The Biggest Surprises From The First Week Of The NBA Playoffs

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): We’ve had almost one full week of games in the NBA playoffs, and trends are emerging. Golden State took a 31-point third-quarter lead over the Clippers on Thursday night … and didn’t lose! So after a few early surprises, things seem to be getting back to what we expected.

One series not playing out according to seeding is San Antonio-Denver. The No. 7 Spurs beat the No. 2 Nuggets 118-108 on Thursday to take a 2-1 lead in the series. This comes as a surprise to the FiveThirtyEight NBA Predictions model, which had Denver as an 88 percent favorite to move on. The Nuggets are still favored, but just 60-40. Are you guys surprised by how this series is going?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior staff writer): Not all that much, no. I think I picked Denver out of respect for the season it had. But this was the one team basically everybody had questions about coming in.

I had the series going seven games, with Denver winning. It could easily be 3-0 Spurs right now.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I am surprised, but I don’t think we really should be. It’s the Spurs being the Spurs again.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Our model doesn’t like San Antonio very much, so given their regular-season performance and home-court advantage — and Denver has a big home-court advantage — the Nuggets were pretty clear favorites. But it didn’t really like the Nuggets all that much either. They aren’t a great playoff team because their depth doesn’t really help them in the playoffs, the topline talent is not all that good, and they don’t have much playoff experience.

So I’m surprised that we had them as high as 88 percent, frankly! But not surprised that the Spurs are ahead in the series.

chris.herring: On Denver’s home-court advantage: The Nuggets haven’t beaten the Spurs in San Antonio in 14 tries now.

tchow: I am surprised because at one point in the season, our model gave the Spurs just a 4 percent chance of even making the postseason. We had a story a while back that talked about how they started turning it around (better defense, better bench production), but they were still underdogs going into this series, in my opinion.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, I had sort of counted the Spurs out a long time ago.

Let that be a lesson to me: Never count out Pop.

The experience factor really seems to be hurting the Nuggets so far. (And our model took 3 points away from them for their lack of playoff experience.)

chris.herring: Nuggets coach Mike Malone has talked about the experience factor a pretty decent amount in the past week

His young starting point guard, Jamal Murray, began Game 2 going 0-for-8. Malone was asked if he gave thought to pulling him because of Murray’s performance. He said no, in part because he needed to show his young players that he believed in them, and that he’s with them, win or lose. Murray responded by hitting 8-of-9 in the final quarter to bring the Nuggets all the way back for a dramatic win.

The win probably saved their season for the time being. But it speaks to the volatility of having such a young/young-minded club.

tchow: Murray wasn’t much better in Game 3 — just 6 points and two assists. I’m not trying to pin Denver’s failing’s this postseason all on Murray, though. All the Nuggets starters were pretty terrible in Game 3.

chris.herring: It’s a pretty big contrast between the teams.

While we’re talking about the growing pains for a young team, it’s worth pointing out that the Spurs are being led in part by youngster Derrick White, whose defense is his calling card. I think this is his first real exposure to a national audience, but he’s been playing really well for months.

tchow: White’s Game 3 performance was kind of a reminder for a lot of people who don’t watch the Spurs that he existed.

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: White’s experience has been different because of all the injuries they’ve had. But White and Dejounte Murray are going to be an annoyingly good backcourt once the team is healthy again next season. AND there’s Bryn Forbes, too.

natesilver: The whole Nuggets backcourt feels like it’s way short of championship caliber. It needs an anchor. There are lots of useful pieces you could rotate around that anchor, like Murray and Gary Harris, but without that anchor, it doesn’t quite come together.

chris.herring: It’s tough: They have a fantastic, sure-handed backup in Monte Morris, who led the NBA in assist/turnover ratio.

sara.ziegler: MORE MONTE MORRIS

Cyclones, represent!

chris.herring: He may not win a game for you. But he’s extremely unlikely to ever lose one for you, which you could argue Murray either occasionally does, or comes close to doing. Again: These are the growing pains for a young team sometimes.

sara.ziegler: On to another team that has seemed shaky at times this postseason: the Philadelphia 76ers. But they seem to have recovered from their upset in Game 1 — they’ve beaten the Nets convincingly twice in a row now. What looked different for them in Games 2 and 3?

tchow: Ben. Simmons.

natesilver: Sen. Bimmons.

chris.herring: Yeah, that sounds about right. Whether it was Jared Dudley that got in his head, or just him recognizing that he had to be more aggressive, Simmons has been a completely different player since Game 1.

tchow: Simmons had a -21 plus/minus in Game 1. Game 2 he was +23, and then +11 in Game 3 with a 31 point performance on 85 percent shooting.

chris.herring: I hate to say this, because maybe it’s premature, but I was beginning to think that the Nets could steal this series if things broke right for them.

tchow: I think a lot of people thought that, Chris. The Nets are legit and play really hard.

chris.herring: The Nets stole home-court advantage in Game 1. Were basically even at halftime of Game 2. And then get a gift rolled out on a platter for them, with Joel Embiid sitting out of a Game 3 played in their home arena, in front of a fan base that hasn’t hosted a playoff game in four years.

Thursday was their chance. And I think with the loss now, that might be about it.

natesilver: I’m in the Ben-Simmons-is-underrated camp. Yeah, he doesn’t really have a jumpshot. But he does pretty much everything else well. And there have been a lot of players throughout NBA history who have survived or even thrived without jump shots — Giannis Antetokounmpo basically does that now. The advanced stats like Simmons.

tchow: I think it’s very different for a player like Giannis to not have a jump shot than Simmons.

chris.herring: While we’re on the issue of Simmons, I think we learned that Embiid not being there might have been a help for him

For all the wonderful things Embiid does, he plays at a plodding pace.

Someone like Simmons thrives in an up-tempo environment because of his inability to shoot.

tchow: Sara, I found the hot take for next week’s Hot Takedown episode: FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring says Sixers are better without Joel Embiid.

sara.ziegler: LOLOLOL

Yes!

chris.herring: They might be in this series! Well, probably not: Greg Monroe was rough.

If they had more depth, they might be.

natesilver: That’s the thing about Philly. Look how bad their bench is:

Everyone’s like, “Why are these four stars such awkward fits together” — and I’ll admit that they’re a little awkward, but with a half-decent bench, it’s an entirely different team.

chris.herring: I don’t think it’s a terrible bench. And the truth is, you can stagger when you have that many stars.

But the spots in which it’s terrible … yeah.

tchow: Sixers’ bench: Who? Who? Who? The big guy. Who? and Who?

sara.ziegler: 🤣

chris.herring: That’s their issue, I think. I’m not sure Boban Marjanovic would work against every team. But he’s their backup big.

natesilver: I saw Boban at the United Airlines lounge at Newark Airport one time. He was very big and tall and sitting in a giant lounge chair and still looked very big and tall.

chris.herring: I tweeted last night that I’m pretty sure he dunked last night with one foot still on the ground.

Anyway: I want to talk more about how disappointed I am in Brooklyn

tchow: Are you just disappointed in their central A/C system at Barclays, Chris?

chris.herring: Well, that too.

sara.ziegler: Are you disappointed that their slogan is “We go hard,” and then they didn’t?

chris.herring: They did go hard!

It’s not a question of effort with them. It never is. But I think what Nate alluded to is exactly the issue here. The Sixers’ bench isn’t great/may be bad. And the Nets’ second-best player is their bench.

natesilver: Yeah, Brooklyn’s not totally unlike Denver. Excellent depth, no playoff experience, frontline talent is meh.

tchow: Nate, they’re both small-market teams. I get it. (Queens represent!)

sara.ziegler: OMG

Tony trying to start a borough war here.

chris.herring: You generally see Brooklyn go on these massive runs in the second quarter of these games. But then after halftime, the game gets broken open, and Kenny Atkinson — who I really, really like — waits too long to call a timeout!

The Sixers went on a 21-2 (!!!!) run in Game 2 before Atkinson called for timeout. It took a 1-point deficit and expanded it to a 20-point lead for the Sixers. And then the game was over.

tchow: Maybe Atkinson is from the Phil Jackson school of letting the players figure it out on their own.

natesilver: What was the atmosphere like at Barclay’s, Chris? I think it’s one of the coolest venues in sports from an architectural/amenities standpoint, but every time I’ve gone, the fans are sort of half-hearted.

chris.herring: Last night was amazing to start the game. But I think they were sort of stunned to see the team run out of steam.

