The numbers behind NBA chemistry

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NBC Sports

The numbers behind NBA chemistry

Is it possible to quantify chemistry on a basketball court?

For years, the analytical world has tried to tackle that question. This has been the blind spot of the statistical community for decades, and really, the basketball community as a whole. The box score can only go so far.
 
But now we have passing data that helps us understand how players mesh on the basketball court. Thanks to the NBA’s recent partnerships with SportVU and Second Spectrum technologies, we can see which players tend to pass to each other and even which players shoot on those passes. For example, did you know that Lonzo Ball shoots just 29 percent on 2-pointers when he receives a pass from LeBron James, but 51 percent when he’s fed by other teammates? Well, now you do.
 
So, which stars pass to each other the most? The least? We can take a step further and see how those player-to-player interactions change when the lights get brightest. If you want to see which players a coach trusts, don’t look at the starting lineup; look at the finishing lineup. In the same way, we can perhaps take a glimpse into which players trust other teammates when the game is on the line. For that, we’ll look at player-to-player assist rates overall and when the game enters clutch time (that is, final five minutes and game within five). 

Let’s get to it.
 
Washington Wizards
Back in 2013, Bradley Beal was still a teenager when he started next to John Wall for the first time. Nearly six years later, we’re not quite sure if they’re a good match. Beal recently told NBC Sports Washington’s Chris Miller that the two All-Stars are opposites, but in a peanut-butter-and-jelly kind of way. So, that’s nice.

The numbers aren’t shy about it: Wall loves passing to Beal. Wall has 51 assists to Beal, the most among any tandem in our study through Monday’s games. And it’s not just because they play a lot of minutes together. Wall assists Beal once every 12.3 minutes on the floor, one of the most frequent rates in the league. What’s more, that rate actually accelerates in crunchtime, as Wall has assisted on four Beal buckets in clutch situations (9.8 minutes per assist). 

In the other direction, Beal has been better at finding Wall this season. Last season, he assisted Wall every 67.4 minutes on the floor together, but that has quickened to once every 41.7 minutes, which is better than a lot of star guard-to-guard interactions. In the clutch, Markieff Morris has been Wall’s top feeder, generating three assists to the Wizards’ point guard.

Really, Wall and Beal is not the partnership to worry about. Otto Porter Jr. is another story. The Wizards’ highest-paid player made his first clutch bucket in Monday’s win over the Houston Rockets, having entered that game with only four shots (all misses) in 23 minutes of clutch action. Wall assisted Monday’s floater, but Porter needs to look to score much more if the Wizards want to make the playoffs.  (Coach Scott Brooks hasn’t minced words when it comes to Porter’s aggressiveness).

Bottom line, if you think Wall and Beal don’t have on-court chemistry, the numbers disagree.

Philadelphia 76ers
Jimmy Butler just arrived, but he’s showing far more chemistry with Ben Simmons than Markelle Fultz ever did. The Fultz-Simmons pairing registered a putrid offensive rating (go watch the BIG Number!), but the Butler-Simmons tandem boasts a spectacular 115.0 offensive rating together. Simmons has already assisted Butler 16 times, sprinkling multiple beautiful dimes to Butler in transition. Sixers fans will be happy to know that two of Butler’s five clutch buckets were fed by none other than Simmons.

Embiid’s chemistry with Butler? That’s ... still a work in progress. Embiid has assisted Butler twice in 159 minutes on the court, which pales in comparison to Embiid’s 14 assists to Fultz in 331 minutes, per NBA.com tracking. Butler is shooting two of 10 (20 percent) off of Embiid’s passes whereas Fultz shot 33 of 71 (46.5 percent) this season.

When you peak behind the curtain, the most jarring stat of all is that Jimmy Butler is scoring just 15.9 points per 36 minutes with Embiid on the floor. That number soars to 30.1 points per 36 minutes when Butler isn’t flanked by Embiid on the court, per NBA.com/stats data. That might be Butler just trying to defer to Embiid (Butler’s field goal attempts slice in half when he plays with Embiid in Philly), but the Sixers should look to improve that tandem’s chemistry going forward. If they want to make it to the Finals, they need Embiid and Butler to be firing on all cylinders. Get this: Despite all the turmoil in Minnesota, Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns’ assists to each other occurred more frequently this season than Butler and Embiid. Keep an eye on that.

