Analysis: What to expect with the NBA Finals

I’ve been off this website since I don’t really know what I could write that hasn’t already been written. But I’ll check in more often this week, as we get closer to the start of the NBA Finals.

As great as the Warriors are, I can’t see them sweeping the Cavs. LeBron James is simply a tough guy to play against. Any team that has managed to beat a team with LeBron in it deserves a lot of credit. The Warriors did it once two years ago. They may very well do it again.

Obviously, last year’s Finals were of high significance to LeBron and the city of Cleveland. Back in 2010, when LeBron announced he would be heading off to Miami to join the Heat, the announcement was not very well-received over there. After four straight Finals appearances as a member of the Heat, he chose to go back to Cleveland and try to get their city an NBA championship. He did just that last year. Now he wants to do it again.

But I can only imagine that the Warriors will never get over the fact that they could’ve beat the Cavs last season, with a regular season winning record that beat that of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. I’m sure they’re going to do everything to win this series and take back the embarrassing loss of last year.

All in all, I see a lot of significance attached to this upcoming Finals series. If the Warriors can somehow win this series, this would prove that they are the most talented Western Conference team the NBA has seen since the early-00’s Los Angeles Lakers. If the Cavs manage to win this, this would seal the deal that LeBron is the best player of our generation and is worthy of comparisons to the great Michael Jordan. Should be a classic series — that’s for sure!


Analysis: Spurs without Kawhi proved to be no match for the Warriors

I didn’t post an analysis for Saturday’s game for the same reason I’m hesitant to make one for last night’s game: I’d be repeating myself (and I don’t like doing that).

There’s really nothing new to discuss here other than the fact that this may have been Manu Ginobili’s final game.

Now that the Warriors have swept the Spurs, they should be focusing on how to not repeat the fatal mistake of last year’s Finals. Sweeping the Spurs does not necessarily mean a potential match-up against the Cleveland Cavaliers will be similarly easy. They’ve been doing an excellent job bringing their A game to each game in this most recent series against the Spurs. Now, they need to bring their A game once again to the NBA Finals.

Opinion: The economics of “doing what’s best for the player”

Update: The Spurs lost this game and currently are down 0-3 in this series. Check back for analysis and opinion pieces tomorrow.

It has been announced today that Kawhi Leonard will be out for tonight’s Game 3 at home against the Golden State Warriors.

ESPN has been reporting that there is a “do what’s best for the player” philosophy that has been in place with the Spurs since 2000.

To say I disagree with this decision (and this philosophy) is a huge understatement. Here’s why.

Heading into this game, the Spurs are down two games against the Warriors. The marginal (definition: incremental; additional) cost of losing this game is much, much higher than the marginal benefit of winning this game. Winning this game would mean the Spurs would be down only one game with a record of GSW 2 – SA 1. However, losing this game would mean the Spurs would be down three games with a record of GSW 3 – SA 0. With such a record, it would look highly likely that the Spurs would get swept by the Warriors.

To be fair, there are certainly marginal costs and benefits associated with deciding whether Kawhi should play or not. I don’t know the probability of Kawhi re-injuring his ankle, so I can’t say how high (or low) the marginal cost of him playing in the game is. But I can certainly tell you how high the opportunity cost (definition: next best opportunities that are given up) of Kawhi not playing tonight is. The opportunity cost of Kawhi not playing tonight is equal to the marginal benefit of Kawhi playing tonight (aka a sure win for the Spurs, which means this is a huge lost opportunity).

With Coach Pop, I think this is all a matter of being more risk-averse than loss-averse. Because the probability of Kawhi re-injuring his ankle is not clearly defined, that would’ve made him suiting up to play in tonight’s game a huge risk. However, having Kawhi sit out tonight’s game will likely lead to yet another win by the Warriors.

Yet, the Spurs’ apparent lack of loss aversion defies conventional thinking in behavioral economics. In Chapter 26 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Dr. Daniel Kahneman presents the following ideas:

  • In mixed gambles, where both a gain and a loss are possible, loss aversion causes extremely risk-averse choices.
  • In bad choices, where a sure loss is compared to a larger loss that is merely probable, diminishing sensitivity causes risk seeking.

I don’t think Pop sees it this way, but I believe he faced a decision with two bad choices. The first choice is obviously a “sure loss” for the Spurs facing the Warriors without Kawhi Leonard, given how these last two games have gone. The second choice is a “merely probable” but potentially larger loss in Kawhi Leonard possibly re-injuring his ankle again if he were to have played tonight. So, what’s the deal with this risk-averse attitude?

