Kentucky’s field goal attempts thus far are non-rim twos, which, as we’ve discussed frequently, offers the lowest return on investment in college basketball. Players do have the capacity to hit these shots, obviously, and Kentucky is making about 41% of their non-rim twos thus far. Brandon Boston, Jr., Olivier Sarr, and Terrence Clarke have all flashed a propensity and a desire to get to 14 feet.

However, you’ve also got to get some amount of good shots to go with your bad ones that you’re currently making. Kentucky…is not doing that. Frequently throughout both of these games, the Wildcats appeared terribly disinterested in moving off the ball, running off-ball screens to get a shooter loose, or performing any relatively basic offensive task in general. Here’s a possession where three of five players don’t move a pixel after the ball crosses half-court:

Here’s a possession where Kentucky clears out with 16 seconds left on the shot clock for Brandon Boston, Jr. to commit a charge (not called) and brick a 14-footer worthy of the Reed’s Ranch Basketball League:

And here’s one where Kentucky’s lineup farts around for 29 seconds with little-to-no-movement, resulting in Terrence Clarke plowing a guy over while tossing the ball into the fourth row.

All of this is awful, and somehow, I’ve barely touched on the fact that Kentucky is shooting 19.1% from three through three games. Of course, that won’t last, and I don’t doubt that John Calipari is telling some version of the truth when he says that guys like Brandon Boston, Jr. (0-for-11) and Terrence Clarke (0-for-8) are clearly better shooters than they appear to be right now. However, I’d also argue that a good chunk of this is on Calipari. Davion Mintz (4-for-10) and Dontaie Allen (2-for-5) are the main shooters mentioned in essentially every Kentucky basketball article. For a team that needs shooting, you’d imagine guys who can hit shots like this would be playing big minutes right now, yes?

Ahhhhhh not really, sorry. Mintz played a combined 32 minutes against Richmond and Kansas despite Kentucky’s net rating being nearly 15 points better per 100 possessions with him in the game. Allen is trickier because he didn’t play a minute against Richmond and only got eight against Kansas, but Kentucky’s offense appeared to have way better spacing with him simply being on the court:

This could be a thing where Allen’s defense is so bad that it doesn’t allow him to play many minutes, but…kinda hard to judge that when he plays eight total minutes across two games, no?

Lastly, I don’t want to be all negative, so we’ll end on Kentucky’s lone positive. The Wildcats are simply dominant on the offensive boards against all competition, which obviously makes sense when four members of the starting lineup are 6’7” or taller. Richmond won by 12 despite giving up 21 offensive boards to these Wildcats, and Kansas allowed 13 of them. In particular, Isaiah Jackson appears to be a fantastic rebounder at 6’10”:

Jackson had seven offensive rebounds against Richmond and already has 12 total in his first four college games. That is, uh, good. It’s about all the positives you can give Kentucky thus far.

Kentucky’s got a ton of offensive problems. Some of them will resolve themselves just fine; obviously, I don’t think Boston and Clarke will go a combined 0-for-19 over every three-game stretch forever. However, when you look at the type of shots the Wildcats are getting, along with how many bad possessions are being used in isolation and fruitless 2006 post-ups, it gets much harder to figure out how this team’s going to perform a miraculous post-New Year turnaround to go from looking like a 10 seed to fulfilling being the preseason #10 team in the country.

When Kentucky’s opponents had the ball

If that section read like 800 words of disgust, this one will read like a polar opposite. Three games in, Kentucky’s defense has looked better than some of even the highest expectations their fans had. None of Morehead State, Richmond, or Kansas cracked a point per possession, and Richmond cracked 50% on two-pointers by just a hair. The only player who has consistently cracked the Kentucky code inside the perimeter was Richmond forward Nathan Cayo, who went 7-for-10 at the rim thanks to some quality designs by the Richmond staff:

Richmond went 18-for-24 at the rim against Kentucky largely because Olivier Sarr couldn’t get any long-term help. Sarr was forced to play 38 minutes, and as the game wore on, he was running out of steam fast:

As upsetting as that Richmond loss probably was, it came with a few positives. Notably, the Spiders shot just 11-for-43 on everything that wasn’t at the rim. When Kentucky was able to keep the Spiders away from the rim – something they weren’t nearly as successful at in the second half – things generally went much better for the Wildcats. Richmond was forced to take a lot of uncomfortable jumpers early in the game, which led to their poor halftime shooting percentage:

While Chris Mooney was right that Richmond wouldn’t shoot as poorly in the second half, most of the gains came at the rim. Against Kansas, Sarr wouldn’t have the same problem of overplay. Instead, he swung hard to the other end of the spectrum, playing just 14 minutes due to constant foul trouble. Without Sarr in the game, Kentucky figured to have rim protection issues…until Isaiah Jackson popped up out of nowhere and started blocking every shot known to man.

Jackson’s presence on the court forced Kansas to endure a 14-for-33 outing at the rim, and unlike the Gonzaga game, they didn’t make up that difference from the mid-range, converting just 1-of-13 non-rim two-pointers. With Jackson’s long arms out there, the odds of getting anything up over him seemed quite tall. I’d be fascinated to see how Kentucky can build this defense around him as the season goes on.

It also appears as if no threes will be made by either team participating in a Kentucky game this year. Through these first three games, Wildcat opponents are 15-for-67 (22.4%) from three, around 10% below the national average so far. Synergy judges Kentucky’s catch-and-shoot defense as needing some work, for what it’s worth – 24 unguarded threes have been allowed, compared to 22 guarded ones. Still, Kentucky has seemed to somewhat master three-point defense, as much as it can be mastered in college basketball. Only one Calipari team (2018-19) has ranked outside of the top 100 in opposing 3PT%, and all but two have ranked 63rd or higher. There’s a real skill to it:

Also, it helps when all you’ve recruited for years now is the same exact 6’6”-6’10” guard/forward archetype that’s all arms and can jump out of a gym. Kentucky basketball: the perfect team for those who hate threes for some reason.

Show Me Future Opponents: LSU/Saint Louis

Saturday, while most of you were watching the vile sport known as College Football, which has definitely not hurt me in thousands of horrifying ways, I was partaking in a little ESPN Plus action. Nothing is better than watching the ESPN Plus broadcasts most barely notice on the ESPN app itself. A good chunk of them are team-specific broadcasts, as it was in this case. The Saint Louis broadcasters were quite enthusiastic both ways, as they should’ve been; this was a close, fun game throughout. But I couldn’t get over a very specific issue the game’s cameras had.

Give it a zoom via your phone. At some point during the game, every player looked like they’d stuck a knife in a wall socket, as if they’re clipping in real life. When I sat on my couch around nine feet away, this was a little bit easier to ignore, but I also was working on the family Christmas tree at this time and got a good close-up of this bizarre camera bug. Remember during the NBA’s restart when they had to super-impose team-specific ads and players would clip into them, like Nikola Jokic becoming Mountain Dew?

This was as if players were clipping in and out of Videodrome, which is a much less enjoyable bug to see unfold.

Anyway, they did play a game despite these camera issues. Saint Louis, who is a legitimate top 25 team in America, defeated LSU 85-81. There’s more specific analysis below, but in an attempt to highlight What This Means in an SEC context, I figure I’d do it like this: even without a crowd, this would be roughly equivalent to losing at Florida. Nothing to really be ashamed of, obviously, but certainly a missed opportunity for a key win.

When LSU had the ball

Similar to how I reviewed the Gonzaga/Kansas game, I’m doing offense vs. defense splits to make this the easiest possible read. Over the Tigers’ first two games, you could find it incredibly easy to buy into this team’s optimism on this side of the ball. Bart Torvik’s individual opponent-adjusted efficiency numbers have LSU as the best offense in America through all of two games played, which does seem like a silly stat to bring up but it’s a stat. It’s not really based on unbelievable three-point shooting, though it has been excellent so far (21-for-50). LSU simply appears to have a collection of great one-sided talent that doesn’t turn the ball over, gets the shots that work for them, and, so far, scores a ton of points in a fun system.

As a stats guy, I have to break my brain a tad to be able to fully enjoy the LSU high-octane attack. For instance, a full 20% of LSU’s possessions were in isolation, which is generally one of the two least-efficient play types…but LSU scored 18 points on these 14 possessions.

That three above was courtesy of Cameron Thomas, who looked every bit the part of a player Will Wade suggested may lead the SEC in scoring. Thomas, a freshman, merely dumped 25 points on the first high-quality opponent of his college career. He appears to be a magnificent shot-maker.

Thomas was electric everywhere in this one, going 6-for-8 on twos and 4-for-10 on threes. If he’d had even a good game – like, say, 16 points – LSU gets blown out. Thomas single-handedly kept LSU alive in the second half during an atrocious defensive performance; 21 of his 25 points came after halftime. Saint Louis, who would be one of the 3-4 best teams in the SEC, had no answer for him at all.

It was a tad surprising that it was he and not slightly older players Javonte Smart/Trendon Watford driving the offense down the stretch, but hey, pandemic basketball is going to be strange. Speaking of those two, they also were pretty solid, combining for 42 points on 25 shots. Smart didn’t shoot very much but he was terrific from three.