Portland Trail Blazers
Like Wall and Beal, the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum duo is the rare backcourt with both players scoring above the 20-point mark. But unlike the Wizards, they don’t rely on each other to get those numbers. Wall assists Beal twice as often as Lillard-to-McCollum (every 12.3 minutes compared to every 30.6 minutes). The same goes for Beal-to-Wall (every 41.7 minutes) and McCollum-to-Lillard (every 80.4 minutes).

One contributing factor: McCollum has shot 33.3 percent from 3-point land on Lillard’s passes compared to 40.8 percent from all other teammates. That same lopsided split showed up last season, too.

But Portland fans shouldn’t fret too much just yet. The Portland offense has been far healthier than the Wizards’ outfit. Portland’s 113.4 offensive rating with Lillard and McCollum on the floor suggests they don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Furthermore, Lillard isn’t a natural distributor like Wall, so setting up McCollum all the time isn’t a huge surprise. 

The chemistry between McCollum and Lillard isn’t super inspiring when it comes to crunchtime. In 28 minutes of clutch situations this season, Lillard and McCollum have combined for 13 field goals between them, but interestingly enough, no assists from each other. Lillard has fed Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic for buckets twice, but nothing to McCollum. 

This isn’t a new thing either. Last season, Lillard assisted just six of McCollum’s 37 crunchtime buckets and McCollum assisted just one of Lillard’s 39. The fact that Lillard only scored once off of a McCollum pass looks worse when you consider that McCollum had 14 clutch assists last season. The lesson here is that Lillard and McCollum don’t need each other to put up big numbers. But they might need to if they want to take the leap in the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George re-signing in OKC was one of the bigger surprises of the summer, and he’s quietly playing some of the best ball of his career. George is averaging a career-high 24 points per game, but it’s not because Westbrook is doing all the work for him.

In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Backup point guard Dennis Schroder has assisted George 24 times compared to Westbrook’s total of 17. Westbrook delivers an assist to George once every 19 minutes this season, which may seem like an impressive figure, but then you consider that in the 2015-16 season, Westbrook assisted Durant a whopping 250 times, or once every 8.3 minutes. On the other hand, Durant may be the best scorer ever. So, duh.

But what this really points to is that the Thunder are spreading the ball this season, which is a good thing. In years past, the offense became too Westbrook-dependent and it’s probably good to be more egalitarian. Last season, Westbrook assisted 181 of George’s buckets and the next highest assister had just 28 (Raymond Felton and Carmelo Anthony were tied). This season, Billy Donovan has given Schroder a lot of run alongside the two stars, which eases the burden on Westbrook.

The funny thing? George is shooting just 38.5 percent off of Schroder passes and 35.9 percent off of Westbrook’s. Maybe George should never give up the ball and just take it for himself.

Golden State Warriors
Let’s get to the good news first. Of the 34 teammate pairings in this study, one Warrior tandem bested everyone in fewest minutes between assists. Which assister-assistee showed the most chemistry by this metric? Draymond Green to Klay Thompson. Through Monday’s games, Green had assisted 36 Thompson buckets in 356 minutes, or once every 9.9 minutes. That’s absurd. A big part in that: Thompson is shooting 50.6 percent off of Green’s passes and 44.8 percent on 3-pointers, easily his best marks for any of his high-volume passers. 

Amazingly, Thompson has assisted Durant just five times in 584 minutes, representing the most minutes in between assists of any pairing in this study. In fact, Thompson has dropped more dimes to Jonas Jerebko (6) than Durant (5). None of Durant’s 42 field goals in the last three games came from Thompson.

This season’s lack of Thompson-to-Durant cohesion is especially bizarre considering they’ve had to play large minutes without Curry or Green this season. It gets even weirder when you discover that Thompson assisted Durant 30 times in 1,690 minutes last season, or twice the rate he’s doing this season. 

Perhaps that’s just randomness. But then again, Thompson is gunning like never before, taking 70 field goal attempts over his last three games with just two assists. That’s Klay being Klay.

