Sometimes a great pitching performance is about spreading excellence over an entire season. Pedro Martinez, for instance, produced arguably the two best pitching seasons of all time, in 1999 and 2000, by consistently overwhelming hitters over the span of months and even years.1Over a two-year span, no starter has ever struck out a higher percentage of batters he faced or walked fewer opponents relative to his strikeouts than Martinez did in those seasons. His dominance could certainly be glimpsed in specific moments as well, but the magnitude of Martinez’s accomplishments is best described with broad numbers (for example, he has the lowest single-season ERA, relative to the league, in major league history).For others, though, pitching greatness manifests itself in far shorter sequences. When Orel Hershiser unanimously won the 1988 National League Cy Young, it was more about his 59 consecutive scoreless innings — which broke fellow Dodger Don Drysdale’s then-20-year-old major league record — than his season-long numbers. Although Hershiser tied Cincinnati’s Danny Jackson for the NL lead in wins, he wasn’t No. 1 in winning percentage or ERA — to say nothing of newer metrics such as fielding independent pitching (FIP), on which he lagged well behind league leaders.2It’s tough to fault Cy Young voters from 1988 for not knowing the finer points of defense-independent pitching statistics and cluster luck. But in retrospect, almost half the wins generated by the Dodgers with Hershiser on the mound could be attributed to aspects of the game relatively beyond the pitcher’s control, such as defense and stranding runners by scattering opposing hits.That year, Hershiser’s historic streak meant more than performance over the season as a whole. And the same thing might be playing out in the NL this season. With eight scoreless innings Sunday against the Nationals, another Dodger, Zack Greinke, has extended his own scoreless streak to 43⅔ innings. Greinke is one of the best pitchers in the game, but just like Hershiser, he’s being oversold by The Streak.Greinke leads the majors in ERA with a microscopic 1.30, but he’s also been the beneficiary of good fortune. Similar to Hershiser, almost half the wins generated by LA’s run-prevention corps with Greinke on the mound can be attributed to factors outside his own pitching skill. Take those wins away, and Greinke has been only the sixth-best pitcher in baseball this season. (He ranks fourth even if we just look at the past 30 days.)During Greinke’s streak, his fielders have converted into outs 82.4 percent of the balls he allowed to be put in play, a far greater rate than the league average of 70.6 percent. And it doesn’t seem to be possible to produce a historic consecutive-innings streak without benefiting from that kind of defense (and luck). Behind Hershiser, 81.4 percent of the balls in play were turned into outs, and for Drysdale, the rate was 81.6 percent.We can debate whether Greinke’s pursuit of the streak is easier or harder than Hershiser’s or Drysdale’s was. Greinke has had to throw more pitches per inning,3During the streak, 30 percent of the batters Greinke has faced either struck out or walked — both of which are typically more laborious from a pitch-count perspective than a standard plate appearance. That proportion was only 21 percent for Hershiser. but he has also spread his innings over a greater number of starts, which has allowed him to benefit from a reduced “times through the order” penalty. The bigger takeaway, however, is that these kinds of streaks — even those of the 59-inning variety — cover only a few starts, too small a sample for us to easily untangle the effects of luck and skill.Streaks are nothing if not one of baseball’s favorite preoccupations, but they also take a fundamentally long-term game and focus it on the short term. Joe DiMaggio won the 1941 AL MVP in large part because he hit safely in 56 straight games, but Ted Williams was easily the better player over the entire season.4In fact, Williams famously had the higher batting average during the span of DiMaggio’s streak! Hershiser won the Cy Young but probably wasn’t the NL’s best pitcher in 1988. And Greinke’s streak, impressive and exciting as it is, shouldn’t obscure the other fantastic pitching seasons we’re seeing across MLB this year.
“CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?! ABBY WAMBACH HAS SAVED THE USA’S LIFE IN THIS WORLD CUP,” announcer Ian Darke screamed in disbelief. But those who knew Wambach probably weren’t too surprised her dome had rescued the team. In the 2004 Olympic final — also against Brazil — a 24-year-old Wambach scored the game-winning goal in overtime — also with her head. With 184 international goals — the most of any soccer player in the world, male or female — Abby Wambach is going out on top. The 14-year veteran of the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) announced her retirement today (after snapping a selfie with POTUS, no less), marking the end not just of her reign in women’s soccer but also the end of one of the most dominant careers in American sports.Not all great athletes have a single moment that encapsulates their career, but for me, Wambach does. Down 2-1 against Brazil in the 122nd minute of the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal, the game appeared all but over — a loss for the Americans would have meant the worst performance in a World Cup by any USWNT. A cross from Megan Rapinoe on the left side seemed hopeless, until you saw Wambach on the far right, floating above four Brazilian defenders and heading the ball in. At nearly 6 feet tall, Wambach was plain dominant in the air in the women’s game. She has scored 77 international goals with her Twitter-famous head. That means her head, by itself, is the seventh-most prolific scorer in USWNT history.But focusing only on her head ignores the 107 goals Wambach has scored with the rest of her body. Even minus the headers, Wambach has scored more goals internationally than all but one man. Want some other crazy Wambach stats?According to ESPN’s Paul Carr, Wambach scored a goal every 99.3 minutes for the USWNT, the best rate of the 13 players with 40 or more goals;She holds the USWNT match record (in a six-way tie) for the most goals in a game (5);She also holds the USWNT career record for the most multiple-goal games (39);And the most yellow cards (23) — a result of her tenacity in her early days, and her flop-like tendencies in her later days.But snapshot statistics don’t do Wambach justice. For more than a decade, she dictated the style of American women’s soccer (for better or for worse). Wambach will play her last game for the USWNT on Dec. 16, but her legacy will live on in long balls and last-minute headers, a relic of the ’99-ers style of play that many are ready to retire … until the U.S. needs saving and Wambach won’t be there to header one home.
Exiled from Florida State because of multiple off-the-field issues, cornerback Greg Reid looks like he will land at Valdosta State for his final year of college football.ESPN reports that Reid sorted through his options and is in the process of enrolling at the school located in middle Georgia.Reid was dismissed from FSU for a violation of team rules — and it was not his first offense. As a three-year starter and a top special teams player, Reid had to be a malcontent for coach Jimbo Fisher to kick him off the team. But to maintain any credibility within his team, Fisher had little recourse, for Reid found himself in trouble several times during his Seminole career.Most recently, Reid was arrested a few weeks ago and charged with driving with a suspended license, a seat belt violation and misdemeanor possession of marijuana, according to the Lowndes County (Ga.) sheriff’s office. Reid told police he had no knowledge of the marijuana found in his car.Last fall, Reid was on perjury charges for lying to police about the identity of a man who fled the scene of a traffic stop on a scooter. That charge was later dropped. However, he was suspended last year for an undisclosed violation of team rules.Last season, Reid played in 11 games and started nine. He made 32 tackles and had two interceptions, along with 563 kick return yards. He moved into second place in school history with 89 career returns and 1,117 return yards and was named one of three most valuable players on special teams at Florida State’s annual banquet.Last Tuesday night in Lake Park, Ga., Reid was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license.For Fisher, that was it. Now Reid apparently has found a new school. But for how long?
Brooklyn Nets head coach Jason Kidd has pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge he received last summer.A judge placed Kidd on interim probation after his plea to a misdemeanor drunken-driving charge. In an effort to turn the negative incident into a positive, the judge also ordered the coach to speak to Long Island, New York, high school students about the dangers of drunken driving.Kidd was arrested on July 15, 2012, by Southampton Town police. They say he smashed his Cadillac SUV into a telephone pole in the hamlet of Water Mill. Police reports stated he smelled of alcohol and his eyes were bloodshot and glassy.Kidd retired as an NBA player after last season and was hired to coach the Nets. He took the team to two NBA Finals as a player when the franchise played in New Jersey.