Watford had two very distinct halves in this one – in the first, most of his work came in isolation, which seems to be his preferred status:

But in the second, Will Wade found a few ways to get him the ball in the post and let him go to work.

Generally, LSU’s attack seems to be solidly four-pronged, with Darius Days usually having better games than he had in this one. Through two games, LSU appears to have three seriously good deep shooters in their starting lineup, along with a fledging deep shooter in Watford. The key difference between them and several other potentially great offenses is a sort of reverse-psychology approach to analytical shot selection. While LSU took 17 non-rim twos in this game to just 11 shots at the rim (10 of which they made), only two were of the dreaded “long two” variety. (They missed both.) LSU hit nine of their other 15 non-rim twos, with a lot of them being just a couple steps from the rim.

(Quick section on small sample sizes before more about small sample sizes: two games in, LSU appears to have somewhat reduced their ball-screen reliance, with just 16.1% of possessions coming via a pick-and-roll. Last year, this number was 27.2%. They’re also taking way more threes and are less reliant on Javonte Smart/Skylar Mays bulldozing their way to the paint. I need more evidence on this front, but they’re showing signs of taking a serious turn towards being Louisiana Davidson versus being a traditional Will Wade offense.)

Again, we’re only two games in, and plenty of these takes could age poorly. However, it seems clear that LSU has sky-high offensive potential. I think it would be one thing if LSU were simply having a hot streak from downtown, and certainly, I don’t think they’ll shoot 42% from three the entire season or 81% from the free throw line. Still: a formula of low turnovers, high-percentage shot attempts, and various scorers that can take and make difficult shots seems like a formula for consistent success in the high-variance world of college basketball.

When Saint Louis had the ball

On the other hand, this appears to be very stinky garbage. LSU has played an SIU Edwardsville team that ranks 337th on KenPom and a Saint Louis team that didn’t crack the top 100 of Ken’s offensive rankings last year. They gave up 81 and 85 points in a pair of consistently terrible outings. Against Edwardsville, they did happen to run into an unusually good shooting performance from three from basically the entire rotation (13-for-27):

But at the same time, it was pretty alarming that SIU Edwardsville got all of the open threes to begin with. In that one, SIUE had 26 catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy; exactly half (13) were judged as “unguarded”, which I generally take to mean there being no defender within four feet of the shooter. That’s…not great. But at least in that game, you can figure LSU is running at 60% speed against a totally overwhelmed opponent, even though that opponent made them sweat more than they’d expected to.

Against Saint Louis, LSU allowed 25 catch-and-shoot jumpers to the Billikens, per Synergy. The ratio in this one was far worse: 16 of 25 were unguarded. Early on, this was due to LSU just making simple mistakes on the perimeter, like failing to hustle back on defense:

In the second half, once Saint Louis figured out LSU could not stop them inside the perimeter, either, Will Wade began to throw out a half-court trap-heavy zone defense that aggressively went for steals. This occasionally worked, in the sense that it did force one turnover around midway through the second half…but it also led to 17 points on 10 second-half possessions against the zone, including a pair of crucial wide-open threes due to LSU playing the ball too aggressively:

Last year, the only player on the LSU roster who had a prayer of stopping an opponent one-on-one on the perimeter was Skylar Mays, who posted a near-3% Steal Percentage and was a genuine defensive difference maker in several SEC games. This year, I really am not sure who that person is supposed to be, because no one on the LSU defense appeared terribly interested in slowing down Javonte Perkins (32 points) and his variety of drives inside the perimeter.

Perkins roasted every LSU defender that tried him in this game, going 6-for-10 on twos and 4-for-8 on threes. When it wasn’t Perkins, it was Gibson Jimerson – a truly bewildering name of a real person – that hit 4 of his 9 threes. Or it was Jordan Goodwin, who went 3-for-4 at the rim and picked up 11 rebounds. Or it was Demarius Jacobs, who went a perfect 4-for-4 at the rim. The point I’m getting at here is that Perkins will deservedly get the headlines, but if it was just Perkins having a great day, you could reasonably write this off as an unfortunate loss. That isn’t the case here.

Let’s go back to the SIU Edwardsville fixture. The Cougars (yes, I checked) did have that great day from downtown, but they also went 11-for-13 on attempts at the rim and got nine offensive rebounds. As is seemingly tradition now for LSU, they have oodles of length and talent but simply fall asleep for large stretches of any given game:

Check out how LSU, uh, “defends” this elevator screen run for Saint Louis’s Demarius Jacobs. For a full second, Jacobs is so wide-open that Jordan Goodwin is either too shocked to throw the pass or legitimately can’t believe it:

Multiple times, LSU’s defenders simply completely lost track of where their man was supposed to be. Yes, it helps that SLU hit 9 of their 16 non-rim twos, 2-3 shots above expectation. Then again, LSU had an unusually good day from the same range. Giving up a 12-for-16 hit rate at the rim to a team whose tallest starter is 6’6” is extremely alarming, especially when it’s Saint Louis’s offense that’s supposedly their weaker side.

I guess I’d be less alarmed if I were an LSU fan if SIU Edwardsville had a similar-ish day against this Saint Louis team, who they played on Wednesday…but SIU Edwardsville lost to Saint Louis by 37 points and committed 25 turnovers in a game they probably would’ve lost by 50 had the Billikens not pulled most of their starters with ten minutes to play. They only turned it over 15 times against LSU, who, again, hired a defense-first head coach that now oversees one of the best offenses in college basketball.

Obviously, that seems like a mild joke, but I think it’s legitimately worth discussing. When LSU hired Wade, he’d just come off of two seasons at VCU where his defenses ranked 24th and 41st in adjusted efficiency. For a non-Big Six team, those are really good numbers. VCU generally always has great defenses, of course, but Wade’s forced a ton of turnovers and made opponents take tough shots. At no point during his first four years as a head coach did his offenses look anything other than fine. Through three-plus years at LSU, his defenses have ranked 136th, 59th, and 179th, with this year’s contingent starting to look like it might set a new low. When your goal is ostensibly to take LSU basketball to new heights, having defenses this bad puts a hard cap on your hopes. Then again, maybe you just win every game 94-92.

If you want a defensive positive or two, LSU did start to force some key turnovers from the Billikens when they needed them; in particular, the second half was better for Watford. Also, after giving up five true (i.e., not out-of-bounds accidents) offensive rebounds in the first half, they only gave up two in the second. Other than that, well, they should probably start rooting for Skylar Mays 2.0 to somehow find his way to the basketball team. Or for Shareef O’Neal to live up to the hype, I guess.

Show Me Future Opponents: Gonzaga/Kansas

On Earth-2, instead of this post, you are reading the preview of Tennessee’s fixture against VCU, which would have happened at 6:30 PM Eastern this evening. (Also, on Earth-2, COVID just doesn’t exist, so we are several games deep.) Unfortunately, we do not live on Earth-2, and Tennessee basketball is paused due to COVID concerns for at least a few days more. Until then, we’ll be taking a look at some other teams on Tennessee’s future schedule, along with a team Tennessee was going to play but won’t until, if ever, March/April.

In the midst of my Thanksgiving lunch, while I was on serving #3 of stuffing, the best game of college basketball’s opening week was being played: #6 Kansas vs. #1 Gonzaga at a neutral site. Both teams lost three of their five starters from a year ago, when they were the two best teams in basketball, but one team happened to reload a little better than the other. As astounding as it might be to imagine this, it was Gonzaga who brought in more blue-chip recruits – three to Kansas’s one. Both teams returned about the same amount of minutes and production, but Gonzaga had the higher potential, most thought. Also, this was before Gonzaga added Andrew Nembhard, Florida’s starting point guard the last two seasons, for this season on Tuesday.

On Thanksgiving day, two of the three-ish best programs of the last half-decade went at it on FOX. If you told Kansas fans before the game that they’d do the following:

  • Score 90 points
  • Tied the turnover battle
  • Made two more threes than Gonzaga
  • Hold Gonzaga to 6-for-18 from three

They would be well within their right to guess Kansas won this game fairly easily, because all of those stats should bode really well for the team involved. Instead, Kansas is leaving Thanksgiving Day with a 102-90 loss and their most points allowed to an opponent in regulation in 30 years. Gonzaga, one of the best three-point shooting teams of the last decade, didn’t need a great day from downtown, because they were absurdly dominant in the paint. We’re going to explore why, with an offense vs. defense exploration on both ends.

When Gonzaga had the ball

Mark Few had a mission and pursued it start-to-finish: attack the paint in a wide variety of ways with their taller, more versatile lineups. Kansas’s best player last year was Devon Dotson, but their most important piece was Udoka Azubuike, a giant center who simply could not stop blocking shots. Last year, Kansas allowed the third-lowest 2PT% in the nation, a figure made even more impressive by the fact they played KenPom’s second-hardest schedule.

This year, Kansas has David McCormack, a perfectly fine 6’10” center who can’t move nearly as well as Azubuike and was rendered unplayable for significant portions of this game.