OK, now the bad news. Remember that blow-up between Green and Durant? I’ve written here about how Draymond had a point. But Durant’s beef about Draymond hogging the ball? That may be spot-on, too. Green has zero assists in 40 minutes of clutch play. Durant has eight. I mean, Kevon Looney has two. I repeat: Green has zero. 

Last season, we didn’t see this oddity. Green led the team with 17 clutch assists in 85 minutes, or one every five minutes. Maybe this changes with a larger sample size. Maybe it’s bad luck. But get your popcorn, this is something to watch.

Boston Celtics
The Celtics’ offense is a mess this season as they re-introduced Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into the mix. But looking strictly at the All-Star pairing of Irving and Al Horford, something interesting emerges. Last season, Irving assisted Horford 80 times and Horford assisted Irving 80 times -- an equal distribution. But this season, Irving has assisted Horford twice as often.

Most of this change is due to Horford shooting a blistering 61.9 percent on 2s and 37.1 percent on 3s off of Irving’s passes this season, far better than the 2017-18 campaign. But one of the reasons why the Celtics outperformed expectations and why Irving’s name was in the MVP race last year was the amazing chemistry between these two. 

Last season, Irving shot 51.8 percent from the floor on passes from Horford (a ridiculous 48.2 percent on 3s) but just 43.0 percent on passes from all other players. That magic between Irving and Horford isn’t happening this season as Irving is shooting just 43.7 percent on his passes. In other words, it’s leveled out. Everyone on the Celtics has to shoot better, but rekindling the Horford-to-Irving interaction can help turn things around.

Toronto Raptors
Rather than running it back with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan yet again, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri flipped DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. How has that turned out? Not bad so far.

Leonard and Lowry hit it off right away. Leonard has been assisted by Lowry once every 17.6 minutes this season, which is actually more often than the Lowry-to-DeRozan connection last season (every 19.8 minutes). 

Leonard doesn’t find Lowry (every 76.2 minutes) nearly as often as DeRozan did (24.7 minutes), but the Raptors’ offense is humming right along. With Leonard and Lowry on the floor, the Raptors score an incredible 118 points per 100 possessions, which is a tad below the Curry-Durant partnership (118.7), which led this group of tandems. Last season, the Lowry-DeRozan lineups churned out 112.5 points per 100 possessions. They went from good to great.

Speaking of the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan have been doing just fine. DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have a 109.3 offensive rating on-court, but they only have one assist to each other (it was DeRozan to Aldridge) in 49 minutes of clutch time. Meanwhile, DeRozan has three clutch assists to Rudy Gay, his former teammate in Toronto. With a healthy Leonard, the Spurs were the best clutch team in the NBA, but they’re still searching without him.

Memphis Grizzlies
Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have been playing together since John Wall was playing at University of Kentucky. To be honest, the two vets could probably play the two-man game with their eyes closed.

And the numbers bear this out. Conley assists Gasol once every 10.1 minutes on the floor, which is the second-best rate in this whole group of stars (only Green-to-Thompson ranked higher). That’s a big improvement compared to last season when he assisted Gasol every 14.7 minutes on the floor.

Gasol returns the favor, assisting on 13 Conley buckets, the most for any of Conley’s teammates. With about a decade of making music together, this is chemistry at its finest -- the new Tony Parker and Tim Duncan.

Houston Rockets
This might be the most interesting team of the bunch. Chris Paul and James Harden perennially rank among the league leaders in assists, so it would make sense that they’d find each other a ton in Houston, right?

Well, they almost never assist each other. This season, Paul has assisted Harden just four times in 274 minutes on the floor together. Harden has assisted Paul just three times, or once every 91.3 minutes on the floor, the second-worst connection in this group of All-Stars and scorers. 

The only tandem that assisted each other less often was Thompson to Durant. But Thompson averages 1.7 assists. That’s understandable. Harden averages 8.2 assists. Only three of his 131 assists have gone to Paul. That’s astounding for two top playmakers.