In Michael Jordan’s city, Magic Johnson has donated $10 million to bolster a summer jobs program that benefits troubled Black youths in Chicago, which has been ravaged by street violence.Johnson joined Mark and Kimbra Walter of the Inner City Youth Empowerment in a collaboration that will help triple the reach of the One Chicago Summer Plus program.Its primary focus is to guide youths ages 16 to 19 away from potential troubles that come on the streets of inner-city Chicago.“We are proud to partner on an initiative that has proven to change the trajectory of at-risk kids’ lives,” Johnson said in a press release. “Providing disadvantaged kids with alternatives is a step in the right direction toward helping them reach their full potential and curb violence in our neighborhoods.”Johnson’s contribution highlights the former NBA great’s philanthropic work since retiring from professional basketball. He’s been a benchmark for other athletes, like Jordan, to study after their careers are completed.Johnson’s business enterprises are extensive, and most of them have elements of providing jobs, upward mobility and upgraded services for African-Americans.Hardly anyone talks about Johnson having contracted HIV in 1991, setting in motion the end of one of the sport’s great careers. Since then, Johnson has been recognized as an advocate for the disease and an entrepreneur with an amazing portfolio. He’s also part of a group that owns the Los Angeles Dodgers and has a net worth estimated at $500 million, according to celebritynetworth.com.He was beloved as a player because of the infectious, child-like joy in which he performed but should be admired for the non-stop work he does in Black communities. In the case of Chicago, Johnson has no real connection—he’s from Lansing, Mich. and has lived in Los Angeles ever since he was drafted No. 1 by the Lakers in 1979.The only connection is that Johnson identified a dire need and did something to help. Admirable.This program in Chicago that served 1,000 teenagers will serve 3,000 now. The program includes a 25-hour-a-week summer job, a mentor and a behavioral therapy and social-skills building component.The One Chicago Summer Plus program outlines criteria for students, as it targets those who have a past with the juvenile justice system and those who have missed six to eight weeks of school.The program spends roughly $2,900 per student, which equates to nearly triple the amount that is traditionally spent on summer job programs.The city of Chicago is also contributing an additional $6 million to the program, with some of the funds going toward training and supporting 500 mentors so that the increase in students into the program does not compromise the quality and personal contact participants receive.“The city of Chicago, with the support of our community and business partners, remains committed to reducing violence in our city,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in Black Enterprise. “Through the generous grant, more youth will stay safe, active and engaged this summer while getting the skills and on-the-job training necessary for a bright future.”High unemployment is directly linked to higher incarceration rates. Studies indicate 92 percent of Black males between the ages of 16-19 in Chicago are unemployed, which impacts the city’s high crime and incarceration rates. All this illuminates how important programs like this are—and how committed someone like Magic Johnson is.
Shooting percentage10.29.5-0.7 Includes all Pittsburgh Penguins regular-season and playoff games, 2005-06 to 2016-17.Source: Hockey-Reference.com Points percentage55.355.7+0.4 Games914176— Power-play goals per game0.810.74-0.07 How losing Sid the Kid has affected the Penguins, 2005-17 Goals per game3.152.94-0.21 Although the Pens have traditionally fared slightly better defensively in games Crosby missed, they’ve struggled to replace him on offense, producing fewer shots and shooting the puck less accurately when their star sits out. Those differences become even more stark when you look at what happens when he’s on the ice. Pittsburgh’s shots and goals per minute improve sharply with Crosby on the ice — no player of his generation has wielded a bigger influence on his team’s scoring than Sid the Kid.Now, the Penguins will be without that offensive leadership for at least one game, and possibly many more. (This isn’t the first time Crosby has missed time with a head injury; he sat out 101 games in 2010-11 and 2011-12 while fending off concussion symptoms, and he missed time with a concussion earlier this season as well.)Prior to this week’s injury, the reigning Stanley Cup champions had been cruising through the playoffs and seemed on their way to dispatching the Capitals for the second-straight year. It’s up to Crosby’s teammates to prevent this from being the turning point the Capitals needed to claw their way back into the series. Shots against per game30.128.8-1.3 Crosby’s loss can’t be overstated. In terms of individual numbers, he stands toe-to-toe with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin as the best player of the NHL’s post-lockout generation. But even more than his own production, Crosby also brings the best out of the Penguins’ offense while he’s on the ice. Over the span of his career (since 2005-06), here’s how Pittsburgh’s stats change when Crosby plays versus when he sits: WITH CROSBYWITHOUT CROSBYDIFFERENCE Save percentage90.790.9+0.2 The Pittsburgh Penguins had a rough Monday night, losing their superstar center Sidney Crosby after a hit to the head by Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, then losing Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series in overtime. Tuesday afternoon was arguably even worse, as news arrived that Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion and ruled out of Thursday’s Game 4: Goals against per game2.82.64-0.16 Shots per game31.130.9-0.2
