Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[Last week: The failing Celtics, mental health and Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau]
All-NBA selections are going to be a mess
Good luck making your All-NBA teams. The shear number of talented players in the league right now, their injury and coronavirus-related absences, and their team’s unexpected records make uniform selections impossible. Each media member on the 100-person panel is left to create his or her own criteria for who belongs on the 15-man roster, even more so than a typical season, and it will cost someone a lot of money.
Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo are locks for the First Team. That much we know.
Slotting Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert into the Second and Third Team center spots behind Jokic should be easy enough, but even that comes with complications. The league kept a center spot on its All-NBA teams, but made Jokic and Embiid eligible for both center and forward. Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler and Devin Booker are among those eligible for both guard and forward.
It is unclear how many voters will employ that flexibility. Messing with one position has ripple effects on the others, particularly when it comes to center. Cramming Jokic and Embiid onto one team likely means giving Bam Adebayo the Third Team center spot and removing a forward slot from a more deserving candidate. A panelist’s whims will play a greater role than ever in fielding three teams. Perceived snubs will be aplenty.
Here is a sample ballot:
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
F: Julius Randle, New York Knicks
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
G: Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
F: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
F: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
G: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
G: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
F: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
F: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
How mad are you right now?
Take Randle’s First Team forward spot, for example. Nobody came into this season thinking he would make an All-NBA team, much less the First Team, just as no one foresaw the Knicks competing for a home playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Yet, Randle has been an absolute monster, averaging a 24-10-6 on 46/42/81 shooting splits in 65 games. He has played 20-30% more of the regular season than the four other forwards who would be more traditional First Team selections (George, Leonard, Butler and James).
That is more than significant. James was among the leading contenders for MVP before the high ankle sprain that has cost him 22 of his last 24 games. Would you rather have 43 games of James than 61 from Zion Williamson or 59 from Jayson Tatum? Win shares will tell you the availability of Williamson and Tatum more than made up for the discrepancy in ability between them and James. That suggests James should be left off the All-NBA roster entirely, and I can tell you right now that will not sit well with a lot of voters.
If Tatum is left off for players who sat far more than him, that should not sit well with him, either. He played weeks through lingering COVID-19 effects to return to his All-NBA form, and his contract depends on it.
The Derrick Rose Rule allows max-salaried players coming off their rookie contracts to earn 30% of the salary cap instead of 25%, if they meet certain criteria that includes an All-NBA selection this season. That is the difference between $163 million guaranteed to Tatum over the next five years or $196 million — no small discrepancy for him (or a Boston Celtics team that may be footing a luxury tax bill for years to come).
Same goes for Mitchell. An ankle injury that has cost him 10 games and counting further complicates his case. Mitchell belongs in a group of guards that warrant consideration after All-NBA locks Curry, Doncic and Lillard — a murderer’s row that includes Paul, Beal, Booker, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. You can also consider Ben Simmons and Khris Middleton guards or forwards, adding to the degree of difficulty.
You can only pick three (or two, if you also consider Paul a lock).
This raises another wrinkle: How much should team success play into the decision? The Jazz and Phoenix Suns have proven themselves as the best teams of the regular season, the only two winning 70% of their games. You can easily make the argument they deserve two All-NBA spots apiece (Gobert, Mitchell, Paul and Booker), especially if Leonard and George both make it for the inferior L.A. Clippers.
Only, that argument likely means leaving off the NBA’s second-leading scorer (Beal) for a second year in a row and allotting zero All-NBA slots to the Brooklyn Nets, who have won 65% of their games. There is a real case to be made against all three Nets stars. Kevin Durant has played 30 games. James Harden has played 43 and submarined the first eight of them with the Houston Rockets. Which brings us to Kyrie Irving, whose 50 games played are three fewer than Mitchell, and who is a superior player by most every measure.
If Beal or Irving is in, the final All-NBA guard spot could come down to Mitchell and Booker — a race so close that games played and whichever team wins the No. 1 seed in the West could play serious factors.