And as Tony said: I was freezing.

sara.ziegler: Well, it is a hockey rink, too.

chris.herring: So maybe the have to have the ice ready? But good lord.

My phone turned off at one point because of how cold it was.

sara.ziegler: Wow

That’s cold.

chris.herring: The atmosphere was really great. It’s good to have the playoffs in Brooklyn again. And hopefully Manhattan at some point in the next couple years. (side-eyes Knicks)

natesilver: Knicks fans should be rooting against Boston and against Golden State, right?

chris.herring: I’ve heard the same stuff everyone else has about Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coming to the Knicks. As much as I hear it, I just have to see it to believe that it’ll actually happen.

natesilver: I think KD could leave either after a championship or a flameout. But Kyrie — yeah, he’s already flip-flopped enough that I think Knicks fans want the Celtics out by Round 2.

chris.herring: I think I’m just too conditioned to believe that nothing overwhelmingly good can happen for/with the Knicks unless there’s an enormous downside that comes with it.

sara.ziegler: LOL

natesilver: My current scenario is that they get Kyrie and also draft Ja Morant and somehow that turns into a disaster.

sara.ziegler: Speaking of Kyrie, the Celtics are making quick work of the Pacers. Indiana doesn’t seem to have quite enough offense so far to hang with Boston.

chris.herring: 😔

tchow: I’m actually interesting to read Chris’s thoughts on this series. I remember A LOT of people were down on Boston going into the playoffs.

chris.herring: Yeah. I had some hope that this could be an interesting series.

But I also was tasked with writing an Indiana-based primer for the ESPN side ahead of this series. When I got to the “Why Indiana can win section,” I sat and stared at my screen for like an hour.

So this actually doesn’t surprise me all that much.

They simply don’t have enough offense. Or ingenuity.

natesilver: I haven’t watched much of that series; pretty much my only recollection was seeing a score that was like 76-59 in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and thinking I needed to update my contact lens prescription, but nope, that was the actual score.

chris.herring: They basically hand the ball off to Bojan Bogdanovic and say, “Do something.” Kind of like a kid who does a magic trick, but is still holding the quarter in his hand, in plain sight, for everyone to see.

tchow: Has Boston done anything to change people’s minds about their chances though?

chris.herring: No. They’re merely beating a flawed, weakened team, IMO.

tchow: That’s what I figured about Boston. The real test, if they do end up beating the Pacers, will probably come against Milwaukee.

chris.herring: In fairness to Nate McMillan and the Pacers, this was always going to be an uphill battle, because they’re playing without Victor Oladipo. It was a great accomplishment to go 21-21 this season without their star player after going 0-7 without him last season.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, they don’t really have anything to feel embarrassed about.

chris.herring: I really like Indiana, and have a soft spot for Little-Engine-That-Could sort of teams. But they need some reinvention.

They could use more firepower. But they need better schemes.

natesilver: I feel like the whole first round could use more firepower. Between inexperienced teams, teams with injury problems, teams without any star talent … it feels a little bit like spring training or something.

tchow: I agree, but it has been more interesting than I imagined.

chris.herring: A little.

sara.ziegler: Let’s talk about the other interesting series in the East: No. 2 Toronto has had its hands full with No. 7 Orlando. The Magic took the first game, but the Raptors stormed back in Game 2. The teams will face off Friday night in Orlando. Do we think the Magic have a realistic shot in this series?

natesilver: Mayyyyyybe?

chris.herring: It depends on what you define as “a shot.” I think they can get another game, potentially. I don’t think they will win the series. The Raptors responded in Game 2 the way you hoped a top-flight team would.

sara.ziegler: But the Magic are underrated, Chris!

I heard you say so.

chris.herring: Oh, they are. And not enough people know that.

But I don’t think that I ever conflated them being underrated with the notion that they should somehow beat the Raptors in a series.

tchow: Kyle Lowry responded in Game 2 the way you hoped. Chris wrote about Lowry’s Game 1 woes before, but he responded in a big way.

natesilver: Orlando is a weird-ass team, and they played very well in the second half of the season.

If you’re looking for an upset pick, I’d rather pick a weird team than a normal one.

chris.herring: If they had played competitively in Game 2, sure.

Or had a matchup they could readily exploit.

sara.ziegler: The Raptors had a 98 percent chance to win this series before the playoffs start, and now they’re all the way down to 93 percent. So things are still looking pretty good for them.

In the last series in the East, the Bucks had a little trouble with Detroit before pulling away in Game 2. But the most interesting thing to me about that game was Blake Griffin picking up his second technical foul of the series.

Blake Griffin, you’ll recall, has not actually played yet in this series.

tchow: Bucks in four. I think we can move on?

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: Yeah. That’s literally the only thing I find interesting about this series. That, and finding out how far away from the basket Giannis can dunk from.

tchow: The NBA tweet highlights of Giannis dunks have been the only saving grace of this series.

chris.herring: If and when the NBA move the first round back to a best-of-five, they’re going to use this series as evidence as why. (edited)

natesilver: I think there needs to be a mercy rule where you can concede your playoff series and get like three Lottery Balls or whatever.

sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move back to the West. The Trail Blazers are off to a great start, up 2-0 against the Thunder. Our model is surprised at this series — it had given the Thunder a 77-23 edge. Are you guys surprised?

chris.herring: Yes. I’m surprised. Maybe stupid, too.

natesilver: I mean, if Paul George isn’t himself, our model is gonna screw that series up.

tchow: He’s hurt!

chris.herring: I feel like a contrarian now, but I don’t even think he’s shoulder is the problem anymore. He shot the ball semi-decently last game.

Russ is shooting like he’s the one injured.

tchow: Our model can’t predict that Russell Westbrook will shoot 35 percent and 10 percent from 3-point range in this series.

chris.herring: EXACTLY

What I will say is that I don’t have a lot of faith in OKC if it’s simply relying on the notion that its shooting will improve.

They are shooting 16 PERCENT from three in this series.

Which, while God awful, is only a slight regression for them!

natesilver: That whole quadrant of the bracket — OKC, Portland, San Antonio, Denver — seems incredibly weak to me.

chris.herring: If OKC had a team full of sharpshooters, I could understand having more confidence.

But Russ still defends Damian Lillard as if he’s surprised that Dame can/will pull up from 35 feet.

The guy needs to be treated as if he’s Steph at this point

tchow: I don’t want to take anything away from Portland. Yes, they lost Jusuf Nurkic, but CJ and Dame have been awesome this series.

chris.herring: I came in thinking that this might be a sweep or a 4-1 series in favor of OKC. Simply thought that not having Nurkic would hurt against someone like Steven Adams. I thought CJ McCollum would struggle to find a rhythm (he’s coming off an injury and wasn’t good vs. OKC during the season). We watched Dame log 35 a night against the Thunder during the season and still get swept 4-0 during the regular season.

tchow: CJ has been 🔥

chris.herring: I didn’t think they had a great chance in this series. They had lost 10 playoff games in a row. With the exception of perimeter shooting, I thought just about everything else would be in OKC’s favor. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

tchow: If Dame wasn’t in Portland, would he still be this underrated? It feels like this is a storyline every season.

sara.ziegler: That’s a good question.

How many people regularly see him play?

tchow: Basketball nerds: “Look at Damian Lillard!”

Basketball fans: “Who this?”

chris.herring: I guess we have to define underrated.

natesilver: He was All-NBA First Team last season, no?

But, yeah, Portland has to be one of the least-watched teams in the league, or at least by people not in the Pacific Time Zone.

chris.herring: Even if you know who he is, and how great he is, I think you could objectively look at this series — and what the Blazers have done the last two years in the playoffs (0-8) — and say OKC should have been favored.

tchow: For OKC to take Game 3, they need to ____________.

And don’t say something like “play better” (looks at Nate).

sara.ziegler: SHOOT BETTER

chris.herring: … shoot better than my 4-year-old nephew does from outside of 23 feet.

natesilver: I’d say they need to play better basketball.

sara.ziegler: In the other non-Warriors series out West, the Rockets are handling the Jazz easily so far, setting up a showdown with Golden State in the second round. This has played out about as expected, right?

chris.herring: I had higher hopes for Jazz-Rockets. Am impressed with how dominant Houston has looked, but thought Utah would play better than this. Their defensive scheme has looked downright nonsensical to me

tchow: If Chris has a soft spot for Indiana, I think I have a soft spot for Utah. I love this team and wanted more out of them this series.

sara.ziegler: Utah is a very likable team.

natesilver: I didn’t expect Houston to dismantle Utah quite so thoroughly.

