Crunching Numbers With NBA Math, Episode 1

Looking for the best NBA minds weighing in on the trials and tribulations of players throughout the Association? Want insights into the statistical side of the sport? Trying to identify sleepers and overrated players?

Just hoping to increase your basketball knowledge?

We’ve got you covered at Crunching Numbers—NBA Math’s weekly roundtable that will feature a handful of writers and/or analysts weighing in on five different topics every Monday. This is the inaugural edition, and we have a quartet of special voices featured.

Follow them on Twitter with the links provided below, then see what they have to say:

Josh Eberley

HOOP Magazine

Dan Favale

Bleacher Report

Adam Joseph

16 Wins a Ring

Adam Mares

Denver Stiffs

Peter Nygaard

The Step Back


1. It’s no secret NBA Math loves Nikola Jokic, but we certainly didn’t foresee this level of scoring. In the wake of what you’ve witnessed since he re-entered the starting lineup, how high do you now think his ceiling rises?

  I think Nikola Jokic is going to have his name on an NBA MVP ballot in the coming years. He might not win one, but he’ll make the five-man ballot. His skill set is so unique, and in a league that’s suddenly shifting back towards bigs, he might stand out the most. His post moves remind me of a young Pau Gasol, but his playmaking has been likened to Arvydas Sabonis. In short, he’s an absolute stud.

I think if we re-drafted the entire league right now, he goes top 10, given age and promise.


Dude is clearly going to be an All-NBAer and megastar. This is now a matter of whether he’ll be an MVP candidate, entering a discussion that has typically favored playmaking wings and hyper-efficient guards since the glory days of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Jokic appears to be fireballing at the right time on this front. To say the NBA is enjoying a big-man renaissance remains extreme; there have always been super-talented towers. But he, along with DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis et al., are proving skyscrapers can not only exist, but adapt and thrive in a pace-and-space league thought to have left even the most skilled behemoths in the rear view.

In the not-too distant future, we’ll have an MVP discussion dominated by multiple big men. It’s too early to tell if Jokic will ever hoist a Maurice Podoloff Trophy, but his offensive malleability alone will put him in conversations destined to feature his positional siblings. And if he ever becomes a more serviceable defender in space and/or at the rim, it’s not at all farfetched to envision him as a player who cyclically finishes in the top three or five of the voting process.

  Jokic’s MVP candidacy will always depend on his team, but he’s an undoubted All-NBA guy. And with Denver’s current trajectory, he could be in that conversation next season. If Mike Malone had realized Jokic was his best player sooner instead of 20 games into the season, he might be even more of a talking point now.

Since his return to the starting group he’s posting 20.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 28.6 minutes per game. He’s 10th in player efficiency rating despite his slow start, 11th in true shooting percentage and seventh in win shares per 48 minutes. Why isn’t the whole NBA talking about this guy yet!?

  His ceiling will be determined by how much he can improve his strength and quickness. The strength part should be very doable since most players add strength early in their careers. One unique challenge Jokic will face is that he will likely be asked to play for the Serbian national team almost every summer, so it will be important for him to balance his commitment to the national team and his commitment to improving in the offseason.

The quickness part might be less achievable. But outside of physical improvements, his skill set on offense is perfect for today’s NBA. He is the best passing center in a generation and has the potential to be the best passing center ever. He has the best touch in the NBA on shots just outside the restricted area and an improving three-pointer. And he has an All-NBA feel for the game. With improved strength he is an All-NBA-level player.


The nice thing is it’s easy to establish his floor because he’s already an All-Star-caliber player now. This is in spite of the fact he’s only recently started playing starter minutes consistently and doesn’t celebrate his 22nd birthday for another few weeks.

I think at this point, his most likely outcome is going to involve a few All-NBA selections, but I don’t know just yet if I’m willing to say any of them will be First Team. He’s a star, and he’ll be an All-NBAer, but I think in order to make the leap into bona fide superstardom, he’ll need to prove he can maintain his impressive efficiency at greater volume. He’s already the fulcrum of the Nuggets offense, but I can’t see him really entering the MVP race unless he develops into the kind of scorer they can lean on as well.


2. Figuring out how to quantify an NBA player’s defensive value is a challenge that has stumped fans and analysts for decades. Even the most advanced metrics require context to explain some of the more eye-popping outliers. So when you’re trying to ascertain a player’s value on the preventing end, what process do you go through?

  This has been an ongoing conversation most of the year. It’s good; we need to be talking about defense more, because too often guys are considered way better or way worse than they actually are. General NBA assumptions paint every other player as an eraser or a pylon when clearly that’s not the case.

