The Top 8 – 4/17/2016

Posted by Michael Flores | Sports

By my vantage point on history there are five* teams that can realistically win the NBA title this year.

Of course there is the Warriors with their record-setting 73-win regular season and paradigm-transforming guard, Steph Curry.

The ones that “no one” talks about are the Thunder and the Clippers. Both of those teams won over fifty games and have elite bigs (you can even potentially slot Kevin Durant himself as a big; he is listed as two inches taller than, say, Golden State’s All-Star PF). Plus, the quiet, consistently excellent and dangerous Spurs.

Four of five.

These elite teams all won their opening 2016 playoff games, by:

  • Warriors 26
  • Spurs 32
  • Thunder 38
  • Clippers 20

All blowouts. Steph Curry played only twenty minutes in his pacesetting Saturday outing.

The fifth team that has a conceivable chance of winning the NBA title (and the only Eastern Conference team with that distinction) is the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs barely won their one-eight opener. The weird thing is the Cavs didn’t play badly at all.

Pistons 101 Cavaliers 106

ESPN Headline: Cavs rely on team effort to survive Game 1 test

On the season the Cavs shot the ball 6,888 times and scored 8,555 points, for 1.24 points per shot.

Yesterday they scored 106 on 88 shots 1.20 points per shot… Lower, but not catastrophically lower than their usual offense (per shot).

For reference our currently-worst blown out team, the Dallas Mavericks, scored 70 on 84 (.83 points per shot) versus a regular season 8,388 on 6,900 (1.21 points per shot).

Further, the Cavs out-rebounded the Pistons 40-37, and turned the ball over an astonishing four times only (versus Detroit’s 10). All this resulted in the Cavs taking fifteen more shots than the Pistons.

Together these are signals that the Cavs should have won handily… So why so close?

Somehow, some way, the Pistons scored 101 on 73 shots (1.38 points per shot); 1.38 exceeds Golden State’s regular season mark of 1.31 points per shot. So all the Pistons have to do is score better than the best team of all time… and they can make it look close?

There is some comfort for Cavs fans here. It’s unlikely Detroit, a team that scored under 1.18 points per shot in the regular season, can make LeBron and company sweat like this with their shooting again. Andre Drummond is a legit All-Star and maybe the third-best player in the series… But he hurts you more by getting possessions not finishing them.

This may be small consolation. The Pistons made Game One so close by shooting a blistering 51.7% from three. If the Cavs don’t shore up wing defense between now and the Finals Golden State, the actual monster under the bed, will be merciless.


As a Cavs fan the one thing I was super happy about this game was how well Kyrie Irving played. You get a feeling that we never saw how good the 2016 Cavs really could be via the regular season. They were never going to catch even San Antonio (plus home court in the East was a sure thing for so long), so they never had their collective foot on the accelerator the way the Warriors did. Ideally that will prove wise for them.

Given Detroit’s shooting, it’s weird how the box score ultimately shook out. The top three performers were all Cavaliers, with respective rebounding machines Thompson and Drummond at the wrong end of the Top 8; Stanley Johnson, though, smooshed the Cavs in only sixteen minutes; 3-4, 3-3 on threes; eight Eight EIGHT rebounds (i.e. two more than Tristan Thompson in thirty minutes) with zero TOs. Post-game Stan Van Gundy rightly questioned himself for not using Johnson down the stretch.

Hornets 91 Heat 123

ESPN Headline: Deng leads Heat to Game 1 rout of Hornets

Before the first elimination tipoff I would have picked Hornets-Heat as the most likely upset scenario in the playoffs. After all, the teams are evenly matched in terms of record and the Hornets actually hold the superior regular season point differential.

The counterargument is that the Hornets lack notable superstar talent.

The Heat are dripping with ex-superstars (and one actual present-day superstar): Joe Johnson, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Amar’e Stoudemire are all past or present max contract All-Stars. Goran Dragic was All-NBA Third Team only two years ago, and Luol Deng** is a multi-time All-Star.

Also the Heat cultivated Hassan Whiteside, who is by far the best player on either team in this series (not to mention the best real Center in the East). Per minute, Whiteside is in fact twice as good as any player in a Hornets uniform.


