This week's mailbag features your questions on the number of playoff blowouts, NBA one-hit wonders, foot-on-the-line 3-pointers, the best non-lottery pick ever and more.
- Wes Fran (@wesfranson) May 5, 2017
The average margin of victory so far in this year's playoffs has been 12.0 points per game, which is higher than the average since the first round expanded to seven games in 2003 (11.3) but not dramatically so.
I also looked at wins by 20-plus points. There have been 11 of those, which is on the high side. So far, 20.8 percent of games have been decided by 20 points or more, which would rank third over the past 15 postseasons. Of course, the earlier rounds generally should see more blowouts -- though it's possible we might not get a particularly close matchup this year until the NBA Finals.
So which was the year with more blowouts? Well, it was last season, far and away the most lopsided in recent playoff history. There were 24 wins by 20-plus points, accounting for 27.9 percent of all playoff games, and the average margin of victory was an incredible 14.5 points per game -- 2.9 more than the next-highest average since 2003.
So while this year's playoffs might not have produced many close finishes, they've still been better in that regard than last year.
- Mike Mitchell (@MikeMitchNH) April 30, 2017
This discussion was inspired by Mike Mitchell bringing up Dana Barros' randomly amazing 1994-95 All-Star campaign. What are the greatest outlier seasons? Let's limit the scope to since 1977-78 and use WARP as our measure. Here are the players whose best seasons most exceeded their second-best ones.
I also excluded players with five or fewer seasons of experience because otherwise Giannis Antetokounmpo would be the biggest outlier, and that's nonsensical because of his ability to submit more elite seasons.
The top of the list still doesn't quite feel right. Rose was actually nearly as effective on a per-minute basis in 2011-12 as when he won MVP the previous season but was limited to 39 games (out of 66 after the lockout) by injuries even before tearing his ACL in the playoffs. Rodman, meanwhile, is a quirk of WARP; other advanced metrics have a smaller gap between 1991-92 and Rodman's next-best season.
That indeed leaves Barros as the best modern one-hit wonder. He never averaged more than 13.3 points per game outside of 1994-95, when he surged to 20.6 per game for the Philadelphia 76ers. Part of that was a workload that seems incredible from our modern perspective: Barros played all 82 games and averaged 40.5 minutes. But he also shot 46.4 percent from the shortened 3-point line and posted a career-best .632 true shooting percentage.
Then Barros signed with the Boston Celtics as a free agent, returned to the bench and was the same solid but unspectacular player he'd been beforehand.
- Doug Cohen (@dougssg) May 5, 2017
While I think the answer is "no" either way, the alternative depends slightly on what Doug meant by current system. If we're talking about the weighted lottery, the answer is probably Steve Nash, taken 15th in 1996. You can make a case that Leonard is more valuable right now than Nash was at his peak, but we're still talking about a two-time MVP and certain Hall of Famer.
If we're talking about just the best non-lottery player in the lottery era, period, the answer is actually someone drafted the first year it came into existence. Some 12 picks after the New York Knicks took Patrick Ewing, the Utah Jazz drafted Karl Malone and saw him win two MVPs and become the NBA's second all-time leading scorer. Leonard's got a ways to go to match Malone's résumé.
"Bill Barnwell has written extensively about the concept of 'momentum,' and presents a convincing argument that it is often exaggerated in sports (notably here and here). His argument focuses primarily on football, and draws a bit from soccer and hockey. Is there any reason to think that basketball -- a game often described as a 'game of runs' -- differs from these cases? Is there any tangible or calculable explanation for the back-and-forth nature of basketball?" - Samuel Rosenberg
One of the clever studies to try to find a momentum effect in basketball was done by former Phoenix Suns consultant John Ezekowitz. Writing for the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective blog, Ezekowitz looked at NCAA games that went to overtime because of a last-second shot to tie the game. Theoretically, that clutch shot should provide momentum in overtime. (Certainly, this is likely to be cited if the tying team does in fact play well in OT.)
Yet using Ken Pomeroy's win probability data, Ezekowitz actually found that tying teams won less often in overtime than expected based on their overall ability and the location of the game.
As to why basketball is a proverbial "game of runs," I think that's largely explained by the number of scoring plays. The more chances for a run, the more likely you are to see one. And because those scores are more likely to come in rapid succession, a run is more tangible in basketball than it is in football or baseball, where they're often separated by extended periods of time.
What's the best name for a shot made with a foot on the 3-point line?
- Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 2, 2017
I'm cheating and using my own question because it deserved a fuller examination. The 2-pointer with a foot (or even a toe) on the 3-point line has to be the most frustrating shot in basketball, and my question was inspired by PJ Tucker taking a couple such shots during Game 1 of the Toronto Raptors' series with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday.
The responses by readers matched up pretty well with the data. Using Basketball-Reference.com's shot finder, I looked for 2-pointers from 22 feet or longer since 2000-01, the first year with play-by-play data available. Jason Kidd is the leader in that span with 193, just ahead of LeBron James (192). Kidd was mentioned in my replies, as were top-10 finishers Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, while popular reply Channing Frye doesn't have as high a career total but led the league in back-to-back seasons.
Those contenders noted, I think the 2-pointer with a foot on the line has to be named after Mehmet Okur, a pioneering stretch 5 who didn't always stretch his attempts quite far enough. While other players had more total Okurs, nobody can touch his peak. Okur has three of the top six seasons in total 2-pointers with a foot on the line, all with the Utah Jazz, including a record 35 in 2005-06.
It's also notable that as compared to the other two players in the top six (James, with 28 in 2008-09, and Tracy McGrady with 31 in 2004-05 and 29 in 2006-07), Okur's shot volume was far lower. So he was getting a toe on the line relatively more often.
It's interesting to note that NBA players seem to be getting better at avoiding Okurs. I only tracked the top 100 players by season, but that group went from a high of 963 Okurs in 2005-06 to just 412 in 2015-16 before ticking up slightly to 436 this season. And no individual has reached even 25 Okurs in a season since James in 2009-10. So it might be up to Okur, now an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns, to keep his namesake stat alive.