McCormack only got to 20 minutes in this game because Drew Timme, a Gonzaga sophomore, was destroying him all over the court. Timme went for 25 points on 15 shots (9-for-11 at the rim), a career-high in points, along with six rebounds and a couple of steals. Timme was used in a variety of Gonzaga sets – most of them of the ball-screen variety – and he explored a few different ways of getting the ball in positive situations. Timme slips the pick in the GIF above, but here’s one where he comes off a roll action unguarded with as easy a dunk as he’ll have this year:

Of course, it wasn’t just Timme. The headliner coming out of this game will be star freshman Jalen Suggs, an almost-certain lottery pick who lived up to and exceeded his own hype. Against a top-10 team in his first college game, Suggs scored 24 points in 24 minutes and looked unstoppable everywhere. For years, Few has loved to push the pace in transition offensively, believing (correctly) that with the right talent, it can produce his most efficient offense possible. Suggs looks to be the perfect piece to ignite the Gonzaga engine:

Let me reiterate: in his first-ever college game against a top-10 team, Jalen Suggs got 24 points on 15 shots along with eight assists in 24 minutes. This is a very special player, even before you get to his scoring skillset. Suggs was able to get to the rim at will, scoring seven times on 11 attempts from a variety of looks, but he looked especially threatening off of picks:

In a way, it does make me the mildest bit relieved Tennessee does not have to defend this offense yet. Bill Self is one of the greatest coaches of the 21st century, and over the last five seasons, Kansas has consistently had one of the 5-10 best defenses each season. After the dust settles in 2020-21, despite the pandemic, I don’t expect this to change. There’s several good individual defenders on the Kansas roster. And it did not matter one bit, because this Gonzaga offense has a historic amount of fantastic shooters, great drivers, excellent big men, and all-around good scorers. Rarely, if ever, do these pieces come together on the same team. This particular offense has the potential to be as good, if not better, than 2017-18 Villanova.

The offense is so good that I feel rude for excluding a few other fun performances in this one, namely Nembhard (11 points on six shots) and Joel Ajayi (15 points and nine rebounds). But it wouldn’t feel right to end this somewhere other than Corey Kispert (23 points on 13 shots). Kispert realistically could’ve made an NBA roster after last season, and not many expected him to return for 2020-21. When he did, it cemented Gonzaga as a serious championship contender. There’s still improvements to be made defensively, but he remains Gonzaga’s very best three-point shooter regardless of game situation:

You cannot give him even an inch of space to get these off. Kispert shot 3-for-8 from three in this one (everyone else on Gonzaga combined for 3-for-10), which may look just okay, but 37.5% is a solid rate for any one game. Kispert’s status as the lone senior starter on this team (and a career 39.3% three-point shooter) helps cement him as probably the important piece for a Gonzaga run; as fun as the one-and-dones are, it is valuable to have these more experienced pieces come March.

Lastly: Gonzaga’s main five are going to be incredibly difficult for anyone to defend, much less their overwhelmed WCC opponents. Kispert, the best deep shooter, actually functions as the nominal 4 in the Zags’ lineup, and center Timme appears to have added at least some type of a three-point shot. (He attempted one and missed it.) All five starters were very efficient against a high-end opponent. While you can’t take too much from one game, I really don’t know how many defenses in basketball – maybe only Virginia and Texas Tech – will be equipped to keep Gonzaga somewhat contained for most of a 40-minute game.

When at least four of Gonzaga’s main five were on the court together, the Bulldogs outscored Kansas by 22 points across roughly a 29-minute span of the game. When all five were out there together – which only happened in the second half – Gonzaga outscored Kansas 37-19 in a 12-minute span of game time. Again, this is against the #6 team on KenPom, #16 on Bart Torvik. It’s not as if they’re a pushover; they just had nothing for this offense.

When Kansas had the ball

Again, go back to those stats from the intro. Kansas did a lot of good in this game offensively, and a 1.098 points-per-possession rate adjusts out to a very good offensive performance against a top-20 defense. Like I mentioned, the Jayhawks hit eight of their 18 three-point attempts, with three different players spreading the wealth and hitting two each. Gonzaga had a tough time guarding both Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji, as both got open from downtown frequently.

Still, it isn’t enough to overcome a masterful offensive outing by Gonzaga and, in return, a disastrous defensive performance by the Jayhawks. Gonzaga’s shooting numbers would make any competition look feeble in comparison, and it unfortunately did so to this Kansas outing. Kansas posted an eFG% of 59.7%, which would’ve been their seventh-best performance last season and the third-worst eFG% given up by 2019-20 Gonzaga. They had a great day on the offensive end. Unfortunately, they needed to have a historically great day to win.

Kansas has a lot of good to take away from this game on offense, though. Before the season started, I wasn’t really sure who would drive the Kansas offense forward like Devon Dotson did last year. There wasn’t an obvious answer, and as many as four different players seemed like reasonable responses. Both Garrett and Agbaji stepped up yesterday to give Kansas fans some serious hope. In the first half, Self ran several high ball-screen sets to get Garrett space to drive to the rim:

In the first half, Gonzaga mostly allowed these to not become hard-hedges or “ice” calls, largely staying in single coverage. At halftime, though, Few made a clear adjustment by hedging hard and forcing a double team on the ball-handler for at least a second or two, which took the ball out of Garrett’s hands more often. Bill Self actually countered this fairly well by getting the ball out of his guards’ hands very quickly, but Kansas simply made mistake after mistake and failed to take advantage.

Let’s counter this with an area of joy for the Jayhawks: the amount of open looks they got all over the court. Per Synergy, 15 of the 20 catch-and-shoot jumpers in half-court for Kansas were unguarded, and they took advantage, scoring 19 points and particularly getting a lot of open looks in the first half. Christian Braun got looks this open on two consecutive possessions late in the first half, and you could tell it was giving Mark Few a headache.

Again, at halftime, Few made an adjustment: Gonzaga was to close out hard on these three-point attempts and either force tougher looks or make Kansas head inside the arc to try their luck. It doesn’t often work this way, but it’s exactly what ended up happening. Kansas made 6-of-11 threes in the first half, but just 2-of-7 in the second while taking a ton of mid-range jumpers. Luckily for the Jayhawks, they had one of their best days ever from the mid-range, converting 12-of-21 non-rim two-pointers. Bryce Thompson (not the cornerback) in particular kept Kansas in this for a while:

Here’s a more accurate example of what I’m talking about:

All in all, both teams probably have things to be excited about here and serious questions to address. For this side of the ball specifically – Kansas’ offense, Gonzaga’s defense – let’s address a positive and negative for each.

Kansas can be excited about the fact they found four double-digit scorers against the best team in the nation and weren’t entirely reliant on one player to drive the offense. They found a ton of open shots, particularly in the first half, and made Gonzaga present several adjustments they clearly weren’t hoping to have to use at the start of the game. Kansas countered some of these adjustments pretty well. However, they should be worried about the fact Gonzaga erased their traditional ball-screen sets almost entirely in the second half, and to be honest, they should probably be more than a little alarmed at how easily they settled for 17-20 foot two-pointers instead of shooting more threes.

Gonzaga won the game, successfully countered several of Bill Self’s main actions, and took control in the second half when the game was up for grabs. Of particular note should be the Bulldogs forcing nine Kansas turnovers, rendering a 57.7% half from two useless. That said, Gonzaga gave up a ton of open threes in the first half, and the blueprint seems to be there to get open shots against this defense. Plus, uh, not exactly over the moon on the rim protection here – Kansas went just 13-for-23 at the rim, but Gonzaga didn’t block a single shot and a few of the Kansas misses were self-inflicted.

If you like these, let me know by emailing statsbywill@gmail.com or Tweeting @statsbywill on said website.

Exploring somewhat-sane proposals for the 346-team NCAA Tournament

Like a bolt of lightning in the dead late-summer air came this tweet across my timeline:

Content! Beautiful content. The ACC has achieved what the most daydream-prone among us have hoped for: pure, uncontrollable chaos. Nothing about a 346-team NCAA Tournament (11 of Division I’s 357 programs are ineligible for this year’s Tournament for various reasons) is normal at all, and all it can bring is something wild. Imagine the takes if 1 seed Villanova loses to 346 seed Mississippi Valley State in the shocker of a lifetime!

Of course, that exact scenario takes numerous leaps of logic to achieve. A straight 346-team tournament isn’t possible without either a laundry list of byes or play-in rounds. Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament loves money, and such a massive loss to a star team would be a monetary dent in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, both of which the NCAA needs in droves (apparently!) after the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I’d offer The Will Warren Somewhat Sane Solution. It is not the Everyone’s Easy Solution That Just Adds a Couple Extra Games.

(Quick aside: you can just turn the Field of 64 into the Field of 256 by having one play-in round for teams seeded 167 through 346, protecting the top 166. It’s not a bad idea, but forcing the top teams to win eight straight games instead of six both seems a little nuts and seems like it could massively overwhelm host cities. We’re assuming no/limited crowds for the purpose of this experiment, and having even 16 teams podded up in one city probably means at least a couple of hotels at full capacity. I went to school for English, not Hotel Management, so maybe this is actually fine, but who knows.)