This week on Hot Takedown, we’re joined by FiveThirtyEight editor in chief Nate Silver as we look ahead to the second round of the NBA playoffs and the potential Warriors-vs.-Rockets rematch. Some experts are picking Houston to advance, but our model still favors Golden State. Who’s right? As for the other opening rounds, with the exception of the all-knotted-up Nuggets-Spurs series, the higher seeds seem likely to advance — which leads us to ponder some possible restructuring of the NBA’s playoff format.With the NFL draft starting Thursday, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether the Arizona Cardinals will take Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick. We discuss Murray’s draft position and take a look at the draft value of quarterbacks in a year when there aren’t a lot of great QB prospects available. As for the teams in general, is it better to draft for need or draft for talent?We’re also introducing a new segment called “Get Off My Field.” This week, Nate thinks there are too many home runs and strikeouts in baseball.Here’s what we’re looking at this week:Chris Herring writes about Russell Westbrook’s continued playoff woes.We’re following the playoffs with our NBA predictions.We eagerly await Kirk Goldberry’s new book, “SprawlBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA.”Michael Salfino explores the value of different NFL draft positions.We marvel at Giannis Antetokounmpo laughing in the face of the laws of physics. More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed Embed Code FiveThirtyEight
Brewers-10.9-3.4-14.4 Reds1.8-49.9-48.1 TEAMFIELDINGPITCHINGTOTAL Midseason is rapidly approaching, and the Chicago Cubs are still making the rest of Major League Baseball look bad. They’re World Series favorites by a mile according to our Elo predictions — which also have them pegged for 104 wins — and they’ve outscored their opponents by an average of 2.3 runs per game, the most of any team through 70 games since the legendary 1939 Yankees.The Cubs have excelled on offense, scoring the third-most runs in the majors, but to an even greater degree the team owes its extreme success to run prevention. Chicago’s current 2.73 team ERA would be the lowest full-season1So, not counting the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. figure in the designated hitter era (since 1973), and the lowest relative to the MLB average since World War II.This Cubs staff is pretty good at making guys miss — it ranks fifth in the majors in K-BB rate — but that alone isn’t enough to explain such a microscopic ERA. Chicago has also allowed a .254 batting average on balls in play, 42 points below the major-league average and 19 points lower than the next-closest team. If the Cubs were to finish the year that far below the norm, their BABIP would also be the lowest relative to average since World War II. As a byproduct, the gap between Chicago’s ERA and its Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is 0.64 runs, the widest positive gap in the majors.We know of three things that could contribute to such a separation. One is flat-out luck, but the others are a good defense and a pitching staff that induces especially fieldable batted balls. Prior to the advent of Statcast, MLB’s new radar-based motion-tracking system, it was almost impossible to separate the latter two elements, parsing out a pitcher’s impact on batted balls from that of his fellow defenders. But now we can start to unravel those relationships and assign partial credit to each possible factor at work.To do that, we built a couple of models. The first model estimated each MLB pitcher’s effect on the exit velocities and launch angles he allows by comparing his rates to the same hitters’ numbers against all other pitchers.2Specifically, we used two mixed models that incorporate effects for each batter, pitcher and park to predict exit velocity and launch angle. Because 20 to 25 percent of batted balls are missed by the tracking system, all models in this piece imputed missing Statcast data using the average of similarly classified batted balls and outcomes. Then we calculated what would happen if we replaced each team’s actual pitchers with a staff full of generic arms that allowed league-average exit velocities and launch angles. The difference between those actual and generic figures gives us a number of runs attributable to each pitching staff’s contact-management skills, i.e., its tendency to allow batted balls that do less damage.Next, we modeled fielding on a team-by-team basis by estimating how much each batted ball “should” have been worth (in terms of linear-weight run value) based on its exit velocity