If the Spurs go on to get swept by the Warriors, all because of concerns about Kawhi’s long-term health, this would be grounds for firing Pop if this were any other team. I feel confident in saying that most behavioral economists would believe that Pop should be fired in the event of a Warriors sweep.

Now, I personally have far too much respect for Pop to have the opinion that he should be fired if the Spurs get swept in this series. Every year that he’s been the coach of the Spurs, this team has made the playoffs. The Spurs have won championships in three different decades: the 1990’s, the 2000’s, and this decade. He certainly is one of the greatest coaches of all time.

But perhaps it’s time for the “do what’s best for the player” philosophy to be changed to “do what’s best for the team, including the player, and the fans.” There’s nothing wrong with a boss being like a parent to his/her employees in the sense of looking out for their best interests. That’s actually very commendable, in this day and age. But if the player at hand wants to play (as was the case with Tim Duncan, when he faced an injury, in the 2000 NBA Playoffs), I say let him play!

I think the best bosses trust the decision-making of their employees. It comes as no surprise to me that Phil Jackson — nicknamed “The Zen Master” — trusted Michael Jordan’s decision to want to play in the infamous “Flu Game” 20 years ago. If an employee seems sincere and genuine about a decision that directly involves him/her, regardless if it’s subjectively a “bad” decision, you just have to go with it and trust the other person’s consciousness. I think Phil gets it, but Pop doesn’t get it — and, either way, it’s okay in the end.

Whoever is hired to succeed Pop once he retires (and that, I think, will be a very sad day in San Antonio), I hope that person is familiar with both the Zen philosophy of Phil and the dad-like philosophy of Pop. And I also hope that person is familiar with the fundamentals of behavioral economics.

Opinion: One way for Kawhi Leonard to be named MVP

Last night was absolutely disappointing. My gut was telling me the Spurs would not win last night, as reflected in my analysis of Game 1. However, I wanted to believe that the Spurs would win this game, mainly because of how Coach Pop was talking about the game. I should’ve trusted my gut on this one.

Kawhi Leonard is such a great player that he makes playing against the Golden State Warriors look easy. Clearly, it’s not easy, because the Spurs’ rhythm has been off ever since Leonard was taken out of Game 1 on Sunday.

But, you know what? I know a way Leonard can be named MVP, despite all the talk of other players like James Harden being the front-runner for MVP. If he pulls this off, his name should be mentioned in the same sentence as Michael Jordan.

If Kawhi Leonard gets the OK to return to the series and somehow helps the Spurs win this series, that alone should make him MVP.

In fact, that would make a strong case that the Warriors are an overrated team. Golden State may have a very strong lineup not unlike that of the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls, but in such a case, it would be very clear that they don’t have their own version of Jordan.

For all the media hype of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and even Steph Curry being “the next Michael Jordan,” I can’t name a single situation in which any of those players single-handedly got their team out of a 0-2 deficit to win a playoff series. (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)

If Kawhi Leonard can somehow pull this off, given that he’s healthy enough to return to the series, this series could end up being one of the greatest NBA playoff series in history and certainly one of the best in Spurs history. (I don’t think anything will ever top the Memorial Day Miracle in 1999 or Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals, as far as legendary moments in Spurs history are concerned.)

Not only that, Kawhi Leonard would be considered one of the greatest players in NBA history — possibly the best player in the history of the Spurs franchise.

This series isn’t over just yet. Let’s just wait and see if Kawhi Leonard is healthy enough to return. If he is, we may be looking at a very hard-fought six- or seven-game series. And we may very well be looking at another future Spurs legend in Kawhi Leonard.

Analysis: Spurs’ defense couldn’t match Warriors’ aggressive offense

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Golden State Warriors needed to find a way to outscore the Spurs early on in order to win this game. They did just that last night in the Oracle Arena.

In the first half alone, the Warriors outscored the Spurs 72-44. Thirty of these points for the Warriors came from Steph Curry (19 points) and Kevin Durant (11 points). Curry shot 71% from three-point territory in this half and got four rebounds as well.

That’s not to say the Spurs were lacking in offense in the first half. Jonathon Simmons led the Spurs in first-half scoring with 17 points, making 64% of his field goal attempts, and got two rebounds.

The problem with the Spurs in the first half, which would only get worse in the second half, was effectively guarding key Warriors players. All too often, the Spurs’ defense allowed players like Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson to have enough space to make three-pointers.