Here is the Official guide to a plan I cooked up yesterday afternoon, along with questions I still have to answer:

1. A ladder system that protects the top 32 teams.

In order to ensure that proper respect is paid to teams that have a lot of success during the conference-only regular season (another assumption that I’m running with), I’ve instituted a system that gives the 32 best* teams a free run to the Field of 64. It’s how it would work in a normal season, so it seems fair to keep this part. What this means is that 32 teams out of the remaining 314 will have to play their way into the Field of 64 by way of our 1-to-346 seeded ladder system.

What’s a ladder system? Think of it the way they run it in the Korean Baseball League.

  • The fifth-seeded team plays the fourth-seeded team.
  • The winner plays the third-seeded team.
  • That winner plays the second seed…
  • And finally, that winner gets to play the first seed.

It’s a testament to how well you can sustain your success if you make it all the way up the ladder, and it rewards those who’ve had full-season success as opposed to those who get hot for a few games. How does our ladder system work?

2. Six play-in rounds, spread out over 10-14 days at neutral sites, that slowly whittle the field from 346 to 64 teams.

Bear with me here. This is pretty nuts, I’ll admit, but so’s the idea of a 346-team college basketball tournament in a sport ripe with variance. Anything can happen in any one game, which is why we’re introducing this ladder system as opposed to the 166-team protection. This enables full-season success to matter, while allowing a team to run their way from the bottom to the big time if they’re hot. It attempts to simulate Conference Championship Week in some form, though with more rounds than any individual conference championship.

Here’s how it works. Teams are reseeded by round; i.e., if the #334 team wins in the first round but no team below them wins, they will play the #212 seed in the second, and so on.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • Now, we could go right into a 256-team field and stop here. If we don’t, we have a third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The fifth round features the teams seeded 33-64 and the fourth-round winners for a total of 48 games being played, eliminating 48 teams to get to 80.
  • Now – finally – our final play-in round allows for teams seeded 49-80 to play each other for the right to be in the field of 64.

This is very much silly, but it also works. Teams are forced to climb their way up the ladder system to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament in a system that somewhat simulates conference tournaments with much less structure and more chaos. You like chaos, right?

3. Alternately, the same plan, but with four play-in rounds and a 128-team field.

This allows for a shorter time period and is less complicated. Again, teams are reseeded after reach relevant round; if #340 beats #263 but no other team below them wins, they would play #212 in the next round.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • A third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The Tournament is then seeded where 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, and so on, with aims at ensuring region vs. region play.

Question: What about automatic qualifiers from non-Big Six conferences? We’ll have to work that out. Ostensibly, we could turn the Top 32 into the 32 conference champions/standings leaders at season’s end and it would work out just as well. Then, the final 32 spots are made up of the 32 teams that survive our ladder/play-in system. However…doesn’t it feel kind of weird to have a field where, say, 272nd-ranked-in-KenPom North Carolina Central is guaranteed a spot but 3rd-ranked Baylor isn’t? To be determined, folks. Though if you’re the third-best team in college basketball, you should be able to win against whoever you draw no matter what.

Question: How do we ensure smaller, lower-seeded schools can actually play each other? There’s a clear issue here, and I’m not totally sure how to resolve it under this format. For instance, what if Albany (in New York) draws Florida A&M (very much not in New York) in the first round? That’s a lot of travel costs we’d have to work out, and it likely isn’t worth it for Florida A&M. The best thing we can do is have one city be the host to as many games as possible, similar to the actual Field of 64. Perhaps for this specific example, the two teams could play in Washington D.C. at a neutral site. Someone smarter than me probably has an idea on how to do pods for this, and obviously, the 256-team field is much easier to work out. But it’s also not nearly as protective of those who’ve earned the right to be there.

Question: How long would both plans take? For the six play-in round structure, I think it could be accomplished over the course of 10-14 days – AKA, how long conference championship “week” usually takes – at multiple neutral court sites. We’d have to stuff 314 teams in no more than four cities, but I’d say it’s at least somewhat doable. For the four-round structure, we could realistically accomplish this in anywhere from 6-10 days. Again, this stuffs a lot of teams in no more than four bubble cities, but it also cuts the number of play-in teams from 314 to 218. However, it creates much more variance.

Question: Maybe a 96-team field? Sure! The in-between plan, which the NCAA almost implemented ten years ago. Just take the four-round plan listed above and add a fifth-round between teams seeded 65-128.

Bubble Ball: A review of all eight NBA Playoffs series, four games in

Good news: we’re over halfway to the second round. Every series has completed exactly four games, with three series already ending in sweeps just like that. Wave goodbye to Brooklyn, Indiana, and Philadelphia, as temporarily, we’re down to 13 teams. We’ve still got to delete five more from the field, but we’ll get there soon enough. For now, let’s discuss these series one-by-one.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic; Milwaukee leads, 3-1

Milwaukee: Four games in and Milwaukee still doesn’t look quite like the Bucks we watched all season long. Offensively, they’ve started to look pretty solid; the efficiency numbers are just fine, but the level of shots they’re getting is tied for #1 across all playoff teams. 77.27% of their shots have either been at the rim or from three, and they’ve shot better from three (39.13%) than you probably would’ve expected. And yet: they’re committing more turnovers per 100 possessions than any other team in the playoffs. It’s not like they’re playing the Lakers defense already; this is the Magic, a team that did force the tenth-highest turnover rate but ranks third amongst the remaining East teams in defensive turnover rate.

An alarming amount of Milwaukee mistakes have come as unforced errors; their live-ball turnover rate is just fourth-worst in the playoffs, but they’ve committed way more dead-ball turnovers than any other team. Lots of ill-advised travels, several bad passes, and more have made this series closer than it should be. All that said, they’re up 3-1 against a team that doesn’t have the roster to hang with them. Game 5 is of moderate interest, as Milwaukee should be able to close Orlando out easily if they begin to limit silly mistakes.

Representative GIF:

Orlando: Oddly enough, if you looked just at the shot distribution stats, you’d think Milwaukee would easily be demolishing the Magic. Orlando has taken just 16.3% of their shots at the rim, an alarmingly low rate for a team with Nikola Vucevic on it. They have taken – and hit – a ton of long mid-range twos, which is not really a way to beat Milwaukee. Instead, they’re taking what the Bucks give them from the three-point line, to the tune of 45.4% of all field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. Sometimes it works out (19-for-39 in Game 3, 18-for-45 in Game 4) and keeps them in games; sometimes, it simply does not (7-for-33 in Game 2).

They’ve shown that, if you have shooters, you can force this Milwaukee defense to look worse than it is. That said, look at those Game 3 and 4 numbers. Combined, Orlando shot 44% from three across two games and only lost the turnover battle by four. They lost both games by a combined 29 points. What more are they able to do?

Representative GIF:

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets; Toronto wins, 4-0

Toronto: Outside of Game 2 and some spare moments in the other three games, very rarely a series where the Raptors had to exert much energy or felt in much danger. They could’ve ran through this series on 80% effort and still likely swept their opponent, given how undermanned Brooklyn was. And yet: isn’t it at least a little impressive that in three of the four games, Toronto thoroughly dispensed with their opponent well above what was expected of them? I initially dismissed Game 1 as a small outlier dependent on three-point shooting, but Toronto went out and scored 150 points in the sweep-clinching Game 4 victory. The Shot Quality metric from pbpstats.com suggests that Toronto was pretty lucky on the whole – an expected eFG% of 51% versus an actual eFG% of 59.2% – but at this point, who are we to distrust anything this team does?

They’ve already overcome the loss of Kawhi Leonard to be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. They have the NBA’s Coach of the Year. They’ve got a deep roster that rarely, if ever, takes a minute off from playing their hardest. Maybe they got a little lucky to win by as much as they did in this series, but I’m not sure it really matters; as I said, even an 80% effort probably produces the same result. Two special notes: firstly, the main lineup of Siakam/FVV/Anunoby/Lowry/Gasol went for 1.251 points per possession in this series; secondly, they really need Kyle Lowry’s injury he sustained in Game 4 to heal ASAP.

Representative GIF:

Brooklyn: Well, what else could you have really expected? They ran out a team that was essentially half of a G-League roster, fought for a full 48 minutes in one game, and didn’t have the firepower to hang in the other three. It was what it was. The good news is that Brooklyn got some good performances from various players throughout the series, and I’d say they have a lot more to look forward to next season with a full-strength roster. Barring alterations, FiveThirtyEight ranks the full-strength Nets as roughly the sixth-best roster in the East, and given that the Sixers and Heat both rank ahead of them, it’s fair to consider them a top-half East team next year. For now, they get a lot of time to rest up and watch some of the more fun Caris LeVert highlights as a passer.

Representative GIF:

(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers; Boston wins, 4-0

Boston: What a series. Objectively, this was always going to be theirs to lose, and given how greatly Philadelphia struggled in the regular season just to do anything interesting at all, a Boston in five games outcome would’ve been a fair guess. But for the Celtics to sweep the Sixers – even this particularly frustrating Sixers squad – is notable indeed. If this was something where Boston simply had four straight games of good luck and won all four in a series where it should’ve been 3-1 or even 2-2, it would be different. In all honesty, that wasn’t the case.