In fact, I think that’s the story of the first round so far. It’s a highly consequential story because the Rockets are absolutely good enough to give the Warriors a series.

chris.herring: The disappointment I feel with Utah is equivalent to how excited I am for the second round, with Warriors-Rockets.

That will seemingly be the Western Conference finals, just a round early.

natesilver: It would be quite something if the Rockets actually need fewer games to dispatch Utah than Golden State needs with the Clippers.

chris.herring: Seriously.

tchow: The Jazz just seem like a team that’s so close to figuring it out. Maybe not to a point where you think they can beat Golden State, but they’re so good in the regular season. I don’t know what happens to them in the playoffs.

chris.herring: Yeah, I sort of agree in theory, Tony.

But I think what I’ve learned is that I have to be leery of a team that relies on such a young player to be its leading scorer.

natesilver: Maybe you just need more isolation scoring in the playoffs? Or more scoring, period?

chris.herring: I remember a stat from last year: Donovan Mitchell was the first rookie to lead a playoff team in regular-season scoring since Carmelo Anthony.

I think there’s a reason we don’t see it happen much. And I think it’s even more problematic for a team built like that to have all sorts of horrible defensive breakdowns, because at that point, you know they have no shot at keeping up in a shootout against one of the best scorers in modern history.

If Quin Snyder rolls out the exact same defensive scheme that he did in Games 1 and 2, this series will end in a sweep.

natesilver: Is Mitchell … a little bit like Carmelo Anthony in that he’s taking too many shots? I mean, I guess he has to take a lot of shots with that lineup. But Utah really needs another player who can create his own shot.

tchow: What if you played a player like Royce O’Neale more? He’s +1.8 on defense (according to our model), and it looks like they do a bit better defensively with him on the floor.

chris.herring: He’s another example of what Nate is talking about, though: A guy that isn’t likely to create his own shot.

This is a team that will need to take a long, hard look at itself this summer despite how well it’s played during the second half of these last two seasons.

tchow: One obvious fix would be to get rid of Grayson Allen.

KIDDING!!!

natesilver: I also think Utah benefits from being a bit unorthodox. Rubio is an unorthodox point guard. They’re defense-first. They can play at a slow pace, although they picked up their pace a lot this year. They’re well-coached. So there’s an advantage from game-planning in the regular season. But Daryl Morey and the Rockets are going to study the hell out of the Jazz and know how to counter.

chris.herring: Some of these teams are built to play really, really well in the regular season. And there’s incredible value in that, for seeding purposes, etc.

But the inability to change your playing style when you’re forced to is often fatal this time of year.

sara.ziegler: Finally, Golden State seemed like Golden State in Game 3 of their series against the Clippers. So that panic appears to be over?

chris.herring: Hell, they seemed like Golden State in Game 2 to me!

It was just a massive collapse at the end of Game 2.

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: I actually pointed out yesterday that the game played out exactly the same way for a long while:

natesilver: Our model thought the DeMarcus Cousins injury was a pretty big deal. Although I think it overrated how effective Cousins had been this season.

sara.ziegler: All season, Cousins has been more about potential in our model.

But the Warriors didn’t need him early in the season, obviously.

tchow: I have nothing much to say about this series, but I do want to point readers to this interview KD gave before Game 3.

natesilver: It’s not that they’re going to lose to the Clippers, but I do just have to wonder about a team’s mentality when they can blow a 30-point lead.

chris.herring: NBC analyst Tom Haberstroh pointed out that Steph was only averaging 19.9 points per 36 minutes this season with Boogie on the court, and that he essentially morphed into Malcolm Brogdon.

Averaged 31.4 points per 36 minutes without DeMarcus on the floor.

sara.ziegler: Wow

natesilver: I mean, part of that might be that Steph was being deferential in an effort to get Cousins feeling like himself again.

chris.herring: EXACTLY

Which … there isn’t time to do that in the playoffs.

tchow: Definitely. I think Steph went through a similar dip when KD joined too.

chris.herring: The last thing you want is Steph playing nice when you need him to be Steph.

natesilver: It does just seem kind of impossible when you have to shut down Steph AND KD and Klay. Even if the rest of the team kind of sucks.

chris.herring: I tend to think this helps them for now, but the Rockets series was one of the overarching reasons they signed Cousins — to make it so Houston couldn’t switch as much as they did on them last year

natesilver: Yeah. So in some ways, we’re back to last year’s series, which was as even as it gets. The Rockets lately are playing as well as last year. And the Warriors without Cousins are basically last year’s team.

sara.ziegler: After this matchup, will we even want to finish out the playoffs??

natesilver: Well, the Western Conference finals are likely to be an anti-climax.

tchow: LOL. Yes! I for one am very interested to see who comes out of the East to play against Warriors/Rockets.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

How The Warriors Blew A 31-Point Lead

We could talk all day long about the everlasting debate over competitive balance in the NBA, but perhaps the biggest challenge the Golden State Warriors pose for many die-hard NBA fans is the issue of sleep.

Because they play on the West Coast, the two-time defending champions are often playing late at night, leaving East Coasters and even Midwesterners with a choice of whether to stay up and watch the action or to get some shut eye before work the next morning. Some play it by ear and call it a night only if and when Golden State builds a commanding, early second-half lead.

This was basically the scenario on Monday night: The Warriors went up by 31, 94-63, at home on the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Clippers, the biggest first-round underdogs in 30 years, midway through the third quarter.1 Yet those who cut off their TV at that point, or before, missed out on the biggest comeback — or collapse, depending on how you view it — in NBA playoff history.

The Clippers poured in 85 second-half points en route to an improbable 135-131 win, knotting the best-of-seven at one game apiece as the series heads to Los Angeles later this week.

There’s no need to concoct an over-complicated explanation for the comeback. While there wasn’t an immediate effect, Stephen Curry’s fourth foul prompted coach Steve Kerr to sit the scorching sharpshooter (who had 22 points and was 6-of-9 from the field) for an eight-and-a-half-minute stretch during the third quarter, until there were 13 seconds left in the period. By that point, the Warriors’ lead (still 17 points) had already been cut by almost half. And Curry’s magic had largely faded once he was subbed back in: Upon returning, he shot just 2-of-9 the rest of the way.

Fellow star Kevin Durant was efficient as a scorer but turned the ball over four separate times during that third quarter alone. He would finish with a team-high nine giveaways, and the club — whose problematic turnovers we’ve detailed here before — had 22 turnovers on the night. (It marked the second game in a row that Golden State has had more than 20.) Durant again got frustrated with Clippers irritant Patrick Beverley, who stands about 10 inches shorter, never stops giving everything he has and seems to effectively get into the All-Star’s head.

Lastly, the Warrior defense allowed Lou Williams, the Clippers’ top scorer, to get rolling and simply couldn’t find a way to stop him late. From the point that L.A.’s deficit peaked at 31 points, Williams, the likely Sixth Man of the Year, shot 11-of-17 for 26 points while also dishing out seven assists over the final 19 minutes of the game. He even grabbed a pair of his own misses and put them each back for valuable buckets.2

“We stopped playing, and got kind of disconnected, in that mid-third quarter,” Kerr told reporters of the turnaround. “We lost our defensive edge.”

It’s been tempting not to even bother writing about the key factors in this series, largely because of how enormous an underdog the Clippers are. But one thing the Warriors would have wanted to avoid going in was this: Don’t allow Los Angeles to stay in the game late. The win marked the third time this season alone that the Clippers had come back from 25 or more down on the road to win,3 and they were the NBA’s most efficient team in late-game, clutch scenarios during the regular season. With the score separated by 5 points or fewer in the final five minutes of play, L.A. outscored opponents by a league-high 17.7 points per 100 possessions.

The clutch shooting of Williams will stand out, but he was far from alone. The Clippers shot 8-of-14 from deep as a team in the second half. Montrezl Harrell, Williams’s high-flying pick-and-roll partner, shot 5-of-5 for 17 points after L.A. fell behind by 31. Beverley made a key play, picking Curry’s pocket as he brought the ball up the court early in the fourth, as if to say that the Clippers weren’t simply going to lie down, despite the Warriors still holding a double-digit lead.