For the first several minutes of the third quarter, it appeared as if the Spurs were on their way to a second-half comeback. The Warriors were not scoring as well during this time and their defense wasn’t as effective as it was in the first half. As a result, the Spurs cut their deficit to just 20 points at one point during this time.

However, as the Warriors got more aggressive in their offense, the Spurs’ defense simply couldn’t catch up and effectively guard the Warriors. At one point, the Spurs trailed the Warriors by 41 points in the fourth quarter. The Warriors ended up beating the Spurs with a score of 136-100.

Curry had a good performance, scoring 29 points in this game. So did Simmons, who scored 22 points.

Any weaknesses that were present in this game were on the part of the Spurs. This team is simply not the same without Kawhi Leonard. If Leonard gets the OK to suit up for Game 3 on Saturday night, the Spurs should be able to have a much better game than what was on display last night. The Spurs may even have a chance to win this series if Leonard can play for the remainder of the series. However, if Leonard cannot play on Saturday, the Spurs have a minimal chance at winning this series, and a sweep by the Warriors would then look very likely.

If I were the Warriors, and Leonard does in fact play on Saturday, I would make absolutely sure that I play this game as aggressively as these last two games in the series. The last thing the Warriors want is to blow a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals and allow the Spurs to make an improbable (but not impossible) comeback and win this series.

Editorial: Spurs fans should avoid creating unnecessary rivalry

I have been very reluctant to elaborate on the controversy surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s injury by Zaza Pachulia during Sunday’s game, but I feel I need to address this issue before tonight’s game.

It is completely understandable that people are debating whether Pachulia intentionally fouled Leonard using dirty attacks or if the whole thing was an accident.

It is completely understandable that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich feels that Pachulia’s action — intentional or not — crossed into “unsportsmanlike” territory.

It is completely understandable that Spurs fans are expressing a lot of anger towards Pachulia for injuring their star player — one who won the NBA Finals MVP award during the Spurs’ last Finals victory in 2014.

What I feel is unnecessary is the possibility of Spurs fans creating a rivalry with the Golden State Warriors — similar to that of the Spurs’ rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers — as a result of Pachulia’s foul. I say this because the Warriors have two important connections to the Spurs in Coach Steve Kerr and Assistant Coach Mike Brown.

Brown worked under Coach Pop as an assistant coach for the Spurs in the 2002-03 season. This was David Robinson’s final season as a Spurs player. The Spurs won their second NBA championship in the summer of 2003.

Part of the reason the Spurs won the title that year, which allowed David Robinson to retire on top, is thanks to Steve Kerr, who played for the Spurs in the 2002-03 season. Anyone who is a fan of the Chicago Bulls or the San Antonio Spurs knows how great of a clutch player Kerr was back in his playing days.

In Game 6 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs were trailing the Mavericks by 15 points with 3:44 remaining in the third quarter. Kerr managed to score 12 points in 13 minutes, making 100% of his four three-point attempts. The Spurs went on to win that game, and the Western Conference Finals, with a final score of 90-78.

Who knows what would’ve happened if it wasn’t for Kerr’s clutch shots in that game?

Let me be very clear: I have not and will not jump to conclusions about Pachulia’s foul on Leonard. However, Spurs fans have every right to speak out and publicly voice their opinion on this matter, as long as they’re not harassing Pachulia (or any other Warriors player).

Part of being a sports fan is being passionate about and loyal to your favorite team. Naturally, rivalries will occur when dramatic incidents like this unfold. However, I advise Spurs fans to remember that the Warriors have very significant connections to the legacy of the Spurs.

The Warriors team is, first and foremost, Steve Kerr’s team. Without Kerr’s heroics in Game 6 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals, we might not have won the championship that season. Not to mention Mike Brown was the assistant coach of the Spurs in this particular season.

Without these important connections, I would be all for a Spurs-Warriors rivalry. But mainly because I remember how much Kerr helped out the Spurs in the 2003 playoffs, I simply can’t support a Spurs-Warriors rivalry — for now at least.

Analysis: Spurs deteriorate without Kawhi Leonard, Warriors take advantage

Update: Kawhi Leonard appears unlikely to play in Game 2, according to Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Despite the pain many Spurs fans (including myself) are feeling over last night’s heartbreaking loss to the Warriors in the Oracle Arena, for better or worse, last night’s game exposed weaknesses on both teams.

One of the reporters on KSAT 12, during a Spurs pre-game show, suggested that the Spurs would have to play “four perfect games” in order to win this series. The Spurs seemed to do just that – at least up until the third quarter.

