Crunching Numbers With NBA Math, Episode 2


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. This is the second edition, and we have another quartet of special voices featured.

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

Ben Dowsett

Basketball Insiders

Ben Golliver

Sports Illustrated

T.J. McBride

BSN Denver

Bryan Toporek



1. If you could use a time machine to go back and witness any event in NBA history, what would it be?

  It’s not necessarily a singular event since there are many to choose from, but I’d go back to watch one of the epic battles between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. I think it’d be fascinating to watch that form of basketball: two guys who were so far separated from their peers and had such remarkable levels of responsibility.

In particular, based on what we do know, I’d love to watch the way Russell always seemed to get the better of a guy who, by all accounts, was just more talented. I know there were other players involved on both teams, and many old timers will tell you that history exaggerates the athletic differences between the two, but it still fascinates me that Chamberlain never had more success from a team standpoint, given how much he could dominate a game.

  The good angel on my left shoulder suggests Michael Jordan sloughing off Bryon Russell to hit the crowd-silencing, Finals-sealing jumper in Utah. But the bad angel on my right shoulder is screaming for blood: The Malice at the Palace.

For a writer, that would have been a once-in-a-lifetime reporting opportunity. How often would you get to track down fans to ask, “So, where exactly did Jermaine punch you?” It’s also crazy to think about what would happen if you used the time machine in reverse and brought a Malice-style fan brawl to 2017. There would be dozens of Facebook Live videos, tweets and snapchats from fans to comb through for supporting details, countless GIFs and vines of violent interactions looping endlessly, and hundreds of day-after reaction columns to reinforce and amplify the chaos. Hopefully there’s no Malice 2.

  Without a doubt, it would be Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals for me. Being able to witness Magic Johnson, in his rookie year nonetheless, slide from point guard to center and proceed to dismantle the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Dr. Julius Erving, would be nothing short of a dream. Not only did he put up a mind-bending 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the clinching game, but it was his play that paved the way for the multifaceted big men of our generation and started the trend of teams looking to play smaller. Players like Draymond Green, Karl Anthony-Towns, Anthony Davis and even Nikola Jokic were provided a path paved by the play of Magic 37 years ago.

Not only was Johnson the MVP in the 1980 NBA Finals; he was transcendent.

  Oooh, tough one. As a Philly homer, it’s hard not to say Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, especially since there’s no existing video footage of it. Bearing witness to the largest scoring eruption in league history —even if circumstances were far more conductive to such outbursts back in those days—would be one hell of a story to tell the grandkids some day.

That said, Tinfoil Hat Bryan would first take Doc Brown’s DeLorean to the green room of the 1985 draft lottery. The world needs to know once and for all whether David Stern (or an accomplice) really did freeze the New York Knicks’ envelope or bang it against the lottery drum to rig it in their favor.


2. What’s one unpopular NBA opinion that you firmly believe?

  I don’t know if this is unpopular at this point anymore, but I’ve held this opinion since before the 2016 Finals as well: If I was the coach/general manager of a team playing a single seven-game series with my life hanging in the balance, and I was given the choice of any player in NBA history at his absolute apex to start my team (using current NBA rules), it would be LeBron James and not Michael Jordan.

Again, not entirely sure this is controversial at this point, though it probably is for anyone over 30 or so. But I think there’s little question LeBron’s true peak was greater than anything we’ve seen from any other individual in this league, and I think the modern game gives LeBron another tiny leg up on Jordan. In particular, the emphasis on switching defense and the removal of illegal defense, which allows teams to use forms of zone and overload defense (something I think James is more equipped to handle offensively than Jordan would have been, by a small margin), makes a real difference. But to be clear, even if we standardize rules and eras, I’m saying I don’t think there’s ever been a better basketball player at his peak than LeBron James.

  I really don’t subscribe to the “Kevin Durant took the easy way out by joining the Warriors” or “LeBron James isn’t a competitor because he wants all the good players” lines of reasoning. In my opinion, truly great players should stop at nothing in pursuit of championships. If that means changing teams, putting public pressure on the front office, suggesting trades, ousting coaches, so be it.

Yes, a proactive superstar could easily go too far in wielding power, and the most functional organizations should have strong links throughout the chain of command from owner to GM to coach to player. But as James has proven by going from Cleveland to Miami and back, the superstar makes the franchise in the modern NBA, not the other way around. Generational players will always be judged on titles, and their eagerness to win via any means necessary should be viewed as a strength rather than as a flaw.

  That Russell Westbrook is not the MVP of league so far this year. No one can argue that averaging a triple-double isn’t outlandish and a massive accomplishment, but the fact that he has the ball in his hands a staggering 42 percent of the time skews those numbers. It may be nearly impossible to convince me James Harden has not been the better and more positively impactful player this year.

Harden moving into the role of point guard has elevated the Houston Rockets into the third seed in the Western Conference, giving them legitimate championship aspirations while Harden individually flourishes as the primary ball-handler. He’s nearly averaging a triple-double himself with 28.9 points per game to go along with 11.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds, and his usage rate of 34.3 is nearly 10 percent less than Westbrook’s.

