Go big or go home

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Generated by IJG JPEG Library

(Sorry for the brief hiatus. House painting and other matters have discombobulated my normal routine).

Even down 2-1, like many others, I expected Golden State would right the ship and eventually win the series (though I’m rooting for the Cavs). They’re a better, deeper team than Cleveland. And when I say a better team, I mean something radical and revolutionary – they have better players. Intangibles, chemistry, whatever. Without Love and Irving, the Cavs roster is depleted. Lebron, despite not having a good shooting series, has been great. He just doesn’t have enough good players playing alongside him.

Which brings me to the topic du jour – small ball. Without belaboring the long history of the idea (Patrick Minton has a good discussion here), there’s a simple truth underlying the endless and overwrought analysis of small ball’s effectiveness: small ball works fine when you have good small players. When you don’t, it doesn’t.

Golden State isn’t beating Cleveland because of a brilliant tactical shift by Coach Steve Kerr to small ball. The team had been struggling the first three games, likely due to luck and chance as much as anything, so Kerr made a lineup change. That lineup change has coincided with a very nice two-game spurt by the Warriors. They’ve outscored Cleveland by a combined 34 points in the past two games, and cracked the century mark in each, something they failed to do in regulation in any of the first three games in the series. Andrew Bogut is a very good player, though he’s been up and down in the postseason. But when you replace him in the starting lineup with Andre Iguodala – well, that’s a nice option to have, not because Iguodala is smaller than Bogut, but because Iggy is really good. He’s a versatile, efficient player with a career wins produced/48 minutes of just about .2 (average is .1. .2 is all-star caliber). Coming off the bench this season, Iguodala played more or less at the same high level he has throughout his career, albeit in fewer minutes.

Golden State has also played better the past two games because their star player has finally gotten off.  After going 4 for 21 from three point range in games 1 and 2 combined, Steph Curry has converted 18 of 33 from distance the past three games, including 11 of 20 the past two games. If you think Curry suddenly started hitting threes *because* Iggy replaced Bogut in the starting lineup, knock yourself out. But Curry is now shooting 41% from beyond the arc in the finals and 43% from 3 during the postseason. That’s all very much in line with what he shot from that range all year – 44% – when you account for the change in competition level during the playoffs. In other words, Curry’s performance the past two games (and a quarter) is entirely consistent with good old, boring regression to the mean, not due to any dramatic strategic adjustment. Curry hit several ridiculous shots down the stretch last night with Dellavedova all over him. In games one and two, those shots weren’t going in. Now they are.

And speaking of Dellavedova, he’s exhibit A of how the misplaced focus on small ball is hurting Cleveland badly. Just as small ball works fine when you have good small options, it works much less well when you sit good big players for not-so-good small players. And make no mistake, a handful of impressive efforts in the postseason not withstanding, Delly just isn’t all that good. That’s no knock on his character or effort, but despite what your standard pundit would like you to believe, they don’t give out trophies for the number of floor burns you wrack up. As I’ve said a thousand times before, the standard sports discussion about “analytics” rests on a fundamentally flawed premise  – that analytics geeks rely on numbers, whereas non-analytics types don’t. As Bill James said long ago, in sports *everyone* relies on numbers. The question then, is not whether to use numbers to evaluate sports performance, but which numbers to use. After game 2, everyone and her mother repeated endlessly the stat that when Delly was guarding Steph Curry, Curry was 0-37 with 49 turnovers (OK, it was 0-8 with four turnovers). This was, we were led to believe, a function of the scrappy Aussie’s relentless defense and *proof* that Delly was causing Curry’s poor shooting. Delly has exerted maximum effort, as his trip to the hospital after game 3 made clear, and he has forced Curry into some tough shots. But as we saw last night, Curry can make those tough shots. It just happens that, like every other athlete in human history, sometimes he has good games, and sometimes bad.

More to the point, the endless flogging of the game 2 Dellavedova/Curry defense stats did, indeed, constitute a reliance on stats. And one that created a very misleading picture of what the likely cause of Curry’s poor shooting was and, more importantly, what would be the likely outcome in future match ups.

In that context, sitting Mozgov for all but nine minutes last night, while Dellavedova played 42 was a mistake. Dellavedova played very badly last night, just as he did in Game 4. He shot 2-9, had a grand total of 2 assists and got absolutely torched on defense. In the previous game, Game 4, when Golden State easily outplayed Cleveland, Mozgov was the Cavs’ best player, scoring 28 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. Over the course of the regular season and the postseason, Mozgov has played well and he gives the Cavs, apart from LeBron, one of their few obvious offensive options. Sitting him last night also helped negate one of the Cavs’ few advantages against Golden State – rebounding. Leaving aside the overuse of the overvalued Dellavedova, the two players off the bench last night who essentially replaced Mozgov’s minutes were James Jones and Mike Miller. Between the two of them, they played 32 minutes and had the following combined line: three points, one rebound, zero assists, one turnover, six fouls, no blocks and one steal.

David Blatt says he deployed his personnel as he did because he was responding to the circumstances of the game in front of him. I don’t buy it. I think it’s more likely that he confused a notion – “small ball” – with a simple truth about sports: In general, you should play your better players more than you play your less good players. Replacing Bogut’s minutes with those of Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala is one thing. Livingston and Iguodala are both very good. Playing Jones, Miller and Delly a combined 74 minutes and Mozgov only nine is a much worse tradeoff.

If Kerr made his move precisely in order to bait Blatt into a poor deployment of his own resources, then maybe Kerr is a coaching genius.


One comment

  1. It is funny, towards the end of game 4 I told my friends that I thought they should just go into Mozgov each time if the GSW continued to go small since he got doubled or fouled a lot… I guess Blatt disagreed with me.

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