At the end of the first half, the Spurs outscored the Warriors 62-42. Kawhi Leonard outperformed Steph Curry with 18 points in the first half compared to 14 points for Curry.

The Warriors hit 38% of their field goals and 22% of their field goal attempts in the first half. They turned the ball over 10 times. The only positive for the Warriors was that they hit 74% of their free throw attempts.

The Spurs were still leading the Warriors by over 20 well into the third quarter. However, it was clearly Leonard’s injury from Zaza Pachulia that led to things going south for the Spurs.

Leonard finished the game scoring 26 points, shooting 54% from three-point range, and shooting 100% of his free throws.

Right after Leonard left the game, the Warriors scored 18 unanswered points, cutting their deficit to only five points.

The Warriors went on to win the game 113-111. Curry ended up scoring 40 points in this game, improving his field goal percentage to 54%, and he made 44% of his three-point attempts.

The biggest weakness the Spurs seemed to have in this game was their inability to stabilize their gameplay without Leonard. There were several times towards the end of the first half where the Warriors would play very fast-paced and hit a quick shot, yet the Spurs would follow up with a noticeably slower but confident pacing and counter to whatever points the Warriors scored in the previous play. This kept the Warriors from cutting the deficit to single digits by the end of the first half. Without Leonard in the lineup, the Spurs didn’t seem to know what to do other than attempt to match their pacing to that of the Warriors, which didn’t work out for them. The Spurs’ defense was perfect in terms of guarding key Warriors players like Curry and Kevin Durant in the first half, but it clearly deteriorated after Leonard’s injury caused him to be taken out of the game.

The biggest weakness for the Warriors is trying to overcome the Spurs’ defense. Clearly, Leonard’s removal in the third quarter deteriorated the Spurs’ defense. This allowed the Warriors to play at a much faster and more confident pace for the rest of the game, which helped lead to their victory over the Spurs. However, when the Spurs are on their “A” game defensively, like they were up until Leonard’s injury, the Warriors simply need to find a way to outscore the Spurs early on and force the Spurs to play especially harder.

Whether or not the Spurs have a chance to win this series will all rely on if Leonard will return to play for the rest of the series. If Leonard can return and if the Spurs can play very similarly to how they played in the first half of this game, they may very well win this series in six or seven games. Leonard is undoubtedly the center of the Spurs’ lineup. Some Spurs fans seem to not realize that the Spurs’ Leonard-less victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets was largely a result of poor defense on the part of the Rockets. A team simply doesn’t win a game by nearly 40 points if the other team had a good game, defensively-speaking.

If it turns out that Leonard can’t play for the rest of the series, the Spurs simply need to find a way to stabilize their gameplay when the Warriors want to play efficiently fast-paced. If the Spurs cannot do this without Leonard, we may very well be looking at another 4-0 sweep on the part of the Warriors.

Opinion: Small deficit vs. significant loss

A friend of mine texted me commenting on how small the loss was for the Spurs in yesterday’s game. Yes, it is true that the Spurs’ loss was only by two points. On paper, that’s hardly a significant loss. But the context of this game could make this small deficit a very significant loss, depending on the outcome of the next game.

The Spurs were playing like a championship team last night in the first half and up until Kawhi Leonard’s injury. It seems like every team not named the Cleveland Cavaliers fears the Warriors, but the Spurs did not seem to fear the Warriors for most of the game last night. They were playing the Warriors not with fear, but with a sense of determination to win the Western Conference Finals and return to the NBA Finals for a rematch of 2007’s Spurs-Cavaliers Finals series.

I think once the Spurs lost control of the game, they weren’t playing as confidently as they were with Leonard in the lineup. Needless to say, this is only just one game.

Game 2 will be extremely critical for the Spurs. If they can somehow pull off a win tomorrow night, they’ll find themselves taking this series back to San Antonio for Games 3 and 4 tied at 1-1, which will undoubtedly help their chances at winning this series.

If the Spurs can get themselves together and continue playing in championship mode for the remainder of this series, we may very well see them in the Finals again this year — for the first time in the post-Duncan era.

In macroeconomics, there’s a concept called deficit and surplus. If the government increases its debt, there is a deficit. If the government reduces its debt, there is a surplus. In sports terms, the Spurs experienced a huge surplus with Leonard in the game, but that huge surplus became a small deficit after Leonard’s injury.

Whether or not yesterday’s game was just a small deficit or a significant loss for the Spurs will be determined by who wins the game tomorrow. Let’s hope it was just a small deficit.