• Booker (62 games): 25.7 PPG (49/34/86), 4.4 APG, 4.1 RPG, 19.6 PER, 4.7 WS, 0.3 BPM, 1.2 VORP
• Mitchell (53 games): 26.4 PPG (44/39/85), 5.2 APG, 4.4 RPG, 21.3 PER, 6.2 WS, 3.5 BPM, 2.5 VORP
Neither fan base is going to be happy, but at least it won’t cost them $33 million the way it could Mitchell, and the fact that so much money is riding on opinion is bound to make any media member uncomfortable.
Jordan Clarkson is Sixth Man of the Year
Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson has been the favorite for much of the season. Charles Barkley even thought he should be an All-Star. Since the break, the 28-year-old has fallen back to earth considerably.
His shooting splits have fallen from 45/37/97 before the All-Star Game to 38/30/87 since. That translates to a 54.3 true shooting percentage on the season, about his career average and 99th among regular reserves.
Conversely, Jazz teammate Joe Ingles ranks fourth in that regard, only trailing three rim-centric centers. He is averaging 12.3 points on 50/47/84 splits. Clarkson has attempted 441 more field goals to score 337 more points than Ingles this season. The Australian is also averaging twice as many assists as his bench-mate, creating 712 points for his teammates — or 338 more than Clarkson. Give me the more efficient playmaker.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Jazz are 1.8 points per 100 possessions better with Ingles on the court in non-garbage minutes. They are six points per 100 worse with Clarkson. Eye-opening, considering they have played almost 2,000 more possessions with both or neither of them than they have with just one of them.
With Clarkson on the floor and without Ingles, Utah is outscoring opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions. Flip that to Ingles playing without Clarkson, and the Jazz are pounding foes by 17.3 points per 100. Part of that can be contributed to Ingles playing more minutes with their starters, but not all of it.
Yet, Clarkson is somehow still a heavy, heavy favorite (-1000) to win the award over Ingles (+600), Jalen Brunson (+2000) and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell (+4000), according to BetMGM. Hmm.
Cade Cunningham is a coin flip
The Houston Rockets (16-50) have all but clinched one of three lottery positions with the highest odds at both the No. 1 overall pick (14%) and a top-four slot (52.1%). The two other spots are wide open for the best shot at Cade Cunningham (currently No. 1 on Yahoo Sports expert Krysten Peek’s mock draft), Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley — widely considered the top four prospects in the Class of 2021.
Five teams have either 20 or 21 wins entering the regular season’s final week: the Minnesota Timberwolves (20-46), Detroit Pistons (20-47), Oklahoma City Thunder (20-46), Cleveland Cavaliers (21-45) and Orlando Magic (21-45). No other team is close. In fact, no one else has been eliminated from playoff contention yet.
The Timberwolves have done the worst job at tanking, winning four straight from April 24-29. Expect some chicanery with their lineups to keep pace with the likes of the Thunder, who have lost 19 of their last 20.
There is a chance the NBA’s coin-flip system plays a small role in deciding the odds for two or more teams tied with the same record. Hear me out. Four numbered Ping Pong balls will be drawn to determine each of the top four picks. The Rockets will be assigned 140 of a possible 1,000 combinations. The second- and third-worst teams will also get 140 combinations. Fourth gets 125 combos, fifth gets 105 and sixth gets 90.
In the event of a tie, the NBA averages the number of combinations assigned to each team — unless that average includes a fraction. Say the Timberwolves, Pistons and Thunder finish tied for the second-worst record. The 405 total combinations for spots 2-4 are averaged out to give each team 135 combos (or a 13.5% chance at the top pick). If a fourth team ties, then the average number of combinations for each is 127.5. Because no team can have half a combo, coin flips will decide who gets the extra combination(s).
In this instance, coin flips would determine who gets two extra combinations. The winner gets 129. The other three teams get 127. That’s a 0.2% advantage in landing Cunningham — marginal but not nothing.
The same holds true of any other tie that does not average out cleanly. For example, if two teams tie for the third-worst record, the 265 combinations assigned to the third and fourth slots are averaged — with the winner of a coin flip getting the extra combination. The odds of that making a difference are one in 1,000.
Even if the winner of the coin flip lands a higher pick in the lottery, there would be no way of knowing if the combination that came up was actually the extra one received in a game of chance, unless the NBA were to release publicly an exact four-number combination gained through the coin flip. Here’s hoping it does, so nerds the world over can rejoice if heads or tails determines who lands a certain franchise-altering talent.
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