This week's mailbag features your questions on Ben Simmons dominating without a jumper, the best division in the NBA and more.
Hey @kpelton , it seems to me that Blake Griffin has evolved into Carmelo Anthony. Thoughts?— Adam G Boe (@eobmada) March 10, 2018
Not entirely sure what you mean here since they have such different games, but I'm guessing it's along the lines of both players not being good enough to build consistently successful teams around them as first options. And if that's the case, it's probably a reasonable analogy, because what Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin share in common is that both have been paid like superstars while producing at a lower level than that.
Here's how Melo's rank in the NBA in salary compared to where he finished in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric over his full seasons with the New York Knicks.
After signing an extension in conjunction with the trade, Anthony was one of the league's 10 highest-paid players in each of the past six seasons. Only once in that span, 2013-14, was he in the top 10 by WARP. (Oddly, that season saw the Knicks finish a disappointing 37-45; it was the previous season that they had won 54 games in the high point of the Melo era.)
It was in analyzing New York's trade for Anthony that Nate Silver hit on the pithiest explanation for sports management. The only ways a team can win more than average is either to spend more money than average or to spend that money more efficiently than average. Mathematically, those are the only possible paths to success. As Silver correctly predicted in that analysis, paying a player who is not quite a superstar like one of the league's best players makes it difficult (though, as 2012-13 proves, not impossible) to win big because that's such a big part of the team's financial investment.
Unfortunately, that looks like it could be Griffin's fate on his new contract. He's making the league's fifth-largest salary this season, and while other players might surpass him, Griffin's share of the salary cap figures to increase with 8 percent year-to-year raises for the life of his five-year deal. Even the most optimistic assessments of a healthy Griffin don't put him among the NBA's top five players, and at nearly 29 (he'll be blowing out the candles next week), Griffin is likely to trend the wrong direction in terms of production -- very similar to how Anthony aged with the Knicks.
I don't know if you have answered this in your previous #peltonmailbag , has there ever been a player of Ben Simmons ilk that plays so good at PG without a 3PM in a season.— GbengAdebiyi (@gbengabiyi) March 10, 2018
The snarky answer here is of course: Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson never made a single 3-pointer in their careers!
So perhaps the better way to answer the question is, who was the last point guard to be as effective as Simmons without posing any threat from 3-point range? I decided to use five 3-pointers made in a season as a cutoff, since a couple of 3s aren't really so different from Simmons' zero.
Simmons is currently on pace for about nine WARP. The last point guard to reach that mark with fewer than five 3s was Brevin Knight as a rookie in 1997-98, when he had 9.9 WARP and like Simmons (so far) did not make a single 3-pointer. Before that, we have to go back to Rod Strickland, who had two such seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1992-93 and 1993-94 while making a combined six treys.
The last truly elite point guard who wasn't a 3-point shooter was Kevin Johnson. He only qualifies for this list in 1988-89, when he went 2-of-22 from 3-point range but posted 15.3 WARP. However, Johnson never made more than 10 3-pointers in a season with the current 3-point line, only becoming a 3-point threat when it was temporarily moved in to 22 feet all the way around from 1994-95 through 1996-97. In one of the great outlier seasons ever, Johnson went 89-of-202 (44 percent) on 3s that final season -- more makes than the rest of his career combined -- before sinking back to 4-of-26 (15 percent) when the line was moved back to its current distance of 23 feet, 9 inches (22 feet at the corners) above the arc the following year.
That Simmons would have the potential to buck convention at point guard isn't surprising, given that he's 6-foot-10 and brings the defensive skills of a big man along with the playmaking of a point guard. Still, it's worth noting.
"Is the Northwest Division the best/most competitive ever? All five teams are in the playoff picture, all have positive point differentials. Has there been a better collection of teams from top to bottom in a single division before in the NBA?"
-- Nick Scown
As far as best division ever, because there isn't a dominant team, this year's Northwest Division isn't particularly close. The average point differential of plus-2.3 points per game wouldn't crack the top 10 ever for a division.
The Northwest Division has a better chance to be the deepest, but there have previously been two times when all five teams in a division have finished .500 or better, both times the Southwest Division:
2010-11 (every team with more than 43 wins, two teams with at least 57 wins)
2014-15 (every team at least 45 wins, all five made playoffs)
Now as far as most competitive, this Northwest Division might win the prize. As far as I can tell, the closest separation between first and last in a division since realignment to six divisions in 2004-05 was the aforementioned 2014-15 Southwest Division, in which 11 games separated the first-place Houston Rockets from the last-place New Orleans Pelicans. Currently, there are just four games between first and last in this year's Northwest Division, and that gap doesn't figure to get a ton wider before the end of the season.
That's a good question that I'm sure the NBA is kicking around as part of the discussions our Brian Windhorst wrote about earlier this week about changing the league's role in developing talent and bringing it to the NBA.
Last week, our Jonathan Givony reported that the Australian National Basketball League has created a rule that would pay draft-eligible players $100,000 Australian (about $78,000 U.S. dollars) to play in the NBL. I think that's on the borderline of what would be necessary to convince prospects who weren't really interested in college basketball.
As Givony points out, that's a lot more than what the G League is currently paying (salaries range from $19,500 to $26,000 for players who aren't on two-way contracts). That said, a top prospect forgoing college would probably make a lot more by choosing a sneaker to endorse than for playing basketball in the NBL or the G League. So I wonder if aspects like travel and markets might be more important to convincing prospects to sign on than the salary per se. Right now, that typically means commercial flights on regional jets and three-star hotels rather than the more lavish accommodations top college programs can offer.
College also means playing on national television in front of big crowds rather than in small, sparsely filled G League arenas. So I think that unless the NBA positions a year in the G League as the only way to get to the NBA without spending multiple years in college, few players will choose it over the NCAA, even with larger salaries.