And in what’s marked a sea change under coach Doc Rivers, a couple of the team’s youngsters — a contingent that just a few years ago never would have gotten an opportunity to show what they can do — pulled off arguably the biggest play of the game. Williams got a screen at the top of the key from rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who then short-rolled before hitting fellow rookie Landry Shamet on the wing for the go-ahead triple.

Still, the stunning comeback likely doesn’t figure to change all that much concerning this series, given the massive gap in talent. Yes, the Warriors lost center DeMarcus Cousins to what may be another significant injury, something that could throw them out of rhythm now that the playoffs are underway. Their chances of winning the NBA title — while still better than anyone else’s — are down significantly as a result.4 But the reality is that the Warriors still have a number of other All-Stars to lean on, while the Clippers have none.

It may end up being nothing more than a single, historic comeback in what amounts to a five-game series victory for Golden State. But even if that’s all, the outcome may have been enough to prompt some sleepy fans to catch the final quarter the next time they’re weighing whether to get that extra half-hour of rest.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

LeBron And The Lakers Have Hit A Low Point

On the one hand, the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night wasn’t the most surprising thing. After all, the Bucks — who staged a late run to earn the victory in Los Angeles — own the NBA’s best record and have a leading MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

On the other hand, the Lakers surrendering a 15-2 run — and the lead — over the final three minutes of play may have put the team’s back against the wall in an entirely new way.

With the defeat, LeBron James and the Lakers find themselves staring at just a 14 percent playoff probability in FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projection model, the lowest mark they’ve had all season, and a damning scenario given that there are only 20 games left in the campaign. That 14 percent figure is an enormous drop-off from even a week ago, when the club held 25 percent odds to get in. (Three weeks ago, the Lakers’ number was 41 percent.)

But a number of realities are setting in now. The Lakers are 4 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the seventh seed and 3.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker (meaning their lead is more like 4 games, since the Lakers would miss out on the postseason if they were to finish with the same record as San Antonio). Perhaps the most disheartening thing, aside from having a lot of ground to make up, is the fact that the other teams vying for the last two spots have much easier remaining schedules.

Our projections surmise that it will ultimately take about 44 victories to earn a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. In order to reach that win total, the Lakers would need to finish 14-6 against the NBA’s 10th-toughest remaining schedule — one that has 10 home games and 10 road ones. They still have to play the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, Bucks again, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder, among others.

By contrast, the indestructible Spurs need to go only 10-9 to finish with 44 wins. They have an easier-than-average slate the rest of the way, with 11 of their last 19 games in San Antonio. The Clippers have it even better, needing a 9-9 finish to get to 44 victories, with 12 of their last 18 contests at home. (The young, fun Sacramento Kings are positioned in about the same spot as the Lakers in the standings, needing a 13-7 finish to reach 44 wins. But their remaining schedule is the third-easiest in the NBA, giving them some hope in an uphill battle.)

James has faced late-season pressure to lift his team out of the doldrums each of the past few seasons. But this scenario with the Lakers stands apart, both because of how much time he missed with injury (one that now looks as if it will cost the team a playoff spot), and because of how the young supporting cast struggled to hold the rope during his absence, going 6-11. It’s one thing to coast into the postseason, the way James’s Miami and Cleveland clubs often did. But James himself hasn’t missed the playoffs in 14 years, not since the 2004-05 season.

If there’s a bright side, it’s that the Lakers finally look engaged. They held Antetokounmpo to just 16 points, one of his lowest-scoring outputs in a dominant season. Youngster Brandon Ingram has showcased his scoring ability lately and was unstoppable Friday, finishing with 31 points.

But the time to celebrate moral victories for this team has run out, unfortunately. A sixth-straight season of missing the playoffs — especially now, after adding one of the league’s all-time greats — would be disastrous. And after Friday’s loss, the Lakers are staring directly at that possibility.

The Pistons Are Far From Perfect, But They Could Make Noise In The Playoffs

There’s a natural tendency in the NBA to lavish attention on teams that, with every bad loss, send social media into a tizzy because of what it might mean for the league’s landscape. For instance, if the LeBron-led Lakers don’t reach the postseason — a 80 percent probability at this point — it would seem a foregone conclusion that major changes would take place in L.A. this summer.

On the other extreme, then, are the Pistons. Detroit, which has been to the NBA playoffs once in the past nine seasons, desperately craves a postseason berth. But if the Pistons don’t make it, there won’t be headlines in national news outlets criticizing them for it. And even if there were, it would be tough to make big changes within an organization that has a first-year head coach and a top-heavy roster. This is their team for now.

The Pistons are clearly an imperfect club. But they can bolster their fortunes by simply continuing to play the way they have in recent weeks, winning eight of their past 11 games. Through Feb. 1, the sputtering Pistons’ offense ranked 29th out of the league’s 30 teams in both effective field goal rate and true shooting percentage. Since Feb. 2, though, the club has jumped into the top five leaguewide in both categories.

Unlike earlier stretches in the season, when All-Star forward Blake Griffin was carrying the offense, the Pistons have enjoyed a far more balanced approach over the past month. The team’s share of one-on-one plays — which was the NBA’s second-highest through Feb. 11 — ranked just 12th over the past month of action, according to stat-tracking database Second Spectrum.

After coming into the season showing off a jumper that wasn’t quite game-ready, two-time All-Star Andre Drummond has looked better than ever simply by getting back to the basics near the rim. He’s averaging more than 22 points and 17 boards2 over his past seven games and has found considerable success with a nifty little push shot from about 8 feet out. Beyond that, maddeningly inconsistent guard Reggie Jackson has been consistently good for a month now and is shooting a career-best 36 percent from deep.

All of this is noteworthy for an offense that sometimes shoots as if the object of the sport is to bruise the backboard with repeated misfires. On Wednesday in San Antonio, for instance, Detroit bricked 14 of its first 15 shots to begin the second quarter. Coach Dwane Casey has acknowledged that the iso-heavy games prior to February were largely a necessity: Griffin trying to break down an entire defense — or simply trying to post up — was often Detroit’s best hope.3

The team has to use an array of handoffs and screens, both on and off the ball, to convince defenders to move and to free up jump-shooters.4 No team scores fewer fast-break points per night than Detroit, and the Pistons are less efficient after forcing a turnover on D than any other NBA club.

If there’s been a surprise during the team’s stretch of solid play, it’s that Detroit has shot so well in the aftermath of trading its best shooter, Reggie Bullock — a deal that initially looked suspect and suggested to many that the Pistons were trying to dodge paying the luxury tax. (Signing perimeter threat Wayne Ellington obviously made up for much of that.)

But there’s a strong argument to be made that speedy backup guard Ish Smith has been the catalyst in the turnaround. The Pistons were terrible in the time he missed earlier in the season with an injury but looked competent again once he rejoined the lineup. (With Smith out, the only other point guard Detroit had outside of Jackson was 37-year-old Jose Calderon.)

Heading into Wednesday night’s games, only four players5 had helped boost their teams’ winning percentages more than Smith,6 according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Pistons have logged a 21-13 record with Smith (61.8 percent) and an 8-18 mark (30.8 percent) without him.

Buying stock in the Pistons feels risky because of their shallow depth and their cold spells that feel like arctic blasts straight from Canada. This 11-game stretch hasn’t been tough, featuring just two wins over teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

Still, Detroit owns an 87 percent playoff probability and a favorable remaining schedule — far easier than that of Brooklyn, Charlotte or Miami.7 The Pistons’ defense has been solid all year (Drummond is among the league leaders in steals), and the club limits opponents to a league-low 33.7 percent from the 3-point line.

There’s a bizarre universe in which the Pistons could reach the playoffs at below .500 and still be favored in the first round. If the Pistons land at the No. 6 seed, and the Pacers minus star Victor Oladipo hold on to the No. 3, not only would Detroit have the top player in the series, but it would also have a real chance to advance to the second round.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and those might be high hopes for now. But for a capped-out franchise that hasn’t reached the second round since 2008, the mere dream itself almost feels like a noteworthy accomplishment.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Wait … Is LeBron James Actually Going To Miss The Playoffs?

LeBron James has been so good for so long that it’s easy to forget just how astounding some of his accomplishments are. For example, he currently owns one of the greatest ongoing streaks in sports: His team has made the NBA Finals in eight straight seasons, starting in 2011. That’s mind-blowing in a league where a single finals appearance can be the highlight of a player’s entire career — and he’s done it for two different franchises.