When the Sixers’ main five were on the floor (Richardson, Milton, Horford, Harris, Embiid), the Celtics scored 126 points in 103 possessions. No team had a lower Shot Quality in the first round than Philly, because Boston couldn’t stop forcing them into all kinds of bad mid-range twos and ugly attempts from all over. Now, the Celtics themselves rarely got great shots, as they were the second-worst Shot Quality offense in the first round. However, it may not matter much if they’re going to play the defense they’ve been playing thus far.

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Philadelphia: What more can be said about this expensive failure? Generally, people get fired for failing this miserably, and as is the norm in basketball, it will probably be blamed on the head coach as opposed to the front office. However, think about this: Philly’s offense possesses two legitimately good three-point shooters in Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton. Both rank out as C-grade perimeter defenders, per BBallIndex.com – not exactly what you’d like from three-and-D guys. Now, look at the rest of the roster. The next-best starter-level player from downtown is Tobias Harris, a 78th-percentile shooter. He’s a D-plus perimeter defender. The best perimeter defenders – Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle – are bad shooters, with Thybulle being a large negative on offense. Can you see where this went wrong, even before you get to Al Horford’s contract?

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(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat; Miami wins, 4-0

Indiana: Sadness. This year began with, in theory, a full-strength roster heading into the playoffs that could win a series or two and force people to treat the Pacers as a more serious franchise going forward. Their six(!) best players are all 28 or younger, and all six are under contract through at least the 2020-21 season. This was to be the beginning of a potentially monumental two-season Pacer run, and the oddsmakers showed them some quality respect in the offseason, giving them the fourth-highest title odds in the East. They ended up the 4 seed as expected, but without Domantas Sabonis, they’re leaving this postseason without a single win and ending it in undeniably disappointing fashion.

It’s sad to see it happen like this for Indiana, a team that plays hard nightly and did so for most of the season even without Victor Oladipo, but the fact of the matter is pretty simple: their offense was never good enough to justify a playoff run. Only Philadelphia and Boston possessed worse shot quality during their four-game playoff runs, and only three teams were less efficient offensively. Obviously, it doesn’t help that Indiana gave up about 115 points per 100 possessions to Miami, but the Heat have Duncan Robinson and the Pacers don’t. Until Indiana finds better, more consistent shooters, their offensive ceiling is heavily limited.

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Miami: Joy! Let’s revisit those preseason odds. When the season started approximately 25 years ago, the Heat had the seventh-highest title odds in the East and were considered on par with the Brooklyn Nets in terms of win totals. (Congrats to the analytics nerds – all of us – for correctly saying the Nets would be a sub-.500 team. We did it.) Now, they just swept the 4 seed in their conference and are heading into a matchup with the Bucks where it feels like they’ve got the momentum. Momentum is a fleeting thing, obviously, and I don’t know that it really exists.

That being said, this Miami team feels more trustworthy by the game. We all expected Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to look good, of course, but who would’ve guessed that the story would be Goran Dragic? He averaged nearly 23 points a game against Indiana, shot 41.4% from three, and generated more offense than any other player on the roster. I think we all could’ve seen this coming if it were still 2014, but it’s 2020 and he’s long past his prime…or so we thought. I’m loving the Dragon’s renaissance, and he could be a major key in Miami potentially dumping Milwaukee out of the playoffs early.

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Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers; Los Angeles leads, 3-1

Lakers: Throughout the seeding games and Game 1 of this series, the issue of Can the Lakers Hit Open Shots was becoming a serious topic. When you go 5-for-32 from downtown in any game, many are going to react to it in a certain way. Los Angeles was pretty consistently at the league average, sometimes above, in hitting wide-open shot attempts this season. They went 2-for-16 on wide-open threes in the first game, something that was very unlikely to repeat. Guess what? Since then, on the bevy of wide-open attempts Portland’s Swiss cheese defense allows every game, the Lakers are 22-for-55 on three-point attempts where there’s no defender within six feet. Even funnier, to my eyes, is the fact they’ve gotten 17 two-point attempts that were wide-open, the second-most by any team in the playoffs. (In first, surprisingly: the Orlando Magic, with 21.)

As soon as Los Angeles began to take advantage of all of the opportunities Portland was going to give them, the series was going to end. Had they hit their threes in Game 1, this would’ve thankfully ended last night with Portland getting wrecked by 20 points in a game that wasn’t that close. If there’s any benefit to all of this, it’s that we do get to enjoy seeing Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent, Jr. attempt to guard LeBron James one more time.

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Portland: Well, it was probably always going to end this way. Portland made a lot of bad roster construction decisions last offseason, essentially trading their two best defenders for Hassan Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony, and several mediocre wings. (When Gary Trent, Jr. is the best available wing defender you have, you have a bad roster.) Dame Time dragged them into this series in the first place, but the clock has been broken for several games now. @Tim_NBA on Twitter has been doing a fantastic job of exploring how Los Angeles has completely changed their pick-and-roll coverage from the regular season, running almost no soft hedge/drop coverage at all and instead forcing Lillard to be guarded by 1.5 defenders at all times.

From both a Lillard perspective and a Portland perspective, it’s worked almost flawlessly. Lillard has just (I know, just) 97 points through four games, a far cry from when he scored 154 in the final three regular season games. He’s shot just 13-for-31 on twos, has committed 14 turnovers, and no one on the remainder of the Blazers roster has helped pick up the slack. With Lillard unfortunately picking up what looked like a scary injury in Game 4, Portland could be embarking on their final game with almost no consistent scoring option to speak of. Yes, I know C.J. McCollum would still be out there; so what?

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(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks; series tied, 2-2

Clippers: Well, here we are: the Clippers are embroiled in what’s looking like a seven-game battle with a Dallas team that had the third-highest net rating in the West but had issues closing out games late. Los Angeles probably feels confident that they can win two of three, but they’ve had some serious defensive issues thus far. We all expected the Clippers to turn it on defensively, and in some aspects, they have. Per PBPStats.com’s Shot Quality metric, Dallas has been held to the fifth-worst expected value on their shot attempts. That’s good, and to be sure, the Clippers have been a tad unlucky in this series: no Patrick Beverley for games 2-4 has hurt, and Dallas outshooting their expected eFG% by a full 8% is unsustainable. (Over the course of their regular season, no team overshot or undershot their expected eFG% by more than 4%. Regression comes for everyone.)

That said, the Clippers simply aren’t making it easy on themselves. Everyone knew the ball would be going to Luka for the final shot of Game 4. So why in the world would you guard him with Reggie Freaking Jackson of all players? Didn’t you just spend the last 13 months telling everyone about how Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were the defensive keys to a title? Where were they when the game was on the line? Luka went a perfect 5-for-5 against Jackson when he was in the game, and though that wouldn’t be sustainable over multiple games, it was important then and important now. When Kawhi matched up on Luka, he held him to 2-for-6 from the field and forced two turnovers. Kawhi switched off of Luka for the final possession, which is pretty strange in its own right and also can’t happen again.

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Dallas: LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUKA!!!!! I mean, what more is there to say? On a day without Porzingis, and two days after he sustained a rough-looking injury, Luka merely came out and dropped his second-consecutive triple double, closing it with the signature moment of the 2020 Playoffs thus far. You can call him a superstar now. This is not the time for those of us who correctly said Doncic was easily the best player in the 2018 Draft to take a victory lap; we have 15 more years to do that. For now, focus on how wonderful and fun his game is. Everything about him brings joy, and honestly, everything about the structure of this Mavs offense brings joy. I still don’t think they’re going to win this series, but I think the West should be terrified of Dallas in another year or two.

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(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz; Utah leads, 3-1

Denver: Season’s probably over, which is a shame. Denver was never as good as they should’ve been this year, as it took Nikola Jokic a month or two to play into basketball shape and the rest of the team a while to figure it out. But they kept finding ways to win, they were fun, and they still remain an unusual and fascinating roster. I don’t know if they could’ve controlled two of their starters being out for the entirety of the playoffs, but at the same time, Utah’s missed Bojan Bogdanovic, their #2 scorer, and has been perfectly fine.

If Gary Harris and Will Barton were available, I think it’s undeniable that they wouldn’t look as lost defensively. I don’t think Donovan Mitchell would have dropped two 50-point games within the same series, though I do think it’s been nice watching Jamal Murray play the way a lot of people have wanted him to play for some time. I also think that the Jazz are well overdue for shooting regression, as they’re beating their expected shot value by a Playoffs-high 10.6%. They’ll have a stinker of a game at some point. Will it be too late for Denver?

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Utah: Donovan Mitchell, the Series. What a rise it’s been for Mitchell, who’s been fairly inconsistent ever since his amazing rookie year. Think of it this way: Mitchell has six single-digit scoring outings over the last two seasons while also having five 40+ point games. He takes a lot of shots you wouldn’t want most players to take, but he’s hitting pretty much all of them in this series. Denver doesn’t have an active player that can guard Mitchell, and any time he’s been matched up on Torrey Craig or Michael Porter, Jr., it’s been a disaster for the Nuggets. Surprisingly, this Jazz roster is just a game away from the second round, which is where they hoped to be all along. Funny how things work out, even if the shooting is due to regress hard pretty soon.