Unfortunately, like it or not, the eye test still plays a big role. There’s no defensive stat that, in my humble opinion, paints a fair picture on its own. They all have flaws. Defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) is my go-to reference check, and I also like to look into the on/off defensive rating differential. Once I’ve looked at those two, I might also weigh some of the specific team lineups with certain players on or off together. With the eye test, I like to see who forces guys to get rid of the ball. Contesting shots is one thing, but you can see certain guys are daunting and force volume shooters to give up looks they normally shoot without thinking.


Tabbing defensive value is among the most infuriating and rewarding experiences in writing. Catch-all metrics don’t do the trick on their own. But there is so much value in looking at things like NBA Math’s defensive points saved (DPS), Basketball-Reference’s defensive box plus/minus (DBPM), on-off splits with lineup-configuration context, etc.

All of this is best paired with anecdotal observations, accentuating the importance of the ever-useful, oft-revered and -detracted eye test. There is no substitute for watching a player on the less glamorous end, then looking for numbers that confirm your revelations—individual play data, rim protection and all that jazz.

Things get slightly hairy when doing rankings and making across-the-board comparisons, which is why the catch-all barometers are so important for contextual purposes. But there definitely has to be a harmonic balance in those numbers, other numbers and in-game examples—particularly when delving into the performance and contributions of one player.

  You’ve got to combine defending in certain situations (synergy data), defensive rating, on- and off-court ratings. And the reality is that the eye test still matters quite a lot. Looking at a player’s lateral quickness, verticality, wingspan and, with some players, effort really matters. Defensive metrics aren’t perfect, as we know, so you really need to be able to contextualize any argument with a fair balance of why it is you feel that way.

It’s an imperfect science, to say the least!

  Single-metric evaluations for defense are robust, but I’m not really a fan of those types of advanced stats for offense either. Opponent field-goal percentage at the rim, defended field-goal percentage and opponent attempts at the rim are all important metrics, but they are all affected by the other nine players on the court and by the defensive scheme a team is executing. So I almost never rely on any one metric for determining if a player is “good” on the defensive end. I watch them play to see what they are trying to do, and then use the stats to help determine how successful that player is at executing the plan. And even from there it’s never an end point. Stats just provide more lenses to ask better questions.

For me, it depends on what position they play and what responsibilities they have in the half-court. Life is a lot easier when you’re trying to evaluate bigs because most possessions where they’re recorded as the primary on-ball defender are actually plays that end with them as the one trying to contest. So, you can look at rim-protection numbers and how they do against the pick-and-roll and get a much better sense than, say, trying to assess a wing’s on-ball defense on public data alone.

With guards and wings, I tend to rely a lot more heavily on the eye test because I haven’t found a metric that I feel comfortable enough with to lean on yet. I’ll look at steal rate and DRPM and with-or-without-you numbers to try to get a sense. But at the end of the day, I don’t feel comfortable assessing perimeter defense unless I’m seeing it on tape.


3. Finding NBA sleepers is a tough proposition these days, what with the 24/7/365 coverage of the league. But who’s the one player you think the average fan needs to become more aware of right now?

  Nikola Jokic was this guy two months ago, but clearly he has made his way into the spotlight.

Rudy Gobert is a logical choice for me here. I think at this moment he’s the Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s not going to the All-Star Game. I believe that’s the fifth time in 11 years the DPOY could miss, and that’s embarrassing. The best defensive player should be in that game. Gobert is the best rim protector in the league, he’s insanely efficient on offense, and he exudes the competitor vibe. There’s a lot to love.


Lucas. Freaking. Nogueira. I’m not sure how long it’ll be before we mention him in the same breath as premier bigs—assuming we ever do—but the kid is good. You can already make the case he’s the second-most-important Toronto Raptors player, behind Kyle Lowry and definitely in front of DeMar DeRozan.

A lot is made of Nogueira’s ceiling as a rim protector, all of which is well-deserved. But he is proving to be a viable pick-and-roll finisher with the stamina to function in transition and the range to unlock various lineups for Toronto. Though I don’t count myself as a fan of Jonas Valanciunas-Nogueira partnerships, the Raptors can get away with such combinations because the latter has flashed the ability to shoot and, equally important, set fantastic high screens that generate open lanes for ball-handlers and opportunities for him to dive unscathed toward the bucket.

Nogueira is an upgrade for the Raptors over Bismack Biyombo, that much is clear. And with him being extension-eligible this summer, it’s only a matter of time before Toronto starts wondering whether it has much use for Valanciunas anymore.

