North America

Should “Openers” Be Used in the NBA Playoffs?  

Last year the bold (and desperate) Tampa Bay Rays shook up the MLB by playing an “opener”: a relief-style pitcher who plays the first inning of the game.

A somewhat similar, even bolder experiment should perhaps be tried in the NBA playoffs.

Instead of teams saving their best players’ heavy-minute performances for games late in a series – Lebron James, for example, played all 48 minutes in Game 7 of the semi-finals last year; it was the 339th time since 1984 that a player had played an entire game — why not instead have them play big minutes early in the series?

It is true, teams employing this strategy would risk their star players running out of gas late in the series (not unlike how the Tampa Bay Rays risk blowing leads late in games because they have already used up one of their best relievers in the first inning).  Yet they would also increase the odds of getting to play in a long series in the first place. Even better, they would increase the odds of their team winning a series quickly, which would actually allow their stars to play far fewer minutes overall than they otherwise would.

An extreme illustration of this: 45 minutes per game in a 4-game sweep = 180 minutes total; 40 minutes per game in 7 games: 280 minutes total (plus two or three more airplanes). As is often the case in life, if you work hard early on you might save yourself work overall.

It’s a simple set of questions: Is it better to concentrate, rather than spread out, your best players’ minutes on the court during a series? The obvious risk to concentrating minutes is that tired players could become less effective or more prone to injury. Nevertheless if it is better to concentrate them, why not do so as early as possible, rather than wait until late in the series to do so?



North America

The Holy Month of Sports Begins

For sports fans in Toronto, the end of March Madness is the signal for the holiest month of the year to begin. It is a sort of sports Ramadan: every night fans overeat while watching either a Leafs or Raptors playoff game. It is a bittersweet holiday, to be sure – the Leafs have not won the Cup since 1967 or even a playoff series since 2004, and the Raptors have never made it to an NBA Finals. But this year hopes are high, as both Toronto teams are possible contenders. That is, assuming the dominant teams in each league, Golden State and Tampa Bay, can actually be beat. And assuming the Leafs can finally get past their nemeses, Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins, in round one, which begins at the Toronto Dominion Garden in Boston tonight.

Update: dammit dammit dammit —

Of the 15 cities with franchises in both leagues, none has ever won a Stanley Cup and NBA Championship in the same year. This year, three or four cities may have a chance to do so: Boston, Toronto, Denver, and the Bay Area (Oakland and San Jose). If Boston were to somehow pull this off, it would then have won a World Series, Superbowl, Stanley Cup and NBA Finals this year!

But it is the Bay Area that has the best odds, of course. Not only are the Warriors the best team in the NBA, but the San Jose Sharks had this season’s second-best record in the NHL’s Western conference. These two teams are opposites, in some ways. Whereas the Warriors are aiming for their third championship in a row, which would be their fourth in the past five years and the last before they move across the Bay to play in San Francisco next season, the Sharks have long been considered (fairly or no) the NHL’s playoff “chokers”. They have never won a Cup and, despite being maybe the league’s best team in the past decade or so (perhaps only the Penguins, who beat them in the Finals in 2016, have been consistently as good or better), they have often been upset in the first or second round of the playoffs.

update — Wow!! —

After another playoff letdown last season year, the Sharks added star defenseman Erik Karlsson to their roster during the offseason. This has given them probably the best defenseman duo in the league, Karlsson and Brent Burns. Burns is also one half of the best bearded duo in professional sports–the other half being his silver-haired captain Joe Thornton, who now leads the NHL in career points. Thornton is himself also part of a third duo that defines this year’s Sharks: the Big Joe-Little Joe one-two punch.“Little Joe” Joe Pavelski, the Shark’s top scorer, started the playoffs off the right way last night in a rematch against Las Vegas, getting the first goal with his face.