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(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder; series tied, 2-2

Houston: Suddenly, the narrative of this series has shifted away from Houston in a fashion I’m sure they didn’t hope for. Russell Westbrook has now missed all four games, and after two games of looking fine without him, Oklahoma City’s offense has started to take advantage of the pockets of Houston’s defense that can’t hang with them. Without Westbrook this season, the Rockets were far worse at forcing turnovers, and Houston’s lost the two games where they haven’t won the turnover battle in this series. They even had a stretch in Game 4 where they hit seven threes in a row and Oklahoma City still won.

After all of this, the pressure is now back on the Houston supporting cast. Harden was fantastic again in Game 4, going for 32 points on 25 shots and grabbing 15 assists…but he also didn’t get to the foul line nearly as often as usual, and no one around him was able to get a stop when the game was on the line. The last time I wrote one of these, I said that you should pretty much never lose a game where you make 20+ threes, and Houston went on to lose a game where they made 23 of them. That’s bad. Either Houston’s got to find a way to slow down Chris Paul and…Dennis Schroder, or an early exit is back on the menu.

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Oklahoma City: Look who’s back! Not only was Chris Paul excellent over the last two games, they’ve gotten a pair of shockingly great performances from one Dennis Schroder. Schroder has never been an analytics-friendly player, as they’ve correctly pegged him as a mediocre defender and moderately-efficient scorer. However, Oklahoma City finally found a way to make the most of him this season: he serves as a pretty solid sixth man for the Thunder, and by asking him to take more shots from the outside, they’ve turned him into a surprisingly effective shooter. (It also helps that in his seventh season, he’s finally turned into an above-average finisher at the rim.)

The key to the rest of this series is probably Schroder. You know what you’re getting from Paul every night, and for the most part, you know what you’re going to get from Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Lu Dort. You don’t always know which Schroder is going to show up. Is it the Schroder who shot 8-for-24 over the first two games and scored just 19 points against six turnovers, or is it the Schroder that went for 59 points in Games 3 and 4? The outcome of the series may well depend on it.

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Bubble Ball: A review of all eight NBA Playoffs series, two games in

No intro needed here; it’s the NBA Playoffs. Instead of a normal game-a-day review, I decided to take a broad look at all eight series currently going, with a GIF representing each team. Let’s begin.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic; series tied, 1-1

Milwaukee: No one thought they would get rocked in Game 1, but pretty much everyone expected them to respond appropriately in Game 2. The Bucks finally looked like the Bucks everyone watched from October to February…in some fashions. For reasons unknown, Khris Middleton – AKA, one of the most efficient shooters in the NBA – has had an absolute disaster of a series. He’s 5-for-20 from the field, 2-for-10 from three, and has turned it over way more than he did at any point pre-pandemic. You’d imagine he’ll find his way out of this, but the Bucks need him to do so as quickly as possible.

Giannis has gone for 59 points and 37 rebounds through two games, and often it feels like it’s just Giannis on the court. Part of this is because the Bucks are happy to run HB Dive and HB Slam with Basketball Jerome Bettis on their side, but part of it is also that no one is helping Giannis consistently. Through two games, the second-best Buck has been Eric Bledsoe, and not exactly by way of standing out. He’s averaging 14 & 6, which is fine, but not at all what you’d want the second banana of a title contender to be posting. Milwaukee looked way more attentive on defense in Game 2; now, we have to monitor how long it’ll take for them to figure out the offensive details clearly plaguing them. It’s probably not a good thing for them to have the same main problem as their 8-seed opponent, though they should be fine in this series.

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Orlando: Two totally different games: looked unbeatable in Game 1, looked sweep-able in Game 2. Game 1 was strange for both teams, in that Orlando looked like the much more excited and focused roster, not at all how it went in the regular season. They keep saying that the Bubble will produce strange results that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have come about. Game 1 was an easy one to chalk up to that. In a normal world, you’d imagine that a Milwaukee slow start gets turned around at some point simply because it’s a true road game. Fans don’t affect the game nearly as much as some sportswriters want them to, but they do have an effect, and it would’ve helped the Bucks.

For Orlando, the series essentially has boiled down to this through two games: how far can Nikola Vucevic drag this roster, and will anyone step up to help him? In both games, Vucevic has been fabulous, posting 35 & 14 in Game 1 followed by 32 & 10 in Game 2. Those are Giannis-like numbers, and he’s having a heck of a series so far. That said, he needs help. In Game 1, Orlando got five double-digit point efforts from non-Vooch players, including some serious surprises in James Ennis and Gary Clark. The Magic also had an unusually great day from downtown while Milwaukee had an unusually bad one. Game 2 flipped the script: Vooch was great, as mentioned, but no one else scored more than 12 points. Also, the Magic were an awful 7-for-33 from three and took an absurd amount of bad mid-range twos. The only reason the game was within 15 points was Orlando benefitting from several questionable foul calls on the Bucks throughout the game. Until Orlando can replicate the Game 1 effort again, they’re in trouble.

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(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets; Raptors lead, 2-0

Toronto: All the nice things about Brooklyn that were said do ignore that the Raptors probably should’ve won Game 2 by double digits. The Raptors had back-to-back outlier shooting performances, but Game 1’s was the positive side (22-for-44 from three) while Game 2’s was a negative (9-for-35). Odds are that, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle for Toronto. Fred VanVleet isn’t going to shoot 8-for-10 every night from three, just like he won’t always shoot 3-for-11. The Raps can thank Norman Powell completely taking over the paint for getting them over the top in Game 2; he went a perfect 8-for-8 in the paint while going 3-for-9 from everywhere else. On the whole, the Raps figured out fairly early they weren’t going to be making a lot of threes and still did a good job of getting to the rim. This is a very adaptive team that knows how to win games, and even if they aren’t always pretty, that has to count for something in a league where both 1 seeds lost their first game.

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Brooklyn: As hard as they’re trying and as admirable a mission as they’re undergoing, they simply don’t have the firepower. In Game 1, they couldn’t buy a three for large stretches of the game, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was the only player that seemed to be able to score consistently. The issue lies with the fact they’ve got a bunch of role players in roles they aren’t meant to be in. Jarrett Allen is a good player, but he’s just a roll & cut big that protects the rim well defensively; the team can’t run through him. Caris LeVert would be a perfect sixth man on a better team. Joe Harris is best as a catch-and-shoot option. And so on! It’s far from a perfect roster…and yet, had they not pushed out a horrendous seven-minute offensive stretch to open the fourth quarter in Game 2, this series very well could be tied at 1.

The Nets keep throwing everything they have available at Toronto, forcing one of the worst Raptors offensive games of the year in Game 2. Their defense allowed a lot of attempts at the rim, but they also demanded Toronto shoot over them to very little success. Toronto won that game in spite of their awful three-point shooting, which included a 3-for-14 run in the second half. Where it was TLC that kept Brooklyn in it offensively in Game 1, it was a good performance by Garrett Temple in Game 2 that almost got them there: 21 points, 5-11 on 3s. They continue to play ultra hard every night, even if it doesn’t look pretty. If they could find a way to combine TLC’s Game 1 with Temple’s Game 2, they’d steal a game before this series ends.

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(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers; Celtics lead, 2-0

Boston: They’ve offered no real surprises, maybe beyond how little they’ve let Philadelphia get into the series. All three of Tatum/Brown/Walker have been pretty fantastic, though the Gordon Hayward injury news is very unfortunate. The most impressive thing, clearly, should be how strong they’ve been in forcing Philly to take a ton of bad mid-range shots. In particular, an astounding 41 Philadelphia shot attempts in Game 2 came from the mid-range, and even if they hit 17 of them, it proved that Boston’s defensive structure is not allowing Philly to get to the rim or get the shots they really need to be getting. If they play this well the rest of the way, they should be properly recognized as a championship contender.

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Philadelphia: Looks like garbage, thanks. The only standout player for this overpaid, infuriating squad is Joel Embiid; everyone else looks various shades of uninterested, overwhelmed, or both. While Embiid has taken his fair share of possessions off out of frustration, he’s done his part in attempting to force Philadelphia into this series: 60 points, 26 rebounds, and, when he’s wanted to go there, some great paint work. Embiid is 7-for-10 at the rim, and to be fair, he’s shot 11-for-20 on mid-range attempts. Unfortunately for Embiid, Philadelphia is required to place four other players on the floor, and none of them have seriously attempted to provide him with the help he needs. Josh Richardson is Philly’s second leading scorer at 18 a game, but look at the other guys: Tobias Harris is 10-for-30 from the field. Shake Milton is 10-for-15, but is getting roasted on defense with ease. Alec Burks is 7-for-23. Al Horford has taken ten – TEN – shot attempts. No one else is worth mentioning.

When Embiid forces his way out of Philadelphia in one of the next two offseasons, no one should be surprised or upset with him. He has earned a shot somewhere else, and he deserves a team with either a competent owner, a competent general manager, or preferably both. Any player talented enough to average 30/13 against this legitimately excellent Boston team deserves better. The Sixers will not be winning this series; the only question remaining is if they get swept or if they have enough dignity to pull it together and get one win.