Game One of this series was a showcase of all that Miami talent. Both Whiteside and Deng equaled Serge Ibaka’s production from Saturday. When one team has two different players producing at 2x the rate of your best performer you need a massive level of negative production to keep up; Gerald Green was the only Heat player to oblige (though he was worse than any Hornet). Instead, a rout.

This game featured perhaps the most lopsided Top 8 of any box score I’ve ever studied. There was one Hornet in the Top 8; the other seven (including super standouts Deng and Whiteside) were all Miami.

Grizzlies 74 Spurs 106

ESPN Headline: Spurs dominate Grizzlies to take a 1-0 lead

This was about the Spurs-iest win you can pencil out. The entire team produces in the positive range, with non-gaudy-but-still-great production from Leonard, Duncan, and Patty Mills. The Spurs “win” every quarter (if some by only two or three points). San Antonio are kings of the “death by a thousand cuts” strategy, with basically everyone on their roster capable of All-Star production on a limited minute basis. Thirteen different San Antonio players rebounded; twelve scored. Not one Spur cracked 30 minutes; I mean, why would they?


Almost nothing to say here (which is about how Popp would like it, I imagine).

Trail Blazers 95 Clippers 115

ESPN Headline: Clippers post 3 double-doubles in rout of Blazers

I was pretty sure that we hadn’t seen Blake’s real stuff in the regular season. I would not be surprised whatsoever if he just went beast mode all playoffs. Look at this game… Chris Paul has 28-on-19 (insane for a guard), 6 rebounds (awfully great for a point guard)… Oh and double-doubles with 11 assists; only two turnovers. Chris only had the second-best game on his team!

Anyone sleeping on the Clippers as title contenders in the wake of the Warriors (and Spurs) hype in the West isn’t paying attention. Chris Paul isn’t Steph Curry, but he is unbelievably elite, still. DeAndre Jordan is flat-out the best Center in the NBA. The only comparable player is Hassan Whiteside (who rebounds for a non-contender in another conference). The Clippers have plenty of serviceable guys in their rotation… And badly behaved Blake has been saving his real stuff for the Playoffs, clearly. Don’t forget this team was kicking dirt on the Spurs’ collective coffins at the end of the first round last year.


I’m not sure how you even defend this team. This is the best*** “big three” I think we’ve ever seen. Blake was 19 on 10 shots; do you know how many points you get if you just make ten shots? 20. DJ was 18 on 7 shots… And he’s a historically poor FT shooter!

The second-round matchups in the West are all going to be must-see IMO.

Sunday’s Best: (tie) Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside of the Heat
Sunday’s Worst: (tie) Zach Randolph and Matt Barnes of the Grizzlies (though Jeff Green of the Clippers came awfully close in a winning effort with three points on four shots but four PFs in only 16 minutes)

Back tomorrow.


The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from

* Okay, six if you count the Raptors, but I don’t
** If you ever have a question of how valuable LeBron James is relative to any other player remember he took a 33-win Cavs team straight to the Finals while his old team went from the Finals to missing the playoffs while adding a standing NBA Third Team player and Hassan Whiteside, as well as an All-Star (in fact Cleveland’s SF) at his vacated position.
*** All three of Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker are in my Top 10 favorite players of all time, BTW.

The Top 8 – Week One

Posted by Michael Flores | Sports

NBA season is upon us!

“The Top 8” is going to be a weekly column focusing on the trials and tribulations of my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers… Stats-based but still super biased (probably)

Here goes!

Game One: Cavs at Bulls 10/27/15

ESPN Headline: Pau Gasol stuffs LeBron James’ would-be tying layup as Bulls hold off Cavs

There are lots of despicable cliches in sports narrative reporting. High — if not chief — among them is the concept that crunch time shot attempts are somehow worth more points than those in the first forty-odd minutes of a game.

The headline accompanying the opening game of the 2015-2016 Cavs season is a good example of this.

Gasol, in thirty-two minutes of play, had a mediocre game at best. Two points on seven shots (barf); and only two rebounds (!!!) starting at Center. He did, however, record six blocked shots, and the one on LBJ at the buzzer did make for good dramatic narrative.