and launch angle.3This was a random forest model, as described in an earlier piece. Then we compared those estimated values to the actual values of the same batted balls.4Using a separate model to adjust for ballpark effects. If a batted ball with an exit velocity and launch angle that would typically produce a single actually yielded an out, the model credited some of the difference to the defense, which we assume prevented the single through some combination of good range, good hands and good positioning.Finally, we combined those two values into one total figure to see how many runs each team has saved on its balls in play, relative to a team with average contact-management and defense. Giants6.717.524.2 White Sox3.125.428.5 Includes games through June 19Source: MLBAM, PitchInfo Rays4.2-19.6-15.4 Astros-10.310.0-0.3 Pirates-6.815.58.7 Angels-6.42.4-4.1 Braves3.1-5.4-2.4 Marlins5.3-2.82.5 Mariners-0.27.67.4 Blue Jays14.16.520.6 Yankees-18.104.22.168 Tigers-10.69.9-0.7 There’s a moderate, statistically significant relationship5A correlation coefficient of 0.44. between a team’s ERA-FIP gap and our estimate of its runs saved from contact management and defense. Add in sequencing (as measured by Left on Base Percentage), and we can explain about 60 percent of the difference between a team’s ERA and its FIP. The rest can be chalked up to random variation, plus a variety of smaller factors6Such as the way pitchers influence other batted-ball characteristics (i.e., spray angle), the tendency of good pitch-framing catchers — such as the Cubs’ Miguel Montero and David Ross — to produce more favorable counts and make batters swing at bad pitches (which can’t be hit as hard), and the ability of batters and pitchers to restrict the running game (the rare area in which the Cubs don’t excel). and, admittedly, other unknown elements that we can’t conceive of or are unable to calculate using current data.According to our models, the Cubs’ defense — aided perhaps by data-driven positioning, if not frequent infield shifting — has been the third-best in baseball, behind the Rangers and Blue Jays. But fielding is a relatively small piece of Chicago’s run-preventing puzzle. Its pitching staff’s collective ability to manage contact leads the next-best team by close to 20 runs. As a group, Cubs pitchers have depressed exit velocity by 0.4 miles per hour and launch angle by almost 2 degrees, relative to average.7As of June 19.That leads to a larger takeaway from our models: Leaguewide, the impact of pitchers’ contact management is more than twice that of defense, which seems to contradict the traditional defense-independent pitching theory that most pitchers have little ability to prevent hits on balls in play. (It’s probably no coincidence that the career leader in Inside Edge’s Soft Contact rate is fabled bat breaker Mariano Rivera.) In other words, much of what appears to be good or bad defense might really be good or bad contact management, which can produce easier (or more difficult) fielding opportunities that make certain fielders look better or worse than they are. In theory, only a Statcast-derived defensive stat could account for this heretofore-camouflaged effect.Exit velocity is meaningful even over small samples, but at this early stage of the Statcast Era, we still don’t know enough about how pitchers control contact to say whether the Cubs’ BABIP is sustainable, or if it stems from a conscious pitching (or even pitching-acquisition) approach. As with any extreme observation, it seems safe to expect some regression to the mean for Chicago’s pitchers. Still, we can conclude that the Cubs’ historically low BABIP through their first 69 games isn’t merely luck. One way or another, the Cubs have earned a lot of those outs. Red Sox9.7-3.85.9 Twins-12.1-39.0-51.1 Cardinals6.413.419.8 Rangers18.5-6.212.3 Rockies9.8-24.9-15.1 Mets-4.026.422.3 Royals0.5-12.6-12.0 The Cubs Are The Best At Controlling Contact Athletics-5.7-8.8-14.5 Dodgers2.927.330.2 Nationals-3.816.312.6 Diamondbacks4.6-23.4-18.8 RUNS SAVED Indians6.7-7.1-0.4 Orioles-2.7-4.9-7.7 Cubs12.644.557.1 Padres2.4-9.2-6.8 Phillies-3.9-31.2-35.1
8Russell+4.1Bryant22.4Dantley.189 BPM is calculated since 1974. PER and WS/48 are calculated since 1952.Source: Basketball-Reference.com 9Grant+4.0Howard22.3Howard.172 LeBron James in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform used to be the stuff of fan photoshops and NBA 2K’s franchise mode.1Usually accomplished by switching off the game’s trading AI. But now it has become reality, after the announcement Sunday night that James is signing a four-year, $153 million free-agent contract with L.A. It might be jarring at first to see James in Lakers gear this fall — but he’ll fit right in with a franchise whose destiny has always been determined by Hall of Fame talent. In fact, even among the Lakers’ many, many historical stars, James could be the best player who ever suited up for the team the first second that he steps onto a court wearing Forum blue and gold.In their 70-year history, the Lakers have won 16 NBA championships, one behind their archrival Boston Celtics for the most by any franchise in the league. And most of that success has been due to the team’s immense star power: players such as Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor … the list goes on and on. If we measure player value using a mixture of Basketball-Reference.com’s Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares, and look back in history to 1963,2For accounting purposes, this was the first season for which we know exactly how many minutes a player split between teams if he switched teams midseason. Los Angeles has gotten nearly 1,200 total wins above replacement3Using the same replacement-level threshold as in Daniel Myers’s VORP metric. from players who either eventually ended up in the Hall of Fame or are likely to be there someday — a number that represents roughly 60 percent of the team’s total wins above replacement over that period. In each regard, only the Celtics have gotten more out of their Hall members, and the Lakers might have surpassed even Boston if we could have also included the contributions of Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen (who played before we have a precise accounting of a player’s minutes spent with each team during a season). 4O’Neal+5.3West23.1Johnson.225 1James+11.1Mikan28.5Chamberlain.248 2Johnson+7.4James28.3James.238 7Gasol+4.4Chamberlain22.8Malone.205 The Lakers’ greatest players, by the numbersWhere LeBron James ranks in career Box Plus/Minus, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares per 48 minutes relative to other Lakers Which teams have relied on Hall of Famers?The franchises with the most wins above replacement (WAR) from players who are currently in, or are likely to be in,* the Hall of Fame, 1963-2018 PistonsLanier • Thomas • Hill56239 Top 10 in BPMTop 10 in PERTop 10 in WS/48 WarriorsCurry • Barry • Mullin53939 * Weighting active players’ WAR by their Hall of Fame probability.WAR is calculated using a mixture of Win Shares and Player Efficiency Rating.Source: Basketball-Reference.com 76ersBarkley • Erving • Chamberlain71350 3Jabbar+5.4O’Neal26.1Jabbar.228 Thunder/SonicsPayton • Durant • Westbrook56636 FranchiseTop three HOF players by WARWAR By all HOFHOF % of total WAR LakersBryant • Jabbar • Johnson1,16558 6Bryant+4.4Johnson23.0O’Neal.208 From 1997 through 2013, the Lakers had picked up double-digit WAR from Hall of Fame players in 16 of 17 seasons, almost always managing to pair Bryant with an all-time great like an O’Neal or a Pau Gasol (who, perhaps surprisingly, has a 93 percent Hall probability according to Basketball-Reference). It was part of a pipeline that had flowed nearly uninterrupted since the days of Mikan in the 1950s. But since 2014, Los Angeles has gotten a mere 2.4 WAR from future Hall of Famers, almost all of it belonging to Gasol before he departed for the Bulls. (Apologies to Lou Williams and Jordan Hill, but they’ll probably have to pay to visit Springfield like the rest of us.)Even granting that we don’t know what the future will ultimately hold for younger prospects such as Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, the Lakers had never gotten fewer than 7 WAR from Hall of Famers in any five-year span since 1963 — and that dark period came from 1992 to 1996, right after Johnson abruptly retired after contracting HIV. The franchise really was never forced to confront life without an NBA legend for so long until very recently.And thanks to James, it won’t have to anymore. Our CARMELO projection system thinks LeBron will add about 12 wins to the Lakers’ tally next season. Depending on whether L.A. can also trade for Kawhi Leonard (or sign another star to pair with James), the team could see its Hall of Fame contributions be rebuilt even further. Either way, the Lakers’ pipeline of all-time talent is gushing again.Moreover, by the historical metrics, LeBron might instantly be the best player who has ever suited up for the Lakers (in terms of stats produced across a player’s entire career, not just with the Lakers). James is the NBA’s all-time career leader in Box Plus/Minus (which can be calculated going back to 1974), easily outpacing Johnson. Among fellow Lakers, he trails only Mikan in Player Efficiency Rating (ranking one slot ahead of O’Neal), and he trails only Chamberlain in Win Shares per 48 minutes (coming in one spot better than Jabbar): 5Horry+4.8Jabbar23.0West.213 JazzMalone • Stockton • Dantley55841 SpursDuncan • Robinson • Gervin73939 CelticsBird • Pierce • Parish1,21363% 10Harper+3.8Baylor21.8Bryant.171 RocketsOlajuwon • Harden • Malone68845 KnicksEwing • Frazier • Reed56339 You can make the case that Jabbar — and maybe also Chamberlain and Karl Malone, who had a cup of coffee with the Lakers when he was 40 — generated more total value in their careers than James has to date. So his case as the greatest player to ever wear a Lakers uniform is not totally open and shut. But the fact that James can even enter the argument, a day into his tenure with one of the most decorated franchises in pro sports history, is telling about his stature among NBA legends.It remains to be seen if James will be the Lakers’ lone surefire future Hall of Famer next season; whether he gets big-name help will likely determine L.A.’s viability as a true threat to the Golden State Warriors’ supremacy right away. Whatever happens, though, James has finally restored to the Lakers the one resource they’ve scarcely been able to live without over the years: legendary talent.