In contrast to these veteran contenders from California, this year’s Colorado franchises are stacked with young players. The Denver Nuggets, who finished second in the Western Conference, had the second youngest roster in the NBA this season, led by 24-year-old Nikola Jokic and 22-year-old Jamal Murray. The Colorado Avalanche meanwhile are the second youngest team to make the playoffs this year, led by 23-year-old Nathan MacKinnon and 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen. Jokic and MacKinnon both had breakout seasons – jumping from all-stars to likely superstars – but their teams could face tough matchups in the playoffs’ opening round, against the San Antonio Spurs and the Calgary Flames. The Spurs may prove they don’t need a Duncan, Ginobili or Leonard to succeed; Calgary may be Canada’s best hope of ending a 25-year national failure to win a Stanley Cup.

update – Colorado beat Calgary: All 3 of the Canadian teams in the playoffs were eliminated in round one. The Denver-San Antonio NBA series is still ongoing 

For Toronto and Boston, it will be only a week or two before one of the two cities’ hockey teams is eliminated. The Leafs and Bruins are playing one another in the first round for the second year in a row. Boston won last year’s series in seven games, scoring four goals in the third period of the final game. The two also faced one another in 2013: Toronto came back from down 3-1 in that series and took a three-goal lead late into Game 7 – including a two-goal lead with just over a minute left in the third period! – before losing to the Bruins in overtime in one of the biggest blown leads in playoff history. The Bruin’s captain Zdeno Chara (who, at 42, is a year older than Tom Brady and yet still nearly leads the Bruins in ice time) will be facing the Leafs in the playoffs for the fifth time this year. The Leafs will have now faced Chara five of the past seven times they have made it into the postseason, starting all the way back in Ottawa in 2001.

Another story going into this year’s playoffs how big markets have been struggling. Of the 11 teams in New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, the only three to make the playoffs will be the Clippers, Nets, and Islanders (not exactly these cities’ top-name brands). The Clippers will be facing the Warriors in round one. Brooklyn will face Philadelphia, which could be a raucous intercity rivalry yet will likely result in Brooklyn’s defeat. The Islanders, however, are finally back! They will have home-ice advantage in the incredibly loud Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where they won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s, instead of in Brooklyn where they have been playing almost all of their regular season games. Despite losing their longtime top scorer John Tavares to Toronto in the offseason last summer, the Islanders finished second in a tough division, behind Alexander Ovechkin’s returning-champ Washington Capitals and ahead of the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin three-time-Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins.

Small market teams, conversely, have excelled both in the NHL and in the NBA this year. The Tampa Bay lightning dominated the league in the regular season, with 62 wins, the most of any team since the 1995 Detroit Red Wings. They may, however, be beatable: their top defenseman Victor Hedman is coming off a recent injury that was likely a concussion, and their opponent the Columbus Blue Jackets are going into the playoffs on a 9-1-1 (the third ‘1’ is OT losses) hot streak. (Update: Columbus swept Tampa in 4 games). The best record in the NBA also belonged to a small market, Milwaukee.

If the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks end up playing the second-seeded Toronto Raptors, it will be a rematch of their second-round series in the 2017 playoffs, when the Bucks lost to the Raptors in the final seconds of Game 6 after having carried out a 25-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the game. If, on the other hand, Philadelphia and Boston end up playing one another, it will be a rematch of last year’s hard-fought second round. All of these teams are of course rejoicing that Lebron James is finally out of the picture.

Indeed, the premier superstars of both sports, Lebron and McDavid, will be spending this year’s festive season with their families. So too, in fact, will the rest of us be spectating from afar; laughing, eating, and praying for a miracle.

Update: Woooooooooooh!  Miracle Accomplished 


North America

If I ran an NBA team…

The Phoenix Suns had the worst record in the NBA this season. They won only 1 out of every 4 games they played. While they are young enough to get better next season, and have a great young shooting guard in Devin Booker, they are also likely to be playing in a league where most of the best teams become much better this offseason. This year many of the best players were either stuck on really bad teams (Lebron), or had injury problems (the Celtics, Warriors, Spurs, 76ers, Timberwolves, Thunder, and others). With Lebron and other good players about to enter free agency, who knows how many superteams there will be next year?

