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The NBA as a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors

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Warriors-Cavs is not a foregone conclusion

Memphis Grizzlies participate in Feed the Children
The great equalizer.
Photo by Nikki Boertman/NBAE via Getty Images

A lot of people seem to think that the NBA Finals are locked in to be a repeat of last year’s performance. The Warriors, armed with more talent, are destined to meet the Cavaliers, home of LeBron James. No other team has the level of talent to compete with that in a seven game series. Or so everyone wants you to believe.

Reality is actually much more complex than that. The Warriors and Cavaliers are very, very good, but they aren’t outright dominant. Let’s break this thing down into a science.

Defining a “Dominant Team”

  1. Number one seed is not in question by the last 10 games of the season. Dominant teams coast. 10 seems arbitrary, but it’s the number of digits we have on our hands and feet. Also, it’s somewhere between 10-20% of the NBA season, which seems like an appropriate amount of time to start resting players. And, to be honest, nobody pays attention to league wide standings.
  2. No playoff series goes to seven games. Only one six game playoff series is allowed. Dominant teams don’t face elimination. Also, dominant teams don’t leave more than one series up to question. This second sentence is mainly to exclude the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, but I like the principle of the idea.
  3. Team has an offensive rating of at least 5 points better than the rest of the league, OR a defensive rating of at least 10 points better than the rest of the league. Dominant teams are unstoppable on one end of the floor. I don’t care if a team is very good at offense and defense. To be considered dominant, there must be a part of the game where this team simply cannot be stopped. I understand that the defensive requirements seem more stringent. But there’s simply no way a team can win a championship playing poor defense. On that level, the defensive bar is raised. On the other hand, there are some bad offensive teams that can win titles. (In recent times, think the ‘04 Pistons.) Mediocre ones too (Earlier Spur teams, Pistons in the 80s, Heat with Shaq in ‘06)
  4. Team has two hall of famers. That means the dominant team always has someone to dump the ball to in tense moments. One player can’t be on the court at all times, but two can.
  5. Team wins the championship. Look ma, I’m writing a description!

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Which NBA teams have been dominant according to the above definition?

  • The ‘63-’64 Boston Celtics. It’s strange that the Celtics are only on this list once. But the early Celtics simply weren’t dominant. Boston knew how to play defense, hustle, and win. The Celtics had years of chemistry after a certain point. But the Celtics didn’t have that Superstar two way player that you could really count on both ends of the floor. Yes, the Celtics had a bunch of very deserved all-stars and Hall of Famers. Bill Russell outright changed the game of basketball. But it was only in ‘63-64 that the team was truly dominant. Bench veterans Clyde Lovelette, Frank Ramsey, and Jim Loscutoff would all retire following the season, and the Celtics took a step down as a result.
  • The ‘66-67 Philadelphia 76ers. This team is lesser known, but they were an embarrassment of offensive talent. First off, you had 30 year old Wilt. Then you had Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham. All three are hall-of-famers, were entering various stages of their primes, and were averaging over 18 points per game each. If that weren’t good enough, Luke Jackson, a season removed from an All-Star campaign, was chipping in 12. Wali Jones chipped in 13. And Larry Costello, a 35 year old hall of famer, was running point off the bench. Normally the Celtics would have been able to stifle this effort, but they just had too many old bodies at that point. The retirement of 34 year old K.C. Jones would help the Celtics get back to championship status again in 1968.
  • The ‘71-72 Los Angeles Lakers. The duo of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West was entering its’ third year at that point. And with the early season retirement of Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor due to injury, the Lakers were free to pursue a new style. At 33 years old and 35 years old respectively, West and Chamberlain weren’t ideal dominant superstars by today’s standards. But new coach Bill Sharman knew how to use them to their strengths. The Lakers went from a traditional big-focused team to a newer-style guard focused team. Chamberlain had his possessions cut by a third, and he focused on screens and rebounding. Happy Hairston, a forward, saw his shot cut by the same amount. And of course Baylor, who had just retired, was a mid-range focused small-forward. So giving away all of those possessions to shooting swingmen Gail Goodrich and Jim McMillian really paid off. By the next season, the Laker core had gotten too old to sustain the offensive dominance, and the defensive-minded Knicks beat them in the Finals.
  • The ‘84-85, ‘86-87, and ‘87-88 Los Angeles Lakers. This is the much beloved Showtime era, headlined by the presences of Hall-of-Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. The ‘84-85 team was unique because it came at a very opportune time. Byron Scott and Michael Cooper, both 23 at the time and averaging over 10 points per game, really came into their own that season. So you have these two young guys who are capable of having 20 point nights. And Scott can shoot the three at 43%. Considering the three point line was only in its’ fifth year of use in the NBA, that was a very unique and deadly weapon to have. Furthermore, the veteran presences of Jamaal Wilkes and Bob McAdoo were key. Wilkes was 31 and McAdoo was 33, but they were still close to their primes. Not to mention, both are hall-of-famers. Lastly, there was a 23-year-old backup wing named Mike McGee who had arguably the best season of his career for the Lakers that year. McGee played about 15 minutes a game, scored 10 points a game, shot 53% from the floor, was the team’s second best three point shooter. Such a complete lineup was almost destined to steamroll the NBA. Wilkes and McAdoo departed the next season.