These two scorers were devastating in one-on-one isolations last season and operated mostly in silos on the offensive end. The hero-ball tendencies resulted in the best offense in the league. Not passing to each other isn’t the issue. The issue is that they haven’t been hitting shots. Paul is shooting 44.1 percent from the floor, his lowest figure since 2006-07. Harden is shooting a mere 4-of-13 (30.8 percent) on catch-and-shoots this season. The result is that Harden and Paul have the worst offensive rating for any duo in this study (104.4 points per 100 possessions).

That’s a far cry from their 117.0 offensive rating last season. Last season, Paul assisted Harden 29 times while Harden assisted Paul 19 times. They have a lot of catching up to do, which could be said for the team as a whole.

* * *

Numbers, of course, are not the only way to measure chemistry. Coaches might draw up plays that artificially shape these numbers; players might be on a hot or cold spell on passes from certain teammates; players can also have on-court chemistry that doesn’t show up in passing data. All that might be true.
 
But for decades, analysts, coaches and fans have been yearning for hard passing data, and now we have it. We’re getting closer to finding out which teammates vibe with each other on the floor, which players put the blinders on and who players like to target in clutch situations. Now we can test what our eyes tell us and what our gut senses when we watch the action. And coaches can alter their game plans.
 
Now we know that Green is twice as likely to find Thompson for a bucket than he is Durant. Now we know that even though Westbrook, Wall and Harden are 20-and-10 threats every night, they arrive at those big assist totals very differently. And while you might think Wall and Beal are the Eastern Conference version of Lillard and McCollum, they feed off each other far more than their Portland peers. After all, the box score can only tell us so much.
 
So next time you see Harden and Paul feed one another for a bucket, gather all your friends, family and followers and scream from atop a mountain. It’s basically a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

To see the full breakdown of this study, click here

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

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USA Today Sports

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

The 1,230-game NBA schedule has arrived. While fans start to plan out which games to attend and which marquee matchups to watch, teams will be doing some planning of their own: 

When to sit their stars during the 82-game grind.

Like it or not, this is the NBA we live in. After years of employing strategic rest programs, coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs used to be the face of the “DNP-Rest.” But Kawhi Leonard’s season -- winning the Larry O’Brien trophy on the heels of an aggressive resting program in Toronto -- could represent a watershed moment for the league. 

In 2018-19, Leonard did not play a single full back-to-back set in the regular season and wrapped up a postseason so dominant that many now consider him to be the top player in the NBA. To him, there should be no debate: All that load management helped him stay healthy and peak at the right time.

Whether the rest of the league copies the Kawhi plan is a mystery. Some of the game’s brightest stars, including LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis, took games off to rest last season, although not to Leonard levels. Nonetheless, the DNP-Rest scourge has grown to such an extent that embracing load management has found its way into free agency pitches.

“It’s not enough to prove you can win,” said one GM. “Now you have to prove you can prolong their career.”

As the DNP-rest strategy rises to unseen levels, the NBA isn’t sitting idly on the sidelines. Back-to-backs are at an all-time low. In April, commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of taking a small chunk out of the regular season in order to fit in a midseason tournament. In June, ESPN reported that NBA and team executives have been exploring such a cup-style tournament as soon as the 2020-21 season.

But as we get ready for marquee matchups in an open championship race, some of those high-profile games may fall victim to load management. Which stars and which games are most at risk? 

* * * 

Vijay Shravah knew there had to be a better way. As a NASA engineer in Silicon Valley, Shravah and his buddies used to buy tickets to watch the Golden State Warriors only to find out last minute that Stephen Curry and other stars weren’t playing that night. They weren’t injured. They were healthy scratches. Even on national TV games.

“The more it happened, the more it baffled me that there was no recourse,” Shravah told NBC Sports.

Shravah felt like it was a breach of trust. No other pro team sport depends on its star power like the NBA, and suddenly, it seemed healthy stars weren’t as dependable as he thought. As the DNP-Rest took hold among the best players, the problem only got worse for ticket buyers and home viewers. In October 2017, Shravah founded Fansure, an analytical start-up company that helps protect fans by offering reimbursement plans for tickets to games in which star player(s) sit out due to either rest or a last-minute injury. 

It takes some real brainpower to make it work. The company has employed two NASA scientists to create algorithms that predict the likelihood of a star player sitting, accounting for several factors, including a player’s rest history, days off heading into a game and quality of opponent. A fan can purchase a 50 percent reimbursement or 100 percent reimbursement package for a small variable fee separate from their ticket purchase. Should the star player sit, the fan gets its money back -- not unlike when airlines offer ticket protection plans before checkout.