Here’s the question, then: Is it possible to employ a strategy that could turn a bottom-ranked team like Phoenix into an instant contender?

In amateur basketball leagues, bad teams sometimes try an “it takes a village” type of strategy to compete with good teams. They do things like play at a really fast tempo on offense and press aggressively on defence, the idea being to tire out the opposing team’s star players so that the game ends up being decided by a more balanced competition between the two teams’ bench players. The problem is, in the NBA this strategy would not work. Elite NBA teams often excel at playing at a high tempo, so by the time their starters get tired they will have already run up the score a too much for your team to mount a comeback against their bench players.

What I would suggest trying is a very different type of high-tempo strategy: a “specialization and trade” strategy.

In this strategy, a team like the Suns would do three things:

1) Use three different types of units during the course of the game: an offensive specialist unit, a defensive specialist unit, and a general purposes unit. (NBA teams can only use 13 players a game, so at least two players would have to play on more than one of these units. A player like Booker, for example, would play on the offensive specialist unit and on the general purposes unit)

2) Substitute your players as much as you possibly can, in order to maximize the number of offensive possessions the offensive specialist unit has, maximize the number of defensive situations the defensive specialist unit faces, minimize the number of defensive situations the offensive unit faces, and minimize the number of offensive possessions the defensive specialist unit has.

3) Play a style of basketball that would maximize the number of opportunities to substitute players you get. Such a style would be very high-tempo, and might even involve your team contesting many of the inbound passes the opposing team makes, in order to try to maximize things like the ball going out of bounds, jump balls, and non-shooting fouls. Basically, whenever your offensive specialist unit gets caught having to play defense, they will play very aggressively, trying to go for steals, deflections, jump balls, and taking charges. If they succeed in getting these things, great, if they don’t succeed, that’s okay too: they will then get called for a non-shooting foul, and therefore be able to substitute for the defensive specialist unit. A high tempo offence will also benefit the defensive specialist unit: by playing fast on offense, the defensive unit will be more likely to score than it otherwise would, since defensive specialist players are generally bad at scoring against a set defence. And the high tempo will serve the team as a whole, by tiring out the opposing team’s starters. Once the team enters the penalty situation, and also runs out of time-outs it can use to substitute players, then the general purposes unit comes on to play (at a more normal tempo) for the remainder of the quarter.

Most NBA teams already use an offense-defense strategy in the final minutes of the game. They should think about using it the entire game.

A team like the Suns is not going to beat a team like the Warriors, or player like Lebron, if it sticks to playing basketball. But if it were to play hockey, then maybe it would have a chance. In hockey, hundreds of player substitutions are made every game. In basketball, in most cases, only about two dozen subs per game are made. To compete with superteams like the Warriors, a team could strive to get closer to the hockey subs number. If the team could improve their score by even a small fraction of a point for every substitution they make, they might be able to go from a terrible team to a great one. The Suns, on average, were outscored by only 9.4 points per game this season (by far the most in the NBA); the league-leading Houston Rockets outscored teams by only 8.3 points per game.

This strategy would be especially useful in overtime: whereas in the 48 minutes of regulation time a team gets six timeouts and 4 pre-penalty fouls per quarter, during a 5-minute overtime the team gets two timeouts and 4 pre-penalty fouls. This creates more opportunities to make cost-free substitutions.

This strategy could even be used by good teams that are otherwise unable to compete with superteams. What if, for example, this strategy were to be used by the Thunder in the playoffs? The Thunder already have a player who is almost unrivalled at playing high-tempo basketball – Westbrook – and another player who is one of the elite defensive specialists in the league (but a terrible offensive player): Roberson. If the Thunder used their offseason to add offensive and defensive specialists, they could run this strategy to attempt to beat Durant and the Warriors next year, with Westbrook playing on his team’s offensive specialist unit, defensive specialist unit (every defensive specialist unit will need at least one player who isn’t bad at offence), and general purposes unit.