This edition of the NBA mailbag features questions on RJ Barrett's minutes load, a hypothetical West-East move and pick-sixes in the NBA.
Do we have evidence on the impact that big minutes have on young players? People seem hysterical about the minutes RJ has played, as if he's a high-school pitcher who was left on the mount for 135 pitches.— Paul Theiss (@PaulTheiss) Nov 3, 2019
The furor over the heavy workload for No. 3 overall pick RJ Barrett erupted after he played 41 minutes, including seven in the fourth quarter, during a 21-point loss to the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 3. Following the game, New York Knicks coach David Fizdale pushed back on a question about Barrett's playing time.
"We've got to get off this load management crap," Fizdale said. "Latrell Sprewell averaged 42 minutes for a season. This kid is 19. Drop it already."
The funny thing about the outcry is that Fizdale did almost immediately cut Barrett's minutes, possibly because he has been less effective following a fast start. After playing at least 39 minutes three times in New York's first seven games, Barrett hasn't played more than 35 in any game since.
So while he still is high on the leaderboard for minutes per game during a season concluded at age 19, no longer is he ahead of everyone but LeBron James.
Adding in seasons begun at age 19 offers the second years for James and Dwight Howard at 42.4 and 36.9 minutes per game, respectively, as well as Lamar Odom and Andrew Wiggins each playing more than 36 MPG. But no matter where you set the bar, it's certainly atypical for a teenager to play as much as Barrett had been early in the season. And that was true even a decade ago at the dawn of the one-and-done era, long before NBA folks were using the phrase "load management."
Fizdale's choice of Sprewell as a comparison was an unusual one given that, at the same age, Sprewell still was playing in obscurity as a sophomore at Three Rivers Community College. After two years at Alabama, Sprewell made his NBA debut at age 22 and still averaged fewer MPG (35.6) as a rookie. It wasn't until turning 23 that Sprewell's workload grew to a league-high 43.1 MPG in 1993-94. So I'm not sure Fizdale's example tells us much about how many minutes Barrett is playing at age 19.
Unfortunately, given the small sample size of predecessors for Barrett, it's tough to draw any real conclusions here. In the 2011 Pro Basketball Prospectus, I studied how players with high minute totals early in their career developed and found they tailed off earlier than their low-minutes peers. However, that study contrasted players who either entered the NBA out of high school or were one-and-done in college like Barrett against those like Sprewell who reached the NBA later. It doesn't necessarily tell us much about the extra handful of minutes per game Barrett was playing early in the season.
I think Fizdale is right to show more caution. The benefit of playing Barrett extended minutes, occasionally in garbage time, doesn't seem to be worth whatever risk does exist of hampering his performance down the line when the Knicks can make better use of it.
And the fact that so few players have played so much as teenagers is evidence in and of itself. Obviously, a lot of them weren't good enough to merit so much playing time, but the likes of Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns didn't play this much, even as teenagers who were as effective as Barrett or more so.
Still, if you're looking for evidence that high minute totals early in a player's career hinders him, I don't think there's much out there.
"If the NBA were to expand with two teams in the Western Conference, which team should move to the East?" -- Matt
First, I like this hypothetical, which doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. Second, my answer to this question has always been the Minnesota Timberwolves, but additional research changed my mind.
My logic was that Minnesota's nearest neighbors are all in the Eastern Conference. Going by the website distancecalculator.net, the five closest NBA cities to Minneapolis (Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto) are all in the East. By contrast, the Memphis Grizzlies have five West rivals (Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and San Antonio) closer than the nearest West city to Minneapolis (Oklahoma City).
However, when you look at all other current NBA cities, it becomes clear that the Grizzlies would see a greater travel benefit from moving to the East than the Timberwolves. Memphis is an average of 1,071 miles from the other 14 West cities (counting L.A. twice), as compared to 1,143 for Minneapolis. But Memphis is far closer on average to the 15 East cities (counting New York twice) at 706 miles to 869 from Minneapolis. So the net travel benefit of moving Memphis from West to East (365 fewer miles to the opponents the Grizzlies would play more frequently) is greater than for the Timberwolves (274 fewer miles).
The fact that the Grizzlies get to play their nearer division rivals slightly more frequently than the more distant teams on the West Coast probably cuts into that difference a little; but presumably if we're expanding, the schedule will change to some extent, too.
"There has been discussion about the tolls on teams reaching the NBA Finals consecutively for years, most recently the Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat championship teams. If the tolls are indeed as big as some of the arguments implied, I wonder what would have happened had Michael Jordan not retired in 1993 (the Chicago Bulls got a break as a result). Would the Bulls have faced similar issues (and been unable to get six championships)?" -- Sam L.
Let's take a look at the history of teams reaching the NBA Finals in consecutive years since the ABA-NBA merger, something I first wrote about when I incorrectly picked against the Heat making the 2014 Finals:
Teams that reached the Finals for the first time the previous year have gone back nearly 40% of the time over that span. That increases to 58% chances of returning a third time for back-to-back finalists, which makes sense given the higher bar to get there. Things then drop from there to 45% for teams trying to make a fourth consecutive Finals appearance. (Those chances used to be much lower before it happened three times in the past decade.) Only the Warriors last season had gone five consecutive years since the Bill Russell Boston Celtics.
It's a little tough to separate these stats from the natural aging progress and regression to the mean, but the particularly low rate of teams going five times in a row -- and the way Golden State splintered thereafter due to free agency and injuries -- does seem to suggest the odds were against Chicago going to eight consecutive Finals had Jordan never retired.
One issue that's tough to determine in this hypothetical is whether the Bulls would have experienced the same roster turnover they did in reality. When they won the 1996 championship, Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the lone players left from the 1993 team that completed the previous three-peat. Refreshing the role players around the stars helped Chicago stave off some of the fatigue related to deep playoff runs, and while Jerry Krause was going to bring Toni Kukoc over either way, I'm not sure the Bulls would have added starters Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman had they been coming off four or five titles in a row.
I'll give the last word to Steve Kerr, a key part of the rotation for Chicago's second three-peat, who spoke about this hypothetical with Bill Simmons on the B.S. Report back in 2013 before he left TNT to coach the Warriors:
"Sometimes people say to me, 'Gosh, if Jordan hadn't left, you guys would have won seven straight titles or eight straight titles.' I just laugh when people say that. I wasn't there for the first three, but after the second three, we were absolutely running on fumes. I think the reason we had that great stretch for the second three was because Michael stepped away from the game and recharged his battery and came back with a vengeance. But to do it over and over and over again like that, years in a row ... I think especially in today's era with so many games and so much pressure from the media and everything else, I think it's virtually impossible."
"Who leads the NBA in pick-sixes?" -- Nate
During the fall crossover between football and basketball season, it's worth considering the NBA's equivalent to a pick-six in football: a steal that leads immediately to a layup for the same player at the other end of the court. According to Second Spectrum tracking, here were the leaders in this category during the 2018-19 regular season:
This is an eclectic list that doesn't exactly match up with the leaders in total steals. Of the top 10 players in steals, just four (Andre Drummond, De'Aaron Fox, Paul George and Russell Westbrook) crack the top nine here. (Several other players were tied for 10th with 11 pick-sixes.)
The Celtics' wing duo was particularly effective at turning their steals into pick-sixes. Jayson Tatum ranked 48th in the league in total steals and Jaylen Brown 80th; more than one-sixth of Brown's steals were of the pick-six variety.
Alas, that might not be a repeatable skill. Tatum has just two pick-sixes this season despite increasing his steal rate. Kris Dunn leads the league with seven of them and Kendrick Nunn is next with six.