On Pessimistic Predictions, Patty Mills, Portly Frenchmen and the Passage of Time

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There is an old rule about writing on the Internet (well, as old as rules about writing on the Internet can be): Don’t apologize for not having written in a while. Just write.

Earlier today Bradley Doolittle published a piece on ESPN Insider predicting the record of every team in the Western Conference. Bradley predicted the Spurs would finish with either 50 or 51 wins (his prediction was 50.7 to be exact), 9.3 games worse than last season when adjusted for total number of games.

Bradley’s without a doubt a smart guy, and I think it’s not only fair but correct to argue that the Spurs will neither equal their adjusted win total for last season nor will they have the best record in the Western Conference for the third straight year in a row. The conference got better: the Lakers made the kind of blockbuster moves the Lakers make; the Thunder will ripen with age, as will the Timberwolves; the Nuggets look poised to couple a surprisingly formidable defense with their already potent offense.

The Spurs are going to lose some games they won last season. Their relative record will be worse. However, if I may be so bold, I’d like to argue that in and of themselves the Spurs will be slightly better than they were last year.

During this most recent Summer League, the play-by-play announcers (who specifically escapes my memory) had the pleasure of interviewing R.C. Buford one evening during a Spurs game. One of the announcers asked about Boris Diaw, whose heft and nationality (the Spurs seem hell-bent on signing as many Frenchmen as realistically possible) have made him a frequent topic of conversation when the future of the Spurs is the broader question at hand.

Buford noted that Diaw came in to a new and complex situation – what the Spurs did both offensively and defensively last season was rather ornate – and performed exceptionally well. He played so well that, by the time the Western Conference Finals rolled around, Gregg Popovich had moved Diaw into the starting lineup. There’s a rather lengthy article to be written about Popovich’s willingness to move Diaw into the starting lineup on such relatively short notice and his evolution as a coach, but we’ll save that for another day.

Buford was singing Diaw’s praises, specifically noting how pleased he and Popovich were with his defense (despite the fact that Boris is nailed to the floor), when he made a critical and ever so telling remark: Buford noted that Diaw was a smart enough player to come in and pick up the majority of the Spurs system almost instantaneously; how much better would he be after spending a full training camp with Popovich, Duncan and the rest of the team?

Buford was spot on in regards to Boris. The only criticism I would make is that his comment was too narrowly tailored. With a training camp under his belt, Diaw’s going to play at an even higher level than he did last season. However, he’s not the only player this will be true of: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw will all improve in some sense this season. On an individual level, Splitter and Danny Green will likely and Leonard will almost certainly continue to grow as players. On a systematic level, all five players will function better within both the defensive and offensive schemes, given the advantages provided by a full training camp and the ever-steady passage of capital-T Time.

Like many Spurs fans, I’m especially bullish on the potential contributions of Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills. If Kawhi’s Summer League performance is any indication (and, admittedly, Summer League performances are oftentimes an indication of nothing whatsoever), he will not only continue to blossom as a defender and be a reliable shooting threat from the corner, but as Time passes he’ll become an ever more dangerous threat to attack off the dribble and finish with imagination and skill near the rim.

The fact of the matter is, outside of Isaiah Thomas and arguably Klay Thompson, no rookie busted right through his ceiling without blinking in the manner Kawhi Leonard did. He’s going to continue to be a pleasure to watch this upcoming season, even if his empty expression doesn’t betray the slightest bit of pleasure on his part.

If you’re in mood for outward expressions of enthusiasm than Patty Mills is the player you should be focusing your attention on. Mills is going to be doing plenty of celebrating this season because I think Mills is going to be seeing his fair share of minutes. Barring the meteoric rise of Nando De Colo, which I consider rather unlikely, it won’t be long before Mills is unquestionably Tony Parker’s backup.

If and when Mills sees serious minutes with the second unit, anybody capable of vividly remember the last couple of seasons is going to immediately recognize why both George Hill and Gary Neal (both players whom I love) were incapable of playing backup point guard.

A couple years ago The Big Fundamental’s Wayne Vore, whom I consider a good friend despite the fact that he’s a surly bastard, said to me that a wholly underrated capability of point guards is being able to get the basketball over the half court line without turning it over under pressure. However much I may have wished both Hill and Neal were capable of such a seemingly simple accomplishment, they struggled mightily to do so at times.

With Patty Mills, this won’t be an issue. He’ll be the most confident ball handler we’ve had backing up Parker in a number of years. He’s the most dynamic scorer we’ve had backing up Parker in a number of years, which will both allow the second unit to more closely resemble the tactical decisions made by the first unit and take pressure off of Manu Ginobili. Even though they play different positions, Mills’ presence will ever so slightly make Ginobili’s regular season minutes fewer and less intense.

While we’re on the subject of minutes, it’s worth pointing something out. As you are well aware, minutes are one of the ways in which we human beings divide up capital-T Time. In reality Time, given its relationship to Space, is far less concrete than we believe or experience it to be. However, it is no less dictatorial. We cannot escape the confines of our own experience and, subsequently as I pointed out earlier, Time ever-steadily passes. In the instance of Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills, I believe the passage of time will lead to an improved level of play. Like nearly every other human being who has ever heard of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, in their instance I don’t think Time is on the Spurs side.