Teams are resting their players, or at least being honest about it, more than ever. One of Fansure’s findings should worry fans and executives alike: Top players are taking off games 3.5 times as often as they did in 2012-13. Top 10 players, on average, rested about seven percent of its games last season (every six games or so) and most often at the end of the season in preparation for the playoffs. (The company’s top 10 criteria is based on their internal metrics). That figure is disproportionately represented by Leonard last season, when he sat 22 of 82 games to rest and protect his bothersome knee.


With an open championship race, Shravah expects stars like Embiid, James and Leonard to take games off when it makes sense in order to maximize postseason performance. 

“There’s no reason to believe why the trend won’t continue,” Shravah said. 

Of course, not all players are risks for load management. Fansure has identified 10 players who are most likely to be a healthy scratch. At the top of the list is the 34-year-old James, who played a career-low 55 games last season dealing with a significant groin injury that forced him to sit for precautionary reasons. After crunching the schedule that was released on Monday, Fansure expects James to miss 17.9 games this season due to rest.

That might seem like a lot, but James has played over 56,000 minutes in his NBA career (playoffs included), which is more than Stephen Curry and his father Dell Curry combined. With the Lakers vying for a championship and Anthony Davis being able to shoulder the load in his absence, it’s possible James takes a Leonard-like conservative approach in the regular season.

Following James, Leonard, Embiid, Paul George, Curry and Davis were highlighted as likely sitters considering their injury risk, rest history and respective team’s championship contention. Fansure also sees a strong probability that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Damian Lillard will miss several games to recover from the 82-game grind.

Which games are most likely to fall victim to load management? Fansure has uncovered six factors that raise the rest probability for the LeBrons and Kawhis of the league:

  • Last game of the season (14.9 times more likely)
  • Second game of a back-to-back (6.5)
  • Single-game road trip (5.2)
  • First game of a back-to-back (4.8)
  • Three games in four days (4.4)
  • Away games (3.5)


The single-game road trip is a hidden pothole. On March 27 last season, the Lakers were set to play the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back. Making matters worse for Jazz fans hoping to see Lebron, the single-game road trip was sandwiched inside a four-game homestand. Sure enough, James took the night off and didn’t travel with the team. The same went for Leonard on March 3 when he rested during the team’s one-game road trip to Detroit even though it didn’t come on a back-to-back.

Shravah realized it’s not just ticket buyers who are affected when James abruptly decides to sit out even on a non-back-to-back. TV advertisers and gambling sectors aren’t jumping for joy either. This past year, Shravah hired the eighth member of the Fansure team, Scott Kaplan, who is an economics PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and winner of the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics poster competition for his research on the economic impact of star players on NBA ticket prices.

Using Kaplan’s insight and the team’s engineering intel, Fansure is now assessing quality of matchups and risk of injury/rest to help advertisers and fans pick which games to lay down big money for and which to avoid.

Looking through that lens, there are several high-profile games that project to have the highest chance of being a load management game. 

First is Nov. 7 when Lillard and the Blazers come to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on TNT. The Clippers will have played Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks the night before on ESPN. Will Leonard and George play that second night of a back-to-back and third game in four nights, especially if George is coming back from double shoulder surgery? 

On the Blazers’ side, it’s the front end of a back-to-back before they fly back up to Portland for a home game against Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Will Lillard and CJ McCollum, fresh off the deepest playoff run of their career, give it a go?

Another early DNP-Rest possibility is the first Warriors-Lakers matchup of the season on Nov. 13. The Lakers will be playing the second night of a back-to-back, after playing in Phoenix the night before and flying overnight to Los Angeles. The highly anticipated game will, of course, be nationally televised.

James and Davis may decide to play in that marquee game, but the previous night in Phoenix is a game that may fall victim to DNP-rest. It’s a single-game road trip for the Lakers, with two home games before and four home games after the trek to the desert. If Phoenix fans don’t get to see James that night, then they might not see him all season. The other time they host L.A. is the Lakers’ season finale, a game in which James has sat 11 of his last 12 years.