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(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat; Heat lead, 2-0

Indiana: Unfortunately, a pretty short discussion to have: they simply don’t have enough firepower. Had the Pacers had Sabonis available, I really do think this would be a much different series. They probably would’ve split these first two games, and they would’ve had a much easier time scoring offensively. With Sabonis on the court this season (2,159 minutes), the Pacers scored about 112.4 points per 100 possessions. Not beautiful, obviously, but enough to push them into a top ten offensive rating. In the 1,365 minutes they played without Sabonis, they were much worse: 107.9 points per 100, or the 25th-best offense in the league.

So far in this series, they’re posting just 106.4 per 100, and a large part of it stems from their inability to get good shots against this Miami defense. Only 30.6% of the Pacers field goal attempts have come at the rim, while they’ve shot 20-for-51 from a midrange game that’s starting to abandon them. They have five players averaging double figures through two games, but it doesn’t mean much when the opponent has a player that can easily go 7-for-8 from three as well as a better player than your best player. Indiana might have something for the Heat next year, but it’s not going to happen in 2020.

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Miami: I really didn’t expect this roster to turn out as well as it has, but they’re pretty vicious when they want to be. Obviously, you knew Jimmy Butler was going to continue to be a fantastic player, and he’s been so, scoring 46 points through two games. However, did you expect Goran Dragic to be out here scoring 44 points? Or Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro to be the team’s third and fourth-best scoring options? Or for the Heat to overcome a relatively quiet series from Bam Adebayo by way of nearly everyone else playing above their means?

This is a fun roster that’s beating the Pacers for several reasons, but a simple, easy one is that they simply get better shots. Miami is no stranger to the mid-range shot, but they’ve gotten a lot of great looks from three in this series because Indiana’s roster can’t cover lineups that have five shooting options. In particular, the two main lineups that feature Adebayo/Dragic/Butler (plus two of Herro, Robinson, Iguodala, or Crowder) are a shocking +28 in 39 minutes of play. When any one of those three is off the court, Indiana’s been able to hang around, beating the Heat by seven points in the other 49 minutes. Until they find a way to deal with those main three, though, this series is done.

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Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: Pretty simple equation to break down, actually: they missed a bunch of shots they normally make in Game 1, then went out and made all of them in Game 2. We call those adjustments! In all seriousness, outside of the first quarter of Game 1, the Lakers have almost entirely shut down the Blazers. In that first quarter, which essentially decided the outcome of the game once the Lakers couldn’t hit threes, the Blazers dumped 36 points on 27 possessions (1.333 PPP); over the following seven quarters, Portland’s sitting at 152 points on 171 possessions (0.889 PPP), maybe their worst two-game stretch of offense of the entire season.

What the Lakers are doing is actually pretty fascinating: they’re generally fine with letting Portland get to the rim, but in Game 2 in particular, they closed hard on potential threes and forced the Blazers into tougher twos, which they hit almost none of. Basically, two games in, Los Angeles has completely neutralized the strongest thing the Blazers have going for them. On the offensive side, they’re getting absurdly good shot quality. Through three quarters in Game 2 – i.e., before garbage time – the Lakers’ Shot Quality metric on PBPStats tied the highest they’d had in any game this year. As @Tim_NBA said on Twitter, a lot of the Lakers’ attempts looked like practice shots at the gym. If they’re going to get those looks, this series is over.

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Portland: Here are some basic truths we all knew about Portland heading into this series: they have one of the two best scorers on the planet. They have a strange collection of talent that makes sense together offensively. They play a brand of defense that matadors would be offended by. So far, the first and the third have come true in separate games; the second has yet to make a serious appearance. Dame was not very good in Game 2, but neither was anyone else; his 34 points lifted a Portland offense having a bad night in Game 1 over the top. Portland gave up an absurd amount of wide-open threes in Game 1 that didn’t go in, along with getting lucky on several Laker misses at the rim.

The second issue is a clear one that has no easy resolution. The second-best Blazer through two games is probably Jusuf Nurkic, who has provided just 25 points on the offensive end and is 3-for-12 from the field when not at the rim. Carmelo Anthony, who plays 47 minutes of bad basketball only to show up for the final minute of some games, is 4-for-17 and has five turnovers. Hassan Whiteside barely looks interested on defense. Gary Trent’s gone cold from the field. C.J. McCollum: 14-for-36, 4-for-13, six turnovers. Unless Dame gets some help, the Blazers do not have enough to make this a real series, barring another Laker disaster from downtown.

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(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: In some ways, this has been a perfectly fine defensive series for them. Dallas has been forced into a lot of mid-range looks they don’t normally want, the Clippers are winning the battle on both the boards and on turnovers, and fouls have been fairly even. But when you’re playing a team that has the ability to shoot way over what’s expected, you’ve got to match it on your own end, and the Clippers largely haven’t thus far. Kawhi has been as awesome as anyone would’ve hoped: 64 points, 22 rebounds. Lou Williams has 37 off the bench, Marcus Morris, 33. Everyone else has been varying shades of disappointing. Paul George is an embarrassing 14-for-39 this series, including a brutal 6-for-21 from three. Reggie Jackson, God only knows why, has played 43 minutes and is shooting 1-for-8 on twos. Ivica Zubac needs more minutes, but he hasn’t been the defensive stopper Los Angeles normally gets and has needed.

On the whole, the Clippers have a few kinks they’ve got to work out, but I imagine that they still feel fairly confident they can get out of this series and onto the second round. Kawhi looks like Playoff Kawhi, and when Patrick Beverley is back, they’ll be able to have the perimeter defense they need to slow Dallas down from downtown. Offensively, they need to find a way to up the quality of shots they’re getting. Dallas doesn’t have a very good defense, but the Clippers have settled for a lot of less-optimal shorter mid-range looks and haven’t gotten to the rim at the level I personally would’ve expected. Just 27.9% of Clipper shots have come at the rim so far, 3.5% below their regular season rate. On the flip side, they’ve taken considerably more threes than usual and haven’t hit them as well as you’d expect, going 17-for-56 on non-corner threes. Kawhi and PG are a combined 8-for-30 on these looks, and I know they’re better than that.

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Dallas: The argument that Dallas could be up 2-0 in this series right now does hold some merit. Obviously, they were up by five points in Game 1 before Porzingis was unfairly ejected, and they dominated all of Game 2 when he was in. That being said, a 1-1 series is probably fair. The Clippers forced a lot of Dallas misses in the second half of Game 1 that likely wouldn’t have changed much had Porzingis been in; no ejection would’ve changed the outcome of Game 2. The funny thing about this series thus far is that Dallas really hasn’t gotten a ton of great shots. Per PBPStats, their Shot Quality measurement has been right at 50% in both games, and they actually got considerably more combined rim/three-point attempts in Game 1.

In Game 2, though, they lit it up on longer mid-range shots (8-for-13 on 14+ foot attempts) and took way more advantage of the threes they got, going 13-for-29 after a 15-for-43 performance in Game 1. Luka continues to be at the wheel of this series. He’s hitting more threes than expected, and I think that’ll fall, but more important is that he’s using the gravity he draws to find tons of open shooters. Obviously, the Game 2 bench performances were awesome, but Dallas can’t expect that every night. What they can expect is for Luka to force his way to the rim and, if he demands a double team, pass out of it for an open shot. It’s a simple gravity game, and time will tell how well it works. Perhaps we all shouldn’t have collectively underrated the team with the third-best margin of victory in the West this season?

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(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz; series tied, 1-1

Denver: The Nuggets possess the second-best offense so far, with three players dropping 20+ points per game and the team as a whole shooting over 50% from downtown. (35-for-68, to be exact.) This has been a wild series that’s suddenly turned into the most entertaining series in the bubble. Nikola Jokic is doing his normal stuff, going for 57 points and 21 rebounds, but it’s been Jamal Murray’s emergence that has lifted Denver. Murray’s 34 points in Game 1 and complete dominance of the fourth quarter and overtime got Denver over the top on a night where they had no one to stop Donovan Mitchell.

If the Nuggets had Will Barton or especially Gary Harris available, their defense would look far less hopeless than it has so far. Harris is the team’s best perimeter defender and almost certainly the guy they’d choose to stick on Mitchell. The Nuggets still haven’t picked a firm return date for him, but they seem to think he’ll be back before the end of this series. Whether it’s for the best for his personal development may have to be tossed aside; if he can’t come back by Game 4, it may already be too late.

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Utah: Feels like they have to be pretty happy with the way things are, no? You got an all-timer of a performance from Donovan Mitchell in the Game 1 overtime loss followed by a team-wide demolition of Denver in Game 2. Amazingly, through two games, Utah is the best-shooting team in the field of 16…followed by the Nuggets in second place by a hair. I think both teams will regress, of course. Utah’s shot quality is about the same as it was in the regular season, but the difference is pretty easy to spot: the Jazz are taking and making a ton of non-corner threes.

Through just two games, Utah is 26-for-67 on these three-point attempts, with Mitchell and Joe Ingles combining to go an absurd 18-for-39. (The rest of the Jazz, just for clarity, are 8-for-28.) Mitchell’s 87 points through two games almost undersells just how insanely good he’s been in the bubble; it might very well be the best two-game stretch of his entire career. Couple that with an unusually efficient Jordan Clarkson and Rudy Gobert scoring more than usual and you’ve got the best offense in the playoffs thus far.