  Otto Porter Jr. has been sensational for the Washington Wizards this season. Whilst Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and others garner the Most Improved Player attention, Porter is playing his way into a max offer sheet this offseason. He’ll no doubt stay with the Wizards, but he has become an excellent third banana behind two high usage guards, which is naturally affecting his own production. His advanced numbers are quietly excellent, and he’s one of the brightest wing prospects in the league right now.

My other sleeper: Dewayne Dedmon. The San Antonio Spurs do it again. Can you imagine if the Golden State Warriors signed Dedmon instead of Zaza Pachulia?

  I’m tempted to say big men like Cody Zeller or Miles Plumlee, who excel at the most underrated parts of the game on the offensive end for big men—not turning it over, screening and making passes on the short roll. But I’ll instead go with Malcom Brogdon.

Brogdon is really good. Players are often evaluated by what they do with the ball in their hands (i.e. shooting, ball-handling, passing). Brogdon is good at all of those, but what he really shines at is moving without the ball—a skill that is becoming increasingly valuable as more and more offense is flowing through playmaking bigs and 7-footers.


Well, now that George Hill went and got himself noticed, I have to find a new heir to the mantle of Player So Underrated Nobody Even Thinks of Them When Talking About Most Underrated Players—or as I like to call it, the Eastern Promises Corollary. My pick isn’t playing quite at Hill’s level, but he’s been steadily rising and has received little—if any—fanfare: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Detroit Pistons.

A lockdown defender when he’s engaged, KCP has also been a much more reliable player offensively for the Pistons this season. After shooting 32.7 percent on three-pointers through his first three seasons, Caldwell-Pope has seen his three-point percentage skyrocket to 39.1 this year. He also held down the fort for Detroit while Reggie Jackson was out for the first month-and-a-half, flashing a little bit of playmaking skill in the process. He’s still a bit of a gunner at this point, but assuming his shooting percentages hold, the 23-year-old’s future looks extremely bright.


4. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Mannix have reported that Phil Jackson is “determined to find a destination and deal that [Carmelo] Anthony would agree to accept before the Feb. 23 NBA trade deadline.” If you took over for Jackson, what would you do with Anthony?

  If I took over for Jackson, I would’ve traded—or at least tested—the market a whole lot sooner than he did. Anthony doesn’t fit in New York long term, and he doesn’t fit in a lot of places at this point. However, Jackson leaking negatives on Melo and trying to push him out with stealth tactics is backfiring. There just aren’t a ton of Melo suitors right now, and broadcasting conflict and indecision doesn’t help that.

Allegedly, the Boston Celtics are now out. The Cleveland Cavaliers are out. The Los Angeles Clippers or Chicago Bulls offer some interest, but I can almost guarantee the New York fans won’t be happy with their return. To answer your question, I’d end the circus, deal Anthony for the best package possible and stay focused on the Kristaps Porzingis future.


It’s interesting that people view Carmelo Anthony as someone the Knicks have to trade. Moving him doesn’t trigger the rebuild New York has been unsuccessfully trying to avoid for more than a decade. Joakim Noah’s league-worst deal is still on the books, and there’s no guarantee the Knicks move on from Derrick Rose after offloading Anthony.

Which isn’t to say Phil Jackson has to keep him. The Knicks aren’t going to win with him. That’s a fact. The timelines of both parties don’t align, and New York has proved woefully incapable of fleshing out its roster. But you can’t move him if you’re not netting some combination of first-rounders, mid-to-top-end prospects and immediate salary cap relief.

Taking on Austin Rivers and whatever other scraps the Knicks would get from their reported dalliance with the Clippers doesn’t qualify as a worthy deal. That might be the best offer out there, but that doesn’t mean the Knicks should accept it. They shouldn’t—especially not without subsequent deals to dump Rose (maaaybe) and Noah (LOL).

Offers for Anthony should only improve over the offseason anyway, when he’s had more time to reflect on the situation and interested teams have additional flexibility. If the Knicks are truly hell-bent on moving him, then waiting is the play.

  The Carmelo dilemma is an impossible one. The New York Knicks have passed the point of getting true value for Carmelo, as the whole league now has accepted his demise. They can’t get a haul, but they need to try. Can they snag the Sacramento Kings pick and another first-rounder from the Bulls or a deal based on the Celtics’ assets? The Cavs don’t have the assets and the Clippers don’t have the picks, so it’s a tough one. They are rebuilding on the fly, but Phil has drafted well in New York. Picks should be his priority.
  It doesn’t matter what Phil wants to do. As long as Melo has a no-trade clause, Phil’s hands are tied. Still, I’d move on from Melo for almost any return.