Of course, everyone knew it would be hard for James to keep that streak going this season after moving from the Cleveland Cavaliers — and the relative ease of the Eastern Conference — to the Los Angeles Lakers and the scary West. The thing that has taken NBA observers by surprise is the reason why the finals streak might not happen: James’s Lakers are in real danger of not making the playoffs at all.

According to our NBA projection model, Los Angeles currently has just a 26 percent probability of making the playoffs. L.A. sits a game under .500 in the West’s No. 10 slot, three games back of the eighth-seeded Clippers with 25 games left on the schedule, and it will face the league’s ninth-toughest schedule down the stretch. The Lakers’ only saving grace is that, at full strength, our model thinks they’re the West’s eighth-best team, significantly better than both the Clippers and the No. 9 Sacramento Kings. But it will be a race to the finish that James hasn’t had to worry about in a very long time.

The last LeBron-led team to miss the postseason entirely was the 2004-05 Cavs, in James’s second NBA season. They went 42-40 — which has traditionally been good enough to make the playoffs in the East — but lost out on a tiebreaker with the New Jersey Nets (who beat Cleveland 3-1 in the season series). Talent-wise, that team was a far cry from even later versions of the Cavs that would be prematurely bounced out of the playoffs: Journeyman guard Jeff McInnis was second on the team in minutes behind LeBron, and low-scoring swingman Ira Newble was also a full-time starter. (The next scoring options behind James were Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden.) James himself had not yet fully ascended to GOAT levels of performance, either, posting what would eventually be the fifth-worst Box Plus/Minus and fourth-worst win shares per 48 minutes of his career to date.

On paper, this season’s Lakers should not be drawing comparisons to Jeff McInnis and Ira Newble. Although L.A.’s supporting cast didn’t have the same immediate appeal as players in other potential free-agent destinations for James, it was assumed that the young quartet of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball would build on their promising 2018 performances — particularly by playing alongside James — and mix with the Lakers’ strange mishmash of veterans to make a functional team. But that hasn’t consistently happened during James’s debut campaign in purple and gold.

It’s been a tough season for the young Lakers

Performance metrics for four Los Angeles Lakers prospects, 2018 vs. 2019

2018 Season 2019 Season
Player BPM WS/48* PIE%† BPM WS/48* PIE%†
Kyle Kuzma -1.3 .077 10.4% -1.3 .078 10.6%
Brandon Ingram -1.3 .068 9.6 -3.2 .042 8.4
Josh Hart -0.1 .111 8.8 -0.4 .063 6.4
Lonzo Ball +1.7 .053 10.0 +0.7 .056 8.8
Average -0.4 .076 9.8 -1.1 .060 8.7

*Win shares per 48 minutes

†PIE% = Player Impact Estimate, a rough measure of the percentage of all positive on-court events (for both teams) the player accounted for.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Across a variety of metrics, LeBron’s young sidekicks have mostly declined in performance this season, despite benefiting from an extra year of development and getting to play next to one of the greatest offensive creators in NBA history. Only Kuzma can credibly say he has shown any amount of improvement, increasing his usage rate and true shooting percentage while reducing his turnover rate. The rest — particularly Ingram, whose advanced stats have slid into an abyss — have stalled out or worse, and none has even amounted to a league-average player, according to the consensus of metrics.

Making matters worse, it could be argued that those four cost Los Angeles a shot at trading for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis at the deadline (assuming that former Pelicans GM Dell Demps ever actually intended to deal Davis). If even a few of the Lakers’ youngsters had played well this season, showing the requisite star potential to be included in a trade package for Davis, it’s possible that L.A. would have been penciling a LeBron-AD duo into its lineup for a playoff push this year. Instead, it’s left waiting for Hart and Ball to return from injury and hoping the kids can play better down the stretch.

The veterans haven’t exactly helped much, either. JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler are an efficient pairing of defensive bigs, and both are above average in win shares per 48 — the most charitable stat for each — while shooting guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the recently acquired Reggie Bullock are at least in the vicinity of average in the metric. (As is new power forward Mike Muscala.) But Rajon Rondo has shot the ball poorly this season, and Lance Stephenson hasn’t been an effective player in years. All told, James’s supporting cast hasn’t been appreciably better than the one he fled in Cleveland after last season.1

And it bears mentioning that James himself has not been as statistically dominant as in his last few seasons as a Cavalier. His usage rate, true shooting percentage, assist rate, rebound rate, steal rate, block rate and defensive BPM are all down from last year. He’s shooting worse on twos, threes and free throws. And most concerning, the 34-year-old missed 18 games between Christmas and early February with a groin injury, and he’s played only 49.5 percent of the Lakers’ available minutes this season — by far the lowest mark of his career.

James did tell reporters over All-Star weekend that he “feels great,” though, and that he’s ready to lead a playoff push for Los Angeles.

“[I’m] looking forward to seeing what we can do to get back in this playoff race,” James said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much on how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”

The Lakers will need to summon all of James’s focus and talent to storm back into the playoff picture. It’s more than possible, particularly if James is indeed healthy. But our projections are still low for a LeBron team even after accounting for James’s return to the lineup — and the fact that the Clippers were sellers at the trade deadline. (That’s why we give L.A. a 26 percent chance, while simpler forecasts such as the one at Basketball-Reference.com peg its odds at about 5 percent.) And even if the Lakers do make the playoffs, they would probably end up being heavy underdogs against the Golden State Warriors in the first round.

The Lakers’ long-term future should be brighter: The team will have plenty of cap space to use on free agents surrounding James and plenty of superstar options to choose from (in addition to the ongoing potential of a Davis trade). For now, though, James’s finals streak has a real chance of ending far earlier than anybody expected: April 10, the final day of the 2018-19 NBA regular season.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

What Have The Knicks Done?

New York Knicks executives in recent years have said they would rebuild cautiously and avoid trading their first-round picks. That approach paid off — sweet-shooting big man Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2015, quickly ascended into a star, giving the team hope that it could finally build something sustainable with just another solid move or two. All the organization needed to do was avoid somehow taking a step backward.

And then Thursday happened.

In response, FiveThirtyEight’s biggest NBA fans gathered to process the reported trade.

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I covered the Knicks for five years. Not their worst five, necessarily. But saw their worst season in franchise history. You’re naturally going to see them do things that make you scream, “Why?!” But this is a new level, even for me.

This Porzingis trade, if they don’t land a max-level star or two, is just befuddling.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer/angry Knicks fan): I think I’m going to be a Brooklyn Nets fan now. Why the hell would you do this?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Do we know what draft pick compensation they got, if any? Because that seems pretty important. (These details, which weren’t clear during the time of the chat, emerged shortly after we finished the conversation. New York will receive two future first-round picks in the trade.)

chris.herring: Not the exact terms, no. Though it seems really likely that the Mavs are going to give up something on that front.

natesilver: I guess I’d say this: The process by which the Knicks got to this point is crazy. The outcome, I think, might not be as bad as it seems at first glance. But it really depends on the pick(s).

chris.herring: More than anything, this was about allowing the Knicks to send over their bloated contracts so that they could clear salary cap space. Especially Tim Hardaway Jr., whose deal would’ve made it tough for them to add a second star next to Porzingis this summer.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yeah, if there is a silver lining (Is there a silver lining?), they just freed up a massive amount of cap space.

tchow: Welcome to New York, Kevin Durant!!

chris.herring: Only spent seven or eight years there, but this is where my New York cynicism comes into play. The Knicks haven’t had a very good history when it comes to FAs.

natesilver: They also got a buy-low guy in Dennis Smith Jr., although it seems like they have about 14 other buy-low point guards on the roster right now.

tchow: But in losing Porzingis, doesn’t that make the Knicks a less attractive destination to come play? If you were a max player, why would you look at this team and say, “I want to go to there”?

natesilver: Well, yeah, that’s the catch.

tchow: I guess maybe two max players could buddy up and that nullifies what I just said.

natesilver: A team of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and … uuuhhhh, who’s the third-best player on that team? Smith Jr., I guess?

tchow: I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. This is INSANE!!! I’m still in shock.

chris.herring: If nothing else, I guess this all just surprises me because it speaks to one of two things. Either 1) You have that much confidence that a superstar is coming …

tchow: Well you’re forgetting Zion, Nate.

chris.herring: Or 2) Things had gotten so bad/toxic with Porzingis that you didn’t see how you could make it work with him anymore. They really had no obligation to give into this right now, even if he was unhappy.

neil: Right, he was only a restricted free agent after the season.