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(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder; Rockets lead, 2-0

Houston: How about that? A team with no Westbrook, largely underrated in terms of their potential, comes out and beats the trendy Thunder by double-digits in both games. Most remarkably to me, the Rockets survived a 42-minute dud from James Harden in Game 2 by having several really good performances surrounding him. The key to this team all along has been its supporting cast: when Harden creates open shots for them, will they hit them? Two games in, the answer is starting to look pretty positive. The non-Harden Rockets are 31-for-84 from three (36.9%), about 2.7% ahead of where they were in the regular season. Couple that with Houston playing really tough, consistent defense and forcing several bad Thunder turnovers.

Suddenly, you’ve got a team that has one of the five best players in basketball, a supporting cast capable of hitting 15+ threes in one game, and a defense willing to do what it takes to be one of the ten best in the sport. Sounds fairly dangerous, no?

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Oklahoma City: What was supposed to be a coming-out party for this overachieving roster has turned into a two-game disaster, and it might get even worse with Russell Westbrook’s impending return. The shorthanded and, well, short Rockets have thoroughly owned Oklahoma City through two games, leaving the Thunder no room to breathe on either side of the court. While we knew Oklahoma City likes to take a bunch of analytically-unfriendly shots, they also hit a lot of them and make them worth their time. Obviously, any roster with Chris Paul is going to be that way. So it comes as more than a bit of a surprise that the best mid-range shooting team in the regular season has been one of the worst in these playoffs. Oklahoma City is 9-for-25 on short mid-range attempts, third-worst in the field of 16. On Paul’s beloved longer mid-range attempts, the Thunder have only gotten off 20 through two games, below what I would’ve expected. Couple this with a sudden emphasis on taking more threes – aside from Gallinari and Schroder, not this roster’s strong suit – and it looks like a roster that’s lost sight of what it’s supposed to be.

On the other end of the court, most thought that Houston would get more than their fair share of open threes, but Oklahoma City would own the boards. This really hasn’t been the case. The Thunder own a small edge in OREB% thus far, but in Game 2, Houston got an astounding ten offensive rebounds off of missed threes. On their OREBs in total, Houston got 14 extra points in a game decided by 13. Unless OKC shoots more efficiently from mid-range or takes a greater ownership of the boards, their lights are dimming quickly.

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Restart Reviews: Thunder/Rockets, Game 1

August 18: Houston Rockets 123, Oklahoma City Thunder 108; Houston leads, 1-0

Theoretically, this was the perfect game for Oklahoma City to win. The Thunder were missing Lu Dort, their best perimeter defender, but the Rockets were missing Russell Westbrook. Considering it’s Lu Dort vs. Russell Freaking Westbrook, you would think Houston lost that trade. It sounds obvious, but Oklahoma City needed to run up the score in the first 2-3 games before Westbrook returns.

As you can guess from the score above, they did not.

It’s a pretty simple game to evaluate: for whatever reason, Houston came out hyper-attentive on defense and happily willing to make the extra pass. It’s the most fun they’ve looked as a full roster since the 2018 Western Conference Finals. They stayed strong on defense for most of the game, which is great, but critically, they hit a ton of wide-open threes. That hasn’t happened often, as we discussed last week when they played the Pacers and lost.

If you hit 20 threes in a game, you should win, full stop. Houston did, and it was never in doubt after the first few minutes or so.

First, we should talk about the defense, the side of the ball that has most often evaded these Rockets. Oklahoma City’s offense is not all that special, but they’re capable of hitting a bunch of mid-range shots and have the capability to hit plenty of other shots, too. They never had that chance against Houston until it was too late. Houston forced a ton of bad long mid-range shots and made the shorter mid-range looks tougher than usual. Pretty much everyone on the OKC roster struggled to hit these looks they adore so much, as we’ll explore later.

Houston went full-throttle until it was safe to let off the gas, i.e. the fourth quarter. It was funny to see them do this, because the most full-throttle member of the roster was on the bench in a Yeezy Brand-esque tee cheering his team on. Russell Westbrook makes this defense better, especially in the playoffs, where his energy is boundless and he uses all that’s left of his athleticism to keep his guy in front of him. But: it might be time to have a discussion about Houston’s offense while Westbrook is on the bench.

With Westbrook on the court this season, the Rockets have scored 112.34 points per 100 possessions in his 2,049 minutes – a pretty solid rate, one that would rank 10th-best in the league across a full season. In all minutes without Westbrook, though, the Rockets are nearly three full points better: 115.25 per 100 in 1,427 non-RW minutes, or the second-best offense in basketball behind Dallas. If you limit this exclusively to games Westbrook played in, which eliminates 15 games from our sample, the Rockets scored 120.77 points per 100 possessions – easily the best rate in basketball. Lastly, there is this:

  • Rockets offense, both Harden and Westbrook on: 112.17 points per 100 possessions (#11 offense), 1,434 minutes
  • Harden on, Westbrook off: 119.79 per 100 (#1 offense), 1,082 minutes
  • Westbrook on, Harden off: 112.72 per 100 (#7 offense), 615 minutes
  • Neither on: 104.9 per 100 (#30 offense), 393 minutes

This is not a “gotcha!” thing or even anti-Russell Westbrook content; I think RW is one of the more uniquely fascinating basketball players of my lifetime. But if the Rockets are going to do this without Westbrook on the court, it’s at least something to consider.

Anyway, the game itself didn’t end up being about Russell Westbrook. It was about James Harden’s continued greatness, about this weird Rockets supporting cast, and about what happens when Houston finally does the little things right.

Harden, as usual, was marvelous: 37 points on 22 shots, 6-for-13 from three, and buckets from all over the court.

He is simply such a purely great scorer that even defenses as tough as OKC’s have a heck of a time slowing him down at all. Harden was in total control from start to finish in what I’d call one of his more unique box score lines: 11 rebounds and just three assists. However, he still had another great passing show where he was responsible for three secondary assists, or what we’d more commonly call the hockey assist. He continues to be so, so good at picking up points no matter where he is:

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees both in life and in sports. I feel like we’ve somehow come around to underrating James Harden’s greatness. He’s a top-three regular season basketball player that remains top-five in the playoffs, a yearly MVP candidate that never wavers. Understandably, his game isn’t for everyone, and there’s plenty of times where I get exhausted watching him isolate for 22 seconds of the shot clock. But it can’t erase that a good chunk of those possessions somehow end in threes that Harden makes look a lot easier than they are.

This game’s spotlight was shared by a few members of the Rockets supporting cast. This weird bunch of players fits together only because they were forced to. Houston’s full-on insistence on small ball has made them the worst rebounding team in the league, and even in a blowout, they still surrendered several offensive rebounds to the Thunder:

But does it really matter when you finally make the uncontested threes fans have been asking them to make for the entire season?

The non-Harden Rockets, from a box score perspective, made 14 of their 39 three-point attempts (35.9%). Admittedly, that number doesn’t look all that impressive, but think about it this way: they made enough threes to force OKC to consistently cover them, which opened up the rest of the court for easy buckets like this one.

Thanks to the efforts of guys like P.J. Tucker (3-for-8), Ben McLemore (4-for-7), and Jeff Green (3-for-7), the Rockets finally started punishing their opponents somewhat for leaving them so open from three. Because of that, it opened up drives to the rim that OKC wasn’t able to stop consistently. The Rockets went 17-for-22 at the rim, one of their most efficient efforts of the season and tied for their fourth-best output against a playoff team. It wasn’t all Harden, either: Jeff Green went 3-for-3, Eric Gordon 4-for-7, Danuel House 3-for-4. When the Rockets have nights like this, you finally understand why so many (AKA, the guy writing this post) believed they could get the 1 seed in the West last summer.

For Oklahoma City, this is obviously a very disappointing result. Thunder fans had every right to anticipate a victory, especially with no Westbrook and especially with how frustrating the Rockets viewing experience can be. They knew they’d have a defined edge on the boards, and across the full season, it was the Thunder who possessed the better offensive turnover rate. Theoretically, you could survive a less-than-ideal shooting day if you won those two things.

As mentioned earlier, the Thunder won the boards, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Chris Paul, in particular, had a couple of really uncharacteristic turnovers that seemed to sum up the whole night:

To add to that, the league’s best mid-range shooting offense suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket from their favorite spot. Oklahoma City shot 7-for-21 from mid-range, including a horrific 3-for-13 output on shorter mid-range twos (5-14 feet, roughly). This was driven largely by Houston’s defense, who made a bunch of these mid-range misses very tough:

And generally made it hard for OKC to convert the type of shots they loved converting over the course of the last ten months:

Obviously, if the Thunder are going to have this poor of a night from their most-beneficial spot on the court, this series is going to be a lot shorter than most expected. FiveThirtyEight gives Houston roughly a 34% chance of sweeping OKC; while I think that’s pretty aggressive (personally, I’d have that more in the 20% range), it should be alarming to anyone hoping the Thunder wins this series, especially when Westbrook is out. If they can’t hit these shots now, I don’t think it’s going to be easier at all when RW returns to the court. Better wake up before it’s too late.