For those outlining the season, here are 10 games that Fansure has red-flagged for load management risk:

  • Nov. 7: POR at LAC
  • Nov. 12: LAL at PHX
  • Nov. 27: LAC at MEM
  • Jan. 23: LAL at BKN
  • Feb. 11: LAC at PHI
  • March 1: LAL at NOP
  • March 12: BKN at GSW
  • March 14: NOP at LAC
  • March 19: PHI at CHA
  • April 15: LAL at PHX
     

Kevin Durant’s “return” to Golden State is on the list for a more subtle reason. Irving, who took games off ahead of the playoffs last season, is also on the load management radar for that late-season game. The trip to the Chase Center is the first night of a back-to-back, but more importantly, it’s bookended by games in Los Angeles. Will Durant travel during his Achilles rehab or will he stay in Los Angeles? 

For what it’s worth, the NBA chose not to put that game on national TV, underlining the sheer unlikelihood of Durant making an appearance at the Warriors’ new arena in the 2019-20 season.

* * * 

Don’t expect every team to have a hard-line rest schedule until the season starts and signs of fatigue begin to show.

Last month, Houston GM Daryl Morey made headlines when he responded to a question about load management on “The Dan Patrick Show,” saying the team will have “a very put together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.” But sources told NBC Sports that no decision has been made to rest James Harden and Russell Westbrook entire games. Neither Westbrook or Harden have gone that route before, but it must be noted that Harden will enter his 30s, joining the 31-year-old Westbrook, later this month.

It remains to be seen how often Leonard will rest this season. At his opening press conference in Los Angeles, Leonard indicated that this season he would take the load management on a “day-by-day” basis and that he intends to play out the season. Part of Toronto’s load management program was a response to Leonard only playing nine games in the previous season with the Spurs. Leonard has hinted that he feels healthier entering this season.

“Resting on back-to-backs is becoming a more and more accepted practice around the league,” said one top executive. “But Kawhi didn’t invent this.”

Still, Leonard’s success last season will influence at least some decisions across the league. Embiid, in particular, seemed keen on the idea of strategically resting more next season.

“Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi last season,” Embiid said after losing to the Raptors in the playoffs, “obviously I don’t want to miss that many games, but when you start thinking about back-to-backs and all that ... definitely got to take a better approach.”

It’ll be interesting to see how the Philadelphia 76ers handle Embiid’s rest regimen. The team signed big man Al Horford to start next to him and potentially start at center in Embiid’s place if he needs a night off. Those decisions will come down to Embiid and new members of the medical staff after the team parted ways with two major voices -- vice president of athlete care Dr. Danny Medina and director of performance research and development Dr. David Martin. 

The schedule-makers have taken extra precaution when booking the Sixers for primetime. Of the 13 second nights of a back-to-back on Philadelphia’s schedule, none of them were handpicked to be on national television (ESPN, TNT or ABC).

* * * 

Privately this summer, representatives from the league office have reached out to team brass to strongly convey the importance of the availability of its stars, especially on national TV games. While player health remains the top priority, teams have been told to keep in mind that the NBA is uniquely positioned to showcase its stars. With no facemasks, helmets or walls to shield fans from seeing the stars, it is the most intimate league in America.

“Let’s not kill the golden goose,” relayed one team executive who spoke to the league office this summer.

The NBA has tweaked the schedule to account for the rise of the DNP-Rest. In 2017, the league office lengthened the season by two weeks to squeeze in more rest days and reduce back-to-backs. After a series of high-profile healthy scratches, the NBA no longer schedules an ABC game in a back-to-back set -- but even building in additional off days sometimes isn’t enough.

The NBA isn’t just competing against Netflix and the NFL for eyeballs. It’s competing against NBA 2K, which, according to its parent company, has sold 90 million units worldwide. Video games are increasingly becoming so life-like and compelling that there is real expectation in league circles that fans could prefer the video game over the real thing, especially in the load management era.

If James, Leonard or George sit to rest, fans might tune out the actual Lakers-Clippers game in order to play as LeBron against Kawhi and PG-13 on their favorite gaming console.

Said one GM: “There’s no load management in 2K.”

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