tchow: Well, Chris, if things have gotten that bad with Porzingis, you would think they were secretly shopping him around earlier. Is this really the best deal they could get? I find that hard to believe.

natesilver: It is worth keeping in mind that Porzingis has a serious injury that other guys have struggled to recover from, that he hadn’t reached superstar status yet, and that he was about to get expensive. The upside is so high, though, that you’d think a team, maybe a cap-constrained team, might have given up a little more.

chris.herring: Yep. I’m not blown away by the fact that they dealt him. It’s what they dealt him for.

natesilver: Getting technical, but his cap hold is only like $12 million this summer, so that was a big benefit too.

chris.herring: There are two or three different reasons to potentially deal him. I just don’t know that any of them were worth dealing him for that return.

natesilver:

tchow:

FIGHT!!

natesilver: No those don’t contradict. Sign the qualifying offer for one year. Then become a full-fledged free agent in summer 2020.

tchow: Oh damn … you’re right. OK … back to crying.

chris.herring: During the time I spent on the Knicks beat, I got used to watching them attach useful players to ones whose contracts were albatrosses. They traded Tyson Chandler (useful) to unload Raymond Felton (albatross). And Iman Shumpert (useful) to unload JR Smith (albatross).

natesilver: Were Hardaway and Lee that untradeable? They aren’t terrible players, and their contracts aren’t that bad.

chris.herring: Neither is a bad player. Maybe overpaid (I’ve definitely argued that with Hardaway).

natesilver: In some sense, everyone in the deal is a distressed asset.

chris.herring: If anything, Hardaway is just pricey because of what you want to accomplish this summer.

tchow: Watch Dennis Smith Jr. come out of this as the best player in the trade.

natesilver: It’s not nothing.

chris.herring: But Porzingis should not be the sweetener in any deal like this! He’s the lone All-Star changing hands here.

neil: Smith Jr. certainly got a lot of hype as a rookie last year.

tchow: KP 👏 IS 👏 A 👏 UNICORN

chris.herring: I’ll put it this way: Smith and his folks floated that he potentially wanted out of Dallas a week or two ago. That came and went, likely because no one felt like he was worth all that much. He’s explosive. He’s young enough to gamble something on. But he’s not even a clear starter in everyone’s eyes.

natesilver: So what else could they have gotten? What do we think the market price for Porzingis would be? Would Toronto have given up Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, for instance, and taken on either Hardaway or Lee but not both?

chris.herring: It was only 20 minutes or so before the trade reports came that this tweet went out.

natesilver: I’m just saying that if you clear the decks for two max free agents but you have a guy like Siakam making just $2.5 million a year, that gives you a lot more to work with.

chris.herring: Notice how smart we perceive those particular franchises to be. I saw someone say, “The smart franchises are circling the dumb one.” Almost like the Knicks were the prey here.

tchow: Right?? I keep thinking there must be other, better trades.

chris.herring: For sure. At least with Siakam, you have a good, athletic two-way player to build around.

tchow: This is all just us talking, right? There were no reports that Toronto was even looking to offer Siakam. Right? Right?

chris.herring: I honestly don’t know whether Smith will be a starter two or three years from now. There’s some faith because of how young he is, but he hasn’t shown consistency yet. And the Knicks haven’t been great with developing two-way talent at the guard spot lately.

natesilver: I wanna know about the draft pick(s) too. Dallas still owns its own pick if it’s 1-5 this year — otherwise it goes to Atlanta — and they’re probably still going to end up in the lottery.

neil: I think we are being very NYC-centric here and focusing on the Knicks’ angle. But for the Mavs, their new Doncic-Porzingis combo seems like it could eventually be very scary.

natesilver: NYC IS BASKETBALL MECCA, NEIL! SUCH A MECCA THAT THE ONLY GOOD PLAYER ON THE KNICKS IN THE PAST 10 YEARS GETS TRADED FOR CAP SPACE

neil: No, it’s not (“The Decline Of New York City As An NBA Talent Generator”).

tchow: No, Neil’s right. Forget the Knicks. I already have. Porzingis and Luka together is going to be amazing!! No way Dirk retires now.

chris.herring: Dallas is gonna be fun.

natesilver: Yeah, how did they do that? Turn the No. 5 pick and — Dennis Smith Jr.? — into Luka and Porzingis?

chris.herring: The Knicks were spending all this time trying to find a running mate for KP, and now Porzingis has Doncic.

tchow: So right now, we have them projected to be way out of the playoffs. When is Porzingis supposed to return? I’m getting ahead of myself

chris.herring: They’re relevant now. Even if they unloaded a hefty part of their rotation here to get Porzingis. But this was a great move for them.

natesilver: It was a little bit ambiguous. Dallas is tanking, obviously, so maybe they just play him for like six games to show he still had something left (as an inducement to free agents, etc.) and then find some excuse to shut him down.

chris.herring: Yeah. Porzingis probably wasn’t going to play for NYK this year. Maybe he gets into a few games for Dallas, but I doubt it.

natesilver: Yeah, they might as well tank too. Maybe not an outright tank, but they do keep their own pick if it’s 1-5.

chris.herring: If you’re the Mavs, this makes sense. You’ve still got Harrison Barnes under contract making a lot of money. Hardaway is under contract a couple more years.

tchow: “Makes sense” is such an understatement here.

natesilver: Don’t the Mavs have space for a max free agent too?

chris.herring: I don’t think so? Not with all the money they just took on.

This trade was their free agency, in a way. Dallas very quietly just hit us with a Nash/Dirk redux. Except Luka can score better than Nash, and Porzingis can defend.

natesilver: It looks like they should have cap space in 2020-21, though, when the Barnes/Powell contracts all come off the books.

chris.herring: Two or three years from now, they’ll have cap money again, and you imagine players would want to team up with a duo like that.

tchow: (if Porzingis signs)

chris.herring: Porzingis will be 25 in two years. Luka will be 22. Also, can we talk about the fact that the Mavs were at the Garden last night? And Mark Cuban was there. I imagine this topic came up.

natesilver: Ahhh didn’t think about that. But, yeah, it seems pretty weird to think this deal was just conjured up out of thin air.

tchow: They knew. They fucking knew.

chris.herring: Dennis Smith Jr. logged a triple-double.

natesilver: Haha.

tchow:

natesilver: Oh shit!!!!!

tchow: Look at that. That’s a “we’re going to be teammates” handshake.

natesilver: THE FIX WAS IN.

chris.herring: I soooo hope the Knicks — who could’ve drafted Smith but instead took Frank Ntilikina — weren’t enamored by his good game to where they said, “You know what? That sounds good to us.”

tchow: Chris, that is EXACTLY what happened.

chris.herring: What it all comes down to for the Knicks is free agency: If you land two guys who are truly worth it, it’s hard to look back at this and be angry.

tchow: And there is my silver lining.

chris.herring: But for the time being, it is just astounding.

natesilver: The Knicks also haven’t drafted very well. Kevin Knox is regarded as a future rotation piece, if not a star, and I sorta get why because he looks like a good player, but his numbers are unbelievably terrible.

chris.herring: Also: My favorite stat ever, from my Knick beat days: The Knicks haven’t re-signed one of their draft picks on a multiyear deal since Charlie Ward, who they took in 1994. Trading Porzingis keeps that alive.

natesilver: Wow. BASKETBALL MECCA.

tchow: That is insane.

chris.herring: So them wanting to build it through free agency is fitting.

natesilver: I think I have to go to their next home game just to see what a shitshow it is.

tchow: FiveThirtyEight field trip, Nate?

natesilver: I’m down, dude. At least tickets will be cheap.

tchow: Hey, at least we still have Allonzo Trier. And Enes Kanter is back. Things are looking up for the Knicks.

chris.herring: Not that it has any bearing on how this summer pans out. But I think their last four deals for $90 million or more were, in this order: Melo, Amar’e Stoudemire, Stephon Marbury and Allan Houston.

natesilver: I mean, just look at this shit:

tchow: My god that is … depressing.

natesilver: I guess their bigs have been OK? Noah Vonleh and Luke Kornet and Mitchell Robinson?

neil: Ooof, you were not kidding about Knox’s numbers, Nate.

natesilver: Yeah, Neil, and it’s not just some advanced stats thing. He’s shooting just 37 percent. Just 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. For a guy who’s pretty athletic, that’s kind of sad.

neil: Maybe he’s on the Enes Kanter diet.