But in ‘86-87 and ‘87-88 the Lakers were dominant again. The additions of two rebounding legends, Mychal Thompson (Klay’s Dad) and A.C. Green, was enough to push the Lakers back over the top. The scoring was already there, so Thompson and Green allowed that team to get more offensive possessions. By ‘88-89, the 41 year old Abdul-Jabbar had appreciably dropped off, as had the 34 year old Thompson and 32 year old Cooper.

  • The ‘95-96 and the ‘96-97 Chicago Bulls, as you might have guessed. Jordan’s other teams usually fell short because of bad regular season records. With the legendary presences of Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman on one team, the Bulls definitely had the star power. Combine that with starter-quality veterans like Ron Harper, Luc Longley, and Toni Kukoc, and you’ve got a solid core. Then there’s the intangibles of Kerr’s shooting, along with the selfless mentality of Jason Caffey, Bill Wennington, and Dickey Simpkins. Jordan’s ’91-’93 teams were missing all of these names, and his ‘97-98 team was old. The only ‘91-’93 Bulls player even arguably in the conversation of the top six guys on Jordan’s ‘95-’97 teams was Horace Grant.
  • The ‘99-00 Los Angeles Lakers. This was Kobe and Shaq at their finest. Glen Rice was only two years removed from three consecutive All-Star appearances as a Charlotte Hornet. Rice’s scoring ability provided the Lakers the third option they needed to be unstoppable offensively. A.C. Green and Ron Harper also provided reliable presences. But it didn’t last. Glen Rice went to the Knicks. A.C. Green went to the Heat. Harper would leave a year after that. By the time the Lakers were playing in ‘02-03, they were a glorified Kobe and Shaq star vehicle.

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Why are the Warriors and Cavaliers likely not dominant this year? (opinion)

  • The Cavaliers might not have two hall-of-famers. Kyrie Irving’s HoF status is uncertain at this point, though the odds are arguably in his favor.
  • The Cavaliers are injury prone and will struggle to keep up this pace through 82 games.
  • Toronto may still be within striking distance of Cleveland at the end of the season. As of writing, the Raptors are only three losses behind.
  • The Warriors are only a game ahead of the Spurs, and somehow only three games ahead of Houston.

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The NBA’s top teams in a Paper-Scissors-Rock Scenario

There are many ways you could categorize teams in the NBA. My method isn’t the only one, and it’s not applicable to every single season. But I believe there are distinct trends developing within the NBA, and teams seem to follow one of these three trends. Broadly speaking, you can fit all of the NBA’s competitive teams into three categories. I define “competitive” as teams that are .500 or better.

In case you aren’t familiar, paper-scissors-rock is a very simple game that you play with a friend when you need to decide something. Each of you selects “paper”, “scissors” or “rock” at the same time. Your respective selections are accompanied by a corresponding hand signal. If you have the same signal, it’s a re-do. But Paper covers rock. Rock beats scissors. And scissors cuts paper.

In the context of the NBA, or, say, your favorite PC strategy game, it’s an effective way of balancing out a system of combat. Starcraft, one of the most popular PC strategy games worldwide, operates under such a system. For our scenario, Rock teams have advantage against scissor teams, and vice versa. If two teams are of the same type, it’s an even match.

Of course, if any team is dominant, as indicated above, the paper-rock-scissors system doesn’t apply to them. The Cavaliers and Warriors have that potential, but neither are there at this point of the season.

ROCK Teams: Hawks, Spurs

  • Statistical Traits: Top 10 in both forcing turnovers on defense (TOV%) and defending without fouling (FT/FGA)
  • General Traits: Veteran teams with lots of individual collective talent but no athleticism

It’s hard to define Rock teams by their stats, because they’re different on the surface. The Hawks have a pace and space focus, while the Spurs have a inside-out focus. But no team is organized quite like these two. The Spurs and Hawks don’t really have lineup weaknesses. Each team has purposes for all of their players. Yet, neither team really has the star power or youth to rise into dominance. Still, because the teams are so old, they play very smart. Forcing turnovers and getting the respect of refs on defense are two very specific things that veterans can bring to any team.

Rock teams will generally pose serious problems for Scissor teams. Unless a scissor team is particularly hot on any given night, they will utilize good passing and star players who can get to the line. But rock teams can get in passing lanes and defend without fouling well. By the same token, Rock teams will struggle with paper teams. Paper teams have the versatility that Rock teams don’t have, as well as good defenses.

SCISSOR Teams: Warriors, Cavaliers, Rockets, Raptors, Clippers, Celtics

  • Statistical Traits: Top 10 in offensive rating, Top 10 in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage
  • General Traits: Shoot the lights out, big star vehicles

Scissor teams are the most popular, and what everyone is striving for. The recent success of the Warriors and Cavaliers have convinced most general managers that the era of the big man is over. Some of these teams make center a very low priority, while others don’t fill the position at all. Scissor teams will shred through paper teams because of their superior shooting and offensive versatility. But Rock teams can still effectively hold Scissor teams at bay.

