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?

 

 

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Professional Time Wasters

Usually, the goal of a basketball game is to outscore your opponent. There are certain cases, however, where a second goal is also at play: buying time for your best players to get a much-needed rest on the bench during a playoff game.

Star players tend to play many more minutes per game during the playoffs than they do in the regular season. The games are more important, there are no games played on back-to-back nights, and there are fewer flights between games. In this year’s playoffs, the leaders in minutes per game, Paul George, Damian Lillard, and Nikola Jokic, have been playing 40 minutes per game. (Lillard and Jokic played 58 and 56 minutes in a quadruple overtime game). Lebron James’ career playoff minutes per game is 42. In Lebron’s 21 career playoff elimination games, he averages 45 minutes per game.

It would be ideal if, during those few minutes of game-time when these superstars are resting, their backup players would enter the game and consistently outscore their opponents. But that is not the only way a bench lineup might be effective. They could, perhaps, also be effective by simply slowing down the pace of the game, shooting late in the shot clock, grabbing offensive rebounds to reset the shot clock, or drawing fouls that stop the clock altogether.

Consider two hypothetical bench lineups. One is an above-average bench lineup which usually outscores its opponent, but occasionally gets outscored by its opponents by a lot. The other is a merely average bench lineup which outscores its opponent only fifty percent of the time, but, because it excels at slowing down the game, almost never gets outscored by its opponent by a lot.

On teams which have dominant starting lineups and superstars, the merely average lineup might actually be preferable to the above-average lineup, as it would almost never cough up a big lead created by its dominant starters. There is, moreover, the issue of $$: above-average players are in high demand, so they tend to cost a lot of money. Merely average players who excel only at slowing down the game are not in demand, and so might be purchased on the cheap.

Of course, this is not to say that teams should want their bench lineups to be merely average. But it does mean some teams might benefit from targeting certain skills and strategies for their benches: scoring late in the shot clock, offensive rebounding, drawing fouls, defending in such a way as to make opponents shoot later in the shot clock, and fouling well (for example, by fouling Ben Simmons in transition after your team’s attempt at offensive rebounding has failed, trying to take a charge but fouling instead).

This idea raises some interesting thought-experiment questions. For example:

-how much could you slow the pace of the game without sacrificing too much effectiveness? (The average possession length in the NBA this season ranged from OKC’s 12.9 seconds per possession to Cleveland’s 15.5 seconds per possession. In the playoffs, it has ranged from OKC’s 12.7 seconds to Denver’s 15.5).

-How high could you theoretically get your offensive rebounding percentage? (Denver had the highest offensive rebounding percentage this season, 30.8%. The highest in the playoffs has been Philadelphia, 31.2%).

-How much could you increase your offensive rebounding percentage without giving up too many transition opportunities? (The Clippers and Nuggets tried to grab offensive rebounds on an estimated 70% of their shots in these playoffs; the Raptors only on 46% of shots).

-When and how often is it worthwhile to foul in transition to stop the clock? How often would fighting for offensive rebounds lead to a stopped-clock situation as a result of fouling, being fouled, a jump ball, or an out-of-bounds? (Out-of-bounds stoppages on contested rebounds might be ideal, as they are most likely to lead the refs to waste a lot of time looking at the replay to see which team touched the ball last in a crowd under the net).

Obviously, many of the skills that would allow a lineup to excel at slowing the pace of play would overlap with those that make basketball lineups good in general. But the overlap is far from a perfect one. By focusing not just on creating the best possible bench lineup, but also on creating the bench lineup most capable of wasting time, you might be able to free up roster spending in order to land the big fish superstars you need. All your bench has to do then is waste a handful or two of minutes, to let those superstars catch their breath.

 

 

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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 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1xSyU7Klf8

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!! — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwFRg3-I9RE

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.

 

 

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