natesilver: Knox has a nice-looking 3-point stroke, and I guess you can say he’d get the numbers up if they weren’t tanking. That’s what’s a little hard to figure out on a team like the Knicks where they basically don’t have any incentive to work in their shot selection or to play defense.

tchow: If this is just going to become a shitting on Knox chat, I think it’s time to end it.

natesilver: I’m happy to also shit on other Knicks.

tchow: Just for fun, to end this chat, should we all say who we think won this trade?

chris.herring: Assuming the Knicks don’t land two absolute studs in FA, the Mavs.

natesilver: It’s clearly a good trade for Dallas. Where it ends up on the spectrum from “terrible” to “OK” for the Knicks depends on the draft picks and, yeah, the free agent situation.

chris.herring: Agreed, Nate. You just paired two of the best 25-and-under players in the league together. It could turn out to be a home run for both sides. I just don’t have that level of faith that everything will go right for New York.

natesilver: There is a downside risk with Porzingis, too, which is that he’s never really healthy again. But you do have a year to evaluate him before making a commitment. So the fact that he’s not looking to sign a long-term extension right away is both a bug and a feature.

chris.herring: I guess.

neil: And given the lengths we’ve seen teams go to just to have a chance to get a franchise-altering star, it seems worth it.

chris.herring: I’d be OK with that gamble if it means giving up DSJ and a pick. Dallas has always been willing to roll the dice on acquiring a star.

tchow: You know who won? NBA Twitter won cause this is going to provide so much content for the next few days/until Anthony Davis gets traded.

chris.herring: They even traded Tyson Chandler the summer after he was the linchpin to their title because they thought it’d allow them a chance at a star. They wanted to clear space.

neil: The NBA needs to push its trade deadline further from the Super Bowl.

Wait your turn, NBA! You’ll have the limelight next week.

chris.herring: NOPE. In fact, I hope Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign today, too.

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): My two cents: I lost because I’m waiting for Nate to file a piece about independent presidential campaigns and the Porzingis trade has, I’m sure, delayed it.

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Ben Simmons Has Old-School Range. In 2019, That’s A Problem.

The Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the most interesting teams of the 2018-19 NBA season so far — and that hasn’t always been a good thing. On the court, they’re a fast-paced squad with a ton of young talent, but they haven’t quite made the leap forward people expected after last year’s breakout performance. Off the court, they followed up a crazy offseason with the blockbuster trade of the year to date, snagging Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves. But perhaps predictably, it didn’t take long before reports emerged about drama between Butler and Philly’s coaching staff. Stir in Joel Embiid’s troll tweets and the depressing saga of former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz’s shot, and there’s never a dull moment with these Sixers.

Somewhat quietly amid the craziness, though, point-forward Ben Simmons’s shooting has also become a major subplot in Philadelphia’s mercurial ascent. Late in his rookie season, we noted that Simmons had never made a 3-pointer in his NBA career; he’s now 126 games in, and that’s still true — in fact, he hasn’t even attempted one this season. Only 10 percent of Simmons’ shots have even come outside of 10 feet from the basket. Here’s what his highly compressed shot chart looks like this season, according to Austin Clemens’ Swish 2.0 tool:

It’s like something you might have seen from an NBA star of the 1970s or 1980s — if only we’d had shot charts for players back then. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Simmons from being an extremely productive NBA player: He currently ranks 16th in the league in Win Shares and is tied for 14th in Value Over Replacement Player.

But as SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck pointed out a few weeks ago, Simmons’s unwillingness to shoot could be hampering Philly’s potential against better opponents. “In Simmons’ 11 career games against the Celtics,” Ellentuck wrote, “Boston has outscored Philly by 125 points in 402 minutes with him on the floor, according to StatMuse.” By comparison, that number was somehow 134 points worse than Embiid’s plus-minus against Boston in a comparable number of minutes.1 Ellentuck went on to show a similar split for Simmons against other contenders (such as the Toronto Raptors), and more favorable splits against poor teams such as the Atlanta Hawks, although a lot of that is to be expected — obviously a good player on a good team will have a better plus-minus against bad teams than fellow good ones.

Individually, though, Simmons does have one of the NBA’s largest splits in performance based on the quality of the opponent, and the Sixers have won disproportionately more games against bad teams than good ones. Using data from HoopsStats.com, I broke out the DRE (Daily RAPM Estimate, a useful all-in-one “game score”-type stat from Nylon Calculus) per 36 minutes for every player who logged at least 500 minutes against opponents who are better and opponents who are worse than .500 this season.

Many players across the league see a decline in production when facing tougher teams, but Simmons has seen the fourth-biggest drop-off. And while No. 1 on the list belongs to Steph Curry of all players, Curry still does plenty of damage against good teams, ranking eighth in DRE per 36 vs. teams with winning records. Simmons, by contrast, ranks 77th against those same opponents.

Which players drop off against good teams?

Biggest declines in Nylon Calculus’s Daily RAPM Estimate (DRE) for 2018-19 NBA players against opponents with winning records vs. losing records

DRE per 36 minutes
Player Team vs. .500+ vs. <.500 Diff
Stephen Curry GSW 10.1 15.1 -5.0
De’Aaron Fox SAC 7.2 12.0 -4.9
Nikola Jokic DEN 9.6 13.9 -4.3
Ben Simmons PHI 7.2 11.1 -4.0
Enes Kanter NYK 5.9 9.7 -3.9
Victor Oladipo IND 7.1 10.9 -3.8
James Harden HOU 11.2 14.7 -3.5
Kevin Durant GSW 9.7 13.2 -3.4
Klay Thompson GSW 5.8 9.1 -3.3
Russell Westbrook OKC 7.9 11.1 -3.2

Minimum 500 minutes played; 2019 DRE as of Jan. 15.

Sources: hoopsstats, Nylon Calculus

In addition to Curry, you can also see the maniacally stat-stuffing James Harden and even Curry’s own teammates Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson near the top of the list. So in itself, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of postseason limitations or of players who haven’t yet reached their full potential. But there’s a difference between players who are amazing against all kinds of teams (just playing extra-great against bad ones) and ones who feast on bad opponents in particular.

Right now, Simmons is fitting into the latter category. He sees greatly reduced rates of scoring (from 19.2 points per 36 minutes to 15.5), shooting efficiency (from a 60.1 field goal percentage to 54.2) and foul-drawing (from 6.2 free throw attempts per 36 to 5.5) against winning clubs, along with an increase in turnovers (from 3.5 per 36 to 4.0). (Simmons’ rebounds and assists stay roughly stable between each level of competition.) These opponents are the ones best equipped to approach Simmons like Boston did in the playoffs last year, cutting off driving lanes and exploiting the reduced amount of space his shooting range requires them to defend.

But there’s also evidence Simmons’s game is adapting in his second healthy season as a pro. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, his drives per game are down from 15.5 last season (sixth-most in the league) to 9.0 (54th-most), and his pick-and-roll ballhandling plays are down from 18.1 to 8.1 — largely due to the arrival of Butler, who commands 10.0 picks per game as a ballhandler and tries 8.6 drives per game. So while Simmons now gets the vast majority of his buckets in transition, which makes sense given his skill set, he’s also ramped up his workload in areas more closely linked to traditional big men, such as rolling off screens and posting up. And more importantly, he’s gradually been taking more jumpers over the past few weeks: In January (through Tuesday’s game), 14 percent of Simmons’s shots have come from outside 10 feet of the basket (with a field goal percentage of 29 percent), compared with only 11 percent of shots (and a 20 percent field goal percentage) in October through December.

Simmons still has a lot of work to do in these new parts of his game, but he is at least showing some signs of developing a more diversified offensive profile. And the fact that he’s managed to increase his true shooting percentage and offensive efficiency somewhat significantly while doing so has to be encouraging for the Sixers in the grand scheme of Simmons’s evolution as a player. Although his shortcomings may still leave him vulnerable to good teams for now, that may not always be the case.

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The Thunder Are Playing Way Better, But Are They A Real Contender?

Roll back the calendar a couple months, and things weren’t going so well in Oklahoma City. The Thunder had to open their season without former MVP Russell Westbrook, who was in the final stages of his knee rehabilitation following a late-summer arthroscopic procedure. And even after getting him back a few games in, the club struggled out of the gate, beginning 0-4 and becoming the last team in the Western Conference to claim its first victory.

Fast-forward to Christmas, the Thunder are currently one of the NBA’s hottest teams; winners in 21 of their last 28. Paul George has played MVP-level ball, averaging 32 points on 53 percent shooting the past few weeks. And Oklahoma City has the league’s second-best defense, a notable stat since Andre Roberson, perhaps the team’s best defender, has missed the entire season.