Bucks2014-1567-5.2+3.4+8.6 Nuggets2018-1999-2.3+4.7+7.1 Denver didn’t have to change its squad to dominate on DBiggest one-year improvements in defensive efficiency, and the share of minutes played by returning players, since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger TeamSeason% Ret. MPPrevious seasonValueChange Spurs1997-9859%-5.7+5.7+11.4 A lot of that relative improvement2Measured against the league averages in defensive efficiency from both seasons. The Nuggets were 2.3 points per 100 possessions worse than league average on D last season, but so far this season, they are a little more than 4.7 points better than average on defense, coming out to just over 7 points better on that end altogether. stems from a schematic change in how the Nuggets — specifically, Nikola Jokic — defend pick-and-roll scenarios. The team was shredded in screen-roll action last season, ranking third worst in the league in defensive efficiency when facing such plays, according to data from Second Spectrum. Fast-forward to now, though, and Denver is tied for third best against the pick-and-roll,3From 0.97 points allowed per screen and roll defended last season to now just 0.89 points per screen defended. While that difference may seem small, it’s equivalent to a whopping 5.6 points per 100 possessions, since the Nuggets face about 70 screen-and-roll plays per contest. largely because of how Jokic negotiates the plays differently.Jokic is arguably the most well-rounded center in the NBA from an offensive standpoint, but with lackluster quickness, he has often found himself in no-man’s land: playing just far back enough to routinely give ball handlers wide-open jumpers but just far up enough to give speedsters the runway necessary to finish at the basket before he can get in position to block their shots.This season, though, he’s made a concerted effort to play farther up on pick-and-roll ball handlers in hopes of forcing them into making quicker decisions. Yes, guards and forwards will often still be much more explosive than he is and will beat him to the cup at times, but with improved communication and more decisive action on Jokic’s part, Denver is better able to protect the rim when Jokic isn’t in position to make a play.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/NugsDefense.mp400:0000:0001:09Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.The Nuggets are using “soft” coverage — in which the man guarding the screener doesn’t come up and truly engage the ball handler — on pick and rolls about 13 percent less than last year when Jokic is on the court, according to Second Spectrum. Opposing jump-shooters last season, having plenty of space, overperformed their expected effective field-goal percentage4This is known as qSQ, or quantified Shot Quality, which measures each shot’s likelihood of going in — based on how far the nearest defender is from the shooter, and how quickly that defender is closing in — if an average shooter were to take the same attempt from that location. by more than 4 points when Jokic was the nearest defender — a sign that he may not have been playing up far enough to affect their shots. This season, though, opponents are shooting jumpers more than 5 points worse than their expected effective field-goal rates.Similarly, the Serbian center — who ranked among the NBA’s bottom five rim protectors in both 2016-17 and 2017-185Among those who defended at least five shots per game that were within 6 feet of the basket and who played a minimum of 55 games. — this year ranks smack-dab in the middle of the league’s rim protectors in how often he forces close-range misses when serving as the nearest defender. In other words, he’s been more than serviceable this season.6And depending on what advanced analytics you look at, some would argue that’s been the case before, too.Of course, it’s fair to question the sustainability of this strategy with Jokic and Denver’s torrid defense as a whole. After all, the Nuggets allow a relatively high number of looks from the short corners and have been somewhat unscathed in that their opponents have hit a below-league-average mark from those spots, and on wide-open triples in general, to this point. In fact, if you look back at Denver’s struggles in early November, when it dropped four contests in a row, teams hit better than 54 percent of their completely open looks from deep. (On some level, this has long been one of the things that Denver sacrifices in hopes of aiding Jokic in the paint. Other defenders, often assuming the 7-footer won’t hold up in coverage, provide help away from their defensive assignments, and in doing so, they run the risk of giving up an open jumper.)Still, there