The Knicks won’t really take off until they realize Porzingis is their best player, and their offense needs to be developed around his skill set. For all his talents, Melo is a ball-stopper and someone who likes to operate from the elbows. Porzingis has a lot of work to do before he’s an elite No. 1 option, but he needs to work on his game from the elbow and off rapid ball movement—not something that will happen alongside Melo.


Honestly, there are too many factors where I just don’t have enough information to be able to make a proper decision. Is Melo going to be a distraction if he isn’t moved? Does Kristaps Porzingis look to him at all for guidance on life as a star player in the NBA? Would trading him have a significant impact on attendance? For which teams would he theoretically waive his no-trade clause? There are just so many variables that from an outsider’s point of view, it’s hard to make an assessment with any real sort of certainty.

That said, if their goal is to bottom out and try to accelerate their rebuild, moving him needs to be a priority. If he’d be willing to accept a trade to the Charlotte Hornets or Boston Celtics, they would probably be at the top of my list, since they could probably at least outbid the Clippers. But push comes to shove, unless Anthony is willing to take a backseat to Porzingis’ development, you’ve gotta take what you can get.


5. With the trade deadline looming, who is the NBA’s most untouchable player?

  For me, it’d be Giannis Antetokounmpo. We can list a dozen or more players who couldn’t be dealt for a variety of reasons. Clearly, LeBron James isn’t getting moved.

Going back to the re-draft idea from the first question, I’d take Antetokounmpo No. 1 overall. Age, skill set, physical gifts and evident work ethic make him an easy choice. Limited injury history definitely helps. Antetokounmpo is going to win an MVP and a DPOY. HOT TAKE! He can guard anybody on the court, he disrupts passing lanes, he protects the rim, and he’s second only to motivated LeBron in chase-down athletics. The only thing he’s missing is a consistent three-point shot. That’s it.


It has to be Giannis Antetokounmpo. You could make the case for Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns, but thanks to his playmaking faculties, Antetokounmpo checks more boxes.

We’ve never seen a player who can only be described as a thingamabob. Antetokounmpo has challenged more shots at the rim and burned through more post-ups than many starting bigs. At the same time, he has a higher assist percentage and more pick-and-roll experience than many starting guards.

All that’s left for him to do is establish a legitimate three-point touch. And while some remain skeptical, I’m more hopeful. His free-throw efficiency is climbing, and he’s shooting better than 39 percent just inside the arc.

Most of all: Antetokounmpo is already playing like a top-five player despite the question marks enveloping his jumper…at the age of 22. Even though the Milwaukee Bucks are hovering outside the East’s crummy playoff picture, there’s no way you find a better active or prospective building block.
  Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak might be the next truly transcendent, generational player. His game is so raw but already so dominant. If I’m hitching my wagon onto anyone, it’s the best athlete and all-round talent who’s coming up. Kevin Durant stays in Golden State and LeBron James stays in Cleveland, but Giannis’ age and health (versus Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, etc.) wins out for me. Where do I sign up?
  With the new CBA making it very easy for teams to retain their young talent, I’d say it has to be one of the young players in the league. Joel Embiid has the most upside of any player since LeBron James, in my opinion, but his injury history moves him down the list a bit.

I’ll go with Karl-Anthony Towns over Giannis Antetokounmpo, although I think either is a fine answer. Towns has gotten lost in the Embiid hype, but make no mistake: He is as revolutionary as any player in the league. I don’t love the way the Minnesota Timberwolves are using him this season, and I think much of his skill set is being wasted. That said, he’s still scoring from every spot on the floor and has the passing chops to be a double-digit assist threat on any given night. If the Timberwolves ever learn how to properly space the floor and open driving, passing and cutting lanes, Towns will become an MVP candidate.


I’m going to cop out and name two players here because they’re completely untouchable for completely different reasons. One is obviously LeBron James. Accepting the premise that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are the two clear favorites for this year’s Finals, LeBron is by far the most important player to his team’s title hopes. If you took Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant off the Warriors, I’d reckon they’d still be favorites, if to a slightly lesser degree. But if you take LeBron off the Cavs, they’re back in the mix with Boston and the Toronto Raptors, with no real hope of knocking off the top teams from the West.

The other player is Giannis Antetokounmpo. While the Milwaukee Bucks have done a good job amassing talent around him, Giannis is singularly transcendent. Not only is he the cornerstone of any future title hopes the Bucks may harbor, but for a franchise that was recently facing possible relocation, a superstar of Giannis’ caliber could be transformative. Calling Giannis “untouchable” doesn’t do him justice. The future of the franchise rests in his hands. They ought to be encasing him in bubble wrap between games just to be safe.


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