NBA Four Quarters (04/07/17)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

It may seem as though discussing the MVP race is a lot like beating a dead horse, even though the outcome remains in doubt. If you will, please allow me one more crack at the horse, hopefully in a way you haven't seen yet. In the course of researching for this piece, I discovered that all the head-to-head matchups between the four MVP candidates are now complete. A total of 34 games pitted one of these men against another. Let's see how they stack up:

The first thing to note about these numbers is that, with a few exceptions, there is slippage from season averages across all of the statistics for each player. In particular, three-point shooting really suffered in these matchups – each player's percentage dropping, sometimes by as much as eight points. Remarkably, Kawhi Leonard rose to the occasion in these games and boosted his scoring average by over three points, shot a better percentage from the field, and got to the free throw line more often. The success of both Kawhi individually and the Spurs collectively in these games adds a compelling wrinkle to Leonard's fading candidacy.

There are interesting takeaways for each of the other three candidates as well. First for LeBron, as the lone East player, he gets the least opportunity to face his competition. He did not capitalize. With the exception of rebounds, James took a hit in every category, a black mark on his resume. Unsurprisingly, Westbrook averaged a triple-double in head-to-head games. What is surprising is the lack of success the Thunder had when he reached a triple-double. Over the past two seasons, the Thunder are 50-9 in the regular season when Russ gets a triple-double. However, in the six games he achieved a head-to-head triple-double this season, the Thunder were just 2-4, alluding to the limitations of his one man wrecking ball approach against the best competition. Finally, collecting the highest head-to-head plus/minus (H2H column in the table) is a great accomplishment for James Harden. When I say head-to-head plus/minus I am comparing the point differential of the two teams only when both MVP candidates shared the floor. In other words, when Harden was on the court with another MVP contender, the Rockets fared extremely well. His individual greatness translated into team success directly against the best – hard to provide more value than that.

It's Better to Be Lucky than Good

There is a great deal of uncertainty about defending three-point shots. The best available evidence and wisdom suggests that three-point percentage defense is a mix of skill and luck, which is to say whether not you allow a three is a skill and whether or not a three goes in is luck. As we know, winning a championship takes a bit of skill and luck as well. So what can the the recent past tell us about three-point shooting defense as it relates to playoff success and what are the implications for the upcoming 2017 playoffs?

First of all, we need to add an important caveat to the thinking on defending the three-pointer. The distance of the closest defender does make a tangible impact on the success of the shot beyond luck. This season for example, wide open threes (no defender within six feet) are going in about 38 % of the time, while very tightly contested threes (defender within two feet) are only going in 28 % of the time. Unfortunately for defenses, around 80 % of all threes taken are of the open/ wide open variety according to tracking, which we will simply refer to as ‘open' going forward. So it seems that the biggest mixture of skill and luck for three-point defense will come down to preventing open threes and lucking into some open misses.

Over the past three seasons this data has been available, nine of the 12 teams to reach at least the conference finals were above average in opponent three-point percentage versus open shots. Of those nine teams, seven of them saw their luck reverse to some degree in the playoffs. When it comes to frequency of open threes allowed, only half of the 12 NBA semifinalists were above average for the regular season. However, once the playoffs started, all but one team cut down on the open looks they allowed. All told, every conference finalist (with the exception of the 2014 Thunder) as well as every conference semifinalist (with the exception of the 2014 Nets) over the past three years was above average in either skill or luck in defending open three-point shots. Amongst this year's crop of championship hopefuls, only the Cavaliers are below average in each area of defending open threes. Before making comparisons to the 2014 Thunder it should be noted that they had the 6th ranked defense in the regular season, the three-point shot has evolved greatly since then, and most notably they failed to reach the Finals. So much has been made about the defensive struggles of the Cavs and whether they can ‘turn it on' for the playoffs. How they disrupt the frequency of open threes and whether they get some luck are good proxies to monitor during their playoff run to see if their defense truly has a championship gear.

Rightfully so, the buzz around the 6th Man of the Year race focuses on two Rockets' teammates, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams (both 6th Man of the Week winners). But Houston, we have a problem, a third man is forgotten in these discussions – Nene. Unceremoniously dumped by Washington after four-plus injury riddled seasons, Nene recommitted to his physical conditioning in the offseason, signed a cheap, “make good” contract, and accepted a lesser role for a team that really needed what he can offer and the results have been phenomenal. His per game numbers aren't flashy, but he is having as efficient a season as he's had in many years. He ranks in the top 15 in effective field goal percentage and is setting massive screens and cleaning the offensive glass like he's 26 again. To my surprise, even comparing his ‘advanced' numbers to those of Gordon and Williams, he actually comes out favorably, though he has no chance of winning an award at season's end. This week, on the other hand, Nene shot an absurd 74.1 % from the floor while pitching in 15 points, five rebounds, and two assists and earned himself 6th Man of the Week. Watch out for that Rockets bench!

Late Game Heroics

Please enjoy a compilation of the best shot making and playmaking in the clutch from the past week, complete with replays and fantastic calls by broadcast teams.

Also enjoy the could-have-been buzzer beaters from the week.