are more reasons to believe in Denver than there are reasons not to. Despite having battled one of the NBA’s toughest schedules so far, the club — with Western Conference wins over the second-place Thunder, third-place Clippers, fourth-place Warriors, fifth-place Lakers and seventh-place Blazers — the Nuggets have beaten almost everyone in the West’s crowded playoff race. Denver has also knocked off Toronto, sitting in first in the East, on the road.Other sources of optimism: Paul Millsap, after missing 44 games last year, is logging a career-high true-shooting percentage at age 33. Guard Monte Morris, who played in only three games as a rookie last season but now sees 24 minutes a night, is unbelievably sure-handed and owns the NBA’s best assist-to-turnover ratio by a country mile.7Somewhat separate: It would be unwise — borderline criminal — if Isaiah Thomas’s pending return to health means fewer minutes for Morris. There are too many questions about Thomas’s fit on defense to risk the rhythm that Denver has going right now. If anything, perhaps they can play alongside each other. Malone took the necessary step of inserting Swiss Army knife Juancho Hernangomez into the starting five when it became apparent that opponents were flat-out ignoring Torrey Craig because of his inability to shoot from outside.Denver is one of the youngest teams in the league, but it leads the NBA in rebounding percentage, is tied for second in assist percentage and has managed to stay atop the standings without Will Barton, its top bench scorer, who should be back from injury in the coming weeks. The Nuggets’ defense has been the headline this season, but they still possess a top-10 offense, and Jokic — already one of the better passing bigs of all-time — has only continued to blossom on that end since bursting onto the scene.It’s still somewhat early, yes. But if Denver’s defense is here to stay, the Nuggets have enough things going for them in just about every other facet of the game not only to make the playoffs for the first time under this regime, but also to do some real damage once they get there.Neil Paine contributed research.Check out our latest NBA predictions. Hawks1993-9471-2.2+4.6+6.8 Positive values mean the defense was better (e.g., allowed fewer points); negative values mean it was worse.Source: Basketball-Reference.com Celtics2007-0850-0.4+8.6+9.0 Bobcats2013-1464-5.7+2.8+8.5 Lakers1999-0069-2.1+5.8+7.9 Nets2001-0241-2.5+5.0+7.5 Raptors2006-0737-6.5+0.5+6.9 Pistons1995-9668-4.7+2.5+7.2 Opp. pts/100 poss. relative to league avg. The signings and trades of the NBA’s entertaining offseason help us figure out how we feel about a team’s chances of contending for a title the following season. But focusing on splashy roster moves — DeMarcus Cousins to Golden State, Kyrie Irving asking to leave a team that made three NBA Finals in a row — can blind us to other improvements a team can make.That’s part of what makes the Denver Nuggets so compelling this year. The team played little to no defense last season and missed the playoffs. A few months later, the Nuggets rank among the stingiest groups in the league, have won seven straight and lead the West standings. And they’ve done this with virtually the same group of players from last year.While a combination of secondary factors helps explain the turnaround, it makes sense to begin with the most eye-popping change in Denver: the Nuggets’ suddenly stifling defense.“It’s our identity,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters last week after his group held LeBron James and the Lakers to just 85 points. “Let’s be honest, our first three years to be in the bottom five of defense every year, for me, it’s embarrassing. When you’re known, ‘Hey, he’s a defensive coach,’ and three years running, you’re bottom five. I have pride. We all have pride.”And they should be proud for the time being. Denver, which was 25th on defense while surrendering 111 points per 100 plays last season, has jumped 21 spots, all the way up to No. 4 on that end, now allowing 105.5 points per 100 plays. And again: This reversal has taken place despite the fact that the vast majority of the Nuggets’ minutes this season — 99 percent, in fact — have been logged by players who were also on Denver’s roster last season.The San Antonio Spurs became a lockdown team after they drafted Tim Duncan. The Boston Celtics were dominant on D after they traded for Kevin Garnett. But no team has ever improved by as much as this Denver defense has while keeping the cast virtually1The players were the same, but obviously certain players — Monte Morris and Juancho Hernangomez in particular — are playing far bigger roles now. the same.