PAPER Teams: Thunder, Grizzlies, Jazz, Hornets, Bucks

  • Statistical Traits: Bottom 10 in points per game. Bottom 10 in three pointers taken and attempted. Top 15 in either offensive or defensive rebounding percentage.
  • General Traits: Bang the boards, pound the paint

Paper teams represent the old, dying guard. The only young teams among these are the Bucks and Thunder, small market teams that have been oft-criticized for their management decisions. The defining trait of these teams is their emphasis on size and defense. All of these teams aren’t afraid to run with two bigs at any point in the game. But offense is usually an afterthought for these clubs, for differing reasons. The best general answer I can give is that all of these teams lack one or two offensive pieces to be a scissor team. Paper teams will stomp through the older and softer Rock teams, but struggle against the hot shooting scissor teams.

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Yeah, but show me the evidence!

Games in favor of Rock-Scissor relationship (8)

Hawks 110, Cavs 106. Hawks 112, Rockets 97. Spurs 129, Warriors 100. Spurs 106, Rockets 100. Spurs 109, Celtics 103. Spurs 108, Celtics 101. Spurs 102, Rockets 100. Clippers 106, Spurs 101.

Games not favoring Rock-Scissor relationship (3)

Raptors 128, Hawks 84. Clippers 116, Spurs 92. Rockets 101, Spurs 99.

Games in favor of Scissor-Paper relationship (24)

Cavs 100, Hornets 93. Cavs 103, Grizzlies 86. Cavs 116, Hornets 105. Cavs 114, Bucks 108. Cavs 113, Bucks 102. Cavs 121, Hornets 109. Raptors 112, Thunder 102. Raptors 113, Hornets 111. Raptors 105, Bucks 99. Raptors 120, Grizzlies 105. Raptors 122, Bucks 100. Warriors 122, Thunder 96. Warriors 124, Bucks 121. Warriors 106, Jazz 99. Warriors 104, Jazz 74. Rockets 111, Jazz 102. Rockets 102, Thunder 99. Celtics 104, Hornets 98. Celtics 96, Hornets 88. Celtics 112, Grizzlies 109. Celtics 113, Grizzlies 103. Clippers 88, Jazz 75. Clippers 99, Grizzlies 88. Clippers 110, Thunder 108.

Games not favoring Scissor-Paper relationship (10)

Bucks 118, Cavs 101. Grizzlies 93, Cavs 85. Grizzlies 110, Warriors 89. Jazz 120, Rockets 101. Grizzlies 115, Rockets 109. Thunder 99, Celtics 96. Thunder 117, Celtics 112. Thunder 85, Clippers 83. Grizzlies 111, Clippers 107. Thunder 114, Clippers 88.

Games in favor of Paper-Rock relationship (4)

Jazz 95, Hawks 68. Hornets 100, Hawks 96. Thunder 102, Hawks 99. Jazz 106, Spurs 91.

Games not favoring Paper-Rock relationship (4)

Hawks 107, Bucks 100. Spurs 100, Jazz 86. Spurs 119, Hornets 114. Spurs 97, Bucks 96.

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Analysis

Rock teams have a winning percentage of .727 against Scissor teams. Scissor teams have a winning percentage of .706 against Paper teams. These two relationships are clearly the strongest examples so far. Scissor teams have the bigger sample size, though. The Paper-Rock relationship appears to be the weakest, as the series is dead even. I guess my caveat for this paper scissors rock system is that the Spurs are markedly better than the Jazz, Hornets, and Spurs. Even within the paper-scissors-rock system, there’s still levels of skill.

If I had to throw some of the lower ranked teams in.... Kings, Timberwolves, Pistons, Magic, and Sixers are all aspiring Paper teams. Pacers, Blazers, Knicks, Pelicans, Nuggets, Lakers, Suns, Mavs, Heat, and Nets are all aspiring Scissor teams. Chicago is the lone aspiring Rock team.

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What does this mean for OKC?

Avoiding the Warriors is crucial. As Thunder fans, we know facing any scissor team out West wouldn’t be ideal. But while the Warriors are just about unbeatable for us, we still know we stand a reasonable shot at beating the Rockets or Clippers. Meanwhile, any matchup with the Spurs would play markedly to OKC’s advantage. Don’t get me wrong, the Spurs are markedly better than OKC this year. But I believe OKC is a closer underdog thank you might think.

As long time WTLC readers know, I always like to think optimistically of a championship every year. Being real, I don’t see any way for the Thunder to beat the Warriors in a seven game series under normal circumstances. But I thinkOKC has the tools to put together an improbable run to the title as long as they avoid that Warriors bogeyman. Houston is only two games behind the Spurs, so we can only hope that somehow either San Antonio or Golden State drops out of the top two seeds.

But we can’t worry about what we can’t control. Heading into 2017, it appears that the loss of Kevin Durant is only going to cost OKC a handful of wins at most. That on it’s own is worth celebrating.