However, at this point, predicting the decline of Manu and Tim strikes me as a fool’s game. Year after year they have defied the odds, and if they did so again this season who would honestly be surprised. Yes, if Ginobili and Duncan decline significantly Bradley Doolittle’s prediction could be far closer to the truth than I believe it to be. But I’m willing to wager that both Ginobili and Duncan hold serve for at least one more year, and the Spurs find themselves in possession of the third best record in the Western Conference when the season comes to a close.

  • Graham

    I am in 100% agreement. I base my fluke comments on OKC not because they aren’t the more talented team, but a stretch of really out of character superb offensive play from their role players. Anyone else remember that night where perkins and ibaka were something like 95% from the field?

    And yes, PF is our weakest spot, but there’s very little we can do to improve on it at this time. Maybe we get lucky around waiver time again this year, but we aren’t going to be pulling in marquee free agents, or drafting young budding superstars anytime soon. Diaw certainly is an upgrade over Bonner/Blair but not perfect. I am saying we go to war with the (still very capable) army we have and not the ideal one we have in our heads. That and just keep a sharp ear out for the right opportunity (which I have full faith that this front office will)

  • STIJL

    Yep. That’s about what the Spurs could hope to do. And in the mean time I’ll join you in Go Spurs Go!!! Because at the end of the day…They are our team. And stranger things have happened in this league when a perennial favorite loses to a projected lesser team. Spurs have been proving the incumbents wrong for a long time. But then again…it seems when the incumbents project the Spurs to win…they lose. Odd. Hopefully they can go as history presents…the underdogs and win it all again.

  • Tim in Surrey

    I generally agree with you guys and think your comments are pretty intelligent. And I also see the wisdom of Titletown’s comments, too. (As Buffy the Vampire Slayer would say, right about now: “You have ‘But’ face.”) But…

    There’s more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to win a basketball game. You want to beat a team like LA that has great size, skill, and experience? Run them up and down the court all night long. You wan to beat a team like OKC that has great length, skill, and athleticism? Run them off screens relentlessly. Don Nelson talked recently about where his ideas about small ball came from and said that he got the idea from Celtics’ practices under Red Auerbach when often, at the end of a practice, Red would tell them to play “Big against Small”. Nelson said that the small team almost always won–and that was with Bill Russell on the other team. Of course, he did point out that it was a lot easier because they always had Havlicek. And I’m certainly not advocating Nellie’s offense-only small-ball approach. But the fact remains that we’ve got a lot of very good smaller players, including several Havlicekish (© Tim in Surrey, 2012) guys in Manu, Kawhi, and Jack. We’re not going to win an arms race against the Lakers, when it comes to length, or OKC, when it comes to athleticism. But we can win a foot race against both of them and have more skill, depth, and shooting than either one. Signing Dray Blatche, Jorts, Lou Amundssen or (God help us) Darko won’t change that one bit. We can win with the guys we have, if we play in a way that suits them. That’s why Pop changed styles recently and that’s why I think we’re going to win at least 55 games this year, if we are lucky enough to stay relatively healthy.

  • STIJL

    Well said and agree. All I’m saying is IF the Spurs get a quality athletic 3/4 player…that would (to me) almost seal the deal to another shot at the title. And I am with you, just signing Blatche, Jorts or Amundsen is not a definitive answer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane

    1. His forecast is a list of predicted wins (Y) based on previous seasons in which teams with X offensive output produce Y. Y is an average. So, teams with the Spurs’ “offensive output”, X (or whatever NBAPET is exactly), produce a variety of wins normally distributed about some mean, Y. His ratings system only takes one general factor into account (albeit the strongest factor) instead of the many more factors that really affect the outcome, Y. This is easier said than done, defense is difficult to measure and rebounding has some collinearity with with offense (in other words, adding rebounding as a factor doesn’t help predict winning much more accurately). The other box score statistics like steals, turnovers, blocks, etc don’t do much to help predict wins either. Then you have intangible or inaccessible things like coaching, crowd volume, continuity, etc that might help (as we are sure will help the Spurs) predict wins that can’t be included in the model. So, considering the data available to him and the extremely complex and dependent nature of many of the factors in basketball, he’s made a fairly reasonable prediction.

    A statistical analysis is only as good as the data that is available to us. Furthermore, if he adopts a model, he can’t go around making exceptions in the results. I’m not going to say he did a bad job or a good job (you certainly have NO RIGHT to say he did a bad job), but this forecast is simply that – a forecast. It’s for entertainment purposes only.

    2. Things skew left or right and tend to the middle.

    3. The original poster just said he didn’t understand statistics in college. What more evidence do you need?

    4. Prove that you understand statistics. Then we’ll talk about changing my assumption.

    5. You ignored my last 3 paragraphs that demonstrate why the predictions are what they are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane

    It’s quite plausible that these statisticians who splash very few observations into their work are auditioning for jobs with NBA teams. In this case, statistics can play a huge role in their application to “the game.” The game of predicting wins for every team in a season, that is. Probability was born in casinos where the House was interested in learning how likely they were to win. (for example:) Craps, considered one of the “fairest” games, actually gives the House a ~50.7% chance of winning in any given game. I digress. Probability and statistics play a big role in gambling.

    I hardly think the authors of such work think their work is the Gospel, but they may very well think they’ve done as good of a job as they could have done given the information and tools they had.

    I like Hollinger too and I think statisticians shouldn’t be the only source of sportswriting on ESPN or the only form of scouting an NBA team does. Graydon did a good job of incorporating statistics into his piece without focusing solely on them. He simply informed his writing with them.

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