Outcome: Bulls by 2

It’s tough to dissect what happened in this game. The Cavs actually put up more shots (94 to 87) and neither team shot the lights out or anyting (though the Bulls did put up 42% to the Cavaliers’ 40%). Moreover the Cavs outrebounded the Bulls while the Bulls gave up more turnovers. Decided by only two points, it looks as if this was the rare, mythical, game actually decided on the free throw line: The Bulls shot 16-23 from the charity stripe while Cleveland only 10-17. And sure, it was a two-point game!


I think if the Cavs simply calmed down and shot their season average from 2014-2015 (five clicks up from last Tuesday night) they would have handled the Bulls; that, and committed fewer fouls. Both of these things, for an elite squad coming off of so many injuries and having played so few minutes together, are just artifacts of it being the first game.

Despite the outcome (two-point loss) there were a lot of nice things to take away. Besides those two percentage points on goal there was almost nothing the Bulls did better than the Cavs.

The Top 8


Unsurprisingly the best player in the game had the best game (even if he was stuffed by Gasol for the ESPN headline). Even if conceding his starting spot to Nikola Mirotic wasn’t the more storied Noah’s idea, Noah and Mirotic were both effective producers. What was more surprising to me was how good Mo Williams was in his Cavs return! Nineteen points on fifteen shots, four rebounds, seven assists, and only one turnover with starter’s minutes! If Mo plays like this consistently he’ll be back on the All-Star team!

I didn’t register how well Tristan Thompson played just watching the game (which I guess is easy to miss considering he was 1-4 from the field) but if TT keeps putting up double-digit rebounds off the bench the Cavs are going to be borderline unstoppable (and his giant contract will be more-or-less justified).

And honestly? I thought he Cavs would be rusty enough with TT having sat out all of the preseason and half the starters still injured that they would have lost by twelve. Merely two was like winning by ten 🙂

Game Two: Cavs at Grizzlies 10/28/15

ESPN Headline: Love leads Cavaliers past Grizzlies 106-76

Simple. In this case accurate. The Cavs starting PF played nearly as well as the best two Grizzlies in this game. The storied Memphis defense was eviscerated on Wednesday night… Which pretty much had to be the case with LeBron James nowhere near his usual form… As his team won by thirty points.

Outcome: Cavs by 30!!!

Obviously this was a super encouraging game, with the Cavs demolishing one of the better teams in the league by huge margins on a back-to-back (with LBJ on “mortal” mode). Nuff said.

The Top 8


Game Three: Heat at Cavaliers 10/30/15

ESPN Headline: LeBron James (29 points), Kevin Love (24) help Cavs topple Heat

The main thing wrong with this headline is that Kevin Love’s name should have come first!

Outcome: Cavs by 10

The Top 8


This game was way less close than even the ten-point drubbing would imply. Cleveland was up by 18 — eighteen — with a minute to go and the third string managed to give Goran Dragic almost his entire night’s production in circa the final one hundred seconds.

The Cavs starting guards — Mo and Smith — were atrocious, combining for 8 points on 18 shots; Jefferson was no better (five points on seven shots)… but the frontcourt was absolute music. If Kevin Love can continue play as well as he has for the first three games of the season LeBron’s prediction will come true and Kev will be back in the All-Star game. LeBron played a workmanlike great game while Dellavedova aped CP3, lobbing an unending string of alley oop assists to Tristan Thompson.

The Heat stars played well too, actually; Miami just got very little production from their bench.

Speaking of which: Hassan Whiteside is the truth! He is very clearly one of the best players in the NBA, racking up SIX (!!!!!!) blocks in this game. Amazing! What is even more amazing is that as good as he was, Whiteside was outplayed by two different Cavaliers PF/Cs. I’ll take it!

I know the first week was just three games, but like I said already: They were super encouraging. Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are both playing like All-Stars. The fact that LeBron was not the best Cavalier in either win means that maybe he will be able to rest more during the regular season. I would love Love LOVE to see a team configuration where LeBron takes a backseat during most of the regular season and lets the younger guys get us to 60+ regular season wins and just shows up to claim his Finals MVP.

I am a little concerned about the Cavs guard play, though. Mo was excellent in the Chicago game; J.R. was good in the Memphis game, but neither starter has strung together even two above average games. Hopefully both sharpshooters can get back into the three-point form that earned them All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year awards in past years.


The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from