With OKC a game out of first in the West, and no one separating themselves as the top challenger to the Warriors, it’s time to ask: Have the Thunder become legitimate contenders?

The answer, to this point, is something of a mixed bag. Yes, the defense has been downright dominant at times, and their overall net rating suggests they belong in the conversation. But the offense — slightly below average, and still with considerable flaws beyond Westbrook, George, Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder — doesn’t enjoy that same level of success each night.

There’s no question about this team’s most abundant strength. Its imposing length and eye-popping athleticism stands out even more now, with Jerami Grant starting and Nerlens Noel and rookie Hamidou Diallo getting minutes off the bench (and without Carmelo Anthony as a weak link teams can attack relentlessly in screen-and-rolls). And aside from largely negating pick-and-rolls — third in efficiency against them1 — the Thunder get their hands on just about everything, ranking second in the NBA in deflections, and second in recovered loose balls. Oklahoma City is lightning quick and has a ton of collective hustle among its youngsters, making it tough to score even in situations that would normally present easy fast-break opportunities. One sign of that: After forcing a Thunder turnover, it takes opposing teams 9.4 seconds on average to get off a shot attempt, tied for the second-longest span in the NBA, according to Inpredictable.

The club addressed one of its biggest problems over the years — the awful bench depth — when it acquired Schroder in the deal to dump Anthony. But on some level, OKC’s main problem now is the same as it ever was: In a league where basically everyone can shoot from outside, the Thunder still struggle mightily from distance. They’re tied for second worst in 3-point accuracy, and Westbrook — while he’s cut down considerably on his long, midrange 2’s — is on pace to have one of the worst volume 3-point shooting campaigns of all-time, at just 23.6 percent on nearly five attempts from deep per game. As such, OKC ranks in the bottom 10 in effective field goal percentage, the lone contender in that group among several teams likely to make the lottery.

There’s obvious room for upside. Beyond the continued hope that Roberson will rejoin them at some point this season, the Thunder also have one of the youngest rotations in the NBA. They have seven players who are 25 or younger and have logged at least 300 minutes already.

If there’s a downside, it’s that Oklahoma City hasn’t been thoroughly tested from a scheduling standpoint yet. In fact, only Boston has played an easier slate to this point. According to a preseason BPI tracker, the Thunder’s projected winning percentage was expected to get progressively worse each month after December because of the escalating schedule to come. (Another possible challenge, though OKC would love to get Roberson back from injury, would be the potential spacing problems upon Roberson’s return. There’s already limited shooting on the floor, and his unwillingness to pull the trigger would further hinder the effort to fix that conundrum.)

Nonetheless, FiveThirtyEight’s newly updated projection model really seems to like the Thunder’s chances of becoming Golden State’s most viable challenger out West. Despite the incredibly solid Denver Nuggets’ turnaround, which has them virtually tied for first place, the system gives Oklahoma City a 10 percent probability of making it to the NBA Finals, more than double that of any other Western Conference team.

Time will tell whether those projections were merely an overshoot. But for the time being, after a slow start this season and two consecutive first-round flameouts the past two years, the Thunder will gladly take making it onto Santa’s nice list heading into their Christmas Day game.

How Good Is The Sixers’ Brand-New Big Three?

For more than a month, Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau had a common refrain when asked about the Jimmy Butler saga: The team couldn’t allow itself to be distracted by the dysfunction and the rumors surrounding their star swingman, who requested a trade before camp.

But after Friday’s loss in Sacramento — which left Minnesota winless on its five-game road trip — even Thibodeau came to the realization that things were unraveling too quickly this way, and that the club could no longer try and split the middle on this highly awkward situation.

As such, the Timberwolves on Saturday finally dealt Butler to the highly talented Sixers, while Philadelphia sent over Robert Covington and Dario Saric, a couple of solid players who can be part of the Wolves’ future while potentially helping Minnesota win right now, too1.

If there’s a significant takeaway here, though, it’s that the Sixers are truly going for it. In doing so, they’re sacrificing a considerable amount of depth, cohesion and patience, essentially cashing those in to land a third star. The Butler trade increases Philly’s probability of reaching the NBA finals from 11 percent to 16 percent in our projection system — a mark that puts them more in line with the Celtics (17 percent) and Bucks (18 percent), while still well behind the Warriors (67 percent) and Raptors (41 percent).

Figuring out Butler’s exact fit will take time for Brett Brown and his team. Ben Simmons is already one of the NBA’s best passers and one of the most physically imposing guards. Yet it could be a challenge to ask Simmons — all but allergic to attempting jumpers so far — to play without the ball more than he already does, while sharing the floor with fellow non-shooter Markelle Fultz. Butler is far better than Simmons at making an impact away from the ball, but he, too, is most comfortable when he has the ball in his hands. He was usually Minnesota’s best passer and de-facto point guard, while also calling his own number several times a game; especially in clutch scenarios.

Without Covington and Saric, the team loses two of its outside shooters, which figures to shrink the floor even more around Joel Embiid and Simmons. This could create problems for the turnover-prone club, especially in postseason, where the lack of spacing hurt the Sixers against the Celtics. (Also, while the addition of Butler could help take pressure off Embiid, there is a chance the shift could throw Embiid out of the incredible rhythm he’s been in lately.)

There are some ways that Philadelphia could circumvent the problem. Finding more time for JJ Redick, one of the league’s most reliable marksmen, is likely one solution. Whenever the Sixers use him in on- and off-ball screens, defenses have to account for his presence as a shooter. But most offensive adjustments with this new core will likely threaten playing time for Fultz — not ideal for the No. 1 overall pick from a year ago, who needs more true lead ball-handling opportunities in order to develop his game.

The bigger risks at play here for Philly are rooted in how they value Butler long-term, given that he’s a free agent after this season. He presumably wants a max contract worth $190 million over five years — a steep commitment for a player with so much mileage on his tires already.

If things were to fail spectacularly for some reason, the Sixers could simply let Butler walk this summer (a step that would be jarring, since they just gave up two good players). But it will be worth watching how Butler functions with cornerstones like Embiid and Simmons, since he’s had run-ins with younger teammates at his last two stops. Assuming the trio jells just fine, Philadelphia will again be an interesting team to watch in free agency, as they could create up to $19 million in cap space after signing Butler to a max deal.

As for the Timberwolves, our projection system feels they came out of this trade well, too. They went from a 35-percent probability of making the postseason before to 44 percent now. Just as losing Covington and Saric hurt Philly’s spacing, they should help Minnesota’s. The Timberwolves ranked just 22nd in 3-point attempt rate heading into Saturday’s game. (Our previous projections also accounted for the uncertainty around Butler’s situation, so having two solid players locked in for the rest of the season helps their rating as well.)

While this deal won’t fix the Wolves’ god-forsaken defense2, both players are under solid-value contracts, and leave Minnesota with far more flexibility than they would’ve had with Butler. The biggest challenge now rests with Thibodeau, who seemingly dragged his feet in pulling the trigger on a Butler trade in hopes of squeezing every win out of this situation he could, even as it became brutally clear that he needed to be dealt (Separately: While we know it likely wouldn’t have benefitted Thibodeau, can we definitively say that this offer is better than four future first-rounders from Houston?). Thibodeau could be on the hot seat, and the reality of relying mostly on youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — each on max deals of their own — may not have given him the utmost confidence in returning to the playoffs.

The best-case scenario for Thibodeau and his young duo is that they do find a way to reach the playoffs with Towns dominating in a new role, as the team’s No. 1 option on offense without Butler.

But at the end of the day, we figure to be talking about this trade well into April and May — and possibly even June — because of what it could mean for the Sixers. If anything, this deal for Butler gives them at least a portion of the star power they sought this past summer.

Neil Paine contributed to this article.

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2018-19 NBA Predictions

How this works: These forecasts are based on 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season. Elo ratings — which power the pure Elo forecast — are a measure of team strength based on head-to-head results, margin of victory and quality of opponent. Our CARMELO forecast doesn’t account for wins and losses; it is based entirely on our CARMELO player projections, which estimate each player’s future performance based on the trajectory of similar NBA players. Read more »

Design and development by Jay Boice, Rachael Dottle, Ella Koeze and Gus Wezerek. Statistical model by Nate Silver. Additional contributions by Neil Paine. Illustration by Elias Stein.