  Jahlil Okafor isn’t a total lost cause. He gets a bad rap from Sixers fans (myself included) because he’s a miserable fit next to Joel Embiid or Nerlens Noel and his defensive metrics are worse than Donald Trump’s approval rating.

That said, it isn’t Okafor’s fault the Sixers had two incumbent centers on their roster when they drafted him third overall in 2015. It’s difficult to build around a slow-footed big man in today’s NBA, but in the right situation, I could see Okafor turning into the Oklahoma City Thunder version of Enes Kanter. The New Orleans Pelicans are reportedly hot after him—and you can’t ask for a much better frontcourt partner than Anthony Davis—but the Dallas Mavericks also stand out as a locale where he could potentially thrive.


3. You get to build the Ultimate Slam Dunk Contest for this year’s All-Star festivities, using the time machine from our first question to bring anyone from NBA history to New Orleans. Who ya got?

  Okay, so I’m doing things a little differently than I assume most will. I’m picking three of my favorite in-game dunkers in history (not necessarily the objective best, just three of my favorites): Shawn Kemp, Vince Carter and Julius Erving. Here’s the rub: I’m also selecting three of my favorite rim protectors in history.

Yeah, I’m bringing along Dikembe Mutombo, prime Dwight Howard and current Rudy Gobert. Before you assume this would just be an eventually boring swat fest, know that I’ve thought this through: It wouldn’t just be a straight-up one-on-one liftoff, because with time to prepare and jump, and with no other opponent on the court, the rim protectors probably win these battles too often to make it any fun.

Instead, there are a few different little advantages given to the dunkers to make it a bit more entertaining. In one format, the rim protector has to keep his back turned under the basket until the dunker crosses a certain line, to keep him somewhat in the dark about the direction of the dunk. In another, the two have to race to the basket from set spots on opposite sides of the court (we could adjust these to get the perfect timing). With a little fine-tuning, you could get some pretty awesome battles at the rim. Obviously the league never lets this happen in reality, but this is my fantasy and that’s where it takes us.

  These are some of the most infuriating words in NBA history: “Right now, I’m preliminarily putting my name in the 2010 Dunk Contest.” As everyone knows, LeBron James later waffled out of that declaration and never came back to it, making him the greatest “What if” contestant in Slam Dunk Contest history.

My dream field, then, would be 24-year-old versions of James, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving and Vince Carter, setting up stylistic and performative contrasts across 30 or 40 years of basketball history. There might be better “specialist” dunkers than those four names mentioned, but this group’s combined star power, self-confidence and Hall of Fame credentials would take the contest to new heights in watchability.

  Making this list was nearly impossible. There are easily 15 legitimate dunkers who deserve to be mentioned, but a showdown featuring Shawn Kemp, Vince Carter and LeBron James sounds about as beautifully chaotic as a Slam Dunk Contest could get.

I am envisioning the patented LeBron full-extension, one-handed, tomahawk slam from the free-throw line going up against the sheer explosion of Carter, who proved that man could fly by soaring over 7’2″ Frederic Weis in the Olympics against the French National Team. Vertical explosion has trademarked his career. Add in a healthy dose of the insanity and earth-shattering ferocity that is Shawn Kemp’s dunks, and you have a dunk contest for the ages—if the hoop can withstand the beating these three athletes would inflict over and over again.

Overall, I see Vince Carter calling the contest once again as he floats his way into the title of world’s best dunker.

  Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, Vince Carter and Zach LaVine (pre-ACL tear). Dawkins gets the nod for two reasons: He’d probably switch out the backboard on one dunk just so he could shatter it, and the names he’d concoct for each of his jams would be a highlight of All-Star Weekend. (He is, after all, the architect of “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.”)

Carter, who won the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest with some of the most iconic jams in contest history, would be required to bring Frederic Weis along with him just so he could recreate his murder-dunk from the 2000 Olympics. And LaVine, who won the past two Dunk Contests courtesy of his freakish, unparalleled athleticism, proved last year against Aaron Gordon that he won’t shy away from one-upmanship when facing off against other electric dunkers. This trio, my friends, would redefine “lit.”


4. What’s the best signature move in today’s NBA?

  It’s gotta be the Dirk step, right? Not sure there’s ever been a signature move that looked so non-useful every single time, and yet is so damn effective. I think I went about an entire decade in a row without ever seeing that shot blocked, until I’m pretty sure Gobert got him once last year on it (we’ll make an exception for the 37-year-old against the longest dude in league history).

I do have to say, though: Russell Westbrook has pulled out the Shammgod a couple times this year, and he’s one of the only guys I’ve seen do it recently in a way I find acceptable. Not sure if he’s done it enough to call it signature (correct me if I’m wrong, OKC fans, but I’ve only seen it a couple times this year, and I don’t recall it in previous years), but if he makes it more frequent, that would be my answer.

  Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-jump style finishes in transition. The Bucks star is pulled magnetically towards the basket whenever he hits the open court, and he gobbles up seemingly impossible amounts of hardwood as he prepares for liftoff. For decades, spectacular dunks have been graded, first and foremost, on vertical leap. With Antetokounmpo, the distance he covers with his two steps plus the distance he travels horizontally in the air before finishing is often more mind-blowing than the height of the finish itself. Virtually all of the NBA’s most gifted athletes would struggle to mimic Antetokounmpo’s extended finishes in an empty gym, much less in a game situation.
  Maybe this is insane, given how many immaculate individual moves there are in the NBA nowadays, but Nikola Jokic’s water-polo shot takes the cake for me. I have never seen a player with touch so soft around the rim that he is able to catch the ball with one hand and, in one motion, use the same hand to put the shot right back up with such efficiency.

It is a combination of a floater and what looks like a put-back layup. He uses it off offensive rebounds and, at times, even as an alternative to slamming home dunks off alley-oops. Jokic has become so quick with this move that it does not allow defenders to contest, which is important when Andre Miller probably has more athletic ability. This shot has become a staple of Jokic’s offensive arsenal and has been unguardable in his young career.

  In the spirit of nostalgia, I’m going with Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway. We don’t know how much longer we’ll get to see the Big German shake-and-bake players 10 years his junior, but it’s safe to say that shot helped revolutionize the NBA. Before Dirk, 7-footers weren’t supposed to float outside the paint and rain in jumpers. Thanks in large part to him, ground-bound, post-centric bigs have turned into NBA dinosaurs unless they can stretch the floor, too.

LeBron James once called Dirk’s fadeaway the second-most unstoppable shot in league history, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famed sky hook. I’ll take the King’s word for it.


5. If you could make one realistic trade at the Feb. 23 trade deadline, what would it be? 

  This trade is so 2015-16, and fans of both teams probably hate it, but: Cleveland sends Kevin Love and Richard Jefferson to Boston for Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson. Love has been awesome this year and has changed his narrative in a big way, but there’s no way this doesn’t improve Cleveland’s chances against the juggernaut Warriors in the Finals.

Defensively, Bradley can toggle between GSW’s guards—he’s been considered one of the best individual Stephen Curry defenders in the league for a couple years now. Crowder is the even larger benefit, in that he gives the Cavs another guy besides LeBron who can both check Draymond Green (and therefore switch onto Curry in the Curry-Green pick-and-roll) and hinder Kevin Durant. Love has definitely done a better job defensively against the Dubs in recent matchups than most would expect, but this would be a huge step up. Even Johnson might still have the legs to make a dent in some backup minutes behind Tristan Thompson.

Offensively, it’s tough to see more than a nominal drop-off from Love. His post-ups have been really inefficient this year, and the Cavs’ offense could survive pretty easily by redistributing those four possessions per game elsewhere. Bradley and Crowder are both excellent three-point shooters to position around LeBron and Kyrie Irving, and Johnson could do damage against certain GSW bench units. The deal never happens in real life and both teams probably hate it, but I’d love to see the Cavs with a bit more of an optimal lineup for the Finals.

  I’m sticking with Paul Millsap to the Raptors. I can’t remember a team in recent years that needed to make a midseason trade as badly as Toronto, given its massive frontcourt holes, its defensive limitations, its desire to build on its 2016 Eastern Conference Finals trip and its need to win now to maximize Kyle Lowry’s prime and ensure he re-signs this summer.

I continue to be skeptical of Atlanta’s long-term ceiling and commitment to building a championship contender, given the last year of roster shuffling, and think Millsap deserves better as he prepares to sign the last big-dollar deal of his career. Toronto has the necessary trade chips—young prospects, flexible contracts, extra draft picks—to piece together a quality package before the deadline. I’d be equally happy if Boston’s Danny Ainge stepped forward and added Millsap for his own team’s playoff push.

  If one thing is certain at this trade deadline, it’s that the New Orleans Pelicans desperately need to add talent around Anthony Davis. If they don’t, then Dell Demps is going to find himself sitting on one extremely hot seat.

With recent speculation that Eric Bledsoe might be had for the right price, it seems the Pelicans could potentially add the bruising point guard. A package of E’Twaun Moore, Tyreke Evans and New Orleans’ 2017 first-round pick should get the job done. Adding Bledsoe to the starting lineup gives Davis a point guard who is a threat in the pick-and-roll and can alleviate the scoring burden from the big man’s shoulders. The Suns, meanwhile, get a solid role player in Moore, an expiring contract in Evans and what should be a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Also, Bledsoe and Davis in transition would be a terrifying sight for the rest of the league.

  I’d have the Orlando Magic send Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors for Terrence Ross and the worse of Toronto’s two first-round picks this year (their own or the Los Angeles Clippers’). Ibaka is virtually guaranteed to leave this summer in free agency, so Orlando has no choice but to cut its losses and move him by the trade deadline. Trading Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova and having nothing to show for it one year later would be a devastating setback for the franchise.

Toronto, meanwhile, still has a glaring hole at power forward and doesn’t have the salary-cap flexibility to find a long-term answer this summer. If the Raptors are ever going to emerge as legitimate challengers to LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers, they need to bring in Ibaka. Giving up Ross hurts, but Norman Powell’s emergence should soften the blow, while the late-first-round pick isn’t a huge concession for Toronto. Make it happen, Masai.


Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.